Stephanie Grace Whitson
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A man's heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps. -Proverbs 16:9
As the carriage pulled away from Union Station, Caroline Jamison almost panicked and called out to the driver, "Wait! Don't go! I've changed my mind! Take me home!" her heart racing, Caroline forced herself to turn away. St. Louis isn't home. And home doesn't want you. Daddy told you that in his last letter. Still, there were times when she entertained a desperate few minutes of hope. But what if I was standing right there on the veranda. Would he really turn me away? If I told him I was sorry ... that he was right ... if I begged ... what then?
For just a moment the possibility that her father might forget everything and pull her into his arms made Caroline feel almost dizzy with joy. But then she remembered. It had been five years since she'd opened that last envelope, and still she could recite the terse few lines of the last letter posted from General harlan Sanford of Mulberry plantation.
We received word today. Langdon now joins his two brothers in glory. Your mother has taken to her bed. The idea that any --- or all --- of these deeds of war may have been committed by one their sister calls HUSBAND ---
The sentence wasn't finished. Caroline still remembered touching the spot where the ink trailed off toward the edge of the paper, a meandering line that wrenched her heart as she pictured Daddy seated at his desk, suddenly overcome by such a deep emotion he couldn't control his own hand.
We are bereft of children now. May God have mercy on your soul.
For a moment, as Caroline stood, frozen motionless by uncertainty here on the brick walkway leading up to Union Station, desperate regret and a renewed sense of just how completely alone she was rose up. Panic nearly swept her away. If she didn't get hold of herself she was going to faint. A few deep breaths would be helpful, but the corset ensuring her eighteen-inch waist wasn't going to allow for that. She closed her eyes in a vain attempt to hold back the tears. You don't dare go home ... and you don't dare stay here.
An axle in need of grease squealed as another carriage pulled up to the curb, this one drawn by a perfectly matched team of black geldings. Their coats glistening, their manes plaited with red ribbons, the horses tossed their heads and stamped their great hooves. As the driver called out to calm the team, a coachman hopped down from his perch, but he was too late to open the door for his fare.
One glimpse of the wild-looking man emerging from the polished carriage and Caroline swiped at her tears, snapped open her gold silk parasol, and bent down to pick up her black traveling case. You'll make a scene if you faint right now, and the ladies of Mulberry Plantation never make a scene. the ladies of Mulberry plantation didn't associate with the kind of men emerging from that carriage, either. Lifting her chin, Caroline headed toward the station lest one of them offer to escort her up the hill. The last thing she needed today was to have to extricate herself from the unwanted attentions of some dandy dressed up like a poor imitation of Wild Bill Hickok.
Wild Bill Hickok indeed. Grateful to be thinking about something besides home, she almost smiled at the memory of thomas, one of the Jamisons' servants, and the ridiculous hat he'd sported for weeks after seeing Hickok and Buffalo Bill on stage. A hat just like the ones on the heads of the men climbing out of the newly arrived carriage. Only these men didn't look ridiculous. They looked ... dangerous. Caroline peered back at them from beneath the edge of her parasol even as she made her way up the hill. The tall one had a certain appeal --- if a woman liked that kind of man. Caroline did not.
With every step away from the street and toward the station, her doubt and fear receded. She could do this. after all, it was the only thing that made any sense. no one was coming to rescue her. It was time she rescued herself.
"Painting walls and hanging pictures don't make a barn into a home, Mama." Ella Barton looked away from her own face in the mirror just long enough to catch her mother's eye. "A barn is still a barn." Shaking her head, she untied the new bonnet. "I'm sorry. I just can't. You were sweet to buy it, but I look ridiculous." She put the stylish bonnet back into the open bandbox sitting atop the dresser. "We'll return it on the way to the station."
"We will not return it." Mama snatched it up and ran her hand along the upturned brim. She smoothed the nosegay of iridescent feathers just peeking out of the grosgrain ribbon that bordered the crown. "It's beautiful."
