Cody, Wyoming 1871
There is a great deal of wisdom to be gained from watching the lives of bees—sometimes they bring honey and sweetness, other times they bring a vicious sting. An existence rife with odd ironies.
As Betty Barnette stared down at her rye-straw beehive, alive with the gentle hum of bees, she thought about that cold winter night just over a season ago when life had dealt her the most vicious sting of all.
Every detail was indelibly etched in her mind. The terrible scream in the darkness, the ghastly sound of wagon wheels being smashed to pieces, and the dim, defeated look in Jorge’s eye when he came thundering through the door. It was a night she would never forget, not even if she lived to be two hundred.
She shook the thought from her mind and let out a heavy breath, allowing her eyes to look beyond her ranch to the Bighorn mountains that loomed ominously ahead. Those mountains always gave her reassurance; they embodied everything she wanted to be. Strong, unmoving, resilient.
Survive. That was all she could do. Like the mountains. Like her bees. Working with every inch of her being to live and somehow find the sweetness again. For in life, rife as it was with disappointment, the bravest thing one could do was endure.
She had suffered losses she’d once thought unimaginable and had survived thus far. Even though she knew she would never look at life with the same hope, she wasn’t going to wilt away like candlewax under flame.
A gaggle of piebald goats came bleating past and she glanced over her shoulder, sensing someone approach.
A man appeared at the edge of the ranch, tall as a tree with a severe slouch and more than a hint of a limp in his step. His hair was an unruly tangle of gray above a face cut from hard lines and sharp sinew. From his neck hung the rope of a straw hat, which rested on the back of his neck.
“Miss Barnette?” he called in a low, gentle voice.
Betty furrowed her brow as she met his eye. “Jorge, what is it?”
He winced as though he didn’t want to say more. “Old Crooked Tom is here.”
Betty frowned. “And what does he want?”
“He says our last payment was short.”
She tucked her hands into her trouser pockets and raised her chin. “Does he, now?”
Jorge nodded and slowly pulled his straw hat on, shielding his face from the sun’s glare. “Says he wants to speak to the man of the house.”
Betty gave a start. “And did you tell him that the man of this house is a woman?”
Jorge shook his head. “Figured it was better he saw it for himself.”
Betty gave a low laugh and nodded. “Have him wait in the horse stables, I’ll be there in a moment.”
Jorge nodded, but he didn’t move. “There’s one other thing, Miss Barnette.”
Betty let out a small sigh. There it is, the thing Jorge doesn’t want to say. “What is it?”
He frowned as though reluctant to speak, then brushed aside a dangling tress of gray-white hair from his forehead. “I hear Mr. Wilson is back in town.”
Betty’s hands curled into fists of her own accord as her face hardened. “How long has he been here?”
Jorge scowled. “Two days at the very most.”
Betty stared over at the beehive for a long, silent moment, then nodded slowly. “Thank you for telling me,” she said at last.
Jorge gave a slow, approving nod and turned back to the ranch house. She watched him walk away in silence, sucking in breath as she braced herself for what was to come. She watched as a single bee broke free from the hive and spiraled at great speed around her. Survive, she thought to herself. I am going to survive.
The stable complex was in keeping with the largesse of the ranch house. The horses were stabled in roomy private stalls with excellent ventilation and beauteous natural light. Twelve appendix quarter horses snorted their greeting as she stepped inside.
Old Crooked Tom stood at the corner of the stable with all the pomp and pride of a king at coronation. It always amused Betty how easily men could conjure self-importance when they found themselves in the presence of a woman.
She had kept him waiting just long enough to test his patience. When someone wants to take something from you, always make them wait. Her father’s words.
The reason he was called Old Crooked Tom was obvious from a single look. His bulbous pink nose was broken in so many ways that it was almost an understatement to call it crooked. The trader frowned as she stepped toward him and fixed her with a dead-eyed stare.
“And you are?” he asked, eyeing her up and down.
“You’re the stranger here,” Betty said, stretching her arms out, “everyone knows who I am at this ranch.”
Crooked Tom gave her a long appraising look, spat in a thicket of hay, and tilted his neck until it made a clicking noise. “The name is Old Tom,” he said, holding out a hand to her.
