She is determined to save her family at all costs. He is a man of few words, afraid to open his heart again. Even if theirs is not a match made in heaven, it’s one made at heart. Can they fight off their deepest fears and stay together against all odds?
Mae has grown up with a fiery and independent soul. She feels like she must protect her sisters after their parents’ death at all costs. So, she decides to get married to a new rancher in town to save her property. Frank though is stubborn and witty, and he gets on her nerves. How can she realize that it is okay to lean on someone’s shoulder for a change?
Frank is an adamant rancher who has had a terrible childhood. Getting married to pretty Mae and supporting her vast ranch is a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Little did he know that she is a spitfire and a strong-willed woman who takes pride in her ranch business. How can he overcome his fear of bonding when it’s so difficult for him to compromise?
Mae and Frank keep driving each other crazy with their antics. However, when external forces attack their newfound family, they will understand that love like theirs is difficult to acquire and must be kept. Will they find the key to each other’s hearts and embrace happiness?
“Shall we gather at the river
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God?
[1. Shall We Gather at the River,” Robert Lowry, 1864. Tune, Hanson Place]
Mae Riverson’s voice tapered off and floated away on the cold spring wind. Her long black hair blew across her face as she crossed her gloved hands and stared down at the two fresh graves in the high pasture of her father’s ranch.
His children’s ranch, now.
The sound of her sisters’ crying danced on the wind as Mae’s voice faded, and beyond it the faint cry of a hawk from somewhere in the sky overhead. There were no other sounds on the top of the hill that frosty morning, and the rest of the world was tiny and far away.
“Let us pray,” Mae intoned solemnly and bowed her head. She took a deep breath and began, “Lord, please welcome your servants John and Mae Ellen Riverson to Heaven to join you, and Grandpa and Grandma Riverson, and Memaw Ellis, and our brother, John Jr. May Your words to them be, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servants. Enter into the joy of your Lord.’ Amen.”
“Amen,” her middle sister Pamela echoed softly, and a heavy silence fell. Pamela’s dark brown hair blew across a pale face scattered with freckles. Her eyes were solemn, and she hugged herself.
Gwen, the youngest, had light brown hair, big blue eyes, and was wearing a knitted cap over her head. Her thin, reedy voice piped forlornly in the wind. “Mae, I’m cold.”
Mae opened her eyes and stared down at the twin graves. She replied without looking at her six-year-old sister’s face. “Rub your hands. It’ll warm you up.”
Gwen pulled her baby mouth down in a pout and complained, “I’m skeered, Mae.”
Mae’s eyes didn’t move from the mounds of freshly turned earth at her feet. “There’s nothing to be scared of. Pa and Ma wouldn’t want us to be sad. They’d want us to be strong, and that’s what we’re going to be.”
A frigid wind gust swept the top of the hill, an icy reminder that winter and spring fought for a long time in Nebraska ranch country. The blue ribbon in Gwen’s wool bonnet fluttered in the cold breeze, and her lower lip trembled as she whimpered, “I don’t want to be strong, Mae.”
Eleven-year-old Pamela grabbed her younger sister’s hand and retorted, “Hush, Gwen. Don’t be such a crybaby.”
Mae raised her eyes from the mounds of dirt to the headstones. Only one word was carved into each one:
Gwen’s words were half sobs now, half hiccups. “Are we going to get pneumonia, too, Mae? Are we going to die, like Ma and Pa?”
This time Mae turned her eyes to her younger sister’s face. She hiked up her skirts, marched around the graves, and knelt in the dirt in front of her little sister. She took her by the arms and stared into her face.
“No, we ain’t gonna get any pneumonia,” she replied stoutly. “I’m twenty-two now, a grown woman, and you and Pam are young and healthy and strong. We’re going to pick up where Pa left off. We’re going to make this the best horse ranch in Nebraska, and we’re starting right this minute. You’re gonna be too busy working to cry or get sick, Gwendolyn Riverson, and you’re not going to pout or run off, or I’ll whip you from here to Omaha with Ma’s cane switch! Now we’ve sung, and we’ve prayed, and we’ve said our goodbyes to Ma and Pa. It’s time for us to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Come on.”
