Soft whimpers woke Zoe from a deep sleep and she fumbled with the blankets that were tangled about her. She had a restless night, partly because she’d slept alone yet again. Michael was never forthcoming about where he spent his nights. Sometimes, he would spend days out at a time. Other times, he would stay home for weeks. It was quite confusing, especially since he’d never told Zoe exactly what it was that he did outside of the home.
Zoe pulled a shawl around her shoulders as she made her way to her baby’s crib a few steps from the bed. She scooped up her wriggling baby and cradled him in her arms. He nuzzled against her chest, looking for something to eat. She smiled at his eagerness. He was the bright spot in her dark life. He was the thing that kept her going, even on the hard days when she thought that taking another step or being patient for another minute was impossible. Taking care of Jonah kept her from thinking too hard about the past. She missed the days when she was young and free. Those days were the ones she longed for.
Back when she’d lived with her parents in Chicago, she had led such a different life. She’d had friends, and she’d had things to do. She had even worked with a family, taking care of their children. She settled on the bed with Jonah by her side. After he found what he was looking for, he relaxed back into a deep sleep. She didn’t get up to put him in his crib. She enjoyed having him close. She stroked back his soft brown hair, almost a perfect match to her own.
Michael often complained that Jonah looked nothing like him. Zoe was secretly happy about that. She loved her son’s chocolate brown eyes and muted brown hair. It made the connection between them stronger. She pressed a soft kiss against his smooth forehead, breathing in the fresh baby smell. Her heart ached with love for this child. She would do anything to protect him—and she did, even from his own father.
The sound of the front door of the cabin opening had her sitting up quietly and moving Jonah as gently as she could. She wanted him cared for and out of the way when Michael was home. His father had no tolerance for his crying, or his fussing. Zoe tried to understand and keep the baby as content as possible, but it wasn’t always easy. She was lucky he’d fallen asleep so easily this morning. Somewhere in the distance, a rooster crowed.
Even though they lived in New York, some people still kept chickens and other animals near town. Because they had little money, they’d chosen a home on the outskirts of the city, which put them closer to said farms and animals. There were moments when Zoe thought it might be nice to have animals, but she knew taking care of them would be more added stress and difficulty.
She already struggled with keeping the house in order, Jonah cared for, and Michael happy. Whenever there was a lull in life, when Michael was gone for a week at a time, things seemed manageable, but then he would come back and it would get worse again. She reached the bed and sat down on the edge just as Michael stepped into the room.
Dark circles hung under his eyes, and his clothes were wrinkled. His boots were dusty and scuffed, making Zoe wonder where he’d been for the past several days.
“Hey, did I wake you?” he asked.
She let out a small breath that she had barely realized she was holding. He was in a good mood tonight, even a considerate one—that was what she always hoped for, but it rarely happened.
“No, I just finished caring for Jonah. Is everything all right?” Zoe knew it was a risk to ask even that. What she really wanted to ask was where he had been and what he’d been doing.
“Everything is fine. Why wouldn’t it be?” Michael pulled off his boots and laid down on his side of the bed, facing away from her. “I need to head out in a couple of hours.”
“Okay.” Zoe sat in the room for a long minute before she stood and started getting ready for the day. It was still dark, but there was plenty to do to keep her busy.
There was butter to churn, breakfast to make, a kitchen to clean and laundry to gather. She tucked her hair up into a tight bun at the back of her head. She’d stopped wearing braids the day she got married, after Michael had said that the hairstyle made her look juvenile. He didn’t like it. She missed wearing her hair down in braids sometimes, but it wasn’t worth the fighting that it brought on.
Even though Jonah was sleeping soundly, she scooped him up and took him with her into the parlor. She didn’t want to leave him behind and risk him waking Michael up. That would start their day out completely wrong. She tucked him between the folds of a blanket on the floor in the parlor. Since she was the only one up, he would be in no danger of being stepped on and he could finish sleeping while she prepared things for whenever Michel needed to leave. She didn’t know why he needed to go out so soon after coming home, but she would be lying if she said she wasn’t relieved.
