The stagecoach was creaky, bumpy, and uncomfortable, but every jolt took Emmie Star that bit further away from the city and nearer to her cousin. Away from the horrid Judd Mallard, his wandering hands, and the dirty, noisy factory. Surely the wilderness could not be worse than that. It was scary just the same to be travelling into the unknown. The other passengers had kept up a sort of intermittent conversation when they could, but the shaking and bumps made it hard.
There was one other woman on board, and Emmie was glad of that as she stepped out into strange places completely by herself. The woman was with her husband who seemed a steady sort of man, and there was one other passenger. He was a younger man dressed quite flamboyantly for the wild west that was their destination. He cast the odd look at Emmie but said very little. She was glad the other couple was on board as well. The younger man had a shifty look about him.
Emmie was a slightly built young woman with long, dark hair and deep brown eyes. She had a heart-shaped face and stood about five feet four inches high. She would never have thought of herself as beautiful, but she was. Everything she owned was in the two bags she had with her. The larger one was tied to the rear of the coach, and she had a smaller bag tucked under her skirt at her feet. It had taken courage to leave everything she knew and look for another way of life.
The first buildings of a town could be seen through the windows, and the coach mercifully slowed down and stopped outside of a hotel. The clouds of dust gradually settled, and the driver’s guard jumped down and announced that they had reached Carlton Junction as he pulled open the door. The husband helped his wife out and then held a hand to offer Emmie the same courtesy.
She thanked him and stood as the guard found her larger bag. Then it seemed that everyone disappeared, and she was left alone with two pieces of luggage that contained her whole life and absolutely no idea what to do next. The little town of Carlton was really one street of wooden buildings, a few stores, two saloons, and a small wooden church tucked slightly back from the rest.
Emmie stood on the steps of the small hotel and looked up and down. She noted a sheriff’s office, but nobody seemed to be there, and the only other place to go was inside the hotel. She lifted both bags and took a breath. She had reached Carlton, and now she had to find Mary Rose. Inside was more welcoming than it looked from the outside, and she saw a middle-aged woman behind the desk.
“Excuse me,” Emmie started. “I’ve just arrived here, and I need to find my cousin Mary Rose Maguire.”
The woman at the desk shook her head.
“Sorry, honey. I don’t know anyone called that.” She half turned away and saw the look on this girl’s face. “Why don’t you leave the bags in the office and have something to eat? I’ll ask around and see if we can find her for you.”
Emmie almost cried with relief but held herself together and accepted the suggestion.
“I’m Myrtle,” the woman said as she stowed the two bags inside the office. “This is my place such as it is. Come and have a seat.” She bustled away and Emmie followed. The big room was a bar and eating house. It was quite busy with a few tables filled with people eating and a good number of men propping up the bar.
In one corner was a table with five men playing poker, and she saw that the flamboyant man from the stage had joined them. He nodded and smiled to her as she looked across, but it sent a bit of a shiver through Emmie. Myrtle said she would bring her some stew and biscuit, and Emmie was left to gaze around the room. A small group of cowboys was talking and enjoying a drink. Myrtle came back with a plate of stew and sat down across the table.
“Enjoy the stew, honey. I asked the cook and one or two others, but Mary Rose Maguire doesn’t live here anymore.” Emmie gasped and put down her fork. “She was courting a man, the cook says, and the two of them left to set up a farm somewhere.”
“Oh no,” Emmie said, and her eyes filled with tears. “I don’t know what to do now. She was the only family I had left.” Myrtle Johns was a strong woman, but she did have a heart, and she reached out a hand and grasped Emmie’s arm.
“Listen, honey. We’ll sort something out. We will find you a job and somewhere to stay, and then you can take time to decide what to do. Don’t cry. Eat your stew, and I’ll be back in a while.” She bustled away and left Emmie with nothing to do but eat the food in front of her. It did have the desired effect, and she felt better when Myrtle came back and sat down.
