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Rachel Martin's future is uncertain. When she arrives in the town of Kingman, Arizona, she is pregnant and desperate for help. Sheriff Levi Ramsey is the lawman of Kingman, content in his life until a young widow arrives and flips his world upside down. He vows to protect her, but can he protect his own heart in the process? As Rachel and Levi navigate through obstacles that arise, they make a compromise, but will it be enough to overcome unexpected heartbreak?
July 08, 1893
The flapping of a bird’s wings caused Rachel to look up. A hawk landed on the branch of a Ponderosa pine tree nearby and observed her from thirty feet up. She tipped her head to the side and studied the hawk in return, with its long, dark tail and salmon-colored breast, then focused on its sharp eyes and hooked beak. Intimidating, yes, but the bird also had incredible appeal. “Hello there,” she spoke to the hawk. He pierced her with an intense regard and then switched his gaze to the surrounding terrain. Rachel continued with her chores, gathering the clean laundry from the clothing line, folding it, and placing it in a basket. She used the back of her hand to wipe away a bead of sweat that had formed on her brow. She shouldn’t have waited so late in the day to fetch the laundry.
She picked up the basket and casually strolled toward the front of the house, at the same time casting a glance at the bright sun hovering directly above her. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. With the summer season upon them, it was guaranteed the temperatures would rise and become intensely hot. That kind of unbearable heat was not her favorite part of summer, but nevertheless it was part of living in the southern Arizona territory. As she came around the corner of the house, she passed by numerous rose bushes in full bloom. A sea of yellow, red, white, and pink roses scented the pathway, creating a pleasant bouquet. Rachel smiled as she admired the bushes. They flourished due to her mother-in-law’s attentive hand, the care of which Louise had insisted she learn how to do, since she showed an interest in them. Together, their efforts were rewarded with beautiful displays of color and heady fragrances.
The sound of horse hooves pounding the earth gained her attention. A hatless man rode away from the house as Louise stood and watched him disappear down the dirt pathway. Not recognizing the man on the horse, Rachel set the basket of laundry on the porch and strode in the direction of the front door where her mother-in-law stood, shading her eyes as she looked after the rider. Before Rachel could ask Louise about the man, her sister-in-law joined them holding a basket of eggs. Rachel peered into the basket and grimaced. Their egg supply continued to dwindle.
They all focused on the small number of eggs until Louise made an executive decision. “No more chicken suppers. It’s more important to have eggs right now,” she told them.
Both she and Margaret nodded in agreement.
“I’m sure you’re both wondering who that man was. He’s Jim Smith and he’s interested in buying our land.”
Rachel took a step back and experienced a brief bout of breathlessness. She’d hoped it wouldn’t come to this.
“He made a fair offer.” Louise pressed her lips together. “My hands were shaking when I posted the advertisement for the land on the town bulletin board,” she shared as she surveyed the land before them and then glanced at the house. “Ed and I built this house and tended this land with our own hands.” She grabbed both of their hands and held them. “My sons, too. It took years, and to come to this,” she sighed. “You two have been a big help since we’ve had to manage by ourselves, but without regular income I’m afraid our attempts at making ends meet won’t be enough.”
“Maybe my brother could help after he works his day job?” Margaret offered.
Louise shook her head. “No, thank you, but your brother is already working long hours to help support your family since your father got injured.”
Rachel chimed in, “I could ask my eldest brother to help?”
Louise gave her a weak smile. “Your brother’s got his own family to take care of. Besides, he lives too far away.” Louise squeezed her hand. “If you two hadn’t been here I don’t know what I would have done. By myself, I wouldn’t have lasted this long. At least we’ve had each other, but we must practical.” Her voice started to crack. “Which means sometimes having to make decisions we don’t want to make.” She released their hands. “I need a moment alone,” she told them and walked away.
Rachel shuddered with a sense of dread. Her eyes teared up as her gaze followed her mother-in-law’s progress toward the gravesites. “Do you think she’ll sell the land?” Rachel asked Margaret.
“Yes, I do,” Margaret quietly replied, as she too watched their mother-in-law. “She’s right, you know. We’ll never be able to bring in as much income as our husbands did.”
Rachel’s heartbeat sped up. That was not the answer she wanted to hear, but it was the truth. “I know, but for her to lose her land...” If Louise did sell, where could she go? This land, this home had become hers for the last several months. A place where she could breathe deep and relax. Going back to the home of her parents would mean constant conflict. She wanted nothing more to do with that environment. “Where will Louise go, do you think?”
“A while back she mentioned having family in northern Arizona. I believe she used to live up there. I know Jonathan wasn’t born here.”
Neither was Nick, Rachel remembered. She observed Louise kneeling on the ground next to a headstone. The one in the center of two more headstones. Jonathan on the left and Nick on the right. She swallowed and hadn’t realized how dry her throat had gotten. She swallowed again and heard Margaret sniff. Margaret placed her hand on her shoulder. Rachel turned and saw tears running down Margaret’s cheeks, and her own tears began to pool. Rachel hugged her sister-in-law with a tight grip, and they clung to one another.
“I can’t stay any longer, Rachel,” Margaret whispered in her ear. “I’ve been wanting to get away from here, there’s too many memories of Jonathan. Too many...” Margaret quietly sobbed. “I don’t want to abandon Louise, but if she’s going to leave... I want to go home. I want to be with my mother,” she revealed.
