― 1 ―
I remember well the first time I saw Rudolph Chandler.
One of the ranch hands returned from a weekend of riotous behavior in town and told my parents about a new store opened the previous month. Mother, of course, wanted to go and see the articles for sale right away, but Father told her it would be better to wait until Saturday when he could go with her. Mother had received last Christmas a letter from her sister in Mississippi about new gadgets for sale back East. She especially wanted some pins and needles that she badly needed for her sewing projects, and hoped the new storekeeper had them in stock.
On Saturday, before the sun was high in the eastern sky, we all piled into the wagon and headed the ten miles to town. Being small children, my brother and I were lying on quilts in the back, while Mother held baby sister in her arms. The ride was soothing, and I was soon fast asleep.
It was quite an adventure of itself to travel into town. Usually one of the hands or Father bought the few meager supplies to be had there. Twice a year, Father made a trip to the Army post at Fort Sill and brought back enough staples, like ground corn meal, flour, sugar and salt, to last the ranch until the next time. Occasionally, a wagon train or peddler would pass our way, Mother would “uh and ah” at the things for sale, and Father would buy her a new frying pan and cloth for new clothes or some canned goods.
Mostly, our ranch could supply all our needs. The cook, Old Pete, had a vegetable garden behind his one-room shanty. The seeds came from a supply house back East. He tended it with loving care, and most times, if Old Pete wasn’t out in the garden hoeing his vegetables, he could be found peeling tons of potatoes or baking an endless supply of bread for the ranch hands. Our meat was beef or chickens. It was Mother’s job to tend the chickens and collect the eggs. Now that I had reached the great age of six years, she let me help her, but I was secretly afraid of the red rooster, so sometimes pretended not to hear her when she asked if I wanted to help gather the eggs.
We also had a milk cow, because Mother said small children needed lots of milk. The cow’s name was Lila. I loved the smell and taste of warm milk straight from Lila’s teats. There were a few stray cats that had wandered to the ranch and hung around the barn at milking time. Father wanted to get rid of them, but Mother said they were handy at keeping the mice and rats from the barn.
Father had first journeyed to the Territory after the War Between the States. He had seen the rich soil and tall native grasses blowing in the breeze and determined to return. And, so he did. He sold his farm in Mississippi, gathered Mother, us kids and all their possessions into a large wagon and set out with several other families to “settle in the West.” My brother Richard hadn’t been born yet, Thomas was almost six and my sister Rose was a babe in arms. I was about three years old when we first laid claim to the land that’s now one the largest ranches in the Territory.
Indians were sometimes a bother, begging for food or stealing beef from the open range if that suited them better. Mother always gave them bread or meat when they came to the house. She made several quilts to distribute during the hard winters. They went back and forth from the open range to Fort Sill. The soldiers tried to protect the settlers as best they could. Sometimes shots were fired from angry Indians or settlers, and some people were killed, but mostly the savages were peaceful in our area.
On this particular morning in late July, the sun rose high into the sky and the heat under our blanket became uncomfortable, so Thomas and I sat up and began to look around for familiar landmarks. I could see we were coming into the outskirts of town. There were the livery stable and the blacksmith’s home on the left.
It wasn’t much of a town in those days. It had been a lone trading post on the prairie where the local ranchers gathered to talk politics and weather. When the old trader died, the large log building was left vacant. A few saloons and outhouses sprang up next to the trading post. There was a lawyer’s shack, occupied by Mr. Delano Jones, who was drunk most of the time, Mother said.
Mrs. Alice Jennings, daughter of the trader and a widow with two small children, lived in the only real house in town. Her husband was a soldier and killed at Shiloh. She cooked and sewed clothes, mostly shirts, for the single cowboys or strangers traveling through the town. She and Mother visited together whenever we ventured into town, and sometimes spent the night when the weather caught us too far from home to travel.
She was a jolly woman, quick with laughter, and a somewhat crude manner, but had a kind word for everyone she met. Her daughters were twins, Caroline and Evelyn, several years older than I. The girls and I got along well, and I enjoyed the company of girls to play with, for all that I was more accustomed to the men on the ranch.
I could see as we approached the trader’s log building that it was no longer vacant. A huge sign hung across the front and under the roof that announced in black letters, Chandler’s Store. Underneath in smaller print, the sign said, Groceries and Sundries; Hardware and Guns. The two windows had recently been cleaned and reflected the morning sunshine. The door stood open, and I could see several people going in or out.
Father stopped the team in front of the store. He tied the reins on the hitching rail, helped Mother from the wagon and handed baby Rose to her. He turned to us. Thomas and I jumped into his waiting arms. We went as a group into the store.
My first impression was of the pleasing aroma that drifted from the supplies scattered all about; spices and tobacco mixed with garlic and dust teased my nostrils with abandon. As my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, I could see new shelves built along the walls and filled with canned goods. Open barrels holding corn, flour, beans and sour pickles lined the center aisle. Shelves built clear to the ceiling contained multicolored bolts of cloths, and factory-made clothing hung on pegs in one corner.
From around the counter walked a giant of a man, with black hair slightly curling around his ears, and a booming voice that seemed to come from somewhere deep in his belly. There was a scar on his face that extended from his temple and hairline down to his chin, leaving him with an angry, scowling look. A dark mole sat on the right side of his mouth, and the shadow of a beard that had recently been shaved gave his face a dark color.
It was the first time I remember being frightened in my life.
As he approached our group, I ducked behind my mother’s skirts, hoping he wouldn’t see me. He shook hands and introduced himself to Father in that loud rumble and turned to my mother. I quivered with fear as I saw his eyes lowered to Thomas and me standing beside her.
“Hello, and who is this?” I closed my eyes tight and clung to my mother. She tried to gently bring me forward to be introduced, but I held back, covering myself with her long skirts, using them like a shield against this huge man. “Well, no hurry,” he said, “We’ll get to know each other in time.” As he turned away to talk to Father, I slowly opened my eyes and saw my mother’s face, shame and embarrassment at my impolite behavior clearly visible in her eyes.
She turned and walked away, leaving me alone in the middle of the floor. Thomas trailed after her. Father and Big Man were talking beside the pot-bellied stove as though they’d been friends for years. I stood a moment trying to decide what to do without my family support. I heard a giggle from behind a barrel. It was Caroline Jennings, whom I had previously considered my friend. Her mother stood near the sewing notions counter, looking at a jar of mixed buttons.
“What are you afraid of?” she asked, laughing the whole time. “You’ve seen men before.”
And, it was true. Living on the ranch as we did, I’d seen probably a hundred men come and go, tall and short, slim and fat. But, there was something about Mr. Chandler that sent chills down my back and made my fingers curl in fear. I sneaked a small peek at him across the room, just as he glanced my way. His dark eyebrows raised in question; his left eye above the scar slowly dropped into a wink; and I almost died right there on the spot. I didn’t look at him again the entire hour we were in his store. I took in every smell and every sight, so that I can clearly see it today, as I write these words as an old woman.
I gaily talked to Caroline about the new school term, and the new boys in town who would be in our school, but not once did I approach my mother or father as they gathered the supplies and talked to the townspeople who drifted in and out of the store.
