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Forlorn Valley, Colorado
“Emily, honey — you sure you’re going to be all right here on your own? I don’t much cotton to leaving you.”
The stoop-shouldered giant with the grizzled face and stringy gray hair peered intently at the young woman beside him on the porch of the old log cabin. His seamed face was full of doubt, but in the gold afternoon sunlight that slanted down across the Rockies and made the sky glisten a hot and burnished blue, his niece looked as calm and unruffled as a mountain lake.
“I’ll be fine, Uncle Jake,” she assured him. “I can take care of myself.”
Yet, even as she spoke the words, Emily Spoon felt an eerie prickle across her neck.
She couldn’t imagine why. She wasn’t afraid of this beautiful isolated patch of land deep in the heart of the Colorado foothills — or of the dark — or of being alone. She wasn’t afraid of anything — except losing her family again.
“And don’t forget,” she added, as a gust of wind swept down from the mountains and blew a strand of midnight hair across her cheek. “I’m not all alone. There’s Joey.”
“Hmmmph. That little twig of a young’un? You know what I mean, girl.”
Her uncle’s voice was deep, scratchy, and gruff, well suited to the leathery and intimidating visage of his fifty-plus years, but Emily wasn’t fooled. She knew that despite his fierce appearance and his deep-set, squinting eyes that were the color of mud, when it came to his family, those he loved, Jake Spoon was gentle as a lamb.
Of course, there was no doubt that his years in prison had changed him, she reflected, a sadness touching her fine gray eyes as she studied the uncle who had raised her. Before Deputy Sheriff Clint Barclay had tracked him down and arrested him, he’d been larger than life and twice as bold, a man who always thirsted for adventure. He’d been in constant motion, craving hard riding and wild roaming, a good fight, and a mean chase. He’d been drawn to the lure of riches — ill-gotten riches — especially if they belonged to the wealthy and powerful.
But those seven years he’d spent behind bars — and all that had happened to his family while he was gone — had drained him of much of his vinegar and aged him in countless ways. There was a weariness now in the craggy lines of his face, a somber dead look to his eyes, and his smile, once big and crooked and easy, was now as rare as a gold nugget in a turnip patch.
Meeting his searching gaze, Emily felt a twinge of concern. These days Uncle Jake’s shoulders always looked as if they carried some invisible, impossibly heavy burden that was too much for him to bear.
And perhaps, she reflected, thinking of her Aunt Ida, they did.
“Of course I know what you mean,” she said with a quick smile, patting his arm. “But everything will be fine. So you just go on to Denver and buy the best horses you can find, and as much stock as we can afford. Joey and I will be perfectly all right until you and the boys get back.”
“Load up that rifle and keep it at the ready, you hear?”
“And if any strangers come by, shoot first and ask questions later.”
Emily eased him toward the porch steps. “Uncle Jake, I know how to take care of myself.”
At that he nodded curtly and turned his head away, but not before she saw the sheen of guilt in his eyes.
“Please, don’t look that way.” Emily took a deep breath. “The past is behind us now — all of us. The Spoon family is back together and everything is going to be just like it was.”
Well, not quite like it was. Aunt Ida is gone...
As if reading her thoughts, Jake swallowed, scowled, and pulled his hat down lower over his eyes. His shoulders drooping, he stepped down off the porch.
“You bet your boots it is, honey,” he said gruffly. “No need for you to worry about anything. Once we get back from Denver, me and the boys are sticking to this place. We’ll make a go of it — come hell or high water.”
A surge of happiness swept through her. He meant it, she was sure of it. Uncle Jake and the boys were really going straight.
We’re going to be a family again — together under one roof. And no one is going to take this ranch, this land away.
A breathless joy seized her. As the sun drifted lazily overhead toward the western sky, she watched her brother, Pete, and her towheaded cousin, Lester, lead their horses from the barn.
“Hey, Uncle Jake, let’s ride. There’s a poker game waiting for me in Denver — and a great big pot of cash with my name on it.” Pete waved his Stetson at Emily, his thin, handsome face alight with excitement. “So long, Sis! See you in a couple of days.”
