Devastated by the loss of those they loved the most they are searching for a ray of light. Will God’s signs help them realize that all they need is to trust in Him and each other?
“God has a plan for us and never leaves us to walk through the fire on our own”
Before she can even properly mourn her father’s death, Mary learns that she must repay the huge debt he left behind. Forced to work at a saloon, she wonders why God has allowed such misery to befall her. But when Mary miraculously finds a mail-order bride ad inside a Bible, she discovers that God’s plan was to lead her to Gerard all along. How can she show him the meaning of true love when he thinks he is undeserving to be blessed by it?
Gerard lost two people he loved unconditionally in a horse accident. Now he is afraid of two things; opening up his heart to God and falling in love again. He only needs a marriage of convenience to have someone help him around the ranch, but when he leads his eyes on the most beautiful woman he ever saw, he knows that God works in mysterious ways. How can he make the ice from his heart melt when he can’t afford to lose anyone again?
Many people will do anything to take a piece of Gerard’s land and destroy his happiness, but now he is more determined than ever to protect what it’s his. Will they manage to save their newfound love with God’s help?
Rich Waters, Illinois
“Thank you, Reverend,” Mary whispered, keeping her head lowered so that no one could see the tears she was working so hard to keep at bay.
“Your father was a good man, Mary,” Reverend Hartfield returned. “He was a wonderful husband to your mother, and I know he cherished you, his only daughter. May you find peace in the days to come and live your life knowing that you were truly loved by both your parents.” Mary glanced up then at the pastor she had known almost her entire life. Reverend Hartfield stood directly opposite her on the other side of the burial site. His grey hair was combed across his forehead, and his eyes looked at her keenly, as though he hoped in earnest that she heard his kind words.
Mary nodded her head, her light brown hair stirring slightly with the movement, and she did her best to give the pastor a watery smile. She shifted her weight as she had chosen to kneel throughout the memorial service. “I will carry on praying for the ability to understand all that has happened, and I thank you for presiding over the service this morning. It was very nice. My father would have approved, I think,” Mary said, her voice saturated with melancholy.
“Bob will be missed greatly,” Reverend Hartfield added, and then he moved toward the church, following the remaining mourners who were already heading for the door. The sun glinted off the stained-glass windows as Reverend Hartfield held the door open for others, and it made Mary think of how the morning sun was still able to shine brightly on her darkest day.
As Mary watched the minister walk away, a sob formed in the back of her throat, and she no longer felt the need to hold it inside. She crumbled right there in front of the dirt pit where mere feet below the pine box containing the remains of her dearly departed father lay concealed. Mary cried for her father’s untimely death, but she also thought of how only a few months prior, she had been in this same cemetery mourning the loss of her mother. Her tears made her vision blurry, but she searched the grounds, trying to locate the stone cross placed above her mother’s gravesite.
As Mary cast around searching for the cross, her eyes fell on the lake that ran opposite the church. As it was early summer, the water’s surface lay like a thin sheet of glass, doing little more than reflecting the brilliant blue sky and the lush green trees that swayed overhead.
God, help me to understand. Because right now, I cannot see. I do not know why I have been left here all alone. My mother… my father… are both gone, and now I must try to navigate this world on my own. I…
Mary stopped in the middle of her silent prayer and let her head fall into her hands. She clutched at the edges of the black veil she had chosen to wear over her face for the service and lifted the sheet away so she could gather a cool breath of fresh air. Raising her face to the heavens, Mary held both hands up, imploring her Almighty Father to help her understand the master plan He had designed just for her.
“Mary,” a soft voice said her name, and immediately Mary dropped her hands. She was not prone to making a show of herself in public, and even though she had thought everyone had already left the cemetery, she was now mildly embarrassed someone found her in such a fashion.
