Book Excerpt

"Christmas Moon"

by Elizabeth Lane

Excerpt from "Christmas Moon"

From THE CHEYENNE DAILY LEADER, February 21, 1872

On the night of February 17 of this year, J.D. McNulty, once counted among Wyoming’s greatest lawmen, was shot dead by a gambler in a quarrel over a card game.

The incident occurred at Glory Gulch, a played-out gold mining camp located in the Wind River Mountains above South Pass City. According to witnesses, McNulty was seated at a table in the Laughing Lady Saloon, playing poker with a gambler named Virgil Pomeroy, a traveling photographer named Asa Smith and two local miners. An hour into the game McNulty, who was unarmed at the time, accused Pomeroy of using a holdout. After an angry exchange of words, the gambler drew a derringer from his vest and fired two shots. The first bullet wounded McNulty in the shoulder. The second toppled him backward onto the floor where he expired in the arms of an unidentified saloon girl. He was 44 years old at the time of his death.

Pomeroy fled on a stolen horse after the shooting. His present whereabouts is unknown.

J.D. McNulty was appointed deputy sheriff of Fremont County in 1868. Subsequently, he served as Marshal in Cheyenne and later in Laramie, where he single-handedly dispatched the murderous Cleary gang in Wyoming’s most famous gunfight.
His body was taken by wagon to South Pass City for burial, there being no level ground for a cemetery in Glory Gulch.
Mr. Asa Smith, a witness to the shooting, photographed McNulty’s body laid out in its coffin. For those wishing to pay their respects, the picture will be on display for the next 30 days in the front window of this newspaper office.

Cletis Morgan, Reporter

South Pass City, Wyoming

December 24, 2010 Emma Carlyle was on the trail of a man. A man who’d been dead for more than a hundred years.

Here, in the old mining town where he was buried, lay her last hope of learning his secrets.

Emma’s‘95 Subaru wagon fishtailed as she swung into the icy parking lot and pulled up next to a gritty eight-foot mountain of plowed snow. Outside, the winter hills glittered in blinding sunlight. The sky was a clear cerulean blue. For a December day it was downright breathtaking. But Emma had lived in Wyoming long enough to know that when she opened the door, the air would be cold enough to sear her skin and freeze the moisture in her lungs.

Grunting with effort, she twisted toward the door and struggled to zip her goose down parka over her bulging belly. Beyond the barrier of snow piles she could see the half-buried entry booth and the large, painted red and white sign that welcomed summer visitors to South Pass City. December 24 was not the best time for a visit to a ghost town turned tourist attraction. But Emma had come on an errand of desperation.

She was trailing a man—a compelling, elusive and troubled man who’d captured her imagination and more than a little of her heart. Jethro Darlington McNulty had stood six-three barefoot and towered another two inches in his boots. His eyes, set in a hauntingly chiseled face, had been as blue as an October sky. When he was out for a good time, those eyes could flash enough sexual magnetism to make women tumble into his bed. Lit by anger, their cold fury would have sent the likes of Eastwood and McQueen scurrying to Wardrobe for a change of underwear.

Legend and loner, J.D. had been an enigma to all who knew him—which made him an absolutely maddening subject for Emma’s master’s thesis. The man’s penchant for secrecy would have driven a saint over the edge. And Emma was no saint. In conservative Lander, where she’d taught high school history for the past ten years, her burgeoning belly and lack of a wedding ring said it all.

The thesis had given her a good excuse to request a year off. By now, however, the whole town knew why she wasn’t at school. As the locals put it, the very proper Miss Carlyle had gotten herself knocked up.

