The funeral of Joseph Milborn was a simple affair for a simple man. The pews in the little white clapboard church were packed with the people of Long Valley. The women were in dark dresses and veils, the men with their hats at their sides. The tiny, tight-knit community had been there for the plentiful good times, and they had supported him during the illness that had ultimately taken him away.
Now, they rallied around the most important piece of himself that Joseph had left behind. His lovely young wife, Clementine, stood in front of the open pine box in which her husband lay. Tears streamed from her sage-green eyes as she bent down to kiss him one last time.
“Lord have me not wake if it be true,” she whispered in his ear. “Joseph, my darling. My love. How can I go on without you?”
Joseph did not answer. He was still and pale in the narrow coffin, but peaceful. Clementine took a blossom from her hair and tucked it gently beneath his folded hands. Motionless, she stared at his sleeping face until dear, sweet, Shirley Harris took her by the elbow and guided her away.
“There, there, honey,” Shirley whispered. “It’s time to let him go.”
But Clementine couldn’t resist a final glance over her shoulder, only to catch sight of the lid being nailed down atop the coffin.
Shock and sorrow squeezed remorselessly at her heart until Clementine nearly collapsed into Shirley’s arms. The stout woman with curly, auburn hair held her up every step of the way.
“Here you go, honey.” Shirley sat the new widow in one of the pews, away from the other parishioners. “You just sit right there awhile. I’ll be close by if you need me.”
“What am I going to do?” Clementine whispered, to herself more than anyone else. She clasped her hands tightly in her lap. “Oh, what am I going to do?”
There were no answers. Joseph had had little family; at the front of the church, a long, slow line of the deceased’s friends and neighbors shuffled somberly past his plain casket. Many of them looked Clementine’s way as they walked back down the center aisle, but Shirley kept them at bay.
Clementine paid no heed. She sat in the spot Shirley had placed her with her head down, tears dripping from her cheeks. Nothing in the world existed outside of her broken heart and the profound sense of emptiness that swiftly rose to take Joseph’s place.
Her husband had been ill for quite some time, and yet she had never allowed the thought to cross her mind that he might not recover. Joseph was only a year older than her, twenty-five. He had been the picture of health until he came down with a mild sickness in the winter. Too quickly for belief, influenza had ravaged his body to the point he could hardly be recognized as he lay in their bed.
And now he was gone forever.
On her first day of being truly alone on the farm, Clementine woke up in a daze. The eye of the sun was just beginning to peek over the rolling horizon, coloring the sky in pale pinks and yellows and blues. She lay silent in the big double bed. Joseph’s side was quiet and cold.
The old house too, was stiller than it had ever been. Its floorboards creaked beneath Clementine’s feet. She’d always found that to be a comforting sound. Suddenly, it struck her as eerie instead.
A splash of ice-cold water to her face shocked the rancher’s widow back into reality. She gazed at her own haggard, grief-worn expression in the looking glass. How could she be the same blushing bride he had carried over the ranch house threshold, who laughingly milked cows and gathered eggs?
That life seemed ages ago.
By the time Clementine finally made it out onto the front porch, she was met by the sight of six or so rough-looking men waiting around the steps. The moment they saw her, each and every one removed his hat. The ranch’s grizzled foreman, a lifelong friend of Joseph’s, stepped forward.
“Ma’am.” His voice was husky with ill-concealed emotion. He cleared his throat. “We just…we’ve been waitin’ here to let you know, no matter what, we’ll be here to make this place work. Don’t matter what pay you got for us or if we’ll be eatin’ with the hogs from now on. This place was Joe’s dream. We’re going to keep livin’ it for him.”
With that, the solemn group dispersed back to their normal duties. It was, after all, a normal day. Except that it wasn’t. Joseph wasn’t there to whistle a merry tune on his way out to the fields, his tone so high and clear she could hear it long after he’d left.
Clementine retreated into the house again for her first hard, lonely cry. She stood at the little kitchen window and stared out at the lush West Virginia pastures. They were blurred almost beyond recognition. She doubted they’d ever look the same again.
Still, time passed. The knife’s edge of her sorrow dulled from a stab to a slow background throb. Clementine allowed herself to wallow in her misery only for the first day or two.
After that, she had been saved by the weight of her continuing responsibilities. The ranch had not died with its master. Rather, it kept thriving on the foundation Joseph built with hard work and determination.
All she had for help were her late husband’s half-dozen hired hands. That first morning, they had gone to work with empty stomachs in order to give her space to grieve. Clementine was determined such a thing would never happen again.
Through the haze of enormous loss, a routine emerged. Up at dawn to milk cows, gather eggs, and cook a big breakfast for “the boys”, as she called them. Then, out to feed and groom the horses and tend to her personal garden. Early in the afternoon, she packed lunches to take out to the men in the fields and barns, which were always received with utmost gratitude.
