The five Phillips sisters had always made quite a lovely sight when appearing together in public-– all of them with cinnamon brown hair and spruce green eyes. The three younger siblings, Margaret, Frances, and Gertrude, better known as Maggie, Frankie, and Gertie, always wore their hair shoulder length with long pipe curls. The older pair, Katherine, also known as Kitty, and Henrietta or Hetty, had worn theirs in a gathered upsweep while their cinnamon curls cascaded down their backs.
But now, things were dire everywhere, and the girls’ appearance showed it. It was hard to think that last Christmas, they could be seen at the market or elsewhere in public wearing long, green velvet capes with matching muffs, white lace collars, and red ribbons in their hair. But this Christmas was a very different story. Less than three months after the Great Chicago Fire in which the factory where Kitty and Hetty worked had burned, the capes and muffs had been traded for more practical fare against the winter cold since, at times, it seemed it was nearly as cold inside as out. The younger sisters wore their hair pulled back in ponytails with their tangle of curls hanging down their backs. Kitty and Hetty wore theirs pulled back rather severely and wound into top knots.
Kitty had been the head of the household for nearly six years now, since she was 17. Their parents had both died of the flu leaving medical bills behind them, as well as funeral expenses. Working together, she and Hetty had managed to keep the family afloat. They had been well and happy despite being alone. But when their livelihood was cut off in such a devastating manner, it didn’t take long for things to become somewhat dire. They had the roof over their heads, of course, thanks to their father’s shrewd management, which was held in the name of a distant relative with whom they’d had no contact since their parents’ funeral.
They soon had to start selling off their mother’s prized decor pieces, and then the furniture. The only furniture they had left was the kitchen table and chairs and their own beds.
Kitty and Hetty had scoured the city looking for work, but the only work to be found was as housekeepers and au pairs–live in positions which would hardly pay them a penny and which would not help them in caring for their sisters.
Immediately after the fire, Hetty had started volunteering in the neighborhood infirmaries in hope that someone would give her enough training to eventually be hired as a nurse apprentice. But there were hundreds of applicants and only a few positions, so Hetty split her day between helping at the hospital and looking for work.
She couldn’t bear to go near the burn ward, but she spent as much time as she could with sick and abandoned babies. The fire had left three hundred people dead and another hundred thousand homeless. Mothers died, families became separated, and those who couldn’t cope abandoned babies at the hospitals, clinics, or churches.
Hetty’s duties were pretty much confined to feeding, diapering, and comforting the tiny ones, but as many as there were, she was never idle for a moment. The cacophony of cries in the baby wards was constant. They were not easily consoled.
It was difficult for the sisters to even contemplate Christmas with all the usual trappings, so they all agreed to make something small for each other, and perhaps to go caroling on Christmas Eve.
Young Mr. Albert Simmons, a gangly, bookish sort of gentleman who had been a longtime friend had taken them under his wing, and as a grocer he brought them vegetables and odd cuts of meat. He also saw to it that they always had adequate firewood for the stove. He was a rather serious young man, but anyone could tell that underneath he had a heart of gold and the compassion to go with it. Hetty was stricken lovesick over him, but she was lady enough not to show it more than with her coquettish eyes from time to time.
One evening, the sisters sat around the kitchen table where it was warm from the cook stove fire, and prepared the few vegetables they had for a stew. Albert had come by earlier with some sweetmeats and extra vegetables for their evening fare.
Maggie was peeling carrots, Gertie was breaking up celery, and Frankie contributed by standing on a stool, pouring water into the pot and setting it to boil.
Hetty prepared the meats, and Kitty put together other odds and ends to go into the stew, carefully selecting the precious spices which were getting low.
“Why doesn’t Mr. Simmons stay to eat with us?” Gertie asked.
“Perhaps he thinks we have enough mouths to feed as it is,” Maggie quickly replied.
“I don’t think that’s it,” Kitty said. “Perhaps he’s waiting to be invited. Would you like me to invite him?”
Curly heads nodded exuberantly.
“Oh, I would love to have the privilege of inviting him,” Hetty said.
“Nonsense,” said Kitty. “I’m the head of the household, and I’ll send him an invitation to visit us of an evening. We really haven’t a parlor for entertaining, but we can move the table to one end of the kitchen and have more open space. I don’t think he’s the sort who would mind a warm kitchen over a cold parlor.”
“Nor do I,” Hetty said.
