Reluctant Bride – Linda Ford

Before the morning ended, Agnes Bland became the mother to three girls—a four-dayold unnamed infant, four-year-old Hettie, and six-year-old Lila…all that was left of the Long family. Their mother had been buried. The landlord had said they must leave the house. Agnes touched the letter in her pocket giving her custody of the children. She knew her agreement to do so would change her life forever. For the better. She packed what belongings she could carry and made arrangements to come back for the rest once she hired a conveyance for them. With the newborn in one arm, the satchel and bags clutched in the other, and the two older girls told to stay close, she made her way to the boardinghouse where she lived. How was she going to care for the children in her small room? How would she tend the baby? But what option did she have? She mounted the steps to the boardinghouse door, opened it slowly. “Shh,” she signaled the girls, and tiptoed for the stairs. If she got them to her room, she could hope to hide them. Mrs. Hamilton, the landlady, stepped from the kitchen, her face marred by a deep scowl. “You cannot keep children here. Especially a baby.

The other residents would object.” “But the children are orphaned and homeless. Couldn’t we stay the night? I will make other arrangements in the morning.” “I’m afraid not.” The landlady ushered them back out the door and closed it firmly. Agnes dropped the luggage. If only she could as easily unload the burden of finding a home for herself and the children. She sat on the top step to consider her possibilities. There were no empty houses in town. She couldn’t live in a tent or a covered wagon.

She smiled, remembering years ago watching the travelers preparing to set out from Independence, Missouri on the Oregon Trail and wondering how they would manage. A wagon rumbled past. She was half hidden by the sprawling branches of the willow tree in the front yard, but she could see well enough to recognize Anker and Lena Hansen and their little boy. She recalled that Anker had a cousin, Nels Hansen. He’d built a house and then abandoned his homestead. The talk about town was he’d built the house for his expected bride, but she’d married someone else in Norway. Knowing the pain of such treachery, she guessed he was gone for good. She stared at the wagon until it was out of sight. Nels Hansen had a house standing empty. He had no need of it.

What was the point in letting the house fall to the ground when she needed shelter for herself and three girls? She went to the door. “Mrs. Hamilton, is it all right if I leave our things on the stoop while I arrange a conveyance?” “So long as you don’t expect me to watch it.” The answer came from the kitchen where the woman would be busy preparing food for her boarders. Food. Agnes would have to feed the children. Fine. She knew how to cook, clean, and do every menial job possible. “Come along.” She hoped they could be settled in their new home before the baby needed to eat again.

Mentally, she listed all the things she required as they made their way to the livery stable where she arranged for a wagon and driver. She gathered her things from the boardinghouse. Went to the store and bought what she thought she’d need. Her purse grew considerably lighter. They picked up the cradle and other belongings at the former Long home. Agnes took a moment to whisper a final goodbye to the unfortunate mother. Twenty minutes later they arrived at Nels Hansen’s homestead. It lay on a low hill, protected from the prevailing west winds. He’d done a lot of work on the place in the few months he’d been there. There was a barn, corrals, a small building enclosed by a wire fence that she took to be a chicken house.

Presently there were no chickens. Another small building completed the view to the left. To the right stood the one-story house. Windows winked in the afternoon sun. It was larger than Agnes imagined, more than adequate for her and the girls, though she would have been happy with anything that would protect them from the elements. The driver helped her carry their belongings into the house. She waited until he left to study the place. Lila sighed. “It’s big.” “Indeed.

” The kitchen lay to her left with lots of cupboard space and a table big enough to seat half a dozen. Seemed Mr. Hansen had plans for a large family. Poor man, to learn how little he could trust someone he counted on. It was a bitter lesson for anyone, as she well knew. To her right was a homey sitting room and four doors. Hettie pressed to Agnes’s side. Agnes put the baby in the cradle. “Let’s see what’s behind the doors.” The girls clung to her hands as they explored.

“Four bedrooms. How nice.” Even more than they needed. They returned to the kitchen and she put away the supplies and prepared a bottle for the baby. Life would be good in such a lovely home. Why, the man even had a pump right at the sink. She wouldn’t have to fetch water from outside. She sat down to feed the baby. Hettie and Lila hovered over her knees. “Welcome to your new home, girls.

