The sun was beating down on the dry and dusty land of Wyoming, where hills sprung up and trundled down in a cascading landscape. The wind swirled up the scent of pine and the bitterness of the dust, carrying it across the state and into the small town of Caister. There was nothing unusual about this cluster of roads that formed the place that a small community called home. Nothing about it seemed out of the ordinary; it was another farming town in a cluster of farming towns, where each small ranch competed with the next in order to make ends meet.
One specific farm belonged to the Fishers, a quaint farmhouse surrounded by a modest yard and further fields. Sierra Fisher worked tirelessly on said farm, tending to the various livestock and to the crops, too. Her back ached from the way she’d been bent over for a large portion of the day.
Autumn was chasing after summer with a hurried pace, bringing along harvest with it. Sierra had decided to take up the job of the crops that day—her brother usually the one to handle the animals and heavy lifting. She didn’t mind too much that John was the one to tackle the main tasks. Ever since their father had fallen ill, the pressure had been on both of them to get the work done. Nevertheless, there always seemed to be something to do.
Sierra pushed the flyaway strands of hair that had fallen out of her makeshift style. Brown curls fell into her vision persistently, causing her to huff in annoyance. She continued to work harder at the ground around her, pushing the dry soil around to check for any weeds that might disrupt the process of preparing for harvest. She knew the last thing they needed was another bad harvest, it would only hurt the farm more. With her father so ill, Sierra shuddered, despite the heat, at the thought of anything else going wrong.
The sweat trickled down her back and made her almost thankful for the fact that she wasn’t trying to impress anyone at that moment. Sierra had always been a hard worker. No matter who was around, she always tried to do the best she could. Especially when it came to competition with men—whatever she turned her hand to, not only would she have to do it well, she would have to do it better than any man to get recognition. Even in this heat, she carried on plowing through the earth until she felt as though her job had been done to a high enough standard.
She tried her hardest to get through the work before the sun began to slip down the sky. It was always a measure of time when it came to the various tasks that needed completing, especially now that they were down a few ranch hands, too.
Another blow to the farm had come in the form of money, something that dominated the land and all that lived there. Her father had quickly realized that by cutting the costs of having so many ranch hands, he would be able to save up in case things took a turn for the worse over winter. Sierra had hated the idea even before she knew who was going to be cut. Of course, John had told her to simply get over it and get on with the jobs that were in dire need of attending to.
Their father had let go of two ranch hands. One was a girl that Sierra hadn’t been too close with; however, the other had been a man called Thomas. As she pushed at the dirt on the ground, Sierra found herself wishing that his wit was there to accompany her. He had always been a good company, with a similar work ethic, and the two of them had often powered through their chores together. Smiling was infectious, and Thomas seemed to supplement Sierra’s energy levels more than any amount of food or rest. He had picked her up whenever she felt down and was always there as somebody that would actually listen to her when she had something to say. John tended to look down on her, as though he was envious of the fact that she was older and given a lot more responsibility by their father than a woman should typically be taking on.
By the end of the day, Sierra was craving the feeling of a chair to take the weight off of her aching legs. It was a luxury that was on the other side of the yard, but the journey was worth it. A long sigh left her lips as she sat down, relaxing back into the rigid chair, something in which she never thought she’d be finding a comfort.
“Are you done for the day?” John asked as he appeared at the bottom of the stairs.
“Yes, I’ve been out there for the entire day.” Sierra laughed lightly, smiling at her brother as she knew what he was after. “Don’t worry, I’ll get onto making dinner in a minute.”
“I wasn’t worrying. Although I do worry about how hard you work, it’s not good for you to be doing so much of the manly labor.” There was the hint of jest in his voice, but his face was set hard with real concern.
“I’m fine, honestly. I much prefer it to sitting around in here all day.”
“I know that I’d rather be out there more,” John grumbled.
“Well, I don’t think Father’s going to get well if he’s not being looked after.”
“That shouldn’t be my job, though.” John’s response was rather cutting. There was a meaning behind what he’d said. Sierra knew he also hated to be idle, that looking after the sick wasn’t something John could do for long periods of time as he simply didn’t have the patience.
