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Kaitlyn Miller was glad she’d gotten here early. She liked to check out job locations beforehand, and the town of Last Stand, Texas, was proving well worth the time. She could see she’d be breaking out her camera equipment long before the actual assignment that had sent her here began. The job didn’t start until Wednesday—probably because Jillian, her self-appointed boss, needed the time to sober up from a no doubt hellacious New Year’s weekend—so she had a couple of days to soak up the atmosphere.
Jillian Jacobs would laugh at the very idea of a town this small having atmosphere at all; she’d lived years in New York City, and that was her idea of atmosphere. Kaitlyn agreed with what her father used to say about big cities, that you didn’t really live longer there, it just seemed that way.
Kaitlyn had spent her childhood—the idyllic time before the storm—in a town even smaller than this. And she’d never gotten over missing it. She knew intellectually that it was the time of innocence and peace she was really missing, but her heart wasn’t having any of that logic. She simply always felt the pressure ease when she got out of downtown Austin and into the places that felt more like home to her, more like the Texas she knew and loved.
Last Stand was exactly the kind of place she thought of when she started feeling crushed in the city. The kind of place she’d love to live in again. And as soon as she got out of the financial hole she was in, she would. That the hole was not of her digging didn’t make it any easier, however.
She parked the car she’d rented on Jillian’s instructions—the woman didn’t just want the big luxury sedan, she’d wanted it in a particular shade of green—on Main Street in front of a bakery called Kolaches where another, nearly new model of her own personal, tired compact SUV was just pulling out. The driver, a woman with pale blonde hair—a color as eye-catching as her own blah medium brown was overlookable—and a wide smile waved at her as she freed up the space.
And that, she thought as she got out of the car, was what she missed amid the hustle and bustle of the city. Among many other things.
However, taking this parking space might have been a mistake. She’d just caught a whiff of luscious, irresistible scent coming out of the bakery. It smelled sweet and felt warm and was a greater lure than she could resist. It was an indulgence she usually wouldn’t allow herself, but one more deep breath of the aroma and her willpower crumbled.
One luscious cinnamon roll later she was walking down Main Street, looking at everything, her smile widening at the homey rightness of it with every step. She found herself grinning at the western wear store named Yippee Ki Yay, then looked across the street at the elegant Carriage House and the adjacent patio with tables and umbrellas. Then her gaze snagged on the statue in front of the library up ahead. Always curious about such things she headed that way.
She hadn’t realized the name of the town stemmed from an actual battle. The date and a paragraph summary were on the plaque on the base of the statue. Kaitlyn wondered if there was a full history somewhere in the big, two-story stone library. She would bet yes; it was too interesting a story not to be told in depth.
The name on the statue’s plaque, Asa Fuhrmann, reminded her of the German heritage of this area. But the story beneath the name made her think of heroism everywhere. Making a desperate run for ammo for the locals holed up in the only stone building around, the saloon, fighting despite the odds, definitely qualified. She found herself letting out a sad breath when she read that the wound he’d suffered in the process turned out to be fatal. She hoped he’d hung on long enough to know they’d won. Thanks to him.
And speaking of heroism, according to the second, smaller plaque next to a spot where a sizeable chunk had been gouged out of the statue’s pedestal, more had occurred on this very spot. Last Stand’s police chief apparently had the same kind of nerve the man immortalized here in bronze did. And she smiled at that.
We grow them tough in Texas.
She walked to the saloon, which was not yet open, and read the more detailed history of the battle there and stared in amazement at the bullet holes still visible in the stone walls of the building. She was definitely going to check out the library. She saw the coffee shop in the next block but decided her wallet couldn’t handle both an expensive concoction and the cinnamon roll. No, convenience store coffee was going to be the best she could manage.
She headed back the way she had come, pausing again to look at the front wall of the saloon, wondering if that really was some kind of bullet lodged at the bottom of one of those holes in the stone. And wondering how she herself would hold up in such a situation. Considering how’d she’d done amid the chaos her life had become when her childhood had come to such an abrupt end, she guessed not so good. If it hadn’t been for Nick…
She stopped in front of the western wear store with the smile-inducing name. And saw something she’d missed the first time. A placard in the window, indicating they had a few one-of-a-kind belts by local craftsman Rylan Rafferty back in stock.
Local craftsman. A rather mundane appellation for the kind of artistry she’d encountered in Austin a couple of months ago as she killed time waiting for her highness to arrive. She’d seen the saddle Rafferty had made for the former governor on display. When the assignment for this article came up, she’d recognized the subject and had accepted immediately, even if it meant working with Jillian again.
She glanced at her heavy watch and saw it was a little after nine. A chronograph, her engineer father had called the timepiece, and she wore it to honor him. It was a bit early to check into her room at a local B&B. She noted the store would open at ten. But the library was open now, so she turned around and headed back that way.
She was admiring the texture and solidity of the stone building, wondering when it had been built, when she reached the front door. Belatedly she realized someone was there, holding the door for her.
