There was some ironing and packing, but it was decided that Harry needed practically a whole new wardrobe for the trip, certainly not just the ones plastered on him with sweat right now. None of them had had new clothing for quite some time.
Ellie whispered in Harry's ear, "Bring back a new dress and bonnet for Aunt Hattie, please Harry. If you don't know what to get, just describe her as five feet tall, pushing eighty, and dignified but with simple tastes. Nothing too fancy."
"And what do you want, sis?" He looked at her with a smile that said he would bring her the sun and the moon back if she asked him.
"Just bring yourself back home. That's all I want, truly," Ellie choked up as she blinked back tears. "I will miss you something fierce."
He swatted his leg. "I forgot to tell you two that my friend Nate is coming to stay to run the ranch while I'm gone so you won't have to worry over the chores or anything. He's meeting me in town so he can bring my horse back from the train station with him. You remember him I'm sure, Ellie, from when he used to help Pa with breaking the horses and going on roundups. He's been working over at the Lazy Z all this time, but says he's willing to come help out while I'm gone."
Ellie turned so her brother couldn't see the flush on her cheeks. Yes, she remembered Nate quite well. After their Pa died, Harry had to let the help go. That meant Nate too. Her brother had to work so very hard by himself and only hired on extra hands for the roundup. She'd helped as much as he allowed her to, which wasn't enough.
"Where will he stay? In the old bunkhouse? And will the young man be eating his meals with us?" Aunt Hattie asked.
I told him to make himself at home in the bunkhouse, but that you'd feed him, if that's alright with you," he asked.
"Of course it is. We'll need to freshen up that old place before he gets here though." Aunt Hattie gave her signature sniff at the unpleasant thought.
Ellie knew that would be her task and shivered thinking of all the spiders and mice that had probably taken over the empty building. Just the thought of Nate coming back gave her a knot in her stomach. It had been three years. Maybe he'd forgotten, something she'd failed to be able to do.
They all were awake early, and the two women were waving as Harry rode away from hearing their last minute instructions to him. Their little family was well aware of how uncertain life could be, so parting was especially difficult. Ellie felt an ache in her heart with her brother missing. So she gave her stiff Aunt Hattie a tender but extra long hug whether she wanted it or not. But Ellie was certain that the old lady did desire her affection even if she didn't show it.
"Well, I've got a bunkhouse to clean," Ellie sighed.
"And I have bread to bake and meals to prepare," Aunt Hattie stated and marched off leaving the slam of the screen door in her wake.
After regular chores, Ellie went round to the back porch to gather her cleaning supplies, a mop, broom and bucket wrinkling her nose at the job before her. But Nate deserved a clean place to lay his head. She wanted it done up right.
She did not hear the horses enter the yard when Nate arrived. She'd found the mice nests and aired the mattresses, but was still sweeping down spider webs when one of those hideous Grand Daddy Long Legs creatures landed on her neck. Ellie started screaming, dancing around swatting at herself. Neither did she hear Nate's boots running across the barnyard and leaping up the steps to stand in the doorway. That was when she saw him.
"Can you see it? Is it gone?" she asked quivering.
Nate came up close and turned her around slowly as he looked at her slender neck and the heavy brown hair caught up in a braid fastened to the back of her head. His fingers brushed against those silky locks. He began to look down her front but turned his eyes aside with his own neck burning. Instead, he brushed off her shoulders and ran his hands down her arms finally saying, "I don't see anything there."
It didn't keep a shiver from running up between her shoulder blades either from the spider scare or from the warmth of his hands.
"Thank you, Nate. I'd hoped to have this place cleaned up before you got here."
"Just leave it, Miss Henson. I'll take care of it. No use in you getting yourself dirty over an old bunkhouse, not with the spiders and all."
"Are you sure? And you just call me Ellie like you used to. I'll go help Aunt Hattie with fixing something to eat and holler when it's ready."
"I can just take a plate out to the bunkhouse. I don't need to be bothering you two ladies," he said as his eyes came up and met hers.
She gulped air before composing herself to say, "Don't be silly. I'll be setting you a place. Just let us know when you'll be needing a dinner pail for when you are working the cattle in the far fields, and we'll have it ready for you at the breakfast table. That's what we're used to doing for Harry anyway."
"Thanks. I'll see to the horses. Then after I finish here, I'll be in the barn until you let me know when supper is ready."