“You’re talking about our father, remember,” she warned him.
“Why don’t you tend to him, then? See if you can make any real difference. He’s getting worse, Sierra, and I don’t think he’s going to recover so easily.”
His words were a cold blow to an already fragile situation. Sierra had known, though. She’d caught glimpses of the true extent of her father’s illness, no matter how much she’d tried to deny it to herself. The truth was that it was going to be a steep road to recovery.
Sierra hadn’t even realized it until that moment. But she had been preparing herself for the worst.
Dark thoughts had been kept at bay by the constant chores that demanded doing. They had been ignored for so long they were festering, growing inside of her mind like a dark plague.
Sierra bit her bottom lip as a look of regret came over John’s face; every ounce of hindsight clearly telling him that he shouldn’t have been so blunt. Although a heavy sense of helplessness was already starting to sink in, Sierra knew there was no point in giving up so soon. Not whilst her father still had breath in his lungs.
“I’ll look after him from tomorrow, to give you a break. I know that sort of thing can be exhausting.” Her voice was suddenly so small that it almost sounded hollow.
“You don’t have to…”
“I want to.” Sierra nodded with pursed lips. “He needs all the help he can get, but the farm needs you, too.”
“We should never have gotten rid of Sarah and Thomas.”
Sierra felt her heart flutter at the name but remained calm instead of reacting. “No… we shouldn’t have.”
The next day, Sierra watched from the window as her brother got to work outside. It was strange to be observing from afar, especially when they had always worked together. She then turned to look at the pale man lying in the bed. He looked as though he had shrunk into himself. Every ounce of his body’s energy was going into fighting off this illness.
“S-sierra?” Her name came from parched lips.
“I’m here, Father, don’t worry.”
My sweet girl.” He smiled as though her reassurance had been the best news he’d heard in years. Sierra found that her father’s smile was infectious, spreading onto her own lips, pulling them upwards.
“You’ll stay with me, won’t you?” he asked.
Of course,” she assured him, “that’s why I’m here.”
“Good,” he breathed, settling back into the pillow.
“Do you need anything?” Sierra asked in anticipation, biting her lip as she looked at the frail man before her.
He paused for a while, as though pondering the question—considering his options and valuing each breath so as not to waste his fading voice on hesitations or indecision.
“I need to tell you something,” he said, finally. His face seemed to be turning a new shade of grey before her very eyes, and Sierra could feel her heart rate quickening.
A panic settled deep into her chest like strong tree roots. She couldn’t respond to him, no sound able to escape her tight throat as her attention was now fully fixed on her father. She bit her lip again and nodded to him, imploring him to continue.
“Come, sit.” He patted the space on the bed next to him. It felt like he was delaying what he wanted to say, as though something terrible and awful was on the horizon.
Nevertheless, Sierra perched down on the hard bed, aware of how much weight this illness had robbed from her father. Sunken cheeks forced cracked lips up into another smile, soft eyes filled with pain were fixated on her.
“I know that you feel obliged to work here, to keep this place going. But don’t ever forget that happiness must always come first.”
“I am happy,” she replied, although it was clear that her father didn’t seem to believe her.
“You know what I mean, honey. I don’t want you to be upset when you look back on your life. I know there are so many things I wish I’d got around to doing,” he confessed with a weary sigh.
“Father, you’re going to recover soon, and then we can do those things,” Sierra offered, trying to fill the deflating air with warm hope.
“I know…” His voice trailed off again as his eyes drooped. Sierra had the odd feeling that it was beginning to feel like he was trying to say goodbye. The thought was inconceivable to her and she stared at him in disbelief—it was the last thing in the world that she would have expected to happen that day when she had awoken from sleep that morning.
She craved the ignorance of sleep at that moment.
“I just wanted to remind you of something,” he continued. “You won’t remember, but when you were younger, I would tell you stories of a chest.”
Sierra wasn’t sure why he had chosen such a precious moment to talk about this. Perhaps there was something wrong with his medication that was causing him to say these things. “Father…”
“It’s real. The chest is real, and believe me when I tell you that it will bring you happiness,” he continued, while Sierra listened and watched with wide eyes.
