North Texas, March 1868
“Well, I love it even more now that you and Gloria have decided to join us. I’m glad that Mother and Father decided to go north to see Uncle Robert. The trip away from Corpus Christi will do Mother a world of good.”
Carissa glanced to where her nearly two-year-old daughter, Gloria, played happily with Laura and Brandon’s little boy, Daniel. At a year and a half, he cautiously explored his environment, while Gloria had seemingly no fear whatsoever. Even now she was trying to climb the rail posts of the nearest fence.
“Gloria, get down from there,” Carissa called. “You know you aren’t supposed to climb the fence.” In the distance she heard the low rumble of thunder.
“You too, Daniel,” Laura added. The child looked at his mother momentarily before refocusing on the fence.
Carissa went in the direction of her daughter and caught up to her before Gloria could renew her efforts. “It’s nap time,” she told her daughter.
“No nap! No nap!” Gloria declared with great insistence.
“You too, little man,” Laura said, grasping her son’s hand.
Daniel wiggled to get away, but Laura held him fast. Carissa stroked her daughter’s blond hair and smiled as she calmed. “Just take a very little nap, and then we will go see the new horses.”
Gloria clapped her hands. “Horsey. I wanna see horsey.”
“After your nap,” Carissa assured. Thunder rumbled once again, and Carissa looked beyond the trees to the billowing clouds on the horizon. They didn’t seem particularly threatening or dark, but apparently a storm was brewing. “I suppose it’s going to rain,” she told her sister. Clapping had become Gloria’s new means of communication, and she gave a hearty applause at the comment about rain.
Laura lifted Daniel to her left hip. “We’d best get the laundry off the line in a hurry.”
“If you’ll take the children, I’ll get the clothes,” Carissa replied. Laura nodded and swung Gloria onto her right hip.
“I’ll be there to tuck you in, Gloria. Just get on your bed and wait for me.” Carissa leaned over to kiss her daughter’s head, then hurried to retrieve the laundry basket.
She couldn’t help but smile as she thought about her child. Thunder and winds never seemed to disturb Gloria, and Carissa couldn’t help but wonder if it was somehow related to the fact that Gloria had been conceived and carried amidst great strife and trial. Daniel often cried during storms, but not Gloria. Storms were just a way of life for Carissa and Gloria.
There were just a few dresses and shirts to contend with, so Carissa pulled them quickly from the line and placed them in the basket. There was a nice table on the back porch where she could dump the load and come back for the towels. She worked quickly and barely beat the rain as she pulled the last of the towels from the line. By the time she made it back to the house, the rain began to pour in a fury.
She left the towels on the table with the other things and made her way to the room she shared with Gloria. To her surprise, the child was already asleep, and Carissa couldn’t help but sit down beside her for a moment. It was a miracle the child had ever been born. Gloria’s father, Malcolm Lowe, had thrown Carissa down a flight of stairs when she was only a few weeks pregnant. She’d been certain she would miscarry, but when she didn’t, Carissa thought of the unborn child as her consolation for a miserable marriage. A short time later, her husband again threatened her life.
Though she’d fallen for his charms as they courted, Malcolm had revealed his true nature once they’d wed. With the Union Army after him, he’d done his best to slip from their capture by kidnapping Carissa and Laura, figuring to use them to keep the law at bay. He also planned to kill them both for interfering in his plans. Later, when surrounded by soldiers, Malcolm attempted to escape by water and ended up throwing Carissa into the Gulf off the shores of Corpus Christi, in order to distract his pursuers. But that distraction had been short-lived. In the end, Malcolm had perished from wounds given him by the soldiers. Laura, too, had nearly drowned, but Brandon had saved her. Tyler Atherton had been responsible for rescuing Carissa.
When Malcolm nearly succeeded in ending her life, Carissa found little to live for, she was so devoid of hope. But the growing life inside of her compelled Carissa to live . . . and Gloria was the beautiful result.
“You are more than my consolation,” she told Gloria, kissing the sleeping girl. “You are the very reason I rise in the morning.”
Daniel was fussing, and Carissa knew her sister would have a difficult time calming him, especially with the constant rumble of the thunder. Laura would no doubt be a while, rocking and singing the boy to sleep.
Carissa quietly exited the bedroom and walked to the front-room window to look out on the storm. Thunder rumbled again and again while the rain steadily fell. Just a spring storm, she thought. Hopefully there wouldn’t be any hail or tornadoes to contend with. She sighed and watched a bit longer at the window.
She had never intended to live here on the farm with Laura and Brandon. For the last two years she’d resided with her parents in Corpus Christi and quite happily vowed to remain there. Well, perhaps happy wasn’t a word that Carissa could associate with her life. She had never felt all that close to her mother and father, and she knew full well that the fault was her own. Widowhood and being a mother had softened her heart in a way that made Carissa regret her actions in the past.
With Malcolm dead at the hands of the army, Carissa was grateful for her parents’ care and accepted that widowhood would be her lot in life. In fact, she cherished it. She never again wanted to have to deal with a deceiving husband. Instead, she would use her days to be a good mother and perhaps improve her relationship with her parents.
Of course, despite her resolve, the men didn’t keep from calling. She had never suffered for suitors. But after Malcolm, Carissa was wary of any man save her father, brother-in-law, and Tyler Atherton—and in truth she hadn’t had many dealings with the latter. After he had saved her life, Carissa had seen very little of the man, and it was just as well. Something about Tyler’s gentle manner touched her heart in a way she would just as soon forget. She reasoned she only felt drawn to him because he’d saved her life. It seemed a sensible explanation.
It was best, Carissa determined, to remain on her guard where men were concerned. She’d thought she’d known Malcolm so well, despite the fact that he always told her his business was to remain his alone, and that she should refrain from asking too many questions.
Carissa could never quite understand his insistence until the truth came out and she learned that for Malcolm, the War Between the States had never ended. Brandon once told her that it hadn’t ended for a lot of people. Even now, nearly three years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, folks were still at war. At least their own personal war.
