|A Walk in Heaven | Marie Higgins | Romance | Mystery |
Copyright © 2011 by Marie Higgins
Copyright © 2011 by Marie Higgins
Pierre, South Dakota 1875
Such a perfect day for a wedding.
Holding hands with her new husband, Careen Grayson’s heart filled to the brim, she nearly floated down the three wooden steps of the church. Mrs. Matthew Grayson... Smiling, she sighed. In all of her daydreams of the ideal husband, she never imagined she’d find one as wonderful as the man she’d just married.
Sunlight danced upon them as a blessing from the Lord above. The warmth banished the early spring chill, and a slight breeze tousled Matthew’s blond hair.
He grinned, his hazel eyes twinkling like diamonds. “Careen, you have made me the luckiest man alive.”
She cuddled against his arm. Tilting her head, she kept her eyes locked with his. Matthew was a tall man, and the top of her head reached his shoulder. Finally, after years of loneliness, comfort surrounded her like a thick blanket. “No, I am the fortunate one.” She squeezed his hand. “We are going to be very happy.”
“I’m already happy.”
Glass breaking and shouting from across the street captured Careen’s attention. Matthew whipped his head in that direction.
Two men staggered out of the saloon, each holding a bottle of whiskey. The larger one with black hair pushed the younger man with thinning red hair. The redhead tumbled onto his backside.
“Yer nothin’ but a cheat!” The large man was built like a bull and snorted just as loud. “I saw ye pull that ace out of yer sleeve, ye dirty sidewinder.”
The redhead scrambled to his feet. “You saw nothing of the kind. I have never cheated in cards, and I’ll have words with anyone who says differently.”
“Words?” The large man belched a laugh, his full gut jiggled with the movement. “Here in Pierre, we don’t have words with anyone.” He withdrew his pistol. “We speak with these, junior.”
Careen gasped and clung to Matthew’s arm. Protectively, he pulled her closer.
The thin redhead dropped his whiskey bottle. It shattered on the boardwalk. “I see your hand, and I’ll raise you two,” he clipped as he pulled both guns from his holster.
The bulky man shot his weapon first, but only managed to clip off his opponent’s hat. A one-horse buggy passed between Careen and the drunks on the street. The gunshot startled the animal, and it reared up on his back legs as panic coated his neigh.
“Oh, dear,” Careen gasped.
Matthew’s arms tightened around her. “I think we’d better get out of here.”
Another gunshot blasted the air, and several more popped through the street. Matthew urgently dragged her past the startled horse and owner who tried to calm the beast down, keeping Careen close by his side.
Sharp whistling penetrated the air, zipping past Careen’s ear. Before she could react, Mathew’s body jerked violently, his hold on her weakening and finally sliding away. He collapsed to the ground, crumbling motionless on his side. Blood poured from the back of his head.
“Matthew!” She landed on her knees beside him, yanking him onto his back. A hole just below the hairline marred his handsome face. Blood gushed down the side of his face, flowing faster than a river. “No!” she screamed shaking him, willing him to blink and rise. He couldn’t be shot.
Naught but sightless eyes stared up into the sky. “Matthew Grayson, talk to me.” She demanded, shaking him again. “You can not die on me!”
Fear and confusion pumped through Careen, making her stomach sick. This could not be happening!
Gunshots continued to blast through the street. All around her people scattered in fear. Women screamed, while men with yet more raised guns tried to settle the commotion.
Unable to see the fray through the swarming crowd, Careen huddled instinctively beside Matthew’s motionless frame, keeping low to avoid the wild gunfire. Blessedly, after a few heart stopping moment more, the popping ceased, leaving the stench of spent gunpowder in its wake. Ahead, the weaving bystanders parted just enough for Careen to glimpse the saloon. The redheaded cheat slumped on the boardwalk, clutching his bloody ribs while two other men subdued his heftier opponent. Yet, more cowboys scattered into doors and alleyways, hats pulled low over their faces.
The wall of legs and petticoats closed ranks once more and Careen turned back to Mathew’s body, startling her back to reality. So much blood. Tears filled her eyes.
