Texas, April 1846
Riding hard into the ranch yard, the rider jerked the horse to a stop in front of the ranch house. Opening the door, Joseph hurried across the porch and down the steps. The wind blew the Stetson off his head and across the yard. Ignoring the hat, he rushed to the man in the saddle. The horse was lathered and snorting from the hard ride.
“What is it Slim. What’s happening?”
“Mr. Joe, you’d better come quick! The men were trying to get a piece of that black rock for the fireplace hearth like you told them and then this here storm came up sudden. One of the men walked up and disappeared inside of that stone!”
“What are you talking about? Have you lost your mind, man?”
“No, sir, I ain’t. I’m telling it just like I seen it. You need to come right now.”
“Okay, saddle my horse. I’ll be right there.”
Joseph raced for his hat as it continued to dance across the hard earth. Retrieving it, he planted it firmly on top of his head and hurried into the house. He returned shortly, carrying a shotgun in the crook of his arm. Mounting the horse Slim led from the stable, he rode fast across the green pasture, heading towards the black rock from which the ranch had taken its name.
Increasing in intensity, the ferocity of the storm nearly knocked them off their feet as they dismounted. Dazed, the crowd of men stood and stared at the monstrous black rock. Huge ebony clouds swirled overhead, making the day almost as dark as night. Joseph wondered if a twister was coming, but dismissed the idea. The air just didn’t feel right for a twister. Lightening flashed and concentrated itself directly overhead the great stone.
As Joseph watched, one of the ranch hands approached the stone and reached out to touch it. Joseph yelled into the wind for the man to stay back, but he either didn’t hear or couldn’t resist the pull of the rock. Joseph and the other men stared in horror, as the man was swallowed up and disappeared.
The black clouds were suddenly whisked away, replaced by the blue sky and soft breeze of a sunny April day. Silent and unmoving, the men tried to understand what had happened. Joseph shook his blonde head to dispel the fog that seemed to have settled there.
“Get that hunk of rock for the fireplace back to the ranch! And boys, I don’t want any of you coming near this stone in the future. Is that clear?”
Looking in terror at the black monster that had just devoured two of their companions, they readily agreed to never come near the place.
Joseph mounted his horse and rode slowly back toward the house, still not believing what he’d seen. Suddenly, he couldn’t wait to get home and discuss this horrible occurrence with the one person who could ease his mind, his wife, Martha. Kicking the horse to a run, he rode hard to the house. Dismounting, he tied the horse to the porch rail with shaking hands and ran into the house.
“Martha! Martha, where are you?” Joseph ran from room to room, frantically looking for her.
“Joe? What’s happened?” Martha rushed down the stairs. She’d never seen Joseph so upset.
“Martha, a horrible thing has happened.” Taking her arm he led her to the sitting room and pushed her onto the sofa.
“What, Joe? Tell me!” Her face pale, Martha clenched her hands in her lap, afraid of what he was going to say.
“I lost some men.” Joseph swallowed hard, not quite knowing how to tell her. “Honey, I know this will sound crazy, but two of my men disappeared into that big black rock.”
“Joseph! Land sakes, you scared me half to death. I thought something serious had happened. I ought to skin you alive, coming in here and telling me such a tale.”
“Look at me, Martha. Do I look like I’m joking? I’m dead serious. The rock just sort of dissolved and the men went right inside it and disappeared. I don’t understand it, but I’m telling you the truth.”
Martha eyed him doubtfully for a moment before deciding she’d better hear him out.
“Tell me everything.”
Joseph told her all he knew and Martha said it was best to try and keep it as quiet as possible.
“We don’t want people coming around here asking questions and accusing us of unthinkable things, Joe. It could cause us all kinds of trouble. So, don’t be saying anything to anyone and tell Slim to keep quiet.”
“What about the men? They saw too.”
“A few ranch hands may talk about it, but everyone will just assume they’d been hitting the spirits a little too hard. As long as we keep quiet, no one will think much of it. It’s for the best, Joe.”
“You’re right. We’ll keep it quiet.”
Joseph lost several good hands that day, in addition to the two who had disappeared inside the stone. The men refused to stay and work the ranch, saying it was cursed by the stone of the devil. Joseph didn’t blame them and although it had been a terrible sight to see the men disappear, he hoped it had more to do with God than the devil. Only time would tell.
Excited chatter filled the large hall as the girls waited expectantly for their names to be called. In a couple of weeks, school would end for the older girls and they looked forward to letters from home with train tickets and schedules. Roxanne waited patiently, not expecting a letter, but hopeful of receiving train tickets back home. She couldn’t wait to get back to the ranch. While waiting, her mind wandered back to her last days at Black Rock Ranch.
