Amy strained against the large board on the fence.
“Are you done yet?” She forced her words through gritted teeth. Holding up the heavy fence board while her brother pounded in nails to hold it in place wasn’t easy. She kept eyeing the cows who were on the verge of figuring out their current enclosure wasn’t as escape-proof as usual.
Martin took a step back. “I’m done. You can let go now.”
Amy took a step back, half expecting the new fence board to fall to the ground when she did, but it held. It seemed her brother had secured it well enough.
“Thanks for the help, Amy. Couldn’t have done it without you.” Martin offered a crooked grin. “You’ll make some rancher very happy one day.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Amy slapped his arm. Her brother was like most, always teasing and making life difficult, but she loved him more than life itself.
He was the only family she had besides her mother, and he’d been right with her, making the world seem livable again after they had lost their father.
Martin shrugged. “You’ll get married sooner or later. Everyone does. Don’t worry. I’m sure that we’ll manage to take care of Ma between the two of us.”
“I’m not getting married anytime soon. Even if anyone was interested in someone like me, I wouldn’t be ready to leave you and Mama behind. What would you do without me?” Amy was joking, at least partly. There were times when it felt like she was the only one holding things together. Of course, there were probably times when Martin felt that way too.
Martin’s expression turned serious. “If you ever find a man who sweeps you off your feet in a marriage sort of way, you should go off and live your life. It’s only fair to you to do that. You can’t stick around here forever to take care of us, or you’ll wake up one day, and your life will be gone.”
“What about you? Betty Mae wants to marry you. I’ve seen it all over her face every single time she visits, or the two of you are together. When are you going to stop worrying about us and settle down?”
Martin grinned a bit shyly this time. “I love Betty Mae and fully intend to marry her. Even when I do settle down, though, I don’t intend on not worrying about you and Ma anymore. You’re my family, and family always watches out for each other.” Martin opened the cabin door for her to step inside. The sound of pots banging and the sizzle of something cooking reached Amy.
Her mother was a great cook and never turned down an opportunity to make something delicious for all of them. She looked up from the stove as Amy and Martin stepped into the kitchen.
“You’re done fixing the fence?”
“Yup, just finished. I’ll be working on the barn later. It always feels like something is falling apart every time I turn around.” Martin shook his head as he took a seat. It didn’t take long to dish up the food and sit down across from her mother and brother.
Over the years, she’d grown accustomed to their tiny family. Sometimes Betty Mae would spend a meal or an afternoon with them, and it was nice. Amy enjoyed the extra company.
“That’s the way ranch life is, Son.” Their mother smiled softly, wisdom showing in her eyes. “Let’s say grace.” They bowed their heads, and Amy listened as Martin offered up a prayer for their food, thanking God for his protection and blessings.
They were blessed and had everything they needed, and yet life often felt a lot harder than it should. She knew when the issue started. When her father passed away, it left a hole in all of their hearts, as well as their lives.
Her father used to carry their family in a way none of them imagined until he was no longer there to do it. She pushed down the soft ache in her chest. It came whenever she remembered her loss.
“You should invite your cousin for a meal, Martin,” Amy’s mother spoke up, pulling her attention back to the present.
“Lewis?” Martin shook his head. “I don’t know, maybe I’ll go and meet with him a couple more times. We don’t know a lot about him.”
“I know.” His mother looked at both of them. “But he is family, and he came all the way from Chicago to be here to get to know us again. The least we can do is be hospitable. I know it isn’t always easy when we don’t know a person.”
“All right, I’ll discuss it with him when I see him again.” Martin finished up his food in half the time of Amy or their mother. He took his plate and left it by the wash basin. “I have to go to work in town today, but I’ll be bringing Betty Mae for supper tonight.”
“That sounds wonderful.” Amy heard the warm tone in her mother’s voice.
