The nearest neighbor was talking with Sylvia and Kit. Stud just held Judy, trying to take stock of everything. She loved him? Could that be? How could he be enough of what she’d want to love? A man named Stud?
Although he thought back to the last time she’d called him Stud. It had been a long time. She only called him Steve now. She called him Steve in her heart, she called him Steve when they’d made love. And that was all he could call it, making love. And then she said she loved him?
He wouldn’t be separated from her now. He wouldn’t do anything to be separated from her. They hadn’t been intimate yet. They’d slept together, but that was the sleep of exhaustion. Her body called to his, but they’d be together in time. If her body called to him anything like her soul called to him, he’d be happy.
His lungs hurt. He coughed and he could feel the soot in them. But it was worth it, he’d saved his grandpa. He’d saved their family. Now, they would be together to rebuild their home. Make this land take care of them again and find the one who did this.
A gunshot broke the quiet of the evening, then another and another.
Stud pushed her to the ground, shielding her with his body from any stray bullets that might be flying around.
“I got him! I got both of them!” someone called out.
He let her up slowly, but she was holding his chest tightly. He kissed her head, then helped her up, holding her hand. They made their way to the stable. O’Keefe was on the ground and another man was next to him. The ropes that had held O’Keefe to the pole were cut.
The neighbor, a youngish gawky boy of a man, kept his shotgun trained on the two bodies.
“I got ‘em,” he repeated.
Stud took a look at one and said, “He’s the claim jumper.”
“Then he deserved it,” the boy said. He looked up at Stud and smiled.
The shiver raced through Judy. Her shiver at the heartlessness of the time.
“My pa went to get the sheriff,” he said.
“What’s your name?” Stud asked.
“I’m Tommy Erikson.”
“Nice to meet you, Tommy.”
“You Kit’s kin?”
“I’m his cousin.”
Tommy nodded. “Glad I could help you folks. Kit was good to us when we fell ill.”
“He’s a good man. Glad to call him kin.”
Judy put her arms around Stud’s waist and held him. After the fear of him going back into the fire, it was almost more than she could handle to have all of this now.
“Well, they ain’t doing nothing, now,” Tommy said.
Stud roused himself and said, “We’ll have to make some plans for tonight.”
Tommy shook his head. “My ma sent some extra blankets. If you stay in the stable for a couple days, I’m sure we’ll do a cabin raising.”
Judy smiled. “I’m glad you take care of each other like this.”
Tommy shrugged. “We’re neighbors. We do neighborly things.”
Judy’s smile turned into a grin.
Once everything settled from the fire and the neighbors went back home, the bodies were taken away and buried, the small family gathered in the stable. They made two separate little nests and they immediately fell asleep.