He turned away, but Ellie couldn't tear her eyes away from his confident stride. He had added muscles to his bones since she'd seen him last. He seemed taller than she remembered too. She sighed. If only she hadn't been the silly one. It was so embarrassing to think about still. And he was the only one who knew what she'd done. Ellie was sure he would never be able to see past that moment whenever he looked at her. Nate was her first and only crush.
The man was so quiet at the table that the clink of silverware seemed deafening. Ellie swore she could hear herself gulp her water or chew in amplified sound. Nate hardly looked up except to accept the passing of food for second helpings or to thank them for the delicious meal. His gaze only skittered over her centering in on Aunt Hattie. That woman could keep a conversation going with ease whether she would be sitting down to tea in the parlor with the queen or with a prisoner in a jail cell, not that she had met the queen or been in a cell before.
Aunt Hattie was saying, "Tell me about your family, Nate. Obviously, you're not married." Ellie almost choked.
He froze before wiping his mouth with his cloth napkin. Then he cleared his throat and said, "My mother and father still live in Tennessee surrounded by my brothers' and sisters' families. All eight of my siblings are married. At last count, I think there were over twenty grandchildren. So, I don't expect they'll ever make it out this far west. Letters keep me up to date with my kinfolk though."
"So you are the only cheep to fly the coop. I remember you from when you worked here before. I know Harry wished he could have kept you on, that you were a good worker. His father thought so too. Maybe now if our young man comes into his inheritance, he'll be able to hire you back here at our ranch."
"I'd like that ma'am," he said as he glanced toward Ellie who was staring at him. He didn't know if she was appalled at that notion or not. Her face just looked like a deer with her startled doe eyes.
But it was going to be torture sitting here every meal without looking back at the young woman. His life had been so altered since the time he'd left here that he could only wish he could turn back the clock.
"That was a mighty fine meal the likes of which I haven't eaten since I was invited special to sit here with you once before. Thank you kindly. And if you'll excuse me now..."
"Yes, you're excused, young man. It's nice to cook for a grateful person who's worked hard for his meal. It's just like feeding our Harry," Aunt Hattie said.
"Good night, Nate." Ellie stood too.
"Good night, ladies," he said without looking her way. He escaped out to the bunkhouse where he could hopefully clear his head. "Lord have mercy, was all he could say when he lay upon his bed. For a man lying down, he was doing a good job beating himself up all over again, at least in his thoughts as the chain of unfortunate events replayed round and round in his muddled head.
Nate hoped that Ellie didn't suffer from too much embarrassment of what she'd done at age sixteen. It was pure foolishness, and they both knew it now. He wished he'd handled it better back then too. But even then, Ellie had displayed the fresh bloom of beauty as a rose which had begun to unfurl, and he was a fairly young man thinking a little too much of himself at the time. And now? Her beauty took his breath away.
He remembered listening to the girls who had come to spend the night with her for her birthday celebration. There was a whole lot of giggling going on that could be heard with the windows open at the ranch house, so much so that he went deeper into the barn to block it out. How clearly he remembered Ellie running out to where he leaned on his pitchfork with the lantern light illuminating her dark eyes. She was shy. She was nervous. But then she shocked him when she boldly stepped up close to him and ordered, "Kiss me, Nate."
He dropped his pitchfork and stepped back. "What? Not on your life. You're the boss' daughter and my best friend's sister. I can't do that to that!"
She had only stepped closer putting her had on his chest. "Please!" Tears were pooling in her eyes making the lantern light swim in them. "Those town girls are all bragging about having been kissed, and I can't lie. I haven't been. They'll make fun of me and gossip unless I tell them I've already been kissed. Anyway, I ran out here with the excuse that I forgot to feed my horse. Suddenly she was on her tip toes and with her hands on his chest and brushed a faint kiss on his lips as he stood stunned.
He shook his head and then let a crooked smile grow saying, "You still haven't been kissed, Miss Ellie. You just stole a kiss is all. Here, if you're so all fired up about getting kissed, I'll oblige." He'd had the audacity to pull her to him and give her a right smart smack on the lips. When she sighed, he thought he'd show her just a little more of what kissing was about. When he let her go, she staggered, then ran. He could have kicked himself clear into Tuesday for what he'd just done.
He hadn't forgotten that night, and he was pretty sure she hadn't either. It was one of the last nights on the ranch before everything changed. Her father died not a week later. When his friend Harry tried to take over for his father, he realized their operation was too big. He'd had to cull his herd and let the regular help go, including Nate. He tried to tell him that he'd work for just room and board, but Harry had been firm refusing to let him do that. He wished he'd never left though. Disaster was waiting in town that doomed him from even looking at Harry's sister Ellie ever again.