Just as we began to leave the store, an amazing thing happened. Suddenly, right in front of my breast, there was a large brown hand holding a stick of cherry-flavored hard candy, my favorite kind. I looked up, and there was the scar-faced giant not a foot from me, with a peace offering. I ignored the candy and ran from the store, as though all the ghosts from the cemetery were after me. I dashed to the wagon, hopped into the back and hid under the quilts. Through the thick folds, I could hear Mother and Father talking about their first visit to Chandler’s Store, satisfied with their purchases as we left the town behind. Finally, I lifted my head from the quilt and looked back. Dust rose in our wake as we moved along. And through the dust, I could just make out the shape of a man standing in the street looking after us.
― 2 ―
I saw Rudy Chandler many times in the following years, and a profile of his past began to take shape, along with the identities of the rest of the inhabitants of the town. He had a large family in Virginia. He’d lived on a plantation that was destroyed and burned by the Yankee soldiers. His father owned slaves and died during the war. His mother married again and moved to Richmond. His four sisters were married and had produced many children. Two of his brothers perished in the war. Two brothers had gone to California and another brother lived in Arkansas.
Mr. Chandler had been in the Confederate Cavalry, injured and captured in Mississippi, and sent to Delaware as a prisoner of war. He spent two years in appalling conditions before being exchanged and sent home. It was in the prison camp that he determined if he survived, he’d go west and operate a store. He told Father that he wanted to make a new beginning where there were no bitter memories to remind him of his old life. Father told Mother he couldn’t blame him for that, for it was exactly what he himself had done.
Mr. Chandler went back to Virginia once a year to visit, usually early in spring, to see his family and make purchases for his store. The supplies would come in a wagon train along with more settlers for the surrounding area and town. We were in town one day when I was about twelve years old, when the supplies arrived. I remember my mother’s excitement that day. Mr. Chandler had promised her the latest style in a hat. I’ll never forget the look on her face when she opened the round box tied with blue ribbon that he handed to her. Out of the box came the most gorgeous straw bonnet that ever existed, with snow-white egret plumes and long blue ribbons to tie under the neck. Mother wore that hat at every opportunity, and Father would treat her with great pomp and respect when she wore it.
I was growing into a tall, gangly young woman. I’m not beautiful of face as my sister Rose became. My eyes and hair are brown, but sometimes it became streaked with gold when out in the summer sun. My skin, too often, was brown and peeling from the relentless sun, when I forgot to wear my hat. Some of the ladies in town said I’d amount to nothing because I was so wild. In a way, it was true. Living on the ranch, I rode my horse every day, and often helped with the cattle. Mother tried her best to make a lady out of me, using her Southern gentlewoman background to encourage and inspire me. I roamed over the prairie and gullies as though they belonged to only me. Several times I came upon Indians or strange men, but I was never frightened. I knew I could outride anyone on my mare, Nellie. I could rope strays and shoot as well as anyone on the ranch. I could shoe a horse or castrate a bull.
I finished my eighth year of schooling and thought that was enough. Mother and Father discussed sending me back East to stay with my mother’s sister, Katherine. I began to dream of being a grand lady as Mother had once been with all the men at my feet and the other girls fainting with envy. I used my brothers, Thomas and Richard, shamelessly to try out my dancing steps and flirting ways.
We sat quietly listening as Mother described the old days under the Southern sky with the black people working in the fields, and she, sitting on the veranda, a cool drink in hand, talking and laughing with the neighbors. She spoke of the huge balls where the ladies wore fancy pastel dresses, and the gentlemen courted them with flowers and jeweled fans. The fox hunting and manly sports competitions appealed to Thomas much more than the long hot days of enticing stray cattle out of hidden bushes or draws.
It wasn’t so much the soft Southern nights or the soirees that appealed to me as the traveling itself. Oh, how I longed to see the tall cottonwoods, red oaks and elms, and smell the magnolias. There were no trees to speak of in the Territory. Maybe, a few spindly mesquites or cedars grew along the riverbanks, but not the huge forests of my parents’ day. I could barely remember them, and the memory was fading along with my early days spent on the plantation.
Thomas at fourteen was already taller than I. His face was chapped and red from the sun. His hands were dark and strong like Father’s. He went to school half a day but hated it. He sometimes whined and complained about the long hours of toil and sweat, but I thrived on it. He secretly drank and gambled with the ranch hands in the bunkhouse, and Father knew. Father told Mother when she spoke of it that all boys had to learn.
Rose was beautiful but lazy. She seemed to always be in her room brushing her hair or admiring herself in the only mirror in the house. She sat reading the few newspapers we received and ordered books from a supply house back East. She never went out in the sunshine, even with a hat. When Mother asked for help in the kitchen, she found something important to do right away. Even after a hard day riding out with the men, I’d be called on to do kitchen work or the laundry. I tried not to mind, because Mother worked hard, too, and she was a real lady.
My brother, Richard, was born on the ranch, four years after Rose. He was always shy and spindly. The doctor said he needed to get out more in the sunshine, so Father taught him to ride and fish and hunt. But, he was never as good at staying on a horse as I was. He drowned in the swimming hole when I was fifteen. They buried him on the ridge behind the barn, and we mourned him, for we loved him dearly.
In my seventeenth year, disaster struck the ranch. First, my mother came down with the influenza, and although the new doctor from town was called, she died on the fifth night of her illness. She was buried beside my brother Richard, behind the barn. A wooden fence was erected and whitewashed to help protect the grave from stray animals. Father was shaken and seemed for a while not to want to go on with life. The work of the ranch and barn fell to Thomas and the hired hands. Rose went into deep mourning, and her beautiful face was often marred by her tearstained cheeks and red eyes. I took over the kitchen chores and lost the freedom I had known wandering the fields and working with the cattle and horses.
There was little rain that spring, and the creeks and cattle tanks were low. The men carried buckets of water from the well during the long summer months to water the herd. The grass started out green but quickly turned brown, and the last of the winter hay was needed to supplement the feeding. The fall roundup was smaller than it had been for many years, and Father decided to sell a larger amount to strengthen the herd. We thought the winter snows and rain would help the grass to recover from the drought, but it became even worse. The warm, dry air quickly killed the remaining native grass, and we were forced to buy hay from the neighbors, who were really no better off than we were.
The second winter brought even more problems as storm after storm hit. The snow was welcome to water the fields, but the biting winds and freezing temperatures killed more cattle, and the chickens refused to lay their eggs. In the spring thaw, Father, Thomas, the cowboys and I rode the prairie and gullies, and for days the buzzards circled overhead. Father’s alarm grew as more calves lay dead beside their mothers. A few calves were found alive and taken to the barn, where they were taught to nurse from a cow that had lost its calf. The shorthorn bull, Goliath, died that winter.
Father seemed to withdraw more into himself. He’d spent the greater part of his life building up the herd. He rode long hours on the prairie on his horse, checking the grass, green and lush from the moisture, but less than a hundred cattle were left to nibble it. Sometimes, I rode silently beside him. More often than not those days, I was left with the work of the household, sweeping, cooking, laundry and baking. I asked Rose to help, but she said she just couldn’t, and would run to her room and cry some more.
