Two Years Later
“Pass the potatoes, would you?” Robert asked James, who looked down the long table filled with food and happy faces.
“Of course. Davey, could you pass the potatoes?” James asked in turn, passing along the request until, finally, the boiled and buttered dish made its way to them.
“Thank you. We should start talking about the cattle drive soon. I was thinking we should send Ben and Timothy along with the group. It would be good for them to get to the experience.”
James nodded along absentmindedly to his uncle’s words, though his mind was far away. He’d been reminded that morning that it was two years to the day that he’d received Sally’s reply, stating that she wasn’t, in fact, married to Henry, and that she wanted to join him on the ranch. He’d reread their letters before the sun had risen, by candlelight, as Sally slept peacefully beside him in the bed they shared.
Since arriving at Tall Rock, time had passed at twice its normal speed, careening along with the changing of the seasons with very little reflection on how much had changed. Life looked nothing like it had when he’d received that letter, though everyone admitted that it was a vast improvement.
Sally’s family was welcomed with open arms by Robert and the rest of the staff on the ranch. For the first time since Tall Rock’s beginnings, everyone ate together like one large family, just as Robert had always envisioned. It was a loud, unruly, and passionate family, but a family nonetheless. For James’s mother, it was very therapeutic to be living with the brother of her late husband and had allowed her to find some peace with their unfortunate ending.
“Uncle Robert, I’ve been thinking, and I’ve decided that I’d like to go along with the cattle drive this year,” Laura announced, having overheard Robert and James’s conversation.
The statement made everyone’s ears perk up. Even James was dragged out of his thoughts. At twenty years old, Laura had blossomed into a confident young woman, unwilling to believe that there was anything that she was incapable of. Her gall and guts shocked some of the folks on the ranch, but most admired her brazenness.
“Well now, I don’t know if it’s exactly the kind of thing that a young woman in your position ought to be doing. As you know, traveling can be strenuous, and—” Robert started to let her down gently, but clearly Laura wasn’t going to surrender without a fight.
“You know very well that I can do it. If Holden can do it, then so can I! He’s the laziest one here, and I can ride twice as fast as he can without even trying,” she protested. The table gasped and some tittered, amused by her arrogance.
Her confidence was not unfounded. She was indeed twice as skilled as most of the ranch hands, and she was picking up the work faster than James had when he’d first arrived at Tall Rock. At first, Robert had tried to get her to help out in the kitchen, but that hadn’t lasted long. After about six months of catching her out on the range at lunch, he and her mother had finally relented and agreed to let her work as a ranch hand.
“Let me think about it. I’ll have to discuss it with James, your mother, and Davey, of course. I certainly appreciate your enthusiasm for the work, Laura,” Robert said diplomatically.
“Thank you for considering it. As one last point, I might mention that I believe my late father would be very supportive of this endeavor.”
A deeper silence fell over the table, as everyone was stunned by Laura’s willingness to call upon the spirit of her father. Upon arriving at Tall Rock, Mr. Andrew Stratton’s health had stayed relatively static, though his spirits had improved greatly. It brought him great joy to see his daughters thriving so, and he was particularly tickled to witness Laura find a real home on the range. About a year after the move, however, he’d succumbed to death. The loss had hit hard, though everyone was happy that his last year had been such a blissful one.
The tense quiet was finally broken by the giggling of none other than Mrs. Stratton, James’s mother-in-law. James made eye contact with Sally across the table, both unsure as to what to do. A moment later, the giggle turned into a full-blown bout of unstoppable laughter.
“Mama, are you quite alright?” Sally asked, leaning over to make sure she hadn’t completely lost her mind.
“Yes, yes. In fact, I’ve never been better. The truth of it is, Laura, I hate the idea of you leaving for so long. The road is dangerous, as you know, and there are many who don’t make it back from the cattle drive,” Mrs. Stratton said between ongoing chuckles.
“I know, but I’ll be careful, and I should like to document the whole—” Laura started, desperate to defend herself.
“We both know you’ll take terrible risks in the name of adventure. The deeper truth that I hate to admit, my sweet Laura, is that none of us can stop you, and your father certainly would have loved to have seen you accomplish such a great task. Nothing would have brought him greater joy than to get to report to Mr. Smith at the general store that his daughter had just returned from the cattle drive.”
James looked at Sally again with wide eyes, both shocked at this turn of events. It had taken Mrs. Stratton some time to come to terms with her daughter working what she thought of as a man’s job, but she’d come around in the end. To hear her encouraging Laura was something else, indeed.
“Are you saying that I have your permission, Mama?” Laura asked tentatively, almost as if she couldn’t believe her ears either.
