Authors: Alison Bruce
|Under a Texas Star|
|Imajin Books (2011)|
Disguised as a boy, Marly joins a handsome Texas Ranger in the hunt for a con man and they must bring the fugitive to justice before giving up the masquerade and giving in to their passion.
When Marly Landers is fooled by con man Charlie Meese, she's determined to bring him to justice--even if it means dressing up as a boy and setting off across the plains to find him.
Texas Ranger Jase Strachan is also after Meese, for crimes committed in Texas. He joins forces with the young boy in a journey that takes them to Fortuna, where a murder interrupts their mission. Jase is duty bound to find the killer, no matter the cost.
Marly carries out her own investigation and comes to the aid of Amabelle Egan, the sister of one of the suspects. But appearances are deceiving, and Marly is mistaken for Amabelle’s suitor, making her a target for the killer. Not to mention, Charlie Meese is still out there.
Under the Texas stars, Marly and Jase are drawn together by circumstances beyond their control, yet fate plots to tear them apart. Will Marly finally get her man?
From the Author
The book you hold has had many adventures on the road to publication.
It started in hospital while recovering from surgery. I wrote the first draft, in long hand, as a novelette. Back home, I put my History degree to work and dig some serious research while transcribing the manuscript to a Commodore Plus4.
Orphaned by obsolete technology, the original manuscript clung to life as a printout from a dying dot-matrix printer. When it finally made it into a workable file, it had to wait while I had a couple of kids and took care of my sister and father. Meanwhile I collected far more information on Texas, guns, riding, and the price of beans and ammunition than you would ever want to see in a novel.
The trail has been rocky and full of obstacles but, I hope you will agree, worth the journey.
Under a Texas Star
UNDER A TEXAS STAR
Copyright © 2011 by Alison Bruce. All Rights Reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission from the author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. And any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead (or in any other form), business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover designed by Sapphire Designs -
Praise for Alison Bruce
"A delightful Western tale that blends engaging adventure with spirited romance. Remin
ds me of Louis L'Amour novels...Bruce is a terrific story-teller...a complete joy to read. She immerses readers into a smoking Western that is also a spunky romance and reminiscent of the Texas Rangers television series."
"Filled with realistic dialog and a good attention to period detail, Bruce manages to create a believable story that captures our imagination. Well written with a compelling plot,
Under a Texas Star
brings a delightfully new and strong heroine to the literary world. Highly recommended."
"Alison Bruce's western tale of intrigue, murder, and love is a page-turning, action-packed, made-of-awesome read.
UNDER A TEXAS STAR
belongs on every reader's keeper shelf―it already has a place on mine! Love, love, loved it!" ―Michele Bardsley, national bestselling author of
"Romance as sweeping as the Texas sky." ―Gwyn Cready, Rita award-winning author of
Seducing Mr. Darcy
"This is a rollicking adventure and Marly Landers is a girl with True Grit." ―Phyllis
Smallman, Arthur Ellis award-winning author of
Champagne for Buzzards
"L'amour in the style of Louis L'Amour…Pin a silver star on this thrilling tale of love and justice in the old west." ―Lou Allin, author of
On the Surface Die
"I loved the murder mystery…as well as the sense of humor which had me either chuckling or laughing out loud." ―Jacqueline Wilson, Deputy Sheriff for Publications of the Chicago Corral of the Westerners
To my sister Joanne (1961-2003),
who taught me that life is too short not
to do what you love
I would like to thank Amanda and her red pen; John for insisting the story should be a novel; Janet for rescuing the lone viable copy; Frances for cleaning up the resulting digital copy and nagging me to keeping working on it; Nancy, the most constructive nitpicker on the planet; Melodie for pointing me in the right direction; Cheryl and Imajin Books for being the right direction.
To my daughter Kate, son Sam and nieces Sophie and Claire, thank you for your patience and enthusiastic support.
Trailing from one dusty town to another in pursuit of a criminal fugitive was a job for a bounty hunter with a good horse and a small arsenal. It was tough work for a slim boy of small build, few means and fewer possessions
―tougher still when the boy wasn't a boy at all, but a girl.
It wasn't the walking. Marly was used to spending most of her day on her feet in the yard of the schoolhouse her aunt taught in, tending the kitchen garden, feeding the chickens, hanging the laun
dry or walking the mile to town for whatever errand Aunt Adele required.
It wasn't the weight of the oversized oilskin coat or the bedroll slung across her back. They were nothing to hefting a crate of books or a basket of surplus eggs and vegetables into town to trade for flour and sugar.
It was the solitude.
