Three months later…
Julia gripped the reins of her mare as she and Roman raced out across the length of their new property. The wind whipped through her hair, loosening it from her bun and allowing it to whirl freely around her face in the hot summer sun. She clicked her heels against her steed, urging her on. “Come on, girl! We can catch him!” The horse obediently stretched her legs that much further, closing the gap between her and the stallion ahead.
Tree branches flew past above them as their pace sent the lowest leaves swirling around in the breeze. Past the little brook that babbled away, Julia tugged on her reins. “This way,” she urged, drawing her mare off to the right. Roman looked over to her as she whizzed past him, having chosen a smoother path. He grinned, accepting her challenge, and leaned forward in his saddle. Julia grabbed ahold a bit tighter and lifted off the saddle as her horse cleared a fallen log with ease. “That a girl!” She veered a bit further from Roman, still racing along at a blistering pace. She smiled, knowing what was coming up.
Roman soon hit denser underbrush, forcing him to slow his pace and redirect closer to Julia. She laughed as he urgently coaxed his steed back up to speed. Faster and faster, they went, circling around the edge of the pasture. Their pounding hoofbeats sent a few of the wandering cattle trotting back toward the rest of the herd who were grazing out in the open. Soon, she lost her advantage. Out in the open, Roman and his stallion went whizzing past, kicking up clods of dirt and throwing them high into the air. Julia pressed in again, eager to prove herself. She veered out and around Roman’s path, knowing it wasn’t much further to their destination. In one final burst of speed, she and Roman were again nose-to-nose. As they finally reached the lake at the back of their land, Roman slowed with a laugh. “That was great fun!”
Julia smiled and sat higher in her saddle. “I’ve come a long way!” she said with a huge grin.
“That you have,” he nodded. He dismounted, then reached up and took her around the waist. Lowering her to the ground, he pulled her to him. She gazed up at Roman, slipping her arms around his neck and pulling him down for a kiss. He raised his brows with a grin and drew her in tighter. Finally releasing her, he nodded off to one side, where the youngest of the herd frolicked about. “They seem to have settled in well.”
“And for that, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Marcus and your family,” she added.
“The drive took longer than I had planned,” he said with a nod, “but they’re all here and have even accepted the newly purchased cattle readily.”
Julia agreed, leading her horse to the edge of the water to drink. She tied her reins to a low-hanging branch before stepping back and allowing Roman to do the same. She quickly began spreading out their blanket, as had become a regular occasion for them. She pulled their lunch items from her saddlebag and had their meal ready in no time. Roman leaned back against a tree trunk near the lake and set to work whittling away at a stick. A few lonely clouds in the sky overhead crossed over the sun, offering a moment of shade in the warm afternoon. Julia laid back on the blanket, allowing herself a moment to catch her breath.
Roman eagerly bit into his biscuit, followed by a hearty gulp of lemonade. He glanced out across the pasture with a smile.
“What’s on your mind?” she asked, matching his grin.
He shook his head. “I was just thinking.”
“Somehow, when I first wrote to you, this is what I had imagined. It may not have been here. I might have pictured it in Stark’s Crossing, with Pop and everyone nearby. But the peace of a warm summer day, the wide-open space with our own herd roaming around, the cool water to come and relax by…This is what I had hoped for. And now, we have it. I can just picture some children of our own riding around in those fields someday. I wouldn’t have traded that sort of childhood for the world. I’m looking forward to passing that on. And Pop could still come to visit and see what we’ve made for ourselves. I wanted it to be ours and ours alone.”
Julia gazed knowingly across their land.
“In the meantime, though, I’ve got to get that south fence put in.” He lifted the brim of his hat and wiped his face, watching as the cattle wandered about much further than he’d want them to in the winter months. “I’m afraid we’ll have more wild animals than we care for if I can’t keep them closer to the house.”
“That will all come soon enough. You said you’ve ordered the materials, and I can help you put the fencing in once we have everything.” She took a bite of an apple while spreading out her sketching materials.
Roman looked at her hesitantly. “That’s heavy, hot work,” he cautioned her.
“Perhaps, but we’ll do what we must.”
“I might see if Marcus can make the trip out here to help me,” he countered.
She laughed. “I can manage! But suit yourself. If Marcus comes, he’s sure to bring Bella.”
Roman chuckled, noting the gleam in her eye. “At any rate, I’ll need the rest of the materials first. I thought we might ride into town tomorrow to see if my order has come in.”
Julia agreed. “I’d like to check the post office anyway. And I could use some material.”
“It’s settled then. We’ll leave after breakfast,” he agreed, leaning back against the tree trunk, and tipping his hat down. He closed his eyes, letting himself drift off for a nap while Julia sketched a new piece of art for their walls.
