Dark-haired, dark-eyed, Alejandro Antonio O’Connor, or Alex, as they called him, dismounted and pushed through the red-stemmed manzanita that lined the road until he had a clear view of the valley. He hadn’t been home for six years. It would be a time of joyous homecoming, but it would not be without strife.
He stood at least a thousand feet above the valley floor. Once the manzanita gave way to pinyon oaks and grass, cattle dotted the landscape on the five hillsides for which Mahoka Hills Ranch was named. In the middle of the scene stood the ranch houses and grounds, very far away from his vantage point, looking like children’s dollhouses. The hacienda was surrounded with a few Italian Cypress trees and a large stand of aspens, golden now after a hard frost. Fifty thousand acres now, his brother had written, and one hundred fifty thousand head of cattle. The numbers were staggering to Alex’s mind.
He reached out to pluck some of the waxy leaves from a manzanita bush. He saw how brown his arms had become as he had worked his way across country. When he had been in the sun, his skin would take on the honey bronze of his mother’s skin. He had her hair colour, too—a deep brown-black. His features, she had told him, reminded him of her grandfather, who had always looked like a dashing Spanish nobleman.
Graham O’Connor was sandy-haired with bright, blue eyes. His brother, Brendan, had his father’s colouring, with sharp features which made him look more like the German settlers Alex had met passing through the supply station, than Irish or Spanish.
He looked back at the cattle-dotted hillsides stretching as far as he could see.
Before his mother had married his father, she was Teresa Ávila de Borica, whose grandfather had owned one of the largest Ranchos in Alta California. When his father had married Teresa, she inherited a great deal of landholdings. His father had initially made a modest investment—twenty thousand acres and a small holding of Mexican Longhorns. But with Teresa’s land, it had enabled them to do much more.
His brother, Brendan, had always been a businessman from the time they were children. He would buy a stash of penny candy in San Andreas when the family went for supplies. He would take the candy out to the workers and their children and always came back with his pockets overflowing with coins and trinkets that far exceeded what he had paid for the candy. Then he put the same amount he had paid, plus a little more for his next excursion to the general store, and thus his penny candy grew into a small fortune.
When new government regulations caused the surrounding ranches to fail, Brendan had bought them all up, brought them up to regulation, and then leased the land back to the former owners, parlaying his father’s twenty-thousand acres into fifty.
While Brendan was one who loved to sit in his father’s office, calculating figures, and planning for their future, Alex was the outdoorsman. He was the horseman, the cattleman, and the storyteller. He always felt like he couldn’t breathe when he was confined to the house. Perhaps his three-year tramp had only increased that feeling. While Brendan was always about the future, Alex just thought about the moment he was in.
When the war between the states began, the more stories sixteen-year-old Alex heard and read in the newspapers, the more he felt compelled to go. His brother had erupted when Alex voiced his need to join the volunteers.
“Didn’t we just have a discussion not very long ago that this is not our fight? Graham holds no sympathies with either side. We’re Californians; we hold no slaves and have never lived in the society of slave-holders. The Irish have been the outsiders here, and we have earned our trust among people instead of imposing our will on others.”
Alex wanted to see what else there was in the world outside of California, and, although he couldn’t imagine what a real battle was like, he felt a sense of duty to those who stood against slavery. Despite Brendan’s objections, his father had stepped in, saying that Alex had a right to his convictions. The ranch would long outlast the war.
Alex had gone to a fort in Nevada to volunteer but was told he was needed more in Colorado. After brief training, he was put to work in the stores, keeping tallies of supplies. He began to realise how critical this was to all movements. There wasn’t much the men could do without supplies, ammunition, and fresh horses.
His commander was receiving daily dispatches regarding the advance of Confederate General Sibley as he entered northern New Mexico. Sibley won one attack but failed to take any of the Union forts. Undaunted, he simply turned his back on the Union men and continued to advance toward Colorado. Above all, Sibley wanted to claim the gold fields in Colorado for the Confederacy.
Alex had barely finished his light combat training when he and other volunteers were dispatched to Fort Union to assist the Union brigades. The second morning after they had arrived, they were routed from their tents by the call to arms. Word went out that a scout had brought news that General Sibley was advancing toward them from across the next ridge.
The troops mustered, and it was a formidable sight to Alex’s eyes to see hundreds of the Union troops marching out and standing at the ready. Sibley would need to get through the Glorieta Pass to make it through the mountains and into Colorado.
The troops marched close to the pass and faced out, blocking Sibley’s movements into the pass.
The Confederates came into sight, and Alex shielded his eyes from the morning sun to see their approach. He gulped, and his heart started to race as he saw the man he supposed to be Sibley, tall and straight in his saddle, flanked on either side by howitzers.
The howitzers were handsome and formidable, intended to intimidate the Union troops. As the least seasoned and least prepared contingent, Alex and the other Colorado volunteers stayed on the fringes. They weren’t even issued firearms.
