When she looked at him for the first time, he was scared and unwilling to fall in love again. Now, how much should they risk to be together?
Miranda’s life has been marked by tragedy. Widowed at a young age, she had to learn how fend for her son all alone and how to settle her husband’s debts. Therefore, she has been working her fingers to the bone as the saloon’s bartender. When she comes closer with the town’s new blacksmith, she feels her heart ready to explode with emotions. How will she trust this silent man with her son when she is still not sure how can she move forward?
Hanson hasn’t managed to get over his guilt for his wife’s death. Stoic and distant, he prefers keeping to himself even if he visits the saloon every afternoon for one glass of whiskey as a tribute to his late wife. Miranda and her son, however, will remind him that love, and dedication are the two values missing from his life. How can he listen to his heart’s needs and stay with this family, when he’s simply too scared to let go of the past?
Miranda and Hanson are two sides of the same coin. Their need to love again and create a family will guide them amidst all obstacles. How can they put aside the past and fight for their present happiness when their hearts still ache?
The scent of the whiskey stung Miranda’s nose and brought back all the memories of her dead husband in an instant. It was like a tidal wave on one of the coastlines she had always dreamt of visiting, cascading over her and completely submerging her in the murky waters of her past. This happened every time she walked into the saloon and stood behind the counter to start her shift. It was inevitable every time she poured someone a drink. For her, it felt much like a curse, a consistent reminder of how her husband Martin had died all of two years ago. It was a sad fact of life, one that was just as present every day like the rising and setting sun. It was a part of her being that never seemed to subside—but it was one she had learned to live with.
Miranda drew a breath as she centered her mind on the tasks in front of her. The cacophony of noise coming from Clive Elmore’s table was like a pestering metronome she had learned to tune out in her two years of servitude in his father’s bar. She glanced at Clive, seated at a table to her left a few feet shy of the bar counter with three of his cohorts who only associated with him because his father, Dwight, was footing the bill. It was hard not to wince when she laid eyes on the poor excuse for a man: his excessive drinking and tobacco use had weathered his skin to the point that it was akin to that of a leather saddlebag. A bile-like hue coated his dark eyes as well as his teeth. His overall appearance was gaunt, one that was fueled by one meal a day and followed up swiftly with copious amounts of alcohol. He was thirty-three but one could easily mistake him for being forty-three. How much longer must I be in the company of such wretched men? her mind gibbered. Will the day ever come that I will finally break free of this place?
It was only a matter of saving. Saving, surviving, and making sure that her son, Simon, was as content as he could be until the day came that she could fulfill her dream. Well, fulfill once again, to be precise. The horse-breeding ranch she owned with her late husband had once been a reality, but that reality had turned into a faded memory the day Miranda was forced to sell the property to cover for the medicines and taxes that she could no longer afford on her own. She knew it was bold to have such lavish dreams on what she made—but she would never give up. Plus, her job paid double than it usually did, thanks to Clive’s infatuation with her, and it appeared he went to great lengths to make sure she couldn’t find employment elsewhere.
Miranda hung her head as she grabbed a cloth and began wiping down the bar counter. It was nearly impossible for her to stop her mind from wandering. Each minute since Martin’s death had felt like the continuation of an interminable day that never saw a sunset. She caught her reflection in the bottle of moonshine resting in the middle shelf. Though a few lines had managed to form in the corners of her eyes, her appearance was still as lively and beautiful as ever. She tucked a loose strand of her chestnut brown hair that framed her oval-shaped face behind her ear. Miranda was a woman who still attracted the attention of the men in town. But the amount of preying they did upon her turned her off to any kind of romantic interaction. The only man in her life that she cared to give any attention to was her son. The idea of love was a concept she simply did not have the time to indulge in. As far as she was concerned, it was her and Simon against the world.
“Hey!” Clive shouted through a smoke-choked tone. “Darlin’! Fetch me another bottle of that Kingman’s whiskey when you have a chance to walk those legs of yours over here.”
