The Man from Stone Creek
New York Times and USA Today Bestseller
SingleTitles.com Reviewers’ Choice Award Winner 2007
Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award Nominee for Best American-set Historical Romance 2006-2007
There was trouble in Haven, Arizona, and Ranger Sam O’Ballivan was determined to sort it out. Badge and gun hidden, he arrived posing as the new schoolteacher, and discovered his first task was to bring the rough ranchers’ children under control. So he started with a call on Maddie Chancelor, the local postmistress, and older sister of a young boy in firm need of discipline.
It never occurred to Sam that Maddie would turn out to be a graceful woman whose prim and proper stance battled with the fire in her eyes. Working undercover to capture rustlers and train robbers was a job that had always kept him isolated and his heart firmly in check—until now. But there was something about the postmistress that had him unwittingly tempted to start down a path he’d sworn he’d never travel.
Haven, Arizona Territory
THE PINT-SIZE CULPRITS, heretofore gathered around the well, scattered for the brush as soon as Sam O’Ballivan rode into the schoolyard on his nameless horse, but he’d seen enough to know they were up to no good. He caught glimpses of bowl-cut hair, denim trousers and chambray shirts as they fled. Pigtails, too, and a flash of red calico, bright as a cardinal rousted from the low branches of a white oak tree in winter. With a disgusted shake of his head, Sam reined in and dismounted, leaving the gelding to stand untethered while he strode toward the scene of recent mischief. A part of his mind stayed behind, with the animal—it was newly acquired, that horse, and the two of them had yet to form a proper acquaintance. All during the long ride south from his ranch just outside Flagstaff, he’d been too busy cogitating on the complexities of this new assignment to consider much of anything else, going over Major John Blackstone’s orders again and again in his head, sorting and sifting, weighing and measuring.
“Hold on,” he called. The bucket rope was taut and quivering, and he recalled this particular trick from his own youth.
A male voice echoed from the depths of the water hole, a shambling train of plaintive syllables rattling along a track of hopeful goodwill. Sam recognized the keynote as relief.
“I find myself in—obvious difficulties—and will—be profoundly grateful for any assistance—”
“Hold on,” Sam repeated, the words underlaid with a sigh. He was powerfully built—like a brick shithouse, the boys in the bunkhouse liked to say—and seldom moved quickly, except in a fight or when called upon to draw his .45. He secured the rope with his left hand and reached for the crank with the other, peering downward.
All he could make out, even squinting, were the soles of two small, booted feet, bound at the ankles with what looked like baling twine. Here was a dainty fellow, for sure and certain—and most likely the incompetent schoolmaster Sam had come to relieve of his duties.
“I’m all right!” the teacher called cheerfully from the pit. “Thomas P. Singleton, here!”
Sam felt chagrined that given the circumstances, he hadn’t thought to inquire after the man’s well-being right off, but kept cranking. He was a practical man, given to engaging the crisis at hand and dealing with the conversational aspects of the situation later.
“That’s good, Mr. Singleton,” he said belatedly, and when the ankles came within reach, he let go of the handle and grabbed for them with both hands. Poor Tom resembled a trussed gander, plucked and ready for the stew pot, and he didn’t weigh much more than one, either.
Sam hauled him out of the well and let him plop to the tinder-dry grass like a fresh-caught trout. He wasn’t wet, so the water must be low.
Crouching, Sam pulled out his pocketknife and commenced to cutting the twine. The teacher’s thin red hair stood straight up on his head, wild and crackling with static, as though it didn’t subscribe to the law of gravity. The face beneath it was narrow, with pointy features and blue, watery eyes. The girlish lips curled into a self-deprecating smile.
“My replacement, I presume?” he asked, feeling for what turned out to be his pocket watch, still safe at the end of its tarnished chain, and tucking it away again with a relieved pat. Singleton was certainly a resilient sort; the way he acted, anybody would have thought the pair of them had just sat themselves down to a grand and sociable supper in some fancy Eastern restaurant instead of meeting the way they had. “I must say, your arrival was timely indeed.”
Still resting on his haunches, Sam nodded in acknowledgment. “Sam O’Ballivan,” he said, though he doubted an introduction was necessary. Up at Flagstaff, he’d heard all about the schoolmaster, and he figured the reverse was probably true. With a few pertinent details excepted, of course.
Singleton rubbed his rope-chafed wrists to restore the circulation, but he showed no inclination to stand up just yet. Poor little fella must have had noodles for legs, Sam reflected, after hanging upside down in the well like that. “Call me Tom,” he said affably. “I am much obliged for your quick action on my behalf.”
