“Why don’t we play a game? Checkers, maybe?” James suggested to his brother-in-law, the pacing and panicked father-to-be.
William was in danger of treading a hole in the wooden boards of the porch if he crisscrossed too many more times. James couldn’t blame him. It had been twelve hours of this uncertain terror already, and there was no end in sight.
Having arrived only three hours earlier, James had missed the bulk of the labor but was already feeling the cold of the oncoming night biting at his bones. The real shivers, however, came at the sound of his sister’s screaming from inside the small cabin. All they knew was that it was a breech birth, and all they could hope was that the midwife would be able to turn the baby around in time.
“Where’s the bloody doctor?” William asked, ignoring James’ half-hearted and unrealistic suggestion of checkers.
“Dr. Leavitt will ride over as soon as he gets back into town, I’m sure of it. Besides, Sally is a very talented midwife,” James pointed out in defense of his old friend. “I know she’s never supervised a birth on her own without her mother by her side, but I promise you, she knows what she’s doing. Anna and the baby will be just fine. She’s not just your wife—she’s my sister, too. Believe me, I’m just as worried as you are, but Sally will take care of everything.”
The sound of Anna screaming again with the push of another contraction seeped through the window, interrupting their conversation. James had never felt so helpless. He and William had both tried to be of use, but the women had quickly pushed them out with vague orders to chop wood and stay out of the way. The men had long since chopped all the logs they possibly could. There was nothing left to do but wait and worry.
Finally, William sat down beside James on the hard wooden bench under the window. Both stayed silent. James tried to interpret the sounds and voices coming from inside the house. He thought he could hear Sally’s soothing timbre telling Anna to push harder, which brought him some comfort.
Sally was the calmest, smartest person he knew. If there was anyone who could help his sister, it was Sally. She and James had known each other since school days, when they’d both run around exploring caves on the outskirts of Bannack after class, laughing at the way their voices sounded echoing through the natural tunnels.
No one but he knew that the best and most well-behaved student in town also loved to make up songs and stories about wild horses and lightning bolts, but the version of Sally that James had was special. To everyone else, she was a quiet, serious girl whose smile was hard-won. Humorless, even, some said, worn down by the difficulties her family faced.
That was what made their friendship so special. If he could earn a laugh from Sally, then it really was a joke worth telling. No one else was good enough to make her grin.
James knew better even than she did that there was nothing Sally couldn’t do.
A different kind of scream cut the air. A baby’s scream. James and William leaped to their feet and then stood frozen, unsure of what to do.
“Do we… can we?” William asked James, his eyes full of uncertainty. James almost smiled to see his strong, tall brother-in-law looking so much like a little boy. The man could split a tree trunk three feet wide with one crack of his ax, but just then he had the gentleness of a baby bird.
“Would you like to come meet your son, William?” Kathy, James’s mother, asked from the door with a smile.
No one had to ask William twice. He surged toward the house, bounding in with all the energy of a hound following a stench. James followed behind almost as quickly, throwing an arm around his mother’s shoulders as soon as they got inside.
The small cabin was desperately hot, thanks to the pots of water that were continually being boiled for the birthing process. James welcomed the heat. There, lying in the bed looking exhausted but happy, was his sister Anna. Her eyes were half shut, but her smile was wide.
Beside the bed stood Sally, holding the baby in her arms. James’s breath caught in his throat at the sight of her. She had never looked so beautiful. Her golden blonde hair was coming out of the bun that was usually combed so tightly at the nape of her neck, leaving glimmering strands free to stick against her cheek, wet with sweat from the hard work.
There was a shimmer in her clear green eyes that flashed up from the baby to meet his, her striking and severe face softening into a warm smile. A cavalcade of butterflies rose in James’s stomach as if they’d been waiting under a rock for centuries, biding their time before noticing the great beauty right in front of him.
“Here. Be careful to support the head. There you go!” Sally encouraged William as she passed him the precious newborn. Tears immediately sprung to the new father’s eyes as he moved to sit next to his wife on the bed.
“Sally was brilliant. You should have seen her taking charge. Either you’re an expert or you had us all fooled because it certainly seemed like you knew exactly what you were doing. No one would have known it was your first delivery,” Kathy crooned, singing Sally’s praises.
“That’s because it wasn’t. I’ve aided with at least thirty births to date. This was just my first time alone, without my mother. She taught me well. Though Anna is the one who really deserves the praise here. She was marvelous, and that was no easy labor. The next one will seem simple as pie. How does it feel to be an uncle?” Sally asked him, moving to James’ side.
In all his years knowing her, Sally’s presence had never made him nervous before. Now, however, he felt like a skittish cat, tamping down an instinct to run. He tried to convince his throat to open up.
“Feels like I haven’t done much to deserve it,” he said without thinking, throwing the whole room into laughter. He breathed a sigh of relief—he hadn’t forgotten how to talk, after all. James was never the tongue-tied sort. Wit was a kind of self-defense for him, ready to be deployed in any and every situation.
