Valley of Dreams – Sarah M. Eden

Patrick O’Connor learned three things on the battlefields of the American Civil War: death isn’t usually clean or simple, loving someone isn’t enough to save him, and music keeps the demons at bay. As he stood in a small shop in Winnipeg, negotiating a price for the fiddle he’d carried through years of battles and a decade of wandering the white north, he knew the demons had won. “It’s in rough condition,” the shop owner said, turning the instrument over in his hands. “Battered and gashed and worse for the wear.” “Are we talking about the fiddle or its owner?” The man eyed him sidelong. “Both.” “How much?” He wasn’t enjoying the undertaking; he’d no intention of prolonging the thing. “Why’re you selling it?” Blast the man. Could he not just name his price? “Why I’m selling doesn’t make no nevermind.” “It does if your reason is that the instrument can’t keep a tune.” With a grumble of frustration, Patrick snatched the fiddle. He made a few quick pulls of the bow and adjustments to the strings. He played a quick rendition of “Irish Washerwoman,” and he played it well, if he did say so. Music had been his refuge through thirteen years of hell. He forced himself to put the fiddle in the man’s hands once more.

“How much?” “I’ll give you twenty dollars.” Ten dollars was a fortune to him in the moment, but ’twas a devastating prospect losing his fiddle. He’d played it before battles. He’d played it after battles. He’d played it while grieving his brother. But now he was selling it, and not for anything noble. “I’ll take the twenty.” The exchange was made. For just a moment, Patrick couldn’t get his feet to move from the spot. He was leaving behind a piece of himself there in that shop.

He was giving up the last thread of happiness tied to his years in battle and the last days he’d spent with his brother. But he needed the money. He needed it because he needed what it would give him: escape. Like the worthless heap he was, Patrick dragged himself from that shop to the saloon. He made straight to the barkeep. “O’Connor.” The barman eyed him suspiciously. “I ain’t in the business of handouts.” “I have money,” he mumbled. “I’ll believe it when I see it.

” Patrick slapped four dollars on the counter. “That’s more than a glass’s worth.” “Four bottles,” he said. “Whiskey, not beer.” The usually hard expression the man wore turned to something like worry. “You’ve been drinking too much lately, paddy. Four bottles’ll do you in.” “I’ll make ’em last.” For a while, at least. “You’ve a problem.

” He was in no mood for lectures. He knew full well he had a problem. He had more problems than anyone realized. “Are you taking my money or not?” The man’s mouth pulled in a tight line. He set bottles on the counter, one after the other. “Make sure this does last. I won’t sell you any more.” “This’ll do.” He’d move on, go to the next town, start again, manage what he could before he burned more bridges. He tucked the bottles into the thick canvas bag he’d carried his fiddle in and slumped his way out of the saloon.

His trek back to the single room he rented took him past the post office. The postmaster stopped him. “You have a letter.” He held out a beaten and crumpled envelope. Patrick snatched it with his free hand. It would be from Maura, his sister-in-law. She was the only one who ever wrote him, though heaven knew why she did. He’d cost her her husband, had walked out on her hospitality, and he almost never wrote back. What could he write, “Dear Maura, I’m drinking m’self into the grave, so I’m not likely to receive your next letter. Best regards, Patrick”? He stuffed the letter into his pocket and kept walking.

The weather was never truly warm in Winnipeg. It certainly wasn’t that day. The bite of air was helpful, though. It kept him moving even in his lowest moments and gave him a ready excuse for drinking. He could lie to himself and say he was only trying to keep warm. He knew the truth. His landlady eyed him with warranted suspicion as he came inside the house and climbed the stairs to his room. He’d been thrown out of enough boarding houses to know it would happen again soon enough. Losing the roof over his head hardly bothered him any longer. Like most things in life, he’d grown numb to it.

He set his whiskey bottles on the bureau and tossed the envelope on his bed. This was an odd sort of boarding house: the residents brought their own furniture. He’d debated selling it instead of his fiddle, but he couldn’t convince himself that music was more crucial than sleep. At the window, he pulled back the strip of scrap fabric he’d hung as a curtain and looked out over the street below. This was a tiny town. Hardly warranted being called a town, really. He might’ve made something of himself here. Every possibility had seemed to exist here at once. But there’d been nothing more for him here than any other place he’d laid his head the last thirteen years. And his time here was ending the same way the others had: no friends left, no job, no money, no reason to stay, and nothing but whiskey to keep him going.

