Ethan Cord kicked up his heels and placed them on the desk in his office. The past few weeks had been slow in town. If bank robbers and cattle rustlers were breaking the law, they weren't doing it around the valley for a spell. Claire had started teaching in town, taking over the classes that had been handled by Ms Cross before she became Mrs. Baker and left town with her husband to head back to New York. Ben and George were in their classes probably spending more time daydreaming about summer than in paying attention to their studies. But then Ethan remembered what he'd been like at their ages when he'd been working on the family ranch before he'd hooked up with the gunfighter who'd change his life.
Dakota had been out riding in the countryside checking in on those who were still recovering from the plague that had hit the region when spring arrived. Doc Tucker had been tending to the last few families that were on the mend from what had threatened to wipe out the town.
Three months had passed since then the quarantine had been lifted and the crime wave hadn't quite picked up since the last body was burned to prevent the spread of the disease.
Suddenly the door opened and a woman with blond ringlets wearing a blue dress walked in the door.
She smiled coolly at him.
"Ethan…I thought we'd go get some lunch…it's been so quiet here lately."
"Too quiet…the quiet before the storm."
Hannah just smiled widely as she looked around his office. The photos of the children on the walls…his sister and Amelia…his ex-fiancée….it seemed like a hundred years ago but it'd actually been over a year since he'd seen her.
She'd left suddenly to do some traveling, she said, to ease the tension inside of her that came from staying in one place at a town. He hadn't seen her since but he passed by her house every day he came into town. But the arrival of Hannah, a former actress had kept him quite busy. She'd been part of an traveling entertainment act that had passed through only she had returned. He hadn't been disappointed in that.
"Oh Ethan…I'm sure it's a good thing and with the summer festival soon…it will help the town recover from that awful plague."
"The town needs something to look forward to after the past few months…and it'll be Founder's Day coming up soon enough."
Hannah's eyes sparkled and her hands clasped.
"Oh yes…and I'm on the planning committee for it," she said, "It's just a small one with myself and Grace from the mercantile and Millie, the teller at the bank."
The same one that had been owned by Amelia, her husband more accurately but now had been sold to a group of investors who were buying them up all over the western part of the country.
"It'll put Paradise back on the map…with all the people wanting to come but afraid because of the plague."
Ethan knew that the traffic into town had dried up since news broke that there'd been the quarantine put on it. It'd gotten so quiet since then; he'd spent most of his days riding out on the countryside looking at the scenery. His gun always in its holster, sitting idle…and he returned back in time to pick up the boys after school and take them fishing on the lake…sometimes dinner with Hannah. Then riding back home under a sky crammed with stars all the way to the horizon.
"It'd do the town some good…as long as the riff raff doesn't come back."
She pursed her lips.
"Oh Ethan…it's going to be so much…it'll help people know that Paradise is the more cultured, tamer alternative to some of the neighboring townships."
Ethan sighed knowing that Hannah was referring to Silver Crest. Things had gotten a bit wilder over there since the arrival of some famous folks who showed up some said, to rile people up…especially the women folk.
"You mean Silver Crest. Things are quieting down there since they threatened to call the marshals."
Joseph had told him that last night after returning from riding out with Dakota. The two had become closer friends in the past year especially since Joseph wanted to be a deputy. Ethan had vetoed that saying he needed to go to college. Joseph had said he'd think about it and had taken a job with Doc Tucker helping him keep his books and tending to some of the simpler cases.
He'd made himself a town hero during the plague and Ethan had been so proud of him but he didn't want it going to the boy's head.
"Yes I might be heading that way myself if things heat up any worse…"
Ethan doubted that they would because there was only a certain amount of trouble that could be caused by a band of woman.
The women started quieting down as soon as the two women walked to the lectern. They were sitting inside what looked to be a schoolhouse only there weren't any children. The blackboard had been used to draft ideas for the plan of discussion.