“Do you want to hold him?” William asked. Before James could say anything, Sally was picking up the baby from the father’s arms and crossing the room to hand the child to James, who prayed that his limbs hadn’t turned into limp noodles.
“Here,” Sally said quietly, nudging James’s arms into place. Before he knew it, there was a tiny, squirming creature in his care, stretching into his chest and reaching up blindly toward his face. The greatest feeling of love he’d ever felt surged through his heart while he stood looking at the small babe in his arms—but never for a moment did he forget that Sally was standing beside him, her hand on his elbow and the warmth of her cheek so close to his shoulder he could almost feel her skin.
Tears pressed against the corners of his eyes. The urge to have a family had always been in him, but now it was stronger than ever. He slipped into a fantasy land where it was his child that he was holding and Sally, the mother, his wife, standing so lovingly beside him. It felt like the most natural thing in the world. How could it not be?
He wasn’t sure how long they stood there like that, with the still-nameless child in his arms and Sally’s warmth by his side, but it felt like a generation. Everyone and everything else in the room disappeared, and it was just the three of them, breathing in time with one another.
A groan of pain from Anna interrupted the moment, and Sally rushed to her side, talking her through the mysteries of afterbirth. At least, it was a mystery to James, who was left to watch the yawning baby in his arms reaching out his impossibly tiny fingers.
William came over to take the child, and all of a sudden James was alone with his thoughts as he boiled more water, on orders from his mother. He couldn’t stop himself from stealing glances at Sally, seeing her in a completely different light. In her element. She was so elegant, taking care of Anna so handedly and moving like a graceful swan through a swamp of confusion.
How was it possible that he’d never noticed her beauty before? Growing up, other boys in town certainly had, and James had been disgusted by their comments, seeing her more as a sister than anything else. It was as if his eyes had been opened for the first time, and the world was finally making sense.
He and Sally were meant to be together and always had been. All-encompassing certainty overcame him as he stared at her, realizing that all the love songs he’d ever written in his head while toiling away in the gold mine were not about some fantastical lady he’d made up. They were about Sally. They always had been and always would be.
James swallowed hard as he passed a fresh cloth to Sally, and Anna started to look like herself again as William kissed her forehead. He wanted the life that his sister and her husband had, and he didn’t want to wait another second.
He got to his feet once more, unable to trust himself not to blurt out a marriage proposal to the entire room. Luckily, Dr. Leavitt came crashing into the cabin just then, stealing the attention of the small group and preventing James from making a fool of himself.
“How far along is she? Someone prepare a cold compress! William, what are you doing here? The father-to-be should never—oh! Looks like the wee one has already made an appearance!” The stout doctor laughed loudly.
“Yes, I’m pleased to report that mother and baby are both doing very well. The babe took his time and got a little lost along the way, but all is well,” Sally explained calmly, in stark opposition to Dr. Leavitt’s bouncy nature.
“Ah! Well, he couldn’t manage to wait for me, but I’ll forgive the boy. I’m sorry I was caught up on business out of town, although it looks like everyone’s done just fine without me. Your mother will be so proud of you, Sally. You’ll take up the mantle of the finest midwife in Bannack in no time, I’m sure. I’d venture to say the town hardly needs me anymore!” The self-effacing comment was clearly meant to attract compliments but drew only panic from Sally.
“That’s not true, Dr. Leavitt. We need a doctor here, badly. My father’s condition is only worsening, and he needs your attention. My mother couldn’t be here today because she needed to take care of him. Our herbs cannot mend his back or his lungs. And there are more like him who require—”
“Yes, yes, yes,” Dr. Leavitt said with a wave of his hand, interrupting Sally. “Thank you, I’m well aware of my Hippocratic oath. Don’t you worry—your father will be on the mend soon, I’m sure of it. I just heard rumors about a young doctor coming up from Boise, so soon you’ll be able to get two opinions. Or was that another blacksmith… regardless, I’ve been working on a little something that might take me away from Bannack, after all. A miracle cure. I’ll give you some for your father, and he’ll be right as rain!”
“What do you mean?” Sally asked, her brow furrowed with concern. The conversation was venturing further and further away from a possible romantic turn, but James knew it was for the best. He needed to pick his moment better, and this was not the time.
Still, even through her anger, Sally’s eyes flashed with a passion that moved him.
“It’s a mystical ingredient I’ve come across from a mountain spring in the wilds of Montana Territory. Mixed with the chemistry I was taught in medical school, it becomes an elixir of fantastic proportions. Any kind of affliction simply melts away with the proper dosage. Honestly, I believe it is my duty to bring this Cure-All Elixir to the world. James, I meant to speak with you about a proposition, actually. You’re a musician of sorts, aren’t you?” Dr. Leavitt asked.
