Emma Clark wiped the last breakfast dish and put down her towel. She shook her long brown hair, took off her new apron, and hung it from the hook David had put up for her. He had planned so carefully for her arrival a week ago and had been so thoughtful. It hardly seemed possible they had been married only six days. Already she was learning where everything was in the general store in front of their living quarters. A month ago she had been living in North Carolina`, with little money and few choices since her mother's death. Zeb Church had wanted to marry her, but he was a thief, and she decided to escape the town. In Asheville she had seen a poster seeking mail-order brides for the Utah frontier and with four dollars left in her purse, Emma had signed on.
Interrupting her reverie, David called, "Customers." Emma smoothed her dress over her slim form and hurried out to join him. Outside the store, two men were dismounting and tying their horses. They were dressed in dirty clothes and both had dark beards. Emma thought they were in their twenties, and both wore pistols, as most men in the area did. As they came in the open door, she stepped back behind David.
"Good morning, gents," said David. "What can I get for you?"
"Here's our list," one of the men said. He handed David a sheet of paper.
"Food and bullets," the other man said, glancing at Emma. He smiled. "You a hired girl?"
"Emma's my wife," David said, smiling at her. She glanced at the list and started piling the food needed on the counter. David pulled out several boxes of ammunition and put them on the counter as well.
"That's the last of it," said Emma, putting down a bag of coffee. David started adding up the bill as the men glanced at each other.
"You happen to have a horse for sale?" The taller of the men stepped to the counter.
"No, I don't," said David. "Just have one out back, but we need her for our wagon."
"Afraid we need it," said the shorter man. "Gotta have a horse for your wife to ride." He leered at Emma. "We're heading up into the high country," he said. "It's too far to make her walk."
"That's enough," said David. "People around here don't cotton to such talk. I have to ask you to pay up and to leave pronto."
"We do talk rude," said the taller man. "We act rude, too. And we need your wife." He nodded at Emma. "Are you ready to leave?"
"Get out," Emma said. She backed up a step. She saw David reaching under the counter to bring his pistol up.
"Don't be stupid," said the shorter man. "There are two of us. One of us will shoot you and then take your wife and horse. There's an easier way."
"What?" said David, aiming the gun at him.
"This," said the taller man. David glanced at him, but the man raised his pistol and fired once, hitting David in the chest.
"No!" cried Emma as her husband fell. But the shorter man reached out and grabbed her arm. "You'll like Capitol Reef," he smiled. "Lots of privacy there. Now let's go get your horse." He yanked her to the door, as the taller man grabbed the food and bullets, put them in a grain sack, and followed them out the door.
* * *
The next morning a white horse trotted quickly along a trail near Sand Creek. It was an isolated spot, but he was familiar with the area and turned up a path towards a log house in a pine grove. He tied his horse to a rail outside the house, but waited beside it until the front door opened and a man stepped out. He was tall, over six feet, solidly built, clean shaven with grey flecked brown hair.
"Hey Ridge," he said "Come on up. I just brewed some coffee."
The rider climbed up the steps and shook hands. He took off his hat and smiled. "It's good to see you, Lurt."
They went inside and settled in front of the fireplace with mugs of coffee.
"What brings you out of town?" asked Lurt, blowing on his coffee to cool it down. "I don't normally see anyone unless I ride in. Is the blacksmith business slowing down?"
"Not at all," said Ridge. "But I gotta be honest, Lurt. There's a problem and we need your help." He put down his coffee mug. "Brent got a wire last night from the marshall. Yesterday two strangers up in Teasdale stopped in David Clark's new store."
"Dave just got a new bride, I hear."
"That's the problem," said Ridge, shaking his head, "These two outlaws shot and robbed David. The worst part is they took his wife with them."
"They took a woman?" Lurt stood up. "That just isn't tolerated in these parts. They'll be hunted down fast."
"The marshall is up near Salt Lake." said Ridge. "He can't get there fast enough, and he doesn't think he could catch them." Ridge stood up. "The marshall telegraphed and asked if you would try. You know Capitol Reef, and the men there will let you in."
"The outlaws," said Lurt. "But, how do you know they're headed that way?"
"David lived long enough to write 'reef' in his blood on the floor . A posse tried to follow, but the ride got too rough for guys who don't know the area."
