Finally after several deep breaths, Violet stood trembling to listen to the preacher give them their vows. The man beside her held his hat in a tight grip. Because they'd already been there almost an hour trying to tie the knot, the preacher hurried the ceremony along as fast as he could before the bride could escape again. They both were on the brink of the unknown.
Violet was as fragile as the flower she was named for. She couldn't last out here in such a tough country, could she? But Peter begged him as he lay dying, was it just yesterday? He pleaded for Sy to promise to marry her instead and not send her back. She had no family left and had been overworked in a factory with looms to weave cotton.
Peter died with the sunset. As soon as the sun rose the next morning, Sy brought his partner wrapped in an old blanket in the back of a wagon, not to meet his bride on the train, but to the undertaker. Then, it had been left to him to meet this young woman at the station, Peter's betrothed.
Sy looked up to the preacher who eyed him expectantly. He'd repeated all the necessary vows, but likely he'd missed something. The preacher's eyebrows were raised as he cleared his throat and evidently repeating himself said, "You may kiss your bride." Sy had forgotten that part, in fact, he didn't remember ever attending a wedding before. He was sure he'd missed parts of the ceremony with his mind stampeding like wild horses, so he didn't actually know what he'd promised. And now he was supposed to do this in front of God and everybody?
"Yes, sir." He turned and looked down at the widest green eyes he'd ever seen. She was looking more like a fawn he surprised once where it lay almost hidden bedded down amid tall grass. Violet was petrified. Her eyes said it all. The grief she'd reeled from when learning a couple hours ago that her promised one was deceased, now turned into abject fear looking at him, a complete stranger. The only thing he had to convince her with to marry him was that he was Peter's partner, and it had been his wish. That and the fact she didn't have any alternatives. She was stuck with him, poor thing.
That is, word had already gotten around that Peter was in a pine box, that there was maybe an unclaimed mail order bride loose, a bride that reportedly was a looker, and that was all it took. The back of the church had filled with more than a few bachelors waiting like vultures to see if Sy chickened out. Most of them had emptied out of the saloon. She was as pretty a thing as he'd seen in the whole of the territory, he'd give her that, but none of these galoots were worth the chaw of tobacco in their cheeks. The only time they stopped spitting out the back door was when the pretty little woman paced past where they sat where she would escape outside. Their jaws hung open until she'd look at them all petrified as if they were a pack of wolves, which they were, even though they were sitting in church. Most had never darkened the door before, he was pretty sure. Sy thought he remembered something in the Bible like that. He was convinced that if it wasn't for the frothing pack in the back pews, Violet would never have had the wherewithal to say her vows to him.
Everyone in the church held a collective breath watching him, waiting to see a kiss. Sy finally took a good look at the woman who had just promised herself to him. She was beautiful, even though she had soot on her clothes, even a little still on her face, after days on the train. Long lashes were blinking, that made him shake his head which he soon lowered as his hand cupped the back of her head. His fingers caught in a thick twist of chestnut hair. Her lips were parted in nervousness that tempted him in a way he hadn't anticipated. Their lips barely touched, but the feel of her, the smell of her, and the delicate look of her were forever imprinted deep inside of him. Their eyes locked while his hands were buried in her hair. By the time he regained awareness of where he stood, he let go. However, his fingers pulled out whatever women did to keep their hair put up tidily. Pins fell on the floor as well as a tortoise shell comb, as a cascade of hair like a waterfall fell down her back. The gasp from the back of the church was audible. Sy stood blocking their view as best he could while she hurriedly tried to put it back up.
"Sorry, mam. I didn't mean to tangle with your locks."
Her mouth held the pins she'd grabbed off the floor so she just nodded.
"I figure to feed you a good meal at the hotel before we head back to the ranch. But we need to get going so we can make it home before dark. Frankly, I thought we'd have left town long before this. And there's still Peter's funeral to tend to.
"Yes, mam. It's too hot for him to keep."