Kitty invited Mr. Simmons to visit them on Christmas Day. He came early, surprising them with a large goose, yams, and cakes, as well as a gift for each of the younger girls wrapped in brown paper and dyed raffia. The gifts were silver combs for their hair. Both Hetty and Kitty knew the raffia alone would have been expensive, but they were taken aback by the combs.
They all got busy preparing Christmas dinner–indeed, even Mr. Simmons helped by peeling potatoes, a task that usually fell to Hetty. Kitty and Hetty, however, had their hands full preparing and stuffing the goose. Kitty deftly turned the organ meats into a pâté.
There had been no such sumptuous dinner in the Phillips household for nearly as long as Kitty and Hetty could recall.
After the meal, all but Kitty told stories, recited poetry from memory, and sang familiar songs of the season. Kitty just smiled and watched, and Mr. Simmons clapped at each performance.
As he prepared to leave that evening, while the younger girls were still laughing and telling stories in the kitchen, Hetty caught him out of the corner of her eye, handing Kitty a larger, additional package. Then he turned and beckoned to Hetty, handing her a smaller one. Hetty was eager to know what it was, but she would wait until she was alone to open it.
Just before she extinguished her bedside lamp, she opened the package and was thrilled to find a hairbrush with soft bristles and a translucent olive-green tortoiseshell handle. This must surely mean he would ask soon. This seemed like an intimate gift to receive from someone who was not courting her, but perhaps he had spoken to Kitty this very evening. Despite the chill of the room, Hetty sat on her bed for a long time, slowly stroking her hair with the brush.
She couldn’t help wondering what he had brought for Kitty, but she soon forgot all about it. As the days proceeded, she wondered over and over why Kitty had said nothing to her yet about Albert. She felt she could refer to him as Albert now, as intimate as his gift had been.
After Albert Simmons’ first visit by invitation to the Phillips’ household, the visits steadily increased. He was no longer stopping by simply to bring them food or wood. Hetty was ecstatic and felt that very soon he would ask Kitty for permission to court Hetty.
They frequently entertained him when he came for the evening with singing and recitations. Soon Hetty was singing love songs and reciting flowery poetry.
After Mr. Simmons had left for the evening and the girls were in bed, Kitty turned to Hetty. “It seems your songs and recitations are becoming more and more lovestruck. You walk around with your head in the clouds much of the time. Is there something I need to know? Has someone asked to court you whom I know nothing about?”
Hetty didn’t know how to respond. It was obvious now that Mr. Simmons had not asked Kitty’s permission to court her.
“N—no,” Hetty stammered.
“You are a hopeless romantic, then,” Kitty said. “It’s time you set your feet on solid ground again.”
Hetty looked away, blushing, nodding her head. But she said nothing.
That night, as she lay in her bed, Hetty wondered what could be wrong. Why was Mr. Simmons so reluctant to ask to court her? Was he that shy? Then she realized that perhaps he thought it improper to court her when Kitty had yet to marry. She would have to consider that dilemma. If he married her before Kitty, it would look like Kitty was going to be a spinster. Albert’s kindness would not allow him to put Kitty in that position. What could she do?
One evening after dinner, as Kitty was sewing, and the younger girls were playing, Hetty spoke up. “I have a great idea,” she said, “and I would like to know what you think of it.”
“I cannot see,” she began, “where the situation here in Chicago is going to get better for us anytime soon.” All faces turned toward her with interest.
“A woman of my acquaintance said many women are going west to become wives of wealthy ranchers–ones who can well-provide for a larger family.”
The other four looked a bit startled and apprehensive, wondering what she could mean.
“I have seen the ads myself, and she is correct. There are hundreds of ads daily, thousands weekly.”
Kitty scoffed. “Likely as with any other position, there are more applicants than there are posts.”
Hetty was exuberant. “Quite the opposite. Since the gold rush, they say, the men outnumber the women out west more than a hundred to one.”
“Look,” Hetty said, producing a piece of newspaper print from the bodice of her apron. “I looked at hundreds of them. This one sounds the best for our situation.”
“Wealthy Wyoming rancher seeks woman to marry that will care for my home. Children may accompany any proper widow and will be well provided for. Please reply to this box number.”
Kitty looked at Hetty. “That’s it? That was the best of all the ads?”
Hetty stood her ground. “I thought it was the best one for our situation. Not many mentioned children coming along, only about their own family.”
“I can tell you a lot about the man in just those few words,” Kitty said, looking back at her sewing.