Once upon a time, Marly would have reveled in the opportunity to get away from her aunt's incessant homilies, the critical stares of her aunt's cronies and even the kinder yet oppressive expectations of her friends. Now she realized that the outside clamor would be preferable to her own self-critical reflections. The long walks as she travelled from one town to another, gave her too much time to dwell on the events that put her on this solitary trail.
"As ye sow, so shall ye reap," her Aunt Adele would say.
"No good turn goes unpunished," was more like it.
It had started with a trip to the Doc's house. The two Johnnys had been fighting again. The on-and-off best friends were trying out their fledgling boxing skills. Marly blocked a stray punch while grabbing hold of the smaller John Henry. John Thomas' wrist gave way.
Despite the pain, he was quite cheerful during the trek into town. Doc's chiding would be nothing compared to one of Miss Gumm's lectures, a fact he was quite comfortable sharing with Marly. She pointed out that her aunt wouldn't forget to punish him when he returned.
When they came in sight of the Doc's house and found Sheriff Langtree on the porch, Johnny's fear of trouble was so obvious, Marly almost laughed.
"I just sent a deputy to fetch you," the sheriff said by way of a greeting. "I brought Doc a wounded man. Victim of a hold-up. I think Doc could use your help. Rebecca's got her hands full and I've been ejected for being no help at all."
Marly gave him a quick smile and consigned John Thomas to the sheriff's care. Ever since she provided first-aid and brought John Henry's older brother Joe in
―after he shot his toe off with his father's
revolver―Marly had become the Doc's go-too person when he needed more help than his wife could provide.
"Just who we need," Doc said, looking up from his work. "Wash up, my girl. Take over for Becky so
she can get back to Mrs. Applegate. She picked shopping day to go into labor. Silly first-timer mistake to make. "
"Babies come when babies come," said the childless Becky on her way out. "Except when they don't."
Marly spent the next hour assisting the removal of two slugs and the stitching of the wounds. This mostly consisted of handing implements to the doctor and the application of ether on a breathing cup when the patient started to rouse.
Doc saw to John Thomas. She cleaned up and held the basin for the man as the effects of the ether wore off and nausea settled in. She bathed his face with lavender water, known for its cleansing and calming powers.
When his hazel eyes cleared and he was fully conscious, his eyes lit with appreciation and genuine esteem.
"I must be dead," he croaked, his throat raw from the ether, "for you are certainly an angel."
Right, thought Marly, kicking a stone down the dusty road. Not an angel, but a naïve chit of a girl to be taken in by slick words and hazel eyes.
Maybe if she hadn't been taken in by Charlie Meese, neither would the townspeople of Cherryville, Kansas. She had opened the door to a trickster because he appealed to her latent vanity. That girl was left behind in Cherryville. The Marly Landers that was tracking Charlie and the money down was now a scruffy boy in oversized clothes and a droopy, weather-worn hat.
"DO NOT ARREST
―STOP―FOLLOW TO EL PASO AND MONEY―STOP..."
Texas Ranger Jason―
―Strachan reread the telegram, then stuffed it into one the copious pockets of his duster. Jase wasn't surprised by the order. He was on the trail of a confidence man, who had made the mista
ke of cheating some very powerful people in
. However, arresting him now wouldn't recover the half million dollars he had embezzled.
Dog Flats wasn't much. A couple of houses, a general store and a saloon. Blink and he'd ride right by. Most people―and more importantly, the stage―did just that. That was one of the reasons Jase chose the town. The other walked through the door just as he settled into the back corner of the saloon with his second beer.
The boy couldn't have been more than fourteen or fif
teen, yet he marched up to the barkeep, bold as brass, and demanded a job.
"Don't need anyone," said the grizzle-haired man behind the bar.
"I can wait tables, wash dishes, cook, clean. I'm a hard worker and you don't have to pay me. All I want is room and board for the night."
Jase waited. The bartender stared down at the boy. The boy smiled back at the man.
"You can start by clearing tables. Put yer stuff at the back."
For three days, Jase had watched the same scene play out, afternoon or early evening. A
rriving in town, the boy would talk himself into a job sweeping floors, washing dishes, mucking barns―all for supper, a packed lunch and a roof for the night. Then, at sunrise, he was on the road, walking or hitching a ride to the next town. Town by town,
he advanced across Texas. The kid was patient and determined.
It wasn't just the boy's tenacity that caught Jase's notice. The kid was making his own inquiries as he travelled. He was asking after the same man Jase was tracking.
"You a Yank, boy?"
Jase's attention snapped to one of the part-of-the-furniture patrons that saloons like this attracted. The man looked like he hadn't moved from his table in years. Evidently, he still had some life in him because he had a vice grip on the boy's wrist.
