Summary: How well would you cope when everything and everyone you have known are suddenly gone? Three women are about to find out when they accidentally step from one world into another.
Disclaimers: The characters and story are mine. Any similarity to persons or horses living or dead is merely a coincidence.
Warning: This story depicts loving relationships between women, is this is offensive to you (you might want to change sites), or it is illegal where you live (you might want to move), or you are under age and your mom's going to freak that you are reading this (can't help you there), perhaps you should find another story. There is a small amount of violence and the issue of rape is dealt with, nothing gratuitous, but if these issues bother you, you might want to find something else.
All comments are welcome and you may send them to email@example.com .
January 4, 2010
The gritty taste of dirt, the pungent smell of leather, the feel of straining muscles, these are the daily joys of Del Conner's life and not a thing about it would she change. Well, maybe one thing.
Colorado in 1886 was a hard place to make a life on your own. For a woman it was considered impossible. The one thing Del Conner believed in was the impossible. After all here she was a woman in her twenties alone running a horse ranch; the best horse ranch in the state. Men would come from all over just to buy one of her horses. She had developed a reputation for being the best horseman around, and people respected her for it. Of course what else should people expect from the daughter of Red Conner, the finest horseman to ever step west.
People would say Red Conner could talk a horse into a bridle and that he taught his only child the ways of the beasts. It is quite possible, for no father ever was so close to his child as Red was to his daughter. After the death of Del 's mother when she was just a baby, Red carried the little girl around with him everywhere. She learned to ride before she could walk and her first word was ‘horse'. Del loved the horses and her father. Every day she could be seen at his side in a pair of britches and boots working the horses and watching every move Red made.
A few old busy bodies in town tried to make a fuss about Red raising his daughter like a hellion son, but he would send them running. All of them praying for the soul of this poor child. Red Conner was going to raise his child any way he damned well pleased and no one was going to tell him other wise. Del quite agreed. She could ride any horse, broke or otherwise, shoot straight, and blacken the eye of any boy in town. As far as Del was concerned the sun rose and set in Red, and that was just fine with him. But he was not so stubborn to know that Del needed other influences in her life. Not having a mother was a hard thing on a girl and Red knew it. So when the Hayes family moved to the area and took a liking to Del he didn't object. In fact the two families became great friends. And Mrs. Hayes was just the mothering influence Del had needed for so long.
There were two children in the Hayes household, Annie who was a year older than Del and Marshall who was three years older than Annie. Del was eight when Annie and her family settled and a faster friendship had never been born. Annie was very smart and beautiful with long dark hair that offset her deep blue eyes and creamy skin. She could cook, sew, read and keep everything in a house in order. Del could ride, rope and shoot, her house was never in any real order, though she and Red knew where everything was. She was small and wiry with wild auburn hair to match her mischievous green/grey eyes. Mrs. Hayes took it upon herself to teach Del to read her letters and numbers beyond the basics of her limited education. Red didn't seem to mind because Mrs. Hayes never said anything about the horrible state Del was in as a result of his raising her. She always praised how the two managed so well on their own, and what a wonderful special little girl Del was, how Red must be so proud of her. Mrs. Hayes was a pretty smart lady too.
As the years passed Annie and Del grew closer than two peas in a pod. And despite Del 's smaller size she became Annie's protector, she would chase off bullies and admirers alike. And Annie looked after Del in her own way, giving Del the first true friend she had ever had.
When Del was nineteen Red's heart finally gave out on him. It was after a big round up. Red, Del and Cody, their hired hand, had rounded up about twelve new wild horses. There was one stallion that caught both Red and Del 's eye, a young black stallion with a white crescent under his left eye. He had the spirit of the wind in him and Red said he could tell just by looking in his eyes, that this was one smart horse. Red had seen the look in Del 's eye when she first saw the creature and knew that it would be hers, but he wanted to know, to feel the spirit of this wild being before it conceded to the will of man. So the day after returning home from the round up Red and Del went out to claim their prize. Both were excited as a kid on Christmas morning and looking forward to riding this magnificent animal.
Before entering the corral Red told Del that this would be her horse, that it was special because this horse wouldn't just carry the person, he would join their soul in flight. Red patiently coaxed the horse into the bridle, which took most of the morning. Gently he eased himself onto the horses bareback. The mighty flanks twitched and the stallion jumped a few steps sideways then looked back at the man and shook his head wildly. Red let go of the reins and fell to the ground. The horse simply stopped a few yards away and looked at the man on the ground. Del ran to his side and cradled his head. For the first time in her life she cried, and pleaded with him not to die. Red looked into his daughter's eyes for the last time and said, "you two take care of each other now", then closed his eyes forever. The stallion stood a few yards away and watched the whole thing, never moving.
Mr. and Mrs. Hayes had seen to the funeral arrangements. Marshall had helped Del lay Red out in his best boots and clean clothes. And Annie stayed by Del 's side at all times. Everyone thought it strange that Del never cried, not once during the service and burial. The Hayes' brought Del home with them afterwards and Mrs. Hayes tried to get Del to eat something or lie down for a while. But Del just stared out the window in the direction of the ranch. That night after everyone had fallen asleep Del crept out of the bed she was sharing with Annie and walked home. She had only one thing on her mind and there in the light of the moon he stood. A more beautiful sight Del had never seen, she went to the barn to get Red's saddle.
Annie woke when she didn't feel Del by her side; she searched the house and farm, but could not find her anywhere. With a panic she woke her mother. Mrs. Hayes knew that Del had probably gone home and started dressing to go get her, but Annie insisted on going alone. She had never been so worried in her life, and she wanted to be the one to make sure Del was okay.
Del had little difficulty bridling and saddling the stallion, almost as if he wanted her to. As she eased onto the saddle off of the fence it felt as though an electric current ran through her. She tightened her grip on the rains and dug her heels in for the longest and hardest ride of her life. The horse looked back and gave her a nod of his head then snorted, he began bucking and rearing. He threw his head back and forth racing from one side of the enclosure to the other. The moon was full and Del could see a shinny glean of sweat on the stallion's black body. He had strength and a strong will and he held out longer than any other horse she had encountered up to this point, but Del held on. This was his test of her, for he would not give himself over to just anyone. Her muscles pulled and ached, her back felt like it would snap with the next jolt or surely the one after that, but she held on. And something amazing happened, she felt the spirit of her father pass through her. He wrapped his strength around her and she could hear his words again, "this horse is special because it wouldn't just carry a persons, it would join their soul in flight". She pulled the reins in tight spinning the stead about on his rear haunches and with a wild cry propelled him forward. He responded and answered her command, with four powerful strides they were sailing over the fence and racing for the open spaces under the night sky.
Annie arrived at the ranch just as Del was easing into the saddle, she opened the door to the house as she heard the horse rear. She raced down to the corral where Red had died and saw Del on the stallion in the moonlight struggling to see which was more powerful. Annie froze some twenty feet away from the ring; she held her breath as she watched Del being whipped this way and that. She had seen Del braking horses before, but there was something about the look on the girls face that scared her. They struggled for such a long time that Annie felt sure she would lose Del too. Then in one graceful move Annie watched the horse turn its head back and look at Del , the small rider smiled. She pulled the horse up on its back haunches, turning it in one move and sent it forward over the fence. The strange echo of Del 's call to the horse still rang in her ears as she watched the two disappear into the night. She waited at the corral for over an hour, but Del didn't return. Finally she went into the house and fell asleep in one of the big chairs Red had made for him and his daughter.
The sun was just starting a purple glow on the horizon as Del rode onto the ranch. She unsaddled the horse to let him loose in the corral. As she approached the house only then did she see Annie's horse and buggy. She unhitched the horse and let it lose in a side pen. Inside she was warmed at the sight of Annie curled up asleep in her chair. All of a sudden a knot as tight as a fist was stuck in her throat. This simple scene had moved her beyond words. She quietly lay down Red's saddle and bridle and walked over to Annie. Gently stroking the rich dark hair Del decided not to wake her. Ever so gently she picked up her friend and carried her into her bedroom. Annie stirred and mumbled something that Del could not understand, but caused a smile to break over her all the same. She placed her in the tiny bed and sat on the edge of it pulling off her boots and dirty clothes. As she started to pull on her nightshirt she became aware of her dirty smelly state. Quietly she padded over to a bucket of water in the kitchen and quickly cleaned herself up. Had Annie not been there she would not have thought twice about it, but Del always paid extra attention to things when Annie was around. Smelling less like a horse, she squeezed in the bed and wrapped herself around Annie. Soon they were both in a deep sleep.
Annie was the first to wake later that morning. She felt Del 's strong arms around her, which made her feel safe and loved. For a long time now Del had always been her strong confident protector. Del would beat up anyone who teased her, make sure she had the safest horse, the softest seat, the best apple. Whatever the instance Del was always there for her making sure Annie was taken care of and had anything she needed. Now it was finally Annie's turn to take care of Del , and she wanted to so much. She looked down at Del 's face, it looked tired and strained and sad even in sleep. She wrapped her arms around her best friend and decided to move to the ranch that day. Del was going to need someone to look after her now and Annie was going to be the one to do it.
By the time Del woke up Annie had made breakfast and was in the process of tiding up the house. Del looked around, not quite awake, and thought she would never be able to find anything again by the time Annie was finished. They sat at the table and Annie forced Del to eat a few bites. Then Del dressed and went out to look in on her new horse. Annie watched her go, admiring the strong walk and straight shoulders of her small friend, she followed behind at a slower pace.
The stallion was full of spirit running to and fro. Annie watched as Del climbed the fence and walked right up to the horse. He quit rearing and pacing, it seemed he just stood there and stared at Del and she just stared right back.
From the fence Annie asked, "How can you just walk up to a wild horse like that?"
Del looked into the horses eyes and smiled. "It's okay, he knows me, he's not here to hurt me." Guiding him by the mane she led the horse to over to the fence, "Annie, this is Anam, and we belong to each other.”
"Anam? " Annie looked pleasantly puzzled.
Del climbed the railings and slid onto the horses back. "It's Irish, it means soul or spirit. That's what he is. He's the spirit that carries my soul." She reached down and touched Annie's face, smiled, then rode Anam to the barn.
Annie moved in for the next two months. The two were closer than ever. Del was having a hard time adjusting to Red's death, but she never let on to anyone. Only Annie knew how much pain she was in, when in the middle of the night Del would cry in her sleep for Red. Annie would hold her and soothe her until she stopped, and they would both sleep wrapped in each other's arms.
The two months were the best and worst time of Del 's life. She missed Red desperately. And she loved Annie completely. She had always loved Annie; she would do anything in the world for her. Del had dreamed and hoped to live with Annie and be hers forever. But she knew this would never be. Not because Annie didn't love her, she knew Annie's feelings were as strong as her own. No, they would never be together because Annie's dream was for a family. And that was the one thing Del could never give her. Del knew she would never live her dream, but she would always treasure those two months when she had Annie all to herself. And if she couldn't have her dream come true, she would see to it that Annie got hers.
The loss of her father and the realization that she could never be with Annie the way she wanted seemed to toughen Del up. It gave her strength and determination. She was on her own now. And she would do the one thing she could. Become the best horseman in the West. So that's what she did. She worked day and night, sometimes forgetting to eat or sleep, but she always saved Sundays for Annie. No matter what she was in the middle of or how exhausted she was, Sundays were reserved.
Annie would often ride out to the ranch during the week and watch Del work. She would cook a meal only to see it sit there. Del was so focused on her work, sometimes Annie wondered if Del knew she were there, but always at those moments Del would look her way and smile or wink and go on with what she was doing. How Annie loved this woman and how fortunate she was to have such a friend. It gave her great distress to know she had to tell Del that she had met a man whom she was beginning to care about. She didn't want to hurt Del or upset her, but this was the path in life she had chosen and she must go through with it. She decided to take Del out for a picnic on Sunday and explain it to her gently.
Sunday came and they rode out to a little stream for their picnic. After a wonderful day enjoying each other's company Annie finally told Del of the man she had met. Del was shattered into a million pieces on the inside, but to Annie she was understanding and supportive. She wanted to meet this man, this James Stokes. At first Annie was nervous, but she agreed to bring him out to the ranch that week.
The meeting was very cordial. Del was breaking a horse when they arrived. James' first impression of his beloved's dearest friend was very impressive. Instead of scoffing at her manner like many did, he admired the grace and strength with which she handled a horse. Del showed him around the ranch while Annie made them a lunch. They talked at great lengths about many things including what his intentions were for the future. He wanted to be a farmer. And he loved Annie and wanted to take care of her and have a large family with her. Of course he did, Annie was easy to fall in love with, she could not hate him for wanting the same thing she did. In fact she rather liked him. James had a kind face and his eyes shone with love every time he looked at Annie. He was a good man, gentle and sincere. Yes, this would be the man she would give her beloved Annie to. This would be the man who would live her dream.
Two months after Annie and James were married; James announced that they would be moving north. He had bid on some land in the pine-scattered mountains of the Montana Territory and there is where he foresaw their future. Annie was terrified of leaving, of never seeing her family or Del again. But she knew she would go wherever James wanted her to. Annie tried to break the news gently, but Del 's reaction was to grab her rifle and go after James. The fear in Annie's eyes and the soft hand on her arm was all Dell needed to persuade her to put the gun down. Del was angry and hurt and scared, but when she looked into Annie's frightened blue eyes she knew she would have to be brave and help Annie through this. Because once Annie made up her mind about something, there was no changing it. Dell felt she was reeling from all that was happening, but then came the biggest surprise of all. The night before they were to leave Annie stayed with Del , old friends together one last time. James thought it only fair. That night as they lay in each other's arms Annie told Del she believed she was pregnant.
Del began to weep softly, gently, quietly so Annie would not know how much this upset her. She had loved Annie so much for so long and wanted to take care of her and know her in the intimate way James had, but she would always have to settle for this time, holding Annie in her arms, breathing in her scent. She would never do anything Annie did not wish, and Annie did not wish for her in that way.
Del decided to travel with them and see to it Annie had a proper place to live. James welcomed the extra help and the two horses Del would leave behind when she left.
The journey was difficult and Del looked after Annie's every need and comfort. By the journeys end James had begun to realize just how close these two friends were. Seeing the sadness in his wife's eyes every time she thought of Del leaving, he took Del aside. He spoke at great length about the importance of Annie's happiness and welcomed Del anytime she was willing to make the trip. Somehow Del found great comfort in the gesture.
Del didn't rush getting home, she had to be sure Annie was going to be taken care of. Everything else would have to wait until she was sure Annie would be okay. She had helped James build a small log cabin about the size of her tack room. She agreed to it only after James promised to build Annie a large house to accommodate the large family she wanted. The journey home was miserable. Not the terrain, but the pain in the center of Del 's chest. She had left her beloved Annie in a small shack, pregnant, and friendless. Within a month of returning home she went back. She said it was to see Annie through the delivery, and it was, but mainly it was so she would not die from the pain of being away from her.
James was grateful. He was busy clearing the land, getting it ready for their first crop to be planted. Del worked like a mule. She would not have Annie raising a child in the tiny room. So in the morning she worked in the house chopping the wood, cleaning, and doing the laundry. She wouldn't let Annie lift a finger. As soon as she had finished around the house she would go out and work on the one thing she could give her hearts desire, a house. Annie was so happy to have Del there, she even pretended not to do much around the house so Del wouldn't worry about her. It was amusing how Del and James both fussed over her, you would think she was the first person to ever have a baby. All in all this was the happiest time of her life.
Del picked a location for the house that she knew Annie liked. She began clearing and cutting and building. She put so much energy into it the work seemed to fly by. After dinner Del would bring in firewood for the night, fill the water barrel and start marking off land for a barn and corral. These were the hardest months Del had ever remembered working. Her muscles ached and she had no problem falling to sleep when her head finally hit the floor.
On her own for the most part, the actual building of the house was a slow process. But the days seemed to speed by. By Annie's eighth month Del would work all day and half the night trying to complete an impossible task. James would help when he could and when Del needed an extra pair of hands and strong back. Annie would always be near by, sewing baby clothes and curtains, mending the clothes of her two strong hard working loved ones. She would make a picnic of lunch and the three would sit in the shadow of their future home laughing and talking. Sometimes in the late afternoon Del would fall asleep, her head on Annie's stomach, feeling the baby move.
Del was as happy as she could ever be. The day Annie went into labor she was there by her side. James nearly fainted so Del sent him outside and she delivered Annie's baby. A boy, a healthy boy named Robert. She cleaned the room, the baby and Annie then handed the new mother her son to go call in the proud new Daddy. But Annie stopped her with a gentle hand on her arm, whispering so low that Del had to lean close to her in order to hear. As she leaned down Annie gently took Del 's face in her hand and kissed her. A kiss that had been between them for years was finally born on that day also.
Del looked into Annie's eyes unable to breath and Annie whispered, "Thank you my love." Then she released Del to call James in.
James came in to claim his family as Del stood back and watched. Tears welling up in her eyes, unable to watch anymore she ran to the half built house and began working in order to fight back the storm of emotion that was raging inside her.
For the next month Del worked day and night on the house, sleeping only a couple of hours out of each night. There was nothing Annie could say or do to make Del slow down or rest and in her heart she knew this was what Del had to do in order to survive. Finally the house was ready for Annie to move into. It was a large beautiful log house. Consisting of a large living room area with a fireplace, a bedroom for Annie and James, and a kitchen with a wood burning stove that James had special ordered. She built a special room off the back for Annie to sit and look at the mountains while sewing or reading or playing with the baby. The upstairs was one large open room the size of the whole house, large enough for however many children Annie wanted.
Del and James walked Annie and Robert through their new home. Watching the joy and pride in Annie's eyes, James took Del by the shoulder and before his wife and son welcomed Del into the family.
"This is your home as well Del. You're a part of our family and welcomed here anytime for as long as you want. I know how much you mean to Annie and I want you to know you mean a great deal to me as well. And not just because you can build a better house than I can."
They all laughed and with this Del felt safer somehow. She could leave Annie in James' hands and know that she would be safe until Del could return.
Del stayed only another week to move Annie, James, and Robert into their new home. She and Annie hung curtains and she helped James build a cradle. She and Robert would sit and sing and laugh and sleep. It was a happy time, but Del was exhausted and had to return to her ranch. The thought of her horses possibly being neglected was almost more than she could bear. So with a strong chin and a wet glean in her eyes Del reluctantly said good-bye to her family.
After Del 's departure Annie cried the entire day. The littlest thing would set her off, then James told her that if she was sad or missing Del to just look around and she would know how much Del loved her and wanted her to be happy. And that was what she did. She set about raising her new baby and making a good life for her family.
Del became so depressed traveling home, if it hadn't been for an early snowstorm that had her penned in the mountains, she wouldn't have remembered the trip at all. The storm had caught her by surprise, her thoughts far behind her.
The Rocky Mountains are hard enough to cross, and when a freak blizzard hits, their impossible. Del was so wrapped up in her own misery about leaving Annie that she did not notice the snow and cold until it had become impossible for Anam to go on. At this point she realized she had to find shelter and quick. She found a deep overhang of rocks just large enough for her and Anam to fit in together. Del tried everything to get a fire going, but the storm was too fierce. For three days and nights Del and her horse succumbed to the deadly weather. She became too numb to eat, which did not matter; the bread and dried meat Annie had made for her had frozen. Anam would move around, try and run, but the snow and winds were too much, he would always return to Del , nudging her to move and run away with him.
As the sun rose on the forth day, the snow was still coming down at a rapid rate. The wind would have lapses of strength. Del was frozen; she could not feel her feet, hands, and face, most of her body for that matter. She was week and breathing was becoming impossible. Just as she was about to give up, Del heard Annie demanding her as she had done just before Del left, "Promise you will return to me."
Reaching out for her phantom, Del again promised, "Always." And with that promise she found the strength to crawl over to Anam. She would find a way to get herself out of here so that one day she could return to the greatest love she had ever known.
Lucy Heard was one of eight children, born into a family of dirt farmers. At twelve she was the oldest girl, forced to tend to her younger brothers and sisters. Her Pa had taken her out of school at ten to help on the farm and look after the younger ones. The work was hard and tiresome, but what else was there for her to do. This was her plight; one day her Pa would hire her out as a housekeeper or cook to bring in money for the family, her future was bleak and she accepted this.
Sometimes in order to have a few minutes to herself, Lucy would walk into the countryside letting the wind whip her dark hair around her and daydream of a better life. Winter was approaching and the cold bite in the air seemed to push her further and further into the country. She was resting atop a hill when she thought she saw a horse coming her way in the distance. Slowly she rose and began making her way down the hill. It was hard to tell at this distance, but there seemed to be something on the horse, a sack of some kind. Slowly walking toward the horse she began to gently coax him to her. She was afraid he might bolt so she tried to make her movements as slow and small as possible. The horse stopped and studied her very carefully, then it seemed to her that when the horse saw she meant no harm, he walked right up to her. As Anam got within reach she noticed a foot dangling from under a blanket. There was a person under there! Lucy pulled back the blanket and saw a body slumped over the horses' neck and tied to the saddle horn. Afraid the person was dead, she moved to the other side to see his face. As she pulled back a dirty mess of hair to reveal the face before her she gasped to see it was a woman. It was the horse lady that her Pa had gotten his plow mare from. She was ice cold to the touch, but as Lucy leaned closer she could make out the rasp of a ragged breath. She was alive, barely. Lucy tried to talk to her, to wake her, but she got no response. Her mind raced with what to do. She wasn't sure exactly where the lady's ranch was, but she knew the general direction. She could take her back to the farm, but there was something inside her that wouldn't let that happen.
Quickly she climbed on the horses back behind the lady and urged him on. Anam was so tired and concerned for his mistress that he allowed the small girl this one ride. Before long she realized the horse knew exactly where he was going. Home. She held tightly onto the lady and loosely onto the reins. It seemed to take forever to get to the ranch with the wind cutting through her thin shawl; finally the main house came into view. At the sight of the old buildings Anam broke into a gallop eager to get his mistress home.
A young man with dirty blond hair stuck his head out of the barn at the sound of approaching hoof beats. Seeing Anam riding in with a stranger on his back, Cody came running down to meet them. "Anam! What's happened? Who are you? What's happened to Del ?” he screamed in a panic.
"I don't know, I found the horse in a valley, she was tied onto the saddle. What did you say her name was?" Lucy explained as she untied Del and helped Cody get her down.
Cody picked Del up and rushed her inside, he was taking her to her bed when Lucy stopped him, "No, put her in front of a fire, we have to get her warmed up, she's almost frozen."
Cody did as he was told and ran for more blankets as Lucy got a fire going in the big fireplace in the living room.
"I knew something was wrong. She's been gone way to long this time. Is she going to be all right Miss?"
"Are you her husband?” Lucy asked almost angered that he had let her wander off and get in such a state.
Cody looked at Lucy, fear and worry all over his face, "Me Miss? No, I'm just Cody , Del 's hired hand. Del don't have no family. Except maybe Anam."
"Her horse. He's the one brought you here."
Lucy wondered what had happened to this lady to leave her in this condition. She looked at Cody and saw how much he cared for his boss and at what a loss he seemed to be as what to do for her. "Cody, we are going to help her okay? She's really bad off, but we are going to do everything we can for her." He nodded his head and looked at her with pleading eyes. "My name's Lucy."
At only twelve Lucy could take charge in a crisis. She was use to taking care of sick babies and wounded bodies. And although she did not know this woman, something about her strong helpless face made her want to fight the devil to keep her alive. She ordered Cody to get all the blankets and pillows in the house. Then sent him off to tend to Anam. It was getting late and she would be in a lot of trouble at home, but she was not leaving. She would have to send Cody to her farm and let her folks know what was happening. They were poor people and sometimes hard, but they would not turn away someone in need of their help.
Lucy kept the fire blazing and made some broth to force down Del 's throat. Del was burning up with fever; she would shake with the chill in her bones and sweat until the blankets were wet. Lucy never left her side for more than a few minutes to make tea or get fresh water. Cody would bring in loads of wood and run about following her every order. Lucy's mother came by with a poultice and some medicines she had made up. After seeing Del 's condition, she feared the worse and told her daughter as much. This only made Lucy even more determined to see Del live. As hopeless as the situation looked her mother did not make Lucy leave. She could stay until the end, whatever that may be.
The days turned into a week and although the worst of Del 's fever had broken, she still was unconscious and her breathing sounded like a plow being drug over a rock field. Still Lucy never gave up hope. Caring for the sick is an exhausting business, but somehow Lucy found taking care of Del to be less trouble than caring for a large family. During the times that Del rested with some notion of ease, Lucy would look around the house of this total stranger. This is how she first got to know Del. She would look at the books and pictures that were scattered about, Lucy couldn't read very well, but she loved the smell of the books that were all around the house. There were old bridles and saddles and other tack in corners and on the wall. The furniture was old and soft, well lived in. There was not too much evidence of a feminine hand around the place. Except for the odd piece scattered about, there were curtains in the bedroom and a beautiful intricate quilt on the bed, a wreath over the fireplace, and a painting of wildflowers on the wall. On a table beside the bed was a picture of Del standing beside a beautiful woman who was seated at her side, her hand resting on the woman's shoulder. You had to sit very still to have a picture taken, but Lucy could see the twinkle in both women's eyes. Everything in the house spoke of who Del might be and what kind of person inhabited the space. The ranch was an odd place for a woman to live out here all alone, but Lucy liked it, it was comfortable to her.
Cody came in for lunch and dinner and would tell Lucy about Del and life on the ranch. It was all so exciting to her. She learned about Del 's father Red and what a great horseman he was. So, what else could Del be? Cody told her how he had come to the ranch when he was about Lucy's age, seven years ago. He had no family, no home, and no hope for a future, but he had met Annie and she took him to Del 's ranch. "You need him and he needs you.” she had told Del , and that's all there was to it. He had a home; Red and Del taught him everything there was to know about horses. They built a room for him off the tack barn and made him feel at home. Lucky for him that Annie had been the one to find him hiding in a loft. Because Del would do anything Annie said, no matter how much she protested, and Red would do anything Del said, with just as much protest. He had grown real fond of all three of them, Del was like a sister to him and he would risk life and limb for any one of them.
Lucy discovered that Del was returning from a visit to her friend Annie's, who had moved with her husband to the Montana Territory . She had spent most of the last year up there and while she was gone Cody took care of the ranch. How incredible it was to her, the thought of having a friend who would travel so far, to see you. She was getting to know this person of great strength and compassion and love, without even talking to her.
The first two weeks were uncertain, but then Del began asking for Annie and Anam, and wanting to know who the girl with puddle brown eyes and dark hair to match. She would have a long road to recovery, but things were definitely looking better. Over the next two weeks as Del got stronger, she got to know and respect this kid who had saved her life. She kept Lucy away from her family for a total of five and a half weeks. Her family had been very generous and understanding about letting her stay so long that Del felt she owed them all a great service, and to Lucy who had saved her from pneumonia and frostbite she owed her life.
Del sent Lucy home with two strong workhorses and tack for her father, and made an arrangement with Lucy's mother to teach her to read and add properly at a time that would not interfere with her work. Through the simple kindness of strangers, Del had found another family of friends.
Time passed and Lucy and Del became great friends. Del taught Lucy to read and write properly and do simple math, she taught her to be an excellent rider and how to care for a horse. Through this Lucy learned to be strong and believe in herself, she found a different kind of strength and pride in herself she did not know she possessed. In turn Lucy brought a youthful spirit to the ranch; she got along with everyone and everything. And her frequent visits made Del a little less lonely.
One year after Robert was born Annie had a daughter. Del was there to deliver her into the world and her parents arms. Margaret Ann Stokes, Annie's first daughter seemed to charm everyone. Annie was so excited to have a daughter to dress up and one day be able to cook and sew with. Del would just roll her eyes at the thought of it. She did not believe that a girls place was in the house, and Annie truly believed that also, but knew it was a much easier life than the one Del had chosen.
Annie loved to surprise Del with unexpected knowledge of her goings on back in Colorado . Del was convinced that Annie had special powers when it came to her. Perhaps it was the separation, distance and love that were between them. She was constantly dumbfounded and sometimes embarrassed by what Annie knew. Not that she would ever keep any secrets form Annie; she just did not want to worry her unnecessarily. Annie on the other hand got a real kick out of surprising and mystifying Del.
Lucy and Del had talked about Annie and James and the baby a lot during her illness. And Lucy could not understand why she did not write and tell them about what had happened to her. She knew letters arrived frequently from Annie, but Del did not have the strength to reply, then when she did, she simply blamed an over abundance of work on the ranch for her tardy reply. Del would sometimes read Lucy part of Annie's letters. Through this process Lucy learned just how much these two cared for each other. The tone in Del 's voice when she read them aloud, how she would edit the truly personal bits, reading silently and always starting again with a lump in her throat.
One day while at the ranch waiting for Del , Lucy found Annie's address on a letter that was to be posted. Her reading and writing were coming along very well, so she copied it and hid it in a pocket. Lucy wanted to write to Annie and tell her how much she enjoyed hearing about her and her family in Del 's letters and ask if it would it be all right if she wrote to her also. She knew no one else and now that she was getting better at reading and writing she wanted to do it all the time. She felt a special fondness for Annie through Del and wanted to know this person herself. So they began writing to each other and at Annie's suggestion they did not tell Del. They both enjoyed Del 's surprise too much to tell her Annie's source of mystical knowledge.
Lucy would tell Annie all the exciting things she found about life on a ranch as oppose to her life on the farm. She told Annie how ill Del had gotten on her trip back from the Montana Territory and how they had met. About how much Del cared for her by not wanting her to worry when she was so far away, even when she had almost died. Annie would tell Lucy about the mountains and how their farm was different yet just as hard as her own. She appreciated knowing how Del was getting along and could always get Lucy to tell her more information than Lucy realized she was giving. She understood Del 's reserve about not wanting her to worry, but she wanted to know everything about Del , for better or worse.
Annie liked Lucy and was glad she and Del had become friends. Lucy was good for Del and her youth kept Del young as well. Even though Lucy sometimes seemed far more advanced than her years.
Annie became pregnant with her third child only seven months after Margaret was born. Del knew this was what Annie wanted, but a part of her was wrenched away every time James got Annie pregnant.
It was in her fifth month that Annie lost the baby. She was inconsolable; James tried everything he could think of. He had sent a wire to Del the day after it happened and she had wired back she was on her way. There was a part of him that wanted to be able to fix this without Del 's help, but James was an understanding man, he knew that the love these two women had for each other was greater than anything he could ever control.
Del traveled day and night, only stopping long enough for Anam to catch his breath. She arrived to find Annie in bed, Margaret curled up beside her and young Robert in the rocker next to the bed, just watching his mother. Del got Robert to go outside and play with his old dog. She put Margaret to bed in her crib and told James to leave them alone for a while.
Annie just stared off into space from under her quilt. When Del tried to touch her she did not even respond. Crawling into the bed she pulled Annie into her arms to stroke her long dark silken tresses and gently place light kisses on her temple and cheek. She held her love tight and spoke softly to Annie, coaxing her into the present. It took some time, but the tall woman began to hear Del and feel her. Then came the tears and rage that she had not been able to express before. It was as if she had waited until Del could be there to make things all right. That night Del held on to Annie as if her life depended on it. She let Annie cry and scream and hit and kick until she was exhausted. She soothed her and calmed her with words only she could speak. For twenty-eight hours Del never let go, she never slept when Annie did, knowing she was only resting up to go at it again in a short while. Both exhausted and drained, they cried in each others arms then fell asleep holding on to the only security each other knew.
James looked after the children and listened from behind the closed door. He cried, knowing that Del was the only one who could comfort Annie. He loved his wife with all his heart and knew that she loved him, but he could never take Del 's place in Annie's heart. And when he was truly honest with himself, he knew Annie could never love him as much as she loved Del. Still she had chosen to be with him and raise a family. When they first met and he told Annie how much he cared about her, she told him that she cared for him also, but that her heart belonged to someone else. At first he did not understand, then he met Del. He had wanted to hate her with all his heart, but he soon saw how Annie could love this incredible person. She told him she wanted a family and would marry him and love him, but she would always love someone else also. She never said it was Del she was in love with, but James could see it whenever they were together. He knew that Annie was giving up being with the person she loved to be his wife, and she really did love him also, so he welcomed Del into their family, for Annie, and also because the more he got to know Del, the more he cared about her. After all she was willing to sacrifice her happiness for Annie's. This was something he could respect.
Del stayed for a few weeks, never leaving Annie's side. At first she even slept with her while James slept with Robert. As Annie came around things returned to normal again. By the time Del left Annie was cooing over Margaret and James was smiling. She promised Robert on her next visit that she would have a big surprise for him. Which sent him into peels of excitement and endless choruses of "what kind of surprise, what is it?”
Annie warned Del about bringing a horse for Robert, to which Del only grinned and rode off.
It would be just over a year before Annie would get pregnant again. And in that time she and James worked hard at the farm. Del worked twice as hard to make her horses be known as the best anywhere in the west. Lucy studied everything Del would give her and got a job housekeeping for Mr. Clark who owned the mercantile. Life seemed to move along at its quirky steady pace.
Del did return with a horse for Robert. Annie fussed and made a lot of noise about a horse for such a young child, but Del assured her he would be just fine and took it upon herself to teach Robert about horses. Del herself had been younger than the boy when she was first put on a horse, but alas two and a half was a little young for Robert to ride or care for the animal. Annie only smiled at Del 's attempts, but never said 'I told you so'. Del rode Robert all over the farm until he had no fear of horses and was trying to climb on by himself. Annie relished every moment watching her two rough and tumbles riding around the farm and would laugh every time at Roberts peels of excited laughter as they would jump a small log or ditch.
Seeing how hard James struggled with the farm, Del suggested he try a few sheep. She knew of a few ranchers who had started raising sheep for the wool and were making good money. Together they looked into what it would take to bring in a dozen sheep. Del helped James put up fencing around the crops so the sheep could graze the land. The first order of sheep were delivered and James seemed to take to them right away, he was a natural with the animals.
For the first time Del 's visit was not filled with overwhelming events. No births, no deaths, no houses to build, just time to spend with Annie and her family. The two women would talk for hours, have picnics by the stream and take long walks up to the ridge, Annie's favorite place on the land. There they would sit under a huge chestnut tree wrapped in each other's arms, content to just be together. James had buried their unborn child up here and that somehow comforted Annie. Del would hold Annie close to her as Annie napped, and although she was a full head and shoulder shorter than her sleeping beauty they fit together perfectly. She could not sleep because of all the emotions that coursed through her with Annie in her arms; instead she would breath in the woman's scent and be filled with peace, love and something so powerful it felt as if her chest would explode.
It was on the ridge one beautiful afternoon, the two had been walking and talking, holding hands, knowing that their time together was almost up. They went to their tree and lounged, cradled in its trunk. Their talk grew soft; Annie was holding Del who leaned back into her lap. She became very quite, brushing the hair from Del 's eyes, stroking her temples. Del lay there content, enjoying this special moment, and then a wet drop landed on her cheek. She opened her eyes to see another tear rolling down Annie's face. Reaching up she wiped the tear away.
"Why are you sad?"
Annie looked into loving hazel eyes, "I miss you so much when you are not here. There is this emptiness inside me and it hurts.”
Del sat up and took Annie into her arms, "I know how you feel, it's the same for me. I think of you every day."
Annie looked into Del 's eyes, love and sadness, she knew Del felt the same and had to know the answer to one more question. She searched Del 's eyes and face, brushing back the golden red wisps, then leaned over and kissed her on the mouth. In that instant everything in Del melted and exploded at the same time. She had never been kissed like this before. She followed Annie's lead and kissed her back. They finally separated, desperately in need of air, foreheads touching and hands on faces because neither one could break their contact completely. Both wanted more, but knew that was not possible. Del would not force Annie and Annie knew that if they were to go any further she would never be able to let go of Del.
Annie took Del 's face in her hands, "I love you Del , more than anyone in this world."
Del reached a finger up to Annie's lips to stop her, "I know, I have loved you from the moment I saw you, there will never be anyone else for me but you. You have a family; they love you and need you. I will always be here. Although we live so far apart, I will never leave you.” Del kissed her again and held her tight. She knew how things had to be for Annie, so she made it as easy on her as possible. She knew the depth and strength of their love and if all she ever had was one kiss, it would last her forever. This was the woman she loved and she would do anything for her.
Del left two days later. When she hugged Annie good-bye she feared she could not let go, but then Annie kissed her lightly on the lips and she found the strength to release her. James watched his wife and friend and knew just how lucky he was.
A few months after returning home Del received word from Annie that she was expecting another baby. While she was happy for her, Del was hurt. Why did things have to be the way they were, why couldn't she be able to give Annie children, then they could live together and raise a family and be truly happy at last.
Lucy would stop by almost every day. She treasured this time she spent with Del and Cody on the ranch. All day she cooked and cleaned and did the mending for Mr. Clark, then she would go home and help with the chores around the farm. At Del 's ranch her time was her own. She could read and write and study books that Del would bring her from the trips she had taken. Sometimes she would go out riding with Del , fast and hard the wind racing through her hair. Del never expected anything of her anymore, now that she could read and write and do her sums as well as Del could. The older woman knew how important it was for Lucy to have this time to herself. They became very close friends, talking for long periods of time, telling each other the things they could share with no one else. On days when Del was working so hard that she barely knew Lucy was there, Lucy would fix dinner for her and Cody and leave it on the stove. She never minded doing this small thing for Del , she was her best friend and knew she could rely on her for anything and wanted Del to know that she could be counted on the same.
One evening Lucy rode over to Del 's; she was upset, but didn't seem to want to talk about it. She took over fixing dinner and tiding up all at the same time. Del pulled out a bridle that needed mending and sat at the table to work on it. She began talking to Lucy about nothing in particular and getting the girl to relax, soon Lucy was telling her all about how she hated working at Mr. Clark's and how mean he could get, especially when he had been drinking. She didn't mean to complain, but sometimes it was just too much for her to bear. They talked about all the things that had been going on since she had started working for him. Things were difficult, but Lucy only needed an outlet for her frustration, she was a tough kid and knew how to handle a dog like Clark . All the same, Del would be keeping a closer watch on her.
Del went back to Annie's to deliver her third child, a boy named Benjamin. She had arrived a month before the birth and stayed for a month after. She and Annie were closer than ever and little Benny seemed to forge an even tighter bond between them. Del knew that she could not keep on spending so much time away from Annie. They talked briefly about what it would take to move Del 's ranch up to the Montana Territory . It was a dream that Annie desired greatly. And Del began to give the matter a great deal of thought. She talked with James about the idea of her moving up there and wanted to know how he felt about it. She figured that James knew just how she and Annie felt for each other and out of respect and love for him she wanted to know his thoughts on the matter. James had known one day the subject would come up and he was prepared. Del was not threatening his family, she did not want to take anyone away, and in a sense she completed his family. For when she was around Annie was always happy, she walked as if on air. Their love of one another was something greater than he could comprehend. The children adored Del and she was always helping out on the farm and coming up with ways to improve things. He would welcome her.
By the time Del was to leave, she and Annie were almost drunk with the idea of her moving to the Territory. It would not happen right away, but Del was going home to start work on their plan. In the mean time Annie and James would search the area for a good piece of land for Del 's new ranch.
Del returned home, but did not tell anyone about her plans. She quietly began to take inventory of the ranch, horses, house, everything. She went over her accounts and started estimating the cost of such a move. This time she wasn't just tossing a few things on the back of Anam; she would be moving the entire ranch.
All these years since Annie had moved away and Del had been going up to visit her, no one knew about it. She had never told anyone where she was going and since she always managed to come back with a few horses in tow, everyone assumed they were business trips just like the others she would make to find new horses or deliver special ones. Only Cody and Lucy knew about Annie. They were the only people who knew where and when Del would go to Annie's. Their devotion to Del and Annie would never allow the secret to be told. Del knew her move would be hardest on Lucy. She was Del 's closest friend; no one from town ever bothered her much. They all thought it strange her running the ranch with no man. There were a few people she would miss, but none as much as Lucy. Then there was Cody. She would have to wait until everything was settled before telling Cody she was going north. She would like for him to come with her and would ask him to, but she didn't want Cody to have this information too far in advance. He was a good person, but she was afraid word would get out that she was leaving and she didn't want to deal with the questions or hassles.
Annie wrote Del about the land prospects she and James were finding and that Del could pick out a place on her next visit. These letters kept Del warm inside all winter long. She could not wait for spring and the chance to go pick out her land. Slowly she was realizing that she would be with Annie all the time. They could be together anytime they wanted, anytime of the year. It was almost too fantastic to believe. She was giddy with excitement. Even the bitter cold of winter did not dampen her spirits.
It seemed Del was always smiling and in a good mood, while Lucy began to withdraw. She didn't smile as much or want to talk, she seemed sad a lot of the time. It didn't take Del long to notice and when she did she tried to draw out of the girl the reason for her unhappiness. She had her suspicions. Things were getting worse at Clark 's. He had started drinking more and more. Which made him foul tempered. He would bark orders at Lucy and leer at her in a disgusting manner. She was beginning to feel afraid to be in the house alone with him. He made her nervous and the way he looked at her made her want to run home and take a bath.
Del suggested Lucy leave her position and find a new job. She wanted to tell her that she could come with her when she moved, but she wasn't ready to let anyone in on her plans yet. Lucy could not leave her job; her family depended on the money she made. She would simply have to be strong.
Spring could not come fast enough for Del. Her excitement was almost uncontainable. Every letter from Annie sent her soaring with anticipation. She would wait until spring was upon them to tell Cody and Lucy of her decision. Then make her move in the summer. It would take less than two months to move the entire stock and ranch to the Montana Territory .
Annie was happy all the time and James seemed to get caught up in her enthusiasm, if this is what the effect of having Del around was going to be, then he was all for it. Annie and Del 's letters were twice as long all winter and spring. They expressed their love for each other boldly and profoundly, as they never had before. So that by spring neither had any doubt this was the right thing to do.