The baby, a girl, was kicking like a healthy little ninja. No cause for worry there, thank heaven. But the thesis was driving Emma toward an emotional meltdown. She had promised her advisor at the University of Wyoming that she’d have the first draft mailed before her January 3 due date. But she’d made that promise five months ago, before she’d understood the juju that a solo pregnancy could work on a woman’s mind and body. This morning, as she’d stood by the fridge in her flannel nightgown, wolfing down Pepperidge Farm Chocolate Chunk cookies and staring at the Vesuvius of paperwork that littered her kitchen table, Emma had broken down and bawled. It was no use. Her research on the legendary gunfighter had more holes in it than J.D.’s Peacemaker had blasted through the infamous Cleary Gang. She needed help, or maybe a confounded miracle. An Internet search had brought up the name of an expert in local history, a woman who ran a little bookstore in South Pass City. After a quick phone call, Emma had struggled into clean black maternity slacks and a baggy red sweater, dabbed on a smidgen of lipstick and too much mascara, and slicked back her dark blond hair. That done, she’d stuffed her notes and manuscript into her canvas briefcase and shoveled a path to her car. South Pass City was less than an hour away on State Highway 28. The weather was decent, the road was clear, and just in case anything went wrong, she had her cell phone in her purse, fully charged.

Given a choice, Emma would have taken the graveled Loop Road through the mountains, to the place where an overgrown wagon trail wound up a side canyon toward Glory Gulch. She’d hiked that trail last fall, on a sunny day when crimson maple and bright gold aspen blazed across the slopes. Nothing had remained of the mining camp but a few tumbledown shacks and rock chimneys rising out of the bracken. A pimply-faced young ranger had shown her the ruined cabin where J.D. had spent his last winter, and the saloon where he’d died. A chill had passed through her fingers as she’d touched the faded brownish bloodstain on the floor. Emma had tried to picture Glory Gulch in the dead of winter. But there’d be no going back to see it now. The mountain road was closed and wouldn’t be passable again till spring. So here she was, after a pleasant drive on a highway that wound upward between glistening walls of snow. She could only hope that her visit to Tilly’s Book Nook would turn out to be worth the trip.

South Pass City was a restored historic site, a relic of the late 1860s gold rush. In winter the exhibits shut down, but a few hardy people lived there year round. Tilly Farson was one of them. She’d mentioned over the phone that since her shop was also her home, Emma would be welcome to drop by anytime.

Now Emma picked her way between the huge mounds of plowed snow, taking shallow breaths and shifting her weight to anchor the soles of her fleece-lined boots. Snowmobiles had packed a trail along the street, saving her from having to flounder through hip-high drifts; but a frigid wind had sprung up, blasting sheets of snow across her path. For someone who couldn’t see her own feet, it was treacherous going. By the time she spotted the quaintly lettered sign on the bookstore, her face was a frozen mask.

Tilly’s Book Nook was housed in a vintage barbershop with a squared false front. The windows had been shuttered against the cold but the front door swung open at Emma’s knock. The woman on the threshold was built like the Willendorf Venus—short and stocky, dressed in plum velveteen stretch pants and shearling boots. The buttons of a hand knit snowflake cardigan strained over her outsized bosom. Her silvery hair was cut in a plain Dutch bob with rimless bifocals jutting from beneath her bangs. “Oh, you poor dear!” she crooned, sweeping Emma inside. “You must be half frozen! Here, don’t worry about your wet boots. Just take off your coat and have a chair by the stove!” The bookstore was a haven of cozy warmth. Floor to ceiling shelves lined the walls, crammed with books on western history and used paperback novels. Tendrils of asparagus fern trailed from a hanging pot in one corner. Two tartan-covered wing chairs with a rosewood tea table between them were drawn up before a glowing potbellied stove. Emma hadn’t planned to unburden herself, but over homemade oatmeal cookies and steaming mugs of hot cocoa, the whole soap opera came pouring out—the man she’d thought of as her lifetime love until she’d answered that phone call from his wife; her surprise pregnancy and, finally, her wrenching decision to give the baby up for adoption. “It won’t be easy, but I know it’s for the best.” Emma laid a hand on her belly and felt the subtle stirring beneath her palm. “My own mother was unmarried. We lived in a trailer park, and she was so steeped in pills and alcohol that I practically raised myself. I...” Emma paused to swallow the tight lump in her throat. “I’m afraid I don’t have the genes to be a good mother.” Tilly listened, punctuating Emma’s words with sympathetic little clucks. “Does the father know?” she asked gently.