Surprisingly, the women didn't seem aware of his situation, and Nate hoped it stayed that way. He was glad that they did not feed on the juicy gossip as some did in town. Goodness knows he'd fed those biddies plenty.
When Nate left this ranch, he stayed in town at a boarding house. There was a dance that even the cowboys were invited to. A pretty flirt named Priscilla Ferguson danced with them all until the musicians packed up and left. He saw her go off with one of the Far Forty Ranch hands. After that, since he was still in town while looking for a job, he ran into her fairly often. Nate had been included along with a few other of her admirers to a couple of evenings in her parents' parlor for music and games. He was as drawn as all the other young bucks were to her appearance, but something was a little jaded in her sparkle. So he kept back and did not try to capture her sole attention like the others. Yet, she found him time and again and seemed to want to confide in him about her boyfriend troubles. It wasn't something he was comfortable doing, But other than running away whenever he saw her coming, he was stuck being her confidant.
Then one day as he was strapping his bedroll onto his saddle happy to finally have been promised a job at the Lazy Z ranch, Priscilla came to him sobbing. He'd led her out behind the quiet of the church to listen. When her hands came away from her red rimmed eyes, she confessed that she was in a predicament, and the man had run off and left her. Priscilla then begged him to marry her to save her. Without thinking it through, Nate had felt like a knight in shining amour, rented a buggy and took her off to the next town to be married by the judge. The judge had even left off the part, "You may kiss your bride." And that's how he found himself married to Priscilla Ferguson, the only child of the town's mercantile owner.
Facing the music when they got back home was another story. Her parents were furious. He went off to the Lazy Z to work hard and save up so he could find a place for them. He left her there at her parents' confined to her house, or so he thought. When he finally came back to town on Sunday and knocked on her parents' door, they angrily told him that she'd run off. So that's how he became a married man without so much as a kiss from his bride. His marriage was only a piece of paper with a judge's signature, a paper that would keep him from all other relationships with a woman, nevertheless. He still felt a slow burn about it that somehow kept him from wanting to get too close to her breed anyway. So he put all thoughts about Ellie away, or at least he tried to.
Not many people were aware of their situation, his and Priscilla's, her parents preferring it to remain so. God knew he had no desire to broadcast what a fool he had been rushing in to rescue a maiden who turned out to be a dragon. Yes, he had a lot more to be ashamed of than Ellie, the purest of young women he knew.
Once Nate paid a lawyer in town to advise him if he had any way out of his marriage outside of divorce. The man said he couldn't plead an annulment due to not consummating the marriage since his bride had been pregnant, and he had no way of proving that the baby wasn't his. If he plead abandonment, any judge in the state would laugh him out of the courthouse. A divorce wasn't something Nate could stomach. He had enough shame from his marriage as it was and did not want a public spectacle being made of his own foolishness. The only divorce in the history of their town had been by the wife of the man who had held up the bartender after visiting his brothel. That was quite the newspaper fodder. No thanks. He'd rather stay single though married.
"This is good, ma'am," he'd say as soon as he could gulp down his food before running to his bunkhouse. Nate did his best to keep his eyes on Aunt Hattie. That was a hard thing to do, just looking at an eighty year old woman when there was a beautiful young lady sitting across from him.
"I'll need a dinner pail in the morning and probably enough for supper too since I'll be working late and don't want to hold you up from sitting down to your table." If he had a penny for each time he'd said that, he'd have a knee-high pile of them.
Whenever he could, he'd escape the house as fast as a drop of water on a sizzling skillet. The problem was, since he'd come back to this ranch, all he could think about lying on his bunk was back three years ago when he'd kissed Harry's sister. She was sweet alright, with her soft lips and fingers that curled through the hair that hung over his collar. Ellie still had the same scent of roses, one that tantalized him every time he was near her. His pillow got punched on a regular basis.
What was Harry thinking asking him to come back to this place? He was one of the only people who was aware of his situation. Maybe his friend figured that he'd be safe to have around his sister. Hadn't he charged him to protect them while he was gone. Nate wished now that he'd turned him down. It was tougher than he'd imagined being back here. The worst times were when Ellie sought him out to ask about this or that. He avoided her as much as possible, but their paths still crossed too frequently.
"Nate, how soon do you think Shadow will have her foal?" she'd asked.
He wasn't about to tell her that her special horse was showing signs of delivering tonight. The last thing he needed was to be cooped up in the barn all night with Ellie. So he did not call her when the event was happening knowing full well how much it meant to her to be present.
