Tess Edwards: Laramie Mountain Range, the Wyoming Territory
Tess Edwards was pregnant. She could feel it, as much as she could still feel anything at all. Her body was still aching, her back rubbed raw with dirt and pebbles, bones of her spine still knocked out of place. But her legs were strong enough to carry her from chore to chore, and her numbing brain had just enough strength for one last, desperate bid for freedom.
The stink of the men and the horses hung over the little mountain valley, a dank mist to collect around the collection of stolen stagecoaches clustered together according to new purpose. Tess brushed the paint, huffing and shaking her mane as thunder rolled in the distance. Tess looked up, clouds rilling in thick and gray over the plains to the north.
North, Tess thought, Douglas. Home.
Eliza and the other women tending to the men, taking in their dirty plates and utensils to clean them for the morning meal the next day. Tin clanked against tin, men slurped their beans and coffee, drinking rye whiskey from a bottle passed from man to man. Eliza had been the one to swipe the little knife from the cookie’s coach. But all the girls agreed that Tess should be the one. She was weak and fading fast, but she was still more capable than the others.
And with the new life in her belly, escape became more and more pressing.
Tess looked out over the miserable little camp, a place born of the mud from the blood of the worst men alive and their innumerable victims. They want a city of their own, Tess thought, but what they’ve created is a hell on Earth.
Smoke rose up with the din of decedent conversations, men sitting in groups around fires, others milling around from one block to the next. The camp had gotten bigger in the previous six months, since her capture, and there was no reason to think it wouldn’t get bigger still.
But I won’t be here to see it, Tess reassured herself.
The paint shook her head as Tess brushed her, lingering over the chore, the little stolen knife pressed into the back of her waist. her skirt barely held the knife in place, especially with the weight she’d lost after months of rotting fruit rinds and clotted oatmeal.
Stay focused,Tess told herself, don’t get distracted!
But Tess couldn’t help think about that terrible day, her family’s stage only a few miles from their destination. They’d survived the depravations and disease of the journey west only to be ambushed by Rand Masterson and his men. Even then, the terror of that moment echoed in her muscle memory, heart beating faster and her mouth going dry. Instead of early evening in the Laramie Mountains, she was transported back to freezing plain, the men’s horses kicking up clouds of white powder as they charged over the plains, their new repeating pistols firing, horses panicking, women screaming while the men fumbled for their pistols.
The horses wailed out a battlecry all their own, the bullets punching holes through the canvas over the stages, sunlight suddenly peaking through to illuminate the men as they twisted and wrenched and dropped their guns before falling to join them.
Tess’ memory flashed with the feeling of those brutish arms around her, pulling her up, one arm wrapped around her waist and riding off with her like a sack of potatoes, never to see anybody in her family again.
Stop thinking about it,Tess silently scolded herself. There’s still a chance, one last chance to get out of here, to finally make it to Douglas or Casper or anywhere. Save myself and my child, send the law back to save the other women and send these demons right back to satan where they belong.
One last chance.
Tess slowly reached for the knife tucked behind her skirt. It was the same skirt she’d been kidnapped in the previous November, four months before. It was barely clinging to her, but she knew it wouldn’t have much longer to go.
Tess couldn’t help but think about her life since then. The Laramie Mountains kept the worst of the snow storms locked into the plans to the north, but the cold was still brutal, rains and flash floods a common consideration. But the laundry and dishes still needed to be cleaned and scrubbed, the animals cleaned and groomed and even shoed on occasion. There were some things like that which Rand had certain men take care of. Tess and the other women had another purpose none of the men could fulfill.
And having never fulfilled such a purpose before, Tess had been forced to fulfill it enough for a lifetime.
Never again, Tess told herself as she raised the knife up past the paint’s neck, the horse clopping nervously, pulling at the rope tethering it to the maple tree along with three others. Though the new life was had barely been conceived, she thought of it more than of herself. She cared more for that life than her own.
Tess looked around that sprawling collection of campfires and circles of men, clusters of horses, stagecoaches and carriages forming a hardscrabble camp, caves leading into the mountains around them to provide enduring shelter.
