Venturing west, a man with two young children loses his pregnant wife in a terrible rock fall accident. Devastated, driven, he moves on and finds hospitable folks in a small town, and a girl "with a past" who needs a strong savior when she is to be sent out of town because she is pregnant and no longer a useful commodity. When she is accosted by a bad drunk, threatened with bodily harm, she is befriended by the western widower who promises her a new life . he will raise her child as his own if she will raise his children. They are married in a hurry, leave town and love comes to both of them on their journey. All looks bright for the future, until the drunk follows them into a deadly confrontation, which ends in a showdown on the trail.
* * *
The yelling came from the street. "Hey, Sheriff, there's a big fight at the saloon. Someone's gonna get killed."
Sabine Thompson, sheriff of Indigo Falls, leaped from his desk to the gun rack and grabbed a Winchester, his hand at the balance point, and rushed from his office. "Probably Toss Devine again, drunk as ever." Never was any part of Kansas quiet when Toss Devine was at the hard stuff.
Thompson stepped into the Black Carriage Saloon, just before a body came crashing down from the second floor, the ladies floor. But the falling body was the houseman. Toss Devine, indeed, was at wild work again, and only one sound would slow him down long enough to listen to any neutral party.
Thompson fired a round over Devine's head and the slug slammed into the woodwork not more than a foot away from the furious drunk.
Devine stopped screaming, as though sober, but of course he wasn't.
Bleary-eyed he looked down into the saloon and the sole image he could make sense of was Thompson waving the rifle at him, threatening another round, the bore pointed straight at him.
"She says she's gonna have a kid and I got to get out of here." He slammed a fist against the wall and the whole building carried the sound along the framework. Thompson had seen Devine this angry a half dozen times and knew he'd have him in a cell for a couple of days at least.
"C'mon down, Toss. No more carrying on. Don't blame the lady."
"Hell, yelled Devine, slobbering in his speech. "I ain't blaming her, they're gonna throw her out."
"We'll take care of that, Toss, me and you," Thompson said as he placed the Winchester on a table and walked to the foot of the stairs.
At that same time, outside of Indigo Falls and coming along the river, was a covered wagon loaded to the hilt with household goods, supplies, one man at the reins, and two children, a girl of 4 and her brother, 5, playing in a tight space directly behind the driver. He was a good-looking man with dark hair, a partial beard that filled out his face, large hands and wrists to match. He wore a gray Stetson sitting at an angle, a gray shirt needing some care, black pants and boots that the pants were tucked into. A Colt revolver sat in a shoulder holster and a rifle lay beneath his feet.
A smile fluttered occasionally on his face as he listened to his children playing.
His name was Clayton Shelburne, 35, widowed a mere month, his wife Adelaide buried back down the trail from rocks that rolled downhill at a campsite and killed her instantly. She was pregnant at the time. Now, mere miles from the next town, on his way wherever he'd find some kind of solitude and hope, the kind that Addy was always talking about. "A cabin on a small hill, Clay, and a garden out front, and a barn, and a look out over the prairie in spring and summer when the color is as wild as the flowers. That's all I want for you and me and the kids."
She'd clasp her hands at that summation and Shelburne knew she was saying her prayers again.
The scene haunted him every moment of the day that the children were not making demands on him.
He drove into Indigo and arranged to set his wagon behind the livery after talking to the livery owner, Burt Palermo, himself widowed but his children grown and moved on. They had shared some of their tales when Palermo asked where the mother of the children was.
"Look here," Palermo said, like negotiating his proposal, "I have a woman living-in who takes care of the place and she'd love to have the kids around her for a couple of days, if you're of a mind to look about, wet your whistle, treat your bones, whatever. It'd be our pleasure 'cause I know how you're feeling right about now."
Shelburne agreed and the children were set down at a dinner table for the first time in a long while. They appeared ravenous, ate well, crouched back against pillows to settle themselves, and fell asleep. Their father went to look at Indigo Falls.
In the Black Carriage Saloon, a small hearse-type vehicle painted at the end of the sign with a flourish, the new visitor to town ordered a drink at the bar.
The bartender said, "I ain't seen you before, mister. You passing through or staying a spell?"
"Oh," Shelburne said, "probably just passing through on my way to wherever, me and my family. But it looks like a nice town. Kind of quiet, but nice folks so far."
"Should have been here earlier. We had a wild drunk throw the houseman through that rail up there," and he pointed overhead where the broken rail showed. "He got tossed right through that broke part."
"Raising hell up there, was he?"