"Why didn't you come get me, Nate?" The tears in her eyes just about killed him while he could only stammer something about he couldn't leave the horse, not even for a moment.
Then when she asked to go with him into town when he was taking the wagon for more grain, he'd said he had too many chores back at the ranch and couldn't be waiting for her while she socialized with her girlfriends.
"Nope. I'm too busy to take you gallivanting. Just give me a list and I'll get what you need."
He knew he'd hurt her feelings again.
But when he insisted on riding into church on his own horse instead of with them in the wagon, she'd gotten that tight-lipped look that he well remembered. He hated to see her having to handle the horses driving carefully around every rough rut so as to make the ride smoother for Aunt Hattie. It should have been him holding the reigns. Instead he'd ridden off ahead of them. When they didn't show up for the service, he discovered by constantly craning his neck around to look for them, Nate had ridden back to find that the wagon wheel had cracked. The women were sitting in the hot sun waiting for someone to come help them.
"It's very nice of you, Nate, after leaving us in your dust, to come back for us when we've broken down all alone here," she said curling her lips in disgust. Fortunately, Aunt Hattie was too busy fanning herself to scorch him with her own words, but if looks could kill...He took his plate to the bunkhouse to eat that day.
The next Sunday coming in with Harry's womenfolk, he'd made sure that Aunt Hattie was situated between them in the wagon. It did not keep his "in-law's" glares away from him in church though when he walked Aunt Hattie up the aisle with Ellie trailing. When the elderly woman was seated, he found himself boxed in between her and Ellie. He slid as far away from the young woman as possible until he was practically crawled up on Aunt Hattie's lap.
"Do you mind, young man? I can't even hold my hymnal with you sitting so close bumping my elbows." So he grabbed the song book and leaned in toward the elderly lady.
He'd moved an inch over but old Mr. Overton had sat down on the other side of Ellie making her slide up next to him until her arms were brushing his. Nate gritted his teeth. He could practically feel his "in-law's" eyes stabbing him in his back. He missed most of the service being pushed back and forth between the ladies' shoulders. At least he caught a breeze as they each fanned on either side of him as much as he sweated it out. in between.
One good thing was that Ellie was hardly speaking to him anymore as rude as he'd been.
"I don't know what's come over Nate, Ellie. He seemed like such a nice young man." Aunt Hattie shook her head. She had not felt well, so they had all stayed home from church. Ellie wasn't about to leave her even though her aunt insisted she was fine and just needed a nap. So Ellie helped her back to her bed and pulled a quilt up as requested even though it was a warm day.
Ellie's hands sat still in her lap as she barely pushed the rocking chair back and forth, back and forth on the porch. She gazed unseeing into the vista before her. Her book was left unopened. She was using Harry's latest letter as a bookmark. It said that things were taking longer than he thought, that something called probate made him have to delay his return, that the wait would be worth it for all of them because of how generous their great uncle truly was. He'd asked how Nate was doing. Why on earth was that causing salty tears to pool in her smarting eyes? Ellie missed her brother. If he were here, he'd put that stuffed shirt of a cowboy in his place. She fought the tears back with an angry shake of her head. Ellie had misjudged the man. He wasn't as nice as she remembered him being. When he had worked for them before, she found him not only handsome, but kind. Now, he was even more handsome, but stand-offish and downright rude!
The next Sunday Aunt Hattie scolded them. "I won't be found guilty of keeping you two from church again. Now off with you and let an old woman rest undisturbed in her bed."
It was a quiet ride into church. Neither of them spoke the entire way. He cleared his throat to say something a couple of times, but couldn't think of anything. She just kept her eyes turned onto the sunflowers that grew freely along the road almost as tall as the wagon. Finally on the outskirts of town he blurted out, "Those sure are pretty."
"Uh hmm," was her only reply.
After lifting Ellie down from the seat, letting her go as quickly as he could, he turned and froze. Not three feet away stood his wife.
He growled like a feral dog, "Fancy meeting you here, Mrs. Curtis."
"My name is Priscilla Clayton now."
"To... it is!" He barely bit back his curse in the church yard. "I got a piece of paper that says it's not."
"What! A lot you know, Nate," the woman snarled with eyes almost glowing red like a wolf about to attack.
Ellie swiveled her head between them until she spied a cute toddler with bright red hair standing beside the woman. So she bent down and said, "Hi, sweetheart, what's your name?"
Nate looked down at the toddler then back up at his wife with narrowed eyes. "Is this our son?"
Ellie gasped and stood up.
"No, he never was yours as you well know. His father is over there seeing to our horses," she said smugly.
