Title: Race to the Gallows
Series: Mavericks of the Heartland #1
Author: Jenny Bullington
Genre: Adult, Historical Mafia Romance
Published: August 24, 2017
Jack and Ruby Walsh thought their sleepy town's Independence Day would be like all the others. That is, until an accidental explosion of fireworks destroys downtown Cherokee, Iowa. A witch-hunt ensues as WWII tensions rise, causing everyone to blame one immigrant German family for the fire. But was it really them? Only Jack and Ruby have the courage to fight for justice, even as they stand against the most corrupt in their community. Ignited by their white-hot passion for each other, the two stick together until they have Cherokee on its knees, rectifying its wrongs and uncovering a more sinister criminal network. RACE TO THE GALLOWS is a harrowing tale of love, loyalty, and courage. Based on true events in Northwest Iowa.
June stood in their family kitchen and wrapped up the food she made for the luncheon after the memorial service. The children were getting changed in their rooms after their baths, and she still had to do Hannah’s hair. She could hear the boys in their rooms, conversing in English. Before, when they’d first come to Cherokee, her children had usually spoken in their German tongue, and that provided a sense of comfort for her. She didn’t want them to ever lose that gift from their family and their homeland. Yet now, after repeated bullying, they rarely spoke German unless they were around her and her husband.
Her ankles began to ache in her heeled shoes, and it brought her back to her present reality. She’d been standing by her counter, caught in thought again. The kitchen always seemed to be the one room that she occupied most as she both fed and kept vigil over her family, prayed and daydreamed for them above herself – only if there was spare time did she allow herself to utter prayers for her own heart. The memorial service would be difficult today, and while she ached for the hurting families, she always felt apprehensive when she had to venture in to town. How would it go today? Could she openly grieve the loss of a child in the community? And if she didn’t in a way that others expected, would that be held against her? Would she hear again how she and her family are Nazis?
Sighing, she took a deep breath to steady herself. Someday, she tried to convince herself, they will see that I am a good person no matter where I came from. June heard their collie, Jaeger, barking in the yard, and as she gazed out the window above the sink to the yard, she saw her husband, Karl, walking toward the house from the barn.
“Hi, sweetheart,” Karl greeted as he opened up the front door of the farmhouse, the familiar squeaking of the hinges echoing in the kitchen. He drew his handkerchief out of his back pocket and wiped the perspiration from his brow. He’d been hurrying through his chores on the farm so they could attend as a family.
June took a fresh glass out of the cabinet, filled it up with cool water for him, and walked over to Karl. He paused mid-step, his eyes flashing with admiration for the woman before him.
“You look lovely,” Karl complimented in German as he slowly took the water from June, smiling as he leaned in and kissed her cheek.
“You smell awful,” June teased, but the happiness she tried to fake didn’t reach her own expression. Karl’s face fell when he saw that something was bothering her.
He touched her face gently then took her by the hand, feeling his callouses rubbing against her own as he led her to their kitchen table.
“Karl,” June began softly, “we have to go soon and you’re not ready. You should bathe quickly.”
“No,” he stated simply. “What is the matter?” He slid a chair out for June to sit in. June tried to sigh her frustration, yet knew the way her husband worked: if something was bothering June, he wanted to discuss it right away. Meanwhile, she would be patiently annoyed at having to discuss the inner feelings she hid from everyone.
June shrugged and shook her head no, not wanting to divulge her feelings before they had to leave. She had to keep them stuffed down, hidden, locked away and not let them out lest she dissolve in tears as soon as the snide remarks and glares came their way. The wounds sometimes felt so deep, all because she was from a different country. Even some of the other residents in Cherokee had earlier generations come from Germany, yet none as recently as she.
“Tell me what’s bothering you,” Karl asked once more, the loaded question that she did not want to discuss. Despite this, his gentle blue eyes pleaded with her, begged her to open up as she’d been asked by him many times before.
Yet June couldn’t put into words the depths of her feelings. It was as if a well was sealed tightly inside her, deep in the Bavarian forest that was the free nature of her soul, containing all her dreams, longings and hopes. It was those places she chose to let herself in her mind wander; safe, warm, comfortable.
