Excerpt of Wages of Sin

Kansas - 1878


Ruby McKay cast a furtive glance at the icy, rutted road in front of her brother-in-law's empty, gray frame house. Remnants of the blizzard lingered in the afternoon sky. Sparse slivers of light illuminated the barren fields and what was left of the neglected fruit orchard.

She couldn't help trembling as she climbed back into her spring wagon and wrapped her skirts and cloak tightly about her legs. What she'd just done had been wrong, but she'd had to do it. For the sake of Emma and the baby. 

Heart pounding, she kicked the strongbox further beneath the wagon seat so she wouldn't have to look at the evidence of her transgression. If pious Judge Caleb Stone ever learned she was the one who'd stolen the proof of Emma's infidelity, his self-righteous wrath would indeed rain down on her...on them all.

"I'm not a thief," Ruby insisted. "Please, God, I'm not a thief. Not really." Surely an omniscient Providence would see that she couldn't leave her sister's revealing diary in Caleb's hands. It was bad enough that he now suspected Emma's three-week-old baby was not his. Allowing the damning confirmation of that fact to remain in his possession was unthinkable.

With a shudder, Ruby unwound the driving lines from the wagon brake and spoke reassuringly to her restless mules. "Easy Ben. Whoa, Jessie." The sooner she got back home to the McKay farm and saw for herself that her injured sister was all right, the happier she'd be.

She glanced at the cold, stiff leather of the reins in her hands. Where were her warm gloves? Her head snapped around. The house! She'd laid the gloves on Caleb's desk while she'd tried to pry open the small strongbox containing Emma's diary! Failing that, she'd chosen to steal the entire box. Such reprehensible behavior had obviously obliterated any other sane thoughts.

Did she dare delay long enough to go back inside and retrieve the evidence of her presence? Wide-eyed, she stared at the forbidding house. If Caleb came home and caught her in there...

Fate made her decision for her. The solitary figure of retribution had rounded a bend and was fast approaching, his horse at a gallop, the tails of his great, black coat flapping out behind him.

She pressed her fingertips to her lips, her heart in her throat. "Oh, dear Lord! No!"

Caleb reined to a halt in front of her wagon. His horse was blowing clouds of frozen vapor, its flanks lathered in spite of the weather. True to her expectations, her brother-
in-law immediately confronted her with a glare more frigid than winter on the Kansas prairie.

"What are you doing here? I told you Emma and I don't need you anymore."

Ruby considered carefully. He might be easier to elude if he didn't know his unhappy wife had finally left him for good. She only hoped the stolen strongbox beneath her feet wasn't visible from his higher vantage point.

"I was just leaving." Ruby eyed the basket slung by its handle from the pommel of his saddle. "Surely, you don't have the baby in there?"

"Of course not." He dismounted slowly, cautiously, lifted down the basket and started toward the house.

"Then where is he?" Ruby demanded. "Emma said you took him with you."

"So, I did." She couldn't see his eyes very well in the shadow of the brim of his hat, but his smile clearly ridiculed her. "And I have him inside my coat for protection from the weather, as any good father would do."

There was something disquieting about the way he said, "good father." Ruby couldn't leave, even though she feared for her own safety. Not till she made certain little Moses was safe.

She tried the only ruse she thought might work on a man the likes of Caleb Stone - subservience. "Please, may I see the baby again before I go?"

"Come inside."

"No." She stepped closer and watched his face for a sign he suspected her of lying. "I...I really must be on my way. I just want a peek at him." That he obviously thought her daft was of no concern. The important thing was, he was moving to grant her request.

Striding to the rear of Ruby's wagon he placed the basket on the floorboards, opened his coat, and gently laid the sleeping infant in the basket, covering him with blankets up to his chin.

Ruby reached out a finger to tenderly stroke Moses' soft cheek. Caleb had done well; the baby was quite warm.

"Did you and my wife visit long?"

"Not very." And not here, Ruby added for the sake of her guilty conscience. This was the first time she had seen this man exhibit any sign of normal human kindness. It would behoove her to remember what he had done to Emma and what he might do to this innocent babe, given access to the damning information in Emma's diary.

