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Prologue

Welburn, Kansas

 

Adjusting his straw hat to shield his eyes from the sun, fifteen-year old Edson Stewart walked the dusty town of Welburn with his father.

 

His father, the newly appointed Mayor of Welburn, nodded at the townsfolk who hung around the shops and the offices in the town. Buggies and wagons made dusty and noisy movements down the main road.

 

 “Mayor Stewart,” one man called and lifted his hat in greeting as he passed by.

 

Edson’s father smiled at the man, tipping his hat as well.

 

A bright smile spread across Edson’s young face. Although he couldn’t really understand what it meant for his father to be the mayor of their town, he was pleased by the appointment.

 

Some days ago, he had heard his father talking about various reforms that would take place in the town now that he was a constituted authority.

 

Edson had decided to come into town with his parents that morning. Usually, he spent his mornings working with his father’s foreman on their small ranch. Other times, he went into the surrounding bushes to hunt for animals.

 

As they drew closer to the center of the town, Edson noted that some people were gathered around the Grey Horn, the town’s saloon.

 

Information had reached his father that trouble was brewing there earlier this morning. The sheriff and his deputy had gone to handle a disturbance at the outskirts of the town.

 

The town was quite peaceful, so it wasn’t unusual for the lawmen to leave to attend to matters on ranches situated at Welburn’s borders.

 

One of the deputies was usually left behind in case of any sudden trouble erupting in the town. But in this instance, the deputy, plagued with backdoor trots, had to go back home.

 

And so, his father had felt that it was his duty as mayor to see what the commotion was all about. Edson had left the office with him even though his father had initially told him to stay back.

 

The noise coming from the saloon had Edson’s brow raising. He turned to look at his father’s grim face. Everyone said he was his father’s replica with his dirty blond hair, gray eyes, slightly pointed nose, and firm lips. 

 

Edson hadn’t grown a beard yet but he was certain that if he did, he would groom it like his father’s—neatly trimmed. Although he wasn’t yet sixteen, he was almost as tall as his father, who was over six feet tall.

 

“Mayor Stewart,” one of the men standing in front of the saloon said, and lifted his hand for a handshake.

 

“Michael,” his father said and shook hands with the man as the crowd hanging around the saloon muttered loudly.

 

“What seems to be the problem?” the mayor questioned, rubbing his hand across his bearded jaw.

 

“I don’t know, Mayor. I heard some men are trying to raise sand in there.” He nodded in the direction of the double doors. “I tried going in there to find out what was going on from Jeb, but I was stopped by one of them.”

 

The mayor’s forehead contorted in a frown. The uproar which was beginning to sound like a brawl grew louder.

 

Unease ran through Edson. He didn’t like the sound of men coming to Welburn to cause trouble. The town was relatively peaceful; misunderstandings occurring between drunken cowboys every now and again were the worst things that happened there.

 

That was it. Noisy brawls were unheard of because the townsfolk usually calmed frayed nerves before they got out of control.

 

They had learned the hard way to make sure misunderstandings didn’t worsen into a gunfight. Some years ago, a simple case of spilled drink had resulted in a fight that cost lives, particularly innocent ones. Lessons had been learned from that incident.

 

“I’ll handle it,” his father stated firmly and strode into the saloon with Edson at his heels.

 

Edson’s eyes widened when he took in the messy state of the saloon. Tables were overturned, food and drink littered the wooden floor, and the smell of smoke filled the air.

 

Edson shifted his gaze from the disarray to the seven strangers in the room who were displaying weapons. One of them waved his Black-eyed Susan in the air.

 

The usual saloon patrons stood in wide-eyed bemusement as the men took over the place.

 

“For the last time, leave!” the saloon owner, Mr. Jeb Tate barked at the men, wielding a club. “We don’t want no ‘legislators’ here.”

 

Edson’s father gasped beside him. He turned to look at his father who strode forward with determination on his tight face.

“You heard what he said,” the mayor said, walking close to one of the men. “Leave our town. We don’t like people who come here to make trouble. Go back to Rinsdale.”

 

The man who was obviously their leader offered the mayor a smile that sent a shiver of trepidation running through Edson.

 

“Mayor Stewart, it’s so good of you to join us,” the man said in a husky voice. “We’ve been expecting you.” Then he let out a bark of laughter. “We’re here to impose change. We will not conform to your reforms. Your new laws on taxes don’t sit well with us.”

 

“Then you should have come to my office to discuss it like reasonable men instead of causing an uproar,” the mayor threw at him with savage bite.

 

The man sneered. “What better way of getting your attention, Mayor?”

 

“You’ve gotten the attention you desire, now leave!” Edson’s father’s voice was like the lash of a whip but none of the men flinched.

 

Instead, their leader raised his pistol at the mayor. Edson’s heart jumped to his throat. He tried to swallow as his palms became sweaty.

 

From the corner of his eye, he saw Jeb reach behind the counter and bring out a rifle. He pointed it at the leader.

 

“Go on, git!” Jeb snapped at the man who was looking at him with deadly intent.

 

Just then, Edson’s mother came down the stairs with her best friend, the saloon owner’s wife. Edson recalled that she had told his father that she was heading there to help her friend who wasn’t feeling too well.

 

“What in Sam Hill is going on?” Susie Tate enquired with raised eyebrows. “The ruckus has gone on long enough.”

 

It all happened so fast, Edson thought he was in a dream.

 

Jeb’s wife had hardly finished talking when one of the armed men pointed his pistol at her and shot her where she stood. The sound exploded in Edson’s ears.

 

In a matter of seconds, the room was turned into a battlefield. Gunshot sounded in the air as more people got injured.

 

Jeb got a bullet in the head. His father had ducked when the gunshots began. He shouted at him to run but all Edson could think of was helping his mother.

 

“Mama!” Edson yelled, thinking of how he could get to her without getting shot.

 

“Edson! Run!” his mother shouted just as one of the men grabbed her and held a gun to her head.

 

Just as he started forward to go save his mother, his father reached for him and dragged him toward the door.

 

“No! Mama!” 

 

Edson broke free from his father’s grasp so he could go and protect his mother.

 

“Edson!” his father shouted behind him but Edson didn’t stop. All he wanted was to rescue his mother from the grasp of the evil man.

 

Edson had almost reached his mother when the man pulled the trigger.

 

“No!” Edson screamed, realizing it was already too late.  He ran to his mother just as she collapsed on the hard floor.

 

He cradled his mother’s bleeding head and lifted his teary eyes just in time to see the leader of the gang shoot his father. His father had been coming after him.

 

Edson watched with horror as his father fell to his knees with cold and lifeless eyes before dropping on the ground.

 

“No!”

 

Edson rushed after the man who had shot his father. The man simply struck him on the head and he fell to the ground.

 

“Stupid boy!” the leader sneered and turned away.

 

Edson lay there, watching the horrific scene going on around him. The legislators had come from the next town to successfully cause havoc in Welburn.

 

All around him, lay injured, dying, and dead people. He knew that as long as he lived, he would never forget this day. The terrible day he lost both his parents.

 

Edson didn’t know how long he lay there with his cheek stinging from the blow. The shooting went on a few minutes longer. Then the legislators finally left the saloon as loudly as they had destroyed the place.

 

The whole room smelled of blood and death. Men groaned around him from gunshot wounds.

 

A sound different from the moans filling the air got his attention. Someone was sobbing and it didn’t appear to be one of the men.

 

Edson sluggishly pushed himself into a sitting position. The sight of his father’s lifeless body a few feet from him had tears rolling down his cheeks. He drew his knees to his chest and moved back and forth, trying to withstand the shock running through him.

 

The sound he heard earlier increased, drawing Edson from his numb state. The sobbing appeared to be coming from behind the bar.

 

Sniffing and wiping his tears with his hands, Edson carefully rose. Quietly, he walked around the bar to investigate the source of the noise.

 

His heart jumped when he saw the ten-year-old daughter of the saloon owner huddled at a corner of the bar, sobbing and shaking with fear.

 

He stood there staring at the blonde-haired girl for a moment before he moved to sit beside her.

 

She lifted her wet face to him, her blue eyes filled with fear.

 

“Pollie,” he simply said before taking her into his arms.

 

Edson remembered the times he had spoken to her. Their parents had been very good friends. They usually played together even though there was a six year difference in their ages. Most times, they walked around the ranch and talked whenever her parents came visiting.

 

“It’s okay, Pollie. Everything will be all right,” he said as she continued sobbing and trembling in his arms.

