Minnie is running away from a past full of fire and brimstone. Frank is drowning in guilt and self-hatred. How can their marriage of convenience be blessing and not a bane?
“John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Luke 3:16
Minnie’s life has been by far one of the worst and most miserable a young woman can ever have. She’s seen her family dying and she’s always been trying to understand the reason God would let such a disaster happen to her. Yet, she keeps strong by holding onto her mother’s wooden cross. She decides to leave her old town and carve her own path, by marrying a stranger in the West. How can she open her heart to God’s will to fall in love with this new man?
Frank has been a lonely rancher and a man with a troubled family. Ever since he let his brother go, after a huge fight, he has been living in the shadows. Getting married to a mail-order bride is the least he can do not to let the house fall on its pillars. When his brother returns though, and he is faced with the raw truth, he wants to cower at the sight of divine intervention. How can he trust again God’s providence when he not only has a new wife but an estranged brother to protect?
To follow the Lord’s tiring but fulfilling path, Minnie and Frank must first search within their hearts to find the answers to their past. Only when they let God heal these wounds, will they let love sweep them away. Will they answer His call, or will the darkened past catch up to them?
Six years earlier
Deer Creek, Oregon Territory, 1849
Minnie Ramsdale giggled as she chased another brightly colored butterfly through the field of wildflowers. The sun was shining overhead, and she and her best friend, Margaret Elizabeth Tully who much preferred the name Beth, were enjoying the beautiful day.
The two girls had taken off several hours earlier, playing in the forest as they normally did once their morning chores were completed. They’d grown up together, their families both having come to the Umpqua River Valley in the southern part of the Oregon territory before either of them was born. Their ranches were only a few miles apart, and the girls had become fast friends from the first time they’d met.
Their families ranched and harvested trees for the timber mills, and with it being mid-summer, the days were long and yielded plenty of time for exploring and playing in the surrounding wilderness. Both girls were very aware of the dangers that lurked in the darker timber, be them animal or human. Bears, wolves, and mountain lions were known to frequent the wooded areas around Deer Creek.
There was also the potential threat from the Indian populations that hunted and lived in the wooded areas. There had been a few skirmishes in recent months, and everyone in Deer Creek had made it a point to take extra precautions when entering the forests. For Minnie and Beth, that meant they were never to go farther than the open meadow next to the river. Their adventure today had taken them as far from home as they dared to go without at least one of their parents coming with them. It simply wasn’t safe.
Minnie held the bunch of wildflowers she’d collected to her nose and inhaled deeply. Their fragrant smell brought a smile to her face as her eyes closed in delight. She loved flowers, and the early spring rains had ensured a plethora of different species were now in bloom. Pink and purple larkspur. Golden dandelions. White and blue columbines. A rainbow of God’s creation grew all around her. “This is my favorite place,” she called to her friend. “We should walk back quietly, and maybe we’ll see the baby fawns again.” They’d spied the small baby deer watching them from beneath the canopy of some wild berry bushes a short time earlier.
“I hope so. They were so cute,” Beth agreed, lifting her head and following the path of another yellow butterfly.
Minnie turned her attention back to the field of flowers, walking carefully amongst them so as not to crush them beneath her small feet. She bent over a small clump of brightly colored yellow flowers, intent on adding them to her bouquet.
“Minnie, look!” shouted Beth as she pointed toward the top of the towering pine trees to the north, her bright red curls gleaming in the afternoon sun and bouncing with her obvious agitation.
“Minnie!” Beth shouted again.
Minnie spun around at the sound of panic in her best friend’s voice, following the direction of her pointing arm, and then gasped at the huge plume of smoke rising above the tops of the trees. The black billows rose steadily toward the heavens, growing rapidly before her eyes and creating a desperate need in her to be home. Now.
“Fire!” Minnie took off running, not away from the fire as would have been prudent. There wasn’t time for caution; their family ranches lay on the other side of those trees.
