San Joaquin Valley, California, Late September 1884
Moving to a new school is always a little frightening. I hope the Fresno County School Board is more understanding than the last school board.
Ellianna Coulter twirled her pencil between her fingers, then pressed the blunt end against her chin and watched the flat, brown pasture racing away outside of the train window. Up close, the ground flashed by, making her dizzy; but far away, the mountains stood still, reaching the sky.
The steady thrum of the train had become white noise long ago.
Dropping her gaze to the small journal open in her lap, Ellie pondered her next words.
I wonder if anyone will be at the station to meet me. Jem sent his old friend Chad Carter a telegram, saying I was coming, and, of course, the school board knows I’m arriving today.
Jem kept insisting that Chad will remember us, but I doubt it. It has been at least fifteen years since he and Jem have met, probably nearer twenty. Besides, he is Jem’s friend. Not really mine.
“Next stop, Fresno! Twenty minutes!”
At the conductor’s call, Ellie started. Her stomach flipped. She shut the journal carefully, wrapping a piece of soft cloth around it and pushing it into the carpetbag at her feet. Ellie glanced at her hands; they were shaking. She forced them to stop and leaned back in her seat. Take a deep breath. Ellie told herself. You’re fine. Relax; take another deep breath. You can do this, there’s nothing to it.
She tilted her head back and looked at the ceiling. God, I’ve done this so many times; why do I still feel so nervous?
A few minutes later, the train began to slow. The steady thrum of the wheels became an agonized chug, as the train ground it’s way slowly to a stop.
“Here we are, folks! Fresno!”
Ellie grabbed her carpetbag and made her way to the door. As soon as she set foot on the platform, the busyness and noise struck her. People hurried back and forth, coming and going. Conductors called, the train whistled, the engine roared; people talked to each other loudly.
She scanned the platform, brushing a curl of auburn hair aside. A well-dressed man in his mid thirties caught her attention. His black hair was combed neatly back, and his eyes were also searching the crowd.
He noticed her and after a moment, made his way over. “Miss Coulter?”
Ellie cleared her throat. “Yes?”
The man held out his hand. “Justin Carter. I’m a member of the school board. I came to welcome you and help you get settled in your boarding house.”
Ellie shifted her carpetbag to her other hand and shook Justin’s hand. “I’m pleased to meet you.”
She felt a twinge of disappointment. So Chad Carter didn’t come. I thought so. Poor Jem. He thought for sure Chad would turn up.
Justin broke into her thoughts. “Can I take your bag?”
“Oh, I can carry it. I will need to pick up my luggage, though. ‘ Ellie said.
Justin waved a hand, dismissing that thought. “I’ll have someone send it over later.” He led the way to a buggy and helped her in. “I’ll be right back. ‘ He went to find a porter.
Justin was back in no time. He untied the horse and climbed in beside Ellie. As he shook the reins and they drove away from the station, Ellie drew a breath. Stage one of her arrival was complete. Stage two was ahead: getting established in a boarding house.
Ellie groaned inwardly. She was not overly fond of boarding houses. They tended to be dark, and drafty, and full of oozy smells and squeaking mice. At least the ones she had stayed in. She frowned.
“What’s the matter? ‘ Justin asked.
Ellie flushed slightly. Not happy that a member of the school board had noticed her frowning over the prospect of staying in his hometown. He probably thought she was dissatisfied with the town or the boarding house the school board had recommended.
“I was…to be honest, I was thinking about boarding houses. ‘ Ellie admitted reluctantly.
Justin nodded sympathetically. “I can imagine. From your resume, I assume you’ve stayed in some pretty repulsive places.”
Ellie laughed suddenly. “You have no idea.”
“You’ll be pleasantly surprised when you see Mrs. Stewart’s boarding house. She keeps it as neat as a new pin.” He let out a chuckle. “You can’t imagine how glad my youngest sister was when I told her I had found a teacher to replace Miss Hall. Our Mother wanted her to take the position.”
Ellie raised her eyebrows. “She doesn’t like children?”
Justin laughed. “Oh, no. She loves my son, Samuel, and will play with him for hours, but when she turned sixteen, Andi put school behind her for good. She would much rather race her horse, or help Chad on the ranch.”
“You are related to Chad Carter, then? ‘ Ellie asked.
“Yes. My brother runs the Circle C Ranch. ‘ He snapped his fingers as if remembering something. “Speaking of Chad, he received your brother’s telegram. He was going to come with me, but he was called away at the last minute on ranch business. I’m sorry he couldn’t be here, but I’m sure he’ll think of an excuse to ride into town and renew your acquaintance. I’m sure he’s anxious to hear how Jem is doing.”
Ellie smiled. “I’m surprised to hear he hasn’t forgotten us. It has been so long since we met last, I’d expected him to. I am glad, especially for Jem’s sake. He made me promise to write to him when I had news about Chad, and I would hate to tell him the old friendship had been forgotten.”
Justin glanced at Ellie out of the corner of his eye. “No chance of that, Miss Coulter. Chad has never forgotten either you or Jem. He’ll be pleased to meet you again.” He checked the horse. “Here we are.”
They had stopped at the corner of Mono and K Streets, in front of a tidy looking brick house. A wooden sign above the door proclaimed: Mrs. Stewart’s Boarding House.
Ellie smiled dryly. “Not a very imaginative name is it?”
Justin shrugged. “It doesn’t need to be. Everyone knows it’s the best boarding house around. Besides, as Mrs. Stewart says: “Decent folks don’t need a fancy name to bring them in, and I don’t have time to search my brain for any highfalutin’, sinful sounding lies.”
Ellie choked back a laugh at his imitation of Mrs. Stewart. She immediately sobered when a stout woman, around sixty years old, appeared in the doorway of the establishment. Ellie let Justin help her down before retrieving her carpetbag and advancing toward the older woman.
Justin introduced them. “Mrs. Stewart, this is Miss Ellianna Coulter, she is the new teacher taking over from Miss Hall. ‘
He turned to Ellie. “Miss Coulter, Mrs. Stewart.”
Ellie held out her hand. “I’m pleased to meet you, Mrs. Stewart.”
The woman took her hand and Ellie could feel the rough calluses formed through years of hard work. “That remains to be seen,”‘ Mrs. Stewart remarked without a smile.
Ellie’s brow furrowed. What remains to be seen? Whether or not I’m pleased to meet her?
“Well, I’d better be going.” Justin shook hands once more with Ellie, climbed into the buggy, and left.
Mrs. Stewart pushed the front door open and led Ellie through a spotless hall, up some stairs, and to a narrow white door.
“This will be your room. Breakfast is at eight o’clock; I assume you will be taking your lunch at school. Supper is at five thirty. If you miss a meal, I will not be held responsible. You must keep your room clean, you will do your own laundry, and you will behave with propriety.”
Ellie set her jaw, looking impassively down at the older woman. Inside, Ellie wanted to snap at her, but she didn’t. “Yes, ma’am.” Ice coated her polite words. How could she be so rude to a newcomer? Ellie wondered. Is she always like this?
