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"Well, land's sake, if it isn't Mollie O'Brien! My, but it's good to see you again, Mollie. When did you get home from college, my dear?"
At the sound of her name, Mollie paused on the steps of the Agua Verde post office and glanced around. A late spring breeze dancing across the courtyard square caressed her face, providing a touch of relief from the heat of the Texas sun.
"Oh, hi, Mrs. Krueger," she replied, when she saw the woman who had called to her. Lydia Krueger had taught Mollie's eighth-grade Sunday school class. "I came home yesterday for Maribeth's graduation. We have finals next week, then I'll be home for the summer. How are things with you?"
"Can't complain, dear, can't complain. I imagine Megan will be pleased to have you home for the summer. She could probably use some help with that new baby of hers. How old is he now?"
Mollie grinned, always eager to discuss her tiny nephew. "Danny's seven months old and such a cutie. I've really missed not being around him more this past school year. Babies seem to grow up so fast."
"Not only babies," Mrs. Krueger replied with a smile. "Why, it doesn't seem possible that you O'Brien girls have gotten so big. It seems only yesterday that Megan was fighting to keep the three of you together as a family...and you and Maribeth were still in grade school. Now here she is a new mama and both you girls are college age. I swear the time just gets away from me."
"I know what you mean. I'm four years older than Megan was when our parents died, and I'm still not sure I could handle the responsibilities Megan took on back then," Mollie admitted.
"Well, she did a fine job of it, let me tell you. Everybody can see that." Lydia Krueger glanced at her watch and shook her head as though amazed at the time. Starting toward her car, she said, "It was good to see you again, my dear. Be sure to give my regards to the family...and give that baby an extra hug for me."
"I will, Mrs. Krueger." Mollie had already turned away to enter the post office when Mrs. Krueger called to her.
"Oh, Mollie, speaking of babies, wasn't that the saddest thing about Deke Crandall?"
Mollie froze for a moment at the unexpected mention of Deke's name, before she retraced her steps to Lydia's side.
"What happened to Deke?" she managed to ask through lips that suddenly felt numb.
"Didn't Megan tell you?"
Mollie could only shake her head.
"Well, his wife, Patsy, had their baby a few weeks ago," Lydia explained, her voice losing its lilt. She paused for a moment, obviously searching her memory. "Must have been back in April. She had a little girl. I'm not real sure what happened after that. I understand Patsy started running some kind of fever and the doctors couldn't seem to do anything to help." Once again she paused, shaking her head. "I believe the baby was maybe three days old when Patsy died."
"Oh my God!" Mollie whispered, shock racing through her. "How horrible. Deke must be devastated."
Lydia nodded vigorously. "Oh my, yes. It's really just the saddest thing that's happened around here in years. The whole county turned out for the funeral, of course. It was enough to break your heart. Deke just sat staring at her lying there in that coffin. It was like he didn't know anybody else was around. People tried to talk to him, but he didn't seem to hear them. He just sat there...looking at her. He never broke down...leastways, not in front of anybody." She sighed. "I don't know what's going to happen to him and that poor little baby."
"What do you mean?"
"Since the funeral he's locked himself away in his room and won't come out. I know he must be sufferin' and all, but he's got a daughter now that needs to be cared for. We've all been real worried about them."
"Who's taking care of the baby?"
Lydia paused, blinking the moisture from her eyes.
"You remember the Schultzes live out there near the Crandall place? Well, Cynthia Schultz set up a rotating schedule with her women's group from the church. Each of them takes turns staying a day and a night at a time to care for the baby. They also prepare food for Deke...not that he seems to eat much of anything these days," she added with resignation. "I don't know how long they're going to have to do that. At first, they thought they'd just help for a week or two until Deke got his head back on straight and decided to hire somebody to look after that sweet baby." Her eyes filled once again and she resolutely touched a handkerchief to them. "At this rate, the little darlin' will be walkin' before she even knows who her daddy is."
Mollie felt stunned. Even when Lydia said no more, Mollie could only stand there in shocked silence, staring at her.
Lydia patted her arm. "I really do need to go, dear. Time just seems to fritter away on me. It's good to see you back home, Mollie. Once you're settled in, why don't you come over for a visit? I'd love to hear about school and all."
Mollie glanced at her watch. "Thank you, Mrs. Krueger. I'd like that. I'll call you one of these days," she offered absently before she turned and went into the post office, her mind replaying all that she'd just heard.
Deke Crandall grieving and in pain...Deke's daughter being shuffled between well-meaning but busy women who had their own families to look after.
