Emma jerked awake at the sound of wheels rumbling up the long drive toward White Oaks. The tattered handkerchief she’d been clutching at her chest fell between her leg and the arm of the overstuffed chair where she was dozing. Her head buzzed from her abrupt awakening, but eased as she looked around and her mind registered her home. With trembling hands she smoothed her thick, gray hair, pushing the loosened pins back into the bun at the nape of her neck. She’d been dreaming of her Jonathan, of Nathan, too, both gone now. A tear slipped down her cheek and her lower lip quivered, but she forced back the growing sob.
She hurried across the front room on wobbly legs and peeked out the window that still had glass in it to the left of the door, the one on the other side broken recently and covered by a faded oil cloth. Green eyes clouded with age watched a tall, well-dressed man help a young, blond woman down from a rickety wagon. Emma studied their faces, noting the tension on his and the hope in hers and she wondered at their story. Was it a story like hers and Jonathan’s, full of love and adventure, hope and pain, or were they struggling, as she did now that her love was gone?
The couple walked toward the house, avoiding the holes in the porch as they wended their way to the front door. Since Jonathan’s death the ranch had fallen into disrepair. Their trusted foreman, Ollie, had followed Jonathan’s passing several months later and the few remaining ranch hands had left for better opportunities, leaving Emma alone at her beloved White Oaks. Shutters hung crooked at the windows, the steps sagged and led to a porch full of holes, some big enough for a man’s foot to drop through, roofs needed patching, and her porch swing hung limp from one rope instead of two, the end scraping the floor boards as it swayed in the wind.
Watching the swing’s movement she was thrown back to the day Jonathan had surprised her with it. She smiled tremulously at the memory.
“Emma, come outside, I want to show you something.” Jonathan tugged at Emma’s arm, pulling her from the kitchen and through the front room toward the porch.
“What in the world is so important, Jonathan? My hands are covered with flour!” Emma said, exasperated as the white powdery stuff fell from her hands onto the floor.
“Just come on. You’ll understand when you see it.”
Emma groaned and let her husband lead her out the door onto the porch where she stopped in her tracks to stare at a newly hung swing that swayed in the breeze.”
“I cut the wood, sanded it and put it together myself, just for you Emma. I knew you’d enjoy sitting out here, taking in everything around you. You can sketch here, too,” he added, eyes sparkling with pride.
Emma licked her lips and felt tears threatening. This was the kindest most wonderful man she’d ever known and she knew she was truly blessed to have loved him most of her adult life.
“Go on. Sit down.” He took her elbow and led her to the swing where, using both hands to keep it from moving, she sat down. She pushed off with her feet and slowly swung back and forth. Her lips curled into a smile of delight and her eyes closed with the sheer relaxation she felt. “It’s wonderful, Jonathan. Absolutely wonderful,” she sighed.
The wood groaned under Jonathan’s weight when he sat down beside her and Emma wondered if the swing would hold. It did and once settled Jonathan laid his arm across her shoulders. They rocked back and forth in silence for several minutes until Emma sniffed once, then twice and jumped to her feet her eyes wide.
“Good Heavens!” She ran to the front door and shoved it open. “I forgot the biscuits!”
Brought back to the present by the knock on the door, Emma wiped her cheeks with the palms of her hands and ran her fingers over the simple muslin dress she wore, despairing at the plumpness she felt. She sighed, wondering when she’d gotten so old before reminding herself how much she’d lived through to merit being old and plump. She shook her head to push away a threatening bout of self-pity. Smoothing her hair one last time she stepped to the door, took a deep breath, and pulled it open.
They were a handsome couple, he with thick, black hair, a square chin, a well-trimmed mustache that covered his thin upper lip, and all of it sitting atop a slender six foot frame not quite as tall as her Jonathan, but close. The woman’s blond hair was swept into a bun at the base of her neck. Her pert nose, high cheeks, and hopeful blue eyes contrasted against the man’s smoldering dark ones.
Emma studied them a moment before the man said, “Morning, ma’am. I’m Ben Walters and this is my wife, Sarah. I’m here about the foreman’s position you have available. You sent me a letter telling me to come.”