"Damn," said Lurt. "David was a good man. I'll ride out as soon as I can. Wire the marshall that I'm happy to help."
"Thanks, Lurt. Those outlaws will not be happy when the Chestnut Kid catches them." Ridge picked up his hat. "Want some company?"
"You know, Ridge, I think you should stay in town. If those two should change direction, you can handle them. Besides, you have a wife and kids. Keep them, safe, ok?"
"Will do," said Ridge. They shook hands, and he headed back to his horse. Mounting up, he turned and started toward town at a canter. Two men would be no match for the kid. He smiled. Lurt had earned his name at seventeen, when he had ridden into the woods to practice shooting the old Colt his grandfather had left him. Coming home, he had heard shots from his family's property and spurred his horse to a gallop. He reached into his saddlebag and pulled out the old pistol, glad he had cleaned and loaded it.
Coming into the clearing, Lurt had seen his father lying in front of the house. One stranger stood on the porch, and four others sat on horses near his father's body. Without hesitating, Lurt had galloped at the house, firing his first shot at the man on the porch. As the man fell, Lurt swung the pistol to his right, and in two shots had knocked two men from their saddles. He swung his horse to the left, straight at the last riders. Their horses backed sharply, slowing their riders in their draws. Lurt did not hesitate, shooting each of the men with his last bullets. Lurt had gotten home to save his mother and sister, and the young gunman's reputation was born.
Ridge shook his head as he rode back towards town. Not everyone realized who the quiet man in the woods was, but the two kidnappers would soon find out.
Lurt Chestnut watched him ride away, then rinsed the coffee mugs in a bucket of clean well water. "Time to get back in the saddle," he said aloud. He headed for the small closet where his pistol waited, cleaned, oiled, and loaded Unlike some gunfighters, he didn't wear a second pistol. One was enough.
* * *
The ride was hot and dusty. Emma's reins were tied to the horse in front of her, keeping her from riding away. She kept her head down, not wanting to look at the men who had taken her. She had no hat to keep her from being sunburned, and dust was covering her face and hands. She felt like sobbing, but she would never let these men see any weakness. She had been living at home with her parents, working in their small store. It was why she'd answered the ad for a wife from the newspaper. Her father was sickly and had warned her that without her mother, he'd be giving up the store soon. This was the chance to start fresh, she thought. She was twenty-two years old, almost a spinster, with no romantic prospects in her area. So she had answered the ad and two months later was on her way to Utah by train and then stagecoach.
"Takin' a break," the man in front said to her. They stopped by a stream and dismounted. Emma slid off her horse quickly so neither of the men would touch her. The horses drank from the stream while the men chewed on some jerky. They offered Emma some, but she shook her head.
"Why did you make me come with you?" She looked at each man but didn't like how their eyes stared back.
"You're going to be our wife," said the taller man. "You'll cook and keep our cabin clean." He met her eyes. "I heard you called Emma back to the store, he said. "I'm Lucas. This here's Mark. He's my brother."
"Where are we going?" Emma looked from one to the other, and when Lucas answered, she realized he was the leader.
"We got a cabin up in the hills," he said. "Lawmen don't bother us up there, so don't be thinking about running away."
"No one will disturb us or hear you if you scream," said Mark. Emma shivered at the way he looked at her body.
"Got a few more hours," said Luke. "Let's get going."
"I'm not a very good cook," Emma said.
"You'll learn," said Mark. "Cooking ain't as important as keeping us happy." He smiled, and Emma noticed he was missing several teeth. Appearing in control of herself, she climbed onto her horse, not letting the men see her tears as they rode.
* * *
Lurt rode quickly, stopping only to water and to rest his horse. He fed it some grain from his saddlebag, then mounted and was moving again. He had thought about where the men would have entered the reef, and he took an old trail that would save him several hours. He watched the trail carefully, noticing fresh tracks as he approached a large boulder. He pulled up, waiting, until a man on a horse stepped out onto the trail. He was holding a rifle, but lowered it and smiled when he saw Lurt.
"Look who's here," he said. "You're not on the run, are you, Kid?"
"Not any more," said Kurt, taking off his hat. "How are you, Butch?"
"Can't complain," said the man. "As long as folks leave us alone up here."