"Oh, Deke, I'm so sorry," she whispered softly while she gathered the accumulation of ranching magazines, the weekly newspaper and various letters and statements addressed to Travis and Megan that had been her reason for stopping by the post office in the first place.
She continued to the grocery store and mechanically filled the list Megan's housekeeper, Mrs. Hoff-meyer, had given her earlier that morning while she continued to mull over what she had learned.
Once everything was in the car, Mollie drove out of town toward the family ranch, absently following the route she'd learned years ago...while her thoughts replayed the first time she ever saw Deke Crandall.
The day was clearly marked in her mind. She'd been seven years old. It was so memorable because it was one of the few times in her life when she'd spent a whole day alone with her father. Normally he spent his time working on the ranch while her mother looked after the girls. She couldn't remember now where Megan had been, but she did recall that Maribeth had been running a fever and her dad had suggested to her mom that Mollie go with him while he ran a few errands.
Thrilled by the opportunity to spend time alone with her dad, she had accompanied him to town, happily tagging along while he stopped at the hardware store, the bank and stopped to have coffee with some of the ranchers at the little shop on the courthouse square.
Later they'd driven out to the Crandall ranch. As soon as they'd stepped up on the porch, she'd spotted a mama cat and her kittens. Delighted with her discovery she'd gone over to play with them while her dad had gone inside the house.
When the shouting and laughter broke out down by the barn, her natural curiosity had caused her to follow the sound around the side of the house where she had a clear view of the barn and several pens. A group of men were gathered outside one of the pens, hanging on to the railings while they cheered and called out advice to someone she couldn't see.
She'd immediately drawn closer, slipping silently among the roisterous men and peeking between the slats of the railed fence.
A man was riding a horse that was doing everything possible to throw him off. It was just like a rodeo she'd once seen, only now she was much closer to the action. She could almost taste the dust flying in the air.
She studied the man on the bucking horse. He seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, gracefully balanced high on the back of the spinning, gyrating animal. The men watching continued to yell out suggestions, laughingly predicting an unplanned departure from the saddle.
Sunlight glinted off his blond hair. She was mesmerized by the sight.
Eventually the horse slowed, then after a halfhearted stiff-legged jump and a defiant toss of his head, he stopped, his sides heaving. Two of the men vaulted over the fence and ran to the horse, steadying him while the rider climbed off, dusted his pants and walked toward the fence near where she peeked through.
Nobody had paid any attention to her presence. She continued to watch as the man came closer, opening a nearby gate that she hadn't noticed and joining the other men.
Seen up close he was as big as her daddy, his face sun-darkened, his loose-limbed stride like so many men who spent much of their time on horseback.
Then she heard her father calling her name. The blond man looked around in surprise and saw her watching him.
"Well, look here, would you? Where in the world did you come from, honey?" he asked, closing the distance between them.
She dipped her head toward her father's truck. "What's your name?" he asked "Mollie."
"Mollie? That's a nice name." Gravely he removed his leather gloves and extended his hand. "Pleased to meet ya, Mollie. I'm Deke."
She had to look a long way up to see his face. He must have realized how intimidating he seemed to someone her size because he immediately knelt, balancing on his heels so that they were eye level. Timidly she touched his hand, feeling the rough calluses on his palm.
"Do you live here?" she found the courage to ask.
"Sure do. At least during the summertime when I'm not in school."
She stared at him in surprise. "You still go to school?"
He threw his head back and laughed, his white teeth flashing in strong contrast to his deeply tanned face. "Yeah, I'm afraid so. I've still got another year to go. Are you in school?"
She nodded. "How old are you?"
"Seven. How old are you?"
She gathered up her courage and said, "You sure do ride a horse good."
"Why, thank you, Mollie. I'm glad you think so." It was then that her father walked up.
"Mollie, you 'bout scared me half to death, girl. I left you playing on the porch and the next thing I knew you'd disappeared. Your mama would have my hide if I let something happen to you while I'm supposed to be looking after you."
Deke stood and faced her father. "She's okay, Mr. O'Brien. We wouldn't have let anything happen to her."
The two men began to chat and Mollie was able to study Deke to her heart's content. Up close that way she could see that his eyes were a startling green, glittering like jewels. He was as tall as her father, with broad shoulders and lean hips.
He wasn't really handsome or anything, not like men in the movies or on television, but it didn't matter to Mollie. He had spoken to her as if she was his equal. He had shaken hands with her and talked with her. All the other men had gone about their business without paying much notice to her, but he'd taken the time to draw her out.
She had never forgotten that meeting.