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The Deputy's Son Series.Birthstone Brides By Mildred Colvin

Vanetta allowed her gaze to sweep over the white, two story house sitting alone in the middle of a large lot at the south edge of Cottonwood Falls, Kansas. A small red barn peeked out from behind.

Yes, this was the right place. Vanetta gave a decisive nod and reached for Jonathan’s hand.
The Deputy's Son Series.Birthstone Brides
The Deputy's Son Series.Birthstone Brides By Mildred Colvin

“Mama, are we there?” He looked up at her, his shoulders drooping, as he scuffed his shoe in the dirt road.

“Yes, this is it. I remember it from the last time I was here.” She shook her head. “My, that was a long time ago.”

“When you were little like me?” A lock of dark hair fell into his large blue eyes, and he flipped it away with a quick jerk of his head.

Vanetta couldn’t have kept the affectionate smile from her face if she’d tried. Oh, how she loved her little boy. He’d been hers for six years in every way but legal. And now she was all he had. But she didn’t want to stop there. If she could adopt him, she would. First, though, she had to find his father and hope the man wanted nothing to do with him.

“Well, what are we waiting for?” She lifted her black mourning skirt and climbed the steps to the wrap-around porch, stopping only a moment to enjoy the quiet, feeling a peace she almost couldn’t remember.

“Aren’t we going inside?” Jonathan scrunched his mouth in the way he had when he didn’t understand.

“Yes, of course.” She hoped the door wasn’t locked. The lawyer, a Mr. Conner, had sent a letter with a skeleton key enclosed, but said he’d leave the door unlocked as no one ever bothered anything in their small town. She hoped he was right because her grandmother’s things should be here just as she’d left them when she passed on. She pushed the door open and breathed a sigh of relief. “Well, let’s go in, shall we, Jon?”

“Okay.” Her little boy’s voice drooped the same as he did. No wonder. They’d been up at the crack of dawn to catch the train, had scarcely eaten enough to be called a meal, and here it was well into the afternoon. He was worn out just as she was.

She pushed the door open and let Jon go in ahead of her. As she followed, she almost knocked him over when he stopped in front of her. “Jon, what’s wrong?”

“Is that man dead?”

She followed the line his pointing finger made to a fainting couch piled with quilts on the opposite wall. Then a snore brought her eyes to the face sticking out at one end and covered with gray whiskers.

She screamed.

The face moved with a snort, and beady eyes peered at her from under bushy gray eyebrows.

She grabbed Jonathan and pulled him back, holding him to keep him from going any closer.

The head slowly lifted, propped by a hand that looked like it’d never seen a wash basin.

“What are you doing here?”

He snorted. “It should be obvious, Ma’am, that I am trying to get some sleep. I’d appreciate it if you’d get out of my house and let me get on with it.”

Shocked at his response, her grip on Jonathan slackened at the same time he lunged forward, his tiny fist raised. “This is my Mama’s house, and you better get out.”

The old man eyed the small boy. “Don’t look like it to me, sonny, seein’ as I was here first. Go find your own house.”

He leaned forward and wavered as if he might fall off the couch, his hand groping at the floor. In another instant, he pulled a long-necked yellowish-brown bottle out from under the quilts and took a long swig.

Vanetta watched mesmerized at behavior she’d never seen before as he pulled the bottle away, looked down the neck, turned it upside down, and shook it before tossing it aside. The bottle landed on the floor with a loud clatter and rolled a couple of feet before coming to a stop. That’s when she noticed other similar bottles lying on the floor. In all her imaginings, she had never expected to see such a thing in her grandmother’s house. “Oh my, if Grandma knew of this, she’d roll over in her grave.”

The man simply gave her a blood-shot stare and sank back against the pillow that still held the hollow where his head had been.

“Well, I never!” Vanetta stomped her foot, getting no response from the man. “If you don’t get up and get out of my house now, I’ll get the law and insist they throw you out.”

That got a response. He turned his face toward her and looked into her eyes then smiled.

At least she thought the curved opening between his mustache and unkempt whiskers was a smile.

“Good idea. Yep, that’s a real good idea. While you’re gone I’ll get some sleep.” He closed his eyes, sniffed, and wiggled the whiskers over his mouth around for a bit then promptly let loose with a loud snore.

