About the book
When home is no longer home, love is their only shelter...
After losing her husband, Clementine Talley decides to start a new life in Wild Montana.
As a mere store-clerk, she dreams of becoming a teacher. Despite how hopeful she is, she carries a weight on her back; one she won’t let anyone know about. But when she’s attacked by a crude man, a handsome cowboy comes to her rescue...
Alexander Carson has too much to hide. As a prior bounty hunter, his life isn’t how he wants it to be. But his decision to settle for a cowboy’s life is the best he’s ever made. The day he saves Clementine, however, is when he comes face to face with fate.
As love prevails, the past comes back to haunt them.
When Alexander finds out that familiar shadows are here, he has to revisit the past he has left behind for good. Because his sister’s killer is back and is now after his new family...
Oxbent, Arizona 1885
Alexander was exhausted when he finally stepped into the small house he shared with his sister Honey. He had been gone for more than three days, riding across the plains to try and find the cave Colt Debbert and his gang of men were using as a hideout.
The journey was long and difficult. He’d slept little and had not eating anything but stale bread, but that feeling of elation when he finally trotted toward the cave’s mouth would be worth it, he knew. Or so he thought.
Because the cave was empty. Empty and with little evidence of the men who were supposed to have inhabited it. Alexander had been forced to ride straight on back home with no victory to speak of. He was tired and angry.
But at least I’ll get to see Honey.
His sister was the light of his life. Though it was only the two of them left in the family, it never felt lonely. Honey could light up any room, make anyone laugh. Alexander couldn’t wait to spend the rest of the night talking to her, listening to her sweet voice tell him stories and jokes that would ease his disappointment.
But when he opened the door, it wasn’t to find Honey sitting in her usual rocking chair with her knitting needles clacking away.
Instead, she was laid out on the floor, a hole in her stomach, her eyes lifeless and hollow.
All at once, Alexander’s world fell apart.
“Honey!” he screamed, collapsing on his knees beside her.
Gathering her in his arms, Alexander couldn’t help the tears that streamed from his eyes as he looked at his sister’s pale face and felt her cold body in his arms.
“What happened to you? Who did this to you?” he asked, but he already knew the answer.
For years, Alexander had tried to bring Colt’s gang to justice. They were mostly guns for hire, and for them, no job was too risky or dirty. They did it all, robberies, kidnapping, even murder, and since they were a true menace, he focused all his energy on catching them.
The gang's leader, Colt Debbert, was the worst of the lot, and over time it had become some kind of a sick game for him to torment Alexander. He knew Colt wanted him dead, but he realize that Colt was happy to kill Honey first, to get to him.
He was too arrogant, he realized that now. He thought he was invincible, and Honey, too.
But his arrogance and carelessness had cost him his only family. For so long, he’d been too focused on the job, partly because of his pride, and it had cost him dearly; he’d lost the only person he cared about in this world.
A few days later, he was standing over a Honey’s freshly dug grave.
“This place was not meant for the weakhearted,” was written on one of the nearby tombstones.
I can’t agree more.
“I am so sorry, Honey,” he whispered, falling down to his knees on the newly turned dirt. He wished there was a way to make all the pain go away. It was agonizing. A part of him wondered how he was still alive in spite of it.
The smell of fresh earth made him want to pull out all his hair and scream to the sky above from the top of his lungs until his throat felt completely raw. This was all his fault.
“It should have been me inside that wooden box,” he yelled at the heavens. “Not you, Honey.” Not his beloved, little sister.
His Honey was one of the kindest, purest souls that ever walked in this town, on this Earth. In her short life, she never hurt anybody, always taking care of him, making sure to help other townspeople as much as she could. He wasn’t like that. He was a different kind of animal altogether. So why was he allowed to live after what he did, and why did she have to die?
“I don’t know how to be without you,” he cried, overcome with grief. “I am so sorry, Honey,” he repeated again and again, yet his words felt hollow, as though they were not enough.
His apologies would never be enough. They would forever rest on deaf ears, because Honey was gone.
Alexander felt like punching himself for being so stupid. He’d learned from a big-mouthed associate of Debbert’s that something big was about to occur in the gang. That had sent him on a journey to the cave, where he thought he’d find the gang readying for their next devilish task. He thought he’d be able to stop them.
But it was all a ruse. They just wanted to lure him out of the house long enough to take sweet Honey from him forever.
Being close to him, related to him, was what had killed Honey. He was like a plague to all the people that loved him. He felt cursed. And his sister’s death proved that fact. I don’t deserve to love, or to be loved.
His sister did not deserve this. She was brutally taken from this world before she even got a chance to properly live, love, have a family of her own. It was his fault, so it was up to him to do something about it. What he planned to do wouldn’t bring his sister back to life, but he hoped it would bring her some peace. Maybe bring some to him as well, if he dared to pray for something like that for himself in the first place.