She looked forward to the times when it was just her and Jonah. She frowned. She wondered how her father would feel if he knew what her life was like. She hadn’t told him how unhappy she was in her marriage. She had only been married for a short year and a half, but it felt as if it had been so much longer. The only way she could get through it was trying her best to manage one minute at a time, then one hour and one day. It wasn’t easy, but she didn’t feel as if she had any other choice. She wanted to hope that there was something better awaiting her in the future, but there was no sign of that.
“Will you make him stop crying?” Michael asked, agitated. He handed Jonah back to Zoe, a little rougher than she would have liked. She snuggled Jonah against her and he immediately settled down.
“He’s just tired.” She made the excuse often, though she knew the real reason Jonah cried when Michael held him was because it was such a rare occasion and he didn’t make the baby feel safe with his rough hands.
“You always say that. What do you do to him to make him dislike me so much? I have never done anything to him and yet he always screams whenever I hold him. That can’t be normal.”
“He…” Zoe hesitated. There weren’t a lot of ways she could answer the question without making Michael more upset than he already was. “He just needs time to grow up a little more, and then he will be more agreeable, I’m sure. Children go through these phases sometimes.”
“Hmph.” Michael didn’t seem convinced, but to her relief, he seemed distracted and uninterested in pursuing the topic any further. “I need to go. My brother’s in town, and I’m going to meet him.”
“Really? Do you want to bring him here for dinner? I can prepare something.” Zoe wondered about Michael’s family. Sometimes he mentioned them, but he’d never introduced her or brought them around the house. Zoe had wondered if his family was even real, or if they were just an excuse for him to leave more frequently.
“No, I don’t believe he’ll stay long in town, he just needs some help with some things. I’ll be back later.” Michael barely spared her a glance before rushing out the door, down the steps, and into the street.
She watched him leave through the window, until he’d disappeared around the corner. She had plenty to do around the place with Jonah. She wondered once again what it was that Michael did all day, and when he would be back this time. She sighed and went back to preparing some breakfast for herself.
Zoe had just settled down with a bowl of porridge when she heard a knock on the door. She stood and hurried to answer, relieved to see it was her friend, Anna.
“Come in, come in. I wasn’t expecting you today.”
Zoe hadn’t known Anna long. She was new in town, and to Zoe’s surprise, had reached out and befriended her. Zoe tried to tell her that she really didn’t have much time for friends, but Anna was insistent. She was the type of person who was friends with everyone. Because of that, it was rare that she came to visit.
“I didn’t figure I would come by today either, but I was passing and figured I would see how you and Jonah are doing. It’s been a while since I saw the two of you. How is the little one?” Anna peered past her.
Zoe stepped aside so she could pass. It was a nice change of pace to have someone visit. She remembered back when she had lived in Chicago and had many friends. She had enjoyed sitting with them, enjoying a cup of tea and having a conversation. Once she’d gotten married, Michael had made it clear what he thought of friends. He considered them a waste of time, and always thought she spent her time visiting talking badly about him.
To avoid problems, Zoe had stopped visiting people. She had worried that Michael might come home and find her with a friend and make a scene. Anyone who might have considered having a friendship with her rarely made the time to come see her.
Zoe motioned to a parlor seat. “Please, sit down. I’ll get Jonah. I put him back to sleep a little while ago in his bed, but he should be awake by now.”
She left Anna in the parlor and slipped into the bedroom. To her relief, Jonah was awake. He was shaking his little round fists at the roof, a content expression on his face.
Zoe scooped him up and took him back to the parlor.
“There he is. My, has he grown! I do love baby hugs. I have wished on more than one occasion that I had found a husband and been able to have a baby by now.”
Anna reached for Jonah and he went to her willingly. She wasn’t nearly as scary as Michael was, and Jonah seemed agreeable to having her hold him. Maybe he was just in a good mood. Anna was four years older than Zoe, and she hadn’t yet found a man to settle down with.
Zoe never said it out loud, but she envied that. Even though a woman living on her own was looked down on in this city, it still seemed like a more enjoyable life than her own. Her eyes fell to Jonah, who was giggling and playing with the necklace Anna was wearing. She hated that things had turned out the way they did, because she loved Jonah, and every moment they had together. She would never want to change having him in her life, no matter her difficulties.
“How old is he now? He’s probably trying to walk, isn’t he? It looks like he’s quite active.”