Never mind. For now, as long as the woman stayed out of Ellie’s personal business, she could overlook Mrs. Stewart’s impolite manner and hostile demands.
“Thank you, Mrs. Stewart. I’m sure we will work something out that gives satisfaction to both of us.”
Mrs. Stewart nodded curtly and thumped down the stairs.
Ellie watched her go, then turned back to the door and opened it.
A neatly made bed took up the far wall. To the left, the only window looked out over Blake’s Livery Stable. A small writing desk was placed beneath the window. There was only room for her trunk and a dressing table. Nothing more. The tiny room was papered with an old, faded-gold pattern.
Ellie closed the door behind her and leaned against it. The carpetbag clutched in front of her. She smiled in relief. Small, but clean. It will be a pleasure. Ellie thought. Then one corner of her mouth turned down. As long as I don’t get into an argument with Mrs. Stewart.
I have to confess, I am excited to meet Chad Carter again. I’m more excited than I should be.
The soft murmur of the children’s voices as they recited their lessons filled the schoolroom. Ellie checked the small timepiece pinned to the bodice of her green sprigged gray dress. Almost time to dismiss class.
Ellie folded her hands on her desk and studied her new pupils. There were fifteen to twenty students. Most of which behaved well. The Morgan twins, Jimmy and Beth, would cause no trouble. They were obedient, polite, and already Beth had won her teacher’s heart.
And then there were the Belstead clan. The blacksmith’s three children with ages ranging from six to ten. They were unpredictable, but not mean, and prone to harmless mischief as Ellie learned early in the day when she found a grass snake in her desk.
Ellie sighed regretfully at having to punish them the first day of school. It had been a harmless prank, but such disrespect on the first day of school could not be tolerated. The worst part about the prank was that Ellie had ended up punishing all three, even though she doubted the guilt of the younger two.
However, all had confessed since it seemed their motto was “all together, or not at all.”
The children’s voices stopped, recalling Ellie to the present.
She nodded. “Return to your seats.” When they were all seated, “You may put your books away, class is dismissed.”
Laughter and discussion erupted as the children rose and stampeded for the door. Ellie sat watching them go. At the door, the oldest Belstead, Tom, turned back and glared at Ellie.
She had lost her chance with them already, they disliked her now and it would take a long time to regain their trust. Her face fell.
A flicker of surprise crossed Tom’s face as he saw his teacher’s mournful expression. Then he clattered out the door and ran across the yard to join his siblings.
Ellie crossed the room to look out of the window. As the crowd of children separated to their homes, one figure turned back and waved. Ellie recognized Beth, and a smile crept across her face. She waved as the little girl grabbed her brother’s hand and skipped toward their home.
Ellie was encouraged by the sweet gesture Beth had just offered her. At least she had made a good impression on one child.
The deep voice caused Ellie to whirl around. A tall man stood in the entrance of the classroom, leaning easily against the doorframe.
Ellie nodded a polite greeting. “Yes? Can I help you, sir?”
The man crossed the room with easy, long strides. He removed a worn Stetson hat and ran a hand through his thick black hair. Startling ice blue eyes twinkled at her from his suntanned face.
“Howdy, I’m Chad Carter.” He held out a hand.
Ellie gave him hers, and it was swallowed in a firm but gentle grasp. Ellie flashed a smile from her greenish blue eyes as Chad started in on a conversation.
“I hope you had a good journey. I’m sorry I wasn’t here to welcome you. I had planned on it, but I was called away suddenly by ranch business.“ Chad lifted a shoulder apologetically.
Ellie smiled. “I understand. Your brother Justin told me. To tell the truth, I had my doubts as to whether or not you would remember my brother and me. It has been so long since we last met.”
They talked for almost an hour, hearing the latest news and catching up.
The years rolled back, and suddenly they were laughing at the memories that surfaced. She glanced at her timepiece and winced. She was going to be late for supper. Mrs. Stewart was not going to be happy.
Chad caught the glance, and guessed at the source. “Want me to walk home with you? I’d like to hear more about Jem.”
Ellie smiled gratefully. ‘Thank you, please do. My landlady insists supper is at five-thirty, and if I’m not on time…” Her voice trailed off, leaving Chad to figure out the rest.
At the door of Mrs. Stewart’s boarding house, Chad shook hands once more. “Would you like to join us for supper tomorrow night? The family would love to have you.”
Ellie was delighted at the invitation. It seemed Chad had picked up the friendship right where they had left off, and so had she, despite the fact that the Chad Ellie remembered was a young boy who teased and roughhoused, not a, she had to admit, a handsome cowboy with a free-and-easy air who owned and ran a large ranch.
“Thank you, I’d love to. What time would you like me to come? ‘ She asked.
Chad brushed her question away. “I’ll come by and pick you up after school if that’s fine with you.”
Ellie nodded. “I’ll be ready. Thank you.”
Chad waved and started down the street.
Ellie entered the house and found Mrs. Stewart at the dinner table. She seated herself sheepishly and looked across the table at Mrs. Stewart. “I’m sorry I’m late, ma’am.”
Mrs. Stewart pursed her lips. ”I warned you, Miss Coulter.”
Ellie cleared her throat and bowed her head in a quick blessing. As she served herself, Ellie watched Mrs. Stewart eating sourly. Finally the older woman broke the silence.
“Miss Coulter, please come to supper on time.”
Ellie was startled at the change in Mrs. Stewart. Her mood seemed suddenly to have improved.
Ellie nodded humbly. “I’ll try, ma’am. I have an engagement tomorrow evening, though. So I won’t be at supper.”
Mrs. Stewart frowned angrily. Ellie had said the wrong thing. “If this has something to do with that young man who walked you home--“
Ellie nearly choked on her roast beef.
“I tell you, miss, it is highly unseemly for an old maid schoolmarm to be walking home with a young man that she barely knows.”
Ellie chewed furiously, trying to clear her mouth to interrupt Mrs. Stewart.
“If this continues--“
“Mrs. Stewart! ‘ Ellie’s sharp tone put a stop to the tirade. “Mr. Carter is an old family friend. And above all, it is none of your concern!”
Mrs. Stewart turned white with anger and left the table. Ellie could hear her heavy footsteps as she went to her room and shut the door with a bang.
Ellie dropped her head into her hands. Already she regretted her sharp words. Of course it was none of the woman’s business, but had that really merited such a sharp reply? She should have ignored Mrs. Stewart. Now she faced the dilemma of how to apologize to Mrs. Stewart, without giving her a license to meddle in all of Ellie’s private affairs.
Thank God for Chad’s invitation. I’ve looked forward to it all day.
The next day was awful. It seemed everything went wrong. Ellie had stayed up late pondering her apology to Mrs. Stewart, and was almost late to school the next morning.
And then school was terrible. The Belstead children deliberately caused trouble, this time, real trouble. The commotion they caused kept even the most determined pupils from concentrating.
After school, Ellie sat at her desk and felt like crying. It will turn around. She told herself. I just need to take charge, not take any nonsense, and give it a new approach.
