Alina gave a tired sigh as she washed down the countertops yet again. It was nearly closing time and she couldn’t wait to get into bed after another long day working at the saloon. She often felt awkward working there. The opinion of a girl working in a saloon in her town wasn’t good, but since her father owned the saloon she had no choice but to help. She mainly stayed in the kitchen and avoided the men who came to drink and play cards. She handled the accounting in the office, and much of the cleaning and dishwashing work fell to her.
“Almost done sweetheart?” Her father’s voice interrupted her tired thoughts. “I’m sure Jeremy and May are waiting for us at the house to come to supper.” He spoke with a tired slur and Alina knew he had drunk a little too much tonight, as usual.
“I’ll be done in a couple of minutes.” She gave a tired smile. Today had been busy and there had been a huge mess to take care of. Pa was a big help and often tried to take care of some of the heavier work but still it was quite the load. Alina’s feet ached and her hands hurt. She couldn’t wait to get home and rest.
She headed outside to wait for her father while he left the keys with the night keeper of the saloon. It was a little routine they’d set up. After closing time, Alina would wait for him outside and then they would walk home together. She looked forward to these walks. It was the one time she could spend time with Pa in peaceful silence.
Alina rubbed her hands up and down over the arms of her sweater. It was colder outside than she’d expected it to be. Her father joined her after a few minutes and they began the walk home.
The guard and caretaker lived above the saloon in an apartment, but Alina was grateful for their little house in town. The caretaker always bolted all the doors once she and her father left to ensure anyone with bad intentions couldn’t get in.
The air was crisp and clear, and the stars twinkled invitingly. The moon was especially bright, and Alina looked up at it thoughtfully. They didn’t talk. Her father seemed to be far away inside his own thoughts and the only sound was their feet crunching leaves on the path and the occasional owl hooting in the distance.
Another day had passed. It was a thought she often had on her walks home with him. In their quiet little town not much happened but one thing that did happen quite consistently was the passage of time. He had gone from tall and strong to stooped over and tired looking in the past twelve years.
Twenty-eight years old and still not married, she thought to herself. It wasn’t the first time she’d thought this. In a town with very few women, usually girls were married by the age of eighteen, if not younger.
Sighing, she reached to open the front door of the small white house they now stood in front of. The walk had taken less time than usual and Alina was almost sad that the silent night would be noisy once again as soon as they stepped over the threshold of their brightly lit home. She enjoyed these moments of introspection. It gave her a few minutes to reset her mind after the work of the day was behind her.
“Alina!” May’s loud squeal greeted them, and she barreled into Alina.
Alina ran her hand fondly over May’s brown hair.
“That’s not very ladylike, you know,” she chided gently.
May looked up at her with a warm smile. Alina smiled back. No one could stay upset with May for very long.
“Dinner’s nearly ready, though I think the potatoes got a little over cooked,” May gushed with a flashing smile.
May had the type of personality that lit up the entire room and had everyone watching her all the time. At sixteen she already had many admirers and Alina was sure she would be someone’s wife in a couple years’ time.
Alina looked over at her fourteen-year-old brother Jeremy. He was taller than all of them, even their father. He had a lanky appearance like a leggy colt. In a few years he would fill out. His reddish blonde hair hung like the forelock of a horse over one of his eyes, wavy and a little too long. His eyes were more of a hazel color than the green that predominated in most of their family. He was pouring milk into their cups at the table.
May had served plates of heaping potatoes covered in savory gravy. After they gave thanks for the food, Alina took a bite. She thought proudly of how well May had learned to cook. She was a quick study and enjoyed preparing the food for the family.
“How was the saloon today?” May asked eagerly.
“Rowdy,” Alina said, after swallowing a bite that was a little too large to be polite.
May laughed and looked to her father to say something. When he didn’t, she went back to eating, just a little faster. He seemed to be deep in thought and ate quietly, looking at the table top as if he saw answers there. May chattered on as if she didn’t notice, but occasionally stole glances at him.
After dinner, May and Alina worked side by side to clear the table and take care of the dishes.
“How was school today?” Alina said. She often wished she had time to be more involved with May and Jeremy’s assignments, but most days they had already finished their work by the time she got home.
“It was good. Some of the boys caught some frogs by the river.” May began to giggle. “You should have seen the girls. They had their skirts up and were running like hens afraid of foxes.” She went into a fit of giggles and Alina joined her.
