Dusk, hours following the Battle of Nashville
December 17, 1864
Half hidden beneath the bare-limbed canopy of a dogwood tree, the gravedigger kept a reverent distance, patiently waiting for the last whispered prayers to be uttered and for the final mourner to take her leave. Only then did he step into the fading light, a worn spool of string clutched tight in his gnarled hand. Not much time left. It would be dark soon. And the last grave still needed tending before the pewter skies let loose their winter white.
The distant squeak of wagon wheels and the clomp of horses' hooves faded into the night, leaving only the faint chirrup of crickets to companion the silence. Jessup Collum lifted the lid of the oblong pine box and with painstaking care, his arthritic fingers numb from the cold and marred with time and age, he tied a trailing length of string around the soldier's right wrist. Mindful not to tie the string overtight, he looped the other end through a tiny bell.
He stared for a moment at the soldier's face—the fallen Confederate a mere boy judging from his features—then he glanced around at the freshly covered graves. Deep in his bones he knew what he was doing was right, even if a bit out of the ordinary. There was no malice in his actions, and no sin, most certainly. Nothing that would bring serious offense. Though folks would surely think him a touch senile, if they saw. If they knew ...
So many ways for a man to die, yet only one was needed for the earth to cradle a body back from whence all life had come.
Jessup turned that thought over in his mind as he'd done countless times before, not indifferent to the shadows stealing across the graveyard as the December sun hastened its retreat. Nightfall brought bitter cold, but not a breath of wind stirred, and each snowflake lofted downward from heaven, unhindered in its journey. He worked hurriedly to cover the last grave, mindful of the trailing string.
After the last shovel of dirt, he straightened, slowly, his crooked spine bearing the brunt of forty-two years of tending this hallowed ground—and of the last few hours of burying the bloodied remnants the Federal Army had abandoned following their assault. If the once-valiant Tennessee Army had been crippled in the battle at Franklin two weeks ago, then the past two days of fighting had delivered a mortal wound.
Jessup lit a torch and stared over row after row of mounded earth, the light casting a burnished glow around him. Too many and too young were those who lay here, going before their time. Before their lives had been lived out. He thought again of the young woman earlier who'd been last to take her leave.
Dark-haired with skin pale and smooth as cream, she'd knelt for the longest time at the grave on the far end, one he'd taken care in covering not two hours earlier, as he'd done the one at his feet just now. She'd huddled close by that grave, weeping, arms drawn around herself, looking as if she'd wanted to lay herself down and mark an end to her own life, what little she had left after losing the man buried there—"a decorated lieutenant from the Tennessee regiment, and my only brother," she'd whispered through tears.
The wound on the lieutenant's neck had told Jessup how the man had died, and the sutures and bloodstained bandages told him how hard some doctor had fought to save him. Shame how fast these soldiers were buried. No proper funeral. No time for one— not with the Federal Army bearing down hard, void of mercy, bent on conquering what little was left.
He tugged the worn collar of his coat closer about his neck and begged the Almighty, again, to intervene, to put an end to this war. Surely it couldn't go on much longer.
A heavy mist crept over the rise from the creek, shrouding the stone markers. The fog seemed to deepen the pungent aroma of upturned earth, and a beguiling trace of honeysuckle clung to the cool night air, despite the wild vine not being in bloom. Jessup took a deeper whiff and could almost taste the sweet summer nectar. A smile pushed up his whiskered cheeks. Maybe folks were right. Maybe he was a touch senile after all. These days recent memories skittered off about as quickly as he reached for them, while others that should have been long gathering dust inched closer as the years stretched on.
He sat down against an ancient poplar, borrowing its strength. Still no wind, and the snow had ceased falling. He imagined the boy's face again, able to see it clearly in his mind's eye as he stared at the bell, willing it to move.
Even the slightest bit.
He put his head back, resting his eyes, only for a moment. But the moments lengthened and gathered and pulled taut, coaxing him along on a gentle wave, absent of the throb in his lower back and the ache across his swollen knuckles.
He was a boy again, running through fields knee-high with summer grass, the sun hot on his face, sweat from a humid Tennessee afternoon beading on his forehead and matting his hair to his head. Someone called to him in the distance. A voice so sweet ... A lifetime had passed since he'd heard that voice. Mother ...
He ran, youthful legs pumping hard, trying to reach her, wanting to see her again. But the faster he ran, the farther away her voice seemed to—
Jessup awakened with a start, his breath coming in sharp staggers.
An uncanny sense of presence crowded the darkness around him, and he realized the torch had gone out. He sat straighter, head cocked to one side, and listened, straining to hear his mother's voice again.
