Authors: Lena Goldfinch
For my father, Commander Albert L. Goldfinch, Sr.
I write about good fathers—and fathers I honestly wouldn’t want to know. In my own life, I’ve been richly blessed. I’m so glad to have had you as my father.
I love you, Dad.
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
The Middle of Nowhere, August 1880
em Wheeler was pretty sure they were in Colorado.
He’d fallen asleep on the train with little Mae laid out beside him on the seat, her head drooping sideways against his thigh, her thumb stuck squarely in her mouth. One chubby stockinged foot dangled off the edge of the seat, twitching to the beat of whatever tune she had playing in her head. She’d kicked off her shoes again, which didn’t surprise him. Like every other two-year-old he’d ever known, she’d go around barefooted all the time if she had the choice. He bent to pick up her shoes, glad the train had stopped. He’d been sitting too long.
He took another quick look out the window at the town, if you could call it that. It was more like a stop-on-the-way kind of place, with no more than a handful of plain one-story buildings—white paint, pitched roofs—and a single dirt road going off into the distance. At least they had a road. Didn’t look like they had a hotel, but maybe they’d have a restaurant or canteen where he could buy some lunch. Otherwise, it was just dirt, grass, a spattering of white-barked aspens, and the Rockies way off in the distance, not even enough to call a view. What a sad place.
Who on earth would want to live here?
Although, it was probably quiet. And quiet sort of suited him lately.
Still, not his destination. They had bigger things awaiting them. A new life.
He struggled to feel enthusiastic. All that seemed to drive him right now was a single purpose: get back to Colorado Springs. Settle in at the ranch. Make something of it, make a life. It would have been different if Lorelei were still with them. But she wasn’t. There was no way to get used to something like that.
Jem hefted Mae up in his arms, clasping her shoes behind her back.
“Hungry, Daddy?” she mumbled, still half-asleep, he guessed.
“I suppose,” he answered, as he filed out after a few other passengers in their car. Not many of the passengers on board—if any—would be staying in this little nowhere town. He suspected everyone just wanted to stretch a bit like he did before the next leg of the trip.
hungry,” Mae said, lifting her head off his shoulder and looking around, her eyes brightening as the last of sleep fell away from her.
“I’ve got to check on the horses, then we’ll get food.” He stepped off the train and looked around again. They’d stopped at a depot, no more than a long white shack of a building with a boardwalk-style porch and a few benches outside, but it was something at least. Shade against the sun. A decent enough place for a person to sit and wait for the train. The only thing he smelled though was dust kicked up from the dirt road and some sort of pollen on the air that made his nose tingle. No enticing aroma of grilled meat or baking bread, which wasn’t very encouraging. “If they have any,” he added.
,” she insisted, jutting out her bottom lip, the same look she always gave him when she was fixing to cry.
“I said I’d look.”
She squinched up her face real tight.
“Don’t you dare cry,” he warned her.
She pouted and crossed her arms over her chest. She gave him quite a glare, but he guessed he should be glad she wasn’t bawling. As soon as he turned toward the stock car, she was squirming to be put down.
“Hold up,” he said. “Got to get your shoes on first.”
“Daddeeee,” she protested, making herself as lifeless as a rag doll, the better to slip out of his grasp and down his side.
“Oh no you don’t.” He held tight, plopped her down firmly on one of the wood-slat benches, and stuffed her feet into her shoes without untying them. If he took the time to untie and tie them again, she’d start crying for sure, and tired as he was he didn’t have the strength of mind for that.
No sooner had he slipped the shoes over her heels than she scrambled down and hopped off the porch. In seconds she was kicking at the dirt, no doubt wishing she was barefooted. Before she decided to run off, he bent to take her hand securely in his—not for the first time marveling at how small her hand was in his much larger one—and tugged her along after him. She was so little, so much shorter than him. It didn’t seem right that a man like him should be taking care of such a delicate little thing on his own, but there it was.
“First, the horses,” he said. She fell like a rag doll again, dangling from his hand. “Oh no you don’t. You want lunch?” He felt her go completely still in his grasp, listening. “Well, then
me you want lunch.”
She immediately straightened.
He marched her over to where a team of hands were watering the horses. The train hissed and settled into place—not unlike a live thing. As if it realized this was its chance to take a break too, just like the rest of them.
“Puppy! Daddy!” Mae tugged against Jem’s hold.
“Hold up, Mae. This’ll just take a moment.”
He looked over and saw a cluster of men and one woman standing in front of what looked to be a church tent across from the depot, a ways back from the road. There was a spattering of grass there and a single aspen with white bark and yellow-green leaves. Not much of a place. Which made it all the more curious as to why there were people gathered there. It wasn’t a Sunday, so it couldn’t have been a church meeting. He shrugged. Not his business.
Although he did notice there was indeed a puppy there, a little black roly-poly pup, lolling around on the ground at the young woman’s feet. She wasn’t much to look at—the woman, that is—a petite thing in a dingy brown dress, with a loose brown braid pulled forward over one shoulder. She was pretty much dingy-colored everywhere, as if she hadn’t had access to a bath in a while. But she had a quietness about her that didn’t instill any real concerns. In truth, he didn’t spare her much more than a glance. He needed to get to the horses. Perhaps Mae would be safe to play for a bit in front of a church...