“…Yes,” James ventured, shooting Sally a confused look. The eccentric doctor had never shown an interest in his musical abilities before, and it seemed like an odd transition.
“Well, you’re just the kind of man I’m looking for. You’re handsome and talented. I need someone to come on the road with me, someone to perform and draw in the crowds so that I can then espouse the wonders of my Cure-All Elixir to them. You’d be bringing good health to folks all over this land. What do you say, my boy?”
Frustrated, Sally silently threw her hands up into the air and swiftly got back to work, leaving James to deal with the doctor himself.
“That sounds very interesting, Dr. Leavitt, though I’m not sure I’m the man for the job. I already have work here, and my family needs me,” he added with a shrug.
“Work down in the mines? You’re meant for greater things, my boy. Think of it! Would you really prefer to stay toiling underground with a talent like yours? Come, now. Girls all over this land will swoon over you when you unleash your ballads, and let’s be honest, there aren’t too many women around here for you to pick from,” Dr. Leavitt whispered loudly.
Sally flashed him an annoyed look, and James understood that he needed to get the well-meaning doctor out of the house as soon as possible. Throwing an arm around his shoulders, James led Dr. Leavitt out toward the porch, pretending to be intrigued by his offer.
“Well, you’re right about one thing. I’d rather not work in the mine forever. Still, I just became an uncle, and my mother’s all alone. I can’t just pick up and leave. And neither should you! Not until we get another doctor in town, anyway,” James explained calmly.
“The money would be good. I plan on charging fifty cents for every bottle of the Cure-All. Twenty-five percent of profits would go to you. If we sell twenty-five bottles in every town we go to… well, I’ll let you do the math on that.” Dr. Leavitt winked.
The math did give James pause for a moment. Such a salary would be double what he was making in the mine, and from the sounds of it, far more pleasant work.
Beneath the flashy proposal, however, was a sea of empty promises, and James knew it. The Cure-All Elixir was too good to be true, and therefore probably was. He had no interest in selling expensive water to folks who just needed a good doctor, but above all, nothing could possibly be more tempting than a potential life with Sally. There was nothing the doctor could say or promise him, not a mansion on the coast or a thousand dollars or the ability to fly, that would ever convince him to leave Sally’s side again. He was bound for a different kind of glory.
It took another half hour before James finally convinced the doctor to head on home. It was dark, and James was anxious to get back to his family. And Sally.
Just as he was about to open the door and go back inside, Sally stepped out to join him on the porch. The pace of his heart immediately doubled.
“Here you are. I thought maybe Dr. Leavitt had stolen you away,” she said with a gentle laugh, tinkling through the air.
“If he’d had his way, he would have. Are you on your way home?”
“Oh, no. I’ll stay until the baby is breastfeeding successfully. You should go home soon, though. You’ve done so much to help. Anna and William need space now. Oh! They decided on a name.” The glint in her eye threatened to steal James’s breath.
“Ah! What is it?”
“Michael James Henderson. What do you think?”
“Very dignified. Strong name. Sounds like he’ll be a good… a good whatever he decides to be.”
“Well, I hope he takes his skills and escapes this town. Or makes it a better town than it is now,” Sally said with a sigh, stepping out to lean on the railing.
“What do you mean? Bannack has plenty to offer. Numerous stray dogs. More and more hopeful miners streaming in by the day, and gold… somewhere. At least, that’s what they say. And look! Shooting stars,” he said, pointing out toward the sky, shimmering with falling lights.
Sally’s face seemed to explode with wonder and it looked to James as if every inch of her cynicism softened away. Looking at her was even more wonderful than looking at the stars.
“Sally, I…” James started, his heart beginning to speak before his mind could stop it.
“Yes?” she urged him on expectantly, her eyes staring straight into his soul.
“Sally, would you… would you walk with me to Loggers Lookout?”
“Now? What’s gotten into you, James Vail? Your eyes look as big as the moon. It’s dark. We can’t go all the way out there now. Besides, like I said, I need to—”
“No, no, not tonight. Tomorrow! Watch the sunset from there, maybe? Meet me by the church gate after work and we can set out,” he said quickly, covering for the oddness of his request.
“Oh! Tomorrow. Well then, fine. We haven’t been up there since we were children.”
“It’s been too long.”
“It has. That will be nice. Oh, I think I hear the baby crying. I should head back in. See you tomorrow, then! And congratulations, Uncle.”
With that, she disappeared into the cabin again as quickly as a shooting star. Air flooded back into James’s lungs, and he smiled.
Tomorrow, at Loggers Lookout, where they used to climb as children, he would ask Sally Stratton to be his wife. Everything and nothing would change, all at once.
Sally pulled her shawl tightly around her shoulders and held her satchel of supplies close as she started along on the walk home, brimming with happiness despite the cold of the night air. She had brought a mother and baby back from the edge of disaster with nothing more than her wits and training.