But her voice was gone.
He wiped the telling moisture from his cheeks and rose, the joints cracking in his knees. In all his days, he couldn't recall so still a night. So loud a hush over the graves. With a sinking feeling, he looked down at the grave of the young boy. It was late now. Too late.
He prayed the boy was at peace, wherever he was. Same for the decorated lieutenant down the way. He didn't know much about the afterlife—not like folks expected him to—but he reckoned if God was as kind as he believed Him to be that there was some sort of special welcome going on right now for those men who'd laid down their lives in this terrible—
The distant tinkling of a bell brought Jessup upright.
A skitter shimmied up his spine. The air trapped viselike in his lungs. Praying he wasn't still dreaming, he searched the darkness at the end of the row where the woman had knelt earlier, and his skin turned to gooseflesh. If this was what some folks felt when they visited this place late at night, he knew now why they never ventured back.
He also knew why he would never leave.
Timber Ridge, Colorado, Rocky Mountains
April 12, 1877
Rachel Boyd stood motionless in the main aisle of the general store, knowing she shouldn't eavesdrop. But heaven help her, she couldn't bring herself to move! Half afraid that Ben and Lyda Mullins would hear her if she did try to make a stealthy exit, she gripped the jar of molasses in her hand, unable to stifle a giggle. The only patron in the store, she was grateful for the lull in afternoon traffic and was more than a little amused—and surprised— by the affectionate whispers coming from beyond the curtained doorway.
A soft chuckle. "Ben Mullins, what's gotten into you? Someone could walk in on us."
A deeper laugh. "Who's going to come back here into the storeroom? All I want is a little kiss. Come here, woman, and let me ..."
Rachel couldn't make out the low murmurs that followed, and didn't need to. Her imagination filled in the blanks just fine. Warmth rose to her face. Unbidden, her memory skimmed the past two years, and emotions long buried since Thomas's death, yet never forgotten, slowly reawakened inside her.
With them came bittersweet memories of the tender way her husband used to love her, and desires long dormant began to unfurl. She closed her eyes, recalling what it had felt like to be loved by a man. A shiver stole through her, though not an altogether pleasurable one. Her smile slowly faded.
While this wasn't the first time she'd remembered the intimacy she and Thomas had enjoyed in marriage, it was her first time to feel those intimate stirrings again. The desire for a man's touch, for that relationship. But the desire wasn't welcome. She would not—could not—ever again love a man the way she'd loved Thomas.
Following his passing, there had been moments when she'd questioned whether she would survive. It had taken so long to find her way out of that fog, that deep, dark place where she'd known she needed to start living again, if only for her boys, but couldn't. With the double-edged gift of time's passing, and the persistent encouragement of family and friends, she'd finally found her way back into the sunlight.
But loving someone so completely, giving herself to a man the way she'd done with her husband, it gave them the power to hurt you in a way no one else could, even when it wasn't their intention.
And she never wanted to hurt like that again. Ever.
More than once, she'd been told she needed to consider remarrying, if only for her boys' sake. But just as she wouldn't risk her heart a second time, neither would she risk her sons having to endure the same hurt they'd gone through with their father's passing. Besides, she and Mitchell and Kurt were getting along fine, just the three of them.
A not-so-gentle check tugged at her flagging confidence. She fingered the jar of molasses in her hand. Perhaps fine wasn't the best choice of a word, but the three of them were managing as best they could. She smoothed a hand down the front panel of her skirt and forced down a recurring tide of emotion. With effort, she refocused her thoughts.
School would dismiss within the hour, and she planned on dropping by to visit with the schoolteacher about Kurt. She didn't have an appointment—and it wasn't her first "meeting" with Miss Stafford over her younger son. She just wanted to make sure things were going smoothly and that Kurt hadn't done something else foolish. Again. Like the shenanigan he'd pulled two weeks prior involving the school's outhouse.
He hadn't been the only boy involved, she'd learned, but she had a feeling he'd been the instigator. And she cringed again just thinking about it, putting herself in Miss Stafford's place. Young and inexperienced, Judith Stafford was, from all accounts, being more than patient with Kurt. How embarrassing that must have been. Kurt had written a note of apology, and she'd written Judith Stafford a note too, offering her own expression of regret and thanking the teacher for her understanding. Hopefully a quick visit today would keep things moving in the right direction.
After dealing with that issue, endless chores awaited on the ranch, not to mention the meeting about the overdue loan payment. Mr. Fossey, the bank manager, had been more than lenient, but she sensed his patience waning.