“I found out a little bit more about your cousin,” she started. “The man was called Will O’Brien, and she was head over heels in love with him.” Myrtle paused and shook her head. “By all accounts, he was a dreamer with very little money, and they took off to where he told her they could start a small farm and settle down.”
“Where did they go?” Emmie queried, but Myrtle was not sure.
“They left on the stagecoach. Maybe when it stops on the way back, one of them might remember.” She saw the look on Emmie’s face. “I know that is not much help to you, but I do need a waitress here tonight, and if you can manage that, I can give you a room to use.”
The relief was so great that Emmie let a few tears roll down her cheeks.
“Thank you, Myrtle,” she said. “I’ll work really hard. Tomorrow I will look for something else.”
“Good,” Myrtle told her. “Come and take your bags to the room, and I’ll introduce you to the cook.”
Emmie stood up and followed the woman to the door. Myrtle broke into a beaming smile as she saw the man who stepped inside.
“Earle Barnet. My favourite nephew,” she said and held out her arms. The man came and gave her a hug.
“Your only nephew,” he retorted.
Then Myrtle stepped back and slapped a hand to her head. “You might answer a question for Emmie here.” Earle looked at the young woman for the first time, and his inside made a little twist that he had never felt before. He covered it well and held out a hand.
“Hi. I’m Earle. How can I help?” Myrtle introduced the two of them and repeated the cousin story. Emmie saw a man who was obviously a cowboy from the boots and clothes he wore. Country people and ways of life were completely unknown to her as she had spent her entire life in the city. She saw a tall, slim, handsome man with a mass of hair the colour of ripe wheat and grey-blue eyes that were gentle and smiling. His hair was tied back with a leather thong and covered by the Stetson that sat behind his head. He had the healthy, tanned look of someone who spent a lot of time outdoors. She knew instinctively that he was a good man and shook his hand. The little sizzle of feeling that travelled up her arm from his touch was so noticeable that she thought it might be visible for anyone to see. He rubbed his own arm as their hands parted as if he had felt it too.
“Mattie says that your man, Marty, was friendly with that Will O’Brien who went off with his girlfriend.” Earle nodded and listened as she finished the story of Emmie’s cousin.
“Sorry, Emmie,” he said. “Yes, Marty knew Will, and I warned him off playing poker with the man. He was always in some sort of trouble. He never knew where they went because they just left suddenly one day without speaking to anyone.”
“Thanks anyway,” Emmie told him. “I guess I’ll stay here tonight and try to decide what to do.”
“Why did you leave where you were?” he asked, and Emmie found herself telling this stranger what she had never mentioned to anyone else.
“My dad lost a leg, but he trained as a shoe repairer, and I looked after him. My mom was already passed. Before he died, he told me to sell everything and make a new start. Mary Rose was the only other family we knew about.” She paused. “I was working in a factory, but the owner said that I ruined a whole lot of wool and fired me. I hadn’t done anything to the wool, but he fired me anyway. I sold up like Dad said and came to Carlton Junction.” She didn’t add that the revolting man had made overtures to her that she hated, and he fired her because she refused to cooperate.
“To find her cousin gone,” Myrtle added.
“Good to meet you. I hope things work out,” Earle told her and watched as Myrtle took Emmie away. Earle Barnet was a master of training horses and had an instinctive feel for panic and distress. He could feel it from Emmie as surely as if she had it written on her forehead. Then he went to find something to eat. He had finished eating when Emmie came to clear away his dishes, and she went around the room picking up glasses to be washed as well. He picked up his drink and then saw that the group beside the poker table was giving her a hard time.
He was about to stand and interfere when Myrtle stormed over and told them to behave themselves.
“Emmie is doing me a favour here, and you had better all behave, or you will be playing poker on the street,” she told them, and they settled back down, but the man from the stagecoach left the game and made his way to Emmie. Earle watched from his seat at the table and then saw Emmie push the man’s hand away and pick up the tray of glasses she was carrying.