Gwen’s mouth dropped open in awe, and she stumbled along as her eldest sister dragged her toward the ranch house far across the fields. Pamela had to run across the tufts of meadow grass to keep up, and she stuck her hands into her coat pocket and called out after them.
“Mae, we can’t run this whole ranch! It’s too much work and you know it!”
“Not if we all pull together,” Mae retorted. “I’ll get some help for us, but you’re going to have to work, and Gwen will, too. Nobody gets to shirk.”
“I’m scared of horses, Mae!” Gwen sobbed, but Mae pulled her along without slowing a beat.
“Oh, stop blubbering, Gwen,” Pam called in an irritated voice, and Gwen turned to glare at her and lashed out, “I’ll cry if I want to! I don’t want to do this. I want my Ma back; I want Pa!”
She yanked her hand out of Mae’s and screamed at the top of her lungs, but Mae snatched her up in her arms, brought her lips to her little sister’s ear and rocked her back and forth in the air.
“Hush, now,” she crooned, but kept walking doggedly toward the house. “I know, baby, I know.”
“I want my Ma!” Gwen sobbed, and Mae stopped to hug her sister to her chest. She stared fiercely at the distant ranch house and blinked back tears.
“You’re going to have be a big girl now, Gwen,” she soothed, trying to convince herself as much as her sisters. “We all are. But we’re going to be all right. Everything’s going to be just fine. I promise you that!”
The three of them turned and slowly descended the high hill as a small herd of grazing horses lifted their heads and stared at them in silent curiosity. The red roof of the Riverson ranch house appeared slowly above the curve of the hill, and Mae stared at it wearily. It was still a half-mile away down the long brown slope. Gwen had cried herself out and was slumped over her shoulder. Mae hiked her sister up slightly, tightened her grip, and quickened her pace.
John Riverson had built his ranch house out of smooth brown rocks he’d hauled up from the White River, just on the border between Nebraska and South Dakota. The Riverson Ranch was on the Nebraska side of the river, and the northern bank was in South Dakota.
That cold, shallow river formed a lazy gray loop in the valley below, and its glittering ribbon was visible from the front porch. It had provided all the stone their father had needed to build a big, fine, two-story house with a sprawling porch all the way around the building, and wide stairs leading up to the big red front door.
Mae climbed the steps wearily and stopped to wait as Pamela hurried to open the door for her. Every muscle in her body cried out for sleep, but she ignored her body and set the sleeping Gwen down in a stuffed chair in the big front room.
Mae pushed a wisp of dark hair back from her brow and planted her hands on her hips. She would’ve liked to let Gwen sleep, but none of them could afford to rest. There were horses to tend, dinner to make, and the ranch books to sort out.
Pamela was standing in the doorway, and Mae half-turned and commanded, “Let Gwen sleep for a few more minutes, then rouse her up and make her help you start dinner, Pam. I’m going down to the barn to check on the horses and talk to Lake. I’ll be back in a little while. It would help me a lot if you could start dinner. It would be wonderful to see food on the table when I walk in.”
“Yes, Mae,” Pam replied glumly, and trudged off to the kitchen.
Mae watched her go, then hiked up her skirts and walked up the stairs to her father’s study. It was the first door to the right of the stairs on the upper floor, and Mae paused on the threshold to scan the wood-paneled walls and big desk. Her father’s presence was very strong here. She could almost see him seated at his desk, smoking his favorite pipe and frowning over his account books.
And there had been plenty of reason to frown. Her Pa had been a good man, a hard-working man, and a wonderful father, but she had to admit, at least to herself, that he’d been a terrible businessman. His love for horses had caused him to focus too much on them, and not enough on the budgeting and business smarts that a ranch required to be profitable.
Mae sighed and closed her eyes wearily. She’d helped her father manage the ranch the last few years and had been startled to discover that they’d been struggling for a long time. She and her father had kept the worst of their financial problems a secret from the family when he was alive, but now that he was gone, she wasn’t going to be able to hide it any longer.
Their ranch was in danger. If something didn’t turn around quick, they were going to lose it.
Mae opened her father’s big green account book and riffled through it despondently. Their income was low, and their expenses were high. Part of that had been the result of her father’s tendency to overspend and undersave, but their problems were bigger than that. She wasn’t going to be able to solve them just by tightening their belts.
