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Silent Guardians

“In this town, it’s justice or chaos, Allie. No in-between. We either stand for what’s right or succumb to the wild.”

In a war-ravaged St. Louis, Missouri, the haunted veteran Doc Wesson struggles to rebuild his shattered life after his wife’s brutal murder. When Allie, a recent widow fleeing bandits with her young daughter, disrupts his solitary existence, he can do nothing else but offer her a safe haven. Amidst their fragile connection, a new menace rises from the town’s dark underbelly—a shadowy rancher, Tom Lewis, aiming to seize control of the town. Hidden threats and unseen dangers lurk in every corner, pushing the fragile community to the brink of collapse…

But in a world where heroes and villains blur, the line between salvation and destruction grows ever thinner…

In this gripping tale of loss and love, inspired by C.J Petit’s and Zane Grey’s favorite tales, Doc’s quest for peace challenges the very essence of his spirit.

Written by:

Western Historical Adventure Author

4.4/5

4.4/5 (101 ratings)

Prologue

St. Louis, Missouri

Late April 1865

 

Oomph!

Doc Wesson jounced on the horsehair stagecoach seat. His head rammed the ceiling. Hard. Another jolt bounced him violently against the man seated to his left.

“Oops, sorry there, Chet,” Doc mumbled, rubbing the shoulder of his worn Union jacket. The war years had softened the wool, and Doc had pricked more than one finger sewing on patches.

Chet took off a flattened wide-brim cowboy hat and gave it a mournful glance. “If that driver’s missed a hole yet, he ain’t trying too hard,” he said. “I jest bought this hat.”

Seated across from the pair, another man gave a rough chuckle, bit off a chaw of tobacco and began to chew. His long fingers gripped tight to the open frame of the window. “I expect we can’t hold the driver responsible for the roads.”

Recent spring rains had done a real hardship to the country road, leaving puddles, pits, and holes the coach had to traverse to reach St. Louis.

Home.

Doc Wesson stared out the window, his lungs filling with the fresh scents of budding trees, newly-scythed grass, and the earthy aroma he remembered as a boy splashing in mud puddles. As they bounced through another hole, a splat of mud showered them through the open window. He chuckled. Yup, just like stomping through the mud, much to Ma’s disgust.

“Can’t believe the war’s over,” Chet said in an attempt to make conversation, “Can’t be- omp!—dagnabit, that one near about cracked my skull in two. I sure will be glad when we get to St. Louie.”

Doc had managed to avoid another collision with the ceiling by grabbing the edge of the window frame. “Me too,” he agreed, rubbing his knee, where a stray confederate bullet had set him back near Chancellorsville. “I’m glad it’s all over.”

A short, stocky man, his dark hair pulled back and tied with a length of rawhide, Doc’s keen hazel eyes glanced over the landscape, seeking familiar landmarks. Brushing down his mustache, he anticipated his homecoming. Soon—soon he’d gather Lydia in his arms and press her body tight to his. It had been a long two years. The last time he’d had a furlough, he’d traveled the distance from Virginia to visit his wife for a scant hour—but it’d been worth it.

“Where you be goin’?” the tobacco-chawing man, Foster, asked Doc.

“Home to my wife. Can’t wait to get there.” Doc’s voice quivered with anticipation.

Chet winked; he’d confessed his plans for his wife at the last rest stop. They’d been without their women too long, fighting rebel soldiers.

“Hear you out on that,” Foster agreed with a knowing wink. “I’m aimin’ to get me to a saloon and get as drunk as a skunk—maybe even drunker.”

The men laughed.

Doc sat forward as the stagecoach rounded the curve in the road near a giant pine. The old tree marked the halfway point between the city of St. Louis and his farm. “Almost home.” He pointed to the left, pressing his feet into the floorboards as if he could make the coach move faster. “My farm’s right around that bend.”

It was an easy walk from the main road, so Doc leaned out the open window, shouting to the driver. “Can you let me off here?”

“Hey,” Chet said as he looked past Doc’s shoulder, “there’s smoke. A lot of it, over that way…”

“Looks like a fire,” Foster agreed. “That anywhere near your place?”

