A woman who’s lost everything – a man who’s there for her.
Selma has never expected that she’ll inherit a rough piece of land in California after her father’s tragic death. Along her journey to visit this ranch, she finds herself in a small town in Arizona, where a mysterious young boy seems to follow her everywhere she goes. And now an unknown strong man seems always to be close to her to protect her. How can she choose between her dream of leading a free-spirited life in California and her growing feelings for this man?
Bill is a guarded saloon owner who prefers keeping to himself. Having fled his hometown with his father because of a notorious gang, he wanted to rebuild his life away from indiscreet people. But when his troubled past follows him in this new town, he can’t ignore them anymore. Upon meeting Selma, he is mesmerized by her bravery and sharp wits. How can he protect his new family with Selma from a man who has come to usurp what is his?
Selma and Bill’s sweet union seems short-lived, but with the help of the mysterious young boy will they have a chance to take a stand against this gang? How can they protect everything they love and build a loving family when they are not ready for such danger?
The Texas sun sagged low in the sky painting the canvas of the land in golden hues of orange. Bill thought that he had never seen such a glorious sunset. It was so beautiful that he would not mind if it was his last. Which might be the case, Bill thought.
“You nervous, boy?” a man asked. Bill said nothing. He was nervous. He’d never done anything like this in his life.
He was sitting atop his horse, an old one that belonged to his father, and one that he wasn’t sure was up for the task that he was being asked to complete.
“Of course, he’s nervous,” another man said. “He’s greener than a pasture field.”
All the men chuckled, and Bill felt his hackles rise at the laughter. He was here against his will, and he did not need the men poking fun at him.
“Leave the boy alone,” one of the men said. “We should all remember our first time.”
The men’s laughter grew louder, and Bill was certain that he would lose his mind out here, by the rail tracks, awaiting the stagecoach. All because my father did not know when to stop betting, Bill thought bitterly. Though he loved his father and would do anything for him, he blamed him for his current predicament.
“Time to focus,” Butch said. He was one of Cassidy Torben’s men. Cassidy was the leader of the local and deadliest gang of outlaws.
Almost as if they were one army and Butch a General, all the men snapped to attention, including Bill. “The coach should be coming round the bend soon,” he said. “We want to drive them toward there,” he pointed to a narrow valley. This was where the railroad tracks narrowed and turned and where Bill assumed it would be easier to jump the coach.
“Shouldn’t some of us be up there?” Bill asked. Standing around felt silly and pointless to him. He also suspected it made them easy to spot.
“Keep your trap shut. You’re here to pay your daddy’s debts,” the man said, his voice hard and threatening. Bill snapped his lips shut. “We jump the coach, get rid of the riders, and drive it to Cassidy’s spot.”
Bill closed his eyes. Say nothing, he said. Say nothing.
“You got something you want to add, boy?” the man asked.
Bill knew he should keep his mouth closed. These men were criminals. Cassidy Torben’s gang was notorious in north Texas. His gang was filled with murderers and thieves, and they were all slipperier than eels. Local law knew that the crime in the area could be laid at Cassidy’s feet, but they had no proof. Cassidy Torben wasn’t just a criminal; he was a mastermind. The type of man who approached crime the way other men approached education.
Butch’s hand grabbed Bill by the collar of his shirt. Cassidy made all his men wear black, so Bill had needed to borrow a shirt from his father. The linen was too big which left room between the other man’s fingers and Cassidy’s skin.
“You got something to say, boy?” the man asked once more.
“Cassidy said not to kill anyone,” Bill said. He stuttered his words a bit, but he did his best to remain strong.
“You think you know what the boss wants?” the man asked. He yanked once more, and it took everything in Bill not to topple off his horse and onto the ground. “Huh?” the man asked.
Bill shook his head. “I’m just telling ya what Cassidy told me,” he said. “I-I-I,” Bill searched for a lie. He needed to find a way to calm this situation that he’d unknowingly gotten himself into.
“Spit it out,” the man yelled. He was so close to Bill’s face that he could smell the sour stench of whiskey on his tongue. He’s drunk, Bill thought, incredulous. This operation is being run by a man of the bottle. The thought made Bill even more nervous.
“I can’t afford not to get the boss what he wants,” Bill said. He stared into the man’s dark, bloodshot eyes and prayed that he would see the truth in Bill. Because it was the truth, at least part of it.
Cassidy owned Bill, and if he messed up this job, Cassidy would make sure to collect his pound of flesh.
“He ain’t wrong,” one of the men hollered out. His words seemed to break the spell over their leader, and the man released Bill with a sudden swiftness that nearly forced Bill off the side of the horse.