Spring was beginning to warm the air and Del spoke to Cody about selling the ranch and moving to Montana . Just as she knew he would, Cody promised to follow Del wherever she wanted to go. In their own way they were family. She felt very blessed, every one in town talked about how sad it was that she was all alone, but she only laughed. If they only knew how large her family really was. An odd one, but one she loved very much and who loved her.
The winter had been long and hard for Lucy. She put her faith in the coming of spring, perhaps with the new growth and ever warming fresh air Mr. Clark would somehow become a nicer person. She prayed and did her work hurriedly, trying not to be in his presents any longer than she had to. But, as the earth woke up from her long winters nap and began to come alive again, so did something seem to be growing in the house where Lucy worked to support her family. The air was thick with it and every time she looked into Mr. Clark's eyes she could see it lurking there, waiting. Until the day came that gave life to the thing that Lucy had feared for so long.
It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, and a light breeze carried the fragrance of nature awakening. Lucy went to work as the sun came up, as she did every day. She fixed Mr. Clark's breakfast then hurried out to chop wood so she would not have to be in the house with him. He left for the mercantile and Lucy went about her duties. She tidied the house, restocked the wood box, did the dishes, the laundry and began lunch. Mr. Clark came home earlier than expected, he had been drinking and his breath left a foul odor in the air. He sat in the kitchen watching Lucy, leering at her. Lucy tried to ignore him and pay attention only to her cooking, but every time she had to pass him she could see his eyes on her. She was getting scared, trying to think of a way to get out of there, when Clark got up and came up behind her. He was much larger than her and had her pinned against the counter. Lucy began to shake as he began smelling her hair. Before she had time to think he had his hands all over her. She tried to wrestle away, but couldn't, her ribs were being painfully dug into the counter. He grabbed her up and threw her on the kitchen table, backhanding her across the face and tearing away enough of her dress to expose her breasts. Fighting as best she could Lucy hit and kicked to no avail. He was groping her breasts, his foul mouth on hers, the stench of his breath making her eyes water. She tried to scream but he put a hand around her throat and squeezed. At first panic and terror had gripped her, but when she heard him undo his pants and felt his hands under her skirt ripping away her bloomers, instinct took over. Looking around her on the table Lucy could see the glass of whiskey that Mr. Clark had been drinking; quickly grabbing it she smashed it against the side of his head. Howling in pain Clark stumbled back just enough for Lucy to flip over the side of the table. She made it to the counter before she felt his hand painfully grabbing her shoulder. Snatching up the cast iron skillet she spun around with all her force, striking Clark in the head. As if time had stopped he seemed to pause before falling to the floor. Lucy raised the skillet above her head ready for him to come at her again, but he just laid there, blood trickling down the side of his face, a huge purple spot spreading across his left temple. There were no sounds except for her own quick tear choked breaths. She stood there for what seemed an eternity; slowly she put down the skillet and just stared at the man on the floor. She kicked him a couple of times, but he didn't move. Very carefully she reached down and put a hand in front of his mouth and nose. He wasn't breathing. He was dead. She had just killed one of the most important men in town, the richest man in town, the owner of the mercantile, a businessman and friend to most people in this town. Lucy began to shake. She knew they would hang her without caring why she did it. She was a poor girl off a farm whom Mr. Clark had taken pity on and given a job to. He had only tried to help her take care of her family and she repays his kindness by killing him. Nothing else would matter to these people. She was as sure as hung.
Without thinking about what she should do, Lucy pulled her clothes about her and left. She walked calmly out the back of the house and around to the edge of town, as soon as she was out of sight of watching eyes from town she took off like the wind for Del 's ranch.
Del had been working with some horses in the lower corral all morning getting them ready to deliver to a man in the south of Colorado . They would be her last delivery before the move. Cody was at the livery on the far side of the barn shoeing a gray mare. Del brought the four horses she had been working with down to the barn and put them in their stalls. She would leave them there while she brushed, groomed and cared for each one, then let them loose in the corral again. She did this each day until they were comfortable with being handled in such a manner. Inside the barn, busy with the horses, Del did not see Lucy run into the house. She had just put the palomino in its stall when Lucy came running into the barn. Del looked up from the stall gate to Lucy in the door of the barn, her dress torn, tears streaking down her dusty face, bruises red and purple on her cheek, shoulders, arms and unseen on her legs and back, blood ran down her face from a cut over her eye. Her hair was wild and knotted, blood trickled from her nose and mouth, she stood there shaking, looking pleadingly into Del 's eyes.
"Lucy!” Del croaked as she ran and grabbed Lucy in her arms before the girl collasped to the ground.
Lucy looked at Del and began crying, "I killed him, I didn't mean to, I only wanted him to stop, but he's dead....I killed him.."
" Clark ", Del growled.
"What am I going to do Del , I killed him, I killed him..."
Del held Lucy tightly. She knew what the town would do if they found Lucy. She was glad that Clark was dead; she only wished that she had been the one to do it, not the girl. Lucy didn't have to tell her what happened, she knew and it made her sick to her stomach. Clark was a disgusting man and Del hated him for making Lucy's life so miserable, now this. He got what he deserved as far as she was concerned. Unfortunately he was a powerful man who controlled a lot of what went on in town and who had a lot of friends. Unless Del did something they would hang Lucy.
Del got Lucy to her feet and took her in the house. "Did anyone see you leave?"
"I don't think so, I was very careful."
Good, they had a little time before half the town was out looking for her. Del gave Lucy some clothes and told her to get cleaned up. Lucy was scared and could not stop the tears, her hands were shaking so bad she could not take off her dress. Del helped her out of her clothes and could see the bruises and blood on her back, hips and legs. She felt sick again. Quickly she got Lucy some water and soap. She held her face gently and cleaned away the tears and blood. "I'm going to take care of you now Lucy, no one will ever hurt you again, I promise." She kissed Lucy on the forehead and then left her to finish up.
Del ran out to find Cody and asked him to quickly get Anam saddled and the gray mare. She told him to use Red's saddle on the mare and to ready them for a long trip. Leaving Cody confused, but dutifully going about his job, she ran back into the house and began packing saddle bags; clothes, food, blankets. In her own bag she put the picture of she and Annie that had been made before Annie got married and moved away. She didn't know why she wanted to have it on this trip, she had never taken it before, but she felt safer and stronger with it in her bag.
Cody came in to let her know the horses were ready. He was worried and wanted to know what was going on and where Del going in such an all fire hurry and who was riding Red's saddle.
Del took him out on the porch and told him that Lucy was in trouble. She told him that Clark had forced himself on her and she somehow killed him. Cody got red faced mad, he cared a lot about Lucy and would not give two cents for the likes of Clark . Del would take Lucy somewhere safe. She didn't say she was going to Annie's, but Cody knew that was where she would go. When the law came looking for her or Lucy, he was to say he hadn't seen Lucy and Del had left yesterday to deliver some horses out in Kansas . Then she told him to look after the ranch for as long as she was gone and if he needed any help to hire Lucy's younger brother Willy, he loved horses and was a hard worker. Del wanted to try and take care of Cody in case something went wrong, and he seemed to understand what she was saying to him.
Together they got the horses loaded. Del went in to get Lucy and her guns. She strapped on her pistol and put one on Lucy. Grabbing her rifle she took Lucy's hand. Cody couldn't help but smile when he saw Lucy. She had on Red's old hat, one of his shirts, a vest and a pair of Del 's pants, and Red's old duster barely concealing a gun belt.
He brought the mare to her, "I almost didn't recognize you Luc. Those clothes look good on you."
Lucy looked at Cody who had been her first friend here and tried to smile, but a tear crept out instead. Cody walked over and took her hand out of Del 's. He walked her over to her horse.
Looking down into her sad frightened eyes he said," Your going to be just fine Lucy , Del 's going to take care of you. You did the right thing Lucy, I'm proud of you.", he gave her a big hug then helped her on her horse.
"Good-bye Cody", Lucy said looking so sad.
"This isn't good-bye, I'll see you again sooner than you think."
Del had already mounted and stored her rifle. She told Cody to clean up inside, burn Lucy's dress then carry on like he had never seen them.
The two rode off taking a route that would keep them far clear of town. This way would add almost two weeks to their trip, but they wouldn't run into anyone, not out there.
It was dark before Del and Lucy eased up on the horses. Del wanted to put as much distance as she could between Lucy and Clark 's dead body. There were two possibilities of how the body would be found. One, someone would miss him at the store that afternoon and go looking for him, or, when he didn't show up in the morning they would go looking for him. Del was hoping for the latter. Clark frequently took the afternoon off, so he might not be missed, but if he didn't show up in the morning, it wouldn't be long. They decided to keep moving through the night at a slower pace to give the horses a rest. Around 4 am they stopped to sleep for a few hours.
Del woke as the sun was just beginning to tint the sky a warm orange and purple. She made a small fire and fixed some coffee. Lucy woke up with a jump when Del touched her arm. She looked pale and frightened. Del gave her a piece of bread and a cup of coffee, reassuring her that everything would be okay. While Lucy ate she tried to stretch out some of her stiff muscles but could only whimper at the pain it caused. Del packed the blankets and saddled the horses. It was going to be a long day and although Del was confident with Lucy, she had her doubts about how far behind a posse might be.
Back at the ranch, Cody had put everything in order just like Del told him to. He was out in the barn the next day fixing some tack when the sheriff and his deputy rode out about mid-morning. They were looking for Lucy and had already been to her farm, this was the only other place she would be and everyone knew it. The sheriff checked the house and found nothing. Cody explained that Del had an order to fill in Kansas and left two, three days ago. He hadn't seen Lucy since before Del left. Cody said he couldn't believe a little girl like Lucy could kill a big man like Clark , but he would keep an eye out for her. The Sheriff wanted to talk to Del , but Cody convinced him that she would not be back for a long time, couple of weeks at least. The Sheriff knew Del was serious about her horses; his own horse had been one of hers. He didn't really think she was mixed up in this. The Heard girl must be on the run on her own, and he would find her. As they rode away Cody went back into the barn, a big smile on his face.
The day was a long and hard one, traveling through thick forests, over the foothills and into the mountains. It was long after dark when Del decided to stop for the night. She felt sure they had a good lead on anyone following them. Lucy was so sore and tired that Del had to help her off her horse. She seemed awfully quiet to Del and that worried her. Lucy had always been curious about Del 's travels and could not wait until she could go on a trip of her own, they had been traveling for almost two days and Lucy had said hardly a word. They made camp and Lucy fixed them a tasteless dinner. Del knew this was all very hard on her and she worried about the girl, mind body and soul.
"Lucy, you've been quiet all day, are you okay?”
The girl sat on the ground eating without noticing her food, "I'm all right, I've just been thinking about what happened, what's going to happen."
"You did what you had to do."
"I know. My life was miserable except when I was on the ranch with you and Cody. Mr. Clark had been doing things more and more. He would touch me when ever I would pass him, and say things to me. He was not a nice man. I asked him to stop. But he never did. I know."
Del took Lucy's plate away and held her until she fell asleep. Soon they were both sleeping curled up together. Lucy had a restless night filled with nightmares and Del would calm and soothe her until she slept soundly again. They got an early start in the morning, clearing their campsite as much as possible so no one could tell they had been there. Del 's route would bring them out of the mountains in another day and they would skirt the foothills for day or so then head straight for Annie's.
The next day, late in the afternoon the women broke through the forest. From the ridge they could see down in the small valley and across to the mountains that lay behind. They were rocky with lots of canyons. Del knew that if they took the wrong canyon it could cost them more time than they were prepared to lose. She could see down the length of the entire valley. A stream ran through it, down one side then cut across and ran the length of the other side. Close to where the stream divided the valley was a small farm. It was the only house as far as Del could see. Lucy was exhausted and hurting from being in the saddle for so long so Del decided to get a closer look at the house, if it was deserted or the people seemed friendly, they would rest there out of the cold night air, maybe get a real meal and she could find out which canyon cut through.
Lucy was not sure about riding in on people out here in the middle of nowhere. Del saw her point and decided they should get closer and watch the place for a while. They rode down into the valley taking shelter in the tree line. They watched the house and valley for a few hours. Someone lived there all right. It was a small house with a barn and corral with three horses in it. Beside the barn was a chicken coup with four chickens and a rooster running around the yard. There was a green pasture further down the stream where three cows grazed and across the stream were rows and rows of a newly planted crop. So far the only human life they had seen was a woman. She worked hard tending to the animals and doing the normal farm chores, there was a wash hanging on the far side of the house that had both pants and dresses hanging to dry. Del found it very strange that the woman made a trip around the pasture and corral with a wheel barrow collecting manure then taking it to a large pile at the far end of the pasture. There was no sign of anyone else around so just before dusk Del felt it safe to go down to the house where the woman had gone in to presumably start dinner.
As they approached the house the woman came out and Del could just see she had a gun concealed at her side. The sun was only a half hour before completely disappearing over the mountains and shadows played heavily across the valley. Realizing she and Lucy must look like a couple of young men riding in, she slowed their pace and told Lucy to be real still. As soon as they were in ear shot Del called out a cheery 'Hello there!'. The pistol was still pointed at them from a fold in the woman's skirt so they stopped a good thirty feet from the woman who watched them with distrusting eyes. Del took in what she could see of the woman who had yet to speak, she was tall and lean with golden hair pulled back in a braid and she looked like she knew how to use a gun.
Visibly relaxing a little in order to ease the woman's concerns, Del spoke softly yet earnestly to her while trying to keep one eye on the end of the pistol pointed right at her, "Ma'am, my friend and I have been traveling a long ways, my friend here could use a rest and some food, we don't have much, but I could pay you a small bit if we could use your barn for the night and maybe get a meal."
The woman looked long and hard at Del then tried to size up Lucy. She couldn't see Lucy's face real well, but the girl looked ready to fall out of the saddle. After looking them both over and despite the pistols they both wore, they looked dogged tired and she felt sure she could handle any trouble they wanted to start. "Put your horses in the barn, there's the stream over there you can clean up in, I don't like dirt tracked in my house. You come on up and I'll fix you something to eat."
Del saw the pistol lower and disappear by her side. She smiled "Thank you ma'am, we much appreciate it." And she led Lucy over to the barn.
The woman went back inside the house and started making dinner for three, all the while watching them through the windows. She noticed how badly the quiet one walked, she must be hurt or just not use to a saddle.
Del took the horses in the barn and got them unsaddled and gave them some hay then grabbed a bucket and a clean shirt. Lucy who was exhausted and hurting over every inch of her body got a clean shirt also and headed for the stream behind Del. She had not been very talkative and her body hurt so much she feared tears would come any moment, but Del had taken a big risk for her so she would be strong. She respected Del more than anyone else on earth and if Del had this much faith in her than so could she. She was sorry she had killed a man, but did not regret it. He had raped her and hurt her, just because he was larger and stronger and thought he could. No, she would try not to wallow in self-pity any longer. She was a person who was strong, capable, and worth something. From now on she would take action and responsibility for those actions that would determine her life. What was done was done. There was no going back. She was no longer a scared little girl, sheltered on her father's farm. She was a woman who could take care of herself, no matter what.
At the stream Del was washing up, she had taken her shirt off and was washing her hair. It felt good to get the dirt, sweat and grime off her body. Lucy did the same then pulled a comb from her pocket and went over to brush out Del 's long hair.
Del was wringing out her hair as Lucy came up behind her, "Here, let me." Lucy said as she sat behind Del on the rocks next to the stream. She gently took hold of the dark golden red hair and squeezed the water out of it then began combing the tangles out. " Del , I want you to know how much I appreciate what you are doing for me and I know you are risking your own life by trying to save me."
Del interrupted, "That's what friends are for."
"You don't have to do this, it's not to late." Lucy said still combing.
Del turned and took Lucy's hand in hers, "Yes I do, you are family Lucy and I love you. We can't always control what happens to us in this life, you had no control over what happened, all you did was try to save yourself. Unfortunately there are a lot of self righteous people in that town that don't see it that way. Don't be afraid Luc, I'm not going to let anything happen to you."
"I'm not afraid anymore Del , I just don't want you to get hurt because of me."
Del looked deep into Lucy's soft brown eyes and smiled, "Nobody's going to hurt me, or you. We're each others family now and we take care of one another." Lucy smiled and nodded her agreement then began combing Del 's hair again.
When they were both cleaned and in fresh shirts Del took the bucket of water to the horses in the barn. There they took off their pants and tried to beat as much dirt out of them as possible, Lucy took some straw and made sure there was no clumps of mud on their boots. They did not want to make the generous woman angry by bringing dirt into her house.
Inside the woman was busy making dinner, but she kept her eye on the strangers the whole time. She watched as they cleaned and then combed each other's hair, they talked and smiled with each other in a loving sisterly way. No longer did they appear to be rough or threatening. When the quiet one had taken off her shirt the woman could see bruises on her back and arms, they looked fresh painful. She took a deep breath thinking how the girl must have gotten them. She knew what is was like to have bruises similar to those. A man, a no good man who thought it was his right to beat on her as much as he felt like it. She didn't know who these women were, but she was beginning to feel a kinship with them. Still, as always her guard remained up.
Del knocked on the door and the woman called them in. She and Lucy stepped inside to find a cozy little house. The furnishings were sparse, but it appeared the woman had done her best to make it as comfortable as her means would allow. It was sort of one big room with a fireplace on one wall with two handmade chairs in front of it. Beyond that was a large table with two chairs at either end, a wood burning stove and a short counter to prepare the food on. There were shelves on the wall that held dishes and staple supplies. The other side of the house was where the bed and a work table were. It was a large bed, made for two people and in the corner was a man's coat on a peg along with a pair of boots. Del noticed the rifle over the fireplace and a small table beside one of the chairs had sewing on it. Other than that not much else could be seen.
The woman looked at the floor behind them then told them to sit at the table. She was busy cooking what looked like some kind of stew. Lucy's stomach gave a loud growl at the wonderful aroma and moved to take her seat. The woman laughed at the earnest sound and turned to look at the girl. She stopped suddenly when she saw Lucy's face for the first time. It was bruised and swollen, there was a bad cut above one eye and her lip was split in two places, her nose looked as if it had been broken. "My God child, what happened to you?" she said as she came over to take a better look.
Lucy bent her head quickly and looked over at Del. Neither one had thought about someone's reaction to the terrible shape Lucy was in and fear started to edge into Lucy's confidence again.
The woman came to Lucy's side and knelt beside her, "It's okay dear, I won't hurt you, you're safe here. Let me just see, I can help." Lucy lifted her head and the woman smiled at her, " Those are some bad cuts. I've got something that will make them feel better." She went over to a shelf and took down a small jar then came back and gently dabbed some of the homemade salve on Lucy's cuts. Lucy winced at the touch of anything on her face, but she did not cry.
When the woman had finished she looked at Del , "Someone do this to her?"
"He coming after her?"
Lucy spoke up for the first time, " I'm sure, he's dead."
The woman looked at both of them, she seemed to be weighting something in her mind, "But somebody's after her."
Del put a hand on Lucy's shoulder, "By now, yes. We can leave, we don't want to bring you any trouble."
The woman waved her back in her seat, "Sit down, you'll be fine here. Nobody comes to this valley."
Del looked nervously at the boots in the corner, " What about your man?"
"Some never come, some never leave."
Del locked eyes with the woman; she looked for the truth in them but could not help notice the gold flecks that seemed to dance in a sea of green, she had to blink to draw herself back to the moment at hand. There was no doubt in these eyes, they were confident and honest, they would be safe here for the night. She could guess what the woman had meant by her statement and figured they would not be disturbed; she had a good feeling about this person.
The woman held her hand out to Del , "My name's Maddie."
Del shook Maddie's hand, " Del , this is Lucy. Thank you Maddie."
"Yes, thank you." Lucy piped up as she in turn shook Maddie's hand. Maddie just smiled and nodded then headed back to the stove to get their dinner.
Del and Lucy tried not to eat like animals that had never sat at a table before, but the stew and cornbread was so good and they were much hungrier than they had thought. They had both finished their platefuls before Maddie had gotten even halfway through hers. That was okay, she just laughed and filled their plates again.
As Maddie got up from the table with their plates, Del took the opportunity to really look at this woman for the first time. She was tall and trim, Del could see the muscles in her arms where her sleeves were rolled up. She was probably very strong if she worked this farm by herself Del thought. She moved with such confidence and control. Her hair was the color of golden hay and it hung down her back in a thick braid. Her face which always seemed so self assured was in fact quite lovely, despite the visible evidence that she worked a hard life outdoors or perhaps because of it. But the thing that caught Del 's attention once again were her eyes. They were bright green with gold flecks and could be very intimidating or very comforting. Maddie looked right at you, unflinching, strong, she was a woman who stood her ground and who also had immense compassion. Del liked this woman, there was a mystery about her and she suspected there was much more to Maddie than met the eye.
No one said much during dinner so after they had finished off all the stew and the last piece of cornbread Lucy offered to clean the dishes. Maddie accepted the offer and went to build up the fire in the fireplace. Del brought in more firewood for her and soon they were all sitting around in front of a warm blaze. Lucy, was still having trouble walking and had been uncomfortable sitting in a chair at the table preferred to stretch out on the floor. Noticing Lucy's discomfort Maddie went and got another jar of ointment. She gave it to Lucy and told her to go apply it to her legs and backside. Lucy looked at Del who nodded reassuringly then took the jar and went to the far side of the house.
Del asked Maddie about the farm and how she had come to be so far out all on her own. Maddie told her there was a small town just over the hills at the south end of the valley. And that she and her husband had built this farm together, but he had died not to long ago. Del told her about her horse ranch and Lucy proudly added that Del ran it all by herself also. They all talked pleasantly for a while, getting to know just a little bit about each other.
Maddie liked the two strangers. She felt a bond with Lucy, even though she hadn't said much. Maddie knew what it was like to be at some mans mercy. She knew the beatings and the rapes all to well, the fact that hers had been at the hands of someone she knew and loved did not matter. She could also see in Lucy the fighting spirit that had also kept her alive all these years. Del on the other had intrigued her. She had a respect for the small woman. She was a strong woman who lived life on her own terms. And although she put on a real tough front, she obviously cared deeply for her friend. To risk every thing she owned, her life even to help another person, Maddie liked and respected that. And although Del was probably only a couple years Maddie's junior, she possessed the wisdom of someone much older. It amused Maddie to think of this tiny woman over powering wild stallions.
Ready for a good nights sleep Maddie insisted that the women sleep inside next to the fire. The cold night air was not good for Lucy's aching muscles and it sounded like a storm might be blowing in. Del gratefully agreed and went out to the barn to got their blankets and bags. Soon they were warm and cozy sleeping in front of a blazing fire. Outside the wind howled as a storm slowly began creeping down out of the mountains, a storm so great that it would change the lives of everyone that came in contact with it.
The next morning Maddie was the first awake. She went out to the stream to get cleaned up, it was not until she was on her way back in did she take notice of the eerie color of the sky and the strange silence of the valley. The wind was blowing in small gusts and she could see blue-gray clouds rolling down from the mountains. The sky had an almost greenish color to it and seemed to make the valley tinged in a yellow-green light. She hurried inside and got dressed. Instead of her work skirts that she usually wore, she took a cue from her guests and put on her husbands pants, suspenders and shirt, it was a good thing they had been of a like build. She looked down at the two women asleep on the floor and a whole new confidence came over her. Maddie had always been strong and she never backed away from anything in her life. The last few years had been hard on her, so much so that her spirit had almost been broken. But now since her husbands' departure she felt more alive than ever before. Working the farm was hard, but it felt good to know she could take care of herself. She walked outside and surveyed her land. She was proud of all the hard work she had done, but something pulled at her, she had sacrificed a lot for this place. Looking over the fields and pasture her eyes came to rest on a six foot high by ten foot round mound of manure. She couldn't help but wonder how long the peace that had recently come into her life would last.
Del stepped out the door and greeted Maddie with a friendly 'good morning'. She noticed Maddie seemed distracted so she went off down to the stream to freshen up. Maddie, glad that someone was there to pull her away from her own thoughts went out to the chicken coup to gather the eggs. By the time Del came back in Maddie was already fixing breakfast. Del was about to wake up Lucy when Maddie stopped her. She thought it better if the child rested as much as she could. Besides from the looks of the weather they could be in for a real storm. Knowing Maddie was right Del went off to the barn to tend to the horses. She gave each one a rub down and good brushing then put them in the pasture with Maddie's horses. As she was walking back to the house Del couldn't take her eyes off the clouds rolling into the valley. It looked like hell was descending from the mountains. Right where she and Lucy needed to go.
Over breakfast Del and Maddie talked about the best way through the canyons to the mountains on the other side. Going through the mountains would be hard and if the weather was bad in some places it would be impossible. Maddie knew of a way through the canyons that opened out into a valley. That way they could cross the mountains further north where the forest was not as dense. And she suggested that maybe they should wait and leave the next day, after the storm had blown through.
Lucy woke up and came limping over to the table. She looked like hell Del thought. It didn't seem as though anyone had followed them and so far this seemed a pretty safe place. She sure would like to give Lucy the day to rest, so at Maddie's insistence Del agreed to stay another night. Lucy was too tired and hurt to care anymore, she ate breakfast and started to crawl back to her bed on the floor. Maddie took her by the arm and led the girl to her own bed. She rubbed Lucy down with the ointment and salve then tucked her under the covers. Within minutes she was sound asleep. Del couldn't help but feel bad for her and was grateful that Maddie was so caring. That was something about Maddie that Del really liked. She was strong and independent but also caring and gentle. What great luck they had coming upon this farm.
The weather outside was getting worse. Dark clouds were quickly traveling down the valley as the sky began to darken. The wind blew constantly making the tall grasses and trees dance to its wild rhythm. Del helped Maddie bring in the horses and cows to the barn and prepared the farm for the worst. Maddie was grateful for the help. It hadn't been that long that she had been on her own, close to a month, but it seemed much longer. Keeping the farm going was hard work for two people and for one person it was almost overwhelming.
The two women talked about the difficulties of running a farm and ranch on their own. Del was forever grateful she at least had Cody and wondered how Maddie managed on her own. Del watched Maddie's face almost age as she told stories about the years of hard work it had taken to get the farm going. The woman's features lightened and the forced years feel away when she talked about how since her husband's death a month ago the work no longer seemed as hard, even though now she had more work than she could handle at times.
It was late afternoon and both Del and Maddie were in the barn checking on the horses when they heard a rider come onto the farm. Del ducked behind a stack of hay and Maddie made her way to the house as fast as she could without looking as if anything were wrong.
The sheriff had just tied his horse to a small aspen tree in front of the house and was on his way to the door when Maddie reached him. She never cared much for the sheriff and since her husbands departure a month ago he had been coming around more and more to ‘check in on her' as he put it. She was beginning to lose patience with his interference into her life. His air of superiority coupled with his comments about how she could not handle things out here without a man around, and his constant offers to take care of her while her husband was away were starting to wear away her confidence. Maddie knew she could handle running a farm alone, but she was beginning to doubt if she would be left alone to live her life in peace, or would she constantly have to answer to some man.
From the barn Del could only catch a word or two that was being said, but she could see that Maddie was not inviting the sheriff in and it seemed she was trying to keep his visit short. She knew they had nothing to fear about Maddie turning them in. Now if she could just get him out of there before anything happened.
Maddie had been making polite small talk with the sheriff about the storm that was blowing in and how she had the farm all prepared for the worst. Her words were polite, but her manner was not exactly friendly. The sheriff was surveying the farm from where they stood, as if he were assessing the situation. He kept inquiring about John, Maddie's husband, how his trip was going, when was the last time she had word from him and when he would be back, pretty much his usual line of questions. Only this time he seemed a bit more insistent about John's return. Maddie was getting nervous, she was trying not to show it, but she had to repeat several times that some unexpected problems had arose with John's family which he went to attend after his business trip. She insisted that everything was fine and she would be quite all right during the storm, but the sheriff insisted on sending one of his men out to check the place over and make sure she was all right. It was as if he had not listened to a word she said.
Lucy awoke to the sound of a mans voice coming from outside. She listened to the sheriff and Maddie talking just on the other side of the door. At first a wave of panic washed over her, but as she realized they were not coming in to get her she began to calm down. Standing near the window and tried to hear as much of their conversation as possible over the howling wind. The tone in Maddie's voice had changed, it became colder and harder, she did not like this man and Lucy could tell. He had the same condescending tone that Mr. Clark would often use with her. As she continued to listen the conversation did not make sense to Lucy, the man kept talking about John and when he would be returning. Lucy had gotten the impression that Maddie's husband had died, so what was this guy talking about.
Del could see Maddie was getting nervous, and something else, she was a little more than uncomfortable being in his presence. Slowly the sheriff had been moving to the house, if he went inside and saw Lucy that would be it for both of them, unless of course Lucy killed this one too. Del was taken by surprise at her own morbid sense of humor. It had to be the strain of the last few days. Now was not the time to fall apart. She had to do something, Maddie was trying to get rid of him, but he did not seem to want to go. Del watched as the sheriff placed a hand on Maddie's shoulder and she seemed to flinch at his touch. Something wasn't right here, but Del didn't have time to figure it out. So without wasting another moment, she opened the barn door and headed over to Maddie's side.
The sheriff was surprised to see someone coming out of the barn. His hand dropped from Maddie's shoulder immediately. Del walked toward them casually, when she was within hearing distance she smiled and spoke directly to Maddie.
"Their all quiet now, I gave them all fresh hay and a quick brush down." Del came up along side Maddie and looked at the sheriff, "Hi."
The sheriff was looking Del up and down, "Hello there, Maddie you didn't tell me you had company."
Maddie was quick to recover, she put an arm around Del , "Sheriff McCoy, this is my cousin, Jane. She's come to stay with me for a little while."
The sheriff still looked suspicious, "Jane, nice to meet you. I didn't know you had any family around here Maddie. When did you get into town Jane?"
Del smiled sweetly, she could bullshit with the best of them, "I haven't actually been into town yet. I just got here yesterday, lucky for me with that storm blowing in." As if on cue the wind began to pick up.
"You rode here by yourself? Where did you say you came from?" the sheriff was getting suspicious, he had never heard of a woman traveling through the mountains alone.
Maddie knew she had to end this and get the sheriff out of there fast, she knew he wouldn't buy this nonsense for long. "Sheriff, perhaps you can come back on a day when the weather is nicer and we can all have a nice long talk, but it's starting to blow in really fast now and I want you to get back to town safe. Thanks for coming out, but as you can see I'm doing just fine."
The sheriff knew he was being rushed off. He took a last long look at the two women and noticed the gun Jane was wearing and the slight nervous strain on Maddie's face. Something was not right here, but he wouldn't push it right now. He said his good-byes and rode off as the sky began to go black.
Maddie and Del stood together watching the sheriff ride out of the valley. As soon as he was out of sight they went inside to find Lucy standing just inside the door with a skillet in her hands. Maddie wasn't quite sure what she was doing, but Del smiled and tried to keep down a laugh. She walked over and took the skillet out of Lucy's hands.
"It's okay Lucy, he's gone." Del said as she lifted the skillet from Lucy's hand and they both looked at each other and smiled. "You have a gun now, you don't need this." Lucy relaxed; she felt safe with Del and knew she would not let anything happen to her.
Maddie kept looking out the window; she seemed nervous and yet calm all at the same time. Del had a feeling at the back of her neck that Maddie might be in some kind of trouble with the law. Lucy had gone into the kitchen unafraid once again and Del was going to keep it that way if she could. The girl had been through too much already. Whatever trouble was brewing here she would have to get Lucy away from it before they were drawn into the middle. She looked over at Maddie, who seemed to be deep in serious thought.
Del walked over to her and not so loud as Lucy would here asked, " Maddie, is something wrong? Are you in some kind of trouble?"
Maddie turned from the window and looked at Del then into the kitchen at Lucy. Here were two women of strength and courage who were trying to overcome a horrible incident just like herself. In these strangers she had found a common strength and a sense of trust, born out of desperation, but growing out of respect and friendship. She looked deeply into Del 's crystal blue eyes and saw such strength and a protective loyalty that it moved her. There was something else there also, not just a concern for Lucy, but something that seemed to include Maddie also. At this moment she knew she could not let these two be hurt by something that she was responsible for, also she could not say good-bye.
"We have to leave, he'll be back and then it will be over, for all of us." Maddie moved to the kitchen as she spoke. She began gathering food supplies. "Lucy there are saddle bags in the corner over there, get it and fill them."
Lucy and Del looked at each other then watched as Maddie pulled out a carpetbag and began packing it with clothes. Del walked over to her unsure of what was going through Maddie's head. "Maddie, what are you doing? Lucy and I will leave, but you don't have to."
Maddie stopped just long enough to look directly into Del 's eyes. "Yes, I do." She finished packing then grabbed two lanterns. She handed them to Del , "There are extra candles for these in a box in that cupboard." and began rolling a couple of blankets. "I can get you through the mountains safely."
Del stepped over to her side, "You don't have to do this. We can find our own way. I don't want to put you in danger."
Maddie looked over at Lucy who had begun packing she and Del 's meager belongings, then to Del - so strong and determined and yet so caring. She moved closer to Del and whispered, "Yes I do. I'm going with you."
She was so calm, but Del could tell that Maddie was in some kind of trouble. She looked at Lucy and figured, they were on the run already, what difference would one more make. She looked back at Maddie who had begun to fill the saddlebags. "I'll get the horses", Del said as she grabbed her coat.
Outside the wind was blowing fiercely and the sky had grown dark. Del went to the barn and saddled the horses. When she had them all ready she went back to the house to get her gear and her traveling companions. Lucy had packed their rolls and saddle bags. Maddie was wearing what Del only imagined were her husbands clothes, she put on his hat and duster, took the rifle down from its place on the wall, picked up her bags and headed for the barn. Without so much as a glance backwards Maddie walked out on her life. Lucy and Del quickly gathered up the rest of their supplies and followed.
Quickly they secured their gear and mounted up. Maddie started out first,
" Follow me."
As they left the barn Del looked down the valley and could barely make out what looked like a rider just entering at the far end. " Shit, we have company."
Maddie and Lucy looked down the valley floor just as lightning lit up the sky. Clearly they could see two riders headed their way. Maddie reached out briefly touching Lucy's arm and smiled, "Trust me, ride hard, ride fast, don't look back and don't stop", she looked at Del and secured her hat, " Let's go."
The three took off for the canyons at the north end of the valley at a full gallop. It was late afternoon, but the sky was as dark as midnight on a moonless night. The wind was blowing fiercely in all directions and lightning would dazzle the sky accompanied by deafening thunder, but the rain had yet to come. The air seemed to crackle with the energy of the strange and frightening storm coming off the mountains, like the spirits of the dead were bring hell to earth. In all the years Maddie had lived here she had never seen anything like this. She urged her horse on as fast as she dared in this darkness. The horses were nervous but they moved forward hoping sanctity lie in the canyon walls ahead.
The sheriff and his man were racing up from the bottom of the valley, they had spotted the three riders and were trying to catch up. Before they could make it to the winding safety of the canyons Del heard the unmistakable sound of gunfire. The sheriff was shooting at them. Storm or no, Del charged forward urging the others to do the same. As they entered the canyons the shots seemed to get nearer and the storm, if it were possible, got even worse.
The three women raced blindly through the canyons, their faith resting on Maddie's knowledge of the winding path. The wind howling in their ears, dirt and leaves blowing in their eyes, shots ricocheting off the walls behind them. Lightning lit their way through narrow winding passages that would open up into large topless caverns only to narrow again so that they had to ride single file.
The men were catching up to them faster than Del had thought possible. Checking over her shoulder she could just see the men far behind them in a cavern. She urged Anam on even faster. They were deep in the canyons now and Del wondered just how much further the path would continue like this. Just then the narrow passage opened up into an enormous cavern. The wind was like a tornado in the huge open bowl, bolts of lightening were wildly flying overhead. Del looked to Maddie for guidance, but Maddie was already on a determined path. There were many openings in the walls around them, but Maddie was racing towards a large opening that had an arch of rocks over it. For a moment Del thought she had seen something at the top of the arch, but her attention was quickly distracted by the sound of a gunshot and the barely audible sounds of men shouting. The storm was quickly getting worse if that were at all possible. They could barely see the opening for all the dirt flying up in their eyes. Del and Lucy pulled up alongside Maddie just before reaching the arched opening and all three riders entered the pass together.
At the same instant that Del , Lucy and Maddie passed under the arch a huge bolt of lightening struck. It hit at the very top of the arch sending rock and dirt flying. The flash was so bright and explosive that the men following pulled back their horses to a stop. The entire archway and part of the canyon wall collapsed into the passage. The men waited a until the sound of tumbling rocks ceased, then made their way over to where the opening had been. There barely visible through the dust and debris were rocks and boulders the size of a man, they filled the passage completely.
The flash was so brilliant that all three women had to close their eyes and put an arm up to shield their faces. The exploding sound of exploding rock seemed to crash down around them and spurred the horses beyond their limits. A strange tingling sensation ran through the bodies of both riders and horses and all of it happened in an instant. Del was the first to notice the wind had died down and the lightening appeared to have stopped. Pulling Anam back to a trot she listened behind them carefully, but could hear no one, no hoof beats, no shouting, no gunfire.
She called for the others to slow down and quickly moved to catch up. Maddie and Lucy became aware of the change in the air as they slowed their horses. The wind no longer tore at their clothes and the only dust in the air was from their horse's hooves. The silence was eerie and the women strained their ears in the quiet to listen carefully for the sounds of pursuit. Shaken and afraid they looked around in the darkness. Del 's heart was pounding so loud she thought for sure it would explode from her chest. Seeing the fear on Lucy's face she resolved to remain calm and get them through this. Her eyes were adjusting to the dark shadows of the canyon and could see further ahead a lighter area. Motioning forward she led them through the last bit of canyon walls and out into a clearing. They were on the other side of the canyons and the forest and mountains lay before them. For the moment it seemed they had lost their pursuers. Del was not sure what had happened, the strange sensation still resonated through her entire body and she tried to shake it off as just nerves, after all she had thought for sure that lightening bolt had struck all three of them down.
Circling back to the canyon opening again Del informed the others that they seemed to be alone. There were no sounds of anyone coming down the passage, but to be on the safe side they should put some distance between them and the canyons. Maddie knew of a place on the mountain and assured Del that only herself and the hermit who lived there knew of its existence, they would be safe there for the night.
Maddie led the way at a much slower pace to allow the horses a chance to rest and catch their breaths. There were no longer great flashes of lightening to light their way so they had to pay careful attention to the terrain. The wind had died down and the storm seemed to have passed on by. As the clouds drifted past they gave light to a full and bright moon. This made finding their way a bit easier, but Del was struck for a moment by the thought that this was not the night for a full moon. Once again that uneasy feeling came over her, but quickly she shook it off as it took all of her concentration to follow through the forest behind Maddie and Lucy.
They rode for another hour through thick forest on a steady incline. Talk was kept to a minimum, a warning of a tree branch or precarious footing for the horses. The further up the mountain they climbed, the more their fear was replaced by calm, but not completely. Del was always on guard and alert to any sound or movement.
Maddie seemed to be hesitating, moving in starts and stops, it was hard finding her way in the dark, and something was different about the land, there was no trace of a trail anywhere. Not that there had ever been much of one. While the over growth was puzzling to Maddie, there was also the comfort of familiar large rocks and stands of trees, the climb and movement of the mountain, told her she was heading in the right direction. The brilliance of the moon brought an haunting beauty to the forest. It seemed to calm Maddie and make her aware of every step they took.
Before long she came to a complete halt. There was a small clearing ahead, barely the size of a small shed. It was not much of a clearing at that, clumps of saplings and wild over growth were everywhere. Del could see that something had once stood here, but now it was a tangled mess. It looked as if the tiny cabin had collapsed and was now blanketed with a thick over growth of vines and weeds; trees were even growing where a wall might have stood.
Maddie climbed down from her horse and was calling out for Walter, the old hermit who lived here. She began tearing through the wreckage calling for the old man, but there was no answer. Del and Lucy tied the horses nearby and stood watching Maddie with a concerned look on their faces. Del examined closely the rotting wood of the old cabin. She walked around to see if there was any evidence of life anywhere, when she could find none she went over to Maddie.
"Maddie, are you sure this is the right place?" Del asked looking around.
Maddie looked at Del and Lucy with confusion, her brow wrinkled in frustration. She sat down on the ground as much from exhaustion as not knowing what to do next. "This is Walter's cabin, but I don't understand. What happened here? Everything is so strange, old."
Del came over and sat beside Maddie, "There's no one here, and it doesn't look as if anyone has been here for a while."
Maddie looked at Del , “I was here just four months ago. Maybe something happened, a storm like the one that hit the farm, it could have blown the cabin over. Walter wasn't much of a builder. He must be further up on the mountain. He likes to go to the top and spend time with the eagles there."
Del started to argue the facts, the condition of the place for one when Lucy came over. "Whatever happened there's no one here now. We can't keep riding all night, Del do think it's safe to rest here for a while?"
Lucy was exhausted and even in the shadows of the moonlight Del could see how pale she was, she felt the strain of the last couple of hours in every muscle of her body. Lucy was right; they could do no more now. She decided they would sleep here for the night and start again in the morning. There had been no sounds of anyone following them since coming through the canyon. They must have lost their pursuers when they entered the last passage. Looking around something told her they would be safe for the night sleeping here. She and Lucy went and collected the blankets and some food. They laid out the bedrolls, but all were too exhausted to eat anything.