“Thank you,” she said, stepping through quickly. Even at five foot eight she had to tilt her head back to meet the man’s gaze. Deep blue eyes, shadowed by the brim of his dark gray cowboy hat, studied her rather intently for a stranger. But she had noticed the badge clipped to his belt, so assumed it was nothing more than his job. Just as it registered that he looked vaguely familiar, he nodded, tipped the brim of the hat to her in classic hat-etiquette fashion, and started to exit.
“See you tonight, Chief!”
The cheerful farewell from the woman just inside sounded rather teasing. She saw the man look back at the woman and roll his eyes. But he was smiling. Then what she’d said registered. He seemed young for that job, but he sure fit the bill for storybook handsome hero. And the hero part truly fit, if he was the man named on the second plaque out front.
“Chief?” she said to the woman inside as the door closed behind him.
The young woman had long, medium-brown hair close to her own shade, but with a rather startling bright red streak down one side that belied her staid attire of a businesslike white blouse and black skirt. She smiled, a warm, genuine smile. “Also my brother-in-law, so I get to rag on him. Welcome to the Last Stand library. I’m Joella Highwater. Looking for anything in particular?”
Highwater. The name on the plaque. Which answered her question; the man was the hero in question.
Kaitlyn gestured back out toward the statue. “The whole story behind that,” she said. “I assume you have something?”
The woman’s smile widened. “Oh, do we ever. In fact, you just passed part of it.”
“Part of the story?”
“His family was part of the last stand.”
She blinked. “Wow. And still here?”
“Lots of the descendants of the original fighters are. The Highwaters, the Herdmanns, the Raffertys, the—”
The woman nodded. “Also one of the founding families, and they still live on their ranch a ways out of town.”
It wasn’t that common a name—it had to be the same family. And they were supposed to go to his studio, on a ranch nearby. “Is that…Rylan Rafferty’s family?”
“Yes, it is,” she answered. “You know him?”
“Only his work. I’m here to help do a story on him for Texas Artworks.”
“I heard about that. I was surprised he agreed to it. He usually avoids the limelight.”
Kaitlyn smiled at the oddity of that in this day and age of revolving fifteen minutes of fame. It was another reason she’d agreed to come do the shoot for the article, to meet an artist who didn’t want publicity. “Rumor has it someone in Austin put in a call to suggest it to the magazine, and the magazine in turn dropped that name when they contacted him.”
“Ah. A little famous person pressure. The former gov, maybe. Rylan likes the guy, and not just because he was a real boost to his career.”
And she liked this woman, Kaitlyn decided. Friendly yet professional, and that crayon-red streak in her hair suggested she wasn’t the stereotypical librarian. She led Kaitlyn to the library wall just inside the front doors, where there were three shelves labeled “Local Interest.” Along with tourist guides and biographies of famous people from the town there were paper copies of what appeared to be the local paper, titled The Defender, which she supposed hearkened back to the battle the statue commemorated. The next two shelves were full of history books both old and new, first shelf Last Stand, second shelf Texas.
“If you want the most concise history of what happened at the last stand, this is your best bet,” Joella said, pulling out a slim volume bound with a cover that was a facsimile of the famous Lone Star flag. “It covers only Last Stand and was co-written by one of our history teachers at the high school, whose family was also there. Her co-writer was Shane’s—the current chief you just met—father, who was also our police chief before his death, and a very knowledgeable history buff as well.”
Kaitlyn hesitated about offering commiseration on the death, but it didn’t seem expected and might be out of place under the circumstances, so she didn’t.
“Now, if you prefer your learning live,” Joella went on, “and since you’ll be out at the ranch anyway I assume?” Kaitlyn nodded. “Then you’ve got a built-in source for all the history you could want. In fact, if you want every little detail of what happened here, Maggie Rafferty, Ry’s mom, is the one to ask. She knows our history inside and out.”
“Good to know,” Kaitlyn answered with a smile. “Thanks.”
“I’ll leave you to it, then.”
The book was quite readable and infused with the great respect the authors had obviously felt for their town’s history. Occurring between the Alamo and San Jacinto, chronologically if not geographically, it had happened when a wandering contingent of Santa Anna’s troops had decided to widen their reach and take the little outpost, which at the time consisted of a blacksmith, a trading post, and the saloon. The saloon being the only structure offering any chance of survival—by then the locals knew about the slaughter of the defenders at the Alamo—those who could get there holed up in the stone building and made their stand. Thanks to the likes of Asa Fuhrmann, and those other names Joella had mentioned, including the Raffertys, those Texian fighters had held out long enough that the far bigger and better-armed troop decided the small outpost wasn’t worth any more lives. And after winning, those fighters had decided to stay and make lives on the ground they’d fought for.
It was the kind of history that made her proud to be a Texan.
It was the kind of history that made her sometimes doubt if she was up to the standard.
End of Excerpt