Emma felt powerless for the first time in her life as she watched her seedling hay and wheat fields wash away in the torrential flood. A powerful rainstorm and the warm weather had caused the snow in the mountains to melt faster than usual, and the overflowing river had now flooded her lower fields.
Emma yelled to her brother-in-law, “I have Rebecca and her colt. Get the rest of the horses to the higher pasture!”
She grasped the mare’s bridle and guided the skittish horse through the rising water. The young colt stuck close to its mother, following her without question. When the last of the horses were in the pasture, Emma closed the gate and ran back into the shin-high water. Feet numb from the freezing cold water, she started to shiver.
Her brother-in-law yelled after her, “Emma, be careful! That water is rising fast!”
“I need to save Betsy and her calf!”
Using the bridle to guide the cow, Emma slowly made her way to solid ground. The calf struggled to follow. Emma entered the water and picked up the newborn calf, but she lost her footing and both fell back into the frigid water.
George ran down and picked up the calf, carrying it to its mother. Emma dragged herself to higher ground before she stood up. “Thank you, George.”
Emma tucked a dripping lock of her auburn hair behind her ear. As she shivered, she surveyed what was left of her farm. The barn and the house were halfway up the hill, safe from the floodwaters, but a shack the animals used as an outdoor shelter in the lower pasture was underwater. All she could see was the top of its sloped roof. Even the creek that ran by the house was swollen with water. Below the house and barn, the land flattened out; it was part of the ancient alluvial flood plain for the river. Even so, those fields were still well above the normal spring flood level.
This thaw had taken the entire valley by surprise. Emma was glad the farmhouse and barn were on higher ground—many of her neighbors were not as lucky. A few of her neighbors had come to her boarding house for shelter, and the men had kindly helped corral the animals to safety.
“At least we were able to get most of the animals to the higher ground,” her brother-in-law George yelled to her over the sound of rushing water and torrential rain. “I’ll handle the animals and equipment. Change into some dry clothes and take care of the guests.”
Emma struggled to walk uphill. Her waterlogged black cotton dress and petticoat felt like she was dragging a sack of flour with her.
Her younger sister Annie ran up to her and placed a wool blanket around her shoulders. “Your hands are like ice.” The two walked back to the house.
Emma shook her head. “The fields that grow our winter feed just washed away. It’s going to be another tough year. Even if I’m able to plant another crop, it won’t be enough to make it through.”
Her younger sister Annie hugged her. Her blue eyes sparkled with optimism. “We will make it even if we have to buy feed. No winter will ever be as bad as last winter. I will make sure of that.”
“You can’t control the weather. And accidents happen.”
Annie hugged her sister. “I know, but we’ve always persevered. I know you miss Jesse. We all do.”
Emma briefly closed her eyes. She didn’t want to cry again. “I still can’t believe he’s gone, Annie.”
Annie followed Emma to her bedroom, where the two women worked to get Emma out of her wet clothes. Emma’s hand shivered as she touched the slender gold ring around her finger.
“Nothing is the same around here without him. I don’t know how I’m going to be able to make a living.”
Annie cinched her sister’s corset and tied it. “It will be okay. George will go into town to get more seed. We can replant the crops. I’m just glad you and the animals are safe.”
“I think we lost some chickens. And maybe some of the newborn pigs.”
Annie turned her around to look Emma in the eye. Her straight blonde hair was braided and pulled into a fashionable bun at the back of her head, and her dark gray dress showed dots of water from the rain.
“Those things breed like rabbits. You’ll have a field full of them in just a few weeks. And you saved the cows and horses that were grazing in the lower pasture. Count your blessings, Emma. The house and barn will be fine. And, you have a house full of boarders whose homes weren’t as fortunate as ours. Right now, they need us and our love.” She hugged her tightly. “Finish getting dressed while I get your clothes hung to dry.”
Emma braided and coiled her hair into a bun before she finished dressing. She checked her outfit in the small mirror on her dresser. She just turned 20. She was pretty with hazel eyes, but the dress, with its high collar and primly tailored bodice with small fabric buttons down the front, made her look like a stern schoolteacher. The voluminous upper sleeves and fallen bustle of her black wool dress weren’t the latest fashion, but it was the only other black dress she had in her wardrobe. Her late husband Jesse had died only a couple of months before, and she was still in the period of deep mourning. She took a breath before she stepped out into the drawing room.
She reassured a few guests that they were safe from the floodwaters before she addressed the room. “Lunch will be ready in a few minutes.” Emma tied a white apron around her waist and disappeared into the kitchen.
Annie stirred a large pot. “I added the dumplings shortly before I got you out of that rain. They should be ready.”
“Thank you. Why don’t you get the guests seated and we’ll start the meal service.” Emma got busy slicing the fresh bread. The two women served hot bowls of chicken stew with tender dumplings, with fresh bread and butter on the side.
One of the guests smiled. “Miss Emma, I don’t know what you do, but even my grandmother’s stew wasn’t this good. What’s your secret?”
Emma blushed as she wiped her hands on her apron. “Now if I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret anymore, would it?”