Maddie looked at the tumbled cabin not understanding how this could have happened since the last time she had been here. She looked up at the full moon as a shiver ran through her. Something was not right here, and whatever it was the three of them had just ridden right into the middle of it. She looked over at Del who was talking to Lucy. She could tell that Lucy was scared, but was doing her best to be strong and brave. The girl was sore and hurting again so Del was rubbing down her shoulders, back and legs, comforting and reassuring her that everything was going to be okay. Lucy had been through so much already and Del was determined to see to it that she find someplace safe for her so she could put all this behind them. Maddie watched Del gently tending to Lucy's aches and pains while softly speaking words that Maddie could not hear but knew were comforting and reassuring, she too somehow was calmed by the sight. She watched Del sit with Lucy for a while until the girl had fallen asleep, which did not take long, then she watched as Del went over to the horses and tended to each one with the same loving care she had shown Lucy. From her bed roll Maddie watched Del rub down each horse, inspect their legs and hooves, then whisper something into each of their ears. She almost got up to help, after all one of the horses was hers, but she got the feeling that she would be more of an intrusion than a help. Del looked calm and happy with the horses as if none of the other things in her life really mattered. After each horse had been tended to Del crossed over to a blanket that Lucy had laid out for her earlier, she lay down and stared up at the moon. The happiness that had been apparent when she was with the horses had left; now she lay there trying to figure out what to do next. Maddie continued to watch until Del 's eyes closed and she drifted off to sleep. Then she took up the same pose and stared up at the moon herself.
In spite of her exhaustion Maddie could not fall asleep. Her mind kept replaying all the major turn of events that lead up to her lying in the woods next to Walter's crumbled cabin, events that began long before meeting Del and Lucy. Having the two fugitives ride into her life was probably the best thing that had ever happened to her. She did not know what the future held in store for her, but it had to be better then what lay behind. Her mind wandered to Walter, who had to be on the top of the mountain. She refused to even think of any other place he could be, as she glanced in the direction of the cabin her mind wandered back to the first time they had met.
Maddie had gotten into the habit of exploring the canyons every time her husband would leave the farm to go into town for the day on business. They were her secret, her escape from the hard grueling life on the farm and John. It was months before she found the passage that led all the way through to the small valley and the mountains. She explored the valley and forest; it was so beautiful and quiet, completely different from her valley. She would lie in the tall grass and watch the deer and rabbits play while overhead flew hawks and the occasional eagle. Whenever she had the chance she would race through the canyon to this special place, a place she could be all alone.
One day she had been sitting on a fallen tree deep in the forest, the sadness and despair of her life overwhelming her. Unable to control the tears that ran down her face she struggled with what her life had become. Then as if by magic a bouquet of wildflowers that grew on the side of the mountain appeared before her face. It scared her so much that she fell backwards off the tree trunk. When she peered over the top of the trunk there stood a little old man still holding the flowers out to her, a look of surprise in his soft gray eyes. Maddie had been so scared she couldn't move all she could do was stare. Slowly the man reached into his pocket and pulled out a semi clean piece of rag, he offered it to her along with the flowers and in a low throaty whisper said, "I won't hurt you miss," noticing the bruise on the side of her face he added, "someone's done enough of that already." Maddie slowly climbed out from behind the tree and took the rag and flowers. She wiped away the tears, smelled the flowers and gave the old man a smile. He gave her a big half toothed grin which made her laugh. From then on every time she came through the canyon she would find the hermit not far away. She even went up to his cabin four or five times. The last time just four months ago when she had hung new curtains she made for him to cover the only window in the tiny cabin.
Walter was a kind and strange man who loved the animals that lived on the mountain and preferred their company to that of his fellow man. He was a kind soul to Maddie and a cherished friend. It angered him every time he saw her with a new bruise or favoring a particularly painful place on her body. With Walter's help she was finding a strength within herself that had been beaten out long ago. What ever had happened here at the cabin she hoped Walter was safe on the top of his mountain.
The golden glow of the rising sun could be seen caressing the tops of the mountains. Del was accustom to waking with the sun and even now in her exhausted state she could not break the habit. She got up and found some bread in their food bag, while eating away at a hard piece she began to look closely at the cabin behind where they had slept. She carefully examined the logs that had once been a wall; they were decayed with moss growing on them. At one time a cabin had stood here, but that was a very long time ago. She was sure Maddie had made a mistake. After all that had happened to them yesterday and last night Maddie must have gotten disoriented. They probably stumbled across, quite by accident, an abandoned cabin from years gone by. She was squatting down next to what had been a door, now just a bent snarl of wood, thinking about everything that happened since yesterday morning when Lucy walked up beside her. Lucy whispered her name so as not to startle the woman who was intently studying the collapsed building. She rested a small-callused hand on the shoulder below her as Del looked up at her and smiled, laying a rough dirty hand over the small cleaner one. She chuckled to herself at the thought of how Lucy would always manage to have clean hands and face no matter what was happening. The kid had never had more than a penny to her name, but she was always polite, well mannered, clean and kinder than the richest so called 'lady' in town.
"What do you think happened to Maddie's friend?" Lucy asked looking at the over grown mound.
Del took Lucy's hand in hers and stood up, "I think he is just fine in his cabin somewhere else on the mountain." she was smiling at Lucy noticing that the bruises on her face were still really dark. "What about you? How are you feeling?"
Lucy screwed up her face and grinned at Del , "Nothing a couple of days in a hot tub of soapy water can't fix."
"It will be the first order of business as soon as we get to Annie's." Del thought of Annie, her smiling face and bright eyes, and all the fuss she would make over them. The outrage she would feel when she learned of what happened to Lucy. Del knew Annie wouldn't mind the two extra strangers; instead she would be excited about all the companionship. She didn't know if Maddie intended to stay with them or move on once she and Lucy were settled. But knowing Annie the way she did she was sure her love would try and convince her to stay. It would be good if Maddie stayed, Del liked the woman, she was strong and could look out for herself while also being kind and generous. Del thought about the few spare moments that she and Annie would have to spend alone together since there would be two extra pairs of hands to help out with the kids and chores. Scolding herself for being so selfish, she shook the thought out of her head. They had a long way to go and it would not be an easy ride, not to mention the fact that the law was now pursuing them from two different directions. Wrapping her arm around Lucy they walked back over to their bedrolls, Annie's welcoming face clear in her mind.
Maddie was just waking up as they returned and gratefully took the bread and water Del handed her. Lucy began packing up her and Dell's bedrolls. Maddie looked around at what had been Walter's cabin. What happened here? She could not imagine, but she did know she was in the right place. Looking over at Del who was now rubbing down Anam's legs, she had the overwhelming desire to prove she did know what she was doing and where she was going.
Del was rubbing down all the horse's legs, knowing that the previous nights activities had been stressful on them as well. She watched them nibbling at the tender vegetation all around, the leaves still holding the morning dew. They needed to find a better water source for the horses before they could ride hard. Looking around she tried to decide which would be the best way to go. The others were tying their rolls off and securing the food when Del mentioned the need for water.
This was Maddie's chance to prove to Del , and herself, that she was in the right place, "If this really is Walter's cabin, there's a stream not far from here. Follow me". She took the reins of her horse and walked him through the woods. Before Del could respond, Maddie was already on her way. She and Lucy looked at each other and shrugged then followed behind.
They made their way through the trees, walking on the soft carpet of the forest. Within a few minutes Del heard the gentle sound of flowing water. The trees opened a little and there was a clear, cold, rushing stream. And beside it was Maddie, a sad smile on her face. The horses were left to drink and splash, while the three women quickly washed up and enjoyed the refreshing sweet water.
They traveled north for the rest of the day. No one mentioned the cabin or what had happened to the man who had lived there. The terrain was difficult and required them to pay attention to every step they took. Del wanted to take it easy on the horses after the punishing ride the day before.
Del had grown very quite all day long, while Lucy was trying to keep up a sporadic light conversation with Maddie. Something was wrong and they all knew it, but no one seemed able to voice their concern. Del could feel something in the air that she couldn't explain, the land seemed the same and yet it was different. She decided to slow their pace to an almost crawl until they had crossed over the mountain. Maddie could feel the change in the air also and kept watching Del as if she had the answer and could some how protect them from what ever was out there. At mid day they found a small stream and stopped to eat. The cool water felt good going down dry throats, but Del noticed there was a slightly strange taste to the water. She could not tell what it was and soon dismissed the thought. Lucy pulled out bread and dried meat for them to chew on, the bread already harder than the meat.
Maddie was the one to finally break the silence. She had been watching the furrow in Del 's forehead getting deeper and deeper and could tell something was bothering the woman. " Del , we haven't seen or heard anyone since the storm, do you think they are following us?"
Del studied her two companions for a moment then gave Lucy a slight smile, "I think we're going to be okay," looking back at Maddie she wanted to make the woman feel safe, but to always remember they were wanted by the law, "we need to always be careful though." Lucy walked over and sat next to Del and put her head on the strong shoulder. She remembered how at one time she had taken care of this person who was now taking care of her. Del took Lucy's hand in her own, "We'll be over the mountain in a few more days, it's going to be hard riding, but once on the other side we can move north through the foothills it'll be easier and less chance of coming across anyone. I know these mountains Lucy, we could hide out forever up here, but don't you worry, once we get to Annie's, we'll never have to look back again."
Del checked on the horses as Lucy packed their food and Maddie went to the stream to fill their water bags. The seriousness of the situation was still their constant companion, but some of the tension seemed to ease up a bit. Just hearing Del 's strong voice and confident words comforted both Maddie and Lucy.
Days of difficult riding through thick brush and trees brought them over the top of the mountain. The closer to the top they would get the less anxious they would feel. The chatter was kept to a minimum as they concentrated on just getting across safely. At times they would have to dismount and lead the horses, taking great care where they placed their step. At last they crossed over and a sense of joy and hope seemed to overtake them with each step down the other side. There was still a long journey before them, but for the first time Del felt safe. She wouldn't feel completely safe until she reached Annie, but now she knew they were going to make it.
After crossing the mountain the riders came upon a bald. From there they could see across the rugged mountains and lush valleys before them. Lucy had never seen anything like this before; awed by the beauty before her she took several deep breaths and allowed the peace and tranquility to wash over her. A couple of hawks soared above them playing on the wind currents and the land before them seemed at peace. The three women stood shoulder to shoulder looking out at the large expanse of land they would have to cross. Maddie was looking down on the first valley before them and noticed a strange blue object. She could not make out what it was, being so far away, and was not sure if she was actually seeing it.
" Del , down there," Maddie said pointing, "do you see that, that blue?"
"I was just looking at that."
"What is it?"
Lucy eyed the direction the two women were looking, "Where, what?" Maddie pointed her to the spot where the strange blue thing sat. Lucy could barely make out the dot they were looking at; it was so small, so why should Del be worried. Although, it was the strangest looking blue she had ever seen.
"I don't know, but I am willing to bet it's not an animal or plant. Let's just keep our distance. We'll keep moving north up here and then drop down to the valley tomorrow, no sense taking a chance. This will be a harder trail; we should walk the horses as much as we can." Del looked over at Lucy, the bruises were still visible, but the cuts on her face were healing, although they were still pink and red. This had been a hard and exhausting trip for the girl and Del was proud at how she was handling it all, even when the girl was so tired she could barely hold her head up. She walked over and put her arm around Lucy's shoulder. "How are you doing Luc?"
Lucy smiled at Del , "I'm okay Del. "
"After tomorrow I promise it will be a lot easier, there is even a small lake not far from here, we can rest the whole day there if you like. We can go swimming and then sleep on the bank in the warm sun. How does that sound?" Del wiped a smudge of dirt from Lucy's face and smiled. The nightmares plagued the girl each night and Del wanted desperately to give her some pleasant memories to dream of.
"That sounds wonderful." Lucy nodded, surprised at this rare showing of open affection. For the most part Del was very reserved with her emotions, and while she was great fun to be around, loneliness had taken its toll on the woman.
Del turned to Maddie who had climbed up on the boulder next to them, she was looking out over the valley, almost at peace, the sun dancing all around her setting her aglow. When Maddie looked down at Del and smiled, it almost took Del 's breath away. "How about you? Would you like a day at the lake?"
Maddie hopped down and stood in front of Del and Lucy, "I think we will have well earned it", she said as she rested a hand on each of their shoulders.
Lucy could see Del blush and she suppressed a laugh. Del began to walk back to the horses and called over her shoulder, "Then lets find that lake".
They gathered their horses and began again cutting a path, making their way to freedom, safety, and their future.
High up in the mountains the air was sweet and came on a cool breeze. The sun was warm and made hot sweaty work of riding and climbing. The nights were cold still and full of the sounds of the forest. They had seen a mountain lion lazily sleeping in a patch of sun on a rock outcrop and quietly moved on. The big cat lifted it's head and watched them for a moment then went back to sleep. Del had one hand on her gun and one eye on the lion until they were out of eye sight. They dropped down on the mountain range just a bit, but did not head for the valley. The lake Del knew of was up on the mountain nestled in a small dip. Their travel was slow and made even slower because while the land was familiar to Del there was something strange about it also, and at times she felt she had made a wrong turn and gotten them lost. She moved them forward on her own instinct of what she knew to be the right way from having traveled it many times before.
The next day they were still making their way along the mountain. No one would voice the doubt that was beginning to eat at Del. Then just before noon they came upon a very small lake, more of a pond really. Del breathed a sigh of relief at the sight and they all stopped at the edge of the clearing, taking in the lush grassy banks that were dotted with wildflowers and the bright sun reflecting off the waters surface. Del looked around, this was the lake all right, but so much had changed since her last visit, it seemed smaller some how.
They slowly moved to the waters edge, laughing with excited anticipation for the day of play that lay ahead. Quickly they unsaddled the horses and let them drink until they were full then wander in the small patch of grass, grazing on the sweet tender blades. Del began unpacking food and blankets, and seeing the fidgety expression on Lucy's face she laughed.
"Well what are you waiting for, last one in has to cook dinner."
And with that they all three stripped down to their long johns and jumped in. Laughing and splashing and enjoying the cool water on their hot dirty skin. They swam and bathed and washed the clothes they had been riding in. Days of dirt and stench slipping away under the water. Lucy was the first to climb out and stretch out on the grass. In moments she was fast asleep. Del watched her for a moment then turned away with a sad look in her eye. She and Maddie were swimming next to each other quietly treading water. Maddie had been watching Del for sometime and she saw the pained expression pass over her face. It almost took her off guard except Maddie was learning not to be surprised by anything about Del. This strong woman who had taken the responsibility for leading them all to safety, who was so caring and full of love, which she so desperately tried to hide, this woman was one of the most interesting people Maddie had ever met. And every day new questions seemed to jump into her head about this person who she knew so very little about, yet had entrusted her life to. There was something about Del that was trusting, something that was familiar about her, as familiar as Maddie's own self. Looking at Del now, watching her struggle with the responsibility of what they were undertaking, just made Maddie care for her even more.
Del noticed Maddie staring at her; she wasn't use to being looked at so intensely by anyone expect maybe Annie. The thought of Annie made Del smile and sink beneath the surface of the water to cool the rush of warm blood that had risen to her cheeks. When she finally came up for air Maddie was still there, Lucy still asleep on the banks, the world continued on.
Maddie smiled at her and looked at the bank to the sleeping girl. "She's a tough kid and she loves you an awful lot, I don't think she would have made it this far without you."
"I know. This has been so hard on her and she never says a word. Except at night when she cries in her sleep. I can't help thinking I could have made this easier somehow. Annie would have known how to handle this whole thing better than me."
"I don't know your friend Annie, but I am sure she would agree that you have taken care of Lucy, and me for that matter better than anyone else could have. I know it's hard and you feel a lot of weight on your shoulders right now, but there isn't anyone I would want on my side more than you. I've seen you at night get up and hold Lucy until she stops crying, easing her out of her nightmares. Lucy's going to be fine. She's young and after a days rest we'll probably have trouble keeping up with her."
Del blushed with embarrassment and shivered as a chill ran through her. She smiled at Maddie and swam to the bank. There in the warm sun she stretched out with her arms behind her head, Maddie following to stretched out beside her. The two lay there for quite a while, the sun quickly drying them off, comforted by the sound of the horses slowly chewing behind them somewhere and the soft sound of Lucy's deep sleep breathing. Del looked over at this beautiful woman resting beside her and remembered that she really didn't know anything about her.
Softly, almost not wanting Maddie to hear her, Del whispered Maddie's name. A moment passed then Maddie answered, " Yes Del. "
Rolling onto her stomach so the back of her clothing could dry as well, Del watched the horses eat, "Why did you have to come with us?"
Maddie opened her eyes and looked at Del ; she rolled onto her stomach right beside Del , so close they were almost touching. She watched the horses for a little while and then began to tell her story. Knowing that once she said this out loud there was no going back.
"My marriage, it was not a happy one. It didn't start out that way, but once John and I moved to the valley and were all on our own things began to change. We were so alone out there and it seemed to slowly drive John insane. He always had a temper, but once we were alone the only one he had to take it out on was me. He would hit me, throw things, make an awful mess then yell at me and hit me for it. He broke more than a few of my bones and beat me unconscious once. I wasn't a weak person when I married John, but for a while there he had taken the life out of me. Then one day I woke up and had enough. I made a plan, a good one. And I started to work on it. No one ever came out to the farm to visit us. I didn't have any friends to speak of and all John had were his drinking buddies at the saloon. So I began taking a keen interest in the cows. I told John I had come up with an idea that would have our cows producing more and better milk. I think I became an amusement to him that's why he let me go ahead. I would clean the cows and brush them, sing and talk to them, and collect all the manure from their pasture. I piled it up behind the barn. John thought I had lost my mind and that's just what I wanted him to think. He didn't pay attention to what I did as long as I did what I was suppose to. One day he woke up in the worse mood, he started yelling and throwing things then he laid into me. But that was it; that was the last of what I was willing to take from John Dalton. He finally went outside and that's when I took the rifle down and went after him. He was on his way to the barn when I called to him, 'John Dalton', he spun around at the tone of my voice and when he saw the rifle at my side pointing at him he almost spit calling me a crazy bitch. My voice didn't shake or anything, I just said, 'You're a mean son of a bitch and I hope you rot in hell.' He gave me the coldest look I have ever seen and I knew that if he got his hands on me this time I was dead. He took one step toward me growling, "You wouldn't dare", so I shot him. Right in the heart. You should have seen the look on his face as he fell."
Del could hear the strain in Maddie's voice and see the tremble in her hands. The fear she couldn't show then was coming to her now. She could only watch as Maddie continued to stare straight ahead and went on with her story.
"I went and got the wheel barrow. I didn't think I would ever get John up in it, but somehow I did. I took him behind the barn where I had two piles of manure. I dumped him on the smaller pile and then buried him under three more feet. I cleaned the wheel barrow and the dirt patch where he fell, burned the clothes I was wearing and scrubbed in the creek for an hour. Then I went on about my life. I still collected the manure from the field and made several different mounds so it wouldn't look too strange. You see, manure, while it speeds things to grow, it can also speeds things to rot. John's pile is about ten feet around and over six feet high, it's packed pretty tight. He's been in there almost three months. The Sheriff was beginning to get suspicious, John leaving town so quickly without a word. Not that he cared anything about John; he had always had a lecherous eye for me. I couldn't have stayed there much longer. I had to leave. And when you came along I knew this was my chance." Maddie looked at Del for the first time, frightened of what she might see on the strong woman's face. Disgust, revulsion perhaps, instead she found kindness and compassion, a strange mixture of sympathy and respect.
Del reached over and brushed the hair from Maddie's face. Then very tenderly she leaned over and kissed Maddie on her forehead. Maddie's eyes burned and as she closed them the tears came pouring out. Del took Maddie in her arms and held her tight letting her cry herself to sleep. This was indeed an incredible woman, for what she had endured, for what she had survived. Just before Del herself fell asleep she couldn't help the huge grin that spread across her face. Looking down at Maddie she thought, what justice, she buried him in cow shit.
It was late afternoon and the sun was slipping behind the tree line. Shadows were casting funny shapes across the waters surface. Lucy woke and stretched, she hadn't felt this rested in a long time. She looked around and saw Del and Maddie curled up together like a pair of kittens sound asleep. She decided not to wake them, knowing how exhausted she had been. Instead she gathered their clothes where they had laid them out to dry and got dressed. She slipped into the woods to gather firewood. Lucy was use to catching prairie dogs at home so it wasn't too difficult to catch a couple of squirrels so they could have something fresh to eat. Before long she had the camp all set and dinner cooking. Del and Maddie stirred at the same time, the smell of food tugging at their bellies. They looked at one another, entwined in each other's arms and sheepishly got to their feet. Finally everyone was well rested but very hungry. Del looked at the scrawny squirrels Lucy had roasting over the fire and made a mental note that she would have to start catching them some real food. As Maddie poured Del some more coffee she searched Del 's eyes to make sure everything was still all right. Del smiled at her, one of those smiles that says every thing is fine and always will be. They need never speak of Maddie's husband again.
The next morning everyone set off refreshed and in high spirits. Del was taking them down the mountain slowly. They would have fast easy travel across the flatter parts of the Wyoming Territory before entering the mountains again that would take them to Annie.
It was not long in the day before the group got their first shock and surprise. Del was the first to hear a noise coming from the forest in front of them. She stopped and listened, quickly Maddie and Lucy stopped behind her, looking and straining to see what was in front of them. Then from behind a clump of trees they could see a woman. She was walking toward them and was carrying a strange pack and was dressed in the most unusual clothes any of the women had ever seen. She appeared to have cut her pants off at the knees and her short boots laced up the front. She wore a short-sleeved bright colored shirt and a large brimmed floppy hat. Behind her was another woman with the same oversized pack and behind her was a man. The other two were dressed similarly except the man had long pants with lots of pockets attached to them and on his head he wore a type of beanie with a brim only in the front.
Del 's hand was on her gun, but Maddie reached over and stopped her from drawing. These strange people did not seem to be armed and looked as though they were over burdened. As odd as they appeared they did not seem threatening. Still, Del did not take her eyes off the approaching strangers, nor did she take her hand from her gun resting in its holster. Lucy had come up along Del 's other side and the three horses stood neck and neck across the path.
The woman in front noticed them and waved, she seemed to be calling hello. The other two behind her stuck their heads around to see whom she was calling to. They all started waving and smiling. As they approached Lucy and Maddie gave each other an uncertain look. The three strangers had stopped in front of them, all smiles and talking all at once. The first woman was asking if they were on a camping trip, and what wonderful horses and wasn't it difficult to travel on horseback on the mountain. The man was saying something about a place he called The Divide. Finally Del spoke up to try and stem the nonstop chatter saying they were just on a trip over the mountain to visit relatives. Then came questions of where, how far, where had they come from. It was a little difficult to understand some of the things the strangers were saying. The second woman was talking about a road that was not too far ahead. Del just nodded and smiled thinking they must all be mad. There were no roads in these mountains. There were no roads anywhere out here. As quickly as they appeared the strangers bid them good-bye as they eased around the horses and disappeared up the mountain.
Lucy was the first to speak, still looking behind her, " Del , who were those people?"
Del still had her hand tight on her gun just shook her head in disbelief, "I don't know Luc. I've never seen anything like that before. All those things on their packs, I don't know."
Maddie gently put her hand on Del 's gun hand getting the tense woman to slowly let go. Something was going on and they could all feel it. They moved on, but gone was the ease they had earlier that morning.
Late in the afternoon Del noticed a strange smell in the air, it was not strong, but something was making her nose twitch. Then they all heard the oddest sound, like the wind roaring in a storm, loud and yet quiet at the same time. Del quickly moved ahead to see what danger was in front of them. Maddie and Lucy followed a little more slowly behind, they had become quite good at reading Del 's silent orders.
Del came out of the trees into a long clearing. It was a road. A very hard packed road that was made of some type of rock that looked burned. There were faded yellow and white lines drawn on it and the faint scent Del had noticed earlier was much stronger now. Maddie and Lucy emerged from the woods and stopped on the side of the odd looking road. Del could only stare ahead unable to make sense of what was going on.
"This was not here the last time I came through." She said in disbelief.
Another roaring sound caught their attention; it was coming from the east. Del was in the middle of the road when they all saw the strange horseless wagon that was coming at them very fast. The horses began to get jumpy and Anam reared in protest. The car began blowing its horn, which only made the horses go even wilder. Maddie and Lucy fell back into the woods while Del hung on and tried to calm Anam down. The car flew by with a final blast of its horn. Anam was practically doing back flips on the far side of the road.
Maddie and Lucy's horses calmed as soon as they got away from the road and excitement. Maddie jumped down and tied her horse to a fallen log then ran back to Del as fast as she could. When she got back to the road she could see Del struggling to keep the horse from bolting away. Anam's eyes were wild with fright from something so loud and harsh. His nostrils flared with the smell of fumes coming from the road. Not knowing how to really help calm the horse without frightening him even more, Maddie could only keep out of the way and call out to Del. Within a few moments the frightened horse was pacing along the side of the road with his rider stroking his neck and whispering in his ear, calmness slowly returning. Lucy had joined Maddie and was watching, scared and shaken, no one seemed to want to step foot on the road again. Del called to Lucy to get the horses, they were getting out of here, fast.
Inspired by a new fear they road hard into the night finally stopping when neither rider nor horse could go a step further. All three were quiet and avoided looking at each other. Lucy built a campfire while Maddie pulled out some dried meat for them. Del was busy with the horses for a long time until Lucy finally went over to talk to her.
" Del ," she paused until the woman who was a few inches shorter than her would look up, "what happened today?" Lucy asked.
Del wrapped an arm around Lucy's shoulder; she led them back to the fire and sat down across from Maddie. Her mind had been racing since leaving the road. There was a road where none had been before, and those unusual people they had met earlier. She could not even begin to understand the carriage that had almost run her down. Looking at the two worried faces in front of her she wondered what to tell them. Taking the food Maddie handed her across the fire she just sat for a moment. "I don't know what is going on, but something is not right. I can't say exactly what it is, but things are different." she looked at her two companions, "There's a change, it's in the air. That thing today and those people, I don't know what has happened, but we're going to have to be real careful from now on."
Lucy was quiet for a moment then asked in a low voice, "Should we turn back?"
Del took Lucy's hand and looked at Maddie, "No, we're not going back." she smiled at Lucy, "It's going to be okay. We've made it this far and once we get to Annie's we'll be safe. I promise."
Lucy rested her head on Del 's shoulder and closed her eyes. She took a deep breath and felt an uneasy comfort. She trusted Del and knew that what ever lay ahead they would be okay as long as they stuck together. Del wrapped her arms around Lucy and held her tightly. She looked across at Maddie and saw the uncertainty in her eyes. She wanted to look away, but couldn't. They sat there for what seemed an eternity, but were in fact only minutes, and then Maddie smiled. She had known that Del would not turn them around, just as she knew that this woman would do everything in her power to keep them safe. Del was right, things were not as they should be, but this did not seem to bother Maddie so much anymore. It was as if speaking about it had eased her fears. As long as they all stayed together she was ready for anything that happened. For so long she had thought her life was over, that it had been beaten out of her, now she felt as if it were just beginning.
The next day brought even more unbelievable surprises. Although no one said it out loud, they all knew this was only the beginning. Things were about to get more confusing than any of them could ever imagine.
Traveling through the foothills and valleys, Del picked up the pace. The terrain was easier to maneuver, but mostly she felt nervous about what other unknown, unexpected things were out there for them. Dusk was coming upon them quickly and Maddie suggested they find a place to make camp. Everyone was tired and ready to be out of the saddle. Del had to agree even though she did not want to stop. Finding a comfortable spot they quickly went about the routine of setting up camp. An unspoken agreement had been reached at some point and each had their own set of chores; there was a comfort in knowing they each had a responsibility.
The sun was slipping over the horizon, brilliantly glowing orange, the sky seeming to hum all pink, orange, lavender and blue. Del had untacked the horses and given each of them a quiet talk and gentle rub on the nose. Maddie was sorting out the bedrolls and their dwindling food supply while Lucy got a fire going. Maddie began to hum an old Irish tune, soft and sweet. Del remembered it as being one of Red's favorite songs to sing in the evening. The magic of the moment was quickly broken by the sound of people approaching. All three women were on their feet, Del 's gun was already drawn. Two figures emerging from the growing shadows came to an abrupt stop at the sight of a six shooter pointed at them.
The man and woman stood frozen starring at the gun. Again here were two strange looking people with those funny looking packs on their backs. Their clothes and shoes were like somewhat like the other strangers, but different. Del moved so Lucy and Maddie were behind her, never lowering her gun she asked who they were and what they wanted.
The scrawny looking man slowly put his hands out in front of him and spoke very gently, "I'm sorry man; we didn't mean to scare you. My wife and I were just looking to set up camp when we saw your fire and thought we'd come over and say hello. We don't mean any harm." He slowly reached over and took his wife's hand.
"What are you doing out here?" Del demanded, looking at the two people in front of her.
It was the woman this time who spoke up, "We're hiking up to Seminoe, up to the lake. We're from Encampment. My name's Laura and this is my husband Richard." she smiled and looked over at Maddie unsure if she was about to be shot or not.
Maddie quickly stepped forward and whispered to Del to put the gun away. Who ever these people were they didn't look like they could do any harm even if they tried. As Del holstered her gun Maddie reached over and pulled Lucy to her side. "I'm sorry if we scarred you, but you never can tell when people just come out of the dark like that."
The man and woman smiled and seemed to visibly relax a bit, the color already returning to their faces. Apologetically Richard spoke directly to Del , "Again I'm sorry for just walking in on you like that. I can understand three women camping alone; you would be jumpy about anyone walking in on your camp. We'll be moving on."
Lucy was still standing with Maddie's hand clamped to her arm, she felt sorry for the two strangers. They looked liked they hadn't eaten in a long time; they were so skinny and worn out looking. She took a small step forward, "Would you like to come by the fire? I was just about to fix us something to eat, won't you join us?" She looked at Del for approval and was happy to see the small smile that was her answer. "My name's Lucy, this is Maddie and that there is Del. "
Somehow seeing Lucy's natural instinct for taking care of people, especially total strangers, made Del happy. It meant that she was healing and had not completely lost her trust in people. The couple hesitated for a moment then gladly accepted the offer. It was now dark and would be difficult for them to continue on. They asked if it would be all right if they could pitch their tent near by. They had already dropped their heavy packs and were stretching their backs. Del was still unsure but figured they could do no harm.
Laura moved close to the fire and was looking at the old coffee pot and battered up pot that Lucy was making some kind of mush in. She noticed the gunny sack and the odd smell it gave off. She called over to her husband, "Richard, look at this, everything is so authentic, straight out of the old west.", looking around she noticed the blankets thrown down as beds with saddle bags for pillows and just barely visible were three horses, their saddles close by. "Are you guys doing some kind of old west trip?" she asked.
Maddie and Del looked at each other confused. The man had pulled some type of rolled material off his pack; he looked up at his wife's assessment of this odd little group and started nodding his head and smiling as if he understood some great thing. "Yeah, that's what's up with the clothes and that pistol you were pointing at us. Hey, is that a real antique or a replica?" He was looking around seeing that they all wore guns and there was a rifle next to one of the saddlebags. Pointing at the rifle, "Whether they are real or not they look great, not shinny and new, but well worn. But why so many?"
Del was not sure she followed all of what this man was saying, or any of it for that matter. And why was he so interested in their guns when she had not seen a gun on either one of them. That was plain crazy to her, traveling in these parts with no gun. Maybe that was it; these people might just be crazy. They seemed at ease out here and acted like they knew what they were doing. Still she was not going to trust them too much. Crazy was running rampant in these mountains.
"My gun is real mister; I wouldn't be making this trip with anything less."
The man was pulling what looked like a fat black stick out of his pack, "I guess you have to get special permits for that when you do a trip like this, there must be a lot of planning that goes into it. You'll have to tell us all about it, right now I'm going to set up our tent.", and with that he made the stick light up. Del almost jumped as the light shown out into the darkness in front of them searching for a place devoid of too many rocks and brush. "That looks like a good spot over there. I don't know how you do it with no tents. We couldn't take the rain or the bugs." he looked at Del and was smiling and nodding his head again in that simpleton kind of way. "You want to hold the light for me?" he asked and then started walking in the direction the light was hitting.
Del dumbly followed behind not quite sure what he was going to do with that little round lump of material. When they reached a spot about fifteen feet from camp Richard handed Del the flashlight and asked her to keep it on what he was unpacking. The light stick had a strange feel to it, hard and soft at the same time. It was not slick, but kind of stuck in her hand a little. Tentatively she waved her hand in front of the beam a few times. The light would then hit her hand, but it was not hot. She watched as Richard unfolded a large piece of material that had little sticks wrapped up inside it. Setting the sticks aside he laid out the material on the ground, it seemed to have pockets in it of some sort and it was the same color blue that they had seen down in a valley a few days ago. He put the small sticks together to make three long sticks then quickly went about sliding them into the material. Del almost dropped the light when the thing started standing up as Richard stuck the ends of the sticks into these little tinny pockets. Soon there was a little blue hut standing in front of her. Richard walked over and brought back his pack and a bed roll off Laura's pack. He thanked her for the help, took the light out of her hand and crawled into the little hut. Del walked back to the fire and questioning looks from Maddie and Lucy. Behind her could be seen a soft blue glow and the shadow of Richard inside laying out their gear.
In the meantime Laura had pulled out of her pack their small collapsible burner and propane tank, a small pot, water bottle and a packet of trail rations. Lucy and Maddie were mesmerized as one foreign object after another was set up in front of them. They stood frozen, mouths open and eyes wide. These people had to have come from far away to have such things. Laura looked up to find the two women staring at her. Thinking she had offended them after not accepting their food she quickly explained that they did not want to impose on the women. She knew what it was like to pack for the trail and they probably only had enough to get them through. Trail rations were bad enough thought Laura, but what these women were eating, no way.
Richard rejoined the women after squaring away everything in their tent. Del kept looking over at where the strange blue glow had been, trying to figure out what all this meant. She had a hard time following a lot of what Richard and Laura were saying. They were talking about the changes in the environment around Medicine Bow and all the Rockies . The names were not familiar to her, but she understood the area they were talking about. What did not make any sense was every time they used the phrase 'over the last decade'. She had been traveling through these parts for the last six years and nothing had changed until now. Now everything seemed different to her.
Laura was asking about this old west trip they were taking. What was she talking about? Maddie handled the questions fairly well. She worked well in uncomfortable situations and told them they were traveling north to visit family. Which only made them ask even more questions, but Maddie was very good at avoiding and deflecting, even when she did not know what they were talking about.
Del could not help thinking of Annie and James as she watched Richard and Laura. One took care of the other the way Annie and James did for each other, although Richard and Laura seemed to be much more in love. The way they shared their meal from the same pot and sat next to each other, some part of their body always touching. The way they looked at each other, Annie had that look also, but not when she was looking at James.
Lucy enjoyed listening to Laura talk about the trips she and her husband had taken. They apparently liked to walk around a lot of different places. At times she could not understand what they were talking about, as if they were speaking a foreign language, but it sounded fascinating all the same. The evening did not last too late. Del kept getting up and checking on the horses until Richard and Laura excused themselves and crawled into their tent. Lucy was not scared of them anymore and their strange gear was not so frightening after all. She lay in her bedroll listening to the murmur coming from the tent and watching until the light was put out, the blue glow instantly gone once more from view. Looking across the dimming fire she could see the strain on Del 's face as she to looked out at the now dark tent. She could only imagine what was going through Del 's mind.
Maddie's bedroll was between Lucy and Del. She too had watched until the eerie blue light had disappeared. She knelt down beside Lucy and gave her a reassuring smile, "Everything's going to be okay." she whispered and leaned over giving her a good night kiss on the forehead.
Lucy looked over at Del who was still staring into the night. " Del 's worried", she whispered.
Maddie glanced at Del then smiled down at the sweet and still slightly battered face below. "I know, but don't you worry. I'm going to take care of Del. And you. Just like she is taking care of us. We are all going to look out for each other." With a smile she left Lucy and walked over to sit beside Del. "You plan on watching them all night?"
Never taking her eye off the spot where the tent lay, "I was thinking about it." Del answered in a low voice.
"You have to get some sleep Del. "
"We don't know these people. They're not just strangers, they're strange. They have things I've never seen before and use words I don't understand. Do you?"
"No, but they seem to be good people. And they're not armed. They've gone to sleep. And so has Lucy. Come on Del, I know you're not going to be able to get much sleep, but at least lie down and rest a little. We'll hear them if they move."
She knew Maddie was right. She was too exhausted to stay up all night. And she did not really believe the couple would try anything. Still. Del stretched out under her blanket, her gun by her side.
Maddie crawled into her blanket, her feet almost touching Lucy's head, her head very near Del 's. Reaching over and lightly touching Del 's shoulder she whispered, "And Del try not to shoot them if one of them has to crawl out and relieve themselves." This made Del smile, which is just what she was hoping would happen. As she closed her eyes Del continued watching the dark spot just outside of camp.
The next morning as the sun was breaking over the horizon Del woke. She wanted to get them moving before Richard and Laura woke up. She did not want to hear any more of their stories, or answer anymore questions. When she had finally fallen asleep last night her dreams were filled with strange devices and roaring carriages. She wanted to put some distance between herself and that which she could not understand. Quietly she saddled the horses then woke Maddie and Lucy. Lucy did not want to leave without saying goodbye, but she figured Del knew what was best for them. So as quietly as possible they packed the rest of their gear and rode away.
Del was on edge; although some of the tension that was with her last night had gone away. She was feeling very alert, her mind still spun when she thought about all they had seen so far, but her body was ready for anything. Before midday they crossed another road without incident. They rode in silence, not speaking of the couple they had left behind. Their appearance so strange, yet somehow they seemed familiar with the land. Late in the evening, just before dusk they heard another strange roaring sound. Reaching the top of a hill they all three came to a complete stop. On the other side were two roads with several different horseless carriages speeding past each other in opposite directions. There was a bitter smell in the air and the sound coming from the road seemed almost rhythmic.
Unable to move they sat and watched the few cars and trucks go by. A moment or two later Maddie looked over at Del. She could see the surprise and confusion on her face. She fought the urge to let her own fear give way to terrified hysteria. Looking back at the road she did not know what to think. Maddie looked to Del , as if she had some answer, instead the lines on her forehead were deep and her eyes were shadowed.
Del looked at the two women beside her who were staring at the scene in front of them. She could tell that Maddie was frightened, but working to remain calm. Lucy seemed more amazed than afraid. With nothing else to do she took a deep breath and nudged Anam forward.
Halfway there Lucy noticed some posts that ran along side the road. " Del , look," she pointed, "it's like a fence of some sort. They put a fence around a road."
Del could barely see it, but Lucy was right. It looked a little like that new wire stuff some of the cattle ranchers were starting to use. But why put a fence around a road. Road. What was she thinking, there's not even suppose to be a road here. Maybe she was loosing her mind.
The closer to the road they got the more nervous the horses were. Del was searching the fence line to find a break in it. They had to cross both roads and both fences. As far as she could see in both directions there was no break. They were going to have to jump. Del spotted a single section of fence with a timber cross piece on top. That's were they would have to cross.
"We're going to have to jump the fence, as far as I can see there's no break in it. We'll cross down there," Del said pointing west to a section of fence.
Maddie looked at Del with uncertainty, "Jump. I don't know how to jump a horse over a fence."
Del smiled at her, "Don't worry, you just hang on, the horse will do all the work."
"Why do we have to cross down there Del ?" Lucy asked as they headed for the section of fence.
"See that cross piece on the fence. Well, the horses can see that. They can't see the wire real well and they'll run right into it. If you run them straight at that cross piece they'll jump over it."
"What about those awful carriages that keep passing by every now and again?"
"We'll go over one at a time. And go all the way across, it'll be easier if you don't stop. There's another cross piece on the other side almost directly across. When there is nothing coming both ways you go and don't stop until you are all the way across."
"What about the horses, what if they start to spook?"
"They'll be fine. See how they've already calmed down now that they're use to the sound and smell."
They reached the crossing place and Del got off Anam, tying him up well away from the road. Lucy was going to be the first to cross. Del walked the rider and her horse up to the fence several times making sure the horse understood there was something solid in its path. She gave Lucy instructions on how to hold the reins and where to ride in the saddle as the horse went over. She then placed Lucy where she would have a strong running start.
There was only one car approaching and as soon as it passed the road would be clear. As the car passed Del waved her arms and Lucy kicked the mare forward. Del stood off to the side of where Lucy would go over, she watched with a sense of joy as Lucy raced toward her and flew through the air. She was across the road and heading for the other fence before Del could catch her breath. The sun was quickly sinking in the sky, but Del could see the grin on Lucy's face as she waved from the other side.
Now was Maddie's turn, Del did the same thing with her horse. Maddie seemed a bit more nervous; she had never jumped anything on a horse before and was not wanting to do so now. She waited for Del 's signal and took off. Her knuckles had turned white because of her grip on the reins. Just as she approached the fence she drew up short on the reins and brought them to a screaming halt. Dirt and rocks flew at Del 's face.
Carefully Del moved around to quiet the horse. She looked up at Maddie who had turned white as a ghost. Gently she loosened Maddie's fingers from the reins and eased her off the horse. Maddie stood there pale and shaking. She was scared, but even more, now she was embarrassed. Del put an arm around her and began walking them back to the starting place.
"I'm sorry," Maddie stammered, "I just froze and couldn't think."
"It's okay. I know it's hard to do something that seems scary, but you lead us through blind canyons with men shooting at us. Trust me, this is much easier." Del gave her a hug and helped her back in the saddle.
Maddie sat still, starring ahead, trying to take deep breaths. She watched Del walk to the fence and wait for a clear spot. She saw Del 's hand go up in the air which meant get ready. Taking a deep breath she tried to shake off the fear. She could still feel the warmth of where Del 's hand had been tightly holding her. Then Del was waving at her. She held tight on the reins and held on with her knees. When she got to the fence she closed her eyes and didn't open them until they were landing on the other side. Urging her horse even faster she headed for the second fence and this time did not close her eyes.
Lucy was waiting for her on the other side. Maddie jumped off her horse as soon as she could and ran up to Lucy, picking her up and swinging her around in a big circle, both of them laughing and whooping. From the other side Del watched with a smile.
She collected Anam and rode him to the fence. She sat watching as a straggled group of horseless carriages went by. Ten minutes passed before she would have a chance to cross. The light was fading quickly and the carriages that passed now had lanterns lit on their fronts. She looked across and saw Maddie and Lucy standing together holding on to each other. Finally her chance came. She spun Anam around and with a very short run they jumped the first fence. As they crossed the second road Del could see the light of a rapidly approaching carriage on her. Anam flew over the second fence with no problem at all.