"They will," said Lurt "The marshall came up with all kinds of reasons to send me up here instead of coming himself."
"After the gang?"
"I wouldn't have come for that," said Lurt."I'm after two strangers. They stole a woman after shooting her husband."
"They brought her up here?" asked Butch. "What's the world coming to? No one messes with women."
"That's how I know they're strangers," said Lurt. "Any man in his right mind would know you and your gang wouldn't put up with such nonsense."
"How can we help you, Lurt?"
"Just watch for them, in case I miss them. I think I can handle two."
"No doubt about that," said Butch. "Good luck to you, Lurt." Butch turned his horse and rode quietly into the boulders. Lurt started up again as well, knowing he had to hurry if the woman would have any hope of rescue.
* * *
An hour later Lurt saw the small cabin ahead, just off the trail. Two horses were tied near it, and a scruffy man stood outside, holding a rifle.
"Lookin' for something?" The man shifted the rifle slightly to point at Lurt.
"Just passing through," said Lurt. "Heading up to see my friends." He saw the rifle lower as the man relaxed.
"My brother just rode up that way, too," he said. "We got us a woman here boys will like." His smile widened. "You know, you could be the first for five dollars."
"What's she look like?" said Lurt, looking at the cabin.
"Get out here, girl," said the man. He nodded at the cabin as a young woman came to the doorway. Lurt saw the terror in her eyes and glanced back at the man.
"She looks good for five dollars," he said. With his hand on his pistol and his eyes on the man, he swung down from his horse and handed the man a five dollar coin.
"Take her into the back room," the man said. 'I'll keep watch out here."
Lurt stepped into the cabin and to the back room, where Emma huddled against the far wall, in terror.
"Lie down," Lurt whispered, moving to the side and away from the girl. He turned and faced the door as he heard the man's boots on the dirt floor.
"Time's up," said the man, coming through the door. He saw the girl on the floor, then saw Lurt facing him. His mouth opened in surprise, then closed as he raised the rifle.
Emma would remember what happened next for years. She saw the rifle come up and started to close her eyes, when the stranger moved in a blur. She saw his pistol suddenly stretch toward Lucas and boom twice. Through the smoke, she saw Lucas flung back, out of the room. Then the gun was back in the holster, and the man offered her his hand.
"Are you Emma?" He helped her up, smiling. "My name is Lurt, and I'm here to take you out of these hills and back to town."
Emma collapsed against him, sobbing. "His brother will be coming back," she said. "He has a gun, too."
"He won't be back to bother you," said Lurt. "You get whatever you need together, I'll bring you some water to wash up, and I'll take care of him." He nodded at the body beyond the doorway. He brought a bucket of water from the front room in for her, then left her alone.
Lurt emptied the man's pockets, keeping his five dollars, but setting aside what the men had taken from Emma and her husband. He pulled the body onto the pile of blankets along one wall, covering it with one of the larger blankets. He took a lamp from the table and poured oil onto the blanket and along the base of the walls.
As Emma came into the room, he escorted her to her horse, then stepped to the door and flicked a match into the cabin. As the flames caught, he looked at Emma.
"No one will come along to read over this man's body," he said. "And we don't have time to bury him." He led the way away from the cabin, pausing only when they heard a volley of shots from the canyon above.
"It's friends," he said, seeing the fear in Emma's eyes. "No one is left to come after you."
"They said there were outlaws up there," she said.
"Even outlaws have honor," said Lurt. "Women and children are treasured on the frontier. And whoever tries to hurt or take them is below contempt. Life is hard enough here, without men like that among us." He turned and led her down the trail.
"I have nothing to go back to," said Emma. "I "don't ever want to see that store again."
"We're not going back there," said Lurt. "We're going to find a fresh start for you, with friends and a new life, if you want it."
"I do," said Emma. "But I would like to know your name."
"Forgive me," he said, turning in his saddle and raising his hat. "I'm Lurt Chestnut."
"Thank you, Lurt Chestnut. It's an honor to meet you." She had seen the pale forehead when he raised his hat, in contrast with his deeply tanned face; Lurt Chestnut was a real westerner.
"We'll stop and water the horses in a bit," he said, turning back to watch the trail ahead. "I believe we'll get to town just after dark."
"Are you from Utah, Lurt?" He seemed so at home on this trail.