That was when the safety of her structured schedule sometimes failed. Clementine hated walking back alone to the rambling old house, knowing there was no one waiting for her. She swore sometimes she could feel Joseph around, leaning on the fence out front or wandering through the rooms.
Back home, out of sight of every other being on the ranch, Clementine occasionally allowed herself to crumble for a moment. Her carefully constructed façade fell away to reveal the yawning chasm that remained in Joseph’s absence. She would weep fiercely for a minute before stitching herself back together, bit by bit.
Someone needed to do the washing and mending, churn the butter, and make a warm, hearty supper. And despite feeling Joseph in each and every one of these mundane little tasks, despite being able to see the life she had lost as she sewed and stirred a pot on the hearth, Clementine found stability there, too.
She clung to the illusion of normalcy like a drowning woman onto an upturned boat. When the ranch hands came in to eat, she had her sweet smile ready. As days went by, the men began to joke and laugh again.
In the name of strength, Clementine joined in. For a long time, she faked her joy. A hollowness lurked behind her sunny smiles and sparkling eyes. But she tried her best, for everyone’s sake. Tried her best to move on.
Joseph’s lingering memory didn’t make that easy. Days crept into weeks, and still a hundred times an hour Clementine would be struck by something that reminded her of her late, beloved husband or her inability to save him from his fate.
The pile of bed sheets in the corner of the bedroom that she hadn’t been able to launder for a week after he died. His clothes still hanging in the closet, his boots waiting by the door. The mild-mannered gelding, he always rode, now patient but lonely out at pasture.
At first, Clementine wondered how she could survive the weight of all these crushing little blows. She still expected to wake up early one morning to find Joseph sleeping in the bed beside her. Surely it was all some kind of horrible extended nightmare.
But of course, Joseph never came back. A few times a day, Clementine’s feet dragged her out to sit by his grave.
“You know,” she’d say. “Things are going alright, considering. The fields are getting tilled and planted just how you like. The garden’s going to look lovely in a few weeks.” Then she’d sigh, press her lips together, and try to hold back the tears. “But I sure wish you were here to see it, darling.”
Slowly, the color began to bleed back into Clementine’s world. Not all at once, but a little at a time. She noticed the dappled sunshine playing on spring buds, and the grassy scent of the warming breeze. Rare smiles crossed her fine features of their own volition.
The ranch hands remarked among themselves that it felt as though the pall was finally lifting from over Joseph and Clementine’s homestead.
When Shirley came to visit with homemade goods and an endless supply of love, she was met with warm embraces.
“How are you holding up, sweet pea?” she asked. “The ranch looks quite well this early in the season.”
She busied herself around the kitchen, putting out plates and settings for an afternoon snack. Soon the kettle was hanging on the hearth as the two women settled down at the table.
“I…” Clementine’s voice trailed off. She looked down into her empty cup. “I suppose we’re getting by. Things are mighty different now.”
Shirley reached out and patted her hand, eyes full of sympathy. “And it’ll be like that forever, honey. I won’t lie to you. The grief’s going to come and go for the rest of your life. But you’ll learn to bear it, I promise.”
Clementine bit her lip. “What if I don’t?” she said softly. Her voice quavered.
“You will.” Shirley’s gentle voice grew firm. “You’re stronger than the sorrow. I can’t say it’ll get better, but it will get easier.” She squeezed the young widow’s hand.
A lump stuck in Clementine’s throat, but she took a deep breath and swallowed hard. The teetering scales of her emotions started to swing back toward an even keel. Below the surface of uncertainty, a kernel of strength took root.
Clementine nodded. “Yes.” Her voice was still quiet, but stronger than it had been. “You’re right, Shirley. It will get easier. It must. And even if it doesn’t, I must carry on anyway.”
“That’s the sad truth.” Shirley stood to reach into the basket she’d brought, extracting a beautiful, golden brown cherry pie. She cut a slice for Clementine and topped it with a dollop of cream. “Have a treat now, dear. See it as an omen for a better day.”
These days, Clementine was not often hungry. She had dropped some weight from her already slender frame, and she knew she couldn’t afford to lose more. Shirley’s cherry pie was the perfect antidote.
“It’s delicious!” Clementine smiled as the bold flavor burst across her tongue. The taste reminded her of gleaming summers past, wading along riverbanks with Joseph and riding horses bareback through green and golden fields.
For the first time, such memories filled her with the happiness she felt when they were made, not with sorrow at their great and terrible loss. Though her heart stayed heavy, she suspected that perhaps there was a way through the darkness.
Shirley smiled warmly at the look of peace upon her hostess’ pretty face. “I thought you might like something good and sweet. Always lifts my spirits.” Chuckling, she cut a second piece for herself, and the two friends ate together in the sun-warmed kitchen.