Margaret started to sob louder, so Rachel guided her into the house, hurrying her along. On the way, Rachel glanced over her shoulder to see if Louise had heard Margaret. Her mother-in-law stayed kneeling before Ed’s headstone, seemingly unaware of them.
After tucking Margaret into bed, Rachel went out to get the basket of eggs her sister-in-law had left on the steps of the porch. She lifted the basket and Louise appeared beside her.
Louise encircled her arm within Rachel’s and they walked arm and arm to the front door. “Where’s Margaret?”
“She needed to lie down,” Rachel told her.
Louise stared into her eyes. “Were you girls crying?”
Rachel only nodded.
“Well, it’s to be expected,” she remarked in a consoling tone. “You know, I planted extra watermelon this year for Ed because he loves it so much,” Louise paused, “I guess I’ll have to sell that too.”
“Save some for us, we could have it for dessert.”
Louise chuckled. “There’s plenty for that.” And then she sighed. “I guess we’ll start with the larger livestock. We’ll sell the chickens last, except for Charlie. I’m not sure I can give up that rooster. Ed named him when he was a chick, and...” Louise blinked several times and cleared her throat.
“There’s no reason to give him up, Louise.” Rachel tried to be encouraging.
Louise opened the door. “You’re right. I’ll keep Charlie,” she emphatically decided. She let go of Rachel’s arm, took the basket of eggs from her, and walked into the house.
Rachel watched her mother-in-law somberly step through the doorway of the house before spying the basket of laundry she’d left on the edge of the porch. Her gaze flicked toward the barn. Piglet. Her miniature pig she hadn’t given a proper name to yet, just kept calling him piglet or little one. She left the porch and went in search of her small friend. He’d been a gift from Nick, so she didn’t want to give him up. Rachel came up to the corral where piglet lived and was treated to the strong odor of wet mud. She rested her arms on the top bar of the paneled fencing and wasn’t surprised to find the pig sleeping, since it was the hottest part of the day.
Rachel used the sleeve of her blouse to pat dry the sweat on her forehead. Would she have to sell piglet too? She caught sight of his snout twitching and his small legs moving in a running motion and it made her smile. He was dreaming. About what? Was he running toward something? Rachel frowned when she thought about her predicament. Or away from something? She took a deep breath, left piglet to dream, and went about finishing the rest of her chores. There must be a way to survive so they wouldn’t have to leave here. She tied a bandana around her forehead to keep the sweat from dripping in her face, and then grabbed the pitchfork to toss fresh hay into the animal stalls. How could she contribute? What else could she do to help Louise keep this land? Until the answers came, she clung to hope. To the possibility that there could be a chance for them. The alternative was to give up. Not a choice she wanted to consider. They’d already suffered greatly; it was time for some good fortune.
Several days later, the hope Rachel held onto faded away as Louise made an announcement late one afternoon. Rachel and Louise sat in unison on the wicker chairs amid the porch of the cabin.
Rachel waved her hand back and forth in front of her face. “It’s hot out here.”
Louise drank some of her tea and smiled. “It’s hot, but I like the heat.”
Which is why her mother-in-law could drink hot tea on a hot day. A glass full of ice chips would be preferable about now. Rachel shook her head but kept up the waving motion of her hand in front of her face. “I don’t know how you stand it. I’ve tried, but I have never been able to get used to this sweltering heat.”
Louise softly chuckled. “I bet you wish it was the month of May all year long.”
Rachel smiled. “You’re right. May weather all year long would be like heaven.”
Louise sipped at her tea and then set her cup on a table beside the chair. Her features turned grim as she studied her fingernails. “Rachel,” She looked up. “I’ve sold the property to Jim Smith.”
Her next breath was shallow as the warm breeze caressed her cheeks. A tense roiling developed within her stomach and caused waves of nausea. She turned away and covered her mouth. Her thoughts scrambled to understand why. Without a choice, they’d lost their husbands. Now their home too? It wasn’t fair.
“I didn’t have a choice.”
Rachel nodded. This wasn’t Louise’s fault. The poor woman had dealt with an unimaginable tragedy, but she always demonstrated a fine example of strength. Making tough decisions like selling your land and most of what you own was another example.
“We need to move on. Staying here and sulking is not going to help. We’ll drown in debt if we stay.”
“I understand.” Rachel turned back toward Louise. “I need to stop pouting and be realistic.”
Louise snickered. “I said that more for myself than you.”
“Oh,” Rachel chuckled.
“Mr. Smith told me that I was welcome to visit Ed’s gravesite anytime I wanted to,” Louise shared. “That was nice of him, but honestly I don’t know if that will ever happen, since I plan to go north.” She pressed her hand to her heart. “Besides, he’s here, with me.”
“I like that,” Rachel whispered. To her dismay, Louise hadn’t offered for her to go with her. She thought about begging her to let her go, but pride kept her from doing so and she became determined to find another way. “Where,” she swallowed hard to push down the lump in her throat. “Where do you plan on going?” She asked, trying to sound cheerful for Louise’s sake.
Louise’s eyes flashed over Rachel’s shoulder, in the direction of their husband’s head stones. A fragile smile appeared on her face while graying strands of her hair flickered against her cheeks in the breeze. “Back to my hometown where Ed and I met as young adults.” She fixed her gaze on Rachel. “A place called Kingman.”
“Is it in the Arizona territory?” Rachel asked.
“Yes. In the northern part.”
