Friday, November 16, 2012

Flashback Friday

The day Anna Hampton's husband, Zach, was killed was the day she lost her faith. Ranger Daniel Cochran represents everything she doesn't like. Not only is he a lawman, but he's a God-fearing man like Zach. His faith might work for him, but the only thing Anna saw it do was get her husband killed. The Ranger’s presence grows more and more welcome, especially when danger lurks around every corner, and Anna is caught in the middle

Chapter One
Strawberry Junction, Texas
April 1875

Thunder rumbled in the distance, and Anna rushed her
children inside, managing to tie the leather thong to hold the door
closed before the deluge began.

Lightning slashed the sky, illuminating the kitchen and six-­‐‑
year-­‐‑old Beth’s wide eyes. Zach used to read to their daughter
when a storm scared her like this.

Tears stabbed the backs of her eyes, and Anna pressed one
hand against her stomach. “It’s okay, Beth. It’s just a storm.” The
words would do little to soothe her daughter. Nothing much had

Anna stifled the thought. Now wasn’t the time to drag up
memories that were best left where they were. “Sam, would you
light the lantern, please?”

Sam, looking much older than his eight years, nodded and
headed to the fireplace to retrieve the matches. “Mama, since we
can’t play outside, maybe we could play charades.”

The offer was made as much for Beth’s benefit as his own.

Sam knew how the ravages of nature terrified his sister. No matter
how many times Zach had tried to comfort her, explain to her the
reason for the storms, nothing mattered except the sound of his
voice during those dark times.

“Well, that certainly sounds like fun. Beth,” she touched the
top of her daughter’s blonde head, “do you want to help me set the

Blue eyes as big as wagon wheels, Beth looked up at her and
bobbed her head. She didn’t stray too far from Anna’s side on the
short walk into the small kitchen, and, once there, she dug one
hand into Anna’s skirts and held on.

The wind kicked up a notch, and the weather beaten rocking
chair on the front porch creaked eerily. Beth whimpered and buried
her face into the dark blue muslin.

Fighting back the tears that never seemed to really go away,
she knelt and took her daughter into her arms. “What did daddy
tell you about thunderstorms, Elizabeth?”

Sam finished lighting the lantern and joined them in the
kitchen, answering for his sister. “That they were just God’s way of
cleaning things up a bit. The air gets dusty, and sometimes, a good
rain is needed. Besides that, farmers depend upon the rain.” He
recited the words as though reading from a schoolbook.

Anna favored him with a smile. “Thank you, Sam.” She
indicated the plates still stacked up beside the sink with a jerk of
her head. “Would you please set the table for me?”

Sam shuffled toward the sink and scooped up the plates,
stopping at the stove to take a quick sniff of the stew bubbling in
the old cast iron pot. “Sure smells good, Ma. Pa always did like a
good stew on nights like this.”

Beth’s arms crept around Anna’s neck and held on. As her
small body began to shake, Anna sighed. Tonight, she would sit up
with her daughter to keep the nightmares at bay, stroke her hair,
and tell her everything would be all right.

And in her heart, she was lying. She didn’t know everything
was going to be all right, and, perhaps, in her heart, she didn’t
really believe it would.

She’d lost her husband, and the children had lost their
father. How could anything be all right again?


The first drop of rain plopped against the rim of his hat
quickly followed by several more until Daniel found himself
caught in the middle of a gully-­‐‑washer. Thunder growled so loudly
he couldn'ʹt hear himself think, and he spurred his horse into a
faster trot.

“Come on, Sonny. Let'ʹs get out of this weather.”

The stallion snorted and responded to the request for speed,
shaking his glistening black head back and forth.

“Yeah, I know. I'ʹll make sure you'ʹre bedded down where it'ʹs
good and warm tonight. Looks like this storm'ʹs going to last a
while.” He tipped his face toward the darkened sky and got a
mouthful of rainwater.

Shouts up ahead drew his attention, and he reined Sonny in.
The horse whinnied and pulled to one side, bringing Daniel
alongside a man in a long black overcoat. “What'ʹs going on?”