She knew there was nothing she could do to help him; all she could do was listen to his ramblings about being happy in life and not regretting any of it. The parts about the chest seemed to be particularly important to him, as though they held some kind of significance far more than the impression she’d gotten from way that he was talking.
She felt awful, watching the unraveling of George Fisher. A man that had always been so kind, a father that had been loving, and a ranch owner that had once been successful.
Sierra could hear ranch hands outside, going about their daily business, oblivious to the despair going on in that room. She wished more than anything that there was some way she could call for help—not from the ranch hands, but from time itself. To push those hands around in reverse and claw back minutes, perhaps even seconds, of their lives so that she could be with her father for just a while longer.
“My time here is almost over,” he continued in a strained voice. “I want you to not regret a moment of it, to be able to simply smile and think about all that you did. I want you to find happiness, to excel in a way that nobody else understands. That’s what’s in the chest—the key to your happiness.”
“Father, I don’t understand.” There was no stopping her sorrow now. Tears fell like a flashing rain that the dry land outside was beginning to crave.
“You will,” he sighed, a small smile coming onto his face. “You will.”
His last breaths were brief, so quiet that one might not even know they had occurred. Sierra tried to swallow the lump in her throat but succeeded only in choking on her own sadness.
“John!” Her voice was a scream in the silence, shattering through the dead air. “John!”
Unbeknownst to Sierra, her brother had gone into town to get some supplies. She rushed to the window and looked out, eyes scanning the yard in search of him. Nothing. Panic welled up in her chest. Her father was gone, the light had faded from his eyes.
She ran down the stairs and out into the heat of the day, and the commotion thankfully gained the attention of some of the nearby ranch hands. Sierra knew there was no way she’d be able to do this on her own, so she was incredibly thankful when they began to help her.
A doctor was called by one. Another went after John, running out of sight until they were another dot on the horizon. Some stayed with Sierra to comfort her. And the last simply got on with the tasks that weren’t going to complete themselves around the ranch.
The rest of the day was a blur for Sierra—and one that she wanted more than anything to forget.
Worse still than the initial incident was what followed. A sickening grey silence hung over the entire ranch. A smile seemed like the furthest and most foreign concept. Sierra felt herself slowly sinking into a way of life that wasn’t at all healthy or practical. She could no longer cry about what had happened, her body’s only mechanism of coping being to stay numb to it all. Despite the constant heat from outside, the ranch felt cold. Always.
Everything reminded her of her father; the low mumble on the wind was his voice, the smell of pine had adhered to his many years of experience working outside in the yard. Sierra couldn’t escape it, but she also felt as though she couldn’t get through to John.
He would shut himself up in his room, complete even less of his chores than he had done beforehand. Sierra had taken the opposite approach by doing more than she used to, distracting her mind from the grief that she was going through.
The ranch was silent that morning, four days after the passing of their father. Sierra got up early. Sleep was no longer so easy for her, it came in bouts that were never long enough. Nevertheless, she carried on, knowing that the finances of the ranch weren’t going to improve without hard work. Sierra wasn’t sure if she would ever be able to fully recover from the blow of losing her father, but she knew what the world was like. She understood that life went on, and it would not wait for the stragglers who were struggling to keep up, no matter what they were going through.
It was a harsh reality to face, one without the comfort and warmth that a parental figure could offer. Sierra had begun to realize that there were certain times to mourn, and certain times to get on with what the day required of her.
She worked all morning out in the yard, sweating and aching every time she moved. A figure moving toward her came slowly into focus, her long skirt majestic in the oncoming wind. A flurry of blonde hair was thrown back in a natural dance.
Sierra knew exactly who it was before the woman was upon her.
Ana Ware. She had been seeing John for some time now, their relationship having blossomed seemingly out of nowhere. However, it was inevitable once they had met one another in the town—it had been clear since day one that there was much chemistry between them. Sierra could tolerate Ana, although the petite girl had never been terribly warm to her. Their conversations were minimal, and in that moment of suppressing her grief, Ana was one of the last people that Sierra wanted to see. Although she knew it would do John some good to have the comfort of his sweetheart around, Sierra couldn’t face putting on a brave face to greet their unannounced new guest.