“I leave it to Mr. Vail, but… yes, you have my blessing, you wild creature.”
“Hip hip, hurray!” Davey shouted out, and soon the whole table was celebrating in kind. It had been clear from the beginning that Laura was very popular with the ranch hands, which was another source of worry for Robert.
“Alright, alright! Yes, your blessing will be taken into account, and I think I can assume what Davey thinks about the whole business. I will take the night to consider, and let you know my decision in the morning, Laura,” Robert said as he stood, marking an abrupt end to the dinner.
“Laura, are you just angling to go on the cattle drive because you’re after Ben?” Sally asked once everyone had gone their separate ways, leaving just the three of them at the table. They frequently finished the evenings with a card game, enjoying some friendly competition.
“Sally! How dare you make such an accusation?” Laura replied, though the blush creeping across her cheeks said something else entirely.
“I am merely bringing up what I have noticed. He’s moon-eyed over you. I’m afraid the boy would give you everything he has if you asked him to,” Sally said slyly as she dealt out the cards to play Beggar-my-neighbor.
“Oh, come now, Sally. I can’t help what he does or says. Besides, what’s so wrong with enjoying the attention?”
“So you do like him!”
Laura looked like she was going to die from embarrassment, shrinking down in her chair and disappearing behind the hand she’d been dealt. Sally was hardly the first to have noticed the connection between Ben and Laura, but James happened to approve of the young love. He couldn’t help but see some similarities between his own relationship with Sally, though in this case, his personality had more in common with Laura than Ben.
Ben was a sweet but serious man, just a year or two older than Laura. It was obvious to all that he couldn’t take his eyes off of Laura, and he was frequently tongue-tied in her presence. She liked to tease him, just as James had grown up teasing the quiet Sally, but Ben lit up with the attention. He came alive in Laura’s presence like he couldn’t with anyone else.
There were big hopes for Ben’s future on the ranch, as well. Davey had finally proposed to Elizabeth (thankfully, she’d said yes), and as soon as they were married, they were going to go to Oregon to start their own ranch. He would be sorely missed, and Robert was already concerned about replacing him. James had taken over more of the overall management of the business as Robert taught him the ropes. Many of the other ranch hands had been replaced over the years, but everyone hoped Ben would stay for many years to come. Thanks to Laura, there was a good chance he would.
“Just be careful. Frankly, I’m not worried about your heart. You have the resilience of a jackrabbit. Ben, however… now, he’s a delicate soul. You see that you treat him well,” Sally warned.
“As a sister, I’m offended that you’re not more worried about me!” Laura exclaimed, throwing a dramatic hand against her forehead.
Sally rolled her eyes, and James stayed silent, amused by the conversation. He’d learned long ago simply to let the sisters work out such matters on their own.
“Sometimes I think you’re meant for the stage, my dear sister.”
“So… do you really think he cares for me that much?” Laura asked earnestly, making sure to lower her voice in case any interested ears were still around and listening.
“There can be no doubt about it,” James piped in, finally making his voice heard. “As Sally said, he stares at you as if you were made of pure gold. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was already in love with you. Now, can we play this game, or what?”
The ladies laughed and Laura’s blush deepened, but before they could start playing, there was yet another interruption. Robert’s heavy steps sounded down the hall, and soon he stood before them, his hands on his hips.
“Laura, I’ve been thinking, and I’ve come to a decision.”
“I thought you were going to make a decision tomorrow?” Laura said, sounding nervous as she straightened her posture in her seat. James sat up too, curious as to what exactly Robert was about to say.
“Well, it turns out I don’t need that much time. It turns out… I’ve decided that you can go on the cattle drive.” Laura practically burst out of her seat, but Robert held a hand up, stopping her excitement in its place. “The catch, however,” he continued, “is that I will be going with you. To act as chaperone. It isn’t that I don’t trust you or the men, but now that your father isn’t here, I think it’s best that I watch over you.”
The statement brought great emotion to all of them, not just Laura, who could barely eke out a “thank you.” Robert didn’t stay to dwell on the moment, instead excusing himself and quickly leaving.
The three of them left stared at each other, stunned at what had just come to pass. James couldn’t believe that he hadn’t seen it sooner, but of course, Robert had come to think of Laura as the daughter he’d never had, making the time to show her around the ranch as he had James.
“Did I imagine all that?” Laura asked, stunned.
Sally shook her head. “No. He’s really going to let you go on the cattle drive, and he’s really going to go with you. Robert isn’t the type to promise something and not follow through.”
Laura swallowed. “I’m sorry to abandon the game like this, but… but I think I need to be alone just now.”
With that, she pushed her chair out and went to her room, leaving James and Sally alone.
