About the book


A lady in danger. A lonely sheriff. And their only hope? A diary lost in time...

After the inexplicable death of her father, Lillian Walter lives a quiet life with her mother, struggling to make ends meet in a small city of Texas, Rust Canyon. Preparing to accept the marriage proposal of a man her uncle introduced her to, the arrival of the new sheriff turns her world on its axis.

Back in Utah, like a harbinger of change, a telegraph marks the end of Michael Flemming's lonely life. Now he has to return to Rust Canyon and become the new sheriff. His career suddenly finds him confronted with something a lot more dangerous than crime: love.

When a series of fires start terrorizing the town, Michael realizes that his new position comes with old baggage.

However, when Lillian goes missing, things get personal. With ominous notes arriving at his doorstep, Michael must face a foe with no material form: secrets. And a long-forgotten diary just might be the key.

There is only one problem: The diary has been lost for months...

Prologue


Rust Canyon, 1888


The floor creaked as the old man absentmindedly pushed his foot into the hardwood. The room was completely dark, the only light coming from an oil lamp that sat precariously on a stack of books. The scratching of ink on paper echoed around the room, and the man sighed heavily.

Something very serious has happened, the old man worried.

I can feel it in my bones. I don’t believe in coincidences, never have. He is up to something.

His hand trembled as he dipped his pen in the ink jar, spilling tiny drops onto the tabletop. He closed his eyes for a moment before he continued writing.

I can see no other explanation, although it pains me even to write this. I need more information, although there is no doubt in my heart anymore. I will need to be careful, and I must speak with the Sheriff soon.

The wind howled outside, and a branch hit the window, causing the old man to jump in his seat.

I worry that he will stop at nothing. If everything I suspect is true, he will not stop for anything. But I have to think of my own family. I must do this for them. No one can know, except for Sheriff Flemming and me.


​Chapter One

It was an early afternoon in the Walters’ house. And just like every ordinary day, it was the same motions for Lillian Walter: tie a red scarf around her hair, carry a bucket of water into the sitting room, kneel on a worn-out cushion, dip the white rag in soapy water, and scrub in a circular motion. Half-hour later, she swept an escaped lock from her forehead. This was a daily mindless chore. Could at least one day be different?.

“Lilli?” a shaky voice called from the kitchen,

“Yes, mother?” Lillian responded, still clutching the wet cloth.

“Would you help me, dear?”

She strode to the kitchen and caught the older woman struggling to keep the faded blue teapot with the wilted flower pattern from spilling hot water everywhere.

“Mother!” Lillian grabbed a kitchen towel and replaced the kettle on the stove. “What happened?”

“I was being silly,” Dorothy Walter winced at her predicament.

“Come here,” Lillian cooed and guided her mother to the kitchen chair.

“I was just going to make some tea, but the pot was so heavy…” Her voice trailed off as she closed her eyes.

“You should have asked me to help you.”

“My dear, I just wanted to be of some use.” Dorothy simpered, “You work so hard,” she added.

“This is hardly hard work.” Lillian hugged the older woman. “Getting to take care of my dear mother is a gift, not a chore.”

“You have always been such an angel.” Dorothy stroked her daughter’s cheek.

“Now, how about that tea?” Lillian lit the stove and carefully balanced the heavy kettle on the flames. She peered into the small pantry and noticed a small piece of pound cake. She grabbed plates, mugs, and the cake and placed them on the table.

“Look what I found,” Lillian gestured to the cake. Dorothy gave her a bereft look as she picked up a crumb that had fallen to the table.

“It’s one of Mrs. Calleigh’s cakes,” Dorothy whispered.

“Yeah,” Lillian nodded.

“She gave us so much food,” Dorothy chuckled. They sat in heavy silence for a moment, sadness creeping up its familiar head once more. Suddenly, the kettle whistled, signaling the water was ready.

“Let us not waste,” Lillian poured the hot water over the tea leaves. She breathed heavily, allowing the billowing steam from the water mask a tiny sob. This was the time for her to be strong—for both of them.

As she returned to the table holding the blue teapot with the wilted flower pattern, she noticed her mother staring at the empty chair in front of her. Lillian sat next to her mother and poured her some tea. Together they shared tea and cake in silence.

Lillian lived with her mother in their family home in Rust Canyon, a rather small but crowded town in Texas. Sandy plains surrounded the town.  A small cluster of trees at the foot of the hill enclosed half of the town in a dense ring of green. The scenery was truly breath-taking, especially when the sunset cast an amber glow over the horizon.

Rust Canyon was filled with travelers, although it had its closely-knit group of permanent locals. The Walters lived close to the main street, just a few minutes away from the old church. When she was a little girl, Lillian had always loved hearing the chime of the church bells echoing through her window.

Nowadays, the church bells hardly seemed to chime any more. Or when they made a sound, it was curt and cold. The bells have rung in farewell too many times over the past months and now going onto years. Strange things had been happening in Rust Canyon—a string of bad luck.

First, there was the fire at the old barn on the outskirts of the town. Then the tragic fire at the poor Wesleys’ home. Lillian shuddered at the memory. The Wesleys were a family of five and ran the woodshop—or used to. Lillian had to remind herself that Finnegan Wesley, the father of the family, had died in the fire, and the locals whispered that he had fallen asleep with his pipe and caused the fire.