“I’ve never been to the northern part,” Rachel mentioned.
Louise clasped her hands over her lap. “Well, maybe one day you will.” She captured Rachel’s gaze again. “I really think you should spend time with your mother, Rachel. As a mother, I know she could use your support, especially now that you’ll have the time. I won’t need your help on the farm anymore.”
Rachel sat there dumbfounded, stricken with feelings of betrayal. Of all places, she certainly hadn’t thought Louise would suggest she go back home. Her mother-in-law knew how bad the tension was between she and her father, how miserable her father made life for the whole family. Enough that the elder half of her siblings had moved out and the three youngest lived with their aunt and uncle.
Louise grasped Rachel’s hand within hers. “Rachel, my boys are gone. Mothers often miss their children when they’re living, much less... I can bet your mother misses you. Don’t let this chance slip away. Go see your mother.”
“What about my father?” the question stumbled out, “He still lives there.”
Louise sighed. “I know. Maybe there’s some way you could avoid him.”
Rachel frowned. She’d already tried that. It wasn’t only her father she had to avoid but also his friends who continually propositioned her. Luckily, she’d made her escape before anything devastating had happened. Louise didn’t know the details, but she knew enough to know that her father liked to drink and his behavior showed it. They rarely had enough money for food, much less clothing or shoes. Her mother did nothing to stop the drinking and gambling and Rachel could never figure out why. Even so, it became clear that Louise had no intention of taking her as a traveling companion. She did make a valid point that her mother might miss her, but the thought of being in the same room with her father made her cringe. Leaving her mother had been extremely hard. She’d even tried to get her mother to leave her father, but the best her mother could do was to find other family to take in her younger siblings. Did she miss her mother? Yes. Could she tolerate her father’s behavior in order to be with her mother? No.
“Give it some thought,” Louise said. She let go of her hand and went inside the house.
The only thoughts Rachel had now were deciding where to find work and a place of her own to live. She crossed her arms tightly over her chest and immediately noticed a distinct tenderness in her breasts. She started to dwell on the reason why when extreme fatigue took over her body and she nodded off to sleep in the chair.
Louise woke her when it was suppertime. Had the heat gotten to her? She never took a nap in the middle of the day. But even now, she would rather sleep than eat. She forced a few bites of supper down and then went to bed early. If she could just get some rest, tomorrow she’d have a fresh perspective.
Over the next week Rachel put in the effort but couldn’t find any work in town. Not any with enough pay to sustain her. On top of everything else she grew increasingly tired, her breasts remained tender, and her stomach often turned sour. Her body felt off. She could only attribute the symptoms to the constant pressure of her current circumstances.
Regrettably, their last night together arrived. Much too soon for Rachel. She’d already had to leave one broken family. And her family now would have to part ways due to even more treacherous circumstances. Because the men in their family had been taken away, they were left to fend for themselves. For a short time the neighbors had helped out, but eventually the heavy labored tasks were too many. Equipment would need to be repaired. All three women tried to learn and do the work of their husbands, but then they became too exhausted to do their normal everyday chores. Louise was right. If they stayed, they would be dragging themselves down in the dirt and for what? Their husbands were gone. They couldn’t manage the ranch by themselves. They’d tried. It was time to be reasonable. Which was why Rachel had given in to Louise’s suggestion. Feeling she had no choice, she decided to follow her mother-in-law’s advice and go back and live with her parents. Not something she looked forward to.
Rachel rubbed the back of her neck as Louise brought dessert to the table. While the three of them shared a peach pie, Rachel glanced at Margaret and wondered why she’d gotten so lucky. Margaret had parents who treated her as if she mattered. That she was an important person who had thoughts and feelings of her own, someone to be cherished, and not to be used as a bartering object.
Rachel stabbed her fork into the flaky crust and plump peaches of the pie, making sure to include the thicker crust along the edge. Maybe marrying Nick had been a mistake. Maybe taking matters into her own hands by marrying someone not of her father’s choosing was coming back to haunt her. Leaving her with no alternative but to crawl back to her mother and father as a widow, or as her father had put it, a foolish, impulsive girl. Her jaw began to ache. The pie got lodged in her throat, turning into a doughy ball she could barely swallow. She started to choke and Margaret immediately handed her a glass of milk.
She got the pie down. “Thank you,” she told Margaret. Rachel sipped some more milk before putting the glass on the table. Her sister-in-law and mother-in-law both stared at her, showing expressions of great concern. “I’m fine,” she assured them.
“You’ve hardly spoken a word and now almost choked on your food,” Margaret pointed out.
How could she be upset with Margaret? The young woman didn’t have a mean bone in her body and was always concerned about others. “This is a sad occasion for me. I won’t ever see you two again,” her voice broke as her chin trembled.
“That isn’t so, Rachel. We could meet for lunch, we’d be close enough,” Margaret told her.
Rachel nodded, having a difficult time responding.
Louise reached over with her hand, clasped Rachel’s hand within hers as well as Margaret’s. “Just because our husbands have passed on doesn’t mean we’re not family anymore. I think of you both as the daughters I never had. Let’s all make an effort to keep in touch.”
They agreed and ate their pie as they reminisced about happier times.
