The Reynolds-Jackson Ranch was close to 500 acres. There were 200 head of cattle, give or take a few, because baby cows seemed to be born every day. They grew 100 acres of hay, so they were self-sufficient in that way. Milly and Jake had made their dreams come true and one would never know that Jake had ever resisted the idea. Charlie Jackson was four and looked just like his father, except for the beard, of course. Belle was two and named after Jake’s sister, who had yet to visit but promised to soon.
“I’m getting ready to head out. I picked up the rolls and butter you made for the ranch hands this morning. Our morning meetings sure are looked forward to instead of dreaded because of you. Cal pulled me aside just the other morning and told me I’m the luckiest man in the world being married to you,” Jake said, as he scooped little Belle up into his arms.
“What did you say in return?” Milly asked with a coy smile.
“I said I know.” Jake bent and kissed his wife. “Did I hear you say to Mary that you were planning a trip into Cedar Springs today?” Jake asked.
“Yes. Something has been bothering me; nothing you have to be concerned with. It’s just a hunch and it’s likely that’s all it is. If there’s something to it, then I’ll certainly tell you,” Milly said.
“I trust you,” Jake said sincerely. “Oh, and if you hear cheers coming from the barn, it’ll be the farmhands celebrating when they find more in their pay envelopes than expected. Having access to my inheritance after all these years helps pay for a lot of things. But the best things I get with the money are the smiles I can put on people’s faces.” Jake grinned. “Now you and Buttercup have a safe ride and say hello to everyone,” Jake said before kissing Milly goodbye.
Max and Mary Reynolds were building a second house on the ranch for their growing family of five. Mary had her first child shortly after arriving in Cedar Springs. They could all live comfortably in one house, but each family needed their privacy. The Reynolds boys were four and five and their girl, Jackie, was still on her mother’s hip. They were grateful for the time away from Cedar Springs because it taught them where home really was for them, and there was no substitute.
“I can hardly believe this is the same ranch we came back to five years ago, Mary,” Milly said. “Caleb had let it deteriorate after you and Max left for Silver Falls.” She sat on the front porch with Mary after Max and Jake went out to work on the land. The children played where they could see them, and Jackie sat on her mother’s lap.
“I can’t believe the hard work we all have put in has paid off,” Mary replied. “Of course, Jake’s money helped a lot.”
“He’ll always think of it as the ranch’s money. Jake cares about two things most. His family and this ranch.” As Milly stood, getting ready to leave, she paused. “Are you sure five little ones aren’t going to be too much for you?” She asked Mary.
“No. You go on your secret mission into Cedar Springs. Though none of us knows why you’re going, after all, we make the trip with the families every Tuesday.”
“If it concerns any of you, I’ll let you know,” Milly chirped.
She saddled up Buttercup who was grazing in the corral. Then she kissed her children and went on her way.
Milly walked into the Lazy Mule and said a quick hello to Vic. She seldom entered the saloon, as it wasn’t a place for women, except for Ruby and the saloon girls.
“No bourbon today, Vic, I’m just here to see Ruby,” Milly joked.
“You’re like family, Milly. If you wanted a bourbon, I’d be happy to serve you. How are Jake and the kids?” Vic asked.
“Jake is working hard, and the kids are growing like weeds. We’ll all be in Church on Sunday, and I hope you and the family will also be there,” Milly said.
“Wouldn’t miss it. It cleanses my mind, which is something I need after watching some of the things going on here,” Vic said cheerfully. Milly knew he was a positive man, otherwise, the drunkards and gamblers would get to him.
Milly climbed the stairs and knocked on Ruby’s door.
“A ray of sunshine! Come in; what makes me so lucky that you’d come here for a visit,” Ruby said. She was getting around a bit slower than she used to but still had a twinkle in her eye. “Did we have plans to meet with Tootie, Madge, and Betty?” she asked. “I thought that was always planned for Tuesday. It must be my age.”
“No, I came to speak with you specifically. It’s about Gretta who I know worked here before she died,” Milly said.
Ruby who had been standing grabbed a nearby chair and sat. If it hadn’t been there, Milly thought she might have fallen. Her normally rosy cheeks turned gray. “I haven’t heard that name for a long time. Why are you bringing up the poor soul now?”
“Many people say that she became pregnant by Caleb and when she was giving birth, both she and the baby died. Is that the truth?”
“I made a promise and I intend to keep it. Please don’t make me break my promise,” Ruby said. She was blubbering.
“Ruby, it’s me, Milly. You know my intention isn’t to destroy a family that’s perfectly happy,” Milly said. “I have always had a hunch but now I need you to tell me the story.”
Ruby picked up a hankie and dried her tears. “Gretta was a sweetheart, as I believe all my girls are. Like everyone else, they have dreams and qualities that make them special. Gretta told me that someday she wanted to help the sick, as a nurse. Things were bad at home growing up and a dream like that soon became an impossibility. She found herself here and ended up doing the only thing she knew how, which wasn’t an honorable job, but she made a little money. I found her one day and she was looking like someone wasn’t nice to her. Are you following me so far?” Ruby asked.
“Yes, and it sounds like Gretta was only guilty of having bad luck,” Milly remarked.
