4 years later
Abigail Porter was packing bags to take with the family to Edward’s family for a visit. It was quite a lot of packing, because their second daughter was just one year old and the first one was three. The youngster was crawling around on the floor as Abigail collected things together.
“What a good girl you are today, Jessica,” she said to the baby and looked up as Edward came in with the older child up on his shoulders. Little Ellie Hannah was a lively spark who was fast on her feet and into everything that she should not be. She was giggling as her dad tipped her onto the bed and sat on the edge of it himself. The little girl climbed straight onto his knee.
“A houseful of women I have to deal with,” he protested, but held onto his daughter with a smile as he said it.
“Everything ready for you to have some days away?” Abigail asked him, and he nodded.
“Your dad and Billy are well able to manage without us. Ben is a godsend and works like any man, even though he is almost sixteen now. The new hands all know their jobs now and it’s a quiet time of the year.”
“I guess you and your dad and Gerald will be talking stock for days once you get together,” Abigail remarked, and he added that his mother would be able to spoil her granddaughters.
“She will be so excited. Heaven only knows what she has planned for Ellie Hannah.” Ellie Hannah heard her name and stood on his knee to pull at his hair. “Down you get, young lady,” he said. “Go and find Elizabeth.”
The girl ran off into the living room and outside to find Morag’s daughter and Abigail put the final items into the travel bags. The two adults followed the little girl and Abigail picked up the baby.
They had poured a coffee and were talking about taking the stagecoach the next day when Morag put her head around the door and said that she was taking the batch of bread into town and did they need anything.
“Come and have a coffee before you go,” Abigail invited and the woman who had become Abigail’s best friend since they had saved her from Aaron Smallbone came and took a seat.
“The new stove and bigger oven are really good,” Morag said. “I might have to get help with the baking in the end.”
“It sure has been a success,” Edward told her.
The two little girls ran in and chased around the sofa, until they were sent outside again.
“I wish I had some of that energy,” Morag said. “Those two never seem to get tired.”
“They are good pals and keep each other occupied,” Abigail pointed out.
“Girls, girls, and more girls,” Edward grumbled good-naturedly. Morag smiled and told them that maybe it would be a boy the next time.
“Are you?” Abigail asked and her friend nodded.
“We are thrilled, but I might well need some help to keep the baking going.”
“Will you be fine when we are away?” Edward asked and she assured him that it was early stages and everything would be alright.
“Enjoy your break. Hannah will be so excited. Elizabeth has drawn some pictures for Granny Han. I’ll give them to you.” She stood up and said she was off to town.
“Tell Hannah about the next baby.”
“Congratulations on your good news,” Abigail said and gave her a hug as she left. Then she brought the two little girls inside until the wagon was safely out of the gate.
They sat on the mat playing with some building blocks and Abigail wandered over to lean on the fence and look at the stock that Edward had nearest to the house.
“They are so beautiful,” she said, and he dropped an arm over her shoulders.
“We have almost doubled each year. I think we are at about the most we can manage now.”
“This place really is magic. You have worked wonders with the stock.”
“Dad will want to check my figures out. We are doing fine. Not rich, but doing okay,” Edward told her as his eye ranged over the cattle in front of him.
The rest of the day was spent making sure the children were ready to be seen by grandparents, last minute checks with Abigail’s dad and Billy, and then up early to be driven into town to take the stagecoach.
“Overrock hasn’t changed much in four years,” Abigail said. “I am so glad you found this place. I don’t think I would have wanted to stay where we grew up.”
“But Eleanor and Chas love it back there,” Edward answered.
“Be lovely to see them,” she agreed. The stagecoach rumbled in with the usual clouds of dust, but it was a newer version now and more comfortable than the old one had been. The driver and guard went for refreshment and Edward stowed the bags in the back. Another couple were traveling and already inside the vehicle, and a man they knew by sight climbed aboard as well. Abigail had the baby on her knee and Edward took little Ellie Hannah. She was wide-eyed, doing something completely new.
The driver checked and then started them off on the journey. Four hours on horseback took six hours by coach, and they were just a little fraught when the coach stopped at the ranch gates and Abigail gratefully handed over the baby to an adoring grandmother.
It was a great relief to be away from the bumpy, dusty stagecoach, and the Porters ushered them inside. The little three-year-old was left to run around and work off some of that energy, and Hannah took her newest granddaughter onto her knee. Abigail took the goat’s milk that her mother-in-law had ready and warmed it a little for the baby. Edward went out with his brother and dad to look over the stock and talk about ranching.