“Water'ʹs up over the bridge. Can'ʹt pass through here!”

Daniel flicked his gaze ahead briefly, never quite taking his
eyes off the man in his path. He didn'ʹt need his instincts to tell him
the fellow was up to no good, but he thanked the Lord for them
anyway. He just happened to know there was no bridge ahead
since he'ʹd studied the map thoroughly before ever leaving Austin.
“Is that so?”

The man nodded his head and pointed his finger off the
road. “I'ʹve got a barn you'ʹre welcome to take shelter in for the
night. Looks like we'ʹre in for a bad one. News in town is the rain'ʹs
gonna be around for a while.”

“I appreciate your kind offer, friend, but I'ʹm afraid I'ʹm going
to have to take my chances. I'ʹm expected in town.”

The man shifted, giving Daniel a glance of a holster tied to
his thigh. “Don’t think you want to do that, Mister.” The threat was
obvious, though the man'ʹs voice was shaky.

“Why don'ʹt you tell me exactly what it is you want since I
know there'ʹs not a bridge anywhere in this town?” The man'ʹs hand
flew to his holster, but Daniel was faster and leveled his Colt at the
man'ʹs forehead. “Now, I'ʹll ask you again. What do you want?”
Both hands went up in the air. “N-­‐‑nothing much! I-­‐‑I was wife is expectin'ʹ, and there hadn'ʹt been much work
around these parts lately. Don'ʹt got a lot of money.”

Daniel shifted in the saddle as the rain slipped between his
coat and his shirt, creating a wet trail down his spine. “And how is
your ending up in jail going to help your wife?”

“Aww, now, there ain'ʹt no call to get the law involved.”

Sliding his coat to one side, Daniel gave the fellow a good
look at the gold star inside the circle pinned to his chest. “The law'ʹs
already involved. I'ʹm a Texas Ranger.” He jerked his head toward
the man'ʹs gun. “That got any bullets in it?”

Sheepishly, the man shook his head and held it up for
inspection. “I ain'ʹt never been a good shot, so my wife always hides
the bullets.”

Daniel repressed a smile. He couldn'ʹt blame a man for trying
to feed his family, but the law was the law. He'ʹd sworn to uphold
it. Of course, there was always room for leniency when no harm
had been done. “What'ʹs your name?”

“Roy...Roy Eckers. My wife and I have a place a little ways
up the road from here. Just a small piece of farmland, but we hadn'ʹt
had a good rain long enough to grow any crop.”

“Well, it seems like you got a good one now.” Cupping both
hands around the pommel, he pinned Roy with a steely gaze. “I tell
you what I'ʹm going to do. You give me that gun of yours and get
yourself back on up to your house, and we'ʹll forget this ever
happened. But if I ever see you with another gun, I'ʹll have to arrest
you. Understood?”

Roy slipped and slid over the mud in his desperate haste to
get the gun into Daniel'ʹs hand. “Thank you, Mr. Lawman. I
'ʹpreciate that so much. Wife'ʹs due any day now. You'ʹre absolutely
right. My being behind bars wouldn'ʹt do her any good.”

Daniel nodded. “And first thing tomorrow morning, Mr.
Eckers, you come to the sheriff'ʹs office to see me. I might have a job
for you that'ʹll give you some breathing room until you can build
your crop back up.”

Sweeping his hat from his head, Roy stared up at him as the
rain drenched his face. “You gonna give me a job after I tried to rob

With a smile, Daniel spurred Sonny on. “I'ʹll see you
tomorrow morning then, Roy.”


Strawberry Junction—a small town where everyone knew
everyone, and they liked it that way. The Mayor had already
warned Daniel that intruders weren'ʹt always welcome, especially
one who'ʹd come to take the dearly departed sheriff'ʹs place.

Reining Sonny in next to only hotel in town, he dismounted
and secured the straps of leather to keep the stallion in place. “I'ʹll
be right back out to get you, Sonny. Just need to get settled in is
all.” He unhitched his saddle bag and slung it over one shoulder.

