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A Vision OF LUCYA ROCKY CREEK ROMANCE
By Margaret Brownley
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Margaret Brownley
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNever climb higher to take a photograph than you can afford to fall. – Miss Gertrude Hasslebrink, 1878
Rocky Creek, Texas 1882
Drat!" Another skirt ruined. Lucy Fairbanks straddled a branch of the sprawling sycamore tree and arranged her torn skirt as modestly as possible. Everything she owned, except for her Sunday-go-to-meeting best, was either patched or hopelessly tattered. At least she hadn't ruined her stockings, having left them at the base of the tree along with her high-button shoes.
"Pa's gonna have a fit," her brother called from the ground below. Thumbs tucked into his red suspenders, sixteen-year-old Caleb Fairbanks stared from beneath a straw hat.
"Pa's not going to have a fit," she called back.
"He can't have a fit unless he knows what I'm doing." She shot him a warning glance. They shared chestnut hair and clear blue eyes, a gift inherited from their mother. Their stubborn chins came from their father's side.
"And you, young man, are not going to tell him," she said sternly. Four years his senior, she still felt protective of him, though lately he'd protected her more than the other way around. "Quit wasting my time and pull on the rope."
To her relief Caleb did what he was told without argument. His feet firmly planted, he took hold of the rope with both hands and leaned back. Lucy's prized camera rose slowly from the ground until it dangled precariously in midair.
"Don't let it drop," she called anxiously.
She grabbed hold of the bulky black leather box and sighed with relief. "I have it!" Working quickly, she pulled the extra rope from around her waist and secured the camera. "There. That should do it."
Caleb wrinkled his nose. "I still don't understand why you have to take photographs from a tree."
"I told you," she said patiently. "Mr. Barnes promised me a job at the newspaper if I capture a picture of the wild white mustang."
She'd badgered the bullheaded editor of the Rocky Creek Gazette for months before he'd reluctantly agreed to print her photographs in the newspaper. At last he'd given in, though he showed no enthusiasm. Obviously, he hoped she'd fail and go away.
"Pa says there's no such thing as the white mustang," Caleb said.
Pa was probably right, but the myth of a white horse once ran rampant among the Indians. They claimed it was the reincarnation of a beautiful woman massacred years earlier in an Indian raid. The Indians had since been moved out of Texas to Indian Territory but the legend remained.
For the sake of her job, she prayed the animal really did exist. Some people claimed to have spotted it in the nearby meadow, which is why she chose this particular spot. "No wild horse is going to make an appearance with you around. Now scat."
"When should I come back and get you?"
"Just after the sun goes down. And Caleb—not a word to Pa."
Caleb hesitated. "Don't forget, you promised you'd talk to Doc Myers."
"I haven't forgotten," she said, dreading the thought of, yet again, going against her father's wishes, this time on her brother's behalf. All she seemed to do lately was defy her father's wishes.
Since her brother made no motion to leave, she made an impatient gesture. "Go on, be gone with you. If you don't hurry, you'll be late for work, and you know how Papa feels about tardiness."
Caleb's face grew somber as it tended to do whenever anyone mentioned his job at his father's store. A surge of sympathy rushed through her. Caleb wanted to be a doctor in the worst possible way, but Papa was dead-set against it.
"I'll talk to Doc Myers, Caleb. I told you I would. Now scat!"
Caleb sauntered back to the wagon a short distance away and, out of habit, checked the mule's leg. Moses had originally been owned by the pastor, who couldn't bear to see him put down when he became lame. Instead he gave the mule to Caleb, who nursed it back to health. The animal had served the family faithfully ever since.
"That a boy," Caleb said, patting the mule's rump.
He scrambled up the side of the wagon and hopped into the seat. Fairbanks General Merchandise was written on the wooden sides. Whooping at the top of his lungs, he grabbed the reins and drove off, making enough noise to raise the dead, and probably scaring away every living creature within miles.
Lucy watched her brother with a fond smile, then immediately went to work setting up her camera. That annoying Mr. Barnes and his wild mustang. Next he'd have her chasing after ghosts. Of course, she wouldn't mind chasing after the rumored "Rocky Creek wild man," who was as elusive as a ghost, if he really existed. Anything would be better than spending long hours trying to get a photograph of a stallion that might be nothing more than a fanciful legend.
Sighing, she released the brass lock of her camera and carefully pulled out the folding lens. The maroon-colored bellows stretched out a full fifteen inches, and she secured the extended part to the branch as well. Once she was satisfied that her precious camera was safe, she reached into the satchel attached to another branch for a dry gelatin plate. Though such plates were expensive, they saved her from having to worry about them drying out before they were developed. They also saved her the hassle of having to cart along her darkroom tent and chemicals.
