“You did what!”
“Now, Nichole, calm down. I only did what I told your pa I would do if something ever happened to him.” Pastor Harris said pulling at the collar of his crisp white shirt. “I found a nice man in need of a wife.”
“And who told you I was looking for a husband?” Her hands shook with scarcely controlled rage, as she brought them to her throbbing temples. “How many times do we have to go over this before you take me seriously?”
Beads of perspiration formed across the pastor’s shiny bald head dripping down onto his high forehead. “Nichole, please hear me out.”
“Why should I? You never consulted my opinion when you wrote those letters. Letters, I might add, that sounded more like you were trying to sell a brood mare than offering a man a wife.”
She tossed the slips of paper back in a huff toward the older man sending them scattering about the meager office. When would she wake up from the nightmare that had somehow become her life?
How had things gotten so out of hand? In the past six months, her life had rapidly spiraled out of her control and into the hands of virtual strangers. Everything she had ever wanted seemed out of the question anymore. Worse yet, Pastor Harris and his wife’s only concern seemed to be finding her a husband, and fast.
She looked him square in the eye. “You didn’t listen any of the other times you tramped men before me. I’ve told you a million times if not more, I don’t want a husband!” Her whole body trembled as it collapsed into the worn red velvet chair before the pastor’s large oak desk.
“Your parents are dead. You and I both know it was their wish that you are suitably wed.”
She knew he needed her to listen to him. He needed her to take this match, any match for that matter. How often had she overheard the conversations between Mary and the pastor? His wife would no longer tolerate her under their roof. That woman told him it was not right for them to harbor a heathen as such as herself. No decent folks would have the likes of her in their homes, much less, as long as they had.
She knew most people’s views of her kind. It was something that had haunted her existence from the moment she had entered this world. Yet, even with this knowledge and knowing she had overstayed her welcome, she couldn’t bring herself to agree to an arranged marriage.
“Chris Davis is a good man,” Pastor Harris pleaded, drawing her from the disturbing thoughts.
“Just like Jeremy Jones, or Michael Taylor, or…or…or that Connors man.”
He cleared his throat and continued as if she had not said anything at all. She was certain he was going to force her to hear him out regardless of her opinion. Thank goodness, the good pastor had proven himself a patient man over the last several months.
“His parents died some six months ago, leaving behind six children, a ranch, large home, and no one to tend it.”
“It sounds to me like they left a whole mess of children to tend to it.” She barked back, crossing her arms over her chest in a huff.
The pastor continued as if her angry words were just a thought in the wind. He straightened his back just a notch in his determination. She had to admire the man’s guts. Even her own father used to walk away when her temper flared in such a manner.
“The boys are older. Chris being twenty-five, Stephen is twenty, your age if I’m not mistaken. Sam sixteen, and Skyler thirteen.”
“Boys? Men are more like it. Should they not have it pretty well in hand at their ages?”
“It’s not so much the boys… men, who need the care of a woman. There are two very young girls. Anna is seven, and then there is little Lizzi. She’s only five.”
A twinge hit her heart so suddenly the urge to clutch her chest was overwhelming. So young to be going through the pain she knew all too well. If the pastor was looking for her weak point, he found it. Her heart softened, just a little, as she tried to picture the scene the pastor was painting for her. “Go on.”
“Well, you know how you feel, even at your age, what it’s like to go through life without a mother. Can you imagine how these two little girls must feel losing theirs?”
A strange tightness gripped her chest as her mother’s smile filled her mind’s eye. She felt the heat of threatening tears as they burned her eyelids. The same old emptiness filled her soul.
“Your father had been so worried, with the uprisings springing up all over this land that something would happen to them and you would be all alone. It’s tragic that his fears came to pass, and we now find ourselves in this predicament. I swore to him I’d see to you. Make sure you were well matched. And that’s exactly what I intend to do.”
She welcomed the fresh sweep of rage that his words brought to her. Anything was better than the torturous pain that always came with the reminder of their deaths.
“Well matched, ever since I came here, you’ve paraded me before soldier after soldier. You’ve ignored me when I tell you I wouldn’t have a one of those animals. They killed my parents. If I had anywhere else to go I wouldn’t have even come to this fort where I have to be reminded daily.”
Jumping to her feet, pacing about the office, she vented out the pent up rage. “Now you have a rancher who’s neck deep in siblings. The place must be a wreck or why else would a man be looking for a wife he has never met?”
She came to a halt inches in front of the pastor. “Well, I won’t have it. Now that the weather has broken, I’ll make other arrangements to rebuild on my parents land.”
“The land is gone.” The pastor’s quivering voice interrupted.
“What! Where did it go? It belonged to my parents, it’s mine!” she yelled, planting her fists in two whitened balls before him on the heavy oak desk.
