Chapter One--Free Excerpt


Chapter One

Lone Star Death by B. A. Neal

Central Texas, late 1880's

As the 12:05 from Fort Worth puffed, whistled and bellowed into the tiny depot at Lowell's Crossing, Samantha Emmeline Slater suddenly shivered and peered out of the grimy window through the dark black steam and soot that enshrouded the train.
The train whistled again and came to a slow, grinding halt, the wheels clacking and screeching against the tracks.  Although the sun was shining brightly, the mournful voice of the locomotive gave Samantha the shivers---like someone walking over her grave---as her aunt used to say.
Samantha rose wearily from her seat, clutched at her back, and slowly began to make her way with the other passengers down the aisle to the door. She paused briefly before giving her hand to the conductor who helped her down onto the platform. She took a long, hard look at the scene around her, blinking against the bright sunshine and the waves of heat, smoke and steam belching from the train. She coughed, took out her white lace handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. It came away black with soot.  Samantha glanced down at the skirts of her best summer dress and was annoyed to find that it, too, was smudged.
Well, at least it’s not a ghost town, Samantha thought as she looked around. It was obviously market day, and the hard-packed dirt streets were filled with the hustle and bustle of men on horseback and farmers loading rickety buckboards and wagons overflowing with large barrels of salt, molasses and flour. The squeals of excited children pierced the air. And the dust was everywhere.
Sam watched with interest for a moment as the farmers unloaded supplies from their wagons in exchange for the things they couldn’t provide for themselves. There were several wagons filled with cotton--more cotton than Samantha had ever seen in her life--and even a wagon stacked high with animal hides.
She daintily held her handkerchief to her nose as a shield against the ubiquitous dust that was a fact of life in these frontier towns, gathered up her long skirts and three layers of petticoats and boldly glanced around.  As cries of recognition greeted each of the other passengers, and the crowd around the platform dwindled, Samantha felt more alone than she ever had in all of her nineteen years.
She was beginning to have serious thoughts about turning tail and running back to Fort Worth when she noticed one other lone figure anxiously waiting on the platform.   He reminded Samantha of a long, skinny vulture---fidgety and nervous.  She turned in the opposite direction to avoid him.
The tall, lanky, and very dusty man frowned as he studiously watched the other passengers take their leave one by one until Samantha was the only passenger left standing on the platform.  He took a long look at her and turned away, frowning. She watched as he fidgeted, pulled his watch out of his vest pocket, looked at it and frowned again.  He politely tipped his hat to Sam as she glanced his way, but then quickly looked in the other direction.  He pushed back his hat, scratched his head, and squinted into the sun.
Samantha looked up and down the wide dirt street and was relieved to see the boarding house sign not far from where she stood. She could also see Albright's Mercantile and Post Office, the livery stable, the blacksmith’s forge and the Sheriff’s Office.  But she still didn’t see the newspaper office.  She knew it had to be there somewhere; the town was tiny.
She cautiously looked back at the man, who still hovered around and was beginning to look anxious.  She had expected the assistant printer at the newspaper to meet her at the train.  Surely this dusty, dirty cowboy couldn't be him!  She decided to speak to him---maybe he knew where the newspaper office was.
"Excuse me, sir, but could you tell me where I can find the newspaper office?"
The man looked startled for a moment and his face flushed deep red.
"Why, yes, ma'am.  I know where you can find the office," he said, stammering. He squinted again, snatched his hat off his head and peered more at Samantha.  “Beggin' your pardon ma'am, but I don't think we've ever met.  My name is Thomas Hill. You're not from around here, are you?  Do we know each other?"