“Yes?” Mary whispered as a small, soft hand touched her shoulder. Mary breathed a sigh of relief. She turned ever-so-slightly to look into the comforting eyes of her best friend, Hattie Stone. The two girls had known each other for so many years, that they both had lost count. Hattie and her family lived next door to Mary, and in these last few months, when Mary found herself lost and flailing, Hattie had stuck by her side. It should have been no surprise now to look up and see Hattie standing there, her wild mass of curly blond hair blowing out behind her in the breeze.
Hattie kept her hand on Mary’s shoulder and gently squeezed it. Mary moved off her knees then and slowly rose to a standing position. As the two young women stood side-by-side, gazing out across the lake, Mary felt the sharp contrast between them growing ever wider. Where Mary was of medium height and slight build, Hattie was quite tall with curvaceous hips. Hattie’s hair was a brilliant blond and almost so curly it was unmanageable, but Mary’s hair was stick straight and was a light brown color. Sometimes, in the sunlight, Mary’s hair took on caramel highlights. The two girls had blue eyes, but Hattie’s were dark and introspective, while Mary’s were light and curious.
No one would ever mistake them for sisters because of their looks, but newcomers to town often asked if they were related because they spent so much time together. Now, Mary was grateful to have Hattie by her side, sister or not, because she wasn’t sure she would have found the strength to stand without her friend’s guiding hand.
“When I look at that water,” Hattie whispered, keeping her voice low and reverent, “I’m reminded of a passage from the book of Isaiah. I think it’s chapter 43.” Hattie often quoted scripture because she studied her Bible every day before doing her chores and again before heading to bed. She was the most intelligent person Mary had ever known, and Mary felt a sense of relief wash over her when her friend shared the Bible verse. Hattie recited, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”
“Do you think,” Mary whimpered, tears filling her eyes again, “God has a plan for all of us? Do you think He tells us He will be beside us, but there will be times in our lives when He will expect us to swim through the waters on our own?” She lowered her chin, feeling ashamed of the thoughts.
Hattie nodded, and the firm hand she still held on Mary’s shoulder tightened on the spot. “I think God has a plan for us, and I also believe He never abandons us or leaves us to walk through the fire on our own.” She let go of Mary’s shoulder then, and the place where she had been touching still felt warm. The two young women turned to look at each other. “I can’t pretend to understand the tragedies in your family these last months, my friend, but I know this: you must have faith. God will lead you through these trials,” Hattie said, her voice strong and determined.
“I hope you’re right,” Mary replied, giving Hattie a weak smile.
Hattie extended her arm to Mary. “We should go home now. Mama is preparing a meal, and she said you should join us.”
Mary shook her head. “I’m afraid I’m not much company right now. I think I would be better off going home and reflecting on the day’s events.” She fought to keep the sadness out of her voice as her eyes welled with tears once more.
Going home… sitting in the chair Father loved so much… that’s all I want to do right now.
“There will be plenty of time for prayer and reflection. Now is the time to lean on those who love you. My family is your family. You must come for supper, or Mama will fetch you herself,” Hattie said as she gave Mary a sympathetic smile. “Come on,” she nudged Mary in the ribs with her elbow. “She made a vanilla cake in honor of your father.”
“His favorite,” Mary whispered, and then she looped her arm through Hattie’s. The two ladies turned to exit the cemetery, and as they did, they nearly collided with Oliver Barker. Mary gasped, startled by his sudden appearance and Hattie pulled her to the side so they could avoid him.
Both girls knew of Mr. Barker, as he was the proprietor of the local saloon, The Whiskey Barrel. He stood just inches from them, his dark grey hat in his hands, revealing his fine black hair. Around his temples, there were streaks of silver, which made him look much older than he was. Bob, Mary’s father, had always told her to give Mr. Barker a wide berth as he looked harmless, but he was quite the opposite.
As the owner of The Whiskey Barrel, he was known for encouraging the townsfolk to spend their hard-earned money on mugs of beer, shots of firewater, and playing one of the many card games his saloon boasted. Mary shuddered just being in his presence, but since she figured he must be coming to the cemetery today to mourn the loss of her father, she thought the least she could do was say a few words to the man.