Later, Lillian guided her mother to the rocking chair by the fire in the sitting room. Before Lillian stood to finish with her chores, she double-checked that the fireplace crate was secured, and the flame was not too strong. After the accident at the Wesleys’ home, she had been afraid of fire.

Somehow, she felt that a fire was happening almost every month. But she knew it was untrue, although the General Store was shut down after the mishap with the oil lamp last week. Lillian’s usually cheery demeanor had somewhat dampened after the death of the old Sheriff Flemming.

No one could blame her. After all the mishaps and accidents, the unthinkable happened. Lillian’s father, Philip Walter, had been killed almost three months ago.

I cannot believe it has been so long. I still keep expecting him to walk in the door, putting his hat on the hook by the front door and sitting down in his chair. My darling father, how I miss you. I worry that Mother is just biding her time until she can join you in Heaven.

Philip Walter had been shot during a bank robbery, and his killer was still out there somewhere. Lillian’s father had been the only victim, and there had also been no witnesses that she knew of. Lillian worried that with Sheriff Flemming dead, no one would ever capture the monster who killed her father.

Lillian thought they could really do with some good news around here.  She returned to the hallway and picked up the bucket again. She sopped up the wet rag, looked at the half-cleaned floor. She would have to boil more water to finish cleaning, and she would need to get dinner going soon. Looks like I’ll be waking earlier tomorrow, Lillian murmured to herself as she carried the bucket out to the back.

Now alone in taking care of the house, Lillian felt each task was growing heavier by the day. As she watched her mother wilt away into a ghost of her former self, she was overwhelmed by the responsibility and sadness. She pushed her mourning aside, afraid she would simply split in two if she allowed herself to grasp the deep mourning for her father fully. Lillian understood she needed to be strong for her mother.

She removed her apron from her slender waist and took off her red scarf. Her blond, curly hair billowed down her back. Just as she hung her apron by the stove, she heard a knock on the door.

***

“Hello?” a cheerful voice called from outside. Lillian hurried to open the front door.

“Uncle Jacob!” Lillian squealed in delight

“My sweet, sweet Lillian.” Jacob Frazier walked into the house, his hands full of parcels and packages.

“Allow me to help you.” Lillian took some of the parcels and laid them carefully on the kitchen table.

When he was finally free of his load, Jacob said, “Come here,” and he scooped Lillian in a tight hug.

“Who is it?” Dorothy called from the sitting room.

“It’s only me, Dorothy.” Jacob let go of Lillian and walked into the sitting room.

“Jacob! What a wonderful surprise,” Dorothy beamed, making to stand up.

“No, sit,” Jacob said hurriedly, “sit, my dear.”

“Can I get you anything to drink, Uncle?”

“Oh, you know I would kill for a cup of your famous coffee,” he said with a wink.

“Coming up.” Lillian chuckled and returned to the kitchen. She eyed the pile of parcels on the table.

He is too kind to us.  Lillian began brewing the coffee. Since her father’s death, Uncle Jacob had been their rock, unwavering with his support and kindness to them. Lillian could not imagine how she and her mother would have made it without him these past months.

Uncle Jacob was Lillian’s father’s cousin and a wealthy businessman who owned a few buildings in Rust Canyon. He had only recently returned to the town after years of living in another part of the state.

Lillian brought coffee for her uncle and tea to her mother. She was pleased to see her mother smiling and enjoying her tea, a rare sight in the sitting room.

“I was just telling your uncle how very grateful we are,” Dorothy said to Lillian, putting down her mug.

“We really are.” Lillian echoed.

“That’s what family is for,” Uncle Jacob said kindly. “I’m just sad that I can’t do more. Since dear Philip died, I feel a deep need always to be available to you, a strong connection.”

“Oh, Uncle,” Lillian choked, “You have already done so much for the community here.”

It had been widely known that Uncle Jacob gave the Church Society a substantial amount to help support their good work, and he assisted the poor in Rust Canyon with housing and loans.

“That reminds me,” Uncle Jacob said, jumping up from his seat. “I brought gifts.”

“You shouldn’t have.” Dorothy followed Uncle Jacob to where he was rummaging through the parcels on the kitchen table.

Uncle Jacob gestured to the parcels. “The General Store is barely up and running. So, I figured I should bring you some groceries.”

“Heavens,” Lillian gasped, “Are all of these groceries?”

“Sure are.”

“How ever did you manage to purchase so much?” Lillian asked, “Surely, this cannot be from the General Store?”

“I helped old Davidson from the store,” Uncle Jacob explained. “He needed money to replenish his store, so I helped out.”

“You are a true gentleman,” Dorothy said.

“We can’t have a town with no store,” Uncle Jacob dismissed. “But I didn’t only bring food. Here you go.” He picked out two neatly-packaged parcels and handed one to Dorothy, the other to Lillian.

Dorothy held out a sewing purse. “This is too much.”

“Nonsense.” He smiled at her. “You mentioned the other day that your sewing supplies were old and worn…”

“I might as well have been talking about myself,” Dorothy interjected.

Uncle Jacob laughed. “Well, at least now you will have no excuse not to mend my trousers.” he teased good-naturedly.