She returned the jar of molasses to the shelf, considering it a luxury these days with funds on the scarce side. In the midst of everything, she was still determined to keep Thomas's dream alive for their two sons. It was what pushed her from bed each morning and what carried her through each day until she fell exhausted back into bed long after dark. That, and the pledge they'd made as a couple to give Mitchell and Kurt a heritage, a better life than the boys would have had if she and Thomas had stayed in Tennessee following the war.
She fingered a callus on her palm. Losing the ranch Thomas had worked so diligently to build wasn't an option, and it hardly defined giving their boys a "better life." She'd stood over her husband's grave and had given her solemn oath that she would see his dream—their dream—come to fruition. And that was a promise she intended to keep. If Mr. Fossey still considered her a worthwhile risk.
The intimate exchange behind the blue-and-yellow gingham curtain grew more ardent, and Rachel felt a blush, regretting not having left at the outset. She made her way to the door, hoping Ben had remembered to oil the squeaky hinge. Guilty as she felt, it was nice to know that after twenty-something years of marriage, Ben and Lyda's feelings for each other were still—
Hearing the name, and catching the unmistakable alarm in Lyda's tone, Rachel paused, hand on the latch.
"Ben, what's—" A muted gasp sounded from the back storeroom. "Honey, what's wrong? Ben ... are you all—"
A dull thud.
Rachel raced to the curtain that separated the store from the back part of the building but stopped shy of continuing on. "Lyda, it's Rachel. Is everything all right?" She waited, impatient. "Lyda?"
"No, we're— Ben, can you hear me?" Anxiety constricted Lyda's voice. "Rachel! Something's wrong. I ... I don't think he's breathing!"
Rachel whipped past the curtain and hurried down the hallway, and came to a stilting halt by the storage closet.
Ben lay crumpled on the floor, motionless, his complexion drained of color. Lyda knelt close beside him. Panic lined her features.
Instinct kicked in and Rachel squeezed in beside them into the cramped space. "What happened?" She checked Ben's pulse, first on the underside of his wrist, then on his neck.
Tears rimmed Lyda's eyes. Her hands shook. "We were ..." She looked away and Rachel felt a pinch of guilt. "We were ... kissing, and the next thing I knew Ben was clutching at his arm." Panic thinned her tone. "He acted like he couldn't catch his breath, and then he ..." She bit her lower lip as tears spilled over. "He just went down."
Rachel closed her eyes and concentrated on finding a pulse, wishing she had her father's old stethoscope. "Has anything like this happened to Ben before?"
Lyda shook her head and nudged her husband's shoulder with a trembling hand. "Ben," she whispered, "can you hear me?"
Fingertips pressed against the underside of his wrist, Rachel stilled. There—finally, she felt something. A pulse. Thready and shallow. Too much so. "He needs Dr. Brookston," she whispered, touching Ben's brow to find it cool and clammy. "I'll go find him. You stay here."
Lyda reached for her hand. "You know what's happening ..."
It wasn't a question and Rachel didn't answer. Before Timber Ridge boasted a physician of its own, she'd served as midwife to women in town. She'd also treated wounds and sewn up her share of cuts and gashes. People rarely called on her since the doctor arrived—maybe an expectant mother every now and then—but she had a fairly good idea of what was happening to Ben. Yet she wasn't about to state it aloud. It would only add to Lyda's worry, and her assumption could well be wrong. She wasn't a trained physician, after all. Medical schools were for men, not women.
"The important thing, Lyda, is that Ben is breathing and I can feel a pulse. Whatever you do, don't move him. If he comes to while I'm gone, make sure he doesn't try to get up. That's very important." She reached for a towel on a shelf, rolled it up, and gently slid it beneath Ben's head. "And keep his head elevated until I get back with the doctor." She stood.
Lyda stared up, fresh tears rising. "Is he ... going to be all right?"
Rachel knelt again, on the verge of tears herself. At forty-nine, Ben Mullins was almost twenty years her senior—Lyda was half that. Yet in recent years the older couple had become almost like parents to her. Ben treated her much like a father would and was like an uncle to her sons. Lyda was a trusted friend and filled the role of an indulgent aunt to the boys, which included sneaking them candy in church when they were younger, and occasionally even now. Yet Rachel still couldn't bring herself to answer Lyda's question.
She forced a smile she didn't feel. "Did you hear what I said? About making sure Ben stays still and about keeping his head elevated?"