“Mr. Barker,” Mary said, nodding her head politely at him.
“Miss Booth,” Mr. Barker returned, eyeing her critically. Hattie pinched the inside of Mary’s arm then, and she took that to mean she wished they would be getting on their way. Mary didn’t want to linger any further in Mr. Barker’s presence, so she took a cautious step, maneuvering her way around him and out the wooden gate that enclosed the cemetery grounds. As the two ladies moved in unison away from Mr. Barker, he held up his hand to still them.
Mary glanced at Hattie and saw her own emotions mirrored on her friend’s face. Hattie’s eyes were wide with astonishment, and she chewed on the corner of her lip as though she were confused by Mr. Barker and his actions.
“Excuse us, Mr. Barker,” Mary said, willing herself to keep her tone steady and even.
“If you will indulge me for just a moment, Miss Booth. I came here today to speak with you, and I would prefer to have this conversation now instead of wasting my time searching for you later,” Mr. Barker said, his voice coming out of his mouth in a low growl.
Hattie’s eyes widened even further as she and Mary shared a look of consternation. “I’m sorry, Mr. Barker. I assumed you were here to pay your final respects to my father. You see, he was just buried this morning.”
“I am aware of your father’s situation,” Mr. Barker said crisply. The corners of his small mouth turned down, and his thick eyebrows knit themselves together. “As I said, I’m here to see you, not your father.”
Mary’s free hand floated to her mouth to hide her dismay.
This is the height of impertinence. Can he not see how rude he is, seeking me out on the day my father was buried and not even sharing his condolences?
Mary entertained her thoughts silently, but then she squared her shoulders, adjusting her posture to feel more confident as she was forced to speak with someone as obviously ill-bred as Mr. Barker.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Barker?” Mary asked tersely, driving straight to the point, as she didn’t want to prolong the encounter.
“I’m glad you put it that way, Miss Booth, because the way I see it, you can do a great deal for me,” Mr. Barker replied as he lifted a hand and ran it over his coarse beard, smoothing the edges so that they lay flat.
“Forgive me for not understanding, but I am at a loss,” Mary commented, looking at Hattie to see if she knew what Mr. Barker could possibly be talking about, but Hattie seemed as bewildered as she was. That didn’t help as Mary felt weak and tired, ready to lie down and rest. She relied on her dearest friend to help her interpret what someone like Mr. Barker might want from her.
“The truth of the matter is, Miss Booth,” Mr. Barker said quickly, as though he too wished to get to the facts sooner rather than later, “Your father owes me a great deal of money. I intend to collect every last dime….”
“But you are mistaken, Mr. Barker,” Hattie interjected. “Mary’s father, Bob Booth, recently passed, and before his passing, he was….”
“I am not mistaken, Miss Stone, and I beg you to keep your nose out of business that does not concern you,” Mr. Barker snapped, looking at Hattie grimly. He glared at her, entirely making his desire for her to back away from the situation known.
Hattie seemed shocked before, but now her mouth fell open and hung agape for a full two seconds. She clamped her jaw closed, her teeth making a clicking sound as she did. Mary felt as if Hattie’s reaction mimicked the one she was having internally. Had she not already been so emotionally and physically drained, she might have done precisely the same thing.
“Here,” Mary said quickly, rifling through her pockets and feeling for any spare change she might have tucked there. She dug around, moving her hand along the seam of the pocket lining, and extracted a couple of coins. “Please, Mr. Barker, take this money. I know it’s not an awful lot, but it’s all I have, and…”
Mr. Barker stared at the paltry offering in Mary’s hand and turned his nose up in the air. “That’s not going to cover the debt, Miss Booth. I said your father owed me a massive sum, and a few pennies from the bottom of your purse won’t make any difference.” He eyed her closely and then snatched the money from her hand, even though he had just rejected the idea. He looked at the pennies and brushed a piece of lint onto the ground. “I will send two of my men to your house later this afternoon. Please plan to be home, as they will be looking to collect possessions. I intend to sell everything so we might cover the costs sufficiently.”
