“Don’t test me, boy,” Josiah hissed as he hoisted the squirming criminal up the stairs of the jailhouse. Edward Stakes, the notorious fugitive, had stayed fairly calm during their two-day journey to turn him in. The bounty hunter had located his prey at a dimly lit saloon, in a town too small to even have a sheriff, with a six-shooter pointed at another hapless victim. If Josiah hadn’t intervened, Stakes would have upped his kill count to forty-nine and rode out of town with as much money as the saloon had in the till. Some twenty odd people had been hunting the Oregon trail for some kind of sign of Stakes, in the hopes of getting their hands on the five-hundred-dollar reward, but Josiah Bright had been the one to catch him. It hadn’t been easy, and he’d had to fight off other bounty hunters along the way, jealous of the treasure Stakes’ head would earn him, but Josiah had never been one to give up easily.
Stakes turned his red sweaty face up towards Josiah as he reached for the door.
“You’re a dirty snitch, you know that? You’re just as much a criminal as I am. You profit from my crimes, then pretend you’re some kind of…”
Josiah smacked him across the face, shutting him up, and proceeded to push the door open behind him.
Stakes’ word had struck a nerve, though Josiah was too proud to admit it.
The jailhouse door swung open, and Josiah shoved Stakes in before him towards the solitary desk that took up most of the small room. Behind the desk, Sheriff Hanks glanced up from under the large brim of his hat, a cold look of irritation on his face to be interrupted so unceremoniously.
“You’re talking to him. What have we here?”
“A certain Edward Stakes. I hear you’ve been looking for him.” Josiah struggled to keep the criminal steady as he squirmed and tried to get out of the ropes binding him.
“I certainly have been. Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s get the man in a cell.”
Continuing on a civil conversation over Stakes’ incoherent screaming, Sheriff Hanks and Josiah successfully got the outlaw under lock and key, both recognizing in each other a like-minded man. As the lock clicked shut on Edward Stakes’ cell door, Josiah looked down at the stone floor, letting out a sigh of relief. Another criminal behind bars, and another healthy reward in his pocket. After weeks on the road, tirelessly hunting Stakes down and painstakingly ensuring he saw his way to face his punishment alive, Josiah was exhausted. He needed a break, but he wasn’t the kind of man who knew what to do with the luxury of time. Too much time without a task to complete and he would be left alone with only his own painful memories for company.
“You know we’ve been searching for that man for two months now? He’s wanted for just under thirty murders in this state alone.” The Sheriff looked mighty pleased to be finally putting the man behind bars.
“Oh, I’m well aware of Stakes’ crimes. I’ve spent enough time with him now to know that what he’s been accused of on the books is just the tip of the iceberg. I wouldn’t trust that man as far as I could throw him.
You might want to ask him about just what exactly happened by the banks of the Snake River.”
Sheriff Hanks chuckled. “I know you mean to say that he’s not to be trusted, but I have a feeling that a man like you could toss a man like him a good distance indeed. Skinny little bugger, isn’t he? Seems like crime doesn’t pay enough for a hearty meal, does it?”
“I confess, I haven’t been feeding him all that well since I took him into my custody. I’d rather give my portion of dinner to a bear than this criminal.”
“I like you already, and I don’t even know your name.”
“Josiah Bright. Pleasure to meet you, Sheriff Hanks. I’ve heard tell of you for many a year now, and it seems you’re a very popular man of the law.”
The bounty hunter smiled at the Sheriff, his dimples hiding behind a rough beard dotted with greys, and covering a face of scars he didn’t remember getting. This isn’t to say he wasn’t handsome, because he was.
With his sun-worn skin, strong jaw, and wide shoulders, Josiah looked like the kind of man who would go to the ends of the earth to protect someone he loved. If one were on his good side, that is. He was the definition of a lone wolf, and no matter how many women swooned after him from town to town, he never stayed in one place long enough to set down roots. Josiah led a dangerous life, and was meant for the road.
“Well, I like to think the folks around these parts respect me. As for the criminals, I’m not sure they think so highly of me.”
The men shook hands warmly, both pleased to be connecting with a kindred spirit. Sheriff Hanks had a warm home to go home to, and a happy wife, but for his part, Josiah hadn’t seen a friendly face in months.
The life of a bounty hunter was a lonely and dangerous one, filled with unknown enemies and the perils of the road. Warm meals were few and far between, and he had grown accustomed to the notion that home was wherever he lay his head down. He couldn’t deny, though, that it was nice to talk to someone who wasn’t constantly threatening his life. The company of criminals was hardly a pleasant one.
“Tell me, Josiah Bright, could I entice you into coming to my house for dinner? My wife Mary would be thrilled if you would join us. She’s making a roast this evening, and ever since our children left, such a meal is a waste on two people.”
