About the book


He made her feel the infinite number of feelings, In which she lost herself...

Since her father’s mysterious disappearance, Geraldine Laurel has been struggling to make ends meet while taking care of her mentally unstable mother. When her favorite neighbor is found dead, her life suddenly becomes turbulent.

Robert Bradway, a lonesome sheriff with a tragic background, investigates an enigmatic murder. Once he meets the beautiful Geraldine, the victim’s closest friend, his dark days seem to finally be over.

Under the most unfortunate circumstances, a true love blossoms…

But while working together to find answers to the riddle, their questions lead them to old secrets capable of tearing them apart. With very little time left, they soon discover that the person behind the attack is not only beyond suspicion but also ready to strike again...

Prologue

Arizona, 1897

It is a fine day to be roaming about at the rodeo, Elsa thought to herself.

A small boy who was missing both front teeth jumped in front of her, blocking her way, holding a pamphlet of today's events. “Could you please sign this for me?”

“Sure thing, sugar.” On it was a terrible sketch of her, but Elsa still smiled and scribbled her false name on it. She even patted the boy upon returning the paper, messing his golden hair up a little, for good measure.

It was clear by the radiant smile the boy gave her in return, that she made his day. If only he knew the truth, Elsa chuckled inside.

“I wanna ride just like you when I grow up,” the boy announced, still in a daze.

“It's time to go, Timmy,” the mother jumped in, and by the look she gave Elsa, it was clear something like that would never happen as long as she was around. And Elsa did not take that to heart.

Elsa was accustomed to such treatment. She was a woman in a man's world, after all. It was true that the crowd adored her; still, it was hard reaching this level, especially if you're an orphan and a woman on top of anything else. Not that anybody knew that about her.

Women were not allowed to compete, so Elsa had to pretend to be a man, which caused her a whole new set of problems. She barely had any time to simply be herself, always in fear she would get discovered and thrown away. However, that was a price she had to pay to do what she loved. After everything was said and done, that was the only thing that really mattered to her. She did what she loved, using her God-given talent to ride her horse and compete among the men that considered her their equal.

It was a true bliss to be surrounded by a cheering crowd and be on the top. Until she wasn't...

Elsa Potter opened her eyes. It was all but a dream. She often dreamed about the “good old days” and the events that followed. Sometimes she thought it was equally a blessing and a curse.

There were no sounds around her apart from her own ragged breathing. The quiet never bothered her before. As of late it started to, and she couldn't quite understand why. Overall, she did not look forward to starting another day. It was true, she was not a young girl anymore, her best years long gone and behind her, but she never felt this old before. Ancient even—completely spent.

For the last couple of months, her health had started to deteriorate rapidly, and as it turned out, there was nothing she could do about it. Not being in control of something so basic as her own body was frightening. Elsa was never afraid of anything, thinking death was a part of a natural process, yet this physical decline changed her notions.

She did not like feeling helpless and was too proud to ask for help. Not that anyone would help me, she reminded herself grudgingly. Instantly, she banished that thought. It was not like her to feel self-pity. It is just the illness talking, she reminded herself firmly, taking a deep breath.

At first, she simply thought she caught a common cold during the last big storm they had. The storm raged all day but reached its peak during the night, and one of the horses on her ranch got severely spooked by the constant thunders and somehow managed to break out of its stall. Elsa, who was already on the way there to soothe the horses, saw this happening, and it took her quite some time, and a great deal of imagination and improvisation, to catch and bring the frightened animal back.

Of course, by the time she managed to do that and calm it enough to walk it back to the stalls, Elsa was soaking wet and shivering from the cold. The runny nose passed in a couple of days, however, the fatigue and the lack of appetite persisted. Unfortunately, the cramps and vomiting that followed were what really made her feel even more miserable than she already was.

Seeing no other way, Elsa called a physician, and he gave her some kind of tonic to drink twice a day. At times she did feel a tad better, but not by much. Usually, she felt the tonic was not worth a bother.

Come on, Elsa, time to face another day, she encouraged herself, trying to finally get out of bed. The cold began to bother her as well, so she started sleeping fully clothed. Besides, it wasn't like she had the energy to change. Sadly, she did not get far if at all. She could not move a muscle. Not that she had much left on her.

She would much rather stay in bed indefinitely, alas, that was not an option. The horses were not going to feed themselves, and she had no help on the ranch. So Elsa had no other choice than to put all her troubles aside and just do what needed to be done.

Elsa spent all her life alone, and truth be told, she preferred it as such. There was a certain kind of freedom in doing everything on your own. Of course, at times like this, even she wondered if she made all the right decisions that led her here and now.

Oh, snap out of it, Elsa, she wanted to cuss at herself. Because overall, she lived her life the way she wanted, by breaking rules and making it on her own along the way. That was a great deal more than a small-town girl like herself could ever hope for. It was true she reached the age at which women usually had grown up children by now, maybe even a few grandchildren, and Elsa was still unwed. That was her choice as well. There was a time men of all ages and statuses begged for her attention, some wanted to marry her as well, but she said no to all of them. Elsa simply wasn't the settling type and was at peace about that part of herself.

Here we go, she gritted her teeth getting out of bed. Sitting on the edge and then standing up took an eternity. Once she did and made only one step toward the door, she had to stop since the lightheadedness threatened to push her right back from where she started.

Oh, no you don't. Taking a few deep breaths, Elsa started walking again once she became confident enough she would stay vertical. The best decision she made was to stop using the upstairs bedroom and simply sleep downstairs; it saved her a great deal of energy and time.

Entering the kitchen on shaky legs, Elsa settled on drinking a glass of sweetened tea instead of preparing herself something more solid for breakfast, fully knowing she would lose it either way, and sooner rather than later.

She ignored the cramps in her stomach that followed as she went outside to take care of her animals. Horses were her biggest love. Maybe even her only love. Sometimes, she thought they were the only reason she stayed alive for this long in the first place. Because there was not a shred of doubt in her mind that she was dying.

“Good morning, my lovelies.” Elsa mustered a smile, entering the stable. Dawson, her favorite stallion that was as old as she was, only in horse years, peeked his head out, in greeting and she patted his grayed head. Afterward, she slowly started doing her rounds, making sure all her horses were fed, had clean water, and were taken care of, not that she had many horses these days.

 Once finished, Elsa leaned against the wooden frame to catch her breath as beads of sweat went down her face. I can't keep going like this. She was aware of that, but what other choice did she have?

Wiping the sweat from her forehead with her sleeve, she returned to the house. That took her some time, more than she cared to admit, and once inside she felt like weeping from joy. Elsa wasn't ready to leave this world, not yet, but on the other hand, she did not care to live in such a state, either. She felt stuck in the middle between the living and the dead, and the experience was rather tiring, to say the least.

Elsa considered herself a fighter, she always was—a fighter and a rebel that did what she wanted, took what she wanted as well, without any remorse. Maybe this is my punishment for living life the way I did?

