Septembers in Oklahoma were Maybelle’s favorite time of year.
Everyone in Valley Grove was preparing for winter after a season of hard work. And their favorite way to celebrate was by having a festival.
Folks spent days preparing for the event, dressing up and cooking the best of treats. There would be contests, dancing, and fun for all. Stalls were already being set up to sell goods, with ribbons hung overhead.
Everyone had been doing this year after year, for as long as she could remember.
Stepping into town, she paused to breathe in the market. Her basket was empty and ready for all the purchases that she needed to make in preparation for the pies she wanted to bake.
There was the scent of cinnamon, hay, and freshly baked bread in the wind. It felt right and warmed her soul.
Maybelle adored it.
She stepped forward, consciously telling herself not to swing her basket about as she greeted her neighbors and looked for what she needed.
She was eighteen, and it was time that she began to act her age. It was time for her to put away childish fancies and focus on growing up.
Of course, there were always important tasks for her. She worked hard alongside her father for their ranch. He managed the cattle and she managed the house. And the pies. Diving into the market, she focused on the task ahead of her.
Just as she was searching for sugar, a friendly face passed her way.
“Pastor Williamsburg,” Maybelle said as she smiled. Holding her basket with both hands, she offered him a gracious nod. “It’s good to see you. How are you?”
He was a fairly short man with thinning white hair and pale eyes behind his large spectacles.
The man gave her a broad smile. “Good morning, Miss Maybelle. I’m doing very well. I’m taking a break from preparing Sunday’s sermon. It would seem nearly everyone in town is here today, does it not?”She chuckled, considering the crowd. “Nearly.”
Pastor Williamsburg had always been in town. He was her father’s closest friend and their families visited one another quite frequently.
Her eyes dropped down to note the small basket that he carried. It held mostly fruits and vegetables, simple items that she recognized as well, as soft foods that could be easily consumed.
“It’s a lovely day,” Maybelle ventured. “I’m sorry that I don’t see you with your wife. It would appear that you are gathering provisions for her. Is she still not feeling well, Pastor?”
To her disappointment, the older man’s gaze dropped. His friendly smile faded from view as he mumbled something under his breath. It sounded like a prayer in Latin.
“I’m afraid she is still bedridden,” Pastor Williamsburg informed her reluctantly. “My wife is still fighting the illness. You know the good Lord is watching over her though, and we hope she will be better by the first snow. But that is all we can pray for. In the meantime, I am doing all that I can to ensure she is well cared for.”
Maybelle couldn’t imagine how difficult it must be to suffer through a situation such as that, wishing the best for your loved one, and unable to help them.
Already the man’s wife had come near death twice. Luckilyshe recovered each time.
Maybelle prayed another time would not come again soon. “I shall continue to pray for you and your wife. I shall come and visit her after the festival, I think, if you deem that acceptable? I reckon she could use some good company.”
He brightened. “That would be very kind of you, Maybelle. Thank you. I’m certain she grows tired of seeing my doddering face day after day.”
She chuckled as she shook her head. “Certainly not. Don’t worry, Pastor. I’ll visit after the festival. I shall save a piece of pie just for her and deliver it as soon as I can.”
Pastor Williamsburg’s eyes widened in hope. “You don’t mean your strawberry pie, do you? Your famous strawberry pie?”
A smile tugged at her lips as she cocked her head slowly from one side to the other. “Of course. What else would I make? I’m afraid I’ve set quite the precedent. If I dared make anything else, I’m worried I might start trouble,” she added with a wink. “Make sure you come by and I’ll save you a piece or two, shall I?”
“Indeed, you had better save me an entire pie,” he offered in jest.
The recipe had come from her mother originally, something brought back from Europe several generations ago, landingthere in Oklahoma.
So Maybelle made her pies as often as she could for special occasions.
The pastor especially was a fan of her strawberry pies. He and his wife would visit her and her father on their ranch every other Sunday.
“I will certainly do that,” Maybelle assured him. “Do tell your dear wife that she is in my prayers. I wish her well. Take care, Pastor Williamsburg, and I shall see you at the festival.”
As she turned around, he called out to her, “Looking forward to it.”
Maybelle returned to her errands.
She said a quick prayer for Mrs. Williamsburg, for the woman always seemed to be getting over a horrible cold.
Maybelle wanted everyone to be able to enjoy the upcoming festival. It was no good to be trapped in bed.
Maybelle finished her shopping before she decided to turn for home, excited for all that was to come.
* * *
One more spin in the mirror and Maybelle decided that she was dressed properly for the festival.
Now that she was eighteen, her father no longer insisted on her staying by his side or having a chaperone for the evening. She was an adult and she could do whatever she wished to do at the evening’s festivities without having to worry about someone hovering over her shoulder.
Her heart skipped a beat. She had been waiting for this day for so long.
Studying her dress, she hoped the blue brought out her eyes like Mrs. Harmon, the seamstress, had suggested. She wanted to look her very best. There was a second ruffle that was very new that made her feel like a freshly painted doll.
A strand of hair fell into her face that she quickly brushed away. It never stayed completely out of her face like she wanted, but it curled for the most part and would stay pinned back if she included enough pins. But she told herself that the evening would be worth it. She danced on the tips of her toes. Tonight was really happening.
There was only time for one more look over her outfit. Her hands ran over the fabric to smooth out the wrinkles. She blew the hair from her face and tested out her hair pins before feeling confident that her hair would stay put.
“This will have to do,” she decided at long last. There were only so many imperfections that she could hide.
Inhaling deeply, Maybelle turned away before making her way over to the kitchen. She straightened her shoulders like her father had taught her.
“Hello, Father,” she offered when she opened the door.
His back was turned to her as he moved about the table. The tip of his cigar showed from the side of his mouth as he worked on packing the pies together into layered boxes.