The entire time she’d been struggling to turn the unborn baby around, Sally’s heart had been beating like the pounding of an ax. There was a moment when she thought her heart might explode from the stress of it all, but everything had turned out just as beautifully as could be imagined. In fact, she was so exhilarated from the experience that the thought of sleep seemed next to impossible.
There was hardly anything as moving to Sally as the sight of a new life entering the world. As the dirt of the road crunched under her feet, her mind left her immediate surroundings. The drab darkness of Bannack, with its crumbling shacks and rocky excuses for gardens, melted away as she fixated on the memory of James with his newborn nephew in his arms.
He may not have even been aware of it, but as he’d held young Michael, James had been humming something under his breath that immediately calmed the baby. Watching him like that left Sally’s imagination running amok as she’d daydreamed that it was their baby he’d been holding.
“Don’t be a fool,” she whispered to herself as she shook the thought away.
James’s boyish good looks and charm had haunted her since she was sixteen. She’d long harbored secret feelings for him that made her knees go weak every time he pushed his long brown curls away, revealing the heart-stopping blue of his eyes. There was no use dwelling on what couldn’t be, however. James was nothing more than a miner with distant dreams of making a life of his music.
Sally had to be strategic in her plans for marriage. Her father was suffering from a mining injury to his back that had brought on a host of other ailments, sending the family into catastrophic debt. If she had the chance to marry someone with a larger income, she had to take it for the sake of her family.
Besides, in the many years that they had known one another, James had never once made any sign to suggest that her affection was returned. They were friends, nothing more.
Standing on that porch under the stars, however, there had been a gleam in his eye that she had not seen before. Probably just another figment of her imagination, she told herself. Still, he’d asked her to walk with him to Loggers Lookout the next day—a strange request, all things considered. They hadn’t walked out that way together in quite some time. Years. It used to be the place where they would explore and talk for hours. Had a fit of nostalgia overcome James for some reason?
“Stop right there, Sally Stratton,” a commanding voice ordered from behind her.
Sally’s heart leaped in fear and she whipped around, flashing the light of her lantern in the direction of the voice. Though Bannack had always been her home, she never liked walking its deserted streets at night. Tales of thieves and drunken workers abounded among the townsfolk. Frustrated travelers who had come in search of a gold rush that had all but faded sometimes turned to crime to feed their hunger.
When she saw the owner of the voice, however, she instantly sighed in relief. It was only Henry Plummer, the sheriff and arguably the most popular man in all of Bannack. He was handsome and tall with shoulders as wide as an ox, but the fact that he was so well aware of his own good looks made him far less attractive to Sally.
He often strutted around town as if he owned the place, which he practically did. Though she had no details on where he got his money, Sally was vaguely aware that he owned a share in a nearby ranch and likely had other business ventures that he benefited from.
“Have I done something wrong, Sheriff Plummer?” she asked innocently.
“You have only committed the crime of being too beautiful for this town, Miss Stratton,” he replied smoothly, catching up to her. “You really shouldn’t be walking around at night all alone like this. I have no choice but to walk you home now.”
Sally laughed a little at Henry’s tone as he pretended that walking her home was the biggest inconvenience he’d ever been saddled with and not an opportunity he sought out.
“You really don’t need to. It’s only about two minutes away, and I’m a grown woman now,” she protested.
“I must admit, the line between wanting and needing is thin. I’ll tell you what, though. I have something for you, so it’s great luck that I ran into you like this. Here, from my humble pocket to yours.”
With that, Henry pulled out two lengths of beautiful, emerald green ribbon and handed them to her. Unlike James, Henry had always made it very clear to Sally that he fancied her, often bringing her unwanted gifts and even less desired compliments. Still, he was nice enough, and it benefited her entire family to foster the friendship.
“Well, thank you, but Henry, when have you ever seen me wear ribbons?” she teased.
“Never, which is why I think you ought to start. Think of how this green would look wrapped in your braids.”
“Strange is how it would look. Still, thank you. You’ll have to forgive me if I pass them along to my sister instead. Laura would appreciate such a gift far more than I do. Not to say I don’t appreciate the thought.”
Henry let out a deep laugh that practically rumbled the ground beneath them.
“And that is precisely why I am so charmed by you, Miss Stratton. What other woman would deign to tell me what she really thinks? Your honesty is refreshing. Tell me, where are you coming from on this fine evening?”
“From William and Sarah’s house. She gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, and I’m pleased to report that I handled the labor on my own. My mother needed to stay home to take care of Papa. His breathing’s been getting worse and worse these past few days. Dr. Leavitt was out of town on some silly business. So, I managed on my own!” she announced proudly.
“Of course you did! Congratulations, Sally. I have never doubted that you would one day become the finest midwife in all of Montana Territory. You don’t need anyone else.” He put what was meant to be a reassuring arm around her shoulders, but Sally instinctively shrugged away as politely as she could.