“Exactly. So I took her in and let her rest. She started living here above the saloon and I made sure she was protected,” Ruby said.
“Where does Caleb come into the picture?” Milly asked.
“Your brother took a liking to Gretta, and he started taking her upstairs all the time. Then it stopped after she came down in tears with a blackened eye. Months later her swollen belly appeared. She felt the baby coming and at the same time she was sick with a fever. I was the only one in the room when she pushed out her baby girl. Gretta knew she wasn’t going to make it, but she got to see her daughter and for a short time it looked like she felt peace, love, and happiness.”
“What happened to the baby?” Milly asked.
“Gretta squeezed my hand and made me promise that Caleb Reynolds would never get his hands on her daughter. She kissed the baby and with a peaceful look on her face, she died. I never told anyone. I brought her to the orphanage.”
“She didn’t remain there though, did she?” Milly asked.
“No. She kept running away from the filthy place and I had to make sure she was safe. I had to give her a chance to have the life her mother never had,” Ruby said.
“This was twelve years ago, and you asked for Tootie’s help, am I right Ruby?”
“Yes. Sue Battle is the daughter of Caleb and Gretta.” Ruby sighed.
“No, Ruby, she is the daughter of Tootie and Amos Battle. You needn’t feel bad about breaking a promise because you saved a life. You saved the life of my flesh and blood, and I’ll forever be grateful for your heroic act,” Milly gushed. “How could I not know Sue was kin? She looks so much like my dear mother.”
“I know, and the older she gets the more she looks like her. How did you know?” Ruby asked.
“Caleb said something that got me thinking. He said someone just like him was in Cedar Springs and he hoped he was as mean as he was. It made no sense to me at the time, but it got me thinking.”
“Will he come back here?” Ruby said in a fearful tone.
“No. He tried to escape and since he was a federal prisoner, they sent him far away to a place he can’t escape from. I believe he thinks Gretta had a boy, so that keeps her extra safe. As for me, I’ll never tell Sue the truth. She doesn’t need to know Caleb was her father when she has loving parents and a bright future.” Milly said as she embraced Ruby. “If there’s anything you need, don’t hesitate to ask me and Jake. I’ll never be able to repay your kindness.”
Milly went back to the ranch and shared her story with Jake. She felt as if she had solved a puzzle that had been on her mind for five years. She and Jake were taking a walk in the field, which was something they tried to do as often as possible. They shared a deep connection and never wanted to lose sight of it despite their hectic lives.
“You mentioned that you needed something from me. Was it more than just a listening ear?” Jake asked.
“I know you said your inheritance was going into the ranch, but I was hoping to give a little something to Tootie and Amos for Sue. Her mother wanted to be a nurse and who knows what kind of dreams Sue has. I think her mother is looking down on her and will help her succeed no matter what she decides to do,” Milly said.
“I think that’s a wonderful idea. It seems like something you would think of because you have such an open heart. You have the combination to the safe so just take what you think is appropriate,” Jake said and then leaned in for a kiss.
Milly always thought she’d seen the best of her husband, but he always surprised her by getting better. From the moment they arrived back in Cedar Springs, he made it his life’s mission to love Milly above all else. He was the best rancher, father, and husband. He didn’t gamble anymore and on Sundays, he brought the whole family to church. It appeared that it took almost losing Milly to turn his life around.
The Jacksons and the Reynolds went to worship services on Sunday, as always. Milly approached Tootie as all the town’s folk visited after the service.
“How are you on this fine day?” Milly asked Tootie.
“I can’t complain. I have healthy children with one about to get married. I have a wonderful husband on top of it all. There is so much to be thankful for,” Tootie said.
“How’s Sue?” Milly asked.
Tootie looked flustered. She took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. “I knew this day would come. You know, don’t you?”
“I do. I had it figured out and I pressed Ruby to confirm. She had no choice. I think you’re both brave and wonderful women. Sue is lucky to have you as a mother and I will never interfere with that,” Milly said. She looked over at Jake who was smiling.
Tootie let out a sigh of relief. “I have been afraid that this day would come, and it would be filled with heartache. Do I have to fear Caleb will come back?”
“No, he’s in the custody of federal authorities. Sheriffs in the West can’t always keep outlaws locked up, but the federal government can.” Milly reached into her pocket and pulled out an envelope. It said For Sue on the outside and contained a stack of bills tied in a blue ribbon. “I think this might help make her dreams come true. Her mother wasn’t able to succeed but now Sue can.”
The two women hugged.
“Is everything okay, Mom? Why are you crying?” Sue asked.
“These are happy tears. Did you say hello to Mrs. Jackson,” Tootie said.
“Hello, Mrs. Jackson. We got some of those gumdrops in at the general store that I know you like,” Sue said.
“I’ll make it a point to come in next week,” Milly said.
Jake and Milly were on the back porch marveling at their beautiful ranch.
“You continue to amaze me. You took a challenging situation when we first met and turned it into this.” Jake waved his hand. “We live in this beautiful place, and I have the family I was afraid to dream of,” Jake said. “I love you, Milly. Thank you for sharing your life with me.”
“I love you too, Jake,” Milly said, and they kissed.