Ryker leaned up against a tree and watched as June shot another bullet at a nearby target.
“You missed again,” he said with a laugh.
June sighed and handed the gun back. “I know, I know. I don’t think I’m ever going to be good at this. Maybe I just wasn’t born to do it.”
Ryker shook his head. “Being able to shoot a gun is not decided by who your parents were.”
“Speaking of parents,” June ventured, leaned up against the tree they’d been using as a target.
“Where is your mother? Don’t you think she would like to meet your wife?”
Ryker’s stomach clenched. “I don’t think she would want to see me.”
“We aren’t far from Illinois right now, you know.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Despite feigning ignorance, Ryker knew all too well. June wanted to go and visit his mother.
“I think she would like to see you. I know she would understand why you became a criminal.”
“Do you? She would blame herself. I became a criminal to pay for the doctor that saved her life. Don’t you think that would haunt her?” Ryker felt anger gathering inside him.
“Don’t you think it haunts her that she hasn’t seen you for years? I know that if I knew where my parents were, I would do anything to find them, regardless of whether they were sheriffs or criminals. You are giving up that opportunity because you are afraid,” June continued softly.
Ryker knew she was right. He knew that what she was saying made sense, but he was also a coward. If he decided to visit his mother, he would finally have to find out whether she really would forgive him.
Not knowing, for him, was so much easier.
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I’ll be in the tent if you need me.” Ryker turned and hurried off to the tent he had been sharing with June.
They had left Darren and Tom behind in the last city they’d passed through, with plans to meet up later on for a couple of jobs together.
He hadn’t hung up his criminal ways quite yet. June wasn’t exactly much help in the holding up part of things, but she could gather intel better than he or his men had ever been able to.
Ryker pulled out his violin from its wooden case and began to play. He started with an angry theme, channeling his anger into the song.
But it was hard to stay angry with the instrument in his hands, and slowly, he began to play something softer, more gently, letting the music change his mood.
When he was done, he saw June standing at the door of the tent. “Are you all right?”
Ryker nodded and placed the instrument back in its case with care. “I’m fine. I just needed to get some things out of my system. You’re right about my mother, and that we should visit her.”
“So, we’re going?” June’s face lit up with a smile.
“This is probably a terrible idea and I am sure I will probably regret it, but let’s go. We will go visit her, but I have a feeling we’ll regret it.”
June shook her head. “I have a feeling that soon, your mother will be the happiest woman alive.”
June felt her heart leap with excitement as the large buildings of Highcross, Illinois rose in front of them.
It brought back memories of living in the city.
She glanced over at Ryker. “Are you excited?”
He shrugged, but June could tell he was trying to hide how excited he truly was.
June knew every day that she’d made the right choice by marrying Ryker. Once they had left Sierra and the sheriff behind in Willow Springs, they had gotten married by the justice of the peace who was a friend of Ryker’s in a nearby town.
As newlyweds, they had continued riding the open lands, traveling from town to town, picking up the odd job and even making the occasional robbery when the right situation presented itself.
Even though they only robbed the rich, June wanted out of that life. They had made plans to leave it behind and start a ranch instead, but they didn’t have quite enough saved up to do so.
She relished the clopping of the hooves against the cobbled streets as they went. She felt as if everyone was staring at them. She hoped they weren’t. She knew that even here in Highcross, people might recognize Ryker’s face from the wanted posters.
They went past house after house until they stopped in front of a medium-sized townhouse.
It was simple, but it looked as if someone cared for it – though whoever it was that did the caring certainly didn’t appear to have skills in woodworking. Some of the posts on the porch and the steps were crooked, and the door looked as if it had been placed a little too far to the left.
“This is it,” Ryker said, motioning to the house as if he wanted to confirm for June just in case she hadn’t guessed that was the reason they’d stopped here.
“It looks nice. Should we go up and knock?”
He nodded, looking more than reluctant. They climbed off their horses and tied the reins to the porch, then walked up on to the porch together. Ryker paused and pulled June closer to him. “Are you sure about this? Are you sure we shouldn’t just turn back?”
June shook her head. “We are doing this.” She felt a little bit of guilt and doubt in her middle. What if she was wrong, and Ryker’s mother hated him forever?
