Chapter 1: Ezra
Ezra stared out of the window next to his seat on the train as iron wheels maintained a steady chucky-chuck on the rails. The train car in which he rode swayed ever so gently from side to side, tempting him to close his eyes and sleep.
The journey by train from eastern Pennsylvania carried him, his stepmother Dorothea, and his stepbrother, Marcus, thousands of miles away from home. They had crossed the vast bulk of the plains, heading west on the Kansas Pacific Railroad, through mile after mile of prairie. Long grasses blew in the wind, dotted occasionally by massive herds of buffalo, antelope, and foraging white-tailed deer. In the skies soared hawks and an occasional bald eagle, hunting for mice or other rodents for a tasty meal. He wondered if they gazed curiously at the locomotive spewing coal smoke as it chugged steadily through their territory.
After they had entered Colorado, granted statehood three years prior, they had disembarked the Kansas Pacific and headed south on a connecting line in a private car on the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. That train had taken them past Fort Reynolds and into Pueblo, near the foot of the front range of the Rocky Mountains. There, they had boarded another private, comfortably appointed car on an even smaller train that ran north toward Denver and further north to Cheyenne. From there, they would board yet another train and continue west through Wyoming, then wend their way through the northern Rockies and up and over the Continental Divide toward Salt Lake City, Utah, their ultimate destination.
Over the rocking of the train and the clacking of iron wheels on the rails, he vaguely heard Dorothea and Marcus speaking quietly to one another, every once in a while casting a gaze toward him sitting on the padded bench seat in the middle of the car. He pretended he didn’t notice. Over the past few months, he had grown wary of both of them.
He couldn’t quite put his finger on why, but their actions and behaviors seemed different than they used to be. At twenty-eight years of age, the son of a man who had made much wealth from mining operations and who had recently broken ground on a silver mine in the Wasatch Mountains near Salt Lake City, Ezra Shanklin was not usually given to suspicion, and yet he couldn’t shake it. His father, Cassius Shanklin, had married Dorothea, a woman nearly ten years younger than he, roughly a year ago, three years after the death of his first wife and Ezra’s mother, Helen.
Ezra smiled to himself as the image of his mother formed in his mind, her honey gold hair swept back into a high knot on the back of her head, her smooth, porcelain skin, her kind smile, and a pair of incredibly green eyes that seemed to have the potential to reach deep inside someone’s soul and see them for who and what they were.
Though a grown man who had been immersed in the mining industry and around miners since he could walk, Ezra had reluctantly agreed to travel west to the new mine in Salt Lake City, which his father hoped he would supervise. After deciding he liked the area, Cassius had decided to purchase a home there and had sent for Dorothea and Marcus, eight years Ezra’s junior.
Ezra had just turned the reins of an established coal mine over to a competent manager with his father’s mining company, with more than a little regret. He had been content living in eastern Pennsylvania, overseeing several of his father’s mining operations there. He was still working out some mild resentment about that as he headed west with a stepmother he didn’t much care for and a stepbrother he just plain didn’t like.
He turned his mind from the quiet murmurings of Dorothea and Marcus and tried to focus on all the things he would need to take care of once he arrived at his father’s new mine. He had become an expert at supervising the initial processes that needed to be put into place in any new mining operation. He was also quite adept as a troubleshooter. He knew the work, he knew the tools and the equipment, and perhaps most importantly, he knew the people who worked the mines. He treated each and every one of them with respect and dignity. While he had plenty of experience supervising mine operations, he didn’t particularly care to venture far beneath the earth’s surface.
His concentration was broken when a sharp laugh from Marcus interrupted his thoughts. He glanced at his stepbrother, looking at him now with that familiar smirk on his face. The two of them had never gotten along, not since the moment Dorothea and her son had moved into the family home. For some reason, Marcus looked down on Ezra, even though Ezra was eight years older and had more life experience than Marcus had in the tip of his little finger. It hadn’t taken him long to realize that Marcus wanted things handed to him—money, an easy life, no responsibilities. Even more startling was the fact that Dorothea seemed to also believe her son deserved the same.
Ezra, keeping his expression blank, turned away from Marcus once more, trying to prioritize the tasks he would need to take care of immediately upon his arrival. He was anxious to see his father, as Cassius had been away from their home for months. If only he—
Distracted by movement, Ezra turned once more toward Dorothea and Marcus. While Marcus remained seated, Dorothea stood, the canary yellow gabardine dress she wore crinkling as she did. It couldn’t be a comfortable traveling outfit, at least in Ezra’s opinion, but his stepmother always opted for appearance over comfort. With a smile curving her lips, she headed slowly back toward the seat upon which Ezra sat, her hands aiding her balance as she touched the back of each bench seat as she proceeded down the aisle toward him. She sat down across the aisle from Ezra, an artfully tapered eyebrow lifted in curiosity.
“A few more days and we will be reunited with your father once more,” she said. “Are you excited?”
As he had been doing for months now, Ezra turned to her with a polite yet not heartfelt smile curving his own lips. “It will be nice to see Father again.”
Dorothea beamed. “It’s so exciting, your father opening a silver mine. Just imagine the wealth it will bring to this family!”
While Ezra certainly couldn’t deny the truth of that statement, the way Dorothea said it gave him pause. “I can imagine that you’re quite pleased to once more be reunited with your husband.”