“He is, though he still enjoys his naps. He’ll be ten months old in two days. He’s growing so fast. I miss when he was a little baby, barely able to lift his head up.”
Anna tucked Jonah over to one side and let him keep playing with her necklace as she turned her attention back to Zoe. “How have things been for you? We miss you at church. Some of the other women were wondering where you were.”
“I… I have been very busy with Jonah, and with my husband. He doesn’t often have a lot of time so we stay home when we can.” Zoe knew it wasn’t a very strong excuse, but it was the only thing she could think of. Church was another thing she missed. It was quickly forbidden, a few months after she’d moved to New York.
“Well, I do wish you could find the time. Even the minister mentioned that it had been such a long time since we’ve seen you. More than a year, actually.” Anna frowned. “I think you would enjoy talking with the rest of the young women. A lot of them have babies Jonah’s age. I, of course, understand none of the struggles they discuss since I don’t have a baby of my own, but you would fit right in, and probably have a thing or two to teach them. You really are a wonderful mother.”
“Thank you.” Zoe found herself blushing. “I’ll see if I can make it next week.” If Michael wasn’t home on Sunday, she might be able to slip away and make it to a service. He would find out she went, eventually, when one of his friends or someone in town mentioned seeing her out and about. He would be upset about it, but maybe it would be worth it to get out of the house again.
Zoe wondered if the minister, or anyone else in the church, would know what to do about her situation. She’d considered talking to someone on multiple occasions, but always thought better of it at the last minute. If word ever got back to Michael that she’d spoken of their problems, she would be in much more trouble than she ever wanted to cause.
“Please do. It would be so much fun.” Zoe stood, keeping Jonah with her. “Can I help you with anything while I’m here? You look busy.”
“No, no. Actually, everything is very under control. Why don’t you come with me to the kitchen and stay for some tea and scones?”
“That sounds lovely.”
As Anna followed her into the kitchen, Zoe smiled. She had forgotten how much fun it was to have a guest come and to tend to them. She wondered if she could somehow manage to work in going to church and having some more friends in her life. Maybe, if she presented it in the right way, she could convince Michael that it wasn’t a terrible idea.
Zoe paced the room. It was late, much later than she wanted to be up. Jonah wasn’t feeling well and had been waking up every few minutes, so she was walking with him around the room.
Michael said he’d be home that night, but there was still no sign of him. She wasn’t sure why she was surprised. It was nothing new, after all. Jonah let out a piercing wail and she rocked him with a bit more intention, patting him gently on his back. She looked out the window. The moon was high in the sky, casting a soft light over everything.
If little Jonah weren’t so unhappy, it would be a lovely night. She’d felt his gums, and two new teeth were cutting in from the top of his mouth. She’d gone through this when his first two teeth came in. She had to imagine that having teeth cut through his gums was terribly uncomfortable.
A knock sounded at the door. For a moment, Zoe thought she might have heard wrong, but then it sounded again, even louder and more urgent this time. She couldn’t think of who it could possibly be. Michael would never knock, and no one else would be coming around at this time of night. She had no family in New York, and no friends who were close enough to her that they would visit at such a strange hour. Zoe grabbed her shawl from the bed and wrapped it around Jonah, who had finally settled against her shoulder.
She peeked through the window to find the sheriff standing on her doorstep with a grim look on his face. She opened the door, trepidation rushing through her. The sheriff couldn’t possibly have a good reason to be here. From the look on his face, it was something bad.
“Mrs. Landry?” The sheriff had his hat in his hands.
“Yes? What is it?” Zoe was still startled to have someone out on her porch at this time of night.
“I’m here about your husband, Michael Landry.”
“Yes?” Dread froze Zoe in place. She had no idea what Michael was involved in, but a small part of her had always wondered if it was something that might get him in trouble with the law one day.
“He’s passed away.”
“Oh… oh no.” Zoe’s free hand went to her mouth, and the other tightened around Jonah. She may have had no love for Michael. Their marriage hadn’t been something she’d chosen. However, she never would have wished death on him. He did bring home money to sustain her and their son. He had never raised his fist against her, though he had had yelled more than one occasion and treated her terribly. It was a strange feeling, the idea of never seeing him again.
