Somewhere in East Texas, 1884
“Well, honestly, I fail to understand why we left home in such a hurry, and why you refuse to tell me our destination.”
Had Almyra Carter been a spoiled, precocious six-year-old, she might have continued to whine, sulk, and complain until some response was provided. Instead, being a mature adult of nearly twenty-two, she could only once again voice her concern and wait for either parent to answer.
Her beautiful mother, Marian, from whom Almyra had inherited her ivory complexion, wavy locks of auburn hair, and her emerald-green eyes, turned from perusing the Texas countryside through the open stagecoach window.
“My dear, is that a hint of reproach I hear in your voice? How can you fault us for taking you on an extended journey to see something other than our little old Shreveport?”
“Because you sold our home, Mama! And in such a hurry that I suspect you couldn’t possibly have realized a profit. I have asked you before about all these last-minute arrangements, and you have simply staved me off. Have you forgotten that I’m not a child?”
“No,” her father, his voice heavy and his manner less than cordial, joined in at that point. “We have not forgotten, Alma. You have proven again and again that you are grown-up and responsible. However, this is a subject to be discussed at—at some later date. When we have time.”
Almyra set her jaw. “We have time now, Papa. And we have the coach to ourselves until the next stop—wherever that might be—since poor Mr. Yarwood volunteered to sit up on top with our driver. Surely you can tell me anything that might—”
“I am not prepared to do so at the moment, Alma. Kindly just this once, accept my word for it and stop arguing.” In an apparent attempt to soften the sting of his words, Robert Carter reached across from his seat to hers, over the space between both benches, usually open but now crowded with luggage and bits and pieces of parcels, and patted her hand.
He was being his usual pompous self, she thought rebelliously. Usually, as the only child—and a pampered one, at that—she was able to jolly him out of a somewhat fractious mood, but not today. Nor for the past collection of days, long gone. With the only home she had ever known suddenly offered up for sale, and most of their household goods included in that sale, she was feeling all at sixes and sevens, unsure of what was going on, but catching ripples and whiffs of subterfuge.
Too many questions. And not enough answers.
With a sigh, Almyra shifted position. If her parents had decided they simply must travel somewhere, after leaving their former lives behind, couldn’t they have at least gone in comfort? On a nice steady railway passenger car, and in an easterly direction, toward civilization, instead of west into what would most probably be primitive conditions.
A book lay face down and open on the seat beside her, but any attempt to read in the rocky, bouncing, purported transport gave her a headache and roiled her insides.
Her parents sat opposite, each wrapped in silence and ruminations. Was it just her imagination, or had her father recently acquired more lines in his face and more silver in his hair? That her mother had gone more pallid and quieter?
The bumping over ruts in the earthen road continued.
It was almost, reflected Almyra, like being seasick.
“Whoa!” she exclaimed suddenly, as the coach swerved and swayed. Grabbing at her hat, which was losing its battle to remain in place, she shoved herself against the back of the seat to brace for more disruptions. “Mama, are you alright?”
Marian conjured up a brave, watery smile. “I’m fine, dear, thank you. Just—just not quite what I’m used to.”
“They have a schedule to keep,” Robert reminded her. “That’s why we’re allowed so brief a time at each way station. Passengers scramble down some food and visit the necessary, all while the horses are changed for the next section of trail. It’s quite a good business, actually.”
“I can’t say I shall regret seeing the last of this… conveyance,” murmured his wife, glancing with understandable wariness around the packed, shabby interior of the big red Concord.
“Perhaps. However, it gets one from here to there, with a minimum of fuss or inconvenience.”
“So you say, Papa.” Almyra was not about to let that cavalier statement stand uncorrected. “However, I, like Mama, will be happy to be done with this trek. Where do you reckon we are at the moment, anyway?”
Frowning, Robert consulted the pocket watch tucked into a small pocket. “About an hour farther west than the last time you asked, Alma. The city of Austin is somewhere on the horizon.”