Lester mounted his piebald and rode up to the porch. He was even larger than Uncle Jake, a mountain of a man, with enormous shoulders and a sweet, moon-shaped face covered with freckles. “Keep an eye on the barn door, will you, Emily? I didn’t get a chance yet to fix that bolt. Want me to bring you back any fancy doodads from Denver?”
“Just bring yourself back in one piece — all of you.” Emily fixed a meaningful gaze on each of them. Jake Spoon nodded and wheeled his horse toward the trail.
“All right, boys — let’s ride!”
As he dug in his heels, Pete gave a whoop loud enough to raise the dead, and all three of them thundered off, heading south across the valley.
For several moments, Emily stood at the broken rail of the porch, watching until the three riders disappeared over a ridge. As the dust dissipated in the still, crystalline air, she scanned the entire horizon, her gaze slow and careful. All was peaceful, quiet, and reassuringly empty but for the rolling foothills lush with new grass and buttercups, and the rising, pine-steeped mountains that towered in the distance.
She drew in a deep breath of pure mountain air and hugged herself.
This little cabin, her new home, was tucked neatly away on the banks of Stone Creek, some ten miles from the town of Lonesome, and there wasn’t another cabin or ranch house anywhere in this part of the valley. She loved the isolation of it, the sweep and beauty. After years of living in the noisy boardinghouse on Spring Street in Jefferson City, and working as a servant in the vast, cluttered, and demanding household of Mrs. Wainscott, this snug log cabin in Forlorn Valley was a slice of heaven.
Silence as thick as the rich forests that backed the cabin enveloped her, and there was no sign of any person or beast, unless one counted the hawks circling the far-off mountain peaks or the herd of elk crossing the plateau of rocks to the north.
So why do I have this prickly feeling on the back of my neck? Emily wondered uneasily. A feeling that there is someone — or something — out there. Someone coming...
She shivered, and glanced again at the burning blue sky. There were hours left until nightfall. She hoped by then she’d shake off this foolishness.
“Em-ly. Em-ly, where are you?”
At the sound of the small childish voice, she whirled and hurried back into the cabin.
“I’m here, Joey. It’s all right.” She smiled at the boy who stood by the hearth, staring at her with wide brown eyes that looked too big for his face. At six years old, Joey McCoy was small for his age, his face thin and pinched, his hair pale as wheat. His long-lashed brown eyes, so like his mother’s, were filled with a fear that never seemed to go away.
“I hope you’re hungry,” Emily said cheerfully, “because I’m planning to fix the two of us a truly delicious supper.”
The child merely stared at her.
“You remember my famous fried chicken and biscuits, don’t you?” She tilted her head to one side, her voice gentle. “Well, that’s not even the best part. For dessert, we’re going to have blueberry pie.” She crossed the room and knelt beside him, offering a smile she hoped was steady and reassuring. “Your mama’s recipe. That’s your favorite, isn’t it, Joey?”
He didn’t answer, only peered toward the window, his small hands clenched at his sides. “When are they coming back?” he asked.
“Uncle Jake and the boys? In a few days.”
“So ... we have to stay here — all alone?” he quavered.
Emily touched the tip of his button nose. “The time will pass in a blink. We’re going to be mighty busy getting this place all fixed up.”
She watched Joey’s gaze shift to take in the small main room of the cabin, with its bare plank floor, sparse furnishings, and the unadorned brass-bowled oil lamps, then it returned, intent and serious, to her face.
“It’s nowhere near as nice as Mrs. Gale’s boardinghouse, not yet,” Emily conceded with a grin. “But it will be, Joey — you’ll see.” Her smile widened and her eyes began to sparkle. “I’m going to sew some lovely white lace curtains for all the windows, just like Mrs. Gale had in her front parlor. And when I go into town, I’m buying a pretty rug — maybe two.”
“That sounds nice,” he mumbled. But the little boy was not to be distracted. His brown eyes fastened themselves on her face once more.
“Is that man — the bad man — going to find me?” he asked on a gulp.
