Wyoming Promises

By: Kerri Mountain

Chapter One

Wyoming, 1870

Lola Martin opened her door and raised a lantern, its flame flickering in the cool night air.

“I’m looking for the undertaker, ma’am. Got a body for him.” The man’s voice was worn and gritty like an old straw tick, but his tone gave nothing away.

He glanced over her shoulder, as if the undertaker would appear from the shadows behind. Light reflected off his brown eyes as if off an empty store window. Desperation lurked in the hard lines of his face, making it difficult to guess his age. A deep scar cut across his cheek to the edge of his crooked lip, just escaping the whiskers that wouldn’t hide his stubborn jaw.

“I’m the undertaker. What can I do for you?”

His spurs rattled as he shifted, but if she surprised him, his face didn’t show it. He rocked his hat on his head and heaved a raw sigh. “I found a man dead out on the trail, not far from here. Head busted on a big rock. Looks like his horse threw him.”

Lola’s heart tripped. She wished the sheriff hadn’t been called out. Pete McKenna always kept an eye on her place, out on the edge of Quiver Creek. Grace, his wife, Lola’s dearest friend, insisted on it.

She’d have to find a way to notify the man’s family, and hoped he turned out to be some drifter. But her conscience pricked her. She should be praying the man died ready to meet his Maker. She hung the lantern outside the door and grabbed her shawl. “Let’s see him.”

The man’s jaw twitched. He stepped back to make way for her. “If it’s all right by you, ma’am, I’ll bring him inside. You tell me where you want him.”

The idea of a stranger bringing a “guest” into her home after dark gave her pause, but she couldn’t carry the body herself. No one else would be around at this hour. She looked into the man’s eyes, seeing the exhaustion shining from their dark depths. She didn’t recognize him, probably wouldn’t even without the pounds of trail dust he carried. He stood taller than her, though that didn’t say much for his height, and a worn hat sat low over his forehead. Lord, keep me safe, she prayed. She swallowed hard and nodded. “I’ll get the table ready.”

Lola swung the door wide, its knob bouncing against the inside wall. She pulled a fresh sheet from the corner cupboard and draped it over a long table in the middle of the room. Her stiff muscles and sleepy eyes protested the work ahead, but she couldn’t let it wait until morning. She’d at least clean him up before turning in. And she’d have to talk to Ike about a carpenter. Business had picked up in the months since her father’s death. Supplies she could order, but this “guest” would use the last remaining coffin he had made. She’d learned all aspects of the business from her father—except that one. She’d need to find a woodworker who could build a few to have on hand.

A blanket-wrapped body heaved over his shoulder dwarfed the stranger easing through the door. He walked with firm steps, spurs ringing as he trod across the wooden floorboards.

Lola closed the door and followed, lighting more lanterns. She pumped water into a kettle to heat. “Will you be around a few days, Mr.—?”

“Jamison. Bridger Jamison,” the man supplied. “Depends on whether or not I find work. Why?”

Lola rolled her sleeves, determined to prepare her guest with care. The slack body swayed as Mr. Jamison carried him, proof he’d lain on the trail long enough for rigor to pass. The head bobbed a little too freely. She suspected a broken neck had ended the man’s life in an instant. She donned a fresh apron. “Well, Mr. Jamison, I’m sure the sheriff will have questions, so he can investigate the death. He’s been called to help track a cougar that’s been aggravating the local ranchers.”

Mr. Jamison tensed as he bent over the body, laying it across the table with careful ease. He straightened with slow stiffness and then faced her. “I expected there’d be a man here, ma’am, no offense. I hoped to talk to him and explain what I could right off.” He drew a step closer, hand digging into the breast pocket of his long duster.

Lola drew back, hands frozen around the knob of her hair she’d twisted in preparation for the job ahead. The man held out a battered tin star that gleamed in the lantern light. “When I found him, this was pinned behind his lapel.”

Time froze as her gaze met his. Her hair fell down her shoulders, unsecured. Lola took the unmistakable medal from the man’s rough fingers. She stumbled to the table and jerked the blanket down. Pete McKenna’s rowdy red curls fell away from a gash and slight indent near the temple. His normally sun-darkened skin carried the pale grayish cast of death.

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