A Dream to Call My Own
by Tracie Peterson
A Dream to Call My Own
By Tracie Peterson Chapter One Late January 1881
Maybe it was cabin fever as well as the announcement from Beth that she was expecting. It might even have been the anxiety of waiting for Gwen's baby to finally arrive. Whatever the reason, Lacy Gallatin awoke an hour earlier than usual with only one thought on her mind: I have to get out of here for a time.
She got up and dressed quickly, layering warm flannel trousers over thick wool stockings. Next she put on her heaviest split wool skirt and warmest blouse and sweater. Lacy then tied her hair back in a single braid and completed her outfit with her heavy winter boots.
Taking up her saddlebag, Lacy packed several articles of clothing. She penned a quick note to her sisters, doing her best to explain that the gloomy weather had taken its toll on her. She read the last lines aloud, as much to strengthen her conviction as to assure herself she'd said the right thing. "'I will be all right. Please don't send anyone after me. I'm not certain where I'm headed, but I assure you I can take care of myself.'"
And she could. Lacy had a little money and a lot of know-how. She was a good horsewoman and a crack shot with the rifle. There had been no reports of highwaymen since the weather had turned so bad the past month. There would always be the threat of wolves, but Lacy could contend with them if she had to. That left only battling the elements.
Hurrying downstairs, Lacy grabbed a few items of food and stuffed them into her bags along with her clothes. If a blizzard came up before she figured out where to go, she'd be able to wait it out. She pulled on her heavy coat and scarf and secured her flannel hat. Her last act was to grab matches, a small tin pot, and a canteen from the back porch.
Blackness engulfed Lacy as she slipped from the house. Within another half hour or so her family would wake up to start their day. The long hours of darkness didn't stop or even slow life when it came to caring for livestock and seeing that the community had access to the store. Lacy was glad there wasn't a stage due in or out. The weather had reduced the number of trips being made to Gallatin Crossing, and given Gwen's condition, that had been a very good thing. There would be no big breakfast to prepare and serve. No abundance of laundry to wash.
Lacy sighed. She felt she fell short even when it came to doing her part at Gallatin House, the roadhouse she and her sisters operated. She had done minor repairs and some of the heavier work after their father was killed, but now that Gwen and Beth had married and Hank and Nick were in residence, she was relegated to household chores. That left Lacy with very little purpose. She simply didn't belong anymore.
The cold air bit at her face and hands but did little to deter Lacy from her task. She pulled on her gloves--heavy woolen ones that she used for outdoor work--and set out across the yard. Her boots made a crunching sound in the snow and left a very obvious trail from the house to the store.
Hank had helped Nick to build a rather large corral behind the store where he could keep the stage horses ready and waiting. To Lacy's benefit, the store hid the corral and her activities. She could only pray that everyone would remain asleep or otherwise busy with their own chores while she got away.
The horses had taken shelter together in the loafing shed and seemed somewhat curious as Lacy interrupted their morning. "It's all right, boys," she told the gathered geldings. Her own mount nudged her for a treat, but Lacy shook her head. "Not this time, fella." She saddled him quickly and tied on her saddlebag. She climbed into the saddle and wrapped the canteen strap and tin pot's handle around the horn.
"Come on, boy," she urged as they moved across to the gate. Lacy easily managed the gate on horseback. She'd done this a number of times before, and the gelding seemed to understand now what was expected of him. With a quick glance at Gallatin House, Lacy could see that lamps were lit in the upstairs windows. Her family was awakening to face a new day. It was time to leave.
A whine caught her attention. She glanced down to see that Major had followed her. "Not this time, boy. Go home." The dog looked at her sadly. "Go on, now. Go!" she commanded with as much harshness as she could manage. Major dropped his head and turned back toward the house. Lacy felt terrible for putting him from her, but she had no idea of where she might go. She had odd images of just riding around in circles for days.
"I should have thought this through better." The horse nickered as if in agreement. "Oh, what do you know?" She nudged the horse's flanks and put him in motion.
Lacy was glad it had stopped snowing. The roadway was much traveled, leaving the previous snow beaten down by stage and freight wagons, as well as local ranchers and riders coming and going. With no more than a new inch or so, the horse would have a fairly easy time of it.
In the coming light of morning, Lacy could just make out her way. She hadn't really considered her path but knew almost instinctively that she was headed for Patience and Jerry Shepard's ranch, four miles out of town. Patience had been like a mother to her, and Lacy desperately needed that right now. Perhaps she would just ask Patience to sit for a time and talk; then Lacy could head out to ... to where?