“Thank you, Father,” he managed to choke out a few minutes later, after the priest had said the final words that would lay Honey to rest. If she could even rest, knowing what had been done to her. “It was a lovely sermon, and I appreciate all your kind words,” he continued to ramble, not fully knowing why. Perhaps he needed to fill the air between them with words so he wouldn’t start screaming again. Cursing this life for being so hard was also a possibility.
“She was a lovely girl... Come see me sometime, if you need someone to talk to,” the priest offered, and Alexander nodded in return, fully knowing he would never do such a thing. He had other plans, better ways of healing his pain.
The priest walked away leaving Alexander with his sister, with his agony.
“Honey, I failed you once. I am not going to fail you again, I promise,” he vowed.
He bathed in the hurt, smothered himself with rage until he almost felt like drowning. But it was good. It was giving him the energy he needed to battle Colt. He was now focused on only one thing: revenge. He clenched his fists into the dirt and squeezed it out between his fingers, the strength of his grip feeling good after so much weakness.
Honey, I will avenge you.
He would find all the men who did this to his family, who took his little sister from him, and he would make them pay in the most gruesome of ways. He would bring Hell down upon them, and enjoy it.
In his life, in his career, he’d always tried to be just; he always minded the law, no matter what anybody else thought or did. But not anymore.
For this case, this evil, he was going to act as both judge and executioner to these vile men. He would become the thing from their nightmares. He wanted them scared; he wanted them to feel everything his sister felt in her last moments.
It did not matter to him what happened after he managed to kill them all. He had made peace with the fact there was no life for him after that, after he got this revenge. He would quit his job and leave this wretched town for good, never to return. Even if he was victorious, there was no living where he was surrounded with so many memories, good or bad. Perhaps that made him a coward, but he did not care.
Forming this plan inside his head had empowered him; it gave him the strength to get back up on his feet.
“I will come to visit you soon, Honey,” he promised, taking one last look t at the grave before walking away.
Courtfield, Montana 1888
While doing the last chores for the day, Clementine Brigitte Jones could hear a horse approaching the house. It was late at night and all sounds were amplified, but she was not afraid.
That’s what you get when you live in the middle of nowhere.
The good thing was nobody could surprise her, the bad, there was nothing she could do if someone did arrive unannounced and wanted to harm her.
Shortly after, the horse made some noise out of protest, and someone she knew all too well jumped from it somewhat awkwardly. She didn’t even have to look through the window to imagine the scene in front of her eyes perfectly.
Clementine seethed, checking the time. By his standards, he was coming home rather early. That fact did not make her feel better, not at all, because he’d spent two days away from home without sending any word to her.
Here he comes home, without any regard for me or this household.
The front door opened and then closed with a loud bang. It was a miracle it still stood on the hinges from all the abuse it had received over the years. Clementine didn’t even bat an eyelash at the state or the manner he was coming to her; she was too accustomed to the whole affair to be surprised or hurt anymore. That, in itself, was tragic.
Her husband Steve stumbled into the kitchen, completely drunk. He was plain in every way, of average height and build, with dark hair and matching eyes. However, the years of indulging in his many vices had not been kind to his appearance or his health.
Clementine did not even turn to look at him while she put away the last of the washed glasses. Likewise, she did not greet him in any form. He didn’t deserve anything from her anymore. It was bad enough she was trapped in this life.
“I’m hungry,” he slurred without greeting her properly. “Make me a plate.”
She could hear him crashing to the chair and she sighed. Glancing upward, she asked the heavens how it was possible that this was her life. There was no reply, yet she felt better letting that out to the universe. But deep inside knew she would survive all of this. That would take strength and courage, and Clementine knew she had both of them.
Taking a deep, empowering breath, she decided it would be for the best if she simply did what the he asked, even though she was frustrated beyond measure and deeply unhappy in this form of prison.
At least, it was a true blessing they did not have children together, she mused, fully knowing how wrong a thought that was. But that did not change her mind. It was hard enough without children.
They were constantly arguing, and she was fed up with it. She was sick and tired of his constant drinking, gambling, lack of any regard toward her, not to mention lack of affection. He was violent and mean, and Clementine was glad he was not a father, even though it pained her she was not a mother.
At that point, she was no more than a maid to him. And how did she end up here, married to this man? Thanks to her dear father.
She could still remember that day, when he announced she was to be married. It was just after her mother's funeral.
“Come,” her father commanded. “It is time for us to go home.”
“I do not want to leave her here alone,” she sobbed. She felt as though her place was right there. Her mother never liked to be left alone.
Living on the remote ranch, with an absent father who worked all day, her mother was everything she had in this world. The prospect of living in it without her dear mother felt too glum.
“There’s nothing we can do, but pray she found peace,” her father replied gruffly. “The past is the past and now we must think of the future.”
Clementine could not believe he uttered those words at that moment. Right after they buried his wife.
How can he be so callous? Did he even love Mother at all?
She instantly felt guilty for having such thoughts. She knew her father loved her mother.
“I love you, Mother, farewell. I will be back tomorrow to visit you,” she promised. Reluctantly, she allowed her father to drag her away from the burial site. They were the only two people left at the graveyard.
