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The last thing Jenny Collins needed was rain on her windshield, especially since her old car had just hissed and then died in the middle of what was clearly the only street in this postage-stamp of a town. She and her children had begun this move to Dry Creek, Montana, with high hopes, but their enthusiasm had deserted them a thousand miles back down the road.
It was the middle of the afternoon and the day itself was gloomy. There wasn't another car in sight except for the ones parked beside the road.
"The car stopped," eight-year-old Lisa announced calmly as though her mother might not have noticed.
"I know, dear."
"I don't like the rain."
"I know that, too, dear."
Jenny had figured there was no point in packing their old, beat-up umbrella. By spring, she would have a job and could buy an umbrella that actually stayed open without someone's thumb constantly pressing on the button at the bottom of the rod. So she threw the broken one away.
And now, suddenly, it was clear she'd made a mistake. The lack of that old umbrella seemed to symbolize Jenny's whole disastrous plan. She hadn't thought things through. In her first rush of enthusiasm, she'd told herself that their move to Dry Creek would be a shining example to her children of the way God was taking care of them after their father had died. But after the car's muffler gave out in Nevada and the radiator overheated in Utah, she had no longer been able to convince herself that anything was going as it should. And now she hadn't even got the umbrella right.
"It'll be fine," Jenny said for the sake of her children. She prayed that she was right.
She had started to wonder in Idaho if she'd misunderstood God. Maybe what she thought was God's provision for them was nothing more than a widow's foolish dream. She knew why she thought the move here would be good, but maybe God didn't agree. Even though she had given up on Stephen's love for her long before he died, she refused to give up on it for their children. She didn't want them to think that their father hadn't cared enough to make any kind of a plan for them when he knew he was dying.
The old farm that Stephen had inherited from his uncle was really all they had left after Jenny had settled their debts in Los Angeles, so she finally decided in her own mind that it was Stephen's final gift to their childrena gift she wanted them to experience to the fullest. She believed all children needed something from their fathers, and her children would have this farm and the knowledge that their father had spent many summers on it as a boy. In time, she hoped the farm itself would look like evidence of Stephen's concern for them.
"Don't worry. We're almost there." Jenny pushed her thoughts aside and kept her voice upbeat. She looked back and smiled at her children. Lisa was strapped into the middle of the backseat and four-year-old Andy was in his car seat to her right. The rest of the backseat, like the trunk, was filled with their belongings. "We'll be warm and dry in no time at all when we get to your father's farm."
Lisa looked at her.
"We'll get the car going again soon, too," Jenny assured her daughter as she slipped the key out of the ignition. "It's probably nothing serious. But we need to stop and ask directions to our place before we go farther, anyway. These people might have known your father when he was a boy. Imagine that."
Lisa didn't say anything.
It worried Jenny that neither Lisa nor Andy had said anything about their father after he died. Was that normal?
"There's no school here." Lisa craned her neck to look out the side window. "If there's no school, I'm going back home."
Home to Lisa was their old apartment in El Monte, southeast of Los Angeles. They'd moved into that run-down two-bedroom apartment a year and a half ago. Jenny had thought at the time that it was as low as their little family could go. She'd been wrong. What she had seen as temporary housing until Stephen was able to work again turned into an apartment she tried, and failed, to keep after he died.
Her receptionist job hadn't paid much even before her hours were cut back. Stephen had been dead for six months by then. That's when she'd decided God must want them to move to Dry Creek. The farm was all they had left. Even with her doubts now, she couldn't think of any other options they might have had. If they'd stayed in Los Angeles, they would have needed to move into a hotel room. Apartment rents were too high, but some of the older hotels rented rooms by the week.
Jenny didn't want her children to grow up in a hotel room. Not when there was a choice.
"There has to be a school someplace," Jenny answered as she, too, took a better look out of the windows. It was raining harder by now, but she could still see the buildings. There was a church; she could identify the white frame structure by the steeple on top of it. There were a dozen or so houses, all of them obviously occupied either because of their porch lights or the dogs in their yards.
But Lisa was right; there was no school. No library, either, and Lisa loved to read. Jenny supposed it was too much to hope that they had a ballet class anywhere within fifty miles of here. Jenny loved to wear her pink tutu and pretend she was a princess.
Jenny hadn't expected Dry Creek to be quite so small. The only building that looked like it might belong in a bigger town was the café. She would have taken the children over there instead of bracing herself to go into the building straight ahead except for the fact that a café usually meant money and she didn't want to part with any more of hers than was necessary. Besides, they still had some apples and cheese in their cooler, and she could heat up a can of soup when they got to the farm.