Dell circled over to Maddie and Lucy who had already mounted up. "Let's get out of here. We can make camp as soon as we put some distance between us and the noise of that road." Driving the horses hard they rode on well into the night once again.
The sun was already above the treetops when Del woke. She looked around at the hilly terrain, pine trees scattered across the face of the land, large boulders sticking out of the ground. The first time she had traveled through here she thought it was beautiful country, now, it was still beautiful, but the peace in the air was gone. Standing watching Lucy and Maddie sleep, she thought about these people who were apart of changing her life forever; Lucy who she had grown to love as if they were sisters. And Maddie, who was still for the most part a stranger, yet she felt a strong kinship with this woman. In some ways she reminded Del of Annie. She was also very much her own person, with an air of mystery about her. Del would often find herself passing time on the trail wondering about Maddie. She could not wait for Annie to meet her; she knew they would become best friends. As for Lucy, Annie would think of her as a daughter.
In distance, they had only traveled less than half of the trail. There were many days of difficult riding through hills and mountains ahead. They would have to start covering more territory a day.
Maddie had woken and was trying to get up, her shoulders, arms and back were all aching from the jump. The tension in her body then, now felt as if it had strained every muscle. She sat up and tried to stretch, groaning with each movement.
Del was watching from behind the horses. She pulled out of her saddlebag a sage salve that she used on the horses and walked over to the suffering Maddie.
Maddie watched Del kneel down beside her, she was a little embarrassed, "I can't believe after all the riding we've done that I'm just now getting sore."
Del smiled, "It's the jump. You were so tensed up when you went over, your body had no give when you landed. Happens to most people their first time."
"Did it happen to you?"
"I don't remember, I was too little." Del gave a little laugh at the funny face Maddie made. "Take off your shirt and lay down." Maddie gave Del a surprised look and Del quickly held out the jar. "It's a salve I make for the horses, to help take the soreness out of the muscles. I'll rub some on your back and arms. I promise it will help. I've even used it myself."
Maddie took off her shirt and laid out on her bedroll. "So you do get sore."
Del paused for a moment as she took in the sight of Maddie's strong muscled back.
Remembering to breath she scooped some of the sticky salve out of the jar and began to gently rub it into the muscles of Maddie's back. "When you break horses for a living you wind up with more sore places then you thought possible."
Maddie was enjoying the rub. Del had strong hands and knew how to kneed each knot until it was smoothed away. She wished she could have this every morning; it would make waking up on the cold ground a lot easier.
" Del , were you born on a horse?"
"Well, I might as well have been. I've been on the back of a horse for as long as I can remember."
"Did you like it?"
"More than anything. My Pa was the best horseman to ever live; he taught me everything I know. And when we would ride together I felt like I owned the world."
"You must have loved him very much."
"He's all I ever had. Until Annie."
"It must have been hard when she moved away. Your whole world changes when the people you love are not around you."
Del could tell by the look on Maddie's face that she was thinking of someone else, perhaps her own family. She wanted to ask her questions about her life, but Maddie closed her eyes and seemed to give in to the easy touch of Del 's hands, so instead she focused on the soft skin under her fingers.
Lucy had woken and saw Del rubbing Maddie's bare back. They were both so peaceful looking that she did not want to disturb them. She watched for a while until Del glanced in her direction and caught her staring. Quickly Del stopped what she was doing and got to her feet. Lucy could not help smiling; it was so good to see Del and Maddie becoming friends. Maddie looked up as soon as Del stood.
"It's time to get moving." Del said and left to saddle up the horses.
The land in this part of the world was desolate. A relatively flat scrub land, which made for a comfortable ride compared to the hills and mountains that make up the majority of the trip. In the distance were barely visible peaks of the most difficult mountains yet to come. This day of easy riding, crossing the flats, was to be their last uneventful day. After this night everything these women knew about the world would forever change.
Stopping to make camp just after sunset did not take long. Every one had their job to do, but tonight Maddie was busy skinning a jack rabbit Del had shot a few hours before when it ran from behind a bush right in their path. They were all a little tired of jerky and looking forward to fresh meat. While Maddie cooked the rabbit, Lucy made some trail biscuits and coffee.
They enjoyed a relaxing meal as Del described the trail through the mountains. Lucy told a funny story about Del and Cody the day a high spirited stallion kicked part of the fence down and twelve wild horses took off straight for town, somehow managing to take the main road right through the middle of town. Del and Cody caught up to them just in time to turn them around and wrangle them back through the town and a lot of startled towns' people. Talk was lighthearted, about the funnier side of running a ranch and farm.
Lucy fell asleep early and was so exhausted she never woke as Del picked her up and laid her in a bedroll. Once again Maddie was amazed by Del 's incredible strength. Unable to go to sleep, Maddie and Del fell into comfortable conversation. Del found it very easy to talk to Maddie and she enjoyed her company greatly.
Maddie was curious about Del 's life, it all sounded so exciting to her. Here was a woman who ran her own business and was on her own. It was the life Maddie was aspiring to have for herself. "So, Del , is that short for something?”
Del looked at her a little surprised, "What do you mean?"
"Your name, it's a little unusual. I just thought it might be short for something else."
Del laughed a little, she had almost forgotten that Del was only a nickname. Her mother had been the only one to call her Adelaide . Her Pa had put her full name on the deed to the ranch when he made her his partner in the business a few years before he died and that was how Del found out about it. Other than that no one even knew her real name. " Del is short for Adelaide , but my mother was the last person to ever call me that, and that's the way it's going to stay."
" Adelaide ." Maddie said looking at Del as if she had never seen her before. "No, it doesn't suit you. Del fits you much better."
"I'm glad you approve."
"I was just curious."
"What about Maddie? Short for Madeline?"
"Actually it's Madison ."
" Madison ?!" Del looked at Maddie with humorous surprise, "Now there's a name that's a bit unusual."
"I know. I was named after the town where my parents met and fell in love."
"It must be a hellofa town."
"No, it's just my parents, they are a little different."
"Are they still alive?"
Maddie looked at Del with an embarrassed smile and quickly got up to stoke the fire. "Yes, but I haven't seen them since John and I were married."
Del was intrigued. The more she learned about Maddie, the more interested she became. It seemed that no matter how much Del learned about her, there was always still another mystery to be uncovered. "Tell me."
Maddie finished tossing wood on the fire and sat down near Del. For a moment she watched the fire as a piece of wood tumbled and sent orange sparks flying up, disappearing into the black sky. Watching the flames settling down into a rolling sea of golden orange, she began telling the story of her family.
"My Ma and Pa met when they were fifteen, their birthdays are only two days apart. Ma said from the moment they met they were in love. Pa had gone into town with his Pa to buy supplies for their farm. And although Ma was from Plum Creek, a little town a day's ride away, she had ridden into Madison with her Pa to pick up a special order from the mercantile. That's where they met. After that nothing could keep them apart. Once a week Pa would ride to Plum Creek to see Ma. After six months they were married. They moved into Madison and Pa started working at the mercantile. It was almost two years before I came along. By then Pa had built a house for us on the edge of town. After five years he became the manager of the store, but he always came home everyday for lunch. He and Ma would sit together laughing and talking. It's the one thing I remember most, you could always see the love they had for each other. It was a happy house, but seemed more like it was always them and me, not us. I mean they loved me, just not as much as they loved each other. And I would think how great it would be when I got married, to have someone love me that much. So when John came along we all saw our chance. My parents, the chance to be alone with each other again, and me the chance to be loved more than anything. So I married John and moved to Cleary and things were pretty good. Then John bought the land in the valley and, well, you know the rest. Other than a couple of letters every year that we write to each other, I've not seen them since the day I left."
There was sadness in her voice that made Del want to offer some comfort. "Sounds lonely."
Maddie smiled, "Not really. I use to love to watch Ma and Pa together, the way they would look at each other. They would dance around the house in each others arms or sit under a tree down by the river and read to each other until they fell asleep, Pa's arms always wrapped around Ma. They were always touching, holding hands, smiling or just gazing into each others eyes. It was a good thing to be around. They were the perfect example of what love should be like."
The night was quiet except for the constant hum of the crickets as they sat looking into each other's eyes, neither moving, both searching for an understanding. Finally Maddie spoke, very quietly, "There are all kinds of love. The way you love your family or your friends. Some people meet, fall in love and contentedly live their lives together. Some grow into love, and for some love is very strong at the beginning, but then burns out. But there is one love that is so powerful you have no control over it. When two people meet and their souls fall in love and become one. That is stronger than any other love. It goes beyond love. It binds you together forever. My parents had that kind of love, but they let it over power them." Looking into the fire Maddie could feel exhaustion take over her entire body. She tossed another piece of wood on the fire, "Good night Del.", she said as she reached for her blanket.
Del said good night and then sat thinking about what Maddie had said. She had her own understanding of how two souls connected, and it was the most powerful thing she had ever experienced. Del knew a love this great, and no matter where they were or what happened between her and Annie, they were always together. She could feel Annie with her at all times and she could feel Annie's love.
Half a day's ride brought them back to the foothills, and a small dirt road leading up to a bright new log cabin. Parked along the side of the cabin was one of the strange carriages they had seen on the other roads, only this one did not seem to be covered, it had no top. Del decided they would see if anyone was home, perhaps they could get something to eat other than the dried staples they had been living on. Slowly they approached the cabin, Lucy was excited, she had never seen a cabin look so clean and pretty, there seemed to be an awful lot of windows. Maddie kept scouting around looking for anyone who might come out of the woods. While Del rode straight ahead, eyes focused on the cabin and everything around it, her rein hand resting on Anam's neck, the other resting on her gun.
As they got closer a small girl dressed in jeans and a tee shirt walked around from behind the cabin. She looked to be about seven or eight years old, with long blond hair that hung down her back. She was carrying a bouquet of wildflowers in one hand and a kitten in the other. As she made her way to the front of the cabin she saw the riders and stopped. She did not say anything, just stood staring up at the horses.
They stopped before reaching the cabin and Del waved a hello to the little girl. The girl's hands were full and for a moment all she could do was look from one rider to the other, then she smiled at them and whispered something to the kitten in her arms. Lucy called out a hello and waved, which made the girl smile again. Not knowing what to do the little girl called out, "Mom, come see the horses."
Maddie and Lucy looked at each other as Del shifted her weight in the saddle. Del made sure to rest both her hands on her saddle horn. She would not draw her gun with a child standing there and hoped that these people would do the same.
When the door opened, out stepped a woman who was an older and bigger version of the child. She saw the three riders immediately and reached out towards her daughter. Very calmly she called out to the child, "Lilly come here."
The little girl did not move, but only looked at her mother, "Can I pet the horses?"
The mother took another step closer to her daughter, "Lilly, come over here now, please." A cautious tone had crept into her voice as she held out her hand. The little girl walked over and the mother wrapped a protective arm around her shoulders. Taking a step back, closer to the door, the woman asked, "Can I help you?"
Del sat up a little straighter, "I'm sorry to bother you ma'am, we were just traveling through and saw your place. And I was wondering if we could get some fresh water, maybe fill our water bags?"
The woman had not noticed until that moment that the riders were all women. It was hard to tell through all the dirt and dust, and the way they were dressed was like something out of an old movie. She felt only the slightest sense of relief to know they were all women, however, what kind of people just ride up on horseback out of nowhere. Each one looked as if she could do with a hot shower and lots of soap. She could see the guns that each rider wore and wondered if they were real, they appeared to be in costume for some reason, she remained cautious. With her husband off on a day hike she could not be too careful, but what harm could it do to give some water to these strangers. Her sense of curiosity was quickly over ridding her sense of fear.
With her arm still around her daughter she offered to bring out glasses of ice water. Del and Lucy looked at each other, Del had been to a fancy restaurant in Denver once where they served water with ice in it, but she had never heard of anyone having ice in their home. She could tell this strange looking woman was nervous about having three strangers ride in on her so Del tried to be as friendly and at ease as possible. "Ma'am, I don't suppose we could get a little something to eat also. I know it's a lot to ask, and we can't really pay you, but if you have any work needs done around the place we could trade."
Having grown up on a ranch in Montana the woman knew the meaning of hospitality. "Well, there isn't really anything to do around here. My husband takes care of most things that have to do with the cabin. It's just a get away place for us really. I suppose I could make you some sandwiches."
"That would be great ma'am, almost anything's better than jerky." Del said with a smile.
"Beef jerky? If that's all you've been eating then I guess turkey sandwiches will be a gourmet meal. Would you prefer a glass of milk instead of water?"
All three women answered at once, "Yes ma'am." and then immediately looked embarrassed. Del smiled apologetically, "If it's not to much, we wouldn't want to take anything away from you and your family."
It was not often you came upon strange riders out here, but it did happen. There was something about these riders that made the woman feel almost comfortable. The one who was doing all the talking seemed to be the leader, she was friendly and very polite and appeared to be the woman's own age. As did the blond, the other one was a bit younger and had an open, friendly face that appeared to have the faint remains of a bruise and cut on her eye and cheek. The woman could not help wondering what they were doing riding around out here. "It's no problem at all. Why don't you have a seat over there." she said pointing to a long wooden table with benches that sat off the to side of the cabin, "And please, stop calling me ma'am, my name's Renee and this is Lilly.", she said brushing the hair from her daughters forehead.
Lilly looked up and smiled, "Hi", she said looking at each rider.
Del slid off Anam's back and looked at the little girl, "Hi Lilly. I'm Del and this is Lucy and that's Maddie." she said as the other two dismounted and waved a cheery hello.
"And this is Toby." Lilly said holding up the squirming kitten.
Renee took the kitten out of Lilly's arms and guided them inside, "Come and help me Lilly and let's put Toby down so he can rest."
The horses were tied to a clump of trees where there was a big patch of green grass for them to chew on. Del gave the last of their water to each of the horses as Maddie and Lucy walked over to have a closer look at Renee's Jeep.
Del joined them and all three stood looking at the strange object in front of them. Finally Maddie reached out a hand and touched the hood. It was smooth and solid and warm to the touch. Lucy touched the soft leather seats and large bars that went across the top. Del did not think it was a good idea to touch this thing too much. She wrapped an arm around Lucy's shoulder and guided her to the table; Maddie followed, but kept one eye on the smooth object.
Lucy looked around as they took a seat on the benches, " Del , there's something not right here. I don't think it's bad, but look around. What is that thing over there."
Del put a hand on her shoulder and gave it a little squeeze, "I don't know. I've never seen anything like it. I can't explain anything we've seen in the last few days, but don't worry Luc, I'm going to take care of us."
"We're going to take care of each other," Maddie added giving her two companions an uncertain smile, "no matter what."
The front door opened and Renee walked to the table carrying a tray of sandwiches and a bag of chips tucked under her arm. Lilly followed carrying a gallon jug of milk and a stack of plastic cups. Renee placed the tray in the center of the table, putting each sandwich on a paper towel as she passed them out and opened the bag of chips dumping some out onto the tray. She then poured milk for each of the women and Lilly. As she sat down next to Lilly she noticed the puzzled expressions on the women's faces. She took their hesitation as shyness and encouraged them to eat. Lilly was already eating her peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Lucy picked up her sandwich to examine the soft paper under it. Del reached out for a chip and smelled it, she could see Renee watching her out of the corner of her eye and timidly tasted the chip. It was crunchy and salty and potatoie, it was good. She then reached for what had really caught her attention, the bag. It was smooth to the touch and thin, but strong and it made a noise when she handled it. Meanwhile Maddie was examining the glass of milk that had been given to her. The glass was red on the outside and white on the inside, but it was not made of glass or tin. Although it had a smooth surface and seemed sturdy, when she picked it up the sides gave in a little. And the milk was cold, not lukewarm or even cool, but very cold. Maddie tasted the milk and was surprised to find it did not taste the same as the milk her own cows gave. The cold sensation was nice, but it did not taste as good.
Renee could not help noticing the strange behavior of her visitors. "Is there something wrong?" she asked looking at Del , who was still holding the chip bag.
"The fabric of this bag is so smooth, did you make it?" Del asked unable to take her eyes off the bright colors of the bag.
Lilly giggled, "Don't you like potato chips?", as she took a chip from the tray and popped it in her mouth.
The paper towel Lucy had been fingering tore and she gave a little gasp. She gave Renee a nervous apologetic look. "I'm sorry, I tore your nice napkin, I can sew it back together for you, it's just so fragile."
Renee looked at the three women in front of her. Logic told her she should be getting nervous, maybe grabbing Lilly going inside and baring the door, but as she looked at the expression on their faces, the lost look in their eyes, she realized these people had never seen a paper towel before or a bag of chips. Maybe they were members of some off set community like the Amish. "It's just a paper towel. You use it and then throw it away. " She saw the look of surprise on Lucy's face, "Haven't you ever seen a paper towel before?" Lucy just sat there staring at the towel. "So I guess you have never seen a plastic bag or cup before either." Renee said as she touched the bag Del had in front of her and held up her own cup.
The women were looking around at each other touching the cups and towels, saying the words to themselves. "Please," Renee said as she picked up a handful of chips and placed them on a paper towel in front of her and Lilly, "eat your sandwiches, and try the chips, you might like them."
Maddie had almost forgotten she was hungry enough to eat her saddle. She had already tasted the milk and while it was not the best, it was cold and wet. She looked at Lilly who was half way through her sandwich and decided to join her. Since leaving her home and riding off with two strangers, who had since become dear friends, she felt like a new born babe. Every sight, sound, smell, feel, and thought were new to her. She understood nothing around her except the two women at her side and her horse.
Lucy and Del were hesitant, but soon all three were eating the sandwiches and chips, both of which were unlike anything they had ever tasted before. Renee watched them eat, noticing the expressions of surprise and like or dislike on their faces. "I don't mean to pry, but are you girls part of some kind of back to basics group like Quakers or something."
Del paused in her eating for a moment, not quite sure what Renee was asking. "There's just us, we're heading north."
Although they were friendly and polite, Renee felt there was something very strange about these three, not threatening, just different. Their answers were very general, which was typical of most ranchers, especially the isolated ones. These women looked like ranchers who were extremely isolated and cut off from the entire world. That would answer a lot of questions, sort of.
"It looks like you've been riding a long time. Where are you from?"
Maddie looked at Del , letting her be the one to decide how much information they should reveal about themselves. Lucy just kept her head down and continued to chew on her sandwich. The look in Maddie's eyes told Del that she would have to speak for all of them. There was something other than apprehension in those green eyes that Del saw, it was trust, and having Maddie's trust made Del feel very strong. She looked at Renee, took a deep breath and said "Colorado." then continued to finish off her sandwich.
This information came as a bit of a shock to Renee, " Colorado , you rode here on horseback all the way from Colorado ? That is quite a long way, do you mind if I ask how far you're going?"
"Up into the Montana Territory . We're going to work a ranch up there."
Renee was in shock, she had never heard of anyone riding to a job on horseback through three states. "You are riding through the mountains on horseback from Colorado to Montana . Are you doing this for fun, I mean wouldn't it be easier to just drive there."
Maddie and Del were looking at each other again and Lucy was looking at Renee blankly. She whispered to Del , "What does she mean?"
Del gave Lucy an uncertain look and shook her head, then gave Renee a weak smile, and said, "I have family there." as if this would answer all her questions.
Lilly, who had finished her sandwich and had been patiently eyeing the horses was now pleading to be allowed to pet them. Her mother sent the little girl into the house to get a bag of carrots to feed them. Renee was now very curious about these women. "I'm guessing you don't have a car or truck, you don't drive do you?"
Now it was Del 's turn to be confused, "A car or truck? I don't know what you are asking; I don't know what that is."
"Don't tell me you've never seen a car." Renee said pointing to the jeep parked in the driveway.
Maddie decided to join the conversation, "That is a car," she said looking at the strange carriage, "we have seen similar carriages like it before, but didn't know what they were. It moves so fast, but has no horses pulling it."
Renee was amazed now, just how isolated had these people been. "Horses? Cars don't need horses, they have engines."
"You mean like a train." Lucy joined in.
"Something like that." Renee replied amazed at how out of touch with the modern world these people were.
The door to the house flew open and Lilly came running out with a bag of carrots. She could not wait to feed them to the horses. After begging and pleading and squealing with excitement she convinced her mother to get up. All four women walked over to the horses. Maddie picked up Lilly so she could pet the top of each horses head. Renee broke several of the carrots in half and handed them to Lilly one at a time as Del showed her how to hold her hand so the horse would take the carrot and not bite her hand. Lucy could not believe this lady was feeding a whole bag of carrots to a bunch of horses. Then she noticed the bag itself, you could see through it. This was a strange place and had so many things that Lucy could not even begin to understand, but instead of fearing the unknown, it gave her a sense of excitement.
After a great deal of pleading on Lilly's part, Maddie placed the little girl in the saddle of Lucy's horse. She then mounted her own horse and the two of them rode up and down the little dirt rode again and again and again. Renee brought over a bucket of water for Anam and showed Del how to work the hose so they could fill their water bags.
While the women were busy with their horses and entertaining Lilly, Renee went inside the house and came back out a few minutes later with a large brown paper bag. Inside were apples, a bag of chips, a loaf of bread and the rest of the bag of carrots. She handed it to Del wishing she had more to offer that could sustain a trip on horseback. Del gratefully accepted the food with many thanks for everything Renee had done for them.
After all the supplies had been loaded and each horse watered, Lilly gave each horse a kiss on the nose. She thanked Lucy for letting her ride her horse and Maddie for riding with her. She said good bye to Del and stood by her mothers' side as the three women mounted up. Renee wished them luck and waved good bye along with her daughter as the three smiled and rode off.
Rested and refreshed they rode hard the rest of the day. Del took them up into the mountains again. Not wanting to come across anymore strangers she figured the higher up they traveled the less likely they were to come across anyone. Although they would come across cabins and houses every now and then, they avoided them and only waved and smiled at any people they saw. The riding was difficult and seemed to be welcomed by everyone. The days were spent concentrating on the terrain in front of them, there was no time to talk about how strange the world had become.
The night after leaving Renee and Lilly was the only time they really talked about what they had encountered as Del handed out the food Renee had packed for them. The strange bags, soft glasses, odd tasting food, paper napkins, cars, water coming from the ground without a pump, the feel and smell of everything, and none of it familiar to them. Each woman struggled on her own to understand, each felt a measure of fear, apprehension, wonder and amazement. Lucy seemed excited more than fearful. Maddie did not understand and tried to reason away everything. Del trusted nothing any more. She questioned everything she knew and believed. She would only feel safe after reaching Annie.
Del did not want to see any more new and different things. She felt overwhelmed as it was. The only thing she wanted to concentrate on was getting them all to their final destination and safety. As they moved across the mountains there seemed to be a different type of danger than Del was normally use to. The occasional mountain lion and wolf or bear was nothing compared to the dread that was building in her.
They had become accustom to coming across the roads and cars now and were good at avoiding direct contact with people. Del rode them as hard and fast as she dared. There was an urgency in her to get to Annie now that they were closer than they had ever been.
Lucy was healing nicely thanks to Maddie's care and attention. She felt strong and free, freer than she had ever felt in her life. She had managed to all but completely push the incident from her mind, and the fact that they were running for their lives. She tried not to think about her family, how much she missed them and the pain she must have caused them. Instead she forced herself to concentrate only on the present and her two companions. Del had risked everything for her and may never be able to go home. And Maddie, who had seemed to jump at the chance to leave her old life behind, had cared for her ever so gently. Life had changed for them all and they were now their own kind of family.
The day finally arrived. Del knew she was near Annie and James' land. She bolted forward leaving Lucy and Maddie to wonder what had suddenly gotten into her.
"Where's she going in such a hurry, I don't see anything but a hill." Maddie said to Lucy who was watching Del ride away.
Lucy suddenly got a big smile on her face, "We must be there. We're close." and she took off after Del.
Maddie caught up to Lucy, but neither one of them could catch up with Del. They crossed the great distance and came over the hill to find Del standing there looking at the land below. Anam was prancing around ready to run again and feeling his riders' excitement.
Looking down Maddie saw open land with sheep grazing in the distance. Far off to the west was a stream and trees lining the banks. An old house was not far and off to the east of it was a barn in horrible condition. It was hard to tell from that distance, but the place did not look lived in. To the far east of them, barely visible was a house with other buildings around it. It looked like the newer houses they had been seeing. And it looked like someone lived there.
Maddie moved closer to Del and was about to ask where they were when she heard Del whisper Annie's name and take off for the old house. Lucy came to her side, feeling something was wrong. She could see a look of disappointment and pain in Maddie's face.
"What is it?" Lucy asked looking at the abandoned ranch below.
"Annie" was all Maddie could say. Lucy looked at her with a growing fear. She took off after Del with Maddie in close pursuit.
When Del reached Annie's house she almost flew over Anam's neck trying to get off before he had even stopped. She called Annie's name and stood looking at the condition of the house she had built just a few years before. Fear was quickly taking her over. The door was missing as well as most of the windows. Del stumbled into the house she knew so well, only to be met by the sound of rattlers. She called again for Annie knowing she would not find her. There were only a few pieces of furniture inside and dirt covered everything. She started for the bedroom when a hand pulled her back. It was Lucy dragging Del out of the house; she could hear the angry rattlers and stopped Del from walking right into them. Del 's head was spinning. What had happened? Where had everyone gone? She was in the right house. It was the same house she had built for Annie, although there had been some rooms added onto the back. But she was sure, knew for a fact that this was Annie's house. Panic was building in her, where was Annie?
Maddie jumped off her horse to come up by Lucy's side. Lucy still had Del by the arms and was trying to keep her from going back inside. She was scared because she had never seen Del like this before. She could see the fear in the small woman's eyes and she knew something horrible had happened. Lucy lost her grip on Del as she pulled away and started running for the barn. Maddie went after her as Lucy looked inside the door of the old house.
Del reached the barn as Maddie was catching up with her. The roof had collapsed in and planks were missing from the sides. In fact the whole building was leaning to one side. As Del started to go inside Maddie stopped her. She could see the panic in Del 's eyes and feel her trembling. Seeing Del this way was scarring Maddie but she had to stay calm, someone had to. "Calm down Del , you can't go in there." Maddie held Del 's arms tight.
"Something's wrong, something's happened to them."
She tried to break Maddie's grip, but Maddie held tight. She was trying to pull Del away when they both heard a loud whining sound. Del looked out in the direction of the sheep herd. There she saw one of the two wheel cars coming towards them, with someone on its back. Del stopped fighting Maddie's grip. They both watched as the rider came towards them. Maddie let go of Del 's arms hoping that this would be Annie and everything would be all right.
Lucy was shaken and didn't know what to do; she stared at the inside of the house and knew that Del had not taken them to the wrong place. Everything was crazy, nothing made any sense, and she felt lonely and frightened. Then she thought about Del , this was the moment Del had been waiting for since leaving the ranch, and now. No Annie, no kids, no James, nothing. She had to get to Del. She took Anam's reins and mounted her own grey mare as Maddie's horse followed behind. She started for the barn as she heard and saw the rider bearing down on them. She reached the barn just before the rider and ran to Del 's side. Maddie put an arm around her and stood ready for anything.
The rider stopped his machine and got off. It was a man in his thirties, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. He started walking towards the women, but before he could take three steps Del pulled her gun and pointed it straight at him. He froze and held his hands out to his sides. Maddie tried to take Del 's arm, but Del pulled away and walked a few steps toward the man. He was asking what they were doing out here.
Del 's face had grown hard, but her eyes were wild, "Where's Annie?"
The man seemed confused, "Who?"
"Annie and James the people who own this place." anger rising in Del 's voice.
"I don't know who you're talking about, I own this place" the man said a little nervous, "could you not point that at me."
Del pointed the gun in the man's face and walked to him, "What did you do with the people who live here?"
Maddie and Lucy were afraid Del was going to kill the man, they had never seen her so angry, her body was shaking with rage. They slowly approached Del 's side, but she didn't notice them, she couldn't hear them softly pleading with her to put the gun down. All Del knew was Annie was missing and this man was claming her land.
"I'm going to give you one more chance, what have you done with Annie and James Stokes?"
"Lady, I haven't done anything with anyone, this is my land your...did you say Stokes?”
Del 's empty hand started to shake, but the gun never moved. "Where are they?"
The man was beginning to wonder what he had walked into, there was an old six shooter pointed at his face by a woman dressed up like a bad cowboy and she was asking about his great-great grand parents. "Lady, the only Annie and James Stokes that lived here died more than seventy years ago."
"You're lying!!" Del shook the gun in his face and pulled back the hammer, rage taking over. Lucy didn't know what to do; she could only hold her breath.
It was Maddie who stepped in front of Del and tried to get between her and the man. " Del , calm down, put the gun down, something has happened and we have to figure this out, but we can't if you shoot him."
The man was turning pale at the prospect of being shot, "I am telling you the truth, they were my great-great grandparents."
"I was just here before winter, Annie had just given birth to Benjamin, I delivered him myself. Now where is she!?!"
The man stood staring at the small woman in front of him. Surly she must be insane, they were all insane, riding around like cowboys and talking about things that had happened a hundred years ago. He looked at Del very carefully. She was dirty and wore coarse fabric pants and shirt, there was an old holster at her side, but it looked well taken care of as did the gun that went inside it but was still pointing at him. The other two were dressed in similar clothes and all had guns at their sides. Who could these people be? He tried to remain calm, "I promise you I am telling you the truth. I don't know where you think you are or when you think you are or how you know about my family, but James Stokes died around, oh, 1918 and Annie, I don't remember exactly, but she lived into her seventies, I guess she died around 1939, maybe 40.", he noticed the color had gone out of not only the face of the woman with the gun, but also the faces of the other two as well, "How do know about my family?"
Maddie looked at him with disbelief, "1939? What do you mean 1939 ?"
Finally able to move, Lucy stepped up to the strangers' side. He looked at her and saw the disbelief in her eyes. "That's the year she died, I think."
Tears began to fill Lucy's eyes. Del just stared at him as if she couldn't hear him. Maddie seemed to be the only one trying to put together everything that was being said. "What year is it now?"
The man looked at her with disbelief and something almost like humor, "What do you mean what year is it? It's 2009. I hate to spoil your illusion, but I think it's time you ladies checked back into reality."
Maddie just stared at the man unable to comprehend what he had just said. Lucy was crying and looking at Del who had lowered her gun but not put it away. Nothing made any sense for them and yet in a strange way for Maddie it was beginning to make some sense. Not that she could believe what she was now thinking, but it did begin to explain some of what they had been seeing. Somehow they had ridden into the future.
Del could not take anymore; her brain was ripping in half. One half desperate to find Annie and the other trying to make sense of what this man was saying. This man who claimed to be Annie's great-great grandson. She looked at Maddie and Lucy who were also struggling with this information. Del backed away from them all. Maddie reached out a hand to her, but Del just kept backing away. She only knew of one way to find the truth, she put her fingers to her mouth and gave a loud whistle. Anam came running up from the far side of the barn and without stopping Del turned and pulled herself into the saddle. They took off at full speed as Del finally holstered her gun.
Without the gun pointing at him the man started to breathe a little easier. He watched Del ride off for a moment, her companions calling to her. She must be an incredible rider to mount like that without the horse ever missing a beat. Quickly he was brought back to the moment at hand by the sound of Lucy's cries. Maddie wrapped her arms around her and was watching Del ride away. Watching these two women, the man felt sorry for them as his feelings of anger began to dampen. He looked to Maddie as the voice of reason in the trio, "Excuse me Miss, but could you tell me who you are and what your doing here?"
Maddie looked at this man who had just brought their world to a crashing halt and did not know how to answer him. Lucy looked up at him and then after Del , "We're friends of Annie Stokes."
The man looked at them in disbelief, the looney bin had just ridden onto his land. Something very strange was going on and it was about time everyone got some answers. He wanted to know where they were from. When Maddie told him they had been traveling from Colorado for over a month to see Annie and that it had been the spring of 1886 when they left home. Something about the two of them and Del , her desperation and pain, made him almost believe them. He wanted to hear their whole story, but Maddie was wondering aloud where Del could have ridden off to so fast. He thought for a moment and then remembered that the old family cemetery was up on the ridge in the direction Del was riding.
Fear came over Maddie again, if he was telling the truth and Del found Annie's grave... Not knowing what Del might do she ran to her horse and told Lucy to stay put. With much less grace than Del 's exit, Maddie mounted up and raced in the direction of the ridge.
The ground was a blur under Anam's hooves as he carried Del faster then the wind to the place she knew all too well. Pine boughs whipped at Del 's face as they speed up the hillside. Reaching the ridge she pulled Anam up short sending dirt and rocks flying. There looking out onto the valley and surrounded by a cradle of trees was the small headstone of Annie's baby. Del slid off Anam's back and slowly walked toward the little grave. The stone James had made was old and worn, the words barely visible, but it did not stand alone. Surrounding the lost child were others, larger and better made, some with the names barely visible while others were easily read. Del went to the stone closest to the baby and fell to the ground. It read Robert Stokes, 1881-1900. Del 's head was spinning and her ears were filled with the sound of a tornado. This could not be her beautiful little Robert, he was only five, how could he be dead at nineteen. Looking around she could just make out the name Stokes on a couple of the headstones nearby. Her breathing was getting harder and tears were blurring her vision. Then she saw a stone that was a little different than all the rest. The stone was a little larger and there was a cross to one side of it and a slightly smaller stone on the other. Del sat there not wanting to move, but her body crawled to the stone in spite of the screaming in her head. Tears were obscuring her vision and forcing her to find her way using her hands until her head was touching the stone. And there she found what she had feared most in the world. There she found Annie.
Her breathing seemed to stop as she read the inscription: Beloved Mother and Grandmother, She's gone to find Del , May she be at peace at last. Del noticed the cross that was touching the headstone, it was hard to read, but it simply said: Del , gone but not forgotten. The stone to the right of Annie was James. Here was her love, her family and they were all dead. It was more than Del could bear; she let out a soul-wrenching cry that filled the valley. She clawed at the headstone and collapsed in a hysterical heap with her face pressed against the stone.
Maddie was making her way up the hill when she heard the awful piercing cry. Knowing Del was in trouble she urged her horse on, faster and faster until she topped the ridge. There in front of her was a small cemetery with a dozen or so stones of different sizes and conditions. And lying in front of the most prominent one was Del. Maddie jumped from her horse and ran to where she lay. Seeing Del in this condition was breaking her heart, she stopped at the small womans feet. Maddie had seen some pitiful sights before, but seeing Del completely broken laying there crying in the dirt and holding onto the headstone, was almost more than she could bear. Slowly Maddie reached out, but Del pulled away screaming with the pain in her soul. Maddie wrapped herself around Del and held on tight. She let Del fight her as she held on and spoke to her, whispering the same thing over and over again in a soothing voice hoping to reach her, she simply said ‘I know'. She didn't need to read Annie's name on the stone, but when she did she couldn't help but cry. She cried for Del 's loss and her own. Perhaps she was dead and this was hell.
Del finally quit fighting against Maddie's hold and fell into quiet sobbing in her arms. Still in shock, Maddie looked into the sad face and realized that whatever was happening, it was real and they were going to have to deal with it. She was torn by which upset her more, seeing Del in so much pain or thinking they had traveled over a hundred years and everything and everyone they had known was gone. Maddie decided to deal with that which she had some control over. She looked down at the strongest woman she had ever met, who was now lying in her arms staring off at something that could not be seen. Her heart ached for Del ; she had never seen so much pain in one face. She held her closer and rocked them both. After a while she cradled Del 's face and talked to her, forcing Del to come back to her and to the truth they all now had to face.
A gentle breeze was blowing through the trees and Del was remembering the last time she had been there with Annie. They had been so happy planning their future together. What had happened? How could it be one hundred and twenty three years later? Where did her future go? Del looked at Maddie's tear stained face and decided that what ever had happened to them she would find a way to fix it and to get them back home. She looked at the tombstone and resolved to find a way back to Annie. She had people depending on her and she was not going to let them down, this did not have to be real, she could change it.
Maddie saw a glimmer of something as she searched the hazel eyes before her. Del got to her feet and ran a sleeve over her dirty tear streaked face then held a hand out to Maddie.
Maddie took Del 's hand and stood, "Are you okay?" she asked holding onto the strong hand.
"I'm sorry," was all Del could manage to croak. Her throat was dry and sore and her eyes burned. She did not like for anyone to see her this way, especially Maddie, but she could not hide her pain at the thought of Annie being dead, especially from Maddie.
Watching Del lost like this was almost more than Maddie could stand. She had come to care a great deal about this woman who had taken care of her and looked after her. Now it was her turn to look after Del , to help her through her pain, to keep her from getting lost.
Lucy was waiting by the old house that Del had built so many years ago. In the bright Montana sun the old place looked like bleached bones. She sat in the grass looking at something that just a short time ago had meant safety to her, now she felt sorrow and dread looking at the skeleton in front of her. The man who had brought so much bad news to them was sitting with her. His name was Dan Stokes, he was tall and had sandy colored hair that kept falling in his blue eyes and he was the great-great grandson of Annie and James Stokes.
Dan had yelled after Maddie how to get to the ridge and was then left with the girl. She looked as if she hadn't had a good meal in a long time, her clothes were dirty, tears had made streaks through the dirt on her face and her shoulders were shaking. He had suggested they sit in the shade of a nearby tree and Lucy could tell him who they really were.
Lucy was exhausted and couldn't bear to think anymore. She sat with Dan looking at Annie's house and just let the story come out of it's own accord. She told him about Del and Annie's close friendship and how Del had built the very house they were sitting in front of now. She told him in part about Clark that she had run into some trouble with her boss and had to leave town in a hurry, coming across Maddie's farm and the nosy sheriff. How they had fled into a storm through the canyons, and narrowly missing the rock slide that blocked the path behind them. And how from that night on everything they saw and everyone they met was unfamiliar and strange. She kept talking because she didn't know what else to do. Dan never interrupted her, the story was so compelling. She told him about her family and their farm, Cody and Del 's ranch, and how she and Annie would write letters to each other and not tell Del. Finally she fell silent. She had told him everything and really didn't care anymore what happened.
Dan was silent for a while; he was trying to take in everything she had told him. He wanted to believe her, but it was too outrageous, that these three women had traveled forward in time and were here looking for his long dead relatives. She had all her information straight about his family, but that wasn't hard to get. The Stokes had been on this land since the 1880's. They had one of the most successful sheep ranches and textile mills in the state. He had heard stories all his life about the mysterious Del. How she had helped his great-great grandparents get started here. It was a legend in their family of how Annie spoke of Del until her dying day. After James died Annie only spoke of Del and how one day they would be together again. But Del had been killed in a rock slide somewhere in Colorado while helping a fugitive escape. Dan thought about this a moment, it could not be the same person, even if Lucy's story did match.
At the sound of hoof beats Lucy was on her feet watching Del and Maddie riding toward them. Dan stood slowly, not wanting to give the women any reason to pull their gun on him again. Del rode right up to him, Anam's sweat flying onto his shirt. Lucy started for her, but Maddie had jumped down and stopped her. She told Lucy what they had found on the ridge, that there was a grave with Annie's name on it. With no more tears left in her Lucy fell against Maddie and watched Del jump down in front of Dan.
Pacing and starring at Dan , Del could not seem to find the words she needed. So it was Dan who broke the silence. He said Lucy had told him everything and he wanted to believe them, but wasn't sure he could. At that Del stopped and looked him in the eye. She didn't believe him anymore than he believed her, but she could prove who she was. She moved to Anam's side and dug out of her saddle bag the picture of her and Annie. She handed it to Dan who looked at it with bewildered skepticism. He wanted to know where she had got it. When Del told him that she and Annie had two pictures taken before Annie moved so they would always be able to see each other no matter where they were, Dan visibly paled. He had an almost identical picture at home in the family scrapbook. He looked at her with disbelief. He was looking at a ghost, a phantom from the past. This time he was at a loss for words.
The four of them stood starring at each other. No one knew what to do or say. Finally Dan spoke, "How did you get here?"
Del didn't know how they had gotten there, but she needed to figure out how to get them back. Dan suggested they go to his house and try to figure out just what had happened. Everyone was exhausted and the thought of sitting inside a real house again sounded like heaven to Lucy and Maddie. Del agreed to go, but she watched Dan with suspicion and her hand was never far from her gun.
Dan had ridden off in the direction of the ranch house in the distance. The women followed at a slower and more somber pace. No one spoke the entire ride, but they looked with wonder at the house and out buildings as they approached. The main house was a beautiful two story log home. It was so big that Lucy thought there must be a couple of dozen people living there. Off to one side of the house was a three car garage and a smaller gardening shed. Behind the house was a large deck with chairs and tables and a brick bar-b-que. A distance away on the other side of the house was a big barn and several smaller buildings around it with a silo on the far side, the top reaching up over the barn. Between the barn and house was a bunk house, it could house twenty if necessary, but only three lived there full time. As the three women approached Dan came out on the back porch with a woman. She was older with graying hair and barely came up to his shoulder, she wore jeans, a crisp white western blouse and cowboy boots. They stood watching the three riders slowly come up around the garage. Dan walked out to meet them.
Del insisted on tending to the horses so Dan showed her where the big water trough was on the side of the barn. Lucy had started to unsaddle her horse when Del told her to leave it. She didn't trust these people and they were only staying long enough to get some answers. Del scooped water onto Anam's flanks and neck as Maddie watched before doing the same to her horse. Dan had prepared buckets of oats in the barn and called them over. They had never seen a barn so big. An array of equipment on one side that Del could only imagine what it was for. The other side housed a tack room, a grain room and several stalls. Del could smell the evidence of horses, but did not see any inside or out; she figured they must be out running around on the enormous spread of land. Dan talked them into unsaddling the horses and letting them rest. As much as Del wanted to be able to leave in a hurry, she could not argue with looking out for the well being of her beloved horses. Gathering their saddlebags and Maddie's carpet bag, they followed Dan back to the house where the woman sat waiting for them.