“Like what?” Hetty asked. “He seems a wealthy and generous man.”
“First, he uses the term ‘any proper widow.’ What is not a ‘proper’ widow, I wonder? Next, he considers himself to have very strict moral standards–the proper widow also excludes the divorcée. Most importantly, you must note the lack of any talk of love. More like ‘you marry me, take care of me and my house, and, in turn, I will provide for you and your children.’”
“That’s a fairly cynical view,” Hetty said.
“Well, I would be the one responsible for it, so I justifiably have an opinion.”
“Responsible for it?”
“Yes, you nit. I would be the one marrying the man.”
Hetty’s head spun. Had this been in the back of her mind all along that Kitty would go west with the children and that she would stay and marry Albert?
When she thought about it like that, she came to realize just how terribly selfish it sounded. She was trying to help the family, but she knew that once it was known that she intended to stay behind with Albert, everyone would look askance at her. In fact, Albert, himself, might think ill of her. Oh, dear! What to do? She needed to speak with him sooner rather than later.
The next morning, Kitty came into the kitchen and announced, “As much as I dislike it, Hetty was right about not being able to improve our lot in Chicago for a long time, especially without wealthy marriages. I’m not sure we can wait that long. I wrote a letter to the rancher before sunrise this morning and will post it today unless there are any strenuous objections.”
Hetty believed the younger girls were all too dumbstruck to say anything. But Frankie spoke up.
“I think it’s a brilliant idea.”
“You would,” Maggie said. “You’ve no connection to anything other than us. As long as we’re all in this together, you’re fine with it.”
“What will happen to Mr. Simmons?” Gertie wanted to know.
What, indeed, Hetty thought.
“Not a word to anyone, especially Mr. Simmons until we know more. Agreed?” Kitty asked.
Maggie sat stone-faced, and Frankie and Gertie nodded.
Kitty looked toward Hetty who hastened to say, “Yes, yes, of course. Until you get a reply, there’s no use upsetting anyone.”
That evening, when Mr. Simmons came to visit, Kitty studiously avoided looking at him directly. Hetty thought that odd, but perhaps Kitty simply did not like keeping secrets from anyone. She began to wonder whether Kitty should have even told the youngest girls.
The days ticked by with little change in their lives, although Mr. Simmons seemed to come a little less often. Hetty wished she understood it all.
One late afternoon, Hetty was taking up the laundry to distribute it to the bedrooms. When she entered Kitty’s room, the first thing to catch her eye was a large hand mirror set into lustrous green tortoiseshell. It nearly matched the back and handle on Hetty’s hairbrush, but the size of the mirror made it seem elegant and, perhaps, extravagant.
Hetty set the clothes down onto Kitty’s bed and picked up the mirror. The mirror face was flawless, and the back and handle were beyond comparing with any other vanity mirror Hetty had ever seen. The back of the mirror and the handle were of one piece, and the outer rim was carved leaving little peaks and valleys around the edge. In the center there was a tiny mosaic of flowers made of cut, bright-colored opalescent pieces, likely, dyed tortoiseshell.
Running her hand over it, the back of the mirror was so smooth–nearly liquid it seemed. She realized that while the mirror and her hairbrush could have been a pair because of the color of the shell, she surmised it was not because it was devoid of the faceted sides and the decorative mosaic.
Hetty laid it gently back onto the shelf and continued her errand of putting the laundry away.
What did it mean? Hetty wondered. It was obviously a much more expensive gift than what he had given her. Not that she minded in the slightest, she loved her brush, but she wondered again if it was guilt about leaving Kitty to become a spinster.
Of course, he didn’t know about the plans to possibly move west, or for Kitty to marry the rancher. He needn’t feel guilty. How could she convey that to him without tipping her hand that she was waiting patiently for him to court her?
A couple of days later, Hetty came in to a cacophony of voices. “The letter arrived from Wyoming. Open it! Open it!” they cried as Kitty held the envelope high above their heads. Even Maggie and Gertie seemed caught up in the curiosity of it all, but Kitty was much more reticent.
Hetty put her things down and dropped into a kitchen chair with the letter. She looked at the outside of the envelope to see that it was from a Mr. Jeremiah McAllister–the one to whom she had addressed her proposal. She broke the seal of the envelope and fumbled to get at the letter.