I’ll start tomorrow.
Thank you; Lord, for Chad asking me to supper. I don’t want another meal with Mrs. Stewart ever again.
A sudden shout outside made her blood run cold. “Fight! Fight!”
Ellie sprang to her feet and tore out of the schoolhouse. The sight that met her eyes turned her stomach over in fear.
Tom Belstead and another older boy were ganging up on Jimmy Morgan. Beth was sobbing close by. Already Ellie could see blood streaming from Jimmy’s nose and one eye looked dangerously swollen. He was fighting gamely, however.
Ellie waded into the mess as her anger rose. She caught Tom’s accomplice by the shoulder and threw him away from Jimmy. As she tried to separate Tom and Jimmy, a figure grabbed both boysmby their collars and jerked them apart.
Chad Carter was not smiling. “Need help?”
Overcome by a combination of anger, breathlessness, and embarrassment, Ellie just nodded. She wrapped an arm around Beth and led everybody inside.
Behind her desk, Ellie investigated grimly, like a judge in court. “Beth, what happened?”
The little girl rubbed her eyes with her fists. “Jimmy and I were going home when Tom called me teacher’s pet.“ She choked on a sob and her lower lip trembled.
Chad gripped Tom tighter, and Ellie could see anger building at the sight of the little girl’s tears.
“We tried to go home, but they wouldn’t let us.” Beth continued.
Ellie noticed with regret that Tom’s friend had disappeared. Oh, well. I’ll drag it out of Tom. She flashed Tom a glance that made him shrink as he realized his danger.
Beth was sobbing again. “Tom pushed me, and Jimmy got mad. They started fighting and…and…”
“And that’s when I came out, Beth? ‘ Ellie inquired.
Beth and Jimmy nodded.
Ellie turned on the culprit. “Tom,” He squirmed. “explain yourself.”
Tom sulkily muttered something under his breath.
Chad shook him. “Repeat that louder.”
Tom tried to twist free, but couldn’t. Finally he gave up. “I said she is teacher’s pet!” His voice was loud and defiant, but his eyes were pitiful.
Ellie’s heart burned with compassion. She addressed Jimmy. “I’m glad you stood up for your sister, but fighting is not always the answer, Jimmy. You should come and tell me if something like that happens again, and I’m sure it won’t.”
“You bet it won’t. ‘ Chad growled.
Ellie shot him a warning glance. “However, you did break a school rule, and you must be punished.”
Chad gave a startled grunt. He obviously disagreed with her decision.
“You took a beating for your sister like a man, take the punishment you merited like one now.”
Jimmy stood up straighter. “Yes, ma’am.”
Ellie took him aside and delivered five firm strokes with the switch.
“You and Beth may go home, now. ‘ Ellie told him.
Jimmy and Beth turned to leave, but Beth ran back and clung to her teacher. Ellie stroked the bent head gently and Beth sobbed into her dress. Chad looked on in silence as Ellie took out her handkerchief and knelt in front of Beth. She wiped the tears from the little girl’s face and tucked the handkerchief into her hand. “You’ll be alright, I promise.” Ellie whispered, kissing her forehead.
When the twins had gone home, Ellie beckoned to Tom. “Come here.”
Tom shuffled to stand in front of his teacher, head bowed. Ellie looked up into his frightened eyes and held his gaze. “Tom, I--“ Ellie broke off, at a loss for what to say.
Chad clearly wasn’t. “Look here, boy. If you ever, ever bully those kids again, I will personally tan your hide. Clear?”
Tom nodded, too scared to say a word.
“Yes, sir!” Chad prompted.
Ellie stood. “Mr. Carter, would you mind looking outside for the other boy who was fighting?”
Chad nodded once and disappeared out the door.
Ellie sat down in her chair and just looked at Tom. He scuffed his shoe on the floor.
Finally Ellie sighed. “Tom, I’m sorry I had to punish you the first day of school. I didn’t want to.”
Tom shrugged. “I didn’t mind, teacher, I really didn’t. But you punished Billy and Rose too, and--” His voice rose to a sobbing wail. “They hadn’t done anything!”
Ellie leaned her head on her hand. “I thought so.”
“Then why’d you do it? ‘ Tom cried.
Ellie brushed a piece of hair back. “Because you all confessed. Tom, I can’t just go by what I think. If you all confess, I have to punish you all. If I didn’t, I couldn’t keep any kind of order in this school. When I took this position, I told the school board I would do my best to teach all of the children not only the standard subjects, but also, perseverance, kindness, and biblical respect for authority. How am I going to teach you to respect my authority, if I let my students get away with putting snakes in my desk and fighting each other?”
Tom considered this. He sniffed. “I guess you can’t.”
Ellie nodded. “I’m going to have to punish you for what you did this afternoon.”
“I know. ‘ Tom whimpered.
A few minutes later, Ellie and Tom emerged from the schoolhouse. Chad was waiting. “I couldn’t find the other boy.”
Ellie watched Tom slowly making his way home, he was not anxious for his father to find out he’d been in a fight.
She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter, Tom told me who it was. Thank you, though.”
“No problem. ‘ Chad pointed to a buggy across the street. “If you’re ready, we’ll head out to the ranch.”
The Circle C Ranch is huge! I knew it was big, but I had no idea it was this big. Chad is very proud of it, and rightly so.
At the end of an hour, Chad drove the buggy through the entrance to the Circle C Ranch. Ellie’s lips parted in astonishment as she surveyed the large yard, barns, and hacienda style, white house.
Chad stopped the buggy in front of the house. He threw the reins to a ranch hand, stepped out of the rig, and held his hand up for Ellie. As Ellie got down, the horses were led away and Ellie stood looking at the busy ranch.
Chad crossed his arms over his vest and thoroughly enjoyed her evident surprise. “Welcome to the Circle C Ranch.”
Ellie turned in a circle, unable to conceal her astonishment. At last she found her voice. “Mr. Carter--“
“Chad.” He interrupted.
“Beg your pardon?”
“Just call me Chad.” His eyes twinkled down at her.
Ellie smiled. “Thank you. Chad, I had no idea your ranch was so big.”
Chad looked around proudly. “There’s no place I’d rather be.”
Ellie’s mind drifted through memories of a young Chad. “I remember. ‘ She said softly.
Chad chuckled. “I’ll bet you do. I remember telling everyone that Father owned the best ranch in the world.”
Ellie laughed, then sobered as she realized that he had lost his father several years ago. Chad had taken over, and done well, from the look of things. Ellie was impressed, to say the least.
Suddenly, a loud whistle split the air and two riders on horseback trotted around the barn.
Chad waved and hollered, his loud voice carrying across the yard and halting the pair. They dismounted, and led their horses over to where Ellie and Chad were standing.
Chad introduced them. “Miss Coulter, this is my youngest sister, Andi, and my wrangler, Riley Prescott.”
The petite, dark-haired girl waved, and Riley doffed his hat, brown hair falling over his forehead.
