Under the Gunslinger’s Watchful Eye (Preview)

Chapter One

Nora heard her mother grunting as she struggled up the narrow staircase to her third-floor apartment. Nora put the kettle on the potbellied stove, heated earlier in the day. She wished she had thought better than to warm up her already hot and stuffy home since it was late June. Mrs. Benson was coming to fetch her daughter for family dinner in the more gentile section of Chicago.

The room was tidy except for the small stack of correspondence on the table. Nora quickly whisked it away and everything was in order for her mother. The papers would lead to her asking questions and Nora wasn’t prepared or willing to give answers yet. Her apartment was easy to clean since she didn’t have much besides her cherished piano and necessities. 

The Benson family consisted only of her mother Harriet and father Milton with Nora being the only child. Her mother said it was a miracle she was even born. The doctor had declared her mother barren and they were resigned to being childless.

“Oh, dear,” Nora’s mother said as she shuffled into the small room. “This place makes me melancholic each time I see it. Why you insist on staying here alone is beyond me when you have other options. There is a room waiting, just as you left it on Highsmith Place. Your father and I are ready to welcome you home with open arms.”

Nora nodded and managed a slight smile. She had no intention of ever living under the same roof as her father again. He had controlled her for eighteen years and then forced her into a miserable situation. Nora went from living under Milton Benson’s rule to that of the nasty Sebastian Sterling. He was gone and she was alone in a one-room apartment.

It was stiflingly hot in the summer and unbearably cold in the winter. Nora was uncomfortable but she preferred it over living the stringent life in Highsmith place.

“I’m not the young woman who lived in that room years ago. I’ve grown up and gotten used to living life as I wish. Mistakes are made and I take the blame for them just as I take credit for the good that I accomplish. You know the primary reason I don’t return but I know it isn’t a subject you’re comfortable talking about,” Nora said. She took off the apron she had been wearing and flattened out the pleats of her simple dress.

“I love you, Nora, and I love your father too. I wish things were different but they’re not. He has rules and you push back, which has little to do with me. I tried intervening but it was hopeless.” Mrs. Benson sighed. “I consider myself blessed that you come once a week for dinner and you and your father manage to hold your tongues. I’ve arranged for Seymour to bring you home tonight as I’m sure you won’t stay the night.”

Nora opened the windows so the heat wouldn’t be oppressive when she arrived home. She went down the stairs first so she could catch her mother if she tumbled. Harriett Benson was plump, especially when compared to Nora, who was slender. Her extra girth meant she gave the softest hugs that always made Nora feel better, regardless of what caused her sadness.

Seymour had been their loyal coachman for as long as Nora could remember. All the staff at the house were like family and they seemed to know Nora was lonely growing up as an only child. They had let her help cook sweets in the kitchen or allowed her to play in the rose garden. The vegetable garden was her favorite place and Nathan, the gardener, was always happy to share what he knew.  

Nora hadn’t been far from Chicago, the city where she was born, except for a visit to family in the countryside. The open space on her uncle’s farm made Nora tingle from her head to her toes. She never felt that way in Chicago, but the prospect of having that same feeling in Redwood Creek, Montana was closer to becoming reality than it had ever been. Nora’s quest to be a mail-order bride was well underway, although her parents knew nothing about it. Her idea would be met with harsh criticism, especially from her father. It was best she kept her departure a secret until leaving for Montana was only days away, which would give Milton Benson very little time to come up with ways to prevent her from pursuing her dream.

“I appreciate you coming to escort me to dinner every Saturday, but I could make it to Highsmith Place on my own,” Nora said.

Her mother tittered. “I know you’re able, but I enjoy the time we have together, just the two of us. Things are different when your father is added to the mix and that means the night will be filled with snide comments. I’m upset when that happens.”

“I’m so like you, Mother. The tension and discord bother me too and there are times I’m unable to enjoy your delicious meal,” Nora said. It was upsetting that her relationship with her father was causing her mother to fret when that wasn’t her intention.

