Idaho Springs, Colorado
June 15, 1882
Dark hair wisps up against the rushing bright blue of the late spring sky. It echoes the slow curve of the hawk that glides in lazy, high circles through the air. Following the easy movement of the bird, deep eyes of the darkest oak brown settle beneath a furrowed brow. A look of frustration creases below high cheekbones, betraying a wisdom far older than the young woman with raven-colored hair.
If only I could stay up here forever.
Combing through her hair with absent-minded fingers, she begins to section the layers and pull the silken strands into a beautifully complex braid. It trails down her back until it nearly touches her waist. Looking out over the open fields and high mountain peaks beyond, the edge of the young woman’s dress ripples in the wind. Her blue calico dress is almost part of the field of tiny lapiz colored flowers. She blends into this place as though she were always here.
The calm of the afternoon is both sweet and unsettling for Katie. This last winter was a long one, but the kisses of early June sunlight promise a new direction. Her braid remade, she stands up and breathes deeply to soak up this moment. Her father has been tending these fields since she was a tiny thing, first growing corn and then switching to wheat. The land has been good to them, and her father has certainly been good to her family.
Looking up at the rolling clouds one last time, Katie turns towards the house and runs through the fields. She catches her long dress up in her hands as it tugs at her calves, threatening to trip her. People always told her that she was graceful without trying, but she felt most in herself when running through her papa’s fields. She used to love to jump between the shafts of wheat around harvesttime and get lost running through the tall, swaying wheat.
“Mama! Mama I’m comin!”
As she gets close to the door, Katie sees a woman who could almost be her reflection. They have the same ink-dark hair save the streaks of pearly silver running through her mother’s waist-length locks. The crinkles in her mother’s eyes and the sweet smile that winds through her rosy cheeks speak of a life well lived and full of love. Yvonne is the heart of the old farmhouse.
“Katie, my word, you look like somebody bottled some sunshine and poured it right into you!” Turning back towards the kitchen, Yvonne takes little notice of her eldest daughter.
“Mama, you know I think I might have taken a sip of happiness.” Katie whirls around in a circle, the cornflowers on her dress dancing in the breeze that’s blowing through the open door.
“You keep on drinking that happiness, but tell me what’s got into you while you get to helpin’ me fix supper.”
“Well, Mama, I think . . .”
Rushing in towards the women, a little girl wearing a green dress caked in cream-colored batter giggles with delight.
“Suzan, my goodness, what is this mess you’ve made?” Yvonne grabs the girl’s hand and pulls her towards the sink. Katie notices how frail her mother looks as she wipes down the dress on the youngest of four girls. Suzan is fiery and boisterous at just ten years old, the opposite of Katie’s steady and measured demeanor.
“Mama, our prayers have been answered!” Katie’s smile beams brighter than the spring sunshine.
“What on earth do you mean, child? Life with you girls close by my side is blessed beyond measure.” Suzan continues to squirm as Yvonne’s eyes crinkle at the mess. Her rough hands are gnarled with arthritis, but she pushes through the stiffness.
“I mean, our sufferin’ has ended, Mama.” Katie grabs the rag and finishes wiping Suzan’s face before sending her out the door.
“You best just tell me what’s got into you, Katie. I don’t have any idea what you mean.”
“I mean that I found a way to give us all a better life. Mama, I’m gonna get married.”
Yvonne takes a few steps back and sits down in a chair.
“We’ve been over this, Katie. There ain’t no man around here that’s fit for you to marry.”
“There isn’t a man around here that’s fit for me, which is why I replied to an advert for a mail-order bride. I’ll soon be going away.”
Sitting in the living room after a quiet supper, the family is whole. The ticking of the cuckoo clock echoes through the silent house. The two youngest girls play with their dolls by the fireplace while Katie stares into the flames. The second oldest girl, Lucille, has her nose buried in a book about travel in far-off places.
After some minutes of silence, Katie’s father leans forward and sits his pipe on the oak side table. “Sendin’ you off to get married was supposed to be a last resort, Katie. We can still find a way to keep this family together. It might not be easy, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do it.”
The look of defeat in his deep blue eyes melts Katie’s heart. The last thing in the world she wants to do is break her daddy’s spirit, but she can’t stand by and watch her mama workin’ her hands to death, and her daddy bust his hump from sunup to sundown for another winter.
“Honey, you should marry because you want to, not because you feel like you have to. We want you to marry for love, the same reason I married your pa.” Yvonne’s eyes well up with tears, “We didn’t work this hard and sacrifice this much just to have you give up your life for a few dollars.”
Katie stands up and walks over to her mama. She kneels down on the floor, her long black braid falling over the edge of the rocking chair as she leans in and places her head in her mama’s lap. The well-worn boards of the floor are clean, swept, and scrubbed until they almost shine, thanks to the hard work of her mother’s hands scrubbing them with a bucket of water and lye soap. The furniture has been patched again and again, and Katie runs her fingers across a place where the cushion has been mended with expert stitches. Yvonne’s gnarled hands smooth the plaited hair and trace the edge of her daughter’s graceful neck at the edge of the blue dress and the subtle lace that she wove herself.
“Mama, you know I don’t want to leave you.” She turns her face up to the older woman’s face and smiles with a gentle resilience. “I’m not sellin’ myself off like a piece of meat. There are things I can do to make everyone’s life better, and I need y’all to trust me that I can make this decision.”
Standing up, Katie walks over to her daddy and places a hand on his shoulder.
“Katie girl, you’ve always been so strong for our family. I don’t question your ability to make smart decisions, but I question whether you give too much to others. You’ve got to keep something for yourself, little girl. Don’t let anything spoil your future happiness.”
Her daddy’s eyes are softer than she’s ever seen them. The trust that he’s putting into her gives her even more steely strength to head out into the unknown. She knows she has to do the right thing for her family.
“Daddy, I ain’t doing this because I have to.”