Ruby knew Caleb was watching her, waiting for her to take her leave. She didn't know what to do next. He was bigger, faster, stronger. Escape would have to be by her wits.

"I couldn't get the damper on the stove to draw properly," Ruby said offhand. "It's awfully chilly in the house."

"Emma knows how."

"I'm afraid it's broken. Perhaps you should go check. I'll watch Moses."

"It's too cold for the child out here. Do what you please. I'm taking him to his mother." He started to reach for the basket, then paused.

Something in her eyes must have given away the fact that Emma wasn't in the two-storey house anymore. Caleb's gaze suddenly focused on her face. He scowled, then turned on his heel and sprinted up the steps to the porch. She saw him toss aside his broad-brimmed hat as he slammed the front door behind him. In seconds, light from a lone lamp was flickering through the frosty window panes.

Ruby knew he would search for Emma before returning to the wagon to demand an explanation. Still, it wasn't a large house. She saw the light fade, then reappear upstairs in Emma's empty bedroom.

Ruby acted swiftly. Caleb's sorrel was ground-hitched, its sides heaving, its nostrils blowing clouds of icy condensation. To leave the horse behind was to invite disaster. She snatched up the loose reins. "Come on, boy. Let's go."

It wasn't like she was stealing Caleb's horse any more than she'd stolen his strongbox. She merely needed to insure her safe departure. By the time the judge struggled through the drifts to his nearest neighbor's and borrowed another mount, she'd be miles away. And she's have Moses with her.

Tired, winded, the gelding refused to be hurried. Ruby tugged frantically on his bridle. Icy clumps of snow weighted the hem of her skirt, soaked her petticoats. She
glanced up. The light from the lamp had returned to the ground floor!

Caleb appeared on the porch, his broad-shouldered form filling the doorway. "What the hell do you think you're doing? And where is my wife?"

Ignoring him, Ruby looped the horse's reins through the metal armrest on the side of the wagon seat. She moved the baby's basket forward where she could look after it while she drove. Her only hope was to bluff. Hopefully, Caleb would think her incapable of decisive action until it was too late.

She hoisted herself into the driver's seat. Snapping the lines, she yelled to her mules. They jumped, lunging against the traces.

Caleb flung his lamp into the snow and cursed. Before the team could summon speed, his long strides had carried him across the thirty-foot distance from the porch. He grasped the bridle of the nearest mule and halted it with a shout.

When he turned to face Ruby his eyes were blazing. "Get down."

"No! Let go of my team."

Working his way along the lines toward her, he took the reins from her icy fingers. "You came all this way with no driving gloves? My, my, how careless of you."

Her gloves! Panic filled her. Caleb had been in his study. He must have seen her gloves on his desk. Soon, he would know everything.

"Let me go, or all of Kansas will hear how you beat your wife." She managed to keep her tone even, her voice strong, in spite of the quaking in her bones.

Stone laughed. "You may as well understand what your position is, dear sister-in-law. I have friends in President Hayes's cabinet as well as the State Senate. Do you think anyone will take the word of a mere school teacher over mine? You and your simpering sister will never get away with vilifying me."

Ruby could see the satisfied gleam in his eyes. Worse than his threats was the realization that he was undoubtedly right. Her chances of having the truth believed were nil. Caleb glared up at her. "You, madam, are trying my patience. Hand me the baby and climb down." He rested one booted foot on the wagon step.

She held her ground. "Not until you swear no harm will come to him."

"And why would I harm him?" Caleb asked with a slow drawl. "Is there some reason? Something else you want to tell me, Miss McKay?"


He was smiling openly, now. "Oh? Then why the concern? Surely, you don't think a man would harm his own flesh and blood?" His hand shot out. His fingers closed painfully around her wrist.

Ruby's startled cry sliced through the air as he jumped back, jerking her from the wagon. She grasped his greatcoat to try to break her fall. He backhanded her across the face, sent her sprawling in the snow.

