Fort Laramie, Wyoming, 1861
“You did what?”
“Now, Nichole, calm down. I only did what I promised your pa I would do if something ever happened to him.” Pastor Harris pulled 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 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. “Nichole, please hear me out.”
“Why should I? You never asked my opinion when you wrote those letters. Letters, I might add, that sounded more like you were trying to sell a brood mare than an offer of marriage.”
With a huff, she tossed the slips of paper toward the older man, scattering them about the meager office. When would she wake up from this nightmare?
In the past six months, her life had spiraled out of 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. Fast.
She looked him square in the eyes. “You didn’t listen any other time you tramped men before me. I’ve told you a million times. I don’t want a husband!” Her whole body trembled as she collapsed onto 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 for you to be suitably wed.”
She knew he needed her to listen to him. He needed her to take this match, any match. How often had she overheard conversations between Mary and the pastor? His wife would no longer tolerate her under their roof. She’d told him it wasn’t right for them to harbor a heathen. No decent folks would have the likes of her in their homes, much less, as long as they had.
She was well aware of most people’s views of her kind. It had haunted her existence from the moment she’d entered this world. Yet, even with the knowledge 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.” She spit the names bitterly from her mouth.
He cleared his throat. She was certain he would force her to hear him out, regardless of her opinion. Thank goodness the pastor had proven himself a patient man over the last several months.
“His parents died 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 it,” she barked back, crossing her arms over her chest in a huff.
He straightened his back a notch in determination. She had to admire the man’s guts. Even her own father used to walk away when her temper flared.
“The boys are older. Chris being twenty-five, Stephen is twenty, your age if I’m not mistaken. Sam is sixteen and Skyler thirteen.”
“Boys? Men, more like it. Shouldn’t they have it in hand at their ages?”
“It’s not so much the boys ... men who need the care of a woman. There are two young girls. Anna is seven, and then there’s little Lizzi. She’s only five.”
A twinge hit her heart and out of nowhere, the urge to clutch her chest was overwhelming. They were so young to be going through this pain. If the pastor were looking for her weak point, he’d found it. Her heart softened, a little, as she tried to picture the scene the pastor was painting for her. “Go on.”
“You know how you feel, at your age, what it’s like to go through life without a mother. Can you imagine how these two little girls must feel?”
Tightness gripped her chest as her mother’s smile filled her mind’s eye. Heat of threatening tears burned her eyelids. The same old emptiness filled her soul.
“Your father had been worried, with uprisings all over the land, something would happen to them, and you would be all alone. It’s tragic his fears happened and we now find ourselves in this predicament. I swore to him I’d see to you, make sure you wed. And that’s exactly what I intend to do.”
She welcomed the fresh sweep of rage his words brought to her. Anything was better than the torturous pain.
“Ever since I came here, you’ve paraded me before soldier after soldier. You ignore 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 come to this fort where I have to be reminded daily.”
Jumping to her feet, pacing about the office, she vented her 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’s never met?”
She came to a halt inches in front of the pastor. “I won’t have it. The weather has broken. I’ll make other arrangements to rebuild on my parents land.”
“The land’s gone,” the pastor’s quivering voice interrupted.
“What? Where did it go? It belonged to my parents, it’s mine!” She planted her fists in two whitened balls before him on the 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.
“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 you have no money left?” She shook her head in disbelief as she tried to absorb this latest blow.
The pastor squirmed in his chair. “Now, Nichole, you must understand, it cost my wife a pretty penny to have those dresses made.”
“Dresses I did not want!”
“Dresses I believed were necessary for life here at Fort Laramie. On the farm, you didn’t need anything more than the dress you arrived in. Then there was the expense of storing your wagon and horse at the livery and your room and board.”
Nichole sensed her defeat. She could change nothing about her circumstances with the farm gone.
She moved to the small office window, staring blankly at the muddy streets. Thoughts of starting a new life had gotten her through the long winter. Sadness filled her heart as the weight of the world crashed down upon her. 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 without her knowing? Did guilt over her parents’ death make her blind to her surroundings?
“Tell me about this ranch and this man’s sisters.” She turned away from the window, slipping back down onto the chair she had occupied most of the morning.