“You listen to me, and you’ll get Cassidy all the money he needs to clear your daddy’s debt. Don’t listen and he’ll make sure you and your old men are buzzard food.”
Bill couldn’t argue with that. He would happily die for his father, but he would rather not if he could help it. He was here to do a job, and if he did, he could go back to his normal life. At least until Pa gets himself into another situation, he thought.
The sound of the wagon wheels slapping against the dirt drew everyone’s attention, and the infighting between the men had to be put on the backburner as they turned their attention to the task ahead of them.
They all knew that those were the sounds of the stagecoach. It was coming upon them moving quickly, which meant that it was time to stop standing around and time to act.
“You all know your jobs. Keep to it and remember that Cassidy will have your head and heart if you fail.”
His words barely registered to Bill. It was his job to ride behind the coach, catching the money that the other men threw to him. It was one of the most important jobs, and Bill wondered if that’s why it had been given to him. He wondered if Cassidy wanted him to fail, so that he could end Bill’s life.
Don’t fail, he thought. His body tensed as the sound of the stagecoach came closer and closer. The men had taken their places scattering around the road, hiding in trees, and some on their feet in the tall grass.
Bill was the only one visible. They’d decided he looked the least threatening. As the coach got closer and closer, Bill maneuvered his mare into the middle of the stagecoach’s path. He said a small prayer and gripped his reins.
Clap, clap, clap. The sound of the horse’s hooves slapping against the hard Earth came closer and closer.
Bill’s mare neighed, as if warning him of the danger that lay ahead of them both. Bill tightened the reins in an effort to keep his mare on the path of the stagecoach. The sound of the horses came closer and closer.
It’s not slowing, Bill thought, true, terrifying panic settled into his chest. I’m going to die.
But just as Bill resigned himself to his fate and said a final prayer to his maker, the driver of the stagecoach caught sight of him. Bill was close enough to the stagecoach that he could see the surprise in the driver’s eyes as he spotted Bill in his path.
“Get out of the road!” he yelled, his voice loud with caution even over the horses. Though he trembled, Bill did not move. His mare grew more and more difficult to control as she realized the danger, she was in. Bill felt terrible that she might suffer for his father’s mistake.
“Move!” the driver yelled once more, but Bill did not.
Breathing heavily, Bill’s sweaty palms slipping on the reigns, but still, he did not move. Death seemed imminent until it wasn’t. At the last moment, the driver of the stagecoach did all he could to go around Bill, which had been the plan all along.
The stagecoach had been driving at breakneck speed did not move quickly out of the way quickly enough. The driver was skilled, but the coach’s wheels lifted off the ground and the horses bucked into one another in confusion scared and unsure of what to do.
This was the moment that Cassidy’s men had been waiting for. While the driver did his best to slow down the stagecoach without losing a horse or a wheel, Cassidy’s men took the opportunity to jump aboard.
Bill couldn’t hear the exclamations of the driver. In fact, he wasn’t even sure if the driver was aware of what was happening, but as the wagon righted itself Bill tensed. He knew immediately that the wagon wheels were not going to hold up, which meant that the plan was going to fall apart quickly.
They all watched as the stagecoach was ahead of them, and they watched as the whole thing tottered on its wheels.
“It’s not going to hold,” Bill yelled. He spurred his mare onwards trying to catch the men. They needed to retreat. Leave the money and get out of dodge. Though all of their faces were covered by colored clothes, Cassidy made it clear that they were not to get caught.
Two of the wheels on the stagecoach cracked forcing the carriage to slam against the ground.
Bill’s eyes met one of the men’s, and he saw the panic he felt playing out across his face. They were supposed to steal while the stagecoach was still moving, force it into the valley, and get away while the driver tried to turn around.
That had been the plan, until the leader decided he wanted to try something new. A diversion.
“Dagnabit!” Bill yelled. He spurred his horse onward. “Hand me the money. Hand me as much as you can.”
Though Cassidy did not want them caught, Bill couldn’t go back empty-handed.
“Take it!” the gang leader yelled. He’d been one of the men on the coach, and he threw a large bag of money toward Bill. The heavy weight of the bag weighed Bill down, but he still screamed for another.
“Drop the bag, boy!”
Bill tensed. The driver knew that he was being robbed, which made this situation so much more dangerous. Luckily for them all, he was tied up in the reins and was unable to get out of his seat or reach for his gun. From the look of things, that stagecoach sustained more damage than just a simple axel break.
“Give me more!” Bill yelled. Sweat dripped down his back as his nervousness grew.