He climbed the steps into Miss Sally'ʹs Boarding House and
hesitated at the door, realizing three sets of identical eyes peered
out at him through the glistening window. He favored the three
young girls with a smile that sent them all ducking. Grinning, he
opened the door.

A portly woman with dimpled cheeks and bright red hair
secured in a bun bustled forward, wiping her hands on a white
apron tied loosely around her waist. “You must be Ranger
Cochran. I'ʹm Sally Henderson. The mayor said you'ʹd be coming in
this evening. What terrible weather to be ridin'ʹ in. You’re probably
chilled to the bone. I'ʹve already told my husband to bring up some
hot water for a bath for you, and you can hang your clothes up to
dry in front of the fireplace.”

Without pausing to give him time to speak, she hurried
toward the stairs. “Your room'ʹs the first one on the right. Not
much, but it'ʹs clean and well kept. My girls and I take care of that.
And speaking of my girls, here they are.” She turned toward the
three young ladies he'ʹd seen at the window, resting her hand on
each head in turn as she introduced them.

“This is Jane, Jenny, and June. My husband and I were a
shocked as could be when the doctor told us we had three of 'ʹem.
Still haven'ʹt quite figured that out yet, but we'ʹve been blessed.”
Daniel couldn'ʹt stop smiling as the woman rattled on.

Though a bit on the talkative side, she was a breath of fresh air
compared to the men he'ʹd been traveling with for the past month
or so. They'ʹd all pretty much kept to themselves, their mission to
stay alert, stay alive, and protect the law-­‐‑abiding citizens of Texas.
Not too much time was spent socializing.

Mrs. Henderson puffed her way up the stairs, pausing at the
second landing to catch her breath. “Water closet'ʹs at the end of the
hallway. Right now, you'ʹre our only customer so you'ʹll have it all
to yourself. My family and I share one down stairs. Breakfast is at
seven sharp, but,” she threw a cheerful smile over her shoulder, “I
don'ʹt mind keeping you a plate warm if you'ʹve a mind to sleep in.
Sheriff Hampton didn'ʹt usually get into the office until eight-­‐‑thirty
or so 'ʹcause he liked to walk his kids to school and spend some time
talking with the townsfolk.”

She finally reached the first door and turned the knob. “Well,
come on in then and make yourself to home. Don'ʹt know how
familiar you are with Strawberry Junction, but the telegraph office
is across the street in case you need to be checking in with anyone.”
Face flushed, she turned to stare at him. “You don'ʹt talk much, do

A full-­‐‑fledged grin spread over his face. “I can usually hold
my own in a conversation.” He didn'ʹt add that this hadn'ʹt exactly
been a conversation as much as a recital. He doubted it would be
news to this exuberant woman. It was obvious she had her hands
full running a hotel and raising three daughters. Probably not a
whole lot of time for getting to know folks, especially if they were
just coming through.

Sally harumphed and pointed toward the bed as if he needed
help finding it. “There'ʹs the bed. The wash basin'ʹs over there next
to the window, and there'ʹs a razor strap hanging next to the vanity.
My husband, Nate, will check on you to see if you need anything a
woman ought not be knowing about.”

Daniel realized for the first time he hadn'ʹt removed his hat.
“Begging your pardon, ma'ʹam.” He lifted the broad-­‐‑rimmed hat
and removed it from his tousled hair. “I don'ʹt usually forget my

She beamed at him. “It'ʹs quite all right, Ranger Cochran.
Why don'ʹt you go ahead and get yourself situated, and I'ʹll fix you a
plate of beans and cornbread? We ate about an hour ago, but they
should still be warm.”

“That sounds just fine.”

The woman turned to leave, paused at the door. “Ranger, I
do feel like it'ʹs my Christian duty to tell you the hurt in this town
runs deep. Sheriff Hampton wasn'ʹt just a lawman; he was one of
us, a member of the town and our family. So don'ʹt be too surprised
if you get a cold shoulder now and then.” She lifted one of her own
shoulders sheepishly. “We all tend to stick together here.”

