The night of the masquerade ball at the St. George Hotel and Saloon, everything changed for Eloise and Wilson.
Eloise Hastings, a stubborn but adorable tomboy, only wants to one day run her father’s ranch and marry a person she’ll fall in love with. But her father’s strong desire to marry her off to Ryan McKinnon, the man who is to inherit the land bordering theirs, is ready to crush her dreams.
Wilson Pace broke his own heart by leaving Eloise behind when he was a boy. Being a miner, he had no chance of offering her the good life he wanted. But now, years later, he is back, from a miner to a successful businessman.
But as Wilson tries to win her heart back, their future will be once again threatened. At the St. George Hotel’s Masquerade ball, the Sheriff of Cayenne is murdered, the place is on lockdown – and all evidence points at him.
As Eloise and Wilson try to prove his innocence, they will uncover things long kept secret and a scheme beyond their imagination.
Will they find out who the real killer is and will their love withstand the truth – and thrive against the odds?
“Ellie, get away from the fence or the flames will get you!” Edison yelled.
“But I can see him!” the little girl cried. “That poor cow is gonna get caught in the fire!”
“Come now, Eloise,” Edison said, grabbing her around the waist and pulling her away from the fence. “You have to let the men do their jobs, just like us kids have got to do ours. And our job is…?”
Edison plopped Eloise down on the dirt road in front of him and put his hands on his hips. Eloise huffed, folded her arms, and looked away from her older brother.
“Dig the trenches,” she said, grudgingly.
“That’s right; and what do we get when we finish?” Edison continued, waving a finger in the air.
“I don’t care!” she yelled, pushing both arms behind her and leaning toward him. “I’m eight years old now; I can help put out fires, too!”
“I know you can.” Edison patted her on the head. “But Wilson and Ryan are helping me dig the trenches, and it wouldn’t be any fun without you, would it?”
Eloise narrowed her eyes. She and her brother Edison were the children of Dillion Hastings, one of Cayenne’s wealthiest homesteaders. Eloise took after their father, while Edison took so much after their mother that he knew just how to reach past her fiery spirit and convince her to see reason.
Petulantly, Eloise followed her brother away from the raging fire to where he and two other boys were digging trenches off to the side of the road. Anyone passing by could see that Edison and Eloise were brother and sister. They had the same big, chocolate brown eyes, the same shiny, brown hair, and the same pointed nose. Though Edison was a year older, they were often confused for twins.
“I found the runaway,” Edison announced as he approached the other boys.
“I didn’t run away– I was going to help a cow that was stuck on the other side of the fence!” Eloise argued, stomping her foot. “Anyway, the fire hasn’t gotten this far, and that cow is gonna get burned right now!”
“It’s dangerous to go that close to a fire, Eloise,” a blonde-haired boy warned.
“I know that, Ryan!” Eloise cried. “That’s why I was trying to get the cow away from it!”
“I think that was very noble of her,” the other boy interjected. “But it probably would be better to let the adults handle it this time.”
“See, Willgets it!” Eloise sneered at Ryan.
“Wilson agrees with everything you say, even if it could get you hurt,” Ryan pointed out, glaring at Wilson.
The two boys were opposites in almost every way. Ryan had stick-straight blonde hair, while Wilson had a slight curl to his thick, chestnut hair. Ryan’s face was pale and freckled face with dull, green eyes, while Wilson’s had tanned skin and vibrant blue eyes.
As different as they were in appearance, they were also different in personality. Ryan was serious, stiff, and a little nervous. Wilson was carefree, energetic, and a risk-taker. With their differences, they argued more than they talked, but that never stopped them from having the best of times together.
“I didn’t agreewith her – I just said it was noble,” Wilson retorted. “If I was agreeing with her, I would’ve said we should drop what we’re doing and save the cow, instead.”
“But she thinksyou agree with her, and that’s just as bad in this situation,” Ryan said.
“You want me to control what she thinks?” Wilson drove his shovel into the ground more aggressively than before. “Tell me, how would I go about doing that?”
“Why do you two have to argue over everything?” Edison groaned.
“Because he’s wrong!” both boys said in unison, pointing at the other.