Doc gaped at the ominous plume of black smoke curling over what had been his corn field in better times. “Driver! My farm! Can you—”

The driver needed no urging. He yanked on the harness and wrestled the four horses down Doc’s well-worn wagon path.

“Hi ya!” The driver shouted and raised his whip to speed the team on.

They jolted pell-mell down the road, which was almost too narrow for the width of the stagecoach. Trees brushed past, and branches snapped as the sides of the coach lurched through the woods.

“What the—” The driver shot off a round of curses as he jerked the reins and harness—drawing his horses into a frantic, whinnying, jolting stop. A group of six riders crossed the road in front of them, coming from the direction of Doc’s home. The riders raced past them, horses snorting, a scant few inches of space between the coach and the woods. As they galloped past the coach, they shot guns into the air, whooping like a bunch of wild Indians.

As he struggled to regain his seat from the sudden stop, Doc caught a glimpse of the men riding past the coach. They were a blur of ragged uniforms—blue and gray. Renegades? He pulled himself off his knees and gripped the seat. In the confusion, Doc was aware that Chet and Foster had also been thrown from their seats. The three men were a jumble of arms and legs in the floor of the stagecoach.

My gun? Where’s—

One man galloped past the window on a dark chestnut bay just as Doc reached for the Colt Peacemaker around his waist. An instant passed between the two men, a split second of time when Doc felt the other man’s evil eyes boring into his. The man raised a gun but didn’t shoot. Instead, his lips formed a whispered, mocking word: “Bang!

With a cold smirk on his face, the rider raced close enough for Doc to notice a jagged scar across his right cheek. As if to taunt the men in the coach, he waved a cameo brooch in one hand.

Lydia’s brooch!

Then, as suddenly as they’d appeared, the riders were gone.

“Driver!” Doc shouted. “My wife…”

Lydia would never have allowed anyone to take her brooch. Not unless she was…

The driver gave him a nod as he urged the horses to surge forward down the rutted road. Doc leaned out the window in dreadful anticipation.

Lydia?

The eye-watering smoke and scent of burning wood reached his nose, chilling him to the bone.

***

“I’m sure enough sorry,” Chet said as he stood beside the freshly-dug grave, shovel in hand. “I know how much you was lookin’ forward to getting home.”

Doc’s throat squeezed too tightly to speak. His words had frozen a few hours before, when the stagecoach had pulled into the farmyard. Though Doc had jumped from the coach and run into the house, something inside him had already died.

He knew. Even before he found Lydia’s body violated and shot in the bedroom, he knew.

Lydia wore that cameo brooch every waking hour. It had belonged to her grandmother, the woman who’d raised her. If someone else had her brooch, Lydia was gone.

Somehow, from the second the scarred man had ridden past, Doc knew the renegades had killed Lydia.

He’d pulled his Colt, intending to put a bullet through his own head. With Lydia dead, he had was nothing left, no reason to live. However, Chet’s hand had wrested the gun away, and Foster and the driver had held Doc as he struggled to grab it back.

“Let me alone!” he’d screamed, tears streaming down his cheeks. “There’s nothing to live for with Lydia gone!”

“You think on that,” Chet had argued as Doc scrabbled for the Colt. “You think on catching those low-down scoundrels and getting justice for your wife! They’re the ones who should die, not you.”

Chet was right. Lydia deserved justice. Deserved her killers at the end of a rope. Coldness gathered in his heart, and he swore never to abandon Lydia’s memory. He would find those men and exact revenge.

They would pay for Lydia’s death.

All the fight went out of him then, and Doc went limp. He’d let Chet lead him to Lydia’s rocker on the front porch and sat, hands limp in his lap.

“I’m sorry, Doc, but I have to get the stage on into town,” the driver had apologized. “I’ll send the sheriff out.”

While Chet and Foster built a coffin, Doc had dressed Lydia tenderly in her wedding dress, a pale blue lawn with lace around the collar and cuffs. It had been her favorite, one she’d still often worn on Sundays.

After Doc laid Lydia gently in the coffin, he placed her wedding ring in his pocket.