Emma nodded. “He offered to pay for an abortion. I told him to go to hell.” “Good for you! Men can be such jackasses!” Tilly sighed as she refilled Emma’s mug from a blue enameled pot. “What a shame we women can’t seem to get along without them. It would make life so much simpler, wouldn’t it?” Emma forced her mind back to her quest. “Right now the only man in my life is J.D. McNulty, and he’s driving me crazy.” Tilly chuckled. “J.D. was known to have that effect on women. And you can see why. Just look at him!” She inclined her head toward a framed poster that hung on the wall behind the antique brass cash register. Emma had seen the photograph before. Taken in Cheyenne, where J.D had been marshal for eighteen months, it showed a rangy man in his late thirties, dressed for work in a dark woolen shirt and knotted tie. His left hand rested lightly on the ivory grip of his Colt. 45 Peacemaker, which hung in its holster from a heavy cartridge belt. The silver star of his office blazed on his cowhide vest. With his long square jaw, sharply chiseled face and melancholy eyes, he looked like a young Henry Fonda. Throw in one devilishly quirked eyebrow and a body that would do credit to Tarzan, and you were looking at Hollywood material. “How could you not fall in love with that?” Tilly teased. “Confess now, haven’t you at least developed a little crush on the man?” “Does it show that much?” Emma’s cheeks blazed as she recalled the erotic dreams she’d been having the past few nights. Good grief, she was pathetic! A woman in her ninth month, as big as a cow, with a raging case of the hots for a man who’d been dead since 1872!

“I thought so.” Tilly flashed her a wink. “Now, how can I help you, dear?” Emma reached for her briefcase. “For starters, since we’re talking about men and their attributes, was J.D. ever known to be a jackass?” Tilly’s eyebrows crinkled above lenses the diameter and thickness of silver dollars. They reflected the light in the room, masking her eyes. “Oh, J.D. had his moments. He was a man, after all, with a full set of male complications. But he was honest in his dealings and, as far as I know, he never raised his hand against a woman. That’s more than you can say for some of our so-called western heroes. Take Wyatt Earp—now there was a real jackass for you, the way he treated his first wife. And Bill Hickock wasn’t much better, especially in his later years.” “You almost sound as if you knew them.” “Look around you, dearie.” Tilly’s gesture encompassed the overflowing bookshelves. “What do you think I do here all winter, with nothing but a cranky old tomcat for company? I read. Histories, journals, letters, you name it. Some of those old boys are as real to me as you are—J.D. in particular, because he spent so much time in these parts. Why, it’s likely he got his hair and whiskers barbered in this very room.” She set her cup down and leaned closer. “Sometimes I imagine that when the barber was sweeping up, little bits of J.D.’s hair fell between the floorboards. They could still be there, right under our feet.” In the warm stillness, Emma could feel her baby kicking. She willed herself to unzip her briefcase and ease out the sheaf of papers she’d stuffed into a manila folder. A single page slipped loose and fluttered onto the braided rug. Tilly bent down, picked it up and handed it back to her.

It was a copy of the most widely published photograph ever taken of J.D. McNulty. He was laid out in his open casket, dressed in a suit and tie, his eyes closed, his long, elegant hands folded across his chest. He looked older here than in the picture on Tilly’s wall. His dark hair was longer and lightly silvered at the temples. His weathered face sported a well-trimmed moustache. Even as a corpse, J.D. was beautiful. But Emma had never liked looking at the grisly portrait. “I know that picture well.” Tilly leaned back into her chair, gazing into the ruby glow behind the stove’s mica panes. “J.D.’s grave isn’t far from here. But nothing really dies, you know. The chemical elements, the energy particles that hold us together, they just get rearranged. Wood becomes heat and smoke and ash, and then maybe soil for a new tree. As for people...” Her voice trailed off for a moment. “Every place we go, every life we touch, we leave a little piece of ourselves behind. We’re all connected, in the present, in the past, for all time. If that isn’t immortality, I don’t know what is.” The silence in the room was warm and deep. Emma felt herself growing drowsy. Blinking herself awake, she held out the sheaf of papers to Tilly. “Here’s what I’ve done so far. I’ve tagged my questions with these pink sticky notes. Maybe you can help me fill in some blanks.” Tilly was more than willing to lend her expertise. Most of Emma’s questions were swiftly answered. But there were some puzzles that even Tilly couldn’t resolve. One of them concerned the saloon girl who’d clasped the dying J.D. in her arms.