“I see. We won’t be staying there, I suspect, from the way things are going thus far. If you would please share with me our destination?”
Again came the light, placating patting of her hand. “In good time, my dear child. All in good time.”
“Is this to be some sort of surprise, then? Like handing over to me a last-minute lollipop to stop me from my interrogations?”
“Don’t be silly. What you might be is patient.”
“Patient?” That was enough to set her off again. “Papa, I believe I have been incredibly patient. Willy-nilly, I have been forced to leave behind all I loved and enjoyed, without explanation. You are not giving me much credit for—”
“Almyra,” her mother interrupted, with an unusual sharpness to her tone. “Kindly stop nagging your father and let the matter go. You’ve given me such an infernal headache that I need to rest. At least, as much as I possibly can, given the situation.”
The girl was not above beating a dead horse. “Situation? What situation?”
Robert let out a groan. “Enough, enough, I tell you! Now I have a headache, as well!”
Chagrined, Almyra, deciding that discretion might be the better part of valor, subsided into welcome silence. The week which had incorporated the family’s hasty packing and departure had left all three members too exhausted and too busy managing details of their upcoming journey for any sort of discussion. She had no more idea at that moment, than she had been given then, as to what was going on.
What seemed even more enigmatic was that her father’s employer, Franklin Yarwood, owner of a stylish and successful home furnishing company, was accompanying the three members of the Carter family on an impromptu getaway. Why?
Still, musing over all the puzzling notions chasing themselves around in her head, she thought it might be safe for one more try at elucidation. What were parents for, anyway, if not to provide an intelligent response to an intelligent question?
“Has this anything to do with Mr. Yarwood?”
Robert sucked in a breath, and his complexion flushed from florid to waxy. Against the sway and jounce of the racketing coach, he braced one hand on the bench seat and hung onto the strap with the other. His fingers, Almyra noticed, were clenched almost as tightly as his jaw. Bull’s eye!
“Where would you get that idea?” he demanded testily.
Her father was normally easy-going, quick to smile, an easy victim for his only child’s wheedling and wiles. His unexpectedly wrathful reaction to such an innocent inquiry about his employer sent a little chill up Almyra’s spine.
“Hang on!” someone from atop the Concord yelled suddenly.
Startled by this shout from out of the blue, the three passengers exchanged disquieted glances. Robert half-rose to his feet but was thrown back as the coach lurched forward and began racketing along the dusty road as if without control.
Gunshots rang out from somewhere far to the rear, interspersed with the driver’s bellows and the crack of his whip, and the snap of returning fire from above. From a somewhat sedate, if rollicking, pace, the stage clattered away in a hell-bent-for-leather frantic ride.
“Pa—pa—” Almyra, hurtled around like some pebble in a jar, let out a gasp and clung to whatever might help her remain in place. “What… what is… happening?”
“I don’t know! This is… madness! Marian… Marian, dear, are you… alright?”
His wife, wedged into a corner, had given up all pretense at bravery. Her face was washed clear of any color, and her lips were trembling. “Robert, it’s… it’s them, isn’t it? They’ve come. They’ve come, after all…!”
Between the alarming din of whoever was in pursuit, accompanied by howls and hoofbeats and a continuous barrage of bullets, the choking dust and the rocking over ruts, and the noise from above, speech inside the coach was rendered nearly impossible. The battered travelers could only take the advice of their driver and hang on.
“Almyra…” said her father, reaching awkwardly across the space between them. “Here. Take this.”
Being tossed about like a rag doll in the wind made it difficult to take anything. But, somehow, her hand met his, and her fingers closed over a small, padded book, wrapped around with leather strings to hold pages in place. Uncomprehending, but amenable, she began to peel back the bindings only to have Robert halt her movement.