“Thank you,” Dorothy said, “Thank you!”

“Do you like yours?” Uncle Jacob asked Lillian.

“Uncle Jacob,” Lillian was speechless. She held a dress of a gorgeous blue shade, with delicate pearl buttons up the side. It was by far the best dress she had ever had, and much better than her everyday clothing.

“Oh my,” Dorothy whispered.

“Now,” Uncle Jacob began, “Before you demand I return this,” he said with a knowing smile, “I want you to hear me out. Recently, I bought the Saloon-Hotel. We are in the process of refurbishing it, and it will be the talk of the town when we finish. However, I need an excellent cook to feed my workers and someone to help us clean the place, and I was hoping you would be willing to help us, Lillian.”

Lillian stared at her uncle, her mouth open.

“Of course, I will pay you,” Uncle Jacob continued, “And after the opening, you will have a job waiting for you at the hotel. That is, if you would like to.”

“I would be delighted to.” Lillian walked to him and giving him a gentle kiss on the cheek. “Thank you, sweet Uncle.”

***

Uncle Jacob stayed with Lillian and Dorothy for the rest of the evening. He sat in the sitting room with his pipe, and Lillian put away all the supplies that he had bought for them. She could hardly contain her excitement of starting her new job. Lillian had not worked anywhere before, apart from taking care of the home.

Before her father died, she had toyed with the idea of training to be a schoolteacher, as she loved reading and children, but she could not be away from her mother. This offer would be absolutely perfect. The Saloon-Hotel was not far from their home, and she would still be very close to her mother.

The pantry was now full, and Lillian was filled with a breath of fresh air, filled with hope and excitement. She took great care with her cooking, wanting everything to be perfect. The smell from the stew filled the house, and soon the added scent of fresh bread combined with it—a delicious mixture. This was her mother’s stew recipe, but she had not felt like making it for a long time.

“Darling,” Dorothy said, appearing suddenly at Lillian’s side, “It smells wonderful.”

“Thank you,” Lillian smiled, “It’s almost ready.”

There was an almost painful domesticity in the air, with the familiar smell of the stew, mixed with the tobacco smoke from Uncle Jacob. It was as if the quiet that had settled over the house since Philip died was slowly lifting.

“Oh, Lillian, I forgot to mention one other thing,” Uncle Jacob said as Lillian moved the heavy pot of stew onto the kitchen table.

“What’s that?”

“There is a fine young man that works for me,” Uncle Jacob began, “A business associate.”

Oh boy, Lillian rolled her eyes.

“He’s a good man, and I know that he is interested in marriage,” Uncle Jacob winked at her as he took a piece of bread from the basket.

Interested in marriage? Now? Heavens… I have not even thought of such things, not since Father died. But I do not wish to disappoint Uncle Jacob.

“Vincent is from a very nice family, and he is rather well off,” Jacob added, “Lillian, this food is simply too delicious.”

“Thank you,” Lillian said, still processing her Uncle’s news.

“So, what do you say?” Uncle Jacob asked her. Lillian looked at her mother, whose smile had faded a bit.

“How about if I plan a little meeting with you two?” He added, with a shrewd glance to Lillian.

Lillian gave her Uncle a forced smile. “Sure, I could meet him,” she said politely, “but please, only for a little while, I hope you understand.”

“Of course, my dear,” Uncle Jacob grinned and laughed loudly. “Of course.”

What have I gotten myself into? Who is this man?


Chapter Two


Utah


Michael Flemming downed his whiskey in one gulp. He sat in a wooden chair that creaked as he slid his heavy boots across the filthy tavern floor. Michael decided to hurry over to the post office before they closed; he knew it might not open again very soon.

Everything seemed to move at a slower pace here in Spring City, Utah. Michael had been traveling for almost two years now. He rode from city to city, town to town, taking in the vast American wilderness in all its splendor. Ever since he lost his mother at a very young age, he had a longing to explore—to discover.

When he left, he did so not with the slightest idea of when—or if—he would ever return home to Rust Canyon. Being the sheriff’s son, made everyone look at him differently. And being brought up without a mother caused others to pity him, which he hated.

He had kept mostly to himself growing up, going on long riding tours, just he and his faithful horse, Silver. He would often travel for days or even weeks, but his thirst for travel was never quenched. He always wanted to see more, to go further each time.

Michael stood up, stretching his tired legs from sitting for so long.

“One for the road?” the old tavern-keeper asked. 

“No, not this time, Jim.” Michael handed the gray-haired man a coin for his drink.

“So, where you off to next?” Jim asked.  “Cause, if you’re tired of the wandering life, my daughter thinks mighty highly of you.”

“Well, your Cecilia sure is sweet, but I have not yet found where I’ll settle down.”

“Suit yourself,” Jim chuckled as he picked up a glass and began polishing it.

“I’m going to hurry to post office,” Michael said with a nod to his hat.

“Take care,” Jim called after him.

Michael bent down as he walked outside, his tall frame a little too long for the old door frame. He was a lean and athletic man with unruly brown hair and piercing green eyes. As he approached the post office, two young women walked past him, their arms linked. One of them blushed as she looked at him; the other smiled widely and batted her eyelashes at him.