A soft rain started to fall, and she thought about how it was quite fitting that it did. There was small comfort in the fact that even the heavens wept for the loss of this kind, lovely woman.
“We have to think about your future, my dear daughter,” her father said, startling her a little, once they were settled inside their carriage.
Droplets of rain traveled down her face, staining her dress, yet she did nothing to stop them.
“Now that your mother is gone, I fear...”
“Please, Father,” she stopped him, not being able to stand such a conversation at this moment. She needed a moment to just breathe.
“No,” he insisted. “You have to listen to me.”
Clementine ignored her father. Unfortunately, that did not derail him.
“It is time we discuss your marriage.”
Was it really? She wanted to snap at him, but held her tongue, comprehending this was his own grief speaking.
“I already have a promising man in mind. He is a well-respected businessman of thirty-five that I met in church. He just moved here from Boston, and he has no wife.”
She almost asked if the man in question even wanted one.
“I am sure he will take good care of you,” her father concluded.
So that man was rich and was going to church. She was bitter her father thought that was everything she needed to know about a man she was supposed to spend the rest of her life with. “I do not wish to discuss this with you at the moment, father,” she practically snapped.
That sparked her father’s temper as well. “I am not a young man anymore and I just want to find someone who will take care of you after I’m gone.”
“I do not need to be taken care of, I can do everything on my own,” she replied, not being able to hold that inside of her any longer. Her father was too old-fashioned to listen to her. The disapproval was written all over his face.
That brought fresh tears to the girl’s eyes. She needed some time to mourn before considering marriage.
“Your mother would want this for you, daughter.” He added the final blow and she closed her eyes for the moment.
Swallowing all her fury and pain, she said as calmly as possible, “Could we discuss this matter some other time, I have a terrible headache.”
“Very well,” her father replied with a shake of his head. “Soon, we will have to discuss this, and at length.” He was adamant.
“As you wish,” Clementine said with a sigh, looking out of the window even though there was nothing for her to see. The scenery was dreadfully bare, sad looking. Much like my soul.
As it turned out, her husband was nothing like her father promised. He was a cruel man and he never missed an opportunity to show her that.
Clementine Jones, maiden name Talley, chose to be strong and believe that there had to be out of this, though, and she was adamant about finding it.
Father meant well, another voice spoke up. His intentions were pure; she was aware of that, however, that did not change anything. Like most of his bright ideas, they were quickly proven disastrous.
Clementine could vividly remember what happened one time when she was a child, and her father came home after a short trip to the neighboring town only to announce they were starting a new endeavor. They were to raise rabbits on their small farm and sell their fur.
For their effort, they nearly went bankrupt. The special breed of rabbits was pricey, costing them almost everything they’d managed to save up over the years, and in the end, they got nothing in return. One night, a coyote broke into the rabbit’s holding place and ate them all.
She said yes while still grieving the loss of her mother. It was simple as much as it was tragic.
Clementine, ever the good wife, placed a plate of food in front of her highly intoxicated husband. The meal was beyond cold since Steve came late, as always. And she refused to reheat anything for him. By the way he was eyeing the food, he very well knew it.
“Give me a beer,” he barked, pushing the presented food away from him with a deep scowl.
She snorted in return. “Don’t you think you already had enough?” she said before she could stop herself. Actually, it looked as though he had reached that place a couple of hours ago but kept drinking anyway.
Steve’s head snapped as if her words slapped him. He looked at her, finally, and his eyes were full of rage and something else. Something she couldn’t fully understand.
Why did she have to open her mouth? Clementine chastised herself, all too late realizing what she had done. Now he was going to get angry at her, and there was not a way to regain any semblance of calmness. Sometimes, she thought he relished the times when she said something like this to him, as though that was the excuse he needed to act badly.
“Mind your tongue, woman, and do what I say,” he growled or at least tried to. In his state of drunkenness, sometimes it was hard to understand him.
Remain calm, Clementine warned herself, not wanting to make the same mistake twice. She was tired from working all day, washing clothes and mending them for some women in town for a few coins she could keep for herself, and wanted to go rest. She could not do that until he was asleep.
“What are you waiting for?” he added when she did not move. “Are you going deaf?” He threatened, and she snapped.
“There is no liquor in the house; you already drank it all.”
He was not pleased with her reply and he rose to his feet. In his mind, he probably meant it to be far more dramatic than it was since, in his current state, he was rather poorly coordinated, so his actions were sloppy, almost comical. The chair fell backward, and neither one of them made a move to pick it up. He was swaying so hard on his feet, she was amazed he stayed upright.
“Liar,” he accused, yelling at the top of his lungs. Once again, Clementine thanked the heavens there were no neighbors around to hear this abuse. Many pitied her already; any additional shame would be unbearable.
“You probably drank it all yourself,” he added, pushing her out of the way so he could look for himself. Even drunk, he was more powerful than her, and the shove nearly made her fall. Clementine managed to remain standing by grabbing the table.
