Six years later.
Sarah Hill had celebrated her thirty-second birthday and was rocking the youngest of her three children on her knee. She was relaxing on the veranda in her favorite rocking chair and looking out at the working ranch they had built over six years. The third child was that daughter that might one day wear the satin dress with the pearls and crystals. She looked down at the sleeping babe who was nine months old and developing her character. The child was the absolute image of her daddy, and the man was besotted with her. The two little boys aged two and five were playing some sort of building game with things they had found, and she could see them over by the barn.
The man himself strode across the open space and came to kiss his wife on the cheek.
“Coffee?” he asked, and she said that would be lovely. He brought out two cups and downed his own so that he could take the baby onto his knee. Sarah smiled and took the opportunity to sit back with her own drink.
“Everything okay?” she asked, and he nodded. She gave him a look.
“You have something on your mind,” she observed.
“Nothing gets passed you.” He grinned and said that they were at capacity for the number of head they could run on the land they had.
“And?” she asked with a smile. “What are you thinking?”
“Amos says that the land between us and Mary-Ellen will come up for sale because the man is retiring. He doesn’t use the land anymore and just keeps the house and a few chickens because he is on his own.”
“How much land is there?” Sarah queried, and he said that it was a narrow stretch but went back quite a long way. I guess about a couple of thousand acres. It is just wilderness now.”
“Water?” she asked, and he smiled.
“Yup, there is a small river that comes out of the higher land at the other end of the place.”
“Would Mary-Ellen and Jeff not want to add it to their own?”
He shook his head. “Happy with what they’ve got now the kids are all grown up.”
“I leave it to you, sweetheart. Find out what he would want for it. We cannot complain about this place.”
They both looked across the ranch, and Beth waved as she went back into her own house. The twins saw the wave and came racing across to see Auntie Sarah and Uncle John. Sarah put down her cup and opened her arms for the six-year-olds. Malcolm was a mirror image of Sol and Amos, and Sarah had the fair hair and blue eyes of daddy Mack. They hurled themselves at Sarah, and she managed to hold two squirming bodies until Beth came over and shouted at them. They ran off to see what the two boys at the barn were doing.
“How is little Solomon?” Sarah asked about the newest addition to the Parkes’ household.
“Sleeping happily, thank the Lord,” Beth said and took the coffee that John handed to her.
“I am overrun with children,” he grumbled with a smile on his face. “Back to work, I guess.” Then he waved to Cassie who had come out of the house that was now her home since she married Jim. She saw Sarah signaling for her to come across and walked toward them.
Sinking into a seat she told them that little Jamie was fast asleep.
“Mercifully, I can relax for a few minutes.”
“He is quite adorable,” Sarah said.
“Oh, yes, and he uses it shamelessly. Thank heaven for my mother. She is coming over later.” The three women that between them made sure the ranch was comfortable and everyone was fed talked about things in general. They all worked as a team to feed the men who ate in the cookhouse and kept an eye on each other’s children when it was needed.
They were about to go about making the day’s meal when Sol appeared at the gate and with him was Mace, the sheriff from Crestaridge and Mister Craddock the schoolmaster.
“Oh dear, I hope something terrible has not happened,” Sarah said, and they all walked over to meet the newcomers.
“Mornin’ Ladies,” Sol said and touched the edge of his Stetson.
“There must be a problem or you would not be here all together,” Sarah said with concern in her voice. “Come inside.” She checked the little ones were not getting into trouble and saw that Jim had spotted visitors had arrived from where he was working. She waved him across.
“Can you ride out and find John, please. He can’t be far away because he just left a few minutes ago.”
“Hope there is nothing wrong,” he said and ran off to find a horse.
The three visitors took seats, and Sol looked at Mace who waved him on to tell them the news.
“Mace has a problem in Crestaridge and wondered if we could help. The woman who ran the orphanage is in jail for taking money that was meant for the orphanage. He has managed to find foster homes temporarily for the six children who were in there but has nowhere for them to go permanently.”
The three women looked at each other. Mister Craddock, the schoolmaster looked at Sarah.
“I know how we have talked about this sort of thing before. Maybe we can think of something.” She nodded and explained that since she still helped at the school, they had realized that there were lots of folk who needed help.
“Sometimes it is temporary, and as in Eli’s case, if it is permanent they have to go a long way away from what they know,” Craddock added, and the sound of galloping horses slewing to a stop at the door heralded the arrival of John, Jim, and Eli, who was like John’s shadow most of the time.
“Bonjour, Eli,” Mister Craddock said. Eli grinned.
“Bonjour, Monsieur Craddock. Comment allezvous?”
“You see,” Craddock said, “since Sarah helped, and we both had spent time in Paris, the pupils learn a little French.”