A moment later, he glanced over his shoulder. “There you are, dear.”
“Yes,” she volunteered. “All dressed up. I am ready when you are.”
“Splendid.” Then he looked back again and paused. With his eyes studying her, the older man leaned against the table. He had a square jaw with thick white hair and a dark gray gaze.
“Magnificent. Come here.” To her surprise, a smile that stretched from ear to ear replaced his frown. His arms slowly opened wide to welcome her into a hug.
Maybelle swept forward immediately, craving her father’s comforting touch. She leaned in close to smell his beard oil and starched clothes.
“Thank you, Father.”
A soft sigh escaped his lips. “Your mother would be so pleased to see how you’ve grown up.”
She lowered her gaze at the mention. The memory of her mother flooded her mind. They both missed her terribly. It had been years since she passed away from pneumonia.
Sometimes, Maybelle worried she would forget her. Losing her mother had been very difficult for both her and her father. Though the yearshad passed, the pain had not.
He cleared his throat. “Well. We had best be on our way.”
She managed a smile. “Indeed.”
They gathered their pies and their cloaks to make their way to the festival.
It was to be held in the center of town. Lights and lanterns were lit up so it was nearly as bright as day. The closer they drove, the louder it grew.
Everyone wanted to celebrate the hard work of the ranchers and farmers.
“Welcome!” People waved as they passed by.
Cindy Ollywood, her best friend, appeared the moment Maybelle climbed down off the wagon. “Hello! Finally you’re here; you’re practically late.”
“That is my fault. We had to make sure the pies didn’t fall out,” Maybelle’s father chuckled.
The young woman gasped. “Maybelle’s pies?”
Maybelle stepped forward, beaming. “Indeed. Strawberry pies, baked today.” Then she reached back to the wagon to pull down the backboard so she could easily reach them. A hand reached for her shoulder, making her pause.
“I can handle this.” Her father grinned at her. “Why don’t you ladies go off and have your fun?”
Being childhood friends, they had spent much of their lifetime thus far scampering in one another’s homes and beds, to jump around and have adventures. Cindy was short, plump, and sweeter than anyone Maybelle knew. Quickly the girl ran over to throw her arms around Maybelle.
“There you are! I’ve been waiting for you,” Cindy announced. “Come, I think we should see what games are being played tonight. I do believe we’re too old for hopscotch, but we must see for ourselves.”
“You make a fair point.” Maybelle giggled as she wrapped an arm around her dear friend. “And of course, keep an eye open for the dance floor.”
They waved farewell to her father before scampering off. Maybelle cheered on Cindy as she played several games and helped several children play hopscotch before she felt a tap on her shoulder.
Peter Richards was there with his lopsided grin. “I’ve been looking for you.”
A flush spread across her cheeks.
“Well,” Maybelle said slowly, “I am right here. You’ve found me. Hello, Peter.”
He smiled. “Hello, Maybelle.” Then he glanced over his shoulder. “There’s enough room on the dance floor, you see. I was wondering if you might want to join me?”
A thrill ran up her spine. She brightened up and grinned. Nearby, there was Cindy who grinned over Peter’s shoulder. She pretended to clap her hands, which only embarrassed Maybelle more.
So Maybelle turned her attention back to Peter. She smiled so wide that her cheeks hurt. “I would love to.”
He offered her his arm. She took it gladly, hurrying over to the dance floor. Peter invited her for her first dance of the evening, and then the second one as well. After dancing, they went to get a drink before she was asked for a dance by someone else.
The evening quickly passed. There were a few dances, then she played games and explored the rest of the festival with Cindy and others whom she knew. The festival went late with most folks remaining out until midnight.
Her father passed by to let her know that he was beginning to clean up. She nodded before stumbling over to a haystack.
It had been a lovely evening. There had been so much fun and excitement. The only problem now was that her feet were aching.
She took a seat with a soft groan before glancing out to the nearby crowd.
Her eyes wandered as she wondered how late everyone would stay. It was such an exciting event. Part of her wanted to stay, but she could hardly keep her eyes open.
Even now, she yawned.
She had one eye cracked open. One person in particular caught her notice. A young man with disheveled brown hair and blue eyes was walking nearby.
He was looking at her. Fiddling with his glass, he stood distanced from the dance floor and most people.
It took her a moment to remember who he was.
Steve Brook was a quiet young man who had just returned to Valley Grove.
He had left town after losing his parents, and no one knew where he had gone. But he had just returned and repurchased his parents’ land next to her family’s ranch. They were neighbors again, she supposed.
She didn’t know anything more. He was handsome, quiet, and didn’t talk much.
She turned to him. They caught each other’s gaze as she wondered if he meant to be looking at her.
But then he looked away.
Her heart skipped a beat as she wondered what he was thinking.
She had one hand on her shoe. They had grown tight after all her dancing during the busy evening. It fell off so she picked it up with a frown.
When she turned back to look at Steve Brook, he was gone.
Her mouth dropped open as she wondered what he had been thinking while he was staring at her.
Steve Brook nudged his horse along the trail on his ranch.
It had been just over four years since he repurchased his parents’ land and started to rebuild. Not only that, but he now had twice the land that his parents had started with.
Despite his accomplishments, the last four years had felt very long.
He had worked days and nights to build his fences, construct his house, and to start bringing on cowboys to build everything.
He had never thought he would ever have something of his own. Not like this.
Once his parents had passed when he was eight, Steve left town. He didn’t know what else to do. So he wandered for years taking odd jobs wherever he could find them.
He swore that once he had the funds and had found a decent place to settle, he would return home.
Four years of hard work had helped him build something that could last beyond his lifetime.
Fixing his hat on his head, Steve glanced around.
It was early summer and twenty calves had been born. He smiled to himself. Surely it would be a good year.