"Ladies, this is my Momma, Alice Stokes. Momma this is Lucy, Maddie and, Momma this is Del Conner."
Dan's mother was slight of build, standing only a little over five feet tall. She smiled and held out her hand to shake hands with each of them. Lucy quickly smiled and said hello, Maddie was embarrassed by the filthy condition of her hands and tried to wipe them on her even dirtier shirt before touching the clean smooth tanned hand of the woman. Del was looking at Alice real hard trying to see any of James or Annie in her, she tried to smile, but it only came out as a grimace. Alice took a long hard examination of Del and then jutted her hand forward grabbing Del 's empty hand and giving it a good squeeze. "It's a pleasure to meet you. Dan tells me you just rode in here from the past. Is that true?" She never took her eye off Del , whether they were real or not she knew Del was the leader.
"Ma'am, I don't really know what the truth is any more. I do know that we set out from my ranch in Colorado to come see Annie Stokes that was over a month ago."
Alice could feel a tremor in Del 's hand and she let it go so as not to embarrass the woman. "Well, you reached the right place, but the wrong time." Taking a step back she looked at the ragged condition of each of them. "You girls look like you could use a hot bath. Come on in, we've got a tub for each of you." With that she turned and walked inside the house.
Del , Maddie and Lucy followed her in as Dan completed the procession. Entering the house they were shocked as much by the cold air as the interior of the house. The sofa and chairs looked big and soft while the small tables were well worn dark wood. There were books and magazines scattered about, shelves that held hardback books and some really small thin ones that looked soft. There were more things unrecognizable than familiar to them.
As they stood there looking around with their mouths open, Lucy's arms started to goose pimple. "How is it so cold in here?" Lucy asked.
Dan and Alice both noticed the women holding their arms. Dan stepped forward, "It's called air conditioning, it cools the house down on hot days."
Alice came over and took Lucy by the arm and started leading her to a staircase. "Let's get you girls in a nice hot bath. You can have mine and we'll put Maddie in Abby's bathroom and Del you can have Jason's bath."
Del and Maddie gave each other a questioning look. These people had three bathtubs in their house. Maddie was beginning to wonder about the place, she had heard of places where trail weary men could stop and have a bath and a bit of entertainment for the night. They cautiously followed the little woman up the stairs and down a long soft carpeted hallway. Del had never seen a rug so thick that covered every inch of the floor. They all followed her into a large bedroom with a huge bed in its center; there were several bureaus and a chiffarobe, a small sofa in one corner with a table by its side stacked with books. Del caught a glimpse of herself in an enormous full length mirror; she looked like something Cody's old dog wouldn't bother chasing. They entered another room and were dazzled at how bright it was. There was a little glass room in one corner and a big white tub next to it, one side was all counter with two washbasins in the center, and on the other side was a little room with a very uncomfortable looking chair in it. Alice busied herself getting towels and washcloths for Lucy. She showed the girl where the soap, shampoo and conditioner were and asked if she would like a bubble bath. Lucy looked bewildered, she didn't know what to do, she looked at Del for an answer, but Del was looking as confused as she was. Alice looked at each one of them and realized she would have to give a lesson in taking a bath. She ran the water in the tub and poured in some bubble bath. She told Lucy to use the shampoo in her hair then rinse it out and then do the same with the conditioner. She rummaged around in a cabinet until she had found two new toothbrushes. She explained about how to get the toothpaste out of the tube and Lucy wanted to try it right away. Del watch carefully as Lucy brushed her teeth, making a mess all down her chin and shirt. She had a feeling that Lucy was in some way enjoying this strange new world. She almost envied her in a way, because Del was not enjoying one bit of it. To Alice 's horror, when Lucy had finished brushing her teeth she handed the brush to Maddie encouraging her to try the sweet paste. Alice quickly handed Maddie her own brush and assured Del there were more around the house, she would fine one while they bathed. They left Lucy to her bath and as Del was crossing the bedroom again she heard a sigh of pleasure coming from Lucy.
Alice took Maddie and Del to another bedroom, not as big as the first, and then through to another bathroom. Again she ran the bath and found all the soaps and towels Maddie would need and took Del to yet another bedroom and bath. As Alice began her routine again Del asked, "Is this a hotel?" Alice laughed and explained that with three kids and a constant supply of house guests, it was easier if everyone had their own bathroom. She left Del eyeing the tub as if it might swallow her whole.
Downstairs Dan had set about the task of putting together some cold fried chicken and potato salad left over from the night before. He was scrounging around for something else to set out when his mother came into the kitchen. She put the chicken in the oven to heat up and started making macaroni and cheese. They talked about the strangers who were now soaking upstairs. And using liberal portions of shampoo and soap Alice hoped. Dan was wanting more and more to believe that they really were from 1886, their wonder and suspicion of everything was just too genuine. Alice agreed they didn't seem to know about much and looked like they had been through hell, but she didn't know if she could believe they were time travelers.
Lucy had sunk into the hot sudsy tub and instantly began to relax, the sweet aroma of jasmine enveloping her. She lay there for a moment savoring the feel of the hot water on her sore muscles, then she submerged her head stayed under as long as she could hold her breath. She took her time, using all the soaps Alice had left her. When she put the conditioner in her hair she was surprised at how easily the tangles fell out. She stayed in the tub rubbing down her sore arms and legs and neck until the water turned cold. She couldn't find a plug in the bottom so she played with all the handles on the end of the tub until she found the one that let out the water. She even figured out how to turn the water on and get it a comfortable temperature so she could rinse all the suds off her and the black ring out of the tub that she had left.
Maddie was enjoying her bath so much she fell asleep. It was only when the water turned cold that she woke and hurried to finish. She regretted having to get out of the tub, but had never felt so clean and fresh in her life. She also had to clean a black ring out of the bottom of the tub. She could not believe that much dirt had come off her. She was just toweling off when Alice knocked on the door offering clean clothes in exchange for her dirty ones. Alice had given Lucy a pair of Jason's old jeans and a sweatshirt since the girl had been so cold. She handed Maddie a pair of Abby's old work jeans that she had managed to find and Del a pair of her own with a belt. She knew they would be too big for Del 's waist but at least she wouldn't trip over them. She gave them a couple of her grandson's long sleeve jerseys. She also included in each stack of clothes a pair of warm socks. She had a feeling that anything they pulled out of those bags they were carrying would be no cleaner than the clothes they had on.
One by one they each found their way back downstairs and into the living room. The smell of food drew them to find their way to the enormous kitchen. There set out on a big round table were plates of chicken and potato salad, biscuits with jam and butter, corn on the cob and some bright yellow stuff. There was a big pitcher of iced cold tea and a pie on a counter nearby. The kitchen itself was a sight to behold and Lucy was glad she did not have to clean it. There were two stovetops and three ovens, countertops covered with all sorts of appliances and two big doors that were the refrigerators. She thought these people must be ten times wealthier than Mr. Clark.
Alice ushered the women to their seats and began piling their plates high with food. Del followed the sound of Lucy's exclamations and the smell of food down the stairs. She walked in carrying everything she owned, gun strapped to her side, in spite of Alice 's request that she leave everything upstairs. She stood there looking around and eyeing the food, her stomach making loud noises of approval. Maddie thought how much like a child Del looked at that moment, her hair was wet and sticking out in different directions, her eyes wide and troubled, the dark circles very noticeable now, the clothes that had been given her were just a little too big and her socked feet stuck out from the bottom of the jeans as if they didn't know what to do. Dan offered to put her things on a chair for now and pointed her to a seat. Alice looked up to see the gun at Del 's side. She bristled, "There will be no guns at my table. You can put it over there with the rest of your things. Nobody's going to kill you in here." She sat down and fixed a plate for Del. Del did as she was told; something about the tone in Alice 's voice had reminded her of Annie, who wouldn't let her eat at the table with it on either. Del took her place at the table and tentatively started to eat, she looked at Lucy who had already eaten half her plate and began to eat more hardly. Alice watched the three who were trying not to eat like animals, but couldn't help devouring their food. She filled each plate again and watched as that disappeared just as quickly. She made coffee to go with the pie and watched as the three girls and Dan devoured the pie. She and Dan had both already eaten lunch, but he never could resist one of her pies.
Feeling stuffed and sick from having eaten too much, Del followed the rest into the living room and sat on one of the soft comfortable sofas. Alice was saying something about sleeping arrangements, Lucy could have her nephew Jason's room and he could sleep in the bunkhouse. Maddie could have her daughter Abby's old room and Del would be put in Travis's old room. Del began to protest, they were not staying the night when Alice cut her off, "Of course you're staying the night. You traveled all this way to get to the Stokes ranch, well, here you are. You're where you set out to be." she ignored any objections Del was making and told them where each of the rooms were. Maddie was already in Abby's room and Del had been in the bathroom shared by the boys when they were young. Everything seemed to swirl around Del , she was tired and feeling so lost in her strange surroundings. She just wanted to curl up where she was and sleep and when she woke everything would be back to normal, but she knew that would never happen. She had to find out what had happened to them and how she could fix it.
Lucy recounted for Alice the edited version of all they had been through. Dan left the room and could be heard down the hall rummaging through cupboards. Alice was full of questions about their trip, she was most curious about their destined run the last evening on Maddie's farm. Lucy was doing most of the talking, describing the storm, the sound of the wind in the canyons and the color of the sky. She mentioned about seeing something on the top of the arch when the lightening flashed and they flew through as the whole thing came down just missing them. Alice was taking everything in, considering all the facts. Del could see she was not entirely convinced; she pulled out the picture of her and Annie from under her shirt and handed it to Alice . She told Alice about the time the picture was taken, and how Annie and James had moved away, and she would go visit them, building the house that stood up the valley from them now. She told of delivering Annie's babies, Robert, Margaret, and Benjamin, and of their plans of moving her horse ranch up to Montana and near her family. She spoke with no emotion; she barely had energy to speak. Alice could see the pain in Del 's eyes, the exhaustion and broken spirit. She found herself believing this woman when she said she was from 1886, you could just lock her up on the funny farm with the rest of them because she could see, feel the truth of what they were saying.
Dan had reclaimed his seat as Del began to speak; he listened with amazement and then presented Del with a stack of photo albums. He showed their guests the old pictures of their family, starting with a photo of Annie, James and all five of their children in front of the house Del had built. It had been the only picture of Robert, as he would die later that year from a fall off the barn roof.
Del could not hold back the tears that were welling up inside her and quietly allowed them to fall. Robert, her beautiful little boy, all grown up in the picture, and now gone. She thought of the pain Annie must have gone through loosing her son at only nineteen. And she had not been there to comfort her. She looked at the other faces and could see Annie and James in each of them. Margaret had gotten tall and favored James, Benny had his father's gentle smile, Walter looked to be about thirteen or fourteen and was lanky like his father, but he had Annie's eyes, and Annie's youngest daughter was a rough and tumbled version of her mother, she could see that Annie had tried to comb her youngest daughters hair, but it refused to lay down flat and her strong chin was jutted out in a defying manner, she wore pants, a shirt, and boots that had probably belonged to her brothers at one time and in her hand she held the reins of a beautiful bay mare. Del thought Annie must have had her hands full with this one. When Dan told Del that Annie's youngest daughter was named Del and she had been a horse breeder, it was more than Del could bear. She wanted to jump up and run away from these people, this foreign place, run until she found what she had come for, but Alice kept turning the pages and continued the story of Annie's family through the last hundred years.
Dan was the great grandson of Walter, Annie's fourth child. Alice had married Simon Stokes who was the only son of Marcus Stokes, Walter's youngest son. There were so many grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren that Del quickly lost track. Dan concentrated on his immediate family to try and ease the confusion. Dan's older brother Travis ran the textile mill in Bozeman and he ran the sheep ranch. Their younger sister Abby lived on the far side of the property and raised and trained horses. Travis's son Jason lived with him and Alice and was learning the family business from the starting point, and the business started with sheep. Travis's daughter was more interested in the business end at the mill and Abby had her own thing going on with her horses. The talk went into the night trying to answer Lucy and Maddie's questions. Del however remained silent, only giving the minimalist of answers to Dan and Alice 's questions.
As darkness descended the back door opened and a lanky young man with dirt brown hair and bright green eyes came in. Jason had been out working with the other ranch hands and was dirty and tired, but curiosity quickly replaced the thought of food when he saw their three visitors. Dan introduced them as friends of the family and thought it best at that time to forgo the explanation of three women who had managed to somehow travel through time and were from the real Wild West. Jason gave them an enthusiastic hello and when he was told he would be staying with the ranch hands in the bunkhouse, he gave a whoop of joy. He had been begging his Gran to let him stay in the bunkhouse with the other hired hands since he arrived. It made no sense to work along side them all day long and then go home to the big house at night. He hurried upstairs to pack his bag so he could make it to the bunkhouse in time for supper.
Alice excused herself to go start dinner. She demanded that each of the girls bring her all their clothes and she would throw them into the wash. This caused a great deal of confusion; Lucy thought she was going to throw their clothes out. When she explained that she had a machine that would wash and dry the clothes, both Lucy and Maddie exclaimed with wonder, at last a really useful machine, they both wanted to see how it worked. While Maddie and Lucy went and gathered their clothes, Alice started supper.
Del and Dan talked about the ranch and how it had been Del 's suggestion to start sheep ranching since James was such a poor farmer. She was impressed about the mill and wanted to know how many of Annie's family were still around. It was a little sad to find out so many of the family had moved away, but there were still enough Stokes in the area to make up a large part of the community. She was glad to hear that James had been successful in his business and built up a legacy to leave to his children and family on down the line. He had taken care of Annie. He had succeeded where she had failed.
Exclamations of excitement could be heard in another part of the house as Maddie and Lucy got their first lesson in washing clothes the easy way. With just the two of them in the room Dan felt he could tell Del the old famous story about his ancestors.
"There is a story in our family about Great-Great Grandma Annie. It seems that after her husband died she use to go up to the ridge everyday and sit and look out, when one of her kids would ask what she was doing she would say 'Waiting for Del to come home.' She starting taking her grandchildren up there and it became a game, looking for Del. Everybody knew that no matter how much Annie had loved James, her heart belonged to her long lost Del. "
Del sat listening, barely able to breath.
"Her youngest daughter was named after, well you I guess. She was a natural horseman. She loved horses and started the ranch my sister Abby lives on now. I guess there's one in every generation. There has always been one who has taken to the horses instead of sheep. Yeah, Great Aunt Del started her own ranch and never married, she ran it all by herself. Of course there was Elizabeth ."
Del looked confused, "Who's Elizabeth ?"
"She was Aunt Del 's companion. Aunt Del ran the ranch, but Elizabeth ran the house. My Grandpa said Elizabeth was the only one who could tame Aunt Del. Apparently before they met, Aunt Del was a real hellion."
Dan gave a sly grin in Del 's direction. She looked surprised. "I didn't have anything to do with it."
"Grandpa use to say that Annie believed your spirit had passed into her youngest daughter, because without any influence from her or James, her little Del was exactly like her big Del. "
She sat quiet again, her insides crumbling into a million pieces. Dan could see the toll everything she had been through was taking on her. He didn't know how to make any of it easier and he wanted to find out as much as Del how they had gotten there. Looking at the two near identical pictures of Del and his great-great grandmother he couldn't help feel sorry for her. "You must have loved her a great deal." Del had no strength left in body or soul; she looked into Dan's eyes and could see his sincerity. She nodded her head ever so slightly. Dan leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. "I really think you need to meet my sister." She gave him a blank stare, she had nothing left to give. The smell of biscuits and beef stew floated through the air and made her light headed. Del sunk back into the soft sofa and closed her eyes never wanting to open them again. She did not know how long she stayed like that, but all too quickly Alice called them to supper, wearily they got up and joined the others.
After everyone had gone to sleep, Del quietly made her way down the stairs and out of the house to the barn. The night was clear and a faint light given off by a half moon was all she needed. Comforted by the smell of leather and hay she whistled for Anam, who stepped out of the dark ready to be saddled as if he had been waiting for her. They rode to the ridge and looked back across the Stokes land. Pulling her saddle and blanket free she let Anam roam where he pleased, knowing he would not go far. She slept the night on Annie's grave, in the place that was marked as her own.
Maddie woke before sunrise and quietly made her way to Del 's room. The bed had never been slept in and she knew why. She thought of the turmoil Del was in, so much had happened to them in such a short time that the reality of their situation was just sinking in. Maddie did not feel any loss of her own, her life had been miserable before she killed John and after she was always afraid someone would find out. Her parents wouldn't miss her, they had been happy when she got married, leaving the two of them to each other once again. There was nothing back home for her and that was why she had so readily gone off with Del and Lucy. But now she did have something that she cared about. The time she had spent with the two women had been the most exciting of her life. She felt a sense of family with these two that she had never felt with anyone before, including her parents. If some catastrophic event had propelled them into the future, then Maddie did not mind so much. This meant a clean start for her, no looking over her shoulder wondering when the law was going to catch up with her. It had been over a hundred years since she buried John in cow shit and if anyone had ever found him, they were long dead as well. She could start over with Lucy and Del. Only Del wanted what was in her past and it was tearing her apart to have lost it. If Del could find a way back she would take it and Maddie knew she would go with her. This sudden realization sent Maddie into motion. She had to get to Del , she had to see her and know for sure. Something was growing inside her and Maddie needed to know what it was.
Without making a noise she headed to the barn. Maddie saddled her horse and took off for the ridge. She came over the top to see Del sitting on Annie's grave, clutching her knees to her chest and looking like a ghost herself. Quietly she dismounted and walked to Del 's side. As she stood there Del just stared at the tombstone, finally Maddie stepped between the two and knelt. " Del ," she whispered. Del looked pale and empty and Maddie could take no more of it. She gently took Del by the shoulders and held tight. " Del. ", she said firmly. Del could only look right through her, so Maddie grabbed her face and forced her to look into her own eyes. She couldn't take the lost look on Del 's face, "You can't do this", she said as Del tried to pull away. Maddie held steady and did not let go, "you can not sit here and will that grave to life, I won't let you destroy yourself that way."
Del ripped her face from Maddie's hands, "Leave me alone, you have no right to tell me what to do."
"Maybe not, but I was the one who left everything to follow you and I am here with you now."
Del pushed away from Maddie angrily, "Nobody forced you to come, you were looking for someone to take you away from there, so don't blame me if it's not what you wanted."
Maddie sat back and looked at Del with pleading in her eyes, " Del , I don't blame you for anything; I went with you because I was trying to find a way out of my own situation, but be that as it may, I still have nothing to go home to. My families all dead as well." Del sat looking at Maddie, wishing she would just leave her alone, she did not want to hear about anyone else's loss right now, her own was too overwhelming. Maddie's eyes shone with tears that she refused to let fall, there was an avalanche of emotion inside her and she knew that what she had ridden up there to find out was true. She had never felt this way with John, but she knew what was happening to her, she was falling in love. And it was with a woman who was in love with a ghost.
Maddie began to shake; she did not know what to do. She wanted Del to wrap her arms around her and tell her everything would be okay and at the same time she wanted to run away from this place and be alone to scream and cry herself into oblivion. Instead she stood and held onto Annie's tombstone, not trusting her own legs to keep her up. "I know you need time, we all do. All we have is each other right now, we have to stick together, and I am going to be by your side no matter what."
Del looked up into green eyes with gold flecks shining and saw the strong woman she had seen the first time they met; only this time there was no suspicion in them, but something else. Del could not tell exactly what it was, but she knew Maddie was set on something. "I'm going back."
"I know. And we're going with you."
"You and Lucy have nothing to gain by going back, there're probably wanted posters everywhere by now. I won't let them take Lucy, or you."
"It's not your decision, and no one is going take Lucy to jail as long as I'm alive, or you."
"Nobody's looking for me."
"There're looking for all three of us by now and I don't think they are going to be too interested in why anyone did anything."
Del got to her feet, her sense of responsibility replacing her sense of dread. "You can start over here, no one has to know. You can both have a real chance here."
Maddie looked down at the grave by her side and took a deep breath, "I don't want to be here without you and if that means going back to being on the run again or maybe even hanging, then that's what I chose. I go where you go until I can no more."
"Take the time you need here, but don't stay too long, she's not here, this is just dirt and stone." Maddie took a step closer to Del and put her hand over Del 's heart, "She's here, always, no matter where you are, remember? You'll never lose her. I am going to do my best to get you back, but Del remember, she's already with you.", and with that Maddie walked away. Del tried to call after her, but Maddie didn't stop, she just got on her horse and rode away.
Del watched her go then turned back to Annie's grave. She reached out and gently touched the name promising to find her way home, then grabbed her gear she whistled for Anam.
Alice was in the kitchen making breakfast when Del walked in; she took one look at Del and guessed where she had been. She told Del to take a bath and she would find her clothes cleaned and hanging in the bathroom. She watched Del 's face as she started to object, then just give in, without a word she turned and headed up stairs. Alice was very curious about her guests and even more so about how they had gotten here. She wasn't a fan of science fiction, but she did believe that there were more things in this world that were undiscovered and unexplainable than she could imagine. She liked the women, but felt sorry for them, they looked as though they had been drug over the mountains and each of their eyes held a great deal of sorrow. She wanted to know about where they came from, but did not want to bring up painful memories for them. There would be time later for all her questions, in the mean time she would do what she could for them. Alice was willing to believe that her guests had come from the past, but she did not seriously believe that they could go back there.
Lucy came downstairs freshly scrubbed and wearing her old clothes with Alice 's sweatshirt over her own shirt. She could not get use to the coolness of the house when it was so warm outside. She went into the kitchen and asked to help Alice with breakfast, mainly because she wanted to see how all the gadgets worked. Everything was so much easier here, there were machines to do just about everything for you, and she still could not get over how soft her clothes felt. This was a place Lucy could get use to. All the strangeness did not bother her, the shock after seeing their first car had worn off and now Lucy wanted to know what other grand machines there were and what other great conveniences these people had.
Alice liked the young girl and was only too happy to show her how everything in the kitchen worked. It was nice to have help for a change, oh, sometimes Abby and Kelly would come over for dinner and help out, but for the most part the running of the house was left entirely up to Alice . She did insist on Dan and Jason keeping their rooms clean and not leaving huge messes behind when they left a room, but the kitchen was all hers. And now here was a girl who knew something about cooking and cleaning and was eager to learn about everything that came her way.
Del had gone up stairs and sank into a hot tub of water; it felt good to just let the grime slip away, if only everything were this simple. She scrubbed herself clean and then toweled off. Reaching for her clothes she realized they had never smelled so good before, so not everything about this place was all bad.
Maddie and Dan were in the kitchen talking about the weather or any other topic that meant absolutely nothing while Lucy was shadowing every move Alice made as she fixed breakfast. Del stood back a moment and watched Lucy get excited over something that was popping up toasted bread. She realized that it was the first time in quite a while she had seen pure joy on the girls face. Lucy was relaxed, happy and safe. In this respect Del felt she had accomplished at least one of her goals. And if she didn't have Annie here to look after the girl, she had the next best thing, Annie's family. She looked at Maddie and was at a loss for what to do.
Alice announced breakfast and everyone had to come and get it. There was a mountain of food and Maddie could not imagine how Alice could afford to cook so much food for them at every meal. She was quickly assured by Dan that this was nothing compared to how much they would eat when the family had consisted of himself, his brother Travis, his sister Abby, his father Simon and Alice. The abundance at which these people lived was hard for Lucy and Maddie to believe. Both had come from dirt poor families who had struggled just to put together enough to feed everyone. They felt obliged to eat everything on there over filled plates, long after there stomachs were at the bursting point.
After breakfast Dan took the girls to meet his sister Abby, while Alice went to the grocery. She wanted to make a special dinner for the whole family. There were a lot of decisions that needed to be made in the next few days and it would go better if everyone felt they were a unit, no one left out to struggle on their own.
Abby Stokes was the youngest of Alice and Simon's three children and took after her father a great deal. She was tall and lean with dark hair and hazel eyes that usually held part skepticism and part mischievousness. She lived on a part of the ranch that had always been devoted to raising horses. Alice had always said that her daughter was by far the strongest of all her children. She ran her own business without any help from the rest of the family, was strong willed, had a sharp mind and was so lean and fit that she could easily run both her brothers into the ground. Abby would never back down from something she believed in, but at the same time she was also a very easy going person. She had a charm and friendliness in her strength that everyone was immediately drawn to.
Dan had called to tell her about the three young women he had found. She called him a gullible fool and told him to bring them over to the ranch, for she would get to the bottom of this nonsense. Pulling up to the stables, Del , Maddie, and Lucy tumbled out of his king cab pick-up truck a little pale and shaken by their first ride in an automobile. He thought for sure Lucy was going to be sick, but despite her pallor and shaking hands there was a twinkle in her eyes that told him she was too thrilled to let nausea overtake her. Del had a look of distrust the entire trip and Maddie still displayed the tenuous calm she maintained at all times even though her complexion was a pasty color at the moment.
Abby was inside the arena at the center of the stables, she watched as the truck pulled up and the passengers stumbled out. They all three looked sick to their stomachs she thought. She continued to put the horse she was on through its paces as she watched these women/girls, it was difficult to tell. They were steadying themselves and breathing deeply. She knew Dan could be a harsh driver, but he wasn't that bad. Finally they were walking in her direction, she rounded the far end and cantered back to meet them. Molly, her assistant was there to take the horse and give it a rub down. Dan had a mischievous grin on his face as she went through the opening in the arena wall, she could see he was enjoying himself, he must think that he's right she thought. She was looking over each of the women as Dan introduced them. They each wore old clothes that looked as though they had seen better days, at least they looked period. Lucy was the youngest and seemed every pleased to meet her. Maddie looked to be the oldest and was reserved with her emotions, she was pleasant, but would give nothing away. Finally she stepped over to shake Del 's hand and could finally see clearly her face. Here was a strong woman who did not trust anyone, she was their leader. Abby could easily tell by the way she watched every movement Abby made. She looked into Del 's eyes and for a moment felt she was looking at a face she knew very well, dark circles withstanding, a face that looked out at her every time she walked down the hallway to her office. She had a moment of doubt. These people were good, but she would find out who they were and what they wanted.
Del watched Abby closely even though her mind was reeling with the scope of the barn that they now stood in. She wanted desperately to look around and explore the entire place. She could smell and hear horses all around her and had seen about twenty more in the paddocks as they drove in. Instantly she was home sick, missing her own ranch and horses, Cody and her old weather beaten worn out house. She wondered how long it would be before she would see them again. They were being lead out of the barn and away from the comforting smells and sounds that she knew so well. They headed up to Abby's house to talk. Del was tired of talking, it made her head swim, all she wanted to do was get on Anam and ride away, to find Annie and have the world be as it should once more.
Abby noticed Del linger a moment looking out over the arena and smelling deeply the horse scented air, she watched the strong lean petite figure from the corner of her eye as they walked up to the house. She observed the girl looking all around her with great enthusiasm and heard her ask if Del had ever seen a barn so big. The older one, Maddie, was keeping a careful watch on the house and the other two as if she were trying to gauge Del 's reaction to this new place. The entire time Dan was going on about dinner and how she and Kelly were expected to be there.
As they reached the house Del noted that it was smaller than Dan's, but still larger than anything she had known. Inside was the same cool air with even more furniture and clutter. They were invited to sit on the assortment of chairs and sofas. Books and papers were everywhere, tables were stacked with magazines. There were pictures of cowgirls on the walls and statues of horses everywhere. To Maddie's surprise despite the clutter, the place was very clean. Abby had gone down a hall and could be heard talking to someone else, soon she and another woman emerged. This woman was small and wiry, she had soft brown curls that tumbled about her shoulders and she wore glasses. Her eyes sparkled and she seemed to smile at no one in particular just the whole world around her. Abby introduced her to everyone as her partner Kelly. Del thought that with a place this big to run, it made sense to have a business partner.
Kelly handed Abby a stack of papers and went off to the kitchen to get iced tea and cookies for their guest. Del listened once again as Dan told Abby and Kelly about finding them and his theory that they were time travelers. She was getting tired of having them talked about as if they were a piece of mail that had gotten lost in route and then found years later and delivered. Her attention wandered to her surroundings. There were books on horses everywhere, some of the magazines were about horses, but she didn't know what the others were. Some appeared to be about writing, but who would have a magazine about writing. What was she thinking? Who would have this many magazines. She had only seen two or three her whole life and they did not look anything like these. There had been one of the shinny bright things on Alice 's chair and she had told Del what it was. As she looked around she noticed a lot of pictures of Abby and Kelly. They were alone in some, but together in most, and some of the pictures were very intimate. She was lost in the captured moments of these strangers lives when she heard someone calling her name and felt Maddie's hand on her arm. Abby was asking them questions about their trip and Del had not been paying attention. Maddie whispered for her to wake up and at this Del blushed.
Abby had a barn full of questions about each one of them. She wanted to know how they had ridden over the mountains, about their homes, families, friends, horses, even their clothes. It was all very exhausting. Maddie did not give out any more information about herself than was necessary and she certainly did not mention John's death. Lucy had sadness in her voice as she talked about her family and the home she might never see again. When asked what made her go on such a trip she looked uneasily at Del. Telling Alice and Dan a masked version of her troubles was one thing, but now it seemed to her that an awful lot of people were finding out about Clark and it would only be a matter of time before they hauled her off and threw her in jail. Del decided to take charge at this point, she knew exactly what Lucy was thinking and she agreed.
"We came to see Annie." Del said as she leaned forward on the edge of her seat.
Abby knew she had hit a nerve, but she had to see how much these people knew, so far they seemed to know everything about her ancestors. They looked and acted the part, but she was not going to buy into their story that easily, they could have simply done what Kelly had and gotten the information through research. "If you want our help, you're going to have to tell us everything, if you want me to believe you I have to know the truth."
Del was tired of talking; she was confused and beginning to feel beaten. "You want to know who we are and why we're here. Well, I'm not sure I know any more. All I do know is that I left this place last fall to go home and sell my ranch while Annie and James looked for a piece of land for me to start a new horse ranch on. I waited all winter, ready to come up here; I was ready to start a whole new life."
Lucy looked at Del with astonishment; she could not believe that Del had been planning to leave all along. Del saw the look on Lucy's face and knew she felt betrayed, "Luc, I was going to tell you, I was even going to ask you to come with me, you and Cody, but then Clark, that fat pig, I had to get you out of there. Please Lucy; don't be mad at me I really was going to tell you."
Abby listened carefully as Kelly slowly got Del to tell what had happened with Clark and why they had to flee so suddenly. There was a lump in Del 's throat and she could barely speak, "No one deserves what that man did to Lucy and I will be damned if anyone will ever hurt her again." Del sat looking straight into Abby's eyes and Abby could feel the pain that these women had gone through. Against her better judgment she was beginning to believe them. There was something so honest and raw about them. Maddie wrapped an arm around Lucy who had tears in her eyes but refused to let them fall.
Kelly reached over and took one of Lucy's hands in her own, "It's okay now, you did the right thing, no one has the right to do that to you. Your safe with us." and she gave Lucy's hand a squeeze as a tear rolled down her cheek. Abby put her arm around Kelly and gently kissed her temple. She looked back at Del and gave her a sad smile. Whether she believed them or not about where they came from, no one deserved what Lucy had been through and watching the girl she believed she had been through a horrible ordeal.
The pile of papers that had been sitting in front of Abby were now picked up and handed to Del. Abby explained that she, well Kelly actually, had done a bit of research. They had found information through city records and newspaper articles along with some letters she had of Annie's. This last caught Del 's attention. She showed them copies of a newspaper article on the murder of mercantile owner Jonas Clark and the disappearance of his housekeeper Lucy Heard. There was an article about Lucy and another concerning the disappearance of Del Conner.
Del looked at the papers in disbelief, "Where did you get these", she asked.
"Mostly from the internet." Kelly answered.
Kelly and Abby looked at each other, "It's a place you can go on your computer to do research." Kelly explained. Del looked at Lucy and did not know what to say, she could not understand anything Kelly was saying.
Finally there were two of the letters Del had written to Annie last winter and three letters Annie had written in the spring and summer to Del that had been returned to her. There was also a letter from Cody explaining how Del had taken Lucy to Montana to protect her and how they should have been there. Del felt as though she had stopped breathing. She remembered the last letter she had written to Annie, all the hope and excitement. She looked into Abby's still untrusting eyes and began quoting some of the letter. Abby looked down at the letter and read along unable to comprehend how a stranger could know the contents of a letter that had never left their family. She took a moment and realized that Del had only spoke of the more general parts of the letter but before she could question her about it Del asked that the more private parts of the letter not be discussed. Abby thought for a moment and asked if Del would write it out for her. Kelly handed Del a pen and notepad and Del wrote what she could remember of the love she had expressed for Annie only a few months ago. Abby studied the note and letter together. The handwritings were the same and so were the context for the most part. She handed everything back to Kelly as she stared at someone who should not exist.
Slowly becoming convinced Abby went on to explain that her ranch had been claimed by Annie and James in the summer of 1886 and that it was their youngest daughter Del that had turned it into a horse ranch at her mothers request. It had always stayed in the family as a horse ranch and now she and Kelly were the owners and just as all those who had come before her, she was following a family tradition.
Del sat back trying to breathe again. Annie had built her horse ranch and she hadn't been there. It was all too much, she wanted to get out of there, go outside and breathe fresh air. Abby could sense that perhaps Del had reached her limit. She suggested they take a walk around and see the place. Del stepped outside and took a deep breath of the sweet warm air hoping it would clear her head, but very little relief came. She walked along side as Abby showed her around the ranch. Kelly followed with the others in tow, the older and younger woman both seemed a bit numb to her. They moved without paying attention to their surroundings. Maddie had little interest in the horse ranch, she was feeling tired and her brain was on overload; she found it best just to shut down for now. Lucy followed everyone outside, but as hard as she tried she could not recapture the excitement of seeing new and wondrous things. She felt tired and wanted to go home. Where ever that was.
Dan went off to find Molly to ask her about reshoeing a horse for him, while Abby introduced Del to every horse on the property. She paid close attention as Del talked with each one and checked them over, she knew her stock was in good condition and could not help feeling a bit of pride watching Del handle her horses. Lucy was greeted by Kelly's old dog just outside the stables, an ancient golden lab who wanted to lay in the sun and have his belly scratched, and that's just what Lucy decided she needed as well, to sit and play with him while the others walked around. Kelly and Maddie slowly followed Abby and Del with much less interest in the horses. Maddie watched Del relax a little as she was once again in a familiar setting. She was hopeful when she would see a smile on Del 's face as she came across a particularly fine horse. Without realizing it she began to relax herself as she watched Del smell a horse's mane or run her hand along the length of its back. Watching Del with a horse, this was familiar, this was comforting, she blocked everything else out and just focused on this. And for the first time since they had arrived at the horse ranch they both let go of everything else and just enjoyed being there.
Eventually Kelly got Maddie to talk about life on a ranch and being isolated from other people. Kelly explained that she and Abby ran the ranch together, but that she did mostly the books and Abby trained the horses. Not that Kelly wasn't an excellent horsewoman herself, but she could not compare to Abby. Maddie knew exactly how she felt. They fell further and further behind as their talk became more interesting than a tour of the grounds, as long as Maddie could see Del she was relaxed and calm. The more they talked the more Kelly learned about Maddie and the more she liked the woman. She had a keen sense of observation, it came from being a writer and she had been watching each of them very carefully. After speaking with Maddie at length she sensed the woman felt a little more than friendship for Del. It was evident in the way she looked at her, the way she listened, she was the quiet support Del needed. But it was her voice that told the most, the way it ever so slightly altered, became softer when she spoke of the other. Their slow meandering had caused them to fall quite a bit behind their counterparts, as they rounded a shed Maddie stopped, a sense of fear gripped her. She wanted to call out, but she could not move. She could only watch as the woman she cared about entered a paddock with a wild bucking stallion in it.
Abby had enjoyed talking with Del about her horses. One thing was certain, Del knew horses, possibly even better than she did. She had a gentle touch and soothing voice when dealing with an animal and every trace of tension disappeared from her body, she was confident and in control. She paid attention and responded to the animals as if she were having a conversation with them. That was something you could not fake. After touring the entire barn and stables, the arena and corrals, Del was amazed at the size of her operation. She examined every tool and piece of equipment; she smelled the grain and could not get over the medical supplies and equipment. She was in awe of Abby's place and could tell Abby was an excellent horseman. She would like to spend more time here and watch Abby work her horses. At last they came to a paddock in which pranced a beautiful chestnut stallion. He was strong and majestic and wild. Abby explained that she had gotten him the week before and was letting him get use to the place. Del watched him sniff the air and throw his head around. He knew they were there. As they approached the fence he began to buck and kick and run around the fence line. It was a beautiful sight and Del felt him calling to her. Before Abby knew what was happening Del climbed the fence and was walking into the center of the paddock. Abby called for her to get out, but Del could only hear the stallion. He circled in closer to her sending dust in her face and bucked then making wide loops again. Abby watched half afraid this person would get killed in her paddock and half knowing that Del knew what she was doing. So she watched the dance that was going on in front of her. Del stood there staring into the eyes of the stallion as he made kicking passes at her time after time. Fifteen minutes passed then Del held out a hand so that it brushed along the horses ribs as he bucked pass her. He fled to the far end of the paddock and watched her for a moment tossing his head and stamping his hooves. Then he charged up the yard and passed close enough that Del 's hand brushed his rear flank. This happened a few more times before he pulled up about ten feet from her sending a large cloud of dust in her direction. She stood staring at him with a calm and pleasant face. The stallion reared up a few times then stood staring at Del. Finally he walked pass her almost brushing her shoulder and calmly went to the far end of the paddock. Del watched him go, grinning after him. She walked back to Abby at the fence.
Abby was impressed and did not know if this woman was crazy or just that good with horses. "You could have been killed."
Del climbed the fence, "No," she looked up and saw Maddie watching her with an uncertain look on her face. She gave her a little smile and waved, "He just needs a friend." she climbed down and started walking in Maddie's direction.
Abby followed shaking her head and laughing to herself. Del was a true horsewoman all right, definitely crazy. They all walked around to where Lucy and Surf were sitting in the sun. Dan was there waiting to take them back to the main house were they could relax and digest the events of the day. He hoped Del had understood why he wanted her to meet his sister. More than being one of the best horse trainers around, Abby lived a happy life with her lover Kelly and everyone accepted them for who they were.
Del would see them at dinner that night and she found the thought exhausting, but at least there would be another horse person around. She glanced back as they drove off and watched as Abby and Kelly embraced and kissed then walked into the house with their arms wrapped around each other. Maddie also had witnessed this and watched Del look out over the range a little bewildered, then a smile came over her lips. Something began to stir inside Maddie, a feeling, an idea, a possibility. She understood why Dan had wanted them to meet Abby and Kelly. She may not understand everything in this world, in fact she had been feeling very small since they had arrived, but some things would always remain the same. And love was love no matter where you were or when you were. She looked over at Del who was looking very stern again and clutching her knees. Dan was going much slower on the return trip, but Del still did not like the movement of the truck. Maddie had forgotten that they were moving and found she felt much better than on the first trip. She had ridden on trains and stage coaches before, but the seats had never been this soft and comfortable. Still Del would only trust a horse beneath her, the wind blowing across her face and the sound of hooves pounding into the ground.
After returning to the main house Dan had to leave again, he needed to check on a fence repair that was going on in the south pasture. He told the girls to make themselves at home and showed Lucy how to work the radio, she was fascinated by all the sound she could make come out of it. Del decided she needed to take Anam out for a ride; she on the other hand was not so pleased with all the noise Lucy was making. Maddie offered to ride along, but could tell by the awkward moment of silence that Del was looking for some time alone. She needed time to think and Maddie knew exactly where she would go. She quickly rescinded the offer and instead said she would stay with Lucy to make sure she did not break anything.
Grateful for not having to refuse Maddie , Del quickly went to the barn to gather her saddle and bridle. She whistled for Anam who came running straight for her. He nuzzled her shoulder with his nose and stood waiting to be tacked. In a flash Del had him saddled and they were galloping off in the direction of the ridge, a sense of freedom coming over both rider and horse. The sun beat down on them and the sweet smell of pine caught in the air. For a moment Del forgot everything and became one with the pounding of Anam's hooves, she could feel the force of his muscles and smell his sweat. And for that moment she was happy again.
Alice returned that afternoon with more food than Maddie had ever seen. She and Lucy helped carry bags and boxes in from the car and just when they thought the job was complete Alice opened a door in the rear of the car, inside was crammed with even more than had been inside. In the kitchen every surface was covered with bags and lines of boxes wrapped little paths around the floor. Lucy's eyes were wide with amazement; Alice just shook her head and smiled at the girl. She gave instructions as to where everything went as she pulled aside everything she would need to make dinner. Maddie was speechless over Alice 's pantry, the size alone was staggering, everything had its own place and she was very organized. There were two freezers to keep all the meat and boxes of food she could not identify. Alice was having a good time watching the girls unpack; there was something pure about their innocents. Lucy and Maddie were enjoying themselves as well, to just be doing a simple task and not thinking about where they were or what it all meant. Lucy was having a great time, with each bag and box there was something she had never seen before. She missed her family and wished she could see them just one more time, but if she had to be stranded somewhere, this was a great place to be.
Finally there was one group of blue bags by themselves near the kitchen table. Lucy lifted one and realized there were clothes inside. Alice grabbed Maddie by the hand and with a wicked grin on her face dragged her over to look at the contents. She could not resist the urge to pick up a few things for her new guests. She began pulling out T-shirts and sweatshirts, socks, underwear and sports bras, dresses, jeans, hairbrushes, toothbrushes, and three pair of soft slippers. There were hair ribbons and deodorant, flannel shirts and lotion, soap, shampoo and pajamas. She bought three pair of running shoes but was not sure of the sizes, she had guessed and would return them if they did not fit. Maddie did not know what to say, there was so much here and she had no money to pay for it. Alice fiend insult, it was a gift and she enjoyed being able to get a few things for the girls, she said it was just like buying for her grandchildren. Lucy had tears in her eyes and hugged Alice so hard the old woman had to beg for air. Maddie also was overcome and wrapped her arms around the tiny woman who had taken them in like family. She was not sure what everything was, but she was grateful for Alice 's care and thoughtfulness.