“Now that we are not worried about Smallbone and Chas and Eleanor took over the store, I am quite happy to come back here. It was strange that I was really against it for so long.”
“You had those awful times when we thought Edward was dead and then the Smallbone troubles, your mother’s mistake, and then the dead body of poor Missus Railton. No wonder that you wanted to be somewhere else.”
“Chas and Eleanor seem to be doing well,” Abigail queried and waited for her mother-in-law’s opinion. Hannah would always tell her the truth.
“Thankfully, yes. The town had nowhere that really concentrated on clothes and pretty things. People seem to have a little more money to spend these days, and the girls love to look around the store. Eleanor has a real eye for display, and it draws people inside.”
“I am guessing she wears a lot of pretty things herself.” Abigail smiled.
“She is a walking advertisement for the place.” Hannah laughed and put the youngster over her shoulder to bring up the wind. “These two girls are a sheer delight.”
“Mmm,” Abigail said. “I will leave them with you after they have visited their auntie and Mary.”
“Mary’s boy is a charmer. He is such a polite little boy and is the model of Morris.”
“Tomorrow, we can go and visit. Tonight, I am ready to do absolutely nothing.” Hannah handed her the baby.
“Sit still while I make some dinner.” She asked about her adopted daughter, Morag, and little Elizabeth.
“I have some pictures for you,” Abigail told her and found the child’s drawings.
“What about Clemmie and the boys?” Hannah asked.
“Sam’s mom’s house is really big, and they all seem happy there. His mom adores the boys and Sam has them doing odd jobs. They love it and he pays them. Oh, I forgot.” Abigail jumped up and went for a small package in her bag.
“To Granny Han,” the paper read. Inside was a pretty scarf, and Hannah wiped away a tear.
“They are such good boys.”
The family sat happily around the table and talked about steers, market prices, and people that they all knew. Edward glanced at his wife and asked if she would like a quiet ride out.
“We never get to just have a pleasant ride together, but if Mom will babysit, we could ride down to the picnic site.”
“That would be a real treat,” Abigail answered. Hannah said it would be a treat for her, as well. She settled the baby on a bed and told her granddaughter they would make cookies together.
Riding out, Abigail took a deep breath and smiled over at Edward.
“We are so lucky, you and I,” she told him. “I love my daughters, but you and me time is hard to come by.” They tethered the horses and sat with their backs against the log that was still there from when they were youngsters.
“I wonder if the youngsters still come here and picnic,” he pondered.
“And hold hands and steal kisses,” she added with a laugh. He held her hand and they reminisced about their childhood. When he pulled her to her feet, he stole one of those kisses for old times’ sake and they set off back to the ranch.
At the start to the path through the trees, they heard a horse whinny and both stopped and looked around.
“Who is around here? Hello? Anyone out there?” Edward called out and there was no reply, but they heard another snuffle from a horse and the sound of hooves moving about. Edward headed towards the noise.
“Be careful, Eddie. It could be a wild animal.”
He drew his gun from the holster, just in case, and used it to move aside the branches that brushed his face and then he slid from the saddle and went forward on foot.
“Hello, fella,” he said. “There’s a horse trapped in these branches,” he called back to Abigail and she followed him into the greenery. The horse was quite large and quite distressed. The more it kicked, the more tangled it became. “Tie our two and hold this one’s head, Abs.”
Abigail tethered the horses and came back to reach for the head halter. The reins had caught in the branches as well and, in the end, Eddie had to use his knife and cut the leather to free the animal. Then. he had to disentangle the branches at the feet. It was quite hard to do and after ten minutes, they had the horse by the halter and Eddie panting to get his breath back.
“Now what?” Abigail asked.
“We’ll have to take it back to the ranch and ask tomorrow if the sheriff has heard reports of a missing horse.”
They made the rein that was left into a piece long enough to lead the creature and started off again for the ranch, but then the leading rein was tugged quite violently and jerked out of Edward’s hand.
“Darn it,” he said and handed his own reins to Abigail. He followed the horse of foot and found it standing still with its nose pointing to the ground—and the figure of a young man.
“Abs, there’s a man here and he’s unconscious, I think.” She tethered the horses yet again and came to see who was on the ground. The man moaned.
“He’s alive,” she said and went to get some water from the river on Eddie’s bandana. She squeezed it onto his lips and wiped it across his forehead and after a while, his eyes opened and stared vaguely around him.
“Where am I?” he whispered.
“Beside the picnic site,” Abigail answered. “The horse showed us where you were.”
