Solitary Horseman

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Solitary Horseman

Deborah Camp

Horseman.jpg (150×225)

 

The Civil War is over, but the battles continue. 

Callum Latimer returned from the war to a life he didn’t want and with inner battle scars he can’t heal.
Banner Payne clutched desperately to the remaining shreds of the life she’d known, but she is losing her grip.
Brought together by bad luck and cruel twists of fate, Callum and Banner forge a partnership they hope will keep them afloat even as neighboring Texas ranchers go under and their land is snapped up by opportunists.
Fate smiles on them and Callum and Banner find the missing pieces of themselves in each other.
Healing begins as their hearts are awakened. Now they must remain strong in their determination to forge a more peaceful existence and not be poisoned by the bitterness of a country still divided.

 

 

 

  

Solitary Horseman

Excerpt

After two weeks, the most Seth Latimer had said to Banner was, “Leave me be and go on about your business. I don’t need you or want you here.” He was a bad-tempered, bad-mannered man . . . but Banner still felt occasional twinges of compassion for him.

Watching him lean heavily on his two canes and make his way painfully to his chair on the front porch after every meal, unsettled her. So, it was with great trepidation but equally great determination that she joined him after she’d finished with the breakfast dishes.

He glared at her and set his stubborn, square jaw. She edged closer as if she were approaching a rattler.

“Mr. Latimer, I’m fine with you hating me. You’ve hated me my whole life and it hasn’t held me back one bit. What I’m not fine with is your insistence on not helping yourself to heal from your accident. It’s not fair to you and it’s not fair to Callum.” She held up both hands when his jaw firmed even more to the point that she was afraid it might crack like stone. “Hear me out. I worked in field hospitals during the war and I learned a few things. You have to move or your joints will freeze up and you won’t be able to walk at all. You’ll be totally dependent on others, and I know you don’t want that.”

He folded his beefy arms and stared straight ahead. He wasn’t a rattler, she decided. He was a puff adder. He could look all big and mean, but she wasn’t afraid of him.

“I can help you. We’ll start by having you walk from the kitchen out to the porch four times a day. Then we’ll have you going up and down these porch steps.” She leaned forward a little, hoping to see a softening of his expression, but there wasn’t any. She wasn’t even sure he was listening to her. She huffed out a breath of exasperation. “I never pegged you as a quitter or a coward. I see that I was wrong.” Then she turned on her heel and went back into the house.

His roar followed her. “Don’t you sass me, gal! I’ll kick your skinny behind off my land!”

“You and who else?” she shouted at him from the kitchen. “You can’t kick anyone anywhere!” She’d had it with him. She’d been kind, considerate, and respectful. In return, he’d treated with like she was the Black Plague. No more tiptoeing around him and showing him deference because of his age and injuries! If he wanted to fight, she would return fire with both barrels!

“You stay clear of me, girl! I don’t need your sassy mouth. I don’t even want to see you. Hear me?”

“No! Why don’t you come in here and tell me?” she taunted. “I dare you! You lazy, old, crowing rooster!” She started slamming pots around, allowing her mouth to run wild because it felt so good to bait him, goad him, and – yes! – shame him. “Go ahead and sit out there on your throne and pretend that you’re still the king of this ranch! Everyone can see you’re getting worse and worse every day and that the way you’re going, you’ll be bedridden by winter.” She ran her hands over her hair, pushing back some loose strands from her forehead and temples. “Guess you enjoy being helpless and having to rely on your son for everything!”

“Shut your dadblamed mouth, woman!” he bellowed.

“Did you say something, Your Laziness? I can’t hear you!”

“I can hear him, loud and clear.”

Banner jumped, one hand landing over her jolted heart, and whirled to see Callum standing just inside the back door. “Wh-what are you doing here?” She felt her face flame with embarrassment.

His eyebrows quirked up. “I do believe I live here.”

How could one man fill a room so completely? His broad shoulders spanned the doorway as he leaned one against the frame and cocked his hip. “I’m sorry. I mean, yes, you live here. And I don’t usually shout like that. I shouldn’t have and I’ll—”

“If that’s the first time you’ve spouted off to him, I’m surprised. I live with him, Banner. I know how he is.”

“Yes, but I should apologize.”

He waved that aside. “I don’t suppose you have any coffee left, do you?”

“Umm, yes. There’s a cup or two in the pot.” She turned to the stove and reached for a mug, using the activity to settle her jangled nerves, ashamed to be caught in a shouting match with his father. “It’s early for you to be back here, isn’t it?”

