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Fiction by L.K. Campbell

The Sheriff & Camille

THE STAGECOACH STOPPED in what must have been a foot of red mud. Camille stuck her head out of the door and looked around. In her letters, Jane had called Red Gorge a town. Camille hadn’t envisioned a few wooden structures on either side of a wagon path. She lifted the skirts of her blue traveling dress and latched on to the stage driver’s proffered hand.

“Careful of your footing, ma’am,” he said.

He held onto her until she reached the wood plank sidewalk in front of the general store. He deposited two small pieces of luggage next to her. She hadn’t brought much in the way of clothing. She’d only intended to stay long enough to deliver some sad news and enjoy a short visit with her childhood friend.

“When will you come back through here?” she asked the driver.

“Three days,” he said. “Will I be picking you up?”

“Yes,” she said. “I don’t want to wear out my welcome.”

He tipped his hat to her and climbed up to the driver’s seat.

Camille read the placard hanging from the awning of the storefront. Milton’s General Store, U.S. Post Office & Telegraph Office.

“Mr. Milton must be a jack-of-all-trades,” she said aloud.

“And a master of none,” a male voice sounded behind her.

She swung around. In the open doorway stood a gray-haired gentleman wearing spectacles.

“Isn’t that how the saying is completed?” he asked. “Horace Milton at your service, ma’am.”

Her cheeks warmed. She hadn’t meant to insult Mr. Milton.

“I’m sure that the last part of the adage doesn’t apply to you,” she said.

He grinned from ear-to-ear.

“I hope you can help me find someone,” she said. “I’m looking for Jane Ford. Do you know her?”

Mr. Milton’s eyes widened over the wire rim of his glasses. He pointed across the street.

“You can find her over there,” he said.

Camille turned her head in the direction he’d indicated. A large sign above the double swinging doors read The Lucky Seven Saloon. Why would Jane be in a saloon? Jane’s family believed that she owned a dress shop, although a few minutes in Red Gorge had already cast doubt on that story.

“Does she work in the saloon?” Camille asked.

A cough preceded his answer. “She owns the place, ma’am.” He studied her face. “I take it from your expression that you weren’t aware of Jane’s occupation.”

She decided not to respond to Mr. Milton. Jane had been her friend since their first day of school, and she wouldn’t engage in idle talk about her with a stranger.

“Can you tell me if there’s a room available in the boarding house next door?”

“My wife doesn’t rent to ladies,” he said.

“I beg your pardon?”

Mr. Milton tucked his hands into his apron and shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

“Well, ma’am, I don’t know what you were expecting, but Red Gorge is a mining town. There aren’t many women here, and it wouldn’t be proper for you to stay in a rooming house full of men.”

Camille sighed. What had she been expecting? Mr. Milton’s observation was an understatement. Jane’s letters had painted an entirely different landscape from the reality of the location. She must have believed that none of her family or friends would ever venture this far out west.

“Perhaps, you’re right,” Camille said. “Where might I board for a few days?”

Mr. Milton cast a glance toward The Lucky Seven. “Jane has rooms above the saloon, but again, it’s not the place for a lady.”

“Are you insinuating that my friend isn’t a lady?” Of course, she hadn’t laid eyes on Jane in five years. Her character might not be what it once was.

“Oh, no ma’am. I didn’t mean to insinuate anything,” he said. “But it’s a saloon.”

“I understand, Mr. Milton,” she said. “But if there’s no other alternative.”

“Rapid City has a really nice hotel—a brand new brick building,” he said. “You could hire a buggy and driver at the livery to take you there.”

She started to chew the inside of her bottom lip but stopped herself. Her ex-husband had always chastised her for that nervous habit—among other things. Come to think of it, what about me didn’t he criticize?

“How far away is Rapid City?”

“An hour’s ride by the Rapid Creek Road,” he said. “Logan Malloy owns the livery. You can tell him I sent you.”

Camille opened her reticule and found the length of chain attached to her silver watch. With the longer days of summer, there would be plenty of time to attend to lodging. She needed to deal with more important matters first.

“I think I’d better call on Jane now and decide on my accommodations later. May I leave my luggage here?”

“You may,” Horace said. “I’ll set these inside the store for you.”

She clutched her skirt and held it up high enough to slog across the street. Before entering the building, she stood on tiptoes to peek over the top of the saloon doors. A few men played cards at one of the rickety tables. A young man, who didn’t appear to be out of his teen years, swept the worn wooden floor. She scraped the soles of her muddy shoes on the straw mat and pushed the doors open.