"Leave the kid alone, Hayes," called another old geezer at the next table.
"I asked you a question." Hayes pulled the boy in close, breathing whiskey into his face. "Are you a Yankee?"
"Just say no," another patron advised.
"I'm from Kansas."
A hush fell over the room and Jase edged forward in his seat, ready to intervene if necessary.
"And my folks were from Massachusetts, not Missouri, so I guess that makes me a Yank."
"She-it," sighed the old geezer.
"A Yankee killed my boy," Hayes snapped.
"A Reb killed my father," the boy replied. "Another raped and killed my mother. Would have killed me too, if his sergeant hadn't found him and shot him first."
Hayes dropped the boy's wrist.
Jase sat back. Crisis averted.
"Bring me another bottle," said a subdued Hayes.
The boy stared at the man for several heartbeats, then turned toward the kitchen, not the bar. A few minutes later, he returned with a cup of coffee and a plate of cold beef and bread.
"Before you throw that plate in my face," the boy said, "let me just point out that I'm paying for this meal with my work and you would be grievously insulting my hospitality."
Hayes gave the boy a dismissive wave. For a long time, he stared at the plate as if the food might jump up and bite him. Finally, he took a sip of coffee. Then his appetite kicked in and he started picking at the plate.
Jase took his empty beer glass up to the bar for a refill and had a few words with the bartender.
Minutes later, the boy was sent over to his table. He was a scruffy lad in faded, dust-laden jeans
that were a size too big and a work shirt that would have fit a man twice his size. He had hung his ground-scraping duster on a hook at the back with his bedroll―the only luggage he seemed to have. But he was still wearing his hat, which was an indetermin
ate brown and shapeless except for the turned up brim at the front. For all that, his face and neck were clean and his long red hair was neatly braided, Indian-style, down his back.
"You want me for something, mister?"
"I'd like to buy you a good meal. I thought steak and potatoes. If there's something else you would prefer
"I eat in the kitchen, sir."
"You just gave away your supper," Jase said in a dry tone. "I've arranged it with your boss. I'm taking care of your dinner and accommodations so you have the rest of the night off. You would be grievously insulting
tality to refuse."
The boy's mouth twitched. He didn't sit or leave. Head tipped slightly to one side, he gave Jase a speculative stare.
"You've been following me. Why?"
"Hardly following you. I generally make town several hours ahead of you. Why are
following me, Marly Landers?"
The boy's eyes narrowed. "What's your business, mister?"
Jase pulled his jacket aside to reveal a tin star. "I'm a Texas Ranger."
The kid was unimpressed.
Jase broke the stare-down and leaned back, running his fingers through his shaggy, sandy-brown hair.
"I reckon," he drawled, "that if I was to make inquiries in Kansas, I might just turn up something on you, Marly Landers.
I made inquiries."
Landers shrugged and sat.
Through dinner, they parried each other's questions. Landers admitted that he was headed in the general direction of El Paso.
"Personal business," the boy said. "Of no interest to a Texas Ranger."
"I'm probably gonna end up in El Paso," Jase admitted. But he didn't share the nature of his business. "What do you say to travelling together? I supply a horse and tack. You agree to work for me 'til we get to El Paso."
The boy was reluctant, so he added, "It's either that or I hog-tie you and carry you across my saddle."
The kid grinned and rocked back on his chair. "Okay. You'll have to teach me how to ride."
Jase held out a hand. "Deal."
No one had a horse to sell in Dog Flats and Landers refused to ride with Jase. No amount of cajoling or coercion worked on the boy. Fortunately, Mr. Hayes came to the rescue. He had a small farm, which he leased out for drinking money. Hayes persuaded his tenant to give Landers a ride to Abilene.
It meant a late start because the farmer wasn't going to waste a day without taking trade goods with him. Jase took it in stride.
They set out just before noon. Landers sat beside Farmer Jorgen with a basket of cold chicken, peaches, black bread and pickles between them. Jase rode alongside where the road permitted and he accepted whatever food was offered.
His attention was focused, not on the mobile picnic, but on Landers. The boy, who would barely give Jase the time of day last night, was relating his life history to the fatherly Jorgen, including the story of his mother's death.
"It happened after the surrender," Landers explained. "There was a group of Gray-coats heading home, still armed. They were hungry and my mother fed them, then asked them to move on, which they did. Then a couple of them came back after dark."
"You remember this?" Jorgen asked, shocked. "You couldn't have been more than two or three years old."