“Ladies,” Michael said, tipping his hat. They giggled but looked disappointed as he strode by.  Michael was a very handsome man, and women were drawn to him. But he did not care much about that. Michael was on a quest to find his truth, his true meaning in life.

A small bell tingled as Michael pushed open the door, and a man in a postal uniform turned around and smiled as he noticed who it was.

“Mr. Flemming,” the man exclaimed.

“Good afternoon,” Michael replied.

“You are just on time,” the man said. “I was about to close, and you have a telegraph.”

The man shuffled through a pile of telegraphs. After a few minutes of searching, he made a small triumphant sound and held out a white envelope.

“Here you go,” the man said, “all the way from Texas.”

“It must be my father,” Michael accepted the letter. “I told him I would stay here for a while.”

“You know,” the postal worker said, his whole demeanor changing, “My sister, Gwyneth, would not mind at all if you decided to make this town a more permanent resident.”

Michael chuckled as he opened the envelope and pulled out the telegraph. “I know she’s not much for the eye,” the postal worker continued as Michael unfolded the letter, “But she’s an excellent cook, and as you know, our mother is…”

Michael could not hear the rest of the man’s story. His ears were filled with a strange humming sound, and he felt as if a heavy stone was settled inside him as he read the telegraph.

Dear Mr. Flemming - stop - We regret to inform you - stop - that your father has passed away. - stop - Please return to Rust Canyon - stop - as soon as possible - stop - the funeral will be held on the third of June.—stop—Yours, sincerely, Pastor Williams.

Michael read and re-read the short text. His father was gone, and Michael had not been with him. He carefully folded the telegraph back into the envelope and put it in his pocket. The postal worker had finally stopped talking, as he noticed that Michael wasn’t listening to him.

“Are you all right there?” he asked.

“Uh,” Michael said slowly, “I need to get going, sorry,” and at that, he walked out. Once he was outside again, the fresh air burnt his lungs, and he didn’t know whether he wanted to curse or scream. A heavy, yet familiar, sadness filled his whole being, and he walked towards the small inn he was staying at. He would need to leave as soon as possible.

Michael couldn’t believe it… His father was gone, and they had not seen each other for such a long time. He had always imagined his father greeting him when he would finally return, with a painful hug and a bottle of gin.

This means I must return home, and I will have to take over the sheriff’s position. I know that was his wish, and I will not disappoint him.

***

The next day Michael stood at the train platform, his weathered bag on his shoulder, and the telegraph in his breast pocket. He had been forced to sell his horse to be back in Rust Canyon before the funeral. It had pained him to do so, but the old farmer that bought him needed a horse for his carriage, and the farmer was a kind man that Michael had been acquainted with since his first day here in Spring City.

A distant sound signaled that the locomotive was nearing, and Michael turned around to take one last look at his surroundings. A strange mixture of anticipation and sadness washed over him, and just a hint of excitement. Michael had been waiting for a change in his life. He just had not expected it to come at such a cost.

***

Lillian woke earlier than usual. Outside was still dark, but she was filled with excitement. Today was her first day working for her Uncle Jacob at the Saloon-Hotel. Lillian put on her new dress and tied a bow around her hair, keeping the golden locks firmly in place. Her cheeks were flushed, and her heart beat rapidly. She hurried to the kitchen to finish her morning chores before she would leave for work.

Heaven bless my darling Uncle, Lillian prepared breakfast for her mother.

Lillian wondered how the Saloon-Hotel was looking; it had been closed off ever since it went out of business last year.

Such luck that Uncle Jacob has come to live here, he has really benefitted the town with his clever dealings and business sense.

“My, my, you look like an absolute angel,” Dorothy said, appearing at the kitchen door.

“What are you doing up?” Lillian saw her mother was still wearing her dressing gown and clutching a knitted shawl around her shoulders. “It’s much too early.”

“Nonsense.” She waved her hand toward the door. “And you should get going.”

“I will just finish the bread.”          

“My sweet Lilli, I can do that.” Dorothy smiled. “I’m not incapable,” she teased.

“You should not overexert yourself,” Lillian replied.

“I will be fine. Now get going.” Dorothy untied the apron from around her daughter’s thin waist. They were almost the exact same height. Dorothy’s light gray hair had once been the same color as her daughter’s, and she was sure Lillian would fit into all of her old dresses. Lillian hugged her mother and kissed her cheek.

“I will try to come back for lunch.”

“Don’t worry about me.” Dorothy laughed. “Just focus on your work.”

“Thank you,” Lillian called as she put her travel cape over her shoulder and fastened the hook. She tied her hat beneath her chin and walked out into the rising sun.

***

Lillian inhaled the morning air and sighed. She loved being out early and witnessing the town waking up. As she walked towards the main road, she saw Mrs. Smith, the seamstress, standing outside her house, dusting a large rug.

Lillian smiled as a few children ran past her, their little faces ablaze with laughter and mischief. She turned to the right next to the small post office, and there it was—the large Saloon-Hotel. Her heart beat rapidly in her chest, and she could not understand why.

I feel ever so nervous, now that I am standing here. It is like I am walking towards my future, and the unknown has never before looked so tempting yet frightening. Lillian drew a deep breath to calm her nerves.