“Sweet girl, you know that we’re always gonna be here for you come hell or high water. It don’t matter what decision you make, exceptin’ that you should do it for you. You deserve to be treated like the valuable woman that you are.”
Picking her hand up off of his shoulder, he grabs his pipe and walks over to the fireplace. Throwing the used tobacco into the flames, he hits the wooden mantle hard with his fist, shaking the glass in the framed pictures that sit on it.
“Katie. I don’t think you understand what you’re playing with.” His voice raises, but he continues to look straight at the fire. “This isn’t one of your silly schoolgirl games. If you end up in the arms of some ruffian on the other side of Oklahoma, there ain’t nothin’ I can do to protect you. I worry about you.”
More than anything, Katie wants to walk over and wrap herself up in his strong arms the way she used to when she was a little thing, but she knows that she’s too old for that now. The rough-hewn walls of the family home that he built with his own two hands have stood the test of time and sheltered her up until now. She’s got to stand on her own.
“I love you, daddy, but I ain’t no little girl anymore. I’m twenty-one years old, and the fact of the matter is that you can’t tell me what to do anymore.”
Her father turns toward her, eyes harsh. “Girl, you don’t know this man. You ought to be kept safe by a man that you know and that you love. This ain’t right.” He focuses back on the fire. All three younger girls stare at Katie.
“Nobody even told us this was possible, Katie,” Lucille says with a sad sound in her voice. “I don’t want you to run away from us.”
“Katie, you’ve got to think about how much we all love you. We want you to be happy.” Yvonne’s eyes are pleading with her daughter.
“You all know that I love you with all my heart, but this is the next step for me. There ain’t options for me like there would be if I were a boy. Sometimes life is made up of tough choices, but like daddy has always told us, we Bright girls are tougher than any boy.”
Walking over to the opposite side of the fireplace, Katie tenuously places a hand over her father’s fist on the mantlepiece. “Please, daddy, I need you to support me in this. If anything goes wrong, I’ll write you right away, and we’ll sort it out. I still need you, but I’m strong too.”
The older man’s eyes soften, and he lets his fist relax. “If this is really what you want to do, I can’t stop you. Just promise me that you’re not only doing it for us but for you.”
“It is what I want, daddy. I want to tame the West lands and create a future that I can call my own. I love each of you so much that my heart wants to burst with it, but I can’t stay here forever. I have to go be my own person.”
Little Suzan jumps up with delight. The sparse light in the living room dances through her shining eyes. “Does this mean you’re gettin’ married, sister? Are you gonna wear a fancy dress and dance all night?”
The family laughs at the little girl, and Yvonne stands to hug her daughter as she says, “I think this calls for a celebration. I’ve got some cherry hand pies in the cupboard that I was saving for lunch tomorrow, but why not let’s whip up some of that cream and have a sweet dessert to share our happiness with our Katie. Even if it breaks my heart to lose you.”
“Mama, you’re never gonna lose me. But I also won’t ever say no to your hand pies. Besides, it’ll be weeks before I have to go,” Katie leans in hard for a hug with her mother, each woman’s dark hair pressing into the other’s.
She must have read this first letter from him three dozen times. Katie has developed the habit of taking the letters down the riverbank and reading them over whenever she has a moment of quiet.
April 25th, 1882
Dear Miss Katie,
Thank you for responding to my advert for a mail-order bride. I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I placed the ad in the first place. Your letter was a welcome surprise.
I’m a hard-working, sober man looking for a woman to build a life with. As a sheriff, my life can be exciting. I don’t want to mislead you, as I work an awful lot. My housekeeper, Judith, is almost always home.
I might not always have the best words for wooing and courting, but I try to live my life with integrity. A house just isn’t a home without a woman to lead it.
I hope to hear from you soon.
Sheriff Justin Ston
Rereading his words, following the line of his hand, and imagining the way his fingers wrap around the pen makes it feel more real. She dangles her feet down toward the water, her toes gently tapping the rivulets as she reads another favorite.
June 11th, 1882
Dear Miss Katie,
I’m filled with humility at your kindness. These last few weeks have been a whole lot of late nights as a new wave of settlers have been building on the edge of Austin. Sometimes the whole business of shaking hands and reassuring new arrivals is the most exhausting part of my job. We’ve had some horses stolen from a ranch, too. I think it might be some of the natives in the area, but I’m not sure just yet.
It’s good to hear that your family is so close. The way that you clearly care for your sisters makes it plain that you are a woman of great devotion.
This might be forward, as we have exchanged less than a half dozen letters altogether, but I wonder whether you would consider a modest proposal? After all, the purpose of our meeting through my advertisement was to find matrimony.
I would be humbled if you would consider coming to Austin to marry me.
The proposal in Justin’s June letter hadn’t taken Katie by surprise, but sitting on the bank of the river weeks later, she still gets goosebumps rereading the words. The day she got it, she immediately wrote her acceptance, though she took a few days of sitting on it to post it. That kind of waiting game seems silly now that she’s ready to go. Katie gently folds the letters and ties them up before walking back to the house.
The weeks continue to fly by faster than any time Katie has ever felt time go before. Wishing she could both slow time down and speed it up, Katie is a bubbling mix of excitement and a little fear of the unknown. Letters between her and her soon-to-be husband have gone back and forth across the miles.
Alone in the kitchen after everyone else is asleep, she pulls out his latest letter.
July 20th, 1882
It’s hard to believe we’re coming closer to your arrival in Austin. I’ve worked with Judith to make sure that a room is ready for you and that you’ll be comfortable when you get here.
If there is anything you need, please do not hesitate to ask. My view of marriage is a partnership, but I also realize that you’ll be far away from home. Know that I’m here to support you all along the way. The journey is long, and I do hope it’s comfortable.
I’ve been building a new stable behind my ranch, and it’s nearly complete. My horse Blaze (who I know you must be tired of hearing about) has already inspected the structure and given his nod of approval.
