Two Years Later
“And then the great big bear came charging out of nowhere,” Aiden said, lifting his hands and making them look like enormous bear paws.
“Uncle Aiden,” Rosie scolded, “There are no bears in Texas.”
“Of course, there are,” Aiden replied, glancing toward Serena. “There are bears everywhere, aren’t there?”
Serena shrugged good-naturedly, “You’re the one making up the story, Uncle Aiden.”
“Making it up?” Aiden mimicked, his hands flying to the sides of his face as if he were genuinely affronted by such an insinuation.
“He would never make up a story, Mama,” Sally said, crawling away from Aiden so she could sit in Serena’s lap. “Uncle Aiden always tells us stories from his travels.” Serena ran a loving hand over Sally’s mass of blond curls. The child snuggled into her chest even deeper.
“You’re right, Sally,” Serena responded, giving her brother a steady stare, “Uncle Aiden would never, never, never tell a lie.”
“That’s right,” Cole piped up. He was the oldest of the children Serena and Luka had adopted from the orphan train and, therefore, the most pragmatic. “Papa taught us it was never okay to lie.”
“Your father?” Aiden asked, “Really?” Then, he leaned forward, and faux whispered, “Luka actually told them that.”
“Well, to be fair,” Serena explained, “Luka didn’t say they should never lie. He just said it’s only something we do if we are trying to protect others.”
Aiden rolled his eyes. “Leave it to Luka to come up with a valid way to justify stretching the truth.”
“You should talk,” Serena replied, swatting her free hand at her brother. “You’re the one fabricating a story about wrestling a bear!”
Aiden dove away from her and wrapped both arms around Rosie and Cole. He rolled and took both children with him, each of them squealing in delight. Sally leaped from Serena’s lap and barreled across the sitting room so she could jump on the pile.
“Are we wrestling Uncle Aiden now?” Serena asked, brushing off her blue and white skirt.
“Yes,” Aiden roared, “because I’m a big, angry bear.” He made a face as if he were snarling, and all the children started giggling uncontrollably as Cole wrapped his arms around Aiden’s neck and Sally grabbed onto his shoulder.
“Honey!” Luka’s voice drew Serena’s attention, so she turned away from Aiden and the children.
“We’re in here!” She called back. He appeared in the open doorway waving a letter high in the air.
When he came into sight, his face dropped, and the hand holding the letter went to his side. “Awww….am I missing out on all the fun?”
He entered the sitting space and plopped down on the floor next to Serena. “I’d say the fun has just begun,” she murmured, leaning over to give him a quick kiss on the cheek.
“When did your brother arrive?” Luka asked, then he tipped his head to the side thoughtfully and added, “Did we know he was coming?”
“Oh,” Serena replied nonchalantly, “You know how Aiden is. We never can tell from one day to the next where he’ll be or what he’ll be doing.”
“Hey,” Aiden shouted, “I heard that.”
“Good,” Serena replied, “Maybe if you ran a more regular schedule with the stagecoach, we might know when and where you were….”
“Or when you would be planning to stop in unexpectedly,” Luka added under his breath, but Serena heard him and gave him a gentle nudge with her shoulder.
“So, what have you got there?” She asked, nodding toward the letter he still held in his hand.
“I’m not real sure,” Luka admitted, tapping the ends of the letter against his fingertips, “but the envelope has an address on it from someplace in Montana.”
“Montana?” Serena asked, “Who do we know in Montana?”
Luka shook his head. “I’m not sure.”
“Well, rip it open then,” Aiden said, tearing himself away from the kids for a minute to share in the conversation.
Luka did as Aiden suggested, sliding his thumbnail underneath the flap and opening the envelope. He removed a thin sheet of paper covered front and back with small, cramped scribbles. He turned it over in his hands. “I don’t recognize this handwriting,” he murmured.
“Go on,” Serena urged. “Read it out loud.”
Luka cleared his voice and began reading, “Dear Knox…or maybe I should say Luka…or I guess it would be better to call you Deputy Finley.” Luka paused and gave Serena a curious look. She reached for the envelope he still held in his left hand and turned it over.