She gave his hand a quick, speculative glance and then shook it. He squeezed it too hard in that unsurprising way men often did when they were trying to prove their toughness.
“I suppose you must be little Miss Barnette,” he said with a half-lidded glance.
Betty frowned. “Miss Barnette, yes. Not so little anymore. How may I help you?”
“You can help me by fetching your brother, or your husband or whoever else handles business around here.”
Betty gritted her teeth to stop from scowling and let out an easy breath. “My father is dead. I ain’t got no brother and I ain’t got no husband. I handle business around here.”
Old Tom gave her another long look, his eyes moving from her boots caked with mud, to her trousers made for men, then to her hair that spilled easily over her shoulders. “Running a ranch this size is no work for a woman, Miss Barnette. Now, my eyes may be old but even I can see that you are a,” he paused, “a sightly woman. If I were you, I would marry a man who knows his way around a ranch and can get this place running before the harvest. Three months is more than enough time.”
Betty narrowed her eyes. “A lucky thing that you are not me, Old Tom. Though if you were, you’d know that I run this ranch as well as any man can and intend to make it even more successful than it was under my father.”
Old Tom snorted a laugh. “You’re quite the dreamer.”
“And you’re quite the swindler, Old Tom.”
For a moment, there was total silence. Even the horses seemed to watch and wait.
“I ain’t no swindler,” Old Tom hissed, jabbing an accusatory finger at her.
Betty kept her voice calm. “Crooked nose, crooked goes. Isn’t that what they say about you?”
“That’s womenfolk gossip. Anyone with good sense knows I ain’t no swindler!”
Betty’s voice didn’t rise even a little as she thumbed her chin as though in deep thought and spoke with inhuman cool, “If you ain’t no swindler, Crooked Tom, then tell me why you’re charging the Barnette Ranch ten percent more for our grain?”
Old Tom cocked an eyebrow and pinched his crooked nose. “Prices gone up.”
Betty shook her head at the pitiful lie. Plainly, he hadn’t expected her to know his price was inflated. She looked directly into his eyes. “The Arnold Ranch out east pays you thirty-eight. The Franklins pay you an even thirty-four. My father paid you forty, and I happened to keep to that bargain.”
He raised a finger as though to object, but Betty cut cleanly through.
“Seamus Golden tells me he can get me better grain for thirty-two, and I’m minded to hear him out. If you insist on charging us forty-three, you can keep your grain. We’ll take our business elsewhere and you can try to hang on to your other two customers. Everyone knows this town buys where the Barnettes buy.”
Old Crooked Tom bunched up his fists, obviously seething with rage but dared not say a word in anger. Any half-decent trader knew there was a time for silence in the face of a knowing customer.
He sucked in a contemplative breath and straightened. When he spoke again, his voice was softer than a pigeon feather. “Forty-three, goodness me. That must be some terrible mistake. We would never charge the Barnettes quite so much,” he said with a sudden smile. “Thirty-two, that’s our rate now. I’ll have my boy work out the difference and have your grain delivered tomorrow morning.”
Betty let the moment linger, knowing that this wasn’t a moment for hasty acceptance. She had to let Old Tom stew in his defeat a little, so he knew not to try swindling her again. She recalled her father’s words: You make him wait.
Men like Old Crooked Tom would have you for your mother’s last penny if you let them.
At last, she raised her chin and nodded. “Tomorrow morning,” she agreed, and she left the stable without a backward glance.
It took only a few moments for Jorge to appear at her side. “Was that all true? About the Arnold Ranch and Seamus Golden?”
Betty touched her nose and gave a devilish smile. “Partly true.”
Jorge rumbled with a low laugh. “People said your father struck a hard bargain, but it was your mother who really kept the business ticking along. I have a feeling you might be tougher than them both.”
Betty glanced over her shoulder at him. “I should hope so. Harvest is just three months away and coming fast. This town just can’t wait to see me fail at running a ranch.”
Jorge gave her a wide, fatherly smile. “You won’t fail. You’re a Barnette.”
Betty formed a thin line with her lips and nodded. The only Barnette left.