I am being silly. There is no reason to be nervous. I am going to work for my darling, Uncle Jacob. This is an honor to get to work beside him, to be able to help him. Why do my hands shake? Lillian looked down and observed her trembling hands.

Stop this, Lillian! I will go inside and stop worrying. I worry too much, anyway. And at that, Lillian dragged her feet forward, ignoring the inkling she had begun to feel in the back of her neck—the feeling as if someone was watching her.

From an early age, Lillian had been a very sharp young girl. Her father used to say that she was the best judge of character he had ever known. But this had caused her trouble before. Once when she was barely fourteen, she had refused to shake an older man’s hand, who her father had hoped to do business with.

Lillian could not explain why she refused, but she had the strangest impulse that the man was dishonest. As she had still been so young, she had said this out-loud within the man’s earshot. He had been very affronted and strode away, yelling about being insulted by a little girl.

Dorothy had chastised Lillian for embarrassing her father, and Lillian had hidden away, afraid of her father’s reaction. But he only told her that if his darling daughter didn’t trust him, then neither should he.

Although her father had not been cross with her, she overheard people discussing how poor old Philip Walter had missed out on a great investment. After that, Lillian made a promise to hold her tongue and be polite like a young woman ought to behave herself.

***

Lillian pushed open the door that led to the foyer of the Saloon-Hotel and entered. The insides of the old hotel looked nothing like it had done before. All around were men working: painting the railing, carrying huge and heavy looking tables across the room, and one man stood at the top of a wobbly looking stairs carefully fastening a glistening chandelier to the ceiling.

Lillian looked around for her Uncle. She was so mesmerized by the glittering chandelier that she did not notice the two men walking, with a large carpet rolled up between them, balanced on their shoulders. They did not notice her either, and as they turned to walk towards the stairs, one of them bumped into Lillian. She yelped and was pushed backward.

“Hey,” a voice behind her called at the men.  Just when Lillian was sure she would crash into the floor, strong arms grabbed her.

“Huh,” the man holding the back end of the carpet turned around to see Lillian half-carried by the man who had yelled.

“You should watch where you’re going,” the man holding Lillian admonished.

“Sorry, sir,” the worker said sheepishly.

“You should be apologizing to this young woman,” the man retorted.

“Beg your pardon, miss,” the worker replied.

“I’m all right,” Lillian said, feeling a little embarrassed. The two workers hurried away from Lillian, and the man who had now carefully helped her regain her balance.

“Are you really all right?” the man asked kindly, and Lillian finally had the chance to see her savior’s face. The man was taller than her, but not by a lot. He had black hair that was carefully combed, wore an expensive-looking brown suit that must have been made elsewhere. By the look of the careful embroidery of his waistcoat and the gold chain that led from his waistcoat to his pocket, the ensemble showed the man had money to burn. The strange man smiled at Lillian.

“I am,” Lillian said and could not help but smile back, “thank you.”

“Your welcome, miss,” he replied, “Oh, I’m Vincent, by the way,” he added, putting out his hand.

“Vincent Hays.”

Lillian extended her hand, and Vincent took her delicate hand in his and brought it to his lips. He gave her a soft kiss, and Lillian’s breath caught in her throat. Vincent was very different from other men she had met. He was very attractive and seemed to be quite chivalrous. Just as Lillian was about to introduce herself, a booming voice was heard from the top of the stairs.

“Lillian!” Uncle Jacob called. Both Lillian and Vincent looked up as Uncle Jacob walked down the stairs.

“I see you have met my niece, Vincent,” he added.

“Oh, you’re Miss Walter?” Vincent said, a look of comprehension dawning on his face.

“I am, Lillian,” she responded, “Lillian Walter.”

“I should have realized,” Vincent said with a curious smile.

“How so?” Lilian asked.

“Well, your uncle has spoken so highly of his wonderful and lovely niece,” Vincent said, gazing into her eyes, “that I should have recognized you. After all, your uncle is not one to tell tall tales.”

Uncle Jacob laughed heartily, “My sweet Lillian. This is the man I mentioned,” he said with an unmistakable wink. Lillian blushed in embarrassment, but to her surprise, Vincent looked a little uncomfortable as well.

“How about I show young Lillian around?” Vincent asked Uncle Jacob.

“Oh?” Uncle Jacob said.

“Then we can all meet here after your meeting with the builders,” Vincent added pointedly.

“Of course, yes, my meeting…” Uncle Jacob spluttered. “That is a good plan, Vincent.”

“Please show Lillian around the hotel; she will need to see the kitchen, of course,” he added.

“It would be my pleasure,” Vincent said.

Uncle Jacob walked to the back, and Vincent turned to Lillian. “I am sorry about that,” Vincent said, “He is a good man, but he can be…” his voice trailed off.

“I completely agree,” Lillian laughed, “I am excited to see the hotel.”

“Well, let the tour begin,” Vincent said with a dazzling smile.

***

The train car shook as it moved across the wide spans of the beautiful, but wild-looking scenery. Michael stared out the window, a strange emotion filling his entire being. When he left Rust Canyon, he had been excited at the prospect of exploring the countryside and meeting new people.

He experienced a lot on his travels, and the prospect of taking over the sheriff’s position was not as daunting as it once had felt. Michael took out his father’s latest letter he had sent him and re-read it for the umpteenth time. His father had written about the usual brawls of the small business owners and who had gotten married—his not so subtle reminder that he would like his only son to get married. His father had briefly mentioned there had been a tragic fire.

