Lacy O’Ryan managed to pull Harry Callahan off little Mikey Rourke just in time to witness Annabelle Schafer push an entire desk over. Materials scattered in a plume of white that sent the half dozen children standing nearby into a frenzy. The chaos was instant, as if the stuff were smoke from a burning fire instead of harmless chalk dust. Lacy hurried over, dragging her skirts through the mess and slinging off her apron. She fanned the smog out the nearest window, all the while straining to keep her voice as calm as she possibly could.
“Back in your seats, please! Return to your desks and settle. It’s okay—Charlie, stop coughing like that.”
Finally, after an effort that beaded sweat upon Lacy’s forehead, the room cleared. She shot Annabelle a piercing look that prompted the little blonde to simply poke out her tongue in response. Swallowing the words that sprang to lips, Lacy skirted through the chairs towards the front door to coax any escapee children back into the building.
“You didn’t think you’d get off that easily, did you?” she called to the group of children huddled around the white oak at the fence line. “The day has barely begun! Come back inside now.”
Lacy stood on the porch of the old schoolhouse until the stragglers complied, ignoring their various mutterings and giggles. She was just about to retreat from the heat of the morning when someone else rounded the tree, child in tow.
“Well, ain’t you a sight for sore eyes?” With her hands on her hips and head tilted to the side, Velma Farmer scrutinized everything from Lacy’s tired face to her stained blouse to her dusty boots. “Did you catch a wink of sleep last night, honey?”
Lacy blew a loose strand of brown hair out of her eyes. The day had hardly started according to the clock on the wall, and yet she was already exhausted. The classroom had been steadily filling up over the last hour and had reached its capacity long ago. Lacy had stopped counting the students when the number crossed into the twenties; at that point, did it honestly matter how many students she took in? A lot was a lot, and Lacy had a lot.
“You know me, Vel,” Lacy replied, mirroring the older woman’s stance. “One eye always open.”
Velma sighed. “If you get any more lines on that pretty face of yours, you’ll be mistaken for an old shoe.” She mounted the steps to join Lacy on the porch.
The schoolhouse sat atop the only piece of land resembling a hill and overlooked the shabby, southern town of Killaroy: a flat expanse of land with few trees, bordered by plateaus, mesas, and canyons to the far north and a long stretch of plains to the south. The forests of old that used to serve as the western horizon had long since been logged to source the old sawmill by the river. The lack of protection meant that, as the town had aged, it had grown dustier. It seemed that the trade-off for a stronger economic position was a dirtier populace. Now that the factory was defunct, one could only sit back and wonder if it was all worth it. Trade had been petering off in Killaroy for years.
“We don’t all have the luxuries a husband affords,” Lacy muttered with a roll of her eyes.
Velma pouted. “If only there was a man in town who deserved you, Lacy O’Ryan.”
Lacy snorted. “I’d settle for a man outside of town at this point.”
“Oh, hush.” Velma swatted at the younger woman. “You’d never settle for anybody. It’s been eight years and you’ve still never settled.”
Lacy did indeed hush at that. Eight long years and yet her chest still tightened at the thought, at the memories. She closed her eyes against the dust as a hot breeze swept down the road and rattled through the porch. Somewhere nearby, a horse nickered as the local farrier began hammering away. The day had started, and already she could not wait until it was over.
She couldn’t deny what Velma had aired out: in truth, she had received quite a number of offers and turned them all down—admittedly some more drawn-out than others. Eight years’ worth of potential husbands had come and gone, some from the small town of Killaroy, but others as well; others who had only stayed long enough to make a purchase, or barter some coin, or sell their wares. Long enough to meet the piercing gaze of the pretty Lacy O’Ryan, fall head over heels for her charm and wit, attempt (unsuccessfully) to bed her, and be gone again—often poorer than they came, often drunker than she’d seen them, always with their tails between their legs.
She had hung on for eight years, and for what? To settle into life as a schoolteacher and spend each day attempting to keep a leash on the town’s unruly children? As rewarding as the work had the potential to be, she was far too ill-equipped to be able to handle the responsibility she had inadvertently taken on. It was certainly a compliment that many more children had been coming into her classes since she had started, but she knew that each new pupil meant sacrificing the quality of her work a little more. She couldn’t get to all of them on most days now that the number had reached over three dozen more often than not.