The following morning, the smell of coffee and bacon drifted through the house by the time Roman returned from the barn chores. He pried off his boots, taking a deep breath of the aroma. “You certainly know how to make a place feel like home.” He grinned, meeting Julia in the kitchen and giving her a peck on the cheek.
“I’m glad you think so.” She smiled, setting the table. “I wondered if I might be able to get the bookcases situated in that front room in the next few days. That would truly complete the house.”
He agreed. “I’ll see to it once we get home from town.”
As soon as she’d finished the breakfast dishes, they set off for town. “Let’s go,” Roman called, guiding the team down the busy road through the middle of Chestnut Grove. Julia pulled her bonnet down, blocking the hot summer sun from her eyes so she could better see the business fronts. She gently placed a hand on Roman’s thigh, sensing his tension over the whole affair.
“Try to relax. I know it’s new, but it won’t feel like it for long.” She flashed him a smile.
He struggled with the idea but matched her encouraging smile just the same. “I’ll get there. Just give me a little time. You’ve done all of this before.”
She laughed. “Yes, and I remember how daunting it was.”
“You make it look so easy now,” he shook his head. “What did you say the store owners’ names were again?”
“Mr. and Mrs. Warner,” she replied as he brought the wagon to a stop outside the bustling shop. He glanced warily at the crowd inside the window. Sensing his uneasiness, she nodded. “Right, why don’t you go on down to check the post, and I’ll grab the few things we need.”
He breathed deeply. “Thank you. I’ll need to stop in at the blacksmith’s as well. I’ll be back.” He gave her a hand to the ground and waited until she’d stepped inside the shop before heading down the busy street to the post office. Admittedly, Chestnut Grove was a nice place. An hour and a half closer to San Francisco, it tended to be much busier than Stark’s Crossing ever had, but that meant easier acquisition of supplies for the ranch. He stepped inside the small post office and approached the clerk.
“Well, good morning! Wait…don’t tell me. It’s Mr. Buckley, right?” the clerk asked, squinting one eye as if testing himself.
Roman laughed. “That’s right.”
“I have a couple of things for you, then,” he said, retrieving two envelopes from behind the desk. “How’s the lovely missus?”
“She’s doing well, thanks,” he assured, glancing at the envelopes. “She’ll be glad to see these.”
“Wonderful! Come back and see us soon,” he called as Roman stepped back out into the open air.
He slid his finger along the seal of the envelope from his pop, pulling out a paper with the familiar scrawl on it. He strolled along as he read his pop’s account of the changes that were taking place in Stark’s Crossing in their absence. Apparently, a number of young couples had followed suit after he and Julia had decided to move away from the feud-scarred little town. Dominic no longer held the same authority he’d once commanded, though that didn’t stop him from trying. All in all, they had set the precursor for a new age of peace…even if it might not come to full fruition until after Dominic had lived out his days.
Apparently, Mark had finally decided to settle down with the farrier’s daughter, and an autumn wedding was being planned. An event that Samuel hoped he and Julia might travel back for. Roman took a breath. As much as he missed home, there was a certain excitement held in the opportunities of a new place. He folded the letter and tucked it back into its envelope. The other one, he would leave for Julia.
He glanced through the shop window, seeing that Julia was next in line at the counter. She grinned upon catching sight of him, and he motioned to a bench positioned outside one of the restaurants across the road. Strolling across, he took a seat to wait on her.
“You’ll never guess what just happened,” she bubbled upon meeting him at his seat. “Mrs. Warner just invited us to a picnic lunch after church this Sunday!”
Roman smiled, more enthused with her excitement than over the event itself. “I’m sure that will be nice.”
She agreed. “Did you want to get a bite to eat before we head back?”
“I thought we might,” he replied, rising to his feet. “Oh, and I thought you’d be happy to see this.” He handed her the envelope bearing Bella’s name on it. He grinned as her eyes instantly lit up.
She eagerly tore into the letter. Scanning it, she excitedly grabbed his hand. “They’re coming!”
Roman raised a brow, waiting for more information.
“…Marcus and I have decided on an August wedding,” she began reading from somewhere in the middle, “and would like to be married in San Francisco like you and Roman were. There is no real draw to celebrate here, as Father has cut all ties with me, and Marcus’ pop said he’d travel with us for the occasion. After that, we’ve decided to settle there in Chestnut Grove as well. You described it as such a lovely place, and though things have settled down a great deal around here, it’s time to truly distance ourselves from the drama that remains. I’ve missed you dearly and can’t wait to be close enough to come over for afternoon visits!”
Roman laughed, thinking of Marcus’s house that had only just been finished before they had left. “I suppose we’ll have a new project to work on soon enough.”
Julia grinned. “It will be nice to have them around again.”