Josiah was indeed tempted, but he had a bit of a tradition anytime he turned in a criminal. He liked to take his earnings to the nearest inn, treat himself to a fine meal, and enjoy all the niceties of a civil life before going back to his camp on the edge of town. This tradition was one he could enjoy anytime he was in a town big enough to accommodate him, however, and it wasn’t every day that he was invited in for a home cooked meal. Hunger was the best sauce, but rodents roasted over the campfire were beginning to lose their appeal, and Edward Stakes had made for very poor company these last few nights.
“I wouldn’t want to intrude,” Josiah said out of politeness. He hadn’t really ever been taught proper etiquette, but he fancied himself a considerate man.
“It would be no intrusion at all. I know that a life on the road is not one of comfort, and you could use a meal made with love. Or at least one you didn’t have to catch yourself.” The older man winked, and the leathery lines around his eyes crinkled sweetly. Josiah had long forgotten what it felt like to have a father figure in his life, if indeed he’d ever had one, so the kindness this man was showing him touched his heart more than it might for someone else.
“Well it would mean the world to me if I could join you and your wife for dinner. If she’s anything like you, sir, I’m sure we’ll get along very well.”
“The missus is nothing like me, and I thank my lucky stars every day for that fact. But there aren’t very many people in the world who don’t get along with Mary. Her cooking alone will win you over, I have no doubt. I have a few matters to settle around here if you don’t mind waiting, then we can be on our way. Oh, and Josiah?”
“I believe I owe you a reward.”
Josiah smiled and nodded, following the sheriff back toward his desk. Taking a small key out of his pocket, Hanks opened one of the drawers, pulled out a metal box, and another key. Opening the box, the sheriff carefully counted out two hundred dollars, proudly handing the money to Josiah.
“Thank you, sir.”
“No, Josiah, it’s you I have to thank. There’s only so much I can do here, seeing as I’m just one man, but thanks to you our county is a safer place tonight.”
“I do what I can,” Josiah replied, taking the money and sliding it inside the inner lining of his jacket. Anyone who saw him walk out of that jailhouse would know he had a good deal of money on his person, and if he wasn’t careful, he could be a target for anyone looking for some quick cash. Luckily, his reputation preceded him, and his skills with a handgun were unparalleled. Anyone looking to take what was his would have to be willing to risk their lives.
While Sheriff Hanks finished up his work, Josiah waited patiently outside, taking the opportunity to give his horse some water. She was a faithful steed who’d been with him for years, through thick and thin. Bonny, as he called her, had saved his hide more than once with a well-timed kick, and he couldn’t imagine doing what he did with any other mare.
“Well Bonny, that’s another one down, and another honest day’s pay in my pocket. It’ll be only the best oats for you until we hit the road again. What do you think? Should we go after Gene Cash, notorious bank robber, or Christopher Oakley, who can’t seem to stop shooting whoever wins his money?”
Bonny had nothing to say in response, of course, but she gladly took the apple he offered her. Looking around the street, Josiah noticed how idyllic the small community seemed. For a moment, Josiah had to wrack his brain to remember where exactly he was, but he caught sight of the town name above the local inn- Jackson. Jackson, Wyoming. Josiah had been through so many small towns and outposts over the years, he was usually of the opinion that one was just as good as the next. There was something different about Jackson, however, that he hadn’t noticed about other towns. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but the air was sweeter somehow, and the sun shone brighter than it had in the last town he’d passed through. It was probably just his imagination, and the relief of finally having rid himself of Edward Stakes, but some twinge made him a little less than happy to be leaving Jackson quite so soon.
“Ready whenever you are,” Sheriff Hanks said, pulling up behind Josiah, already mounted on his horse.
Though the sheriff was at least fifteen years Josiah’s senior, he certainly seemed to be a man in his prime, ready to defend Jackson to the best of his ability. A pang of shame rang through Josiah’s heart, knowing that what had brought him to his trade of choice was a less than righteous motivation, and he wished he could be as good a man as Sheriff Hanks seemed to be.
“Lead the way,” Josiah answered, throwing his leg over Bonny, and urging her forward.
The road toward the Hanks’ household was lined with lupines and marigolds dotting the landscape until the mountains took over in the distance. The air was crisp, and as they approached the low wooden house with a wide porch and hanging lanterns, Josiah thought to himself that he wouldn’t half mind having a home like that. It was odd; he hadn’t ever really thought of himself as the kind of man who would settle down in one location like this, but something about the Hanks’ setup had him questioning his love of the road.
“Zachariah, is that you? The sun was getting so low there I thought I might never see… why who is this young man?” a small, plump woman asked as she wiped her hands on her apron, rounding the corner from the kitchen and setting her eyes on Josiah. He could only assume this was the famous Mrs. Hanks.
