She stays in her ranch, a self-isolated woman by choice. He wanders around, a husband by accident. Will they find the way to each other’s hearts when God is by their side?
“Lord, I want to be a good husband to a woman who is filled with wrath at Thee for taking her family from her. She’s grieving and she’s hurting. I want to help her, but she’s too proud to accept help. What can I do so that she looks upon Thy grace with grateful eyes and finds comfort in Thy mercy?”
Evelina has suffered a lot of tragedy in her life. Now that her ranch is falling apart though, she has no other choice but to ask for a mail-order groom. Meeting Joshua makes her heartbeat go faster. She never expected just how much she needed such a man around her. How can she show this stranger that God is all they ever need to push through?
Joshua is a lonely cowboy who has recently lost his father. He is now left with a ranch full of debts and creditors harassing him. God sends him a message through in his dream, and he is ready to trust His plan and follow the sign. To appear at Evelina’s life was God’s will, but how can a God-fearing man show the True Light to a woman that has lost her faith?
Evelina and Joshua are afraid of connecting with each other. They have left their hearts untended for far too long and only God can show them the way to revive them. Will they manage to fight off the bad weeds with their rekindled faith and newfound love?
February, 1876, Brookland, Texas
The other mourners had left after the service at the graveside, but Reverend Garfield had not gone with them. Instead, the minister stood over the graves, beside Evelina, his head bowed, his hands clasping his Bible.
Prayer won’t bring them back.
Evelina Grant didn’t realize that she had spoken aloud until Reverend Garfield raised his head. Despite the chill of the February day, he remained hatless out of respect for the deceased and deference to God. His face above the border of his thick beard was red from the wind whipping through the pine trees that bordered the Grant ranch. The wind called out its wild, keening howl of grief, expressing the sounds that Evelina would have made if she could permit herself. The sky above their heads, a pale shade of pewter, reminded Evelina of Mother’s cherished teapot, the one that had been in her family since Grandmother came to the Piney Woods of eastern Texas with her bridegroom. The teapot was hers now. Everything was Evelina’s now. There was no one else but her. Mother, Father, and Edward were gone.
“My dear girl,” Rev. Garfield began. “You are grieving now and you will be grieving for some time to come. Others in town are grieving too. This illness . . .” He didn’t finish his statement.
Evelina did not lift her veil. She had taken comfort from the shield that the deep black mourning attire offered. The veil beneath her black bonnet kept others from viewing her and it protected her now from Rev. Garfield’s scrutiny. “Brookland has been hard hit. But those who have suffered will find comfort together. You will see. When you are in church again, you’ll draw on the strength of those who, like you, are grieving.”
This time, she knew that her words were spoken and not merely in her head. “I won’t be in church, Reverend Garfield,” she said, her voice was empty of emotion, as dry as the drought-stricken ground beneath their feet. When her family was alive, she would never have considered saying such a thing to a man of the cloth. Now, with her family dead, there was no reason to speak anything but the truth.
“Evelina, you cannot isolate yourself from your brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Evelina’s black-gloved hand pointed to the last of the three graves. The trees that surrounded the family graveyard looked as if they, too, were in mourning, shorn of their leaves, their stripped branches reaching their limbs up to the heavens. “My brother is there,” she answered. “Now I have no brother.” The gravestones, simple slabs of stone, marked the legacy of loss. The stonecutters had been busy this winter. There was no time for gravestones to be carved with cherubs for a child’s grave, an angel for a mother, or a cross for a father. Only the years of their lives. How could dates convey the fullness of years shared in loving affection?
“Evelina, that is not true. We are all a family in the Lord.”
“The Lord took my family. He is not welcome in my house, and I will not enter His,” Evelina replied. Her voice had no emotion in it. It was as cold and dry as the parched winter air shrieking through the trees.
“Evelina, you ought not to feel this way,” the minister said desperately. “You are young, you must carry on. You will marry one of those fine young men in town, and you’ll have a family of your own. I promise you that joy will return. Joy cometh in the morning. The Psalmist tells us so. Your parents would want you to keep living.”
“As God has taken them and left me, I must carry on as best I can, mustn’t I?” she asked tonelessly. She wondered why Reverend Garfield appeared so troubled. How did he expect her to feel? His God had robbed her of her family. It was useless for him to stand at their graves, his countenance pleading with her to reconsider her decision. How could a man whose business was death understand so little of it?
She wanted to stay here, alone, by the graves of her family members before she returned to the empty house where their presence had once been so defined. He was intruding on her grief. She wanted to mourn her family in solitude.
