Authors: Kirsten Osbourne
The words the preacher spoke went in one ear and out the other during the funeral the following day. The doctor had kept his word and made sure that Charlie’s parents were there, but he’d gone one further and her parents were on either side of her, and her siblings lined up behind her. They’d not spoken to her, but having them standing beside her made her feel more at ease.
“You need to throw on the first fistful of dirt,” her mother whispered in her ear.
Obediently Esther leaned down and threw a handful of dirt into the open grave. Charlie’s parents followed, his mother’s eyes shooting daggers at her.
When it was all over, her parents still flanked her, making certain her in-laws didn’t get a chance to speak to her. As soon as they’d left, all of the mourners went by and talked to Esther one by one.
When the cemetery was empty except for her and her parents, Esther turned to her mother, dropped her head to her shoulder, and cried. “What am I going to do, Mama? I’m having a baby, and my husband is dead!”
Delores Ames shook her head sadly, patting her daughter’s back. “I’m so sorry, baby. At least you’ll have a little piece of Charlie to always remember him.”
Esther pulled away, her voice rising to almost a shrill note. “How am I going to afford to buy that little piece of Charlie shoes and clothes? Let alone feed him?” She wanted to scream and wail at how unfair life was, but it would do no good.
“We’d ask you to live with us again, but we have no room. Especially not with you having a little one on the way.” Delores sounded as if she wanted to cry, not being able to offer her oldest child a place to stay. “The twins took over your room when you left, and there’s just no room anymore. I’m so sorry.”
“I understand. I didn’t expect you to have room for me and the baby.” But oh, how she wished they did. It would make everything so much easier for her. “I’ll figure something out. Maybe I can sell the farm.”
“But his parents were just letting him use the farm, weren’t they? Isn’t it still legally their land?”
Esther put her hands to her head, massaging her temples. “I don’t know. I never paid any attention, because Charlie always took care of it.” She walked slowly toward the two wagons which were waiting for them. “I guess I can get a job cleaning for someone in town if I need to. Maybe. I can probably move to Boston if there’s nothing here.”
Delores stopped her daughter by placing her hand on her arm. “I think you need to marry again as soon as you can. You were a good wife to Charlie. You can be a good wife to another man.”
Esther laughed bitterly. “Who’s going to want to marry a pregnant woman?”
“Do you want me to ask around? There’s got to be a young widower who needs a mother for his children.” Her mother’s eyes were earnest, letting Esther know she’d help her daughter find a new husband without thinking twice.
Esther shook her head. “Not right now, Mama. I need a little while to think.”
“Of course you do. I’m sorry.” Delores hugged her tightly. “Are you sure you don’t want to come to the house for dinner tonight? You don’t have to be alone.”
“I need to be alone, at least for a little while.” She climbed up into the wagon and took the reins. There was an answer somewhere. She knew there was.
The drive back to the farm only took twenty minutes, and she unhitched the team before putting them in their stalls in the barn. She looked around the farm sadly. Hopefully her in-laws would let her continue to live there until she had time to find somewhere else to go.
She walked into the house and looked around. Keeping busy always helped her so she took the broom and swept the already immaculate floor before dropping to her knees and scrubbing it. By the time the sun set, she’d scrubbed the walls and cleaned the windows. She knew she shouldn’t be pushing herself so hard while she was pregnant, but she couldn’t let herself slow down for long enough to think and worry. Worry was bad for the baby, too, wasn’t it?
It was after eight when the gnawing hunger in her belly told her it was time to stop and eat something if only for the sake of her child. She put some butter and jam on some two-day-old-bread and sat down at the table to eat it. Meals were the hardest. She hated having no one to talk to while she ate.
She ate the first two bites before she noticed the newspaper on the worktable. She got up and brought it back so she could read through it while she ate. Maybe that would make her feel less lonely.
She flipped through the pages until she found the want ads, still hoping to find a job working for a family in town cooking or cleaning. She was a good housewife and those skills had to translate into a job somehow, right? She read through the want ads slowly, a pencil at the ready so she could circle anything worth applying for. Her eyes caught an advertisement that startled her. “Mail Order Bride agency needs women who are looking for the adventure of their lives. Men out West need women to marry. Reply in person at 300 Rock Creek Road. See Mrs. Harriett Long.”
