A Love to Redeem His Haunted Heart – Etta Foster

1893 Montana Slapping his hat on his head, Charles Thomas shut the oaken door of his ranch house. Whistling a low tune, he stood at the porch, garbed in blue dungarees and brown boots as he stared at the stables, which were a few meters away. The sky rumbled from afar, making the rancher change the direction of his gaze. From the horizon, the clouds formed a dark ball, casting a shadow upon the land as it threatened to release its moisture. A toad strangler was abrewin’. Charles surmised that he could put in a few hours of work before the sky started weeping. In any case, he could work at the stables, repairing torn harnesses. Still whistling a low tune, the man picked up his cane by the side of the door and walked down the porch steps on to the dusty ground that provided a trail to the stables. As his limping gait took him closer to his destination, a forlorn feeling engulfed him. It was a lost cause wishing he could walk normally again, but he couldn’t help doing so sometimes, mainly when he wanted to climb a horse. A difficult task it had been at first, but he eventually got the hang of it. His movements were sometimes sluggish and painful. However, he was grateful for life. A dark scowl spanned his face as he recalled how many times his condition had been made fun of when he was in prison. Henry, his brother, had tried his best to shield him from all the jabs to no avail. “Half man.” “Cripple.” “Wobbler.” He could still hear the harsh names. Sometimes, he woke up from the nightmares of their poking, sweating profusely with his heart racing as if it would jump out of his chest. At such times, he would find it difficult to return to sleep. Casting aside the sheets and reaching for his cane, he would limp his way to the living room, where he would partake heartily of some whisky. Gulping down spirits became his remedy for such nights. So much so that he was almost turning into a drunkard. Most mornings, he was so foxed, it took him a while to get his bearings.

Eventually, he had to stop and look for another solution in dealing with his demons. Not an easy task, but he was able to overcome it. He’d like to think so. Charles reached the stables and went straight to the stall of his favorite horse, Juniper. The brown horse, with its silky mane, brought out its large head from the stall in acknowledgement of her owner’s arrival. “Howdy, girl,” Charles fondly said as he stroked the horse’s head. He threw open the door and led her out. The other horses snorted, and Charles laughed. “Jamie will be here soon to take care of y’all,” he told them, referring to the stable lad he employed to take care of the horses. Juniper walked majestically behind him as he directed the way out of the stables after he placed his specially-made saddle on her back. Holding his cane tautly, the rancher placed his good leg on the stirrup and hauled himself on the horse. Ensuring that he was comfortable, he slotted the cane in the saddle and nudged the horse to begin her movement. Charles directed the horse in the direction of the fields, in the opposite route of the range where his cattle were grazing and his ranch hands tending to them. First, he would take a look at how his crops were doing, and if his farmhands were taking proper care of them as they ought to. The rains were here, which meant the land had to be weeded intermittently so the crops could grow well. The farmhands were hard at work when he reached the expanse of land where he produced various vegetables and grains. They were used to feed himself, his workers, and his animals. Dismounting from his horse as the head of the workers approached him, Charles bestowed him with a warm smile. It had taken time, but with the help of Henry, he had learned to smile again. “I bid ye good morn, Massa Charles,” the short bearded man who was missing a few teeth hailed him. “Good morning, Larson,” Charles returned. His gaze went over to the workers. He waved at them as they raised their hands in greeting. The rancher spoke at length with the farmer concerning the crops, harvesting, and selling them when the time was right. Satisfied that work was going on as it should, Charles mounted his horse and headed for the range.