“But you weren’t afraid of some silly frogs, were you?” Alina teased.
May’s face flushed a deep pink and she rocked back on her heels. “Well, I didn’t look as silly as the rest of them,” she said with a guilty look.
They laughed together.
Soon the kitchen was clean and ready for the next meal.
Alina lit the small candle to take upstairs to their bedroom and blew out the lantern on the kitchen table. The wisp of smoke coming up from the wick made her wrinkle her nose and suppress the urge to sneeze. The candle cast shadows on the walls as they climbed the stairs, which creaked and complained all the way to the top.
They continued to giggle and exchange tales as they pulled down the covers and slipped into the cold beds. After such a long day on her feet, Alina fell asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow.
– Twelve years earlier –
Alina dipped the already damp cloth into water once again. Her mother’s cough and fever had only gotten worse. Alina wasn’t even sure if she could hear her anymore. Her mother occasionally opened her eyes but didn’t seem to focus on anything and didn’t respond to her voice. The sound of the loud rasping of her breath filled the room.
Alina folded the cloth and placed it gently on her mother’s forehead.
“Alina! You shouldn’t be in here.” Alina’s father’s gruff voice broke the eerie silence. “You need to get some rest.”
“I’ve been in here most of every day, Pa. She needs me.” Alina tried to keep the tears from coming. Seeing her parents like this was heartbreaking. Her mother shifting in and out of consciousness and back into fits of coughing, and her father spending as many waking as sleeping hours by her side, hoping to have a few more words with his wife.
Alina watched as her father bent down to feel her mother’s forehead.
“I think it’s letting up a little,” he said, but his voice didn’t reflect the hopeful words. He sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed looking defeated.
Alina wanted to tell him that Ma wasn’t any better, but she kept silent. Pa knew how grave the situation was. The doctor had said as much yesterday. He didn’t need anyone to tell him.
Her tall father leaned gently down and tucked the bed sheet a little tighter around his wife’s shoulders. Alina felt such sadness at the way he looked at Ma. So loving, so caring, she knew that if he could, he would take the sickness and bear it himself. But he couldn’t. No one could.
“I’ll stay with her for a bit, Alina,” Pa said with a husky voice. He looked at her with glistening eyes.
Alina turned away. She didn’t want to see him cry. If he cried, suddenly everything would be much worse than it already was. Her father was the strongest man she knew. He could handle anything. He wasn’t afraid of anything. But seeing him there, so uncertain and looking for a glimpse of consciousness in his wife showed Alina that he was indeed afraid of something. He was afraid of the same thing they all feared. Losing their mother.
Alina picked up the dirty bowls and spoons. Breakfast had been a dismal affair with two-year-old Jeremy crying through most of it, calling for his mama. He still sat quite unhappily at the table and watched Alina work.
May sat beside him with a somber look in her big brown eyes that was much too old for her four-year-old little face.
“Alina, is mama going to die?” she said quietly with a catch in her voice.
Alina swallowed a lump in her own throat. Leaving the dirty dishes, she quickly made her way to May’s side.
“Sweetheart, mama is still here. And she will always be here in our hearts.” Alina tried to sound reassuring.
“But what if her influesa doesn’t get any better?” May’s eyes filled with tears and her lower lip trembled.
“It’s influenza honey, and we will keep praying that she will get better. Mama needs both of you to be strong and help me take care of Papa, okay?” Alina rubbed their tiny hands encouragingly. They would all have to get through this together, whatever the outcome.
The two children looked back at her uncertainly. May wiped a little hand across her eyes and stood.
“I’ll help with the dishes,” she said forcefully.
Normally, Alina would have turned down the offer, but today she enthusiastically led the way. The dishes would give them something to do. They could do this as a family.
Carson tacked up the last of the wanted posters. They had just come in by mail wagon and all the subjects had decent-sized bounties on their heads. There wasn’t usually much excitement around here, and Carson was pretty sure he wouldn’t have the luck to put one of these men behind bars. But the least he could do was hang up their picture so anyone who stopped by the sheriff’s office could see them.
“Morning sheriff!” Alonzo strolled happily into the office. His Stetson sat a little askew and his brown eyes had a mischievous sparkle in them.