“Mary, meet the man who just brought me Edward Stakes. Alive. This is Josiah Bright. Josiah, this is my wife Mary,” Sheriff Hanks announced, and Josiah wasn’t sure who he sounded prouder of, him or his wife.
“Well I never! Edward Stakes. Wasn’t he the one who…?”
“Who shot up a whole saloon over a bit of ribbon he thought someone had taken from his girl? Yes, that was him. We knew he was responsible for the murder of at least twenty-nine people, but Josiah here tells me there’s plenty more where that came from.” Taking off his hat and leaning down to kiss his wife, a softer Hanks appeared, talking over the hardened Sheriff for a moment.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Josiah. Won’t you stay for a bite of food?” Mary asked, a warm smile on her face.
“Your husband already suggested that I do just that. He’s been talking up a storm about this roast of yours, so I’m not sure I could refuse if I tried.”
“Well I’m glad to hear he speaks highly of my cooking outside the home. Don’t feel like you can’t compliment me personally, Zachariah, though I do like to hear about how fine my roasts are from strange men. Come, Josiah, have a seat and get off your feet! You must be exhausted after such an adventure. I can’t wait to hear about just how you apprehended this particular villain! We need more of your kind out there protecting us. This country is a wild place, and I don’t doubt it would fall to the outlaws in a matter of minutes if folks like you weren’t preserving the word of law.”
Josiah was exhausted indeed, and it wasn’t until he was sitting down that he realized exactly how tired he was.
Mary’s roast was just as fine as Sheriff Hanks had boasted it would be, and Josiah ate every last bite served to him. He would have licked the plate, but even growing up as he had, Josiah knew that to be uncouth. The company was refreshing as well, and the three of them chatted about all kinds of current events Josiah wasn’t privy to normally, as he usually lived on the outskirts of society.
“You’re clearly an expert in your field of choice, Josiah. How long have you been at this?” Hanks asked, picking his teeth with a bit of bone after their fine meal.
“Longer than I care to admit, sir,” Josiah answered self-consciously.
“It’s a hard life and I know that first hand. I was a bounty hunter myself before I settled down here in Jackson,” Sheriff Hanks admitted.
“It’s just that… thinking about how I got into this particular vocation fills me with painful memories.” Knowing that Sheriff Hanks had a similar background made Josiah slightly more willing to open up about his own past.
“Oh? Why’s that?” Mrs. Hanks asked gently.
“You see, my mother died when I was quite young, leaving my gambling, abusive, drunk father to take care of me. Josiah Bright Sr. blamed me for my mother’s death somehow, and took out his anger on me. It got so bad that I ran away from home, desperate to make my own way in the world, but when my father showed up on my doorstep three years later, on the run from the law, I knew what I had to do.” Josiah looked down at his fingers.
“Did you turn him in?” Sheriff Hanks asked knowingly.
Josiah nodded. “At just sixteen years old, I marched my father right to the steps of the jailhouse, where I received fifty dollars for the bounty. Fifty dollars. More money than I’d ever seen in my whole life.”
“Well, however many years later, you seem to be a master of your craft. Now I realize I haven’t known you for that long son, but I have a good feeling about you. You’re clearly very good at what you do, and we could use someone like you around here. Would you ever consider settling down in one place, a place like Jackson perhaps, and joining me as a deputy?”
Beside her husband, Mary practically vibrated with excitement at the notion of Josiah staying in Jackson.
“Oh, what a good idea, Zachariah! I know it seems small, because Jackson is small, but I promise, there’s plenty of good that we have here, and wonderful chances to start a life! There aren’t too many women, but I’ll venture that a fellow like you has plenty of women who would move to a place like this for you.” She smiled knowingly as she spoke, but she couldn’t have been more wrong.
“Mrs. Hanks, you’re the first woman I’ve had the pleasure of dining with in goodness knows how long. I thank you for the offer, Zachariah, and I have to admit, it’s a tempting one. I don’t think I’m your man, however. I’ve known a real home, and I make a good living on the road, catching who I can along the way.”
“I understand. You have a freedom on the road that I can’t offer you. Just know if you ever change your mind, there’s always a place for you here in Jackson. There’s an empty house just down the way that I know the Parker’s have been hoping to sell to the right person. This place would welcome you with open arms, if you ever decide something like that might be for you.” Sheriff Hank seemed almost a little bashful as he admitted how much he thought Josiah would be well-suited to life in Jackson.
He was touched, that was for certain, but he couldn’t bring himself to make such a large decision on a whim. There was something very attractive about settling down, and maybe starting a life that was less dangerous, but still contributed to the safety of the public. When he considered it seriously, however, he got a little hot around the neck and anxious at the thought of being stuck in one place. He’d never been in one town long enough to learn anyone’s names since he’d been a young boy, and wouldn’t really know how to carry himself. Jackson seemed as good a place as any, but for the moment, Josiah was still attached to his lone wolf status.