“Oh, of course,” Dorothy agreed. “I have missed him terribly these past months.”
Ezra didn’t know what else to say, as idle conversation between them had never been easy. He was polite and respectful, but beyond that, he really didn’t want much to do with her. She was so very different from his mother. While Dorothea continued to talk about what this newfound wealth would offer the family, Ezra found he missed his mother more than ever. She had never really much cared about the money that the mines brought the family, more concerned with providing love and support to her husband and only child.
He gazed at Dorothea, her long brown hair with threads of gray here and there done up in a fancy way, the wide-brimmed velvet hat she wore settled at an angle atop it. She appeared almost regal. No doubt she was beautiful, but her broad shoulders and rather thick fingers and hands conspired to dim her feminine beauty. Instead, he saw a strong-willed woman who overtly coddled and protected her twenty-year-old son who, in Ezra’s opinion, had been ill-equipped to step into adulthood.
Ezra could never exactly see what his father had seen in Dorothea, as she was the complete opposite of his mother. Despite the woman’s attempts to hide it, her character traits were plain for Ezra to see. Extremely ambitious and devoted to her son, yes. She seemed to love Cassius, although Ezra often doubted her claims and overt displays of affection when others were around. Early on, he had noticed that when Dorothea didn’t like something or when she resented something, she did so with a passion. Even so, and though she had the ability to charm people and to portray a gentlewoman raised with decorum and propriety, Ezra had more than once witnessed her snappish criticism of others and her sometimes manipulative behavior.
Ezra turned his gaze out the window, toward the massive range of mountains rising on the west side of the train, a beautiful, wild, and rugged land. Not far in the distance rose peak after peak of the southern Rocky Mountains, mountains taller than Ezra had ever seen in his life. He had read that this range extended along a north-south orientation from New Mexico and into Canada. Colorado alone had over a dozen peaks that rose over fourteen thousand feet up into the sky, though how those measurements had been taken, he didn’t know.
To the east, the land lay flat, covered with scrub brush and prairie grass, while to the west, mountains studded with pine, aspens, and other tree species met his gaze. He couldn’t deny that this was beautiful country, and he wondered if his destination near Salt Lake City would be as beautiful—
“You listening to me, Ezra?”
Ezra snapped out of his reverie and glanced at Dorothea once more. He saw the annoyance in her gaze and the tightness around her mouth. He knew she didn’t miss his apathetic opinion of her or his son.
“Are you jealous, Ezra?”
The comment startled him and he frowned. “What?”
“Is that what’s bothering you?” She tilted her head, eyes slightly narrowed. “That Marcus will also be helping your father with the mine operations, benefiting in its wealth?”
Ezra barely managed to contain a snort of derision. Marcus and his lily-white hands didn’t know how to work. He had gone through life expecting things to be handed to him without any effort on his part. And yet, this prompted him to speak.
“Dorothea, it would do you well to remember that Marcus is not set to inherit my father’s riches. Yes, I am sure that someday, following his death, he will have made sure that you and your son are well provided for. But the bulk of his fortune will be split between me and several of his philanthropic endeavors.”
Ezra was fine with that. After all, his father had amassed a fortune so vast that he, his son, or even potential grandsons would never be able to spend it all, regardless of how frivolous their lives. While Ezra had grown up in a more-than-comfortable environment, his father had always been practical, eschewing overt displays of luxury for a more common-sense approach to life. Ezra gazed down at his hands, resting on his thighs. His hands weren’t untouched, but instead were tanned, thickly veined, and calloused with work.
He hadn’t grown up pampered. He enjoyed working, and even though he had never worked as hard as a miner or had spent days, weeks, or months underground coaxing mineral ore or coal from the depths of the earth, he had spent a share of his life swinging a pick, shoring up timbers, and pushing ore carts filled with coal and mineral over the years. After all, how could he someday manage and supervise miners if he didn’t share in their experiences?
“I have no doubt that your father will provide well for Marcus over the years, especially since he will be living in our new home for the near future.” She sighed. “I suppose you will still choose to live by yourself in some small cottage away from us?”
Ezra glanced at her. “I’m a grown man, Dorothea. I don’t need to live under my father’s roof.”
He didn’t miss the flash of annoyance in her eyes, although she quickly hid it. She offered a half-smile and nodded. “Your father’s very proud of you, do you know that?” She didn’t wait for him to reply. “He speaks of you often, of your talents, your business acumen, of your ability to fix problems and find solutions in the workings of his mining operations.”
Ezra said nothing but continued to eye her, wondering what she was on about now. She rarely paid any attention to him, let alone gave him compliments.
“I believe your father has mentioned to me, on more than one occasion, that he would like you to spend more time with Marcus, teaching him about mining operations so that he too may enjoy the fruits of his labors.”
Once more, Ezra barely held back a snort. The thought of Marcus deigning to get his hands dirty was almost laughable. The young man turned up his nose at anything that resembled effort. This time, as before, Ezra kept his negative opinion of his stepbrother to himself. “I made several attempts to interest Marcus in the working operations of the mines before we left Pennsylvania. He doesn’t seem terribly interested.”
Dorothea waved a hand in the air. “He’s young yet, still trying to find his way. He’s had a very easy go of it so far in his life, but I’m hoping that with your influence, he will learn the value of hard work and prove useful to your father as he grows older.”
