Three Years Later
The cockerel crowed directly outside their bedroom window, jerking both Julie and Sonny awake. Sonny groaned, pressing his face into the pillow.
“Sometimes I want to kill that bird, Julie,” he said, voice muffled.
“Well, that wouldn’t be very sensible, would it?” Julie pointed out, sitting up and yawning. “That cockerel is our alarm clock.”
She stretched, reaching her arms above her head until the joints popped. Winter was well along, and the nights were now dark and cold. During the day, however, was fresh and bright.
Their cabin – and it was theirs now, not Tam and Flo’s – was surprisingly quiet. Since Julie hadn’t been woken by the screams of a wide-awake one-year-old, she could only assume that Helen – the darling girl – had gone in to sort out the baby.
I’ll miss her when she leaves, Julie thought, with a pang of sadness.
Helen and Owen’s wedding was scheduled for the spring, the same season that Julie had been married in. Theirs was going to be a grander affair than Julie and Sonny’s. Well, they were going to have more money.
Owen hadn’t stayed working in the miner’s camp. He had a job in the bank in town and was already earning enough money to comfortably support himself and a wife. Helen helped Julie cook and serve her meals, although that would stop once she was married.
The gold rush was over. Its end had already been in sight by the time Julie and Helen had arrived in town, but things had gone from bad to worse. The gold in Resland was all but gone, and the miners, faced with lower and lower commissions, left the camp in droves in search of richer pickings. There was no miner’s camp now. You could see where it was – a patch of earth which had never quite recovered, and grew patchy and straggly grass, with bald, scorched spots showing where tents and fires had stood respectively.
Julie still sold her meals – she enjoyed the work, and Sonny didn’t expect her to give up everything she liked doing in favor of minding their house. Her only customers now were farm laborers. She walked into town now too, and sold meals to clerks, shopkeepers, and bank tellers. The money Julie earned went into a little fund for emergencies, or for their son’s use one day in the future.
Every now and then, a group of hopeful men, drifters in search of a quick fortune, would come along and pitch their tents in the old camp. They’d spend a few days or even a few weeks scrabbling through the riverbed, panning, panning, panning for gold. Julie could have told them they were wasting their time. Sometimes Sonny did tell them. But the men wouldn’t listen to anybody, not even Sheriff Campbell of Resland. They nodded and smiled and kept right on panning and scrabbling.
Sonny gave up warning them. The more he tried to convince them to leave, the more the men were convinced there were secret veins of gold here that the locals were hiding. When time went by and there was no gold and their supplies ran out, the men started to get bitter and angry, sometimes resorting to petty theft.
Still, the drifters were coming less and less frequently. That was something, at least.
Julie climbed out of bed, shivering in the cold air, and padded over to her wardrobe. Her faithful old burgundy dresses sat in there, reminders of the days when she’d only had two dresses to her name, and shoes with the soles nearly worn out. While they didn’t live in luxury, Julie had never wanted for anything since she came to Resland. She chose a deep purple gown and dressed quickly, tying a calico apron around her waist.
“How are you so bright and perky in the morning?” Sonny asked, rubbing a hand over his face. “As I get older, it gets harder and harder to get up.”
Julie snorted. “I think you should probably get used to that. Come on, Sonny, up you get. It smells like Helen is making breakfast.”
Sonny chuckled, turning up his face for a kiss. Julie leaned over to oblige, smiling fondly down at her husband.
“You need a shave.”
“Maybe I’ll grow a fabulous set of mustachios, like Sheriff Evans used to have.”
“Don’t you dare.”
Julie stepped out of the bedroom, closing the door behind her. The little two-room cabin that she and Helen had first moved into had been expanded on and perfected until it was a house that a family could comfortably live in. The kitchen was now home to a large kitchen table, and the room that Helen and Julie had slept in was now Helen’s room alone. It was properly furnished, of course – Helen had a comfortable bed.
The sturdy wooden bed in Julie and Sonny’s room was a present from Helen, paid for with the money she’d earned from selling meals alongside Julie. She’d hugged Julie and told her that she’d been able to surprise Julie with the gift of a bed after all, and Julie had promptly burst into tears.
There was a parlor now, built into the side of the kitchen, and a small scullery and pantry jutting out near the back door. Julie and Sonny’s room nestled alongside the parlor, and there was room for more expansion later on, if they wished it.
Perhaps they would, perhaps they wouldn’t. So far, Julie and Sonny only had one child. But there was time yet for more. There was plenty of time.
Julie smiled to herself at that. She opened the door into the kitchen and was greeted by the delicious smell of fried bread, bacon, cornbread, eggs, and sausage. Helen stood at the stove, stirring the frying pan with one hand and balancing her nephew on her hip with the other.
“Morning,” Helen said, barely glancing up. “I went in and got Benji up, he was fussing, and I didn’t want to wake you.”
“You were up early.”
“Yes, I couldn’t sleep again. I was worried about the invitations for the wedding. Now that Owen’s in touch with all his family back east, they want to come to the wedding. Where are we going to put them up? What will we feed them?”
“Let me deal with that, Helen,” Julie said firmly. “You just concentrate on marrying the man you love. There’s no reason that you should be bothered by all this. Let me take Benji, you’re going to splash bacon fat on yourself.”
Helen flashed her a grateful smile, handing over the baby.