“Looking at you, like this, I wouldn’t dare even touch that stuff,” she mumbled mostly to herself.
Steve started going through the kitchen cabinets, knocking things over, breaking jars with flour, sugar, and other goods. She cringed. They were on the brink of starvation already, without him ruining the scraps that they had. Instinctively, Clementine jumped in front of him with raised hands, trying to prevent him from further damage.
“I said, there is nothing in this house for you to drink,” she insisted, hoping his fuzzy brain would recognize the truth in her words.
It had some effect; he did stop, but, sadly, the argument continued. “You are a rotten woman,” he spat in her face. “I should have never agreed to marry you.”
That makes two of us, she thought bitterly.
“There is no food and no drink in this damn place. You don’t respect me at all. Why do I work all day?” he yelled.
“You don’t. You drink and gamble away everything we have.” Even her father’s farm was gone thanks to his vices. Once again, she was too late to realize she said her thoughts out loud.
He made a step toward her, as though he wanted to hit her. Clementine was quicker and managed to move out of his reach. Never again! She reminded herself of the decision she made not so long ago.
He turned, eyeing her like he was deciding on his next move.
“You must be some kind of punishment sent to torture me,” he argued.
“Funny, I was just thinking the very same thing.”
Just in case, she stood next to a hard iron frying pan and was fully prepared to use it if he came at her again.
In the past, when she was a fresh bride, full of hope, he would harm her, especially while this drunk, and not just verbally, but physically as well. Clementine would not allow such behavior any longer. Her days of covering bruises were behind her. She made that decision a while back. Tonight, something snapped inside of her, solidifying her resolve.
Tonight’s events were not so different from the ones before but made her change, harden for the better, and she would never again allow him to harm her in any way. She would defend herself.
Luckily, it did not come to that.
He looked at her as though she was not worth the bother, and once upon a time, that would hurt her. Not the fact he decided she was not worth hitting, but that he regarded her in such light at all. Thought so little of her.
At times like these, she couldn’t understand why he agreed to marry her since he never cared about her one bit. He was wealthy back in those days and so was she. Despite her father’s quirky ideas, she eventually managed to derail him from most of his crazy endeavors. So their farm was prosperous.
When Clementine looked at things that way, having his many vices in mind, the answer to her question was tragically simple. He needed her money. He had plenty of his on when they got married; however, what she didn’t know was that he already had enormous debt. Clementine wished there was some way to go back through time and warn her younger self not to fall into this trap. Alas, that was just a dream.
“I do not have to stand here and listen to you place all the blame on me, you ungrateful wench,” Steve said, raising his chin ever so slightly. The gesture looked comical to her and she almost chuckled.
Good. The best decision you made in a long time. She had enough presence of mind to not say it aloud. With little luck, and heavens knew she deserved some, he wouldn’t be coming back at all.
Little did she know, that would be just the case.
As he stumbled his way out, mumbling something about wicked women and necessary punishments as a husband’s divine duty, that was the last time she saw him. Alive.
Clementine’s heart raced like a herd of wild stallions across the prairies as she closed the door behind him; she prayed with all her heart he would not return. She couldn’t believe she stood up to him; it left her feeling quite invigorated.
Sadly, life was not done with her. There were many trials she was about to face. Her husband, whom she endured for years, in sickness and in health, not to mention vices, was killed that very night.
The question that arose as she prepared for the funeral was that even if she had known beforehand what would happen to him, would she have acted any differently? The suddenly free woman did not dare answer that question, because she was finally hopeful that one day, she would find happiness.
Alexander Carson fell onto his knees on the sandy ground, and very quickly, the rest of his body followed suit with a loud thud. He walked through the desert all day with barely anything to drink, while injured, bleeding and it appeared that all his strength had abandoned him. He was bone tired and knew with utmost clarity he was in no condition to stand up again.
I will die here. There was no fear behind that thought.
Truth be told, it did not matter to him. As far as he was concerned, he was done. Looking at the full moon above him, he thought he had fulfilled his promise. It shone with an almost blinding light, yet it did not bother his eyes. It was lovely.
Even though he was probably going to freeze to death during this very night, his heart was at peace. “It is done,” he said with a sigh. Alexander had hunted and punished all the men responsible for killing his sister about three years ago.
Tonight, he found and faced the last fiend. He hadn’t meant to kill the man, but the battle was gruesome, a fight that Alexander knew he could not win unless a life was taken. And even so, he left the scene injured. He could not feel his right hand at all. But the wound was good, because it reminded him that it was done. He had managed to avenge Honey at the end. He could die as well, right here on this desert floor if fate demanded it; he had no more to live for anyway.
If he was not a dedicated believer, he would have ended his life.
He couldn’t believe his journey up to this moment. It had taken him three whole years to fulfill the promise he’d made while standing above Honey’s grave.
Alexander actually smiled in the darkness. He’d fulfilled his promise, done his duty as an older brother. He paid the price with his right arm, perhaps with his life itself, and that did not faze him. All in all, it truly was a small price to pay considering he had gone against one of the most notorious gangs in history.