I’d wipe this place of the face of the earth forever if I could, Tess thought. I’d killl every one of these monsters myself, fee these women, and some of these young kids, some of them barely twelve years old, save the whole country from those wreaking, hairy, filthy pig men, snorting and farting and grousing at each other in a stream of guttural snorts and panting.
But the idea of spending the rest of her life there, an innocent among savages, a stranger in a strange land, was one thing. The idea of them taking her baby, raising him or her to be their slave, their concubine, their accomplice, an immoral monster like themselves.
No, I won’t let that happen.
So Tess kept a sharp eye on the men nearest to her, Zachary Todd among them. Rand Masters’ second and a bloodthirsty killer in his own right, Tess knew he’d be first on her heels, and that didn’t bring her any reassurance. His brown handlebar mustache and balding, tan head of hair were both overlong, bushy and flowing.
They seemed disinterested in her, convinced she was doing her chores as always, so mentally and physically beaten down that she was beyond being able or even willing to attempt an escape. So when Tess drew that knife across the reins and gave it a good tug, they didn’t pay it any thought at all.
Her heart was pounding, fingers shaking. It was too late to go back, Tess knew that.
One hand still clutching the knife, the other women looking on in silent wonder and worry, Tess walked the horse away from the tree, still managing to go unnoticed.
Not yet, stay low, no yet …
But Tess knew one glance at the horses from that second on would reveal her to Todd or one of the other men. So sneaking the horse away was just as risky as jumping on its saddled back and giving it a good hard kick.
“Hey, what the — ?”
Now, Tess told herself, do it now!
Tess stuck her left foot into the stirrup, pulled herself onto the horse, and kicked hard. The paint bolted into a panic run, men’s voices shouting behind her.
“No guns,” Zachary Todd hollered at the others, “not yet! We want her alive!”
The sky was getting darker fast, a cold wind carrying a thin rain as thunder rolled in the distance. After a brief pause, the sky flashed with lightning, still far over the horizon. But lightning was the last of Tess’ concerns.
The paint was fast and smooth beneath her, and Tess’ instincts kept her head low, legs clenched around that beast. She felt good for the first time in a long time, blood rushing in her veins, heart throbbing with new and excited purpose and determination.
She didn’t dare look back, but Tess knew they were following her. Calculating quickly, she figured they wouldn’t be more than fifty yards behind her, riding every bit as quickly if not even more so. Tess crouched down lower, the wind feeling like it was pushing her back, preventing her escape. The paint licked up clumps of mud and dirt onto Tess’ legs, the horse’s muscles flexing and pulling. The animal was an engine designed for speed and endurance, but Tess new it would take more than that to deliver her safely.
The thunder rolled again, a briefer pause before the lightning struck, a jagged line bursting to in a frightful expression of God’s wrath, or of the devil’s rage. The rains fell heavier, a crackling din, but the sounds of the men’s horses galloping up along side and behind her couldn’t be disguised. It got louder as they got closer, closing in from every side. With her eyes fixed forward, Tess’ attention lingered behind. The men shouted, but she couldn’t make it out. She could, however, see that one of them was riding up ahead and she was almost certain it was Zachary Todd himself.
Tess knew they weren’t going to shoot her, not so early in their chase. She was worth much more to them alive if they could afford to spare her. But they could shoot the paint out from under her, and none of them would have any compunction about doing so if the horses weren’t almost as valuable than the women.
But they weren’t about to just let both Tess and their paint get away.
I blew it from the start, Tess silent rebuked herself, should have done it faster, a few seconds earlier would have made all he difference.
But there was no time to worry about it, no time for any self-recrimination. There would be plenty of that to come if they managed to dismount her, and as the seconds ticked by and the horses got closer, that seemed a dead certainty.
Tess thought she saw Todd swinging a lasso over his head. The former cattleman was expert with the rope, and Tess almost felt that she could hear the whir of the loop as he threw it out and then pulled it back, a near miss.
Should have run last night like I hoped, but there just wasn’t the chance, and I couldn’t keep waiting!
