Beauty for Ashes (Desert Manna #1) - Chapter 1
Updated: Mar 8
Quinn Ranch, Arizona Territory
September 12, 1871
“It’s been a good year, Lydia.” His late wife’s name left Perry Quinn’s lips on a whisper. His heart squeezed tight as his thick, calloused fingers lightly touched the sepia image of her face.
“This year would have been real good for you and Carl.” His voice cracked. Even after seven years his grief bubbled up. Today, especially. Had Lydia survived they would have celebrated their tenth anniversary. Carl would have been seven.
But his beautiful Lydia had not survived. They only shared three brief years together before she was taken from him.
“Boss?” Jack called out from the entrance of Perry’s cabin, pulling him from his sorrow. He thought his ranch hands left hours ago.
“Hank sent me in to check on you.”
Perry’s lips turned up in a half smile. Leave it to his foreman to remember what today was.
“I’m fine. I’ll head on out in a bit. Just want to make sure the stage horses are ready to go. They should be here in an hour.”
Jack nodded and left.
Perry returned his gaze to Lydia’s likeness. Then he pressed his lips to it.
“I miss you so much, but it’s time to let you and Carl go.”
He hated to admit it, but it really was. Seven years was a long time to hold on to her memory. And Carl…
He snorted. What an imagination Perry had. When Lydia died early in her pregnancy, hemorrhaging for hours before he found her lifeless body, he had no idea if the baby was a boy or a girl. In his grief he needed to give the child an identity, a name, or something. He couldn’t think of his child as no one with no name. That was more than he could endure.
He decided to think of his child as a boy, for he longed to pass on the family name that meant so much to him after his grandpa. Grandpa Carl is the man who taught him ranching. He taught him to love God and love his neighbors. He taught him how to be a man. If his child had truly been born a son, Grandpa’s legacy would live on through him, so the most fitting name was Carl.
Perry’s eyes burned. He pinched the bridge of his nose to keep the tears away.
It was time to say goodbye, not just for another year, but for good. He needed to move on, to move forward, to stop torturing himself year after year with regret, guilt, and shame.
Building the ranch was Lydia’s dream as much as it was his. Ever since they fell in love back in Texas, they both talked about starting their own ranch in the young territory of Arizona. News reached them about vast tracks of land with natural grass for the cattle. In the valley southwest of Prescott, the climate was ideal. Mild temperatures from season to season. Seasonal rains.
They planned for the move and when they arrived, Perry set about building the very cabin where he stood. He promised Lydia a home and a place to raise their family. He wasted no time keeping his word.
Perry sighed. It was going to be harder to let go than he thought. But he promised God that he would, and he was a man of his word.
Gently, Perry lowered the gilded framed picture into the trunk at the foot of his bed. Then he locked the trunk with a brass key. He squared his shoulders and stepped out of the one-room cabin. The place he spent many a cold night snuggled close to his wife. The place where she breathed her final breath. The place he learned to call home even without her there. He pulled the door closed behind him, the act seeming so final, yet he wasn’t going anywhere. He would return at the end of his day.
Perry walked toward the barn, past the corral next to the barn and looked toward the mountain. The sky was brilliant blue, not a cloud to be seen. The tall pine trees lining the side of the mountain at the horizon bathed it in a dark green hue.
He stepped forward and with all his pent-up grief, he threw the brass key towards the mountain. “She is in your care, Lord.”
So many years in the past he believed God was asking him for one last step of faith. He never followed through. That was the year he could. He would.
“It is finished.”
A light peace settled over Perry’s heart as he turned toward the barn. His tawny mare, Misty, snorted as he neared her stall. He smiled. Lydia is the one who named the mare. When Perry fussed about the name being too girly, Lydia smiled and reminded him the horse was a girl.
He shook off the memory. How could he really let go if he kept reminiscing?
“Be with you in a minute,” Perry said to his mare. He moved toward the stables where the horses for the stage stood. He fed them and brushed them down. He turned them out in the corral and the stagecoach driver and shotgun rider would hitch them up and leave the spent horses in the corral.