“Dear Mistresses Phillips,” he began. Well, thought Hetty, at least the man was literate or knew someone who was. “I have been in contemplation over your response for a night and a day now, and I have considered your words. I understand your circumstances. I was widowed about a year ago, and I have come to understand that my ranch work is far too extensive to manage without someone to tend the home fires. I am in great need of a helpmate, and I welcome the idea of more hands besides.
However, I am not able to take on five new mouths to feed, nor do I have the desire to take on that many children at once. I will, then, make an offer to marry the eldest sister, Katharine, and to take in the two young ones, Frances and Gertrude. I believe that Henrietta and Margaret are old enough to care for themselves and might find survival a lighter load if there were only the two of them at that end. I hope that this situation is amenable to you.”
Inside the envelope were three train tickets, for one adult and two children, which would depart from Chicago ten days hence, arriving in Cheyenne, Wyoming five days later. On the back of the schedule, it stated that in Cheyenne, a scrawl indicated that they would be met by an escort from the Fort Fetterman military installation where they would go by stagecoach, arriving in Fort Fetterman in yet another five days, where Mr. Jeremiah McAllister would meet them.
Ten days in which to ready themselves, a five-day train trip, and a five-day coach trip. They would be there and settled in less than three weeks! It seemed a nearly impossible feat.
They all stood silent, each with their own interpretations and visions of what all that entailed. For Hetty, she was somewhat envious of the adventure. Given Katherine’s age, at 23, she could be expected to have more wisdom and insight. Since she had cared for them all for several years, she knew what it was to work hard. With a secret, guilty thought, though, she realized that if it were only herself and Maggie, that perhaps Albert would then consider marrying her since he would only be taking on the two of them instead of five. Although Kitty thought not, it had to be daunting for a grocer to take on the care and feeding of a wife and four children from the outset.
She would miss the adventure, but then, wouldn’t courting and wedding Albert be an adventure in itself? Life would be easier with a man’s earnings, and she could supplement perhaps by sewing for others, even for a shop.
Kitty promptly sat down and began to cry. When Hetty tried to comfort her, Kitty pushed her away and stood. “It will be all right. I must do what I must do, and if marrying this man will bring better prosperity to us all, then I must. It goes without saying. Of course, it makes sense since I’m the oldest, although Mr. McAllister’s pronouncement about Hetty and Maggie being old enough to take care of themselves is worrisome. I wish we could all go together. Should we try to sell the house? Or leave that to our distant cousin, or …?” Kitty was wringing her hands while saying all of this, and her voice took on a high pitch.
Frankie began to roll her eyes. It was always thus with Kitty who seemed to think she was always so put upon by every circumstance.
“Well, I do believe we’ll have need of the house for some time once you leave. I haven’t any immediate proposals of marriage, although I do suppose it will happen sooner rather than later.”
Kitty gave her a strange look, and Hetty tried to be as nonchalant about it as possible.
For the next week, Kitty flew around the house, in no particular direction, trying to conceive all she needed to do or put together before they left. Hetty reassured her repeatedly that she and Maggie would be fine, that if it came down to the need to sell the house she would contact their cousin and have the arrangements made.
“But what will you do when the house is gone?” Kitty asked.
“I’ll give the money to Albert to hold for us and to help us find a decent place to lease.”
“Ohhh,” Kitty scoffed.
That evening, the doorbell rang, and Kitty rushed to answer it. Instead of inviting whoever was at the door inside, she grabbed her shawl and went outside.
Hetty went to the window to see who it could be, and she saw Kitty talking with Albert. At first, she thought it odd that Albert didn’t come in, but as she watched their expressions, she could see that Albert was speaking and looking at Kitty in a way Hetty hadn’t expected. Kitty kept her head lowered as she listened to him.
He stepped forward, taking Kitty’s hands, holding them up and kissing her fingers. He spoke earnestly now, and Kitty shook her head and turned back toward the door with a tear in her eye.
Hetty’s face burned with chagrin as she realized that she had misinterpreted Albert all along. She had thought his deep consideration and kindness toward her showed that he fancied her, when, in fact, he was being kind to her because of his love for Kitty. What had she done?
Kitty was to leave just two days from now to go west to be the bride of another man, leaving Albert behind. A wicked thought crossed Hetty’s mind for an instant that, perhaps, without Kitty around, Albert’s affections would turn toward her. But she banished the thought, knowing how thoroughly unfair such an idea was, to any of them.
