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The lone church bell rang out, temporarily disrupting the quiet mourning of the townsfolk who had gathered at the cemetery. The midday sky was dark with angry clouds, but no rain fell. The gloom perfectly fit the mood of the moment.
Reverend Parker was dead.
Rachel stood at the large picture window of the general store that sat just off Main Street. Peering off into the distance, she watched as people started making their way back to their horses and carriages.
She felt strangely numb; not sad, not elated, just numb. In the three years since that fated day, the good reverend had not spoken one word to her, as if to do so would somehow soil him. Nor had she ever returned to the white clapboard church at the end of the street.
She wasn't welcome.
Rachel really didn't know what she would have done during that hard time if it hadn't been for Adelaide Hayes. The fifty-three-year-old widow had marched right out of the church behind Rachel and didn't ask but demanded that Rachel go home with her. She had said she needed help at her store and that Rachel was just the right young woman for the job. She'd even provided her with a room next to Adelaide's above the shop.
In the three years that Rachel had lived and worked with her, they had never spoken of it, but both knew-without Addie Hayes, Rachel Branigan would have been without hope.
At first, Rachel had been afraid that hiring her on would affect the store's business, but it hadn't. It was the only general store for miles, and folks simply had no choice in the matter. It either was that or travel sixty miles north to Tyler.
Most folks either ignored her completely or acknowledged her with tolerance. They'd never forgiven nor forgotten what had taken place three years earlier. Reverend Parker had never let them.
Rachel sighed as she backed away from the window and glanced about the store. Life had been unkind to her, but God had given her the grace to endure it. God had also blessed her with the most precious gift she'd ever received.
Her daughter, Caitlin.
Rachel was quickly shaken from her musings when, from the back of the store, her old tomcat let out a loud screech. A high-pitched giggle immediately followed.
Rachel smiled and called out, "Caitlin Branigan! Leave that poor cat alone, young lady!"
She tried to look stern when her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter came running into the room, but failed miserably. Caitlin was just too cute and too charming to frown at for long.
She looked up at her mother with beautiful, innocent eyes and said, "Pway wit' cat, Mommy."
Rachel lifted Caitlin up into her arms so that they could see eye to eye. "Yes, Darlin', but the cat doesn't like his tail pulled. That's not playing nice, now is it?"
Caitlin's face took on a guilty look. "Not nice."
Rachel planted a kiss on her daughter's cheek and put her back on the floor. "Don't do it anymore, Caity, or you'll not get any of your aunt Addie's chocolate cake for supper!"
Caitlin's eyes widened at her mother's words. "I be good, Mommy," she promised and ran back out of the room.
Rachel watched her daughter's silky black curls bouncing over her back and shoulders as she left her. A wave of melancholy washed over her as she thought about Caitlin and all she'd had to do without.
Rachel knew she'd done the best she could with her, but the fact remained, every child needed a father as well as a mother. And to be truthful, every mother needed a husband to share the trials and burdens of parenthood. After three years, she was afraid that her dream would never be a reality. Not in this town. Not with her reputation.
For a year she had been bitter toward men in general. The rape had left mental scars. And for that whole year, she'd let the wounds fester and eat her up inside. But with Addie's help, she'd managed to let go of the bitterness. She no longer held every man she came across accountable for what happened to her. Little by little she came to realize that she did want a man in her life. A man who loved her and wanted to marry her. A man who would take Caitlin as his own. But did such a man exist? Rachel prayed that he did.
Chiding herself for daydreaming, Rachel walked back to the storeroom to check on Caitlin. All was well. She was returning to the store when the front door swung open and Adelaide Hayes came breezing in. With a flick of her wrist, her hat was off and swinging from a peg of the hat rack in the corner, where it had been tossed with practiced skill.
"Well!" she began in her usual crisp, no-nonsense tone. "It's a new day dawning for Springton! Today begins a new chapter!"
Rachel frowned after her. "What do you mean?"
"The reverend, of course!" She grabbed an apron from behind the counter and pulled it over her head. "His brand of religion has poisoned these gullible folks' minds long enough. As I see it, it's time for new blood around here!"