“No. Put it away. In your pocket… somewhere. Later, sweetheart. Later…”
Before he could explain further, a loud crack echoed throughout the interior, and the Concord, clearly crippled by the smash of a front wheel into rock, gave an abrupt pitch to one side. Several horses from the team let out squeals of distress as the driver tossed away reins and harness to jump overboard.
Rudderless, broken, the stage teetered on the rim of a small, jagged cliff before slowly but inexorably toppling over to roll halfway down the craggy incline. Baggage strapped to the top came loose with the force of the fall to be flung every which way into scrub, and the bodies of both the driver and Franklin Yarwood looked as if they were thrown like bloodied and beaten pieces of driftwood into the rubble.
The team of horses, some tangled, some injured and waiting to be released from bondage, pounded their hooves, the sounds echoing in the gloomy air.
From inside the conveyance, as heavy things settled and lighter things drifted through the air, all was silent amongst a scene of utter chaos.
Almyra was aware, first of all, that every bone in her body ached, as if an expert in the art of bastinado had pummeled her with very large clubs.
There was no sight, for her eyelids were glued shut by tears; there was no sound, for her ears were deafened as by the force of a blow.
She was sprawled, like some beggar’s cloak used and tossed carelessly aside, upon hard and unyielding earth, littered with small rocks, bits of twigs and sticks, and sharp detritus.
Gradually, as some sense of time and place began to return, Almyra was able to concentrate less on the turmoil afflicting her insides—whether what was already down would stay down, instead of erupting—and more on coming to some sort of understanding as to the world around her.
Bullets zinging through the air, and a wild flight from whoever was in pursuit. She recalled that much. Screams from inside, and shouts from outside, and neighing horses, and the big Concord pelting roughshod over anything in its path; she recalled that, too, as memory came back in bits and pieces.
Then the crash.
From somewhere, far away, came faint sounds that were growing louder as she came to. Rough men’s voices, an occasional burst of laughter, the jingle of spurs and the jangle of harness, the creak of wooden crates being pried apart.
Some evil imp had taken up residence inside her skull and was busily pounding, with dexterity and determination, on every nerve and brain cell. She felt like something flung over the side of a ship and washed up to shore, like a forgotten piece of flotsam. Her mouth tasted of blood, and her lungs hurt just trying to draw a full breath.
Letting out a soft moan, Almyra forced her eyes open just a crack.
Upon a scene of complete devastation.
The proud red Concord, as broken and battered as her own mistreated carcass, lay in a heap on its side, one wheel still slowly spinning around its axle. Luggage, trunks, boxes, carpet bags had all been thrown loose from their moorings to lie scattered, like some giant’s unwanted toys, throughout the brush. Turning her head slightly, she saw the body of their driver, his limbs flung at odd angles. Further off still, she could see Franklin Yarwood, face-down in the dust and still as one of the marble angels on a gravestone. Both he and the driver clearly no longer among the living.
Awareness returned in a rush.
The coach had been chased by bandits, and overrun. Why? How long ago?
Most importantly, where were her parents?
Almyra began to tremble. Bone-chilling cold radiated from deep inside her core, outward to the tips of her fingers, and she could feel tears over-spilling her eyelids to seep down both bruised cheeks. A slight shift in position awakened a dull and nagging pain in one hip.
“Ho! Garcia, look like what we have here! One still alive!”
The strut of boots through dust announced someone’s approach. Someone, doubtless, of no goodwill toward the world in general, and the stage’s passengers in particular. Almyra managed to peer up as a tall, burly shadow blotted out the sun.
“Well, well. A survivor,” said a musing voice. “How ya doin’, chica?”
“Best of the bunch, bar none,” another male, striding up from another direction, commented. “But not for long, eh, Garcia?”
“I need to think some on it. What’s Pedro doin’?”
“Still riflin’ through stuff, seeing what we can take along.”
The ruffian named Garcia, clearly the leader of the gang which had caused so much destruction and heartache, cast a glance up at the molten sky. “All right. Reckon we can all rifle, to our hearts’ content. Gonna be some time ‘fore the stage line counts this run as missin’ and comes out to see what happened.”
