Survivor Pass – Shirleen Davies

Years later, he’d look back on today, believing these were how nightmares were created. “General Hood’s orders are clear, Captain Coulter. Your men will drop back from their outer lines, march through and out of the city. You’ll leave tonight and position your men to jump into General McPherson’s left flank while General Wheeler attacks McPherson’s wagon trains.” As he spoke, Confederate Lieutenant General William Hardee thrust a finger, pointing to locations on the map, emphasizing the severity of the campaign. “It is critical we stop their advance. Am I clear, Captain?” Captain Cash Coulter knew Union General McPherson’s men would be a tough opponent. Under the command of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, the Army of the North continued their march toward Atlanta, winning one battle after another in their attempt to destroy a major industrial center and railroad hub in the heart of the South. Any success by the Union troops would be disastrous to the South’s strategy. “Yes, sir. My men will hold the line.” Cash’s gaze shifted from the map, focusing on Hardee’s stern features. “I’ll need at least six hours to get into position.” “You have three, Captain. Hood’s men are five miles north of Atlanta.

Delays can mean the difference between saving the city and letting it fall into enemy hands.” General Hardee’s words played over and over in Cash’s mind as he encouraged his men during the grueling march. Exhaustion, the sweltering night, and dusty roads contributed to the slower than anticipated progress. Before his men could gain position, word came from Hardee. He could wait no longer, deciding to deploy. Cursing the decision, knowing his men weren’t far enough into McPherson’s flank to achieve their goal, he positioned his troops. “Captain, we need more time.” First Lieutenant Stephen Ramsey kept his voice low, although the urgency was clear. “Captain Davis is to our east and already experiencing fire from Union sharpshooters.” Ramsey had become indispensable as a tracker and tactical leader.

The only man Cash trusted more was Captain Beauregard Davis, who led another division under the command of Hardee. “We have no more time, Ramsey. Get the men into position.” The sounds of artillery and the screams of the injured split the air for hours as morning turned to afternoon, then evening. Gunfire gave way to war cries and shouts as the forces met in savage handto-hand combat, neither side giving up as evening turned to the dark of night. When advancement proved futile, Cash searched for Ramsey, determined to move his remaining men south. “Captain Coulter!” The shout from an infantryman went up to his right. Crouching, Cash ran toward the man, dropping to his knees where one of his men lay injured, curses streaming from the man’s lips. Dirt and blood covered his clothing, his left leg bent at an odd angle. Taking a closer look, Cash sucked in a breath when he saw two bars, indicating a first lieutenant.

“Ramsey…” Rolling his friend over, Cash swallowed at the damage to his left leg and arm. “Get help. Now!” Staunching the flow of blood, he waved to another lieutenant. “Move the men south. Take a position, and damn it to hell, hold it.” “You need to go.” Ramsey spoke through gritted teeth, trying unsuccessfully to move his left arm. “Leave me, Captain.” Cash continued to wrap the wound on Ramsey’s left leg, fearing the worst. He glanced around, torn between his duty to lead his men and loyalty to a friend.

Ramsey tried to rise, then fell back. “Hear me, Cash. Go.” Sucking in a ragged breath, he closed his eyes against the pain. “Either I’ll make it or I won’t. There’s no more you can do.” Hearing the pounding of boots, Cash glanced over his shoulder to see two men drop a stretcher next to him. “We’ll take care of him, Captain,” one of the men said as they shouldered their way past Cash. They grasped Ramsey by his shoulders and good leg, then unceremoniously dropped him on the stretcher. “Damn it, men.

Be careful.” Cash stayed next to them as they ran toward a waiting wagon. Stepping aside, he watched as they laid Ramsey inside. “Hold,” Cash yelled as the wagon began to lurch forward. Gripping Ramsey’s hand, he leaned over the sideboards. “Whatever you need, I’m here for you.” Ramsey nodded, his eyes beginning to roll back. “Anything, Stephen. Don’t forget,” Cash whispered as he took one last look at the wagon, praying he’d see his friend again. Chapter One Splendor, Montana February 1868 “This is your stop, ma’am.