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the sentiment though, sir. I might just come back this way, and take you up on that fine offer before long. The road is lonely, and I can’t do it forever, but for now, it’s what I know.”
“I admire you, Josiah, I really do. At least say you won’t leave straight away. Rest for a week or so. You deserve a bit of time to recuperate, especially if you insist upon staying in that camp of yours. I can promise you a meal every night this week if you just sit tight for a moment,” Mary said, reaching over to squeeze Josiah’s hand. If he was a different sort of man, his eyes might have clouded over with tears. Something touched his heart, however, and he softened a little.
“Thank you, Mrs. Hanks. You really have shown me what Jackson hospitality is, and it means the world to me.”
The dark road back to his camp was lit only by the stars above him, but Josiah’s heart was content. Another criminal behind bars, and a good-sized envelope of cash in his pocket. He slept with the money against his skin, always vigilant for the possibility of thieves in the night. Josiah had seen enough bank robberies to know they weren’t a safe place to put his money, but it was undoubtedly dangerous to be walking around with so much cash. He thought back to Sheriff Hanks’ offer of a permanent position. A house of his own. There was a lot about that that appealed to him, but part of Josiah was unsure of how to even begin living a stable life of that sort. He turned underneath his thin blanket, the wind rustling in the leaves outside the tent.
Then came the scream. Bloodcurdling, ripping through the air with a terrifying volume and speed. As quickly as it had started, it stopped. Josiah threw off the blanket, put on his boots, and grabbed a lantern.
“Hello?” he called out into the night as he lit the lantern. The only thing that answered him was a single gunshot. He ducked out of instinct, but the gunfire had come from quite a distance away. He reached for his own six-shooter, making sure it was by his side.
Everything was pitch black around him, the trees blocking the stars. It was a moonless night. Finally, the flame flew up inside the lantern and Josiah was able to look around. Nothing but trees looked back at him.
“Hello?” he called out again, stumbling through the trees in the direction that he thought the scream had come from. Nothing.
Then, suddenly, something rustled in the branches to his left, followed by something that sounded like a whimper. Josiah lifted his lantern to see better, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw another eye looking back at him. He wasn’t the kind of man to jump in fear, but the sight of the crumpled body staring up at him from behind a veil of stringy brown hair terrified him. He calmed his breathing and approached the creature.
“Hello there. I don’t mean you any harm, I promise. Are you hurt?” Getting closer, he saw that the thing staring at him was a girl, no more than seven. Mud streaked her face, and it looked like she’d been crawling on the ground with her hands. She stood up as soon as she saw him, and Josiah was afraid she would run off. She stayed put, however, looking him up and down. Her face had the lines of old tears streaking her cheeks, but her eyes were dry. Whatever had scared her was gone now.
The girl didn’t say anything in response.
“Is your mother around? I heard someone screaming, but I don’t think it was you, was it?”
Again, he got nothing out of her, but she slipped a hand into his and started leading him through the woods. Looking down, he realized she didn’t have any shoes on, and was wearing nothing more than a night shift. It was a cool night, and though Josiah felt a chill across his shoulders, the girl didn’t seem cold at all. Perhaps it was the shock of whatever she had witnessed that was causing her to go numb.
Josiah looked back at his tent, which was disappearing in the distance. He made a mental note of the direction they were taking so they’d be able to find their way back after. It seemed they had been walking for a while.
“Do you know where we’re going?” he asked, but still the girl said nothing. For one moment, Josiah wondered if the girl was even real, or just a spirit, or figment of his imagination? Perhaps he had overexerted himself over the past few days, and his mind was playing tricks on him. After pushing their way through a thicket, however, they finally reached what he could only assume was their destination. The girl stopped and pointed, but Josiah wasn’t quite sure what she was trying to show him.
“What is it? I don’t see anything out there. Can you lead me to it?”
Instead of an answer, she shook her head and pushed him forward into the clearing. Josiah took the hint and ventured in. It didn’t take long before he realized why the girl wanted to stay back. There, appearing in the lantern light, lay the figure of a woman no older than he was, splayed out against the dark ground. Her empty eyes stared up at the sky, and there in the middle of her forehead was a clear bullet wound. Josiah had seen his fair share of dead bodies, but something about this one broke his heart. He could only assume this was the girl’s mother, left for dead here with no belongings. There was a good chance whoever had killed her was after the child too. They weren’t safe here.
With one swift motion, Josiah hoisted the woman over his shoulder and made his way back to the girl.
