Emma's life hasn't been easy, but when she got married nine years earlier it was supposed to get better. Then the Civil War happened leaving her alone with Charlie, Jacob's son and little else.
One year together in all that time before he announces they have a new home in Cimarron, New Mexico. What else should she expect but him leaving her in the house alone again the very day they arrive.
But when Jacob gets himself killed it starts a new beginning, if only they had a way to keep food on the table. And Matt Colton riding up with cattle solves more than one problem.
Is it possible to trust a man so good looking after what Jacob put her through? One part says yes, but the other doesn't have a chance to find out before Jacob's past is looking for her to pay his debts.
A Phaze Books ReleaseContains sexual language and explicit sexual situations intended for the enjoyment of adult readers.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya a few years back Jennifer Mueller traveled quite a bit and now she just wishes she was.
A lot of the places she's written about she's been to, a lot of them she hasn't. Rafting on the Nile in Uganda, living in a Montana ghost town, African safaris, exploring Mayan ruins, European youth hostels, the Black Hills of South Dakota, walking the streets of Puerto Rico all fill her scrapbooks.
Now a daughter takes up most of those pages, but she still travels in her head every time she writes.
Emma Christianson could only think as the wagon rolled forward. A thick mist had settled over the land. If the top of the next ridge was visible, it was good going. Her husband Jacob didn’t say a word and Charlie was asleep. Jacob was a soldier in the recent war with the South. Jacob vanished shortly after it started, leaving her with his six year old son, and didn’t return for nearly five years. That was just the start of his roaming while they were left behind. . Charlie was a doll, she thought of him as her own son. That was the only good thing that came from the war.
“When should we get there? You said before lunch.”
He still didn’t say a word. She’d had to sit there, a nine-year-married woman while a virtual stranger she called husband went west and built a home. What the place looked like, she hadn’t a clue. Then suddenly, the fog lifted, revealing mountains in the distance. Yellow and purple wildflowers filled the ground in every direction. The haze in the sky made the hills gray, almost blue in places. It looked green in the distance, but if the last few weeks taught her anything, it wasn’t to trust your eyes until you were there. A pronghorn antelope sprung up, seemingly out of nowhere, and dashed from view.
“The house is on the slope of those mountains there, impatient one. It’s about a four mile ride to Cimarron. I’ll work at a claim in Elizabethtown for a while to get some extra cash,” Jacob finally answered.
Jacob gave her a grin as if he was oblivious. The view was beautiful if somewhat stark. She couldn’t keep her eyes from flitting back and forth between the town’s supposed location to the mountain slope. “Wait. We won’t see you at all? Why not have a place in town if that’s where you’re working?”
Jacob smiled briefly. “It’s just long enough to earn some funds to get the herd of cattle started. A month or two is all it will take. You can put the house the way you like it while I’m not there to intrude. I won’t even complain. I’ll be back as much as I can, just not every night.”
She wasn’t the sort to curse, but her head filled with every one she knew. A year gone without mentioning, the wagon trip never brought up again—she’d be alone. They’d known each other a year before he ever asked. She’d had a crush on him for longer than that even. She could understand going somewhere to buy cows, going to fight a war, but they’d been married since 1858, and in the nine years since, she’d been under the same roof as Jacob for less than a year. He was always gone. Even if this time it was just a few miles away.
“Jacob, are you serious? It’s been a year you were gone, now you’ll work a few months more? You couldn’t have earned it before you came to get us? What happened to the money from my grandfather?”
“Hush, you’ll wake Charlie.”
Emma closed her eyes. The boy was fifteen and it was close to ten in the morning. Nine years of marriage, and she was only now learning what kind of man she’d married. The long ride from New York taught her that.
The last couple miles were silent. She’d start yelling most likely if she heard any more about being left again. Rising out of the plains into the mountains, she had a beautiful view.
Charlie woke as they rolled through the pinyon pines. Short stubby things with a tall bald mountain in the distance.
“Look Ma, there’s the house,” Charlie cried.
Her heart sank. The structure was stone, heavy shutters, a slate roof, two-foot thick walls. At least they were into the trees and off the windswept valley. Climbing down, she knew her husband was stupid and she never liked to call anyone that.
No firewood was stacked up. She couldn’t see a well in sight. Unless she’d missed it, the closest water was a small stream they’d passed two miles back. Inside were four rooms, completely bare. It didn’t even look like he lived there. She might not be a rancher, but she knew how to live on the edge of having nothing and even that was more than this. No one could live there. No dishes, not even the shelves of a pantry. Not even a water cask. Walls and roof, nothing more.
“This cost nothing but time to build and you’re out of money? How far is water? Damn it Jacob.”
Jacob stared at her for the longest time. Did he think she couldn’t see? “Emma.”