Rachel slept fitfully during the night, anguished about having to go back home. In the morning she experienced worsening physical ailments, and almost tripped over her own feet on the way to the basin before heaving. She grabbed the edge of the table and took several calming breaths. “Why is this happening?” The hairs on the nape of her neck stood and her heartbeat started to thump. “I couldn’t be, could I?” She began to pace the floor. But it made sense with the symptoms she’d been having. A baby? She stopped short. Going by her suspicions, a new decision had to be made. And it was an easy one. One that gave her confidence.
July 22, 1893
Beneath a crisp blue sky and a hot shining sun, the three women hugged one last time. Margaret left first. Louise promised to write her once she arrived in Kingman, then Louise turned to Rachel.
“I’ll write to you as well,” Louise told her with a forced smile.
Rachel got a better hold of the rope tied to her pig. He’d gotten restless. She returned her mother-in-law’s smile and breathed deep, pushing her shoulders back. “There’s no need to write to me because I’m going with you.”
Louise’s head jerked back. “Why? I thought you already decided to go to your parents.”
Rachel’s smile froze and then disappeared. “I won’t live with that man again. I won’t subject—”
Louise clutched Rachel’s forearms with a firm grip. “Must I beg you to go back to your family?”
Rachel shook her head. “No. No, Louise. I’m going with you.”
Louise glanced over her shoulder. “You can still catch up to Margaret.”
Rachel looked in the direction of her sister-in-law, trailing farther away, disappearing into the canopies of Ironwood trees. Margaret had made her feelings known. She desired to be with her family. Rachel’s family had been broken apart. She considered Louise her family now. Rachel dismissed the fatigue, the lack of energy she felt and stood her ground, refusing to be persuaded by Louise’s sincere intentions. Another life depended on her now. Her gaze drifted back to her mother-in-law. “My mind is made up.”
Louise’s expression appeared pained. “I can’t provide for you, Rachel,” she stressed. “That’s humiliating enough, and now I must face my family in Kingman since it’s the only place I have left to go.” Louise let go of Rachel’s arms, and she hugged herself as she turned to study the land she’d had to give up.
Rachel placed a hand on her shoulder. “Surely, they’ll understand. You’ve lost your husband, and both of your sons.”
Louise’s tanned hand patted Rachel’s fair one. “I know you’re right, and I’m truly grateful for your companionship, but you’d be better off with your parents.”
Rachel fiercely shook her head.
“Just for a little while. At least you’d have a roof over your head.”
Rachel stepped in front of Louise, dragging piglet along behind her. “I can’t go home because I believe I’m pregnant. I will not take a chance that my child might be mistreated.”
Louise’s eyes widened. “With child?”‘
Rachel nodded. “I’m experiencing strange symptoms.”
“And you’ve been retiring earlier at night. I can’t believe I didn’t think about you being with child,” Louise remarked.
“You’ve been busy.” The piglet pulled at the rope, trying to get away so Rachel yanked the rope to stop the piglet’s fussing. Rachel glanced up at Louise and she appeared cheerful. Actually smiling like she had before the dreadful loss of their husbands.
“He’s going to be a handful on this trip,” Louise pointed to the piglet as she made the comment with a chuckle.
“Tell me about it,” Rachel mumbled through tightened lips. The pig pulled again and Rachel yanked even harder. Once the piglet settled down, she realized that Louise had agreed to let her travel along. “You’re letting me go with you?”
“As if you gave me a choice.”
“I feel strongly about this.”
“I know you do. You should. You’re carrying my grandchild. That baby comes first.” Louise gave her a genuine smile. “Now you’re stuck with me. I do plan on living a long time, you know.”
A warmth radiated throughout Rachel’s body, and she grinned in a way that could not be contained.
“Come here,” Louise gestured with her hands and gave her a hug. “I’m so pleased that you stood up and thought of your child first.”
Tears streamed down Rachel’s cheeks. To get the approval of her mother-in-law meant the world to her.
When Louise released her hold, her eyes were watery. She smoothed the dark strands of her hair away from her face and used the sleeves of her dress to dry her tired eyes. “Let’s get on the road. I want to make camp before dusk.”
“Yes ma’am,” Rachel responded and then was jerked in the direction of the barn. Piglet was confused, he didn’t realize this was no longer their home as he trotted away, pulling Rachel with him.
“Little one, we’re on our way to a new home now,” she told the piglet as she reached down to pick him up. With a spring in her step she carried him to the wagon. They finished packing a short time later and then left north for Kingman, Arizona.
They traveled with the barest of belongings. They took only what they could manage to haul. All other items, including most of their livestock, had been sold to buy food and other supplies needed for the month-long trip. The animals they’d kept consisted of two strong oxen to pull the wagon, Louise’s rooster, and Rachel’s piglet.
The first two weeks went by without issue. The dirt road trails were wide and fairly flat, providing easy maneuvering around potholes, debris, and other wagons. Clear pathways were prominent off the road to camp for the night, but by the third week, as they entered Prescott Valley and the roads narrowed, they had to search for ideal camping spots and Rachel became increasingly more ill.
Rachel insisted on handling the wagon even while she combated the illness, very often leaning over the side of the wagon, losing her breakfast, and carrying on as if it weren’t out of the ordinary. By the time they’d made it to their last stop before reaching Kingman, Louise commended her.
“I must say, you’re a trooper. You remind me of myself when I was carrying Nick. It was only Ed and I doing the planting and I was out there less than a month before having the baby, planting and hoeing.”
Rachel glanced up from her bowl of beans, and focused on Louise who sat across from her sipping on a cup of coffee. The campfire’s flames glowed and danced in reflection against Louise’s face. “I believe it.”