She shook her head, still unable to think of anyone they might know who lived in Montana. Furthermore, she couldn’t dare guess who might know Luka as Knox. Serena understood that everyone who had been a member of the Brenton Boys or the Littleton Gang…anyone associated with Eddie Wade and his band of criminals, really…had been rounded up long ago. Every so often, Luka would come home and report that one of them was being moved to a new jail, but that was the extent of their conversation about those men. She knew they were doing hard labor to pay back their crimes against society; that was all she felt she needed to know. But now, it seemed, their past was returning to haunt them.
Luka continued reading, “I found out your real identity almost as soon as I left town. I hadn’t gone far, just got away from the gang, so I read about your exploits in the paper.” Luka put the letter down, and he turned to stare at her. “Serena! It’s Jeremiah! It has to be.”
Serena felt a rush of joy fill her heart. Luka told her he’d asked Jeremiah to leave the gang just before the bust. He mentioned the way he’d found Jeremiah’s knife plunged into the magnolia tree, but she had always only dared to hope that he’d really gotten away. He’d been with the gang for a long time. Just because he walked away from them didn’t mean he’d given up his life of crime, and she had always prayed that he would find something better. She felt instinctively as though this letter were a sign. Jeremiah had made it out alright.
Serena nodded enthusiastically and motioned for Luka to keep reading. He did. “After I found out you were a Sheriff’s Deputy, that sure explained a lot. I always thought you were just a little different from the others, and it made me feel better to know that I hadn’t been entirely wrong about you. But I want to let you know you weren’t totally wrong about me, either. I left Texas for Montana as soon as I read all those articles about you. I started working on a ranch, caring for some cattle, and doing all kinds of respectable chores. A couple of months ago, I started attending church, and don’t you know…I met a lady there! My wife, Clara, recommended I check in with you. I wasn’t sure how to find you or Miss Serena, but I contacted the sheriff’s Office in Littleton and found out you and Serena got married, and now you both live in Brenton.”
Luka broke off and gave Serena a dazzling smile. He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. Then, he went back to reading the tail end of the letter. “I hope you’ll tell Serena hello for me, and I don’t need to remind you to take good care of her, as I’m sure you’ve already got that handled. I also hope you don’t mind me writing this letter, but I had to tell you how much you changed my life that day. If you hadn’t suggested I leave the gang and get out of town, I don’t know where I’d be now. I certainly wouldn’t be here with Clara, expecting the birth of my first child any day now.” Luka paused in his reading again, and he cast a small smile now at Serena.
She knew exactly what he was thinking. They’d been hoping to be blessed with a pregnancy for ages now. After they’d been married for a year and they still didn’t have any luck, they’d decided to adopt the kids, Cole, Rosie, and Sally, from the orphan train, but they were both still hoping that someday, they would be able to have a child of their own. Serena patted Luka’s hand and lifted it to her mouth so she could place a soft kiss on his knuckles.
Luka ducked his head back toward the letter and finished reading, “I guess that’s all from me here in Montana. If you or Serena feel like writing any letters, I know I’d love to hear from you. Your friend and partner in crime, Jeremiah.”
“Oh,” Serena gushed, “I’m so glad he reached out to you. I always wondered what became of him.”
“Me, too,” Luka added, “It’s good to know he found his way in this world.”
Aiden and the kids had quieted down, and her brother gave her a curious look. “I must say…it is rather odd that you both received such a letter today because I’ve had a letter of my own I wished to share with you.”
“Really?” Serena asked. It was seldom that Aiden got any post. She should know. Once she and Luka got married, Aiden and Serena sold their little house so she could move into this one with her husband. Aiden used this as his home base now, and so if he got any mail, it came here. In the past two years, Aiden hadn’t received any more than three or four missives, so Serena was surprised that he somehow now had a letter that she hadn’t laid eyes upon already.
“When I got to Littleton on my last run, this was waiting for me at the hotel. It seems that it arrived there long ago, but no one knew what to do with it since I wasn’t a lodger there at the time,” Aiden explained.
Serena moved Sally off her lap and crawled across the floor, so she came to sit next to her brother. Sally toddled right after her, and as soon as Serena’s lap was available once more, the tot plopped there. Aiden held the letter out for Serena, and she took it, quickly skimming over the contents.
“What does it say?” Luka asked, after giving her a moment to peruse the letter.
“It’s from my Uncle Oscar. It says that he received Aiden’s request for funds and….” Serena broke off and stared at Aiden. “You sent Uncle Oscar a letter asking him to send money?”