 

The scene of dead bodies belied his words, but Edson was determined to offer the poor girl comfort. It was all he could do. She probably had watched her parents get killed as well.

 

Edson felt a great sense of responsibility for the girl as they had both lost their parents in the gruesomeness that had just taken place.

 

She lifted her wet blue eyes and shook her head, trying to contain her tears.

 

“It’s never going to be all right,” she sobbed. “The men might come back to kill us.”

 

“No,” he refuted calmly. “They have done what they came to do. They won’t come back.”

 

“They killed Papa and Mama,” she wept, clutching his hand harder.

 

It took all the strength in him to keep from sobbing hysterically with her. She didn’t need more tears right now. She needed comfort and security.

 

Gulping thickly, he said, “I know. I’m sorry.”

 

There was no point telling her that he too had lost his parents. It was a terrible incident to talk about.

 

“I’m so scared that they will come back and find me and kill me.” Fear quivered in her voice.

 

“Look at me,” Edson urged, cupping her face for her to look into his eyes. Tears poured down her face, wrenching his heart.

 

Those evil men had no idea what they had done. They had wrecked lives and caused so much misery, nothing would ever be the same again.

 

But he had to put away his own misery to comfort her. He realized that at under sixteen, he suddenly had to become a man and take custody of Pollie.

 

They were now orphans who had no one to take care of them, all because of men who wanted their way. They would rue their actions. He would make sure of that someday.

 

They will pay!

 

But for now, he had to take care of Pollie.

 

Darting his tongue across his parched lips, he said, “I promise you right here and now, I will always keep you safe. I will never leave you.”

 

With trembling lips, she asked, “Do you mean that?”

 

He nodded. At that moment, a strong bond formed between the two of them.

 

Edson was determined to keep his promise. He would protect Pollie even if it was at the cost of his own life.

 

“I promise,” he repeated solemnly.

 

 

Chapter 1

11 years later…

 

“No! Please stop!”

 

Pollie thrashed around in bed, struggling to wake up from the terrible dream.

 

Screams and gunshots rent the air. With her heart thumping against her chest, Pollie found herself back at the saloon where her parents had been brutally killed.

 

“Please stop! Please stop!” she whispered, huddled in a corner behind the bar.

 

Nauseous and fearing that her hiding place would soon be discovered, Pollie closed her eyes tight and started praying earnestly.

 

Gunshots still echoed all over her father’s saloon as she sat there, wishing that it would come to an end soon. Suddenly, the shots stopped and silence enveloped the place.

 

Pollie feared that her heartbeat would be heard as it beat almost out of control. Her eyes snapped open and widened when she heard the ominous sound of footsteps coming her way.

 

The booted feet kept on coming in her direction. Pollie debated the wisdom of rising and running in the opposite direction. But would she be able to make it before she got shot?

 

Pollie’s tongue darted across her parched lips as she searched around for a weapon to defend herself. Her father’s cudgel was nowhere to be found.

 

Even though she didn’t think that it would be able to protect her from being shot, it would make her not look so helpless. Swinging it was another thing she didn’t know if she could do.

 

Just when Pollie decided to rise to look for it, a tall man with a pistol in his hand and a wide grin on his face suddenly appeared.

 

“Got you, Pollie,” he sneered and cocked the gun.

 

Pollie screamed and jerked awake on her narrow bed. Sweat dripped down her face as her chest rose and fell rapidly.

 

Her eyes roamed the small room in search of the man who had almost shot her. Realizing that it was just another terrible dream about the past, Pollie let out a loud sigh.

 

She pushed back the worn bedcover and swung her legs to the wooden floor. She walked to the pail near the door and poured water into a basin to wash her face. 

 

Done with splashing water on her sweaty face, she wiped it with a thin towel hanging from a peg on the wall.

 

Pollie frowned when she turned to look at the untidy bed. She sighed loudly and pulled her curly blonde hair back from her forehead.

 

She didn’t understand why the nightmares had returned. She hadn’t had them in years but now, she had been plagued with them almost every night this week.

 

She hated whenever she dreamed of that fateful day. It never failed to bring back painful memories.   

 

Her life had been less than fortunate after the loss of her parents. She had shut a door on the demons, which occasionally fought to break free. She was afraid of what she would feel if she let the memory in. The thought of uninvited, painful memories brought him into her mind.

 

Edson.

 

 She hadn’t seen her friend in over eight years. If she could still call him her friend, given the way he had abandoned her.

 

She hoped he was fine wherever he was and had expelled his obsession for revenge. According to Edson, the reason he broke his promise to protect her was so he could go and avenge their parents’ death. He had said he’d never leave her, but he easily broke that promise three years after he made it.  

 

Tears stung her eyes and she hastily brushed them away. She would not dwell on sorrowful memories. It would ruin her day and Mr. Baker, her employer would complain about her moodiness all day.

 

Pollie quickly washed up and prepared for work. She worked at the general store helping Mr. Baker sell his goods. Her wages weren’t much, but it was enough to tide her over.

 

Dressed in a gray calico dress that showed off her slim and petite figure, she placed a matching gray bonnet on her long and curly blonde hair.

 

Pollie stared at her reflection in the small mirror hanging on the wall and sighed. A small forehead, trimmed eyebrows, long eyelashes, blue eyes, pert nose, rosy cheeks and rosebud lips stared back at her on a pale face.

 

One day, I will be able to afford more than a broken mirror and worn-out clothes.  

 

Pollie stepped out of the small shed an old couple allowed her to stay in for a meager charge. She couldn’t really call it home as it could boast of only a narrow bed, pegs with few clothes hanging on them and a water basin. But she was happy that she had somewhere to stay other than the orphanage.

 

Pollie shook her head. She refused to recall the memories of her stay at the orphanage. To think of all the heartache she had to endure in both the orphanage and foster homes would definitely ruin her day.

 

The fragrance of flowers growing at the creek brought a smile to Pollie’s lips. Spring was her favorite time of year. She loved to see flowers growing and take in their lovely scent. Whenever it rained, she usually had to stop herself from going out to play and enjoy the smell of wet soil.

 

Letting out a little sigh, she locked the wooden door and slowly moved away from the shed to cross the courtyard. The old ranch house stood in the middle of the property, surrounded by lush grasslands and grazing cattle.

 

No one was about, so she walked through the gate and closed it behind her.

 

Humming softly, she walked down the grassy path, basking in the warmth of the sun. As the ranch was situated at the outskirts of the town, sometimes she had to walk to her store. Other times, she found some ranchers or farmers who were heading into town and rode with them on their wagons.

 

Pollie smiled as she heard the sound of a wagon behind her and recognized the voice of their neighbor, Old Wes. She was happy that he had chosen this time to go into town to sell his produce.

 

“Hello, lil’ Missy,” the old man called as he drew the wagon to a halt beside her.

 

“How are you today, Mr. Wes?” Pollie returned with a bright smile on her face.

 

The robust old man sighed, coughed and smiled. “As well as can be.” Then he patted the wagon bench. “Going into town? Let me give you a ride.”

 

“Thank you, Mr. Wes,” Pollie said happily and ran to the other side of the wagon and hefted herself on the bench.

 

“Hiyah! Git!” The old man flapped the horses’ reins to continue his journey.

 

The smell of fresh vegetables assailed Pollie’s nose, and she turned slightly to look at the bed of the wagon. It was filled with cabbages, radishes, onions, and freshly cut tomatoes.

 

Old Wes provided the conversation for the rest of the journey. Pollie was content with listening to him talk about his farm, the weather, and his harvest for that season.

 

Along the way, they met other people who were heading into town, and exchanged pleasantries with them. Finally, they reached the town and Pollie stepped down from the wagon.

 

“Thank you, Mr. Wes.”

 

Pollie waved at him as he rode in the other direction. He had told her that he was delivering the vegetables to the stagecoach stop at the outskirts of Welburn.

 

As it was wont to do whenever she had a nightmare, the sight of the town where her parents were killed eleven years ago filled her with dread.

 

Nothing had remained the same since that day, but it was still a sight that brought back a lot of pain. The saloon her father had owned was no longer where it used to be. The town underwent some changes over the years.

 

Welburn could now boast two haberdasheries, a general store, a tavern, two new saloons and a post office, among other establishments. The sheriff and mayor’s offices had been rebuilt over the years, too.

 

Pollie walked to the general store where Mr. Baker was already waiting. She opened the door quietly and the bell jingled above it.