Thunder rolled again, lightning flashing almost immediately afterward, hardly a fraction of a second between sound and sight. Tess cut the paint sharply to the left, leaving Todd and another man behind her. But there was a third man with them, and Tess realized too late that she was throwing herself right toward one of them.
Tess kicked and rode harder, calling out a wordless cry as the horse galloped with even more passion and dedication. She knew the danger Tess was, the paint hungered for freedom almost as much as Tess did.
The rain pounded harder, the horse stead and quick, but the saddle slippery beneath her and the mud slippery beneath the paint’s frantic hooves. Every step was a risk, every inch forward perhaps hurling her headlong into the grave.
But turning sharply to the left wasn’t an option and the other rider had her right flank covered as well. When the rope finally fell over her from above, lose and wide and suddenly pulling tight to pin her arms to her sides, Tess knew they had her.
A sharp tug yanked Tess back and to her right, the rope digging into the outsides of her arms. But her paint kept running. Tess nearly fell backward and off the horse but her feet clung to the stirrups her entire body pulled back on the panicking paint. The horse cried out and reared up, kicking its forelegs, shaking its head, whinnying into its bridle.
The thunder struck just as the lightning flashed, two forces meeting in the eery darkness of encroaching night, a storm swirling, born of its endless depth and unconsolable gloom.
Another tug finally pulled Tess from her foothold and she fell back, gravity suddenly overpowering her and slamming her back-down into the cold mud. The landing pushed the air out of Tess’ lungs, but she knew she couldn’t allow that to slow her down.
The knife still in her fist, Tess cut the rope around her waist, freeing her arms just as Todd dismounted and tried to pull her in. Instead, he recoiled two fistfuls of slack rope and Tess staggered backward. But horses had surrounded her, other men riding up to join them as Todd reached for Tess with his bare hands.
Tess jabbed at Todd, striking him and sending him jumping back. He lunged again and another wild poke managed to keep him at bay as the other riders stopped. When Todd stopped and looked over at one of the riders, Tess knew just who was in that saddle.
She looked up, knowing well that big, broad body, sloped shoulders, tan hair hanging low over his big, boxy face. The stolen horse beneath him seemed to struggle to support Rand’s bulky and muscular weight, as if two men were somehow packed into the skin of one.
“Missus Masterson,” he said, his low voice mean spirited in its faux patience. “What’re you thinkin’ on, actin’ up like this?”
“I’m not your wife,” Tess said. Her long, red hair was plastered down on each side of her face, clothes plastered to her soaked skin. “I’m Tess Edwards, and I’ll die Tess Edwards before I’ll ever be Mrs. Rand Masterson.”
“Yer already carrying my child. Least ways, you’d better be, after all this mess. ‘Course, if not, we’ll always have the pleasure of trying again.”
The other men chuckled, Zachary lunging at her again from the side. But Tess was quick and screamed as she jabbed at him. The men broke out in a little chuckle, some surprised, some simply enjoying the taunting entertainment.
“Keep away from me,” Tess said, sensing the feeble pointlessness in her own voice. It cracked with desperation, because that was all Tess had left. She knew her attempt had failed, that she’d never have another, that her life from that point on was going to be worse than the previous four months could have suggested.
And her baby was theirs, a life already destroyed.
Tess took the knife in both hands and poised it right at her belly. The men looked on in a hush, Todd holding his hands out just few feet away, afraid to interfere. Rand Masterson looked down from his speckled stallion, rendered powerless by her sacrifice. He had nothing to threaten or torture her with, not any more. Despite his great size and strength and the power granted to him by the relative weakness and cowardice of his fellows, Tess had rendered Rand Masterson powerless.
But she couldn’t stand to pierce herself, not there. Whatever its terrible lineage, however tortured its future, Tess just couldn’t bring herself to do it.
But as Todd sensed her indecision and made his move, Tess responded with even greater quickness. Her arm shoved the knife up to the right side of her neck and pressed tight.
The second swipe came even faster, slicing deep into her throat. Cold, stinging pain erupted in her twitching muscles, shoulder reaching up in a pitiful instinct, too late to protect her and unable to heal her.
