Caroline Fyffe

Excerpt: Before the Larkspur Blooms

Book 2: Prairie Hearts Series

Chapter One

Logan Meadows, Wyoming Territory, May 1881

A powerful kick of emotion almost dropped Thom Donovan to his knees. Finally! After eight long years—he was home.

He stopped for a moment on the side of the deserted country road and stared at the Red Rooster Inn just ahead. The rooster-shaped iron weathervane on the steep-thatched roof and the crudely cut logs separated by a ten-inch white chink made his heart thump against his rib cage. The boardinghouse was more welcome than a spanking-new calf on Christmas Day.

Logan Meadows, the town he’d been raised in and his hope for a new beginning, was just around the next bend. He pictured lifting his ma into his arms and swinging her around. She’d laugh and kiss his cheek. And Pa? Well, he wasn’t quite sure what his father’s reaction would be. Thom would ask his forgiveness. Tell him how sorry he was for the trouble he’d caused.

Best not to get ahead of himself. Thom gave himself a mental shake and walked on. It wasn’t until he passed directly in front of the inn’s porch that he noticed the beaten-up old sign he remem- bered from his youth. The proprietor’s name had been struck through and “Violet Hollyhock” written in below. He frowned, and in his perusal, he almost missed the old woman sitting in one of the rockers. Her shawl, tight around her scrawny shoulders, covered a blue-and-brown calico dress buttoned right up under her chin. Her eyes were alight with curiosity.

“You look mighty thirsty, young man,” she called in a scratchy voice. “Why not stop a spell and wet your whistle?” She waved a skinny arm at the chair next to hers. “Come sit and I’ll pour ya a cool glass of the best lemonade ya ever tasted.”

Thom smiled and shook his head. “That’s a kind offer, ma’am, but I have an appointment in town I have to keep.” At the thought, a boulder wedged in the pit of his stomach. “Thank you all the same, though.” When her eyes dimmed in disappointment, he quickly added, “But I may stop back by another time. It’s been years since I’ve tasted lemonade.”

Actually, the twenty-four hours since his last meal had his insides completely twisted. He’d walked the entire way from his drop spot in New Meringue, some fifteen miles, with only a drink from a nearby stream. His throat felt no better than sawdust, but he knew better than to deviate from his instructions.

After several minutes, he rounded the corner onto Main Street and stopped on the wide boardwalk. Logan Meadows had grown. Was growing now, it seemed. The hustle and bustle looked inviting—a sense of community, belonging, made him stand there for an entire minute, taking it all in. Time to pick up the pieces of my life.

A burly man carrying boards on his shoulder crossed the street from the lumber mill and disappeared into an alley. Horses dozed in the sun. As two wagons passed in the road, the driver of one doffed his hat to the occupants of the other. Several men hammered away on the roof of the saloon. The once-sleepy town of Logan Meadows had come to life and the nail-pounding activity had the town in a stir.

Thom continued on, knowing no one would recognize him. He’d left a boy and returned a man. He glanced across the street at the mercantile. Scents of pine oil, tobacco, and candles being dipped all flitted through his mind. The recollection of molasses brought welcome moisture to his mouth, and sounds of childish laughter reverberated in his head as he recalled the row of thick glass jars filled with all sorts of colorful confections. He blinked, and the images evaporated into the air.

Surprisingly, old Mrs. Miller, the owner of the mercantile and as prune-faced as ever, was still alive and out sweeping the boardwalk. She stopped and stared at him, clearly unmindful of her rudeness, then waved her broom to shoo away two scraggly boys kicking an old can back and forth across the wooden slats.

Thom crossed the alley and stepped back on the boardwalk. He’d taken only a few steps when the dented can shot through his feet, almost tripping him, and slid under the doors of the Bright Nugget Saloon. The dirtier of the two urchins tried to scramble past in pursuit, but Thom caught him by his small shoulders. “Let me, son. A saloon is no place for such a young lad.”

“You sure, mister?” the boy said timidly. He kicked at the ground with a well-worn boot and glanced in the direction of the mercantile, probably hoping to avoid Mrs. Miller’s broom.

Thom ruffled the kid’s thick mass of blond hair. “Sure I’m sure. Us men have got to stick together, right?” He winked. “Now, wait here, and I’ll be right back.”

Pushing through the swinging doors, Thom let his eyes adjust. The saloon was dark in contrast to the sunny day. Music and carefree laughter careened around the room. Waitresses served drinks to the occupied tables and flirted with the men at the bar. Remembering the reason he was there, he bent and picked up the can. As he turned to leave, he froze. A cowboy with a large bowed nose threw down his poker hand and hooted, collecting the pile of dollar bills and coins from the middle of the table.