“And I find that a commendable trait, Mrs. Henderson.” He
ran one hand through his hair and eyed the bed. His body
exhausted, he couldn'ʹt wait to crawl beneath the sheets and get a
good night'ʹs rest before tackling his new duties. “I'ʹd be beholden to
you if you could show me where the livery is. I need to get my
horse stabled for the night.”

“That big black stallion out front was yours?”
Alarm raced through Daniel'ʹs veins. “Was?” He strode
toward the window overlooking the street. Sonny was nowhere in

“No need to be all concerned. My husband done took him to
the livery for you, got him all settled down, I'ʹm sure. He'ʹs like that
for all of our customers. Figured you'ʹd driven too far to go back out
into that rain now.”

Sally Henderson stepped out into the hallway. “You just
holler if you need something, Ranger.” She paused. “And
regardless of what anyone says, I'ʹm glad you'ʹre here. Some things
just ain'ʹt been right in this town, and I suspect it'ʹs high-­‐‑time we got
ourselves another lawman.”

Daniel thanked her for her overabundance of information
and the promise of a hot meal then he fell on the bed the second the
door closed.


Anna breathed in the deep, rain-­‐‑rinsed air, swinging the
basket of eggs lightly as she walked into town. The previous night'ʹs
cleansing rain had left the air smelling fresh, lifting her spirits. The
sunshine warmed the bonnet covering her head, and for the first
time in a long time, she actually felt a bit more positive. Which was
exactly why she'ʹd left her chores behind today.

She needed this walk. It was a chance to clear her head, sell
some eggs to Mr. Baker at the mercantile, and hopefully, find a job.
That was the determination she'ʹd come to during her restless night.
She needed a job. Something to occupy her time. Sure Zach'ʹs
stipend helped them enough to keep food on the table and clothes
on their back, and the cabin was paid for, but the extra money
would come in handy. And it would keep her from thinking too
much. Remembering too much.

The familiar bustle of the town beckoned her, and she held
one hand against her bonnet to hold it in place as a gust of wind
whipped her skirts around her legs. She greeted several ladies she
hadn'ʹt seen in a while and wasn'ʹt surprised to see them whispering
as she walked by.

She didn'ʹt come to town much, preferring to send Sam to get
what they needed from the store. That way, she didn'ʹt have to see
the pity on the faces of the people who'ʹd once been her neighbors.
Even visiting Mrs. Waverly, who was like a grandmother to her,
was too close to town for her own liking. But today, well, today,
was just going to be different.

The bell over the door leading into the mercantile tinkled,
and the scents of cinnamon and licorice wafted toward her,
reminding her of happier times. For a moment, her mind drifted
back. Images of Zach bursting into the house holding a bag of
licorice high over his head while Sam and Beth tried to reach it
made her grip the door know so tightly her knuckles whitened.
“Mrs. Hampton! It'ʹs so good to see you again.” Madeline
Baker rushed out from behind the merchant counter, extending her
hands. “Why, I haven'ʹt seen you since...” The words stilled, and the
woman winced. “I'ʹm so sorry.”

Anna managed a stiff nod. Your husband'ʹs funeral. That was
what Mrs. Baker had intended to say. A knot formed in the pit of
her stomach, and suddenly, this didn'ʹt seem like a good idea after
all. The images wouldn'ʹt go away, and for a second, she swore she
heard Zach'ʹs voice, that gentle rumble telling her everything was
going to be all right.

Feeling light-­‐‑headed, she stumbled back. The older woman
reached out to catch her. “Perhaps you should sit down.” Genuine
worry creased Mrs. Baker'ʹs forehead. She'ʹd always been a caring
woman, one of the first to welcome Anna to Strawberry Junction.
Anna opened her mouth to reply, but a wave of nausea
welled in the pit of her stomach. She clutched one hand over her
abdomen. “I-­‐‑'ʹll have to excuse me, Mrs. Baker. I'ʹm not feeling
very well.” She rushed out of the store and into the street, the blood
draining from her face. Leaning against a post, she gulped in deep
breaths of air.