"Addie!" Rachel gasped. "I thought you liked the reverend."
Addie snorted. "Where did you get that fool idea? I tolerated the man, that's what I did! Ain't no hard-nosed man going to keep Adelaide Hayes from going to church, no sir! And after what he did to you?" She shook her head in disgust. "Like I said, it's time for new blood. That's why I put myself on the nominating committee! 'Course, old Harold Ray Norton didn't like the idea of a woman being on their committee one bit! But I told him he couldn't stop me!" She grinned at that. Rachel knew that Addie liked nothing better than getting Harold Ray's goat.
"I don't understand why you and Harold Ray don't go and get yourselves married. You two fight like you've been married twenty years already!" she teased.
Addie gave Rachel a wide-eyed look. "Goodness no, Child! If we got hitched, we just might start getting along! Then I would have nothing left to look forward to! I'm an old woman, Rachel Branigan. I have to take my entertainment anywhere I can get it!"
They both laughed at that, then Addie went to the back storeroom to get some canned goods to restock the shelves. Rachel watched her go, and her smile slowly faded into a worried frown.
She dearly hoped that the reason Addie didn't openly court Harold Ray had nothing to do with Caitlin and herself. Sometimes Rachel wished that she could support herself in some way other than working in Addie's store; that way, maybe Addie wouldn't feel so responsible for her and Caitlin.
Addie came back into the store with an armload of canned beans, and Rachel went over to help her place them on the shelves.
Please, God, Rachel prayed, help me not to be a burden to Addie. Make a way where there is no way....
One Month Later
Caleb Joseph Stone nearly folded the last one of his shirts and placed it into the leather trunk. He glanced about the room that he'd occupied for the last three years and, after deciding that he had packed everything, closed the trunk and snapped it shut.
An ironic smile curved his lips and he shook his head. C.J. Stone wouldn't have been caught dead traveling around with a gentleman's trunk. What he couldn't pack in his saddlebags, he didn't take with him. He ran his hands over his new clothes and fingered the tie at his neck. Nor would C. J. be wearing a Sunday-go-to-meetin' suit, either!
But Caleb Stone, the preacher, would.
It all still seemed unbelievable to him. If a man had asked him three years ago, before the Jenkins incident, if he would ever consider becoming a man of the cloth, C.J. probably would have shot him!
That day had forever changed his life.
After the Jenkins gang had cleared out of town, the townsfolk had slowly emerged from their hiding places and curiously gathered around his bloody, prone body lying face-down in the dust.
They had thought he was dead. The undertaker had already started making his way out to collect the remains and prepare the body for burial.
That's when his salvation came.
Reverend George and Mary Ellis had broken through the crowd, declared him still living, and then carried him home with them.
They never gave up hope. Even after the doctor extracted the bullets from his body and told them that he didn't think the gunslinger would live, they had kept on believing and praying. As the injured man lay unconscious, he heard their prayers.
And he had lived. Everyone declared it a miracle. They couldn't believe the clean-cut gentleman walking through the church doors one Sunday morning was the same man who had been gunned down months before.
Every day, after his recovery, C. J. had told himself that this was the day he would pack up and ride out of there. But the day would pass and he would find himself still residing with the Ellises. At first he didn't know what drew him to them. All he knew was that, before, he had no one to care for him or to worry after him; but here, he was loved. The Ellises didn't seem to care about what kind of man he was, how dangerous it was to house someone like him. The Jenkins gang could have found out from anyone in town that he still lived, and that would have been the end of things; Jenkins probably would have ridden in and killed them all.
The longer he was around George and Mary Ellis, the more C. J. wanted what they had. He wanted the peace and contentment they possessed. He wanted to know this God that they kept talking about. The only time he had heard the name of God mentioned in his lifetime was when someone had used it as a curse.
Caleb knew he didn't want to return to his former way of living. It was a lonely, worthless existence. He wanted to do something with the life God gave him, to help someone like the Ellises had helped him.
When he finally made the decision to become a minister, it hadn't been all that difficult. It had seemed like the most natural decision in the world. He couldn't wait to have his own church, to teach people like the reverend had taught him. He had so much love stored up in his heart that he had only begun to give it out. The time to begin was now! He was ready.