“Anyway…” Lacy said, changing the subject with a little shake of her head. “The days are getting harder here. I ran out of space a month ago and every letter I’ve written to Mr. Michaels has probably been put on a pile. He will have re-named his complaints file to The O’Ryan Woman.”
“Certainly sounds like our mayor. I hope you still have enough room, Sally,” Velma said, motioning to the young girl who was hugging her mama’s skirts.
“Of course I do,” Lacy replied, nodding to Velma’s daughter. “What’s one more drop in the ocean?”
Velma frowned at her, clearly taken aback. Her concern was warranted; here she was trusting someone, albeit her friend, with her child, but yet so had half of the town. How could one woman be expected to keep a handle on that many children? Especially since, Lacy had to admit, that some of the youngsters were complete scoundrels who were only attending the school because their parents were too fed up with having to watch out for them. These were the ones that were too young or too boisterous to be allowed to work and so made their days go by causing mischief and otherwise disrupting the learning of the few students who actually found the school worthwhile.
Lace crouched down to Sally’s eye level and held out her hand. “This little Farmer is one of the well-behaved ones.”
With a shy smile, the freckled girl, who looked so much like her ma, took Lacy’s hand and clung to it. Regardless of her relationship with Sally’s mother, the little girl was honestly one of Lacy’s favorites. She was meek, good-natured, and mild-mannered—a breath of fresh air in a world that definitely needed one.
A crash sounded from behind them. While Velma whirled around at the sound of it, Lacy just closed her eyes again and drew in a great, dusty breath.
“It’s all too much, Vel,” she said, her eyes still closed and little Sally’s hand still clasped in hers. When she opened them again, she found Velma looking at her, head tilted and eyebrows knitted together.
“What’s troubling you, honey?”
Lacy sighed. “I like this job.”
When Velma’s lip quirked, Lacy rolled her eyes at her friend.
“Oh, stop it Vel,” she said. “I know how it must sound. I really do love it, at least I did at first. But it was so much easier when there were only twelve kids to teach. I don’t have enough resources to take on as many as I have now, and it’s not as if anyone else has stepped up.”
Velma lowered her tone at that. “A lot of us have jobs, too, Lacy.”
“I know that,” Lacy quickly added, her free hand raised to allay the other woman’s annoyance. “I’m not talking about you and the women like you. But what about the women who don’t have jobs? What about the ones who stay home and enjoy life because they’re sending their kids to me? Everybody could use some extra money, right? And even if they don’t need it, what good is wasting away doing nothing at home, or spending the day at the saloon? It’s not fair is what I’m saying, Vel. I don’t even have kids of my own, yet I’m looking after just about everyone else’s.”
Velma stood back with a bemused smirk on her face and her hands on her wide hips.
“Well now,” she declared. “You already sound like a jaded old woman. Don’t let the mayor catch you with that tone.”
Lacy looked down at little Sally. The girl was looking back up at her, still silent, but with a somewhat confused look on her face. With another sigh, Lacy ran a hand over the girl’s rust-colored braids.
“My apologies, little miss. I’d do well to mind my manners, wouldn’t I?”
The girl remained mute, but her mother spoke in her place.
“Say,” Velma began. “When is the next council meeting supposed to be held? Surely you’ll have something to contribute if the high and mighty have you running this circus single-handedly.”
She was right, of course. The upcoming town council meeting had been plaguing Lacy’s mind on an almost constant basis. In the rare moments of peace, she could hold onto, she ran a series of scenarios through her head. Between the mayor and the sheriff, she wasn’t altogether sure how exactly she was going to broach the subject of requesting additional resources. The town had been running into some unnamed trouble that was allegedly keeping Sheriff Dawkins busy.
But how could an entire town expect to rely on one woman for as long as they had been? With the sawmill having gone bust and only a handful of shops left to operate, where else could the funding go?