Once again, I have to share my excitement with you about your coming here. I count myself as a lucky man to have met such a woman as you through such unusual means.
Katie is ready for the next step in her life, and each letter gives her more sureness that she’s doing the right thing. The stack of letters sits on the edge of her bed, and she’s tied them up with a long pink ribbon that was bought for her hair on her eighteenth birthday. It seems like a fitting symbol of her step into womanhood. A few of her clothes are neatly bundled on a crooked wooden table worn out with age. She adds them and the letters to a small travel box her mama scrounged up and fits her bonnet over her neatly styled black hair. Though she won’t leave for a few weeks yet, she’s started to pack methodically already.
“I wish daddy and mama could be there with me when I take my vows,” she says to the empty room.
I wish they could be there, but mostly to share in my joy at marrying such a fine man.
She walks out into the family room to find her father slouching in a chair at the far corner of the room. Though everyone has agreed that this is for the best, there is an air of misery in the house at the reality of this day.
“Katie, you can still decide not to go.” Yvonne hugs her daughter tight. The lean limbs under the older woman’s dress give Katie even more confidence that she’s doing the right thing for her aging mother.
“It’s all going to be alright! This marriage won’t be for naught. I’m staking my claim to a life that I want.” Reaching into a hidden pocket in her skirt, Katie pulls out a worn piece of newsprint from within its folds. “Justin Ston, Sheriff, a gentleman, teetotaller, and principal of an educational and moral establishment seeks a true, amiable, and domesticated wife. He has traveled across the country and would like to settle down to start a family. Will some young Christian lady of a quiet and sympathetic disposition consider this man for her husband?” She hands the letter to her father after reading it.
“He sounds like a gentleman and a sheriff at that, but who knows what he’s really like?” Her father hands the ad back to her, but his face is less concerned.
“Daddy, that’s just the ad. His letters speak to his goodness. He’s a kind man and an honorable one. I think I could grow to love him. There is something else, though – read the last line for us.” she says as she hands the letter to her sister Lucille.
“If you have any relative you may wish to bring along with you so that you will not be feeling all alone during the hours I will be off to work, please bring them when you come along.” Lucille’s eyes become large as she reads.
“Would you like to come with me, Lucille? Daddy and mama have already agreed for you to come.”
Covering her mouth with her hands, Lucille nods her head vigorously “yes” and grabs her sister in a big hug.
“We only have a few weeks before we head out to Austin, so we best enjoy them,” Katie says with a broad smile as Lucille runs off to her bed.
“We’re gonna lose you both now?” Suzan’s eyes well up with tears.
“That’ll make me the oldest!” Mary says with a bittersweet grin.
“It will, so you’ll have to step up and take care of Suzan. You can do this, my happy little thing. It’s up to you to help Mama now.” She turns to her father. “I know this is hard, Daddy, but now the household expenses will cut in half this way.”
“It’s the way of things. We’ll be alright, and I think you two can take care of each other. You’re a strong girl, and so is your sister,” he says with a sad but strong smile.
April 2nd, 1882
Pacing the living room, a tall and handsome man with blue eyes and dusty brown hair looks at the wooden planks with an air of frustration and intrigue. “I can’t believe you’d even suggest such a bizarre thing, Chris.”
Sitting cross-legged in a chair on the other side of the room, Chris Speller is dressed in a sleek blue suit. He sips on a glass of whiskey, a smile dancing on the edge of his lips.
“Justin, I’m just saying you need to start thinking in a different direction, or you’re never gonna unwind all that tension you keep on holding. Why don’t you have a drink?
“You know I don’t drink. Why don’t you settle down yourself?”
“I never said I wanted to settle down – you’re the one who keeps sayin’ how you need a good woman. I can get good women whenever I want to.”
Justin shoots an intense glare at Chris and continues his frustrated pacing, finally leaning on the mantle and staring into the fireplace. “Your idea of a good woman and my idea of a good woman hasn’t been the same since we were kids. I believe you’re just tryin’ to make me mad by even suggesting this crazy idea.”
“Not at all, old friend. I only want you to be happy. Many men have found wonderful wives by putting up a Newspaper ad for a mail-order bride. All I’m sayin’ is that you should consider it. You’re not gettin’ any younger, old man,” Chris says with a wink.
Grabbing the poker, Justin shifts the logs in the fireplace, and the flames roar to life. He pulls the poker out of the fire and stares up at his friend.
“Whoa there boy, don’t look at me with daggers in your eyes while you’re holdin’ a hot poker.” Chris holds his hands up in faux shock and submission. “That feels mighty threatening, Sheriff.”
The joke lands with a thud, and Chris stands up and walks to the kitchen. Justin seems lost in his thoughts, clearly frustrated at the whole idea. They’ve been friends since they were young kids, and Chris has a sixth sense of his friend’s mood. Going into the kitchen, he pours a glass of water and puts a stick of cinnamon in it. Justin’s drink of choice.
“Take a sip of this and let your brain settle down a bit. I’m not tryin’ to make you angry.”
“I know you aren’t, but the whole thing feels so ridiculous. A man shouldn’t have to put an ad out for a wife.”
“That’s not what this is about. You’re the sheriff, Justin. That’s a noble and wonderful profession, but the women here all know you, and their families all know you.” He turns to face Justin. “Just about everybody ‘round here has done something on the other side of the law, and that means they’ve kept their daughters well away from you lest they find themselves stuck in the middle.” Chris gestures towards Justin with a deep smile. “A mail-order bride is a great solution.”
“I hear all that you’re sayin’, but I don’t even wanna think about getting married to some girl I ain’t ever met. What if she’s horrible? What if I’m stuck with some woman who just doesn’t fit with me?”
“Is that really any better than the no woman you’ve got right now?” Chris says in a tone that just infuriates Justin.