“I’m sorry to have to come at this hour and deliver the news. I do need to ask you a few questions. Did you ever see any sort of strange behavior from your husband?”
“I’m not sure. What sort of strange behavior?” Zoe started thinking back to all of the things that didn’t quite add up for her about Michael.
“I mean, going out late, not coming home for a few days, bringing home large amounts of money… anything like that.”
“I suppose, he did all those things. I tried asking him about it on occasion, but he would get quite upset if I did. I figured it was better to leave it alone. We’ve never been rich. He usually would give me just enough to keep food on the table, and the rest he would spend on drinking, gambling, and the like. What’s going on? What happened to him?”
“There was an attempted bank robbery. Thankfully, someone from town reported it and we were able to stop it from happening. Your husband was killed in the scuffle.”
“What was he doing at the bank at this hour?” Zoe frowned, and then the truth washed over her. “He was one of the robbers.”
“Yes, he was, along with several others. It was the work of a gang. Despite our best efforts, the other three members got away. I just wanted to see if there was anything you knew that might be able to help us in our investigation. As long as these men go free, there may be more crimes. In the future, we might not be so lucky to walk away with no civilian casualties.”
Zoe shook her head. Tears pressed against the backs of her eyes. She didn’t quite understand her reaction; perhaps it was because of all the things that were about to change in her life. Or maybe it was the betrayal of finding out her husband was a criminal. She had imagined so many things that could be the reason for Michael’s constant odd behavior, but she had never really believed he would do something so terrible as rob from the people who lived in his own city.
“I’m sorry, I knew far less about my husband than I should have. I always stayed home with our son. He never told me anything. He would bring home money, said he made it doing odd jobs around the city. He would leave for days at a time, and today he said he was going to visit his brother. I’ve never met his family, and I don’t really know where they live, or even what their names are.”
As Zoe said the words, she realized just how much of a stranger her husband was to her. Would the sheriff find his family and inform them of his death? What if they were criminals, too? Did they even deserve to hear about Michael’s death and plan a funeral? If they were criminals, it wasn’t as if they would be able to attend the service.
“I’m so sorry, ma’am. I know this must be hard for you. While your husband was a criminal, it doesn’t seem that you knew about it.” The sheriff looked troubled for a moment. “One of my deputies passed away in this robbery, too. A lot of people are upset, especially his family. They’re blaming your husband and some people are saying that not only did you know, but you helped him.”
“That’s ridiculous. I would never do such a thing. I have a baby. Why would I help a man with robberies?”
The sheriff sighed. “I know it doesn’t make sense, but in situations like this, people look for someone to blame. The fact is, you’ve apparently never had much to do with your neighbors or anyone else, so that makes it easier for them to try and pin this on you. I’m sorry that it’s working out this way. You’ve suffered a loss as well, and I believe people are forgetting that. If you have any trouble with folks, be sure to let me know.” The sheriff put his hat back on his head and turned to go. “Good evening, Mrs. Landry. I do hope that things work out for you. If you find anything or remember anything that might connect Michael to his family or the rest of the gang, kindly bring it by the sheriff’s office.”
“Of course,” Zoe felt numb as the words came out of her mouth.
People were already blaming her and the night hadn’t even passed. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like the next day. She realized too late that the sheriff was gone and she couldn’t ask him what she was supposed to do about Michael’s burial. She wasn’t sure if he would be buried in the church yard, or somewhere else. Would she pay the undertaker’s fee?
She wiped tears from her cheeks and pulled Jonah closer to her, if that were possible, as he began to squirm. She was relieved that he wasn’t old enough to know what was going on. She wouldn’t have to explain to him why his father was never coming back. Michael had never been much of a father to him, anyway. Zoe sat down in the parlor and rested her face in her free hand. Jonah seemed to have settled from his fits and discomfort.
She took several long breaths. The only person in town she’d had any contact with over the past year or more was Anna, and even she didn’t know her well enough to defend her. Zoe wondered if Anna would believe her. The truth was, she doubted it. No one had any reason to stand by her or believe her or think the best of her. She had distanced herself from everyone in town, just like Michael wanted. Now, she was stuck in this situation all alone with no one to help her.