Mrs. Benson laughed. “You must know that it isn’t my meal since I had no hand in preparing it. Without Sissy, I don’t know what I’d do. I hired her the week after you were born because we had to have someone who knew how to cook a proper meal.”

“It worked,” Nora said. “I turned out okay as far as I can tell. You did everything right as a mother and I hope you never forget that. You passed on your love of books, which has given me a great deal of pleasure.”

“You’re talking as if you will never see me again. You’ll have plenty of occasions to tell me what a wonderful mother I am,” Mrs. Benson said.

Nora just smiled. She couldn’t tell her that she was planning to travel to Redwood Creek, to marry. Her hands shook when she had received the letter asking for her hand in marriage, after a courtship of four months. Since opening the letter, she had reread it countless times. Nora was ready to become the bride of William Carter. The mail-order bride agreement between them was one of convenience. He needed a woman to care for him and she needed somewhere to go with open spaces and freedom from men like her father and Sebastian Sterling. Nora had agreed to journey to Montana before winter set in.

 A coach was leaving the station in two weeks, and she would be in Redwood Creek before the first snowflake fell. William seemed kind and that was the characteristic Nora cared about most. Trusting a man again wasn’t going to be easy but Nora saw no other way but to try.

***

Milton Benson was waiting in the foyer when Nora and her mother walked in. The entrance to the house was grand, as was most of the home. It was made of brick and the shutters were white like the front door. Nora made sure to look at it closely because she would likely be there just one more time before she moved west. Having lived there for eighteen years, she wouldn’t forget many details, even if she tried.

Nora’s father stood stiffly waiting for her to give him a peck on the cheek, which she did. His dark hair was in perfect order and so were his clothes. His trousers didn’t have a wrinkle to be seen nor did his waistcoat.

“Still insisting you live on your own, I see. Each time you come to dinner, I expect to see your trunk or perhaps tears in your eyes,” Mr. Benson said.

“Why would you think I’d have tears in my eyes?” Nora asked.

“You’d be pleading to come home and begging my forgiveness for all the crass and inappropriate things you have said to me,” he said.

“I have never been crass because I have been taught by my dear mother to always use kind words. If you considered my words inappropriate, you’re mistaken. Anything I said was in response to some order you were giving me or cruel comment you made.” Nora said and then looked over at her mother with sad eyes. She didn’t deserve to be caught in their bickering, so Nora took a deep breath and changed her tone. “It’s a beautiful June day and I think we should lay down our swords and enjoy dinner as a family.”

“For your mother’s sake, I agree,” Milton said. He pursed his lips and walked to the dining room where he took his seat at the head of the table.

Nora’s father was harsh with his words as far back as she could remember. When Nora was five, he walked into her playroom and there were dolls, jacks, and balls scattered about. The nanny followed his schedule and Nora was allowed one hour of free play per day. The nanny must have figured toys would be put away at the end of the hour. Her father saw the mess and he was irate and ordered all the toys put away immediately. The nanny was dismissed, and Nora was punished. There were no more hours of free play after that.

Then came her forced marriage, which many referred to as an arranged union. Either way, her husband Sebastian was even worse than her father and when he died, he left behind a wagonload of debt. Nora was penniless and her father twisted it so she was to blame for her current state. He said she should have known of his debt because Nora was living with him.

Sissy served a roast, medium as Mr. Benson demanded. He sent back countless platters of meat over the years, which meant that the servants were able to serve it for dinner to their families. The Benson family ate and chatted about topics that were safe like the weather.

Mr. Benson couldn’t allow the evening to end without one last shot at Nora. “You’ve had time to properly mourn your husband. Are you ready for me to choose another prospective husband? It won’t be so easy this time because you’re older and have already shared a bed with a man. I don’t know how many men would be willing to give their name to a used woman.”

“No thank you, Father. Sebastian was the first and last man I allow someone else to choose for me.” Nora left it at that. She didn’t want to argue anymore because, though her parents were unaware, she would soon be saying goodbye to Chicago.