Elsa wanted with all her might to continue living her life the way she always did. Unfortunately, this was one thing she did not know how to fight. She was too stubborn to simply die, but how do you fight an enemy you could not see?

Taking a piece of stale bread from the kitchen counter, she retired to the living room and slumped unceremoniously into the armchair. From there, she had a prime view on all her accomplishments. She kept all her awards,  mementos, and a few drawings on the nearby bureau. Once upon a time, Elsa was quite famous. She really loved that period of her life, and it loved her. At least for a while.

Elsa closed her eyes while she tried to eat, as the memories flooded her mind. Thoughts that usually started with if only joined in.

Eventually, her luck ran out, and Elsa had an accident. She reached the finale and was competing for another win when she lost her grip and fell off her horse, hard. She was on her favorite mustang doing her routine, and a heartbeat later, she was underneath him as the overwhelming pain coursed through her body, dulling all her other senses.

***

“No!” Elsa screamed, opening her eyes only to find herself in her living area, still sitting in the armchair. She must have fallen asleep at some point. The piece of bread got stuck inside her throat, and she started to cough, struggling to catch a breath.

Elsa broke her leg in two places on that horrible day, but that was not the worst thing that happened to her.

Her secret was out, and she was banned from ever competing again. Not that she was capable of it. After her leg fully healed, she managed to ride a horse just fine, but simply being fine was not good enough for the stunts she usually had to do during a competition.

She felt quite miserable afterward as her name was dragged through the mud. As if a woman who dared to do something different other than getting married and bearing children was the most horrible thing in the world.

So, Elsa returned home to Oatman, getting a job as a showgirl in the local saloon. That, too, brought her a certain, somewhat different, type of reputation  she did not care for. The women seldom understood her or wanted to have anything to do with her, and men simply wanted to bed her. Sometimes she would let them.

She had one friend in the entire world since childhood, Stephanie Laurel, and that did not change despite anything. Years passed, and over time Elsa managed to save enough money to buy the saloon and the small ranch—the ranch she still lived on—and retired near the Laurel family and her best friend Stephanie, while living on a handsome wage.

Still, she often fantasized what could have been if she continued to ride and compete. Elsa never once visited a rodeo show after her accident. The pain she experienced was too great for her to deal with, although she built a satisfying life afterward.

If only she did not mess up that day. Elsa was drinking heavily the night before, celebrating something that appeared to be of great importance at the moment, even though she could not remember what it was now, and was understandably hungover the next morning; the day of the competition. “Eli! Eli!” Elsa could still hear the crowd as they cheered when it was her turn to enter the ring.

No matter how many times she went through those events, she couldn't fathom how she lost her grip. She did that same thing hundreds, even thousands of times over, movements that were a second nature to her, so it should not have happened.

Sadly, it did. The fall was brutal, splitting her bone instantly with a loud crack, and the pain that followed was unimaginable. Elsa stopped herself there. She hated dwelling on the past. “Blast!” She wanted to curse.  On top of everything else, her bad leg started to trouble her, announcing a change in weather.

Needing something to do with herself, and not brood on the past or her glum non-existing future, she propelled herself out of the chair, which immediately triggered a severe wave of nausea, and she threw up in a bucket she kept close by, just for that purpose.

Wiping her mouth once she finished, she shook her head. Not to clear it, because that was impossible, but because she still couldn't understand how all of this became her everyday life, constant pain and misery.

Entering the kitchen, she decided to make some light dinner, all though she knew she wouldn't be able to stomach it. “Oh, why don't you just die and be done with it,” she murmured, spotting her pale reflection in one of the pans.

This was not the way she wanted to live her life. This was not the way she wanted to die, either. “I just wondered the very same thing,” a voice said behind her, startling her. She didn't realize someone came in. Although, in her state of mind, a herd of elephants could pass her receiving room and she still would not be the wiser.”

Elsa turned, frowning. “Wha—” she started to ask, but the person in front of her continued to speak.

“I truly hoped the poison would have finished you off by now, yet here you are. And I don't want to wait any longer.”

Poison? Elsa's mind spiraled. I am poisoned. On second thought, she should have known from the start. What was happening to her clearly wasn't natural. “You truly are damned, Elsa. Not even the devil wants you,” her visitor spat.

The knowledge about what was truly happening to her filled her with an overwhelming sense of peace for some reason. That was when she spotted another threat. Her visitor came prepared, wearing a pair of leather gloves, firmly clutching a steer rope in one hand, clearly itching to use it, and Elsa mustered a smile. “I guess I don't have to ask why,” she replied conversationally.

“You know why.”

That was true enough. She did a lot of bad things in her life that could earn her such fate. Still, Elsa had only one regret in her life, and it was standing in front of her. However, that did not mean she was about to surrender and accept her fate calmly.

Without a thought, she lunged forward, figuring an attack was the best self-defense. Elsa was not about to go down without a proper fight. She never backed down and wasn't about to start now. Her attacker let out a shout of a surprise but recovered quickly and started to wrestle with Elsa, only to be pushed away.

She stumbled and hit the table in the process; she fully ignored the pain in her leg that followed. Over time she became good at that, ignoring the pain. “Why won't you just die!”

“And ruin all this fun?” Elsa smirked, panting.

“You are a wicked woman, Elsa Potter.”

Oh, you have no idea... “And you are not as you appeared to be.” Elsa made a brief pause before continuing. “Since everything is in the open now, I have something else to share with you.”

She leaned forward and continued to speak in a hushed voice as if sharing some big secret.

“You are lying,” her murderer yelled once she finished, and Elsa smiled in return, letting her face show the truth.

“No!” The attacker came at her again, trying to pull a makeshift noose around her neck, but Elsa managed to grab hold of the rope. She did not know where this urge to fight, survive, came from, but she wasn't going to question it.

“Ugh!” Elsa protested as the friction cut her hands, and she had to let it go. Her assaulter came at her again, and they struggled for a while; the pushback felt incredible to Elsa considering her state. In her moment of triumph, she managed to knock the rope out of the attacker's hands. The assailant raged for the loss of the weapon but did not want to surrender.

Elsa was experiencing such an adrenaline rush, much the same as she did while competing, feeling better than she did in a long time.  She even started wondering why something like that did not happen sooner, because the heady feeling was simply divine and something she honestly missed from her past life.

Unfortunately, her streak of bad luck decided to return, was persistent, and her bad leg failed in the worst moment. She was to pivot away from the assault, since the intruder came at her with a fierce battle cry, planning to hurt her with bare hands. Instead, her leg buckled underneath her weight, and Elsa fell to her knees. She did not get a chance to get up again. Instantly, she could feel the rope tied around her neck, and without losing momentum, pulled hard, making it not only difficult but next to impossible to breathe.

Did you really hope for a different outcome? she asked herself in all sincerity.

Elsa pried the rope with her hands trying to pull it away, but alas, it was too tight.  The more she struggled, the harder it got for her to fight back.

Suddenly, there was a small reprieve as the assailant moved to stand in front of her. “I want you to look at me while you die.” Unfortunately, Elsa was too lightheaded to react in time, and the whole process started again.