Aiden nodded. “When you were taken hostage, my options were limited. I knew I didn’t have three hundred dollars, and while I was pretty sure Uncle Oscar didn’t either, I didn’t have anywhere else to turn.”
Serena was astonished. Aiden had never once mentioned that he’d written such a letter, and she had never thought he would look to their uncle for support, even in their darkest hour. “And he’s only writing to you now?” Serena asked, flipping the letter over in search of a date.
“It looks as though it was postmarked years ago,” Aiden said, pointing to a stamp on the flimsy envelope. “He probably sent it right after receiving my letter.”
“But…?” Serena murmured, allowing her question to trail off as she began reading the letter again. “It says here that Uncle Oscar enclosed the requested funds. If that’s true, then where are they?”
Aiden pulled a stack of bills from his front pocket, and Cole was the first to reach for them. “Are those real dollars, Uncle Aiden?” Cole asked, grabbing Aiden’s hand.
“They are, indeed, young man,” Aiden replied, rising slowly and walking toward the dining room table. Serena moved Sally from her lap and put her on the floor next to Cole and Rosie. She stood and followed her brother.
“I’m going to need you to explain what you’re doing,” Serena said as Luka came to stand next to her just behind Aiden.
“If you bothered to read all of Uncle Oscar’s letter, you’d probably be able to hazard a guess,” Aiden said as he began counting out dollar bills and placing them into separate stacks.
“Just tell me what this is all about,” Serena demanded, feeling a little flustered by the matter.
“Fine,” Aiden replied, “Uncle Oscar sent the three hundred dollars I requested. Luckily, no one ever thought to open that envelope, or I’m sure they would have stolen the whole lot.”
“You can say that again,” Luka joked, his eyes widening at the stack of bills.
“What I’m doing now,” Aiden continued, “is making piles for the both of us. I’m going to give you half, and I’m planning to keep the other half.”
“But why would you do that?” Serena asked. “We got away from Eddie and the gang. We don’t need to keep Uncle Oscar’s money.”
“I’m not planning to keep the money,” Aiden said, turning to give Serena a strange look over his shoulder. “Not exactly. If you read to the end of the letter, Uncle Oscar reported that he managed to earn a fine living on his ranch in Oklahoma. He said if I managed to save you and got you returned safely, I should pack up the stagecoach and bring you to Oklahoma. He offered me a spot working on his ranch, and you…well….” He paused and raised his hand half-heartedly, “It doesn’t really matter what he suggested I do with you, as you’ve already got yourself covered here.”
“I don’t understand,” Serena breathed, looking from her brother to the stack of bills that were piling up on the table in front of them.
“These last two years, I’ve come to appreciate what it means to rely on family. First, right after you married Luka, I felt how wonderful it was to have his mom and dad and brother and sister surrounding us. Then,” Aiden paused and snorted, “the two of you decided to adopt a gaggle of children, and I learned what kind of pleasure a person can take from having little ones to look after all the time.” Aiden stopped again, and this time he turned to face Serena. “Because of the two of you, I’ve discovered that I don’t want to live this solitary lifestyle anymore. We both know my time running the stagecoach is almost over. No one wants to ride with me when they can take the train.” He smiled sadly, “So I guess this letter from Uncle Oscar came at just the right time.”
“What do you mean?” Luka asked, and both Serena and Aiden looked at him.
“I’ve decided to share this money with you. Then, I’m going to use the rest to get myself to Oklahoma. I’ll work with Uncle Oscar for a few years, paying back this whole ransom, and then maybe I’ll find myself a wife and settle down…keep an eye on my own family after a while.”
“That’s what you really want?” Serena asked, delighted that her brother had finally found his way back to thinking hopefully about the future.
Aiden nodded. “I can’t guarantee what the future will hold for me…for any of us…but I’m not afraid to find out any more.”
Serena hugged her big brother close, and she felt Luka’s arms wrap around them too. Then, the three little ones moved forward, and Serena felt tiny arms grab onto her legs, hugging her around her knees. She knew at that moment that her brother was right. She might not know what was going to happen tomorrow, the day after that, or even five minutes from now, but she could say without a doubt that she looked forward to embracing that future because she had Luka, her children, and her brother all on her side…and those were all the riches that a girl could ever dream of possessing.