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Forging Destiny

When blacksmith Luke saves Molly, they forge a clandestine alliance. They risk everything to save their community from a sinister plot that threatens to consume them all…

In the rugged heart of the expanding West, where the echoes of war still linger, blacksmith Luke Morgan seeks solace in the flames of his forge.

Little does he know that the embers of his past will ignite a firestorm of corruption and treachery…

When he saves Molly, an Irish immigrant with haunting secrets, their fate intertwines in a web of danger. Soon, whispers of moonshine, murder, and a malevolent officer grip the town. The clanging of Luke’s hammer echoes with urgency as he and Molly navigate a treacherous path, where danger lurks in every shadow.

Can Luke’s hammer unravel the twisted mystery before it consumes them all?

In this tale of redemption, revenge, and resilience, the West becomes a stage for an epic showdown where the line between hero and villain blurs…

Written by:

Western Historical Adventure Author

4.5/5

4.5/5 (218 ratings)

Prologue

Morgan Ranch

New York

April 12, 1861

 

Boom!

A rumble of thunder rolled through the valley, shaking the earth with the portent of a coming storm. Ominous black clouds massed in the east, rolling and surging into dark-tipped waves. The storm’s peculiar greenish tint covered the fields and lit up the pale pink blooms of the budding apple trees to a sickly yellow.

Crack!

As Luke Morgan glanced up from his fiery forge, a ragged fork of lightning split the sky. The scene through his window promised nature’s fury before long.

“Luke! Luke!” his wife, Betty shouted from the veranda of their home. Her voice rose in a frightened moan as she twisted a damp apron. “Luke!”

He dropped the horseshoe he’d been hammering into a bucket of cool water. Hurrying to the door of his workshop, Luke called out, “What’s wrong?”

“Find Hannah! She’s run off again. The storm…”

The wind chose that second to whip into a fury, shaking the trees and slamming the door to Luke’s workshop. I’m coming, it seemed to announce. Run, get indoors, protect those you love.

“I’ll bring her in,” he promised. A lean, well-groomed man, Luke kept his wheat-colored beard trimmed, his light hair tucked neatly behind each ear. His blue eyes were keen and observant. Steady hands and an unruffled temperament kept him on an even keel with life. Known throughout his community as a trustworthy and respected gunsmith, Luke worked hard to live a godly, peaceful life. “Billy!” Luke called for his seven-year-old son. Early that morning, when Luke headed to his smithy, Billy had tagged along like a persistent shadow. Until Betty’s call, Luke had thought Hannah, holding a squirming puppy, had been nearby too. “Where’s your sister?”

Billy ran up, having a hard time staying upright with the fierce pushing of the wind. Unlike his mother, who despised storms, Billy let the wind tug him playfully backward. His wind-blown blond hair swished over his twinkling blue eyes. “In the barn?”

“Let’s find her before the storm.”

One of their prized mares had given birth to a colt a few days before. Hannah couldn’t get her fill of staring at the foal.

On the way to the barn, Luke stopped a second to glance down the long, pea gravel drive toward the house—a white clapboard two stories high with a grand veranda across the front. His father had built the beginnings of a small log cabin and the house had expanded as the family’s prosperity grew. A sturdy house, capable of weathering any storm nature cared to send. But not the ones human hate could devise.

What if a war comes here?

The papers were full these days of ominous warnings, more threatening than the rolling clouds massing in the sky. No time for that now. Luke’s long legs increased their stride as he hurried toward the barn.

As Billy predicted, they found Hannah in the barn, peering through the slats of the mare’s stall. Hannah’s blue eyes gazed through a mop of blond curls. One small fist clenched the slat of the stall. In the other, she held out an oatmeal cookie toward the foal.

“Hannah, horses can’t eat cookies. You silly girl.”

“It’s so big for a baby, Poppa,” Hannah said as Luke swooped the four-year-old up into his arms. Leaning in he kissed her baby cheeks, delighting in her chuckle, the sturdy little body. “How come?”

