Outskirts of Fort Bridger, Wyoming
Keeping his eye along the steep ridge above him, Sergeant Bryan Gifford clutched his Sharps carbine next to his hip. He hunkered among the thickets of scraggly sagebrush, which wouldn’t allow much protection from the renegade band of Sioux who bore down on his unit in a surprise attack. The sagebrush’s pungent smell tickled his nose, and its yellow flowers were bright against the brown earth, but he had no time for enjoyment of the surrounding kinnikinnick, the evening star, or the wintergreen that crept over the warm rocks. For just a moment, he thought of when he’d played soldiers with his two brothers, but this was no game. This was the real thing, and if he made it out alive, he’d run, not walk, to the nearest train headed to Cheyenne, into the waiting arms of his true love.
Bryan thought about the recent unrest among the different tribes. After the government passed the Dawes Act in February, they had taken away the land of the tribal communities. Maybe they have a right to be angry, Bryan thought. Their land was going to be divided up into parcels of 160 acres for families and eighty acres for individuals. But it was up to him to follow the orders of his superior, not disobey them, and right now he didn’t care who was right or wrong. He just wanted to win this attack and save his men . . . and his life.
Bullets whizzed past him from Private Charlie Foster shooting in the direction of the jagged rocks above him. Charlie signaled to Bryan from another group of rocks, indicating that he’d cover him. Crouching low, Bryan made a beeline for the safety of the rocks, his boots stirring up the dry dust.
When he was only a foot away from Charlie, he felt an arrow pierce his heart. He knew he was mortally wounded. For a moment he wavered sickeningly, feeling the sharp pain, then he lunged for the shelter of the outcropping of rocks.
“Sarge!” Charlie yelled, dragging Bryan next to him. Charlie cradled his upper body, and Bryan heard the ripping of his shirt as Charlie quickly yanked the fabric free, exposing the embedded arrow. His voice seemed distant now, but Bryan saw Charlie’s frantic eyes look around for help when his hand came in contact with blood. “I need to get this out.”
Bryan’s hand stayed Charlie when he reached for the arrow. He lay helplessly, knowing that his life’s blood pumped from him, soaking his chest. The yelling of victory from the Indians seemed distant, as did the silence of his men around him. He reached for Charlie’s hand, and the private paused, fear etched in his young face. Charlie was barely old enough to be in the Army, and this was the first scrimmage of any kind he had encountered. Up until now it had all been drills and make-believe.
“Charlie, listen to me,” Bryan said, his voice barely above a whisper. “You must leave right now or you won’t make it!” Bryan gasped for breath, his sight becoming fuzzy. “I’m not going to make it . . . but I’ll fire into the air until you can scamper out of sight . . . They’ll think you’re dead.” He winced, forcing down his pain, then stared at Charlie, seeing the fear reflected in his hazel eyes.
Charlie shook his head. “No, I can’t leave you like this.”
Bryan mustered all his strength to grab the private by the collar of his uniform and pull him closer. “You have . . . no choice. All the others are dead . . . You have to obey my orders while there’s still time!”
“Yes, sir.” Charlie’s eyes filled with tears, and he was shaking.
“One other thing . . . I need you to do.” He released Charlie’s collar. He was becoming light-headed now. He must try to concentrate. “Go to Cheyenne and find Greta Olsen. Tell . . . tell her . . . I love her and we’ll meet . . . in heaven.” He gasped, trying to clear his throat, and tasted blood on his tongue. He had to say this before he died. “And tell her for me . . . that there’s only one other man worth her love . . . my brother—”
Suddenly Bryan stopped and looked heavenward as the midmorning clouds scattered, revealing the brightest of skies and the most glorious of gardens . . .
Central City, Colorado
Greta Olsen perched primly on her seat, clutching her Bible as the train headed to Central City, Colorado. She stared out a smudged window at the moving landscape of canyons and mountain ridges, where snow capped the distant purple peaks. The ride was somewhat thrilling, as well as frightening. The Colorado Central chugged up its winding tracks around the Rocky Mountains and the sparkling Clear Creek. Greta held her breath at their incredible beauty, wincing as her ears popped with the change in altitude. The further up the mountains they traveled, the chillier and drier the air became. Greta pulled her woolen cape tighter about her shoulders, thankful that she hadn’t packed it in her case.
She contemplated the new venture she’d thrust herself into. The advertisement for a mail-order bride was tucked safely into her reticule. Greta had hated leaving the crowded farmhouse outside of Cheyenne where she’d lived since coming to America. After saying goodbye to her only family, she’d watched as the wheat fields, already ripe with promise, were soon gone from her sight. Her eyes had flooded with hot tears, and an ache planted inside her chest.