Passing through the field, he came upon the Vernon Ranch. Mr. Vernon and his daughter, Maybelle, took good care of their ranch. It was five times the size of his own, the biggest in Oklahoma.
The Vernon Ranch was grand and successful. He admired how well it was managed and the family for their wonderful presence in town.
As he inhaled a deep breath of fresh air, Steve glanced up at the sky.
There was about to be a summer storm. He saw the sun disappear behind a pair of thick clouds. They were growing grayer by the minute. He slowed his horse down, wondering how concerned he should be.
The scent of rain grew stronger. A thunderstorm, most likely. He glanced over at his horse’s ears to see them flicking as they listened carefully. Usually the horse enjoyed them.
But this time, something didn’t feel right.
His horse pawed the ground anxiously, sensing it as well. His stomach felt tight as he looked around. Steve looked over his shoulder but didn’t find anything there.
Yet the unsettling sensation wouldn’t fade.
Steve nudged his horse along. He wanted to keep an eye on the perimeter, and made sure this was done twice a day. Since the rest of his ranch hands were busy, he rode out himself.
Now that he was passing alongside the Vernon Ranch, he found himself thinking about them.
Maybelle Vernon was the prettiest woman in the wholetown. Twenty-two years old now, she was a sweetheart and everyone adored her.
He still remembered his first Sunday back after years away. She had been eighteen years old and lovely. He spent all summer trying to muster up the courage to talk to her.
But he never did.
Now, Steve thought about Maybelle and her ranch, the one she ran with her father, Robert Vernon. It had been successful for as long as he could remember. Lately, however, he was hearing a few things.
Like the cattle they had been losing. Steve didn’t know a lot about it, but it made him worry. If that happened to the ranch beside his, then it could happen to him as well.
There should be no reason for any cattle loss unless there was coyote activity in the mountains or something bad in the ground.
Anything like that worried him. Spring had been good to him, and he wanted summer to be the same. If there was to be trouble, it had to be cut short before it could spread.
It could be coyotes, he mused.
Unless the trouble didn’t come from coyotes. Coyotes were only a problem because they were hungry. If there was other trouble, it might come from aggressive attacks not related to hunger.
It could come from a place of anger. Humans attacked out of anger.
That’s usually where the trouble came from in his experience. People caused most problems and could always be trusted to do something wrong.
He thought about going up to see the Vernons. They were neighbors, after all. Perhaps there was something he could do to help.
“Whoa,” he called out as he slowed his horse. “What’s this?”
Steve jumped down, seeing a break in his fence. He frowned as he put on his gloves and went to check it out.
Just as he was wondering how this had happened, he heard a loud rumble.
He glanced at the sky. Dark clouds were gathering faster than expected.
“All right,” Steve sighed as he stomped back to his horse’s side. “We’d better work on this fast, pal.” Working quickly, he hoped to get home before getting rained on.
Hewas taking off his gloves upon having finished, when he saw lights up ahead.
There was the Vernon home. Steve watched as more candles were lit in the far away windows before turning back to his horse.
Steve had just put his foot in the stirrups when he heard the screeching cry reach him through the wind.
He jerked back, caught off guard. Steve looked around but couldn’t find anything. His mouth turned dry as a shudder rippled down his spine.
It had been the most painful cry he had ever heard.
Climbing into the saddle, he wondered where it had come from and what could have possibly happened.
Then came a second.
Even his horse noticed, the long face swiveling to face the Vernon property. Steve had noticed it as well coming from over there. Though he didn’t usually try to intrude on another’s land or personal business, he couldn’t ignore such a cry.
“Hiyah!” Steve brought his horse around and leapt the fence.
Gripping the reins tightly, he leaned forward in the saddle as he kept his eyes peeled in the fading light for the sound.
He pushed forward, his horse eagerly moving along as if he were equally concerned.
Another crack of thunder hit overhead. Steve tried to ignore it as he focused on the world before him. Though his ranch was filled with thicker brush, the Vernon property after the fence was filled with flat terrain and easy to travel. But there was still nearly a mile to go, and it took him several minutes to reach the house.
It was a large home, lovingly built sometime before by Mr. Vernon for his wife. He hadn’t had much opportunity to talk to him before, since there was so much to do on his own ranch.
But now there was anforeboding feeling in his chest as he pulled up at the outskirts of the house. He jumped off his horse when he reached the small fence.
Several ranch hands were gathered near the steps of the house, building a small wall that Steve couldn’t see beyond.
Confused as to why they just stood there, he hastened over.
Had they heard the scream? Did they not care? But then he saw movement between the ranch hands. He ran over, still trying to understand what was going on.
There was a knot in his chest that didn’t sit right with him. It had formed the moment he heard that first scream.
“What’s going on?” Steve asked as he reached them. “Hello? What happened?”
No one answered. But as he arrived, two of the men nearby moved out of his way. They let him in the circle where he could see what was happening. It stopped him in his tracks.
Steve stared as he saw Maybelle Vernon kneeling on the ground over her father.
She sobbed loudly on his chest as she tried to pull him into her lap. Her cries were loud and heartfelt, assuring him that they were exactly what he had heard the first two times around.
Kneeling down beside her, he tried to think quickly. He put a hand on Mr. Vernon to check for life. There wasn’t much need to confirm what Maybelle already seemed to know.
So he turned to her, trying to speak softly. “Miss? What happened here?”
There wasn’t a break in her sobs for several minutes as she wrapped her father in her arms. She kissed his forehead with tears streaming down her cheeks.
The sight broke his heart. He glanced at the ranch hands above him who shuffled their feet and seemed as clueless as him.
But he couldn’t just sit there and do nothing.
It was her name that pulled her from her cries. Her mouth cracked open but without a word, silent. Tears streamed down her face as she looked up.
“Is there anything I can do?” Steve asked her. “What happened?”