"Yep, he was real mad that one of the ladies is pregnant and she won't have a place here for long. The boss is gonna put her out. That set him off, 'cause he kind of favored her. The sheriff's arranging for her to get a ride out of town, make a new start down the trail a way. He'll find someplace for her. He's done it before." He shrugged his shoulders and added, "They come and they go, and life moves on."
Shelburne didn't like the tone of voice but held his feelings to himself.
Life was tough enough for anybody in a small town.
He had a couple of drinks and walked back to the livery. Evening shadows were settling down in places next to the tallest structures, a soft breeze swirled dust into small zephyrs in the street, and lamps or candles began to show color in a few windows. The ease of the town, in general, came on him like a glove in place, and he felt the soft arrangement of comfort might be worth noting, but the lady's trouble at the saloon sat sore and cumbersome, as though hidden behind some other parts.
At the general store, the sign over the top of the door saying Whitby's, half a dozen people mingled on the front boardwalk, and the interior of the newspaper office next door, behind a large window, shone with the brightest light he had seen. He could see the man inside working with the tools of his trade, several lamps lit. Shelburne wondered about the headlines in the coming issue. He was sure it would not be about the lady being "shown out of town."
He discovered the sore spot again down in his gut, and a foul taste rising in his throat. Looks, he thought, were so deceiving. He stared about him again, at all he could see of the town, and knew he was missing the most important parts of all.
Indigo Falls had two spirits, two lives, two flavors. It was disconcerting, and it hit him with heavy notice. He could not shrug it off.
At the livery, Palermo said, "How'd you like the town? Mostly quiet, isn't it?"
"I saw the newspaper being set up and wondered what the headlines on the next issue will be. It won't be about the lady being sent out of town or the drunk who had the big fight about her, will it?"
"Most likely not," Palermo said. "The editor sort of 'manages things,' if you know what I mean. Some things is best hidden, as they say about rattlers and such."
"How'd she come here?" Shelburne said. "What's her name? She have a life before she got here?"
"From what I hear, she was found on the bank of the big river, almost dead.
Must have come awful close to drowning, maybe fell or pushed off one of them river boats."
"Nothing before that? No previous place? No family someplace?"
"Only from back east and nothing else she ever offered up, even to the other ladies there at the Black Carriage. Stories don't get told much except the big lies and you know them right off the first smile. When they don't want nothing else known, they bury it like under a landslide, and it never gets out."
"Got to be some mother or father wondering somewhere about her, or a sister or a brother. Everybody should have family." Palermo saw the sudden shift of pain cross Shelburne's face, the way only a memory can do the job, quick and to the point.
Palermo said, "C'mon, let's go see the kids and Maria and get something to eat. The woman's a great cook and can make something out of nothing almost.
I bet she had a time of it with the kids. She misses her own, off wandering out there she once said, and me knowing she was wishing otherwise. I'm damned lucky I found her."
"How'd that happen?"
"A wagon master came through needing a bad wheel fixed and I had one for him all done off a half-burned wagon. We got talking and I told him about my wife dying and he said there was a woman without a man or a wagon they had found at an old camp and took her along, only with the promise to drop her someplace that'd give her a chance. I took that chance and lucked out.
Let's go eat."
Maria shushed them as they entered the small cabin. "They are so sweet, but they're still sleeping, and on my bed. I'll let them sleep there all night."
Palermo, with a smile, said, "You can bunk in my room, Maria. I'll go back out to the livery with their father. We'll spend the night there and be in for breakfast. I got half a dozen horses to do in the morning."
"I'll help there," Shelburne said, and they sat down for the meal, the aromas teasing Shelburne before he had come into the cabin. He kept nodding as he ate, and Maria kept smiling.
Palermo kept nodding too, but his mind elsewhere.
Maria finally, dishing out another helping of steak and potatoes and greens to both men, said, "Tell me what's happening with Dominique at the Black Carriage. I heard she's going to have a baby and they're going to put her out of town."
"Is that her name?" Shelburne said. "First time I heard it."
"Oh," Maria said, "I don't think that's her real name. It's like a stage name, I'd guess. I talked to her once at the store. She's pretty as a picture, but carries a lot of pain about with her, like a leash tied on her, or hard reins." Her voice caught a breath, and she resumed. "I heard the sheriff has got space for her on the afternoon stage. It's going to Livermore, which might be the end of the world for her."
Shelburne said, "She ever tell you about where she came from? About her family?"
"Not a word." Maria said, "like they don't want anything about where they're at now getting back to the family. That's real sad. I wish my family could find me again, my son and my daughter. I hope they're still alive. I hope they have kids of their own and that's why they can't come looking for me."