Honey, I’ll be seeing you soon. He was fully prepared to die.
He looked at the full moon again and kept looking at it, as it advanced across the twinkling sky, for as long as he could. There was beauty in this world, even though it was scarce, especially in this damned place. The cold really started to bother him then and his eyes started to close. He occupied his mind with images of him and Honey in their parents’ house, playing and laughing when they were still young and innocent.
At some point, loud thunder-like sounds snapped him from his state. His first thought was that a storm was gathering. That was not the case. The dying, broken man managed to open his eyes only to see a big shadow looming over him, blocking his view of the moon. He wanted to protest but suddenly everything went completely black.
My time has come.
Courtfield, Montana 1890
Clementine woke up with a start, placing both hands across her fast-beating heart as though worried it was about to leave her chest. She had not had that particular nightmare, in a very long time. As far as she was concerned, the past belonged in the past and dwelling on it had no purpose. That was one of her late father’s sayings and she accepted it wholeheartedly.
Why did she dream of that after all this time? She had to wonder. Despite all the troubles she endured, Clementine liked the life she created for herself. It was far from perfect, yet it was her own.
She was grateful she had a steady job for a change. The pay wasn't great, but she earned every penny honestly; she could make ends meet, had a roof over her head and regular meals and after the years of struggle that was plenty.
Checking the time, she discovered she would be terribly late if she continued to lay about. She had a lot of chores to deal with before going to work. It amazed her how someone living alone could make such a mess, so she always made sure she was handling everything.
Once she finished everything she had planned for the day, she hastily made herself a meal, changed into one of her older dresses, and left the small house she lived in. It was located just off the main road. Overall, the house was not much to look at, however, it was the best she could afford. It was a small, two-roomed affair made of dark, almost grey wood and a stained old roof that had seen better days. On the plus side, it had a lovely garden she liked to work in, planting flowers and some vegetables. She loved standing out there in the early morning and smelling the fragrant sweetness of the roses, and looking over all the neat little rows of food that she had grown with her own two hands. It was a little world all her own, and for that she was grateful.
Besides, living in the city had a few other perks. She was never late to church on Sundays and she was only a couple of minutes away from her job.
After her husband died, Clementine truly struggled. Steve left her with so much debt she lost the house they were living in, and her few part-time jobs, washing, mending, sewing clothes for some of the ladies in Courtfield simply wasn't enough to sustain her.
Everybody knew Steve and what kind of a man he was, so that reputation tarnished her as well, and nobody wanted to hire her. When she was practically on the street and on the brink of starvation the owner of the store took pity on her.
She instantly accepted the offer to work as the store owner’s assistant seeing that as a great opportunity to start over. Garry proved to be a very kind man and thanks to him she managed to get back onto her feet.
However, one man did not change her opinion about men in general. Being constantly surrounded by drunken rascals like her late husband only fortified her decision never to fall in love or marry again.
Working at the store proved to her she could take care of herself, and that was exactly what she planned on doing for the rest of her life. Never again would she depend on some man.
Taking the short walk, squinting against the blazing sun, breathing the dry air that was full of dust the horses and the wagons made, Clementine could not decide if she loved or hated her job.
She loved what it meant to her and provided her with, other things, not so much.
The thing Clementine loved about Courtfield was the way it was built. She was told many times in the past, that it resembled many cities in the West. However, that did not mean it was not beautiful in its way.
The Main Street was the busiest and widest street. It had many shops, taverns, and few government offices. Some were made from rock, but mostly they were built with timber. All the different shades of brown set against the golden hills beyond made it look as though Courtfield was part of nature.
This was even more true of the church. It was the only one in town, set in the square and connecting all the smaller roads together in front of it. It was bordered on three sides by trees, the only ones on Main Street, making it look like a natural refuge for all those who came to worship. Clementine loved it for that very reason; it was like something out of a fairy tale, rising out of manicured woods to welcome her.
All the side streets connecting to the church led to private houses, or out of the city to a few local farms and ranches.
And even thought the town was surrounded by those golden hills and rolling plains, mountains could be seen in the vast distance, providing a picture-perfect scenery.
“Good day,” she greeted all the people on her merry way. Despite the bad dream, or perhaps it was the other way around, thanks to it, she was very much glad to be alive.
Most of the folk living here in Courtfield knew her all her life, and most of them greeted her back with a smile. The rest had a small issue with her current employment, the concept that she was a woman working, or had disputes with her late husband.
Clementine worked as the only store assistant in the store, owned by Mr. Garry Michaels. Because the store sold alcohol in addition to food, it wasn’t one of the most respectable of places in town, but it was a means to an end.
So that was the problem she had with some of her neighbors, or more accurately, their problems with her. There were people, mostly men, who saw her independence as something unnatural. They scowled at her, muttering she should find a husband instead of selling liquor, or if they were more polite, ignored her as she passed by them. Clementine did her best to ignore those narrow-minded souls in return.