Ezra simply nodded. “All he has to do is ask, Dorothea. I have no desire to teach or attempt to train an unwilling student in anything.”
“He didn’t have the advantage of a father to help guide him in his younger years,” Dorothea said. Her tone matter-of-fact, she continued. “As you know, my first husband, God rest his soul, died not long after Marcus was born. He had no grandfather, no uncles, and no man in his life to teach him the ways of men.”
Ezra didn’t say anything to that. He knew some of Dorothea’s history, but not much. He wondered why she had never remarried before, but then thought that perhaps she had. Most women would have. He wanted to ask but didn’t care to broach that topic with her. If his father or Dorothea wanted him to know more about her past, they would have told him.
So, he replied as honestly as he could, his voice soft yet firm. “I’ve spent years, starting at a very young age, learning, studying, and experiencing the workings of mining operations. I learned about shaft and bell pit mining and when and under which conditions each were warranted.”
He turned his gaze on her. “I’ve heaved a pick, forty or fifty blows every minute to make a hole for the undermining. I’ve stabbed at the earth until my fingers grew raw and every muscle in my body ached. I’ve shared in the labor, worked alongside the men using drills, scrapers, and a tamping bar and sledge. I learned the processes from the men working in those dark depths themselves, not from a book. It doesn’t happen overnight and it isn’t always an easy journey.”
Dorothea continued to watch him, no expression on her face.
“Marcus isn’t interested in that part of mining, Dorothea. But there’s more to being a mine owner and supervisor than sitting behind a desk and ordering others around. His youth is no excuse. This is how Marcus envisions himself. Yet I know he won’t have the respect of any man he intends to lead if he isn’t willing to live their lives and labors, if only briefly.”
Dorothea watched him, a small smile curving her lips, her stare disconcerting. He tried to ignore it as he continued. “Marcus is the one who has to decide what he’s willing to give and what he’s willing to learn to attain a position in my father’s company.”
His stepmother heaved a sigh and gave him a stiff nod. Without another word, she stood and navigated her way to the back of the train car, leaving a trail of lemon verbena toilet water floating in her wake. He returned his gaze once more to the windows, eyeing the rising mountains, the shadow of canyons and distant valleys more apparent with every mile they chugged north, the mid-morning sun casting those mountains into varying shades of light and deep shadow.
The steady, rhythmic clack of the iron wheels once more lulled him into a state of pleasant relaxation to the point he was able to simply enjoy the passing scenery, pushing all thoughts of his stepmother and stepbrother out of his mind, looking forward to seeing his father again. They had moved around so much over the years, his father away for months at a time. Such separations had bothered Ezra during his youthful years, but now, as a grown man, he understood the dedication of his father’s efforts. He, too, shared that dedication.
Sometimes he grew lonely and longed for a family, but his life was a nomadic one, at least for the time being. Business drove him, as did his loyalty to his father. Maybe someday he would be able to settle down in one place, to put down roots, to perhaps find a woman who could help coax him out of his solitary existence.
Another bark of laughter jolted into his thoughts and turned his head slightly, noticing that Marcus now stood next to his mother near the rear of the car. He’d been so deep in thought he’d barely registered his stepbrother moving down the aisle from the front of the car to the rear. As they rounded a bend, he spied the locomotive a few cars ahead, trailed by the open car filled with lumps of coal to power the engine. One passenger car ahead of this one, and behind them a car filled with pallets and boxes and other cargo destined for Utah, and behind that one, the caboose.
The train followed the contours of the foothills, sometimes turning into deep shadows, at others dappled with sunshine. The leaves of the aspen trees studding the mountainsides above him were a pale yellow with the beginning of autumn, soon to turn into a deep gold. No matter where he roamed, he could count on nature to provide him with a sense of stability. At night, he often tracked the constellations among the field of stars in the night sky by the season, and by day he observed how nature also responded to the shifting of seasons. Soon, the leaves would start to drop and the days would grow shorter and colder.
While he hadn’t—
“Ezra, come look!”
Torn from his thoughts, he glanced over his shoulder toward Marcus, gesturing for him. Both he and Dorothea now stood beyond the open door and on the short platform on the outside of the car, where a set of wooden steps descended on either side for passengers to disembark. A small iron railing guarded any passengers from getting too close to the coupling mechanisms between each car.
His stepmother peered to the west, apparently mesmerized by the mountains, the breeze from the train’s movement wafting gently through her hair. Marcus grinned, nodding encouragement. Ezra sighed, figuring that he ought to at least make an attempt at promoting a sense of peace between the three of them. Until he found his own lodgings in Salt Lake City, he would be sharing the house his father had rented with these two.
He stood and made his way through the car, rocking gently from side to side, using his hands to provide stability on the backs of the seats as he joined the duo on the platform. The air felt a bit chilly, but he turned his face into it. A smile curved his lips and he closed his eyes as he caught the scent of pine beyond the spurts of poor-grade coal soot floating in the air from the locomotive’s stack.
He felt hands firmly grasp his shoulders and shove him forward. His eyes flew open and his heart leapt into his throat. Letting out a yelp, he tried to regain his balance, thinking that Dorothea or Marcus had inadvertently bumped into him on the crowded platform. He turned to find Dorothea pressed against the now closed door of the car, no expression on her face as she stared at him.