The only fortunate thing in this instance was that there were some older children amongst the group who Lacy could rely on to act as teacher’s helpers. When she had her hands full with the little ones, she had charged the bigger kids with passing on whatever information they could to the students. On some days, this could wind up being a fairly effective method, but on the days where Lacy wanted to touch on arithmetic or reading, she always found herself spread too thin. Among the few older ones she was lucky enough to keep in class, only four of them were decent readers, and even fewer were good at mathematics. What good was it to have students who did not fully grasp the material teaching it to others?
No. She needed help. Surely there was someone in this dustbowl town who could pull together enough resources for better supplies, or better still, an extra pair of hands.
Shaking the anxieties from her mind, Lacy turned back to Velma.
“I’ll be trying my hardest, you mark my words.”
Velma smiled at her. “I’ll back you, darling. You know I will.”
“But if I can be frank with you,” Lacy added, more quietly. “I don’t know how much good it will do. Beg and plead as I might have to, I don’t think the mayor will be allocating the schoolhouse any funds.”
“Surely he isn’t so stringy that he would refuse you even a minor adjustment?”
Lacy shrugged. “You know how it is, Vel. This is a town that worries about the adults. The kids don’t work, therefore they don’t bring in any money. It’s like he said the last time—what does a laborer need to know about our fine country’s history? Or how to formulate a solid argument?” Lacy heaved a great sigh and looked out across the expanse of dry country. “The last time he happened by, I was teaching rhetoric. He’s convinced himself I’m raising a community of loud-mouthed debaters.”
Velma scoffed. “They’re children, for goodness sake!”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Vel.” She put on a deep voice, emulating Michaels drawling accent. “If it ain’t countin’, it ain’t worth teachin’.” Dropping it with a humorless laugh, she added, “It’s all about money in this town. Nothing else matters.”
The ambient sounds of Killaroy lingered between them in the dry air: a hammer against metal, a saw against wood, the bray of a mule, the clucking of hens. And, of course, the shouting of men. Those who weren’t out trying to make an honest living today would be trying their luck on women, or money, or both.
Before Lacy could air any more of her concerns to Velma, a stream of late arrivals filed up the path towards the ramshackle schoolhouse. Lacy waved them in with nods and greetings, making sure to take in each and every one of their faces. As much as many of them caused a ruckus and gave her grief from time to time, they were her allies, in a way. Her allies and her soldiers. They were the ones who needed the support, and she wanted to be the one to give it to them. Everybody deserved to be educated.
If only there were more people in this town who believed the same thing. In Lacy’s mind, it was the people who didn’t receive an education themselves who were the ones turning their noses up at it now. Would ignorance reign forever?
“Well, I’ll have to love you and leave you,” Velma said at last. “I’ve still got the other one at home, and she’s a mighty handful.” She kissed her older daughter on her the top of her pretty head. “You be good for Miss Lacy, alright?”
Sally nodded, russet braids bouncing.
“I’ll see you later, Vel.” Lacy waved her off, unable to shake the itching envy that scraped along her back. Perhaps getting married really would solve a lot of her problems. A handful as the younger Farmer girl might be, she was only one girl.
Lacy shook her head at herself. No, that wasn’t right. Marriage didn’t solve issues; it just swapped some out for others. She certainly had her reasons to be holding off—she was still young, she was working this job, she enjoyed the freedom. These were all the things she would tell Velma and the various others who speculated over her current situation. But in truth, there was really only one reason that Lacy hadn’t married yet. That reason had a name and had walked out of her life eight years ago.
Lacy lingered on the porch just a moment longer before she finally left the heat and dust for the cooler—but markedly dingier—refuge of the schoolhouse. Sally let go of her hand to find her desk, prompting Lacy to head back over to the mess that had been made earlier. She enlisted the help of eleven-year-old Jeff Stennars to help her right the desk and reset the chair. It was a clunky, wobbly thing with mismatched legs. Each desk could seat two people, but Lacy often had to squash three chairs in together. For the little kids, she had to sometimes manage to squeeze four onto a single desk purely because there were too many students for the number of desks. Even if there had been more furniture available to her, there was no more room to place it.
When the desk was put upright again, she scanned the room.
She found Annabelle across from her, standing by the almost-barren bookcase. As the little troublemaker looked up and into Lacy’s eyes, the teacher felt her heart lurch as recognition struck. Though it contained only six or so books, the shelf itself was tall and heavy and was probably the only thing of value in this room. It had been crafted specifically for the schoolhouse by the old local carpenter—his last piece before the old man retired last summer. It was Lacy’s goal to fill it up with books one day as a sort of goal chart. It was supposed to measure her success in this wretched town.