Ruby scrambled to regain her footing. He was reaching for the baby's basket! She came up behind him, pounding his back with her fists. "No! Leave him alone!"

Caleb wheeled, wrapped his arms around her, pulled her to him. "All right, woman, have it your way. The infant can wait. I always thought I glimpsed a wanton beneath your Puritanical attitude. No one with such an appealing body and fiery temper can be cold to the core. Let's see how long it takes you to melt for me."

Suffocating in his tight embrace, Ruby gasped for breath, twisting and writhing to free herself. Caleb pushed back her hood. He buried his face in the soft flesh of her neck. His free hand groped under her coat, found her small, firm breast and kneaded it savagely.

No man had ever touched her that way! For Caleb Stone to do so was a horrid anathema. A despoiling she could not allow. 

Caleb's overcoat had fallen open in the struggle. Ruby felt the hard butt of the revolver he always carried. Her fingers groped wildly. They closed around the pistol's grip. Jerked it free of his belt.

His eyes widened in disbelief. He released her. "Give me that."

"No." Ruby held the heavy Colt in both hands while pulling the hammer back with her thumbs. "Get away from my wagon."

"You won't get far."

"I know what I'm doing." 

"Do you? I think not." Hands outstretched as if in supplication, Caleb edged closer, his back to the house.

In the dim light, Ruby didn't see his left hand make a sudden motion but she did feel it take hold of the pistol, try to twist it from her grasp.

The sharp crack of a shot echoed a moment ahead of her own shrill scream. Caleb's horse reared, pulled loose and ran off. Fortunately, her stalwart mules held their ground.

Afraid to move, Ruby watched the feverish menace leaving Caleb's eyes. Stunned, he slowly doubled over, then slumped to the ground. The bullet had penetrated his uplifted hand and gone on to hit him in the head. His arms and legs twitched spasmodically - like the wings of a freshly butchered chicken.

Bitter gorge rose in her throat. She crouched over Caleb's still body, pistol at the ready. Blood was spreading beneath his head, melting the snow and defiling the pure whiteness with its crimson stain. The skin was torn from the back of his left hand. Splinters of bone stuck out. The sickening odor of powder-burned flesh filled the air.

She waited, holding her breath. If he moved, breathed, she'd have to send for help. Her Christian upbringing would insist upon it.

Nothing stirred, save the icy prairie wind. Caleb was dead. All she'd wanted to do was help her sister and instead, she'd become a murderer! If only he hadn't tried to wrest the gun from her! Then again, if he hadn't grabbed her in the first place she wouldn't have had to defend herself and none of this would have happened.

And if Emma hadn't been so weak, so vulnerable...

Sobering, Ruby came to her senses. There was no use fussing about the past. What was done was done and couldn't be changed, no matter how much a body prayed or wished it could. But now what?

She began to frown as she stared up at the darkening sky. Winter storms could kill as easily as a pistol. Once the weather closed in, unlucky travelers had been known to freeze to death just a few yards from the safety of a warm hearth. Clearly, it was time to start for home without delay. Caleb was beyond help. Therefore her responsibility was to the living. 

Later, she'd worry about the consequences of what she'd done. Right now, her only concern was what was best for the baby.


Hellfires burned in Caleb Stone's temples. Tongues of pain streaked up his arm like flames. Bitch. Whore. Harlot. He'd have Ruby McKay's head on a pike before he was finished with her.

He hunched over the blood-spattered saddle horn, his great, black overcoat flapping, and let his horse carry him blindly down the snow-covered road. No woman, least of all a McKay, was worth even one hair on the head of a righteously appointed lawgiver like himself. That was surely the reason her bullet had failed to do its worst.

Caleb raised his resonant, orator's voice to the heavens and began to quote, "'Hear me, O God: lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death; lest mine enemy say, I have prevailed against him!'"

Deliverance was his due. God owed him that. Calling out, he fully expected a miracle. If not a direct bolt from Heaven, at least a suitable substitute to bring him through this life-threatening situation.