“No, we don’t.  But I was told that someone was to meet me here at the depot and take me to my new place of employment.”
The man stared.  “Employment, ma'am?" he gaped at her.  "You mean. . .like. . .a job?"
Impatience leapt into Samantha’s voice.  “Yes, my new job. At the newspaper. The Lowell's Crossing Lone Star.  Surely you've heard of it?  You do live here, don’t you?”
Thomas Hill was starting to look kind of green around the gills.  “Holy smokes. The newspaper!" He scrubbed his hand over his jaw and frowned. "I didn't expect..."
Samantha was tired from her journey and had had enough of this stupid, dirty, dull-witted man.  “Never mind!  I’ll find it myself!  It can’t be too hard to find in a town this small, now can it?”  She looked around, squinted, and tried to read the signs on the buildings farther down the street.  She picked up her valise, gathered up her skirts and petticoats and swished down the wooden platform, holding her hat onto her head so it wouldn't blow off into the dirt.
“Wait just a minute!” the man called to her.
Samantha’s steps slowed as he loped along to catch up. “Are you kin to Sam Slater by any chance?” he asked, but looked as if he really didn’t want to hear her answer.  Surely she wasn't. . .
“My name is Samantha Slater, Mr. Hill. Some-times I allow my friends to call me Sam.  Why?”
The man flushed deep crimson and began stammering again. “Oh boy. . .that’s what I was afraid of. . .We didn’t expect you. . .I mean, ma'am. . .we uh . . .kinda. . .”  He gulped and stared.
“Well, spit it out, Mr. Hill!” she snapped.  "I really don't have all day." She pursed her lips and tapped her foot.  "Well?"
He took a deep breath and crushed his hat between his hands.  “We expected a. . .man, ma'am.  Beggin' your pardon, but we didn’t expect no young woman.”  He cringed as he said the words.  "No offense, ma'am."
Samantha was startled for a moment, then began to laugh. “You thought I was going to be a man?  Now isn’t that funny.  Mr. Hill, do you think I look like a man?"
Tom glanced sideways at Samantha, took a long, hard look, then quickly forced his eyes to the ground.  "Well, no ma'am.  Surely not."
"Well then, Mr. Hill, now that you’ve figured out I’m not a man after all, can we get down to business?  Where is the newspaper office?" she demanded.
Tom gulped and looked around.  "It’s right down the street, ma'am, but. . ."
“But what, Mr. Hill?”
“Well. . . .the owner of the paper, George Stanley. . .well he ain’t gonna. . .I mean he's gonna be real. . .surprised, too.  Just like I am.”  He gulped.
Samantha stopped abruptly in the middle of the sidewalk, and Mr. Hill almost ran into the back of her.
“Mr. Hill---what are you trying to tell me?  I wish you'd just come right out and tell me what's going on!”  She swung around to face him.  “Why should he be surprised?  When I sent you my letter of reference from my former employer in Fort Worth, he clearly stated my name as Miss Samantha Slater.  I know, because I typed it myself.”
 Tom cogitated for a second on this bit of news, his jaw working up and down and his nose wriggling back and forth.  "Well, that's very strange. My boss told me that the letter we got was handwritten, ma'am.  I remember, 'cause he said he could barely read it.  And it said your name was Sam. Sam Slater, ma'am. That's why I'm kinda surprised.”
"Why, that low-down, lyin son of a . . ." Samantha stopped, took a deep breath and bit off her words. She wondered why she had had no problems getting hired for the job at the Lowell's Crossing newspaper.  Now she began to understand.  Obviously her former employer, bless his heart, had fibbed a bit on her application, switching it with the letter she had so meticulously typed herself.  Jobs of any kind were hard to come by in central Texas--–especially jobs for a young unattached woman such as herself.  Most girls Samantha's age were already married and on the way to starting a family.  And it was even more rare for a woman to end up in a position like this one---the assistant to the editor. She sort of wished she had got the job on her own merits as a writer and typewriter operator, but felt grateful to have the job under any circumstances. Well, she would show this George Stanley! She would prove to her new boss that she could do the job. Even if she was a female!