She couldn’t be wrong, though. A mother wouldn’t feel that way about someone like Ryker. She was sure of that.
June reached out and knocked firmly on the wooden door. Someone inside could be heard shuffling around.
As they waited, June reached out and took Ryker’s hand into her own, then squeezed it. She was excited for him. She hoped this would be the opposite of everything he had dreaded.
The door creaked open and a small older woman stood in front of them. June gasped at the resemblance between the woman and Ryker.
She looked as if time had treated her well, but that she’d also suffered. She was slightly hunched over, and there were a few streaks of grey in her dark hair. But her skin looked healthy and she looked strong. Her eyes, however, were full of age and sadness. Suddenly, a bright revelation took over her features.
She lit up, starting with her lips and moving up to her eyes, with exuberance. She began to grin from ear to ear as tears filled her eyes. She opened and closed her mouth several times, as if she were trying to figure out what to say.
“R-Ryker? Is that you, my son?”
“Ma.” Ryker’s single word was filled with so much feeling and emotion that it made June want to cry.
The next thing she knew, Ryker was leaning over, hugging his mother. His large frame nearly enveloped her, and her toes barely touched the ground as she strained to hug him back.
Ryker’s body was shaking, and June knew he was crying. His mother was holding on to him. “My son, oh, my son is home,” she sobbed into his shoulder.
Ryker stroked his mother’s hair. “It’s okay, Ma. I’m here. I’m here now.”
June wiped away a tear of her own. She had been right when she’d told Ryker that he would regret not reuniting with his mother. She should never have doubted herself.
After what seemed like an hour, Ryker pulled back from his embrace. “Ma, I know this is probably big for you to be seeing me here like this, but I still have one more surprise.”
“Oh, oh, oh my goodness.” His mother still looked speechless that he was there in the first place.
Ryker gestured to June. “Ma, this is my wife, June.”
His mother turned to June and for a moment, confusion covered her face. June suddenly felt afraid that Ryker’s mother wouldn’t like or accept her.
But she shouldn’t have feared. A moment later, the older woman’s arms were wrapped around her neck. “Oh, my dear, it’s such a pleasure to meet you.”
June let herself give the woman a true embrace. She let herself imagine, for a brief moment, that Ryker’s mother was actually her own mother. Somewhere deep in her memory, she almost remembered a woman hugging her like this.
Maybe that had been her mother. Maybe her mother had loved her, after all.
“The two of you must come in and tell me all about what has been happening to you all of these years. I’ve been worried and praying for you every single day since the last day I saw you.”
Ryker’s mother led them into a simple parlor with some chairs near a fireplace that was burning low.
“Please, start from the beginning and tell me everything.” She leaned forward eagerly and Ryker began to speak.
June’s mind wandered as she heard his voice continue with his story, the one she was a part of.
She wondered for a moment what this would have been like if Sierra had been with them. There had been countless experiences she had shared with Ryker that she was sure Sierra would have either been great at or would have loved to participate in. But she knew Sierra had started a life of her own now, and that was probably for the best.
She had written Sierra various times since the last time they’d seen each other, but she didn’t get to see Sierra’s replies immediately since she and Ryker were never in one town for long. Still, they wrote each other regularly, and when June and Ryker had a chance, they would pass by the post office and pick up the letters from Sierra and June would send hers.
It turned out that Sierra had been falling in love with Hunter. The two were soon to be married, and from what June could tell in the letters, Sierra couldn’t be happier.
Her letters were full of stories about what she and Hunter were doing together. She definitely had more of an enjoyment for outdoor things than June did.
“Well, it certainly explains a lot.” The comment from Ryker’s mother brought June back to the present. She was sitting back with a look that resembled shock on her face.
“I’m sorry, Ma. I understand if you can’t forgive me.” Ryker looked as if he were suffering miserably.
“Forgive you? Of course, I forgive you. You know, I feel terrible that it was me who drove you to make those decisions, but I understand. What is harder to understand is how you could stay away from me for all these years.” The terribly sad look on her face nearly broke June’s heart.
“I wanted to come back, every day, Ma. I was just so afraid that you would hate me for what I became.”
His mother shook her head. “I could never hate you. Never.”
Ryker looked relieved and put his face into his hands. “You have no idea how much it means for me to hear that.”