He’d run out of hope years ago. He wasn’t even certain it had ever existed. The bed creaked beneath him as he sat. Soon enough, he’d pour himself a glass of oblivion, but first he had Maura’s letter to read. He’d read every word she’d sent over the years, clinging to the connection he didn’t deserve to have. Last he’d heard from Maura, she’d left New York and gone west to the tiny town where his parents and siblings had settled. Had she found them? Had they welcomed her? He couldn’t imagine they would’ve been anything but overjoyed. Maura was the kind of person who made a place better simply for being in it. And she deserved to not be as alone as she’d been back East. Patrick snatched up the envelope and broke the seal.

He pulled out the letter inside. My Dear Darling Patrick, Maura never addressed him that way. His eyes dropped to the end of the letter. Ma. Every inch of air spilled from his lungs. Ma. The letter was from his mother. His mother, who he’d never written to. Who he’d not seen in thirteen years. Who he’d let believe he was dead.

My Dear Darling Patrick, Maura’s only just told us that you’ve not died as we believed. I can’t make my mind or my heart understand why you’d not tell us. And I can’t make myself not worry over those possible reasons. We’ve grieved you these thirteen years. The whole family feels as though you’ve risen from the very grave. I don’t know what’s kept you in Canada for a decade, but if you’ve a mind to come to Hope Springs, even the merest whisper of thought in our direction, I hope you will. You’ve a home here, lad. You’ve a family. Please come back to us. Ma His breaths came shaky and shallow.

His pulse pounded in his head. Ma had written him a letter. He’d not intended to ever let her know he was still alive; it was better for her not to know. No one was better off for having him around. Not even himself. His eyes fell on his four glass sentinels, mocking him with their promise of temporary freedom. Liquid numbing was the only escape he ever had from the pain he carried around. He didn’t drink to the degree of excess some did. And he didn’t grow angry or violent. He simply couldn’t face everything—and there was so very much to face—without something to ease the relentless pain of life.

And he had to dull that pain more and more often of late. I even sold my fiddle. Begor, how had things grown that bad? Luck had landed the instrument in his hands during the war. He’d managed not to lose it over years of marching and battles, and he’d kept it during lean times between jobs. He’d kept his fiddle and it had been an important part of his life. And he’d sold it. To buy whiskey. He dropped his head into his hands, his matted hair and beard testifying to the mess he’d made of so many things. How had he come to this? Patrick still had some control over this thirst that drove him, but how long would that last? How long before its clutches squeezed the life out of him? Few people would even notice, and fewer still would care. You’ve a home here, lad.

You’ve a family. He laughed in a short, humorless burst. What family would claim the lump he’d become? He’d caused them heartache enough. What right did he have to cause them more? Patrick stood and crossed to the bureau. He set Ma’s letter next to the line of bottles. How long would they last? And what would he sell next time to buy more? You’ve a home here, lad. He swallowed against the lump in his throat. You’ve a family. He pushed out a breath. He had an offer of a home and family.

There, in that sparse room and town of spent opportunities, he had nothing. He’d simply slip further, drink more, waste away. He reached for a bottle, but stopped, hand hovering a mere inch away. Life offered few choices now, but one remained he couldn’t ignore. He could stay in Winnipeg and drink himself into the grave. Or he could add another mark of guilt to his soul and accept the offer Ma had dangled in front of him. The choice depended on one crucial question: was his a life worth saving? His heart dropped to his toes as he realized—he didn’t know the answer. Chapter Two Wyoming Territory, 1874 After two days in the stagecoach, Eliza Porter concluded that her fellow passenger was either a fur trapper, a man with a deep-seated fear of razors, or a bear that had learned to walk on two feet, mumble the occasional one syllable word, and spend hours pretending to be asleep. She found all three possibilities incredibly intriguing. Based on the stage driver’s estimate, she and her almost two-year-old daughter, Lydia, would be set down at the tiny town of Hope Springs within the hour.

Time enough for one more attempt at sorting the mystery of her furry fellow traveler. “Do you live in Wyoming territory?” she asked. He shook his head no. “Are you making a visit or planning to make it your new home?” He nodded. “Which one?” she pressed. “Guess,” he mumbled from behind his bushy beard. Where he hailed from Eliza couldn’t be certain, but she suspected her mysterious companion didn’t have an American accent. Of course, neither did she. “New home?” she guessed. He nodded.