******

Tom deposited her at the door unceremoniously, thrust a copy of last week's Lone Star in her hands, tipped his hat, and scurried away, mumbling something about finding the boss. 
Samantha looked around the tiny office. It made her think of her family. Although she had very few memories of her father, her mama told her that he used to say she had ink in her veins, just like he did.  Her father had been a newspaperman in Ft. Worth when she was a very young girl, and she had a faint recollection of playing in his office in the middle of all the type cases and stacks of paper.  He must have been right, because Samantha had wanted to be a writer as long as she could remember.  She was curious and wanted to talk to people, ask questions, and scribble down their stories.  She felt an overwhelming excitement as she breathed in the heady scent of the newsprint, the inks and the leaded type that was used to make up the text of the newspaper.
Her father had left them all when she was so young, but she did have a few cherished memories of him working, his long sleeves rolled up to his elbows, his white apron smeared black with ink, and the stacks of freshly printed paper sitting on the worktable to dry.
Her mother had been horribly distraught at the idea of her only daughter following in her father's footsteps.  Mrs. Slater had tried desperately to interest Samantha in the more womanly pursuits of china dolls, needlework and dressmaking, for example.  But Samantha would rather write than anything, and was spinning tales of her own as soon as she learned to talk. Of course, that was before he took off and left them both behind.
Samantha frowned as the happy memory suddenly turned dark.  Her mother didn't last long after her father left them.  She slowly faded away until one day she just couldn't hold on anymore.  Thank goodness Samantha's aunt was around to take her in and help her finish growing up.  But the day she turned eighteen years old, she left her home and went to the big city of Fort Worth to try to make her own way in the world.  She looked for a job, and finally found work with the Cowtown Livestock Reporter for a year before realizing that she didn't want to spend the rest of her life doing stock reports or writing about horse feed---all of them printed under some man’s name.  She wanted to spin tales about real people, not cows!
All that was behind her now. Samantha was determined to get started at a real newspaper, even if it was in a tiny town like Lowell's Crossing.
The Lone Star office was quiet.  Samantha knew that the paper was printed once a week on Fridays, so she had almost a whole week to learn her job.  She knew she could do it.  Samantha was glad to be alone for a few minutes in the peace and quiet of the office.  The horribly long train journey from Fort Worth to Lowell's Crossing was crowded, dirty, hot, exhausting and very noisy.  Samantha walked around the tiny room, noticing the old wooden chair with the well-worn seat, the oak roll-top desk piled high with old, dusty newspapers and the lone typing machine sitting in the corner on a small grimy work table.  She ran her fingers over the keys, imagining that she was writing a real news story.  She turned and glanced around the rest of the room.
Against the wall was an old rickety bookcase, filled to overflowing with dusty books and papers.  Samantha read a few of the titles.  The Holy Bible, The Old Farmer’s Almanac, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and a textbook on journalism were prominent, along with a copy of Aesop's Fables. Samantha nodded in appreciation; it seems that the editor was a well-read, intellectual fellow---just the kind of editor that a small town like this needed. She would hate to find herself working with a complete dolt! Like that Hill fellow, for instance. She shuddered at the thought.
Sam wandered into the back where the printing was done. The room was also small, but tidy. The sight of the press took her breath away. She ran her hands along the sides of it, reveling in the feel of the cold, hard metal and imagining it clacking away, turning out hundreds of copies of the Lowell's Crossing Lone Star, all with her name on the front page.
Samantha sighed and jerked her thoughts back to cold, hard reality.  It was not very likely that she would be allowed to sign her name to any stories for a long time, if ever.  Samantha was no stranger to the realities of a small town newspaper.  As assistant to the editor, she would most likely get to do some type setting---and if she was lucky---some typewriting. No doubt she'd also be expected to sweep the floors, make and fetch the coffee and arrange for vittles, too.
