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Montana Territory, December 16, 1883
Cold rain fell from a steel-gray sky as Caleb McGraw swept off his battered, wide-brimmed hat. A symphony of raindrops pattered on decaying leaves and plopped on fallow grasses, his only company as he approached the simple wooden cross at the head of the grave. Someone had etched the name Alma Kent into the wood. His knees buckled but he kept on walking until his boots reached the faint line that marked where the ground had once been disturbed. Sadness chilled him like the gust of the icy wind.
Hard to believe she was gone. Truth was, he'd forgotten what she looked like. The detail of the woman's face he'd once loved had faded, leaving only a dim memory of a woman with apple cheeks and brown curls. Alma had recently died but he'd been dead to her the moment a territorial marshal had dragged him off to prison. Rage still burned in his chest at the old injustice but he'd learned the hard way fury did a man no good. Life was full of unfairness and betrayal and loss. Especially loss. He bowed his head, wishing he had flowers to put on her grave.
"Alma don't get visitors." A grizzled, rough voice rang above the rhythmic raindrops and the whir of the December wind. "As far as I know, you'd be the first."
"How long exactly has she been gone?" He rose from his knees with solemn resignation. Best to brace himself for whatever attitude or judgment would be coming his way. He'd gotten used to it the past ten days since he'd been released from prison. He never should have come home.
But he didn't know the old man who limped over. Gnarled by arthritis, the cemetery caretaker swiped rain off his brow with his patched coat sleeve. "It's been nigh on four months, maybe more."
No one had written him. No one had told him. His only cousin had disowned him, slamming the door in his face when he'd knocked. Old friends had turned from him on the street, so they hadn't been inclined to give him the latest news. But Alma's grandmother could have told him. When he'd walked into her parlor, the woman could have said more than the simple fact her granddaughter had passed away. The lash of the grandmother's anger still stung like a whip mark.
It's your fault, Caleb McGraw, you lowlife. Your fault and none other's. You sentenced my girl to shame.
He didn't know what that meant. Perhaps Alma had felt humiliated for having once accepted a convict's marriage proposal.
"Such a pity. She was young. Barely twenty-four years old." The man limped closer, eager to talk. "How did you know the young lady?"
"We grew up together. I'm back home visiting." That was true enough. His hopes of finding remnants of his old life had died one by one. He couldn't stay in Blue Grass. He would be moving on before nightfall. He had no notion where.
"Then you musta jest heard the news of her passing. I'm awful sorry." The old man's mouth and unkempt white beard wobbled as if with sorrow. "It's a shame what happened to her. I hear some fella proposed to her but got her into trouble afore the wedding rolled around."
"Into trouble?" He clamped his back molars down hard. That wasn't right, that wasn't the way events had unfolded. He had been arrested, not Alma.
"The fella got hisself thrown in jail, the lowlife. Left her in a family way." The man shook his head as if it were the worst shame he'd heard of.
A family way? The air whooshed out of his lungs and his heart stalled in his chest. Ice spilled into his veins as he took in those words. A family way. She'd been pregnant? Just one time and she'd conceived their child?
"Cute little young'un, too." Sadness softened the judgment in the old man's words. "Jest a true shame."
He died a little as he glanced at the neighboring graves. "Did the child pass away of diphtheria, too?"
The rain drummed harder, driven by a merciless wind. He saw a cross, a miniature version of the one bearing Alma's name. He broke inside, wondering if that was their child. Why hadn't Alma written to tell him? It would have taken one letter, one sentence, just a few words to let him know. The shock brought him to his knees. He hit the ground hard enough to rattle his bones.
"Was a near thing, but the little one made it." The caretaker squinted with an expression that was half worry, half dread. "You ain't havin' some sort of spell, are you, young man? I kin fetch the doc."
"No, I just didn't know." A little one. A child who still lived. He felt hollowed out, empty. Whatever softness lived within him had died years ago. His heart, his soul, that essence that had made him who he was had been stripped away during seven long years of hard labor and harder treatment. "Where is the child now?"
"He's off with some friend of the family."
"The wife might know. She's a gossipy sort." The old man smiled and grabbed hold of Caleb's elbow. "My cottage is over yonder. A shot of whiskey ought to put the starch back in yer knees."
It would take an entire bottle but Caleb bit his lip, climbed to his feet and took one last look at Alma's grave. Had she been too ashamed of him to tell him about their baby? Or too angry? He would never know.
You ruined your life for good, Caleb. Worse, he'd tarnished Alma's. Her grandmother's words made sense. She would have been unmarriageable and in a small town like this, she would have been all but shunned. He felt sick and broken to the core. Nothing he could ever do would erase the harm caused by one impulsive act. As cold inside as the winter rain, he followed the caretaker around graves and crumbling crosses. He thought of the harm he'd done, intentionally or not.
The heartless beat of the rain intensified, striking the earth with a vengeance, striking him. He had a child. A son. Caleb digested that, swallowing hard past the painful lump bunching in his throat. A child, come hell or high water, he intended to see.
Caroline Dreyer cracked an egg on the bowl's rim and carefully broke the shell. Yoke and whites cascaded onto the flour mixture with a plop. Her attention wasn't on her baking on this last Sunday afternoon before Christmas but on the boy standing at the front window. His hands gripped the sill, dark hair tousled, cowlick sticking straight up. Sorrow radiated from the child with the same strength of grief alive in her heart. Both her and the boy were mourning different loves and different lives lost.