Edison laughed and shook his head. It had to be exhausting to be so competitive with your best friend, he thought. They were the only four kids within twenty acres, and Edison often found Ryan and Wilson’s competitions so tiresome that he’d rather be by himself or with his father than with the other kids. Still, it was sometimes fun to watch them argue.
“I’mwrong?” Ryan pressed, angrily. “Well, at least I don’t honestly believe that I could make a living off of tricking people out of their money!”
“I told you, I’ve seen it work,” Wilson said. “And it’s not a trick, it’s just a game. ‘Sides, you’re the one who thinks you can survive by being a cowboy forever. My dad told me there’s a new thing every year making it harder for cowboys to find a living.”
“What does that old man know? He’s only ever worked with cattle!” Ryan yelled.
“Hey!” Eloise interjected. “That’s mean, Ryan – my daddy’s only ever worked with cattle, and he’s the smartest man in the whole world.”
“Ellie,” Edison put in. “Daddy’s worked with more things than cattle…”
“He has?” Eloise nearly dropped her shovel. “But how come I never seen it?”
“Daddy was alive before you were born,” Edison chuckled. “He came here from across the ocean, and he discovered this place the very first of everybody here. That’s why everyone likes him so much.”
“I want to see the ocean,” Eloise replied dreamily, smiling at the sky. “Daddy said it looks like the sky, only shinier.”
Edison smiled and patted his sister on the head. Ryan and Wilson had finally stopped arguing, but only because something in the trench had distracted them.
“One day, we’ll go to the ocean together,” Edison said. “What do you say?”
“Am I invited?” Wilson asked, wrapping his arm around Edison’s shoulders. “Hey, look at this, Edison. Does this look like gold to you?”
He showed Edison a long, thin piece of metal that was caked with dirt. Ryan folded his arms and pretended not to be interested, but slowly inched toward them to hear Edison’s reply.
“I’m pretty sure that’s just a piece of metal,” Edison said.
“See!” Wilson crowed, pointing in Ryan’s face. “I told you it wasn’t gold!”
“You weren’t listening to me – I said I thought it was fool’sgold. Because you found it, and you’re a fool!” Ryan said.
“Boys!” Mr. Hastings said, running down the road. “I need you over here!”
Wilson chucked the metal in the dirt, and the others dropped their shovels. Behind Dillion, the fire continued to roar, and the men were scrambling back and forth between putting out the flames and driving the cattle away from the at-risk field.
“What happened?” Edison said, running after his father.
“The fire’s getting out of our control,” Dillion admitted. “We need more hands – we’ve lost one of the cattle.”
Eloise gasped, put her hands over her mouth, and stopped running. The other two boys continued after Dillion, but Edison stopped to check on his sister. He knew the cow that died was likely the same one she had been trying to save. The men must not have made it to the creature in time.
“Come on, Ellie,” he said. “Cows die… You’ve got to get used to it – loss is a part of life.”
“I could’ve saved it,” she insisted, teary-eyed.
“And then hurt yourself?” Edison asked. “Ellie, when I’m running this ranch, you want to be here with me, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she said, wiping her eyes.
“Then you’re gonna have to grow up,” he told her. “You can’t keep crying and acting like a little girl forever.”
“I’m not a little girl, Eddie!” she countered, wrinkling her forehead. “I can work on this ranch just like one of the men – and I don’t have to grow up to do it!”
“Daddy! Daddy, the field’s caught fire!” Eloise, now ten years older, yelled as she ran across the pasture, toward where her father stood near the tool shed. “Daddy! If you can hear me, toss me a shovel, will ya?”
Dillion Hastings glanced over his shoulder at his daughter, not quite able to make out what she was yelling. She clutched her wide-brimmed hat as she ran, but it seemed her hair-tie had broken in her journey, causing her chestnut, brown hair to flow in the wind. Dillion chuckled. Although her men’s work clothes, work boots, and wide leather belt made her look like a tomboy, her long, flowing hair added a certain feminine charm.
“Daddy!” she insisted. “The field is on fire!”
“What’s that, Ellie?!” he called back.
“The FIELD is on FIRE!” she cried.