Michael was about to put the letter back into his bag when he noticed something in the message. His father had crossed out something, which at first Michael had only thought this an example of his father’s terrible hand-writing, but now he realized this was a name.

Curious, Michael pulled out his worn-out bag and rummaged for the other letters his father had sent, searching for the first mention of a fire. Now that Michael thought about it, his father had mentioned many unusual accidents in his letters, but unfortunately, Michael though shamefully, he had not taken his father’s mentions seriously.

He found the letter he was searching for and gently opened it. His father had sent it nearly a year ago when Michael had been traveling in Arizona.

Dear Michael. Your latest telegraph only recently arrived with your new location, but I pray this letter will arrive before you head on to the next adventure. There has recently been a great fire; fortunately, there were no casualties. But this had a significant impact on the whole of Rust Canyon. The barn was ablaze for a whole night, casting a terrifying light over the town. I know you will think me an old man rambling, but it was like a warning. There is more to come; I am certain of it.

Michael put down the letter. Father was right; I did only think it him being paranoid. How cruel I was, not giving his thought more weight.

Michael compared the two letters. Two fires: the first one, a warning in his father’s opinion, the second one had a fatality.

Was my father on to something? What can this mean?


Chapter Three

The train was slowing down, and all around the carriage, Michael heard people standing up to gather their belongings. Everything he owned was in his bag, which had been his father’s. It was covered in patches and looked worse for wear, but Michael could not imagine ever replacing it—especially not now.

Michael pulled the bag over his shoulder as he exited the train. The station was covered in steam, which hurled up the dust, making it even less clear to see. He walked towards the busy main street, and more than a few people turned their heads in his direction. Michael ignored them and walked steadfastly towards the sheriff’s office.

How odd it feels being back. Somehow I expected a sense of domestic familiarity or even apprehension, but I feel… nothing. It was as if he never left, and everything was as it should be—and, of course, nothing was as it should be.

Michael jumped up the three steps and peered inside the empty looking sheriff’s office. He had not thought about how he would get in. He had been in such a rush getting back to Rust Canyon that he had not had time to send a telegraph announcing his return. Michael was about to walk to the back of the house when a voice called his name.

“Michael?” A familiar voice said behind him. Michael turned around and smiled for what felt like the first time since he received the news of his father.

“Benjamin,” Michael exclaimed. He walked down the steps towards an auburn-haired man, around ten years older than he was, with rounded shoulders and thin stature. Benjamin had worked as a junior sheriff for Michael’s father for the past seven years. Michael shook Benjamin’s hand, and the latter looked mournfully at him.

“I didn’t know you were coming,” Benjamin said painfully.

“I jumped on the next train as soon as I heard about my father,” Michael replied.

“Your father was a great man,” Benjamin said earnestly.

“Thank you,” Michael replied, “He truly was.”

“I suppose you will be taking over?” Benjamin asked apprehensively as he walked towards the front door of the sheriff’s office, searching for the correct key on a ring of many.

“That was my father’s wish,” Michael said.

“You will be a fine sheriff,” Benjamin huffed with the strain of pushing the door open, which creaked loudly.

“Are you all right, Benjamin?” Michael asked, concerned.

“I…” Benjamin spluttered, “Well, truth be told, I have been swamped.”

“With what?” Michael asked as he looked around the familiar insides of his father’s office. My office, Michael reminded himself.

“Your father did not exactly leave clear notes of his investigation,” Benjamin sighed as he sat at a table littered with papers.

“Investigation?” Michael asked.

“Well, I suppose he was investigating something,” Benjamin replied. “I have been trying to make sense of his notebooks, but you know me, Michael,” he added, looking like an old man.

“I’m no sheriff, and nor did I ever pretend to be, but your father had been working on something.”

“Working on what?” Michael asked eagerly.

“He didn’t tell me, he said that no one could know, not yet,” Benjamin replied.

“Does it have something to do with the fires?” Michael said.

“I’m almost certain it did,” Benjamin replied, “After he died, I made sure to lock his notebooks in the safe, and this office has been out of use as well.”

“Where have you been working from then?” Michael asked.

“Oh, I have been riding around the town, and then people knew to find me at home if they needed anything,” Benjamin said, his voice falling.

“It didn’t feel right to be working from here,” he added lamely.

“Well, now I will need you here,” Michael said after a long pause. He knew his father had not always been kind to his junior sheriff. He had complained loudly about him and would often mention the way Benjamin worked too slowly. But Benjamin never let it get to him. He had been thrilled when he was hired, and no matter what Michael’s father said, he had been a great help.

“Thank you,” Benjamin replied gratefully.

“Now, let’s have a look at my father’s notebooks.”

***

Lillian stirred the oversized ladle, using all her strength to do so. The huge pot was bubbling on the industrial stove in the Saloon-Hotel kitchen. This was her seventh day working at the hotel, and although she felt absolutely knackered when she returned home, Lillian could not remember the last time she had felt this happy.

Well, happy might not be the right word.

