She needs to run away and hide from a murder she has not committed. He doesn’t like trouble in his group. How can two people find true love in a Western journey that will change their lives once and for all?
“She didn’t know what she was feeling. Could it be love? The thought frightened her; she didn’t know what love was.”
Pauline’s arranged marriage ends when she finds her abusive husband dead in their house. She is innocent, but the small community thinks very highly of her late husband, and now, they believe she is guilty. With marks on her heart and body, she has no choice but to flee west with a cattle drive team and save her life. But, how can she cure her wounds and make people welcome her when the mysterious and handsome chief of the team doesn’t trust her?
Dan wants to be far away from home as often as possible, so he joins the group and travels West for supplies. He cannot stand staying on his ranch with the memories of his late wife and son murdered by bandits in front of his eyes. When Pauline joins their team, he is suspicious of her. How can he see her true colors when he hates how fast his heart beats every time he sees her beautiful and innocent eyes?
Dan and Pauline have their own wounds to heal, and they bond over their trauma. Now Dan is determined to protect her beautiful heart. How can they manage to untangle this conspiracy and prove Pauline’s innocence?
Windy Reach, AZ, 1880
Pauline trembled, her face as white as the sheet that covered her husband’s body as they hefted it onto the wooden stretcher. The undertaker and his assistant carried the corpse past them to the wagon waiting outside. She leaned against her father, Frank Mack, for support. Pauline had run to him first when she’d found Herschel Hogan dead. Just as she had a dozen times prior that week, she had come home from the general store with all the fixings to make his dinner. Instead, she’d found him with a bullet hole in his chest.
Terrified, in shock, and not knowing what to do, Pauline had rushed to her father’s townhouse. The rotund man standing across from them cleared his throat, breaking the silence. It was Sheriff Bert Morrison. Though Pauline didn’t think he was much of one. He had a reputation around town for doing the bare minimum to keep his badge. Anyone who didn’t want to make an earnest living was questionable in her book. Yet now her fate rested in his polished hands.
It was little after midday by the time the Sheriff had gotten there. They were standing in the foyer as the coroner finished up. The house wasn’t very old, and the yellow paint still looked new. Outside she could already hear the locals talking amongst themselves, not loud enough to hear inside, but loud enough to know there was a crowd.
“So, tell me again what happened, young lady.” His voice was deep and slow.
Bert was a large man, clean-shaven with short blonde hair. He was in his thirties and had been the Sheriff for more than ten years. Yet he still seemed lost about his duties.
“I just got home from the general store,” Pauline stammered. “I… I walked in, and he was just lying there, blood everywhere.”
Her voice was soft and unsteady. The shaking in her hands wouldn’t stop. Pauline’s face was red and puffy from the crying that would come without warning. She kept wringing the handkerchief in her hands and wiping her eyes. Her large eyes began to dart back and forth around the house as if she were looking for the person accountable for the murder.
“So why did you run to your father’s home and not straight to me?” he demanded.
“I wasn’t sure if there was anyone still here. I was scared! I just ran to the closest place I knew,” she whispered.
When she’d arrived at her father’s townhouse and explained to him what had happened, he’d immediately sent his farmhand to fetch the law. It was only then that he went with Pauline to check on her husband.
The lawman produced a notepad and pencil from his pocket. “Looks like there was a bit of a struggle. Does it look like anything is missing or not in the right place?”
Pauline looked around the house, struggling to remember every detail. Nothing was out of place. Even Herschel’s oak desk was just as she had seen it earlier. He was a meticulous man in every way. The slightest speck of dust or canister set ajar would send her husband into an angry rage. She’d learned to keep things perfect for him. That along with the ability to hide a bruise with a bit of cooking fat and clay dust had set the tone for their marriage.
“I don’t rightly know…” she muttered. “Well now, come to think of it, did the coroner find Herschel’s pocket watch?”
“I’ll have to check with them.”
“He never goes anywhere without it,” she said. “It was a family heirloom and should be in his vest pocket.”
He adjusted his belt and looked hard at Pauline. She could feel his eyes burning through her. She knew that Bert was aware of how her husband treated her. Heck, the whole town did, but no one ever talked about it. No matter how much she tried to do for Herschel, he would come home drunk from the saloon and always get rough with her. Leaving bruises and scars that she would have to try and hide time and time again.
Shame crept over her at the elated sensation she felt knowing he’d never strike her again. Pauline never loved Herschel. It was only out of obedience to her father, who had arranged the marriage, that she’d agreed to wed. Yet she was a faithful wife; she could never kill anyone. The Sheriff looked around the small space. Pauline wondered if she should have offered him a beverage, but this was no social gathering. Their home was modest, yet the space felt cramped every time the Sheriff rocked back on his heels. The floorboards creaked beneath his weight, echoing off the bare walls. Herschel always hated artwork; he called it useless clutter.
