She runs across desert to find her saviour. When he finds her, he believes that God is mocking him. How can these two hurt souls cure their wounds with Light and Love?
“Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” James 1:12
When young Lou is forced to marry a corrupt suitor for money, she flees out West with God in her heart. Crossing the desert, she ends up in an isolated ranch run by a mysterious rancher and his obnoxious sister. She stays on the ranch, working her fingers to the bone, trying not to fall in love with her savior. How can she guide both their souls toward God’s Light when he is close to darkness?
Impulsive yet reserved, Mark has returned home after the death of his brother. Along with a sister that seems not to like him, he tries to get the ranch back in its previous glory. However, the almost dehydrated bride he finds on his doorstep, makes him believe that God has an ironic sense of humor. How will he learn to open his heart when he has always been a lost ship looking for safe harbor?
Their meeting is the Lord’s plan, and this unexpected game of life makes them fall in love. Will they manage to keep their love safe when Lou’s past threatens to tear them apart?
Rosing’s Vale Ranch
Clarkson, Oregon Territory
Lou wandered along the outer perimeter of her family’s ranch, allowing the palm of her hand to graze against the sea of purple wildflowers. The gentle tickle against her skin made her smile, although her mood was anything but cheerful.
She glanced to her left, where the ranch house rose in the distance. The two-story log home stood on an incline and peeked out from behind the willow trees. Just beyond, Malheur Forest came into view while on the other side, a mountain range rose high into the sky, the peaks topped with white snow. Inside the beautiful home, preparations for her marriage to Simeon Danvers the following day were going ahead at full steam.
Lou let out a deep sigh as she pushed away the thought of the wedding she didn’t want. and turned toward the bright red barn. The warm sunshine glued her black and red checkered dress against her hot skin, and she sat on the bench in the shade. From there, she watched as a horse stole an apple from the majestic apple tree and smiled. Rosing’s Vale Ranch was a tranquil place. A river flowed past the house, and as a child, she and her beloved late Pa often fished there. Elk, moose, and deer populated the forests, and she always took great joy in seeing the Lord’s glorious creatures.
She’d been happy here when her parents lived, but ever since their deaths, it seemed that all the magic had been stripped from the place. She wouldn’t be sad to leave it behind when she left with Simeon tomorrow. She only wished she were leaving with a man selected for her by God, not her stepfather. Suddenly, from the front of the barn, voices rose.
“She’s a looker, that Lou,” a deep voice said, and Lou jumped up. She knew the voice. It belonged to one of Simeon’s men, a burly fellow named Jack. What was he doing here?
“Can’t deny that. Will make married life more tolerable to have someone easy on the eyes,” Simeon Danvers’s gruff, gravelly voice answered. Her fiancé’s tone made her shudder. Outwardly charming, Simeon’s soul was dark—rotten to the core. She knew he engaged in illegal gambling and didn’t shy away from violence. She’d witnessed him yanking a waitress at his saloon by the hair for not smiling enough, and once, he’d beaten a man in the middle of Clarkson. His violent tendencies were among the main reasons she’d opposed the marriage, but Simeon was rich and the type of person who got whatever he wanted.
And he’d decided he wanted her. At almost forty, he was twice her age, and try as she might, she couldn’t think of any conceivable reason why anyone would consider them a good match. She was a wild, independent girl – and he the sort of man who tolerated no back talk. Her life with him would be miserable. He’d even refused to marry her in the house of the Lord when she requested it. And even that hadn’t made her stepparents change their mind.
“Never thought you’d find someone you deemed worthy of being your wife. What’s next? Teaching Sunday school?” The man broke into a peal of roaring laughter while Lou’s heart beat faster.
“Pfft, not a chance. You know the true beauty I’m marrying isn’t Louisa Hensley—it’s what she comes with. Rosing’s Vale Ranch. I’ve tried to get my hands on the ranch for years, and finally, I will.”
“Would’ve been much easier if Old Man Hensley had just sold it back to you when you asked,” Jack replied.
