Elmswood, Texas – December 1884
The weather outside the simple clapboard church was appropriately cold and miserable on the day of Ewell Bradfield’s funeral. At least his grandson, Blake, found it appropriate. From his rough wooden pew, Blake wiggled his shoulders unconsciously, trying to find a bit of relief from his too-tight suit coat.
Unfortunately, Blake had a feeling that he was the only one who was really in the right frame of mind for this solemn occasion. Up in the pulpit, Reverend Samuelson was droning on and on about the loss of a “beloved father” who “lived life to the fullest.” The glib comments could have been about anyone and hardly painted the vivid picture that was Ewell Bradfield. It took all of Blake’s self-control not to get up and walk out. But it wasn’t the parson’s fault that Granddad hadn’t been around much, and Blake didn’t want to be rude.
So, he tuned out the generic sermon and eyed the rest of his family, trying to guess what was going on behind their careful masks.
Blake’s father, Len Bradfield, sat with his hands folded and his eyes serious. It didn’t take much clever detecting for Blake to know what his father was thinking. Len was undoubtedly carrying on a diatribe against his own father, railing at him for abandoning the family and the ranch in order to go adventuring.
After his wife died fifteen years back, Ewell had up and left the burden of running the Yellow Rose Ranch to his only son, Len. Then he’d packed a rucksack and taken off for parts unknown, claiming that he’d always itched to go exploring. As a boy of seven, Blake had found this incredibly exciting. He’d taken to playing explorers whenever he was released from his lessons and didn’t have any chores to do. This enthusiasm for adventuring had only been fueled by Ewell’s sporadic visits home and tall tales of thrilling escapades which he told to his captive audience of one.
Blake had plenty of memories of Len and Ewell’s heated arguments over the years. The weight of running the ranch had fallen squarely on Len, who angrily demanded that Ewell stop his foolishness and come home. But Ewell would look wistfully at the chair his late wife used to occupy and would insist he couldn’t stay.
So, now, Len was most likely taking advantage of his father’s inability to argue back. From the tightening of Len’s jaw, Blake knew he had guessed right. Poor old Granddad was getting the mental lambasting of his life.
Next to Len sat his wife, Judy. Tears streamed down her cheeks in what appeared to be a proper attitude of mourning. And, while Blake knew his mother’s motives were pure, there was more to her grief than just sadness that her father-in-law was gone. Judy was nothing if not a peacemaker, and now there was no chance that things could be smoothed over between Ewell and Len.
Blake peeked over at his older brother, Troy, who had an arm around his wife Clora. Next to the pair of them sat the youngest of the Bradfield boys, Harris. Irritably, Blake noted that both of his brothers bore twin expressions of mild boredom. They were both trying, and failing, to show their grandfather the proper respect he deserved.
Neither of his brothers had joined Blake in idolizing their grandfather. Harris could be convinced to join in and play a round of explorers now and again. However, he was more interested in chasing Troy over to the corral and riding horses. Where Blake admired Granddad, Harris and Troy admired the cowhands employed by the Yellow Rose Ranch and their father who owned such a grand place. Neither of Blake’s brothers needed to go adventuring; the ranch was plenty of adventure as far as they were concerned.
Clora’s hand moved automatically to her rounding belly and Blake felt his ears heat up. It wouldn’t be long before his sister-in-law would have to enter her confinement. She had only recently confided in Judy that a new baby was on the way. Judy had informed her husband and younger sons in a whisper, as such things weren’t spoken of out loud. Blake could hardly look at his sister-in-law without getting flustered. Once she grew big enough to make concealing her delicate condition impossible, Clora would stop going out in public until after the baby came. Blake recalled the months she’d spent out of sight after his brother’s first baby had been born.
Granted, Blake loved his nephew, Troy Junior. The little fellow was already a year old and had gone straight from crawling to running. No wonder Clora looked so tired all the time. A grin almost split Blake’s grim expression at the thought of small TJ. But then he reflected on the fact that this new baby was unlikely to be named for his treasured great-grandfather, thanks to Troy’s adopting of Len’s criticism of the older man, and Blake’s frown deepened.
By the time the reverend wrapped up his sermonizing, Blake was jiggling his long legs and itching to get out to where his dark thoughts could get a good airing. Still, he had to stand through a fair number of neighbors and acquaintances who wanted to offer their condolences.