The image of the scarred-faced man floated into his mind. One day, Doc would find him and kill him.

It was the only reason to keep living.

Chapter One

Smith Ranch

Near St. Louis Missouri

July 1865

 

“Heave it over here!” Doc shouted to Hank, his best friend and neighbor. They’d lived on adjoining farms most of their lives, even going to the same one-room school.

Hank grabbed the end of the board Doc thrust his way and placed it across the ceiling beams. “We’d best get this roof on before it rains.”

Doc’s lips struggled to hold back a grin. As he pulled out a nail from the pocket of a worn brown shirt and began to hammer the board into place, Hank muttered, “Sure looks like a cloudburst to me.”

Squinting, Doc studied the sky. Not a cloud marred the waves of pale blue, and shimmers of heat rose from the roof. If there’d been a hotter day this summer, he couldn’t remember it. Doc grinned at his friend. “Your travelin’ pain telling you rain’s coming?”

Hank harrumphed, annoyed. “Best you not be joking about my pains, Doc. When I get an ache in my right knee, it’s fixin’ to rain. Sure and certain.”

“Whatever you say, Hank,” Doc agreed, forgetting for a few short moments the ever-present grief that burned in his soul.

It always surprised him to realize he’d had moments of normal life, normal conversation. How was that possible with Lydia gone?

Working together, the men soon had enough boards on the roof to begin setting the shingles. The sound of hammering echoed through the bright, sunny afternoon, punctuated by a crowing rooster and the happy giggle of children playing below.

The Mitchells, a young family of four, had experienced an attack by renegades, possibly the same ones who had killed Lydia. They’d lost part of their house and barn. With Mrs. Mitchell round with another child, Doc and Hank had offered to help rebuild the house.

Pressing his lips tight, Doc pounded the hammer a little harder than necessary into the hand-hewn shingles Mr. Mitchell handed up to them.

Why?

Hank said God’s ways were sometimes hard to understand, but Doc couldn’t understand why God would allow Lydia to die. She’d prayed, gone to church, lived her life for others. What purpose could God serve by letting a woman like her be killed?

It was a question Doc found as puzzling weeks after Lydia’s death as he had the day he’d found her. True to his word, the driver had sent the sheriff, Raun Parker, out to Doc’s farm.

“I’m right sorry this happened,” Parker had said, offering his condolences—but not like he truly cared. “We’ve had a lot of trouble in town and in the surrounding area, too, during the war and now. Some folks were just getting a toe up when these renegades started trouble. I don’t know when it’s gonna end.”

Doc had to be satisfied with Parker’s offer to “look into things,” a half-hearted proposal that did little to end Doc’s questions. Why?

He’d gotten more information from Hank than from the sheriff.

Around Hank’s table, many a night since his return, Doc had listened as his friend told him about the many trials the community had faced.

“St. Louis was a strategic location all during the war, maybe because we’re the biggest city in Missouri, and folks on both sides wanted us to vote—slave or free.”

Doc nodded, taking a sip of coffee. “Voted free state, as I heard.”

“Right. And we had the Mississippi River to use as a launching point and supply depot. Been a lot of ruffians around causing all kinds of devilment.”

“Your farm seems to be fine,” Doc observed, remembering how the renegades had burnt his once-fine home. Even though his parlor and kitchen had been spared, some of the house needed extensive repairs—repairs he had no desire to begin.

What’s the use?

“Well, me and my hands were around to fend off a lot of ’em,” Hank explained, “and I had help from the army. They bought cattle from me to feed the troops, so we had some protection. A lot of folks didn’t come off so good, though. Guess I ought to be grateful my bad knee kept me from joining up.”

While he sympathized with those who had been ravaged by the war years and the ruffians, Doc had reason to be grateful too. Helping others kept his mind off his own grief, gave him a reason to get out of bed in the morning. As he helped the Mitchells with their roof, he could stop thinking about Lydia. Or what to do with his life.

“Why do you put so much time into other folks?” Hank asked as they started down the ladder to the farmyard, almost as if he knew what Doc had been thinking. “You should be working on your own ranch, Doc. Start that cattle business you always dreamed of. As I recall, you and Lydia had some fine dreams once.”