Emma dug into her briefcase and pulled out a file crammed with photocopied research. “I have the newspaper accounts here, and this later story, based on an interview with Asa Smith, the photographer who was there. He adds a few more details—like the piano playing “Beautiful Dreamer” in the background, right up until the first shot. But even he doesn’t mention the name of the girl.

“I’m guessing no one knew her real identity. A lot of those girls would change their names to keep from shaming their families. The person who reported the shooting probably didn’t think her name mattered.” “But she could have been important,” Emma protested. “What if she was in love with J.D.? What if he was in love with her?” Tilly’s lips tightened in an enigmatic smile. “We’ll never know, will we, dear? It’s one of those mysteries that make the past so intriguing.” Emma shuffled through her pages. “Well, here’s an even bigger mystery for you. Why did J.D. drop out of sight after that big gunfight in Laramie? What happened to him? How did he end up in a rundown mining camp like Glory Gulch?” Tilly’s fingers toyed with a loose pewter button on her sweater. “Only J.D. could’ve answered those questions, and he was the sort who played his cards close to his vest, as they say. But I can tell you one thing. J.D. McNulty was a man who carried a load of pain in his gut. It ate at him something awful. Made him do things that weren’t in his best interest. Self-destruction—that would be the fancy term they use for it these days. In the end, I suspect that was what really killed him.” Emma waited, eager to hear more, but Tilly had fallen silent again. The only sound in the little shop was the slow crackle of burning sapwood in the stove. From the next room, an unseen clock chimed four. Tilly rose from her chair, wincing as her legs straightened. “I’ve kept you too long, dear,” she said. “This twinge in my left knee tells me there’s a storm moving in. You’d best be heading back to Lander before the roads get bad.” Reluctantly, Emma stuffed the papers back into her briefcase. She had a world of questions for this woman who talked about J.D. as if he’d been a close friend. “I wish we had more time,” she said. “But you’ve already been so much help. I can’t thank you enough.” “It was my pleasure. Come back anytime.” Tilly had begun clearing the tea table. “I’ll bag some of these cookies for you to take along. You can nibble them while you work on your thesis.” Emma shrugged into her parka, picked up her purse and gratefully accepted the bagged cookies. “Will you be all right out there?” Tilly asked. “I’d be happy to walk you back to your car.” “Thanks, but I’ll be fine.” Emma moved toward the door but Tilly stopped her with a touch on her arm.

“Are you sure, dear? About giving up your baby, I mean. Forgive an old woman’s meddling, but I sense such a deep sadness in you, such reluctance...” Emma shook her head. “It’s all arranged. The papers have been signed and the parents are waiting to take her home from the hospital. This little girl deserves a better life than I could ever give her.” Her vision blurred as she opened the door and stepped outside into the brittle sunlight. In the west, a bank of mud gray clouds drifted along the horizon. There was no other sign of the storm Tilly had predicted, but the air was so cold that every breath formed a frosty puff of vapor in front of Emma’s face.

Minutes later she was in her car, teeth chattering as she waited for the heater to kick in. The frigid steering wheel stung her palms as she pulled out of the parking lot and headed back toward the paved highway.

She had every reason to feel elated, Emma told herself. Tilly had given her enough information to finish the thesis, maybe even on schedule if the baby wasn’t in a hurry to get here.