Fortunately, Carissa’s family were Union supporters. So, too, were many of the families in their social circle of Corpus Christi. There were plenty of Confederates, but also a good number of people who simply supported Texas rather than siding with either the North or the South. Carissa knew that Tyler Atherton had fought for the South, just as her husband had. But where Malcolm had been made hateful and bitter by the war, Tyler was sad and regretful. She much preferred the latter’s way of thinking. She couldn’t see how either side had truly won anything, given that families had been set against each other and hundreds of thousands of lives had been lost.
I’m only twenty-one, she thought, yet already my life feels as if it has concluded.
“You seem awfully quiet,” Laura said, entering the room. “I suppose you’re thinking deep thoughts.”
Carissa startled at the comment. “I was, actually.” She smiled. “Did Daniel finally settle down?”
Laura smiled. “Yes. He was very tired and despite the storm, he nodded right off. I hope this next baby is a little . . . calmer,” she said, putting her hand to her growing abdomen. “But no matter. August can’t get here soon enough, and I’m so glad that you’re here to help. Already I feel as though I’ve been carrying this one forever.”
“The baby will be here before you know it.” Carissa forced a smile and went to the sewing basket. “Besides, I thought the doctor told you that you might well expect to deliver in July.”
“I know. But July or August, I wish it were sooner.”
Carissa nodded, knowing just how confining a pregnancy could be. “I’ll work just a little while on this mending, and then after the storm passes I’ll start the ironing. I think I’ll iron on the porch. Maybe the air will be cooler after the rain.”
“I’ve been thinking we’re going to need to make some new curtains for the upstairs bedrooms once Brandon finishes painting them. Goodness, but there is so much work to do on this place. I had thought it to be in perfect condition until we actually moved in. It seems my list of things to do only grows.”
“Still, it’s very nice.” Carissa picked up one of Brandon’s shirts and began to fix a loose button. “And I am grateful that you are allowing me to stay all through the spring and summer. I had no desire to travel with Mother and listen to her rant about all the injustices of the world and instruct me in mothering Gloria. My patience has been wearing thin.”
“I’m sorry she’s so hard on you.”
Carissa paused in her work. “I suppose I deserve it. I’ve been hard on her . . . so I’m trying to use our time together to mend some of the tears in our past.”
Laura met her gaze and nodded. “I’m glad you’re here all the same. I missed you so much, Carissa. Leaving Corpus Christi wasn’t easy for Brandon or me. I truly loved teaching, though when the Freemen’s Bureau took over education issues for the former slaves, our little school became obsolete. I suppose it was for the best, since I was expecting Daniel, but nevertheless, I do miss teaching.”
Laura walked to the window. “Looks like the storm has passed. It’s raining very lightly now.” She dropped the curtain back in place. “I’ll get the irons heating and then start supper.” Laura took a few steps, then turned back. “I’m hopeful that once the horse farm begins to support itself, we’ll be able to at least hire a good cook.”
When Carissa said nothing more, Laura left the room. It wasn’t Carissa’s intention to slight her sister, but she had no desire for conversation and pleasantries. For the last two years Carissa had been longing to find peace of heart, but that peace seemed to elude her. At night when she slept . . . if she slept . . . she continued to have nightmares about all that had happened in her brief marriage to Malcolm. She silently wondered if the bad memories would ever leave her.
Mother had always told her daughters that dwelling on lovely things would cause bad thoughts to disappear. Carissa never found it to be completely true, but always tried to embrace the practice. Yet even now as the storm faded and Gloria slept, Carissa struggled to think of the good things in life.
I’m safe, and I have a beautiful daughter. Father and Mother have blessed me with a monthly income, and I needn’t worry about finding a new husband, unless Mother gets a bee in her bonnet—which she has been known to do. Carissa sighed and tried again to think positive thoughts. I have a home here for the time, and it’s a beautiful place. And I have the love of Laura and Brandon, as well as Mother and Father. Why wasn’t it enough?
She thought momentarily of Tyler Atherton. He was a compassionate man; even in their early acquaintance, when Carissa had been self-centered and immature, Tyler had been patient and kind. She couldn’t help but wonder how he was doing. Brandon mentioned that he lived not so far away on the Barnett ranch. Tyler’s own family property had been confiscated for his having served with the Confederate troops. She thought it unfair, as did William Barnett, Tyler’s good friend. Barnett had immediately gone to plead on Tyler’s behalf, but so far it hadn’t rectified the situation. For now, Tyler worked and lived with him.
A knock sounded at the front door, and Carissa jumped to her feet. They weren’t expecting anyone, so when to her surprise she opened the door to find Tyler Atherton, it was almost as if she’d conjured him up and set him at her door.
“Mr. Atherton.” For a moment she couldn’t think of what else to say. Finally she stepped back. “Won’t you come in?”
“Thank you,” he said, pulling his hat off. Water sprinkled Carissa’s face and gown. “Oh . . . I’m . . . I’m so sorry.” He slapped the hat against his thigh to release more water. “The rain has stopped, but I’m afraid I rode through the worst of it.” He pulled off his rain slicker and threw it over the porch rail. “At least most of me stayed pretty dry.”
“If you came to see my brother-in-law, you’re too late. He isn’t here. He rode out to someone’s ranch to look at stock. He should be home for supper.” Carissa smiled and tried to sound nonchalant. “And if you came for supper . . . well, you’re early.”
He laughed. “I did come to see Brandon, but that can wait. Perhaps you’d grant me the pleasure of your company and tell me how you’ve been. It’s been a very long time since we last met. I ran into Brandon at the mercantile the other day, and he mentioned that you’d be staying the summer.”
“Yes, that is the plan. Mother and Father traveled to Chicago, then plan to go abroad until September. I chose to come here to be with Laura and Brandon. I believe I can make myself useful to them.”
