Excerpt From Refiner's Fire


Mid-Atlantic Ocean

December 28, 1853

Cigar smoke swirled through the after cabin of the clipper packet Caroline. It was two o’clock in the morning. A gale was blowing outside, sending all but the hardiest of stomachs to their bunks. Two men remained.

A. Jackson O’Rourke squinted across the table at his opponent. The game had started with a table of seven some four hours before, and Jack had played it straight thus far, content with the dealer’s fifty-six-percent advantage inherent in the card game Ace-Deuce-Jack. Then the other players drifted away to their staterooms, and it became apparent this naive but tenacious fellow would be an easy mark. Too easy to pass up.

He was a soft-faced, round-bellied Englishman making his first crossing to the Americas. A recently widowed earl of something or other, he had all the trappings of aristocracy: Savile Row cutaways, four-in-hand silk cravats, a gold watch and looping fob, the requisite monocle and walking stick, and a healthy dose of arrogance. Not to mention seemingly endless supplies of English pounds, many of which were already piled on Jack’s side of the table.

The fellow was growing restless, his color fast fading with each roll of the ship. It was almost time. . .

Jack shuffled the deck and offered it for him to cut. Took it back and said, "Place your bet."

The Englishman slid a five-pound note into the center of the table. Jack matched it, then turned over the top three cards one by one: a queen, a ten and a seven. His opponent grunted his satisfaction and reached for his winnings, saying in his clipped, precise accent,

"This seems an opportune time for me to bow out. You have had the best of me tonight, old chap. The colonies win again, what?"

He scooped up his remaining cash and started to rise.

"I regret any distress I might have caused such a distinguished visitor to my country," said Jack. "So much so I am moved to offer amends. What do you say we each put our entire stake on the table? One hand. Winner takes all."

The earl sat back down, as much from a violent lurch of the ship as his own volition. He eyed his remaining bankroll, still several hundred pounds strong but much reduced from what he had brought to the table hours before. His gaze shifted to Jack’s much larger pile.

"Mm-m. Tempting, but—"

"My dear fellow, you have taken the last two hands. You will have all the cards except my three. Who could ask for better odds than that?"

A lie given the deuce Jack had palmed earlier.

"I do not think—"

But Jack was already reshuffling the deck. He pushed his stake into the middle of the table. Handed the deck across to be cut and waited to see whether the fish would bite. The pudgy white hand fidgeted, then reached for the deck.

Jack made a show of squaring the cards and placing them precisely in front of him. He stretched his fingers as if to loosen them, in the process bringing the card in his sleeve down to the base of his wrist. He slid the first card from the top of the deck. Turned it over. An eight.

A little sigh escaped the Englishman’s lips. His eyes remained riveted on the deck as Jack slipped the second card off the top and flipped it over. A three. The earl bounced in his chair, tension and excitement tinting his face pink. Jack reached for the deck, index finger extended while his little finger stretched backward to retrieve the winning card. In a fluid motion honed over many hours of practice, he pulled it forward.

He had executed this move dozens of times without the gull being any the wiser. This time the ship shuddered and pitched, tilting his arm enough to expose the descending card. The Englishman jumped up and shouted,

"You are a cad and a cheat, sir!"

Jack inwardly cursed the vagaries of nature that had caused this difficulty. He checked the cabin’s five stateroom doors in case some curious passenger had heard the commotion and decided to investigate. All remained as before, the only sound that of the rain lashing the skylight overhead.

He spread his hands and put on his most disarming grin. "Zounds, my lord, you have caught me out. Surely you cannot blame an enterprising Yank from trying." He pushed the pile of cash across the table. "The pot is yours. Take it, and we shan’t speak of this again."

"Bloody hell I will! You have breached the code of honor by which I live and breathe. I shall meet you on the hurricane deck at dawn. Pistols at ten paces. Until then, I bid you goodnight!"

He spun away, staggering sideways on the rolling deck. Jack was around the table and in his path before he could regain his footing.

"You are making much ado about nothing, to quote your revered Mr. Shakespeare. I apologize for offending your sensibilities. Take the money, and let us be done with this."

"I do not accept your apology, sir. You may care nothing for your honor, but in my country it is everything. There is but one way to settle this!"

"To duel over a small indiscretion is ridiculous."

"Nonetheless, nothing else will satisfy me. The hurricane deck at dawn."