She was only ten the cold November day they laid her mother to rest. Her woolen dress tangled about her body as the rain came down in torrents, stinging her pale cheeks. She couldn’t believe her mother was gone and kept wishing it to be a nightmare she’d eventually awake from. The one person, who could offer comfort was out of his mind with grief and seemed to have forgotten his only child’s existence.
Glancing toward the horizon, Roxanne stared at the huge black stone that jutted out of the depths of the earth. Her father had taken her there on horseback once when she was a tiny child. He’d warned her to never go near the massive stone.
“Roxy, I don’t want you to ever come here to this place. I’m giving you a warning because to come here could cause you to be lost forever. It’s a curse, child. Do you understand?”
Roxanne had nodded solemnly, but she didn’t understand how something so grand and beautiful could make her lost. Black and as smooth as marble, the silver flecks embe dded in the stone shined like diamonds in the sun.
Her Papa told her that when his father had first come to Texas and settled this land, he’d sent some of his ranch hands to carve a piece of the stone for the fireplace hearth.
“And that’s why the ranch is called Black Rock, right?”
“That’s right, honey.”
“But, Papa, didn’t the men get lost trying to get the stone?”
“Yes, child, some of them did and were never found. Now, you heed my warning.”
Roxanne nodded again, “I will papa. I don’t want to get lost.”
Staring at the rock, as they lowered her mother into the earth, Roxanne wished she could go there and be lost forever. She looked over at her papa, wishing he would put his arms around her and hold her close.
Grief stricken, Jacob didn’t know how he’d go on without his beloved Opal. Named for the beautiful gemstone, she had been the crowning jewel of his life. Everything he did, he did for her. They had fallen in love at first sight and that love had grown richer and deeper year after year.
Opal had wanted to fill the big ranch house with children, but after ten years of marriage they had given up hope, when Roxanne suddenly came to them. It seemed a miracle and Opal often said that Roxy was a gift from God. When Opal became ill with influenza and feared she would not recover, she’d begged Jacob to send Roxanne far away to school.
“It’s a hard a thing I ask of you, Jacob, I know.” She smiled sadly up at him. “I want Roxy safe from that stone.” She shook her head at him as he started to interrupt.
“No, Jacob, I know what you’re thinking. You think you can keep her safe, but you’re a busy man trying to run this ranch. I won’t be here, Jacob, and Roxy will be left by herself much of the time. If you don’t do as I say, you may lose her forever. Promise me you’ll send her away. It’s the only way to keep her safe.”
Crying sadly, Jacob agreed. “I’ll do as you ask, my love, if it ever comes to that, but it won’t.”
Jacob was wrong, Opal did not recover and he knew he’d have to keep his promise to send his only child far away from him. It broke his heart to make the arrangements with a school in Boston.
A few months after the funeral, Roxanne learned that she was to leave Black Rock and go to a school in the northeast.
“No, Papa, I don’t want to leave. Why must I go away to school? I want to stay with you, Papa. Please, don’t make me go.”
“You must go, Roxy. I can’t run a thousand acre ranch and watch after a little girl. In Boston, you’ll get the proper schooling and learn to be a lady as your mother wanted. She’s gone now, child, and not here to look out for you. You’ll have to be brave and do as I say. I love you, my darlin’, and must do what’s best for you.”
Knowing that his small daughter would have a long journey, first by coach and then by train, he left the ranch in the hands of old Slim, who’d come to Texas with his father. Jacob would escort Roxanne to Boston where someone from the school would meet them.
Although glad to have her father’s company for the long trip, Roxanne was deeply saddened by the prospect of not seeing him or the ranch again for a long time.
When they arrived at the station in Boston they were met by a plump young woman with hair the color of a pumpkin. Roxanne had never seen such hair and could not keep from staring.
“So, missy, what ya be starin’ at? My name be Maggie and I’ll be a takin’ ya to the school. How do, Mr. Ingram, I’m pleased to meet ya and yer little daughter.” Taking Roxanne by the hand, she started off down the street. “Come along now, I got work a waitin’ fer me. I have a buggy just down here a ways.”
Roxanne hurried along to keep up with the woman’s fast pace. She’d never heard so much noise or saw so many people in one place. Everyone seemed to be in such a hurry to be somewhere. Roxanne wished the woman would walk slower. She wanted time to see everything about this big, bustling city. The buildings were so close together and so tall. She wondered if she’d be able to touch a cloud from the roof of one of them.