Not many words were exchanged between them, but then again, not much needed to be said. When the time came for Shirley to go home down the winding country road, Clementine walked her to the gate. The women shared a tight embrace.
“Thank you.” Clementine smiled once more. “I don’t know where I’d be if not for the grace of good neighbors.”
“Don’t you think a thing of it, honey. You know I’m just up the road if ever you need me.” Then she was off on her way, strolling through the late spring afternoon toward the Harris homestead.
Clementine turned and retraced her steps to the house. It was much too big, and much too lonely still. But as she covered the remainder of the pie and set it aside for that evening’s dessert, her heart seemed just a few shades lighter.
Two Years Later
Spring had ripened into a glorious summer, and though the heat and humidity stifled in equal measure, Clementine welcomed the blazing blue skies. She pulled her bonnet lower to shade her eyes as she worked through the rows of corn in her garden, laying each silk-topped ear down carefully in a basket.
They would sell quickly at Sunday market, she hoped. The produce from her garden had been plentiful this year, filling her little market stall with fresh, bright colors. She liked to hear the ranchers’ wives admire her handiwork.
“What’s your secret?” the women would ask, keeping their voices low. “My summer tomatoes never get so red.”
Clementine always thanked them graciously, but she never revealed her methods. In truth, she didn’t do anything particularly special. She did, however, believe that the good fortune of the Milborn spread came at least partially from its guardian angel.
Her Joseph had loved this place with his whole heart. Two years on from his untimely death, his wife still felt the love in every inch of soil. Working the land made her feel close to him again.
Early in the afternoon, with a basket full of plump-kernelled sweet corn tucked under her arm, Clementine was making her way back to the house when something stopped her.
A sound floated high on the breeze, at once alien and familiar. She paused in her tracks and looked around for the source of the thin, high-pitched cry.
It was coming from the lane leading out to the main ranch gate. Clementine set her basket of corn down on the porch steps and went to investigate. She rolled up her sleeves, fully expecting to find some tiny, struggling animal caught in the dense undergrowth. Briefly, she thought to run for a pair of gloves, but the closer she got, the louder and more insistent the cries became.
Finally, the end of the lane was in sight. Clementine furrowed her brow. Some object rested at the foot of the gate by the postbox, a basket very like the one in which she collected her produce. The top of the basket had been left open. At its edge, Clementine spotted the fringe of a blanket.
Whatever was inside the basket continued to wail. She knew what it sounded like, but the thought was too outlandish.
No, it couldn’t possibly be!
And yet, as she approached and peered over the basket’s side, it was. She gasped. Nestled in the folds of that blanket lay a crying baby, its plump hands closed into tiny fists. The perfect, cherubic face was contorted and red with displeasure. Clementine watched breathlessly as the child drew air for another long wail.
Instinct overtook her almost instantly. “Oh, no, sweet one,” she cooed, reaching down and lifting the infant into her arms. “Where is your mother?” A quick glance up and down the empty lane revealed no clues as to where the baby had come from.
If nothing else, the moment it was safe in Clementine’s arms, the baby stopped crying and gazed at her through large, shining eyes the same cerulean color as the cloudless sky. As the infant was dressed in only a plain white cloth, Clementine could tell it was a girl. A beautiful baby girl with a dear, round little face.
Clementine was puzzled. The idea that someone could forget their offspring out in the height of summer heat was absolutely ludicrous. The dry, dusty ground gave up no footprints. No other sound carried on the sweltering air.
Clementine huddled the baby to her chest, sheltering its delicate skin from the worst of the sun. She trotted quickly up to the house, only stopping to pick up her abandoned ears of corn. There was still much to be done before next day’s market, but the discovery of the infant at the gate rose over all other thoughts.
The corn was left to soak in a tub, half to be shucked and half left in the husk for display at her Sunday stall. Clementine then carried the child into the sitting room, where she set about changing the cloth. Soon, the babe was wrapped in cloth cut carefully from some of Clementine’s old linens.
Thus, attended to, the tiny girl settled down at once and closed her cornflower-blue eyes. Clementine sat stock still on the sofa, looking down at the infant. She didn’t know quite how to feel.
In her own girlhood, Clementine had been both an elder sister and a nanny. She was hardly a stranger to babies, even those as young as the one now dozing soundly in her arms. Still, she couldn’t help the anxiety causing her heart to race. This must be someone’s child!
All the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, Clementine waited for what she was sure would come. A knock on the door. A young woman, frantic with worry, or her husband searching for their inexplicably lost daughter. What explanation could they possibly have? The sun dipped lower toward the horizon and Clementine imagined passing the child into her parents’ arms.
The inevitable reality of such a scenario made her irrationally sad. She shook her head. No, no, it wouldn’t do to let her own foolish emotions get the upper hand. The girl was certainly precious, and also certainly missed. It was only a matter of time before that knock arrived.