“We sold it to General Jackson. They needed a training area, someplace away from the people passing through the fort.” The pastor dabbed his forehead with his handkerchief as he perspired profusely.
“You sold my land to those murdering thieves. And the money, where is it?”
“Gone to cover your expenses while staying here.”
“Did you sell my land for so little that you have no money left?”
The pastor squirmed in his chair. “Now, Nichole, you must understand, it cost my wife a great deal to have those dresses made.”
“Dresses I did not want!”
“Dresses I believe that were necessary for life here. On the farm, you didn’t need anything more than that dress you arrived in. Then of course, there was the expense of storing your wagon and horse at the livery, your room and board.”
Nichole shook her head in defeat. There was nothing she could change at this moment about her circumstances now that the farm was gone.
She moved to the small office window staring blankly out at the muddy streets of the fort. Thoughts of starting a new life had been what had gotten her through this long winter, a new life on her own farm. Sadness filled her heart with the weight of the world crashing down upon her shoulders. What of her future now? How had she allowed this to go so far? How could Pastor Harris have sold her land right out from under her and she never even knew? Had she been so wrapped up in her guilt over her parents’ death that she noticed nothing anymore?
“Tell me about this ranch and this man’s sisters.” She turned away from the window, slipping wearily back down into the chair she had occupied most of the morning.
“They are good people, Nichole. Their parents died while out trying to locate a missing herd of horses. They also lost most of their ranch hands.”
“They say Indians stole the horses, and attacked the parents and the hands when they went after them. I guess things are just getting too wild in these parts.”
“Indians, you don’t say. So how on earth did you get Mr. Davis to come here to meet me?” She studied the older man’s face knowing full well he hadn’t mentioned her heritage.
“Now, Nichole, I know what you’re thinking. And yes, I did deliberately keep from Mr. Davis your lineage, but I did it more for the young girls than anything else, I swear to you. No one would ever realize just looking at you, so why bring up something that could jeopardize a perfect match?”
“The girls, was it? Are you sure it wasn’t for your wife’s sake?” Eyeing him suspiciously, “I ‘ll be the judge of a perfect match, thank you. Not you or your wife.”
“Yes, yes, it was for the girls. I’ve seen how wonderful you are with children. I watch the young ones of the travelers, they adore you. You seem to know just what to do for them, how to talk to them, how to entertain them.”
Nichole knew he was playing up what he considered her good qualities. She couldn’t deny she had enjoyed helping the travelers with their little ones over these last several months.
“Nichole, please, will you give this a chance? I believe the Davis family probably needs you more than you need them.”
Nichole’s mind shuffled in every direction. She had planned to leave this fort, planned to rebuild her home, but that wasn’t going to happen now that her land was gone.
Anger welled up in her chest once again. She knew she owed the pastor and his wife a great deal for taking her in. But to sell her land without ever consulting her was low even for him.
She knew she couldn’t remain in this place much longer. Just the sight of the soldiers caused her stomach to churn. If she had just seen the ones clearly who had killed her parents.
Fresh tears stung her eyes, willing them away, she tried to compose herself. She had no right to cry. No, if anything, marrying a man she had never met was more than what she deserved after what she had done to her wonderful parents.
“I’ll meet this Mr. Davis of yours,” she finally stated as if she were now ready for her sentencing, fight no longer an option within her heavy heart.
“Good, he’ll be here tomorrow morning. And if all things go well we can have you married by the afternoon and on your way to your new home by tomorrow night.”
Nichole rose preparing to leave the office. “I’ll be ready.” Her voice sounded void of all emotion even to herself. “But know this ahead of time. I refuse to marry any man who doesn’t know my heritage beforehand.” She heard the sharp intake of breath fill the pastor’s lungs as she slammed the office door behind her.
* * * * * *
“I don’t need a wife!” Chris Davis snatched up the handful of letters, crumbling them in his large fists, before lobbing them at his brothers.
“Honestly, Chris, have you taken a good look around this house?” Sam Davis shot back as he dodged the flying wads of paper. “The dishes alone are piled to the ceiling.”
“Have you taken a good look at our sisters for that matter?” Stephen Davis injected catching one of the letters as it bounced off his chest.
“I’m not the only one around here that can see to things. You both are old enough to not only take care of yourselves but pitch in a little.”
“Pitch in a little!” Stephen slammed a fist to the wooden kitchen table causing the legs to wobble. “We are in over our heads here, big brother! Bill is the only ranch hand we have left. Sam’s always out scouting for horses to replace what we lost. Skyler’s more help to the mess than to cleaning it. And then there are the girls.”
Chris watched as Sam slouched down in his seat as Chris rested his anger on their faces. Stephen, on the other hand squared his shoulders, preparing for a fight.
“What about the girls?” Chris challenged the look on his younger brother’s face.