“Even though a colt’s a baby, it’s big. Big enough to grow into a horse like Daisy. Come along. A storm’s coming.” Luke dusted off the front of her white pinafore covered with prickly strands of hay. “What’d you do, roll around on the barn floor?”

From the house, the loud clanging of the dinner bell rang through the rising wind. Calling them to lunch.

“Hurry, let’s run before the rain!” He grabbed up Hannah and clutched Billy’s sweaty hand.

I’m truly blessed with everything a man could desire. A fine wife, children, a prosperous home and business, good friends, and health. What more could a man need?

Luke took none of his blessings for granted. Ever since President Lincoln’s election the previous November, the South had had more reasons to grumble. This morning’s newspapers had left Luke with growing concerns. He shook off his unreasonable fears and hurried toward the house with a single glance backward at the clouds scurrying toward the house.

Looks like a gully-washer.

Inside, Betty hurried around, lighting the oil lamps to shake off the gloom in the dining room. Outside the wind howled and doors slammed from hidden drafts. “Oh, dear!” Betty exclaimed each time, terrified of nature’s fury. “I dislike storms!”

Another clap of thunder shook the house, followed by a blinding flash of lighting. Hannah squealed, clapped her hands. “God just lit a big big candle,” she sang.

“It’s just a little wind and rain,” Luke teased, helping to settle Billy and Hannah at their places around the table. Freshly washed, the children’s faces shone. Secure in their safety, they talked and laughed without a care in the world.

Silverware gleamed and glasses sparkled on the neatly set table. Mrs. O’Shay would have it no other way. The stout, red-cheeked cook bustled in with a tureen of pea soup and placed it beside Betty. A frown puckered her face.

“Here you go, ma’am. It’s fixin’ to pour any second now. Sure an’ I hope the creek doesna flood.”

Window panes rattled and Betty jumped. Lunch proceeded as outside the sky grew darker and a small pattering of raindrops plucked at the windows.

They were finished with the soup and had begun on a platter of beef steaks when the door from the kitchen slammed against the wall. A shelf of Betty’s China knick knacks rattled and even Luke jumped as a dripping man ran into the room.

“Luke, Ma’am.” Mr. O’Shay pulled off his gray hat as he hurried into the elegant dining room. Wearing rumpled farm clothes and muddy boots, he shifted uneasily on the dark, floral carpet. An anxious furrow creased his leathery forehead. Mr. O’Shay was married to the cook and helped farm Luke’s substantial acreage. He had never, to Luke’s remembrance, burst into a room in such a way. Not even the day all the cows had escaped the pasture fence. “Excuse me botherin’ but it’s here!”

Behind him, Mrs. O’Shay scurried in, cheeks pale, hands clasped in prayer.

A shudder ran along Luke’s spine, a sensation his mother used to call “someone walking over my grave.”

“What happened?” Betty questioned. “What’s here? The storm?”

“Them folks in the south. They took guns an’ fired at a place called Fort Sumter. It’s here! They’re sayin’ down at the telegraph office.”

Luke dropped his fork. Around him the children kept eating, unaware of the importance of the news. Suddenly, the heavy pelting of rain thundered against the roof, unleashing an epic fury as if the clouds had burst.

“I don’t understand,” Betty spoke up. “What does it mean?”

“War.”

Chapter One

Morgan Ranch

New York Valley

One Year Later

 

“I don’t want you to go. They can’t ask it of me or you.”

Lying beside him in bed, Betty couldn’t stop weeping.

“Bets,” Luke pulled her close and tried to assure her. “I won’t be on a battlefield. I’ll be safe as a baby in a cradle. Just stuck away in a workroom somewhere making guns. The only difference will be you can’t run out to the smithy and talk with me. Or bring me some of Mrs. O’Shay’s good coffee.”

“Why?” Betty lamented. “Why did that telegram have to come today?”

Needed at once. Weapon repairs at front. War progressing.

