1881 – The Town of Heavenly, Montana Territory
His business was located in the center of town just across from the stagecoach stop, which was right next to the general store and a half a tick west of the saloon. It was important in his line of work to be in the center of it all, that's where folks needed him to be. Daryl Dixon was the local blacksmith.
Being right there in the middle of Heavenly he saw just about everything that happened in the town. He heard even more. Most of the time he wished that wasn't the case, but it couldn't be avoided. It came with the job. Folks like to talk and since he was the quiet type he supposed they thought he wanted to listen to what they had to say. Mostly he just nodded and let their words go in one ear and out the other. It had always been that way and he was sure it always would be.
Being across from the stagecoach stop was how it happened that he saw her the very minute she arrived in Heavenly. He watched, trying his best to go unnoticed, while taking in every detail about the way the woman looked as the driver helped her down from the coach. She was small, slight of build, young. Her skin was fair and her hair was golden and she was a real special kind of pretty. Too pretty. She didn't belong here in this country. He was sure she wouldn't stay. She looked too dainty for the way of life, too delicate for the roughness of the people and the harshness of the relentless winters.
It was warm that July day, the day she came to Heavenly; but come winter things would get downright brutal in this country. There would be feet of snow, cruel winds and bitterly cold temperatures. He was already worried about how she'd manage. There was no man with her, she appeared to be alone.
The stage driver handed her valise down from the rack while the blacksmith pretended not to notice, and he used all the self-control he could muster not to rush to help her. Then he watched from the corner of his eye as she made her way to the general store.
Within the first hour of her stepping off the coach he'd heard quite a lot about the young woman. He knew her name, Miss Elizabeth Greene. He heard why she was in town, she was the new school marm. And where she was from, she was a Georgia farm girl.
It wasn't unusual to have a new marm arrive in town. Heavenly went through school marms on a regular basis because of the rules. The rules set by the hardened old biddies who called themselves the school board. The marm wasn't allowed to be married, they weren't even allowed to have a beau. In a place like Heavenly, where the men outnumbered the women nine to one, no woman went unnoticed for long, or lacked for male attention. The marms were soon courted, married and that was that. Then they'd need a new school marm in town.
Still the fact remained, he'd never seen a marm or any other woman like her. Never one so appealing.
He already had a clear picture in mind of how things would be. Pretty Miss Elizabeth Greene would have every cowboy, rancher and miner in the territory shooting at each other in the streets as they tried to get her attention. He was worried about her, only because he knew how rough things could get and she didn't have anyone looking out for her.
It was different for him. Even though he'd come to this country as just a nine year old boy he had Merle looking out for him. At that time Merle had been about the age she probably was now, about 19. That was different though, Merle was a man. A man had an easier time of it.
He and his brother had been in Heavenly 16 years now and the blacksmith didn't recall a whole lot that was good about their time back in Georgia. He reckoned there wasn't much good to remember.
The war had already been in full swing for quite a long time when it happened. He was a real little guy, just seven years old when the confederate government imposed a draft system. They needed to recruit every man they could to take up arms in the war against the north. They'd take a man as young as seventeen if they felt the need. That put Merle right in their crosshairs.
The Dixons didn't mind a good fight. Fighting was a big part of who they were, but they had no reason to go off and fight in that war. They didn't have anything to fight for. No land, no property of any kind at all really. Just a small plot next to the river with a rundown shack and ground so bad it wouldn't even grow weeds. They sure as hell weren't slave owners. It didn't matter much to them who was in charge of the government. They weren't even sure what the big fuss was all about.
The truth was, a rich man could buy his way right out of the fight. If a man could come up with a few hundred dollars his service was marked complete. Poor folks like the Dixons didn't have a choice in the matter.
The Confederate Army made his Daddy sign up and that was just fine with young Daryl, but then they made his brother Merle go too. Now it was just him and his Mama left in the little shack by the river.
That's how at seven years old he found himself just trying to care for him and her too. He'd snare a rabbit or get a squirrel with the pellet gun, just like Merle showed him. He'd pick wild berries or steal some fruit or vegetables from a neighbors' patch; whatever he had to do so they could eat, that's what he did. His Mama ate a little but mostly she dipped into his Daddy's stash of homemade wine hidden under the floorboards. She stayed drunk and sleepy and that was just the way it was. There was nothing to be done about any of it, he just had to keep doing his best so they could survive.
He loved his Mama, of course he did, but she wasn't much good at looking after children. She wasn't mean though, not like his Daddy. Mama didn't yell or beat him and in her way he knew she loved him. Still he understood who had to care for who.
