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Hannah’s Dilemma

By Mary L. Briggs

Smashwords Edition

COPYRIGHT © 2018 Mary L. Briggs


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Table of Contents


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Epilogue

Chapter 1



Inez Pollard, carrying a tray of coffee cups, stopped at the kitchen door and stared into the dining room. The big blond miner, standing in front of his table, and the smaller bald man she had never seen before tonight, were shouting. Mostly at each other, but a few other men were chiming in, yelling their opinions, as well. It was something to do with the game of dominoes that was on the table in front of them.

But, no doubt, things would be more serious in another bellow or two. She squeezed her eyes almost shut as the Swede was the first to let his fist fly, striking the bald man in the eye. The table that stood between them crashed in a heap, sending dominoes skittering across the floor, along with the bald man. A roar sounded from the rest of the men as they came out of their chairs. The fight was on.

Inez shook her head. How could they keep doing this to her? “Stop it,” she yelled, setting the tray back on the counter and taking a step into the room. If she had anything to do with it, they were wrecking her restaurant for the last time. A couple of men from Jacob’s Brewery got in on the argument, shouting insults to each other’s faces. More fists began to fly, along with all of her plates and cups, as one man fell against the counter. Thankfully, she had heeded her son Ross’s advice, and served only on metal dishes. They would survive the ordeal. The fate of the furniture and dining area were yet to be determined.

“I said ENOUGH!” she screamed once more, as a man sailed backwards through the large glass window that looked out on the street. The one that struck him climbed through after him, and others followed, moving the, by now, multiple fights into the street.

She felt a hand take hold of her arm and tug her back inside the kitchen.

“We might as well watch from in here,” her sister, Lenora stated. “By the way, how many windows does that make?”

“This month or this year,” Inez fumed, grabbing the shotgun she kept in the corner. “These boys are sure keeping the hardware store and handy men in business,” she said, heading out the door and into the muddy street.

One blast was all it took from her rifle to bring the rowdy brawl to a halt. “Now, all of you get on home before I send off for the mayor and the sheriff!”

Those on the ground stood, and most of them wiped the mud and dirt from their faces. A few gave her sheepish grins as they sauntered away.

“Sorry about that, ma’am,” the big blond miner apologized, using his sleeve to wipe a streak of blood from his nose. “I guess it was mostly my fault. I’ll go ahead and board up the window for you.”

“That would be real nice of you, Kristopher.”



***



With the last bit of glass swept from the rough plank floor, Inez took a seat and stared around her business. “What a mess,” she said, to no one in particular.

“You can say that again. And probably again tomorrow night,” her sister answered, coming out of the kitchen with two cups of steaming coffee. She set them on the table in front of Inez, then seated herself across from her.

“I’m going to put a stop to this, Lenora.”

Her sister smiled and took a sip from her cup. “And just how would you do that?”

Inez’s eyes narrowed. “I’m going to marry them all off to nice girls.”

Lenora’s eyebrows shot up. “Not in this town, you’re not.”

“Oh, yes I am. They’ll be too busy with wives and children to spend their evenings in town wrecking my restaurant. When they do show up, it will be with wife and babies in tow. And I’m starting on the plan tomorrow.”


Chapter 2



Ross Pollard slammed the door behind him as he entered The Pollard Mine offices. He removed his hands from his coat pockets and blew on them, then rubbed them together. There were times when he missed Tennessee weather. A place where, for the most part, March was more like spring than winter. He took off his coat and hat and hung them on the hooks in the entryway.

“Good morning, Mr. Pollard,” his secretary, Miss Bard, greeted him. “Mr. Millard is in your office, sir.”

Ross’s brow crinkled. Hopefully, there was no problem with his mother’s new house. The progress had looked good to him when he had stopped by the site a few days back.

He stepped into his office. “Morning, Hiram.”

Hiram Millard stood and returned the greeting. “I’m sorry to bother you this morning, sir, but something has come up with your mother’s house and I just wanted to let you know.”

Ross grinned and took a seat at his desk. “She’s the richest woman in town, Millard. She can have whatever she wants.”

Hiram Millard cleared his throat. “Well, it’s about the bedrooms, sir.”

Ross sighed. “I went over and over that subject with her, Hiram. I know that ten bedrooms seems a lot to a woman used to not more than two, but I explained to her how important it is to have space for guests. As mine owners, we have to entertain a lot of people.”

Millard nodded. “But that’s just it, sir. She wants more of them. A lot more.”

Ross leaned back in the leather desk chair and stared. He could tell by the man’s expression that there was more to this than he was saying. “She asked you for more than ten bedrooms?”

The builder nodded.

“And did she say why?”

Hiram Millard cleared his throat again, a pained expression on his face. “For a boarding house, sir. Said she would need a lot of rooms.”

Ross’s eyebrows shot up. “And when did she tell you this?”

“Just this morning, sir. Said she’d like the entire top floor to be partitioned off into small bedrooms.”

Ross felt his jaw drop and immediately closed his mouth. “I see. Well, I’ll go have a talk with her, Hiram. I’ll let you know something soon.”

“Thank you, sir,” the builder nodded, standing to leave. “We’ll concentrate on the lower floor for today.”


***



Ross stood outside of his office and turned his eyes to the hill above the town. He could see his mother’s magnificent house from where he stood. Bricks hauled in from back east, glowed red in the early morning sun. The magnificent porch, with the large pillars made it a sight to see when one looked up. He sighed. The beautiful home was almost out of place in the dirty and ragged mining town. Sure, buildings were starting to go up daily, and new businesses were started every day, but the place still had a long way to go before it resembled a civilized town.