One morning in early May, a few weeks before my nineteenth birthday, Father sat at breakfast with a sad look on his face. As though making a major decision, he looked at me and told me to meet him in his office. I left the table and followed him to the back room where he kept his papers on the cattle and men who worked for us.
“Jewel, I’m at my lowest point,” he said, his voice low and sounding strangely humble to my ears. I can’t remember my father ever speaking in such a way, before or since that day. “I can only think of one way out of the situation of the last few years. The grass is coming back, and there’s water in the wells, but we need cattle to run a ranch. We’ll need to keep the last of the herd separated for a while to see if they survive. What we need is new blood to start again, and a new bull. It’s going to take money, a lot of money. I talked to Rudy Chandler last week when I was in town, and he made me a proposition. I’m sorry, darling, I’ve tried to come up with another way, but I just can’t seem to think beyond today and what’s needed to get this ranch going again.” He sat for a moment looking at me in speculation. He rubbed his massive hands across his face as if that gesture would give him inspiration. Then, making his final decision, he said, “Girl, I’m asking a big sacrifice of you. Chandler offered to loan me money to buy new cattle and maybe dig a few more wells, so we won’t ever have this kind of problem again when the drought hits. But, I’ll need your cooperation in this venture.”
“What is it, Pa?” I could see he was troubled, and I wanted to save him from worry. “What can I do to help?”
“Chandler offered to loan me the money, if you’ll marry him,” my father said, without looking at me.
“Marry him? Marry Mr. Chandler?” My voice was trembling, and I felt my stomach twist into knots. My whole body seemed to grow warm, a whisper of wind from the open window causing the hair on my neck to rise. “You want me to marry Rudy Chandler, the storekeeper?”
“It’s the only way, girl.” He wouldn’t look me in the eyes. “I can’t go to the bank; everyone in town will gossip and stare, probably laugh, too. The great James McLean, having to borrow money. If they find out how bad the situation is out here, the other ranchers and those damn farmers in the valley, too, I bet, will be coming around like vultures ready to pick over the pieces. God, I’ll do almost anything before I’ll let that happen.”
I’d never heard my father talk with such a tone of sarcasm and wounded pride before. I looked more closely at the man sitting in front of me. Suddenly, I could see things about him I hadn’t noticed before. His hair had turned gray. His eyes were no longer clear, but cloudy and red-rimmed, like Rose’s had become in the last two years. Wrinkles had formed along his cheek line and around the corners of his eyes. My father’s shoulders drooped, and he sat, gazing out the open window at the range that only last year had been dotted with cattle, but now was almost deserted. I remembered that he had let two of the hands go in the last month, Bob and Slim, two good, hard-working cattlemen.
I, too, looked out that window and thought how it was when I was small, with Mother baking in the kitchen, and Father sitting at the table, a big cigar in his mouth. Somehow, I thought my life would always be on the ranch. I knew that Thomas, being the eldest, would inherit, but surely there was a place for me here. I pictured myself out on the range, riding Nellie, with maybe a tall handsome husband beside me. The evenings would be spent sitting in front of the fire with my children about my knee.
Suddenly, the dream went away, and I could see another picture, Father and Mother and Rose gone, and Thomas with his wife and children. It would be his home, his ranch, and his children sitting by the fireplace. There was really no future for me on this land I loved. So, I decided to agree.
“Yes, Father,” I said aloud. “If my marriage to Rudy Chandler is the best way to save the ranch, then I’ll do it.” My heart was thumping madly. My palms were sweating, so I rubbed them against my dress. I held my breath for his answer.
He turned and looked me in the eye for the first time since we entered the room. A great sigh filled his lungs and escaped through his lips. He burst from his chair as though he could no longer remain still and marched across the room. Relief was clear in every move. He stood for a moment at the window, his massive shoulders turned away from me. His whole manner of a few minutes before changed. He turned and lifted me from my chair, swung me high in his arms as though I were again three years old, and laughing with a mighty rumble deep in his chest, he set me down again.
“By God, girl, I didn’t think you’d do it. I truly didn’t think you’d agree,” He sighed again. “Rudy Chandler, of all people, to be the husband of my little girl.”
“Why, Father?” I was puzzled by his changed behavior, by the wonder in his voice.
“Why? I told you why, to save the ranch. I don’t understand what you’re asking me.”
“Why did you think I wouldn’t agree to the marriage?”
“Oh, you were always so afraid of him. I don’t think you ever speak to him when we’re in the store, do you? And, yet, you agreed to marry the man.” He paused for a moment, his brow furrowed in thought. “You haven’t changed your mind? You will go through with it? Because, I’ll tell you the truth, darling, if I go to him and say you will and later you back out, I’ll be angrier than I can say.”
“I’ll marry him, Father. I won’t change my mind. You can write him an answer today, if you like.”
“Good girl. I’ll write him now. Go on out to the kitchen and bring me something to eat, for I tell you the truth, I didn’t have much appetite the last few days, not knowing how to tell you of his offer.” He turned to his desk drawer as if searching for paper.
I walked away a few steps, then turned and looked back. The man who had looked so old an hour ago now looked the same, but different. It was in his manner, his eyes now clear, his mouth smiling, his shoulders straightened and goodness me, he was whistling. I shook my head and left the room.
I filled a plate with biscuits and sausage and carried them to him. He was sitting at his desk writing his letter to Mr. Chandler. He didn’t look up or thank me, just grabbed for a biscuit from the plate. I left him there.
I filled the kettle with water and heated it to wash the breakfast dishes. Thomas had gone out to the barn. I could see him talking with one of the hands. I supposed that Rose had gone to her room to finish the book she’d started the night before. I stood alone staring out the window at the same scene that I had looked at most of my life: the barns and corrals with a couple of horses grazing on the tall grass, the chicken pens and the milk cow, Lila, contentedly chewing her cud. Everything seemed as it should be. I was the only one who had changed. In the course of one hour’s time, my life had turned upside down and stretched hopelessly into the future. I no longer belonged here. I looked around the kitchen, my mother’s kitchen. Now, Rose would cook and clean until Thomas married. I took a deep breath and sighed.
What did I know of Rudolph Chandler? Would he be a good husband? He was twenty years older than me. I remembered someone had mentioned years ago something about him. What was it? A picture of him arose in my mind, and I could see his face clearly, the scar standing out white against his dark skin; his gray eyes looking at me but not smiling.
I didn’t remember him ever smiling at anyone. Laughing, yes, a couple of times I’d heard him laugh at one of the farmer’s jokes, but never a spontaneous smile for his customers or for me. Suddenly, it came back, the memory of a rancher’s wife saying that he’d had a lover once. A beautiful, Southern bride, who had promised to marry him, but when told he’d been injured and horribly scarred, she’d married another man. I thought how it must have been for him, far off in a Yankee prison dreaming of his home and family, of the girl waiting for his return. How he must have died inside when she hadn’t waited. Was that why he was single at thirty-eight years old? Did he still think of his lover? Did he go to see her with her husband and children when he visited his family in Virginia?
