Strange winds blew that day, masking the whistles of the men Faith passed. There were bad men and good men. Heroes and villains. Faith Barnett knew that the world was divided that way. She knew that her father was a good man.
“Come on now, hurry up, Faithy.” Her father placed his pocket watch back and waddled down the thoroughfare, on a fast mission to the shops that afternoon.
A leaf blew up, and she watched it idly as it spun and whirred in the strangest way. “Where are you going?” she murmured. Her mind did have a habit of drifting. A mind could go where a body couldn’t. She wished she were the leaf, lifted high and out of Riverstone.
Again the wind picked up, enough to ruffle even the most well-fixed hairstyle. Faith had her long flowing jet black hair pulled up into a tight bun and wore a simple blue gingham dress. Not enough to garner much attention in most women. But Faith Barnett always stood out. Perhaps it was her height—at 5’10 she stood taller than many of the men who gaped at her. Or perhaps it was because she was still a stranger to the townsfolk she had lived with for six years. Still a novelty. She never understood why always she must be confined to the homestead. Hidden away. Sometimes she felt more like a prisoner than a daughter, free to come and go as she pleased. Instead, she always had to ask permission.
Her father, Ralph, accompanied her that day. Chaperoning, Faith thought, as though she couldn’t manage the ten-minute walk into town on her own. She was nineteen years of age, her birthday having fallen the previous week at the end of a long hot and dry summer that had put their ranch under pressure. The land was dry. Almost barren.
Still, the Barnetts were getting by. At least, Faith thought that they were.
Ralph grinned at her. “The general store. Your favorite place, Faithy.”
She wasn’t so sure about that. She’d rather be sailing away somewhere, her hair free and loose, her spirit even more so, but of course, her father thought she was content with these small pleasures, and so she smiled so as not to disappoint him.
Her papa pulled the door open for her. Faith had the list, handed to her by her mother Jane before they had left the ranch that afternoon. Apples, butter, flour, and lard, all the ingredients for a pie.
“Churned or un-churned, Papa?”
“I’ll leave that up to you, Faithy.” Her father smiled at her, but his manner suddenly seemed nervous as he backed away, tipping his hat to the shopkeeper Mr. Sparrow before he quickly disappeared out the door, a nervous sprint in his step as he hurried back onto the thoroughfare.
Mr. Sparrow was a wiry man in his fifties with a balding head and thin-rimmed spectacles. “Everything okay, miss?”
Faith shrugged her slim shoulders. Her father’s behavior was a little strange, but he did consider shopping and cooking to be a women’s role in the home. Sometimes he got a little nervous and flustered when confronted with domestic issues.
At least he’ll let me do one thing on my own. Even if it was something as inconsequential as choosing the butter and apples.
She sighed and took in a deep breath, savoring the scent of cinnamon, treacle, and tobaccos that warmed the shop.
Nineteen years old, and this was as far as she ever got on her own. The general store.
She had to wonder how she would ever meet a suitor this way. Mr. Sparrow was married and ancient anyway.
Not that there was a great deal of competition for men’s hearts in Riverstone. Faith could count only three single women in Riverstone. Bethy Flanders who worked in the post office and Susie O’Flannery who worked as a governess for a wealthy family just out of town. She would have liked to have made friends with them, but her parents were always wary of her associating with strangers. “Well, they wouldn’t be strangers if I was allowed to socialize with them, now, would they?” Her mother would shrug and relent a little, but her father would always remain firm that the family was better off keeping to themselves.
And as for her being able to consort with a young gentleman? Not a chance. Faith was sure that her papa would be pleased for her to wind up an old maid. He would chuckle and say, “Don’t worry, Faithy. You’ll always be my little girl. And there will always be a place for you here at the ranch.”
A permanent place.
Faith sighed. Not that she was truly looking to wed. Not here, at least! Possibly somewhere over the grand seas, where she would find a dashing prince or a heroic sea captain. But Riverstone? Not a chance.
Leaves blew against the front of the window. Faith glanced out and tried to find her papa in the swarm of the thoroughfare.
Somewhere, over the ocean, Faith would find her home, she was sure of it. Faith had been brought up on boats, and she’d always felt called back to them, back to the oceans and the rivers. She had ended up in a place called Riverstone. More stone than river. The place was dry, the townsfolk as unforgiving as the land.
Dust scuffed up behind her papa’s boots.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it, Miss?” Mr. Sparrow chimed out.
“I take it that you arrived at the shop before the winds did,” Faith said, raising an eyebrow.
Mr. Sparrow laughed a little. “I suppose I must have gotten lucky. With any hope, it will have settled by the evening’s end.”
But her focus was not on the weather right then. It was on the strange movements of her father, who kept glancing nervously over his shoulder. Like he was being hunted.
Faith narrowed her eyes just a touch.
As much as he liked to keep close tabs on his daughter, Ralph Barnett sometimes felt like a stranger to Faith. Closed off. Secretive. Always clammed up when asked about what life had been like before the family had moved to Riverstone.
“Will be good to get some rains round these here parts now that the seasons are changing.”
Again, Faith nodded. “Yes, will be lovely for the flowers.”
Mr. Sparrow dutifully fetched the items on Faith’s list as she browsed the shelves, wishing idly that they could afford fancy ingredients like vanilla bean and aniseed. She did love to bake and cook. “Yes, that’s plenty of flour, Mr. Sparrow, thank you kindly—” Faith stopped talking when she saw that two men had approached her father, both of them wearing brown hide jackets that fell over their wrists and which were so threadbare that they were almost falling off their stocky bodies.
They looked like bulls. Their eyes on a target.
Her father took a step back from them, almost stumbling right over. He looked so undignified that Faith had to stop herself from cringing.
One of them stepped right up to her papa, face glowering. He had a large, bulbous nose, red—probably from too much drink. Long greasy hair that poked out from underneath his hat. He reached out and grabbed her father by his collar, shaking him. Suddenly, at that moment, Faith saw her father’s age for the first time. Saw that in spite of his dignified manner he was frailer than she had realized. Mortal.
