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June 1864, Independence, Missouri
It was over.
Father Brown was dead.
Brandy stood at the gravesite and centered her attention on the children now in her charge. Father Brown had never intended to run an orphanage, but somehow the stray children just seemed to find him.
He had made Brandy promise to take care of them after his death, but how she would manage, she didn't know.
She found it easier to concentrate on the children rather than the words Marshal Pete was speaking.
This day, another in a month-long string of hot, humid days, brought a thin line of moisture to her brow and caused the dark dress to cling to her chest. How she longed to wear something lighter in color, maybe something open and airy, so it wouldn't be so hot.
The only relief from the heat came from the spreading arms of the shady live oak tree, which they had picked for Father Brown's final resting place. She glanced up at the green leaves and thought about how sturdy the tree appeared--much like Father Brown. He'd been her pillar of strength over the years, and now he'd left her--as had everyone else in her life.
Soon the marshal's words became a hum in her ears as he droned on with the service.
Tears gathered in Brandy's eyes at the mention of Father Brown's name. She forced her attention back on the children--anything to keep from weeping. She had to be strong, so she concentrated on the children and tried to block out the hurt, but the pain in her chest threatened to suffocate her.
Billy West, the oldest of the children, stood across from her. At fourteen, his stance was defiant, rebellion showing in his chocolate-brown eyes.He held his hat in front of him, his head slightly bowed. However, aside from that gesture of respect, he seemed unaffected by the proceedings. His shoulder-length brown hair was curly and matched his eyes perfectly. Father Brown had taken Billy in when the men he lived with were in a gunfight and fled town, one step ahead of the law, leaving Billy behind.
He'd been a lackey for the gunslingers, running errands, cooking, and cleaning their guns. But when the men had been liquored up and in need of money, Billy had to take to the streets to beg for them. The townsfolk whispered that he'd been beaten from time to time.
Brandy could remember when Father Brown first brought Billy home. He'd had a black eye and a split lip, and he was much too thin. She had felt sorry for him, and tried to help clean him up, but he didn't want her pity, and for the next six months he had been a holy terror, striking out at anyone who tried to be good to him. Her pity soon faded, leaving in its wake a strong dislike. She had even asked Father Brown if they could send Billy away. Of course, Father had frowned and told her he would forget she'd said such a thing, and he'd pray God would forgive her, too. It was the same way that their conversations usually ended when they spoke of the children. She saw them as brats, whereas Father Brown had seen them as a challenge.
So she hadn't been very nice, but it had been how she'd felt at the time. Now, she and Billy tolerated each other, neither giving an inch. True, he had mellowed a little since then, except the pranks he liked to play. She never found them very funny, especially the time she found a snake in her bed. Yes, Billy would be a handful. She groaned inwardly and looked toward heaven; she would definitely need help.
Brandy glanced at the girls. Mary Costner, thirteen, and Ellen White, eleven, had come to the parsonage at the same time.
Mary's mother had run a house of ill repute, and Mary was the direct result of one of her mother's good times. Mary hadn't had life easy, growing up in a brothel, and had spent most of her time staying out of everyone's way. She had been rescued by some of the good ladies of Kansas City when they'd suspected Mary's mother was getting ready to put her daughter into the business. At the young age of ten, she'd arrived at Father Brown's.
Mary was pretty with long, blond hair curling in ringlets about her shoulders. Her eyes were as blue as the sky, but her rebellious nature was worse than any of the rest of the children. Last year, Mary had taken a pair of scissors and cut up Brandy's favorite dress. Brandy had prayed for patience, and she'd been rewarded.
Father Brown had pointed out that Mary's disregard was her way of protecting herself and that Brandy should remember how it was not to have any parents.
Indians had killed Ellen's parents. She had escaped by hiding in the cellar. She wasn't as pretty as Mary, but she was attractive. Her brown hair just touched her shoulders, but her lackluster hazel eyes always seemed sad.