“Afternoon.” Ana nodded to her with a small smile, and Sierra was suddenly caught off-guard as she realized that she’d been working for much longer than she had anticipated. “Sierra, I just wanted to say how sorry I am about—”
The curt response told Ana exactly how she was feeling. She didn’t want to have to explain herself any more than she had to. Besides, Sierra anticipated that Ana just wanted to go and see John, anyway.
“Right… is John inside?” Ana got straight to the point, and Sierra couldn’t say that she blamed her.
“In his room.”
The awkward encounter was quickly over, and Ana turned to leave in a flurry of hair and skirts.
There was nothing Sierra wanted more at that moment than to continue on with her work—there was a farm to take care of that wasn’t going to run itself. However, Sierra couldn’t deny that she felt as though there was something missing in her life even more now. But there was never any time to pursue something.
In the past, Sierra might have scoffed and chuckled to herself at the idea of going out to find someone to love. However, at that moment, the empty silence of the ranch made her realize just how alone she was. There was nobody coming to comfort her, nobody there to help her get through it. Sierra pushed back the thoughts, aware that they were causing tears to surface in her vision. She was stubborn when it came to her emotions—even when there was nobody around to see, she tried to contain herself. It may not have been the healthiest endeavor, however, it was the only way that she could cope without completely losing control.
Although she was only three years older than John, Sierra had always felt like more of a mother figure to him than a sister, especially since their mother had passed during his birth. Sierra had taken on a role with maternal instincts, one that she couldn’t help but slot into almost seamlessly. Yet now that there was nobody else to take care of them, she felt a sense of duty more than anything.
She would have to have the willpower and stamina of her father when it came to running the ranch, and the tenderness of her mother when it came to trying to help John recover from this loss.
Ana left before the sun began to set, aware of the dangers of wandering around town at night.
Even for a small town, there were certain things that women knew to avoid, one of those being walking alone after dark.
The brief goodbye that she had given to Sierra seemed rather cautious, as though Ana had been terrified of how Sierra would react to the sound of another person’s voice. Sierra had shrugged this off, not wanting to appear offended by every little thing.
She finished up for the day, thanking the various ranch hands for their hard work in keeping everything moving. Sierra then braced herself, wishing more than anything that she had asked Ana on her way out what kind of state her brother was in. She wanted to be prepared for how John was going to be.
Sierra bit her lip as she walked into the house, apprehensive as to how John might be and what state he was in. At night she could hear him crying, although there was never any expression of this emotion when he was in front of his sister. Her heart ached for the way that he was suffering, it was almost like a double blow.
“Hm?” He was sitting on the bed in his room, simply staring at the floor at his feet.
“Are you all right?” Sierra knew that it was the kind of question that would cause him to scoff. Of course, he wasn’t all right. It felt like neither of them ever would be again.
“It was nice of Ana to come over,” Sierra said with a small smile as she stood in the doorway.
“She’s doing her best,” John sighed, the most emotion that he had shown throughout their brief conversation.
“Listen, I know that you probably don’t want to, but we’re going to need to sit down and talk about how we’re going to keep this place going.” Sierra decided there was no point in skirting around the issue. It was clear there were going to be some changes needed.
“I was thinking about this, too.” He nodded. “I think we’re going to need more help, even if that means dipping into our reserves a little bit.”
“You mean… hire more help?” Sierra didn’t see how this would help their financial situation.
“I know, it sounds crazy. But we need that initial help. That might mean we dip slightly, but it will also mean that in the long run, we won’t get stuck in a rut. We have a real chance of getting things back on track, but it’s going to take a little risk.” John’s sudden proposition was a complete contradiction to the way that he had been talking to her earlier.
“I just don’t think that this is the right time to hire more help,” Sierra sighed, rubbing her tired eyes with aching limbs.
“I think it is. It will take the strain off of us a little more.”
“It’s not a strain, it’s what we’ve been doing our entire lives.”