"Did I say it wasn't?" Ella turned her back on the mirror. "The problem is not the hat." Gently she extracted the bonnet from her mother's grasp and nestled it back into the box. "The old one is better. It suits me." She settled the lid on the bandbox."What do I need with a new hat, anyway? I hardly think they parade the latest fashions up and down the street in Cayote, Nebraska."
"Maybe not," Mama said. "But you can bet there will be a parade when we all arrive. Everyone says women are in short supply out west. That means you can expect a parade of bachelors coming into Cayote as soon as word gets out about the Emigration Society's arrival."
Ella crossed the room to where their two traveling cases lay open on the lumpy mattress. "And they will see me as I am --- and leave me be. Even if I were interested --- which I am not --- a new bonnet wouldn't change anything." She finished folding her white cotton nightgown into the case as she spoke, especially mindful of the wide border of handmade lace as she closed the lid. It had taken her over thirty hours to make that gown. She wanted it to last.
Mama joined her by the bed, closing and locking her own traveling case as she said, "You don't know what others see when they look at you, Ella. You have lovely eyes."
Ella snorted in disbelief. "I know what they see. Milton reminded me almost every day."
"Milton!" Mama spit the name out like spoiled meat. She made two fists and pummeled the air. "I wish I could get my hands on him. I'd teach him --- "
"Mama." Ella's voice was weary. Mama's opinions about Milton had grown old long ago. "Let him rest in peace. It's over."
"Except that it isn't. What he did to you --- what he made you feel about yourself --- none of that is over."
Ella sighed. It was no use debating Milton Barton with Mama. Mothers looked at their daughters and saw the best, which was, in Ella's case, her eyes. But mothers tended to see only the things like beautiful hazel eyes. They ignored broad shoulders and strong frames, large hands and noses.
As Ella lifted her traveling case off the bed and set it on the floor so she could smooth the blanket into place, she glanced toward the mirror. She always had regretted that nose. But simple regret had evolved into something else, thanks to Milton. It was her fault he sought other beds. It was her fault he wandered. It was her fault they had no children. She wasn't pretty. She wasn't feminine. She wasn't ---
Stop. Stop the litany. Stop it now. Nothing good comes of it. What was it Mama always said ... forget what lies behind. Press on to hope. She must do that now, even if she did still hear Milton's voice at times. She was clumsy. She lumbered like a cow. Such a big nose. Such large hands. Such rough skin. She was barren. But of all the words Milton flung at her, the ones that hurt most were the ones Ella added to the list herself. She was gullible. Gullible and stupid to have believed a man could love a woman like her.
And so, after being widowed by the war, having lost her farm and much of herself in the process, Ella moved to town and rented a nondescript room on a nondescript street in St. Louis. She cooked and cleaned at a nice hotel nearby, and kept to herself. She was never asked to stay on, never promoted to serve in the dining room. After all, who would want a cow lumbering about with their fancy china and silver candlesticks? Dark thoughts hung over the widow Barton like a cloud. And then one day she saw Mr. Hamilton Drake's sign in a milliner's shop window.
WANTED, it said in large letters. ONLY WOMEN NEED APPLY. Smaller print said that Mr. Hamilton Drake of Dawson County, Nebraska, the organizer of the Ladies Emigration Society, was here in St. Louis to help women TAKE CONTROL of their own DESTINY by acquiring LAND IN THEIR OWN NAME. he invited ALL INTERESTED LADIES to meet with him in Parlor A of the Laclede hotel on any one of three evenings listed. He promised that if women would HURRY, they could still acquire FREE PRIME HOMESTEADS in the most desirable portions of the county.
Control of her own destiny ... land in her own name ... a prime homestead. Ella stood looking at that sign for a long while. at the first meeting she attended, Mr. Drake produced an "official" copy of the homestead law president Lincoln had signed back in 1862. Ella read it and learned that what Drake said was right. As a single woman and therefore the head of her own "household," Ella could file on a homestead. And Ella knew land. She knew livestock and crops and plows. She knew when to plant and how to harvest. She also knew there was little, if any, chance a man would ever love her, and even if some fool tried, how would she ever know if it was sincere? But Ella knew something else, too. For the first time in a very long while, Ella knew hope.