“What are we aiming to do today?” Alonzo went over to look at all the new wanted posters on the wall. “Are we gonna go pick up one of these troublemakers?” Alonzo bit into a bright red apple as he inspected each poster carefully.
Carson laughed. “I doubt any of them will be hanging around our small town, but it never hurts to keep an eye out. I’m sure we can find someone doing something wrong around here to take care of, though.”
“Morning boss.” Tom made his appearance at the sheriff’s office door. Many people in town thought that two deputies were too many for such a peaceful town as Courtgate, but Carson knew that a situation could get out of control quickly and it was important to have a good team behind you.
They’d all learned that lesson five years ago. Nobody had been prepared for what had happened.
“I see the new wanted posters are up.” Tom nodded towards the freshly hung photos of criminal men.
“We’re aiming to run a few of them in this time,” Alonzo piped up, throwing his apple core in the trash.
“Highly doubtful,” Tom shook his blond head. “The time it takes to get these posters out here, well, most of them have probably been picked up already. It sure is a shame. We never get a chance to catch any of the big ones for the tumbleweed wagon.” He sat his large frame down into the last available chair and opened up the newspaper that sat nearby on the desk, leaning back lazily and propping his feet up.
It was the Courtgate community newspaper and mostly had ads about town socials and who was getting married. But they often read it just because there was nothing else to read. They all loved Saturdays when the newspaper came in by stagecoach from the big city and they got to read some real news. It wasn’t that they didn’t appreciate the local newspaper. It was just that everyone local already knew about everyone else’s news. It was by way of the grapevine.
“I’ll be off to make my rounds,” Alonzo announced. “I hope I’ll catch us a good one. Seems you’re the only one who has had any luck with that lately, boss,” Alonzo added, as he put his hat and jacket on.
“I wouldn’t call that lately. It was nearly five years ago. And don’t you dare refer to that incident as luck,” Carson growled. He looked cross and turned toward the window.
Alonzo’s easy smiled disappeared from his face. “See you later boss,” was all he said as he made his way out the door, mounted his horse and took off down the dusty street.
“That was a little harsh,” Tom spoke up a few moments later, folding up the paper and putting it back on the desk.
“Neither of you have any idea what harsh is. There were a lot of lives lost back then and luck was definitely not on our side.” Carson felt the uncomfortable silence this time and got up to go on his own rounds. Maybe he would find a town drunk who needed some cell time.
– Twelve years earlier –
Carson looked over at his friend leaning against her father in tears. He didn’t know what to say to her, which was why he hadn’t approached her even once since he’d gotten the news. Her mother, Mary Jones, had passed away not four days ago from the influenza epidemic that had swept through their county. He watched as little May and Jeremy clung to their older sister. She was all they had now besides their father.
Carson wasn’t a stranger to loss, but he didn’t remember the pain of losing his own parents. He had only been four years old when his parents had passed away in a fire. A kind couple who knew his parents had taken him in as if he were their own son and he had traveled west with them soon after.
The pastor stood at the head of the simple wooden coffin. He pulled out his small black Bible and began the service. Try as he might, Carson couldn’t concentrate. He remembered every time his mother had visited Mrs. Jones and how he and Alina had played in the back yard together.
He remembered the times he’d gone to chop wood for the Jones family or help with some other task around the house. Any excuse he could find to spend time at their little ranch house he had taken gladly. He and Alina had been fast friends, and he had never imagined her mother could die.
Soon they were lowering the coffin into the ground and tossing dirt unto it. With every shovelful Carson had to stop himself from rushing over and telling them to stop. It was so hard to know that the woman who had been so happy and full of life only a month ago now lay in the cold wooden box about to be buried forever.
After the funeral, Carson spotted Alina accepting condolences with her father. She looked very sad and her father seemed to be smaller and more stooped over than he remembered. The last of the people who had attended the burial had bid their goodbyes and besides Alina’s father and her two younger siblings, they stood alone in the muddy church graveyard.
The rain from the past few weeks had soaked the ground thoroughly and huge, bare, muddy spots showed through the carpet of normally plush grass. The gray, drizzling sky matched the feelings of all who had attended the funeral.
“Can I walk with you?” Carson asked softly, approaching Alina somewhat awkwardly.
“Of course,” Alina said, wiping at the corners of her swollen eyes with a handkerchief.