“Oh please, when was the last time either of them had a decent bath? Anna’s only seven. She can’t be expected to take care of Lizzi all the time. They need a woman, Chris, one who can not only see to their needs but know what those needs are.”
“And in your opinion my taking a wife would solve all our problems? What about you, Stephen, your well at marrying age?”
“Pastor Harris specifically addressed you in these letters. Besides you’re the oldest and it’s your duty.”
“My duty! I’m so tired of hearing about what my duties are now that ma and pa are gone!”
“Why are you up so early?” Anna’s sleepy voice cooled his anger immediately.
His eyes fell on his sisters standing just outside their bedroom door. The little ones rubbed the sleep from their eyes. Anna’s ponytails were lopsided. Lizzi’s gown was cover in filth and her little cherub face smudged with dirt.
The guilt rose in his chest. His brothers were right. He couldn’t remember the last time either of them had their hair brushed or a decent bath. How long had it been since they had clean clothes, or a fit meal?
Lizzi bound across the room on tiny bare feet climbing into his lap and snuggling into his chest. His heart softened instantly, as he closed his arms around the youngest Davis sibling.
“We have to do right by them, Chris.” Stephen’s voice now almost a whisper.
“But marriage? You both know I’m not one to even court a woman, much less marry one. You know how I feel about those things.”
“You gettin’ married?” Anna asked, handing Lizzi a piece of hard biscuit while she began to eat the other half.
“Sam and Stephen think it would be a good idea. What do you think, little one?”
“Don’t you have to love whoever you marry? You don’t even have a girl.”
“Do you remember Pastor Harris?” Sam asked gently.
The little blue eyes turned teary at the sound of that name, and they all knew she remembered the man who performed their parents’ funerals all too well. “Yes.”
“He has a young lady living in his home who has lost her ma and pa.” Sam continued tenderly.
“Just like us.” Anna’s trembling words crushed more than Chris’s heart if the looks on his brothers’ faces were any indication.
Stephen reached out taking the seven year old onto his lap and hugging her to him. “Just like us, little one.”
“So doesn’t she have brothers to take care of her, like Lizzi and me?”
A sharp pierce shot through Chris’ heart. Even as poorly as their care had been over the last six months, Anna still thought of them as being taken care of. “The pastor tells us she has no one left,” he mumbled past the lump in his throat.
Lizzi’s little head popped up. A concerned look crossed her minute brow. “No brothers, no one? Her heart must hurt somethin’ awful.”
He watched in amazement as Anna and Lizzi moved into a world all of their own making, forgetting their brothers sitting with them. “No ma or pa. Thank goodness, Pastor and his wife let her stay with them. I bet they are takin’ good care of her,” Anna was saying.
Her little blue eyes held far too much concern for one her age and another pang of guilt poked at his heart.
“It’s not the same though. Family’s best. She needs a family to take care of her.” Lizzi added with a curt nod of her head. “Wonder if she’s a big girl?”
“Pro’lly, if pastor wants her to marry Chris.” Anna confirmed with Lizzi hanging on her words as if they were gospel.
“Who’s getting married?” Skyler grumbled sleepily. “And why can’t y’all let a person sleep ‘round here?”
“Chris is.” Anna stated matter-of-factly.
“Hold up there, little one. Pastor Harris only asked me to consider marriage.”
“And we have considered it.” Anna said in the firmest tone her seven-year old body would allow. “She needs a family, and we need a lady to help me and Lizzi with the chores ‘round this house.”
“Not one of those that’s gonna make me take a bath every week, we don’t.” Skyler protested.
“A bath wouldn’t hurt you none.” Sam teased giving the youngest Davis boy a nudge.
“But a girl in this house. What do we need one for? We already have two we don’t know what to do with?”
“Skyler, one day you’ll understand the importance of women, but until then, just shut up.” Stephen groaned.
“Looks as if I have no choice in this matter,” Chris stated, running a ragged hand through the thick masses of hair on top of his head.
“Not really.” Sam confirmed, looking to Stephen nervously.
“What haven’t you two told me?” He felt weary more than agitated at this moment.
“We sort of already wrote to the pastor and told him you’d be there tomorrow morning,” Stephen said, quickly grabbing Anna’s small form and setting her more firmly against his chest.
“You did what!”
“Calm down, big brother, you weren’t going to do it.”
“No, I wasn’t. But you’ve all pled your case very well, and I’d have eventually taken care of the arrangements.”
“So now they’re taken care of.” Sam piped in slinking back into his chair the moment Chris flashed him a disgusted look.
Chris looked around at the ragged bunch of kids who were his siblings. His anger at his brothers’ actions subsided. “All but one little matter. I’ve no intentions on going through with any wedding plans until I know the woman will be right for our family. We have enough trouble around here without adding more.”
“Chris, you can’t bring a woman here without being her husband.” Stephen protested.
“With all the chaperones in this house, I see no reason to rush a wedding.”