Ever wonder what happened in 1863 prior to Chase Harper’s appearance? Well, as requested by several readers, here is the prologue I deleted from The Keeper’s Calling:
The Keeper’s Calling Prologue
June 2, 1863
The old man knew this was the end. He wouldn’t talk. He had vowed not to give them what they wanted. Sweat drenched his entire body. They’d left his back shredded from the lash of a whip. Each open wound made more painful by the sting of salty sweat.
The butt of a rifle rattled his head and he opened his eyes. Blood dripped from the five stumps that used to be his fingers. They’d ruined his right hand, brutally severing each finger one by one. He expected them to move to his left hand next and prayed for the end to come quickly. He welcomed it—the peace of a quiet slumber in the grave. No more running. No more hiding. No more fighting. At somewhere over 80 years old he increasingly felt his age. It was impossible to know for certain how long he’d lived, but he knew his time was short. If fortune smiled on him, he would bleed to death before they did more.
The Mexican don stepped closer, frustrated. An ordinary man would have broken by now. “Where is it old man? I grow tired of these games. You can’t possibly escape. Tell me where you’ve hidden it and I’ll be merciful.”
The old man moaned. “Never! You’ll go back to that snake you’re working for with nothing.”
A sinister laugh escaped the don’s throat. “We’ll see about that.” He looked at Juan and the two brothers who worked for him, addressing the eldest. “Miguel, bandage up his hand and keep him alive. We’re going after the girl. Perhaps then he can be motivated to talk.”
At the mention of the girl the old man flew into a rage. With a surge of unnatural strength, he broke free. He ploughed through his captors and lunged for the don, burying the splintered end of a branch in the Mexican’s heart.
Miguel drew his sword and drove it through the old man’s back. Glancing down at the bloodstained tip protruding from his chest, the old man smiled as he crumpled to his knees, toppling onto the lifeless body of his tormentor.
Ortiz climbed to his feet and dusted off his sombrero. “Balcombe ain’t gonna like this.”
Miguel wiped the blood from his sword. “He doesn’t have to know. Hide the old man in the trees. The three of us will finish this business ourselves.”
Juan, the youngest of the men, threw up his hands and backed toward his horse. He was nursing a bad wound sustained in the initial capture of the old man. “Not me. I’m out.”
A half smile played at the corner of the Miguel’s mouth as he contemplated splitting the promised gold two ways instead of four. How hard could it be to get a girl to cooperate?
They loaded the don’s body onto his horse. Juan grabbed the reins of the don’s horse and limped to his own. Without looking back, he mounted up and rode away, leaving the two brothers to clean up the mess.
Miles away, the dust swirled around the spinning wheels of the overland stage coach. It wouldn’t be more than a few hours longer until Ellen Elizabeth Williams was home. Fortunately, the journey had been relatively uneventful. The stage sunk in the mud once, forcing all the passengers to get out and push. But, at least there were no hold-ups. It could have been worse. She frowned as she shifted positions, certain her backside had suffered permanent bruising from bouncing up and down on the uncomfortable bench. Thankfully, there was another female passenger on board and the two women had enjoyed each other’s company immensely.
The rocking cadence of the horses pulling the stage coach over the rutted dirt road lulled her into reminiscing on the life events which had shaped her past. At eighteen, she still preferred to be addressed by the nickname Ellie which had been given her by her father. For the past four years she had attended the Girls’ High School in Boston. Her great-aunt Lydia was widowed before ever having children of her own. Hence, when her grandfather suggested a proper education, the prospect of taking in Ellie had delighted the older woman.
During her time in Boston, Ellie had missed her grandfather’s two room cabin out west in the Utah territory. The amount of time it took to travel that distance prevented her from visiting home each summer, as some of the other girls did. Fortunately, her grandfather wasn’t as restricted in his travel methods as she was. He frequently visited her Aunt’s modest home in Boston, and they had often enjoyed supper together on Sunday evenings. She and Aunt Lydia didn’t mention these visits to anyone.
Ellie’s father had married at the age of thirty eight while her mother was only twenty three. Her mother’s family disapproved of the union due to their vast age difference. Two years later, after a hard childbirth, Ellie’s mother died of pneumonia. Her mother’s family became bitter at the loss of their daughter and blamed Ellie’s father George for her death. They shunned their new little granddaughter, wanting nothing to do with her. Heartbroken at the loss of his wife and the harsh treatment from his in-laws, George poured all his love and attention into his little daughter. Fate dealt her cruel hand when at a mere eight years of age, Ellie’s father became ill and passed away, leaving her an orphan.
Amyot Williams, her grandfather, had been a frequent visitor and was loved by Ellie. He promptly took custody of the young girl and moved her out west with him. She thrived in his frontier environment. He had been one of the earliest white settlers in Timpoweap, which is Paiute for “Rock Canyon.” Evidently, during the time she had been gone to school, the area was re-named Hurricane (pronounced Her-ah-kun). On one of his visits to Boston her grandfather relayed the story.
