A Hopeful Heart
by Kim Sawyer
A Hopeful Heart
By Kim Vogel Sawyer
Barnett, Kansas May 1888
Curling her fingers around the leather handle of the battered carpetbag that held her carefully selected belongings, Tressa Neill fell in line behind the tittering row of young women disembarking the train. She didn't mind being last. In the homespun dress and outdated straw hat acquired by Aunt Gretchen, she felt dowdy and conspicuous. No matter that her attire closely matched that of her traveling companions-with the exception of Evelyn. She still harbored an intense desire to hide.
She peered out one of the train car's dusty windows. A solitary thick-waisted woman wearing a calico bonnet and matching apron over a pale blue dress stood at the edge of the white-painted depot's wooden walkway. The woman cupped her hand above the bonnet's brim and stared at the train, obviously seeking someone. In the telegram that had outlined Tressa's travel itinerary, her benefactor indicated she would meet her pupils at the train station, so Tressa surmised this woman must be the school's founder, Mrs. Hattie Wyatt. The woman's round face held a warm smile, reminding Tressa of her favorite childhood nursemaid. At once, she felt drawn to her.
Then Tressa's gaze drifted to a small crowd gathered in the slash of shade offered by the depot's overhanging porch roof. All men. All gawking with obvious interest. A bead of sweat trickled down her back. In the acceptance letter Tressa had received from the Wyatt Herdsman School, Mrs. Wyatt had vowed the men of Barnett desired wives, but Tressa hadn't anticipated a welcoming band of prospective suitors. The sight of those sun burnt, cowboy-hat-topped men sent Tressa's stomach into spasms of nervousness.
A giggle pierced the air. After days of traveling with the other girls, Tressa recognized its source: Luella. The girl had talked incessantly, interjecting her chatter with high-pitched squeals of laughter. Luella turned from her position at the head of the line and grinned down the row of girls. "Look outside. Do you see? The men have lined up to meet us!" She touched a hand to her dimpled cheek, her lips curving into a smile. "Oh, won't they be pleased that we've arrived?" Another giggle erupted.
"Then kindly give them the pleasure of seeing us depart the train." Evelyn's sardonic command brought an abrupt end to Luella's annoying laughter, but the girl still remained rooted in the middle of the aisle.
"Shouldn't we wait for the conductor?" Repeatedly during the journey, Luella had batted her eyelashes and made frivolous requests of the portly conductor.
"For what purpose?" Evelyn pointed to the opening at the end of the car with the tip of her satin parasol. "The train has stopped. We've reached our destination. We can leave the car without the conductor's approval. Now go!"
Luella bolted forward, and the others followed. Tressa's dry tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth, and she kept her eyes on the curled-by-nature ringlets cascading from beneath the rolled brim of Evelyn's satin hat. Evelyn's fashionable cinnamon-colored gown provided a perfect backdrop for her shining golden locks. The obvious quality and stylish cut of the dress reminded Tressa of the world she'd left behind. A world in which she was no longer welcome.
Tressa, no man of breeding will wed a dowryless woman. Your unfortunate situation with Tremaine Woodward certainly proves my point." Aunt Gretchen's emotionless voice echoed in Tressa's memory. "This herdsman school in Kansas offers you an opportunity to gain a husband and enjoy a life of family, if not of leisure." Her aunt had shrugged, fanning herself with the printed advertisement that sealed Tressa's fate. "Second best, perhaps, but a second-best chance is better than no chance at all."
Homesickness swelled, but not for Aunt Gretchen and Uncle Leo's grand estate. Tressa longed to return to Evan's Glen, her childhood home, with Papa and Mama and-
Giving herself a shake, she dispelled the desire. One could not live in the past. She must march into the future, no matter how bleak it appeared. So she squared her shoulders and followed Evelyn onto the passenger car's small iron landing. A fierce blast of wind stole her breath and lifted the straw skimmer from her head. She dropped her bag and reached for the hat, but the lightweight piece of millinery sailed over the heads of the girls standing at the base of the platform. A thick strand of hair whipped loose from her simple bun, effectively shielding her eyes. Dizziness assailed her. She groped for the handrail, but her fingers closed over air.
Plunging forward, she landed hard against Evelyn's back. Squeals erupted as Evelyn tumbled into the group and, like a row of dominoes, the girls fell into a heap on the dusty street, with Tressa on top. The men on the porch roared, pointing and slapping their thighs in amusement.
"Tressa!" Evelyn's demanding voice carried over the other girls' complaints. She jabbed Tressa with her elbow. "Get off of me, you bumbling idiot!"
Tressa tried to right herself, but the wind tangled her skirts around her legs, trapping her in place. Suddenly, fingers grasped her waist and lifted her. The woman Tressa had identified as Mrs. Wyatt set Tressa to the side and then reached into the fray. "Stop that caterwauling," she chided as she grabbed Evelyn's upper arm and pulled her from the pile. Tressa marveled at the woman's strength.
"Ah, Aunt Hattie, are these the hardy farm wives you promised us? Look more like wilting daisies to me," one man called. The others clapped him on the back, their laughter boisterous. Tressa staggered over to retrieve her abandoned bag, her face burning with humiliation as the men continued to hurl insults.
Mrs. Wyatt assisted Luella to her feet and spun to face the raucous men. "What're these girls s'posed to think about our town with you carryin' on like banshees?" She plunked her fists on her hips and sent a glare across the small crowd. "Gage Hammond? You the leader o' this sorry bunch?"