"No ma'am," said Lurt. "I was brought up in Colorado, up near Leadville. My family still lives there."
"Do you ever see them?"
"Not often," he said, "but they know where I am if they need me." He didn't seem to want to explain, so they rode in silence for a bit.
"Think you'll head back east?" Lurt asked, without turning in his saddle.
"No," she said, "This is where I want to be."
"The town we're headed to needs a store," he said. "Used to be one, but the owner got too old." He turned in his saddle. "It even has a place to live above the store. And this place is right in town. Lots of folks nearby."
"I don't have any money," said Emma. "That's a problem."
"But you will," said Lurt. "When your old store sells, you'll get that money. We could get the merchandise brought to town, since it's already yours." They rode in silence for a bit. At the foot of the trail they stopped to water the horses and stretch. Lurt built a small fire and brewed some coffee. They took turns drinking from his one cup, then mounted up as the afternoon wore on.
"We should get there just about dinner time," he said. "My friends will have a hot supper and fresh bed for you."
"I think I'd be interested in that store," she said. "It sounds like a nice place to settle."
"It is," he said. "If I was to live in a town, it would be my choice."
"Where do you live, then?" said Emma.
"Out in the woods," said Lurt. "I raise some horses and keep to myself." He turned in his saddle and looked at her. "When I'm in town too long, trouble comes along. So it's best if I'm out of sight." He saw her look of concern. "But I'll come be a customer at your store." He smiled and swung back to face the trail.
* * *
At six-thirty, they rode into town. Townspeople were at home, but the saloon was open for business. They rode on down the street, and Lurt pointed out the empty store. It was bigger than David's, but Emma thought it seemed in fine shape.
Then they reached Ridge's house and dismounted. Ridge came outside and welcomed them, followed by his wife Georgene and their two young sons. They offered to let Lurt spend the night, but he took the horses up the street to the livery stable and settled them in with grain and rubdowns. When he finished, it was dark, and he was too tired to eat, so he spread his blanket near his horse, settled onto the fresh hay, and fell asleep easily.
* * *
Lurt awoke the next morning just after eight. He brushed the hay from his clothes and pumped a basin of fresh water to wash his face and hands. He packed his belongings in his bedroll, left it with his saddle, then headed out to get some breakfast at the small cafe near the boarding house. It was down the main street, past the saloon, and on the way to Ridge's house.
As he walked past the saloon, Lurt saw a man move out from the saloon to the street.
"Hey," the man said, and then fired his pistol.
Lurt felt a sharp blow to his right hip and fell, turning his head as he hit the dusty street,so he could see his attacker. A young man wearing a buckskin shirt turned and stepped back into the saloon without looking to see if Lurt had survived. Lurt lay still for a moment, then slid his hand down his side to inspect the wound. His hip throbbed, but he found no blood. Instead, he found a hole in his holster where the bullet struck him. His pistol had been hit too. Slowly drawing it, Lurt saw the cylinder was dented and jammed, so his pistol wouldn't fire. He was lucky he rode with an empty chamber. It only gave him five shots, but in this case it saved him from serious injury.
Hot anger flooded him as he realized how close he had come to being murdered. He knew the feeling; it was what he had felt as a young man seeing his father lying in front of the house. The anger pulled him to his feet, taking control, and he walked to the saloon, sliding the broken gun into the holster.
He pushed the door open and stepped into the saloon, where the young man was at the bar, talking to the bartender. It was too early for any other customers. Even the elderly barflies stayed home until almost noon.
"I outdrew the fastest gun," the young man was saying.
"That only works when the other guy is looking at you," said Lurt, stepping forward. "Now I'm looking, so reach for your gun." Lurt walked slowly towards the bar, watching the young man closely. There was no cold hardness in his eyes, but fear. The bartender stepped away, reaching under the bar.
"This is your play," said Lurt. "Any last words?" He rested his hand near his pistol, staring at the young man, watching him muster his courage.
The moment came, and the young man grabbed for his pistol. But as his gun rose to the edge of the holster, he saw Lurt's pistol inches from his face. The muzzle looked huge.
The young man dropped his gun back into the holster and looked as though he might start crying.
"Where's your horse?" said Lurt.
"Tied just outside," the young man said.