“Oh, Lordy, my head hurts,” he told them and she saw that there was blood where he had been lying.
“Let me look at that head,” she said and found the wound that had stopped bleeding. “It’s stopped bleeding, so I’ll leave it alone. We should get you to a doctor.”
“No. No,” he said and shook his head, then grabbed for it and moaned.
“Can you ride?” Edward asked him. The lad, who looked about nineteen, said he would try.
“Do I know you from somewhere?” Abigail asked, and he looked at her properly for the first time. The shadow of a smile almost appeared on his face.
“You can just leave me here. I’m Betty Johnson’s brother.”
“Good Lord,” Edward exclaimed, “young Bradley, wasn’t it?”
Bradley nodded and then winced.
“How did you come off the horse?”
“My own fault,” he said. “I was just riding fast and not watching where I was going.”
“Were you on your own?” Edward queried. “Would anyone be looking for you?”
Bradley shook his head.
“Dad won’t be bothered, and now that my sister has come back, he will be forgetting about me.” It was said resignedly and with a touch of bitterness that was obvious to both Abigail and Edward. Then, Abigail took in what he had said.
“Betty is back? Is that what you said?” she asked, and he said that was right.
“Turned up, no warning, with the husband, and said that she has bought the Railton place.”
There was a moment of stunned silence as both Edward and Abigail took in what he had just told them.
“She said she was married to Jerome, but he was jailed for a long time,” Edward said. “Is he out again?”
Bradley sat on the ground and held his head. “I’d rather not go to the doctor. Makes me look a bit of an idiot.” Then, he said that she hadn’t married Jerome. “The husband is from back east and they have money enough to buy the ranch. I told her she could help out her old dad if she had that much money, and we had a blazing row. Dad took her side, as usual, and I just took off.”
“I think we should go back to my dad’s place and look at that head in the light. It’s too dark here to see it properly,” Edward suggested.
“Then you can decide what to do,” Abigail added.
They helped him up and steadied him on his feet until his head cleared and then he managed onto the horse and they walked slowly back to the ranch.
Gerald was looking out for them and opened the gate.
“Bradley, isn’t it?” he said. Bradley nodded and slid from his horse, but his legs gave way and Gerald caught him before he hit the ground. Edward rushed around to help and they took the young man into the house.
Hannah produced water and cloth and bathed the cut on his head. Gerald gave him a whisky and the lad downed it in one.
“Now, tell us about it, and why you don’t want to go to the doctor,” Hannah ordered in her best take-charge manner.
“You’re safe here. We will help if we can,” her husband added, and Bradley Johnson took a breath and told them about his sister and her husband turning up out of the blue.
“She always hated me, but it was me who stayed and looked after dad when she went off with that long streak of misery called Jerome.”
“She has definitely bought the Railton place?” Edward asked, and the lad nodded.
“And is apparently going to live there.”
“Good Lord above,” Hannah Porter exclaimed. “Why on earth would she want to do that?”
“She says that nobody bought it because of the murder and it was very cheap.”
Gerald said that there was space in the bunkhouse if he wanted to stay the night. When Bradley said that would be very good of them, Gerald called the foreman and explained the situation.
“You’ll know some of the men,” Gerald said. “Come on, let’s get you a bed and you can decide what to do in the morning.”
“Well, I never did,” Hannah said when the lad was out of the house. “Betty Johnson owns the Railton place.”
“Did she have what was left of Smallbone’s money when he was shot?” Abigail wondered. “And where did she go?”
“I don’t suppose we’ll ever know,” Hannah answered. “I guess we will get used to her being around again.”
“Early into town tomorrow. I wonder how many people know she is actually back,” Abigail remarked and Edward laughed at her.
“You will be delighted if we know before everyone else that she is back.” Abigail had to agree with him.
The babies were asleep in Edward and Abigail’s bedroom. The adults tiptoed in and slid quietly into bed.
“Do you think we should tell the sheriff?” Abigail whispered. “Maybe she has the rest of the bank money.”
“Shh,” Edward said, and stopped her saying more with a kiss.
The morning found Ellie Hannah jumping up and down on top of them and Jessica trying to join them, as well. Hannah heard the noise and knocked at the door.
“I’ll take this one away,” she said as Ellie threw herself at Granny Han, “and breakfast is ready.”
Abigail picked up her younger daughter and they all made their way to the enticing smell of bacon and eggs. She fed little Jessica and then the two adults left granny in charge and set off for town on horseback.