“Please, someone help me!” Careen screamed into the crowd. A middle-aged woman hustled past at that moment. Careen grasped the woman’s skirt. “Please, help…me.”
The woman’s gaze switched between Careen and Matthew, eyes widening before her face turned white.
“Oh, good heavens, child.” She crouched to Careen’s level. “How did this happen?”
Tears flowed down Careen’s cheek as she shook her head. “He…we…just came out of the church. Two drunks were arguing across the way… Gunshots fired…”
“My dearest child,” the woman said, cupping Careen’s face. “I’ll fetch the sheriff and the doctor. They must be close after all this commotion.”
The woman hurried off, leaving Careen all alone again. Her chest hurt – physically, as though someone reached inside and squeezed the life right out of her. All of this was too incredulous. Matthew wasn’t supposed to die, especially not right after they’d exchanged marriage vows. Until death do us part…
She released a strangled sob and buried her face against Matthew’s chest.
Her heart hiccupped and stumbled over a beat.
No longer would she hear the steady thud-thud, thud-thud of his heartbeat when he held her close. No longer would his loving hands caress her hair. Chills shook through her, but she refused to draw away. She couldn’t leave him. Not now. Not a mere ten minutes after she’d vowed never to leave him…to love him forever.
Two months ago, she’d advertised herself as a mail-order bride. Through Matthew Grayson’s letters, she’d known he was the one. The man to be her rescuer in every way. Her proverbial knight in shining armor. They’d arranged to have a secret wedding, and met for the first time yesterday face to face. Love at first sight. Or so she’d believed. Careen began falling for him through their correspondence, and after meeting the wonderful, selfless, and very handsome man, she’d known he’d make her happy.
Feet clomping on the boardwalk pulled her out of her thoughts. She jerked up to see the older woman and two men rushing her way. One wore a shiny silver star on his brown vest, the other carried a medical bag. The lawman gave her a curt nod, dropping beside Matthew along with the doctor.
“I think…one of those drunks…shot my husband,” she offered in a strained voice.
The sheriff finished his once over of the body and met her gaze. “That’s what Doctor Skinner and I think as well.” He shook his head and looked back at Matthew. “Struck by a stray bullet. Terrible way to go.”
The doctor placed his fingers on Matthew’s throat, then moved his ear to Matthew’s chest. Careen held her breath in hope, even though she knew what the doctor would discover.
When the physician straightened and met her gaze, he frowned. “I’m so sorry, Ma’am, he’s gone.” He turned to the kindly woman. “Mrs. Black, would you go back to my office and ask Roberta to prepare a room for…” His gaze flicked back to Careen. “Forgive me, what is your husband’s name?”
“Gra-Grayson,” Careen stammered. “Matthew Grayson.”
“Mrs. Black, kindly have a room prepared for Mr. Grayson’s remains.”
“Yes, Doctor Skinner.” She gave Careen an awkward, one-armed hug then left.
Careen swept her hand against Matthew’s jaw. She trailed fingertips across his very still hand. What am I going to do now?
Doctor Skinner laid a brown wool blanket over Matthew’s body.
The doctor and sheriff rose to stand and she pushed herself up on shaky legs beside them. Laying a caring hand on her shoulder, the white-haired doctor shook his head as a frown burrowed in the deep wrinkles around his mouth. “Accept my condolences, ma’am. I’ll take your husband’s body back to my office to prepare him for the casket.”
Sadness gripped Careen again and she wrapped her arms around her middle. She wanted to scream in anger – wanted to blame someone. Anyone! Why would the Lord do this to a kind man such as Matthew?
“Will you need help with the burial?” the sheriff said.
“No. I should be fine.”
“Do you have any family here?”
Family? She had family in Iowa, but none she wanted to help her. “No, but Matthew’s family lives in Virginia City, Montana.” She paused and thought of his family. They needed to know. Matthew should be buried there. “I’ll take Matthew back to his home as soon as possible.”