Louise’s mouth slowly curved into a smile. “It’s exciting news. My son lives on because of you.”
Rachel’s breath caught in her chest. More weight had been added to her predicament. Her shoulders slumped as she looked down and began pushing the remaining beans around her bowl. Her situation was less than ideal. Something she’d thought about a lot over the last three weeks while traveling. Something she hadn’t yet discussed with her mother-in-law. She had no husband, no father for her child. How would she manage?
“You were deep in thought. What were you thinking about?”
Her muscles tensed. Unable to meet her mother-in-law’s eyes, she tossed the remaining beans into the campfire and then set the bowl on the ground. “Um,” she took a deep breath before continuing and kept her gaze on the campfire. “I’m wondering how I’m going to manage without a father for my child. I may have to marry again.” Rachel swallowed hard before meeting Louise’s eyes.
Louise made strong eye contact. “We have plenty of time to figure that out. Don’t you fret about it now.”
The muscles in her shoulders loosened. Rachel’s heart filled with gratitude for having a mother-in-law who intended to help her through the hard times ahead. Who didn’t act upset at the possibility of another man becoming a father to her son’s child. “You’re right,” she agreed and gave her a slow smile.
“I usually am,” Louise claimed with no amount of modesty as she took another swig of her coffee.
The quiet, starlit night was disturbed only by the crackling of the campfire. Rachel stared into the flickering flames as her mind shifted to reflections of her deceased husband. He would have been so happy about the baby. So pleased to be starting a family. On numerous occasions he’d mentioned wanting to have several children. And then without warning and without a chance to survive, he’d been taken from her. Her throat tightened when she couldn’t quell the thoughts that barraged her mind. She replayed the deputy coming to their house on that cloudy morning, almost two months ago, to deliver the devastating news about an explosion. She shook her head, trying to erase the unwanted image. She made an effort to continue the conversation about the baby. To clear her mind of the loss she’d suffered. “How long does the sickness last?”
Louise perked up. “Everyone is different, but not much longer I would bet.”
These new experiences baffled her, so she would take any words of comfort about now. “That’s good to hear.” Rachel started to give her a smile, but instead she yawned. “I’m feeling really tired.”
Louise pushed up from the ground with a groan. “Doesn’t surprise me.” She kicked dirt into the fire to extinguish it and motioned for Rachel to follow her into the wagon.
Rachel got up to join Louise and help her secure the piglet in the wagon, and also check on the rooster who had taken up residence on his temporary perch above the bench seat of the wagon. The oxen were tied to the axle of the wagon and were content as they lay next to the wheel and munched on whatever greens they could scrounge up.
Louise took Rachel by the arm and guided her to the back of the wagon. “Up you go, young lady.” As Rachel climbed in, Louise followed behind her. They settled side by side on the straw mattress with their thinner blankets covering them. The days had been hot since leaving Tucson, and the nights not quite cool enough for sleeping weather, but the more north they traveled, the cooler the nights had become. For that they were thankful.
Despite Louise’s confidence, Rachel continued to dwell on her circumstances. She didn’t have many skills outside of farming, but she was willing to learn. Would she even get hired while being pregnant? Pregnant and without a husband. She turned onto her side away from Louise and lowered her chin into her chest, feeling a painful lump in her throat. Silent tears rolled down her cheeks as she thought about her bleak situation. The one thing giving her purpose was the child growing inside her. Rachel slid her hand over her flat belly to acknowledge the child, the only one providing a glimmer of hope. The baby would make it possible to contribute to Louise’s plight after all, by giving her a grandchild and carrying on Nick’s family line. She wasn’t sure how, but she had to carry on for her baby’s sake.
August 17, 1893
The rising sun beamed into Levi Ramsey’s bedroom. He cracked open his eyes as a hint of rose scent drifted in through the open window. Various birds chirped in a joyful serenade, while the sun’s powerful rays gently warmed the room. Levi languidly stretched, touching the tips of his fingers to the wall above his head while his feet hung well past the bottom of the bed. He yawned and released a heavy sigh as his body relaxed. Thursday had always been his favorite day of the week, mainly because he got to sleep in. Maybe he would make an exception today and stay in bed even longer. No sooner had the thought crossed his mind when a loud knock sounded on the bedroom door. Levi groaned. “Maybe not,” he said aloud.
The pounding on the door continued. “Sheriff, you’ve got visitors.”
Visitors? He hadn’t been expecting any visitors. So much for lazing around. “Be right there, Thomas.”
“Sure thing, Sheriff.”
Levi listened to Thomas’s footsteps as they disappeared before he tossed the blankets aside. He got up, got dressed, ran a comb through his hair, and made his way outside.
Twenty feet from his porch a large gray and black rooster perched on the bench seat of a rustic wagon, and a piglet snorted and charged at his large chocolate Labrador, Toby, who ran in circles around the little animal. Two ladies stood next to the wagon, amused by the playful interaction of the animals. They hadn’t noticed him yet, but he gained their attention when he closed the cabin door. One gal looked familiar, the other one didn’t. He examined the features of the familiar one. By golly, could she be his long-lost cousin, Louise?
“Levi?” The older brunette reached out her arms as she stepped closer. “I thought this might be your ranch.”
Levi descended the steps of the porch, met his cousin halfway, and embraced her. “Louise, it’s good to see you.”