She couldn’t make out the man’s words, but she knew they were threatening.
We must be in trouble.
Perhaps the dry summer had been worse than she’d realized.
Her heart beat fast as she clutched her basket. The man let go of her father’s collar and pressed his finger hard into Ralph Barnett’s chest. This time her father stood his ground.
The two thugs each spat on the ground before they walked off, swooped up in the throng of the thoroughfare.
Ralph, bent over to pick his hat up off the ground. Dusted it off. Faith stood there, her heart sinking. Poor Papa.
But Faith knew how proud her father was, and so she quickly pulled away from the window, so that she did not garner the attention of the shopkeeper. Mr Sparrow prided himself on never keeping idle. Not one to twiddle his thumbs, he coughed for the young lady’s attention.
“Can I help you with anything else this afternoon, Miss?”
Faith nodded quickly and asked for a half dozen apples. “Please.” He looked befuddled, but Faith saw him quickly straighten his face.
“But Miss, you already asked for those.” He nodded down toward Faith’s basket where six shiny red apples sat balanced on the top.
Not about to lose face, Faith stood up straight and tried not to blush. “Yes, I need a half a dozen more,” she said, groaning inwardly as she wondered if the meager budget that had been set for the shopping trip would cover the cost of twice as many apples as originally planned.
“Thanks ever so much, Mr Sparrow,” Faith said as he handed her another six apples right about the same time her father reentered the store. She quickly pushed them down into the basket hidden beneath the flour least he saw that she had overspent, and made up her mind to make a special apple pie—or two—as a treat for him later.
And it looked as though her father could really use it. With an extra dusting of sugared cinnamon.
“H—how are you getting along, Faithy? All just about done in here?”
His collar was still ruffled from where the man had grabbed it. She wished to reach out and straighten it, but it was impossible.
“Papa, is everything quite okay? You look a little rattled, that’s all.” She didn’t mention the scuffle. Mr Sparrow’s eager ears were a little too close by.
He smiled quickly. Too quickly, Faith thought. And she knew the look of a forced smile when she saw one. And the extra effort to cover up shaking hands. Once those hands had played cards. Played them well. But these days Ralph Barnett didn’t have such a steady hand—nor such a good poker face. But he thought he still did. He believed that he was fooling his daughter. He thanked Mr Sparrow and guided Faith towards the door.
“Is it safe for us to step out into the thoroughfare, Papa?” Her voice was hushed as she gingerly walked down the unpaved path where there were few manners and little regard for etiquette. Pushing, shoving, spitting. Even though Riverstone had had a sheriff for six years now, there was still lawlessness to it that both unsettled Faith and thrilled her at times.
“What are you worried for? You’ve nothing to fear when you are with me, Faithy.” Her father’s voice was gruff. But he was also keeping his eyes peeled in every direction as he took long strides forward, slightly stepping in front of his daughter as though he were guarding her.
A man chewing something brown and foul-smelling smirked at her as she passed.
“Strange winds out this way today, eh, Miss?”
She nodded and clutched her basket. They were strange indeed—and picking up.
It was like they were in for a storm.
She remained quiet and hoped that they would make a quick journey back to the ranch. She’d already decided that she would use the time during the walk home to imagine herself away on the high seas. She had no urge to linger in the thoroughfare that afternoon.
Yes, she was still unsettled from what she’d seen. But if her father said there was nothing to worry about, then she trusted him. He was a man of his word. A hero in her eyes.
“Watch out, Faithy.”
The wind was picking up more and more—there was no chill to it, though. It was warm and eerie.
Faith had been about to take a right turn, which would lead them back to their ranch when her father came to a halt and then moved hurriedly in the opposite direction.
“We just need to make a quick turn at the bank.”
Faith gulped. Why the bank? He’d made no mention of needing to visit the bank when they’d bid farewell to her mama.
His collar was still out of place. Faith knew her mother would notice right away as well.
“Just some urgent business I need to attend to, that’s all.”
“What urgent business?” she had to skip a little to keep up with her father, who kept a strong pace. “Papa, is everything okay with the ranch?” She tried to keep the worry out of her voice. She was usually such a carefree young woman, but there was a dreadful sense of foreboding that afternoon that she could not shake. “Please, Papa, you can be honest with me. I am not a child any longer. I am a woman of nineteen, and I should be out to have my say, and my opinions sought regarding the runnings of the ranch.”
Ralph came to a quick standstill and stared down at her.
He spoke using a tone that let her know that his words were to be taken as the law. “Faithy, these matters are none of your concern. Stay outside and watch you don’t spill those apples onto the ground.”
So, I am to be kept in the dark and treated like I am five years old still, she thought a little sullenly as she watched her papa stomp in through the bank door. She couldn’t shake the feeling that there were other eyes on her, men who eyed her up like she was cattle. She glanced over at one such scoundrel who licked his lips. Even when he saw she’d spotted him, he didn’t look away, as was the polite thing to do. Faith stood up straight and defiantly, refusing to shrink. She was not going to be made to feel unwelcome in the town that she had lived in for her whole teenage life.
Finally, he backed down, shrugged, and went back to chewing his filthy tobacco.
Well, at least she could take the time to daydream a little.
She hummed a little sea shanty. “Oooh.”
The wind picked up right as yet another grubby man whistled at her, and then laughed at her strange manner.
One apple did fall to the ground. Quickly, she grabbed it and shone it with the front of her apron-like dress which she always wore. She was so rarely away from the kitchen for more than five minutes at a time; there was no sense in wearing anything different. It was more than an outfit, more than a uniform; it was a shackle.
This time the fruit stayed put. But dust was flying wildly, and soon Faith was coughing, trying to shield the produce from any debris.
But if only the apples had been the only thing she had to worry about that day.
“Faith, next time I send you to the shop, I want you to focus on the task at hand, not your daydreams, do you understand?”
“Of course, Mama. I’ll hurry off to the kitchen now. You won’t have to lift a finger tonight.”
“One two three four five six seven eight.” She shrugged and began to slice. “Quite an absurd amount I suppose.”
