Does Aline’s cat, Sammy, act alone, or does God speak through unexpected sources to protect her as to find true love?
Aline is a heartbroken woman. Betrayed and taken advantage of by her late husband, she moves to Lakestone to start over, bringing along only her cat and her unyielding Faith.
Thomas is an attentive man. Being the town’s Sheriff, he tries to make up for his not so lawful past life. A life that he never chose but was born into.
But when Aline’s plans are overthrown by Harrison, a wealthy ranch owner, he will make it his business to take care of her.
As the two of them get closer, Aline will become enchanted with his affectionate character, and Thomas will realize that she is one of the most tender-hearted people he had ever met.
But Aline is unaware of Thomas’ secrets. Secrets that will be used by his enemies to keep them apart.
In a hopeless attempt to keep Aline safe from Harrison’s threats, Thomas is ready to sacrifice his love for her.
How can the two of them overcome the obstacles that others throw at them and create a loving family?
March 18th, 1885,
My dear journal, it’s been a while since I wrote here. I guess things have been a little busy, what with such awful events befalling us. It’s a sad and sorry sight to see one so young all dressed in the black of a widow. I couldn’t help but shed a tear, particularly as the young lady was an acquaintance of mine—a friend even, you might say. Aline Hale was burying her husband, and I watched from across the street as the funeral cortege passed on its mournful way. They’d no children, they’d hardly been married a year, and she’d no family to speak off, apart from me of course. She was all alone, and I felt so very sorry for her.
They say he wasn’t good to her and why, today, when the world seems to be moving at such a pace, a woman is expected to marry an old man like that, I’ll never know. I guess she didn’t have any choice, orphans rarely do and a young girl like her even less. I have no money to speak of, and when her parents died it was as much as I could do to put a roof over her head until she was old enough to make her own way in this sad world. She was only twenty years old and already a mourning widow, expected to play the part of the grieving spouse. I couldn’t take my eyes off her as she passed by with her head bowed low, her veil covering over her face.
Damon Hale, that was her husband, owed money to a lot of men. It’s true what they say: money only brings trouble with it. He’d plenty of it, a prospector out west, who made his money in the gold mines and squandered it all on the pleasures which life back home afforded him. She’d inherit well enough, and I guess she’d be comfortable, though the debts he’d left were the talk of the town.
“God bless you, Aline,” I said as she passed just a few yards from where I was standing to pay my respects.
I had no love for Damon Hale, but I did for Aline, my niece. I have no children of my own and Aline was always good to me. I loved her like a daughter and I couldn’t bear to see her looking so mournful, so full of sorrow as she did on that awful day, when it seemed that her whole world had come crashing down around her.
She paused for a moment and turned to me, offering a weak smile from beneath her veil. I could see a tear in her eye, though whether it was a tear for herself or for Damon I couldn’t tell.
“Thank you, Aunt Miranda,” she said, before turning to follow the coffin on her husband’s final journey.
Even in sorrow she still looked as beautiful as she ever had done, a blooming rose, as her dear mother used to say. That perfect hourglass figure, those sapphire blue eyes and her long wavy dark blonde hair, enough to steal the attentions of any man she should meet. My beautiful niece, now so racked with sorrow.
A tear ran down my face—not for Damon, for I was glad she was rid of that horrible man who had made her life such a misery. But a tear of sorrow for Aline, whose future now seemed so bleak and uncertain. For a moment longer, I watched as the coffin disappeared around the bend in the muddy track through the town, followed by a motley collection of mourners and those to whom Aline’s departed husband still owed money, even in death.
“It’ll be all right, Aline, I promise. The good Lord’ll provide,” I’d whispered, offering up a prayer for my niece, and for the future, whatever that might hold.
And now, I’m tired and ready for my bed.
The sheriff’s office was quiet that morning, a little too quiet for Sheriff Thomas Redmond’s liking. He’d arrived early from his lodgings at Lita Morrell’s boarding house. The cells were empty, for Deputy John Hoskins had reported a quiet night, and Thomas settled himself down at his desk to go through the wanted reports and prepare his monthly report for the mayor.