“You’re not funny, Chris.”
“Look, why don’t you just simmer on the idea for a minute. I’m not sayin’ you have to do it right now. I am sayin’ that we’re both twenty-four, and neither of us is gettin’ any younger. I want my kids to make fun of your kids someday.”
“I’ll think it over.”
“Drink your cinnamon water, and we’ll talk about it again later.” Chris walks towards the door.
“Hey, how’s your dad?” Justin asks just before he leaves.
“He’s doing alright, thanks for askin’. You know him. He’s got big plans as Mayor of Austin. Right now, he’s setting up a horse race, well, more of a tournament, really. I wish you would come and join in it. It would mean a lot to him.”
“You know I can’t take time for that kind of thing, Chris, but tell your dad I appreciate the offer. I’ve got work to do to keep the thieves and ruffians from running out over the streets, and the horse tournament is gonna be an especially tough moment to keep them all at bay.”
“Them bandits are depriving me of some quality time with my best friend. If they don’t stop, I might have to go take care of them myself just so I can get a little face time with you before you get you a little wife.”
Justin shoots him a stern look, then smiles. “You’re the one tryin’ to get me married off.”
“Anyway, that’s why I need to help you find a wife. You need to spend some time with someone other than stinking robbers and horse thieves.”
“We’ll talk about it again tomorrow. I need to get some sleep before I can think clearly about this kind of serious nonsense.”
“You gotta promise you’ll keep an open mind.”
“Go on home! Let me get some rest!”
The Spellers’ ranch stretches out for miles – it’s the largest ranch in the county. The vast stables house dozens of prized horses, making them some of the wealthiest horse owners in the whole state of Texas.
There’s intricate carving in the wood above each door, mirrored inside each stable. There’s a constant stream of ranch hands mucking out the stables and sweeping the walkways, leaving the place trim and neat at all times.
Not only are the stables beautiful to look at, but they house horses that are equally beautiful. From early in the morning until dusk, ranch hands spend hours each day exercising the animals. The horses are well looked after, their coats brushed and with shining manes. Even someone who knows nothing about horses could see how well taken care of these animals are.
Chris and Justin grew up sneaking down through the barns and playing pranks on the hard-working men who kept the animals. They once perched a bucket of water over a stall so that it would fall on one of the men as he brought in a horse in the evening twilight. His screams of frustration elicited huge bouts of uncontrollable laughter from the two teenagers.
Mayor Speller got his money in the California Gold Rush when he was younger than his son is now, staking his claim on a chance and digging out a life-changing fortune. He moved to Austin shortly after and started a family, all while building his business and making his way up the political ladder.
Walking down the familiar path around the edge of the stables near the race venue, Justin walks up to a group of people huddled together, Chris among them. The loud bickering tells him that they’re placing bets and arguing over which racer is going to win and how much money each person will win or lose.
Justin immediately gets the group’s attention with a long, low whistle.
“Why hello there, Sheriff.” Henrietta Crane steps out of the crowd and walks straight towards Justin. “It’s been a mighty long time since I saw you.”
Dressed in a violet taffeta skirt and wide woven hat, Henrietta is impossible to miss. Justin would never forget her because he once arrested her for stealing horses and making illegal bets with them. He had managed to find some evidence suggesting she had committed the folly, but she managed to sweet-talk her way into getting away with the crime scot-free.
Since then, she and Justin had been locked in a bit of a dance. He knew the truth about her crimes and refused to back down, continuing to dig for tangible proof of her illegal schemes. She loathed him even more with every passing encounter, constantly haranguing him for trespassing or illegally listening in to her conversations.
“It’s good to see you, Henrietta. What have you been getting yourself into lately? Anything you might like to share?” Justin smiles as he pulls back his jacket and makes his badge visible.
“You seem to be implying some impropriety, sir, and I’m sure I have no idea what you might be talking about,” Henrietta huffs as she walks around the corner. All the crowd follows her except Chris.
“My, my, you do have a way with the ladies, friend. She’s not such a fan of yours since you gave her a night’s rest in that little cell of yours.”
“I have a way with folks who try to break the law, friend. Let’s go settle in for the festivities.”
They walk down the edge of the track and find a place where they can see the action. Justin wishes he could have ridden the race but knows he’s needed out here with a keen eye. You never know who might be waiting out and watching for a chance to take advantage.
“You’ve certainly done a great job running this place. From a simple set of family stables to a top breeder in the state. You’re quite the businessman.”
“I do pretty well for myself. I’d say I’m pretty lucky to have had such good fortune to work with such fine animals. Horses make me joyful deep down in my soul, and I’m happy I can see them in the hands of good folks.”
The Spellers’ operation had grown into a significant source of high-quality horses for rodeos, lawmen, and merchants. Chris often traveled across several states to negotiate sales, and everybody knew that he was an honest man who knew his business. Everywhere he went, Chris rode the horses to show off their quality, making all those years of the two young boys hiding out in the stable house worth it.
“It’s not all in the horses though, Chris – it’s you that’s molded this whole place into what it is. You’re quite the rider.”
“You’re too kind, friend. We both know that you’re the better rider of the two of us, but I sure am the better salesman.”
“You’ve got all the time in the world to practice your riding skills, Chris – some of us have important jobs to do.” Justin laughs and looks back to the track.
“What do you mean I’ve got all the time in the world? I might be blessed, but I don’t have a lazy bone in my body. Not everyone can be sheriff.”
Justin turns towards his friend, squinting his eyes in the bright afternoon sun. “I’m only picking at you because I swear to goodness you spend more time on the job than I do. Hell, I wouldn’t be out here on this beautiful day if it weren’t for you. I’m thankful the rain stayed away so we can all enjoy it.”