Miranda wanted to roll her eyes as Clive’s friends joined in with sycophantic laughter. If she had a nickel for every time Clive had noted her “hourglass frame,” she would have had enough money on hand to break free of the bar. But instead of insulting the son of the man who kept her employed, she forced a tight-lipped smile, nodded subtly, and said, “Yes, sir, Mister Elmore,” before turning her attention to the shelves behind her. She reached forward, gripped the long neck of the copper-colored bottle—and that’s when she caught the reflection of the swinging doors of the saloon opening behind her followed by the familiar silhouette of a broad-shouldered man that had frequented the saloon in the past year.
Miranda loosened her grip on the whiskey and turned around, puffing her chest and putting on the most professional display she could muster as Hanson walked inside. His focus was on nothing but the five inches of space in front of him. He was the epitome of a man that some would call “aloof.” Good-looking, certainly. Well-manicured, without question, despite the fact that he was the local blacksmith and should have bore the grizzled and hardened display that most associated with those who partook in the trade.
Hanson approached the counter and nodded without making eye contact with Miranda. It was hard for her to not notice his sinewy frame and close-set, jade green eyes that held a glimmer of some kind of sad history.. It must be six-o-clock, Miranda pondered. The man never misses his standing appointment. “Mister Buckley,” she said politely. “The usual, I take it?”
Hanson nodded again, still saying nothing. Miranda then set about fetching him two fingers worth of John Dean whiskey that she poured in a glass and delicately set in front of him. What is it about him? It’s as if he’s holding onto a secret that even he is afraid of confronting.
No one knew much of anything about Hanson. He had come into the town of Elmsboro just thirteen months ago and within one hour of his arrival into town had purchased Old Man Steel’s blacksmith shop on the spot after it had closed down following his death two months before. What was all the more curious was that he never seemed to ride or even get close to a horse. He walked everywhere he went and this lent itself to giving him a thinner frame with packed-on muscle from hours of striking a hammer against white-hot metal day-in and day-out.
Miranda cleared her throat, curious to hear at least a portion of the tale that was Hanson Buckley’s life story. “How are you, Mister Buckley?”
Hanson’s eyes were focused on the glass in front of him, his thumb tracing the rim. “Just another day, ma’am,” he replied in his gravelly timbre. “Just another day.”
“How’s the shop?”
The man looked up briefly from his drink. Miranda blushed slightly as she felt a quick, two-second appraisal being made of her appearance. “It’s…alright,” he said, as if the conversation was the first he had partaken in quite some time. “Busy.”
Miranda could sense the sideways glance that Clive was aiming in her direction, his impatient demeanor lingering thick in the air. Let him wait. “So,” she said, “I have to ask, how is it that a man like you who spends his days making horseshoes never seems to go near a horse? I’m always seeing you on foot around Elmsboro.”
The look that came on Hanson’s face was one that Miranda could only associate with shock and offense. She immediately wondered why she had asked such a silly question, and why it would incite a reaction like the one that was happening right in front of her.
“I’m sorry,” Miranda said. “It’s been a long day. I think I’m just holding out for some kind of a conversation that’s not about whiskey or beer.”
“No offense taken,” Hanson said, holding up his hand and forcing a smile. “I’ve had a long day myself.”
A genuine beam formed at the corners of Miranda’s mouth. That’s the most amount of words I think I’ve ever heard this man speak. “You know, my son seems to be drawn toward your line of work.”
Hanson furrowed his brow. “Is that so?”
Miranda nodded. “Every time we pass your shop, he’s infatuated by that fire that burns near your workbench. I just hope he doesn’t become one of those…” She turned her focus toward the ceiling, thinking, “What is the word?”
“Pyromaniac,” Hanson said.
“Is that what it’s called?”
Hanson took a sip of his whiskey. “Indeed, it is.”
“I don’t believe I’ve ever heard the term before.”
