Three years later, Maddie was sitting in a rocker on the veranda of her sister’s ranch. She was holding the almost one year old baby of Susan and Tubs. The child was a chubby and active child who was, thankfully, asleep for a little while. His name was Vallance and he was the model of Turren Vallance Malone- his father.
The ranch was going from strength to strength and Maddie found that now she enjoyed being on a busy ranch as long as it was a visit and not permanent. She knew that her sister was the opposite and watched Susan flying around the place.
“They are making a great success of this,” she thought. Her own toddler, Rosie, was happily playing with some wooden building blocks and she knew Jimmy was keeping an uncle’s eye on her. He had grown up all of a sudden and was a serious minded thirteen-year-old. His dad had told him firmly that if he wanted to work on the ranch, he had to go to college first.
The men came back in on horseback and she saw Buck amongst them. He had grown up on a ranch and when extra hands were needed, he was always happy to ride along.
“Aren’t we just so lucky?” Susan asked. The baby woke up and struggled to be down on the floor. Maddie watched little Vallance crawl around and smiled.
“Who would have thought it just three years ago? You and Tubs are really doing well here.”
“The Christies love their patch as well and supply most of the town’s vegetables now,” Susan added.
“Buck did promise me that life would never be dull and we have been away three times now.”
“Thanks to Mom having Rosie,” Susan said. Then she looked at her sister. “Don’t tell me you have done all the travelling you need.” Maddie nodded and said that she did like being at home now.
Buck came and dropped into a seat beside them. His daughter jumped up and ran to be picked up.
“Those mines are blocked and safe. You can plan the picnic.”
“Next Sunday.” Susan suggested and they said they would spread the word. “Everyone remembers the last one. Hopefully this one will be trouble free.” She went to put some food on the table and Maddie picked up Vallance again to stop him crawling after his mom. She kissed the top of his head and looked into the distance.
“You are hatching something. I can tell.” Buck said.
“Tell you later,” she answered. “Cannot keep anything from you.”
They ate together. Tubs lifted a glass.
They all toasted and Maddie looked around the table and thought how lucky she was.
Back in their own house in town, with Rosie happily occupied, Buck asked again what was in her mind.
“Two or three things really,” she started and he closed his eyes in pretend pain. Maddie came and snuggled up beside him. She took his hand and held it on her tummy. “First things first because it might affect everything else.” He looked down at where she was holding his hand and he looked up at her face. She nodded. “I think so. I think Rosie might have a brother or sister but very early days.”
“Oh, Maddie. What did I do to deserve this much happiness?” he whispered and lifted her hand to kiss the fingers. Then he grinned. “Now tell me the rest.” Maddie settled against him and said that she had enjoyed the trips to the places they had been but maybe that was enough.
“Okay,” he agreed and waited.
“Georgie and I would like to set up a store with everything you need to sew, knit crochet, make mats, make lace, whatever it is. We could work in the place and take turns. Rosie could come with me.”
“Where would this place be?” he asked and cast his mind around the town to think of any empty properties.
“The Christies are at the end of the main street. There is an unused wooden building at the gate. If we made it usable, Jill could sell vegetables there as well. She says it would be a pleasure to look after Rosie as well.”
“You women have already talked this out.”
She nodded and asked what he thought.
“Worth looking at and seeing what needs to be done.” She kissed his cheek.
“Was there something else?”
“I wondered” she hesitated, “I have had enough of sightseeing but before I get large can we do one more trip?” Buck was puzzled. She took his hand. “If you don’t want to go, that is okay.” He waited. “I would like to see where you grew up and the land your family had. They are Rosie’s heritage.”
“I never saw that one coming,” he said but she could tell that he was thinking about it. “I should face down the last of the demons. Yes. Why not?”
“Oh, that is wonderful. Thank you again. I have the most wonderful husband in the world.” She kissed him until Rosie came and tugged at them both for attention. They lifted her up between them.
“Would you like a boy?” Maddie asked. Buck looked at his daughter and said that it didn’t matter. “Family matters.”
They planned to go as soon as they could ask Diana to watch Rosie, and in the meantime, look at the idea of opening a store.
In the evening, they decided to walk through the town and have a look at the proposed store building. Jonah Christie said that he was happy to help refurbish the wooden cabin. It was bigger than Buck had imagined and had scope inside.
Maddie and Jill walked round and made suggestions. Missus Christie was a much more settled person than she had been before. She had made good friends in Prospect and still kept a strong bond with Diana who she said had saved their lives. She was Auntie Jill to Rosie and the little girl loved to visit.
Afterwards they went to Georgie, told her what they thought and plans went into being a reality. Maddie was only working four days a week with Georgie and could walk home at lunchtime. She was not working for the sheriff anymore. Young Bradley was now the third deputy and it meant that Buck could take some time if he and Maddie wanted to visit places. Bradley had also proved a good hand with the accounts. Maddie explained her system and he took that side of things over.