“That’s the last of it,” the leader said. He crawled out for the stagecoach wagon. He had his gun in his hand, and Bill wondered how he’d managed to do so much one-handed. Practice, Bill thought. He didn’t care for that thought, and he hoped he’d never be as skilled at something like this.
“What are you doing?” Bill asked Butch as he stalked towards the men who had been driving the stagecoach. The other men were tying the rest of the bags to their horses saddle.
“Keep quiet, boy,” he growled, “or you’ll be next.”
Bill jumped swiftly off his horse. If he was going to die, he would do so standing on his feet facing this man. Bill wasn’t a coward. He spent most of his life cleaning his father’s mess, and it had made him hard. But he didn’t want to die. Not like this. Not as an outlaw.
“I’m not going to let you kill this man,” he said. His hand slid under his jacket. He could feel the cool metal of his own gun against his fingers. He didn’t grab it. Not yet.
Butch turned on Bill swiftly. “You think you’re one of us?” the man spit out.
“No,” Bill said. He didn’t care to be one of them. He’d joined the gang to help his father not because he wished to rob stagecoaches. Unlike these men, Bill did not need to steal from others to feel like a man.
“Ahh,” the man said. He lowered his gun slightly. He didn’t think of Bill as a threat. “So, you think you’re better than us.”
“I’m here,” Bill said. “So, I’m no better, but I’m no murderer.”
The man cackled. He had raised his gun waving it around as he spoke. “You’re nothing more than a flat-footed boy.”
The men laughed, but Bill felt his anger grow in his chest. His fingers twitched on his gun as the man turned back towards the driver.
He cocked his gun, and Bill knew exactly what he was planning to do.
Bill had become a thief. He stole the money of good, honest people to fill the coffers of a man he hated, but he would not become a murderer. Bill made a split-second decision as he watched the leader lift his pistol.
Though the west was wild and life hard, Bill had never seen a man killed. The fear that was reflected in the driver’s eyes caused Bill’s heart to thunder in his chest and guilt to eat at his stomach.
Without giving it too much thought, Bill shouted once more. “Leave him!” he said. “We are out on the road anyone could come upon us. Let’s take the money and leave.”
This time the man did more than shout out Bill. Swinging his arm so fast that Bill barely had a moment to anticipate the blow, the man butted Bill in the mouth with his gun. The butt of the gun crushed against his teeth, and Bill felt the copper taste of blood fill his mouth. The blow sent him to his knees making him vulnerable to the swift kick that met the soft flesh of his stomach.
He fell over pain radiating throughout his body. Another blow sent Bill sprawling out flat. He coughed blood into the dirt as he tried to gain his bearings.
“Don’t kill him,” Bill heard. “Cassidy wants him with us.”
The man grunted, but he stopped the beating long enough for Bill to scramble to his knees. He did not wish to die coughing blood into the dirt. He also couldn’t let the driver die. He learned early on to do what he needed to survive, but he could not do that. He would not take an innocent life.
“You can’t kill him,” Bill gasped out. His sides hurt with every breath, and he was sure that something inside his body was broken.
“You don’t know when to quit do you, boy?” the man sneered. Bill could see his dirty black boots, covered in road dust, make their way towards him.
He’s going to beat you to death, and father is going to die for your lunacy, he thought, his eyes focusing in on the dirt in front of him.
Bill’s fingers grabbed at the gun on his waist once more. He sighed as he found it. Even in his beating he hadn’t lost his lone weapon. For that, he was grateful.
“Cassidy said…” Bill tried to reason with the man once more. Cassidy had made it clear that they were to leave the driver alive. Robbing a stagecoach might make them outlaws but killing every driver would draw the attention of law enforcement all over the area. Even Cassidy didn’t have the power or money to pay off everyone.
“I don’t care what Cassidy said!” the man yelled. He cocked the gun, the click of the pin against the barrel and prepared to fire at Bill’s prone form.
That was all Bill needed. There was no time to think only time to act.
Summoning every ounce of strength, he had, Bill jumped to his knees pulling his own weapon. Blood poured into his eyes and mouth as he aimed blindly.
He said nothing, gave absolutely no warning before firing. In the future, he might wonder what would have happened if he had. He suspected that Cassidy’s man would have killed him, and then the driver, and then Cassidy would have killed his father.
But in the moment, Bill thought of nothing other than survival. So, without regret, he leveled his gun, pulled the trigger, and released a shot that would change his life forever.
“Cheers!” a loud group of men shouted. Even from his office, Bill could hear the loud commotion and the clink of glasses that signaled a good night at the saloon. Lately, every night had been a good one. Looking at the books, Bill smiled. It was the first smile he’d had in a long time.