She glanced back toward the beehives, forty straw skeps arranged in long parallel lines. The bees, along with the large herd of cows on the other side of the property, were the lifeblood of the Barnette Ranch. The best honey and dairy on either side of the Mississippi. The Barnette Ranch rested on two thousand hundred acres of the finest pastures in Cody, Wyoming, with river frontage to the east, thick foliage on the west, and watching mountains by the south. That was the legacy Betty had inherited, and it was the legacy she intended to protect. No one will take the Barnette Ranch from me.
Cody, Wyoming, 1871
Arthur woke with a start. For a moment, he struggled to remember where he was before it all came flooding back to him. A new home in a new town. A fresh start.
He stared out into the full darkness of what was now his bedroom. It was the sort of thing that no one should ever get used to, waking up to the sound of your own gasping breaths. But Arthur had become a veteran of nights such as these. Sleep, for him, was no longer a time of rest.
He hissed out a breath, sat up, and stepped out of bed. The dressing table in front of him had two items on it. On the right side of the table was the glistening steel of his single action revolver, the cleanest thing in the house. On the left side of the table was a half-empty bottle of Old Crew whiskey, beautiful in its own peculiar way. Arthur drew in breath, stepped over to the table, and snatched up the whiskey. He winced at the sharp pang of liquor as he took down his first gulp. He sniffed, set down the bottle, and stared into the mirror. A dark, jagged scar stretched from his collar bone to his chest—a memento from his time in a vicious war that had left him with nothing but scars in body and mind.
No one tells you that before they give you your uniform; there are no real victories in war, only tragedies. He had come to Wyoming hoping to run from his past but somehow, some way, it was finding a way to follow him. By some stroke of ill luck, one of the men he most wanted to avoid seemed to have set up several businesses in Cody. By the time he’d realized, Arthur had already put down payment for the house.
He glanced up at the ceiling. At least this house is solid. Built with steady hands, perseverance, and assured passion for housebuilding.
He took one last gulp of whiskey, draining the bottle almost to the dregs. Why did I come here? The answer came like an unwelcome guest. Because that’s what you do. You let people down and move on.
He brushed the bottle aside and darted out his bedroom door. It would still be a while before the sun rose, but there was no sense in hoping for more sleep. Once his sleep was broken, there could be no putting it back together again.
He buttoned up his plaid shirt as he stepped outside.
His saddle horse, a black coldblood he called Bucky, was hitched to a wooden post. Arthur long believed that Bucky was the only beautiful thing left in his life. Sixteen-and-a-half-hands tall with all the gentle breeding and easy speed of a thoroughbred. His one and only friend.
Almost as soon as he touched the horse’s reins, Bucky gave a snort of earnest anticipation. “That’s my boy,” Arthur whispered as he mounted.
With a deft prod of his heel, he directed the horse toward the southernmost part of the town where he was sure to find at least one establishment willing to serve him a drink.
He moved at a gentle trot, studying the night with all the eager patience of a cat in a dog alley. He could make out most of the buildings: Wilson’s Bank, Wilson’s Convenience Store, the Grand Wilson Hotel. New construction was everywhere and even the established buildings still had spritely façades. The West was a new frontier in American endeavor and Cody, Wyoming was no exception.
Walter Wilson seemed to own everything in Cody. It unnerved him to see the man’s name so often.
It was a quiet town for the most part, but this hour of the night brought out all sorts of characters. His hand rested gently at his hip even as he rode, primed for retaliatory violence if the need should ever arise.
He came at last to a weather-beaten shack of a building that had the look of a place that would fall apart under a strong breeze. The signpost in front of the building had the words “The White Bull Saloon” painted in dark cursive.
The sound of a piano playing could be heard from inside as he dismounted Bucky and hitched his reins to the low-lying signpost. He shuffled around the building, past the illuminated stained-glass window, until he came at last to a pair of swinging doors.
It was almost completely empty inside, save for a small balding man playing the piano in the corner, a wide-hipped, bright-eyed woman polishing glass behind the bar, and two drinking patrons huddled close in a booth at the far end of the saloon.
He stepped up to the bar and settled unto a barstool beside the counter. The woman behind the bar perked up at the sound of his chair scraping across the floor.
Arthur inclined his head. “Good evening, ma’am.”
The bartender gave him a wide, ingratiating smile. “Well, well, well. Aren’t you a handsome one. What can I get you?”
“Whiskey, if you have it. White gin if you don’t.”