Her mother had been quite mad about the apples, but Faith had promised that she would make them stretch to three pies for many nights dessert, so as to save money in the long term. And so she began rolling the pastry while she hummed and sung and hoped that there would be no more disagreements that night amongst her small family. It could be an awfully lonely life on the ranch—but at least it was always peaceful.
“But I would trade peace for adventure in a moment,” she commented to her trusty sidekick Mouse, a grey tabby who always sat by the kitchen door when she baked. Her mama and papa didn’t like Mouse in the house, but Faith always allowed her to sneak in and always snuck her scraps. That night she had whisked away a tiny bit of bacon and given it to the kitten. Now Mouse sat there patiently waiting for Faith’s next words. And the next treat that Faith would give her. “To sail away somewhere far and exotic.”
Mouse had alternating stripes of dark grey and light grey fur, and two of her paws were white to make it look like she was only wearing mittens on the front. She was barely older than a kitten, one of a litter of five, but the only one who ventured up to the house, desperate to be a house pet.
“It sounds just wondrous, doesn’t it, Mouse?”
Mouse nodded a little. Well, Faith liked to think she did. She smiled down and gave her a dollop of cream in a saucer to thank her for her company, while her mind drifted. She reached down to pet the top of Mouse’s head and sighed gently. “Yes. I would trade all of this for a grand adventure.”
Once upon a time, her parents had traveled around on a boat when her father had made a living playing cards. But that was all she truly knew of her childhood. She never understood why her papa had quit, nor why he had given up their previous luxury lifestyle to stay in such a dull place as Riverstone, Montana. The drudgery wore them all down.
Faith got back to work and hummed a little as she imagined that she was the cook on a pirate ship, rolling out pastry and treats for the rascals upstairs. Of course, she would work for a captain who ran a thrilling ship, where there were villainous pirates and those who had honor and values. She imagined herself falling in love with one of the dashing heroes.
“He’ll seem like a bad man at first …” Faith mused as she placed the apple slices in even rows and placed the hat of the pastry on top of the fruit. “But then one day I will see him, perhaps rescuing a poor sailor lost at sea. Or giving extra scraps of food to a prison. And I shall discover the truth. That he has a heart of gold after all. And a chest of gold!” She finished with a roaring laugh. She glanced down at Mouse to see if she was equally as amused.
“Of course I will take you with me …” she said when Mouse meowed and looked worried. But the kitty’s ears had pricked up at something else, a sound coming from somewhere far down the back of the property. Mouse ran over to the door and stood up with her head extended, on high alert, her nose sticking up as she looked for the source of the noise.
“Is someone in the barn?” Faith asked, glancing out the window where she could see the light of a hand lantern bobbing about. It was past sundown. Usually, her father would have already retired to the study and her mama to the sitting room where she would do her darning before supper.
Faith frowned and listened carefully. It sounded as though her father was yelling, and this was not the first time that day that Faith had seen her father at cross words with another person. But she was shocked when she heard the other voice and realized it was her mother’s. Her parents never argued. Or at least, she had never heard them do so.
She moved closer to the door. “They must not realize that I can hear them,” she whispered down to Mouse who curled her tail around Faith’s ankle. And usually she wouldn’t have been able to hear even shouts from the barn, but the freak nature and direction of the eerie wind had carried the voices from the barn to the homestead that night.
Faith was as still as can be. She didn’t believe it was right to eavesdrop. But she knew in this instance, that it was necessary. Her family was in trouble. She had to know if there was anything she could do.
“It is long past time that we told her the truth …”
“Let sleeping dogs lie, Jane …”
“But these are not sleeping, Ralph. These are barking at you in the street!”
Mouse was growing tired of listening to the voices and was mewing for a cuddle, looking up at Faith with her large blue eyes. Faith leaned down and picked her up, snuggled her into her chest.
And listened for her parents’ angry, worried words to one another.
“Are we under threat, Ralph? Is Faith in danger?”
“I will sort this out, Jane. None of us are going to be hurt over this trifling matter. Now go back to the house, so that Faith does not suspect that anything is the matter. She didn’t see the scuffle in the street, and she doesn’t need to know a thing about this.”
Faith sucked in her breath.
So the fight. The bank. It wasn’t nothing.
Something was brewing. And it wasn’t just the storm. Hard rain suddenly began to barrel down.
She quickly put the cat down and shooed her out the door as her mama stomped back up through the paddock and came in through the back door. Faith ran back to the bench and tried to pretend as though the pie was the sole focus of her world that night. But when she made eye contact with her mother, neither of them could pretend that nothing had happened.
“Those pies look lovely, Faith.”
Mouse stuck her nose back out the back door and gave Faith a long look. Then she dashed off into the tumultuous night.
The door slammed shut and almost made Clay jump. Almost. He had too much of a steady manner to be shaken. But he did frown.
“These darn winds …” He closed the door and wondered why it had been left to flap like that. He didn’t remember leaving it open. Was Mama wandering around in the middle of the night?
Clay Holcombe stopped and straightened the glass by the door which had almost come off the hook during the slamming. He didn’t much like to look in the mirror, but on this morning he couldn’t help it as he made the adjustments. Carefully. He didn’t want to break it. He didn’t believe in seven years of bad luck, but his ma sure did, and it was her home as much as his. He looked at his reflection and smirked a little. His full copper brown beard needed a trim. Not that it mattered too much—there were only two people who would be seeing him that day. And that was one more than usual.
“I’m a hungry lad this morning—”
He waltzed into the empty kitchen and realized that his mama Evie Holcombe must have slept in. No breakfast waiting for him before a long hard day of fixing fences and herding cattle. But his mama had been tired lately. Instead of grumbling, Clay walked over and fried up four eggs. Three for him and one for his mama, who had a weakened appetite.
As he carried the tray, he noticed that there was a letter on the kitchen table. His farmhand Buddy must have picked it up from the post office in town and dropped it off. That explained the flapping door. Clay felt a stab of guilt. He is a good kid. Even if he isn’t much of a farmhand. Not much of an eye for detail. Left things half undone. And made slow work of every task that he was set.