But that was yesterday, and today there would be no tears. In fact, she was excited about living this deep in the mountains, even after hearing the rumors of the cold and snow and the rugged life where miners were as thick as fleas on a dog’s back, as she was informed by Peter, her brother-in-law. But that hadn’t deterred her. Greta wanted adventure and had closed the door to her heart on love once and for all. She had no illusions when it came to love. It may have finally worked for her sister and Peter, but just look what had happened to Clara, Peter’s mother! Greta decided that when she wed, her marriage would be one of mutual love and respect.
Greta caught the gaze of a young lady with big brown eyes sitting across the aisle, so she smiled back at her with a nod, thinking maybe the lady might be a new friend here in the Rockies. The lady’s lips lifted slightly at the corners, then she turned to look out the train’s window, keeping her hands clasped together in her lap. Greta guessed her to be about the same age as herself and wondered where the young woman might be headed. She glanced down at the lady’s left hand, noticing it was devoid of a wedding band.
Through the entire trip, the young woman had not moved from her stiff sitting position, nor had she spoken to anyone. She simply handed the conductor her ticket when asked. Her hourglass figure was smartly dressed in a dark navy traveling suit with black velvet trimming, and the matching hat sported a long-plumed black feather at the band. Apparently she was well-bred—Greta noted her poise and secretly admired her fashionable attire. The few dresses Greta owned now were beginning to show wear. She looked down at the frayed cuffs of her traveling dress and crossed her arms at the wrists, hoping to hide them.
Knowing they had only a little time left on the train before reaching Central City, Greta turned her attention to her open Bible, her sister Catharine’s parting gift before Greta left Cheyenne. It had belonged to Catharine, and their mother before that. Greta remembered her sister’s words before she left: “Greta, you take Mother’s Bible—I want you to have it. Remember to let it guide all that you do. And remember us when you read—it can be the connection we have when we’re apart, until we meet again.”
A newspaper clipping fell into her lap, and Greta carefully opened the folded paper, now browning with age. She recognized it—Peter’s ad that Catharine had responded to when they were still in Holland and thoroughly adrift as to their future. Catharine must have forgotten she’d placed it there. She’d read it to Greta and Anna a dozen times, and now its creases were worn through with use. Greta remembered how God had been faithful to Catharine, Anna, and herself, providing Catharine a good husband and a fine home for all of them. It was a good life . . . for a while.
Lord, what’s in store for me now? No one but Bryan will ever hold my heart . . . but at least here, deep in the mountains, I won’t hear the constant howl of the prairie winds. It was enough to drive a person mad, to her way of thinking. She wondered how terrible it must have been for Bryan. Had he been in pain as he lay dying on the windswept prairie? She shuddered to think about him suffering at all, and prayed that his death had been swift like the ambush. Sorrow flooded her heart for what could’ve been.
She slipped her own mail-order-bride ad from the Bible and ran her gloved finger over the name at the bottom: Jess Gifford. That name was one of the reasons she’d answered the ad in the first place. Could it be that Jess was related to Bryan? Perhaps a distant cousin? She sighed. Probably just a coincidence . . . but there might be a slim chance. It shouldn’t be too hard to find out. Now she regretted that she and Bryan hadn’t talked more about his family. She smiled. The stolen moments together had been so short. Most of it had been spent kissing and planning their future, not talking about their pasts.
Greta folded the piece of paper, tucked it into the book of Psalms, and tried to read. When the conductor announced they were nearing their destination, she gathered her things together from her seat in readiness to disembark the train into this fresh, new world.
The engine puffed and ground to a screeching stop, allowing the handful of passengers to make their way toward the depot. The wiry conductor reached up and grabbed her carpetbag, set it down on the depot’s wooden platform, and took Greta’s hand to assist her down the metal steps. “The rest of your bags will be unloaded momentarily, miss.”
Feeling suddenly adrift, Greta stood numbly off to the side next to her carpetbag and scanned the platform, expecting Jess Gifford to step forward for her. Maybe he was delayed but would show up any moment. She adjusted her cape, then stepped over to a nearby bench to wait, ignoring the open stares of men about the rough-hewn depot. Mercy! The raw mining town was filled with miners, trappers, and merchants milling about. She observed the constant movement on the busy streets from where she sat.
Only moments later, she was joined by the lady who had sat across from her on the train. “May I sit here with you?” Her large brown eyes seemed kind, but she looked unsure while she waited for Greta’s response.
“Hallo. Alstublieft! Of course!” Greta noticed the finely etched cheekbones and smooth olive complexion, framed by dark brown hair that peeked from her fashionable hat, and thought again how very pretty the woman was. As the lady bent to place her bag next to her feet, the long feather from her hat tickled Greta’s cheek. Greta giggled.