“If you are new here, mister, that is not how we treat women in Carlton Junction.” Earle said it mildly, but there was steel underneath the quiet voice. Emmie gave him a half smile, but the man flicked his long coat to one side and displayed a handgun.
“Giving me the eye all the way here on the coach,” he said. “Now she pushes me away. You want to make an issue of it, cowboy?”
“I did no such thing,” Emmie protested. Myrtle appeared out of nowhere and stood between the two men.
“Out of here, gambling man. This is my place, and trouble gets booted out the door.” She took hold of his coat lapels, ignored the fact that he had a gun, and dragged him to the door where she pushed him out, and he stumbled down the steps into the dusty road. Then she came back in.
“Thanks, Myrtle,” one of the poker players called over. “Terrible player.” The rest of the room chuckled and settled back down, but Emmie was shaking like a leaf.
“Everywhere I go, I cause problems,” she whispered. “I’ll clear these away and leave.”
Earle took her hand and pulled her into the kitchen.
“It’ll be okay. Take a minute to calm down.”
She shook her head. “It’s no good. I’ll just leave.” Earle looked at his aunt and back at Emmie whom he had pushed onto a chair in the kitchen. The cook had offered her a drink and told her not to worry about some daft gambler. His heart was telling him to help, but his head was telling him to walk away and leave Myrtle to sort things out.
“Look,” he found himself saying. “My ranch is very small and just starting, but we could use a cook and help around the place. Not much money but a safe place and a roof over your head.” Myrtle looked at her nephew. She knew he had problems of his own. She also knew that he had a good sixth sense and was the best darn horse trainer in the county. She trusted his instincts and told the girl that she could be sure that the ranch would be a safe place to stay.
Emmie looked from one to the other. She had travelled for days in the horrible bumpy stagecoach, found her cousin had gone, started to feel better, and then had this awful incident. It was just all too much, and she let the tears fall and the shakes start. Earle’s heart lurched for this girl stuck in a strange place on her own.
He dropped down beside her and told her that she would be doing him a favour if she came to help him out. She stopped crying and looked at their concerned faces.
“You are all good to me,” she whispered. “I’ve never been on a ranch. I won’t know what to do.”
“Folks are folks and need to eat just like anywhere else,” Myrtle told her.
“What do you say?” Earle asked, and she nodded.
When the food was cleared away, Earle told her to find her bags and gave his aunt a kiss on the cheek.
“You are a good boy,” she said.
The two of them helped with the bags to the door, and Earle took the bigger one to tie behind the saddle.
“Oh, I can’t ride a horse,” Emmie cried out in panic. The animal looked enormous. Earle told her that the horse was called Jake, and he was well trained and well behaved.
“I’ll lift you on board and ride behind you. You won’t fall. I promise.” He gave her a slow smile that had melted the hearts of many a young woman and told her to hold the smaller bag herself. She took her courage in both hands and nodded. He picked her up and settled her on Jake as if she weighed no more than paper, and then he eased himself into the saddle behind her and put one arm around her waist.
“You okay?” he asked into the back of her head and felt that she was still shaking like a leaf. She nodded without saying anything, and he added, “Here we go.” Jake walked sedately down the main street. As they went along, Earle pointed out the church, the doctor’s house, and one or two other landmarks. He kept up a steady stream of conversation about the mountains in the distance and the land they were moving towards.
In the end, he felt her relax very slightly, and she leaned against him. The warmth and strength of the man could be felt as she settled into the rhythm of the stallion’s pace. It was the best feeling she had felt for some time.
“You okay now?” he asked, and she answered shakily that she was fine. He told her that it was a few miles to his new ranch and explained about trying to start up a place of his own. In the end, the steady sound of his voice had the desired effect, and she asked how long he had been at the ranch.
“Two years,” he answered. “The best way to make it pay is to run cattle, but I really want to breed and train horses.” He sighed, and she felt the strain in his body. “I train them for other people to make some extra money.”