“That a wise choice, ma’am. Let me know if you need any help.”
A numbing coldness seeped through Careen’s body as she stared at the blanket covering her husband’s body. How was she going to tell the Graysons? Matthew had not invited any of his family just as she hadn’t wanted hers at their wedding. No doubt his parents would blame Careen. Yet she must explain things to them. She needed to let them know the reasons they’d decided to have a secret wedding.
A wagon pulled up and stopped beside them. The doctor and sheriff lifted Matthew’s lifeless body and placed him in the back.
“Ma’am, if you would come by my office sometime today, we can discuss burial options.” The white-haired man’s weak smile didn’t comfort Careen any.
“Thank you.” She briefly switched her attention to the sheriff. “Both of you.”
The sheriff walked away as the doctor drove the wagon up the street. Careen wanted to leave with Doctor Skinner, but knew there were other things that had to be accomplished now. Arrangements to make for traveling to Virginia City became top priority.
In the distance, her name drifted above the noises in the street. The familiar voice grew louder and she forced her head up to search for the person calling.
May the good Lord have mercy! The shattered pieces of Careen’s heart trembled in horror as she caught sight of her cousin, Luther Kennedy, running toward her, his face stricken with anger. As usual, he dressed in expensive clothes, appearing every inch the gentleman from his shiny top hat to his white kid gloves, but Careen knew different. Luther was the devil himself. More importantly, however… Why was he here? He should be at home in Iowa, unaware of her whereabouts or plans to marry.
He reached her side and yanked her arm, forcing her closer. She stumbled against his bulk. A hard object jabbed into her hip and she glanced down while pulling back. He was wearing a gun? How odd. She’d never known him to carry a weapon… Even though the pistol sat crooked in the holster, obvious to the fact he didn’t know the first thing about using one.
“Oh, Careen…Careen…what have you done?”
Through blurry eyes she peered into his face. “Matthew was shot…a stray bullet,” she explained quickly. Then anger for his accusation rushed through her and she snapped, “I haven’t done anything! None of this was my fault.”
Or was it? Everyone she’d ever loved had left her – or died. Her mind scrambled to the past, a place she didn’t visit often due to the pain it brought. Could Matthew’s death have been her fault after all?
Luther tsked, drawing her from the morbid trail of thought.
“What…are you doing here?” she demanded. “How did you find me?”
“I’ve come to take you back home.”
She scowled. Impossible! That’s one place she wouldn’t go, especially with him. “But, how did you know I was here?” She thought she’d covered her tracks. There was no way Luther could have known about her secret marriage.
“It doesn’t matter now. I’m here and I’m going to fix things.”
“Fix things? I declare, Luther, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Advertising yourself as a mail-order bride was bad enough, I don’t need you making another terrible decision like thinking you can get married without my permission.” He wrapped his strong fingers around her arm in a painful grip.
“You’re too late!” She glanced at the wagon carrying Matthew’s body and pointed in that direction. “That’s my…husband.”
The vicious gleam in Luther’s stare pierced right through her as he smiled with insincere compassion. “Which is why I’m grateful I arrived when I did. Now I can help you.”
“You, help me?” She clamped her mouth tight. It wasn’t wise to make Luther angry. She’d learned her lesson by now. Her cousin was a heartless, selfish man, and any time he gave his so-called help he expected something in return.
She tried to jerk away from him, but his fingers clasped her arm too tightly. Stumbling, she stepped on the hem of her pale blue wedding gown and ripped the edge.
“Come, let’s get you home,” Luther said. “I’ll take care of everything.” Luther shifted his hold from her arm to her wrist. “Careen honey, I’ll handle things. We’ll have him buried in Iowa—”
“I’m taking him to be buried at his family’s ranch in Virginia City,” she interrupted.
“But that’s too far away. The journey will take you three or four days.”
Straightening her shoulders, she met Luther’s wide-eyed expression. “Yes, I’m quite certain it will, but I’m going nonetheless. It’s the least I can do for him.”
Luther cleared his throat. “Fine, you can go to Virginia City, but I’m coming with you.”