As Juniper trudged through the plains of her name and pine, Charles couldn’t help thinking how far he had come since he was released from prison two years ago. With the help of his sister’s husband, Winston—also a rancher—he had set up the ranch with his brother a few months after leaving prison. It had taken almost a year to complete setting up the ranch and another year before it started yielding proceeds. Winston had connected them to sellers of wild steers after they had bought breeding cattle from him for crossbreeding. When the ranch started making money, he and Henry had decided to build a fitting abode that could house their sister and her family whenever they came visiting. Together, they had succeeded in building a large stone house consisting of six rooms, a large living room, and a spacious kitchen as well. Things were going pretty well for the brothers until Henry had shocked his younger brother one morning by announcing that he was returning to his mining business. “I thought ranching was what I wanted,” he had told his stunned brother, “but after two years here, my heart yearns for the mines.” Disappointed though he was that his brother was leaving him to handle the ranch alone, Charles had nodded. He understood that a man needed to do what he was passionate about. And so, a few months ago, Henry had left to go back to his mining business in California. He missed Henry terribly. All his life, it had always been the two of them. They had even gone to prison together, served the same sentence and spent the same number of years locked up. This was the first time they were parted, and it left a considerable hole in Charles’s life. It was during the dark and cold nights alone that the idea began to form in his mind. Loneliness had pushed him into taking measures he had otherwise frowned on. At first, he had been contented with coming back to the lonely house, preparing dinner and eating all by himself. Then the eerie silence had gotten to him, and he had found himself going into town more often and coming back home half drunk. When he had been attacked by some petty thieves after a few coins, he had concluded that it wasn’t safe for him to be out late in the night. So, he had decided to stay at home and drink himself into a stupor. That hadn’t helped the lonesomeness either when he woke up in the middle of the night to stare at the ceiling. The sounds of the nocturnal animals always seemed to be mocking his solitude, nearly driving him crazy. The idea had taken form in his mind one morning by accident. A ranch hand was late resuming his work; something Charles didn’t take lightly.

The man had apologized profusely. He claimed he had to go and get his brother’s mail-order bride from town as his brother was bedridden after his horse threw him. Charles had accepted his explanation and sent him off to join the other ranch hands. From his position where he was branding his cows, he had heard the ranch hand tell the others about his errand. The mail-order bride had come from Philadelphia to marry his brother. One of the ranch hands mentioned that his brother had tried to get a wife through that means. When his brother sent money to the woman to come over, she suddenly stopped writing to him. Another ranch hand stated that he had heard that one woman came alright, but when the man was hard at work, she stole his money and belongings and ran away. Someone claimed it wasn’t all bad. His former boss was married to such a woman from the East, and they had two lovely children. Charles had heard all about the mail-order bride business but had never really given it any thought. As he listened to the pros and cons of engaging in such a venture, he became interested. Maybe it was time to get married and start a family, he had thought. Perhaps a woman would help ease his loneliness. That night, he had pondered the thought, losing precious sleep. By dawn, he decided he would give it a try. There were very few women in these parts, and most of them had already been taken. The ones who were single were either too young to be married or were ladies of the night. And so, he had gone into town to make enquiries. There in the Matrimonial Times office, he had placed a simple ad for a wife. A rancher in Montana needs a wife and a companion. The man who was to place the ad in the paper had told him to add something more endearing. Charles had thought long and hard but came up with nothing. “It will do,” he had simply told the man. And then he had waited and waited, biting his nails to see if anyone would be interested in his bland post.

Shockingly, one of his ranch hands who had gone into town for supplies had come back with letters for him. Astonishingly, two widows and a spinster had written to him! One of the widows had two little children while the other was pregnant and desperate for a father for her child. Flattered that women had even considered his simple ad enough to write to him, he had replied to their letters. Apologizing copiously to the widows, he had stated why he wasn’t a perfect match for them. He had issues he was dealing with and bringing children into it wouldn’t be wise. Consequently, he had written to Emmeline Hudson and asked her to tell him all about herself. For months, they had exchanged letters, and he had grown to like the woman. So, it was only natural for him to ask her to come to the Thomas’s ranch in Stanton. When he had written to his brother to inform him of his decision to get married, Henry had replied, giving his support. His elder brother had thought it was an excellent idea. Henry had given him his blessing and prayed he would be happy. Charles chuckled when he remembered his brother’s last words in his letter. All I ask of you is sanity. When your bride comes from New York, I beg of you with everything you hold dear not to fall in love and start behaving like a ninny. I have to withstand our sister’s husband and his brother behaving silly towards their women. If you were to join them, I swear, I’d go crazy. Charles laughed heartily. Although he felt a connection with Emmeline, and truth be told, a natural liking, he didn’t think love would play a part in their union. All he needed was a woman who would prepare his meals, do his laundry, be a companion to him, and bear him children. Wanting to spend every hour of the day with her, saying sweet nothings to her, holding hands with her, and kissing her every chance he got wasn’t in the cards. Winston and his brother, Carl, had taught him to stay away from such mushy emotions. Love made one lose all his senses. He wasn’t about to succumb to the silly feeling. Emmeline, if they were suited to be married, would know her place. She would speak to him only when spoken to, and he would greatly discourage public displays of emotion.

Love wasn’t for him. Besides, he didn’t even think he was capable of such an emotion. After five years in prison, it was a wonder he could still smile and laugh. With his face set in grim lines at the recollection of horrible memories, he dismounted to join his workers in helping the calving cows.


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