” The driver held out his hand, glancing around to see if anyone waited for the lone passenger in his stagecoach. He turned his head to spit the trail dust from his mouth. “Sorry, ma’am.” “Quite understandable.” Alison Burns McGrath took the driver’s hand, glancing down at the mud, grimacing as she thought of her one good pair of shoes landing in the muck. “Stand aside, Charlie. I’ll take care of the lady.” Before she had a chance to react, strong hands grasped her waist, swinging her toward the boardwalk, holding steady as her feet touched the ground. Stepping back, he tipped his hat. “I’m Sheriff Gabe Evans, ma’am.

” His eyes narrowed when she stared up at him, saying nothing and showing no interest in those standing around. “Is someone meeting you?” Clearing her throat, Alison took a step back, adjusting her hat as she gripped her reticule in the other hand. “I believe Mr. Horace Clausen planned to meet me.” She dug into her handbag, checking the piece of paper with the banker’s name. “Perhaps he doesn’t know the stage has arrived.” Gabe peered down the street toward the bank before a shout caught his attention. “There he is.” He nodded at a tall, slender man with graying hair and a short beard walking toward them. “Mrs.

Burns?” Horace asked, making a slight bow when she nodded. “I’m Horace Clausen. I hope your journey wasn’t too difficult.” “Long, but uneventful, Mr. Clausen.” She looked between the two men, then focused her attention on Gage. “Thank you for coming to my aid, Sheriff.” “My pleasure, Mrs. Burns, and welcome to Splendor. I’ll leave you two to your business.

” Touching the brim of his hat, Gabe crossed the street, disappearing into the Dixie Saloon. Horace chuckled at his hasty departure. “You’ll have to excuse the sheriff, Mrs. Burns. He married a couple months ago and can’t seem to stay away from his wife for more than a few hours.” He sobered at the confusion on her face. “The sheriff’s wife works in a saloon?” Alison clamped her mouth shut, wishing she could take the words back. “Yes, she does. She’s one of the owners.” He picked up the traveling bag Charlie had deposited on the boardwalk before taking her elbow to guide her toward the bank.

“You’ll have plenty of time to get to know the people in town. I’m sure you’ll be quite pleased with the people of Splendor.” She narrowed her gaze at him, not responding. Being pleased wasn’t in Alison’s plans. She’d left Kentucky for one purpose, which didn’t include becoming close with the people of Splendor. “Thank you, Mr. Clausen. I’m certain you’re right.” “Don’t forget this, Mrs. Burns.

” Charlie lumbered toward them, balancing an odd-shaped crate in his arms. Setting it next to Clausen, he swiped his arm across his forehead. “I’ll be getting lunch, then heading out.” “Thank you so much. You’ve been a great help.” Alison smiled, seeing Charlie’s face redden before he turned to leave. “May I assume this is for your business?” Clausen asked. “It’s my sewing machine, Mr. Clausen. I was able to obtain it from a traveling merchant in Kentucky, who purchased it from one of the factories in New York after the war.

” She reached down to pat the crate. “It was my good fortune to secure it for my shop.” “I’d heard of the factories in the north that sprang up to make uniforms during the war. I’ve never seen one of those machines in operation, though.” “Well, Mr. Clausen, now’s your chance.” Alison stood in the middle of her millinery and seamstress shop, her gaze moving over the hat forms, ribbon, bolts of fabric, thread, lace, buttons, and paper patterns left by the previous owner. It had been her good fortune to spot the newspaper ad Horace placed for the relatives of the woman who’d succumbed to consumption, leaving a good business in a growing town. The timing had been perfect. The merchant coming through town had wanted nothing more than to rid himself of the cumbersome sewing machine.