June smiled; she had been right to bring Ryker here. Hopefully, this would be the beginning of a new family for all of them.
“But, Ryker, now you have a wife, and maybe you will have a family someday. You may have felt like crime was your only choice back when I was sick, but you need to think about your own family, now. You need to find an honest way to support them. If you continue on this path, sooner or later the law will catch up with you, and you won’t be able to provide for your family from a jail cell. You are a smart young man. There are many things you can do.”
Ryker nodded and looked at June. “Yes, Ma. I know. We are planning on heading out to the far west, where there hopefully won’t be any posters with my face on them, to start a new life.”
“Are you sure we can’t help you with anything?” Ryker asked. His mother had been hustling and bustling around the house, preparing them something to eat for the last hour and refusing help from either Ryker or June.
“No, this is my moment to serve the two of you. Don’t even think of lifting a finger. The two of you must be exhausted.”
Ryker chuckled and shook his head. His mother was just like he remembered her – always wanting to take care of everything and everyone.
He sat down beside June. “Are you all right? You haven’t said much since we came.”
“I’m fine. I was just thinking… you know, that my parents are probably around the same age as your mother, if they are still alive.”
“We could look for them, if you’d like.”
For a moment, June looked as if she might consider it, but then she shook her head. “No, you know, a long time ago I would have jumped at the chance. For so long, that was all I really wanted to do.”
“You’re saying you don’t want to find them anymore?” Ryker felt a bit confused. Everything June had ever told him seemed to point to the possibility of her hoping to find a family.
“No, I don’t need to find them anymore. I used to think that finding my parents would give me a family and a home to belong to. But what I’ve realized now is that I already have one.”
“I suppose that makes sense.”
“I mean, if my parents are out there somewhere, they chose not to keep me for a reason, and God probably knew that it was best for me to grow up in an orphanage. And if they passed away, they will always hold a special place in my heart for bringing me to this world.”
Ryker smiled over at her, taking her hand in his. “You are one special woman, you know that, June?”June giggled. “I don’t think I am, but I know that I certainly found myself one special man.”
“Here you are! I hope you like it. It’s chicken soup; my neighbors say it’s the best they’ve ever had.”
Ryker’s mother interrupted their conversation by setting two large bowls of steaming soup in front of them.
She also brought out a platter laden with fresh bread and a block of creamy white cheese. There were sliced apples in another dish, and even a freshly baked pie cooling by the oven.
“Thank you. This looks delicious!” June could hardly wait to take a bite. They all joined hands and Ryker began to say grace.
June listened as he thanked God for the food, and then for her and for his mother. He sent up a blessing for everyone who had helped them get to this point, and asked for the Lord’s protection.
When he was done, June gave a hearty amen. She couldn’t be more thankful to God for all the blessings he’d given her and Ryker on their journey together.
June took a huge spoonful of soup and smiled with pleasure. She hadn’t been aware that there could be anything particularly special about chicken soup, but this soup was definitely the best she had ever eaten.
They laughed and talked over the meal until everyone’s stomachs felt as if they would burst.
“Will the two of you stay the night?” Ryker’s mother looked between them expectantly.
“Yes, Ma, if you have room for us.”
“Nonsense.” His mother shook her head back and forth. “I will always have room for you both. Come along, now.”
She led them down a short hallway to a simple room with a large bed. June hurried inside, feeling as if she might explode if she was up another minute.
“Good night, you two. I’ll see you in the morning,” Ryker’s mother said, hugging them again each in turn.
June smiled and watched as the older woman disappeared behind another door. Ryker left soon after to find a place for the horses. They couldn’t just let them stay outside tied to the porch all night.
When Ryker came back, he wasted no time in getting into the bed beside his wife.
“How do you feel?” June asked him, glancing over at him in the moonlight. Slivers of soft light cast strange shadows across Ryker’s sturdy jaw.
“I think that you were very right and now want me to tell you just how right you were.”
June giggled and snuggled up against him. “You know, I felt like I had a mother, today.”
Ryker put his arm around her. “I will definitely share her with you. My mother wouldn’t want you to think of her as anything less than a parent to you.”
“Will we visit again soon?”
