About the book
They were lost until they found each other...
In a ghost town in Nevada, Lucy Jones is leading a Christian life helping orphans in need.
An orphan herself, as soon as the orphanage she works at closes down, she has no other choice than to respond to a mail-order bride ad. When she finally meets her husband-to-be, he is nothing like the caring man she fell in love with through his letters…
After his father’s death, Matthew Miller is running the successful ranch he inherited, in Tuckerrise, Nevada. Pressured by his mother to find a wife, he posts a mail-order bride ad and starts corresponding with the charming Miss Lucy Jones. His wounded soul has finally found a place to rest...
But just before their longed-for meeting an accident strikes Matthew down. Failing to arrive at the station on time, he is devastated to see that his future bride is gone. Heartbroken and desperate to find her, he thinks he lost his one chance of finding true love.
Until one day he recognizes her face in the crowd, strolling downtown with another man. A man he knows well…
The sun had floated through the sky all afternoon without even the barest hint that it would sink down, baking the land with an oppressive glare. The dry grass crackled underfoot, the intense heat and lack of rain turning the edges of each sad blade a grayish brown.
People in the bustling town of nearby Tuckerrise, Utah, had taken to cringing slightly whenever a pipe smoker struck a match or a cowhand flicked a spent cigarette to the ground, fearful that the fields in every direction would turn into a blazing wasteland.
Outside the town, a humble homestead had sprung up in the emptiness. Once a place of hope and prosperity, despair had taken hold instead. In the darkness of an upstairs room whose windows were covered against the heat and the glare, a woman fanned her husband relentlessly, pausing only to wipe at his brow with a wet cloth from time to time. He smiled weakly every time he managed to open his eyes, still marveling at her beauty after all this time.
“You don’t have to sit by my bedside, you know,” he whispered through cracked lips. “You don’t have to be here for this.”
The woman didn’t answer at first, choking back tears as she realized what “this” truly meant. She swallowed—the pain of her dry throat reminding her that she hadn’t had anything to eat or drink that day—and smiled back at him.
“What, and have you lie up here by yourself? I’m only playing nursemaid so I can get you well enough to finish your chores, you know!” she teased lightly, putting on a brave face for her husband’s sake. She was resolute that he would not be burdened with how deeply her heart was breaking.
“It won’t be long now, I’m sure of it,” he answered before closing his eyes, the effort of those few words exhausting him.
At the sound of his raspy snore, his wife allowed herself a few moments of tearful sorrow. She’d been as brave as she could be for all these weeks, ever since the doctor had said there was nothing that could be done. Still, there was a 200-acre ranch just beyond the darkened windows, and there was work to be done. How she would manage without her husband, she didn’t know… but she did know this much: she had no choice.
After all they’d been through to buy and maintain this property, she was determined to stay put until they dug her grave. She owed it to their son, the lawful heir. She just didn’t realize she’d have to do it alone.
Hours later, her husband opened his eyes again. He searched the room wildly, as if seeing things that no mortal could see. His wife startled from her sleep in the rocking chair beside the bed when she heard his soft moan.
“I’m here, darling. What is it?” she asked quietly, determined that his final moments would be free from worry and pain.
“They’re here for me, my sweet,” he said in a relieved voice so low she wasn’t sure he’d actually spoken, a thin smile pushing up the corners of his tear-filled eyes. “I can see ‘em. Can you? Don’t you be sad for me, ya hear?”
“You know better than to ask that of me!” she answered sweetly. “I’ll never be happy again if you leave me, you know that!”
“You have to be happy… for our boy…” the man answered, already closing his eyes, a look of contentment finally replacing the agonized mask he’d worn since being bedridden.
“Well then, only because you asked nicely, I suppose,” she replied, her voice cracking slightly. The woman cleared her throat and dabbed at her tears, then smiled, knowing her husband was already beyond seeing her face.
“Just… one thing,” he said, gasping for breath. “Don’t… don’t let our land go.”
“Never, dear! They’ll have to drag me off this ranch!”
“That’s my best girl!” he whispered. “I want… our son…”
A lanky boy who’d been sitting quietly outside the open door jumped to his feet, hurrying to the bedside.
“I’m here, Pa,” he said in a shaky whisper. He clutched his father’s hand, but it was so cold.
“Son…” the man wheezed, slowly turning his head and forcing his eyes to focus on the boy. The corners of his mouth lifted in the barest of smiles. “My son… take care of…”
A coughing fit prevented him from finishing his words, but there was no need. Tears pooled in the boy’s eyes, but his voice was strong. “I will, Pa. I’ll take care of Ma and the ranch and everything. Don’t you worry!”