The letter was addressed to his mother in neat cursive. He turned the letter over to see the sender.
Ira Holcombe. His paternal aunt. The sister of his late father.
“Mama!” he hollered up the stairs to call her down. Evie Holcombe was hard of hearing these days, and her hips were bad. Made stairs hard to climb. Yet she still insisted on sleeping in the upstairs bedroom, even though Clay had tried switching with her again and again. He’d even gone so far one time as to swap all the furnishings so that his things were upstairs and hers were in the downstairs bedroom, but his ma had just walked up the staircase, waltzed into the bedroom and thanked him for the new furniture. “This bed’ll go much better on my back.”
She poked her head downstairs. “No need for yelling, my boy …”
Evie Holcombe was still in her nightdress and her hair still in curlers, but she always had a regal look about her in spite of whatever it was she was wearing. Not that she had time for airs and graces, or formalities of any kind.
Clay grinned up at her. “Sorry, Mama, you know I don’t mean to yell at you. Just wanted to let you know you got a letter …” He winked up at her as he pointed to the breakfast on the table. “And I made you an egg as well. Please try to eat, Ma. Doc said you oughta at least try for one egg in the morning, even if the toast is too much.”
She nodded and kissed him on the forehead after making a hobbling journey down the staircase. “You’re a good sweet boy, Clay. What would I do without you?”
“You ain’t never need to worry about that, Ma. It’s you and me here, and that’s the way it’s gonna stay. Now eat your breakfast and read your letter.” He didn’t want to make a fuss about the letter, but he knew it would tug at a heartstring or two, and he nervously looked away as his ma picked the letter up. He knew her stomach would drop at the name as well, the same way his had.
He hadn’t meant to upset her. But her eyes misted as she ripped the envelope and unfolded the sheet of paper. The name on the letter would bring her joy, but it would be a bittersweet moment.
She lingered on each word until the egg in front of her had gone cold. Clay gently nudged on the plate. “At least take a nibble, Ma.” He was pretending not to see the glistening in her eyes.
“What did Aunt Ira have to say?” he asked, forcing a breezy manner as he finished off the last of his eggs.
“Oh, you know your aunt …” Evie laughed gently as she folded the letter gently. “She always has some strange notion or other.”
Clay glanced up. “She’s had one of her so-called visions again?”
His ma nodded and placed the letter down. “You know that she has similar handwriting to your father. The way she crosses her Ts is exactly the same …” She finally reached for her egg and slowly shook her head like she was somewhere else in her mind.
Is she remembering the same thing as I am?
His father had liked to write letters. He’d been literary. That was another trait that the now 26-year-old Clay had inherited from his father. They had both been soft-spoken, intelligent, more introverted than extraverted. It was his mother Evie who had always been the one to make conversation. She’d been the bright hostess of the house, making sure it was full of happy guests who hung on her sparkling words. But that was when they had had guests to entertain. These days the pair of them did precious little entertaining. They had isolated themselves. Up on the mountain. Miles away from where it had all happened.
This time it wasn’t the door. Clay could see it all like it was happening right there in front of him. But there were some places that the mind did not want to go, not easily. After all, what kind of son wishes to remember the blood of his father?
“I don’t mind you talkin’ about him, Clay …”
But Clay gritted his jaw. It might have been eight years since the day that Nelson Sloan had turned up on their doorstep and demanded their property, but Clay still recalled each detail. The way his father had refused to give in to the blackmail demands like the rest of the town had. And what it had cost him.
What it had cost all of them.
And he still felt just like that eighteen-year-old. And he didn’t like feeling like that. Small. Helpless. “I’m the man of the house now, Ma. There’s no use in dwelling on them old times. Now I need to be getting on with my day. I’ve got to deliver my decision to Buddy, remember.” He needed to get rid of the banging in his head. “Now give me that letter, and I will put it in the desk for you.”
But she clung on to the letter like it was precious treasure and refused to let Clay take it.
He wasn’t sentimental. But his memory was sharp, and he could cling to a memory, even with all of its jagged edges. “I got work to be getting on with anyway. Make sure you rest like Doc said. Your mind as well as your body.”
He headed out into the fields. The cattle needed feeding and watering. Like clockwork, work on the ranch turned over, the same thing every day.
Clay Holcombe was not a superstitious man. But there was something strange about the way the wind was blowing that day. It was like it had brought with it a sense of trouble. The air was full of foreboding. It had started with the letter that had put his mama at unease and now this decision he was about to make.
The ranch was large and unruly. He’d needed help, but he wasn’t sure that Buddy was the right choice as ranch hand, At the end of the day, it was work that Clay could do himself a lot quicker and better, and it was money that they couldn’t afford to spend unnecessarily.
But Buddy was a good kid who needed the employment.
It was the last day of Buddy’s trial. A two-week-long test to see if the young man could keep up and be of value. But time was up, and Clay needed to give the young man his decision. Though he did always like having Buddy’s dog Daisy around, a red-coated dog that was part sheepdog and part who-knew-what. She wasn’t much good at herding cattle, but she was a funny old thing. Always had her tongue hanging out, and she loved to waddle over for pets on the head.
“Arthritis,” Buddy explained when Clay nodded toward the patch of grass where Daisy was curled up that morning. The poor old girl was definitely not earning her keep that day, but Clay tossed her the bone he’d brought with him anyway, and she sniffed and leaped up before chewing hungrily on it. Next order of business. Buddy needed a bone thrown his way as well. Clay knew it. But could he make business decisions based purely on pity? He tried to think of what his father would do in such a situation if he were still alive. He’d do the right thing; Clay knew that much.
Only problem was, he didn’t know what the right thing was.
“You notice them winds this morning?” Buddy scratched his head.
Clay nodded. “Usually means that we are in for one heck of a storm.”
“Or a sign that things are about to change.”
Clay barely nodded. He tried to ignore the hope in the young man’s eyes.
Buddy was lean. The kind of young man who was always on the move, always looking for the next piece of work. He walked from place to place or hitched rides on wagons when he could, not even having so much as a horse of his own to his name. Clay felt for him, he truly did.