Cal was marrying Marilou Pinder in another month and was talking about working fewer hours because he was needed at the farm.
“We should go quickly to Texas,” Maddie said, “When we come back, Cal can cut his hours down.”
For the next few days, Buck used his spare time helping Jonah Christie at the cabin. The heavy work was out of the way and he knew that Georgie would take over the inside. The women had decided what they would sell and Jenny suggested offering drinks and seats as lots of women liked to stop and chat.
Maddie laughed at her stepmom’s best friend. Chat was her favorite occupation but she admitted that the seats and drinks idea was a good one and they planned to do that as well.
“Have a good time in Texas,” Georgie told her, “but take care of yourself. I will have this ready to go when you come back.”
They took Rosie to her granny to be spoiled and fussed for a couple of weeks.
“I promise this is the last trip,” Maddie told them. Rosie climbed on granny’s knee and melted Diana’s heart. Grandchildren were something she had longed for and could not have been happier.
The next day they climbed aboard the stagecoach and set off for the wide, open plains of Texas where Buck had been born and brought up. Dallas was a huge and sprawling city, bustling with activity and they stayed overnight and moved on. The town near the ranch was more the sort of place they were used to and when you left the buildings behind, it was like stepping back into history.
Trees and greenery gave way to more open land and then the flat plains stretched away as far as the eye could see. They passed a few homesteads with the trademark tall barns. Some of the places looked quite prosperous and some decidedly poor. The couple talked to the local folk and passed on their way to find the old Grady place. One family remembered Buck as a youngster and made them welcome. They said that other people had been asking where the ranch was that had been the Grady place.
“Did you know them?” Buck asked but the older man shook his head.
“City folk I reckon.”
“How strange,” Maddie added.
The ranch was quite a lonely spot and Buck remembered more about where he was the closer he came to his old family home. Maddie started to worry that she should have left things alone. A frown creased her husband’s brow and she bit her lip but said nothing. He pointed ahead.
There was a tall barn visible that had survived the years. As they came nearer, she could see that it was barely staying upright. The two of them halted the horses and gazed around. The ruins of the burnt out house were still visible as a dark stain on the ground and there were still pieces of blackened timber. It was desolate.
“I made a mistake making you come here” he said. He reached across and took her hand.
“No, you didn’t. I had to face it at some stage. This piece of land actually belongs to me.”
“I hadn’t thought about that,” she answered. They dismounted and walked over to the little fenced off area that was where his family were buried. “Oh, Buck. It is so sad.”
“But not quite normal,” he replied. “I had these graves made and put the markers on them. Who laid the fresh flowers?” Maddie put her hand over her mouth and looked anxiously around.
“I never noticed that. Right out here in the middle of nowhere. What about the people who were asking for directions from the rancher down the road?”
Buck didn’t answer but pushed her behind him and drew his gun.
“Stay behind me,” he said and walked towards the ramshackle barn. She trusted him implicitly in these things and did as she was told but she felt for the little pistol that was in her pocket and drew it out.
A man stepped out from behind the barn. He put his hands in the air and slightly built woman followed him and called out not to shoot.
Buck saw they were not armed and lowered the gun but he kept it by his side.
“Who are you? This is my property.”
“No no,” the woman exclaimed. “This belongs to my cousin, Buck Grady.”
There was a stunned and shocked silence as both Buck and Maddie took in what she said.
Buck holstered his gun and stepped forward. He held out a hand.
“I don’t know who you are, but I am Buck Grady.” The man grabbed the girl as she crumpled at the knees. He lowered her to the floor and Maddie ran for her water bottle from the saddle.
“I am Jan Booker and this is my wife Elsie. She was called Calder before she was married and her mom was called Janet Delaney before she married. Her sister was,”
“My mom.” Buck finished the sentence for him.
“Oh, Lord.” Maddie said as she sat on the ground beside Elsie Booker and took in the fact that the girl was pitifully thin.
“What are you doing out here in Texas?” Buck asked the man as Maddie was helping the woman recover. Jan said that they were from El Paso. They had no work and no money and had used the last of what they had to try and find Elsie’s family.
“It meant a lot to her and I thought it would be easier to find work away from the city. We were thrown out of the apartment that we had because we couldn’t pay the rent. We have no other relatives.”
“When did you last eat?” Maddie took on the role that Diana had instilled into the girls as they grew up.
“Yesterday morning.” Jan told her and she ran back to the saddle bags and produced, in true Diana fashion, meat, bread, cheese and the makings of coffee. Buck took his cue from Maddie and soon had a fire going with a tin pot of water heating on two sticks for coffee.
“Sit,” Maddie commanded the two city folk and they did as they were told and she fed them as Buck made hot drinks for them all.
“Oh, thank you so much,” Elsie said and smiled for the first time. It was at that moment that Maddie saw that the girl was actually a smaller and thinner version of Buck. She had the same sandy hair and dark brown eyes.