Benji gurgled happily, reaching up his chubby fists to give Julie a hug. Julie pressed a kiss to his forehead, smiling down at her son.
She and Sonny had been married for nearly two years before she fell pregnant with Benjamin Cole Campbell, their beloved son. Julie wasn’t sure that she’d wanted children. Oh, she loved children, of course, and the idea of having her own baby seemed like a dream. But what if something happened to her and Sonny? Where would that leave Benji?
But Benji would never be left alone in the world, cast adrift and uncared for, like Julie and Helen had been. She had her Aunt Helen and soon-to-be Uncle Owen to care for her, and her adoring grandparents, and a whole host of paternal uncles and aunts in various towns. They would never be alone. Never.
Julie kissed Benjy again on the temple, and he gave a squeal of joy.
Helen smiled vaguely in their direction. She was eighteen now and had grown up to be a beautiful young woman. There’d been no rush into matrimony between her and Owen. He’d proposed only six months ago, after nearly three years of being friends. It seemed strange to Julie that the marriage was going ahead after all, after those years of comfortable friendship. Not that Owen and Helen had ever stopped loving each other, not really.
Helen glanced up, sensing Julie’s eyes on her, and smiled. “What is it?”
“Oh, nothing. I was just thinking of how times have changed. How we’ve changed.”
“Are you looking forward to the day when I’m safely married and out of your house?”
Julie’s smile faded a little. “No, Helen, I’m not. This is the first time since we were children that we’ll be separated, except for … except for when I was sent away from the orphanage, and you were sent to live with the Browns. I don’t know how I feel about it, but I don’t think I like it.”
Helen set the wooden spoon aside and moved over to hug her sister.
“Oh, Julie. I know how you feel. The thing was, when you married Sonny, I simply stayed here with you. I didn’t have to leave at all – we weren’t separated. This isn’t going to be easy.”
Julie placed a hand on her sister’s cheek. “I know. If it weren’t for the fact you were madly in love with Owen, I don’t think I’d let you go.”
Helen grinned, dimples popping into her cheek. “Speaking of Owen, he’s coming to escort me around to sell the breakfast meals this morning. He’ll be here any moment.” With impeccable timing, there was a knock on the door, and Helen perked up, eyes brightening. “That’ll be him!”
“Well, I’ll answer the door, and you tend to the food – I think the bacon is burning.”
Helen turned back to the stove with a shriek. Smiling to herself, Julie moved over to the door. She opened it to reveal a tall, handsome young man, blond-haired, blue-eyed, and with a wide, infectious grin.
“Hello, Julie!” Owen chirped. “Is Helen ready?”
“Nearly. She’s made breakfast for me and Sonny, bless her heart. She’s just serving up.”
“That’s my fiancée,” Owen said, looking dreamy. “She’s so kind.”
Helen shouldered past her sister, knocking her with the oversized basket perching on her arm. “Excuse me, Julie! I’ll see you later!”
“Be careful! You’re a menace with that basket!” Julie scolded. Not that Helen was listening, of course.
Julie stood in the doorway, with her son balanced on her hip, and watched Helen walk away. She was hand-in-hand with Owen, who was looking down adoringly as Helen chattered. She was telling some long and involved story, and Owen looked as though he’d never heard anything half so interesting. They loved each other so much. It was the sort of love that Julie had always dreamt of her sister finding one day.
She’d never dreamt that she’d find it for herself, though. Suddenly, Julie’s eyes were welling up with tears. She laughed at herself, sniffling.
“Everything alright?” Sonny murmured, appearing at the door behind her. He’d washed and dressed but hadn’t yet shaved. He smiled down at Benji, who squealed with joy to see his father. Sonny scooped Benji out of Julie’s arms, holding him close for a hug and kiss.
“Yes, yes, I’m fine. I’m just thinking how Helen is going to get married and leave, and I’m going to be heartbroken. We were always inseparable, me and Helen. I’ll miss her, but now she’s fallen in love, she won’t spare a thought for her old sister.”
Sonny tilted his head, looking thoughtfully at Julie. “Well, it’s not as if she won’t love you anymore. Love takes many forms, and romantic love is just one of them.”
“Oh, I know, I know, I’m just finding it hard to let her go. I’m almost grieving, can you believe it? Isn’t that ridiculous?”
Sonny used his free arm to pull Julie close, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. “I don’t think it’s ridiculous. And I don’t think you two are going to grow apart, or start living separate lives, or anything like that. This is a new chapter, not the end of the book.”
Julie tilted back her head, looking up at him thoughtfully. “A new chapter, not the end of the book. I like that. That’s a good image.”
“Yes, I thought so. Well, since Helen won’t be here much longer to make us delicious food for breakfast and settle down our offspring, perhaps we should make the most of it, eh?” Sonny said, grinning down at Julie. “This food smells delicious. Let’s tuck in before it gets cold.”
Julie smiled. “You don’t have to tell me twice.”
Sonny bent down and kissed her, despite the awkward angle and Benji tugging strongly on his ear.
“I love you, Julie,” Sonny whispered softly.
And just like that, the ache in her heart that had been there since Helen announced she was getting married was soothed, and Julie smiled affectionately up at her husband.
How on earth was I so lucky? she thought.
“I love you too, Sonny,” Julie said aloud. “I have to say, I can’t wait for our new chapter.”