Did people really respond to ads like that? She kept reading, but her mind stayed on the ad for the mail order bride. She was a good wife. She was confident in her skills. But could she really be intimate with a man so soon after Charlie’s death? And would another man be willing to take on a pregnant woman?
There were no advertisements for jobs she was qualified for. She pushed back from the table and washed the few dishes she’d used. Was she crazy to even consider the idea of going to talk to Mrs. Long? Or should she wait until her in-laws told her she needed to move?
She sank into her rocking chair, burying her face in her hands. What was she thinking? She couldn’t marry another man! The tears flowed down her cheeks as she thought about Charlie. His kind face smiling at her as she walked down the aisle to take her place at his side. His brown eyes laughing at her as he scooped her up in his arms and carried her over the threshold. His deep voice telling her not to worry about his mother and the way she treated her. His calloused fingers tender as they stroked along her body.
How could she live her life without him? How could she not? She couldn’t just think about herself. She had to think about the baby inside her. She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. She’d make the walk into town to talk to Mrs. Long first thing in the morning. If she wasn’t suitable to be a mail order bride because she was pregnant, Mrs. Long would know. It couldn’t hurt to try. In fact, it would hurt more staying home and doing nothing.
She fell asleep that night hugging one of Charlie’s shirts to her. She hadn’t washed it, because she wanted to be able to smell him. When his smell disappeared, she would feel a deep sense of loss. Her pillow was soaked when she woke up the following morning.
After eating a light breakfast, she walked to the town of Beckham the following morning. There was no way she could take Bart after the doctor had confirmed that it was a kick in the head from him that had killed Charlie. She’d collected the extra eggs from the hens to take to the general store to sell on her way. She carried them in a small basket over her arm. She’d use whatever money she was given for the eggs to buy the few things she’d need from town.
She stopped at the general store first, to take care of selling the eggs. She’d stop there again on her way back to the farm to pick up what she needed so she wouldn’t have to carry it through town. The money she received for the eggs wasn’t as much as she would have liked, but it was enough to buy the staples she needed, so she had the merchant set up an account for her.
She hung a small sign she’d carefully hand-printed on the bulletin board at the back of the store. “For sale: Riding horse. Three years old.” She’d have to tell anyone who came out about Bart killing Charlie, but she wanted him gone from her property as soon as possible. She’d contemplated taking a bullet to his head, but she couldn’t force herself to destroy a source of money that way.
She walked through the quiet streets of Beckham to Rock Creek Road. and stood staring at the huge house from the address in the paper. Really? This was where she was supposed to be? She quickly wiped her hands on her apron, worried that her hands were too dirty to even knock on the front door.
Taking a deep breath, she knocked on the door and waited patiently for someone to answer it. She half hoped no one would be there so she wouldn’t have to talk to them. She hated the idea of marrying again, but couldn’t think of anything else she could do.
After a moment, a tall dark man opened the door to her. “May I help you?”
Speaking with a great deal more confidence than she felt, she said, “Yes, I’m here to see Mrs. Long, please?” She could hear the quiver in her voice, but didn’t think he could.
The man looked her up and down before opening the door to allow her inside. “Right this way, Miss?”
“Perry. Mrs. Perry.” A frown crossed the butler’s face, but he led her down the hallway to a door at the very end on the left. Esther felt a moment of panic. Was it not okay for widows to be mail order brides?
“Mrs. Long? There’s a Mrs. Perry here to see you.”
A petite blonde struggled to her feet from behind a desk on the far side of the room. She was obviously favoring one of her legs, and a look of pain crossed her face. “I’m Harriett Long. How may I help you?”
Esther wanted nothing more than to turn tail and run, but instead she spoke calmly. “I’m here about your advertisement in the paper for a mail order bride.” Esther watched Mrs. Long’s face carefully, wondering if she would just send her away because she’d been married. She hoped not, because she didn’t have a lot of options, but it was certainly a possibility.
Mrs. Long nodded and turned to the butler. “Higgins, would you bring us some tea and cookies, please?” After Higgins closed the door behind him, she gestured to the sofa. “Have a seat.”
Esther moved across the room and took the spot indicated. She folded her hands on her lap and waited for the older woman to begin the conversation. If she was planning on offering tea and cookies, she obviously was going to spend some time with her.