His sorrel made a sharp turn, slowed, and halted, nickering softly. Blood had caked Caleb's right eye closed. He was able to force open his left and peer through the darkness at the bobbing approach of a hurricane lamp.

There were at least two people besides the bearer of the lamp. It was clear he'd been rescued, just as he'd anticipated.

"Judge Stone? Oh, Lord-a-mercy, it is. Come here, Gideon, and give me a hand with him."

Recognizing Dan Tollefsen's voice and trusting his broad-shouldered, farmer's strength, Caleb let himself be helped to the ground. "The Lord is my deliverer," he boomed. "Is that you, Mr. Tollefsen?"

"It sure is, Judge. Now, you relax and let me and Gideon get you inside. Doc Powell is here, too. He's the one started us out lookin' for you."

"She shot me," Caleb said.

"Who shot you?" Dan's voice rose in disbelief.

"Ruby McKay, the schoolteacher. My poor wife's sister." Aware of the emotional impact his statements had to be making, Caleb paused for effect. Dramatically, he waited for the men's murmurs to die down.

"Doc said he'd heard you was hurt, Judge, but he didn't say it was Ruby what shot you!"

Caleb spotted the doctor's slim form silhouetted in the doorway of the Tollefsen house. Only Ruby knew what she'd done, so Powell must have spoken with her. Good. He'd also know where Emma was hiding. Chances were excellent that his dear wife had simply fled to her sister's. Emma never did have much imagination.

Doc Powell held open the front door while the brothers half carried the injured man through. "Put him in the parlor."

Dizzy, Caleb sank heavily into the closest chair, wincing as Powell immediately began to probe his head wound. "Ouch! Careful, you sot."

"I've not had a drink all evening," the doctor replied. "Tonight, I wanted my wits about me."

"To find me? Miss McKay told you what she'd done?"

"In a manner of speaking," Powell said, concentrating on his work. "Now, hold still while I clean this and then I'll see to your hand."

Between the cold and the shock, Caleb had nearly forgotten the bullet's damage to his left hand. He cautiously lifted the dangling member, supporting his forearm by the wrist. Entering his palm, the lead projectile had shattered the bones, destroyed everything in its path, and exited out the back, taking the flesh with it.

Caleb tried to move his fingers. They didn't respond. The bitch had crippled him! He'd spent four years dodging Confederate bullets in the War Between the States and come away with little more than a lingering case of dysentery. Now, a woman had done this to him!

Staring at the wound, he ignored Powell's ministrations. It was his left hand, so he'd still be able to write and sit a horse, but dammit, he'd be less than perfect. He knew the Good Book. His body was a temple and Ruby McKay had permanently scarred it. She would pay. That, he vowed.

Dan Tollefsen's wife, Martha, brought a basin, hot water and bandages. Her hands were trembling. Her eyes filled with tears.

"Put that down before you spill it," Dan told her.

Caleb could see that Martha was dazed. Worried for him.
It wouldn't do to have the foolish sow lose control. In her present condition she might reveal her true feelings. He had enough to worry about without adding Martha's weeping and wailing. Or, worse yet, having to try to explain away any ridiculous words of love from her.

"Go into another room, Martha," he ordered through clenched teeth. Thankfully, she obeyed.

The doctor lifted Caleb's hand, examined it and laid it in the bowl. From his expression, it was clear that Powell assessed the damage much as he had. It was bad.

"I'm sorry I didn't have more experience with such things in '64," Powell said. "But I spent most of my time in Washington, treating illness." He turned to Dan and asked for whiskey.

"And drinking, no doubt," Caleb said.

"The whiskey is to cleanse the wound," the doctor countered. Accepting the bottle he handed it first to Stone. "Perhaps you should drink some before I use it on your hand."

Caleb waved it off. "My strength is sufficient. The Lord will sustain me."

"So be it." Adam Powell put the bottle to his own lips, took a deep draught, then inverted it and dribbled its contents slowly into the gaping hole in the back of Caleb's hand. Golden liquid ran dirty brown into the basin.

The last thing Caleb remembered was the sound of his own scream.