Even though they didn’t know Betty Mae that well yet, they all liked her well enough. She was kind, considerate, and a sweetheart overall. Amy enjoyed her company and was looking forward to getting to know her better, perhaps like a sister. She helped her mother gather up the rest of the dishes, wash them, and set them out to dry. When she was finished, she pulled on a bonnet and headed outside to take care of the rest of the chores. Since Martin worked in town four days out of the week, a lot of the ranch chores fell to her, such as keeping up with the plants, the chickens, and the other smaller animals.
Her brother usually helped her with odd jobs and with the milking in the mornings, and sometimes in the evenings if he returned in time. She looked forward to her work. It was the only way to get through it. If she was dreading it all the time, she only felt worse about it. The chickens crowded to the front of the coop, clucking and racing to be the first with access to the grain she carried in a small pail.
She laughed as they went haywire, pecking at the grain she tossed out around the chicken yard as if they hadn’t eaten in weeks. The chickens were always hungry, no matter how much she fed them. She leaned against the chicken coop fence and watched them finish their meal as she thought of what Martin had said earlier. She was sure about not finding a husband right now; in fact, maybe not ever. Perhaps she was just made for something different than settling down and having a family. She was supposed to take care of the family she already had, or at least that was the way she felt right now.
“Are they coming yet?” Amy peered out the window. Her mother shook her head.
“They’ll be here when they get here. Don’t be so anxious about it.” Her mother laughed.
“Do you think he’ll marry her? Will she move here? That will be strange, don’t you think? Having someone else living here with us and working around the ranch.” Amy gasped. “What if she hates working on a ranch and then doesn’t like us, and we’re all fighting and…”
“Amy, slow down a minute. Betty Mae is a wonderful young woman. I’m sure she is a hard worker, and if she and Martin did decide to live here, we would find a way to get along. However, there’s no need to think about that right now. He hasn’t proposed to her.”
“What if that’s because of us?” Amy hated talking about things like this with her mother. She knew that her mother already felt a lot of guilt over their situation and difficulty. Her mother always felt like she should be able to provide a better life for all of them.
Amy and Martin, however, didn’t believe that their mother should be responsible for their livelihoods at all. It was why they worked so hard to provide and to help around the ranch and take on as much as they could.
“What do you mean because of us?”
Amy sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe Martin thinks that if he marries Betty Mae, then things will be harder for us, so if we told them they could move in here after they got married, perhaps they wouldn’t feel so bad about it and would marry sooner.”
Her mother looked thoughtful. “That is a good idea. I’ll mention it to Martin when I get a chance. Look, there they are. Now help me get this roast on the table.”
Amy nodded happily and helped her mother get the food on the table. The door opened, and Martin talking with Betty Mae filled the house with new noises.
She’d always wanted a sister, and it seemed that with Betty Mae, that might be possible. She hoped that once she got to know the other young woman better, they would get along well. They had seen one another before but hadn’t really had a chance to visit before.
She felt like they could find more things to have in common besides her brother. As her mother said, Betty Mae was a nice young woman. Perhaps it was just hard to adjust to change when everything that they had was the same for years until now.
She put on a smile and greeted both Betty Mae and Martin at the doorway of the kitchen.
She leaned in and hugged her potential future sister-in-law.
“I’m so glad you could come,” she said happily, her doubts melting away. She would get to know Betty Mae properly, and hopefully, her brother would marry her and get his happy ending after everything they’d been through to hold them back.
Nate rode in silence as he crossed the last road to enter into Silver Springs, Colorado. He didn’t know if this place was home to him, or if he’d ever be able to consider a place home. He wanted to, more than anything, but there were too many holes inside of him to settle down and truly appreciate a place for what it was.
His saddle bags were full of supplies, as well as a decent amount of money left over from his last bounty. He didn’t have anything to spend his money on since he lived alone, with no wife, no children, and no family to provide for.
His food and the basic things for his horse and the little cabin in the woods were his only expenses. He always put away the rest of his bounties in a strong lockbox under his floorboards.