Nora’s mother inserted herself into the conversation. She must have sensed that it would start a fight between the two people she loved most. “I don’t know where the time went. It’s almost time for you to leave, Nora. Unless, of course, you’ve changed your mind and want to stay the night.”

“No, Mother. But I look forward to your next visit. I will have a cup of tea ready for you and we’ll have a wonderful time catching up,” Nora said.

“That will be lovely, dear, and perhaps you will play the piano for me. I miss the sound echoing through the house. It puts me in a joyous mood like nothing else,” she said.

Nora’s parents stood and saw her to the door. Seymour offered his arm and escorted her to the waiting carriage.

The sun was beginning to set as the carriage passed stately brownstones that had lovely views of the lake. The structures became more rundown and, finally, they arrived in Nora’s neighborhood. It was filled with apartment buildings with few windows that weren’t shattered and vagrants on the streets.

Nora locked the door behind her after she entered her apartment. No crime problems had been reported in her building, but her neighbors had warned her always to be vigilant. She went to the letters she had pushed aside when her mother visited. Nora reread them every night so she could dream of her new life in Montana. She had a hard time believing her plan to be a mail-order bride had been successful. She made it happen and that gave Nora confidence when she needed it most.

She read William’s response to her answer to his advertisement in the Marital Times. The paper was worn since she had read it so many times. Nora reverted to the name of Benson when she first wrote to him, although she did not hide the fact that she had been married. No one knew her by either name in Montana and she had no reason to keep a man’s name after a loveless marriage.

Dear Miss Benson,

I was so happy to receive your letter that I threw the rest away. I told you that I need help with the house and garden. This didn’t scare you and you seem quite the fearless woman. You’re twenty-five and I’m thirty-nine, I hope our age isn’t an issue. I assure you I’m hearty and tell a good story. I can’t offer a family, but I will work doubly hard to assure you’re comfortable. You said you play piano, and I promise to have one for you if you come to Redwood Creek. It will work out well cuz I like to listen, and you like to play. You mentioned church and we have a fine one of those. I haven’t seen the inside in years but I’m willing to try and change that.

I don’t demand much, not even love, but a deep friendship would be welcome. Who knows what the future holds, but I don’t want you to feel pressured.

Respectfully yours,

William

From the letter, William seemed a kind man, which was what she desired the most. Sebastian had been harsh to the point of cruelty and demanded order, just like her father. He’d wake her up in the middle of the night if something wasn’t put away exactly as he liked it. He’d wake up and tour the house looking for things she’d doneq1 wrong. Sebastian would pull her out of bed and make her correct her errors. Nora didn’t like things untidy but there were more important things to worry about in life.

 

Before bed each night while living in the apartment, Nora had played piano. She had asked her neighbors on either side if they minded the noise. They replied immediately that they looked forward to the heavenly sounds. It ended the day peacefully and they thanked her.

Nora played until she could no longer keep her frost-blue eyes open. She slept peacefully as she dreamed of her future.

 

Chapter Two 

 “You’d better have a good reason for banging on my door on Sunday morning,” Wyatt Bayden called out. He pulled himself out of bed to see who dared disturb him.

Wyatt lived alone in the ranch house he had built with his own two hands. It had been the first project he undertook when he decided to make Redwood Creek home. The people of the town helped him build the house, which made Wyatt realize he laid down roots in the right place. Friendly people who were willing to help a newcomer weren’t easy to come by. Shelter was something a man needed, along with food, before doing anything else. After he had that, he turned his attention to the ranch. Wyatt pulled open his heavy door.

“Didn’t mean to wake you,” Sheriff Ronan Reynolds said. He followed his comment with a mischievous grin. “Do you want me to come back later?”

Wyatt shook his head. “Get in here. Next time I’m showing up at your house before the rooster crows,” he said jokingly.

“Nah, you’d never do that to Maryann and the kids. Although she’d probably invite you in for breakfast. That wife of mine has a soft spot for you and I’ll never know why,” Ronan said sarcastically.