“Thank you, Henry. I may not need anyone else, but my father surely does. Dr. Leavitt was saying something about maybe leaving town to pursue the sale of some snake oil. I know he isn’t the most reliable doctor, but he’s the only one we’ve got. I’m nervous for what might become of my father without Dr. Leavitt’s attentions, distracted though they may be.”
Sally nervously bit at her fingernails and picked up the pace of her walking, anxious to get back to the house and check on her father. Her home was in sight, and soon she would be rid of Henry’s unwieldy company.
Sally was stopped dead in her tracks when Henry pivoted in front and took her hands in his, making it difficult to keep holding the lantern and the supplies swinging from her wrist.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” she asked, taken aback by Henry’s behavior. A wistful look took over his face, which only added to Sally’s unease.
“Sally, I hope you know that I would do anything to help your father. Anything you need. Honestly, your wish is my command. I do my best to serve this town, but it’s no great secret that I especially care about your well-being. Your father’s health clearly affects you, and you deserve a healthy family.”
“Oh, I… well, that’s very kind of you, Henry,” Sally replied nervously, unsure of how to respond to his disarming earnestness.
“I really mean it. What can I do?”
“Um, I mean to say… I’m not sure. I suppose what we truly need is another doctor here in Bannack, especially if Dr. Leavitt is going to be leaving us high and dry. Obviously, that’s far too much to ask of—”
“No. No, it isn’t too much at all. Let me see what I can do.”
He held her gaze for far too long. The heat from his fingers around hers was starting to make her palms sweat, and she pulled away from him.
“That’s too generous of you, Henry, but I… thank you. I should really be getting home. Everyone will be wondering where I am,” she insisted, starting down the path toward her house where safety awaited before Henry stopped her again.
“It’s hardly too generous. You know what you mean to me, Sally Stratton, and you know what I say every time I see you. I’m going to marry you someday. Just you wait. Someday soon,” he said with a wink.
It was the kind of flattery that would make most women blush, but Sally found herself crawling with discomfort. Normally, she brushed away his saccharine words as nothing more than overly-enthusiastic flirtation that all the ladies in town likely had to endure, but there was something different in his demeanor that evening. Something more committed about his tone.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” she replied with a forced smile, relying on her usual response. “Thank you for walking me home, Sheriff Plummer.”
“So formal! Goodnight, Sally. Give my regards to your family.”
She could feel him watching her the entire length of her walk up to the door, but she refused to turn around and wave goodbye. While it would have been the polite thing to do, Sally didn’t want to do anything to give him the wrong impression.
Of course, he had money that could really help her family. Everything in her wished that she was more comfortable with his attentions and flattery, as it would make everything more convenient, yet she simply couldn’t see herself ever loving him.
Logic and reason told her that love had little to do with marriage, but still, it held her back from giving in. Instead, she let him carry on while neither encouraging nor discouraging Henry’s unnecessary gallantry. Perhaps, somehow, if she tried hard enough, she could return his affections. Someday.
The possibility was worth leaving the door open, for her family’s sake alone.
“Darling! You’re back at last. How was it? You look ill. What happened?” Sally’s mother, Mary, cooed with worry as she came to greet her daughter at the door.
“Do I look ill? I don’t mean to. Not that it’s something you can help with. No, I just… it was wonderful! Sorry, I feel a bit discombobulated. It was magnificent. And very difficult. Breech birth. I did exactly what you always taught me to do. If you had been there, it might not have taken so long. In the end, however, I can say that I’ve delivered my first baby on my own!” Sally announced proudly, trying to swallow away the uncomfortable interaction with Henry.
“Oh, that’s such a relief. Not that I’m surprised in the least. I’ve seen you in action.”
“And you taught me well. How’s Papa?”
Mary grew quiet and the temporary joy fell from her face. “He’s doing as well as can be expected. I’m hoping the fever will break soon. Your sister’s with him now.”
She nodded toward the closed door. It was the only door in their small cabin, besides the one at the front. For the longest time, Sally and her sister had begged to sleep in the private room that belonged to their parents instead of the cot in the main room. Eventually, they’d relented. Very quickly, however, Sally and Laura discovered that sleeping by the fire was a far more advantageous position, and they had quickly moved back.
Just then, Laura came out of the bedroom, quietly closing the door behind her. Her face lit up as soon as she saw Sally.
“The miracle worker returns! Victorious, I presume?” she asked in a half-whisper with a cheeky smile.
“I’m not sure I would compare the delivery of a baby to battle, but I suppose there are some similarities. Victorious, yes. A baby boy,” Sally revealed.
Laura squealed and clapped her hands quietly. “Father will be so pleased to hear the good news! He’s just gotten to sleep, so you’ll have to wait until the morning. I think his fever is close to breaking, so I expect him to be much improved tomorrow.”
