Authors: Kathy Steffen
To Ted Groft, my father, who taught me to forge ahead and jump right into deep water without fear. He was always there to catch me in case I sank. He’s been with me for every book’s research and manages to keep his sense of humor, even when plunging down the shaft of a mile-deep mine or staying overnight in a haunted mining hospital.
Published 2008 by Medallion Press, Inc.
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If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment from this “stripped book.”
Copyright © 2008 by Kathy Steffen
Cover Illustration by Adam Mock
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.
Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Typeset in Baskerville
Printed in the United States of America
I owe everything to my family for their continued enthusiasm, support, and belief in me and my writing: my husband, Rob; my mom and dad, Eva and Ted Groft; my sister Jane; and my dear friend Eddie.
I have visited wonderful places during the research and writing of this book. Special thanks to the museums in Cripple Creek and Colorado Springs, Colorado, in particular the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine and the Western Museum of Mining and Industry.
My gratitude to my first reader and greatest supporter Jane Groft. Also many thanks to everyone who has critiqued and encouraged me along the way, especially Kevin Lamport and Lori Devoti. Thanks to the University of Wisconsin writing program: Marshall Cook, Christine DeSmet and special thanks to Laurel Yourke who inspired me to not give up on this story. Thanks to WisRWA Madison for their enthusiasm and wonderful, positive energy.
And a special thank you to everyone at Medallion Press for their talent, hard work, and dedication.
Previous accolades for
First, there is a River:
“A supremely contemporary story in an authentically depicted historical setting. A novel that will ring true with women readers of all types.”
—G. Miki Hayden, Edgar and Macavity winner,
and author of
The Naked Writer
“Remarkable, haunting and utterly unforgettable. Emma captures the reader’s heart; you desperately want her to find happiness and healing. You hope she’ll find a way to love again even though she’s suffered so much pain. Her inner strength is admirable, all she needed to escape her husband’s cruelty was someone to lend his or her aid and support her during the healing process.”
“Set in 1900, Steffen’s debut presents a captivating view of life aboard a riverboat a century ago …”
“The healing power of the river and the magic of love are explored in this emotionally fulfilling and beautifully written tale of good triumphing over evil. Readers will cheer for Emma.”
Romantic Times Book Reviews
“Kathy Steffen provides her audience with a powerful historical fiction that focuses on the lack of rights for women and the lack of protection for children. Emma is a fabulous as the only reason she remains with abuser Jared is their offspring, but once he sells them into child labor, she has no ties. The support cast including the river and the boat is strong as it brings out a bygone era. The romance is unnecessary though well written as
FIRST, THERE IS A RIVER
is foremost a character-driven deep historical tale.”
Table of Contents
Courage is resistance to fear and mastery of fear,
not the absence of fear.
Tumbling Creek Ranch
t was amazing how fast hell descended on a man.
At first, the black puff in the sky didn’t seem much of a threat. Surely, nothing to worry over, especially for a man used to living in the harsh conditions of the West. The next few days went by, and Jack thought the smudge looked to be a damned sight closer. As the week wore on, black and gray spread, growing to a cloud of threatening proportions. Jack’s father, Jack “Buck” Buchanan Sr. ordered his people to dig trenches, haul water from the creek, soak buildings, and cut back brush. He convinced almost everyone at Tumbling Creek Ranch the fire heading their way was nothing more than a nuisance. They’d lived through brush fires before.
“Only fools and cowards run, and they’ll get what they deserve.” His gravelly voice thundered with his usual Buck-style certainty. The residents of the ranch looked up to Jack’s father as if he were a god. Most chose to stay. So did Jack. For him there was no other possibility. Protecting the ranch and his family was his duty as a Buchanan.
On Saturday morning, Jack woke, rolled over, and blinked. He’d overslept, he could feel it. Grit filled his eyes, and they burned.