Todd jumped back in shock, the men looking on in horror as Tess denied them their bound bounty.
“My god,” Todd said, even the horses silent as Tess dropped the knife. It landed with a dull, wet thud at her feet. Hot blood poured over her shoulders and down her chest, pain receding as she became suddenly dizzy. An ice-cold chill ran up Tess’ spine, her body shivering as her legs became numb beneath her.
The earth rose up to meet her, smacking Tess hard on her right side as she landed. Her body was immobile around her, her own gurgled breath filling her ears even as a dull hum got louder. Rain washed her blood into the mud in front of her face, eyesight fading for the last time.
“Looks like we lost another one. Damnit!”
Tess could barely make out Todd saying, “What do we do with her, Boss?”
“What’s to do? Take her clothes back for the other women, leave her for the buzzards.”
Amelia Alden Chase: Natrona, the Wyoming Territory
Eggs sizzled in the cast-iron pan, strips of smoked fatback filled the house along with the strong smell of even stronger coffee. The apple juice was crisp and refreshing on Amelia Alden Chase’s tongue, gliding down her throat to help fill her belly.
The sun was just creeping up over the Laramie Mountain Range. The rooster had stopped crowing, Hailey the Old English sheepdog already anxious to get to work. The chickens needed feeding, the cow milking, the vegetable gardens weeded and cleaned of pests.
Then, of course, there would be lunch to prepare, then time to clean up from the meal, clean the house, then prepare dinner.
Betty Chase sat quietly, nibbling at the corner of a fresh slice of toast, butter from their own churn melting into the warmed surface. She smiled at Amelia, and Amelia smiled back. They shared so many glances like that one, and they were among the few highlights of Amelia’s day. Betty’s love for her adopted daughter was unquestioned and unbridled. She’d never spared Amelia and love or affection, rocking her gently to sleep on the nights when she couldn’t stop crying, soothing the nightmarish explosions of memory. Betty had comforted Amelia the night of her parents’ funeral ten years before, and she’d clung to her the day her own son died, clinging even tighter the day he was buried.
But out of all that sorrow had been forged a new bond, stronger even than blood or fate. They’d created a family not only out of harrowing necessity, but of glorious choice, a blessed house of God.
Betty’s husband Silas Chase glanced from his wife to their adopted daughter and back, sharing their tender moment. The three of them had created a new life and said goodbye to old. Whatever their future held, they’d surely face it together.
Amelia said, “I was thinking … ” She purposely said nothing further, giving her father respectful opportunity to command silence at his table. He never did, but she was always careful to allow it. It was his table, she’d always felt, and she was lucky to be able to share it.
“About … ?”
Betty looked down at her plate as if she knew what Amelia was going to say.
Taking a sip of juice, Amelia explained, “The irrigation system I mentioned to you, the one from the Almanac.”
“Yes,” he said, his voice already tired. His body was broad and lean but bent, stooped with years of pushing hoes and pulling vegetables.
“Well, Father, I … I think it’s time we reconsider it.”
He smiled, more patient than amused as he raised his tin cup of coffee to his lips. “And what, may I ask, has changed since last year?”
“I was hoping … your point of view?” Betty stifled a little chuckle, then resumed her respectful silence. Amelia said, “Our land isn’t five miles from the North Platt River. I’ve seen the designs for the doors to control the water flow … we could lighten our work load and increase our production. It would be better for the animals, the crops, and for you, Father. And I don’t mean sloth, but …. if we could lighten your load, wouldn’t that be pleasing to God?”
“It would give you more time to read your Bible,” Betty said, her eyes barely rolling up toward him at she picked at her toast.
“You’d get no objection from me,” he said, “neither one of you.” That quieted Betty’s little giggle. Silas went on, “But have you forgotten the amount of work it will take? The men, the funds? The tools alone!”
“There are men in Casper who may work for the money — ”
“What money? We can feed them in milk and eggs and a few vegetables, a decent meal.”
“Perhaps that would do,” Amelia said. “There are men who are starving, men for whom digging a ditch is good, honest work.”
