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END OF THE TRAIL
By VICKIE McDONOUGH
Copyright © 2012 Vickie McDonough
All right reserved.
Chapter One Central Texas, 1896
Lightning skittered across the granite sky. The boom of thunder that followed spooked Brooks Morgan's horse into a sideways crow hop so unexpectedly that Brooks had to grapple for the saddle horn to keep from losing his seat. He tightened up on the reins and guided Jester back onto the trail. He had hoped to make it to the next town before the storm let loose, but it looked like he was in for a soaking. He didn't mind a good washing down, but Jester hated rain.
Rocks crunched beneath Jester's hooves as he trotted up the trail. A gnawing in the pit of Brooks's belly made him wish for a home-cooked meal, but those were hard to come by for a drifter like him. He glanced up at the ominous sky as another bolt of lightning made him squint. Tugging down his hat, he pulled Jester to a stop atop the hill to get his bearing. The sky looked as if twilight had already set in, though it was just two in the afternoon. Another bolt of lightning zigzagged from heaven to earth, with an explosion that set Jester prancing. Rain was one thing, but Brooks had no hankering to get hit by lightning.
He clucked out of the side of his mouth, and Jester leapt forward with no more encouragement. The black horse was as game as any, but send a little rain his way, and you could almost see a yellow stripe appear on his back. They topped another hill, and a small town came into view, barely visible because of the sheet of rain that was falling between Brooks and the place. Several lights flickered, welcoming him.
He reined the horse down the hill, thankful that the rain hadn't reached him yet to make the passage slick. At the bottom of the valley, he nudged Jester into a gallop. The horse slowed when the first raindrops hit him, but then stretched out into a long-legged gait that ate up the ground. Something hard hit Brooks on the shoulder, and he glanced sideways to see who had lobbed the object, but not another soul was out in this weather. Another rock hit the back of his hand, then the sky let loose in a storm of hail.
Brooks hunkered down. Rain was bad enough, but hail could kill a man. He reached the end of town, reined Jester to a trot, and rode him right up onto the boardwalk. The horse was the only thing of value he owned, and Brooks wasn't about to let him be pounded by hail. He slid off, rubbed his shoulders where the frozen rocks had pelted him, and listened to the loud thunking on the roof overhead. A layer of white had nearly coated the street.
Jester pawed the wooden floor of the boardwalk and jerked at the reins. Brooks ran his hand over the horse's coat, checking for injuries, then patted Jester's shoulder. "You're all right, boy."
A woman with a face that reminded him of a fox scampered out the door of a dress shop, shooing him away. "You can't have that beast on the boardwalk. He'll make a mess."
Brooks bit back the first thought that came to mind and smiled. He ducked his head, tipping his hat, and a river of water poured down onto the walkway. The woman yelped and jumped back. Brooks smiled and led Jester toward her. The horse hugged the wall, as if trying to get as far away from the hail as he could. "Sorry, ma'am." Brooks raised his voice to be heard over the clatter. "We'll just mosey on down to the café and see if we can't get something to eat."
She sucked in a breath, blinking her eyes as if she had dust in them. "Why ... they don't serve horses at the café—and get that beast off the boardwalk before—"
Her words were drowned out by the pounding of hail on the roof overhead. He passed a barbershop and nodded to the two men seated inside, one whose face was covered in lather. He brushed a hand across his own stubble. That was something he'd have to tend to himself since he had no money for luxuries like a shave in a barbershop.
The delicious scent of bread baking—or maybe pies—pulled him to the third shop. Clyde's Café was painted on the window, and a light shone from inside. Maybe the place was still open, although 2:00 p.m. was rather late for lunch. Brooks glanced at the street. The hail had lightened up but still thunked against the wooden rails and walkway. If a man didn't know better, he'd think it was winter by all the white that covered the ground, instead of late summer. He dropped Jester's reins, ground-tying the horse, and opened the door of the café.
One old man sat sideways in his chair, leaning against the wall, studying him. A rifle lay across the table next to him. Brooks nodded and glanced at the empty tables.
"C'mon over and join me, if 'n you've a mind to." Curious, light-blue eyes shone out from under a set of bushy, gray eyebrows that matched the man's thick moustache. He looked tall, if his long legs were any indication, but his frame was overly thin, like a man recovering from a long illness.
Brooks flashed a grin and nodded. "Don't mind if I do. I'm gettin' tired of eating with just my horse for company." He pulled out a chair, tugged off his wet hat, and laid it on the table behind him. He yanked on his shirt, which clung to his body, and peered up at the man. "I've had my bath now. Looks like I could use a change of clothes."
The man nodded. "Smells like it too." His gap-toothed smile softened his words.
A heavyset man with a day's growth of whiskers plodded out from behind a stained curtain. "Help you, stranger?"
"Just coffee." Brooks longed to order whatever it was that smelled so good, but that would have to wait until he had more money.