Ella looked into the mirror and smiled. Mama was right. the simply dressed woman with the plain face did have rather nice eyes. She glanced at Mama in the mirror. Dear Mama, with her tiny waist and petite stature. Mama, with her lively sense of humor and youthful spirit. What, Ella thought, would she have ever done without Mama?
"Ella."Mama patted her shoulder."Stop riding the clouds and come back to earth." When Ella blinked and looked at her, Mama put her hand atop the bandbox. "I asked if you're sure about the new hat."
"I'm sure." Ella reached for the old brown one hanging on a hook by the door.
With a dramatic sigh, Mama took the bandbox in hand and opened the door.
Ella picked up their two suitcases and followed her out into the hall and downstairs. As they headed toward the train station by way of the milliner's, neither woman looked back.
The resolve that had propelled Caroline Jamison up the hill and into Union Station faded the instant she lowered her parasol just inside the door. She hesitated, gazing at the scores of people buying tickets, hurrying toward the tracks, seated in the lunch room sipping tea, browsing at the newsstand. Her head hurt. Her kid leather gloves were growing damp. Perspiration trickled down her back. She was feeling shaky again.
The members of the Ladies Emigration Society were supposed to proceed through the station and gather on the siding near track number 2. Mr. Drake had said he expected almost a train-car full of women to join the Society. Caroline wasn't ready to meet all those strangers. She looked toward the tracks. Oh no. Please no. Not the sisters. Caroline had especially hoped those four would have talked each other out of heading west. At the thought of facing those four --- and maybe a few dozen women just like them --- Caroline found an empty bench and sat down.
Pulling her traveling case onto her lap, she clung to the handle with one hand and her parasol with the other even as she tried to calm herself. Close your eyes. Think of something else. Think about ... the rose garden. Remember how wonderful those yellow ones on the arbor smelled when they bloomed? Can you hear old James humming to himself while he trimmed the hedge? Shutting out the sounds of the bustling train station and thinking about the garden helped. She stopped trembling. There, now. That's better.
She looked toward the tracks. Where were the dozens of women Mr. Drake talked about? What if the sisters decided they wouldn't have her today? What if they united the others against her and spoke to Mr. Drake and talked him into canceling her membership in the Society? Laws o'massey, what if she had to go back? Back to Basil's parents' home here in St. Louis. Back to ---
With a little shudder, Caroline stood up. When all else failed, thinking about Basil's father would give her the determination she needed for this day and a hundred more like it. It had cost her everything when she ran off and married a Yankee. Those women had no idea. Had any of them spent their widowhood listening to a rattling doorknob and the mutterings of their very own father-in-law begging them to move a trunk away from the door? Using her parasol as a walking stick, Caroline stood back up. She had as much right as anyone to homestead land. Abraham Lincoln himself had said so, may the good Lord rest his soul.
A gangly blond-haired boy just now coming out of the diner looked Caroline's way, nodded, and tipped his cap. She smiled at him. He blushed and hurried to where a woman dressed in a black traveling suit waited just inside the door. The woman glared at Caroline, said something to the boy, and literally pulled him toward the tracks and the group of women waiting near track number 2. Oh dear. She'd apparently just offended another member of the Society, and this time she hadn't even opened her mouth.
All right. The only way to do this was to ... just go and do it and never mind the rest of them. With one last glance toward the street, Caroline headed for the tracks.
"You goin' west, too?"
Caroline looked back toward the owner of the gravelly voice. She couldn't possibly be old enough to file on a homestead, could she? Mr. Drake said you had to be twenty-one. This girl didn't look a day past eighteen. Surely she wasn't widowed, either --- but then, being a widow wasn't exactly a requirement for joining the Society. Some of the ladies at her meeting had appeared to be more interested in finding husbands than homesteads. Maybe that was the case with this girl.
Caroline didn't know hair that color existed in nature. It reminded her of the scarlet crepe myrtle growing around the gazebo at home in tennessee. And that dress. It was a bad enough shade of yellow now. It would have been an absolute horror before it faded. Women with hair that shade of red should never wear that yellow. Especially if they had ivory skin. It made them look ill.
