Read an Excerpt
Tess Cooper stared at her father’s scrawled writing. According to the date, he’d written the letter yesterday. She glanced out the door to their small cabin. He’d left early this morning, and the envelope must have fallen out of his pocket. It had not yet been sealed, and not able to resist her curiosity, she’d opened it and read the unsettling words.
She hadn’t seen their Uncle Bartholomew in years. Why would Father want to send them away? Nothing made sense. Yet, Father had been acting strangely. Coming home early. Going through Mother’s box. What was wrong with him?
Feeling unsteady, she sat down at the table and reread the letter. Why were they in danger? She wished Joe was home so she could ask him. But he was past wild and hadn’t come home last night. She stuffed the letter in her pocket, grabbed her shawl, and hurried out the door.
Father was going to have to explain why he would want to send them away. If he was in trouble, they would handle it together. Like they always had.
Halfway into town, she ran into Mattie Quiggins. The old woman gave her a toothless grin and narrowed her eyes. “Lots of folks falling on hard times. Lots of folks leaving Texas.”
"Well, I won't. I'll never leave my home. I'm Texas born."
"Yes, you are missy. But most Texans come from somewhere else, and more are leaving to go somewhere else.” Mattie grabbed her hand. “I’m old. People talk in front of me because they think I don’t matter. But I hear things.”
The old woman looked around them and then tugged on Tess’s arm. “I saw them yesterday. They were talking. Men that I don’t know said they were going to rob the bank.”
“This morning. Be careful, Missy. I saw the young one ride up to them. He talked, but I couldn’t hear him. You know the one. Carl. Don’t trust him.”
Cold dread worked its way down Tess’s spine. Carl? He was her intended. The man she dreamed about and thought she would marry. “That can’t be right. Carl wouldn’t—”
Old Maggie put a finger to her lips. “They are up to something. I took my money out of the bank, yesterday. Go, quick and tell your father.”
Tess pulled away from the old woman.
Maggie wagged her finger. “Better keep an eye on that brother of yours. Saw him going into Kit’s saloon. No good can come out of your fast-talking, fast-draw brother, and whiskey.”
“I’ll speak to Father about him. I’m not his mother.” She walked away and wished they still had the horse and carriage. Father kept saying times would get better. So far, they hadn’t improved an inch.
Joseph was another story and worry. While Father was gone to war, he’d grown up wild. Mother had tried her best, but he’d become more than she could handle. Then after Mother died, the duty had fallen to her. She’d been no match for her brother.
Father worked hard at the bank, but his wages weren’t enough. Little by little, they’d sold off the ranch she knew as home. First the livestock. Then acreage. The house would go next. She would worry, but Father had told her he had it under control.
She was almost to town when she heard her name shouted. Tess turned and saw Joe galloping on a horse toward her.
Joe yanked the horse to a stop and held his arm out to her. “Get on. It’s Father.”
The fear in her brother's eyes stopped her questions. Tess grabbed hold of Joe's hand and swung up on the back of the prancing horse. She cringed to ask whose animal it was.
Once she had her arms around his waist, he spurred the horse and charged back to town.
“Doc said it’s his heart.” Joe ran the horse hard all the way back to town and finally stopped him, lathered and blowing, in front of the bank. People were lined up and crowding around the window.
Joe helped her down. “Hurry.”
They ran inside the bank where Mr. Harvey, the bank owner, waved them to the back. Tess followed and saw her father on the floor. A jacket under his head.
Doc Baker looked up. He shook his head and stood. "Your father was fighting with someone. He called out, and by the time Mr. Harvey came in, your father was on the floor. The only thing keeping him alive was wanting to talk to you. Better make it quick.” The doc took Mr. Harvey, and they left the room.
Her father’s face was pale and gray. Tears blurred her vision. “Father—”
“Shh.” He put a finger to her lips. “You and Joe, go to Nevada to Uncle Bartholomew. Hurry. Don’t wait. Take Joe and leave now.”
“Father, you’re sick—”
“I’m dying, lass. In Mother’s box,” He winced and coughed. “Danger. Don’t stop for no one.”
Tess shook her head and stared at him. “Where—”
“Uncle, Rattlesnake Ridge, Nevada. Joe take her.” Father closed his eyes, coughed again, and stopped breathing.
Tess threw herself onto him. “No.”
Joe grabbed her. “We better go.” He pulled her up. Holding her close, he helped her out of the bank. “We need to get home and leave.”
She looked back. “But Father—”
“We have to go.” Joe put her on the horse and climbed up behind her. “I barely remember Uncle Bartholomew.”