“I’m quite certain you will be very helpful.” He glanced over her shoulder. “And what of your . . . daughter?”
“She’s sleeping. Perhaps if you’re here when she awakens, I can introduce the two of you.”
“I’d like that.” Tyler smiled in that warm, casual way he possessed. Carissa had always liked his smile and couldn’t help but return it.
“Why don’t I have Laura come speak with you about Brandon.” She stepped back from the entryway. “You can wait for her in the front room.” Carissa motioned for him to follow.
“Why don’t I just sit here with you and visit while you sew?” he questioned, nodding to the shirt she still held in her hand. “I don’t need to bother Laura.”
Carissa looked at the shirt and then back to Tyler. “I suppose . . . for just . . . just a while,” she replied. “I plan to iron clothes as soon as the irons are hot. Now that the rain has stopped, I thought I’d do so on the porch, where the breeze after the storm might keep things cooler.”
“That’s fine.” He stepped past her into the room. “Where are you sitting?”
She hesitated. Visiting with Tyler Atherton wasn’t exactly what she’d expected, but she crossed the room and took her seat in a small but comfortable chair. Tyler wasn’t far behind. He grabbed a larger wing-backed chair and pulled it close.
“So . . . how are you?” she asked, trying hard to focus on her stitches rather than on Tyler’s tanned face.
“Well enough. I don’t know if you heard or not, but I’m stayin’ with Will Barnett and his family.” He paused, seeming to carefully weigh his words. “The government took away my ranch.”
“I had heard something to that effect. I think it’s wrong of them,” she added quickly. For some reason it felt important that he know her thoughts on the matter.
“I have some cattle that I’ve been running for a few years with Will’s, so at least they are still mine. William’s also fighting to get my ranch returned, but it isn’t looking great.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” And she was, even though it had nothing to do with her. “Can you sell some of the cows and buy new land?”
“The government isn’t all that inclined to help an ex-Reb. That’s why I’m dependent on William for help. If all else fails, he thinks he’ll buy the ranch, then sell it back to me.”
“That’s quite generous . . . and kind.” She looked up again and had a harder time looking away. “He must be a very dear friend.”
“He is. We’ve been working together since the war ended, and our cattle herds have grown considerably. This last year we moved them north on open range to avoid tick fever. Now our plans are coming together to drive them to sell in Kansas.”
“Why can’t you sell your cows here, Mr. Atherton?”
“Whoa, right there. You call me Tyler, and I’ll call you Carissa. We’ve gone through too much to start puttin’ on airs now.”
She nodded. “I suppose you’re right.”
“And second, cows are females and I have both males and females. My plan is to drive the fattened males—the steers—to market in Kansas because the prices are ten times what I can get here in Texas. William wants to do likewise, and we have another friend, Ted Terry, who also wants in on it. That’s why I came to talk to Brandon today. We’re going to need a good wrangler. Having someone to handle the horses is critical.”
“Well, Brandon would definitely be able to do that job. He has a way with horses that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before . . . unless, of course, it was my sister’s abilities. I’ve never seen anyone quite like Laura dealing with a horse.”
“And what of you? Do you also have a way with horses?”
Carissa shook her head. “I haven’t ridden in years.”
“We should rectify that,” Tyler said, grinning. “I’d be happy to take you out. This is some mighty fine land for riding.”
“I doubt you would be quite so happy after spending a day picking me up off the ground and listening to me complaining about all my aches and pains.” She shrugged. “But one can never tell.”
“Why, Tyler Atherton, I didn’t know you were here,” Laura said, entering the room.
“I only just arrived.” He got to his feet. “I came to see your husband, but I understand he’s out.”
“Yes, but he’s due back anytime. Won’t you stay and join us for supper? I’m not the best cook in the world, but I am learning. In fact, Carissa has taught me quite a few tricks.”
Embarrassed by her sister’s praise, Carissa put aside the sewing. “I’m going to gather the clothes for ironing.” She left before either could protest. She hated to admit it, but Tyler’s presence flooded her mind with painful longing. She had loved the attention of boys when she’d been younger. When Malcolm had paid her court, she felt like the belle of Corpus Christi. Men used to fall at her feet if she so much as gave them a second glance, and now she wanted nothing to do with them. But at the same time . . . she was lonely for a man’s attention.
“What in the world is wrong with me?” she asked as she made her way to the back porch. “Haven’t you been through enough, Carissa?”
She began sorting through a tableful of dried but wrinkled clothes. I must be a glutton for punishment, she thought. To feel things I swore I’d never allow myself to feel again. What a troublesome woman I’ve become.
“Would you like some help?”
She looked up, feeling almost frantic at the sound of Tyler’s voice. “That isn’t necessary.”
“I know, but I’d like to help you if I can.”
Carissa wadded a calico gown into a roll and stuffed it in the basket. “I’m perfectly capable. I might not be able to ride horses, but I can keep a house. You might as well rest and wait for Brandon. I’m sure Laura will fix you some refreshments.”
“She’s already offered,” Tyler said, reaching out to take hold of one of Brandon’s shirts. “I told her I can wait until supper and that I’d just as soon come out here and talk with you. She seemed relieved.”
Like I would be if you’d leave.
“So I was thinking we might go riding on Saturday. Would that be acceptable to you?”
Carissa mashed another gown into the basket and frowned. “I . . . well . . . it is hard for me to make plans. With Gloria, I’m never certain what I’ll be able to do.”
“So you named her Gloria? That’s an unusual name.” He placed the carefully folded shirt in the basket atop the wrinkled gowns.
“I suppose it is,” Carissa replied. “I wanted something that sounded pretty, and happy. You probably think me silly, and I couldn’t blame you if you did, but it’s from the Bible when the angels were praising God. Carlita, our maid, was singing a song one day, and I kept hearing her say, ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo.’ I asked her what it meant, and she said, ‘Glory to God in the highest.’ Only in the Latin, they say Gloria. I thought it made a sweet-sounding name.”