Another hard shove. He saw the tightening of Dorothea’s lips as she glanced beyond him at her son. It was at that moment that Ezra realized that Marcus was trying to push him from the train car. His heart pounding harder now, his dismay indescribable, he reached for the thin railing surrounding the platform with his left hand grasped the slightly rough, chilled metal tightly as Marcus shoved him once more.
“Harder, Marcus! Push him harder!”
He tried to twist away from Marcus’s grasp, but his stepmother stood behind him now as well, joining her son in attempting to throw him off the train. Words escaped him. He focused only on not getting pushed off the train. He tried to adjust his footing, but another shove propelled him sideways and his right foot found nothing but air. As his stepmother tried to peel his fingers from the railing, he felt another hard jolt in the small of his back, twisting his body slightly. Pain jolted his left hip and raced up his spine. Darting a quick look, Ezra saw Marcus standing nearby, his leg raised, the boot aiming this time at his left leg.
Tightening his one-handed grip on the railing, Ezra could only hang on with desperation as the momentum of the next kick took his feet out from under him and his body weight tumbled over the edge of the platform. He dangled dangerously close to the iron wheels, his feet brushing against the dirt beside the tracks, kicking up stones, prompting tingling bolts of pain up his legs. He gritted his teeth, anger and rage supplying him with a modicum of strength as he tried to latch his free right hand onto something.
His ears ringing with a sense of panic that overcame even the roar of the train, he could only look up at Marcus and his stepmother, both staring down at him now, desperately trying to force him to release his grip on the railing. Dorothea’s face was pale, her eyes wide with fear now, not of her actions, but of getting caught. Hatred twisted Marcus’s features as he cursed, his fist crashing down against Ezra’s fingers. There was no stopping this. There was no changing their minds. They had to finish this, and soon, before a passenger in the train car ahead or perhaps the engineer happened to glance back and see what was happening.
Ezra managed to clamp his right hand down on the floorboards of the platform while Marcus continued to pound his fist against the hand that clung desperately to the railing. And then, as the train headed toward a curve over a steep slope covered with boulders and scrub brush, his stepmother brought her boot heel down on his right hand.
With a yelp, Ezra lost his grip. The railroad car, the iron wheels, and the rails disappeared as he landed on his back, looking up at the sky for the briefest of moments before momentum rolled him away from the train, now moving into the curve. His breath knocked from his lungs, he rolled, until his startled gaze caught the edge of a canyon or a gorge mere inches away. He tried to stop his forward momentum but couldn’t. Horror swept through him as he toppled over the edge.
Instinctively, he reached out for anything to grab onto, anything to keep him from plummeting. He had no idea how steep the precipice or what lay a dozen feet or hundreds below. His fingers desperately tried to clutch onto rocks, but they gave way beneath his grip, the shale and sandstone failing to supply adequate stability to halt his downward impetus.
Gasping with desperation, breathing in dust, silt clouding his eyes, he tried to spread his legs, to throw out his arms, hoping one of his limbs might catch onto scrub brush or a clump of grass. He had no idea how far he tumbled, at any moment expecting to be tossed over yet another precipice to find only empty air around him. His lungs soon clogged with dust, pain erupting all over his body as he landed on a rock here, or scraped his forearm along a spiny bit of cactus there, he tumbled down until he no longer had any sense of up or down.
Abruptly, he stopped falling, landing hard once more on his back, arms flung wide, staring up past the dust cloud left by his rapid decline. He blinked, trying to clear his eyes. He didn’t move, hardly even dared to breathe for fear of falling again. He stared into the brilliant blue sky. A hawk flew high overhead, circling him a moment as if curious before it disappeared over the rim of the canyon. The wall down which he had tumbled rose roughly one hundred feet above him, steep, rocky, and unforgiving.
As he caught his breath in disbelief that he was still alive, he realized he had landed on a shelf. He had a feeling that the canyon dropped still further. At the moment, he couldn’t move, still stunned at what had just transpired, struggling to pull air into his lungs, his chest burning with pain, his head throbbing, and seemingly every muscle and bone in his body bruised and battered.
Chapter 2: Hettie
Crooked River Flats, Colorado
Twenty-three-year-old Hettie Roseman turned to her longtime friend with a smile to answer her question. “The boys are fine.” She sighed. “But tell me true. Did we act like such hellions at their age?”
Emma laughed and offered a shrug. “Maybe.”
Hettie opened the door to the town’s mercantile and stepped inside, the tiny brass bell hanging over it tinkling softly as she entered. Emma was close behind, the wicker basket hanging from her forearm. Hettie loved this place and its sounds and aromas. Every time she walked into the store, she felt as if a comfortable and well-used quilt of comfort had been wrapped around her shoulders. It was rumored that the mercantile was one of the earliest permanent structures built in Crooked River Flats, which also hosted a small post office.
The mercantile was a narrow structure, barely thirty feet wide but more than forty feet long, its wooden walls covered with shelving. At the closer end to the door stood a large wood-burning stove, not glowing at the moment, its nearly ten-inch wide stovepipe reaching upward and extending through a hole in the roof. A small wooden table and two mismatched chairs stood off to the side, a checkerboard and its carved wooden playing pieces lying idle under a window to the right.
