Wesley carried the woman carefully into the house and laid her on the the sofa. The boy followed silently behind us. He didn't say anything or show any emotion at all. After the woman was settled on the sofa, I turned to the boy. Sarah and Rachel were standing a bit behind him, watching him curiously. "Why don't you two take our guest upstairs while his mother rests." I said, making the assumption that the boy and mysterious woman were related. Sarah and Rachel each nodded and Rachel reach out for his hand. He allowed himself to be led up to their small room.
"Lizzie, one of us should ride into town and fetch the doc." Wesley said quietly while eying the unconscious woman warily.
"Then go on." I said. "We'll be fine here." I knew that Wesley had no desire to leave his family alone with these strangers; he didn't move from where he was standing. "Perhaps we can wait until morning then." I said. "She seems to be fine - just exhausted. Maybe hungry."
"That I am." A weak voice from the sofa replied. Wesley and I hurried to her side and helped her sit up a bit straighter. After a moment her face became frantic. "Luke? Luke!" she jumped to her feet and swayed. Had Wesley not stood with her, she would have fell to the floor. "LUKE!" she cried out, clearly panicked.
"Shhh..." I said putting a hand on her arm. "He's fine, he's upstairs with our girls." After a moment, the words sunk in and she calmed down somewhat. Her eyes were still a little wide and I was sure she was on the verge of panic. "Why don't you clean up a bit while I get you and Luke something to eat." I offered. I looked toward Wesley and nodded to the door, hoping he'd understand my meaning. He did but looked wary as he walked outside to go fetch some water. He returned with a bucket of water and I retrieved a couple of towels for her. I showed her to our room so she could clean up privately and pulled out a clean nightgown for her to wear.
I returned to the kitchen and found Wesley cutting up some fruit for them. I smiled at him and joined him at the counter, pulling out a bit of meat and bread to add to the plate. I warmed some water on the fire and made some tea as well. By the time she was cleaned up, we had called Luke down and he was quietly but quickly devouring his food as if he hadn't eaten in days. Wesley and I sat as well. "My name is Sierra, and this is Luke." she said as she sat down. She looked at the spread of food with wide eyes and I wondered when they'd last eaten.
"I'm Elizabeth, and this is my husband Wesley." I said. I wanted to ask her questions but she was so busy eating that I didn't think she'd be able to reply if I did so I held my tongue. Once Luke finished, Sierra shooed him upstairs with the girls. It was getting late and they ought to be going to bed soon enough.
"Thank you. For your kindness...it is..." Sierra paused a moment to think, "Unexpected." she said finally. "My boy and I will go on now that we had a bit of food."
"Oh no you won't" Wesley chimed in firmly. "You can stay here the night and rest up." he said leaving little room for her to argue. It was clear, even cleaned up, that she was exhausted and wouldn't make it far. A storm was brewing outside anyway and neither of us would want them to be out in that weather.
"Thank you." she said finally after considering what else to say. Although Sarah and Rachel offered to share a bed so Luke could have the extra, Sierra insisted on his sleeping near her - having him as far away as upstairs seem to terrify her so we didn't push, only found extra blankets for him to sleep on. Luke didn't seem to care. In fact, he hadn't shown any emotion all night.
I tucked my own children in after our guests were settled in and crawled under the warm covers with Wesley. He snuggled close to me and I felt such joy just having him there after all we had been through recently.
I woke up to the sound of the back door shutting. I peered through the curtains to see it was still full dark outside. I slipped quietly out from under Wesley's arm and lit a lamp and carried it to our bedroom door. Opening it a crack I peered into the main living area and saw Sierra still sleeping. On the floor was a bundle of blanket but no Luke. I glanced out the window and saw him standing on the back porch. I closed the doors silently behind me until I was just behind him. "Luke?" I whispered. He didn't respond. His eyes were open but they looked out on the back yard blankly. "Luke?" I said a little louder. "Come on, let us go back inside." he didn't respond. Without much warning he began to choke himself. I stared, wide eyed - trying to figure out what he was about and what I ought to do. "Luke!" I shouted hoping to get his attention.
I heard the door clunk behind me as I was about to try to pry his hands away from his neck. "No! Don't!" Sierra shouted. She put a hand on my shoulder to stop me from touching him. "Wait a moment."
Within a moment he stopped and the blank stare returned. I turned to her questioningly but she merely looked at her son sadly. She knelt beside him and was whispering softly to him. I couldn't hear her clearly but I think she was singing to him. Soon he smiled, the only smile I'd seen cross his face, and started swaying his arms. She stood and left him to his swaying as she turned to me but I could only watch him in wonder.
