Lana carefully tied her hair up into a bun. She loved letting her hair down while she was relaxing around the house, but she always made sure it was tied out of the way while she taught her class at the little school in Southport, Illinois.
She stacked up her books and tucked them under her arm and draped her shawl over that. She paused for a moment, debating whether or not she should wear a second wrap over her shawl. It was early spring, but the snow was still in scattered patches where the buildings blocked the sun’s warming rays. The past week had dissolved much of the snow cover and the mud was becoming the new menace.
She loved early mornings. She loved being one of the first people on the street, up with the sun. It felt as if she almost got to see a secret part of the day that few others experienced. It was crisp and cool, and she could see her breath, but the sun touched her and promised to warm the day again as it had all week. The sun was still low in the sky and the buildings cast long shadows across the road.
Of course, as soon as she had stepped out onto the street other people seemed to follow suit, filling the streets and the buildings with a buzz of activity as they started their days too.
It didn’t take long to get to the schoolhouse. It was one of the benefits of living right in town. She shivered at the coolness of the morning and was thankful for the short walk.
Lana hummed a happy tune as she opened the door and began to prepare for a day of classes. There were two floors to the schoolhouse. The older children studied upstairs with another teacher and the younger children studied downstairs with her.
Lana loved teaching. There had been a time when she had chosen it as a second option, but that time had passed. She loved spending time with the little children and watching them grow.
A knock at the door made her look up and when she did, her heart froze in place and her breath hitched. Henry Jones was standing there, one of his crooked smiles stretched across his face.
The smile fell for a moment and he looked around her, almost as if he were concerned about something. “I’m sorry to bother you, Lana, but I need to talk to you.”
Lana shook her head, refusing to respond. She wanted to tell Henry to go back to the general store where he belonged, but she knew she would be wasting her breath. Every other time he had come to talk to her and she had sent him away, he had refused to listen. She wasn’t sure how this time would be any different.
“Come on, Lana. You can’t ignore me forever,” he wheedled. Henry took a few steps into the small schoolhouse. His heavy boots thumped on the wooden floors making her bristle with annoyance.
“I can certainly try. I have told you multiple times, I don’t want anything to do with you. You chose your path. Please leave me alone.” Lana slammed her books down on the desk with a little extra force. This was not how she had been planning to start her day.
“Can’t you at least talk to me? You owe me that much.” Henry’s words made Lana’s blood boil. She turned to him with fury in her eyes.
“Owe you? You think I owe you?” She enunciated every one of her words, trying to emphasize the impudence of what he had just said.
“Yes, we were…I thought we would marry each other.” Henry shrugged a little and shoved his hands into his pockets. “Then you just called things off and walked away. How is that fair to me? You can’t just change your mind like that.”
Lana barked a harsh laugh. “I can’t believe you’re actually acting as if you’re serious right now and as if this was my fault. I may have been the one to tell you it was over, but you made it over when you were out running around with another woman behind my back.”
Lana was unsure how Henry couldn’t see this. How could he continue to think that seeing a different woman while discussing marriage with her was completely okay?
“I’ve already told you, she didn’t mean anything to me. It was a bit of harmless fun. So, I have a little fun now and then. It shouldn’t affect our relationship.”
“Some fishing is some harmless fun. Even going with the boys to the saloon for a game of cards is some harmless fun. Kissing another woman and being loose with every other woman in town is just plain disrespectful. I am not interested in marrying a man who has no respect for his wife.” Lana held his gaze, trying her best to inject her own gaze with every bit of anger she could.
“I think that you are throwing away something that could have been great.” Henry sounded sad as if he were saying goodbye to a childhood friend.
“This could never have been great. I’m just glad I found out what kind of a man you are before I married you and tied myself to you for the rest of our lives.”
Two children wandered into the room and took their seats at the wooden desks that were set in neat, straight rows.
“My class is about to start. It isn’t proper for you to be here and I suggest you leave before anyone else shows up.”
