Paradise Valley - Chapter One

Wyoming … Mid-May 1886 …

Maggie paused to push back a strand of hair, hoping she’d dug the hole deep enough. Lord knew she was accustomed to hard work, but this was the first time the dirt and blisters on her hands came from digging a grave. Worse – it was her husband she was burying.

Shrugging off an urge to give up, she began shoveling again, not daring to stop for too long for fear her arms would give out. She flung more dirt high and to the left, then used her foot to push the point of the shovel into the wall of dirt at one end of the grave, starting another wedge in order to carve more soil at one end to make the grave longer. The ground in these western plains didn’t give like the soft earth of the old farm back home.

Dig – fling – dig – fling – over and over. With every shovel full of dirt she flung out of the grave she vowed to somehow get her revenge on the evil men who’d attacked her and James. She’d never really loved James Tucker, not in the way something deep inside told her a woman ought to love a man. Lord knew he’d not been the easiest man to live with, but he’d treated her well, and he didn’t deserve to die the way he did; and she, by God, didn’t deserve what happened to her afterward. There were moments when she wished that the filth who’d shot down James had killed her, too, but anger bolstered her determination not to cry or be ashamed.

Finally, groaning with exhaustion, she tossed the shovel up and out of the grave, then collapsed against a dirt wall and studied the length of the hole. Lord, let it be long enough. What a horror it would be to have to bury James all bent up because he didn't fit. And what if his body was already too stiff to bend at all?

Using what little strength she had left, she reached up and grasped at tall grass at the edge of the grave, hanging on as she dug her toes into the side wall and gradually worked her way up and out of the gaping hole. She rolled onto her back and watched the rising sun turn from a huge red ball on the endless eastern horizon to its full yellow glory, bringing warmth to her aching body.

In spite of warmer weather, the nights were still bone-cold in this high country, and so far the days still carried a spring chill. It felt good to lie here with the sun on her face. She struggled to banish the horror of last night, reminding herself that she was at least alive, able to breathe the morning air. An inner pride and stubbornness convinced her that what happened to her could not change who she was – Maggie McPhee Tucker, and proud of it. She'd never done a wrong thing in her life and was not about to let this bring her down.

A puffy cloud drifted by.

James, why didn't you listen to me and take up with a wagon train so we wouldn’t be alone?

Grimacing, she rolled to her knees and managed to stand up. She walked over to where James lay with a tiny hole in the center of his chest from a gunshot wound. One little hole, and life was ended. How could any man be so callous and cruel as those who’d done this?

And after me cooking for those awful men – James offering our hospitality.

It didn't seem right that God allowed such deliberate killers to exist. She prayed she would find a way to make them die like James died. She’d done plenty of hunting with her father back in Missouri. She knew how to track game. It couldn’t be much harder to track men, could it?

She headed for the canvas-covered wagon that brought them this far and managed to find a flour sack among the remnants of what was left after the outlaws looted their supplies. She carried the sack over to where James lay and knelt down to kiss his forehead before pulling the sack over his head. She felt sick to her stomach as she tightened the draw string around his neck. She couldn't bear to put him in that hole and throw dirt on his face. Once she got him into the hole, she'd throw a blanket over the rest of him before filling in the grave.

James was a stout man … short, big around, with wide shoulders and muscled arms. Moving his body over to the grave would not be easy, but it had to be done. Mustering every ounce of remaining strength, Maggie grasped him by the ankles and dragged his body to the side of the grave. She stood back then and judged the hole to be long enough. She could only pray it was deep enough to keep the coyotes and wolves away.

She knelt beside James and touched his shoulder. "I'm sorry, James. I could have loved you more, but I just didn't and that's that. Lord knows you didn’t know much about how to love somebody; but I never turned you away in the night or treated you bad, or ever caused you any shame or tribulation. I came out here with no complaint. I don't know if I'll ever go back home, but I promise that before I do, I'll find the men who did this to you."

She rose and prayed the Lord's Prayer, then asked God to take James home with Him to Heaven. “He was a hard worker, Lord, and an honest man.” She leaned down then and managed to push James into the grave. He landed face down. Refusing to bury him that way, Maggie took a deep breath and climbed down into the hole. She managed to turn his body over, then scrambled back out of the hole and walked over to the wagon and pulled out a blanket to cover the body. She carried it over to the grave and tried to shake it open, but her fiercely aching arms would not even allow that much movement. She decided then that since James was at least in a proper grave, she could rest for a few minutes.