Annabelle placed both palms against the frame of it and began to push. Shoving past poor Jeff, Lacy barreled towards the other side of the room. It was as if the scene were playing out in a dream. Try as she did to rush, to hurry, to make it there, Lacy felt as though her feet were slipping out from underneath her. How was it that her heart was beating so fast and yet the entire world around her had slowed to an unearthly crawl? The angle of the bookcase became sharper and sharper the more Annabelle pushed against it. The few books that were tucked within its shelves slid out and onto the floor, ready to be crushed.
“Annabelle!” Lacy cried out, unable to keep her tone from wavering. This distance between them was so small, and yet it was taking so long to reach her. Closer, closer, closer. As Lacy gained ground, the drop between the bookcase and the floor became shorter, and faster.
She noticed movement in her peripherals but didn’t have the time to investigate further. Were some of the children going to intervene? Was anybody going to help her? Had she spent all this time invested in a pack of children who were going to let one of their own ruin it for the rest of them?
Lacy caught the corner of the bookcase on the way down, but before she could rejoice, the realization that she was not stopping hit her. As the heavy bookcase continued its downward trajectory, Lacy went right down along with it.
“Annabelle,” Lacy choked out again. It was like some kind of horror scene: the sullen villain looking down as the heroine fell victim to their trap. But what kind of story would cast a little girl as its main antagonist? Someone up there was certainly laughing at the preposterousness of all this.
Two of the older boys managed to reach Lacy before she was entirely crushed by the large bookshelf. She heaved a great breath, the air rattling in her lungs. Her heart was pumping in her ears. The bookcase was resting on her lower legs, but it appeared that the heroine’s allies had been there right in the nick of time.
Little Sally Farmer came around to Lacy’s side and tried to pull her out from underneath the bookcase.
“Are you okay, Miss Lacy?” asked one of the boys.
She didn’t reply, couldn’t reply; she was too out of breath from strain and from shock…and from anger. When she was helped to her feet at last and the bookcase had been put back on the floor where it belonged, she looked around to locate her little enemy. After a moment, she decided that Annabelle Schafer, thwarted, had decided to retire from the school day early.
Despite all her efforts to teach these kids—more than just words and numbers, too—there were always going to be some rotten eggs in the dozen. And unfortunately for Lacy, she taught three dozen.
“I’m okay.” She took another second to catch her breath, then stood. “Thank you, those of you that helped me.”
Her right leg was feeling battered. She gingerly allowed herself to put some weight on it and tried not to cringe when a bolt of pain shot upwards into her hip. Lacy had never wanted to hate a child, but that little menace Annabelle Schafer made that a difficult opinion to uphold. She had always been a sour little creature, never once smiling, choosing to communicate through various glares and tongue-poking. The few children who found her amusing at first had quickly learned that she was a girl not to be trifled with. The entire Schafer clan was rough around the edges. Perhaps it was foolish of Lacy to believe that she could set every child down the straight and narrow.
She cleared her throat and turned back to her small crowd.
“Right, it’s time to settle down now. I need everyone in their seats with their slate and chalk.”
A protest came up from somewhere amongst the heads. “I haven’t got any chalk.”
“Then politely ask your partner to break theirs in half for you, okay?” Lacy loosed an uncomfortable breath. “We’re starting with numbers today.”
She knew she would be spending the rest of the morning wondering what had received the greatest bruising: her body or her ego?
Whichever one it was, she knew that with the council meeting looming, it was only going to get worse.
Jim Horton stood by the rickety old gate at the front of his parents’ property. The house loomed before him looking exactly how he remembered it: stout as a bull, steadfast as a donkey. The Horton home had been built by the great Arthur Horton when the family first rolled into Killaroy at the beginning of the century. Despite all the turmoil over land disputes, the Hortons had erected the two-story farmhouse when the land was still owned by the Spanish colony. It became more than just a family home; it was a statement of sorts—a way for the Hortons to establish their importance in this backend town.