Well, I’d promised to marry him. I couldn’t change my mind. Father was at that moment writing a letter of acceptance of his bargain. The money would save the ranch and Father from ruin. Thomas would inherit the ranch and raise his family here. Rose would go away to school in the East instead of me. I would marry Rudy Chandler and become a storekeeper’s wife and live in town forever.
A shudder ran through my body, and I turned to lift the kettle from the stove. I poured water into the basin and lowered the bar of soap, swishing to make suds. The water was too hot, and I burned my hand. I laughed. Served me right, I thought, for standing there dreaming when there was work to be done.
― 3 ―
Two days later, I was thumping bread dough, sending flour rising in a cloud around me, when I heard a wagon roll into the yard. The dogs started howling. I grabbed a cloth and turned to the door as a knock sounded. I opened the door, and there, dressed in his somber dark blue suit, was Mr. Chandler.
“Miss McLean,” he said.
Without thinking, I exclaimed breathlessly, “Father’s out in the pasture, I think.”
“I came to see you,” he replied, that great booming voice echoing back from somewhere in the house.
“Oh,” I said, looking down at the floor. “Oh, goodness, ah, well, come in.”
I backed into a chair, then started to sit down, but suddenly had a picture of the way I must look, flour splattered, my hair coming down from its usual knot. I gulped and ran from the room in a panic. I met Rose on the stairs.
“Who’s here?” she asked.
“Mr. Chandler,” I squeaked at her, as I slivered past and into my room.
She went on down the stairs and must have invited him into the parlor, for after I had brushed my hair and changed my dress, that’s where I found them, talking away as though they were good friends. I don’t think he and I had exchanged a dozen words in my whole life, yet I had promised to marry him. I stood silently a moment in the doorway, trying to gain enough courage to enter.
He looked up and saw me standing there, and my heart seemed to stop beating. Then it began to race so fast and loudly, I was sure they could hear it. I stepped into the room as calmly as I could and took a seat. Rose hadn’t blinked or noticed I was there. Mr. Chandler knew though, I could tell. He listened attentively to Rose’s ramblings as though the discussion of a girl’s clothes was most important. It seemed an hour that she entertained us with her chatter, but it was probably much less time than that. Quietly rising from his chair, his deep voice like thunder rolling in the distance, he excused himself but wondered if Miss McLean would go riding with him. “Of course,” Rose, ever vain, jumped to her feet.
“No, Miss Rose, maybe another time. I should like to take your sister, Miss Jewel McLean, riding today.” He stood waiting with quiet patience. Rose looked at me with amazement in her eyes, her curiosity no doubt causing the gleam in her eyes.
“Thank you,” I said, around the lump in my throat. “I would like to go riding with you. I’ll get my shawl.”
When I returned, we, as though of one accord, turned toward the kitchen to exit through the back door, and left poor Rose standing alone, her mouth open in surprise, in the middle of the parlor floor.
We walked down the back steps and across to the wagon. He stopped and he smiled, the scar standing out like a white slash across his puckered cheek. A real smile was on his face, and I blinked in shock. I made a move to climb up, but he raised his hands to my waist and gently lifted me up and into the seat. As he went around to the other side, I looked down at my hands clasped tightly in my lap. One of the horses stamped a foot, and I jumped. Me, who had worked with the cattle and with rough, hardened ranch hands, was nervous of this gentle giant. It was a daunting thought.
We rode in his large supply wagon, the one that had made many trips to Virginia and returned full of supplies. My father’s wagon was smaller, like a Dearborn, meant for carrying people. I looked around to see if any of the cowboys was watching, half hoping they were, and half mortified that they would see me acting the grand lady. But, no one was in sight. Wait! There was someone. Rose was standing in the back door, her beautiful face puzzled and, I hoped, chagrined. I wanted to stick out my tongue at her. She was so proud of her good looks and slender form. I was sure at that moment that Father hadn’t spoken to her of my betrothal.
Picking up the reins, Mr. Chandler started to cluck to the team, but changing his mind, turned to me and gently brushed my cheek with a finger. I looked at him, surprised.
“Flour.” Chuckling, he started the horses to moving.
I stared straight ahead at the horses’ ears, unable to move or speak. The wagon began to move, and I watched, as though I’d never seen such a thing before, the swaying movement of twin rumps of the large draft horses.
We didn’t go far. Over a slight ridge and out of sight of the house and barn, Mr. Chandler stopped the team and applied the brake. We sat in silence. My mind scurried around trying to think of some conversational tidbit, but my tongue and mind wouldn’t cooperate.
Mr. Chandler took my slim, cold hand in his massive right hand and covered it with his left.
“Miss McLean,” he started to speak at last. Then he stopped, cleared his throat and spoke again.
“Miss McLean.” His deep voice rumbled, and my heart fluttered in my chest. “I’ve received a letter from your father in reply to a proposition that I discussed with him a few weeks back. The letter states that both you and your father are in agreement to the terms of my proposition. I would like to know if you’ve arrived at your answer of your own free will and determination, without threat on the part of your father. For if you’ve been coerced in any way, I’ll withdraw my offer, and you’ll be free to make other plans.”
I turned to see that he was gazing at the rumps of the horses just as I had. I couldn’t help it. I began to laugh. Laughter bubbled forth, and I sat giggling in the poor man’s astonished face. He dropped my hand as though it had turned into a snake in his grasp.
“I’m sorry,” I tried to say, my breath coming in gasps. “It was just so funny. The way you and I looked so intently at those horses’ rears. I wonder that they don’t run away from us in shame.”
He looked at the horses, then back at me, puzzled. Finally seeing the joke, he, too, laughed. I saw his eyes sparkle with enjoyment. Then as my gaze lowered to the scar, and then his lips, I sobered and, embarrassed, looked away. He immediately quieted and looked down at his empty hands. He couldn’t have known how I wished at that moment that he would kiss me.
I took a deep breath.
“Mr. Chandler,” I began. “I’ve accepted your offer of marriage for two reasons.” I could see that he was curious, though he didn’t turn to look at me, so I continued.
“Firstly, it was for my father’s sake and the future well-being of my family. With your kind offer of financial support, the ranch will become self-supporting and prosperous again. My brother will inherit after my father’s death, so his future is secure. My sister will be able to go East to school and, hopefully, find a better life to her liking, for it’s as clear as a bell that she hates ranch life.”
He turned then and looked at me. I wondered if he thought I was totally mercenary and had proposed to the wrong lady, for my first statements could lead him to just that thought.
“And, your second reason?” There was no expression on his face and he looked back at his hands, waiting patiently. At that moment, dark clouds covered the sun, and I could feel dampness in the air, as though a storm were brewing. One of the horses neighed and stamped his hoof as if in protest. I pulled my shawl closer around my shoulders.
I paused, marshaling my thoughts. “My second reason is an entirely personal one. If I refuse your offer, my father would possibly find another way out of his difficulties, for he’s a very determined man, and the ranch is his whole life. I could go east to my aunt, Katherine, in Mississippi where I might chance to meet a man of prominence and wealth and become a great matron of society.”
I could feel that he hadn’t previously thought that I might ever leave the Territory. He shifted uneasily on the seat but didn’t speak. The horses seemed restless and he took the reins to calm them.