As Alex watched the advance, he noticed that most of Sibley’s soldiers were on foot. When they got close enough, a volley of shots was exchanged. But what Sibley lacked in horseflesh, he had them in foot soldiers. They simply kept advancing, pushing and pushing the Union soldiers.
Sibley made no move to command the howitzers. The Union troops led by Colonel Slough kept falling back into the pass. Any pause in that progression brought another round of shots from Sibley’s soldiers, the volley returned from the Union.
The confusion seemed to come from the fact that the famed and formidable General Sibley was usually unmerciful, killing as many troops as possible. As he heard it later, the Union Colonels were in hot discourse as to the course of action they needed to take.
A thought suddenly entered Alex’s head: a cavalry with too few horses, and a seeming hesitation to use any ammunition at all. Working in goods and supplies, he had talked to many troops when they came for their stock.
With all the northward push and recent campaigns of Sibley’s, everything must be played out, Alex thought. Too much loss of personnel, of horses, of supplies and ammo. He knew exactly what to do. He took aside three young men of slight stature and enlightened them with his plan. They readily agreed.
They immediately disappeared into the tall grass and began to move, creeping around until they were behind Sibley’s supply train. Two soldiers stood guard, but Alex decided they were too far forward of the wagons to be any good in hindering their plan.
He held back with one and sent two of his companions forward. They had instructions to find dynamite or powder or whatever would blow, and to catch it on fire.
They crept forward, but when they stood, one was too abrupt, and one of the guards saw the movement out of the corner of his eye. The guard turned towards Alex’s two. With a yell, the soldiers immediately fired. In the ensuing chaos, Alex was able to creep forward and find a powder keg. All it would take was a single match. He knew his companions would catch the fire and shrapnel, but a quick look told him they were dead anyway. He procured a match from his pants pocket, lit it on the side of the wagon, threw it into the powder keg, and dove back in the direction of his other companion.
The other man was nowhere to be seen. Alex decided to run low, as far from the explosion as he could before it blew. When it did, he hit the ground. He thought he had been deafened. But that explosion triggered others and on and on until every wagon was burnt or blown to smithereens.
When the smoke cleared, he saw the body of his third companion underneath the last wagon. He must have been creeping forward to assist in case Alex was unsuccessful.
He felt ill. He was sweaty and shaking from the aftermath and had to swallow hard several times to keep from retching. He had chosen three, four of them together, and he was the only one left.
He heard shouts and saw some of Sibley’s officers riding up and exclaiming at the totality of the destruction.
At the risk of being captured, he made his way slowly back to the edge of the battle. There was no movement and little sound other than the anguished exclamation of Sibley. He stood for a moment gazing off into the distance and finally gave a sign to the bugler to sound retreat.
Hours later, the last of Sibley’s troops was back over the ridge. They had no cumbersome wagons now, so they could move more quickly, but no provisions either, so their stamina wouldn’t hold long.
As he lay in his bedroll that night, he heard some of the sergeants questioning the troops as to who might have perpetrated the deed. Alex made not a peep.
Two mornings later, he was routed from his bed early and told to get dressed and to go talk to the Captain. The soldier who had come into the tent saw the three empty bedrolls, and just looked at Alex.
Alex dressed and went before the Captain.
“O’Connor,” the Captain addressed him, “three of your companions seem to be missing.”
“Yes, Sir,” Alex said, his throat feeling dry.
“We’ve accounted for all the dead except for them. You wouldn’t have any idea as to their whereabouts, would you, O’Connor?”
Alex cleared his throat. If there was anything his mother had emblazoned in his mind, it was never to lie. He stood up as straight and tall as he could.
“I believe, Sir,” he said, barely rasping the words out, “that they died in the explosion of General Sibley’s wagon train.”
“And how would you know this, O’Connor?”
“Because—because I was with them, Sir.”
“You were with them? And you had not yet reported this to anyone?”
Alex cleared his throat again. “No, Sir, I had not.”
“I—No excuse, Sir.”
“Did all of you scheme to decimate the wagons?”
“Well, no, Sir. They were willing to go.”
“Whose idea was it?”
Alex stood there, breathing deeply, in and out of his nose, trying to calm himself.
“Whose idea was it, O’Connor?”
Alex opened his mouth but found he couldn’t speak.
“Is it true you’re one of those volunteers from that supply depot in Colorado?”
“Yes, Sir,” he said.
“So, then, I’m guessing that you were the mastermind. What gave you the idea to do that?”
So, Alex explained the deficits that he saw in Sibley’s troops, the lack of horses, the guarded ammo, the unwillingness to use the howitzers.
The Captain nodded his head. “So, your dramatic little play there resulted in the deaths of three of my men—your own companions.”
Alex started to nod, feeling the gorge in his throat again. “Yes, Sir, Captain,” he said.
“Well, normally, that would be no account to me since you were all volunteers anyway, and from outside of my regiment.”
“Yes, Sir, Captain,” Alex echoed himself again.
“But, the fact of the matter is, O’Connor, that despite having no orders, your brilliance saved a lot more lives than you caused to be lost and caused Sibley to have to retreat.”
“Yes, Sir, Captain,” Alex said, more quietly now.