One never knew when he would need some money for a rainy day or an emergency. Nate wasn’t sure how much he’d saved, but it was a very considerable amount. He didn’t need to count it, because he did not need to spend it.
He made sure to take a side road, then turn up into the hills and through the woods. Avoiding people was a pastime he still enjoyed, and he took the extra time to make sure he did. He didn’t need anyone asking how his trip had gone, how he was, or why he looked discouraged.
People in Silver Springs were a little too kind if anyone asked him. He appreciated being left alone with his sorrows, and people crossing to the other side of the street to let him pass. In the larger cities, no one realized he existed, much less stopped to care who he was or how he was.
Here in Silver Springs, there was always at least one do-gooder. He turned down the last path, and his heart relaxed just a little when he spotted the cabin which he currently considered his home. He’d purchased the land, then built the cabin.
It took a couple of months and a lot of work, but he was very satisfied with it. He tied his horse in the little lean-to shed beside the main house and took care of the animal first, making sure he had the right helpings of grain and water, then brushing him down and covering him with a light blanket before he went inside to unload his saddle bags.
“I’ll be back to check on you later, Heath.” It might be strange if anyone was around to hear him talk to his horse, but Heath was his only companion up here in the woods. Sometimes, he thought Heath understood what he said, despite being a horse.
Nate dropped his saddlebags by the door and sat down in a parlor chair for a moment to catch his breath and revel in being back home. He’d made this his home base around a year and a half ago, though he’d spent more than half of that time out on jobs.
Whenever he saw a wanted poster he thought he could take care of at the sheriff’s office, or heard of a good bounty when walking around in town or at the saloon, he’d set out to do another job.
When he came back, things were always as he left them. This place was safe and secluded and kept him comfortable. It was perfect in all of those ways. He could stay here and be as happy as he ever would be. Not that it was much consolation. True happiness was a part of his past. He adjusted his head and closed his eyes. A bit of rest would do him good.
Nate checked his cupboards. A trip into town was necessary. He’d purchased a lot of the things in the last town he’d been in, bringing them back in his saddlebags, but he was still low on a lot of the things he used on a daily basis. Some vegetables and fresh meat and cheese would do him good.
While he was in town, he’d stop by Sheriff Leroy’s and ask him if there were any new bounties to fill. He wasn’t in a hurry to get into another job just yet, but sometimes it was hard to find something suitable. The sooner he let the sheriff know he was back and would be available soon, the more chances of him finding a job eventually.
He pushed his hat low on his head and went out to Heath. Heath looked content, waiting for their next adventure in his makeshift stall under the lean-to by the house. He was a calm horse, always ready for adventure, but equally ready for rest and downtime.
“Let’s say we get into town and see what the state of things is since we were last here, huh?”
Heath watched him with bright eyes, and Nate smiled. Heath wanted to go, he was sure of it. He put the saddle and bridle on his horse, then headed into town. He’d been back three days, yet it felt like maybe one afternoon since he was traveling around, looking for the latest criminal he’d managed to put behind bars.
Thankfully, there weren’t that many people on the road. He’d managed to get to the sheriff’s office without starting a single conversation and with only a couple of curious looks. Maybe his newness in this town was wearing off, and his reputation of wanting to be left alone was spreading.
He wondered what Susan would have thought about his tendency to stay away from people. She was always such a social person. She’d loved talking to everyone, no matter who it was, as long as they had a bit of interest in her. He missed her terribly since she had died. His sister was his opposite in every way. He was certain she would have been the thing to keep him in life if she’d still been around to do so. His heart burned with anger and sadness. He’d lost too much, and thinking about it broke his heart and brought so much pain to his thoughts and even to his very being. He tied Heath to the hitching post in front of the sheriff’s office and made his way slowly up the steps.
He knocked twice before stepping inside. Sheriff Leroy was sitting behind his desk. He was an older, quiet man, who carried more wisdom than a lot of people in town, Nate was sure.