He saw that her grasp on her father tightened, turning her knuckles white. Steve studied her carefully, waiting for her.
He would wait all night through the storm if that was what she wanted.
Someone cleared their throat.
Steve glanced up to see one of the shorter ranch hands give a short jerk of his head. “We were, most of us, putting the horses away. Mr. Vernon liked to ride along. He said he was feeling lightheaded, so I put his horse away for him.”
Then the man beside him nudged him and added to his statement. “He was dizzy. We tried to get him to sit. Maybe it was the heat of the day, we thought. So we started to bring him back to the house. We almost got him there. But then he started grabbing his chest.”
“And his eyes rolled back in his head,” the first one added. “Miss Maybelle was coming out the door. Mr. Vernon fell to the ground then. But he hasn’t opened his eyes since and… That’s been it.”
Steve turned to the ranch hands around him who all looked at each other.
None of them knew what to do. No one was willing to take charge. Looking down at Mr. Vernon, Steve saw the older man was just lying there. He couldn’t give orders.
Nor could Maybelle.
Blinking, he glanced up at the sky as there was another roll of thunder.
They had to do something. Steve knew it wasn’t his place, but he couldn’t let them all just huddle outside as the storm started to pour down on them.
Clearing his throat, he turned back to the ranch hands. “Has anyone gone for a doctor?” The two men shrugged. Steve frowned, realizing no one had done anything since Mr. Vernon had fallen. “You two, go to town for a doctor. The three of you help Mr. Vernon and Maybelle onto the porch. And the rest of you, return to your duties.”
Everyone moved into action. Maybelle was gently moved under shelter just as the first raindrops fell.
Steve stood on the porch, pacing back and forth. He didn’t know what else to do. He kept one eye on Maybelle and one eye on the road waiting for the doctor.
Fortunately, a doctor came. But he was unable to do anything for Mr. Vernon.
“I’m sorry, my dear,” he told Maybelle. “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do here. Your father has passed on. I’m sorry for your loss, Maybelle.”
The rain fell harder but it didn’t matter. No one had anything to say after the doctor’s announcement.
Steve turned to Maybelle, instinctively reaching out to her. But she turned her back to everyone as she buried her face in her hands.
This was not where she wanted to be.
Maybelle Vernon felt as though she wore a straightjacket, she couldn’t move and she couldn’t breathe.
A shudder ran down her spine.
It was a cool day for early summer, she knew, though the sun was shining outside. The windows of the church were open except for those made of stained glass. Usually she would look up to admire them.
But not today. Today, she could only hang her head low.
The church was crowded. She could hear people shuffling around and whispering.
Everyone quieted as she heard Pastor Williamsburg step up.
Her eyes closed, moisture gathering around her eyelashes. She could hardly bring herself to open them again.
Because if she opened her eyes, then it meant she had to accept that her father was gone.
Losing her mother when she was a child had been one of the most painful experiences in all her life. And now her father was gone. She was alone in the world.
Maybelle kept thinking she had cried every tear, only to find more spilling down her cheeks.
The pastor surveyed the crowd. Maybelle forced herself to look at him, trying to find comfort. She usually did in this house of God.
“My fellow children of the Lord,” the pastor said as he spoke clearly and low. “We are gathered here today to pay our final respects to Mr. Robert Vernon. He was a loving father and well-respected man of our community. His good deeds will be rememberedand we shall not forget our dear friend.”
He offered a smile to Maybelle before continuing on.
She sniffled and looked away as she struggled to keep herself composed. Usually she was much better in serious situations. But this was harder than anything she had ever been through.
After all, she’d always had her father to turn to in hard times such as this.
Dabbing her eyes with her handkerchief, she blinked several times and then tucked the cloth away. Her hands fiddled with her black dress. It wasn’t worn too often, and now she hated it more than anything.
She lifted her gaze, only to look upon the casket.
Everyone had come to pay their sincerest respects to the town’s patriarch. And now there he was, stuffed in a box.
Her father had helped make the town what it was. He had invited folks out west, helped develop more land, and supported the growth of several shops.
Though folks had wanted him to run for mayor the last couple of years, her father had merely chuckled and told them he had his hands full.
At supper, he would tell her that he just didn’t want to be away from home any more than he already was. He liked their ranch and their quiet life together.
Maybelle didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t eat or sleep or read. It didn’t make sense to do that without her father around.
A tear escaped, running down her cheek.
“Mr. Vernon leaves behind his dear daughter, Maybelle, who continues to emulate the best values of both of her parents who have now passed,” the pastor continued speaking. “He was one of my greatest friends and I will personally miss our conversations about the gospel over Sunday suppers.”
Maybelle managed a small smile when the pastor glanced her way to give her a sympathetic look.
Then Pastor Williamsburg finished up by turning back to the rest of the church. “And with this, we send the loving father, friend, and brother off to his next journey with the Lord. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Amen.”
With that, the church bells began to toll. Maybelle’s heart clanged loudly as well.
Rubbing her face, she wished that the pain in her heart didn’t hurt so much. Sometimes it felt so bad that she couldn’t breathe.
Cindy stepped up beside her, offering her arms so that she would not be alone.
Maybelle wasn’t certain she would be able to do any of this alone.
Being the best friend ever, Cindy had stopped by daily to make sure she was eating and sleeping. Even now, the young woman was with her to keep Maybelle going.
“Do you want to go home?” Cindy asked her.
Everyone in the church remained silent as the pallbearers took Mr. Vernon in his casket out of the building.
There were some people who trickled away. And then there were others who followed her and the pallbearers carrying the coffin over to the nearby gravesite.
Maybelle walked past the other headstones, thinking absently of those that she didn’t know. She wondered if others still mourned for them.
She used to wander among them and ask her father all about the names on the stones. He would tell her stories about everyone.
Now, he would sleep a
mong them and really be their friend.