“Take this,” he said, handing her the lantern. Taking her free hand in his, he led the way quickly and carefully through the woods, back to where Bonny was waiting for them.
It was too dark for anyone to see them, but if anyone could have, it would have been a tragic sight. The girl sat forward on the horse, her bare feet dangling down beside her while Josiah sat behind, reins in his hands. Behind them both, strapped to the back of Bonny, lay the girl’s mother, long hair trailing along the ground as they rode. The heaviness in Josiah’s heart was oppressive, but he knew he needed to get the girl away from the woods and from whoever wanted her dead.
Sheriff Hanks answered the door when they arrived, still wearing his wide brimmed hat, though it was the middle of the night. Josiah figured this was far from the first time the man had been woken up in the middle of the night because of a murder. Staring at the sorry sight before him, Hanks quickly invited them in.
“What happened?” he asked as he found a blanket to wrap around the girl.
“I’m not sure. I just heard a gunshot and a scream, then this little girl appeared to me in the forest and led me to the body.” Josiah gestured toward the porch, where the woman’s body lay covered with a sheet.
“Is that your mother?” Hanks asked the girl, rubbing her shoulders to warm her up. Josiah never would have guessed that he was so good with children.
The girl nodded. Hanks looked up at Josiah with a sadness in his eyes.
“And did you see what happened to her?” he continued with his gentle questioning. It seemed cruel to ask her so many questions on such a tragic night, but they needed all the information they could get as quickly as possible. The girl just stared back, her eyes shining but silent. It was anyone’s guess what she might have seen.
“I’m heading out. The murderer won’t get too far under this kind of darkness,” Josiah said, keeping his tone quiet so as not to wake Mrs. Hanks or alarm the girl. Straightening his hat, he went to pick up the lantern once more, but Sheriff Hanks stopped him by the door.
“Mr. Bright, you’re not going anywhere. That girl needs you, and besides, you won’t track down anyone at night. Not without a moon at the very least. You can see what there is to be found in the morning, but right now, the right thing to do is care for her. I get the feeling she’s had a lot of people run out on her.”
Hanks’ words struck a chord with Josiah. He looked back over at the girl, who was huddled in a wooden chair, curled up with a blanket around her shoulders. Despite the traumatic events of the night, the tiredness was getting to her, and he could see that her eyelids were getting heavy. He thought of himself at that age, constantly fending for himself while his father spent all night wasting their money at the saloon over cards. Something about the girl reminded him of himself back then.
Nodding, he walked back over to her and smoothed the hair on her head. She looked up at him with her big eyes, trying to keep them open.
“What’s your name, girl? Can you tell me that at least?”
She shrugged the blanket off her shoulders and leaned her head down. It took a moment before he realized what she wanted him to do. Pulling up the back of the neckline on her shift, he saw a name embroidered. Sarah.
“Well Sarah, it’s very nice to meet you. You’ve been a brave girl tonight.” He kneeled down before her, getting down to her eye line. “It’s alright though, you can sleep now. Tomorrow, we’ll put you in a real bed, and if I have anything to do with it, you’ll never have to sleep on the ground again.”
Josiah thought he saw a thin smile stretch across her lips, but it disappeared so quickly, it might have been a figment of his imagination. Her eyes closed as sleep took over, the furrow in her brow deep, even in her slumber.
“Josiah Bright, you have a softness in your heart I wouldn’t have predicted. One teary eyed look from a little girl and you’re promising her the world. I hope you can fulfill those promises.”
The bounty hunter stood, realizing the effect that the young Sarah had on him. “We’ll find her a good home. Until then, we’ll stay at the hotel. Thank you for all your help, Sheriff. Much appreciated.”
Something in him was softening indeed, but perhaps it had only been a matter of time before such a thing happened. This sort of pain was exactly what had got him started catching criminals in the first place, and it was nice to have a reminder of why he did it at all.
“Annie! You have your head in the clouds again. You’ve let the bread burn, and now we’ll have nothing but this gruel for supper!”
A sharp smack across the face from her mother brought Annie back to the present. It was the kind of rude awakening she was used to, and though it hurt, Annie hardly blamed her mother. They had nine mouths to feed, and ruining the bread meant another night of going to bed hungry for all of them.
“I’m so sorry! Look, maybe it will soften up with the soup? Even burnt bread is better than no bread at all, right?” She looked up anxiously towards her mother, desperate for some sign of approval. There was none that met her. Mrs. Cummings just shook her thin head and stirred the weak soup again.
One of the twins started screaming and Annie jumped up to go calm the child. Picking up the baby, Annie shushed him, his little face getting redder and redder as he cried about nothing in particular. Annie herself felt like crying over nothing, but she knew she’d get another smack across the mouth if she dared.