"You really have the nerve, you know, showing up in church as if nothing happened," Nate snapped as a man with red hair a shade darker than the child's came to pick up the lad and stand beside the woman glaring too. It was like looking down a double barreled shot gun. If looks could set one on fire, they'd all be flaming. The child whimpered picking up on the anger that poured in waves from the adults.
Ellie was afraid a fight was about to break out here in the church yard so she tried to pull Nate away. He only shrugged her off and said through clenched teeth, "You go on in if you want. I'll not step foot inside church if that's where those two are planning to make their promenade." He walked off with stiff shoulders and tight fists.
"I'm sorry Priscilla. It's nice to see you, but I don't know what's gotten into Nate."
"Jealousy is always ugly, Ellie," the woman replied with a smirk. "Come along, dear."
Ellie looked over to where Priscilla's parents stood scowling by the church steps. Priscilla's words were a stab to her heart. As much as Nate had been shunning her, she could not convince her heart to let him go. Priscilla was right about one thing, jealousy was ugly and she felt it deep down to her toes. So evidently this was a woman two men had thought worth of fighting over. Nate must still love her or he wouldn't be so angry. Ellie felt a sob welling up, so quickly walked away in an opposite direction.
The ride home was even more awkward. They had both missed the service, but wandered back to the wagon at almost the same time as church got out. There was a chill between them even in the summer heat. When she got home, Ellie put her apron on and finished fixing the side dishes to go with the roast she'd put on before they left for church. She set the table before she went to check on Aunt Hattie. As soon as she opened the door, she knew.
Nate was stabbing the pitchfork into the hay as if it were the last battle on earth when Ellie came running and grabbed him around his waist burying her face in his sweaty shirt sobbing. He lightly put his arms around her. When her crying showed no sign of letting up, he held her closer making shushing noises. He tried to pry her face up, but she just kept her cheeks pressed up against him muffling her wails into his chest.
"What's going on Ellie? What's wrong?"
Finally she shuddered enough to a stop to say, "Aunt Hattie..."
He pushed her away to look at her face. "Do I need to go for the doctor?" His heart started beating harder as she shook her head looking away. He wiped the hair away from the sides of her face where it was glued to her cheeks with tears. "Is she..." Ellie once again buried herself in his arms nodding.
"Oh, sweetheart, I am so, so sorry." He kissed the top of her head, then her forehead, then each of her eyes before she looked up at him. Once again the girl stood on her tiptoes and kissed him. He groaned and kissed her back with all that he had held back for so long.
Suddenly he pushed her away saying, "I had no right to do that. It was uncalled for. You are grieving, and I took advantage of you, and I'm sorry. You don't even know why I can't ever kiss you, but I sure as shooting can't. It's wrong, wrong in front of God most of all. Aunt Hattie would skin me alive if she knew."
Ellie startled him by shoving him hard. "Aunt Hattie's gone. She's not going to be here on the ranch with me anymore. My brother's in Philadelphia, and you are being worse than a rabid polecat. I wish I'd never met you!" The girl swung her arm back as if to slap him. He blocked it and tried his best to corral her, and ended up wrapping her flailing arms against him in a tight hug again.
"I'm a skunk, and I know it. But let me ride to town to get people here to help you. Then I'll make myself scarce."
"So that's it? You're going to just kiss me like that and leave me? I thought my brother asked you to watch over us, but now you are planning to abandon me when I need you most?"
He groaned and backed away from her. "This isn't the time, but it can't be helped." He wrapped her in his coat hung up on a nail because she was shivering in her shock. He slid down onto the barn floor across from the hay bale where he placed her.
"I'm a married man, Ellie. I'm married to Priscilla."
"What!" Ellie gasped and said, "Then it's true, what you said in the church yard?"
She was so pale, he thought she was going to be sick for a minute or pass out. He waited. "Are you going to be alright? Do you want me to go on" She nodded but shrank into his coat, bent down with her head buried on her arm. "I'm listening," came out muffled.
He told the whole ugly tale. "So that's why what I did was so wrong kissing you like I that. There can't be anything between us as much as I wish there could be. It's all my fault. You had no idea, sweetheart"--ugh, he had to stop calling her that--"but I did."
"So that little boy is not your son like you said, because he sure looked like that other man..."
"Yes, I'm guessing that 's his daddy, the one she ran off to find. I can't imagine the audacity of those two to show up for church while living in sin as if nothing was wrong. How could her parents countenance it?"
"Maybe you all could get together with the minister and try to work it out," she said softly still wiping tears away.