Tyler nodded. “I think so, too.”
Carissa didn’t know what to say after that, so instead went to pick up the laundry basket. But Tyler wouldn’t allow her to carry it.
“I plan to talk with you while you iron, so I might as well carry this for you.”
She bit her lip, wondering how she could tell him that she didn’t want to talk to him. All that they shared between them was in the past, where she wanted it to remain.
“The world feels new after a rain, doesn’t it?” he asked, looking at her intently. Then, as if he knew her thoughts, he continued. “Makes me want to leave the past firmly behind me, and concentrate only on what’s ahead. To a brighter future.”
Carissa gave a brief nod, then tried to ignore the way his glance seemed to steal a look all the way into her soul.
“No inconvenience at all.” Brandon smiled and handed Tyler a platter with fried chicken. “Always room for one more.”
He helped himself to the crispy chicken and held the platter while Carissa took a portion, as well. “I hope you’ll still feel that way after I explain why I’ve come.”
Carissa took the platter and passed it to Laura. “I think he will. My brother-in-law always seems to enjoy a challenge.”
Laura looked at Carissa with a strange expression. “A challenge?”
Tyler intervened. “Yes, I have to say this will be a challenge. William Barnett and I are putting together a cattle drive with another rancher. We’d like to ask you to come along as our wrangler and handle all the horses. We’ll probably have at least fifteen men for the drive, and with the cook wagon and reserve mounts, there will probably be some seventy to eighty horses.”
“A cattle drive to where?” Brandon asked.
“Kansas.” Tyler took a bowl of grits and helped himself to a healthy portion. He followed that up with thick chicken gravy and waited for Brandon to digest the news.
“How long would a drive like that take?” Laura asked before Brandon could speak. “We are due to have another baby in August, in case you were unaware.”
Tyler smiled. “The drive . . . if we can get everything in order, will start the first or so of April and we should be back by July at the latest, maybe even sooner. We’ve heard good reports from the forts along the way, and rivers are crossable for the most part. Those that are still running high will be down considerably by the time we reach them. The boys have already rounded up most of the herd for branding and such, so we’re well on our way to bein’ ready.”
“What about Indians? I presume we’ll have to travel through Indian Territory,” Brandon said, still not looking at his wife.
Tyler frowned. “Well, that’s the worst of it as far as I’m concerned. Comanche killed my father and some of his men. I’m none too inclined to want anything to do with them; however, there are new rail pens in a town called Abilene in Kansas. That’s pert near straight north of here, not quite five hundred miles. So in order to take the shortest route, we’ll have to deal with the Indians.”
“Five hundred miles in the saddle, eh?” Brandon asked, shaking his head. “Not sure I’m ready for that kind of riding.”
“We take it slow. The cattle graze along the way. We don’t want to run the meat off of them.”
Carissa looked at Tyler. “How many miles would you travel each day?”
“Anywhere from ten to twelve. We don’t push for more than that usually,” Tyler said, meeting her worried expression. “It’s already becomin’ a well-established trail and shouldn’t be all that rough. The hardest part will be finding good grazing if there’s already been a lot of other drives through the area.”
“So we’re looking at about fifty days, more or less,” Brandon said.
“That’s a good average,” Tyler admitted. “Then there’s the ride home. It goes quicker, but it’s still five hundred miles.” He grinned. “So we figure about ninety days.”
“And what benefits would there be for my brother-in-law?” Carissa asked.
Tyler laughed. “She would make a good businesswoman. The drovers are gettin’ about thirty-five dollars a month and can bring some of their own cattle if they have them. Your cut would be considerably more because a wrangler gets better pay. Of course, you’d have to be able to shoe and doctor up any animal that needed attention. The trails are hard on the mounts.”
“I’m sure they are. However, I am capable of doing both,” Brandon assured.
“We’d take care of feeding you and providing the equipment needed,” Tyler added. “The pay is one hundred dollars a month due to you after the beeves are sold in Abilene. And that includes payin’ you for the return trip. Will said, too, that if we get a really high price for the beeves there will be bonuses for everyone.”
Brandon’s eyes widened. “That’s a lot of money. Far more than I would have expected.”
Tyler laughed. “You’ll earn it. You’ll also need a couple of other men to help you with the horses. William’s got some good men who can help, but you’ll no doubt want to meet them and get to know them. That’s why I’m here. William was hoping that if you’re of a mind to join us, you might come on over next Saturday for a bit of a meeting. Bring the family. Hannah—that’s Will’s wife—plans to prepare a feast for everyone.”
“Sounds like a good excuse to get together,” Brandon said, glancing to Laura. “What do you think?”
“I don’t like the idea of you going away and traveling off through Indian land, but I realize we could use the money, with another baby on the way.” She looked at their son and smiled as he stuffed a piece of buttered corn bread in his mouth. He managed to mash more of the bread between his fingers than he actually got in his mouth.
Tyler couldn’t help but grin at the boy. He seemed so happy with his accomplishment. But it was Gloria Lowe who truly held his attention. He turned toward the little blond-haired girl. She sat very manageably on her mother’s lap while Daniel was in a feeding chair between his mother and father.
“I don’t think it would hurt to at least hear what William has to say,” Brandon finally replied.
Tyler nodded. “He’ll be glad to hear it. Ted Terry, too. They want to get under way as soon as possible. You’ll get a chance to meet Ted and his wife, Marietta, on Saturday. They own a large ranch to the west and north of Will’s. And here’s something else to interest you even more: You could buy additional horses for your farm in Abilene.”
“I was just thinking on that, but maybe not in the way you were,” Brandon admitted. “I was thinking that I could have my father ship some of his stock to Abilene. I could pick them up at the rail station and bring them back with us to Texas.”
“See there, already thinkin’ like a true Texan. Never make a trip for one purpose if you can do it for three or four.”