The winds were surprisingly calm and as the light dawned over the southern reaches of the mountains, Lacy could see that the clouds had cleared. Maybe they would have a bright sunny day after all.
An orange-yellow sun rose in full, streaking the skies in red and pink hues. It wasn't a good sign; even the Bible warned about such things as an omen for bad weather. Lacy tried to put it from her mind. At least the temperature seemed to warm a bit as the sun climbed higher. She knew that by now her family would be preparing to face the day. They wouldn't worry about where she was for a time, but when breakfast was on the table, someone would go to fetch her and find a note instead.
"They'll probably be mad," she told the horse. "Dave will be madder than the others. As the law in this area he'll take it upon himself to hunt me down." The thought of Dave Shepard, Patience and Jerry's son, brought unexpected warmth to her cheeks. As deputy, Lacy knew he had plenty to keep him occupied today. He'd spoken the night before of going to Bozeman if the weather was good.
"Hopefully, he'll just do as he planned and leave me alone. He might even think I've gone to Bozeman."
The horse bobbed his head as if agreeing. Lacy patted his neck. "I'm sorry for bringing you out in the cold without so much as a few oats to start your day. I'll make it up to you, though. The Shepards will see you well cared for."
"Well, at least we know now why she wasn't downstairs to help," Beth said, waving the note at her sister. "She's decided to take herself on a little journey."
"What do you mean?" Gwen asked.
"She says the winter has gotten to her, and we're not to worry about her or her whereabouts." Beth handed Gwen the letter. "Honestly, sometimes that girl doesn't make any sense to me."
Gwen shook her head. "I wonder when she left. It must have been sometime in the night."
"What must have been sometime in the night?" Hank asked his wife as he entered the kitchen. He went to take up a coffee mug and stepped to the stove. He looked up at Gwen. "Well?"
"Lacy decided to go off by herself."
Hank poured coffee into his cup. "Off by herself where?"
"We don't know," Beth admitted. "She just said winter was getting to her. She also said she'd be all right and that we weren't to send anyone after her."
"Has she done this before?"
Gwen nodded. "Yes, but it's been a while. You know how unpredictable she can be."
"You must be talking about Lacy," Dave said as he came in behind Hank. "Ah, I see you had the same idea I did." He grabbed a mug and poured himself some coffee. "Nick is stoking up the fire in the front room, Beth. He said he'd get Justin down to breakfast in just a minute."
"Lacy's gone," Beth announced matter-of-factly.
Dave looked at her as if she'd gone mad. "What do you mean, 'gone'?"
"Gone. She took off. She left a note saying she wanted some time away."
Gwen nodded in confirmation. "She says she can take care of herself, but ..." Her words trailed off as she clenched her eyes shut and clutched her stomach. Then she opened her eyes and smiled softly at her husband. "Hank ... I think it's my time."
"Are you sure?" Beth asked.
"I've been having some back pain since last night, but now it's starting to intensify and spread to the front. I think the baby is coming."
"What should we do?" Hank asked, turning rather pale.
"I suppose send for the doctor. If Gwen's been having pain all night," Beth surmised, "the baby could be nearly here. I'll help her to bed."
"But what about breakfast?" Gwen asked as if they'd all suddenly gone mad.
Dave laughed. "We can manage it for ourselves. You let Hank and Beth get you settled in. I'll go for the doc."
Dave was just happy to be out of the house. Women giving birth made him nervous. He could still remember when his younger sisters had been born. He'd been quite young, and his mother's screams of pain were terrifying.
Thankfully, there was a new doctor in Hamilton. It wouldn't take long at all to reach him and get help. Dave urged the horse to pick up speed, glad that the latest snow had been only a light dusting. He noticed fresh hoofprints leading out of town and wondered if they belonged to Lacy's mount. It wasn't that she was the only one who could have passed this way. He considered the direction and depth of each print. The rider was lightweight, so it might be her. Beth seemed to think Lacy might have gone out the night before, but if that were the case, the new snow would have covered any tracks.
He was still thinking about this when he finally made the turn toward Hamilton. The tracks continued on the main road to the north. He wondered if they'd still be there when he came back. The skies to the west were darkening with clouds, and the whole line seemed to be moving their way. It'd be just his luck to lose the prints in another snowstorm.
Dave made his way into Hamilton, trying to put the worrisome thoughts from his mind. The little town was already up and running, with local merchants sweeping off the dry white offering from the night before. Several people waved as he passed down the street.