“I brought in an orphaned calf.” The kitchen chair creaked, taking his weight.

She set the steaming mug in front of him. “What happened to its mother?”

He’d removed his hat and set it on the table. His dark hair was damp with sweat, matted in places, a few strands sliding onto his forehead. She wanted to brush them back and feel the texture. Was it soft? Silky?

“Damned if I know.”

“What?” Was he talking about his hair? She blinked at him and realized she’d completely lost her senses.

He blew at the coffee and then took a sip. “I haven’t found the mother cow or a carcass. We’re still looking. In the meantime, the calf is hungry. I’ve set Mary to bottle feeding her.” He glanced up at her. “I’m not keeping you from anything, am I?”

“No.” She knew she should turn away and busy herself at something instead of staring at him, but she’d noticed the dark circles under his eyes. He hadn’t shaved today and his beard darkened the lower half of his face. Something in his expression, in the tired slope of his shoulders, tugged at her heart.

“Don’t let him get your goat.”

She shook her head, realizing he thought she was still dwelling on his father. Nope. Wrong Latimer man. She cleared her throat and turned away to stare out the window at the laundry fluttering on the line, but her mind remained stuck on the man who filled those flapping shirts.

“If anything, Pa should be the one saying he’s sorry.”

She let go of a scoffing laugh. “I won’t hold my breath.” She twisted around and studied him for a few moments. He looked worn out. And it was early in the day. “Are you feeling poorly?”

He stared at her over the rim of the mug. “Why? Do I look it?”

“You look . . . tired.”

He nodded. “That I am. Couldn’t sleep, so I went into town last night.” He heaved a long, suffering sigh. “I drank too much rotgut. I was hoping to pass out and get some rest, but it seemed to fire me up even more. I should’ve known better.” He gulped down the rest of the coffee and set the mug on the table with a thump.

The motion sent her gaze to his hand. His knuckles were scraped raw, turning blue, and flecked with blood. “What happened?” She reached out, trailing a fingertip over the damage.

He slammed his eyes shut for a second and then surged up from the chair, making her stumble back from him. “Got into a disagreement with a couple of fellas is all. Like I said, I was fired up.”

“Is that you I hear, son?” Seth called out.

“Yes, Pa.” He picked up his hat.

Sadness permeated his every move and every expression that flitted across his face. She had moved closer to rest a hand on his forearm before she’d even registered the actions. But she kept it there even when his gaze bounced up to hers. Questions and confusion rioted in his green eyes, squeezing her heart.

“Hollis has nights when he’s not himself. Some of the doctors called it ‘soldier fever.’ You have horrible dreams or you can’t sleep because you’re full of all this . . . oh, I don’t know . . . fury and hopelessness.” She saw that she’d surprised him. “Is that how you feel, too?”

He nodded and his throat flexed as he swallowed words instead of speaking them. She let go of him, sensing that she might have overstepped.

“I have work to do. So do you,” she said in a near whisper.

With a curt nod, he strode from the kitchen, through the house, and out to the porch. Banner listened to his footfalls growing fainter. She tried to picture him in a drunken brawl, but then shied from that image, preferring to think of him as sober, strong, and in control. His demons must be strong to be able to buckle him over and make him act out like that.

Uprooting herself, she moved quietly toward the porch to listen to the men talking. Seth was easy to hear since he wasn’t trying to be quiet, but she had to strain to catch Callum’s low baritone.

“. . .split-tailed piece of dung.”

She winced, realizing that they were talking about her.

“That’s enough, Pa,” Callum said, his voice whip-sharp. “Take a deep breath and rein in your runaway tongue. Maybe her pa took some cattle from us, but she didn’t. Hollis didn’t. They were kids when it supposedly happened.”

“They knew about it!”

“Awww, hell! You couldn’t ever prove that Otis Payne took off with our cattle.”

“I followed their tracks right to the Payne ranch.”

“And you didn’t find our cattle there.”

“He’d already sold them off!”

“Enough digging up old dirt.”

They were silent for a spell before Seth asked, “Did you ever come home last night?”

“I did.”

“I hope you didn’t fight over some saloon tart.”

Silence stretched again from seconds to minutes. Sighing and feeling like a sneak, Banner went back into the kitchen for the broom. She began attacking dust and boot prints with long swipes of the broom, working through the kitchen and into the front parlor. A saloon tart? Did he sport with such women? Pausing, she flipped back a small, oval rug and Callum’s voice floated to her through the open door.