Jack had honed his instinct for survival under a variety of situations spanning his thirty-one years. A public duel on an exposed deck on the high seas? He did not like the odds. Worse, news of what had happened this night would gush like floodwater from captain to crew to all the passengers. He had left New York City under a cloud two years before and gone into self-imposed exile in England. Although he had managed to escape scandal there, his recently sagging fortunes had prompted him to return to a new life in the American West. Now his future was threatened with disruption once again.

He saw in an instant how he could extricate himself from this impasse. Hardly a sure thing, but he was, after all, a gambling man.

"Why wait for dawn?" he said as he reached into his breast coat pocket and withdrew the short-barreled muff pistol he had purchased in London and always carried with him. It was a single-shot weapon designed primarily for defensive purposes. Which was the exact circumstance in which he now found himself.

The Englishman saw the gun and froze, eyes bulging. "What the devil . . .?"

Jack did not hesitate. He pressed the muzzle into the earl’s soft aristocratic midsection and pulled the trigger.


Chapter One

Charleston, South Carolina

February 3, 1854

Salvation came in the person of Andrew Jackson O’Rourke. Or so it seemed to Lizzie Hamilton. The past fifteen months had seen a plague of Biblical proportion descend on her life. She had begun the month of October, 1852 as she had every other in her nineteen years of living as the pampered youngest daughter of a prominent South Carolina planter family. A much-sought-after belle whose heart had been captured by a handsome and dashing young gentleman from a nearby plantation. With her future thus secure, she had been in no hurry to shed the excitement of the single life for that of matron.

Then catastrophe struck.

Lizzie would never forget the raw, stormy late-November day when the telegram arrived. She and her mother were already on edge due to the prolonged absence of Lizzie’s older brother Nathaniel, who had assumed control of the ancestral plantation Rocklands after his father’s death ten years before. His wife, a beautiful northerner whom he had married against all reason a year and a half before, had betrayed them all by running away with two fugitive slaves. Instead of divorcing her, he had chased off after her, leaving his family virtually defenseless against what was to happen.

Within days of his leaving, they discovered the escape had been orchestrated by none other than one of their own, who unbeknownst to them all had been spiriting local slaves north to Canada via the abominable Underground Railroad. How a seemingly true son of the South could have hidden his treacherous abolitionist tendencies from his entire acquaintance was beyond knowing. Yet even this horror paled before the realization that all the while Lizzie was being courted, her beau had been nurturing an illicit alliance with Nathaniel’s faithless wife. Shock and shame had so inflamed Lizzie that she thought herself beyond the reach of any further calamity. How wrong she was!

On that fateful November day, she and her mother were sitting in the family parlor when a telegram arrived. It was addressed to Nathaniel, but as acting head of Rocklands, her mother hesitated only a moment before opening it. Her face paled. In a near swoon, she allowed it to slip from her hand. Lizzie snatched it up and read the contents for herself.

Creditor’s patience exhausted STOP Rocklands in immediate foreclosure STOP Hired manager currently en route STOP Meanwhile all assets frozen STOP Family may remain pending arrangements. The sender was one Benjamin Hanley of the Merchants Bank, New York City.

Creditor, foreclosure, assets—the words meant nothing to Lizzie, who had no head for business, but her mother’s reaction left little doubt something dire had happened.

"What does it mean?" she cried.

Each one of her mother’s forty-nine years sat heavily on her face. "It means we are ruined."

Lizzie gaped. "Ruined? What—"

"Silly girl, is it not obvious? Nathaniel has squandered his birthright and left us bereft of home and livelihood. We are destitute!"

Lizzie was unsure which shocked her more, her mother’s harsh tone or the incomprehensible idea her words conveyed.

She shook her head. "Impossible. Nathaniel knows his duty. He would never jeopardize our well-being in such a way."

Her mother seemed not to have heard. She rose, hands clenched together. "We must go to Roland. He will know what to do. We shall leave on tomorrow’s train. Go and see to your packing."

Roland Townsend, a successful lawyer in Charleston some eighty miles southeast of Rocklands, was Lizzie’s older sister Sarah’s husband. Mention of his name brought Lizzie immediate relief. Yes, Roland would consult with his many contacts in the business and political realm and find a way to make this terrible situation disappear. Her spirits restored, she went in search of her lady’s maid so the packing could commence. On reflection, she even welcomed the opportunity to escape the confines of the estate for the bustle and excitement of Charleston. Life had become unbearably boring of late. No parties. No gatherings among the young people of the neighborhood. Only humiliation and isolation. In the social whirl of Charleston, she would prove she cared not a fig about her former beau’s perfidy. Confident of her charms and her ability to attract new suitors, she hummed beneath her breath as she chose which gowns she would take with her.