Later that afternoon, they began the thirty-minute ride out to their new piece of land. Though much hotter at this time of year, the air carried on it a hint of the ocean. And the pines that towered high overhead offered a good bit of shade to the path. Their herd could be seen dotting the fields long before they reached the ranch house. Roman pulled straight up to the door and began unloading the supplies he’d picked up in town.
“I sure wish Marcus was already here!” he said, huffing as he lifted the heavy fencing materials out of the wagon. “Once that south fence is finished, the pasture will be ready for the winter to come.” He glanced over at the bundle of fabric Julia had picked up.
“Do you like it?” she asked, noticing it had caught his attention. “We’ll have new curtains over these bare windows soon.”
“It’s nice,” he nodded, straightening up after piling the wire next to the barn. “It already feels like home. You have a way with such things.”
Pleased, she went inside to begin preparing for supper.
That evening, they sat together on their front porch swing, enjoying the light of the full moon while a warm summer breeze floated through the ranch yard. Roman slid an arm around behind Julia, drawing her in closer to himself. She smiled up at him, leaning in for a quick kiss.
“I’ve been thinking,” he began, pushing the seeing back and allowing it to glide back forward again. “Now that we’re here and truly settled, things should feel much more secure. The herd is stable and growing even more quickly than I had hoped. Next year’s cattle drive should set us firmly on our feet even apart from Pop’s help. We have all the space we could hope for and will even have some friends to share it with soon enough.”
Julia nodded along, watching for a clue as to where he was going.
“If you’re ready, I believe we could properly welcome your mother. I know you wrote to her, and she said her health has been improved with the warmer temperatures. If she’s ready to travel, you may send for her with my blessing.”
Julia gasped. “Do you mean it?”
“I do. I promised you from the beginning that you could do so as soon as you were truly settled in. I’m just sorry it’s taken this long.”
She excitedly sat forward. “I’ll write to her right away. As long as Doc Henderson approves, I’d like to bring her here before autumn.”
“Then she’ll be settled in safe and sound before the winter arrives again,” he nodded. “Once you’ve written to her, I’ll arrange for your fare to travel back to Buffalo to get her. She’ll need a travel companion.”
Julia beamed, studying her husband. She silently wondered how she’d ever doubted him. This was the man she’d corresponded with. It felt like so long ago, but this was the life she’d pictured.
A few days later, Julia rolled up her sleeves and climbed into the wagon bench, holding the reins to steady the team. Roman hefted the heavy rolls of wire up into the bed, along with the tools he’d need. He wiped the sweat from his face before climbing in beside her.
“Are you sure you can handle this?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye.
“I’m a rancher’s wife. I know how to do what needs doing,” she said matter-of-factly.
He laughed. “Yes, that you do. In that case, let’s go.”
Roman climbed up in the wagon and took the reins from his wife. He urged the horses on, and they rolled out of the yard toward the south pasture. The cattle slowly sauntered here and there as they rolled past, mostly ignoring their presence. Finally reaching their destination, Roman stopped the wagon. Julia climbed over into the back and began scooting their supplies to the edge where they could be more easily reached.
After helping Roman unload, she determinedly hauled some of the rolls of wire to where Roman was going with his bundle.
A few minutes later, the rumble of a wagon could be heard rolling up behind them. Roman glanced up from his work, instantly meeting Julia’s curious eyes. He instantly straightened up and threw his hands into the air.
“Roman!” Marcus exclaimed with his same old smile.
“It’s so good to see you!” Roman greeted, heartily shaking his hand. “Julia and I were just talking about how much I could use your help!”
“Uh oh,” he laughed teasingly. “What is it this time?”
Roman swung his arm around. “A property fence!”
Julia rushed over. “I’m so glad to see you again, Marcus,” she smiled.
“Likewise! And there’s someone else here who will be just as happy.” He motioned to the wagon, revealing that Bella had come with him.
Julia rushed over and hugged her dear friend. “I trust you got my letter,” Bella said, grinning as the men quickly began going over the plans for the finished winter pasture.
“I did! A wedding!” Julia exclaimed.
“Yes, and it will be here soon. I have so much I’ve wanted to talk to you about.”
Marcus and Roman soon came back to the wagon. “If it’s alright with you ladies, Marcus and I are going to go ahead and get started. We should be able to have it finished in a few days,” Roman said, looking to Marcus.
“Yes, and once that’s finished, Roman has agreed to help me get started looking for a proper piece of land,” Marcus said, looking to Bella.
The women looked at one another and laughed. “Just like old times,” Bella said. “I knew we’d be staying longer than he planned on.”
“Well, you know you have a place here with us. Come on, we’ll ride back to the house and get you settled in.”
Julia and Bella climbed into the wagon and set off for the house. Julia finally felt that her life here was truly complete. Her friends had been brought back to her. Her mother would soon be joining them. And most of all, the man she loved so dearly had fought for the life they’d hoped for. Finally, all could be as it should be.