“I would like to offer you the opportunity to become a regular soldier in my regiment, O’Connor.”
Alex stood for a moment, nonplussed. After a brief silence he said, “With all due respect, Sir, I would just as soon get back to Colorado, back to my supply depot. I’m good at that. Here, I thought I had a good idea, and, as good as you think it might have been, I have the deaths of three companions on my shoulders.”
“You do know that I could just as easily court-martial you, correct, O’Connor?”
“Yes, Sir. Yes, Captain, Sir.”
“People often say, O’Connor, that what the Lord intends for good, people can just as easily use for evil. But here, what was intended for evil, you made good. Don’t forget that.”
“You’re dismissed, O’Connor. Oh, one more thing, I know you’ve been here less than a week, so perhaps you’re unaware that Fort Union is the biggest supply depot this side of the Mississippi.”
Now Alex felt on the spot. He simply thanked the Captain and told him he would think about it.
He only saw a couple of skirmishes after that; the rest of the time was spent running a supply depot in Nevada to which he’d been assigned after Glorieta Pass, arranging for shipments of gold from large mining settlements to be sent out to help finance the war.
He had been given several different jobs at the post, but the ones he liked best were the ones involving hard physical labour. The work had sculpted him into a broad-shouldered, well-muscled man, far different from the gangly sixteen-year-old that had left home, and the army training and drills had taught him to be much more vigilant and observant.
When the end of the war came, and his volunteer enlistment was up, they offered him a commission to go to a station in Arizona territory with an agenda of keeping the Indians “under control.” He had heard enough to know what that meant—rounding them up, forcing them into detainment, and when it served the Army, to butcher them, down to the last woman and child. He declined the commission.
He couldn’t understand why the Union Army that had fought so valiantly to free the black slaves now came West to enslave or eradicate the red man. After his three-year tramp, he had decided that there was only one answer to that question—greed and the lust for power.\
When he left the Army, he couldn’t go home for a while. Something had happened inside him that seemed to deepen every day—the fact that he had asked three men to help him in a daring and dangerous mission—not of the Army’s devising—one of his own. And he had been the only one to survive.
The one question he could never quite resolve was why he had set them up to go first instead of leading the charge. Was he a coward? Did he sense that the first into the fray wouldn’t survive? Those were answers that escaped him completely.
He watched the clouds moving across the hills in a dramatic display of light and dark. He still had several hours to go before he would reach the ranch proper, so he remounted, taking one last look, as his heart urged him towards home.
His homecoming had, indeed, been warm and festive. He had surprised his mother in the kitchen where she was making masa for tortillas. She jumped when he touched her, but when she whirled and saw who it was, she began to squeal like a little girl. “Oh, mijo, mijo de mi corazón!” she said, hugging him tightly.
His father, hearing his mother’s squeal came in to find the cause of the commotion. “Oh, Son! We thought you were lost. It’s so good to have you back.”
He looked around for his brother.
“He’s in his office, with his head buried in paperwork, I’m sure. He’ll hear the commotion soon enough.”
They made fiesta. When his mother had asked him who he wanted as guests, he said, “Anyone. All of them. They deserve a celebration as much or more than I do.”
A few of his father’s friends had been invited, and, of course, all of them crowded around, wanting to know about Glorieta. When he got to the part of what had caused Sibley to retreat, he told it as though it had been others who had devised it and men other than his friends who had died.
It was good to sleep in his own bed again, between clean sheets. Meals which he had taken for granted before he left home, now seemed lavish and extravagant.
His mother noticed the fact that he ate modestly and questioned him about it. “You used to eat good when you were a boy; now that you’re a man, you eat almost nothing.”
“When I have work to do, I eat more. For now, I try to eat only what I need.”
He had lived on Army cooking for three years. After that, food was catch-as-catch-can. He had learned what was necessary for him to survive—what made him strong and lean, what made him feel soft and fat.
“Good strategy, Son,” his father said.
“Speaking of work,” Brendan said, breaking the silence, “let’s talk in the morning about what’s needed most in this operation.”
Alex knew what he wanted for himself—in fact, it had been the only thing he had dreamed of since he started home—but he wasn’t sure how it would fit in with Brendan’s plan.
The next morning, Alex waited in his brother’s office.
Brendan came in and sat at his large, carved, Spanish oak desk. “Are you pleased to be home?” he asked.
Alex thought that was a strange way to ask. “I am glad to be home, but, whether or not I stay depends on several things.”
He watched storms of emotion briefly cross Brendan’s face. “In one way, I’m sure you understand, I don’t need you at all.”
Alex said nothing.
“Just as everything was starting to come together, you went to serve in a war none of us believed in, and then, when it was over, you chose to stay away another three years. You can see what I have built in that amount of time.”
Alex gave a single nod. “I’m not sure what I have to offer you. You are astute, hiring the vaqueros from the previous ranch owners, allowing others who wish employment to sharecrop here, even establishing a company store, so to speak.”
“I’ll be frank. I need an overseer for the entire ranch so I can spend more time planning, expanding, and conducting business.”