Fear gripped Minnie’s heart as she picked up her skirt and ran as fast as her short legs would carry her. At the age of twelve, Minnie was much shorter than other girls her age and very skinny, even though she ate almost as much as her pa at most meals. Her ma said she had an energetic constitution.
Minnie never really thought much about her height except for when she couldn’t reach something without some help or needing a step ladder. Beth quickly caught up to her, being almost half a foot taller and leaving little hope for Minnie that she would ever catch up. She’d decided several months earlier that she was destined to be what her pa called her—shortcake.
“We have to warn everyone,” Minnie yelled, tripping on a tree root and almost toppling to the ground before she gained her footing and kept moving into the dense trees. Her leather kid boots were more suited to leisurely strolling or sitting firmly inside stirrups, not running through the forest as if the hounds of hell were on her heels.
Her dark blue skirt and attached bib suspenders were offset by the yellow blouse beneath, the sleeves short in deference to the warmth of the season. As was normal, neither she nor Beth wore their bonnets, unless they were headed into town for a church gathering. Minnie’s ma had told her that would need to change as she grew older, but so far, she’d managed to escape wearing the sweltering and confining head attire society demanded women don to cover their hair.
Minnie had never really understood what difference it made, whether anyone saw what she considered messy, brown hair. She was determined to avoid complying with society’s dreaded tradition for as long as possible.
They were halfway into the thick of the trees when she glanced at Beth and saw her own fear mirrored back at her. She could already smell the smoke and a small herd of fear-stricken deer darted in the opposite direction, clearly running for safer ground.
When they came to the small fork in the paths, marked by a large spruce tree with an old burn scar from being struck by lightning sometime in the past, the sun had already passed its highest point in the sky and was starting to descend. Beth and Minnie hugged each other quickly before Beth turned to the left fork, calling out, “Please be safe. If everything’s okay, send someone from the ranch over to check on us, and I’ll ask Pa to do the same for you.”
Minnie nodded, too winded to answer as she took off down the right path, knowing she had more than a quarter of a mile yet to go. She berated herself for having wandered so far away with Beth. They’d been chasing the newly hatched butterflies that had emerged after last night’s rain, and before they knew it, they’d found themselves in the clearing next to the river. They’d enjoyed collecting some wildflowers, and Minnie briefly mourned that they now lay in a small, abandoned pile amidst the summer grasses. Hopefully there would still be some left to collect again, and the fire wouldn’t consume them all.
Forest fires were so devastating, and while there had been small fires in the past few years in nearby areas, none had ever been close enough to threaten her home. Her folks had taken a trip to one such area last summer, and Minnie and her sister had been shocked at the destruction they’d witnessed. Trees with their blackened trunks looked ominous, and where there should have been meadows full of tall grasses and flowers, there was nothing but dirt and a few small blades of grass attempting to survive. It had brought tears to her eyes, and she quickened her pace as she raced toward home.
The smell of the smoke had increased, and she blinked as it began to sting her hazel eyes, making them tear up and creating even more of a visibility problem. Even before she ran out of the forest of trees, she was coughing, and the air had heated considerably. Flames crackled as they greedily consumed the woods ahead of her, and she strained to see through the gathering smoke to where she knew her family’s small cabin and barn stood.
She broke free of the forest and was immediately greeted by a wall of fire that edged the opposite side of the wide clearing that held her family’s ranch. Dozens, maybe hundreds of trees were completely engulfed in the orange and yellow flames that meant destruction. The rainstorm the night before had put on quite a light show in the heavens with the lightning bolts darting to and fro. Unfortunately, it seemed that one of them had struck the earth and started something on fire.
She knew her pa would be very concerned about the trees and the damage the fire would cause to the forest. Harvesting trees and hauling them to the local timber mill was his main focus these days, and while Minnie was too young and small to be of much help, she enjoyed riding along with him as he surveyed the surrounding stands of trees and decided which ones would be harvested and which ones would be left behind to grow a bit longer.