Dillion opened his mouth to reply, still not able to hear her, but before he could say anything, he noticed a glimmer of orange and red in the distance. Two of his workmen charged toward it from either direction on the back of their horses, signaling to the creatures to kick up great amounts of dirt along the edge of the fire. This must’ve been John and Henry, he thought. The former Pony Express riders always had been the best at training their horses. Although he wasn’t sure their method would be of much help in containing the fire.
“Oh, dear!” he said, suddenly understanding what Ellie was yelling about. “We need shovels!”
Dillion ducked into the shed and grabbed any tool he could find which in any way resembled a shovel. By the time he ducked back out of the shed, Eloise and three other men had already gravitated toward the shed door. Eloise was still trying to catch her breath, but as usual, she didn’t let that slow her down.
“Thank you!” she said, snatching a shovel from her father’s hands and taking off toward the fire.
“Don’t forget to uncover the trenches first!” Dillion yelled after her.
“Already taken care of!” she called back.
“Wow,” one of the men, Edgar, said. “That’s just like her – not letting anything get between her and the safety of this ranch.”
“Nothing gets between her and anythingshe wants to protect,” Dillion agreed, chuckling. “But don’t stop now – we got a fire to take care of. I want every trench cover removed within an acre of that fire on either side – and if it keeps growing, keep going! If we don’t get the boards and hay far out of the way of the flames, they will give the fire a direct path onto to the McKinnon property.”
“If Eloise hasn’t done it already, consider it done!” Edgar said.
The men took shovels, hoes, and a metal rake and ran after Eloise. By now, the fire had overtaken at least an acre of land. Luckily, however, the blaze was contained on at least one side, pushed up against the trenches Dillion and Eloise had dug as a precaution when the days grew drier. The heat alone had been exhausting, but the dry air made everything feel worse. Most days were far too dry in this New Mexico territory, Dillion thought, but late spring into summer was the driest of all.
“Daddy, wait!” Eloise yelled, running toward him once more.
“What is it?!”
“The cattle!” She gestured toward the open field beside them.
A herd of nearly fifty cattle grazed in the field, slowly and carelessly inching closer to the section of fiery land. Eloise crept toward the herd, despite not having time to prepare a horse to ride while she herded them. Dillion furrowed his brow. He wasn’t sure, at first, why she didn’t send the two men on horses to deal with the cattle, but after glancing at the herd, he understood. Several calves were among them, which Dillion presumed was the reason for the sad look in Eloise’s big, brown eyes.
“Ellie,” he sighed. “I told younaming the calves would just make it harder to part with them.”
“Yes… but… they…” she stammered. “It’s just – the one with the little white heart on his head just fitthe name ‘Precious,’ and I couldn’t just name one and not the others. That wouldn’t be fair.”
“They’re animals, sweetheart,” Dillion reminded her gently. “They don’t know any better.”
“I know,” she admitted, “but we still have to get them out of here.”
“’Course we do! But why aren’t John and Henry doing it?” Dillion said. “They’re the best on horseback.”
“The calves never run the right waywhen we use the horses – and their mamas aren’t about to let their babies run away all alone! It’s been a nightmareherding them lately,” Eloise explained. “I’m afraid if we use the horses now, the calves will run right into the fire… I know you have your reasons for never using him, but I think it would be smarter to push ‘em back with the dog.”
“But the dog…” Dillion began, then trailed off. “I can’trisk it.”
“Mama told me about it, you know,” Eloise said. “She told me a Scotsman sold him to ya as a trick to get into your pockets, but that he’s not actually a cattle-herder… but Daddy, the calves respond to him just like any sheep would. And I’m sure he can at least get themaround the bend right there behind ‘em. The fire won’t make it around that bend, even if we can’t contain it right away. It’s our best chance.”
“How is it that I’ve been doing this ten years longer than you’ve been alive, yet, you understand these creatures better than I evercould?” Dillion mused, smiling.
“I was born here,” Eloise pointed out, shrugging and backing toward the herd. “And so were they.”
“Kindred spirits, eh?” Dillion chuckled. “I’ll go find the dog.”