If they had nothing else, at least the Hortons had their reputation.
Eight years had passed since Jim laid eyes upon the house, and in all that time not a thing had changed. Perhaps it was a little dustier, and the land around it bit sparser, but all in all, it looked the same as it did when he had been sent away from here almost a decade ago: white walls, a red roof with red shutters to match, dark timber accents and a single, fat chimney erupting from the center of the roof. The house stood out on the plot of land as the centerpiece. A short distance away was the barn to the west and the outbuildings to the east—a chicken coop, a couple of sheds, and a water tank.
And there, standing on the porch of her castle, was Mrs. Rhoda Horton.
Jim could make out his mother even from the great distance that separated them, and it was obvious that she was waiting for him to approach. The scene could very well have been rehearsed. She was standing, hands by her sides, at the top of the steps in the middle of the porch. From where he stood at the end of the driveway to where she was in front of the main door made a straight line. Without a movement, a word, or giving anything away, she was telling him all he needed to hear: there would be no more drawing out this standoff.
Coughing the dust from his lungs and hiking his duffle bag up further onto his broad shoulder, Jim said a prayer to whoever would take pity on him, tipped his hat, brushed off his hands, and walked the stretch like a man condemned.
The driveway leading to the Horton home was maybe sixty yards long. Jim counted every single one as he made his way towards it, striving to keep his breathing as even as he could. Perhaps the only thing that had really changed in this dustbowl was the heat. It seemed stronger now than it had been eight years ago and it beat down on his shoulders like punishment. Or perhaps it was just his Mother’s gaze that was making him burn where he walked.
Finally, he reached the front of the house. Within calling distance to his mother, he ventured a peek up at the queen herself. When their eyes locked, both as green as one another’s, the heat was gone, replaced with an icy coolness.
He broke the silence.
Her smile didn’t stretch too far, for Mrs. Horton was forever tight-lipped, but she did open her arms as if to embrace him. “Welcome home, Jim.”
He mounted the steps, each one groaning as his weight was cast upon it. He supposed he was likely the largest person to climb these steps. At five-foot-ten, he was not only the tallest man in his family but one of the tallest in town. Slim as he was, his years of labor had made him wiry and corded his arms, shoulders, and back with muscle. Even without his long duster, his shoulders were broad and his chest was broad.
His mother must have noticed the difference, for in her scrutiny of his appearance, she seemed to nod in satisfaction. Wary as ever, Jim allowed her to be the one to close the distance between them. Instead of hugging him the way a mother probably would upon seeing her son again for the first time in eight years, she simply leaned in, pressed her slim cheek to his stubbled one, and made a dry pcch with her lips without actually kissing him.
Even if he weren’t covered in a sheen of sweat and a layer of dust she would have given him the same greeting.
She stepped away from him again, her arms still wide. “Leave your coat and boots on the porch, would you, Jim? I won’t have any dirt tracked into this house.” With that, she motioned to the rack standing just outside the door and crossed her arms defensively.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Jim replied with a stiff nod. He slipped from his coat and boots to reveal his soiled shirt beneath.
His mother sniffed at his appearance but plastered that strained smile onto her face once more. “I’ve just made a fresh batch of lemonade. It’s in the kitchen. I’ll go and fetch Mr. Horton.”
He thanked her again and crossed the threshold of the front door. At once his eyes were all over the floor and walls and roof. It was as if he had only stepped out for a moment, but what had he expected? It wasn’t as if his parents’ lives would have dramatically changed with him gone. He had been twenty years old when he left and the Hortons, though their property was large, they did not do altogether too much with it. They had no livestock or crops or on-site responsibilities of any kind, save for Mrs. Horton’s general upkeep of the house and Mr. Horton’s accounting business. As a boy, he was not needed to tend the farm like many of the town’s children simply because there was no farm to tend. The Hortons kept chickens and ducks, had a pond out the back that sourced the well by the barn, and served as an overflow for the water tank, and that was it. The barn itself had only ever housed two horses, even though it had stalls enough for more than triple that number.
Life here in Killaroy was no different, yet Jim could not feel more alien. After everything that he had experienced and done and witnessed during his time away, he felt like an intruder, hardened in some way that the softness of this town would never be able to understand. His mother had never before cared to have him remove his boots before he entered the house; she wouldn’t care for the dirt if it was her dirt. But it wasn’t of Killaroy, and neither was Jim. Not anymore.