“You said there are forts along the way?” Laura questioned.
Tyler could hear the worry in her voice. “Yes, ma’am. The army is keeping a good eye on the Indian nations. The renegades are still likely to raid, but the army is working to keep them contained.”
“We’d heard that the Kiowa attacked earlier this year. We were told it happened just before we arrived in the area,” Laura replied.
“It did, and it wasn’t all that far north of here.” He couldn’t hide the anger in his voice. “It was much like when they killed my pa. Renegades attacked, robbed the place, burned everything, and killed those in their way. Only three men managed to survive the attack on our ranch. In the case of what happened in January, I’m told some of the women and children were taken hostage. No doubt to be traded.”
Laura shuddered. “To whom would they trade . . . people?”
“Other tribes. Mexican bandits.” Tyler shook his head. “Seems there are always those who are looking to take a slave no matter the color of their skin.”
“How awful,” Carissa said. “Do they always take hostages?”
“No, not usually. It’s more likely they kill everyone. That’s how it was at our place . . . at least that’s what they tried to do.” Tyler picked up his chicken and began to eat.
“But I thought you said your mother and sister were alive. At least I thought I remembered you telling me that once. Were they not on the ranch when the Indians attacked?” Carissa asked.
“They are alive. Thankfully they were in Dallas with me and my grandfather when the Comanche attacked the house. I thought eventually we’d all return to the ranch, but Mother decided to go east to live with her cousin after my grandfather passed on. She said Texas made her far too sad. My sister, Lenore, married and now lives in Georgia. I was sorry to see them go, but now I’m just as glad they did. Since the government took my land, I’m hardly in a position to support them, but I do try to send my mother a little money. Hopefully after this cattle drive, I can send her more than just a little.”
“Seems a complete injustice that they should rob you of your home,” Carissa said, shaking her head.
“They figure me for a traitor,” Tyler replied. “Truth is, I never planned to go to war in the first place.”
“Then how was it you ended up in the Confederate cavalry?” Brandon asked.
Tyler shrugged. “It’s a long story. Even my pa wanted to stay out of the war. He was of a mind like Sam Houston—that Texas had no business goin’ to war. After Pa died, my grandfather and I fully planned to rebuild the ranch.” He fell silent. “The war put an end to that. First because it took me away from the ranch. Then because my participation took the ranch away from me.”
“But what about the Homestead Act?” Laura asked. “Couldn’t you get another place that way?”
Brandon shook his head and answered before Tyler could. “No, he fought against the United States. They won’t allow him to have land. At least not here. I don’t know for sure how they’re doing it elsewhere. You have to sign a paper stating that you never bore arms against the United States.”
“As I told Mr. Atherton . . . Tyler,” Carissa began, “I think it very unfair that he should be treated that way. I wish there was something we could do to help him.”
“Well, we will just have to put our heads together and see what can be accomplished,” Brandon replied. “I have good friends who served with the Union and some are in fairly high places now. Perhaps they might help.”
“William is doing his best to help me,” Tyler said, trying hard not to let the bitterness well up. First Indians had taken what he loved, and now the very government he was supposed to swear allegiance to had stolen his land.
“If Texas were to revert to being a republic again, you might easily be able to get your land back,” Laura suggested. “As I understand it, there are many who want exactly that. They feel slighted that Texas has not yet officially been allowed back in the Union.”
“We aren’t like other states,” Tyler admitted. “Never will be. This state is made up of folks who know what it is to have to fight for their very existence. Texas isn’t for the faint of heart. Even so, I doubt we’ll ever see a return to our republic days. I doubt Texas will ever be like it used to be.”
The next morning Tyler awoke in William’s house to the smell of side meat and coffee. He smiled and quickly dressed. Hannah was in the kitchen with Juanita, her housekeeper and cook, when Tyler strolled in. He made an exaggerated effort to draw in a long deep breath.
“Sure smells good in here.”
“Morning, Tyler,” Hannah said, motioning to the stove. “Coffee’s ready.”
He grabbed a mug. “I think this may well be my favorite time of day. I’d all but forgotten what it was like to have a woman in the house. Camping on the battlefield doesn’t exactly allow for the comforts of home.”
“No, I’m sure it doesn’t.” Hannah turned with a platter of scrambled eggs and grits. “If you take a seat, I’ll bring you some breakfast.”
Tyler quickly complied. He was happily focused on putting away a second helping when Will joined him. “Wondered if you were gonna sleep away the day.”
William rubbed his right leg, as he often did since taking a war bullet. Mornings seemed worse for him, and stiffness caused his limp to be more pronounced. “I wasn’t sure you’d be up this early. By the time I went to bed last night, you still weren’t home.”
There was a hint of disapproval in William’s voice and that only caused Tyler to laugh. “I wasn’t out whoopin’ it up, if that’s what you’re worried about. I had dinner at the Reid farm. I think Brandon is going to do the job for us.”
“He’ll come on the drive?”
Tyler nodded. “So long as you can have him back by August. He’s got another baby due then.”
Hannah joined them, bringing a plate of corn bread and one of side meat. Juanita followed behind with the coffeepot. She quickly refilled Tyler’s cup and then turned to William’s.
“So I’m not the only one expecting,” Hannah said with a smile.
This was news to Tyler. “You’re gonna have another baby, Hannah?”
She blushed and nodded. “Yes. As best I can figure the baby will come in October, possibly as early as September.”
“Well, congratulations. That’s mighty fine news.” Tyler reached over and gave William a slap on the back. “Mighty fine.”
“We’re pleased,” Hannah admitted. “And now we know there will be new young ones. I like having more and more children in the area. That’s how you settle a community. Families are the best way to civilize the land.”
The clock chimed six, and Tyler finished the last of his grits. “Guess I’d best get out there and make sure the boys are gettin’ those last few details ready for the drive.”
“I’ll be out shortly,” William replied. He rubbed his thigh again. “Need to get my leg limbered up.”