"Sorry, it took me so long to be able to exchange vows. This has overwhelmed me, losing Peter most of all. I thought we were truly meant for one another. We'd exchanged so many letters over the past few months..." her voice quivered, but she got ahold of her emotions with another gulp of air, "but I guess, God knows. Somehow, here I am, and married to you," she sighed. "I imagine you have your own grief as well as surprise at having to marry me."
"Yes, mam. Peter knew you couldn't go back, and looking around you can see that there aren't a lot of decent men in boots walking around here. I couldn't throw you to those wolves. Besides, no matter what, I'd keep my word to my partner. Peter was a good man, the best."
The pastor had finished signing the marriage certificate and handed the pen to each of them in turn.
Then Sy turned around and announced, "Show's over boys. Head out." The rough crowd got up to leave growling. His two ranch hands followed them out to wet their whistle in the watering hole. Sy was glad he couldn't hear what the mangy pack said, or he'd of had to start a brawl to protect his wife's honor. Stars! He had himself a wife! He wasn't quite sure what to do with one. He hadn't thought that much ahead. She was supposed to join with Peter this day, not him.
The two of them had a quiet meal at the hotel. She was exhausted, he could tell. Tears often pooled in her eyes. Sometimes one got loose and trickled down her cheek. It was enough to make Sy long to reach out and wipe it away, to touch that soft skin. He churned over some ideas about letting his men go back and tend to the ranch and let the little lady rest up in a room in the hotel for the night. But he was just too cheap to take two rooms, one for each of them. He supposed he could ask Jack in the livery if he'd let him sleep in the hay, but word would get around that Sy Harris wasn't man enough to take his new wife to himself. No need to start that. He'd never hear the end of it. No, he'd be better to take Violet home as soon as she finished, after a quick burial service for Peter. He never would have believed he'd need a preacher twice in one day for marrying and burying.
"Would you like me to throw some hay in the back of the wagon when we head out so you can sleep on the ride back to the ranch, mam? I know you are weary, what with your travels, the shock of the loss of Peter and having to marry me."
"No, I think we'd better talk. I know nothing of you, Mr. Harris, except that you kept your word to my Peter."
Why did a streak of jealousy blindside him when she said, "my Peter." The man wasn't even in the ground yet. How could he be jealous of a dead man?
She continued, "I hope the preacher finally got to sit down to eat. I'm afraid he was a bit bothered that I made him late to his dinner table."
Sy remembered the preacher's kids coming in two or three times to see if their pa was done with the wedding so they could eat. They weren't shy telling everyone that their ma told him to hurry it up cause they were all hungry. Hopefully he'd paid the parson enough to make it worth his while even if the man had to eat his taters cold. So between the drooling pack in the back of the church and the hungry growling of little boys' stomachs in the front, and the weeping bride to boot, it had been a trying time.
"I paid the man generously for his services, both for the wedding as well as Peter's funeral. He's a righteous man and a good preacher, aside from his anxiousness to not miss his dinner. I might not make it in to hear his preaching as often as you'd probably want though. The animals on a ranch don't stop needing watching over whether it's on the Sabbath, least not for me to be gone long hours to go to church, and I take turns letting the hands take a day off. I just want you to know that I'm a God fearing man, in case it puts your mind to rest a little easier."
"Why, yes it does, Mr. Harris. Thank you for putting those worries away for me, though there are a few more..."
"Well, the undertaker had a box ready, so he should be ready to meet us at the cemetery. I told him to go ahead and nail it shut. I wasn't thinking that you might want to have one look at him first. Did I do wrong by you, mam?"
"No, I thank you, though. I think I'd rather remember Peter by his picture than in his coffin." She sniffed back more tears.
The preacher said he'd be there as soon as he had a bite to eat." Sy still was thinking that it didn't seem natural to leave the church wed to Peter's intended, to eat at the table with Peter's intended, then to go put him in the ground. "Would you like me to order you dessert?"