A sharp pain in her side forced her to slow her pace as she neared her home, only to be replaced by an even sharper pain in the vicinity of her heart as she lifted her eyes and beheld the entire cabin ablaze. Tall flames leapt from the windows, and through the black billows of smoke it appeared that part of the roof had already begun to fall in on the structure.
“No!” Minnie screamed, terror and a sense of loss consuming her so that she didn’t even realize she was still screaming with tears running down her cheeks as Barlow, her pa’s ranch hand, grabbed her, stopping her rush toward the burning structure with a firm hold around her waist.
“Minnie, no! You can’t go in there,” Barlow shouted above the noise of the fire.
“Where’s Ma? Pa? Sissy was sick—I have to help get her out…”
“There’s no use, child,” Barlow told her brokenly, his own tears leaving lighter tracks down his soot-covered face. “Your ma was inside with Sissy when your pa and I spotted the smoke. It all happened so fast—I don’t know…” Barlow cleared his throat, adjusting his hold on Minnie as she continued to try and break free of his arms.
“Stay still,” he cautioned her, tightening his arms in warning. “Your pa went in, and that big tree caught fire. It must have been rotten and hollow ‘cause it was only a few minutes before it toppled over and caved in the roof of the cabin.”
“Where are my parents?” Minnie asked, doing her best to control her emotions. “Where is Sissy? I should go see if they need my help—”
Barlow loosened his hold and shook her, “You’re not listening to me. No one came out of the cabin. I’m sorry, Minnie, but they’re all gone.”
“No!” she screamed, renewing her struggles to break free of his grip. She stomped on his foot, and he dropped his arms for a brief moment, giving her just enough space to slip away from him. She took a few hesitant steps toward the wooden structure her pa had built with his own hands. “Pa. Don’t leave me. Ma—I still need you. Sissy—oh sister.”
Grief swamped her and she fell to her knees, tears streaming down her face as she watched everything she’d ever known and loved burn up. “God, why?” she cried out brokenly. She wrapped her arms around herself and rocked back and forth on the ground, the heat from the destruction of her dreams searing her skin, but she didn’t care. She didn’t care about anything in that moment except waking up from this horrible nightmare.
“Minnie, move away from the fire,” Barlow urged her, pulling her up to her feet and physically walking her quite a few feet away. “There’s nothing anyone can do.”
“There has to be,” Minnie told him, resuming her crying as she shrugged away from his hold. She fell back to her knees, her gaze transfixed on the inferno that had just stolen everything she held dear. The walls of the cabin had all collapsed now, and she vaguely realized nearby neighbors were arriving, but they could only stand aside, and watch events unfold before them.
How long she knelt there, she couldn’t have said. Several people tried to comfort her and draw her away from the horrific tragedy in front of her, but she ignored them, barely acknowledging their presence. They eventually gave in and left her alone with her sorrow and grief, until suddenly she was being surrounded by the big burly arms of Mr. Tully, Beth’s pa. “Come with me, child,” he urged her, pulling her to her feet and forcing her to walk to where Barlow held the reins of his mount.
Minnie stumbled a bit as her feet had gone numb from sitting on the hard ground for so long, and a quick glance skyward showed the sun was sitting very low on the horizon and darkness was only a few hours away now.
“Hand her up to me, son, once I’m seated,” he told the ranch hand.
“Will do. Thanks for coming to get her—”
“I only wish I’d been able to get here sooner,” Mr. Tully replied soberly.
Barlow shook his head and replied, “I don’t know that it would have made much difference. It happened so quickly. Is your place…,” Barlow asked.
“We’re fine. The wind shifted, and the fire burned around us. It never even crossed the northern stream.”
“Thank God,” Barlow said.
“Yes. Unfortunately, I need to get back there to make sure the winds don’t shift again and push the fire back toward the buildings. You’re welcome to come with us,” Mr. Tully told the ranch hand.