She stared at the unsightly man and wondered if she was imagining the entire thing. How could anyone drop off to sleep so quickly? She looked at the floor, littered with bottles and shuddered. What she knew about spirits would become lost in one of those bottles. But surely, if he’d emptied every one of them, they were the reason he’d gone to sleep in less time than it took for her to stomp her foot. Which she belatedly did before grabbing Jon’s hand and pulling him to the door and the fresh air outside.

“But, Mama, I wanted to see if he died.” Jonathan barely kept up with her quick step fueled by anger.

~*~

Deputy John Stevens climbed the stairs to the sheriff’s office on the third floor using the hand rail to pull him ever upwards. Normally, he could run up the steps and have breath left over, but it’d been a hard two days with scarcely any time to sleep or eat. The sheriff’s posse had successfully found and rounded up four cattle rustlers after a long day and night of trailing and searching.

John had no sooner reached the sheriff’s desk and started around it to collapse in his chair than a female voice caught up with him.

“Sheriff, I need a word with you.” The woman burst through the door, dragging a little boy with her.

What’d she want him to do, arrest the kid? He turned his back and continued to the chair, easing his tired muscles down before leaning back and resting his aching feet on the desk. His eyes wanted to close, but he kept them open by sheer force of will. Not that he could see much more than a blurred image of a hysterical woman and a bewildered-looking child.

“What’s the problem? He steal somethin’?” Even his words were slurring. If he could just close his eyes for a moment.

“Who? Jonathan? Of course not.”

Wouldn’t be getting any sleep around that shrill voice. He closed his eyes anyway.

“Have you been drinking too? What’s wrong with the men in this town?”

“Huh?” John’s boots hit the floor as he sat up and leaned his elbows on the desk. “What’s this talk of drinking? A kid his age shouldn’t be drinking.” His thoughts seemed to collide in his mind. Could lack of sleep drive a man loco? Or was it the woman yelling nonsense at him?

An exaggerated sigh came from the woman’s lips, bringing them into sharp focus for John’s exhausted eyes. Nice, full pink lips. Kissable lips. That’s what the boys at school used to call them. Maybe still did.

“Look here, Sheriff.” The lips moved again, mesmerizing him. “I didn’t come all the way up those stairs to have you talk so outrageously. I have a problem, and you’ve got to take care of it. There’s a man in my house.”

A man. Such a shame. Now he’d never know if those lips were truly kissable or just looked like it.

“He’s obviously drunk. Well, he’s asleep right now on my fainting couch, and I want you to kick him out of my house.”

Kick him out, huh? Maybe he had a chance at those lips after all.

“Well, Sheriff, are you coming?”

John stood, dragging his gaze from her lips and wavering just a bit before getting his balance. “In the first place, Ma’am, I’m not the sheriff. I’m—”

“What?” Her mouth made a perfect round shape and still looked more appealing than he had a right to think. “If you aren’t the sheriff, who are you, and why are you sitting in his chair?”

“I’m not. I’m standing behind his desk.” He felt good about getting that fact straight. “The sheriff is home sleeping, which is exactly where I wish I was. But after chasing cattle rustlers for a day and night, I got stuck here waitin’ for the law in the next county to come take ’em so they can face trial. I haven’t slept for two days and a night, and I’m tired. Now what is it you want?” For a pretty woman with kissable lips, she was starting to get on his nerves. And what kind of outfit was she wearing? All black, as if she was in mourning.

“I want you to get that drunk man out of my house. He’s an old, gray-haired, whiskered man, and he’s got dirty brown bottles spread all over my sitting room floor. I threatened him I’d get the law, so are you the law or not?”

John sighed. A woman in mourning with a small child meant one thing. She was recently widowed. “Yeah, I’m the best excuse for the law we’ve got right now. So how do I know it’s your house?”

She dug an envelope out of her purse and shoved it at him. “Here’s the letter from the lawyer saying Grandma left it to me. See for yourself.”

John recognized the letterhead of Rand Conner, the new lawyer who’d taken over for Edward Hunt. Looked official enough. He handed it back. “So where’s the house?”

She turned and pointed behind her then frowned as she looked around and pointed the opposite direction.