He shook his head. Inez Pollard could finally have the sort of life that she deserved, and yet she insisted on working herself half to death. As if the restaurant wasn’t enough work for her, now she wanted a boarding house? It was time to have a long talk with her.



***



“He’s coming!”

Inez, pouring her fifth pan of cornbread, nodded to her sister, busy wiping down the numerous tables in the dining area, but she ignored her statement. She had expected Ross to show up at any moment. After her conversation with Hiram Millard this morning, she had been sure the man would head straight to her son’s office to clear her plans with him.

Carrying the pan to one of her four ovens, she set it inside, and slammed the door. When she turned, Ross was standing in the room with her, his hat in his hands.

“Good morning, Mother.”

It was never a good sign when he called her Mother. “Good morning, son.” She would play along, like nothing was wrong. “Take off your coat and I’ll get a hot cup of coffee for you. Perfect on a chilly morning, like this.”

Ross didn’t bother to move. “I didn’t come to drink coffee and chat. I guess you knew that Hiram Millard would come to see me.”

“I assumed he would,” Inez answered, pouring a cup of the black liquid for herself.

“What is all this nonsense about a boarding house? You know that Keller, as well as Williams, both have large tents set up right down town that hold a lot of men. They sleep in shifts. They don’t need rooms. We don’t need more places to board men.”

She gave him her sweetest smile. “I completely agree with you, Ross. And I promise I won’t have any men boarding in my house.”

Confusion swept his handsome face. “What do you mean?”

For a moment she contemplated how very like his father he was. Handsome, strong, intelligent. But stubborn like him, too. “It will be a boarding house for women.”

“WOMEN?”

She cringed at the volume in his word.

“We don’t have any women here in town,” he added, a calmer tone to his voice. “At least not the type you’re talking about.”

“Not yet. But we will when I bring them out here. And don’t worry. My house is only a temporary residence for them. I intend to have a boarding house built down in the town. It should be ready a few weeks after they arrive. When it’s ready, the third floor of my house will go back to the original plan.”

He sighed and tossed his hat to the counter. “How about I have that cup of coffee and you explain to me what it is you think you’re doing?”



***



Ross took a sip of his third cup of hot brew and swallowed. “It can’t be done. This town isn’t ready for decent women.”

Inez shook her head. “Any woman can be a decent woman. She just needs God in her heart and a man to treat her like one. And besides, these are going to be marriageable women that I’m going to advertise for and bring to town. Not show girls.”

He grinned. “I can just see their faces once they see what a mess this town is.”

She shrugged. “They’ll have a nice place to live until they find a husband.”

Ross snorted. “He, whoever the husband might be, won’t be able to keep them like you will.”

She shook her head. Why did men have to be so hard-headed? “These will be realistic women. They won’t be coming from wealthy families. They will understand that life is hard. That this is a new country, and you have to work your way out of poverty. I certainly learned it and they will, too. I’ll state all of that plain enough in my advertisement and a return letter to answer their query. And there will be a questionnaire, as well. That will determine which ones are chosen to come.”

She watched as he rubbed his jaw. That told her he was thinking about what she said. It was a start, if nothing else. And, he had really taken the whole thing better than she had hoped.

She leaned across the table, giving him her sweetest smile. “Just think what it could mean for the mines, Ross. The men would be happier, more settled, not coming in to work all beat up and sore. And it would cut down on all the drinking in town, too.”

He stared into his coffee. “I guess I can see the advantages. Women might give a settled feeling to this town.”

“Of course they will,” she encouraged. “They’ll make a difference right from the start, you’ll see. Before long, we’ll have a school. And churches. Lots of shops. It will be a civilized place to live. Surely you want that, too, don’t you, son?”

He grinned. “You know I do, Ma. It’s just that I don’t see how. . .” he sighed. “Well, what I mean is, we’ll have to find a way to get them here.”

She nodded and swallowed back the excitement that stirred within. He was all ready considering how he might help. “I was thinking I might go to meet all of them in Kansas City. I’ll rent a private car for them, and then I can get to know the girls over the couple of days it will take us to get to Silver Ridge.”

He laughed and took the last drink of his coffee. “I have to hand it to you, Ma, you sure know how to work things out.”


Chapter 3



Hannah Stillman pulled the shawl a little tighter around her shoulders and exchanged the weight of the basket to her left arm. Only one more stop, and she would be on her way to Dr. Starnes Boarding Home For the Elderly.

She heaved open the heavy doors of the Henson Hotel. Stopping, she looked around the lobby, making sure that he was not there. Some days, it seemed as if Wesley Stout, the town banker, was everywhere. His eyes always following her, a leering smile on his face. Just the thought of him made her shudder. The room empty, she headed to the desk in the back. The hotel owner, tall and thin, was manning the desk and looked up with a smile.

“Good morning, Mr. Henson,” she greeted him, hoisting her basket on top of the counter. “Do you have any newspapers for me this morning?”
He nodded and reached beneath the counter. “As a matter of fact, one of the maids found this paper from Chicago, Illinois. Will that do?”

“Yes!” She eagerly took the rolled paper from him and inserted it into the white oak basket. “Everyone down at the boarding house will be excited to see this one. It means a lot to them that you send one whenever you have a stray paper left in the rooms.”

He smiled. “We are privileged to do so. I can imagine that the reading helps while away the hours for those not able to get out and enjoy themselves. Now, you tell Dr. Starnes I said ‘hello’.”

“I will,” she nodded, turning and heading for the door.