 

“Good morning, Mr. Baker,” Pollie gaily said and shut the door.

 

The tall thin man with a crooked nose and slightly humped back sniffed at her. “You’re late.”

 

Pollie knew she wasn’t, but from past incidents, she had registered that it was wiser to simply apologize.

 

“I’m sorry, Mr. Baker. It won’t happen again,” she told her employer who was always dressed in black.

 

The man snorted. “I’ve heard that before. I don’t know why you lassies are so lazy nowadays. Back in the day, we used to wake up even before the roosters. We had so many chores to do that it was a taboo to still be in bed at the crack of dawn.”

 

Pollie just stood there while the old man rambled on about how slothful she was. It was almost a daily occurrence in the store.

 

Mr. Baker always found one thing or the other to complain about. He lived in a small room above the store and always made it there before her.

 

Pollie had once slept in the livery stables just so she could be at the store before him. Her plan had failed because Mr. Baker had beaten her to it. After that, she gave up.

 

As the man continued complaining bitterly about her tardiness, it brought back to her mind the reason she wanted to leave the town for good.

 

Whenever she thought of all the heartache she had had to endure, the foster homes she had changed so often, and the harsh conditions of the orphanage, she knew she needed to get out of there quickly.

 

She would forever be reminded of all that she went through in Welburn. 

 

She was ready to leave it all behind. She just had to find a way to do so and a place to go.

 

Pollie left the man talking, took an apron from the peg beside the door and put it on. She went to the backroom, took a broom and began sweeping the place. When she was done with that, she took a rag and wiped the shelves laden with jars and boxes of food items.

 

The first customer of the day came in a few minutes later. Pollie continued to attend to customers until her stomach began growling loudly in hunger.

 

To save her small income, she typically waited till past noon before having her first meal of the day. Then the meager lunch would tide her over until dinner.

 

“Mr. Baker,” she called to her employer who was counting his money at the counter. “I’m going for my lunch at the tavern.”

 

The man’s eyes narrowed. “Make sure you come back on time. Yesterday, you were two minutes late.”

 

Pollie simply nodded. The previous day, Mr. Baker had spent over ten minutes chiding her for coming back late from her lunch break.

 

She let herself out of the store after removing her apron. The sun was high in the sky by the time she walked across the street to where the tavern was situated.

 

It was another busy day in Welburn, where people and wagons moved all over the place. Already used to the stares she received from men whenever she passed by, Pollie ignored them.

 

She ate at the local tavern every day because her friend, Marie who worked there, gave her an ample amount of food for a small price. Her aunt owned the place and so Marie could afford being generous, but only if the woman wasn’t around. Marie frequently complained about how mean her aunt was to her. She, too, couldn’t wait to run away from the town.

 

Pollie walked into the tavern to the smell of cigar smoke mixed with the aroma of food. She took her usual seat by the corner and waited for Marie to finish with the other customers.

 

“I’ve got exciting news for you,” Marie exclaimed as soon as she reached her table. The robust girl with black hair pulled out a chair and sat across from Pollie. Her plump face reddened with excitement.

 

Pollie wanted to order her food first, but the elation dancing in her friend’s eyes held her tongue.

 

“I’ll be leaving Welburn for good in a fortnight!”

 

Pollie’s eyes widened as she gawked at the happy woman seated before her.

 

“Jonas has offered for me. He wants me to go to Oregon in two weeks,” Marie added with a flushed face.

 

Envy coursed through Pollie. She wished she were in her friend’s shoes. She hadn’t approved of her friend writing to a complete stranger to be his mail-order bride.

 

But now that she was more than fed up with the town and was having nightmares again, she began considering it. Perhaps that was the only way to leave the town.

 

But could she really leave Welburn to go be with a stranger? What if he happened to be just like the people who killed her parents? What would she do then?

 

Pollie listened halfheartedly as Marie continued talking about the rancher she was going to meet in Oregon.

 

Knowing that every second was ticking to when she would have to return to the store, Pollie cut in.

 

“Marie, I’m very happy for you,” she inserted quietly. “But could you please bring my food? You know how Mr. Baker gets when I go back late.”

 

Pollie hated the pity she read in her friend’s eyes. She pushed back the tears that threatened to fall from her eyes. She hated it when people felt sorry for her. Wherever she went, she noticed the sympathetic looks people gave to her because of what happened to her folks.

 

“You should answer one, too, Pollie,” Marie said as she rose from the table. “A mail-order bride’s fate isn’t so bad. If you are truly tired of this town as you always claim, then I think that you should go and get yourself a newspaper.”

 

Pollie simply nodded and didn’t say a word. Her heart became heavy as she watched her friend walk away with lightness to her steps.

 

Later on, Pollie couldn’t even recall what she had eaten. Her mind was totally occupied with leaving town as a mail-order bride like her friend.

 

By the time she returned to the store, Mr. Baker was on the warpath again.

 

“You’re five minutes late!” he snapped at her, his face tight with anger.

 

“I’m sorry, Mr. Baker. Service was slow. I had to wait to be attended to.”

 

“Liar!” he shouted. “Lazy girl! Why can’t you cook your own food? Why do you have to go and eat at that place every day?”

 

Pollie swallowed an angry retort. Eating at the tavern was the only time she had a chance to taste good food. Her dinners usually consisted of dried bread and jerky meat. She could hardly afford anything else most of the time.

 

Whenever she could cook, she did so. But she spent all her time at the store and had barely enough time to cook except on Sundays.

 

Pollie made up her mind right then to be a mail-order bride. If Marie could do it, then she most definitely could.

 

She couldn’t stand Mr. Baker anymore, nor could she stand the town any longer. It was time for her to leave. She was more than ready to do so.

 

Before she closed that night at the store, she snuck out to get a paper. She had to take money from her savings to get a copy but it was worth it.

 

Mr. Baker complained as usual and threatened to fire her. Pollie simply apologized and hid the paper. Even when she saw someone to catch a ride with back to the ranch, Pollie’s thoughts were focused so much on leaving Welburn, she didn’t hear anything that was said around her.

 

As soon as she got to the shed, she hurried into the place and shut the door. Quickly, she lit an oil lamp and retrieved the paper from her bag.

 

Her eyes roamed the paper as she searched for the ads. With her heart thumping and her mouth dry, she stared at the ads.

 

There were a few, but most were far too close. Most of the ads were from Nebraska, or somewhere in Kansas and its outskirts.

 

Disappointment rushed through her. She didn’t want anywhere close, she wanted somewhere so far away, it would take an effort to remember how Welburn looked.

 

Sighing because she was afraid that she had wasted her money purchasing the paper, she read another one. The ad was from a man in Kilshaw, Oklahoma.   

 

Pollie studied the ad. It was just a state away. It was far enough but not too far. The man was a marshal who was offering companionship and good quality of life with security in a friendly town.

 

After running through the other ads, Pollie acknowledged that the marshal’s was more to her liking. Some of the others simply wanted housekeepers, nannies for their children and cooks who would eventually be brides.

 

The idea of marrying a lawman who could protect her from men like the ones who killed her father sounded good.

 

Besides, she couldn’t afford another newspaper, so she might as well do with what she had. If it didn’t work out, then she would have to get another one eventually.

 

Pollie decided to respond to the marshal’s ad.

 

 

Chapter 2

Kilshaw, Oklahoma.

 

Whistling a cowboy song, Edson rode his horse down the street of Kilshaw. He tipped his hat at the townsfolk who greeted him along the way.

 

“Fine morning, isn’t it, Marshal?” one of the men standing in front of the general store called out to him.

 

“Yes, it is, Mr. Collins,” Edson returned with a smile.

 

Mrs. Goodson, the town’s baker, waved at him as his horse trotted to the bakery. She had a parcel in her hand and was beaming from ear to ear.

 

“I baked you a delicious apple pie, Marshal,” she said even before he reached her. “I sure hope you enjoy it.”

 

Grinning broadly, he nodded and took the parcel from her. “Thank you, Mrs. Goodson. I believe I will.”

 

He placed the pie in his saddle bag and continued his journey. Every now and again, the baker bestowed gifts of baked goods on him.

 

The aroma from the wrapped parcel caused his mouth to water. Although he had partaken of breakfast at his ranch before leaving, he yearned to take a bite of the pie.

 

Aside from his late mother, Mrs. Goodson made the best pie he had ever tasted in his twenty-seven years on earth.