“But you can’t just take everything she owns,” Hattie protested, unable to follow Mr. Barker’s orders and stay out of the situation.
“Yes, Mr. Barker,” Mary added, her voice rising in pitch as panic threatened to overtake her, “how will I be able to continue living in my home if you take all my belongings?”
“I can’t say, and how you survive is not my problem,” Mr. Barker stated flatly, tucking the meager coins that once belonged to Mary inside the front pocket of his black leather vest.
“You cannot be this heartless,” Hattie hissed, releasing the grip she had on Mary’s arm and taking a step toward Mr. Barker. “You know her father was just buried today.”
“Miss Booth’s state is pitiable, to be sure,” Mr. Barker replied, lifting his hand, and dusting a speck of dirt from his shoulders, “but I don’t care what happens to her. It was her father’s actions that led to this unfortunate situation. Am I sorry that she must be the one to pay for his debts? Sure, but pay she must, as I will not be put off in this matter.”
“I…” Mary stammered, completely at a loss for what to tell the man.
Mr. Barker snorted, and then he turned on his heel, about to turn away from her. Mary feared that if she didn’t catch him… if she didn’t think of something fast, he would be sending people to her house before she even arrived there, and then all would be lost.
“If I must pay the debts,” Mary said quickly, striding forward to stand between her friend and the dastardly Mr. Barker, “then I will, but I will not allow you to take everything I own. I will agree to work for you at your saloon. You may take my wages until the time comes when I have fully repaid however much my father owed.”
Mary immediately regretted her offer, as she saw Mr. Barker’s eyes glaze over, as though he were calculating just how long he could force her to work for him. But she knew this was the only way. If she wanted to stay in Rich Waters, living in the only home she had ever known, she would have to work for Mr. Barker and pray that God would keep her safe from harm.
Rich Waters, Illinois
“My hope is built… on nothing less….” Mary sang under her breath as she scrubbed the floor of The Whiskey Barrel Saloon for what must have been the three hundredth time.
“Are you singing again?” Mr. Barker shouted as he came to stand over Mary. He was not a large man, so his figure was not intimidating, that was unless a person was on their hands and knees as Mary was at present.
“Yes, Mr. Barker…” Mary muttered, “I mean, no… Mr. Barker. I was singing… but only because I forgot how much you disliked the church hymns.”
Mr. Barker tapped his toe impatiently near the spot where Mary was currently scrubbing. She glanced up at him and saw a satisfied smile on his face. “Do try to remember. I ask so very little of you.”
“Yes, Mr. Barker,” Mary replied mechanically as she plunged the scrub brush into the dirty pail of water and then scrubbed vigorously at a stubborn liquor stain close at hand.
“Once you have finished scrubbing the floors, be sure to help Carson bring up the next barrel of whiskey,” Mr. Barker ordered, glaring down at Mary.
Mary stopped scrubbing for one moment and sat back on her haunches. She wiped her sweaty brow using the back of her hand. “But, Mr. Barker, I can’t help Carson with the barrel. You’ve already asked me to clean the mugs and polish the bar. If I stop to help with the whiskey….”
Mr. Barker didn’t allow Mary to finish sticking up for herself. “The terms of our agreement dictate you will work in this saloon, Miss Booth. When I ask you to carry out a very simple task, you must do it.”
“Simple?” Mary asked meekly, “But those whiskey barrels are very heavy. Why last time I tried to help bring one up the stairs….”
Again, Mr. Barker interrupted Mary. “They are heavy, and that is why you and Carson should do the lifting together. Now finish up your work here and….” Intentionally, Mr. Barker stomped his muddy boots just inches from the spot where Mary’s left fingertips rested. “… don’t forget to clean up that spot as well.” He gave Mary a smarmy smile, which she didn’t even bother to return.