Glad to be out in the fresh air, she heard a squeal of delight as she passed the post office. Stopping, she turned to see Mindy Barnes coming out the door. A paper was in her hands, and her face was pink with excitement. “Is everything all right, Mindy?”

Mindy nodded her dark head. “I’m going to be a mail order bride, Hannah! See?”

She took the letter from the girl and let her eyes scan the words, landing on the last section. It was definitely a proposal. “Oh, Mindy, it’s. . .it’s wonderful!” Maybe. What would it be like to marry a man that you’d never met?

“Oh, thank you, Hannah. I am so excited. I’ll be taking the train out to Wyoming in another two weeks. I’m sure the Burnett family will be glad to have me gone.”

Hannah shook her head, her hair flying in the wind. Mindy had been an orphan since she was twelve, but Mr. and Mrs. Burnett had always seemed very fond of her. “I’m sure that’s not true, Mindy. Mrs. Burnett loves having you around the house for companionship, as well as all the help you give with the housework and children. I know that you’ll be sorely missed.”

Mindy laughed. “Maybe so. But it will be nice to have a home of my own.”



***



“More water, Mr. White?” Hannah held a glass out to the elderly gentleman. He had been rather cranky since breakfast, but seemed to have settled down once he was in his rocker on the porch. Hannah had made sure he was covered in plenty of blankets to shield him from the cool breeze.

He brushed away the offer and kept his eyes on the group of children playing ball down the street. “I used to play that game,” he said, still watching, as a light breath of wind ruffled the gray hair that showed beneath his knitted hat.

Hannah set the glass on the table beside the man. “I’m sure you were very good at it, too,” she smiled.

He turned and looked at her, a frown on his lips. “How would you know?”

She had thought it a nice thing to say. It seemed there was never any pleasing Mr. White. “Well, I don’t, sir.”

“Then no need to say so,” he said, his eyes back on the game.

“I’m leaving this bell on the table with your water,” she said, as she headed back inside. “Ring if you need anything. I’ll be back to check on you later,” she said, smiling a nod of thanks at Mr. Allen as he held the door for her on his way out to the porch. Maybe his visit with Mr. White would manage to cheer the old curmudgeon.

With the door closed behind her, she breathed a sigh of relief. Mr. White was the most difficult person she knew. If not for Dr. Starnes constant encouragement, she would have given up on the man long ago.

In the kitchen, she began to ready the mid-morning tea and biscuits that most of the boarders enjoyed. With only six of them in residence, there wasn’t as much care as usual. And Mr. Allen would be leaving with his daughter next week, to live with her on a farm in Kansas. That would leave only five of them for her to cook for and look after.

Watching the water come to a boil, she reflected on her walk to work earlier. Mostly on Mindy Barnes. She was happy for the girl. It was hard to imagine leaving everything you knew to go be a part of someone else’s family. Still, the thought of getting away, leaving everything behind had some appeal, she had to admit.

Like Mindy, she was an orphan. Her elderly aunt had raised her from a small child. But the woman had been gone three years now. With no other family, and only a small stipend income from Aunt Harriet’s investments, her life consisted mainly of spending time there at the house helping Dr. Starnes with his permanent borders. He was out most of the day, seeing patients that needed his help.

If nothing else, the job was a good way to keep Mr. Stout out of her life. The local banker was insistent that she marry him, insistent that her aunt would have wanted it. She snorted and poured the water into the tea pot. If only Mr. Stout knew her aunt’s true opinion of him when she was living, the man would slink away in shame. A scoundrel and a womanizer had been the perceptive woman’s opinion.

Sadly, he was the only man interested in her. Only last week, Mrs. Potts, one of the lady boarders, had told her that someday a young, handsome man would come along and take her away from her days of spending time with only the old ones here at the house.

Hannah smiled. She enjoyed her time with all of them, but the idea of a family sent such a feeling of peace through her. Making supper for her husband, rocking babies, caring for her own home. Is it possible, Lord?



***



In the front room, three of the women were already seated at the small table. Mrs. Bellmore, ever the loner, was in the corner rocker, busy with her knitting. A sweater for her son, she had told them yesterday. Where her son was, Hannah had no idea. The woman had been a resident here for over five years, and as of yet, no son had appeared.

“Tea is ready, ladies.” She smiled, as she set the tray of cups, cream, sugar, jam, and biscuits on the table. I’ll be right back with the teapot.”

“Bring in an extra cup for yourself,” Mrs. Stott called after her.



***



Once they were settled at the table, Hannah realized that all eyes were on her. “What?” she smiled. She looked down at her apron to see if she was covered in flour, or had managed to spill some of the raspberry jam on her dress.

Mrs. Makins giggled. “You’d best show it to her, Gloria,” she said, glancing at Mrs. Potts.

Gloria Potts pulled a piece of cut out paper from her large apron pocket. “There was another paper rolled up in the Chicago paper you brought. We found this. We thought you ought to have it. It could be the answer to your prayers, Hannah!”

Hannah reached over and took the folded paper from her. The Matrimonial News, it read at the top of the tattered page. She stared at the words of the large advertisement.


Seeking Women of Courage and High Moral Character


The small mining community of Silver Ridge, Colorado is seeking ladies of marriageable age, 18-55. Silver Ridge is an up and coming small city, still in the rough stages of becoming the shining gem She will one day be. If you seek marriage, employment, or business opportunities, please apply by mailing a letter of your qualifications to the address below.

All women will be escorted by Inez Pollard, from Kansas City, Kansas, by private rail car. Free room and board will be available while making choices for their life in Silver Ridge. Your inquiry will be answered in a timely fashion.