“That’s not how the rotten Hensleys operate. Her father wouldn’t sell me the ranch no matter how much I offered, and even in death he still managed to screw me over by making it so the ranch and the girl come as a package deal. He didn’t think I’d go so far as to marry his little girl. Well, he was wrong.” He grunted, and Lou gasped, eyes wide as she realized the true reason behind the proposal.
Jack grunted. “So whatcha gonna do about Lou once she’s your wife?”
“Once I take over the ranch, she’ll learn to mind me. They all do.” He let out a menacing laugh and was swiftly joined by Jack. Lou couldn’t’ see them from where she stood, but she could imagine Simeon’s gleeful face.
She took a deep breath. What had he meant, she and the ranch were a package deal? For all she knew, the ranch belonged to her stepfather, didn’t it? And did he know of Simeon’s plans to take over the ranch? Surely not. It would mean they’d be out of house and home. Lou stood straight, her nostrils flaring. She had to tell them. Surely, once they found out the truth, they’d cancel the wedding. They had to.
“Stop, Louisa,” her stepfather growled as he brushed a lock of his rich, chestnut colored hair out of his ruddy face. “I won’t hear of it.”
He stood in the main room of the ranch beside Ma Betty, her stepmother. The room was already decorated with wildflowers and bows for tomorrow’s reception. He stared at her, and Lou was reminded of the day Colt Charlton first stepped through the front door, on her mother’s arm—as her husband. Theirs was no more a love match than Lou’s and had been agreed upon out of necessity. Lou’s Ma needed a man to run the ranch and protect her, just as Lou needed a man to look after her—at least, so her stepfather claimed.
While he’d treated her mother with tenderness, Lou had never cared for the man who’d assumed her beloved Pa’s place. At least he hadn’t abandoned her when her Ma passed of consumption, five years after their marriage. He’d allowed her to stay, and a few years later, he, too, remarried. On the surface, her new stepmother cared for Lou as a stepmother ought, but she and her stepfather only provided what Lou needed in a material sense. There was no nourishment of her soul. That Lou only found in the Lord’s word.
It should not have surprised her that her stepfather wasn’t troubled by what she’d overheard in the barn. He’d taken in her report while sighing, shaking his head, scratching his long beard, and growing ever angrier—at Lou.
“I can’t marry him. He doesn’t want me. He wants Rosing’s Vale. He’ll make you both leave here once he has it, can’t you see?” she pleaded.
“Louisa, you must stop with these tales. Every day there’s another reason why you shouldn’t marry Simeon. He’s too old, he’s too improper, he’s not Christian enough—we’ve heard it all,” Ma Betty finally inserted herself into the conversation. Her chestnut brown hair swayed as she shook her head.
“All of it is true. Ask him,” she demanded but knew it was in vain. The way they looked at one another, a knowing expression in their eyes, made her realize they were fully aware of Simeon’s plans.
“I won’t hear of it anymore. You will marry him. He is a good man who’s pledged to take care of you. Many a man would be turned off by your wild ways, riding around in the rain like a savage and insisting on helping the ranch hands. It’s improper. Simeon is willing to look past it and marry you anyhow,” Colt fired back in a gruff tone.
“I’m not wild! I don’t want to marry him, and he doesn’t want me either. Colt—”
“Stop!” he thundered while Ma Betty shook her head and walked to the window. “Do not dare call me Colt. I am your father, and you’ll address me as such. I’m Pa Colt to you. I deserve at least that much respect. Get the Bible from the mantle and go to your room. Reread the section about honoring your mother and father, and don’t come down until you’re ready to apologize for your impertinence.” He glowered at her, a fire in his eyes that told Lou any protest would only further enrage him.
With sadness in her heart and anger racing through her veins, she picked up the old family Bible from the mantle. Her stepfather had removed it from the safe earlier that morning, so it could be used in the ceremony tomorrow. They didn’t usually keep it out, as it was old, having passed through five generations of Lou’s family. She hurried upstairs to her bedroom and slammed the door shut behind her.