"You tried to kill me," said Lurt. "I'll give you five minutes to get on your horse and ride. Don't come back to this town. If you do, I will shoot you."
The young man nodded. "Thank you," he said. He hurried from the saloon, and within minutes, Lurt heard a horse galloping down the street.
"Your pistol don't look so good," said the bartender. "I got a spare you can use if you want."
"Thank you, but no," said Lurt. "I have another one back in my saddlebag."
"You were decent to that young fool," said the bartender. "You're always welcome here." He reached a hand across the bar. "I'm the new bartender, Chuck."
"Good to meet you, sir. I'm, Lurt." As they shook hands, a thought came to Lurt. "Chuck, do you know why the old store is still closed?"
"Old man Richards won't sell to anyone he thinks is Mormon," said Chuck. "He made a lot of money selling coffee and such to settlers, and he knows Mormons don't hanker for that. Not too logical from my point of view. Mormons are moving in all around here, but folks still keep me busy."
"It takes all kinds" said Lurt. "Thanks, Chuck." He headed out the door and walked down to the cafe. After a
breakfast and hot coffee, Lurt walked across the street to an attorney's office. He had helped Lurt buy his
ranch quietly and could be trusted. An hour later, Lurt left the office and crossed over to the blacksmith
shop. Ridge wasn't there yet, so Lurt headed further up the street to Ridge's house. Within minutes of knocking,
he was seated in the parlor with a new cup of coffee. After his night on the hay, it was hot and energizing. Ridge, his wife Georgene, and Emma watched him take his first swallow.
"I've had a busy morning, but I have an idea for Emma," he said, putting down the coffee cup. "Just to be sure I understand your thoughts, you'd rather be here in town and working in a general store, instead of going back east or working in David's store."
"I couldn't go back there," she said. "And I have to find work to survive here."
"I just had a thought," said Georgene. "The general store is empty here in town. I've heard it's for sale."
"It was," said Lurt. "But the owner got an offer from a non-Mormon this morning and accepted. The new owner will want someone with experience helping out, so I know you can work there as much as you want."
Ridge looked at him, smiling. "So who bought the store?" he said.
"I did," said Lurt. "But I know nothing about stores, so I need a partner." He looked at Emma. "Interested?"
"Gosh, of course I am," she said. "But you know I have no money to invest or even stock an empty store."
"By tomorrow the bank will have funds for you to use for whatever you need to stock the store. Ridge will help find someone to move the goods from your old store down here. You can also bring your furniture because the store has a second floor where you can live. Until then, we can get you a room at the boarding house."
Emma was trying to hide her tears, but without much luck. "How can I pay you back? This will cost you a fortune."
"After the move, you can sell the store you had with David. Pay me what you get from the sale, and we'll have papers drawn up listing you as owning fifty one percent of the store and its contents. Sound fair?
"More than fair," she said.
"One more detail," said Lurt. "I'll come to town and help out when I can. Instead of paying me, I'll accept a home-cooked meal for my services."
"Anytime," said Emma.
"And no more talk of the boarding house," said Georgene. "You stay with us until you have a bed and furniture in the store. That boarding house isn't as clean as a person would hope."
"Sounds good," said Lurt, "Now I want to head for home and get cleaned up a mite. I'll try to get into town in a few days"
"May I give you a hug?" said Emma, as Lurt stood to leave. She stepped close and wrapped her arms around him. Ridge smiled to see Lurt blush.
"You saved my life and gave me a new one," she said. "I will never forget that."
Before Lurt could answer, someone knocked loudly at the door. Ridge crossed the room and opened the door, finding an excited Brent, the local barber and Wells Fargo agent.
"Thank the Lord you're still here, Mr. Chestnut. This telegram just came in from Colorado for you. I saw your horse at the stable and hoped you'd be with Ridge." He handed the telegram to Lurt, who opened it at once.
"Damn," he said, showing them the message:"LURT COME HOME. MA NEEDS YOU."
"From my sister," said Lurt. "I'll stop at the cabin, get cleaned up, and head out on a fresh horse. But I'll be back as soon as I can."
Emma joined Ridge at the door as Lurt headed down the street to the stable
"I hope everything works out," said Emma.
"With Lurt Chestnut coming to help, it will," said Ridge. "We're lucky to call him a friend."