Shadows of realization darkened Lyda's eyes. "Yes," she choked out, nodding. "I heard. It's just that—" She drew in a ragged breath. "Rachel ... he's all I have now. I can't lose him too."
A horrible, suffocating wave of grief hit Rachel all over again. Only it wasn't from memories of Thomas. She knew that pain only too well. This was different, and it tore at her heart. She reached for Lyda's hand and gripped it tight, remembering a bitter wintry night eight years ago. A night she and Lyda had spoken of only a handful of times since.
Filling her lungs, she worked to steady her voice, the image of Ben and Lyda's children, their expressions so peaceful, so precious, even in death, making that nearly impossible. She squeezed her eyes shut, but the haunting images remained. "I'm going to go find the doctor—he'll know what to do. I won't be long, I promise."
Lyda nodded, her expression communicating what words could not. "Thank you, Rachel. And please ... hurry."
* * *
Rachel ran the short distance to the doctor's clinic and entered without knocking. Angelo Giordano stood at a worktable inside, pestle in hand. "Angelo—" She paused to catch her breath, the chilled mountain air still burning her lungs. "Is Dr. Brookston here?"
The young man shook his head. "The doctor ... he is at—" He lowered his head. "He is away, Mrs. Boyd." Though his Italian accent was thick and his word choices careful, Angelo Giordano's diction was flawless. "But if maybe ... I could be of help—"
"I need Dr. Brookston, Angelo! I think Ben Mullins is having heart failure."
The boy's dark eyes went wide.
Rachel hurried to a bookcase crammed with bottles and metal tins, each neatly labeled. But the shelves were cramped, and numerous tins sat stacked on the plank-wood floor gathering dust. She scanned the labels, finding them a challenge to read in the poor light and with the containers stuffed in as they were. She exhaled. Could Dr. Brookston not afford a proper cabinet for his medicine? "Do you know if the doctor has any foxglove? It's a plant—an herb. It's used with patients who have heart ailments."
"I do not know, ma'am," Angelo said, joining her in the search.
Rachel shoved a tin aside to view another behind it, and a bottle of laudanum slipped off the shelf. She tried to catch it, but the bottle hit the floor with a crack and shattered, splattering laudanum and sending glass shards in all directions. She bit back a harsh word. "I'm sorry, Angelo. I didn't mean to break—"
"Dr. Brookston will not be angry." The boy reached for a rag. "I will clean it."
Her panic mounting, Rachel spotted two wooden crates in the corner, but they held only bottles of lamp oil. Enough to last for an entire year! What did anyone need with that much oil? An unopened box on the examination table drew her attention.
Angelo gestured. "It is new medicine. It came today. That is why I am here. Maybe I should—"
She nodded, anticipating what he might say next. "Yes. Go through that box—quickly please, Angelo—and look for anything that has either of these words on it." She grabbed the fountain pen and a piece of paper from Dr. Brookston's desk and scribbled a note. She already knew firsthand from having assisted Dr. Rand Brookston last fall that he was an exemplary surgeon—she only hoped he was as conscientious about keeping medications ordered and in stock.
She pressed the paper into Angelo's hand. "Now, do you have any idea where the doctor might be? Who he was going to see?"
Angelo blinked, glancing downward.
"Angelo, please! There's little time."
Wincing, the young man reluctantly met her gaze. "He spoke of going to ... to Miss Bailey's."
Rachel frowned, confused. "Miss Bailey's ..."
He nodded once. "The woman, she has a house over on—"
"I know where Miss Bailey's house is."
Angelo swallowed and the sound was audible. "The doctor ... sometimes he sees to the ... boarders who live there."
Rachel felt the furrows in her brow. Boarders wasn't exactly the word she would have chosen to describe the women who lived under Miss Bailey's roof. Regardless, she needed the doctor, and if that's where he was, for whatever reason, then that's where she would go. "As soon as you find either of the items listed on that sheet of paper, bring them as quickly as you can to the mercantile, to the back storeroom. Will you do that, please?"
Angelo nodded, his chest puffing out. "Yes, Mrs. Boyd. If what is on this paper is in this box, I will find it. I will bring it."
She thanked him and took off down the boardwalk at a run.
The April air was brisk, burning her lungs. It held the promise of more snow, and Rachel pulled her winter shawl tighter around her shoulders, wishing she hadn't left her coat at the store. A gust of wind disturbed the layer of fresh-fallen snow lining the rooftops and sent it swirling downward.
Winter wouldn't leave the Rockies for at least another month, maybe two, and she prayed the cold wouldn't cost her more cattle than it already had, or the calves due to drop any day. But especially the calf belonging to Lady. She'd bought Lady a year ago, her first major investment for the ranch, and a good one, for a change.