Jim made his way into the kitchen, a modest construction with timber cabinets and white trimmings—a far cry from the ramshackle cabin kitchenette he had become accustomed to. Like promised, a pitcher of lemonade sat atop the table with four glasses stacked and ready. Jim frowned at the fourth one.
Placing a dirt-stained hand against the jug, he reveled in its cool touch. It had been a long journey to get here, and without a horse of his own, he was only taken as far as the outskirts of town. He had passed between drivers as he slipped from town to town. The last ride, the Killaroy one, was too young to remember Jim Horton, and couldn’t understand what business anyone would have at the Hortons’ house. His wary eyes grated on Jim and eventually, he asked to be dropped just to the edge of the town and walked the remainder of the way to his parents’ home. The fewer prying eyes, the better.
“Ah, there he is.”
The way Wilmer Horton approached his son could not have been more different from the way of his wife. His father went to him immediately to throw his arms around Jim’s shoulders. Jim held him with a ferocity he hadn’t known he possessed. God, he missed the old man’s smiling face and genuine warmth.
When his father finally released him to take in the sight of him, he also nodded his approval. He turned to his wife, who had trailed in after him, still with her narrow arms crossed over her chest.
“He was just a boy when he left, and now he’s a man.” He grasped Jim by his shoulders, holding him at arm’s length and beaming from ear to ear. “It’s good to have you home, Jim. At last.”
His father’s face had aged; there were more lines around his mouth than there used to be, and his hair and beard had grayed substantially. It looked as if far more time than eight years had passed for his father. He was slender with almost no muscle, and his face had a certain gauntness to it that set Jim’s stomach roiling.
Biting back questions, Jim offered him the warmest smile he could muster. “It’s good to be back, pa.”
He settled himself at the table by the window while his mother set about pouring the lemonade. She had also prepared some biscuits for the occasion and Jim watched his father tear into one, unable to help but notice the way his father’s hands trembled. It was almost imperceptible, but it was definitely there.
“So, Jim,” Mr. Horton began. “How have you been?”
They had written, of course. But as the years passed the number of envelopes dwindled. He had received only a single letter this year, and it contained nothing of real importance. The only letter Jim had sent in return was one notifying them of his long-awaited return to Killaroy. If his parents had been panicked by its contents, they didn’t say it.
But that didn’t mean that they were hiding it well.
“I’ve been well, sir,” Jim replied, taking a sip of his lemonade. “Real well.”
To them, his decision to return probably seemed sudden, but did they really expect him to stay away for any longer than he already did? When he was sent away all that time ago, none of them expected that he would be gone as long as he was. What was meant to be a short stint away with his aunt and uncle had turned into an entire affair that lasted eight years. In all that time, all he had wanted was to return to Killaroy.
Well…not Killaroy, exactly, but to what this town had to offer. Even more specifically, who it had to offer—the only thing of value in this piece of desert.
His mother took a seat beside her husband, placing her small hand over his still-shaking one. It was a gesture intended to appear content, but it struck Jim as a motion to conceal what he already suspected. Jim shifted his gaze back to his parents’ faces.
“And your aunt?” his Mother asked. “Elizabeth hasn’t written to me in a while with an update. How is she fairing now?”
“Better,” Jim said, setting his empty glass of lemonade down. “She’s doing much better.”
His mother refilled it. “And the kids?”
So tense. Why was this conversation strung so taut? There was a knot in Jim’s chest that seemed to pull tighter and tighter with every unblinking stare and every formulaic question. Mrs. Horton was dancing around the real questions, likely to avoid Jim asking any of his own.
But he cleared his throat and recited the updates anyway. “Georgette and Alana have finished school. They’re both working as seamstresses now. So don’t worry—Aunt Elizabeth wasn’t letting them anywhere near the saloon. Little Mallory is still in school.”
“And the boys?”
Jim went on without a fuss. “Jericho took the army route, but you already knew that. Vince has gone into blacksmithing and Dean is working as a ranch hand for some big-shots upstate. I promise, mama. Everyone is okay.”