"That it? Just coffee?" The big man frowned then waddled to the back room. He returned with a coffee pot and a cup, which he set in front of Brooks, and filled the cup. Lugging the pot, he returned behind his curtain.
The old man chuckled. "Clyde takes it as a personal offense if folks don't buy his food."
"Nothin' personal about it. My pockets are just a bit lean at the moment." Brooks wrapped his hands around the cup and sipped the brew. A pleasant feeling of warmth traveled through him and helped satisfy his empty belly.
The man nudged his chin toward the window that Jester stood in front of "Nice horse."
Brooks nodded, liking the old man. "My pa gave him to me, a long time ago."
"Where's your pa now?"
"Waco." If he was still alive. Brooks pushed the barrel of the rifle back toward the wall so it wasn't pointing right at his heart.
"Know what kind he is?"
"Yep. A Morgan. My family raises them."
The man held out his hand. "I'm Will Langston. Welcome to Shoofly."
Brooks shook hands. "Brooks Morgan."
The man's fuzzy brows lifted, making his pale eyes seem larger. "Same name as your horse?"
Brooks nodded and took another sip of his coffee. "Yep. Even spelled the same."
Will chuckled. "I like you, boy." He looked over his shoulder. "Clyde, bring this fellow some of those chicken dumplin's and pie, if you've got any left over."
"I can't let you pay for my food—not unless you've got some kind of work I can do," Brooks said.
"That can be arranged. I'm in need of someone to help me while I'm in town."
Brooks studied the man, wondering what kind of help he needed. "Like what?"
Will ran his fingers over the engraving on the stock of his rifle. "I'm good at reading people, and I sense you're all right." He leaned forward, tapped his finger on the table, then glanced up, pain lacing his eyes. "There's no easy way to say this, but I'm dying."
Brooks sat back, staring at Will. That had been the last thing he'd thought the man might say. "I'm sorry."
Will pushed out his lips. "Don't be. I've lived a long life, and I'm ready to meet my Maker." He heaved a sigh that tickled Brooks's cheeks. "There are days, though, that I don't feel so well and could use some help. Nobody in this little town has the time. I thought maybe you'd be interested."
Rubbing the back of his hand against his cheek, Brooks stared at the old man. Being a nursemaid wasn't exactly the job he'd been looking for, but something about Will pulled at him. Maybe he could help out while he looked around for other work. "I reckon I could help for a bit."
Will's expression softened, and he smiled and leaned back. "Good."
Clyde set a plate heaping with chicken and dumplings in front of Brooks, then a fat slice of peach pie. Brooks wolfed down the food, hoping he wouldn't regret his decision. But how hard could it be tending an old man?
* * *
Wesleyan Female College Georgia
Keri Langston swatted at the badminton shuttlecock and smacked it clear across the net to the back row. She gave her roommate, Emily Adkins, a victorious smile. While she thought the game—one brought back from England by a student returning from break—was a waste of time, she seemed to be the only woman who could play it as well as the men. Maybe she hadn't lost all her rough edges.
Across the net, Emily dabbed at her cheek with an embroidered handkerchief.
Keri watched the shuttlecock fly over her head, then heard it whiz back after being hit by a player standing behind her. It smacked Emily in the forehead. Emily's eyes went wide, she back stepped, and fainted. The gentleman behind Emily caught her under the arms, and his surprised gaze collided with Keri's.
"Let's take her to rest under one of the trees," she said.
The man scooped up her friend and followed Keri to the nearest live oak. He set her down. "Should I get some water? The headmistress?"
Keri stooped beside her friend and peered up into the man's kind gray eyes. "Maybe some water. Emily has frequent bouts of fainting." She could hardly tell the man that Emily insisted on lacing her corset as tight as possible to make her waist extremely thin.
She waved her hand in front of Emily's face as several of their classmates gathered round.
"Is she all right?" Corrabelle Stuart asked.
"She will be." Keri swatted her hand in the air. "Y'all just scurry on back to whatever you were doing."
Charlotte Winchester leaned toward Keri's ear. "A refined lady does not say y'all, and we don't scurry." She straightened, her nose pointing up, and glided away.
Keri scowled at the wealthy young woman who'd been her nemesis ever since she first arrived at the Wesleyan Female College in Georgia. The only thing Keri liked about Charlotte was her last name—the same name as Keri's rifle back in Texas. How many times had she wished for her rifle, if for nothing else than to instill a little fear into Miss Charlotte Winchester. But no, two years at college had refined her into a lady—and a lady never shot someone who was unarmed.
The man returned with a glass of water just as Emily started stirring. Keri thanked him, lifted Emily into a sitting position, and held the cup to her friend's lips.
"Here, drink some of this."
Emily's lashes fluttered as she gazed past Keri to the young man still standing there. "Whatever happened?"
"You fainted," the man said.
"You got walloped in the head with a shuttlecock." Keri stared at the red spot on Emily's forehead. If her friend knew it was there, she'd probably faint dead away again.
