Updated: Nov 11
My name is Preston Colter. I lived the first eight years of my life enjoying my status as the baby of the family. Everyone loved me. I was cute. I was funny.
Then Violet came along to dethrone me. Everyone always says that Sam is Mama’s favorite. He was, but only before Violet’s birth. She is the one and only Colter daughter, hold-ing a position of eternal affection in my mama’s heart. A fifth son just can’t compete with that.
So, in my sorrow, I turned to horses. I started hanging out at Larson’s Stables. Uncle Adam put me to work mucking stalls as soon as I was big enough to hold a shovel. It was fine. Anything in life that is worth doing comes with some sort of mess attached to it. At least, that’s what the first seventeen years of my life taught me.
I didn’t mind the hard work of breaking and training the horses. I loved it. Sure, my back side hurt more than a time or two.
Then, as I turned eighteen, my thoughts turned inward. I was jealous of my older brothers. Both James and Boone received blessing after blessing. Everything they did was successful. My parents definitely loved them more than me, the forgotten son. Sam made Papa proud the moment he embraced taking over Colter Ranch. He solidified his position in Papa’s esteem when he married the perfect Ellie Mae.
Even the odd-ball Deacon made my parents proud by pursuing a steady career that my sort of adopted brother, Grady Thatcher, also pursued.
Speaking of Grady, he was the other person to usurp any positive standing I had with my parents. I only wanted to be seen. The moment Grady came to live with us, I stood no chance of making my mark. He instantly befriended Deacon, stealing the place I held as Deacon’s trusted confidant. He earned my parents’ respect and was the perfect son my parents wished I was.
So, I embraced my role in the family—the moody, rebell-ious son. It was the only role that garnered me attention, albeit negative attention. It didn’t matter to me. They finally saw me. Seen enough that a few years ago, Mama sent me with Boone on one of his surveying expeditions to straighten me out.
No one asked if I wanted to straighten out. No one asked what I wanted from the family, or even from life. They just wanted a good Christian son that would not tarnish their reputation. So I determined to give them the exact opposite.
I became a drifter. Restless. Reckless. I cared little for much besides horses and a mediocre bottle of whiskey. For several years, I worked as a wrangler on one ranch or another in northern Arizona until I drank too much and got fired. It didn’t matter. I sobered up until I got the next job. My pattern repeated itself.
Little did I know the trip to Ash Fork with Boone’s expedition would change my life in unfathomable ways. It took me a few years to realize it. But looking back, those nights with the lovely Hetty Clark changed her life and mine forever.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. My story starts with one pivotal night where I should have died. Only I didn’t. Instead, a chain reaction of events ignited that led to the biggest shock of my young life.
“God, if you get me outta this, I’ll change. I’ll be a better man.”
Ash Fork, Arizona Territory
April 24, 1893
It was too early in the day to start drinking. But there I sat, eager to begin.
“What brings you in so early?” the bartender asked.
I grunted and slapped a coin on the counter. He poured my drink of choice, which he already knew, as I was a regular. I would not tell him they fired me again.
Didn’t matter. I would land on my feet soon enough. I always did.
In the meantime, I drank to numb the hurt and pain that constantly nipped at my heels. The drink never failed to deliver on its promise to absorb the pain and make me invincible again. There’s a reason some folks call it liquid courage, and I understood it firsthand.
I lost track of time, as was typical when I was between jobs, so to speak. Other patrons entered the saloon.
“It’s here,” one man said to no one in particular as he sat on the barstool next to me. “The Santa Fe, Prescott, & Phoenix train arrived this afternoon. First one all the way from Prescott.”
After I chugged the last of my whiskey, I nodded to the bartender for a refill. I was pretty sure my oldest brother, James, was involved with that railroad. His touch was better than Midas’s.
The man continued to talk, but I ignored him. I staggered to a table to escape his chattering.
When I slid onto a chair, one of the saloon girls started getting friendly. She touched my chest, and I removed her hand. I was such a regular that she should have known I would decline. Don’t know why that night in particular she thought I might behave differently.
I had only been with one woman, and she wasn’t no prostitute. She was the love of my life. No other woman would ever hold any appeal besides Hetty Clark.
And I knew it from the first time I met her at the Cowboy Tournament on Independence Day in 1889. It was the first time I’d seen a woman dressed in britches. Not a split skirt like my Aunt Julia. Hetty wore a plaid shirt and denim pants, just like a man.
Except no one would mistake her for a man. Her curvy figure and long blond braid left no doubt as to her gender. At seventeen, she was all woman.
Then I saw those sparkling green eyes and her sassy, confident smile. She was there to ride broncos. I teased her it was a man’s sport.
She laughed with that beautiful silky voice of hers tinged with arrogance. “Then why are you competing? You’re just a boy, judging by your lanky limbs.”
I was hooked from that moment on.
She won first-place that year. ‘Course that was first place out of five women. Still, it was an accomplishment.
Then Hetty came to watch me compete. I won first-place too. Out of thirty men. I rubbed it in her face.
“Whatcha think about that? First out of thirty.”
“Not bad for a boy.”