The table erupted in laughter. A young lady at the table spoke up. “Honestly, Emma, how do you get your dumplings so tender? Mine turn out like chewy shoe leather.” Her husband next to her nodded, which elicited a playful slap on his shoulder from his wife.
Emma bent over and spoke into her ear. “Don’t overwork the dough. Turn it just enough until the flour starts to form together. There’s still going to be some dry bits in there. Just let it rest, turn it a couple of times, and then start dropping it into the broth.” Emma winked at the young lady. She was about to walk back to the kitchen when the door opened.
A man with brown hair and a full beard walked in. His heavy canvas duster was darkened from the rain. He took his hat off. “Excuse me, ma’am, but I was told you might have a hot meal and a room available?”
Emma took his coat and hung it on a peg by the door. The man wore a dark gray wool jacket and white shirt. “All our rooms are full, but I’ll see what I can do. I certainly don’t want you to go out in this weather. Have a seat. I’ll bring you a bowl of stew and some hot coffee.”
The man nodded his head in gratitude. He stared at Emma for a moment and then stuttered, “Uh, tha-thank you, ma’am.” He found a seat in the corner next to another single man and continued to watch Emma as she walked back to the kitchen.
Emma sliced pound cake onto small plates as Annie drizzled a warm prune compote over them. Annie loaded the finished dessert onto a tray. “It looks like your food is a hit again, Emma. You really should think about opening a restaurant in town.”
Emma peeked over the swinging doors that separated the kitchen from the dining room. “That man seems familiar. His eyes…”
Annie looked up from the table. “What color were they?”
“Blue. Like the forget-me-nots that grow in the upper pasture.”
Annie giggled. “I haven’t heard you say that since you and that Henry Billings were courting.”
Emma gasped and quickly moved away from the door. One hand reached back and braced against the table, and her other hand grasped her throat. “It can’t be. What’s he doing here? He’s supposed to be in Seattle. His family moved from Chicago to Seattle.”
Annie ran up to the door and peeked. “Oh, my. He looks like a mountain man with that grizzly beard. Are you sure it’s him?”
Annie tilted her head as she continued to assess him. “He still looks to be a handsome fellow.”
Emma pulled her away from the door. “Don’t be staring at him. It’s not polite.”
“I wonder if he’s still unmarried?” Annie tried to hide her smile as she continued to help with the desserts.
Emma stirred the pot of stew before she ladled some into a bowl. “I know what you’re thinking, Annie. I’m still in mourning, remember? It wouldn’t be proper for me to flirt or show any interest in another man so soon after Jesse’s death.”
“Maybe etiquette wouldn’t apply here since technically you fell in love with Henry before you even met Jesse,” Annie pointed out as she finished plating the last of the desserts.
“That doesn’t matter. Can you please serve up the guests?” Emma nodded at the full tray.
Annie handed it to her. “I think you need to take this tray with the stew. I’ll take the other one.” Before Emma could protest, Annie slipped out of the kitchen with the other tray.
Emma took a deep breath and spoke to herself. “He’s just another guest like everyone else in the room.” She stepped into the dining room.
It took every bit of concentration Emma had in her to focus on serving the guests. She could feel Henry staring at her every movement. Finally, his bowl and plate of bread and butter were left on her tray. She walked over to him and placed the bowl down.
“I hope you enjoy your meal.”
“Emma… Emma Peterson? It’s me, Henry Billings.”
“Peterson is my maiden name. I’m Emma Stiles now.”
Henry’s posture deflated a bit when he glanced down at the wedding band on her finger. “Oh. I hadn’t realized. Does your husband help out at this establishment?”
Annie slipped into the conversation. “He died this past winter. Emma is a widow now.”
Emma glared at her younger sister, and Annie disappeared back into the kitchen.
Henry’s eyes softened and conveyed sadness. “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. My condolences.”
“Thank you. What are you doing in Coeur d’Alene? I thought you lived in Seattle. Are you just passing through? How long will you be in town?”
“It depends. I went to visit a silver mine that I thought about investing in, and the owner said the lower levels flooded. I may move on to Spokane and then circle back in a few weeks. However, I could be convinced to stay longer.”
Emma ignored his last comment. “With regard to a place to sleep, I can offer you the sofa or the hayloft inside the barn. I can give you as many blankets as you want, especially since it’s going to get cold tonight. I’m sorry I can’t offer you much more than that.”
“Oh, no. The barn or the floor would be fine. I don’t want to ruin your furniture. Besides, it might spook your guests to see a strange man sleeping on your drawing room sofa.”
“It’s your choice. The door to the house will be unlocked. If you need anything, just knock on the door over there.” Emma pointed to a door behind the stairway.
Henry looked past Emma’s shoulder. “That’s an odd place to put a bedroom.”
Emma smiled. “It was originally the servant’s quarters, but we tore down a wall to the other quarters and made it a cozy bedroom. It’s close to the kitchen and common areas, and it has its own water closet, so it works out well.”
There was an awkward silence as they stared into each other’s eyes. Dreamily, Henry spoke softly to her. “You always had the most amazing hazel eyes, Emma.”
Emma cleared her throat and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “Well, I should get back to the kitchen.”
“It was nice to see you.”