Wyatt didn’t trust a whole lot of people except for Ronan, and he never figured his best friend would be a lawman. He hadn’t trusted sheriffs since his entire family was slaughtered by a corrupt one. Wyatt was seventeen when that happened and since then, he had done a whole lot of living. Their friendship came to be slowly over the seven years he’d been calling Redwood Creek home. 

“Was there a reason for your visit?” Wyatt asked.

“No. I just came by to be friendly. I worry about you out here on the ranch alone since I know you let the help take off on Sundays. A man like you doesn’t benefit from too much time to think.”

Wyatt stretched out his long legs and folded his arms over his chest. “What do you mean when you say a man like me?”

“A man with a past. You told me everything, but you mostly hold stuff inside, and I understand why you do. You don’t fully forgive yourself for past deeds, but I think it’s time you do just that. You’ve turned your life around and become an asset to this town. You’re a leader around here and people respect you for who you are now. Isn’t that all that matters?”

He nodded. “I know I’ve changed, and you know too, but everyone else might not be so forgiving. I’m scared that someday the Blackthorn Outlaws will find me and bring their wicked ways to Redwood Creek,” Wyatt said.

“They haven’t yet and I’m sure that by now, they have a new batch of rascals they’re after. As sheriff, I’d hear about it if any Blackthorn Outlaws were in the area. The only person new in town is my deputy Ezekiel Dobson and he sure as heck isn’t an outlaw. I’ve had him over for dinner a few times. Oliver is young and he wants to start a family someday. I think it’s good for him to have someone closer to his age to work with.”

“I saw him at Del’s the other night, and he was really friendly. I’m glad he’s around to help Oliver. I’m careful about hiring men I don’t know to work for me because I don’t want a Blackthorn Outlaw sneaking onto my ranch,” Wyatt said.

“You’d be able to spot a Blackthorn since they were once your brothers,” Ronan said.

“I would. I’m a lot of things, but I’m not dumb, and there’s something about the look in their eyes that I’d notice right away. It’s pure evil and it’s impossible for them to hide.” He scratched his weathered chin. “I forgive you for waking me up because I have somewhere to be.”

“Where’s that?” Ronan asked.

“I promised the widow Carver that I’d escort her to church. She doesn’t get around well enough to make the trip herself. I usually get her settled in the pew in front and then I wait outside until the service is over,” Wyatt answered.

“You’re a good man, Wyatt. I think she had asked ten men to be her escort, and every one of them turned her down. Her husband wasn’t a nice man, and they don’t want anything to do with his widow,” Ronan said.

Wyatt shook his head and smirked. “None of that was the widow Carver’s fault so I proudly help her. We do look silly though; I’m a good two feet taller than her and she’s twice my age.”

“I’ll let you continue with your morning. I don’t want to be responsible for Myrna Carver missing worship services,” Ronan said as he walked toward the door. “You need a woman to help pick up around here. There’s so much junk lying around that I can hardly see the floor.”

“I’m a busy man and I don’t know where I’d find the time to properly court a woman,” Wyatt said. “Besides, I know where things are and that’s all that matters.”

He wasn’t thinking about his past when his friend showed up but now, he was. It used to be something he thought of every day, but the ranch kept him too busy to dwell on his former life. 

It started when he was the only one left after his family was murdered. The Blackthorn Outlaws were like a family, although one that swindled, stole, and killed. He joined their gang shortly after the murders. Wyatt hadn’t carefully considered what they were all about and when he had, he got out. They weren’t too happy about the way he left so they considered him an enemy. Wyatt stayed one step ahead of them for five years and finally, he grew weary of running and settled in Redwood Creek.

He stepped out his front door and saw a sprawling range of land and distant mountains. He couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful place to settle down. It was what he always pictured but there was a woman next to him in his dreams. Wyatt had long ago let that half of the dream go. He was satisfied with his friends, hard work, and the beautiful land surrounding him.