I know the Lord wants us to be good to our neighbors, but I just can’t seem to make things right with Mr. Barker.
Since the day after her father was buried, Mary had come to work for Mr. Barker every morning at seven a.m. She worked from the moment she walked in the door until almost twelve hours later when he told her she could take off for the evening so the proper saloon girls could wait on his regular customers. Even though Mary had struggled through this whole year, working without breaks or consideration for her health or safety, she knew she was not much closer to paying off her father’s debt.
Mr. Barker never said exactly how much Bob Booth owed him, but he was always ready to remind Mary that every day she worked, she was paying deference to her father, and if she slacked even a little, it would be shameful.
She couldn’t leave the saloon while her father’s debts were still outstanding, and she couldn’t ask Mr. Barker to be kinder in his address. She was sure he wouldn’t care one bit what she thought or said. Mary spent most of her hours toiling away at The Whiskey Barrel, wondering how she had come to such a pass and what God might want her to do to better her situation in life, but so far, nothing had come to her.
For the remainder of her shift, Mary worked tirelessly, doing all the tasks Mr. Barker had rattled off while she was scrubbing the floor and helping move the piano from one end of the room to the next. That was a daunting task, as she was not nearly strong enough to maneuver the piano, and she bumped the heavy sides against her shins more than once painfully.
By the time seven p.m. rolled around, Mary was even more exhausted than usual, and all she wanted to do was go home, make herself a quick meal, and then collapse into bed. She thanked the Lord that Hattie and her family had brought over a basket of biscuits yesterday morning. As Mary walked toward home, she tried to recollect whether she had already eaten all of them or she could make them into her meal that evening.
Mary spotted the small house she had once lived in with her mother and father, where she now she lived alone. Many years before, the house had been rather charming. The wooden sides had been painted a gleaming white, and her mother had kept watch over the flowers that sprung up in front of the doorway and underneath the windowsill. The tree that loomed near the entranceway had been her father’s pride and joy, and every autumn, he would labor to prune it so that it would blossom nicely in the spring.
But as Mary approached the house now, all the love and tender care that her parents had once doted upon the place was markedly absent. Since Mary worked at the saloon every day, she had no time for pruning trees, weeding the flower gardens, or touching up the paint on the sides of the house. Dismayed, she looked at the home she still loved, trying to recall how it once had been so long ago.
“What’s this?” Mary asked; as she went to open the door, a small envelope fell to the ground at her feet. She stooped to collect it and recognized the familiar handwriting that belonged to Reverend Hartfield.
He would stop by the house when he knew Mary was at work and drop off a small care package every other week or so. Sometimes, he would gift her some clothing from the charitable donations bin at the church. Other times, he would leave her an envelope containing some money so she might be able to buy her own supplies. “God bless, Reverend Hartfield,” Mary said aloud as she clutched the envelope to her heart. She didn’t know how much money rested inside the flimsy paper envelope, but whatever was in there would be much appreciated and well-used.
Mary went the rest of the way inside the house and headed straight for the kitchen. As it turned out, the biscuits Hattie had brought over the day before were all gone, but the basket she’d brought them over in still sat on the counter. Mary grasped the handle of the basket and decided to take it with her to the market.
I’ll just use the basket for my shopping, and once I’m home and have unloaded my supplies, I can return it to Hattie or her mother.
As Mary walked toward the mercantile shop where she normally purchased her goods, she swung the basket in her hands and sang a snatch of one of her favorite hymns. They stayed open later in the evening, especially for people like her who put in a hard day’s work and then needed to get their groceries. She forgot one or two of the words, but Mary shrugged, not bothered by the fact that she couldn’t recall the words to the song perfectly. She knew that the Lord above didn’t care if she got the words right. All that mattered was that she lifted her voice in praise and worship whenever she got the chance.
As she spent most of her days keeping silent and doing only what Mr. Barker commanded her to do, she felt like singing because her blessings seemed numerous. Because of the generosity of Hattie and Reverend Hartfield, Mary would be able to buy herself some groceries and have a nice dinner.