Agreeing to be a stage waystation was one of his better decisions. The work to care for the horses was minimal, but the pay was good. Since his ranch was near the halfway mark between Wickenburg and Prescott, it was the ideal place to change out fresh horses before the steep climb up the mountain. Like many of the stations along the stage route, he provided water for passengers and a place for them to stretch their legs while the horses were swapped out.
Just a little work for a large reward.
The best part was that he could leave the water for passengers on a small table near the barn. No need for him or his ranch hands to be there for the stage’s arrival. Which was good. One never knew the precise time it would arrive.
Perry finished caring for the stage horses and led them to the corral. Then he returned and readied Misty for the afternoon. She snorted and nickered when he got close.
“I know. It’s a late start today.”
Misty raised then lowered her head. She nuzzled his outstretched hand.
Perry smiled as he brushed down the mare. The scents and smells of the barn seemed more noticeable today. The sweet aroma of hay. The pungent odor of manure. Then a smell that did not belong.
Perry darted out of the stall. His eyes scanned the hay storage loft above him. No signs of smoke there. Then he looked around the barn. Smoke was starting to thicken. He tied his bandanna over his nose and mouth. He moved toward his workbench. Fire crackled, eagerly eating up the wall of the barn where the tack hung. Within seconds, it spread to the first stall.
He had to get the stock out of there.
Perry ran toward the barn doors and pushed. Nothing. He shoved harder. Still they would not budge. He backed up a few paces then ran full force. His shoulder connected with the rough wood. The side of his face smacked hard against the door and searing pain shot through his shoulder. The doors would not budge.
Frantically, he looked around the barn. The high pitches from Misty heightened his own fear. He had to get them out of there. What was blocking the doors? Why would not they open?
An ax. He could chop an opening in the door.
Dropping to his knees, he crawled along the floor of the barn. Misty’s screams sent shivers down his back. He continued forward to his workbench as fast as he could. Once over the threshold, he stood and searched for the ax. Smoke obscured his vision. His hand moved quickly over each object hanging on the wall. A saw. A hammer. A leather strap. The ax!
He grabbed it and ran toward the doors. Standing squarely in front of the barn doors, he swung the ax. It connected with the door and a small chip flew over his shoulder. He swung again and again.
Misty’s frightful moans grew louder, overpowering the neighs of the other horses. A loud splintering sound came from behind him. As he swung the ax, his body was slammed hard against the doors. The ax slipped from his hands. He groaned and fell to the ground, his head pounding.
Another insane howl came from Misty. Then the doors flew open, flapping on their hinges as Misty bolted from the barn.
Perry fought against the pain pulsing in his head. He stumbled to each stall as flames lapped at the ceiling. He let each of the remaining horses and the milk cow out of their stalls, giving them a swat on their hind quarters so they would run from the burning building.
The smoke was thick and black. His lungs burned. The rafters creaked. Perry ran toward the doors and escaped just as the ceiling collapsed. A whoosh of air and flame knocked him to the ground.
Flames chewed through his sleeve and bandanna, searing his flesh. The pain hit his gut, doubling him over. He dropped to his knees, unable to stifle a howl.
Water. He had to get water.
The heat was too much to endure. He stood and ran to the water trough outside of the demolished barn and jumped in. The flames died, but his flesh still stung.
Energy faded from his muscles. He heaved himself out of the trough landing on the hard dirt with a thud. Flames shot out overhead. He was still too close.
Lying on his belly, he pulled himself further away from the greedy fire and closer to the small cross near the cabin.
He stopped crawling as a cough consumed all the air around him. When the coughing subsided, he inched closer to the cross.
Just a few more feet.
He kicked his feet along the dusty path. One hand in front of the other digging into the dirt. He was almost there.
Perry squinted and reached out one more time. His hand touched the dry, splintering wood of the cross that marked Lydia’s grave.
The will to live slipped from him.
“I’m coming home, darling.”
The words left his lungs on a light breath. He closed his eyes, and his muscles went limp.