“What is he crying about? I can’t think with that screaming. Annie, make him stop, or get him out of here! I will die a happy woman as soon as all you children are safely living out in the world and no longer under my roof. I can’t tell you what a relief it was to see your sister married off. One less mouth to feed, and one less girl to worry about. I don’t know why you’re taking your time finding a husband yourself. Put down the poetry for once, put a ribbon on your bonnet, and I’m sure if you applied yourself, you’d find someone who would want to marry you. What’s the use of having a daughter like you around if you burn the bread and can’t calm the baby down? Just another mouth to feed.”
Annie turned away toward the window to hide the tears threatening to spill out between her tightly shut lids. She was accustomed to this kind of cruel treatment from her mother, but it didn’t mean it hurt any less. Her younger sister, Abby, had married her husband Samuel just the week before, leaving her without a single ally in the house. Her new husband was the local butcher, a well-respected man about town, but almost fifteen years her senior. Abby knew almost nothing about him, save that he was financially stable and interested in her. Their father accepted the proposal on her behalf, and Annie doubted that Abby would have been able to get out of it if she’d wanted to. Annie’s sister hated displeasing their parents, so would never have dared to go against their wishes. The night before her wedding, Abby had sobbed silently into Annie’s shoulder out of fear.
It had only been a week since Abby’s wedding, but it had been the loneliest week of Annie’s whole life. All her other siblings were too young to commiserate with, and her ragged copies of poetry books only gave her so much consolation. Whenever her mother caught her reading, she’d nab the book right out of her hand and hide it until Annie had completed a certain number of chores.
Perhaps it was because of this that Annie felt she wasn’t ready to marry, coupled with the fear she’d seen in Abby’s eyes? The thought of running a household on her own, when she could barely bake bread, let alone manage an entire kitchen, garden, and raise children, filled her with fear. All she really wanted to do was spend her days by the sea reading poetry aloud, staring at the dancing waves and letting the inspiration wash over her. Maybe she’d even write her own poetry someday. This was not the hand life had dealt her, however, and instead she was surrounded by relentless earthly worries. Screaming babies, gnawing hunger, a scolding mother, and a distant father.
“Yes?” she asked, turning away from the window. She’d successfully conquered her tears for the moment.
“Supper is on the table, your highness! Bring young Billy over here, and try to be grateful for what you have.”
Annie nodded curtly and walked quickly over to the cramped kitchen table. Her father sat at the other end, head in the newspaper, until her mother snatched it away. Looking down at the meager meal, Annie felt another pang of guilt that she’d burnt the bread, but kindly, no one in the family complained. Instead, they all quietly said grace, thanking the Lord for the food, and tucked in. Annie promised herself that she would do something special for her mother to make up for her mistakes.
“I had an interesting conversation with Mrs. Nichols today,” Annie’s father said from the other end of the table. Annie barely looked up from her bowl, assuming that he wasn’t talking to her.
“Annie, look at your father when he’s talking to you,” her mother snapped.
“I don’t think father means to tell me personally about his conversation with Mrs. Nichols,” Annie shot back, unable to keep the venom out of her voice.
“Well, in the end, it does concern you, Annie. I was talking to Mrs. Nichols and she was telling me that the oldest Smalls girl has found herself a husband, and a rich one at that. He’s a rancher in Montana, and she couldn’t be happier or more excited about…”
“A rancher? In Montana? How did they even meet in the first place?” Annie asked, interrupting her father. She wasn’t usually the type to speak over anyone, but the ridiculousness of what he was saying caught her off guard. Her mother didn’t scold her like usual, just rolled her eyes, as if Annie’s skepticism was unwarranted.
“Now, this is the interesting part. It would seem that they, in fact, haven’t met at all. Mrs. Nichols has a whole book filled with names, photographs, and detailed information about all kinds of gentlemen across the country looking for wives. They even sent all the money the Smalls girl needed to make the trip. Just think of the adventure! It’s not just anyone who gets to experience the vastness of this great land.”
Annie couldn’t keep the incredulousness off her face. All this sounded like a ludicrous and terrifying way to meet a match.
“That sounds intriguing indeed,” her mother said slyly, looking up at Annie. Neither of her parents had said it out loud yet, but Annie knew exactly what they were intending to communicate. They both meant to get rid of Annie in such a manner.
“Do you mean to tell me that Sally Smalls picked up and left her family without giving it a second thought? Then took the train fare and travelled all the way to Montana to marry a man she’s never met? What if she gets all the way there, only to discover that he’s a horrible man? Then she’ll be all alone with no family and no money. Not even a friend to turn to. That sounds like a nightmare indeed.”