“I’ll be getting home, then, Sheriff,” John Hoskins said, peering around the sheriff’s door. “I’ll take the night duties again tonight, if it’s still all right to have Thursday off.”
Thomas nodded and smiled. “Who’s it this time? Let me guess—Susan Ford, the grocer’s daughter. She’s pretty enough,” he replied.
John Hoskins went red and turned away in embarrassment. “How … how did you know that, Sheriff? I haven’t told anyone I’m sweet on Susan,” he confessed.
“Come on, John. How difficult is it? It’s hardly a mystery. You’ve taken out just about every girl in town, except for Susan Ford, who has made it quite clear on several occasions that she is waiting for you to do so,” Thomas pointed out.
“All right, all right, you’ve got me there. I’m taking her to the Last Chance Saloon. They have a singer on Thursdays, they say she’s pretty good,” the deputy said, shaking his head and smiling.
“And who am I to argue with local opinion, John. Go get some sleep now; be back for night duties and you can have Thursday off as we agreed,” Thomas said.
“Thank you, Sheriff. I’ve got a feeling about Susan Ford, what is it they say? Leave the best ‘till last,” he said, and went off whistling to himself as Thomas shook his head.
You can’t fault him for trying, Thomas thought to himself, for the deputy was rarely successful past the first formal encounter and Thomas would no doubt hear about a fresh disaster at the Last Chance Saloon on Friday morning.
He flicked idly through the list of wanted men, their ugly faces staring up at him above their rewards.
Louis Carelli, wanted in three states for murder, extortion and cattle rustling, Thomas thought, looking at the picture of a man with half his ear missing and a thin scar running down his face.
And William ‘Black Eye’ Priestly, now there’s a man to avoid if I ever saw one. He shook his head and laughed.
The litany of unsavory characters continued and he eventually cast the pile aside, leaning back at his desk and placing his hands behind his head.
It sure is quiet today, he thought, for he’d not even heard whisper of a drunk or fisticuffs in the town of Lakestone, Montana that morning.
And still no word on those cattle rustlers, I’ll bet they’ve flown town now that we’re on to them, and good riddance, too. Just recently, there’d been a spate of rustling at farms in the local district.
Thomas had been sheriff there for the past three years and a deputy two years before that. In that time, he’d faced outlaws, cattle rustlers, bandits and trail robbers—he’d even taken part in the famous rescue of the governor’s daughter, kidnapped and held to ransom two years before. But today was quiet and Thomas was not complaining, for a quiet day meant a chance to catch up on his paperwork and make his rounds of the town.
A man can have too much excitement, he thought, shaking his head as the sound of a horse could be heard from outside, galloping up toward the sheriff’s office.
He got up from the desk and crossed to the window, interested to see who was pulling into town at such an early hour. Lakestone was a small town on the road west, in the corner of the state near to the border with Wyoming. It was a stopping point for ranchers heading to the western plains and a settling place for those grown weary from traveling far from the East. It was a place of mixed fortunes, though Thomas had done well enough for himself. He was happy here and all in all the folks were good-natured, though at times there could be trouble, of the sort you get in any town which once called itself the frontier.
Though Robbie McCain looks excited about something, Thomas thought as the fiery red-headed ranch hand from Lakestone Creek Ranch leaped down from the horse and hurried onto the veranda outside.
“Woah there, Robbie. What’re you in such a hurry for?” Thomas said as the ranch hand burst in, jabbering in his thick Scot’s accent.
“Tis’ the ranch, Sheriff. The rustlers, come quickly, tis’ the second time in a week. I rode down just as quickly as I could,” Robbie said, panting and breathless, as he stood before the sheriff.
“Again? We’d better go. Did the foreman send you?” Thomas asked, grabbing his Smith and Wesson and putting on his sheriff’s hat.
“He did, sir. Aye. But there’s more, too. I heard a shot. Just as I was ridin’ off now. I daenae know who fired though, sir. It may have been the foreman. Those rustlers were ridin’ around the cattle somethin’ awful, ye know. They’ll stampede them, if they’re nae careful. But it may have been…” His words trailed off, his eyes wide with panic.