She must have gone a little hungry on the train for the tiny woman had certainly put away the food even in the sad state she was in. "I don't think I could hardly enjoy it. But thank you for the meal. I've had nothing but a couple of apples, some cheese and crackers to eat on the train. I believe I can face Peter's funeral now that I'm feeling a little stronger.
She'd been overwrought since she'd arrived. "I don't know of anyone who could go through all this with more resolve than you, miss. I'm right proud of you." Sy couldn't believe he'd just said that.
"Well, I haven't stood by the open grave yet. I may have to lean on you for not only will I grieve for Peter, but it will bring back memories of burying all of my family who died of yellow fever two years ago. That all happened as quickly as this day's events. God only knows why I was the only one left alive. There were my parents, and two sisters and a baby brother with their coffins all lined out."
Sy couldn't help but let his heart go out to her. He'd left his parents back in Nebraska when he headed out to ranch in Montana. But they were well and hardy with his older brothers near by to help and younger ones still under foot to keep them busy back home. He didn't know what it was like to be alone. He'd had his best friend from boyhood, Peter, as his partner coming with him. Ranch hands came and went, but Sy had never been alone. Peter passed away last night, but even then, there was his body. Now here the very next day, Sy found himself with a wife. He scratched his head, but he'd have to put off the worrying about what he'd do with her until later when they got home. They had a burying to attend to.
The undertaker and the preacher were waiting. A few men from neighboring ranches had come to show their respect. Sy had no idea how such news traveled, but was glad to have them here. Good neighbors were as important as any other factors in surviving out on the range. Especially at round up. They all pitched in for each other.
The gaping hole in the ground brought Sy's attention back to the reality at hand. Being summer and short on ice, it was important to put the body in the ground as quickly as possible, as sad as it was. It was good bye to the best partner a fella could have. Tomorrow he'd have to write a letter back to Peter's family, a chore he was dreading.
As the preacher droned on, Peter prayed silently, "God, I sure hope you know what You're doing" "You done took my friend and left me with his little woman. I'll need a little help here."
His ranch hands stood reverently, hats in their hands, though a little more wobbly after unfortunately stopping by the saloon. He hoped they didn't stumble and fall into the hole. It might sober them up however. For men whose hearts weren't right with God, funerals were difficult times coming face to face with their Maker after staring death in the face. His men, Stu and Jim, had helped him carry Peter's stiff body out to the wagon. In so doing, they had been sweating bullets before the sun had barely risen. There was no doubt where Peter was now. He had been a shiny Christian, the kind who cast a glow like a candle in a dark night. Sy was sorry that Violet was stuck with him instead of such a good man as Peter.
Sy tore his thoughts back to listen to the preacher's words keeping Violet's hand tucked in his arm. She did lean on him though most of her tears had already been spent. He knew she grieved as did he. It wasn't the first time today that he didn't wonder if she knew Peter perhaps better than even he did. Though they'd grown up together, men did not often talk about things of the heart, those things deep down inside. But give them a pen and paper, they might send away those words never before uttered to another man. He covered her hand as soft as a bird's wing. Standing here before Peter's grave with his woman at his side, made Sy want to be a better man. He resolved before God to do it, to be worthy to care for the delicate Violet entrusted to him. Just how he would do that was still a mystery.
He didn't need the preacher to prompt him when it came time for him to throw a handful of dirt on the coffin. He may not have been to any weddings before today, but he'd been to funerals, too many of them.
Finally they were heading out.
"I don't think I asked before, but how did Peter die?"
"It was a burning fever. He went right quick. We had some neighbors with little'ns Peter had gone to visit a few days ago. He told me when he came back that those kids had been all sick, hotter than blazes with a fever. He said he'd put his hand on each one to pray for them. The strange thing is that they all recovered. It was only Peter who succumbed to the fever when he took sick. I don't know what kind of fever, yellow or orange or purple, but it came on him quick. He knew he was dying, so that's why he made me promise to marry you in his stead. I'm sorry it had to be this way."
While they were riding along, her hand was still tucked in his arm which he didn't mind a bit. She was quiet a long time. That was fine with him. He usually wasn't much of a talker himself.
