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March 1872. Galveston, Texas, USA

John Reed

John Reed groaned as he sat down on the top porch step and laboriously kicked off his heavy boots onto the aging timbers of the humdrum ranch house in southeast Texas. The ranch was located where the woods and the river converged. It had seen better days but was sturdy enough and was historic by new world standards, making the building a landmark of the region.

John was a tall, broad man who kept short, jet black hair and a well-trimmed beard. He had the same routine for when he finished another long day wrangling his cattle on his ranch on the banks of Turning River. He began to knock the boots together to dislodge the thick mud embedded into the treads while George opened the front door.

Turning River was a tributary of the mighty Mississippi approximately forty miles from the town of Galveston. In 1872, it was a thriving community and rivaled New Orleans as a major port for the export of cotton and other goods.

John’s brother George was a year older. He looked remarkably like John but with trademark emerald green eyes instead of blue and chestnut brown hair instead of black.

He had unofficially christened their farm Scowler’s Ranch. This was an in-joke between the brothers based on John’s often grumpy disposition. He frequently engaged in exploratory and destructive ventures. John had opposed this name initially, but it quickly spread throughout Galveston amongst those who knew John and were greatly amused by the name. So it stuck, and he begrudgingly accepted defeat.

No less destructive was his time spent in the service of the Confederate Army during the Civil War seven years prior. He had fought on behalf of the Cotton Belt South which believed it stood to lose much from freeing the enslaved people who picked cotton in the fields each and every day. He also fought for the port of Galveston, which relied so heavily upon their output.

As he was half Creek Indian on his mother’s side, the shame of fighting on behalf of an ideology intent on maintaining an ethnic caste system wasn’t lost on him. However, there were many good people he met in the service of General Lee. They were equally a victim of their geography. Texas was so far from the borderline states such as West Virginia, which had separated itself from the rest of Virginia, where the majority of the bloodiest battles were fought, and fought on the side of the Union instead. Texas was firmly entrenched geographically, economically, and politically on the red side of the conflict, for better or worse, and almost certainly worse.

Cotton-picking slave plantations had been a regular, albeit sad sight of John’s youth. Having grown up in Texas, he knew that despite the social divides and the political power of industries such as cotton in the south, morality didn’t end when crossing the Mason-Dixon line southbound. Contrary to what the textbooks suggested, not everyone in the north was good, and not everyone in the south was bad. Indeed, very few reaped the profits from selling cotton at the expense of the enslaved.

Texas was a seasoned secessionist state already by the time of the Civil War. This was the era John had been born into. Only twenty-four years later, in 1861, after the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency the previous year, once again, Texas voted overwhelmingly to secede, but this time, from the Union.

John had good company domestically in his moral opposition to these events. Sam Houston, the incumbent Texas governor and previously the governor of Tennessee, famed for his role in the Texas Revolution, which separated Texas from Mexico in favor of the United States, was still a staunch supporter of the Union.

However, John’s mother, a Native American, had been worried about being displaced, as Houston had previously removed many Cherokee from Tennessee. This continued a long tradition as the settlers crossed the Appalachian Mountains towards the fertile great plains in the West, pushing the native population further and further into the desert.

Sam Houston was deposed as governor shortly after the vote and was the last Unionist official until the reconstruction in 1870, which brought stability back to the state as it recovered economically over the two years that followed from the toll of the war. By 1870, the South both produced and exported more cotton than in 1860. So Galveston continued to flourish despite the ghosts of the casualties of war hanging over them.

John felt that he’d made no contribution to better his community, state, or country in his years in service. He felt ashamed of the role he’d played in a particularly dark period of American history.

He had experienced prejudice firsthand based on his tanned skin and black hair while he was in school and again later in the service of the Confederate Army. The Reed brothers, born only slightly more than a year apart, became evermore protective of one another, and the ranch was at once their sanctuary and their fortress. Their freedom to continue to own and operate the ranch was why they loved being in America. They were fortunate enough that America had been good to them.

John, rubbing his sore feet, looked through the open front door and into the kitchen where he noticed George holding a still sealed letter at the table, which had piqued his interest.

“Who’s that from?” John called inside.

“Someone in Florida,” George muttered back to him.

“What does anyone in Florida want with us?” John asked rhetorically as George flicked the sealed envelope open with a letter opener. John hobbled over to him barefoot and took a seat alongside George at the table as they read it together.