“Yes, certainly,” Reverend Garfield agreed as if he found her words promising. He moved slightly so he was facing her instead of standing by her side. She remained where she was. She did not intend to engage in a conversation with him. “They would expect it of you. You have a ranch to run. Lewis will help you; it won’t be easy, but you are young and strong and you will overcome these trials. You will marry one day and your husband will help you. You will have children and—“
“How pleasant you make it all sound, Reverend Garfield. How easy. But any of those young men you speak of will inherit ranches of their own one day. They are not going to make my ranch a priority. That will be up to me. My family is gone. All I have left is the ranch. I owe it to my parents to keep it as it was. And to my brother. It would have gone to him one day, if . . . if God had not taken him.
“I do not trivialize your sorrow, Evelina,” the older man said. His features were lined with pain, as if he could possibly share her sense of deprivation. He had his wife, his family. They had overcome the sickness and now Mrs. Garfield was nursing others who were sick. He had not earned the suffering that was revealed in his weathered face, Evelina thought angrily. He looked away from her, out upon the sky where a red-shouldered hawk made a lonely circle in the air overhead. “I simply tell you what I know to be true. Life will continue. Your heart will resist, but life does not halt.”
“No, it does not, and I have matters to attend to, Reverend,” she said. “I thank you for performing the service today. I will not have further need of you.” Why did he not see that he was wasting her time with his pious platitudes? Easy for him to tell her that life would go on. His wife would be there at the table, sitting across from him. His daughters would be there as well. His son was not in Texas, serving instead at a church in Louisiana. It would be very easy to hate him, to hate all those families that remained intact. Even families that had only lost one member, she thought she could hate them as well, for still having someone to love. She had no one. She was alone and would always be alone, for her family could never come back to her. The bonds of death could not loosen.
But she was already walking away from the sites of the graves, her back resolute as she walked away from the graves. She would visit them again tomorrow, knowing that her forlorn efforts to maintain a link with her family were doomed, because they had passed out of mortal existence. As she left the graveyard behind her, the sloping grassland of this section of Grant land seemed too steep, although she had walked and even run up and down its slopes ever since her childhood days. Now, the drought and death seemed inextricably tied together: the grass was rough and dry from winter, but it had been that way before the cold weather had struck.
The ranch, usually bustling with activity, was empty today. The hired hands had come to the funeral service out of respect and affection for Theodore and Evelyn and young Edward, then departed. Perhaps they were in the bunkhouse, or perhaps they had gone into town to leave Evelina to her solitary grief. Lewis Bailey, the foreman, had stayed longer, but he had left too, sensing her need to be alone.
The ranch house awaited her, but it was no longer a comforting landmark. It loomed ahead, large and empty of voices. The deaths had erased all the joy that its walls had once held, and as she approached the neat wooden structure, with its well-hewn planks and its bright red doors, painted by Mother who could not bear dull, drab hues, Evelina slowed her pace. She was in no hurry to go inside, even though the winds were picking up and the air was cold.
Once inside, she unpinned the bonnet from her hair and put it away. It had been Mother’s bonnet, worn to too many Brookland funerals, mourning too many who had been taken by the mysterious illness that began with a scratching in the throat and then a cough that stopped the lungs from drawing breath, until finally, breathing ceased. And then Mother had fallen to it, and Father, and Edward, who caught it last but died first.
Now the black mourning bonnet was hers. Everything was hers now. Except for her family. God had taken their precious lives and left her with possessions. Her family belonged to God now. God, who had robbed her of their lives and left her with memories she dared not recall for fear that the tears she held back would overflow and flood her with grief.
It had been cold during the funeral, but the neighbors had withstood the piercing gusts of wind as they listened to Reverend Garfield bid farewell to most of the Grant family. Evelina had done her duty. The women of Brookland had brought food for the funeral meal and Evelina had served their offerings to the mourners. February was a lean time for the community, with the slaughtering long since over, the gardens barren, and the pantries running low on the provisions that had been carefully put up in the fall. But they had given generously, as they always did, observing the traditions of death with solemn regard. There was more food left than she could possibly eat. The intention was that the bereaved would be relieved of the mundane need to provide for their meals, at least for a few days.
Evelina wanted none of it. She would send it down to the bunkhouse. The hands could eat it. Lewis would see to it once she told him.
Although it was still afternoon, the day was stingy with its sunlight, so she lit the oil lamp in the parlor and sat down in Mother’s rocking chair. Mother was gone. It was Evelina’s rocking chair now. She had to accustom herself to their absence. It would serve no purpose to recall the rocking chair as Mother’s, or the guitar as Edward’s, or the unfinished wood carving as Father’s. It was all hers and she must accept that the family she loved had left their belongings behind. They would not need them in heaven.
