The Revival

Disclaimer: while the personalities of Laura and Ruby are based on Xena and Gabrielle, the story is my own creation. There may be sex and violence in this story, but no rock & roll. There are some historical figures and places depicted, who and what is real is left to the reader to research. If depictions of violence, sex, or religion offend you, kindly leave my page and visit some other site instead.

Note: this story takes place about twenty years after That Texas Summer.

Story Copyright 1998 , revised 2011 by JS Stephens. All Rights Reserved.

Chapter 1

Laura Wilkins and Ruby Bills sat in the library, discussing the day's events as they waited for Ruby's son, Leslie, to get home from his classes at North Texas Normal College. Laura groused, "That boy is dragging his heels more and more, doesn't he know that I need his help?"

Ruby chuckled. "My dear, Leslie is positively entranced with that new teacher, Miss what's her name. It will come to me, Bob and Tilly Moore's niece." Ruby squinted at Laura for a moment, then announced, "Haskins, Elisabeth Haskins, she is teaching classics at the college. Barely twenty-one or twenty-two, I think, but she came to live with Bob and Tilly while she teaches. He should be home in time for supper."

Laura laid down her paper, then sighed. "I guess we'd better get up then, since I can smell the roast that Peter put on. Wouldn't do to for Peter to cook a pot roast for nothing."

Ruby carefully took her reading glasses off, folding them into their case before standing up. "Shall we go clean up, my love?" she asked as she leaned over Laura for her kiss. Laura pulled Ruby into her lap, kissing her soundly before a knocking at the door interrupted them. "Damn!" Ruby swore softly, struggling to get off Laura's lap before the door opened.

Leslie poked his head around the door calling out, "Ma, Pa, I'm home from school. Did you hear that Pawnee Bill's Wild West show is coming to town next week?" He paused. "Did I interrupt something?"

"No, your mother was just getting up," Laura grunted as she finished pushing Ruby off her lap "Go on and tell Peter we'll be there directly." As the boy left, Laura looked up at her beloved, who was snickering at her. "What?"

"Oh, nothing, dear,"Ruby said. "Let's get cleaned up and go eat dinner and no stopping for kisses this time."

"You started it," Laura pouted.

"So?" Ruby retorted

Laura stood up and stretched, then took Ruby's arm in hers. "I'm hungry, Ruby, let's get to supper before Leslie eats all of it himself. I swear that he takes after you in his appetite more than anything else." Ruby just laughed as the two women went to the dining room.

Peter, Laura, Ruby and Leslie trooped over to the fair grounds to watch the Pawnee Bill's Wild West show. Leslie was informing them, "Pawnee Bill was a major, real name Gordon W. Lillie. He has a fantastic wild west show, including cowboys, Indians, buffaloes, horses, the whole works. I can't believe he's actually brought his show here!"

Peter stumped along on his wooden leg, grumbling, "I saw real Indians up close, why should I pay good money to see pretend Indians?"

Leslie looked surprised at the old cook. "Why, Peter, we all know that the real days of the west are nearly gone, it's just a good show." Peter stared at the young man for a moment, then stumped off in another direction. Leslie started to go after him, but Laura held him back. "Pa, what's wrong with Peter?"

Laura looked at her stepson for a moment, then finally answered, "Remember, Peter was there when Indians raided the farm, killing my husband and child. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be alive today." She grinned, but the grin did not meet her piercing blue eyes. "Any more questions? I thought you knew about that."

Leslie looked at his feet, chagrined. "I'm sorry Pa, I sometimes forget that you had a family before you had me and Ma."

Ruby stepped between them, saying softly, "Leslie, your grammar is lacking and furthermore, leave Peter and Laura alone. Laura, let's not stir up old wounds." She glared at each in turn, green eyes blazing in the sun. Satisfied that they had subsided, she tucked a hand in Laura's and Leslie's arms, saying sweetly, "Shall we continue?"

The three continued walking toward the fair grounds entrance, quite a sight to the uninitiated. Laura Wilkins was taller than most men, at least six feet tall without boots, and had long black braided hair, piercing blue eyes, and a hardy build. Ruby Bills was smaller with reddish gold hair, vivid green eyes, and a sturdy yet pleasing build. Leslie was five eight, slim build, with light brown hair and paler green eyes, a mixture of his dead father Lycurgus and his mother Ruby.

After buying their tickets and settling in the stands, Leslie spied some of his friends from college and asked to go visit them. Permission granted, he ran off, leaving Laura and Ruby to themselves. Ruby settled her skirts on the bench carefully, grumbling softly, "Laura, I envy you, wearing pants all the time. Dresses are a royal pain!"

Laura smiled innocently at her beloved, replying, "What's stopping you? You wear pants at home all the time and I must admit they look marvelous on you! Your legs, pardon, limbs are so well defined in pants..." she trailed off, licking her lips in a leering fashion. Ruby swatted her arm lightly. "My dear, you don't want me to notice your limbs? I thought you loved it when I noticed your lovely limbs!"

Ruby snorted. "Bah, humbug. Good thing no one is around yet, can you imagine the gossip? By the way, when this show is over, I'd like to go to the store to pick up some coffee, we are almost out, and I can't bear to face mornings without it. Is that possible?"

"Anything for you, my dear, and anything to keep you from growling in the mornings. Ah, here comes Miss Elisabeth Haskins with our dear son in tow." Laura stood up as the couple approached, lifting her hat and bowing slightly. "Miss Haskins, care to join us?" Laura asked.

"Don't mind if I do, Mrs. Wilkins, will there be enough room for Aunt Tilly and Uncle Bob? They are running a bit late and wanted me to save them a seat. Mrs. Bills, pleased to see you again as well," Elisabeth drawled in her soft South Carolina accent. Elisabeth was one of those rare striking creatures who was beautiful and thoughtful, intelligence dancing in her dark brown eyes, framed by deep auburn hair and surprisingly pale skin for the climate. Leslie helped her sit down next to Ruby, his eyes clearly showing his opinion of the young classics teacher. "Now, Mrs. Bills, young Mr. Bills here says that you taught school once upon a time. What did you teach?"

"I taught elementary school, back in Georgia." Before she could say anything else, Bob and Tilly Moore appeared, greeting everyone. As soon as greetings were exchanged, the show commenced, effectively silencing conversation for the next several hours.

After the show, Bob proposed that they all go to the restaurant at the hotel on the square. All were agreeable, with Laura saying that she would join them after finding Peter. Bob and Tilly and Ruby started chatting about the low price of corn, wondering if farmers could hold on until prices rose again. Elisabeth and Leslie walked ahead a bit, chatting about Greek mythology. "I'm sorry I didn't get to be in your class," Leslie was saying, "but I had already taken the classics when you started teaching this fall."

Elisabeth laughed lightly, tucking her hand in the crook of his arm. "Why, Mr. Bills, I believe you might be able to teach the class yourself! Where did you learn so much about classic Greek and Roman mythology?"

Leslie tentatively patted her hand with his, scarcely believing that this beautiful woman tucked it in his arm. "Well, Pa's husband collected books all over Europe, so he left her with a fairly wide ranging library. Ma and Pa made me study much more than was required in school, they said that I should be prepared for anything in life. I'm not really cut out to be a rancher like Pa, I'd rather go back east and eventually teach at a university."

Elisabeth cocked her head, asking, "Why do you call Mrs. Wilkins 'Pa'?"

He stroked his downy mustache, trying to frame an answer. "I'm not sure, Miss Haskins. I've always called her Pa, she's been like a father to me. When I was but a few months old, my real father died in a fire that swept through on Independence Day. They don't talk about it, but Peter tells me that Pa took my mother and me in, since the church wasn't providing a place for us. They've always been Ma and Pa to me, and Peter has been like an uncle."

Elisabeth strolled quietly for a few more minutes, then asked, "Are you planning to attend the Dwight Moody revival in Fort Worth next week? Uncle Bob and Aunt Tilly are planning to take me, and I think several other faculty members and students will attend. You can tell me after supper, we seem to have arrived."

Leslie considered during supper before answering. As he made small talk with the others, he thought about Elisabeth's question. He could not remember attending church except for weddings and funerals, but had been taught about many belief systems by his mother, who said he at least needed to understand why people went to church.

Revivals had come and gone through town during his lifetime, but his family had never attended. Pa usually made cynical remarks about revival attendees, but he had been curious, and he had heard of Reverend D. L. Moody, who was said to have brought thousands to Christ in his lifetime, a phenomenon that begged investigation.

After supper, they all walked back toward the Moore's house except for Laura, who went to fetch the carriage. Leslie finally gave Elisabeth his answer. "Well, that sounds pretty interesting, I've never been to a revival before, but I have read about Rev. Moody. I'd be pleased to attend with you and your family."

Elisabeth smiled up at him. "You will find it the event of a lifetime, Mr. Bills. I think that most of the classes will be cancelled so students may attend. Be sure to meet us on the lawn of the Baptist church Wednesday morning at seven o'clock, we will go from there to the train station."

Leslie just grinned, then shook her hand, not sure what else to do. Sadly, they had reached the Moore's house and he could hear his parents and Elisabeth's aunt and uncle close behind. "Until Wednesday, then," he finally murmured. He watched her go into the house, dazed by her beauty and attention. He could stand a little preaching if he could be near her, he decided.

Leslie broached the subject to his parents of attending the revival that evening after they arrived home. He expected them to agree, since they rarely turned down any educational event, but he was not prepared for his mother's reaction.

"You what?" Ruby asked sharply. "You said you would go to that revival? Moody is nothing more than a semi-educated former shoe salesman!"

"But Ma, Miss Haskins asked me to accompany her and her family! Other students are going, the college will be closed for a couple of days so we can attend! I'm not planning to convert, just to observe." Leslie fumed.

Laura laughed as she struck a match to light her evening cigar. "Ruby, Leslie has a point, a woman asked him to go. Besides, Bob and Tilly have never been too terribly religious, so I doubt that their niece is either. Leslie has to learn to cope with believers some time."