Horses took money to breed, money to feed, and money to tend. If a horse ranch was going to be worth the effort, it needed well-heeled, consistent buyers and lots of them. The Riverson Ranch horses were beautiful, strong, and well-fed. Their father had seen to that; but at the moment they only had two customers who bought now and then, and then only a few horses at a time.
Mae closed her eyes wearily and put a hand to her head. They needed an expanded customer base, and a way to advertise, or they were going out of business.
Mae tucked the account book under her arm and abandoned the study. She walked down the stairs, out onto the porch, and down the big hill to the stone barn at the bottom, near the river’s edge.
Lake would be there, and she wanted his advice—or his comfort, if she was really honest with herself.
She walked into the barnyard and found their only remaining hand, Lake, rubbing down a two-year-old chestnut gelding. Lake was over seventy and had worked at their ranch for as long as Mae could remember. He was tall, tan, and had a proud, craggy cowboy face and big mustache. He raised a shaggy head of snow-white hair at her approach, and his wrinkled face creased into a smile as he brushed the horse’s gleaming flanks.
“Well, what’re you toting there, Mae? Pam’s the one who’s always got her nose stuck in a book. You taking up her ways?”
Mae propped the big book against a fence post and stared at it despondently. “I wish I didn’t have to read this book, Lake. Look at these numbers.” She opened the account book to that month’s tally and stuck it out toward Lake’s frowning face. He squinted at it, and his frown deepened.
“Law, missy,” he rumbled. “We’re in trouble if that’s right.” He shook his head and rubbed his white mustache with a gloved hand. “Your Daddy was a good man, but he just didn’t have a head for business. Never did. He just loved horses, is all.”
Mae closed her eyes, frowned, and put her hand to the little throbbing spot between her eyes. “What am I going to do, Lake?” she moaned. “I’ve got two little sisters to feed and no customers. Nobody around here wants to buy these horses. How am I going to put food on the table without any money coming in?”
The older, man shook his head and turned back to brushing the horse. “I don’t know, Mae,” he replied in a gravelly voice. “If I did, I’d be a businessman sitting in an office somewhere, and not a barn hand on a horse ranch.”
Mae closed the book up and stared at the horizon. “Maybe if we throw in with another ranch,” she murmured. “Take on a partner that’s a little better off. We’ve got the best horses in Nebraska, so we could bring that to the table.”
Lake shot her a short glance from his bright blue eyes. “It always helps to have a partner,” he murmured. “Somebody who can be strong when you ain’t. Ain’t nobody strong all the time.”
Mae looked down at the ground and shook her head. “Are you nagging me to get married again, Lake? Because there’s nobody around here that I haven’t looked at twice and three times. There are only a handful of single men within twenty miles of here. Royce Pilson is simple-minded and picks his nose. Tom Barner has a face that would stop a clock, and Silas Jenkins just buried his second wife and has ten screaming kids. No, thank you.”
Lake glanced at her again. “Seems like a shame,” he murmured. “You’re young and pretty. Getting a husband might solve your problems.”
Mae straightened indignantly. “I’ve thought about it,” she mumbled, and kicked at a pebble on the ground. “It’d be nice, if I could find the right man. But I ain’t gonna get married just to solve a problem, Lake. I can run this ranch just as well as a man,” she told him. “I don’t need a husband to tell me what to do around here. I already know. I just don’t have the money to do it!”
Lake shook his head as he brushed the horse’s twitching flanks. “It’s hard to do it all alone, Mae,” he murmured, and he glanced up at her with a keen glance from his vivid blue eyes. “Especially for a woman. You can call that unfair, but that’s the way it is. A young, strong fellow around this place could do things a lot easier and quicker than you or me. If he had a little money, so much the better.”
Mae crossed her arms and looked away, and Lake added, “I heered tell that a girl don’t have to be stuck with the fellows close by, if she don’t like ‘em. She can sign up to be a mail-order bride and pick a fellow clear across the country.”
Mae kept staring at the horizon. “If I did that, the man would want me to come out to him, to move off to who knows where,” she objected. “I’m not leaving this ranch, and I’m sure not leaving Pam and Gwen. I owe it to Ma and Pa to take care of them and the place they built, and I’m going to do it or die trying.”