Henry nodded with a reluctant look in his eyes. “I can only hope you’ll come around, Lana. My life isn’t the same without you.”
“Don’t count on it,” Lana muttered under her breath as she watched Henry leave. She wasn’t a very confrontational person. She preferred to keep things nice and quiet, dealing with people through conversations instead of through drastic measures or through actions.
But she knew that when it came to Henry, she was willing to go out of her comfort zone. She had never felt so disrespected, or so completely deceived as she had when she had found out about Henry’s activities when he wasn’t around her.
The time when she had cared for him or when she looked at him with admiration seemed like a cruel joke now, far away in her memory.
“Miss Smith?” A little girl was standing on the other side of the teacher’s desk. She had two braids hanging over her shoulders and a look full of curiosity and wonder.
“Yes?” Lana stood so she could get a better look at the girl. She was one of her better students and Lana always tried to answer her questions.
“Can we read a story today?” The little girl’s eyes filled with excitement and Lana’s heart melted. It was because of children like this that she enjoyed her job so much.
“Of course. That sounds like a wonderful idea.”
The little girl clapped her hands together and then hurried back to her seat, looking eager for the class to start.
Once the rest of the desks had filled with boys and girls, Lana rang the big silver bell that sat on her desk to mark the start of class time.
She could still make today a good day, despite her earlier interaction with Henry. She tried to push the remains of her irritation away and tuck it into the deep recesses of her memory.
Lana waved goodbye to the last straggling child, then turned and locked up the schoolhouse. Another successful day of classes had passed without event.
Her gaze brushed over the general store. There were times when she wondered if she and Henry had worked at different places that weren’t so close together if they would ever have ever had a relationship in the first place.
She would never know, but she could always wonder. If it wasn’t for Henry and the bitter taste of what he had done to her, she would still love this job and this town the way she had before.
But she couldn’t change the past or alter her memories, no matter how much she wanted to.
She walked briskly down the main street, heading towards home. There was one place she wanted to stop by; the post office.
She quickened her step a little as the small building came into view. When she walked up to the window, the older man behind it was already searching through his letters with a knowing smile on his face.
Lana frequented the post office almost every single day. It was her one lifeline to one of the only reliable people that she had known most of her life.
When the old man slid a weathered envelope to her over the counter, her heart leaped a little. She loved getting Ginger’s letters. They were always a breath of fresh air that kept her going a little longer.
She tore open the envelope and read as she walked.
I know I haven’t written for some time, but it’s been because I am so busy, I can hardly find time to take care of myself.
The children are growing bigger every day, but also harder to care for. I can’t seem to get them to listen to me. Sometimes they just run around everywhere and I just can’t keep up.
Nick is the biggest help. He helps whenever he can. He comes over to check on us every day and takes the children out for a bit to ride the horses or go fishing when he isn’t too busy. That gives me a chance to clean the house or do a little laundry.
The plants are doing well, and our cattle have been growing in number which is good. Two new calves were born this week. They are so adorable!
I think that Daniel is going to try and buy some more land on the west side of our property. He wants to grow more corn next year.
This is the first year I have been able to grow squash. Daniel got some seeds of a new type from a trader who was passing through. The plants are growing well and they have little round squash growing on the vines now. I can’t wait to see what they look like when they are ready.
I hope that you can come to visit us one of these days just like we always talked about. We would love to have you.
I know that this is short, but I have to go. I think Lydia spilled something in the kitchen.
Take care and write soon.
Your friend Ginger
Lana smiled and read the letter a second time, making sure she hadn’t missed anything. She and Ginger had known each other at school when Ginger’s family had lived in Southport.
They had also been neighbors and when Lana’s mother went to visit Ginger’s mother, she would always take Lana with her.
The two had played together for hours when they had been children. Then when Ginger and Daniel had married and moved west to take up a homestead, Lana and Ginger had lost touch for a time.