Ruby continued to fume. "Leslie, so called Christians didn't lift a hand to help when your father, a minister, was killed. Laura was the only one who cared enough to help. Why would put yourself in their hands?" Leslie sighed loudly and turned on his heel, storming back into the house.

"Honey, he's a man now, just a year away from being able to vote,” Laura said reasonably. "He's got to learn what it is like for himself." Laura puffed at her cigar for a moment, eyeing her furious partner, waiting for her to simmer down a bit.

Ruby stood up and started pacing up and down the porch, ignoring Laura. The boy infuriated her, after all she had taught him! Wrapped up in her own thoughts, she jumped when Laura came up behind her and wrapped her long arms around her, making quick stubbing motions with the cigar against her ashtray.

They stood still for a moment, then Ruby heard Laura say quietly, "Ruby, I love the boy as much as if he were my own. I understand how bitter you are toward the church, I've felt that way for years, but the fact is that many folks in this county are church goers, and Leslie has to experience it first hand to be able to live among them. Thanks to your teaching, he probably has a much better understanding of the Bible than most devout Christians. So what are you really afraid of? Losing him to another woman? Losing him to adulthood? Or losing him to Christ?"

Ruby turned around and buried her face in Laura's chest, sighing deeply. She still vividly remembered watching her husband, Lycurgus getting hit by a streak of whisky fed flame at the Independence Day celebration, and how it felt when Laura grabbed her and held her, protecting her from the sight.

Like then, she could feel the coarse cloth of Laura's shirt and vest, smell the sweat and tobacco, feel protected by her beloved. She was eternally grateful to this woman, for saving herself and her son. Was she scared of losing Leslie? Finally, she pulled back so she could looking into Laura's amazing blue eyes, answering softly, "Maybe all of the above, Laura."

Laura kissed Ruby gently on the forehead. "Facing up to your fears is half the battle, Ruby. Now, can I finish my smoke in peace?" Ruby nodded, going over to one of the rocking chairs, watching Laura's lean frame as she relit the cigar. Maybe she was also afraid that Leslie's growing up meant that she was growing older. She knew that Laura had very few gray hairs, and that she had a few in her own hair, but she hadn't thought much about aging yet. She was in her forties, Laura in her fifties. She watched as Laura finished smoking her cigar, then stood up to accompany her beloved back into the house. Laura was right, it was time to let Leslie make his own decisions.

"Laura, you'd better come quick, Peter's sick." Seth Carroll, the ranch foreman said. Laura swore under her breath as she followed Seth down to Peter's cabin. Peter was rarely sick, and never sick enough to stay in his cabin. They arrived and Laura went in first, followed by Seth.

"Peter?" she queried softly as she pulled a chair up next to his bed. "What seems to be the matter?"

Peter barely opened his eyes, then shut them again. He took a deep, rattling breath, then said hoarsely, "My lungs feel like they're on fire, Laura. I've got the same sickness that took my Sarah last year."

Laura turned to Seth and said quietly, "Grab a horse and go get Dr. Cutsinger, tell him we need him immediately." He nodded once, then bounded out the door. Laura turned back to her friend, feeling his forehead. "You're burning up, my friend."

He swallowed, then started coughing. She helped him sit up, then laid him back down when he finished coughing. "It ain't no use, Laura, I'm a dead man and I know it. I tried to nurse my wife through this last year, 'member? Doc Cutsinger couldn't do anything for her either."

"Shush now, Peter, don't talk like that. Let me make you a poultice for your chest--"

"No." Peter levered himself up, grabbing her arm with surprising strength. "Miz Laura, I promised Major Wilkins that I'd take care of you and I have, all these years. It's just my time to go, that's all. ". He stopped, breathing harshly, coughing. Finally, he caught his breath and said, "Just promise me one thing."

"Anything," Laura said, dread filling her gut.

"Bury me under the old oak tree next to Sarah. And take care with Leslie, he's a confused young man. He'll make a fine teacher some day." Peter took another deep breath, then whispered, "I've always loved you, Miz Laura, like you was my own sister. Don't forget to love yourself." He wheezed painfully for several seconds, the looked up, whispering, "Sarah?"Peter stretched out his hand, then slowly sank back in the bed.

Laura took his hand, then leaned over and kissed his wrinkled cheek. "It's all right, Peter, Go to Sarah," she whispered. He nodded once, then sank deeper in his bed, dying peacefully.

Ruby walked into the library, announcing, "Laura, I'm home. I bought all the groceries and even remembered your cigars this time." She belatedly noticed that Laura was staring at a bottle of whiskey and a glass, but neither had been touched. She walked over to Laura, kneeling in front of her. "Darling, what's wrong?"

Laura grabbed Ruby and pulled her into her lap, hugging her fiercely. Ruby could feel Laura trembling and shuddering, as if holding back something. She did not smell any alcohol on her breath, so she must not have been drinking. She kissed Laura tenderly on the top of the head, then asked quietly, "What happened while I was out?"

Laura lifted her head, staring at Ruby with red-rimmed eyes. "Peter died this morning, before Dr. Cutsinger could arrive. He took sick with consumption, very quickly. Ruby, I feel like I lost my last link to George, to my son, to my past. I just never dreamed that he would leave me so soon. I just...I don't know what to do..." she trailed off.

Ruby gently stroked her cheek, then Laura started sobbing, grabbing Ruby and burying her face in Ruby's chest. It was almost frightening, Ruby had never seen Laura cry in their twenty years together, not even when Leslie nearly died when the horse threw him six years ago. She just hung on through the storm, waiting for the sobs to die down.

Finally, Laura stopped sobbing and pulled back to find her handkerchief. She wiped her streaming eyes and blew her nose, then whispered, "I wanted a drink, but I promised Peter I would never again drink in rage or sorrow. It's hard to keep my word, but he was my dear friend." She took a long ragged breath, then announced, "Ruby, we need to hold the funeral soon, Peter wanted to be buried next to Sarah."

She looked at Ruby, eyes haunted. "I just don't know what I'll do without Peter, he's always been there for me, for us. God, I'll miss him." She leaned against Ruby for a moment longer, winding her hands in Ruby's reddish gold hair, holding on as if to gather the will to go on. Finally, she pushed Ruby out of her lap and said quietly, "I must go now, I must help Seth build the coffin."

"Will you be okay?" Ruby asked gently.

"I have to be, Peter would want it that way," Laura replied miserably.

Ruby hugged Laura again, then watched as Laura walked slowly out of the room. She had never seen Laura so broken looking, so pale. For the first time in many years, she whispered a prayer, saying, "I don't know who is up there, but please look after Laura. She is the light of my life and I couldn't stand to lose that light that shines so brightly." She slowly got up and put the bottle and glass back with the rest of the liquor, then turned as she heard footsteps.

"Ma, I'm home from classes. What's wrong, why are you crying?" Leslie went over to his mother, not sure what to do.

Ruby wiped her eyes, answering, "Leslie, Peter died today. Laura has gone to make his coffin."

"Oh, God, no!" Leslie whispered. He stared silently at his mother for a long moment as his own tears started welling up. "Not Peter!" Ruby closed the distance and hugged her son. He cried on her shoulder for a few minutes, then straightened up and asked brokenly, "How is Pa taking it?"

Ruby motioned for him to sit down in one of the armchairs as she took the other one. "Peter was her last link to her family, so she's taking it pretty hard."

"Should we call a minister to conduct the funeral?" Leslie asked, tentatively.

Ruby shook her head. "No, that would not be a good idea, Leslie. Laura has always conducted any funerals here on the ranch, and I don't remember Peter ever going to church or mentioning any specific faith." Ruby tried to smile. "Which reminds me, are you still planning to go to that revival next week?"

"Yes," Leslie answered slowly.

Ruby rubbed her eyes, more tired than ever. "Just don't say anything about it to your pa until next week, then. I'll give you the money to go." Mother and son looked at each other for a moment, then Ruby sighed. "I guess I'd better see about making some supper, although I doubt that we will be very hungry. I'm just glad that Peter finally hired a crew to cook for the hands a few years ago, I'd hate to have to cook for that many men again."

"Ma, I'll help you make supper. This will be hard on all of us," Leslie said quietly as he slowly stood back up.

Ruby stood up as well, noting, "Son, that is an understatement." Leslie hugged his mother again, then slowly left the library to change clothes. Ruby looked around for a long moment, understanding for once the impulse to drink to avoid emotions.

Laura and Seth worked quietly on the coffin. For once, the foreman was silent, not filling the air with his usual high spirited chatter and jokes. He had seen Laura happy, angry, sarcastic, quiet, noisy, but never this grim. He sneaked a glance at his boss as he reached for another board to saw, shaken by the raw emotion in her face. He liked Peter too, Peter had saved his hide six years ago when he came in from town so drunk he couldn't stay on his horse. Laura wanted to fire him, but Peter stuck up for him, saying that all men had to sow their wild oats, and the sooner the better.

Seth stealthily wiped his eyes on his sleeve, then measured the board again before cutting it. He was startled out of his reverie by Laura asking, "Seth, how many years have you been foreman?"

Seth laid down his saw, then thought back. "Well, I was assistant to Old Ben for several years, then when he retired, you promoted me. I guess it's been about three years or so now."

Laura nodded as she carefully lined up another board and started nailing it to the frame of the coffin. When she finished nailing, she slung her hammer in the loop of her overalls, then turned to face Seth. "Seth, I've been thinking, Leslie will never take over this ranch and I'm getting older. You've been doing a great job so far, with your help, we've actually turned a higher profit the past two years, despite the downturn in the market. How would you like to take on more responsibility? I'm thinking of giving you the responsibility to do more buying and selling of stock, so I can take Ruby on that trip to Europe I promised her a few years ago. Of course, you would receive a pay raise, say, enough to marry that Miss Thomas I see you with in town."

Seth openly stared at Laura. "You mean it? Really?"

She smiled slightly. "Yes, I mean it, Seth. I've had five foremen in the past twenty some odd years, and you've been the only one to show any initiative. You've got good husbandry ideas and I feel comfortable with you. Ruby has been nagging me to slow down, but it took Peter's death to make me realize that I am not immortal. I'll even let you add on to your house when you need to expand it in the next few years."