“It’s good, honest work for any man,” Silas said.
“Or woman,” Betty said through her little smile.
“But I don’t want men like that around the farm for any … extended amount of time,” Silas said. “Or any amount of time at all, truth be told.”
Betty set down her toast and peered out as if giving the matter some fresh thought. “Of course, some strong young man, ready to work for his supper, such a man might prove a solid, worthy young man.”
Silas leaned back in his chair, the wood creaking beneath him, as if refusing to eat under the shadow of such a topic of conversation. But Betty said, “How else is she to find a husband, way out here on our farm? She’s already twenty years old, Silas.”
“With plenty of time for men,” Silas said. “But a good man, a gentleman, a man of the world.”
“And where is she going to find such a man around here? But a nice, strong, stalwart, a hard worker who can put his nose to the grindstone, someone who can take up the reins of the farm after we’re gone.”
Amelia rolled her eyes. “Mother, really, that is not my inclination — ”
“I should hope not,” Silas said. “Such men are less likely to be good and worthy, and much much less likely to be worthy of our Amelia … than they are to be wicked and wanton, dangerous men of disrepute. I won’t have them on my property.”
Amelia couldn’t be cross with him. His solemn smile, his low and slow voice, he radiated strength and tenderness, and she’d come to rely on him and was glad of it too. And his protectiveness of her spoke as much to his love for as to her love for him, for both the good and noble Chase couple.
Betty said to Amelia, “Perhaps your friends the Cheyenne would care to help.”
“They’re our friends, Mother.”
“Of course they are, dear. But they don’t take a shine to us the way they do you. And the way you’ve learned to shoot that bow and arrow, all the tricks you picked up. I can tell you like them too.”
“I do, though I know how unfashionable it is to say such a thing.”
“And one wonders why no eligible young men come calling,” Silas said, not pulling his eyes up from his plate.
“I don’t care what the men of Natrona, or even Casper think. I wouldn’t have any man who would go about hating one tribe of people or another, of whatever stripe or whatever color. That’s not the way you raised me.”
“And what a blessing it was to be able to do,” Betty said, reaching out to put her aging hand on Amelia’s.
Silas offered her a warm smile. “Your courage has always been an inspiration to us, as it was to your parents, and our own poor departed boy Teddy. But I must caution you, my child, that it often takes more courage to step back from action, to let nature and history take their course, than to charge ahead blindly. The old ways have worked for us before, all this time — ”
“But the new ways are always coming around the bend, Father. And our way, our life, it depends on new ways of doing things, faster and more efficient ways. Besides, the almanac said the Ancient Egyptians did it, and that was long before us.”
“And see how well it served them,” Silas said. “Didn’t you say even your … our friends the Cheyenne were against it?”
Amelia sighed. “It simply … it isn’t their way. I suppose they’re just like you in more ways than you’d care to admit. But they fear hurting the land, their mother, they … they also cling to the old ways.”
“And if those whom you revere all chose same-wise,” Silas said, “oughtn’t you give pause to give that further consideration?”
His logic was flawless, as it always was. But over half her life on their farm had conditioned Amelia to anticipate what her adored, adopted father would say, and how best to counter it without disrespecting him.
“Because I do revere them,” Amelia said, “and because I want to see them all thrive in this new country that’s coming, Father. Don’t you see by the Cheyenne’s own example, and those of the Blackfoot, the Arapaho, the Apache, that the old ways are failing them? They keep trying to change, but we … they just can’t seem to change fast enough. And we don’t want to wind up in a similar state, perhaps much sooner than we realize.”
They said nothing more about it, and Amelia was confident that Silas would give it at least a fair consideration. Though she was less confident that he would accept her proposal and give his blessings to her campaign.
It was only a few moments later that Amelia was standing at the washtub rinsing the breakfast dishes.
“That was quite a frank discussion back there, young lady.”
Amelia smiled and nudged Betty. “Just a gentle nudge.”
“In the right direction, I hope.” Betty went on washing, pulling one up out of the water for Amelia to dry. She let a long moment linger. “I wonder if … if I might be as frank you with, child.”