Resignation turned into concern and worry as the sun disappeared and dark blue velvet took over the sky. Clementine swaddled the baby girl, tied her in a sling across her chest to keep her close, and carried on with her work. With the little girl’s soft babbling to accompany her, she washed and husked her corn, bundled her fruits and vegetables, and packed up fresh bread and butter for tomorrow’s sale.
Her parents were nowhere to be found.
“Where do you think your mama is?” Clementine asked her charge for the hundredth time. “Your papa? Big brother or big sister?” Perhaps the bereft family had been simply passing through when their unfortunate youngest fell from the back of the wagon. She couldn’t think of an explanation that made any more sense.
The baby smiled up at Clementine, grasping a little fistful of her silky dark hair. Clementine’s heart swelled. She had always adored children, and of course, she and Joseph had hoped to have a family one day.
His death had been the end of that dream, until now. It was awfully bittersweet to think she might have gotten her chance without him.
A name for the infant girl suddenly popped into Clementine’s head. She tried to shoo it away, focusing instead on polishing each tomato to a lustrous sheen. The distraction was no use. Once the name had entered her consciousness, it stuck.
Clementine sighed. She tucked it away for later consideration. She mustn’t get her hopes up. It was still possible that the wayward parents could appear at any moment to spirit their child away. The baby cried to be fed only once in the night. Clementine woke to the noise from a deep and vivid dream. The sensation was much the same as the haze she’d wandered through just after Joseph had passed away. For a long moment, she lay in her bed, staring up at the ceiling and collecting herself.
The blanket-lined basket in which the child slept was close by the side of the bed. Clementine peeked over the edge to see two moonlike blue eyes staring hungrily back at her. She laughed, despite herself.
“Alright, alright.” She scooped the infant into her arms and took her to the kitchen. “I do hope I can help you to settle down.”
It didn’t take long to stoke up the fire and heat up a little milk. Carrying the mug and spoon in one hand and cradling the baby in the other, Clementine took them both back to bed.
Pale silver moonlight filtered in through the bedroom curtains and illuminated the strange, yet lovely scene. Clementine hummed and rocked the infant, spooning warm milk to her little by little. She brushed the fair blonde hair from the baby girl’s face. She was sure it was no more than wishful thinking, but she could have sworn the girl bore more than a passing resemblance to her fair-haired, fair-skinned Joseph.
“Were you sent to me?” Clementine murmured. The latest in the day’s long stretch of fanciful theories. This one, however, she found comforting, and she held onto it as she and the baby both drifted off to sleep.
The next day, Clementine was up before dawn, as usual. She washed and dressed, fed the baby, and slung her across her back so she could go about the morning’s chores with both hands free.
The child cooed contentedly as Clementine stepped out onto the porch. The sky was just beginning to lighten, and the encroaching heat still lay mostly dormant. Clementine headed for the chicken coops.
“Mornin’, ma’am.” The ranch foreman passed her on his way to the barns. He offered a friendly smile, turned away, and then turned back quickly. He had seen the infant at dinner the previous evening, but no doubt had assumed she would be reunited with her rightful family by now.
Clementine knew what he was thinking. “There’s been no word,” she said simply. “And I can’t just abandon her.”
The ranch hand rubbed his chin. “You oughta take her to the church,” he suggested. “Bet Pastor Smith would know what to do.” His implication was clear. Clementine couldn’t possibly keep the baby.
His suggestion was reasonable too, but a pang of dread still resounded in her chest. She held back her feelings and gave him a grateful nod.
“I think I will,” she lied. “After market this morning.”
He didn’t say anything else, but she saw the skepticism in his eyes before he continued on his way. The townspeople would have opinions, should they see her in public with a child not her own. Especially the gossipy women who loved to buy her produce.
There would be questions, many of them. Likely there would also be judgment, both subtle and overt. Clementine’s widowhood was well known in Long Valley, and well-discussed, as was the fact that she hadn’t taken another husband.
Some of the other wives felt two years to be much too long. Others admired her devotion to the bond she had shared with Joseph. Clementine understood she couldn’t hope for such widespread support where the mystery baby was concerned.
But it didn’t matter, either. Not to her.
Whether anyone liked it or not, the infant had been dropped at her gate. Had she left her out there in the scorching heat, the girl wouldn’t have lasted until evening. The choice was a matter of plain morals.
Besides, perhaps the mother and father might turn up at the market. Maybe they hadn’t thought to come to Clementine’s ranch looking for their daughter. The chance was slim, but not impossible.
Clementine paused at the entrance to the first coop long enough to draw the sling up around the baby’s nose and mouth, protecting her. She gathered the eggs into her skirts as quickly as possible, suddenly very aware of the dust-thickened air. The tiny girl sneezed, but she laughed with delight at the sight of the disgruntled hens being shooed off their nesting boxes.