"Are you nearly packed?" Mary Ellis asked from the doorway.
Caleb turned and gave the woman, who had been like a mother to him for the past three years, a smile. "Near 'bout," he replied.
Mary drifted on into the room and picked up a couple of his shirts and placed them in his traveling bag. "It sure is going to be lonesome here without you," she mentioned casually. "I remember when you came here. You had some of the coldest, meanest eyes I've ever seen and you near 'bout gave me a fright every time you spoke."
She looked him over from head to toe. "Now look at you. So tall and distinguished, those green eyes of yours just a-gleaming with warmth and goodness." She shook her head wryly. "I still think that hair of yours could use a good barber, but at least you shaved off that horrible mustache."
Caleb chuckled. "How did you say I looked? Like an outlaw?"
"Well, with all those stories you've told me about your gunslinger days, I wasn't too far off the mark!"
"Well, thanks to you and George, all that's changed now." He paused and thought before he asked a question. "Do you think that I'll do all right in Springton?"
Mary gave Caleb a maternal pat on the back. "Caleb, the way God has blessed you with your gift for talkin', those folks in Springton are going to love you. Just look at how the people here in Santa Fe responded to your preaching! You even had old Buzzard Grisham's attention. He hasn't managed to stay awake for a whole sermon in ten years!"
Caleb smiled and proceeded to buckle his travel bag. "Well, it's not my doing. I can feel God moving through me when I'm up there in the pulpit. It's not my words I'm speaking but Him speaking through me," he said modestly.
"You're a good man, Caleb Stone. And just remember that God can work anything out when you come up against tribulations. Because you will have them. Especially in a town like Springton."
Caleb studied Mary's worried face. "You're thinking about your brother again."
Mary nodded. "Being the sister of the Reverend Cecil Parker is not something I'm proud of. And I've heard that his religious snobbery has rubbed off on a lot of his former congregation. I just want you to be careful and not let them discourage you."
Caleb reached out and gave her a hug. "I'll be all right, Miss Mary. Don't you worry about me, okay?" he said in his husky drawl. "I reckon it's those poor ol' Texas folk that you need to be worrying about, getting an old gunslinger for a preacher."
She pushed away from him and planted her fists on her ample hips. "Now don't you go talking like that, Son. Those folks don't know what you used to be; and if you're smart, you won't tell them. That old part doesn't matter anymore. You're like Saul in the Bible. Once God changed him and gave him the new name of Paul, it didn't matter what he had been. It only mattered what he did with himself after that."
He chuckled and held up his hands in mock surrender. "All right, all right! I give up!" She joined in his laughter and then gasped in surprise when he reached over to plant a kiss on her cheek. "I love you, Miz Mary. I don't reckon I've ever told anybody that, but you've been like a mama to me. I won't ever forget it," he told her solemnly, his green eyes reflecting his feelings.
She flustered about a bit, a little embarrassed but profoundly honored to receive such a compliment. "I love you, too, Son. Now, go on and get your bag and your trunk out to that wagon. George is out there waitin'."
He grinned and gave her a wink before reaching for his trunk.
Rachel, standing across from her, took a deep breath and mentally counted to ten. This woman definitely knew how to make Rachel's Irish temper flare. "Mrs. Hawthorn, I cannot buy any more of your bantam eggs because I can't sell them. People want the larger eggs. These are too small," she explained slowly and carefully.
"Humpft!" the woman snorted. "And who, Miss High-and-Mighty, put you in charge of these things? I want to talk to Adelaide about this! I reckon she'll set this matter straight!"
Rachel's chin rose a half an inch, and she glared down at the Hawthorn woman. "Mrs. Hayes isn't here. I was left in charge."
"Where is she?" the woman demanded.
"She's getting the parsonage ready for the new minister. And I doubt she has time to be disturbed!"
Mrs. Hawthorn narrowed her beady eyes and shook her finger in Rachel's rice. "This ain't the end of this, Missy.
Excerpted from Texas Belles by KIMBERLEY COMEAUX Copyright © 2002 by Kimberley Comeaux
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted July 24, 2009
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