Anger flooded Thom’s body, and a buzzing hummed in his ears. That nose could belong to only one man: Rome Littleton. A hundred times Thom had dreamed of wrapping his hands around the cur’s throat and slowly squeezing the life out of him. What was Rome doing in Logan Meadows? Whatever the reason, it couldn’t be good.

He took a step toward the poker table and stopped. As much as he hated to admit it—he had to leave it go. Reining in his temper, he walked out, handed the can to the boy waiting in the street, and headed toward the sheriff ’s office next door.

The medium-size jailhouse looked as if it had suffered a fire at one time. Thom yanked open the thick oak door and stepped through. Two men looked up.

The loose-fitting pants, a parting gift from the penitentiary up in Deer Creek, suddenly felt awkward. Thom ran his left palm around the inside of his waistband, making sure his ragged shirt was properly tucked in.

Sheriff Albert Preston, presumably the current sheriff because of the silver star pinned to his vest and the name on the wall, sat at the desk. Across the room in one of the open cells, another fellow was stretched out on a cot, his fingers laced behind his head and his boots propped up on the metal end post.

The sheriff took in Thom’s ragged appearance, and his eyes narrowed a bit. His hand stilled from whatever he was writing.

Thinks I’m a beggar looking for a handout.

“May I help you?”

“I was told to check in with you when I got to town.”

The sheriff stood. The other fellow sat up and then came out of the cell. Dwight Hoskins—Thom immediately recognized him. The sorry excuse of a human being had gone from shifty-eyed youth to full-grown man. He had a silver star, too. Damn. Bad luck running into him first thing.

“You have something to say or not, tramp?” Dwight asked.

“Be quiet.” The sheriff shot his deputy a reproving look. He came around his desk and waited.

“My name is Thom—”

“Donovan!” Dwight blurted. He rocked back on his heels. “I knew you looked familiar. Wait a minute, your twelve years for rustling aren’t up yet. Why, it’s only been—” He held his hand out and started counting his fingers under his breath.

“Eight,” Thom supplied, after Dwight had started over twice. “Got time off.” It galled him to tell Dwight anything, but soon the whole town would know, so what difference did it make?

Dwight gawked. “Look at you!” He reached out to touch Thom’s tattered shirt, but Thom knocked his hand away.

Dwight’s eyes went wide as nervous tension exploded across Thom’s back. You better be scared. I’m no longer the same Irish lad you enjoyed pushing around every chance you got. Countless times during their youth, Dwight, a year older and many pounds heavier, had knocked Thom into the dirt, laughing and calling him names. He’d stolen food from his lunch pail. Messed up his schoolwork. Worse yet, he’d made up lies about the Donovan family, claiming they were broke and living off loans, and he’d even spread unclean talk about Anne Marie, Thom’s baby sister.

Their gazes locked.

A sneer appeared on Dwight’s face. “I could lock you up right now, Donovan. For threatening a deputy.” He gestured to the vacant cell a few feet away. “Want to head back to the clink?” He laughed, but Thom noticed he’d stepped back, giving him space.

“Dwight, be quiet!” the sheriff barked. He took a deep breath, then turned back to Thom. “You’re Loughlan Donovan’s youngest boy?”

“Yes, sir.” Thom stood straight. The encounter with Dwight had his blood pumping hot. Dwight. A bottle of ink. The new shirt his mother had made, ruined.

The sheriff ran a hand through his hair, then returned to his seat.

“That’s right. I got a letter a few months back from the warden saying you’d be getting out soon.” He took a key from his pocket and unlocked a drawer in his desk. He found the letter and skimmed down the sheet. “What’re your plans?” he finally asked.

“The mick sure ain’t staying in Logan Meadows,” Dwight said. “This town is for law-abiding citizens. Not rustlers and thieves.”

The sheriff sighed loudly. “Am I going to have to embarrass you in front of this gentleman, Deputy? Go take a walk so Mr. Donovan and I can have a civil conversation.”

Dwight’s face flamed crimson.

“Go on. And don’t be running your mouth off to anyone who’ll listen. You understand?” Preston waited until Dwight left, then gestured to a row of vacant chairs. “Pull one up.”

Uncomfortably, Thom did. He seated himself and waited to be spoken to, a lesson he had learned well up in Deer Creek. The sheriff seemed fair-minded. He had a good face, kind eyes. Surprising for a man in his line of work. Thom was used to the harsh treatment of guards who were just plain mean. This sheriff seemed different. He was only in his late twenties, a handful of years older than Thom himself, if he were to guess.

“Well? What’re your plans? Do you have any?”

“I’m going out to the farm. My family isn’t aware I’m coming home—that is, unless you’ve told them.” A pained expression on Sheriff Preston’s face made Thom swallow. “There’s always work to be done. Pa’s getting on in—”

“Mr. Donovan—”

“Please, call me Thom.”