They couple told them that they had thought if they found her cousin, he could tell them where they could find work.
“I’ll take on anything,” Jan added. “We found the ranch but the locals said that you had moved away and not been back in many years.”
“Fate stepped in and took a hand,” Maddie said.
“We live a long way from here. This was a chance visit because Maddie thought I should come back and…and…and,” Maddie took over and told them briefly that the death of his family had been a tragedy but he had caught the murderers in the end.
“Only after I met Maddie and she helped me.” He smiled. “I am the sheriff in Prospect Heights.”
“We have a daughter called Rosie. Buck’s mom was Roseanne,” Maddie added. She glanced at Buck and he nodded and let her take the lead. “If you come back with us, my sister has a ranch that is looking for extra workers.”
“It’s a long haul,” Buck said, “but it is a good idea. If you really do want a new start.”
“We do. We do.” Elsie answered and then her face fell. “We only have one elderly horse and no money.” Then she remembered something and went to find her bag. She pulled out a little cloth pouch and handed it to Buck. “I kept this because my mom said it was her mom’s and I thought if we met you might like it.”
“Your grandmother’s.” Maddie said and waited to see what was inside the pouch. It was a tiny pearl on a fine gold chain.
“You could have sold this to keep you fed,” Buck observed. Elsie shook her head.
“Neither of us have anything left but that,” she said sadly. Maddie held up her hand.
“I have his mom’s ring. Maybe the pearls once belonged to your grandmother.”
They looked at each other and the enormity of the chances of them finding each other suddenly struck home.
“I picked the flowers a little way back and just thought it would be nice to put them on the graves,” Elsie said.
Maddie went and put an arm around Buck’s waist and then Elsie came to the other side.
“I am glad I found my aunt, uncle and cousins.”
Buck gazed around.
“I grew up here and I guess I should sell the land but the graves are on it.”
“You could rent it out for grazing,” Maddie suggested.
“Good thinking as usual, Maddie.” He knelt down beside the graves and put some of the flowers on each one. Maddie knelt as well.
“He did it, Mom. He caught them. You brought up a wonderful man.” Elsie came beside her.
“I found him, Aunt Roseanne. We have a family again.”
Look,” Jan said as he was standing behind the three of them. They watched as four white feathers came from out of nowhere on the slight breeze and settled on the graves in front of them.
“She heard us.” Elsie breathed and picked up one of the feathers. Maddie took the other three and they tucked them away.
“It might be silly but I think they know,” she said. They stepped back over the fence that protected the graves and walked to the horses. Then they rode back to town.
Buck called at the sheriff’s office and was greeted like a hero. He was taken aback as he had only gone to say that if anyone was interested in the land he would rent it out. The story had gone around about the capture of the gang. He was a local hero.
“I know someone who would use the land for growing corn,” the sheriff told him. “He was in here yesterday moaning about he couldn’t meet the demand.”
“I’ll leave details with the land agent and if he goes in there, he can sign it up. Thanks.”
“Thanks to you,” the man replied. “Life is a lot easier when folk are not frightened of being robbed or attacked.” The two lawmen shook hands.
“You are a legend around here,” Maddie laughed.
Buck talked to the land gent about renting out the land, bought two reasonable horses from the livery there, and booked all of them into the hotel.
Elsie looked so much better with food inside of her and a warm, comfy bed to rest in safely for the night and they set off the next day for Prospect Heights. They sold the horses before boarding the stagecoach for the last leg home.
They decided to have a bite to eat and ride out to the ranch for Rosie.
“Diana will be over the moon to have two more relations to fuss over,” Maddie told them. Buck went over to the office and told them he was back.
They felt happy and relaxed with food inside them and the dust of the stagecoach removed. Maddie happily chattered and pointed out various parts of Prospect and remembered, with an inward smile, that she had really wanted to leave this place once upon a time. Elsie was becoming more relieved by the minute as she could really see a future for her and Jan.
The ranch came out in full curiosity mode to see four riders return when only two had left. Diana hugged Maddie and then waited.
“Come inside” Maddie said. “It’s quite a story.” Buck had already picked up Rosie and was making her giggle.
When it was done, there was a sudden stillness and Diana recovered first. She stood up and there was a tear in her eye.
“You were brave enough to go back,” Diana said to Buck, “It was meant to be.” She held out her arms and Maddie came and hugged her. She beckoned with her other arm and Elsie came and was held close at the other side.
Buck Grady looked at the scene and had a lump in his throat. He was holding his daughter and looking at his wonderful wife and the cousin he never knew that he had. He remembered that he had shied away from a family or closeness in case he lost them all again.
Maddie Hiller had changed all of that. He went over with Rosie and put his arm around the group of women as well.
“Family,” he said. “You have it now for better or worse, Elsie.”
“Happy ever after, folks,” Maddie said. “I thought I wanted to leave this place but when I wasn’t looking, everything changed. We are all home.”