Sierra Mountains October 1868
“I may have to kill him.”
The words were horrifying, even though said in the most thoughtful tones Samantha Neely’s soft, feminine Tennessee accent could produce.
The wagon lurched over a rock, and she hauled on the reins while her sister grabbed her bonnet and held on to the rough wooden seat.
The October air was pleasantly mild for this high in the Sierras, but the occupants of the wagon weren’t aware of that. Too tired to admire the flutter of a golden leaf as it blew by on the breeze, the Neelys had their eyes set on the swirl of gray smoke over the next hill. Two thousand miles they had come, and the end was near.
“You can’t kill him, Samantha. They’d put you in jail and hang you, and then we would all starve. What would that solve?”
Sam smiled a trifle grimly. Leave it to Harriet to see things in a practical perspective. Her younger sister had the bright blue eyes and golden curls of a china doll, but she had the brain of a first-class merchant. If anything, Harriet’s looks were her downfall. Had she been as homely as Samantha, she could have started her own mercantile store, and no one would have thought twice about it. As it was, men laughed at her when she tried to persuade them she was more than qualified to run a store.
On the other hand, Sam was just as plain as they came, but she didn’t have a penchant for sitting in a musty old store, counting pennies. She wanted to work the land. She watched the plant life around her with more than just a casual interest. Her father had promised that the valley he had found would be temperate enough for good crops despite its location. He’d said the soil was rich and the water plentiful, a veritable treasure trove better than any gold or silver a man could want. Sam knew her father well enough to have her doubts, and those doubts grew by leaps and bounds at the sight of rocky soil and towering evergreens, but it was much too late to turn back now.
“What am I supposed to do when I meet the man?” Sam returned to the subject, casting aside her concerns for the future for the worries of the present. “Ask him politely what he did to our father? Smile and tell him we haven’t heard from our father since he threw him out of town? Demand he find Daddy or we’ll call the law? From what I understand, this character is the law here.”
Two thousand miles had taken their toll on Samantha. As the eldest, she had always been their father’s favorite, the son he’d never had. She’d imitated everything her father had done since she was little more than a toddler, and she resembled him in more ways than anyone else in the family. She had adopted a boy’s attire and preferred the occupations of males to females, but after two thousand miles of acting as man of the family, Sam was actually beginning to look like a man. Her hands were callused from days hauling on the reins of recalcitrant oxen. Her always slender figure had slimmed to wiriness from riding her horse in search of game. No hat brim could keep the pounding sun from setting freckles across her nose and cheeks. And she’d cropped her hair short for ease of care. The red curls were growing out now, but they were the only real evidence that she might be other than a half-grown boy. That, and her voice. She’d been told her sultry drawl could be disconcerting coming from a redheaded tomboy wearing pants.
“Maybe someone has shot him already,” Harriet said. “A man like that is bound to be shot sooner or later. Then we can just find Daddy and tell him to come back.”
Samantha sighed. She loved her father dearly, but she knew better than anyone that her father wouldn’t be content to settle in a valley and raise crops and chickens. He had a wandering mind that kept him flitting from one project to another, always forsaking them as soon as the challenge was solved rather than carrying it through to riches. He might come back to visit if they settled here, but he would never stay. At least now they would be close enough for him to visit.
“There it is! There it is!” Twelve-year-old Jack galloped his pony ahead of the two wagons, sending up swirls of dust in his wake.
The dust worried Sam, too, but she tried not to think about this evidence of lack of rain. She gazed eagerly at the scattering of buildings in the road ahead and sighed with relief that they were more than the shacks and tents she had seen in the mining towns. Good solid adobe had been used in the construction of these buildings, a certain sign of permanence. Her father hadn’t been dreaming when he had chosen this town.
Jack galloped away, and Sam bit her lip in displeasure. Her Uncle William was supposed to have acted as head of the family when they joined the wagon train. A widower with a young son to raise, he had thought it a good idea to join his brother in California rather than suffer the aftermath of a war he’d never believed in. But William had died of cholera long before the wagons had reached the plains, and Jack had run wild ever since.
Conscious of Harriet’s excitement and the eagerness of her mother and Harriet’s twin, Bernadette, in the wagon behind them, Sam urged the weary beasts to a faster pace. As if sensing the end to this journey, they plodded obediently onward.
They had left the rest of the wagon train behind some days ago, following the directions from Emmanuel Neely’s letter. This had to be their new home. If nothing else, their father gave excellent directions. He’d said the old Spanish mission town would be easy to find. He’d bought the deed to their house from the Spanish grandee who owned the original land grant after the church left. The description of their new home would have been sufficient to draw them out here without all the other factors that had induced their move.
The sun settled low on the horizon as they rattled down the hill. The wagons threw up clouds of dust, but the little town appeared serene and golden in the dying light. The hotel and trading post looked just as Emmanuel had described it: the lower half of adobe and shaded by a gallery on the wooden second floor. As Emmanuel had said, the town still looked like an old mission plaza. The hotel formed one side of the square. Stables, a blacksmith shop, and a harness-maker’s establishment formed most of another side. Instead of a church, however, the third side held a lovely old home with sprawling porches and glass windows and trees forcing their way through the desolate dust of the front yard. That would be their home.
Nearly faint with relief that her father had actually found them decent accommodations, Sam took her time examining the rest of the town. She couldn’t tell if the rest of the buildings on the plaza contained shops or residences, but most of them seemed solidly built with tile roofs and adobe foundations. A few wooden shacks were scattered in the streets off the plaza, but this was definitely not a mining town. She had seen enough of them as they had come over the mountains. Her father had written colorful letters describing some of the activities of the miners. Her gently bred mother had nearly expired at the words. She would have never survived in those crude surroundings.
As it was, Sam’s father had been ominously silent on the subject of their new neighbors, except for that last letter mentioning his confrontation with Sloan Talbott. The man had to be a menace, judging from his actions. Greedy, stingy, mean-tempered, and violent—Sloan Talbott didn’t sound like the kind of acquaintance one looked forward to. But he was the only inhabitant of the town they knew anything about. He was the man Sam thought she might have to kill.