After everything she’d been through, she’d earned the right to do what she wanted. Those who were born privileged as men could never know or could never fully understand the sufferings of women in this world. Keeping all that in mind, as far as she was concerned, all those people could keep their small-minded opinions to themselves and let her be. Clementine lived just the way she wanted to. And I am very happy, thank you very much.
Clementine slowed down so she could see who was calling out to her. She smiled as she saw a middle-aged woman rushing her way.
“Mrs. Townsend,” Clementine greeted the heavily breathing woman as she approached her.
“Clementine, I am so happy I caught you. Your herbal tea worked.”
Clementine was pleased to hear it. Mrs. Townsend’s son had a terrible cough for weeks, and Clementine offered to make him something her mother used to make for her when she was little.
“I’m glad,” she replied simply. Tim was a nice boy and Clementine hated seeing him suffering.
“I am so relieved,” Mrs. Townsend said, and it was apparent across her whole face. “Do you mind making another batch, just to make sure?” she inquired.
“Certainly. I will have it for you in a couple of days.” Clementine needed some time to dry and mince the proper herbs.
Mrs. Townsend patted her cheek. “Thank you very much; you truly are an angel. I have to run. Mrs. Havers is waiting for me and you know how she gets if you’re late.”
And with that, she practically ran away without giving Clementine a chance to reply to any of it. Instead, she smiled, looking at the woman. Mrs. Townsend was one of the women who refused to see Clementine any differently now just because she worked at the store. She felt grateful she could call that woman a friend. She resumed her journey.
As she entered the store, all the usual smells washed over her, hitting her nostrils. The pleasant odor of oats and corn packed away in small sacks; the tang of molasses and, underneath it all, the faintest hint of beer.
The store had changed her life in many ways. She got an opportunity to socialize more, learn new skills and discover a great deal about herself, like how strong and resilient she was.
Clementine could see that all the usual customers were already in line at the counter. She spotted a few new ones, too. That cheered her up since she wouldn’t mind getting a few extra coins in tips. It wasn’t normal to tip merchants, but Mr. Michaels had wisely put a tip jar on the counter anyway, and because of his reliable stock and cheerful attitude, the men always put in a coin or two.
Their town was constantly growing, and unlike some, she did not have a problem with it. Having fresh blood around wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sure, a few bad apples could enter their lives, but surprisingly, she was still hopeful.
People can surprise you sometimes.
Fine folk came into their establishment just as often as trouble makers did, buying up the more expensive items like sugar, cured meats and sherry. Clementine liked to talk with them without getting too attached. She preferred to keep her circle of friends small and stay away from everyone else. It was better that way.
The store was open day and night. Gratefully, Clementine worked during the day, until nightfall and Garry, the owner, minded the store alone at night, with a little assistance from a deputy or two if the evening customers, who mainly came to buy drink, misbehaved too much.
“You are a pretty sight for sore eyes,” Garry greeted her with a broad smile as he did every day. Garry was an optimist; nothing could sway him to lose his calm or good mood. Perhaps that was the reason he’d managed to work in this place his whole life.
Clementine smiled at him in return. Garry was an old man, nearly as old as her father, and she knew his words were meant as a kindness, not flirtation. A couple of patrons added their own appreciation for this female addition to their drinking party, however, Clementine simply rolled her eyes at that since they were not so charming or polite.
Tying her apron on so she could minimize the damage on her skirts that dust and spilled food and drink might cause, she got to work. Garry handed her two big sacks of corn and a small jar of jam and she skillfully carried them to the two men that had ordered them. “Here you go,” she said and then waited to get her pay.
As of late, they had a new rule to collect the money immediately after selling their wares to certain customers. Garry knew everyone in Courtfield, and he knew which men would forget to settle their tab at the end of the month. The two men holding the corn and jar of jam were two such people.
These two particular men Clementine knew very well. Former miners, the Peterson brothers came to Courtfield during a gold rush. Unfortunately, that was no more than a hoax for gullible men. And while most people left, looking for the next big score, these two stayed. Johnny and Tonny liked the town so much they decided to settle.
“Thanks, doll,” Johnny said to her, offering her the money. He was also smiling at her, showing his toothless mouth. Clementine knew he had wooden teeth, he carried them inside his pocket and wore them only on Sunday for church. Clementine couldn’t understand why that was the case, but she never cared enough to ask.
“Yell if you need anything else,” she replied, placing the money inside her skirt’s many hidden pockets.
“How about you come back to the farm for a while and keep us some company. Maybe cook us something with this here corn,” said the other, licking his lower lip in a rather suggestive way as he hefted the sack of corn higher in his arms. Clementine felt immediately nauseous.
Clementine was used to men saying all sorts of things to her, or even worse, trying to do things to her at the store. God knew Clementine had practice even before this job. It did not even matter if they were drunk or sober. Some men were pigs, plain and simple.
However, Clementine was not the victim in this story. A long time ago, she made a vow to herself never to let any man mistreat her in any way, and to this day she kept her promise. Due to her past experiences she knew exactly what to do to never be in that position ever again.