The pastor with the pallbearers arrived at the freshly dug grave.
Maybelle stopped. It was a rather deep grave. She remembered hearing one of the men make a mention of how moist the ground was and how easy it was to dig. But she had thought nothing of it until that moment.
A shaky breath escaped her lips. Maybelle swallowed hard, feeling the fear strike her once again. Surely there was something she could do, she told herself, to fix all of this.
A way to bring her father back or to save herself. She knew she was clinging to false hope but she didn’t want the pain or the fear of being alone.
Especially not that fear.
“It’s all right,” Cindy whispered in her ear as if she knew just what Maybelle was thinking. “You’re not alone, dear. It’s going to be all right.”
Maybelle didn’t know how that was possible, but she certainly hoped so. She finally forced her gaze away from the sight before her.
Only then did the pallbearers and other men begin to lower her father’s casket into the earth. Maybelle didn’t want to watch, but she felt that she owed it to her father.
After all he had done for her, surely she could do this one thing.
This was a good resting place for her father, she tried to convince herself. Maybelle glanced around as the pastor finished up his thoughts about heaven and peace. Maybelle sniffed. Her father had done so much for her.
Even when he died, she hadn’t known what to do.
Steve Brook had shown up and had to tell her and the other ranch hands how to handle the situation.
Her face flushed. Even though her heart ached with her sorrow, she wished she could have been more composed in front of her handsome neighbor.
Everyone wanted to share their condolences.
It quickly grew wearisome, however, trying to smile and be polite to everyone. Her emotions were all a mess.
Maybelle’s head pounded as she tried to focus. They all said the same thing, that their doors were open for her and that if she ever needed anything, that she shouldn’t hesitate to call on them.
Everyone was kind. They were kind enough to make her want to cry from relief.
Leaning on Cindy, Maybelle forced herself to nod along.
“Our doors are always open to you,” another one explained. “Please, let us know if you need anything.”
They were trying to be friendly, but she couldn’t care. Maybelle managed a smile before she turned away with Cindy.
Her sweet friend offered a sympathetic smile and then gave her a tight squeeze. “How are you?”
“Good,” Maybelle managed.
But Cindy could see beyond her mask. She gave her a squeeze. “We can leave whenever you’re ready.”
“All right.” Maybelle took a deep breath.
She stepped forward with her lily. It was a white lily, for it had been her mother’s favorite. They had been growing beside the house for as long as she could remember.
It was the first thing that her parents planted once they had moved into their home.
“Farewell, Father,” she murmured under her breath. Gently she tossed the flower down onto the casket. “I love you.”
Another tear made its way down her cheek. Maybelle brushed it away before she returned to Cindy, who was patiently waiting for her.
They said their goodbyes and then they slowly made their way to the edge of the road.
There was a carriage waiting for her.
“Will you be all right back at the house?” Cindy asked when the door was closed behind Maybelle.
Maybelle slumped. Every part of her ached because she could not go through any of this with her father. She closed her eyes as she rubbed them.
“Yes. No. I don’t know.” Maybelle sniffled. “Could you stay awhile?”
“Yes,” she answered. “I have my horse. Arthur said he would come pick me up.”
Cindy pulled her close for a hug. A few people waved at them as they passed along, and Maybelle hardly had the energy to raise a hand back to them.
Her father would have been hurt if she hadn’t. He cared deeply for the town, and trusted her to be kind to others.
“You’ll be all right,” Cindy mumbled softly. “Don’t you worry, dear.”
Maybelle closed her eyes as they headed down the road. She wanted to believe this with all her heart. And Cindy was usually right. But this was one of those instances when Maybelle had to wonder otherwise.
She was an orphan now, after all, left with a large ranch. She would give up everything in a heartbeat for another minute with her father.
The ride home was a blur. Maybelle stumbled to her bed and collapsed in a heap of grief.
There were days of mourning ahead. Eventually they would end, and then she would have to move on with her life. The very thought made her choke up.
So she buried her face in the pillows and prayed for peace. Mostly, she prayed to have her father back.
Maybelle didn’t know what she was supposed to do all alone.
It was a fine evening.
The sky was clear with a breeze passing through the streets of Capital City. It was the last city before one came upon the Wild West, and Wilford Collins had made a habit of returning there quite often.
He wondered if he would stay forever this time.
Every time he visited the city, his life was different. First, he had been a prospector. Then, he had arrived dirt poor. There had been a period when he tried his hand at cards to make it rich quick at the table. But when that didn’t succeed, he left for an education.
And after teaching himself a few tricks, Wilford was back.
He had been back in Capital City for nearly a year now, ready for the city and for the rest of the world. Everything was better lately. Now, he had a brighter outlook on folks and opportunities. He just had learned to look in the right places.
Even now, he was dressed in his finest suit. It was a starched cream with a silk blue accent. Never before had he worn something so well-fitted and swell. He also wore his polished leather shoes with silver buckles and a wide-brimmed white hat.
From his pockets he pulled out a cigarette and a match. He struck the match alongside the nearest building before drawing it close to protect it against the wind.
He lit his cigarette and inhaled deeply. Tobacco filled his lungs, making his body tingle. Wilford held his breath a moment before slowly letting it out.
Smoke ebbed out of his mouth like a snake rising to strike.
Wilford took another drag and with a few more puffs, exhaled through his nose. It was some of the best tobacco he’d had in a long time. Too bad it had come from St. Louis, a city he didn’t plan on visiting again. They hadn’t exactly given him a friendly farewell.
The very memory made him wrinkle his nose.
All he had wanted to do was run his business. But folks with their faces in books thought they could tell him what to do. Those thoughts infuriated him.
Grimacing, he dropped the cigarette and crushed it. That’s what he thought of St. Louis. He didn’t need them or their tobacco.