 

The memory of his late mother moving about their large kitchen as she put the ingredients together flashed through his mind.

 

A wistful sigh escaped his lips.

 

Even though it was all of eleven years since he had lost his parents in the horrible incident in Kansas, the memory remained fresh in his mind.

 

Thank goodness he had managed to give them justice even though it wasn’t yet over. But he was certain that one day, his mission would be complete.

 

“Good morning, Marshal,” a passerby called as Edson dismounted his horse in front of his office building.

 

“Hello, Matthew,” Edson replied and tipped his hat at the man. He led his horse to one of the posts in front of his office and tied it there.  

 

Edson removed his hat and strode into his office. His deputy was already seated at his table with a cup of coffee in his hand. He rose as soon as Edson entered the room.

 

“Morning, John,” Edson said to the young man who reminded him of himself.

 

“Morning, Marshal.”

 

“I trust you had a good night.”

 

The young man smiled. “I sure did, sir. I hope you did, too.”

 

Edson nodded and strode to his office. He threw his hat on the bare table and drew the chair in front of it to settle his six foot four frame on it.

 

Letting out a deep sigh, he looked out the window where the sun had risen higher in the sky. It was most likely going to be a hot day.

 

John came in with a steaming cup of coffee and a letter in his other hand. Edson’s eyes immediately focused on the letter.

 

“You’ve got mail, Marshal,” John said as he placed the cup on the table.

 

“I see,” Edson replied, struggling to contain the excitement running through him.

 

He forced himself to pick up the cup and take a sip from the black liquid. If he snatched the envelope from his deputy, it would definitely raise the young man’s brows.

 

Edson didn’t want that. Instead, he tried to look disinterested in the letter. Not that he owed John any explanation but he would prefer the content of the letter not to be known by anyone other than him.

 

Adam Floyd was the name he had placed in the ad in order not to be detected by the townsfolk. The surname was his guardian’s last name. Mr. Floyd raised him after the death of his parents. He taught him all he knew. The man was also influential in him achieve his goal of becoming a marshal.

 

So he didn’t think that anyone would know that he was the one who had placed the ad in the newspaper for a mail-order bride.

 

Most mothers in Kilshaw would be disappointed if they knew what he did. He had been told by many of the elderly folks that they’d gladly marry off their daughter to him.

 

Edson let out a small sigh. Unfortunately, none of those women provided the companionship he hoped for. He didn’t just want a wife who would keep his house clean and bear him children. He wanted a friend, someone he would be able to tell his fears and hopes to. He desired someone he could share his past with, and the deep-seated need for revenge that still stirred his blood sometimes.

 

Most people in town believed he was a just and kind marshal, but what they didn’t know was the reason he had made it his mission to achieve that position.

 

Through his position, he had managed to capture several of the Legislators. They were the same men who had gunned down his parents, among others, to prove a point of rebellion.

 

Edson gritted his teeth as he struggled to contain the fury and misery that still dwelt inside him.

 

He shook his head. No. None of the lassies here would understand him. The mentality here was quite different. Hence his reason for using a fake name in the ad to avoid criticism.

 

Am I getting ahead of myself here? How do I know it’s in response to my ad from over a week ago?

 

Sometimes, he received letters from other marshals or sheriffs in other counties or states, informing him of meetings or wanted criminals.

 

If it was in response to the ad he placed about a week ago, he would be mighty surprised. He had thought that he wouldn’t get a reply until about two to three weeks.

 

“Why don’t you get a spoon and a plate and join me in devouring this pie Mrs. Goodson made for me,” he stalled, shifting his gaze from John’s hand.

 

John grinned. “Mrs. Goodson is a wonderful baker. Why, I drool anytime I pass by her bakery. I’ve been doing that since I was a little boy.”

 

“She’s the very best,” Edson concurred, “and generous, too.”

 

John nodded. “I’ll be right back, Marshal.”

 

Edson smiled at his deputy who placed the letter on the table before leaving the room.

 

Unable to withstand the curiosity any longer, Edson reached for the envelope. His heart slammed against his chest when he saw the return address on the envelope.

 

Pollie Tate. Welburn, Kansas.

 

Surely this was a mistake. What were the chances that the first woman to answer his ad for a mail-order bride was no other person than his best friend of years ago?

 

Edson shook his head. It was too much of a coincidence. Maybe Pollie had got wind of his present location and decided to write to him.

 

“What’s wrong, boss?” John asked immediately as he stepped into the room.

 

For a moment, Edson couldn’t say anything. His mind was fixed on the memory of Pollie the last time he saw her and he was still gutted by it.

 

He recalled how her lovely blonde curls blew in the wind and tears rolled down her pale face.

 

“Please don’t go,” she had cried, her blue eyes holding misery. “Please don’t leave me. I’ll do anything. Please.”

 

John drew closer. “Edson, are you all right? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

 

Edson shook off the heart-wrenching memory and pasted a fake smile on his face.

 

“I’m fine, John. My mind just drifted away.” Changing the subject as his deputy continued to look at him strangely, Edson took the plate from him. “Take a seat.”

 

Edson unwrapped the delicious-looking pie and served a large portion to the younger man. John joined him at the table.

 

“I sure hope it rains soon. This spring is turning out to have more sunshine than rain,” he said before John could say anything about the letter.

 

They discussed the weather and the various projects going on around the town while they enjoyed the baker’s pie. When they were done polishing off the plate, Edson was relieved that John didn’t linger. He returned to his small office.

 

After wiping his hands on his handkerchief as if he would stain the letter with them, Edson took the envelope, removed the sealing wax and carefully unfolded it.

 

His heart beat a rapid thud against his chest when he saw the handwriting. Although it was years since they had last corresponded, he remembered Pollie’s scrawny handwriting.

 

A hen scratching the ground for some grains writes better than you,” he had once told her after receiving her note informing him to come and see her at one of her foster homes.

 

Emotion ran through him when he recalled what Pollie went through in the hands of one of her foster parents. He had tried to teach her how to write legibly but her foster mother was more interested in Pollie taking care of her twin babies. Poor Pollie never really had much time for her studies.

 

Pushing away such painful thoughts, he glanced through the letter and became bewildered at the work of fate. It was indeed Pollie.

 

It had to be her!

 

What were the chances that this was a different Pollie Tate from his hometown in Kansas with the same almost illegible scrawl? It was too much of a coincidence.

 

Edson sighed and leaned back against the chair, regarding the letter with confused eyes. He didn’t know whether to be happy or wary that Pollie had answered his ad.

 

He had failed her by leaving her and he didn’t know whether she would want to have anything to do with him when she found out that he was the one who placed the ad.

 

Would she like the fact that Adam Floyd was the same person as Edson Floyd?

 

Edson raked his fingers through his hair and stood up. He walked to the window and stared out at the busy street of Kilshaw. The town was quite large with several business establishments catering to the needs of the people.

 

It was quite fortunate that his late father’s best friend had taken pity on him and decided to raise him as his son. Poor Pollie hadn’t been that lucky.

 

Edson pushed away from the window and returned to his seat. Pulling his emotions together, he proceeded to read the letter.

 

Dear Mr. Floyd,

 

I’m writing concerning your ad for a mail-order bride. This is to state my interest. I’m a blonde-haired woman with blue eyes standing at five foot five. I work at the general store here in Welburn. If you’re interested in starting a correspondence with me, I’ll tell you more about myself.

 

Pollie Tate.

 

Edson read the letter five more times before he placed it on the table and reclined in his chair. The letter had been simple and uninformative. He wanted to know more about her and how she had fared since he left.

 

Rubbing a hand across his jaw, he wondered if it would be wise for him to tell her who he was. He feared that she might not respond to his letter if he revealed himself to her. 

 

“I will never forgive you if you leave me, Edson.”

 

Those were her last words to him and they had torn his heart as he rode away.

 

Edson shook his head. Pollie wouldn’t reply to his letters if she knew who he truly was. It was best if he surprised her. That was if she decided to come to Oklahoma to be married.

 

Tell her the truth, Edson. You can’t start a relationship with her based on lies.

 

He dropped his hand and let out a ragged breath. He didn’t want to lie to her but he had to know her state of mind first. Perhaps in the course of their correspondence, he would tell her who he was. But it depended on if she was still bitter about his leaving or not.

 

He hoped that she wasn’t, because he really wanted to see her again and get to know more about her. He didn’t know if it was because of the guilt that plagued him all these years for leaving her.

 

Maybe fate was giving him a chance to make things right with her again.