Dave knew the new doctor's office and home was not far. He quickly covered the distance and was rewarded to see the doctor's wife whisking snow from the steps of their house.
"Morning, Mrs. DuPont. Is the doctor in?" Dave asked without bothering to dismount.
"Oh, goodness, he is, but he's terribly sick. He's run a fever all night and is coughing something horrible."
"Guess he's not up to making any house calls then." Dave scratched his chin. "Mrs. Bishop is set to deliver her baby. She's been having pains all night."
The woman nodded. "I'm sorry. Your best bet would be to get a midwife. I'd go myself if I didn't have to take care of my husband."
"I understand." Dave thought for a moment. "I hope Doc gets to feeling better."
"Physicians never make good patients," she mused. "They're always trying to second-guess their illness and oftentimes make less of it than they should." Her face brightened. "Say, your mother would be quite capable of delivering a baby. She's helped with that before."
"I hadn't thought of that, but you're right." Dave tipped his hat. "I'll go there straightaway."
"Give her my regards, and we'll be praying that all goes well."
He turned the horse and headed out of Hamilton. He picked up the tracks again and followed them, surprised as they turned toward the Shepard ranch. His hopes rose as he felt more confident that the prints had been made by Lacy's horse.
It was nearly nine when Dave reached the ranch. His father was forking hay onto a wagon when Dave led his mount into the barn.
"Well, we seem to be blessed with visitors today. I sure didn't expect to see you this morning. What brings you out here?" Jerry leaned on the pitchfork and waited for his son's reply.
"Gwen Bishop is having her baby. Dr. DuPont is too sick to attend her, so I thought maybe Ma would come." Dave glanced at the stall and spotted Lacy's horse. "I take it Lacy is here."
"Yup, rode in just after dawn." He came and took hold of Dave's mount. "I'll put your horse away and then I'll hitch the carriage. Tell your ma I'll be waiting for her," his father said. "Could you maybe stay behind and get this hay out to the west field?"
"Sure," Dave said. "Let me go explain things to Ma, and I'll get right to it."
Dave bounded across the yard and leaped up on the porch, easily clearing the three steps as he had when he was a boy.
He entered the house, calling, "Ma!" Making his way through the rooms, Dave headed for the kitchen, where he knew he'd find her at this time of the day.
What he hadn't expected was to find Lacy Gallatin standing in the kitchen. He'd figured, knowing his mother, Lacy would be tucked into bed somewhere, being pampered and cared for. Lacy looked at him with such wide eyes that Dave knew she was equally surprised to find him there.
"I told them not to send anyone after me," she muttered and went back to kneading bread dough.
"I didn't come for you, although I will say it was pretty inconsiderate of you to just ride out like that and worry everyone."
She looked up and met his gaze. "I left a letter."
"Yeah, I know. But it certainly didn't say you were coming to my folks' place."
"I didn't know that I was."
His mother came in from the porch. "It's starting to snow again." She spotted her son and broke into a big smile. "What a nice surprise."
"Gwen is having her baby and Dr. DuPont is sick. Pa's hitching the carriage. Can you come and help?"
"Absolutely. Let me get my things," his mother said. She stopped in midstep, however, and turned back to Lacy. "Can you handle the baking? We can't let all these loaves of bread go to waste. Oh, but you probably want to be there, too." Patience looked upset by the dilemma, but Lacy quickly put the matter to rest.
"I'll finish them, don't you worry. Tell my sister I'm praying for her safe delivery. There's nothing much I could do to help there, so it's best I make myself useful here."
Dave didn't miss the look of worry on her face. She bit her lower lip and ducked her head as if to hide it from him, but he'd seen it nevertheless.
"I'll stay here and see Lacy safely back to Gallatin House after the baking is finished. I know she'll be anxious to be with her family at a time like this."
Lacy said nothing, her expression unreadable.
Lacy couldn't believe this turn of events. She'd come to get away from all her troubles, yet the biggest one of all followed her like a hound to the fox.
She put the last of the bread pans in the oven and checked the fire. Everything looked perfect. Stretching to ease the pull of her back muscles, Lacy felt a bit of relief knowing that Dave was occupied elsewhere. His father had given him the task of feeding stock in the west field. This area didn't usually have so much snow, so Jerry hadn't taken the animals to a different pasture. Instead, he'd brought them all closer to home to keep them contained within easy distance of the house. But this winter had been devastating. The temperatures had dropped so rapidly that large geese had actually frozen fast in the pond and died. Jerry had mentioned losing several pregnant cows, as well as a number of steers. It wasn't a good season to be a rancher.