Both men turn back to the track, eyes focused on the pack of horses that are barreling down the dirt towards them. Lifting his hand to his eyes, Justin sees Chris’s horse trailing well behind a cloud of dust. He can just make out Henrietta’s stallion in the front of the pack, kicking up a cloud in front of Chris’s horse. Hers is clearly a hyper-fast breed that isn’t going to slow down even one bit, even here at the end when everyone’s stamina is waning.
How she could afford that kind of horse makes Justin pause and question what she must have done for the money. Chris’s horses are known to be the highest quality horses in the area, and she can’t have come by that stallion cheaply.
Chris has clearly already accepted the reality that he will come in behind on this one. He looks away from the track and up to the sky, eyes glazed and mouth turned down as he walks towards the stables. There’s no reason to keep watching when he already knows it’s over.
Suddenly, a cracking thump comes from the track as the horse in the lead misses a step. The sound of hooves crinkling and tapping on the edge of the track mixes with shouts and gasps. The crowd is on its feet and pushing towards the edge of the fence to see as Henrietta’s horse stops its gallop and screeches to a complete halt on the tracks.
Chris’s horse speeds past in a moment, taking all of the glory.
“Chris! Chris!” Justin calls after his dejected friend, running towards him to give him the news.
“What? How did that happen?!” A broad smile beams across his face, and the two men laugh with joy as Justin claps Chris on the back with congratulations. “I guess it’s time for me to go collect my winnings from the woman in purple,” the young man says with a smile.
Waiting for his friend to come back, Justin thinks about what his next step should be. His life is full of friendship and purpose, but he’s missing family. Though he’s tried over the years to be at peace with his life as a bachelor, he can’t escape the loneliness. He knows it’s time for a change.
When Chris returns, eyes wide and mouth smiling, Justin meets him with an equally broad grin.
“Why are you so happy? I’m the one with the winning horse.”
“Well, I’m about to make you even happier. I’ve decided to go ahead with your mail order bride idea.”
“Have you really? Well, well, this does make for a happy day. I’d like to see you happy for a lifetime. Do you need some help writing the ad?”
“I don’t need a lick of help because I’ve already submitted my ad to the press house. In fact, I’ve already gotten some replies and written back to one girl.”
“Aren’t you the sneaky one! What are you waiting for? Tell me her name!”
“She’s got a sweet little name, and I hope that it goes with a sweet girl. Katie.”
“This calls for a celebration. Let’s go out on the town – my treat!”
August 7, 1882
“Come along on the second week of August with Lucille, and don’t worry your head about anything along the journey. I’ve made provisions for all of your travel.” Lucille squeaks with delight as she finishes reading the sentence aloud to Mary and Suzan.
“I can’t believe you’re going all the way to Texas, Lucille! Do you think the sky will be a different color?” Suzan pipes up excitedly.
“Ha ha! No, my dear, the sky is the same blue as here in Colorado. But there aren’t any mountains down there. I read that everything is as flat as the top of the kitchen table.”
“Do you think your house will have criminals in it in a jail cell?” Mary asks seriously. “John is a sheriff. I wonder if he sleeps nearby to make sure they don’t escape.”
“I’m sure that his house is far away from the criminals, Mary. Katie and I will be mighty safe in with a lawman to protect us,” Lucille said with a knowing air.
“Mary and Suzan, y’all run along now to help Daddy bring in those buckets of blueberries for the market. I need to talk to Lucille for a minute.” Katie gently guides her sisters out the back door and sits next to Lucille at the table. “Now look here, I want you to be sure that this is what you want to do. You don’t have to come with me to Texas, and I know you’ll miss Mama and Daddy something fierce.”
Lucille’s eyes roll far into the back of her head. “Katie, you have asked me this a hundred times and a hundred times I’ve told you I’m absolutely certain this is where I’m meant to be. I wouldn’t miss this kind of adventure for all the chocolate in France. A farm girl like me doesn’t come across this kind of amazing thing that often in her life, and I sure as heck am not going to miss out on it.”
“I know that I keep on askin’, but I can’t help but worry that you don’t realize how far it’s going to be. We’re goin’ away from Mama and Daddy, and we won’t be back for a good long time. Mary and Suzan are gonna keep growin’, and mama’s gonna keep gettin’ older. While we’re off livin’ our lives, they’ll be changin’ too.” Katie puts her delicate, pale hands on top of Lucille’s rosy slender fingers and gives them a squeeze.
“Big sister, I am not a child. I know what I’m getting myself into. All the things I don’t know about it are the part that makes it an adventure!”
As the girls finish their chat, the rest of the family bursts in with food that’s been prepared by the neighbors. Sitting down around the table one last time, they hold hands as Katie’s father gives the prayer.
“Dear Lord, thank you for this meal that’s been prepared by the hands of good people who love our little Katie and our little Lucille. We have been blessed to have these two girls among us, and we’re blessed that they are going across the country to live with a good man. May your light shine down on Justin Ston and help guide him to protect these precious treasures. May they get their strength from your grace, and may the Bright family continue to live in the light of your glory. Amen.”
As her daddy finishes the prayer, Katie looks up at his eyes and sees a single tear fall down his cheek. She holds his hand a little tighter as she echoes his words.
Clutching the letters from Justin as though they were made of gold, Katie shakes the dust off of her hat and looks up at the dusty ranch house in front of her. This whole thing looked much different, much less dusty in her mind. She hadn’t expected Texas to be bone dry and the air to feel so heavy in her lungs. She missed the Colorado mountain breeze and the coolness of the sky.
Echoing through her mind, the warmth of the words in his letters gives her a grounded sense. She has to hold on to that as she steps into the unknown, as though they are a golden treasure. She has to let the fear and doubt fall from her before she meets him for the first time.
“You alright, Katie?” She hadn’t realized how long she must have been standing there looking at the door.
“Oh! Yes, Lucille, I’m just fine. A little tired from traveling. Just gotta get my bearings a bit, you know? I’m alright. Does my hair look ok?”