“I’m not sure. It’s written by a Ms. Smith,” George eventually replied.

“Where’s Saint Augustine?” John asked his brother.

“Just outside of Jacksonville,” George muttered back.

“Where’s Jacksonville?” John asked, no more enlightened by his brother’s response. “Do we have a map?”

“We don’t. It’s over in Florida. Ms. Smith, an acquaintance of Wilson there, says she heard on the grapevine we’ve been making inquiries into what happened and why they left. Grace-Eloise Monroe died. A throat problem, she says. Wilson took Roberta to Saint Augustine shortly afterward. It must have been hard for her without her mother.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that. She was such a sweet woman. I always wondered what happened to them and why they left. Why did they move states afterward? They had a pretty nice property over in Galveston,” said John, keen on using the word ‘they’ instead of speaking of Roberta alone.

“Grace-Eloise must have been the most in favor of staying here. Roberta wrote that Jacob’s friend Harold Crode, an established lawyer, has a friend called Coley Clark who wanted a wife, so Roberta moved out there and married him.” The last word was brisk and bitter, as George was aware of the pain it would cause his brother.

“Who sent this? Wilson?” John asked. George turned the letter in his hand and looked for a signature, but it was lacking one.

“I don’t know. It doesn’t say. They said they thought we deserved to know.” George scratched his head as he reread the letter, just as puzzled as John.

“Funny. Whoever this is, they clearly know who we are, and they also know we knew Grace,” John mumbled. “I’m so glad they wrote, and we know what became of them. Good for Roberta. It sounds as though the move was for the best after losing her mother. I miss that girl, though, I will say that. She was really something special.”

George raised an eyebrow at his brother's understated remark.

“I’ll say. I remember that Roberta really thought something of you,” George said with a knowing smile as he folded the letter and replaced it into the envelope it had arrived in.

“Of me? I don’t remember that,” John said, perking up suddenly as he recalled his old friend.

“She used to follow you around like a puppy dog, or a duckling, asking you anything she could think of until you lost patience with her and barked at her. Then she’d cry. She’d always run home to Grace-Eloise, who warned her against trying again, but she always did,” said George.

John chuckled at his brother’s recollection and blushed.

“I do remember that, now that you mention it. It’s funny how you think someone you know will always be there when you see them every day. Then, suddenly you go to fight in a war, and they go to Jacksonville or somewhere in Florida to marry some rich man.” John paused, choking on a dry snort which George knew was a suppressed grievance.

“John, Roberta had to–”

“Then you realize you’ll likely never see them again. All the things you always thought you could do later, suddenly you realize will never happen. Time has run out. Later was actually earlier. You blinked and missed later, and you’ll never be able to do those things anymore.” John trailed off, becoming a prisoner to his thoughts yet again, a familiar sight to George. “Let’s not talk about Roberta anymore. It’s good to hear she’s doing well, but there’s no use lingering on her.”

“All right. You can’t run away from the past, though,” George said, unable to resist probing at his brother.

“Nobody’s running from nothing, George. It’ll not do any good dwelling on it now though, will it? I can’t go back and change the past. I didn’t know how things would pan out. The time I had with her isn’t the only thing I would’ve done differently if I could. It’s a good job there are so few things we can control. It’d drive us all crazy otherwise.”

“I don't think it’d make much difference to you because you never stop thinking of it anyways. You just don’t like talking about it. That’s all it is. You’d rather think about it and keep it to yourself and then silently beat yourself up about it. That does nobody any good, John. Why do you do this? Why can’t you open up about Roberta?”

“Because things are so different now since I came back. Everything changed. It takes time to adjust.” John folded his arms, and George could feel him retreating once again.

“That’s not the war, John; that’s adulthood. Things are never the same as in childhood. Think of those kids you went to school with. You were all in the same class, roughhousing in the playground together, and now where is everyone?”

“Well, there’s Collin who’s still in town.”

“Collin is an exception. My point is some of those folks are dead, in jail, working, and some are in Florida. That’s just the way it is when you grow up. There doesn’t have to be a war to change people as they get older.”

“I know, I know,” John said irritably as he stood up and limped over to the door. He had already told himself that time and time again. “I’m going to go for a walk. I’ll be back later tonight.”

George watched after John with concern as he replaced his footwear and went out to his horse, still locked inside his thoughts about what might have been and never came to be. The thunderous echo of the hooves as John galloped away from his brother hammered loudly as dusk began embracing the Reed ranch for yet another time. George breathed out a broken lament, eyes falling closed. He retreated inside, painstakingly aware that John would not return until dawn.