Sam let one corner of his mouth quirk upward. He was sparing with a smile; like names for horses, they meant something to him, and he gave them out only when he was good and ready. He made a stalwart friend, when he had a high opinion of somebody, but he took his time deciding such matters. He knew a little about Tom Singleton, much of it hearsay, but as to whether he liked the man or not…well, the vote was still untallied.
Small feet rustled the bushes nearby and a giggle or two rode the warm afternoon breeze. Valiantly, Singleton pretended not to hear, but there was a flush pulsing on his cheekbones. It had to be hard on a small man’s dignity, being cranked up out of a schoolyard well by a big one, hired to take over his job. Sam wanted to tread lightly around what was left of Singleton’s pride.
“You hurting anywhere?” Sam asked, rising to his feet and scanning the schoolyard. Just you wait, he told the hidden miscreants silently.
“Fit as a fiddle!” Singleton insisted. He tried to get up then, but Sam saw that he was fixing to crumple and withheld his hand out of regard for the fellow’s self-respect. Sure enough, he went down.
“Best sit a spell,” Sam said.
Another bush shivered, off to his left. No time like the present, he thought, and waded in, snatching up one of the offenders by his shirt collar and dragging him out into the open. The giggles turned to gasps and there was some powerful shrub-shaking as the rest of the gang lit out for safer ground. “And your name would be?”
The lad looked to be around twelve or thirteen, with a cap of chestnut-brown hair and strange, whiskey-colored eyes peering, at once scared and defiant, out of a freckled face. His clothes were plain, but of good sturdy quality, and he wore shoes, which marked him as somebody’s pride and joy.
“Terran Chancelor,” he answered, clearly begrudging the information. His gaze darted briefly to Singleton, who was just summoning up the gumption for another attempt at gaining his feet, and the sly pleasure in the kid’s face made Sam want to shake him.
Forbearing, Sam held him suspended, so the toes of his fine mail-order shoes just barely brushed the grass. “You the leader of this bunch of outlaws?” he asked.
“No,” Chancelor snapped. “Put me down!”
Sam hoisted him an inch or two higher. “Maybe you’d like to hang upside down in the well for a while,” he mused. It was a bluff, but the kid didn’t need to know that. His eyes widened and he went a shade paler behind that constellation of freckles.
“I hope you’re not the new schoolmaster,” Terran Chancelor said with brave disdain. Sam wasn’t sure how smart the kid was, but he had to credit him with grit.
He allowed himself a slow, wicked grin. “‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,'” he quoted.
Chancelor frowned, gnawed at his lower lip. “What does that mean?” he asked, peevish. “Sounds like something out of some high-falutin’ book.”
Sam released his hold on the boy’s shirt, watched as he dropped, swayed and found his balance. “It means, young Mr. Chancelor, that when you sit down at your desk bright and early tomorrow morning, here in the hallowed halls of learning, I’ll be standing in front of the blackboard.”
“Well, hell,” the kid complained.
Sam suppressed a grin. “Peculiar that you should mention Hades,” he said evenly. “That quote you just asked about is carved over the gate.”
The boy’s eyes widened again, but his color was high with fresh temper. He darted another glance at Singleton. “We were just having a little fun after school let out for the day, that’s all. No harm done.”
“I guess that depends on your viewpoint,” Sam said mildly. “Whether or not there was any harm done, I mean. You tell your friends that I’ll be happy to give any or all of them the same perspective Mr. Singleton here just enjoyed, if they’re curious about how it feels.”
Chancelor narrowed his eyes, looked as if he might be deciding whether he ought to spit in Sam’s face. Fortunately for him, he didn’t pursue that inclination. Unfortunately for him, he chose to run off at the mouth instead.
“You wouldn’t dare,” he said.
Quick as if he’d been wrestling a calf to the ground for branding, Sam hooked an arm around the boy’s middle, tipped him over the rim of the well and caught a firm hold on his ankles. “There’s where you’re wrong, young Mr. Chancelor,” he replied.
“My sister will have your hide for this!” the boy yelled, but his voice quavered as it bounced off the cold stone walls.
Sam chuckled. Singleton stared at him in horrified admiration.
“He’s right, you know,” Tom whispered earnestly. “Maddie Chancelor’s got a tongue on her. She’ll flay you to the bone.”
“That right?” Sam asked. Bracing his elbows against the edge of the well, he let the kid dangle.