Tyler took up a piece of warm corn bread and cut it open. Without being prompted, Hannah forked a piece of side meat and held it out to Tyler. He grinned and grabbed the greasy piece with his fingers.
“You know me pretty well, don’t you?” He stuffed the meat between the pieces of corn bread. “Sometimes I’m mighty sorry Will got your attention first.”
Hannah laughed. “William would probably tell you that life with me is not all that you might imagine.” She cast a quick glance at her husband. William’s expression was one that suggested he knew better than to speak on the matter.
Tyler decided it would probably be best to head on out before further comments could be made. “I’ll see you at the pens.”
He headed out the back door and crossed the yard to the horse barn. Cutting through the structure, Tyler continued through the maze of outbuildings to the first of three large pens. The boys were standing around talking to one of the greenhorns.
“So you fellas don’t have enough work to do, is that it?” Tyler asked.
“No, boss. We were just telling Newt here about steer sliding,” one of the men replied. His expression was quite serious.
Tyler eyed the man who’d formerly been under his command in the Confederate army. “Now, John, you know it’s not fair to expect a new man to know everything. Especially not one that hailed from the city.”
Newt Clapton was seventeen at the most. His small, wiry frame made him look even younger, and there was something about his naïve nature that the men couldn’t resist playing pranks on.
“So it’s true?” Newt asked, his eyes widening. “You really have to learn to slide under a steer? I ain’t never heard of it.”
For a moment Tyler thought of exposing the hoax and then thought better of it. The boys were just having fun. “To work this ranch you have to learn a great deal you’ve probably never heard of.”
“Boss is right,” Grubbs continued. “You never know when you’ll find yourself in the middle of a bad situation. I’ve seen many a man trampled by steers for lack of knowin’ how to escape ’em.”
“And that’s why you learn steer slidin’?” Newt asked, looking uncertain.
“That’s right,” one of the other hands said with a serious nod.
Andy Dandridge, Hannah’s brother, came to stand beside Tyler. “I had to learn it,” he told the greenhorn. A shock of white-blond hair blew over his left eye, prompting Andy to push it off his face in annoyance.
“Andy’s learned just about everything a fella can learn on a ranch. You should probably pay close attention to him. He’s gonna be on the drive north with us.”
The seventeen-year-old didn’t seem too pleased to yield to a mere boy. Tyler, however, knew that Andy Dandridge had skills that nearly equaled any man on the place. William had taken Andy under his wing after marrying Hannah, and the two were inseparable. William was even allowing Andy to put his studies aside and join them on the drive. Andy was to be one of the paid drovers, and Tyler thought this was just fine. Hannah, however, was harder to convince.
Newt looked back at the men. “Well, I guess if I need to learn this steer sliding, I’d best get busy. What do I gotta do?”
Grubbs crossed his arms. “First ya gotta get used to slidin’. Sometimes it’s hard to master. We have a fella practice slidin’ in the dirt first. No sense having any obstacles in the way until you get that down. Andy, why don’t you demonstrate how a fella should slide.”
Tyler smiled as Andy quickly jumped the fence and jogged across the now empty pen. “You want to lead with whatever leg you favor,” Andy called. Then without further ado, the boy took off running. About twelve feet from the fence, Andy stuck out his right leg and hit the dirt. Just as he reached the fence, Andy grabbed the bottom rail and used it to pull himself under. He skidded across the remaining distance and came to rest at the feet of the greenhorn.
“It’s just that easy,” Grubbs said, nodding in approval. “But like I said, I would just try slidin’ for now. You can practice that anywhere. When you get the hang of it—you can try it with the fence.”
Andy got to his feet and dusted off his backside. “It ain’t hard once you get a feel for it.”
Tyler and the other men nodded. Newt frowned. “It doesn’t look all that easy. I thought for sure you were gonna hit your head on that fence.”
“I have before,” Andy admitted, “but that’s why you gotta practice. When you ain’t workin’, you need to be practicin’.”
“The boy’s got that right,” Grubbs said as the other men nodded. Tyler turned away lest his smile cause the greenhorn to question the validity of their statements. He’d seen this trick played on more than one new man. It was just the boys’ way of having some good-natured fun, and God knew that by the time they reached Abilene, they’d all be in need of diversion.
“Are you hungry?” Carissa asked, kneeling down beside her daughter.
“I want cookies,” Gloria said, immediately putting the spools aside.
“How about some soup and bread first, and then cookies?”
Gloria frowned and looked at Carissa in a most serious manner. “I like cookies.”
Carissa smiled and pushed back the child’s blond ringlets. “I do, too, but the soup is hot and ready for us to eat. Let’s just have a little and then we can have cookies. Come on.” She got to her feet and lifted Gloria in her arms.
Brandon and Laura had taken Daniel to town for his first real pair of shoes, so Carissa and Gloria enjoyed a bowl of vegetable soup from the big pot of it Carissa had put together that morning. Laura had promised to return as soon as possible, so Carissa had busied herself with baking and cooking most of the morning.
“Cookies now, Mama?”
She looked at her daughter and nodded. “Yes. We can have cookies now. Why don’t we take them outside? It’s so nice, and you can play before nap time.”
“Don’t want a nap, Mama. I’m not tired.” The blue-eyed angel looked up at Carissa as if expecting a reprieve.
“Well, you may not be tired, but I am. I want you to take a nap for me. But first, we play. Go find your ball.”
Gloria scampered off, and Carissa went to the cookie jar. Choosing four sugar cookies, Carissa wrapped them in a towel and tucked them in her pocket just as Gloria returned clutching a gray-black ball as if it might get away from her.
Carissa led Gloria outside and down the porch steps. “Let’s play over here,” she suggested, leading Gloria farther away from the house in case the ball managed to get out of control. The last thing Carissa wanted to do was clean up a broken window.