Chapter 1

May 1872. Galveston, Texas, USA

John Reed

John made the short journey from the ranch into Galveston to go to the saloon to eat, which he did on the rare weekends he managed to complete the tasks the ranch required by that time. It was where he always found Elizabeth Macleod, the daughter of Brogan Macleod, the saloon’s owner. Although it would be more accurate to say she always found him.

Brogan was a first-generation migrant to the New World, having made the transatlantic journey from his hometown in Inverness, in the Highlands of Scotland, where he’d worked at a whiskey distillery.

Most Scotch settled in North Carolina, but Brogan’s sense of adventure and his enterprising nature brought him further west following the frontier line as it approached Texas to pursue cheaper land. He found an excellent opportunity to take over the town saloon from the outgoing proprietor retiring that month when he arrived in Galveston.

His reputation quickly grew across the county. He didn’t entertain any jokes about alcohol and Scots and had strong opinions about the supremacy of Scotch whiskey, particularly the Highland variety, over American bourbon.

Unfortunately, in this part of the world, he was in the minority in keeping this view. However, it made him no less passionate in attempting to sway the local populace. This was an error made by many travelers passing through the town chasing the slowly dying frontier and stumbling into the saloon through its swinging doors for refreshments. Those doors made one feel like a cowboy whether or not they had ever wrangled a cow.

Brogan had kept almost everything from the previous owner and changed little. Despite being born more from laziness than political strategy, this won the hearts of many loyal customers who’d been drinking at the establishment for decades, winning Brogan many friends.

Elizabeth Macleod was born in Texas after Brogan’s arrival and saw the state flourish with several communities beginning to develop. She was lucky enough to have adopted her father’s endearing Highland twang and inherited his fiery red hair, which she was incredibly proud of. To the best of her knowledge, this was a hallmark of their Doric genes and entirely unique in the county. She was quick to tell this to anyone who would listen and was in her element turning heads, being the most exotic woman in town.

She was admittedly very beautiful, and almost every man who passed through those saloon doors couldn’t stop staring at her, risking Brogan’s steely stare, as her bright white skin stuck out in the crowd. Those living locally, however, knew she was bad news and kept her at arm’s length.

Breaking down their defenses was a game that she had always enjoyed, although she was yet to have any luck with John or George Reed. They were both quick to read the game and were better at it than she was. She took this as a challenge and only redoubled her efforts each time she saw them.

As soon as he was seated at the bar, John decided against eating after all and poured himself a scotch instead, as bourbon was by request only. The bottle and several whiskey glasses were left on the bar for locals to serve themselves out of laziness, and Brogan always kept a close eye on the chit from the far end of the bar to see his clientele were drinking honestly, as he preferred sitting at the bar than behind it. Although, he wasn’t strict about how much one could pour themselves per serving. He always filled his own glass to the brim.

John took out an old, faded, dog-eared letter from an interior pocket as he sat at the bar stool and unfolded it. He read it pensively on the countertop while he kept it raised to avoid it being doused in the layer of spirits that coated the countertop.

“Wasting his time scowling all day at Scowler’s Ranch, and he’s carrying that stained letter with him even today. How many times has it been now?” he heard Elizabeth say from behind him. He felt her circling him like a shark, waiting for her moment to move in for the kill.

“Hey, Scowler. I hear you’re doing a good job with those cattle up there at Turning River. They’re looking big and strong now,” Elizabeth said, leaning on the bar next to John and brushing shoulders with him. “You been working hard as usual? You’ve always got such a tan from being out on those fields so long, haven’t you?”

“It’s not a tan. It’s my mother’s blood,” John said dismissively, without looking up from his letter.

Elizabeth’s face sank. She tutted as she tried and failed to make out some of the scribbled and smudged words of the letter over his shoulder until he noticed she was still there.

“Our mother was Native Creek if it’s my skin you’re inspecting. We just got some news come in from Florida, and I’d really appreciate some time on my own to process it,” John said, only slightly softer than before.

Seeing that he was in no mood to entertain her, true to his word, she turned tail and stomped across the establishment to her father, who sat at a table against the opposite wall reading the newspaper. He barely acknowledged her presence either as he sipped a whiskey of his own.

“John Reed is in some mood today, just like he normally is,” she told him.