We had been in the solitude of the barn, so I pulled her against me and kissed her senseless. She was the first woman I kissed. But I could tell she enjoyed it.
Then I walked away. Left her standing there.
She sought me out the next day to tease me some more. I kissed her again, and she ensnared my heart.
Before I knew it, she went back home to her family’s ranch in Ash Fork, leaving me behind in Prescott to dream of when I might see her again.
The next year, we picked up right where we left off. I won first-place again. So did she. We celebrated with lots of kissing before she returned to her family ranch yet again.
That was the year I embraced my bad-boy nature. I started drinking with cowboys from Colter Ranch on our days off. By the time December came around, I was a regular scoundrel, or so my family told me.
No one knew I only partook in the vices called alcohol and cigarettes. Didn’t matter. I liked the reputation I built. It got me the attention I so desperately craved.
Then Mama got it in her mind that I needed to sober up. She sent me north with Boone. Where did we end up? Ash Fork.
The best part of the trip was the few days I spent hiding out in the barn at Hetty’s ranch. I drank plenty, but Hetty joined me late at night. We got little shuteye those nights as we ignored all proper boundaries and reveled in each other. That encounter proved to her I was most definitely a man.
I sighed as my thoughts turned away from the memories of Hetty Clark. The saloon girl tried a few more times to coax me away from my drink and my table. I continued to refuse her.
Before I could blink, a man yanked me out of my chair and he dragged me outside.
“You keep your hands off my girl!”
My sufficiently numbed brain couldn’t make sense of who his girl was until the saloon girl joined us in the street.
“Leave him alone!” she yelled at the large man with arms as thick as my two combined.
I squared up, sort of. Wasn’t much stability in my stance, as numb as I was. I readied myself for the fight. I’d been in enough to read the signs that one was coming.
Sure enough, enormous arms swung at my face. The force of it caused my head to turn and my feet to slide out from under me. I landed hard on the ground.
When I sat up, he kicked me in the stomach. Then he hauled me to my feet and landed another few fists in my stomach, back, and face.
The saloon girl left the scene. The world felt entirely un-stable.
Then enormous arms dragged me down the street by the feet. Rocks would have sliced my shirt had I not been wearing my tan leather duster. He continued pulling me away from the saloon. Then he shoved me into the back room of a build-ing.
“You shouldn’t have gone after my girl!”
After another punch, I curled up in a ball on the floor. He closed the door behind him. The lock clicked into place.
Between the drinking and the beating, my energy was gone, so I succumbed to sleep.
Sometime later, I woke to the smell of smoke. My body ached, and the blissful numbness of the drink left me. I sat up as thick smoke stung my eyes.
I crawled toward the door and grabbed the knob. It didn’t budge. He locked me in a room with no windows. No hope of escape.
I yelled out as I pounded on the door. No answer came.
As the reality of my situation became clear, desperation settled over me. I didn’t really want to die. Certainly not by burning to death. I was only twenty-two.
Some distant memory from my childhood came to mind. Mama told me that God would never leave me. Most of my adult life I spent trying to test that theory. But in that locked room filled with smoke, I decided it might be worth a shot.
“God, if you get me outta this, I’ll change. I’ll be a better man.”
That was it. One half-hearted promise to be different.
The smoke grew thicker. I panicked as flames licked the door.
Then all the sudden, the door splintered. A man entered the room. He rescued me.
“You alright?” he asked as we stumbled to the ground.
I had no voice and started coughing.
“Anyone else in there?”
Then he ran back into the burning building. Before he returned, a loud crack sounded above me. I watched in horror as the roof collapsed onto the man who had just saved my life.
As I crawled on my hands and knees away from the burning building, I saw the entire town engulfed in flames.
My head throbbed. I reached up and felt crusted blood. My energy left me and I laid down in the middle of the street and closed my eyes.
The next morning, I woke lying next to a group of injured people. I started to sit up, but powerful hands pushed me back down.
“Stay still,” a man’s deep voice commanded. “Doc thinks you have a concussion. Don’t get up. Just rest.”
“The man?” I asked.
He shook his head.
I frowned. What kind of God sends a man to rescue a rogue like me, then lets him die in the fire? In my place. It should have been me. I had done little of value with my wretched life.
“What’s your name, son?”
“My name’s Clyde. Clyde Caldwell.”
“Let me see if I can’t scrounge up some water for you.”
Clyde left. Then he returned a few minutes later with a mug of cool water. I drank it down. That’s when I noticed the sharp pain in my gut.
“Looks like you got beat up before the fire last night.”
I nodded. “Think it was a fight outside the saloon, though it’s a mite fuzzy for me.”
“You feel up to walking?”
“Good. Iris, that’s my wife, and I decided you should come stay with us until you’re fully recovered.”
A dozen people around me suffered worse injuries. I did not understand why the man and his wife were helping me.
Exhaustion stopped me from thinking about it. I accepted their help and fell into the bed they provided. Just before sleep tugged at the corners of my consciousness, I recalled my promise. God certainly got me out of that fire. I wondered just what kind of change He might require of me.
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