Brokken, Texas April 1868 Victoria English, sheriff of the town of Brokken, glanced from side to side as she made her last rounds of the night through the slumbering town. She preferred to walk in the middle of the street as too often the dull, hollow thud of her boots on the boardwalk intruded into the peaceful silence. The weight of the revolver she wore on her hip felt as comfortable and as much a part of her as her own skin. Her gaze skipped along the repainted façades, reconstructed buildings, and the fully-stocked store front windows. Just a year ago, Brokken was in its death-throes. She let a half-smile twitch the corner of her mouth as she looked from business to business. Brokken had survived the loss of more than half their men, a tornado that had miraculously missed the town, an attack from an outlaw gang who believed the Brokken brothers had hidden stolen Confederate gold in town. As if the Confederacy ever had vast amounts of gold… The Knight home drew her attention. Low-pitched light spilled out the windows she knew to be in the front parlor. Dr. Knight was out, and Abigail wouldn’t leave the parlor or extinguish the light until Mathew returned home. She wondered which of the expectant mothers he attended to that night. Twenty-three men in total had answered their desperate plea to save Brokken and became mail-order grooms. Twenty marriages, fourteen expectant mothers, and three newborns revitalized their town. Her smile grew. Victoria hesitated to step onto the porch. If Abigail wasn’t awake, knocking on the door would not only wake her, but also ran the real risk of waking five-year-old Ethan. She’d ask Abigail in the morning who was the new citizen of the town. A large shadow separated itself from those near the blacksmith shop. Victoria peered through the darkness, recognizing the doctor’s buggy. The vehicle moved slowly, as if to avoid any of the rutting in the road. Curiosity piqued, Victoria waited. Unless there was a real problem, Mathew didn’t bring patients back to the house. The conveyance halted at the hitching rail. Victoria moved closer. The slumped figure in the seat next to Knight didn’t appear alive. As the doctor scrambled from the buggy, the front door of the house opened, spilling light across the porch and onto the motionless form. The breath froze in her lungs. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t. Her head spun. Large spots danced in her vision. Her lungs refused to take another breath. As if they had suddenly taken root, her feet froze to the ground, though her knees buckled. “Victoria, help me get this man into the house.” Knight’s order broke her immobility. Faster than she had ever drawn before, Victoria pulled the revolver, cocking it even as she drew it up. “Get back in the buggy, Doc, and take him to the jail.” “This man needs immediate medical treatment.” Knight didn’t even slow down in his haste to reach the unmoving passenger crumbled in the seat. “Victoria!” Abigail’s voice carried from the porch. “What are you doing?” Victoria spared a second to throw a glance over her shoulder at her friend. Silhouetted in the lamp light, Abigail’s extended stomach further increased Victoria’s resolve. “I mean it, Doc. You aren’t taking him anywhere except for the jail.” Metal chattered against metal when Knight lifted the motionless figure and hoisted him over his shoulder with as much effort as if the figure weighed less than a sack of horse feed. When the doctor turned, a length of chain dangled down his back from the man’s wrists. Knight advanced a step, hesitating when Victoria added, “I’ll shoot.” “Then shoot.” Knight halted, and his gaze dropped to the gun in her hand. “Or get out of my way.” To her mortification, the muzzle wavered. She spread her feet to steady her stance, firmed her grip, and tightened her finger on the trigger. Abigail stepped between her revolver and the doctor. “Vic, it’s not him.” Abigail’s voice, softened with pleading, reached past Victoria’s pain and fear. Victoria allowed her to push the revolver down, her resolve cracking. The doctor advanced another step and the man over his shoulder groaned softly. Victoria snapped the revolver up again, pushing Abigail to a side at the same time. Any cracks in her determination vanished, replaced with an implacable doggedness. “Put him back in the buggy and take him to the jail. If you don’t, I will arrest you and I will shoot him.” She watched Knight’s sight slip from her revolver to Abigail and back again. Without taking her gaze from the almost skeletal form draped over Knight’s shoulder, Victoria repeated, “Take him to the jail. You can treat him there.” “Mathew, do as she says, please.” Knight nodded at his wife’s words, and then returned his charge to the buggy. Abigail’s gasp hissed in the night when the light spilling out of the house fell across the man’s features. That gasp reinforced Victoria’s belief of who she believed the doctor’s patient to be. Even with his cheeks hollowed, his skin discolored with bruising, dirt and heaven only knew what else, and half his features obscured by thick, matted facial hair, the ice-cold dread in her heart told her all she needed to know. “I don’t know who you think this man is—” Victoria nudged her head over her shoulder at Abigail, cutting the doctor off. “She knows who he is.” “—he’s not in any condition to be a danger to anyone.” Knight climbed into the buggy. “I’ll wait for you at the jail.” Victoria grabbed a metal rail supporting the leather hood and stepped onto the running board next to the doctor. Ignoring Abigail’s startled protest of her name, Victoria gestured with her revolver toward the small, squat building housing the jail. “Now you don’t have to wait for me.” She should have dropped to the ground in a motionless heap from the glare Knight shot at her. He lifted the reins and lightly shook them over the horse’s back. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he said to his wife. **** Victoria lifted her cup of coffee with both hands, the brew long gone cold, and looked out a jail window at the gray dawn. She gripped the metal as if she held on for dear life. Every fiber of her being quivered while nausea borne of an old terror left her light-headed. The cup between her hands bent, and the cold coffee dripped to the floor through a break in the weld. Five years. For five years, no one had heard anything of him or from him. Five years. “I’m going to bring Peter over here to strike those chains.” She startled with Knight’s comment. “No. I’ll use those to manacle him to the bars.” “Victoria.” Knight’s voice dropped, whether from anger or shock, she wasn’t sure. She didn’t care what lowered his voice. The ever-lightening, drizzling gray dawn drew her attention and she startled again when the doctor took the leaking cup. He set the ruined mug on the window sill. He caught her shoulders and turned her to the cell. “Look at him, Victoria.” The door was open. Panic drove any thought from her head other than to slam and lock that cell door. She reached for the door, an incomprehensible snarl ripping from her throat when Knight restrained her. “I don’t know who you think he is—” “He’s a killer.” She snapped her head around to glare at the doctor. “He killed m—he killed a baby.” Knight’s firm grip on her shoulders didn’t alter, though some of the color drained from his face. “Then he needs to stand trial, but right now, he’s my patient. I am bound by my oath to do no harm. That means I have to get those chains off him and I can’t let you manacle him to the door.” She stared at the motionless figure. Had he stopped breathing? She wrenched free of Knight’s loose hold on her shoulders, angry with herself for the confusing sense of relief when her prisoner’s chest lifted fractionally. “I’ll go get Peter.” She shook her head to clarify her thoughts. “You stay with him. If he isn’t here when I get back, I’m holding you responsible.” The doctor dipped his head in a terse acknowledgment. “He isn’t going anywhere in his condition.” Victoria jammed her hat onto her head, clamping her mouth closed at the same time. She heaved the door open and marched out of the jail. In the middle of the road she paused, allowing some of the rigidity in her frame to ease, and looked over her shoulder. Moisture glistened on Knight’s buggy in the lightening gray, and the first sleepy twitter of a sparrow whispered across the square between the jail and the blacksmith’s shop. Lantern light from the two barred windows shimmered through the thick, swirling fog. She fully expecting to see that man silhouetted in the doorway. A shiver rippled across her. With a deep breath and a squaring of her shoulders, Victoria looked away from the small jail and resumed her march to the blacksmith shop. She spent too much time learning how to be strong, how to be tough as nails, and she was the sheriff. No one was taking her badge from her; not without a fight. Not even her long-lost husband.