“You want to know what I think?” the Sheriff sneered. His breath stank of tobacco each time he opened his mouth. “I think you need to give me more to go on. You’re hiding something; I can feel it in my gut.”
The statement took her by surprise and caused a rush of fear to overtake her. At the same time, she was angry that the so-called Sheriff thought she might be hiding something, or worse, that he thought she killed her husband.
Pauline glared at him. She had a feeling the only thing going through the Sheriff’s gut was that morning’s grits. Bert wasn’t known for being a great Sheriff. Pauline couldn’t remember a time when he had solved anything. Every time she went to town, Pauline heard the people talking and the rumors going around about how careless he was with any investigation that fell in his lap.
Pauline crossed her arms, hugging herself tightly. “I told you everything I know. I’m not hiding anything.”
“Herschel was well-known and liked ‘round here,” the Sheriff threatened. “I wouldn’t venture too far away from town. I have a feeling I’m going to have some more questions.”
The duo watched Bert walk away before turning for her father’s home. A former military man himself, he had remained mostly quiet during the gentle interrogation. He trusted the law, or at the very least hoped they would do a good job. Despite his silence, Pauline had known he would intervene if needed. It was simply his stoic nature to let things run their course. Herschel was a popular businessman. Everyone in the community had drunk or gambled with her husband at least once.
They walked the path through the field leading back to Frank’s house. Tall grass swayed on either side of her. The scent of the fresh flowers filled the evening air. She couldn’t help but notice how quiet her father was. Despite it being a hot and sunny day, there was a chill when she looked at him. There was worry behind his kind eyes.
“Did you kill him, Pauline?” he asked. “I wouldn’t blame you if you did it.”
Pauline skidded to a stop, her jaw dropping in complete shock. She couldn’t believe that her father had just asked her the question. For years she had done everything possible to prove to him that she was a good person. Yet one lazy Sheriff had called into question his entire view of her. Instantly she was overcome with rage that gave way to a deep sadness.
“No, I did not kill him!” she snapped. “How dare you ask me a question like that!”
Pauline was horrified. The thought of her father doubting her brought tears to her eyes. She scowled at him even as her blue eyes started to moisten. She looked down at the healing bruises on her arms and spun away from him, anger evident with each step as they walked back to her father’s house. The clear blue sky laid a foundation for the storm she knew was coming.
“Listen,” he growled.
Pauline stopped and her father continued, “It’s my fault you were married to that monster. I think we need to start talking about getting you out of town. Whether or not you did it, I’ve got a bad feeling.”
“You think I did it, don’t you?”
She knew he was only trying to protect her, but it still hurt that he could ask. He had talked to her about his regret for arranging her marriage before, but it had been too late. She had been trapped, married to a man she didn’t love, a choice she made for another man she loved, her father.
Her father didn’t reply. Instead, he started walking again. This time, it felt like he was leaving her behind as well.
Windy Reach, AZ, 1880
Pauline could count on one hand the number of close friends she had. Of those, Lucy Long was her nearest and dearest. It was the spunky young woman who came to check on her later that evening. She adored everything about Lucy, from the woman’s feisty nature to her innate ability to cheer Pauline up even on the darkest of days. She kept her petticoats brightly colored and snug, just for the gentleman callers that tried to court her.
They sat on her father’s porch together, talking about the day’s events. It was nice to have a moment of normalcy as they watched the wagons and horses bustle by. Each new wheel and rider brought with it a flurry of dust clouds. She loved to daydream about where the riders might be coming from or going. How she longed to listen to their stories. Lucy cleared her throat, tugging Pauline’s attention back to the conversation.
“How are you getting along?” Lucy asked.
She sighed. “Part of me is happy that he’s gone. I never have to go through the pain of his touch again. I know what people must think. I’m just torn, confused, and at this point, probably looking at getting hung for murder. Lucy, I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I just spend my time going back and forth between being pleased and bawling my eyes out. What am I going to do?”
“I wasn’t planning on saying anything, but folks are talking,” Lucy admitted, touching Pauline’s hand to comfort her. “Everyone has heard about Herschel’s murder. Even Betty Cartwright at the general store was talking about it.”
Pauline’s heart started to race; a rush of panic moved through her. She already knew people would be talking. Her palms began to sweat and tremble all over again. The fact that the townspeople might already think she was the killer created an aura of fear around her. She knew the consequences for murder, and she was not ready to die for something she didn’t do.