“You, too.” She leaned away from him and looked up. “Boy, I’d forgotten how tall you are,” she chuckled. “How long has it been?”
He smiled. “Oh, I’d say at least ten years.”
“That long?” She shook her head and let go of his arms. Louise motioned for the young lady next to her to come closer. “Levi, this is my daughter-in-law, Rachel.”
The young lady held out her hand. “Nice to meet you.”
Levi clasped her hand in his. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance.” The touch of her soft, warm hand caused an unexpected stirring that shot straight to his belly. Jolted by his reaction to a simple handshake, he unintentionally gave her hand a slight squeeze—as if to reassure her. About what he didn’t know, except that he instantly became aware of her need for his protection. He released her hand and tried to distract himself. Why did he react so strongly to this woman? A married woman, no less. A surge of guilt replaced the rousing in his stomach while his cheeks grew hot. “I see you’ve met Thomas.”
“Yes.” Both women said in unison.
He regained his composure and offered the hospitality of his home. “Well, this is quite the surprise. You do plan to stay the night, I hope.”
Louise gave him a nod which spurred Levi and Thomas to start unloading their belongings from the wagon. Levi grabbed a hefty bag, making casual conversation. “Where’s Ed and the boys?” He turned to face Louise who suddenly appeared pale and glassy-eyed. Something was wrong. If he remembered right, it took a lot to make his cousin cry.
“They’re no longer with us.” Louise whispered.
Levi’s brow furrowed. “What happened?”
She sniffed and frowned. “They’re dead.”
The bag Levi held in his hand fell to the ground with a thud. “What?” he questioned.
Her daughter-in-law scooted closer to Louise and put her arm around her shoulders. His cousin patted her hand and said, “There was a fire in the pump house at the mine where they worked. They said the flames moved so fast, and then there was an explosion…”
“Dear God. Ed and both boys?” This must be tearing her apart.
Louise closed her eyes and nodded.
He glanced at her daughter-in-law who tried to console Louise. She looked as though she was barely coping herself. And who could blame her? What these two must be going through... It’d been a while since he’d dealt with a death in the family, but he remembered well the misery that lingered.
Levi stepped closer to Louise and grasped her free hand with his. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Louise laid her cheek against his arm and sighed heavily. Above her head Levi caught Rachel’s watery gaze. He silently conveyed his sympathy and Rachel’s features softened as if she accepted his condolences.
“Levi?” Louise broke the silent moment.
Levi pulled his gaze away from Rachel’s. “Yes, Louise?”
“I want you to know that we’re only passing through. If we can just rest for a day or two, we’ll be on our way—”
He cut her off. “You’ll do no such thing.” He glanced at Rachel, a woman who straight away mystified him. “Take all the time you need. I’ve got plenty of space here.” His gaze dropped down to his cousin’s. “There are two empty rooms in the cabin.”
Louise leaned her head back and tears rolled down her cheeks. “Thank you.”
“No need to cry.” He tugged out a handkerchief from his shirt pocket and handed it to her.
She used it to wipe her cheeks dry. “To be honest, we’re fairly low on supplies. We have almost nothing left.”
“That’s reason enough to stay here.”
She sniffed. “We’ll see.”
He scanned the bed of the wagon. “I think Thomas has gotten all of your bags out of the wagon. Why don’t you ladies go inside and freshen up.”
Louise gestured in agreement and they both turned to go into the massive log cabin. Rachel paused as Louise went inside first. “Thank you, Mr. Ramsey.”
“Levi. And you’re welcome.” He held her gaze for as long as she stood there. Finally, she went inside the cabin. Her hair had the lustrous sheen of the beaver pelts his pop used to sell, and her eyes matched the brown of her hair, only brighter. They were mesmerizing. He’d never been struck speechless before, but while he examined her features his mouth couldn’t form a meaningful word. No matter, he wasn’t about to share that she was the first woman who’d ever blindsided him with her outward appearance. He briefly closed his eyes, then stepped away from the porch. She was a young widow who needed safekeeping, not ogling. He went to find Thomas.
Rachel placed her favorite dress atop a dresser along with her other dresses. Not sure how long Louise planned to stay; she kept her clothing easily accessible. At least her sparse outfits would have a chance to lie flat, and hopefully become wrinkle-free in a few days. Mr. Ramsey, or Levi rather, proved to be a generous man. For that she was grateful, because she and Louise had run quite low on provisions. She glimpsed the land out an uncovered window next to the dresser and a sense of peace moved through her, almost as if she belonged here. Such an unexpected feeling, but after a month of traveling and living out of a wagon, it was no wonder this place felt peaceful, if only for a short time. Had it only been two months since they’d lost their husbands to the catastrophic explosion? She’d only been married to Nick for a few months. During the last month of their marriage they’d been working on starting a family. She slid her hands over her belly. To her surprise their efforts had come to fruition.
Unsure of her future, Rachel took a deep breath as she swept her eyes over the perimeter of Levi’s land. Such beauty couldn’t be described only in words. It had to be seen and experienced. Patches of wildflowers blanketed the hills that rolled out into the distance. Mesquite trees dotted those same hills amid the flowers. To her right she could see the back edge of a large red barn with white trim, to her left a large pond. Everything about his property was massive, even the man himself.
