Love on Target First Chapter Preview

I thought you might enjoy a first chapter preview of Love on Target.

If you haven’t pre-ordered it yet, there’s still time. The book releases April 10!

Eastern Oregon

April 1894

“We’re almost somewhere, Scout.” Rena Burke patted the neck of her faithful mule as she stared between the slats of the stock car where she traveled on a rocking train bound for Portland, Oregon.

She’d argued with the stationmaster back in Colorado until she’d given herself a headache about riding with Scout instead of taking a seat in a passenger car. When she refused to defer to his commands, the man must have realized it was pointless to tell her otherwise. He finally relented and allowed her to stay with her mule. Once he elicited her promise to remain in the stock car, the stationmaster had given her a discounted fare.

If Scout hadn’t been worn past endurance after carrying her from Amarillo to Denver, she wouldn’t have splurged on the expense of boarding the train. However, it wasn’t just Scout’s weary state that had compelled her to pay the fare. Weeks of traveling alone coupled with a handful of frightening encounters along the way due to beasts with four legs and two had removed any doubt about continuing the trip on a train.

The last thing Rena wanted was to sit among people who gave her curious glances or disapproving glares. Just because she chose to wear trousers and her father’s old brown hat didn’t mean people should automatically judge her. Then again, the stares might be aimed at her because of the limp she couldn’t hide no matter how hard she tried.

Thoughts of life before she acquired the limp made her maudlin, so she returned her attention to watching out the stock car slats as the train entered what appeared to be a prosperous town. She’d fallen asleep last night after dark and had only awakened an hour ago. Dawn was just beginning to stretch across the sky, but it was light enough she could see houses, buildings, and wide streets as the train screeched to a stop.

She heard someone, assumably the conductor, raise his voice above the racket. “Welcome to Baker City, folks. Welcome to the queen city of the Inland Empire!”

At least the man’s loud announcement assured Rena she had arrived at her destination to disembark the train. She brushed straw from her clothes and hastily braided her hair before settling the hat on her head. She saddled Scout, adjusted the saddlebags, and hung the bag of her personal belongings from the saddle horn. The reins dangled from her left hand as she waited for the door to open.

Part of the trip, she and Scout had shared the stock car with a mare that had no manners and a gelding that appeared half-starved. Rena had fed the gelding a portion of the feed she’d purchased for Scout. Both horses had been led off the train yesterday afternoon and no more were brought to their car.

Thankful for the reprieve from being around other animals and humans, Rena was able to relax last night and get a good night’s rest. She figured she’d need all her strength as she continued on her journey.

Finally, the door to the stock car opened. Two men in denim overalls slid a wooden ramp into place, and she walked down it with Scout’s breath blowing warmth against her back.

“Come on, boy,” she said softly, stepping out into a morning that bore a fresh, pleasant scent, along with the aroma of bacon and coffee. Her stomach rumbled in hunger, but she ignored it as she held her head high, posture stiff, and led Scout away from the depot.

Rena could have boarded another train for the last segment of her trip, but she wanted to take in the surroundings of the place that was to be her new home. She didn’t want her first view of Holiday, Oregon, to be from inside the stock car.

Rather than immediately leave Baker City, she wandered through town, stopping outside a mercantile. She would need a few provisions to see her through another night or two on the trail.

Rena looped Scout’s reins around a hitching rail, leaned against it, and waited for the store to open. As the sun rose, it carried welcome heat. She tipped her hat and head back until the warm rays of the golden orb caressed her face.

Footsteps behind her drew her from her brief yet peaceful interlude. She opened her eyes and turned around to be greeted by a friendly shopkeeper with kind eyes.

“Morning. You waiting to get in?” the man asked, keys dangling from a leather string held between his fingers as he stood near the door.

“Yes, sir. I just need to pick up a few things before I head out.” Rena pushed away from the rail and followed him inside a well-stocked store. She breathed in the scents of leather, spices, and kerosene.

“Feel free to look around. I’m Frank Miller, owner of the mercantile.” He held a hand out to her in greeting.

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Miller. Rena Burke. I’m heading up to Holiday.” She shook his hand, then stepped back. “My cousin lives there.”

“It’s a pretty little town, up in the mountains like it is. Have you been there before?”

Rena shook her head. “No, sir. What’s the best way to get there?”

He quirked a bushy eyebrow. “On Hope.”

“Hope?” she asked, while doing her best to swallow her annoyance. Hope was a fine thing to have, but her well of hope had run dry two years ago. It sure wouldn’t give her feet wings and fly her and Scout to Holiday. In fact, she was certain the One who gave hope had all but forgotten about her.