“Yes. The same with you. Let me know when you’re ready and I can bring down the bedding.” She reached the kitchen door, looked back, and lingered for a moment before she disappeared into the kitchen.
Emma peeked at him from behind the kitchen door.
Annie joined her. “I can’t believe all these people lost their homes to the flood. It’s such a shame.”
“Yes, I know. I hope you don’t mind, Annie, but I don’t want to charge our neighbors. They’ve lost everything and it just doesn’t seem right.”
Annie hugged her sister. “I was hoping you were going to say that.”
Emma put the dishes in the basin and got three bowls from the cupboard. “You’d better get George inside and cleaned up. He needs to get out of those wet clothes and eat something.”
A few minutes later, George walked in and sat at the kitchen table. He had changed into dry clothes, but his light brown hair was still wet from the rain.
“The animals are fed and safe. And this stew smells incredible.” He inhaled deeply.
Annie poured her husband and Emma a cup of coffee and sat down. “I’m so hungry. I feel like I haven’t eaten all day.”
Emma placed her own bowl on the table and sat down. She wrapped her hands around the warm mug and took a sip. “It’s been a long day for all of us. And it’s going to be another long night, as well. I won’t be able to sleep unless I know that river has crested.”
“Our family has lived by this river for generations, and we’ve never seen it go this high before.” George took a bite of the stew. “This is so good, especially after being cold and wet all day.”
A couple of days later, the water had receded from most of the lower fields and pastures. Emma kept her emotions in check. Henry had woken up before anyone and had neatly folded the bedding. He’d left a couple of dollars with a note thanking her and saying he would try to be in town soon if there was any further bill to settle.
Once again, he’d left her without saying goodbye.
She took a deep breath. “Probably for the best.”
“What?” George asked as they made their way down to the lower fields and pasture to survey the damage.
A few fluffy clouds dotted the sky, and the warmth from the sun felt good after days of rain. In the few places where the water didn’t cut deeply into the soil, the knee-high plants were flattened and caked in mud.
“At least we didn’t lose the topsoil. We should be able to replant immediately.”
A small contingent of piglets ran by and made her smile. The missing piglets and chickens had miraculously survived, returning to the property to vie for places to dig as they looked for bugs and grubs.
Emma smiled at the piglets. “Of course, you came for the free handouts.”
George dumped the scraps into their feeding trough. “I don’t know where they came from, but they seem to be all back home. I guess they couldn’t resist your leftovers, either.”
She wiped her hands and walked back to the house. For farmhouse standards, it was considerable in size. It had five bedrooms and a large kitchen and drawing room. Emma finished changing the linen and placed fresh towels in one of the rooms. Her late husband had joked that they were going to have enough kids to fill each of those rooms. She pushed back that thought and continued her work.
Annie finished washing the last of the breakfast dishes. Since most of the men went off to survey their own properties, the two sisters packed bacon sandwiches for them and promised a substantial dinner for the returning men and their families.
Emma joined her sister in the kitchen and sat down. Annie pulled muslin off a large piece of meat.
“Earl shot an elk at the edge of our property and brought it back. The rest of the meat is in our smokehouse or is being cured into jerky. He gave us this loin cut as a thank you for taking them in.”
Emma smiled as she examined it, feeling grateful for the generosity of their neighbor. “It’s a standing rib roast. I don’t even think it will need any fatback. This will make a lovely roast, don’t you think? I believe we still have plenty of potatoes, onions, and carrots in the root cellar.”
“It sounds wonderful, Emma. The guests will love it.”
Emma prepared the entrée. After tying the roast and seasoning it with rosemary and salt, she slid the pan into the oven, careful to move the coals over for a slower, indirect heat.
Their guests arrived just before sundown, their faces looking as defeated as the first day they came to the farmhouse. While Emma prepared supper, Annie greeted them all and gave the women supportive hugs. After they all cleaned up, they gathered in the dining area.
George proudly paraded the platter to the table. Emma followed with a small tureen of gravy and a large bowl of the root vegetables that were roasted with the meat, and Annie brought out the sliced bread.
The guests clapped in appreciation. Emma looked at Earl and smiled. “Thank you, Earl, for blessing us with this. We all lost something, but we all survived, and we will somehow make it through. Our homes and farms can be rebuilt. Let us all remember what is important: our loved ones.”
George skillfully carved the meat for the guests. After everyone was served, Emma, George, and Annie took their plates into the kitchen to eat. Annie leaned over to her sister.
“The roast is perfectly done and so tender. How do you do it?”
Emma shrugged. “I don’t know. I just know when it’s done.” Before she finished eating, she got up and started to scoop a hasty pudding into small stemmed bowls and drizzled the top with sweetened heavy cream. Annie helped her serve their guests.
One of the women stopped her. “Emma, what do put in your pudding?”
“Cornmeal, cream, eggs, sugar, molasses, and some spices.”
“I taste nutmeg. What other spices do you use?”
“Cinnamon, nutmeg, clove… the usual. My trick is butter. I add just a touch to the batter before baking.”
After everyone was done eating and had retired to the drawing room, Emma dried the last of the dishes and placed them in the cupboard. She stepped outside and sat on the porch. After her eyes adjusted, she saw the dimly lit landscape and shadows from the waning gibbous moon’s glow. She grabbed a lantern from the house and walked to the barn. She checked on Betsy and her calf, and then rubbed her horse Rebecca’s nose.
“Rebecca is an unusual name for a horse,” George remarked, coming out to check on her.
“It’s the sound her hooves make when she’s walking.”
George tilted his head. “I never thought of that, but I guess you’re right.”
“I never thanked you for helping me in the flood. Looking back, I guess I was pretty stupid, running into the moving water. I just couldn’t bear the thought of losing Besty’s calf.”
“No problem. I’m just glad I was there to help. Have you named the new calf?”
Emma nodded. “It’s a boy, so I thought I’d call him Torrent. Tory for short.”
George guffawed. “That’s the most appropriate name if I ever heard one. It seems Tory has taken a liking to you.”
“I think he likes you, too.”
“Annie and I will be going into town the day after tomorrow. I started a list of items we need to get. It’s on the kitchen table. I’m sure you need provisions as well, so just add them.”
“Please take the money I have in the can.”
“I can’t do that. That’s the money you’re saving for your restaurant.”
Emma shook her head. “The restaurant can wait a bit longer. I need to make sure our neighbors are taken care of. Will you be back in the evening?”
“Probably not. I need to visit my parents. Most likely it will be at least overnight, or maybe a couple of nights before we return.” George frowned.
“If you want, I can bake some muffins or a pound cake for you to take to them.”
“No, it will only delay the inevitable talking-to I’ll get.” He sighed. “Why can’t my father just accept that I don’t want to do what he does?”
Emma placed her hand on his arm. “You come from a privileged family, George. Your father is like any other parent—he wants you to be successful enough to support your family. He likely doesn’t understand why you want to toil over dirt. Maybe, in time, he’ll come to accept it.”
“Perhaps.” George took a deep breath. “I’d better get back to the house. I’m sure Annie is wondering where we wandered off to. Don’t stay out here too long.”
“I’ll be just a minute longer.”
George left Emma. The soft, amber glow of the lantern reflected in the black eyes of the colt as it nuzzled Emma’s arm for attention. A small streak of white adorned its muzzle, and the deep reddish-chestnut color of its coat made its star stand out. “I think I’ll call you Lightning, since that’s what your star looks like to me.” She scratched its forehead before she walked back to the house.
“Do you need help packing?” Emma peeked into the open door as she watched her sister load up a trunk.
“I think I have everything.” Annie held up two dresses. “Which do you think would impress his parents more?”
“Definitely the blue dress. You always look lovely in this color. It brings out your eyes. But why don’t you pack both? You may change your mind once you get to town.”
Annie carefully packed the dresses and then paused. “Maybe I shouldn’t go. Maybe George should go alone. This place is a lot of work. You have the animals to take care of, the fields and garden, all the cooking and cleaning for the guests…”
Emma held her sister’s shoulders. “I admit I would love to have you stay and help, but you need to say hello to your in-laws once in a while.”
Annie rolled her eyes. “Don’t tell George this, but they seem a bit snobby around me. I always have this feeling I’m not good enough for their son.”
“I hate to tell you this, but I think that’s the case with any in-laws. Let me make a pie for you to take to them. I have to make desserts for tomorrow anyway.”
“That would be wonderful. Other than what you added to the list, is there anything I can bring you back from town? Maybe some of that fancy perfumed soap from Paris? Or maybe some fabric to make another dress?”
“I don’t know if I can afford that. I need to replant the hay and wheat fields, and repair the fences, and I have to feed something to the guests.”
Annie sighed. “You’re no fun, Emma. But I guess you’re right.”
“Just promise me that you’ll come back safe.”
“We will. And promise me you won’t overdo it. The animals will survive if their hay doesn’t get mucked out for a day.”
“Then maybe I’ll leave the stalls for you to clean when you get back.” Emma giggled.
“Goodnight. See you in the morning.”
Emma was tired, but being alone in the evening saddened her heart. She returned to the porch to enjoy the cool evening breeze. Deer grazed near the tree line, and as she watched, something startled them. Seeing movement, she ran inside to get her gun. She’d worked so hard to save her precious animals—there was no way she would let a wolf or a bear kill any of them. She made her way to the edge of the field, where a grove of trees and thick brush could hide even the largest bear.
She didn’t hear anything rustle. I must have scared it away. She was about to start back to the house when, in the moonlight, she saw tracks. They were bootprints.
Adrenaline coursed through Emma’s blood. She raised her gun. The last thing she needed was trouble.
Emma peered hard at the bushes and trees. The dim light and shadows made it hard to make out anything.
“Hello? You better come out here, or else I might start shooting at everything. I have a house full of men who will gladly come out to my aid.”
Emma gripped her rifle tight when a bush rustled. A young boy popped out with his hands up.
“Please, don’t shoot.”
Emma pointed the rifle to the ground and uncocked its pin. Her hands were shaking. “Jeremy! You should be in bed. What are you doing out here? I could have shot you!”
“Sorry, ma’am. I was watching the deer. I was going to try to kill one with my sling.”
“I’m glad you didn’t. If you didn’t kill it, I’m sure the deer would retaliate by charging you and stomping you to death. Let’s get back to the house.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Jeremy kicked a clump of mud. “Are you going to tell my parents?”
“Not this time. And don’t you ever go out after dark again. We have wolves and bears in the area.”
“Thank you. Yes, ma’am.” The young boy climbed up the trellis to an open window.
So that was how he’d gotten out without anyone seeing him. Emma shook her head and went inside.
The next evening, only Emma and Annie were in the drawing room. While the space was small, a considerable amount of furniture had been arranged inside to accommodate guests. Despite this, it didn’t feel cramped. The walls were painted a pale mauve, which added warmth but was light enough to keep the room from feeling claustrophobic. A sofa, loveseat, and a number of wing and side chairs were strategically placed where small groups could carry on private conversations. Side tables and planters with greenery dotted the openings between the seating areas, and a larger, central round table with a vase in the middle of the room anchored the space.
George had stepped out onto the porch to have a cigar, and Annie read a book while Emma darned a sock. While drawing the needle through the fabric, her mind drifted. She bowed down and stared blankly at her hands.
“Emma, are you okay?” Annie looked up from her book.
Emma took a deep breath. “Yes, I’m fine. I was just remembering how Jesse would sit in that corner chair and joke about everything. He would joke about how the squirrels would steal the acorns from a horse that was about to eat them. He made a high squeaky voice, declaring the squirrel the most successful robber of the pasture. He would joke about how Avery’s dog had it in for him every time he stepped foot on his property. He used to make me laugh so hard I thought I would break the lacing from my corset.”
“He definitely was a joker.”
Emma saddened again. “Do you think I’ll ever find love like that again? Will my heart’s void left by his death ever be filled?”
She looked at Annie. “I wasn’t expecting you to say that. Do you mean I’m going to be an old maid for the rest of my life?”
Her sister shook her head. “No. I just remember what Mother told us after Father died. What I mean is that the love you had for Jesse was just that: it was love you had for Jesse. But you’ll meet someone who will open up another part of your heart and fill it as much as Jesse did.”
“I hope so.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t go into town tomorrow. It sounds like you need my company.”
Emma huffed. “It’s your father-in-law’s birthday party. You need to be there. I’ll be fine.”
Annie put her book down and sat next to Emma on the sofa. “I also know it’s going to be the anniversary of your wedding to Jesse while we’re in town.”
Emma’s eyes watered. She looked away as she took a deep breath and sighed. “It’s just another day like each day before it. Like I said, I will be fine.”
“At least Coeur d’Alene is only a couple of hours from here. If it’s not too much trouble, can you make another chess pie? George’s father loved the one you made last time.”
“Sure. I’ll make it before breakfast so it has time to cool before you leave.”
George popped his head into the room. “Am I interrupting?”
Emma looked up from her darning. “Not at all. We were just talking about making a chess pie for your father.”
He sat down in a wing chair. “Oh, yes. Father would love it. I think that would be one of the best birthday gifts he could receive.”
Emma looked at her handiwork. “I think you’ll need to get a new pair of socks, George. I don’t know how much more I can repair the holes anymore. The fabric is getting threadbare.”
Annie giggled as she held up the sock. “The areas you darned are better than the sock itself.”
George snatched the sock out of his wife’s hand. “I happen to like this pair of socks.”
Annie rolled her eyes. “I think you’ve had this pair since you were in school.”
“Yes. But at least they’re always clean.”
Emma laughed as she put her darning onto the side table and stood up. “I should probably turn in for the night.”
George stood up. “Emma, you don’t have to leave on my account.”
“I’m not. Someone asked for pies and they have to be made first thing in the morning. Besides, I know you two need some private time together. Goodnight.” Emma winked.
“Goodnight.” George and Annie wished her well.
Late the next morning, Emma waved at her sister and George as their wagon crossed the low-water bridge and disappeared behind a hill. This was the first time since before the flood when she didn’t have any boarders staying at her farmhouse. She went back inside and finished her morning chores before she headed out to the upper pasture. With her, she hauled several long lengths of boards, along with a leather satchel containing the tools she needed to fix the fence.
Emma looked at the fence. Bits of chipped wood littered the ground, and the splintered remains of an aspen tree trunk stood on the other side of the fence. Tears welled up in her eyes. She kept picturing her Jesse pinned under the tree. It had fallen on him as he’d tried to remove some of the lower branches that were threatening to crash down onto the pasture’s fence. Weighed down by ice and snow, the entire trunk had split and fell on top of him. It had taken both George and their neighbor Avery an entire afternoon to chop away enough of the log to free Jesse. Succumbing to the cold and his injuries, he’d passed away the next day before the doctor could even make it out to the farm.
A tear rolled down her cheek. After a moment, Emma collected herself and took a deep breath. “Life must go on. I know he doesn’t want me to grieve for him like this.”
She repaired part of the fence before she decided to take a break. By midday, she returned to the house. One of the families she had taken in after the flood had come back to see her.
She wiped her brow and neck with her apron. “Avery! Millie! And my favorite man Jeremy! How are you? Have things settled at your place?”
Millie smiled. “We’re still getting settled in and cleaning. Our house was still there. Everything inside was covered in mud, but at least we still have a house.”
Avery handed her a large, loosely woven basket. “We picked up a couple of extra chickens for you. It’s a thank you for letting us stay without charge.”
Emma smiled. “Thank you. You shouldn’t have. I’m sure you folks would have taken me in if things were reversed.”
Jeremy stood up in the wagon. “I named them for you. Hansel and Gretel.”
Millie laughed. “They’re both egg-laying hens, but he insisted on the names.”
Emma held the basket. “Well, then Hansel and Gretel it is. Would you like to come in? I was just about to make a pot pie for dinner.”
“Sure. We would love to. But we’re going to pay you for the meal.”
Avery offered to look around the yard and the house before joining the women in the kitchen. “It’s quiet here. Where is everyone?”
Emma’s hands were covered in flour. “The business ebbs and flows. My last boarder left yesterday, and George and Annie went to town and won’t be back for a couple of days.”
Jeremy tilted his head. “Aren’t you lonely?”
“I was, but now that I have Hansel and Gretel, I think I’ll be just fine.” Emma stirred the chicken stew that had been slowly simmering on the stovetop all morning. She rolled out her pie dough and gently covered the bottom of the dish, and then she ladled the stew in. She laid another sheet on top. Her fingers expertly pinched the edge of the pastry into a fluted pattern, slit the top of the pastry to allow the steam to escape, and placed the dish into the oven.
“It should only be about half an hour before it’s ready. Have a seat on the porch or drawing room and I’ll join you shortly after I clean the kitchen up a bit. Jeremy, if you want, you can release Hansel and Gretel with the rest of the chickens in their coop. There should be a can of feed next to the door if you want to feed them.”
The young boy’s face beamed. “Really? Thank you!” He burst out the screen door.
Avery tipped his hat. “Excuse me, but I’d better go with him, otherwise your chickens will be all over the county.”
The father and son walked to the back of the house and out toward the barn.
Millie stirred the leftover stew in the pot. “How do you do this? It smells delicious.”
“The real trick is to make sure you’re using enough seasoning. Most home cooks under-season their dishes, especially when it comes to salt.”
“I imagine that many consider seasonings a luxury only to be used for special occasions.”
“I guess so. But in my case, it’s a necessity.” Emma inspected the kitchen after she tidied up. “Why don’t we sit down for a bit? Did you have to wait long for me?”
Millie shook her head. “Not at all. We just pulled up when you came down the hill. What were you doing?”
“I was fixing a part of the fence in the upper pasture. I had been putting it off. We were going to fix it when it got warm enough, but then the storms and the flood happened.”
“Emma, you shouldn’t do that alone. Avery would have helped.”
“I know. But you folks have your own work to get your lives back to normal. George offered, but I told him I needed to do it.”
Millie’s hand reached out and held Emma’s. “It must have been hard for you. I bet all those memories of the accident came back.”
“They did for a moment, but I’m okay now.” Emma glanced out at the lower pasture. “George went into town to buy more seed for the fields. It took us the past couple of days to clear the rocks and debris from them. Can you believe we had a whole tree, roots and all, smack dab in the middle of our hay field?” She laughed. “At least we’ll have plenty of firewood this winter.”
Millie nodded. “Thankfully, our fields and pastures were all on higher ground. We lost the barn, but we were able to get the animals out before the river started to pour into it.”
“We’re looking forward to your barn-raising next weekend.”
Millie nodded. “Yes. I’m looking forward to it, too. I’m tired of finding the horses in my flower beds.” She laughed.
Emma laughed. “I can’t imagine waking up to find a horse staring in my bedroom window.” She looked inside at the clock. “I think our lunch is about ready. Do you mind getting the boys?”
“Sure. I’ll help you set the table as soon as I get back.”
After Avery and Jeremy got cleaned up, Emma brought the pot pie out and set it on the table. She scooped out a helping and passed it to Millie. She scooped another generous portion into a shallow bowl and handed it to Avery.
Avery inhaled deeply. “This smells mighty good, Miss Emma.”
Jeremy’s eyes widened when he stared at his portion. “Thank you, ma’am.”
Emma sat once she served herself.
Millie patted the corner of her mouth with the napkin. “How long will George and Annie be away?”
“They will be in town at least overnight. Most likely they will be gone a couple of nights. His family is celebrating his father’s birthday tomorrow.”
Millie put her spoon down. “You don’t have any boarders, and your kin will be gone for a few days. Will you be okay? Avery can come by and check on you.”
Emma shook her head. “Honestly, I’ll be fine.”
When Millie gave her husband a glare, Avery cleared his throat. “Uh, maybe I will just stop by tomorrow afternoon.”
“I want him to pick up one of your pies or whatever dessert you might have for tomorrow.”
Emma held up her finger. “Oh, I have a chess pie I made earlier this morning. You’re more than welcome to take that one home with you.”
Avery’s face lit up. “Sure, that is one of my fav—oof!”
Emma bit her lip to keep herself from laughing. Millie had just elbowed her husband.
She finished his sentence. “What Avery meant to say was that he loves your chess pie, but since he’s checking our fence line along your property tomorrow, he was just going to stop by to check on you and buy one of your delicious desserts then.”
Emma hid her smile. “I appreciate your concern, Millie. But really, I’ll be fine. If you’re that concerned, I can certainly make something for you tomorrow. In the meantime, why don’t we all have a slice of pie?”
Millie closed her eyes as she ate a bite of her slice. “I really think you should open your own restaurant in town. Maybe near the trading post?”
“Believe it or not, I have been toying with that idea for some time. But the boarding house makes a fair wage for living, too.”
Avery swallowed before he spoke. “Then, Miss Emma, why don’t you open a boarding house and restaurant in town?”
Emma shook her head. “No. I’d have smelly, drunken men coming in at all hours after playing poker and hanging out with those women at the saloon. I like to run a clean place that doesn’t attract any trouble.”
After the meal, the family walked toward the wagon.
Millie hugged Emma. “Thank you for the wonderful meal.”
“It was nothing. And Jeremy, thank you for the chickens. I will take good care of them.”
Jeremy tugged on his father’s overalls. “Papa, can I come and visit Hansel and Gretel again?”
Avery looked at Emma. “Only if Miss Emma says it’s okay.”
Emma hugged Avery and then Jeremy. “Of course, it’s okay. You folks are welcome here anytime.”
Avery tipped his hat. “We better get going. The animals aren’t going to feed themselves.”
For the second time that day, Emma waved goodbye and walked back to an empty house. She busied herself with a thorough cleaning of the main floor. As evening drew near, she dreaded the quiet still of the night. It was then her thoughts focused on how she longed to have her late husband alive and well with her, and how the savings she had accumulated slowly dwindled with each eventful mishap on the farm.
Emma sat in her side chair and rummaged in the sewing chest for her cross-stitch. She felt the sharp prick of a needle and withdrew her hand. She was normally very careful with her needles, so she dug below her cross-stitch project and pulled out an old work shirt, neatly folded at the bottom of the wooden chest. She cried. It was the shirt that her late husband had worn the day before his accident. He had ripped the sleeve on an old nail sticking out from a fence.
Emma buried her face into it and breathed in. The earthy and manly aroma still faintly smelled like him and his shave soap scented with sandalwood and petitgrain. She wrapped her arms around it and held it close as her tears fell, unhindered by the presence of anyone else. She removed the pins and took the shirt with her to her room.
The next morning after her chores, Emma surveyed the grazing situation for the horses and cows. She would normally rotate them down to the lower pasture to graze during the summer, but the field hadn’t fully recovered from the flood. She walked the lower pasture, noting that small sprigs of grass and weeds had just started to poke through the alluvial mud. It would be another year or two before the field would be able to support any livestock. Allowing them to graze there now would only damage what little plant growth was struggling to revive. With her horses and cows using the same winter field during the summer, she worried whether that pasture would produce enough for them to graze it in the fall and early winter. A sudden rain made her scurry back to the house.
Late the next morning, Emma walked through the upper pasture, the young colt occasionally nudging her for attention and a neck scratch. The grasses were heavy from the rain, and the sweet, earthy smell was intoxicating. Finally finished with the last section of the pasture’s fence, she wiped her brow with a corner of her apron and gathered the tools. As she made her way down the hill, she saw a cloud of dust from the road headed toward the property. When it came closer, she saw that it was George and Annie returning from town. She ran down the hill to the house to greet them.
“George! Annie! Welcome home!” She dropped the wooden toolbox in the grass next to the wagon.
George helped his wife down from the wagon. Annie immediately jumped into Emma’s arms and gave her a big hug. “I missed you so much. I’m so glad to be home.”
“I’m glad you’re home, too. How was the visit with your family? How are they doing?”
George rolled his eyes. “Father is still trying to talk me into helping him run the bank. But I’ll tell you everything once we get settled in.”
“What’s all of this that you brought home?” Emma inspected the overstuffed wagon.
George patted a large sack before he untied the rope that strapped it in place. “Most of it is seed and provisions for the animals. But there are a few things here for you.” He grunted as he rolled a barrel off the back. “Here’s the super-fine flour you asked for. I also have a couple sacks of sugar, some nice-looking slabs of bacon, and a few pounds of sausage Thomas the butcher smoked. He made sure to give you the best of what he had.”
“He’s always been so good to us.” Emma inhaled the burlap the bacon was wrapped in.
The heady scent of smoked, cured pork made her smile.
“He knows you went out of your way to help folks during the flood. He didn’t even charge us for it.”
“Next time you’re in town, please thank him for me.” She sniffed the bacon again. “This will make some really good gravy.”
Annie handed her a small burlap sack. “We can’t forget the most important thing of all.”
Emma inhaled deeply. “Oh, my. It’s coffee! I just used the last of the coffee yesterday and seriously contemplated reusing the grounds this morning.”
George unloaded the wagon. “Why don’t you ladies go inside with the house goods and I’ll take care of the rest. Leave the flour. I’ll get it inside for you.”
“Thank you, George.”
Annie placed the items on the table and bounced up and down excitedly. “I have a couple more surprises for you.” She dug into a crate and handed Emma a small package wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine.
“What is this?”
“If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise.”
“It’s too small to be a haunch of beef.”
“Emma, you’re being silly.”
Emma frowned. “I told you not to get anything for me.”
“Open it.” The curls in Annie’s hair sprung up and down as she continued to bounce.
Emma sighed. “Fine.” She untied the twine and unfolded the paper. The last of the paper revealed two round bars of French-milled soap. She immediately smelled orange blossoms and roses. “Oh, Annie, you shouldn’t have.”
“It’s a thank you from me and George for taking good care of us. You always think of others first. Now it’s time that you take care of yourself and give yourself a much-needed pamper.”
Emma’s heart melted. “Thank you. It will be nice not to smell like a barn for once.”
“I may have to borrow it from you.” Annie giggled.
The two ladies put the goods away. George washed up before he stepped inside, and turned a barrel on its edge to maneuver it into place next to the cupboard. He opened the barrel’s top and helped Emma dump the last of the old flour on top. They placed the top back on, and then the sacks of sugar on top of it.
Emma handed George a glass of tea. He downed the tea in three gulps. “Thank you.”
She poured him a second glass, which he sipped a bit slower. George sat down.
“I’d like to take Blaze and start seeding the wheat field this afternoon. With any luck, we’ll be able to plant winter rye in afterward before the heavy frost.”
Emma sliced some of the bacon. “It rained for a spell yesterday, so the ground should be soft for the plow. I can get supper on the stove to slowly cook, and I can go out and help you in the field.”
“I can help, too,” Annie offered.
George frowned. “I don’t think you should.”
Emma looked at the couple. “Why? What’s wrong, Annie?”
“It’s nothing. I’ll tell you this evening.” Annie took a big bite of a biscuit and walked away.
Later that evening, after part of the field was plowed and seeded, the threesome sat down for dinner. Annie had stayed at the house and cooked for them, and over supper, George and Annie filled Emma in on their visit in town.
Emma patted the corner of her mouth with her napkin. “So, George, how was your father’s birthday celebration?”
George sighed. “It was a house full of guests I barely knew. Most were men and their wives from out of town, his business acquaintances. The talk was all dry and boring. And then, while we’re enjoying a cigar after dinner, he tells these men how he’s tried to convince me to come back into banking instead of playing in the dirt and smelling like the back side of a horse.”
Emma stopped as she was about to take a bite. “That’s terrible. Why can’t he accept that you’re happy with what you do?”
George poked at his food. “He’s built an empire in the town and can’t understand why I don’t want to be part of it. But thankfully, he became distracted when he got word that his biggest competitor in town, First State Bank, was robbed earlier in the day. The bank manager was injured, and their vault got cleaned out.”
Emma looked at him with concern. “Is he okay? Did they catch the robbers?”
George nodded. “He’ll be fine. The robbers got away, but the sheriff said they left evidence. One of them was stupid enough to drop his wallet. Apparently, by the description given by bystanders, it may be the same gang that robbed several banks from Spokane to Boise. There’s a posse looking for them as we speak.”
“Is your father worried about his bank being robbed?”
George shrugged. “If he is, he isn’t showing it.”
Annie put her fork down. “Emma, remember earlier I was going to tell you something?”
“Yes. Is everything okay?” Emma’s brow furrowed with worry.
“Yes—in fact, it’s better than okay. I’m going to have a baby!”
For a split second, Emma was stunned. As the oldest, she’d always thought she would be the first to marry and have children. Memories of the talks she’d had with Jesse about the family they wanted flooded her thoughts. She quickly forced a smile.
“Oh my goodness! Annie! George! Congratulations!” She hugged her sister and brother-in-law.
The evening was filled with discussions on what room the baby should have, and whether it was to be a boy or girl. But after everyone had retired for the evening in their own rooms, Emma buried her face in her hands and cried.
“Love in the Outlaw’s Shadow” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Emma Stiles’ world grew dim after her husband’s passing, trapped in the toil of farm life, despite her sister’s companionship. Amidst the mundane, fate intervened when in her weathered barn, under the morning sun, she discovers Henry Billings – once a school crush, now an injured stranger. Nursing him back to strength forges a deeper connection, while his tales of adventure and narrow escapes weave a spell around her.
Will this bond be the power to reignite a love Emma thought she’d never feel again?
Henry Billings, a man burdened by false accusations, arrives seeking refuge in the barn on Emma’s farm. Their reunion sparks memories of youthful love and adventures. Yet, danger lurks as a bank heist casts a shadow over their town. Henry’s wounds, both physical and emotional, heal with Emma’s tender care.
Will this serene heaven they built be finally the place for him to open his heart wide to her?
When danger resurfaces and Henry is accused again, their determination to clear his name drives them to face danger head-on. Will their unwavering love, be enough to bring justice to the innocent and forge a future where they can finally find solace and happiness together or will it be defeated in the face of lingering shadows of the past?
“Love in the Outlaw’s Shadow” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 60,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.