“No, you’re not. This trip I’ll make on my own.”
Luther growled. “I don’t think so! It’s very improper for a woman to travel alone.”
“Has it escaped your attention that I’m married now?” She swallowed back the sob rising in her throat. “I’m a widow, Luther. I don’t think it’s going to matter how I travel. Besides, I’ll take Betsy so I won’t be completely alone.”
In silence he scratched his chin, his scowl darkening by the second. Careen’s cousin had a temper to make an ornery mule run for cover. In the past, his anger had frightened her, but this time she wouldn’t let his stubbornness win. No matter what he said, she would take Matthew back home.
“Fine,” he snapped. “How long do you plan on staying?”
She scowled. “I don’t know. Good grief, Luther, my husband just died. Don’t you think I should get to know his family a little?”
“Of course you should, but don’t be gone longer than a week.”
“Are you jesting? You just pointed out the trek will take four or five days.”
He narrowed his steely eyes on her and folded his arms. “Listen to me, Careen—”
“No, you listen to me for once in your miserable, pathetic life. No longer am I the simpering female who will cower to you every time you raise your voice in anger. I married Matthew Grayson to get away from you. That’s the reason I didn’t tell you and Aunt Charlotte about advertising myself as a mail-order bride. I didn’t want either of you to know until after I was married.”
Careen couldn’t believe she had found the strength to blurt out the truth. It spilled from her mouth before she could stop it. It was something she should have said a long time ago. Strange, but even at a time like this, her confession made her emotionally stronger.
His eyes widened and his face flushed a bright red. “You don’t say… Then it’s a very good thing I arrived when I did. You’re coming home with me.” He gripped her wrists, his fingers digging into her flesh.
She yanked her hands away. “Leave me alone. I don’t need your help. I don’t want it. Never did.”
“Careen, don’t fight me. You’ll lose. You know I don’t want to hurt you.” He patted his holstered gun. “I especially don’t want to hurt anyone else who tries to stop us.”
She cringed, remembering the last time he’d used the back of his hand to remind her who had control. “No, please Luther, don’t.”
“We’re leaving. Now!”
Fingers like steel held her wrist as he pulled her along. She struggled for release, but his strong hold kept her following. “Release me this minute!”
“Never.” He glanced at her. “Haven’t you realized by now that I will never let you go? You are mine and will always be mine.”
Anger surged through her. “But I’m not yours! I’m Matthew’s – or I was.” Her voice broke as sorrow once again stung her heart.
He arched a bushy brow. Loathing darkened his brown eyes. “Matthew Grayson deserved to die for marrying my woman.”
Bile rose to her throat. “I declare, Luther, you are as dim-witted as you are ruthless. How many times do I have to tell you we will never marry?” Even as she said the words, she knew they held no meaning to him. Luther had always been spoiled. He’d always gotten his way no matter how many people he hurt.
“I told you once that I’ll never let you marry another, and I stick to my promises.” He motioned his head toward the street. “If you had only married me, that man back there wouldn’t be dead. You had the audacity to coax him through letters to meet you halfway across the states for a quick marriage. It’s your fault he met his maker at such a young age.”
Pain sliced through her chest. He is wrong, she tried to convince herself as her previous doubts rang in her mind. Scrambling to think of something to say, she glanced over him once again. His holstered gun still puzzled her. Suddenly, his fingers drew her attention. Dark markings – like gunpowder sprinkled the skin on his right hand. Even the scent of gunpowder clung to him.
Oh, dear Lord! No!
Slowly, Careen shook her head. Luther had always been evil, but enough to…kill?
“No,” she whispered brokenly. “Luther, tell me you didn’t do what I think you did.”
He arched a bushy eyebrow. “What is that?”
“Did you…kill Matthew?”
His lips stretched into a grin, showing his yellow and brown teeth. “What makes you think that?”
Betrayal filled her, and pain from the mere idea made it hard for her to breath. “Just tell me. Quit playing these games with me.”