“Shhhh, rest now, dearest. I know,” she said, leaning forward to place a gentle kiss on her husband’s cheek. “I know what to do, and so does he. This will be his ranch when he’s all grown, I’ll make sure of it.”
Her husband smiled, sinking back even further into the feather pillow as all strength left his frail body. The sickness had taken everything he had, but his mind had stayed sharp until the end. He gave his wife’s hand one last squeeze.
“My best girl…” he said, and then his fragile breaths came no more.
By the flickering light of a hand-dipped candle that rested in an old tin cup, a young woman sat and wrote.
Her blond curls were pulled back from her pale face and piled on top of her head, but several tendrils had escaped from their pins. Her gray-blue eyes were focused intently on the page in front of her, a deep frown creasing her otherwise beautiful face.
I find myself at a loss these days, as there are fewer students now than ever before. The school, which has always been home to me, feels empty and unloving, as there are no more than a handful of children to tend. Our dear little outpost is all but empty, save for myself and the students and only two proprietors. The post no longer comes this far, and the only supplies we have are those which we can manage to forage for ourselves.
To our good fortune, Mrs. Mayhew is a handy shot with her husband’s old rifle. She has kept us in meat all year, but she talks from time to time of heading back east to her family. I know she will not leave us to fend for ourselves, but as soon as the last of the students is hired on at a farm or consigned to the factories, I know she will not be far behind.
Mr. Popwell is kind enough to allow us to keep a garden on what’s left of his property, and even comes out most days to lend a hand. We repay him in pole beans and corn that we pick, and he is kind enough to refuse twice before taking a meager portion so that we may save face. But I worry what will become of us if he closes the general store and returns to his people in Missouri.
Other than that, there is nothing.
Though my uncle sent me here under grievous circumstances, I’ve come to enjoy the beauty of this town. “Town” might be a lofty word for Shortcrag, even back in its glory, but Nevada had so few towns that were double the size.
Now, with the mine closed and the prospectors all packed up for richer fields, there is nothing left save our school and the shacks that house our thin bones!
I received word that the schoolmaster would not be returning in the fall. That means I, alone, will care for and instruct the few children in my charge, or at least until they are assigned homes elsewhere. It’s a frightening idea, to be sure. I was a good enough student in my day, but I’ve had no need to advance my learning. I don’t know that I’m fit to teach others!
Instead, I shall have to just do my best for them and make sure they are well cared for. What I lack in educating them, hopefully I will more than make up for in kindness, love, and prayer!
Lucy Jones startled at the sound of crying, and she closed her pencil inside her small book to save her place. She stood up and smoothed her long skirts before leaving her downstairs room to seek out and soothe the tears.
At the top of the old wooden staircase, she turned to the left, certain that it was a girl who was crying. Upon entering the girls’ room, she ignored the ten empty beds until she came to the ones farthest from the door.
“Betty? What’s the matter?” Lucy asked, reaching for the girl tenderly and cradling her in her arms.
“I want my ma!” the little girl cried, still mostly asleep. “Where’s my ma?”
“Yer ma’s long gone, silly,” another girl called out, disgruntled at being awakened in such a way.
“Hush, Annie. That is not a kind way to speak to someone in distress,” Lucy said sharply. Her voice softened as she turned to Betty and said, “But she’s right, Betty. It’s only a dream. Your mother isn’t here, I’m afraid.”
“But I want her!” the girl wailed, her face crumpling with fresh tears and anguish. “My pa said they would come back for me!”
“Your father won’t be able to return either, my dear,” Lucy explained gently.
She was unable to count how many times she’d had to say those words to one of the children over the years, and it stung every time. Mostly it was because she remembered falling asleep in one of these very beds at these children’s young age, weeping each night for her parents, for anyone who would take her away and give her a home.
These children cannot possibly understand, and how could they? Lucy thought. They know nothing of life outside of Shortcrag, only the fragments of memories they hold onto from before they were sent here.
“Are you gonna be my ma?” Betty asked, hiccupping as her sobs began to wane.
“Oh, no, dear. I’m far too mean to be anyone’s ma!” Lucy joked, hoping to make the child smile.
“That’s not true!” Annie argued, awake now and turning on her side to face them. “You’re the nicest lady I’ve ever known!”
“I’m afraid I might be the only lady you’ve ever known. How do you know all other ladies aren’t far kinder than me? Far prettier? Far more likely to make ham and sorghum for breakfast in the morning instead of cornmeal cakes?”
“Are we really? Are we having ham?” Betty asked, her anguish forgotten for a moment.
Lucy shook her head. “I’m afraid not, I was only having some fun. But I’d certainly eat my fill of ham if we had it! And I might not share any with naughty little girls who don’t go to sleep!”
She began tickling Betty until the little girl broke into a fit of wild laughter. Even Annie, usually so bitter and serious, started laughing.
