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Cottonwood Springs, New Mexico Territory, 1885
Please don't cry, Miss Rebecca."
"I'm not crying," Rebecca Ramsey said, brushing at the tears that had caught her by surprise. "I I've got something in my eye."
Grace Miller's young eyes chided her less-than-honest answer.
"Yes, I am crying. I shouldn't have fibbed about it. Please forgive me?" At the child's smile and nod, Rebecca continued, "It's just that, I never expected Mr. Cole to be dead." She'd never met the man she'd been engaged to marry in person, so the tears were more for her and what she'd lost than for Jesse Cole.
Rebecca tried to ignore the presence of U.S. Marshal Seth Billings, who stood beside the door. He had been the bearer of the bad news that her intended groom had been killed. Did he know she'd answered a mailorder-bride ad? Probably not.
He held his hat in his hands, waiting for her reaction. His broad shoulders seemed slumped under the tan shirt and brown vest he wore. There was a U.S. Marshal's star on his chest. Her gaze moved upward to where his sorrowful brown eyes bored into hers.
The rich texture of his voice drifted across the short space between them. "I'll be happy to pay your train ticket back to.. " He stopped and looked at her.
The question in his eyes prompted her to say, "Maryland?"
"Maryland." He nodded his head.
What did she have to go back to Maryland for? Her stepmother had made it clear she was no longer needed or welcome in her father's house. The only job available to her, a woman of twenty, was personal maid to the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Ellicott City.
Rebecca didn't like the job or the daughter. No, Rebecca Ramsey would not be returning to Maryland anytime soon. She squared her shoulders and stood. "Thank you, Marshal, but that won't be necessary."
Seth Billings gritted his teeth; the muscles worked in his jaw. "What will you do, then?" His harsh words cut through her tattered emotions.
Fresh tears threatened to spill over. Rebecca cleared her throat. She wouldn't let it close up on her now. "I will think of something, Marshal. Thank you for coming by and telling me about
" She couldn't finish the sentence and the words hung in the tense room like the scent of burned bread. Rebecca focused on Grace's small back as the child went into the kitchen.
"Well," he said, turning back to the door, "if I can do anything to help you settle here in Cottonwood Springs, you let me know. Ya hear?"
Rebecca nodded, aware that the brown-eyed marshal no longer looked at her and really didn't expect an answer. The door shut behind him. She blew her nose on the white handkerchief she kept tucked into her sleeve for just such occasions.
Mrs. Miller came into the room, wiping her hands on her apron. The aroma of freshly baked apple pies drifted into the room with her. "Is he gone?"
Nine-year-old Grace followed her mother back into the room. The little girl bit into a green apple and chewed, her gaze never leaving Rebecca's face.
"Yes, he's gone."
The older woman eased into one of the overstuffed chairs. "So, now what are you going to do?"
Rebecca sighed. "I'm not sure." The Millers had housed her since she'd arrived five days earlier. They'd given her a room and three square meals and allowed her to sit with them during church on Sunday. How was she going to repay them?
Her plans had been to have Jesse take care of those expenses when he returned to town. Now she knew he wasn't coming. And she had no idea how to repay the debts she'd unknowingly accumulated.
Her temples began to ache. Silently she vowed to stay in New Mexico and not return to a family who didn't want her around. "I suppose I'll look for employment." She rubbed the sides of her head as she paced the floor.
"I don't think you have to make any rash decisions today, Rebecca. You've had a shock. Why don't you go lie down until supper?" Mrs. Miller smiled at her. Pity laced her eyes and filled her oversize face.
Rebecca hated that look. She'd seen it in the eyes of her father's friends many times after he'd remarried, and it wasn't a look she ever wanted to see again. "I think I'd rather have a breath of fresh air, if you don't mind. I would like to go for a walk." She pulled her wool shawl from the peg by the door and looked to Mrs. Miller.
"Go on, child. You have much to think about." Mrs. Miller pushed her immense body out of the chair and headed toward the kitchen. "Grace, come with me. You can peel potatoes for supper."