"Laura, how can I ever thank you?" Seth asked, shaken from both the offer and the idea that Laura was getting older.

She smiled sadly, touching him lightly on the shoulder. "By continuing to turn a profit, Seth. I'll have the necessary papers drawn up so you can start purchasing interest in the ranch, just a bit from your paycheck each week. Don't worry, your raise will more than cover it, but I didn't want anyone to say that you inherited it unfairly. Then, after Ruby and I both die, the rest will revert to you and your family. Deal?"

He took the offered hand, shaking it gingerly. "Ma'am, you can count on me."

Chapter 2

Laura looked at the gathered hands, wishing she didn't have to do this, but knowing that no one else could take this task from her. She grasped the small volume of poems, then took her place at the head of the grave. Swallowing hard, she spoke to the assembly. "We've all known Peter for many years, known his generosity and good food, his fellowship, his beloved Sarah. I have known Peter for more than thirty years, since I ran away from home to join in the war." She looked at the men, noting how many had been with her for decades, and how many for just a few years.

"Peter," she continued, "was the greatest friend a man or woman could ever hope for. He lost his leg in the war, but continued as my husband's right hand man, being personal cook, servant, anything that was needed. He came to Texas with us after the war to help us settle this land, to start this ranch. Peter was the one person I let close after my husband and son were murdered by raiding Indians. He was also the one who helped Ruby and me raise Leslie, and helped teach Leslie how to be a good man."

Laura took a deep breath, fighting back the tears. "Peter never professed any great faith, other than faith in people to do good. He married his wife Sarah seven years ago, but she died too soon last year. Now, I feel sure that they are back together, where they belong. I recently picked up this volume of poetry, I think this is a good poem, by William Morris, entitled, 'The Earthly Paradise'

"Of heaven or hell I have no power to sing,
I cannot ease the burden of your fears,
Or make quick-coming death a little thing,
Or bring again the pleasure of past years,
Nor for my words shall ye forget your tears,
Or hope again for aught that I can say,
The idle singer of an empty day."

Laura closed the book, then handed it to Ruby. "Peter, you will live in our hearts and souls. May you rest gently, good friend." She bent down, picking up a clod of dirt and tossing it on the coffin. Ruby picked up the next round and tossed it gently on the coffin, then stood by Laura and took her hand as the rest of the gathering took their turns at tossing the dirt into the grave.

After the rest had left, Laura and Ruby walked slowly over to the graves of Major Wilkins and George Jr. Laura slowly knelt down, placing a hand on the double tombstone. "Ruby," she finally said, "our graves will be between my family and Peter and Sarah. If that is fine with you, I mean."

Ruby knelt beside her beloved. "That is fine with me. I have loved Peter as a friend for many years, and have profited from your husband's library for many years. But love, we both have many more years ahead of us."

Laura abruptly stood up, pulling Ruby with her. "I know," she said testily, "but I want my wishes known now. And no goddam preacher at my funeral, none! Find an appropriate passage from a Greek tragedy or something, just no scripture."

"Not even from the book of Ruth?" Ruby asked, knowing that was the one passage both she and Laura loved.

Laura stared at Ruby without comprehension for a moment, then understood. She wrapped an arm around Ruby and kissed the top of her head, then acquiesced, "I understand. 'Whither thou goest' and all that, it would be perfect for us." They heard a noise and turned around to find Leslie standing a few feet behind them, hat in his hands. "Yes, Leslie?" Laura asked.

"Pa, I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am about Peter's death. He was like an uncle to me..." Leslie's voice trailed off as he fought down tears. Laura held her other arm out and he stumbled into his parents' embrace, giving up the fight and letting the tears slide down his face. "Why did Peter have to die?" he sobbed.

Ruby answered quietly, "It was his time to go, Leslie. Peter was an old man, and had been dealt a heavy blow when Sarah died. We just don't know why some people can survive tragedy after tragedy and why others lose interest in life after a blow. But I'm sure that the dead hear out thoughts, so when you feel bad, you can come to Peter and Sarah's graves and talk to them." She felt Leslie nod his head slightly.

He finally let go of them, finding his handkerchief to wipe his eyes. "Shall we go back to the house?" she asked. He nodded, so Ruby wrapped her free arm around Leslie as they slowly walked back to the house.

"Ma, I'm ready to go now," Leslie said as he picked up his daypack and hat. Ruby gave him the money she had promised him, then hugged him tightly, conflicting emotions roiling through her system. She watched as he went out to the wagon filled with other young people, all headed to take the train to the revival. As the wagon rolled out of sight, she felt Laura's presence behind her, then felt arms wrapping around her and Laura's cheek against the top of her head.

"So, Leslie is gone to become a Christian." The sentence floated in the air, pregnant with sarcasm and anger. "Gee, where did we go wrong, beloved?"

Ruby turned around and glared at Laura, retorting, "Maybe he's just curious, Laura. We didn't go wrong, he is a gentleman, which is more than I can say for other men I've known, or this morning, more than I can say for a certain woman."

Laura placed hands over her heart, saying, "Ouch, straight for the heart!" She dropped her hands and squinted off into the distance, still able to see a trace of dust marking the progress of the wagon. "Sorry, love, but I don't happen to agree with you, but I seem to be having a problem remembering that he is a man and should make his own decisions." She turned back to Ruby. "Well, I need to ride out to check on that new stallion Seth bought yesterday. I'll be back in time for lunch." She leaned over and kissed Ruby, then put on her hat and started out toward the barn to saddle her gelding.

Ruby watched her lover for a few minutes, then reached in her overall pocket for her gloves. She had found several wild rose bushes last week and wanted to transplant them in front of the house. With luck, they would grow up and start growing in the lattice work, shading the front porch. Too bad they didn't have much of a scent, she mused.

"Jesus, I'm ready for thy Kingdom here on earth!" the man shouted to the multitudes. "Give your heart to the Lord, He will take care of you. Remember, in Christ there is no death, just resurrection, but only if you accept Him into your heart, lest you be condemned to the bowels of Hell! Come, accept Him! Now let us sing Amazing Grace."

Leslie's head was swimming with confusion as the strains of the hymn swelled around him. Could it be possible that Jesus lived, that he was not just a historic figure? Could it be possible that if he gave his heart to Jesus, that the pain of Peter's death would be wiped away? Would repenting and accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior bring him closer to Elisabeth? He could her her sweet alto blending in with the crowd, a counterpoint to the soaring melody, feel the heat of her body just inches away from his own, making the confusion worse.

He had escorted various female friends to parties over the past few years, but had never been so intoxicated by a woman. He knew of passion, of deep and abiding love, he just had to look at his Ma and Pa or at Peter and Sarah, God rest their souls. Could someone combine the love of a woman and the love of the Lord? It sure was hot under the tent, why was his sight growing dim?

"Mr. Bills! Leslie! Please wake up, Leslie." he heard her voice saying. Leslie was dimly aware of a cold cloth being applied to his forehead, gentle hands lightly slapping his face. "Leslie, you fainted, can you wake up now?" He gradually started coming to, opening his eyes to see Elisabeth's worried face floating above his own. Without thinking, he captured one of her hands in his own, squeezing gently, marveling at the delicate structure of her bones. As his head started clearing, he dropped her hand and blushed deeply for taking such liberties. He struggled to sit up, noticing that he was on some kind of cot in a tent away from the main tent.

"Miss Haskins, please forgive me," he croaked. She shushed him and held a glass of water to his lips, bidding him to drink. He started feeling stronger and tried speaking again. "Miss Haskins, what happened?"

She sat back in her chair, allowing her fingertips to gently touch his arm. "Mr. Bills, I believe you were overcome by the heat and the crowd and fainted. I had some of our friends carry you here to the fainter's tent. Do you feel better now?"

Leslie succeeded in sitting back up without getting dizzy. "Yes, I do Miss Haskins, and I appreciate your concern for me." He nearly trembled with the desire to run his fingers through her thick auburn hair, but he managed to keep his hands to himself. "I'd like some more water, though, I'm very thirsty," he managed to say. Elisabeth got up and walked over to a table, then came back with a fresh glass of water. As she handed it to him, their fingertips touched, making him feel like fire had entered his body through his fingers. He managed to drink the water without spilling it, then thanked her.

"Mr. Bills, should we find our friends and go back home, or do you want to stay longer? I believe that a lunch break is imminent and food would probably do you a world of good."

He looked deep into her beautiful brown eyes, completely enchanted. "Miss Haskins, I would be honored to eat with you, then stay for the afternoon preaching," Leslie said softly.

Elisabeth smiled at him. She glanced around, the tent was now empty, so she held out her arm, saying, "Shall I escort you, or shall you escort me?" She laughed merrily as he sheepishly pulled himself up with her help, then took her elbow in his hand. "I'm quite famished," she continued as they walked slowly from the tent, "are you?"

Leslie discovered that his appetite had returned in full force. "Hungry enough to eat a whole bear," he announced cheerfully. "Let's get some food." This brought another ripple of laughter from the young woman, so pleasing to his ears. He noted that other men were watching as he proudly escorted her through the food line, it seemed that she captivated everyone. They filled their plates, then joined some of the other Normal College students at a table. Leslie was teased slightly for fainting, but he didn't mind.

One of the young men commented, "That singer that Reverend Moody has with him is very powerful, what is his name?"

Another answered, "Ira D. Sankey."

"Yes," the first one continued, "he is great with any song that the Lord puts on his lips. I'd sure like to sing like that."

"With the proper training, you could," Elisabeth said. "Yet, the important factor, according to the Wesleys, is making a joyful noise to the Lord, now whether or not you can carry a tune in a bucket." The others laughed as she continued. "Believe me, I am living proof of this. I was not the best songstress until I joined the Women's Glee Club in college. Our director made sure we learned the mechanics of singing, not just the tunes." This provoked a lively discussion on music for the rest of lunch, after which they returned to the main tent for the afternoon session.