“My ambitions have never been that lofty, though.” I smiled at the thought. “I hold you in high regard, in spite of my behavior when we first met.” The clouds passed and the sun again shone brightly in its splendor in the western sky. I could see by a certain look in his eyes that he was remembering the way I had run from him in fright. “Since then, I have had occasion to witness from a distance your treatment of your customers, your friends and fellow townsmen. You always seem to treat each one with deference and respect, no matter their station or circumstances. Nothing I’ve ever heard has led me to believe that you wouldn’t treat your wife in the same way.”
A deep growl of perhaps chagrin or protest rumbled from his throat.
“Miss McLean,” he started to speak, but I stopped him with a finger on his lips. His eyes looked at me in silent question. His lips felt moist and soft.
“Besides, I think you’re the handsomest man I’ve ever seen.” I blurted out my deepest secret, my face no doubt brick red, for I could feel the warmth of embarrassment on my cheeks and neck.
He sat there stunned. His hand rose to his cheek as though to hide the scar.
“No, don’t hide your scar from me. It’s not a thing to be ashamed of, but a badge of honor, proudly won on the field of battle for your country. Many men did less and brag of their exploits in the war, yet have nothing visible to prove their courage.” I leaned closer and kissed the scar. He backed away and turned his head to the left so I could no longer see his eyes.
“Miss McLean, my dear.” The words came out low and somber. “It’s only fair to warn you that I have other scars as well. I had thought to remain silent until after the marriage vows, but you’ve been honest and open with me, and I can do no less.”
I think that was the first time I’d heard him speak without his usual authority and pride in his voice. I could feel him trembling and I took his hands in mine.
“Are they bad scars?”
“Yes.” He lifted his hand to his left shoulder and spread his fingers out into a wide circle. Pausing a moment, he lowered his hand to his thigh and again circled an area quite large.
“I received two separate wounds, one at Shiloh, where a minny ball pierced my shoulder and left a gaping wound. I lay raging with fever for several days, but the doctors finally were able to patch me up, and I returned to battle. On the day I was captured, I received not only the wound to my face but a sword thrust to the thigh. Without my friend’s attention, I would have bled to death. I consider myself very lucky, for so many of my comrades died without assistance.” He didn’t move and spoke softly and calmly.
“And your friend, what happened to him?” I asked.
“He died,” he replied bluntly, no emotion in his voice. I could sense that he had grieved deeply for his friend, but now had put his grief behind him, just as he had the betrayal of his fiancée. I didn’t press him for more. I placed my hand over his, still lying on his thigh, where the wound had almost cost him his life.
He took my hand, raised it to his lips, and placing a gentle kiss on the outside, turned it over and placed another kiss in the palm. Solemnly and with dignity, he asked, “Miss McLean, will you do me the great honor of becoming my wife?”
“Mr. Chandler, I will marry you,” I replied quietly, more certain than ever that it was the right answer. He drew me into his arms and sealed the promise with his lips on mine. It was my first kiss, and I’m not sure what I expected. His lips were warm and soft and sweet. He pulled me tighter, and I could sense passion and ardor, yet he restrained his emotions. His arms were strong, yet gentle, and I could feel the texture of his suit coat as I lifted my arms to his shoulders and smelled the faint scent of spice and tobacco. He drew back and looked at me. I reached up and caressed his scarred face. He smiled and kissed me again. As soft as a butterfly’s wings, the touch seemed not at all as the first one had.
“Thank you,” he said, humbly, as though it was a truly great honor for him. “Now, I think I’d better return you to your sister before she begins to think that I’ve kidnapped you.” He paused. “Miss McLean, I would appreciate your silence on the matter of my wounds, just as I will never reveal to anyone the circumstances of our marriage.”
“You have my word. I’ll never speak of the discussion we’ve had today without your consent.” I smiled, but his countenance remained grave. He turned and picked up the reins. The wagon began to move in the direction of the ranch house.
For a few moments, we were both silent, lost in our thoughts. As though our earlier discussion had never taken place, he began to talk of our marriage day. “I think the preacher will be in town in two weeks, if he holds true to his monthly schedule. Will that be too soon for you to get ready?”
Surprised but not dismayed, I replied, “That’ll give me plenty of time. I don’t need a lot of preparations. It’s not my style.”
“We’ll live behind the store, of course, for now. You can make any changes in the living quarters that you wish. I have plans to build a house in the future, maybe after my next trip to Virginia. I’ll bring back lumber and furniture with me from the East. I’ve already purchased some town lots. We should be in our new home within a year, maybe two.” He continued talking about the house, and I could see that he’d spent a great deal of time thinking about it. A twinge of anxiety passed through me as I remembered that he’d possibly made similar plans for his fickle lover in Virginia. Or, maybe he had someone else in mind, but because he felt sorry for my father’s situation had decided that I’d do as well. No, I was being foolish. I chastised myself, for he wouldn’t have offered for me in that case. He was an honorable man. He wouldn’t have left a girl dangling in Virginia, for he’d learned that lesson well. I thought what might happen if I too withdrew from our agreement.
The afternoon shadows were lengthening across the prairie, and I shivered. The clouds were becoming fierce and angry.
“I must get you back. The wind’s shifted, and it’s becoming cooler.”
At the house, he lifted me from my high perch on the wagon seat and walked with me to the door.
“I may not have time to come this way before the wedding. I’ll be busy with the store. If you have need of me, send word by one of the cowboys, and I’ll come to you.”
“Thank you,” I replied. “I’m sure everything will be fine.”
“Goodbye, Miss McLean.” He turned away from me as though our conversation had been a casual one with a customer in his store. I was mortified after my forward behavior during the afternoon.
“Goodbye, Mr. Chandler.”
From the shelter of the window screen, I watched as he climbed aboard the wagon and drove out of sight over the ridge, heading toward town.
Rose came clambering down the stairs, clearly curious and watching for my return. Her cheeks were rosy, and her forehead moist from her haste. She stopped a few feet away and stared.
“You’re back.” She greeted me as though that fact was not perfectly obvious. “What was Mr. Chandler doing here? Where did you go with him?” Her eyes had a greedy gleam, and I could tell that she was jealous.
“We’re to be married. He was extending a formal proposal to me and wanted some privacy, I suppose.” I casually threw my shawl onto the sofa.
Rose squealed and rung her hands until her fingers became white and her nails bit into the skin. I watched in fascination the display of emotion from a girl who’d never seemed to care about my affairs before today.
“Married? You’re going to marry Mr. Chandler and you didn’t tell me?”
“I just told you. Father arranged it, but Mr. Chandler wanted to ask me himself, in privacy.” I couldn’t prevent the little sly dig at her vanity.
“I shan’t let Father arrange my marriage,” she exclaimed with a defiant toss of her blonde curls. “I shall choose for myself, and he won’t be an ugly shopkeeper. My husband will be rich or maybe a politician, and we’ll live in Washington City or Philadelphia.’ Her eyes took on that envious glow that I’d seen many times before. “Maybe I’ll marry a banker and live in New York. I’d love to live in New York and have fancy dresses and go to balls. I certainly don’t intend to spend my life in this dead place.”