"No, I already went to him and a lawyer as well. Short of a divorce, there's nothing I can do."
"So you won't divorce her?"
He ran his hand through his hair. "I didn't want the scandal, but it looks like they are wanting to rub my face in it. So, I don't know. I never felt right about it before."
"Well, I think I'll go sit by Aunt Hattie if you don't mind going to get the undertaker and the minister in town. Supper will be ready when you get back. I'll put it in the warming oven for you."
He noticed that she was still wearing his coat standing at the front door when he got back though the day was oppressively hot. The minister and wife soon rolled up in the yard as well. Nate wanted to stroke her hair and console her but knew he couldn't. Others would have to do it instead of him who loved her best. He staggered back. Yes, he did love her, probably had for a long time. He certainly never felt this for his "wife," not even close. Now disgust and regret were like mixed poison in his soul.
He went to take care of the minister's horse. That's all he was good for now, to muck through things in the barn. That's where the minister found him.
"We are going to take Ellie back to town with us. We've finally convinced her it's best to stay with us until her brother returns. I know you are needed here to take care of the cattle for Harry, but it wouldn't be proper to leave the two of you alone. The last thing Ellie needs is to have gossips add to her grief. The undertaker is just arriving now to pick up the body. Perhaps you can give us a hand with the casket. But sometime this week I'd like you to stop in and visit me. I think we have some things to clear up after a certain woman showed up in church Sunday with her man and child with her."
"Yes, sir." He followed the minister into the house after the undertaker.
Nate made himself scarce up until the day of the service. He picked a rosesfrom Aunt Hattie's flower garden and wrapped the stem in a damp handkerchief so it wouldn't wilt before he got to the service.
The church was packed. It was heartbreaking to see Ellie sitting up front by the minister's wife with no family nearby to comfort her. Of course, it was impossible for Harry to get here in time for his aunt's funeral. He'd sent the telegram to his friend back east. He forced himself to sit down in the back and not go up to her. So he prayed for Ellie all the same. He prayed for Harry too knowing how he had loved his aunt. At the graveside, Nate dropped his rose on the casket deep in the Texas dirt. But he chose not to go by the minister's house where people dropped by to eat and share condolences afterwards.
The ranch was so empty. No Aunt Hattie, no Harry, no Ellie. Only him. Alone. Nate went about his chores and moving cattle while heartsick. He found himself staring off into space during the day and into the darkness at night. He was counting off the days until Harry would return so he could leave.
Then one afternoon she rode up but didn't so much as dismount. "I just came to tell you that Harry sent a telegram to say that he's on his way home. He will probably get here in a week or so." Ellie had not even looked at him after giving him the message. She just reigned her horse around and galloped away like she was racing from a prairie fire. It felt like she had roped his heart and drug it after her, it hurt so bad.
It wasn't getting better, but worse. He was never so glad to have the end in sight. Once Harry came, he could leave. Ellie would never have to look at him, rather avoid looking at him again.
The next morning, someone rode into the yard as the sun rose before he'd even had a chance to drink his coffee. His stomach dropped, and he'd had to put his mug down. All he could hope was that it wasn't Ellie. Nate walked out onto the porch to see who it was. It was the minister.
"You didn't come by, so I decided I would come visit you. We need to talk," the preacher said dismounting.
Had Ellie told him how he had kissed her though he was already married? It was the last thing Nate wanted to do, to bring up the subject of his sham marriage and his inappropriate behavior. But so be it. Let the minister talk away, lecture him, he'd take it like a man.
"Nate, I'm afraid there's been a terrible misunderstanding. I blame Priscilla's folks. The Fergusons withheld information that concerned you. It was a terrible thing that they did. All this time, they've held the annulment papers that Priscilla had obtained shortly after your sham of a marriage took place. To her credit, she'd assumed her parents had done the right thing and had given them to you two years ago. However, since they were afraid of it leaking out, they'd kept quiet. But now that Priscilla and her husband and son have shown up, it had to be cleared up. I am so sorry for all this time you've suffered under the impression that you were in an impossible situation." The minister finally wound down looking relieved to having delivered this message. He resettled his hat back on his head making sure it was a little straighter.
Nate was so weak-kneed that he sank onto the porch steps. He'd not even had the manners to invite the man in. Evidently, the preacher wanted to clear things up even before setting foot in the empty house anyway.
"I'm not married to Priscilla?" he choked out.
"Nope. You are a free man. God has released you from a terrible burden. I'm so happy for you." The man knew how much Nate wanted out from the unwise vows holding him to his empty marriage.