When they reached the school, Jacob met with the headmistress and got Roxanne settled into her room. As one of the younger girls, she’d be sharing a room with three other students. Roxanne liked the large, cozy room, but she only wanted to be home in her own bedroom. When it was time to say goodbye, Jacob and Roxanne clung to each other and cried.
“I love you, my sweet girl, now try to be brave and study hard. When the time is right, we will be together again.” Jacob’s voice broke--he had a lump in his throat that just wouldn’t stay down.
Seeing her father cry, Roxanne knew that she’d have to be brave and not beg anymore. “It’s okay, Papa, I’ll be good and I will write you lots of letters. I love you, Papa. I love you.”
After her father left, Roxanne sat on her bed and tried not to cry. One of the girls sharing the room came up and sat next to her.
“Hi, I’m Rebecca, but you may call me Becky. Roxanne looked at the other girl who appeared about her age and had soft brown hair and eyes. She smiled sweetly at Roxanne. “We’ll be best friends, shall we?”
Roxanne smiled at Becky through her tears. “I’m Roxanne, and I would like that very much.”
So lost in her memories, Roxanne never heard her name called.
“Roxy, your mail, go get your mail. Are you dreaming?” Rebecca, her dearest friend, shoved her and laughed.
Roxanne moved up the line of girls and took the letter with trembling hands. Although she didn’t expect a letter from home, she was still disappointed to see that the letter wasn’t from her father. It was from his solicitor. She took the letter to her room to read, thinking it would contain her train tickets home. It did contain tickets, but a wave of dizziness swept over her as she read the opening lines of the brief letter.
Dear Miss Ingram,
I regret to inform you that your father, Jacob William Ingram, had an accident while out rounding up the spring calves and was killed instantly. I pray it is of some comfort to know that he did not suffer unduly. My profound sympathy is conveyed to you by way of this post. Enclosed you will find the train tickets to bear you home as you are now the sole owner of Black Rock Ranch and all entitlements there of.
Henry R. Ramsdell
Roxanne sank onto the bed as the letter slipped from her hands to the floor. It had been so long since she’d heard her papa’s voice or seen his dear face and now to never do so again seemed more than she could stand.
Rebecca came into the room with a happy smile on her face. Seeing Roxanne’s tears, she ran to sit beside her and put her arms around her friend.
“What is it? What has happened?”
Through her tears, Roxanne pointed to the letter on the floor. After reading the letter, Rebecca held Roxanne close, “I’m so sorry, my dear, I’m so sorry.” She held onto her friend as Roxanne cried.
The next several days passed in a whirl, as all of Roxanne’s things were packed and made ready for the trip home.
At the train station, Rebecca hugged her friend tightly, “I shall miss you so much, Roxy.”
Roxanne clung to her friend for a moment before pulling back. “I will miss you too, Becky. You have been such a good friend to me all these years. It seems a strange thing. I arrived at this station ten years ago as a sad little girl in black and I am back today as a sad young woman in black.”
Becky hugged her again quickly, “Don’t think like that. You’re going home to your beloved ranch and with time, the pain will become easier to bear. Now, give me a smile before you board.”
Roxanne gave her a weak smile, then climbed the steps to board the train. She found her seat and waved out the window to Becky as the train began to pull away.
Roxanne wasn’t looking forward to such a long and tedious trip. She knew there would be many stops at stations along the way for food and lodging and when she finally reached home, Papa would not be there.
A woman and her young son occupied the seat across from her own. The woman’s bright green dress and matching hat adorned with brightly colored feathers made Roxanne feel like a drab little black bird in her black dress and hat.
The woman introduced herself as Susan Wilson. She chatted gaily of returning to her husband in Texas after spending several months with family in Boston. Thomas, the little boy, remained quiet and gave Roxanne a shy smile.
She was happy to listen to Susan’s chatter and pleased with the thought of her company on the long trip. Susan expressed her sincere sympathy upon learning of Roxanne’s loss and assured her that she and little Thomas would do their best to keep her spirits up.
“We’ll not let you dwell on your sorrow and will keep you cheerfully occupied on this journey,” she smiled brightly at Roxanne.
“Thank you, Susan, having you and Thomas for company will make for a fine trip, I’m sure. Please, go on about your home in Texas. Tell me all about it and your husband and friends.”
Susan was more than happy to oblige and gaily chattered away. Telling Roxanne of their little whitewashed house with the porch all across the front and the roses her husband, Thomas Sr., had planted by the steps for her.