"A little more than that." Landers pursed his lips, holding back a further comment. "Anyway, their sergeant came back too late to save my mother, but just in time to stop them from hurting me. He shot them."
"What happened to you then?"
"Sarge took me with him. Didn't want to trust me to the Yankees."
Jase bit his tongue.
"You were a brave little boy," Jorgen remarked. "Did you have no other family?"
"I have an aunt
―my mother's sister. I had never met her. There were letters from her with my mother and father's wedding picture."
The boy reached into one of the pockets of his duster and pulled out a small leather-bound folder. Inside was a tintype photograph of a youn
g couple on their wedding day. He flashed it at Jase as though to prove he did indeed have parents, then held it for Mr. Jorgen to have a look.
"Sarge took it from the house, along with the little bit of jewelry my mother had. He kept it safe until Aunt Adele sent for me."
"Sent?" Jase asked.
"Sarge was going to take me west with him. He said we could make a new family. He wrote my aunt, using the most recent letter for the address. He let her know I was alive and being taken care of, and that we'd stop in Waco for a spell before heading west if she wanted to write back. He didn't expect anything to come of it. Nothing did at first. We travelled together for almost a year before her letter caught us up."
Jase frowned. "What did it say?"
"She asked him to bring me home, which was stupid because she never liked me."
By the time they made Abilene, it was late afternoon.
Jorgen stopped at the closest livery, bid them a safe journey and continued on his business.
"You take care of Grandee," Jase told Landers, handing him the reins of his horse. "Can you do that?"
"I'm gonna arrange our accommodations. Stay put 'til I return."
Jase sought out a cheap hotel and booked a room. Then he strolled over to the telegraph office and wired a short report to his superiors.
Back at the livery stable, he found Landers mucking stalls. A stable hand was chewing a straw and cleaning tack as he chatted with the boy. When he noticed Jase, he made himself look busy, checking a bridle for signs of wear. Landers, on the other hand, paused in his work and nodded a greeting. Sweat streamed down his face, cutting rivulets in the trail dust.
Jase shook his head. "You don't have to do that."
"Yes, I do. You might have expense money, but I have to earn my keep."
"Fine. Do what you have to and I'll do what I have to. When you're hungry, make your way to the hotel. We're staying at the DeSoto." He picked up his saddlebags and Landers' bedroll. "Wash up before you come."
It was well past suppertime when Landers made his appearance in the hotel restaurant. Though his clothes were soiled, his hands, face and neck were scrubbed clean. By way of greeting, he handed Jase the quarter dollar in change he had earned at the stables.
Jase pocketed the coins. "I hope you'll let me buy supper."
He summoned the waitress. A pretty woman in plain clothing brought a coffee pot and an extra cup to their table. She filled their cups while he placed an order for cold beef and fried potatoes. He laid on the charm and his Texas drawl, since she was holding the kitchen open for them.
Conversation was spare. The kid was obviously exhausted and Jase was busy with his own thoughts. His quarry had passed through Abilene two days ago, still headed for El Paso. Jase was taking a chance of getting too far behind by taking Landers. He told his Captain that he thought the boy might be an accomplice.
Truth be told, he suspected that Landers was heading west to find the old Rebel who saved his life. In the boy's eyes, Sarge was a hero, but Jase knew of more than one discharged gray-coat, who had found it hard to leave the war behind and had taken to the outlaw life. He didn't want to see the boy fall into the wrong hands. It offended his honor.
It wasn't a brilliant career move to let a wayward kid slow down a criminal investigation. Yet, there was some connection, however tenuous, between the boy and his quarry.
That thought paced back and forth in Jase's mind, until Landers nodded off over his apple pie.
"Come on," Jase said, prodding the boy. "Go get some rest."
He sent Landers up to the room, alone.
Jase had to see a man about a horse.
Landers was gone when Jase awoke. The boy had packed his bedroll and left it by the washstand. Jase found him in the dining room, pouring coffee for other early risers.
"Kid," he said between yawns, "you're unnaturally productive. Don't you ever give it a rest? Speaking of which, you didn't have to sleep on the floor. I would've shoved you over when I came to bed."
Landers shrugged and fetched two cups of coffee, leaving the pot on the counter for someone else to wield. After a large and greasy breakfast, Jase dissuaded the boy from any further labor.
It was time for him to learn to ride.
The gelding was a short, sturdy gray mustang with a definite mulish look to him. The owner fit a similar description. He was asking forty dollars. Jase talked him down to twenty-five, then spent another twenty-five on a saddle, bridle and saddlebags. The tack he bought used from the livery owner. With a little dickering, Jase managed to get him to throw in
a saddle blanket.