Barlow shook his head. “Thank you, but I’ll stay here for a bit. I’ll be along, before dark if that’s all right. I should try and round up as many of the livestock as I can find. We turned them all loose when we saw the flames flare so close to the barn.”
“They’ll seek safety and wander back once the flames die down,” Mr. Tully assured him.
Minnie heard their words, but she couldn’t keep her eyes off of the burning structure, now reduced to a pile of timbers and flames, the entire roof having caved in moments earlier. “I can’t leave them,” she cried, looking up at Mr. Tully and pleading with her eyes for him to understand.
“Minnie, it’s not safe for you to remain here. Same goes for Barlow. I promise that once the fire burns out, we’ll come back and see if there’s anything to be saved,” he told her, touching the top of her head tenderly as unshed tears glistened in his eyes.
Minnie swallowed and then looked to Barlow, seeing the sorrow etched on his brow. “Mr. Tully’s right, Minnie. It’s not safe here. If the winds shift just a little bit to the west, that fire’s going to come right back at us.”
Barlow pulled Minnie forward as Mr. Tully climbed into the saddle, and Barlow gripped her around the waist before lifting her up. Out of habit, Minnie reached for Mr. Tully’s shoulders and swung her right leg over the back of the horse. She held on, even while she glanced back. As they rode away from the still burning area, she knew nothing would ever be the same. Dear God, why is this happening? she thought. I don’t understand.
The next morning, Minnie stood up in the back of the wagon as they exited the charred forest, getting her first look at what remained of her family’s homestead. Nothing, she thought. There’s nothing left.
She turned her head from side to side, but everything had been reduced to a pile of smoldering, blackened rubble. “It’s all gone,” she whispered brokenly. The cabin, the porch where she’d sat with her parents and sister on hot summer nights and watched the stars come out, the small garden where she and her sister had planted seeds and watched them miraculously grow into tall stalks of corn—it was all gone now. Just black scars on the earth, and just a short distance away, green grasses and flowers struggled to absorb the rays of the sun through the ash and soot that had fallen upon them but left them unburned.
The paradox was startling and made the destruction of the cabin and the lives that had been lost inside it even more devastating. Minnie was grateful for Beth’s support when her friend’s hand gripped her own tightly and squeezed. Tears streamed from her eyes as her heart finished breaking in two. The cabin was gone. Smoke still rose in white tendrils here and there, and the stones that had been used to build the hearth lay in a crumpled heap where they once stood so tall and proud.
A glance to her left showed the charred wall of the closest barn, and beyond that it seemed as if the fire had given up and changed direction. The difference between the blackened planks and the untouched ones, painted a bright red, only served to emphasize the destruction that had occurred here.
Throughout the long night, she’d prayed and begged God to please let it all be a mistake. She’d bargained with everything she could think of for God to somehow let her find someone alive when she went back that morning. It seemed it had all been for nothing.
“Let’s go back home,” Beth suggested softly.
Minnie nodded, but as Mr. Tully stopped the wagon, she let go of Beth’s hand and quickly hopped to the ground. She walked toward where the cabin had stood and nodded when Mr. Tully called out, “Stay away from anything still smoking. I don’t want you getting burned.” The Tullys had tried, in vain, to convince her that visiting the burn site wasn’t necessary, but Minnie had been insistent. She needed to see with her own eyes, even if just for a few minutes, that she hadn’t been caught up in a nightmare and that her family was truly gone. It was a form of self-torture, but she just kept hoping—beyond hope, that somehow, they had gotten out and were safe.
Now, looking at the scene before her, she knew that had only been wishful thinking. She slowly walked around the perimeter of the mess, her nose and eyes burning from the acrid smoke that still lingered in the air. She looked to where the kitchen had once stood, toward the back of the cabin, but only a small pile of burned stones and timbers stood where the tall hearth had once been, completely unrecognizable.
She gingerly picked her way through the debris, longing to find something—anything—that had once belonged to her parents and sister. She made her way toward the bedroom she’d shared with her younger sister, covering her mouth with her hands when she discovered the charred remains of her sister’s favorite doll. She reached down and picked it up, holding it to her chest as tears streamed down her face, uncaring that her hands and dress were getting streaked with ash and soot.