Getting information from someone who offered such brief answers required creative questions. “Have you been in this country long?” “Have you?” She smiled back at him as she bounced Lydia on her knee. “Heard my origins in my voice, did you?” He scratched his dark beard between answers. His long, scraggly hair hung enough over his face so that she couldn’t tell where he was looking, though she suspected his gaze had wandered to the stagecoach window. “Do you look out the window so often because you can’t resist the brown, dusty vista, or because you think it’ll get me to stop talking to you?” She waited eagerly to see how he would answer that question with only a word or two. After a moment, he said, “Both.” She couldn’t help the laugh that slipped from her. Lydia laughed too—she nearly always laughed when her mother did. There had been a lot more laughing and smiling since they’d left New York City. They were on their way to a new life, a better life.

Though Eliza was a little nervous, she was nearly giddy with anticipation. America had been a disappointment in a lot of ways. Finally, its promises felt within reach, and leaving England felt less like a mistake. Did her reticent fellow traveler feel good about his decision to leave his home country? And what was his home country? The man didn’t say enough at any one time for his accent to be obvious. “England?” She guessed aloud. His head turned in her direction. “Sounds like it to me.” Five words at once. A new record, and enough to tell that he was definitely from the British Isles. A few more words, and she would have him sorted.

“What brings you to Wyoming?” “Stagecoach,” he muttered. She laughed. Lydia did as well. “I think you’re being grumpy on purpose.” He turned his head toward the window once more. “I like hearing your wee girl laugh.” “Ireland!” There was no mistaking his accent now that she’d truly heard it. “I-und!” Lydia made a valiant attempt. The grumbly bear didn’t noticeably react. Eliza wasn’t certain what to make of him.

Instinct told her she had nothing to fear from him. She stayed alert, of course—being cautious was never a bad idea—but during their day and a half on the stagecoach, he’d never given her reason to worry. As the stage rumbled to a stop, her heart dropped a little. She was excited to begin this new chapter in her and Lydia’s life, but a twinge of disappointment flickered through her, knowing she would have no further opportunity to talk to the intriguing man. He’d made her laugh and kept her company, however quietly, and she was grateful for it. “This is our stop,” she told him. “Thank you for being kind to us. Safe journey.” He nodded, and she climbed down with Lydia on her hip. Her trunk and carpet bag had been set down beside the coach.

But—she looked around—there was no town. Had the driver made a mistake? “Over the hill behind you,” the driver said, apparently recognizing her confusion. “You can’t see the town until you crest the hill.” She turned to look. Getting to the hill alone would be no small jaunt. She would have to come back for her trunk. Surely someone in her new town would fetch it for her. She heard the coach roll away behind her. There was no turning back now. “Are you ready to begin a new adventure, Lydia?” The little girl’s eyes were on the sky.

“Clouds.” “Lots of clouds,” Eliza said. “You’ll see a lot more of the sky now that we’ve left New York.” “Clouds.” Eliza spun back to grab her carpetbag; that she could manage even with Lydia. On the dusty ground on the other side of the road from where the stagecoach had been, was another trunk. And standing beside it . the grumbly bear himself. He dragged his trunk across the dirt road toward her. “Is this your destination as well?” Eliza asked.

He nodded, taking the handle of her trunk as he reached it. His own trunk was left behind as he slung hers on his back and began his trek up the hill. She rushed to catch up with him. “What about your trunk?” “’T’won’t run off while I’m gone.” He kept trudging upward. “You didn’t say you were bound for Hope Springs.” She kept pace with him. “Never came up.” “Which is surprising,” she said. “We talked about so many things.

” “Aye, you did,” he muttered. Eliza—and Lydia—laughed. “I’m glad you’re going to be living nearby.” “Why’s that?” The man had too much hair and too wide a hat brim for her to see if he looked as annoyed as he sounded, or if the hint of amusement she heard in his voice twinkled in his eyes. She hoped he was at least not displeased at the idea of being her neighbor. “Why?” she repeated. “Because it’ll give me time to sort out why you act grumpy when I don’t think you actually are.” He stopped and set her trunk down. Had she upset him? “Begor,” he whispered. “That must be the town.

” She looked ahead out over the vast valley, a patchwork of farm fields and the occasional building. A river wound through, with a couple of small bridges crossing it. Nearest the hill they stood on was a small group of buildings. Small, in this case, meaning three. In total. Three buildings. “Is that all of it, do you suppose?” Her dear friend Maura, who’d sent for her to come west, had told her that the town of Hope Springs was small. But this was shocking. “It could be hidden under a clover.” He sounded as shocked as she was.

“‘Under a clover.’ You really are Irish.” “I used to be.” He picked up her trunk once more. Eliza adjusted her hold on Lydia, then walked alongside him down the hill toward the town she meant to make her new home. Her hairy companion didn’t speak again. Usually when Eliza was nervous, she grew chattier. Approaching the three-building town, however, her tongue was entirely tied. “Sweet heavens, I hope coming here doesn’t prove a mistake,” she whispered. She didn’t consider herself cowardly, but now and then her mettle faltered.