“No, Joey, He is not.” Emily gathered his slight body into her arms. She wished she had the power to make his fear go away. His bones felt fragile as she held him close and sensed his trembling. “He isn’t going to find you, Joey, I promise. Not here — not anywhere. You’re safe,” she said firmly.
“What about Mama?”
“Your mother is safe too. I’m sure of it.” She drew back and smoothed a stray lock of pale hair from his eyes. “We tricked the bad man, remember? He can’t find either one of you. And soon your mama will come back here to fetch you to a brand-new home — and you’ll both be together. And no one will hurt either of you ever again.”
She felt his tense body relax ever so slightly. After giving him one last gentle squeeze, she rose to her feet. “You know, I promised your mother I’d take good care of you until she gets back, and that means I can’t let you waste away for lack of food, young man. Think how angry she’d be with me! So you need to promise me something, Joey.”
“That you’ll clean your plate tonight, drink your milk, and eat a great big piece of blueberry pie. Maybe even two pieces. Think you can manage that?”
She hoped to coax a smile out of him, but Joey hadn’t smiled much since the day John Armstrong had knocked him across the room and given Lissa McCoy a black eye.
He nodded solemnly.
Emily’s heart squeezed tight with pity. If John Armstrong, Lissa’s ex-fiancé, ever did show up here, it would be the last mistake he ever made, she vowed silently.
Lissa had been her closest friend during the years that Uncle Jake was in prison and Pete and Lester were on the run. She and Aunt Ida had been unable to keep their Missouri farm going, and when they’d lost it, they’d moved into Mrs. Gale’s boardinghouse where Lissa McCoy, a young widow, worked, cooking and cleaning for Mrs. Gale, who had a bad hip and could barely make it up and down the stairs. Lissa and her son, Joey, shared a room behind the kitchen, and it was Lissa who had befriended Emily and her aunt, and helped Emily find a job as an upstairs maid in an elegant house on Adams Street. From the start, Emily had liked the quiet, cheerful young woman who worked tirelessly without complaint, and who clearly doted on her little boy. In fact, the only thing Emily hadn’t liked about Lissa was her beau — a moody, unpredictable man of uncertain temper who worked for the railroad. Emily hadn’t trusted John Armstrong, but Lissa had been blind to his true nature — until she became betrothed to him.
Then it was too late.
Now Lissa was on the run, terrified and fleeing from the very man she’d once thought to marry. And Emily was caring for Joey until Lissa had a chance to throw him off the trail, reach California, and try to secure a safe home for them both with her estranged grandparents.
Until Lissa returned for the boy, Emily had promised to keep him safe. And she would, no matter what. But making Joey feel safe was another matter.
However much she tried to convince the child that John Armstrong wasn’t about to track him from Jefferson City all the way to Lonesome, Colorado, Joey was too caught up in his fear to truly believe her. He refused to step outdoors for more than a moment or two at a time, and he then scurried back into the house as if pursued by wolves.
Who could blame him? Emily thought, her eyes darkening as she remembered the tears and sobs and screams of that awful night. Armstrong had beaten Lissa and terrorized Joey. And it would take time for the memories of fear and horror and violence to fade.
“I have an idea,” she said, taking the little boy by the hand. “Why don’t you play with the marbles Lester bought you while I sweep the floor? Then you can help me bake that pie.”
“I can help you sweep,” he offered. “I always used to help Mama.”
“Well, fine, then.” Emily beamed at him. “I’d love some help. Goodness knows, there’s enough to do around here. Another pair of hands will be most welcome.”
She sensed he just wanted to be close to her, that he felt safer that way, and she couldn’t blame him. The fear John Armstrong had created would not soon be forgotten.
But to her delight, Joey did eat a fair amount of the fried chicken and biscuits she served him later, and a large slice of pie as well. After she tucked him into his bunk in the back room he shared with Pete and Lester, she stood for a moment gazing down at the small boy with the too-serious and too-pale face.
“Maybe tomorrow you’d like to help me with the planting. I’m going to start a vegetable garden out back.”
“Out ... back?”