Inez Pollard,

President of The Mail Order Bride Express



***



Hannah finished washing and drying the few dishes it took for her supper. The meal had consisted of the last of the beef stew she made yesterday. It had been tasty, but cooking for one was no fun. Which led her to wonder what they were having for supper at the boarding house in Silver Ridge, Colorado.

Hannah! She shook her head. What was she thinking? It was silly to be drawn to such a fantastic idea. Imagine, leaving everything behind. Why. . . .why, her life was fine. Her life was just the way it should be. Her life was. . .was. . .in truth, her life was lonely. Not lonely enough to consider marriage to Wesley Stout. But maybe enough so to make her consider a drastic plan to take her away from the pesky banker.

The advertisement had mentioned not only marriage, but jobs. She could teach school, or work in an office. Even wash dishes in a restaurant, if it came to that. And it would be her life, one of her own choosing. She had heard rumors of women out west, how they were independent, able to make their own decisions, able to manage their own establishments, run their own ranches, even.

If only I was brave enough to do it, Lord. Give me courage, if it’s what You want me to do. After a moment she laughed aloud. What harm could it do to answer? It would be weeks, maybe months before she heard back from this Inez Pollard woman. By that time, it was possible her life would have changed for the better and being a mail order bride would just seem like a passing fancy.

Calm washed over her as she reached for pen and paper. Whatever her future, God had a plan, and He would reveal it in His own time.


Chapter 4



“Good afternoon, Miss Stillman.”

Hannah, busy in her own thoughts, came to a halt and looked up into the weasel eyes of Wesley Stout. Short and thick-set, his name fit him well. How had she not noticed him walking toward her on the sidewalk? She forced a slight smile to her lips. “Good afternoon, sir.”

He threw back his head and released a raucous laugh. His light blue eyes squinted almost shut, and his large jowls jiggled. “What is all this ‘sir’ greeting? You know that good friends like us shouldn’t be so stilted in our speaking.”

Hannah gritted her teeth for an instant. She barely knew the man, aside from a few banking transactions and an occasional meeting on the streets of town. And that was more than she could stand of his company. “We are mere acquaintances, Mr. Stout. Nothing more.” She felt her heart sink as his expression changed. He was a man known for his sour temper and she had never before been so brave as to speak to him as she just had.

He leaned in toward her, his hot, stinking breath on her face as he spoke. “We’ll just see about that, Miss Stillman. I believe your next mortgage payment is due in another month. And it may interest you to know that your aunt signed an agreement that allows me to demand payment of the balance at any time.”

Hannah felt her cheeks blanch. It was true. Her aunt had mentioned it to her on more than one occasion. She forced herself to stand straighter before she spoke. “And are you demanding it now, Mr. Stout?”

A sly smile quivered on his lips. “I believe we may be able to make a satisfactory arrangement. One that could benefit your life and financial situation,” he winked. “And you know how much your aunt wanted a pleasing arrangement between the two of us.”

She took a deep breath. “I remember no such thing.” An involuntary shudder raced down her back. She would rather sleep out on the muddy road, than be any part of this man’s life.

His face darkened as he straightened back to his full height. “You can’t insult me like this, Hannah Stillman. We will come to an understanding. Or else you will be forced into a life fit for no decent woman.”

She swallowed back the bile in her throat as he walked away from her. It was true that her aunt’s savings, as well as the small monthly income based on said savings, was shrinking by the month. But the thought of marrying a man like him was just too much to stomach. There had to be another way.



***


Hannah stared at the envelope in her hand. It was white with gold edging and a fancy scroll that ran along the top. When the post master handed it to her late this afternoon, her hand had trembled when she saw the postmark from Colorado. And now, sitting alone at the table, she was going to have to work up the courage to open it. Probably a rejection, she told herself. Surely, there had been so many replies that hers had come too late for any hope of a positive answer.

She brightened for a moment. A cup of coffee; that was what she needed. If she drank a cup of the dark brew, it would give her the courage she needed to open the pretty envelope. Courage to face the fact that she was destined to a life of drudgery, here in this small Missouri town.

An hour later, coffee cold, it was time. She took the letter opener from her small desk and slit the pasted closure. Pulling the paper from its hiding place, she unfolded the pages.

Dear Miss Stillman, I am happy to accept your application to The Mail Order Bride Express. Enclosed, you will find a train ticket to Kansas City. You must arrive at the train station by April 16. I will be there to greet all accepted applicants. We will ride in a private car to Brantley, Colorado, where we will disembark and take a company wagon to the city of Silver Ridge. I am looking forward to meeting you in Kansas City.

Sincerely,

Inez Pollard

Hannah smiled. Thank you, Lord.


Chapter 5



Hannah clutched the handle of her bag, her heart skipping a beat as the train lurched to a stop. For better or worse, she was finally here. She took a deep breath and tried to calm the swarm of bees buzzing in her stomach. It was almost noon and she was to meet Inez Pollard at three o’clock.

The older gentleman that had slept the trip away in the seat next to her was busy gathering his bag and coat. She waited patiently for him to step into the aisle so that she could follow. Once she was off of this train, her new life would begin.

Outside the window, she could see crowds of people on the platform. Ladies in large hats, gentlemen carrying bags, porters pushing large carts of luggage. A little black dog, its hair tangled and dirty, slunk around near one of the doorways wagging a muddy tail whenever someone passed. Probably waiting for people to feed him, she thought, sorry she had only her one sandwich in her bag.



***



Hannah stepped inside of the station and stared at the bustle around her. The high ceiling gave shaded light from the warm sun, and a bit of a cool breeze wafted through the building. The train had been stuffy during the last half hour and she was ready for the wide open space.