The image of a spacious kitchen with two large windows, a laughing husband and a bubbly baby flashed unbidden into her mind, a picture too painful to look at. Sorrow lashed her and she pressed the images down until they were nothing but darkness. Best to stay in the here and now. Looking back or ahead was unbearable, but she'd been able to survive four years now by taking one moment at a time.
"It's starting to snow." Fat white flakes fell in a straight descent in front of the windows where a few moments ago it had been the dreary gray streaks of rain. "Did you want to bundle up and play outside?"
No answer. Thomas shrugged his shoulders. Was the child remembering the way his life used to be? Knowing how it felt to wish for the past, she wiped her fingers on a towel, abandoned her bowl on the table and circled around the sofa. Heat from the stone fireplace chased away the chill in the air.
The flames crackled merrily in the hearth, serenading her as she knelt down beside the boy. At this lower vantage, the snow looked magical tumbling from sky to earth like promises in a fairy tale. She wished a little of that magic could touch the sad little boy she'd tried so hard to reach, although it was hard not to look at the child and remember her son. Had Mathias lived, he would have been six years old, too.
"When I was a girl, we would try to catch snowflakes on our tongues. The first snowfall of the year always tasted best." She smiled at the memory of three dozen girls laughing and rushing to slip into their wraps and squeeze out the doorway into the yard. Growing up in an orphanage had been hard, but they had been a family of sorts and Alma Kent had been her sister not by any blood tie but by bonds too powerful to break. That was why she'd honored the wishes in Alma's letter and taken the child.
Thomas, so still, so small, hadn't moved a muscle. She could feel him straining to listen, perhaps hoping for a story of his mother. She knew what it was like to yearn after those who were lost, so she gave him what comfort she could.
"Your mama had a bright red knit hat and scarf and she used to put her arms straight out, tilt her head back and twirl round and round in the falling snow. Pure white flakes would shower all over her and she would try to catch them with her tongue. She caught the most of any of us." Almost twenty years ago, the image came as bright and clear as if it had happened yesterday. The long ago love she felt for her honorary sister burned in memory. "I suppose boys don't do things like that, but judging by the rate the snow is falling there's enough to make snowballs to throw. Soon, there will be enough for a snowman."
"Okay." The boy remained statue still, wrapped in sadness. Was he remembering last Christmas season with his ma and his great-grandmother? There was nothing like the cozy feeing of being loved and wanted. She wished with every fiber of her being she could give him the same security. She wanted to reach out but she could not cross the void her heart had become.
The biscuit batter needed mixing, so she left the boy to watch the magical white flakes swish and swirl as a light wind blew in. Her shoes made an echo through the small log cabin.
"Aunt Caroline?" Thomas's solemn voice drew her back. "What is that man doing with our horse?"
"What man?" She squinted through the snow, following the direction of Thomas's finger. A man's shadow broke out of the haze near her small stable, leading a horse by the reins. Her horse! Kringle shook his head, trying to break free and stomped a front hoof. The gelding didn't like strangers.
Alarm shot through her. She grabbed a chair, leaped onto it and seized the old rifle from the pegs above the door.
"Stay inside. Do you understand me?" She slid a cartridge into the chamber and threw the bolt. "I need your promise, Thomas."
Owl-eyed, the boy nodded as he trembled slightly. "Will you come back?"
"It will be all right." She whipped open the sagging door and stalked out into the bitter cold. Her breath rose in great puffs as she raised the gun and lined up the notch in the barrel with the man wrestling her disgruntled gelding.
"You had best walk away from that horse, mister." Fear made her voice shivery, betraying her. Had the ruffian heard it?
"I don't take orders from a woman." The horse thief spit out a stream of tobacco juice.
"I'm an armed woman," she corrected. "I'll shoot if I have to." She squared her shoulders. "Back away from my gelding."
"Fat chance. You won't do it, lady. A frilly thing like you don't have what it takes to kill a man." Disdain curled his upper lip as he mounted up. "Put the gun down. Just go back to your baking."
How had he known what she'd been doing? A shiver quaked through her. It radiated outward until her teeth chattered. The gun began to shake, too. He'd been spying on them? What if he'd wanted more than the horse?
Just do it, Caroline. Stop him. Take a breath and pull the trigger. She willed her arms to stop shaking, planted her feet. But the storm closed in like a veil between her and her target. He became a shadow that faded away, lost in the white.
"I'd do what the lady says." A different voice boomed like winter thunder through the snow. Threat rang in that deep baritone along with a power that made Caroline shake again. Her gun slipped down, nose first, to rest on the snowy porch.
What was happening? She couldn't see anything. Footsteps crunched in the snow. She heard a faint scuffle. Kringle's neigh. Something fell to the ground in front of the steps, a man's shadowed form. It was the horse thief trussed up like a captured pig.
"Go on inside, ma'am. I'll stable your horse."
The white-out conditions stole her rescuer from view. Who was he and where had he come from? She thought of her neighbors, soft spoken men and middle aged. This stranger's voice rang with the force of a man in his prime. She batted snowflakes from her face and eyelashes. "Excuse me, but do I know you?"
"No. I'm just someone passing through."
"Then I'm doubly grateful. It's not every stranger who will help another stranger in need."
"It was the decent thing to do. That's all." He knocked snow off his hat, fighting the instinct to step away from the woman. Was this the right house?
It had to be. When he'd asked a clerk when he'd first ridden into the little town of Moose if she knew Caroline Dreyer, the kindly lady had given him detailed directions. This was the fifth home south of town, but this woman wore no wedding band. No sign of a husband anywhere. Alma wouldn't have given their son to an unmarried woman, would she?