She felt pleased to be helping, and the new environment was an exciting one. It felt good not having the constant reminder of her father all around her. And then, there was Vincent. Lillian smiled slightly. He had been such a gentleman to her this past week. Every day during the morning break, he came to see her. Uncle Jacob tended to make sure that Lillian could spare a moment to speak with him.

Lillian always felt slightly embarrassed when her Uncle hinted strongly that the two of them would make a nice match. He would constantly say, it was such a shame a girl like she had not yet tied the knot, and that Vincent had confided to him that he was ready to settle down.

Lillian didn’t know what to say to him. There had been other hopeful suitors before Vincent, but she had refused them all. She didn’t feel ready to get married, and none of them had been men that she would even consider to marry.

However, she had to admit that Vincent wasn’t anything like those men. He was kind and well-read, and every time Lillian wished the earth would open up and swallow her whole when Uncle Jacob was on his tirade about them marrying, Vincent would jump in and change the subject, giving her a small wink.

Vincent was very different from other men around here. He was handsome, well-educated, and came from a wealthy family. If Lillian married him, she would not have to work another day in her life.

My silly heart is always playing with my fate. I always imagined that when I would get married, I would marry the love of my life. But, that is surely only in the romance books I have read, it only happens in fairy tales.

One of the workers peered his head inside the kitchen. “It smells delicious, miss,”

“Why, thank you, Dennis. It’s very nearly ready.”

“That’s grand,” Dennis grinned and turned around. Lillian chuckled as she heard him yell: “Hold yer horses, gents, is coming it is.”

Lillian stacked the bowls in front of the large pot and put the large loaves of bread she had baked next to it. Soon the kitchen was filled with hungry workers, eagerly waiting in line to receive their lunch.

“I don’t think they have ever been so quiet,” Uncle Jacob joked as he walked into the kitchen.

“Well, they work really hard,” Lillian replied.

“As they ought to,” Uncle Jacob replied.

“I must say, Uncle,” Lillian said, “I am really looking forward to the opening.”

“You and me both. I just spoke with pastor Williams, and he has agreed to lead the opening with a prayer, to bless the house.”

“Oh, how wonderful,” Lillian exclaimed.

“The whole town is going to be here,” Uncle Jacob said proudly.

“And before I forget,” he added, “Vincent had hoped he might accompany you to the opening.”

“He did?” Lillian answered politely.

“I think he’s quite smitten,” Uncle Jacob teased.

“Oh…” Lillian replied quietly.

“It will be an excellent night, believe me,” Uncle Jacob said, and Lilian sighed with relief as he did not appear to have noticed her less-than-thrilled answer.

***

Lillian walked back home late that night. Everything was ready for the grand opening, which was the next evening. She was quite excited about the opening. All the staff had worked hard for the past week, making sure everything would be perfect. Lillian had been instructed to make sure all the bedrooms were clean, and the chambermaids all made the beds correctly, the way they did in the great big fancy hotels in the big cities.

The Saloon ballroom, where the opening would be held at, was the most beautiful place Lillian had ever seen, and the crown jewel was a magnificent light fixture that glistened and sparkled high up in the ceiling. Lillian was glad she did not have to work during the opening night; however, she was a little bit nervous about accompanying Vincent. She opened the front door to her home quietly, not sure if her mother had gone to sleep yet.

“Hello, sweetheart,” Dorothy said as soon as Lillian closed the door behind her.

“Hello, Mother,” Lillian replied, “I wasn’t sure you would still be up.”

“Oh, I wanted to see you before I went to bed.” Her mother smiled.

“Well, I brought you food.” Lillian put her small bag on the kitchen table. She pulled out a jar with leftover stew and some bread.

“You shouldn’t have,” Dorothy said.

“We had plenty left,” Lillian lied. This had been the large portion of her own lunch, but she knew her mother was not strong enough to cook anything.

“Well, God bless your sweet soul,” Dorothy said, stroking her daughter’s cheek.

Lillian sat next to her mother at the kitchen table, facing the permanently empty chair of her father’s.

“You know, your Uncle stopped by here,” Dorothy took a small bite of the bread.

“He did?” Lillian asked, surprised.

“He sure did,” Dorothy chuckled, “Look inside your room.”

Lillian looked puzzled but stood up and walked towards her room. On her bed was a thin, white box with a red bow across it. Lillian carefully untied the bow and removed the top. Inside was a dress. She pulled it from the box and gasped.

This was the most beautiful evening dress she had ever seen. It was a light shade of pink,  silk brocade with delicate chiffon and lace sleeves. Lillian stared at the dress for a long while, before she laid it back into the box and carried it back to the kitchen.

“This is too much,” Lillian said as soon as she returned to the kitchen.

“What did he buy you?” Dorothy asked.

“Look at this,” Lillian said, putting the box on a small side table and showing her mother the dress.

“Oh, Lilli,” Dorothy gasped.

“It’s too much,” Lillian repeated, “I will have to return it.”

“My darling, your uncle wants you to wear it tomorrow,” Dorothy said, “He mentioned it when he brought the box.”

“He did?” Lillian asked.

“Yes.”

“Your uncle cares greatly about you, and returning this dress would only cause him pain,” she added.

“Perhaps you are right. But I will not know how to behave myself in such a dress.”

“My darling daughter, this dress is very pretty, but it wilts in comparison with your rare beauty,” Dorothy said.

