As she dutifully repeated “…to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth” after the preacher she couldn’t stop her thoughts from rambling. I just promised to obey someone I don’t even know. How seriously am I going to take that? How seriously is he going to take that? He looks serious. Her eyes met his as he placed the ring on her finger and she sucked in a breath. Oh, my, he’s got the prettiest eyes. He’d slipped her his ring right before the ceremony and she jerked her attention back to listen to the preacher, say the rest of her lines and slip the ring on his hand in turn. His hands are so big she thinks with a little shiver and without realizing exactly what she was doing, she gripped his hand in her nervousness, twining her fingers with his and leaning into him as they faced the preacher together.
There was a slight buzzing in her ears that prevented her from hearing the preacher’s last few words, but the next thing she knew her face was being tilted gently up as this tall stranger – her husband – and he pressed a soft kiss to her lips. His lips were warm and comforting and she suddenly realized as he was pulling away that she’d followed him up onto her toes to maintain the contact. Instead of continuing to pull away, he leaned back in to her for a moment, so that she was standing flat-footed next to him when he pulled away again, giving her a small, shy smile as she noted the flush on his cheeks.
Before she could do more than smile at him in return, she was grabbed and pulled into a warm hug by Dale, the man Daryl had said was like a father to him, who followed the hug with a hearty kiss on her cheek before passing her to his wife, Irma, who is a little shorter than Beth. The smaller woman still managed to make the young blonde feel completely enveloped in a warm hug and Beth managed a sweet smile in response to her congratulations. When Irma turned away from her to hug Daryl, Beth had a moment of feeling lost and her exhaustion from not only that day, but the last few months rolled over her and she swayed on her feet. Suddenly she felt a strong hand on her elbow and looked up into those amazing blue eyes again. She smiled a slightly lopsided smile, feeling ready to just go to bed and sleep for about a year…maybe two…it had really been some time since she had any decent rest. She blinked up into those eyes, fringed with dark lashes and suddenly felt less tired.
“You alright?” Daryl asked in the slightly raspy voice she had liked immediately.
Beth nodded in response “Just a little tired is all, it’s been a long day.”
“We’re going to Dale and Irma’s after this for dinner, then we can go home” he replied, giving her a small, encouraging squeeze.
She gave him a sweet, shy smile in return, leaned her head against his shoulder for a moment and sighed a little because of how wonderful it sounds. Home…she has a home again. It had been a while since she had one and now she had a handsome husband to go with it, though that thought brought the realization that she was still leaning against him and had been for longer than was really appropriate in public even for husband and wife. With an effort she gathered her wits and straightened, turning back to the others to find that Dale and Irma had invited the preacher over for dinner as well and was relieved when he refused with what seemed to be sincere regret, saying several of his flock were sick and he needed to visit as many as he could that day. Reverend Brown shook hands with the Hovarths and Daryl and gave Beth a slight bow before he left the couples and they head for the general store, which the Hovarths own and live above.
The street was bustling and Beth slipped her hand into Daryl’s elbow just as Irma does the same with Dale, not so much for support, but a kind of show of unity as well as protection for the women. Beth was so busy looking around that she missed how startled Daryl looked for a second before his face went to pleased and then his normal, watchful look as they stepped away from the church, which was at the far northern end of the town. Though Daryl was quiet, both Dale and Irma seemed determined to make sure Beth knew the layout of the town before they ever reached their store and tried to pay attention, ask intelligent questions and generally be polite and engaging; after all these folks are part of her family now.
Dinner was delicious, especially after the food Beth had on the road; Dale and Irma were delightful and Daryl so sweet with them that he became more attractive to Beth with every kind, funny word out of his mouth, though she completely missed the look he gave her when she refilled his water glass after he emptied it. After they’d eaten, Irma lifted the top off a cake plate, revealing a spice cake with a fluffy white frosting - their wedding cake - and not only was it beautiful, but turned out to be one of the best cakes Beth’s ever had. She was so tired and busy trying to absorb everything and remember her manners that she didn’t follow up on it when Irma says something to her about being glad Daryl had listened to them about getting a bride, though her exhausted brain tucks the information away. After Daryl polished off his slice and a second one, it was time to leave and Beth was surprised when Daryl handed her up into a light buggy, to which her bags have been strapped, instead of the typical wagon before they wave good-bye to the older couple.