Money was good, which was a nice change of circumstances. For years, Bill and his family had struggled. When money came in, his father gambled it away at one of the local gaming houses. Now, Bill was in control, and he was finally able to eke out a good, honest living.
Bill hoped that one day he would have a thriving business. He wanted to be able to live without being beholden to another person. His father had always been chasing the next big bag of cash, and that chase destroyed his family. Bill didn’t want to be that way.
The sounds in the saloon were growing louder and louder as the night went on, and Bill knew that he would need to get out there soon. He’d left his father, Wesley, out there working the bar, something that Bill did not care to do for very long.
Releasing a deep breath, Bill threw his ledger on the table and buttoned his black vest. Oatman was a small town, but it was a hub for travelers, and many of those looking to make their way toward California to partake in the gold rush.
California gold isn’t just good for them, Bill thought, smiling again. Walking out, Bill’s eyes scanned his establishment. Men filled the place. Work had finished for the day and those who didn’t have a wife to go home to were coming in for their nightly drink. Some were dressed in expensive overcoats that signaled their wealth, and others were covered in dirt from their work as day laborers.
Nothing brings people together like corn juice and ale, Bill thought as he made his way to the bar.
Wesley, Bill’s father, was holding court as he poured drinks regaling the customers with tales of his former life in Texas. Bill’s father liked to pretend he was a reformed outlaw, a man who had found the Lord and repented himself. The truth of it was, Wesley’s gambling had forced them out of Texas. They’d left their home and run for their lives stopping in Oatman on their way to California, but like everyone else who took up residence in the area, they decided to stay.
Bill was grateful for it. California was a fool’s paradise.
“Y’all hold that thought,” Bill heard his father say to two men. “I’ll be right back.”
The men nodded, and Wesley scurried over.
“What’s happening?” Bill asked. Wesley’s eyes were dark with worry, something which Bill hadn’t seen since their time in Texas. What happened there cleaned his father up of his gambling problem, but it hadn’t done much to fix the relationship between the two of them.
“Those men came in here talking about how they were robbed by some outlaws,” he said.
Bill shrugged. He felt bad for the men, but it wasn’t uncommon for outlaws to target travelers. They weren’t the first men to come in here, and Bill thought that they should be thanking their lucky stars that the outlaws left them alive.
“They aren’t just travelers,” his father said, his voice tense. “They are drivers for a freighting company, and they were set out upon by a group of outlaws….”
“Pa…” Bill said, his voice terse. His father had been worried for weeks. Crime seemed to be on the uptake around Oatman, with more and more outlaws taking over freight. Wesley worried that it was the resurgence of Cassidy Torben, the man who threatened to hunt them both down and end their lives.
Bill thought that Wesley was being paranoid. Cassidy was back in Texas, and he certainly had bigger worries than the two of them. That had been what Bill banked on when he convinced his father to flee Texas for Oatman all those years ago.
“Just talk to the men,” his father begged. Bill sighed. He did not want to talk to the men. He didn’t want to stick his nose where it didn’t belong. Haven’t we learned that’s a good way to get it blown off? he thought.
“Bill…” his father implored him once more, and Bill felt himself caving under the pressure.
“Fine!” he said, holding his hands up. “You win.”
Bill stormed toward the men at his bar, and he felt his heart pound a little as he took in the men’s faces. Both men were covered in dirt. They’d likely been hit on the road and had walked for miles to get back to town.
“Hey there,” Bill said. “Can I get y’all a drink, on the house?” He felt bad. The men looked miserable.
Even with the dirt covering their features, Bill could see the damage that the outlaws had done. One of the men’s eyes was turning black, and the other had a gash on his head that Bill suspected needed to be seen by a doctor.
“That’s a mighty fine offer,” one of the men said. Bill nodded. He reached behind the bar and poured two glasses of whiskey. It wasn’t his finest, but he suspected the men needed something stiffer than ale.
“Y’all want to tell me what happened out there?” Bill asked.
“Robbed on the highway,” one said. Crimson blood was smeared across his forehead, and Bill winced to see the damage. Someone had smashed his face in real good, and Bill suspected he’d be even worse for wear tomorrow when the bruising started.
“We were more than robbed,” his partner said. He took a gulp of his whiskey, his hands shaking. “I’ve been a driver for years, but I’ve never seen a group of men this brutal.”
“Can you tell me more?” Bill asked. Looking closer at the men, he agreed with them. Most outlaws were more interested in money than in brutalizing drivers. If people started dying, they’d stop traveling. It was in everyone’s best interest to loot the stagecoaches and keep the drivers breathing.