He threw back his head and laughed. Tears rushed to her eyes again and her head pounded. She opened her mouth to speak, but someone else’s voice stopped her.
“He’s right there!” the person called from behind Luther.
Through blurry vision, she noticed the sheriff and two deputies running toward her, with an older man trying to keep up. The older, gray-haired gentleman pointed toward Luther.
“That’s him, I tell you. I saw him shoot the man coming out of the church.”
Luther jerked his head toward the men, disbelief followed by panic drained the color from his face. He spun and sprinted in a different direction. The sheriff and the other two lawmen dashed after her cousin.
Holding a shaky fist to her mouth, Careen silently prayed they would catch her cousin and bring justice for her fallen husband.
The sheriff pulled out his gun. “Stop or I’ll shoot.”
Luther failed to heed the sheriff’s command and careened down the dusty street, rapidly putting distance between the shorter legged lawmen and himself. Startled bystanders parted like the red sea, unsure how – or perhaps unwilling – to offer any aide.
Careen’s heart plummeted. Luther was going to escape. He was going to get away with murder. Just as he approached a crossroad, the owner of the mercantile, a brute man who still wore portions of his confederate army uniform, plunged into the roadway, wrapping burly arms around Luther’s lanky frame and bearing her fiendish cousin into the ground.
“Yes!” Careen shouted, caught in the moment.
The sheriff and his deputies quickly rushed to them, weapons at the ready.
Careen approached the fray more slowly.
The lawman and mercantile owner dragged a seething Luther to his feet.
“I didn’t shoot anyone,” Luther raged.
“Is that so,” one of the deputies drawled. “If you’re innocent, why did ya run?”
“You were chasing me with guns!”
The lawmen shook their heads, and yanked Luther down the street, a deputy on each side, and the mercantile owner flanking the rear.
“This is a travesty,” Luther fumed. “I demand you release me.”
A crowd gathered, pointing and murmuring. Luther’s murderous gaze raked over them before turning back to Careen. Pure ice poured from his eyes, chilling her to the bone. Despite today’s warmer weather, Careen shivered, wrapping her arms around herself.
Finally, the sheriff approached, steadily holding her gaze. “I’m so very sorry, ma’am, but it seems Mr. Rader witnessed this man shooting your husband. There will be a formal investigation, but I see no reason to think this man won’t stand trial.” He shook her hand. “We will find justice for your husband. You have my word.”
Squaring her shoulders, she took a deep breath. “I understand, Sheriff. My cousin definitely needs to be punished for his crimes.”
His eyes widened. “Your…cousin?”
“Then I’m truly sorry.”
“Thank you for everything.”
He tipped his hat to her, turned and walked away, hurrying toward his deputy and her cousin. The shock of everything that happened today left her numb, but she found the strength to move her sluggish legs up the street. She needed to return to the hotel where she and Matthew had planned to spend their first night together as husband and wife…
Her heart dropped with each step. How could she go to the place knowing Matthew would never be with her again?
It took Careen longer than anticipated, but finally she entered the hotel room. A noise came from the adjoining room, and Careen stopped. It sounded like her maid was doing as Careen had asked before she’d gone to the church this morning. Careen had instructed Betsy to pack for their journey to Montana – the one Careen and Matthew would have taken as husband and wife. “Betsy?”
The shuffling of feet vibrated on the wooden floor from the other room before the maid exited the master bedroom. Slightly younger than Careen by a few years, her maid smoothed her hands down the front of her white apron. “Yes, Miss Kennedy…umm, I mean Mrs. Grays—”
Her words stopped as the servant’s gaze roamed over Careen from the top of her head to her tattered gown. Betsy’s eyes widened. “Good heavens, what happened to you?”
Careen caught her reflection in the full-length mirror standing in the corner of the room. Matthew’s blood sprinkled across her bodice and even smudged her cheek. She tried wiping away the stain as images floated through her mind of their fast courtship through the letters, and especially since meeting him yesterday. He’d been so attentive. So caring and loving. They’d shared their dreams of the future – a future she’d never have now.