“Now, morning does come at the same time every day,” Lucy said more seriously. “We have a lot of chores to do, too, so you have to get your sleep now. All right?”
“Yes, Miss Lucy,” the girls said in unison.
Lucy smiled and tucked them under their thin covers. She smoothed their hair back from their faces and bade them goodnight, then crept back down the stairs, hoping the three boys in the room across the stairway had not been disturbed.
Back downstairs in her room, Lucy cast a glance at her diary, but her heart was no longer in it. Betty’s dream had only rekindled the old hurt that stayed buried in Lucy’s heart, refusing to leave or be erased. It’s not that she carried any ill-will towards her uncle for sending her here at such a tender age; after all, the man was already advanced in years and in failing health when her own parents had succumbed to measles. No one would have blamed him for washing his hands of her plight.
Instead, he’d secured a place for her here. The years had been brutal and lonely, mostly due to the harsh schoolmarm who’d been in the position when Lucy had first arrived. Over the years, as she’d grown up and become more capable, the pain of her loss eased only slightly. She’d found that helping others made the emptiness she felt fade a little, and it became her solace.
Now, with only the few young souls left in the town of Shortcrag, Lucy’s obligation was not lessened. She cared for these children as though they were her own family, and in many ways, they were. Their hopeful faces each morning as she prepared a meager breakfast were more familiar to her than that of any blood relative. Their tired smiles as she tucked each one into bed at night were the only images that kept her from being wholly alone in the world.
The weariness from the day’s labor made Lucy’s bones ache and let a melancholy mood settle over her. If only I had a real family, I’d make sure they never wanted for anything, never suffered for affection.
The sound of a gentle knocking on the front door pulled Lucy from her melancholy. Knowing it had to be one of the few residents left in Shortcrag—Mrs. Mayhew or Mr. Popwell, or perhaps one of the other outlying ranchers or miners who stubbornly refused to give up their claim—she hurried to the door and opened it a little.
“Evening, Miss Lucy!” Mrs. Mayhew said brightly, beaming at her from the front porch.
“Good evening, ma’am! What brings you out at a time like this?” Lucy asked, looking over the eccentric woman’s shoulder to make sure that everything was all right.
“Oh, just doin’ a little more foraging, you know how it is! Nighttime is the best time for goin’ after rabbits. Here, I brought ya these. This’ll keep those little ones’ bellies full!”
The older woman held up a handful of rabbits, their soft fur streaked red with blood. There had been a time when Lucy would have recoiled in horror at the sight, but now her veins flooded with relief. There would be food on the table tomorrow night, a hearty stew if she could manage some vegetables from their garden plot.
“Oh my, you are a saint on earth! You and Mr. Popwell are the only ones keeping us all from starvation!” Lucy exclaimed. “Here, come in. I’ll put them in the kitchen and get to skinning them. I’ve got some broth left over from supper if you’re hungry?”
Mrs. Mayhew shook her head, and Lucy couldn’t help but be relieved. The broth was meant to make the cornmeal mush in the morning, and the thought of giving it away—even to someone who’d brought such a generous gift as this—left a stinging pang in Lucy’s heart. Still, she’d had to offer…
“I wouldn’t dream of taking that watery mix from those babies!” the woman argued, a stern look on her face. “But don’t you worry none! I’ve seen plenty of hog tracks around here lately. We’re gonna have us some wild hogs soon, and then you mark my words, there’ll be a feast that goes on for weeks!”
Lucy’s stomach rumbled at the very thought of fresh pork, salted bacon, grease to make biscuits, and more. It was too much to even hope for. Instead, she smiled gratefully and nodded.
“You just let me know when you shoot one of those hogs, Mrs. Mayhew, and I’ll be the first one there to help you with the butchering! You’re too generous as it is, and we’ve taken far more of your kindness than we can ever repay. It’s the least I can do!”
“Nonsense,” the woman snapped before laughing out loud. “Those babies didn’t ask to be tossed out like an old fishbone, left with only a girl to look after them in this barren place! It’s my Christian duty to make sure they don’t go to bed hungry at night!”
Lucy smiled again. Only a girl? At nearly twenty-four years old, she felt much older than that. But then again, having never been anywhere other than the boarding school in Shortcrag, she sometimes felt like a child who’d never seen anything beyond her own homestead.
It was true, though, that she’d lived in this far-flung mining town for so long that those who’d stayed still thought of her as the skin-and-bones orphan girl with the big eyes and the sunken cheekbones. As she’d grown and matured, they still tended to think of her as Little Lucy Jones. Most days, that was even how she thought of herself.
