Marrying a stranger to keep the woman’s siblings out of an orphanage is one thing, but when more children than expected pour out of the stagecoach, what’s a man to do?
Nervous about meeting her fiancé for the first time, Ellie Spritzer’s lifelong hope of finding love is about to end—or rather, begin. She never imagined her quest for love would take her to the other side of the country with all eight of her siblings in tow, but after her mother dies unexpectedly, what choice does she have? At least the man she’s been writing for the past year is still willing to marry her and take in her siblings… or so she thinks until she arrives in the dusty town of Twin Rivers, Texas.
Growing up an orphan, Sam Owens never had a place to call home or a family to love. So if his wife-to-be needs to bring three of her siblings with her, he has no complaints about having a ready-made family. But his mail-order-bride doesn’t arrive with three. She arrives with eight.
Sam can’t make himself turn away children in need. But as a beginning rancher, he doesn’t have the resources to care for so many people. When sinister forces threaten the things Sam and Ellie both hold dear, can they figure out how to keep their fledgling family together, or will they lose the very things they cherish most?
Sixteen Years Later; May, 1885
How much did it cost a man to build a future for himself?
Sam Owens stood in the center of his future and looked around at the thick adobe walls and the handful of furnishings. Some might say it was just a house—a house that had only been finished for two days, at that. But it was his future too. And by the end of the day, he’d have the two things he’d spent his entire life wanting.
A family and a home.
Provided the woman he’d been writing for over a year didn’t take one look at the yellow, barren landscape of the Chihuahuan Desert and decide to go back to Michigan.
Sam stared down at the flower in his hand, the orangish-red petals flaming amid the brown hues of the adobe walls and packed-dirt floor, then headed into the house’s single bedroom.
He set the prickly pear flower on the bed beside the pillow. The petals looked even bolder against the brown linen blanket covering the bed than they had in his hand. Would Ellie think it was too bright?
Or maybe the problem was that he didn’t have enough flowers. Did he have time to pick a couple more before he had to meet the stage? His house might be sturdy, the kind of building meant to last five or six generations, but mud walls weren’t exactly pretty to look at.
What had made him think one flower would be enough to brighten up a room with brown walls and a brown floor?
Sam grabbed the bandana tied around his neck and pulled the end up to rub at the sweat trickling down his temple. Instead of riding out to check the cattle earlier, he should have headed into town and gotten a different blanket to spread over the bed. Something blue or red or green—any color besides brown.
Maybe if he left now, he’d have time to buy a new blanket before the stage arrived. He didn’t have much money to spare, but he could manage a dollar or two on a blanket if it would make his new wife feel at home. He turned and stepped through the door into the house’s main room but stopped short when he saw the table, plain and brown just like the walls and floor. Why hadn’t he thought to fancy up this room too?
Perhaps instead of buying a blanket, he should gather more cacti flowers and put them in a mug at the center of the table. Or he could buy a can of paint to brighten the entire place.
But what if Ellie didn’t like the table no matter how many flowers he put on it? What if it was too small to fit him and her plus the three siblings she was bringing? He didn’t have room for a bigger table unless he got rid of the bunkbed crammed against the wall. If he did that, then her two brothers would have to sleep in the barn, though the one-year-old could probably still sleep in the small bed he’d tucked into the corner.
Sweat slicked his palms, and not because of the midday heat. What if Ellie thought the entire house was too small? What if she took one look at his land and decided she’d be better off marrying someone with more than a hundred head of cattle and fifty dollars in the bank? What if…?
“Hello, the house.”
Sam jolted, the sound of the familiar male voice jarring against the desolate silence of the desert.
“Sam, you in there?” Wes’s voice rang out again.
Sam took a final glance around the house that suddenly seemed too small—never mind that he’d spent the past six months building it—and walked out the door.
“Howdy, Wes.” Sam pulled his hat lower on his head to shield his eyes from the bright Texas sun. “You finished with spring round up?”
“Got back last night. There’s a handful of calves still needing branded, but the hands can handle that. Thought I’d stop by, see how your house was coming.” Wes slid off his horse in that easy manner he had, the manner that spoke of a man who’d been raised on one of the largest ranches in West Texas. “Looks like you finished it.”