Rebecca slipped out the door and gently closed it behind her. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach. Her thoughts twisted in her mind as worry and doubt left her feeling faint. She sank into the chair beside the door.
She lowered her head and hid her face in her hands. She and Jesse had been planning to buy a small farm, raise fruit trees and chickens once they were married. Rebecca sighed, but now Jesse was gone and thanks to her stepmother, she couldn't go home.
Before her mother died, Rebecca's life had been one of ease and love. Her father, a businessman, enjoyed the warmth of their home as much as she and her sister had, so it had been no surprise that he'd remarried shortly after her mother's death.
After that day, life had changed for Rebecca. Her jealous stepmother had kept her busy and away from her only living parent. She'd made her feel uncomfortable in the only home she'd ever known. The woman had been sweet in the presence of her husband and vinegar in his absence.
By the time her stepmother had forced her to answer the mailorder-bride ad that Jesse had placed, she'd been ready to leave. She was ready to get away and start a family of her own.
Rebecca desired someone to love her, to make her feel safe and wanted again. She'd thought Jesse Cole was the answer to her prayers. He'd seemed to be stable and to know what he wanted out of life. His letters had promised security and love. Now she knew that wasn't to be, at least not with Jesse.
She missed her father and longed to go home, if only he would stand up to her stepmother. Rebecca knew that would never happen. No, she had to figure out what to do, on her own and with no help from her father.
Lord, what am I going to do now? I don't want to go home and I'm not sure how I will be able to stay here. Why did Jesse have to die?
Seth hated days like today. The shattered look in her eyes had revealed that Rebecca Ramsey felt as if all were lost. Why hadn't Jesse just surrendered? He would have been in jail, but at least he would have been alive.
Jesse had begged Seth as he bled out from his gut wound, "Please watch for Rebecca Ramsey, Marshal. She was to be my bride." Their last conversation continued to play in his mind. "She didn't do anything to deserve this. I really wanted to start a fresh life with her. Please take care of her. Please!"
The easy gait of the horse allowed Seth to recall his answer. "I'll see that she's taken care of, Jesse."
Jesse clutched his shirt and pulled him closer. "Don't let Maxwell or any of the Evans gang near her. They'll try to take her."
Jesse's fear for Rebecca was real and Seth found himself saying the words he knew the dying man wanted to hear. "I'll protect her, Jesse. That's a promise."
With Seth's words, peace entered the young man's eyes and then Jesse Cole took his final breath. Twenty-two was too young to die. Jesse had only been three years younger than himself. Seth shook his head at the sadness of the past week.
Memories of Jesse flooded his mind. Jesse had arrived in Cottonwood Springs six years ago. Nobody knew anything about him, just that he worked hard at the livery where old man Rodgers had given him a job. Then he'd taken up with Maxwell Evans and his brother. For four years he'd run with Maxwell, his brother Clod and Horace Nance.
The four men made up the Evans gang. They had been more a nuisance than a real gang. They'd stolen small things and the men of Cottonwood Springs didn't feel the need to press charges against them. Boys will be boys, as the old saying goes. Old man Rodgers died one night and Jesse moved in with Maxwell.
And then one night Jesse ran into Reverend James Griffin and found the Lord. Jesse turned his life around that night; he started working on the Vaughan farm just a couple of miles out of town. The other Evans gang members hadn't been thrilled with the turnabout and they'd given the Vaughan family plenty of trouble.
Over the next two years the Evans gang had grown and become braver. Their crimes had developed into more serious transgressions. With each passing year, Maxwell had become more dangerous.
Seth hadn't been surprised when they'd robbed the bank in Durango. What had surprised him was when the smoke cleared, Jesse had been the one left to die on the bank floor. He shook his head again. Jesse hadn't even carried a gun. What had he been doing robbing a bank with no gun?
Guilt slammed into Seth's gut. He'd shot down an unarmed man. Never had he felt the gravity of being a U.S. Marshal as strongly as he did now. The law was behind him, but he still felt as if a small part of his own soul had been ripped from his body the day Jesse Cole died. No matter how many times he played the events of that day in his mind, it came out the same. He'd killed an unarmed man, he'd killed Jesse Cole.