"I'm heading back to the dorm to rest," said Corrabelle. "I'11 take her with me."
The man and Keri helped Emily stand, then Corrabelle wrapped an arm around Emily's waist, and the two toddled away.
"I'm Allen Dawson from Alabama." He tipped his hat. "You certainly handled that well. Calm and collected."
"Thank you. I'm Keri Langston from Texas."
"Ah, well, that explains it."
Keri frowned. "Explains what?"
"Why something like your friend's fainting didn't faze you. Being that you are from Texas, I would imagine that you're used to fighting outlaws and Indians."
Keri resisted rolling her eyes. That was all anyone in Georgia thought of Texas. "Why, that's correct. I've killed a dozen outlaws and more than twice that number of Indians."
Mr. Dawson's eyes widened; then he smiled, and his ears and cheeks reddened. "Ah ... you're joshing me, aren't you?"
Keri just shrugged. These Georgians were an uppity bunch, most turning their nose down at her because she didn't come from a wealthy Georgian family. Just two more weeks, and she'd be returning to Texas. She couldn't wait to get home.
She meandered across the wide lawn, glad to have a day free of her studies. Two men rode up on a near-matched pair of bays. They dismounted, and Keri studied their horses. Riding was one of the things she missed most. Oh, the school had riding classes, but she'd been forced to ride sidesaddle. What a horrible torture that had been.
Someone walked up beside her, and she glance sideways.
"That's Ben Martin and his brother, Arthur." Anna Kate Howard held her purse in her hand and swung her hips, making her skirt swish back and forth. "They're from a wealthy family that lives just outside of town. They're both so charming." Anna Kate blew out an exaggerated sigh.
Keri didn't bother to explain that she was more interested in the men's horses than them.
Someone sped past them, and Anna Kate shrieked. "Why ... why ... he stole my handbag. Somebody stop him!"
The lithe youth dodged around the few people who'd been close enough to hear Anna Kate, then tore off across the lawn. Keri's feet moved before her brain did, and she picked up her skirt, running toward the Martin brothers. "I need to borrow your horse. Give me a leg up."
Both men stared at her as if she'd gone loco. She snatched the reins from Arthur's hand, mounted without their help, and kicked the bay into a gallop. She focused on the thief and began closing the distance, but Miss Marks, the headmistress tried to head her off, arms waving. "Miss Langston, what do you think you are doing?"
Keri reined the eager bay to the right and passed her shocked headmistress. The boy had reached the edge of the school's lawn, and if he got to the side streets, she may well lose him. But the horse was fast. She rode past the boy, heading him off, and pulled back on the reins. "You there, give me that purse."
The youth tried to dodge past her, but she reined the horse around, as if cutting a steer out of the herd and pulled in front of him again. "You're not getting away unless you give me that purse. And a crowd is coming this way, so you'd better hurry if you don't want to get caught."
The boy glanced over his shoulders, his gaze frantic when he turned back. He flung the purse toward Keri and took off running the other way. She let him go this time. She hated dismounting and returning the horse, but she didn't want to be called a horse thief. Once on the ground, she picked up Anna Kate's purse and dusted it off.
The Martin brothers were the first to reach her. "Quite excellent riding," Ben said.
Arthur frowned. "She took my horse." He ran his hands down the animal's legs as if checking for injuries.
"I'm sorry for that, but I couldn't allow that thief to steal my friend's purse."
Ben grinned. "No, we can't have that, can we?"
"But she could have caused injury to Charlemagne." Arthur walked the horse around, keeping his eye on the animal.
"Ah, lay off her, Art. Can't you see she's a hero? Uh ... I mean a heroine." He smiled again and tipped his hat. "Ben Martin at your service. And that was the finest riding I've ever seen by a woman."
"Keri Langston, and thanks."
The crowd parted as someone struggled to the front. "Miss Langston, I need to have a word with you, right this instant."
Anna Kate followed on the headmistress's heels, panting hard. Her blue eyes sparkled. "Did you catch him?"
Keri nodded and handed the beaded bag back to her friend.
"Oh, thank you." Anna Kate hugged her purse to her chest. "All the money I have is in here."
"Then you shouldn't have brought it today." Miss Marks peered at Anna Kate through her thick spectacles, then turned her glare on Keri. "In my office, right now, Miss Langston."
The headmistress grabbed Keri's arm and dragged her through the crowd. Ben Martin tipped his hat to her with a wide grin on his handsome face. Keri ducked her head. She hated being the object of everyone's attention and could almost hear the snooty upper-society girls gossiping about what a backwoods ignoramus she was.
She had never wanted to come here in the first place, but Uncle Will had insisted she needed to learn to be a lady. Just two more weeks, and she could leave.
Two more weeks and she'd be home.
Excerpted from END OF THE TRAIL by VICKIE McDONOUGH Copyright © 2012 by Vickie McDonough. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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