Glad to be out of the train, she explored the space for a few moments. A mailing box caught her eye, and she pulled an envelope from her reticule and stared at it, as if she could still see the words that were folded inside. It was a letter to Wesley Stout, informing him that she was turning the house back to the bank. There would be no more payments from her. And, of course, there was no mention of where she was going.

Thankfully, she had found good homes for most of her aunt’s nicer things during the last couple of weeks. The bank could do as it liked with what was left in the house.

Finding an empty bench against a side wall, she sat and made herself comfortable. She would eat the sandwich she had packed that morning, then find some cool water at the food counter she had noticed when she first stepped inside.

Another young woman took a seat at the far end of the bench. Hannah nodded and the woman gave a brief smile before she turned her attention to her own wrapped packet of food.

Hannah tried to concentrate on her meal, but her eyes kept drifting to her bench companion. The young woman was dressed in a beautiful blue dress, covered by a traveling duster. The green hat she wore on her head was exquisite, with a thread of embroidery running around the rim and small flowers sewn as edging. The prettiest that Hannah had seen. It made her own look cheap and worn.

Hannah stole another glance in her direction, but the woman was busy eating. Hannah let her eyes drift down to the bag at the woman’s feet. The crisp corner of an envelope stuck from the top. An envelope with a gold edge and gold scrolling. Her heart gave a small skip. Could it be possible that this woman. . .? “Excuse me, Miss.”

The young woman turned her pretty face more toward Hannah. “Are you speaking to me?”

“I’m sorry, I know it’s rude of me, but I couldn’t help noticing the part of the envelope that is sticking out of your bag. Is it possible that you are here to meet Mrs. Inez Pollard?”

The girl’s beautiful green eyes widened. She folded the paper over what was left of her sandwich. “Yes, I am. Are you Mrs. Pollard?”

A smile broke across Hannah’s face. Her wait would be much more pleasant with another Mail Order Bride Express girl. “No, I’m not. But I’m here to meet her, too. And I suspect that there will be more of our group along soon. My name is Hannah Stillman. I’m from Henson, Missouri.”

The dark headed woman’s lips parted in a genuine smile. “I’m Olivia Barnhart. I’m from Chicago. I’ve been here at the station for almost two hours.” She glanced around the station. “Do you really think there are more of us?”

“There is only one way for us to find out,” Hannah grinned, reaching for the handle of her bag. “Why don’t we have some lemonade from the refreshment stand in the back. Maybe we will see more women back there.”

By the time that Hannah was finished with her lemonade, she knew that Olivia Barnhart was twenty-two, an only child of an elderly clergyman, and was a very skilled milliner. One look at the girl’s hat and there was no doubting her abilities.

“And what about marriage? Is that what you want, or would you rather have your own business?”

Olivia smiled and took the last sip of her drink. “I’m hoping to do both. I love making hats, but I want a husband and babies, as well.”

Hannah nodded. “I’m hoping to find a husband, too, but if not, I’m able to teach school, or work in an office. I kept the paper work for the local doctor back in Henson.”

“I’ve heard that miners are desperate for wives,” Olivia said. “I never thought I would be brave enough to go west, but Inez Pollard’s offer seemed too good to pass by.”

Hannah nodded. The advertisement had seemed an answer to prayer for herself. And she would soon know if it really was, or if she had let her enthusiasm get the best of her better judgment.

A young woman, wearing a dark calico dress covered by a traveling coat, passed by them, bag in hand. She appeared to be alone. Hannah watched as she went to the counter and ordered a cup of tea. “What do you think?” she smiled at Olivia.

She nodded her auburn head. “I think we should ask her.”



***



Soon, there were four at their table. Hannah, Olivia, and two new women, Emma Jasper, and a sad looking girl named Annie Flanagan. Three young women, seated across the room from them pushed back their chairs and stood, attracting Hannah’s attention.

“I didn’t notice them. Do you think that they are part of our group?” Hannah glanced up at the large clock. Two-thirty.

“It’s about time to go to the platform.”

“Platform B, if I remember right,” Olivia added.



***



Inez Pollard, dressed in blue silk trimmed in lace, was tall and blond. Her dress matched the color of her eyes. Hannah marveled at how young the woman looked. Close up, shaking her hand and introducing herself, she could see that Mrs. Pollard was older than she’d first thought, but still handsome and full of youthful exuberance. And her eyes had a way of holding a person, making them feel as if she was in a private room, talking only to them, despite the group around them. Hannah liked her immediately.

“Good afternoon, ladies,” Inez Pollard greeted the group, as they began boarding their car.

Together, there were twenty-five women, Hannah had counted, as she had made her way into the private Pullman railway car. On the outside, they had all seen the letters emblazoned on the side of the car that read Mail Order Bride Express. It seemed odd to know that everyone watching the train go by would know that they were brides headed west.

“I hope everyone can make themselves comfortable,” Inez Pollard spoke from the front of the car. “In a few days, you will all be in your new temporary home in Silver Ridge. Once we leave the train, we will ride special wagons that will take us up the mountain to our destination. There will be some discomforts along the way, as there always is with travel, but I think you will all be well pleased, once we are there.

“I am happy that all of you will be staying as guests in my own home, in rooms I had installed especially for you women. Once it is finished, you will all move to a private boarding house in town, built especially for you, and all the women that will, hopefully, come after you. I will tell you right now that the men of Silver Ridge are anxiously looking forward to meeting all of you. Once there, you will have several days to rest, before you begin to determine just what it is you want to do.