“It’s a fairly new term. It’s of Greek origin. Most people don’t know about it. Probably won’t for a while. Certain words don’t become common usage until about ten to twenty years after they’ve been established.”
Miranda had no reply. The way in which Hanson was speaking was clearly indicative of a man with a higher education. So, why in good heavens is he working at a blacksmith shop in Elmsboro?
Hanson continued sipping his drink as Miranda thought of a reply and stroked his lower lip with his thumb as his eyes once again focused on nothing in particular.
“Hey,” Clive called out from his table, his tone much more impatient than it was before. “Do I have to send a telegram to get that damned drink?”
A hint of a sigh escaped from Miranda’s lips. “Pardon me,” she bid to Hanson before turning around and fetching Clive’s brand of whiskey. She knew that Clive was already at the point where he was going to drink straight from the bottle. It was needless fetching him a glass to go along with it, so she walked over to the table, placed the bottle down, and said, “Can I get you anything else?”
A lecherous expression morphed onto Clive’s face. “As a matter of fact, yes,” he said as his hand slowly drifted and began grazing the lower part of her backside. “I want to know what a man like me has to do to get a fine young woman like yourself to say ‘yes’ to a marriage proposal.”
The disgust welling up inside Miranda was potent. Her skin felt like it was turning hot as she employed every bit of restraint inside of her to not smack his hand away. “I’m flattered,” she said, “but I have to get back to work, Mister Elmore.”
Miranda turned to head back to her spot behind the bar counter—but Clive swiftly grabbed her by the wrist and stopped her dead in her tracks. “Hang on there, missy,” he said, his voice dropping an octave and sending a sliver of a shiver up Miranda’s spine.
Miranda waited, her lips forming into a tight line. “Yes, Mister Elmore?”
Clive leveled his gaze on Miranda, appraising her from head-to-toe. “You do know I’m your boss, right?”
I know. And you remind me of it every second of every day. “I do, Mister Elmore.”
“Then being married to me would not be much different from the relationship we have now.”
One of the men to the left of him laughed. “You tell her, Clive.”
Clive quickly raised his hand and backhanded his friend, the sound of flesh on flesh echoing through the saloon. “Keep your mouth shut,” Clive said.
The man said nothing more.
The whole display put Miranda on edge—even though she had seen Clive do it before.
The notion of having any kind of relationship with Clive in any capacity made Miranda’s skin crawl. She didn’t know how to reply. Though she was not a vindictive person, part of her still hoped that the excessive amounts of alcohol Clive consumed would catch up to him sooner rather than later.
“Come on now,” Clive said, turning in his seat and taking Miranda by the hand. “I would make a fine suitor for you, Miss Heath. You and your boy will want for nothing.”
The future that Miranda saw playing out in front of her at the prospect of being with Clive was crystal clear: it would be like it was with Martin but with a kind of corrosive quality, the equivalent of throwing kerosene on a fire. Every day Clive will be drunk, abrasive, rude, and downright insulting. I would not be surprised if he raised a hand to Simon…
Miranda withdrew her hand at the thought. She’d had her fill of Clive for the day and wanted nothing more than for her shift to end. “I have to get back to work, Mister Elmore.”
She walked away, closing her eyes as she turned her back on him, smoothed the wrinkles in her pinstripe blouse, and went to stand behind the bar counter. Miranda could feel Clive’s eyes following her as she walked away, and the sounds of him sucking air through his teeth made her feel queasy once again. She looked toward the area where Hanson was sitting, hoping that he would say something or even offer her some kind of comforting glance—but he was gone, his whiskey glass overturned on the counter, and nothing but a pair of swinging doors at the entrance to the saloon signaling his recent exit.
Miranda sighed. I have no romantic interest in the man, she thought. But why am I hoping for his…approval, his…opinion? But she knew it didn’t matter. Once more, it was Simon and her against the world. All she needed to do was save, keep her head up, and look forward to the day where she could move far away from Elmsboro and live a peaceful life of ease and tranquility with her son. Fetching the rag that she had been using to wipe down the bar counter, Miranda tilted up her chin to greet a pair of cattle ranchers that had just walked inside, and told herself, “Just breathe, Miranda. Just breathe.”
