West of Forgotten
Lynda J. Cox
Historical Western Romance
Banished from civilization to the Wyoming Territory, U.S. Marshal Harrison Taylor holds a deed to half the Lazy L. He isn’t sure why his beautiful new partner, Rachel Leonard, doesn’t trust him. He has to convince her he is nothing like the man who abused her and he must earn her trust before the escalating attacks at the Lazy L turn deadly.
For six years, Rachel has worked to repair a shattered life. Caring for her son and invalid father leaves little time to keep the Lazy L profitable. She doesn’t want a business partner simply because her father gambled away half of her beloved ranch, and most certainly doesn’t desire a husband. Unfortunately, she’s stuck with the former and can’t trust Harrison as the latter.
But unless she can learn to trust him, everything and everyone Rachel loves will be lost.
Between the towns of Forgotten and Federal, Wyoming Territory Late August, 1875
“Son of a—” Harrison Taylor bit off the curse as he struggled to bring his rearing horse under control. He pulled the black’s head down to his right and shifted his weight forward to avoid being pitched from the saddle. When the horse dropped to all four hooves, he reined the snorting, startled animal in a tight circle. “I realize you haven’t been shot at in ten years, Demon, but I’d think you’d remember not to throw me.”
He ran a calming hand down the horse’s sweat-soaked neck and used the moment to steal a glance in the direction that the shot had originated. It had been a shotgun, if the buzzing like so many angry hornets as the projectiles flew overhead was any indication. The question remained if the scatter-gun was a single shot. The figure in the shadows of the heavily shaded porch shifted and the late afternoon sunlight glinted on the muzzle.
“There’s nothing here for you, mister.”
Even though the voice in the shadows sounded young, there was no waver in the words. The levelness in the simple statement answered the question of whether the shotgun was a single shot. He nudged his hat back a little, unshrouding his face. “I just need water for my horse and me. I’m not looking for trouble.”
The muzzle of the long gun emerged from the depths of the porch, gesturing toward the water trough he’d glimpsed in his attempt to calm the horse.
“Get a drink then move along. If you reach into those saddle bags when you dismount, I’ll cut you in half.” To emphasize the point, the sharp click of a hammer cocked back traveled across the hot land.
Smart kid. Even though he wasn’t wearing his sidearm, the boy correctly guessed he had a weapon in the saddlebags. Harrison crossed his arm over his midsection and deliberately leaned his elbow onto the pommel. “I was told in town there might be work to be had here.”
“You were told wrong.” There was still a dead level cadence to the words. “You’ve got ten seconds to decide if you want a drink for you and your horse or if you’re just going to keep riding.”
He didn’t need the ten seconds. Harrison tugged one rein, directing the large black to the water trough. He dismounted and worked the pump. Fresh, cold water filled the nearly empty tank. While his horse drank, he picked up the cup tied to the pump and worked the handle again. When he and his mount had quenched their thirst, he backed the animal from the trough. As he grabbed a hank of mane and put his foot into the stirrup, the kid on the porch asked, “Who told you in town there was work here?”
It wasn’t so much curiosity he heard in the boy’s voice, but anger. Aware of the shotgun still aimed at his midsection, Harrison stepped down and kept a firm grip on Demon’s reins. “I stretched the truth just a bit.” He nodded toward the remains of a garden near the house. “I figured from the looks of things when I rode up there was work to be had. Kinda hard to keep a garden growing when the fence is down and it looks like cows have been trampling it.”
He took a step closer to the house and halted when the muzzle of the gun glinted again in the afternoon sunlight as it was pulled into a shooting position. He paused, weighing his options. “Look, kid—”
The kid stepped out of the shadows. Auburn hair was pulled up into a loose chignon, though several tendrils had escaped to frame a slender face. Harrison took in the faded chambray shirt, denim trousers patched repeatedly at the knees, and scuffed boots, all covering what was a decidedly feminine shape. Though the clothes were overly large and hung on her with as much form as a potato sack, there was no doubt it was a woman holding him at bay. He felt his jaw drop. “You’re not a boy.”
“I never said I was.” She gestured with the shotgun. “Mount up, mister, and leave.”