Although her mother objected, she’d paid the small amount he requested, then shooed him on his way before he realized the bargain he’d left behind. She smiled to herself. “Hello. Are you the new owner?” Alison turned at the cheery voice, seeing three women step inside. “Yes, I am.” She walked up to them. “Welcome to my shop. I’mAlison Mc…Burns.” She’d almost slipped and used her surname of McGrath rather than her mother’s maiden name, the one Alison chose as her married name. She had to be more careful.

It wouldn’t do to associate herself with her dead brother, Bobby McGrath. Not until she discovered the truth about his death. “It’s wonderful to meet you. I’mAbigail Brandt. These are my friends, Rachel and Ginny Pelletier. We’d heard about the new owner and couldn’t wait any longer to meet you.” At that moment, the machine near the back caught Abby’s attention. “Oh my. Is that what I think it is?” She moved to it, reaching out to touch the contraption. “If you mean a sewing machine, then yes.

I brought it with me from Kentucky.” “Rachel, have you ever seen one of these?” her sister-in-law, Ginny, asked. “I have. I don’t know how we would have fought the war without them.” Rachel turned toward Alison, seeing the young woman’s face pale. “I worked as a nurse in Union field hospitals during the war. Our soldiers would never have gotten uniforms without the factories using these machines.” “Yes, ma’am. My father fought for the North under General Benson. He died at the Battle of Richmond.

” Rachel let out a sigh. “We lost many good men during the war.” “But it’s over now. Time to move on, right?” Abby said, trying to shift the mood. “Are you taking customers yet?” Alison shook off the memories of her father, wishing she could do the same when she thought of her brother. “Yes. What can I do for you?” An hour later, Alison watched the three women leave. She’d obtained orders for six dresses with hats to match, two apiece, and a promise to meet them for lunch in town the following Saturday. Lowering herself into a nearby chair, she held the order in her hand, still reeling from the changes in her life. Her father had died fighting for the North in August of 1862, leaving Alison, her mother, and younger brother, Bobby, to take care of their farm.

While Bobby tended the animals, Alison and her mother had taken laundry and seamstress work to keep the family going. They all took care of the crops, although weather and marauding troops from both sides had done all in their power to take them under. In late 1864, Bobby had given into his anger, enlisting in the Southern Army. Afterwards, he’d joined a group of disenchanted Confederate soldiers, traveling west to make his fortune so he could support his mother and sister the way their father hadn’t. They’d heard little from Bobby, receiving few letters and no money, until a telegram came in late 1867 from the sheriff of Splendor. Gabe Evans, the man she’d met on her arrival, had been brief. Bobby had been shot and killed during an attempted bank robbery. If interested, his family could obtain his personal effects in person. Alison’s stomach still clenched whenever she thought of the curt message announcing her brother’s death. He’d been seventeen, barely a man, and most certainly not a bank robber.

With a shaky hand, she swiped a tear from her face, anger at the injustice surfacing again. She’d made a promise to her mother, and herself, to find the man who had fired the gun. He’d shown Bobby no mercy, and she vowed he’d receive none from her. All she had to do was settle in, get to know the people of Splendor, and discover who murdered her brother. Alison would take care of business, then disappear without a shred of regret. “Another telegram for you, Sheriff. It’s from Cash. When do you think he’ll be coming home?” Bernie Griggs had run the Western Union office for years, having no plans to ever retire. “I wish I knew.” Gabe Evans glanced at the message Bernie handed him.

After reading it, he shook his head. Cash Coulter, ex-Confederate soldier, bounty hunter, and deputy sheriff in Splendor, had left town right after Gabe married Lena Campanel. He’d provided few details, saying he owed a friend and had to go. “Do you want to send a reply?” “Yeah. Tell him to finish up whatever he’s doing and get his scrawny ass back to Splendor.” Gabe tossed a coin on the counter and left, hearing Bernie chuckle before he closed the door. Taking a few steps toward the jail, his head snapped up at the sound of gunfire coming from the Dixie Saloon. Drawing his gun, Gabe dashed across the muddy street, seeing Beau Davis, his other deputy, storm out of the jail. Their gazes connected. As if they read each other’s mind, Beau crossed as quickly as he could given the tendency of the gooey muck they called a street to tug at his boots.