They had started writing to each other again a couple of years later and Lana had never had a better friend. They talked about everything as if they were sisters.
Lana had meant to go and visit Ginger for some time now, but she had never been able to find the right break in her life in the city.
She had her job teaching and she had the activities that she participated in. Also, the thought of taking such a journey terrified her. Some of the things that Ginger talked about made Lana doubt that she would be capable of living in the west herself.
She was raised in the city and in a way, she loved the city. She loved the bustle of people and the simplicity of having everything nearby. She wasn’t sure what she would do cooped up in a cabin raising children and farming.
She shook her head and tucked Ginger’s letter away inside one of her books. She would write to her as soon as she got the chance; hopefully, that evening after dinner.
When she got to her little townhouse, she hurried inside and set her books on the table before going about preparing dinner.
Humming to herself helped keep her from feeling alone. For the most part, she didn’t mind living alone. But there were times when she did feel a little uneasy and wished that she had someone to share her days with.
A sound at the back door made her jump a little.
She tried to ignore it, but it continued. It sounded like a soft thumping sound. After a few more minutes, Lana took hold of the broom and approached the back door with caution.
She opened it slowly and breathed out a sigh of relief when she spotted a grey kitten knocking a stick of wood in circles. He was chasing the stick until he collapsed in a heap on top of it and wrestled with the small piece of wood as if it too had teeth and claws.
She let out a little giggle. Sometimes living alone made her a little more paranoid than she should be.
She watched the kitten for a few more minutes and then went back to the kitchen. Despite living alone, she always made sure to eat a good meal and go to sleep at a good hour. She loved routine and order and she loved having everything in its place.
It had been one thing that had driven Henry nuts when they were together. “Guess he doesn’t have to worry about that anymore,” Lana said softly to herself.
Speaking to herself was a habit she had picked up recently. Somehow it made the house feel a little less empty and a little more bearable.
Once she had eaten and picked up after the meal, she lit a lamp and began preparing the lesson for the next day. The school year was almost over. It made her both happy and sad at the same time. She enjoyed the break she got from teaching the kids, but there were also days that the loneliness felt even heavier.
She sighed and let her gaze wander out the window. It was almost too dark to see but Lana could still make out the outline of the tree outside her window
She stood, walked over and closed the curtains. There wasn’t much space between her home and her neighbor’s home. She wouldn’t want anyone peeking into her kitchen, or her living room for that matter.
Once that was done, it was time to prepare for bed. She let her routines carry her through her chores and at last slipped underneath the blankets into her bed. Tomorrow was another day. It would probably be very similar to today, but she knew that each day bore new possibilities and every day should be given a chance.
Nick set the last bundle of feed on the wagon and then climbed up into the driver’s seat. He had been out on the ranch since early morning and was looking forward to getting home and having some coffee and a little time to relax.
“Come on boys!” he called to his two dogs, Buddy and Storm. They were his two constant companions. They were almost better than having ranch hands. While they couldn’t really help much with chores, they were nice company to have around and they did a good job of guarding the ranch and ranch animals.
Buddy was a tall, red, sleek hound dog with long ears. When anything was amiss his booming half – bark, half – howl was enough to scare anyone out of their wits. He was a long – legged goof at times and bounced around like a puppy whenever Nick had been away for a while and then returned home. He acted like a lunatic, wagging his whole body and running in ever-widening circles in his excitement to see his master.
Storm was a small collie type dog, intense and dedicated to the farm animals. He was ferocious with predators and gentle with the cows, gladly herding them into the barn for milking. His coat was a mixture of white and black that swirled together like a storm cloud, thus giving him his name.
Nick had followed Ginger and Daniel out to Missouri two years after they left. There was nothing for him in the city that he really wanted and he missed his sister.
He knew nothing about ranching when he arrived but got a job working for an older rancher a few miles out of Cattlelake. He was a quick learner and took to ranch life quickly. He loved working with the horses most of all. There were things that he loved about it and things that he hated. But in time he was ready for his own homestead and staked a claim on the land adjacent to his sister’s land.