“I’m not sure I got enough ambition for that.”

“Then what do you have ambition for?” Hank badgered him with a fixed stare.

Doc shrugged. “Not much of nothing, I guess.” He couldn’t help the weight of grief that burdened him every day, couldn’t explain to Hank how it eased when he was pounding a hammer or yanking barbed wire into place. While Doc was helping his neighbors, he could forget his own troubles. To do more than that seemed like carrying around heavy iron weights.

Hank stopped at the pump to run a stream of cool well water. Cupping his hands, he scooped up water and poured it over his sweaty blond hair. “Well, you know me and Melissa Williams plan to get married a year from now. Maybe start up a family not long after.”

“About time you married her, Hank,” Doc managed to tease. “You been courting her long enough.”

“Hank! Doc!”

Both men turned as a rider pounded into the Mitchell’s farmyard on a lathered-up horse.

“It’s Haller,” Hank said, water sluicing off his wet hair as he looked up. “Wonder what he’s so fired up about?”

Steve Haller was another of Doc’s neighbors. The suspicious older man lived alone, probably due to his cantankerous nature. When Lydia had baked him a pie or offered to do his mending, Steve had usually given her nothing but a grudging “Thanks.” They seldom saw him riding to visit anyone or caring about his neighbors, but today proved to be an exception.

“There’s a fire down along my creek bed, over toward McGuires,” Steve panted. “Could be them same renegades who set fire to the houses a few weeks ago. I’m gonna need help to keep it from spreading to my wheat field. Got some of the Donovan boys makin’ a fire break.”

“Let’s go!” Hank shouted, running for the stable gate where he’d tied his mount, an American Quarter Horse. “It might be the same ones who killed Lydia. Maybe we can catch them—”

“Oh, they’re long gone,” Steve ground out, grimacing, “but I got to get that fire out.” His voice sounded rusty, as if he begrudged his next words: “Need help.”

Hank mounted and turned to follow Steve. “Aren’t you coming, Doc? After we douse the fire, we might find a trail to follow. Sure would be good to stop those outlaws once and for all.”

Doc shuddered at the memory of the scarred face, the smirk on those lips, and finding Lydia’s lifeless body. Helplessness overcame him. What does it matter now? What does it matter if we catch the men?

“No, no. You got enough men to put out the fire.”

“Doc!”

Hank glared at him, frustrated, but Doc ignored the plea in his friend’s eyes.

He turned and headed home, back to the half-finished kitchen. In the weeks since Lydia’s death, he’d rebuilt the back wall of the kitchen, even put in another glass window, though he’d felt it wrong to put it over the dry sink where Lydia liked to look out as she washed the dishes.

He remembered how he’d put a pump inside so she could pump water right into the sink in a tin washtub.

“You spoil me, Doc,” she’d said with a pleased smile.

The ranch had been his childhood home, but after Ma and Pa died, it had come to him and his brother, Mike. At twenty-one, Doc had thought his whole life would be keeping up the farm, buying cattle and starting a family with his young wife.

Then came the War. A year later, Mike had died, too—killed off, not in battle, but by disease in the camp.

Sorrow and woe, sorrow and woe. Doc didn’t know if the words came from a poem or a half-remembered song. Wherever they’d come from, the words washed through his mind day after day.

Doc pulled open a cabinet and grabbed a small bottle of whiskey. Pulling the cork out with his teeth, he took a swill, the liquid burning his tongue and flaming down his throat. Soon, he knew, the bottle would take over his senses and soothe him, taking him to a place where there was no fear, no loss, no worries, no memories—good or bad. No sorrow and woe.

He couldn’t get drunk fast enough.

Chapter Two

St. Louis Missouri

One Year Later

June 1866

 

“Another one over here.”

Doc banged his whiskey glass on the scarred table and turned bleary eyes to the swinging doors of Nickle’s Saloon.

“Haven’t you had enough?” Hank asked quietly, sitting across the table with a worried frown on his sunburned face.