The afternoon preaching was even more eloquent than the morning preaching. "I believe," said the preacher, "in the the absolute, all-encompassing love of God. A love so great, so powerful, that God sent his Only Begotten Son down to save us poor sinners. When Christ was nailed to that cross, he became the scapegoat of humanity, the One who bore all of our sins, and by taking them upon Himself, He gave us poor sinners the chance for forgiveness and atonement. This death was not easy, this death was painful, and the Romans showed no mercy. No sir, they made sure that their victims did not suffer quickly, but slowly, painfully, drawn as long as possible. This is why they scourged Him, whipped Him, nailed him to that Cross the way they did. But even in that ultimate sacrifice, God showed mercy, and his Son died in hours instead of days. This is the atonement, the sacrifice, the grace our God offered us through Jesus Christ his Son."

Leslie found himself enchanted by the preaching, the singing, and the testimonials. Suppose God did care enough to really sacrifice His son? Suppose he really should lay his burdens down and take up the Cross?

"So come down to the altar, you who wish to lay down your burdens, wish to accept this ultimate sacrifice. Your sins will be washed clean with the Blood of the Lamb!" The preacher held out his arms, and the choir started singing.

It was so seductive, to just let someone else take over his life. Leslie found himself pulled into an emotional whirlwind, standing up to walk down without any memory of making a decision to go down. He felt hands laid on his head, water poured over his head, prayers around him, and sense of peace and well-being descend on his soul. He was a new creature in Christ.

The next day, he went into the library to find his father's Bible. He knew that his mother kept it for sentimental reasons, and had even taught him from it. Yet, he had never been set on fire by the Word of the Lord before, had just viewed it as another set of ancient writings. He couldn't remember saying much to Elisabeth on the ride home, but was sure that she was proud of his decision. Leslie was so absorbed in his reading that he didn't hear Laura enter the room until she sat in one of the other chairs. "Reading scripture, I see," she commented.

Leslie leaned forward, speaking earnestly. "Yes, Pa, I accepted Christ into my heart last night. I have been washed by the Blood of the Lamb, and have accepted His sacrifice for my life."

"Is that so?" Laura asked in a lazy drawl. She leaned back in her chair, stretching her long legs under the study table. "Be sure to study the Bible very thoroughly, there are some surprises lurking in there. So, how is Miss Haskins?"

Leslie blushed slightly as he declared fervently, "She is the most beautiful woman in the world! Not only is she beautiful in looks, but in mind as well, for she is very intelligent."

Laura looked searchingly at the young man, seeing the bloom of adoration in his eyes. She also saw a hint of desire there, and knew that he had been bitten hard. "Leslie," she said softly, "do be gentle with her. Don't do anything to jeopardize her reputation, no matter how strong the urges become. Be seen with her in public, with many others around."

"But Pa," Leslie said, puzzled, "Christ will help me overcome any unseemly urges."

She smiled at his naive outlook. "Then pray constantly, son, for that woman radiates, shall we say, a certain appeal." He started to speak, but she held up a hand, interrupting him. "No, son, don't protest, I'm sure you know what I mean. You may deny it, but I'm sure that every time you take her arm to escort her, her very skin burns under yours." He slowly flushed under her plain speech, and she chuckled softly, raising an eyebrow. "I can see by your blush that it's true. Be very careful, Leslie, and make sure you desire her mind as well as her body before making any commitments."

"Pa!" He cried out, starting to stand.

Laura motioned for him to sit back down as she continued, "Son, I've been there and done that. I loved my husband, but as a friend. I loved Peter, but as a brother. Your ma, I love as my soul mate. If you feel, in due time, that Elisabeth Haskins is your soul mate, then marry her. I wish I could marry your ma, I really do." Laura stood up abruptly and started to leave.

"Pa, why are you telling me this?" Leslie asked, confounded by the conversational shifts.

She smiled at laid a hand on his shoulder. "Because I love you, and don't want you to get hurt."

Leslie started attending the Methodist Episcopal Church, South after his conversion. He was pleased to find a Sunday School class for young people that Elisabeth steered him to, saying it was the one she attended. One Sunday morning, the discussion turned to education. One of the young men asked, "Did you go to a women's college, Miss Haskins?"

"Yes I did," she answered, curious where the question would lead.

The young man looked embarrassed, but continued. "Is it true that women have crushes on each other? I mean, do they really court each other in college? I confess I always thought it was cute to see two young women strolling hand in hand, but I was reading my Bible and noticed that it could be an abomination."

Elisabeth's face suddenly went very still as she answered with deceptive calm, "Mr. Bradford, many young women do move through romantic friendships in their youth, but it is perfectly natural. They usually outgrow their affections for each other quickly, as do many crushes in our youth. What brought this up"

Bradford looked embarrassed, but said, "The scripture from last week, about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. They were punished for desiring those of their own gender, and the Lord found it an abomination."

Elisabeth held his gaze for nearly a full minute before answering, "Mr. Bradford, I do not see it as 'an abomination', furthermore, I suggest that you delve into the background of the scripture before attempting to quote it out of context. What you should focus on the fact that the father offered his two virgin daughters to the men rather than sending his foreign guests out. He was breaking ancient laws of hospitality, and that was the real abomination."

Bradford blushed deeply. "My apologies, Miss Haskins, I seem to have brought up an unsavory topic."

Elisabeth lifted an eyebrow disdainfully, reminding Leslie of what Pa did when she was angry. "Then I suggest that you refrain from speaking on topics you know too little about. Come take my classics class, Mr. Bradford, and let me teach you the history behind the scripture. You are exhibiting ignorance and prejudice, a very ugly combination, which will close your eyes to the wonders of the world." An uncomfortable silence descended on the class. Finally, the teacher steered them back to the original lesson, about the woman at the well.

After class was over, Leslie was escorting Elisabeth back to her aunt and uncle's house and they talked about Bradford's sudden prying questions. "Idiots!" she seethed, "would they condemn love in any form?"

Leslie stopped and turned her around. "Miss Haskins, what about Ma and Pa? I never thought about it before, but I know that they live like man and wife, and have since I was a few months old."

"Mr. Bills, don't let the young fools of the world get under your skin. Your ma and pa love each other dearly, and that is the most important thing of all. The real issue is that most men seem to be unsettled by independent women. However, I'd be willing to bet that young Mr. Bradford would never utter such tripe in front of Mrs. Wilkins, or Mrs. Bills for that matter." She suddenly laughed at the mental image of Laura Wilkins staring Mr. Bradford into the ground, or Ruby Bills talking him into circles.

He thought for a long moment, then finally asked slowly, "So, is that why Pa gave me such a strange lecture the other night?" Leslie explained the conversation in the library, then concluded, "Do you think she was trying to warn me? Does my background soil our association?"

They had reached the house, but Elisabeth paused before going in the front gate. "Mr. Bills, this is not the best place to discuss such matters, it is far too public. But, we cannot be alone in private for fear of our reputations." She smiled at him wryly. "I dare say the fact that I am nearly two years older than you would cause more concern, or the fact that I am a teacher and you are a student would cause more gossip than your background."

She patted his arm gently, then continued, "You have a bright, inquisitive mind, and I am proud to be your friend. You only have a few more months until you graduate, so concentrate on your studies. Good day, Mr. Bills, I shall see you at the college." With that, Elisabeth opened the gate and walked into the house.

Ruby noticed Seth Terrill was at the house more often, talking with Laura about the running of the ranch. From the snatches of conversation, she deduced that Laura was giving him more responsibility than she had in the past. As Seth was leaving one day, Ruby came up to Laura and asked, "What's with the extra meetings with Seth?"

Laura motioned for Ruby to sit down in the other armchair. "Well, beloved, I guess you could say that I am trying to make plans for the future. It is obvious that Leslie won't be taking over the ranch, so I am letting Seth buy it, a little with each paycheck."

"Why now?" Ruby asked, curious.

Laura took Ruby's hands in hers. "Ruby, neither of us is getting any younger, and neither of us will ever have another child. Seth Terrill is a good man, and has been an excellent foreman. When Peter died, I realized that I could be next in line, and didn't want the ranch to go to the sheriff's sale, or you left destitute. Besides, Seth loves the ranch as much as I do, and Bella Thomas grew up on a farm."

"Bella Thomas? I don't recognize the name," Ruby mused.

"The woman Seth is courting. I have a feeling that they will be getting married by the end of the year. I've met her in town and approve." Laura rubbed Ruby's hands gently, then added, "We are not immortal, you know. Even if I believed in an afterlife, it wouldn't help matters down here. I wouldn't be a very good partner if I didn't provide for our future. Oh, what do you think about building a house in town?"

Ruby stared at Laura, puzzled at the change in topic. "Build a house in town? Why?"

"For the winters," Laura explained. "I've been looking at the new houses going up on West Oak and they all have advantages we don't have at the ranch. Indoor plumbing, electricity, gas heat, real sidewalks, brick exteriors and close to the square. We could live here during the summer and move to town during the winter, then eventually move to town for good when we stop ranching."

"But I love this house, Laura. I love the peace and privacy, this large library," Ruby said quietly. "I like leaving our bedroom windows open and feeling the breeze across our bodies at night. We can't do that in town."

Laura shrugged. "I thought I would offer. It will probably be many years before electricity and gas are brought out this far, and I just want you to be comfortable."

Ruby leaned over and kissed Laura, then said, "Whither thou goest, my love, I will go as well. I appreciate the offer, let me think it over before we do anything."

"Okay." Laura suddenly grinned devilishly. "Did I tell you that I do have an option on a lot? It is a half acre, prime location, halfway between the college and the square, with big beautiful trees." Her face fell a little as she heaved a theatrical sigh. "I guess I could let the option go."

Ruby laughed. "Laura, you beat all I ever saw, woman. Go ahead and purchase the lot, maybe we will start building next year. You are such a sneak."

"Who, me?" Laura asked, blue eyes twinkling merrily. "What ever makes you say that?"