Dillion ran to a small enclosure around back from the worker’s house, where he had been keeping the dog in a pen that he’d intended to use for pigs before he’d learned that the real money was in cattle. Several months before, Dillion had bought the dog from a man in town, only to learn that the name ‘cattle-dog’ was deceiving, and this animal was really trained for herding sheep. It only took the tiny creature getting kicked in the face once for Dillion to realize the dog wasn’t meant for cattle, but he couldn’t bear to part with it. Instead, he kept it and fed it his table scraps.
“How are you doing today, my boy?” Dillion said, scratching the dog behind the ear.
The pup leaned his head into Dillion’s hand and looked up at him, almost like he was smiling. Dillion opened the pen and pointed at the ground in front of him. The dog obediently followed the gesture, sitting in the exact spot where Dillion pointed.
“Good,” Dillion praised him. “I have a job for you to do, today – and I can’t promise you one of the cows won’t kick your poor head again. Are you prepared to take that risk?”
The dog wagged his tail and smiled up at him.
“That’s what I thought,” Dillion said, smiling. “All right, my boy, away!”
The dog sprinted off to the right, just as Dillion commanded. It took Dillion quite some time to catch up to the dog and the herd, but as with all the animals, the dog was quick to respond to Eloise’s commands. When Dillion arrived, Eloise and the dog had already led four calves around the bend, causing their mothers to follow, just as Eloise had predicted.
“It never ceases to amaze me how well you work with them,” Dillion said admiringly.
“Well, if I’m gonna be doing it for the rest of my life, I might as well be good at it – right?” she said.
“You don’t have to do this for the rest of your life,” her father explained. “What about getting married? Raising children? You want to be a mother one day, don’t you?”
“No reason a mother can’t care for the cattle, too,” Eloise retorted, placing her hands on her hips.
“I suppose, but you may be surprised to learn just how much workit is, raising a child,” he said. “You never expect it to be so hard raising someone.”
“Nonsense,” she said, winking. “I’m gonna have four kids, and they’re all gonna be just like me. Can’t go wrong with a herd of little ones that do everything exactly as you would do. They can never pull a fast one on ya, because you’re always ten steps ahead of ‘em!”
“Those children are actually the hardestto raise,” he corrected. “I would know – I happen to have a daughter who takes after me.”
Eloise smiled, and Dillion put his hand on her shoulder and laughed before taking over command of the dog. After all the calves had been urged around the bend, one of the men on horseback joined them to lead the remaining herd to safety. The fire was half the size it was before, mostly due to Edgar’s aggressive use of the metal rake to fling large amounts of dirt across the fire.
“He’s gonna be sore tomorrow,” Eloise pointed out.
“I’m sure we all will be,” Dillion agreed. “It looks like the men have gotten another trench dug on the south side of the flames, which means we have it completely contained on two sides. It shouldn’t take long to smother the last of the fire.”
“That was smart of them to use the already-burned-out land to smother the live flames,” Eloise said. “It was probably Mark’s idea, if I had to guess – he’s alwayscoming up with clever schemes.”
“How is it that you get along with all the men so well?” Dillion said. “Most of their experience talking to a lady is limited to the Whiskey Girls down at Maude’s Saloon!”
“Probably because I dress like thisaround them,” Eloise guessed, gesturing at her clothes.
“But when you marry, that may change, right?” he said.
“Change?” she scoffed. “Why would I stop wearing work clothes just because I have a husband? Do husbands make the cows less dirty, or the field more friendly toward dresses?”
“I suppose not, but when you have your hair down like that, you look like quite the lady – just like your mother did,” he said fondly.
“This isn’t a town for ladies,” she replied. “And I don’t think I would want to be one, even if it was!”
“A marriage may change all that,” her father ventured.
Dillion and Eloise picked up whatever tools were left strewn across the field and piled more and more dirt over the raging flames. After several hours of fighting the ever-changing fire, the last of the blaze finally went out. Exhausted, Dillion and Eloise returned to their home and plopped down on the armchairs in the parlor. The smell of smoke radiated off of their clothing, filling the room with a scent similar to the smoked fish Dillion sometimes bought from the Natives in town.
“I can’t decide if I’m more tired or more hungry,” Eloise grumbled.
“I hate to say it, but I think I might finally be getting too oldfor this,” Dillion said, rubbing his back.