“Let’s not stand here talking about it, Robbie. Come on, now, put your fear away. We’ll ride up there and see, follow me,” Thomas said, for he’d no fear of cattle rustlers.
But the ranch hand drew back, a fearful expression upon his face.
“Should we… should we nae wait for back up, sir? There were three of them, and if they are armed,” he began, but Thomas just laughed as he hurried out of the sheriff’s office.
“I’m the backup, I only have two deputies. Now come on, let’s get going—if we’re quick, we might just catch them. Stay here if you’re too scared, though I thought you Scots had some fire in your bellies,” Thomas chided as he climbed onto his horse Scout, a chestnut mare who could ride like the wind.
“I’m nae afraid, sir, I just…” the ranch hand began, but Thomas had already ridden off in a cloud of dust along the track, hoping to catch the rustlers in the act and before they could disappear off down the trail.
Lakestone Creek Ranch lay about a mile outside of town and had been one of the first places settled by the early frontiersmen in this part of the state. It was a small operation, headed up by the foreman—one Mr. J. B. Banks, whom Thomas often shared a drink with—and assisted by a couple of hands, of whom Robbie McCain was the youngest.
As he approached the ranch, Thomas slowed Scout to a trot, surveying the scene before him.
No sign of any rustlers, he thought, looking out across prairie grass that rustled gently in the breeze.
“Too quiet,” he said, as Robbie rode up alongside him. “What was the last thing you saw?”
“I… well, I was just about here, as it happens. I looked back and I could see the rustlers over there,” Robbie said, pointing to one of the fences, which appeared to have been broken in two.
“And where did the shot come from?” Thomas asked, but Robbie shook his head.
“I… I daenae know. It could’ve come from there, but it could’ve come from by the barns there. I just rode… I’m sorry,” he replied, his words trailing off.
“You did the right thing. If they were shooting, then they weren’t bothered who they hit. Come on, let’s ride into the ranch yard. Keep your wits about you,” Thomas said, his hand on his pistol, lest they suddenly be set upon.
With caution, they rode into the ranch yard. It was still, no sound coming from anywhere. Thomas felt a shiver run through him; usually, the ranch was a hive of activity, under the direction of his friend Jeremiah.
What’s happened here? He looked around himself with suspicion.
“It’s got to be the same men, the ones who hit us last week. Daenae ye think?” Robbie said, climbing down from his horse and looking warily about him.
“I don’t know, Robbie,” Thomas said, but he didn’t like it, not one little bit.
If I find it’s him, he thought to himself as an unpleasant possibility crossed his mind.
Thomas’ past was not something he often discussed, for it contained things which hardly fitted with the life he now led. As a young man, Thomas had been part of his father’s gang of outlaws and, alongside his half-brother, Harrison, he’d been involved in just about every misdemeanor he now arrested others for. When their father had died in a shootout, he and Harrison had moved West in the hope of a better life. Somehow, Harrison had never quite left his shady past behind him, though it was not common knowledge that he and Thomas were related.
But the recent cattle rustling had unsettled Thomas, more so than he’d let on. John Hoskins had hardly seemed concerned. After all, out in the West, you expected such things. It was all part and parcel of life on the old frontier. But in the cattle rustling, Thomas had seen something else.
This could’ve been one of my father’s jobs, he realized, looking around and recalling similar raids on unsuspecting ranchers from his youth.
The cattle would be long gone by now, and if any of the ranchers had been foolish enough to get in the way, they would’ve felt the smoking end of a shotgun. Thomas paused, looking around, before a shout from Robbie brought him back to his senses.
“Hey, Sheriff, look! It’s Amos. Over there, riding down the track,” he said, pointing to where one of the other ranch hands was riding at full pelt toward them.
“Woah there, what is it? Where’s Jeremiah? Where’s the foreman?” Thomas said as the ranch hand leaped down from his horse, panting and sweating profusely in the heat of the sun.
“Jeremiah… Mr. Banks… he… he went off after the rustlers. I didn’t get a look at their faces, they’d masks on them, but they went off that way,” the ranch hand said, pointing out across the prairie. “I’ve been looking for him, but I can’t find him. The herd are on the stampede, though, those rustlers didn’t take them. They’re still here, but I don’t know where Mr. Banks is.”