Mr. Miller grinned. “Hope is the name of the engine that pulls the Holiday Express train up the mountain. Everyone around these parts refers to the train as Hope.”

“I see. I, uh … won’t be riding the train.” Or riding hope off into the sunset, for that matter. She’d learned the hard way the only person she could depend on was herself, not some whimsical notion that anyone would help her when she needed it most. “What’s the next best way to get to Holiday?”

“There’s a wagon road. You’ll head east out of town, then northwest a few miles before the trail swings around to the north. There are a few signs posted along the way. You can’t miss it if you stay on the road.”

“How long would it take to get there, do you reckon?” Rena fingered a book from a shelf filled with interesting titles. It had been ages since she’d had anything new to read, but she wouldn’t waste any of her precious pennies on something so frivolous as a book. Her cousin enjoyed books. She was sure she’d find plenty of reading material at his place.

“If you’re planning to ride that ol’ mule tied out there to the hitching rail, I’d say it will take you a day and a half, maybe two. The elevation gets higher as you go and you don’t want to push him too hard. There are a few smaller towns along the way. I’d recommend spending the night in one of them. The church in Aldeen, which also serves as the school, would be a good place for a person to get in out of the dark and cold, if they didn’t have other options. There’s a little shed out back where the teacher leaves her horse and buggy during school hours. As long as you didn’t disturb anything, no one would care if you stayed there.”

“That’s good to know. Thank you.”

While Mr. Miller stoked the pot-bellied stove and made a pot of coffee, Rena browsed around the store. Her gaze lingered on a bolt of brocade peach taffeta. She hadn’t worn a dress in two years, and none that she’d owned had been created from such costly, beautiful fabric. A girl like her had no business dreaming about expensive things. It wouldn’t matter how she dressed, anyway. Not now. She could look like a queen and it wouldn’t do her a bit of good.

No man would ever want her, and she’d arrived at the point she no longer cared. Who needed love with all the anxiety and heartache that went along with it?

Rena had gotten along well enough on her own. The thought of a man bossing her around, telling her what to do and when to do it, made her balk at the very notion of it. She preferred to remain alone and independent than relinquish her freedom.

Which was precisely the reason she was heading to Holiday to see her cousin. She held high hopes she could start over there without the past dogging her every faltering step. Theo had even hinted in his last letter that he might have a job lined up for her at the mine where he worked.

Rena filled a tin with crackers from the barrel in the store. When she took the crackers to the front counter, Mr. Miller handed her a cup of hot coffee that was the best thing she’d tasted since she’d left Amarillo. While he cut the wedge of cheese she’d requested, Rena sipped the strong, black brew and looked through a display of gloves. A pair of work gloves, made of the softest leather, fit her hands to perfection. She dearly wanted the gloves, but the price forced her to return them to the shelf.

As she finished the cup of coffee, she added dried apples, a tablet with a pencil, and a sack of assorted penny candy to her purchases.

“Is there a place in town I could buy feed for my mule? I don’t want to start up the mountain before he’s properly fed and watered.”

“Sure. Head over to Milt’s Livery. He’s honest and fair and will take good care of your mule. If you’re looking for a meal, the bakery should be open by now, or there are a few restaurants, but you’ll get more food for less expense at the bakery. You could go there while Milt sees to your mule.”

Rena nodded, hoping Mr. Miller couldn’t hear the gnawing roar of hunger in her empty belly. She’d run out of food yesterday morning and decided she could do without until they arrived in Baker City. Now that they were here, she really should get something to eat or she might be too weak to journey onward.

When the store owner gave her the total for her purchases, she took money from her pocket and counted it out to the penny.

“I hope you have a safe trip to Holiday, Miss Burke. Just be sure you don’t travel at night. There are bears in the mountains and cougars in the hills, not to mention a few unsavory types who wouldn’t be above waylaying anyone they see traveling alone.”

Surprised by his words of caution, she intended to heed his warning. Old Scout wouldn’t stand a chance against a bear or cougar. The crotchety fella was half afraid of cats as it was. Rena could shoot anyone who bothered her, but she’d rather not get into a situation where defending herself was necessary.

“It was nice to meet you, Mr. Miller.” She nodded to him in gratitude. “Thank you for the advice and the coffee.”

“You’re welcome. Come back anytime.” Mr. Miller waved as she carried her purchases outside, stowed them in her saddlebags, and then led Scout up the street in the direction the store owner had indicated she’d find the livery.

