The mountains’ silence overwhelmed her. Its endless echo rang grim and hollow; it drove in the certainty of her situation. She was now beyond any doubt alone.
Papa’s sudden death, as far as Angel Rogers could tell, had occurred plain and simple because his heart gave out. It seemed Papa had indeed lived too hard before he met Mama and settled to a “proper” life, as he’d often said.
Knowing what led to his passing did nothing to ease Angel’s grief.
She leaned on the handle of the heavy shovel and surveyed Papa’s final resting place. He would have wanted it right by Mama’s grave, so Angel had fought the hard, cold earth until her hands bled. In the end, the two people she’d loved most lay side by side.
She’d never known loneliness before. It was all she knew now.
How could silence be so loud?
Nothing stirred. The squirrels had packed away their stores for the winter, and the birds had flown south. The bears had gone to ground, and every green thing, aside from the scrub pine, had died.
Mama and Papa were dead.
Only Angel remained in this corner of their small valley, the only home she knew.
She wanted no one to suspect her predicament. Eighteen was no great age, but it was enough for her to recognize that dangers might await a woman alone. Papa had often spoken of his wealth, not in currency or coin, but rather in something perhaps of more value than silver or gold, even here in Colorado. The spring on their ranch ran clean, clear, and abundant. In this land so prone to drought, what little silver the nearby Heart of Silver Mine still yielded couldn’t buy what the earth didn’t give: water to satisfy parched land, cattle, horses, men.
She would have to protect herself.
Herself and her land.
Papa had fought the elements too long and too hard for her to let their patch of land slip out of Rogers hands. One way or another, Angel would do it. By dint of Rogers determination, and by the grace of Almighty God, she would.
Even though she didn’t know quite how just yet.
At her side, Sunny moaned, or so the big, shaggy dog’s mournful sound struck Angel. She bent to one knee and scratched the animal between her ears.
“Yes, girl. You’re still here. I can’t go forgetting that, now, can I?” Sunny’s sad brown eyes met hers.
“You miss Papa, too, don’t you?” Angel swallowed a sob. “Well, don’t go fretting. You and I have too much to do to wallow in mourning and grieving and tearing up like this. He’s with Mama and Jesus now, and there’s no better place to be. Not even here.”
She reached out a leather-gloved hand and patted the slight mound of her father’s grave. “Don’t you worry either, Papa. I’ll be fine. Remember how you and Mama always told me that Jesus’s hand was big enough to hold me and whatever troubles I might find? I reckon it’s big enough to hold this ranch and these mountains, too.”
She stood and shivered in the frigid wind that had kicked up. With a final glance at the earth she’d just packed down over her father’s spent body, she hugged the lapels of Papa’s wool coat close over her chest, clasped the shovel handle and set off toward the house. Sunny, scenting home, ran ahead, her yellow tail waving its long, full fringe in the chill.
The sight of the cabin affected Angel as it never had before. It had always represented love and welcome, but now it spoke of her plight. Mama, who’d died four years earlier of the influenza, wouldn’t be at the woodstove, her watchful eye on the savory supper she’d brought to a simmer. Despite the passage of time, the memory still came to Angel more often than she cared to admit. Now Papa wouldn’t tromp in either, his heavy stomps dislodging snow, ice, and earth from his boots.
She had enough supplies to see her through to spring, for which she thanked Papa’s wisdom and the Lord’s bountiful provision. Plus, she had Sunny to keep her from going mad. After that? Well, she had to leave that in the heavenly Father’s capable hands.
He’d have to be her protector in every way.
She’d never learned to use Papa’s shotgun, not because he hadn’t tried to teach her, but because she hated its sound, its power, the destruction it caused. Now, however, she wondered if she hadn’t been mistaken in her refusal.
There were many, Papa had said, who would do anything to get what they wanted. They always wanted more land—especially if that land brought a good water source, as Rogers land did. Angel didn’t know the first thing about protecting what was hers.
A cold whisper on her cheek told her the snow she’d smelled in the air since early that morning had arrived. From the thick, fluffy texture of the flake and the leaden shade of the sky overhead, she knew a heavy blanket would cover the ground before it was all over. She’d be snowed in.