He looked up at the sky. It was late afternoon and it looked like there was a rainstorm brewing. He gave a little smile. He loved rain and storms. It was always nice to just sit in front of the fireplace with his dogs’ company and enjoy an early evening over a cup of coffee.
He tapped the reins against the horses’ backs, urging them to go a little faster. They were eager to get back to the barn and their feed and didn’t wait for a second invitation to hurry.
As he approached the house, he scrunched his eyebrows in confusion. There were two riders on their horses in front of the barn. As Nick pulled up, they turned to him.
Nick recognized them as the deputies from town.
“Howdy, what’s going on?” Nick called as he pulled the horses to a stop and leaped down to the ground.
“Nick! Thank goodness we found you. We were about to give up.”
Nick’s heart fell into his stomach and he felt the worry fill his mind. “What’s going on?” It was a strange thing for them to come looking for him on his ranch. They all knew each other but Nick didn’t have a lot to do with the deputies.
“There’s been an accident,” one of the deputies said with a grim look towards his partner. Nick’s breath caught.
“With who? Is Ginger okay?” As his last family, Ginger was the first person to pop into mind. He hurriedly began to unhitch the team.
“She’s okay,” the deputies exchanged glances again and Nick clenched his jaw.
“What’s going on? Just tell me.”
“I’m sorry to tell you this but Daniel is dead, and Ginger is at the doctor’s clinic. She was hurt in the accident. Just a broken leg, it looks like.” The deputy bearing the news refused to meet Nick’s gaze.
Nick slipped the last of the harness off of the horses. He pulled one of them hastily into the barn and then into its stall before hurrying back with a saddle for the second one. In a few minutes, he was mounted and ready to go.
“Come on, you can tell me about it on the way.”
The deputies nodded and the three of them set off at a brisk pace toward town.
“They were coming back from Lansburgh as far as we can tell. The team of horses got spooked and they couldn’t control them. The pin must have snapped. The whole wheel of the carriage in front came off. Daniel was caught under the wagon and died in the accident.”
Nick let the news wash over him, fighting to stay calm. Daniel may not have been family by blood, but he had been as good as family to Nick as his sister’s husband.
“What about the children?”
“They were in the accident too but as far as we can tell they are just a little bruised and scared.”
A wave of relief washed over Nick. If something had happened to either Freddy or Lydia… They were so young and hadn’t had a chance at life yet. “Thank goodness they are okay. Do you know any details on how it happened?”
“We’re not exactly sure, we came to get you as soon as we could.”
“You’re sure that Daniel is…dead?” When the deputies nodded in unison, Nick knew that they were telling the truth. There was nothing that he could do to change it now. His brother-in-law was dead.
He was sure that Ginger was going to be devastated. They had been married for 10 years and yet he had seen few people as infatuated as Ginger was with Daniel. It was never easy to lose someone that you loved. They both knew that from experience.
There were times when Nick thought their family was cursed. It seemed that they were losing each other one by one. If it continued this way, there would be one of them left and then none. Nick hoped that he was wrong.
But they had already lost both of their parents and now they had lost Daniel.
The doctor’s home came into view and Nick jumped from his horse before the animal had come to a full stop. He had to make sure his sister was all right.
He had to see with his own eyes that she was alive and unharmed. He knocked on the doctor’s door and almost burst in without invitation when it took longer than a few moments for it to open. When it did, a solemn-looking Doc stared at him with sympathy in his eyes.
“Right this way,” the doctor led him through the parlor and down the hall to the bedroom at the back of the house.
It wasn’t the first time that Nick had been to the doctor’s home. He was the only doctor for miles around. No one in town cared that he ran his clinic out of his home. They were lucky to have a doctor who had actually studied medicine.
A lot of western towns had people who had barely practiced medicine and whose advice could often be as harmful as it might be helpful.