In the meantime, he had Capital City.
Wilford looked up. Across the street stood the Rocky Edge Saloon. There were low yellow lanterns lit up inside with the soft hum of an out-of-tune piano being played.
It was a good saloon. With the town on the edge of a silver mine with a railroad going right through it, Capital City had a lot going for it. The Rocky Edge Saloon brought all folks together.
People down on their luck or looking to strike it rich or just looking to change their lives tended to show up there at one point or another. Wilford had been all of them in the past, and the saloon had always been there for him.
Forgetting St. Louis and forgetting his cigarette, he crossed the street over to the door of the saloon
He inhaled the familiar scent. There was filth, gold, alcohol, and hope all bound together in one.
Throughout all his travels, Wilford had never found this scent anywhere else. He fixed his jacket as he scanned the saloon for entertainment.
There were a few card games. A pianist played with two women crooning beside him. The stairs were crowded with men and women lounging about, sitting and standing as they talked to one another.
It was quieter than he had expected, and the pickings were slim for an evening such as this.
But then again, he supposed it made sense.
A train that would have taken a lot of folks westhad passed through that morning. As he surveyed those who stayed behind, he noticed most were locals, miners, or stragglers who had perhaps come off the train.
The next train wouldn’t come their way for another week. Capital City would be fairly sparse until then.
He frowned, shaking his head as he turned over to the bar.
He skirted an empty table and reached the counter, grinning as he saw a familiar head of hair.
“Well, well, Emma,” he called out in his most charming voice. “What a lovely evening we have here tonight, don’t you think?”
Bright yellow hair bound up on top of her head with bright rhinestones glittering around her bare neck, Emma Washington turned around to face him. The woman put a hand on her hip with a stern look.
Leaning forward, he put on a grin. But she merely sauntered over to him and poured him a glass.
“Wilford Collins. Back again, I see?” She handed him the glass before shaking her head. “I don’t have time for your antics and tricks, whatever they might be. I have work to do. But those two gentlemen over there have a lot to talk about. Maybe you should strike up a conversation with them, huh?”
Her sweet Virginian accent always sent a thrill through his body, even if she never gave him the time of day.
Someday she would. He felt certain of that.
Giving her a wink, Wilford took a sip of his beer before turning to look where she had gestured.
While she didn’t offer him the time of day, Emma still offered him enough tips on where to find money.
She had a knack for talking to folks during her shifts at the bar. All she had to do was find a good mark, then get them ready for him.
At first, Wilford only came to the saloon once in a while. But it became addicting. Now he came every chance he had, looking for whomever Emma had found for him next.
She had the sharpest ears and could catch pieces of conversations from all over the room no matter how busy she was or how loud the piano played.
All he had to do was make sure she received a fair cut of his winnings. Sometimes it was from a game, sometimes it was from a robbery, and sometimes he had to do something else.
As long as there was enough money in it, Wilford didn’t mind doing anything.
He swirled his glass as he casually glanced around the room before eyeing the two men. Sometimes he needed her to make an introduction, but most of the time he could go up to the marks himself.
Wilford gave the counter a single pat to let Emma know he was off to work.
He took his glass as he headed over to the two men. Judging from the cards in their hands, they were playing poker. They both had their hats and jackets off, showing their worn clothes and shaggy hair.
They had been on their travels for a while. But both of them looked to be in rather good moods, and Wilford noticed one of them had just purchased a shiny new rifle. It was mighty fine.
“Good evening, gentlemen. Wilford Collins,” he introduced himself politely. “You wouldn’t happen to be starting a new game, would you?”
Both of them eyed him warily. “Hello, friend. We might be.”
Wilford took a seat before they could say anything. “Well if you’re not comfortable letting a stranger play, then there’s no need to deal me in. I’ll just keep you two company. It would look rather odd if I stood up right about now, wouldn’t it?” He put on a sheepish smile. “I’m new in town and don’t know my way around.”
The two men shared looks again before shrugging. The other one with the red shirt and grubby hands leaned forward to confess, “We aren’t from around here either.”
“Oh?” Wilford feigned surprise.
The first one nodded. “We were working the mines for the last two weeks. It’s been good money, but we decided we want to go west.”
After that, it wasn’t difficult to get the two men talking. By the time they finished their poker game, Wilford was talking easily with them.
Neither of the men minded dealing him into their next round of poker either. They talked on throughout the game as Wilford played them.
He had Emma bring them more drinks. It wasn’t hard to get the two men to play right into his hands. By the end, he’d hustled them out of fifty dollars.
“I’m awful sorry,” Wilford pretended to apologize. “But a game is a game.”
The two men before him glanced at each other, since he had already discussed with them the importance of upholding a game of poker.
They winced, grumpy and defeated. It was all the money they had made during their time in the mines.
Now they had nothing.
Fifty dollars richer, Wilford bowed. He took off his hat as he slid his winnings in there. With a solemn smile, he turned away from his marks and returned to the bar where Emma was to supply him with another drink.
“Well?” She gave him a stern look.
He looked over his shoulder as the two men slunk out of the saloon.
Grinning, he turned back to the pretty blonde and offered her twenty dollars. “It’s not much, but it’s honest,” he proclaimed to her. “Now how about a kiss?”
Taking the twenty, she tucked it away in her bosom before patting her hair. “Drink up. There’s no one else here worth your time.”
She said nothing of the kiss as she turned away.
Wilford frowned at her, even though this was how they normally interacted. He liked watching her work and how she always said no to him.
It was a game they played. Someday he would win, he told himself. Eventually he would wineverything he could ever want. Just like he had won the card game.
He took a sip of his beer before glancing around the rest of the crowd. No one was worth their time for the evening, just as she had said.
Wilford enjoyed his drink and thought about how he could return the next evening.
Musing about what he would do with all the money in the world, he hardly noticed the man reading the newspaper get up and leave.
