His Guarded Heart – Jo Noelle

ALTHOUGH THE SUN was coming up earlier each spring morning, it was still pitch black that morning as Westley opened his eyes. He’d still have a few minutes to sleep if he could convince his brain that he didn’t need to get up yet. He rolled onto his back and pushed the sides of his pillow together, then wiggled his head down to be just right. His eyes were closed, but he sensed light. Nah. Not possible. He squeezed his lids tighter, but the light seemed to grow. He knew if he looked now, he’d might as well get up. Sleep sounded better and he stubbornly kept his eyes closed and rolled to his side to put the light at his back. He wondered if he was going to get any more sleep; he’d have to open his eyes to convince himself it was still nighttime. A bright light flashed. A storm? He waited for the thunder and listened for rain, but neither one came. “Wake up, sleepy bones. You think I’ve got all eternity to stand here?” Then the voice chuckled. “Well, I guess I do, but I’m not going to.

” Westley jolted upright in his bed. A man stood beside it. “Who are you?” Westley looked for his shotgun, but the older man’s boot was standing on it. Westley squinted, then rubbed his eyes. The man wore a well-tailored suit. His handlebar mustache was a work to behold, waxed out beyond his cheeks, curling at the ends. It was a fine silver gray, as was the hair on his head. It looked as if a lamp glowed behind the man, but Westley knew there wasn’t. The man put his hand on Westley’s shoulder. “You needn’t worry about me.

” The calming voice reminded Westley of sitting beside a slow-moving stream where the sound of the water gently bubbled by. “Things are happening in your life that you need to pay attention to. Your cows are coming in today. Get up and get your work done. You need to meet that train.” This had to be a dream. The gentleman’s hand still touched Westley and he felt calm radiating from it. Westley shook his head. This was the most awake dream he’d ever had. He closed his eyes and tried to settle his fears.

He’d saved up for the new cows and had worried about the outlaw gangs who were holding up trains of late to steal whatever they could. Now those worries had wiggled into his dreams. The cows weren’t due for another week. Even if the cows came in, the station manager would hold them in the stockyards, send him word, then he could pick them up the following day. The reasonable thought calmed his mind, and he decided to nestle back into the comfort of his bed to get more sleep. “No, you don’t. Today is an important day.” The gentleman pulled the corner of the blankets and threw them off of Westley. Chill rushed him clean to his bones. That’s no dream.

“Definitely not. And if you don’t get up and get your chores completed, you’ll be too late getting to town. She’ll need your help.” “She who?” The light in the room blinked out and darkness collapsed in behind it. There was no man. Maybe Westley had imagined it all. He glanced around. His blankets were thrown off the end of the bed. He looked out the window where the gray sky lightened near the horizon. He might as well go to town and check.

“Might as well,” echoed through his mind, followed by the dream-man’s chuckle. C C H A P T E R 2 assandra Abbott CASSANDRA STEPPED onto the crowded platform in Rawlins, Wyoming and looked around at the wide-open landscape. A barren, rolling hill with a dusting of snow leaned across the horizon. The panorama was as empty as she felt. She’d spent the last ten years caring for aging parents and little else. Many days, she wondered who she’d become. She straightened her shoulders and began walking toward the train station. Not empty. New. A change.

Wide open with possibility. Stark, with a different kind of lovely than she’d known before. The brown mountain before her gave way to a brilliant blue sky dotted with white clouds. Refreshing, cool air filled her lungs. This was her new home. Her eyes focused a little closer to see what the town looked like. A sawtooth array of business roofs lined the street across the road, advertising a mercantile, a restaurant, several hotels, and some ten or more buildings. There was a very busy stage stand at the end, as well. A couple more roads ran parallel to this one, and a couple crossed it as well. It seemed to Cassandra that Rawlins was a prosperous little town.

The kind of place where more people than just herself came to start over. She felt light in her shoes with a sense of relief and joy, and of a new beginning. Something fresh and exciting and challenging filled her—something only for herself, for once. She hugged her carpet bag and joined the line waiting to enter the tiny station. Passengers filled the platform, and others hurried across the street to the restaurant. Cassandra held her tongue when a man slammed into her from behind, then hurried off without a tip of his hat or an apology. She brushed off his poor manners. She’d endured worse for days. Curious men aboard the train had tried to strike up conversations with her many times. How she’d wished they would take her silence for how it was meant: disinterest.