Still, it didn’t sit right to let her go by herself. She was so little.
“I’ll just be a minute,” he promised her.
She tugged against his hold the entire time he was checking on the horses. Once he was satisfied they were doing fine and not suffering too much from the journey, he felt a sudden emptiness about his person. Something missing. His hand was empty. Mae was gone.
“Mae!” he looked around desperately for her dark bouncy curls, her white pinafore and dress. When had she slipped away? How had he not noticed? The other passengers milling around—not many, but enough to seem like a crowd—looked at him, their eyes cautious, with maybe a trace of alarm: men in rugged Western wear, ladies in plain homespun dresses, nothing fancy. They were common, hard-working people, all tired from their journey—worn out by life, maybe.
“Have you seen my daughter?” he asked them. “She’s about knee high. Dark hair. Curly. White dress?” He looked into each face, repeating his question and description. Nothing. Not a single flicker of recognition. He searched behind ladies’ skirts, behind the wheels of the train...heaven forbid. Still no sign of her.
Then he remembered.
He spun toward the church tent and there she was, sprawled out in a patch of dirt with that black puppy, giggling as she scratched its tummy. The young woman knelt beside them, fingering her braid in one hand and trailing one finger through the dirt with the other. Didn’t the woman know she was getting filthy sitting there in the dirt like that?
Maybe she’s a bit simple
, he thought. Not everyone was blessed with great intellect. Kindness was a rarer gift, and much more important when it came to children. He knew that perhaps more than anyone. And she looked kind to him, watching over Mae with a slight smile on her face.
. She was safe.
All the pent-up tension flooded out of Jem in a rush.
She was right there. She was safe.
“Mae!” he yelled, angry now, marching toward her with quick strides that ate up the distance. He gathered steam as he drew closer. As soon as he got there, he scooped Mae up and pressed his face to hers, nose-to-nose. “Don’t you ever run off like that again.” He knew better than to yell at her up close, so he used his very quiet, this-is-very-serious voice. Urgent. Maybe a tad desperate.
Her face crumpled. “Daddy.”
The young woman was staring at them, concerned. She gathered the puppy in her arms, but almost immediately had to set it down because it started to squirm and twist, not unlike his two-year-old daughter did when she wanted to get down.
Jem settled Mae on his shoulder, safe and sound, as far off the ground as he could get her. Feeling the gazes of the passengers behind him and the men outside the tent, he felt his face heat. He could be excused for yelling across the street, he told himself. Any father or mother would understand.
The young woman smiled hesitantly at him, or maybe more at Mae. He couldn’t tell which.
“Thanks for looking after her,” he told her.
She made a small sound, and then looked mortified, as if she’d just said a swear word.
He looked at her curiously, not sure what to make of her.
The men standing near the tent had already gone back to their conversation. Jem was about to move off in search of lunch when he heard one of the men say, “That’s right. A mail-order bride.”
He set Mae on her feet, and she was immediately back on her knees in the dirt, playing with that puppy. It licked her face and she giggled.
Jem kept one eye on Mae, one eye on the men. What were they talking about—a mail-order bride? Surely not this girl?
“Picked up one of those
—you know the one?” this one younger man was saying. He wore a black preacher’s suit with a white shirt and a neatly tied, black ribbon bow tie. He couldn’t have been much more than twenty-two or -three. There was something about him too, an air of agitation that kept Jem glued to the spot. “Well,” he continued, “her father placed the ad. After some time we worked a deal, and he sold her off to me.”
Surely he hadn’t just said that.
“I’ve got a business to run, you know? Preaching’s a business just like any other,” he continued, sort of puffing himself up, not unlike a rooster. His white Adam’s apple bobbed in his neck. Jem took an instant disliking to the young man. Despite his pretty-boy face, there was something greasy about him, and the things he was saying only confirmed Jem’s opinion.
“I knew up front she wasn’t all she should be—told me himself that she born in a bawdy house.” The preacher’s intimation was clear enough to Jem and probably to every man standing there.
Not all she should be.
He may as well have said the young woman had loose morals.
“But,” he continued, “I thought we could make it work. It’s a hard life going town to town—itinerant preaching, you know. Don’t meet many ladies willing to do that.”
“So why ain’t you keeping her?” one of the men standing around him asked. His gaze was interested but cautious. He had the air of a man suspicious of getting a bad deal.
All Jem’s senses went on alert. Something was off here, very off.
Not your business.
Don’t get involved.
Just walk away. Just grab Mae and head back to the train.
But he couldn’t seem to move. His attention was riveted on the men. He fixed a bland expression on his face, not too interested, definitely not allowing any of his alarm to show.
The young preacher recognized his presence among them with an inclination of his head, evidently his way of welcoming Jem into their circle.
“I hit a spell of bad times,” he answered the man. “Someone’s run off with all my money, and I need some cash fast, so I can get back to Oregon. Got family there. Heard there’s a town there that wants a proper preacher. Not town-to-town like this.” He gestured with disgust to the church tent behind him. His jaw firmed. “I just want to go back home, but I can’t. So all’s I’m asking is a fair trade, you could say. I just have one stipulation.”
“I’ve got my principles,” the young man pronounce—all full of fluff and air, Jem thought. “It wouldn’t be right to send the girl off without making sure she’s going to be cared for proper.”