“Leave him be, daughter,” Brogan said, looking up from the newspaper. “Men come back strange when they go to war. My grandfather was exactly the same. There are other men in Turning River, and many of them are very fond of you, so don’t be too disheartened.”

“There’s no one in Turning River like John,” Elizabeth said, half to herself as she looked at the man she desired seated at the bar, swirling and smelling his peaty whiskey while reading his mysterious old letter and still paying her no notice. She saw her father had stopped listening in favor of returning to his newspaper.

She walked behind John once again, ensuring her feet tapped loudly enough on the wooden floorboard to rouse him. If they did, he continued to ignore her. She kept walking straight out of the saloon doors, watching him as she passed him to see if he ever looked up at her, but he never did.

“Some letter that must be,” she muttered to herself as she left.

John was indeed too engrossed in the letter which he had kept from his time away from Galveston to notice her. John read the words that Roberta had written to him, back when he was most in need of it, locked in his own world when he was still serving as a soldier.

February 14th, 1865

Dear John,

I know I needn’t write to remind you how much I’m missing you, but I couldn’t resist the urge to do just that with it being almost a full year since your departure. I hope this letter brings you good fortune and keeps you safe while you’re away fighting. Please direct your attention to the lipstick kiss I signed this letter with, which I’m sure will improve your mood.

I was reminded earlier today of a particular day in our childhood when I followed you to the river and became lost. When you returned to town, everyone told you what I had done and then panicked when you said you hadn’t seen me. You left to find me just before I returned, missing each other by minutes, covered in thick mud from my adventure. You searched the woods all night for me while I bathed and slept in my bed. I thought you would like to recollect this also, and I hope it makes you laugh the same as it did for me.

John laughed and stopped reading the letter. Rereading it, and hearing Roberta’s voice in her prose, never failed to rouse him from his rut. He raised his head and looked at his whiskey, which was untouched, then placed it back on the bar. He folded the letter, placed it back into his inside pocket, and left the saloon through those swinging doors to his horse which was tied up outside.

“Let’s go, buddy. We’re going home.” He climbed on the saddle, his heart heavy, enclosed by those words Roberta had written to him back then, unable to ever escape their vise.

* * *

John saw that his brother was still at home, cleaning up in the kitchen, when he arrived back. He dried his hands on the dirty kitchen towel and tossed it onto the counter as John entered.

“I just came back to leave the horse for the night. I won’t be back until morning, so don’t come looking for me.” John said briskly, inwardly cursing himself for his harshness.

“All right,” George said, confused. “Are you sure you want to be alone? I have the rest of the night free. I was going to go down to the saloon in Galveston for a few whiskeys and perhaps stay the night.”

“I just came back from there. Miss Macleod is prowling around down there looking for trouble, so watch yourself. I’d rather be alone tonight if that’s all right.”

“I can handle her just as well as you can. Look after yourself,” George commanded with a suddenly serious tone, revealing his protective nature to his younger brother, which emerged periodically whenever John became too distant. To this, John tipped his hat on his way back out of the door.

“I always do,” John said. “You too.”

And he was gone before George could dare to say a word.

* * *

John sat at his favorite spot on the top of a knoll that overlooked both Turning River and his docile herd of cattle, with the woods he once spent all night in searching for the sleeping Roberta behind him. He found watching his cattle graze and listening to the flowing water alone with his thoughts incredibly peaceful. He couldn’t get the letter sent from the mysterious messenger in Florida or his thoughts on Roberta out of his mind. It felt strange to think that she was marrying someone as it seemed like no time at all since she was merely a child, like himself.

If he had stayed and not gone to war, would he have asked her to marry him in the end? While he read her recollection of the story of how he spent all night in these very woods looking for her while she was asleep in bed, he realized he probably would have, and moreover, she likely would have accepted him then. Unfortunately, it was something he had no control over as he would have only asked her to marry him once they were both eighteen. It was the third Confederate Conscription Act of February 17th, 1864, which had lowered the age of the draft to seventeen and subsequently dragged him into the final year of the war. This was enacted weeks after his seventeenth birthday.

When one is lucky enough to meet someone like Roberta and to have grown together and shaped one another as a person throughout their youth, it forms a special kind of bond which is both unbreakable and irreplicable. When someone is embedded in one’s childhood memories, it makes them impossible to forget. They are then always with you for the remainder of your life.