They headed first for the store that Abigail used to call home and was now owned by Mister and Missus Chas Addison. Eleanor shouted out loud and held out her arms as her sister rushed in and the two women excitedly tried to catch up with everything at once. Chas came through from the back, holding his own two-year-old daughter in his arms.
The family had lots to say and then Abigail looked around the store and really took in what her sister and brother-in-law had achieved. The place was like a stylish salon in one of the cities. Eleanor had always had an interest in clothing and fashion.
“This is just so so, so stylish.” Abigail found the word in the end. “I love it.”
“Just paint and Eleanor’s eye for detail, really.” Chas told them. “People seem to like it.” They went through to the living area that was also restyled and updated.
“We hear that the railroad is going to come and that will bring more business,” Chas added.
“And to Overrock. We will be able to just take the cattle to the depot. Much easier than a long drive,” Edward said.
They related between Abigail and Edward that Betty Johnson had bought the Railton place. There was a second of silence and then an explosion of everyone talking at once. Then, Chas told them that the sheriff knew that there was still money missing from the bank robbery.
“The bank signed for what was returned but the full amount was not there, even allowing that Smallbone had spent quite a lot of it.”
“I guess he will want to ask Betty Johnson a few questions,” Edward added.
“We should tell him what we know,” Abigail said, and they decided to see Lars and then Mary and would come back to the store after that. “That light grey dress looks as if it might just fit me nicely,” Abigail added. Her sister smiled and told her that it was the right size.
The sheriff was pleased to see old friends as well, but had already heard that Betty Johnson was back.
“Missus Di Stefano, apparently,” He told them. “I am going out there to say hello. It will be to make sure everything is okay, but I really want to look around and see what they talk about. I still think that money is somewhere.”
Edward told the sheriff about finding Betty’s brother fallen from his horse. “He is in the bunkhouse at dad’s but doesn’t seem to want to go back home.”
“Have the two of you got time to come with us to the ranch?” Lars asked. “You could tell her you found her brother and see what she says. It might help me to have another two pairs of ears and you know the place, Abigail.” They looked at each other and agreed to go.
“I can see Mary when I come back. It is not that far.”
“No time like the present,” the sheriff said and grabbed his Stetson from the hook. He, the deputy, Edward, and Abigail all set off out of town.
They rode into the ranch and found it mysteriously quiet. There were no signs of people, but there were two carriages with horses still in the shafts. The obvious thing was to call out and see who was around but there was no answer. They checked the barns and outbuildings—nothing.
“She surely isn’t under the floorboards this time,” Abigail joked and Lars looked at her.
“But we found Jerome in those trees looking for a place to hide the cash.” He paused. “What it the rest was already there?”
They mounted up.
“You can stay here, Abigail, if you would feel safer,” the sheriff suggested, and Edward laughed.
“You know, wild horses wouldn’t stop her coming along.”
“It’s creepy here when the place is so quiet,” Abigail added, and they walked the horses so as not to make a noise as they approached. The men took handguns from the holsters and the four of them approached with great caution. Lars held up a hand.
“There are four horses tethered,” he whispered. “On foot and quietly.” They left the mounts and walked slowly forward, keeping a lookout all around as they went. They reached the trees and Lars stepped forward into the greenery with gun in hand, then called out that it was the sheriff and deputies and to stop what they were doing.
“Put your hands in the air.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Lars,” Betty Johnson answered. She walked forward and behind her were three men. Abigail assumed that the attractive dark-haired stranger was the husband, because the other two were the lawyer and the bank manager. The husband was dressed in clothes that said he was used to being around a ranch. They did not have guns and Lars holstered his weapon.
“Out in the open, please,” he said and the four people came out of the trees. “I need an explanation.”
The lawyer smiled at the sheriff, whom he knew well.
“Relax, Lars. It’s above board. Mister Di Stefano has signed to say that he knew where the bank money was and would hand it over. It’s on his land and he is quite in his rights to do that.” The bank manager confirmed this, and Di Stefano said that the lawyer had his letter to prove it.
“Thank the Lord for that,” the sheriff told them. “It would have been better if you told the sheriff as well.”
“But I see that you have Abigail Porter here, as well. Even when she lives miles away, she still sticks her nose into my business.”
Edward put his hand on his wife’s arm, as he felt the retort would cause problems. “This time,” he added, “we have come to help you.”
“Oh, yeah,” Betty replied sarcastically. “How?”
Di Stefano made the same gesture that Edward had made and stepped in beside his wife.
The sheriff explained about the brother falling from his horse.