“Will that allow me to ride the range?”
Brendan looked up from the paperwork he had been shuffling, peering through the upper part of his spectacles.
“It could.” He took off his glasses, massaging his eyes and temples with one hand across his face. “Perhaps you would like to oversee the cattle operation?”
Alex thought about the immensity of the task. “I’m not sure I can handle such an enormous operation.”
“Nonsense,” Brendan said, always so matter-of-fact. “Each shareholding rancher is responsible for his own cattle. All you would be responsible for is our own holdings.”
“Which is …?”
“Thirty thousand beeves. You needn’t ride the range yourself; you have plenty of ranch hands who know the ropes. I can arrange for the top hand, Villanueva, to walk you through what we’re doing, and then I can show it to you on paper.”
Alex stood, tipped his hat to his brother, and left the room. It was obvious that Brendan didn’t understand that he wanted to ride the range. He could discuss that with him in the morning after he had met with Villanueva.
Brendan was all business, and there seemed to persist a cool demeanour towards him. Alex guessed they had both changed a lot in six years.
No one saw him when he took his bedroll out to one of the bunkhouses. He had scouted out a place for himself earlier in the day. He stashed his roll to claim his bunk and went out to where the chuckwagon cook was stationed. Alex helped build up the fire, and the men soon started coming in from their day. They washed at the pump and wandered over to the fire. They kept glancing at Alex out of the corners of their eyes.
Alex looked around the circle, mostly Mexicans, a few of Indians, and a couple of whites. He got up and helped to hand around the tin plates full of food.
“Only a few of you remember me,” Alex began. One of the men immediately started to interpret for him to the others. “The guy in the big house told me I could have whatever job I wanted, so I told him I wanted to hang my hat here with you.” Not exactly the truth. Brendan knew he had committed to be the Cow Boss, but he didn’t know that Alex intended to live with them. They sat, politely listening to him, not touching their food. “Eat!” he said, gesturing towards their plates, “and there’s more where that came from.”
The men dug in then, talking quietly among themselves, periodically turning an eye towards Alex. When they were finished, a couple of them got up to gather the plates.
With that, Alex leaned back against a big rock and stretched his legs out in front of him, crossing them at the ankles. “Smoke ’em if ya got ’em,” Alex said, “I’ve got a big war story to tell you.”
Alex had been up in a thicket searching for a newborn calf. Its mama had bawled all morning. A few of the cows had been up here to have their calves. The cow in question had one calf at her side, but the way she carried on, Alex was sure there was a second one, perhaps weak or ill and hadn’t been able to make it down.
He was sure he was in the right place since it was where Mama with her other calf kept trying to get up to. Finally, he dismounted and stood, just sniffing the breeze and listening to the sough of the wind in the trees. He unfocused his eyes, the better to visually perceive a wider area without moving. After several minutes, he finally caught a glimpse of it, tangled in a manzanita bush.
Alex still wasn’t sure why the calf was making no sound. Perhaps he had tired himself trying to disengage from the bush. The calf seemed to see him at the same time he saw it. He had to laugh, he certainly had the big doe-eyes of his mother. He almost stepped forward towards the calf when he caught an ever-so-slight rustle in the grass out of the corner of his eye. He turned his head slowly to see himself being sized up by a bobcat flattened against the ground, observing from beneath the chaparral.
His stomach dropped into his boots. The calf was the intended prey, but now the bobcat waited to see if she had competition for her dinner. That made him prey, too. If he stepped back to pull his rifle, the cat would most assuredly spring on the calf. If he stepped forward, the cat would see it as a challenge which would put him in harm’s way, too, and solve nothing.
The only thing he could do was shoot the cat. Was it worth the risk? One calf? Of course, it was. If he didn’t take care of it, the cat would soon start raiding other calves.
Then, he remembered the snake gun in his boot. He had acquired the habit of carrying it in Nevada due to rattlesnakes and the odd Gila monster he encountered. He continued to carry it here, well, just because one never knew what danger one might encounter. Like a bobcat ready to spring on a calf. Or on him. The pistol didn’t have much range; somehow, he would have to shoot the cat mid-bound. Either way, he had better be ready.
Fast or slow? No, he knew it had to be fast. The cat’s eyes were already on him, so he would be a threat either way. He hated to shoot it—they were such beautiful creatures, but—suddenly the cat was on its haunches and emitted a growling scream. In a flash, Alex pulled the pistol from his boot and shot. All he could see were claws, fur, and teeth. The cat screamed again, falling to the ground, dead at his feet.
Now, the calf started to make a ruckus. Alex’s hands were shaking. Good thing they weren’t doing that before he had to shoot. He reached for his rifle, checking one more time to be sure the cat was lifeless.
He brought his horse forward. Alex pulled the calf free of the bush and slung him over his horse, between him and the saddle. He turned back, deliberating for a moment, but finally picked up the cat by its neck, swung it over the back of the saddle, and made his way down the hill.
He dropped the calf off with its mother which immediately quieted its bawling, and the half-starved calf latched on to her.