"We're going to take back our town," one woman said, "It belongs to us…not them."
The women clapped and marveled at Evelyn who ran the mercantile and had refused to pay the protection money first. She had torn up her order right in front of the pair of thugs who had shown up to ask why she was late with her payment.
"So which one of you will be next?"
The women looked at each other. Then another one Annabelle who sold saddles and tack for horses and oxen made by her husband since he'd been nearly killed in a mining explosion…she stuck it her hand slowly at first and then more firmly.
Amelia sat in the back with the journalist who had traveled to these parts by train and then by stagecoach. One of the most famous in her trade, who had already began to make a name for herself by investigating for her stories. Just what was needed to retake the town from Brockton Sinclair and his organized gang.
She turned to the reporter.
"So what do you think?"
Nellie Bly, well that wasn't really her name Amelia knew but that's what everyone called her. Female journalists just like female anything, from bankers to ranchers weren't taken seriously unless there was a man around which made it real tough on the widows.
"I think it's a start."
Amelia sighed. It had taken so much to get to this point. When she'd left Paradise, she left with plenty of money and wanderlust to see the world, hoping to even get to San Francisco and then take a boat to someplace far away. Places she had read about in books and newspapers. She wanted to get far enough away from the life she had left so that the secret she carried no longer burdened. But fate had a funny way of intervening and she'd seen much of that in her life since she'd left Australia to make a new life for herself.
The carriage to the train that would take her to the ocean had broken its wheel off and then…but better not to think about that.
"You've already worked so hard I can see that Amelia," Nellie said, "It'll tell a great story to readers as soon as I can my editor to see that."
Amelia knew that Nellie had struggled to get some of her stories to print, as she was still waiting to see if she could find that big one that would blaze her byline from coast to coast.
"All we want is this town back," she said, "He breaks us, he'll just move on to the next one…"
She knew that the town she had left, the one she both hated and loved would be one of the next to be visited by Brock and his gang.
"He's going to retaliate if the merchants don't pay him."
Amelia looked at Nellie.
"You mean the merchant's wives. The men are all damaged from the mine."
Most of the men had either died in explosions or were weakened by illness that robbed them of their breath, their energy and often their lives. So the women had to step up to keep their families and the town going and then into this, had stepped a ruthless group of con artists turned criminals who kept those in Silver Crest under a vice.
"What about you being mayor…?"
Amelia paused. The women had already asked her to do that but she couldn't, she'd only been here a little over a year. Many of the others had built longer roots into the town's fabric. Evelyn, Annabelle and some of the others would be better.
"I don't know how long I'll be staying…once this fight starts being won."
She had thought about moving on with her travels and she had thought about returning home. But she didn't know where home was exactly. She dreamed about one place at night where people lived that had been…family. But the friends she had made her, the women and their families they needed her too.
"That could be a long time…are you ready for that?"
Amelia had thought about that too.
"Yes…Yes I am. I've been a fighter all my life…my father taught me how to fight and that's what I'm going to do."
Then she stopped talking because her ears had picked up something…the other women stopped to listen too. She thought she heard the sound of hoof beats not far outside the window. She looked outside into the darkness and then her eyes squinting as she saw them.
Three of them on horseback…one of them holding something that glowed.
"Everyone hit the floor…now…"
The other women did so in unison knocking down some desks in their rush. But Amelia had just gotten down when she heard the glass shattering and then a blast of heat around her. The room was already going up in flames as the women looked at each other.
But they knew what to do, they didn't panic. The past year had taught them so much. They rushed to the back exit and after pushing the door open; they ran out into the warm spring night. Amelia collapsed on the grass and covered her head with Nellie next to her as an explosion rocked what had been the schoolhouse. She looked up through the smoky haze that showed up in a sudden stream of moonlight through the trees and saw the men in horses ride quickly away, their faces hidden.
She ducked as shrapnel went flying and when she glanced up again they were gone.