Thomas shook his head, the thought that his half-brother may be responsible still foremost in his mind. He’d turned a blind eye to some of Harrison’s dealings, preferring to keep his own counsel when it came to his half-brother. But if Harrison was responsible for this and the other recent rustlings, which bore all the hallmarks of his father’s old outfit, then Thomas knew he could no longer stand by.
It might not be him, but he’s gotten bolder lately. Darn it, Thomas thought, glancing at Robbie and Amos and shaking his head.
“We need to find Jeremiah. Amos, you go round up the herd. Robbie and I’ll walk out over the prairie. You say he followed them that way?” Thomas clarified, pointing in the direction Amos had indicated.
“Yes, sir. But I didn’t see what happened next. He could’ve gone anywhere,” the ranch hand replied.
“You leave that to me, now, you look pretty shook up—the both of you,” Thomas said, and both men nodded.
“The second time in a week that we’ve risked our necks just to earn an honest wage, and yet these rustlers think they can just come and take what’s ours.” Robbie shook his head sadly.
“And I’m here to make sure they don’t get away with it. Come on, go round up the herd, Amos. Robbie, you follow me and keep your eyes open,” Thomas said as he led the way across the ranch yard and out into the prairie.
Harrison, if I find you’re at the bottom of all this, then it’s the last time I turn a blind eye, Thomas swore to himself as they began the hunt for Jeremiah.
In the distance, he could hear the sound of the cattle stampeding across the plains and the cries of Amos, the ranch hand.
“Mr. Banks,” Robbie called, his voice echoing across the vast grasslands that swayed gently in the breeze.
The sun was high in the sky now and there was a dry heat in the air, which made Thomas’ mouth feel rough and his forehead sweat.
“Jeremiah! Jeremiah, where are you? It’s Sheriff Redmond. The rustlers are gone, you’re safe now, come out,” Thomas called, but still the prairie grass swayed gently. No other sound but that of the distant cattle could be heard.
After around half an hour of searching, Robbie paused, sighing and throwing his hands up in frustration.
“It’s nae good, Sheriff. Mr. Banks is gone. What if they carried him off as a hostage? What if we get a demand for money? The ranch barely makes enough to pay our wages anyhow, let alone a ransom,” he said.
“They won’t want a ransom, Robbie. That’s not how these folks operate. They steal cattle, and they don’t kidnap ranchers. It’s more likely that—” But as he was speaking to Robbie, he tripped, making a grim discovery as he did so.
There, lying motionless with a bullet wound in his chest, was Jeremiah Banks. His face was contorted in a grim expression, his hands raised as though in self-defense. There was no weapon nearby, no sign of a struggle, only a bullet fired at an unarmed man.
Dear Lord, Thomas thought as he knelt by the lifeless body of his friend.
“Mr. Banks, oh dear Lord, Mr. Banks,” Robbie said, tears in his eyes, as he rushed to Thomas’ side.
“It’s all right, Robbie. Don’t look now, come on, stay back a moment. Go call for Amos, we need to get him back to the ranch house. Go call Amos, you hear me?” Thomas said, as the ranch hand stood shaking at his side.
“I… I… yes, Sheriff,” Robbie said, and he scarpered back across the prairie, calling out for Amos, as Thomas looked down at the grim discovery.
Harrison, this is too far, he thought, shaking his head.
There was no proof that his half-brother was involved, but Thomas had had a hunch that something was not quite right of late. The two men generally avoided one another, but Thomas always liked to know his brother’s whereabouts and who amongst the known criminals who passed through Lakestone paid his half- brother a visit.
“I’ll find out who’s responsible for this, Jeremiah. I promise,” Thomas said grimly, standing guard over the body of his friend while up above, the birds began to circle, attracted by the smell of death upon the plain.
It was with some difficulty that Thomas, Robbie, and Amos carried the lifeless body of Jeremiah Banks back to the ranch house. The sun was high in the sky now and they sweated and panted their way across the prairie, none of them speaking, for it was a solemn task which they now performed.