The two of them stood near where Alina’s father was saying goodbye to one lingering attendant. Soon he started walking down the narrow muddy road towards their farm house and Carson fell into step a little way behind him with Alina at his side.
“I’m so sorry about your mom,” he said, twisting his black hat in his hands, not caring that the light drizzle was soaking his hair.
“Did you know she was dying?” Her voice wavered a little.
Carson hoped she wouldn’t burst into tears yet again. He looked down at the wet earth as they walked.
“I heard about it from Mrs. Kendrick, but I didn’t want to bother you so soon after.”
“You’re never a bother, Carson,” Alina paused and looked at him for a second, “I’m glad you came today.”
“Me too,” Carson said.
They continued walking in silence. It wasn’t a bad silence. Carson knew that nothing he said could take away Alina’s pain, but he hoped that maybe just by walking with her, she would know she still had a friend.
Alina gave the worn wooden floor one more stiff sweeping. She could hardly contain her excitement. Her father had agreed to let her go to the fair this afternoon with May and Jeremy instead of helping out at the saloon.
May had talked their father’s ear off the entire last three months, begging him to let Alina come with them. At first Alina hadn’t been convinced she would want to go, but now she was happy May had made it possible.
She smiled a little as she packed fried chicken, potato salad, and four large pies into a picnic basket. She and May had stayed up late baking the pies and making sure they were just right.
“I do hope our pies get a ribbon,” May gushed, as she picked up the large jug of lemonade off the counter and took it to the wagon.
“Even if they don’t, I’m sure we will enjoy eating them,” Alina reassured her when she returned. Soon everything was packed and ready to go. The big brown mare tossed her head impatiently and pawed at the dirt. Jeremy scratched her neck and she rubbed her head against him and nickered softly.
“Are you ready yet?” Jeremy asked. “You girls take forever. Let’s just eat a pie now and I’ll tell you if it wins a ribbon,” he added with a mischievous grin.
Alina and May laughed as they climbed up onto the wagon seat.
“No Jeremy, you aren’t a judge,” May quipped playfully, poking him in the ribs as he joined them in the wagon. “Your ribbon wouldn’t count!”
He squealed, and the mare jerked the wagon as she startled, and then began trotting down the dirt road. He sat down on the seat with a thump and they all settled in for the ride, still laughing.
Alina settled her arm around May’s shoulder and the younger girl leaned into her. As they drove Alina thought of the last time she’d gone to the fair. The fair and its joyous activities were the one thing that seemed to be a regular tradition in their lives; May and Jeremy bickering, hoping their pie would win a ribbon. Maybe this year they would finally win.
The large field in town was full of people and buzzing with activity by the time they got there. People had set up the tents for judging all kinds of activities. There were the animal competitions, and she was pretty sure they would do a greased pig competition this year, as they did every year.
When she and May reached the baked goods tent, they saw all the women had brought piles of different goodies. Alina knew that they all had a competitive spirit and hoped to take home a ribbon, but it was all in good fun. Every year it seemed someone else won. Only one time Mrs. Jenkins took the ribbon home two years in a row. She had been the talk of the town for the longest time and everyone had called on her to get a taste of her ribbon-worthy pie.
The children, including Jeremy, were preparing for the three-legged race. May had begged Alina to join as her partner but Alina refused to do so. She didn’t think it was ladylike of May to do it either, being sixteen and a young lady, but May was insistent and convinced Jeremy that it was in his best interest to be her partner. She was always ready for a little fun no matter how un-ladylike, something that Alina often told her would make her an old maid.
“I’m so glad you came!” A loud but happy voice made Alina jump a little.
Lily stood there holding what looked like a raspberry pie and was grinning ear to ear. Lily was Alina’s best friend. They didn’t see each other often, since Alina spent most of her time working at the saloon with her father, and Lily’s father was the church preacher.
He didn’t exactly want Lily hanging around in a saloon and hardly approved of their friendship outside of the place. Lily was popular with all the guys and girls in town but, somehow, she had chosen Alina to be her best friend. It was something that Alina often marveled at. They had often included others in their friendship, but the others seemed to fade away, leaving the two of them alone once again. They figured they were destined to be best friends and that was that.
“I have the most exciting news!” Lily squealed as they walked back towards the wagon, once they’d turned in their pies.