But family always came first. His loyalty had to be to his ma. He needed the money that would go towards Buddy’s wage. Yes, there would be more work to do. But if he let Buddy go, he would just have to put in a few more hours work each day himself to make up the difference.
Buddy’s face fell a little. “Well, I understand,” he said, wiping the dirt off onto his overalls.
Clay’s chest was heavy, but he did his best to smile and reached out to shake Buddy’s hand, even though it was still dirty.
“Say, why don’t we meet up down in Riverstone for a drink later in the week. I hear they got that new saloon open, and you could use a night away from the ranch.” His face brightened up. “And all the rounds of whiskey are on me.” Buddy clung onto the suspenders of his trousers and grinned.
Clay’s blood froze. Riverstone. A place that Clay had sworn never to return to. Ever. So he thanked Buddy for the offer but declined.
Buddy nodded again and tried to hide his disappointment. The two men had gotten along well during his brief period of employment, and Clay suspected that Buddy would be sad to lose the friendship of Clay.
“Well, I am thinking’ of heading off to Riverstone next anyways if my services aren’t of use here any longer.” Buddy shrugged. “There’s more work down that way in the valley.”
“I’m sure there is,” Clay said, staring down the incline in the direction that Riverstone lay. There was more of everything down that way. Trouble. Heartache. It was a lawless place. Sure, he’d heard that they’d appointed a sheriff, Cecil Paterson, six years earlier, but he doubted that men like Nelson Sloane were gone. And if there was some semblance of law down that way, it was too little, too late. Bad men were still gonna do what bad men did, no matter who was watching over them.
Buddy stayed on for the rest of the day, then at sundown came and said goodbye to his pal and boss.
“If I can help you out at all on this ranch at any time in the future, just let me know. Send word and I’ll be back up these hills in no time at all.”
Clay nodded and waved goodbye, and Buddy packed up his bag and slung it over his shoulder. Clay waved him and Daisy off. He was better off on his own. It was always going to be like that. Lonely. But preferable. If you had no one to love, then you had no one to lose.
“Smells delicious, Ma,” Clay commented as he took off his boots and began to brush them clean. It was the first night of his extended shift on the ranch. His ma had made up an extra large dinner of chops and mashed potatoes with gravy, which was Clay’s favorite meal since he’d been a boy. His ma always seasoned the gravy just right, extra salt and extra brown.
He’d just sat down and began to tuck in when a noise came from outside.
“What is that sound?” his mama asked.
Clay swallowed a large mouthful and shook his head. “Mama, you have what Doc in town would call ‘selective hearing.’ You can’t hear when I’m calling you to tell ya somethin’ important, but one little rustling outdoors at something you think is interesting and your ears prick up.” He laughed as he picked up her empty plate and carried it over to the sink. It’s good that she’s eating.
“No, I am being serious, Clay, there is some creature outside making an awful noise.” Concern poured over her face. “It ain’t coyotes, is it, Clay? What about the chickens.”
The chickens were safe in a hatch, and Clay always did a check of the coop and the surrounding areas before he came in for the night.
He shook his head and dug his spoon into a second helping of potatoes. “There’s a strange wind running through the hills, that’s all it is,” he said and thought nothing of it, but then he caught wind of the whimpering sound as well. Maybe the chickens weren’t as safe as he’d thought. “I’ll check. You wait here and don’t fret.”
Not a coyote. But an animal of around the same stature. But far more placid and in need of pets.
It was Daisy.
“Girl, how’d you get all the way back here?” he said, glancing around to see if there was any sign of her master. But Buddy was long gone.
Evie had not stayed put as Clay had told her, and she was outside like a bolt, worried about her chickens. “What is that?” she cried out, seeing the red dog standing there wagging its tail.
“You ain’t got any concern, Ma. This is Daisy. She’s about as harmful as a butterfly to the chickens.”
His ma looked down at Daisy with a fair bit of skepticism. “So what are you doing all the way out here, old girl?”
“It’s Buddy’s dog, Daisy. She has been helping out on the farm these past two weeks. Well, more like supervising, right girl?” He ruffled the top of her head.
“Then Buddy must still be around here. Somewhere close by.”
He shook his head. “Buddy said he was going to Riverstone to look for work. He’ll be just about all the way there by now.”
“She’s lost, then.” His mama closed down at the mention of Riverstone. For she knew her son would never go anywhere near that place. He had vowed not to.
“Sort of,” Clay replied. “She knows where she is well enough.”
“Poor old girl, she must have wandered away from her master, gotten scared, and made her way back to the only place she knew as home.”
“Well, we’ll keep her safe and fed, and when Buddy returns for her, she’ll be here.” That was Clay’s decision, and he was firm on it.
His mama nodded and opened the back door so that they could all come in from the dark. The night had a chill for the first time, even though the winds were still blowing strong. Daisy was grateful for a warm blanket snuggled up in front of a low fire that night.
“She’s a sweet girl,” Evie commented with a laugh. “And to think that I was about to go out there and chase her off!”
She may have been a sweet girl, but having a crippled dog on the ranch was no easy task, and the following morning Clay was already feeling the consequences of the responsibility as she slowed him down. Rain had been barreling down all night, and still that wind had not calmed down. But Daisy seemed happy enough to follow Clay around as best she could though he was well behind schedule with getting the cattle branded and ready to be sold. That was the ranch’s main source of income. And times were getting lean.
“Gee, a farmhand could come in awful handy about now,” he said in dismay as he saw that the storm had caused a wood panel to fly off the roofing of the barn where the grain and hay were stored. And there was another loose panel blowing in the wind now. Another set back.
“Come on, Daisy,” he said gruffly as he trudged off, ladder under one arm and hammer in the hand of the other. If he didn’t fix the roof, the rain would get in and ruin all the hay.
As he worked, Daisy began to bark at something on the other side of the barn door. She was persistent, and after five minutes, Clay climbed down the ladder to check.
“What is it, girl?”