She crossed a side street and saw the sign for the livery just ahead.

“Mornin’,” a beefy-armed man said as she stepped inside. “Can I help you with something?”

“I was hoping to buy a little feed for my mule and give him a place to rest for about an hour.” Rena glanced around the livery as her eyes adjusted from being out in the sunlight to the darker interior that smelled of hay and horses. At a glance, the place appeared clean and orderly, like the owner took pride in the upkeep of his business. Assured she was about to leave Scout in good hands, she loosened her tight grip on the reins.

“I’d be happy to help you with that, miss.” He told her what he’d charge, then motioned toward an empty stall. “I about forgot my manners, miss. I’m Milt Owens, and this is my livery. Haven’t seen you around Baker City before.”

“I’m just passing through,” Rena said, leading Scout into a stall that had fresh straw on the floor and a bucket full of fresh water. Scout sniffed the water then took a long drink.

“Where you heading?” Mr. Owens asked as he filled a shallow pan with feed and set it inside the stall. Scout didn’t waste any time in tasting it.

Rena ignored his question and motioned to her mule. “Thank you for seeing to Scout, sir.”

“My pleasure.” He jabbed his thumb over his shoulder toward the door. “If you need a meal, I recommend the bakery. They have the best cinnamon buns I’ve ever tasted.”

“I’ll do that, Mr. Owens. Mr. Miller at the mercantile also recommended the bakery. Thank you again for keeping an eye on Scout.” Rena hated to be apart from Scout, but she was starving. The mention of cinnamon buns made her mouth water. At the rate she was going, she’d start to slobber and someone would assume she’d gone rabid and threaten to put her out of her misery.

Before she changed her mind, she nodded once to Mr. Owens, marched out the door, and headed back in the direction she’d come. She turned at the corner and pulled up short before she plowed right over one of the most fashionable women she’d ever seen. Thick, dark hair was stylishly arranged beneath a hat that matched a glorious gown in a deep shade of raspberry pink. The woman’s skin was flawless, her eyes bright, and her smile wide as she studied Rena.

“Good morning,” the woman spoke in a soft, friendly tone.

“Good morning,” Rena said, wishing she could look even a smidgen as elegant as the woman. “I apologize for not watching where I was going.”

Much to her dismay and mortification, Rena’s stomach chose that moment to rumble loudly. The heat of embarrassment seared her cheeks. She had to force herself not to duck her head and run off.

The woman’s smile widened. “Were you on your way to the bakery, by chance?”

“I was. Mr. Miller at the mercantile and Mr. Owens at the livery both recommended it.”

“I’ll walk with you.” The woman looped her arm around Rena’s. “My husband was going to pick up some pastries for our breakfast and meet me at my shop. I’m Maggie MacGregor.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. MacGregor. I’m Rena Burke. You own a business in town?” Rena asked, taken aback by the notion of such a lovely woman managing a business.

“I own and manage the dress shop here in town. It brings me great satisfaction to create gowns that people seem to love wearing. I also sell ready-made clothing as well as hats, stockings, gloves, and some attire for children.”

Rena glanced down at her dusty trousers, a shirt that had been clean a week ago, and the baggy jacket that had once belonged to her father. It was a wonder Mrs. MacGregor hadn’t taken one look at her and hastened in the other direction.

“Are you traveling, Miss Burke?”

Rena nodded, trying not to gawk as they strolled down a street that was brimming with early morning activity. A man in a duster with a bronze star pinned to the front waved and touched his fingers to the brim of his hat from across the street as he spoke with two cowboys.

“That’s Tully Barrett, the sheriff. We’ve been friends for what seems like forever.” Mrs. MacGregor returned his wave, then gestured toward a park. “Will you be in town long? Our park is quite glorious when all the trees and flowers are in bloom.”

“I plan to leave in about an hour,” Rena said, standing on a corner waiting for two wagons to pass. “What does your husband do, Mrs. MacGregor?”

“Ian owns the lumberyard. It’s a constant battle to keep sawdust out of the carpets,” she said with a laugh, then playfully bumped against Rena. “Please, call me Maggie.”

“I’ll do that if you call me Rena.”

Maggie smiled at her again. “Where are you from and what direction are you heading?”

“I’m from Amarillo, Texas, and I’m heading up to Holiday to see my cousin. He bought some land up there last year. Theo offered to let me stay with him awhile, so here I am.”