"He's...not well." Sierra said frowning. I could tell how much she was hurting and wanted to reach out for her and hug her but something about her demeanor suggested that such a move wouldn't be received with pleasure from her.
Eventually, Luke grew tired again and started to waver. Sierra caught him before he fell and took him back to his little pallet on the floor. They laid back down and were quickly asleep. I tried to return to sleep myself but had no luck. I got out of bed again before dawn and retrieved Sierra's dirty clothes. Before anyone else awoke, I'd washed them and hung them on the line along with some of our own. I laid out some of my own things for Sierra to wear and then wondered what to do about Luke's clothes. Finally I found some of Alan's old things, left behind from before she'd married John. I hoped they would fit him well enough that we could wash what he was wearing.
"Thank you." Sierra said as I placed the bundle of clothes on the chair. I'd thought she was still sleeping. "You are uncommonly kind."
"I hope not, I always thought the people around here were very kind." I said. On thinking about it though, I realized I barely knew this town anymore. Only a handful of our old friends had stayed through the drought and the epidemic and since the rains had some, new people had come into town - some to stay, some passing through.
"Perhaps, I've not been in to the town much at all." Sierra said absently stroking Luke's hair as he continued to sleep. "My husband's name is...was...Caulder." she said, a mix of sadness and fear filling her face.
Caulder...Caulder....as in Crazy Caulder? I tried to remember what I'd heard from Tessa and around town about him. All gossip really but he seemed mostly harmless, just a little off. "I think I met your husband once or twice." I said slowly recalling the man. "Did something happen?" I asked
She nodded. Although sad and anxious, the stroking of her son's hair seemed to calm her. "The sickness came to us. He was very ill. He passed three nights....maybe four...ago. Luke and I were trying to get to town but I couldn't remember the way and the storm...." she trailed off, shaking slightly as she recalled it. "We'd been out there since then, until we found you."
"Oh my." I said startled. They'd been wandering around for days in the rain. "When Wesley wakes, we can take you into town if you like."
"Thank you. I need to see the reverend, to..." she trailed off and choked as tears began to fall.
"Of course." I said simply. After the rest of the house woke up and were made ready, we all went in the wagon to go into town. We tried the church first but Reverend Williams was not there. Across the way, we saw half the town seemed to be gathering and looking riled. We made our way over and heard shouts about rustlers and thieves and the need for a sheriff and justice. The angry radiated through the crowd like a heat wave.
I heard frantic whispers before I saw their reaction; several of those assembled had turned their anger and suspicions on Sierra although I couldn't fathom why. Sierra, for her part, watch them coolly - with her own mistrust.
The crowd - now a mob in the making - was circling around us, trapping us and effectively pinning us against a tree. "Back off!" Wesley shouted and a few people backed away from us only to close in on Sierra cutting us off from her.
"What's this about? Leave her alone!" I shouted, trying to push my way back to her while clutching baby Alexander. Wesley had Hannah in his arms and was trying to pull the children out of the crowd just in case.
"That's her, I swear I saw a woman just like that the night my coop was broken into!" Virgil Flynn shouted although I clearly remember him having said he'd seen nothing that night.
I heard other muttered things but no one else said anything worth repeating. "You said yourself you saw nothing Mr. Flynn!" I replied finally getting through the thick of it so I was beside Sierra. He sputtered several moments but gave no retort. Nevertheless the crowd continued to glare at Sierra with distrust.
"I heard one of them was about cursin' the crops - maybe she caused the drought." someone said, spitting at the ground. I looked around for the source but realized I only recognized a handful of the crowd and most them were hanging back silent.
"This is Sierra Caulder, her husband died of the sickness like the rest of us. You leave her be!" I looked over toward Wesley to see that he had the girls and Luke out of harms' way. Luke had retained his blank expression throughout the scene.
"Don't mean she ain't done nothin' wrong!" someone shouted which was met with a round of murmured replied and many nods of agreement. "If she is a Caulder, bet she's crazy! I hear tell of them!" I wondered what this brewing mob would do if they decided Sierra had done something and was afraid for us all. I held Alexander closer, wishing I could give him to Wesley to protect with the others.
"Mrs. Caulder!" someone shouted. The crowd reluctantly made way for Reverend Williams. "Oh Mrs. Caulder - I just went by your place to check on y'all." he said taking her hands in his. "I'm so sorry." he said sadly, having seen Lance.
They shared a quiet moment in prayer I imagined and then Reverend Williams realized he was now surrounded by the crowd as well. "Off with you all. Now! You have families and homes to tend to I imagine." he said. Face to face with a man of God, the crowd lost its nerve and slowly dispersed. Sierra sought out Luke and the two of them walked with Reverend Williams to discuss arrangements I imagine. I hugged Wesley and held him tightly - just now realizing how afraid I'd been.