At this, Almyra struggled against the pressing discomfort around her midriff to sit up. “Please,” she whispered. “My parents? What have you done to… my parents…?”
Both men, probably hardened from childhood by cruelty to any other human being, burst into unsympathetic laughter. “Your parents? That old pair, in the coach? They’re dead, girl. Everybody’s dead. ‘Cept for you.”
The fear that had been nibbling at the edges of her sanity took hold, and the pain inflicted by physical injuries could compare not a whit to the sudden, savage pain of grief that gnawed at her vitals. Doubling herself forward, almost in fetal position, Almyra let out a keening cry of pure agony.
“Oh, fandango, make her stop that noise. Hurts my ears and I can’t think.”
“You can’t think anyway, Cato. I do all the thinkin’ for the Mayhew brothers.”
Under the hot glare of the sun, Cato was nervously stepping from one foot to the other. “Now you done it. She’s seen our faces, she knows our names. Like you always say, Garcia, can’t be leavin’ any witnesses b’hind. You gonna kill her now?”
Contemplative, Garcia bent down, grabbed their captive by one shoulder, and pulled her upright to stand, tottering and wobbly, before him as if before a judge and jury. For a few long, hushed moments, during which Almyra, even in her battered and weary state, realized her life hung in the balance, the man looked her up and down like some prize filly in a stall.
Hat long gone, once-neat coiffure now a mass of tangled red curls, face smeared with grime and grit, fashionable traveling suit of navy silk torn at the seams and wrinkled beyond all repair—who could consider all that and see anything left of value?
Clearly, Garcia did.
“She’ll be worth somethin’, once she’s cleaned up and put into clothes more suited to what I got in mind.”
“Yeah? And what is that?”
“No point in gettin’ rid of what might make us some money, Cato. We got us a business to run. Can always use another bar girl at the Redeye and Rotgut.”
“But I get first whack at her,” said a new voice. A younger, slimmer, smaller man, but with a strong family resemblance, came sauntering to join the group. Wearing, of all things, Robert Carter’s cherished black homburg and twirling the chain of Robert Carter’s expensive pocket watch.
Uttering a little cry of horror, Almyra lurched forward in an effort to grab away what had been stolen. Not only had these thugs slaughtered her nearest and dearest in cold blood, but now they were having the temerity to heist what was left of their personal possessions.
“Oh, she’s a looker, ain’t she?” approved the newcomer.
“Well, you vulture, you finished pickin’ out the stuff you want?” demanded Garcia. “All right, then. We got done what we planned to; time to move on. Cato, go track down that team of horses. Can’t never go wrong on sellin’ good horseflesh. I’m gonna go start puttin’ things together. Can I leave you in charge of this gal, Pedro?”
“Sure ’nuff.” The man sent a chilling look up and down their prize, just as his brother had done a few minutes before. “I can see her in one of them fancy gold dresses, Garcia. Cut real low where it matters and real high and flouncy where it matters even more.”
Garcia, whose loose-fitting shirt and trousers could not hide the powerful muscles beneath, gave a snort. “Yeah, you just dream on. Ain’t no way you’re gonna get the chance to spoil a piece of goods I can peddle to the highest bidder. She ain’t in much shape right now to try gettin’ away, but you keep an eye on her, anyway.”
“Be happy to. Oh, by the by…” Pedro flung after his departing brother, “I put everything I’m claimin’ into a pile there by the coach. Need to grab me one of them there carpet bags to haul it away.”
“Please…” Almyra, still unsteady, managed faintly. ”Please, my parents…where are they?”
“Why, still inside, I reckon.” He was remarkably unconcerned by the specter of death and waste lying all about; what his hands, and those of his brothers, had wrought. “Got themselves kinda plastered against the ceilin’ from the crash, looked like they broke their necks. You was thrown out first thing. Lucky.”