“They are good people, Nichole. Their parents died while 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 getting too wild in these parts.”
“Indians, you don’t say. How did you get Mr. Davis to come here to meet me?” She studied the older man’s face.
“Now, Nichole, I know what you’re thinking. 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. 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?” She eyed 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 what to do for them, how to talk to them, how to entertain them.”
Nichole knew he was playing up what he considered her only good qualities. She couldn’t deny she had enjoyed helping the travelers with their little ones over the last several months.
“Please, will you give this a chance? I believe the Davis family probably needs you more than you need them.”
Her mind shuffled in every direction.
She knew she couldn’t remain here much longer. The sight of the soldiers caused her stomach to churn. If she had just seen the ones who killed her parents more clearly.
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’d done to her wonderful parents.
“I’ll meet this Mr. Davis of yours,” she stated, ready for her life’s sentence, fight no longer an option within her heavy heart.
“He’ll be here tomorrow morning. If all things go right, 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 before 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 fists, before lobbing them at his brothers.
“Honestly, Chris, have you taken a 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 sound look at our sisters?” Stephen Davis caught one of the letters as it bounced off his chest.
“I’m not the only one around here who 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’re in over our heads, big brother. Bill is the only ranch hand we have left. Sam’s always out scouting for horses to replace what we lost. Skyler contributes to the mess, rather than cleaning it. And then there are the girls.”
Chris watched as Sam slouched in his seat as his anger rested on their faces. Stephen, on the other hand, squared his shoulders, preparing for a fight.
“What about the girls?” Chris challenged.
“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’ll 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? You’re marrying age.”
“Pastor Harris specifically addressed you in these letters. Besides, you’re the oldest and it’s your duty.”
“My duty? I’m tired of hearing about what my duties are, now with Ma and Pa gone!”
“Why are you up so early?” Anna’s sleepy voice cooled his anger.
His eyes fell on his sisters standing outside their bedroom door. The little ones rubbed the sleep from their eyes. Anna’s white blond ponytails were lopsided. Lizzi’s gown was covered in filth and her little cherub face was smudged with dirt.
Remorse washed over him. His brothers were right. He couldn’t remember the last time his sisters had their hair brushed or a decent bath. How long had it been since they had clean clothes or a fit meal?
Lizzi bounded across the room on tiny bare feet, climbed onto his lap, and snuggled into his chest. His heart softened as he closed his arms around the youngest Davis.
“We have to do right by them, Chris.” Stephen’s voice was 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.
The blue eyes turned teary at the sound of the name, and Chris knew she remembered the man who performed their parents’ funerals. “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 just his heart if the strained looks on his brothers’ faces were any indication.
Stephen took the seven-year-old onto his lap and hugged her to him. “Just like us, little one.”
“Doesn’t she have brothers to take care of her, like Lizzi and me?”
A sharp pierce shot through him. Even as poorly as their supervision 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 their own, forgetting their brothers sitting with them. “No ma or pa. Thank goodness Pastor and his wife let her stay with them. I bet they’re 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 shame poked at his chest.
“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 stumbled into the kitchen, wiping the sleep from his eyes. “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 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, shut up.” Stephen groaned.
“Looks as if I have no choice in the matter.” Chris ran a ragged hand through his hair.
“Not really,” Sam confirmed, looking to Stephen.
“What haven’t you two told me?” He felt weary more than agitated.
“We sort of already wrote to the pastor and told him you’d be there tomorrow morning.” Stephen quickly grabbed Anna’s small form and set her more firmly against his chest.
“You did what?” The chair he occupied fell to the floor in a loud bang. His temples began to throb. His jaw hurt from grinding his teeth. How had this gotten so out of hand?
“Calm down, big brother. You weren’t going to do it.”
“No, I wasn’t. But you’ve all pled your case and I’d have eventually taken care of the arrangements.”
“Now they’re taken care of.” Sam slunk back into his chair the moment Chris flashed him a disgusted look.
He looked around at the ragged bunch of kids and his anger at his brothers’ actions subsided. “All but one little matter. I’ve no intention of 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.”