The girl coughed into the handkerchief she held balled up in one palm. "Sorry," she said and coughed again before extending a hand in greeting. "I'm Sally. Sally Grant. No relation to the general by that name. Although I got his autograph at the Sanitary Fair when I was little and he said my eyes reminded him of his daughter --- " She rattled on as Caroline introduced herself and shook hands, but then the girl broke off abruptly. "Sorry," she said. "I tend to talk too much when I'm nervous." She pointed toward the group of women waiting outside. "You with them? Us, I guess I should say."
Caroline nodded. "You as scared as I am?" When the young woman coughed again, Caroline wondered if Sally Grant's pale complexion was more a result of ill health than anything else. How frightening it would be to have committed to something like this trip west and then be threatened with illness. That would be worse than a dozen attacks of nerves.
The girl misinterpreted Caroline's silence. "I can see you're a real lady," she said, motioning to Caroline's dark gold traveling suit and parasol even as she made a vain attempt to smooth the front of her wrinkled calico dress. She gave a little shrug. "You don't have to talk to me if you don't want to. I was just tryin' to be friendly." and with that, she brushed past Caroline and headed for the tracks.
"Wait!" When the girl turned back, Caroline hurried to catch up. "I'm sorry. I seem to have been rendered speechless this mornin', but it's got nothin' to do with you." her voice wavered. "I didn't mean to be rude. It's just that --- just that I'm --- "
" --- scared?" Sally Grant's smile revealed a missing front tooth.
Caroline shook her head. "No, ma'am. I'm not scared. I'm terrified." only it sounded more like ah'm not scairt, ah'm ter-ah-fide. She glanced away, hating the knowledge that she was blushing, trying to cogitate on how she would handle it if Sally Grant --- frayed dress, missing tooth and all --- was a certain kind of Yankee.
"Memphis or Nashville?" Sally asked, eyeing Caroline closely.
Caroline stiffened. What did that matter? She was just as deserving as any other member of the Emigration Society. She'd sacrificed her way of life and her own family to marry Basil, and he'd died for the Union just as surely as if he'd been shot in battle. And hadn't she herself done her duty, too, nursing him faithfully until the day his body followed where his spirit had already flown? Caroline didn't even try to sound less southern as she drawled, "What's it mattuh? Ah'm the widda of Private Basil Richard Jamison of the Ninth Missourah Volunteers."
Sally's blue eyes stayed friendly. She nodded. "That so? Well, it don't really matter whether it's Memphis or Nashville. I was just wonderin'."
"Ah --- ah see." Caroline cleared her throat. She nodded toward the waiting group of women. "You know any of 'em?"
Sally shook her head. "naw. I only went to the one meetin' and they wasn't much for chitchat seeing as how I'm ..." She bit her lower lip. her bony shoulders lifted in a shrug. "Seeing as how I'm me. And divorced. And I told 'em so." She tilted her head and eyed Caroline carefully. "What about you?"
"Me? Oh no --- like I told you --- my husband was --- "
"No," Sally interrupted, "not are you divorced. I heard what you said about all that." She frowned as she pointed toward the tracks. "Seems like Mr. Drake said there'd be more of us. Do you know any of 'em?"
Caroline shook her head. "those four off to the side were at the meetin' when I joined. But I don't recognize any of the others." She shrugged. "A-course they weren't much for chitchattin' with me. Least not after I opened my mouth and let the Tennessee out."
The girl grinned. "What d'ya say you 'n' me stick together for the ride out?"
Caroline had never met anyone as forthcoming as Sally Grant. Her dress was frayed and her thin hands and bony shoulders were evidence she probably hadn't been eating very well of late. There was a good chance that everything Sally Grant owned was inside the worn carpetbag clutched in her hands. And Caroline liked her. "If y'all don't mind travelin' with a southern gal, ah think that'd be fine."
"Way-el," Sally teased, mimicking the accent, "not only do ah not mind ... ah'd be on-uhed." and with that, she looped a thin arm through Caroline's.