She inserted the dry plate into the camera, then pulled a black cloth from her pocket and draped it over the back of the camera to prevent light from reaching the focusing screen. Squinting through the viewfinder, she made a few adjustments with a turn of a knob.
From her perch, she could clearly see the meadow, a favorite grazing spot for wild horses, deer, and elk. Behind her, the Rocky Creek River wound its way through the valley, its fast-moving waters tumbling over a series of small waterfalls as it elbowed its way to the river below.
What if her father was right and no such white stallion existed? If she didn't find the mustang, her career as a newspaper photographer was doomed before it began. Unless, of course, she found something even more impressive to photograph—like the so-called Rocky Creek wild man.
"Just you wait, Mr. Jacoby Barnes," she muttered. "My photographs are going to make your newspaper the most popular one in all of Texas."
Contemplating success, she surveyed the far horizon. May was her favorite time of year. The meadow looked like an artist's palette, and red, yellow, and blue wildflowers filled the air with sweet perfume. Sweeter still was the high, thin sound of a warbler's song.
A cloud of dust in the distance caught her attention. Moving a leafy branch aside, she could just make out the silhouettes of three horsemen racing toward her.
The horsemen drew nearer. Strangers, by the looks of them. Instead of passing on the road below, they cut across the meadow and disappeared into the nearby woods. Definitely strangers.
Sighing, she leaned back against the trunk of the tree, grateful for the thick green foliage that protected her from the warm sun. As usual, she'd forgotten her hat. She hated anything confining. Hair piled on top of her head in the haphazard way that she favored, she impatiently brushed a wayward tendril away from her face.
She waited. A blue jay flew into an upper branch and protested her presence with a harsh jeering jaay, jaay before taking to the skies. A bushy-tailed squirrel started up the trunk of the tree, spotted her, then ran back down and vanished in the brush. A bee buzzed in her ear.
A rumbling sound alerted her. Peering through the branches, she realized it was the Wells Fargo stagecoach, two days late as usual.
Sighing, she wiggled into a more comfortable position and restlessly swung her bare legs. No wild stallion would make an appearance as long as the stage was in the area. She had no choice but to sit and wait.
The rumbling of the stage grew louder, as did the impatient shouts of the driver urging his team of six horses up the slight incline. To while away the boredom, she decided to take a photograph of the stage as it passed below.
She adjusted the camera so that it pointed to the road and peered into the viewfinder. The image, though dim, was clear on the frosted glass. No black cloth was needed. She moved the lever to adjust the shutter speed to high.
Fingering the leather bulb in hand, she waited. The bulb, attached to a rubber tube, allowed her to take photographs without jarring the camera. Steady, steady—
Startled by voices, she pulled away from the camera and blinked. The stagecoach had stopped directly below her and the driver disembarked, hands over his head.
It was then that she noticed the three horsemen she had seen earlier, their faces now hidden beneath bright-colored kerchiefs. She had been so focused on the stage she failed to notice their presence until now. The sun glinted against the barrel of a gun and she gasped. Covering her mouth with her hand, she watched the drama unfold below.
The stagecoach was being robbed. Shock soon turned to delight. She couldn't believe her good fortune. A wonderful photographic opportunity had practically fallen into her lap—or more accurately, at her feet. Just wait until Jacoby Barnes hears about this!
The gunman came into view below her, yelling, "Get the box!" He was no doubt referring to the green wooden Wells Fargo money box strapped next to the driver's seat.
Praying the bandits would not notice her high-button shoes strewn at the base of the tree, she peered through her viewfinder.
The lens was focused on the driver, but if she moved it to the right, just so ... with her heart pounding from excitement, she leaned forward and readjusted the camera, tightening the rope that held it.
A twig snapped and one of the robbers looked up. She quickly pulled back and lost her balance. Arms and legs flailing, she fell through the air, letting loose an ear-piercing scream. She landed on the stagecoach roof with a thud, sprawled facedown.
The startled horses whinnied and the stage took off, taking her with it and leaving the startled gunmen, passengers, and driver in the dust.
Chapter TwoNever say "shoot" when you mean "photograph," especially when talking to a trigger-happy gunslinger. — Miss Gertrude Hasslebrink, 1878
Stuck amidst a bewildering confusion of baggage, Lucy held on for dear life. A large canvas bag had cushioned her fall and probably saved her from a broken bone or two.