Nate ran his hands through his hair, shook his head, and finally looked up. "I can't believe it. This is Christmas and the Fourth of July all wrapped up in one. I feel like an anvil has been lifted off my shoulders. But I'll confess to you right now, sir, that I sinned by kissing Miss Ellie a couple of hours after seeing Priscilla and her man, and after the poor girl found her dear Aunt Hattie gone and fell apart. It was wrong. I thought I'd broken my marriage vows even though Ellie knew nothing of it."
"Well, young man, sounds like you already had that talk with God. Now I think you'd better clean up and come to town. We'll be expecting you for supper. We won't worry if you come by a little early and want to take the girl for a walk."
"I don't know that she'd be so willing, sir. She was pretty upset with me after I kissed her then confessed I was married," Nate worried.
"Well, it's time you two work that out. The wife and I are a little tired of her moping around like a lost kitten. I haven't said a word to her about that paper you are holding. I'll leave that up to you."
The man rode off before Nate thought to invite him in for a cup of coffee. He wouldn't have dared to offer the man one of his hard biscuits though. Nate was suffering under his own cooking. Earlier he'd felt his heart was as hard as one of those biscuits, but now it was all tender and crumbly.
Nate threw his hat up into the air and let out a whoop, the kind only a good cowboy can yell. He rushed through chores and grabbed the copper tub. He poured what water he'd heated to wash dishes with into it and pumped out some more. He didn't care what temperature his bath was, he only wanted to feel as clean on the outside as he did on the inside. He had a girl to go court.
Nate used his pocket knife to cut a whole bouquet of blooming quince, roses and other flowers growing in the patch by the door hoping she'd accept them and him both. But when he got to the parsonage, he almost lost his nerve. He'd lift his hand to knock then drop his fist down to his side. After doing this three or four times, he was surprised by the door opening without so much as his knocking. It was Ellie. She was shocked to see him. She looked down at the flowers then back up to his eyes, then down again. Suddenly she sucked in her breath and huffed out, "If you want the minister, you'll find him at the church." She tried to slam the door in his face, but he stuck his boot in before she could do it.
It hurt. He couldn't help hollering and hopping on his other foot. It brought her back out.
"I'm so sorry, Nate, I didn't mean to smash your foot like that." Then she narrowed her eyes and said, "What'd you go do a fool thing like that for? And why in heaven's name are you bringing flowers? If they are for the preacher's wife, I'll take them. If not, I hope every one of those thorns poke you till you bleed." She whirled around and was about to close the door again.
"Wait. I know I have some explaining to do, but the preacher said I'd best come talk to you myself."
"I don't want to hear anything you have to say, Nate Curtis. As soon as Harry comes home, I want you gone!"
"Sorry, I can't do that until you've heard me out."
For an answer she shut the door in his face. He wilted on the stoop. It was a long time until supper, but he just sat there thinking and praying and thinking some more. It's surprising how clear some things can appear while other things become more muddled. As soon as a pool of his thoughts would still, another one would come along and toss itself in with a splash that left ripples.
Finally the preacher came back to the manse. He looked at the droopy bouquet and cowboy before chuckling. "I see that didn't go over well. Let's go in and hope that a nice moonlight walk after supper might fare better."
"I'm beginning to think she'll never forgive me, sir. It was a terrible thing that I did."
"Nonsense. Ellie is a good Christian girl. She'll see her way through this. You do have honorable intentions, young man, do you not? While Harry's gone, I feel it is my duty to step into his place concerning his sister's welfare."
"Yes, sir. Harry is my best friend. I'll confess to him what I did as well. But I must tell you that though I've loved his sister since she was sixteen, I've never felt worthy of her, especially now. I think that was one reason I was so willing to jump into the stupid arrangement with Priscilla, to run away from the fact that I'd never be able to ask for Ellie's hand."
"Yes, it was a foolish thing to do, alright, young man. Marriage is a sacred covenant before God, not to be entered into lightly. Hebrews 13:4 says, 'marriage is honourable in all.'" He shook his head. "Well, we'll see what we can do in here."
Supper was probably delicious, but Nate couldn't tell it from sawdust. Ellie was hopping mad that he was there and refused to look at him or speak. They both were immune to the banter of the minister and his wife. Neither had anything to add to the conversation.
"Well, it is my turn to help my wife with the dishes. I want you two to go out for a walk," the minister finally said.
"Oh, no, Rev. Brown. I can help your wife," Ellie protested.
"Well, if that is how you feel, then I'll take my wife on a walk and leave you two to do the dishes. Come along, dear."