Back in the simply furnished ranch house, which had been Jeremiah’s home since his arrival in Lakestone some thirty years previously, they laid him on his bed. Amos was a Catholic, and he took his rosary beads from his pocket and laid them on the body as a sign of respect, crossing himself profusely as Thomas and Robbie stood with their heads bowed.
“Who do ye think did this, Sheriff? Will they come back? What dae we dae now?” Robbie said, as they stepped out onto the porch a short while later.
“Well, someone’s go to keep the ranch going. I’m sure Jeremiah would be glad to know it was in safe hands. You two can manage, can’t you?” Thomas said, and Robbie and Amos looked at one another uncertainly.
“Aye, we shall. But what about the body? It must be buried properly. Mr. Banks was very particular about his prayers,” Robbie replied, and Amos nodded.
“I could ride down to the Franciscan Mission at Dewey Creek and bring one of the priests back,” Amos suggested, but Thomas shook his head.
“I’ll speak with Pastor Warren. Jeremiah didn’t hold with the Catholics, Amos. I drank with him enough to know that. I’m heading back to town now. Keep your wits about you, and if you’ve any more trouble from those rustlers, you shoot first and ask questions later—you hear me?” Thomas instructed, and the two ranch hands nodded.
He climbed onto Scout, patting the horse’s mane as they rode out of the ranch yard and onto the trail back toward Lakestone. His mind was racing with theories as to what had just transpired.
Even Harrison isn’t that stupid, surely, and what did they gain from it? No cattle stolen, no money—just a dead rancher and two scared ranch hands. It’s hardly a successful raid, he thought to himself as he rode.
When he came into town, he reined Scout in, pausing by the doors of the Last Chance Saloon. It was busy, filled with ranch hands and cattle herders, alongside men passing through town on their way down the western trail and those who came to Lakestone for its diversions and entertainments.
He’ll be in there, I’d wager a $100 on it, Thomas thought, peering through the doors for any sign of his half-brother, though wishing to appear as though he were simply passing the time of day.
But there was no sign of Harrison, or any of the likely suspects which Thomas’ half-brother was often seen in the company of. The sheriff sighed to himself, knowing that the next few days and weeks wouldn’t be easy.
You’ve got a job on your hands, Thomas, a mighty fine job, he thought as he led Scout back to the sheriff’s office. I just hope I’m up to it.
Sammy was sitting on the piano. It was his favorite place to sit in the mornings, when the sun streamed through the front parlor window and created a pleasingly warm place for the cat to curl up. He was a large tabby, who, at six years old, had been Aline’s constant companion since her teenage years. He purred as she stroked him, arching his back and letting out a long, plaintive meow as she ruffled the scruff of his neck.
“There, now, that’s what you like, Sammy. Isn’t it?” she said, and it seemed the cat was in full agreement.
Aline sighed, looking around the parlor of the home she’d occupied with Damon until his tragic death two weeks previously. She was dressed in her black mourning dress, though her Aunt Miranda had advised her that it was now acceptable to remove her veil, at home at least.
The house felt empty without Damon there, though that was more because she was no longer shouted at and berated at every given opportunity. She’d shed tears for him, but they’d felt like tears of duty rather than genuine sorrow.
I should feel something more than this, she thought, though simultaneously realizing that she’d had a lucky escape.
On several occasions, his anger had overcome him, and she’d felt his hand. At other times it was his snide comments, his constant diggings and criticisms of everything from her hair to the way she poured tea at teatime. As the past two years of their marriage had passed, Aline had become used to such treatment. So used to it that now, with Damon gone, she felt devoid of any feeling toward him, any feeling at all, except for guilt that she might eventually be glad of his passing. She simply felt numb, and there was little she could do about it—a numbness which left her feeling cold inside, and empty.
“At least I’ve got you, Sammy,” she said, just as a knock came at the door and the maid entered with a pot of tea.
“Ma’am, your Aunt Miranda is here to see you; I brought you both some tea. May I show her in?” the maid asked and Aline smiled.
“You may do, Sarah, thank you,” she said, and she picked up Sammy from his place on top of the piano. “You and Aunt Miranda, that’s who I’ve got,” she said, holding the cat close as he purred.