“The men that work for the Pollard mines are well paid and are able to support a family on their salary. There are also men that own their own claims, as well as businessmen, loggers, ranchers from the nearby countryside, and other workers. I beg all of you to carefully consider before you make any permanent decisions.”

Hannah felt her heart began to race, as she listened to every word. No doubt, there was much to be learned from Inez Pollard.

“And now, we will all make our way to the private dining car that is behind us. We will be having dinner there tonight, as well as breakfast and luncheon tomorrow. But now, we have a nice, relaxing tea waiting for us. And as a special treat, I’ve brought along my own cinnamon cookies that I serve everyday in my restaurant in Silver Ridge. Miners have been known to walk five miles for one of these cookies, so I hope you enjoy them.”


Chapter 6



Hannah took a deep breath and stared up at the mountain before them. Somewhere above was the town of Silver Ridge. Her new home. A new home for all of the women that were there with Mrs. Pollard. It had seemed fun, even an adventure two days ago. But now, with reality staring down at her, fear was beginning to grow inside of her, making her doubt the decision.

But nothing was going to convince her that staying in Henson and marrying Wesley Stout would have been a better decision. She was here, and things would work out somehow.



***



The mountain ride had been steep, and several times, she had joined others in getting out and walking. It had been a relief from the jostling and jerking of the wagon. She had been sure that she would fall asleep the moment they made it into town, but now, with the city in view from their bedroom window, she was wide awake. If she stood on tiptoe, she could see the roof of the boarding house Inez was having built in the town. It would be exclusively for the brides. Other than that, it wasn’t much of a view, as far as the emerging city sight. But exactly what she had expected was not clear. The muddy streets, winding like snails through the makeshift buildings, seemed to go on forever. The buildings were new, but had an almost dilapidated air to them, due to their unfinished state.

She watched as tiny figures made their way across the mucky, dirty roads. One man stopped and appeared to be staring down into the mud. Had he lost his boot? It would be possible in that mess.

“What have we done to ourselves?” Annie wondered aloud beside her.

The sad looking girl from the train station had been assigned to the same room as Hannah. What her story was, Hannah hadn’t learned, but the girl had barely smiled the entire trip. Maybe Annie would confide in her later, once they knew each other better.

“We’re just tired,” Hannah announced, trying to put a burst of joy in her voice. Poor Annie had looked so miserable for the past few days, that she felt obligated to try and cheer the girl.

Annie shrugged and turned away from the window. “That’s probably true. Still, I guess I expected more. You know, a real town.”

Hannah had thought the same. “I guess maybe I did, too. But it wasn’t promised to us.” She pulled a paper from her luggage and scanned the advertisement. “Mrs. Pollard did say that the town was still in its ‘rough stages’.”

“Well, she certainly told the truth,” Annie agreed her eyes meeting Hannah’s.

For a moment they were silent and then both began to laugh. Hannah sat beside her on the bed and they both giggled until there were tears in their eyes.

Annie took a kerchief from her sleeve and wiped her wet eyelids. “I guess I needed that laugh.”

“I think we both did,” Hannah agreed. “I think it’s about time for us to go down and eat. Maybe if we go early, we can help with the preparation. Something to do will take our minds off of the situation.”



***



Hannah finished braiding the last bit of Annie’s red hair and helped the girl twist it up behind her head. Inserting two very pretty combs, Hannah held a mirror, so that Annie could see her results. The smile on the girl’s face was answer enough.

“Thank you so much, Hannah.”

“You’re very welcome. And thank you for helping me with mine. I think the two of us look very attractive for the dance, tonight.”

Annie’s smile wavered. “I’m nervous.”

Hannah gave a short laugh. “I am, too. Mrs. Pollard told us to be prepared to dance our feet off tonight. She said there would be at least sixty or seventy men at the dance.”

“And only twenty-five of us!” Annie exclaimed, shaking her head.

“Mrs. Pollard, I mean Inez, assures us the odds are in our favor. Just think, Annie, we have an opportunity to find a good husband, a man that will really care for us. And who knows, we may be meeting him tonight!”

Annie flushed and held her hand over her stomach. “I’m trying to be happy about all of this, Hannah. It’s just. . .I don’t know.”

Hannah came and sat beside her. “Didn’t you want to come out here, Annie? You haven’t seemed very happy since we all met in Kansas City.”

The girl shook her head. “It was my Pa’s idea. You see, there are ten of us. Eight girls. Pa despairs of finding husbands for all of us. He thought this would be my best opportunity.”

Hannah patted her hand. Poor Annie. “I’m sorry. I thought you wanted to come.” She must feel as if her family had rejected her.

Annie shrugged and pulled her hand away. “I just have to make the best of it.”


Chapter 7



Hannah paused on the staircase and stared down at the first floor of Inez Pollard’s house. Her breath almost caught at the splendor of it all. The carved cherry wood pocket doors that divided the many rooms had been opened to make space for the large gathering. Several long tables set up around the walls had large bouquets of flowers in glass vases, adding soft pastel and jewel tones to the setting. Multiple lanterns hung from the ceiling, as well as chandeliers of candles that filled the area with a soft, golden glow. The house had been turned into a wonderland of beauty.

Four men were gathered on a makeshift stage at one end, busy tuning up fiddles and guitars. Some of the girls, dressed in their prettiest gowns, were mingling among themselves and talking, as they watched. At that moment, a group of men, laughing and joking, entered the front door.

Hannah, her eyes on the group of girls and their reaction to the newcomers, finished her descent and stepped off of the staircase, into the pathway of a man hurrying by. Grabbing for the railing behind her, she felt herself begin to fall.