She leaned against him. “Father had said he was a prominent citizen in the town. I guess he can help us get started again.” Tears wetted her cheeks. “Why do you think Father wanted us—”
“Don’t ask. We’ll just do what he said.” Joe spoke as a man and not the wild boy she knew. Quiet and in their own thoughts, they rode home.
Joe kept a hand on his pistol and looked around. “We better hurry.”
Tess followed him into the house. Nevada. Just where was that anyway? West was all she knew.
Joe pulled the box down and opened it. He gasped and held up a bag. “Gold coins and hundred-dollar bills. Must be five thousand dollars in here.”
“How did Father get that kind of money?” She tried to answer the question and still think of her father as the honorable man she’d always known.
Joe stared at it. “Think he stole it?”
“Father isn’t a thief.”
“No. But he didn’t have this kind of money either, and Mr. Harvey said someone had come in and had cross words with him right before his heart gave out.”
She looked through the box, but everything else was as it should be. Mother's ring. Her brooch. Locks of hair from her and Joe.
Joe stood and grabbed the rifle and cartridges. “Pack a few things. We have to go.”
“Who would want to hurt us?”
He stopped at the door. “I saw some men in the saloon. Heard words and mention of Father’s name. We don’t want to be around when they come looking for this money.”
Fear shadowed her as she went into her room and pulled the satchel from under her bed. What had Father done? Tess glanced around her room. So many memories lingered in the small cabin they called home. After packing, she sat on her bed and listened. It was a game she played late at night. She could imagine her mother calling out, Father answering, and Joe laughing. Life in the Cooper home was often loud and full of laughter. Used to be, anyway.
Tess frowned. But no more. Mother was gone. Now Father.
“Tess, we need to go.”
She went out and saw Joe standing by the door. Rifle in one hand, knapsack in the other. He’d changed. No longer the wild boy, he looked the part of a man with responsibility. Something very new to her brother.
Joe gave her a grim smile. “I’ll saddle Father’s horse for you. He must have walked into town today. I’ll turn the cow loose.”
“Do you think we have to go?”
He nodded and watched outside. “Father said it for a reason. Said we were in danger. Watch for me. When I bring the horse out, you come outside.” He handed her the rifle. “I don’t know what danger we’re looking for, but we better be ready.”
Tess took the gun and stayed in the doorway. Growing up in Texas had made her wary and ready. There’d been a time that they had to watch for Indians. Now, it was the lawless men who’d been ruined by the war and hard times.
She wondered about Father. Is that what had happened to him? They'd struggled ever since the war. If it wasn't the Yankees, it was the carpetbaggers. Add high taxes and a ruined economy, and so many were struggling to survive.
“Oh, Father. What did you do?”
Joe walked up with Brandywine behind him. “He’s ready for you.” He helped her mount and then jumped on his horse. “I figure we ride to Dallas. There’s bound to be trains we can take. We’ll sell the horses.”
She rubbed Brandywine’s neck. The horse was a beauty with a dark red coat and black mane and tail. He was also Father's source of pride. "Do we have to get rid of him, too?"
“We can buy new ones in Nevada.”
“I’d like to say goodbye to Carl.” Just the last month, she’d begun to think there might be more than friendship between them. He worked at the bank with her father and would soon know of her father’s death. In fact, she found it strange that he hadn’t been at the bank this morning. Then again, there was Maggie’s odd warning.
Joe shook his head. “No. Not until we know what we’re up against. Father wouldn’t have said we had to leave now if he hadn’t meant it. I’m responsible to look after you.”
“But I owe Carl a goodbye.” She was beginning to come out of the shock of the events and get angry.
“Father told me to take care of you, and that’s what I’m going to do. Once I deliver you to Uncle Bartholomew, then you can do what you want.” He glanced around.
She noticed how uneasy her brother had become. “You don’t think someone is out to kill us?”
Joe stared at her. “Carl and Father had cross words this morning. I think Carl caused his heart attack, and then he ran out of the bank. I’m not taking a chance. Father made me responsible for you.”
“Carl? But we were talking marriage.”
Joe patted his pocket. “We might not have broken the law, but I’m not so sure about Father, and really not sure about Carl.”
“Father wouldn’t do anything wrong. He wouldn’t.”
Joe just shrugged. “That money came from somewhere, and Carl argued with Father enough to make his heart give out. We do what Father wanted.”
Seeing her brother wasn’t going to budge, she nodded. “Let’s go. Your horse is tired though. We better just walk.”
He grinned. “You always watch out for the animals, don’t you? Yeah, I already thought of it. I’ll buy another one soon as we come to a place.”
“With what? We don’t have but ten dollars between us.”
Joe glanced at her with a wry grin. “I’d say we about five thousand dollars.”
“We are not bank robbers.”