Now visibly upset, Annie’s mother slammed her spoon down on the table. Not wanting to start an argument, Annie silently took her bowl back to the sink and left the room. The bowls of soup had been so small, it didn’t take long before everyone had finished their food, and soon enough, her nine-year-old sister took the twins and the rest of the children upstairs. It was only Annie and her father still sitting at the table then, the silence between them deafening. Eventually, Annie stood to start cleaning up, but her father called her back, and she scrunched her eyes up as if she’d been caught sneaking around where she oughtn’t to. She knew what she was in for. Her father was like this constantly, getting these harebrained schemes in his head, and there was nothing she could do about it. For better or worse, though, she got her sense of imagination from him, so she didn’t like to fault him too much.
“Sit down, Annie, over here. Closer to me. Listen. I know it sounds scary, but think of how exciting it could be! And it’s not as if you’d know nothing about your future husband. You can send letters back and forth, get to know each other without the pesky worry of what you each look like. Don’t you want a man who can support you? Think of it,” he said, attempting to paint a picture for her with his words. “You pick out a handsome man from Mrs. Nichols’ book. Let’s say he lives in California. Beautiful country out there.
You’ve always dreamed of living by the ocean! Now that could become a reality.”
It was true, she had always dreamed of living by the sea, but she’d thought it would be the sea closest to them, not the one that was a four week ride away. Four weeks of exhausting travel, filled with the constant fear of bandits and train robbers. Annie nodded along, however, to please her father.
“He’ll be a handsome man, your future husband, filled with his own dreams. Having started his own business, he’s always been too busy to think of finding a wife, and besides, perhaps there are no eligible ladies in his town? He’ll receive your letter and photograph, and fall in love with you instantly. How could he not? You have a stunning way with words, my dear. One year from now, you could be living in a beautiful house with a large porch overlooking the ocean waves. You could make a habit of getting up early and spending some time writing each day on that very porch, letting the inspiration of nature wash over you. And your husband will support you, charmed to have such a creative wife. Doesn’t that sound like a picture-perfect life to you?” His eyes were gleaming as he crafted this imaginary, idyllic life for Annie.
Despite her cynicism, she was taken with the possibilities that her father was illustrating. There was no one there in Martinsville, Virginia who understood her or would support her writing habit like her father was suggesting. Everyone there thought she was a useless, easily distracted dreamer, and maybe she was. She knew her father’s avoidance of mentioning children was tactical. Her father was aware of how unprepared she felt for married life and all that it would entail. At nineteen, she had plenty of friends and siblings who had been wed, and happily at that, but the notion filled Annie with dread. She’d have to make her peace with it eventually, however, and maybe getting an adventure in at the same time was just the way to do it?
“Do you really despise me so much that you would send me all the way to California?” she asked, a pout forming on her lips.
“You know I want you by my side at all times, my dear, but you are wasted on Martinsville, Virginia. You deserve bigger things, and I don’t want you to have to clean rooms at the boarding house like your sister Abby did before she was wed. Mrs. Nichols has some thirty men she knows who are looking for wives.
Some thirty men who would be able to support you! Now this way you’ll be able to make the choice yourself, instead of marrying the first man who asks you. Although, I know Jeremy Matthews has taken a liking to you. What do you think of him?”
Her father knew exactly what she thought of Jeremy Matthews. He was a scrawny, good for nothing boy who liked to tease and bully her, though everyone tried to tell her he only treated her as such because he liked her. He had a terrible habit of waiting by the big oak outside the house until she walked by, and insisted upon walking with her wherever she was going. Along the way, he was always incapable of conversing with her in a civil manner, instead pulling her hair, or playfully trying to trip her. If that’s what passed for courtship in these parts, she wanted no part of it. He’d been bothering her like that since they’d each turned twelve, and he still hadn’t learned to talk to her like a normal person. No matter how many people tried to tell her she ought to feel sorry for the boy, she didn’t.
“Father, you know I’d like to stay as far away from Jeremy Matthews as possible.”
He chuckled. “I know. He has good taste, that boy, but he’s set his sights above his station. You deserve someone who meets your intelligence. What do you say? Will you come with me tomorrow to meet with Mrs. Nichols? I promise you, she’ll answer your questions even better than I can.”
Annie looked down at the table, then noticed that her father’s bowl lay untouched. He hadn’t taken even one sip of his meager soup.
“Are you not hungry, father? Why haven’t you touched your soup?”
“Oh, I… no, I’m not hungry. I thought I’d bring it up to your brother, Nathan. I know he’s been complaining about going to bed hungry, and he’s a growing boy. He needs the nourishment more than I do. Just don’t tell your mother, please.”
Annie’s eyes filled with tears once more. Her father’s quiet generosity was so terribly sad to her. Both her parents struggled day in and day out to provide for all their children, and what was Annie contributing to the household? Nothing. Just burnt bread and useless poems. The guilt was overwhelming.