She followed me into the kitchen, still exclaiming about her future, but I didn’t mind, because for the first time since our mother had died, Rose seemed animated and interested in something beside her hair or the color of her dress. I silently thanked Mr. Chandler for that blessing.
I spent a week making my dress for the wedding. I used careful, small stitches as my mother had taught me. Father had purchased the material as a surprise some time back for my eighteenth birthday, but I hadn’t gotten around to using it. I felt my mother’s presence with every stitch.
Rose continued in a cheerful yet resentful mood. She pleaded for a new dress of her own, but I explained that there wasn’t enough time to sew another. I refurbished one of her old ones by adding some lace and a ruffle around the bottom. I wondered often during that time how Father and my brother would manage after I left the house. Rose had been taught to cook just as I had, but she was only sixteen. I thought probably Old Pete, the bunkhouse cook, would prepare their meals, if necessary. It was time and enough for Rose to assume some of the household chores as I had done when our mother died.
I knew that Father received the money from Mr. Chandler, because several of the hands were sent to Abilene to purchase cattle and a bull. He wanted to go himself but sent Thomas instead as his representative. It was a great adventure for my brother. He’d never been more than a few miles from home, for all his twenty years of age. To go with the hands without Father to supervise his actions, I’m sure made him feel independent and grown-up. I only hoped he wouldn’t get into some mischief, for the cowboys themselves were sometimes wild when on a cattle drive.
On the day before our marriage, I took some wild daisies and laid them on my mother’s grave behind the white fence on the hill. I knelt on the damp grass and placed my hands together in prayer.
“Mother, I don’t know if you would approve of my marrying Mr. Chandler. He wasn’t a stranger to you, for you’d known him very well; and liked him, I think. He’ll suit me fine, for I don’t expect any great political or social life as Rose does. I do so want to go to Virginia someday. Maybe he’ll take me to buy supplies next year. I’ll be able to see the tall trees and the large plantations, even if they’re different from your own home in Mississippi. Darling Mother, bless my marriage tomorrow if you can. I want to be as happy as you were in my own home and with my children. I want to be a good and true wife to Mr. Chandler and make him comfortable.”
Feeling a little foolish for talking to a stone, I turned away and returned to the house.
I awoke early on my wedding day and was appalled to realize that it was raining. Still, I heated water and bathed and washed my hair. I sat in front of the cook stove while drying it and finished the last stitches to Rose’s dress. I brushed my thick hair and lamented the dull brown color, as I had many times in the past. Why had I not been graced with shining blonde hair like my sister? Or even the pale locks of my mother before it became streaked with gray? After it was dry, I piled it on top of my head with pins and covered it with a cloth as protection while I cooked breakfast. I began to regret my early bath, because the smell of biscuits and fried bacon permeated the room. After breakfast, I washed up and went to dress. I found a small bottle partly filled with perfume in a drawer and thought that might help drive away the smell of bacon, but it smelled worse than the bacon, so I left it in the drawer, unused.
By ten o’clock, we were on our way, Father, Rose and me. Thomas was still on the trip to Abilene so didn’t attend my wedding. I wrapped an old wool coat of Father’s around me to keep the damp from spoiling my dress. Rose wore one of Old Pete’s coats. We were a sorry sight, two girls with wilted hats and smelly, damp wool coats. Father’s suit became soaked.
Just as we arrived at Mrs. Alice Jennings’ door, the sun came out, leaving the horse steaming. The yard was full of people, mostly men, for they outnumbered the women in the Territory. Mrs. Jennings greeted us happily and drew us into the room. Caroline and Evelyn, her twin daughters, swooped on us, exclaiming over our flattened hair and damp dresses, in spite of our efforts to protect them from the wet. Rose’s hair, as usual, sprang into tiny curls around her face, making her very pretty. Mine lay flat. Mrs. Jennings clucked like a hen.
“Oh, you poor child, and on your wedding day, too,” she said. She and Caroline brushed and pinned, but there was no hope. It remained flat. I finally laughed and told them to desist. What couldn’t be changed had to be endured.
The parlor was transformed into a flower garden. Thankfully, the girls had picked the flowers the day before. Arranged in three vases, June roses sat on a table in one corner, beside Mrs. Jennings’ favorite chair and over the mantle. A wide table covered by a soft linen cloth was placed in the middle of the room, and on it sat a large bowl filled with apple cider, and an iced raisin cake, sinfully sweet. There were two other brides that day, strangers from ranches miles away. To this very day, I can’t remember their names, in spite of sharing the same wedding celebration. Since the preacher came only once a month to our small town, all marriages and baptisms were performed on the same day. The girls’ mothers were making last minute preparations for the ceremony. At last, they were satisfied that everything was perfect, and the men were invited in.
The room didn’t hold everyone, of course, so the principle players in the drama were arranged on one side of the room, with the three brides standing next to their grooms, the parents on the outskirts, with the preacher standing in front of the punch bowl table. The few women were allowed to sit in the chairs present, with the men standing in the doorways.
I heard a gasp of shock when Mr. Chandler took his place beside me, straight and tall. He took my hand in his, and I felt cherished and safe in his care. I could smell his spicy hair tonic and wondered if he smelled the bacon on me. I almost giggled out loud at the thought. His vows were pronounced in his deep, booming voice, mine in a nervous squeak of sound. Some of the strangers glanced at him from time to time, as though his scarred face made them uneasy. But, to the townspeople and his customers, he was familiar, and no one in the town was more respected, I believe.
The ceremony itself was short, but the social time afterward stretched long into the afternoon. Rose received a good deal of attention from the men. Her beauty far outshone any other girl in the room, even the brides in their finery. She didn’t flirt, exactly, just smiled and laughed and talked. At sixteen, she was far too young to know about flirting, but the men swarmed around her like bees. Mrs. Jennings had the only piano in town, and she played for hours, while everyone danced, whirling around in circles so small, it was hard not to bump into your partner or another couple. To my great surprise, Mr. Chandler took my hand and drew me into the center of the room. We danced and danced. He would allow no one else to dance with me, saying that I was his bride. I wanted to be angry, but I was overwhelmed by the feelings inside me. Butterflies as big as my horse, Nellie, fluttered in my stomach. The smell of sweat, wilted flowers and stale perfume made me nauseous.
Finally, sensing my discomfort, Mr. Chandler took me aside.
“Are you ready to go?” There was a somber gleam in his eyes, as he gazed at me with something like compassion.
I nodded my head, tears gathering in my eyes. We said a quick goodbye to Father and Rose, thanked Mrs. Jennings politely, and left.
It had rained again during the celebration, but had since stopped. The sky was dark gray, and the grass sparkled like tiny pieces of glass. Mr. Chandler handed me into the wagon, and I thought we would go but a short distance to the store, but he kept on driving west until the town was out of sight. A prankster had tied ribbons and old cans filled with pebbles behind the wagon, but Mr. Chandler left them there, the ribbons flying in the breeze, and the cans bouncing and rattling. On and on we went, farther than I had ever been in that direction. Off in the distance, I saw a clump of trees. I looked at my new husband, questioningly. He laughed.