“Told you I would.”
“Don’t reckon I believed you.” A small smile quirked the side of Wes’s mouth.
Sam rubbed the back of his neck. He didn’t have much choice about getting the house finished, not with Ellie and her siblings due to arrive today, but the notion of telling Wes he had a mail-order-bride coming caused his throat to grow drier than the desert beneath his feet.
Wes sauntered toward the paddock holding the handful of longhorns that still needed branding. Most people who stopped by to look at a house would probably, well, go inside and have a gander. But Wes had four generations’ worth of rancher’s blood running through his veins. Like a fly drawn to honey, the man couldn’t keep himself away from a cow.
“I was thinking…” Wes settled a foot on the paddock’s bottom rail and leaned his arms on the top. “Might bring Minos over for a few days at the end of May. If you don’t mind breeding a little early, that is.”
Sam’s heart gave a solid thunk against his breastbone. Did Wes truly mean to let him breed his cows with the A Bar W’s prize bull?
No, he couldn’t afford it. He needed the money he’d saved to see him and his new family through until fall. Besides, studding Minos was probably worth four times what he had in his bank account.
But he couldn’t let a chance to breed a few of his cows with the A Bar W’s prize bull slip by.
“How much do you want to stud him?” What were the chances the bank would give him a loan?
“You come along on the cattle drive with us in the fall, and we’ll call it even.”
Sam met his friend’s eyes. Wes was being too generous. Breeding a bull like Bernard to his heifers was worth two decades of eating trail dust, not a single cattle drive.
Silence lingered, leaving only the empty quiet of the desert to fill the space between them. Wes didn’t move his gaze, but his dark brown eyes gave away nothing, which said just about everything.
“You don’t plan on telling your pa,” Sam muttered the words on a rush.
“Pa can’t keep track of every last cow, not when we’ve got fifty thousand head.”
“No, but he keeps track of that prize bull.”
“Look, Sam, I want to help, and short of giving you cattle, this is probably the best way for me to do it.” Wes hooked a thumb on his gun belt and stared out over the craggy peaks of the Bofecillos Mountains. “Accept my offer and let me worry about the rest.”
“All right.” Sam nodded, his throat growing tight.
“Good. Now let’s go see this house of yours.”
Sam narrowed his eyes toward the cloud of dust that appeared at the crest of the next hill. Riders, two of them, by the look of it. “I’ve got company.”
Wes studied the duo, his jaw set in its familiar firm line beneath the black stubble that told of two weeks spent on roundup. “Want me to ride out with you?”
“Naw, this shouldn’t take more than a minute, and I’ve got to get my hide into town soon.” Sam headed to where he’d tied Long Arrow’s reins to the post of the paddock. “Go inside and look around the house before I go, if you’d like.”
Wes headed toward the house as Sam swung into the saddle, then he dug his heels into Long Arrow’s side. The beast’s muscles bunched beneath him, long and fluid as they sped across the top of the hill. Hot Texas air rushed past, threatening to tug the hat from his head. He looked out over the land, his land, and a smile crept across his face. To the untrained eye, his rolling patch of the Chihuahuan Desert might not be much to look at. The desert grass, cacti, yucca, and candelilla all blended together in varying shades of brown, rubbing out the brightness of the yellow rocks that filled the rest of the landscape. But when a man owned the land he rode across and a hundred head of cattle to go with it… well, the possibilities seemed endless.
Sam dropped into the valley between the two hills, then Long Arrow started up the second incline. He didn’t find strangers on his land too often, not with the road lying directly west of his property and the mountains bordering his land on the east.
When he reached the top of the second hill, the men ahead of him slowed and angled their horses to meet his.
Sam reined in Long Arrow and straightened himself in the saddle. “Can I help you?”
Dust covered the two men, from the tops of their wide-brimmed hats to the boots resting on their stirrups, and their horses hadn’t fared any better.
The larger of the pair, with dark eyes and hair that matched the black shade of his hat, answered. “Naw, just doing some surveying.”