That didn't matter to her.  She was eager to get to work, no matter what she had to do.  She was determined and anxious to lose herself in it---to put the memories of Ft. Worth and her old job behind her.
Samantha shook her head, sighed and took a seat in the old wooden chair.  She picked up her copy of the Lone Star and began to scan the front-page headlines---Man Stung 15 Times While Trying to Remove Bee-Hive from Outhouse.  Chicken Thieves Get Away with Prize Rooster.  Limestone Quarry Opens.  Livestock Show Postponed Due to Rain.
Samantha stared in disbelief as she flipped through the rest of the paper.  Where was the real news?  Where were the stories about the financial crisis in New York?  Where were the stories about the horrible floods in the Ohio Valley?  And where was the news about the new fashions coming up from New Orleans?  She shook her head. Certainly there was a place for local news like the theft of the rooster, but not on the front page. Oh, how she’d love to help make this little paper into the best one in the state!  Of course, she'd never be able to compete with The Austin Daily Statesman, but there was still a place for a small town newspaper that the local citizens could count on for the real news.
She threw the paper aside in disgust, glanced at the clock on the wall and wondered what was taking Mr. Hill so long to find the editor of the Lone Star.  She was awfully tired and hot, and was looking forward to her room at Miss Mable's Boarding House.  She dreamed of taking a nice hot bath before dinner and going to bed early.  She jumped up, smoothed her dress in front of her, and was looking around for something else to read when she heard a loud commotion in the street outside the front door.
She turned, and before she could say a word, Tom and another man burst through the door, carrying a third man.  He was tall and rangy, and his hair was raven black streaked with gray.  He had a rather bushy mustache that curled up on the ends, and a scruffy beard covered the bottom and sides of his face.  He jerked away from the men, stumbled around, took a few steps on his own, then collapsed in a heap on the floor.
One of the men noticed Samantha standing in the doorway, tipped his hat then gently moved her aside.  “Outta my way, young lady,” he ordered.  “We’ve got a hurt and bleedin' man here.  Bill, go fetch the doc, will ya?  I think I just saw his horse down at the saloon.  Hurry up, don’t dawdle around!”  One of the men quickly ran out of the office into the street, yelling for the doctor to come quickly.
Samantha looked down at the wounded man.  His head was bleeding and his clothes were covered with dust from head to foot.   Deep red stains covered his shirt and his jeans.  His whiskers were already caked with dried blood and dust.  He looked very pale and drew a ragged breath. His thin, wiry body shook with the effort.
He looked up through bleary eyes and reached out for her, as if to take her hand.  Samantha saw something flicker in his deep dark eyes but just as quickly, it was gone.  He whispered, "I was looking forward to meetin' you." Before Sam could reply, another man crashed through the door into the office, shouting.
Assuming this was the doctor, Sam looked up and was surprised to see how young he looked---and how handsome, too.  She quickly took a breath, and gave him a shaky smile.
He tipped his hat, then turned his attentions to his patient.  “Well there, George, Bill told me you had a little set-to with that Black Devil of yours.  Why’d you want to go and get yourself all trampled?”  He looked around at the small group gathered around him.  “One of you men fetch me some whisky.  I think he’s gonna need it.  And go get my bag from my office.  Hurry up!”    He glanced at Samantha.  "I don't know who you are, but see if you can stand out of the way there.”
A group of people crowded into the tiny room, craning their necks to see what was going on.  "Get all those people out of here," the doctor shouted.  Amidst some grumbling and complaining, the crowd reluctantly moved out onto the sidewalk as one of the ranch hands closed the door against their prying eyes.
"We tried to take him to your office, Doc, but he demanded that we bring him here," one of the men explained.
Samantha sidled over to Tom, her eyes wide with apprehension.  She wasn’t exactly fainty with the sight of blood; Lord knows she had seen her share of bloodshed in Fort Worth after the large herds of cattle came through.  The cowboys got liquored up and shot off their mouths along with their Colts.  Fort Worth wasn't called Cowtown for nothing.