“Ewell was a good man and a good neighbor,” whistled wrinkled Howard Trudeau. “’Course, he turned sorta funny at the end, but losing yer wife will do that to a man.”
Blake nodded curtly and accepted the older man’s weak hand clasp.
“I know this must be ever so hard on you, Blake,” cooed elderly Mrs. Munson. “You were glued to your grandfather’s legs any time he was home, weren’t you? It’s too bad that he didn’t give up his foolishness and stay closer to the home place.”
Miss Trudy, the fearsome old schoolmarm, snorted and snapped, “Ewell Bradfield never found a single treasure in all his seeking. He didn’t learn his lesson, so I hope you do. Don’t waste your life gallivanting about looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!”
Finally, temper dangerously close to breaking point, Blake extricated himself from the crowd and stalked outside to where his horse was tethered.
It was quiet outside the church and Blake gulped cold air, which seared his lungs all the way down. Why didn’t anyone understand his grandfather’s desire to get out of this wretched town? Was it really so hard to believe that someone might want to get away from these small-minded people and the dreariness of their mundane lives?
Tears filled Blake’s eyes as he remembered sitting at Granddad’s knee, listening raptly to the stories of sleeping under the stars and seeing faraway places. No story in a book could ever be as thrilling to Blake as Ewell’s tales of searching for treasure. It made his heart ache to think of how alone his grandfather was, even when he was among his family, with no one to share his lust for exploring except a small boy.
Ashamed, Blake swiped gruffly at his eyes. Needing to think of happier thoughts, he recalled the fun he’d had following the treasure maps Granddad had left for him whenever he went off on an adventure. It softened the blow of his leaving for young Blake, who would spend half a day deciphering mysterious clues and pacing off the distance spelled out on the hand-drawn maps Granddad would leave for him. Though it had been years since Blake had been left a map, he was suddenly struck with the realization that no more would be coming and felt as if a hole had been punched right through his gut.
“Come back inside, boy,” called Len.
Blake turned, startled. He’d been so lost in thought and grief that he hadn’t heard his father’s approach from the rear.
“I needed some air,” Blake explained.
Len sighed wearily and nodded. “I know this is especially hard on you.”
It was Blake’s turn to clench his jaw. Len’s own father had just died and he acted as though it was just some distant relative he hardly knew who was in that pine box at the front of the church.
Blake opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by the oily, loathsome voice of the very despicable Lucien Durning.
“Sorry to hear about your father, Bradfield,” Lucien oozed.
Both Bradfield men turned as one and glared at the businessman. Lucien Durning stood there looking innocuous as always. The middle-aged man was of average height and sported an ever-growing paunch around the middle. He was cherub-faced and balding, and always looked to Blake like someone’s jolly uncle.
But underneath that mild exterior was a calculating man who was fueled by ambition and avarice. It was Lucien Durning who had funded the Silver Dollar Saloon and hounded the town council until they’d passed an ordinance allowing for Mrs. Roundtree and her girls to set up shop upstairs. Between whiskey, gambling, and girls for purchase, the Silver Dollar had caused more trouble for local cowboys than all the rattlesnakes in Texas.
And now, Lucien was rumored to be buying up land left and right all around Elmswood. Ranching was hard work and not all spreads survived the harsh conditions. The Bradfields had discussed that topic during mealtimes on several occasions. They didn’t resent their neighbors who’d given up and sold their land to Lucien at pennies on the dollar. Though, Blake couldn’t figure out for the life of him why the businessman was acquiring so much land.
“I hate to talk business when you’re in mourning,” Lucien said with a failed attempt at regret on his face, “but I don’t know when I’ll see you again. My offer still stands, Bradfield. The Yellow Rose is a fine ranch and I’ll give you a good price for the whole operation.”
Blake eyed his father. He’d heard Len rant about Lucien’s so-called “good price.” The first time he’d made an offer, it had been absurdly low. Then, to add insult to injury, Lucien had merely smiled at Len’s refusal and promised he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Sure enough, he’d been back half a dozen times, increasing the price a tiny bit and always refusing to be put off.
“My father just died, Durning,” Len said through gritted teeth. “It’s disgusting that you would dare to approach me about such things at a time like this.”
Lucien tipped his hat. “Of course, of course. Terribly sorry. It’s just that everyone in town knows that you and your father had a falling out. I naturally assumed that you weren’t particularly grieved by his passing. I suppose you’re more sentimental than I gave you credit for.”