“I am a bit frightened of animals,” she confessed, and he laughed.
“You don’t need to go near them on the ranch if you don’t want to. What about dogs?”
She smiled, and he felt the change in her attitude. “I like dogs. We used to have one when I was growing up.” That was a relief he thought and wondered how she would take to being mobbed by his big floppy slobbering Monty.
“I have a dog called Monty. He will leap all over you with his big sloppy tongue. He just loves people, loves eating, and loves lying on the sofa.”
He asked about her life in the city and understood that her childhood had been a good one, but after her mother died, the burden of helping her dad fell onto her shoulders.
“I was happy to do it,” she added, “but apart from two good friends, I never really did anything except housework and cooking.”
Earle made a note to himself that she should not be put in the same situation again. He would tell the hands not to expect her to be at everybody’s beck and call. They talked and talked for all the miles of the journey, and he thought how easy that was to do once she was happy and not afraid. He had kept his arm firmly around her waist and could not deny that it was a pleasure. She had held onto the arm with one hand, and that slight sizzling sensation trickled through his system like a shiver in the leaves of a tree.
The gates were ahead of them, and he said that she was welcome to his very small ranch. He rode up to the house, dismounted, and held out his arms to lift her down. As she touched the ground, a brown, shaggy, floppy dog came hurtling from the veranda and threw himself at Earle’s chest. He caught the dog mid-air and put him down with a stern ‘sit’.
“Meet Emmie,” he told the dog, and Monty leaped up to put his paws on her shoulders and give her a licky welcome.
“Hello Monty,” she said and gave the dog a genuine and spontaneous hug. Earle knew that she was going to be alright. Anyone who could withstand a Monty welcome and not push him away was alright in his eyes.
“The house was here when I inherited the land, but I have added some parts to it myself.” He showed her the living room and kitchen and told her that the spare bedroom was hers. Monty raced back and forth into all of the rooms.
“There are a couple of rooms attached to the cookhouse, and if you would like your own place, we could use those.”
She laughed for the first time since he had met her, and it seemed to him that the sun suddenly shone in the room.
“You might not like my cooking. Wait and see how I do,” she said.
“Come and meet the men who work here. None of them will do you any harm.” He led the way, and she followed across to the bunkhouse where the men lived. Monty lolloped alongside. It was next to the cookhouse, and he showed her that first of all. Then he opened the door to where the men were sitting around after a day out on the plains.
There was a short, amazed silence as Earle smiled and introduced Emmie Star.
“She is our new cook.” Another amazed second of silence, and then they all whooped at once and jumped up to come and shake hands.
“No more of Marty’s attempts at stew, thank the Good Lord,” one man shouted, and the others laughed and made a few more remarks about the food they had been eating.
“They have been taking turns to make the dinner,” Earle explained. “And it has not always been – err– tasty.” He explained to the men about her being stuck in Carlton, and why she had taken the job. Then she was introduced to all of them.
“Sam is the foreman and has the small cabin for himself. Marty, Carlos, Joe, and Windy live in here.” Joe was an older man and touched the tip of an imaginary hat to her.
“Welcome,” he said. “And much needed.” Marty and Windy were about her own age, and Carlos along with Sam were about the same age as Earle himself. That was late twenties or thirty she was thinking.
“Windy went and poured two coffees from the pot ever brewing on the stove and handed it to Emmie and Earle.
“To our new staff member,” he said and raised his own cup.
“Come and sit for a while, and we’ll talk about what we do,” Earle invited, and before long, Emmie realised that she had indeed become one of the crew and was happily asking and answering questions along with the rest.
“When do you need breakfast?” was one of her questions, and eventually, the meeting broke up, and she saw that Sam went off to a small cabin near the gateway. Earle left her to unpack her belongings and put Jake in the stable with some hay. Then he called to speak to Sam.
“She’s had a rotten time and was shaking like a leaf in Aunt Myrtle’s. Tell the men to watch out for her.” Sam agreed and told him that the fences had been breached again that day, but no stock had escaped.