“I’d best be getting’ on, my old dog is howling for some of these bones,” Mrs. Mayhew said, pointing to the other rabbits that she’d strung from her belt. “Let me know if you can’t stretch those hides and I’ll come ‘round to help you. They’ll make mighty fine winter garments for the children if you can get them tanned in the next few weeks. Goodnight, now!”
“Goodnight, Mrs. Mayhew,” Lucy called after her in the darkness. “And thank you again!”
The woman only waved her hand behind her in reply, leaving Lucy to stand on the empty porch and look out into the darkness. The sky overhead was a black swath of openness, lit up all the way to the horizon line with more stars than any man could count. A shooting star streaked across the sky so low that Mrs. Mayhew whooped in response, causing Lucy to giggle.
How did those words go? She thought back to the nights when the girls’ room had been filled almost to overflowing, back to a time when the nighttime chatter of a dozen girls often brought the housekeeper upstairs to hush them. What was that rhyme we used to whisper, hoping our wish would come true?
Lucy was surprised, saddened even, to find that she couldn’t remember the words. She only recalled that they would mutter the verse as the stars streaked above them, hoping to be the one whose wish came true.
It had been a long time since Lucy had had anything to wish for, and now, with the news that their lives were all about to change, her heart couldn’t find even the childhood power she needed to save them.
“Are you sure that’s going to be enough?” Genevieve Miller called out in the kitchen where she was helping her cook peel potatoes.
The older woman was chagrined at the intrusion of her employer in the process; after all, the older Mrs. Miller should be sitting at her needlepoint or planning a Sunday lunch for the local pastor, not standing in the heat of the kitchen, elbow-deep in preparing the midday meal for the ranch hands.
“Miz Miller, how many times do I have to say it? Ya don’t need to be wearing your fingers to the bone doin’ all this work! That’s what ya gots me for!” Gertie said, gently trying to shoo the woman away. “Besides, this kitchen ain’t big enough to have too many cooks workin’ away in here!”
“Oh, Gertie, you know I just have to be useful! Most days I feel like there’s no reason for me to be here at all,” Mrs. Miller replied, smiling sheepishly as she looked around at the enormous kitchen, its two fireplaces and woodstove already blazing in preparation for the noonday meal. “Please let me do something to help!”
“I can’t go doin’ that! What would folks say if they found out you’re payin’ me my wages and doin’ half the work? Word will get out that I’m just a lazy bag of bones!”
“Well, we can keep a secret, can’t we? Here, I’ll just stir the cornbread a little and you can—”
“Mrs. Miller! You have to let that set! You’re gonna stir it so hard it won’t form in the pan!” Gertie cried, trying not to sound harsh.
“Oh. I had no idea, I’m sorry,” Mrs. Miller said in a soft voice. “I know, I’ll just go outside and see if the washing is dry yet…”
Gertie watched the other woman slip out the back door and felt a pang of regret. She muttered to herself, “Here that poor woman is just tryin’ to be useful, and you go runnin’ her off.”
An unexpected voice behind her made Gertie jump. “Was that my mama running out the door?”
“Oh, Mr. Matthew! You gave me a fright!” Gertie answered, turning around and pressing a hand to her rapidly beating heart. “Yes, she’s just gone outside to… to… well, I don’t know what she’s doing! Somethin’ about seeing if the clothes dried properly on the line?”
“Did she really?” Matthew asked, looking out the back windows to where his mother was feeling each garment and cloth, trying to determine if they were ready to be taken down from the line.
“Mr. Matthew, I just don’t know what we’re gonna do with her. That poor woman is so lost!” Gertie said sadly, shaking her head. “Can we think of anything for her to do? Anything at all? She just wants so badly to be useful again, but that broken heart of hers has made her so weak and lonely now. And with two maids and a cook in the house and all the hands on this ranch of yours, she’s just… well, it’s like I said. She’s lost!”
“I know, Gertie,” Matthew said with a sigh. “Ever since Pa died, she’s had her hands full. But now that I’ve taken charge of the ranch, it’s like she can’t keep busy enough to satisfy her mind. I think she’s afraid that if she sits herself down for even a minute, she’ll find herself thinking about him again and missing him all over.”
“Oh, sir. That just breaks my heart in two,” Gertie said. She looked to the windows and her shoulders slumped. “I’m sure I can find something I need help with every day, something to give her a purpose that is. But it’s just not fittin’ that a woman of her station be in here working like a hired hand!”
“I know, Gertie. But yes, if you could let her do a little something around here, that might take her mind off of missing Pa. Show her that she can be a part of things again if she only gets stronger!”
Matthew frowned as he watched his mother wander the length of the clothesline and then double back, checking and rechecking the washing uselessly. It had been almost ten years since his father had passed away, and the pain was every bit as fresh for his poor mother as it had been the day they’d buried him.