The parlor was a testimonial to the talents of the Grant family. This was not an elegant room only used on special occasions. Mother’s knitting basket was where she had left it, next to the rocking chair. The curtains on the windows, the antimacassars on the sofa, the rug in front of the fireplace, had all been crocheted and sewn and woven by Grant women through the years. The rifle over the fireplace had belonged to Uncle Silas, who had perished at Veracruz in the war with Mexico. On the wall behind the sofa was a portrait of Great-Aunt Sophronia. Father had remembered her as the beauty of the family. He claimed that Evelina resembled her, but even as she looked at the image of the young woman with the riveting brown eyes and rebellious curls rioting beneath her white mob cap, Evelina did not see the resemblance. Great Aunt Sophronia looked as if she were the bearer of a marvelous secret; there was a hint of it in her joyful smile. She had died young of consumption before the family ever moved west.
The piano in the corner of the room had been played by the women in the family since before the family came to Texas. It had made the trip with them, for no Grant woman would leave her piano behind. Here the family had lived. They ate in the dining room and they slept in their bedrooms, but they had lived in the parlor.
There was nothing more that she could do for them. She could not hurry to set the table for dinner so that Mother did not have to do it. She could not practice a song on the piano so that she could accompany Edward on his guitar. She could not be the first to rise in the morning to start breakfast so that Father could get an early start tending to the livestock.
God had taken those things from her, those infinitesimal, tiny tasks which she had rendered out of love for her family. She had no one to love now, and there was no one to love her. She was twenty years old, orphaned, and brotherless.
All she could do was honor the labor and the love of her family. She would do the work that they had done so that the ranch continued as it always had. This was the Grant family’s legacy, bequeathed through the generations of men and women who had worked the land, herded the cattle, cut firewood, churned butter, made music, laughed and loved, and in time, relinquished one another as time or illness took them.
But not all at once. Not like this. God had taken everyone she loved away from her. He would not take the ranch too. She would not let Him.
Carter’s Springs, West Virginia
It hardly seemed worthwhile to go into town when he hadn’t money to spare, but he was out of almost everything except coffee beans, so he accepted Griffin Allen’s invitation to accompany him. Griffin and his wife Sue had been friends of the Stevens family since Joshua was a boy. Now that Joshua was the only one left in his family, the Allens had, in their unassuming and kindly way, done their best to fill the gap left by Mama’s death a year ago and then, two months ago, Pa’s.
The memory of his father’s death in a barroom brawl was still too raw for Joshua to grieve easily; there was only the guilt. He’d known how empty inside Pa was after Mama died. Why hadn’t he found a way to stop him from finding solace in Slade Tackett’s tavern, racking up gambling debts and buying the comfort of a woman? Joshua knew that he hadn’t prayed hard enough, that was the answer. What other answer was there? The gospels were filled with evidence of successful prayer. If it had been Mama’s prayers that kept Pa on the straight and narrow, then it had been Joshua’s failed attempts that had given him over to sin. And ultimately, to Slade Tackett.
But God had been merciful, and Joshua had been alerted to his father’s imminent death in time to go to his death bed to make peace with his father. To offer forgiveness and accept it, and to be at his side as Pa returned to the Lord moments before his final breath.
Joshua heard the sounds of hooves upon the hillside and he strode over to the road to greet Griffin and get into the wagon. Those were gifts, Joshua reminded himself as Griffin’s sturdy wagon rolled down the rocky hillside from their adjoining ranches. Pa had returned to God before it was too late. Mama would be pleased to welcome her husband in his redeemed state, standing there, arms outstretched, as he entered the Kingdom. The image comforted him.
“Sue’s making cornbread and sausage for supper,” Griffin said. “You’ll come ‘round?”
“I won’t miss Sue’s cornbread for anything,” Joshua said cheerfully, banishing his sad spirits so that he could be decent company for Griffin, who was a good man.
Griffin nodded. There was a place set at the Allen table every night for Joshua, and Sue always sent him home with something wrapped in a napkin so that he’d have food for breakfast.
The Allens were neighbors, but since Pa’s death, they had become more. They had stepped in like family, and Joshua was grateful. Since the death of his parents, he’d felt untethered, like he didn’t know what he was supposed to do with his life. He’d never given it much thought before. Maybe a man didn’t until death took loved ones away, and suddenly he realized that he didn’t have forever at his beck and call.
When Mama and Pa were alive, the ranch had obviously been his future. But that was before Pa took to the cards and the drink, and sold so much livestock that it almost wasn’t worth calling himself a rancher now.
“Creek’s nigh on flood stage,” Griffin remarked as they passed Shiloh Creek, where the water had risen so high it was almost level with the top of the embankment.
Another rain like last night’s and there would be flooding. The ground was already so saturated that Joshua joked he wished his boots were brown, not black, so the mud he stepped into wouldn’t stand out so much.
“Once the sun starts shining again,” Joshua said, “things will get better. By planting time.”