But he noticed the newspaper when it crinkled up beside him, left behind in a heap.
He had nothing else to do, so he decided to pick it up and read it. There were only two pages left in the paper, which confused him.
The paper wasn’t even from Capital City.
Rather it was from the town southwest of there, Valley Grove. He had stepped through it once before, hardly noticing anything worthwhile there.
The newspaper was folded over to the news section mentioning marriages and babies. None of that mattered. He didn’t know anybody. Nor did he recognize anyone in the obituaries.
But one of them had been circled, and that’s what caught his attention.
‘Beloved father and friend, Robert Vernon, passed away last Saturday. He leaves behind his twenty-two-year-old daughter, Maybelle Vernon, and the Vernon Ranch of 300 acres. The Valley Grove community will miss him dearly.’
A quiet swear slipped out of his breath.
“Emma?” Wilford jerked his head up. He grinned as she turned to look at him. “Ranches make a lot of money, don’t they? The bigger the better, right?”
“I suppose so,” she drawled slowly. Her dark eyes peered at him curiously. “Why? What do you have in mind?”
Leaning forward, he grinned at her. “Think about a hundred acre ranch. How much do you think that could bring in? A few hundred dollars at least, right?”
He could see the wheels beginning to turn in Emma’s mind.
“In a good year,” she answered slowly, “depending on the amount of cattle, it could be closer to the thousands, actually. The more land you have means the more animals you can afford. The more cattle you can afford means the more money you make.”
A fire in his stomach began to grow.
Except no one was looking at him besides Emma. Wilford smirked, knowing she had no idea what he knew. No one knew what he knew.
“I have something big,” he announced as he slapped his hands on the table. A laugh escaped his lips. Rubbing his hands together, Wilford beamed as Emma’s eyes widened. “You’re not going to believe this. It is big, Emma. I’m going to be rich. Just you wait.”
Already he had a plan to put into action for what he was going to do next. He had to start packing his bags, he had to make introductions, and he had to make sure Valley Grove knew who he was.
And most importantly, he had to win the hand of the sweetly rich Maybelle Vernon.
It was about to rain again.
Maybelle sat in her father’s rocking chair as she listened to the wind rattle through the branches and leaves near the house. She took a deep breath and tried to clear her mind.
She was trying so hard to carry on as usual. But she had continuously burned her breakfast and lacked any appetite. At night, she hardly slept.
Though she attempted to keep to her routine, it was difficult to keep track of time.
The days were all blurring together.
When she was a child and lost her mother, it was acceptable to spend days in her room crying. But now as a young woman, she didn’t have that right.
Especially with the ranch.
Fortunately, the ranch hands continued to rise every morning and get to work. She would catch them outside the windows working hard in the fields and with the animals.
Maybelle stood up before making her way slowly out to the porch. Her hands shook as she grabbed the railing.
Looking out into the distance, she saw the storm clouds. Whatever was left of the colorful sunset was fading away quickly.
Soon, the sky would be a canvas of darkness.
She inhaled deeply, smelling the sweet scent of rain. It would arrive soon. Studying the horizon, she wondered if this was all their summer was made of.
In the distance, a loud rumble of thunder was born. That sent a shudder down her spine as she recalled the memory of stepping outside the day her father died.
She had wrenched the door open to bring her father in, not wanting him to get wet.
But she hadn’t expected to see him fall down, never to rise again. Anguish filled her heart, remembering his vacant gaze when she had cried out his name.
She jerked her eyes open, returning to the present as a smiling face stood before her.
Cindy Ollywood had returned.
She had more freckles than usual from working in the sunny mornings. And with her smile, the scar on her upper lip was more pronounced. It had happened during an accident near a waterhole on her farm shortly after she married Arthur last year.
“Cindy,” Maybelle managed. She straightened up, wishing away the pain in her heart. “Hello.”
Her closest friend held up a pot.
“I brought you something. I’m sorry if I frightened you, dear. I brought you food. Have you eaten yet?”
As the woman stepped closer, Maybelle could smell a familiar savory scent wafting over.
She knew Cindy’s stew well. It was made with sweet carrots, potatoes, and onions, in a thick beef broth.
Maybelle’s stomach growled, reminding her of her ruined breakfast.
“I suppose I might be hungry,” she admitted after a minute. Tugging at the shawl over her shoulder, Maybelle glanced at the gray skies. “Why don’t you come in?”
But her friend shook her head. “I’m afraid not. Arthur needs help covering the pumpkins from the rainso I have to hurry back. Perhaps there will be time tomorrow. I’ll come back for the pot at least, won’t I? So eat up, and I’ll stop by again soon. I promise, dear.”
Maybelle reluctantly accepted the pot. It was heavy. She stared at Cindy who gave her a sympathetic smile and then a kiss on the cheek. “Are you certain? The storm is near.”
“Which is why I had best hurry home,” Cindy explained with a sympathetic smile. “I’m so sorry! Get some rest, won’t you? Take care of yourself, Maybelle.”
She gave Maybelle a squeeze on the arm gently before hurrying back to her wagon.
Maybelle held the pot and wished she could find her voice again to tell Cindy to stay. She didn’t want to be alone.
The house was too big and too lonely.
Her father had built it for his wife, expecting it to be filled with children. There was only her.
A raindrop landed on Maybelle’s cheek. She flinched.
The lid for the pot nearly came off before she caught herself.
But it brought Maybelle into action. With one last look at the incoming storm, she finally returned inside.
Her stomach grumbled, reminding her how little she had eaten.
Already the wind had picked up and whistled loudly through the open window above the sink. She would need to shut that soon.
She rubbed her eyes and then glanced around the house. Everywhere she looked there were reminders of her father. There were still pieces of her mother, but those were easier to handle for the time had softened her passing.