Hetty disappeared into her bedroom before Kitty could return. What could she do? Suddenly she knew the only right thing to do. She would go West herself, taking Frankie and Gertie with her. Kitty and Maggie could stay, and perhaps, as she had thought, Albert would propose to Kitty once there were only two of them instead of all five.
Why couldn’t she? She was braver than Kitty in the first place, despite being four years younger. People were always telling her she was wise for her age even if she was a bit self-centered. Self-centered? She could show herself to be anything but. She would shoulder the responsibility.
Kitty had already indicated to her during late night talks that while she was fine with the train trip, she was deathly afraid of the stagecoach trip, escorted or not. She had heard and read such horror stories of the Plains Indians and what they did to settlers. Of course, it was more likely that they would be robbed by highwaymen than plundered by Indians.
Why was she thinking about that? Those were Kitty’s fears. All Hetty felt now was determination and a certain bit of self-sacrifice at leaving Kitty to her love.
The next day, Hetty pulled out her trunk, packing as much as she thought she would need–two day-dresses and one a bit dressier, her coat, hat, and gloves, and a couple of blankets.
Whenever Kitty wasn’t looking, she stole into the girls’ room and took a few things to pack that she hoped would not be missed before they got away. They would be wearing their cold-weather over-clothes, boots, and a dress; she would add a second dress for each along with a pair of shoes. She wanted to pack Gertie’s doll, but she was afraid that would be too obvious, so she just waited.
In the middle of the night, she brought down the trunk, sitting it on the front stoop, and hailed a nearby carriage. The driver came to get the trunk while Hetty went back inside and woke the girls, shushing them, and getting them into their clothes and outerwear, telling them they were leaving earlier than they had originally planned. Hetty had removed the train tickets from Kitty’s bag earlier that day and put them into her own.
They were too sleepy to complain, and it wasn’t until they were already in the carriage underway that Gertie woke up and looked around, wanting to know where Kitty was.
By then, Frankie was alert, realizing what had taken place.
“I decided it was better that I take you than Kitty. She is going to marry Albert and making her go away to marry someone else seemed cruel.”
Gertie’s lower lip started to tremble. “But we will see Kitty soon?” Kitty was the only mother Gertie had ever known since her parents had passed not long after she was born.
“Not for a while, Gertie,” Hetty said. “But perhaps she and Maggie and Albert will all come to visit us after we’ve gotten settled.” Hetty had no idea how much of that was true, but it would have to do for now.
Gertie began to whimper, and Frankie put her arm around her to comfort her. “It will be all right, Gertie. You will see. We’re going to get to ride horses and see Indians and … and … buffalo! We will have a grand time.”
“Buffalo? What’s a buffalo?” Gertie wanted to know.
The problem with her plan was that they were going to be seven hours early for the train. Kitty would most assuredly figure out what had happened once she woke up, and Hetty had no way to estimate Kitty’s reaction.
While the children slept on a bench at the train station, Hetty wrote a quick letter to Kitty which would hopefully ease her mind.
Kitty, until two nights ago, I had no idea about your relationship with Albert. I couldn’t allow you to make the trek to Wyoming to marry another man after seeing the loving look in Albert’s eyes. I’m sorry I was so selfish as to have overlooked everything and to have insisted that we were taking the right course of action. I want you to be truly happy, and I know you could not if I took you away from Albert.
Hetty nearly crossed out that last line to rewrite it, but it was the truth, wasn’t it? In the back of her mind, Hetty wanted Albert all to herself.
“We will be all right–you know we will. You know I am fearless and am as capable of protecting Frankie and Gertie as you are. I only hope Mr. McAllister will be all right with me coming instead of you. I will send you a telegram from Cheyenne and then again from Fort Fetterman. I love you very much; thanks for the good care you took of us for so long. Give my love to Maggie, too, and my best to Albert. Your sister, Hetty.”
The letter was long, and her fingers were stiff from the cold, but she folded it, fumbling for an envelope, and looking around to find a messenger. It didn’t take long to find one who looked at least marginally trustworthy, so she gave him some coins, writing the address on the front of the envelope.
She felt, then, that her duty was discharged, and that it was time to look forward. She had to keep her mind off of Albert, first, because she’d been so blind to the whole situation, and, second, so head-over-heels in love with him that her heart felt squeezed at what she had learned over the last couple of days.
The train pulled into the station an hour early, but they were given to understand that some maintenance needed doing, and that they wouldn’t be allowed to enter the train until it was ready to go.