Lou didn’t come down the rest of the night. She wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of an apology. Instead, she lay on her bed and thought of any possible way to get out of the marriage. She couldn’t marry Simeon. If she did, she knew she’d be miserable. He wasn’t above striking a woman. She knew this. God wouldn’t want that for her, would he?
She replayed the conversation with her stepparents over in her mind. It was almost as if they didn’t care, just as long as he reigned in her wild ways, although she didn’t think of herself as terribly wild. She enjoyed being out in nature more so than knitting and sewing, activities Ma Betty considered proper. Ma and Pa had never forced her to do things she didn’t want to. As long as she was kind, respectful, and obeyed the Lord, they allowed her freedom.
She thought back to Simeon’s sardonic laugh and his promise to teach her to mind him. A sudden rush of despair crashed down on her again. She was nothing but a tool for him. A way to get revenge on her father for winning Rosing’s Vale in a card game decades ago. He’d use her and abuse her for the rest of her life, she knew it. That’s if he let her live. She’d heard a rumor that he once beat a woman who disobeyed him so badly that she died. It was a rumor, but Lou believed it.
In her despair, she walked across the hardwood floor of her room and to her single bed. On the wooden nightstand, a candle flickered beside the old family Bible. With shaking hands, she picked it up, closed her eyes, and uttered a prayer.
“Lord, please send me a sign as you did for Gideon. Am I really to marry this man? It feels so wrong, and yet if it is your will, then I shall do so. Amen.” An ache spread through her. How she longed for her mother and father. If only they’d lived, then none of this would be happening. If only she had a family, someone to help her. Somewhere she could turn—but there was nobody.
She stepped to the window and looked out over the ranch that lay sprawled out before her. The moon bathed it in a beautiful, peaceful light. In the distance, she saw the arch that had been erected between two oak trees. She and Simeon were to marry there in the morning. She stared at it, willing for a bolt of lightning to come and set it on fire, so she might have her answer. It didn’t come. She placed the Bible on the windowsill and leaned out.
A light breeze blew into her face, the lovely scent of wild plants wafted into her nose and momentarily filled her with a sense of joy when the Bible fell onto the hardwood floor.
“Oh no!” she exclaimed and jumped back
Scattered across the floor were loose pages that had fallen out of the Bible. A part of her wanted to look at them, but she decided against it. First, she had to check that the Bible hadn’t been damaged in the fall. It was old and the pages so thin, she feared they’d torn.
However, the Bible had fallen open on a page that gave her pause. She stuffed the papers back into the flap at the back and examined the section.
The section the Holy Bible had opened to during its fall was Deuteronomy 1:19. With shaking hands, she read the words.
And when we departed from Horeb, we went through all that great and terrible wilderness, which ye saw by way of the mountain of the Amorites, as the Lord our God commanded us; and we came to Kadesh-barnea. And I said unto you, Ye are come unto the mountain of the Amorites, which the Lord our God doth give unto us.
This was the part where the Lord had brought the Israelites to the border of the Promised Land, and they refused to go. He’d led them through the desert and set them up for a new life. They’d refused and been cursed with forty more years of wandering due to their lack of faith.
Lou’s jaw grew slack, and she looked toward the heavens. This was her answer. The Lord had heard her prayer. She had absolute faith. And she was certain that the Bible hadn’t opened to this page by accident. This was the sign she’d asked for. God wanted her to escape, and he’d lead her to a new, promising life. But she’d have to go now. If she waited until morning, it might be too late. She needed time to put distance between herself and Rosing’s Vale.
Her heart pounded as she quickly packed a change of clothing and her precious jewelry as well as a portrait of her parents into a leather bag. Last, she packed the old Bible. Just as she was about to climb out of her window as she’d done so many times throughout the course of her life, she realized she had nowhere to go.
She paused. Suddenly, a little flicker of doubt ignited in her heart. She was to leave but to where?
Lou shook her head. God wanted her to go; he’d lead her way. Her doubt cast aside, Lou climbed out of the window of her second story bedroom and slid down the drainpipe. Halfway down, her eyes fell toward the Dainty Bess roses her mother had planted next to the pipe, and her eyes grew wide.