Tears Careen didn’t think she had left resurfaced and filled her eyes as she told Betsy what had happened.
Betsy rushed to Careen’s side, touching her arm. “He’s d—d—dead?”
Careen’s legs trembled as a sob rose to her throat. She took a deep breath to control it. “Yes. I’m now a widow.”
Betsy gasped, her hands flying to her mouth. “No…no…”
“That’s not the worst of it.” Careen stumbled to the chair and sat, resting her elbows on the small table. “Luther showed up unexpectedly not too long afterwards.”
“He did? But…that can’t be right. Your wedding was a secret.”
“I know.” Careen sighed heavily. “I wish I could figure it out, but I can’t.”
Silence lasted a few moments before Betsy drew closer. “I worried that he would find out when you had put that ad in the newspaper for a mail-order bride.”
“What else was I to do? Luther wanted the money Mother and Father left me upon their deaths. Since I’m not twenty-five yet and cannot obtain my inheritance until then, I had to do something to stop my cousin. Leaving Iowa before he forced me into marriage was the only way.”
A tear slid down Betsy’s cheek. “I know. Forgive me for saying anything.”
“There’s no use living in the past. We need to keep moving forward.”
“What did Luther do when he saw you? Did he try to get you to return home with him?”
“Yes, but thankfully the law arrested him and put him in jail.”
The maid raised a skeptical brow. “Why?”
Careen hesitated to confess what happened. It was so hard to admit how Matthew really died. Only because guilt gnawed on her conscience, and she didn’t want to think this was all her fault. “Apparently, while the gunfight was going on across the road from the church, Luther thought he’d take the opportunity to shoot my husband.” She took a deep breath. “Luther killed Matthew.”
“Oh, no!” A river of tears filled Betsy’s wide eyes as her face lost color. “Luther has always been an evil person, but I never figured he’d actually…kill someone.”
“I agree, but thankfully, he’s in jail now and won’t try to stop me from going to Montana.”
“Montana? Why there?”
A paper and pencil lay on the table, so Careen pulled them to her. She needed to jot down her thoughts before sending a telegraph to Matthew’s parents. “We’ll go there to deliver Matthew’s body to his family. They live just outside Virginia City on a cattle ranch.”
“A ranch? Did I ever tell you that I grew up on a farm? I’m certain I’ll be able to help his family around their ranch.”
Nodding, Careen sat at the table then shooed her maid with her hands. “That’s fine and good, but now hurry and get us packed. I want to be on the train leaving first thing in the morning. We cannot wait another day.”
“Yes, you are correct.” Betsy rushed into the bedroom.
Groaning, Careen covered her face with her hands. She wasn’t anticipating meeting Matthew’s family, but she must present herself in the best possible light. She couldn’t have his family thinking poorly of her for convincing Matthew to have a secret wedding.
Careen also needed to send the telegraph as soon as possible to let them know she was coming with his body. Tears slipped down her cheeks again as she wrote. Sadness – and guilt – tightened her chest so much she could scarcely breathe. Although deep in her heart she knew his death wasn’t her fault, a part of her mind believed that if she hadn’t married him, he’d still be alive. If she hadn’t convinced Matthew to marry the mail-order bride and meet her halfway between Montana and Iowa, Luther wouldn’t have come after her and killed Matthew.
Saying a silent prayer for strength, Careen stood. She grabbed her cloak and wrapped it around her stained dress. “Betsy, I’m going to send the telegraph and purchase our train tickets now,” she called out.
“Please, be careful.”
“I will.” Before leaving the hotel room, Careen placed a bonnet over her disheveled hair.
She treaded through town with eyes downcast. If people looked at her with pity in their gazes, she wouldn’t be able to bear it.
Helplessness grew inside her. Her future was uncertain, and in her frame of mind, she couldn’t think of anything but getting Matthew’s body to his family. The past thirty-six hours had been an emotional whirlwind. Hell couldn’t be any worse than the turmoil Pierre, South Dakota, had brought her. She prayed Virginia City would be a walk in heaven compared to what she’d been through.