When she crossed the threshold, the men’s heads swiveled in her direction. Her attention went to a woman with curly red hair falling down over the black lace shawl draped around her shoulders. The woman seemed to be busy removing liquor bottles from a crate. She set them on a shelf attached to the wall behind the makeshift bar—a plank laid flat across three large barrels.

“Jane?”

She blurted out her friend’s name almost as a question, but she would have known that fiery mane anywhere.

Jane’s posture straightened, and she spun toward the door. She stared at Camille for a moment before running from behind the bar with outstretched arms.

“Camille Canfield, as I live and breathe,” Jane said. “What are you doing in Red Gorge?”

“I came to see you, Jane.” She paused and nodded toward the men who were still gaping at them. “May we speak in private?”

Some of the color drained from Jane’s cheeks as if she sensed and expected bad news. She called to the young man who had been sweeping the floor. “Leroy, mind the bar for me. I’ll be in the kitchen with my friend.”

Jane led her through the rear door of the saloon onto a porch that formed a breezeway between the main building and the kitchen.

The kitchen contained a large wood-fed stove with a round flue pipe going out of the top of the ceiling near the far wall. Jane used the hand pump next to the porcelain sink to draw a glass of water for Camille. She drank it down and let the fresh, cool liquid coat her parched throat. Jane poured herself a shot of whiskey from the bottle on the table in the middle of the room.

“You look wonderful Camille,” Jane said. “I would swear you weren’t a day over twenty.”

“We both know that I’m closer to thirty,” she said. “And I look terrible. The trip out here isn’t an easy one. I’m covered in about five layers of soot and dust.”

After she removed her hat and laid it aside on the table, she tucked the loose strands of her light brown hair behind her ears. There was no sense putting off what she had to say.

“I don’t enjoy being the bearer of bad news,” she said.

Jane's face blanched. “Is it Ma?”

Camille swallowed the lump in her throat.

“No, your mother is doing well—considering all things.” She paused and took another sip of water. “I’ve come about your sister.” Don’t beat around the bush, Camille. Say what you need to say. “She died in childbirth.”

It took Jane a moment to speak. Her voice trembled. “And the baby?”

“Dead, too. It was a girl.”

Jane sank into the chair next to Camille. Tears streamed down her cheeks, cutting a path through her heavy rouge like the parting of the Red Sea. Camille moved closer and put her arm around Jane’s shoulders. She didn’t try to placate her friend with all the usual comforting phrases people impart at such times. She allowed Jane her pain and tears.

“One night, I woke up from a fitful sleep,” Jane said when she was able to speak. “I’d had a bad dream about Maggie. I’ve heard it said about twins that one feels what the other one feels. It made me think that something terrible had happened to her.”

Jane’s shoulder trembled in Camille’s grip.

“That’s why I had to come in person. I couldn’t let you read news like this in a telegram or a letter.”

“Ma must be beside herself with grief,” Jane said. “Maggie was her favorite.”

Camille settled against the chair and sipped from her water glass. She almost wished for a taste of the whiskey Jane gulped down.

“Your Ma is a strong woman. I remember how she kept going when she lost your pa and raised all of you on her own. I’ve always admired her for that.”

“She still has Josiah,” Jane said.

“But the old rhyme starts out, ‘Your son is your son ‘til he takes a wife’. Your ma doesn’t get along too well with Josiah’s wife.”

“She thought that she was better than us,” Jane said. “As if we were from the wrong side of Memphis, and she grew up in Buckingham Palace.” Jane tossed back another shot of whiskey. “Well, judging by the way my life has turned out, maybe she was right.”

“Oh, Jane, don’t say…”

Jane grasped one of Camille’s arms to interrupt her.

“Camille, you’re too kind, but I know what you’re thinking. Looking in those pretty blue eyes is like gazing into a crystal ball. You’re wondering why I lied in the letters I wrote because this sure as heck isn't a dress shop.”

Camille took a moment to think before she spoke.

“I suppose that after you and Zeb parted ways, you were too proud to go home,” she said.

“You’d be right,” Jane said. “I didn’t want to listen to Ma say, ‘I been telling you since you were twelve-years-old that Zeb Ford was no good’.”

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Blurb

In 1884, Camille Canfield arrives in the small gold mining town of Red Gorge, Dakota Territory to deliver tragic news to her childhood friend, Jane Ford. When Jane’s business partner is murdered, Jane is the prime suspect, and Sheriff Jack Findley wastes no time arresting her. Camille refuses to believe her friend is guilty and will go to any lengths to discover the truth, even if it means provoking a man she's grown to admire.

Category: Fiction, Western, Historical Mystery, Western Romance

Published: December 2017

Words: 36,270

ISBN: 9781370903115