“Oh, Luke,” Betty moaned, “I’d hoped you wouldn’t be drawn into this. Things were going so well here.”

“I know.”

It had been a long year, yet peaceful, since the war began. Luke had stayed home, doing repairs for the Army under the direction of General Grant. Until the telegram came, his family had been untouched by war. Betty had not taken the idea of his leaving gracefully.

He drew her into his arms, tucking her face against his chest. Betty’s head had always fit in the niche between his heart and his chin. “If they say I’m safe, they won’t have me on the battlefield. I’ll probably be stuck in a barn somewhere. Doing the same thing I’m doing here.”

“But we won’t see you. The children…the servants…”

“You’ll have lots of help and I know you’ll be safe here. The war hasn’t even come close to us. People in other states are suffering so much more than we are.”

Betty pressed her face against his bare chest.

He felt silent weeping as her body shook. “How can they ask this of you?”

“The US Department or Ordnance can and will call me to serve my country,” Luke told her gently, stroking her back. Although he tried to speak in a calm voice, he quaked inside, dreading what might lie ahead. “There’s a colonel, Hiram Berdan. He’s getting together a regiment of sharpshooters. I’m told he needs good weapons, not those old falling-apart pieces most of the men bring with them. I can make a difference by supplying them with well-made rifles. Maybe save some of their lives by giving them usable firearms.”

To kill other men. It was not a thought Luke wanted to entertain for long.

“I don’t want you to go,” she wept again. Warm tears wet his chest as tears filled his own eyes.

“I know,” he whispered, “I know. Don’t say anything to anyone else yet. We’ll tell the children and the servants tomorrow. It will be all right. Before you know it, I’ll be coming home.”

Soon. Soon I’ll be back to them. This war can’t last much longer.

***

West Virginia

Sunday, April 9, 1865

 

Luke picked up his pen, glancing with anticipation at the empty paper on his desk. Filling those pages with news for Betty, sharing stories of camp, helped connect him to the home he missed so much. I’ve been gone so long. Each Sunday, he looked forward to the brief, quiet time when he could dip his pen in ink and write to his loved ones. His fond smile changed to a puzzled frown as a new sound began to drown out the usual quiet Sunday noises. Whoops and cheers, growing closer every moment.

“Luke!”

Greg Bennet, a friend from the Quartermaster Department, rushed into the tent. “It’s over! Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox! A messenger just brought the news. The Union won! We won!”

Luke jumped up and the rickety table crashed to the floor, spilling ink and paper. Betty’s letter sailed into every corner of the tent. He crushed the just-written reply in his hand. “Over?”

The news was so unexpected and startling, Luke could only stand and stare. Unbelieving.

The jubilant expression on Greg’s leathery, care-worn face finally convinced him it wasn’t a joke. “It’s over! The war is over!” The older man’s joyous blue eyes gleamed with a sparkle that left no doubt.

Outside the tent the other men in the unit whooped and hollered. Someone shot off a volley of bullets into the air. It was a day of celebration. A day to rejoice! After four long, grueling years, the North had won. Men laughed, cried, and banged on every pot and pan cook had in the mess tent. The noise was one loud hurrah of rejoicing. Jubilation!

“I won’t have to mail this now. I’ll tell Betty the news in person.” Luke shouted over the din, ripping the letter in two. “I can tell her in person.” A lightness came over him; almost as if he’d dropped the weight of the war he’d carried on his shoulders. His heart felt as if it might burst with joy.

I’m going home!

Chapter Two

West Virginia

 

With his discharge papers in hand, Luke wasn’t willing to wait one moment longer than necessary to get home. “Where will you go?” he asked Greg as he packed his blue trousers away in the trunk. “Back home? To New Jersey?”

Greg opened the truck at the end of his bunk. Gathered a stack of linen shirts from a rickety dresser. “I’m headed to Council Bluff, Iowa.”

“Why there?”

“Going to work on the UPR project. I’ve already got a job. Locomotive engineer.”