Mrs. Long studied her for a moment. “You’re a widow, I take it?”
Esther nodded, keeping her features carefully calm. She couldn’t cry now. It wouldn’t be proper. “Yes, my husband died on Wednesday.”
Mrs. Long’s face expression turned to one of sympathy. “I’m so sorry. Are you sure you want to do this so soon?”
“Yes, ma’am. I found out I was expecting the day my husband died. I won’t have a home for much longer and would really like to be out of the area before my mother-in-law discovers I’m pregnant. She would feel like she has a right to the child that she doesn’t.”
Mrs. Long nodded. “I understand completely.” She seemed to think for a moment. “You will have to be upfront about your condition to any man you are considering marrying. You know that, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course. I wouldn’t dare not tell a man he would be expected to father another man’s child. That would be wrong.” Esther was almost offended that Mrs. Long had felt the need to spell that out to her, but after a moment’s consideration, realized that others may need to be told.
“We’re in complete agreement then.” Mrs. Long turned to her desk and flipped through the pile of letters there.
Esther wondered what Mrs. Long’s story was. She obviously had a great deal of money, but she chose to spend her days playing matchmaker for other people’s weddings. Was she still married? Or was she a grieving widow like herself?
Mrs. Long held up a letter. “I think this man may be who you’re looking for. He’s specifically stated that he’s willing to marry a woman who already has children.” She handed the letter to Esther to read while she turned away and busied herself with paperwork.
Esther read through the words. “Dear Potential Bride, My name is Thomas Wilson. I’m a homesteader in the great state of Kansas. I’m a wheat farmer and find myself wishing for company on the long winter nights. I have never been married but don’t mind if you have been. I wouldn’t mind if you brought a child or two with you, either. I’m tall and thin with dark hair and brown eyes. I’m a hard worker and would like to have someone more than myself to work for. If you think you’d like to be my wife, please respond with some information about yourself and what you look like. I hope to hear from you soon. Sincerely, Thomas Wilson.”
Esther found herself trying to picture the man who was writing to her, but all she could see was Charlie’s kind face. Blinking back the tears that threatened, she looked at Harriett. “Yes, he sounds like he’ll suit my needs. What happens next?”
Harriett looked at her with pity, obviously understanding her need for tears. She pulled a piece of paper out of her desk drawer and handed it, along with a pen and ink, to Esther. “You need to write him back and tell him about yourself. Then we wait for him to respond.”
“How long will that take?”
Mrs. Long shrugged. “It could take anywhere between a month and two months. If he’s way out in the country, it’s not likely he goes into town to check his mail daily.”
Esther nodded. “Okay.” She put the tip of the pen in the ink well and quickly wrote in her neatest penmanship, “Dear Mr. Wilson, My name is Esther Perry. I’m a nineteen year old widow. My husband died just a few days ago, and I find I’m expecting our first child in seven and a half months. You said you were willing to take on children, so I hope that means that you’d be willing to take on a wife who is carrying a child as well. I’m a tall woman with dark hair that reaches my waist. I have brown eyes and am thin. Of course, I may not be thin by the time I meet you with the baby coming. I enjoy cooking and cleaning, as well as sewing. I think you will find me to be a good wife. Please consider me despite the child I carry. I promise you, I will work hard alongside you. Sincerely, Esther.”
Esther read quickly over the letter once more. She knew it was extremely formal, but she didn’t know what else to say or have any other way to say it. She was still very much in mourning, and she wasn’t going to pretend otherwise. She handed the letter to Harriett. “Is this okay?”
Harriett skimmed through the letter and nodded. “I think it’s perfectly appropriate.” She folded it in preparation for mailing.
“What next?” Esther wanted this part of things to be over. She didn’t want to live under her mother-in-law’s thumb for any longer than absolutely necessary.
“I’ll mail this in the morning, and we wait for a response. Do you want me to come to you when I get it? Or will you check back with me?”
Esther thought about that for a moment. “I’ll be coming into town every day to sell my extra eggs, so I can either come by every couple of days starting in a month, or you can come out to me. Whatever is easier for you.”
Harriett studied the younger woman carefully, noting the lines under her eyes. “Why don’t I come out to you? If you get anxious, you’re more than welcome to come by anytime. Or if you just need a friend, I’m here for you.”