Chad continued the introduction. “Andi, Riley, Miss Ellianna Coulter. We know each other from way back, and Miss Coulter has just taken over Miss Hall’s position as school teacher.”
Ellie curtsied slightly. When she looked up, she found Andi studying her curiously, a strange expression in her blue eyes. Andi snapped back to reality as Chad mentioned Ellie was staying for supper.
A mischievous grin lit up her face. “I’ll be pleased to get to know you better.”
Chad’s family is beautiful. They welcomed me without a second thought.
Supper was wonderful. Ellie found Chad’s family friendly and refreshing, a welcome reprieve from Mrs. Stewart’s stony glare across the table. She said as much to Andi.
They were sitting together in the parlor after supper. Andi’s formal manners had faded away as she became more comfortable with Ellie.
Andi laughed. “I know Mrs. Stewart, and I know exactly what you mean. I’ve gotten that look before, especially if I’m doing something she doesn’t see as proper.”
Ellie joined the laugh, a little ruefully. “I got a lecture last night; it was awful.”
“Really?” Andi looked curious. “What did she think was improper? You don’t seem at all like you would be caught riding astride in a split skirt, which was the offense I committed.”
Ellie shook her head. “Mrs. Stewart thought I shouldn’t have let your brother walk me home from school.”
Andi looked surprised. “He walked you home?”
Ellie flushed. “Yes, we haven’t seen each other in a long time, and he wanted to hear how my brother, Jem, was doing.”
Andi didn’t look convinced. “Oh.”
Ellie changed the subject. “You love horses, I understand.”
“Oh, yes, I do! I could talk for hours about horses. I want to learn to trick ride, but Chad won’t let me.” Andi’s voice grew sad. “Riley said he would teach me, but only if Chad agrees.”
“Riley. Isn’t that the young man you were with when Chad introduced us?”‘ Ellie asked.
Andi nodded, and Ellie wondered if there was more to this than met the eye, but Andi didn’t appear conscious of anything more, so she pushed the idea away to consider further.
Ellie looked over at Chad who was in an animated discussion with his younger brother, Mitch. He motioned with his hands as he made his point.
Andi followed her gaze and grinned. “Get Chad talking about the ranch, and he’ll never stop.”
Ellie aimed a smirk at Andi. “I see that.”
Busy observing Chad’s forceful gestures and triumphant grin as he finished an argument, Ellie failed to notice the raised-eyebrow look that passed between Andi and her mother, Elizabeth.
The clock struck eight, and Ellie started with surprise. She had stayed over two hours! Much longer than she had intended. She stood. “I should go.”
Andi rose as Elizabeth came to stand beside her.
“Please, come again soon.” Elizabeth said. “It has been delightful to have you.”
“Thank you. ‘ Ellie said gratefully. “I will, if I haven’t over-stayed my welcome already.”
Elizabeth smiled warmly. “Not at all. We look forward to your next visit.”
Chad stood up, finally noticing the time. “I’ll tell Diego to hitch up the team.”
On the way home, Ellie again remembered the look Andi had given her when they first met. Does she think…that I might be setting my cap for her brother? What an…awful idea. It is awful, isn’t it? Never mind, Chad would never think of me. He has a ranch to run. And I think Andi has her own affairs to look to in the love department.
He glanced over at Ellie, the moon throwing light over his face. “Yeah?”
“Can I ask you something?”
Ellie hesitated, wondering how to frame the question. “Are Andi and Riley…” She left the sentence hanging.
Chad chuckled. “Riley is. Andi’s completely clueless, I think.” He shook his head. “I don’t know how she doesn’t see it. You saw it in one evening, but I guess the closer you are, the harder it is to see the big picture.”
Ellie nodded, then took a deep breath. “Andi told me she wanted to trick ride.”
Chad looked at her out of the corner of his eye. “I assume she also told you I said no.”
“She did. Why did you say no?”
Chad hunched his shoulders, placing his elbows on his knees. “Our father was killed when he was thrown from his horse in a ranch accident. I’m not about to let Andi get hurt doing the same thing.”
“But I thought Andi already helped on the ranch.”
Chad shifted; he knew where this was going. “She does, but trick riding is different, it’s…unnecessarily dangerous.” His voice rose. “She’s my little sister. I won’t let her go off and hurt herself over some fool trick.”
Ellie tried a different angle. “Riley seems like a trustworthy young man who would be careful.”
“No amount of careful is going to prevent an accident,” Chad said with finality.
“Chad, an accident can happen at any time, in any place. Riding a horse is always dangerous, whether you’re trick riding or not. Andi wants to learn so much, that if you have certain conditions, I’m sure she would be happy to agree to them, as long as you let Riley teach her,” Ellie told him. “At least think about it, please.”
There was a long pause.
“Alright. I will.” Chad relented.
Ellie smiled in relief, but was caught off guard at his next words.
“As long as you promise to ride out to the ranch some Saturday and spend the day. Andi really enjoyed your company. I could tell.”
Ellie was flattered. “I’ll try. ‘ She promised.
I’ve never been more surprised in my life. I wonder what new secrets I’ll discover next.
A light was burning in the window of Mrs. Stewart’s boarding house as Chad helped Ellie down from the buggy.
Ellie opened the door cautiously and made her way quietly to her room. A squeaking floorboard made her jump. This felt like the time she had snuck out of the house with Jem to see the full moon. Pa had caught them and sent them back to bed, smarting from his rebuke.
The memory made Ellie smile. A sudden rush of tears caught Ellie unawares. She wiped them away, and pushed open her door.
Mrs. Stewart stood in the hallway, a candle in her hand.
Ellie let her shoulders sag. Not another lecture, not now!
“Miss Coulter, I apologize for my rude behavior last night.” Mrs. Stewart’s voice was cold and distant.
Surprised, Ellie couldn’t say a word for a minute. Then she remembered herself. “No, Mrs. Stewart, I apologize. I had no right to speak to you in that manner, and I have regretted it ever since.”
A slight tremble in Mrs. Stewart’s lips betrayed her feeling. “Thank you, Miss Coulter.”
Ellie reached out to hug the older woman. “Just call me Ellie.”
A sob shook Mrs. Stewart’s shoulders. The usually stern woman suddenly dropped her mask and clung to Ellie. Bewildered, Ellie held her in a hug and waited for an explanation.
After a moment Mrs. Stewart looked up. “You look just like her.”
Ellie’s brow furrowed, until Mrs. Stewart held up a small gilded frame. Inside was a picture of a young lady’s face. The picture looked exactly like Ellie.
Ellie gasped. “That’s my mother!”
Mrs. Stewart nodded. “She and your Pa stayed here for a time when they were just married. I don’t have any children, but I loved her like she was my own daughter.”
Two large tears rolled down her wrinkled cheeks. “I was heartbroken when I heard she had died. And then you came, and you looked just like her, but you’ve got your Pa’s spunk. When I was cross with you, it felt like I’d torn my own heart out, and learned your ma was dead all over again.”
Ellie was lost in thought, pondering this turn of events.