Off to the side of the checkerboard table, notices of church socials or meetings, help-wanted notes, an occasional auction, and other announcements were pinned to the wall with an ingenious invention called thumbtacks that a man passing through town had brought with him from Great Britain. These were made of brass, but the man with the odd accent had told the store owner that they could also be made of tin, iron, and steel. The shopkeeper had traded them from the traveler for a box of C. Brewer & Sons’ Boston Light Cigars. He loved to tell the story. Repeatedly.
In the corner stood a table filled with sewing notions and a few bolts of fabric. The section of shelving behind that table was filled with common household items like soap—several that Hettie herself had made and brought to the mercantile to sell on consignment. A gentleman’s toilet set was on full display, the toothbrush, razor and strop, lathering brush, comb, and hair brush offered for one dollar. Women’s hair and hat pins, comb and brush sets, hand mirrors, and other toiletries that appealed to the area’s female population were organized on the shelf, as well.
Hettie moved into the store, the old, weathered boards upon which she walked creaking with every step. Across the aisle stood the west wall of the store, and she glanced at the myriad of hardware and tools hanging there—iron shovels, rakes, and hoes crafted by the town’s blacksmith, Adam Carter. On the table set between shelving in the middle of that wall stood lanterns and beneath them were a number of milking cans. Beyond that, the shelves contained small hand-held chalkboards for the school children, along with boxes of chalk, pencils, and writing tablets.
A shelf closer to the back of the store held men’s boots and women’s shoes, from flat-soled slippers to hob-nailed leather shoes to dainty women’s boots that came with their own button or shoelace hooks for front or side buttons. Hettie had been eyeing the pair of ladies’ ‘Common Sense’ shoes with a sensible low heel, but at nearly three dollars a pair, her old, well-worn shoes would just have to do for a while yet. If anyone needed a new pair of shoes, it was Nicholas, who would soon outgrow yet another pair. This last time, she hadn’t been so prideful that she refused the pair of shoes offered by one of the church ladies, whose own son had outgrown them. Hand-me-downs were appreciated, especially with three fast-growing boys to clothe and feed at home.
She paused to eye the metal-canned goods on another shelf, amazed at the selections. Baked beans, evaporated and condensed milk, baking powder, a wide variety of vegetables from corn to beans to carrots, and dried beef and sardines, whatever they were.
She caught a hint of tobacco and cigars and leather, and the aroma of a bushel of ripe tomatoes and a basket of potatoes set in front of the counter where the store owner stood. Freshly ground coffee made a mound in a large bowl on the counter. She inhaled the aroma, wishing she could buy some, but at twelve cents a pound, she couldn’t. Tea would have to do.
Silas Smithers looked up with a smile. Hettie smiled back.
“Got a list this morning, Hettie?”
She nodded as she stepped to the counter and handed him a small, folded sheet of paper. “Six pairs of boy’s socks, various sizes, please. Still one dollar for the half-dozen?” He nodded. “Good. In addition to the list, I’ll also need seven cents’ worth of sugar—as close to the pound as you can get it—and I’ll treat the boys to five cents’ of your cheese. That’s about a pound, correct?”
“Sure thing, Hettie.” He smiled. He glanced at the list and walked from behind the counter to start gathering the items.
She gestured vaguely over her shoulder. “Take your time, Mister Smithers, I think I want to browse for a few minutes.”
He nodded and glanced at Emma. “What about you, Miss Nash?”
“I’m just tagging along after Hettie, though if you don’t mind, I do think I’ll take three pieces of those licorice sticks.” She gestured toward one of the candy jars on the counter and reached into her small purse, dangling from her wrist with a drawstring. She withdrew three pennies and set them on the counter, then plucked three sticks from the jar. She turned to Hettie. “For the boys.”
Hettie glanced at her friend, slowly shaking her head. “You do know that you’re spoiling them? Every time I come home with supplies from the mercantile, they expect candy.”
Emma laughed. “I enjoy spoiling them. Besides, you exaggerate. I don’t buy candy for them all the time.”
“Well, even so, I’ll send them over to your place this weekend to do some chores you might need done. Wash some windows? Chop some firewood?”
Emma sighed. “If you must, but no rush.”
Hettie nodded and strode over to the sewing supplies. Though she enjoyed helping others, doing what she could for them in any time of need, she didn’t like accepting charity for herself any more than anyone else did. Any time she offered help to someone else, it was repaid in some way. She supplied the Miller family with eggs after their laying hen got killed by a coyote, and Mister Miller came over to the farm to replace a few shingles on the barn. That time she gathered all the clothes that the boys had outgrown, worn though still in good condition, for Sally Mayor, she had baked loaves of bread for her for two weeks. It was that way out here in the West, not only in Crooked River Flats.
Despite the onslaught of “civilization,” it was still a harsh and wild country out here. Everyone helped their neighbors when needed because every one of them knew that one day, they might need a helping hand. A fall from a roof or a horse. Sickness. A death. Not charity—a helping hand.
Hettie selected a couple spools of white thread from a shelf, a packet of needles, and a new darning egg to mend socks. Her six-year-old brother Cole had swiped hers and used it for a hammer out in the yard.
While Hettie didn’t live in town but miles away, and while no one would say that the town of Crooked River Flats was anything special, it had always been Hettie’s home. While she and her family lived about five miles outside of town, the boys went to school here, as she had when she was a girl, and it was a small enough place where everybody knew everybody.