John wondered what he always wondered at this time in the evening: Why didn’t he say something to her when he had the chance? Now the chance was gone, as was Roberta. Although he may not have come back alive from the war.

That would’ve been cruel of him, he thought, to make her a widow at such a young age. He cared for her too much to do that. She had instead married someone rich, as she deserved to, so he took solace that her life would be infinitely better in Florida than it ever would have been staying on the ranch in Galveston with him. After all, he was but a shadow of a man, ravaged by war. No one would ever really dare to love him. For what was there left to love?

Chapter 2

March 1872. Saint Augustine, Florida, USA

Roberta Monroe

Roberta Monroe wept on the floor of the parlor of her mansion in Saint Augustine as her father, Wilson, comforted her by rubbing and patting her back, ineffectively cooing gently at her. She barely noticed this gesture in the throes of despair as she wailed and sniffed, wiping some tears from her eyes with her forearm as others dripped onto the tiles of the floor and pooled there.

Roberta was tall, blonde, and slim, and had her mother’s dark green eyes.

Her father, Wilson Monroe, at only fifty-eight years old, was already graying, and his beard added ten years or more to him. The recent loss of his wife, Grace-Eloise, had added ten more overnight.

“Coley wasn’t a young man,” Wilson said softly. “It could have been anything that caused his heart to give out and kill him. These things happen. Sometimes there’s no prior warning.”

“I can’t handle it, Father. First my mother, and now my husband….” She trailed off into another flurry of sobs. “I am cursed. I deserve to be alone. I must be doing something wrong to be continually punished as badly as all this,” muttered Roberta.

“Come now. The neighbors made you dessert so you would eat something and sent you liquor so you would drink. Perhaps you should try some. You haven’t eaten all day.”

“That was a nice gesture from them. However, I don’t like the neighbors, as you know. I’d much rather not accept it than have to go and thank them,” Roberta said between sobs.

“Then please eat something else. We can eat together if you like.” It was a feeble, futile attempt.

They were interrupted suddenly by Harold Crode, Coley’s lawyer, who knocked and then entered before waiting for a response as he only intended to go through the motions of being polite. He nodded a greeting to father and daughter as he stood in the doorway.

He was cold, calculating, and ruthless, as he had no doubt by now, there was no divine reckoning to be expected in the end. He saw what it took to escape justice and what those people lacked who were brought to it.

“Mr. Monroe. Miss Monroe. I’ve just returned from the neighbor’s house. They send their condolences, and you have an invitation for dinner for this evening at their house if you feel well enough,” Harold said as though he was booking a reservation himself. His cutting intrusion and tone were a sharp contrast to the solemn and prayer-like manner the Monroes spoke in moments prior.

“No, thank you. I don’t need an invitation nor anything else from you,” Roberta said bluntly as she stood and left the room through the opposing set of doors, sniffling, having composed herself somewhat upon Harold’s arrival in the parlor.

“I do apologize for Roberta,” Wilson said to Harold. “She doesn’t mean to be so dismissive. She’s handling Coley’s death with some difficulty, as you can imagine.”

“I can’t for the life of me see why. She never loved Coley. She was cold to him on their wedding day, I recall, as well as throughout their marriage. It’s too late now to be attached to him for his benefit.” Harold scoffed as Wilson glared.

“You’re crossing the line, Harold. You need to be more respectful after a bereavement. We are all grieving Coley’s loss, and it is deeply felt. He was your friend too, was he not? Nobody is telling you that you aren’t emotional enough today,” Wilson warned. Harold nodded.

“Of course. I do apologize,” Harold said earnestly, rearranging his posture. “May I offer you a drink? I understand the neighbors sent liquor to the house as a condolence gift of sorts. It would be a shame to see any of it go to waste.”

“No, thank you, Harold, but please help yourself to it. I’m getting older and watching what I drink now. You can never be sure what they put in it, can you?”

In the privacy of the study, Roberta continued to cry at the collapse of her once affluent future, wondering how one life could collapse and another be snuffed out in quick succession. Although she had managed to pull herself together somewhat.

She looked through her fingers and her tears at Coley’s emptied brandy glass, which still lay on its side on the maple desk in front of her. This was where he last set it down and toppled it as his coughing fit started to take hold, from which he would never recover. She sat exactly where he had sat at that very moment on the night of his passing when he knew he was dying and then was proven correct.