“I am sorry Tonny, I am too busy and besides that, too God-fearing to spend time with the likes of you.”
Garry was smiling at her as she came to stand behind the counter again, clearly hearing every word of her exchange with the Peterson brothers.
“That was rather funny,” he complimented, approvingly. “I raised you well,” he joked.
Clementine simply nodded in return. She loved Garry very much. He was almost twice her age, yet you would never guess it since he had a very young face with just a few wrinkles around his eyes.
Clementine asked him once how he managed to maintain his youthfulness. “I drink one glass of brandy a day; it keeps my organs nicely cleaned and preserved, does wonders to the skin as well,” he joked.
Despite him being so much older than her, they worked just fine. That did not mean she regarded him as a father figure, more like an older brother. Being an only child, she always longed for a sibling. Luckily, she found one in Garry, and he felt the same way about her.
While Clementine chatted with Garry, carrying a few more orders to the thirsty patrons in between, Osmond entered, all red-faced and out of breath.
He was the church’s organist and a very good one at that. He looked so flustered both Garry and Clementine stopped everything they were doing, wanting to hear what the other man had to say.
“You would not believe what just happened to me,” he announced, instead of a more conventional greeting.
“What?” Garry and Clementine said at the same time, then looked at one another and shared a private smile.
There were a few things that were completely unique about Osmond.
First was the way he was dressed. Clementine was always amazed by the fact he showed up every day to work in his most pristine and elegant suit. When he wasn’t playing at the church services, he gave private piano lessons to the more genteel of Courtfield’s inhabitants. Today his dress shirt had embroidered roses on it, his coat was a three-button sport-coat with matching trousers, and he wore a bowler hat. He looked as though he was playing in some grand hall, in a big city, for rich people and not in a dirt-poor town in the middle of nowhere for a bunch of drunks.
“I almost ruined my favorite suit,” he complained.
Osmond had the worst luck ever. The things that happened to him on a daily basis never happened to regular people. Garry teased him he had a clumsy guardian angel that resulted in his bad luck. Osmond was not amused by that.
“How?” Clementine asked, a bit concerned. Having a laugh was one thing but she did not want to see him seriously hurt. He was a dear friend.
“A horse nipped at me, started chewing my sleeve.”
His suit was light brown and a horse could have mistaken it for hay. Picturing Osmond battling a horse over a sleeve almost put a smile to her face. At times, Clementine felt sorry for him, and at others, she couldn’t help but be entertained.
“What did you do with a horse?” Garry asked confused. Just like Clementine, Osmond lived in town and walked to the store every day. He did not own a horse. Clementine wasn’t even sure if he knew how to ride one, which was a tragedy since they lived in the Wild West.
“Start at the beginning,” Garry prompted.
Osmond took a deep breath before starting his story. “While on my way here I saw a black cat trying to cross my path.”
Clementine failed to mention Osmond was highly superstitious as well.
“Trying?” Garry said, good-naturedly.
“Well, yes,” Osmond replied in all seriousness. “I stopped in my tracks, naturally, and went the other way.”
“Naturally,” Garry agreed while nodding. There was just a hint of teasing in his voice.
Osmond sighed again as if it actually pained him to tell his tale. “Unfortunately, going backward I failed to notice Mr. Potter,” Courtfield’s undertaker. “He was getting the caskets out of his shop, and I tripped and fell into one.”
“Well, that doesn’t sound so bad. Osmond, you’ve had worse,” Clementine tried to make him feel better. How does a horse fit into the story? Clementine was cheered when Osmond continued. She felt only partially bad there was more to it.
“Mr. Potter helped me out while children laughed at me after trying to pull the top on.” He shuddered as though reliving the moment. “It was dreadful.”
Clementine tried really hard not to laugh.
“What happened next?” Garry prompted, handing the pianist a shot of alcohol to calm his nerves.
He gulped it in one go, coughing a little. “Rattled, I completely forgot about the cat and continued on my original path. And that was when it happened.”
“The horse?” Clementine provided, practically leaning forward toward him, as though that would make her hear the ending faster.
“No,” Osmond replied with a wave of his hand as though being eaten by a horse was of no concern to him anymore.
Besides, halfway through his narrative Clementine deduced nothing bad happened to him since he looked unscathed, and his clothes were clean.
“The girl,” Osmond concluded as his eyes became dreamy. He sighed deeply. “I saw the most beautiful girl in the world.”
Garry and Clementine shared another knowing look.
Osmond continued, unaware of their silent conversation. “Sonnets should be written about her beauty. I am completely in love, my friends. She is the woman of my dreams.”
Osmond had another affliction. He loved to be infatuated. Luckily, it never lasted, but he could get rather obsessive. He never pressured or bothered the objects of his love, which was a blessing. Unfortunately, he could get pretty annoying, playing melancholic melodies and sighing a great deal.
He never regarded Clementine in such fashion. She did not know if she should feel lucky or offended.