Hanson entered his workshop and closed the large barn door that led inside. It was a small space, built in the same style as a barn on a ranch with dirt floors and every inch, from shingle to chair, made out of dark maple wood. He engaged the lock, making it a point to allow the metal on metal clink reverberate as loud as possible so that anyone in the nearby vicinity would know that he had closed up shop for the day. He stood in the center of his workplace, scanning the area around him and taking comfort in the silence that was just starting to settle. This was his shop. His home. He never bothered buying a property to lay his head. It reminded him that the home he once had with his wife was no longer a reality.
He approached the long wooden workbench positioned off to the left. The golden rays of sunlight were already creeping in through the only pair of fogged windows in the shop located at the back and slowly dimming as the sun began to set on yet another day filled with a diligent work ethic that kept him distracted from the heartbreak and pain known as his past.
He sat on a stool near the workbench, folding his hands in front of him as he debated fetching the flask of whiskey he had stuffed in a drawer—his deceased wife’s flask once belonging to her father, one they used to steal sips from every evening once the sun had set. It had been several months since he kept up his routine of drinking from the end of the workday into the wee hours of the morning, drowning the stream of dire thoughts and unpleasant memories that flowed freely and consistently like a river through his mind. But it caught up to him quickly; the harsh headaches that followed the next morning accompanied by the self-loathing. He could have dug himself into an early grave—but then he remembered what his wife would have thought, what his true love would have said: “Don’t hurt yourself, Hanson. The world would be a lesser place without you.”
Hanson slumped over slightly, a flash of his deceased wife’s face interrupting his attempts at finding peace like a bolt of lightning hitting the peak of a mountain. Her auburn hair, Hanson thought, closing his eyes and recalling the memory of the first time he had courted her back in Missouri. That smile that never faded Coupled with that infectious laugh of hers that made me smile so wide I still have creases in my brow.
He stood up from the stool, the flask, though stuffed in a drawer and unseen, was beckoning to him like a demon on his shoulder. Just one drink, buddy. Just one swig. Submerge yourself. Let the pain drift away. But it would only be a temporary alleviation to his sorrows. Drowning his turmoil would only increase the pain ten times over once the liquor wore off. He would be back in the same place he was the next day, if not worse.
It had been almost two years since Victoria passed, but the searing pain he felt left him feeling like it had just happened the night prior. The memory of that day was burned into his conscious like a brand. Every vivid detail of what happened was so clear and torturous that it repeated itself nearly every moment when he was not distracted by the mindless work of being a blacksmith.
Hanson closed his eyes again, his heart rate increasing as the memory crept up into his mind…
The sprawling horse breeding ranch in Militia, Missouri was as picturesque as one could hope for—wide open fields, coated with a vibrant green hue that was the tall grass which surrounded the fifty acres of land and the two-story colonial that Hanson had built by hand. It was a paradise, a retreat far from the hustle and bustle of city living. It was Hanson and Victoria’s home; their little corner of the world that felt lost in time with pink and orange hues painted in the sky.
There was not a day that went by where Hanson did not stand in the center of the fields and stare up in wide-eyed wonder at the natural beauty that felt like a gift from the heavens themselves, along with the gift that was his wife who he had felt privileged and blessed to spend every minute of every day with. At twenty-seven years of age, Hanson had acquired everything he had ever hoped for: a woman who loved him, a home to call his own, and a profession of breeding prize-winning horses that performed each and every day to the highest possible caliber. It had been a dream come true—until that dream had turned into a nightmare that haunted Hanson with each passing day.
Victoria was on top of a horse that Hanson named “Scout,” inside the training pen surrounded by pearl-white fencing. Scout was a surly animal, as wild as a wild animal could be. But Hanson prided himself on being able to break even the most stubborn of horses, with not one in their stock having not been successfully trained and introduced into society.