Alice was going through each item and explaining proper grooming and dressing apparel when Del came into the room. She was in a good mood and all sweaty form riding. She looked at the clothes all over the chairs and the pile of things on the table. Lucy was sitting admiring her feet in their new slippers and Maddie was holding up a dress while Alice inspected the size and approved. Del asked what was going on and was flooded with answers by everyone. Quieting the room down Alice began explaining to Del that she had wanted to get a gift for her new friends and decided to get them something they could use. She knew they would be able to appreciate the practical side of her purchases. Del was not so easily swayed; she did not want these people to spend so much money on them. She appreciated their hospitality, but buying them clothes was too much. Alice stood her ground firm and she could be ten times more stubborn than Del. Maddie handed Del a flannel shirt and told her that doing this for them had made Alice feel good and not to take that away from her. Hearing Annie's voice under Maddie's as she had so often reminded Del of her manners, Del softened and graciously accepted the clothes, although she kindly refused the dress and looked at the bra with great suspicion. Alice was delighted to show them how to wear the bras, which Lucy and Maddie accepted with some discomfort and Del down right refused, not that she had anything to put in it. And it was Lucy and Maddie who took to the running shoes, Del was not about to give up her boots, although she did find the slippers to be the softest things she had ever put on her feet. She thanked Alice and took her new clothes upstairs. Maddie and Lucy did the same and then hurried back down to help with the dinner preparations.
Del laid the clothes out on her bed then lined up the brushes and soaps next to them. She could not believe how easy it had been for Alice to buy so much for them. There was two pair of jeans, four T-shirts, two sweatshirts, three flannel shirts, pajamas, slippers, seven pair of the smallest underpants she had ever seen and seven pair of socks. Alice had said the soap and shampoo were just normal stock for the bathrooms, but the brushes and hair bands and lotion were hers. It was overwhelming for a moment, she thought about Annie and how proud she would be of how her family was taking care of them. She did not know what she could do to repay Alice and Dan, but she would think of something. In the meantime, she had been ordered to take a bath with her new bath salts, and that was just what she was going to do.
The aroma from the kitchen was filling the whole house. Dan had come in and been given the same order as Del, neither were to return until they were clean and no longer smelled of the great outdoors. Del came down stairs to find Alice in the kitchen alone. She had put on her new jeans and one of the flannel shirts, Alice beamed as she inspected the fit. She noticed all the tags had been left on; with a hearty chuckle she explained about removing price tags and easily pulled them off. Del thanked her again and asked what she could do to help. Maddie and Lucy had been sent off to freshen up so Alice put Del to work setting the dinning room table while she cooked the meal. Del wasn't sure about how to lay out a fancy table, she had seen them at a few restaurants she had eaten in while traveling to bring a horse to a customer, so she did the best she could. Abby and Kelly arrived as Del was finishing the table. Kelly brought her homemade spinach dip and salsa dip to snack on before dinner and set it up in the living room. Abby noticed the new clothes on Del and knew it was the work of her mother. She figured it would not be long before Alice had those old clothes off of them. Alice gave Kelly bowls for her chips and shooed them out of her kitchen.
The women settled in the living room and were soon joined by a very clean and fresh smelling Dan. Abby had to suppress a laugh because Dan and Del were wearing almost the same outfit. Her mother still bought most of his clothes. They sat talking about horses, a nice safe neutral subject that everyone could join in on. Before long Lucy came down stairs, scrubbed clean and in her new dress. She felt like a fancy lady entering a grand party and could not stop smiling. She walked over to Del who beamed at the girl and told her she had never looked so pretty. Lucy blushed and went into the kitchen to help Alice, who quickly ushered her out again so as not to get anything on her new dress. Alice could see how excited and proud Lucy was of her new clothes and she wanted to let the girl be special for one night.
Abby had brought some more papers and a few pictures of the ranch over the years. Here were the children, grand children and great grand children of Annie and the sight of them brought a lump to Del 's throat. She was just about to start reading an article Kelly had found about Maddie when Maddie entered the room. She had bathed and put her hair up with the new ribbons and wore her new dress. It was an amazing transformation from the tired and worn farm wife Del had been traveling with, Maddie held her head high and looked like a lady. Del could not believe this was the same woman; she was beautiful and seemed to glow. As Maddie entered the room Del rose and gave over her own seat. She could only smile at Maddie and then shyly look away, but all through the evening she would find her eyes coming back to rest on this lovely woman.
Kelly quietly sat across the room taking everything in as she always did. Later at home she would tell Abby what she observed, it was a habit with them. Abby would always get the facts straight, but Kelly was the one who filled in what was not said. She studied the three women as if she were studying a book. She watched Del stealing glances at Maddie. She watched Maddie as Del read aloud the article about her disappearance and that of her husbands and the possibility the two could be linked. At the mention of her husband Maddie and Del shared a glance; there was something that was not being said. Kelly noticed Lucy's transference between innocents and wonder of everything around her to harsh reality when they spoke of their flight into the canyon. She studied Del 's face and features, the same face that looked at them in their own hallway. And when Del produced out of her shirt an original picture similar to that of the photocopy that hung in their home, Kelly was convinced she was the real thing. Once again Del explained that she and Annie had two pictures taken before she left so each would be able to see the other at anytime. While on first glance the pictures looked the same there were small differences in them, the tilt of a head, angle of a shoulder. Alice had Annie's original and here was the greatly battered match to it. It was this piece of evidence that caught Abby's attention, for there was no way for anyone to have reproduced that picture, it had never been out of the family album or this house in their lifetime.
Del became quiet, lost once again in her thoughts of Annie. While Dan had been thinking about how they had gotten from 1886 to the present. He asked Maddie and Lucy to go over again their run into the canyon. He kept going back to the collapsing of the canyon, thinking it had something to do with their jump in time. Kelly knew a little bit of Indian lore and explained that there were some tribes that believed they could not only travel across land, but across time. She asked Lucy to try and draw what she had seen that night on top of the arch in the canyon. Del watched as Lucy made a crude sketch of two circles barely separating from each other with a zigzag line inside them. Kelly looked at the drawing but could make nothing of it. Del took the drawing and looked at it for a moment, she remembered seeing the symbol in the rocks above the arch in the canyon just as lightening struck it and the center of the circles blew apart, but something was missing, she picked up the pen and drew in the center on either side of the zigzag a pair of wings. She showed it to Lucy who agreed that was what she had seen. The drawing was passed around and finally Kelly put it with her other papers to take home and research.
Dan had a few theories, but wanted to see the place for himself. He would take his prop plane and fly down to Colorado to do some investigating. Lucy asked what a plane was and Dan tried to explain about flying, "Like driving a car only in the air." Lucy and Maddie laughed, but Del looked at him with total distrust. She was learning that there were more things in this new world that she could not understand, but a person flying through the air in a machine was beyond her grasp. She put her doubt aside however when Dan said he could be there in a few hours. If it were true she could get back to where they had crossed over and be home within a day. She and Anam could get back to Annie by winter. She wanted to know more about flying to the canyon, but Alice called them to dinner. As they all made their way to the dinning room Maddie whispered in Del 's ear, "You're up to something." Del just smiled at her and assured her everything was going to be all right.
After dinner, talk of Dan taking a trip to Colorado intensified. Del was determined to go with him, but everyone else did not think it would be a good idea. Finally Dan agreed to show Del the plane in the morning and show her what it could do. He would not take her up in it, but would fly out so she could understand what he was talking about. He knew that if Del didn't like riding in the truck, she would never get into his plane after she saw it leave the ground.
They talked into the night about how to get them home and whether anyone would be looking for them when they got back. According to the articles Kelly had found, a large search had gone on for all three, but none seemed to be connected. Del wondered to herself if she could get Lucy and Maddie back and up to Annie's without anyone knowing. Doubt was beginning to creep in on her and the last thing she wanted was to have the law find Lucy or Maddie. She would have to be sure before taking the chance on either of them getting locked up.
Abby invited them back to the ranch whenever they could make it; she especially wanted to talk to Del about horses, past present or future, this woman knew her stuff when it came to a horse. Kelly wanted to find out what big secret Maddie was keeping and insisted they all come back out the next day. Her writers' curiosity told her that there was a great story here and she wanted to write it.
After everyone had gone and the kitchen cleaned Alice , Dan and Lucy decided to go to bed. Lucy gave Del a big hug, "I had fun tonight, this place isn't so bad, in fact I kind of like it." she said before going upstairs. Del stood and watched her go thinking how happy she looked tonight and what a beautiful young woman she was turning into. Lucy was a tough kid and had handled everything without complaining. Del knew she missed her family, but Lucy would resign herself to what ever life had in store for her. She thought about this girl who at one time saved her own life, Del always had a great deal of respect for Luc and thought of her as the little sister she never had. Tonight she looked so grown up in her new dress, for once she was not in an old hand-me-down with patches or threadbare pants. Maybe bringing Lucy here was not so bad after all.
Maddie watched Del for a moment, lost in thought. She walked over and nudged Del 's shoulder, "Feel like a walk?" she said and headed for the back door. Del followed glad to get outside. The night air was sweet and cool. A light could be seen in the bunkhouse and the faint sound of a banjo floated across the open space. Together they turned away from the buildings and unseen people to walk into the dark. The sky was bright with a million stars and a nearly full moon. Neither spoke for a long time both were happy to be out in the night air free to go where ever they pleased. They walked for a long time without speaking until the shadow of Annie's house grew before them. Maddie wondered if it was instinct that brought them here. They moved closer until they could make out the door and windows. Maddie stopped and sat down on the ground. Del stood looking at the house.
"It's still standing." Maddie said kindly.
"Does is matter if no one is home?"
"You did a good job, it's a fine house, you should be proud."
Del turned and went to sit by Maddie's side. The feeling of being twisted again was coming over her. One part of her longed to ride off and find Annie and one part of her wanted to just sit here with Maddie and watch the stars. "I have to go back."
"I have to at least try."
"I've been thinking it might be better if Lucy stays here. She's safe now and if I can figure out a way to get her to Annie and keep her safe then I'll come get her, if not she's better off here."
Del looked at the stars for a moment and took a deep breath, "And I think you should stay with her."
Maddie looked at Del 's profile, it was strong and yet seemed a little sad, "Lucy is young and has really taken to this place, but I am a grown woman and I make my own decisions. I won't stay here without you."
Del turned to Maddie she could see the strong set of her chin and the clear resolution in her eyes. "It's not safe for you to go back."
"We don't know that."
"I don't want to take that chance."
"This is not your choice. I chose to come with you and I choose to stay with you. I don't want to be here without you."
Del was not sure how to explain to Maddie that she was going back to live with Annie, to spend the rest of her life with the woman she had loved for so long. She cared a great deal for Maddie, at times she felt more than she was willing to acknowledge. She wouldn't fall in love with Maddie because she couldn't betray Annie like that.
Maddie rested a hand on Del 's arm, "I know you want to be with Annie, I understand that. But she also has a family, you can't change that. I don't belong here just like you. I don't know where I belong anymore, but I do know it's near you."
Del looked into Maddie's eyes and felt torn apart. She was right, Annie had James and her children and she would not leave them to live with Del. But they had made plans. She dropped her head into her hands. She had met Annie's descendants and they were all good people. They were also descendants of people who were not even born yet in Del 's world. She did not know what was waiting for her back there, she only knew she had to try and find it. Del stood abruptly and dusted the dirt from the seat of her pants, she looked at the house and said "We should head back." She offered a hand to Maddie who took it. They walked back to the house in silence. When they had reached the top of the stairs inside Maddie gave Del a hug good night and whispered in her ear, "I'm not afraid of what lies ahead." And with that she went to her room and closed the door.
Morning was a busy time of day around the Stokes ranch and on this morning it seemed as if a beehive had come to life. Alice was in the kitchen making enough sandwiches to feed a small town. Lucy was making breakfast under Alice 's watchful eye while Maddie was repairing some tears in their coats. Last night reminded her that winter was not that far off and in this country it could come without warning. Alice gave a sorry look to the worn and battered dusters in Maddie's pile, but she said nothing, when the time was right she would take the girls to town and buy them proper coats for a Montana winter. Del and Dan were outside loading tools and supplies into his truck. He had to do some work in one of the back pastures and would be gone the entire day. He also needed to check out the plane which was housed in a barn on the far east side of the property and told Del it would be another day before he could get the plane out. She was anxious to see this flying machine, but decided an extra day would be enough time to ride over to Abby's and look in on her stallion. She had no idea what she was loading into Dan's truck, but the effort of helping felt good. Her muscles were now aching for a good days work.
With the truck loaded they went inside to have some of Lucy's breakfast. It had been a while since Lucy had full run of a kitchen and even then she had never cooked in one as nice as this. Everyone sat down as Lucy served them. Dan was the first to declare how good everything tasted. Alice beamed at Lucy as if she had taught the girl everything she knew. Del and Maddie just smiled and dug into the biscuits, eggs, ham and potato cakes that tasted a little like home. After breakfast Dan took off with the pile of sandwiches and Alice headed upstairs to gather clothes for a load of laundry. Maddie cleaned up while Del and Lucy went out to saddle the horses. Soon the three were on their way to Abby's ranch. The sun was warm and felt good on their skin, without saying a word they had each worn their old clothes, hoping they might be able to help out in some way.
Kelly was the first to see them approaching. It was a sight out of an old western. The sun was bright and the sky blue, and riding in from the plain were three horsemen or horsewomen in this case, with their worn boots and battered Stetsons. They rode side by side and formed an imposing picture. Hearing Surf give two short unenthusiastic barks and then give up to lie in the sun, Abby came out of the barn to welcome the riders. She could not help admiring Anam, he was a beautiful and spirited horse and he was all Del 's. He followed her like a puppy with his reins draped over his neck. They were invited to make themselves at home and do whatever they liked. Abby showed them a large paddock to put their horses in. With amazing speed Del had the horses unsaddled and sent them on their way, running and bouncing delirious with the smells of all the other horses around them.
Lucy coaxed Surf into following her to find Molly and see if there was anything she could help out with. Del and Abby were already deep in discussion about Anam and the new stallion. Maddie wanted to join them, but Kelly had other plans for her. She led Maddie inside to get a pitcher of lemonade and glasses, her tape recorder and notepad. They went out to the shade of a gazebo that Abby had built for Kelly to write in a few years before.
Kelly then explained to Maddie that she wanted to write their story and would she mind going over everything with her again, only this time she would record it. The tape recorder fascinated Maddie and she had Kelly play back her own voice several times. Although no matter how many times she heard it, she could not believe it was her own voice for it sounded nothing like her. She supposed it was useful because it could repeat everything she said.
Del and Abby caught up with Molly and Lucy in the tack room where Abby offered the use of some tack cleaning supplies. Del was busy looking over every saddle, bridle and harness, but Lucy jumped at the chance. With arms loaded she and Surf were on their way back to where Del had left their saddles. Molly offered to help because she was just as curious about their old tack as they were about the stables'. Del wanted to have a look at the Chestnut next and Abby walked her over knowing that it was him that had lured her back. Once at the gate of the stallion's paddock Del stopped and drank in the sight of him. He was proud and high spirited and shimmering in the sun. She asked when Abby was going to ride him.
Her schedule was so busy trying to get several horses and riders ready for a big competition that Abby asked if Del would like to give it a try. She had no time for breaking in a new horse and she was dying to see Del 's technique. Here was the horsewoman who had stolen her great great grandmothers heart and inspired the start of her own ranch. She watched as Del graciously nodded her head in acceptance and climbed the fence.
Del walked into the center of the paddock as she had done the day before. The stallion watched her every move, he bucked and reared, flung his head at her and charged by in the same dance as before. Abby watched, as bewitched by Del as the horse was. Without a word Del stood her ground and waited for the horse to invite her over. Nearly an hour went by as the horse slowly became accustom to Del 's presents. He had settled down at the far end of the paddock, pretending to ignore the body in his space. Del halved the distance between them and the dance started all over again, only this time it lasted half as long and with each pass Del brushed his side. Another hour passed and Del sat down. This move made him curious so he moved within twenty feet of her. He watched her and circled around her for another ten minutes. He finally went and nudged her head with his nuzzle. She let him sniff and paw at her, walk away and come back. This went on for a while then finally she stood and waited for him to come back to her. She let him sniff and dance around some more until he settled down and with a flash of her hand she reached up, grabbed his mane and flipped up on his back. In the blink of an eye he was bucking and bouncing his way to the far end of the paddock. Abby thought for sure Del would be thrown into a heap on the ground. She had nothing to hold on to, but Del had wrapped one arm around the stallion's thick neck and had the other hand firmly entwined in his mane. She held tight with her knees and used his own momentum to balance herself. By now everyone had gathered around to watch. Maddie could not believe her eyes as Del managed to head the stallion into the fence. He had been slowing down, but now he gave a burst of energy and they were flying over the fence to freedom, racing across the plain. Abby looked at Kelly with an electric sparkle in her eyes, she could hear Del laughing and whooping and hollering as she rode away.
Everyone waited for Del to return, but eventually they retreated to the gazebo for lemonade and sandwiches. An hour later Del and the stallion came racing into the yard. Abby ran to let them into the paddock and Del slid off as they passed inside the gate. She gave him a pat on the neck and climbed over the fence. "He likes to play, he's strong, but deep down he's just a kitten." she said as she jumped down.
"That's quite a style you have. Your good." Abby said as she walked them back to the gazebo.
"I don't know about style, but horses are all I do know. I've been doing this my whole life. Spend some time with him everyday and he'll be your best friend in no time."
The sun was beginning to set and the air was cooling off. Kelly wanted to talk to all three some more and get as much as she could from each on tape. Del promised to return the next day, she wanted to see what type of training Abby did with her horses. Lucy gave Surf a kiss good- bye and went off to saddle up. Maddie was being strangely quiet and when she got up to leave Kelly gave her a long hug and whispered something only she could hear. Del noticed this and wondered what had gone on all day. She tried not to think about it and went to saddle up the horses. Lucy had done a fine job of cleaning their tack, it almost looked like new. She casually talked to Abby about what they would do the next day and had finished saddling up both Anam and Grey when Kelly and Maddie walked up. Their good-byes were quick and soon they were riding back to the main house. It wasn't long before they were racing, enjoying the thrill of the wind in their hair and the release of a lot of pent up energy. Both riders and horses pulled up at the barn out of breath and sweating.
Lucy was having a good time, she had enjoyed her day, but for a moment it was just the three of them and it felt familiar. They were rubbing down the horses and putting away their gear when Lucy asked Maddie what she and Kelly had talked about all day. Maddie explained that Kelly wanted to write a book about them, she seemed to think their lives made an interesting story. Del did not think it was such a good idea that everyone know about them, but Maddie explained that Kelly would change their names and write it as a horse opera, no one would know it was real. She did not want to make a public spectacle of them, just use their experiences. Del could tell that Kelly had already convinced Maddie. She knew Maddie was not a fool, in fact she was very private and would not let herself get lured into something. She would talk to Kelly when they returned to make sure no one would find out about them. She would not have anyone hurting Lucy or Maddie, not after all they had gone through just to be safe.
Lucy would trust Del 's judgment about this matter as she did with most things. On one hand it would be very exciting to have a book written about them, but on the other she did not want anyone else knowing about Clark . She went inside to help Alice with dinner and tried to imagine what it would be like to read a book about her.
Maddie was lingering behind fiddling with her bridle. Del could see there was nothing wrong with the bridle and asked if there were anything she wanted to talk about. Maddie took a moment to put away the last of her tack and turned to Del with a very serious face.
"I told Kelly."
Del had a sinking feeling, "What did you tell her?"
Del walked over and took Maddie by the arm guiding her to a bench, "Why did you tell her about that?"
"I don't know, we got to talking, she is so nice and she seems to really care. I went with my instincts. The next thing I knew I was telling her the whole thing."
"No wonder she thinks we're interesting, two killers and a walking ghost."
Maddie turned away and began to cry. Del had not expected this. She put a hand on Maddie's shoulder and tried to console her. "Don't cry, it's going to be okay, I'm sure Kelly would never do anything to hurt any of us." but Maddie continued to cry, "It's okay, we'll all talk to her and she'll understand."
Maddie turned to face Del , "She did understand, but you think I'm a killer."
Del wrapped her arms around Maddie, "No I don't."
"Yes you do, you just said so."
"I don't, I didn't mean it that way. I was just trying to make a joke." she took Maddie's face into her hands looking deeply into watery green eyes and held her as tenderly as she knew how, "I'm sorry Maddie, I shouldn't have said that." She held Maddie's eyes with her own until she was sure Maddie believed her. "I think you are the bravest person I know, you did what you had to do and I respect you for that. I would never think anything bad about you, I..." Del could not finish what she was about to say. It was unthinkable what she almost said. She let go of Maddie's face and turned aside.
Maddie knew Del did not hate her or think bad of her it had just been a shock to hear the words spoken aloud. And then to not hear the words that were almost spoken. She buried her face in Del 's shoulder griping the front of small woman's dirty shirt. Del put an arm around her, but could not say anymore. After a while they went into the house where Alice sent them straight to the bath.
It was a quiet dinner that night. Del seemed very interested in making tunnels through her food while Maddie would steal looks in the direction of the bent head that refused to look up. Lucy could feel the tension coming off Del and Maddie and wondered what had happened this time. Dan said he would fly by in the morning and that he could be ready to leave for Colorado in two days. He had to take care of some business in town first and look at some maps. Del agreed and still insisted on going with him. Maddie did not say a word, but Lucy still wanted to know how he was going to fly in the air.
After the women rode away Kelly began cleaning up the gazebo. Abby watched for a moment the graceful way her lover moved, slowly she walked up behind her lover and wrapped her arms around the slender waist she knew so well. She could not imagine being separated from this woman with no hope of seeing each other again. She breathed in the sweet smell of the soft brown locks and whispered into the sensitive ear, "My life would be incomplete without you.", then began kissing the soft curve of the neck beneath her.
Kelly gently turned so she could hold Abby in her arms. She knew exactly what Abby was thinking. The pain and longing in Del 's face was hard to watch at times. Del loved Annie as much as Kelly loved Abby, but she had never been allowed to express that love. Kelly knew that Del faced the possibility of never seeing Annie again when all she wanted was to find her lost love and tell her exactly how she felt and never let go of her again. After all that's what Kelly would do. She looked into the worried eyes of her lover, "I'm not going anywhere you silly cowgirl, you're going to have to ride this one out until the last sunset." Abby kissed her and smiled, together they carried the dishes back into the house.
As they were loading the dishwasher Kelly told Abby about Maddie and how she had disposed of her husband. The news came as a surprise, but not a shock. Abby considered the circumstances of Maddie's life and the times she lived in. She credited Maddie with ingenuity and was curious if anyone ever discovered the body.
That night Abby listened to the tape of Maddie's life. She could not get over how hard a life each of them had lived. Meanwhile Kelly researched the symbol Lucy and Del had drawn. Before long she came across some information about a nomadic tribe of Indians who traveled in and around the Rocky Mountains . They had completely disappeared by the early part of the nineteenth century and only a few pieces of information about them remained. They considered their lives to be a great journey and believed they could travel across land, time and worlds. Among the few symbols that were found related to them was the same one that sat on Kelly's desk. It was believed to have been very sacred and used to mark special passages along their secret routes through the mountains. As fantastic as it all seemed, what if it were true, Kelly considered everything she knew and with a large dose of imagination conjectured the rest. If this tribe really had found a way to travel through time it would explain their sudden disappearance. And if the three women had passed through their gate, so to speak, why hadn't Maddie been transported before. She knew the canyons and had traveled that same route several times. Perhaps the storm had something to do with it. Del had said lightening hit the center of the circle just as they were passing under it. Maybe the portal needed an activator, something to jump start it. And if that were the case, would it have been destroyed when the arch collapsed. Kelly discussed her theory with Abby who was the skeptic of the family. Even Abby now believed Del and her friends had rode into their lives from the past and there was only one way to find out how. They would have to find that same pile of rocks.
That night Kelly lay awake unable to sleep. She could not help thinking that if Del were able to find her way home and back to Annie, what she would do. Del now had a new sense of what Annie meant to her. She would stop at nothing to be with her and insure they were never separated again. What would that mean for Annie's family? And more importantly the children who had not been born as of the time Del left. Kelly thought of every book she had read, fiction or otherwise, on the subject of time travel. One point followed through each of them, tampering with the past can alter the future. She looked over at the woman who was the center of her entire world. She wanted to help Del , but not at the risk of losing Abby. She would have to think this through and come up with a plan that would work for everyone, if one existed.
The next morning Del woke early. She quietly made her way to the barn and saddled Anam in the shadows as pink ribbons stretched across the pale gray sky. Lucy watched from her window as Del and Anam sprang from the barn and flew across the yard, jumping the fence and taking off in the direction of the old house. Lucy watched her go until the dark figure was no longer distinguishable. She made her way to the kitchen and grabbed two of the bottles of water Alice kept in the pantry and four apples. Stuffing them inside her coat pockets she made her way to the barn.
Del circled the old house several times before finally sliding off Anam's back and leaving him to wander about. Squatting in the doorway she searched the shadows for the familiar life she had once known. The sky slowly changed from gray to the palest of blues with pink fingers appearing and disappearing. She heard the rider approach and turned to see Lucy silhouetted against the grand Montana sky. Del got up to meet the girl who had become her family. She wondered how all this had affected Lucy, but had been too wrapped up in her own grief to take serious time for the kid. This morning, which she had so wanted to be hers alone, would now belong to Lucy.
The girl jumped down and let her horse make its way to Anam to pick through the grass clumps.
Del gave her a sly smile, "Now what are you doing up so early?"
"I hope you don't mind." Lucy said as she pulled out the water and apples.
Del took an apple and water looking up into soft brown smiling eyes. She considered this for a moment, when had Lucy grown so much taller than Del ? Looking again at the tall lean body before she realized that at nineteen Lucy had grown into a beautiful young woman. "Why is it you're always looking out for me."
"Because you are always looking out for me."
They walked over to the horses and Del pulled out a small knife she kept strapped inside her boot. She cut one of the apples in half and gave one to each horse.
It was Lucy who spoke first, "You're still looking aren't you?"
"Looking for what?" Del asked guardedly as she walked over to the nearest tree and sat down.
Lucy sat beside her looking at the house, "Her." Del bit into the other apple Lucy had given her and looked at the house. "You keep thinking she's going to walk around that door or come striding across the field."
Del looked at Lucy lovingly, "I suppose I do".
"She's not you know."
"She's gone, they're all gone."
Tears rushed to fill Del 's eyes. She tried to look at the house, her house, their house, but could not see through the tears.
"I really wanted to meet her. To see the two of you together, to be around something that powerful."
"Powerful?" Del could barely speak.
Lucy looked at Del , "The love that you two have for each other, I think it's very powerful, maybe the most powerful thing I've ever known."
Tears began to flow uncontrollably down Del 's face. Lucy scooted closer and wrapped an arm around the strong heaving shoulders. "I hope one day I know what that's like." Del sobbed even harder into Lucy's lap. "I can't begin to imagine how much you are hurting." She held Del for a long time. The sky grew bright and eventually Del 's breathing returned to normal and the tears stopped flowing. She lay curled up with her head in Lucy's lap letting the girl stroke her hair and comfort her. She noticed the dark wet patch her tears had left on Lucy's jeans and watched as a small ant made its way up the toe of Lucy's boot. " Del ," Lucy was unsure if she should continue, but she also knew they had to get through this, "she's gone." A fresh deluge of tears hit her pant leg. "You have to let her go." Del buried her face in Lucy's leg and gave herself over to the care of this girl for the second time in her life.
A great deal of time passed, but the tears eventually stopped and Del rolled onto the ground to stare up at the sky. "I don't know if I can."
"Then at least make room for the rest of us, everything else will fall into place."
Del looked at Lucy for a long time and realized she would have to stop thinking of her as a little girl, in some ways Lucy was more grown up than any of them. Even with her child like enthusiasm and sense of wonder Lucy was very grounded. "I always have room for you Luc."
"What about Maddie?"
"Maddie too. What are you getting at Luc, have I been neglecting you? I'm sorry, I know I have."
"I'm fine, don't worry about me."
"But I do."
"It's been hard, a lot has happened really fast. I lost everything."
Del sat up and held Lucy's hand, "I am so sorry Lucy, I shouldn't have brought you here."
" Del , you saved my life by bringing me here. I lost everything the minute I slammed that skillet upside Clark 's head."
" Yes Del. You know it's the truth as well as I do. I let you get me out of that mess, I asked you too. I knew my life would change forever, I just didn't know it would be this kind of change. And neither did you. My one action changed the lives of a lot of people."
"I just wanted you to be safe."
"I am safe. And I like it here; I really like Alice and Dan. And I have you and Maddie." Lucy held tight to Del 's hand. "I wouldn't be able to get through this without you."
Del hugged Lucy and helped her up off the ground, "I will do anything for you Luc."
"Don't look for what's not there or you won't see what's in front of you."
Del was about to ask what Lucy had meant when they both heard a strange humming sound. They looked around and saw nothing. The sound grew louder and Lucy pointed to the sky. Something large and loud was flying over them headed for the main house. They looked at each other and realized it must be Dan in his flying machine. Del 's face grew pale as she watched the machine skim over the land. Lucy was speechless, she could not wait to get back to the house and see this thing up close. She looked at Del and gave a little giggle. She could see Del 's courage scrambling to hold onto the ground at the thought of going up in that thing.
Dan landed the plane on the far side of the main house. He killed the engine and climbed out of the cockpit to be greeted by Alice and Maddie. Alice gave Dan what for, for stirring up so much dust that would somehow find it's way into her clean house. Maddie kept her distance, still in shock at the sight of the machine landing and Dan stepping out of it. Dan noticed the stunned look on her face and gave her a warm smiled. He walked over to reassure her that the plane was perfectly safe and that he flew all over the place quite frequently. He talked her into taking a closer look at the source of her disbelief.
Maddie walked around touching the wings and propeller as Dan explained how the plane was able to take him up into the air. He might as well have been speaking another language for all the sense it made to her. Del and Lucy came around the house riding hard and almost sliding to a stop near the plane. Del jumped down and pulled Anam back a few steps. She looked at the strange looking machine with wide frightened eyes. Lucy on the other hand jumped off her horse before she had even come to a halt. She could not wait to see and touch the big machine that had just flown over her head. She ran to Maddie and Dan and began asking a thousand questions. Dan could only laugh at her enthusiasm, as he was unable to get a word in edgewise. Maddie tried to quell some of Lucy's eagerness to fly, the thought of the girl up in the air high above them made her stomach do flips. Alice quietly made her way over to Del. She could see the girl's mind reeling with this new discovery of the modern world. Alice knew how to deal with people in a state of overwhelm, even though she herself never seemed to experience it. She took Anam's reins from the small woman's hand and stood next to her. Del was trying to control her breathing while watching Lucy examining every inch of the plane; she could not find words to express her disbelief. Alice spoke quietly for her ears only, trying to take away some of the mystery and fear of the great machine in front of them.
During all the excitement Maddie had moved to the side and watched her companions, she listened as Alice explain what a plane was and the normalcy of flight in the modern world. She listened to Dan tell about the exhilaration and freedom of soaring through the air. And she watched the fear on Del 's face as she tried to understand the concept of flight. The moment came and she could see it in those clear hazel eyes when Del resolved to put her fears aside if the machine could get her closer to Annie. Finally Maddie made a decision, for that moment and for all that were to come. She walked over to stand face to face with Del , she had a good six inches on the woman so she lowered her head to look directly into Del 's eyes. "You do what you have to, but you are not going up in the air in that machine."
Del was stunned at the strength in Maddie's voice. It was the same tone Annie used when she was very serious about something. She started to respond but Maddie held up a hand stopping her, before strongly restating her position, "Your not going." she said and walked back into the house. Del could only watch Maddie go, so like Annie she was, she didn't know how to respond anymore. Not wanting to think about yet another problem, Del got on her horse and took off for Abby's ranch.
Alice watched her ride off then looked back to the house where Maddie had disappeared and got the feeling a storm was brewing. Soon it would break over all of them. She collected Lucy so Dan could get on with his day and headed back to the house unsure of what she would find.
Del found Abby in the ring putting a bay mare through her paces. She watched for a while until an itchy feeling came over her. She moved away from the ring and the sound of pounding hoof beats. She made her way around to the far paddock and there stood the chestnut as if he were waiting for her. Their eyes met as the scent of her reached his nostrils. He gave a flip of his head and pranced in a small circle. Del climbed the fence and sat on the top rail watching. Never moving, she sat and watched for a long time. He would pass by her and move to the far end of the paddock or move nearby and stand watching her. This horse was courting her, it had happened to her hundreds of times before, but this was not her horse nor had she been hired to break it. The urge to jump into the ring was almost painful. She watched him skittish off to the far side and then heard Kelly come up beside her.
Kelly could see the desire in Del 's eyes and urged her to go ahead and work the horse. Abby would not mind, in fact she would understand all too well. She gave Del a little push with her elbow and watched the woman jump down and walk straight over to the horse. For an hour she sat and watched as the two took up their dance around the paddock once more, it was like watching a young couple falling in love. Del had been leaning against the horse's side for a long while as it stood pawing the ground, suddenly in the blink of an eye she flung herself on the horses back and dug her hands into the thick mane. At first the horse was startled, but quickly it recovered and began kicking and bucking around. Kelly did not know how it was that Del managed to stay on, but she did. She had never seen anyone break a horse bareback before. The sounds of rider and horse struggling against each other filled the air, but through the dust Kelly could swear Del was smiling. After bouncing around for a while the stallion picked out a steady pace and ran around the fence line. Finally he quieted down and came to stand before Kelly. She reached out and rubbed his jaw and he tossed his head at her. Del walked him around a little more then slid off and climbed up beside Kelly. They watched him prance around all full of himself and proud of his new achievement.
They both sat there comfortable in each other's presence watching the beautiful horse as it passed just in front of their knees. Glancing at the contented profile beside her Kelly sensed this would be the perfect time to talk to Del about her thoughts and fears of them trying to go back to 1886. Her greatest concern being the effect it would have on Annie's future family.
"I know how much you love Annie, because that's how much I love Abby and I can't lose her."
"Our going home has nothing to do with you and Abby."
"It might, because if you find Annie and live out your life with her, she might not have anymore children, and if she doesn't then Abby's great grand father will never be born and neither will Abby."
"That's crazy, she's here."
"Because you weren't there."
Del thought for a moment but could not make sense of Kelly's logic, her head was starting to pounding again. "No, that can't be right."
The more Kelly talked about it, the more she was convinced she was right and the consequences were too great. "Think about it Del , you've seen Abby and I together, our lives are one. Would you want any less with Annie? Can you go on sharing her with James? Would she want to anymore, because we already know how much she loved you and if given the choice I know she would choose you?"
Del was being swept away with emotions that had been riding just below the surface for far too long, "How would you know?"
Kelly reached over and put a hand on Del 's arm, "Because that's what I would do, it's what Abby would do, it's what Annie will do."
Unable to take anymore Del jumped down and started to walk away. Kelly jumped down after her and moved to block her, " Okay Del , then let me ask you this, what about Maddie?"
Del looked at her in total confusion, "Maddie?"
"Yes, Maddie. What is she suppose to do when you go back to Annie?"
"She can stay with us."
"And be miserable watching you and Annie together the way you were watching her and James."
Del gave her a cold look then pushed the woman aside and stormed off. She could not believe what Kelly had said. She didn't want to consider it. It wasn't fair, all she wanted to do was get back to Annie and have her life return to normal again. She did not want to have to worry about Lucy or Maddie or weather or not Abby would ever be born. She wanted to be selfish and go back to the woman she loved. She whistled for Anam and quickly saddled him. As she was finishing Abby and Kelly were running up to her, she gave them a look that made them stop dead in their tracks. They were saying something, but Del could no longer hear. She jumped on Anam's back and sent him flying never hearing the calls behind her to stop.
The dust almost obscured rider and horse from view, but they could still be seen in the distance making a hard turn and riding away from both ranches. Abby took her shaking partner into the house and asked her to calmly explain what had set Del off in such a fury. She could see that what ever it was had also clearly upset her lover. She poured glasses of lemonade for both of them as Kelly began relaying the events of the last several hours. When Abby heard that Del 's strongest reaction was to the mention of Maddie she groaned about why love had to be so complicated and come with so much drama.
"It's not that way for us." Kelly reminded her as she put her hand in Abby's.
Abby pulled her into an embrace, "Yes, well we are reasonable people who haven't lost everything we know in the blink of an eye."
"Not yet." Kelly said, as she held on tight.
Del would have to be found and they would talk this through in a calm and thoughtful manner, or a close imitation. Looking into the eyes that held all the love in the world, Abby felt a tremble coming from the hand she held. Drawing Kelly into her arms she kissed her forehead and asked what was wrong, what could make her tremble so.
"I'm afraid." She answered, burying her head into the strong shoulder she knew was always there.
"Afraid of what?"
"Of losing you."
Abby held on tighter, "That's never going to happen." Then gently taking Kelly's face in her hands she smiled, "We are going to straighten this whole mess out right now.", and she kissed the woman she also could not live without.
Abby's pickup skidded to an abrupt halt sending pebbles flying. Alice seeing the dust cloud rising on the wind stepped onto the back deck to give the driver a dirty look. Abby and Kelly climbed out together with a grim look on their faces; they were looking for Del. Alice informed them she had not been around all day. Neither Lucy nor Maddie had seen her either. Alice seemed to think she would be home soon, but Kelly urged them all to go looking for her. Maddie sensed something in Kelly's voice and wondered exactly what had happened now.
Alice drove out to where Dan kept his plane while Kelly and Abby searched the barn, bunkhouse and out buildings. Maddie took the ridge and Lucy the old house. The entire ranch was searched until the light began fading from the sky.
Maddie rode up to the ridge only to find the small cemetery empty of any visitors. She dismounted and stood before Annie's grave trying to imagine the woman the name represented. "Do you have any idea how much that woman loves you. Did you ever know?" Frustrated she got back on her horse and headed back to the ranch.
Lucy and Maddie met up with Kelly and Abby on their way back to the house. Abby looked at Maddie and shook her head, unable to say anything. Lucy had not thought it a big deal that Del had gone off for a ride until now as she saw the look on Maddie and Kelly's worried faces.
"Don't worry Maddie, you know Del , she just went for a ride. That's how she can think, it clears her head."
Maddie looked at Lucy with a worried expression. It suddenly dawned on Lucy what everyone else had been thinking. "You don't think she left, do you?" Maddie had no answer for her. "Because Del would never do that. She would never just leave us here without so much as a good-bye."
Maddie put a hand on Lucy's shoulder, "Lucy".
Lucy pulled away as anger washed over her, "No. she would never do that. She just went off to clear her head. She'll be back."
Maddie tried to reach for Lucy again, but the girl stepped away, "You'll see, she'll be back." She glanced at Abby and Kelly then spun on her heel and went into the house unable to believe Maddie could think such a thing.
Watching her go, Kelly wrapped her arms around Abby as they stood watching the door that had just been slammed. Abby was the first to break the silence, she looked at Maddie and for the first time felt just how tired she must be. "She's just a kid, that's sometimes easy to forget."
Maddie looked at the two of them wrapped in each other's arms, "She's more grown up than most adults I've ever met." Kelly reached out and laid a hand on her shoulder. "If Lucy says she's coming back, then she'll be back." Under her breath she added "I hope".
As the sun slipped from the sky and the air began to cool Del realized she had brought no provisions with her. It was still summer, but without food and blankets it would be a difficult trip. At least she had kept her rifle on her saddle, it made Abby uncomfortable having a gun around her horses, but it was the only way Del would leave her six-shooter behind. She quickly looked around for a good place to make camp. It would be cooler tonight in the foothills then if she had stayed on the plain, but she would soon have a fire going and as long as she kept it burning all night it wouldn't be bad. She found a spot and spent at least an hour trying to collect enough fire wood to burn all night long. Finally she could sit back and relax. Reclining back against Anam's saddle she became aware of just how hungry and thirsty she was. She watched Anam grazing on the grass and scrub and was relieved that at least her horse would be able to eat. Tomorrow she would have to find them water. Perhaps this time she would approach a few more houses and appeal to the kindness of strangers to give her food and water, she might even be able to do some work in exchange for supplies. Her stomach made loud noises as Del tried to get comfortable. She would get up early and shoot a rabbit or prairie dog for breakfast. Trying not to think about food she thought of Annie and how happy they would be once she made it back where she belonged. She could see Annie's face so clearly, her smile, her blue eyes, her dark hair surrounded by all her children and she could hear Kelly's words 'she might not have anymore children and if she doesn't then Abby's great grand father will never be born and neither will Abby'. Del tried to block the voice from her mind, but each time she did the images of Dan and Abby floated before her. She built up the fire and fell into an uncomfortable sleep.
The next morning Del woke before the sun began to lighten the sky. She was cold, hungry and exhausted from a restless nights sleep. She got the fire going again and sat before it listless and disheartened. Anam walked to Del 's side and nudged her shoulder, his hot breath on her neck. He stood next to Del as if to comfort her as she stroked his fore legs. Finally she stood up giving him a playful scratch under the chin. She saddled up and kicked dirt over the fire. Jumping on Anam's back she headed higher into the hills. The sky was beginning to get a rosy hue to the east and she wanted to see the sunrise.
Before long they reached an outcropping of rocks. Del jumped off Anam's back and climbed the rocks until she was at the highest point, clear of the trees. There she sat watching the slow ascent of the sun. She wanted to clear her mind and enjoy solely this beautiful act of nature, but the image of a face kept appearing before her. It was Maddie, beautiful, strong, willful Maddie. As hard as she tried she could not shake this woman from her head.