Hetty was nervous that it might delay the start of their trip. She still didn’t know what to expect from Kitty, or even, possibly, from Albert.
She took the letter from Mr. McAllister from her bag and re-read it for the umpteenth time. She remembered her sister’s words regarding his ad, and although the letter seemed a little softer, there were still things that one could glean about the man. She struggled to understand why a wealthy rancher felt he couldn’t take in all five sisters. Hetty was sure he had good reason, though, so she wasn’t going to judge him one way or the other until she met him.
The girls were awake now, sleepy and rumpled, but fascinated by everything going on around them.
Hetty took them to the toilet and brushed their hair, making braids which she wound around the back of their heads and pinned them. That would be the easiest way of keeping them somewhat kempt on the long journey ahead.
Shortly thereafter, they heard the conductor calling, “All ab-o-o-ord.” She saw that it was their train, and looking at the large clock on the station wall revealed that they were boarding exactly on time. She would be glad when they pulled away from the station. She knew why she was apprehensive, although she doubted there would be a confrontation. Truthfully, the only thing Kitty could be upset about was that Hetty did it without telling her. Hetty knew it was the best scenario all around.
Their trunk stowed, the trio stepped up into the train. It was nicer than Hetty had anticipated, and she hoped it might be an easy passage.
The conductor indicated a row of three seats for them, a single, and a longer bench seat for the girls. “Is this your first train trip, Miss?” he asked.
“First long one,” she said. “I’ve only ridden day-trains before.”
He looked at their tickets again. “It’s a long haul from Illinois to Wyoming,” he said. “Once we get going, I’ll come back and talk to you about comfort options.”
Hetty smiled and nodded. She had no idea what he meant, but she imagined that they could not afford whatever he proffered.
The girls sat pressed back into the corner of their seat, Gertie pressed into Frankie’s chest, just moving their eyes to see everything around them. They were also a bit overwhelmed at everything that was happening, not the least of which, Hetty surmised, was their rude midnight awakening and unexpected departure without Kitty.
It was fully nine o’clock now, so she knew that Kitty and Maggie would both be up, confounded by what had happened. She hoped the boy would hasten to take the letter to them. Not that it would necessarily make them feel better, but perhaps they would at least understand.
Hetty tried to relax while the remaining passengers were loading. The conductor was about, checking tickets and putting a small stub above each row with the number of passengers and their destination.
Hetty felt herself relax as she heard the steam building up and felt the first forward movements of the train. The girls both craned their necks to see out the window.
Soon the conductor returned to speak with Hetty. He told her about the dining options, which she knew they couldn’t afford, and he told her about the various types of sleeper cars.
She looked past him as if she were thinking, but he quickly realized they were likely in no position to take any of the options.
“Tell you what I’ll do,” he said, “I’ll be right back.” The conductor moved toward the back of the car and returned momentarily.
“Come with me,” he said. Hetty hesitated, and he continued with, “Bring all your things with you–I’m going to seat you elsewhere.”
Hetty nodded to the girls, who gathered the few items they had brought, and Hetty picked up her large carpetbag. When she reached overhead for the blankets, the conductor pulled them down, carrying them for her.
The train lurched slightly, and they awkwardly made their way behind the conductor.
When they got to the very back of the car, there were two seats facing each other, one, the single seat and larger bench seat on one side, and the mirror opposite on the other side.
Now the girls could each have their own window seat, and they would have their own place to curl up at night.
“I’m sorry, Miss, I know that doesn’t provide any additional comfort for you, but it’s often the little ones who have the hardest time with the trip.”
“That’s fine,” Hetty said. “This is more than we could possibly have hoped for; I am grateful.”
“No bother, Ma’am,” he said. “Happy to help.”
Miss? Ma’am? Hetty smiled to herself. He probably didn’t know what to call her, with two children in tow, but she was barely seven years older than Frankie. Hopefully, she didn’t look old enough to be their mother.
The girls had a worried look as they passed the area devastated by the fire. There was still a lot of cleanup to do before the city could begin to rebuild.
But after a long, slow crawl out of the city, the girls began to see things they had never seen before–stands of pine trees to break the wind before the fields, covered in snow and looking like diamonds as the weakened sun streaked across the fields.
They saw cattle huddled together to keep the cold to their backsides. These girls had never seen farm animals other than goats, sheep, and chickens in the street markets. Of course, they had seen horses, but cattle were something new.