“I’m sorry.” The lady smiled, then took a seat on the bench and extended her hand. “I’m Cora Johnson.”
“I’m Greta Olsen,” she said as she took Cora’s outstretched hand. “Are you waiting for someone?”
A flash of concern crossed Cora’s face. “As a matter of fact, I am. And you? Are you visiting someone or moving here?” Cora folded her hands in her lap. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.”
Greta smiled. “You’re not. I . . . I’ve answered an ad for a mail-order bride.” She swallowed nervously. “But I see no one has arrived to pick me up, so I thought I’d just sit here a few minutes to wait. Apparently Jess Gifford is delayed.” Greta tapped her foot as she looked out over the boardwalk, hoping he would appear soon. She was tired but anxious to meet the intriguing man she’d been corresponding with.
“Did you say Jess?” Cora raised an eyebrow with a bewildered look.
“Yes.” Greta turned sideways to face her. “Jess Gifford. Do you know him? Tell me what you know. I’m as nervous as a cat crossing a busy street—”
Cora huffed, then straightened her skirts without looking at Greta.
“Is something wrong, Miss Johnson?”
Cora’s face turned pink. Clearing her throat, she lifted her gaze and let out a deep breath, but before she could reply, a tall cowboy swaggered toward them, bowing slightly as he lifted his hat. His brown hair was matted around his head where his hat had been. He smiled broadly at them.
“I’m here to pick up Jess’s mail-order brides,” he said. He twirled his Stetson in his hand.
The ladies rose simultaneously. “I’m Greta Olsen, his mailorder bride. I thought Jess was to meet me. Who are you?” Greta asked, her hands on her hips. Had she heard him right? Did he say brides?
“Begging your pardon, I’m Mr. Gifford’s mail-order bride.” Cora whirled, glaring at Greta, her dark eyes snapping as her ladylike composure suddenly became a thing of the past.
“There must be some mistake. I thought you said brides, but there can be only one bride!” Greta ignored Cora’s glare and faced the good-looking cowboy. He’d better have a good explanation for this. She hadn’t traveled all the way here to be made a fool of.
“I’m Zach Gifford, Jess’s brother, and . . . er, you did hear me right. I did say brides.” He donned his hat, then reached for their bags, lifting one in each hand.
“There must be some terrible mistake!” Cora folded her hands across her chest. “A man can’t have two brides. Not to mention it’s illegal! This is ridiculous! And I’ll not stand for it!”
“Nor will I!” Greta reached for her bag, but Zach held on to it. “Where is this Mr. Gifford?”
Zach held Greta’s eyes for a moment. “If you ladies will give me a chance, I can explain everything, but we can’t stand here squabbling in the street, now can we? I’ll take you for an early supper and we’ll talk.”
When the two ladies looked at each other doubtfully, he leaned back on his boot heels and quickly added, “Besides, that was the last train today, so you have nowhere else to go.”
Zach’s brown eyes glinted with a dash of fire. Greta wanted to slap the silly grin right off his face but instead mustered up the courage to consider his plan. After all, it was late, and what other options did she have? She knew no one in this town. “You’re right about that, Mr. Gifford—”
“Please, everyone calls me Zach. Now let’s go rustle up a good supper over at Mabel’s. Then I’ll see that you both get settled for the evening.” He started walking away. With a glance over his shoulder, he nodded at them to follow.
Cora shrugged. “I suppose we have no choice until we find out what this fiasco is all about.”
“Goed. Okay. But I’m not one bit happy about it!” Greta followed the lanky cowboy, whose boots caused puffs of dust to rise in the street.
Cora, with a sour look on her pretty face, tossed her head so that the feather in her hat bobbed. “And you think I am?”
Fifteen minutes later, after Zach had collected the rest of their luggage and loaded it into his buckboard, they were seated in a cheerful diner down the street from the train depot. His stomach growled at the smell of food, and he realized how hungry he was. He’d been so busy at the store that he’d been late meeting the train. He ordered steak and gravy for everyone, then turned his attention to the anxious ladies. Each was pretty in her own sort of way. Greta was a tall blonde with a creamy complexion and large blue eyes. Cora, a little shorter than Greta, had dark hair and exotic, deep-set brown eyes with eyebrows that arched gracefully. Two ladies who could be the devil to reckon with if crossed. Which of course, he had just done. As they awaited his explanation, he wondered where to start.
He cleared his throat and decided to plunge right in. “I know that you’re both very angry with me at the moment, but I hope you’ll hear me out.” He set his hat on the chair next to him and looked directly across the table at the two mail-order brides. “I didn’t set out to dupe you, but I wanted you to care about my brother for my own selfish reasons. You see, my brother’s business took off like a steam engine when the miners descended on Central City on their way to the gold and silver deep in the mountains. I’ve been working right alongside him, but I have other things I’m interested in besides running a general store.”