Huh! Not so smart. Good thing she was pretty. “Do you know or not?”

Her hands landed on her hips faster than he could follow. “Of course, I know. It’s at the south edge of town. Mrs. Sarah Olson’s place. She passed on a few months ago. I’ve come to see what to do about it and don’t want some drunk plopped in the middle of the house.”

Olson. That name rang a discordant bell in John’s memory. He took another look at the woman glaring at him. He couldn’t remember the name of the girl who’d led him to Mrs. Olson’s barn and only had a foggy memory of what she looked like, but he didn’t think this woman was the one. Of course, that was seven years ago, and he hadn’t paid much attention at the time. He knew where the house was, though.

He might not remember the girl, but he’d never forget that night in the old lady’s barn. She’d had long blonde hair. The girl, not Mrs. Olson. His mind cleared reminding him of the shame his actions had brought. Their act that night forced him to see how far he’d sunk. After the one time, he’d never seen her again, never even found out where she’d come from. He’d started right then to make changes in his life, though. He closed his eyes for a moment. Thank You, Lord for finally getting my attention.

“Well, are you going?” The strident voice tore through John’s sleep-fogged head.

He dragged himself away from the desk, and summoning strength he didn’t know he had, clomped across the floor, grabbed his hat from the tree, and rammed it on his head. Then turning toward the woman and child who had remained amazingly quiet, he gave her what he hoped was a friendly smile. “Old Joe’s harmless, but I’ll run him off. You go across the street and have a cup of coffee while I confront him. The poor old soul wouldn’t hurt a flea.”

“Poor old soul indeed! I most certainly will not go drink coffee.”

“Yeah, my Mama don’t like coffee, and you can’t make her drink any.” The little boy, who’d been quiet until now, scowled at John as if he’d threatened his mother’s life.

John looked from the boy to the woman and shrugged. “Fine, suit yourself.” He wouldn’t waste his valuable time arguing with someone who seemed to be way too eager to pick a fight. He left them standing where they were and headed down the stairs.

By the time he stepped outside, and the fresh October air hit his face, he was able to pick up his gait. The sooner he got this done, the quicker he could catch a nap back at the office. That is, if no one else decided they needed his services for something they probably could’ve done themselves. He heard the crunch of gravel as the woman hurried after him. No doubt dragging her kid without thought of how little he was. No wonder he had such a bad disposition.

John lengthened his stride, putting some effort into staying well ahead of her. If he had his way, he’d have Joe out of her house before she arrived. Anything to keep from having to deal with her again.

~*~

Vanetta wondered if her lungs might burst from the pace the lawman had set. Didn’t take her long to decide she’d better slow down. After all, Jonathan would wear out if he had to run all the way to the house. They could still check on the long-legged lawman’s efforts. If he had that man out before they got there, she wouldn’t mind.

“Why’re we stopping, Mama? He’s getting away from us.” Her brave little protector looked up with a frown marring his sweet face.

“It’s all right, Jon.” She smiled down into his troubled eyes. He took too much on himself, always trying to take care of her when he wasn’t big enough to take care of himself. No child should have such a load to carry, but no matter what she said, he always seemed to think it was his job to be man of the house. “We won’t get lost. After all, we know the way, and we’re almost there, anyway. See, there’s that deputy stepping up on our porch now.”

“Mama, he’s gonna go inside. We gotta be there.” Jonathan turned stricken eyes toward her.

“No, it’s okay.” She used the same soothing voice that had always calmed his fears before. “He’s a lawman doing his job. He won’t hurt anything. You don’t need to worry, sweetheart. Everything will be fine. We’ll like this little town and the people here too.” She thought of the deputy and the drunk. “Well most of the people, I’m sure. Anyway, we’re almost there now.”

Jonathan remained quiet the last several yards and even when they entered the house and found the deputy bent over the intoxicated man.

“Hey, Joe. Time to wake up.” He gave the man a gentle shake. “Come on, Joe. I reckon you didn’t know this house was going to be taken, but that’s the way it goes. Maybe you can find another place where you can live through the winter.” He gave the unresponsive man another nudge. “It’s going to be cold before long so maybe you should get up and look for some other place. What do you say?”

