It was bitterly cold and outside, a fierce wind pried with icy fingers at the snug cabin seeking an overlooked crack, but Conn O’Grady had built it hog-tight and bull-strong. The cast iron stove some overloaded and desperate traveler had finally discarded on his long trek west, glowed a dull red in the darkness. A similar discarded stove was in the stable, keeping his horses pleasantly warm with a well-banked fire. Such a luxury for horses was unheard of, but Conn O’Grady was not a conventional man. He’d raised them all from colts and they were part of his family. In fact, they were his only family.
He’d left Missouri in 1875 and followed the Bozeman trail west, looking for a place of his own. He had no real destination in mind, trusting his good instincts to lead him, so when he saw the low foothills to his left, he left the trail.
For two days, he wandered the barren hills, wondering if his intuition had led him astray before he stumbled upon his valley. His horse wanted to bear left, so he finally gave him his head, followed by a string of four more horses serving as pack animals. Less than a hundred yards later they scrambled down a rocky draw and emerged into a magnificent hidden valley, perhaps five miles wide and at least twice as long. He set up camp on a hill near a stand of pines and studied the terrain for the rest of the afternoon, but he already knew this was as far as he was going.
Two streams were visible, and the steep bluffs on two sides towered over the lush green of the valley floor. The bluff on the north side featured a large flat bench near its base, accessible only from the west with its shallow alluvial fan. The east and south sides of the low bench were protected by sheer drops of nearly thirty feet. It was easily defensible and large enough for the home, barns, and outbuildings he planned to build and where he now waited out the Montana Territory blizzard.
Last spring he had spotted the dust of a trail herd headed east to the stockyards, so he rode out and looked them over. Satisfied that most were good breeding stock, he offered the astonished trail boss a good price if he would deliver the herd a few miles to his hidden valley where two young bulls were already grazing. The offer was quickly accepted and his ranch was under way.
Conn O’Grady closed the stove dampers and climbed into bed under the goose-down quilt his grandmother had sewed for him many years ago. It would keep him warm as the cabin cooled off during the night.
He woke well before daylight and eyed the cold stove reluctantly from his warm bed. Suddenly he threw off the covers and dashed to the wood box. Grabbing some fat-wood kindling he’d found last summer, he quickly stirred the ashes and found some glowing coals. He carefully placed the fat-wood on them and was almost immediately rewarded with flames which he carefully fed with small sticks and finally, chunks of firewood. Smoke began to seep out of the cooking lids before he remembered to open the pipe damper.
He jumped back into his bed and waited for the cabin to warm. Finally, he dressed and sliced bacon off a slab into his cast iron pan. He placed it on a cooler spot, donned his coat, and made ready to do his chores.
An icy blast greeted him when he opened the door against the wind and blinding snow. To his right was the sturdy wire that led to the barn and stable. Without it, he might lose his way and freeze to death in the opaque blizzard. Many had died that way.
He was nearly to the barn when he spotted faint tracks in the knee-deep snow. They were headed to the stable, so he felt for his revolver under the heavy coat. The cold steel assured him as he reached the stable door and saw by the displaced snow that it had been partially opened sometime in the night just enough to allow someone to enter. He was carrying a shovel to clear that door, so he set to work and completed the task a few minutes later. Then he held his lantern in the crook of his elbow and used his left hand to open the door while his right hand held his revolver.
His horses watched him with large eyes, expecting breakfast. The stable was still relatively warm from the stove and animal body heat as Conn stood just inside the door and looked for tracks. He saw them almost immediately and they led to a small loft over the stable where he stored tack.
Walking silently, he made his way to the ladder as the horses softly snickered their morning greetings to him. He made his way up the ladder with the lantern and carefully climbed onto the loft floor. At first, he saw nothing but then spotted a lump covered with horse blankets and heard a soft snore. He walked over and nudged the mound with his boot toe. The blankets flew off and the startled intruder sat up abruptly. Conn’s mouth dropped open in astonishment.
“Good Lord! You’re a girl!”
“I am not a girl! I am eighteen and a woman grown, I’ll have you know!”
For a long moment, a stunned Conn O’Grady tried to come to grips with the fact that a young woman, and a lovely one at that, was staring at him from the floor of his stable loft. At last, he simply shrugged and waited for an explanation. His wait was brief.
“My father and I were on our way to the Oregon Territory when a mule kicked him while he was hitching up our team. He never moved again.”
Her green eyes filled with tears and she brushed them away irritably.
“The next day, a man came by on horseback as I was digging a grave for Papa. He hitched up our mule team, tied his horse to the back of the wagon, and simply drove off, leaving me stranded.”
“But how on Earth did you find this place?”
“I have no idea. I suppose it was Providence. I followed the trail at first hoping to get my wagon back, but then it began to snow. I had no shelter at all, but I’d seen some low hills south of me, so I set off in that direction, hoping to get off the plains and perhaps find some sort of shelter. Yesterday, I slid down a steep slope and later found myself climbing a small hill. I was about all done in when I ran smack into this stable. Not only was it shelter, it was warm! I found the ladder and loft and here I am.”
She stood and brushed herself off.
“I must look a sight. I’m wearing the same clothes because he left me with nothing at all. I don’t suppose you have any women’s clothing?”
Conn started to shake his head before he remembered Carrie’s valise. His twin sister had passed on suddenly four years ago, but he never had the heart to give all her things away, so he’d kept the valise. It contained mostly Carrie’s clothing, but it also held many of the female things that this young woman would need.
“My sister was about your size and I have some of her things. She is no longer with us, but I’m sure she would approve.”
“Thank you. My name is Emma. Emma Jones. May I ask where you came from? Do you live nearby? I could see nothing in this storm.”