He strode into camp with the cat. Once they spied it, he was amid shouts and cheers and animated gesticulations.
“You not only Cow Boss,” one man said. “Now you Cat Boss, too.”
Alex dismounted, and several hands reached up to pull the cat from the horse who was a bit skittish now, getting a good whiff of bobcat and blood.
Francisco Morales, good-naturedly referred to as Pancho by some of the men, took it from them. “We’ll skin it for you, Jefe, and put it on the wall over your bunk,” he said with a wide grin.
The next morning, Brendan sent word that he wanted to see him. Alex had worked with Brendan for six years now and was completely satisfied with what he did. He thought about women once in a great while, but he would have to leave the ranch to find the right one. In fact, he didn’t know how far he would have to go to find a woman and a woman who would put up with his need to be alone—a lot. He loved his ranch work more than anything.
His routine had been pretty much the same every day for the last six years, and that was just fine with him. Even when there was a fiesta, he usually stayed out with the livestock. He had acquired two ranch dogs, both Shepherds. They were brothers, but Alex was intrigued by the fact that one was brown and black like a traditional German Shepherd, while the other was white. Their personalities were different, too, reminding him of the differences between Brendan and himself. He had named them Romulus and Remus for that very reason.
Both were indispensable on the range and could often take the place of ten men when it came to vigilance. He loved most to take them out with him at night. The cattle pretty much ignored them unless the dogs were issuing commands and herding them into a tight cluster for their safety.
Alex laughed. Not only him, then, but where would he find a woman who would put up with his dogs?
He arrived at the house and scraped the mud from his boots before entering Brendan’s inner sanctum. They had come to an uneasy peace between them. He thought that Brendan had harboured whatever caused him to dislike him for so long that he likely didn’t even remember what it was that caused it in the first place. Beyond that he was too busy to give it any thought.
Alex was surprised when Brendan came in with a big grin on his face, and his thinning hair flying about.
“I’ve been working with some of my investors,” he said. “I think it’s time we build a town. The town of Mahoka Hills.”
The idea was like a lightning strike out of thin air.
“What are you talking about?” Alex wanted to know.
“The valley is beginning to fill with people—families coming up from Mexico, others coming from elsewhere in California and up the coast.”
“Why are they coming here?”
“Rich farmland! Orchards, grapevines, crops. Abundant grazing. They have finally realised that there are no more get-rich-quick schemes and want to build here with the last of their wealth in the hope of making a life for themselves and their generations to come.”
“Perhaps you should name it ‘Hope City.’”
“That idea passed my mind, but I want the name Mahoka Hills so that they are ever mindful of their benefactor.”
Maybe they should call it O’Connor Town, or even Brendan O’Connor Town. Alex knew that was what Brendan wanted to be known, but he would have to be content with naming it after the ranch.
With each passing minute, Alex was more stunned than the last when he started thinking what all that would mean. “Aren’t you afraid it’ll end up like other post-mining towns—full of saloons and brothels?”
“That’s going to be your job, little Brother. Keeping the lid on things.”
“What do you mean ‘my job’?”
“Well, the planning and construction will definitely need coordination and oversight, and eventually, a town marshal.”
“Whoa, wait a minute,” Alex said, trying to slow Brendan’s words and his own racing heart. “I thought I was the big Jefe out here on the ranch. What does a cow boss have to do with all those things?”
“Nothing,” Brendan replied. “You’re getting a promotion. And don’t try to give me the runaround that you know nothing about marshaling. I’ve seen your Army records.”
“You have? How the—?”
“I have a friend of high rank. He acquired them and forwarded them to me.”
“Not necessarily when you’re a war veteran looking for employment.”
Alex’s jaw dropped. He was completely flummoxed. He finally forced himself to start breathing again. “So, what does my Army record have to do with anything?” He knew exactly what it had to do with, but he wanted to hear Brendon say it.
“Apparently, you did all the planning of the gold shipments, ensuring their safety by sending the right men to accompany them. Then you did all the planning and coordinating of all the supplies, incoming and outgoing. You made sure there was plenty to eat, plenty of weapons, ammo, clothing, and anything else that was necessary for your outpost. I hear you even appointed yourself in charge of the well when it started to cave in and managed to save it. In short, you were so good at your job that they offered you a commission at the end of the war, something nearly unheard of—from volunteer to officer.”
Alex just looked down at his boots.
“I’m curious as to why you didn’t take the commission.”
Alex continued to look down. It was none of Brendan’s business. Besides, to say that he was no longer aligned with the war effort would be to admit that Brendan’s argument before he ever left home was correct.
“I was being sent to Arizona Territory. I knew what that meant, and I wanted no part of it.”
Brendan paused for a moment. “So, your conscience was hurting you? I suppose it didn’t take much conscience to run a supply depot—sending gold shipments to finance the war. You didn’t have to see anybody’s head being blown off.”
Alex got out of his chair. “Is that all you wanted? Just to gloat about building a new town that would memorialise us?”
