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Eden Valley, Alberta
Cassie Godfrey's dream was about to come true. She could see it there before her eyes. She could smell it, and practically taste it. Twenty-five years old and she was finally about to become self-sufficient.
"I'm not sure this is a good idea." The cowboy sitting next to her sounded worried but she dismissed his concern. She'd heard all the arguments she cared to hear.
"I'll be fine." She jumped from the wagon seat and headed to the back where her things waited to be moved to her new home. Only one small problem remained. Or perhaps it was a large problem.
She had no house.
Roper Jones climbed down slowly, reluctantly. "Where you planning to sleep?"
"Eddie lent me a tent." She'd spent the winter at Eden Valley Ranch where Eddie Gardiner was boss and had recently married Linette. When Linette had discovered Cassie living in the Montreal train station after the death of her husband, she had gathered Cassie under her wing and taken her to Eden Valley Ranch with her. After Linette and Eddie married, they'd insisted Cassie was more than welcome to remain and share their big house but it was time for Cassie to move on. For months, ever since she'd reached the Eden Valley Ranch, her dream had been growing. There was a time she thought a secure future meant depending on a man, but she'd grown to see she didn't need a man to take care of her. She could take care of herself. It had become her dream and that dream was about to be realized.
"You're mighty determined." Roper's chuckle sounded a tiny bit regretful. He hoisted the tent and a couple of bags from the wagon and headed for the little patch of land Cassie had persuaded Mr. Macpherson to sell her. He'd been reluctant about selling to a woman but she pointed out she was the head of her householdalthough she refrained from mentioning it was a household of oneand a widow, which entitled her to file on a homestead.
"Guess if the government would allow me to own one hundred and sixty acres for a homestead, I can buy a small lot." Her words had persuaded him, and no one else had raised an objection.
Roper set her things on the ground and leaned back on his heels. "Cassie, this doesn't seem like a good idea to me. Why not come back to the ranch?" His grin did nothing to erase the disapproval in his eyes.
She planted her feet on her own piece of land and sighed. "I realize you're only wanting to help but believe me this is exactly where I want to be and what I want to do." She turned full circle, mentally measuring the boundaries of her lot. It lay behind Macpherson's store, close enough that she could supply the bread for his store, once she had a stove, as part payment for the lumber for her house. Yet it was far enough to be out of sight of the freight wagons, stagecoaches and riders passing the store.
Roper followed her visual inspection until they'd both gone full circle and ended looking at each other. He was a pleasant enough man with a ready smile tipped a little crookedly at the moment. Stocky built, solid even. A good head of brown hair mostly hidden under his cowboy hat. A square face. His hazel eyes were always full of kindness and hope, though she'd gone out of her way to make it clear he need not pin any hope on her.
"Why must you insist on this foolishness?" He swung about to indicate the vast open prairies, the rolling foothills, the bold Rocky Mountains. "Ain't nothing but nothing out here. A few cows. A few cowboys. A store. A settler or two."
Her gaze took in the wide land and for a moment rested on the mountaintops that seemed to poke the blue sky. As always they made her feel stronger, and she brought her mind back to Roper's concern. "And Mr. Macpherson," she added, "just a holler away."
"Who's to protect you from wild animals? Either the four-legged or two-legged kind?"
"Indeed. And who has protected me in the past? Sure wasn't my dead husband." She'd been so afraid sleeping in the railway station. "Nor my dead father. Certainly not my still-living grandfather." She made a grating sound of disbelief.
"Must be the good Lord 'cause it sure ain't your good sense."
"Think what you will." She turned away to examine the stack of belongings. "Thanks for bringing me to town and unloading my stuff."
"You're telling me to leave?"
"Don't recall saying so but shouldn't you get back to the ranch?"
"You're bound and determined to do this?"
She faced him squarely. She would reveal no flicker of doubt. "I'm bound and determined."
"Nothing I say will convince you to reconsider?"
"Figure you about said it all and still I'm here."
But he didn't move and she avoided looking at him. He'd already made his opinion clear as spring water. As had Linette and Eddie.
"It goes against my better judgment to leave you here alone."