A moment later, her aunt entered the room in her usual bustling manner. She was a lifelong spinster and Aline loved her dearly, for despite having not two pennies to rub together, she’d always been generous with her kindness. Over the years, Aline had done her best to help with the small allowance Damon had permitted her, but now she wondered if perhaps she might help her further, for surely the inheritance was now hers.
“Aline, dear. You’re looking much better than when I saw you yesterday. Your cheeks are rosier,” her aunt remarked and Aline smiled.
“I’m not sure I feel any better, Aunt Miranda. I don’t feel anything at all. Shouldn’t I be sorrowful? Shed a tear? But I feel nothing,” Aline replied, shaking her head sadly as Sammy purred in her lap.
“That man was nothing but wicked toward you, Aline. I wish I’d stepped in to prevent you from marrying him,” her aunt said, and Aline poured out the tea.
“But you remember how it was, Aunt Miranda. What choice did I have? Damon had such influence, he was a powerful man,” she replied.
“And now he’s dead, and good riddance to him,” her aunt replied, raising her tea cup as though in a toast.
Aline made no reply. It was wrong to speak ill of the dead—at least, that was what her dear mother had always said. Aunt Miranda had always been one to speak her mind, though, and Aline remembered her making it very clear that she’d no love for Damon Hale, nor it seemed did she have any respect for him in death.
“Well, at least the inheritance is mine now,” she replied, stroking Sammy along his back, “and I can help you, too, Aunt Miranda. Why, you could even move in here! The two of us would get along just fine, I’m sure.”
Her aunt laughed.
“That’s mighty kind of you, Aline. But you don’t need an old woman like me rattling around here. You’re young, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you. Why not use the money for something you want to do?” her aunt replied, just as a knock came at the door.
“A gentleman to see you, ma’am. A Mr. Priestly, I have his card here,” the maid said, presenting Aline with the card.
“Stockbroker? I don’t know any stockbrokers,” Aline said, looking puzzled and passing the card to her aunt.
“If you please, ma’am, he said it was the master who employed his services. He is here to discuss the… the legacy,” Sarah replied.
“Then send him in, Sarah. This little lady needs to know what she can salvage from that mess of a man,” Aunt Miranda said, and Aline blushed as the maid curtsied and went to show the stockbroker into the parlor.
“Damon was not all bad, Auntie. At times he could be…” Aline began.
“You think the occasional nice word and an apology was enough to cover up his crimes toward you, Aline? You’re far too forgiving, or perhaps I’m far too bitter. I, for one, am glad he’s dead,” her aunt said, just as Sarah showed Mr. Priestly into the room.
He was a tall, wiry man who wore a black frock coat, his grey hair in a mass of curls upon his head. He bowed low to the women who stood and curtsied, Aline offering him a seat and a cup of tea.
“No tea for me, thank you, madam. I’m afraid I come bearing bad news and I find it is best to break such news immediately, rather than exchange pleasantries beforehand,” he replied, fixing Aline with a grave expression.
“My husband is dead, Mr. Priestly. I’m left a widow at the age of twenty. There is little more you could tell me to lessen my humor,” Aline replied, glancing at her aunt, who shook her head and rolled her eyes.
“Does he owe some money?” her aunt asked, and Mr. Priestly nodded.
“In a manner of speaking, madam. Your late husband was the executor of your parent’s estate, Mrs. Hale. That money should rightfully be yours, but the young age at which you married meant that it was held in trust—a trust administered by your late husband,” the stockbroker said and Aline nodded.
“That’s correct. I was told that the money was still mine, though, but that my husband would see to the oversight. I’m not versed in such matters and it seemed far better for him to take care of things on my behalf,” Aline replied.
“Mrs. Hale, I think you would’ve been far more versed in such matters than your husband. You could hardly have failed to do worse,” the stockbroker replied.
“What do you mean?” her aunt asked and Mr. Priestly sighed.
“I mean that all the money is gone. Everything. This house that you are sitting in, its furnishings—everything in it is gone. Your husband was bankrupt, Mrs. Hale, and now his debts must be settled,” he replied.
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