She closed her eyes for the impact, but it never came. Two strong arms caught her and pulled her back upright. Her eyelids fluttered and she found herself staring into the chocolate eyes of a very handsome, dark headed man. His furrowed brow and down turned lips told her that he was angry. Not that it marred his striking presence. Her heart swooped to her stomach as she tried to pull her gaze from his. But their eyes were locked.

For a moment, neither of them spoke. “I’m so sorry,” she said, her voice barely a whisper, as she managed to stand back on her own two feet. “It was so clumsy of me, and I—”

He broke his eyes from hers. His words were brusque and to the point. “No need to apologize, Miss. . .Miss?”

“Stillman. Hannah Stillman,” she answered, her voice still barely audible.

He cleared his throat. “Well, whoever you are, just be careful of where you are going. There’s too many women in this house to be able to watch out for all of you.” He gave the dark, expensive suit he was wearing, a light brush with his hands, as if she had somehow soiled the fabric. “Excuse me.”

He stepped aside and breezed past, as she opened her mouth to reply. “How rude,” she whispered, watching him move towards the front door.

“Who was that you were talking to, Hannah?” Annie asked, as she came down the staircase and stood behind her.

“I don’t know his name, but he is a very ill-mannered man,” Hannah replied, as she watched the figure disappear out the front door of the large house. When Inez Pollard had said the men would be glad to see them, she obviously hadn’t meant all of them. Hannah chewed her lip as her eyes strained for another glimpse of the man, now lost to her sight. For some reason, Inez had forgotten to mention what handsome men there were in Silver Ridge.



***



Hannah sipped her third cup of punch. She would drink the entire bowl, if it meant a break from dancing. She had never danced so many reels and waltzes in her life. And it was barely midnight. The dance would go on until at least two a.m. For now, though, the fiddler and guitar players were taking a break. And making the most of their time by visiting with several of the girls.

Hannah edged herself away from the group and found that she was standing next to the long, heavy velvet curtains that spanned two tall windows. It was a nice spot and she was nearly hidden from view. She took a moment and let her eyes scan the room. Whoever the handsome stranger was that had held her in his arms for those few, brief seconds, he had disappeared into the night. She had been watching for him with every dance, but he had failed to reappear.

The expensive clothing he had been wearing was an indication that he was no mine worker. Most of the Pollard Mine employees had arrived in clean, but rather worn clothing. A few appeared to have taken time to make hasty purchases of what new clothing was sold at one of the local mercantile, but most had made do with what they all ready possessed. A few chords of music sounded and she took her cup to the table.

“Excuse me. May I have this dance, Miss?”

Curving her lips into a forced smile, she looked up into the dark eyes of the stranger she had met earlier. Her heart tumbled to her stomach. “I. . .of course, sir.”

He gave her a cold smile and led her to the dance floor. His hand was hard on her back, and it seemed to her that he tugged her along a little too fast. Out on the floor, he swung her into his arms and they began to dance.

Hannah kept her eyes straight ahead, which left her looking at his neck. The idea of letting her eyes meet his seemed too personal. And her racing heart was not helping the matter at all. She must be nervous. Nerves. That was all it could be.

The man cleared his throat. “My name is Ross Pollard. I’m Inez’s son.”

Hannah took a deep breath and looked up into his face. “Oh.” Well, that sounded silly. But her mind seemed blank.

“I promised my mother that I would dance with each. . .potential bride.”

He made it sound more like a punishment than a pleasure. She felt a tiny spark of anger inside. How dare he patronize all of them like this!

Hannah stopped dancing and pulled away. “Then you are mistaken, Mr. Pollard. I am not a potential bride. I came to Silver Ridge to work, as offered in your mother’s advertisement. Excuse me, please.”

She brushed past him and made her way to the staircase. She was tired and now she had been insulted. And possibly, she had been rather rude to Inez Pollard’s son. But part of her didn’t care. It was past one o’clock and she was finished for the night.


Chapter 8



Hannah took a sip of her coffee and stared at the plate of food set before her. The gold swirls of the china seemed almost to move in motion. She blinked and tried to focus. Last night had taken all of her energy. And, back in their room, she and Annie had talked for at least two hours. The dance had wound them up enough to sweep away their sleepiness. But now, five hours later, it was returning with a vengeance.

“Good morning, Ladies!” Inez Pollard’s cheery voice greeted them as she entered the room, taking her place at the head of the lace covered table.

“Good morning, Inez,” they chorused back.

“I see we all have sleepy eyes,” she teased, as she shook open her napkin and placed it in her lap. “I trust you all had a good time last night?”

A ripple of laughter and phrases of assurance sounded through the room.

Hannah bit her lip and refrained from asking if the woman’s son had mentioned that one of the brides had been rude to him. It was more her relationship with Inez that worried her. If there was one thing she didn’t need, it was another arrogant man in her life. Wesley Stout had been enough to do her for one lifetime.

“I have an announcement and I think that one of our girls has an announcement to make. Is that correct?”

The dark haired girl seated across the table from Hannah stood. She smoothed the red calico dress that she wore. Color rushed to her cheeks, making them almost as dark as her dress. “I’m Charity Wilson. I met a man named Harry Gilt last night. He owns his own tailoring business in the town. My father is a tailor and I was his assistant for years. Mr. Gilt has asked me to be his bride and I’ve accepted. We will be seeing one another for two weeks, to get to know each other, and then we’ll be married in the new chapel they are building in town.”

A round of applause and congratulations echoed through the dining room.