Harrison looked over his shoulder at the south-western horizon. Towering thunderheads rolled forward, churning over one another, growing darker with each passing minute. “Ma’am, if that sky is any indication, it’s going to be a long, wet night. I’ll admit I wasn’t honest with you about being told in town there was work here. If you’ll let me stay the night in your barn, at first light I’ll get that garden fence repaired.” He pulled his hat off, completely unshrouding his features. “I was honest when I said I’m not looking for trouble.”
“And what guarantee do I have that you’ll be here at first light? Or that you won’t try to rob us blind in the middle of the night?” She pointed the shotgun directly into his stomach, even as she descended the steps of the porch and closed the distance between them. “Or attempt to murder all of us in our sleep?”
Us? He would have bet she was the only one there. Her blunt questions raked over him even though he had given her cause to challenge his honesty. “Ma’am, if I give you my word, I aim to keep it.” He didn’t like being on the receiving end of any weapon but he pulled his gaze from the shotgun and scanned the ranch house, noting the faded whitewash, the boarded-up window on the second floor, the sagging step on the porch. He lowered his line of sight to her face and offered what he hoped was a friendly smile. “And, no offense meant, but it doesn’t look like you have anything worth stealing. As to the other…I’m no killer. I’m not about to start now.”
Her jaw clenched as she met his gaze. He’d never seen eyes quite like hers; almost a quicksilver grey with an undertone of deep blue. “Why should I believe you?”
“You’ve got every reason to keep that shotgun pointed at me and make me keep riding. All I can do is give you my word as a gentleman and hope you believe it.”
Her unnerving stare never left him but her features softened while she appeared to weigh his words. He could rationalize her misgivings. She was a woman, alone on this wide open plain. Even dressed as a boy, there was no doubting she was a woman—and a rather becoming one at that. There wasn’t a man on the place if the state of disrepair to the house was any indication. A lack of male protection made her vulnerable. He was a total stranger and she’d be a fool to so lightly offer trust…He knew the moment she reached her decision as the quicksilver of her eyes darkened into a deeper blue-grey.
She lowered the shotgun in degrees and eased the hammer home. Harrison allowed himself a slow exhalation and relaxed his hold on the horse’s reins.
“I’ve got three dairy cows. They go into the barn at night. You’re more than welcome to bed your horse down in one of the other stalls and you can throw your bedroll out in an open stall or the tack room.” Her gaze lifted to the horizon he had mentioned earlier. “I don’t have a lot of grain, but I can spare a scoop of oats for your horse.”
“Ma’am?” He wasn’t sure what he was hearing, other than he wasn’t going to be trying to find shelter in the middle of a thunderstorm.
“I was not raised to turn away those in need. You need a place out of the weather for the night.” Resignation clung to the words before her voice firmed. “You may as well put your horse in the small corral next to the barn until that storm gets here. I would appreciate it if you clean his stall before you leave in the morning.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Harrison plopped his hat onto his head. He tugged on Demon’s reins, then paused and asked, “What’s the name of this place?”
Demon nudged the middle of his back, staggering him a step forward and closer to the woman.
“The town or the ranch?”
“Both, actually.” He pushed the horse’s head away from his shoulder, circumventing another hard nudge from the black. “I’m not sure where I am.”
“It depends on which direction you rode in from. We’re west of Forgotten and almost to Federal.” The slightest hint of a smile tugged at a corner of her mouth and some of the tension faded from her features. He wondered if that was meant to be a joke. She paused, brushing a wayward tendril of hair from her face. “The name of the ranch is the Lazy L.”
The last time he’d been this surprised Harrison was playing poker and saw a fifth ace dealt. “If this is the Lazy L, I need to see Sam Leonard. My name’s Taylor. Harrison Taylor.”
Her expression shuttered more quickly than he could have believed. Her pinched features tightened again and she drew back, sucking in a quick breath. “Why do you need to see him?”
Harrison didn’t miss the small break in her voice, or the rapid manner the color leeched from her face. “I’m hoping that Sam can straighten something out for me. About six or seven years ago, I oversaw purchasing beef for the Army troops in the Western Theater and I met Sam at Fort Scott, Kansas.”
Her posture stiffened and her chin jutted out at him. Those disconcerting eyes narrowed. “The Lazy L sold a lot of cattle to the Army then, Mr. Taylor.”