She hadn’t played at being coy, nor had she cast her eyes downward for the sake of appearing modest. She’d simply had no desire to speak with them. Why did men assume women thirsted for their attention? Their attempts seemed calculated and gritty. The last thing she’d had in mind during such a journey was making the acquaintance of a man who’d blow cigar smoke in her face. Deep inside of Cassandra, a hope bubbled that she thought had died years ago—that one day she would meet a man to spend her life with. It could happen in a place such as this. She cleared her throat and blinked back tears. This was no time to be silly. She was past that age of her life, and that was that. The line moved steadily forward.

She was surprised that her brother hadn’t met her yet. Her eyes darted from one man to another. Too old. Too young. Red hair. Her brother’s had been as brown as the locks currently pinned up beneath her hat. Maybe he would have some gray now. Cassandra had noticed a few of those herself. There was a man with brown hair who walked with a pronounced limp—a quick look at the man’s legs revealed one of them to be made of wood, and Cassandra imagined Darrell would have written of losing a leg. Then again, he hadn’t written much at all.

Where was he? Her brother had always been a bit absentminded. Where could he be? He knew she was coming. She’d sent word from St. Louis of her arrival. Of all the times for him to be forgetful or too busy to meet her, why must it be now? She wanted a bath and a change of clothing more than she’d ever wanted anything. After so many days spent sitting up in the smoky passenger car, her dress was soiled and more rumpled than she could shake out. Her muscles were tight and sore. There seemed to be a film of grit covering her face, which no amount of wiping with a handkerchief could remove. The activity on the platform began to quiet down, leaving her standing nearly alone with her trunks. An official-looking man stood with a small book in hand, writing figures with a pencil which he held in the other.

He wore a dark uniform, a shining gold watch hanging from his waistcoat. The station manager, she guessed. A second man stood with him, and the two of them held what sounded like a serious conversation. She waited behind the second man, hoping to speak to the manager about leaving her bags behind while she sought Darrell out. Some things never changed. Still, she couldn’t help but smile fondly at the memory of her absentminded older brother. She’d thought he must have grown out of that failing since he’d once guarded supplies for the army, who’d protected the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. The men were still talking, paying her no mind. She studied the man before her. He held himself with confidence, straight backed, square shouldered.

He spoke with confidence, too, his voice rich and deep and strident. His black hair turned in soft, tempting waves with curls touching his collar. “It’s fairly simple,” he said to the station manager. “Either my cows are on a car or they aren’t. It’s not an easy thing, misplacing thousands of pounds of walking beef.” He had a sense of humor in spite of the obvious tension in his voice. She supposed she would be upset, too, if her cows had been misplaced somehow. But rather than shout and accuse the manager of incompetence, as many would, he simply beseeched the manager to look into the matter. “I have an invoice that says they are. But when we checked that car, there were no cows on it.

” The manager turned away to speak to another uniformed man. The black-haired man turned toward her, his eyes flashing wide with an expression of surprise. His gaze took in her face, and a genuine smile stretched his lips. There was natural appreciation in his countenance. Cassandra cherished the reaction, which seemed to defy her feelings of being a spinster. A warm blush bloomed on her cheeks. He touched a fingertip to his wide-brimmed hat. “Pardon me, miss. I’m sorry my situation holds you up, but my cattle arrived today. My foreman is here to drive them to the ranch, but there seems to be no sign of them.

” The warmth in his eyes and his smile stole her breath. Hazel, his eyes were a mixture of brown and green which sparkled when the sunlight hit them just so. “No trouble,” she managed in spite of her rapidly beating heart. “It does seem hard to misplace something so large and likely noisy.” “Just arrived?” he asked with a glance toward her baggage, still waiting on the platform. She nodded, wondering what to say. When was the last time she’d held a conversation with a man even close to her own age? It had been at church before her mother’s illness. Several men sought out her acquaintance before her withdrawal from society. Not only was this man young and healthy and obviously successful—a farmer or rancher purchasing cattle and driving them home struck her as the mark of success, though she knew little about such matters—but he was handsome. Ever so.

And he possessed a kind manner which further improved her impression of him. She wished she could speak to this man without trembling and hoped he couldn’t tell. “Yes, I likely shared the train with your cows.” His smile brightened at her remark, and she continued, “It was such a miracle to travel so far so fast and equally a relief to stand still now.” “I imagine. Did you come far?” “Quite far. From St. Louis.” “Oh. You must be eager to be on your way.