***

Two and a half weeks earlier, Nora had said a tearful goodbye to her mother before getting on the stagecoach. The chances of seeing her again were slim and they both knew that, although neither mentioned it. The stagecoach rolled into Montana and Nora thought of that painful farewell.

“They’re just hitching up a fresh team of horses to the stagecoach. I was afraid you wouldn’t be here in time to say goodbye,” Nora said to her mother who was sweltering in the July sun.

“I was going to be here earlier, but I was trying to convince your father to join me,” Mrs. Benson said.

“You needn’t have wasted your time. I imagine he’s still angry I’m leaving Chicago to marry a man I don’t know. He would have preferred I stay and marry a man that would come with connections to benefit him. I’m marrying a rancher instead and from his letters, William seems like a kind man,” Nora said.

Her mother put her hands on Nora’s shoulders and looked into her blue eyes. “Until you were born, I didn’t know what true love was. I don’t say it enough but I’m very proud of you. It takes courage to move far away and marry a man you’ve never met. It’s what you want and you’re not letting your father hold you back. I love you, Nora.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          “I love you, Mother. I’m the woman I am today because of you.”

Mrs. Benson pressed money into Nora’s hand and gave her one final squeeze before she stepped onto the stagecoach.

A gentleman passenger who was headed further west than Redwood Creek let her know they were only hours from her stop. Nora couldn’t wait to meet William, who said he would be at the station. Express runners on horseback informed the station manager when the stagecoach should be expected. 

The beauty of Redwood Creek was overwhelming, in a good way when Nora stepped off the Stagecoach. She had been peering out the small window for weeks, but this was her new home, and finally, everything seemed real. It was a little like her uncle’s farm but ten times as big. The smell was indescribable. 

Nora scanned the small number of people milling about, looking for someone that fit the description William had given her. He said he would be wearing a gray hat and that he had a mustache but no beard. Her description of herself would fit any number of women. She said she had brown hair pulled into a bun with a spray of freckles on her nose.  No one fit his description, so she sat in the shade of a willow tree and closed her eyes. 

A rather large bird landed on the bench next to Nora and she quickly woke up. The sun was beginning to set and now the small gathering of people had dispersed. If she knew where William’s ranch was located, she’d try to find it. It was getting late and having had a rest, she wanted more. A good night of sleep was what she needed to think properly and feel good. She sought the nearest guest house.

The main street had a general store, blacksmith, dress shop, saloon, and restaurant with seating outdoors. A sawmill with a large water wheel was on the creek at the far end of the town. There was a woodworking shop and another smaller restaurant on the opposite side. Nora stood in the middle of the road and saw the church William had mentioned in his letter. It was made of clapboard and painted white. Above the door was a cross and a black wrought iron steeple rose from the pointy roof. Redwood Creek was larger than she had expected.

A woman was locking the door and leaving the dress shop. She was probably the owner, so Nora walked up to her. “Excuse me, I’ve just arrived in town. Can you point me to the nearest guesthouse?” she asked.

She was a sight carrying two cumbersome bags and probably looked disheveled.

“What a coincidence and a good one at that. My sister and her husband own a guest house nearby and I’ll walk you there. I’m Harmony Dennison and I own a dress shop. Welcome to Redwood Creek,” she said.

“Hello, I’m Nora Benson. I hope I’m not taking you out of your way. I haven’t been able to find the man who I’m meeting here, and a soft bed is just what I need.”

“I know my sister has an available room tonight because I spoke with her earlier today. Since I’m bringing you over, you’ll get half off the price. I just made up that rule, but I know Faith will agree that it’s a wonderful idea,” Harmony said. She took Nora’s hand and led her toward her sister’s guest house.

Harmony was chipper and seemed more than happy to help a stranger. Nora rarely asked people she didn’t know for assistance. She had to be cautious in her Chicago neighborhood because it wasn’t known to be the safest section of town. Nora wanted to be more outgoing because she shied away from people after her time with her father and Sebastian. They managed to chip away at her confidence.