The next morning, Ruby and Laura went to town, Laura to go to the bank to arrange the loan to purchase the lot and Ruby to buy a new clock for the library. Laura strolled to the loan officer's desk, noting that Mr. Higgins was no longer there, the nameplate said Mr. Bradford. She sat down in one of the chairs and propped her hat on her knee. "Good morning, Mr. Bradford, I'm here to take out a loan."

Bradford turned to look at her. "I haven't had the pleasure of making your acquaintance," he said.

Laura held out her hand for him to shake. "Laura Wilkins, I own a ranch in the northern part of the county. Mr. Higgins always assisted me before, I see that he has left."

"Oh, Mr. Higgins, yes. He went back to New York, had a chance to run a loan department for a large bank there" Bradford explained smoothly. "So, what type of loan do you require?"

Laura settled back in the chair.. "I have an option on a lot on West Oak and I'd like to go ahead and buy it. I should be able to pay back the loan within a year, I don't have any other debts outstanding."

"Ah, I see." Bradford steepled his fingertips, tapping them together, quiet for a moment. Then he added, "Mrs. Wilkins, before we go any further, I need to speak to your husband about your taking out a loan. Bank policy, you know." Bradford smiled most unconvincingly, waiting for Laura's reaction.

Laura stared at him, her eyes becoming chips of ice boring through him. She quietly answered, "Mr. Bradford, I am a widow, and have been for twenty-six years. I have dealt with this bank for nearly thirty years, and have never been asked for anyone's permission to do anything. Either you start processing the loan, young man, or I move my accounts to another bank."

He held up a hand. "Mrs. Wilkins, I would love to help you, but bank policy is clear--"

She stood up abruptly and stalked off to the president's office, not even bothering to ask if he were free. She yanked open the door and stormed in, slamming her hands down on Mr. Godwin's desk. "Jack, you need to have a talk with Bradford out there," she announced. "I came in for a loan and he had the audacity to ask for my husband's permission! Just what the hell is going on here?"

Jack Godwin swallowed nervously. "Um, Laura, that is the usual loan policy, to make sure that women have their husband's or father's permission, since most women don't have an income. I guess I didn't make it clear that you are one of our better customers and do not need permission."

Laura leaned forward and said in a dangerous voice, "You are a bastard, Jack Godwin. I have borrowed and repaid thousands of dollars with your bank over the past thirty years, and I have never made a late payment or defaulted on a loan. You're damn right I don't need any man's permission! When your bank was on the brink several years ago, I sold some of my land just to deposit the money here." She straightened up, then added, "I want to close my accounts."

"What?" Godwin asked, startled.

"You heard me, Jack. I'll take my money over to First National, I'm good friends with Isaac Mills, I'm sure he won't have a problem with me taking out a loan."

Jack swallowed again, then squeaked, "What can I do to convince you to stay? You know we don't have that kind of cash in reserve!"

Laura eased a hip on his desk and dropped her hat on his desk. "Three things. An apology, a change in policy, and straighten out that jackass out there."

"Um, I will apologize, but every bank has the same policy." Jack picked up a pen and played with it nervously. "Laura, most women don't have any business sense, thus the policy. They also don't have the type of assets you do to back a loan."

Laura leaned over until she was nearly nose to nose with the banker. "Then be a man and change the policy. Help women help themselves and I guarantee that you will have more business than you can shake a stick at. If they don't have any business experience, then hire someone to teach them. Sponsor a couple of business courses at the Normal College, reach out."

She leaned back and stood up. "Besides, you know how we women love to gossip. I'll just tell Ruby and let her spread the news." She grinned wickedly.

Jack signed, resigned. "Okay, Laura, I'll bring it to the board and ask them to consider changing the policy, but women who want loans have to be able to show assets in their names, not just their husband's names. I'll talk to young Bradford, too. In the meantime, I'll go ahead and authorize whatever loan you need."

Laura smiled sweetly. "That's better, Jack. There is this lot for sale on West Oak that I have an option on, you see, and I want to buy it." Godwin picked up his pen again and started writing out the details as he listened to Laura talk.

Chapter 3

"I can't believe that Godwin demoted me over that bitch!" Bradford fumed to his friends at the dinner table of his boarding house. "He demoted me to teller, just because I was trying to stick to bank policy. I tell you, though, that Wilkins woman is unnatural, acting just like a man. The audacity to go over my head to the bank president just because I was sticking to the rules!"

"Silas, you shouldn't have tried to turn down Mrs. Wilkins, she's probably one of the richest people in the county, does a lot of business breeding and selling horses. You are lucky that you were only demoted, you could have been fired." Jim Wilson sighed. Silas Bradford was too arrogant for his own good, just because he had come from a large bank in Boston.

Jim continued, "Life is different here, Silas, and you have two strikes against you: you are a Yankee, and you come from a big city. People here are more likely to accept a woman acting differently, especially one as powerful as Laura Wilkins."

Bradford snorted angrily. "I still think she is unnatural. She acts like a husband to Ruby Bills and neither of them go to church. Leslie Bills is almost as bad, but he did start going to church recently."

Jim scratched his chin, trying to marshal his thoughts. Before going to work at the furniture store, he had spent a couple of years as a ranch hand for Laura Wilkins and admired both women tremendously. Ruby Bills somehow discovered his love of reading and had made sure that he felt free to borrow books from their personal collection, then put in a good word for him when he applied for the job in the store. He finally answered, "Silas, I go to a different church, but I was always taught that we were to love each other and let God do the judging. Seems to me like you are taking that judging on yourself."

Silas Bradford snorted in disgust. "I still think that both of those women are unnatural, and that Leslie Bills is a wimp. Who else agrees with me?" The room grew silent; about half of the men there had worked for Laura at least one summer. He wadded up his napkin and tossed it on the table, leaving in a huff.

Thank God the town was still wet, he thought as he entered Murphy's Saloon. Damn do-gooders had nearly won the recent election to deprive a man of his drink. He ordered a beer and sat, sipping thoughtfully. How could he get his position back at the bank without hurting his future? As he sipped his beer, his thoughts turned to women in general, specifically on how to find a wife. He didn't lack for female companionship, but he needed a respectable wife, one who could help his social standing.

Too bad that Bills wimp was courting Miss Haskins, now there was a woman! Bradford decided it was not fair that such a beautiful woman was wasting her time with that runt when she could be spending it with a real man like himself. He grinned to himself, mentally listing his assets: a full head of hair, long lashed blue eyes, nearly six feet tall, broad build, deep manly voice, regular features and strong teeth. He thought about the single women in his Sunday School class and decided that he would pursue Eleanor Morrison, the daughter of the mill owner. She was pretty, just turned twenty-one, taught first grade, had a slim body and beautiful blonde hair. Bradford unconsciously licked his lips as he started planning his courtship with the lovely Miss Morrison.

The weather finally broke in mid-September, turning cool and rainy, ending the blazing heat that marked the long Texas summer. Fortunately, the rains stopped in time for the State Fair to start. The Sunday School class voted and decided that they would all attend the second Saturday of the Fair, taking the train to Dallas. Ruby and Laura decided to go as well, Leslie convinced them that they could look over the livestock to their hearts' content. Ruby grumbled that she saw more livestock than she cared to on a daily basis and Laura just laughed at her.

The appointed Saturday dawned bright, cool and clear. So many people had decided to attend the Fair that the train was nearly overflowing. Ruby was puzzled as to why Laura checked a small trunk in the baggage department, when she asked, she was answered with a mysterious smile and "just wait and see." She took her seat next to Laura, facing Leslie and Elisabeth in the seats opposite. Somehow, Laura had wrangled seats in first class, so they had a nice table in between the sets of seats.

Just after the train chugged to a start, Elisabeth pulled a deck of cards from her purse and asked, "Whist, anyone?" Laura had a look of mock horror on her face. "What, church-going folk playing cards? What is this world coming to?" Elisabeth just smiled and started dealing the cards. Ruby watched the faces of her companions, and decided that Elisabeth was a good candidate for a daughter-in-law. She could not remember any girl that Leslie had dated who had made Laura smile or playful.

As the train chugged along and they played cards, Elisabeth started talking about the fairly new English translation of Plato's The Republic. "Mrs. Bills, have you read the Jowett translation yet? It is interesting to see The Republic in English, rather than in Greek."

"Miss Haskins, I haven't seen the translation yet. Laura, remind me to buy it, please. Does Mr. Jowett do justice to Plato?" Ruby asked, intrigued.

Elisabeth answered, "Oh, yes, for the most part. It will be easier for me to teach, since many of my students do not have a reading knowledge of ancient Greek. I also think it will be interesting to see the reaction to Book V, where Socrates and Glaucon are discussing education for women and Socrates' views on marriage."

Ruby picked up the thread quickly. "Most will not take kindly to the idea that women, as well as men, should be educated for what they are suited for, not just what their sex would dictate. As far as the idea of selected breeding, the romantic in me says that we should leave breeding science to animals, not to humans."

Laura listened quietly until that point, then she jumped in with, "What? You don't want everyone to live together in common houses, and dictate which men and women should be paired? My goodness, Ruby, it works for my horses and cattle!"

"Pa, you are being crude! Please apologize to Miss Haskins and Ma," Leslie said uneasily, looking around to see if any others had overheard the remarks.

Elisabeth laid her hand on his arm and said, "Mr. Bills, Mrs. Wilkins did not insult me or your mother, she was merely 'stirring the pot', so to speak. Part of the reason for teaching such works is to stimulate discussion. If I had students like her, I guarantee that no one would be bored."


"Leslie, if we lived in ancient times, I'm sure that Laura would be one of the Guardians that Socrates dreamed up in his perfect state. Do try to keep an open mind, son." Ruby fixed her son with a stern look, making him squirm slightly. "Besides, who wants to really live in Socrates' perfect state? It would be boring, as all utopias eventually are. Conflict makes life interesting."

Before Leslie could reply, the train started slowing to a stop. Elisabeth gathered up the cards and stowed them in her purse. A man's voice called out, "Dallas stop! All bound for Dallas, please prepare to depart."