Lost in utter exhaustion and grief, she wrapped the blanket into her arms and lay down beside the grave. Her muscles screamed with pain, and raw blisters burned her palms. She broke into deep sobs, hating to feel so lost and alone and afraid. She didn’t like weakness. She’d never had room in her life for such things.

Amid the sobs and a battle against dearly needed sleep she heard the soft thud of horse’s hooves. Startled, Maggie’s tears left her and she bolted upright to see a broad-shouldered man sitting nearby on an equally broad-chested horse. The man looked down at her, the afternoon sun behind him so that his face remained a shadow under his wide-brimmed hat.

“Ma’am? Can I help you?” he asked in a deep voice.

Maggie jumped up, realizing that she’d been so engrossed in the chore of burying James and getting his body into the grave that she’d never noticed anyone approaching, never even heard anything. She clung to the blanket and backed away, fear kicking in. Her recent ordeal with other strangers stabbed at her gut, and she turned and ran to her wagon, quickly pulling out an old Sharp’s carbine that once belonged to her father. It was the only gun left behind by her abductors. It took all the strength she could muster in her overworked arms to raise the rifle and point it at the stranger.

“What do you want?” she demanded. “I’ll have you know I’ve shot bears with this gun! I know how to use it real good!”

The stranger raised his arms outward. “I asked if I could help. I’m not here to bring you harm. It’s obvious something terrible happened here, Ma’am, not just because of the dead man in that grave, but because your dress is ripped up pretty bad and your face is bruised.”

Maggie realized then that her dress was torn half off in front, some of the skirt ripped away, revealing the one and only slip she’d worn and showing some of her camisole. She struggled against deep embarrassment.

“I … you … throw your guns over here and then we can talk,” she ordered.

The man grinned a little.

He probably thinks I’m just a silly, helpless thing. “I mean it!” she spoke aloud. “I’ll shoot your hat off! Do you want to take the risk of me firing so close to your head? I’m tired and hurting. My aim might be off!”

“Take it easy.” The man lowered one hand, gripped the butt of his own rifle and pulled it from its boot, then threw it aside. Keeping his left hand in the air, he pulled a six-gun from his holster and threw that aside also. “Now, put that thing down and rest. I’ll finish filling in that grave for you.”

“What’s your name!”

“Name’s Sage Lightfoot, and you’re on my land. You could ride for miles more and still be on my land. This is my ranch – called Paradise Valley. I’m after some men who killed my best foreman and stole money from me … came across this mess and figured maybe the same men made your acquaintance in an unpleasant way.”

Maggie sidestepped her way to where his guns lay, keeping her own rifle in her right hand while she picked up the man’s six-gun and wrapped a couple of fingers into the trigger guard on his rifle, then managed to back away with all three weapons. She threw the rifles into the back of her wagon, then kept the six-gun and faced him with it. She’d never fired a six-gun in her life, and though she hated to admit it, the big man looking at her could probably jump off his horse and get the better of her pretty easily, the shape she was in.

He darn well knew it, too, but he didn’t make his move.

“I suppose they might be the same men,” she answered him. She stepped a little closer, able to see his face clearly now in the bright afternoon sun. His eyes were a beautiful blue, his face set square and handsome. There was an honesty in those eyes. “All right. I … I guess I don’t have much choice but to trust you … and I could use the help.” She finally lowered the six-gun, her arms so tired she simply couldn’t keep it aimed at the man any longer. “I’m Maggie … McPhee … Tucker …” The words trailed off as she felt a blackness envelop her. The six-gun fell from her hand, and gravel stung her face as she hit the ground. Seconds later she felt someone lifting her, then felt soft quilts beneath her, then more blankets covering her.

“Ma’am, you’re in sore need of some rest.”

Maggie managed to open her eyes for just a moment, long enough to realize she was inside the wagon. All three weapons lay near her. The man left them there, apparently to reassure her she needn’t worry about his motives. She heard a horse whinney, and that’s all she remembered before drifting into a sleep that she would later wonder if it was truly sleep, or if she’d simply passed out from shock and over-exertion.