She remembered the reason why her mother had selected this particular pink rose with its distinctive five ruffled petals. It was because they shared a name with Lou’s aunt.
She glanced skyways. Was this another sign? She hadn’t spoken to her aunt in some years, but she remembered her as a kind, loving woman, someone who might take in her runaway niece.
Lou slid down the pipe and came to a stop beside the roses.
There were no guarantees that her aunt would take her in, but she had to at least try. No matter what, she couldn’t marry Simeon. She had to get away, and quickly. No doubt, they would look for her.
With shaking legs, she made her way across the lawn. She wanted to look over her shoulder, but just like Lot, she decided to leave the ruins of her past behind, and instead, she marched forth. While fear remained in her stomach, she took comfort from knowing that she had a destination in mind—and God on her side.
Sun Valley Ranch
Sweat formed on Mark’s brow as he lifted the barn door and dragged it out onto the dirt. He let it fall with such force, a flock of robins flew in fright out of the bitter cherry bush nearby. Some of the small, red fruits the birds loved so much rolled along the sandy ground and came to a stop at his feet. Mark groaned and rubbed his forehead.
“What’s wrong with you, huh?” he hollered at the unsuspecting barn door and kicked it with his leather boots. If not for the steel caps at the toes, he probably would have hurt his foot, he thought, upset at himself for losing his temper. He squatted and took off the big, beige Stetson that always made him feel like a proper fool and dropped it. An exasperated sigh escaped as he stared at the door. He’d been trying to put it back on its hinges for the past half hour after finally repairing a damaged joint, but it refused to hang.
Or perhaps he was just too weak to hang it on his own. This was a two-man job; however, he was the owner of a one-man ranch.
Not that he wanted to own a ranch. He wanted to work as an engineer on the railroads as he’d planned. He wanted to sell this ranch and get as far away from it as possible. But he couldn’t. This was his family’s heritage. The only thing that remained of the happy childhood he once had. Selling it would be like selling a piece of himself. He’d never forgive himself. More importantly, his sister would never forgive him.
“Another triumph of engineering, I see,” his sister called out in a singsong.
Mark glanced over his shoulder as Sarah approached. Her blue gingham dress swayed around her petite body, and her long black hair—the same deep shade of raven as his own—hung in a long braid over her shoulder. Just as the early April sun caught her upturned button nose at the right angle, and her gray eyes sparkled, she reminded him of their mother. An ache filled Mark’s heart as he thought of the kind-hearted woman who’d been taken from him when he was but ten-years old.
He remembered her bright laugh as she called him and his older brother, Ben, to come for dinner, or as she sat by the fire at night and read them stories from the Bible. He shook his head, chasing a way the old pain that always remained in his heart.
“I fixed it,” he mumbled and rose.
Sarah stood beside him, arms crossed, and her round chin slightly pushed out as she examined the barn door on the ground.
“It’ll do us a whole lot of good on the ground like that. Sure will keep the dairy cows from wandering out,” she said.
Mark glowered at her and wanted to give a sharp rebuke but then stopped. She might be a mouthy girl, but she was just that—a girl. A girl who by age fourteen had lost not only a mother she never had a chance to know, but a father, and an older brother. All she had left was a brother who hated ranching, possessed little patience, and was an even worse substitute parent than he was a rancher. He shook his head as he recalled the day he’d realized his dream of working as an engineer had to take a backseat in favor of running his family ranch.
“I’ll hang it up, don’t you worry. Did you milk the cows?”
She blinked her round eyes at him and cocked her head to the side. “I milk ‘em first thing in the morning, right before I get the eggs out of the chicken coop. You ought to know. By the way, when you’re done fixing up this mess, the chicken coop needs tending to. There’s a hole in the mesh, needs replacing.”
Mark swallowed and let out a small burst of air.
“Fine, I’ll tend to it.” The list of things that needed doing on the ranch was as long as his arm, and while Sarah tended to the washing, cleaning, cooking, and the chickens, there was only so much she could do on the ranch.