” “Mama is gone?” Hettie’s bottom lip trembled. Agnes held the baby and feeding bottle in one hand so she could pull Hettie close. “Yes, honey. She’s with Jesus and the angels and with your papa.” Their father had died earlier in the year when the freight he was unloading shifted and struck him down. Hettie sniffled. Lila pressed to Agnes’s side and stroked the baby’s head. “Mama left us this beautiful little baby.” Both girls hung over the infant, touching her fingers. Agnes sat the baby up to burp her.

“What do you think we should name her?” Lila stroked the downy head again. “Mama would be so happy she’s okay.” Agnes nodded. The one thing the girls’ mother wanted was to deliver the baby and know she would be taken care of. It was a joy and privilege to be chosen to raise the girls. “What do you think of calling her Merry?” She explained that it meant happy and joyful Lila smiled. “It sounds so nice. Mama would like that.” Agnes turned to Hettie. “What do you think?” Hettie nodded.

“I wish Mama was here.” Lila took her younger sister’s hand. “Remember, Mama said we had to be brave and strong.” Agnes breathed slowly. She’d heard the same thing, when at thirteen, her parents had died in an accident when their horses slipped on an icy road and upset the carriage. With no known relatives, she had been put out to work. She had tried to hide her tears and “get on” with her work as she’d often been admonished. Her crying had been done in private. And alone. She’d offer these girls the comfort of her arms when they needed to cry.

Merry had finished eating and Agnes put her in the cradle. She pulled both Hettie and Lila to her knees. “It’s okay to be sad. You can be brave and sad at the same time.” She held them as they cried softly, their tears soaking the front of her dress. They had lost so much. She would give them the love and security they needed and deserved. Thankfully, they had found a nice home. After the girls quieted and relaxed, she spoke. “Let’s put your things in one of the bedrooms.

” They agreed with her suggestion to take the second room. She would take the first with baby Merry in her cradle at the side of her bed. She spent the rest of the day setting up the household and preparing meals for herself and the girls. Baby Merry needed to be fed every few hours. That night, as she read to Hettie and Lila, she could barely contain her happiness. Finally, a family such as she’d always dreamed of, though it didn’t replace what she’d lost. Nothing ever would. Over the next few days they settled into a routine. She was busier than she’d been in a long time and more content. They could all be happy here.

She’d get a few chickens and maybe a milk cow. She’d teach the girls to help around the house and with the outside chores. They’d be self-sufficient. She could even school them. She walked the floor with Merry after she’d finished eating and glanced out the window. If Nels Hansen would stay away forever she might even get title to this piece of land. It was possible for a woman to own a homestead. No need of a man. Just the sort of arrangement that suited Agnes. NELS GUİDED his small herd onward.

Twenty cows and a bull. All Herefords. Six weeks of working for Rancher Bob had convinced him of what he wanted to do. He was returning to his homestead. He would live in his house, live his dream of owning his piece of land in America. He’d raise Hereford cows. And he’d do it alone. In the two months since he’d ridden away, nursing a broken heart at Inga’s decision to marry another man despite her promise to him, he had learned that he could move forward. Yes, he’d built the house hoping for a wife. He’d broken land and put in a crop.

He’d even planted some root vegetables in the spot he’d prepared as a garden. All with the dream of sharing it with Inga. But he’d have his land, just as he’d dreamed. No reason he couldn’t enjoy it by himself. Never again would he plan to share his life with a woman. He wouldn’t repeat that mistake. The cows moved easily. He hadn’t pushed them on the journey, and they were still sleek and fat. The house and barn came into view and he sat back to study it. Everything looked good.

His heart swelled with pride and anticipation. Did he smell smoke? Was that a twist of gray coming from the chimney? He chuckled at how his wayward imagination revealed his eagerness to be back home. He corralled the animals, checked the gates, filled the water trough, and then crossed the yard to the house. Did the curtain on the window flicker? Had Inga changed her mind and come? Laughing, he lengthened his stride, threw open the door, and ground to a halt. “Miss Bland, what are you doing here?” Surprise made him speak sharply. Two little girls hovered behind her. He glanced their way then brought his gaze back to the woman he had seen a few times, mostly at church. He scrambled to remember what he knew of her. A single lady who assisted others when they were sick or in need of help. When he left two months ago, she did not have children.