On the drive out to their home, Beth found out it wasn’t a farm, but a ranch with several thousand head of cattle and four hands that Daryl managed for Dale while the older couple lived in town, which was far easier for them and that it would take them some time to get back to the house, which Daryl says is large, but is also currently only one level. He stiffens up when she asks if Dale and Irma are his only family, but he does answer her “My folks died a long time ago, my ma when I was about twelve and my pa when I was about sixteen then my brother, Merle died a few months ago.”
“You miss him, don’t you?” She caught his glance at her from under his bangs and saw he looked slightly guilty, though she didn’t know why. She continued easily, “I miss my big brother, Shawn…he was so annoying and overprotective, but I wish he were here now. He was injured in the battles at Kennesaw Mountain and his wounds festered….he didn’t know who we were at the end.” Her voice caught a little at the memories, before she continued, “I miss my big sister, Maggie and my pa….”
“What happened to him?” Daryl asked quietly, glancing at her, but then looking back toward the ears of the horses. Even though he still seemed rather shy, she noted his shoulders had dropped and he didn’t seem defensive anymore, which made her feel relieved.
“Soldiers came to our farm one day, they took everything they could…all the chickens they could catch and a couple cows that didn’t run soon enough and the horses they could catch before the cows took part of the fence down and they and the remaining livestock left…except the pigs, which were all penned. Papa, he didn’t try to fight with them until a couple started to look at Maggie and me like we were part of the livestock…just something else to take. Then Papa stopped them and one of them shot him in the leg…shattered the bones in his shin. Another family was there that day...they’d brought their son to Papa for healing after he’d been shot accidentally, and something about the man stopped the soldiers somehow; he told them to take the livestock and go, but they weren’t touching us…or his wife, who was also there.” She blinked back tears and went on, “After the soldiers left, he chopped off Papa’s leg, below the knee, but Papa lost too much blood, though we stopped it as quickly as we could and passed the next day without regaining consciousness.” She glanced at him and met his eyes, giving a small, embarrassed grin, “He was older when they had me…my mama was his second wife…but I always thought he’d grow even older and Maggie and I would marry and he’d get to sit on the porch with his grandchildren crawling all over him, telling them stories of when he was little…it seems so silly now.”
“What about your ma?”
“Mama…I can’t remember a time she wasn’t busy…she was always doing things around the house, around the farm, for us and others and was always full of energy, but one day she was tired and the next more so and one day she barely had the energy to get out of bed anymore. Papa, he was a doctor, the only one in our whole area…he worked on people and animals...anything he could help, really, and he said it was a disease of the blood and it happens sometimes, but there’s no treatment. It went on maybe three weeks and one morning I went in to check on her and she had passed quietly. We didn’t know it would be so fast and I hadn’t said my good-byes to her.”
“Never got to say good-bye to mine either,” he said in his quiet voice. “We went to town one day and got back to find the house burned down with her in it…never did know exactly what happened.” There was a pause before he asked, “What about your sister…she make it?”
Beth’s smile brightened instantly, “Oh, yes…she met a nice man and a traveling preacher married them, but they were moving up north to Michigan. She didn’t want to leave me, but when I decided to come here to you they decided to go.” She hesitated to say anything else just then, worried that he might show some of the prejudice with which Maggie and Glenn had been met back home. Such stupid people to hate someone just because they were born looking differently than they did…she and Maggie were very different, in spite of having the same father and they’d grown up in a town around blacks and the Cherokee…what was different about a Korean, who didn’t even sound much different from other Yankees who’d come to town? Glenn looked a little like some of the young Cherokee men they knew and that was why Maggie had spoken to him the first time she’d met up with him on the road that ran past their farm as she was walking back from town.
“They didn’t keep the farm?”
“No, her husband’s not a farmer. We sold it to Mr. Walsh…the man who was at the farm when Daddy was shot; they stayed on after Daddy passed and he just knew how to handle things. He’d been a deputy in our town before the war ended and the Yankees took over so much. They left him alone, though…he’s a good man, but he has a violence about him. Besides, some of his friends came to live on the farm too, so it was well-defended.”
“You didn’t want to stay?”
“Well…I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but it wasn’t really my home anymore, not without any of my family there and strangers everywhere. Besides, when I read your letter I really liked it and I thought we could be happy.”