At the time, though, she’d had a reason to get out of bed each day: her only child. She’d sworn to his father on his deathbed that she’d keep the ranch running until Matthew could take over, but now that her son had stepped in to fulfill his duty, she had nothing left.
“I know it!” Gertie said, brightening even as she dropped her words to an urgent whisper. “What if you gave her something to do with the ranch, something with the buying or the selling or the money? You know yerself how she kept this land from fallin’ into ruin til you was old enough to take it on yourself, and managed to almost double its size at the same time!”
“Hmmm, that is a thought,” Matthew said absently, still watching his mother and feeling guiltier by the minute. “Of course, she only increased the ranch when others failed and sold her their claims.”
“Well, see? How come all those menfolks had to tuck their tails and pack up, but she was able to hold onto this place and make somethin’ bigger of it?” Gertie looked determined, and her enthusiasm was piquing Matthew’s interest.
“You do have a point. This ranch wouldn’t be nearly so big or so profitable if it wasn’t for her watching every cent. Why, my mother could turn one penny into five, and five into a fortune! Let me think on it a little while. The last thing I want to do is to make her think I can’t manage without her, but… well, I can’t stand to see her walking this place like a ghost without a body.”
“You’re a good son, if you don’t mind my sayin’ so, Mr. Matthew,” Gertie said, smiling broadly and showing the gaps where some teeth were long-missing. “Not all menfolks take care of their mamas the way you do. Now… while I’m stickin’ my nose in… if you just had a wife to look after the same way, that might also give yer mama something to do.”
“Gertie! I’m surprised at you! You can’t go telling men to settle down and chain themselves to a wife!” Matthew answered, feigning insult as he struggled to keep from laughing. “Besides, how would having a wife give my mother a purpose?”
“Oh, I think you know,” the cook said pointedly, giving Matthew a knowing look. “Cause once you get yerself a wife, it won’t be long ‘til babies come up next. Yer mama will be so busy with little ones that she won’t have time to reach for a potato and a knife!”
Matthew nearly turned crimson at the blatant insinuation, but thankfully, Gertie turned back to the enormous cookpot in the fireplace and didn’t take notice of him. He turned away before his embarrassment could become obvious, but a new thought crossed his mind: where would he even find a bride in the middle of Tuckerrise, Utah?
One thing the ranch had going for it was miles and miles of open land, dotted here and there with rolling hills and rocky outcroppings. Otherwise, there was nothing but cattle as far as his eye could see. Apart from the field hands who worked the ranch and the few staff who worked in the house, Matthew went weeks at a time without crossing paths with an outsider.
The only other person he came across was his uncle, John Miller, who’d lived out here for as long as Matthew could remember. As his father’s brother, Uncle John had helped with the land in a lot of ways, especially during those years when Matthew had been too young to take on the responsibility of running a ranch.
There were vague memories in Matthew’s recollection, raised voices and angry words, urgent conversations in which Uncle John had tried to buy the land from Genevieve. True, he’d only been thinking of her and Matthew, but it had always ended in anguish whenever they spoke about it. Each time she’d refused, Matthew had felt a wave of relief; but each time Uncle John had mentioned it again, Matthew had endured the agony of waiting to hear his mother’s reply, wondering if this would be the time she acquiesced.
Fortunately, it had not come to pass. Now that Matthew was twenty-six and had been running the ranch in his own right going on five years, Uncle John had not offered again. He’d even become something of a confidant, someone Matthew could trust to give him good counsel when he needed it.
But his mother and his uncle were the only two relatives Matthew had, and the ranch hands and staff made up the rest of his makeshift family. What would he possibly do to find a wife whenever the time came?
“Oh, Matthew! You’ve come in early!” Mrs. Miller exclaimed as she came back through the door, her face lighting up at the sight of her son before turning worried again. “Is everything all right? Do you need something?”
“Everything’s fine, Ma,” Matthew assured her, leaning down and kissing her cheek before cocking his head in Gertie’s direction. “I just came because I heard some fussing in here, and I figured I’d best intervene before someone burned a pie!”
“Oh, silly boy! That’s not true at all,” his mother said, laughing. “Gertie and I were just getting the potatoes on to boil and discussing how many we might need!”
“Hrrumph!” Gertie said softly, snorting in contempt. “I was counting potatoes, you was peelin’ to beat the devil!”
“Gertie! You’re telling stories on me!” Mrs. Miller said, pretending to be indignant. “And here I was, trying so hard to be a help!”
Before Gertie could protest, Matthew spoke up, steering his mother to the long table and holding out a chair for her. He took her thin hand and helped her sit before saying, “Mother! I was wondering if you might be willing to help me with the financials later on. You know how those letters from the bank just confuse me to no end.”