“My cabin is just fifty feet or so from this stable.”
He put up a bedsheet curtain in the cabin so Emma could bathe in the wash tub with water heated on the wood stove. He was slicing bacon into a pan and the coffee pot was steaming when Emma stepped out from behind the curtain dressed in one of Carrie’s house dresses. Her hair was combed, and Conn was momentarily speechless at the transformation.
“You’re beautiful!” he blurted.
Conn O’Grady was stunned at his own outburst and hoped Emma was not offended by it, but her shy smile assured him that she was not.
“I’ve been told that, but I’m afraid I don’t see it when I look into a mirror. However, I am flattered. Are those eggs on that pantry shelf?”
The sudden change in conversation gave Conn a moment to gather his wits.
“Yes. Discarded items from overloaded wagons on the Bozeman trail supplied many of my furnishings, so I was scavenging one day when a family short on cash stopped and offered to sell me a crate full of chicks off their wagon. Now I have a fair-sized flock and a steady supply of eggs.“
He poured her a cup of coffee.
“I found an abandoned wagon with a busted axle and fixed it. I’ve used it many times to haul all manner of abandoned items including this table and the chairs we’re sitting on. I also found three dairy cows, and several pigs. Cattle are easy to herd, but pigs have a mind of their own.”
Emma giggled at the thought of trying to herd hogs, and when Conn grinned back at her, his handsome face lit up. She felt herself blushing and her heartbeat quickened. She managed to speak in spite of herself.
“How did you capture the pigs?”
“I built a small enclosure and baited it with food scraps about noon each day. After a week or so, they were there waiting to be fed, so I dumped the scraps again and just closed the gate while they were fighting over their food. Pigs are smart enough, but food trumps caution with a pig.”
“What about basics like salt and such? What do you do about that?”
“There’s a settlement about fifty miles northwest of here. It has no name, and I doubt it ever will. I’ve been there once for supplies. I hear the railroad may be coming soon, and that will be the end of that town. There’s also Fort Laramie, but that’s a long ride.”
Spring came early, and the snow was soon replaced by a blanket of wildflowers. Emma sat on the porch after breakfast and watched Conn hitch up the team. The air was so clear that she could easily see mountains that Conn said were easily sixty miles in the distance. She realized how much she had come to love the ranch and its sweeping beauty, and now she was leaving it forever.
She had also come to deeply love Conn O’Grady, but, after initially telling her she was beautiful, he had said nothing more nor indicated any romantic interest in her at all. She slept behind the sheet curtain in the bed he once used, and he slept on a salvaged cot in the corner. He was a perfect gentleman, and she was appalled to realize that she often wished he was not. She blushed at her own shamelessness.
Conn finished hitching up and glanced up at the porch. He was very much in love with Emma, but although she was pleasant enough and treated him well, she had given him no reason to believe it was returned. He also realized that a woman with her grace and beauty could have any man she wanted, so he was preparing to take her to well-established Fort Laramie and back to civilization. It was the right and decent thing to do.
Conn drove the team up to the porch and loaded Emma’s few things. Then he helped her gain the seat and picked up the reins. He did not see her blinking away sudden tears as they drove away. His jaw was set and hard.
The drive to Fort Laramie took two days and Emma was exhausted, so Conn found her a room at a hotel while he slept in the wagon bed. The next morning, Emma looked around for Conn, but he was no longer in the wagon, so she entered the Emporium and marveled at the goods shipped in on the new railroad. She idly glanced out the window and gasped. A wagon she instantly recognized as the one stolen from her was in front of the Emporium and the man who stole it was climbing down. She was about to go confront him when she heard a booming voice.
“Looks like I found you at last, Joe Ramsey!”
Conn O’Grady was walking quickly down the street, his pistol in his hand. The man he called Joe Ramsey paled and grabbed a rifle off the wagon seat. He brought it quickly to his shoulder and fired one hasty shot. Conn fired three quick shots in return and Joe Ramsey’s knees sagged. He dropped his rifle and shook his head in disbelief as he fell into the dusty street. One moment he was going to buy supplies and now he was going to die. Then he was gone.
Emma ran outside and threw her arms around a startled Conn O’Grady.
“That was the man who stole my wagon, and there it is in front of the Emporium. But how did you know him?”
“When my sister Carrie refused his proposal back in Missouri, he stabbed and killed her. I’ve been looking for him ever since. Now he’s dead and good riddance.”
Carrie felt something wet and warm on her hand, so she drew back and stared at Conn’s bloody arm.
“Oh my love! You’ve been shot!”
Conn smiled ruefully.
“No, l reckon I overloaded one shell and part of the cap blew out and hit my arm. It’s just a scratch and…what did you just call me?”
“I’m sorry my dear. That just slipped out.”
“But is it true, Emma? Do you love me?”
Emma looked at her shoes and nodded miserably.
“Yes, I do love you. Of course I love you. I love you with all my heart, Conn O’Grady, but I won’t have a man who does not love me back.”
Conn O’Grady nodded his head slowly in understanding. Then he got down on one knee in the dusty street and looked up at an astonished Emma.
“Would you then do me the great honor of becoming Emma O’Grady, because this man loves you very much, but simply never had the courage to say so…until now.”
Emma’s hands flew to her mouth and her shoulders shook slightly as she nodded vigorously. Conn came to his feet and stood in front of her. Emma placed her hands on his broad shoulders and her eyes were moist, but her lips were smiling.
“Now I want you to kiss me in front of God and Fort Laramie, Conn O’Grady, and make it a kiss I will always remember, because I have long prayed for this moment and I will not be denied.”
Conn O’Grady put his arms around her and granted her wish.