Emma had to think a moment then recalled the letter that had come introducing Mr. Ben Walters and his wife, Sarah, stating his interest in the position advertised in the newspaper.
“Yes, yes.” She waved them inside, her voice still raspy from her interrupted nap. “Come in you two.” She straightened her back, stepped aside and swung the door wide for them to enter. “Have a long trip, did you? You look a little tuckered.” Emma hurried across the room and pushed a simple chair out from beside the fireplace for the man.
“Sit here, sonny, and the missus over there.” She waved at the overstuffed chair she’d recently vacated on the opposite side of the fireplace. A wave of sorrow washed over her as she stared at the old chair, stuffing popping out here and there, seeing nothing but her Jonathan swallowed up in it. With a sigh she pushed her memories away and shuffled to the settee on the right wall and sat down. Glancing down at her hands, gnarled with age folded in her lap, she again had to force back the memories that tried to shove their way into her mind. She felt herself slipping away and looked up to see the couple waiting patiently for her to speak.
Emma swallowed and took a deep breath. “I am Mrs. Emma Carter. I’m sixty-five years old, give or take a few.” She smiled and winked, having lost track over the years and not caring. “I am recently widowed and, as you can see, this ranch has seen better days.” Jonathan flooded Emma’s mind again and it took her a moment before she snapped back to the present. “Since my dear Jonathan’s passing, I’ve thought about selling out, but I’m old and I’ve lived here for the last…” Emma calculated in her head from the day she met Jonathan, the day her life truly began when he, literally, swept her off her feet. She giggled at the memory, and was lost in a world long past…
Emma Elizabeth Reed, twenty-four and already considered an old maid school teacher by most folks in St. Louis, stood beside her recently widowed older sister in Carter’s Mercantile watching Hattie ooh and aah over bolts of cloth Emma knew her sister would never purchase.
They were wasting time until the races started in an hour celebrating Missouri’s admission to the United States as its 24th state and, tired of watching her sister’s dramatic antics, Emma decided to wait outside in the fresh air. Hand on the latch to push through the door to go out, she was suddenly on the floor on her fanny, the breath knocked right out of her.
“I am so sorry, ma’am!” came a deep, disembodied voice.
Emma could barely make out the hands reaching down to help her up through the veil of copper-colored hair covering her face. Gasping for breath she reached for the offered assistance and was hoisted up like she weighed little more than a sack of feathers. Set on her feet, she peered at the overlarge hands still holding her smaller ones and cleared her throat.
The man released her then tried to push the hair away from her face. “Ma’am, I cannot express how sorry I am. I was in such a rush I didn’t see you when I went to run out the door. Please…”
She slapped at his hands, still fumbling with her hair. “Sir, if you don’t mind.” She was still trying to regain her breath and her composure. How rude could one man be?
Emma finally sucked in a huge gulp of air to fill her depleted lungs, as well as to gain patience in dealing with this buffoon. She squared her shoulders, shoved the hair off her face, looked into the eyes of the man accosting her—and lost all thought except for the deep-set, amber-colored orbs that looked back. Dark brown hair clipped neatly just below his ears and parted in the middle affected a business-like manner. High cheekbones flushed with embarrassment framed a long patrician nose and rose above a square chin. A high forehead and slightly overlarge ears tinged red completed the surprised face that stared back at her.
Feeling like she’d been hit for a second time, Emma jerked her hand up in front of her. “Please, sir. I am not harmed, other than my pride,” she mumbled under her breath, brushing at her backside. “And,” she added before he could interrupt, “please stop addressing me as ma’am. I am Miss Emma Reed,” she hissed.
The man’s head jerked back and those amber eyes went wider. His bent over body grew straight, changing his appearance from a befuddled, bumbling oaf, to handsome as far as Emma was concerned. His left eyebrow lifted and a smile tugged at the corner of his generous lips.
He bowed. “I humbly beg your pardon, Miss Reed. I was in such a rush to get my errand done so I could join the festivities, I didn’t consider someone might be in my way as I ran for the door. I thought everyone was already outside lining up, waiting for the races to begin.”
He cocked his head. Emma’s goose pimples chased goose pimples. Her heart was thumping so loudly she was certain he could hear it and she was having trouble breathing again, but this time it wasn’t from a crash landing on the floor.