” He looked up, squinting at the sun. “It’s rained for two days straight, but this morning the sun came out. Maybe it did so to greet you.” What a lovely thing to say. She knew he was just being flirtatious, but it was still fun to hear it. The return of the station manager came as a relief, no matter how thrilling it was to even briefly hold the attention of a pleasant stranger. “Your cows are in the freight cars at the back,” the manager informed him, pointing down the track. “Speak to Morris in the freight office.” “Thank you.” The handsome stranger turned back to Cassandra with a grin.

“Welcome to Rawlins. Maybe we’ll see each other again.” “Good luck with your cows.” It sounded clumsy, and she wished she hadn’t said it, but the man’s grin widened to a full smile before he turned back to his business. Perhaps there were other such men in Rawlins. Perhaps she might meet one… “Can I assist you?” The station manager waited, his watch in one hand. A busy man. It took a moment for her to remember why she’d waited to speak with him. “Oh, yes. Would it be possible to leave my baggage here at the station while I walk into town to inquire after my brother? I’d expected him to meet me here, and I have no means of finding where he lives.

” “Certainly.” He pulled tags from his waistcoat. “Tie these to your trunks, and I’ll have the porter bring them into the station for you.” “Thank you so much.” It came as a relief, knowing there were pleasant and helpful people here. It was exciting to have this place to call her new home. Once she’d affixed the tags to her luggage and signaled for the porter to move them, Cassandra left the platform and walked onto Front Street, a wide road full of wagons, buggies, and people on horseback. The station sat at the town’s southern end. Cassandra took a deep breath, feeling both thrilled and nervous. What would she find here? Who could she become? The possibilities seemed endless.

Rawlins was a larger town than she’d imagined it would be and better established. What had she expected? A bank, perhaps a mercantile. What she found was far more expansive. There was a dressmaker and several hotels and saloons, a blacksmith, and a dry-goods store, all of which seemed to stretch the entire length of a single block. A nearby bakery sent the mouthwatering aroma of fresh bread wafting out on the late afternoon breeze. People milled about, visiting the businesses advertising their trades: a cobbler, a tailor, and a barbershop. There was more, far more, but Cassandra had only made it halfway through the long line of businesses before she came to one which captured her attention and her imagination—a land office. Curiosity compelled her to open the door and step inside. The office was quiet, a relief after hearing so many overlapping sounds and voices on the train and platform. Maps hung on the walls, nearly covering the small office.

“Good afternoon,” said a man behind a desk who peered at her through a pair of thick spectacles which made his eyes loom wide and large. “How may I help you?” He had a kind voice, which made it easier for her to approach him. “I’m not entirely certain,” she admitted with a soft laugh. He stood and approached the desk where she stood. “Have you come to register for a homestead?” Indeed, why else would she have entered the office? It was a reasonable question. One which Cassandra didn’t know how to answer. Had she come to register for a homestead? To think, owning land of her own. That thought had never entered her mind on the way to Rawlins, as she was focused entirely on reaching her brother after their father’s death. Cassandra considered her inheritance. She had money of her own and now the possibility of her own land.

The West seemed very welcoming to her. She took a tentative step forward, then another. “How would I go about registering?” She set her carpet bag on the floor between her feet and the desk. “It’s a fairly simple process.” He withdrew a sheet of paper from his desk before opening a thick ledger. “Have you ever taken up arms against the United States government?” The question took her so by surprise, she nearly laughed. “No.” “Are you a citizen of this country?” “I was born and raised in St. Louis and arrived in Rawlins just today.” “What is your age?” When she didn’t answer right away, he looked up at her with his pen poised above his ledger.

“Your age is required.” “I’m twenty-seven.” He looked her up and down as if verifying whether she spoke the truth. When it appeared she convinced him, he continued, “Very well. You’re entitled to one hundred and sixty acres of land, which you will be required to live on and improve. After five years, the land will be yours, aside from a small registration fee due at the time of the title being passed over to you.” She waited for more. Nothing else came. “Is that all?” The young man lowered his brow. “All?” “You’re going to give me land? I don’t need to do anything else? Simply live on the land and cultivate it for five years?” “Did you expect there to be more? You must show that it can sustain you.

” He didn’t wait for her to reply, instead flipping pages in his ledger. “Are you interested in claiming your acreage?” Possibilities fluttered through her chest. She’d been in the Wyoming Territory for less than an hour, and she would own land which no one could take from her. And so much of it! With her inheritance, she could certainly afford to build a home, cultivate the land and much more. “Yes. I am.” “Have you a plot picked out?”

.

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