“Whiskey coming right up,” she said, pulled out a full bottle and pouring a generous measure.
“Thank you,” Arthur said, as she slid his drink easily across the counter to him.
“It’s on the house,” the bartender said with a smile.
Arthur snorted. “I didn’t think I was that handsome,” he quipped. “Thank you.”
The bartender shook her head. “Don’t thank me, thank him,” she said, pointing.
Arthur glanced over his shoulder and came face-to-face with the one man he had hoped to avoid. Short, shaped like a cookpot, with a ring on each finger. Walter Wilson.
“Arthur Ledoux,” Wilson said, “what a pleasant surprise to see you here.”
His voice was that of a serpent with a dry throat, soft and scratching in a way that made Arthur immediately uncomfortable.
He drained his glass in a single gulp and set it back on the counter. “I was just leaving,” he said, rising to go.
“Nonsense,” Wilson said placing a hand on his shoulder, “you just got here.”
“And now I’m just leaving,” Arthur said, shrugging Wilson’s hand off.
Wilson didn’t step aside, instead he glanced over to the bartender. “Mae, pour my good friend Arthur here another drink, would you please. I think he’s going to want to listen to the story I have to tell about his sister down in Kansas.”
Wilson wore a teasing smirk that Arthur had a good mind to wipe clean off his face with an open-palmed slap. He gritted his teeth and let out a slow breath, then pulled Wilson close. “What are you saying about my sister?”
Wilson raised his hands in feigned innocence. “Nothing yet. I hear she’s doing quite well, in fact. Married into a very wealthy family. Imagine that. I wonder if her new family ever heard about what she was doing a few years ago. At an establishment just like this one—what was it called, Arthur? You remember.”
Arthur’s stomach lurched as his hands balled up into ready fists. He could feel his heartbeat quicken in his chest as Wilson’s words sunk in.
“They must be a very forgiving family to know all that and still accept her as their daughter-in-law.”
“Stop it,” Arthur whispered.
Wilson feigned ignorance. “I’m not doing anything at all. What was her name again? I can’t recall.”
“Sabrina,” Arthur hissed.
“Ah yes, Sabrina the saloon girl. That was it.”
“She’s doing well now. She doesn’t deserve any more trouble in her life.”
“To that, I most heartily agree,” Wilson said, raising his glass as though in a toast
“If you think—”
. “You are in no position to make threats to the likes of me, Ledoux. No position at all,” Wilson said. “Now, calm down, have another drink, and let’s talk.”
He placed a hand on Arthur’s shoulder and for a moment, it felt like all the weight of the world rested on him. “You used to be a rancher down in Kansas, didn’t you?”
“What of it?” Arthur snapped.
Wilson leaned in close and whispered, “I think you’re going to want to hear what I have to say, Arthur.”
Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose and let out a heavy breath. The bartender’s eyes seemed suddenly not quite as bright as before as he slumped, defeated, into the barstool. He looked up at her and there seemed to be genuine sympathy in her eyes.
He steadied himself and drew in a breath. “I’ll have another whiskey, please.”
Wilson’s mouth curled into a smile. “That’s my boy.”
“His Pure Heart’s Disguise” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Betty Barnette has never been one to shy away from a challenge, always pushing herself to the limit. After her parents’ tragic death, she is expected to find a husband to manage the family ranch and their precious beehives. Determined to run things her way, Betty rejects all the suitors in town, and vows not to let anyone take her ranch. However, when Arthur, an expert beekeeper, unexpectedly provides his assistance, she gets suspicious about his true intentions…
Could her bond with Arthur be too good to be true?
Arthur Ledoux has a troubled past he wants to bury, but out in the West, the past never stays hidden. When he is blackmailed into stealing Betty’s ranch, Arthur has no choice but to do the dirty work. Unfortunately, his guilt will make the situation worse and force him into a dilemma that could only have tragic consequences…
How will Arthur manage to break free from this overwhelming situation?
When Arthur and Betty’s paths cross, they soon discover that not every promise can be kept and that love has a habit of ignoring well-made plans. Faced with outlaws and scheming competitors on every side, Arthur and Betty must uncover wicked secrets and confront their mounting feelings for one another. Will they be able to build a new life amidst the perils of a wild world or is it too late for them?
“His Pure Heart’s Disguise” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.