“You weren’t living here. There is no way anyone lived here. Just go, go sleep on the floor of some friend until you think it’s safe to show your face again. Charlie, go find what wood is lying around.” She started grabbing things off the wagon and all but throwing them in the house as the boy ran off. He was smarter than his father.
“I won the house in a poker game, Emma,” Jacob said quietly behind her. “It and three-thousand acres. Guzman bought one of the few plots around here that Maxwell doesn’t own. Everyone else leases land from him. He was building the house for his wife’s health, but she died before he finished with it. He didn’t want the place anymore and just threw it in the pot for the hell of it.”
Emma spun around, her head a blur. No, he wasn’t even that smart, was he? “You had money enough for cattle when you left and you have to hope for gold when you didn’t have to pay for the house.” Money she’d been left when her grandfather died, enough for a good start. “Where is my grandfather’s money?”
“I lost it.”
Breathe Emma, breathe.
“Go now. I can’t…”She fought tears as she unloaded things. He was gone for a year. A year to not build a house, to not buy cattle, to not come home. He never said why it took over a year. Until that morning, she’d assumed he had been building a house. Heading back outside, she noticed the one horse was gone. Emma sank down and the tears couldn’t stay gone now.
“Ma,” Charlie said quietly. “What’s wrong?”
“Your father is an idiot.”
“He’s not completely useless. He married you so I have a mother.”
He had such a stoic look she could hardly keep from smiling. “Is there any wood around?”
“There are a couple dead trees out back, but I need the ax.”
Emma pushed herself up. There wasn’t time for emotions. “Just pick up what you can right now until we find it. See if you can find any water while you’re at it, otherwise we’re going to fill up the barrels.”
“There’s a lake out back.”
“Yes, Ma. Come I’ll show you.”
Wandering through the trees, they opened up suddenly to deep blue water backed by a ridge of grey stone jutting up above the trees. Lake was perhaps an exaggeration; it was more like a large pond surrounded by a meadow filled with wildflowers. When Emma looked back, she could actually see the house roof at least. The trees hid it, but it wasn’t a long walk. “Well we have water, no real firewood to speak of, whatever food is in the wagon, and thirty dollars.” And no real guarantee of income.
Sorry Jacob, but nine years and it’s just easier to not depend on you. Of course she’d not been stuck four miles from the nearest person then either.
Charlie pulled out his fiddle and played a song once they’d eaten supper. Out under the stars, the scent of pine was so different than back home. From what she could tell in her very limited look around, the house sat on one edge of a plateau that overlooked the plains. Not an outbuilding to find, which meant the animals had nothing for shelter, nowhere to keep them corralled even. The cow needed more certainly.
Between them both, they’d found enough dead wood to drag close and sticks enough to have a simple meal at least. When they found the ax and saw, there would be enough for fall, but not when winter came. Food was the most pressing issue. Flour, brown sugar, molasses, salt, cornmeal, beans, hominy, a little rice, some dried vegetables, bacon, and salt pork. Nothing in great quantity. It would hold for a little while if she could pick greens she saw growing during the rest of their chores. Just getting water and wood had taken all day, and working kept her from cursing Jacob out loud. Very faint, she could almost make out the lights of Cimarron below. Or she was losing her mind wishing it was close enough to see.
“Why do you put up with him?” Charlie asked quietly.
Emma hadn’t even realized he’d stopped playing. “He is my husband, Charlie.”
“He shouldn’t treat you like he does. I think he only married you to dump me on.”
A nearly full moon rose over the horizon and Emma let out a sigh. It had been them for years. Emma and Charlie. Jacob never even entered into their thoughts unless he was there. “Possibly.”
Wasn’t that a joke? Nine years married before their first fight, and that was only because he was never there. Thirty dollars…how did you live on that without a farm, without food, without anything? On a farm she could do it, but there was nothing here. How could Jacob not tell her? Let’s just move across the country without telling your wife you lost everything her grandfather left her. All she could claim was a cow. Winter would come soon, and even New Mexico would be hard without stores. Thank goodness it wasn’t NewYork.
“We’re in trouble, aren’t we?” Charlie asked as if he could read her mind.
“We aren’t good.”
The quiet dawn brought a list of chores screaming in her head. Charlie was up the moment he heard her move. Fanning the fire up, a cup of coffee for both of them was in order.
“What’s first?” Charlie asked as he downed the last bit of his bread.
“Let’s get everything unloaded and see what we have. I can only hope there’s more food in there than I think.” Jacob had bought a large freight wagon, they had loaded up a house on it and then he paid to have it sent by train as far west as it could get. It wasn’t heading to Oregon, there were no mountains to cross. They could pack a bit more. Now she had to wonder if he’d done it just to not have her fight over this very thing.
There was nothing from Jacob, he lived with his parents still before the war. Everything they had was from her and even a fifteen-year-old boy saw she’d been used. Two beds, a table, four chairs, a single cabinet, a couple chests were all pulled off. Emma couldn’t tell how long the house had been empty or if it had even been lived in for that matter.