“Your hair is always beautiful. It looks just like mama’s did when we were little. Now stop fretting and open the door!” Lucille says with a laugh.
Giving Lucille’s hand one last squeeze, Katie reaches for the door and turns the knob. She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes as she pushes the door open.
To her surprise, the door swings wide, and there’s no one inside. The high ceiling has exposed beams and a large stone fireplace on the far side of the room. A velvet couch sits on top of a woven oval rug at the center of the living room. On one wall, a small piano has sheet music open above the black keys. On the other wall, there’s a tall bookcase with rows of books on shelf after shelf.
Through an open door past the piano, Katie can see a neat dining room with a lace runner and a China cabinet. The door on the other side, which must lead to the upstairs bedrooms, is closed.
“This place is beautiful, Katie! Do we really get to live here? I didn’t know that a Sheriff would be rich!”
Katie doesn’t have any words to respond with. She sets her bag on the floor and pulls her bonnet off and down to her side. She’s still clutching the letters tightly, though they feel warmer now than they did before, as though they really did foretell of this incredible place.
“Good afternoon, ladies.” A rich, steady voice booms warmly from the far side of the dining room, and in walks a broad-shouldered man with a trimmed beard. His brown hair is a stark contrast to his blue eyes, which shine with a friendliness that reminds her instantly of her father’s strength. She suddenly realizes that she didn’t think to knock on the door.
“I’m, I’m so sorry. I just walked right in without knocking on the door.” Katie’s blush runs from her collarbones to the dark line of her hair.
“Well, this is meant to be your home as much as mine if we’re to be man and wife. I’m glad to see you so comfortable here already.” He smiles broadly as he looks straight into her eyes, and Katie feels a rush of familiarity and comfort. “You must be Katie Bright, and this must be your sister, Lucille. It’s wonderful to see you both made it here safely.”
Lucille can’t hold her excitement in any longer. “You must be Sheriff Justin Ston. Your home sure is fancy! I can’t believe it’s going to be my home too.”
In her mind, Katie flashes with an impetus to tell her sister to hush, but Justin’s easy way calms her mind and quiets her frustration.
“I don’t know that I’d call it fancy, but it’s comfortable enough for me. It needs a woman’s touch, and I’m thankful for your beautiful sister’s willingness to make a go of this adventure with me.”
Katie’s eyes crinkle with joy at the heartfelt moment, and she can’t help but break into a wide smile.
“Let’s get your things and see about getting you all settled into your new home,” Justin says as he steps out onto the porch for their bags.
Jumping with excitement, Lucille can hardly control her joy. “Katie! Oh my, he is so handsome and nice! How ever did you know that you’d be going on with a man like that? It’s like something out of one of my books!”
Still stunned by the whole thing, Katie just smiles and steps out to help her husband with the bags.
September 20, 1882
In the two weeks since Katie and Lucille arrived at the Sheriff’s home, Katie has settled in with her fiancé and found a rhythm to life in Austin. Looking around the fine home, she sees all the opportunities to make improvements and create the kind of house that she can be truly happy in.
Even as she feels content with the decision she’s made, Katie’s careful and methodical mind continues to follow every path to make sure she’s made the right decision. Retracing how she got to this place gives her peace of mind.
Though it may seem like a crazy thing to go off and become a mail-order bride, Katie doesn’t see it as an irresponsible decision. She had a good feeling about Justin from the first time she read his ad, but she’s too level-headed to make such a life-changing decision without weighing all of the good and the bad. Things can look pretty on the outside and be nothing but rotten on the inside.
After all of the careful consideration in the last fortnight, she’s decided that marrying the kind, honest, and rich Sherriff is the right thing to do. There’s no reason to back out of the obligation, and she sees a real path forward to find her own happiness. If anything, Katie feels like she’s hit the jackpot with this unusual way of finding a husband.
On this, her wedding day, Katie is more thankful than ever that she brought Lucille along with her. Always a master at putting hair into the most stunning braids, the teenager has fixed Katie’s hair into a wonderfully woven masterpiece with long black locks falling down past her shoulders.
In a special blessing from home, Yvonne sent Katie her own wedding dress. The older woman spent weeks leading up to Katie’s departure mending it and adding bits of ribbon in addition to fitting it perfectly to Katie’s slim figure. Looking in the tall mirror, Katie feels both beautiful and self-assured.
“Sister, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a beautiful bride in all my life,” Lucille says with a glow.
“You’re all too sweet, Lucy. Thank you for coming all this way with me.”
The two hug tightly, and then Katie picks up her flowers, and they walk down to the sanctuary.
Though there aren’t many people in the little church, Katie can see more coming in. Lots of people must know him around here given that he’s the Sherriff, and they all seem to be looking right at her. Seeing Justin standing at the altar makes her feel more at ease, and she’s sure of herself as she walks down the aisle towards him.
Looking at Justin, she admires both his inward resolve and integrity as well as his handsome face. It’s so easy to be drawn to him, and she’s happy that she found him.
Still, forever is a very long time to commit to someone.
The way that everyone looks at Katie as she walks towards him makes Justin realize he has found a woman both beautiful on the outside and full of dedication and honesty on the inside. How could he have been so fortunate to get a woman like Katie through a mail-order advertisement?
Her long, black hair and inquisitive dark eyes are stunning, and he thinks she just might be the loveliest woman he’s ever laid eyes on. That he got to know her through her words in letters before even seeing her makes her even more attractive. That she was full of such boldness that she’d come across the country like this to marry him makes him drawn to her from somewhere deep in his heart.
Inwardly, Justin thanks Chris for suggesting this whole thing and always being there for him. What a wonderful gift to have a lifelong friend like this.
What comes next? I hadn’t thought about tonight, Justin thinks while he looks away towards the stained glass windows so that his eyes don’t betray his thoughts. He wonders if there would be any sort of intimacy in this marriage, because of course, there must be. He pushes away these intense thoughts as the ceremony goes on – he doesn’t want to begin to blush in front of all of these people who he’s supposed to protect. There will be time later to figure all of that out, and Katie will be the one to set the tone.