Ryker nodded. “If I wasn’t on the run, we would stay here, but unfortunately, that can’t happen right now.
But when we get a ranch, we can bring her there.”
June nodded. She understood, but it didn’t make it any easier to leave his mother behind.
She leaned back into the bedding and closed her eyes. “Good night, Ryker,” she said softly.
“Good night, June,” he answered back.
June smiled into the dark. She had her forever family right here beside her.
Ryker packed the last of their things onto the horse’s back. Their time with his mother had drawn to an end. He wanted to stay longer, but it wasn’t safe for them or for his mother.
He wasn’t about to leave his wife out in the world with nothing while he rotted away in a jail cell.
“Ryker, can I tell you something before you leave?” His mother’s urgent voice stopped him in his tracks.
He turned back and walked with her a few steps so that only they could hear.
“What is it, Ma?”
She cleared her throat and looked down at the ground for a moment. “I just want you to know how much I love you, and that no matter what happens, I will never forget the sacrifice you made for me. Your father would have been so proud that you took care of me, even though you chose the wrong way to do it.”
Ryker nodded. “Thank you, Ma. You don’t know how much it means to me to hear that.”
He turned to go continue his packing, but his mother pulled him back. “I also wanted to tell you to take care of June. It’s hard to find a woman who loves you like that. She’s a special one.”
Ryker chuckled. “I know, Ma. If anyone knows how special she is, it’s me.”
“And don’t forget what I said about finding a way to live on the right side of the law. You can do it, son. I know you can.”
“I know, Ma. I’ve known for some time that it wasn’t the best way to live, but now I have a real reason to change.”
It seemed like the time flew by as they packed up their things and exchanged their final thoughts with each other.
Soon, the moment had come for them all to bid goodbye. There wasn’t a dry eye as they promised to come and visit his mother again soon.
As Ryker and June rode away, he looked over his shoulder at the frail figure standing on the porch, waving.
He was going to start a ranch, and he was going to bring his mother to live with him when he did. He glanced over at June and gave her a wide smile. He had his wife, and now he had his mother back.
He couldn’t possibly ask God to give him any more than that.
Sierra stood on the porch of the post office, reading June’s latest news. She couldn’t wait until she got home to answer the latest letter that had been delivered. It had been so long since she’d received one, there were actually two waiting for her this time.
She opened one and browsed through it, smiling as she saw each new piece of information about her friend.
“Are you ready to go?” Hunter called to her from nearby.
Sierra nodded and stood. “I got some letters from June,” she announced with a smile.
“Really? Where are they now?”
The two of them laughed. Sierra knew Hunter still wanted to find Ryker. It was the sheriff part of him that couldn’t let go. “She never says. I think she probably doesn’t want to put me in a difficult position with an over-anxious sheriff. ”
“That’s kind of her. So, how is she?”
“They’ve found a ranch. She and Ryker are settling down and Ryker’s mother is coming to live with them.
They won’t be making it for the wedding, though.”
Hunter shook his head. “That is a shame.”
Sierra gave him a sideways grin. “If they did come, I think one or both of them would end up in jail. That’s probably the biggest reason.”
“I can’t help myself, you know that. I am bound to hold up the law, no matter who is breaking it.”
Sierra nodded and gave Hunter’s arm a quick squeeze. “That is one of the reasons I love you. You love to protect others. But you know what? I’m pleased to report that they have renounced his old way of life and are now living crime-free. June says he wanted to change long ago, but he didn’t have anyone to change for.”
Hunter gave her a little smile and Sierra’s heart fluttered. “You know, you were right, back when you told me that I needed to let June live her life,” she added. “I know that now, and I’m glad.”
“You’re glad your friend lives with a man that keeps you from seeing her, possibly ever again?” Hunter gave her an incredulous look.
Sierra’s eyes misted over with unshed tears. “I’m glad that even though it’s not what I initially wanted, June is happy and I am happy. We both found our happy endings, after all, even though we are apart.”
Hunter put his arm around her shoulders and gave her a tight squeeze. “You two aren’t the only ones who found happy endings. I think there are two happy men out there, too.”
Sierra smiled at his words. She had thought she would never get over June leaving, but she had come to realize that everything had worked out just as it needed to. God had put them all exactly where they belonged.