But it was Christmas Eve and she’d be going home to an empty house. The thesis had drained so much of her energy that she hadn’t even vacuumed, let alone put up a tree or hung a string of lights. All she wanted for Christmas this year was to get the miserable holiday behind her.

The baby was kicking hard. Emma stifled a yelp as the tiny feet delivered a volley of rapid-fire jabs to her bladder. The sensations that shot through her body would have made a nun swear. She sighed as the kicks subsided. “None of this is your fault, kiddo,” she murmured. “You can’t help it if your mother was a silly old maid who thought she’d found love and your father was a jerk in disguise. But never mind that. You’re going to have a life—a wonderful life with a mom and dad who’ll read you bedtime stories and go to your soccer games and love you as much as if you’d been born to them. Maybe more.” Maybe almost as much as I do. Lord, she was getting maudlin now. Desperate for a diversion, Emma punched the radio button. A twangy country-western version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” blared out of the speakers. Turning up the volume, she began to sing along. By the time she’d made it through “Silver Bells” and “Grandma Got Run Over by A Reindeer,” Emma was actually feeling a glimmer of Christmas spirit. But the disk jockey at the radio station couldn’t leave well enough alone. The next selection was Elvis Presley’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” a song that had always made her weepy. This time The King’s velvety tenor triggered a freshet of tears. They spilled out of her eyes, trailing black mascara down her cheeks. For Emma, home was no place at all. Her mother had long since died of drink and despair, and she had no other family. Soon her baby daughter would be gone, too. There’d be no little stocking by the fireplace in years to come, no cookies for Santa, no dolls under the tree. Emma’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel. “Oh, damn...” she muttered, biting back sobs. “Oh, damn, damn, damn!” It was then, by chance, that she remembered her briefcase. She had left it at Tilly’s, next to the chair.

Muttering, she swung the Subaru around and headed back toward South Pass City. The text of her thesis was on her computer, but her edits, her notes and her photocopied research were all in that briefcase. She couldn’t afford to leave it behind.

The sun had vanished behind a pall of dishwater clouds, darkening the late afternoon sky. The music on the radio had degenerated into static. She caught the words, “severe storm warning.” Then the station went dead. Ahead of her now, black clouds were closing in. A drop of sleet splattered the windshield. The fast-moving storm was stampeding over the mountains and across the high desert plateau. Minutes from now it would swallow her in snow and wind. It was too late to turn around and make a run for Lander. Her best hope of shelter lay with Tilly.

She was watching for the turnoff to South Pass City when the full force of the storm struck head on. Going too fast, she hit the snow-slicked pavement and spun crazily. An eternity flashed past before the Subaru crunched to a stop on the shoulder of the road. Dizzy but unhurt, Emma slumped over the wheel. Huge flakes of snow swarmed around her, piling up on the windows of the car. Pulling herself together she punched the defroster buttons and switched the wagon to four-wheel drive. She’d be fine, she told herself, as long as she kept her head.

Turning on the lights and wipers, she pulled back onto the road. By now she was driving in total whiteout. She could only pray that she’d recognize the turnoff to South Pass City when she reached it.

Moments later she sensed the rising of the shoulder that marked a side road. Emma swung the wheel and felt the welcome crunch of gravel beneath the tires. She laughed with relief. Before long she’d be back at Tilly’s, warm and safe.

Half an hour later she was still driving. Even more unsettling was the fact that the road seemed to wind upward through the blinding snow. Could she have lost her bearings and taken the wrong turnoff?

She was searching for a wide place to turn around when she felt a crumbling sensation beneath one wheel. The car lurched sideways, flinging her hard to the right before it came to rest at a slant, its weight on the front axle.

Sick with dread, Emma jammed on the emergency brake and clambered out the driver’s side door. The Subaru’s right front wheel hung over the edge of the road with nothing visible beyond it except swirling snow.

Now what? Emma willed herself to stay calm. If the wheel was in some sort of ditch, she might be able to jack it up and back onto the road again. But first she needed a closer look.