The wine-red stage bopped and rattled along the narrow dirt road, the horses gaining speed with every stride. The coach swayed from side to side, its leather-thong springs tested to the limits. The scenery was little more than a blur as the stage raced by.
"Stop!" she yelled. "Whoa!" Her yelling did no good. The horses continued to run along the river's edge at breakneck speed.
"Help!" she cried, but no one was around to save her. Her only chance was to reach the driver's seat and grab the reins.
Flopping about on the roof of the stage like a rag doll, she grasped the rope holding the baggage in place. The rope dug into her flesh but still she held on. Inhaling, she forced herself to calm down.
"I c-can do-do-do this," she bit out between teeth-rattling jolts. She had to do it.
Taking a deep breath to brace herself, she tightened her grip. Hand over hand she slowly pulled herself forward. She reached for the guardrail but the stage hit a bump, throwing her backward.
Gasping for air, she waited for the coach to stop fishtailing before clawing her way back. It took several tries before she could finally grab the brass rail.
Fighting to hold on, she lifted a bare foot and heaved her body over the top, landing in the driver's box. She banged her elbow and tears sprang to her eyes. Her slight frame bounced up and down like water on a hot skillet. Grimacing against the pain, she pulled herself upright and searched frantically for the reins.
The leather straps had fallen between the horses and now dragged on the ground beneath the flying hooves. The horses' flanks glistened with sweat, but they showed no sign of stopping. With a cry of dismay she fell back in the seat.
The coach careened dangerously around a sharp curve, thrusting her to one side. At the last possible second, it righted itself and followed the road along the river's edge. Surely it would only be a matter of seconds before the stage went off the road and plunged into the water.
Trembling with fear, she forced herself to think. She had to do something fast, but what? Her only hope was to climb over the front boot and lower herself down to the yoke between the horses to gather up the reins. Not a good idea. It was the only way. Yes. No. Ohhh.
A shiver of panic threatened her resolve. Heart pounding, her throat felt raw. Her hair pulled loose from its last hairpin and whipped around her head. Dust stung her eyes.
"You c-c-c-can do this," she stammered in an effort to calm herself. She blinked rapidly to clear her blurred vision, then searched for a foothold. Momentarily frozen by fear, she closed her eyes and said a silent prayer.
Lord, help me. It wasn't the first time she'd faced almost certain death while trying to capture the perfect photograph, but if God saved her one more time, she promised to mend her ways.
Her hands sweaty, she waited for the stage to round a curve and straighten. She then turned her back to the horses and prepared against her better judgment to lower herself over the front of the stage.
A loud popping sound whizzed through the air. Craning to look over the roof of the swerving coach, she stared in horror at the three gunmen close behind. Another popping sound and she dove to the floorboards. Pain shot through her shoulder where she hit it but that was the least of her worries.
Those fool men were shooting at her!
"Stop the stage!" someone shouted.
She peered over the side, her knuckles white from holding on. Wasn't that what she'd been trying to do?
One of the horsemen hurtled past her. His gelding neck and neck with the runaway horses, he managed to leap onto the lead animal. After much shouting and cursing, he finally brought the stage to an uneasy halt.
Lucy's relief lasted only as long as it took for the highwayman to slide off the lead horse and walk back to the stage.
"Stand with your hands up." His voice was slightly muffled by the red kerchief that covered half his face, but there was no mistaking his menacing tone. He was dressed in black from his wide-brimmed hat to his dust-covered boots. A black leather holster trimmed in silver hung from his waist.
With a nervous glance at the gun he brandished, Lucy did what she was told.
His dark glittering eyes narrowed above the kerchief. "Why were you spying on us?"
"I ... I wasn't spying on you, sir," she stammered. "I was only trying to—"
Before she could explain, the other two horsemen galloped up and the leader sent the short, heavy man after his horse.
She eyed the man with the gun and gulped.
"Come on down," he said. When she showed no sign of moving, he nodded to the other man. "Help her down."
"I don't need anyone's help," she said primly. Lifting her skirt above her ankles, she lowered herself to the ground and brushed herself off. Shaken from her spine-tingling ride, she lashed out at the bandit.
"You should be ashamed of yourselves," she stormed. A strand of hair fell over her eyes, and she brushed it aside with an impatient flick of the wrist. Her knees threatened to buckle beneath her but she had no intention of dying until she gave the outlaws a piece of her mind.
Excerpted from A Vision OF LUCY by Margaret Brownley Copyright © 2011 by Margaret Brownley. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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