She turned at the next street. Thankfully, foot traffic on the boardwalk was scarce.
School hadn't dismissed yet but soon would—and she wouldn't be there to meet the boys, or to have that visit with their teacher. When she didn't show, she knew Mitchell and Kurt would walk to James's office and wait there until she arrived. The boys loved their uncle James and never complained about visiting the sheriff 's office, but she worried about what they saw and overheard there. Still, some days it couldn't be helped.
Only last fall had she begun to allow Mitch and Kurt to walk to school on their own again. She still accompanied them in the wagon as far as Ben and Lyda's store each morning, unable to stomach the thought of them walking the distance from the ranch like they once had. Not after what had happened to Thomas, and with the recent reports of cougar sightings.
Winded, she struggled to maintain the hurried pace, her breath puffing white. Winter-shrouded peaks towered high above Timber Ridge and drew her gaze upward as thoughts of Ben pressed close. The rush of her pulse pounded hard in her ears.
If only Ben's heart could beat half as strong ...
If Ben had a history of heart weakness, he'd never mentioned it. Neither had Lyda. And Rachel felt certain they would have, given her closeness to them.
A left at the next intersection led her into a part of town she didn't usually frequent. Saloons and gaming halls lined the thoroughfare. Even midday the smell of liquor was potent. She spotted Miss Bailey's establishment at the end of the street and made a beeline for it, wondering how she knew which building it was. She couldn't recall being told. It was simply one of those places everybody in town knew of, but most folks—at least in her circle—never spoke about.
Two women lazed against the railing of the wraparound porch, talking, dressed in a manner ill-advised for the cold and that might have been shocking had Rachel been naïve about their occupation. But she wasn't, and she raced up the porch stairs, the unease over having to visit a place like this paling in comparison to her concern for Ben. She never broke stride. "I've come to get Dr. Brookston. It's an emergen—"
The woman on the left, a blonde, stepped directly into her path, blocking the door.
Rachel stopped short.
"I think you mean Rand, don't you?" the woman said, looking her up and down and smiling, though not in a friendly way. "That's what we all call him." She crossed her arms over her chest and her ample cleavage lifted to threaten the already strained buttons of her thin shirtwaist. "He's inside, visiting with one of the girls. And I don't think he'll take kindly to being interrupted." She gave a throaty laugh. "I know Patricia won't. She's been waitin' for this all week." She tossed a wink at the woman beside her.
"Visiting with one of the girls." Fairly good at reading people, Rachel knew when she was being goaded. She had no qualms about the doctor seeing to the health of these women. Her father had been a physician, and she respected a physician's oath to care for the sick, regardless of person or circumstance. Yet Dr. Brookston's coming here, to this place, and his apparent familiarity with these women ... Such behavior hinted at arrogance. An arrogance with which she was only too familiar when it came to men of his profession.
An arrogance that often led to their downfall.
"Like it or not—" Rachel squared her shoulders, finding boldness when picturing Lyda cradling Ben—"Dr. Brookston's visit here is about to be cut short." She pushed past the woman, yanking her arm free when the blonde grabbed hold. Once inside, she hustled to close the door and flipped the lock into place, knowing it wouldn't buy her much time.
The women pounded on the glass-paned door behind her, yelling obscenities. Surely the building had a back door, so Rachel knew she was only prolonging the inevitable, but she didn't need long.
The sickeningly sweet smell of perfume hit her full in the face. That, and stale liquor. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim light.
Laughter drifted down from the second floor, giving hint as to where she should begin her search. She hurried up the spiral staircase. The garish red carpet muted her boot steps. She instinctively reached for the handrail, then held back, thinking better of it.
Oversized oil paintings covered the walls, detailed in their renderings and advertising the services bartered in this place. After her gaze collided with a particularly graphic "portrait," she kept her eyes averted, but couldn't block out the disturbing memories that came with being inside a place like this. Not that she'd ever been inside a brothel before—
But her father had. On numerous occasions. With many women. For many years.
For the thousandth time, she questioned why doctors considered themselves more highly than they ought, more immune to weaknesses in character and less prone to fault—when based on personal experience, with few exceptions, she'd found quite the opposite to be true.
She reached the second-story landing, and the gravel of male voices blended with female laughter to paint a plurality of mental images Rachel tried in vain to block out. She looked down the long hallway. So many doors ... and they were all closed.
The rush of footsteps sounded from downstairs. "She must have gone up there!"
Time running out, Rachel pounded on the first door.