Elsa looked in the eyes of the familiar face and saw only hate while the aggressor shouted in triumph, pushing her backward. She tried to fight back, in panic, gasping for air but it was all in vain.

She fell backward on the floor, and the intruder’s body weight pinned her down, choking the life out of her. The rope burned her skin as much as the lack of oxygen burned her lungs. “Die!” the voice shrieked in absolute rage. Elsa tried to fight back once more, to push the attacker away, but she couldn't. Her arms suddenly felt too heavy. She thrashed about, praying to the heavens to help her start breathing again as tears streamed down her face.

No, please, no.

The pain didn't last long. In fact, all the pain was gone.

She continued to look at the person who was taking her life. The last face she would see on earth. Maybe this is for the best. All her suffering was finally over. The suffering she caused to other people as well...

I am sorry for everything, Elsa thought to herself since she could not actually utter the words. Those last words that were meant for her murderer would never be heard. Her eyes stayed wide open looking at the person who last saw her alive. After a few minutes in silence, the eyes were closed by the same hands that caused her death. Then, there was nothing.


Chapter One


​The sun wasn't completely up that morning, yet Geraldine's mind was racing with things she needed to accomplish that day.

Water the vegetable fields, feed the chickens, collect the eggs, pay Mr. O'Brien for last week's groceries, make breakfast for Mom... Oh, check those loose roof tiles since it looks like the storm is on the way... And on and on it went. Her list of chores appeared never-ending at times. That was why Geraldine had to get up even before sunrise simply to stay ahead of things. Sometimes, she was indeed victorious.

After doing her first quick round on the farm, Geraldine went back inside the house to prepare breakfast. Balancing the plates and a tall glass of sweet tea on the platter, she carefully carried it to her Mom's room.

Please don't trip, please don't trip, she repeated this mantra, not wanting to lose her precious load. It wasn't that she was clumsy per se, it was more that her feet at times refused to listen to her and wanted to go their separate way. At least, that was how she looked at things. Others simply called her awkward, which she did not appreciate one bit.

Her mom's room was completely dark as she entered, and that was usually a very bad sign, yet Geraldine decided to remain sanguine and not be rash with her conclusions. Sometimes, you do think too much.

“Mom? Time to wake up,” she called out softly, approaching the bed. She placed the tray on the nightstand, the path she knew by heart, since she couldn't actually see it before going to the window and removing the dark heavy drapes that prevented light from entering. The light poured in and instantly changed everything. Much better.

Geraldine's mother stirred in the bed yet said nothing.

“Good morning, Mom,” Geraldine tried again. “I brought you some breakfast.”

“I'm not hungry, dear,” a muffled response came. She was speaking with Geraldine, which was a good sign.

Geraldine sat on the edge of the bed, and softly pulled the comforter from her mother’s face. “It's time for your medicine as well,” she explained, offering a small smile.

“I don't want to take it,” she complained. “It's bitter.”

“Mom, you know it will make you feel better.” Geraldine poured some tonic on the spoon and pleadingly offered it to her mother.

Luckily, she did not have to wait long before her mother rose ever so slightly and opened her mouth. Geraldine poured in the tonic that a family's physician had prepared for her, without spilling a drop, while her mother made a face. So, Geraldine offered her some sweetened tea next, and she accepted that as well. Her mother drank profusely, which somewhat put Geraldine at ease, before offering it back. Geraldine placed the empty glass on the table.

“I want to go back to sleep now,” her mother announced, but Geraldine did not like that idea. Her condition always worsened if she spent too much time in bed. She needs something to occupy her fragile mind, the physician's words echoed inside Geraldine's head.

“Are you sure you don't want to go to the market with me today? Father Mathew would be happy to see you,” Geraldine asked full of hope like she did every morning.

Her mother shook her head. “No. I feel rather tired. Some other time,” was her usual response.

“All right. How about working in the garden for a bit, after you rest, of course? It is a mighty fine day outside.”

Her mother thought about that for a moment. “Maybe later,” she allowed. Geraldine sighed. Her mother was clearly having one of her bad days. She was certainly going to spend all day in bed. Thinking about the past and tormenting herself and without eating anything, despite the fact that Geraldine prepared everything for her, all her favorites; and that worried her the most. Her mother was naturally frail-looking, and she had already lost some weight in the last couple of months. The last thing Geraldine wanted was for her mother to fall ill from malnourishment on top of everything else.

Suddenly an idea presented itself. “Maybe you could go and visit Elsa,” Geraldine said, trying not to sound too excited about the idea. She learned the hard way her mother did not respond well to such behavior. So, Geraldine made sure her face and voice remained neutral while speaking. “I am sure she would love some company.”

Elsa Potter was their neighbor and her mother's best friend. Her only friend, she corrected herself. After her mother had her biggest nervous collapse, Elsa was the only one that stood beside her and continued to come and visit while others tended to shun them away, as if that was something they should be ashamed of or something that was highly contagious. Things were better now, yet Geraldine never fully forgave the people she considered family friends for their poor behavior.

Elsa was different. That woman had led an extraordinary life. Geraldine loved to hear her stories and was very grateful her mother had such a good friend in her life. One that was not afraid to lead her life her way. Or care what other people thought.

Geraldine's mother never left the farm anymore to go to town, not after her husband disappeared.  She experienced unexplainable fear when someone even suggested something like that to her. Geraldine presumed it was all due to the incredible gossip that spread through their town, and humiliation her mother had to endure because of it. Yet she had no problems visiting Elsa, which Geraldine considered a true miracle.

Her mom would go visit her, and they would drink tea together, sometimes even prepare joint meals for the three of them. Elsa lived completely alone on her horse ranch, called Black Tail Ranch, and when she had the time, Geraldine visited her as well, simply so she could ride some of her horses.

Unfortunately, Elsa's health was starting to deteriorate as of late, and Geraldine was truly worried about her, especially since she was all alone. She hoped some company from her mother would do Elsa some good. Would do some good to her mother as well.

“That is a splendid idea, Geraldine,” her mother replied, eventually. “I will go to her as soon as I make some breakfast for your father.”

“Father already left. I made something for him beforehand.” Father left ten years ago, yet she learned a long time ago not to correct her mother when she was acting like this. She would remember the truth pretty soon on her own, so there was no need for Geraldine to agitate her now for no real reason.

“You are such a fine daughter. I am surely blessed.” She patted Geraldine on the cheek before returning her head on the pillow. “I will go to Elsa a bit later, though. I still feel a tad tired,” she added with a yawn.

“All right. Have pleasant dreams, Mother.” She kissed her mother on the cheek before leaving the room. She didn't bother to close the curtains again. Her mother could use some sunlight anyway.

After finishing some house chores, she gathered all the viands she planned on selling on the market, put them on the small cart, and hurried Whitey, their only horse, to start the journey toward the city.