“Why, of course I will! I’m still on very good terms with Mr. Sampson at the bank. But what could be the matter? The ranch is paid for in the clear, even the new purchases!”
“Oh, well… that’s just it. I’ve been considering borrowing some funds and buying some property on the other side of the river,” Matthew said, floundering for a plausible story.
“Now Matthew,” Mrs. Miller said, her voice turning serious, “you know your father didn’t take kindly to being beholden. Borrowing anything—least of all money—is a very serious matter, one that should be considered prayerfully. Why can’t you put down a payment to secure the land and then purchase it outright with cash after you sell some of the herd this year?”
Matthew looked to Gertie as though his story had been washed clean, but she only shrugged her shoulders where Mrs. Miller couldn’t see.
“You’re right, Ma. Of course you are. There I go being impatient again! Where would I be without your help?” He jumped up from his own chair and kissed her cheek. “I’d best go tell the foreman it’s time to round up the men to come eat.”
Matthew shot an apologetic look toward their cook and hurried out the back door, leaving Gertie to sigh in frustration as she finished dropping the last of the potatoes in to boil.
“My goodness,” Mrs. Miller said, looking after her son fondly. “I’m glad we narrowly avoided that fiasco! Now let me slice the peaches for tonight’s pies!”
Matthew moved on towards the barn, ducking his head slightly to enter the low tack room door. He blew a lock of unruly brown hair out of his eyes and sighed. What was he going to do with his poor mother? She’d been his rock through the very worst part of his life, but now she should be enjoying herself, not working night and day.
Lord knows, Matthew had tried to find her plenty of things to occupy her time. When they made the trip to the church in Tuckerrise once a month, he was sure to encourage her to sign up to help. He knew she had a lovely voice and had offered to have one of the men drive her into town more often to be a part of the special chorus the church had from time to time. He’d even suggested they start keeping chickens or rabbits, two animals in high demand these days, just so she could have something to oversee.
None of it had appealed to her. And now, she pined every day for a purpose, leaving Matthew’s heart to break little by little at the thought that she was so unhappy.
“It’s your pa, too,” Uncle John had told him once. “She never healed from losing him.”
“I don’t understand!” Matthew had answered. “I miss Pa terribly, too, but I still find Ma crying in the pantry sometimes. How can it still hurt so bad after all this time?”
“Some people are just that way, I ‘spose,” his uncle had replied before heading off to finish some task.
Matthew had pondered it as best he could, but never did understand. He knew this much, though: he’d never feel anything like the love his mother had for his pa. It simply wasn’t to be.
“But are you absolutely sure?” Lucy asked softly, tears pooling in her eyes. “Two weeks?”
“Perhaps three, but I don’t think it should take so long,” the old woman said, sitting stiffly in the straight-backed chair, the stays in her corset obviously paining her.
“That’s hardly enough time to even tell them and let them get used to the idea,” Lucy said sadly. “And how can it be long enough to seek out these families, and to find out if these are good homes?”
“Whether or not they’re good homes is not the issue,” the woman continued. “They’re available homes, and that’s all that matters.”
Lucy was shocked by the callous air the woman had. She was supposed to be part of the Ladies Missionary Society, and as such, she was supposed to care what happened to the poor angels who called the boarding school home. Instead, without a teacher or funds from donors to care for them, they were all to be sent off.
She’d known this day was coming, but Lucy had clung to the hope that perhaps it would never come to pass.
“I just don’t understand. What harm are they doing here? We care for ourselves, for the most part, and we even help out in Shortcrag. The children help weed gardens and the older girl bakes bread for the people who cannot—”
“That is all well and good, Miss Jones, but the truth of the matter is they are needed elsewhere. The girls have positions at a shirtwaist factory where they will be apprenticed as seamstresses. The boys, as they are slightly older and more physically capable, will work for the railroad. There’s talk that they will begin laying track any week now, and there’s much demand for workers.”
“Workers? These are children!” Lucy cried.
“And as such, they are old enough to learn that the Lord helps those who help themselves. He loveth not a lazy person, and these children have been a burden on the kindness of others for long enough. It is time for them to earn their keep and learn a trade. The school, such as it is, will be closing at the end of the month.”
Lucy seemed to wilt in her chair, her hopes dashed. The woman, dressed severely in black and with a countenance that matched her dreary attire, reached into her bag and retrieved a small pouch.
“I expect that you will be properly grateful for the funds that I’ve managed to secure for you. The donors are, after all, charitable, loving, Christian people who acknowledge all that you’ve done for these children all this time. This money will be sufficient to get you started on your way, but you’ll take care not to squander it. It may not be so much as you might have hoped.”
Lucy took the purse and barely registered its weight. Charitable? Loving? There was barely enough in the tiny pouch to count as any heft in her hand. Still, she nodded her thanks, barely trusting herself to speak.