“Would you like to be a rancher’s girl?” Clementine asked fondly. Her mind had already started to conjure visions of a pretty blonde toddler holding onto Clementine’s skirts while they went about the chores together. She’d done her best to do away with meaningless fantasy. Still, her heart knew what it wanted.
Her heart wanted so desperately to keep this perfect little baby. She wanted to give her the name which had already been so lovingly chosen.
On a different day, under different circumstances, Roger Wilson would have loved the ride to a place called Long Valley in West Virginia. He was most at home in the saddle, horse hooves kicking up plumes of dust from the rutted dirt road that stretched behind him, all the way back home.
Back to his old family homestead, and to Marianne. Both were gone now, for different reasons. He’d sold the sprawling ranch his father and grandfather had built by hand, just so he could get away from the woman who had broken his heart.
Beautiful Marianne had simply left. She had given her heart to someone else, though she and Roger had been happily betrothed. At least, he had thought that they were happy. He couldn’t think of her without remembering the bliss of their all-too-brief engagement, and then the pain of losing her.
On his way out to the rolling hillscape of West Virginia, Roger tried not to think at all. He had almost no possessions, outside of some clothes and provisions for the journey. Everything else had been left in the past, where it belonged. Including his broken heart.
He kept his eyes forward on the empty country road, letting the rhythmic cadence of his horse’s hooves drown out the thoughts in his head. The sky above gleamed a cold, hard blue, studded with drifting clouds. Once upon a time, he’d have thought a day like this to be perfect.
Now, it was just one in a long line of others. It didn’t matter how bright the sun was shining on the outside. For Roger, the rain came all the time.
Hardly realizing it, he reached up and clasped the simple silver locket hanging by a chain around his neck. His engagement gift to her. She had given it back on the night she’d told him there was someone else. Roger knew he shouldn’t wear it, but it was the one thing from the past that he couldn’t bring himself to let go.
Despite her best efforts to slip quietly and completely out of his life, Marianne was coming to Long Valley with him, in a way. Back home, Roger had begun to think she’d always haunt him as if she were dead, a beautiful, mournful ghost. He’d accepted the sheriff’s post in West Virginia as soon as he got word it was free, desperate to escape Marianne’s memory.
At least there was some distance between them now. Roger blinked at the lush green landscape rolling out before his eyes and realized it was blurry. Though the stubborn sorrow welled in him, he forced it back. There on the road, he made a solemn vow.
Here was a new Roger Wilson, on his way to the start of a better life. From now on, Marianne might as well have been a figment of his imagination. He certainly resolved to treat her as such.
Still, as he finally rode into Long Valley near the close of day, her locket was tucked under his shirt. He promised himself that someday, it would be gone too.
The man who had sent word about the open job was a round-faced, genial fellow named Irvin Boyd.
“Pleasure to meet you, sir,” Boyd said, shaking Roger’s hand. “Been a long time since this town had a proper sheriff. Me, I’m just glad I can go back to bein’ deputy!” He guffawed at his own joke.
Roger couldn’t help smiling. He was tired and dusty and he needed a drink, but it was nice to be greeted by a friendly face. Boyd gave him a short tour of the tiny law post and the adjoining two-cell jail.
“Not too different from home,” Roger remarked.
“Like I said in the letter, it’s a sleepy place.” Boyd took his hat off a hook on the wall and placed it atop his mildly balding head. “Or at least it used to be. Probably the most trouble you were liable to have is the locals bein’ clannish. But lately…” He shook his head. “Somethin’s changed. Don’t know if it’s somethin’ in the water or what have you, but there’ve been outlaws about.”
He opened the door and gestured for Roger to follow.
“Outlaws?” Roger glanced at Boyd, his interest piqued.
“Well, you know the type. Wanderin’ men. The kind who come up on a place and think they own it.” Irvin grimaced. “And I’m ashamed to say, sometimes they do. You’re not the first sheriff in Long Valley, not by a long shot.”
“What happened to the others?” Roger asked, though he thought he could guess.
The deputy frowned. “Either they ran off, or they ended up falling in with the ones they was supposed to be arresting.” Disgust briefly masked his friendly countenance. “I sure hope things’ll be different now that you’re here.” He sighed. “Yes sir, I sure hope so.”
“You like it here in Long Valley? All things considering.” Roger was not a man for small talk normally, but as the newcomer, he felt some pressure to act sociable. His bones creaked as he pulled himself back up into the saddle.
“It’s fine enough,” Boyd replied. “Most people are good at heart, once you get to know ‘em. Don’t make much trouble unless you force their hand.” He chuckled. “Once a fight starts in Long Valley, you can bet it’ll get finished.”