She was still worried about her mother as she rode. Geraldine really hoped she would take her advice and go to Elsa’s. As for Geraldine, she would do everything in her power to sell all she prepared in order to provide for her little family; she was all alone and had no other way. “Come on Whitey, time to face another day.”

***

“Oh no, no, no,” Geraldine exclaimed in exasperation. She saw the disaster unfolding in front of her eyes, yet she was completely powerless to stop it. She was carrying a basket of freshly collected eggs from the cart to the small booth on the town's square market she usually used for displaying her farm's products to be sold, when she tripped over her own feet. Maybe I am too clumsy for my own good! And without a doubt, they were all going to fall down and be broken when she needed the coins the most.

Because she was too gawky or lost in the daydreams, she would lose half of her day's wages when she was supposed to mind her own feet. Either option was fairly unsatisfactory to Geraldine as an explanation. Stupid, silly girl!

Out of nowhere, a baker's boy jumped in front of her, catching the basket with one hand while preventing her from falling onto her face with the other. Thank the heavens, Geraldine sent a silent prayer seeing all the eggs unbroken. “That was close,” he drawled in his usual manner. He always sounded as if it cost him a great deal of effort to actually speak.

“Thank you, Jeremy,” Geraldine replied feeling genuinely grateful from the bottom of her heart, since she already counted on the money she would get from selling that basket. If she was lucky, that is.

“My pleasure” he replied. Making sure she was steady enough, to which she responded with a scowl, Jeremy carried the load to the table instead of her. “You should be more careful in the future,” he added as an afterthought, as if she did that on purpose.

Geraldine thought she was. In a way, at least... Without saying what was on her mind she turned away from him and hurried back toward her cart to grab another basket since she had some fruits and vegetables she wanted to sell as well, yet Jeremy followed her there.

Carefully, he took the bigger basket, leaving the other one for her to carry, and she let him. She was not that proud to refuse some help, especially when she was this tired.

Jeremy always smelled of freshly baked bread, and Geraldine's stomach immediately started to grumble. Once again, she forgot to eat, even though she prepared a meal for her mother. There were too many running thoughts inside her mind, thinking about all the things she needed to do, that she did not have time to spare to stop moving for even a second. Even for the most basic of things as eating.

Later, she tried to reassure herself as she took another wistful whiff in Jeremy's direction. Her mouth practically watered. That was a bad idea. Her stomach started to protest louder.

Jeremy looked at her and rolled his eyes. “Forgot to eat again?” he asked, as she pretended not to hear him while arranging her display of products. “I will get you a loaf as soon as I make some more,” he promised.

“Jeremy,” Geraldine wanted to protest, yet his gaze forced her to stop. “Thank you for your help,” she said instead, and he nodded in return, satisfied she saw reason. Her empty stomach was relieved as well.

Before parting, Jeremy paused, clearly having something more to say, and Geraldine had a pretty fair idea what it was going to be. “You really should marry and let a decent, God-fearing man take care of you instead of doing this every day.”

Right again. Geraldine knew his heart was in the right place, yet she still did not appreciate his sentiments.

Doing what? Providing for her ailing mother and herself? The way he said it, one could presume there was something wrong in honest-to-God labor. He was a hardworking man, and he took pride in what he did. Why should that be different for her? Because I'm a woman.

Naturally, she did not share her private thoughts, yet responded in a different manner. “I do not believe a decent, God-fearing man,” she mimicked, “would want me. I am stubborn, self-sufficient, and overly opinionated. I would drive any man mad,” Geraldine only half-joked.

Jeremy grinned at her in return. “That is true. You are like a feral cat,” he joked back, using her childhood nickname against her. “You need a tamer.”

So, she threw an apple at him. Geraldine aimed at his head, yet he caught it quite easily. He bit into it triumphantly while walking away, and she wanted to roll her eyes at him. “You throw like a girl, Geraldine,” he said to her over his shoulder.

“I am a girl, wiseacre. Just like you are a bad rider,” she shouted back earning a few looks her way from the local folks passing by. That was not a very lady-like behavior of her. Good thing she was no lady in the first place, she joked to herself.

Jeremy scowled back, and his face promised retaliation, but she was not afraid of him. He was a true friend to her, ever since she hit Douglas Smith for making fun of Jeremy's flour-stained clothes, and she hoped that would never change.

At times her life was difficult, yet Geraldine wouldn't trade it for anything else in this world. Her family owned a ranch near a small town called Oatman, right at the bottom of the Rocky Mountains.

Nowadays, it was only her and her mother on the ranch. Once upon a time, when her father and grandfather ran it, it was the busiest place in the world.

Sometimes Geraldine missed those days, however, she managed to keep it together and make ends meet. They had to make a few changes over the years.

When she was much younger than she was now, Geraldine's father simply disappeared, and her mother never fully recovered from that shock. Geraldine was convinced her mother refused to leave the farm for the same reason, because deep down she hoped he would come back.

Geraldine stopped hoping for such a miracle to occur a long time ago.

Her father simply vanished; it did not matter at that point if he simply walked away from them or something happened to him, because he left only pain and confusion in his wake.

Peter Laurel had a big secret. He borrowed a large sum of money just before he disappeared, for what purpose she never learned, yet Geraldine was still paying off his debt.

With her father gone, everything, all the responsibilities, problems, and worries fell onto Geraldine, and the strange thing was she did not mind. She would do anything for her mother and their little ranch. Predictably, being at that young age, Geraldine quickly became overwhelmed, and sadly had to come to terms she was not capable of running everything by herself. That forced her to learn who to trust and how to ask for help.

Men, ranchers, who followed her father's orders for years, gradually turned their backs on her. The locals did not care to take on any additional work of running a second ranch. Perhaps their pride did not let them work for a 'crazy woman' or a girl.

Some offered her marriage instead, and Geraldine refused them all and vowed to herself she would never again rely on someone else in her life. She had her mother and she had Elsa, who was there to step in when no one wanted to deal with a twelve-year-old. Unfortunately, some changes were inevitable. Geraldine was forced to sell all the cattle her family had for years. She couldn't manage the herd on her own, but there was another reason. A large portion of that money was used to pay off her father's debt, and the rest to turn their ranch into a farm. She had a vision of something far more suitable for her to do.

Everyone thought she was mad when she started planting fruits and vegetables. It was really difficult at first, and at times Geraldine doubted it herself, fearing they would starve to death, but now things were looking up. The trees with fruits finally started providing, and their vegetable gardens gave the best, most delicious food in the area—without any false modesty.

The best part about changing their lives was the fact that it had effects on her mother as well. Miraculously, this type of manual labor got her mother out of bed, and things improved even greater. Over time, Geraldine built a hen-house for her mother, and that became the main source of their income.

Years passed and they were still there. Geraldine managed to keep the farm and the house, so she took that as a good sign. She must have been doing something right, so she kept doing it.

Her mother, Stephanie, stayed on the farm without ever leaving it to go to town, even for church, and was having her bad days from time to time when she wouldn't even leave her bed, crying over her lost husband. They settled in this new life somehow, and Geraldine was quite pleased with all she accomplished.