“No, but we aren’t going to sit around here and get killed over this money either.”
Tess knew to argue further was pointless. Later, they’d come to an agreement about what to do with Father’s money.
Joe took her north away from the main road and led her through fields green from spring rains. Tears threatened as she thought of her father dying. Now to lose their home, too. And be threatened by some unknown danger.
She sighed. “I hope Uncle Bartholomew remembers us. Before Mother died, she’d received a letter from him. He said he was doing well in the town of Rattlesnake Ridge. What a name for a town.”
Joe swung his horse around to ride beside her. “Maybe he’s the town mayor. Anyway, it’s a good thing that he’ll be able to help us.” He stopped under a tree. “Let’s rest the horses a bit.”
Tess studied her brother. Before this morning, he’d been a happy-go-lucky boy who didn’t have a care in the world. Now, she could see the worry in his blue eyes. They were icy-blue like Father’s. Joe was a handsome, tall, muscular man, but his face was still boyish. Not hardened like men who’d faced hard lives.
She faced him. “Joe, I think we should pray.”
He stared at her as anger and sorrow flitted across his face. “Didn’t help Mother much.”
Tess took great comfort in her faith and wasn’t going to let her brother’s doubts stop her. “From what we know, I think we could use some Divine guidance and protection.”
He looked away. “Go ahead. I won’t stop you. We’re resting the horses anyway.”
“Joe, it’s important.”
She bowed her head. “Father in heaven, watch over us. Protect us and guide us to Rattlesnake Ridge. Prepare Uncle Bartholomew’s heart to receive us and help us. Take care of Father for us. Amen.”
Tess thought she heard a whispered "amen" from Joe, but she didn't want to press him. She'd struggled since Mother's death and the hard times, too. But Tess always knew the Lord was with her and could feel His Presence in the quiet times. She said a silent prayer for Joe that he'd remember the faith Mother had instilled in them since they were little. She had a feeling they were going to need it.
“Let’s go.” Joe moved out from under the trees and looked to make sure she was following.
Tess rode up beside him. “I think we should send a letter to Uncle Bartholomew, so he knows that we’re coming. I don’t want to send him Father’s letter. I want us to have a fresh start in the town.”
“All right. You write it.” He started to say more but instead shook his head, and then looked back over the trail they’d taken.
His actions unsettled her. Did he really believe someone would be following them? “How long before we reach Dallas?”
Joe shrugged and then stopped. "I got a feeling that's not where we should go. We have the money. I think we'd be better off to go to Arkansas. Catch a train north to Kansas and then go west." He grinned. "First thing we need to do is figure out where Rattlesnake Ridge is."
Tess sighed. “A long way away is all I know.”
“Carl, or anyone following won’t expect us to go east.”
“I wish I could have talked to Carl. We were kind of close. In time, I even thought he might ask me to marry him.”
Joe stared at her. “I never liked him.”
He shook his head. “I’m not sure. He didn’t seem truthful. Like he was always hiding something. Forget about him.”
Tess considered her brother's words. There had been something about Carl that had kept her from trusting him. But then again, in light of what had happened today, it might be hard for her to trust anyone again. “I did like him.”
Joe nailed her with a serious look. “Best if you put him out of your mind. Doubtful you’ll ever see him again anyway.”
Angry at being pushed around, Tess grabbed his reins. “You might be responsible for my safety, but you are not my boss. I don’t like you telling me what to do.”
He shook his head. “You are the feisty one.” He touched the tip of her nose. “Probably one of the reasons Carl hadn’t asked for your hand yet.” He turned serious again. “After today, I’m glad he didn’t.”
“I mean it, Joe. We’re equal in this. I want to be a part of our plans.”
Joe yanked his reins from her hand and took several steps away before he stopped and turned to face her. “All right, we’re partners. Equal partners. Not like I could imagine telling you what to do anyway. God help the man who sets his sights on you.”
She gasped. “How dare you talk to me like that.”
He grinned. “It’s truthful. You’re one independent woman. A pretty one though.” He pulled her horse along. “Come on. We need to work together. Let’s get to a train station that can get us north.”
He was right. If men were after them, it was prudent to be on the move. She kicked the horse and surged past Joe. “Catch me if you can.” She galloped along the trail, dodging tree limbs, and jumping fallen logs and ditches. She loved to ride and ride fast.
Today she needed to. She needed to leave behind the heartache. To ride fast away from losing her father, her home, even Carl.
Finally, she slowed and waited for Joe. He had stayed back and was in no hurry. He caught up to her and ushered her behind a stand of trees. He put his fingers to his lips and took the rifle from the scabbard.