“No. Sit down,” he said. “I built this ranch. Now it’s your turn. You can build the town. Instead of protecting cattle, you’ll be protecting people.”
Alex sighed. “Let me think about it for a couple of days,” he lied. He had no intention of taking that on.
“Well, don’t take too long. I’ve already offered Villanueva your job and a commensurate pay rise to go with it.”
Alex was steamed, but there was no point in arguing about it. He couldn’t believe Brendan had already promised Villanueva his job.
“Look,” Brendan said. “I heard what you did last night. I’m not going to hire some fast gun out of Dodge City to be the Town Marshall. I need somebody who has your senses, your vigilance, your intuition, and foresight.”
“Apparently, I don’t have a lot of foresight,” Alex said, “because I sure didn’t see this coming.”
“Don’t think I don’t know how you interact with the men as well. They all respect you. Somehow you manage to treat them as friends while still maintaining leadership.”
Alex gave Brendan a conciliatory nod and returned to the open air. He took a deep breath and blew it out through ballooned cheeks. He didn’t know which was more surprising, the jolt out of the blue about the town, or Brendan’s last remarks which sounded almost like compliments. Was he offering him a chance at redemption?
Fiery red-headed, blue-green eyed Rose McCarthy Doherty sat in a brown leather chair in the attorney’s office, properly attired for the occasion. Her black, silk moire skirt and blouse conveyed her mood perfectly—the sombre black, traditional for a new widow, but the luminous look and feel of watered silk against her skin made her feel free and more than a little rebellious.
She had been married to Thomas for a little more than eight years. Now, there was no object of her silent rebellions. She had rebelled against her mother and Thomas Doherty when, at seventeen, her mother had told her of their arranged marriage. Thomas purchased a brownstone which they moved into the very night of their wedding.
Her mother had made mention of a few things she could expect on their wedding night, and also things she could do to make both of them more relaxed and comfortable. But when they reached the brownstone, Thomas wanted no such ministrations. He roughly pulled her up the stairs, threw her on the bed, tore off her clothing without bothering with his own, and he panted, grunted, and wheezed his way through the act until he had satisfied himself. Then he got up and left the house. In their eight years of marriage, it was always the same.
Fortunately for Thomas, and unfortunately for Rose, her mother had died, quite unexpectedly, leaving the entire McCarthy estate to Rose in Trust which made him somewhat a man of standing.
Luckily, he couldn’t touch her estate without her written permission. Rose often suspected that Thomas was penniless, and yet they seemed to live well. He had his club memberships, so he was gone most of the time, and she contented herself with her library, which she had brought from her home after her mother died, and her writing.
It was when he came home that the verbal abuse began—him mumbling loudly, slurring, cursing, and calling her names, telling her how worthless she was, how he only married her for her dowry. Then he would force her into bed and climb on her. He would wake up the next morning, sullen and hung over, and he would wash, dress, and go out, only to come home in the evening, where the routine started again.
It was very sad that everything he demanded of her was something she would gladly have given to a man who would respect her, even if he was aloof.
Her reverie was arrested by the attorney’s arrival, accompanied by two men who were not of her acquaintance. They sat at the far end of the room, facing the attorney, as was she. For some reason, the attorney did not see fit to introduce the men to Rose.
The attorney cleared his throat and peered briefly at the documents before him with his spectacles, and then folded them up and returned them to a case. He first looked at the two men and then at Rose.
“Your husband died intestate, Rose, meaning he had no will.”
“I’m aware of the meaning of intestate,” Rose said. She sat back, folding her arms across her torso as her mind raced as to what all that could mean for her.
“That fact, however, is neither here nor there because Thomas left nothing behind.”
“That surprises me not in the least,” she said. Her mind was flashing back to the little intuitions she had that he was impecunious. “Didn’t he have a country estate? Although he never took me there, he did mention it from time to time.”
“He sold the estate to buy the brownstone.”
“Well, then, at least I have the brownstone if it was purchased outright.” She looked at the attorney who was staring distantly at her.
“Apparently, he mortgaged the brownstone, and then never paid.”
“Well, then,” she said, more quietly. “Thank the powers that be that my mother had the sense to put my estate in trust. I’ll pay the mortgage and find an honest accountant to whom I can trust the remainder of the estate.”
“Rose, Rose,” the attorney said, scrubbing his face with his hands. “You signed that over for Thomas to use to maintain your living several years ago.”
Rose’s heart began to beat as she thought a doe’s heart would, looking down the barrel of a Remington. She jumped up, her skirt swirling around her. “I never …!” she started to say when one of the men from the far end of the room stood and was making his way over to her.
“Perhaps this document would help to jog your memory, Mrs Doherty,” he said. He laid the paper on a table in front of the attorney’s desk, and she walked around to look at it. She paled.
“I never—I’ve never seen this document before, let alone signed it.”
The man picked up the document and examined it. “Is this not your signature, Mrs Doherty?”
Rose glanced at it again. She steeled herself. “It has the likeness of my signature, Mr…”
“Chambourg,” he said. “Mr Chambourg of Canbury Bank.”