The debt was almost paid, after all these years, and then things would really improve for the two of them. And I will be free.

She longed for the day she wouldn't have to worry about every single coin. Peter Laurel really made a big mess out of his family, and when she was younger, Geraldine was quite cross at him, bitter even; luckily, those days passed.

Even though Geraldine wouldn't say necessarily she was happy, she was not unhappy either. That was far more a girl in her situation could hope for, anyway.


Chapter Two


“Good morning, Geraldine.” A rather familiar voice snapped Geraldine from her daydreaming, and she smiled broadly while replying.

“Good morning to you, too, Mrs. Henley. How are you?” She remembered Mrs. Henley had some back problems a few days past and was praying they were gone by now.

“Oh, I am quite all right,” she replied instantly with a wave of her hand as if it was of no importance, but then her eyes focused, and Geraldine knew she was being scrutinized.

I am glad I wore my good dress today, Geraldine thought without actual humor. “How are you, Geraldine? You look tired, my dear,” she continued, not waiting for an answer. “Are you sleeping enough?”

No. “As much as I can.”

Mrs. Henley pursed her lips, clearly unsatisfied with such a reply, yet Geraldine could not lie to her. She never could.

Mrs. Sarah Henley was Geraldine's old school teacher. Geraldine loved to go to school. She was probably one of the few students who could say that sincerely, since Mrs. Henley was a rather stern teacher, but that made no difference to her. She loved to learn new things and was excited anew with each subject.

Alas, once her father disappeared and her mother fell ill, Geraldine had to quit school to take care of her and the ranch. She never allowed herself to mourn what she lost back then because she knew she made the right decision. The same decision she would make every time if she got the chance to go through everything all over again.

On the other hand, that did not go well with Mrs. Henley, since Geraldine was her favorite. Not that she would ever admit to such a thing publicly, yet Geraldine knew, nevertheless. She was grateful Mrs. Henley refused to give up on her or her precious education, even though it made her life more difficult at times. When she had the time, her old teacher would visit Geraldine on the farm, offering private lessons, or Geraldine would go to her house.

In later years, Mrs. Henley provided her with reading materials, rare books that advanced her studies even further. To this day, they would gather, when convenient to both of them, to discuss something new Geraldine read or had problems comprehending. “You are my dearest student,” Mrs. Henley would say to her in those moments, despite the fact Geraldine wasn't officially in her class for many years at that point.

“And you, my dearest teacher.”

Mrs. Henley chuckled. “I am your only teacher,” and they would both laugh.

Truth be told, Geraldine still loved to read and learn as much as possible. No matter how tired she would get after her day of labor, working on the farm or selling at the market, she would muster enough strength to catch up on her reading before bedtime. Often she would fall asleep with her nose stuck in some book, and for some reason, that was comforting for her. Maybe it was the smell. She simply adored the smell of books; it calmed her on a deeper, profound level.

Geraldine loved the farm life. In her private moments, however scarce they might be, she fantasized about a different path in life. Seldom did she wish she could be a teacher just like Mrs. Henley and help future generations of children make sense of the world around them. “I have some new books for you to read, so come by to collect them when you can,” Mrs. Henley informed her.

Feeling quite ashamed, Geraldine confessed, “I still haven't read the last one.” In the last couple of months, Geraldine would fall asleep—literally—after reading only a few lines; sometimes they were the same one.

“No matter,” Mrs. Henley waved with her hand. “You will when you can.” And that was a closed matter for her. Her pragmatic approach to life was just one of the things Geraldine loved about that woman.

“I will come as soon as I can,” Geraldine promised. “Thank you, Mrs. Henley.”

“Always. Now, be a dear and pack me a dozen of these lovely eggs of yours. You know my Hubert insists on eating eggs that only come from your farm.” Geraldine really appreciated her old teacher saying that. She was not dull, she knew Mrs. Henley was using this as an excuse to help her, but Geraldine wasn't that proud to refuse it. Besides, she wouldn't dare insult her old teacher by refusing; she cared far too much to behave in such a manner. “And some of these lovely carrots, as well.”

Geraldine nodded and carefully wrapped a dozen eggs, putting in a few extra for good measure, and then did the same with the vegetables. After she was satisfied they wouldn't break, she placed the wrapping inside Mrs. Henley's basket. Mrs. Henley nodded in approval, offering her money. Once again she gave Geraldine a great deal more for her purchases than was needed.

“Mrs. Henley,” Geraldine started to protest, and Mrs. Henley cut her off mid-sentence.

“Come and visit me as soon as possible,” she told Geraldine sternly, using her authoritative teacher's voice before walking away.

“Yes, ma'am,” Geraldine shouted after her, and Mrs. Henley simply nodded without turning back.

That is one great woman. Geraldine wished that one day she could be half as achieved and good at everything as Mrs. Henley already was.

***

Geraldine spent the rest of her morning chatting with people and selling eggs. “Geraldine!”

She turned at the sound of her name just in time to see a loaf of bread flying her way. Without a thought, she caught it with both hands. It was still warm but not warm enough for it to burn her hands. Luckily for Jeremy or I would murder him.

Geraldine's mouth actually watered taking a whiff of the freshly baked bread, and she took a big bite on the spot. Delicious, she thought, and her mouth and belly practically sang in agreement.

While eating, she noticed Jeremy's smiling face as he approached her. He looked mighty satisfied with his jest.  “You are utterly mad,” she informed him, between bites.

Mad and knows how to bake, she added to herself, which is a very useful trait. Geraldine, on the other hand, couldn't bake even if her life depended on it. And there were times it really did. For some unknown reason, she was simply awful. She had no problems with other things. She knew how to cook, and could prepare meals that were quite delicious, if she should say so herself; however, her baking skills were a complete nightmare.

 “And you look like a wildling eating like that,” Jeremy countered. “Didn't your Mamma teach you how to eat with your mouth closed?”

Geraldine stuck her tongue at him. “I thought I was feral, not wild,” she said, referring to her old school nickname. Not the best comeback in the world, she admitted. Still, that was the best she could do at the moment, since she was too busy eating.

People will think I am starving, she worried for a moment. And that was far from being the case. Geraldine was simply too busy to think about such mundane things as eating or sleeping. “That too,” Jeremy replied instantly. Geraldine simply rolled her eyes at him in return, which made him grin.

While she was eating and enjoying her easy banter with Jeremy, a group of girls slowly approached them, which instantly put Geraldine in a foul mood. Because she knew what was about to pass. In the center of said group was a girl named Susannah Johnson. They went to school together, and for some reason, Susannah always picked on Geraldine. Her dresses were always ugly, her pigtails too short or her handwriting too messy. No matter what Geraldine did, Susannah found a way to criticize her for it, and that continued to this very day. It did not matter that Geraldine quit school before her twelfth birthday.