“I thought we would get away from town until some of the rowdier men become discouraged and go back to their ranches.”
“Why? I don’t understand.”
“Haven’t you ever been to a wedding before?” His hands were steady on the reins, and the horses clop, clopped as though to music.
I shook my head no.
“Never heard of a chivaree?”
Again I shook my head.
“I’ll explain when we stop.”
I decided I’d simply enjoy the ride so stopped asking question. He seemed relieved and clucked to the horses. They walked slowly but steadily west. They weren’t what you would call pretty horses, like the wild mustangs my father used on the range, just draft horses, used for pulling heavy loads. I could now make out a winding river with trees on each side, not large trees, but small willows and pin oaks. Mr. Chandler pulled the reins, and the horses turned toward the trees. He stopped beside a drooping willow. Its branches hung nearly to the ground, heavy from the rain on its leaves. I heard the tinkling sound of the brook as it wandered downhill. I sighed.
“This is a pretty spot,” I said. “It’s so different from the plains.”
“Yes, very pretty,” he replied, looking at me. I could feel a flutter in my breast.
“Do you like it?”
“I discovered it on the day I first came to this area. I bought three acres when it came up for sale. If you like it, this is where we’ll make our home.”
“But, isn’t it too far from town?”
“I figure someday, the town will be out here.”
I stared at him in amazement. The town would grow so big that it would reach out to this pretty river? My mind couldn't grasp the concept. I looked around me, then back at my husband.
“Yes.” He pulled me into his arms and kissed me gently, first on the forehead, then the nose, then the chin and at last, on the lips. I could feel the wonder of the moment and knew that he was saying something important, but my senses were overwhelmed by the glory of being held in his arms. “Someday the town will reach far beyond the current boundaries. And, we’ll grow with it. The store and our children will fill our lives with satisfaction, and someday, our grandchildren will play tag along this riverbank.”
I blushed. I knew he expected children; all men did. But, I’d put it to the back of my mind in my excitement. He helped me down from the wagon, tied the horses’ reins to a tree, and reached into the back of the wagon for some quilts. He set up a small army tent on the spot, and we spent the first night of marriage under the old willow that now stretches its boughs over the flower garden and can be seen from my kitchen window. I cooked our supper over an open fire, and we gazed at the sky trying to count the stars. It was a lovely night after the rain of the morning.
― 4 ―
We were married less than a year when Father came to the store one day to talk to Mr. Chandler. They sat in the makeshift office, a nook near the bedroom door leading to the kitchen area, and whispered among themselves for a long time, while I sat and knitted tiny sweaters for the babies of the town. I decided they might sell in the store, and it gave me something to do with my hands at night, while my husband toted up the figures for the day. Father kissed me goodbye with a satisfied look on his countenance, and I knew that the conversation had gone his way. Although I pressed him for answers, my husband wouldn’t come forth until the next day, when the telegraph agent brought him an urgent note.
It seemed that my sister Rose had gotten out of hand, and Father decided to accompany her east to live with our aunt Katherine in Mississippi. Mr. Chandler paid their fare and gave her some spending money for her pocket. On a Saturday morning in late August, they boarded the train for the eastern United States. We all turned out for her departure; the shopkeepers and the cowhands, Mr. Chandler and some of the townspeople who knew us well, and me in my new Sunday-go-to-meeting dress of a dark pink rose color. I wore a new straw hat that came in the batch from St. Louis decorated with pink feathers and a wide black band. I had become quite popular for my hat decorations by that time. They come by the dozen in a large round box from St. Louis. And, a separate selection of feathers, ribbons and wax flowers could be bought for a penny a pound. But, I get ahead of my tale.
Rose looked lovely standing on the platform, all in light blue to match her eyes. She always liked girly things, and her dress had white eyelet lace with tiny blue ribbon threaded through it on the arms, neck, and waist. She had grown proficient in sewing her own garments by the time she was seventeen. I was proud of her, standing there that day. The conductor waved to the engineer, and she boarded the train with Father who was dressed in his best overalls and shoes. He had a bowler hat on his head, and he looked so tired before the journey even started. My last sight of them was the white handkerchief she hung out the window in farewell.
Father returned a week later and told us about the trip and the sights and sounds of Mississippi. Oh, how I longed to go east in those days. Aunt Katherine was well, and our cousins married with children. It was just as Mother had described in her stories of her childhood, and I knew that Rose would be happy there. We didn’t hear from her for the longest time, but we got a letter from Aunt Katherine. She enrolled Rose in a fancy school for young girls where she would learn comportment, dancing, sewing, languages, and other things too numerous to mention. She chose French, and I could imagine my Rose swooning in the French way onto a chaise, while the other girls laughed with her. She was destined for the stage, but Father was so straight-laced he would never have allowed it.
I got a letter before Christmas from Rose, and she told of the huge magnolia trees, the dark summer nights with the fireflies dancing in the air, and the cottonwoods covering the fields like snow, but she never mentioned the beaus or the parties without herself as the heroine. She graduated from Mrs. Lucille Treackle’s Academy for Girls in the spring of the following year with a certificate of merit in French and Mathematics. How proud of her, I was. Mr. Chandler thought she would come back to the Territory, but Father received a letter from Aunt Katherine about her marriage in July to Mr. John Beldon of Philadelphia.
It was a grand affair, with over a hundred people attending, she said. It was held in the Roman Catholic Cathedral, for Mr. John Beldon was Somebody in politics. I remembered the way Rose would swoon and carry on in her prissy way as a child, and I was happy that she’d gotten what she wanted. She wore a white satin and lace dress and carried white roses with pale blue ribbons in her hand, and real satin slippers. They went on a trip to Niagara Falls in New York and settled down in Philadelphia where Mr. Beldon had his law office. She wrote me a month later, and I could tell that she was pleased with her new life. How our aunt Katherine and Father, of course, missed her, but I had enough to keep me busy without worrying about my sister.
There was a County Fair that spring, and the town was filled with strangers who’d come into the Territory to see the sights. There was a bearded lady, and a fat lady, a midget, and a man who could swallow fire. There was also a man who walked on stilts. Oh, it was exciting, and I gazed in wonder at the sights and ate salted peanuts from a small bag. Later, after the turn of the Century, there were the Circuit Chatauquas, but I’ll never forget that first County Fair in the Territory.
The store was a popular spot in those days for the residents of the town, and we were busy every day. Mr. Pollard and his cronies would sit and tell stories about their days in the war. Mr. Chandler never said a word about his own wounds while the men were talking. But, later when we were alone, he told me how silly the men were, bragging about their exploits.
“They seem to have forgotten the cruelties of war, the sight of the dead and injured men on the ground, the smell of gun powder and the buzzards flying in the sky,” he told me.
He would shake his head and take a turn about the town to clear his head, and return without the scornful frown on his face. Eventually, the men ceased talking of the war as their memories began to fade and their companions grew older or moved away.