“Not sentimental, just human,” Len growled. “You wouldn’t know anything about that, of course. Your kind slithers out from under rocks back east.”
The insult bounced off Lucien’s too-tight suit without leaving much of an impact.
“That’ll be your grief talking, I suppose. I’ll let it slide this time. You should remember that I always get my way. Always.” And somehow, Lucien’s round face became menacing.
The other two men watched the rotund businessman stride away as though he owned the world. And, Blake noted grudgingly, when it came to Elmswood, Texas, Lucien Durning pretty much did.
Len shook his head angrily, hands on his hips. “I’ve tried to be a patient man, but I’ve seen too many fancy fellows from the East Coast breeze into Texas thinking they’ll make their fortunes here. They last a year or two before they miss the soft life back in New York or Boston. All they want is to scoop up land real cheap and sell it for top dollar. I’ve heard plenty of stories about that sort of thing. It takes a genuine Texan to sink in roots and make a life out here.”
“Lucien Durning’s been here more than two years,” Blake pointed out. He’d heard his father’s loyal Texan speech more times than he could remember and was in no mood to humor him today of all days.
“He’s cut from the same cloth,” replied Len dismissively.
Blake turned and watched as the businessman entered the Silver Dollar Saloon halfway down the street from the church. It would be a waste of breath to argue with his father, but Blake had a feeling that the older man was wrong when it came to Lucien. He was in Elmswood for more than just a quick profit. There was something sinister about that fellow that always put Blake on edge. Whatever he was up to, Lucien Durning needed careful watching.
It was only a few days later when Blake found himself back in town, heaving a barrel of oats onto the ranch’s wagon. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the task, but ever since his grandfather’s death, every chore seemed to rub the young man the wrong way. And this particular duty left him in a blacker mood than any other.
Nelson’s Mercantile had been doing business with the Yellow Star Ranch since it hung up its shingle. Ewell had always boasted that Amos Nelson was a straight shooter and had never wavered in his loyalty. Now, once a month, a representative from the ranch would trundle to town and load up the wagon with supplies.
It was a hot, tiring job no matter the time of year. The coat that Blake had huddled in not an hour before lay forgotten on the wagon seat. However, it wasn’t the hard work that bothered the young Texan. He was used to hard work and hot weather after a lifetime of ranch work. No, it was Miss Belle Nelson that made this particular task so onerous.
“Golly, Blake, you’re so strong!” Belle gushed from her spot near the store’s back entrance.
Blake clenched his teeth and reminded himself not to react. He’d been the object of Belle’s admiration since they were children. She’d chased him around the schoolyard, promising that one day she’d be his wife. Granddad always said it was the curse of red-headed men that some women found them irresistible. Of course, he’d always chuckled when he said it, much to Blake’s chagrin.
Blake had hoped that as his hair darkened over the years Belle would find a new object of affection. He’d even wished that his brother Harris would catch her eye. All the Bradfield boys had red hair. Only Blake’s hair was curly, though it had finally settled to a dark rust color. Troy and Harris had stick-straight hair. Troy’s was a nice auburn while Harris’ remained bright red.
But, no. Belle was fixed on Blake.
“Would you like to come inside for some cider after you finish? I could put some on the stove. It’s so cold out today, I bet you’d like to warm up before you head home,” Belle pressed, eyelashes fluttering.
“No thank you, Miss Nelson,” Blake said through gritted teeth.
Belle merely giggled and continued standing around uselessly. She wasn’t unattractive, Blake noted for the hundredth time. In fact, some fellows would probably find her real pretty with all that dark hair and big eyes and generous curves. It was just that she chased after him so hard and fast that Blake couldn’t help but run away. Besides, he couldn’t picture Belle being too happy with a husband who went off adventuring for months at a time. No, sirree. She’d have him on a tight leash where she could parade him about.
Besides, Belle was one of those girls who thought that being pretty was her contribution to the world. She rarely lifted a finger to do anything and never bothered to open a book. Her entire life was wrapped up in what she wore and how she fixed her hair. What would a fellow find to talk about with her? Blake couldn’t begin to imagine.
“Sorry, but I can’t. I’ve got to stop in to see Iver Kennedy.” Blake was suddenly very grateful for the excuse. He’d been a bit irritated when the local lawyer had asked him to come by his office. Now, it felt like a gift from the Almighty.