No, the other building was better for what she needed. If the sign over its door were to be believed, it was a hardware store. Surely, the children wouldn't want anything from the shelves of a hardware store.
"There's Thunder," Andy said, with reverence in his voice, as he pointed to a sign she hadn't noticed on the side of the store. It advertised some brand of animal feed and, sure enough, there was a black horse staring right at them.
The two heroes in Andy's young life were the cowboy Zach "Lightning" Lucas and the man's faithful black horse, Thunder. Pictures of the two of them were always on the box of Ranger Flakes, Andy's favorite breakfast cereal.
"It's a different horse, sweetie," Jenny said before Andy could ask if they were finally going to meet his idols. Andy was so awestruck by them he had even started mentioning the cowboy and horse in his evening prayers. Jenny hoped there were some young boys around here who could be Andy's friends. If he had more flesh-and-blood people in his life, maybe he would give up the cardboard ones.
At least Andy had been happy to leave Los Angeles once she'd told him there were cowboys and horses in Montana. Jenny only wished Lisa had something like that to make the move easier for her. Unfortunately, the street outside didn't have anything a princess would like.
Jenny took a last look at the afternoon sky. It was getting darker. "Put your coats on and we'll go inside the store."
The only things she'd bought before she left Los Angeles were two heavy coats for the children. She might not have an umbrella, but she was ready for snow. That should count for something. Jenny reached behind her and pulled the flannel shirt off the seat. She'd wrap that around herself.
"Careful of the mud," Jenny said as she opened the car door. "And wait for me on the porch."
They all ran as quickly as they could and stood a minute under the overhang that sheltered the porch. Jenny could hear the rain beating on the roof. She took a deep breath and then opened the door.
Warm air pushed at her as she stood in the doorway. She smelled stale coffee and burning wood. Lisa was a little in front of her and Andy was to the side. Both children were wide-eyed as they looked around. Jenny didn't blame them; she'd never seen a store like this in her entire life, either. There were the usual shelves of things for sale, like bins of nails and brooms and shovels. But that's where everything normal stopped.
In the middle of the plain oak floor there was a potbelly wood stove that had a couple of old men sitting around it with their boots off and their stocking feet stretched out to the stove's warmth.
"Well, it's not the same thing for all women," one of the men protested loudly. He obviously hadn't heard Jenny and the children enter the store. "Every woman is looking for something different in a husband. Just like horses with their feed. They're particular."
The other old man snorted. "And you just happen to know what that something different is?"
The first one reared back. "That's what I've been sitting here telling you for the past half hour."
Jenny almost felt as if she should clear her throat to let the men know someone was there. Then she remembered how cold it was outside and closed the door behind the children. The door gave a loud click as she shut it. That was as good as clearing her throat. By the time she turned around, the men were all looking at her and the children.
"Good. Here's a woman," the first man said. "We'll ask her. Then you'll see what I mean."
"I'm afraid we're just here for directions," Jenny mumbled. Lisa and Andy were already walking toward the fire's warmth. She couldn't blame them; they'd all gotten damp in the rain.
Neither man looked as if they were listening to Jenny.
"Okay, prove it," the second man finally said. He pointed at Jenny. "You tell me what she wants from a husband and we'll see if you're right."
"It would be my pleasure," the first man said with a smile in Jenny's direction. "Elmer Maynard at your service, ma'am. Now, if I may"
"Charley Nelson, here." The other man nodded at Jenny.
"I really don't think"
Elmer had his eyes closed and a deep frown on his face. "Now a woman like her" he managed to point at Jenny even with his eyes
still closed "she's apt to want a man who's good with children."
The other man, Charley, barked out a quick laugh. "Well, any fool can see that. The kids are sitting right here in front of us. Obviously, she wanted kids."
Lisa and Andy had been given prime seats next to the woodstove and they were watching the old men as if they were in the middle of a Sesame Street episode.
"I'm just getting started." Elmer opened his eyes and glared at the other man. "She probably also wanted a husband who was athletic, someone who would be a good father and play catch with her son"
Elmer stopped to smile down at Andy. Jenny figured it was a kindly gesture, but it was also the older man's fatal mistake. Andy had a one-track mind these days.
"Ohhh, could he be a cowboy?" Andy asked breathlessly, his eyes wide with hope as he looked up at the older man. "With a black horse?"
Andy wiggled as though he was suddenly overcome with the possibilities and then he continued in a low whisper. "Could it be Zach Lightning Lucas?"
"Who's that?" Elmer turned to Jenny with puzzled eyes.