At just sixteen, Laura was the energy of the family. The slightest bit of excitement made her giddy. Despite their opposing personalities, Laura and Sally looked quite similar, even with the difference in age. Laura’s cheeks were fuller and there was a curl in her blonde hair that was absent in Sally’s, but they shared the same kind of green eyes.
Laura preferred the feminine arts of sewing and embroidery and was sometimes given to dancing around the cabin while pretending their sole tablecloth was her wedding veil. Sally never understood the allure of such things, but she appreciated her sister’s artistic creativity. She could make something beautiful out of dried flowers and a stained apron. As different as they were, the two of them got along splendidly.
“How marvelous! I’ll have to make something for him. I think I have some leftover yarn. Maybe I can crochet a hat for the winter or the like,” Laura said, her mind already five steps ahead.
“Oh! That reminds me. I have something for you.” Sally pulled the green ribbons from Henry out of her supply satchel and handed them to Laura.
Laura looked as though her sister had just handed her a bucket of pure gold.
“Silk ribbon? And such a deep green! Where did you get this? This surely did not come from the general store. This must have come from Paris! Or New York.” Laura held the ribbons up to the light of Sally’s still-lit lantern, inspecting every inch of them.
“Henry Plummer gave them to me, of course. Who else would think to spend money on such frivolity?” Sally said with a shake of her head. She started to loosen the laces on her boots in preparation to put away her things, but her mother put a bowl of soup in her hands and made her sit down to eat it.
“Henry Plummer! Of course. Now, my question is, why hasn’t that man proposed to you yet?” Mary asked, adding a stale end of bread to Sally’s meal.
Sally caught Laura’s gaze and they both rolled their eyes. The sisters agreed that though Henry presented himself as the perfect man, nothing truly could be that perfect.
“He’s been saying he’ll propose since I was about twelve years old, Ma. I don’t think he’ll ever go through with it. And why would he? A man of his wealth ought to be marrying a girl who’s set to inherit something. Not a midwife,” Sally pointed out.
It was unlike her to do so, but Laura stayed quiet, biting her tongue while their mother sang Henry’s praises.
“You underestimate your beauty, my dear! Henry has his own money. He doesn’t need to worry about marrying a girl whose father owns a hotel or the like. He cares deeply for you and this family. Have faith in him! I’ll wager he’ll propose to you before the year is out.” Sally’s mother patted her cheek affectionately.
Turning back to her meal, Sally tried to think of a way to steer the conversation in a different direction, but it was difficult to distract even herself from the subject of Henry. His promise regarding helping her father repeated itself in her mind. For his sake, it would be next to impossible to refuse an offer of marriage from Henry, though the idea of a life with him brought her no joy. She could only hope that Henry was as unreliable as he seemed and that his vow to marry her someday was nothing more than empty words.
Then, there was James. However much she’d told herself that her feelings for him were one-sided, there was still a stubborn part of her that held hope that they would find their way to one another someday. Sally’s head told her she couldn’t wait around for him to make such a discovery or for their friendship to shift into the love that was already in her soul. Besides, as she’d told herself thousands of times before, a marriage with James would not be able to provide what her family needed.
Yet her heart was shouting at her, telling her that James had always been by her side for a reason. If she was capable of doing so, letting go of her love for him and making room for another in her heart would be the hardest and most selfless thing Sally would ever do.
“Oh my goodness! James, you’ve finally come to your senses! I’ve been waiting some five years or so for you to propose to that girl. What on earth took you so long?”
“Well, I haven’t done it yet,” James pointed out to his mother, who was giddy with happiness. The exhaustion of helping to care for her first grandchild may have had something to do with her extreme happiness, but he believed her when she said she’d been waiting for this moment.
James had woken up that morning with enough time to see the beauty of a pink sunrise streaming in through his window. He wasn’t looking for a sign that proposing to Sally was the right thing to do, but if he had been, that sunrise would have more than sufficed. The next time that same sun hovered above the horizon, he would be on one knee in front of the love of his life.
“You know what I mean,” Kathy scolded, folding her arms in front of her and looking down her nose at her son. “What’s changed? Why have you made this decision all of a sudden?”
“I…” he started, feeling his face flush. It seemed silly to admit that it wasn’t until he saw her holding his nephew that the love he felt for Sally had really sunk in, but it was the truth. “I should have realized a lot sooner, I’m sure. Something about how she handled the delivery of Michael… She was so gentle and encouraging of Anna, and… honestly, she was a marvel to watch.”
Tears started to form in his mother’s eyes, which made James’s shoulders tense up with embarrassment, but he didn’t let himself dwell in it, pulling her into an embrace instead.
“Forgive my sentimentality, but it brings me such joy to see both of my children in such a good place. If your father could be here…”
James’s mood shifted quickly at the mention of his father. His mother was in the habit of pretending he had passed away, but the truth was that he had abandoned them when James was no older than eight years old. He still felt the sting of betrayal, and couldn’t understand why his mother still had kind words to say about the man, but there were times when James yearned to find him.