“Sierra, look at you. You can’t just bury this in a mountain of work, it’ll become too much for you in the end,” John warned. His features were set hard and it was clear that he wasn’t amused by her lack of enthusiasm. “We need help, no matter what you say. We need to have some extra hands around here.”
“How are we going to get help? People know about our situation, nobody’s going to want to get a job here when they don’t know how stable that income is going to be in the months to come… What if we have a bad harvest?”
“Then we’ll get through it together.”
Sierra couldn’t help but see some of the old John in the man that was sitting in front of her. Especially when he said this. He was being practical, and it was the biggest reassurance she had received since the passing of their father.
“But who will we hire?” she pressed, frowning deeply at him.
Sierra knew that it wasn’t the right moment, but her heart fluttered in her chest. There was something about the prospect of having the comfort of an old friend around during a crisis that made the idea incredibly appealing. She knew there was no way she could protest about enlisting him again.
“We can try,” Sierra spoke eventually, trying to get ahold of herself.
“He’ll want to help; he’s already reached out since…”
Yet John was unable to finish this line. Sierra couldn’t blame him; she knew that she wouldn’t be able to, either. They sat in a slightly more comfortable silence now, reflecting on how their entire world had completely flipped in the course of less than a week. Sierra thought long and hard about how things would really work, hiring more staff.
They would have to cut back on basic things like food and getting supplies in, but it could work.
“Will you contact him?” Sierra questioned her brother.
“I’ll do it tomorrow?”
“Perfect. Now, do you want your dinner soon?”
“That would be great.” John managed the slightest smile, shocking his sister as she wasn’t sure that real smiles still existed.
This was the first time since their father’s death that they were properly talking, talking as though there was a light at the end of the tunnel. It was evident that they were both coming to terms with the fact that life was going to continue on, no matter their situation.
Sierra left her brother alone, knowing that they had made some progress but that things were going to have to improve even more. She headed into the kitchen, feeling a lot lighter than she had done when she’d first entered the old house.
Although every muscle in her body was telling her to sit down and rest, she knew her main job was always to prepare dinner for the evening. It seemed it was the one thing that John would always refuse to do, no matter what. Nevertheless, as always, Sierra got on with the task at hand.
Tom Roger stood at the edge of the farm, looking over the strangely silent place. He’d practically grown up on this land, yet looking at it now, it appeared a ghost of the place that he remembered.
Pushing a hand through sandy blonde hair, he let out a deep sigh, knowing that the situation he was about to walk into wasn’t ideal. However, he wanted to be there for the family, even if that meant working for them again—though Tom couldn’t deny that he felt awful being paid by them during this time.
He stepped forward, boots crunching on dry ground as he tipped the brim of his hat down. The sun was already getting stronger with its heat, and Tom could feel it through the thin cotton of his white shirt.
“Thank you for coming.” John nodded to him as they met halfway across the yard.
“It’s my pleasure. You remember how upset I was when your father let me go. I always said you can call on me if I’m ever needed again and I’ll come help. Well, here I am.” He nodded to the haggard-looking Fisher. Tom felt slightly strange to be looking at the new male heir to the rather modest Fisher estate.
“It really means a lot, I know that my sister has missed you, too.” John nodded and then gestured for him to come further onto the property.
However, Tom was still hung up on John’s words about Sierra. There had been something between them when he’d left, but he’d had to travel far out of town to find work after being let go, meaning that he wasn’t around to explore what it was. They had been friends for as long as they could both remember; however, it was clear something more had begun to develop.
Tom swallowed thickly as he walked into the old farmhouse, hit by a plethora of memories from years gone by. He felt sick when he thought about the fact that there was no longer a George Fisher to answer to, that he hadn’t been able to say goodbye to a man that had been like a father to him.
He couldn’t imagine what John and Sierra were going through. All he knew was that he could try and take some of the strain off of them by helping out on the farm.
The voice stopped him dead in his tracks, and he turned to see Sierra standing in the doorway of the kitchen.
“It’s good to have you back,” she said with a soft smile on her face.
“It’s good to be back.” He nodded to her, moving forward to embrace her in a strong hug. She was thinner than he remembered, and the bags under her eyes told him that she wasn’t coping well with the news. He could only hope to change her fate slightly.