As the preacher gets to the end of the ceremony, Justin can’t help but wonder about the idea of forever.
Forever is a very long time to commit to someone.
Though he wouldn’t ever want to leave her, if she ever found a reason to leave him, he promised himself that he wouldn’t hold her down. Secure knowing they’ll make their way through whatever kind of forever they’ll make together, Justin hears the preacher’s closing words.
“You may kiss your bride!”
The morning sunlight glints off of the glass paperweight that holds down a stack of papers on Justin’s desk. He’s always been fond of this particular piece of colored glass, with its twining blue ribbons of spiraled navy and cerulean trapped within the clear bubble of glass. The shapes and colors reminded him of the nearby mighty Colorado River and the freedom he felt when he looked at its winding stream of mighty water.
His eyes narrow, and his face falls when he stares at the scrawled notes on the thick paper. The stack of warrants is thinner than it ever has been in his tenure as sheriff.
“There’s got to be somethin’ more than sittin’ behind this damn desk,” Justin muttered to himself as he grabs the pen and starts going down the checklist in the ledger in front of him.
As a child, Justin had been fascinated with the stories of the Texas Rangers, who forded rivers on horseback as they fought for the state of Texas during its riotous early formation. He’d been inspired by their bravery and the purpose they’d found in their work, a kind of steady meaning that he missed in his life. Based in the city of Austin, they remained a point of pride for everyone in the town. People still held onto the notion that Austin was a place where men were forged into greatness. This place felt like the center of culture and hearty Western expansion.
The Rangers were all but gone by the time he was born, and yet he still found himself pulling down the thick history books that detailed their battles on cold winter nights. Though they were mostly gone during the Civil War, their recommissioning when he was in his teens was incredibly inspiring. He still looked for that kind of mission in his life, and he imagined he’d found it when he became the sheriff of Austin. For a while, it gave him purpose, but lately, he struggled to get his feet under him.
In the last three months, the crime rate in Austin has plummeted. The city seemed to be settling down, and folks just didn’t need law enforcement like they used to. For the last quarter, he simply didn’t have much of anything to do. There have been a few thefts of horses here and there, but Justin is currently going on the assumption that they’re a problem with the Indians who keep getting pushed further away from town as settlers come in. Going down the ledger of past crimes in his jurisdiction, Justin shakes his head.
“I wonder if I even need to be doin’ this anymore. Surely I can find something better to do with my time than chasin’ after petty thieves,” he says to himself as he checks the stack of warrants against the entries in the book. “It’s so quiet that it’s almost like they’re all savin’ up their crime for a rainy day.”
In fact, Justin had never known the city to be this peaceful and quiet. Perhaps it was just the end of some cycle of settlement and civilization. Maybe the West was just getting tamer now that the years were passing and more families were moving out to this part of Texas. It could just be that the wild west of Austin wasn’t quite so wild anymore.
I doubt it.
Justin takes a mental note that it’s best to prepare for the unexpected rather than to leave the door open for something that could yank it all down around his ears. He’d been caught off guard by too many things in life to let a lack of vigilance get him this time.
Standing up, he walks into the living room and closes his eyes reflexively as his nose turns towards the kitchen. Mouth watering at the scent of sausage and biscuits, Justin thanks Judith inwardly for her almost magical way with breakfast. More than anything else, Judith was a master of the morning meal, but she also seemed to have a sixth sense about giving him what he needed just when he needed it. Her services were worth every penny he paid her.
“It’s a two-cup kind of morning, Judith,” he says with a smile as he sits down at the dining room table. Before eating anything, Justin always gets through a cup of strong black coffee. The caffeine on an empty stomach makes him feel awake and ready to tackle whatever might be ahead.
Crossing the center of the table is a finely woven lace runner with a crystal vase sitting on top of it. The vase was a gift from Chris for his marriage to Katie. Her face when she opened the box upon its arrival a few days after the wedding was a moment that Justin wouldn’t ever forget. She beamed with awe and delight at the delicate cut glass, but when she lifted it out of the box, she seemed so sure of herself.
Sipping his coffee, Justin thought about what a spitfire of a steady woman he’d married. Even that first time she stepped over the threshold and into his home, looking angelic and innocent, she had unremitting confidence that was impossible to ignore. She carried herself so easily, with a grace and beauty that just drew everybody in, no matter how long they’d known her. There was no way on earth that you could fake that kind of poise.
Justin ran his left thumb over the gold band on his left finger. It was uncommon for men to wear wedding bands, but he felt it symbolized his fidelity and commitment to his wife. Where women were often thought of as property, and the wedding ring symbolized control, Justin saw marriage as a partnership. For him, that simple ring of gold was a reminder that he had a partner to help him up the mountain of life.
As strong as Justin was, a lawman and a leader in the community, he couldn’t seem to escape the ghosts of his father. He’d determined that he wouldn’t leave Katie hanging the way his father had left his mother alone.
Justin coughs on his sip of hot coffee.
“Sir, are you all right?” Judith asks as she rushes through the door with his plate of sausage and biscuits.
Taking in deep breaths to clear his lungs and dabbing his mouth with the cloth napkin, Justin catches his breath.
“I’m just fine, thank you. Coffee just got at me the wrong way, is all.”
“If you’re sure you’re all right. I’ll get you a glass of water to help you clear all that out,” Judith replies to him with a concerned look as she walks back into the kitchen.
“This smells like a dream. I don’t know what you do to your food Judith, but it’s so good that it just might be against the law,” Justin says to her with a wink as she sits the glass of water down on the table.
“Just tryin’ to do my best for you, sir. You work so hard and do so much good for Austin. You deserve a good meal.”