All his senses sharpened, and he bolted to his feet. Everything felt wrong. The air smelled like the remnants of a bonfire, and murky gloom filled his room instead of morning. Outside his window, a weak smear of light replaced the rising sun. He blinked. Again. His eyes felt as if someone had dumped sand in them.
Fighting panic, he threw on his clothes, crammed his feet into boots, and made his way down the hall to Buck’s office. He tried not to run, but the ricochet of his heels against wood clacked faster and faster. Jack slammed through the door, skidded, and caught himself before he all-out fell. So much for not panicking.
His father stared out the window into murk, his arms crossed. Buck’s calm made Jack feel a little silly for his entrance, but damn it, the fire was close. And coming closer.
Buck turned and glared at his son. “Decide to sleep in and miss morning chores? Your sister’s already got half your work done.”
“The fire’s just about on us. Now will you give the order?” Jack asked.
Buck’s weather-hardened face closed into a scowl, and his ice-blue eyes pierced, made even more intense by white eyebrows bushing over them. “What order? To run? That’s what you suggest we oughta do, son? Run?”
“If we stay we’ll die.”
Buck stared a moment before he answered, and Jack watched his father take stock of him. By his expression, Jack knew he came up short. “Boy,” Buck finally growled, “I thought I raised you better than this. Nothing makes a man run from his home. Nothing.”
Frustration bloomed through Jack’s panic, and he clamped onto it, grateful to feel something other than fear. “The ranch is as good as gone.” He took a step closer. “These people trust you, Pa, they trust their lives to you, and that’s probably the only thing we can salvage at this point. You owe them—”
“If I ran every time something threatened Tumbling Creek, we’d be living in a cave by now. We’ve faced fires before. We’re ready.”
“Not for this. This isn’t just an inconvenient brush fire.”
Buck returned to studying the murk outside his window. He stood, immovable, like one of the solitary boulders sitting in the desert, everyone wondering how such a huge and solid thing got there in the first place. No way to go around, because the stubborn old rock was not about to budge. Not now, not ever.
His father’s back expanded with a sigh. “I can’t believe I’ve lived to see this.” He whipped around to again look at his son, his expression stone. “Run, then, boy. If that’s what you’re made of. I’ll stay and protect Tumbling Creek.” He turned to stare out the window, and spoke to himself as if Jack wasn’t even in the room. “My own son. A coward.”
Jack stumbled back. If Buck pulled out his Colt and shot him through the chest, it wouldn’t rip the way that word did, branding him with a deep, painful heat. Although he was an adult, Jack’s father possessed the power to humiliate him as if he were a child. He’d grown up following in Buck’s footsteps. Tall, strong, blond, with the same ice-blue eyes, folks said he was the image of Buck in his younger, row-kicking days. People constantly remarked they seemed like the same man, just two different generations.
Jack respected Buck and usually acquiesced to his father’s knowledge and experience. It took a tough man to make the difficult decisions and successfully run a ranch. And with one word he had made it clear he didn’t believe his son was that kind of man. Or any kind of man at all.
“I hope to God you’re right, and I’m the one misjudging.” The tremor in Jack’s voice only hinted at the burn spreading in his chest.
Warning still prickling over his skin, he left the main house and started his chores. The air thickened. His horse, Willow, fought against leaving the safety of her stall. He finally managed to saddle and coax her out, although along with smoke, her terror permeated the air. And that, Buck had reminded Jack over and over, was his biggest weakness. The way he allowed his empathy for others to get in the way of what he had to do. Maybe his foreboding about the fire was worry over the other residents. He sure hoped so.
Jack squinted and saw flames, now only a few miles away, leap over the first trench like a child playing hopscotch. The fire crackled with laughter, consuming everything in its path.
Never mind Buck. He’d face him later. If there was a later to face.
The ranch became a frantic mass of movement as every man, woman, and child at Tumbling Creek ignored Buck’s earlier reassurance and piled the pieces of their lives onto wagons.