Getting as close as possible, listening to the continuing gunfire, Gabe nodded at Beau while holding up his fist. One…two…three fingers, then they charged into the saloon, coming to an abrupt stop at the scene before them. “What the…” Gabe’s gaze moved from the three men crouching under a table to the woman pointing a revolver at them. The look on his wife’s face was feral as she glared at the men. “Not one of you is welcome in the Dixie again. Do you understand?” She shot another two rounds into the air, then set the revolver on the bar, picking up the loaded one next to it. “Now, get out.” Her voice remained low and strong, the gun not wavering. Stepping up next to her, Gabe slid an arm around her waist. “Do you need any help?” he whispered in her ear.

“No. I think I can handle this.” She didn’t look at him, all her attention focused on the men still hiding under the table. “She tried to kill us, Sheriff,” one of the men growled. “You need to arrest her.” “Why don’t you three come out from your hiding place and we’ll talk.” Gabe dropped his arm from around Lena’s waist and stalked toward the men, still holding his gun in one hand. “Come on. You heard the sheriff,” Beau said, slapping his hand on the table. “And I’ll take your guns while we sort this out.

” “Hell no. I’m not giving you my gun.” The largest of the three got to his feet, slamming his hat down on his head. Another shot rang out. “You heard the deputy. Hand over your guns.” Lena narrowed her eyes at the men. “Lena, why don’t you give me the gun? Beau and I will take it from here.” Gabe reached out, wrapping his hand around the barrel of the gun as her finger moved from the trigger. “Good.

Now tell me what happened.” He nodded his appreciation at Paul when the bartender set two whiskeys in front of him. “Here, drink this,” he said, handing a glass to Lena. She downed it in one swallow before turning to face the three men Beau had lined up against one wall. “Gina started today.” She crossed her arms, trying to settle the anger still pulsing through her. “The new server girl from Denver?” “Yes. If you remember, she doesn’t provide anything except drinks and conversation. She’d served those men drinks, then continued to serve other tables. On the second round, the big one grabbed Gina and settled her on his lap.

She tried to stand, but he wouldn’t let her go. He ran his hand up her leg and under her dress. When she slapped him and shoved herself up, he grabbed her arm and slapped her. Then the other two joined in. Neither Paul nor I could get to her fast enough.” Gabe cursed, understanding why Lena had gone after them. “I didn’t try to hurt them, but I needed to get their attention. When the big one pulled a gun, I shot close enough to him that he dropped it, but then he started toward me. That’s when Paul grabbed the shotgun.” Talking about it seemed to escalate her anger rather than control it.

She took a deep breath. “They finally took cover under the table just before you and Beau got here.” “Do you know them?” “I’ve never seen them before. Probably riding through—at least I hope that’s their plan.” Gabe leaned over, giving Lena a kiss, then pushed away from the bar. “If not, it will be their plan now.” Alison walked into the boardinghouse dining room on Saturday, coming to a stop when she spotted the table filled with women. She’d met three—Abigail, Rachel, and Ginny. The other three were strangers. Straightening her shoulders, she took a deep breath and started forward, fidgeting with the drawstring of her reticule as she walked.

“Alison, we’re so glad you could join us.” Abby turned to the others. “Everyone, this is Alison Burns. She bought the millinery and seamstress shop next to the bank. Alison, this is Isabella Boucher, Caroline Iverson, and Magdalena Evans.” “Please, call me Lena,” Magdalena said, offering a warm smile. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” “And you can call me Caro.” Caroline offered Alison a warm smile. Alison nodded, forcing her own smile as she took a seat next to Abby.