“I’m at my rope’s end. I’m going to handle it today.”

She straightened, straining to hear more. Handle what?

“Watch yourself,” Seth cautioned. “You never know how someone will react and hot words can lead to cold slabs. And you don’t have a good handle on your temper today.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“You tell Mary about the calf?”

“She’s in the barn with it now.”

“Ought to make that Payne gal bottle feed it. She’s here to work, not to nag at me.”

“She’s here to cook, clean, and take care of you.”

“I don’t need no looking after.”

Banner closed her eyes and ground her teeth. Insufferable, cantankerous—

“Who you trying to fool, Pa?” Callum demanded. “Yourself? Because you surely can’t think you’re fooling me. You need someone here to make sure you don’t fall and break your damned neck.”

“She was out here telling me I should climb stairs and walk back and forth through the house like a chicken with its head chopped off.”

“Sounds like a good idea to me. You need to move around more.”

“I know what I need!”

“Ah, damn it, I’m done with this. Go ahead and keep hating her for no reason, but quit yelling and cussing at her like she’s a dog. I won’t tolerate it anymore.”

“Y-you—you! You won’t tolerate—!”

“That’s right! She’s my partner and I don’t want you speaking to her like that.”

“You didn’t hear what she was yelling at me just now.”

“Yes, I did. Tit for tat. But it stops today. If you can’t be civil, then don’t say anything.”

“Works for me. I got nothing to say to her anyway.”

Callum muttered something under his breath and Banner saw him through the doorway as he stalked off the porch. She realized she was smiling. Callum had taken her side against his father!

Back in the kitchen, she propped the broom in the corner and caught sight of Callum again through the window. He walked briskly toward the barn, but then he suddenly stopped, removed his hat, and threw it on the ground. He flung back his head to stare at the sky, hands fisted at his sides. She could see the shudder of his chest and she realized he was shaking with . . . what? Anger? After a minute, he flexed his fingers and then bent over slowly and picked up his hat. He brushed it off, shaking his head as if he were arguing with himself or chastising himself, then he stuck the hat back over his inky hair. He glanced over his shoulder right at the kitchen window. Banner sucked in a breath and scrambled back farther into the shadowy interior. Only when he walked with long, angry strides to the barn did she breathe normally again.

She sat at the table in the chair he’d vacated minutes ago. She’d seen similar behavior from Hollis. Callum Latimer was hurting inside, writhing with guilt, remorse, anger, and other emotional shrapnel carried by soldiers and survivors.

Running her fingers up and down the mug he’d drank from, she wondered what she could do, if anything, to ease his suffering. More importantly, was it even her place to try?

 

 

After two weeks, the most Seth Latimer had said to Banner was, “Leave me be and go on about your business. I don’t need you or want you here.” He was a bad-tempered, bad-mannered man . . . but Banner still felt occasional twinges of compassion for him.

Watching him lean heavily on his two canes and make his way painfully to his chair on the front porch after every meal, unsettled her. So, it was with great trepidation but equally great determination that she joined him after she’d finished with the breakfast dishes.

He glared at her and set his stubborn, square jaw. She edged closer as if she were approaching a rattler.

“Mr. Latimer, I’m fine with you hating me. You’ve hated me my whole life and it hasn’t held me back one bit. What I’m not fine with is your insistence on not helping yourself to heal from your accident. It’s not fair to you and it’s not fair to Callum.” She held up both hands when his jaw firmed even more to the point that she was afraid it might crack like stone. “Hear me out. I worked in field hospitals during the war and I learned a few things. You have to move or your joints will freeze up and you won’t be able to walk at all. You’ll be totally dependent on others, and I know you don’t want that.”

He folded his beefy arms and stared straight ahead. He wasn’t a rattler, she decided. He was a puff adder. He could look all big and mean, but she wasn’t afraid of him.

“I can help you. We’ll start by having you walk from the kitchen out to the porch four times a day. Then we’ll have you going up and down these porch steps.” She leaned forward a little, hoping to see a softening of his expression, but there wasn’t any. She wasn’t even sure he was listening to her. She huffed out a breath of exasperation. “I never pegged you as a quitter or a coward. I see that I was wrong.” Then she turned on her heel and went back into the house.

His roar followed her. “Don’t you sass me, gal! I’ll kick your skinny behind off my land!”