Louise had mentioned the possibility of meeting her cousin, Levi, on the way to their destination. She hadn’t given many details about him except that they were eight years apart in age, he being the younger. Upon meeting him, his mannerisms spoke for themselves: polite, friendly, and compassionate.
She turned away from the window, sat on the bed, and clasped her hands together. Not unlike Nick. Although physically, Nick had been a willow of a man compared to Levi. Even their coloring contrasted. Her husband had had light hair and dark eyes, while Levi had smoky black hair and vivid blue eyes. She couldn’t help but notice the intense coloring of his eyes when he’d stared at her as she was about to enter the cabin for the first time. She’d brushed off the focused stare as him trying to figure her out. After all, they’d just met, she was sure he had questions.
A tapping came at the bedroom door and Rachel jumped. “Yes?”
Slowly the door opened as Louise poked her head inside. “Can I get your help with supper?”
Rachel shot off the bed. “Absolutely.”
Supper that night was a simple affair. Louise was still recovering from their trip, but felt obligated to cook up some food. Levi had offered to help but she’d all but thrown him out of his own kitchen. She and Rachel managed to heat up some beans along with cornbread and potatoes. No one complained and everyone ate heartily. Dessert had been just as effortless; they opened a large can of peaches and everyone dug in.
“Who were you planning on staying with in Kingman?” Levi asked. “I ask because I can’t recall which family members still live here.”
Louise smiled. “Actually, it’s Ed’s sister, Martha, and her husband, John. I didn’t realize until right before we left that they’d moved to the outskirts of Kingman in the valley.”
“No wonder I don’t remember them. I don’t know if I’ve ever met them.”
“Probably not. They came from back east after we moved south.”
“Ah,” he responded, glanced at Rachel, and then added, “Unless your mind is made up to stay with them, you’re more than welcome to stay here.” It shamed him, just a little, that the invitation he offered was as much about keeping Rachel around as it was to give them shelter.
“That’s awfully kind of you Levi,” she looked to Rachel, “but we don’t want to intrude.”
He wasn’t about to let Louise give him an excuse. “It’s not an intrusion. Besides, I could use some home cooked meals around here.”
Louise chuckled. “So that’s the real reason you’re eager to have us stay with you.”
It took a lot of effort not to look in Rachel’s direction. “That’s not the reason and you know it.”
“I know that.” She clasped Rachel’s hand. “We thank you for letting us stay here, at least for a little while. Meanwhile, we’ll help out as much as we can.”
Unaware that his shoulders had tightened, he relaxed them after Louise agreed to stay. He smiled. “It’s settled then.”
Both ladies nodded in agreement.
“Did I hear Thomas call you sheriff? When did this happen?” Louise asked as she stabbed at a peach slice on her plate.
Levi swallowed a mouthful of juicy peaches. “Mm, about four years ago.” He plunged his fork into the can for another of the plump fruit.
“Were you elected?” Louise dabbed her mouth with a linen cloth.
Levi nodded. “Yep. The townspeople thought I could make a difference.”
“I’m sure you haven’t let them down.”
The beginning of a grin stole on his mouth. “I admire your faith in me, Louise, and I’d like to think that I’ve kept out a significant amount of riff raff.”
Louise mirrored his smile. “Always trustworthy. That’s why you were my favorite cousin, you know.”
Levi shook his head, easily embarrassed by his cousin’s compliment. He’d forgotten how bold his cousin could be.
“Are you blushing, Sheriff?"
Denying it wouldn’t help but nonetheless he tried. “Not me.” Levi pushed his chair back, scraping the legs along the wooden floor, and rose with his plate in hand. He came up behind Rachel who had been quietly scrubbing dishes. In the split second he had when no one would see him, he briefly closed his eyes and inhaled the scent of her hair. Old fashioned rose petals. The strong, musky kind.
Apparently, his cousin wasn’t finished interrogating him. “Since I’ve already embarrassed you, you won’t mind if I ask; why haven’t you married?”
He jerked and his plate accidently bumped into Rachel’s arm. “Sorry,” he said. She smiled, the first one to show the full set of her teeth. She had a beautiful smile.
“It’s all right.” She took the plate from him.
He turned to face Louise. “Thanks,” he said over his shoulder to Rachel, then eyeballed his cousin. “You never were one to beat around the bush, were you?”
“No. I admit it.” Louise smiled.
“And happily too,” he chuckled as he headed for the front door.
“Wait one minute, mister.”
Slowly Levi pivoted in her direction. Louise stood by the kitchen table with her hands on her hips.
“You were going to sneak out without answering my question,” she accused.
“What question was that?” His cheeks warmed as he felt Rachel staring at him.
A sly smile curved on his cousin’s mouth. “Why haven’t you married?”
“Louise, that’s personal.” Rachel interjected with a nervous laugh.
Louise cut her eyes toward Rachel. “We’re family. It’s not personal.”
Levi could only imagine Rachel’s reaction. Louise didn’t sugar-coat her words. She never had in the past either. While it could be irritating at times, you certainly knew where you stood with her. He decided to give in to his cousin’s curiosity. “I haven’t found the right woman, yet.” That should satisfy her as long as she’d missed the glance he’d involuntarily given Rachel at the same time he answered.
“That’s a good reason.”
She hadn’t missed the glance. She nodded with a lifted eyebrow and carried her plate to the sink.