“Aren’t you going to guess what it is?” She looked at Alina expectantly, her cheeks bright red from her excitement.
“Did your father get the funding for the new church bell?” Alina hoped he had. She knew how much the entire church wanted that bell.
“No, not yet.” For a second Lily looked disappointed, but her excitement didn’t take long to regain its foothold.
“I’m courting! You never would have guessed, would you?” She giggled and covered her mouth with her hand. Lily had always wanted to court. When Alina had been courting Lily had always wanted all the details, claiming she would need them when the right person came calling. Alina would always tell her to be careful, because truthfully, there weren’t that many honorable men in Courtgate.
Alina smiled. “That’s wonderful. Who is he?” She wasn’t sure how she felt about Lily courting. She’d always thought that Lily would make a great wife. She was kind and patient and had the sweetest demeanor of anyone she knew. But the fact was, Alina worried about her finding the right man. There weren’t many in Courtgate who seemed like the type to take Lily seriously.
“It’s Nathaniel. You remember Nathaniel, right? He came to talk to my father not three days ago and asked his permission to court me.” Lily stifled another giggle.
Nathaniel had seemed nice enough to Alina on Sunday, but she wasn’t sure if she could trust him.
“Tomorrow we’re going on a family picnic and I can’t wait,” Lily went on breathlessly. Either she didn’t notice Alina’s hesitance, or she didn’t care. She gushed on and on about how handsome he was and how he’d come to talk to her father and they’d taken an instant liking to each other, and how her mother couldn’t wait for tomorrow either.
Alina listened to her patiently but couldn’t focus. She decided to put her thoughts of Lily and Nathaniel on hold, after all it would either work or it wouldn’t, and in the end that would have nothing to do with whether she approved or not.
They were bombarded by May and Jeremy, who were overjoyed they had come second in the three-legged race. She gave each of them a couple of coins to get a treat before she and Lily went to be near the pie competition. Soon there would be a winner and both of them couldn’t wait to know who it would be.
– Twelve years earlier –
“Have you seen Carson lately?” Lily whispered to Alina. They were both elbow-deep in soapy dish water and trying to keep their voices down since two-year-old Jeremy was napping nearby.
“No, I haven’t seen him since… the funeral,” Alina sighed. It had been nearly three months, but it felt as if it had been yesterday.
“I heard he wanted to court you.” Lily said in a matter-of-fact kind of way. She looked at Alina hopefully.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Even as she said it, Alina felt herself blushing red. “We’re just friends. We’ve been friends forever and besides he’s three years older than me.”
“Well everyone knows that, but, you know, you could be more.” Lily’s whisper had turned into more of a low mumble and Jeremy stirred in his sleep.
“Shhhh,” whispered Alina, looking at Jeremy. They both paused a moment until they were satisfied he was sleeping soundly again.
Alina cautiously whispered, “It’s not such a bad thought, but I wouldn’t want to ruin our friendship. You know John and Amy? They were good friends because their families were so close and everything. They only courted for a month or so. I don’t know what happened, but it didn’t work out, and now look at them. I don’t believe they’ve spoken for over a year.”
Alina sighed. Sometimes she thought that she and Carson could be more, but then he was older than her, and she couldn’t bear to lose one of the only friends she had after she’d lost so much already.
“I know. You’re probably right. It’s just, you’re sixteen now. Most girls are courting or thinking about it. You don’t want to end up an old maid, do you?” Lily’s eyes were large and when she said old maid, she made it seem like the plague.
Alina laughed quietly. “I’m sure I won’t be an old maid. Besides, I’m not in a rush. Since Ma… well you know. I’ve had so much work. I don’t know that I’d have time for courting.”
“That’s what you have me here for, to help,” Lily giggled, as she splashed a little water in Alina’s face.
Alina didn’t know what she would do without Lily, or Carson. They were the only two people that were somewhat consistent in her life lately. Scrubbing with all her might, she chided herself to work harder. It would get better, or at least, that’s what everyone said.
Carson watched the happy kids collecting their ribbons for the three-legged race. It’d been a joy to see them all hopping and running towards the finish line. Oh, what Carson would give to go back in time, to have all the innocence of childhood again!