Fortunately she had a knack for rallying her courage. Her stride was sure and purposeful as she entered the town. She pulled from her pocket the written instructions she’d received, directing her to where she was meant to meet Maura. “Walk through town to where the road forks. The house at the fork is the Archers’, and you’ll more likely than not find me there.” She would be “through town” in the blink of an eye. Not too far ahead, near enough to be easily seen, the dirt road did, indeed, fork, and a house sat directly in the middle of the fork. The bear man glanced her direction, still carrying her trunk. “I’m meant to go to that house up ahead, at the fork in the road.” “Aye.

” He continued on. “Isn’t ‘aye’ more of a Scottish word? Have I guessed your origins wrong?” “‘Aye’ is heard more in the north of Ireland.” With a multi-syllable response like that, she had no doubt he’d come from the Emerald Isle. “Are you meeting anyone in particular in Hope Springs?” she asked as they continued on down the road. He didn’t answer, which, she’d discovered, was as unwavering a response as a spoken one. Mr. Bear spoke only when he chose to. Perhaps on closer acquaintance he would be more inclined to talk. They reached her destination. Eliza stopped at the bottom of the porch steps and turned to her companion.

“You can leave the trunk here. I’m certain someone in the house will carry it for me.” He shook his head. “I’ll see it to wherever it’s meant to be placed.” She climbed the steps and knocked on the door. A moment passed. Eliza bounced Lydia on her hip, grateful the girl was too in awe of her new surroundings to be nervous. The door opened. Eliza had fully expected to be happy at being reunited with Maura O’Connor— now Maura Callaghan—a friend so dear to her they were like sisters. She hadn’t anticipated being overjoyed to the point of immediate tears.

“Eliza!” Maura burst through the doorway and pulled her and Lydia into a tight embrace. Apparently, Hope Springs had brought out Maura’s more expressive side; she used to be rather reserved in her shows of emotion. “Maura!” Eliza clung to her tightly. “Oh, how I’ve missed you!” Maura pulled back without releasing her, enough to give her a glance over. “You seem to have survived the journey.” Her gaze settled on Lydia, and her eyes widened with amazement. “This can’t be our tiny girl. She’s grown so much.” “We’ve been apart a whole year,” Eliza reminded her. Beside them, Eliza’s trunk carrier had stiffened.

He’d been very distant the first hour or so they’d shared the stagecoach. After a time, he’d grown more at ease. Now, faced with a new set of strangers, he withdrew once more. Perhaps he was shy. “Do come inside.” Maura pulled Eliza all the way in. “I can’t wait to introduce you to everyone.” She didn’t want to overwhelm the man who’d so willingly offered his help, nor keep him from retrieving his own trunk. “Where ought my trunk be set?” she asked Maura. “The house has a room specifically for the housekeeper,” Maura said.

“We’ll set your things there.” The inclusion of room and board had made possible accepting a job in such a faraway position. Her traveling companion followed her inside, keeping his distance from Maura. “Back this way.” They passed through a sitting room, then a dining room, and into a kitchen. It was fairly large and neat, but far simpler than the fine home she’d once worked in back in New York. Maura motioned to a side door. “That’ll be your room.” Her trunk was carried across the kitchen. Maura eyed the man, as he passed, then turned a curious look on Eliza.

She gave her friend a quick smile and simple explanation. “He arrived on the stage as well and kindly carried my trunk here.” There’d be time enough for all the details—what few there were— when they were alone. Maura looked over at the mysterious man, who’d just stepped back out of the room, having left the trunk inside. “I hadn’t heard anyone else was expecting an arrival on the stage.” Maura studied him. The scrutiny clearly made him uncomfortable. He tugged the brim of his hat in acknowledgement but moved swiftly past her, retracing the path that had taken them into the kitchen, “Will you wait for a bite to eat?” Maura offered before he could leave. “You’ve been so kind to Eliza. Allow me this small way to say thank you.

” He shook his head no. Eliza’s heart dropped. “Oh, do pause long enough for something to eat as a thank you for being so helpful.” Somehow he scratched at the back of his neck despite the rat’s nest of hair hanging there. “I need to be less helpful,” he muttered. “’Tis a terrible inconvenience.” “But you’ll stay, at least long enough for a bite?” Eliza would feel better if he did. He pushed out a sigh and nodded. Maura continued watching him, curious. Between his unkempt appearance and his gruff manners, he did make an odd study.

.

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