“Miss Reed? Are you all right?”
Emma nodded, unable to speak.
“Are you certain? Would you like to sit down?”
He took her elbow and a jolt of electricity tore up her arm as he led her to a chair at the rear of the shop where she sat down to calm herself.
Emma’s head jerked up. She was acting like a love-struck school girl! Calming down enough to finally speak, Emma said, “Sir, you are?”
“I’m Jonathan, Miss Reed. Jonathan Carter.”
“Carter? Are you related to Mr. Carter that owns the store?”
“Yes, ma’am, I mean, yes, Miss Reed. I’m Horace’s brother, Jonathan. I just arrived from back east to help him with the store. We’ve been planning for me to come out for some time to expand, but the opportunity hadn’t presented itself until recently. I…” He stopped abruptly and his face flamed red again. “I’m sure you don’t want to know about all that, though.”
He was rambling, his hands balling in and out of fists in front of him. Emma thought it endearing and, much to her surprise she was interested in his plans. She smiled wide until the loud, exaggerated thump of heels brought a frown instead.
“What is going on here?” Hattie stomped to a halt in front of her sister. “Emma, are you ill?”
Emma shook her head. “No Hattie, I had a small mishap is all.”
“You’re not hurt or ill?”
“Then why are you sitting about? It’s time to go. The races start in forty minutes and I want to find a good spot. The sidewalks are already filling up.”
“Yes, Hattie, I’ll be right along.” Emma glanced at Jonathan then back to her sister. Hattie’s neck jerked up like a surprised chicken, her eyes wide.
“Oh, yes. Well then, I’ll wait for you out front. Don’t be long or I’ll leave you behind.” Hattie stomped away in the direction from whence she’d come, leaving Jonathan and Emma staring after her, mouths agape.
“My older sister, Hattie,” Emma finally managed.
“A mite pushy,” Jonathan mumbled then turned red-faced yet again when he realized he’d spoken aloud. “Oh, Miss Reed, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t…”
Emma’s raised hand stayed his apologies. She held her laughter until the tinkling of the bell above the door announced Hattie had left the store. “I couldn’t agree more, Mr. Carter.” Emma burst out laughing.
After a few moments of combined hilarity Jonathan stuck out his elbow. “May I walk you to the door? I promise you won’t wind up on the floor this time.” He gave her a smile and a wink.
Emma stood up on shaky legs. “You may.” She was grinning like the cat that ate the canary by the time they reached the door. Neither made a move to leave until Emma finally said, “As you heard, Hattie and I are going to watch the races. Are you going to watch, too?”
Jonathan nodded. “We’re closing in,” he checked his pocket watch, drawn from the front pocket of his close-cut, gray vest, “in fifteen minutes. My brother has decided no one will be purchasing anything until the races are over anyway, so we’re going to close up and enjoy it, too.” He shoved the watch back into his pocket then chewed on his lower lip. “May I be so bold to ask if I might join you? Perhaps your sister will act as our chaperone?”
Emma had never known anyone like Jonathan Carter before and thought he was the most sincere man she’d ever met. She couldn’t help the goose bumps that flared again, and the coy way she lowered her eyes when she answered, “I’d like that very much. I’ll wait for you outside.”
He pushed the door open and Emma stepped onto the planked sidewalk, accosted by Hattie as soon as the door closed behind her.
“Land sakes! What was all that about?”
Emma opened her mouth to answer, but snapped it shut when a loud whoop and then a holler from inside the shop drew hers and Hattie’s attention. Moments later it was followed by a thundering crash followed by the sound of shattering glass.
“What in the world was that?” Hattie cupped her hands around her eyes and peered through the store window to see what was going on inside.
Emma grinned, recalling the fine china display inside the front door just behind where she and Jonathan had been standing.
“That, my dear sister, was Jonathan Carter—my future husband.”
The abrupt clearing on one’s throat brought Emma back to the present. Unruffled by her departure into the past she slapped the palms of her hands on her lap and asked, “Where was I?”
“You were telling us how long you’ve lived here,” Ben said.