Sighing, Maybelle shook her head. “How am I supposed to do all of this alone?” she asked in silence.
But the silence never replied.
Slowly, she made a loaf of bread. Maybelle took her time kneading it and then slowly building up the fire for it.
Only once it was freshly baked and cooled down did she pull out a bowl for the beef stew.
Maybelle’s stomach growled even if she wasn’t sure she cared for it. She swallowed hard and forced herself to take a spoonful. Then another. Picking up the warm bread, she dipped it into the stew.
She forced herself to eat the bowl and then carefully packaged everything away for later.
The kitchen was soon cleaned up as the storm began. She had expected it to be loud, but the wind had died down and there had not been any more thunder since the first few rumblings.
Now there was only rain.
Maybelle made her way to the sitting room where she settled in her father’s chair.
Night had set in which meant she was alone. No one would stop by to visit her, no friends or ranch hands.
She leaned back in the chair and inhaled her father’s comforting scent.
Closing her eyes, she tried to picture his face in her mind. She couldn’t lose him.
When she finally reopened her eyes, she noted the wooden table in the center of the room.
It had two Holy Bibles stacked on it. One for the family and one that her father liked to use to note his spiritual thoughts in.
Between the two of them was a photo album.
She climbed out of the chair and picked up the book.
Most of them were sketches. Her mother had been an artist who had used pencil and ink to recreate their family.
She had drawn their little growing family and their likenesses over and over alongside the house, their ranch, and so much more.
Photographs were rare, but Mr. Jackson who ran the town newspaper had a camera and was always taking pictures.
He took them upon request and attended most town events to snap pictures as well. Each year for her birthday, her father had her picture taken by Mr. Jackson.
Usually Maybelle focused on the single photograph that only included her mother and her father.
It was on their wedding day before they had taken the train to Oklahoma. They had shared one bag, had this photograph taken, and had jumped on the train to start their new lives together.
She used to love hearing that story told by her parents at night.
But another photograph caught her attention. It was one taken at one of the harvest festivals. Maybelle frowned as she tried to recall the scene.
The picture included herself and her parents with a striped background. While her parents were smiling, she was not.
Maybelle recognized herself and knew she had to have been around seven years old. After all, her mother had passed when she was eight. It was the last festival her mother had attended before the pneumonia.
Her fingers stroked the photograph as she vaguely recalled that day.
The harvest festivals were always fun. She was getting older and wanted to be independent.
Cindy had been there, but her family had gone home since it was getting dark. That meant Maybelle was alone with her parents and they weren’t letting her play.
She had used up all her tickets, her father had reminded her, so all she could do was watch.
While her parents started talking to the pastor, Maybelle had turned to the nearest booth to pretend she wasn’t listening.
It had looked fun though. She had thought about how she would try to win if her father would give her another ticket.
Then someone had stepped up to play. It was a boy around her own age.
He was a little taller with thick brown hair that kept falling in his bright blue eyes. He had a smudge on his chin.
There was something about him that had made Maybelle smile. She had forgotten how mad she was at her parents. He was in school with her but was quiet, so she couldn’t remember his name. But he was nice.
He had smiled back before ducking his head.
“All right, sonny,”a voice spoke up from the booth. They had jerked their heads up together to the tall, thin man who offered the boy three brightly colored balls. “Here you are. All you have to do is knock down the milk bottles. Then you’ll win a prize.”
She glanced up at the milk bottles stacked into three pyramid formations. They were far away. But she felt confident that he could hit them.
The boy furrowed his brow as he stepped up to the counter. He looked very serious.“I think so.”
The boy offered a lopsided smile. Then he picked up a ball and threw it at the bottles. The ball struck the pyramid and all three bottles fell down.
He did it again and again. Maybelle clapped, amazed.
“We have a winner,” the man said and pointed above his head. “Pick any prize from up here.”
The boy had studied them before he merely shrugged and turned to Maybelle. This time, he didn’t shy away from her.
Instead, he offered a proud grin. “Thank you for your clapping. That was my prize. Would you like to have my prize instead?”
She hadn’t known what to say to that. Maybelle had never talked to him before and suddenly felt shy. But she managed to point above his head to a particular wooden horse.
The man in the booth pulled it down and she beamed her gratitude at the boy.
That’s when her father laid a hand on her shoulder.
“That’s awful nice of you, son,”he had said in a warm tone. “Thank you for being so kind to my daughter. What’s your name?”
Maybelle glanced up at her father before turning to the boy. He looked scared before putting out his hand. “Steve Brook at your service, sir,” he said formally.
“I’m Maybelle Vernon,” she added as her father shook hands with him. “That’s my daddy, Mr. Vernon.”
It had made her father chuckle before he pointed out that they were neighbors. Then someone had called out to Steve and he had taken off running.
Afterward, her father had told her that they needed to leave. Her mother mentioned wishing they had retaken their picture now that Maybelle was smiling with her new gift, but it was late and they had best go home.
Now, Maybelle sat in her family home staring at the picture. It was the last picture she had with her parents before her mother passed away.
She had regretted not smiling in the photograph every year since then. But she had completely forgotten what had happened after the picture was taken.
“Do I still have that horse?” she mused, glancing up around the empty house.
So much had changed after that picture was taken. Her mother had passed away, and then three months later Steve’s own parents were in an accident.
A few folks had tried to take him in but it hadn’t worked out. Soon, he had left town and showed up again four years ago to move back next door and build himself a ranch.
Maybelle relaxed in her father’s chair as she thought about Steve as a child.
She had forgotten she had known him then.
Not much had changed now. He was handsome, she supposed, and polite. His ranch had grown, but that was all she knew.
Steve Brook left her mind as she curled up in the chair and wrapped a blanket around herself.
Memories were all she had now, Maybelle realized faintly. She had to do all that she could to hold them close.
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