Her parents had died in a wagon accident about five years earlier and now it was Hettie’s responsibility to care for her three younger brothers. Just last month, Nicholas had turned thirteen. Then there was Ethan, nine years old, and the littlest one, Cole, who had been just over one year old when their parents died. He didn’t even remember his mother or father. As far as he was concerned, Hettie was his mother.
Life hadn’t been easy on any of them after the accident. When her parents passed away, Hettie had just turned eighteen years of age, a young woman who looked forward to finding a husband and having a family and place of her own. Grief and uncertainty had nearly crumbled Hettie’s spirit, along with the overwhelming responsibility of taking care of herself and her brothers. She had nearly been brought to her knees.
Several well-meaning families in the area had offered to take in the boys, one going here, another one going there, but Hettie declined. She couldn’t separate the boys, no matter how well-intended the offers. She wouldn’t do that to her parents’ memory, nor to the boys. She was their older sister. It was her responsibility to raise them.
That she had no idea how to do that was the least of her worries. There were money troubles. Besides her own grief, each of the boys had to deal with their grief in their own way, and all Hettie could do to help them was to simply be there for them, to listen, to soothe their tears, to try to comfort little Cole, wailing for his mother’s touch.
Yet, Nicholas and Ethan were smart enough to sense that Hettie, too, grieved for the loss of their parents. They tried to support her, to help out on the farm as best they could despite their youth, despite their own tears and sadness. Losing their parents had strengthened the bonds between sister and brothers. There was no room left in Hettie’s heart for resentment, frustration, or impatience. She’d had to grow up fast, and she had done that to the best of her ability.
“Things all right out on the farm?” Emma asked. Her friend paused in front of a shelf bearing tiny cut-glass jars of toilet water and perfumes.
“Everything’s fine,” Hettie murmured.
It was a struggle, no doubt about it. The first summer after her parents’ deaths, she had gotten by with the family’s meager savings, stowed in a jar in one of the kitchen cupboards. Over the years, she had taken her jars of garden preserves to the mercantile for Mister Smithers to sell on her behalf, and when she could spare them she also sold eggs and even took in some sewing to help make ends meet. She had realized early on that such a strategy was untenable, and the next year had bought several small piglets.
Three years later, Hettie had twenty pigs and a dozen hogs that the boys helped her care for. They were raised, and then sold and butchered every year to help support the small farm. After careful consideration, Hettie decided that pigs, and in turn hogs, that were older than three years of age and would end up weighing over one-hundred-twenty pounds would be more beneficial livestock than cattle or horses to raise, and easier to care for. Her hogs not only provided meat but were a source of additional income when she sold one, so as a cash crop they were a good choice.
Pigs and hogs were fairly self-sufficient and cost little to raise. Every year she planted a small crop of corn in the side yard, one that she and the boys could handle on their own without needing special equipment, for corn feed for the pigs. Corn-fed pigs produced better lard and, in her opinion, better-flavored meat.
While she kept them in a pen at night or during poor weather, they were often allowed to roam the acre or so at the back of the house and near the creek that ran through the property. They were good foragers and ate things that cattle and horses wouldn’t, such as roots, lizards, plant bulbs, and even insects. They loved nuts of any kind.
Each of her pigs and hogs was earmarked and registered with the county court, just in case one wandered off. Most of the people in Crooked River Flats knew about her pigs, so she wasn’t worried about thefts.
To keep the pigs and hogs from wandering too far, she left corn, salt, and some other favorites in the middle of the field behind the house to encourage them to stay close. Soon, it would be time to select a couple hogs to be fattened up before she called on Mister Reinhart to collect them for butchering. She would not allow any of her pigs or hogs to be butchered on her property, but she gave the town butcher an extra dollar to take them into town where he did the deed.
While she never went so far as to name any of the pigs, nor did she allow the boys to do so either, she didn’t have the stomach to have them killed on the farm. It was a part of farm life and she should be less emotional about it, but she couldn’t help it. Butchering time was still another month or so away, when the weather would be cold enough to help preserve their meat until it cured.
Hettie paid the butcher a portion of the proceeds from the sale of either younger pigs or in meat for his own family. Often, she traded a pig or a hog for slabs of beef from local ranchers. Her own cellar was used as her larder, where she stored cured meats, vegetable preserves, dried berries, and the occasional canned goods from the mercantile.
Her family owned nearly one hundred acres of land around the homestead, but she had no way to grow large crops on them by herself. The surrounding hills made it difficult to even consider it, anyway. After her parents died, she had sold off the few cattle they owned, keeping only their dairy cow and a dozen or so hens and two roosters.
Hettie had never imagined herself being a pig farmer, but she had never imagined herself raising her three younger brothers on her own either. While sometimes the responsibility of bringing them up was nearly more than she could bear, she adored her brothers and would do anything for them. Still, there were times when she grew so exhausted that she sat on her bed at night in her room alone, weeping softly.
“Are you all right?”
Hettie pulled herself out of her brief reverie and turned to smile at her friend. “Yes, and I should be getting on home. Plenty of chores to be done and supper to get on the stove before the boys come home from school.”
“I’ll be heading home as well. See you soon, Hettie.”