Nora’s room was just what she needed, and she planned to look for William in the morning. There was a chance he got the days mixed up or was given the wrong information about the arrival time. Of course, she wanted to meet William, but she was also looking forward to playing the piano he promised. She didn’t have a lot of belongings when she left Sebastian’s house. The bank had been there to take the home after he died, and the scene had been chaotic. She had been so concerned with getting out with the piano that nothing else had mattered at the time.

***

Wyatt walked into the sheriff’s office to mention some suspicious activity at Widow Carver’s residence. He found Ezekiel Dobson alone in the office.

“Hello, I was looking for Sheriff Reynolds. I have official business to talk to him about,” Wyatt said.

“If it’s official, I can help with that. He usually throws anything at me that Oliver can handle,” Ezekiel said.

“I was talking to Widow Carver today and she asked if I could have a word with Ronan about a prowler. He didn’t get near her house because after he jumped the iron gate, her dog scared him off. The man didn’t know that Petunia has a heck of a bark but wouldn’t hurt a fly. She growls at me when I pick up Widow Carver to bring her to church. I say the dog’s name and scratch her under the chin, and she lets me pass with no issues,” Wyatt explained.

Ezekiel took out a pad of paper and was poised to write when Ronan walked in.  He sat down at his desk and Wyatt sat opposite him. Ezekiel was asked to go out on patrol and join Oliver if he could find him. Wyatt gave Ronan all the relevant information and he said he’d investigate it. 

“The official side of your visit has been handled, how was the rest of your Sunday?” Ronan asked.

Wyatt wiped his brow. “The ranch is growing at a pace I can’t keep up with. After escorting Widow Carver, I went back to the ranch to do some of the chores that I neglected all week. I had to feed the pigs, which had babies a few months ago so that job has grown. I had wood to chop and then I realized I hadn’t cleaned out the hearth in a month. That could cause the entire house to burn down. Those were just some of the things I did today.” 

“You deserve to go home, have a good meal, and get some sleep,” Ronan said.

“My cook quit last week, and he used to leave me a big pot of stew that would last the weekend. Even worse, no one’s around to feed my men their mid-day meal. Now they go home to eat, and some forget to come back. You saw what the inside of my house looks like,” Wyatt said. “I’m doomed.”

“There are plenty of men in these parts looking for work. Hire someone and your problems will be solved,” Ronan said.

“You know how I feel about hiring people I don’t know to work for me. It could be someone sent by the Blackthorn Outlaws or someone else who wants to steal from me,” Wyatt said in a frustrated tone.

 

He couldn’t continue working as he was but didn’t know the answer. Perhaps the time had come when he tried thinking more about the present and less about the past.


“Under the Gunslinger’s Watchful Eye” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

In the dusty heart of Pine Bluff, the former soldier and mighty gunslinger Will Thompson comes home to lawlessness. On his first night back, he confronts the ruthless cattle baron John Mitchell, whose control over the ranchers and townsfolk is as ironclad as his will. An altercation erupts and destinies collide… Determined to fight the tyrant, he joins forces with the local ranchers and finds an unexpected ally in Mitchell’s defiant daughter.

Can Will navigate the rebellion when his most trusted ally is his enemy’s own daughter?

Haunted by the ghosts of war, Will grapples with his own demons as he becomes entangled in the schemes of rival ranchers and enigmatic friendships. With the town’s fate hanging in the balance, secrets emerge and a brutal truth comes to light… one that could change the town’s fate forever.

Will finds himself torn between his desire for peace and the call of justice…

As he dives deeper into the conflict, whispers of hidden agendas and dark plots begin to surface. But in a town where loyalty is a rare commodity and danger lurks around every corner, can Will unravel the mysteries in time? Surrounded by dust and gunfire, can his courage and alliances be enough to bring justice and save the town?

“Under the Gunslinger’s Watchful Eye” is a historical adventure novel of approximately 60,000 words. No cliffhangers, only pure unadulterated action.

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