Her only living relative was her father, who was in Chicago. He had no idea what sort of man Michael was. He had been the third cousin of one of her father’s friends. He’d taken the recommendation for their union blindly, pressuring her to accept to have a better life. She had been naïve. She’d wanted to please her father ever since her mother died and he seemed to always expect the worst from her. She had thought that by marrying the man he wanted her to, she could impress him, make him happy, and finally live up to that perfect standard of his. Instead, she had ruined her life.
She’d thought she could withstand any union and fall in love with any man, and that they would eventually fall in love with her, too. She had realized a couple of weeks after their rushed wedding that she was terribly wrong. Her father was happy that she had accepted the deal he’d made for her to marry, and Zoe couldn’t bring herself to tell him about what a terrible husband, then father, Michael really was. She was afraid of losing that approval she had given up so much to get, even though it did nothing for her.
She wrapped Jonah tightly in her shawl and carried him to bed, where she curled up on her side and nestled him up against her. It was just the two of them left in the world now. There were so many nights she had spent alone, just her and Jonah, but this one felt different. The house seemed colder, more sinister. She felt afraid, and worry started to press into her skull. Women living on their own were not looked upon favorably by society, much less a woman with a child.
She had heard of baby farms, places that would take a woman’s baby and find a home for them. She shuddered at the thought. There were rumors that those sorts of places sold the babies, or in some cases, never found them homes. There were stories that babies died, and women who never found out where their child had gone. She couldn’t let Jonah go to a place like that. No, she was going to have to figure out what to do the next day. She could handle people hating her. Maybe she could still find a way to make some money to support herself and Jonah and scrape by. She wasn’t too terrible with a needle. She could sew, or maybe she could clean houses, or be a caretaker for a wealthy family’s children.
She tried to focus on the different possibilities. She would know more in the morning, when she could get more details and set things straight. She touched Jonah’s forehead with the palm of her hand. He was warmer than he should be. She was going to have to take him to the doctor if he wasn’t feeling better in the morning. She thought of the small amount of money she had saved in a ceramic jar in the kitchen. Every time Michael did remember to give her money to buy things for the house, she set aside a few coins for an emergency, or for one of those long stretches where he didn’t come home and she needed something.
There wasn’t much in that jar, but perhaps there was enough to keep them going for a couple of weeks while she figured something out. With that calming thought on her mind, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. God would show her the way, and what to do. Even if everyone else abandoned her, she could count on God being there for her. He was her only hope.
Zoe could feel the difference in how people treated her as soon as she stepped out of her house. She had avoided going outside for two whole days. To her relief, the undertaker had come to her home and said that he would take care of everything for a small fee. She had been able to cover it with half of what was in her money jar. She didn’t know where Michael would be buried, and she didn’t go to the funeral. She didn’t want anyone to see her and think she was supportive of what her husband had done.
The sheriff had also visited her a second time, asking if she’d remembered anything else. There had been no progress in locating Michael’s family, no progress in finding the other criminals. What the sheriff did say was that the gang Michael was a part of was responsible for other robberies and crimes in the area over the past few months. She was as shocked and disgusted with what Michael had done as anyone else, but she knew others would never believe that.
She hadn’t wanted to go to the general store, but she had no choice. She needed a few things for the house. She could feel the woman’s eyes on her as she gathered up the things she wanted to buy. She’d never been watched in the store before, but today, the woman behind the counter never took her eyes off her.
“Did you find everything you need?” the woman asked as Zoe came to the front. Her tone was icy and cold. It was clear Zoe was an outcast.
“Yes, thank you. If I could also get some eggs? A dozen, if you wouldn’t mind.” Zoe normally wouldn’t have bought so many especially just for herself and Jonah, but she wanted to avoid any future trips into town as long as possible. The woman said nothing as she wrote up how much the food was and charged Zoe. Zoe placed everything in her basket.
“You know, what you and your husband did, it won’t just be forgotten because he’s dead now.” The woman’s words took Zoe off guard. She’d been getting angry looks and whispers and murmurs all morning, but she hadn’t had anyone tell her outright how they felt about her with so much anger.
“I… I had no idea what my husband was doing. If I had, I never would have stood by and let him. I would have told the sheriff, or someone.”