“Surveying?” Sam raised his eyebrows.
“For the railroad.” The shorter, blond-haired man pulled back on his horse to keep him from eating a clump of mesquite.
“The railroad’s going in sixty miles north of here, so that doesn’t explain what you’re doing on my land.”
The shorter man sent the taller one a puzzled look.
“Don’t think this is your land,” the tall man growled. “It belongs to the Southern Pacific Railroad, signed over by the State of Texas itself.”
The Southern Pacific Railroad? Sam leaned forward. “That’s news to me, seeing how I have the deed to the property. It’ll be news to our courthouse as well, since they have a copy of the deed on file there.”
“You’re wrong, mister. This here land belongs to the Southern Pacific railroad.” The blond man straightened in his saddle, his eyes taking on a challenging gleam. “If you don’t believe us, maybe you should go down to the courthouse and see for yourself.”
“Maybe you should, because I know who’s going to win this argument.” Sam’s shoulder muscles tightened, his hand only a breath away from the pistol strapped to his side.
“Is that your place?” The taller man nodded toward the top of the next hill, then glanced at where Sam’s hand hovered near his gun. “That house over yonder?”
He couldn’t quite name what irked him about these men, but something set the hairs on the back of his neck to bristling, and his fingers itch for the feel of his revolver. Maybe it was the way the men kept exchanging looks with each other, or the way neither of them had a pencil or paper in sight though they claimed to be surveyors. Either way, he’d had enough.
“It is, just like this is my land. I want you off it, now. The road lies about a half mile west of here, and if you don’t stick to it, I’ll haul you into the sheriff’s myself.” Sam jutted his chin toward the road.
Hoofbeats sounded behind him, but he didn’t need to turn to recognize the familiar canter of Wes’s prize stallion, Ares.
“Now get.” Sam settled his palm firmly on the butt of his gun.
The tall man looked in Wes’s direction, then flicked the reins on his horse, taking off at a gallop and leaving the shorter man scrambling to kick his horse into motion. The man shot off down the hill just as Wes pulled to a stop.
“What was that about?” Wes narrowed his eyes at the strangers.
“I’m not sure.” Sam stared after the men, but they headed due west toward the road, just as he’d instructed. “Claimed they were surveying for the railroad.”
“Weren’t dressed like any surveyors I’ve ever seen.”
No, they were dressed like cowhands who’d been eating trail dust for a week or better. “They said this land belong to the railroad, awarded by the state.”
“That’s ridiculous.” Wes squinted into the sun as the men disappeared over the next hill. “Old man Griggs owned this land back when it belonged to Mexico, and seeing how he hired some highfalutin’ lawyer and gave it to you when he died, it’s yours.”
“I told them to go check at the courthouse if they think otherwise.”
“I heard of similar trouble a ways north of here.” Wes rubbed his jaw. “Something got mixed up in Austin, and the state gave land that already belonged to a farmer to the railroad.”
“If those men were from the railroad, then I’m a dancehall girl.”
“Probably rustlers or bandits with a handy story then. We better keep an eye out for missing cattle or anything else suspicious. I’ll alert the cowhands at home.”
Sam shivered despite the glare of the sun beating down on him. The Rio Grande was only a quarter mile south, and his land ran clear up to it. Were those men dusty because they’d been moving cattle into Mexico? His herd was too small to grab their attention, but a ranch like the Westins’ made prime picking for a couple of men looking to steal cattle and move it out of the country before the law could be called in.
“When I get to town, I’ll…” Town. Ellie. The stage.
Sam pulled his watch out of his breast pocket. “I’m late, and I still have to hitch up the wagon.”
He dug his heels into Long Arrow’s sides and flicked the reins. He should have left a quarter hour ago. What kind of impression was he going to make on his fiancée if he was late to meet her the very first time?
Sam swung down from his saddle in front of the long lean-to he used as a barn, but when Long Arrow spied the wagon and Bella, the sturdy paint mare, waiting in her stall, he whinnied and pawed at the ground. Long Arrow hated being harnessed with Bella, but the wagon would probably be laden with enough trunks that he’d need both horses to pull it on the way back.