Sarah smiled at Eli. She absolutely adored this lad who was now a tall sixteen-year-old and working as a cowhand on the ranch.
The story was repeated, and John looked at Sarah.
“We have to do something, don’t we?”
She nodded. “But what?”
“Can we find a house and make sure they are safe for the time being?” Eli suggested. A light shone in Sarah’s mind, and John caught the look on her face.
“You thought of something?” he asked.
“That land. Is the man leaving the house as well?”
“Genius Sarah,” John said. “I shouldn’t make it public, but I was going to make an offer for the land between us and Parkes. George is retiring, and the land has just gone back to wilderness.”
“The house you mean?” Eli asked, and John nodded.
“It sounds possible,” Craddock said. “We could ask people for donations and volunteer help. People have been so impressed with the way the schoolchildren have improved with the extra help.”
“The county gives enough money to pay a salary,” Mace told them.
“How long can you keep them in foster homes?” John asked, and Mace thought about a month. “I’ll go and see George today and then ride in and tell you. I will need to go to the bank anyway. They were all suddenly full of enthusiasm and excitement. They threw ideas back and forth, and the three visitors said they would wait to hear what John found out.
“I wonder if little Billy is still there,” Eli said pensively. “He was only six when I left. He will be twelve.”
Sarah squeezed his arm.
“Even if he isn’t, we can help the other six.”
Beth said she would start the midday meal, and Sarah said she would come with John if the other two women would watch the children. They all bustled off, and Eli asked if he could come as well.
“Can I ever say no to you?” she said. “Go and get something to eat.” She watched him hurry away and smiled. I am so proud so him, she thought and went to tidy herself up.
Eli still rode the palomino, and he joined Sarah and John. It was not far to the piece of land, and they turned in at the gate to find an overgrown track that led to a quite sizeable house that was dilapidated. There was a cow in the paddock and a few chickens scratching about but no sign of any other life. John went and knocked. An elderly man appeared in the doorway and when he heard their query asked them inside.
It was fairly well organized but well-worn.
“I am just too old to cope with living on my own.” He pulled out a plan and showed John where the boundaries of the land were. “I am happy to move straight into town. My daughter is there, and she is a cook, not a rancher.” John mentioned a price and then came up a little bit to let the man feel that he was getting a deal, and they shook hands.
“I’ll go into the bank,” he said. “Thanks very much.”
The next two weeks were crazy. John took Jim, Mannie, and Roddie away from the ranch and set them the task of making the house livable. Other men cut the track to make it passable and made the space around the house tidy. They made an emergency board of the pastor, Missus Jordan, Jenny Cannell, Mister Craddock, John and Sarah. The search was on for someone to run the place.
Word spread around like wildfire and the Westons, the Parkes, and the Bradys all came out in free time to help to make the place ready. Because the town knew the story of John and Eli, the support was quite overwhelming.
The schoolmaster had written to a friend from college, and he and his wife applied for the position. There were one or two others, but this couple impressed the board of governors and agreed to come and take on the task of making a well-run orphanage that was kind to children. They were called Liza and Euan Macgregor and had their own furniture shipped in on the railroad.
Sarah wondered what they would say about her insistence that the children be sent into school in town. She and John were safeguarding the fact that the children were not prisoners in the residence, and if they had problems, Mister Craddock could do something to help. As it happened, they agreed with her, and that was a relief.
“I am so excited and so frightened that this will not help the children,” Sarah said. John held her close.
“If we can find each other in this world, find out they want the same things and then help Eli and Jim, we can surely help a few more.” She held his face between her hands.
“I do love you, John Hill. I never thought I could be this lucky.” He kissed the lips that he found conveniently in front of him, and for a few seconds the world swept away and left that magic that happened when the two of them were together.
“Mind, when we have this up and running, there are two thousand acres to tame.”
“We are still in profit, aren’t we?” she asked, and when he nodded, “I think we can supply the vegetables that they would need and maybe some meat and bacon as well.”
“George left chickens and a cow,” John added. “Next week it all starts.”
Euan and Liza moved in and everyone helped to get them ready. They had their own horses and a small wagon that could transport the children into school, and Liza said that she would take Mister Craddock’s system of recording the children, and he would keep her on the right track. The pastor agreed to keep an eye on finances, and all was ready.
Then Frances Newcomb arrived in the middle of the chaos to see her grandchildren. Sarah hugged her mother, said she as glad to see her, and asked if she would help with what they were trying to do.
Eli was delighted to see her again because the two of them had taken a great liking to each other, and he knew he got away with a great deal that nobody else managed to do.
“Bonjour, Grandmere,” he called in French, and she held him at arm’s length.