Blinded by flying flakes, she groped her way around to the passenger side. Her legs went watery as she saw the tire. It hung over empty space where the edge dropped off. There was no way she was going to get the vehicle back onto the road. In fact, it might not even be safe to get back inside the car. Creeping closer, she strained to see the slope below. If it wasn’t too steep, she might be all right. Otherwise— Emma screamed as the snowy edge gave way under her boots. Down, down she plummeted through powdery white drifts. Then something struck her head and the world exploded in blackness.

* * *
When she opened her eyes the sky was dark. She was lying on her back, cradled by snow and cushioned by her down parka. Tiny crystals of ice drifted onto her face. Dazed and chilled, she began moving her fingers, then her arms and legs. Slowly the memory returned—the storm, the car, the fall...

The baby! Emma sat bolt upright. Her lips moved in silent prayer as she clasped her belly. An eternity seemed to pass before she felt a tentative push, then a spunky little kick. Dizzy with relief, she staggered to her feet. She was sore and stiff, but aside from a tender lump on the back of her head, she didn’t seem to be hurt.

A full moon shone through the clouds, flooding the landscape with light. Looking up, Emma could see the slope where she’d fallen. It was steep, but not so steep that she couldn’t get back to the road. Jamming her boots into the snow, she began to climb.

“Don’t worry, little one, we’ll be fine,” she murmured. “We’ll just get into the car and call 911. Then we can keep warm and munch cookies while we wait for the Search and Rescue hunks to show up. How does that sound for a way to spend Christmas Eve? Just you and—” Emma’s words died in her throat as her eyes came level with the road. There was no sign of the car—not even tire tracks to show where it had been. Shaking, she sank onto a snow-covered rock. She’d left the car keys in the ignition and her purse, with her cell phone inside, on the seat. Clearly, the temptation had been too much for some passer-by. Now she was in real trouble.

Her eyes scanned the moonlit terrain. From where she sat, the road seemed to disappear into a wooded canyon. Wherever it led, she had little choice except to follow it. It might be her only hope of finding shelter. By the time she reached the mouth of the canyon it was snowing again. The wind had risen to a howl, blasting snowflakes into her face. Head down, Emma trudged through the stinging blizzard. Once, then again, she stumbled to her knees. Reeling with effort, she pushed on. She knew the danger. If she stopped to rest, she and her baby could freeze.

She had just fallen a third time when she saw the light. It was little more than a glimmer through the bare aspens, but even when Emma rubbed her eyes the light remained. She staggered toward it.

As the trees thinned out she saw a log cabin with a tall stone chimney. Soft amber lamplight glowed faintly through a tiny glass-paned window. Something about the place—the ramshackle slope of the roof, the off-kilter set of the door, looked familiar. Emma had the vague feeling she’d seen it before, but she was too exhausted to remember where or when. On the wide, covered porch, she hesitated, working her hands out of her pockets. Just because she’d found the cabin, that didn’t mean she was safe. Anybody could be on the other side of that door—maybe the very people who’d stolen her car. She could be taking a dangerous chance, but she’d run out of options. It was knock or freeze. Her knuckles rapped feebly against the rough-sawn planking. There was no response from inside the cabin. Maybe no one had heard her, or maybe they didn’t want to answer. Her eyes fell on a pile of kindling next to the door. Choosing a long, stout stick she banged it on the door with all her strength. From inside the cabin she heard a crash and the sound of a male voice cursing. Heavy footsteps lumbered across the wooden floor. A bolt slid back and the door burst open, flooding the porch with lamplight. Emma found herself staring up the barrel of a nasty-looking Colt revolver. But it wasn’t the gun that made her gasp. It was the man holding it.

Dressed in nothing but faded red long johns and riding boots, he was tall and rawboned. An evil-looking black cheroot was jammed into one corner of his scowling mouth. The bloodshot eyes that glared down at Emma from beneath a mop of dark, silvered hair were as blue as an October sky.

“Who in holy hellfire are you, lady, and what in do you want?” he growled.

Heaven save her, he looked exactly like J.D. McNulty.

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