Nick didn’t hesitate and hurried into the bedroom. Ginger was lying on the bed, her cheeks as white as the sheet around her. Her left leg was encased in white bandages and was hanging from a sling attached to the ceiling. She had a small cut on her forehead and bandages on her arms. It was obvious that she was in a great deal of pain.
Lydia and Freddy were sitting together on a large overstuffed chair in the corner holding each other’s hands. Their eyes were swollen and red and they had shocked looks on their faces as if they had just seen the worst possible horror in the world. Nick was certain that they had.
Ginger reached out her hand toward him and Nick wasted no time in taking it. He squeezed her cool fingers between his.
“Ginger… thank God you’re all right.” His words came out as a raspy breath. He was so relieved that he was shaking.
Taking care of his family was one of the most important things to him and yet it seemed there were situations in which the best intentions to protect could do nothing.
“I’m all right, but Daniel…” Ginger’s words cut out and she burst into tears, sobs shaking her body as she trembled with sadness.
“I know. I know. They told me.” Nick cleared his throat and fought tears of his own. Men don’t cry. He tried to repeat the words to himself a couple of times, but a mist still formed in his eyes.
“He’s gone, Nick. I- how am I going to keep going without him?”
Nick shook his head and squeezed his sister’s hand. “I’m going to take care of you Ginger. You don’t have to worry about anything.”
“Don’t say that, Nick. You have your own ranch to take care of. You can’t just leave it and it’s too much for you to take care of our ranch too. But how can I do it? Daniel took care of so much… and now my leg is broken.”
“I don’t know what we are going to do, but we will figure it out. I’m not going to let anything happen to you or the kids. Everything will be all right.”
Ginger nodded and relaxed against the back of the bed, but her face was still pinched with worry and pain.
“I’m going to let you rest and get the children home. I’ll ask the doctor when I can take you home. Everything’s going to be fine. Don’t worry. I will take care of them until you can again.”
Ginger nodded again and her eyes shut for a moment. Nick could see how tired she was. He motioned to Lydia and Freddy who came reluctantly, gazing back at their mother as if they were worried it would be the last time they ever saw her.
Once they’d stepped outside of the room, Nick knelt down to the children’s level.
“Uncle Nick, is mama going to be okay?” Lydia looked up at him with big brown eyes swimming with tears.
“What about papa? They left him there under the wagon. They didn’t take him out. He was getting smashed. Are you going to get him out?” Two large tears rolled down Freddy’s little cheeks and his chin trembled.
“Whoa, whoa, slow down. One at a time. Lydia, your mother is going to be just fine. Between all of us, we are going to take care of her.” Nick squeezed one of Lydia’s shoulders and then turned to Freddy. “Freddy, your pa is in a very special place right now. One day you will understand. He can’t be here with us anymore because he is with God in a beautiful garden.”
Nick’s throat constricted again; he hadn’t planned to have to talk with Freddy about what happened to his pa here in the doctor’s home. He wasn’t sure that anyone could ever be prepared for that kind of talk and yet, here he was.
“Are we going to live with you now?” Lydia was speaking again. While she didn’t look completely opposed to the idea, she didn’t look necessarily excited about it either.
“No, no, no. You will still live with your mama. I don’t know when or how that is going to happen, but soon, you will be back at home. But I am going to take you with me for now so your mama can rest and get better, okay?”
Nick stood up and took each child’s hand in his and led them out of the doctor’s house. “Wait here,” he turned from the children and slipped back inside the doctor’s house.
He nearly ran into the old man on his way in. “Is everything all right, Nick?”
“Yes, yes. I just… I’m taking the kids. When can I come back for Ginger?”
The doctor pushed his glasses back up on his nose. “She has a broken leg. It’s in traction now and in the morning we will set the bone and put a cast on her leg. Other than that she is emotionally and physically exhausted. And she is dealing with a lot of grief and pain. She is going to require a lot of care, Nick. She should be able to go home in a couple of days after some rest. But I suggest you bring the wagon and that you get someone to come out and help care for her.”