“Lucky,” she whispered with a shudder.
Then, as the gang gathered together with their stolen loot and their stolen horses, having accomplished whatever nefarious purpose upon which they had set out, she made one last appeal.
“We have to…” She choked, swallowed, and tried again. “You must at least… give everyone here…a decent burial…”
Pedro paused to aim and expectorate a mouthful of chewing tobacco at some unsuspecting plant before he spoke. “Why, Missy, ain’t no need for all that. Folks from the coach line will be out here directly, lookin’ to see why nobody’s reported in. They’ll take care of all that. Plant your kin right in the middle of a fine bone yard, no doubt.”
In a time of overwhelming weakness, she wanted to faint. She wanted to scream. She wanted to fling herself flat on the ground to kick and beat her fists in grief. She wanted to fly at these terrible monsters with teeth and claws, like some avenging fury, and wreak havoc upon them.
Moving stiffly and slowly, she took one teetering step away. Then another. Whatever each gang member was doing, she didn’t care. Shock and sorrow had rendered her nearly incoherent, nearly crippled, nearly senseless. Just give her some deep dark opening into which she could crawl, where she could stay until this nightmare had ended…
“Hey, stop!” Just now realizing that his captive was painfully shifting from the scene of carnage, Pedro let out a yell and came thundering after her. “Stop, you! You… whatever your name is! I’m s’posed to keep an eye on you!”
With three tough brigands holding her hostage, and Almyra in a state of near-collapse from grief and injury, she would never be able to fight her way free of them and somehow make her way back to whatever was the closest town for refuge. She was helpless, at their mercy.
Yielding to the inevitable, she stopped, standing as still as one of the Greek goddess sculptures of endless mourning. “My name is Delsia,” she said quietly.
The word was one of English origin, meaning sorrow. But how would this ruthless cretin know that? With a little shiver, she pulled all her resources together, hardening her very core against further assault, strengthening her resolve that she might somehow, someday, escape to freedom.
“Delsia,” said the man, puny by comparison to his bigger, brawnier brothers, but seemingly as evil as a small rattlesnake in the midst of venomous cobras.
Praying for the stamina she would clearly need from here on, she lifted her chin. “Delsia.”
Wetting his lips with anticipation of whatever he might have planned, he took hold of her elbow. “Well, then, c’mon, Delsia. Sure hope you can ride a horse, ’cause you got some rough miles ahead a ya.” Then he cackled. “Course, it don’t matter none if you can’t. We’ll make do. Yessir, we’ll make do, all right.”
“Her Runaway Heart’s Safe Harbor” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Almyra Carter embarks on a mysterious journey with her parents, but a deadly stagecoach attack leaves her as the sole survivor, igniting a treacherous quest for truth and survival. Desperate to escape the clutches of the villains who wish to keep her close for what she witnessed, she runs off to Texas, where her parents have answered an ad for a mail-order bride to ensure her safety. Little does she know that her intended groom lies in a sanatorium, gravely injured, leaving her in the care of his enigmatic best friend.
Is he the one to protect her from the raging troubles behind her or will she have to stand on her own once again?
Sheriff Cooper Grayson, a rugged and charming Texan, is not willing to embrace the responsibility that fate thrust upon him. He initially regards Almyra with skepticism, deeming her desire for marriage as mere frivolity. But as their lives become entwined, secrets are revealed, and layers are peeled away. His rough exterior hides a tender heart that begins to beat for the courageous woman who has sought refuge in his world.
How could he ever betray his best friend though, and fall in love with his betrothed?
As their connection deepens, they must confront not only the forces chasing her but also the burgeoning emotions that bind them. Just when love blossoms, an unforeseen twist of fate brings the ominous shadows of Almyra’s past to their doorstep. Will they stand united against the looming threat or will the forces that want them apart eventually get the better of them leaving them in ruins of their love?
“Her Runaway Heart’s Safe Harbor” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.