“Thought you said you were going to town.” Wes reined Ares in beside the lean-to but stayed atop his mount.
“With the wagon?”
“Yup.” Sam unfastened the cinch from around Long Arrow’s belly and then hefted the saddle off his horse.
“What are you in such an all-fired hurry for?” Wes frowned. “The mercantile doesn’t close until five, and if you’ve a mind to report those men to Daniel, he ain’t going to close down the sheriff’s office before eight, and even then he’ll have a deputy on patrol until the saloon closes.”
Sam slid the collar over Long Arrow’s head then drew in a breath. He’d put this off long enough. It was time to tell his best friend.
Trouble was, Wes would be furious.
But probably not as furious as he’d be if he found out through the scuttlebutt around town.
Sam unhooked Bella’s bridle from where it hung on the wall then moved to open the door of the mare’s stall.
“I’m going to meet my wife,” he mumbled, keeping his back to Wes while he fit the brown leather straps over Bella’s head and led her out of the stall.
“Your what?” Wes’s brows drew down beneath his hat brim. “You don’t have a wife.”
“I will in about an hour.” Provided she hadn’t changed her mind about marrying him at some point on the long journey from northern Michigan to Twin Rivers. “She should be on today’s stage, and I already have an appointment with Preacher Russell.”
“On the stage? An appointment with the preacher?” Wes jumped down from his horse and grabbed the collar intended for Bella, then held it away, his dark eyes narrowed. “You’re not talking about a mail-order bride, are you?”
Sam pursed his lips together.
“You can’t be serious.” Wes threw his hands in the air, loosening his grip on the collar just enough for Sam to snatch it from him. “Since when do you need a wife?”
“You know the verse as well as I do. ‘Two are better than one.’” Sam didn’t look up at his friend as he guided the collar over Bella’s head, then fastened the traces.
“I don’t like this,” Wes muttered as he stalked in front of the horses. “Of all the crazy, harebrained things. How much do you know about this woman?”
“I know enough.” Sam hooked the harnesses to the pole, then attached the traces to the wagon. “And you’re in no position to criticize me, not when you’ve got your sister, your pa, and ranch hands to help around your place. Besides, you liked being married well enough, once.”
Wes stopped pacing, his jaw turning as hard as an armadillo’s shell.
Sam winced. What had he been thinking? He knew better than to bring up Abigail around Wes.
Silence filled the lean-to for a full minute. Sam focused on attaching the traces to the wagon, the heat of Wes’s eyes boring into him, while the cattle from the paddock lowed in the distance.
“Abigail was different. I’d known her my whole life.” When Wes finally spoke, his voice was as gritty as the earth beneath their boots. “You don’t know anything about this woman coming on the stage.”
“We’ve been writing for over a year now.” Though it did feel strange speaking of Ellie aloud. That would change after they were wed, wouldn’t it? “Reckon that’s about as well as any man ever knows a woman before they marry.”
Wes gave a hard, rough laugh. “Spoken like a man who knows nothing about women. This isn’t about that bargain, is it? That pact we made all those years ago?”
Sam sighed. It had been a foolish pact made only to cheer up Wes when Cain started harassing him after his ma died. But still, a man couldn’t rightly go back on a blood oath. “No. It’s just… I’m twenty-eight and tired of being alone. Reckon I’d be looking for a wife about now even if we’d never made that pact.”
Though having a wife would also save him from getting a shaved head, because he had no doubt Cain would come back into Twin Rivers just to see him bald.
Wes shook his head. “I still don’t like it.”
“I didn’t ask whether you liked it.” Sam spit the words into the dry desert air. “I’ve spent my whole life not knowing where I came from. And now that I’ve finally figured out where I’m going, now that I have land and cattle and a place to call home, you’re going to criticize me about getting a wife?”
“Not about getting one, about how you’re going about it. You’ve been writing her for a year but haven’t mentioned her to me. That right there tells me you know advertising for a woman in a newspaper is no way to find yourself a wife.”
“I need to go.” Sam climbed the wheel up to the wagon’s seat.