He was startled by the vehemence with which she spat his name at him. “It’s not about the beef. Sam and I were in the same poker game and he lost to me. He lost a lot.”
She slowly shook her head. Harrison wondered what she was trying to negate.
“Sam couldn’t cover his bet. He said he had the deed to a ranch. I’ve got what he wrote out for me in my saddle bag.” Without waiting for her permission, he reached into the saddle bag. The muzzle of the shotgun lifting caught in the corner of his eye. He deliberately avoided the revolver resting in its holster in the depths of the leather pouch and pulled out a packet of often folded papers. He pulled one from the small group—the handwritten deed giving him one acre less than half of the total deeded ranch—and unfolded it. He glanced at the page. “I can read it for you if—”
“I can read.” The sharp words were accompanied by her small hand thrusting out to take the paper from him.
Realizing his mistake, he let her take the creased page from him. He hadn’t expected a woman on this frontier to be educated enough to read and certainly hadn’t expected one dressed in denims to have that ability.
Her head dipped as she scanned the handwriting. The page crumpled with the tightening of her fingers.
“How could he do this?” Anger edged her thin whisper. She looked again at the paper. Her voice thickened and increased in volume with her distress. “He can’t—This can’t possibly be legal.”
This young woman dressed in the most unladylike manner had to be Sam Leonard’s daughter, the paragon Sam’s bragging about had become almost tedious during their poker game. Harrison lifted his gaze to the house as he found he was unable to look at the woman in front of him, a woman who seemed to have the weight of the whole world on her slender shoulders. He couldn’t shake the sensation he had just added to that heavy burden. “Ma’am, he was almost five thousand dollars into me when he wrote that to cover his last bet.”
“I’m sure he was.” Her hand closed around the paper, nearly wadding it into a ball before she thrust it in his direction. “He never did know when to walk away. Sam’s in the house. I’ll take you in to him, though I’m not sure what it will accomplish.”
She rounded on her heel, leaving Harrison no choice but to follow. He couldn’t stop the admiration coursing through him when he saw the butt of what appeared to be a heavy caliber revolver tucked into the waistband of her denims in the small of her back. The lady was well armed. Even though she had agreed to shelter him for the night in her barn and had lowered the shotgun, she still had a way to defend herself.
He released Demon’s drop rein and jogged a few steps to catch up, shoving the paper into his trouser pocket. Just inside she paused only long enough to prop the shotgun near the door and settle the revolver on the counter. She then continued a determined march through the house.
Harrison raised a brow. He hadn’t seen a Colt Dragoon in better than ten years. He noted the covered Dutch oven on the massive Hoosier stove in a corner of the kitchen and the scent of baking bread mingled with the mouth-watering aroma of what he guessed to be chicken stew. His rumbling stomach reminded him it had been several days since he’d had a decent meal. He looked at the floor, hoping she hadn’t heard his growling stomach. The pine planking was scored in places. He guessed the gouging happened when any hands the ranch employed failed to remove their spurs before entering. His weren’t going to add any more damage to the flooring as there was no rowel on the short shank, blunted ends.
Her footfalls faded when she left the kitchen and stepped onto a thick carpet runner in an Oriental pattern. He lengthened his stride to catch up to her again. This house wasn’t the usual sod house he’d seen on the prairies. Unlike those soddies, this house hadn’t grown up overnight. Despite the fact it needed maintenance and upkeep, this was a building that had been constructed to silently but firmly convey a message of wealth and authority.
He didn’t know a lot about rugs or wall coverings or even construction. He’d never bothered to learn. Those aspects of a home had always been covered by his family’s money, but even he could tell this wasn’t the place of a dirt-poor homesteader. The ceiling in the kitchen was covered with patterned copper squares, though they needed burnishing as indicated by the green patina of the metal. The board running the length of the hallway above the dark wood wainscoting had been joined so it appeared seamless and had been carved with an intricate, twisting ivy pattern. Flocking embossed the wallpaper of the hallway. It was easy to see where someone—he guessed this young woman as her fingertips brushed along the wall while she led the way—had trailed a hand for years, leaving a shining path in the muted sunlight where the flocking had worn off the wallpaper.