“Sheriff, you have a moment?” Nate asked.
“Ah, Nate, you’re back. I heard something along those lines. How did your last job go?”
“Great!” Nate smiled. He was proud of the work he did, getting criminals off of the street and putting them in jail where they would no longer hurt anyone. “I mean, as well as any job could. It was an easy job compared to some. That man is behind bars, and I’m a little richer. It all ended well.”
The sheriff shook his head. “Sometimes I wonder if I chose the wrong profession. There aren’t any jobs right now, but if any more reward posters come in besides the dead-end ones, I’ll be sure to let you know.” Sheriff Leroy leaned against the wall. “Maybe in the meantime, you should take a break. I notice how much you’re working. Take a rest, give yourself time to get to know folks, and set roots down. Those things help a man stay sane.”
Nate frowned. “I don’t need any of those things. I’m happy the way things are.”
“I don’t doubt that, but sometimes, you can think you’re fine, and the loneliness sneaks up on you. I’d just say, don’t be opposed to trying to start life again. I don’t know what happened in your past, but whatever it is, it’s holding you back, and you shouldn’t let it keep you from what you’re meant to do.”
“Thank you.” Nate shook his head. “It’s been a long time since I had a normal life. It’s been long enough for me to know that it’s not in the cards for me anymore.”
The sheriff shrugged. “Never should say never. There are plenty of young women in this town who would love the chance to get to know a handsome man like you. Love can change you, convince you of things you never thought possible.”
Nate took a step toward the door. He’d found out what he’d come for. Staying and talking about this nonexistent love life he had no intention of resuming was pointless.
“Love isn’t going to change me any more than time will. Thank you for telling me about jobs. I’ll be waiting for word from you. I should get back to the house. I have a lot to take care of after being gone.”
The sheriff nodded, then motioned as if he were shooing Nate from the sheriff’s office.
“Of course, go ahead. Don’t forget what I said, though. You’re not done living or loving yet. I can tell. You may have given up at the moment, but you’ll find that spark. Just takes the right somebody to come across your path.”
Nate shook his head as he raised a hand in a sort of salute.
“I’ll see you around, Sheriff.” He didn’t wait to hear any further words of wisdom. He was certain the sheriff had good advice for most people, but he was not most people. He’d lost everyone who had ever cared about him or who he’d cared about. He couldn’t open himself back up to that sort of hurt, no matter how much loneliness or self-reliance might hurt sometimes.
The idea of growing old alone or having no one to depend on in an emergency or toward the end of his life was certainly a depressing thought, but it wasn’t anywhere near what lay behind him. He shouldn’t let the sheriff’s words shake him anyway.
They’d only shared a handful of conversations. The sheriff didn’t know him or what he’d been through. He probably gave that advice to everyone.
Nate went down to the mercantile, more determined than ever to get his things, then he would retreat to the privacy and comfort of his home in the woods, where no one could watch him with curious eyes or judge his motives based on their own.
People didn’t understand him, but that was okay. He didn’t understand people half the time, either. As he reached the mercantile, he spotted the little church off in the distance. He’d considered going to church here and there, especially when he started thinking of his mother and how important it always was to her. Either way, he always backed out. Not because he didn’t miss the quiet sermons, or sitting and feeling as if God was right there with him, but because he was angry.
His mother had loved the church, so why did God choose her of all people to pass away in such a shortened and sudden way? He couldn’t go into that place without anger consuming him, and that was something he hated feeling. Maybe one day, God would heal him, the way his mother always spoke of God healing people and their inner wounds, but until that happened, the church was not something he could ever go to.
“You’ll be back for dinner and evening chores?” Amy asked Martin. He was heading into town to see Betty Mae, and there was a warm look in his eye. Perhaps today would be the day that she would gain a sister, or at least plans would be set in place for that to happen.