“Good heavens,” Victoria said, smiling as she sat on top of the steed as he whinnied and bucked. “He’s quite a handful.”
Hanson, perched on top Clover, another horse beside her, waved Victoria off with a confident grin. “He is a handful,” he said. “But we’ll get him in the line with the rest of the stock in no time.”
Scout flared his nostrils, his eyes darting around rapidly as Victoria clutched onto the reins and started to look more than slightly nervous. “Maybe we should start slow with him,” she said. “I have a feeling he’s not too happy that I’m on his back, Hanson.”
“He has to learn the hard way, my dear. You have to show these surly types who is in charge. You have to be kind with them, gentle, but they also need to know where they rest in the pecking order.”
Victoria looked her husband in the eyes, her gaze and expression reflecting the trust that she had in him as she nodded once and said, “I understand. Let’s get this boy trained good and proper.”
Hanson perked up on his saddle. “Okay, now. Try and take him around the pen once. Go at a slow pace.”
Victoria tugged gently at the reins, pulling Scout just slightly to her left. “Come, now, Scout,” she cooed. “Let’s go. Nice and easy…”
Something close to that of a grunt came out from the steed’s mouth as Victoria gently ushered the animal around the pen. But as the seconds passed, his resistance and belligerence seemed to only increase. Victoria remained persistent though as she patted the horse on his mane and whispered sentiments of encouragement in his ear.
With a proud smile on his face, Hanson nodded to his wife. “There we go, Vicky. That’s it.”
His wife turned on the saddle, smiling as Scout huffed and started to move into a light gallop. “I think it’s working,” she said. “He seems to be—”
What happened next was the most terrified Hanson had ever been in his life. Victoria was only able to get out four words before Scout spun to his left in a half-circle. His back legs kicked out and upward toward the sky while he emitted, a hellish whine as Victoria was thrown clear from the saddle and fell to the earth.
Time seemed to slow to an interminable creep, as Hanson’s wife, a look of wide-eyed terror coating her expression, collided head-first onto the dirt with a spine-chilling snap of bone which sounded like a gunshot. Hanson felt himself slip free of his saddle as he sprinted toward his bride and knew by the pale quality of her skin and the lifeless way she moved that she was no longer among the living.
Hanson cradled his wife’s limp body in his arms, his mouth forming into a ghastly O as he trembled and turned his attention toward the heavens. It felt as if God himself had caused the accident to happen, the once pink and orange tint of the sky turned an ashy gray as Hanson bobbed and weaved and felt hot streaming tears rolling freely down his cheeks.
“No,” Hanson whimpered, shaking his head in defiance as he closed his eyelids and felt the painful clench from closing them so tightly. “God, no…Please, God, no!”
Hanson’s eyes opened. He was once again in the present, standing in the center of his shop as a ghostly silence settled over the scene. He didn’t move, nor budge an inch as he felt a single tear slide down the right side of his face. Hanson wiped the tear away with the back of his hand, his jaw clenched to the point that he felt his back molars being tested under the pressure. He never forgave himself for the events of that day, especially his arrogance disguised as confidence that led to the demise of his wife.
Her death led to the selling of the ranch. Hanson could no longer bear to live with the physical memory after the day of the incident. Every inch and component of the property was sold, including the horses themselves, save for Scout, who Hanson put down with a pistol shot to the back of the head while the steed was not looking. He did it to make sure that the animal would never again hurt another human being—but Hanson would have been lying to himself if part of him didn’t do it out of sheer vengeance. After that day, he couldn’t bring himself to even look at a horse, much less ride one. It was why he was so disturbed by Miss Heath’s comment, though he knew she did not mean any harm. She is a kind woman, he thought. Gentle. Sweet. Maybe I should apologize tomorrow when I stop in for another drink.