As fearful as Zoe had been of Michael, she never could have condoned him stealing from their neighbors and the innocent people in town. She would have gotten help. She searched the woman’s face, looking for some sign that she might believe her, but there was none.
“Of course, you would say that now, but we all know that a woman can’t be oblivious to the signs.”
“Have a good day, and thank you for the food.” Zoe took a step back. It was clear that nothing she said was going to convince this woman that she wasn’t responsible for her husband’s actions.
She wished she could tell her everything about Michael. She wished she could talk about the mean words, the arguments, and the late nights where he wouldn’t come home. She’d always tried to keep things as calm and non-confrontational as she possibly could when Michael was home because she hadn’t wanted to argue. She hadn’t wanted to make things harder in front of Jonah.
She wanted her child to grow up in a safe, happy, and healthy home. Because Michael rarely contributed to that vision, she felt a lot of pressure to maintain those things herself. This woman couldn’t understand that, even if she tried to explain. Zoe would be blamed for not finding another solution, talking to Michael or the minister. She had guessed that things weren’t quite right with whatever Michael was doing to earn money, but she was too busy enjoying the moments when he wasn’t home to truly investigate or do anything about it, or even question it.
As she headed out of the general store, she almost collided with Anna. For a moment, she smiled, and then her expression fell. The vibrant Anna, who had been so happy to see her and little Jonah a short time ago, now looked at her as if she wasn’t sure whether to be angry or sympathetic.
“Good morning, Anna.” Zoe adjusted Jonah on her hip. She’d thought about simply walking by and ignoring the possible interaction between them but had reconsidered at the last minute. It would be better to know where she stood with the one woman in this town who had been friendly with her.
“Zoe, you look well. I’m sorry about… your husband.”
Anna didn’t look the least bit sorry about Michael. Zoe could tell she was being polite for properness’s sake, but nothing more.
“I didn’t know what he was involved in,” Zoe blurted out. She felt silly defending herself, but she also felt the need to. Anna was the one person in town who had continued to seek her out and be somewhat present in her life, even when she’d been cut off by everyone else.
“I have to go, but I’m sure we will see each other around?” Anna smiled tentatively at Jonah. “Have a good day, both of you.”
Zoe nodded, a lump in her throat. She watched as Anna went into the store and up to the front counter. Things were different now, so different than they had been. She wished she could go back a few weeks and do this differently. She had hope that Anna would at least give her the benefit of the doubt, or maybe even try, but she hadn’t. Instead, she had treated her just barely better than anyone else. Zoe fought tears as she headed back home. She’d intended to purchase a few more things in town, but not anymore. Right now, she just wanted to get home as soon as she possibly could.
The sooner she was away from everyone staring and talking and pointing, the better. She hugged Jonah close with one hand and her basket of items with the other, struggling to keep her head held high and her shoulders straight.
When she got home, she sat down in the parlor and took a few deep breaths. Perhaps things would die down and the people in town would give her another chance. Maybe they would let her prove that she had nothing to do with the criminal activities her husband had taken part in.
“A Traveler to Set Her Free” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
After being forced to marry a shady and secretive man for his wealth, Zoe Garner has led a miserable life. To her dismay, when he unexpectedly dies, she discovers his job was a fraud and she becomes the town’s outcast. Feeling as if she has no other option, she responds to a rancher’s mail-order bride ad who agrees their marriage will only be out of convenience, and she travels with her son to Colorado…
Will Zoe be able to learn to trust again and accept that everything she ever dreamed of might still be possible?
Joseph York was hurt deeply when his future wife left him for another man. As per his dying father’s wish though, he finds a mail-order bride, Zoe, believing that marrying a stranger will protect his aching heart. However, when the train bringing her home has an accident and leaves her stranded in a small town three days away from his town, he has to go and retrieve her. While traveling back together he realizes that keeping his heart out of the equation is much harder than he thought it would be.
Will Joseph allow his heart to run free and come to terms with Zoe’s past?
When someone that Zoe never thought she would meet again, shows up in town intending to destroy the new life she is building, will she and Joseph find a way to stop them? How will this union prove stronger than anyone around determined to keep them apart?
“A Traveler to Set Her Free” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.