“You always know what to say,” Lillian said and grinned sheepishly, “But you must promise to do my hair.”

“I would be delighted to,” Dorothy smiled, “And I might add, that this dress will not look out of place next to a certain gentleman, who I believe will accompany you tomorrow,” she added with a grin.

***

After his father’s funeral, Michael had barely moved from the sheriff’s office. He did not like to stay for long at the house; the constant reminders of his father were too much for him. These past days he had been perusing over the notebooks his father had left behind, and he wasn’t surprised by the way Benjamin had looked when Michael returned to Rust Canyon.

The notebooks were utterly confusing, and his father’s terrible handwriting did not do anything to help matters. But Michael did agree with Benjamin that this had something to do with the fires.

“Benjamin?” Michael called.

“Yes,” he responded at once.

“Where is the file on the Wesley fire?” Michael asked.

“Oh, wait a moment,” Benjamin said, hastily getting up and looking around the utterly chaotic mess of a desk he had.

“I’m sure I had it here somewhere,” he muttered.

I need more information, and not only from Benjamin. I need to hear from someone who might have noticed something. That’s what father always said; people always know more than they think they do.

“Just put it on my desk once you find it,” Michael said, “Say, Benjamin.”

“Yeah,” Benjamin said, turning around to face him.

“What is happening with the old Saloon-Hotel?” Michael asked.

“Well, the grand opening is tonight,” Benjamin said, “Jacob Frazier had re-built the hotel at record speed since the fire there last year.”

“That’s interesting,” Michael pondered.

“I’m guessing the opening will be filled with people?” he added.

“Absolutely,” Benjamin replied.

“Perhaps I should pay them a small visit,” Michael said thoughtfully.

“You want to cause a scene, don’t ya?” Benjamin asked with a chuckle.

“I just think it might be a good idea to see who’s going to be there,” Michael replied with a small grin.

“You are like your father, you are,” Benjamin said.

“How so?” Michael asked, curious.

“Well, he was never afraid of stirring the pot, so to say,” Benjamin replied, “If my missus is right, and mind you, she usually is, all the finer folk of the town is going to be at the Saloon-Hotel tonight. Even some of the people that do business here.”

“I think it is just what the doctor ordered. I’d say,” Michael said, standing up and grabbing his hat.

“You should head on home,” he added, “Give my regards to your family.”

“Oh, that would be great, thank you, sheriff,” Benjamin replied happily.

“How many children do you have, by the way?” Michael asked, “I think father once said that you had a round dozen, but I suspect he was exaggerating.”

“Sometimes it feels that way,” Benjamin laughed good-naturedly before he added, “I have four energetic boys that wreak havoc wherever they go but are still sweet as lambs.”

“Go see your family,” Michael said, touched by the way Benjamin’s face lit up when he spoke of his children.

“And I will go and see if I can’t go and wreak havoc somewhere,” Michael grinned.

***

Lillian entered the Hotel-Saloon, a nervous flutter filling her. She was wearing the gorgeous dress her Uncle had bought her, and her hair was tied back in an elegant knot, with a few strands of curly hair framing her face.

“Lillian!” Vincent called, appearing from the back where Uncle Jacob’s office was.

“Hello, Vincent.”

“Wow,” Vincent said as she untied her cloak, “Lillian, you look beautiful.”

“Thank you,” Lillian said, blushing.

“Which makes this all the worse,” Vincent said, his face twisted with remorse.

“What does?” Lillian asked.

“I cannot accompany you tonight,” he replied sadly, “I must take the train tonight, for a business trip,”

“Oh,” Lillian said, feeling a little crestfallen.

“I had been looking forward to this evening,” Vincent said, taking Lillian’s hand in his.

“Me too,” Lillian said politely.

“Will you allow me to make it up to you once I return?” he asked.

“Of course,” Lillian responded.

“Thank you,” Vincent said happily.

***

Later that night, Lillian sat at the corner of the bar, sipping her drink. The opening had been a success, and Uncle Jacob and her mother had accompanied her. It had been a beautiful moment when pastor Williams blessed the hotel, and Uncle Jacob gave a powerful speech, welcoming a new beginning to Rust Canyon. But Lillian couldn’t help feeling a little down.

Although she had not been sure of her feelings towards Vincent, she did feel sad that they could not have had this evening together. The waiters moved gracefully around the room, refilling the guests’ drinks, and Lillian noticed her Uncle sitting at a table, surrounded by men that seemed to be as important as he was, roaring with laughter at her Uncle’s latest joke.

Lillian watched the couples on the dance floor, moving in time with the band that Uncle Jacob had hired for the night. At that moment, they were playing a cheerful piece, and the couples dancing swept across the dance floor.

How I would have liked to be dancing there with them, Lillian sighed as she took another sip of her drink. She had stood dutifully next to her Uncle during his speech and danced with him the first dance of the evening. Lillian had noticed quite a few men looking in her direction, but no one seemed to dare come over to her to ask her to dance.

Lillian had been wondering when it would not be considered rude of her to go home when she noticed a man enter the Saloon. At once, her eyes were fixed upon the tall man, who was swaggering over to her. Her heart fluttered, and she tried to calm her nerves as the handsome stranger.

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