A group of Mormon surveyors had come through the area at the same time as a strong whirlwind which ripped the top off their buggy. They henceforth called the place Hurricane Hill and the name had stuck. Recently, there had been an influx of settlers to that region, all of whom now referred to the area as Hurricane. Grandfather Williams’ cabin was located a few miles west of Hurricane Hill, nestled near the Virgin River.
There Ellie learned all the necessary frontier survival skills. She became a confident rider, and was able to shoot and skin a rabbit as well as any boy raised out west, although it certainly wasn’t something she enjoyed doing. When her grandfather insisted she get a proper education befitting of a lady, the prospect of an adventure thrilled Ellie. Ellie quickly grew to love the hustle and bustle of city life. She would walk down the streets and peer in the shop windows, dreaming about wearing this dress or that fashionable new hat. Once she turned sixteen, she was allowed to attend the various parties, balls, and social events Boston was famous for.
Ellie was slightly taller than average, with honey blond hair, full of natural curl that glistened in the sunlight. In the past year she had many beaus vying for her attention. Although they were all nice, only one had caught her interest. Reveries of him filled her mind even now.
Walt Griffith was a doctor’s son and attending medical school himself. He was tall and strikingly handsome with his almost black hair and dark brown eyes. They had seen each other regularly since he’d asked her to dance at the Christmas ball. They attended rallies together in support of the Union troops, who were fighting the Southern states over the issue of slavery. She was deeply moved by some of the experiences she had heard from Ellen and William Craft, runaway slaves, who now resided in Boston and often made speeches in support of abolitionism.
Walt was anxious to finish his medical training and join the Union army as a doctor. He looked forward to putting his skills to use on the battlefield saving soldiers. In a way this war seemed a waste to Ellie. So many young men had lost their lives already and the Civil War still raged across the country. Why couldn’t they come to a reasonable agreement without all the loss of life? Would it be worth it?
She fingered the smooth paper folded neatly in her pocket—a telegram from her grandfather, urging her to ‘make all haste back home.’What could he mean? Was he ill? Or did it have to do with something else altogether—his secret?
Looking out the window, she noticed it wouldn’t be long now. They were on the outskirts of town with the sun still high in the sky. Soon she could ask him herself. Hopefully her grandfather received word the stage was coming in a day early or it would be a long walk to the cabin. Actually, too long a walk for today.
The coach jostled to a stop in St. George and the drivers unloaded the baggage. Being limited by the stage company to twenty five pounds of luggage, she had only brought a small satchel with a few dresses and personal effects. If she chose not to go back, she’d have Aunt Lydia ship the rest of her things in the trunk later. The trip had been long and tiring. Before leaving Boston, she’d heard an announcement regarding a transcontinental railroad. That would be a marvelous day indeed, when a person could board the train in Boston and continue west by rail as far as they’d like to go.
“Thanks folks,” nodded the driver as each of his passengers stepped down from the coach and gathered their belongings.
Ellie took her bag from him. “Thank you.”
Although late in the afternoon, the air was stifling. Ellie seated herself on the bench in front of the post office and waited. She would find someone to stay with in town if her grandfather didn’t arrive soon. People came and went from the mercantile across the street. Ellie smiled as she watched mothers work to keep their children in line, while toting their packages. She marveled at how the town had changed in the past four years.
Finally, Ellie gathered up her bag, deciding to ask the Harris family if she could spend the night. Their daughter Julia had been a good friend when she was younger. Ellie often ran down to Julia’s to play when her grandfather had come to town for supplies. As she stepped into the road, a wagon pulled in front of the mercantile.
“Why is that Miss Ellie, all grown up and back from Boston?” the man yelled.
“It certainly is Mr. Johnson. And, how are you and your family?” Ellie said.
Her grandfather’s nearest neighbor, jumped down from his wagon.
“Why, we’re just fine, ‘cept I broke a hoe, and the missus wants them weeds out of her garden yesterday. So, here I am, runnin’ to town to fetch me a new hoe. Actually, I got a whole list of supplies to pick up for Millie. She’s expectin’ a baby come end of summer or she’d have come along. I reckon she wasn’t too keen on gettin’ jostled by a wagon ride. Your grandfather pickin’ you up, or you need a ride?”
“I’d be much obliged, if you don’t mind? And congratulations. That’s wonderful news about Millie expecting.”
“Thanks. I’ll be a minute in the mercantile and then I can take you home.”
The sun hung low in the western sky by the time Mr. Johnson’s horse trotted along the rutted frontier road. Ellie welcomed the cool of the coming evening. In the distance the rocky, mountain formations beckoned to her. It had been too long since she’d ridden in the canyon. Perhaps tomorrow Grandfather would want to go, she thought.