“Yes, I’ll be back. You and Ma worry too much. How long have we lived here in Silver Springs?”
Amy shook her head with an amused smile. “Just because you live in a place for a long time doesn’t mean that people who care about you shouldn’t worry or that something could happen. Besides, I’m more concerned about dinner. You know how Ma always waits up for you when you’re late. She should be getting proper rest.”
Martin laughed. “Okay, if it makes you feel better, I’ll try to be back for supper, but if I’m not, then don’t wait up, and don’t let Mama wait up either.”
“Okay.” Amy watched him go, his long lanky legs carrying him over the road toward town quicker than hers ever could. In a way, she looked up to Martin as her father as well as her brother, even though the age difference between them was but a couple of years.
He was only fourteen when their father passed away, and as a ten-year-old girl, she’d looked up to him then as much as she did now. She’d seen how he stepped up to become the man of the house, how he worked hard to help both her and her mother, and care for the ranch.
Without Martin, she wasn’t sure they would have survived or what they would have done. She turned back and hurried to the kitchen to help her mother with supper.
There was always something to be done around the ranch, and having Martin off visiting Betty Mae couldn’t keep her from that. She could imagine that he might be asking her to marry him. The thought was exciting. She didn’t know if that was what he was doing, but it had been long enough. The love between them was visible to everyone. Amy smiled at the thought, and for one fleeting moment, she wondered what it would be like to have someone look at her the way Martin looked at Betty Mae.
The sound of someone pounding on the door broke through to Amy’s consciousness. She pushed away the grogginess in her head and jumped out of bed. The floor was still shockingly chilly, and the light outside told her that it was barely sunrise.
Who would be needing something so urgently at this time of the morning? She wrapped a robe around her, covering her nightdress as she padded through the house in bare feet.
She’d done the evening chores the night before, then waited for Martin until after dark. When he hadn’t come home, she’d put his supper away, then convinced her mother to go to bed.
Her mother wanted to wait up, but after Amy told her that Martin might be spending extra time with Betty Mae, she relented.
Amy threw the door open, too cloudy-minded to even consider peeking through the window to make sure it was someone friendly first. To her surprise, Betty Mae was standing on the porch steps. Her eyes were wide, and her cheeks flushed pink.
“Amy, um, hi. I didn’t mean to bother you this morning, but I was…well, this is embarrassing. Is Martin here?”
“Martin? He is… maybe in his room. Give me a minute, and I’ll check.” Amy hurried back into the house, leaving the front door open to the crisp, chilly morning. She pounded on her brother’s door for a few moments, before opening the door cautiously.
Her heart sank to her toes. There was no sign of Martin in his room. The clean clothes Amy had set inside in a basket were still exactly where she’d left them the day before, and the bed was made. It looked like he hadn’t slept there; he never left his room so tidy, at least not until their mother reminded him a couple of times. Besides, if she hated getting up early, her brother hated it even more.
He never got up at this time of day, unless Amy pounded on his door for ages to drag him out of bed.
She tried to work through her confusion as she went back to the front of the house to speak with Amy.
“I…he’s not in his bedroom. Did you see him yesterday? He told me he intended to visit you.” Martin always went to visit Amy on Wednesdays. It was a little tradition they’d carried on ever since they’d met.
“Yes, I thought he was coming, but it got later, and he never came by. By the time it got dark, I figured he had to stay here because of a family obligation. He’s only ever missed his Wednesday visit twice, including yesterday. The last time was when your mother was ill.” Betty Mae bit her lower lip, her face paling a little. “Oh, goodness, what if something has happened to him? I was so worried, and I thought I had to come and make sure he was all right, or that one of you hadn’t gotten sick when he never showed up.”
“It’s okay. I’m sure he’s fine. We have a cousin staying in town. Perhaps they got to talking, and he stayed with our cousin Lewis. Maybe he just fell asleep, and he hates getting up early. He’s probably going to wake up any minute now and come walking up that road.” Amy was trying to make it lighter than it was. She knew Martin, and he was a cautious man, always thinking of those he cared about.