“Well, I’ll go square up with your pa,” Blake said and hurried into the mercantile, giving the girl a wide berth.
With relief, Blake snapped the reins and clucked to the horses not ten minutes later. It wasn’t far to the lawyer’s office, but he didn’t want a reason to have to return to the general store and Belle’s clutches. Blake expertly guided the horses up to the hitching post outside the lawyer’s office’s small facade and set the brake before jumping down.
The office was cheerfully lit with a pair of hurricane lamps. A small fire crackled in the pot-bellied stove, giving the long, narrow room plenty of warmth.
Iver Kennedy looked up from the papers he was studying and nodded his greeting at Blake. The lawyer was tall, thin, and balding. He was never without his pocket watch chain neatly crossing his vest. Ever since he was a little boy, Blake had associated gold pocket watch chains with lawyers, thanks to Mr. Kennedy.
“Come in, come in,” the older man urged, one hand beckoning Blake towards the chair opposite his polished wooden desk. As the young rancher took his seat, Iver said, “I was glad to run into you earlier. I’ve been meaning to reach out to you in regards to your grandfather’s will.”
Blake’s eyebrows lifted. He hadn’t been aware Granddad had a will. But, of course he had. Granddad had been a practical sort of man in his earlier years. It was only later in his life that he began to eschew the traditional life.
“I assumed the ranch would be left to my father,” Blake said as he settled back into his wooden chair. “I’m surprised I was named at all.”
Iver shrugged and wiggled his head back and forth a little, “He amended his will a few years back and, I’ll be frank with you, his most recent addendum is rather odd. But, it was one of his final wishes, and so I’m making you aware of it.”
Curiosity bloomed quickly in Blake’s mind. What could his grandfather have done? A sad smile quirked Blake’s mouth. It was just like Granddad to leave a final behest for his most loyal of grandsons.
“There’s a letter for you to read,” Iver explained. The tall man pushed to his feet and went to one of his wooden filing cabinets. An efficient search resulted in his hasty return to the desk, an envelope in his hand.
Blake took the proffered note. Eagerly, he slit open the envelope with his thumb and pulled out the letter from inside. His grandfather’s familiar handwriting gave him a moment’s pause. Was this the last communication he was ever to receive from Granddad? Blake swallowed the lump in his throat and read.
My dear grandson,
Please forgive an old man this last whim. I realize that it will come as quite a mystery to you, but I give you my word that I have only your best interests at heart. You see, my dear boy, I’ve put together one last treasure hunt for you. The prize is one that I cherished above all else during my life and the thing I most want to give to you.
Iver Kennedy has the first clue, which he will give to you when you have completed the first step. You see, you can only begin the hunt when you have taken a wife. Once your marriage has taken place, Iver will give you my next letter and you can begin the search.
Choose wisely, Blake! Proverbs 18:22 says it best, “Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing…”
Love, your Granddad
Blake looked up from the letter, stunned. The thrill of nostalgic delight he’d felt when he read that there was one final treasure hunt had been snuffed out immediately after he’d read the line about taking a wife. It was ridiculous! There was no possible way that Granddad could truly mean for Blake to marry just like that!
“Yes, it is unusual,” Iver said slowly, correctly interpreting the younger man’s shock.
“This can’t possibly be legal,” Blake spluttered. “There’s no way that I can be forced into a marriage! This is the nineteenth century, after all, not the Middle Ages.”
Iver looked distinctly uncomfortable. “Your grandfather was completely within his rights to put a stipulation into his will. He explained to me that there is no hurry. Should you not find an eligible bride for several years to come, I will keep his letter safe and secure.”
Suddenly, thoughts of Belle Nelson flooded Blake’s mind and he frowned. Surely Granddad hadn’t meant for him to marry Belle Nelson? Yet, she was the only girl around who would be of a mind to marry Blake. He quickly dismissed the idea of courting one of the other local girls just so that he could get his hands on the treasure map. It would be too unkind and, though he itched to start this last adventure from his grandfather, Blake had no intention of using some poor girl in that way.
“I can’t think of any girl who I’d want to marry,” he confessed dully, hope draining away.
The lawyer stroked his chin thoughtfully. “There is another possibility for finding a bride,” he said slowly.