Lake put the brush down, took her by the shoulders, and turned her to face him. “I’ve known you since you was little, Mae,” he said gruffly. “I’ve watched you growing up. And I’m telling you as kindly as I know how, don’t let that stubborn streak make you work yourself to death. You need a partner some way, Mae. You can’t do this alone, and I’m getting old.
“Now this may sound a bit hard, but it’s the God’s honest truth. You can hire a hand and pay him your money. Or you can marry, and your man’ll work alongside you, and give you his money, instead of the other way around. You tell me which is the smart way,” he said gruffly.
Mae tossed her head and looked away. “You make marriage sound like a business deal,” she complained, and Lake nodded.
“Sometimes that’s what it is, missy, that’s right. And they ain’t nothing wrong with that, as long as everybody knows it going in. I hope you think about it, anyway.”
Lake let her go, picked up the brush, and walked back to the barn. Mae’s eyes followed his battered hat and broad back every step of the way, and when the barn door closed behind him, she closed her eyes, slumped against the fence, and put a hand to her brow in despair.
I’m not going to become any mail-order bride, she thought angrily. I’m going to find a way to save this ranch, and before it’s all over, this family’s going to operate the richest ranch in Nebraska. We’ve got the best horses in the world, and I know I can sell them if I can only get the word out.
She put her palm to her brow. There’s a big horse race in town coming up soon. Lightning’s the fastest horse on this ranch. I could enter him in the race as a way of getting it out that there’s more where he came from. If he wins the purse, so much the better.
But what do I do for money until then?
The Riverson house was built on top of a high hill overlooking the river. Mae walked down to the edge of the slope in front of their house, sat down on the grass, and gazed out across that vista until dusk slowly settled over the river valley below. When the North Star glowed high overhead, she sighed, stood, and carried the account book back up to the house.
The scent of frying chicken met her as she climbed the porch steps, and Mae sighed in relief. After her depressing conversation with Lake, a good meal would be a welcome comfort.
Pam made pretty good fried chicken, what was more. Their mother had started them shelling beans and stirring batter as soon as they could stand on a box. Pam was eleven, and already she was able to cook a meal on her own. Mae frowned and suffered a pang of regret as she realized that six-year-old Gwen wouldn’t have the benefit of their mother’s patience and experience as she learned to cook.
She wouldn’t have the time to teach Gwen, like their mother would have had. Mae closed her eyes and conjured her mother in her mind. Her soft, dark eyes, her sweet smile, and her patient, gentle hands. Grief stabbed Mae, but she pushed it away. If she let herself think about how much she missed her mother, she might as well lie face down on the floor and give up.
She couldn’t afford to indulge her feelings.
Mae set the account book down on a table and walked into the little dining room. Pam was just setting a plate of fried chicken down on the table, and Mae walked up and slipped an arm around her sister’s waist.
“Can I help you with anything?”
Pam pushed a sprig of hair back from her brow. “No, I’ve pretty much got everything. Just sit down. I’ll call Gwen.”
“Thanks, Pam. I appreciate it.”
Mae sank thankfully into a chair and Pam set a glass down beside her plate and poured tea into it. “Gwen,” she called, “dinner!”
Gwen’s high voice piped from the kitchen. “Coming.”
Pam sat down in a chair and poured herself a glass of tea, then took a quick sip as Gwen came pattering in and sat down.
“Let’s say grace,” Mae murmured, and reached out for Pam’s hand. Her sister took it, and Mae bowed her head.
“Father, thank you for this good food to the nourishment of our bodies, your temple. Please bless us and this ranch and help us grow. In Jesus’ name, amen.”
“Amen,” Pam echoed, and they dug in. Mae reached for a bowl of mashed potatoes and scooped out a spoonful onto her plate, then ladled out a drizzle of brown gravy over the white mound.
“I helped string the beans,” Gwen announced proudly, and Mae smiled at her. “And peel the potatoes!”
“Thank you, Gwen,” she replied. “You’re always a big help.”
Gwen brightened visibly, but Mae was stabbed by the worry that she wasn’t going to be able to feed her sisters for much longer. They had a nice root cellar full of canned food and last year’s garden vegetables thanks to their mother, and some dried beef and hams in the smokehouse, but it wasn’t going to last forever. Mae blinked at the tablecloth as she ate. She couldn’t think of anything but money. How was she going to get money coming into the house?