“And this is why you were so stern, isn’t it?”
“Yes. I was afraid to be hurt by your Ma’s memory. You are so like her. The way you talk, your face and expressions. Your love of children. You do have your Pa’s temper, though. Once aroused, you’re fierce as a lion.” Mrs. Stewart gave a shaky laugh.
All of the rest of the week, school went well. Tom made his brother and sister behave, and Beth stuck closer than a bur to her new hero: Teacher.
Ellie even received an invitation to attend an engagement party for one of the daughters of Matthew Powers, a member of the school board.
As Saturday approached, Ellie thought more and more about her promise to Chad to spend the day at the ranch. She couldn’t make up her mind whether or not to redeem her promise immediately, or wait and ensure that she didn’t outstay her welcome. She asked Mrs. Stewart.
“By all means, Ellie, go and visit the Carters. If they like you half as much as you seem to like them, they will be overjoyed to see you. ‘ Mrs. Stewart gave Ellie a meaningful glance.
Ellie flushed. “Mrs. Stewart!”
Mrs. Stewart went back to her mending with twitching lips.
I had a wonderful day.
Ellie took Mrs. Stewart’s advice, and Saturday after lunch she donned a sturdy shirt, vest and split skirt, slapped on a hat she had “borrowed” from Jem, rented a horse from Blake’s Livery Stable, and headed out to the ranch.
She rode up to the house and dismounted. A ranch hand wandered over and took her horse. Ellie thanked him, and then stood in the yard wondering what to do.
A door slammed, and Ellie was nearly run over by a figure bolting from the house. Andi stopped herself just in time. “Ellie!”
Ellie smiled brightly. “Howdy. What’s the matter?”
Andi looked beside herself with joy. “Chad said I could learn to trick ride!”
“Really? ‘ Ellie concealed her pleasure with difficulty.
Andi grinned broadly. “Yes!” She took off running again. “I have to go tell Riley!”
Ellie watched her race to the barn in search of Riley, then turned to the house. Chad leaned against a column of the porch smiling.
“I see you kept your promise,” he called with a wave.
Ellie smiled back. “I see you kept yours.”
He jumped off the porch and came to stand beside her. “I couldn’t help it. You were right.” He ran a hand through his hair, then plopped his hat back on. “I’m glad you came.”
A little embarrassed, Ellie shrugged nonchalantly. “Thanks. I was hoping Andi would show me around the ranch, but I suspect that she’s busy, now.”
Chad started walking toward the barn. “Well, don’t just stand there!” He teased. “Come on!”
Mystified, Ellie hurried after him. When she entered the barn he was tacking up his horse, Sky.
“Chad, what’s going on? ‘ Ellie asked.
He tossed his saddle onto the horse’s back. “I’m going to show you around the ranch.”
“Do you have time? I don’t want to get in the way. ‘ Ellie hesitated.
Chad looked up from tightening the cinch. “Do you want to see it?”
Ellie answered quickly. “Oh, yes!”
“Then hold this, while I tack up a horse for you.” He held the reins out to her.
Ellie frowned. “Chad, I might be a little older--and perhaps a touch more ladylike-- than I was in Goldtown, but I can still tack up my own horse if you show me which one, and where their tack is.”
“Alright, sorry.” Chad lifted his hands in a gesture of innocence, and then pointed. “You can ride Magic.”
Ellie fell in love with the beautiful black mare the minute Magic’s dark eyes met her own. She led the horse out of its stall and secured it to a post while she collected the equipment Chad pointed out and prepared to put it on.
She lifted the heavy saddle and gave it a toss. It nearly slid off and she clutched at it to keep it from doing so. A chuckle from Chad brought her around in a heartbeat.
“Stop it!” Ellie swatted at his arm in exasperation.
Magic shied at her raised voice and the saddle tumbled off.
Ellie flushed hotly and bent to pick it up. She lifted again and turned to put it on, but Chad took it from her, and the saddle flew effortlessly onto Magic’s back.
Ellie huffed. “Now, let me, will you, you big show off.”
Chad watched as she finished tacking up quickly. They led their horses out of the barn and Ellie lifted her foot for the stirrup, but Chad stopped her.
He unlatched the girth and pulled it several holes tighter. “Always check the girth before mounting. Some horses, like Magic, hold their breath and the saddle isn’t as tight as it should be.”
Ellie had a sudden vision of the saddle sliding off while she was riding and dumping her on the ground. “Thanks.”
Chad winked. “No problem. Ready?” He swung into Sky’s saddle.
“Yep.”‘ Ellie stuck her foot in the stirrup, grabbed the saddle horn and pulled herself up. It wasn’t her best mount, but it got her up on the horse, and that’s what counted, she told herself. Then she caught the amusement in Chad’s eyes.
She lifted her chin. “So, I’m a little rusty.”
He grinned, but generously didn’t say anything.
By the time Ellie had seen the entire ranch, she was even more impressed with Chad than she already was.
“I can’t believe you run this ranch. I never thought, …” Ellie trailed off. “I don’t know what I thought,” she finished.
She drank in the view of the Sierra Mountains in front of her and gave a deep sigh of pleasure.
Chad smiled. “I know. That’s how I feel.”
A sudden shout and a loud gunshot interrupted them. Chad whirled his horse around and galloped back toward the house even before Ellie caught the urgent tones of the voice.
Ellie kicked Magic into a canter and followed quickly.
The yard buzzed with activity. A loud yell made her jerk around to see Chad bellowing in Spanish at several ranch hands. “!Pasa por el doctor!”
Ellie dismounted and flung the reins around the hitching post. She burst through a throng of people around Chad and saw a man lying moaning in the dirt. A dead rattlesnake lay nearby and two little red dots appeared on the man’s forearm.
All of the breath left Ellie’s lungs with a whoosh. For one second she was frozen in horror, the next she was on her knees beside Chad.
“Give me a knife,” she ordered a shocked ranch hand. He held one out dumbly, and she snatched it from him.
A loud rip made Chad look over. Ellie was cutting a generous piece off the bottom of her split skirt.
“Knife,” Chad barked.
Ellie put it in his hand and moved to the other side of the wounded man. She wrapped the piece of cloth around the man’s arm above the bite and tightened sharply. The man winced as the flow of blood was cut off.
Chad made a couple of cuts across the punctures and sucked the poison out. He spit quickly and repeated the action.
Ellie stood up. “Get some mud!”
A younger hand looked at her in astonishment, then shifted his gaze to the dust at their feet. “There isn’t any.”
Ellie gave him an impatient shove. “Then make some!”
A few men jumped to do her bidding, and soon a mud plaster was slapped on the punctures.
The ranch cook pushed his way through the circle around Chad and Ellie and knelt beside the wounded man.
"Fuera de mi camino, senor." The old man waved them away.
Chad stood up and looked at the crowd surrounding them. He put his hands on his hips and glared. They sheepishly went back to their work.
Ellie gave the cook a worried glance, but he made a shooing motion with his hands.
"Come on, Ellie. Cook can handle it."