“Well, I am mighty thankful for every bite,” Justin says as he cuts up a piece of sausage and takes a bite.
Judith curtsies and smiles broadly as she dashes back into the kitchen.
It’s not just the excellent food in his life that Justin feels thankful for. With every passing day, he’s more and more thankful that Katie has come into his life. His recent discontent with his job as sheriff is exacerbated by his growing affection for his wife. What if she were to lose interest in him and decide that she wanted more out of her life? A woman like her could have just about anything she put her mind to get, and it was not unreasonable to think that she could realize what all of her options were now that she was surrounded by the bustling people of Austin. He’d have to make sure he gave her all she needed, or else he might risk losing her.
Just as he resolves to do what he must to preserve and grow their relationship, Katie walks through the living room door. Clad in a blue silk dress that flares just above her ankles and winds down the curves of her body like the ribboned glass in his paperweight, she looks every bit as beautiful to him as she did on their wedding day just a few weeks ago.
Justin’s stomach draws into a knot with the realization that he can’t follow the curves beneath that dress with his fingertips until she freely gives her consent. Hearing Chris’s words in his head, it dawns on Justin that he indeed needs a woman in his life. Not just any woman though, he needed this woman in his life.
“Good morning, Mr. Ston. It’s looking like a beautiful day,” Katie says with a smile that makes the knot in Justin’s stomach tighten. “May I sit down next to you?”
Her formality is a point of wonder and frustration for Justin.
“Please do – this is your house just as much as it is mine, and you can sit anywhere that pleases you. And you don’t have to call me sir, Katie. I appreciate how we’re both getting to know each other still, but I’d much rather you just call me Justin or something less formal,” he says as he leans ever so slightly closer to her.
As the weeks went by, Justin had hoped she would grow more accustomed to him being around her. He longs to be closer to her, not just physically but mentally and emotionally as well. Something about her makes him feel both alive and frozen at the same time. Though he knows in his mind that he is much bigger than she is and that there must be some element of intimidation for her with that size difference, at the same time, he also knows that it is really she who has more of the power between them. Maybe he isn’t so formidable after all.
After she nods to Judith, who comes in and places a plate of food and a cup of coffee in front of her, Justin notices that Katie has a furrowed brow. It’s a look that he’s not seen on her face before.
“I have something to ask you, but I’m not sure exactly how to bring it up other than to just say it straight out to you,” Katie says as she looks directly into his eyes.
Bracing for her to request that he let her go back to Colorado, Justin feels the rigidity in his stomach increase, and his heart starts to race. They haven’t yet consummated their marriage, so if she decides to walk away at this point, it won’t affect her terribly. Every worst-case scenario runs through his mind while he pushes his sausage around on his plate.
“Katie, you can be honest with me about anything you might want or need. I’m not here to force you into anything,” he says while looking down at the pattern on the silverware.
“Would you be willing to send my family back some compensation in respect to my departure from them? When Lucille and I left, it left Daddy without our help for the coming harvest season. It would be a mighty big help to him if there was some kind of remuneration for them to tide them through. It’s rather a common thing with marriages like ours.” Katie blushes deeply at the last sentence, but her eyes don’t stray from Justin’s.
“That seems like a reasonable thing to do, Katie. I don’t want you to hesitate in asking me for things – we can talk about whatever it is that’s on your mind. Put together what you need, and I’ll get it sent along as soon as you do. We’re married now, and that means we’ve got to be able to talk about things.” Justin pats the table near her hand as he finishes his last sentence.
“Thank you for that, Justin. It means a lot to me that you’re willing to listen to what I’ve got to say,” she says with a gentle smile.
“Please take this to heart when you’re puttin’ it together, and don’t leave out even the slightest thing that your family needs. They’re my family too now, and I’ll do all that I can to make life better for them.” Justin wants so much to convey the depth of his affection for her.
Katie strokes the tablecloth with her fingertips near Justin’s outstretched fingers but doesn’t quite touch his hand. He can feel the heat rise up his arm at the closeness of her skin, even in the morning daylight.
“Don’t you want to sit down for some breakfast? Judith has a whole mess of fresh biscuits,” he says in the hope that he can stretch out their closeness for a while longer.
Katie stands up, pulling her hand from the tablecloth and smoothing her dress. “Thank you, but I must decline. Lucille and I are heading out to take care of some errands this morning, and we had some cold cheese and fruit before the sun was up. I do think I’ll ask Judith to pack us a picnic for when we’re out.”
As she walks out of the room, Justin notices how the blue cloth molds around her curves. The heat from their closeness just now has muddled his thoughts, and he struggles to think of anything besides her radiating smile at his concession to send her father money.
Before this moment, Justin hadn’t stopped to think of what a hard decision it must have been for her to leave everything she’d known and move halfway across the country to live with a man she’d only known through letters. What would possess her to do such a thing? She couldn’t have possibly done it for love because she didn’t know anything about him other than that he could financially care for her.
How did I not even think of this at all before? This woman must have married me because I can provide for her. Surely, she has a desire for companionship beyond all of this. Doesn’t she?
The question is whether her reasons matter now they are man and wife. Whatever the reason she married him, they are in it together now, and he feels he’s a lucky man to have happened on a woman he is so drawn to and has so much respect for. The Lord must have seen him doing something right somewhere along the way, and now all he has to do is to keep on doing things right. The biggest challenge will be how he can get her to come round without scaring her off. This morning was certainly a step in the right direction, but he has to think of other ways to pull her in and get her to find ease with him.
It might take a while, but eventually, they’d develop the kind of closeness that he craved with her. Time was the giver of comfort in all things, and Justin was nothing if not a patient man.
Taking another bite of sausage, Justin’s muddled thoughts struggled to find clarity in the wake of her heartening presence. If he was going to be married to this woman, he’d have to figure out a way to stop his affection for her from turning his brain to mush. That was especially true given the coming storm he felt in his work as a sheriff.
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