Levi plucked his Stetson off the hat rack and raced out the door. He found solace with his dog, Toby. They comforted each other as they sat side by side along the bank of the pond. Levi caressed the dog’s dark chocolate coat and watched as the sun drifted over the last sloping peak of the far off mountains. Poor Toby. That piglet had run him ragged all afternoon. Toby groaned and Levi groaned right along with him. He’d never been so embarrassed in front of a woman before, much less a widow, but his cousin had pulled it off. After dwelling on those thoughts awhile, he bided his time in hope that the women would retire soon and he could make a mad dash to his bedroom.
Louise had long since retired for the night, but Rachel couldn’t sleep. She sat out on the porch step and breathed in the nighttime air, still warm enough to sit outside and not get chilled. The hint of wood burning in the fireplace reminded her of the nights spent on her own porch with Nick. Often, they would finish supper and make their way to the wooden bench on the porch deck. They mainly talked about the larger house they would one day build and the children they would have. Her chin dropped to her chest and fresh tears made her eyes ache as she studied her fingers pressing into the cotton of her skirt. She and Nick never got the chance to see their dreams come true. Nick would never know his child. She sniffed. The one safely tucked away in her belly. The one only she and Louise knew about. Louise had become an unexpected friend. Being her mother-in-law, she expected to have a cordial relationship with her, but they’d been through quite a bit in the short time they’d become family. She’d formed a unique bond with her mother-in-law and it seemed fitting that she now carried Louise’s grandchild to make up for the heartache she’d suffered. She sniffed again and blinked away the tears when she heard footsteps coming near. Quickly her hands swiped at her cheeks to dry them just before a tall, dark figure approached her.
“Would you mind some company?”
Levi had a soothing baritone voice to match the gentle giant of a man that he was. She tilted her head back as he stood looking down at her. “No, not at all,” she said, thankful the darkness would hide her weeping eyes.
He crouched down and settled on the porch step next to her. “I’ve been meaning to make a bench seat for this porch so I don’t have to stoop down so far.” He shrugged. “Just haven’t gotten around to it yet.”
Rachel clasped her hands together and let her gaze follow a bright path of stars. “Would it be a swing style?”
“Yes,” he answered.
Rachel sighed. “I’ve always wanted a porch swing. We didn’t have one growing up.”
He cleared his throat. “Your family didn’t have resources for one?”
Her chest tightened. She looked down and then she cocked her head to the side. “No. There were nine of us.”
“You’re from a large family. That makes sense.”
She straightened. “Yeah. Six siblings, a jealous mother, and an alcoholic for a father.”
Levi didn’t say anything.
By his silent response she realized how much she’d shared about her family, how much she’d revealed, and how bitter she sounded while revealing it. She felt remorse for exposing her family, who ultimately were a reflection on her. With a weakened voice she apologized, “Sorry. That wasn’t very nice.”
Levi’s gaze collided with hers. “Not the ideal family life, I take it?”
“No,” she whispered. Unable to keep her gaze steady with his, she gave those bright stars in the sky her attention instead.
“Is that why you’re with Louise?”
“Partly,” Rachel glanced his way. “Mainly it’s because she hasn’t anyone else.”
“I think it’s very noble of you to stay with her, regardless of the reason.”
Her eyes teared up again. “She’s been a rock for me.”
“I imagine she feels the same about you.”
She studied this man who made it so easy to talk. Who tried to understand, and not pass judgment. “I want to thank you again for taking us in.”
Levi ducked his head and brushed at imaginary dirt on his pants. “You’re family.” He cut his eyes back to hers. “We look out for each other.”
“Yes,” she smiled to break the intense moment. “I agree.”
“Which of Louise’s sons was your husband?”
He’d surprised her with that question. “The elder, Nick.”
“Nick.” Levi acknowledged. “I remember meeting him and his brother when Louise and Ed came back for a visit, but they were youngsters then.”
Rachel chuckled. “Yes, my brother-in-law, Jonathan, was the wild one. Although my sister-in-law, Margaret, I’m told, tamed him once they were married.”
“Yes, women have a way of doing that,” he replied.
Rachel bent her head to the side. “Now how would you know that since you haven’t met the right woman yet?” Too bad it was nighttime, she couldn’t tell if his cheeks had turned red. She had always admired a man who was modest.
He cleared his throat again. “Well, I do have a deputy who’s married...among other friends who are married...”
The smile on her face faded as they stared at each other. The significant look that passed between them didn’t last long when Toby, who was soaking wet, came up to them and put his chin on Levi’s knee.
Rachel’s nose wrinkled. “Oh my.” Her hand covered her nose and mouth. “He smells like a pond,” she said through her fingers.
Levi chuckled. “That’s because he just took a swim in the pond.” He chuckled some more as he scratched Toby behind his wet ears.
“Why would you let your dog go swimming at nighttime?”
“Why not? He likes it.”
“But he could get cold and—”
Levi interrupted to inform her, “He’s a Labrador retriever, they love the cold and they love to swim.”
“I see.” Her hand fell away from her mouth. Suddenly, Toby had the nerve to shake his whole body, right next to them. Water droplets sprayed over both of them, Rachel tried to block the spray with her hands. Then she stood. “You stinker of a dog! I’m all wet.”
“Stinker? That’s a new one,” Levi softly laughed.
She picked up her fork and empty peach can. Toby shook again. “Ugh,” she groaned. Levi had the audacity to laugh heartily. “It’s not funny,” she told him as her teeth chattered. Swiftly she turned and went into the house; from behind her another belt of laughter ensued.