“What does she think happened, Lucy?” Pauline asked.
Lucy leaned forward, her tone hushed. “Well, I overheard her talking to Norma. She was saying you probably did it. She told her that he probably came home drunk, and you shot him before he could smack you around again and of course, old Nosey Norma just fed right into it.”
“If she’s talking about it like that, then that means everyone is likely thinking the same thing,” Pauline said.
Lucy put her hand on her friend’s shoulder. Her voice was caring and friendly. “Not everyone, honey. I know you better than that. Things will all work out for the best in the end.”
It was getting late. The evening sky was beginning to darken as the sun slowly settled across the horizon. Pauline loved watching the sunset, the official end of each day. The two young women talked until the sun was gone. They said their goodbyes and Lucy promised to come back the next day to check on her. Pauline stayed on the porch just long enough to watch her friend disappear into the night.
She walked into the house and right to her old bedroom. She hadn’t slept there since the night of her wedding, but Papa kept it the same for her anyways. Her father was still working late in his study. They still hadn’t spoken since he’d asked if she was a murderer. Pauline was angry with him, there was no denying that. She always did as he asked, constantly doing all she could to earn his approval. Since her mother had died shortly after Pauline’s birth, her father was the only real family she had. The rift between them ached.
She quietly readied herself for bed before blowing out the candle and climbing between the sheets. The old room, with its white walls, creaked with every gust of wind. Despite how hard she tried, Pauline didn’t sleep at all that night. She kept thinking about her husband’s body. Her thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the bedroom door. She hadn’t realized until then that it was morning.
“Honey, I just wanted to tell you I’m sorry,” he said through the door. “I really don’t believe you killed your husband. I just… I had to ask.”
“I know you didn’t, Daddy,” she said. “I don’t think I could handle it if you believed that.”
Pauline could sense the sincerity of her father’s voice, but there was something else there as well. She could tell that part of him was unsure, a man questioning a woman’s word. The thought saddened her, but she tried to hide it from him, not wanting to add to his burden.
“Daddy, what’s the matter?” she asked.
Her father opened the door and stepped inside. She could see the worry in his eyes. Pauline sat up and looked at her father with concern. He looked away from her, his brow creasing with regret.
“I never should have agreed to that marriage. I just thought he was a better man. He was such a good businessman, after all. I thought we would make good business partners,” he said sadly.
“You can’t blame yourself for this.”
He sighed. “I’m so sorry for doing that to you.”
“I understand,” she promised. “I forgive you, Daddy. I only wanted to make you happy.”
She rose from the bed and closed the distance between them. Without her wardrobe at his home, she had slept in her dress and petticoat all night. He wrapped her into his arms and held her tightly. Pauline fought back tears as she silently reminded herself to be strong, if not for herself, then for her father.
“I’ll go make us some breakfast,” he said.
He walked out of the room and into the kitchen, leaving her to ready herself for the day. Pauline made the bed and brushed her hair. She wasn’t ready for what the day might bring, but no sense in dwelling on it now. She had things to keep her busy, as she walked out of the bedroom.
Pauline spent the morning busying herself with household chores that would normally fall to one of the maids. She didn’t mind the work but found it was more lonely than usual. Her father still had work to do, and she was left to herself for most of the day. She washed laundry in an old barrel with a washboard and hung them out to dry in the warm air. At least a slight breeze made her feel some peace.
It wasn’t long before she was humming a hymn, her heart light for the first time in years. She was happy to be able to help her father with the house; it made her feel useful and a little less guilty for all the trouble she’d caused. It brought back memories of her childhood. Her father always put his business first, but she knew he loved her.
The pair didn’t see each other again until later that evening when they shared a hearty stew. As her father retired to his study for a cigar, Pauline worked on cleaning up the kitchen. She saw Lucy dart past the window a split second before she rushed the back door, out of breath and obviously flustered.
“Heavens! What’s wrong?” Pauline asked.
“I came over as soon as I could. Mama was taking care of the twins today; they’ve got a cough, so I filled in over at the Sheriff’s office.”
Pauline’s stomach dropped. There was a look in Lucy’s eyes that couldn’t be ignored. A look of concern and fearfulness.
“There was a man that came in to talk to the Sheriff. He told Bert that he had come over to your house to talk business with Herschel and overheard the two of you arguing,” Lucy said, still catching her breath. “He said that he heard you threaten to kill your husband!”
Pauline was horrified. She knew it wasn’t true, but that wouldn’t stop the Sheriff from arresting and hanging her for murder.
“Oh my God, Lucy! They’re going to hang me for something I didn’t do simply because some man says he heard something! Did you get a look at the man he was talking to?” Pauline asked.