“My goodness, the girls must be knocking on your door. You have grown even more handsome than when I saw you last.” Sarah smiled and left them to it. She was always delighted that her mother managed to adapt to this ranching way of life and then calmly go back into her high-flown society role.
Frances was driven to the new orphanage or residence as they were calling it by Eli. She pointed out immediately what things needed to be added and gave orders in her no uncertain terms to make sure it was done.
The life on the ranch went on, and Frances Newcomb slipped into the routine as if she was born to it. Her grandchildren were absolutely treated like little princes and a princess, and Sarah was relieved at the extra pair of hands.
“Oh, Lord,” Sarah confessed as the day dawned when Mace and his helpers would bring the children. John, Sarah, and the Jordans met them at the railroad and piled them into wagons for the journey to the residence.
“This is Laura,” Mace said and handed over a small girl to John to put into the wagon. “She can’t walk. One of her legs does not work.”
Laura held out her arms, and John found her a cushion to sit on. He had no need to look at Sarah because he knew what she was feeling without words. As they made their way to the new house, Mace told the others who were on horseback that Laura had been lying in dirt because the woman would not carry her to the bathroom. The sheriff found it hard to tell the story, and the others found it hard to hear.
“Oh Lord,” Sarah said and picked up the little girl herself when they reached the residence. The rest of the children were excited to see the new home and meet the couple who would look after them. Eli and Frances were waiting to meet everyone, and Eli had one particular thought in mind. He looked at the six children and shouted ‘Billy’. The boy who was a twelve-year-old turned his head but looked puzzled.
“It’s me. Eli,” Eli explained and wondered if the lad would remember from six years ago, but the puzzled expression turned to one of delight, and the two boys punched each other on the shoulders and did the things boys do when they are embarrassed. Eli dragged him over to Sarah.
“This is Sarah. She is my adopted mom, and she will make everything better,” Eli said without realizing that Sarah was finding it very hard not to cry. Frances put an arm around her daughter’s shoulders.
“The boy is right. Then he is always right. That boy is something special.”
“Grandmama, behave yourself,” he said, and they laughed. Sarah saw that everyone was getting organized and watched John standing at the side of the room. His gaze was on the little girl. She went over and took his hand.
“Tell me that you are thinking what I am thinking.”
John looked down at his wife who loved children and loved making things better and wondered what his life in the orphanage would have been like with only one leg.
“She needs a family that can always be around to help her,” he said. “Speak to the pastor.” Then he walked outside to see what needed to be done before he felt just too darned emotional.
Sarah did speak to the pastor and to Liza and Euan Macgregor. She spoke to her mother, Eli, and Mace as well.
Eli spoke for them all.
“Do it. We can all help. Billy says that she was dumped on the steps of the orphanage.” The outcome was that Laura traveled on to the ranch with Sarah and the rest, and the Macgregors were left to start a new life with five children who had all suffered and needed them.
“I think that she can sleep in our bedroom until we get organized. My mother has the spare room anyway. I will be able to see if Laura needs anything,” Sarah decided, and they made up a bed. Little Laura settled on the sofa and found a small cat that was getting quite elderly and rather liked this little person who had time to stroke him. The dog had sadly passed away the year before.
The next morning, Laura watched with interest as the routine of the ranch swung into action, and they popped her onto a seat on the veranda to watch everything outside. Gradually she met everyone, and the children came and played beside her on the veranda.
Frances found Sarah and said that she needed to be taken into town.
“Heavens Mother. What on earth for?”
“Well, Frances said. “I was at the science ball three weeks ago and remember that quite wild man who invented things? Sarah nodded. “He has made a wheelchair for children with handles on the wheels so that they can move around by themselves. I am going to send him a telegram to ask for one to be sent.”
“Do they cost a fortune?” Sarah asked.
“I think he will be reasonable. The publicity will be good for him. Eli will drive me in.”
“Mmm. You two are just like a couple of kids sometimes.” Then she shouted to her five-year-old to go find Eli, and the lad ran off.
Eli drove his adopted gran off, and Sarah went to tell John. Then she was busy all day with her own children and the new one who needed help. Beth and Cassie pulled their weight and made all of the food for the men, and Sarah held her own little daughter and talked to little Laura.
She was six years old but looked younger because of her bad treatment. She could talk well and said that she could read a little bit.
“My mom used to read me stories, but she died.” It was said so simply that it just broke Sarah’s heart. She put the baby in the cradle and took Laura on her knee instead.
“Once upon a time …” she started and thought that all of the other chores could be done later. Then she saw that her two boys and the twins had crept up quietly and were listening as well. She told another story and saw that Laura had fallen asleep.