This fantasy lasted only long enough for the train to reach Charleston and Roland to read the telegram. His grim features told the tale. He would telegraph Nathaniel and urge him to return posthaste. Which, as it happened, was not to be. Within days, word arrived that Nathaniel had been killed in a duel. Lizzie’s mother collapsed under this news, and her poor heart never recovered. Two weeks later, she was dead.

All semblance of normal life vanished. Lizzie was forced to move in with Sarah and Roland, not even being allowed to bring her maid since that personage now belonged to the new owner of Rocklands. Dependent on her only remaining relatives, she was disgraced, unmarriageable, and bereft of even the slimmest chance of happiness.

She had never paid much attention to the celestial Being. Oh, she had participated in the required trappings of religion as any good southern lady would do, attending church every Sunday, suffering through family devotions before breakfast every morning, reciting her prayers every night. It was something one did, like dressing properly and observing the edicts of etiquette. Beyond that, she had simply assumed she occupied a position of favor in God’s eyes. It had never occurred to her to question her own worthiness. Or to worry that He might one day have the temerity to withdraw His favor. Now her anger over His betrayal knew no bounds.

Nevertheless, she still clung to the illusion that sometime, somewhere He would send a knight in shining armor to rescue her from her fate. It was in such a frame of mind that she entered the parlor one early-February evening to discover Roland had brought a guest home for dinner, a client whom he was currently defending before the bar.

He was handsome. Dark like her former beau but slighter of stature, impeccably dressed, and sporting a neat moustache. Lizzie was immediately struck by his eyes. Deep brown, almost black in color, they fixed her with an intense gaze that seemed to cut through to her very soul while projecting an air of supreme confidence. He was a man to be reckoned with, and his obvious approval upon being introduced to Lizzie resonated throughout her body.

She could hardly remember the last time she had been openly admired by a member of the opposite gender. Now she saw herself through this stranger’s eyes. Lush reddish-brown hair. Piquant face with lively green eyes, delicate features and a milky complexion broken by a light spray of freckles across a pert nose. A slim form with a pleasingly full bosom. That he took it all in with interest rather than the pity to which she had lately grown accustomed came like a blast of warm air on the coldest winter day. She returned his greeting with a candid smile and lingering glance that found its mark in a slightly raised eyebrow. She ignored her sister Sarah’s disapproving look and accepted the arm he offered by way of escort into the dining room.

He seated her at the table and took his place directly across from her. She sat tall and straight as the soup course was served, absorbing the gentleman’s approving glances and forgetting her desperate circumstances for the first time in months. Then he spoke, and the bubble of self-delusion burst.

"Allow me to express my condolences over your recent difficulties, Miss Hamilton. Your brother-in-law has told me of the deaths of your brother and mother, as well as the calumny of your. . ." A delicate pause. ". . . friend’s betrayal. How such behavior could have been directed against such a charming young lady is beyond comprehension."

Lizzie’s face flamed. How dare Roland reveal their dirty secrets to a total stranger! She tossed her head and said, "I assure you I am quite recovered. The young man was little more than an amusing diversion to me, and I have all but forgotten him. I only regret he is not facing justice for his crimes. Unlike you, although I can only assume you are innocent given Mr. Townsend’s decision to bring you into our midst. Of what are you accused, if I may be so bold as to ask?"

She was rather pleased with herself for turning the tables on him, but her sister Sarah was not amused. She scowled fiercely from her seat at the foot of the table. Lizzie kept her eyes locked on the unbowed Mr. O’Rourke, who smiled with dancing eyes and said,

"I admire a bold lady, Miss Hamilton. Therefore, I am happy to oblige your request, although it may not make for the most delicate of dinner-table conversation. As it happens, I am charged with murder."

Lizzie’s jaw dropped. It was not unusual for Roland to bring a client with whom he felt a particular affinity home for dinner. Their cases usually involved some civil issue such as a property dispute or inheritance matter. But murder? This was a first.

Sarah was sitting wide-eyed with her hand covering her mouth.

"There is no cause for alarm, my dear," said Roland. "Mr. O’Rourke merely defended himself against a disgruntled passenger who meant him bodily harm. Once the facts are out, he will be duly acquitted of any wrongdoing."

"But such a serious charge. How is it that he is not. . .not. . ."

"In jail?" offered Jack O’Rourke. "I most assuredly would be languishing there this very moment were it not for your husband’s eloquent plea on my behalf."

"We must credit your ability to post bail over any eloquence on my part," said Roland. "Nonetheless, in this instance, justice was served. It would have been a travesty for an innocent gentleman such as yourself to be confined in that foul place."