That was a hope, not a certainty. It had been a cold, wet winter, with as much rain as there was snow. Even though the trees were shorn of leaves for the season, there was none of the bitter dryness that winter typically engendered in the hills of West Virginia. Joshua was eager for spring, more so this year than ever in his memory.
But as the wagon turned from the rutted country roads and the dripping branches where melting snow fell to the ground, the sight of the town up ahead did nothing to improve his mood.
“Town gets worse every time I see it,” Griffin said tersely, as he scanned the buildings along the street, most with their signs replaced, indicating that their prior trade had vanished.
Griffin didn’t reveal his emotions when he spoke, but to hear him make such a comment just reinforced Joshua’s sense of despair. “Miss Sally’s,” Griffin said, following Joshua’s gaze to the structure, now absent its trademark sign with a plumed bonnet above the storekeeper’s name “A shame. She’s a fine lady. Made dandy hats, Sue said.”
“I don’t suppose he gave her a fair price for her property, either.”
It was morning, but for the men who had spent the night in one or the other of Slade Tackett’s saloons, gambling halls, or the gaudily bedecked ‘Gentlemen’s Pleasure Palace’, the night had simply extended well past sunrise. There were men sprawled in the street after a brawl or a drunken binge the night before. A lady, or at least a member of the female sex, leaned against the hitching post in front of the Pleasure Palace, smoking a slender cigar as she gave Joshua an appraising glance when the wagon drove by.
“Pantalettes,” Griffin supplied.
“I know what they are, I just don’t believe ladies are inclined to be seen wearing them like that,” Joshua said, averting his eyes from the bold-eyed female exhaling tobacco smoke from her scarlet lips. He felt it wrong to look upon her in her undress, even though she was the one inviting attention by standing outside where no one could avoid looking at her. Whoever that girl was, she had family somewhere, surely, maybe even a brother who would be in despair to learn that his sister had fallen to such depths. Maybe her folks prayed for her every night, not knowing where she was or what she’d gotten herself into, but trusting to the all-seeing Lord to rescue her from Slade Tackett’s iniquity.
“You aren’t seeing a lady now,” Griffin told him. He turned down the street, away from the businesses owned by Slade Tackett, toward the older part of town where folks who didn’t want to start their morning errands by stepping over sodden drunks and avoiding the women for hire could be found. He directed Uzziah, the massive gray stallion, toward the back of the general store so that supplies could be readily loaded into the wagon.
Joshua followed Griffin into the store. He didn’t need much and could afford less, so after he’d bought what he had to have, he told Griffin that he’d wait out back so he could help with the loading. It was easier to stay close to the general store where there was no trade in flesh or souls, but only in goods needed for ordinary life.
When Joshua was young, he’d enjoyed coming to town. Pa knew all the store owners, and Joshua had been proud to be at his father’s side in those long-ago days before the lust for land and cattle that were an accepted part of a cowboy’s drive was replaced by an unquenchable thirst for liquor and an insatiable craving for paid women. It still hurt to think that, for the last months of Pa’s life, that street had been like a home to him. His father, Ben Stevens, an upright rancher and member of Carter’s Springs Town Council, who had spoken out against Slade Tackett’s predatory commercial dealings when the man first came to town, ending up in thrall to his dens of iniquity after Mama’s passing.
Once, he and Lance Tackett, Slade’s son, had been friends. Lance had sat at the Stevens table at suppertime. He’d even sat with the Stevens family on Sunday morning in church. They’d been good friends, despite the way that Lance’s father earned his money and the condemnation that Ben had leveled against him in the council meetings. But then Lance had been killed by someone who owed Slade money. It seemed like everywhere Slade Tackett was, death followed. Instead of acknowledging his own culpability in his son’s death, Slade Tackett had somehow blamed the Stevens men. Joshua had never understood why, but after Lance’s death, his father had been driven to corrupt the town even more. In vain did preachers rail against the wages of sin during their Sunday sermons. The wages of sin had made Tackett a wealthy man.
When he was young, it hadn’t been this way. Carter’s Springs had been a fine town for a boy to grow up in, a place where families went about their business doing what was right and good in the eyes of the Lord. A family could go shopping for their needs and not once encounter a drunken man lying in a stupor on the muddy street. Joshua recalled how he and Pa would leave Mama at the general store to do her shopping for the household. They’d stop in at the livery stable to admire the horses in their stalls, and then they’d mosey on over to the blacksmith forge, where Joshua would watch, rapt, as Ernest Schleibel twisted hot metal into shape while the forge fires burned. The livery stable was still there, as was the smithy, but there were no families strolling by, no boys learning respect for the men and women who were artisans and tradesmen.
Now women stayed away from town and sent their menfolk with their lists. Now–
“What’s the matter, boy? No money to buy at the store?”
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