It also contained such darkness that shadows seemed as daylight compared to the monsters and demons that made the darkness their friends. It was there, in the darkness of her soul’s forest, that the well made its dwelling. Many times, June imagined the well was sealed tightly with chains, but somehow, they’d come loose from time to time. The burning red flames of memories would crawl out, chasing after her, even in the otherwise placid places of her soul’s forest. She’d run as fast as she could, but quickly her bare feet would become ensnared. Cracked, bruised and bleeding, she’d only allow herself to collapse under the oppression of the aggressive memories if she was alone. When the kids were napping or playing outside, or at night when everyone in her family was fast asleep. Only then could she allow herself to feel the weight of it all, the unceasing burden she carried.
Otherwise, on any normal day, she chose to keep the well locked. It sometimes beckoned for her to take a peek, but there was too much… too many emotions, too many memories that vividly played across her eyes like they were still going on right before her.
Karl had met June back in primary school; their families were friends and fellow farmers in Kelheim. While they’d been the best of friends in school, it had been in secondary school when June had met an older man, someone who’d said the right things, who appeared religious and upright. He seemed to be on the successful track in life and was part of the military’s young adults that seemed to be on the rise upward toward importance. That was the only reason her parents had allowed her to be courted by the man.
Yet he was not what he appeared.
She’d been warned by a well-meaning friend from school who had heard things about him, things he’d done with other girls. June refused to listen, however. His time, his attention, his touch all allowed her to pretend everything was okay. Surely her parents would have stopped them had the hidden secrets been true?
But her friend was right. Everyone who’d expressed their concerns was right. She didn’t listen and she paid for it, nearly with her very life. June had wanted to believe that his words were true, that she had been special. He’d said he loved her, and oh how badly she wanted to be loved.
Then his love began to hurt her. He robbed her of a precious part of her life, her virginity, something she had wanted to give in a sacred way to someone who cherished its value. Once he was done hurting her, he taunted her for her lack of performance, liking her to a Jew he’d hated so deeply, as he put back on his Nazi uniform. June laid there, bare, broken, and bleeding, and still he kept hurting her with his words.
This pain she carried every day, reminding her of what was stolen from her youth, what she could never get back. What she could never give to another – she came to Karl broken, used, tainted. Who she wanted to be and what she wanted to give to her future husband was instead given to someone who made her feel as though she was no more than a piece of refuse.
June knew how lucky she was that Karl still wanted her, still loved her, and had two more children with her even after she had born a child, unwed. He was seen as the hero, and in many ways, he was. June would hear Karl praised for his valor in taking on a tainted woman with a child, and she said her thanks many times. She had no idea why he still loved her even though he wasn’t the first to her. Yet as grateful as she was, she wished she could have been seen for her own valor, her own bravery as she rose from the bed, bloodied, broken and raw. She stood, numb, and forced her legs to move to the wash room despite the pain, cleaned herself up and left. She was the one who bravely made her way home, keeping her composure until the warmth of her pillow on her bed enveloped her, holding her and soaking up her tears.
It was June who still held her head high when the man accused her of taking advantage of him and lied about her integrity and character to everyone in the town. It was June who withstood the torrential rains of judgement as she brought her first born into the world out of wedlock.
June’s quiet suffering and bravery to survive until she and Karl finally joined hands in matrimony was neglected, unobserved. Karl took the credit for saving her, and while she was indeed thankful for him, at the same time, she was the one who endured the most.
She hadn’t cried since that day, until she and Karl moved to a new country and she found herself once again alone. Alone and, eerily similar to before when she was the outcast, hearing cruelty thrown her way. She’d found out how to be strong alone before, she’d have to find a way again.
Karl and the children needed her to be strong. Therefore, June forced the well inside her soul shut, and sealed it up, walking away unburdened by the chains she had to bear, accustomed to their weight.
Smiling once again, June put her hand on Karl’s face and stroked his cheek.
“I’m fine,” she said, almost convincing herself of her lie, and decided leave the children at home this time so they wouldn’t see her ridiculed and mistreated.
Jack tried to be careful with his dress pants before the funerals as he waded through the debris, looking for something, anything, that could show the Malones accusation against the Vogels was a lead worth pursuing. He doubted very much the Vogel boys had anything to do with the fires, yet it was his duty to investigate anyway.
“Walsh,” Paulie called from behind him. “What the hell do you think was going on with that guy on your block?”