“You and who else?” she shouted at him from the kitchen. “You can’t kick anyone anywhere!” She’d had it with him. She’d been kind, considerate, and respectful. In return, he’d treated with like she was the Black Plague. No more tiptoeing around him and showing him deference because of his age and injuries! If he wanted to fight, she would return fire with both barrels!

“You stay clear of me, girl! I don’t need your sassy mouth. I don’t even want to see you. Hear me?”

“No! Why don’t you come in here and tell me?” she taunted. “I dare you! You lazy, old, crowing rooster!” She started slamming pots around, allowing her mouth to run wild because it felt so good to bait him, goad him, and – yes! – shame him. “Go ahead and sit out there on your throne and pretend that you’re still the king of this ranch! Everyone can see you’re getting worse and worse every day and that the way you’re going, you’ll be bedridden by winter.” She ran her hands over her hair, pushing back some loose strands from her forehead and temples. “Guess you enjoy being helpless and having to rely on your son for everything!”

“Shut your dadblamed mouth, woman!” he bellowed.

“Did you say something, Your Laziness? I can’t hear you!”

“I can hear him, loud and clear.”

Banner jumped, one hand landing over her jolted heart, and whirled to see Callum standing just inside the back door. “Wh-what are you doing here?” She felt her face flame with embarrassment.

His eyebrows quirked up. “I do believe I live here.”

How could one man fill a room so completely? His broad shoulders spanned the doorway as he leaned one against the frame and cocked his hip. “I’m sorry. I mean, yes, you live here. And I don’t usually shout like that. I shouldn’t have and I’ll—”

“If that’s the first time you’ve spouted off to him, I’m surprised. I live with him, Banner. I know how he is.”

“Yes, but I should apologize.”

He waved that aside. “I don’t suppose you have any coffee left, do you?”

“Umm, yes. There’s a cup or two in the pot.” She turned to the stove and reached for a mug, using the activity to settle her jangled nerves, ashamed to be caught in a shouting match with his father. “It’s early for you to be back here, isn’t it?”

“I brought in an orphaned calf.” The kitchen chair creaked, taking his weight.

She set the steaming mug in front of him. “What happened to its mother?”

He’d removed his hat and set it on the table. His dark hair was damp with sweat, matted in places, a few strands sliding onto his forehead. She wanted to brush them back and feel the texture. Was it soft? Silky?

“Damned if I know.”

“What?” Was he talking about his hair? She blinked at him and realized she’d completely lost her senses.

He blew at the coffee and then took a sip. “I haven’t found the mother cow or a carcass. We’re still looking. In the meantime, the calf is hungry. I’ve set Mary to bottle feeding her.” He glanced up at her. “I’m not keeping you from anything, am I?”

“No.” She knew she should turn away and busy herself at something instead of staring at him, but she’d noticed the dark circles under his eyes. He hadn’t shaved today and his beard darkened the lower half of his face. Something in his expression, in the tired slope of his shoulders, tugged at her heart.

“Don’t let him get your goat.”

She shook her head, realizing he thought she was still dwelling on his father. Nope. Wrong Latimer man. She cleared her throat and turned away to stare out the window at the laundry fluttering on the line, but her mind remained stuck on the man who filled those flapping shirts.

“If anything, Pa should be the one saying he’s sorry.”

She let go of a scoffing laugh. “I won’t hold my breath.” She twisted around and studied him for a few moments. He looked worn out. And it was early in the day. “Are you feeling poorly?”

He stared at her over the rim of the mug. “Why? Do I look it?”

“You look . . . tired.”

He nodded. “That I am. Couldn’t sleep, so I went into town last night.” He heaved a long, suffering sigh. “I drank too much rotgut. I was hoping to pass out and get some rest, but it seemed to fire me up even more. I should’ve known better.” He gulped down the rest of the coffee and set the mug on the table with a thump.

The motion sent her gaze to his hand. His knuckles were scraped raw, turning blue, and flecked with blood. “What happened?” She reached out, trailing a fingertip over the damage.

He slammed his eyes shut for a second and then surged up from the chair, making her stumble back from him. “Got into a disagreement with a couple of fellas is all. Like I said, I was fired up.”

“Is that you I hear, son?” Seth called out.

“Yes, Pa.” He picked up his hat.

Sadness permeated his every move and every expression that flitted across his face. She had moved closer to rest a hand on his forearm before she’d even registered the actions. But she kept it there even when his gaze bounced up to hers. Questions and confusion rioted in his green eyes, squeezing her heart.