A glance out Patience's kitchen window startled Lacy. It was snowing quite heavily. In fact, it was very nearly a whiteout. She hadn't even noticed the wind blowing but could hear evidence of it now. The sound was mournful, almost like a cry. It was typical of the unpredictable mountain weather.
Dave came stomping in from the back porch. "It's blown up a bad one." He shook the snow from his coat onto the porch floor. "We're gonna have to wait this one out."
"What do you mean?" Lacy asked. She began placing already baked loaves of bread onto the table.
"I mean we're not going to be able to head out to Gallatin House until this clears up."
She looked at him and could see how red his face was from the cold wind. She took pity on him. "Want some coffee?"
He grinned. "That would be good. Maybe a slice of fresh bread, too?"
She nodded. "I'm sure your mother wouldn't mind."
Lacy hurried to pour him a cup of coffee. She put it in front of him as he took a seat at the far end of the table. "The bread's still warm. It might not cut well."
"I don't mind. If you get me a knife, I'll do it myself."
She went to the cupboard and got a plate, then fetched a knife from the counter. "There's fresh butter, too."
Lacy brought the butter to the table, then hurried back to check the oven. She felt odd. It wasn't that she was doing anything she hadn't done at Gallatin House in serving Dave food, but somehow here it seemed much more intimate.
"Where are the ranch hands?" she asked. "Will they need lunch?"
"They're off in the far west field waiting for calves to be born. Knowing Ma, she sent them with everything they'd need. They'll probably set a tent up by the creek. No doubt with the temperature dropping, they'll need to hack the ice open from time to time in order to allow the cattle to drink."
"They'll stay out in this?" Lacy asked, glancing at the window. The wind was now clearly audible.
"They'll rotate in and out. We've got too many heifers birthing this year to leave them alone for long. The hands will be fine." Dave took a big bite of the bread and smiled. "Mmm."
Lacy didn't know why, but his delight in the impromptu meal rather unnerved her. She went to the wash pan and began cleaning up the empty bread pans. "I'm sure I can get back on my own. There's no need for me to stay here after I get the baking done."
"Are you afraid of staying here with me?" he asked softly.
Lacy turned and met his gaze. She made the mistake of looking at his lips for a moment, then turned away. "That would be silly," she said in a voice that didn't sound at all convincing.
"It would be," Dave agreed, "but that doesn't mean you aren't afraid."
"I simply want to get home and do what I can to help. Gwen's having her baby, after all. I'm going to be an aunt. I only stayed here to relieve your mother's mind." Her hands were shaking so badly she had to plunge them into the water and hope Dave wouldn't see.
"Look, the storm is bad," Dave said. "We'll just have to make the best of it. If the weather clears soon enough, I'll get you home. If not, we'll stay here."
Lacy turned around so quickly that she flung water across the room. "You mean spend the night?"
"Well, you were already going to do that, weren't you?"
"Yes, but ... not with you here." He laughed and tossed back the last of his coffee. "I stay at Gallatin House all the time, and it doesn't seem to bother you."
It bothered her a great deal, but Lacy wasn't about to admit it. "Yes, but there are other people there. Not only that, but you live in the annex. That's a whole different building. But your folks won't be here, and neither will anyone else."
Dave leaned back with a lazy grin spreading across his face. "I know. Kind of intriguing, don't you think?"
Lacy felt her cheeks grow hot. "Don't you care that it will ruin my reputation?"
He laughed and folded his hands behind his head as he let the chair tip back against the wall. "Lacy Gallatin, you've never cared what people thought about you or your reputation."
"Yes, well, I've never done this before." She eyed the doorway, wanting only to run for the haven of the room Patience had given her.
"Done what?" he asked. It was clear he was enjoying her discomfort.
"Oh, bother. I'm not going to stand here and argue with you." She turned her attention to the stove and felt the warm blast of air against her face as she opened the door. The bread wasn't done, so she couldn't even occupy herself with pulling the loaves out.
She straightened once the stove door was back in place. This wasn't the deliverance from problems and emotions that she had hoped for. In fact, this was very much like a fascinating nightmare--one that she clearly wanted to escape but at the same time couldn't help but be intrigued by.
Turning, she found Dave watching her closely. He wasn't smiling anymore, and that was almost more worrisome. Lacy could take his teasing, but she wasn't sure what to do with his serious side.