Oh, joy, my day is now complete, Geraldine murmured, preparing for yet another attack. “Geraldine,” she greeted her, wearing a deceitful smile and eyeing her from head to toe. And finding me lacking in every way, not that I care. That was the second time that morning Geraldine felt scrutinized. While Mrs. Henley did that out of affection and concern, Susannah did it out of malice, and it was very hard for Geraldine to rein in her temper.

“Susannah,” Geraldine countered, mimicking that same smile, which she hadn’t quit mastered.  She wasn't as practiced as Susannah clearly was.

Susannah completely ignored Jeremy, not sparing a glance his way or saying hello. He, too, went to school with them. Still, she pretended as if he was not there, and he preferred it that way. He would never admit to such a thing, but Geraldine knew he was simply terrified of Susannah. She had a sharp tongue and wasn't afraid to use it. On the other hand, Jeremy was a kind and gentle soul that never wished anyone harm. Because of that, there were times Geraldine had to save him from others, and from himself as well.

“You poor thing,” Susannah suddenly exclaimed, returning Geraldine to the here and now. “You are still selling eggs here.”

Geraldine frowned, not understanding her meaning. Of course, she was here, where else should I be? “Yes, I am still here,” Geraldine replied feeling rather silly for even having to say something that obvious.

Susannah nodded. “That means the selling isn't going that well.” She feined looking genuinely concerned, but Geraldine wasn't fooled. The rest of the girls, which Geraldine all knew by names, waited in silence of what was to come next.

Nothing, if Geraldine had any about it. “The sales are going just fine,” Geraldine replied, raising her chin ever so slightly. Not to brag, but she usually went home empty-handed.

Susannah glanced at the display, sticking her head in the baskets while wrinkling her nose in disgust, and naturally Geraldine took offense. She labored very hard for everything that was presented on that table, and this supposedly refined young lady was being disrespectful and mean out of spite and boredom.  She’s the same spoiled brat as when we were younger.  Nothing really changes, does it?   “Do you wish to purchase anything?” Geraldine pleasantly inquired.  Susannah completely ignored the question.

“Would you care to hear my advice?” She asked in return.

No, I would not care at all, Geraldine thought, yet remained silent.

“Next time try to bring fresh eggs and ripe fruits and vegetables. I know you are poor, but you cannot be selling this garbage.”

Each word cut like a knife, and Geraldine really wanted to scream aloud. Regrettably, she knew she couldn't, and to make sure of that, she bit her lower lip. Susannah, with feat accomplished, simply turned and left without saying anything else, guiding her parade of snickering girls along. Geraldine noticed too late that Susannah was walking away, delightfully biting an apple off the table.

That witch, Geraldine fumed. I hope she chokes on it. I hope she falls asleep with a curling iron and burns all her hair.

Jeremy looked at Geraldine incredulously while she practically shook with rage.

I wish she trips and falls into horse's manure, Geraldine thought.

“Why didn't you say something to her Geraldine? You had no problems standing up to her when we were in school.”

That is true. Geraldine would give up everything to return to that period of her life again; not only to give Susannah a piece of her mind, but be allowed to be a child, to play and learn.  Those days were long gone. “What changed?”

Everything.

Geraldine gave Jeremy the look. “What do you think would happen if I did something to Fergus Johnson's daughter?”

He made a face as if tasting something sour. “I see your point.” He moved closer to her, his expression turning even more serious. “Maybe you should just leave?”

“Leave?”

“Yes, leave Oatman, forget about Oatman, just like-” he stopped himself in time but Geraldine knew what he wanted to say. Just like my father.

“How could I possibly leave? I would miss the heat, and the hard ground I’m so accustomed falling onto.”

“Don't forget the ever present dust.”

“Well of course I would miss that.” Even though she tried to make her words light she felt anything but that. Maybe Jeremy had a point. It was just that Geraldine was in no position to contemplate leaving.

Geraldine took a deep breath, then another, trying to calm herself down. Other vendors close by who heard the exchange gave her sympathetic looks; she ignored them all.

She was fuming for remaining quiet and feeling powerless to change Susannah’s continual mockery. I cannot attack Susannah in any way, she repeated to herself like a mantra, but that only fueled her rage further. It was not easy swallowing her pride each time she saw Susannah, but it was necessary. Susannah’s father, Fergus Johnson had a lot of pull in this town.  He owned a few mines, making him undoubtedly the richest man in Oatman.  He was also the man who loaned her father money. Many had said Peter Laurel ran away, probably with a mistress, to avoid paying back the loan, but Geraldine refused to believe such nonsense. She was convinced there was a better explanation for her father’s disappearance and feared something dreadful had happened that kept him from returning. Tarnishing her father's good name was a mean spirited thing to do.

On the brighter side, Geraldine was almost done with the payments. Soon, her family's debt to the Johnson family would be paid in full, and she didn't want to jeopardize her farm simply because some rich girl chose to be perpetually mean to her. So Geraldine took the high road, even though it was killing her.

Yet the moment the debt is paid off... Geraldine grinned.

Jeremy saw a far-way look in her eyes. “What are you thinking about so intently?”

 “Oh, nothing.”

“You look rather frightening like that.”

Perfect. “Remember this moment and what you said the next time you decide to taunt me for no apparent reason.”

Jeremy opened his mouth to say something then reconsidered. He tried again after a heartbeat. “I think I will go now. See you tomorrow, Geraldine.”

“See you, and Jeremy?”

“Hm?”

“Thank you for the bread. Your skill has improved immensely.” She sincerely meant the compliment.

Jeremy instantly grew taller, and Geraldine barely contained herself not to laugh. “Of course it has, but thank you for noticing,” he replied politely, surprising her to no end since she was expecting something humorous from him.  She simply nodded in return.

Watching him return to the small bakery his family owned, Geraldine had a splendid idea. Once Jeremy’s skills get even better, surpassing even his father who was a true master, they should start working together. Geraldine could make sandwiches using Jeremy's bread with ingredients from the farm and sell them to the miners during their lunch breaks. They would have to travel a bit since the mine was closer to the nearby town, yet she was certain it would be worth their while.

Geraldine, you are a true genius. Feeling giddy all of a sudden, she couldn't wait to share her business idea with Jeremy. He would certainly say yes, she was sure of that.

It wasn't even noon when Geraldine started packing for home. She successfully sold everything, despite Susannah's snide comment.  The eggs were fresh, and townspeople liked buying from her. Geraldine returned many now-empty baskets to the cart, and after saying goodbye to some vendors who were staying much longer, she urged Whitey home.

She reconsidered at the last moment and turned around toward Mrs. Henley's house instead. After the morning she had, her mother's bad day, and that encounter with Susannah, she needed something good in her life, even for the briefest of moments.

Geraldine would collect the stack of books Mrs. Henley had so kindly prepared for her, and perhaps a new set of them would inspire her to finish the last one. Deep down, Geraldine knew that inspiration was not the problem. It was the time, or her lack of it. Perhaps it was a silly notion, but she needed a much longer day to accomplish everything she needed and wanted to.

Unfortunately, I do not have a magic wand to prolong my days, and that saddened her for a moment. So, I will just have to make do with what minimal free time I have. At the same time, she was rather excited. She couldn't wait to see what Mrs. Henley gathered for her.