Every spring, when she was a young girl, he took her up the canyon to the cave. It was their secret place. On the third year, when she was eleven, he had made Ellie lead the way. It took a couple of tries but she eventually found it. Every year after that, she had proudly led him straight to their cave.
“You can drop me off here. I’ll walk the rest of the way. It’ll do me good to stretch my legs after sitting all day,” Ellie said as they reached the drive leading to her grandfather’s cabin.
Mr. Johnson pulled back on the traces. “Say hello to your grandfather for me.”
Ellie hopped down from his wagon and grabbed her satchel. “I will. Thank you for the ride.”
Her excitement at surprising her grandfather quickly vanished. Nothing but disappointment and a dark cabin met her at the end of the drive. He was nowhere to be found. She walked through their small barn yard hoping to find him feeding the animals, but the horses neighed for attention and the chickens flocked underfoot. The old milk cow seemed extra full, but she shrugged it off. After being gone four years, maybe she’d forgotten how full an udder got.
In the dwindling twilight, she tossed grain to the chickens, spread hay for the other animals, and then pulled out the milk stool. She rested her cheek against the warm flank of the mild-mannered cow. Her hands easily fell into the old milking routine—squeeze pull, squeeze pull. She closed her eyes and relished the pinging sound of fresh milk hitting the metal pail.
The sound of the animals munching their hay soothed her. After the milking, she pumped water into their trough. She splashed tepid water on her face and neck as bats darted through the darkening sky. Breathing deeply the clean desert air, a contented smile played across her face and a sigh escaped her lips. An owl flew overhead and started up a chorus as it balanced on top of a nearby tree. While she relished being home, a sick feeling settled in her stomach. Where was her grandfather?
Perhaps he had been out hunting today. He was notorious for coming home late from hunting trips. Undoubtedly, he’d be home soon, Ellie thought, deciding not to worry about him yet. She pushed open the door to the quiet cabin and set her satchel on the floor. She lit a candle and poured a cup of milk for her supper. The rest of the milk she took out to the cellar.
After surveying the meager stock of supplies, she decided to bake and churn butter tomorrow. Taking the last quarter loaf of bread, she returned to the cabin and locked the door. Sitting alone at the table, she ate the bread soaked in fresh milk and drizzled with honey.
Grandfather had given her the back room of the cabin, while he slept on a bed in the main room. Weariness overcame her, and she chose her grandfather’s bed. When he came home, she’d wake up to see him. As soon as her head hit the pillow, she slipped into a deep and dreamless slumber.
Her mind, heavy with sleep, didn’t register the significance of the beating of horses’ hooves coming up the drive. It wasn’t until someone banged on the door that she pulled herself back to reality. As she sat up, the sound of splitting wood echoed through the cabin. The blade of an ax cracked the door. By the sputtering candle light, she watched in horror as the ax splintered the wooden planks.
Scrambling off the bed, she darted through her room to the back window. Ripping away the muslin that acted as a screen to keep the mosquitoes out, she climbed through the small space. A slur of Spanish yelling followed her out the window.
She ran to the barn, grabbed a bridle, and slid it on the brown and white calico horse. There was no time for a saddle. The intruders would soon discover her. Wedging an elbow against his withers, Ellie jumped on the horse’s back and swung her leg over. Yanking her skirt to her knees, she straddled the horse. A swift kick sent the gate flying open, and she galloped out of the barn yard.
The Mexicans darted outside and followed. The tall, lanky assailant swung a rope above his head as his galloping horse closed the gap. The lariat flew through the moonlit sky and settled firmly around her torso, sending a jolt of panic through her. She sat back and called, “Whoa!”
Pulling firmly on the horse’s mouth, she brought him sliding to a stop. As she scrambled to free herself from the rope, the man jerked on the rope, pulling her backward over the horse’s tail. As she landed flat on her back, her horse jumped forward and trotted down the drive.
The man stood over her. “Where you runnin’ off to senorita?” While he studied her, he coiled his rope. Ellie gasped as she tried to catch her breath. “We’re gonna have a little fun the two of us.”
“Ortiz, tie her hands and let’s get out of here. There’s no time to waste,” ordered the shorter man.
With the gate open, the cow, the sheep, and the other horse meandered past, following after the calico. They sniffed the parched ground looking for any stray weeds or blades of grass not scorched by the desert sun. Despite her struggling, Ellie’s hands were tied behind her back and she was seated on their extra horse. The Mexicans’ horses trotted down the drive and turned toward the canyon. Something wasn’t right. These men hadn’t taken the horses. They hadn’t searched the cabin for valuables. Obviously they weren’t common thieves. A shudder went down her spine. This was more than simply a random attack. She realized she would be getting her ride up the canyon much sooner than expected. Only this wasn’t quite how she’d imagined it.