At least that’s how things used to be, Bill thought. Though his father might be paranoid, he wasn’t necessarily wrong. People were getting robbed on the road, but it seemed to be becoming more and more brutal. These men were the worst that he’d seen.
“We already told everything to Sheriff Graves,” one of the men said.
Bill did everything that he could not to roll his eyes. Graves was about as corrupt as they came. He was on the take, and every local criminal knew that if they slipped Graves a bit of coin, he’d look the other way.
Bill poured each man another glass of whiskey. He was interested to know what happened. He filled their cups to the brim with amber liquid. Bill knew he was wasting good alcohol, but he needed to know more.
“This is mighty fine of you,” one of the men said, his throat working as he drank down a large mouthful.
“The men came out of nowhere,” one said. “They jumped on the back of the coach like they were born to do it.”
Bill nodded. He noticed that some of the other men at the bar started leaning in to listen to what was being said. In fact, a large section of the saloon quieted as they listened to the men’s story. It made Bill nervous. Whoever was robbing stagecoaches might not appreciate Bill sticking his nose into his business. And I can’t afford to have anyone’s nose in mine, he thought.
“We wouldn’t have even known they were in the coach if they hadn’t started shooting at us,” he said.
“They shot at ya?” one of the men at the bar asked. He shook his head. “I got caught up a month ago, but they just broke my axle, tied me up, and left me for the next.”
“Lucky you,” the man said. He sipped his whiskey.
“We are lucky they didn’t shoot us,” he said.
Bill nodded. They were lucky. The outlaws were also lucky. Most thieves were not interested in losing their lives and kept the gunplay to a minimum. This all sounds reckless, Bill thought.
“How’d ya get your face smashed in?” the man at the bar asked. It was a valid question, but Bill wasn’t sure that was the best way to ask it.
“One of the men grabbed me from behind. That’s when we realized that they were already on the coach. He used his gun to do this,” he said. He pointed to the gash on his head. At some point in the conversation he’d placed a handkerchief of the gash, but even that was not enough to do much.
“You should go see the pill,” Bill said, pointing toward the gash. “Or at least the local seamstress. Maybe she could sew your cuts up.”
The man cracked a smile. “They drove us off the road. I thought that we were done for, but after they got what they could, they rode away.”
Bill nodded. That sounded more like it. “Well, y’all enjoy the rest of your drinks, and I hope to see you back in these parts under better circumstances.” He tipped his head towards them, letting his dark hair slip in his eyes for a moment. Each man saluted him with their drink before they turned to interact with the rest of the customers.
Men flocked toward them wanting to know their stories and share tales of their own. Glancing over at his father, Bill saw him sitting at the edge of the bar drinking a pint of ale. He looked exhausted, and Bill worried about how all of this was affecting him. Though their relationship had become strained over the years, Wesley was still Bill’s father, and he cared for him. It’s why he’d gone to such lengths all those years ago to save him.
“Sounds like Cassidy’s men, don’t it?” his father said, as Bill walked toward him.
Bill sighed. “Why would Cassidy be in Oatman? He owned most of Texas, and he liked it that way.”
Wesley shook his head. His once dark hair had turned gray years before, but sometimes it startled Bill how old his father looked. He still remembered when his mother was alive, and the two of them would dance around the living room. Those were the happiest years of both of their lives.
“Do you really think that Cassidy was going to just let us go?” Wesley said, his voice had a frantic edge to it.
Bill ran a hand through his dark hair, pushing the long strands off his face. “If Cassidy was going to come for us, he would have done so by now.”
Wesley shook his head again. Bill knew his father was growing more and more frustrated with him. Customers had been coming off the road for weeks claiming a similar story as the men tonight. They were set upon by a group of outlaws who were brutal and efficient. What made Wesley nervous was that the story so much mirrored one of Bill’s own.
“Cassidy doesn’t let anyone just get away, and he always wanted you to come work for him,” he said.
“Considering what happened the last time I worked for Cassidy, I doubt that he would want me working for him again.”
Wesley did not look convinced. “If Cassidy has come to town…”
“If he has, I’ll deal with it,” Bill said. “Just like I did before.”
The words tasted acrid on his tongue. In truth, Bill did not know what he would do if Cassidy was coming for them. Oatman represented a new life for Bill, and Cassidy had the opportunity to destroy that without having to conduct any physical harm.
But he would likely not skip the physical pain part, Bill thought.
“You’re worried,” his father said. His dark eyes searched Bill’s face.
“I’m only worried about the books,” Bill said, deflecting the question. “Which is something that I need to get back to.”
Wesley said nothing, but he felt his father’s eyes on his back as he walked away.
If Cassidy is in town, I need to find a way to get to him before he gets to me.
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