With each shake the man seemed to shrink farther into the couch. Vanetta frowned. Talking to him as if he was a friend being put out of his home certainly wasn’t the way to get him out.

“How come that man’s still here?” Jonathan looked from the deputy to Vanetta.

“I don’t know, sweetie, maybe he’s the deputy’s friend.”

The lawman straightened to his full height and looked straight at Vanetta. Something about his imposing figure, with the guns in full view on each hip and his hat pulled low over his forehead, set her heart pounding. Surely not from any threat to her or Jonathan. Still there was something about him that demanded her attention. She swallowed and waited, never letting her gaze waver from his.

“Mrs. … um, what was your last name again?” He leaned one hand against a nearby table.

Her eyes widened. She hadn’t noticed how tired he looked. Why the man was barely holding himself together long enough to stand. Seemed he had said something about not getting enough sleep. She hadn’t paid attention then, but now the evidence seemed obvious. “Wilcox.” She finally answered, breaking the visual connection she didn’t want with the man in the first place.

“Right. Mrs. Wilcox, would you consider allowing Joe to finish sleeping off his last round of whiskey. I’m sure he’ll get up then and move on without a problem.”

Vanetta stared at the deputy who couldn’t possibly be serious. Only the look on his face said he was. “No! He needs to leave now.”

Jon looked up at her then stepped forward, his tiny fists raised toward the deputy. “You’d better listen to my mama and get that old drunk out of our house.”

The deputy’s eyes widened as he stared down at the little boy who barely came to his waist.

He opened his mouth just as the man sat up and looked around him then at the lawman. “Well, Deputy John Stevens, as I live and breathe, what are you doing in my house?”

John Stevens? Vanetta watched him turn toward the old man and heard the rumble of their voices, but a cloud settled over her brain until she scarcely knew what was going on. This was John Stevens? The name her Lydia had given her. John. Jonathan. Of course. His dark hair and blue eyes so like Jonathan’s. It all made sense now. She’d found her son’s father, and she hadn’t even started to search. But it couldn’t be. Nothing fell into place that easily. She couldn’t believe it. Maybe there was another John Stevens. There was no need to jump to conclusions. Not yet. Not until she found out exactly what kind of man Deputy Stevens had grown into from the boy who’d fathered her sister’s child.





Chapter 2





Vanetta shook her head, feeling as if she was coming out of a daze. The deputy was talking to the intruder now, and Jonathan still stood in the middle of the floor glaring at the man who might be his father. Oh, Lord, what can I do about this? I can’t just walk up to him and say, “Oh, by the way, I believe my son is your son.” He’d probably commit me to an institution. Please, help me figure out the mess.

Jonathan’s little body visibly trembled as he took another step forward. “I said get that old drunk out of our house.”

Oh, my, this would never do. Vanetta hurried to grab her son before he did something he shouldn’t. Maybe get them both into trouble. If only he didn’t try so hard to take care of her. “It’s all right now, Jon. The deputy is talking to the man. They’ll both soon be gone.”

“You promise?” Jonathan turned and looked into her eyes blinking to keep the tears from his.

“Yes, sweetheart, I do promise.” Movement across the room caught her attention. “Look at that, I think he’s going now.”

“Good.” Jonathan allowed Vanetta to lead him farther from the men and the front door in case they decided to go that way.

She collapsed in a chair on the opposite side of the room and sat holding Jonathan in her lap. He was still trembling. Probably from fatigue as much as anger. He’d had a long hard day and needed to rest. When she realized the chair she’d sat in was a rocker, she began the gentle lulling movement, calming herself as much as Jonathan. Just as soon as they had their house free of all this commotion, she’d see that he took a nap. Gradually, the little boy relaxed against her with his head pillowed in her arm. He might be asleep before the men left the house.

After some serious talking on the deputy’s part, the man finally stood swaying a few minutes before he started toward the door. He didn’t speak to them. Didn’t even look their way. Maybe he didn’t see them since they were in the corner. Vanetta didn’t care. She just wanted them gone. Already, Jonathan was half asleep. He’d be disappointed when he found out their unwelcome guest had left without his help.

As soon as the man he’d called Old Joe was safely at the bottom of the steps in front, the deputy turned and came back inside. “Ma’am.” He stopped inside the front door. “If you’ll be all right now, I’ll be going.”