Looking at him now as he withered about this new mystery woman, this new muse in his life, Clementine realized she knew the answer to that question. She was definitely the lucky one. Being his friend was far more satisfying than being his ‘Muse.’
“Who is she?” Garry asked. And Clementine simply shook her head. He shouldn’t encourage him. Garry knew what was on her mind and he sent her a smile.
“A true goddess,” Osmond announced enthusiastically.
That means he doesn’t know her, Clementine joked.
In the next instant, his whole face fell. “Unfortunately, while I was gazing at the perfection of her face, a devious horse snuck up on me and started eating me like I was the most delicious meal.”
Clementine chuckled. Worst luck ever.
“Startled, I screamed. I fear she heard it.” Garry handed him another glass of drink.
There was no doubt in Clementine’s mind. Clementine once had an opportunity to witness Osmond in action, so to speak. He had the most high-pitched voice she ever heard in her life. Dogs started wailing after his performance.
“She must think the worst of me now,” he complained. “All due to that darn animal.”
Poor Osmond. He was too sensitive for this world.
“She doesn’t know you, there is still hope,” Clementine tried to cheer him up, and failed.
A customer was waving at her so Clementine jumped to the opportunity to be of service, silently thanking the heavens she got a chance to move away from the two men. Osmond would most definitely retell the whole scene many times, complaining to Garry about his ill fate and she did not want to be a part of that… until she saw who was calling for her.
Herbert, Clementine groaned inwardly. This day was really starting to get on her nerves.
Bad luck must be contagious since there was no other explanation for this man that refused to leave her alone. Herbert was a true menace and she detested him.
Clementine felt like she would prefer to eat glass than even sell apples to him. Of all the obnoxious men that came to the store that Clementine had had the privilege to sell to over the years, Herbert was on the top of her list.
Swallowing her disgust, Clementine asked Garry to get a bottle of Herbert’s favorite drink before carrying it to him. He always looked at her as though she was a juicy steak and he was a starved man.
She would just have to ignore him, and usually, if he just stared at her, she successfully did that.
Clementine should be used to it by now. She wasn’t. There was just something about him that made her skin crawl, and she couldn’t decipher what. He was of normal weight and height and had blonde hair that was usually too greasy and unimpressive brown eyes.
She decided to just give him the drink and walk away, pushing the uncomfortable feeling he awoke in her.
When her hours at the store ended later that day, she was exhausted, but enjoying the fine evening air that surrounded her on her walk home. She closed her eyes for a moment and inhaled the particular musty, sun-baked sweetness of Courtfield.
But then the scent changed, to a more poignant smell that she was sadly just as familiar with.
Herbert. It had clearly been a while since he washed his clothes. And the smell of liquor only completed that aroma, confirming something she already knew. He was drunk, and following her.
“Good evening, Clementine,” he sing-songed. “You look mighty fine tonight,” he added, practically licking his lips.
“Good evening, Herbert,” she replied, crossing her arms protectively over her chest and picking up her pace.
Herbert kept up, frowning at her as he said, “You got any drink on you? We could carry it on back to my home and partake in some nightly refreshments together.”
“You know I don’t drink, Herbert, and more importantly, I don’t cavort with men like yourself,” Clementine replied matter-of-factly.
Men like Herbert dissuaded her from drinking. That did not mean she did not drink at all. Nevertheless, she never drank with costumers, that was her rule.
She tried to pick up her pace even more, breaking out into a gentle run, but Herbert grabbed her by the arm, forcing her to stop. She warned herself to stay calm.
“I wasn’t done talking with you,” he snapped like a petulant child. “Besides, I gave you a compliment and you didn’t even thank me.”
He cannot be serious! “Let go of me,” Clementine said very slowly over her shoulder.
“Don’t be like that, I just want to talk to you. Is that too much to ask?”
“Yes, because I want to go home. I’m tired from a long day and want to sleep,” she said, looking into the distance at the turn in the road that would lead her back to her house.
“How about later? I could come to your house once you’re in bed,” he persisted, still squeezing her hand, hard.
He did not like her answer. “You became too proud while working at that store, taking advances from all the men,” he said insultingly. “I am the only one that cares about you.”
Clementine recognized when she heard a load of bull crap. “I said let go.”
“Don’t you know how much I want you?” he spoke in an almost pleading voice, yet Clementine wasn’t swayed. His words only made her feel sick to her stomach.
She turned to face him, so he could see the truth of what she was saying.
“Herbert, so help me God, you better let go of me right this instant, or else...”
“Or else what?” he interrupted her, taunting.
She had no weapons to protect her, nothing but her words. But she had to stay strong. Thinking quickly, she was about to threaten him with a ban from the store. Herbert couldn’t afford the town’s saloon; the store was the only way he maintained his habit. Without it, he’d be desperate. Maybe that threat would be enough to get him to leave her alone.
“I would do what the nice lady said if I were you. Or else, you’ll have to deal with me.”
Herbert and Clementine both turned to the sound of the stranger’s voice. The man who spoke was one of the newcomers she wasn’t acquainted with.
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