Geraldine felt thrilled at the prospect of learning something new and then discussing it with her favorite teacher. Instantly, she had another revelation. As long as she felt like this about something, learning in particular, she would be capable of doing everything else that needed to be done with a confident smile on her face. Because after a day of hard work, she would always have something to look forward to that would fill her with joy and hope.


Chapter Three


At Fort Mohave, looking at the clear blues skies that were bathed in sunshine, Robert thought it was such a fine day for riding.  By urging his horse to go at a slower pace, he could enjoy some more time outside. He wished he could simply keep on riding and live off the land as he went, completely alone with no one to keep him company apart from his horse during the day and stars during the night.

He would ride until he ran out of roads or even land he could ride upon, then turn around and do it again from the start. Naturally, he could not.  Robert had duties, and people who relied on him, so that trumped his silly fantasies on any given day. And this was nothing more than just that - a fantasy.

Besides, he loved his life, it was just he sometimes fantasized there was more to it than his job. Banishing those thoughts, Robert dismounted and walked toward the old yellow house on the outskirts of Fort Mohave.

“Good morning, Mr. Gibson.” Robert greeted an elderly man that sat in the rocking chair by the front door on the big porch. Josef Gibson was his last visit for the day.   To begin with, he saw this duty as a nuisance, and he would be glad to finish.  He loved his job, simply not all aspects of it.

“Good Mornin', Sheriff.” Mr. Gibson greeted him back with a smile. Mr. Gibson had been good friends with Robert's late grandad, and Robert always felt a bit uncomfortable when the people he knew and respected all his life treated him differently simply because he now wore a gold star on his vest. On the other hand, that was the price to pay if he wanted to do this position justice.

I still don't have to like it, he grumbled to himself.

“What brings you here, Robert? Not that we mind the company,” Mr. Gibson asked. After a heartbeat, he answered his own question with another one, clearly thinking out loud. “Is it really that time of the year again?” There was a true wonder in his voice.

“I'm afraid so.” Mr. Gibson swore as Robert shrugged. “Time tends to fly by when we're not looking.”

“It sure does. I better start lookin', or I'll wake up in my own grave one day,” Mr. Gibson started laughing out loud at his own bad joke before standing up. “I'll be right back,” he added before going inside the house as Robert remained on the porch.

Robert wasn't particularly fond of this part of his job.  Collecting property taxes was a task he did well, albeit grudgingly. Ever since he was a small boy he wanted to enforce the law, catch bandits and then watch as they get precisely what they deserved in the court of law.

Not surprisingly, in all his childhood fantasies, collecting money for the state was not a part of that vision, but he did it proudly and professionally as he did with his other duties.  Despite some drawbacks, he loved his job; the post as Sheriff meant everything to him. He considered himself very fortunate  to fulfill this goal. These were dangerous times and most people tended to avoid dangerous situations, but on the other hand, Robert was not most men.

He lost both his elder brother and father when a group of bandits passing by decided to raid their ranch simply because it was on their way. His family tried to fight back despite being outnumbered. Robert survived because his father made him hide in the root cellar. Witnessing them fighting, and in the end, dying, were the worst experiences of his entire life.

For years, the thoughts about those events tormented him, and at times, they still did. Robert wished he did something that day, other than hiding, which might have made all the difference. Or maybe I would end up dead as well.  A big part of him felt ashamed, acting a coward for staying away.  But he could not change the past, so Robert focused on the future to make some kind of difference in other people's lives and protect them from harm. As soon as he became of age to be eligible as a deputy, he sold his farm and started his training. His reasoning was quite simple. If he could prevent just one tragedy from happening, he knew his father would look down on him from heaven and feel proud.

Over time, his natural skills and hard work made him stand out, and eventually, he became the sheriff. A job that turned out to be slightly more difficult and demanding than he thought it would be; not that he was complaining.

Mr. Gibson returned with a sack of coins. He counted them in front of Robert, despite his protests, before handing it to him. “Here you go, son.”

“Much obliged, Mr. Gibson.”

“Would you care to stay for some breakfast? My Mary is still the finest cook in the county despite being older than me,” Mr. Gibson cackled. Robert did not get the opportunity to reply.

“I heard that, you old hump.” Mrs. Gibson suddenly appeared at the door. Robert greeted her and she smiled in return. She was always happy to see him, and the affection was mutual. Mr. Gibson was right, Mrs. Gibson was the finest cook in town. “You know that's not true,” she continued speaking to her husband. “When we met, I was far younger than you.”

Mr. Gibson chuckled, clearly pleased he managed to rattle his wife. “You are aged dear, you forgot how old you are,” he jibed.

Mrs. Gibson narrowed her eyes. “Josef Gregory Gibson, if you don't stop right there, I will give your supper to the wolves.”

“Poor wolves,” Mr. Gibson said under his breath and Robert barely kept a straight face. He loved when they got like this, which was all the time.

“What was that?” Marry Gibson inquired.

“I said fine. But I still look younger than you,” he insisted stubbornly.

Mrs. Gibson snorted. “Tell that to your wrinkled face, you old rascal,” she replied, but there was no real fire behind her words. She was enjoying this banter as much as Mr. Gibson. Robert simply smiled and listened to them go at one another. It was such a delight to observe such a loving couple.

He wished he would be so fortunate to meet someone in the future who wanted to share his life, love, and laughs. Someone who could complete and challenge him every step of the way. Robert wanted a love that was true and free, but so far he was lacking. None of the women he encountered made his heart flutter or even intrigued him long enough for him to show any interest, and that was tragic.

There must be something wrong with me, he thought to himself, glumly.

Still, he refused to lose hope. Despite the fact that nowadays people marry for status, wealth, or fear of loneliness. All kinds of the wrong reasons led to married folks acting more like business partners sharing a roof, rather than two people bonded out of true adoration and respect. Robert refused to settle for anything other than true affection. Arranged marriages made his skin crawl. If he ever decided to marry, and that was a big if, considering his work was extremely dangerous, he wanted to do it for all the right reasons. He was going to love his wife with all his might, expecting the same in return, or he would never marry at all. Maybe he was a dreamer; that was one dream worth having.

Robert wanted his own Mrs. Gibson, although he would never admit such a thing to anyone, only to himself. “Robert?” Mr. Gibson's voice snapped him from the reverie. He had been calling out for him for quite some time, which was embarrassing. “Breakfast?”

“Pardon me, I got distracted for a moment. And no, thank you, I already ate,” he lied. For some reason, he couldn't be in their presence anymore. Probably because they showed him something he was missing and desperately wanted. Besides, he tried to reason with himself, he had too much work to do. “Duty calls, eh?” Mr. Gibson pressed.

Robert simply nodded in return, and the elderly couple sighed in unison. It was uncanny watching them share the same thoughts even. And Robert already suspected what will come out of Mr. Gibson's mouth next.