“Mr. Chambourg,” Rose said, “but it certainly differs from mine.” She gestured to the attorney who nodded at her, and she went around in front of his desk to find paper and pencil. “Does this look like that signature, Mr Chambourg?”
“I do see that there are irregularities, but there can be irregularities just from one signing to the next.”
So, neither you nor any of your employees have the ability to distinguish a false signature from the true one? I would think since you have not yet thrown your lot in with the bigger banks, that it would be much easier for your employees to detect a spurious signature such as this.”
“I’ll grant you that, Mrs Doherty, but the bottom line is that your husband is dead, and there is no money left. I’m afraid we will have to foreclose on the brownstone.”
“Wait. Isn’t there something that says that, once my husband dies, I am not responsible for his debts?” She looked back to the attorney.
He nodded his head, crossing his arms across his ribs and holding the elbows. “But what are you going to do with a third of a house?”
“A third? One-third?”
She chewed her bottom lip as she considered. “I’ll sell it to the bank. What do you think, Mr Chambourg? There is not much you can do with two-thirds of a house until the matter of my portion of the house is settled.”
Mr Chambourg looked uncomfortable.
The attorney stepped up. “She’s right, Mr Chambourg. Pay her third and keep the whole thing.” Chambourg sighed.
The third man got up and propelled himself stiffly out the attorney’s door.
“Who was that?” Rose asked.
“Another man that your husband owed. I told him before he came that you could not be held responsible for your husband’s debts, but he chose to come anyway. For my part, the least I can do is not charge you for my services.”
Chambourg spoke up. “I’ll arrange a check for you by next week for your portion of the brownstone. Then you’ll have ninety days to find somewhere to go.”
She shook Chambourg’s hand and then the attorney’s. “How very magnanimous of all of you,” she said with rancour. Then she walked out the door, closing it just a little too hard.
She sat up straight in the open carriage. She had wanted to experience the beauty of the city in autumn to try to expel her hovering gloom, but it didn’t work. She managed to sit up straight and appear as though she were looking, anyway. But when she got home, she collapsed into one of the large wingback chairs in front of the fireplace and allowed herself to slump down as far as her spirit felt.
She went to the law library herself to try to find out just how narrow her straits were. The results were dismal. Unless she had the means to live on her own, she couldn’t live alone. Plain and simple. If she went to work so she would have the means, she would have to live either in a boarding house or in someone’s home. She was not allowed to control her own money, so every penny she made had to go to earn her board and keep.
How ironic that the bank could take everything from her—a place where she would not be allowed to work. There were only a few places a woman could work—as a seamstress, a wash woman, a housekeeper, nanny or as a domestic. Her education and abilities made her most suited to be a governess.
She answered several ads looking for a governess. One was far more generous than the others, offering her a monthly stipend in addition to her room and board.
She was excited when a runner came to the door to deliver a card for a family to come and interview. She was asked to arrive at ten o’clock the next morning.
She arranged for transportation and arrived exactly on time.
The father of the children was quite handsome. He seemed to be relaxing with a pipe and a brocade vest when he came to the door. She was surprised at him answering the door himself, which he held wide for her, but as she passed him, she had a distinct impression that he had groped her bottom. Since she had decided to wear a bustle, it was a bit difficult to tell, and she decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
She had never been a governess before—indeed, she had rarely been around children at all. She felt nervous and ill-prepared. She barely knew what to say, so she hoped they would simply ply her with questions. Teaching was something she felt she could do, but as far as administering discipline, she wasn’t sure.
The mother seemed nervous and distracted. She hardly looked at Rose except once, and Rose was sure the look was one of contempt.
The father asked her questions, and then she was introduced to the two children, six and seven. They seemed shy, but who knew what they would be like when she got to know them?
“What happened to their last governess?” Rose asked.
Before he could say a word, the mother spoke up. “We had to ask her to leave. Or I did.” They were not more forthcoming than that, so Rose let it go.
It seemed as though the interview was at an end, and Rose told them it would be fine for them to send another runner if they wished her to take the position.
The father walked her back to the door. The mother had disappeared. As Rose waited for him to open the door, he pressed towards her, slipping his hand around her breast. “Mmm …” he said, “These seem quite ample. I shall be eager to see your other … fruit.”
Rose pushed his hand away. “I doubt very much that I will take the position,” she said.
“Well, you think about it,” he said. “You won’t be offered a stipend anywhere else. And this is exactly what it’s for.”
He opened the door, and she exited quickly, but not before he grabbed her buttocks again.
She hailed the carriage and turned to look at him one more time. “You needn’t send a runner, Sir. I will not be taking the position. I’m firm on that matter. Thank you for your time.”
“Yes,” he said, “you are indeed firm.”
She made a sound of disgust, and the carriage driver stepped down to help her into the cab.
When she awoke the next morning, she had no desire to get out of bed. Not just yet. She needed to think. Sixty of her ninety days had already passed. She had received the money for one-third of the house.