Sarah sent her husband a fond smile. "As you have so often said, our legal system is the bulwark of the innocent. And you are a most valiant gatekeeper."

"I could not agree more, Mrs. Townsend," said Mr. O’Rouke, turning the full force of his charm in her direction. "My fate is quite assured as long as it rests in your husband’s most capable hands. That he has found me worthy to share this meal in the company of his delightful family humbles me more than I can say."

Sarah blushed and murmured, "Our home is always open to those in duress through no fault of their own."

Lizzie studied her sister. Once every bit as beautiful as Lizzie herself, marriage and the bearing of three children with yet another on the way had added inches to her waist, lines to her face, and mundane cares to her spirit. These very changes were the reason Lizzie had been content to delay her entrance into matrimonial bliss for as long as possible. That, of course, was in the days when she had had her pick of available suitors. Now that her family’s disgrace had diminished her prospects, she found herself envying Sarah’s secure position and wondering whether she could ever hope to emulate it. Several of her former friends had aging maiden aunts living in their households, and the possibility she might be reduced to such a permanent situation sent chills through her soul. Was the instrument of her rescue sitting across from her this very moment?

She smiled and said, "I admit my curiosity is piqued, sir. How did an innocent man come to be in such a perilous circumstance as yours?"

"A fair question. Count boredom as the primary culprit. A transatlantic crossing provides little in the way of entertainment. Certain gentlemen were in the habit of engaging in a little friendly gamesmanship of an evening. An Englishman and I were the only ones remaining one night when my extraordinary luck led my opponent to accuse me of cheating. I tried to reason with him. Even offered to give him the entire pot, but he was not to be mollified. He pulled a gun, we tussled, and the gun went off. The unfortunate fellow fell dead at my feet."

"Horrible! But surely a regrettable accident."

"Exactly. However, there were no other witnesses. And he happened to be a member of the British aristocracy. An earl, I believe. The British embassy has made a stink, giving your local authorities no choice but to pursue the matter." He shrugged. "As Mr. Townsend has already said, I shall be vindicated at trial. Until then, I am in his keeping, so to speak."

"But what of your family? Your name tells me you are of Irish ancestry, but I hear no brogue in your voice and therefore assume your home is here in America."

"Indeed. I emigrated to this country by way of Canada when I was but four years old."

"Canada?" She said the word with distaste, that country being the magnet that had set their family troubles in motion that fateful October.

"I did not have the privilege of being born into a wealthy old family such as yours, Miss Hamilton. My parents, being of peasant stock, did not have the four-pound fare required to reach New York City. Canada, however, offered a subsidized fare of fourteen shillings, which we were just able to afford. My father died during the crossing, and my mother and I walked across the border. We made our way to Boston, where my mother found work as a scullery maid in the household of a prominent Bostonian. I rose from those humble beginnings to become a self-made man. An attribute, I am told, much admired by America’s colonial forefathers."

Lizzie looked him over with new eyes. Given his stylish but expensive attire and courtly manners, she had imagined him to be the scion of a successful northern industrial family. She laid the image aside and replaced it with the sad, squalid little tale he had just told. Despite her disappointment, she could not deny his point that much value was made of American individualism. He did appear to be prosperous, and for someone in her position, that counted for much.

"And your mother?" she asked.

"She died of a brain fever when I was fifteen, God rest her soul, leaving me to make my own way in the world. Which, as you can see, I have managed to do rather well." A grin. "Excepting, of course, my present circumstances, which I have no doubt will soon be resolved to my credit."

Such crass boasting about his financial situation was the first sign she had seen of his crude beginnings. Before her ingrained training could stop her, she said, "And what exactly do you do to earn your livelihood?"

She knew the question made her equally culpable of employing bad manners, but she disregarded her sister’s frown and waited for his answer.

"I shan’t bore you with the particulars. I shall simply say I am a man of business whose ventures have brought him across the Atlantic to his adopted homeland. And very glad I am to be here."

Lizzie detected her sister’s and brother-in-law’s discomfort over the turn of conversation as well as their relief over the timely arrival of the main course: fricasseed chicken, rice, and boiled pumpkin along with their cook Bessie’s best biscuits. She retreated into her meal, anticipation tickling her senses. She had no rational reason to believe anything had changed as far as her future prospects were concerned. Nonetheless it was there, a strong feeling that something had shifted in her favor. She smiled to herself. It was about time.

To purchase Refiner's Fire, go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble.