Two years later
Springtime in the Rockies was one of the most beautiful times of the year, as far as Hettie was concerned. She stood on the small knoll overlooking her farm, listening to the honk of geese as they flew in their V formation overhead, the trees just beginning to leaf out again. Over the past two years, some things had changed, but in other ways, things remained the same.
Movement near the front door of the house captured her attention and she smiled as Nicholas emerged with his arms full of the books that had been stacked next to the chair beside the fireplace. He carried the stack to the barn, past the wagon standing in the yard. At nearly sixteen years of age, Nicholas had grown tall and broad-shouldered, a handsome young man that more often than not captured the interest of the young ladies not only in Crooked River Flats but in Salt Lake City, where the family had spent several months last fall with Ezra’s father.
Just the thought of Ezra brought a smile to her lips, and as if the very thought of him had beckoned him forth, he emerged from the barn with eleven-year-old Ethan and eight-year-old Cole. Both had grown like weeds and were nearly as tall as Hettie now. While the past two years had been filled with changes that Hettie had been reluctant to embrace at first, Ezra had encouraged her to be patient with herself and with him as they learned and strove to compromise over those bigger changes in their lives.
After that day he had confronted the so-called gunfighter, Ezra had been determined to earn her renewed trust and belief in him, although it wasn’t hard. While both Marcus and Dorothea had avoided the hangman’s rope, Marcus would be spending twenty-three more years in a prison down in Cañon City, while Dorothea spent the remainder of her eight-year prison sentence in a women’s prison in Missouri.
Since they had married, Ezra had included Hettie in all considerations regarding his future with Shanklin Mining Enterprises, as well as his newer responsibilities as her husband. After almost losing Ezra forever, she had learned to bend a little when it came to life choices. Hearing a burst of laughter drifting toward her on the breeze, Hettie shook her head as she watched the boys roughhousing with Ezra until all four of them toppled onto the ground in the dirt.
A soft laugh escaped her throat and her heart surged with affection for her husband and the way he had provided support, guidance, and friendship to her brothers. Thanks to the small copper mine on the northeast portion of the property, she also felt she had contributed to not only her marriage, but to her brothers’ future welfare.
Since she had learned that less than ten percent of the actual rock extracted from the earth contained the valuable copper ore, she had insisted on limiting its size and scope, as she had no intention of turning her farmland into a pile of waste rock.
Because Ezra was rich in his own right and had no further need of money, he agreed with Hettie that every dime that came from the copper mine was put into a trust for her brothers. While the mine would not make her a millionaire like Ezra, it would provide well for the boys and their future.
Even now, Nicholas talked about going back east to study medicine to become a doctor. Ethan wanted to learn about the mining business, and Cole, well, he hadn’t decided yet, but he was torn between perhaps pursuing a career as a teacher or an arctic explorer.
Of course, like any young married couple, she and Ezra had butted heads a few times, but overall, the two of them got along very well. They had spent some time in Salt Lake City with Ezra’s father, filling his large home with the sound of laughter. Cassius had been devastated by Dorothea’s betrayal but had rallied, grateful for Ezra’s constant support.
Ezra was still involved with his father’s company, but not to the degree that he had been before he met and married Hettie. He traveled maybe once a year in late summer to oversee any issues or problems with his father’s properties. Last year, she and the boys had accompanied him, taking in remarkable sights and cities bigger than she ever could have imagined.
In spite of her fears, the townspeople had been happy for her good fortune. Several of the younger men in town now worked at the mine under Ezra’s careful guidance. He encouraged high safety standards, and to date, no one had been injured or killed, which gave her relief.
At that moment, she heard a shout and saw Ezra waving up at her. She waved back but remained where she stood under the shade of a cottonwood, simply enjoying the warmth on her skin and the slight breeze against her cheeks. Ezra made his way up to her.
Occasionally, especially in the colder winter months, he limped slightly, but not enough to hold him back. As the boys continued roughhousing in the yard, she relished the feel of her husband’s arm wrapped around her waist. Together, they watched the boys, Hettie shaking her head.
“Just when I start thinking that they’re all growing up so fast, getting so serious, thinking about their futures, they turn into little boys again,” she said. “Without a care in the world, content with what they have, enjoying themselves no matter where they are.”
He tightened his grip around her waist. “That’s because you did such a good job raising them, Hettie. You have a lot to be proud of. You’ve set them a good example of what it means to be kind and compassionate yet strong and confident enough to make their own way through life.”
She continued to watch the boys in the yard. The pigs and the hogs were long gone. Only six hens and a solitary rooster remained in the pen. In another couple of weeks, they would all be leaving the farm to spend their spring and summer in northern Arizona Territory, where Ezra was overseeing the opening of a new mine in the mountains surrounding Flagstaff.
She had thought that she would never want to leave the farm, never leave the home in which she had been raised, but over the past couple of years with Ezra, seeing new sights, experiencing new things, and learning so much about life beyond the boundaries of Crooked River Flats, she had changed her mind. Life was all about change and she wanted to embrace all her new adventures and experiences.
“Are you sure you’re all right with this?”
She nodded. “It’s not like I’m leaving the farm behind forever. And it’s not going to stand empty, not now that Emma and Chance will be living here.”
She was so pleased that her best friends were engaged, which was an adventure in itself, from the moment the two of them realized their own attraction to one another until the day Emma had come to visit her just after Thanksgiving and announced that Chance had asked her to marry him and she had accepted. The wedding was only a couple of weeks away, and Hettie couldn’t be happier.
“Chance will keep us updated on the mine, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it plays out in the next year or two.”
“That’s all right,” Hettie said. She meant it. The mine had generated enough money to send all the boys to college if they so wished or to provide them with a nice nest egg in preparation for their own marriages down the line.
She looked up at Ezra and he glanced down at her with a lifted eyebrow. He didn’t even have to ask. “It seems like just yesterday that I picked you up out of the dirt over there in that pasture.” She pointed, remembering. “Who would have imagined that things would turn out this way?”
He grinned down at her. “I did,” he said. “The minute I got a good look at you, the moment I watched you digging that coin out of the mug to pay Doc for my care, I knew. You have a shine to you, Hettie Shanklin, a shine that can’t be hidden or doused.” He shook his head as if in amazement, but teasing, too. “I honestly don’t think that there’s any person who’s met you, no matter where we go, that didn’t instantly fall in love with you.”
She scoffed. “Well, I think that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I must admit that I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
He turned her to face him, somber now, hands on her shoulders. “You mean it, Hettie? You don’t regret marrying me?”
“No, Ezra, I haven’t regretted it one minute since we made our vows, and I never will.”
They stood side-by-side, arms wrapped around each other’s waists as they watched the boys rise from the dirt, slapping the dust from their trousers as they got back to work. Together, they pulled the picnic table from the wagon bed and set it right-side-up in the yard between the house and the well. They entered the house and emerged a few minutes later carrying their pillows and quilts into the barn.
“They think it’s going to be a grand adventure, sleeping in the barn with the horses.”
Hettie smiled. “Yes, and I see that Nicholas has already carried his favorite books in there.” She shook her head. “He’s only going to be in there for a few days. I can’t imagine he’ll have time to read all of them.”
Ezra wasn’t so sure. “I’ve never seen anybody read as much as he does, so it wouldn’t surprise me too much.”
Ethan emerged from the house next with a red-and-white checkered tablecloth that he spread over the picnic table while Nicholas and Cole retrieved the two benches from the wagon bed and placed them on either side of the table. Hettie sighed.
“Well, I guess I’d better get down there and do my part. Company will be arriving soon.”
“Me too,” Ezra said, giving her one more hug.
Hand-in-hand, they walked down the slope. Ezra had paper lanterns to hang and streamers to wrap around the porch posts. She had a stew to prepare and rising bread and biscuits to put in the oven in expectation of the company. It was a celebration of sorts, of the winter they had just endured and the spring that had finally arrived. A celebration of Emma and Chance’s engagement and a bit of a farewell get-together for Ezra and Hettie.
Several others from town would also be attending, including the sheriff, Mister Smithers, the storekeeper, and Reverend Bledsoe and Mister Reinhardt, who had promised to bring some of his famous sausages, sold now throughout Colorado.
Hettie looked forward to the gathering, but most of all, spending some time with Emma. Since Chance had been courting her, and with Hettie’s busier-than-expected life as a married woman, the two women hadn’t spent much time together in recent months. Emma was going to stay over for a couple of days following the picnic, during which Hettie would be helping her sew her wedding dress for their upcoming nuptials.
As with their own wedding, Hettie and Ezra would be in attendance, this time with Hettie as Emma’s maid of honor and Ezra standing in as Chance’s best man. The church was sure to be overflowing with friends and well-wishers, and she looked forward to it.
As she entered the house, she paused just beyond the door, looking at everything with a greater and deeper sense of appreciation and nostalgia. Her parents had built this home and it would remain standing for some time to come. She would miss the place, but she also looked forward to making new memories with her husband.
Footsteps sounded behind her, and she glanced over her shoulder as Nicholas entered the house.
“What are you doing just standing there?”
“Just looking,” she replied. “I’m going to miss it here. Aren’t you?”
Nicholas shrugged. “Sure, but I’m also looking forward to what comes next.”
He paused beside his sister, looking at her, almost taller than she was now.
“You’ve raised us well, Hettie, but we’re growing up, Ethan and Cole and I. We’re not little boys that need you to protect us anymore. For a while there, I was worried about what would happen to you when we were all old enough to leave home. Now I don’t worry anymore. Not with Ezra watching over you.”
Hettie smiled. He was going to make some woman very happy someday. Tears filled her eyes.
“Aw, don’t you go start cryin’ again,” he groaned. “It seems like every other day now, you’re turning on the waterworks.”
With that, he strode into his room as Hettie blinked back those tears as she moved toward the kitchen table, soon to join the picnic table outside. She had been rather emotional of late, but so many changes were taking place all at once it was hardly any wonder.
The remaining hours of the morning passed in a blur of activity. Finally, toward mid-afternoon, Ezra came into the house, pulled his hat off his head, and wiped the sweat from his brow. He glanced at her with a lifted eyebrow.
“How are you doing in here? Got everything finished? Guests’ll be arriving soon and I’ve got to get cleaned up.”
The kitchen table had long been taken out into the yard and placed alongside the other, creating one long table. The counter space and the small worktable that Ezra had installed next to the cooking stove were covered with baskets of fresh bread and biscuits, along with a rhubarb pie. The kitchen was filled with the aroma of savory beef stew, roasted chicken, and freshly baked breads. A pot of sliced carrots and one of green beans simmered on the stove.
“They had better hurry up and get here, too, or I know someone’s going to be dipping into the stew,” he said.
He quickly reached for a biscuit and popped it into his mouth before she could stop him.
“Stop that!” She shook her head. The man was always eating and yet he never seem to gain a pound. She bent to open the oven box door and glanced at the biscuits browning inside. “Another dozen almost done.” She sighed. “All I’ve got left to do is fix the gravy.”
“We got enough of everything?”
She nodded. “If you don’t eat anything else, we’ll have plenty. Besides, Mister Reinhardt is bringing sausages and some smoked ham. Emma is bringing a rice casserole and I think the reverend is bringing mashed potatoes. So, yes—”
“And only one rhubarb pie?”
Hettie glanced over her shoulder at Ethan, who stood with a scowl near the open front door.
“Why, I could eat half that pie by myself.”
“Don’t you worry, Ethan,” Hettie assured him. “I think I heard Doc Murphy was bringing a couple of pies that he got from Missus Matthews.”
He brightened. “She makes good pies, and good apple tarts, too. You think she made us a couple of apple pies?”
“I have no idea,” Hettie said. “She made them in payment to the doc for setting her husband’s arm the other day, remember he fell off his horse?”
Ethan started to reply until Cole barreled into the house, nearly knocking Ethan to the floor. They started tussling. Instead of scolding them, Hettie simply shook her head and turned around to check the beans and carrots. Those two were always tussling, but they were careful not to get too rough inside the house.
Ezra finally broke it up. “Okay, boys, let’s all get cleaned up. We’re going to get company soon, and we don’t want to be smelling like the barn, do we?”
“What’s wrong with smelling like the barn?” Cole asked. “It smells good in there.”
An hour later, their guests started arriving. Emma and Chance arrived first by buggy. The boys hurried to unhitch the horse, turn it into the pasture, while Chance and Ezra walked to the now-empty pig pens, talking. Emma stepped inside, carrying a heavy porcelain dish of her rice casserole.
“It smells good in here!” She glanced around the crowded kitchen space. “Where should I put this?”
Hettie shrugged. “Any place you can find a spot for it.” She gestured to the shelf above the stove. “Here, put it here. We can keep it warm next to the biscuits.”
For the moment, the house was quiet, the men and the boys outside. Hettie heard the creak and rattle of trace chains as a wagon approached. She quickly turned to Emma. “I know we’re not going to have much time to talk before everyone arrives, but I just wanted to ask. You brought everything from your house for us to work on your wedding dress?”
Emma nodded, her cheeks flushing with color. “I’ll go get the box out of the buggy and put it in your room, all right?”
Hettie nodded, anxious and excited to be able to spend a couple of days with her friend. Selfishly, she wanted her all to herself, knowing that soon the day would come that they would part once again for some time. Still, she knew their friendship would stand the test of time and that each would take advantage of the hours spent with one another, accepting the times when postcards or letters would have to do.
After all their company arrived, Hettie, Emma, and the boys carried the platters, dishes, and plates of food out to the tables, where their friends gathered around. It was a rather loud supper, the men talking and laughing, the boys enjoying the company, while through it all, Hettie and Emma did their best to catch up.
After supper, Ezra tugged Hettie aside for a quiet moment at the edge of the yard. She had gently protested, but he insisted. “Let the boys help clean up. And look, Doc Murphy’s getting the fiddle from his buggy.” He gazed down at her. “Missus Shanklin, would you do me the honor of having the first dance with me?”
She smiled up at him and nodded. “Of course, Mister Shanklin.”
He gathered her in his arms, impatient to wait for Doc to start playing, and held her close as she lifted her face up toward his. He kissed her forehead. “Your birthday is coming up soon, Hettie, and we’ll be in Flagstaff for it, but I want you to know that I’ve got a surprise waiting for you there.”
She lifted an eyebrow. “You do? What is it?”
He chuckled. “I’m not going to tell you. It wouldn’t be a surprise then, would it?”
“I suppose not,” she smiled. “But I guess, then, that I have to tell you about my surprise for you, don’t I?”
He grinned. “You going to give me a hint?”
“No.” She placed his hand over her belly. “But I think you can guess.”
His momentary confusion cleared up almost immediately and he gazed into her eyes, mouth open in amazement. “Really?”
She nodded, fighting back yet more unexpected tears and a lump of happiness in her throat. “In about seven months, we’re going to have a new addition to the family.”
He wrapped her gently in his arms and they stood together like that for the longest time, it seemed, until Ezra stepped away and, holding her hand, announced their good news to their guests. They broke into exclamations of delight as her brothers rushed forward, each giving her a tender hug and heartfelt words of joy.
Hettie’s own heart overflowed with love for what she had now and for what the near future would bring on wings of love.