Roger nodded. He knew small towns, and how they were. He’d debated lighting out for one of the big cities, the places where the streets were never quiet. It would’ve been easier to lose himself in a place like that. Forget everything he’d been, everything he’d had.
But he just wasn’t much of a city boy, and this backwater settlement was where his feet had carried him. He wondered vaguely what his new place looked like. To his surprise, Deputy Boyd led him back the way he came, to the end of a pebbled drive.
“Here you are.” Boyd stopped his horse in front of the unassuming gate. “It’s not much, but I think you’ll like it well enough.” He dropped a key ring into Roger’s open palm. “You just holler if you need anything, Sheriff. And welcome to Long Valley.”
Roger waited until Boyd left before sliding down from his horse and unlocking the gate. The fence was old but well-made, its hinges oiled into silence. He took his mount by the bridle and walked down the path. The brush on either side had been trimmed recently, the pebbles raked and washed. Long Valley had been expecting him.
Up ahead, the shape of a house grew gradually out of the early evening shadows. A lantern hung from a hook beside the door and cast a yellow pool of light down onto the veranda. Roger paused to look at the place from the outside.
Like its gate, the sheriff’s house was sturdy despite its apparent age. The outside was rough-hewn, charmingly knotted in places, weather-beaten but strong. The steps felt nice and solid under Roger’s weight. They didn’t give a centimeter when he tested them.
He took down the lantern as he unlocked the front door. Flame light spilled into a cozy front room that was packed with a table, a sofa, and a thick brown rug in front of the hearth. A small kitchen sat to his left, though he figured it wouldn’t get much use. The thought of cooking alone brought him down pretty low.
The bedroom in the back looked just like the rest of the space. Polished blond wood, humble furniture, a rug made of some soft pelt. Roger put his few belongings down at the foot of the bed, which he couldn’t help noticing was double.
He felt his throat start to tighten, and fled back into the safer, less personal part of the place.
Boyd was right. It wasn’t much. But Roger had never had much to start with. The little house would suit him just fine.
He sat down on the end of the sofa, sighing with equal parts relief and exhaustion. Kicking off his boots was like freeing his aching feet from ten years’ hard labor. He leaned back and shut his eyes, drinking in the silence and the luxury of staying still.
Didn’t take long for the quiet to turn on him, though. The aches in his body gave way to yet more intrusive thoughts about the life he intended to leave behind. Again, he saw Marianne, beautiful and cruel, telling him with sad eyes that she was no longer his woman.
“I’m sorry, Roger,” she’d said in her maddeningly sweet voice. “I really am. Oh, I hate to hurt you.” A couple of tears had sneaked out of the corners of those big eyes, and she’d undone the clasp of the locket and held it out to him. “But we’re in love, and I want to marry him.”
He hadn’t fought with her, hadn’t seen the sense in it. He knew Marianne well enough to see when she’d made her mind up. Taking the locket numbly in his hand, he had walked away from her without a word.
It was a walk he took again and again in his mind. At least once a day, he asked himself why he did it. If only he’d had the guts to turn around and tell her no, he wouldn’t let her leave him like that. Maybe she’d wanted to see him fight for her.
But he hadn’t. And he’d never know if he had made the right choice.
Roger opened his eyes to the blank, dusky canvas of the cabin’s log ceiling. Dark shadows shifted back and forth at the edge of his vision. The last of the red sunlight was dying. Only when he moved to get up did he realize how thoroughly bone-tired he was.
“I could sleep right here,” he mumbled to himself. “In my clothes and everything. Nobody would ever know.”
That was true. True and hard to reconcile with. Something about the encroaching night amplified the emptiness of the house. Roger pushed himself slowly to his feet, reminding himself that he was a sheriff, not a vagrant. He wasn’t a guest, either. This was his place, now.
But the little cabin still seemed foreign as if tomorrow, he’d ride back to the sheriff’s office and return the keys to Deputy Boyd. “Turns out I’m just passing through.”
He undressed carelessly and fell onto the bed, not bothering to get under the sheets. His clothes lay scattered on the floor around him, smudged with sweat and dust. If he’d kept his eyes open for longer than it took to take them off, he’d have seen how misplaced they were amid the pristine cleanliness of the room.
No one had lived in the sheriff’s residence for a long time. Wasn’t that what Boyd told him? Drifting in the no-man’s-land just before sleep, Roger realized suddenly what it was missing.
The touch of a woman, a homemaker. Someone to make the cabin feel warm and lived-in, rather than simply well-arranged. He knew he could do nothing about that, himself. That belonged to a woman — a wife and a lover.
The chain around his neck had drawn tight when he hit the bedspread. It dug into his skin. Roger rolled onto his back and clasped his hand around the cool metal for the second time that day. Encompassed by deepening darkness, the lantern extinguished, there was no hiding from his sadness.