A sudden pang of concern hit her without warning. “What will happen to Old Joe?”

The deputy waved her question aside. “Oh, he’ll find another place to lie down. I suppose down under the bridge in the middle of town. Maybe there’s another house empty somewhere, although I doubt it.”

“Why didn’t you let him sleep in a jail cell until he’s himself again?” She kept her voice soft so Jonathan didn’t awaken.

“Well,” the deputy tilted his head. “Old Joe doesn’t stay ‘himself’ for long anyway, and I can’t keep him in a cell every time he gets drunk. Besides, he isn’t a criminal. He’s just a man trying to outrun his memories. He lost a lot during the war. It was hard for a lot of people.”

“But drinking isn’t the right way. The man needs help.” In her concern, she moved too sharply and woke Jon, who sat up so quickly he almost fell off her lap then scrambled down to lean against the chair arm and scowl at the lawman.

The deputy looked from him to her. “I suppose that’s true, but it really isn’t any of your concern. He’s out of your house now. That’s all that matters. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to the office in case there’s a real need.”

“Oh!” Her gasp at his rudeness brought Jonathan upright. It didn’t matter. The deputy had already stepped outside, letting the screen door close behind him. He stumbled down the porch steps and headed down the road toward town.

Jonathan walked over to the door and stared out. “I don’t like him. He was mean to you, Mama.”

Vanetta’s heart sank. If that man was Jonathan’s father, she’d managed to alienate them from the start. When Jon took a dislike for someone, he didn’t get over it easily. She had two reasons for coming to Cottonwood Falls. One was to claim her grandmother’s property and decide what to do with it, but the other was to introduce Jonathan to his father. If the man was a good upright citizen who would be good to Jonathan, she’d have to tell him the truth and find out what he wanted to do about it. Although she’d prefer he was a deadbeat who didn’t want a little boy so she could keep her nephew and make him officially her son, she had to admit, John Stevens seemed to fit most of her criteria of good father material. Only two things remained. How would he treat his son? And would he be able to win Jonathan’s respect after today?

She stepped behind Jonathan and watched John’s figure become smaller as he reached the end of the street and turned the corner. She slumped against the doorframe. How would she ever straighten out this mess, especially since she’d have to fight her strong desire to take Jonathan and run back to Emporia and forget she’d ever found John Stevens? Maybe she could clean up Grandma’s house and sell it. Then she could go back home and continue her life with the people she’d always known. She had friends there. People she cared about. Why did she have to be in this little town where she knew no one except one contrary deputy sheriff and an old man who spent his time drinking?

~*~

John took one step after another and still didn’t seem anywhere close to the courthouse. He’d been away from the office too long when something important could’ve happened. Or he could’ve at least gotten in a couple of winks sleep, which he desperately needed. But he was called away. And for what? To drive a poor old man who wasn’t hurting anyone from a soft bed to a rocky creek bank.

He thought of the woman and little boy. Why’d some people rub you the wrong way? Like chalk on a blackboard. He shuddered. She and that boy both were as cantankerous as you’d find anywhere. Well, maybe he wouldn’t have to see her again. She could hide out there in her nice house and never set foot in town as far as he was concerned. Just so she kept the boy close to home.

Finally, he made it to the courthouse and went in without seeing anyone. Good! Maybe he could get some sleep now. The sheriff should be relieving him in another couple of hours. He went into the sheriff’s office and sat in the chair behind the desk, where he leaned back, put his feet up, and let his hat fall over his face.

“Ah, now this is good.” He murmured and closed his eyes only to find an image of the cantankerous woman standing pretty as you please right in his mind. He jerked his hat off and tossed it on his desk. “What in the world?”

He got up and walked around the jail, looking longingly at the bunk in one of the cells. No, that wouldn’t look good if the sheriff or anyone else came in and found him there. He went back to the desk and sat down then leaned forward and rested his head on his folded arms. When he closed his eyes, he breathed out a sigh. “Ah, no redheads in there this time.” He felt his body drift toward sleep when Mrs. Wilcox walked back into his tired mind. He jerked back in the chair. There was no fighting it. He needed to think out this new problem. Maybe God was trying to tell him something. After all, her arrival had brought back some memories he’d rather forget about that barn behind her house. But what did she have to do with that? Her hair was red, not blonde, besides, it’d been seven years since that night. No, she had nothing to do with that night. It was just the guilt trying to come back even after he’d been forgiven. But there was something about her.