The money in the envelope disappeared quickly as Mary bought several jars of vegetables, a bag of coffee, a hard chunk of cheese, a whole loaf of bread, and she even allowed herself the luxury of purchasing a spool of sky-blue thread. She didn’t often buy so many items all at once, and as she walked home, her basket was so loaded, that she couldn’t swing it at her sides anymore.
Without wasting any time, Mary set to unpacking her goods, opening one of the jars of vegetables and emptying the beans into a pot she set to boil over the hearth. As the green beans cooked, Mary returned to her purchases, stacking them on the countertop in the kitchen.
When her hand got to the bottom of the basket, Mary realized she couldn’t find the thread she had tucked into the pack at the last minute.
Don’t tell me I accidentally left it behind.
Mary groaned as she moved her hand around the bottom of the basket, trying to feel the thread, hoping it just slipped down the sides. She removed the red and white checkered rag that lined the basket and prepared to plunge her hand toward the bottom when her eyes caught on something unexpected. The spool of blue thread was there, but right next to it was a pocket-sized Bible. Mary had never seen a miniature Bible before, and she was caught off-guard by its sudden appearance.
She lifted the Bible from the basket and turned to the flyleaf at the front, wondering who might own such a treasure. There was no name or record of ownership listed there, so Mary held the Bible by the binding, with the pages facing downward. She hoped that by tipping the book like that, any keepsakes the owner had been pressing into the pages might flutter to the ground. Mary was gratified to see her idea proven correct as almost at once, a thin piece of newspaper fell to her feet. She picked it up, not entirely knowing what she would see on the page and wondering why someone would tuck such a thing inside the pages of their Bible.
Mary glanced at the page, and she was utterly confused. The scrap had been ripped from a recent newspaper. On both sides, there were advertisements. She read aloud some of what she saw.
“Man, widower, age 40, wishes to correspond with a woman of a similar age who is willing to take care of three children and help handle the day-to-day operations on a farm in Kansas. Objective: Matrimony. Inquire with editor to answer this ad.”
Mary felt slightly bemused by the presence of such a newspaper in a Bible. She knew all about the Matrimonial Times, as many girls who worked at the saloon for Mr. Barker read the advertisements regularly, dreaming of when they might leave Illinois and travel west in search of their freedom and a man who would agree to marry them. But, even though Mary knew a great deal about such newspapers, she had never spent her time reading the advertisements
She leaned up against the edge of the kitchen counter and continued reading. Having read all that remained on one page, she flipped to the backside and noticed something that had escaped her attention previously. There, toward the center of the page, was an advertisement with a large black circle drawn tightly around it.
Mary read the ad hurriedly, “A rancher in Copper Creek, Missouri, age 24, seeks a lady who is unafraid of hard work and wishes to maintain a household and help raise the ranch owner’s eight-year-old sister. The lady should be capable of completing all household chores and prepared to instruct and teach the young child as necessary. Object: matrimony.”
She read the advertisement several times, wondering why someone had chosen it over the others surrounding it on the page. For Mary, this advertisement stuck out because the rancher used the phrase “to instruct and teach.” Quickly, Mary flipped to Psalms, chapter 32, and she slid her finger down the page until she found verse eight. She read aloud, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.”
The person who wrote this must be like Hattie, reciting Bible verses whenever the spirit moves her and then reusing the verses in her speeches later.
Mary tried to imagine living on a ranch in Missouri, helping a young man care for his little sister. The thought wasn’t displeasing. As the advertisement mentioned, Mary was used to hard work, and she was more than capable of running her household.
As she had been entirely focused on finding the Bible and reading the advertisements, Mary had totally forgotten about her meal. Now, as she scented the fresh aroma of beans that were cooked properly, she went to remove the vegetables from the fire. But first, she tucked the scrap of newspaper into the folds of her apron. Then, she set to work putting away her groceries and devouring her humble meal.
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