“Thank you, Mrs. Alexander. Please give the donors my regards,” she said in a flat voice, void of all emotion.
“That I will. You’ll be hearing from me with the final arrangements very soon. Good day, Miss Jones.”
The older woman stood up and left the room, leaving Lucy to fight back her tears. She wanted nothing more than to throw herself on her bed and have a hearty cry, but she knew it would only frighten the children.
“Miss Lucy?” the youngest of the boys asked. Lucy startled, wondering how much he’d heard.
“What’s a railroad?” He looked at her with such inquisitive unconcern that she felt her heart rending in two.
“Oh, it’s nothing to worry about today!” she answered, forcing herself to smile. “Not when there’s fun to be had outside! Go get the others and we’ll all go down to the creek to look for berries.”
“And frogs?” he asked, jumping up and down.
“Yes, but only if you promise to let them go this time and don’t try to hide them in your pockets again!” Lucy said, pretending to be cross with him. “I had such a fright when a dozen frogs floated to the top of the laundry tub!”
Jeremiah’s tiny gap-tooth smile melted her heart before he ran off to find the others while Lucy forced herself to be more cheerful. She would not squander the time she had left with these darling children by feeling sad, but instead would ensure they had pleasant memories to carry them through all of the dark days that lie ahead.
Lucy watched the darling boy through the window as he ran to find the others. When he shared the news of the day’s outing, the children’s faces broke out in broad grins and laughter. The girls even hopped up and down in excitement, clapping their hands with joy.
Joy, Lucy thought miserably. Soon, there would be no joy for any of them. Perhaps not for a long time, but worse, perhaps not ever again.
She couldn’t even worry about her own situation, or how she would fare. What would she do? Where would she go? Lucy had no income, no real skill other than tending to the children—although she was a good hand at sewing for them and cooking, as well as growing a meager garden—and with what the Aide Society had provided, she might have only enough funds to board a train and end up somewhere even more desolate.
“I can’t think about that at the moment,” Lucy said out loud, standing up taller and feeling somewhat defiant. “The children aren’t gone yet. Today’s not the day to whimper about it.”
Lucy straightened the kitchen, returning the untouched teacups to the cupboard, then hurried outside to gather the children. They retrieved their old baskets from the cellar, lined them with flour sacks so none of the precious fruit could escape through the odd hole here and there, and set off to pick blackberries.
Along the way, Lucy continued their lessons as she had done countless times before. She called on them one by one to name a plant that grew along the path or a critter that ran in front of them. She quizzed them on the kinds of clouds that drifted overhead, asking them to tell what the weather would be like later that day or even the next.
The younger ones sang their counting songs and their letters, the older ones recited their times tables to perfection. Forten proudly recited all the names of the presidents in order, while Annie stated the major battles of the War Between the States with their dates and locations.
And none of this will do them a bit of good where they’re headed, Lucy thought, slipping back into her earlier somber mood. It will be nothing but backbreaking work from dawn ‘til dusk, or even dangerous work that ripped their tiny limbs from their bodies in mill factory machines or locomotive engines. It was deadly work that required children for they were small enough to fit into the spaces that no man could or would go.
“Miss Lucy! Look what I got!” Jeremiah shouted from where he peered into the scrub up ahead. He reached in and pulled out the longest snake Lucy had seen in quite some time. “Can I bring him home with us?”
“That all depends,” she answered calmly, “can you tell me what kind it is?”
Jeremiah turned the wriggling snake this way and that, holding it up to look at the markings on its back.
“Is it a corn snake?” he asked hopefully.
Lucy shook her head. “No, sir. That means he has to go back in the bush there.”
“Aw, lemme try one more time! Is it a rat snake?”
She shook her head again and crossed her arms. Forten tugged on the sleeve of her shirt.
“Miss Lucy, let me run and tell him. Please. I know… I know all about what’s gonna happen soon, and I just want him to have a little something happy to remember about where we’re from.”
Lucy looked down at Forten in surprise. He’d always been the quietest, the most intuitive of all the children. Of course he’d already know. She should have thought ahead.
Finally, she nodded. “Go on then. Tell him and make sure he puts it in the shed when we get back. It’ll help with the mice.”
Forten sprinted to the younger boy, cupped his hand to his mouth, and whispered something in his ear. Jeremiah brightened and held the snake up even higher.
“It’s a king snake!” he proclaimed confidently.
Lucy laughed, then pretended she’d been defeated. “Oh my, I guess I have to let you have it since I gave my word!”
Forten helped Jeremiah guide the snake coil by coil into the front pocket of his denim overalls, then took him by the hand the rest of the way to the riverbank.