 

Edson read the letter again and smiled. He pushed back his chair and walked to the cupboard to retrieve writing materials from it.

 

He returned to the table with the paper, ink, and a pen and began scribbling.

 

Dear Pollie,

 

Thank you for your response. I’m very pleased that you’ve shown interest in my ad. I’m very much interested in continuing a correspondence with you. I can only hope that it leads to my desired end. I do not want only a wife. I want a companion that I would be able to come home to and have a good conversation with. I consider myself a just man who will go out of his way to treat you right.

 

Please tell me everything about yourself. Leave nothing out, please. I earnestly wait to hear from you.

 

Adam.

 

 

Chapter 3

“Pollie! Pollie!”

 

Pollie quickly placed the letter she was trying to open back into her dress.

 

“Why I still put up with that lazy girl, is what I don’t understand!”

 

Pollie shook her head ruefully. Mr. Baker would talk her ears sore simply because she had taken a moment to herself.

 

“Yes, Mr. Baker,” she called from behind the shelf laden with cans of beans.

 

“Where are you?” he barked with impatience.

 

Pollie looked down at her blue cotton dress to make sure the letter was properly hidden before she walked to the counter. Mr. Baker glared at her as if he would love nothing more than to throw her out.

 

“I’m here, Mr. Baker.” Pollie made sure her voice didn’t reflect how she felt. Showing Mr. Baker that she was frustrated with his constant nagging would give him power to do more.

 

“What were you doing there? Didn’t you hear me call you? Are you deaf now?”

 

Pollie wanted to ask him which question she should answer first. But she quickly surmised that if she dared ask such a question, he would think her haughty and cuss her out.

 

“I was cleaning the shelf. I heard you. I’m not deaf,” she replied as best she could.

 

Her answers seemed to infuriate the old man even more. He poked his finger in the air at her.

 

“If you continue with your laziness and haughtiness, you can be sure that you will be out of the door on your rear very soon,” he warned with narrowed eyes.

 

I’ll be out of here but not on my rear, on a train.

 

Pollie bit down on her tongue to keep from telling him those words. The man might just have a heart attack or strike her with his walking stick.

 

A shudder went through Pollie at the thought of never leaving the town. All she had been thinking about since she replied to the ad two weeks ago was leaving the place. The thought that she might not leave never crossed her mind. So she quickly pushed it away.

 

“What did you need me for, Mr. Baker?”

 

“Take those empty crates outside,” he instructed sharply.

 

Pollie nodded and carried the empty crates that were used to carry vegetables. Outside the store, she took a breath of fresh air. It had rained the previous night. Although the streets were covered in mud, the cool air made her happy.

 

People moved about the street with muddy boots. One of the wagons had one of its wheels stuck in the mud. The owner cussed repeatedly as his horses struggled to pull it out.

 

No one paid her any mind. Pollie usually kept to herself, only exchanging greetings with the townsfolk. She had never felt that she belonged to the place.

 

Pollie positioned the crates outside for the next set of produce which farmers would bring to the store. She peeped into the store to see what Mr. Baker was doing.

 

When she didn’t see him at the counter, she quickly dipped her hand underneath her dress to bring out the letter. She had gotten it from the newspaper office when she was returning from her lunch break.

 

“Pollie!”

 

A groan sounded from her throat. She would have to wait until she got home before she could read the correspondence. That she couldn’t read what the marshal had written to her was very frustrating.

 

For days she had sat on pins and needles, not knowing whether the marshal would reply to her. After all, there were other women out there who would also write to him and he might choose one of them instead of her.

 

The fact that he had written to her sent hope rising in her chest.

 

But what if it’s a rejection letter?

 

Trepidation rose inside Pollie. What if it was to tell her that he was sorry that he couldn’t correspond with her? That he had found someone else he would like to marry? Would a marshal have the time to reply to every woman who had written to him?

 

“Pollie! Get in here quickly!”

 

Tears stung Pollie’s eyes. Would she continue living in this town and being ill-treated by her employer? She hoped that wouldn’t be the case.

 

Sighing heavily, she pushed open the store’s door. Thankfully, a customer came in directly after her so Mr. Baker didn’t have the chance to tear into her with harsh words.

 

More customers came in and she busied herself attending to them. When it was time for her to go home, she was so much in a hurry that her shoulder brushed against one of the shelves and the contents fell on the ground.

 

“Clumsy girl!” Mr. Baker snapped at her as she struggled to place the bars of soap back on the shelf.

 

“I’m sorry, Mr. Baker,” she quietly said.

 

“I’ll dock your pay if any of them are soiled,” Mr. Baker threatened beside her.

 

Dirt had discolored some of the bars, so she knew that she wouldn’t get her full pay.

 

In the past, tears would have run down her cheeks. But with the letter, which she believed was her ticket to freedom inside her bag, she was determined that nothing would ruin her mood.

 

“I’m sorry, Mr. Baker,” she repeated before heading to the door. “Good night.”

 

“I mean it, I’ll dock your pay.”

 

Pollie simply shrugged, opened the door and left. She saw Old Wes’s wagon heading toward the outskirts of the town and ran after him, calling his name.

 

The man heard her and pulled the wagon to a stop. He smiled at her when she reached him, breathing heavily from her race.

 

“You almost missed me there,” he said in his usual cheerful voice.

 

Pollie laughed and climbed up the bench. Old Wes continued his journey. The night was quite cold. Her coat was worn and thin, so it wasn’t long before she started shivering.

 

“Here,” Old Wes said and threw a blanket at her.

 

Pollie smiled at him. “Thank you.”

 

Old Wes began talking about his day but Pollie didn’t listen to him. She was thinking about her mail. A smile spread across her face.

 

She couldn’t wait to get home to read it. She wished Old Wes would put his horse into a gallop so that she could get to her small house quickly.

 

Pollie could hardly wait for the horse to draw to a stop in front of the ranch before she jumped down from the bench. She almost forgot to return his blanket. She had taken a few steps toward the ranch gate before she remembered.

 

“My, are you in a hurry to get home!” Old Wes said with a laugh when she returned his blanket.

 

“Thank you. Good night,” she called and ran to the gate.

 

She was hurrying to her small shed when she saw Mrs. Johnson coming out of the ranch house. She groaned and quickened her pace.

 

If the old woman saw her, she would come over for a talk. Mrs. Johnson talked a mile a minute, so she had to avoid her if she wanted to get to her shed and read the letter.

 

Luckily, Mrs. Johnson didn’t see her, so Pollie slipped into the shed. Quickly, she lit her lamp and rushed to her bed to open her bag.

 

She retrieved the letter and started reading it with a rapidly beating heart. Her face broke into a smile when she finished reading. She went through it again and smiled.

 

She was very happy that she had received a positive reply from the marshal. He sounded like a good and just man by his reply. He wanted to know more about her.

 

Pollie laughed and rose from the bed. She hurried to her small table, carrying her lamp and pulled out the chair.

 

She sat down and stared at the pen, ink, and paper she had placed there some days ago in anticipation of the marshal’s response.

 

Pollie pursed her lips. She wondered how much of her life she should tell the man. He was still very much a stranger, so she had to be careful how much she told him.

 

Tears stung her eyes as she remembered her parents’ death, living at the overcrowded orphanage on the outskirts of town and three foster homes.

 

Blinking back those tears, Pollie shook her head. She couldn’t tell him about her past. He might never write to her again if he read what a pathetic past she had.   

 

No. She would rather tell him about the town and the kind of values she had grown up with. Perhaps she could tell him about Mr. Baker and his shop.

 

Pollie picked up her pen, dipped it in the ink and began scribbling. She giggled as she tried to make her handwriting as readable as possible. It had never been her strong suit no matter how much she tried.

 

The memory of Edson trying to teach her how to write well flashed through her mind. It brought a smile to her lips. For some reason that she couldn’t understand, she had been thinking a lot about him lately. Maybe it was because the marshal had the same surname as the man who took her best friend away from her.

 

Initially, she had been put off by the surname for that reason but she decided that she couldn’t judge him based on that. So, she had put the thought away. 

 

Pollie chewed the inside of her cheek as she pondered on what to write. If things worked out between her and the marshal, she would leave Welburn. That knowledge filled her with joy.

 

The idea of marrying a good man and starting a family of her own brought laughter to her throat.

 

I hope I will make friends in Kilshaw.