“We were just getting the story on what happened at the Dixie yesterday.” Rachel glanced at Lena. “So you grabbed your gun, then what?” Alison’s eyes widened at the question. “It really wasn’t as bad as it sounds.” Lena took a sip of her coffee, glancing over the rim at Alison, noting her discomfort. “Three men acted inappropriately toward one of the new girls, and I set them straight. That’s all.” “That’s all? From what Beau said, you took on the three men and they hid under a table.” Caro looked at Alison. “Did you hear the commotion?” “When I heard the gunshots, I stayed put.

Where I come from, we had so many raiders come through town that we knew to stay inside when we heard shots. What happened to the men?” “Gabe and Beau arrived and broke it up. Beau took them to the jail while Gabe stayed with me.” Lena grinned, her face flushing pink. “He’s so protective.” “Gabe Evans is your husband, right?” Alison asked, trying to recall what she’d heard about the various women. “Yes, he is.” “You’ll figure it all out, but a short version is Noah Brandt is my husband,” Abby explained. “Rachel is married to Dax Pelletier, and Ginny is married to his brother, Luke.” “Isabella and I are widows,” Caro added.

She shifted toward Isabella, touching her arm. “What she isn’t saying is that each has a suitor.” Ginny laughed at the surprised look on each woman’s face. “You thought we didn’t know about Travis and Beau?” Caro cleared her throat. “Beau Davis is a wonderful man whom I’m proud to call a friend. There is nothing more between us.” “Uh-huh. Is that also true for you and Travis, Isabella?” Ginny asked. “Yes, it is. He’s been there for me during some rough times and I value his friendship.

” She shrugged. “He’s a southern gentleman. As you all know, he’s still dealing with the loss of his wife and daughter during the war.” Isabella looked at Alison. “Travis works for Dax and Luke Pelletier.” “And he’s one of our best men,” Rachel added, wanting to change the subject. “So, tell us, Alison. Why did you pick Splendor?” Alison’s hands stilled at the question, her mind racing to form a response. “It’s simple. My mother didn’t cope well with the death of my father.

She became more and more withdrawn each year. Last summer, she took sick. The doctor said her heart gave out.” Alison winced at the lie, knowing her mother might never recover from Bobby’s death, but still lived on their Kentucky farm. “My husband was killed in the war.” She bit her lower lip at the second lie in less than a minute, hoping they didn’t question her further on her non-existent marriage. Before making the trip west, she’d made the decision to present herself as a widow without family. “I couldn’t take care of the farm alone. A local family made an offer about the time I saw the ad Mr. Clausen placed in the newspaper.

There was nothing keeping me in Kentucky, so…” Her voice trailed off as an image of the farm took hold. “And here you are.” Ginny leaned forward, the corners of her mouth tilting upward. “I came in a wagon train with my younger sister. Our parents died on the journey and we had no funds to go further. Rachel came west to join her uncle in his clinic. Lena traveled here from back east to join her business partner.” “I came here after my husband died,” Isabella added, surprising the other women by discussing her past. “I’ve known Lena since we were children. This seemed like the best place to be as I have no other family.

” “It’s the only place you should be.” Lena wrapped an arm around Isabella’s shoulders and squeezed. “Where did you come from, Caro?” Alison asked. “I grew up in New York. Gabe and I have known each other for years. When my husband died, I decided to break away from the suffocating attention of my family and travel west. As luck would have it, I encountered Gabe in Big Pine, where he had business. He encouraged me to come to Splendor.” “Are you glad you listened to him?” Alison leaned forward. She hadn’t expected to like any of these women, yet the more they shared, the more she felt guilty about her true reasons for being in Splendor.

“Oh yes. This is a wonderful town with some of the most delightful people I’ve ever known. I hope you feel the same after you’ve been here a while.” Alison glanced at the other women, knowing she’d never truly fit in and would most definitely not be staying. “Perhaps I will, Caro. You never know what life has planned, do you?”

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