"This is something I have to do." She didn't bother explaining her reasons, afraid they would look foolish to anyone else. But she was through feeling indebted to someone for her care.
He pressed his hand to hers. "Cassie, at least let me help you set up some kind of camp."
The weight of his hand, the warmth of his palm, the way he curled his fingers around hers made her realize how much she would miss him. But when he reached for the tent, she grabbed his arm to stop him. "I'll be fine. Don't worry about me." Even though she had pointedly ignored him all winter it was comforting in some strange, unexplainable way to know he was there, on the periphery of her world.
But she would not depend on anyone. She'd long ago learned the cost of doing so. She had to make her own security. She fussed with the ropes around the rolled-up canvas tent. "I plan to manage on my own."
He edged past her, shuffled toward the wagon, never taking his eyes from her.
She did her best to keep her attention on the pile of belongings at her feet but couldn't keep from glancing his way when the wagon creaked as he stepped up.
He sighed loud enough to make the horse prick up its ears. "Look, it ain't like I'm asking to be your partner or anything like that." He grinned as if to inform her he considered the idea plumb foolish. "Just want to make sure you're going to be okay."
"I'm going to be just fine." She lifted her hand in farewell.
With a shake of his head, he drove away.
She watched until the trail of dust hid the wagon. Only then did she turn and face her predicament. She had land of her own. A nice level bit of ground with trees surrounding it and the river a few steps away.
She had plans to support herself, and a tent to provide temporary shelter. She had a pile of lumber that would become her home.
There was only one small hitch.
She had no notion of how to transform that pile of lumber into a house.
First things first. She would erect the tent and prepare camp.
Three hours later, she had managed to sort out the ropes and stakes for the tent and put it up. Sure it sagged like a weary old man but it was up. She'd unrolled her bedding along one side and slipped her derringer under her pillow. Whatever Roper thought of her she wasn't foolish enough to be unprepared.
Macpherson had provided a saw, hammer and nails with the lumber. She carried them to the pile of lumber and stared helplessly. She had no idea how to begin.
God, I know there must be a way to do this. Surely you can help me.
But she heard no voice from the clouds, nor did she feel a sudden burst of inspiration. As usual she'd have to figure it out on her own.
Roper muttered to himself as he headed toward the ranch. Stupid woman. If he didn't know better he would think she was crazy in the head. But he'd watched her all winter, seeing the pain and defiance behind her brown eyes and wanting to erase it.
From the beginning Cassie had been as prickly as a cactus. Over the winter she'd mellowed. Her black hair had gone from dull and stringy to glistening and full. Morose, even sour, at the start, she'd started to laugh more often.
He shook his head and grunted. But she'd changed in other ways, too. She'd grown downright stubborn and independent.
He adjusted his hat to suit him better and swatted away an ornery fly that wouldn't leave him alone.
Growing up in an orphanage he'd learned if he helped people, made them laugh, life was more pleasant for everyone. He'd become adept at smoothing out problems in order to maintain peace.
He ached that Cassie refused to let him help in any way.
"Shoot. Best thing I can do is forget all about her." Something else he'd grown good atletting people go. He'd learned the hard way not to expect permanence. Still he'd be giving Eddie every excuse known to man to ride to town until he was certain she was well settled. In fact, he'd leave the job and stay in town if he could think of any reasonable excuse. After all, he had no particular ties to the ranch. To any place for that matter.
But he could think of no reason to hang about town other than to make sure Cassie was safe and happy. Seems she was only too happy to see him gone so maybe he'd accomplished one of his goals.
A dark shape on the trail ahead caught his eye and he blinked. He pulled the horse to a halt and stared. Rubbed his eyes and stared some more.
He'd seen mirages of trees and water but he'd never seen a mirage of kids. He squinted hard. Three kids. Four, if that squirming armload was another.
He called to them as he edged the wagon forward.
The huddle of young 'uns left the trail and ran toward the trees a distance away.
"Now hold up there."
The kids picked up speed.
Roper quickly secured the reins and jumped to the ground, breaking into an awkward trot. His bowed legs weren't made for running but he didn't let that slow him much.