The sun had cleared the trees and was brilliantly shining down on Del 's tan face. She sat for a long time looking at the beauty around her and trying not to think. Finally she could avoid the issue no longer. Winter would be coming on soon. She had no provisions and being honest with herself, she was not completely sure she could find the collapsed passage again or how she would get through. What if after all this she could not get back. She would be stuck in the canyons in winter with Lucy and Maddie as far away as Annie had always been. This thought struck a nerve in Del. Annie had always been far away, or so it seemed. The time they had spent when they were younger felt so long ago now. And before Del knew it Annie had gotten married and moved away. They had been happy together and with each visit they grew closer and closer, but Del knew in her heart that Annie would not leave her husband and children to go live with her. The question was did she have the courage to face that fact. And would she be able to live the rest of her life as an appendage to Annie's.
There were a lot of things to consider after her rash decision to ride off to Colorado by herself. Not the least of which was a powerful feeling that was coming over her. All these thoughts were swirling around in Del 's head when she got up and dusted the dirt from the seat of her pants. She slowly made her way back down to where Anam stood waiting for her. If there were one consistency in her life it was this beautiful creature. She reached up with both hands and pulled down his head by gently cupping her hands behind his ears. He willingly agreed and stood forehead to forehead with the only master he would ever agree to have. His gentle posture gave Del the reassurance she needed. She rubbed her face along his jaw, patted his foreleg and swung up into the saddle. With a soft hand Del turned Anam in the direction of the last sure thing she knew. Quietly they headed down the mountain.
Back at the ranch Maddie had called off the search knowing that if Del had left or didn't want to be found there was nothing they could do about it. Dan decided to go ahead and leave for Colorado to see if he could come up with any information about the past and future of his guests. He was busy studying maps and research material that Kelly provided while Maddie and Lucy did their best to point out where they believed their homes had been.
"I'll sweep the area before going on and if I find anything I'll call you."
Dan packed a suitcase and some supplies while Alice packed him enough food for a transatlantic flight. Before long they were all saying good-bye as he headed out to the plane.
Lucy would not consider the possibility that Del had left her behind, so in order to make sure she had no time for such thoughts Alice set about teaching her everything there was to know about a modern home and cooking. Surprisingly Alice found herself learning a few new things as well.
Maddie however could think of nothing else and spent her time walking around outside. Not being one for idleness, it wasn't long before she approached Alice with the idea of planting a garden on a little patch of ground not far from the old barn. It was too late in the year to actually plant much, but she could clear the land and till the earth, make it ready for planting in the spring and perhaps coax out a small crop of winter vegetables before the bitter cold set in.
Seeing the girls need for something to do in Del 's absence Alice was only too willing to accommodate them. She dug around in the gardening shed until she came up with some tools for Maddie, who refused any modern equipment and walked off with only a hoe, shovel and bucket. Inside she had her hands full keeping Lucy from pulling everything out of all the cabinets and pantry. The child's enthusiasm was almost overwhelming but very heart warming. Alice considered as she watched Lucy get excited about using the food processor that in a very short amount of time these strangers had come to mean a great deal to her, especially the young girl who was becoming like a granddaughter to her.
A second cold night under the big Montana sky, the stars almost within touching distance, served to remind Del that to go on would be foolish. She spent the night miserable and uncomfortable. Long before the sun rose she mounted up and moved on, figuring it would be mid day before she reached, what, not home.
Maddie was back at her patch of dirt before the sun had gotten too high in the sky. It felt good doing the familiar work. Her aching back and shoulders were a comfort to her as was the smell of the earth and sound of the small stream near by. Today she would make neat rows out of the area she had cleared of rocks and stones. She did not know if she would be around to see this patch of earth produce a full crop and for once she did not care.
Warmed by a high noon sun Del made her way up the ridge to Annie's grave. The sweet scent of pine filled the air and a cool breeze from the north blew her hair back. She let Anam wander to graze on near by grasses. She wanted to properly think through everything and Annie's was the only comfort she wanted right now. Pacing around she read and touched the other tombstones.
"I was on my way back home, but then I got to thinking how mad you would be if I left without saying good-bye and I thought you might want to know what has been happening."
She came to rest in front of Annie's headstone where small yellow flowers grew in clusters.
"You have a real nice family here Annie. They are still running your ranch and from what I can tell they're pretty good at it. You have a, oh I don't know, great great granddaughter I think, any way she runs a horse ranch from the old place you set up for me. She seems to be pretty good at it. The old house is still standing, but needs some repair."
Del shifted on the ground trying to figure out how to say what she wanted to say. Finally she came to rest leaning back against Annie's headstone.
"Annie, your great great-grand daughter Abby, she's the one has the horse ranch, well she lives there with another woman. They are together the way I want to be together with you. The way you live with James. They love each other the way I want to love you."
She stopped suddenly realizing she had said this aloud for the first time. Her face had turned slightly red and she poked at some rocks with the toe of her boot.
"If I were to find a way back to you, would you want to live with me on the horse ranch? Could you? Would you leave James to be with me? Because I don't know if I want to share you anymore. I want to be with you more than anything in this world, but I don't want only a part of you, I want all of you."
She reached back and held onto the headstone, running her hand over Annie's well-worn name.
"I never knew how badly I wanted this, but after watching Abby and Kelly and seeing how wonderful it can be. I just don't know if I could live with you any other way."
Del put her head in her hands and took several deep breaths; she could not believe how easy it was to say all this now. She stood up and began pacing again, a slight apprehension coming over her.
"I've been talking to Kelly, that's the woman Abby lives with, and she seems to think that if I do make it back to you and we go off together then Abby will never be born. On account she's related to children you haven't had yet, I mean then, I mean, it's very confusing. She say's if you don't have your next two kids then Abby will never be born and the ranch will never be built and she and Abby will not be together. I don't know about that, but I don't want to do anything to hurt these people, they're good people."
She sank down again and took long slow breaths. She was looking beyond the stone to see the face of the woman she loved.
"I guess I need to know what you would do and what I should do, because I can't live without you there and I don't want these people to live without each other here."
She turned now to look out over the valley. "And then there's Lucy. She seems fine here, she really likes it. She's safe and happy and taken care of. I know she would like to go home, but the law will be after her and I can't take the chance of them getting her."
Del moved around to face Annie's headstone straight on and could see the ghostly face before her. She had come this far and would not lose her courage now.
"And then there's Maddie. She's someone Lucy and I met on our way to you. She helped us when she herself was in trouble, so I don't think she can go back home either. There's something else."
She looked at her boots and took a deep breath then looked at her hands and took another breath.
"I've gotten to know Maddie real well. She's a strong woman Annie, I think you would like her an awful lot. She knows how to run a farm and handle a horse and gun. She's very kind, a lot like you. She watches out for Lucy like a mother and tries to look after me too. She risked her life to save us. And well, I don't know."
She stopped for a moment unsure of how to go on.
"I like her Annie. I really like her. She's a good person that I've come to depend on a great deal. I would have never thought I would be in this position, but, I just can't imagine Maddie not being around. I need to think on this some. I love you Annie and I want to be with you, but I don't want to lose what I've found either."
Del was exhausted; she pulled her knees to her chin and rested her forehead on them. After a moment something dawned on her, an understanding. She had just put into words the one thing she had never been able to figure out about Annie. She looked up and the face was gone.
"I think I am beginning to understand now."
She wanted Annie to talk to her and tell her what to do, but she was all alone now. Hungry and thirsty, Dell lay down in the sun and drifted off to sleep.
A sweet gentle breeze was blowing across the valley caressing the little mounds Maddie had worked all morning to carve into the land. Leaning on her hoe she stood admiring her twelve long rows, sweat rolling down her back and neck giving her a little tickle. It was mid afternoon by the time she was ready to sit in the shade of a nearby cottonwood and eat her lunch. As she unfolded the bundle she had prepared early that morning she could not help looking in the direction of the ridge. Something had been nagging at her all day and she wasn't sure what it was. As she sat there eating a biscuit left over from last nights dinner it occurred to her that she would probably never leave this place or at least never return to the familiar world she knew. Without really thinking about it she pulled out an apple and refolded her lunch. Taking the little bundle with her she began walking in the direction of the ridge.
The sun was still warm in the late afternoon sky and hawks swooped lazily above the treetops. Maddie easily made her way up the hill, plucking strands of grass and chewing on them, savoring the sweet bitter taste. As she reached the top Anam caught her eye. He stood watching her and it seemed to Maddie he was saying 'what took you so long'. As she cleared the top of the ridge there on the ground, dirty and curled up in a ball sleeping was Del. She stopped as a small sense of relief washed over her. Struggling for only a moment between anger and compassion, the love Maddie felt for this woman took over.
In sleep there were no signs of stress or exhaustion on Del 's face, which were always with her lately during waking hours. As she stood there lost in her own thoughts, Anam made his way over to nudge Del awake. Grumbling she waved him away. So much like a little girl did Del look at that moment that Maddie had to smile. Anam nosed Del 's shoulder again a little harder which finally made her open her eyes. Blinking against the sunlight she looked around and saw Maddie standing there bright and golden in the afternoon light. She looked at Maddie's face unsure if she were actually seeing a smile, she thought for sure she would be furious with her.
Del stood up dusting the dirt, rocks and leaves from her clothes as Maddie walked to her. "For a moment there I thought you were a ghost."
Maddie reached up and removed a few leaves from Del 's hair. "For a moment I thought you were a corpse."
Del looked at her boots and then at Maddie. "You mad at me?"
Maddie thought for a moment, watching Del in her repentful pose and when she finally caught Del 's eye shook her head no. "You hungry?" she asked, the look on Del 's face told the truth. She handed over her bundle of food and watched as Del walked to the nearest tree, slid down its trunk and began devouring the biscuit and chicken. "Slow down before you choke, I don't have any water."
Del looked up embarrassed, "Sorry, you want some?"
Maddie waved away the food and sat beside her, leaning against the tree she stretched out. Shoulders almost touching, they sat in silence as Del finished off the last of the food. It was Maddie who broke the silence.
"So why'd you come back?"
"It was a foolish thing to go off like that. I want to go home, but we need to do this the right way, if it can be done at all."
"Is that the only reason?"
Del took a deep breath and looked out over the valley, "No."
Maddie knew she would get no more out of this woman and was happy enough with that. "So do you think we can go home?"
"I'm not sure, it's not so simple anymore." Del looked at Maddie's long strong hands twisting a twig in her lap. "What do you think?"
Maddie flicked the twig away and rolled her head back on the tree, "I don't know. The more I think about it the more impossible it seems, to talk to Kelly.."
"I know, did she talk to you about how if we go back Abby might not be born."
"Do you think it's true?"
"I'm not sure, on one hand it makes sense the way she explains it, on the other I suppose it would all depend on what you did when you got there."
"Your the only one with the power to keep Annie from having the rest of her children and as Kelly explains it that would effect all of their lives."
"And what about you?"
Maddie thought for a moment then took a deep breath. "If that's what you chose to do then I guess I would have to be moving on."
"So you think it's true."
"I don't know Del , since the day I rode off my farm with you nothing has made any sense to me anymore. I do know that I would not want to be responsible for destroying someone's life." Maddie glanced at Del. "I think if we go back somebody's going to get hurt."
Del looked at Maddie's profile and tried to read what she saw there, but could not. She leaned her shoulder against Maddie's and closed her eyes. "I don't want anyone to get hurt, that's the whole reason we left in the first place."
"You can't protect everyone Del. "
"We don't even know if we can go back."
Maddie told Del of Dan's plan and that he had already left. "We didn't know if you were coming back. Except Lucy, she's never lost faith in you."
Del was struck by this comment. "Have you?"
"No, I still believe in you, but let's say I don't have the faith of a child like Lucy does."
"I should be with him, he'll never find it on his own."
"Whether he does or not Dan will be just fine, he seemed to have a good idea of what he was doing."
"I still think I should go back and try."
"What do you say we wait for Dan to get back and if he hasn't found anything, we saddle up and head back ourselves?"
"How long is he going to be gone?"
"Just be patient Dell and let someone else help you for once, you don't have to do everything yourself."
Del shot a dirty look over her shoulder and Maddie returned a look that told her not to argue. The sun was quickly sliding over the horizon and the temperature was beginning to drop. Del rose to her feet and offered Maddie a hand up. With a smile she accepted and they both walked over to Anam. Del jumped into the saddle then pulled Maddie up behind her, she glanced at the little cemetery and the most prominent stone there then nudged Anam over the ridge.
The grandeur of the Rocky Mountains sprawled below Dan's small plane making it look even smaller. The snowcaps punctured the blue sky to the right as the Great Plains stretched to the left. Dan enjoyed this time alone flying over the earth, it was the greatest sense of freedom he knew. Before leaving he had down loaded both old and new maps and studied them together. He used the reference points Maddie and Lucy gave him to pinpoint the original town Maddie had lived near. He had a good idea of where to look, but what exactly he was looking for was still not clear to him. He would begin with Del 's old ranch, as it should be the easiest to locate.
The name of the town had changed, but for the most part Bryce still existed. It was easy to see the small town that must have existed when Del and Lucy lived there. His first stop was the courthouse to look through county records.
The moment when he found the proof he had been looking for he felt it was like taking the first step to truth, one he wanted so much to believe. All the details of Del 's property were there just as she had told him. The ranch still existed, only now it belonged to a family named Martin. It was still a horse ranch and they were the decedents of Cody Martin, Del 's hired hand.
From the courthouse he found a small library where he tried to locate information about Del. The only information he found in old newspaper records about Del were in association with Lucy. There were quite a few articles about the hired girl who had murdered a town leader and was suspected of being aided out of town by horse ranch owner Del Conner who had turned up missing while taking an order of horses to Kansas . There was also a wanted poster in the paper with a bad sketch of Lucy and a reward of five hundred dollars, dead or alive.
Mid day was approaching as Dan stopped into the local feed and seed to get directions to Del 's old place. The ranch was quite a ways out of town, but the drive was lovely. He tried to imagine away the new houses along the highway and pictured the land as it would have been in Del 's day. The land itself had not changed much, just the new additions. But the road would not have existed then, just a trail.
He approached a large arch made of horseshoes, on top in bent iron it read Del Ranch. Dan's stomach fluttered, this was all too easy, doubt began to creep in. He passed under the arch and drove the long road to the main house. It looked like an old farmhouse, but not more than seventy or eighty years old, very typical of farm houses all over the country. There was an assortment of out buildings, some no more that twenty years old. Far off in the distance he could see what looked like the fallen remains of and old building.
As Dan parked his rental car in front of the house a middle aged man walked out the door onto the porch. Dan waved hello as he got out and asked if this was the Martin's ranch. After getting an unenthusiastic conformation he explained that he was doing research for a book his sister in law was writing on the old west, life on the frontier and that sort of thing. He had heard a story about the original owner of the ranch and was trying to track down information to see if there was any truth in it.
The man introduced himself as Wyatt Martin and invited Dan to sit on the porch. As Dan climbed the stairs to the porch Wyatt's wife Amanda came out of the house to join them. Dan introduced himself and explained they were trying to find interesting and unique stories of the old west that had never been told before. Dan was impressed with how fast he could come up with a lie, and one that would satisfy any and all questions he would have to ask to get information about Del. He had a notebook and small tape recorder and asked if it would be all right to ask some questions and record their conversation.
Wyatt's curiosity was piqued and as long as he did not have to give out information about his family to a stranger he did not see any harm. Amanda went to get them all some iced tea and Dan began asking how the Martin family had been involved with Del Conner. He spent the remainder of day talking with the Martins and Wyatt showed him where the old house had once stood, now a collapsed rotting pile in a field. He pointed out the location of the original paddock and barn which had been replaced long ago. The ranch had remained in the Martin family since Del had given it to Cody. He had continued her success and soon had a family of his own to teach the horse business. It had remained a horse ranch all these years and the Martins were well known for their horses, only now it was also a lama ranch, the horse business not being what it use to be. The Martins had managed to hang onto all two hundred acres and each one of them knew the story of Del Conner and how she helped a young girl escape the law after murdering a shop owner who had raped her. They had always assumed Del took the girl and ran off to the north somewhere to join her long lost love. They did not know who the person was or where, only that Del had left everything to Cody, Wyatt's great great-great grandfather. The story had been a big family secret for many years at the insistence of Cody Martin, then it just became family lore. It seemed Cody had kept Del and Lucy's secret about where they had gone and whom they had gone to meet.
Dan took a few photos of the old fallen down house and the new house with Wyatt and Amanda on the porch. He took one of the new stable, thinking it would make Del happy to see the success of her ranch. He managed to get shots of horses and Lamas grazing in a field together. He would photograph the arch on the way out, thinking this too would make her happy. He felt a renewed excitement and the doubt that had overcome him earlier had been pushed to the back of his mind, for now. He thanked Wyatt and Amanda for their hospitality and their stories. They asked to be sent a copy of the book and he promised them a signed copy. Now all he had to do was tell Kelly she had to write a book.
He headed for his hotel as the sun was getting low in the sky. As he approached the road his stomach growled so loud it startled him. Dan laughed and started looking for a place to get some dinner; he was enjoying the most bizarre adventure of his life.
The days seem to pass slower and slower for Del. The only word from Dan was that he was fine and making slow progress. Lucy helped Maddie expanded the size of her garden and plant a winter crop. Alice always seemed to be busy with the house or the ranch; she rode out with Jason each day to check the stock or a fence. There did not seem to be anything Alice did not know about.
Lucy loved spending time with Alice ; she had learned how to work almost every appliance in the kitchen including the washer and dryer and the TV and stereo. The television was too much for her, but she loved the stereo and would play Alice 's albums whenever she was alone in the house. She pushed the past out of her mind and tried not to think about such things because it was too heart breaking. Instead she had set her mind to the task at hand and the present moment. Often she would catch up to Del for a few moments to tell her how happy she was to simply be here. She wanted to relieve the strain Del had put on herself, which hovered like a visible weight bearing down on the woman and Lucy wanted to make it go away. Del would give her a half hearted smile and say “then we did good” and off she would go. Lucy could see Del 's thoughts were somewhere else and she felt her slipping away again.
Del would get up with the sun and ride out to the horse ranch. She loved walking the stalls when no one else was around. Instinct would take over and she would brush the horses and inspect each one. By the time Abby came out Del would be in the upper paddock working one of the horses. Abby never minded, she knew her horses were getting expert care and the workouts were good for both rider and horse. By afternoon Del was off on Anam riding the hills and woods. She needed time alone to think and truly honestly sort through all that had happened and could possibly happen. She spent long hours sitting in the warm sun watching birds play on the wind or rabbits dart from one bush to another. Alice wouldn't let her hunt the rabbits for dinner, she figured it was because the woman did not like having to clean them, so she would watch until the air grew cool as evening approached.
After almost a week of solitude Del returned to the ridge and Annie. She cleaned the dirt from all the headstones and found a few nice sized pinecones to place at Annie's grave. She stumbled about for a while trying to find her voice. Finally she sat down leaning against Annie's headstone.
“I have been doing some thinking Annie, well, that's really all I've been doing.” Del looked around and tossed a few pebbles at the blades of grass at the foot of the grave. “I have lost so much, my ranch, my family, my home and all that has kept me going was the thought of seeing you, holding you in my arms and breathing you in.” She stretched out along the length of Annie's grave. “ I had decided to give up everything for you long before Lucy showed up at my door, because there is one thing that always has been and always will be, and that is my love for you. I love you Annie and not even death can stop that.” Del reached up and traced Annie's name with her fingers and listened to Anam chewing grass near by.
Maddie had sensed Del needed some time and space to work things out for herself and she gladly gave it to the little red head in order to keep her from running off again. She occupied the time with her garden and helping Alice out around the house. Sometimes she would ride out with Alice and the boys checking over the property or untangling a poor sheep from the huge thorn bushes that grew down by the stream. She would lose herself in the labors of ranch life, grateful for the hard work, which meant she could collapse into her bed at night and fall asleep instead of lying awake thinking of a small hazel eyed woman who had turned her world upside down in more ways than one.
The next morning as Alice was going through her morning routine of making coffee, Del quietly came down the stairs and headed out the door. Alice was surprised to see Del coming down this late in the morning; usually she had gone before the rest of the house was even awake. She didn't think much of Del being dressed in her old clothes, but as Del slipped thru the door she noticed the gun strapped around Del 's waist. The sight of the old six-shooter startled her so much it took a moment for her to react. By the time Alice had made it out the back door Del was already in the barn saddling up Anam. As Alice tore down the back steps Del and Anam took off out the back of the barn never having noticed her.
Alice stood for a moment watching Del fly across the field, even in her moment of panic they were a beautiful sight to behold. Snapping back to her senses Alice ran back inside to call Abby. The sight of that gun had put a real fear in her. Lucy came down the stairs as Alice hung up the phone, she could see the woman was in a state, but could not imagine why. Alice told her to get Maddie and meet her at the car, Del was in trouble. At the mention of Del , Lucy raced up the stairs almost running over Maddie at the top. Immediately she grabbed Maddie's hand and pulled her down the stairs saying Del was in trouble.
Alice had the car running when the girls jumped in. She punched the gas pedal sending dirt and rocks flying as she headed in the direction of the old house. Maddie wanted to know what was going on, but Alice was busy driving and calling Abby on her cell phone to let her know where they were headed. Lucy was momentarily fascinated with the small phone and the never ending amazing things this new world held.
They made it to the house in just a few minutes and this time Maddie and Lucy did not mind the reckless speed with which Alice had driven. The car skidded to a stop a distance from the house so as not to hit Anam, as Maddie opened her door Abby and Kelly pulled up next to them. Maddie had only taken a couple of steps as the others were getting out of their vehicles when a shot rang out from inside the house. For a moment no one moved, and then Maddie ran to the front door with Lucy close behind. The blood drained from their faces as they stopped at the front door and strained to see inside. Two more shots rang out. Del was standing in the middle of the room with her back to the door; she was knocking over debris, listening and shooting rattlesnakes.
Abby, Kelly and Alice stopped at the door, crowding around to see Del listening so intently for a scrape or rattle. Abby was so relieved and angry at the same time that she yelled out, “What the hell do you think you're doing!?!”
Maddie had stepped in the door away from the others and now took a step towards Del. At that moment Del spun around and shot at Maddie. Everyone except Lucy and Maddie fell away form the opening. Maddie looked down at the dead snake beside her foot and back up at Del.
Del was looking around her again, “It's not safe to come inside just yet.”
“Gee I wish you would teach me how to shoot like that.” Lucy said admiring the skill Del had with a six-shooter.
Alice poked her head around the door, “My God you've gone insane.”
Del shot another snake off to her right, which sent Alice out of view again, “I thought I might clean this place up and stay here for a while if you don't mind Alice .”
Abby and Kelly were staring in disbelief as Del shot another snake and quickly reloaded. Alice was getting mad for being scared half to death, but Kelly put a gentle hand on her mother in-laws arm and silently urged her to be understanding. There was hope that Del was finally coming around to facing the reality of not being able to return to the life she knew. Alice watched the girl she had grown to love and respect a great deal. She told Del she could have what ever she wanted and if staying in an old dump like this would make her happy then it was all hers.
Del looked up for an instant, “I built this dump.”
“Right, sorry” Alice stepped away as Del spun around to shoot another snake.
Lucy followed her out excitedly making a list of things they would need to clean the place up. She had a picture in her mind of the house Del had built since the day Annie had written and described it to her. Now she had a chance to help create that home once more. Perhaps this would mean they were staying, with Del she was never sure, but it was a start.
Maddie watched Del kick aside pieces of wood and broken furniture killing two more snakes. “We're going to need some tools.”
Maddie was looking around taking a good account of the condition of the house. Del gave her a slight smile. “You don't have to do this, I'll fix it up.”
Maddie rolled her eyes, “You are the most stubborn person I have ever met.” she turned to go, calling over her shoulder, “I'll be back with supplies, you just kill all the snakes.”
Abby was the only one left in the doorway watching Del hunt snakes. “You're crazy you know that.”
“That has been my suspicion all along.”
Abby left Del inching her way forward leaving nothing unturned. She joined the others near Alice 's car and threw up her hands. “Does anyone else think this is crazy? Why would she want to stay in a falling down old heap when she can stay in the ranch house, even the bunk house is better than this.”
Alice looked at her daughter then to Kelly who was trying to hide a smile. “Because it's her house.”
Kelly took Abby's hand and led her to the truck. She loved how her beautiful lover could be so blind to the very obvious sometimes. She would take Abby home so she could go to work, then change into work clothes herself and join the others back at the old house. The two vehicles drove off in opposite directions leaving gun shots ringing out behind them.
At the main house Alice insisted on everyone eating a good breakfast before running off for the entire day. While she cooked eggs, sausages, biscuits, and skillet potatoes, the girls changed into their old clothes. If there was one thing Alice knew how to do, it was feed people. After breakfast she pulled out Dan's four-wheeler with a four by six utility trailer in tow. Unfortunately Maddie could not be persuaded to learn to operate the loud smelly machine so the trailer was ridged to be pulled between the horses.
Maddie dug through the tool shed and out buildings collecting shovels, rakes, saws, hammers, nails, draw blades and other tools that would come in handy. In the meantime Lucy was loading the trailer with buckets, brooms, rags, mops and vinegar for the few remaining panes of glass in the windows. Alice had put together a huge basket of food, two large thermoses of coffee and three large jugs of water. When everything had been loaded and tied down Lucy and Maddie saddled up and headed out, both looking happier then they had since arriving. Alice walked off in the direction of the bunkhouse. She had a little project in mind for Jason.
By the time Maddie and Lucy returned to the old house Del had started a pile of trash outside the door. Dead snakes and broken furniture lay in a heap. Maddie forced Del to stop and eat, which took very little coaxing. She and Lucy would drag the pile away from the house to be burned later.
Del had not realized how hungry she was until she stopped. She ate with an energy and appetite that she had not had for a long time. Looking over the supplies in the cart she gave a whoop of excitement. Maddie looked up at the noise and smiled, Del looked like a little kid in a toy box.
By the time Kelly arrived Maddie was using a shovel to get the dirt off the floor. The place needed a new door and windows and the roof needed replacing. The only running water was in the creek down behind the house and the kitchen pump had long since rusted solid. The outhouse had long cease to exist, the chimney was probably clogged and the old stove was rusted through. Those were just the obvious things, none of which deterred Del , Maddie or Lucy. They were use to hard work and a hard life. Fixing up a house that was already built was all in a days work for them, or maybe a week. Kelly wanted to be involved in all of it, because not only did she want to learn all she could about the little trio, but she had grown truly fond of each of them. The writer reflected on her life since having moved to the ranch all those years ago, it was never dull.
Alice arrived with lunch and Jason. His job was to remove the old stove and locate a replacement. Alice made a quick inventory of the place and started compiling a list of everything the place would need, starting with a composting toilet. She knew a lot of people who lived off grid and was very familiar with how a house without high tech conveniences could work comfortably. In the meantime Jason was sent off with a list of roofing supplies. A new roof would have to be first on the list. Within less then two hours all five women, Jason, and the hired hands of the ranch were ripping off what was left of the old roof. The log frame of the house was still strong and good, and before nightfall they were ready for a new roof.
As the light began fading from the sky the tools were packed away inside the house and a piece of plywood placed over the door to discourage any more unwanted squatters. Everyone was tired and a little sore, but they were proud of what they had accomplished. They all headed off to their own homes and a hot tub. Del and Maddie were the last to leave. Del looked around astounded at how much they had gotten done in one day. She had not expected all the help that arrived, but was very grateful for every bit of it. This time around would be much easier than when she had built the house just a few years ago. She felt thankful for having found some of the best people she had ever met. Maddie walked over and placed a hand on Del 's dirty shoulder. She looked around and smiled.
“I didn't think it was possible, but this just might be a beautiful house.”
Dell looked at the little house and saw it as it had been the day she left Annie standing in front of it. She took a deep breath as she was filled with pride. “I think this time it will be even better then it had been.” She looked over at Maddie's dirt streaked face and smiled. “You need a bath.”
Maddie lightly punched Del 's shoulder, “You don't smell too great yourself.” She looked at the dirty face through narrowed eyes and walked off towards their saddles under the big tree grateful they had fallen back into a comfortable easy rapport with each other. That ease had slowly slipped away over the last week and Maddie had begun to get worried. But now Del laughed at Maddie's feign at being offended and quickly followed close behind whistling for the horses.
Every tub was occupied that night and dinner was an hour late. Del soaked until the water turned ice cold then bundled herself up in soft warm clothes Alice called a sweat suit. When Alice had given them to her the name had not sounded very appealing, but now she was enjoying the soft warm feel of them.
Alice called her down for dinner then sent her backup again to fetch Maddie. Lucy laughed since that would have been her job had Del not come down at that very moment. And as Alice 's official assistant cook she was far too busy to go rounding people up.
Upstairs Del knocked on Maddie's door and waited; getting no response she knocked again opening the door just a bit to look in. Everything was very tidy and clean as usual. She walked through to the bathroom and knocked at the door. Getting no response she opened the door and called Maddie's name.
Asleep in the tub, Maddie jumped at the sound of Del's voice. She splashed around in the cold water for a moment trying to get her bearings and fumbled around for a towel. She told Del she would be right out, but as Del was closing the partially opened door she could not help but look in the mirror. She had not meant to look, but the sight of Maddie's beautiful strong taunt naked body covered in water droplets was more than she could turn away from. Her face flushed and her pulse quickened as she tried to remind herself to breath. She gently closed the door so an not to get caught and went straight to her own bathroom to splash cold water on her face, forcing her color back to normal. Taking a few minutes to get her breathing under control she then hurried down to supper.
The next morning the three cowgirls were up at dawn and eager to get back to work. The men returned to finish the roof while Del began building a new door. Maddie tackled the chimney while Kelly and Lucy cleaned years of dirt and animal habitation out of the building. A scrub brush and bucket of water were to be their best friends for the rest of the day.
Alice supplied a steady stream of refreshments and insisted Del use one of the add-on rooms off the back of the house to build them a respectable bathroom. She could tolerate a lot of things, but the idea of an outhouse in this day and age was just not acceptable. That afternoon she spent a few hours on the phone and Internet locating an old gas stove, a propane tank, composting toilet and a solar hot water heater. When she gave Del the list of all the things she had ordered for the little house she was surprised to get such a strong objection from all three girls. They were of course concerned about the amount of money, something of which they had none of. Alice only laughed and told them not to think about such things. She took great pleasure in helping these girls and in some strange remote way she felt she owed it to Del to see to it she had the home she had been searching for. She had decided it didn't matter whether or not they were genuine relics from the past. They were here now and she loved them, so now they were family.
Alice refused to hear any more complaints about cost and headed back to the house to get dinner started. Del was beginning to think her idea wasn't so great after all. All she wanted to do was get the house in a livable condition, not build some kind of new fangled mansion. Kelly watched the dark mood building around Del and decided to let her in on a well-known secret. What Alice wanted, Alice got. She sat them all down and explained that Alice Stokes was a very wealthy woman and that she did not spend her money on frivols things. She was in fact one of the most practical people Kelly knew. And besides the only way she would let Del move out there was if she knew the girl would be comfortable and safe. That was comfortable to Alice 's standards, not Del 's.
That night Maddie heard the familiar sound of Del sneaking out and riding off. This time however she did not worry, she knew Del was going back to the house to sleep where she felt most at home. Taking this as a good sign, she never said a word.
Through out the week Abby would stop by and help out as much as she could, but most of her time was taken up with her own ranch. Jason hauled away the rusted out stove, old broken lanterns and all sorts of other rubbish that was not burnable. Each day he would deliver something new: lumber, panes of glass, a 1950's gas stove and oven, a Franklin stove for the bedroom, water tanks and a composting toilet, which required a lot of explaining on it's use and operation from Alice . The look she got from all three girls made her laugh. “You're use to an outhouse and this grosses you out?”
By the end of the week the gas company had delivered and installed a large propane tank to service the stove. Alice managed to convince Del that running an electric line to the house would be the best thing, less a fire break out from the candles and lanterns. Del had lived by candlelight her whole life and never set anything on fire, but since it meant so much to Alice she gave in, as if she ever had a choice.
Del , Maddie and Lucy worked from sun up to sun down with hardly any breaks. It felt good and familiar. Del was a force to be reckoned with, but she and Maddie together were a whirlwind of productivity. They built a table for the kitchen and a new counter for the sink. Windows were repaired and shelves rebuilt. The pine log rope bed Del had built for Annie needed much repair and instead of ropes Del cut notches in it for some slats to hold a mattress Alice had brought down from the bunkhouse. Kelly brought some old chairs from their attic and donated an old sofa from their sun porch. Odd bits of dishes, glasses, pots and pans and silverware drifted in from both houses. It was the perfect opportunity to have a good clear out of unwanted items around the house and it all seemed to find its way to the cabin, even Alice did a once through at her place and came up with a huge pile of things to contribute to the cause. Sorting it all quickly became too much so Del put Lucy in charge of what was needed and what was not.
Dan had extended his trip to include a few business errands of his own when he heard about the activity back home, but he still would not let on as to what he had found. He wanted to deliver the news in person.
The work list seemed to grow instead of shrink. Great portions of the floor needed to be replaced so Alice brought some old rugs to cover the plywood that had been laid in as a temporary measure. Lucy collected fabric and blankets from everyone to make curtains and bed clothes. Winter would come fast and hard as it always did in Montana and everyone worked hard to get the house ready.
There was no electricity or running water as of yet and the nights were already cold, but Del spent every night there no matter what. She felt comfortable and at home. A small part of her kept waiting for Annie to walk through the door, but she tried not to think about that. After a week of hard work the place was starting to shape up.
One morning Kelly pulled up with Lucy and two bunks in the bed of her truck. Lucy and Maddie were moving in. Del tried to persuade them that the main house would be more comfortable, but Lucy was already unpacking her clothes and hanging them on pegs in the loft. Maddie took the room Del had built off the back of the house for Annie's sewing room since Del was already in Annie's bedroom. And no amount of persuading on Del 's part could convince them to stay at Alice 's. Del 's solitary time was over. Her late night work sessions would come to an end. Lucy silenced Del 's protests by telling her they were family and families stay together. Once again reminding Del how much smarter Lucy was than all the rest. She would not let Del slip away into herself or anywhere else. And the truth be told, Del was glad they had moved in. The reminders of Annie all around her only proved to make her even lonelier.
Once again the three women fell into a comfortable ease with each other. Being together brought a security back into their lives that had been missing a little since arriving at the ranch.
Kelly spent part of each afternoon writing the stories Maddie and Lucy would tell her of the old west. Del was another matter; she was always busy and did not like to talk much. Perhaps she did not want to be reminded of all she was giving up or possibly she was simply building a place for Maddie and Lucy to live and would take off again in search of the impossible. Kelly could only guess and carefully watch Del from a distance.
The house was now free of most drafts thanks to Lucy and Kelly's rechinking efforts. The chimney had finally been cleared and reset so Abby and Maddie were building up a supply of wood for the winter. Jason would stop by each evening with the dead downed trees he would come across while working. Lanterns were still the main source of light at night. Del was trying to help Wade and Sam, the hired hands lay the pipes and a pump and run the electric lines for a light in every room and a few outlets, at Alice 's insistence. But the unfamiliar work got to be too much and after a stern word from Maddie about Del not being able to do everything at once, she left it to the men.
Plans were made for a bathroom and hallway that would attach Maddie's room to the rest of the house so she wouldn't have to go outside to go to bed. In the meantime Del was enjoying bathing in a small horse trough in the corner that Maddie had hung a blanket around. Lucy still preferred taking a bath at the main house. The stove was hooked up to the propane tank and Maddie and Lucy began making wonderful meals that filled the house with the smell of home. They were just settling in and happy when Dan phoned to say he would be coming home. It had been just over two weeks since he had left and everyone had pretended not to think about why he had been gone. Only Alice knew all the details of his trip so far and she would give no indication of any knowledge of what was to come.
Dan had spent a little over a week tracking down everything he could about his three mysterious friends. Then another week looking at sheep and arranging the purchase and shipment of the new stock back to the ranch.
The night before Dan's return Lucy found Del wrapped in a blanket stretched out by the creek looking up at the vast Montana sky and the millions of stars that filed it. She knew Del was nervous about what he had found, they all were. She walked down to the creek and sat next to her best friend.
“Do you want some company?”
Del held the blanket up for Lucy to crawl under and they lay side by side searching the sky for a few moments. Del could feel the warmth of Lucy's body next to her and remembered just how much they had been through since their fortuitous meeting. Del always thought she was taking care of everyone, but it was Lucy who really did that. From the moment they met she had saved Del 's life and had been looking out for her ever since.
Del glanced over at the girl by her side, no longer a child, then looked back at the stars. “It's good to know some things never change.”
Lucy looked at Del a little puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“The night sky, it's the same sky I use to look at from my front porch.”
Lucy looked back at the stars and smiled. “Yeah, it's the same one that was over our farm.”
They both searched for the familiar points of light, constellations they would never know the names of, stars that were the same no matter where you looked at them from. Lucy leaned her head on Del 's shoulder and felt a sense of peace.
“This is a good place Del. ”
“I know. Are you happy Luc?”
“I use to have nightmares about Clark and being hunted and hanged, but not anymore…mostly. I feel safe here with you and Maddie and Alice and Dan. So yes, I'm happy.”
Del took Lucy's hand and held it; she never ceased to be amazed at how well Lucy handled everything that happened to them.
“If there's one thing I've learned,” Lucy continued, “it's that life goes on no matter what. Everything goes forward and you just have to keep up. It's our job to make the best of it.”
“Yeah. Work, play, love they don't stop and if you're not a part of it then you might as well be dead.”
“It's not that easy Luc.”
“I didn't say it was easy, its life and it only gets easy when you're dead. I don't know what happened to us, but I know we're not dead.”
Del sat up looking down at Lucy. “Just how old are you again?”
Lucy jumped up and grabbed Del 's hand. “Come on, it's cold out here.” They walked back to the house wrapped in Del 's blanket leaving the bright star lit sky behind.
Maddie had watched them from her window unable to hear the conversation. She knew Lucy could calm Del and was grateful that someone could penetrate the wall of defenses Del had put up. As she watched them walking huddled together under a blanket her breath caught and her eyes filed with tears. She longed to be under that blanket as well.
Moments seemed like hours as Del tried to concentrate on the kitchen pump she was trying to remove. She kept looking at the big clock Abby had hung on the wall. Maddie was making enough bread to feed the whole of Montana in an attempt to keep herself from thinking about the time. Lucy was the only one who seemed relaxed as she sat under the big tree sewing curtains from old sheets Alice had given her. So it was she who first heard the planes engine. She dropped her sewing and searched the sky until spotting the bird like machine just over the tree tops of the ridge. Dan had come home. Lucy ran inside leaving her new curtains on the ground. Breathless with excitement she shouted Dan's arrival to the house. She laughed at having just deafened the two inside and ran out to saddle up her horse. Del thought of running along with her, but decided to remain calm, trying her best not to look too anxious. She looked at Maddie who was putting on her hat, knowing there was nothing to say she picked up her own hat and walked out the door.
Lucy and Alice began cooking right away knowing everyone would be coming for supper. Dan would not be at the house for a while; he had to put the plane away. His truck was still at the hanger and he would drive home when he was done. Del and Maddie decided to set the table so they would have something to do. Within ten minutes Abby and Kelly showed up in the kitchen.
Abby looked around at the set table, her mother and Lucy cooking, Maddie folding and refolding napkins and Del in the corner peeling potatoes and looking as if she would jump out of her skin at any moment. “Momma it's only three o'clock, what are you doing?”
Alice was too busy to look up and she did not need to be questioned in her own kitchen. “Dan's had a long trip and I'm sure he'll be hungry. Now you girls get over here and make some fresh iced tea.”
“Oh brother! He was only in Denver !”
Kelly gently escorted Abby out of the room and deposited her on the sofa. “They're all just a little nervous, and so are you. So sit here and watch TV, I'll make the tea.” She gave the scowling face a quick kiss as she handed her lover the remote then headed back to the kitchen.
After a while the truck could be heard pulling up to a stop outside. Lucy was the first to fling herself out the door and into Dan's arms. Abby and Kelly followed to help with the bags while Alice gave her son a welcome home hug. Only Del and Maddie remained inside watching each other, both a little afraid of what he had to tell them.
Everyone settled into the den with iced tea and homemade cookies. Dan was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to sink into a hot bath then sleep until supper, but he knew how much everyone had been waiting to hear his news. Del quietly watched him as if she were distrustful of what he was going to say. But it was the look in Maddie's eyes: desperation, longing and fear that told him he must get this over with as soon as possible. He retrieved two bags from the hall and quickly handed out sweaters, ponchos and shawls made from alpaca wool. And informed his mother that he had been looking into acquiring a couple dozen alpaca's for the ranch. The trip to Del 's old ranch had opened a whole new business prospect for him.
The time had come and Dan opened his oversized briefcase. Handing a stack of pictures to Del he told her about the ranch and how Cody kept it running and never told anyone of where she and Lucy had gone. He showed her the picture of Wyatt and Amanda Martin, happy and content on their porch. And Del could almost see Cody in Wyatt's face. She was confused about the alpaca and glad to see there were still horses roaming her land. Cody had done a good job, as she knew he would.
There was much less information on Lucy's family. Her brother Willie's family was the only ones to have remained in the area. He pulled out copies of the warrants for her arrest and newspaper clippings. At the sight of the wanted poster Lucy became upset and started to tremble.
“That's enough for now.” Del said as she took the papers from Lucy's shaking hands. “Some things don't have to be relived.”
Del wrapped an arm around Lucy and walked her outside. They sat on the back porch steps with the warm sun on their faces and a cool breeze blowing through their hair.
“I'm sorry Del. ”
“Why? You have nothing to be sorry for.”
“They want me dead or alive.”
Del took Lucy's face in her hands. “Look at me Lucy. That was a long time ago, another time another place. They think we're all dead by now.” Del gave a little chuckle. “Actually, they're all dead now.”