But she may just as well have been barking at ghosts. Clay surveyed the land and narrowed his eyes to check the paddocks and saw that there was nothing there. Just the faint thunder of hooves rolling down the hills somewhere in the distance. But nothing for him to worry about, he was sure. He petted Daisy. “Come on old girl; let’s get you a bone at home.”
“Your hands are blistered and bleeding.” His mama could tell that Clay had been overworking himself since Buddy had gone. But there was something else troubling her mind that day. Maybe it was the first chill of the autumn, but it had been a rough day on her tired bones, and there was something that her son needed to be prepared for, as difficult as it may be for him to hear.
Evie tried to broach the subject tactfully, as had always been her manner, as she added salt and iodine to a mixture of hot water. As she carried over the bucket, her own shaking hands failed to keep it steady, sloshing some of the mixture onto the floorboards.
She nodded down at the tired dog in front of the fire.
“You know that Daisy won’t be around forever … she may not even make it to the winter,” she said wistfully as Clay stretched his legs out and warmed his feet.
But following her words, he sat straight. He wasn’t one to mince words, and he had a good head on his shoulders. He liked to read, and he made a good study of human nature. He could pick up on things that other men couldn’t. He stood up and paced.
“Are we talking about the dog here, Mama. Or you?” He was standing up straight as a rod now, waiting for his mama to just be honest with him. He’d seen her struggling with the bucket.
She hung her head. Her son had already lost a parent, and she didn’t want to worry him unduly. Just wanted him to be prepared.
“Maybe both,” she said quietly. “You will need help.”
“It’s not as though you are as agile around here as you once were anyway,” he grumbled, keen now to get off the topic. “Maybe I do need to hire another man or boy for the farm. If not Buddy, then someone with a little more of his wits about him.” He glanced down to make sure that Daisy had not taken any offense at Clay’s comments about her master. But she was just happy to be inside and to have the company of him and his ma.
“Maybe it’s not a farmhand that you need.” His mama’s voice was gentle, and her eyes had a slight glistening to them. When she spoke like this, Clay knew that he had to listen. The softer her words, the more important they were.
And the wind whistled right at the same time
“My dear boy … I think that it is time that you got yourself a wife.”
Clay gave a burst of laughter; her words were so absurd. “Pull the other one, Ma.”
Sure, back in the day, he had turned the heads of some ladies back in Riverstone. Though, of course, the women would always do it subtly and pretend that they had only been checking out an item in a shop window. Clay had always blushed and known the truth. There had been one young lady, once, whom he had had his eye on, named Beth, but that had been a long time ago.
His ma was known for her strange ideas, that much was true.
But marrying a woman? He couldn’t think of anything less likely. Where would he even meet one of them? There was no chance he was going anywhere near Riverstone for one thing. He had heard that some men ordered mail order brides, but there was no chance he would ever take part in such a crazy scheme. Besides, he liked his life just as it was. It was quiet. Sometimes lonely. But there was comfort in his routine, and as long as he stuck to it, he and his ma could still have a decent life. It was what his father would have wanted for them.
“When you have a more realistic solution Mama, then I am willing to hear it,” he said, grabbing his hat, deciding that he was going to carry on and work by candlelight to get that roof fixed by morning, ignoring his blistered hands. Daisy was fast asleep and stayed behind at his mama’s feet. At least it would be company for her.
As the moonlight drifted in through the gaps in the barn roof, Clay blinked. He was exhausted. But the roof was just about fixed. He looked down the wobbling ladder and steadied himself; if he worked all through the night by the light of the moon, then he might just about be able to catch up. Then the next day he could get the remaining cattle branded and ready. And they could make the sale for the following week. They would be all right.
But there were strange sounds that night. The wind had settled but the air hadn’t. In the distance, there was hooting and hollering. Drunken men and wild horses.
There were hooves thundering. The sound of a pistol aimed high in the air. Aimlessly. All for the point of causing terror in the town.
And somehow Clay just knew that trouble was brewing.
Mouse was rolling around on the floor contently, her full belly poking up. “I think I’ve been feeding you a little too much, missy,” Faith said with a stifled giggle as she relented and grabbed one last piece of cheese from the pantry. “You are turning into a little rolly polly.”
But Mouse had had her turn. Her parents were waiting for their feed as well. She prepared the dessert, ready to carry it to the table.
“More apple pie,” she said to Mouse with a sigh and another laugh. It had felt like a year since she’d accidentally purchased the dozen apples from Mr. Sparrow. The tension in the house had been thick ever since, but no serious matters had been spoken of. She sliced through the last half of pie and served it up on three plates, whispering to Mouse to be quiet outside the door and to stay hidden while the family ate dessert.
“Looks lovely Faith,” her mama said with a tight but genuine smile as Faith approached the dining table.
There was still a dense unspoken issue hanging in the air, but her mama and papa had been trying to act as though all was normal, and so Faith was going along with the ruse. Partly because she wanted to believe that things really were okay. It had unsettled her to hear her parents fighting, but her father had gone back to being the gentle and reserved man he always had been. And there had been no sight of those two men again, which had brought Faith some relief.
Her father pushed his plate away and patted his belly, groaning a little. “Faithy, your pies are delicious, but I’m not sure I can stare at another slice of apple ever again in my life.”
She smiled and promised rhubarb for the next round.
Uh-oh. Faith felt something round and furry bump into her ankles, and she froze.
At her feet, there was a purring, and he looked down sharply.
Faith sprang up when she realized that she must have left the backdoor to the kitchen open, and Mouse had wandered in.
Faith quickly scooped her up and tried to hide her in the pocket of her apron as she hurried towards the backdoor, but her father had already spotted the round grey ball of fluff. Squealing, Faith ran towards the door anyway, wanting Mouse to be out of any harm’s way.
“Faith, I have told you time and time again not to let that creature in the house!”