They pulled every dead tree over as the days passed by. Surely Jacob hadn’t lived there like he claimed. That task alone would have removed any wood close. It was late summer, too late to get a real garden started, but down by the lake they made a small garden fenced from deer and easy to water. Radishes, turnips, cabbage. A crock by the fire held the hopeful start of some sourdough starter. Charlie surprised her with a bucket of wild berries he found, and she canned a few jars of jelly. But it didn’t add much bulk.
“Hola!” They both turned at the voice. An older Mexican woman was driving a wagon up to the house as Emma hung up laundry.
“Hello, can I help you?”
The woman gave them a big smile and somehow Emma could see her as a huge flirt when she was younger. She was even smoking as she climbed off the wagon. “I’m Celestina Vergera, your nearest neighbor. There is a ravine so you can’t walk directly to my place, but it’s not quite two miles. I didn’t know anyone was here until I heard the music.”
“Charlie plays the fiddle, yes.”
“Do you need any help? I haven’t had a neighbor in so long, I’m starved for company. Female company anyway, my sons are always coming and going. The man building the house never stayed. I’d heard there were new owners, but that was months and months ago, and I never heard anyone.”
Emma tried not to laugh. Would she talk so much when she was here alone for too long? “Food is our only real worry. There’s firewood to pull to the house when we get the time, but food is harder. I need an oven most of all for bread.”
“Not much money then.” Celestina puffed a little on her tiny cigar. “Well, you have all these pinones trees. Collect the cones and dry them in the sun in bags, then just smash them open. They have very good nuts to pick out.”
Emma looked around at all the scrubby pine trees. Every one was covered with green cones.
“You want to get them before they open so the nuts aren’t eaten before you can collect them. But I brought you a few things, too.”
“You didn’t have to do that.”
Celestina waved her hand in dismissal, the one with the cigar. “You have your boy play me music and I’ll be happy. I don’t go into town much, and even if I did, most of the music is at the saloons, not somewhere for a woman to go.”
“Are your sons here then?” Charlie asked wanting anyone but his ma around it seemed.
“My sons are all old enough to be your papi. My daughters are all married. They all work hard, they should be coming home soon. Is that where your father is?”
Charlie shook his head. “He said he was going to the gold mine near here.”
“Hmmm. Not good leaving a woman and boy here alone.”
“What about you alone?” Emma snapped.
“Son, take my wagon over to my place and tell the man there to help you load up some mud brick. We’ll get your ma her oven built. I had to build a new pig shelter this spring and they’re just sitting there extra.” Celestina pulled several items from the wagon as she ignored the question.
“We’ll get one built someday,” Emma argued.
Celestina gave her a smile…she must have melted more than one man in her day. She was a plump woman with grey hair now, but beautiful brown eyes sparkled with silent laughter. “But think of your husband’s delight when he comes back to a loaf of fresh bread. My son Cesare would be over buying whatever you would make him, too. He worked at a gold mine up in Colorado before the war, he has a taste for cooking that isn’t mine.”
Which he could get readily in town, Emma thought to herself. She sighed. “Go on Charlie, get some bricks. We could have a pie then if you find any more berries.”
Charlie all but ran to the wagon and jumped in. “Be back soon.”
Celestina walked to the house with her gifts as if she owned the place. “There’s nothing in here. How are you going to last the winter?” she asked, gazing at a bare room with a table and chairs and a few pots.
“We’ll get by, we always do,” Emma muttered.
“Then you really will enjoy what I brought. I have some El Paso wine for you. My boys always bring some when they come back home from the south. Some honey, and chickpeas, I have goats and brought you some cheese. A few eggs. I didn’t know you were missing so many things though, I would have brought more.”
Emma shook her head. “We’ll be fine, there’s a cellar where I’m keeping things until we get some shelves built. We have a milk cow and planted some late vegetables in a garden by the lake. We have a rifle…I’m sure we can get a deer, maybe a few birds. I grew up on a farm, I can feed us, but we only got here a few days ago. I want to get things set here and see what we can find before I go to town to buy supplies.”
Celestina looked around until she found the trapdoor and went down the hole. “Well, at least I won’t be thinking you’ll starve tomorrow.” She was laughing as she came up again. “Your husband is a miner then?”
Emma hid a frown. “He said we were going to raise cattle…he only announced he was mining the day we got here. I kicked him out for losing what money we had gambling. I’ll be less angry whenever he comes back.”
“You know the lesson well I see.”
Emma turned around and looked at the woman.
Celestina grinned. “I’m not married, never have been. My boy’s father might have been fun, but he wasn’t the sort to marry. I made one man pay the lease for my place instead of vows.”
“Well, I learned after the vows that Jacob wasn’t the sort to marry, I have to live with it. I just don’t count on him to be part of it.”
Celestina’s laugh filled the room as she pulled the cork from a bottle of wine and poured them both a cup.