“Are those buffalo?” Gertie wanted to know.
“No,” Frankie said, “buffalo have much bigger heads.”
Hetty had to grin at that. “Where have you seen a buffalo, Frankie?”
“In books … at my school …” then she lowered her voice, “before the fire.”
In the three months since the fire, Hetty and Kitty schooled the girls at home. She had no idea what it would be like in Wyoming. Perhaps, if they lived close to a town, the girls could go to school there. Hetty barely felt up to teaching them when she had Kitty’s support; she didn’t know what it would be like if she had to do it all on her own.
After about three hours, the girls seemed to finally relax. After that, it wasn’t long until sleep overcame them, wrapped in their blankets and with the steady clack of the rails. Hetty dozed lightly herself, wrapped in her warmest shawl.
Hetty woke up to Gertie at her elbow. “Hetty, I’m hungry.”
“So am I, Gertie,” Hetty replied. She opened her bag and brought out some bread and cheese. She pulled off a hunk of bread for each of them as well as a chunk of cheddar to go with it. It wasn’t much, but it was enough, and the girls didn’t complain. Since their economic downturn, they had all learned to be content with less.
As afternoon wore on into evening and evening into night, the girls were quiet, and for now, Hetty let it be. Earlier they had been talking and gesturing animatedly, but she wondered if the oncoming night hadn’t caused reality to settle in that they had left the only home they had ever known to take a long journey into the unknown.
As the girls settled down onto their benches, Hetty’s mind turned that way, too. Everything had happened so quickly that there had been little time for any consideration at all. It was a commitment they had made to make things easier for everyone concerned.
Mr. McAllister hadn’t mentioned his age. For all she knew, he could be quite a bit older than her.
Hetty was young and full of life, and not nearly as sedate as was Kitty. She would have to take the measure of his humor and his temperament. Perhaps he was older and would appreciate her youth, or perhaps he would find her exuberance irritating. She hoped not the latter, or, she hoped that if he objected at first that he would soon come to enjoy her lightheartedness.
Her mind turned to what life on a Wyoming ranch might be like. Frankie was probably correct in that they would all learn to ride horses. The girls were obviously too young to help with ranch work, but she hoped they would find the outdoor life, gardening, caring for the animals, and helping around the house enjoyable. She would like to see them become more robust as well as herself. Once removed from the activity of the factory, she found a sedentary life somewhat disagreeable. She had never shouldered the responsibility of gardening and animals, but gardening was something she had often thought about, especially after the fire, and food was harder to come by.
She realized she was ill-prepared to do farm tasks herself, so they would all have to learn together. She could certainly cook and keep a clean house, but there were so many unknowns. She didn’t want not to consider them, but neither did she want them to cause much uncertainty.
Thoughts of a married life with Mr. McAllister were difficult to fathom. Albert had been a known entity. She knew Albert’s temperament, his shyness, gentleness, his love of books and numbers, his obvious delight at being around the sisters. That would have been so comfortable just to slide right into and to discover more about each other along the way.
With Mr. McAllister, however, it was all just a giant blank. It was all to be seen and experienced. Hetty never considered herself to be an anxious person, but she certainly felt some apprehension. Who wouldn’t?
The next morning, the sky was barely light as the train pulled into Des Moines, Iowa. It seemed a sleepy little town at the confluence of two rivers. The train made a stop there to take on two passengers, and to take on water. One could see a single church spire above the little town, and there were two saloons one could see from the tracks.
That day and the next, traveling through Nebraska went on with little but dreary whiteness and little tree breaks here and there. The sky was as white as the snow, making it seem that the world consisted of nothing but white, with black scratches that were meant to be trees outlined against the skies.
All of that began to change, though, as they approached the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Here they would have to change trains as the one they were on would continue to Denver while the one they wanted went toward Laramie and ultimately Wyoming Territory and Cheyenne.
They were all tired, cold, and restless even though it seemed they did little else besides sleep and doze. Being a few cars from the front of the train, a little steam penetrated their car. It kept the worst cold away, but it also made the air feel damp. She hoped that the girls didn’t become ill because of it. Ordinarily, they were quite well, but all the smoke from the fire, days and days at a time had taken its toll on them all.
When they changed trains, however, it was to a train with fewer passenger cars, and they were near the front where the air was warmer. Their conductor was a jovial Scotsman.
They left Nebraska sometime during their fourth night of their journey, crossing over into Wyoming Territory. When they awoke that morning, Hetty looked out to see cloud-wreathed mountains in the distance.