They had tried to cheat her out of that, too, but since she was well aware that her house was worthless to them without her portion of it, they would be out of luck. Despite their attempts to intimidate her, she had held her ground and gotten the price she wanted. There was just one problem.
Now she had money, but she wasn’t allowed to have control of it. They wouldn’t even cash it for her until she could give them the name of a male relative to whom the funds could be transferred to hold in Trust for her.
As far as she knew, the only living male relative—in fact, the only relative that she had—was one Lorcan Sullivan. She’d not seen Sully since they were children. She had heard from distant relatives, visiting from time to time years ago, that he was ever in and out of trouble.
She tried hard to remember where she heard he was last. Somewhere in California, she thought. He had gone out there, like so many others, long after the Gold Rush of ‘49 to see if he could still find some little pocket of wealth somewhere. And, like so many other times, he had fallen in with ruffians. Who knew whether he was even alive? Perhaps she was completely alone in this world. With a check that she couldn’t cash.
Maybe she could help Sully. He had always seemed to cling to her as if somehow, she could protect him from the big, bad world. Perhaps her presence might soothe him and get him on the right path again. How ambitious of her, she thought.
California! The land of dreams. Everybody wanted to go to California. But there was a large continent in between. And she had heard that it was a huge state—how would she even begin to find him? What if he didn’t even have a home?
Well, one good thing was that a name like Lorcan should stand out to people if they had ever met him. Not too many Lorcan Sullivans around, she decided.
She went to the University library to see if she could find a map of California. The librarian got it for her and spread it out on a large table. Rose’s eyes opened wide. “It really is huge.”
The librarian laughed. “It is, but you also have to remember the scale you are looking at. This is a very large map.”
Rose’s heart sank. Where on earth would she begin? He could have gone anywhere. He could be anywhere. But remembering what she had thought about him always clinging to her, somehow, she didn’t think he would strike out on his own but would stay pretty much in one area where he had friends.
How was she going to approach this? The more she looked at the map, she started noticing that the map designated the seat of each county. She could drive herself crazy trying to find him everywhere, so she was going to section it off.
She had heard that he wanted to follow the trails of the ’49ers so that he could strike it rich by looking in places that hadn’t been worked before. Tracing her finger along the map, she found Sutter County. Hadn’t Sutter’s Mill been where the Gold Rush began? She didn’t know much about the locations beyond that, but she put her finger on Sutter County and worked it out. She wrote down the names of Sutter, Placer, El Dorado—the ones that had names associated with gold and mining, and then Amador, Alpine, Calaveras, and Tuolumne.
There, she thought, seven counties and seven county seats straight down the line. Why seven? Since she was down to her last thirty days and had a meagre amount of money left, starting with seven would be all she could afford. She just hoped that one of those panned out. If not, she would have to decide what to do next.
Her journalistic work came to bear when writing the telegrams. Since the charge for telegrams was counted by the character, she needed to be as brief but clear as she could possibly be.
COUSIN SEEKS LORCAN SULLIVAN IN YOUR COUNTY STOP
PLEASE ADVS IF WHEREABOUTS ARE KNOWN STOP
Rose read it and re-read it. She didn’t see any way she could shorten it, so she composed seven of them to seven county seats and sent them. She took a deep breath and let it out. It was her only hope.
After a week, Rose’s hopes diminished. She had no idea whether they had been read and discarded, or read and nothing found. Time was getting shorter and shorter.
A day later, someone came to the door, handing her a telegram. She read it before she even closed the door, but then she realised the delivery boy was waiting for a tip. She handed it to him, then shut the door, and sank down into a chair. She read it twice before allowing herself to sink back into the chair, relieved to have a starting place.
The telegram was from San Andreas, the seat of Calaveras County. It read:
LORCAN SULLIVAN REGISTERED IN CALAVERAS COUNTY
STOP LKA MAHOKA HILLS RANCH STOP
She set about immediately composing a new telegram which she would address to Lorcan Sullivan, Calaveras County, California. It was the best she could do. Now she just had to hold her breath and wait for a miracle.
“A Love Kept Apart by Lies” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
When she discovers her late husband has drunk their fortune away, Rose McCarthy Doherty is forced to leave her home. Although compensated by the bank for it, she knows one thing! No woman can cash a check in 1874, nor handle her own financial affairs. She needs to find a solution, fast! When she heads to find her last living male relative, she will discover a terrible truth. He was killed just a short time ago. With her options being thinned out, how is she going to overcome her complicated situation?
Alejandro O’Connor, or Alex, as everyone calls him, a former veteran soldier, is now the Town Marshal of Mahoka Hills. Leading a solitary life, he finds no place for a woman in it, until Rose arrives in town. When he realizes the reason why she came, he understands he has a guilty secret that could destroy her. Will he choose honesty over his growing feelings, risking to miss his only chance to love?
Their attraction is undeniable, but unfortunate events conspire to keep each one of them on their solitary path. Will this continual push-pull battle between the two of them come to an end? Will they finally stop running away from their true feelings and make way for their love to blossom?
“A Love Kept Apart by Lies” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.