“Ma'ʹam? Are you all right?”

The deep voice startled her, and she jumped. The basket of
eggs dropped from her fingers, but a black-­‐‑gloved hand shot out,
catching it before it could make contact with the planks. “I-­‐‑I'ʹm
fine.” She closed her hand around the handle, careful to avoid
touching the man'ʹs hand. “Thank you.”

“Are you sure? You look mighty pale.”

Was she fine? No, anything but. She'ʹd tried. Had really
believed she’d convinced herself this time would be different, but
everywhere she looked, everything she heard, smelled, touched,
reminded her of Zach. She couldn'ʹt do this. Maybe it was time to
move. She'ʹd heard a lot of good things about Corpus Christi. Surely
the children would like living so close to the coast.

“Ma'ʹam?” Leather brushed her wrist, just the slightest touch,
like the kiss of a butterfly'ʹs wing, but Anna recoiled. He
immediately withdrew his hand. “My apologies. I didn'ʹt mean to
startle you.”

“Y-­‐‑you didn'ʹt. I just…” She broke off, the ability to explain
fading as quickly as her courage.

“Would you like me to see you home?”

Anna finally tipped her head back to see the face behind the
voice, and the knot in her stomach began to dissipate. The man was
strikingly handsome, dark hair, green eyes, and just enough of a
beard to look like he hadn'ʹt shaved in a couple of days. Broad
shoulders and a kind smile—a man her daddy would have called
“the trustin'ʹ kind”.

Realizing, she was staring, she dropped her gaze. The sun
glinted off metal, immediately drawing her attention to the star
pinned to his vest. Her defenses went up.

Snagging the basket free from his grasp, she inclined her
head. “As I said, I'ʹm fine. Thank you for catching my basket.” She
quickly turned to leave, knowing it was rude, but desperately
needing to get away before the tears began.

It had been the star. Though it was different from the one
Zach had worn, it was still the sign of a lawman, and the
knowledge was enough to erase any other thought from her mind.


Daniel watched her hurry away, his shoulder resting against
the same post. He'ʹd seen something in the woman'ʹs eyes. Was it
pain? Fear? Had he scared her? And if so, how?

“Oh, you'ʹll have to excuse her, Mr. Cochran. That'ʹs Mrs.
Hampton—the sheriff'ʹs wife, and since she lost her husband not
quite a year ago, she'ʹs not been herself.” Mrs. Baker was quick to

His lips curved into a smile. Though a pleasant and
charitable woman, Mrs. Baker had quickly identified herself as the
town gossip, or the purveyor of information as she'ʹd called herself.
In just one hour, he'ʹd learned that the saloon had recently
closed down, though no one had really learned why, the new
Reverend was single and obviously looking for a bride, a man his
age should have already been married by now, and Mrs. Baker'ʹs
daughter just happened to be of marrying age. Oh, and he could
have fresh coffee beans on the house just like she'ʹd done for Sheriff

With her ongoing stream of information, Madeline Baker
eclipsed Sally Henderson'ʹs exuberance.

“I'ʹm sorry to hear that, Mrs. Baker. I'ʹll be sure to pass along
my condolences when I see her at church Sunday.”

Mrs. Baker laid a plump hand on his arm. “Oh, the poor
thing doesn'ʹt come to church anymore. I imagine she'ʹs just hurting
too much inside right now.” She paused, pursed her lips. “Did you
say church? You attend church?”

Daniel tipped his hat. “Yes, Ma’am. Every Sunday.”

She clasped one hand to her heart. “I’m so thankful the Lord
done sent us another God-­‐‑fearing man, especially,” she paused for
effect, “a single one. Lots of pretty girls around here needing a
good man.”

Chuckling, Daniel stepped off the wooden sidewalk. “You
have a good day, Mrs. Baker, and I'ʹll be sure to pick up some of
those beans first thing tomorrow morning.”