Sissy. God—why? I don’t understand. Why did you take them and let me live?
She didn’t realize she’d let out a horrible cry of pain until she felt Barlow put his hand around her shoulders. He pulled her away from the smoldering remains. “You don’t need to be in here,” Barlow told her in a no-nonsense tone of voice. He picked her up and carried her away, depositing her beside the wagon with a wag of his finger and an order to, “Stay put.”
Once on safe ground, she sank to her knees, her head bent as grief tried to consume her. She felt Beth’s arms go around her shoulders, and she could hear men from the town arriving to help.
“We should go,” Beth whispered to her.
Minnie merely shook her head. Leaving felt like she would be abandoning her family. She looked at her best friend and saw tears falling down her cheeks as well. “I can’t,” she cried brokenly.
Beth hugged her close, and Minnie looked back at the burned cabin, watching as men walked amongst the ruins. She saw them gathering things in large sheets, but they carried them to a waiting wagon, and she couldn’t tell what they’d removed through the wisps of smoke that continued to fill the air. It didn’t really matter. From what she’d seen, there was nothing worth salvaging. Nothing.
A new sob caught in her throat, and she pushed away from Beth’s embrace as her stomach roiled and the contents of her breakfast threatened to come back up. She closed her eyes as her energy to do anything else failed her. She opened her eyes periodically, watching men moving about, until with quiet voices they began to leave, heading back to town and their own homes.
Time ticked by slowly, and almost half an hour later, Barlow gave a shout, and after getting some help from Mr. Tully, he held up two items. She lifted her head and pushed away from Beth and strained to see what he held as he picked his way out of the wreckage. A fresh sob caught in her throat as he drew nearer and she recognized what he held in his hands—two items Minnie was very familiar with—the Ramsdale family Bible, and her mother’s crucifix which had been handed down for several generations.
She wandered closer, meeting Barlow in the yard between the wagon and where the cabin had once stood. He handed her the two items, and she cried as she held them close to her chest. “How did these not burn up?” Her sister’s doll was a charred mess.
“The hearth fell forward and shielded them,” Barlow told her softly. “The Bible was still opened.”
“It was?” Minnie asked.
“Yes. To Isaiah Chapter 57,” Barlow replied.
Minnie gingerly opened the Bible, slowly turning the pages until she came to the correct book and chapter. She softly began to read. “The righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart: and merciful men are taken away, none considering that the righteous is taken away from the evil to come. He shall enter into peace: they shall rest in their beds, each one walking in his uprightness. Isaiah 57:1-2.”
She closed the Bible, the words she’d just read echoing in her broken heart. It was too early, and the pain was too fresh for her to try and figure out the significance of the Scriptures. She just knew that she’d been left here, all alone, and God had allowed her parents and sister to perish. It made no sense. No sense at all.
“Are you okay, child?” Barlow asked. “I know it’s not much—”
Minnie looked up at him with grateful eyes and nodded. “Thank you.” She hugged the Bible closer, the edges of the crucifix digging into her palm and reminding her that she was still alive.
“No thanks are necessary. I only wish…”
“No reason to go down that road,” Mr. Tully told him as he joined them. “There’s nothing else we can do here. Molly and I discussed it last night, and Minnie will live with us.”
Beth wrapped an arm around her shoulders and Minnie leaned against her friend. “I don’t want to be a bother,” she started to say, only to have Mr. Tully give her a sharp look and shake of his head.
“You will never be a bother. You’re coming to live with us, and Molly and I won’t hear of anything else.”
“Thank you,” Minnie told the man, feeling a small sense of relief at knowing that she had a place to call home, even if nothing would ever be able to replace the one she’d just lost. She’d just have to be as polite and helpful as possible while living in the Tully household. Maybe someday she’d be able to understand why this tragedy had happened.
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