She looked across the room and she could see into the room and the two children asleep in the bed, but the boy beginning to stir.
"I think he smells the steak," she said, and the smile came back.
Palermo smiled too.
In the livery, Palermo said, "You climb up, Clay, and get comfortable. I got a few things to do, but I'll wake you early. We can rush the day." He slapped Shelburne on the back.
In the comfort of the hay soft as a mattress under him, Shelburne went to sleep quicker than he had in months. He slept deeply, soundly.
In the morning the two men did the work needed to be done, moved horses as necessary, Palermo conducting his business as usual, then the two of them headed back for breakfast. Shelburne could smell the meal just as they stepped out of the livery into the clear air. A vision of Adelaide at morning preparations accosted him and made him inhale deeply.
At the audible inhalation, Palermo, smarter than a lot of men Shelburne had met, said, "That's more than smelling breakfast, Clay, ain't it? I know just what it's like. I've been there lots of time."
Maria couldn't hold the kids back, and both of them scrambled to meet their father.
The boy, Todd, said, "Molly was crying last night and almost kept me awake."
He hugged his father and clarified his story, "But she wasn't hurt, just sad. Said Maria cooks just like Momma."
Molly hugged her father when he picked her up.
Maria, on the small porch, said, "Clay, they are beautiful, and so well-mannered. They'll bring the graces to anyplace you settle down.
After breakfast, without a word being said, Shelburne went ahead of Palermo back to the livery and began to do some of the odd jobs yet to be done. As he worked he kept thinking about what Maria had said about "bringing the graces" to anyplace where he'd settle down. He wondered where that would be, how far away, how the journey would pass.
When Palermo came back to the livery, he said, "Oh, my, that woman loves those kids. If you ever have a problem with leaving them anyplace, here with her would be the best place of all. She's been ecstatic since they came here.
Shelburne had no comment and continued working.
Suddenly, from a fit of extensive effort at moving some of the manure and taking it to the back of the cabin and a little garden sitting in bright sunlight, Shelburne dropped the shovel and walked off into town.
Palermo watched him striding off without saying a word. "He's made up his mind about something," he said to the mare he was brushing down, "and that's a good sign, old girl." He patted the horse on the rump, looked out the rear door and saw Maria sitting on the small porch, the children beside her. He thought he heard them laughing but was not sure of the sound. It seemed most proper and likely, a mother at work of being warmer than her surroundings.
Shelburne, in a full stride, headed right to the sheriff's office, passing the Black Carriage Saloon on the way, almost changing his stride to go to the saloon, but he didn't change.
He stepped into the sheriff's office and the first thing he saw was Sheriff Sabine Thompson sitting back in a chair at a desk with a single piece of paper on the top of the desk, a ring of keys, and a revolver. The essence of a woman, a secret of perfume, crawled under Shelburne's skin as unnerving as it could be. He swung about and Dominique, beautiful Dominique, sat in a chair against the front wall, a bag at her feet, a wrap or coat lying atop the bag, tears falling on her cheeks.
She was the loneliest and loveliest woman Shelburne had seen in a long time, and her tears crushed him.
Thompson, in deep thought himself, looked up and said, "You the fella helping Burt at the livery? I heard you were doing some work for him and he's mighty pleased. That your wagon parked out back of his place? What brings you here?"
"Well, Sheriff," Shelburne said, "I have to talk to you and her," and he pointed to Dominique, "whatever her real name is."
"About what?" the sheriff said, surprise running across his face, standing beside his desk like something was getting away from him, or getting past him.
"I got a proposition for the lady," Shelburne said.
She looked up, no expression on her face at first.
Thompson said, "Well, let's hear it."
"It's for me and the lady first, Sheriff, if you don't mind. Just for her and me for starters. We can fill you in later, but I'd like some privacy for me and the lady."
Dominique was open-mouthed, hearing this stranger say "lady" two or three times to the sheriff and asking the sheriff to leave the office as politely as he could ask. A stirring began to move in her body that was more than surprise.
The sheriff was about to say, "Well, this is my office," but didn't.
Something about Shelburne had pulled at him with surprising force. He assented, took his revolver off the desk, slapped it into his holster, and said, "Good luck,"
He walked out of the office, saying, "I'll be back in an hour or so. Anybody looking for me, I'll be in the saloon or the barbershop."
The door closed firmly behind him.
"Ma'am, Dominique or whatever your name is, I have something to say that I want you to listen to very carefully. I'll try not to rush it, but please listen."