“See that you do.”

He didn'ʹt have any doubt the woman would deliver them if
he didn'ʹt show up. With a grin, he crossed the street and pushed
open the door to the late sheriff'ʹs office.

Though the interim sheriff had maintained the law, he
hadn'ʹt been as efficient about order. The top of the desk was a
mess, and cobwebs lurked in every corner. Dust layered at least an
inch think on top of every available surface, and the floor looked
like it hadn'ʹt been swept in, well, he didn'ʹt know how long.

Well, no time like the present to get busy. He cast a swift
glance at the overhead clock. Closing in on ten o'ʹclock and no sigh
of Roy Eckers. Reckon he'ʹd have to make a trip out to the man'ʹs
house this evening if he didn'ʹt bother to show.

The door banged open against the wall, and Roy shuffled in,
his hat in his hands and an apologetic look on his face. “Sorry 'ʹbout
that, Ranger.”

“The door or for being late?” Daniel took in the man'ʹs
bedraggled appearance and figured he'ʹd spent a soggy night in the
barn. No doubt he and Mrs. Eckers differed on the manner in
which he should procure money.

Roy lifted one shoulder in a half-­‐‑hearted shrug. “Both, I

Daniel couldn'ʹt resist smiling. “We'ʹll just forget about it

Scratching the balding spot on the top of his head, Roy
squinted. “I ain'ʹt got you figured out yet, Ranger.”

He'ʹd heard that one before. “Well, when you do, you can let
me know what you decide. Until then, how about grabbing a
broom and—”

Roy recoiled as though he'ʹd been snake bit. “You mean you
want me to sweep?”

“What'ʹs wrong with sweeping?”

“That'ʹs woman'ʹs work!”

Daniel sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose with the
side of his hand. “Not today it isn'ʹt. You need a job. I'ʹve got one to
offer you.” He walked across the dusty floor and snatched the
broom from the corner. Extending it, he waited patiently for Roy to
take it. “Well?”

Roy eyed the broom and the door. “You'ʹll pay a fair wage?”

“A dollar a day.”

His eyes lit up. “Well, that'ʹs more than fair, I'ʹd say.” Roy
snatched the broom and hurried over to the back of the room,
beginning to sweep with long, gutsy strokes.

Daniel continued to grin as he turned back to the desk. Now,
it was time for him to get to work, and he doubted it was going to
be pleasant…for anyone in Strawberry Junction.


“Mama, did you know we got a new sheriff in town?” Sam
stuck his fork in a piece of chicken, scooting it around his plate.
That must have been the man with the star. It hadn’t looked
like an ordinary sheriff’s badge, but he’d definitely been a lawman.
Anna’s blood chilled at the thought. “Did you hear that at school?”
“Yes’m,” Beth chimed in. “Becky said Mrs. Baker said he
came riding into town last night and that he’s going to be staying at
the boarding house for a while.”

“And he'ʹs not married.” Sam chewed a mouthful of mashed
potatoes while Anna choked on a swallow of coffee.

“What? What does that have to do with anything?” Already
the blood flowed to her face, heating her cheeks.

One thin shoulder lifting in a shrug, Sam took particular
interest in his biscuit. “Mrs. Baker said he might be looking for a
wife while he’s here. She said men need wives, and women need

Beth bobbed her head in agreement. “That’s what she said,
Mama, and she also said her daughter was gonna be at church
Sunday.” She brushed the crumbs off of her mouth with the back of
her hand before wrinkling her nose. “Mrs. Baker wants the new
sheriff to court her daughter.”

“But she said he was looking at you.” Sam studied her with
eyes all-­‐‑too-­‐‑knowing for a boy his age.

Anna shoved her chair back so abruptly, wood scraped on
wood in a loud screech of protest. Pushing herself to her feet, she
carried her barely empty plate to the rough-­‐‑hewn corner table.
“Well, that’s neither here nor there. Now, let’s finish up.”