The hallway ended in a large foyer. A set of double doors adorned with rippling leaded glass was to his right. To his left a flight of stairs made their way to a second floor. The young woman paused in front of a set of closed pocket doors. Next to those was an opened room—a less formal parlor, if the natural light and airiness of the room was any indication. A petticoat table with its mirror at floor level stood near the opened doors. Considering his guide’s proclivity for denim trousers, boots, and chambray shirts, he didn’t think that mirror was used often. He hadn’t seen a home with a ladies’ parlor since he left New Orleans more than two years earlier.
“You might not recognize my father. He was in an accident about six years ago and he’s never recovered.” She looked over her shoulder. An old pain defined the lines of her face, darkened her eyes, and layered her voice. “He hasn’t been the same since then. Apoplexy shortly afterward exacerbated the damage caused by the accident.”
His assumption that this was Sam’s daughter had been correct. “You must be Rachel.”
She nodded, once, and opened the doors to the closed parlor. Before he walked into the room, Rachel grabbed his shirt sleeve and stopped him. “Please don’t upset him. He’s very fragile.”
Fragile was not a word he would have ever thought to use in conjunction with the man he so vividly remembered after only a few bare hours engaged in what became a high-stakes poker game. His recollections of Sam Leonard were of a barrel-chested giant of a man, capable of putting away copious amounts of alcohol, who became louder and brasher as the evening wore on, and of a man overbearingly proud of his only child. The paragon of feminine virtues created through Sam’s bragging was far from the reality of the young woman impeding his entrance into the parlor.
Harrison made the offer after a single glance into the room. A wheeled chair bathed in the elongating rays of the late afternoon sun faced the southern exposed windows. What he could see of the individual slumped in the chair made him question if it was even the man he had known.
“It won’t be a long conversation, Mr. Taylor.” Rachel walked into the room and directly to the chair. “Daddy,” she said and knelt at her father’s side. “Someone is here to see you about the ranch.”
The gurgling sounds from the hunched figure somehow still managed to sound angry and one hand flailed the air near Rachel’s face. She stood and drew back.
Harrison crossed the room and stared down at the man imprisoned in the wicker wheelchair. The bull of a man he remembered was gone. Sam’s complexion was ashen, half his face drooping. Drool had trickled from a side of his mouth and dried to a thick, white line. His left arm hung uselessly in his lap. The other was still flailing. From mid-thigh down, Sam’s legs were missing. A heavy quilt covered his lap, while a wide swathe of what appeared to be linen wrapped around the man’s once barrel chest, under his arms, and was tied around the back of the chair, to keep him from tumbling onto the floor.
It was the pure, stark terror crossing the old man’s face though that tore through Harrison. The man thrashed his hand at Harrison, as if to push him away, and the incomprehensible sounds breaking from him were those of a frightened, wounded creature.
A long, low, distant rumble of thunder intruded into the room. Rachel stepped between Harrison and her father. “You might want to go put your horse up, Mr. Taylor. That storm is getting closer.”
“What happened to him?” He couldn’t take his gaze from the shell that stared up at him with undisguised fear.
“He was blasting a played-out silver mine shut and it collapsed on him. Please, go, now.” She gestured at the opened doors. “You’re upsetting him and Doc says anything that makes him upset could kill him.”
Harrison wasn’t sure if what was left of Sam was living and that death wouldn’t be kinder, and even as he thought that, he bit the words back. He stepped away, hesitating just long enough to see Rachel lift a white rag from a wash basin near her father and gently dab at his face. “It’s all right,” he heard her murmur. “I’m right here, Daddy.”
West of Forgotten is a nicely written western that tackles some very dark issues, including sexual abuse. The author blends these issues into the storyline with credibility and believability. Our heroine Rachel is strong and broken at the same time, and the reader believes it every step of the way. The hero in Harrison is exactly the type of man that every woman needs in her corner who needs to learn to trust both other people, and herself – and the author makes sure that it doesn’t overpower the story. It was satisfying to watch Rachel grow into the woman that she was meant to be, and love how she was meant to love.
My sole gripe is that I wished it were a bit longer, to see them realize their dreams for the ranch. Even though it ended well, and tied up its storyline, I am just a bit selfish and would have truly enjoyed an epilogue on this one.
Reviewed by Cyrene