He remembered his brother Ben’s taunting words the day he declared he wanted to be an engineer. Ben had mocked him and accused him of thinking he was better than everyone else. He didn’t. He just didn’t have the passion or skills to be a rancher.
His sister kept her eyes on him as she continued her lecture. “You gotta check the fence too. Hawkeye Ranch lost three of their cattle two nights ago to a wildcat. And did you brand the new calves? Ben always did that as early as possible to make sure nobody steals them.”
Mark closed his eyes. The sweat pearls had reappeared on his eyebrows, and this time, they rolled down his face and under the collar of his white shirt.
He loved his sister, but she’d never forgiven him for leaving for school. And he couldn’t blame her. Ben had started to change after the death of their father. The capable rancher who enjoyed a beer after work slowly turned into a drunk who hardly got the work done. Mark had seen the signs, but he’d ignored them. While he left his old life behind, Sarah had to watch as their brother, and their ranch, fell apart.
With Ben gone, Mark had inherited not only the decrepit ranch, but also his brother’s debt to a local gang who didn’t care that the man who’d borrowed the money lay six feet under. Glen and his men would come for what they were owed. Mark had requested more time, but their patience was wearing thin. It wasn’t a wonder that Sarah was resentful, and he tried not to hold it against her.
“Mark?” she called out. “Branding?”
His stomach turned at the idea. He hated the cries of pain the calf let out when it was time for branding.
“I said I’ll tend to it. Don’t you have studying to do?”
His sister sneered at him. “I finished it already. I plan on being a teacher. I can’t be slacking. You ought to know that by now.”
“Fine,” Mark said and waved a hand. “Read the Bible then. And make some coffee.” At this point, he really just wanted her to leave him alone. He already felt like a failure. He didn’t need her pointing it out to him as well.
She shrugged. “Already made it. My chores are done,” she grinned smugly at him and continued to stare.
Before he could say anything else, the sound of chickens clucking alerted him to another disaster in the making. Sure enough, three fat brown hens came waddling from behind the barn, a black rooster right behind them.
“Oh no,” he moaned. The chickens lived in a fenced in area just behind the main ranch house. Its red roof was visible through the large trees up ahead.
“Told you there’s a hole in the mesh,” Sarah said with a small shrug.
“I thought you meant in the coop, not in the fence around the coop,” he said as he dashed to catch the wayward chickens. The moment he rushed toward them, they clucked louder and then took off into the air. The rooster marched on while the three chickens ended up on the bitter cherry bush.
“Must be a hole in the fence, too. Ben used to check the fences once a week. Pa did too,” his sister declared while Mark stretched and grabbed one of the hens who instantly pecked at him.
“Ow!” he exclaimed and dropped the hen, who took off toward the main house in the distance.
“Bit catawampus, your approach,” Sarah teased.
“Help me, please?” Mark asked, about ready to give up. His tone was apparently desperate enough for his sister to take mercy on him. With a confidence he wished he possessed, she shooed the three hens down from the bush and then chased them back toward their area while Mark followed, embarrassed at having to get his sister to help him yet again.
As he made his way toward the main house, he glanced out over the wide expanse. Somehow the sky here in Idaho always seemed higher and brighter than it had in New York. Perhaps it was because here, the sky wasn’t obscured by buildings.
The main ranch house, built by his grandfather, sat flush against the Bald Mountain Range. Neither the house nor the ranch was terribly large, which was a blessing. At just under 150 acres, it was manageable—or it would be, if he knew what he was doing. Aside from the red-roofed main cabin, the property consisted of the horses’ stable and the two barns, as well as a loafing shed.
They passed the well—another project he needed to tend to as the bucket had rusted and needed replacing—and the cabin came into view. So far, the house where he’d grown up was the only building on the ranch that wasn’t in a dilapidated state.
He scoffed as he recalled his brother’s arrogant laugh the day Mark left for engineering school. He could still see Ben leaning against the door post, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth as he jeered at Mark. His words echoed in his mind to this day.