Hetty couldn’t take her eyes from the mountains. This was the eastern-most corner of the Rockies, the conductor had told her. They would get closer to them as they approached Cheyenne.
Hetty said nothing, wanting the girls to discover the mountains for themselves when they awoke and looked out the window.
Frankie and Gertie stayed in their seats with Hetty’s bag while Hetty debarked quickly in Laramie to see whether she could find something to eat. The bread she had brought was now down to a hardened heel, and the cheese was barely crumbles.
She stepped into a hotel restaurant where she was able to purchase three bread rolls and a jar of hot broth. That would do.
The train was blowing its whistle, and the conductor was ready to close the door when she returned, but he spied her, and helped her quickly aboard.
“Thank you so much,” Hetty said. “It would have been … well, I hate to think what would have happened had I not gotten back on time and the girls had gone on without me.”
“I wouldn’t have let that happen,” the conductor said. “Had you been nowhere in sight, I’d have unloaded the girls onto the platform along with your bag so at least you’d be together.”
Hetty gave him a startled look. He smiled and shrugged. “There’s no delayin’ the train. Coast to coast, Chicago to San Francisco in five days. We have t’ hustle to do that.”
Hetty smiled wanly. “I understand,” she said. She made her way back to the seat just as the train made its first heave away from the station.
“Hetty!” Gertie cried.
“We were getting worried!” Frankie said.
“I’m sorry,” Hetty said, but those thoughts were quickly forgotten as she handed each of them a bread roll. She poured some of the hot broth into the tin cups they had been using for water.
She palpably relaxed as she drank the warming broth. She could feel the warm liquid as it coursed through her, warming her stomach, the sensation traveling up her spine.
The biggest difficulty had been keeping their feet warm. The girls often removed their boots and sat on their feet, covering them with their blankets, but that was a bit more difficult for Hetty. Once Gertie had looked up at her–such a sensitive and warm-hearted child she was–saying, “Hetty, sit here. I’m little; I can tuck myself into your chair, but you’re too big to curl up in that chair. Hetty smiled and thanked her, assuring her that she was fine.
The trip from Laramie to Cheyenne took another six hours. It was late afternoon by the time they reached Cheyenne.
As they were getting off, she asked the conductor as he passed by if he had any idea how far it was to Fort Fetterman from Cheyenne.
“Fort Fetterman, Lass. Why on earth would ye be goin’ to Fort Fetterman?”
“I will be married there very shortly,” she said.
The conductor raised his eyebrows. “Wa’al, it’s not just the distance, it’s the weather, especially right now. The town below the fort is Douglas. Douglas can be almost spring-like, but when ye travel above to Fort Fetterman, the cold and winds are nearly unbearable.”
“I’ll just be glad when we get there,” Hetty said. “I’m sure we won’t be at the fort very long, then we’ll head a bit farther west to my husband’s ranch.”
“Well, if that ranch is along the North Platte, it will no doubt be beautiful, but Fort Fetterman is high on the bluffs, and there’s no stoppin’ the wind. Good luck to ye all, lassies.”
“Thank you for all the help you’ve been to us along the way,” Hetty said.
The conductor tipped his hat. “It’s my job, darlin’. And it’s a pleasure helping out a young family like yerselves.”
With that, he went on, while Hetty and the girls gathered their things together and debarked from the train.
“A Love Rising from the Ashes” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
The Great Chicago fire burns down the factory that Hetty and her older sister works. Being rather desperate, one of them will have no other option than to become a mail order bride. When Hetty finds out that the man she is in love with has a relationship with her sister, she takes the hard decision and sacrifices herself. She leaves for the unknown, but she would never expect what she will discover upon her arrival. How will she feel about her “wifely duties”?
Jeremiah McAllister is struggling to overcome his past wounds. Having lost his wife recently, he has completely cut his feelings. When Hetty arrives, he is rather bitter and insulting. He prefers spending all of his time with the cowboys, doing everything possible to avoid his new wife. Having built emotional defenses all these years, will he be able to give love another chance?
A series of misunderstandings between Hetty, Jeremiah and the rest of the Phillips family keep perplexing the situation. When his heart gives in to her love, he will need to make up for his past behavior. Is Hetty’s heart big enough to forgive him? An accident is all it takes to change their relationship forever.
“A Love Rising from the Ashes” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 90,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.