One of the kids hollered, "Hurry." Another started to cry.
He couldn't bear to hear a kid crying and he slowed. But just for a moment. Kids didn't belong out in the middle of nowhere all alone. It wasn't a bit safe. He forced his legs to pump harder and closed the distance.
The biggest one turned and faced him, a scowl on her pretty little face. "Leave us alone!"
He skidded to a halt and took their measure. The girl looked about twelve, maybe a little older. She held a trembling younger girl maybe two years old. Roper couldn't see anything of the little one but the fine golden hair and impossibly tiny shoulders. Then there was a boy a year or two younger than the older girl. And between them, face full of fear and defiance, a young lad of maybe six or seven. The look on each face held a familiar expression one he had seen time and again in the orphanage that had been his only home. It spelled fear. And trouble.
He held up his hands knowing the bunch wasn't ready to see the folly of their attitude. "I mean you no harm but I can't help wondering what four young 'uns are doing out here halfway between nowhere and nothin'."
The eldest two exchanged glances, and a silent message passed between them. The boy answered. "None of yer business."
Roper backed off a step but rocked on the balls of his feet, ready to grab them if they tried to escape. "Long way from here to someplace." They'd been headed away from Edendale so he guessed that wasn't their destination of choice. "You might get a little hungry and thirsty."
The girl glared at him. "We don't need no help."
He sighed. Where had he heard that before? And he didn't like it any better from the lips of a young gal with nothing more than the company of three younger kids and a gut full of determination than he had hearing it from Cassie. "How about you let me give you a ride at least?"
Again that silent communication. The young lad signaled to the older girl and they lowered their heads to hold a confab.
He waited, letting them think they were in control but he had no intention of turning around and leaving them there.
They straightened, and the oldest answered, "We'll accept a ride. For a little ways."
"Best we introduce ourselves," Roper said, and gave his name. "I work on a ranch over in the hills there."
Three pairs of eyes followed the direction he indicated and he could see their interest. He turned to the kids. "Now tell me who you are."
The big girl nodded. "I'm Daisy. This is Neil." She indicated the older boy, then nudged the younger one. "Billy, and Pansy."
"Suppose you got a last name."
"Well, howdy." He held out a hand but they shrank back. He waited, wanting them to know he meant them nothing but kindness. Finally Neil grabbed his hand and gave a good-size squeeze. The boy had grit for sure. Guess they all did to be out here alone.
He led them to the wagon. They insisted on sitting together in the back. He climbed to the seat but didn't move.
"Mister?" Daisy sounded scared.
He shifted to face them. "It might help if I had some idea where you want to go."
Again a silent discussion then Daisy nodded. "We're looking for our pa. He set out to get himself some land close to the mountains. Maybe you heard of him. Thad-deus Locke."
He'd heard of the man. One of the only settlers in the area. Last time he'd been mentioned in Roper's hearing was last fall. "Where's your mother?"
"She died. Before she did, she made us promise to find our pa." Daisy's voice quivered but she held her head high.
"Well, let's find him, then. Mr. Macpherson will know where his farm is." Macpherson knew everything about everyone within a hundred miles. 'Course that didn't mean more than a couple hundred people, not counting Indians. Roper turned the wagon about.
"You don't know where our papa lives?" Neil asked.
"Can't say as I do." The kids murmured behind him and he glanced over his shoulder. Little Pansy rested her head against Daisy's shoulder, big blue eyes regarding him solemnly, unblinkingly. The kid had been aptly named with eyes as wide as the flower. "We'll soon be at Macpherson's store." The collection of low buildings clung to the trail ahead, trees of various kinds clustered behind the buildings. His gaze sought the little area behind the store. As they drew closer he saw Cassie had almost managed to get the tent standing, but it swayed like a broken-down old mare. He chuckled. Wouldn't take more than a cupful of rain to bring it down and soak everything inside, including her if it happened while she slept. The canvas flapped in the wind. Fact was she might not have to wait for rain to topple the tent. A breeze made by bird wings would do the trick.
"Whoa." He jumped down and went to the back of the wagon.