He just turned eight years old the day he came home from swiping peaches out of some farmer's orchard, and there it was. The only home he'd ever known and the only Mama he ever would have, burning to the ground.
His young heart was broken. She may not be the best Mama in the world but she was his Mama and now she was gone. And that shack, it wasn't much of a home but it was the only home he knew and now it was gone too.
He didn't want to leave there, he couldn't. If he did how would Merle ever know where to find him? So he hid out in the woods and he hoped the war would be over soon and his brother would come back for him.
He overheard the news one day when he was sneaking a couple ears of corn from a neighbor's field. Two fellas were talking and they were saying the war had ended. Whatever side it was that folks in Georgia were on, that wasn't the side that won. Young Daryl didn't care who won, he was scared and lonely and he just wanted his brother to come home.
He knew wherever Merle was when the war ended he'd probably just make a break for it and start walking. The boy tried hard to be patient as he waited and did his best to keep himself fed and hidden.
He'd been keeping track by the moon and he thought it was just about a month after he heard the news about the war, and about two months since he'd lost his Mama. He was up in a tree keeping himself out of sight and just sitting and watching. He didn't want to, he didn't mean to, but he couldn't seem to help himself. He began to cry a little wishing he still had a Mama and wishing his brother would hurry home. That's when he spotted the shadowy figure walking his way.
He scurried down from the tree, he'd know that walk anywhere. He nearly got himself killed when he grabbed onto the man's leg, "Merle, Merle you're home."
His brother already had his knife pulled but when he heard the voice and saw who it was, he quickly sheathed the weapon. His big arm wrapped around the child, "Damn little brother, ya almost got yourself killed, ya scared me boy."
"You're home." Then the little boy's tears fell harder. "We don't got a home no more Merle and we don't got a Mama neither."
Merle was shaken by the news his Mama was gone and he sat himself down right there in the mossy dirt. He took in a deep breath as he went over in his mind the news he'd heard and everything it meant. Young Daryl sat down next to him. His big brother wrapped an arm around the boy and made a declaration, "I'ma come up with a plan for us little brother. Don't ya worry none. I'ma take care of ya."
"What happened ta Daddy?"
"I don't got no idea and the truth a the matter is, I don't much care. All I know is he ain't here and we are. You're my baby brother and all we got now is each other. It's my job ta see to it you're cared for and that's what I aim ta do."
By the next afternoon Merle had made a big decision for himself and little brother, "We ain't got nuthin' here 'cept a piece a ground that ain't good for nuthin'. Once them northern boys get down here there ain't gonna be nuthin' a nuthin' left. You an me though, we'll be gone. We're gonna head west little brother. Out that way it don't matter who ya are or where ya come from, everyone's got a chance. Tomorrow we're gonna get us some clothes and a little bit a supplies an we're gonna get outta this godforsaken place."
"Ya got money for that stuff Merle?"
"No, hell no I ain't got no money. I got sumthin' much better'n money kid, I got know-how."
It was two days later when the brothers, dressed in a new set of clothes, new boots and knapsacks filled with dry socks and salted meat, set out to conquer the west.
They worked, stole and borrowed their way to Independence, Missouri. That's where the Dixon brothers joined hundreds of other men, women and children anxious to get a wagon and head out west via the Oregon Trail.
Merle didn't have nearly enough money to get a wagon for him and little brother, but then the Dixon brothers also didn't have all those home goods and furnishings other folks filled those wagons with. What Merle did have was a stolen horse with no brand and an impressive gift of gab. He managed to convince one of those wagon masters that he knew all about fixing broke down wagons, and on top of that he was a skilled scout. Not to mention both him and his young brother were expert hunters who could keep the train supplied with fresh meat. Merle was hired on.
Like most of the children headed west with the wagon trains, Daryl walked alongside the slow moving wagons. It was hot and dry and seldom was a surface smooth and flat but all that was alright, they were on their way to a better life.
Merle had no intention of going all the way out to Oregon. He'd heard all about the fertile valleys to be found there, but he had no calling to be a farmer. Instead he and little brother said their goodbyes and left the train near the Powder River in Wyoming. They followed the river north up into what had been the Nebraska Territory but in 1864 had become the Montana Territory. There the river joined the Yellowstone River, and they went a bit farther.
When they reached a bustling town called Heavenly Merle took a long look around and declared they were home. Daryl had no argument to give. It looked like as good a place as anywhere else to him, and he generally went along with whatever big brother said. Merle had kept him safe, alive and fed this long. If his brother wanted to stay Daryl was staying with him.