Ethan had seen the kids off to school, while he met Dakota in the marshal's office. Another quiet day, hotter than the last one loomed…another day to pick up the boys after school and catch more fish for dinner…maybe Dakota could join them.
But the younger man just shook his head.
"Damn explosion hit Silver Crest…a schoolhouse…it's never a quiet moment there."
Ethan furrowed his brow as he sipped some coffee.
"The women's group again…?"
Dakota made a face.
"You mean those damn suffragettes."
Ethan studied Dakota's face seeing his displeasure. He himself didn't care what the women did, if they wanted the vote, more power to them and more responsibility. But if they used violence…it just made no damn sense.
"I'm not sure it's the vote they want," he said, "It might be something else…the mine's closure hit that town hard…at least Paradise's got something else."
"It'll make our job harder if we have to go over there…or if they get the women here all riled up."
Ethan bit back a smile. That reminded him of a certain someone…but the fire had gone right out of Paradise when she had taken off.
"Not likely to happen here," he said, "The women are happy enough to organize the next social event."
"Claire thought about helping out…when school's done and we get to talking…"
Ethan put up his hand.
"Now hold on there…I hadn't agreed to let you marry her. She's too young and she's going to school this fall."
"I know that...she put her foot down and I know she meant it."
Ethan had to smile at that too. No one ever made Claire do something she didn't want or feel ready to do. She's skipped a grade or two and graduated before Christmas…mostly because with the teacher getting married and moving out of Paradise, they needed her to fill in until they could find someone permanent. She and Joseph were now only a year apart in their studies but she'd probably get to college before he even made up his mind.
George rushed into the room. Ethan folded his arms looking at his nephew sternly.
"What you doing outside of class?"
George just looked at him.
"Kids are making fun of me and Ben because our sister's teaching."
"You know that's just until summer."
George sighed dramatically…god he'd grown an inch or two. He'd wind up being the tallest in the family the rate he'd been growing even before he hit his teens.
"I know…but it's still not fair."
"George…life's not always going to be fair. You live in my house, my rules right? Now those rules include never missing schooling so you best head back to class before you're missed..and the teacher comes looking for the marshal to find you."
His shoulders sagged and he turned around to head back to the school building. Dakota shook his hea.d
"You're just too strict Ethan…missing one day won't hurt him."
Ethan shook his head.
"Can't let him slide…he missed quite a bit of schooling when he got sick."
They both looked up as the mayor, Steve Cashton walked into the room. He smiled at both men who were never that thrilled to see him.
"Quiet here lately…no crime. I like it that way."
Ethan looked over at Dakota.
"We're in a lull period but it could pass."
"It better not…at least not until after the festival. We need something to put Paradise back on the map and convince people that the plague is history."
Ethan leaned back in his chair and listened to him do his spiel.
"We don't want what's going on in Silver Crest to spread to our fine wholesome town…maybe it's time to keep an eye on what's happening there. My gracious, a schoolhouse just blew sky high."
"It won't spread here…whatever is going on there is their business."
The mayor leaned closer.
"Not if it spreads here…I think you should think about wiring the sheriff and see if he needs any help."
Ethan made a face.
"The new guy…Brock didn't catch the last name…he's from someplace east but he promised a lot of changes."
"He might need some help if the town catches fire…"
"It's not that bad," Ethan said, "but we will keep an eye on it and wire this Brock character if it gets any worse."
He looked over to Dakota who nodded for extra emphasis. The mayor just looked at them adjusted his suit and then left them alone. Ethan's eyes wandered to where a message had just come in and went to read it.
"The sheriff said that the schoolhouse blowing up was an accident. No need for alarm or outside assistance. Silver Crest will take care of its own business."
"You believe them?"
Ethan paused for a moment.
"Ask me that later…let's see how this plays out before jumping in the midst of it like unwelcome guests okay?"
Dakota nodded and then the two of them got up to go get some lunch.