The imprint of her late husband’s lips was eerily still on the rim of the brandy glass, embedded in the sediment there like a ghost and frozen in time. Harold’s glass stood at the opposing end of the table like they were a pair of chess pieces, with Coley’s being the king after a loss. Harold’s had barely been drunk from as the liquid remained pooled on the bottom with none clinging to the wall of the glass as Coley’s had, despite the glasses being an identical pair.

Shuffling closer and rubbing the tears from her eyes in order to see more clearly, she looked carefully at this sediment, with her nose against the glass. She recalled witnessing Harold pouring the brandy for himself and another for Coley before he died. She had been half asleep still, as the drunken interactions between the men in this very study had only just woken her up from her slumber. They had been as jovial as any good friends would be after consuming a sufficient amount of expensive alcohol.

When she had gotten out of bed, dressed in her nightgown, and come downstairs to ask them to be quieter, she saw Harold pouring something from his hip flask into Coley’s glass while he wasn’t watching. It was after pouring the brandy from its bottle and immediately before her husband drank from that same glass, which was the one in front of her now. He soon after became seriously ill and never recovered. The hip flask must therefore have been filled with poison. Coley had been murdered by Harold, but what was the motive to murder a friend?

She tried to recall Harold’s actions as Coley’s health worsened and wanted to think whether he had acted suspiciously. He made himself scarce as Roberta ran into the room from the dark corridor where she had observed the action and held her husband in an attempt to save him.

Harold, being Coley’s alleged closest friend, didn’t seem particularly surprised, upset, or panicked by the tragedy, which Roberta found suspicious.

She circled the table and picked up Harold’s still-full glass, inspecting the liquid inside. She swirled it and tipped it in the glass to better see through it. There was no sediment in this one, but Harold had insisted the concoctions were the same in each glass. This was a lie; Coley hadn’t drunk the same mixture that Harold had. Harold had seen to it that Coley drank what he wanted him to, and Roberta had no doubt now that his passing was by Harold’s design.

She thought of what she should do next. Only she and Wilson were in the house with Harold, and if he wished to, he could surely kill them both also. Each additional victim would look more suspicious, however, and he seemed confident enough he had escaped detection as the killer as long as the act of murder itself went undetected. Treading carefully was no doubt Roberta’s best option, as well as finding the fastest route out of Florida with her father before things became more complicated and dangerous.

Chapter 3

Roberta Monroe

The following day, Roberta and her father were just finishing their breakfast in silence. Roberta kept one eye open all night, doing her best to act as though she suspected nothing but at the same time never taking her eye off her bedroom door, listening in case Harold came for her. This morning they were listening to nothing but the squealing of cutlery on plates when Harold entered. She did her best not to react as her heart raced.

“Roberta. May I speak to you in private for a few moments?” he asked.

“I think I’d better join you. It would only be appropriate for me to do so,” Wilson said, standing up from the table.

“It’s all right, father. I’m a grown woman. I can handle my own matters,” Roberta said, placing a hand gently on the rising Wilson’s shoulder to sit him back down as she stood and followed Harold into the parlor.

Once inside, he closed the door behind them and pulled a seat out for her at the table. She sat in it cautiously, feeling vulnerable with her back to him in a seated position. It only lasted a second as he walked away. Roberta wondered how many of these moments choreographed by Harold were tests to gauge how much she knew, but she wasn’t afraid of him.

“I’m afraid I owe you an apology,” Harold said cavalierly as he took a seat opposite Roberta.

“Not at all,” Roberta parried curtly.

“Of course I do. I apologize for my behavior yesterday. I’m handling Coley’s death quite badly. We sometimes act in strange ways when we’re grieving, don’t we? Especially someone so close to us. Coley was my closest friend.”

“You are a liar,” Roberta said plainly, tiring of his charade. Harold froze, and his eyebrow cocked as he waited for her next move. “I saw you put the poison in his brandy from your flask. The glasses are still in the study. I saw them. You killed him. Don’t bother trying to deny it.” If one were to ask her why she so suddenly stood up to defend the memory of her deceased husband, who had never been particularly good to her, Roberta would not have a good enough answer. Yet, as it would seem, she was unable to allow such a ridiculous charade to continue. Dead people deserved at least as much as an honorable defender.

To this, the Harold that Roberta had always known disappeared in an instant, as the curtain was peeled back, the mask was whipped off, and the monster behind was revealed to her. Suddenly, his freckled face contorted into a smile of pure evil. His look of sinister enjoyment scared her, and it was at that moment as she sank into her chair opposite him she realized the parlor door was closed, and he had seated himself between her and it.