“You’re barking at a knot, learning to engineer. Won’t do you any good when you end up back here with your tail between your legs, looking for me to take you on. You’re just lucky Pa taught me well, and you’ll have a place to slink back to when it all goes wrong for you.”
He’d been so confident, his brother, in his abilities to run the ranch as well as their father had. And maybe if he hadn’t turned to the bottle, he might have. Maybe if he hadn’t been drinking, a close encounter with a bear wouldn’t have cost him his life.
“Mark Alderman? Do you hear me?” Sarah’s petulant voice forced him out of his thoughts, and he realized she’d already put the chickens back into their hen house and was now pointing at a sizeable hole in the fence in front of them.
“I see it,” he grumbled. “I’ll get something temporary to stop them getting out and then head into town for materials.”
Sarah puckered her lips at him. “You mean you’re going into town to ask someone how to fix a fence properly.”
Mark’s stomach burned with anger. He knew she was still enraged that he’d gone and left her alone with Ben when he headed off to New York, but that didn’t excuse her continued hostility.
“I don’t know how to fix it properly, all right? I never learned, but I’m trying. You could be a little supportive. It’s your mouth I’m trying to feed as well,” he shouted but felt badly the moment the words were out of his mouth.
She only blinked at him. “You shouldn’t have fired our foreman or let the ranch hands leave. At least they knew what they were doing. It’s been four months, and this place is falling apart.”
“I didn’t have money to pay them with,” he argued back.
“Because you didn’t prepare for the cattle drive on time, and we missed the chance to make our money for winter. That’s why, Mark. I told you to get ready, pick the cattle to sell, and you kept waiting and waiting and waiting till the ranch hands left. They knew you were useless, just like the foreman did,” she said, a scowl on her face.
Mark curled his hands into fists. He already knew he was useless at ranching. He didn’t need her telling him time and again.
“I didn’t want to be a rancher!” He shouted against his better judgement. “I don’t want to herd cattle and brand calves or run after chickens. I’m an engineer.”
He huffed and marched a few steps away from her toward the fence. He curled his hands around the wood as his knuckles popped white. When he glanced at her over his shoulder, he did so with heaviness in his chest. “I went to school. I ought to be working on the railroads, not listening to my little sister berate me all day long when I’m trying my hardest to keep a roof over our heads. At least I’m trying, which is more than I can say for you.” When he looked at her face, he realized that the obvious pain and frustration in his voice hit her much harder than his earlier shouting.
He expected her to fire back with just as much gusto, but to his surprise, her mouth closed, her lips quivered, and then, to his dismay, tears sprang into her eyes, and she ran back toward the house.
He watched as her dress fluttered in the breeze and the sound of her sobs filled the stillness all around him.
“Sarah, I’m sorry!” He was once again reminded of just how young she was, how lost and alone in the world. He shouldn’t have let his frustrations get the best of him. She didn’t look back. Instead, she dashed out across the long wooden porch and ran into the house where the door squeaked as she slammed it shut behind her.
Mark leaned against the fence and thought back to the days in New York. He’d been such an eager learner and loved staying up at night with his books until the candles burnt to a stump. His professors made him feel as though he had a career ahead of him, a life. Success.
Now, here he was. Chasing chickens. He dropped his head between his shoulders. Suddenly overcome with anger, he looked up at the darkening sky.
“Why, God? Why? What have I done to deserve this?”
He shook his head and marched back toward the barn. God hadn’t really heard him in a long time, no matter how hard he prayed or how diligently he read his Bible. Everyone had forsaken him—the Lord included. No matter how hard he longed for the days when he’d held genuine faith, genuine belief in his heart, he no longer did. And if he was honest, the hole his lack of faith left in his heart ached more than the loss of the life he once hoped to have.
With a sigh, he stopped in front of the barn door that still lay on the ground before him. He tapped his foot while glaring at it and then, with a groan, lifted it. This door would go back on the barn one way or the other. He had to score a win today, even if it was a small one. Surely, God would grant him that.
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