“Gracious! Did you travel all that way alone?” Maggie questioned as they crossed the street and moved into the line that stretched outside the bakery door.

“I had my mule with me. He’s the closest thing I have to a friend.”

Maggie frowned. “Well, now you have two. Anytime you come to Baker City, I hope you’ll stop by my shop. It’s right on the main street that runs through town, not far from the hotel.”

Rena couldn’t envision herself in a fancy dress shop, but she nodded to be polite. “I’ll do that, Maggie. Thank you for the invitation, and the offer of friendship.”

“Of course.” Maggie leaned around the people in front of them and motioned to someone near the front of the line, held up three fingers and pointed to Rena, then tugged her out of line.

“Ian will get enough for all three of us. Let’s go sit on a bench across the street. The one right there by the maple tree is the best spot to soak up the morning light.”

Without waiting for Rena’s reply, Maggie strode across the street and gracefully settled her skirts around her as she took a seat on a wooden bench.

Rena felt like a filthy pauper next to Maggie, but before she could think of a reason to excuse herself, a handsome man with blond hair and lively blue eyes strode across the street, holding a box in one hand and three cups of something hot that steamed in the crisp morning air in the other.

“Well, hello,” he said with the faintest hint of a brogue as he greeted her with a broad smile. “I see my Maggie has coerced you into eating breakfast with us. I’m Ian.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. MacGregor,” Rena said, standing as he set the box beside Maggie, handed his wife one of the cups, then kissed her cheek.

He handed Rena a cup, then politely bowed his head to her. “Call me Ian. And you are?”

“Rena. Rena Burke. I’m just passing through town and left my mule with Mr. Owens at the livery while I got a little something to eat. As soon as we’ve both had breakfast, we’ll be on our way.”

“To Holiday,” Maggie said, lifting a plate with a large bun from the box and handing it to Rena. “There are some lovely, lovely people who live there. If you meet the Coleman or Milton families, please give them my regards.”

“I’ll do that,” Rena said, accepting the plate from Maggie.

Ian motioned for her to take a seat on the bench as he lifted a plate holding a huge cinnamon bun from the box, then propped one booted foot on the bench by Maggie.

Rena settled on the bench and took a tentative sip from the cup that warmed her chilled hands. The coffee was even better than the pot Mr. Miller had made. She took another sip before she set the cup on the bench beside her and lifted her fork. Maggie and Ian bowed their heads and Ian asked a brief blessing on their meal.

Out of long-ingrained habit, Rena bowed her head and said, “amen.” She hadn’t prayed in two years, but today wasn’t the day to examine the reasons why.

Instead, she forked a bite of the cinnamon bun still warm from the oven with gooey icing dripping off the sides. She closed her eyes to better enjoy her second bite.

As they ate, Ian and Maggie filled the quiet, talking about Baker City and Holiday, and encouraging her to seek them out if she returned to town.

When they finished their simple meal, Rena tried to pay Ian, but he shook his head.

“It was our pleasure, Rena, to share breakfast with a new friend.”

Maggie gathered the dishes into the box Ian had carried, and he picked it up with one hand. “I better get these back to the bakery before they think I’ve absconded with them. ‘Twas a wonderful, unexpected gift to meet you this morning, Rena. Safe travels to you.” He kissed Maggie’s cheek. “Wait a moment, my lovely lass, and I’ll walk you to the shop.”

Maggie stood as Ian rushed back across the street with the dishes, then shifted her focus to Rena. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to stay in town for a while?”

“No. I really need to be on my way, but thank you for your kindness and for breakfast. Are you certain I can’t pay for my meal?”

“Absolutely certain. It was a treat for us to share breakfast with you.”

Rena saw no need to prolong her goodbye. She highly doubted she’d ever see Ian and Maggie again anyway. “I’m thankful I got to meet you both. If you ever venture up to Holiday, let me know. My cousin’s name is Theo Marshall.”

“If we get up that way, we’ll definitely plan to say hello.”

Maggie squeezed Rena’s hand and gave her a thoughtful look before she let go. “Be safe, Rena.”

“I will.” Rena spun around and cut through the park on her way back to the livery. She didn’t know what it was about meeting the friendly, sweet couple, but observing the loving looks they shared made her want to cry.

And Rena never cried.

Ranted, yes.

Brooded, often.

But cried?

Not for a long, long time.

She drew in a deep lungful of air and rushed back to the livery.

Mr. Owens was speaking softly to Scout and patting him on the neck when she marched inside the building.