She swallowed and attempted to maintain her composure despite her runaway heartbeat, which raced at the realization she had already been trapped in his web and hadn’t noticed until it was too late.

“I was waiting for you to bring that up,” he said. “I saw you spying on us through the doorway, hiding in the dark like a mouse. You wanted him to die, didn’t you? You would have entered and stopped him from drinking it otherwise. You wouldn’t have watched him nursing the glass, savoring sip after sip until all of it was gone, save for that last drop on the rim which you have been studying.” His chuckle caused Roberta’s stomach to flip. He was wrong. She didn’t want him to die. She remained hiding that night only because she was afraid, but she didn’t want Harold to know that.

“You stayed outside the room in the dark shadows thinking you were unseen because there you could remain an observer only. If you had taken but one more step and entered, no matter what it was you did, you would have been an active participant with the knowledge of what was happening. You would have either saved him or deliberately omitted what you knew as he continued to drink and become an accessory. You chose to sit as though you were the audience to a great spectacle. You chose to watch and absolve yourself of a role in his fate. It was definitely the most sensible decision. I would have done the same if I was you. You don’t get your hands dirty if you don't have to.”

“I was afraid you would kill me too, considering how callous you were toward your best friend,” Roberta croaked.

“You never liked Coley. Everyone knew this. You liked his money, and you’re happy he’s gone. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. He didn’t like you much either. He liked your youth, your beauty, and you liked his money. It was a transactional marriage. It isn’t uncommon. Love isn’t for everyone, and oftentimes, love doesn’t provide as much as you two provided one another. You married well, and so did he.”

“He was cold and full of neglect. His eyes carried disgust whenever he looked at me. He wasn’t a good husband, never wished for a child, or tried to make me happy. He merely used me in lots of ways. However, that doesn’t mean I wanted him to die. Much less since I swore to stand by him and protect him under God. Transactional or not, we had an arrangement, and I made a promise to him to marry him and be loyal to him. And loyal, I was.”

“Well, the joke’s on you and your pathetic little father because you’re left with nothing. You wasted your time coming here and marrying Coley. You won’t get a cent out of his estate.” To this, Harold stood and gestured broadly around the grand parlor, still blocking her exit as she waited for a window of opportunity that never came, as he knew what she knew and knew he had her trapped.

“Nothing. None of this is yours, Roberta.” Harold gestured around the house, indicating that it all belonged to Coley. “It was yours to utilize while he was alive, but now you have inherited only his many debts. I looked into his expenses, and the majority are still unpaid. He liked this life of grandeur, but none of it was paid for. It’s a costly hobby, looking rich to outsiders, you know. He has left you to pay it in his wake. Or rather, after his wake.” Harold chuckled at his morbid joke. Roberta did not.

“I’ll sell the house to pay them off,” Roberta said defiantly, standing toe to toe with Harold. She knew the manor house was inherited from Coley’s parents and wasn’t a purchase made with a loan.

“It won’t be enough, even with the most generous valuation. Yes, it’s enormous, stunning, and worth a lot of money. But Coley owed amounts you can’t imagine to people you wouldn’t believe. Now, I could be the easy solution to your problems. After all, I have always wanted this estate and everything that goes with it,” muttered Harold, extending his hand to touch Roberta’s cheek. “Think about it. Marrying me would solve all your problems, my dear...”

When she fiercely pulled away, her eyes burning with defiance, Harold smiled, shaking his head. “Best of luck, Miss Monroe. I’d say you’ll need it.”

Harold left the parlor cackling, and Roberta sat in silence, watching the door close behind him, despairing silently through her poker face. She allowed herself to let out a sigh of relief at last once he was gone and looked around the parlor at all of the things she used to think were her belongings.

In reality, she sat in an empty room, and even the roof over her head and the chair she sat in weren’t real. They all belonged to someone else now, and she was a penniless widow.

Determined not to be defeated, no matter how bleak their situation looked in Saint Augustine, Roberta picked up a newspaper from the pile in front of her on the table. She scanned through it for inspiration as she thought of what she should do next. She thought she needed some sense of direction before she left the room. No doubt her father would see her troubled and distracted from her grief and force a confession out of her. He was good at reading her and would only worry if she told him what had happened.