“Is she alright?” James wondered aloud.
“Oh, she’s fine. I think… I think she’s just amazed by her own power and the love that’s been shown to her tonight. It can all be very overwhelming. That girl is going to accomplish whatever she sets her mind to.”
“Well, I hope she uses her powers for good. You’re right to tell her to be careful of Ben’s heart. If there’s anyone capable of breaking it, it’s Laura. For the record, I think you’re just as powerful. You rode into this town and made the most of it. Sometimes I wish I could watch you bringing all those babies into the world. That’s how I fell in love with you, after all.”
Sally smiled the kind of smile that made James want to sing. He wished he could live inside her mind and know what she was thinking at all times, but that was the wonder of her mysterious smile. If he’d known what it meant, it wouldn’t have been half as magical.
“Will you come outside with me? To look at the stars?” Sally asked.
“You don’t want to play something?”
“No. I want to… I want to talk to you. There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you, but I haven’t found the right moment. I think this is it.”
“What? What is it that you’ve been meaning to tell me?” James demanded impatiently. Sally laughed, evidently enjoying the uncertainty of the moment.
“You’ll see, just… just come with me.”
Confused, nervous, but slightly excited, James followed her outside to the porch, where they sat on a bench. All he wanted to do was badger her again until she told him exactly what was going on, but Sally knew exactly how to keep him on his toes. She snuggled into the crook of his shoulder, seeking warmth in the cool night.
“Look! Did you see that shooting star?” Sally pointed up in wonder, looking at the sky. “The stars never looked like this in Bannack, I swear.”
James was too restless to care about the stars, though he still took great pleasure in her child-like sense of wonder. Of course, the stars in Bannack were just as bright as they were in Twin Falls, but he didn’t want to point that out. To her, life was brighter there, and he loved that. They had built something incredible together, and it was only growing.
“It’s incredible,” he agreed, looking up just in time to catch another shooting star crossing the sky. An owl hooted in the distance, adding to the atmosphere and sense of unknown.
“So, what was it that you wanted to—” he started.
“In good time, in good time. Let’s just be quiet for a bit.”
Sally made him wait for a good deal longer, sitting there and enjoying the beauty of the night until James wasn’t sure that there was anything she wanted to tell him after all. Then, finally, out of nowhere, she spoke.
“James, I’m pregnant.”
He froze, unsure of how to react, a thousand different emotions waging war inside of him all at the same time.
“I’m pregnant. We’re going to have a baby.”
Her face found his, as brilliant as the moon, and they kissed. Words could not express the breadth of his feelings. Holding her close was the only thing to do. It was the only thing he could do.
“You’re going to be a brilliant father, you know that?” she said finally, breaking the silence. James looked away in wonder, stunned that she knew exactly what he needed to hear before he even did.
He thought of his own father and all the mistakes he’d made along the way, and silently vowed to do the best he possibly could. There would be no running away. There would be no panic or despair. Hard times would certainly come, but as long as Sally was by his side, everything would be alright.
“Thank you. I’m not sure I even know what that means, but I’m going to try.”
“Of course, you know what it means. Think of all the good times you had with your father before he left. You can do all of that, and more. You can do so much more.”
“You’ll be the best mother in the entire world, I’m sure of it. Let’s fill this place with as many children as it can possibly fit. I want Tall Rock to be brimming with laughter, and joy, and… hang on a minute. Wait right here. I’ll be back,” he said, shifting Sally’s weight off of him and running toward the door.
“Where are you going? Stay! Let’s talk longer,” she pleaded.
“I’ll be right back, I promise.”
True to his word, he was back just as quickly as he could be, holding his guitar.
“This moment calls for something greater than words. My songs can’t exactly compete with the stars, but…”
He trailed off, sitting down beside the mother of his future child, and immediately began plucking at the strings. What came out was a haunting yet beautiful tune, filled with all the weight and joy of the moment. He started humming along until, finally, the words came.
“When will I meet you, my little one? When will I see you, after it’s all begun? When I do, oh, when I do, there’ll be nothing to outrun…”
He repeated the words and melody until more words came, shifting and finding themselves in the dark. To his surprise and utter delight, a sweet harmony escaped Sally’s throat as she joined in, cutting through the night like the soft radiance of a candle, growing in strength until they were singing the words together.
To all that heard their song that night, it was clear that it was created out of a gentle passion that only happens once in a lifetime. Neither ever forgot the melody. It was sung to their child when she was born, serenaded through tears and the pain of sleepless nights. It was requested in tender moments until it bore its way into the hearts and souls of all those who heard it, along with the timeless tale of James and Sally’s love.