Ellie slowly obeyed Chad's command and followed him to the porch. He fell into a wicker chair with a sigh, and Ellie suddenly remembered that he could have swallowed some of the poison.
Fear shot through her. "You need to wash your mouth out. Now."
Chad laughed, but Ellie wouldn't stand for any argument. "Do as I say. It can't hurt to be careful."
Seeing the scared look on her face, Chad gave in. "Well, if it means that much to you." He got up and went into the kitchen.
Ellie tagged along to make sure he did it, and that he didn't just disappear for a moment and come back out.
Chad got a glass of water and washed his mouth out several times.
Ellie sank down at the kitchen table, adrenaline finally catching up with her.
Chad sat opposite of her. "Where did you learn to treat snake bites?"
Ellie put her arms on the table. "At my last school."
"Really?" Chad's eyebrows shot up.
Ellie nodded. "There was plenty of need. "Three, three of my pupils were bitten. The snakes had made a nest under the schoolhouse. It was awful." She paled at the memory. "I've never been so glad to leave a place in my life. And not just for that reason."
Interest covered Chad's face. "Tell me about it." He kicked another chair out from under the table and stuck his feet up on it.
Ellie put her chin in her hand and stared at the wall blankly, reliving the last term.
I feel safe here. I never want to leave.
“It started the first day I arrived in Searles Valley,” Ellie began. “A man named Mr. Stark picked me up from the train station. I could tell at once that he was …too friendly.”
Ellie clenched her jaw in anger at the memory. “He told me as soon as he could that he was a widower with two children in the school I would be teaching. I was as cold as I could possibly be without being entirely rude. When he left me at the boarding house, he expressed a wish to see me again soon. I gave him a negative answer and went inside.”
Ellie shivered. “The boarding house was horrible. I’ve stayed in many, but this one was the worst. Cold drafts whistled through chinks in the walls at night, and it was infested with rats. The couple that ran the boarding house were old drunks. I told the school board, but they did nothing, even though several of them lived in fairly nice homes.
“The children were unruly, and they played nasty tricks behind my back. I got into the habit of brushing my chair off before I sat down after a couple of episodes with a tack. I could have handled them, but the stubborn school board refused to listen to any of my ideas!” She pounded her fist on the table.
Ellie lost her faraway look and met Chad’s disgusted gaze. “And then one evening after supper, Mr. Stark came to call. I crawled out of a window and hid in the pigpen until I thought he had left. I went back inside, but when I went upstairs, I saw him prowling around the house. I stayed awake for the rest of the night, watching and listening, ready to hide at the slightest noise. I prayed more during that term of school than I had prayed in my entire life, and God protected me.
“As soon as the fall term ended, I quit. I went home and Pa, Jem, and cousin Nathan exploded when they heard about it. They made me take a break, so I rested at home for the rest of the year, until it was time to find a new school to teach. Jem insisted that I apply for the Fresno Grammar School. He claimed that it would be safer, and made me promise to write him when I had news about you. I think he wanted to know that I had someone I could go to if anything happened.”
Ellie smiled. “Your family has been so welcoming. I feel like I’m at home. I can’t thank you enough for befriending me.”
Chad cleared his throat. “Don’t mention it. It was my pleasure.”
Ellie pushed her chair back. “Well, I should go put Magic away. I left her standing in the sun.”
Chad’s feet hit the floor with a thud as he stood up. “I’ll come with you and take care of Sky.”
As Ellie unsaddled and rubbed Magic down, Andi tore into the barn again.
“Chad, tell Mother you have a job for me next Saturday, please,” she begged.
Chad shook his head. “Not a chance, little sister.”
Andi blew out an exasperated breath and threw her long braid over her shoulder. “Chad, I don’t mind a barn dance, but an engagement party? Please give me an excuse not to go.”
Chad shook his head again. “Sorry, Andi, but the invitation is to the Carter family. Mother accepted, and we all have to go.”
“Kitty Powers is an acquaintance of the family,” he explained to Ellie.
Ellie nodded as recognition dawned. “Ohhh, yes. I received an invitation also.”
Andi slumped against a stall door. “It’s going to be awful.”
Ellie smiled. “Come on, Andi, it won’t be that bad.”
Andi’s head snapped up. “Oh, yes it will be.”
“I promise I’ll take you around the dance floor at least once, then you should be fine.” Chad turned to Ellie. “Are you going?”
Ellie shook her head. “It was considerate of them to invite me, but I don’t dance.”
Andi’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “You don’t dance?”
Ellie flushed. Even Andi, a self-proclaimed tomboy, danced. She shook her head. “No, I never learned. My Aunt Rose wanted to teach me, but I begged and cried until she gave up.”
A wistful expression hovered over her face for a moment. ”I sometimes wish I had learned, but I don’t have many social engagements, so I’ve never seen the use of learning.”
Andi looked at Ellie enviously. “I wish I had that excuse.”
Ellie laughed. “Don’t. Enjoy avoiding potential suitors.”
Her good mood partially restored, Andi grinned mischievously. “Maybe Chad could teach you how to dance.”
“You might want to ask Chad before you volunteer him for a potentially challenging task,” Ellie joked.
Andi chuckled. “Oh, well. Maybe Johnny Wilson will take the job.” She started for the house.
Ellie ran the brush in her hand over Magic’s back once more, and then dropped it into the grooming box. “There!” She kissed Magic’s nose, let herself out of the stall, and turned to Chad. “Thank you so much for inviting me to spend the day, and for taking the time to show me around the ranch. It is beautiful.”
Chad folded his arms and looked at her strangely, as if wondering why she felt she should thank him. “Really, Ellie, it was nothing. I wouldn’t do any less for a friend. Don’t mention it.”
Ellie let out a big sigh of contentment and clasped her hands in front of her. She walked slowly toward the barn door and stopped. She looked out at the ranch, feeling the sense of home that overwhelmed her, and wishing she could stay here forever. Her eyes burned as tears welled up. She tried to stop them, but one escaped and rolled down her cheek.
“Are you all right?” Chad asked in a low voice.
Ellie wiped the wet drop off quickly and tried vainly to pretend nothing had happened. “Yes. It’s just so beautiful,” her voice broke and she cleared her throat. “It’s so beautiful,” she repeated.
As Ellie left the barn, the sun caught her full in the face, making her blink. “I should probably go home,” she said regretfully.
“Stay for supper.” Chad pressed.
Ellie winced. “I’d love to, but Chad, I’m not part of the family, and I don’t want to be a burden or an irritation. I don’t think I should, honestly.”
“Ellie, the family would love to have you.” Blue sparks shot from Chad’s eyes, and Ellie was startled by his intensity. “You will never be unwelcome. ‘ He calmed down a bit and his eyes twinkled. “Honestly.”
I’m so excited…and nervous.
Next Saturday evening, Ellie let Mrs. Stewart help her dress for the engagement party. She had planned on not going, but Chad had convinced her otherwise.
“Take a break for one evening,” He’d told her. “I’ll teach you how to dance, and you’ll have fun.”