Mr. Horton rubbed his salt-and-pepper chin. “Seems the little tykes got away unscathed.” He clapped his free hand against the table. “Suppose they have you to thank for that, my boy. Elizabeth, too.”
“And James,” his wife muttered. “Him most of all.”
There was silence for a moment as the three of them sipped their drinks. Jim didn’t know how to broach the condition of his uncle. He would hardly describe his condition as one that left him unscathed. He had barely seen the man in the entire eight years he spent with his aunt, and for good reason. Aside from the occasional meeting behind bars, he had little to do with his uncle. It was ironic considering he was the very reason that Jim was sent away in the first place.
“So, are you back for good then?” Mr. Horton was back to watching Jim with those wide, watery eyes. They looked even larger than normal. It seemed to Jim like he had been passed from one pale and frail father to another.
His mother cleared her throat. “In truth, we expected you a few weeks ago. After the last day passed and we heard nothing…”
Jim closed his eyes with a sigh. As much as he cared for Aunt Elizabeth, he didn’t want to stay on with his relatives once Uncle James was finally released. It was a decision he had no choice in, for when the man had finally gotten out, he was wrecked. Whatever had happened to him in his time away was enough to ward off any other man away from crime. It wasn’t even as if he had committed some great depravity, either; there were far worse criminals out there than James O’Shea.
But a criminal he still was, and the Hortons would not be associated with criminals of any kind.
“Uncle wasn’t well enough to return to work,” Jim said quietly. “Aunt Elizabeth didn’t ask me to stay on, but it didn’t feel right to leave her. Her husband was practically a stranger to her and to the kids.”
His father smiled at him, a sad and gentle smile. “You’re a good man, son. We’re very proud of you.”
“We know it hasn’t been easy for you,” his mother added. Even she, with her composure of steel, appeared to be softening.
The tenderness in her made Jim’s skin prickle. “What other choice did we have?”
“None,” she immediately responded. The wall came back up. “We did what we could. It was a hard time for all of us. But Jim, now that you have returned, you must promise that you won’t discuss this nasty situation—not with anyone. Mr. Horton and I…this house…our lives.” She took a breath before boring those green eyes into his. “We’ve all worked too hard to have it torn down by one man’s bad decisions.”
His father slid his hand out from underneath hers to wrap it around her shoulders. The gesture was kind and seemed to bring her some comfort. It didn’t bring any to Jim.
Mr. Horton turned to Jim. “You know you can’t speak of this, my boy. Nobody can know the real reason for your absence.”
“We have been telling everyone that you went out in search of work and were simply staying with my cousins,” Mrs. Horton added. “Quite a few people asked after you.”
Jim tried to quash the instant lurch of his heart at her words. He took a breath and rolled his shoulders, wondering where else in the world he could have chosen to go instead of returning to Killaroy. The options were endless, and each one would have offered a freedom that being here could never.
His mother went on. “We have made sure that there were no rumors. There was some speculation at first, especially among some specific people—”
“It almost seems as if it would have been better if I stayed away.” Jim swallowed the last of his lemonade. It left a bitter taste in his mouth.
“You couldn’t have stayed on with Elizabeth any longer,” Mrs. Horton said, a little more gently. At least she could recognize when she had struck a nerve. His mother wasn’t cruel; she was just pragmatic. “I know my sister. She already feels so indebted to us. The guilt of taking our son from us has eaten away at her.”
His mother was right, and it had made it all the more difficult for Jim to contribute anything to the family. Aunt Elizabeth was a thoroughly good woman who worked hard to raise six children, and she loved her husband, but his actions had ripped the family to pieces. His betrayal had thrown the entire family off-balance, from his family in Killaroy to his aunt’s family miles away. To be associated with that kind of criminality was hard, but keeping the entire ordeal hushed up was even harder. His father was a Horton and from old, esteemed money. To lose reputation was to lose everything.
“Please, Jim. I know this has been hard for you, but you must not share this with anyone.” His mother’s green eyes bored into his with such intensity that he had to blink.
“I promise that I won’t say a word about any of this to anyone,” Jim said solemnly.
They both seemed to breathe a sigh of relief at that.
“I doubt anyone would have much of a memory of me in this town anyway.”