Jack was thankful that he had convinced Ruby to wait for him in the coolness of the church rather than the heat of the sun. He could tell she was upset by something that day, and the stranger on his street didn’t help. He shook his head, disgruntled. He felt unnerved, and suspicious that his own home was being watched. He had made it his business to know everyone in the area he patrolled, making mental files for each resident should anything ever come to play in the future. He was always preparing for an investigation on anyone, at any time, so the unfamiliar face refused to leave his mind. He had a wife he loved more than himself, and a baby on the way. Should that man have gotten the notion to dig through the home and Ruby was home alone…
Jack stopped where he stood and shook his head more vehemently this time. “I’m not sure, but he doesn’t know who he’s messing with,” Jack finally replied to Paulie, meaning every word he spoke. He felt his protectiveness over his own home turf send a surge down to his stomach and a tingling began in his fingers.
“Hey, you know I will be over as fast as I can if you ever need it,” Paulie stated simply, shading his eyes from the sun.
Jack smiled and nodded. He did indeed know Paulie would always be there. “It’s probably nothing,” he said more for Paulie than himself, “there are a lot of extra people in town today for the memorial service and to see Main Street for themselves.”
Paulie lifted his eyebrows at Jack’s statement. “Right,” he feigned agreement.
Jack smirked at his partner. He liked that they knew each other as well as they did. He looked down at his watch and saw that it was nearly time for the service to begin.
“It’s hotter than hades out, Goldstein. I want you to find out where that locket came from and see if we can track down its owner. Start with the jeweler, see if he remembers it. Ask Mr. Beatty to see if anyone ordered it from one of his catalogs, too.”
Paulie pulled his notebook out of his front shirt pocket and wrote notes down with his pencil. “Consider it done,” he said as he deliberately flipped it shut and put it back in its place.
Jack looked around the debris, the piles of rubble familiar to him now, and he huffed in exasperation. He’d need to refresh his eyes. “Let’s come back after the funerals. One more look.” Jack said as he turned to leave the disaster site, hearing the crunch of debris underneath his black leather shoes. He made a mental note to be sure to wipe off the bottoms of his shoes before entering his father-in-law’s church.
He had been so engrossed in watching where he stepped in his church clothes that when he finally looked up, he was shocked to see a couple men in suits and one with a camera by his car.
Jack looked back at Paulie, who’d been following closely behind him, and whispered, “What is this?”
“Sheriff Walsh!” one of the men shouted, seeing he’d been noticed. “Ryan Josephs with the Daily Journal! I have a few questions for you!” Jack heard Paulie chortle behind him, and slap his shoulder as the reporter named Ryan nearly ran to approach Jack.
“You’re a celebrity now, Walsh,” Paulie taunted under his breath so only Jack could hear. “I’ll wait for you in the car.”
“Oh, hell no,” Jack called after his partner. “You can take this one!”
Jack watched Paulie laugh as he kept walking away from the clamor. He was still laughing at Jack’s plight even as he opened the car door and got in.
“Sheriff Walsh, how can Cherokee recover from such a disaster in your opinion?” the reporter, Ryan Josephs, asked.
Jack heard the question, but as the group of reporters started to circle around him, his mind began to wander to a time that was distant, yet one he was never able to forget.
He was standing in body with the reporters on Main Street, but his mind went back to his boyhood, sitting on the front step of his family’s run-down house with a wooden, wrap-around front porch with chipped paint. There were two cop cars out front; they’d been there a while after a neighbor intervened in the feud finally, and a throng of people had gathered to watch the scene playing out before them.
It was no secret the Walsh family had their problems. With barely enough food to feed their large brood, Jack’s father had gambled the rest of their meager income away. As if that wasn’t enough to make them a spectacle, Jack’s father also had a problem with the bottle and the fist, and it was usually directed toward his mother.
The oldest of Walsh kids, Jack would rush his siblings to the back bedrooms when his father would ramp up to an outburst. He’d stand in the kitchen, or the hallway just outside the kitchen, bottle that he’d just polished off in hand, and he’d start yelling. Life had dealt his father an unfair hand, Jack would hear him shouting. Life never worked out for him. Only later did Jack realize that all of it was his father’s own doing. He’d made the family lose everything, and yet Jack’s mother stuck with him, tried to fix things.
Yet this time, there was no fixing. This time, there was no more forgiveness, let alone going home. His father had beat his mother so badly this time, she was carried out by the cops and firemen, headed in the back of the ambulance to the hospital.
Jack sat on that step, watching them leave with her, and he had this sinking feeling in his stomach that something was horribly wrong. His mother didn’t look right, and he’d never seen his father in handcuffs before. Indeed, nothing would ever be right again.