“You’ve got enough land that you could sell it and be half rich.” Wes kept right on rambling as though he hadn’t said a word. “Why tie yourself to a stranger who’ll inherit it all if something happens to you? Women have poisoned their husbands for less.”
The muscles in his shoulder bunched into a hard, solid knot. “I should knock you flat for that, Agamemnon Westin.”
He flicked the reins, and the horses started forward with a small lurch.
Wes stepped out of the lean-to and swung up onto Ares.
Good. Let Wes go home and rant to his sister or pa. He’d had enough scolding for one day.
Sam gave the reins another flick. The noise of a horse galloping sounded behind the wagon, but instead of the commotion disappearing into the distance, it grew louder. A moment later Wes reined in Ares to trot beside the wagon.
Sam glared at his friend. “Your ranch is in the other direction.”
“I want to meet this bride of yours for myself. And if I don’t like her, she can find herself another husband. I don’t care if I have to pay to send her back to wherever she came from either.”
Sam ground his teeth together. This was precisely why he hadn’t told Wes more about Ellie coming. Precisely why he’d hoped to be good and hitched by the time Wes got back from spring roundup.
“I want to be alone when I meet my wife, and I’d appreciate it if you’d respect that.”
“Last I knew, the road in front of the mercantile where the stage parks is open to anyone who shows up.” Wes kept his gaze pinned to the road, his voice flat and emotionless.
Sam set his jaw and stared at the road ahead. It was going to be a long ride into town.
But what if Wes was right, and marrying a woman he’d never met turned out to be the biggest mistake of his life?
The life she headed toward seemed too good to be true.
Twisting her free hand in her crumpled skirt, Ellie Spritzer looked down at the sweaty face of six-year-old Janey asleep on her lap. While it might be common enough for a man to take a wife purely because he needed someone to cook and keep house, most men didn’t agree to that wife bringing along eight siblings.
Across the stage, Susanna, Lynnette, Joe, Leroy, and Martin all squished into the seat. Every one of them had a red face, sweaty forehead, and shirt plastered to their chest.
What if Sam Owens took one look at them all filing out of the carriage and changed his mind?
What if he took one look at her, in her crumpled, sweaty dress, and decided she wouldn’t make a good wife after all? What if…?
No, she’d wouldn’t work herself into a panic. She needed to trust God would provide. A verse somewhere in the Bible probably said something about God providing for His children’s needs. She was just too hot and tired to remember it.
But what if God failed them?
Like God had failed them when He let their mother die last fall.
And when their father had finally returned to Eagle Harbor and said none of them could live with him.
And when Aunt Maude changed her mind and refused to take in five of her siblings.
Ellie leaned away from the seat, sending a fresh bit of air down her back. But the movement also allowed the sweat beading at the top of her shoulders to run down, further dampening her shirtwaist where it pressed against the worn cushion.
The stage hit a small bump, and she fell back against the seat. Could a stranger truly be God’s provision after all their relatives had failed them?
“Scoot over.” Eight-year-old Henry wiggled on the seat beside her. “You’re squishing me.”
“Sorry.” Ellie scooted a smidgen to her right, but that nearly put her on top of a sleeping Christopher.
They’d taken the train as far south and west as the railroad track had been laid, then the man behind the ticket counter in San Antonio had said he could sell her nine tickets for the same stage, but the little ones would need to sit on laps. But she hadn’t quite understood how small the stage would be. After being wedged between one or another of her eight siblings for four hundred miles from San Antonio to Twin Rivers, she’d never again call the bunkroom in the cargo ship they’d boarded in Eagle Harbor or the seating on the train they’d changed to in Chicago cramped.
“How much longer until we get there?” Henry absently twirled the string of a yo-yo. “I’m hot.”
“Not that much longer.” Please, God, don’t let it be much longer. She looked out the open window, not that having it open did much good when the air outside was so hot and dry.
Was there a town on the horizon? They should be coming into Twin Rivers soon. She shifted again, arching her head around Christopher so she could better see. Nothing but yellow and brown greeted her. Flat yellow open spaces, scrubby bushes with leaves more brown than green, and an occasional cluster of rockfaces that jutted up in the distance. The rockfaces weren’t big enough to be called mountains. Hills, perhaps? But these bald, craggy hills looked nothing like the hills in Eagle Harbor, which were filled with dense, green forest.