Emma handed the licorice sticks to her and she watched her friend leave the store, the bell tinkling softly once more with her departure. She felt grateful to have such a stalwart friend as Emma. Several days a week, they worked at the small hotel in the center of town, she as a housekeeper and Emma as a bookkeeper. The six dollars a month that Hettie got paid for her work helped to tide the family over, although it didn’t leave much time for idleness at home.
She turned toward the counter just as Mister Smithers placed a wooden crate upon it, filled with a sack of flour, another sack of sugar, a smaller bag of salt, baking powder, a small bag of potatoes, and a package of sausages made by Mister Johann Reinhardt, a German immigrant who arrived in town the previous year and had already made quite a name for himself as an excellent butcher and traditional Bavarian sausage-maker.
Mister Reinhardt had bought one of her hogs last winter. The rest of her purchases included a portion of dried beef, which she would cut into stew meat. Yesterday, she had butchered one of the chickens, and today would be making chicken stew. Vegetables from her garden and the few potatoes that she had purchased today would do for now.
“How much does it come to, Mister Smithers?”
“One dollar and fifty cents, Hettie, but you can put it on your tab if you need to.”
Hettie shook her head and reached into her pocket to retrieve her change purse, from which she withdrew a crumpled dollar bill and a fifty-cent piece. She didn’t like having to put anything on credit, though sometimes it was necessary. She glumly eyed the meager dime, a couple of nickels, and five pennies left in the bottom of her purse but then smiled and placed the money on the counter. She thanked the good Lord that she had enough to pay for the groceries and had the wherewithal to make those groceries stretch for another couple of weeks.
She took pride in the fact that she worked hard to provide for herself and her brothers, and while they might go without new clothing or shoes, they were not going hungry. She darned socks and mended clothes until they were threadbare and unable to be mended anymore. Only then would she spend money on fabric and sew new shirts for the boys or buy yarn to knit new socks.
She reached for the crate.
“I can load that into your wagon for you, Hettie,” Mister Smithers said.
“That’s all right, Mister Smithers, I’ve got it.” With a smile, she clutched the crate in her arms and bid him goodbye. She left the store, and though the crate was a bit heavy, it wasn’t too much for her. Her work at the farm had honed her muscles and strengthened her back. She could—
“Here, let me get that for you.”
Before she realized it, the crate had been lifted from her arms and she found herself staring up at Loy Blackburn. Dark brown hair threaded with gray was brushed back from a high, tanned forehead. Dark brown eyes met hers as she sought to hide her sudden frustration. Of all the people… the man owned and managed the town’s only bank as well as a large ranch about ten miles to the east of town, where the downslope of the mountain met the flatlands of the plains. He ran hundreds of head of cattle and was one of the richest men in Crooked River Flats, maybe even in the area.
She opened her mouth to protest, but he spoke first.
“A little thing like you shouldn’t be carrying something heavy like this.”
Hettie didn’t care much for Loy Blackburn. Twenty years her senior, she had gotten the feeling months ago that he was interested in her, but it took her a while to figure out why. Not that she felt she was horrible to look at, but rather that she knew the man had political aspirations, not only locally, but, according to gossip, in the state. The man had bragged about someday becoming the governor, maybe even powerful enough to go beyond that. However, she knew, as most everyone else did, that most voters, at least in these parts, preferred family men in political positions, whether it be a town mayor or a congressman or senator.
Loy Blackburn had no wife, and although, again according to gossip, he had courted a couple of women in his past, both had declined proposals of marriage. She couldn’t help but wonder why. Besides, she also had an uncomfortable feeling that he perhaps was interested in courting her, maybe even marrying her, not just for appearances’ sake but because she had three younger brothers that could serve as free labor on his ranch, tending cattle or whatever else he did there.
She wasn’t interested. Without being rude, she had tried to shrug off his apparent interest in her several times, and yet, as now, he always seemed to show up at the worst possible moments. She needed to get home. She had work to do and supper to fix.
“Thank you, Mister Blackburn, but I’m perfectly capable of loading my own groceries.” She reached for the crate but he didn’t relinquish it. Instead, he set it in the bed of the wagon. She offered him a wordless nod of thanks and moved to step past him. He reached for her hand and barely managed to grasp it before she gently pulled it away, pretending to brush a wayward strand of hair from her face. If he noticed the gesture, he said nothing about it.
Blackburn towered over her barely five-foot-five stature, standing several inches above six feet, with broad shoulders, ruddy features, and eyebrows thick as caterpillars. The man could be intimidating, especially in his position as a town banker. He had given her several subtle hints over the past few months that he could help her with her debts. What he had left unspoken was that he could also make them worse.
She was well aware that her yearly property taxes would be due in the next couple of months, and he took the opportunity once more to point that out.
“I don’t mean to be the bearer of bad news, Miss Roseman, but I’m just reminding you that your taxes will be due soon.”
She stiffened. “I’m well aware of that, Mister Blackburn, and I intend to pay them after I sell a couple of hogs in the next month or so.”
He eyed her for several moments and then brushed a finger along his cheek, scratching at dark beard stubble that only slightly covered cheeks pocked with pox scars from childhood. He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. Hettie tried to maintain a placid expression as he lifted an eyebrow.
“As you recall from our last brief conversation, Miss Roseman, I mentioned that I would be open to extending the deadline on your payment.”
He had never come right out and asked permission to court her—for which she was grateful, because having to vocally decline might have the potential to make an unwanted enemy of him, but she also needed to make it clear that she didn’t want his help, offered with a hint of threat as it was.
