"So what's it gonna be, girls?"
Sarah felt the sheriff's eyes on her and trembled where she stood over the body of her father. She glanced up and met the stares of her sisters and knew that they were out of options. She only prayed that God wouldn't be so cruel as to deliver them from one hell into another.
Sarah took a deep breath and slowly nodded at the man who stood before them holding their lives in his hands.
"I'll do it. You can put my name in the lottery." Sarah's voice faltered for the barest of moments before she straightened her shoulders and firmed her reply. "I'll marry. How soon will it take place?" How long would she spend in the jail cell in town? How long would her sisters remain on the farm alone?
"You'll only spend tonight in the jail, Sarah." Sheriff Duckett looked sad when he nodded towards the waiting horse but they all knew that he would do his job. "I wish I could spare you that, but it's lucky that I already have another woman to be lotteried off as a bride tomorrow. We'll have you draw a name from the men who sign up for the wife lottery."
She knew he saw the shudder that went through her but could do nothing to prevent it. She would only be granted one more night before she was once again under the thumb of a man. And this time, this man would expect an entire other set of obligations from her. Wasn't it just her luck that the old bastard she'd called Dad would finally die and still get the best of her? Who would have guessed that he would have been so drunk that he would trip and fall impaling his chest deep onto the ax he had left in the middle of the yard? And what were the chances that the sheriff would ride up to speak with him just as she was trying to pull it out? Somewhere the old man was cackling and enjoying what was happening to her now. She could only pray that it was really hot where he was and growing hotter by the moment.
"Come along, Sarah," Sheriff Duckett took her arm and guided her towards the horse he'd ridden in on. "We'd best get going if we're to make it back to town before nightfall." He glanced back to her sisters and shook his head sadly. "You girls go on in and lock yourselves up good and tight in the house. Don't open the door to just anyone either. I'll send word to your uncle as soon as I get to town, and I suspect he'll send someone out right away. In the meantime, I'll send Riley James out to keep an eye on you all. You'll be safe with him until someone shows up, probably tomorrow at the earliest.
Riley James was some relation to the sheriff though no one knew just what. Both men were tall and rugged looking, drawing the attention of even the most matronly women in town. They were quiet spoken, slow to rile, but when pushed, they could more than hold their own in a fight. No man had ever pulled a gun on one of them and walked away unscathed. Sheriff Duckett and Deputy James might not always shoot to kill, but if the situation called for it, they had no problems.
Sarah was a little infatuated with Riley if the truth be told. He was her secret fantasy of what the perfect husband should look and act like. Tall and broad shouldered, he wore his guns well, and the way that man sat a horse should be a sin. He rode like he was a part of the big white animal he called Brutus. But what she loved the most about him was the fact that often he could be found reading.
It was uncanny that such a rugged man could seem so content to read a book. And it wasn't those penny novels they carried at the mercantile either. He read real books, like the ones she had hidden. The ones her mother had carried all the way to the west with her and taught all of her daughters to read from. Wonderful books that contained beautiful poetry and stories of exotic places that existed far outside this small town.
Sarah was snapped from her random thoughts when she felt the sheriff's hands at her waist as he lifted her into the saddle before climbing up in front of her.
"You girls remember what I said. Riley'll be out shortly so don't worry. You'll be safe until your kinfolk get here." With that and a tilt of his cowboy hat, he headed down the dusty trail towards town.
Sarah glanced back at her sisters and knew she was doing the only thing she could to protect them. Thank heavens it had been her that attempted to pull out the ax when the sheriff showed up. Her sisters were too young to share the fate she now had. Their uncle was a good decent man, and they would be safe with him. The youngest brother of her father, he'd always lived in fear of his older brother. He just hadn't had the strength or courage to face her father. With a small wave and a brave smile, she turned back and looked straight ahead. That was where her future was. And God only knew what it would hold for her.