Gwen poked at her beans with her fork, then blurted, “Mae, am I going back to school?”
Mae came back to herself and turned startled eyes to her sister’s face. “Of course you are! You and Gwen are going back to school in the fall. What a question!”
Pam poked her food again. “Who’s going to pay for our books, Mae?”
Mae set her mouth into a straight line. It was a reasonable question, but one she didn’t dare to answer honestly. “I will, of course. Eat your dinner, Pam, and stop worrying. Everything is going to be all right.”
Pam opened her mouth to answer, but the loud bam bam bam of a shotgun at close range made her shriek instead. Mae threw her napkin down and rose hurriedly from the table.
“You girls stay where you are,” she shot back over her shoulder. “Eat your dinner!”
“Where are you going?” Gwen wailed, but Mae ignored her sister and swept out onto the porch and down the steps. The gunshots had come from the direction of the barn, and Mae picked up her skirts and went hurrying down the hill in the dark. Another blam made her throw caution to the wind and go flying down the hill at a dead run.
“Lake!” she yelled. “Lake, are you alright?”
When she rounded the edge of the barnyard, she could see their longtime hand silhouetted in the golden light of the barn door. He was holding a shotgun.
“What happened?” she yelped, as he lifted the gun to his shoulder again.
“Aw, he’s too far off now,” Lake replied bitterly, and gestured in the direction of the river. “I turned my back for just a minute, and the next thing I know, some yahoo is leading Thunder out of the barn. When I yelled, he jumped up on his back and took off!”
Fury leaped up in Mae’s heart, and she picked up her skirts and ran into the barn. She threw open the stall door and bridled their black stallion, Lightning, as quickly as her fingers would work.
“What’re you doing?” Lake demanded with a scowl. “You can’t go after him in the dark!”
“Stay here and guard the other horses,” she commanded as she pulled herself up onto the barebacked horse. “I’ll be back.”
She yanked the shotgun out of his hands and kicked the horse hard.
Lightning snorted and went charging out of the barn, sailed over the barn fence as if it weren’t there, and drove down the hill at a jolting run. Mae hung on for dear life and did her best to hold onto the shotgun as Lightning roared down the steep incline. She could see the thief against the moonlit river. He was just a black dot against its silver stream but he had to go to the ford to get across, and if she drove the stallion hard she might catch him before he made it.
The stallion reached the base of the hill with a bone-jarring jolt, and Mae clapped her knees to his side and urged him on. “Yah! Come on!”
Her horse burst across the flat, grassy riverbank like the flash of lightning he was named for, and Mae’s eyes narrowed in fierce joy. The thief was nearing the ford, but she was gaining on him fast. Another minute or two, and she’d be on top of him.
The moon was high and full, and she could still see him. He was riding their big stallion Thunder and if he got away, they’d lose their best breeding stud.
Mae leaned low over Lightning’s neck and hissed, “Come on, come on, come on!”
The sleek black stallion reached deep and found another burst of speed, and at last the thief looked back over his shoulder. He lifted his arm, and a sharp whine past her right ear told Mae that he’d just shot at her, but she was so close now she didn’t dare shoot back for fear she’d hit Thunder.
The horse thief drove their stallion into the river with a splash, and Mae pulled Lightning up short and sharp on the river’s edge and cursed savagely under her breath. She didn’t dare follow him into the river when he had a gun.
She lifted the shotgun to her shoulder and sent a shattering blast above his head and watched as he bent low and urged the horse into the current.
Let him think I’m going to shoot him, she thought fiercely, and pumped the shotgun again. She sent a second volley into the air, then wheeled the horse around and sent him back down the riverbank and up the hill before he could gain the far bank and return fire.
Blast it, she fumed. That was our best stud! If I ever find out who did this, I’m going to thrash him within an inch of his life.
This is all we need!
She kicked Lightning again, and the stallion took her back up the big hill. She reined him in at the top and glared at the tiny black dot fast disappearing into the darkness on the other side of the river.
As she accepted defeat and turned the horse’s head back toward the barn, Lake’s shrewd words came back to her. She didn’t like them any better than she had when she first heard them; but there in the frantic darkness they carried more weight than they had in the sane daylight.
You can hire a hand and pay him your money. Or you can marry, and your man’ll work alongside you and give you his money, instead of the other way around.
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