 

Sadness welled inside her because she hadn’t been able to make friends in her town. She’d been untrusting since the death of her parents, preferring to keep to herself. It also had to do with Edson leaving her after he promised he wouldn’t. She hadn’t wanted to lose any more people in her life.

 

Even Marie who she had befriended simply because she ate at the tavern every day ended up leaving. So, what was the point? Maybe if she settled permanently in Kilshaw, she would be able to make long-lasting friends.  

 

She’d been from one foster home to the other but her memories went back to the orphanage. There, she’d met a few children her age but had never put any effort into any of those friendships.

 

There hadn’t been a need to form a bond with them, not when she knew that it would only be temporary. The orphanage at the outskirts of Welburn had been so packed with children, the staff there hadn’t known what to do with them. Many of the children had escaped from there, never to be seen again.

 

Every child aged fourteen and above was mandated to leave the orphanage. She had dreaded that age because she had known that she wouldn’t have a place to go.

 

And so, when the idea of fostering came, she prayed that she would be among those fostered. After her first experience in a foster home, she greatly regretted her prayers.

 

As Pollie sat there, trying to put her thoughts into words on paper, she remembered an incident at one of the foster homes.

 

It was raining heavily. Pollie stood by the window, staring at the pouring water. She wished her foster mother would allow her to go outside to play.

 

Tears stung her eyes when she remembered the time her parents were still alive. She used to sneak out of the saloon to go and play in the rain.

 

“What are you doing there, orphan?” Betty, her foster mother’s daughter, called.

 

Betty was fourteen years old, two years older than Pollie. She didn’t like that Pollie had come to stay with them. Whenever her parents were around, she was as sweet as honey. But whenever they weren’t at home or looking, she made Pollie’s life miserable.

 

Warily, Pollie turned away from the window. She stared at the blue-eyed, black-haired girl.

 

“Skinny chit, I asked you a question,” she said, as she came forward to tug at Pollie’s ponytail.

 

Tears clung to Pollie’s eyes but she refused to give Betty the satisfaction of seeing her cry. So she swallowed them. She had quickly come to realize that tears were a waste of time. They didn’t bring back her parents from the dead, nor did they make her happy.

 

“I was simply staring at the rain, wishing your mother would let me go play outside,” she explained quietly.

 

Betty had forbidden her to claim her mother as her own. So, she always called her ‘your mother’.

 

A wicked smile crossed Betty’s face. “You want to go outside and play?”

 

Unexpectedly, she took Pollie’s arm and pushed her toward the front door.

 

“What are you doing?” Pollie exclaimed, struggling to free herself.

 

Betty was a foot taller and weighed more than her, so Pollie couldn’t pry her hand from the older girl’s.

 

Betty opened the front door and Pollie gasped from the cold wind that hit her.

 

“Please stop,” she cried but her plea fell on deaf ears.

 

“You want to play in the rain, don’t you?”

 

Suddenly, Betty released her and pushed her on the muddy ground before shutting the door. Pollie’s new dress rapidly became wet and covered in mud.    

 

She rose and beat against the door but Betty didn’t open it. Minutes later, the door was thrust open and Mrs. Crawford stood there with a frown on her face.

 

She placed her hands on her waist and said, “Pollie! How dare you go outside without my permission? Betty just told me about your foolish act.”

 

“Ma’am, I—”

 

“Shut your mouth and get inside this minute! I shouldn’t have had a new dress made for you. Rags seem to be what you prefer. Go inside and change. I knew you would be trouble but my husband convinced me to take you in. You have been nothing but problematic since you came here!”

 

Pollie wanted to explain to her that Betty had pushed her outside, but she knew it would be a waste of time. Betty pretended to be her angel before her mother and the poor woman thought she actually was.

 

Betty was the cause of the problems in the house but she blamed them on Pollie. Broken plates, missing money, chipped china, dirty cups, Pollie was blamed for all of them.

 

She wished that she could go back to the orphanage. At least she had some level of peace there even though she didn’t eat so well.

 

Only Mr. Crawford treated her right in the household. But since he was a man of the cloth, he was often away, attending to the Lord’s flock. Therefore, she was mostly left at the mercy of Betty and her mother.

 

The only joy she received was when Edson snuck by to visit her. Whenever Betty and her mother were away, leaving her to do a multitude of chores, Edson would come to the house to keep her company. He also helped her with the chores and brought her baked goods from his house.

 

Pollie was jolted from her trip to the past when she heard a knock on her door. She rose from her table and crossed the short distance to open the door.

 

Mrs. Johnson stood there with an covered plate in her hand. She smiled at Pollie.

 

“I made peach pie and thought you might like some,” she said with her breezy voice.

 

Pollie returned her smile and took the plate from her. Mrs. Johnson never failed to bring her a slice of pie whenever she made some.

 

“Thank you, Mrs. Johnson.”

 

“I would stay to talk but it looks like it’s going to rain soon. I can’t be outside in such dreadful weather.”

 

Pollie heaved a silent sigh of relief. She, too, didn’t have the time for conversing. She was eager to return to her letter.

 

“You have yourself a good night, Pollie.”

 

“Thank you, Mrs. Johnson.”

 

Pollie shut the door and went back to the table. Afraid that she might soil the letter with the pie if she ate and wrote at the same time, she decided to eat first.

 

She laughed with joy at the thought of having a friend she could exchange correspondence with. Marie had already left town to go and be with her husband. Pollie hoped that would be her case soon. She wouldn’t mind being the wife of a marshal and being friends with the wives of his deputies.

 

Some minutes later, Pollie finished her pie and continued writing. She told the marshal about the town, the store and the Johnsons’ ranch. Hopefully, that would increase his interest in her.

 

Pollie posted the letter the following day, anticipating a positive response from the marshal.

 

 

Chapter 4

Dear Pollie,

 

I hope this letter finds you well. I found your letter very interesting. I read it over and over again. What a delightful life you have, I must say. I would love to be a part of it, if you’ll allow me. Please find enclosed a train ticket to Kilshaw.

 

Please come to me so we can start a life together. I assure you that you won’t regret it. I’ll be waiting at the train station a week from now to receive you. I have also enclosed some money for your travel expenses and other things you might need.

 

I know it might be overwhelming for you to leave your home, but a new life and experience awaits you. I hope it isn’t too soon for you. I’m a man who doesn’t let the grass grow under his feet when he sees what he wants. I want you to be my wife.

 

I’m eagerly expecting your arrival. However, if you do not wish to come to me, I totally understand. But I’d love for you to give me a chance.

 

Adam

 

As he left the post office, Edson’s mind went through the words he had written to Pollie. He hoped the words had been appropriate to convince her to come to him. He had wasted over ten sheets of paper trying to pen the right words.

 

He hadn’t wanted to sound domineering but at the same time, he feared that he had sounded too pleading. But that was the way he felt.

 

If he could see Pollie at that moment, he would go on his knees and beg her to come back into his life. Over the years, his heart hadn’t been able to forget her.

 

There was a time he almost went back to Welburn to look for her. But he had thought that it would be a waste of time. He had heard of orphans being transported by trains to different homes to be fostered.

 

Pollie hadn’t been lucky in the foster homes she was placed in in the counties around Welburn. He had hoped that she would find a loving home in another state.

 

Why did I leave her? 

 

That question had tormented him over the years. He tried to justify his reason for leaving but as time went on, he wondered if he made the right decision leaving her behind.

 

He only left to make his mission a reality. He knew that he hurt her deeply and he hoped she didn’t reject him when she saw that he was Floyd, the man she would be marrying.

 

“Why, hello, Marshal.”

 

Edson stifled a little groan. If he had had his bearings around him, he would have seen Daisy Anderson standing in front of Susie’s dressmaker shop.

 

The widow had been after him since her husband passed away two years ago. Edson had politely but firmly told her that he wasn’t interested but she was very resilient.

 

“Mrs. Anderson. It’s a pleasure to see you again,” he courteously said, tipping his hat at her.

 

Daisy’s brown eyes raked him from his black hair to his brown jacket, black shirt, brown trousers and black boots. She smiled at him appreciatively.

 

Edson avoided doing the same to her. She was a beautiful woman but she wasn’t the one for him.

 

He had received letters from different women in response to his ad, but he had known that from the first moment he saw Pollie’s name on that letter, no other woman would be good enough for him.

 

“Please excuse me, Mrs. Anderson.”

 

He had a full day ahead of him and didn’t have time for idle conversations. Given the shortness of the time he wanted Pollie to come to him, he wouldn’t be able to get her a chaperone.