Sam’s fork clinked against the tin plate several times,
drawing Anna’s gaze to his face. He looked deep in thought, as
though he were trying to work up the nerve to say something else.
Anna’s stomach knotted. Sam picked up on things any
ordinary eight-­‐‑year-­‐‑old probably wouldn’t. Maybe it was because
of Zach’s death, but either way, her son didn’t miss much, which
was why his next words shouldn’t have surprised her.

“What if he wanted to court you, Mama?”

She was surprised anyway. “Me?” Her hands fisted in her
skirts. “That’s ridiculous. Now finish your dinner.”

Sam poked at another piece of chicken. “Why’s it
ridiculous? You’re pretty, and you ain’t too old to court.”

Her temples beginning to throb, Anna rounded the table and
scooted Beth closer to her plate. “We don’t need to have this
discussion, Sam. There won’t be any courting here.”

Beth’s lower lip wobbled. “You think you’ll ever court again,

Kneeling in between her children, Anna wrapped her son in
a hug with one arm and Beth with the other. “I don’t know. To be
honest, it’s not really something I think about. But I’ll tell you what
I do think about—” When both sets of eyes were trained on her
face, she continued, “The two of you. You’re what matters most to
me in this world, and my greatest desire is to raise you both to be
strong, kind, and loving adults. If I do that, then I’ll know I’ve lived
a good life. Now, finish your dinner.”

Anna straightened and summoned a smile. “And once your
homework is done, I'ʹll read you a story.” She tried to inject
excitement into her voice, and her efforts were rewarded with
matching smiles from her children.

Feeling a small measure of relief, she got to her feet. Leaving
her kids at the table, she hurried into her bedroom, closed the door,
and tried to cry quietly.

There was no way to explain to her children the depth of
pain she endured at even the thought of courting. She couldn’t
imagine loving another man the way she’d loved Zach—the way
she still loved him.


“Ranger Cochran! Ranger Cochran!” Sweating profusely, the
rotund mayor of Strawberry Junction pushed his way into the
sheriff'ʹs office, using a handkerchief to mop his forehead. “We got

Daniel was on his feet and around the desk before the mayor
could say anything else. “What is it?”

“There'ʹs a rumor going about town that one of the Barnaby
boys done robbed a bank in Porter Hills, and he'ʹs headed this way
loaded for bear. He'ʹs a mean one, Ranger. Left town a year or so
back, said he was going to Gold Country to find his fortune.”

As the man continued to ramble, Daniel secured his holster
and settled his hat atop his head. Tuning out the sound of the
mayor'ʹs concern, he closed his eyes and said a quick prayer.

“Ranger?” Roy danced nervously from foot to foot.

“You...uh...need someone to come with you...uh...deputy-­‐‑like?”
Daniel placed a hand on the man'ʹs shoulder before lifting his
coat free from the hook next to the door. “I appreciate it, Roy, but I
think I'ʹd better assess the situation first. Lead the way, Mayor.”
“You got awful quiet back there, Ranger. Are you nervous?”

The shakiness of the mayor'ʹs voice told of his own anxiety.

Daniel smiled. “Well, I always have a healthy dose of
wariness when I confront anyone with a loaded gun, but
remembering that I'ʹm not the one in control always helps to calm
my nerves.”

Mayor Rawlins trotted along beside him. “Not the one in
control? What do you mean you'ʹre not the one in control?” The
man'ʹs voice had risen by an octave. “If you'ʹre not, who is? I was
assured you were the perfect man for this job. Did the Rangers
make a mistake in sending you?”

Spurs clinking, Daniel came to a stop and faced the man,
looking him square in the eye as his father had taught him. “I
didn'ʹt mean to scare you, Mayor. I only meant that God'ʹs in

Rawlins blinked once, twice, and finally breathed a sigh of
relief. “Oh. Well, good grief. Why didn'ʹt you just say so? I know
that, but right now, we need a man with a gun.” As the words
slipped past his fleshy lips, a shot rang out.

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