“I just wish it was under better circumstances,” Sierra remarked, her voice almost failing her.
“I know, but I’m here now. I’m going to help out as much as I can.”
Tom was also excited to reunite with the other ranch hands, people that he had once known and had a close bond with. He was glad the Fisher siblings hadn’t been completely alone during this time.
“You happy to be back in Caister?” Sierra questioned as he put his bag down.
“It’s certainly different. I went all the way down to Cheyenne and saw what it’s like in the bigger towns. But this place will always be home.” Tom smiled down at her.
It looked as though Sierra hadn’t smiled in a while; her face had forgotten how to form the expression and was constantly pulled down into a muted sort of frown.
Tom hadn’t realized just how much he’d missed Sierra and being around her and her family. At least, not until he was there with them.
“Right, let me go put my things away, and then I feel as though we need a catch-up before getting to work,” Tom declared with a smile on his face.
“Of course, I’ll show you to your room.”
Sierra seemed unable to reciprocate his positivity, all happiness had been sapped from her body and taken away on a tidal wave of pain. Tom could only wish that he’d been there when it had happened, to have been there for the both of them. Although he was sure Ana would have been good to John, their romance had always been clear to anyone that saw it. Tom was glad John had someone in his life to ease the pain slightly.
After settling back into life on the Fisher farm rather easily, Tom went down to see what work needed doing. But he quickly realized that it would be easier to list what didn’t need doing.
Tom knew George had always been good at running the farm, yet he hadn’t known just how difficult it would be for his children to manage everything once he was gone. Sierra was busy inside going through some paperwork with John—although it was mainly her brother’s job, she still wanted to be involved. The process of transferring everything to their possession was proving more difficult than either of them had first thought.
Tom got to work in the yard, continuing on from what John had been doing before he had resigned to go and pour over the paperwork. Tom knew that if it had been him faced with that much paperwork to complete, he wouldn’t have been able to go through with it whilst the wound of losing a loved one was so fresh.
He worked tirelessly for the remainder of the day, aware that they were against the clock to keep up with the work in time for the coming harvest. Tom was surprised at how well he slotted back into life at the Fisher farm, it felt almost like he had never left.
“You’re back so soon,” one of the other ranch hands remarked with a slight smirk.
“What can I say? I wanted to go and explore the world, but the work always pulls me back,” Tom chuckled with a shrug. It was true that he’d had a taste of the bigger world beyond the boundaries of Caister, but ultimately, he felt happier being around familiar people. They were the family he was able to pick, and that was a luxury that he knew didn’t come around for everyone.
Tom smiled to himself as he tended to a repair in the fencing that contained the livestock on the farm. The heat was causing things to go wrong, things that they couldn’t afford to go wrong.
Tom wasn’t sure if his feeble attempts to restore the barrier would hold for long—he was sure it wasn’t the last encounter he was going to have with the fence over that season.
“The Key to Her Heart’s lock” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
The last enigmatic words of her belated father have left Sierra Fisher completely puzzled. While the family’s ranch is falling apart she has too many loose threads to deal with all at once. The moment she feels like drowning, an ally will come to her rescue. Sierra has no idea what role Thomas will play in her life as of now. Would she be willing to sacrifice her own happiness and freedom in order to rescue her family’s ranch? Will she manage to decipher her father’s riddle and find the long-awaited answer?
Thomas Roger has been an apprentice ranch hand at the Fisher’s ranch since he was a boy. His dire financial situation had made him leave a while ago, but he now returns with an ace up his sleeve. Going back to the ranch and being around Sierra, his hidden feelings will resurface. Will he be brave enough to accept them and stand up for her through this difficult period? Will he decipher the secret messages and get to the bottom of his own mystery?
Sierra and Thomas will come closer following clues of a treasure hunt. Treacherous people, however, keep surrounding them, making their life even more challenging. While the discovery of the treasure gets more and more complicated, will they listen to their hearts and find their way to happiness? Are they too focused on the target to think clearly? With people in town ready to pounce on the vulnerable state of the farm, will they stay strong and ride out the difficulties?
“The Key to Her Heart’s lock” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.