This time, Roger allowed the crashing wave of sorrow to wash him away. The weight was overbearing. In the throes of emotion, he struggled to breathe. As he lifted the locket and pried the halves apart, tears coursed down his cheeks.
He could hardly see Marianne’s face through the veil of night, and through his own sadness. It didn’t matter anyway. He couldn’t forget her if he tried.
And oh, how he had tried.
The baby’s parents never came, and gradually Clementine stopped expecting them. She quickly grew accustomed to hearing fussy cries in the night and seeing that cherubic face, those big blue eyes beaming at her every morning. They had a routine now, she and her little companion, and she found it bizarrely comforting.
As yet, the child was still unnamed. Although she could feel her love for the baby growing every day, every hour, Clementine hesitated to completely claim her as her own. But as the days went by, as she continued to feed, clothe and shelter the tiny girl, Clementine became more and more confident that no one else could care for her.
That first market day had been interesting. Of course, there was no hiding the infant tied snugly across her chest. Especially not when the girl fussed from heat or hunger and Clementine had to turn her attention away from the stall to tend to her.
Initially, there were only glances. Little whispers passed between the customers who browsed the produce as they subtly tried to crane their necks and catch a glimpse of the young widow’s precious bundle. But soon, the ravenous curiosity of small-town ranchers’ wives could not be controlled any longer, and they started to ask questions.
“What a little angel. Is your family in town, dear?”
Clementine looked up into the woman’s pleasant, wrinkled face, framed by hair the color of an overcast sky, and smiled. She stalled for a moment, trying to think of the best way to answer. It would be so easy to lie.
When she opened her mouth, however, a version of the truth came out. “No, ma’am. I’m just…taking care of her for a little while.” Clementine bounced the baby on her lap, pretending she wasn’t nervous. She told herself that it didn’t matter what the rest of the town thought, but she knew that she cared, nonetheless.
The old woman raised her eyebrows. “Oh?” Her eyes searched Clementine’s. “Not many little ones in this town. You best enjoy her while you can.” She set a few things on the counter to be paid for.
Clementine chuckled. “I certainly intend to.” She added up the cost in her head, counted the change into her palm. “You have a wonderful day, now.”
The customer smiled again and turned away, but she glanced back at the baby before she left. Clementine could tell that the news would soon spread like wildfire. If there was one thing the people of Long Valley could be counted on to do, it was gossip.
Seven years prior, just after she and Joseph had married, Clementine herself had been the subject of such gossip. The townsfolk whispered like wind through grass every time she went by. How pretty she was, and how polite, and goodness, how young. At one point, there was a rumor going around that she was really Joseph’s younger sister, posing as his wife to get out of the shadow of a dark past.
Of course, it was all ridiculous, and she never let it get too far under her skin. But those whispers did mean that it took a long time to gain the trust of her new neighbors. She met their looks of bemusement and pity with a bright, friendly smile. And she worked her tail off alongside Joseph on the ranch.
Eventually, her strategy paid off. Their modest spread flourished, fairly tripling in size over the next five years, and the denizens of Long Valley began to see her in a new light. No matter her age, Clementine was the most loving of wives, and as hard a worker as any. And after Joseph’s untimely death, the respect of the town continued to grow. She had earned her place in the community through equal parts toil, strength, and grief.
Even so, the subject of her conspicuous childlessness throughout her marriage remained an occasional clandestine topic of conversation in town. She had been a healthy young woman entering the prime of her childbearing years, married for plenty long enough to have a gaggle of little ones. Some of the women in town hadn’t been shy about commenting on it.
“Must be awfully quiet out on the ranch,” they would comment knowingly when she came to town to do her errands or sell her garden goods. “The two of you ought to start filling up that house! Lord knows Long Valley’s lean on children.”
The truth was, she and Joseph had been trying for their first child almost since their wedding night. Her neighbors’ well-meaning observations stung, but she never let on how much.
Now, as she stood at her market stall cradling the blonde baby girl, Clementine wondered what new rumors would be sparked, two years after Joseph had died. She wondered, too, what everyone would think of the name she’d picked.
Josephine. A tribute to the man who would have been her adopted father, whom she resembled in so many uncanny ways. It was almost unnerving, but it comforted Clementine to look into those big blue eyes and somehow see someone she loved looking back.
Over the weeks since Josephine’s arrival, she had become Clementine’s tiny, cheerful shadow. They were always together, not least because they had to be. There was no one at home on the ranch to watch baby Josie while Clementine worked, and so she was forever coming up with creative ways to protect the baby from the elements.
She sewed little dresses and wide-brimmed bonnets, gloves and booties for delicate hands and feet. For a typical infant, Josie was rather overdressed, but such a thing could not be helped. The broiling eye of the summer sun showed no mercy.