She’d seen an advertisement in one of the last papers their small town’s press had put out, only days after her father’s death. Mr. Walsh had gone to town for news and had brought back the paper as well as some of the gossip around town and her eyes had followed a beam of sunlight down to the paper and the small advertisement from a man in Montana seeking a wife. She’d spent some of their precious pennies to send a telegraph back to him letting him know of her interest and a few weeks later had received a letter which was so sweet and touching that she’d decided at once to respond and they’d exchanged letters for a few months before she’d received the letter in which he’d proposed.
Maggie and Glenn wanted her to come to Michigan with them, but they were going to have a hard enough time in their marriage, facing the prejudices they did, without having someone else to care for tagging along. Glenn’s family in Michigan was extensive and knew about Maggie and had said they looked forward to meeting her, but hadn’t sounded too enthusiastic about the new bride’s young sister and Beth didn’t have any desire to go where she wasn’t wanted. Granted, she wouldn’t have known she wasn’t wanted if she hadn’t overheard Glenn telling Maggie and them fighting about it. She hadn’t meant to overhear, but they’d come out to the barn to talk about it and she’d been sitting in the stall that used to hold her horse, Nellie, before the soldiers had taken her, having a little cry about everything that had happened and had overheard the two of them. Marrying Daryl may have seemed desperate to some, but she wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been for the fact that she’d found something sweet and charming about the way he’d sounded in his letters…she’d already decided to accept his proposal by the time she finished reading that final letter and she’d used a few more pennies to respond by telegraph and he’d wired back the money for her tickets a few days later. The next week had been spent making arrangements and doing everything she could with Maggie, who hadn’t wanted her to go at all, but who’d reluctantly agreed after reading his letters and talking with Beth for hours.
Daryl cleared his throat and she looked at him to discover that his cheeks and the tips of his ears are flushed pink. “What is it?” she asked curiously.
He looked at her from under a dark fringe of hair, at once shy and honest, “Dale helped me with the letters,” he confessed. “I’m not that good with words.”
That gave Beth a second of pause…the first she’d really had since reading them; from the very first letter something about them had spoken to her very soul and she’d felt instantly connected to the writer. What if she’d felt connected to Dale and not Daryl? As unlikely as it seemed, her daddy’s marriages had proven to everyone that love was not limited by the age of the body, but was something about the very souls of the people involved. “Was it you?” she asked. At his look of confusion she clarified, “What was said in them…was it what you wanted to say?” At his jerky nod, she gave a small sigh of relief, “Well, I only sent telegrams and letters so you really don’t know everything about me either; is there anything else you’ve thought of that you want to know?”
“Know a little already and reckon I’ll find out what I need to know as we go.”
“Oh…” was all she could think to say and he didn’t contribute anything further to the conversation. Well, what now? I want to know everything about him, but he stiffens up when I ask about his family and I don’t want to put him off. “Uh, what about Dale and Irma…they seem like wonderful people; how did you meet them?”
“Had been wandering around with Merle since our pa died and he got in trouble with some men about one town over and ended up in jail for a while. Nobody there would hire me because of Merle and the men he’d been hanging with, so I came here and went into the store for some supplies and to see if I could pick up on anything. Couple men were in there giving Dale a hard time and scaring Irma and I made them leave. Not much to tell after that…they had me help around the store that day, asked me to stay to supper, then said they had the ranch and told me to go talk to the guy who was running it at the time, fellow named Sam, and when he got killed a while after that, they had me take over running the place. Even after Merle got out, was an easy decision to stay.” He was silent for a moment, staring at the ears of the horses as they flicked back and forth. “Yeah, I miss him…Merle. He could never shut up or back down and that caused us no end of trouble, but he was my big brother and I miss him every day.”
Things between them were easier after that and Daryl told a couple stories about his brother that made Beth blush and laugh, the happy sound ringing out around them when she was truly amused and she caught Daryl looking at her several times with an expression that made her head feel a little light and her body flush with warmth. When he went silent again, it didn’t bother her like it had done when he’d seemed so tense. The sun was warm and the sway of the buggy comforting and before she knew what was happening, she was stirring out of sleep as he lifted her out of the buggy and muttered something soothingly to her as he carried her up a couple steps and inside and even the addition of other voices didn't mean she had to do anything other than snuggle a little closer to her warm husband and follow his murmured instruction to just go back to sleep.