He couldn’t imagine where she got them nor why she was here, though one thing was possible. “Are you thinking of squatting on my land?” Now that he was back, she couldn’t hope to gain possession of his homestead. “Children, please go to your bedroom and wait.” Your bedroom? Every room in this house was his. The girls hurried away. “Close the door,” Miss Bland called. The door shut and Miss Bland faced him. “I didn’t expect you to come back.” He dropped his saddlebags on the floor. “It is my house.

I intend to live in it. Just as I intend to farm the land and raise cattle.” “I saw the cows. Are they something new?” “Herefords.” But he wasn’t about to be distracted. “What are you doing here?” “Can I make you coffee? Would you like cookies?” He knew she was stalling but he wasn’t opposed to either cookies or coffee. “Why not?” He hung his hat and followed her to the kitchen, watching her as she set the coffee to boil. While they waited, she put a plate of cookies before him. He didn’t need the cookies to inform him she’d been here more than a few hours. Half a loaf of bread sat on the cupboard.

The stove glistened from a recent cleaning. The floor was spotless. Children’s books lay on a nearby chair. Why couldn’t this be Inga welcoming him home? A houseful of his children playing in the house? Miss Bland filled two cups with coffee and sat down across from him. She had thick, almost-black hair, and blue eyes so dark they reminded him of the sky just before sunset. Her face was on the long side and she was thin, but even under the pressure of his stare, there was something kindly about her expression. He grew tired of waiting for an explanation. “You can’t stay here.” She paled. “There is no other place for us.

” “I understood you were living in the boardinghouse.” “No children allowed there.” She sucked in air and her words rushed out. “Mrs. Long died a few days ago and asked me to be guardian to her children. I agreed without hesitation but there is no empty dwelling in town, and when I remembered that you had left, maybe for good, I thought I might as well use your house.” Her shoulder sank as she ran out of steam. “There must be some place you can go because, as you can see, I am back.” A thin wail came from the direction of the bedrooms. Miss Bland hurried away and emerged from his bedroom carrying an infant.

“There are three children?” “This is Merry.” “She doesn’t look very old. Or big.” The woman cradled the infant in one arm as she prepared a feeding bottle. “She’s only eight days old.” The bottle ready, Miss Bland again sat across from him, her attention on the baby, and a smile of love upon her face. “Three little girls.” In his wildest imagination, this was not the homecoming he anticipated. Miss Bland’s gaze came to his. “Would you turn us out? Have us live in a shed, if we can find one? Or in a tent? Perhaps I could find a covered wagon and do my best to keep the girls warm and dry.

With winter coming on.” “Are you trying to guilt me into turning my house over to you?” She shrugged. “It was worth a try. Would you like to meet the other two?” “It won’t work any better than guilt, but sure.” Poor little ones to lose their mother. “Girls, would you come?” The door opened and the pair crossed the room hand in hand. “Mr. Hansen, meet Hettie and Lila.” Two fine-boned little girls with blond braids and blue eyes. Much like he imagined children of his own would look.

“Hello. And how old are you?” “I’m six,” said Lila. “Hettie is four. She don’t like to talk around strangers.” “Pleased to meet you.” He started to hold out his hand to shake theirs then stopped. He understood them being shy around him. “Have some cookies,” Miss Bland said. When the pair each had a cookie in hand, she added, “This is Mr. Hansen’s house.

” Lila’s eyes widened. “We gonna have to leave?” Hettie clung to her sister’s hand and they edged closer to Miss Bland. “Where will we go?” Lila whispered. “I wish Papa wasn’t dead. Or Mama.” Tears leaked from Hettie’s eyes. Miss Bland picked that moment to hold the baby upright and pat her back. Did she purposely turn the baby toward him so he looked at three pairs of sad eyes and Miss Bland’s accusing ones? Nels downed the last of his coffee. The situation reminded him of Inga. She, too, had forced him to make decisions he didn’t like.

She’d insisted she would wait until he had a house ready for her even though he had wanted to marry immediately and come to America as man and wife. He’d given in to her insistence and ended up losing her. What did he have to lose here? Besides the warm house he’d constructed, his own space, and surely peace and quiet, though the girls didn’t appear to be noisy. Was he to again be manipulated by a woman? “Fine, we’ll all live here. One big happy family.”

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