“The blood is probably rushing to his head,” Singleton advised fretfully.
“Good for his brain,” Sam said companionably.
“Get me out of here!” Terran sputtered, squirming. “Right now!”
“I wouldn’t flail around like that, if I were you,” Sam counseled. “Hell of a thing if you came out of those splendid boots of yours and took a spill. Fall like that, you’d probably break your fool neck.”
The boy heeded Sam’s advice and went still. “What do you want?” he asked, sounding just shy of reasonable.
“For a start,” Sam answered, “a sincere apology.”
“What do I have to say ‘sorry’ to you for?”
Sam wondered idly about Maddie Chancelor and what kind of influence she might have in this little cowpattie of a town, plopped right along the border between Mexico and the Arizona Territory like an egg on a griddle. If she was anything like her brother, she must be a caution, as well as a shrew.
“Not a thing,” he replied at his leisure. “But a kindly word to Mr. Singleton here wouldn’t go amiss.”
Sam felt a quiver of rage rise right up the length of that boy, then along the rope, like grounded lightning coursing back through a metal rod.
“All right!” Chancelor bellowed. “I’m sorry!”
“‘I’m sorry, Mr. Singleton,'” Sam prompted.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Singleton,” the boy repeated. His tone was neither as dutiful nor as earnest as it might have been, but Sam yanked him up anyhow and set him hard on his feet. The fury in the kid’s eyes could have singed the bristles off a full-grown boar, but he held his tongue.
There might be hope for this one yet, Sam concluded silently, folding his arms as he regarded the furious youth.
“Go home and tell your sister,” Sam said, “that the new schoolmaster will be stopping by shortly to discuss the calamitous state of your character.”
The boy glowered at him in barely contained outrage, fists clenched, eyes fierce. “She’ll be expecting you.” He spat the words, simultaneously leaping backward, out of reach, ready to run. “Don’t bother to unpack your gear. You won’t be around here long.”
Sam raised an eyebrow, took a step toward the kid. He turned and fled down the road Sam had just traveled, arms pumping at his sides, feet raising little puffs of dust.
By then, Singleton had recovered his composure. “You’re in for some trouble,” he said with friendly regret, consulting his pocket watch and starting for the schoolhouse. “Might as well show you around, though. I have an hour before the stage leaves for Tucson.”
Leaving his horse to graze on the sweet grass, Sam followed. “Where will I find the formidable Maddie Chancelor?” he asked.
Singleton mounted three plank steps and pushed open the schoolhouse door, which creaked ominously on its hinges. “She’s the postmistress, and she runs the mercantile, too,” he answered with a note of bleak resignation. “When she hears how you hung young Terran headfirst down the well, she’s not going to like it. They’re alone in the world, the pair of them, and she protects that little scoundrel like a she-bear guarding a cub.”
Sam digested the information as he crossed the threshold into a small, square room. There were long tables, rough-hewn, with benches, facing a blackboard on the east wall. A potbellied stove stood in one corner, with wood neatly stacked alongside. A few reading and ciphering primers lined a shelf next to the teacher’s desk, and the place smelled of chalk. Dust motes danced in the light coming in through the high, narrow windows.
Singleton looked around wistfully, sighed.
Sam felt a twinge of sympathy, wondering if a lone incident had spurred those little hellions to act, or if anarchy was the order of the day around here. He wasn’t about to ask, figuring the man had been through enough mortification as it was, but he’d have put his money on the latter.
“Your private quarters are back here,” Singleton said after a long and melancholy pause, making for an inside door. “It isn’t much, but the roof keeps out the rain, and there’s a decent bed and a cookstove.”
Sam was used to sleeping on the ground, wrapped up in a bedroll. The accommodations sounded downright luxurious to him.
“Not that you’ll want to stay long, even if Miss Chancelor doesn’t get you fired,” Singleton added. Two carpetbags waited at the foot of the bed and he stooped to fetch them up while Sam surveyed his new home.
“Looks like it’ll do,” he decided. The more he heard about Maddie Chancelor, the more he wanted to meet her.
Singleton stooped to pick up the satchels. Smiled gamely. “Good luck, Mr. O’Ballivan,” he said. “And thank you again for your help.”
“Good luck to you,” Sam replied, a little embarrassed by the other man’s gratitude. Anybody worth his bacon would have stepped in, in a circumstance like that.
Singleton set down one of the bags long enough to shake Sam’s hand. “May God be with you,” he added in parting. Then he crossed the room, opened the rear door and left, without looking back.