“He is in my dad’s bunkhouse. Was a bit afraid to go home,” Edward added.
“Knocked himself out and the horse was tangled in the bushes,” Abigail added. “Up to you what happens with your family.” Abigail was still ready to do battle with the woman.
“Okay,” Di Stefano said. “Bloomin’ women.” He stepped forward and held out a hand. “Gio Di Stephano. Thanks for your help. He can come and stay here and work if he wants to. That is fine by me.” He shook hands with all four people and looked at Betty.
“Shake hands and make up. I do not want bad feeling here.”
Abigail looked from one to the other of them and then burst out laughing.
“Oh, Betty. You found the right man.” She said and held out her arms to invite the woman to give her a hug. There was a split second where Betty Di Stephano might have walked away but, in the end, she came forward and started to laugh, as well.
The situation was suddenly friendly. The sheriff offered to help with the money and with the women to one side, they took the rest of the stolen money back to the carriages and eventually to the bank.
“So that, finally, is all of the money found?” Abigail asked, and Betty told her that Jerome knew where it was the whole time.
“He had given me the five hundred dollars he had in case he was shot and when he was jailed, I used it to get away.” She looked at her husband and smiled. “Then I met Gio.”
“We’ve been married for over a year and I found out this place was still empty and going cheap. He made me promise that we would give the money to the bank.”
“And that was a bright move, because he will get the reward money,” Abigail told her. “You did find the right man.”
“Thanks for finding my brother. I wonder if he will make up and come and work here,” Betty said. “I hear you have two daughters.”
“I am one lucky woman, Betty, and I think you are, as well, now.”
“Agreed,” Betty said and held out a hand. “To the past left in the past.” The two women solemnly shook hands as if they had just made a business transaction. Di Stephano came over and put his arm around his wife.
“You girls okay?” They both nodded and smiled.
The sheriff said that they would all ride shotgun with the carriage back into town, and they left with the new owners of the Railton Ranch watching them go.
The money was safely put in the strongroom, and the sheriff thanked everyone for their help.
“Thank the Lord for a peaceful ending,” he said. Abigail and Edward headed for her sister’s and found inside, Morris, Mary, and the three-year-old also called Morris. There was a jubilant reunion and more news to tell the others.
“Mister Di Stefano is quite handsome and tells Betty what to do,” Abigail said.
“And she actually listens,” Edward added. They all laughed.
“She has done the right thing in the end. I like the loose ends tied up,” Abigail said and sat with young Morris on her knee.
“Mom says will you all come down for something to eat, later,” Edward asked, and back at the Porters’ ranch in the evening, there was a crowded room and cheerful talk. The children ran about and played, and Betty Johnson’s brother rode home to see his new brother-in-law.
Hannah Porter was a happy woman. She had a house full of her own children, along with their friends, partners and families.
“I will have to come down and visit to see Morag, Clemmie, and everyone,” she said as she sat back with the baby on her knee.
“Oh, Lord,” Abigail said and put her hand over her mouth. “I forgot the most important news.” She smiled at her mother-in-law.
“You know how you came and delivered little Elizabeth?”
Hannah nodded and had a nostalgic look in her eye.
“She is hoping you will do the same again, and maybe this time, it will be a boy.”
“Oh, my Lord,” Hannah said. “That makes my life complete. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” She felt a tear rise in her eye and walked about with the baby in her arms to pull herself back together.
The others went home when the youngsters were tired, and Edward took his wife’s hand.
“Come and look at this young bull that Gerald thinks will improve all of the stock.” One outside, he confessed it was just an excuse to get her to himself for a little while. They wandered hand in hand around the corrals and they did look at the young steer but then found themselves looking across the pastureland and the place was empty and quiet.
He dropped an arm around her shoulders, and she leaned against him.
“I feel as if we finally finished with Aaron Smallbone today. All of the money is back where it belongs.”
“That man almost destroyed this town with his lies and his stolen money.”
“We won, though. Good triumphed over evil, and even Betty Johnson found love in the end,” Edward added.
He turned his wife towards him and took her lips with that tenderness that she had felt with this man since she was fourteen years old. She knew it was love then and she knew it would last her lifetime.
She kissed him back with her heart in the gesture, and they felt that connection that had always held them together. They could have been the only two people in the universe as they lived in the moment and felt the completeness that was theirs and theirs alone.
“I love you so much, Eddie,” she whispered.
“Love you, too, Missus Porter. Love you to eternity and even after that. Happy ever after.”
“Happy ever after, Eddie.” She took his lips with her own.