Tess tried to see between the branches. "Did you spot a deer?" Her stomach rumbled, and she thought about how they did need to eat.
Joe shook his head.
She started to move beyond the trees to see better when Joe grabbed her reins.
“Stay. Someone’s following us.”
A chill swept through her. “Who?”
He shook his head and gestured for her to be quiet. Joe dismounted and put his hands over the muzzles of both horses.
The April sun beat through the trees pouring heat down on them. Tess closed her eyes and prayed. Surely, they wouldn’t be caught this soon. And how could anyone know the direction they’d have taken?
She heard the steady clop of a trotting horse and held her breath. Through the leaves, she caught sight of a gray horse with black socks. She knew that horse. And as she watched, she saw Carl ride past them.
Joe looked at her and mouthed for her to stay put. Rifle in hand, he walked out of the trees and onto the trail. “Carl.”
Carl whirled his horse around. “Joe, I was looking for Tess. Her father—”
“I had to find out if Tess was all right.” Carl looked around. “Is she with you?”
Tess kept quiet. Something about the way Carl was looking around bothered her. Carl looked concerned, but even from where she was standing, she doubted he was worried about her. He was after the money.
“Where is she? I stopped by your house.”
Joe stood his ground, keeping the rifle ready. “She’s visiting a relative. Father’s death hit her hard.”
“You drop her off in Fort Worth?”
“What do you want Carl?”
“Your father said she might have something of mine, and I care about your sister. I want to make sure she’s all right.”
Joe nodded. “I’ll tell her. She’ll contact you when she’s through mourning our father’s death.”
Carl frowned, finally shrugged, and turned his horse. “Tell her I’ll be in touch.” He rode away, never looking back.
Joe waited out in the open with rifle in hand.
After Carl had ridden out of view, Tess led the horses to Joe. “Why didn’t you want me to talk to him?”
“Just a feeling. Things I’ve heard.”
Tess’s knees were weak. “He had Father’s pipe in his pocket. Did you see that? He must have been at our house looking for the money.”
Joe nodded with sadness in his eyes. He ushered her and the horses back behind the trees. “Just the other day at Kit’s, Carl came into the saloon with another man. One I hadn’t seen before. He was bragging about the bank. Said he knew things. Then he saw me and hushed up.”
She darted a look down the trail. Carl was coming back, but this time he had a gun drawn.
Joe swung her up on her horse and then mounted his. “Go, don’t look back. Meet me at the lazy oak. If I don’t come, you go on to Uncle Bartholomew’s.” He took the satchel from his saddle and handed it to her. “Take it and go. I’ll meet up with you.” He slapped her horse.
Tess looked back and saw Joe riding away from her. She darted through the brush on the faint trail that she and Joe knew so well. Growing up they'd played on horseback. Chasing one another. Hiding and then trailing each other for practice.
Periodically, she stopped and listened, but no one was following her. Finally, she saw the lazy oak. The tree was bent and growing parallel to the ground. As kids, she and Joe had made up stories as to what had happened to the tree.
Her favorite story had been of a dragon who wanted to rest and leaned on the tree and his great weight bent it until he fashioned it a chair and sat on, forcing it to go perpendicular to the ground before finally reaching for the skies.
Two shots rumbled in the distance. Tess bowed her head and prayed, hoping her brother was safe. Her heart raced as time slid by, her fear mounting. The sun slipped behind the ridge casting shadows along the land and on her hopes.
The moon was rising when she heard hoofbeats in the distance. They came closer.
Wishing she had a gun, Tess peered through the branches.
Joe rode to the tree and jumped down. His lip and cheek were bloody. But it was the sad look in his eyes that scared her.
“You didn’t hurt Carl?”
“Not much. Just enough to learn what I needed to know.” He took his canteen and sipped a long drink. “He said he was in on it with Father to take that money. That we owe him half of it.”
“I don’t believe it.” Tess’s heart reeled from the love for her father mixed with anger and betrayal.
“It’s what Carl said. What he said with a gun in his face. We better go. I don't trust Carl not to follow us.”
Tess took a hanky and dabbed at his bloodied lip. “Carl wouldn’t hurt me.”
Joe stared at her. “I don’t want you to ever think about him again. He’s not to be trusted.”
The harsh way Joe spoke made his words count in her mind. She did trust Joe. “What are we going to do?”
He stared at her. “We’re going to Rattlesnake Ridge and find Uncle Bartholomew. Then we’ll be safe.”
Tess shuddered at the way her brother spoke. She leaned against the old tree and prepared to live a new life. Watching the bright moon, she prayed that Uncle Bartholomew could help them. She prayed Joe would stay out of trouble in the new town. Finally, she prayed that the Lord would give them a fresh start.