Lucy watched them, all of them. The girls began a game of seeing who could skip the highest while the boys gathered flat stones to skip across the water. This was truly a happy day, one that served its purpose: giving the children an arsenal of memories to carry with them through the darkest times ahead.
That evening, after supper, the children gathered around Forten’s feet in the front room as he read aloud from David Copperfield. Lucy looked in on them and noted the scene happily.
“Children, stay as you are. I’m going to deliver the berries we’ve set aside for Mrs. Mayhew.”
She shut the door quietly behind her so as not to distract the children from the story, then crossed the open, dusty town square to where Mrs. Mayhew still lived.
At one time, her home had been a boarding house filled to the brim every week with travelers from back east, come to seek their fortune. Shortcrag, Nevada, had made a name for itself purely by mistake when a gold nugget, the size of which had never been seen in this part of the West, was retrieved from the river. After more than ten years of being inundated with fortune-seekers who turned the small outpost into one of the largest mining towns in this part of the state, the truth had come out.
A prospector from north of the area had overturned his canoe and lost much of his find. Once the last piece had been retrieved, the miners were long gone and the town had no reason to exist anymore.
Most of the proprietors had seen the signs early on and moved their businesses elsewhere. A few stubborn holdouts like Mr. Popwell were determined to die where they’d lived, no matter how long it took.
But Mrs. Mayhew… Lucy knew why she wouldn’t leave, and she was certain it had everything to do with a young school caretaker and her little charges.
Lucy rapped on the door to the boarding house, then stepped back and waited, knowing it would take the old woman some time before she could come down and open it. She waited in one of the wide swings that hung from the open rafters overhead, pushing gently with her feet against the old hand-hewn boards of the porch. Several minutes passed before Lucy heard the turn of the old lock and saw the light from inside spread out across the darkened floor.
“Why, Lucy? Is everything all right?” the woman asked, worry flooding her features.
“Oh, everything’s fine, ma’am. I’ve just come to bring some of the berries the children picked today. I know how you enjoy them, but the path down to the riverbank is not easy.”
“That is so kind of you, but my dear, I cannot take food out of their tiny bellies! You just take them right back, and here, let me get you some flour and baking powder to make them some flapjacks with them…”
Mrs. Mayhew shuffled around to head towards her kitchen, but Lucy stopped her.
“Oh, no! We have plenty. We picked this basket just for you,” she insisted, holding it out. Mrs. Mayhew frowned as she envisioned the children toiling on her behalf, then smiled gratefully.
“Thank you! I do like fresh blackberries! But I must give them something in return. You wait here, don’t you go anywhere now!”
It took the older woman quite some time to make her way to her kitchen and then scuttle back to the porch, but when she did, she held out a bag of sugar. Not the brown-tinged molasses sugar that most people this far used, but easily a pound of blissfully bright white sugar.
“Oh no! We can’t take something so costly! You should save this!” Lucy insisted, but Mrs. Mayhew shook her head.
“Save it for what?” she asked wistfully. “For company? For a visit from my relatives? Ha. No one makes the trip to Shortcrag anymore, unless they’re here to bring bad news.”
The woman shuffled over to one of the oak rocking chairs and lowered herself into the seat with great effort. Lucy held the back of it steady for her, then sat down in one opposite her.
“I remember this town when it was a busy place, filled with all manner of people coming and going,” Mrs. Mayhew began. “To tell you the truth, I’m not sure I liked it any better then. Some of the folks that came here were honest, hard-working people who were just trying to make something of themselves, even if it was just hoping to get lucky with gold. But others? I wouldn’t cross the street to spit on ‘em if the good Lord had set them on fire. They were mean, they cheated folks, they drank more than a person should… I wasn’t sorry to see them go.”
She looked up at Lucy and smiled. “But you, my dear. I’ll lose a piece of my heart when you and those children are gone.”
“I feel the same way,” Lucy answered. “I can’t even let myself think about it. I don’t fear for myself, but those children… I’ll never see them again.” She wiped at a tear that betrayed her stoic face, and added, “I don’t know who will take charge of them, and if that person is kind or cruel, generous or a cheat. It hurts more than I can ponder.”
“And it will never stop hurting, I’m afraid. You will never stop worrying and wondering what happened to them,” Mrs. Mayhew counseled sweetly. “All you can do is trust in the Lord that he holds them in his hand.”
Lucy was quiet, pondering the older woman’s words. She was right, of course, namely in that there was nothing Lucy could do to stop this terrible injustice. She had to simply trust that the children would be fine, but deep down, she knew the pain would leave a lasting scar on her heart. It wasn’t as if the children were going to loving homes and she could at least be happy for them; instead, they were going to a lifetime of drudgery and danger, and nothing Lucy said or did could stop it.
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