He wondered what each child would experience through their lifetime to turn their smiles into worried frowns and bend their shoulders down under heavy cares. He shook his head. Maybe it didn’t have to be that way for everyone. He had watched it happen to Jack, and he had watched it happen to Alina. He wasn’t sure if he could stop it from happening to anyone else in this town, but he sure planned to try.
“Enjoying the fair?” A familiar voice caused his head to turn and a slow smile spread over his face.
“Jack! I’m glad you made it.” Carson gave him a firm handshake and leaned back up against the tree he had been using as a post to observe the festive activities.
“How’s it going at the sheriff’s office?” Jack said, turning his eyes to the kids who were now dispersing into the crowd to find their families and recount their victories or woes.
“All’s well. It’s been pretty quiet around here. We always miss you, you know.” Carson nodded in the direction of the bustling fair. Carson didn’t particularly like crowds. He’d never been one for social events. The disaster five years ago had had an effect on everyone in the town and for Carson, it meant he avoided large crowds and overwhelming noises.
“I just got back from Angelpost a week ago and the Black Water gang robbed a bank there,” Jack stated proudly. He loved to tell an exciting tale.
“No kidding? Did anyone get hurt?” Carson had heard about the Black Water gang. They’d been getting more and more daring with every job they did. He hadn’t expected them to be closing in so close to Courtgate.
“No, but they made off with a load of money. They held several hostages, so the sheriff and his deputies couldn’t do much without losing the lives of civilians.” Jack paused and stared off with a faraway look in his eyes. “We all know how it is to lose civilians,” he added quietly.
Carson cleared his throat. “How have you been doing? Being out there alone on the ranch, it must be pretty lonely.” Carson shuffled his feet uncomfortably. The tale of the robbery made him want to change the subject. It brought back too many memories of the bank robbery that had changed the life of so many in the town.
“I’ve been okay. You know, it’s been five years, but no one can quite forget something like that.” For a moment Carson thought he saw water standing in Jack’s eyes, but he wasn’t sure, and the next minute Jack looked normal and gruff, as he usually did.
“Hey, if you ever want back in policing work, I always have an extra deputy badge waiting for you.” Carson said, roughly giving Jack a slap on the shoulder.
“You know I’ll never go back to police work, Carson. That’s a thing of the past for me,” Jack said somberly. They stared out over the people of the town and Carson couldn’t help but let his mind wander to the past. That day had been so much like today and yet had ended so tragically.
Sighing, he motioned to Jack and they began to walk the perimeter of the fair activities. Nothing bad was happening on his watch in this town, not again.
– Eleven years earlier –
Carson paced back and forth. It was odd that Alina was late; she usually was at church long before him and reminded him of it constantly. He felt nervous butterflies in his stomach and wondered why it felt so odd to be telling Alina the news he had today. She had been his friend for so long and they had shared almost everything, but this felt different somehow. He felt a little guilty. He cared deeply for Alina, but she was still so young.
Finally, he spotted her. She had on her blue Sunday best with a light blue ribbon at the end of her long braid. When she spotted him, she waved, and a bright smile lit her face as she walked quickly towards him.
“You’re early this time,” she said, adjusting young Jeremy on her hip. Carson noticed that Jeremy’s shoe had left a little brown smudge of dirt on her otherwise spotless dress. Her face looked tired and sad, as it had since they day her mother had died. Something he wished he could change every time he saw her.
“Yeah, there’s someone I want you to meet.” He rushed right into what he wanted to tell her. He’d been waiting for the whole week after all.
“Really? There are not many people who come to church that I haven’t met.” Alina looked behind him expectantly.
“Well, she’s running a little late too, but she’s new to town. Her family moved close to my parent’s ranch a couple of months ago.”
Carson shifted uncomfortably. He hoped Alina would be happy for him.
“We’ve decided to start courting. I know it’s sudden, but she’s really nice. I’m sure you’ll love her and her family,” he finished, tucking his hands securely in his britches pockets because he didn’t know what else to do with them.
“Oh.” Alina looked shocked, or maybe it was disappointment. He couldn’t tell what it was, but it certainly wasn’t excitement. Her smile wilted, and though it was still there it seemed forced.
“What’s wrong?” he asked kindly, wondering what he had said to upset her.
“Nothing, I’m happy for you Carson, I really am.” She smiled up at him, but Carson couldn’t help but notice it didn’t reach her eyes.