“Don’t say that, Daddy; you’re hardly past your prime! You’ve got another thirty years in you, at least! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
“Sixty is a bit beyond my prime, sweetheart,” he chuckled. “Though, I appreciate the encouragement. Gotta keep myself going somehow, especially with our currentaffairs.”
“Bandits, lawyers, and now a fire…?” Eloise complained. “We workedfor the land we live on. Why can’t we just be left to live in peace?”
Her father nodded. “Yes, and your mother and brother diedfor it – don’t forget that!”
“Right, and they want us to leave the graves of our family – just because we don’t have a piece of paper? Why are they doing this to us, Daddy?”
“Because the townsfolk know about our wealth, and now, it seems, the word has spread beyond Cayenne,” he said. “It was a mistake to hire so many non-locals over the years… now, every town in the territory hates us for what we have, and some of them will do anythingto try to take it from us. If they have to hire bandits, lawyers, or Natives – they’ll find a way.”
“The Natives haven’t been nearlyas aggressive as the lawyers, in my opinion,” Eloise admitted. “But don’t worry, Daddy; they can’t take this land from us – I won’t letthem!”
“I claimed this land, same as anyone else who come out west,” he said. “They only want it back because Imade something of it… and, unfortunately, it’s not justthe lawyers. You notice how we were using nothing but dirt to put out that wildfire?”
“I thought that was because of how dryit’s been.”
“Yes, but it seems there was more to it than we first knew…” her father said. “See, I spoke with Henry about that strange dust storm he and John created to try to stop the flames – asked him why he was wasting the horses’ ability to carry water back and forth to the flames, just to turn up dust like a couple of chickens with their heads cut off.
“He told me they were kicking dirt onto the fire because it was their only option. They triedbringing water to the flames, but when they got to the irrigation line, they found that someone diverted our water – again.As if it’s not enough to steal our cows, now they are trying to killthem by taking away their drinking water. When will the nonsense end? I am much too old for this.”
“If that’s so, then it’s a goodthing we caught wind of the fire early enough, or else we might have diedin it! How would they feel then, huh?” Eloise said, shaking her fist in the air. “Killing not only the cattle, but an innocent familywith their greed!?”
“Some men don’t have the heart you do,” Dillion told her, brushing the hair away from Eloise’s eyes. “I know you presentyourself as a tough ranch worker, but deep down, you’re still my sweet, little Ellie.”
“I’m not little anymore, Daddy,” she argued, rolling her eyes.
“Oh, I know that,” he said. “It was quite smart of you to think of using the dog to herd the calves – very adult, indeed.”
“Daddy… If you dislike him so much, why do you keep him?” Eloise asked.
“Well…” Dillion stood to gaze at a picture off the mantle. “If I had to give a reason, I’d say it’s because the dog reminds me of your brother.”
“He reminds you of Edison?” Eloise said. “But why?”
“He may be a dog, but he symbolizes something more to me. That dog came to this ranch after a lifetime of searching for somewhere to call home, and Edison loved him instantly… in a way, the dog claimed us the same way we claimed this land. I suppose the dog reminds me of what I’m fighting for – and what my dear Edison and beloved wifedied for. Not to mention, the dog was the last living thing to see my sonalive.”
Dillion stared at the image of his wife, holding a tiny, baby boy in her arms. This was the only image he had of his wife and son, and he thanked the Lord every day that he had decided to have it taken those fifteen years ago, when an aspiring photographer passed through their town.
“Daddy,” Eloise ventured after a long pause. “I’ve been thinking about that photo, and I wondered… would you consider having one taken of yourself? It’s just – we have one of them, and I don’t need one of myself. But after I lose you –in thirty or more years, of course – well, I’ll be alone, and I’d like to have my family with me on this ranch, for as long as I shall live.”
Dillion sighed and walked over to Eloise, as if preparing to embrace her. However, before he could reply, they heard the door to the house slam and the echo of boots against the wooden floor as someone ran toward the parlor.
“Mr. Harding!” Henry yelled, appearing in the doorway. “Sorry to enter your home like this, but I been cleaning up after the fire, and I found something you should know about.”
“Well…?” Dillion said, raising an eyebrow. “What is it, my boy?”
“Mr. Harding,” he went on. “Somebody startedthe fire… intentionally.”
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