Amelia almost didn’t know what to say. Of course she welcomed Betty’s frankness, but what that might entail was a sudden worry in the back of her quickened heart. She said simply, “Anything, Mother.”
But another pause made Amelia worry just a little bit more. “Very well, I … well — ”
“Mother, what is it?”
“I … I was thinking about our conversation earlier, about your finding a husband.”
“Oh, Mother — ”
“Please, child, hear me out. Your father is determined to control the comings and goings here on the farm, which I dare say is the main reason he objects to your notion of irrigating the farm. In truth, I think it’s quite a notion you have there.”
Amelia couldn’t help but smile, taking another dish to dry. “To be fair, it isn’t my notion — ”
“Doing it here on the farm is,” Betty said, “and that’s more than most men would have conjured up. You truly are a wonder, my dear. And that makes it even more a shame that you’re wasting your life here on the farm like this — ”
“But a girl like you deserves a better life, in a better place — ”
“What better place could there be? Taller buildings, sure. Crowded streets, I know there are plenty of those out there. But better people? Not anywhere in the world!”
“And we love you every bit as much, but … you can’t marry either of us.” Amelia rolled her eyes, but Betty spoke to quickly to be rebuked. “You need a husband, Amelia, and … and you want one. And it’s well that you should want one, you’re a beautiful young woman, such fare skin and golden hair. And your wit and incisiveness and all your other skills, they’re wasted here!”
“I won’t hear another word about it,” Amelia said. “Whatever would you and Father do without my skills or my other gifts?” Amelia gave it a little thought. “I suppose Father might actually irrigate the farm.”
“He might. But this farm, and I know it’s been our shelter, our home, built from the ashes of our other lives, but … it needn’t be your home forever, nor should it be, Amelia … nor should it be.”
“Mother, I — ”
“Just promise me that you’ll do no less than you ask of your father.” Amelia knew her mother had her trapped by her own precociousness. She’d wanted a fair and reasonable consideration from her father of a notion both alien and troubling but also somehow inevitable.
And that was just what Amelia found herself needing to do, quite against her will.
That night Amelia cleaned herself and changed into her nightclothes, a nightcap around her blonde hair and a slippers over her feet. Before climbing into bed, Amelia knelt down and folded her hands in front of her chin eyes sinking closed.
Please keep the souls of my poor parents, Harold and Sheila Alden, and Theodore Chase, keep them close to Your bosom. And look out for dear and gracious Silas and Betty Chase, and keep our house peaceful and forever in your service. I know things are changing fast in this country, Lord, and all over the world. Choices will have to be made, and sacrifices too. Lord, You know well what kind of sacrifices history sometimes demands of us. I only pray that, whatever Your great plan is, that it preserves the safety of your humble servants in this house, that whatever turbulence and violence that is coming up around the bend, whatever choices are presented and whatever sacrificed demanded, that they be sheltered from the storm, and delivered to safer shores, always knowing my love for them and Your own.
Yours in Christ,
Amelia Alden Chase
“Torn Between Love and Family” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
During the 1840s, Amelia Alden Chase is being raised on a small farm by her foster parents. An interest in an irrigation project, though, and a harrowing attack by local bandits drives her into town and into the company of two men; one could be the love of her life, while the other is her own long-lost cousin. Has she accidentally stumbled upon happiness? Amelia’s hope of a new family is dashed when she discovers the truth.
A complicated and tragic series of events have pitted Jonas Mayfield, a former missionary and Clayton Knight, a beloved and fair Sheriff, against each other. Both men have suffered many hardships in order to forget, before finding themselves in frontal attack, again. What could possibly cause such hatred between the two men?
Amelia has to unite the two sworn enemies and bring all their resources to bear against the forces of nature and of man’s most basic instincts. Love, life, everything is on the line for Amelia and her family. Will she be able to save her future, by solving the riddle of the mysterious past? Will she go as far as to put her own life at risk to save the family she’s always dreamt of?
“Torn Between Love and Family” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 90,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.