Thankfully the Vaughan orchard came into view. He shook his head and muttered, "I need to stop dwelling on it. Jesse is gone and there's nothing I can do about it now." Seth gave a little kick of his boots against the horse's sides and sent it into a trot. It was time to go tell Mr. Vaughan that his hired hand wasn't coming home.
He rode into the front yard. Two big hounds came to greet him with loud barks and yips. Mrs. Vaughan waved from the front porch and Mr. Vaughan walked out of the barn to meet him.
"Afternoon, Marshal. What brings you out this way?"
Seth slid from his mount. "Bad news, I'm afraid. Jesse Cole got himself shot up last week. Didn't make it. He won't be returning to work."
Mr. Vaughan took his hat off and wiped at the sweat on his brow. "I'm sorry to hear that. He was a good man."
"So it would seem," Seth agreed.
"Mind telling me what happened?" The old man slapped the hat back on his gray head and indicated Seth should follow him to the bunkhouse.
Seth fell into step with him. "He was present during a bank robbery over in Durango last week. One of the Evans gang took a shot at me and things got out of hand. Jesse got caught in the cross fire."
Mr. Vaughan pulled the door open and walked to one of three bunks in the one-room building. "I see."
Seth pressed on, trying to explain away his own feelings of guilt for having shot Jesse. "I'm afraid he was running with the Evans boys again. They were the ones hightailing it out of Durango with a bag full of money." He didn't feel the need to tell Mr. Vaughan that Jesse hadn't been carrying a gun when he was shot. That fact still bothered him. Instead Seth asked, "Did Jesse say where he was going when he left here?"
"No, just said he had some unfinished business and that he'd be back in a couple of days." He pulled a suitcase out from under a bunk that Seth assumed was Jesse's. "I thought he'd gone into town to see about buying the Porters' place. Had no idea he was running with the Evanses again." He grunted as he lifted the case for Seth to take. "These are his belongings. Feels like this thing is filled with rocks. He also has some clothes lying around here, too. Do you want those?"
Seth shook his head.
"Do you know if he has any family we can give this to?"
Seth took the heavy case and shook his head again. He frowned at the weight of the container. "I don't think he does, but there is a young woman in town that might. I'll ask her."
Mr. Vaughan nodded and followed Seth from the bunkhouse. "It's too bad." He muttered more to himself than to Seth. "I really liked that boy. He was real excited when that gal answered his mailorder-bride ad, too."
They walked back to where Seth's horse waited. Seth set the suitcase onto the saddle and then swung up behind it. So Rebecca Ramsey was a mailorder bride. He'd heard of women answering those ads, just never figured he'd meet one way out here in the New Mexico Territory.
Seth arranged the case in front of him, before saying, "I'd like to keep this as private as we can. His mailorder bride arrived last week and, well, I'd just as soon she not be told what happened to him." He paused and shook his head. "Honestly, I'm not sure I know what happened. I'd like to think Jesse was there against his will."
Mr. Vaughan took his hat off and twisted the brim. "All I know, Marshal, is the poor boy seemed to have got caught in some cross fire and was shot in Durango." He shook his head and looked at the ground. "Poor boy was at the wrong place, at the wrong time." He looked back up.
Seth nodded. "Thanks."
"Do you know if his lady will be staying in Cottonwood Springs or moving on?" He shielded his face from the sun as he looked up at Seth.
Seth had wondered the same thing. "Don't know yet." He waved and headed back to town. His thoughts turned to what Mr. Vaughan had said.
Had Jesse been heading to town to buy a place and get married? Or had he met up with the Evanses with the purpose of robbing the bank to secure a better future for his new bride? Seth could still see the fear and concern in Jesse's face for Rebecca's safety.
As the horse lumbered back to town, his thoughts turned to the pretty young woman who had come to town to marry Jesse. Her eyes had done something to his heart that only one other woman's eyes had ever done.