So, here she was as jittery as a wild horse over her first real ball.
Mrs. Stewart wasn’t helping her nerves, either. “There’ll be lots of well-to-do folks there, so behave yourself. And mind you don’t let anyone kiss you during a waltz.”
Ellie turned around from where she was trying to find the small buttons at the back of her dress. “Mrs. Stewart, surely no one will be so improper.”
Mrs. Stewart fussed over her hair. “You never can tell, dear. Now tilt your head so that I can pin this curl where it’s supposed to be.”
Ellie obeyed and Mrs. Stewart finally announced that she was ready to go. She gave Ellie’s hair a final pat. “You look lovely, Ellie. That pale pink is perfect.”
Ellie gave Mrs. Stewart a grateful hug. “Thank you.”
A knock at the front door made Ellie jump.
“Calm down. I’m sure it’s just some young man wanting to have the first dance.”
Ellie was short of breath, and it wasn’t just because of the corset she wore for the occasion.
Mrs. Stewart went down to the door and opened it. “Good evening, Mr. Carter.”
Chad took off his hat. “Is Miss Coulter ready to go?”
Mrs. Stewart gave him an appraising look and then nodded. “She’s on her way down.”
Ellie navigated the stairs carefully. When she landed safely at the bottom, she looked up. The admiration on Chad’s face made her smile and flush with a spice of pleasure.
Ellie kissed Mrs. Stewart’s wrinkled cheek, and then followed Chad across the street to the surrey. He helped her in and climbed in after her. A few minutes later they were pushing their way through crowds of people to congratulate the happy couple that stood beaming in the parlor of the Arlington Hotel.
Ellie gave Kitty a hug and shook hands with her fiancé, Seth. “Congratulations, Kitty, Seth.”
Chad shook hands and then piloted Ellie to the edge of the dance floor. Ellie watched the whirling couples apprehensively.
Chad nudged her. “Relax.” He whispered. “It looks harder than it is. You’ll do fine.”
Ellie caught a glimpse of Andi twirling by on the arm of a young dandy. She looked miserable.
“Chad, does Andi always look that upset when she’s dancing?”
Chad followed her gaze and groaned. “No, but she does when she’s dancing with Johnny Wilson.”
“Can you cut in?” Ellie asked as the couple went past again and Andi gave Chad a pleading look.
Chad hesitated. Ellie stepped back from the dance floor. “Go on, I’ll hide.”
Chad shot her a teasing grin and tapped Johnny’s shoulder as he came into range. The fuming young man released Andi reluctantly, but Andi nearly flung herself into Chad’s arms as they spun back into the dance.
Ellie wove her way through talking people back to the parlor. She found an inconspicuous seat and eased into it. She took the moment to calm herself down and catch her breath. Blasted corsets.
“Are you ready for your first lesson?”‘ Chad appeared beside her.
“I am. How is Andi?” Ellie asked. She rose and Chad took her arm.
“She’s in good hands. I left her dancing with Mitch.”
They were back on the dance floor. Chad put his left hand at her waist and held her hand in his right. “Now, put your hand on my shoulder, and keep time with the music. Step back, now forward, now do a quarter turn and start at the beginning again. Good.”
Ellie was astonished at how quickly the steps became part of the music. When she lost time, Chad and the music swung her back into step. It felt like she was flying, and Ellie enjoyed every minute of it.
“Ellie, there’s something I’d like to talk to you about. Can you come to the ranch tomorrow after church?” Chad asked during a waltz.
Ellie looked up curiously. “I’d love to. Why?”
He stepped back and Ellie spun, then they moved together again and continued the conversation.
“Magic is spoiling for a ride, and I don’t get the chance to do much pleasure riding, so I thought that you might like to come and take a ride with me.”
Ellie smiled gratefully. “Thank you, I can’t wait.”
If Chad hadn’t been there… I don’t know what I would have done.
After church Sunday, Ellie rode out to the ranch with the Carters. Lunch was superb, and afterwards Ellie looked forward to a brisk ride on Magic.
Chad slapped on his hat. “Ready, Ellie?”
Ellie hurried down the stairs in the split skirt she had brought. “Of course!”
They saddled their horses and started off. The day was bright and crisp, big white clouds blew quickly across the sky, making shadows on the ground.
Chad led the way to a bubbling creek surrounded by a scattering of oak trees and dismounted. Ellie did the same.
“Ellie--” Chad began.
Suddenly, Magic snorted fearfully and Sky pawed the ground.
Chad attempted to calm them both, but they began to go crazy.
Sky reared and pulled the reins out of Chad’s grip. He bolted away and Magic fought to follow him.
“Let her go, Ellie!” Chad yelled over the horse’s frightened whinnies.
Ellie let go of the reins and they whistled through her gloves as the mare spun, then galloped after Sky.
Their stranded riders looked after them in shocked surprise.
After a moment, Ellie broke the silence. “So, are we going to walk back, or do you think they’ll come by and pick us up?”
The funny side of the situation hit Chad, and he laughed. “Well, I guess we’d better start walking, although our feet are going to be sore from hobbling with these riding boots on.”
Ellie felt as if her feet had been crushed by the time they made their way back to the house. Both she and Chad sat down on the porch with a moan and pulled off their boots.
A familiar whicker halted Ellie. She began to hurry to the barn, regardless of the fact that she’d left her boots behind her. Chad pulled his back on and followed.
As she entered, she saw Magic wandering the aisle in search of her stall.
Ellie gave a surprised cry and approached carefully. Magic was completely gentle, and Ellie tied her halter to a post to keep her from running away again.
“Her saddle must have chafed her. Has Sky come back?” Chad asked.
Ellie shook her head. “I haven’t seen him.”
Magic snorted and pranced, suddenly skittish again. Ellie stepped back just in time.
In one swift move, Magic reared and tore loose from the rope that held her. The halter fell, snapped. The powerful horse galloped past Ellie barely missing her.
The ground began to shake, and Ellie saw the barn walls sway. Chad grabbed her hand and they ran toward the door. Ellie stumbled and fell as the ground rolled under her feet. A beam crashed down in front of them, and another fell behind them.
Chad pushed Ellie into a corner and shielded her from more debris that showered them.
Slowly, everything quieted, and Ellie lowered her arms from where she had been protecting her head. Chad crouched close by; he was also covering his head.
“Are you alright?” Chad asked.
Ellie nodded shakily. “I think so. You?”
“I’m fine. ‘ He stood up carefully, and looked around. “There’s not much harm done. These two beams are the most of it.”
Ellie moved to get up, but then gasped as pain shot through her ankle.
Chad spun quickly. “What’s the matter?” His blue eyes looked worried.
Ellie reached above her and grasped the board on a stall door. She winced as she pulled herself up. “I must have sprained my ankle when I fell.”
She balanced on one foot, and took a hopping step toward the door. She tottered and steadied herself with one hand. Ellie took another step and overbalanced. Chad caught her.
Ellie gripped his arm. “I can walk, I just need a little help.”