“Thom, your pa passed on three years ago. I’m sorry. I should have made sure that you were informed. Your mother about two months ago, right before I got the letter from the warden about your release.”

A knifelike pain sliced through his core. Ma! Pa! Both… dead? Thom winced and turned away. He struggled to control his composure, blinking away the moisture gathering in his eyes. It can’t be.

He stood abruptly and moved to the window, gazing out but not seeing anything. His last memory of his father was the ugly shouting match they’d had the day Thom had left home.

He felt the sheriff ’s gaze on his back and realized he had not responded. “What about the rest of them?” His vocal cords were strangling steel fingers as he struggled to get the words out. “Roland and Anne Marie?”

“Your sister married and went north somewhere. Can’t give you a name or a place. Your brother died several months back, before your mother—shot in the saloon. Some sort of dispute. You’ll find his grave in the cemetery next to your parents’.”

Thom leaned his forehead against the cool glass, not wanting to think. Just like that—the Donovan family all but wiped out. “Eight years is a long time,” he said. “But I wasn’t expecting this.”

“I’m sure you weren’t. Do you have any money?”

Thom shook his head, turned to face the sheriff. “I did plenty of carpentry work while I was locked up but never got paid for any of it.”

“I didn’t think so. That may present a problem.”

“What about the farm? Used to be we weren’t rich, but the place prospered, at least a little.”

“We’ve had a couple of droughts. Your pa seemed to lose his will for farming. When he died, there wasn’t anyone to make the payment. After your mother passed, the title went back to the bank. If a young couple hadn’t just bought it, I’m sure the bank manager, Frank Lloyd, would have tried to work something out with you. The land’s in bad shape.”

So much for starting fresh.

“You’re going to need a way to support yourself.”

Thom glanced at the vacant cells so close by. The doors gaped open like the smile on some ghoulish clown face…mocking, dingy, damp.

“My brother owns the livery and forge and is in the process of expanding. Just yesterday he mentioned something about needing help. I’ll see if he’s willing to hire you. If not, there are other opportunities in town with the possibility of the railroad coming through.”

“I’m much obliged,” Thom said. The ticking of a clock on the wall felt like hammer blows to his heart. “Why are you so willing to help, Sheriff? Me, an ex-convict.”

Albert Preston cocked his head. “Maybe it’s what the warden said, you being so young when your problems started. And I respected your parents. They were good people. Every man deserves a second chance, if he pays for his crime. You’ve paid for yours.”

It really stuck in Thom’s craw. He wasn’t guilty, but there was no way to prove it. Still, he felt compelled to defend himself to the sheriff. “I want you to know I’m innocent of the charges. I didn’t know the Colorado outfit I signed on with was rustling cattle. By the time I did, it was too late.” But Rome Littleton had known. He had hired a scared, fifteen-year-old boy who was trying to outrun his remorse and pain, knowing that they were breaking the law. Littleton had gotten away, while all the others had been strung up immediately. Whether or not they deserved their punishment was between them and God, but for Thom, eight years in the penitentiary was a heck of a price to pay for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“The letter from the warden states that you were shot when the gang was apprehended.”

“That’s right. Before I realized who I was riding with, one of the rustlers drew on the posse that had stopped us. I tried to save one of ’em and took the bullet myself. It was the son of the sheriff I’d saved, and because of that they didn’t hang me with the rest. They took me to a doctor, and from there I was tried and sent up to Deer Creek. The bullet still rests in the base of my skull.”

The sheriff whistled.

“Doctor said it was the thick sheepskin coat that saved my life.”

“It’s still there?”

Thom nodded. “Can’t do anything about it. I could wake up paralyzed or dead at any time. Or I could go blind.” He resisted the urge to reach up and finger the spot he knew so well. “I’d appreciate it if this stayed between you and me. It’s no one’s business but mine. I don’t want anyone’s pity.” Without warning, his stomach growled loudly.

The sheriff nodded, then replaced the letter and locked the drawer. He stood and reached for his black Stetson hanging on the hat rack. “How about some lunch? I don’t know about you, but I have a powerful hunger today. Afterward, we’ll go over to the livery and talk with Winthrop, then ride out to the farm. I’m sure you’d like to see it.”

“I don’t want charity, Sheriff. I’ll work—”

The man chuckled, compassion coloring his tone. “I assure you, I can spare twenty-five cents for your meal. If it will make you feel better, consider it a loan until you can pay me back. You need some meat on those bones.” He settled his hat firmly on his head. “I have a good mind to write that warden and tell him to be a little more generous with the vittles.”

With a heavy heart, Thom followed the sheriff out the door and into the sunlight, amazed again to actually be home, in Logan Meadows. The optimism he had felt at first seeing the Red Rooster was gone. His family, gone. Any hope he may have entertained about his future was all but gone, too. But if the past eight years had taught him anything, it was that he would do whatever it took to survive.

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