Some satisfaction broke through the misery she’d felt since she found her father slumped over his Bible two mornings ago. Horror had filled her—what would she do with his solid body? How would she give him a decent burial?
But God had seen her through. It seemed He was still doing so, if this storm was any indication of His benevolence. The isolation of winter, which had always seemed harsh and endless, now stretched out as a welcome reprieve.
She had the winter, only that one season, to prepare for what might be an onslaught of greedy seekers. In your hands, Lord Jesus. Sunny, the ranch, and I are all in your hands.
One glance at the skimpy growth of grass on his land told Jeremy Johnstone that this year would be worse than the last. When he’d bought his spread two years earlier, he’d known his future depended on one thing: water.
The lazy little river that wandered around the southern border of his property swelled with snowmelt each spring. This past winter, as well as the one before, had brought little snowfall—a couple of big storms had covered everything, and the icy temperatures had kept the snow on the ground. But it hadn’t added up to much in the way of water. Spring’s rains had been more absent than not. Now, in late June, the banks of the river looked like dirty old china, cracked and crumbly.
Jeremy tugged off his hat and used his red handkerchief to sop up the sweat from the persistent morning sun. Not quite ten o’clock yet, and the temperature was high enough to roast a steer on the run. Where was God when a man stood to lose his very last dime on account of a dry sky?
He craned his neck to glare at the blank blue bowl overhead. Not a cloud to be seen anywhere. A frustrated sigh ripped from his chest, and he slapped his hat against his thigh. Small puffs of dust spread upward and outward from the denim and straw, making his tough situation more real.
A ways behind him, his herd made woeful sounds. They still hunted fresh pasture with little success. He’d already spent what to him was a fortune to buy feed, and he couldn’t afford to hire enough men to drive the herd up north to richer pastureland. Not if he also wanted to get his ranch through another winter. If only he had a more ample water source nearby.
Well, the underground source was ample. But by the time the water reached his little river, large amounts had been redirected to other branches. Branches like Rogers Creek.
He’d heard Old Man Rogers was tough as rawhide. Wouldn’t surprise him if it was true. The crusty codger would have to be to live through all Jeremy had heard tell he had.
Oliver Rogers, if folks were right, was a real western original. Jeremy hadn’t met the man, but he’d been told the fellow had come out west as a baby-cheeked boy. They also said he’d done as much as Kit Carson and had become a real mountain man, was maybe even the last one left in Colorado.
Jeremy had also heard tell the old man had died.
Rumor had it he’d passed on in the early winter—he hadn’t been seen in town since late fall. If rumor was anything to go by, then by all means, rumors in Hartville carried extra weight. He’d never known another place so given to gossip, even though Pastor Stone spent much of his pulpit time preaching against the sinful habit.
Jeremy suspected that rumor sprang from a root of truth.
If that was so, then who was manning the ranch? Old Man Rogers’s wife had died a while back, and they’d had only a freckle-faced, carrot-topped girl. Had the daughter left the ranch? Did she now live in Hartville? He sure hoped she wasn’t stupid enough to try to run the spread on her own. If nothing else, livestock needed more than the soft hand of a big-eyed miss.
Then again, Old Man Rogers had never gone in for cattle.
Jeremy spat in disgust.
Who in his right mind would fill the notch in the Colorado mountains with an army of the pasture-shearing beasts? Maybe all that rough living had addled the man’s mind. Otherwise, why would he have brought those woolly pests out here?
To think that Rogers wasted that clear, fresh water on nothing more than curly, fatty fur. Cattle. Now they were more worthy creatures—not to mention horses. Especially Jeremy’s cattle and horses.
He’d wager the daughter was ready to sell by now, if she hadn’t already done so. He hadn’t heard anything about a sale. He’d only heard rumors of the father’s death. Surely word of Rogers Creek changing hands would have reached his ears by now. If it had happened at all.
Had Oliver Rogers really died?