Wesley and I insisted on Sierra and Luke coming home with us for a few more days - at least until the service. Sierra and I were quickly becoming friends and I hoped that Luke would make friends with children his own age. Sierra tried to argue but she also looked terribly anxious about going home to a house without her husband so she was easily swayed.
It was twilight when we all got back to the homestead and I was able to bring in the laundry I'd hung that morning. "I want to thank you, again." Sierra said. "I feel like that's all I've done since I stumbled into your yard." she said with a weak laugh.
"You have nothing you need to thank us for Sierra. We're only happy we can help you in this time." I said tugging a shirt from the line.
"Few others would take in a complete stranger and her son - with no questions." Sierra argued, though she was smiling. Together we carried the laundry into the house and started folding it.
"Well we're happy to have you both. I'm only sorry you had to go through so much to get here." I said. A few days somehow turned into a few weeks. When Sierra and Wesley had returned to her homestead, they'd found a lot of damage from the storms and possibly a few bandits had been by.
In all the chaos, we had clean forgotten baby Alexander's birthday but it made no difference. Cake or not, the boy was growing up before our eyes. He taught himself to walk in order to follow Wesley around the house and soon every time I looked around, he was missing. After a few panicked occasions, I realized where to find him. With his daddy.
Completely barefoot, he would take the first chance he could to slip out the door and make his way into the field to find Wesley. Nothing could make Wesley stop working like little Alexander either. Those two were made for each other.
Wesley adored all his children of course but I think Alexander was a special favorite of his. When Alexander would finally find Wesley, he would lift his arms in the sky to be scooped up and Wesley would drop whatever he was doing and toss the little tyke into the air. Alexander would giggle and squirm and laugh while shouting for more.
Luke - though never passionate about anything - did seem to warm up to our family. Instead of simply sitting with the girls and watching them play, he started playing with them. He was soon as hooked on Sarah's story telling as the rest of us and she would spend hours telling him of Anabelle, a character she'd created, and the adventures she got into. They would run off together playing and not be seen until dinner time.
After more than a month, Wesley had finished the repairs on the Caulder homestead and secured it from bandits. He'd also taken the time to teach her how to shoot a gun, just in case. I prayed she'd never have to use it way out there. She was a long way from town and I was scared for her. But she'd become more confident in the intervening weeks and going home no longer seemed to scare her - even without her husband. Luke had also been growing into a fine young man. He was almost a teenager when we helped them return home and had taken Wesley's advice to be "man of the house" to heart. He seemed too young to me to be the man of the house but my mother's instinct would want them all to be babies forever. As such, I kissed him on the forehead and held him tightly that day. "You be good to your ma, you hear?" I said with a smile.
"Yes ma'am." he said. He was a boy of few words, but they were always the truth.
"You think they'll be okay?" I asked Wesley as we rode back home.
"I'm sure they will. That boy is a better shot than I am, and his ma isn't far behind." Wesley said putting a comforting hand on my shoulder and squeezing.
The house felt a little empty with our house guests gone even though we had an active little Alexander, a feisty Hannah who was almost ready to start school and two emotional almost teenagers of our own. In fact, I realized that Sarah and Rachel's birthdays were fast approaching and I promised I wouldn't forget another birthday for my children. I planned a large party at the Cafe with Tessa's help and invited just about everyone we knew and some we hadn't really gotten a chance to meet.
The girls were very excited about their parties and helped each other plan what they would wear. With the rains back, our crops began to thrive again. Wesley and I gave them each money to buy new dresses or material if they liked.
The evening of the party almost everything that could go wrong, did. But we took it all in stride and laughed it off. Needless to say, there was a lot of laughter that evening. Especially as Sarah blew out her candles and ended up blowing cake and icing all over her sister Hannah's face. Okay so Hannah didn't find that part so funny and ran inside the Cafe in tears to clean up before Rachel had blown out her candles.
Luke and Sierra came to the party as well and I saw that Luke had grown as well since they'd left us. He was quite a strapping young man. Although he still had a look in his eyes that disturbed me. I wondered if he still had the night time walks.
He watched Sarah intently though and I was amused to see her watching him. They were both still so young but I suspected there was a bit of a young crush there.
My girls had grown into beautiful young women - okay I hate to call them that. They are far too young and will always be my babies. But I can't deny how much they'd grown. Sarah was still an avid reader and story maker. Sarah always gave her first drafts to Rachel first (and then Luke). But eventually we all got to read her creations and would often spend the evening each reading a different story of hers.
As I looked at Rachel and Sarah, I thought back on my own early teenage life and wondered what theirs would hold for them. I'd known my one love all my life but that wasn't the case for them.