 

Consequently, he decided that he would stay in a bunkhouse just at the edge of his property. Pollie would stay in his home until they got married. If they got married.

 

He didn’t want to stir up rumors in town that he was living with a woman he wasn’t married to. He wanted Pollie to be comfortable and not seen as an uncultured woman.

 

He would make it widely known that they weren’t living together in his house. He didn’t want anyone saying a word out of place to his intended.

 

Edson exchanged pleasantries with the townsfolk as he went about trying to put things in place. He needed the bunkhouse clean, so he hired some women to help put it in order. He also needed supplies that would make him comfortable in his new home.

 

Wherever he went, Edson was greeted and even presented with gifts. He really liked it in Kilshaw and he hoped that Pollie would too.

 

That’s if she’s your Pollie.

 

That thought brought him up short as he inspected the carpet he planned to buy.

 

Pollie hadn’t mentioned anything about being an orphan or having lived in foster homes and an orphanage. He wondered why she wouldn’t tell Adam Floyd such a vital part of her life.

 

She had never been shy in mentioning it before. It was one of the things he had admired about her, so young, yet so strong.

 

“Edson, it is life and there’s nothing we can do about it,” she had told him a few days prior to his departure.

 

He hadn’t even known he was leaving then. It was her thirteenth birthday. He had thought she would be melancholic but had instead found her smiling even though she hadn’t eaten all day.

 

Nothing lasts forever. Someday, I’ll be done with all this,” she had told him with excitement. “I’ll grow up, get married to a handsome man, have children and live in a big house.”

 

Edson smiled brightly. He hoped that he would be able to give her the life she had always wanted. He didn’t think that she had that now. So, he hoped to be the one to make her happy.

 

A hand squeezed his heart when he remembered what she went through during that trying time. She was a strong girl. Well, no longer a girl but he was certain that it was really Pollie. She appeared to be stronger than ever through her words.

 

Daring to leave everything behind for a new start was very brave. But then, she had always been courageous. She had continually been willing to start anew in a foster home. That was something she continuously did better than him–she didn’t dwell on the past as he did.

 

She had moved on, and sometimes ignored the pain. She kept her head up. He couldn’t wait to see what she’d become. Excitement ran through him.

 

His loneliness would finally be a thing of the past. He was glad that nothing would distract him from settling down with Pollie. His attention wouldn’t be divided in giving her what she wanted. Perhaps he would finally be able to make up for leaving her.

 

Thank goodness he had rounded up most of the Legislators. Their leader still evaded him, though. Cain McCreery had stayed hidden for years which had grated on his nerves for a long time until he realized what it meant.

 

The leader of the Legislators had lost the cause. He had given up on the rebellion and hidden like a rat to avoid capture.

 

That gave him pleasure to know he had an impact on the rebellious leader. Now, it was a matter of time before he finalized his life’s mission and captured the last one, bringing everyone who gunned down innocent people to justice.

 

The west was a better place with such men locked away. Surely, fighting criminals wouldn’t end there, but at least he could come to terms with the horrors that haunted him, the terrors he had been forced to witness when he was a mere boy.

 

“Marshal, is everything all right? Is the carpet not to your liking?”

 

Edson’s face reddened when he realized that he had simply been staring at the carpet for a while.

 

He nodded at the man. “It will do just fine, Wilson. I’ll take it. I’ll also take that vase over there.”

 

By the time Edson was done with his shopping that day, almost everyone in the whole town knew he was expecting a visitor.

 

“My intended is coming,” he said for the umpteenth time to yet another person who asked why he was buying household items.

 

Her face paled. “It’s such a shame. We were hoping that you would marry someone from Kilshaw.”

 

He shrugged, having heard that many times that day. “Miss Tate happens to be my childhood friend. We started corresponding again, and I have asked her to marry me. She will be coming in a week’s time.”

 

The old woman gasped. “How romantic.”

 

Edson continued with his explanation. Mrs. Grey was one of the town’s gossips. As a result, he wanted to clear the air before she went about telling tales about Pollie before she even arrived.

 

“I’m buying all these things to make myself comfortable in my bunkhouse since it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to live together until after the wedding.”

 

The woman shocked him by wiping tears from her eyes. “You’re an honorable and decent man, Marshal. I wish you a happy married life.”

 

“Thank you, Mrs. Grey,” Edson replied with heartfelt emotion.

 

All day, he had been receiving good wishes concerning his union with Pollie. He hoped that it would transcend into reality so that he could live happily ever after with her.

 

They both deserved that after they watched their parents be killed and shared years of misery.

 

But when Edson lay in his bed that night, he wondered if he hadn’t taken things too far. He had made it seem as if Pollie had already consented to marrying him.

 

He just sent the letter of his proposal that morning and he didn’t even know if it would reach her in time. But his greatest concern was the possibility that she might not want to come.

 

Trepidation rose inside him. Edson lifted himself from the bed and ran his hand across his jaw. He walked to the window and stared out at the cold night.

 

What if Pollie chose not to come? What if someone else who placed an ad had also captured her attention? What if the person had written to her first and asked for her hand in marriage? What if Pollie had already accepted?

 

Edson shook his head at the numerous questions he kept asking with no answers.

 

You have to keep your hopes up.

 

If any of his assumptions were a possibility, he didn’t know what he would do. He didn’t care if the townsfolk questioned him repeatedly about the non-arrival of his intended. He would find a way to answer them.

 

What troubled him was not seeing Pollie. He yearned so much to see her again and be with her that he dreamed of her almost every night.

 

He saw her running through the fields, laughing like she did whenever she was playing. Sometimes, he dreamed of her as a grown woman.

 

Something stirred inside him, an emotion he had never felt before. He knew then that his feelings for Pollie had grown stronger, even before he saw her again.

 

It was not an issue for contention. If in a week’s time, he went to the train station and she didn’t get off the train, he would go to Kilshaw.

 

That was what he should have done years ago. It was a big mistake that he had made. Nevertheless, he had been given an opportunity to correct his error.

 

If it meant leaving Kilshaw to reside in Welburn because of her, he would do it. Never again would he leave her behind.

 

“Fate has thrown both of us together again. I’m not going to allow it to pass me by,” he muttered as he returned to his bed.

 

 

Chapter 5

“I hope I’m doing the right thing,” Pollie muttered as the train rolled to a stop in Kilshaw station.

 

She couldn’t believe that she had actually done what she had wanted to do all these years. She had left Welburn for good. Even if things didn’t work out with the marshal, she wouldn’t return there.

 

Pollie closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She released it slowly and opened her eyes as some of the passengers stood up and began to step down from the train.

 

She wanted to sing for joy as the train ride was finally over. It had been long and tedious. She hoped never to do it again. Stopping at several stations had been wearisome, to say the least.

 

Thankfully, the journey had come to an end. And a new life awaited her.

 

What if life in Welburn was actually better than what is waiting for me here?

 

Apprehension welled up inside her. What if she had made the journey for nothing? What if all the marshal had written to her was lies? What if she was building castles in the sand?

 

Stop being so pessimistic.

 

Pollie shook the negative thoughts from her mind and got up. If she continued thinking the worst, she might never get off the train.

 

Holding on to the hope that a better life awaited her, Pollie picked up her bag. The ruckus going on around the train was deafening. Shouts of joy sounded everywhere as the passengers saw their families and their loved ones.

 

Pollie felt a little awkward because she didn’t have anyone out on the platform that she could exclaim for joy upon spotting. She didn’t really know what her husband-to-be looked like.

 

All she knew was that he was tall, dark-haired and had blue eyes. Those were the things that he told her.

 

What if he’s short, bald and unattractive?

 

Pollie giggled in spite of herself. She didn’t know how she would react if he was exactly like that. Not that she was into appearances, but she would at least like the marshal to be good-looking.

 

She let out a sigh. She didn’t care how the marshal looked as long as he could make her happy.

 

“Do you need any help, missy?”

 

Pollie turned to look at a tall man smiling at her. He pointed at her bag.

 

She shook her head. All her life, she had lived in Kansas and never trusted anyone. And now that she was finally out of her hometown, she was even more cautious.

 

Offering the man a small smile, she said, “Thank you, kind sir, but I can manage.”

 

The man waited as if he wanted to say something. Then he nodded and walked away.

 

Pollie wasn’t blind to the stares she received from the men on the train and at various stations they had stopped in. She attributed it to her new clothes.