Pastor Stone said he hadn’t done a funeral, and folks said the Rogerses were devout and faithful Christians despite the old man’s wild youth. Repentance and reform must have been Mrs. Rogers’s starting points.
Jeremy squinted toward the green crotch between the two peaks—Rogers land. It lay just beyond his and touched on the foothills to his north. And, more importantly, Rogers Creek, that stronger branch of his water source, blessed the soil in that valley. His livestock needed the pasture those baaing beasts were surely destroying. He needed to fatten up his animals. He had to sell well this coming fall.
His future depended on it.
If he didn’t realize a decent return on his two-year investment, he’d be sunk.
He had to make Old Man Rogers’s daughter see reason. His money would bring him a better return if he used it to buy another source of water. She had to sell. A girl couldn’t run a ranch, and certainly not if she’d moved into town. The only reasonable solution to her predicament was the same as his. She simply had to sell.
And in time to do his cattle some good.
Jeremy had to move fast.
The Sunday following his decision, Jeremy rode out to Rogers Ranch after church. He hadn’t seen that distinctive shade of Rogers red among the bowed heads of the faithful at Silver Creek Church. Sure, Hartville counted more than just one redheaded resident, the hardest to miss being the wife of the town’s lawyer. Mrs. Miranda Carlson was tall, green eyed, and, some said, a real firebrand. Her hair, though, reminded Jeremy more of old, fancy wooden furniture.
Rogers red was more the color of a ready-to-eat carrot—orange, if a man was honest, and Jeremy fancied himself a stand-up sort.
Because of that honesty, he allowed himself a moment to take into account the likelihood of disaster. The worst that could happen was that Old Man Rogers would greet him at his place, none too happy with whatever excuse Jeremy cobbled up for the visit. He couldn’t very well try to buy out the man who’d cleared that land and worked it for years. There’d just be no reason.
Not that he wished anyone dead, of course. He just had a real, distinct need. And Angela Rogers—Angel, as the old man’s girl was called—might be able to help him. If Oliver Rogers had indeed died.
Jeremy sent up a prayer as he approached Rogers Ranch. Details of his surroundings began to register. The place was tidy, with its solid log cabin and the barn back a ways off to his left. A horse stood at the rail of a modest corral, and a couple of fat chickens pecked the ground just on the other side of the circle. As he approached, the old steed shook its head and snorted. The chickens scattered with much feather fluttering and loud clucking.
To the left of the cabin, a sizeable garden, lush with young vegetable plants, gave promise of future bounty. Behind the garden, up the broad, green slope of the foothill, he spotted the much-despised white blobs—Rogers’s sheep. To him, they looked more like a plague of lice than livestock.
To his dismay, they also looked healthy and well cared for, as did the horse, the chickens, the bovine who’d just stuck its head out the barn door . . . and the skinny, denim-trousered, buffalo-plaid-shirted, double-braided, pitchfork-bearing redhead at its side.
“What do you want, mister?” she asked.
Jeremy blinked at her contrary tone of voice. “I’m here for a neighborly visit with your pa. Is he around?”
The tautness at the corners of her mouth hinted at her unease . . . or could it be grief?
She jabbed the blunt handle of a pitchfork toward the back of the property. “He’s out thataway right about now.”
“Then I’d best head on over so’s he and I can have us a nice talk.”
Angel’s hazel eyes darted in the direction she’d pointed, and she stepped closer, the tines of the fork pointed at his knee. “I don’t think so, mister. It’d be a sin to disturb him. So you just state your business, and I’ll be sure to tell him all about it later on.”
Before Jeremy could object, a sheep appeared at her side and butted its furry head against her thigh. Without a look at the animal, she patted its cream-colored topknot. “Back up, Snowball. I’m busy.”
Snowball wasn’t about to be put off. The sheep lowered its head and laid into the girl’s leg again, this time with more serious effort. Angel’s knee buckled and she stumbled. As she tried to get back her balance, the pitchfork waved in the air above her head, and Jeremy feared for her safety. If she dropped the nasty thing and tripped on the handle, there was no telling what kind of harm she might do.
