Caroline Fyffe

Excerpt: Winter Winds of Wyoming

Book 7: Prairie Hearts Series

Chapter One

Logan Meadows, Wyoming Territory, December 1883

“For a man who’s just cheated a life of slavery, and most likely death, I’m a sorry example of cheer and goodwill.” A cloud of frosty air engulfed Dalton Babcock’s face. “Ebenezer Scrooge has more Christmas spirit than me.”Christmas is only two and a half weeks away.

The small apartment above the Logan Meadows sheriff’s office felt cramped. Dalton stared a hole through the sheet of paper laid out on the rickety desk where he sat. One side of the sheet was labeled Clients and on the other, Cases. The paper was otherwise blank. His plan to open a detective agency hadn’t thrived.

Before being shanghaied by Hugh Hexim’s men, he’d been gainfully employed as a security guard for a construction site in San Francisco. To supplement his income, he’d helped a private investigator who rented the apartment next to his. Dalton enjoyed searching for clues, putting together pieces of a crime puzzle, and solving mysteries. But that occurred in San Francisco—a city vastly populated compared to Logan Meadows. In the coastal community, jealous spouses paid dearly to have their husband or wife followed, suspicious they kept someone else on the side. Employees embezzled from employers. Expensive jewelry disappeared from duly locked safes. Logan Meadows, on the other hand, had barely evolved from frontier days.

Annoyed, Dalton slapped the pencil he held onto the desk with a thwack. Ignoring the sharp teeth of hunger gnawing his belly, he stood and stalked to the window. Below, near the hitching post across the street, Gabe Garrison strummed Christmas carols on his guitar with Seth Cotton accompanying on the fiddle. Happy townsfolk stopped to listen. Not lingering too long in the cold, they stayed a few minutes and then hurried away. So many new faces to meet and old friends to remember.

Dalton shivered in his wool-lined coat that did little against the bitter cold. He shoved both hands into his armpits, glaring at the jolly scene transpiring on the street. As impossible as the fact seemed here in Wyoming, the small apartment above the jail didn’t have a woodstove. The upstairs living space had been an afterthought, converted from a storage room long after the building was constructed. Because of that, the stovepipe from below had been routed along the exterior wall. When Dalton could afford to, he’d install a woodstove of his own. Until then, he’d best throw his pride to the wind and join Albert and Thom downstairs before he turned into a block of ice. He’d huddle next to their heat and thaw his bones. “I’m not a polar bear,” he muttered wryly, still rooted to the spot. His belly, empty since the meager meal he’d consumed several hours earlier, grumbled another protest.

Outside, snow began to fall. Across the street, the pitched roofs of Harrell’s Haberdashery, Lettie’s Bakery, Ling’s Laundry House, and Doctor Thorn’s medical office slowly turned white. Here and there, wreaths of varying sizes, decorated with red and green bows, hung above windowsills and on doors. A twenty-foot-tall Douglas fir had been erected yesterday in the middle of the street between the haberdashery and the saloon. Tomorrow evening, the town would gather to add the decorations. Dalton spotted Nate Preston and Markus Donovan playing in the loft of the livery, trying to catch snowflakes in their hands as they hung from the upper door by one arm.

Feeling grumpy and in need of some Christmas cheer, Dalton wrestled up the window to a blast of frigid air.

“Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Stephen. When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even…”

The rich voices deepened the ache in Dalton’s chest. Almost six weeks had passed since he’d stepped off the train to a welcoming crowd at the Logan Meadows depot. He’d been delivered from purgatory by Jake Costner and his sisters, Adaline and Courtney. In all reality, if Jake hadn’t shown up in Newport when he had and then acted on his good instincts that the ragged prisoner with the caramel-colored eyes being held in the trainyard resembled his friend, Dalton would now be in Alaska, slaving in Hexim’s gold mine. Or perhaps he’d be dead. In the drug-induced state he’d suffered, Dalton had been in no condition to save himself, even though he’d wanted to. God had sent deliverance in the name of Jake Costner.

Then, after only a few days in Logan Meadows and to his utter dismay, Dalton learned his life savings had been absconded from the bank in San Francisco. The dishonest bank owner gambled away every cent entrusted. The man had been tried, convicted, and now served a life sentence, but his incarceration meant little to Dalton. If not for the generous ten dollars Albert loaned him upon arrival, he’d be hard-pressed to eat.

Dalton shoved an icy hand into his pants pocket and fingered the money.

I need work. Real work. And soon!

Below, wrapped in a stylish, dark-burgundy winter coat with a fur-trimmed hood, Tabitha Wade walked beside Hunter Wade, her husband and part owner in the Bright Nugget saloon, a gloved hand tucked into the crook of his arm. At this time of day, the two were most likely headed to the Silky Hen for their noon meal. Marigold Canterbury, Tabitha’s mother, walked alongside, her flitting gaze taking in the sights.

Dalton had heard the story of how the older woman and Tabitha fended off a killer bounty hunter, saving the Lings’ young daughter, Lan. A lot transpired in Logan Meadows in the months he’d been away.

When he scanned the opposite direction, Dalton sucked in a breath, his heart thumping against his ribs. Susanna Robinson Preston approached with a wicker basket swinging on her arm. Some six months ago, he fancied himself in love with Susanna. Thought they might even make a life together. But she’d chosen Albert. Watching her, he pressed a hand on the sill, his throat tightening. Could he really live in the same town with her? See her every day?

Tabitha and Susanna halted directly below Dalton’s window. Hunter stepped inside Albert’s office.

As much as he enjoyed seeing Susanna’s and Tabitha’s smiles and hearing their laughter, their jovial moods made him feel worse and his plight all the more clear. He couldn’t remain in Logan Meadows on charity. As a man, he had to earn his way. Albert, kind fellow that he was, provided this apartment for free. Well, not exactly free, but a rent of one dollar a month was practically nothing.If a paying case didn’t present itself soon, he’d consider other options—one being returning to his hometown of Breckenridge, where his parents lived. Or go back to San Francisco. But starting over again would take some money—funds he didn’t have.

About to turn away from the window and head downstairs, he halted.

A buckboard came up the street, leaving tracks in the thin layer of new fallen snow. The wagon pulled up directly across the street. Maximus and Clementine, Win’s shaggy winter-coated buffalo, gazed at the arrivals from behind their corral fence.

Jake, Daisy, and… Adaline.

Since arriving in Logan Meadows, a day hadn’t passed when Adaline hadn’t searched him out in his office, the mercantile, or the Silky Hen Café to ask some question a local could easily have answered. She made him feel special. Memories of how she’d nursed him when he’d been so sick in Newport—first, the stormy night in the abandoned pig shed and then, high in Freddy Bennet’s treehouse—warmed his heart. Their conversations and the sound of her voice awakened something deep inside. He wasn’t sure what the stirrings meant, but he was too cold to think about the reasons just now.

“I’m past due for coffee and a warmup downstairs by the woodstove.” Albert issued an open invitation along with the one-dollar rent. “I won’t consider the hospitality as charity just yet. Hopefully, I’ve already hit the bottom of my barrel, but one just never knows about fate.”

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