“That won’t be necessary, Mister Blackburn,” she said. “I have things well in hand, but thank you for your concern.” She turned toward the horses. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to get home.”
Blackburn acted as if he were going to say something, but then simply shrugged and walked away. Hettie heaved an inward sigh of relief, closed her eyes, and pushed thoughts of the man away as she climbed onto the wagon seat, unwrapped the reins from the brake handle, and clucked the team of horses forward.
She honestly had no idea where she was going to get enough money to pay her property taxes, due in two months’ time. Even if she managed to sell a couple of hogs, that wouldn’t cover the tax bill—not after she paid for repairs to the rear side of the barn before winter, damaged by dry rot, nor a new water pump for the kitchen, which was held together with fence wiring as it was. No matter how much she scrimped and saved, the coins in her father’s old shaving mug in the kitchen cupboard never seemed to stay in there very long.
She gently slapped the reins. “Come on, girls, time to get on home.”
She didn’t have to do much to guide the mares home. They knew the way. They wound their way out of town and up a grade into the hills, thick growths of evergreens and aspens crowding on either side of the trail that she followed. Occasionally, the trees grew sparse, opening into large meadows where long grass attracted elk, deer, and antelope. A couple of years ago, in the middle of winter and between a couple of snowfalls, she had seen a moose that had meandered down from the higher ranges and plateaus, looking for some good grazing.
When in the wagon, she kept her father’s rifle tucked under the bench seat, ever wary of bears and mountain lions. Though she hadn’t seen one in quite some time, they were out there. Even an angry elk had the potential of goring one of her horses. There were snakes out here too, and though she wasn’t that good of a shot to be able to shoot the head off of a rattlesnake from atop the wagon, she nevertheless felt better having the weapon at hand.
The afternoon sun shone, though it was a chilly day, the air crisp, the breeze blowing south down along the eastern slopes of the Rockies. She glanced to the north, and as usual, followed the trail of the mountains into the far distance, wondering what lay beyond. Of course she knew the Montana Territory was up there, beyond the horizon, and she had heard about the vast country of Canada. For a moment, a surge of wanderlust tugged at her. She quickly squelched it.
She couldn’t go anywhere, not even for a little while, not until the boys were grown. And of course, she would need money to do that, money that she didn’t have and likely never would. Since the moment she had taken over the responsibility of raising her younger brothers, she had not received one man’s request to court her. Not even Loy Blackburn had asked, though she would never consider his supposed interest. She didn’t really blame the young men in town. It was one thing to court a woman, to hope to marry her and someday raise a family of their own, but to consider marrying a woman with essentially three children already? There weren’t many takers.
Hettie had resolved years ago that she would be an old maid, a woman that, with the passage of years, townspeople would look at with a glimpse of pity or sympathy. She tried not to feel sorry for herself, but she was only human after all, and sometimes the feelings came, unstoppable. She had never once resented her brothers for her situation, as it was not their fault any more than it was hers.
Despite sometimes feeling that life could be incredibly unfair, she wasn’t one to turn away from challenges or difficulties. She had managed so far, and soon, Nicholas would be old enough to help out more. While she would welcome the help, whether it be through earnings he made from a job in town or with the farm, she nevertheless hoped that someday he might be able to explore life beyond the town limits of Crooked River Flats. The day might come when he wandered away, maybe down to Colorado Springs or north to Denver, or maybe beyond, to distant places and new experiences.
The thought of any one of the boys growing up and leaving the area filled her heart with a heavy sadness, but at the same time, she wanted it for them. It was too late for her. While in the years before her parents’ deaths she had yearned to see big cities like Boston and New York, to experience the thrill of train travel, or to see foreign and distant places, she had also long ago accepted that such a life was not for her.
It was doubtful that she would ever be courted, ever be married, or ever have children of her own. She sighed, and one of the mare’s ears tweaked back in her direction.
She smiled. “Pay no nevermind to me, Millie, let’s just get on home and get our chores done. No sense in wishing for things that will never happen.”
“Tending to Love’s Need” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Since her parents’ died, the heavy responsibility for bringing up her brothers has been solely on Hettie’s shoulders. As she struggles to work the farm and brush off the persistent interest of the town’s richest man, she encounters a stranger, Ezra whose intentions are doubtful. Her good nature and an inexplicable urge to protect him lead her to tend to the wounded man that appears to be lost.
Will she find a friend in him or will he turn out to confirm her darkest fears?
Although Ezra Shanklin is the rich heir of a mining business, he has become rather isolated from the world ever since his mother’s death. Traveling through Colorado, he is betrayed by his stepmother and stepbrother, attacked, and shoved off the train. Injured, he tries to find help while keeping low by hiding his true identity. Out in the middle of nowhere, he stumbles near a farm, overwhelmed by gratitude when a young woman, Hettie, comes to his rescue.
How can he ever pay her kindness back while lying to the woman who wholeheartedly took care of him?
As their new feelings for each other grow stronger, Ezra feels the weight of his guilt for keeping a secret that could threaten his relationship with the brave and stubborn woman determined to keep her farm against all odds. Will Ezra’s true identity destroy the connection that has developed between the two of them forever? Will Hettie be able to forgive and trust him again after his secret is exposed and a killer comes calling?
“Tending to Love’s Need” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.