Blake looked up skeptically. He wasn’t so sure.
“You could take on a mail-order bride,” Iver suggested.
“A mail-order bride? Like, from a catalog? I didn’t know such things existed,” Blake snorted dismissively.
Iver put out a hand and earnestly insisted, “I assure you, it is a legitimate way to find a wife. There are women back east who, for a variety of reasons, would be willing to marry a stranger in exchange for a train ticket west.”
“What sort of woman would do that?” Blake’s lip curled. Images of desperate, deformed hags flashed before his eyes. Would he marry someone like that just to get his grandfather’s map?
“I can’t vouch for all of the potential brides, but many are ordinary women who have fallen on hard times. Some are widowed young, some are servants who want a different life, and some are orphaned. Whatever the reason, these girls feel that a marriage to a man in the east is not feasible or desirable. I imagine some would simply like the adventure of traveling somewhere new,” Iver shrugged.
A woman who wanted an adventure? Blake hadn’t ever conceived that such a thing might be possible. Might he find a bride who enjoyed adventuring as he did? It seemed too good to hope for.
“What if she comes out here and the marriage doesn’t suit us?” Blake asked cautiously.
“There is a stipulation in Texas law which states that a marriage can be annulled if it if the annulment takes place within 72 hours of the license being taken out. So, if you and said bride take out a marriage license and marry within three days, the marriage could later be annulled. This would legally terminate the marriage and erase it, essentially saying it never took place, which would allow the woman to move on as though she’d never been married to you.” Iver’s long fingers steepled and he sat back, relishing this explanation of the law.
Blake scratched at his forehead. An annulment? That sounded an awful lot like cheating the laws of marriage.
“Would a woman really be willing to come all the way out here and marry a man who might have the marriage nullified?” Blake mused. “I can’t picture it.”
The lawyer lifted his eyebrows speculatively. “Stranger things have happened. It’s hard to predict what a woman might be willing to do. If you decide to try to find a wife this way, I can help you write an advertisement and have it placed in the right magazines and newspapers back east. It’s not particularly costly, though I should warn you that you’ll be expected to purchase a train ticket for a woman who agrees to come and marry you. Be sure you’re prepared for that.”
It was all too much for Blake to figure out. He threw up his hands and challenged, “And how do I choose a woman to marry that I’ve never met? How would I know she’d be willing to agree to my terms?”
“You take the time to exchange letters,” Iver explained all too matter-of-factly for Blake’s taste. “You write to each other and explain the situation. She might have a few terms of her own.”
Head muddled, Blake finally got to his feet, said good-bye, and only remembered to thank Iver at the last minute before stumbling out into the cold, gray Texas weather.
“Oh, Granddad, what have you gotten me into?” Blake muttered grimly as he swung up into the wagon.
No woman in her right mind was going to come to Elmswood, Texas, just to marry Blake Bradfield so that he could get his grandfather’s treasure map. It was impossible. Wasn’t it?
“The Scars of a Pure Heart” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Macie Sheldon tries to come to terms with her family’s death from smallpox, still confronting her face’s scars from the disease every day. Visiting their old homestead one more time seems to be the only way to deal with her loss and move forward. Her last hopes of finding peace before building a home for herself will be answered sooner than she expected when Blake Bradifield’s mail order bride advertisement will be her passageway back to Texas! But this seemingly simple plan will end up being a dangerous challenge. What are the secrets that will soon be revealed, mingling her in an unprecedented situation? Will she find closure and deal with her deep grief and insecurities?
For Blake Bradfield, losing his grandfather feels like the whole world is falling apart, as he has been his hero since he was a boy. His family has never approved of his grandfather’s adventurous life and his choice to abandon their home to treasure hunt. However, Blake seems to be cut from the same cloth. When he discovers that his grandfather has left behind hints for one last treasure hunt his life turns upside down. What he doesn’t expect though is that his late hero has some hidden surprises for him that will change everything. Will he manage to comply with the will’s unexpected stipulations? Will Macie be eager to help him heal his own wounds? Will love ever be an option for them?
Macie and Blake have experienced painful losses that have stigmatized their hearts and souls. However together they can get stronger and overcome any difficulty ahead. Will they set aside their dreams as they embrace something far bigger and sweeter than they could ever imagine? How could a treasure hunt bring their hearts together beyond any other ambition?
“The Scars of a Pure Heart” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.