“Hollis has nights when he’s not himself. Some of the doctors called it ‘soldier fever.’ You have horrible dreams or you can’t sleep because you’re full of all this . . . oh, I don’t know . . . fury and hopelessness.” She saw that she’d surprised him. “Is that how you feel, too?”

He nodded and his throat flexed as he swallowed words instead of speaking them. She let go of him, sensing that she might have overstepped.

“I have work to do. So do you,” she said in a near whisper.

With a curt nod, he strode from the kitchen, through the house, and out to the porch. Banner listened to his footfalls growing fainter. She tried to picture him in a drunken brawl, but then shied from that image, preferring to think of him as sober, strong, and in control. His demons must be strong to be able to buckle him over and make him act out like that.

Uprooting herself, she moved quietly toward the porch to listen to the men talking. Seth was easy to hear since he wasn’t trying to be quiet, but she had to strain to catch Callum’s low baritone.

“. . .split-tailed piece of dung.”

She winced, realizing that they were talking about her.

“That’s enough, Pa,” Callum said, his voice whip-sharp. “Take a deep breath and rein in your runaway tongue. Maybe her pa took some cattle from us, but she didn’t. Hollis didn’t. They were kids when it supposedly happened.”

“They knew about it!”

“Awww, hell! You couldn’t ever prove that Otis Payne took off with our cattle.”

“I followed their tracks right to the Payne ranch.”

“And you didn’t find our cattle there.”

“He’d already sold them off!”

“Enough digging up old dirt.”

They were silent for a spell before Seth asked, “Did you ever come home last night?”

“I did.”

“I hope you didn’t fight over some saloon tart.”

Silence stretched again from seconds to minutes. Sighing and feeling like a sneak, Banner went back into the kitchen for the broom. She began attacking dust and boot prints with long swipes of the broom, working through the kitchen and into the front parlor. A saloon tart? Did he sport with such women? Pausing, she flipped back a small, oval rug and Callum’s voice floated to her through the open door.

“I’m at my rope’s end. I’m going to handle it today.”

She straightened, straining to hear more. Handle what?

“Watch yourself,” Seth cautioned. “You never know how someone will react and hot words can lead to cold slabs. And you don’t have a good handle on your temper today.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“You tell Mary about the calf?”

“She’s in the barn with it now.”

“Ought to make that Payne gal bottle feed it. She’s here to work, not to nag at me.”

“She’s here to cook, clean, and take care of you.”

“I don’t need no looking after.”

Banner closed her eyes and ground her teeth. Insufferable, cantankerous—

“Who you trying to fool, Pa?” Callum demanded. “Yourself? Because you surely can’t think you’re fooling me. You need someone here to make sure you don’t fall and break your damned neck.”

“She was out here telling me I should climb stairs and walk back and forth through the house like a chicken with its head chopped off.”

“Sounds like a good idea to me. You need to move around more.”

“I know what I need!”

“Ah, damn it, I’m done with this. Go ahead and keep hating her for no reason, but quit yelling and cussing at her like she’s a dog. I won’t tolerate it anymore.”

“Y-you—you! You won’t tolerate—!”

“That’s right! She’s my partner and I don’t want you speaking to her like that.”

“You didn’t hear what she was yelling at me just now.”

“Yes, I did. Tit for tat. But it stops today. If you can’t be civil, then don’t say anything.”

“Works for me. I got nothing to say to her anyway.”

Callum muttered something under his breath and Banner saw him through the doorway as he stalked off the porch. She realized she was smiling. Callum had taken her side against his father!

Back in the kitchen, she propped the broom in the corner and caught sight of Callum again through the window. He walked briskly toward the barn, but then he suddenly stopped, removed his hat, and threw it on the ground. He flung back his head to stare at the sky, hands fisted at his sides. She could see the shudder of his chest and she realized he was shaking with . . . what? Anger? After a minute, he flexed his fingers and then bent over slowly and picked up his hat. He brushed it off, shaking his head as if he were arguing with himself or chastising himself, then he stuck the hat back over his inky hair. He glanced over his shoulder right at the kitchen window. Banner sucked in a breath and scrambled back farther into the shadowy interior. Only when he walked with long, angry strides to the barn did she breathe normally again.

She sat at the table in the chair he’d vacated minutes ago. She’d seen similar behavior from Hollis. Callum Latimer was hurting inside, writhing with guilt, remorse, anger, and other emotional shrapnel carried by soldiers and survivors.

Running her fingers up and down the mug he’d drank from, she wondered what she could do, if anything, to ease his suffering. More importantly, was it even her place to try? 

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