Thomas took a look at her, and quickly pulled up a chair out of the way.  “Are you all right, ma'am?  Maybe you’d better go wait in the back room---you don't look so good all of a sudden."
She waved him away impatiently.  “I’m fine, Mr. Hill, and I prefer to stand. Who is that man? And what happened to him?”
“Why,that's the boss, ma'am---George Stanley.  He’s the owner and editor of the newspaper.  He’s the one that hired you from that Fort Worth paper.”
So this was George Stanley!  She peered at the man for a moment.  “Do you know what happened?” she finally asked.
“I was out lookin’ for him, to bring him in here to meet you, when a couple of his ranch hands came into town in the buckboard, hell bent for leather.  The next thing I knew, George tried to climb outta' the back, and he just fell out, right in the middle of the street out yonder.  He like to got run over by the Bickenses' buggy.  We picked him up and brought him in here."
He shook his head sadly.  "One of his hands said that he went kinda crazy out at the ranch.  He started stumbling around and running into things, then he jumped up on his horse and took out like the devil was on his tail.  A little further down the trail, the horse reared up, went crazy and threw him off, then trampled him.  They took out after him, but couldn't catch up."
Samantha watched while the doctor worked. Although George Stanley’s face was streaked with blood and grime, from what she could see, he looked to be in his mid-forties, and was quite handsome, with a somewhat craggy face.  Samantha frowned.  There was something vaguely familiar about that face.  Ah, yes.  That's it, she thought.  She had seen his photograph on the front page of the Lone Star in the Fort Worth Library.
Samantha sighed.  It was just her luck to come into town right in the big middle of something like this.  She had only been here for less than an hour, and already the editor was laid out on the floor of the office.  She had heard that Lowell's Crossing was a nice quiet little town---supposedly so different from Fort Worth.
Sam shuddered, and tried not to think about all the blood that was beginning to stain the office floor. The men continued their hurried activity for a few more minutes, then abruptly stopped and stepped back from Mr. Stanley's prone body.  “Well, he’s gone,” said the doctor, shaking his head.  “Bill, you'd better go tell Sheriff Gilbert.  And go get the undertaker while you're at it.”
The doctor turned back to the cowhands that had driven the buckboard into town.  "One of you had best go back out to the ranch and break the news to Mrs. Stanley.  And be gentle with her, will ya'?  Tell her I'll be out later to see how she's doin' and bring her a sedative.  Lord knows she's gonna need 'em after this."
The cowhands looked at each other warily.  One of them, dressed in a red shirt and bandanna, and bolder than the rest, said with a satisfied smirk, "Well, I guess that's the end of that he-devil horse.  Miz Stanley has just been waitin' for a chance to get rid of that old Black Devil."  He shook his head.  "A damn shame, too.  Such a fine piece of horse flesh."
The cowboys shook their heads and began to leave, tipping their hats to Samantha as they passed.  They shuffled outside, hopped back up onto the buckboard, and drove out of town.
Thomas took a long look at Samantha and rubbed his whiskery jaw. “Well, if that don’t beat all.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Well, ma'am," he drawled.   "Looks like our boss just got hisself kilt.  And since I ain't no writer, it looks like you'll have to do it for now.  Looks you’re the new editor of the Lowell's Crossing Lone Star.  At least until Miz Stanley finds someone else.  I expect that ain't gonna be her priority for a while, though."
Samantha's mouth dropped open.  It took her a moment before she could speak "Tom, did I hear you correctly?  Did you just say our boss?"
"Why, yes ma'am. . .our boss.  I work at the paper too.  Didn't I tell you?  I  plumb forgot in all the ruckus here.  I'm the printer's apprentice.  Or at least I was."  He frowned and scratched his head. "I guess I'm the bona-fide printer now, since I ain't got nobody to apprentice to all of a sudden.  I set the type and keep the press runnin'.  I thought you knew. I thought I told ya?" He grinned.  "Yep, we'll be workin' together, I expect. Just you and me.  Right here together.  I reckon we'll be a good team, you and me."

End of Chapter One
------

Copyright 2012 by Bobbi A. Chukran/B. A. Neal and Limestone Ledge Publishing

No comments:

Post a Comment