“He had his back to me the whole time,” she answered. “I tried to see his face, but he never even glanced at me.”
“I just don’t know what I’m going to do,” Pauline said.
Lucy hugged her friend. “It’s all going to be all right, sweetie. If you need anything, please let me know. I have to go check on Mama and see if the twins are feeling any better. I just wanted to let you know what I heard before I had to get home.”
They quickly said their goodbyes and Pauline watched her leave before turning back to the counter. She leaned against it, her heart beating as a wave of panic set in. Behind her, she heard the wood creak and spun around to find her father watching her, a worried expression on his face. She could sympathize—she was worried too.
“What am I going to do, Daddy?”
Her father was silent for a moment. “If the Sheriff believes that man, there is no reason to think he will look any further. He’ll come for you and then you’ll be hanged. We have to get you out of here.”
She looked at him sadly. “I don’t have anywhere to go. We’ve been here my whole life.”
“Well now, I do have a brother over in Dodge City. If we can get you to him, you would be safe,” he said.
Her father pursed his lips. She could tell from the tension in his shoulders that he hated the idea of sending her away. The weight of the decision had aged him overnight. Pauline wondered if he had slept at all. She hated how much pain she was causing him. If he was thinking of reaching out to his brother, she knew the situation was life and death. She desperately wanted to stay busy, but the house was already well-tended. Instead, she ran her fingers along the dining room table, looking down at it while her thoughts raced. She couldn’t meet her father’s eyes.
“We haven’t talked in years, but family is family. I know he’ll take you in.”
Pauline remembered him talking about her Uncle John before. She was young the sole time she’d met him. Yet she could still see a glimpse of his face in her memories. Pauline had a photographic memory. It helped when she would draw or paint. Suddenly, the thought of being alone frightened her. She knew there was no other choice for her but to flee. Despite how desperately she wanted to believe that people were good, she knew the Sheriff wasn’t going to look any further than he already had.
“How will I get there? Are you going to come with me?” she asked.
“Honey, I can’t go with you. There’s too much at stake. I have a lot to do around here,” he said.
Worry took over her thoughts as she took in what her father had just said. Going to Dodge City and living with an uncle she hadn’t seen since she was a child was overwhelming. The thought of being on her own with strangers scared her. Especially while being on the run for murder.
“How will I get there?” she asked.
“I have a friend who is a merchant. He’s always taking livestock and caravans to Dodge City,” he said. “It will cost a little bit, but he’ll take you to Dodge City, he owes me a favor or two. I just saw him a couple days ago. He told me he was getting ready to head out on another trip. If we leave tonight, we should be able to catch him.”
She could hardly believe it. She knew she had no choice but to leave and go to her uncle’s house. The Sheriff already had his mind set on her being the killer. If she didn’t go now, she’d be hung for sure. At least she would have a chance to prove her innocence if she were alive, even if it was on the run. Pauline swallowed, her throat dry, as if she could feel the noose already tightening around it. She tried to study her breath to keep from having another bout of panic. Her world had been completely turned upside down.
“I know I haven’t always done right by you, but I am going to make sure you are safe,” her father promised. “This guy is an old friend from the war.”
“Okay,” she whispered. “I trust you.”
“Good, now go pack a few things in my saddlebags and I’ll go load up the horse.”
She went to her bedroom and packed some of the few things she still had there, along with some clothes that were her mother’s and pictures of her parents. They were old and tattered, but she still wanted them as a keepsake. Grabbing her pad and pencils off the nightstand and putting them in the bag, she glanced once more around the room, not knowing if she’d ever see it again.
Her father was waiting for her at the door. He handed her a delicately made silk scarf. It looked too elegant for her dusty wardrobe.
“It was your mother’s,” he said. “I thought you should have it now. You can cover your face on the way out of town, best not to be seen leaving.”
“Of course,” she whispered, fighting back tears.
“It’s not a long ride,” he said. “The horse is ready and if we leave now, we can still catch Henry. We’ll get you on your way and you’ll be safe. Chin up, sweetheart.”
They walked out of her childhood home for what she hoped would not be the last time. Her father hopped up on his faithful mount, Chestnut, with ease before pulling her up behind him. Pauline could see a rider approaching from the west when her father suddenly spurred the horse. The gelding lunged forward and nearly knocked Pauline off. Luckily, she was holding tight to her father’s waist.
As they rode out of town, Pauline couldn’t help but think that this could be the start of many ‘last times.’ The last time she got to ride with her father, the last view of town… everything brought her sorrow.
She had little faith in the Sheriff, but she still believed that somehow, she would prove her innocence. Pauline was scared but determined to not let this be the last of anything.
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