"But I don't know who you are," she said.
"That's all the better," he said, then he added, "I'd like to know what your real name is. I don't want any stage names hanging out in the air between us. My name is Clayton Shelburne, and all folks call me Clay. I'm a widower and my wife was killed a while ago under a landslide and that's where she's buried, probably forever."
"Oh, how horrible," she said. The look on her face said it was an honest reaction. A new tear started in her right eye and moved onto her cheek.
"And I have a boy and a girl, 5 and 4, and my wife was with child when she died."
The next tear was alive, too, and began its course on her other cheek. "I'm so sorry about your wife, but you have something from her. That counts a lot. I bet she was a grand lady and the children must miss her."
Another tear started. "My name is Rosalie and I am with child. They are putting me out of town."
"I know all that," he said, "and here's my proposition; you come with me, wherever I'm headed, to find the perfect place that my wife used to dream about, and I'll raise your baby as mine and you raise my kids as yours.
That's all I ask. I'm a hard worker. I know cows and horses and the land under my feet. I've farmed and drove cows and gathered horses and used some tools to good advantage. I like steak and potatoes and corn and anything green on my plate and a good stiff drink once in a while, but mostly for occasions."
Tears were not in volume, but more flowed, as she said, "Would you marry me?
Are you saying that too?"
"You're damned tooting I am," Shelburne said, "but we won't get married here in Indigo Falls. We'll get married down the line somewhere. The honeymoon will be in a covered wagon heading someplace beyond."
He smiled at her as more tears began to fall, and an expression of joy passed on her face as full realization came to her.
But his sincerity, she felt, was above her joy. Trust began building in her on the spot, where trust had longed for some place to roost within her.
"Is it real?" she said.
"It is," he replied, his hand taking her hand, and each of them knew a newness passing into the other. It carried trust, belief, free choice in the matter, respect longed for in her and given at last by him.
There was an exquisite moment for each of them, when the door suddenly burst open, and Toss Devine, utterly drunk and stupid-looking once more, pounded into the office.
"I heard you was in here with him. You're comin' with me right now. Right now, or I'll knock you silly again."
He had her by the arm and was about to grip her wildly about her waist, the slightly plump waist, when Shelburne, in a fit of anger, swung his fist once in a round-house arc and slammed Devine flush on the jaw. He went down like a cow with two front legs trussed in a lariat and stayed still.
Shelburne, looking around, spotted the cell keys hanging on the wall. He grabbed them, then hefted Devine and lugged him into a cell, put his hat on his head, and locked the door behind him when he left the cell.
"I'll go get the sheriff," he said, just as the door opened and Thompson came in. "I heard Toss Devine was here. Where'd he go?"
Over his shoulder, pointing, Shelburne said, "He's in a cell, Sheriff, locked in. He assaulted the lady here and I had to bang him a good one. He's not hurt much, but he'll be out of it for a while."
"Well that's good work, Clay, and quick. Couldn't do better myself." He looked at her and said, "What happens now?"
She said, "We're leaving here, Sheriff. I'm going with him. We're getting married."
"Oh," he said, "that's great. Where are you getting married?"
Shelburne said, "Down the trail some place, but away from here," and he pointed over his shoulder, "and him."
"I can do it here," Sheriff Sabine Thompson said, and free of cost. It's legal. The town council gave me the right since we ain't got any ministers here."
"Don't we need a witness?" she said.
"We got one," the sheriff said, 'and he's just fallen asleep, but he's a witness. And it'll sure burn the hell out of him when he finds out, I hope."
"You do that for us, Sheriff, and keep him in there for a while. He might be a bit nasty when he wakes up. Me and the lady will really appreciate it."
"Okay, Clay, do you take Dominique to be your wife, all legal and such?"
She said, "My name is Rosalie Bertrand, Sheriff. My honest to goodness name."
"Okay," the sheriff said. "Do you Clay Shelburne take Rosalie Bertrand to be your lawful and legal wife?"
"Do you, Rosalie Bertrand take Clay Shelburne to be your husband, lawful and legal all the way?"
"Kiss her," the sheriff said, "She's now your wife and I give you my best wishes, and my promise to keep him here for a few days. If he raises any hell, I'll keep him longer. He ain't a real bad guy when he's not drinking, but otherwise, he's hell and twice the pain. Now you two mosey back to the livery and get out of town as soon as you can."
Palermo and Maria were happy at the news, and Maria hugged Rosalie and told her, "You got two great kids coming to your skirts. You'll love them. And good luck with the next one. You'll have a fine family, I know." They hugged each other.