The money from the sale of the ranch made Hanson wealthier than he ever thought possible. The man would never have needed to work again if he wanted. But the notion of remaining idle, of spending his days incessantly dwelling on his wife’s death was something he knew would lead to his death sooner rather than later.
The first few months after Victoria was buried on a hillside overlooking a valley felt like being lost in purgatory. It was almost like Hanson had lost his sense of smell, his sense of taste, his ability to breathe freely. He felt like one of the walking dead, wandering aimlessly and trying to find purpose after the only things, the only person he had ever cared for had been ripped clean out of his life like his heart had been the moment Victoria collided with the earth beneath her.
Hanson had hoped and prayed that time would heal all wounds. But they hadn’t. His pain was still as potent as it was the day she passed. He had simply learned to live with it, to function on a basic level, and keep himself occupied with remedial tasks and physical labor. He wandered from state-to-state, doing various handyman work wherever he could find it, hoping to find some kind of semi-permanent home as he traveled with nothing but his money, his Stetson, and a heart full of sorrow. It was when he landed in Elmsboro that he found his potential outlet: a blacksmith shop with a For Sale sign on the front and a tale about the old man who owned it who had recently passed away. It seemed fateful to Hanson, being that his father was a blacksmith who had already instilled the many tools and methods of the trade in him. He purchased the lot on the spot. No questions. No second-guessing. Though the loss of his wife, and the guilt that came along with it were still very much present, the routine he had found of sleeping, working countless hours, and polishing off the day with two fingers worth of whiskey was a simplistic yet wholly welcomed change of pace that kept him busy just enough to live another day.
Hanson glanced once more at the drawer of the workbench with the flask of whiskey inside of it. No good can come from overdrinking, he thought. Remember Victoria. Remember what she would say. Just go to sleep and wake up tomorrow and start the day again. Find a reason to keep going. Find a reason to not fall into the dark recesses of your mind.
The blacksmith of Elsmboro turned left into the small corner of the workshop where a cot and a small credenza with a lantern on top rested. He kicked off his boots, turned around, and fell back like he was diving off of a cliff into the abyss. Hanson made contact with the bed, his eyes closing as his weight caused the cot to sink ever-so slightly. It took him a moment to rally the energy to reach over to the credenza and the lantern resting on top. He reduced the glow of the source of illumination to just a faint burn, resulting in a warm orange glow spreading through the shop as night fell and darkness consumed the town of Elmsboro.
Hanson rested his hands on top of his chest, his breathing slow and easy as the face of his wife was conjured up in his mind once more. He shook his head. No matter how hard he tried, no matter how much he attempted to distract himself, she was always there. He despised that this was the case and hated himself for despising the fact that images of his wife, his one true love, would not go away. It was because he loved her so and missed her just as equally. It made the pain return full force, with no signs of ceasing or alleviation in sight. It was why he worked as hard as he did and kept himself so distracted. Crafting everything under the sun that was requested by the townspeople was the only thing that kept him going. The job. The work. That was the reason he continued to live, continued to breathe, continued to eat. It was mindless and unfulfilling—but it got the job done, nonetheless.
He turned over onto his side, his hand falling to his tan-colored trousers and reaching inside to the frayed, black-and-white photo that was taken on his and Victoria’s wedding day. It pained him as much as it brought him joy to look at the photo. Both of them, dressed and primped and looking happier than anyone on the face of the Earth, stared at the camera that had taken the photo with fond and fulfilled expressions.
Hanson touched a finger to Victoria’s face, stroking the left side of her face as he recalled how she sounded, felt, and smelled. His eyes closed once again, tears now rolling down his cheeks as he clutched the photo close to his chest and sobbed quietly for several moments. Hanson eventually wore himself down as he turned over to the other side of the bed, remembering what it was once like to have another person beside him through the night. As Hanson felt himself exhausted from the pain and slowly drifted into a slumber, he opened his mouth and said, “I miss you, Victoria. I miss you so much…” before he was finally able to drift off to sleep.
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