He dismounted and hurried to her side, but he reached her as she righted herself, her grip on the implement as sure as before.
“Maybe you ought to put that thing down before you do yourself some damage—”
“You stay right there, mister, and no one will have any damage done.”
Although Jeremy didn’t know if she’d actually go through with her threat, the jab she gave the fork seemed plenty serious to him. He backed up a step.
Snowball, who didn’t seem patient at all, shoved Angel again, and this time she couldn’t stay on her feet. The pitchfork flailed again, and Jeremy knew an opportunity when he saw it.
“For crying out loud, girl,” he muttered and closed his hand on the fork’s wooden handle. “I’m not here to hurt you. You’re only in danger from yourself and this crazy thing.”
Her big hazel eyes widened, and her nostrils flared. “You’d best be gone, mister. My father won’t be taking too lightly your bothering me. It’d be a sin if you didn’t heed.”
Again Angel’s odd way of saying things caught Jeremy’s attention. This was the second time she’d brought up sin. Then again, seeing as how she’d grown up out here alone with her ma and pa—most recently with only the old man—maybe she’d picked up their way of talking. Especially since Old Man Rogers was said to have done more than his fair share of sinning in his wild youth.
The girl put Jeremy in mind of a high-spirited, unbroken filly. He took care to use his best horse-breaking voice. “Easy there, girl. I’m not here to hurt you or sin against you or your pa. I’m your neighbor from down south of you, and I figured it was right about time I stopped by and say how-do.”
“Well, then, mister, now you’ve done just that. You can be on your way, and I’ll be sure to tell my father about you. Thank you much for your . . . neighborliness.”
The soft quiver he spied when she raised her chin told him there was more here than what she said or he could hear.
Before he knew what had happened, he’d landed on his behind. His legs waved in the air, and the sheep stuck its nose right in his face.
“What kind of folk are you, anyway?” he asked when he’d raised up onto his elbows. “I’ve heard tell of those who keep guard dogs, but you’re the first I’ve known with a guard sheep.”
To his amazement, a giggle escaped Angel’s mouth.
At the same time, her eyes sparkled and a peach tint spread under her cinnamon freckles. Jeremy could hardly believe what he saw before him. Despite the manly clothes, plain, copper-penny braids to her waist, and boyish bravado, Angel was a very pretty girl.
She came to his side, took her pitchfork from where it had landed when he fell, and hugged the cantankerous Snowball. “The Lord works in mysterious ways, I always say.”
Jeremy shook his head and picked up his hat. “I’m as Christian as the next fellow, but I’ve never thought sheep instruments of His grace. They’re more like curses upon His creation.”
Angel’s good humor disappeared. She tipped up her chin. “I’ll have you know, sheep are indeed part of God’s creation, just as much as you and I are. He loves them, and you’d do well to pay them the respect they deserve, if for no other reason than that He made them and put them on this earth.”
The flashes of green in her changeable eyes told Jeremy he’d have to at least pretend to stomach her flock if he was ever to have a chance to talk with her father.
If the man was still alive.
He stood and crammed his hat back on to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun. “Hey, you can’t blame a fellow if he isn’t particularly disposed toward a critter that just butted him onto his . . . er . . . well, you know.”
A twinkle replaced the sharp shards of color in her eyes. “Couldn’t miss how you landed, mister. And it may just be a good idea if you take it as a fair warning. We do well for ourselves here, and we don’t cotton to strangers wandering about our property. None of us do—not even the animals.”
Hands raised in surrender, Jeremy took a step back. “I didn’t come to wander. I just came to be neigh—”
“I’m not deaf, mister. I heard you the first time. You came to be neighborly, and like I told you up front, you’ve been neighborly enough already. I’m sure my father will see your gesture as he should. So you can just turn yourself right around and head back home. We’re much obliged for your effort and all.”
She was a wispy thing, all flowing lines and slender frame. But Jeremy now knew the delicate package packed a will of iron . . . and carried a wicked weapon in that pitchfork of hers. He’d never been sent packing quite so thoroughly in his twenty-six years, not since his aunt Gertie—Lord rest her orderly soul—had last scolded him for one of his youthful pranks.