Did her fiancé truly own a ranch somewhere near here? Where did the cattle graze? Certainly not in the lush green fields she’d imagined. But what cow would want to eat the scrubby bushes dotting the land?
“She’s supposed to be on your lap, not mine.” On the other side of the carriage, Martin scowled at Suzanna, who was holding one-year-old Lynnette while she slept.
“Maybe you should take a turn holding her.” Suzanna scowled right back at her older brother, her pert little nose tilted up in the air. “She’s getting heavy.”
“And maybe you should keep her on your lap instead of mine.” Martin slouched against the side of the carriage, his lips turned down into the frown he’d worn ever since their ma died last fall.
Ellie sighed. “Just hold her for a few minutes, Martin. Suzanna’s done more than her share of caring for Lynnette.”
“Give her to Leroy.” Martin crossed his arms, as though that would somehow prevent him from helping. “She cries whenever I hold her.”
Leroy rolled his eyes. “Maybe try treating her like a little sister and not a racoon you’re trying to scare off, and she won’t cry.”
“Martin, take your sister.” Ellie swiped a strand of sweaty hair away from her face and tucked it behind her ear. “Leroy is already holding Joe.”
Though Joe was technically sitting on his own, his small body had somehow ended up sprawled over Leroy’s lap, and unlike Martin, Leroy didn’t seem to mind.
“Fine.” Martin grabbed Lynnette and yanked her onto his lap so quickly the child woke and let out a scream. “See, told you she doesn’t like me.”
“Someone make her be quiet.” Janey squirmed against Ellie’s lap, her eyes blinking open for a moment before she closed them again.
“How can she be crying again?” Christopher stretched and yawned, his own drowsy eyes opening. “Isn’t she tired of that?”
Ellie glared at Martin with a look that clearly said see-the-trouble-you-caused?
He turned his head away and ignored her, just like he ignored Lynnette’s screaming. He kept Lynnette on his lap, but that was all he did. The boy didn’t even try patting her on the back or jostling her to see if she would quiet.
“I’m hungry.” Henry patted her free hand.
When wasn’t the boy hungry these days? Given how quickly he’d been growing of late, she’d need to let out the hem on his trousers when they reached Twin Rivers. Ellie reached for the handbag at her feet where the biscuits were stashed.
“I’m hungry, too.” Joe yawned and straightened into a sitting position beside Leroy.
Ellie pulled out a couple biscuits that had long gone stale and held one out for Henry.
“Not another one of those.” He wrinkled his nose.
She really couldn’t blame him. The owner of the bakery where she’d worked in Eagle Harbor had insisted she take a plethora of biscuits and cookies and bread to tide them over on their trip. But after a month of traveling, the food looked about as moist and appetizing as the misshapen yellow rocks that covered the ground outside.
“I’ll take one.” Joe leaned forward and snatched a biscuit from her hand.
“Joe’s awake and Leroy’s lap is free.” Martin scowled at his older brother. “It’s his turn to hold Lynnette.”
“My lap wouldn’t be free if you hadn’t woken her up,” Leroy snapped.
“Boys,” Ellie breathed, but the word was swallowed by Lynnette’s next bout of screaming.
“Will there be food when we get to Twin Rivers?” Henry eyed the stale biscuit on her lap.
“How much longer?” Christopher asked from her other side.
“Ellie, tell Leroy he needs to take Lynnette, now!” Martin demanded.
“Ellie, tell Martin to stop hogging the seat.” Suzanna gave her brother a shove, which caused Lynnette to shriek even louder.
“When’s the next stop?” Joe’s voice turned into a high-pitched whine. “I have to use the privy.”
Ellie sank back and closed her eyes against the endless stream of voices. But that didn’t stop a bout of hot tears from scalding her eyes. What stranger in his right mind would open his home to a group of loud, complaining, sweaty children? When they got off the stage, Sam was going to take one look at them and change his mind about letting them stay.
And then what was she going to do?