A young man with a cocky grin stepped forward. He yanked his hat from his head, revealing thick black curls. "Yes'm, Aunt Hattie. When I saw you waitin' at the depot, I figured your girls was comin', so I fetched the men."
"Well, your fun is over. You brought 'em, so now you take 'em an' git." Mrs. Wyatt waved her hand at the crowd and then offered the girls an encouraging smile. "Never mind them ill-mannered fellas. Don't get much excitement in this little town, so they're feelin' their oats. You all just dust yourself off an' hold your heads high, like the ladies you are."
One by one, the men drifted away, their laughter continuing to roll. But one man-tall and lean, with a deeply tanned face and a low-tugged cowboy hat nearly hiding his eyes-ambled toward Tressa. He held her skimmer. Its faded pink ribbons trailed over his knobby knuckles, the picture somehow unsettling.
"I believe this is yours, miss."
Tressa snatched the hat from his rawboned hand and crushed it to her chest. Too embarrassed to meet his gaze, she focused on the tan wedge of skin revealed by his open shirt collar and mumbled, "Thank you, sir."
His hand rose to briefly touch his hat brim, and then he moved away with long strides, dust rising with every fall of his boot against the ground. Tressa plopped the hat over her tangled hair, pulling it clear down to her ears before turning back to the group. Her stomach clenched at the steely glares of her traveling mates. She didn't dare look at Mrs. Wyatt. After her clumsy display, the woman would certainly send her straight back to New York. And then what would she do?
Abel Samms headed for the Feed and Seed, where his wagon waited. It took great self-control to avoid sneaking a glance over his shoulder. Aunt Hattie's voice carried on the wind. "Now, gather 'round here, ladies, an' load your bags in the wagon. No fellers'll do it for ya. You're here to learn to fend for yourselves, an' this is the first lesson-totin' your own bags." He swallowed a chuckle as a single protesting wail rose, followed by Aunt Hattie's stern "There'll be none o' that sniveling. Hoist it, girl, hoist it!"
Seemed as though the men were missing a good show.
When Gage Hammond had clattered down the boardwalk, announcing that Aunt Hattie was waiting at the station so her pupils must be coming, Abel's curiosity had stirred. So he'd turned on his heel and, instead of entering Hank's Feed and Seed, followed the cluster of men to the newly constructed depot. Under ordinary circumstances he wouldn't pay any mind to Gage Hammond. The spoiled son of Barnett's richest rancher was usually up to mischief. Only a fool believed everything the kid said. But the herdsman school had been the talk of the town for the past four months, ever since Aunt Hattie'd stood up in Sunday service and questioned the ranchers on what qualities they'd like in a wife.
Abel had kept his mouth closed that day-he had no interest in taking a wife-but he'd listened in as the others shouted out their preferences. Aunt Hattie had written down everything on a pad of paper, her face serious. Then she'd stated her intention to open a school on her ranch. Everybody knew the West was long on men and short on women. Aunt Hattie's plan to bring women from the East and teach them all they'd need to know about ranching and then match those women with bachelor men from the community had brought a rousing cheer of approval from the unmarried men in the congregation. With the exception of Abel.
So he hadn't headed to the depot to lay claim to a potential wife; he'd just wanted to see how Aunt Hattie's plan had worked out. He held a fondness for the older widow, as did most everybody in town. And sure enough-just as Aunt Hattie had promised, a passel of young ladies arrived on the iron horse. At first glance, it seemed she'd been able to meet some of the men's requests. The ladies all looked to be in their early twenties-old enough to have some maturity but young enough to birth babies. None had appeared sickly or ill-tempered. His friends had elbowed each other, grinning and whispering in approval, right until the last one stepped onto the platform. Then the appreciative whispers changed to ridicule.
Looking more like a lost waif than a woman, that last one hadn't fit Aunt Hattie's description of a "hardy farm wife." Small and spindly, he couldn't imagine her hoisting her own bag, let alone wrestling an ornery calf to the ground. But his pity had been stirred when her hat went flying ... then she went flying.
His jaw muscles tightened as he recalled the unkind comments the men had hollered. In Abel's family, they abided by the Golden Rule. How many times had Ma advised, "Son, treat others the way you'd want them to treat you; then you'll always be fair"? He sure hadn't appreciated the townsfolk poking fun at his misfortune two years ago. So nobody would find him hurling insults, not even in sport.
Abel planted his toe on the hub of the wagon wheel and hoisted himself into the high, springed seat. The sight of those eastern ladies stepping off the train had stirred too many memories-things better left buried. Snatching up the reins, he gave the leather traces a flick. "Get up there, Ed."
The roan gelding shook his head, as if irritated to be wakened from his nap, but he obediently strained against the rigging and pulled the wagon into the street. Abel rolled past Aunt Hattie's high-sided buckboard, where the town's new arrivals now sat in a wilted row on top of their piled luggage. But he kept his face aimed straight ahead and pretended not to see when Aunt Hattie raised her hand in a friendly wave.
Guilt pinched the edges of his conscience. His ma had taught him better manners than ignoring a neighbor's greeting, but she'd also taught him to be truthful. And Abel didn't want to give any of those young ladies so much as an inkling that he might be interested in taking a bride.