His mother never recovered from her injuries, and spent the rest of her days as an invalid in the hospital. His father had been jailed for the abuse, and Jack and his siblings all had to go live with his paternal grandparents.
But the boy on the step that day felt a break so deep he didn’t understand until much later the pain of that wound. He began to weep openly, as any boy who loved his mother would, watching her leave on a stretcher, watching the cops gather up the younger children and their belongings in suitcases, watching the crowd cover their open mouths and aghast eyes. Then a reporter had the audacity to come up to him, trying to get the details of what happened.
Jack saw it all, and to this day had never spoken of the time that his mother turned from a living being to being trapped in a body that didn’t house her soul anymore. That little boy would never sit on that wooden front step again, not until many years later when Jack and his siblings came back to burn the house and all its horrid memories to the ground.
That boy grew up helping his elderly grandparents raise his siblings, and under their tender care, he grew into the leader he was today. The sense of duty and justice was instilled in him, and he fought for it from even a young age.
One cop, a father of one of Jack’s classmates, shooed the reporter away and sat down next to him on the step. Jack heard later that his dirty face had the marks from where the tears streamed down his face. When the cop put his arm around Jack, he buried his head in the cop’s chest and felt consoled compassionately by a grown man for the first time ever in his life. Never again, Jack had promised himself. Never again…
“Sheriff Walsh?” Ryan Josephs repeated, looking perplexed.
Jack woke from his reverie and to his embarrassment, realized he’d been standing in front of the reporters, lost in the fog of his own memories.
“I’m sorry, could you repeat your question?” Jack replied to the reporter named Ryan, though he looked at everyone standing around him seeing the same confused face looking back at him.
“Uh, sure.” Ryan cleared his throat. “Do you believe you’ve put the right people in jail?”
Jack’s heart jolted. “What did you say? I’ve made no arrests in this investigation as of yet.”
“Oh, just this morning two suspects were arrested and jailed,” Ryan stated, scribbling down notes in his small, leather-bound notebook.
Jack’s face flushed hot. He was the lead on this investigation, and there was literally no evidence that gave a clear lead on anyone being the guilty party. There hadn’t even been any other investigative parties involved. Except for the Malones, Jack’s memory reminded him, and he gave the reporters a dark look before bolting toward the car where Paulie sat.
Glancing up in alarm as he saw Jack coming, Paulie asked, “What’s going on?” His hands popped up and gripped the steering wheel, knuckles suddenly white.
“Get down to the jail!” Jack demanded, running around to the side and throwing his body into the passenger side of the car. He shut his door just as Paulie backed out onto the street once more and headed away from the fire scene.
“Walsh?” Paulie reminded his partner of his earlier question.
“Someone’s been thrown into our jail without notifying or partnering with us,” Jack took his hat off and nearly threw it down onto the floor by his feet before thinking better of it. “Has anyone contacted the station?” Jack’s voice rose along with his stress and anger.
“No,” Paulie quickly replied, coming only to a partial stop at a crossing before charging forward.
“Damn it!” Jack exclaimed indignantly, slamming his fist on the car door, having a keen sense of who had taken over his investigation.
“What about Ruby?” Paulie questioned, glancing at his partner. “She’d be with the Vogels at the memorial service.”
Jack raised his hands in the air as he leaned his head back, seeming to look up at the sky. “You’re right. She’d be right by them, and if anything happens…”
Paulie brought the car to a stop. “Go, Jack. I’ll see what happened at the jail.”
Jack put his hat under his arm and, once out of the car, began running toward the church.
Ever since she was a little girl on a farm in rural Iowa, Jenny Bullington's heart has been filled with wanderlust and adventure. She started writing at an early age, and has never stopped. After exploring Italy, Ethiopia, and South Korea, Bullington's desire to transport others to those places and to raise awareness of important humanitarian and social issues takes hold in her writings.
She received her Bachelor's Degree from Iowa State University and her Master's Degree from Pacific Oaks College. In her spare time, Bullington enjoys teaching as an adjunct college professor, writes parenting and child development columns for a taekwondo kids program, advocates against domestic violence and human trafficking, and is passionate about social justice. She's recently been featured as a storyteller at Ode, an Iowa organization that promotes positive impact through empathy. Her adventures never stop as she raises her five small children with her beloved husband, Branden, in the Midwest.