John walked back across the yard and saw his wife on the veranda with the newest resident on her knee. The others were being very good and quiet, and he knew that Sarah had not seen him. He put his finger to his lips and sat on the steps.
If I could paint, he thought, what a wonderful picture she would make. She felt his gaze and turned her head.
“What good and clever children we have on this ranch,” she whispered. “They are going to go very quietly so that Laura can get some sleep.” The four youngsters raced away as quietly as children that age were able. Beth came walking across from her house. She held out some garments.
“Two of Sarah’s dresses that she has outgrown,” she said. Sarah told them what Laura had told her, and Beth’ s face was horrified when she heard that the child had been dumped.
“There are wicked people in this world.”
“My mother knows someone who has invented a child’s wheelchair with handles on the wheels apparently. She is having it sent on the railroad.”
“Oh, Lord. That woman has really turned up trumps.” Beth laughed. “There is stew if you and Laura would like some.”
“Let’s take her over to your place and see how we work here.” John took the child from his wife, and they walked across the yard. She pointed at the horses, and he detoured so that the palomino could come over and be patted. The child beamed happily and then found that she had a real appetite for Beth’s beef stew.
Laura settled in well, and there was no shortage of helpers to move her around and let her be part of the ranch. Sarah and John were able to go down and see that the residence was managing and if they needed anything.
“I gave the pastor the paperwork for Laura,” Liza Macgregor told them.
The first week went by remarkably well with lots of offers of help. Then amazingly, the wheelchair arrived brought in a carriage by Jenny Cannell but with Mace the sheriff from Crestaridge doing the driving.
“Good Lord,” John said and opened the gates. “Changed your job, Mace?”
Frances was delighted. She had asked for the delivery to go to the hotel. The wheelchair was unpacked and Laura lifted on board. It was the right size. In fact, the thing was very up to the minute and as lightweight as could be made possible.
“We can push you, but try the handle,” she told the little girl. Laura found the handles at either side, and a smile spread over her face as she moved herself across the ground.
“Oh, Mother. That was such a lovely thing you did. Thank you,” Sarah said, and they all sat on the veranda and watched the girl trying out her new transport.
“I have some other news,” Mace said. When I had her name, and when she was left at the orphanage, I traced her family.” Sarah gasped. “The mother had died. She was very ill for a long time, and the father was left with the child and could not work.” He paused. “This is the interesting part. He was made to sell his house for a few dollars to guess who?”
“Defoe?” Jenny asked.
Mace shook his head.
“What?” Sarah shouted. “He should be shot again.” Mace nodded.
“The father was ill himself and left the child at the orphanage. He died as well, I am sorry to say, but the bank says that the money that was rightfully hers from owning the house will be held in trust until she is twenty-one.”
“Oh, that is wonderful, Mace. Well done on finding out,” Frances told him.
“There is more.” Mace smiled at them. “Smithson is now wanted for trial with a price on his head for shooting a child, and we think we know where he is.”
“Woohoo,” Sarah shouted and waved Beth across to hear the news.
“Wait a minute,” John said, and they all looked at him. “If she was shot, can the leg not be mended?”
“Of course,” Mace answered. “I never thought of that.”
“Well, if not mended, made to work better,” Frances suggested. The little girl in question was showing the other children how the chair moved, and then Jonny, the five-year-old pushed her back over to the house.
“Next week, before my mother goes back to her grand life in the city, we should have a get-together,” Sarah suggested.
“I’ll bring a barrel of beer,” Jenny said as she and Mace took the carriage back to town.
The party was a success, and the Macgregors were invited to bring the other five children along. The Westons, Parkes, and Bradys all came in force. Everyone brought food and sat around on a summer evening toasting the fact that Adam Smithson had been found and was in jail. Afterwards, Sarah and John were finally alone in the living room.
He took her in his arms and kissed those lips that he still found irresistible after six full and happy years.
“You still send my head spinning into space, John. I love you more than words can ever say.”
“Who would ever know that the boy from the orphanage and the girl from top society would have the same vision and want the same things. We did it. We built the ranch just like we said.”
“True love will always win through. It was a good thing you were brave enough to let me take on a poor little hurt girl.”
He smiled and picked her up in his arms.
“You said right from the start that you loved children and the place would be full of them. From never having a family, I sure have one now.”
John,” she said, and he paused in his track to the bedroom. “I felt sickly this morning. Maybe, just maybe, it might be starting all over again.” He dropped her on the bed, grinned, and lay down beside her.
“I love you so much that I really don’t mind. If Sarah is happy, then I am happy. We are very lucky people.”
“Got a wilderness to clear, though,” she said. “We aren’t the biggest in the county yet.”