“Carson!” The bright voice that he had come to know well interrupted them. Karina had arrived with her parents and she more than made up for Alina’s lack of enthusiasm. Her raven-black hair was swept back underneath her sun bonnet and she wore a frilly purple dress. She waved happily in their direction and made her way over.
“Alina, this is Karina.” Carson smiled at both girls. He could tell that they were both uncomfortable, but he hoped they would become friends. After all, Karina would very possibly be his wife someday.
They made their way into the church and Alina sat in the same pew as he and Karina. She was very occupied with May and Jeremy through the hour, but she seemed to relax around Karina, which was a relief to Carson.
After church they all headed outside to have a picnic lunch together behind the church. It was a simple tradition but one that everyone seemed to love and enjoy. They all walked over to a grassy spot under a large oak tree that cast its shade across the soft grass. The nearby creek bubbled pleasantly. It was a perfect day for a picnic.
“Do you want to sit with us?” Karina said to Alina before Carson had a chance to ask. She was spreading out a black and white blanket on the grass as she asked.
“That would be nice, thank you.” Alina smiled and handed the picnic basket to May. Soon they were joined by Carson and Karina’s parents. Carson smiled. He had all his friends and family in one place. What could be better?
Alina sat awkwardly at the family picnic behind the church. She had thought it was a bad idea from the minute she’d been invited, but she had been trying to be polite for Carson. Carson and Karina’s parents seemed to be focused on their new courtship and the more the conversation became about the two of them the more Alina felt excluded.
“We’re so happy you joined us.” Carson’s mother said, smiling kindly. “Your father couldn’t make it today, I see.”
Alina noticed it was a statement. Everyone knew why her father didn’t make it to church anymore. He had fallen more and more into his drinking habits after the loss of her mother and there were days Alina thought no one could pull him back.
“He’s been very busy.” Alina tried not to give away her real feelings. She didn’t need the townspeople giving her more pity than they already did.
“Yes. I’m sure he is busy with his saloon. And I hear you take in laundry.” Karina’s mother spoke now. By the way she dressed and held herself, Alina could tell that she was from an upper-class family and looked down upon common folk.
For a second she thought about denying it, but she couldn’t. The truth be told, she did take in laundry and she could use as much as she could get. While her father had spoken about a new business he would be starting, there had been no show of money as of yet, and her laundry and odd jobs were the only thing keeping food on the table in their small ranch house. The saloon paid for itself but didn’t really bring in much extra.
Since her mother had died, no one had overseen the planting of the garden and there had been no more funds to pay the hired hands to work the cropland. She had planted a small garden herself, but the food it would provide was minimal. She wished she had paid more attention to her mother’s instructions about gardening. She hadn’t thought that she would oversee the garden so soon.
“I do take in laundry,” she said, holding back her embarrassment.
“That’s wonderful. I was looking for someone to help with the wash, and who better than Carson’s friend? I know he has tried to help you since your mother died and I also would love to help you out, dear. Now that he is courting I imagine he will be too busy to help you much anymore.” The way the woman spoke was kind, but the meaning of her words burned.
Alina knew she couldn’t blame her because who wouldn’t be worried about their daughter courting someone who had a friend that was a girl? And the pity in her eyes was something she had come to expect.
Smiling politely, she began to pack the still-half-eaten food items into her picnic basket.
“I-I really should be going. I have several things I must take care of. I’ll be waiting to hear from you Mrs.…” She paused, she hadn’t heard Karina’s mother’s name.
“Mrs. Lawson. Thank you for joining us. Hopefully we can do this again some time. Maybe next week?”
Alina smiled and nodded, but she knew she wouldn’t be joining them next week or the week after that. Carson was almost oblivious to the whole exchange, although he did give Alina a few worried glances, but his attention was with his parents and Karina who were discussing a new piece of land that needed to be planted.
“Good day,” she said politely. When Carson stood to say goodbye she only nodded in his direction before leaving, hastily pulling May and Jeremy behind her. The one thing in her life she had thought she would never lose was slipping through her fingers and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
Alina looked down at the blue ribbon in her hand. It was the first blue ribbon she had ever won, and she was sure her mother would have been proud that it was her blueberry pie that had won it.