There wasn’t much a man could do in this situation. “Since you’ve made your wishes plain, ma’am, then I guess I’ve no choice but to be saying my farewell. Please give your pa my regards.”
“I’ll do that—”
The wail carried a world of pain. Angel cast Jeremy a glare, then spun and ran to the barn. She never eased her grip on the pitchfork.
He considered this sudden twist. Should he leave and avoid further riling the girl? Or should he see it as God’s helping hand in his time of trouble? Maybe he could help Angel with whatever was wrong with that hurt animal and at least show her he wasn’t her worst enemy.
Even if her pa might see him as just that.
Jeremy called on the Lord for . . . well, he didn’t quite know what for, but he did know that without heavenly help he was unlikely to succeed in anything he undertook. His adolescence and Aunt Gertie had taught him that much.
In the doorway of the barn, he blinked at the change in light. He took the time to really listen. From somewhere in the far right-hand corner of the dark building, he heard Angel’s voice. Sweet, gentle murmurs gave it a softer quality than he’d heard up until then.
“Easy, Maggie. Easy, now.”
Another pain-filled wail tore the air.
Even though he had no patience for sheep, Jeremy didn’t have it in him to ignore an animal’s misery either, and that was just what this creature’s call told. Once his eyes adjusted to the shadows, he approached.
“What’s wrong with her?”
Angel shot him another scowl. “I told you to go, mister. We don’t need you here.”
He ignored her words and knelt at her side. “My name’s Jeremy Johnstone, not mister. I’d be right honored if you’d call me Jeremy. If you don’t feel easy doing that, then Mr. Johnstone’s fine with me.”
She turned back to the sheep.
Jeremy peered at the animal. Despite his inexperience with sheep, he’d spent years around livestock at Aunt Gertie and Uncle Frank’s farm, and his last two years had exposed him to any and all circumstances of a creature’s life. This ewe was having herself a time of birthing.
“Is the lamb backward?”
“Have you tried to turn it?”
Her silent answers were fast eating up his patience. “Well?”
She shrugged. “Well, nothing. I couldn’t turn it. It’s too big and she’s too small.”
The sob that hitched her voice told Jeremy more about Angel than anything he’d observed until then. The ewe’s suffering was breaking her heart, and quite possibly, she dreaded its probable death if the birth didn’t happen soon.
“Look, Miss Rogers, I might not know much about sheep, but I’ve helped many a cow, horse, and dog deliver their young ones. I’d like to help. It’d be a crime if I didn’t even try.”
Angel’s big hazel eyes studied him over one shoulder while a graceful hand swept over the laboring ewe’s swollen side. Jeremy held his breath. Where was the girl’s father at this critical moment? Had Old Man Rogers gone off and left her by herself to handle what was plainly a rough time?
He didn’t think so.
With an ever greater sense of certainty, Jeremy felt that Oliver Rogers had indeed passed not too long ago. Angel was alone on the ranch. As he watched the sheep convulse with another contraction and heard Angel’s indrawn breath, Jeremy realized how defenseless she was.
And how brave.
She needed help, and somehow his need of water had brought him to her side at just the right moment. He knew what he had to do.
“Where’s there water and good, strong soap?”
“There’s a bucket near the door,” she said, her voice soft, husky, “and I’ve a cake of Fels-Naptha soap right by it. Towel’s hanging off a nail above it all.”
Jeremy folded his shirtsleeves out of the way, sudsed then rinsed his forearms, and dried off. Moments later he returned to Angel and her sheep. “What’s her name?”
He reached a hand toward the animal. “There, there, Maggie. Everything’s all right. I’m just going to check to see if I can give the good Lord a hand today.”
Angel gasped and turned, her eyes wide and warm with splashes of gold. Jeremy met her gaze. He prayed he could rise to the challenge, even though he wasn’t certain what that challenge really was. What mattered most right then?
The life of a sheep?
Easy access to fresh water?
Or the trust of a lonely, vulnerable woman?