Something deep inside him wanted to know why his father had left and to have the chance to connect with the man who’d first given him his love of music. Growing up watching his father stun crowds with his crooning had made James want to learn to do the same. Still, it would take a mountain of strength to forgive him for abandoning the family without warning.
“If my father wanted to be here, then he would be,” James said, feeling the frailty of his mother’s shoulders under his hands.
“Still, he’d be proud to know that his son has become a better man than he ever was, and that your sister has started the most beautiful family. When he and I met… well, everything was different. There was color in my cheeks and the glint in his eye was magnetic. When he asked me to dance, I don’t think I could have turned him down even if I’d wanted to. It was like he had me hypnotized.
“You ought to know that you were born into a happy and loving home. You remember, I’m sure. Your father used to swing you and your sister around this very room until you squealed with joy. Whatever it was that took him away from us… I know in my heart that it wasn’t a lack of love for us. Still, you’re a better man than he is by a mile. I can’t wait to see the father that you become,” she replied, her voice thin with emotion.
“Now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. I haven’t asked her to marry me yet, and she hasn’t said yes. Sally might—”
“Oh, don’t be silly, James. That girl has been half in love with you since 1875. There’s no doubt in my mind she’s been waiting for you. She’s a beautiful, smart woman. And she’s twenty-two already. Living in a town brimming with men, surely she’s had plenty of offers and opportunities to wed, whether her family has money or not. What possible other reason could she have to remain unmarried except that she’s been waiting for you?” his mother pointed out, refilling his mug of morning coffee.
“She isn’t exactly the type to encourage that kind of attention from men. Maybe she simply doesn’t want to get married.”
Kathy made a huffing noise to signify her disdain. “That’s ridiculous.”
The sound of the church bells ringing reminded James that despite all the excitement of the day, he still had to go to work.
“I should get going. Shoot, I wanted to put together some food for us. To make an evening picnic, that sort of thing. I won’t really have time—”
“Don’t worry, I’ll pack something up for you. I’m going to see Anna and the baby now, but I ought to have time this afternoon. Maybe I’ll bake a honey cake for you. I knew I’d been waiting to use that honey for something important! This is the perfect occasion. You must bring her back here first thing once you get back from Loggers Lookout. Of course, you’ll have to speak to her father, as well. You should think of what you’re going to say while you’re at work,” Kathy suggested with a wag of her finger before fastening on her only slightly stained bonnet.
“Oh, right. He isn’t in the best of health, so I don’t want to bother him.” It hadn’t occurred to James that he would have to win over Sally’s family as well, though the thought didn’t worry him too much. They had always gotten along, and in some ways, he considered them his second family.
“Some good news might be just what he needs to turn the corner. I’ve seen stranger things happen. Best of luck, my boy, and hurry back after work! You can practice what you’re going to say with me.”
James nodded and kissed his mother’s cheek before giving her what was left over from his last week’s pay as she hurried out the door. Truthfully, he had no intention of sharing his proposal with her, but it didn’t seem like the time to get into an argument. Whatever he was going to say to Sally would stay between the two of them.
As he sat on the morning cart bound for the mines, sardined between seven other tired men, James tried to keep his smile to himself. Normally, the morning ride was dull and tiresome, and sometimes James would try to raise the men’s spirits with a song. That day, however, he was lost in thoughts of Sally. He ran through what he might say to her, though he knew himself too well to believe he wouldn’t simply speak his mind when he saw her.
“What are you grinning about this morning, James? It’s a beautiful day that we’re going to miss entirely. Or do you prefer being underground instead of in the sun?” teased Mikey, one of the youngest to join the search for gold. He hadn’t yet been beaten down by the dangers of the work or the bleakness of it, though he pretended to be just as hardened as the rest of them.
“Well, if you escape in your mind to greener pastures, it’s almost like you’re not here at all. For myself, I was just imagining that I was wandering a warm, green field with a refreshing cider in my hand and—”
“And buried treasure two feet in front of you!” Mikey interjected, interrupting James’s improvised daydream. He didn’t need all of Bannack to know what he felt for Sally.
Just then, Sheriff Plummer and his men rode past the cart. All the miners tipped their hats deferentially, avoiding eye contact. The sheriff could be terribly generous, but not someone that anyone wanted to get on the bad side of. Likely a good quality in a sheriff, yet Bannack still seemed to be riddled with tricksters and thieves.
Everyone stayed quiet for the rest of the ride.
James muddled his way through work that day, lost in a fog of thought. The hours dragged by as his hammer and chisel got heavier and heavier, but he kept his mind trained on Sally. He wasn’t going to let a bit of hard work get in the way of what was bound to be the best day of his life.