She made her way through the entire newspaper page by page without being inspired to take any particular action until she reached the classifieds at the very back. There, she saw a mail-order bride request from Turning River, Texas. Her eye was immediately drawn to somewhere so close to home, and her mind wandered to John Reed.

He was her first true love. Although he never knew it, she often still thought of him from time to time. The war had long been over now, and no doubt he had made it home to be with his brother George once again.

She knew someone would have informed her if he hadn’t made it back, knowing how close they once were in another life they called childhood.

She used to write to him often while he was away fighting. She wrote less and less frequently once her mother died and she became insular, and then Coley forbade her from doing so altogether. With that regular correspondence severed, they were allowed to drift apart until the distance between them grew considerably over the following years. At the end of it, they were strangers, alive only in each other’s memories of the distant past.

How odd it was that somewhere as obscure as Turning River had found its way to her across the country. It didn’t seem like it could be a coincidence; the odds would be incalculable. Perhaps it was fate or a lucky wish. It appeared to her just as she thought of home. Could this be her escape route? Would John still be there when she returned?

Turning River and Galveston was a small town. If John was there, it wouldn’t take her long to find him. He’d regularly be found in the Galveston saloon if she thought it too forward to turn up on the doorstep of Scowler’s Ranch looking for him after all this time.

She had no idea whether he’d be a stranger to her now, and she didn’t know what the war did to him. What if he was married? He was always there for her in childhood, and she felt in her heart she could still count on him now. The Reeds were like family to her at one time, when she previously had nothing to her name, and in her insufferable loneliness, she wanted nothing more than to meet with them once again.

“Father!” she called, and Wilson came running into the parlor.

“What happened? Why are you so excited? What did Harold say?” Wilson asked, taken aback by her sudden change in demeanor; more worried about her out-of-place smile now than her tears before, which appeared to him initially to be a form of mania or hysteria.

“Never mind him. There’s a mail-order bride advertisement here from Turning River, of all places,” she explained, spinning the newspaper around on the table and pointing to the advertisement.

“That’s very strange for the Saint Augustine Gazette to have an advertisement from Turning River. Is that really our Turning River, near Galveston?”

“The very same. I’m going to respond to it.”

“Oh, for goodness sake, Roberta. You’re a widow, and your first husband is barely cold in the ground. Do you want to marry another stranger? So quickly too? Look in Saint Augustine, at least. We should try to make things work here. There were reasons we wanted to leave Texas other than for you to marry Coley.”

Roberta had already stopped listening and started writing a letter to respond to the ad.

“I’ve promised nothing. Only that we’ll be there. I have a good feeling about this, I promise.”

“I don’t doubt your feelings. I doubt you’re making the right decision in your current state.”

“Coming here was the biggest mistake we made, Father. We were broken by Mother’s passing, and we didn’t think this through. Besides, I never really wanted to leave, and you know it.” She paused, aware of how deeply this would hurt her father. Before the man could speak, she continued. “This is a sign. I know it. It’s not a coincidence that this advertisement is in this newspaper. It’s destiny. You’ll see.” With the hope of an escape from Harold and a thread leading her back to the place she grew up, Roberta smiled. Then she read her letter back.

Dear Mr. Griffin,

I hope this letter finds you well. I noted your advertisement placed in the newspaper here in Saint Augustine, Florida, looking for a bride. I am familiar with Galveston. It is a very beautiful part of Texas. I used to know a man called John Reed there. I don’t suppose you know him? If you are still looking, I would very much like to learn more about you. I’ve included a return address. I look forward to hearing from you.

Roberta Monroe

* * *

Two weeks had transpired before Roberta received a reply from the mysterious Mr. Griffin, who placed the original advertisement. He said he believed John Reed was still living near Galveston, and Mr. Griffin would be happy to reconnect them. Roberta’s heart fluttered at the thought of seeing John again and was quick to show Wilson the letter she had received as proof of her progress before disposing of it.

She wondered what John would be like now. This Mr. Griffin seemed like a good man, and so they shared correspondence back and forth over the succeeding weeks. The conversation very quickly turned to logistics, which was a clear indicator of both parties’ desire to progress the arrangement.

Soon transport for her return had been arranged, and before she knew it, Roberta was packing her and Wilson’s bags and preparing to make the long return journey back to Galveston, far sooner than she had expected to make it even a week prior, if at all. They left swiftly at dawn, without a word to Harold, who was to wake to an empty house, to find Roberta had not only refused to become his wife but had, in fact, fled like a thief in the night.

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