His mother nodded. “Time has worked in our favor in this particular instance.”
That unsavory quiet settled between them once more. Mrs. Horton rose to clear the table, her face pinched in concentration. Her gaze flitted between her son and her husband, the latter of which then gave a great sigh.
“Well, all there is left to do is move forward from here.” He rubbed his weathered hands together before setting them first on the table and then in his lap. “What will you do with yourself in Killaroy, Jim?”
Jim hoped that his father could read the gratitude on his face.
“I’ve been working in carpentry.”
“Oh, well isn’t that just wonderful?” Mr. Horton chuckled. “You’ve always had skilled hands.”
Jim smiled, the tension in his shoulders easing. “It’s hard work, but I enjoy it. The process of creating with raw materials is rewarding. I’ve become quite good at it.”
“I dare say I am not surprised to hear that,” his father replied. “Good for you, son.”
“Although, I am not too sure what to do with my trade out this way.”
“It might be good timing,” Mrs. Horton said as she returned to the table in a fresh apron. “Wasn’t there talk of re-establishing the mill, Wilmer?”
Mr. Horton frowned at his wife, blinking. A strange look passed between them, but then his father appeared to right himself with an, “Ah, yes!” He turned back to Jim, who was trying to catch his mother’s eye, but she seemed to be avoiding his gaze.
“The sawmill,” his father was saying. “It went defunct a few years back, but they’ve been hauling in logs from across the state since the new railroad opened. It’s back in business now under some city slicker. Surely you would be able to find some work there.”
The sawmill. That would mean being a factory worker. There would likely be a lot of people looking for work if that was the case—the sawmill used to be the largest employer in the whole of Killaroy. It made sense, and he couldn’t deny that it was ideal timing. But something grated on Jim.
“I’m not sure,” he began, picking his words thoughtfully, “if that would be the best fit. The work I do is more…skilled. It takes an individual touch.”
Mr. Horton chortled at that. “You consider yourself a bit of a craftsman then, do you?”
Yes, he did. Between helping Aunt Elizabeth with the home and the kids, Jim had thrown himself into carpentry. He could carve anything from a dining table to a child’s toy and had worked on projects of every scale. He’d even built his fair share of houses in his time away, right down to laying floors and installing windows. A sawmill wasn’t the kind of work he was looking for—he was an artist, not a laborer.
“I suppose I’ll just have to take whatever comes my way,” he said after a while.
“Now isn’t the time to be choosy,” Mrs. Horton agreed. “Keep your head down, work hard, and we will all see what happens from there.”
Head down. Jim would try his best, but it had been eight, long years since he had set foot in this town. All that time had been spent wondering. An endless wait. Now that he was finally here, who was to say what would happen next?
“Memories Made of Love” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Lacy O’Ryan has spent the last eight years trying to recover from a broken heart. As the only school teacher in the entire town of Killaroy, she also has more than enough on her plate. However, when the inevitable need for a new schoolhouse finally arises and Lacy turns to the community for help, she is met with resistance. Fearing for her student’s future, she’s shocked when the very same man who left her all those years ago finally returns, with exactly what she needs in order to achieve her dream. Will she be able to overcome her heartache and accept his help? Or will letting him walk back into her life cause her even more pain?
Jim Horton has spent the last eight years in mourning, having had to give up his life with the woman he loved after scandal rocked his family. His sudden departure has shrouded him in mystery, and it seems like people, including his once sweetheart, have all but forgotten him. Perhaps he could have lived like that, but when he volunteers to oversee the construction of the town’s new schoolhouse, he finds himself thrown back into the past. Having inadvertently signed up to work with the very same woman whose heart he shattered all those years ago, will be able to keep his secret, and his family, safe? Or will his betrayal eat away at him and threaten to destroy them both for the second time?
Governed by a greedy mayor, watched over by a morally-questionable sheriff and fraught with shady businessmen, it seems that in the town of Killaroy there is trouble at every turn. In their attempts to better the town, Jim and Lacy find themselves entangled in a plot more complex than either of them could have ever imagined. Will they be able to put aside their differences and forgive each other long enough to save one another from ruin all over again?
“Memories Made of Love” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 60,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.