Instead, he did what he had recommended young Mikey do, and dreamed of a better future. Bannack had once been a land of promise, with goldfields full of prospectors seeking out their fortunes, but many years had passed since those days, leaving those in search of gold to work for others who had found it first, toiling underground.
In his mind, however, James could live far away. He imagined he and Sally as farmers, with fields of glistening corn—a different kind of gold. He would come back to the house after a long day on the farm (what exactly he’d be doing, James had no idea—he’d never worked on a farm before) to find Sally canning peaches with a laughing child clinging to her calf.
Life would be hard work, yet joyful work, the kind that made people feel proud and accomplished. Not even in his imagination were they rich, but that didn’t matter. Finding easy gold had been his father’s wish, not his. As long as James had his guitar and his Sally by his side, he would be a happy man.
The foreman’s bell rang, marking the end of the day, and James’s heart leapt in his chest. He was one step closer to seeing Sally. He had to remind himself not to push others aside as he rushed to be in the first lift up to the surface and the first cart riding back into town. When he burst into the house once more, he could barely feel the workday aching in his arms anymore.
His mother was there already, carefully packing up a delightful package of goods.
“Honey cake, cheese, jam… ham! This is too much, Mama,” he insisted, giving her a peck on the cheek before separating some of the food.
She gently slapped his wrist and pushed him away.
“You’ll bring back whatever you don’t eat. Lavishness is the point. We ought to indulge every once in a while. You want Sally to know that she’s special to you—to all of us. She’s the daughter-in-law I’ve always dreamed of, and a bit of jam may make her forgive how long it’s taken you to propose to her. You smell musty. Best go wash your face with a fresh bar of soap and put on a clean shirt. The one with the brown buttons should do; it fits your shoulders so well,” Kathy advised.
Normally, James would have laughed at her fussing and taken his time getting cleaned up, but there was nothing normal about this day. Instead, he rushed around doing just as his mother told him to do while listening to her tell him about the latest news from his sister’s family and the newborn.
All was well, she was pleased to report, and the baby was looking more and more like his father every day. Inspired, James even went so far as to shave, which was normally a chore he only engaged in once a week.
“You look wonderfully handsome,” his mother cooed as she handed him the basket of food. James swung his guitar over his shoulder and started to head out the door when Kathy stopped him.
“Wait! We’ve forgotten the most important thing! A ring!”
“It did occur to me, but the fact of the matter is I don’t have one and can’t really afford one. Besides, as you continue to point out, time is of the essence. Sally will understand. We’ll be able to squeeze a stone and find romance. We don’t need baubles to signify our love,” he argued, but his mother shook her head emphatically.
“No, no. I won’t hear of it. Goodness, where would you be without me? Wait right here and I’ll be back,” she said, bustling away to the adjoining room to look for something.
James waited patiently until she finally returned, holding something small and precious that she carefully placed in the palm of his hand.
It was a ring—gold encircling a perfectly round, tiny, and iridescent pearl.
“Mama, this is… this is beautiful. Where’s this from? I don’t think I’ve ever seen it before,” he said in awe.
“It was mine. I stopped wearing it after your father left, which explains why you don’t recognize it. As hard as things have gotten, I’ve never been able to bring myself to sell it. So, may it live on with you and Sally. I don’t doubt that you will show this ring what real love looks like. It was given to me with heart, and so I give it to you.” There was a tear in his mother’s eye that almost broke James’s heart.
Instead of crumbling under the ache of it all, James channelled his mother’s melancholy into ambition. He was going to come back to her an engaged man, one way or another. He would give her the daughter-in-law she’d always wanted, and he would put into motion the life that Sally deserved more than anything.
“True Love’s Healing Melody” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Sally Stratton has been in love with her childhood friend James ever since she remembers herself. Her personal wishes though take second place, as with her father on death’s doorstep and the family in debt, everyone’s depending on her to make a profitable marriage and help them survive. Having lost any hope in James loving her back, Sally accepts the proposal of the local sheriff and richest man in town. Her heart is crushed but she has a duty to fulfill…
Will she patiently accept her fate or will she find the courage to show what lies deeper in her heart?
Ever since James Vail witnessed Sally’s act as a midwife in the birth of his nephew, he has realized that she is not simply a childhood companion, but a beautiful and capable woman he can’t live without. However, by the time he finally becomes aware of the feelings that have always been in his heart for her she has already accepted the proposal of another man. Heartbroken, James skips town hoping that a new adventure lies ahead for him. But still, forgetting Sally is easier said than done…
Can he truly move on or will he be forever bound to this unfulfilled love?
In an act of desperation, when Sally’s engagement is broken off under suspicious circumstances, she puts an advertisement in the newspaper as a mail-order bride hoping she could reach James. Is there a chance that he will see Sally’s posting, or will she once more be forced to accept a stranger’s proposal for the sake of her family? Can the fate that brought them apart be able to bring them back together?
“True Love’s Healing Melody” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.