“Ah yes, I’ve lived here the last thirty years, plus or minus a few, and couldn’t bring myself to leave. This place is my life.” Emma drifted away again, recalling how she and Jonathan had come here so long ago with so many dreams. They’d realized many, lost some, but for all those years, Emma had loved White Oaks.
“You should have seen this place when my Jonathan and I first bought it. It was beautiful. No buildings, just the land. Trees as far as you could see, but plenty of pasture. And lots of water. There’s a stream that cuts through the southern portion,” she forced the burgeoning dark memories of what that creek had cost from her mind and continued, “plenty of game and lots of room. Room to build. First off, Jonathan built me my little cabin, back yonder there in the woods. That’s where y’all will stay.” She waved her hand toward the back of the house where they’d built the original cabin, a one-room building with a loft. “That cabin was just big enough while we built our big house.” Emma drifted again. She was gathering the stones for the fireplace, helping Jonathan, when someone cleared their throat again.
Emma waved her hand, “Anyway, we eventually built this place with our own hands. And I helped. I know, I know, it’s not a woman’s place to pound nails and dig holes, but I worked as hard as any man and was proud to do it. It took us years, mind you, but we did it. Me and my Jonathan.
“After we finished the barn and outbuildings, we bought some stock and finally had ourselves a producing ranch. We had a son, too.” She felt the tears well in her eyes and forced them back. “He only lived to be ten. Came down with the fever and wasn’t strong enough to fight it.” A tremulous smile tugged at her mouth. “But we loved him so much. Anyway,” she waved her hand again, trying to displace the sad memories of her son, “once we had a family, we needed more room, so Jonathan built me this house, with an upstairs and an attached kitchen so I wouldn’t have to brave the cold. It took five years to build, but we did it with sweat and love. Little Nathan, my boy, he tried to help, but he was always so frail…” She was rambling, caught up in her memories, and she knew it. Emma shook her head and her voice caught. It was all she could do to keep from breaking down. Although it had been a long time since she’d lost little Nathan, it still pained her as though it were yesterday.
“Enough of my sorrowful tales.” She slapped her knees again. “You look like a fine young couple. What brings you here? And why would you want to work for an old lady like me?” She looked at the man then the woman and back again.
“Well, ma’am,” Ben began, causing Emma to grin with the memory of hers and Jonathan’s first meeting again until Ben’s voice pulled her back to the conversation at hand. “I was recently discharged from service with the Dragoons at Fort Leavenworth. I’ve been unable to find work in that area and read about this position in the newspaper. We want to buy our own place someday, and hoped we could work and save at the same time.”
Emma was overcome by the similarities of this young couple to her and Jonathan and she clapped her hands in delight. “Just like me and my Jonathan. Oh that’s wonderful.” Then her head cocked and she became all business again. “And your qualifications, Mr. Walters?”
The man chuckled. “Before my enlistment I was the foreman of several large spreads, which included Sarah’s father’s, one of the largest in Pittsburgh. That’s where we met, as a matter of fact.”
“Yes, yes, I remember now from your response to the advertisement. Large spread back east. Ranch foreman.” Emma studied Mr. Walters a few moments and thought of dear Ollie, the only foreman they’d ever had at White Oaks, before she continued. “Good, good. I think you’ll work out just fine, Mr. Walters.”
The foreman’s position taken care of, Emma’s thoughts turned back to the house. She was an old woman with more miseries than she could think of. Her back hurt, her knees cracked, and her fingers were gnarled and bent. It was difficult for her to keep her home the way she liked, so she turned to Sarah. “Now then, there’s another matter I’d like to discuss with you. I need someone to help me cook and clean and keep this big old place from falling down around my ears. Would you be interested?”
The young woman smiled, brightening the room. “I’d like that very much, Mrs. Carter.”
Emma slapped her hands on her knees again, a smile to match Sarah’s on her face. The interview lasted a little longer as they determined wages, she laid out their duties, and they decided how long it would be before they could get back, ready to move in and start working. Within the next week Ben and Sarah Walters would become the newest residents of White Oaks. Emma hoped having the young couple around might ease the sadness in her heart. It seemed the older she got, the bigger it grew, regardless of the years that passed.
Perhaps these young people will help fill the emptiness that surrounds me. It is, at least, something to hope for.