There was so much to do and see at the Fair that it seemed that one could take an entire week and still not explore the fairgrounds to their fullest extent. Leslie and Elisabeth went with the rest of the young folks to see the new products and crafts under the various striped tents. Leslie found that he was nearly intoxicated with the nearness of Elisabeth, as time and again they had to draw close to let people by between the tables of wares.

He found himself wanting to buy her everything that she picked up to examine, but knew that it would be inappropriate for him to buy her anything more than a trinket. They even examined the patent medicines for sale, and Elisabeth told him that many of them were alcohol with a few other ingredients thrown in for good measure. "For example, sniff this chill tonic. Doesn't it smell like brandy?" she queried.

He sniffed deeply, then agreed. He noticed out of the corner of his eye that Silas Bradford was cozying up to Eleanor Morrison. He guessed that some women liked that kind of attention, but it made him nervous. "Miss Haskins, is it my imagination, or is Mr. Bradford a little too free with his attentions toward Miss Morrison?" he finally asked.

Elisabeth turned slightly and watched the couple in question for a moment, noting how tightly he was holding her, how he was now kissing her hand, holding it just a bit too long. "Yes, but Miss Morrison should know better. Perhaps we should keep them in sight, Mr. Bills," she said. Leslie nodded in agreement.

Shortly after noon, the group gathered to eat the lunches they had packed. Ruby and Laura joined Leslie and Elisabeth, with Laura making jokes about being a pack mule since she had carried the blanket and the picnic basket all morning. "Oh, poor dear," Ruby said sarcastically. "I'm surprised you didn't buy a horse just to carry the basket."

"I would have, but then we would have had to ride double all the way home." Laura thought for a moment, then opened her mouth to add another comment, only to find it filled with a sandwich half. She cocked an eyebrow at Ruby, but munched on the sandwich without saying what she had been thinking.

Elisabeth was the first to notice that Silas and Eleanor were missing. "Katy," she called to one of the other women, "have you seen Eleanor lately?"

"No," Katy answered, "she said that she was going to freshen up, but I didn't think the lines were that long."

"Well, I think I shall go look for her since I have finished my lunch already. Katy, will you accompany me?" Elisabeth asked. Katy agreed and the two women left the area.

Several minutes went by. Leslie helped his parents repack the basket while he waited for the women to return. Once it was packed, he asked uneasily, "What do you think happened to them? Ma, should I go after them?"

"Go ahead, Laura and I will wait here in case they return." Ruby answered. The rest of the young folks started repacking their baskets, several wondering what did happen. One of the men ventured that Bradford shouldn't be left alone with a woman, in his opinion. While they were speculating, Katy came running back, calling for everyone to follow her. Baskets and blankets were abandoned until one woman thought to pay a young family a few pennies to look after their belongings.

The group followed Katy to an area behind the horse barns where Silas and Leslie were squared off. Elisabeth was holding Eleanor, who was crying. Silas was yelling, "It's none of your damned business, Bills. She was enjoying my attentions until you butted in."

Leslie retorted, "Then why is she crying? My God, man, you sit in church and dare to judge others, yet here you are taking advantage of a young woman! That is not Christian behavior!"

"What do you know about being a Christian? You were brought up in a sinful household--" The rest of the sentence was lost to Leslie's fist. Silas fell down, but bounced up and started to swing at Leslie, who quicly ducked and spun out of the way. The fight went on for several more minutes, mostly with Silas punching and Leslie ducking. "Can't even lay a hand on me, you slimy pansy," Silas panted.

Laura could barely restrain herself. She knew she could knock the man out, she only hoped that Leslie could remember everything she tried to teach him about fighting or avoiding fighting. She could feel Ruby beside her, probably having to fight her own urges to join in the battle. She whispered, "Grab his fist, make him stop."

Leslie seemed to receive the message, on the next swing, he grabbed Silas' fist and yanked the other man's arm behind his back and twisted. Silas screamed in pain and rage, but Leslie hung on and managed to trip the other man, falling on top of him. "Give up, Bradford," he hissed, "give up and I won't break your arm."

"I give up," Bradford grunted. Leslie let him up, but did not turn him loose immediately. "What, do you want a signed confession?" growled the other man.

"No, but these gentlemen might," Leslie smirked as police officers came running up to the scene. He handed Bradford over to a burly officer and started explaining what happened.

Night fell and it was time to get back on the train to go home, minus Mr. Bradford, courtesy of the Dallas police. Leslie and Elisabeth were looking after Eleanor and had her calmed down in time to enjoy some of the other attractions at the fair. Leslie bought a chance on an oyster, which proved to have a rather large pearl in it. "Miss Haskins," he said as the pearl was being cleaned up, "if you will leave that pearl with me for a short time, I would appreciate it."

"Why, Mr. Bills?"

He took a deep breath, then answered, "I'd like to take it to the jeweler to have it appraised, then I will return it to you, say in the next week or so."

"I believe I will entrust you with it, then," she said, eyes twinkling merrily. "Unfortunately, it is time for us to go to the station. Miss Morrison, are you ready?" The other woman nodded, and the three made their way back to the train station.

When they arrived at the station, Leslie started looking for his parents. Katy saw him looking around and gave him a note, which read:

Have taken your mother to the Grand Windsor. It is high time we celebrated our anniversary. Will return home in several days. Have fun and don't eat in town every night.
Give our best to Miss Haskins.

"The Grand Windsor?" he murmured as Elisabeth read the note too. "Pa is never that loose with her money!"

"It sounds like a pretty important celebration," Elisabeth said. "I hear that they have a live orchestra playing in the evenings and champagne flowing at dinner." She took his arm as they mounted the steps of the train. After they were seated, she said, "I think it is very romantic, to want to have a celebration after so many years together."

Elisabeth was interrupted by the conductor collecting their tickets, then continued her thoughts. "I dare say that your ma and pa have more love for each other than most married couples I've seen."

As the train started chugging out of the station, Leslie nodded. "I guess so, Miss Haskins. I'm confused, though, why Silas Bradford took such a violent dislike to them. Why would a church-going man be so judgmental? I mean, they aren't hurting anyone, and I never found any scripture that says two women can't love each other. Look at Ruth and Naomi, Ruth gave up everything to follow Naomi."

Elisabeth watched as Eleanor started talking to her seat mate, a college freshman named George Orr. He was a much better match, she thought, he is much gentler than Silas Bradford. She pulled her thoughts back, having to replay Leslie's last sentence in her head again before answering. Good thing no one else was at their table, she thought, or right around them. "Mr. Bills, I must confess that I have my doubts, too. My parents were on a vacation in Greece two years ago when the wagon they were in overturned and crushed them."

"I'm so sorry, Miss Haskins, I had no idea that is now you lost your parents," Leslie said.

"It was sad, but they left enough money for me to live on, so I was able to finish college. After graduation, I wanted to leave and teach in a different part of the country. Aunt Tilly and Uncle Bob generously offered me a room in their home when the Normal College offered me a position, so here I am." She reached across the table and took his hands boldly in hers. "Mr. Bills, I never had a very strong faith, neither of my parents were particularly strong in the faith. I attend mostly because it is good for my image. I have a hard time believing that a man could come back to life after being dead for several days."

Leslie listened in amazement. Thoughts and emotions swirling, he asked, "Then why ask me to go to the revival with you?"

She smiled bewitchingly. "Because, my dear Mr. Bills, it was perfectly acceptable for me to invite you to such an event. I confess that I wanted to get to know you better."

He sat in silence for several minutes, trying to make sense of everything. Was his new found faith a lie? "But Miss Haskins, I felt a presence in my heart when I accepted the Lord," he said, even more confused.

Elisabeth twined her fingers with his, buying time to assimilate her thoughts before carefully answering. "Mr. Bills, I don't know what you felt, or if you were caught up in the emotion of the moment. All I know is that I never felt any divine comfort after my parents' senseless deaths."

She stopped for a moment, pushing back the pain of their deaths that threatened to resurface before continuing, "Yet, Mr. Bills, it is hard to conceive of a world that does not have a supreme being or beings looking over us. Each culture has its own gods and goddesses, so either there really is a divine presence, or it is human nature to want a divine presence in our lives, someone to take our burdens from us, to comfort us, to give us something to live for."

Leslie looked at their hands together for a long moment, then turned to look out at the dark landscape rolling by. Finally, he looked back at Elisabeth. "Miss Haskins, maybe you are right. Maybe I was overcome with emotion at the revival, for I have not felt that presence since then. I go to church and Sunday School, but the very people who are supposed to be such glorious examples cheat, lie, discriminate, and generally break the commandments during the week. How am I supposed to believe and follow the teachings of the church when I see such examples?"

"Mr. Bills, don't write all of the people off just because of a few like Silas Bradford. Religion gives us a code of conduct, a standard to strive for. Maybe it isn't the church that is so hypocritical, but the people running the church." Elisabeth took a deep breath. "I do not have all the answers, just more questions, just like you. Maybe people like us are put on earth to look for the truth, or to re-examine what we think is the truth."

"Perhaps you are right. Oh, Miss Haskins, you are the first woman aside from Ma and Pa that I could actually talk to like this!" Leslie looked at their hands again, feeling the warmth and strength in hers, then sought her lovely face. "The truth." He paused, marshaling his thoughts for a moment, then quietly continued, "I believe you are right, we both seem to seek more than what is just given us."

"Seeking answers is what causes the human race to progress, Mr. Bills," Elisabeth answered softly, squeezing his hands for emphasis. "But for now, I wish I could sit by you and just watch the stars through the window."

He shivered with delight. "Maybe one day, we can," he said.

Ruby looked around the suite of rooms, marveling at what she saw. "Champagne, love?" Laura asked. Ruby nodded as she continued her examination, right down to the private bathroom with extra-large tub. The supper had been sumptuous, she had never tasted so many wonderful dishes. She heard Laura pop the cork, the pour the champagne into two glasses. She turned around as her beloved approached her, handing her a glass. "A toast to twenty years of bliss! May we soon have a daughter-in-law!" Laura said gleefully.