In the first streak of dawn's light, Mr. and Mrs. Clayton Shelburne, nee Rosalie Bertrand, soon to be mother, were on their way out of Indigo Falls and heading further west.
Three weeks later, Rosalie idyllic, her husband finding new love in his whole person, the children at comfort with their new mother, they joined up with a wagon train. They liked their new companions and enjoyed their company in the evenings and at chores during the day. Most nights the children slept in the covered wagon and the newlyweds slept under the wagon in a tussle of blankets.
Often, she'd say things he loved to hear, "Oh, Clay, look at the stars tonight, how they gather up like bouquets just for us, coming down on us like we're on the bridal path." She'd hug him dearly, and often try to bring up her past in a kind of penance. He would shush her, and say, "We're into a new life, with our children. I promise to do the best possible for you and them."
"Clay, you came along when I had no hope. Now I know that whenever I need you, you'll be there."
He went to sleep hearing her words repeated again and again.
In the morning, about to get on the way, he came back from communal tasks and said, "We're leaving the wagon train just down the road, Rosalie. I just found out that one of the riders who came in yesterday is on his way back to Indigo Falls. I think he recognized you, said something to one of the gents who told me. He looks like he wants to wave his tongue like a sheet on the line. It's best we leave the train. I don't trust Devine, not knowing how long he spent in jail or what he's really thinking."
Rosalie leaned on him. "Oh, Clay, will it ever leave us?" She hugged him and he felt the shiver course through her now ample frame.
In a few more weeks, after leaving the train, they hitched up with another train and were approaching the Rockies, the wagon master saying they would come to a special pass that would allow them to save some time.
Shelburne, talking to many men on the way west, some of whom had crossed over, had serious reservations about the special way through the mountains.
He tossed a decision over in his mind a number of times but knew that he'd not go that special way.
He pulled his wagon off with another wagon and the two men decided on another route. A day on their new route, the woman on the other wagon fell ill, and her husband said he'd ride back and get the doctor who rode with the previous wagon train. Shelburne and his family would stay with the sick woman.
That evening Shelburne went off a way to see if he could kill a deer or a sheep. He was anxious that he didn't see or hear any game and was worried about the women and the children. He started on the way back and was not far away from the wagons when he heard a scream.
It was Rosalie, he was sure, and spurred his horse to greater speed. He halted a way off from the wagon when he heard the yells coming from a male.
It was, of course, Toss Devine screaming his anger, having traced them most likely from the day he got out of jail.
Rosalie was screaming too. "The baby. Don't hurt my baby. Don't hurt my baby."
"Hell," Devine screamed back at her, "it might be mine too." He grabbed her again. The other woman screamed.
Rosalie screamed, "Clay, Clay, where are you?"
Devine let her go when he heard Shelburne say, "I'm right here, Rosalie.
Don't worry, he's not going to hurt you anymore." He came into the flickering light of the campfire, his rifle leveled at Devine.
Devine grabbed Rosalie again and shoved her ahead of him. At that precise moment, when he moved to shift her more in front so she'd become the perfect shield, the sick woman jammed a stick from the fire between his legs. He stumbled, let go of Rosalie, swing his gun up to shoot Shelburne who now had his rifle dead on Devine.
Two shots roared out. The women screamed. The children screamed. Toss Devine let out an ungainly cry, stepped forward and fell on his face, the rifle bullet hitting him right above his heart. He was dead before he hit the ground.
"Oh, Clay, you promised you'd be here when I needed you, and you were." She hugged him.
"I love you more than anything I've ever known in my life." She hugged him again as the sick woman, feeling better, smiled and hugged the children, both mothers at their work.
The stars overhead were dazzling in the black sky, the campfire glittered and glowed on leaves in nearby trees, a coyote said hello downrange somewhere, another answered, one shooting star ablaze fled ahead of its flame across the sky and lost itself in myriad peaks poking the sky.
Clay Shelburne said, "I was thinking out there that the place I saw yesterday, on the rise on the other side of the valley, is the place Adelaide was talking about. Looks just like it from another angle. After the doctor gets here to take care of our heroine, we're going to take another look. Maybe our traveling days are done."
Each of them felt "home" settling around them, and in the distance, they heard, coming from the darkness when the sick woman's husband and doctor identified themselves in a familiar voice, "Hello, the campfire."
Rosalie Shelburne, a long way from a riverboat and the Black Carriage Saloon, in love with as fine a man as she had ever met, felt the rumblings inside her waistline. The rumblings were unmistakable.