Chad snorted his opinion of that statement and swung her up into his arms. Ellie opened her mouth to protest, then closed it as she realized she wasn’t going anywhere by herself.
Chad stepped over the beams and strode out of the barn. The whole Carter family had run out of the house and was in the yard. Andi gave a shocked yell, as Chad and Ellie emerged, dusty and blinking.
“Oh, my Lord! Thank God you weren’t killed!” Elizabeth rushed over to them her face gray with fright.
“Ellie fell and sprained her ankle, Mother,” Chad said grimly.
“Bring her inside, Chad. Put her on the sofa. I’ll have one of the men go for the doctor.” Elizabeth motioned them toward the house.
“Tell him to get the sheriff too,” Chad called as he thumped into the parlor and placed Ellie gently on a sofa.
She scooted into a sitting position. “Thanks, Chad.”
He looked like he was going to say something, but Mitch hollered from outside and Chad stood up. “You’re welcome.”
There were two more earthquake aftershocks that day, but none as bad as the first. When the doctor came, he examined Ellie’s ankle and announced that she’d not sprained it; she’d broken it. Six weeks without an ounce of weight on it was his order, and Ellie chafed under the restriction.
“How am I going to teach school with a broken ankle?” she moaned after the doctor left. “Mrs. Stewart has enough to do, and she’s too old to be saddled with the care of an invalid.”
A soft chuckle made her jump. She had thought she was alone.
Elizabeth sat down on the edge of the sofa and took Ellie’s hand. “You are welcome to stay here for as long as you need to.”
Ellie protested. “I couldn’t be such a burden! Besides I could…I could…” She didn’t finish. There was nothing else she could do. Either she stayed here, or she burdened Mrs. Stewart, or she wrote home and hoped that Pa and Jem could spare Aunt Rose for six whole weeks.
The second option was unthinkable, the third was impossible--Pa and Jem (not to mention cousin Nathan) would be lost without a housekeeper--and the first was so tempting.
Elizabeth watched Ellie think through her options with a quiet smile. “You would be no burden, Ellie. We would love to have you as our house guest.”
Ellie rubbed a hand across her forehead, unable to believe what she was about to do. “Thank you, I accept.”
Ellie sent word of the situation to Mrs. Stewart by the doctor, and requested that her belongings be sent to her in the morning. Justin informed the school board, and the substitute teacher was called in.
I’ve never been so happy in my life!
“Look what I found, Ellie!” Andi rolled a wheelchair in.
Ellie sat up on the settee and a big smile curled her lips. “Where in the world did you get that, Andi?”
An unusually serious expression filled Andi’s eyes, and Ellie could tell a story was coming. “This is the one I used a few months ago.”
As Andi filled her in on the events relating to her horse Taffy’s death and her own near fatal injuries, Ellie was shocked. She wiped away the tears that compassion had wrung from her, and gave Andi a quick hug. “I’m so sorry, Andi.”
Andi returned the embrace and smiled in a way that showed not only her ability to move on from the accident, but think with pleasure about the times she had enjoyed, even if a slight pain lingered.
Ellie glanced dubiously at the contraption that Andi had brought in. “Do you think the doctor will let me use it?”
Andi shrugged. “Why wouldn’t he? You were supposed to stay off of it, but he never said anything about not using a wheelchair. And after two weeks, surely it would be okay.”
Ellie looked from her splinted foot to the wheelchair. “How am I going to get in it?”
Andi pushed the chair as close to the settee as she could. “If you scoot into the wheelchair, I’ll support your foot.”
Ellie hoped the doctor wouldn’t be angry, but she was so tired of being stuck inside, that she gave Andi a delighted grin and followed her instructions.
When she was settled comfortably in the chair, Andi lowered her foot gently onto the rest. “There!”
Ellie held onto the arms as Andi pushed her quickly through the house and out onto the porch.
A waft of fresh air blew over Ellie’s face and caught her hair. Auburn curls streamed in the wind and Ellie pushed them back with a laugh.
Andi leaned over the back of the chair, and Ellie looked up. “Thank you so much, Andi. This is wonderful! I’ve missed being outside.”
Andi directed the chair toward a ramp off of the porch. “I got Riley to put this up again, it’s the same one I used.”
They rattled down the boards and out into the yard. Dark clouds bunched up in the distance, muttering low threats.
A rider on horseback rode up and stopped. Andi waved, and Ellie recognized Chad. He’d been gone for a couple of weeks, chasing after some horses that had broken loose during the earthquake. He’d returned late last night, so Andi said, and had gone to work early the next day.
He swung off of Sky, threw the reins to a ranch hand, and started toward them. Andi rolled the chair over.
“What are you up to, Andi?” He regarded her suspiciously.
Andi bristled, but Ellie put a slight pressure on her hand and answered for her. “She decided to let me out of jail and wheel me around in this contraption.”
Andi raised her eyebrows at that explanation, but said nothing.
“Are you enjoying yourself?” Chad asked with a knowing glance at her bright face.
He grinned as a puff of wind blew all of her hair into her face. Ellie wiped it impatiently away and her eyes laughed back.
“Let’s continue our little tour. Where do you want to go?” Andi asked.
“I want to see Magic! ‘ Ellie answered immediately.
As Ellie entered the barn, Magic gave a low whicker. Andi was impressed. “She loves you, Ellie. I had no idea you two were so attached to each other.”
The chair stopped in front of the stall and Ellie reached up to stroke Magic’s nose. The mare nuzzled her face gently and blew out a satisfied breath.
Ellie smiled. “That’s better, isn’t it, girl. Together again, huh.”
A grumble of thunder warned them to go inside quickly, before they were caught in a storm, and Ellie reluctantly told Andi to roll her back to the house.
Soon after supper, the clouds kept their promise and poured down rain in torrents. The sun was obscured, and a relaxing gray light took its place.
Ellie rolled herself onto the porch and sat soaking up the soft wet air.
Chad joined her. “Nice evening, isn’t it?”
Chad pulled a chair beside her and sat down. Neither said anything.
“Ellie,” Chad slipped his strong hand over hers. “I would like to write to your father and ask for his permission to court you with the intention of marriage. Are you in agreement? Will you consider spending the rest of your life with me?”
Ellie turned her head to look at Chad, her eyes shining with joy. “Yes! There’s no place I’d rather be than with you.”
Chad smiled, then sobered. “Just to be up front, Ellie, it’s not going to be easy. I’m a handful. But I love you, and I want you to be my wife.”
Ellie squeezed his hand. “I don’t expect it to be easy, I know neither of us are perfect, but I love you too.”
Chad put an arm around her and she rested her head on his shoulder. The quiet moment was interrupted by the appearance of Elizabeth.
Ellie drew back from Chad a bit sheepishly, and he stood up to greet his mother.
“Mother – “
Elizabeth smiled through the tears that misted her eyes. “I know. I’m so happy for you both.” She bent to kiss Ellie gently on the cheek; her warm blue gaze went right to Ellie’s heart, and her soft voice whispered,
“Welcome to the family.”