Finally she fixed him with those green eyes and said with a catch in her throat, "What do you expect of me, Mr. Harris."
There it was. It was all laid bare. He hadn't wanted to think about it. He hadn't had much time at all to think about it since it hadn't been a whole day yet since his partner had passed on. All Sy's concentration had been about the wedding and the funeral. Now their life, strange as it had become, lay before them so tangled in his brain that he didn't know what to think.
"I don't know, Miss Violet. This marriage business isn't something I'd pondered on very much before. I didn't expect to get married, or at least not for a long while. I guess I'm more surprised than you in that at least you came on your travels thinking to be married upon your arrival. This husband business is a brand new idea to me."
"I can appreciate what you are saying, but I still don't know what to think about it now that we took our vows. It is a little overwhelming to be married to a stranger."
"I guess I can leave it up to you what you want to do with it. There's just two rooms to the cabin. There's the one there by the fireplace with a couple of chairs, the table and stove, and then there's a bedroom. I was going to bed down in the bunkhouse after you and Peter got married until I could build my own cabin, but now I'm not sure. I don't think I want to bunk with our ranch hands while they assume we're married for sure and certain. I'd never hear the end of it, them without a bone of Christian charity in their hearts. If it's alright with you, I'd rather sleep on the floor by the fire than face their ribbing.
"There's nothing improper about it, seeing how we are legally man and wife. I hope we can make a comfortable enough pallet so you're not down on the hard floor. I'd feel miserable about that."
"I think I can stuff a mattress tick if you could sew one up. You do sew, don't you?"
"A little. I had to leave home to go to work at the factory as I might otherwise have had time for more practice with a needle."
"How old are you, mam?" He hadn't thought to ask Peter how young his bride was. She couldn't be too old.
"I'm almost eighteen. I went to work at the mill when I was fifteen, but I'd had to leave school a year before that to help my ma who was ailing with her last time being with child. I ran the house then, cooking and cleaning and all. I just didn't have time for sewing. That's something my ma could do from her bed. But I'm sure I could sew a tick. Do you have the material for it?"
"I think Peter saved the flour and other feed sacks in the barn. I'll check tomorrow. It'll be too late tonight.
"Violet seemed to finally relax. She tried to cover her yawn. Did she dread what he would do to her as a man? He was not about to force himself on one who was hardly more than a girl, one who'd had to do a woman's share too young, one who'd practically been widowed and remarried in one day. Her head fell on his arm. She slept. Now for the first time, it gave him pause to wonder what it would be like to have the beautiful Miss Violet to be his truly as a wife. Sy raised his eyebrows and closed his eyes. He shouldn't, couldn't go there yet even in his mind. It felt wrong, as if she belonged to Peter still. He'd give her time to grieve what could have been before he hoped she would look to him for their future together.
"How long does something like that take," he said under his breath. Her even breathing told him she would not easily be disturbed by his mumblings. When they pulled up to the ranch, he managed to take her in his arms and climb down the wagon wheel without waking her. He reached through her skirt to lift the latch into the cabin. Sy laid her down on top of the bed finding another blanket to put over her.
He hoped that his marriage license at least earned him the privilege of looking at her. She was beautiful enough to snatch his breath away. He sat on the bed and imagined what it would be like to climb up next to her and hold her for a night. Sy shook his head. Instead, he gently took out the comb and some of the pins to loosen that luxurious knot of hair. Then he worked on loosening the laces of her boots. She never even stirred. Sitting up for days and nights on a train had taken their toll. Sy tugged first on one boot, then the other. Her feet were even pretty. He supposed it was okay to look at them in her stockings. After all, he was a married man, a married man who needed to make a bed on the floor in the other room.
He was too tired to stir up a fire, so he kept his coat on, threw a quilt over himself and rolled up his chaps for a pillow. The end of summer was colliding with fall with hot days and cool nights. His last thought was of a beauty in a soft bed in the other room, his wife. He didn't even have time to miss his partner Peter before falling asleep.