Roxanne leaned back and relaxed as she listened to Susan’s happy voice. This trip will not be as bad as I had feared, she thought, as her eyes drifted shut and she slept for the first time since receiving the letter from Mr. Ramsdell.
It had been a long journey, but would soon be over. Roxanne’s heart raced with excitement when they finally entered the state of Texas. She’d soon be home and wondered how much it had changed in the ten years since she’d last seen it.
She hoped the house would be the same as she remembered. It would be a sad and lonely thing to live there without her parents. Roxanne also knew it would be a great comfort and she’d feel their presence in every room.
She wished the journey behind her and looked out the window at the new spring grass turning the low hills a lovely shade of pale green. Home was a wonderful thing and she’d been gone too long from hers.
Gunfire shattered her thoughts. All the passengers tried to see what was happening and she heard several people shout, “It’s a hold up, they’re gonna rob the train!”
Susan took off her wedding ring and lifting her long skirt and petticoats, stuffed the ring into her garter. “If you have anything of value, dear, you’d better hide it away.”
Roxanne grabbed hold of the gold locket she’d worn her entire life and put it inside the front of her bodice out of sight. The train slowed and everyone muttered noisily to each other, some fearful of being hurt or killed—others only annoyed by the delay.
As the train came to a stop, two men entered the passenger car. They were dressed as her father’s ranch hands had always dressed. The wool pants they wore covered with leather chaps and their shirts faded until you couldn’t tell what color they had once been. Looking even more faded because of the bright red kerchiefs that were tied about their necks
She was surprised they weren’t covering their faces with them as she’d seen in the dime novels she and the other girls had hidden in their rooms to read at night.
Both outlaws were tall and muscular, one blonde, one dark. The blonde one stayed at the end of the car with his rifle pointed at the passengers. The other hurried down the aisle, demanding that all money and jewelry be put into his Stetson.
“Do you think it’s Tom Ketchum, Mama?” Thomas whispered to his mother.
“I don’t know, Thomas, but you hush now.” Susan was terrified and having a very hard time not showing that fear to her son.
Roxanne didn’t care if it was the famous outlaw or some other gang. She only prayed they’d take what they wanted and leave all the passengers unharmed. The dark outlaw stopped in front of Susan and she dropped her little beaded coin purse into the hat.
“I’ll take them earbobs too.” Susan jumped when the man spoke to her.
With trembling hands she removed the jewelry and dropped them into the hat. The man grabbed her hands and not seeing any other jewelry, moved on to Roxanne.
She wasn’t going to give the man the brown leather coin purse her papa had given her all those years ago when she’d left for Boston. Earlier, when they’d stopped at a station, she’d dropped a couple of paper bills into her silk drawstring bag. Now she removed the money and dropped it into the hat.
The man didn’t move on and Roxanne looked up into the blackest eyes she’d ever seen. Totally devoid of any emotion, they seemed to look straight into her soul. She had to bite her lip to still its trembling.
Reaching with a rough hand, the man smoothed a stray curl from off her forehead. Unable to look away from his eyes, Roxanne began to tremble.
“We don’t have time for that,” the other man called out.
Ignoring the other robber, he moved his hand along her jaw line to cup her chin. Forcing her head up, he lowered his lips to hers.
Gasping, Roxanne’s lips parted in shock as his warm dry lips settled firmly on hers. Taking advantage of her surprise, his tongue plunged into the warmth of her open mouth.
Roxanne began to struggle, raising her hand to push him away. Capturing her hand, he pushed it against the front of his pants. Bile rose in her throat and she felt faint.
Jumping wildly when the blast of a gun being discharged echoed through the passenger car, Roxanne pushed farther back into the seat. Releasing her, the man turned his cold eyes on his partner.
“I told you we don’t have time for that, damn it. Now come on before I have to shoot the little lady.”
Looking at Roxanne one last time, the man hesitated and then moved on down the aisle.
The passengers gave a collective sigh of relief that none of them had been harmed as they watched the four horsemen riding fast, away from the train.
The other two robbers had been inside the engine keeping the men there at gunpoint. The conductor had been hit over the head, but was coming around. No one was killed and everyone was thankful as the train gained speed.
Reaching across the seat, Susan placed her hand on Roxanne’s and squeezed gently.
“I’m so sorry, my dear. Are you all right?”
“Yes, of course. I’m just grateful his partner was in a hurry and glad it’s over. I’m more anxious than ever to be home.” Roxanne tried to still her trembling.
“Yes, I think we’ll all be glad to see the end of this trip.”
Coming soon from The Wild Rose Press
Copyright E. G. Parsons
Unedited: may vary from final version