“Can’t never have enough,” Doc growled, giving Elvira, the saloon girl, a grin as she placed a fresh glass on the table. “Bring the bottle, too.”

“Doc,” she half-whispered, a wary eye toward her boss at the bar, “why don’t you go on home while you can still ride?”

He grabbed Elvira’s hand roughly. “Bring me the bottle. I got money.”

“Doc,” Hank tried again, “she’s right. You’ve had enough.”

Doc shook his head. When Elvira brought the bottle, biting the edge of her lip, he grabbed it and poured the liquid into his glass, sloshing some on the table. He took a swill, wincing at the burn in his throat.

Happy anniversary, Lydia.

“Aw, let him be,” Steve said, drumming a leathery hand on the table. He pushed away a half-empty beer. “We got worse things to worry about in this town. All these foreigners coming in. I sure hate seeing all them coming here. Where do they come from?”

Doc had no idea why Steve had agreed to ride into town with them. Steve rarely ventured far from home, worried as he was about all the strangers he saw.

Staring at his neighbor with bleary eyes, Doc tried to remember why the three of them had come into town today, but didn’t want to ask. Give Hank a reason to say I’m too drunk. Worrying the thought like a hole in a tooth, Doc finally recalled they needed to buy supplies.

Hank sighed and turned his attention to Steve. “You’re worrying’ about nothing. I’m glad to see the town growing. Just because we don’t know everyone yet don’t mean they’re bad news. Right, Doc?”

“Don’t care.”

Hank gave him a hard look. “Listen, Doc, I’m your friend, and I got to tell you how it is. Ever since you lost Lydia, you’re a disgrace. When was the last time you had a bath? Or combed your hair? You got hay in it. There’s food stuck in your mustache. I’d be ashamed to have Melissa see you like that.”

“S’what it matter?”

“It matters to me. I’m getting married soon, and I’d hoped to ask you to be my best man. How’m I gonna do that when you smell like a barn and a saloon? What’s Melissa going to think?”

“Ask somebody else.”

Hank pounded a fist on the table. “You don’t care about anything. At least Steve cares about the town—even if he is wrong about the foreigners coming in.”

“Now wait a minute, wait a min…” The words twisted on his tongue, and Doc couldn’t complete the thought.

“Why don’t you go somewhere else, Doc? Start over again? Maybe that’s better than sticking around here with all these reminders. Go somewhere and let God help you find another life.”

“Leave me alone, Hank. God don’t care about me. Didn’t care about Lydia.”

“No, daggum it—I care about you, Doc, and I can’t stand to see any man waste himself on drink. You’ve already had enough, and you don’t know when to stop. What would Lydia think if she could see you now?”

“Leave me alone,” Doc insisted.

“No, I won’t. You’re my friend, and I—”

Doc had heard enough. Before Hank could defend himself, Doc stood, shoving back his chair, and landed a punch to Hank’s jaw. The blow knocked Hank off his chair and onto the saloon floor. Elvira screamed.

Steve jumped up, knocking over his beer. “Durn it, you two, stop that! Hank, don’t hit him back. Grab his arms, and we’ll get him in the wagon.”

Hank had come off the floor, fists raised to defend himself. At Steve’s shout, he lowered his hands and stepped back. “Come on, Doc, let’s not fight. I’m only telling you the truth because I care.”

Doc roared and started for Hank again, ready to land another punch in his face.

“Doc! That’s enough!” Steve pushed against Doc’s chest, and he took a staggering step back. He stared, eyes wide, as Hank rubbed his jaw and Steve held his hands up to fend off another possible blow.

I’ve hit Hank—my best friend. He’s only trying to do what he thinks is right.

“I… I’m sorry,” Doc muttered, shame washing over him. Glancing around, he saw Elvira, staring; a few other men in the saloon had stopped to watch the fight, too. Steve’s hard-worn face was full of disgust, and Hank’s eyes were filled with pity.

“Sorry…”

I’ve lost control. It’s the drink. I care more about drink than my friends. Or anything else.

Shamed by the pity in Hank’s eyes, Doc turned and stumbled out of the saloon.

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