Leopold Pollard was an odd little man, who spoke with a heavy accent. He was barely five feet tall and stout of build. He grew a long, gray beard and was bald on top. The men teased him about that, to have hair on his face, but not his head. He wore an old beaver top hat to keep the sun from his head. He had come to America when a youth from Poland, to work in a tailor shop in New York City. He told us of the tall buildings and the smells along the riverfront where he would go to spend his free afternoons. There were stalls where the merchants sold different kinds of fish that came on the ships off shore, and vegetables and fruits. The children would play stick ball in the streets, and the women hung their clothing on a cord out of their high windows. He made fine suits for the men and boys. I could see him hunched over his stitching with the light growing dim as I walked past the window of his shop. One day he received a letter from his nephew in Poland that he was coming to New York, and Mr. Pollard decided to move back to the city. It was on the same day that a customer’s rowdy boys knocked over a barrel of potatoes, and we spent the afternoon chasing after them under the counters and behind the stove. It must have been a funny sight, us on our hands and knees searching for the potatoes.
There were sad times, too. It was shortly after Mr. Pollard stepped into the store for the last time to say goodbye that the influenza epidemic held the town in its grasp for weeks. Little children died, and old folks gave up the ghost without a whimper. We had to close the store because everyone was afraid to venture out of their houses. Some nights, a man would knock on the back door and ask for something he needed, but mostly we watched the sickness from the front windows. The droll funeral cortege would drive down the street to the graveyard, the newspaper dutifully wrote the names, and kinsfolk would mourn the passing of another soul. Mr. Chandler kept a secret list of names of families who had to buy their staples on credit, for the times were bad, and with the sickness, the men couldn’t work. Dr. Griffith, the old doctor, was kept busy, and he wrote for a younger man, a Dr. Smith, an Army doctor from Fort Sill, to come help him.
Dr. Smith was a very handsome man, tall and gangly with a winning smile, and Mr. Chandler teased me about him, for he came into the store often for some little item that he would purchase for his patients to cheer them up, especially the peppermint stick candy and the red cherry drops. We ran out of them before the epidemic was over and had only the licorice left to give the children. The whistles, pen knives and coloring books disappeared into Dr. Smith’s pockets to be distributed among the little ones in his care. I never knew his first name, for as soon as the sickness left the town, Dr. Smith drove back to Fort Sill and his Army responsibilities.
During the epidemic, Mr. Chandler decided that since business was slacked off, it was a good time to hold an inventory of the items in the store. He got a sheet of brown meat-wrapping paper, and I carefully wrote down the items, how many and what kind, the price at wholesale and at retail, and whether we had sold any of them lately, for sometimes things would sit on the shelves for months, unwanted. I kept a separate list of things to order when he next went to Virginia for supplies. The dust moved around the store like a fog as we shifted, stacked, separated and dusted the items. I’m not sure we accomplished anything at all, but Mr. Chandler was pleased, and so, I was, too. After that day, we did an inventory once each year, on New Year’s Day while the other people were celebrating the passing of the old year. He said it was better to keep a regular schedule. We’d know how we’d progressed through the year and could toss out or give away the things that hadn’t sold. Mr. Chandler was a wise man.
I can see him now, high on the ladder, reaching for that last can of soup or that last tin cup or lantern on the shelf, the scar on his face visible through the sweat as he strained and groaned. After living with my man for some years, I hardly noticed the scars on his face and body, but sometimes he would ask me to rub grease or a salve on them, for they ached or drew tight and dry in the hot sun or the strain of muscles. A few times, he called out in the night, the name of some fellow who had died beside him in battle, but when he awoke, he couldn’t remember the dream, or he told me he couldn’t, so as not to worry me.
Most days, he was cheerful and told some simple story that amused the men sitting around the pot-bellied stove during the winter. It was a popular gathering spot on long, snowy days when the farmers and merchants couldn’t work. They’d play games of chance or sit, smoking their pipes or cigars, and telling of the days of yore before they moved to the Territory, each one trying to outdo the other one. I’d listen for a while and go into the living quarters to make tea or coffee or hot soup for the men. I’d make corn pones with the soup, or muffins or cookies to eat with their drinks. Mr. Chandler said at least it kept them out of the saloons.
Father came to the store more often after Rose moved east. He seemed lonely and tired. I worried about him working so hard, and said that Thomas should take on more responsibility, but he said that it was his farm, and Thomas had his own life to see about. My brother married my friend Evelyn Jennings, the twin daughter of Alice Jennings, the war widow.
Caroline, Evelyn and I had some gay times together. They were a few years older than I, but the most nearly of my age in the one room log schoolhouse. We would brush each other’s hair, braid it, and giggle over some silly joke that only we knew. We learned to dance together and had tea parties with soda crackers and real tea, provided by their mother. Alice put milk in her tea, and Caroline learned to drink it that way, but Evelyn and I liked ours plain with a cube of sugar and some lemon, if they were available. They were very rare and came from California. Sometimes, a peddler would bring some up from Texas, but we didn’t have lemons as a regular treat.
The year before his marriage, Thomas was in a card game in the Red Slipper Saloon on the edge of town and was accused by one of the men of cheating. It ended in a gun fight, and Brother was injured in the shoulder. Dr. Griffith sobered up long enough to take the bullet out, but he caught a fever and almost died. Father sat with him for long hours, and Mr. Chandler and I stayed at night in the little back room that served in those days as a hospital. My brother lay so pale and wan in that large walnut bed that had been in Dr. Griffith’s family for years before the war. I dipped the cloth in cool water and bathed him all over several times a night to bring the fever down. He moaned and yelled out some curse words that even I, who grew up among the cowboys, hadn’t heard before. Finally, he came out of it and was better. I made him homemade soup, with a little beef and potatoes to give him strength, and chicken broth for sustenance.
Old Mack Webster gave me a couple of chickens, and Mr. Chandler rung their necks and dressed them for me. We didn’t have any animals in the town, wouldn’t have had time to care for them if we did. Mr. Chandler offered to pay for the chickens, but Mr. Webster wouldn’t have it. He said he felt like Thomas got a raw deal, being shot for something he didn’t do, for the sheriff investigated the card game, and it was found that a stranger named Bellows was the one who had cheated and shot Thomas to cover it up. He went to trial and got a few months in jail. As soon as he was released, he caught the train out of town. It was best so, for if my brother had gotten hold of him, there’d have been more shooting. Mr. Webster was in on the card game that night and saw the whole thing, so he said the least he could do was give us the chickens to feed Brother.
There was a great wave of moral indignation that swept through the town during the investigation. A fallen woman named Berthena Evans had opened a place near the saloon on the outskirts of town that she called a gentlemen’s retreat. One night, a group of women marched to the place with torches and told Madam Evans that it would be best if she and her friends left town, or she might regret it. Mr. Chandler and I had worked late at the store, trying to pick up the pieces from a box of broken liver tonic bottles that had arrived damaged. We heard the noise, saw the movement of the torches through the front windows and rushed to the front door to see the end of the commotion. One of the “gentlemen” was being led by the ear from the house, by his very angry wife. We could hardly control our laughter as he was marched down the street to the sound of loud taunts and shouts. The house stayed vacant for years, as no one wanted to live in a place with such a reputation. It was finally torn down. Years later, a new building was raised there, and it became a fire station. I laugh as I write the words, to think that a fire station replaced the house that a group of righteous women threatened to burn down.