“Alright. I’ll go meet with Mrs. Nichols with you tomorrow. You know I don’t want to be a burden to you or mother.”
Her father placed a warm hand on hers, squeezing it affectionately. “Don’t for one-minute go thinking you’re a burden on us. We love you, and more than anything, we want you to be happy. It will break my heart to see you go so far away, but knowing that it will most likely bring about a better life for you will bring me joy.”
In bed that night, Annie stared up at the low ceiling as she lay squished between two of her sisters. She tried to imagine a future full of promise. Who knew what eligible bachelors Mrs. Nichols would have for her to choose between? Annie’s perfect man was tall, but not too tall, soft spoken, but not too quiet. A man who would listen to her, and maybe even talk about poetry with her. He would be a sensitive soul with kind blue eyes and soft blonde hair, who liked helping people, and still had a good relationship with his parents if they were still alive. Together, perhaps they would sit on the porch her father had imagined, overlooking the sea, holding hands and talking about the constellations they could pick out?
She knew it was unlikely that there would be any such man available to her, but it made it easier to stomach her impending future to imagine him like that. Why would a sensitive, handsome man ever need to write away for a wife? Such men always had many female friends and would have several ladies to choose between.
Her mind turned to her sister Abby once more. She’d only seen Abby a few times since the marriage, but she did seem happier, and not quite so terrified as she had been before the wedding. Maybe marrying a man she barely knew wouldn’t be so terrible after all? Abby had looked so beautiful up there at the altar, like such a proper grown up lady, even though she was younger than Annie. Picking at a loose thread on her nightgown, Annie wondered what it would take to make her feel like that, like a real lady, and not merely a girl? Learning to bake bread properly might help. At her age, her mother had already given birth twice. Considering it in such a light, it was a miracle that her parents had been able to provide for all their children so successfully. They had been almost children themselves.
“Move your elbow, Annie,” Laura said beside her, squirming on the small bed.
As silently as she could, Annie turned on her side and moved her other sister’s hair out of her face. A more somber imagining of her future life came to her. Most likely her husband would look nothing like his photograph and be a gruff sort of man. Short and stout, unable to find a woman willing to marry him in his own town. At the very least, he would likely have money if he could afford to write away for a wife in the first place.
Think of the adventure, she said to herself over and over again.
It did no good, however. The tears streamed down her cheeks as she tried to keep quiet and not wake her sisters, who were packed in like sardines beside her. Wordlessly, Laura tucked a comforting arm around her, and Annie breathed more easily, swallowing the lump in her throat. It was for her family that she would go through with this. Her younger siblings deserved a better life, and they would never get it if her parents were still worrying about how to feed her. Unless she was willing to take a job cleaning at the boarding house, this was the only option left to her. Annie vividly remembered Abby coming home from her work, exhausted, and bones cracking, even at her young age. If Annie were to subject herself to such hard work, she wanted it to be in service of something bigger, and not simply a clean room for someone else to sleep in.
If worse came to worst, she could jump out of the train and start a new life on her own terms. She almost giggled at the thought. Truthfully, she wouldn’t survive one day in the American West on her own, but it brought a smile to her face to think about that kind of freedom. If she were ever to write a novel, her heroine would be just such a woman. One who could face the world unafraid.
“United Under the Western Sky” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
For the nineteen-year-old Annie Cummings marriage is out of the question until she comes to realize that her parents have other plans for her. Just a week after her meeting with the local matchmaker, Annie is on a train riding across the country to meet her future husband, sight unseen. Unfortunately, when she arrives, Annie isn’t met by the kind farmer she’d been expecting but by the brooding and rough former bounty hunter, Josiah. Although a bit overwhelmed at first, Annie feels the spark between them and decides to embrace the unknown. But is she truly ready to let go of the life she knew for a love she never thought she’d find?
Bounty hunter Josiah Bright has been on the road for as long as he can remember. When he stumbles upon a young, orphaned girl, though, his life will change forever. Determined to find out what happened to the girl’s mother, Josiah decides to stay in town for a while, helping the local sheriff get to the bottom of the case. As the days turn to weeks, it seems like he’s going to be spending more time in Jackson than he’d originally intended. With a new house, a new job, and a daughter, there’s only one thing he is missing; a wife. The empty place in his heart will be filled by the kind and sweet Annie, who will instantly diminish all of his concerns and brighten his days. Can he soften his sharp edges, giving love a chance before it is lost once and for all?
Neither Josiah nor Annie are sure that they will warm up to each other at first. However, with a young girl to care for and a house to run, the ice is quickly broken. Both are thrown into a way of life they had never dreamed of, but without even realizing it, they will soon get lost in unique, unexpected emotions. When a new threat appears, will the couple be strong enough to stay true to their new feelings?
“United Under the Western Sky” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.