Ruby sipped from her glass. "Mmm, wonderful, we must have done quite well this year, Laura." She took another sip, delighting in how the bubbles tickled her nose. "So, other than twenty years of bliss, why are we at such an expensive hotel?"

Laura laughed, face more relaxed than it had been in years. "When Leslie started slowly courting Miss Haskins, I realized that it had been quite some time since I had even thought about courting you. We get so caught up in the mundane, that I decided that we needed a vacation, or at least a few days away."

She paused, taking a sip of the excellent champagne before continuing. "What better time then the State Fair, when we would be coming to Dallas anyway? Although we never decided on a particular date as an anniversary, I decided to commemorate the date we first declared our love for each other. Besides, Seth sold a stallion for much more than I expected, so what better way to spend the profits than on my beloved?"

Ruby smiled. "I never expected anything quite so grand, Laura, you have certainly outdone yourself. We do need an anniversary date, I agree." She set down her glass and asked gleefully, "Does the tub have running water?"

"Yes, Ruby, and I think we can both fit in it," Laura purred.

"You're kidding." Ruby's eyes widen in delight.

"Nope, we should try it out. Let me get the water started." Laura went to the bathroom and turned on the taps, then came back out to the main sitting room. "Oh, goodness, I knew I forgot something," she said slyly as she pulled something out of her vest pocket. "Happy anniversary, darling."

Ruby stared as Laura slid a gold band on her finger, inset with alternating rubies and diamonds. "Laura!"

Laura sank to her knees. "My beloved, I never formally asked before, but will you marry me?"

Ruby reached down and kissed her soundly. "Yes," she whispered.

"Good, then I can wear this band," Laura announced as she pulled a matching band from her other vest pocket. Ruby took it and gently slid it over Laura's finger, the pulled her down on the sofa for a long kiss. When they finally surfaced, Laura said, "Perhaps we should check on the water level."

"I nearly forgot the bath! Last one undressed is a rotten egg!" Ruby whooped. Laura laughed as she undressed, following her beloved to the tub.

Several weeks later, Elisabeth received a summons to the president's office. She knew that it to be her relationship with Leslie, but she had been hoping that no one would say anything since it was his last semester. She didn't tell anyone else about the summons, deciding that it would do no good to worry about the possibilities until they were reality.

On the appointed day, Elisabeth approached the president's office and was immediately ushered in by his secretary. "Dr. Terrill, you wished to see me?" she asked.

"Yes, Miss Haskins, I do wish to see you." Dr. Terrill said. He picked up a letter, glanced at it, then looked across his massive desk at her. "It has come to my attention that you have been spending quite a bit of time with one of our students, Leslie Bills. Is this true?"

"Yes, it is," she answered calmly. Silence descended over the room as Elisabeth waited for the president to continue speaking, deciding that the less she offered, the better off she would be. He looked at the letter again, then out the window as if gathering his thoughts.

Finally, he spoke. "Has Mr. Bills been in any of your classes, Miss Haskins?"

"No, sir, he has not. I met him during registration this semester, and again at several events I attended with my aunt and uncle. They are friends with his parents," she explained, then fell silent, waiting for Dr. Terrill to speak.

Dr. Terrill looked at her steadily, then finally said, "I received this letter nearly a month ago and have delayed acting on the accusations until now. The author of the letter, who chooses to remain anonymous, states that you and Mr. Bills are in an inappropriate relationship, but does not offer specifics. Will you enlighten me about these accusations?"

Elisabeth answered crisply, "I would like to see the charges myself. May I read the letter?" He reluctantly handed the letter over and Elisabeth scanned it before offering further comment.

Finally, she looked up and announced, "I believe I know the author of the letter. If I am correct, the author is currently in jail in Dallas due to his attempting to take advantage of a lady. Further, there are assault and battery charges pressed against him by Mr. Bills. Shall we ask the Dallas police for a handwriting sample for comparison?"

Dr. Terrill took the letter back, tapping it on his desk before replying, "No, I don't believe that will be necessary. Teachers are excellent judges of handwriting, in my experience. Might I be as bold, however, to ask the nature of your relationship with Mr. Bills?"

Elisabeth smiled sweetly. "We are friends, Dr. Terrill, and attend the same church. He is a very bright young man and wishes to teach on the college level eventually, therefore, we have much in common. If you examine his records, you will find that he took his classics classes last year, before I came here."

"Then may I offer my apologies for questioning your relationship?" Dr. Terrill asked.

"I accept, Dr. Terrill, you are only doing your duty as president." Elisabeth responded calmly.

He smiled, relieved. "To be quite honest, Miss Haskins, I hoped that the two of you were not courting, at least until he graduated, for a very selfish reason. Mrs. Bills mother promised to buy a goodly number of books for our library upon his graduation, and I would not want to make her angry."

Elisabeth laughed. "No, I would not like to make Mrs. Bills angry, either. Frankly, Mrs. Wilkins would be much more dangerous as an enemy in the long run, in my opinion."

He laughed as well, relaxing in his chair. "I have had the misfortune of losing at cards to Mrs. Wilkins, not that I want my wife to know. Shall we keep that our secret?"

"Oh, but of course!" She offered him a brilliant smile, dimples showing in her cheeks.

Dr. Terrill rose, indicating the end of the interview. "Just between us two," he said as he escorted her to the door, "I think you and Mr. Bills make a most attractive couple."

"So do I, Dr. Terrill," Elisabeth agreed, "so do I."

The rest of the year went by in a blur. Elisabeth kept wondering why Leslie had not returned the pearl that he had won for her at the State Fair, but now that she was helping her aunt get the house ready for Christmas, she completely forgot about the pearl. Tilly and Bob decided to invite Laura, Ruby, and Leslie to spend Christmas with them since, as Bob put it, "Christmas should be shared with friends and family, not out by yourself in the country."

Christmas Eve dawned bright and cold. Elisabeth was busy helping Tilly with last minute cooking while Bob was finishing making the guest rooms ready, teasingly threatening to "deny all claims" that he actually changed sheets, aired out rooms, and cleaned the new guest bathroom. The morning flew by, then just before noon, Laura, Ruby and Leslie drove up in their carriage. Greetings were exchanged, luggage was stowed, food was unloaded, and gifts were put under the tree.

After the prayer, Bob asked, "So, Leslie, now that you have graduated, what will you do?"

Leslie swallowed his coffee, then answered, "I have been accepted by the high school here to teach literature and grammar. I hope to eventually move elsewhere and pursue my graduate degree and teach in a college."

"That is wonderful, Leslie. Ruby, you must be so proud of your son." Tilly said as she passed the ham.

"Yes, Laura and I are quite proud," Ruby agreed. She took a slice of ham, then casually asked, "Tilly, did you and Bob know that we will be moving to town next month?"

"No! Do tell."

Ruby smiled at Laura, then announced, "Laura managed to buy a lot a few blocks from here and had a brand new house built on it. We will live in town during the winters, then move back to the ranch during the summers."

Laura added, "I finally found a foreman that I am comfortable leaving the ranch with during the winter. You've met him, Seth Terrill. He has served as my foreman for five years, and recently became engaged to Miss Bella Thomas." Talk turned to the upcoming nuptials of Mr. Terrill and Miss Thomas, then on to other topics. Lunch was finally finished, dishes cleaned, and cards were brought out for a friendly game of whist. The afternoon went by pleasantly, then they gathered back in the dining room for a light supper. After supper, it was agreed that each person would open one gift, then those who wanted to, would go the Christmas Eve service.

Bob started grinning from ear to ear, announcing, "Tilly, you may now open to door to the new room." Tilly walked over to the new door and opened it. Inside was a new parlor, complete with electric lights and a piano. "Oh, Bob, a real piano!" she said excitedly. "I have wanted a piano for years, you dear man," she said as she gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Here, Laura helped me pick out your present"she said as Laura brought out a large gift.

"What have we here? Oh, Tilly, it is perfect!" Bob exclaimed as he unwrapped the new band saw. "How did you know that mine broke recently"

Laura smirked, "She told me about your little cussing fit, so we investigated one day while you were at work. Merry Christmas, friend." Ruby smiled as she handed over a large package to her partner. Laura tore open the paper, then started smiling from ear to ear. "Well, how about that, a really fancy new suit! Thank you, love," she said, leaning over to kiss Ruby's cheek. "Now let's see what we have for you."

"Oh, Laura, you shouldn't have!" Ruby exclaimed as she lifted the diamond and ruby necklace out of the jeweler's box. "It matches my ring!"

"That's what I intended," Laura explained, helping Ruby put it on. "It looks beautiful on you, my dear." Ruby smiled hugely, then kissed Laura soundly. After a round of throat clearings from their friends, Laura pulled back and tossed a pillow at Bob, who asked, "What did I do"

"Son, since you will be starting to work soon, your pa and I decided on a practical gift," Ruby said as she motioned for Laura to fetch his present. Laura came back with several boxes, which Leslie unwrapped with Elisabeth's help.

"Oh, ma, pa, new suits! Perfect for me to start my teaching career in," Leslie exclaimed, looking at the two suits. "And new shirts and ties to match! Thank you so much," he said as he walked over and gave both women a kiss on the cheek.

Tilly handed a small package over to Elisabeth, saying, "We weren't sure what else to get you, but Leslie said you would enjoy these."

"Oh, I've been wanting these books, thank you so much," Elisabeth enthused. "And now, for your new piano," she handed over a package. Tilly opened it to find a stack of sheet music. "Uncle Bob helped me pick them out," she said. She handed her uncle a box, saying mischievously, "Mrs. Wilkins helped me with this, but said you had to enjoy them outside." He eagerly opened them, then started laughing when he saw the box of cigars.

Finally, Leslie shyly brought out a jeweler's box and handed it to Elisabeth. He cleared his throat, then handed it to her, saying, "Do you remember the pearl I won for you at the fair? I finally had it appraised. And Ma gave me my father's wedding band for the gold."

Elisabeth opened the box and found the pearl set in a gold ring, with two small diamonds on either side. She looked at it for a long moment, then up at Leslie's smiling face. "It is beautiful," she said softly.