“There you are. I was just telling Scout you’d be back any minute. He cleaned up every bite of his breakfast and drank a good share of the water. Are you heading a far distance today?”

“Aldeen, I think,” Rena said, putting the worn-out bridle Mr. Owens had removed back on Scout. She’d already decided she’d spend the night in the church in Aldeen. From what Mr. Miller had shared, it seemed like her safest, and least costly, option.

“That’s a fair piece to travel. Do you have a gun or know how to shoot it?”

Rena nodded. “I do.” She’d stowed her gun belt in one of the saddlebags while she’d slept last night and hadn’t put it back on. Now, she pulled it out and fastened it around her hips. It had belonged to her father, and Rena had practiced shooting it until she rarely missed her mark.

Unable to help herself, Rena took the pistol from the holster and spun it around on her finger a few times, holstering it again in a matter of seconds.

Mr. Owens gaped at her with wide eyes, then he grinned. “You’re a regular Annie Oakley, Miss Burke. I reckon you can handle yourself. You do any fancy shooting with that rifle you have in the scabbard?”

His reference to Annie Oakley delighted Rena beyond words. Although she’d never had the opportunity to watch Annie Oakley perform, she’d read every newspaper account she could find about the woman who had become her inspiration and something of a hero to Rena. Annie had validated Rena’s notion that women could step beyond the roles society assigned to them and succeed at whatever they chose to pursue.

“Sometimes, Mr. Owens.” She offered the livery owner a pleased smile. “Thanks again for taking care of Scout.” She paid him, led the mule outside, and swung into the saddle.

“Safe travels.” Mr. Owens lifted his hand in departure as she clucked her tongue against her cheek and Scout began a slow mosey down the street.

Rena glanced over her shoulder and tipped her head to the livery owner, then focused her gaze ahead. She’d found there was no purpose in looking back. None at all. Most of the time, there was no one who cared if she left, anyway.

The following afternoon, she heard the whistle of the train as it rolled into Holiday at nearly the same time she and Scout arrived in the town that would become her new home. Although the trip up the mountain had been uneventful, she was relieved to reach Holiday.

Last night, she’d arrived in Aldeen just before dusk and tracked down the pastor to get his permission to stay in the church, or school, whichever one wanted to call it. He’d invited her to join him and his wife for dinner, which she accepted. When they insisted that she spend the night with them, she gently refused, but thanked them for the meal and the opportunity to sleep somewhere safe and warm.

After Rena had settled Scout in the lean-to the teacher used for her horse and given him a portion of feed and a bucket of fresh water, she bedded down on a blanket on a pew in the church, staring at the shadowed ceiling before sleep finally claimed her.

She’d awakened at four that morning and rode out of town a few minutes later. The early start was the only reason she’d made it to Holiday before dark. Scout seemed as anxious as she felt to get reach their destination.

Holiday appeared to be a growing, busy town. The wide main street was a beehive of activity with wagons coming and going. She saw two wagons full of lumber rumble by and wondered if Ian ever shipped lumber up to Holiday. Likely not. Theo had mentioned a lumber mill located near some of the mines.

As she entered the outskirts of town, Rena rode past a beautiful home set back from the road with a broad porch that looked inviting. Across the pasture from it, she passed a livery and blacksmith shop.

Further up the street, a sign painted on a window proclaimed the camel-colored building the assayer’s office.

Next door, a little girl with a mop of blonde curls stood on top of a saddle in the window of the saddle shop. She held a doll in one hand and waved at Rena with the other.

Rena smiled and returned the tiny fairy-like child’s wave, then fixed her attention on the town of Holiday. Across the side street from the saddle shop was a large hotel with a restaurant sign. The smell of roasting meat made her wish she’d purchased more food yesterday. She’d eaten the last bite of cheese and the remnants of broken crackers hours ago when she stopped for a rest at lunch.

She made note of the mercantile, a post office, and a dress shop. The colorful frocks in the window made her think of Ian and Maggie. Rena felt a sense of gratification to know if she ever did return to Baker City, she had two friends there who might be pleased to see her.

The sight of the church made Rena look the other way, instead taking in the stage office, marshal’s office, and the jail. She rode on the main street until she reached the other end of town and continued north.

Theo had written that his place was a few miles from town on the east side of the road. He told her to ride around a curve in the road, then look for a stump that was shaped like a chair. His cabin—or shack, as he called it—was a hundred yards back in the trees.

Rena removed her hat and tilted her face up to the sun as she traveled along on Scout’s swayed back, breathing in the verdant mountain air. She could grow accustomed to the scent of the breeze that carried a hint of pine and smelled like Christmastime.