Nick nodded. “Thank you, doc. I think we will do fine. I’ll be back tomorrow to see her again. I’ll bring whatever I owe you for her care. You’re sure that Daniel was too far gone?” Nick knew that he had already asked, but he wanted to be completely sure.
“Yes, I saw him. He didn’t suffer. He most likely passed on impact. At least there’s that,” he added, shaking his head sadly and pushing his spectacles up on his nose.
Nick nodded and shook the doctor’s hand. “Thank you doc. See you tomorrow.”
When Nick got back outside, the deputies that had come to get him earlier were standing there talking with the children.
He wasn’t sure what they were saying since they were down in the street but the children looked happy. They were even smiling a little.
“Everyone all right?” Nick asked as he approached.
“The deputy was showing us his pistol.” Freddy excitedly pointed to the shiny weapon that was now in the deputy’s holster.
“I see. Would the two of you mind running along and waiting for me near the horse? I have something I need to talk to the deputies about.”
Lydia and Freddy nodded and scurried off to where the horse was tied. They began petting its nose and talking to it. Nick watched them go until he was certain they were out of hearing distance.
“I need to see the wagon from the accident. I need to understand how that happened.”
The deputy shrugged. “It was pretty straightforward. It was an accident. The wagon came apart and spooked the horses. The front wheels and axle seem to have come off.”
“I just want to see what happened for myself. Daniel has been driving that wagon around these parts for years. He knew his horses. He took good care of his wagon. I don’t understand how this could have happened.”
“What are you saying?” The deputy narrowed his eyes.
Nick felt uneasy about how the accident had occurred. And he knew Daniel. There had never been someone who was more careful with his horses, equipment, or his family.
The deputy shifted from foot to foot and stared at Nick as if trying to decide what to say. “If you insist you can look at the wagon. I’ll humor you just because you’re family, but it’s a waste of time,” he finally conceded.
“Fine, I’ll be around tomorrow early morning. I’m sorry, but I just like to understand things. This is my family I’m talking about.”
The deputy shrugged and said, “See you in the morning then.” He turned and walked away, leaving Nick and the children watching him go.
Nick walked over to the children and untied the horse.
“Ok, who is gonna ride in front and who’s gonna ride in back?” Nick asked, turning to the children.
“I want to ride in front,” Freddy said as he was boosted up into the saddle. “Can I hold the reins?” he asked.
Nick climbed up into the saddle and settled Freddy in his lap and then helped Lydia up behind him.
“Ok big man, you steer us home, Mr. Freddy,” Nick said, handing the reins to the boy.
“An Encounter of Courageous Hearts” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Lana Smith leads a lonely life. She is a dedicated teacher in the city of Southport until she finds out that her best friend’s husband passed away. Having to deal with her beloved’s loss as well as physical injuries, she will ask her to come over to help her care for her children and manage the insurmountable tasks her late husband left behind. Lana is quick to accept the request, finding it the perfect excuse to leave, and start her life over. When she finds out that she is not welcome by everyone there, will she take up on a quest to win his trust?
Nick Cooper is a very protective man, and his family means the world to him. When he discovers that Ginger’s best friend is coming over to help, he is too proud to let it be. He thinks himself the only responsible person to care for his family, and he does not want outsiders meddling in their business. He is trying his best to make Lana leave the ranch, but she is relentless in staying. But Lana won’t be the only thing preoccupying Nick’s mind. When suspicions rise that his brother-in-law’s death was not actually an accident, another turmoil will be added to his list…
While Nick and Lana become closer day by day, the mystery of the accidental death unravels, and a thrilling adventure begins. Can Lana and Nick work together to keep their new-built family safe? Will their lack of trust hold them back or will they realize that they actually need each other?
“An Encounter of Courageous Hearts” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.