“How can you be so sure he’s fine?” Betty Mae’s eyes filled with tears. “I should have come yesterday. I knew something was wrong but didn’t come.”
“This is not your fault.” Amy shook her head. “I’ll go into town right now, and I’ll come and tell you when I know what happened, okay? I know you have a lot going on with your parents, so why don’t you go home, and I’ll take care of this?” From what Amy knew, Betty Mae was the only help her older parents had. Their other children were all older and lived in the city or towns that were days away.
“Okay, of course. Thank you, Amy.” Betty Mae wiped away a stray tear. “You’ll tell me when you know?”
“Of course. You’ll be the first to know.” Amy tried to ignore the growing uneasiness in the pit of her stomach. She wanted to believe this was nothing but a little misunderstanding, but she already knew it was so much more.
Why hadn’t her brother visited Betty Mae yesterday, and more importantly, why hadn’t he come home?
“I’ll be waiting to hear from you at the house.”
“I’ll be there later.” Amy forced a strong smile. There was no need to worry sweet Betty Mae for nothing when she still had no idea what was going on. For all she knew, this could be some sort of thing that could be solved with a simple fix. Betty Mae dabbed at the corners of her eyes, then hurried away.
Amy frowned as she hurried into her room, throwing on a dress, doing her hair, and lacing up her boots. She still had to do the morning chores before she left, which would take her nearly a half hour. By then, if Martin wasn’t back, she would be absolutely positive that there was more to this than a mistake.
Perhaps he’d gotten into a fight in town and had wound up in jail overnight. Her mind ran through various scenarios looking for a reason for his absence. She couldn’t quite imagine Martin doing anything so unplanned and dumb.
When she’d finished with the milking, she found her mother looking concerned in the kitchen.
“What’s going on? I thought I heard voices in the parlor, but when I got out there, no one was there, and your brother isn’t with you.”
“He didn’t come home last night.” As much as she wanted to, there was no point in keeping it a secret from her mother. She’d find out sooner or later.
“What do you mean?” Her mother’s brows creased.
“I mean, Betty Mae came to check on him because he didn’t visit her yesterday like he always does, and when I checked his room, I saw that he didn’t come home last night.”
“You’re saying he stayed in town for the night?” Amy saw the same emotions on her mother’s face that she had experienced shortly before.
“I don’t know where he spent the night. I’m going to check in town. He’ll be there, won’t he? He has to be there.”
“Okay. Go. Just be careful.” Her mother’s face was taut, and her eyes betrayed her fear.
“Together in Love and Loss” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Amy Wilson, a resilient young woman, grew up working tirelessly alongside her brother, Martin, and mother to forge a life after the devastating loss of their father. When Martin mysteriously disappears without a trace, Amy’s world is shattered. As she uncovers the possibility of a notorious gang’s involvement, she turns to an enigmatic bounty hunter, Nate.
Will he be her savior in this desperate race against time to rescue her brother and bring him home? Or will the shadows of danger consume them both?
Nate Graham, haunted by profound personal loss, has closed himself off from the world. When Amy, desperate and determined, appears on his doorstep, his inclination to avoid a wild goose chase after a presumed criminal is strong. However, as Amy ventures into danger alone, Nate cannot ignore the plea of a young woman in need…
As he embarks on this perilous journey, will Nate be ready for the profound emotions Amy will awaken within him, forever changing his life?
United by a common mission, Amy and Nate have no choice but to rely on each other as they confront unforeseen dangers and secrets. As their paths converge, they discover a profound connection that surpasses their initial expectations. Will their reluctant friendship evolve into something deeper amidst the chaos that surrounds them? In the end, will their fates intertwine, or will the darkness that engulfs them be insurmountable?
“Together in Love and Loss” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.