Leslie knelt before her and said fervently, "My dear Elisabeth, I have seen my parents love each other, and always wanted that type of love with a woman. Someone who would be a true partner, an equal. I have felt our friendship deepen over the year, and dare to acknowledge that I love you, and hope you can love me too, just as much as my ma and pa love each other. Will you accept this ring as a token of a promise of marriage?"

Elisabeth slid the ring on her finger slowly, then took Leslie's face in her hands and kissed him for the first time, not caring that everyone was watching. She finally broke the kiss and said, "Leslie, I will accept."

"Good thing, that means mine and Bob's investment won't go to waste," Laura chimed in.

"Investment?" Elisabeth and Leslie said at the same time.

Bob grinned even bigger. "The lot next to Laura and Ruby was also for sale, so we pooled our money and bought it for you two as a wedding gift. Elisabeth, Tilly and I received a letter last week from your parents' lawyer, their estate was finally settled and all debts paid. The remainder should be enough to build a house large enough for two or three."

The young couple stared first at Bob and Tilly, then at Laura and Ruby. "How can we ever thank you?" Elisabeth finally asked.

Ruby answered drolly, "Produce grandchildren, in due time, of course."

Chapter 4

That night, Laura surprised everyone by saying she would go to the Christmas Eve service. "Gee, Pa, are you feeling okay?" Leslie teased.

Laura just smiled, "It is a handsome suit, so I figured I'd better show it off, and where better than at the midnight service, sitting with my love, my son, and my daughter-in-law to be?" It was a beautiful suit, black wool with a very fine check of multiple colors, a bright white shirt, red silk tie, and charcoal vest with red trim. "Besides, the red trim will look festive next to Ruby's new green velvet dress."

"Show off," Ruby said affectionately.

When everyone had gone to their separate rooms to change clothes, Ruby asked seriously, "Laura, are you just going to show off your new suit? That doesn't sound like you, my love."

Laura finished buttoning her new vest before answering. "Ruby, I have not set foot in any church since I went to Lycurgus' funeral with you. Truth be told, I haven't had any desire to set foot in a church, it just seemed like a waste of time." She reached for her brush and started brushing out her hair, in preparation to braid it.

"Laura, don't braid your hair tonight, I like it loose," Ruby said. "Sorry to interrupt, please go on."

Laura finished brushing her hair, then motioned for Ruby to turn around. "I'll leave mine down, but let me braid yours." Ruby sat on the bed with her back to Laura, who deftly brushed the reddish-gold hair, then started braiding it as she continued. "I guess I need some sort of celebration, something to mark the end of one year and the beginning of the next, confirmation of the cycle of death and rebirth. Most cultures I've read about seem to have some type of religious rites to celebrate the lengthening of the days after the winter solstice, the celebrate the coming of the new year and new life. It just seems appropriate to celebrate, especially since Leslie and Elisabeth will be celebrating a new life together in the next year, and we will enter a new phase in our lives together."

She pinned the braids up, making a circle over the top of Ruby's head. "There, a crown of golden hair, my love." She gently kissed the nape of Ruby's bare neck, then wrapped her arms carefully around her beloved, so as not to wrinkle the new dress. "Besides, I want to see the reaction when I show up in church," she smirked.

Meanwhile, Leslie and Elisabeth finished dressing early and met by the new piano. Elisabeth touched the keyboard, striking a random chord. "My ring is beautiful, Leslie," she said as she watched the diamonds twinkle with the movement of her fingers. "I had been wondering what you had done with the pearl."

He smiled as he stood next to the piano, drinking in her beauty. "Pa gave me the idea, actually. When she and Ma came back from their little vacation in Dallas, they had the rings. I asked Pa where she had them made and she told me at the local jewelers, that the stones came from a necklace that had belonged to her mother. I guess she had kept it hidden all these years, since I had never seen it. She told me that it was a coincidence that she had two small diamonds left over, that diamonds set around a pearl would make a lovely ring. And Ma had given me my father's band for the gold. Pa said it was appropriate to have something from all three of my parents for your ring."

"The results are lovely, Leslie." She smiled happily. "My, that sounds so much more natural, calling you Leslie instead of Mr. Bills."

"Soon, I can call you Elisabeth Bills. Good thing you don't go by Beth, that would sound strange, Beth Bills." They both laughed at the sound of the abbreviated name, then Leslie asked, "Why do supposed Pa suddenly decided to go to church tonight?"

"I don't know. It should be a lovely service, Uncle Bob said that the whole church is decorated with greenery and lit by candles. He and Aunt Tilly make it at least to Christmas every year, though they are not quite as faithful during the rest of the year." She thought for a moment, then asked, "Dear, have you decided what you believe?"

Leslie walked over to the new sofa and sat down. Elisabeth left the piano go join him, taking his hand in hers. He gently kissed her hand, then answered, "I'm not sure, still, but I think there must be a higher being. Whether or not the scripture is accurate is not an issue, it is the spirit of truth that I seek, not the facts. It is easier to believe in a baby symbolizing the beginning of the cycle of life than an ultimate scapegoat coming back to life. What do you think?"

She stroked his arm slowly, gathering her thoughts before answering, "I believe in some sort of elemental force that set all life in motion. If indeed, there is an infinite spirit, how can our finite minds grasp it? I don't think that God actually intercedes on a daily basis, but helps us reach for and develop our potential gifts and talents. I like the symbol of a baby bringing the rebirth of the cycle of life, a time for us to shed the deadwood we accumulate during the year, to be reborn in the new year."

Leslie nodded. "I like your thought process, my dear. Oh, I think I hear the others, we should go back to the front room and wait for them." He hesitated, though, and leaned over to claim a quick kiss from Elisabeth. After the shock of electricity died from his system, he stood up and offered his arm. "Shall we go?"

The little white church was nearly packed as the three couples entered the doors. Bob and Tilly entered first, finding a pew that would hold six, followed by Leslie and Elisabeth. Murmurs started as people noted the way that Leslie was escorting Elisabeth, did that mean an engagement?

Then, dead silence fell as Laura proudly escorted Ruby down the aisle, new derby in hand. After they were seated, a buzz similar to grasshoppers arose. Laura Wilkins, in church? Why, Ruby had attended for several years after her husband died, but few could even remember Laura Wilkins darkening the door of any church since attending the funeral of Lycurgus Bills over twenty years ago.

Many would admit later than they heard little of Reverend Allen's fine sermon, they were so shocked to see Laura and Ruby both in church. They were even more shocked when she went to the altar at the end of the service. Was Laura finally accepting the Lord in her heart?

"My child, do you wish me to pray with you?" Reverend Allen asked her softly.

Laura lifted her head. "I just want to thank whatever powers that exist for my beloved partner, son, and daughter-in-law to be," she said softly. "I cannot believe as you do, no insult meant, but I do believe in the cycle of life, and celebrating new life in the new year."

She looked at the nativity scene just a few feet in front of her and smiled. "I remember holding George, Jr. in my arms, feeling the new life in him, looking as innocent as the baby in the manger there. He was take too soon, yet God or whoever saw fit to give me a second family, for which I am eternally grateful."

The pastor continued to kneel with her, not sure what to say. Finally, he offered, "A prayer of thanksgiving and celebration, then."

"Yes, that would be appropriate," she agreed. She bowed her head as the minister started praying, thanking God for the many blessings she had found, celebrating the coming of the light of Christ, celebrating new life.

When he was finished, she whispered, "Amen," then stood up straight and tall, walking back to the pew. Those who had known Laura for many years said later it was the first time they had ever seen her face so peaceful, that she must have finally accepted Christ. Reverend Allen kept his word and never told what words passed between them, much to the dismay of the curious.

The three couples walked back to Bob and Tilly Moore's house after the service. No one said much, other than commenting on the beauty of the church and the service, or how bright the stars were in the cold night sky. When they arrived at the house, good-nights were exchanged and they started off toward their respective rooms. Leslie and Elisabeth stopped Laura and Ruby just before they entered their room. "Ma, Pa, I just wanted to thank you for the land, it was unexpectedly generous."

Ruby smiled at her son and daughter to be. "Bob and Laura cooked that one up, I didn't know about it until they had signed the papers." She kissed her son, then kissed and hugged Elisabeth. "Welcome to the family," she said to the young woman.

Laura shyly reached for her son, first shaking his hand, then hugging him tight and kissing his cheek. "Leslie, I love you," she whispered in his ear. He pulled back, looking puzzled. Laura cleared her throat, eyes bright with tears. "I've loved you all these years, but the ghost of my George hovered in the background. Tonight, I laid my child to rest for good." She squeezed him again, then reached for Elisabeth, kissing her on the cheek. "Take good care of our son," she choked out.

"I will, I promise," she said to the older woman. They looked in each other's eyes for a long moment, then Elisabeth kissed Laura on the cheek. "He will be in safe hands with me." Laura nodded, then turned the woman loose, turning to Ruby. "Ready for sleep, love?" she asked tenderly.

Safe in their room, Laura and Ruby started undressing for bed. Ruby dug out their nightgowns from their luggage, then walked over to the bed, where Laura was sitting, pulling off the last of her clothes. She sat by her beloved, then asked quietly, "How are you tonight?"

Laura drew in a shuddering breath. "At peace, yet emotional. I've always loved you and Leslie, yet I never really completely let go of my own son. It was easier to let go of my husband, we were more friends than lovers. Then, to see our son getting ready to take that next step in life, it changes things."

"I understand, dear," Ruby said quietly. "I let go of Curg many years ago, yet now I feel like I am losing Leslie, yet I know we are really gaining a daughter." She pushed Laura back on the bed, nightgowns forgotten. "I propose that we celebrate new life ourselves," she said as she took a breast in her mouth. Laura groaned with unexpected pleasure, peace and desire mixing happily as she gave up to the caresses of her beloved. Unshed tears forgotten, she wrapped her arms around Ruby's body, pulling her beloved close.

As it was in the beginning of their relationship, it was reaffirmed, love and life intertwined.

The End.

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