“Now please, kitty, stay out of the way; I am begging you,” she said and made sure that this time she took her all the way over to the barn. “You have to stay here, okay? I’m sorry! But Mouse, you should never have come over to the dining table!” Even though Mouse liked to be as close to the house and Faith as she could, the barn was still a warm and safe place. Well, warmish. Until her father calmed down and forgot about the incident, it would be the safest place for Mouse to hide. “I will bring you some bacon in the morning if you can just stay here and be a good little kitten for me.”
Faith placed her down and made sure that the barn door was latched before she made her way back into the house, with her head hung, about to apologize and make amends.
“Papa, I am so sorry. I promise that …”
But she couldn’t see her father anywhere.
“Papa?” she asked, thinking that it was awful strange that he would just up and leave at that time of the evening, and especially without taking his hat with him. Both his almost empty plate and his hat were still sitting on the table.
She picked up the plate and moved it over to the sink with the scraps of pie still on there. There was an eerie silence to the house as she cleaned the plate and rinsed it off, wondering if maybe her parents were having another argument. Maybe about Mouse.
No, it’s more than that. Something ain’t right.
She tiptoed to the edge of the staircase and peered up.
She quietly called out “Mama,” but there was no response.
A noise drifted in from out the front of the house. Grumbling. Shouting.
Faith raced over to the window.
Black horses. Four of them. It was getting dark, but there was moonlight, and the men all carried lanterns.
The man on the ground she recognized. He was the man who had reached out and grabbed her father by the collar.
What is he doing back here? Faith gulped and swallowed, trying to stop her heart from racing by taking deep breaths.
There was a sudden hand on her shoulder, and Faith almost jumped out of her skin.
“Oh, Mama. It is only you.” She spun around to face her mama. “Who are those men that Papa is talking to?”
Her mama’s face was grave and pale, but she tried her best to be brave for her daughter and spoke calmly, with just the hint of a tremble in her voice.
“Just some old friends of your father’s from the old days. They have come to visit him.” Her mother’s voice sounded scratchy like her throat was dry. She gave a thin smile that didn’t reach her eyes.
Faith frowned and stared at her mama. “Those do not look like any sort of friends to me,” she said as she pointed out the window. “Mama, that man grabbed papa in town the other day. Roughed him up.”
One of the men raised a pistol, and her father put his hands up and backed away. Faith tried not to gasp and placed her hands over her mouth, but she could feel them trembling, and the urge to cry out was almost too much. She wanted to race outside and protect her father. Even though she was smaller than them and unarmed. Reason left her, and all she wanted to do was to protect her family.
Her mother pulled at her and pleaded with her to come away from the window. “It won’t do you any good to stand there and stare, child.”
“I am not a child!”
Faith realized then that she had shouted too loudly and that she ought to move away from the window immediately. The moon was high in the sky and almost as bright as the evening sun that day.
But it was too late to move; the man with the pistol had looked up and spotted Faith’s tall figure through the window, and he fixed his hungry gaze right on her as Faith shrunk away. Her father’s face was full of shame. Apologies. Most of all, regret.
The man returned his attention to Ralph. “You got that, old man?… And if you don’t have the 10,000 by next week, then we will come back for this pretty one,” he said and pointed the butt of the pistol towards where a trembling Faith was still standing by the window as though she was rooted to the spot. Unable to look away now that she had come this far.
Her mother grabbed her and pulled her away, but Faith was furious now at being lied to. “Those are no friends of Papa’s, Mama!” she cried, still trying to make sense of it all. They’d always had such a quiet and peaceful existence since moving to Riverstone. Barely even a visitor to the house. Never an overdue payment. Not a whisper of trouble.
Now there were men with pistols making threats.
“Papa has gotten himself into some sort of terrible trouble, ain’t he Mama?” she said, staring defiantly as she pleaded for the truth. “He’s gotten US into some sort of terrible trouble. You as well Mama.”
Jane’s bottom lip was trembling. She was a woman who was always loyal to her husband, though. And long ago they had made a vow together, to keep the secret from their daughter.
But all Faith wanted was to learn the truth. “I am not a child. Please, Mama, I can handle it.”
But Faith was about to learn that she ought to be careful what she wished for. And she was about to learn that being a child, kept safe from the terrors of the world had its benefits. At least with ignorance came peace. The ability to sleep.
Faith wondered if that was about to be taken away from her.
Her mama bowed her head and looked small and fragile all of a sudden. The burden of carrying a secret this long had taken its toll, and now her shoulders were slumped forward in defeat. The past had caught up with the Barnetts. Just like it always had a knack of doing.
“Let your father explain it to you. We will wait for him.”
The men rode off. Ralph entered the front room where his wife and child waited, and for a second, he seemed like he might pretend that everything was fine. Laugh off the whole thing again. Make out like it was nothing more than a visit from old friends. But the look on Faith’s face stopped him in his tracks, and all the blood drained from his face. “Faithy …”
“I don’t want to hear any more made-up tales, Papa. It’s time that you told me what is going on. Those men. They are making threats. Why? What have you done?”
“You should sit down, Faithy. You as well, Jane.”
He’d kept the truth from her. But now he had no choice but to come clean to his daughter about why they had really moved to Riverstone six years earlier when Faith was just thirteen years old.
He was such a proud man, but at this moment he looked ashamed and beaten, the humiliation all over his face. Faith sat there, half of her wishing to hug her papa, and half of her broken and separated from her, feeling her insides being torn apart as she heard the story.
“You know some things, my darling girl, about our time before Riverstone. But there are some things you don’t know. Things that I have kept hidden from you for your own good.”
Faith opened her mouth to speak, to protest that being lied to could never be for her own good, but she knew this was the time to keep her mouth shut. This is what I asked for.
“You know that I once made my living playing cards on riverboats. It was a grand life. Your mama and I were happy. We met on one of those boats. We loved each other, and we loved that life. But when we had you, things changed. You were so small, so fragile; you needed security and a real home. When you were five and needed schooling, your mama and I decided that it would be best to stay in one place. To offer you a more stable upbringing. We put down roots. Now, look, Faithy. I never considered myself much of a businessman. It was playing cards that was in my blood, but I did the best that I could so that I could provide for you and your mother.”
Jane dropped her head.
“Everything went to plan, more or less. For the first year or so, anyway.”