 

With her savings, she had been able to have the dressmaker make a few dresses for her. She hadn’t wanted to look like the orphan she was. For years, she had had that tag on her, but thank goodness that change was within reach.

 

She looked down at her pale blue cotton dress which matched the color of her eyes. A frown crossed her face when she saw how creased the dress was. Her boots were also dusty.

 

Retying her blue bonnet under her chin, she hoped that Adam would understand that her disheveled appearance was due to her journey. She didn’t want him to think that she always looked unkempt.

 

That’s vanity talking. Since when did I care about my appearance? 

 

Letting out a deep breath, Pollie waited for most of the passengers to leave the train before she alighted. The gangplank was teeming with people.

 

Pollie felt quite self-conscious as she was the only one who appeared not to have anyone hugging or talking or laughing with her. She looked around her for a tall, dark-haired man with blue eyes.

 

There were quite a few around but none of them seemed to be looking for or waiting for someone. She began fidgeting with her bag in her nervousness.

 

What if he didn’t show up? All she had was his name. What if he wasn’t even a marshal?

 

Pollie pushed away such thoughts. She could only hope that the marshal was as wonderful as she’d imagined him to be. And also that her life would be better than her last twenty-one years. He had promised her a better life and she was looking forward to it.

 

Pollie wondered if she should find a place to sit and wait for her husband-to-be. She hadn’t thought he would be tardy. Since he apparently was, she couldn’t stand there all day waiting for him.

 

She was searching for a place where she could sit when she suddenly heard her name.

 

“Pollie!”

 

Even though her heart beat rapidly against her chest, threatening to shoot out, joy filled her. The marshal had showed up after all.

 

“Pollie!”

 

She whirled around with a small smile on her face. Her eyes darted around until she found the source of the voice that had called her name.

 

The tall, dark-haired and handsome man strolled forward with ease that she couldn’t help admiring. As he drew closer, she realized that there was something familiar about him.

 

Her eyes trailed his black coat, black shirt, brown waistcoat, brown trousers and boots. A gasp fell from her mouth when he removed his hat and she saw the mass of dirty blond hair on his head. 

 

The gray eyes! The smile!

 

It can’t be.

 

“Pollie,” he said when he came to stand in front of her.

 

Pollie felt as if she was in a dream. She didn’t know if this was real or she was still inside the train fast asleep. How was it possible that Edson was here? Perhaps she was mistaken. Maybe it was someone who bore a striking resemblance to him.

 

“Edson?”

 

He nodded and the breath whooshed out from her throat. It was indeed Edson, her best friend all those years ago. She felt a little nauseous and if it wasn’t for the strong grip she had on her bag, she believed that she would have swooned. 

 

“Pollie, right?”

 

She nodded but confusion still covered her face. She had so many questions to ask that she didn’t know where to start.

 

“Are you all right?” he asked when she just stood there gawking at him.

 

She nodded again, unable to say a word. What could she even say?

 

Edson sighed. “I know you’re in shock. I am, too. When I saw your name on the envelope the first time you replied to my ad, I wasn’t sure you were the one.”

 

Pollie’s eyes widened. “You knew?”  

 

He gave her a small smile. “Yes, but I wasn’t sure. I hoped it was you.”

 

Her eyes became accusing. “Why didn’t you say something?”

 

He shrugged. “I didn’t want to scare you away, seeing as I already broke your heart once.”

 

The memory of her begging him not to leave flashed through her mind.

 

“Pollie.”

 

She took a step back when he tried to touch her hand. Her mouth formed a thin line.

 

“You did,” she coldly told him. “Is that why you brought me here? To do it again?”

 

He frowned. “Of course not. I wouldn’t dare.”

 

Pollie became silent at that. She didn’t know what to say. She shifted her gaze to the people moving around them.

 

For weeks, she had looked forward to this day. She had dreamed of a new beginning. But now, she didn’t know what to think.

 

If she had known that the marshal Adam Floyd was the same person as Edson Stewart, she didn’t know if she would have come.

 

He lifted a hand. “Would you please come with me?”

 

Pollie nervously chewed the inside of her cheek. Going with Edson would mean that she had agreed to be with him, to start a life with him.

 

But she didn’t know if she could do that. Indecision flowed inside her. How could she go home with someone who hadn’t looked back when he left her? Someone who broke his promise of never leaving her? Someone who broke her heart like it meant nothing to him?  

 

“Pollie?”

 

She closed her eyes as uncertainty warred inside her with an emotion that she couldn’t understand. She feared that she could never trust him but then again, memories of their happy times together flooded through her.

 

This is the man I always dreamed of marrying.

 

When she opened her eyes, she saw Edson looking at her with something akin to pleading. She couldn’t help staring at him.

 

Nineteen when she last saw him, she had thought that he was the most handsome boy she had ever laid eyes on. But at twenty-seven, she couldn’t deny that he took her breath away.

 

He had grown taller, about six foot four. His face was very striking with bushy brows, deep gray eyes, an aquiline nose, firm lips, and a strong jaw with a neatly trimmed beard that suited him. His voice had gotten deeper.

 

Something tugged in her heart from just staring at him. She had expected him to be handsome but not this good-looking. A lot of questions ran through her mind again.

 

Had he intentionally sought her out? That wasn’t right. He had simply posted an ad in the papers. He hadn’t known that she would reply to him. Why did he place the ad in the first place?

 

“Are you really a marshal?” She had to know if any of his words were true.

 

Smiling ruefully, he shortly replied, “Yes.”

 

The fact that he was now a marshal meant that he had dealt with his past, didn’t it? Perhaps he was a changed man. Maybe he had caught all the outlaws who had killed their parents. Possibly that was why he wanted to settle down.

 

“Pollie, please, we can’t continue standing here,” Edson pointed out quietly. “You’ve got to make a decision.”

 

Pollie looked around her and registered that they had gotten the attention of the townsfolk. The men and women glancing at them every now and again were trying not to be obvious. But she was aware that they were the focus of all eyes. She wondered why that was so.

 

Belatedly realizing that Edson was waiting for an answer, she darted a nervous tongue across her upper lip. She tried to weigh her options.

 

If she didn’t go with Edison, it would mean going back to Welburn. Before she boarded the train there, she had sworn that nothing would ever bring her back to her hometown again, no matter what she found in Kilshaw. 

 

Can I go back to Welburn and continue living without a purpose? Have Mr. Baker cuss me out every day for a meager salary?

 

Pollie recalled with a grimace how Mr. Baker had given her harsh words when she told him she was leaving. She had thought that she would have the last laugh. But he ended up making her feel like the worst person in the world for leaving an old man without help.

 

No, she couldn’t go back to Welburn. But what did life have to offer in Kilshaw without Edson? She was almost out of money, so she didn’t know if she could survive on her own out here. If she could get a job…

 

Her thoughts trailed to a stop when Edson took her hand. Recollections of the many times he had taken her hand in the past flashed through her mind. Along came with it the hurt and pain his departure from her life had caused.

 

Unable to stop her whirling emotions, her eyes watered. She had begged and begged for him not to leave her but he did. What was he trying to achieve now by bringing her here without disclosing his true identity?

 

To make up for the past years? Nothing would ever fill the hole in her heart which his betrayal created.

 

“Please,” he said with the softest voice that she had ever heard from him.

 

For a moment, she wondered if he was begging her to come with him to save him from embarrassment.

 

After all, he was the town’s marshal and it wouldn’t do well for his reputation to have a woman reject him in front of everyone. It would be questioned and speculations would be made.

 

But when she looked into his gray eyes and saw the boy she once loved with everything she had, she decided that wasn’t the case.

 

His heart was on his sleeve for her to see and judge. Hastily, she looked away and blinked back the tears in her eyes. He dragged in a relieved breath when she simply nodded.

 

He quickly took her bag and led her across the platform, nodding at everyone who called out to him. Eyes bored into her as if the townsfolk were trying to see into her soul.

 

With every step that she took toward the wagon, Pollie questioned her decision to go with the man who left her when she needed him most.

 

As he helped her up the wagon bench and then hurried to the other side to climb on after placing her bag in the wagon bed, Pollie felt a tug in her heart.

 

She hadn’t missed the looks that the women gave Edson. He was indeed a fine man.

 

Foolish girl! she cursed. How could she be thinking of how handsome Edson was when she didn’t know where he had been all these years? And now, she had agreed to go to his house with him.  

 

She let out a small sigh. It remained to be seen if she had made a terrible mistake.

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