They left while Ellie was still sputtering. Then she turned on him. "You can go right ahead and leave too. I don't need your help to clean up."
"That's where you are wrong, Miss Ellie. I have some things to clean up between us whether you want to hear me out or not," he said firmly. He began clearing the table of the food while she reluctantly stacked the dirty dishes with a dark cloud on her face.
"Then hurry up and spit it out. I can't stomach having you around, Nate. You are as welcome here as a dead possum on a hot day."
Once they were in the kitchen and she'd set the dishes down, he swung her around and grabbed her hands. "I was wrong, Ellie. I'm not married. I just thought I was, but I'm not."
"That's ridiculous. A person should know if he's married or not. Don't give me that hooey," she sneered.
"Truly," he hurried on, "the preacher rode out this morning with my annulment papers that had been signed two years ago. The Fergusons had hidden them from me all this time. I promise you that I've not so much as ever even kissed Priscilla the whole time we were supposedly married. The boy is not mine. I never claimed him to be, but had just mistakenly offered to give them a home in a weak moment of hopelessness. I was feeling hopeless that I'd never have anything to offer you. A cowboy is as poor as a dried pasture in a ten year drought. I figured that when a woman asked for my hand like that, I' might as well take it since I didn't figure I'd ever deserve better. Boy, was I ever wrong. I don't have anything to offer you, Ellie. That part hasn't changed. I just have my horse and saddle, boots and spurs to my name, but I haven't been able to forget you or to quench a faint flicker of hope that you might feel the same way. Even though my circumstances haven't changed, yours have." He felt a wave of despair come over him and let loose of her hands but found her still gripping his. "I know that my odds are worse than ever since you and Harry have inherited your great uncle's estate, and you will be a wealthy young woman. You'll have suitors lined up from here to your doorstep. But before Harry comes back and I leave, I have to say it. I love you, Ellie. I've been afraid to say it all these past three years, and haven't been free to say it before now, for the past two. But this is my last chance. You are the sweetest girl I've ever met. You are too good for the likes of me..."
Before he could say more, his lips were sealed with a kiss. She let go of his hands, and her arms found their way around his neck. He wasn't the kind of fella who'd just take a kiss from a girl without giving it back and more, so he did.
Well, the dishes didn't get washed. They forgot all about them and just went out the back door for a walk of their own. The minister and his wife came in and found the mess and just smiled. He tied his wife's apron on and began scrapping plates off while she put the food away. Then he washed while she dried. He kept whistling a hymn while his wife giggled like a school girl.
They were waiting for Harry at the train depot. He stepped off the train and his eyes lit up when he saw them. Then he turned to help a young woman down. She had thick black curls under a poke bonnet. They both had evidence of the coal smoke from the train though they'd tried to wipe off as much as they could.
"Hello, Ellie, I'd like to introduce you to my wife, Mrs. Katie Henson." And this is my best friend and the best wrangler around, Nate Curtis."
He hugged his sister then gripped Nate's hand while Ellie gave the Katie a warm hug.
But before they could get much further, Nate cleared his throat and said, "And I'd like to introduce you to my wife, Mrs. Curtis."
Harry looked around but there wasn't another young woman on the platform. His face was puzzled. "Where is she then?"
As Ellie's blush crept up like a blooming pink rose on a climbing vine, her brother looked like he'd had been sucker-punched.
"You don't say!" Then he grinned as only Harry could saying, "Well, it's about time! I don't know how you got that Priscilla mess worked out, but I sure am glad you did. Welcome to the family, Nate! I guess I have my little sister to thank for not letting the best cowpoke in Texas get away right when I plan to expand my cattle business."
There was back slapping then and happy tears. Finally Harry's Katie said with her thick Irish accent, "This must truly be America then, where an Irish maid fresh off the boat can marry a cattle baron while his rich little sister can marry a cowboy who looks fresh out of the pages of a dime novel. Well, praise be to God, but I'm starving!"
They all went to eat a celebration supper of thick steaks at the hotel. Everyone talked over each other with so much to say. In the morning, the shipment of cattle in the stockyards would be herded to the ranch and the order of lumber would be hauled out for the new house Harry planned to build for his bride next to the home place where Nate and Ellie were settled. Right before they called it a night, the newlyweds all stepped out onto the porch as thunder from a short summer storm gently rolled in. Harry looked at Ellie and grinned. "Sounds to me as if a sprite Aunt Hattie is dancing a jig on those streets of gold."
"And that lightning was just her throwing her cane away, Harry. Welcome home, brother."