They rolled the ball back and forth at first; then Gloria decided it was time to start throwing. She was awkward at best, and Carissa couldn’t help but laugh. She chased down the ball and gave a weak toss to her daughter. Gloria tried to catch it, but got scared and backed away. The heavy rubber ball fell with a bit of a thud and landed near the child’s feet.
“Please, I want cookies now,” she said, looking first at the ball and then back to her mother.
“I do, too.” Carissa pulled a cookie for each of them from the towel in her pocket. “Here you go.”
Gloria clapped her hands and then took the cookie. “What do you say?” Gloria asked.
Carissa had to laugh. She’d been trying her best to teach Gloria the necessities of saying please and thank you, but the child always managed to turn it around when it came time to offer thanks.
“Thank you,” she said, nevertheless. “When someone gives you something . . . you say thank you.”
Gloria nodded and started to run back to where she’d left the ball. Carissa called out, “Gloria, what do you say?”
It sounded as though a sigh passed from the child’s lips. “Thank you.” Her statement suggested that she was well aware of protocol, but had lost interest in the game.
Carissa walked around the yard, keeping Gloria in sight. It truly was a lovely farm. Someone had mentioned that it belonged to a Confederate-supporting family prior to the war. She felt sad at the thought that her family had somehow displaced another; after all, that’s exactly what had happened to Tyler. She supposed it might be different if this family had left of their own free will. But if not, how grievous it would be to put a lifetime of hard work and dreams into a place, only to have it taken from you.
The sound of Gloria’s laughter caught her attention. The little girl was crouched on the ground, looking at something. Carissa couldn’t see that there was anything for her daughter to be amused with, and after a moment, Gloria was off and running again.
Carissa turned at the sound of an approaching horse. She put a hand to her forehead to block out the sun in an attempt to see who was coming. To her surprise it was Tyler. He gave a wave and Carissa found herself waving back without thinking.
“I was hoping you might want to go riding with me today,” he said, bringing his mount to stop about ten feet away. He walked the horse the rest of the way to the hitching post and tied him off.
“I can’t. Laura and Brandon are in town, and I wouldn’t have anyone to watch Gloria.” The little girl came running to join them.
“I could hold her. She could ride in front of me.”
“Tyer,” Gloria called. She was unable to manage the L in his name. “Tyer, I got cookies.”
“Yum,” he said with a grin. “Wish I had cookies.”
“Mama give Tyer cookies,” Gloria demanded.
“Gloria, his name is Mr. Atherton.” Carissa saw the hopeful look on Tyler’s face and forgot her rebuke. She reached into her pocket. “I just so happen to have two right here. If you need more, we will have to return to the house.” She handed the cookies to Tyler and replaced the towel in her pocket.
“Sugar cookies are one of my favorites. Did you make these?”
Nodding, Carissa felt rather self-conscious. “Esther taught me a long time back. You remember her, don’t you?”
“I do. She was one of your family’s slaves.”
“Not a slave. Esther was paid to help. After I married, she taught me to cook.”
“And iron,” he added.
Carissa remembered him watching her iron and nodded. “Yes.”
“Apparently you take instruction well. Hopefully you’ll be just as good at ridin’.” He gave her a wink and glanced to where Gloria was playing. “Well, since you don’t seem to be of a mind to go ridin’ just yet, what say we just sit and talk?”
Carissa glanced at the porch. “We can sit up there. I have some crocheting to work on.”
Tyler followed her, as did Gloria. “I want to play, Mama.”
“Then go and play. We aren’t going in just yet.”
Gloria clapped her hands and hurried away as if fearful that her mother might change her mind. Carissa settled into a chair on the porch and picked up the bag she’d left there earlier.
“So what are you making?” Tyler asked. He leaned back on the porch rail.
“A tablecloth,” she answered, holding up a square. “Of course it will have a great many of these pieces worked together eventually.”
“Pretty,” he said before biting into the cookie.
“I hope it will be. It’s a gift for Laura. Her birthday’s in August, and I wanted to give her something special, with her expecting the baby about the same time.”
“When’s your birthday?” he asked with a grin.
Carissa didn’t think much of it. “November thirtieth.”
“Good, then I’ll have some time to figure out a present for you.”
She looked up in surprise. “You can’t get me a gift, Mr. Atherton.”
“You promised to call me Tyler.” He looked at her and shrugged. “And I can get a present for anyone I choose.”
“But . . . well, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to accept a gift from you.” She lowered her face so that he couldn’t see her embarrassment.
“I think it’s perfectly appropriate to share gifts with anyone you like,” Tyler countered. “Especially a friend. And we are friends, aren’t we?”
Carissa tried to focus on her stitch. “You saved my life, so of course we are friends.”
“A fella has to save your life to be your friend?” he asked in a teasing tone.
Realizing she hadn’t seen Gloria for several minutes, Carissa glanced up. The child was playing happily not far from the house. She tried to concentrate on her work, but all she could think of was the day Malcolm had tried to kill her. Her hands froze as the images flooded her mind.
She could very nearly feel the rocking of the small boat where Malcolm had her bound. He’d already committed murder earlier in the year and apparently had no conscience where such a thing was concerned.
She closed her eyes at the sound of Tyler’s voice. It reminded her of when he’d revived her. She had nearly drowned when Malcolm had thrown her overboard. He had figured it would delay or distract the navy officials long enough for him to make his getaway. Instead, gunfire had erupted, and Malcolm had been killed.
“Carissa, are you all right?”
She lifted her head, but her eyes were still closed. “Sometimes,” she whispered, “I can’t help remembering.”
“I know. Me too.” Tyler’s voice was gentle.
Her eyes opened at this. “You? Why would you think about that day . . . about Malcolm throwing me in the water?”
“Because I was afraid you would die. I was afraid Laura would die.”
“You were sweet on my sister, as I recall.” She hoped the change of subject would push the memories from her mind.
Tyler chuckled. “I was sweet on most young women back then, except for you. You were already taken.”