So, it had begun. Hannah smiled, but something about agreeing to marry a man she’d met only a few hours before did not set right with her. Perhaps the idea would grow on her. Eventually.

“And now for my announcement,” Inez said, standing and looking out over the room of brides. “I have enjoyed having all of you as my guests, up here on the hill, for the past two weeks, but as of tomorrow, you will all be moving to the new boarding house in town, built especially for the Mail Order Bride Express. My dear sister, Lenora Blake, whom all of you have met, will be your sort of ‘mother’ while you are living there. It is a beautiful home and I hope all of you are comfortable in your new town setting.



***



Hannah shifted her weight from one foot to the other as she waited outside of Inez Pollard’s office, located on the first floor of the Mail Order Bride Express Boarding House. Their benefactor had requested a one on one interview with each woman this morning, now that everyone was settled in their new rooms.

Hannah gave a nervous glance at the watch pin on her dress. Her appointment was for ten thirty. A moment later, the door opened and she was escorted inside.

“Just have a seat, dear,” Inez said, indicating the chair opposite her side of the desk. She was busy with one of the documents taken from several stacks on the desktop.

Hannah watched as the older woman kept her attention on the papers before her, re-arranging several piles. Hannah felt her stomach begin to churn as events from the dance swam inside of her head. Was Inez going to confront her about the conversation she had had with her son the night of the dance? Maybe she would send her back to Henson. Please, Lord, no. Or maybe she would just scold her for her rudeness.

Not that Ross didn’t deserve a reprimand, too. The man was arrogant and bad-mannered. There had been no need for him to assure her that the only reason he was dancing with her was because he made a promise to his mother.

“There now,” Inez looked up and smiled. “Let’s have some tea and cookies.”

The maid that had escorted her into the office poured tea for both of them, then arranged a Blue Willow plate of Inez’s famous cinnamon cookies on the desk. “Thank you, Yvonne,” Inez smiled at the woman, as she left through a door that led to the back hallway.

Hannah felt a tremble in her hands and decided it would be better to have a bite of a delicious cookie, rather than risk a shaking cup of tea.

Inez took a sip from her own cup and then settled it back in the saucer. “Hannah, I’ve reviewed your letter several times, looking over your work qualifications. There are a few things available that you might be interested in,” Inez said, arranging papers in neat stacks on her desk.

“Thank you, Mrs. . .I mean, Inez. I’m sure whatever you choose for me will be fine.” If only her stomach would stop rolling. She’d barely eaten breakfast, hoping that would keep her nerves calm. Maybe she should have done the opposite.

“I see that you helped care for a doctor’s patients back in. . .is it Springfield or Henson, Missouri?”

“Henson. It’s a small community just outside of Springfield.”

Inez nodded. “We have a doctor at the mine headquarters. He could use an assistant to help, especially when there’s been an accident. If that isn’t satisfactory to you, there is plenty of office work for the mine.”

“The office work,” she answered at once. That sounded less like men gawking at her all the time. The night of the dance, it had been a bit unnerving to be the focus of so many men’s attention. And there must be a lot of work in areas that would be far from Ross Pollard. A man like him must spend a lot of time out at the mines.

Inez nodded and pulled a piece of paper from a folder. “I’ll take you over there this afternoon, Hannah. Until then, why don’t you get some fresh air and visit with the other girls. And please, send Olivia Barnhart in as you go out. She should be waiting.”

In the hallway, Hannah spotted Olivia deep in conversation with Machala Brooks, one of the older women that had come west with them. Hannah walked towards them. “Good morning. She’s ready to see you, Olivia,” she smiled.

Olivia’s smile vanished and she smoothed her light blue skirt. “Wish me luck, please,” she said as she headed to the office.

She’s a nervous one,” Machala nodded, watching her go. “But she’s young and ready for some independence. Me, I just want a husband,” she said, her cheeks blooming a soft pink. “I guess you think that’s silly at my age.”

“Of course it isn’t. I’m sure you’ll be able to find one soon,” Hannah encouraged. With Machala’s sweet face and charming ways, finding a husband should be easy for her.

Machala laughed. “The trouble is finding the right one.”

The right one, indeed, Hannah thought, as she made her way upstairs to her new room. By this afternoon, she would be dutifully employed by The Pollard Mining Company. Once she was settled in her job, she would have a better chance to consider becoming a wife. Marrying out of desperation had no appeal.

After all, that was why she had left Henson. Just the thought of being married to Wesley Stout sent cold chills down her back. The man was despicable. And, no doubt, if she had stayed in Henson, he would have found a way to make her marry him.



***



“I’m tired!”

Hannah sighed. “Annie, please, just one more stop before we go back home. I really do need some ribbon and a couple of new combs. One of mine broke this morning and I was all ready short one. Look,” she pointed. “Brown’s Mercantile. Let’s go in there.”

The inside of the store was dusty, and smelled of pickles and old tobacco. Annie put her hand over her mouth and Hannah shook her head at her. There was no need to insult the proprietor. “This will only take a moment,” she assured her friend, making her way to a woman that was working behind the massive oak counter.

After the purchase of two combs and two small packets of ribbon, they were ready to leave.

Hannah glanced at Annie as they approached the door. The girl had refused to talk about her interview with Inez, earlier that morning. Maybe that was what was keeping the sweet, country girl so quiet.

“Come on. If you’d like, I’ll buy you a cup of tea,” Hannah coaxed, as she opened the door and stepped outside. Her eyes on Annie, she failed to see the gentleman approaching.

As she turned, she ran full force into him, her face buried into the woolen jacket that he wore. Strong fingers wrapped around her elbows and pushed her away.


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