Though she and Mary were friends, Ellen didn't possess the same evil disposition. Instead, she had a sweet nature and always strived to do anything she could to please. She was so fond of children that she had taken charge of Amy, the baby, as soon as she'd arrived, which had been a big help because a three-year-old could be very active. So maybe Ellen wasn't a brat, Brandy decided, but the girl usually sided with Mary and Billy.
Then there was Scott, the seven-year-old. He had been energetic from the start. Of all the children, Brandy liked him best. He had black hair cut in a bob and his brownish-green eyes bubbled with personality. The child must have been born talking, because he talked constantly. Even now, he whispered to Ellen and Brandy glanced at him to make him hush. She was surprised he'd been quiet as long as he had during the service.
Brandy dreaded the next few months until the new priest arrived. She had no idea how she was going to handle this unusual family. A few rules would have to be set down, that much she was sure of. Perhaps she should send a note to the bishop and ask him to please hurry.
"Ashes to ashes ... dust to dust," the marshal said as he motioned for Brandy to come over and throw the first handful of dirt into the grave.
She couldn't do this.
She just couldn't!
Her steps faltered. Her vision blurred.
Grief filled Brandy, choking off her breath as she reluctantly approached the gaping black hole in the ground.
The finality of death slammed into her, gripping her heart with a deadly fist. Everything was much too quiet. Even the wind had stilled. She stooped and gathered a handful of gray Missouri dirt.
Staring down at the rough wooden casket, she knew it was finally time to say goodbye. Brandy inhaled deeply, then held her breath and bit her lip so she wouldn't sob. But doing so didn't prevent the tears from trickling down her cheeks. No longer could she hold them back. Today, she had lost her very best friend. "I love you, Father," she whispered as the grains of dirt slipped through her fingers.
Suddenly, the branches of the tree above them began to creak, rustling the leaves overhead. The slight breeze caressed her face as if a gentle hand had reached out and touched her cheek. Somehow, she felt Father Brown's spirit all around her while she watched the dry dirt scatter in the wind. Then she heard his words:
Always remember ... even though you'll not see my body anymore ... I will be with each and every one of you in spirit. Every step you take, I will take with you. When you fall down, I'll be there to pick you up.
Turning to the children, she motioned for them to come forward and throw a handful of soil in the hole.
Many of the nearby townspeople had turned out to say their final farewells. Brandy had seen all of these people at one time or another when they'd come to the parsonage, but she didn't really know any of them. The baby started to whimper, rubbing her eyes with a tiny fist. Brandy took her from Ellen, and Amy gave up her sleepy fight once Brandy had her.
All the children formed a straight line while they shook the many hands shoved toward them.
Finally everyone was gone. Brandy moved back to the gravesite one last time before they went home. Amy had fallen asleep on her shoulder, and Brandy had to switch her to the other arm to ease the weight. "Goodbye, Father," she whispered, then added, "Promises are sometimes hard to keep, but I'll try."
Before turning to leave, she glanced up at a nearby hill. There, seated on a large horse, sat a powerfully built man. Animal and rider stood perfectly still while long, black hair blew around his square jaw. Brandy couldn't make out the rest of his features but something about the man impressed her.
Fascinated, she stared boldly at the stranger. Who was he? And why did he stay in the background instead of coming closer?
"Come on, Brandy," Mary called.
Though Brandy would rather have looked at the stranger just a little longer, she knew it was time to leave.
Before stepping up onto the buckboard, she turned and looked back toward the hill, but the stranger had disappeared. It was as if he'd vanished into thin air.
A wave of disappointment washed over her. She didn't understand this odd reaction to someone she didn't know and would probably never meet.
But for just a moment, she'd felt an odd excitement as if she were dancing on the wind.
Brandy smiled for the first time in days.
Posted June 11, 2003
I AM JUST FINISHING THIS BOOK. I JUST COULDN'T PUT IT DOWN. I LOVE READING INDIAN/ROMANCE STORIES AND THIS IS ONE OF THE BEST I HAVE READ.
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Posted June 24, 2002
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