As he allowed her image to invade his mind, and he thought about what had happened this morning, his opinion of her changed. She sure had a lot of spunk. Didn’t mind making her wants known for sure. Pretty too. Kissable lips. Pretty dark red hair. Would probably be even prettier down flowing about her shoulders.

The little boy was cute too. He had as much vinegar and spice as his mother. You couldn’t help admiring a little guy who stood up for what he thought was right. He’d sure tried to defend his mama. Funny his hair was dark and hers red. Must’ve taken after his father.

John leaned back in the chair again putting his feet on the desk. As he continued thinking about his visitors, he didn’t feel as sleepy. Maybe he could last until the sheriff arrived and he could go home. He yawned then ran his hands over his face.

Finally, his mind returned to the puzzle he’d been unable to unravel for seven years. Who was the girl who had taken him to that barn? He couldn’t remember a name. He’d never seen her before or after that night. Sometimes he felt as if he’d dreamed up the whole incident, but he was sure she had blonde hair. Not red. She’d been a wild one. Actually too wild for him, but he was rebelling against God and mankind in general after his brother was murdered. He’d taken up with the girl because she was pretty and willing. In fact, she turned out to be too willing, and he’d taken advantage of her. Or she’d taken advantage of him. He never was sure. But he knew what they did was wrong. He’d known at the time, but refused to listen to his conscience.

In a way it was a blessing. He’d always heard if a man sank into a hole and hit bottom, the only way out was up. That night with her was when he’d fallen and needed help to climb out of the pit he’d dug for himself. After that night, he’d come to Jesus and allowed Him to turn his life around.

But none of that answered how Mrs. Wilcox fit in to the picture. She said she was the widow Olson’s granddaughter. So she didn’t fit in other than to remind him of a time he’d rather forget. As long as Mrs. Wilcox wasn’t the mysterious girl from his past, he didn’t care who she was just so she stayed away from him.





Chapter 3





Vanetta turned from the door and yawned as she stepped into the room, doing her best to ignore the bottles on the floor. “I’m so tired. I think I’ll see what the bedrooms look like. How would you like to pick yours, Jonathan?”

He shrugged then copied her yawn.

“Come on, let’s see what this house looks like.” She tried to interject a bit of enthusiasm into her voice and was glad when he followed.

She touched a finger to the dust-covered table with six chairs in the middle of the adjoining room. “I believe this is the dining room. I think I see a kitchen beyond it, but we won’t go that way yet.” She moved past the table and opened a door. “Let’s see what’s in here.”

“It’s a bedroom, Mama.” Jonathan leaned his head against the door frame then peered inside the large room. “It’s got flowers on the wall.”

Vanetta smiled at the sound of disgust in his voice. “I don’t think you like this room very well.”

He pulled back away from the door shaking his head. “No you can have this room ’cause you like flowers. Is there another one for me?”

“Yes, I’m sure there will be. Let’s see what’s down the hallway.” Vanetta led the way down a hall that opened from the dining room.

The house seemed in perfect condition. Although dust covered every surface, it was neat and otherwise clean. Obviously, the intruder hadn’t bothered anything beyond the front room. The wall on the right was apparently shared with the parlor. There were two doors on the opposite side.

Vanetta opened the first. “Well, what do you think of this room?”

Jonathan scooted around her and hesitated only a moment before going in. He stood in the middle of the room looking around.

A large area rug covered most of the floor except for a foot-wide border of bare hardwood. No flowers appeared in this room as thin-stripped wallpaper adorned the walls. A double bed took up most of the space with a Chisholm Trail quilt, in blue, red, and white, spread over it. Could Grandmother have prepared this room for her great-grandson, hoping he would come to visit?

Several metal toys sat on the dresser. The train engine was the largest, but there was a buggy with a high-stepping horse pulling it and a wagon with wooden sides. Another wagon, full-sized for a little boy to pull, sat in the corner.





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