The peacefulness surrounding her calmed her jittery nerves at seeing Theo again after so many years apart. He had already left home to pursue his own adventures before her world had fallen apart. However, he, and his sister, Laura, had always been close to her, more like siblings than cousins. As an only child, Rena had cherished time spent with them when they were younger, even if they’d all traveled different paths as adults.

When Rena happened upon a stump that did indeed look like someone had roughly hacked out chunks of it until it resembled a chair, she turned and rode along a path through the trees.

At the edge of a meadow, she found a weathered cabin she assumed had to be Theo’s home. She stopped Scout near the door, grateful to see a barn that would keep wild critters away from the mule. From the straight lines of it and the fresh coat of red paint, she assumed Theo had built it after purchasing the ground last year.

As she swung out of the saddle, she cocked an ear, listening to the sound of water. There must be a creek nearby. If Theo didn’t have a well, a creek would be a handy thing to have on his place.

She tied Scout’s reins around a half-rotten post sunk into the ground, patted his neck, then strode to the door. Rena lifted her hand and knocked twice, waited, then knocked two more times. When no one answered, she tried the knob. It turned in her hand, so she pushed open the door.

“Hello? Anyone home? Hello?” Hesitant to intrude in case it wasn’t Theo’s home, Rena cautiously stepped inside. Her gaze followed the dust motes dancing in a beam of sunlight streaming in the window by the door. A table covered by a checkered cloth sat beneath the window. An oil lamp, a stack of books, and a glass sugar bowl with a lid on top rested in the center of the table.

“Hello? Theo?” Rena moved further into the room taking in the simple furnishings.

The cabin was all one big room. On the far end was a fireplace and to the right of it, a cookstove. A coffee pot on the top of the stove made her long for a cup. There’d be time enough to make a pot later.

A sink with a pump handle to draw water and a small window above it were on the same side of the room as the stove. Two wooden crates were fastened to the wall on either side of the sink, with shelves built into them. One held an assortment of dishes. The other crate held tins and jars that appeared to contain spices.

A large bed took up the space to the left of the fireplace. Pegs held a few shirts, a heavy wool coat, and a black hat. On the floor beneath the pegs were a pair of newer-looking boots. Another oil lamp sat on a trunk pushed into the corner that appeared to serve as an end table. The only other piece of furniture on that side of the cabin was a small chest of drawers.

On the opposite end of the cabin were two rocking chairs and another table, this one strewn with papers. A ladder nailed to the wall went up to an open loft area. By stepping into the doorway and tipping back her head, Rena could see a bed in the loft covered by a colorful quilt.

She walked across the room to a bookcase, made of rough lumber, that held numerous books, interesting rocks, and keepsakes. A small wooden box that had once belonged to her aunt brought sweet memories to mind. The letter “M” engraved on the outside of it was unmistakable. Rena opened the lid to see a stack of letters. One she’d written to Theo before she’d left Amarillo rested on top.

Even if her cousin wasn’t at home, at least she was in the right place. Relieved she wasn’t poking around a stranger’s home, Rena returned outside. She led Scout to the barn and settled him in a stall with feed and a bucket of water she filled from the pump she’d found near the barn.

Exhaustion overtook her as she carried her bags and rifle inside the cabin. The only thing she could think of at that moment was rest, but she was filthy. She set her bags on the floor, propped the rifle behind the door, and removed her hat and gun belt, hanging them on a peg behind the door. She then retrieved a clean shirt and pair of trousers. Although they were wrinkled, at least they didn’t smell like sweat, dirt, and mule.

She rummaged through her things and retrieved a comb and bar of soap, then searched the cabin. Towels were stacked on a shelf near the bed. Rena took her pistol from the holster, then carried everything outside and followed the sound of water to the creek.

After looking around to ensure she was alone, she removed her filthy clothes and rolled them together in a bundle, left her pistol on top of them, and stepped into the chilly water that moved with a rapid current. The first feel of the frigid water against her skin made her want to jump right back out, but instead, she waded into the middle of the creek where it came up past her knees, sat down, and scrubbed away miles and days of dirt. She washed her hair and shook away the droplets, then returned to the bank where she wrapped one towel around her and the other around her head. Briskly rubbing her skin dry, she hastily dressed, then combed the tangles from her hair. She sat on a large rock in a pool of sunshine that spilled through the trees, closed her eyes, and immediately fell asleep.

 

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