Merle rented a small room for them in a boarding house and he went to work for a big mining outfit. Daryl considered it downright unnecessary and an act of extreme cruelty when his brother informed him he'd be spending his days attending the one room school. "Why I gotta go ta school for Merle? I ain't ever been before an I'm doin' just fine."
"Cuz you're nine years old now an ya need ta learn ta read an write. Besides, they'll keep an eye on ya while I'm workin'."
"I don't need no one ta keep an eye on me, I can take care a myself. Besides, you don't know how ta read an write, why do I gotta learn it?"
"One of us has ta know that stuff little brother. I'm 19 now, that's way too old ta learn it. It's tricky and ya gotta start young or ya can't catch on. Now ya quit complainin' or I'll make ya go ta church too."
That shut Daryl up in a hurry.
It turned out school was just about as miserable as he imagined it was going to be. His classmates all acted like little kids and he didn't think he was a kid at all. Daryl did manage to make it through the whole school year, and that was more than the teacher managed to do. She quit halfway through and ran off to Billings with a tinsmith.
It was about two weeks later that a new teacher showed up from Denver. Daryl liked her much better, she was real nice and real patient. Her name was Miss Karen Johnson. By then he knew his alphabet and how to make his letters and numbers but he still hadn't quite managed reading. Miss Johnson kept telling him not to worry, he'd catch right up.
Summer came and he happily forgot about school and studying. He got a job helping out the blacksmith. The blacksmith was a fellow by the name of Mr. Dale Horvath and he had a real nice business going, he was real busy. He put Daryl on to work and care for the six rental horses he kept, and to fetch and do whatever he was told needed to be done.
Daryl liked it real well, especially when Mister Dale taught him about horseshoeing. He loved those big proud animals and they seemed to love him too. By the end of summer Mr. Horvath had a mind to keep Daryl working, so he spoke to Merle about offering the boy permanent work.
Merle Dixon was not one to let a good opportunity go by and the apprenticeship being offered was indeed a wonderful opportunity. Merle agreed to let Daryl quit school and go to work full time as the blacksmith's apprentice.
There was one person who wasn't happy with the decision at all. That would be the schoolmarm, Miss Karen Johnson. She was in fact, quite upset and she called on Merle, meaning to set him straight and convince him to send his little brother back to school.
Merle was not inclined to do any such thing but what he did agree to do, mostly because he happened to think the schoolmarm was an especially sweet and attractive woman, was to send Daryl to the schoolhouse after supper two nights a week for lessons. Miss Johnson was bound and determined to see to it that at the very least the boy learned to read. Merle Dixon liked the look, the smell and the manner of Miss Johnson and so he accompanied his brother.
It started a chain of events. Not only was young Daryl learning to read but his now 20 year old brother was discovering he was also capable of learning to read. Merle and Karen had developed a bit of a flirtatiousness between them and before a person knew what to think they had secretly become sweethearts. It wasn't long after that, on a Saturday afternoon, that Miss Karen Johnson became Mrs. Merle Dixon.
That's when they all moved in together, into a little stick-built house on the edge of town. There was no escaping school for Daryl then, he was living with it. Almost as bad as school was the fact that Miss Karen made him take a bath every single Saturday night and go to church on Sunday. His only consolation was his brother had to go to church too, and he had to take two baths a week.
But she was nice to Daryl and she took real good care of him and Merle. The young boy's clothes were always clean and mended, and there was fresh bread every day. His life had never been better and he knew not to complain. Too much.
It was when he was 18 that Mr. Dale Horvath encouraged him to make an offer to buy the business from him, along with the eleven acres of ground. It included the blacksmith shop, a horse corral and two outbuildings that sat on an acre there in town. The other 10 acres were a half mile out. The land was real good horse property with a small half-built log house on it.
Daryl didn't see how he could turn the opportunity down and Merle and Karen agreed. He took all the wages he'd earned over the years, that were buried in a metal box under the house, and he gave them right back to Mr. Horvath. He still owed some money but he figured he'd have the man paid off in five years time. Sure enough he did. At the ripe old age of twenty-three years he was the sole owner of a thriving business, eleven acres of ground, six rental horses and one of his own.
At 25 years of age Daryl Dixon thought he had everything. He couldn't think of one thing he wanted or needed. Not until she came to town. Once he'd seen her he was real sure he wanted and needed Miss Elizabeth Greene.