Ralph scuffled his feet. His face was dark.
“Then, things all went terribly wrong. In a way I could never have predicted.”
Jane seemed as though she was about to burst into sobs.
Faith was still and silent. She had been just a child. Her memories of the time had been fuzzy. Had her parents been happy at the time? She’d always thought they were. It was like hearing tales from a life that didn’t belong to her.
“I made a deal with a company in Boston, to build a hotel on a prime piece of land. But the deal fell through, and I was left with a dreadful debt. Already paid for all the materials. Couldn’t sell them and couldn’t build. It was never my area of expertise, but I kept plowing forward. Next thing I knew I was setting up another deal, borrowing and borrowing to fix up the previous debt. Until one day it had snowballed out of control. And I realized I was never going to be able to pay back the debt. Not if I lived to be two hundred years old. Debt collectors were knocking at the door threatening me and you and Jane. Threatening to send me to prison. And I owed you and your mother more than that. I owed you a good life—with food on the table and a roof over your head, and a father who was a free man who could provide for you.”
“How much?” Faith whispered.
Her father paused. “Ten thousand.”
Her heart skipped a beat.
Ralph glanced out the window. “Somehow, these men tracked me down. Even all the way out here where most of the maps don’t even point.” He frowned. “And now they want to collect on the debt I owe.” He stared down at the ground again. “One way or another.”
Faith’s stomach dropped. What would the ultimate payment be? Her very life?
She knew why her father had done it. The same reasons he had done everything. For her. Her mama. His family.
But to just skip out on a debt like that? Faith thought that was such a shameful thing, and she turned her head to the side, unable to look her father in the eyes.
“I will never let any harm befall you, Faith,” he said and dropped to his knees to reach out for her hands. She kept her fingers very stiff and looked down at their hands. Hers so young and soft and his so old and callused, all the years trying to keep the ranch going, trying to keep their family afloat. But what had it all been for?
“How are you going to do that, Papa,” she asked softly, hoping that he had the answers but somehow knowing that he didn’t.
“I will get the money together, Faithy, I promise.”
She nodded and pretended that she believed him. It was as much as she was able to give at that moment.
The first truly cold night of the year in Montana. That night she fetched Mouse in from the cold and let her sleep in her bed beside her to keep the kitten warm. But it was as much for Faith’s benefit as it was for the kitten’s. She tossed and turned and shivered all night. The men had given a week’s deadline for the debt to be paid, but she knew she would barely sleep a wink during the nights in between. And Mouse, as sweet as she was, wasn’t exactly a guard dog.
Still, her presence was a comfort. Faith opened her eyes and stared at the moon and prayed. For her father, for her mama, and for a solution to this terrible trial that her family was facing.
She knew that the Lord always taught forgiveness. But the things that her father had just told her tested her. She felt all faith in him destroyed.
“Please try to eat …” Jane stood back and stared down at Faith’s plate of fried eggs, which were cooling and turning hard.
“But how can I eat when every dime is so very important? How can we afford even this simple meal of eggs? It could be the difference between life and death for any one of us.”
“Letting your food go cold will not help your father,” her mother said softly.
She cleared the table that night, lost in her mind. That wasn’t unusual; only this time Faith wasn’t dreaming of pirate ships and the high seas. She was trying to imagine a solution to the mess her father had created. Her own solution. A way to get the money.
I could come up with a plan of my own.
Faith suddenly felt her heart beating. A mix of hope and worry. She knew it was impossible that her father could come up with ten thousand dollars in a week. If he could have, then he would have already done so!
But she was young, clever, beautiful. Perhaps she could find a way.
The following day she walked to town and asked the local barber how much he would pay for her hair. It was long and thick, shiny, and full. $20. For most women, an awful lot. She dropped her head. That would barely put a dent in the debt, and so she started to consider what else she could do as she stared out into the distance past Riverstone to where the mountains lay.
Maybe there is still gold in the hills.
Two towns over, in a place called Hunter Valley, there had once been a great gold rush. Though most had moved on, there were still said to be camps there and still men who mined and panned for gold, sure that the mines had not been totally depleted.
That is where I will go.
She could travel on foot, and no one would stop her.
For the first time, her father had let go of his tight rein, and Faith was free to pretty much go wherever she wanted in Riverstone. She had never felt so free yet so utterly terrified at the same time. Her head spun as her new plan came together, even though the people she spoke to told her how risky it was, and that the Hunter Valley had dried up of gold many years ago.
But it was her only shot. She decided that she would leave under cover of nightfall the following day, take Mouse with her, and they would go off on a grand adventure to Hunter Valley and mine one of the old abandoned mines. It was a solid plan. She was sure that if she just stuck with it, found a person who could help her, then eventually she would find the gold that everyone else had given up on, and she would return with the money that her papa needed. But no one would be allowed a clue as to where she had gone. It would ruin everything.
The next evening while her parents were getting themselves off to bed, Faith snuck out of her room. She got the basket ready and found some bacon to keep mouse occupied so that she wouldn’t make a noise.
She had the perfect plan. She was going to escape – and no one was going to get in her way.
“Captivated by His Liberating Love” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Faith Barnett has always dreamed of an adventure. Despite being confined to the house by her strict parents, she’s always found a way to escape, if only through her imagination. When her dream has finally come true, she realizes that this adventure may not end well! After an outlaw, Clay kidnaps her, an odd relationship forms between them. What is the hidden truth that Faith will find out? Will she ever forgive everyone involved in this terrible act?
Clay Holcombe is a man who closed his heart off many years ago, when his father was brutally murdered. Now, the old wounds are reopened and he has to deal with them. When Faith comes into his life unexpectedly, he realizes what he has been missing all these years. Will he succeed in hiding the truth from her?
Clay and Faith are so different. Clay is a man who has shut himself off from the world. However, the gentle, kind spirit that Faith carries to his ranch, helps him see that there is another way to live. How will his past affect their future? Will he be able to protect her from the outlaws and take revenge for his father’s murder?
“Captivated by His Liberating Love” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.