“And what has that got to do with us, pray tell?” Greta clearly was getting impatient. “Does he need two wives to help him run his store?”
Zach grinned. She really didn’t mince her words, but he liked her straightforwardness. “No, but he could use more help. I’m afraid he’s a bit unorganized and doesn’t do well with keeping track of orders, or ordering things, for that matter. He complains but says he has no time for a wife because he’s too busy, and she would need more attention than he could afford to give.” He paused, watching their attentive faces. They seemed to be two totally opposite women, but that could be a good thing, couldn’t it? It might make it easier for Jess to choose. “So I actually wrote those letters. I took it upon myself to correspond with you two lovely ladies seeking husbands in hopes that one of you might fit the bill as a wife for my lonely brother.”
“You mean Jess doesn’t know?” Greta sputtered, almost knocking over her water glass.
“We’re not things you can just order up and amuse yourself with for your own purposes,” Cora snapped. “Your letters were quite convincing—which leads me to believe you must have a wife yourself.”
“Actually, I’m not married. I’ve courted a few nice ladies, but I’m not considering marriage right now. But this is not about me.” Zach would have to tread carefully or things might not go as he planned. “I know what’s good for my brother.”
Greta gave Zach a hard look. “Cora’s right. Now we both have arrived to marry a man who doesn’t even know we exist!
Cora looked over at Greta. “I say we leave on the first train back to Denver tomorrow.
Greta’s rosy lips pursed in an angry line. “You may be right, but I don’t want to go back to Wyoming and deal with the humiliation of it all. I can’t speak for you, Cora.”
Zach ran his hands through his hair in exasperation. “Then you may as well stay here. Accommodations are scarce at the moment, I’m afraid. I’ll put you up in a cabin for now, and you can decide how you feel tomorrow about my plan.”
“And what plan is that?” Greta shot him a disparaging look.
“I’ll introduce you to my brother as mail-order brides seeking husbands, who want to work in the general store. That’ll give you both ample time to get to know him, and he can decide between the two of you.”
Greta laughed. “Oh, I get it. He’s supposed to fall in love with one of us just like that!” She snapped her fingers.
“Well . . . yes . . . as a matter of fact, I think he could. Both of you are stunning. Any man would jump at the chance.” Zach leaned back in his chair.
“Just imagine that, Greta. We’ve been duped into falling for an imaginary love.” Cora shook her head and sighed. “And I thought I’d found a man I could love. I should’ve known better.”
The waiter appeared, placed three heaping platefuls of food before them, and refilled their water glasses. Greta looked across the table at Zach. “Well, I have no fantasy of love. I was looking for a change of scenery and maybe someone I could care about, but love . . . well, that’s a different story altogether.”
Cora’s eyebrows shot upward, but Zach didn’t question her about her hopes. Whatever they were, they were her private affair. Still, she might grow to love Jess. It could happen. Or . . . His gaze traveled to Cora. Maybe his brother would favor Cora’s dark beauty.
“What do you say, ladies? Are you willing to give my plan consideration? Let’s say in three weeks, if either of you hate it here or don’t take a shine to Jess, then I’ll pay your train fare back home.” Greta groaned and Cora winced. “Or to wherever you’d like to travel.”
“As far as Holland?” Greta chuckled, then took a deep breath and looked at him evenly. “Maybe it won’t be all that bad. What do you think, Cora? Shall we stay here and see what develops?”
Zach held his breath. Surely one of these pretty ladies could be Jess’s bride. Or had he made a huge mistake?
Cora dabbed her mouth with her napkin and then laid it next to her plate. “I don’t relish going back to Denver, true—but you owe us an apology for toying with our hearts. I’m not sure about Greta, but I developed deep feelings for Jess through those letters, even if he didn’t write them.”
Zach felt the collar of his shirt tighten against his Adam’s apple and the heat of embarrassment creep up his neck. “I do apologize, ladies. I hope you will see fit to forgive me. Either way, I think you’ll like living in Central City, if you should decide to stay. If not Jess for your husband, you’d have your pick of men. The men outnumber the women five to one.” He propped his elbows on the table and clasped his palms together, then leaned toward them. “Is it a deal then?” He watched as the two ladies seemed to confer through a private signal until they faced him across the table.
“Against my better judgment, I’ll say yes,” Cora muttered.
“Ja. Yes. Count me in. This should be interesting.” Greta nodded her agreement. They all stood, and the ladies fell in step behind the cowboy as he walked back to his wagon.