A gaggle of ladies, one boy, and a man who seemed to be shepherding them all made their way toward the train sitting on Track Number 2. As she watched them climb aboard, Hettie Gates wondered where they were headed --- and why. At the sound of footsteps she whirled around, her heart racing. Calm down. Another half dozen chattering ladies scurried through the station and followed the group boarding the train. Hettie watched them for a moment, wondering if those four always dressed alike. They were obviously sisters ... maybe one pair of twins. But for them all --- well. It was just odd. Glancing back toward the street, Hettie adjusted the veil attached to her hat and went to the ticket window.
"And how may I help you, ma'am?" the agent nodded toward the train. "Assuming, of course, that you aren't one of Mr. Drake's ladies. If you are, he's already purchased your ticket."
"I ... I beg your pardon?"
"You aren't with the land agent who's been collecting ladies for Nebraska?"
Hettie frowned. "Nebraska?"
The agent removed his spectacles and wiped them with a cloth as he said, "Well, I'm glad to hear it." He shook his head. "If you ask me, Mr. Hamilton Drake's got something else in mind besides helping women get their own homesteads."
Hettie peered at him. "C-can they do that? Homestead, I mean ... without a man?"
"Well, now," the agent said as he settled his glasses back on his nose, "that's just the thing, isn't it? How on earth could they? Can a woman plow? Can a woman grow crops? Can a woman defend herself?" The ticket agent shook his head again. "It wasn't but three years ago the Cheyenne derailed a handcar out that way and --- " He broke off. Clucked his tongue. "I don't know what this world is coming to when women begin to think they can just step into a man's world like it was nothing. But I beg your pardon for my sermonizing, ma'am. What can I do for you this fine day?"
Hettie glanced at the train and then back at the agent. "California," she blurted out. California was as good a place as any, wasn't it? Or Denver. Denver might be far enough. She could stop in and visit Aunt Cora. No --- that wouldn't be wise. Aunt Cora was a lovely woman, but she never had been able to keep a confidence.
"That's it right there," the ticket agent said, and pointed at the same train the group of ladies had just boarded. He peered at Hettie over pince-nez glasses. "One way or round trip?"
"I ... I don't know about the return trip. The date, I mean. I might be gone a long --- "
"One way, then," the man said. "That'll be six dollars."
Hettie counted out her money. Six greenbacks. Only two left. That was all right. She'd get a job washing dishes. Maybe cleaning houses. Something. A whistle blew.
Snatching the ticket,she grabbed her carpetbag from where she'd set it at her feet and ran for the train. It started to move. When she tossed the bag up, it landed with a thud just outside the door to the ladies' car. Grasping the railing, she hauled herself aboard. As the train picked up speed, she struggled to catch her breath. Finally, she climbed the three steps to the car door. Just as she opened it and stepped through, the train lurched. If the stern-faced-looking woman in the seat on the left hadn't ducked, she would have gotten Hettie's elbow in her ear. "E-excuse me," she gasped, and dropped into the empty seat on her right across from a petite elderly woman and a near-giantess. She'd barely regained her composure when the elderly woman spoke up.
"Well. So now we are sixteen."
The woman nodded. "Yes. I agree. Disappointing. Mr. Drake reserved the entire car." She gestured toward the empty benches at the back, then smiled. "But I don't suppose anyone will complain about having an entire double berth to themselves when it comes time to pull down the shades and go to sleep tonight."
Hettie glanced across the aisle. The woman she'd almost hit in the head had turned her back to them and was rummaging in a bag on the bench between her and a blond-haired boy looking out the window. The bench facing them was empty. As the train picked up speed, Hettie smoothed her frizzy blond hair and adjusted her hat.
The old woman smiled. "Zita Romano." She nodded at the woman seated beside her. "and my daughter, Ella." She hesitated, obviously waiting for Hettie to introduce herself.
"I'm Hettie. Hettie Ga --- " She broke off. Didn't the Bible say something about shaking the dust off your feet and not looking back? She cleared her throat as she pushed her spectacles up on her nose. "Please call me Hettie." If they didn't care about last names, so much the better. It would give her time to think of a new one.
Excerpted from SIXTEEN BRIDES © Copyright 2017 by Stephanie Grace Whitson. Reprinted with permission by Bethany House. All rights reserved.
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