When Lucy didn't react she wrapped her arms around her and held her tight. “You listen to me kid. Lucy you are safe now and forever because I am never going to let anything happen to you. I am going to make sure you are always safe and taken care of.”
Lucy gave Del a big hug back. “What about Maddie?”
“Does that mean we're staying”
Del gave her a gentle nudge on the shoulder. “Why don't we finish hearing what Dan has to say.” Taking Lucy's hand they both went back into the house.
Del paused at the door where Maddie had been watching them, giving a nod of her head and putting an arm around Maddie's shoulder, she lead them all back into the room where Kelly and Abby were pouring over all the papers Dan had laid out.
Alice got up and took Lucy into her arms. “Don't you worry any my girl, no one is after you anymore, you are safe here with us. All this is just ancient history.”
Half smiling Lucy sat next to Alice . “Maybe for you, but it wasn't that long ago for us.”
“Point taken. Dan, try to be a little more sensitive.”
Dan was truly sorry, “I didn't mean to upset you Lucy, it's just this was all I could find about you, I'm sorry.”
“It's okay, what else did you find?”
“Well, it took some doing, but I found the valley where Maddie use to live. I wasn't sure at first; there are several homes there now. But I did a few treks through the canyons and came across a blocked pass.”, he pulled out the carved pieces of rock and handed them to Maddie and Del. Del at once recognized the symbol and for a brief moment she held to the hope of going home. Then just as quickly the hope was gone as Dan explained that the sides of the canyon and what must have been a land bridge at one time had collapsed and there was no getting through.
“There must be a way, we made it through.”
“Yes, as it was collapsing. You were lucky you weren't killed.” He pulled more papers out of the stack in front of him and handed them to Maddie, “there's a legend among the Indians that use to inhabit those hills. Only the chosen could make the journey to the other side. They believed you had to be pure of heart to make the journey through the marked stone. If your heart were true and good you would be taken to a greater spiritual life, if not you would just ride through the canyon. I'm not saying I believe that, I'm just telling you what the legends say.”
Dan picked up the rocks and turned them over in his hands for the hundredth time. “I don't know what this is or what it was, but the Indians have stories of people riding through the arch in that canyon with this carved stone over it, and they disappeared. Vanished into thin air. I can't believe I am saying this, but since you are sitting in front of me and I can find no other reason for you being here, I think that on the night you three rode through that canyon you somehow crossed through a portal in time and lightening from the storm hit the arch right on the symbol, see you can still see scorch marks. You made the last crossing from your time into ours as the arch was destroyed.”
Lucy reached for the rock in Dan's hand. “I remember a great flash of light, don't you remember Del , it was so loud, and then nothing, the only noise was our horses racing through the canyon.”
Maddie looked at Del remembering the urgency in her voice as she pushed them forward. “I remember that noise, like a hundred rifles going off all at once. Del , it was the walls crumbling. But Dan I had been through those canyons before, I never traveled through time.”
“I can't explain it Maddie. The stories tell of people going through there many times, then one day just disappearing. I don't know what triggered it. But I don't think it had anything to do with how pure your heart is or the lightening strike, some things just can not be explained.”
“ Del ,” Dan leaned forward, “I'm afraid there's no going back. Whatever it was that brought you here doesn't exist anymore and it hasn't for a long time.”
Maddie reached over to put her hand on Del 's arm. At the first touch Del jumped to her feet staggering backward, looking around the room at everyone watching her, she turned and bolted out the door.
Lucy jumped up to run after her. “ Del !”
Alice grabbed her arm, “Let her go child, she needs some time alone.” She took Lucy's hand and led her into the kitchen to finish making supper.
Dan excused himself to take that long anticipated bath, leaving Abby and Kelly staring at Maddie who had been very composed through out it all. Kelly moved to Maddie's side, “Are you alright?”
Staring at the rocks on the table, Maddie could only think, here we go again, “ Del will be fine, she just doesn't accept things well in groups.”
“I wasn't asking about Del , I'm asking about you.”
Maddie looked at Kelly and gave her a weak smile, “I just want this to all be over, I want life to be normal again, only…”
“Only it was never normal to begin with. Why does she always have to run off like that?”
Abby moved to sit on the other side of Maddie. “Because she's had a very lonely life and leaning on others just doesn't come naturally for her. But give her some time and let her know she's not alone and that'll change.”
“I wish I could believe that.”
Kelly gave Maddie a big hug, “Believe me it will, I know.” She looked into Abby's eyes and smiled at her own former lone ranger.
Outside Del looked around as she half stumbled, half ran to the barn. She needed to run her hands over the one constant throughout her entire life, the saddle Red had given her when she was five. It was too big for her then and she would slide all over the place, but she never fell out. Red would laugh as she bounced around on the back of a stallion, but he would smile with pride as his little girl dug in and held on. Now the only thing she had left of him was this saddle.
Anam trotted into the barn sensing the unease in Del. She quickly saddled him up and grabbed an extra blanket before they bolted out of the back of the barn. Her first instinct was to head to Annie's house, but it was no longer Annie's house, now it was hers and Maddie and Lucy's. The only thing left of Annie was a photo beside Del 's bed. Turning Anam to the open range she dropped his reins and let him run where ever he wanted. It was an old trick she would use to feel free and unconstrained. Sitting high in the saddle, letting the horse run free, with her arms stretched out, head thrown back and her eyes closed, a soaring sensation would over take her and the feeling of freedom and independence would flood her senses. And this was all she desired at the moment.
The two wandered around until the light started fading from the sky. The temperature was dropping quickly so with a clear head Del turned Anam to the hills and the protection of the trees.
She picked a spot where Anam had some grass to eat and she could find enough wood to burn a fire through the night. Once again she realized she had gone off without any food or water, it was becoming a bad habit that would get her into some real trouble one day. Del made a mental note to try and keep a check on her temper. Of course that would not comfort her empty stomach on this cold night.
Early the next morning she covered over her fire pit and saddled up, then quickly headed further up into the hills to find a stream that connected to the same one that ran beside Annie's house. She found wild mushrooms and blackberries near the water and Anam found a sweet patch of grass. After getting their fill they were once again moving through the trees on their way to the ridge and the one person Del could talk to.
Dan stopped by the old house to see the progress the women had made in his absence and to see if Del had returned home. Lucy was very excited to show Dan all they had done and was most proud of the bathroom Del was starting on.
“This is very impressive, you guys have been working real hard and it shows, I can't believe the difference. I would not have recognized the place.”
Lucy looked around and beamed with pride. “Two more weeks and this place will be just like new, maybe better.”
“Mom said you didn't want electricity out here.”
“That was Del , not me, I like all this new fangled stuff, it sure makes life much easier. I'm glad Alice stuck to her guns and insisted on it.”
“Yes, you will learn not to argue with her, she usually gets what she wants.” He noticed Maddie was busy wrapping up bundles of bread. “Looks like you opened a bakery in here.”
Maddie laughed at the sight of all the surfaces covered in loaves of bread. “I'm afraid I got a little carried away. That new oven doesn't take any work at all to use. I was hoping you would take these loaves to Jason and the men, and these are for you and Alice.”
“It'll be a real delight.” Dan sat in a chair watching Maddie and Lucy busy in their new home and hoped they were settling in. “Maddie, has Del come home yet?”
“Don't worry Dan, she'll be back, you just have to understand that's Del. She kind of has to go off and work things out for herself.”
“If you're not worried, then I won't be.” He got up and gave Maddie and hug. “I'll take these to the bunkhouse right away.” Picking up the bundles of bread he winked good-bye to Lucy and headed out the door.
Lucy watched Maddie cleaning up and knew she was thinking about Del , walking over she wrapped her arms around Maddie's neck, “I love you Maddie.”
Maddie pulled back and gave Lucy a funny quizzical look, “What was that all about.”
“No reason, I'm just glad you're here.”
Maddie returned Lucy's hug, “I'm glad I'm here too.”
Del reached the ridge before the sun had climbed very high in the sky. She unsaddled Anam and let him wander free. Bringing the saddle and blanket she made herself comfortable on Annie's grave. She knew Annie didn't mind and they had a lot to talk about. Because for this woman she would move heaven and earth, now it seemed that would be exactly what she would have to do.
“Annie, I miss you so much it hurts. You know I would do anything to get back to you. Things have just gotten so complicated. I've been working on the house; it's been like having to build it all over again. Only this time it's not for you, it's for Lucy and Maddie. I have to make sure they have a good home, a safe place to live. You would be so proud of Lucy, she has handled all this better than any of us. She's always been so grown up, but seeing all the new and bizarre things this world has to offer has made her something of a kid. She gets so excited and is quick as anything to learn how everything works. I have to say I don't really care so much for it all, but if it makes her happy.”
Del walked around picking up pinecones and arranging them around Annie's grave. “Maddie seems to be doing okay, she's tough and can adapt to anything, she reminds me an awful lot of you.” Sitting down and leaning her head against the tombstone she smiled. “Do you remember how happy you were when Robert was born? And Margaret? And Bennie?... I do.”
Pulling the blanket up around her shoulders Del slumped down on top of Annie's grave. She watched the clouds rolling by for a while. “Annie, you always new what you wanted out of life. You chose your life and tried to make me fit into those choices. I would do whatever you wanted because I love you, but I need to make some choices of my own. This is tearing me apart and I don't even know if I'm on the right trail.” Reaching up she traced Annie's name with her finger. “I wish you were here to help me. Of course if you were here I wouldn't be in this position.”
The afternoon was slipping away and there was no sign of Del. Lucy was busy hanging the curtains she had just finished for the kitchen. Maddie had managed to keep herself busy with the endless amount of work that needed to be done around the place. Jason and Sam had just left having finished installing the last electric outlet. They would have a light in every room and an outlet, with two outlets in the kitchen. Maddie could not imagine what they were supposed to do with them all. Now she wandered the house feeling anxious and fidgety. Unable to take it anymore she packed up some bread and saddled her horse. Perhaps talking to Kelly and Abby would make her feel more at ease.
Maddie was use to seeing strange cars down by Abby's barn, but there was a new car she had never seen before parked up by the house. She was about to turn around and leave when Kelly called to her from around the side of the house. Not wanting to be rude, Maddie dismounted with her bundle and left her horse to munch grass in Kelly's front yard.
“What in the world have you got there?” Kelly said as she took Maddie's arm and led her into the house.
“I made some extra bread and thought you might like some.” Maddie explained as she walked into the kitchen.
Abby was sitting at the table talking with a cheery looking older woman who smiled at Maddie the moment she walked in. “Hi Maddie, come on in. This is our good friend Francis; she runs the little grocery up the highway. Francis this is Maddie. She's staying on the ranch in the old cabin.”
Francis had a very animated face which lit up at hearing this news. “You mean that old building that's falling down on the far side of Alice 's place? You've got to be kidding.”
“It's not falling down anymore, we have been working on it and it's turned into a nice little place, just right for a couple of cowgirls.”
“A couple of cowgirls?” Francis's eyes twinkled with curiosity.
Maddie looked at Kelly with fright in her eyes, but Abby continued on. “Distant cousins, Maddie , Del and Lucy, they're going to be staying here. Dan has got some crazy idea about alpaca's and so he needed some extra hands. They were looking for something different, so it works out for everyone.”
“I still can't believe you're putting them in that old thing. It doesn't even have electricity.”
Maddie was catching on quick, “Oh no, the boys just finished putting that in today. We really didn't want any, but Alice was insistent. Everyone has worked so hard, it really is beautiful.”
Abby smiled and gave her a wink. “Maddie, what is that wonderful smell?”
“Oh, I made bread and thought you might like some.” She unfolded her bundle and pulled out six loaves of golden brown bread.
Picking up a loaf and smelling it, Kelly could not imagine how they were going to eat six loaves. “You made all this for us? Maybe you should give some to Alice .”
“No, I made six for her and eight for the boys and four for us.” All three women give Maddie and incredulous look. “I guess I was a little anxious waiting for Dan to get home.”
“Well I can't wait,” Abby said as she got a knife, “Kelly get the butter and jam, Francis, join us for some homemade bread with your own homemade jam?”
“Don't mind if I do, so Maddie, you made twenty four loaves of bread? How long did that take you?”
“I made them yesterday, but their still fresh.”
Biting into a thick slab with butter on top Francis let out a low rumble. “Ooww, that is good.” She added some jam and her eyes rolled back into her head as she savored another bite.
“It really is good Maddie.” Kelly managed with her mouth full.
Abby finished her piece and started to cut another, “ Del 's not going to stay so skinny if she's eating four loaves of this a day.” She noticed the worried expression cross Maddie's face. “Maddie? Is Del at the house?”
Shaking her head no Maddie looked Abby in the eye. “Not yet.”
Kelly lay a comforting hand on Maddie's shoulder, “Maddie you know she's just out riding around.”
“Oh I know where she is.” Maddie said a little more harshly then she meant to.
“Right,” Abby stood up and dropped her napkin on the table, “this has gone on long enough, come on.”
Maddie stood up, “Where are we going?”
“To bring Del home where she belongs, her home, your home.” As Abby was leaving the table she took the slice of bread in Kelly's hand and jammed it into her mouth. “Sorry Francis, family business, I'll call you later.” And with that she and Maddie were out the door.
Anam stood at the edge of the ridge watching the two riders approach. As they drew nearer he simply turned and sashayed back to his grazing spot. Del was lost in thought watching the clouds roll by. She didn't hear the horses until they cleared the ridge. Watching as Abby and Maddie jumped down and let their horses join Anam , Del remained stretched out on the ground.
Abby was first to approach Del. “ Del , you can't keep doing this, people worry about you. You need to come back to the ranch where we can work this whole thing out.”
“What you going to work out Abby?”
“I don't know how but we will figure out a way to make everyone as happy as possible.”
“You can't force people to be happy just because you want them to be. That's something people have to find on their own.”
“Look, Del ..”
Before Abby could go on Maddie walked over to Del. She'd had enough. “That's it! I have had about all I can take.” She reached down and snatched the blanket off Dell. “I know you lost something you loved, while Lucy and I were just running away from things we were afraid of. But that's what life is, it changes on you without warning. And if you are lucky, throughout all the misery and hard times you find people to stand by you and help you through. And we have been lucky enough to find that.” She grabbed Del by the arm and pulled her to her feet. “I made my choice a while back and Lucy made hers. Now it's your turn. You can either get up from here and live the life you've been given or stay here and become just another corpse. The decision is yours, but I am tired of waiting.”
Abby had backed up a few feet to watch Maddie finally have her say. Del recovered from the outburst then kicked her heel in the dirt like she always did when she didn't know what to say. “Maddie, it's not that easy.”
“I didn't say it was easy, hell Del , life is not easy, but we still live it. And since when did you ever do anything that was easy.”
“You don't understand Maddie.”
“Don't you tell me I don't understand. I am sick of people telling me I don't understand things. I understand more than you will ever know. We all have to make adjustments Del , because life didn't stop in that canyon, it just shifted.”
Del looked back at Annie's tombstone and Maddie quickly moved to block her view. “Annie is dead, but you're alive and I'm alive and Lucy is alive, and that kid needs you. And so do I. So you need to decide what you're going to do, because that kid has been put through enough.”
Del could see the hurt in Maddie's eyes. “So have you.”
Maddie gave Del a hard look, “We all have.” She was angry and could take no more. She strode pass Del ready to jump on her horse and ride away when just as suddenly she turned on her heel and stormed back. Grabbing Del by the face she kissed the woman she loved as if her life depended on it. It was a long hard kiss and when it was over Maddie got on her horse and rode away.
Shocked and astounded Abby stood with her mouth open watching a stunned Del. She could not tell how the cowgirl would react. Del raised a hand to her mouth and gently touched where Maddie's lips had touched hers. The only sound was the wind through the trees.
Del looked at Annie's grave and said, “This is what I was trying to explain to you.”
Realizing that all this time Del had been saying good-bye to Annie, Abby stepped up behind Del.
“Do you see what I mean Annie?”
On the wind Del heard Annie answer her, “She loves you very much.”
Startled Del 's breath caught in her chest as she took a step away from the grave, backing into Abby and jumping two feet off the ground. Spinning to look at Abby then back to Annie, she realized it had been Abby speaking and not Annie. And for the first time she could see a glimmer of Annie in her great-great grand daughter.
Taking Del 's hand Abby gently reminded her, “They both love you, but Annie is gone and Maddie is here.”
Del watched as Abby rode away then turned to have one last conversation with her lost love.
“You know I love you Annie and I always will, but I am in love with Maddie and I think we can make a life together here. I am sorry you had to live your whole life never knowing what happened to me, but you did live your whole life. And now I'm going to do the same. And don't you worry, I'll keep an eye out on your family, haven't I always.” Picking up her saddle, Del walked away from her past.
The sun was getting low in the sky as Abby rode into her mothers yard. Inside Alice was making hot fudge sundays for herself and Lucy. The girl sat wide-eyed in anticipation about discovering another fantastic new treat. Alice was making her famous super sundays, a delicious concoction her children were all too aquatinted with. Abby quickly grabbed a bowl and slid it next to the heaping bowls of frozen sweet goodness.
“My kids never could resist one of my sundays, Abby can you believe this child has never had ice cream?” Alice quickly filled Abby's bowl with vanilla, chocolate brownie, and butter pecan ice cream topped with chocolate and caramel sauce, crushed oreo cookies and whipped cream. She put the bowls on the table and handed Lucy a spoon. “Just don't eat it too fast or you'll get a head ache.”
Abby dug out a big spoon of ice cream dripping with sauce and popped it into her mouth, she let out a low hum of delight and closed her eyes to fully savor the sweet taste of her childhood. Lucy watched with anticipation then did exactly as Abby had. The cold creamy sweet sensation startled her, she did not know something could taste that good. She test tasted each individual flavor exclaiming with glee at the new sensations.
“This is the best thing I have ever eaten! Do you think Del and Maddie can try some?”
“Of course they can dear. We can bring them some when we're done.”
Abby licked a drop of caramel off her spoon, “I don't think that is such a good idea tonight.”
“Why, is something wrong, isn't Del back?” Alice asked with concern as Lucy stopped eating, waiting to find out what new crisis was unfolding.
“No, in fact I think things might finally start settling down around here.”
“Have you seen Del ?” Lucy asked perking up a little.
“Maddie and I rode up to the ridge, of course Del was there. Well Maddie finally lost her patience with Del 's mourning; she laid down the law and then kissed her so hard I thought something might get damaged. Then she turned around and left Del standing there.”
Alice was more intrigued than one of her mystery novels. “What did Del do?”
“Said she had been saying good-bye to Annie.”
Lucy let out a whoop and waved her spoon in the air. “Well it's about time!”
Abby looked at Lucy with mild surprised and caught Alice 's eye. “What do mean Lucy?”
Lucy was scooping up large gobs of ice cream. “I know Del loved Annie, still does, but I have never seen two people more made for each other than Del and Maddie.”
Alice let out a laugh that filled the whole kitchen, “Lucy love, you really are a girl ahead of your own time.” She hugged the girl and started in on her own melting bowl of ice cream.
Luxury is defined differently for everyone, for some this means plush furniture or more clothes than you could ever wear. For Maddie luxury was having a pantry stocked with everything you could ever think of and a few things she had never even dreamed of. Lucy loved the appliances and gadgets of this new world, for Maddie it was all the canned and packaged foods. She still cooked all their meals from scratch, but small things like butter that she did not have to churn or milk she did not have to get from the cow herself, these were the new world experiences that made her life a little easier. Even if she did miss milking her cows, now she enjoyed the extra time it gave her to work on other things like making the house livable and ready for winter.
Maddie had always loved baking and with the new stove Alice gave them, baking had become her comfort. Her confrontation with Del had surprised even herself. She still could not believe she kissed Del , she hadn't meant too. But every time she thought about that kiss her skin warmed from the inside out. So to keep her mind occupied she began making pies from the bag of apples Kelly had given them. She had peeled and sliced the apples and had them marinating in honey and cinnamon. She only had two pie tins along with one square tin and one rectangle tin. This would have to do.
The light had almost faded from the sky when Del unsaddled Anam and watched him head for the stream. Walking up to the house she could see the soft glow of a single light in the kitchen and the shadow of Maddie moving around inside. Carefully she opened the door and put her saddle down in the corner. Maddie did not stop rolling out her piecrusts; only a twitch of her head gave any indication that she knew Del had come home.
Del walked up behind Maddie and watched her strong arms work the rolling pen. She did not want to say the wrong thing again. “You didn't have to yell at me, I was only saying good-bye.” Maddie stopped rolling the dough, but did not move or turn. Childishly Del made circles with the toe of her boot in the flour on the floor. She watched the white powder give way to trenches. “I didn't know what to do or say, I've been so confused lately.”
Finally Maddie turned to look into the eyes she had grown to trust and love only to find them watching circles being drawn on the floor.
Realizing Maddie was watching her Del stopped and looked up into the most beautiful green and gold eyes she had ever seen. “I didn't know how to tell you. See I love Annie and probably always will, but I'm IN love with you.”
Maddie smiled and threw her arms around Del , dough and flour flew from her hands. “I love you too Del.” She knew Annie would always occupy a place in Del 's heart; it was a part of what made Del who she was. But Del loved her, she had said it out loud and that was all that mattered to Maddie. She realized she had been waiting a long time to hear those words and now that they had been spoken she knew they would stay here and build a life together, they would be safe and for the first time she would have a chance at being truly happy.
A weight fell from Del 's shoulders as Maddie wrapped her arms around her neck. For the first time in what seemed like years she felt light and happy. She had told this amazing woman that she loved her and heard the same in return. Del felt like she was walking on air. She picked up Maddie and swung her around kissing her the whole time. They kissed and spun in circles until they were both ready to collapse. Falling apart Del smiled at the flour smudges on Maddie's chin and flush in her cheeks. Unable to wait any more Maddie scooped up the woman she had loved and desired for months and carried her to Del 's bed. There she gently placed her on the bed and began removing Del 's clothes.
The night was full of loving exploration, fulfilling desires and satisfying hungers. It was not until the sun was tinting the eastern sky that all questions of love and desire were completely answered. The two women fell into a sound sleep wrapped in each others arms happy and content.
Around mid-day the aroma of coffee, biscuits and eggs woke Del. She felt so rested and relaxed that the thought of getting out of bed seemed almost too much. When she rolled over Maddie was still asleep beside her. Her first thought upon waking was that Maddie was making breakfast for them, now she realized it must be Lucy. Gently she kissed Maddie's head and climbed out of bed. Quickly throwing on some clothes she went to have a talk with Lucy.
The smell of hot biscuits hit her as she entered the room where Lucy was just pulling them out of the oven. Del tied her hair back and washed up at the sink, hoping not to look too much like she just crawled out of bed.
“I thought you might be hungry, you had a good sleep in, it'll do you good no doubt.” Lucy put biscuits and butter in front of Del then pilled her plate with eggs and potatoes.
Del reached for the coffee pot, but Lucy was one step ahead of her. “This looks great Lucy,” she said as she covered a biscuit in butter.
“Let me just put these pies in the oven and I'll join you, I don't know how many pies Maddie was planning on making, but I sure found a mess in here when I got home. I had to throw out the dough and make new. I borrowed pie tins from Alice and Kelly and it still won't be enough. There are already six pies cooling on the shelf outside and with these four I'm out of tins. I think I'll make cobbler with the rest.”
Del could tell Lucy was trying to keep busy so as not to embarrass either of them. “Okay Lucy, sit down a minute, we need to talk.”
Lucy poured herself a cup of coffee and sat across from Del. She was about to butter a biscuit when Del 's bedroom door opened and a sleepy Maddie came out. Lucy quickly jumped up and began fixing a plate of food and a cup of coffee for Maddie.
“Morning everyone, sorry I slept so late.” Maddie said as she crossed to the kitchen counter to look for the mess she had left behind the night before.
“Here Maddie, I made breakfast,” seeing the look on Maddie's face Lucy quickly offered her the cup she had poured, “I cleaned up and made the pies, I'm almost finished, come on and sit down.”
Maddie sat and gave Del a quick look, she did not know how long Del had been up or what she had said to Lucy. She welcomed the diversion of food. As she took a bite of egg she realized just how hungry she really was, she had expelled a lot of energy in the night so she eagerly dove in, “this is really good Lucy.”
Del was not going to have secrets any more, she wanted a happy full life with no hiding. She watched Maddie for a moment then turned to Lucy. “Luc, there's something I have to tell you and I want to know exactly how you feel about it.”
“Are you and Maddie going to be together now?”
Maddie stopped eating and put her fork down. “How would you feel about that?”
“I think it's about time the two of you stopped circling around each other, maybe we can get some real work done around here.”
“Luc what exactly do you mean when you say Maddie and I being together?” Del wanted no surprises.
“ Del , you two belong together. It's plain to see how much you love each other. So if you two got everything worked out, we could be like a real family now, maybe.”
Maddie smiled at Lucy, “You knew. How long?”
Lucy looked at Del, “I was there the whole time remember, by the time we left Maddie's farm you had a look in your eye every time you looked at her when you thought no one else was watching. You were interested in her, maybe a little taken, it just needed time to grow into love.” Del opened her mouth to say something then closed it again. Lucy looked at Maddie now, “And I saw you grow into it, both of you. Each day a little more, slowly at first, just learning to trust, then you started seeming happy, little by little until.. You know you two aren't as great as you think you are at hiding things.”
Maddie got up and wrapped her arms around Lucy. “I think you are just a very perceptive girl.” She sat back down by Del 's side and took her hand in her own.
Lucy watched them for a moment feeling both happy and a little apprehensive. “So does this mean you want me to move back in with Alice and Dan?”
Immediately Del was by Lucy's side. “No. Lucy this is your home as well as ours and we're your family. I love you like you were my sister, I could not have made it without you and as long as I'm alive you have a home with me. But if you want to move back to the big house, I won't stop you. You're a grown woman now, you've been through more than most people will ever know and the decision is yours. But this is our home, the three of us.”
Lucy flung herself around Del 's neck toppling them both onto the floor. Maddie rushed around and joined the pile. Tears and laughter flowed freely until Del 's stomach growled so loudly everyone stopped and looked at it then burst into laughter again.
As they sat back down at the table to begin their breakfast again Lucy couldn't help asking, “Can I at least have a radio in my room?”
Del looked at her smiling and shaking her head. Maddie quickly piped up, “Of course you can.” Del knew she would have her hands full with the two of them, and she loved the thought of it.
The next day Del and Maddie told the Stokes clan of their plans to stay on the ranch in the old homestead and asked if they were still welcome. The news was received with great excitement and relief. Dan did not know what he would have done if the women had wanted to travel back to Colorado . He knew he could never get them home again. Thankfully he would not have to try. And perhaps now he would have someone to oversee and manage his new herd of alpacas, they could learn about the new livestock together. Abby was quick to put in a bid for at least half of Del 's time to work her horses. While Alice volunteered to home school Lucy to which Lucy objected strongly, after all she was not a child and she had already studied with Del. Kelly, who was almost in tears, reminded them all that if they were going to stay, they would one day have need to go off the ranch and being a little more informed about the world around them would be beneficial for all. Lucy finally agreed to a more specialized home school course, and she would pass along everything she learned to Del and Maddie.
The ranch had always been a family business as well as their home, and now the person who was largely responsible for starting it was finally going to work the land herself. Del laid out a plan of working for both Dan and Abby in an attempt to repay them for all they had given her so far and for all their needs to come. She was extremely grateful to all of them, especially Alice for all the help and support they had given, but she wanted to repay them and be able to support her new family. Del was use to being on her own and running her own life, she had never owed anyone for anything and she did not want to start now. She had also never worked for anyone else so her whole new life was something that would require a little getting use to.
Alice grew tired of business talk and soon had Lucy in the kitchen helping to whip up dinner for everyone. She noticed how Del and Maddie would sit closer to each other or stand a little nearer and smiled. She could only imagine how taboo public affection of two women would have been in their day. They wouldn't have to live with that here.
The talk at dinner centered mostly around horses, sheep and alpacas. Dan had lots of literature on alpacas that he wanted Del to read, but a sharp reminder by Alice of where they were kept him in his seat. Lucy wanted to know if she could get a job so she could buy a few hens and a rooster, she really missed farm eggs and promised to supply everyone with eggs as soon as she could. Seeing an opportunity to ease some of her own burden, Alice hired her to clean the bunkhouse and fix an evening meal for the men.
“But you don't cook for the men?” Lucy asked perplexed.
“No but I have tasted their cooking and someone needs to save them from themselves.”
Everyone was relaxed and a feeling of comfort and security seemed to finally settle over them. Everyone except Maddie, she was beginning to feel left out of the new plans. She had nothing to offer anyone; all she had ever done was be a farmer's wife. She could keep a house and tend cows, what could she offer here. She grew quiet and less at ease as she realized she did not want to be taken care of, even by Del. She wanted to take care of herself, pay her own way and contribute more than by just cleaning house.
Lucy cleared away the dishes as Alice brought out two of the pies Maddie had started and Lucy finished. Kelly gave a little jump in her seat as she remembered a message Francis wanted her to give to Maddie.
“Maddie, with everything that's been going on, I almost forgot. Do you remember our friend Francis you met the other day?”
“Well she loved your bread. I gave her some to take with her and she called back just raving about it. She wants to know if you would be interested in supplying a few loaves a day to her shop. And if they sell maybe up the number.” Alice put a slice of pie in front of Kelly who took a bite without really paying any attention. “She would pay a good price for them and…Oh Alice, this is really good.”
Sitting down and accepting a coffee from Lucy Alice shook her head, “Thanks sweetie, but these are Lucy's pies.”
Lucy continued passing out coffee, “Actually their Maddie's pies, I just put them in the oven.”
Kelly looked at Maddie, “You made these?”
“Well I wouldn't call them my best effort.” Maddie said as she gave Lucy a side glance.
“Do you do a lot of baking? I mean like muffins, cakes, cookies that kind of thing.”
“Sure, I love baking, why?”
“Could you make me up a basket of several different things? I'll take it to Francis and I can almost guarantee you she will want all of it to sell in her store.”
For the first time that evening Maddie felt some hope of finding her own way. “Do you really think she would want to sell my pies?”
“Pies, bread, cookies, you could do special order cakes.”
Abby knew that excited timbre in her lovers voice all too well. “Okay, before you go turning their house into a bakery, let her start out small and see how it goes.”
Maddie didn't care, here was an opportunity for her to take charge of her own life and prove she could do more than just be someone's house keeper. She caught Del watching her with a mischievous grin. She leaned over and whispered, “What are you smiling at?”
Del whispered in her ear, “Nothing, I just like it when you're happy.”
Finishing off her pie Alice reached for another piece, “You're going to need more tins. And flour. We better make a list of everything and I'll go shopping. I'll stop by tomorrow morning.”
Del squeezed Maddie's hand under the table and gave her a reassuring smile.
The old house began to take on a whole new life. The large loft, which had once been Annie's children's room, was now Lucy's. She and Kelly had great fun exploring the attics and junk closets of Alice and Abby's houses. They gathered beanbag chairs and side tables, mirrors and stuffed animals. It did not take long before Lucy's room looked like most teenagers, filled with all the things that caught her fancy. After a close inspection of the house Alice made a widespread shopping trip to town, returning with lots of baking pans for Maddie, new comforters for both beds, household supplies, toiletries, and a lovely little dresser and vanity for Lucy's room. Lucy sewed bright colorful curtains for her windows, refusing the store bought ones Alice had offered to get for her and began making a rag rug for beside her bed. She and Kelly had found area rugs for Del and Maddie's room and to cover a large part of her loft, but the familiar comfort of a rag rug was her way of remembering home.
Dan had insisted on taking over the building of the bathroom. Maddie's room would become the new bathroom and they would cut a door in the side of the house to access the hall that was being built on the outside of the house to connect the room to the inside. He also wanted to connect the plumbing in the bathroom to a new kitchen faucet. Del fought him hard on this point; all the things she loved about living in the old house were being replaced with new modern connivances. She finally gave in when she could not make the old kitchen pump work. The look on Maddie's face told Del she had made the right decision, because even though she craved the familiarity of the old, she wanted to make life as easy as possible on Maddie and Lucy.
The alpacas arrived early and Del could not have imagined a more unusual looking creature. Their big eyes and large lips reminded her of a horse, but they seemed to have a much more reserved attitude. They were to occupy the same pasture and barn as Dan's horses until their own housing could be provided in the spring. Del quickly grew to love the strange looking beasts, especially when it became evident they were friendly with all the other animals on the ranch. At night she would read the books Dan had given her and spend the day studying the animals themselves. Three days a week she rode over to Abby's and worked her horses. She got to know Abby's students and enjoyed working with them to improve their horsemanship skills. The students were just as quick to go to Del with a problem as to Abby and soon Abby's business was picking up. Word had gotten around about her fantastic new horse trainer and soon her stalls were full.
Maddie was providing Frances with bread, pies, cookies, muffins, and cupcakes three times a week. Her baked goods had become a big hit with the locals whom she had never met. She cleaned the house and shared the cooking with Lucy and although her baking kept her busy, it was not enough. Maddie made an arrangement with Dan, in exchange for a cow and some chickens Maddie would provide him with fresh butter and eggs, she offered fresh milk, but Alice drew the line there. She and Lucy got busy building a chicken coop beside the house and attaching fencing off one of the extra rooms James had added to the back end of the house. The two add-on rooms made a perfect stall and supply room for the animals. Del welcomed the fresh eggs, butter and milk; she had never gotten use to the taste of twenty first century milk.
She could not help raise an eyebrow when Maddie mentioned wanting a few more cows. “Should I be worried?”
Maddie got a pitcher of fresh cows milk from the fridge Alice insisted on them having. “I've got to have some way of keeping you in line.”
Del grabbed Maddie by the waist and pulled her down onto her lap, how she loved this woman. Their relationship had become stronger and more secure over the last few weeks as each found their way in this new world and their new home. Both independently and together they were making a new life for themselves.
Del had moved the picture of she and Annie from her bedside when Maddie moved in to her room. It was Maddie who insisted it be placed on the mantel in the living room and not hidden away. She wanted to honor and remember the woman who in a way was responsible for all they had now. Each day Del would give her Annie a smile before heading out the door.
Lucy was quick to notice that Del and Maddie were always holding hands and would touch each other on the hand or arm or cheek whenever they passed each other. She didn't think they were even aware of it themselves. Finally, this was what she had waited to see all those times she had thought about Del and Annie being together, absoulte true love.
The time had finally come for the girl's first trip into town. Alice and Kelly wanted to ease them into the modern world, but Lucy was eager to see all the new places and things this world had to offer. While Maddie was not as excited, she was curious about the world around them. Wide-eyed and full of excitement, Lucy had questions about every thing. Each store was like discovering a new land; she had never seen so much stuff together in one place before. And the people, there were so many people around that Lucy almost gave herself whiplash trying to take it all in. Maddie however, quickly began feeling overwhelmed, she wished for the comfort of Del by her side but at the same time was glad Del had chosen to stay behind to look after her alpacas. The noise and smell and number of people would have been too much for her.
They spent twenty minutes riding a glass elevator in the mall because Lucy couldn't get enough of the sensation of flying. And at one point the three women sat on a bench and watched as Lucy rode up and down the escalator at least two dozen times. The big treat of the day was Alice taking them all out for lunch, which was almost more than Maddie could take; there was so much food to chose from. Lucy on the other had wanted to try everything on the menu.
Maddie had been paying close attention to the cost of everything she had seen and could not conceive of the amount of money it took to live in this time. It was going to take a lot of getting use to, especially if she was ever to come into town again. She was even more grateful to Kelly for acting as the middleman between her and Francis. Maddie was happy to do all the baking as long as Kelly handled the business end of things. After lunch they stopped at the bank where Kelly had opened an account for Maddie and introduced her to a few of the tellers and the manager. Everyone had been very nice and helpful, but Maddie still felt out of place, she had never been allowed to the handle any of the banking when she was married. This was her new life now and she was going to have to find a way of dealing with it, she had a family now and the thought of that gave her a strength she had know only once before.
The weeks had turned into months since the girl's arrival into the twenty first century. They were finally beginning to feel at ease and comfortable with their new home and new lives. Del looked to the ridge less frequently and her unexpected unannounced rides off into the country were few and far between.
While Del and Maddie were happy to keep their lives as close to familiar as possible, Lucy wanted to learn and see everything in her new world. Alice had been right to home school Lucy since they could provide no documentation of her existence. A problem they would have to solve for each of the women. Kelly was even teaching Lucy how to use a computer, which fascinated her more than anything.
One crisp morning as Del was splitting firewood and stock piling for the long winter, which had already begun creeping in on them, Abby drove up and hopped out holding a squirming bundle in her arms.
Del stopped chopping as Abby walked over, “What have you got there?”
“A present, where's Lucy and Maddie?”
“They're baking, come on inside.”
Just as Abby entered the house her bundle gave a whimper. Del eyed her suspiciously. “Just what are you bringing in here?”
Maddie and Lucy looked up as Abby pulled the blanket back to reveal a wet black nose and excited eyes. Lucy gave a squeal and ran over to take the puppy out of Abby's arms. “A puppy! Look Maddie! Where did you get it? What's its name?”
Abby smiled and looked at Del , “Well, I don't know what his name is, I'd say that's up to you.”
“You mean he's for us.” Lucy was excited and looked from Abby to Del.
“I have a friend who has border collies and one of them had pups, I thought this little guy might come in handy around here seeing as how this place is turning into a real farm.”
Del tried to look stern, “A puppy? What are we going to do with a puppy?” She looked over at the pup trying to work his way out of the blanket and reached over to pull the blanket away. As soon as she did the pup jumped from Lucy's arms to Del and began licking her face. Lucy and Abby laughed as Del tried to stop the pup from giving her a bath. “Now just a minute.”
Maddie walked over and put her arm around Del 's shoulder, “Don't even try to pretend you don't want it. Thank you Abby that was very kind of you.” She scratched the pup on the chin and kissed Del on the cheek as she whispered in her lover's ear, “you old softie”.
“Right,” Del looked at Abby a little embarrassed, “thanks Abby, I think he's just what we need around here.”
“And you don't have to worry, he's already house trained.”
“He's what?” Lucy asked as she bent over to coo at him and ended up with a face full of doggie kisses.
“It means he won't pee in the house, he knows to go outside to do his business.” Abby walked over to the fireplace to warm her hands.
Del handed the pup back to Lucy. “He needs a name you know, you pick one out.”
“Really, oh it has to be a good one, I'll have to think about it.” Lucy got a very intent look on her face and took the pup to play on the floor in front of the fire.
Maddie served muffins and coffee and the three of them watched as Lucy played with the little bundle of energy looking for a sign of what the pups name might be.
“There was another reason I came over” Abby said as she bit into a muffin, “Oh, my god, Maddie these are so good, please you have got to teach Kelly how to make muffins like this, but don't tell her I told you to.”
“Don't worry I'd be happy to show her, they're really easy.”
“Yeah, you haven't seen Kelly baking.”
“Dexter!” Lucy called out as she pulled a rolled up alpaca magazine from the pups mouth.
Maddie looked puzzled, “What?”
“His name is Dexter.”
Del smiled and watched Lucy play with the puppy, she looked so much like a little girl, and Del realized that this was exactly what she had set out to do. Lucy was safe and happy with a chance at having a real future. She looked over at Maddie and warmth spread through her because in securing Lucy's happy future she had managed to do the same for herself.
Abby started in on her second muffin, “Dexter? It suits him. Anyway the other reason I'm here is to invite you to a party.”
Maddie's attention was brought back to the table, “ A party? What's the occasion?”
“My friends Sandy and Lisa always throw a big Halloween party, it's kind of like our own gay pride around here. I know you don't really know anyone here but this would be a great way to meet people. It's a small gay community here, but we do have one.”
Del reached for Maddie's hand, “I'm sure their all happy people, but I don't want to have to explain to a bunch of strangers about who we are.”
Abby knew it would be hard to get Del off the ranch, for as tough as Del was she didn't like change. “Not happy, gay. It means they're like us, like Kelly and I and you and Maddie. There are a lot of gay people out there and they lead very open and happy lives. I just thought you might like to meet some and know that we're not alone.”
Maddie spoke up, “We'll think about it.”
“Okay great, the party is next weekend, it's a lot of fun, and it's a costume party. You could wear your old clothes and go as cowgirls.”
“We're ranchers.” Del said plainly.
“Yeah, but you look like old time cowgirls when you wear your old clothes.”
Maddie gave a small laugh and brushed an arburn strand of hair from Del 's forehead. How she loved this woman.
“There's one other thing I wanted to talk to you about. Del, I have my hands full with the riding business and seeing how you are such a natural at breaking horses and know more about animal husbandry than anyone I've ever met, I was wondering how you would feel about going into business together. I want to start a breeding program.”
Del looked confused, “Isn't that what were doing now?”
“No, now you just work for me training a few horses. I'm talking about a partnership in a full on breeding program. You breed em and train em.”
Del thought about it, having her own ranch again. She looked at Maddie who gave her a hopeful smile then looked around the old cabin and couldn't believe her life. She was living with the woman she loved in the house she had built and Lucy was happy and safe, she had an extended family who loved her very much and now she would be running her own ranch again. Could life get any better?
“Sure, I think I'd like that, but I'd get to run it my way.”
Abby smiled and knew she had just put together the best horse ranch in all of Montana . “Consider me a silent partner.”
Maddie had a hand resting on Del 's leg under the table and she gave it a squeeze of encouragement, which sent an electric charge through Del 's entire body. Del sent Abby off with some muffins to take home and made plans to meet with her the next day to discuss their new business. She saw Abby out then suggested Lucy take her new puppy out to play.
As Lucy bundled up to go outside she took one look at Del and Maddie and knew she should make it a very long walk, perhaps she should go show Alice her new friend.
Lucy was barely out the door when Del scooped Maddie up in her arms and gave her a passionate kiss. Returning the kiss with the same intensity Maddie let Del carry her to their bed. She had finally found the love she always knew could exist.
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