May was near ecstatic with joy. When the winner was announced she had jumped up and down with glee and then run off to tell all of her friends how she’d won the pie contest. Of course, she would forget to mention Alina’s part in it, but that was okay. May’s happiness was enough of a prize for Alina.
“That was a mighty good pie at the fair.” The night keeper from her father’s saloon stood near her. Alina hadn’t noticed him come up behind her and felt immediately on guard. There was just something about him that made her feel she should be cautious.
“Thank you,” she said softly.
“I’m Brady, by the way. I keep your father’s saloon at night. You must remember?” He was a head taller than her and it was intimidating for Alina to stare up at him. “I’ll see you around,” he added. And with that he was sauntering off in the direction of the wagon. Only then did Alina wonder how he had tried her pie in the first place.
“Alina.” This time it was a familiar voice that greeted her. Carson walked over towards her from the thinning crowd in the churchyard.
She hadn’t seen him for more than a couple of months. Sadness and something else she couldn’t quite describe knotted her stomach. She and Carson had grown apart after he met Karina, Alina still remembered the day that had marked a change. The picnic at church, oh how could she forget?
And then five years ago, well she hadn’t known how to deal with the tragedy. Carson had been so devastated and had blamed himself for allowing the robbery to happen. With everything that changed, it was even worse than everything that came before.
They had once vowed to be best friends forever, but slowly circumstances had pushed them apart. Alina knew that deep down their promise as children still stood but she knew that they might never be friends the way they once had been.
Sometimes she thought of Carson and wished they could go back to the days when they would go fishing together and apple picking and when they would race barefoot by the river. But those days were long gone, and they now lived in a time where they tried to hide the pain from their past and move forward with the pieces of their lives that were left.
“I heard that your pie won the contest.” His voice was the same as always and he looked kind, the way she remembered when they were kids.
“I’m sure all the pies were wonderful. May is overjoyed about the ribbon though.” She smiled.
“I remember your mother’s blueberry pie. Not a single pie in the west could be better.” He laughed, and she found herself laughing with him. Suddenly he stopped laughing and looked sad.
“How’s your father?” he said, searching the thin crowd.
“He didn’t come today.” She adjusted her sun bonnet a little. “He’s doing good though. The saloon is busy, we’re busy.” She stopped, suddenly realizing she’d began to wander.
“I’d better find May and Jeremy,” she excused herself politely.
“Don’t stay out too late. It can be dangerous at dusk,” he said gravely.
Alina nodded, their moment of shared history gone.
“I’ll see you around Miss Jones.” He tipped his hat to her and walked away towards his horse, mounted, and rode off in the direction of his ranch. When he left, Alina felt a familiar ache. Her childhood memories seemed to be scattered all over the town and when they showed their face they brought back all the pain that she’d thought she’d forgotten.
Not two moments later May and Jeremy came running up.
“Jeremy took all of my ice cream!” May cried in dismay.
“It’s not true, Alina! She offered me a bite and then she pulled back and it fell on the ground. It wasn’t my fault.” He sounded pleading, but Alina could tell by the laughter in his eyes he thought it was quite funny.
Alina laughed. “I’m sure you were both to blame. Get in the wagon you two. We have to get home.”
With friendly shoves they jumped up into the wagon and Alina followed. Soon they were driving happily home, the excitement of the fair still buzzing around them.
“The Sheriff Who Stole Her Aching Heart” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Alina was full of dreams, but fate had other plans for her. Since she lost her mother, she had to struggle to keep her life together, depending only on herself. With her younger siblings under her responsibility and a father almost absent, she has given up on the idea of marriage. When the saloon her father owns gets attacked by a notorious criminal gang, she is taken as a hostage and has to find a way to escape. But this would be just the beginning… Will she be able to break free from all the hazards and keep the ones she loves safe?
Ever since Carson lost everyone he ever cared for, he has set up a new mission: to protect the town. As the new sheriff in town, brave and strong-willed, he believes he can make it. But as soon as his childhood friend gets abducted, his dream collapses and his heart shivers once again. Knowing it’s up to him to save her, he will have to act calmly and quickly so as nobody gets hurt. But will he be in time?
When the situation is about to get harder and harder and more than one people will be in danger, Alina and Carson will have a chance to rekindle their friendship. But will it be enough to help them survive and keep the ones they care for alive?
“The Sheriff Who Stole Her Aching Heart” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.