Carissa remembered her silly girlish notions and behavior with regret. “I was quite self-centered then. You must have thought me completely annoying. It’s a wonder you bothered to rescue me.”
Tyler sobered. “Everyone deserves a second chance, don’t you think?”
For a moment she considered his words. She did like to believe that second chances were available for those who needed one. She had tried to give Malcolm a second chance . . . and a third . . . and a fourth.
“It is God’s way,” she replied. “Although back then I wasn’t overly concerned with God’s way or anyone else’s but my own.”
“Back then, I suppose I wasn’t all that concerned with His ways myself.” He shrugged. “William and Hannah have helped me to draw closer to God. To learn what it means to forgive and forget—at least where some things are concerned. I’m still workin’ on others.”
“I wish I could forget.”
Tyler started to say something, then stopped abruptly and turned. Carissa couldn’t figure out what was going on. She looked at him oddly and started to speak, but he held up his hand.
Gloria had ambled over to the fence line and Carissa could see that she was once again trying to climb the posts. Without warning, however, Tyler bounded off the porch and pulled his pistol at the same time. “Rattler!” he cried, the single word sending a chill through Carissa.
The following gunshot was deafening, and poor Gloria immediately broke into tears. Carissa ran after Tyler and scooped up her child. The snake, indeed a large rattlesnake, lay coiled and dead not a yard away. Hugging Gloria close, Carissa calmed the child.
“It’s all right. Tyler killed the snake. It can’t hurt us now.”
“Tyer, that gun is loud.”
“It has to be,” Tyler replied. “That way it scares little children away from ever touching it without permission. Promise me you’ll never touch this gun.”
Gloria stopped her tears and nodded. “I pwomise.”
Carissa checked Gloria for any sign of a bite. “The snake didn’t hurt you, did he?”
The child shook her head. “I not hurt, Mama. Let me go.”
Reluctantly, Carissa lowered Gloria to the ground. She straightened as the little girl ran back to where she’d left her ball. A wave of dizziness altered the horizon, and Carissa felt herself falling. Tyler easily caught her and just before she fainted dead away, Carissa was certain she heard him call her name.
The sound of a carriage could be heard approaching as Tyler climbed the porch steps. “Tyer carry Mama!” Gloria announced as the Reid family pulled to a stop in front of the house.
Laura and Brandon both looked shocked as Tyler turned to reveal Carissa in his arms.
Brandon quickly jumped from the carriage. “We heard the gunshot. What’s wrong?”
“I’m afraid it was just a fright,” Tyler announced. “I had to kill a rattler before it could strike Gloria. Carissa made it through that and then fainted dead away.”
Brandon helped Laura from the carriage and took their son from her. Laura immediately rushed to Tyler’s side. “Bring her in the house. I’ll get the smelling salts. Brandon, please see to Gloria.”
“Unca Bwandon, Mama’s bein’ silly,” Gloria said, clapping her hands.
He smiled as he lifted her. “Sometimes ladies are very silly.”
Tyler placed Carissa on the front-room sofa and stepped back, reluctant to move very far from her side. Laura returned with a tiny bottle and pulled the stopper. She waved the salts under her sister’s nose until Carissa began to come around.
“Oh dear,” Carissa said, struggling to sit up. “I’ve done it again, haven’t I?”
Tyler smiled. “It wasn’t the first time I had to catch you before you hit the ground.”
She looked at him and nodded. “Thank you.” She closed her eyes and then, as if all reason had returned, she snapped them open again. “Where’s Gloria?”
“She’s with Brandon,” Laura assured. “I’m sure she’s showing him the snake.”
“Oh, it was so horrible. She was so close to being bit.” Carissa shook her head. “I’ll never let her play by the fence again.”
“Why not?” Tyler asked. “It’s not like snakes limit themselves to the fence line. You gonna keep her from playin’ outside altogether?”
“If it keeps her from harm, I will.” Carissa struggled to sit up. “That’s my duty and desire. I must keep her safe.”
“But no one is ever completely safe from harm,” Tyler replied gently. “That’s why we need God.”
“Well, God should have kept the rattlesnake from getting so close to Gloria,” she said, her tone clearly irritated.
“How about just praising Him because He provided someone to hear the snake and then kill it?” Tyler could see that she wanted no part of reason and logic, but he couldn’t help himself. “I figure it this way, Carissa. You pray for Gloria’s safety, and God made provision for her. Doesn’t much matter who He used to do the providing—does it?”
“No, but I just . . . well . . . I’m afraid.” She shook her head. “I couldn’t bear it if she were to get hurt because of my neglect.”
Tyler nodded. “I don’t think you have to worry about that, Carissa. You won’t ever neglect that little girl. But neither will you always be able to keep her from harm. You need to remember that. Otherwise you might drive yourself to madness tryin’ to be perfect. It ain’t gonna happen in this life, so you might as well face facts here and now. God’s got our days numbered. Yours . . . mine . . . Gloria’s. There’s nothing we can do to add on more or cause it to be less. It’s in God’s hands.”
She looked at him for a moment, and Tyler saw something in her expression soften. Had he been able to get through to her? Her next words left him with mixed thoughts on his success.
“It may be in God’s hands,” she replied, “but don’t forget: God gave us hands, as well. We have a responsibility to right wrongs.”
Her words penetrated something deep inside him, and Tyler found his mind going back to when he first learned of his father’s murder. He had vowed to hunt down and kill every last Comanche in an act of revenge. That hadn’t happened, but not for a lack of desire. Had it not been for William’s council, he would have stayed in the army to fight in the Indian Wars. He would have had a sense of satisfaction in killing those who had killed his father and friends—at least he told himself he would have. For so long he’d been able to put that anger aside and forget about revenge. Now Carissa’s innocent words only served to stir up that need for vengeance—a need that Tyler feared might not go unresolved.
“So much for forgiving and forgetting.”