Nonetheless, she seemed a blissfully happy little girl. There was nothing she liked more than to be fed with the smallest teaspoon in the house, laughing as she smeared mashed vegetables all over her cheeks. She even enjoyed their long workdays in the garden, the stables, and sometimes the fields, although the ranch hands sent Clementine in with great haste if they found her working with the baby on her back.
“Oh no, Clem,” they’d say. “You and that babe go on back to the house. We’ll take care of this.”
At first, Clementine had resisted, insisting that she was perfectly fine. But these men, who had steadfastly served the ranch for more than half its years, gently persevered. Eventually, she and the baby would retreat to the comparatively cool shade of the house, to make a meal or bake something.
Such was the pace of their sweet little life, which grew more comfortable with each passing day. In the back of her mind, Clementine was certain that Josephine’s parents had forsaken her on purpose. Why they had chosen her ranch gate as the place to leave their baby, she couldn’t say.
But she was already awfully glad that they had. Josie brightened her new mother’s days, bringing a happiness Clementine hadn’t felt since poor Joseph’s passing. She often caught herself singing unprompted, to the baby and to herself, swaying around the kitchen with Josephine cradled in her arms. The spark of true joy lit Clementine’s soul again.
Sometimes, amid her happiness, she thought of baby Josie’s parents and felt a little guilty. Was it right for her to be basking in what was surely a source of great pain? It seemed prudent to remind herself that as much as she loved children, many were born under the cruelest of circumstances.
To frame herself as Josie’s second chance was self-serving but it was also kind. She imagined the girl who had given Josie up as being similar to Clementine herself, someone who loved children, but hadn’t any choice in the matter. Clementine promised this phantom woman a dozen times a day to raise her daughter with utmost care.
Clementine tried not to wish too hard that Josephine had a daddy. Oh, she could raise a baby on her own. No matter what came, she and Josie would be fine. But what love and tenderness there would have been in a partnered life! Her heart longed for that sort of mutual belonging to each other. But she knew she’d never find another man like Joseph.
The days were sweet more than bitter, but still bittersweet. Clementine learned to revel in the best things about her new life, and to push through a new and different loneliness all over again. Josephine was a treasure meant to be shared, yet she had no one.
No one except the endlessly inquiring townsfolk in Long Valley. Word had spread as quickly as she’d expected, and crowds began to form around her stall on market mornings. Long Valley was a place rather hungry for families. Josephine was soon notorious.
And with that fame, the questions grew more frequent, if not more pointed. It became clear that the little girl was not a niece, or the daughter of a friend. Clementine didn’t have much of a stomach for continual fibbing, and finally admitted to the circumstances of Josie’s arrival.
“Someone left her at the gate,” she told a sea of interested faces. “They never came back, so I guess she’s stuck with me now.”
Interest turned immediately to shock and puzzled delight. The unanswered question of the child’s authentic parentage became the new talk of the town. Clementine’s worries about skepticism and doubt were quickly put to rest, to her gratitude. She was one of Long Valley’s own, and they were proud to have her.
“An angel, that girl!” the matrons said to each other as they browsed among the goods at the general store. “That sweet little thing is so lucky to have landed in her arms.”
Speculations flew as fast as tongues could wag. The abandoned infant was the daughter of outlaws forced to flee from a relentless posse. She’d been left by parents too poor to support another child. She was the product of an illicit affair.
None of the theories could be proven, which made them all the more intriguing. The tales of her origins grew almost to be a local myth, the legend of the girl in the basket. Clementine laughed them all off. She knew it was no more than harmless fun. Everyone who came into contact with Josephine doted on her as if they had known her from birth.
And Clementine knew the fascination would pass. She’d lived in small settlements much like Long Valley all her life. The moment something new and even mildly interesting occurred, the public focus would shift.
Thus, Clementine was hardly surprised to come into town one morning and hear vague whispers about something other than her adopted daughter. There was a newcomer in town, a stranger who had ridden in at sunset.
“Word is, he’s taken up residence at the sheriff’s place over yonder,” Long Valley’s residents chuckled. “Wonder if he means to whip this place into shape.”
Clementine didn’t pay much mind to these murmurings. She had her hands full, with the baby and the ranch taking up every spare minute of her days. Though she did find it a little bit odd that someone might come all the way to Long Valley just to be its sheriff. She loved her ranch and her neighbors, but the town itself was trouble. Hardly a week went by without some report of theft or vandalism, or some mention of shady characters haunting the roads in and out.
She had thought about leaving off and on for the past two years. But her thriving ranch was here, and so were all her memories of Joseph. And now that she had a baby to look after, the thought of leaving home and starting over was even more daunting.
Not that it really mattered who the new sheriff was, anyway. He could be a vagrant or a wanderer, for all she cared. The important thing was that Long Valley desperately needed a sheriff, and if some unknown man was willing to step up to the task and do it right, who was she to say anything?
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