Esther was startled by that offer. “You’d let me come into town just to visit you?”
Harriett smiled. “Of course. I need friends, too.” She smiled as Higgins walked into the room after a brief knock on the door, putting the tray he carried of tea and cookies onto the low table in front of the sofa. “Thank you, Higgins.” She poured the tea for the two of them, and handed a cup to Esther.
Esther took a sip of tea, but shook her head when Harriett offered cookies. “I’m not very hungry, I’m afraid.”
Harriett frowned. “You need to eat for that baby.”
“I’m forcing myself to eat regularly. Snacks are way too much at this point, though.” And it was true. No matter how she felt, she was eating at least a piece of bread and butter at every meal time.
Harriett smiled. “That’ll change. I remember when I was pregnant all I could think about was food.” She looked out the window as she spoke as if she were remembering a time in her life that was happier.
“How many children do you have?”
The smile left Harriett’s face. “None.” She didn’t elaborate on her answer, and Esther, in her own grief, wasn’t willing to press her on the matter. The look in the other woman’s eyes then reminded her of what she’d seen in herself that morning when she looked in the mirror. She wouldn’t ask again, but she’d certainly be a friend to the other woman if she could be.
“What time is a good time of day for you to receive visitors? I’ll be walking into town as soon as my morning chores are finished every day, so if around ten is good, I can come see you. I could use a friend.” She could use a friend who didn’t know her when she was with Charlie. A friend who wouldn’t constantly remind her of her loss or bring it up to her. She needed to learn to be an independent woman, and this seemed like the right way to start.
Harriett smiled and nodded. “That would be nice.” She seemed to debate for a moment. “I’m sending off my own letter in the morning too.”
Esther’s eyes widened. “You’re going to be a mail order bride?”
“I think I am. I really do.”
They had a pleasant visit, with each of them more comfortable with the other than she’d been at the beginning of the conversation. Esther regretted having to leave when they’d finished with the tea. “I’ll come see you soon,” she said as Harriett walked her to the door.
“I’d like that.” Harriett opened the door for her. “I’ll be here.”
Thomas looked up as he saw the wagon approaching. It was his friend, Andrew, who lived down the road apiece. He shielded his eyes against the bright afternoon sunlight as Andrew brought the wagon to a halt a few feet from where he was hoeing his field. “Andrew.”
Andrew jumped down from the wagon and held out his hand for his friend to shake. “Thomas. I went into town today, so I picked up the mail for all of us.” All of us referred to the four homesteading families who shared church services and lived in the same general area. Thomas was the only bachelor of the bunch and he was always happy when a friend came by.
“Letter for me?” He’d hoped to receive a letter back from that mail order bride agency long ago, and had almost given up that hope. It could just as well be from his mother, he reminded himself before he got too excited. He and his brother, who had been newly married at the time, had come from Kentucky eleven years before to take advantage of the free land Uncle Sam was offering homesteaders. At the time, he’d felt like he was too young to marry, but there had been no one to even try to get to know once he’d reached his destination.
Andrew stuck his hand into the front pocket of his slacks and pulled out a letter addressed to Thomas. Thomas read the front of it and a slow smile spread across his face. Finally a letter from Beckham, Massachusetts. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” Andrew frowned. “I didn’t know you had any kinfolk in Massachusetts.”
Thomas shook his head. “I sent off for a mail order bride. I’m hoping this letter is from a woman who wants to give up her life of ease to come out here and be a homesteader’s wife.” He gave a half-smile as he said the words, knowing there was really little chance a woman who was used to the luxuries she could find in the East would be willing to move to the middle of nowhere to be the wife of a random stranger.
“I hope that’s what it is, then. It would be nice if you weren’t always alone.” Andrew was married with two boys and three girls. The girls were in their early teens, and while some considered them old enough to marry, Thomas wasn’t one of them. He thought the girls deserved to find some young men who were closer to their own ages.
Andrew walked back to his wagon and climbed onto the seat. Thomas waved as the man left, and he found himself thankful the man hadn’t waited around to see what his letter said. If it was from the marriage broker saying no woman in her right mind would ever move to Kansas to marry him, he wanted to be alone as he read it.