“What’s that? The UPR?” Luke asked. The initials reminded him of something he’d read, but he couldn’t place it.

“The Union Pacific Railroad project. President Lincoln signed it into law as the Pacific Railroad Act in ’82. The idea is to span the country from east to west with a railroad track. To unite us from sea to sea. It’s going to be the first transcontinental railroad ever built.”

“Sounds like a mighty ambitious project. Seems like I’ve read about it.”

“It is,” Greg agreed. “Good pay too. I figure to stick with it a few years, then get myself a grub stake somewhere out west. Why don’t you come with me? I can put in a word and find you a job.”

“Can’t. Got the wife and family waiting back home. I’ve got a gunsmith business and a prosperous ranch. Why would I want to go to Iowa?”

I can’t wait to get home!

“Take the family with you,” Greg suggested. “Plenty of opportunities out west.”

Luke shook his head, not even tempted by the offer. There was only one place he wanted to travel to—home.

***

Morgan Ranch

New York

May 1865

 

Despite the early start the next morning, and the locomotive’s top speed of twenty miles per hour, time chugged by on snail steps. Luke had never been so impatient to get home. At a depot close to his small town outside New York City, he couldn’t wait a second longer. The town slept in the gray light of dawn. A month after President Lincoln’s assassination, most of the buildings were still draped in black bunting and mourning wreaths. The capture of the murderer had done little to lift spirits.

Such a tragedy. Even with home before him, Luke felt almost as if those black skeins wrapped around his own spirit.

Departing the train, he rented a horse at the Livery, waking a young boy he didn’t remember. The lanky, long-limbed boy yawned and scratched the front of a worn gray Union suit through the whole transaction.

I wonder what happened to Mr. Samuels?

Luke didn’t spare the time to ask about the man he remembered as the Livery owner before the war. A lot had changed in the years he’d been away.

“Giddup.” Luke urged the unfamiliar gelding to gallop the familiar route home. The rutted dirt road had never seemed so long although he knew it was only a short hour’s ride from the city. A fine mist wafted up from the chilly ground, swathing the trees and brush in eerie gray shadows. He knew it would warm up later, but for now Luke shuddered in a blue woolen jacket and dark trousers.

As Luke neared the wrought iron gate, stark black in the misty dawn, the horse shied. Snorted. Luke stopped and smiled, resting a hand on the cool metal of Betty’s gate. He remembered crafting the fine ironwork gate for Betty that long-ago week after Fort Sumter had been fired upon. Somehow crafting a gate full of “whatnots” and “furbelows”, as he’d teased Betty, seemed another lifetime ago. In a world without fear or trouble.

Life will be good again. It must.

Through the swirls of fog, Luke caught sight of the sprawling house at the end of the pea gravel drive. Nothing seemed amiss but the dunderhead horse tossed his mane and refused to budge another inch.

That’s what I get for renting a mount. I’ll be glad to get into my barn and saddle up Shadow. I wonder if he’ll remember me.

“Whoa, boy, whoa.” Luke dismounted and wrapped the horse’s reins loosely around one of the pointed spikes of Betty’s fancy gate. Still solid. Still standing. His lips curved in a smile as he remembered Betty and the children watching as he crafted her elegant gate. It creaked as he swung one side open to walk eagerly up the drive.

That should have been oiled. Titus should have…

Luke’s boots kicked up gravel as he hurried up the drive, aware of something off kilter. Wrong. A sudden spasm of fear clenched his heart as he noticed the front windows were shattered. Had the horse sensed something wrong too? A tattered blue drape fluttered through the parlor window. Betty would never have allowed…

“Betty?” He shouted. “Titus!”

No one answered.

Chapter Three

“Don’t move!”

Somewhere behind Luke came the ominous sound of a gun being cocked.

“You move an’ inch and I’ll blow your head off! Who are you? You got no business here.”

Kneeling on the cold ground, staring at those crude wooden markers, Luke had no feelings about having his head blown off. Maybe it would be for the better. His whole body felt numb, his mind in turmoil.