“Ye gods,” Earle replied. “Why can folk not just mind their own business?” He went back to his house to find Emmie had moved her things and was checking out the kitchen.
“New start tomorrow, Emmie Star,” he said. “Good to have you as part of the crew.” She smiled and lit up the room for him again and said that she would leave him in peace and go to her bed.
“It has been a very long day,” she said. “Thank you for riding to my rescue.” It was said so simply and sincerely that it almost took his breath away.
“I hope it works out for you. A new life on a ranch. What a change for a city girl,” he smiled, and she thought how right he was as she slipped into bed in her new home. The image of those gentle eyes in her mind sent her into the first peaceful sleep she had enjoyed for a very long time.
The fingers of dawn crept into the room, and she had to think where on earth she was for a second or two. Then she made herself ready and set off for the cookhouse. By the time the first of the men appeared, she had bacon sizzling on the skillet, and there were plenty of eggs. It was a happy crew that ate well and set off to start work. She promised them sourdough biscuits for the next morning and started to hunt through the kitchen for whatever was needed for later in the day.
It seemed that there were plenty of supplies, and she made pies for later in the day. She kneaded some bread and left it to rise beside the stove and then moved things around in the kitchen to make it easier to move about. She was humming a little tune as she kneaded the bread dough ready to bake when Earle popped his head in the door to check she was managing. Monty slid inside as well, and she found him a scrap of bacon from the breakfast.
“The way to a dog’s heart.” Earle laughed. “He’ll never be away from the door. Is everything here that you need?”
“Thank you, yes. I enjoy baking bread for some reason.” He took a cup of coffee for himself and sat on a chair to watch her work. The sight of this woman in the kitchen was a big relief. It was one of his problems answered. The men were good on the range but struggled to cook and clean.
“Can you milk a goat or a cow?” he asked her and saw the panic flare up immediately in her eyes. He threw his hands up. “Don’t worry.” He laughed. “I can see the answer.”
She slid the flat tray with the bread into the stove and closed the door.
“Would you like to see what we have on the place?” he asked, and she nodded.
“I looked at the two rooms in the cookhouse,” she said. “Maybe I can gradually make them into a sort of place to stay.”
“Come on. Have the grand guided tour.” With Monty bouncing alongside, he showed her the barns, stables, corrals and pointed out the cabin that the foreman used.
“We should grow more hay and oats for winter feed, but we can only cope with so much,” he said and pointed in the distance to where she assumed the crops were growing.
“Beyond that is where the cattle graze.”
“Do you grow vegetables?” she asked and told him that she had grown some in her dad’s yard for using in the house. He said that vegetables were just a luxury and not something he could not spare time for.
“I might try some once I settle in,” she offered. “I like growing things.”
“That would be a huge bonus, but I don’t want you to do too much.”
The two nanny goats were on tethers outside of the barn, and he took one and led it inside.
“You don’t need to do this straight away, but it is fairly easy.”
She came and stroked the goat’s neck. “I never met a goat before.” She smiled, and he sat on a little stool and showed her how to milk one. “I think the goats will be fine. They are a bit like big dogs,” she added but moved around the other side as a chicken came pecking at the ground beside her. “Not sure about the chickens.”
He handed her the bucket of milk and shooed the hens away.
“Windy is good at collecting eggs. He can keep on doing that for you.”
“Capturing a Cowboy’s Heart” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
When Emmie Star leaves the city to find a new life in cattle country with her only living relative, she is left stranded, scared and alone.
Earle Barnet is a superb horse trainer but slow to anger and fight. Can Earle, with his own troubles in running a small ranch, find it in his heart to help?
He is as blonde as she is dark haired, literally and figuratively. Will their opposite characters and backgrounds help each other out in ways they could never have imagined, or will they make them clash and get into conflict?
Despite the way they meet, who will save who and, most importantly, will they fall in love?