He did not disappoint. “You work too much, son. You need to find a girl and marry her, settle down.” Just the things he was thinking about himself. Unfortunately, as it turned out, that wasn't his destiny to have, or at least not yet. “You cannot go through life alone, chasing scoundrels. A man needs a woman to complete his life,” Mrs. Gibson decided to join in.

“We shall see, Mrs. Gibson. Besides, not many girls want to be tied down to a sheriff,” he added with an exaggerated sigh, getting back up on his horse. That wasn't technically a lie, simply an exaggeration.

Unfortunately, the Gibsons saw right through his charade, sharing another one of their poignant glances, but refrained from commenting. For which Robert was grateful. Instead, they waved Robert goodbye, and he did the same. “I expect you to come on Sunday for some apple pie,” Mrs. Gibson shouted after him. They were having a small celebration being wed for forty-five years and Robert was one of the people they decided to invite, for which he was much honored.

“I wouldn't miss it for the world,” he replied honestly.

After that, Robert jabbed his horse and Duke responded instantly, making them soar through the plains, clearly happy to finally stretch his legs. Robert felt a bit raw and restless after that conversation, and he did not appreciate the sentiment one bit.

He hoped some riding would clear his head because it always did in the past. Best medicine in the world. It did not have the desired effect this time. His mind kept swirling back to the Gibsons and the bond they clearly shared. It was true Robert was known as a suitable bachelor in their small part of the world, some would add that he was even desirable in that area, but he did not see things that way.

Despite his words to Mrs. Gibson, he found a few girls did show a bit of interest toward him, but unfortunately, Robert did not share their enthusiasm. Maybe I'm too picky, he thought to himself. He didn't think so, not really. It was just so far, none of the girls he knew really piqued his interest or awoke a desire in him enough to want to spend a bit more time getting to know them, their likes or dislikes, let alone marry one of them. Thoughts of spending the next forty-five years with one of them made him shudder.

His skin practically crawled at the mere thought of the girls he grew up with. That was not to say there was something wrong with them. One of the problems was that he was living in a somewhat small town and knew most of the unmarried girls from childhood. As he had said before, they were all fine young women, all pretty in their unique ways, well-behaved. It was just that he wanted more from a woman he planned to spend his life with.

You are too picky Robert, he informed himself. And for that, you will die alone.

***

Once he felt more comfortable in his own skin, Robert rode back into town. Entering the Sheriff's Office, he greeted his deputies, shared a few words with them, mostly about work, before going to his desk. After making a note about Mr. Gibson's deposit, and a few others, he placed all the coins in the safe with the rest of the taxes. There were some letters on his desk, telegrams from other sheriffs, all containing information about current bandits and their locations. Robert liked to keep track of such things.

Once satisfied with his work, Robert took the keys from a desk drawer and approached one of the cells. Their office wasn't that big, and their holding area looked formidable, with small dark cells and fat iron bars. To put fear in the souls of the weak and easily corrupt.

He looked at the man held inside. “Did you sober up?” he asked without preamble, in a much louder voice than was necessary. Still, only a muffled groan greeted him back and Robert sighed.

“Close enough,” one of his deputies commended; the rest laughed.

Robert opened the door and marched inside the small cell. He gave the man inside a firm shake. “Come on. Wake up.” Eventually, the man sprawled on the cot turned to look up at him, with a frown, clearly not appreciating being awakened in such fashion.

He is fortunate I did not use cold water on him, or something even worse, smelly even. Speaking of worse and smelling, Robert had to hold his breath while standing so close to the man because he reeked of alcohol and probably urine, with a dash of horse manure, a common aroma in that place.

Not wanting to stay any longer than was necessary, Robert spoke again. “Time to go home, Mike.”

“Excellent,” Mike slurred, sleepy. It took some true effort, but he managed to get up on his feet. Is this fool still drunk? Robert wondered, eyeing him. He smelled like a distillery. His face was covered with dried blood, some mud—or at least Robert hoped that was mud—and the slightest breeze could put him back down on his behind. He's just hungover, Robert realized, and no longer his problem.

“Next time you decide to start a brawl for the most ridiculous of all reasons, I will use your head as a battering ram; maybe that will put some sense back into you. Understood?” Robert threatened.

“Yes sir,” Mike stammered, saluting.

Please God, watch over this fool.

Mike left the cell and the station altogether while Robert's deputies were laughing. Mike was known as a local fool, and he spent most nights right here in this very cell to the utmost chagrin of his family. In essence, he was a good lad but when you put some liquor in him, he became extremely prone to doing stupid things, and last night was no exception.

He got into a fight with a local rancher known for having a bad temper, a really hard, tough man that you should not treat lightly. And what led to the brawl?  Over a boot. And it wasn't even Mike's boot, or the rancher's for that matter, but one of the other patrons of the saloon. The argument started over the quality of imported leather compared to domestic or something similar.

Like Robert said, ridiculous, and certainly not something was worth dying over, which would have happened if Robert didn't show up in the nick of time. The place was a madhouse by the time he arrived to save that fool, and it was a true miracle Mike hasn't died already, for being loudmouthed and surrounded by the wrong crowd. He would have been, but he tripped and fell while the rancher aimed and fired, fortunately missing. Both were beyond drunk which probably saved them from killing each other.

So, Robert fired his arm in the air to get everyone's attention. Once the crowd settled, he picked up Mike from the pile of broken chairs and dragged him to jail, for his own protection. “I bet he will be back tonight,” one of his deputies, Ross, had to voice his opinion, and another simply snorted. “That's a safe bet. I say, he will be back this afternoon.”

While his deputies started to bet, Robert rolled his eyes, closing the cell. He wished there were a way to reach Mike and force him to see reason, prevent him from coming back ever again.

Yet you can't save everybody, he thought with a small amount of sadness, remembering his older brother and father while returning to his desk. He still had a lot of work to do. Even though he completely ignored their jokes, he shared their views. Mike will be back, I just hope he will be breathing next time...

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  • It seems as if this story is going to get very interesting.i can’t wait to find out who the villain is.

  • I cannot wait for the rest of the story. I want to know who the murderer is and why! Very well written, drew me in quickly. Beginning with a murder and then introducing others kept me trying to figure out who “dun it”.

  • I cannot wait to read the rest of the story as the sheriff solves the murder of Elsa. The untold past of Elsa led a man to try to slowly poison her but she left the villain with a burr under his saddle before he took her life. Geraldine will be the key in this mystery. This preview leaves you with a thirst to read more.

    • So happy to hear this dear Linda!
      You get it! Thanks a million! You will find out soon! ❤️

  • There are several characters to I can’t wait to follow and see what happens. Geraldine who works so hard to support herself and her Mom needs a nice man to help her. Who killed Elsa? Will Robert and Geraldine meet?

    I’m excited to read the rest of the book. Cassidy’s books are always hard to put down.

  • I really enjoyed this preview, the beginning, and the murder, then the story really started, I was really into it, when it finished. How can I get the whole book, I can’t wait. Thank you for the preview. Regards, Rita Cole.