It’s not true. How can it be true?

“Who are you?” the man hollered again and nudged Luke’s shoulder with the barrel of a rifle. “Who…Luke? Is that you?”

Luke turned bleary eyes to face his attacker. The anger drained from the man’s weathered face, and he lowered the rifle. “Luke, son, I didn’t expect to find you here.”

“How did you…”

“I was ridin’ past this morning on my way to town and spotted a strange horse hitched to your gate. I figured those marauders had showed back up here.”

“What…” Luke stared again at the crude markers, the names burnt into the wood, Betty, Billy, Hannah. “How?”

“I’m right sorry, Luke,” Mr. Montgomery, his nearest neighbor, offered his condolences as they stood beside the new graves. “I was a-gonna try to find you and give you the news, but the telegraph we sent come back. Said you had left already.”

“What happened? Do you know?”

The man stood with his shoulders stooped as if weary of life. He pointed the rifle toward the ground and sighed. “Well, we’d heard tell there were some Confederates, of all things, setting fires in the city. Trying to raise up the rebellion again, I expect. We didn’t think nothing of it. Wasn’t until that day I saw the smoke and ran over here…”

A knot formed in Luke’s throat. He wanted to know, and he didn’t. “Do you know how they died?”

“They died right quick,” Mr. Montgomery said as if that offered any comfort. “By the time I saw the smoke and got here, they were all dead. It grieves me to say, but it looked like them low-down cusses raided your workroom and stole the weapons from there.”

Killed by gunfire! Guns from my own stockpile!

It was a cruel twist of fate that wrenched Luke’s heart into a tight knot. All the love he’d had for his family shriveled like a dried-up apple. He would never love again. Anyone. Or anything.

Why did God allow such a thing to happen? I was helping to preserve the union and my family was slaughtered by marauders. Using my weapons. He wished he could go back in time and never create the guns that had killed his family. But if not the guns, then maybe something worse.

“Me an’ the sheriff found the O’Shay’s, Titus, Jeff, Rosie, and Abby all the servants shot too. Looked like Titus had tried to save Billy and Hannah.”

Poor Titus. He had done what he said—given his life to try to protect my family. Luke remembered that day long ago when he’d left. Titus’s reassurances that he’d protect the family.

“What about the other servants? The freed Blacks who worked on shares?”

“Can’t rightly say. We never found no sign of them. I don’t think they run off. They thought too much of you, Luke. If I had to guess, I’d say they were taken prisoner.”

Luke stood—confused and uncertain, not sure his legs would hold him up. How could such a thing happen? Yes, the north had won the war, but not all slaves were free. Not all men agreed to lay down their arms. And not all pillagers were Confederate or Union soldiers. Some simply took advantage of the chaos to loot and destroy. He would never truly know who had ravaged his home and family. Evil forged its own road.

Sadly, my family stood in their path.

“What do you plan to do now? If you want help rebuilding, I can get some of the neighbors to…”

“No, I don’t know. I’m not sure what my plans are.”

“Come on to the house, son.” Mr. Montgomery took his arm as if he were a child. “We’ll brew up some coffee and get some food into you. You don’t want to sit out here in the cold and damp.”

Mr. Montgomery had taken him home, but by nightfall Luke had wandered back to his home. What was left of it. He’d revisited the graves, determined one day to give them the fine monuments they deserved.

Luke knew one thing for certain. He would never spend another night in the house where he’d once known such joy. As he’d wandered through the splinters and ash of what had been a happy home, weeping and mourning, Luke had come to a decision. It was time to close a door to the life he’d known and move. There was nothing left for him here.

Greg Bennett had offered him a job working for the Union Pacific Railroad. If the offer still stood, Luke would accept the job. If nothing else, it would put some distance between himself and a heartache too heavy to bear.

After thanking Mr. Montgomery for all he’d done, Luke headed to the small town and to a telegraph office. Before the next morning, he would send word to Greg in Iowa.

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