by Leah Wyett
“I want to meet him, John, but I fear my own reaction. What if I flinched and I hurt his feelings? I would hate that.”
“He would understand. Hazel, if you would only agree to as much as meeting him and then from there, let your heart decide, I think it would be satisfactory for you and Heath both. He’s used to people’s reactions.”
Hazel sighed and stood up. “I’ll have to tell my pa. He made me promise that when I met Heath, he could be there with me.”
“That’s fair enough. You’ll let Heath know what you decide?”
“Yes.” she said. “Will you tell him that all the feelings that I had for him, before he told me this, are still there?”
John thought that Heath was a very lucky man. He smiled and said, “I will, Hazel. And so you know, I will also tell him that I don’t think his feelings have been misplaced at all.” She smiled at that, not knowing that Heath’s best friend was wishing he had met her first.
It took Hazel three days to get the nerve to ask her father. She wrote a letter to Heath in the meantime:
My dearest Heath,
I was pleased and honored to meet your friend, John. I’m sure you know but you are quite lucky to have such a loyal man on your side. He sang your praises, and although I am sure you are deserving of it, it was quite refreshing to hear.
I was devastated to hear of your childhood accident. It pains me to even think of what you must have gone through at that time and since. Sometimes, I think going into love blindly is the best way. That way your heart can see all of the things you miss when your eyes are the only things doing the looking. I’m no authority on the subject though, that’s for sure. All I know is what I have read.
I still feel the same for you as I did before I heard of your appearance. I’m glad we met this way so that I got to know you first with my heart. I wish I was a big enough woman, or as you would say about your ma, a grand enough lady, to say that I would have accepted you had I seen you first. I doubt that I am, or that I would have been. Perhaps that is why the good Lord arranged for us to meet this way, so that I could be blinded by my love for you already when we met.
I am speaking to my pa about it today. I honestly don’t know what to expect from that conversation. My pa is a good man, and to him, looks are not important. But, when you speak of what he wants for himself and what he expects for his family, they are worlds apart. So I go into the conversation with anxiety, but know that whatever I come out with, I do not intend to become anyone’s wife but yours.
I will write as soon as I can, hopefully with plans to meet.
Until then, I am eternally yours,
Hal had to go to the docks and pick up a load of grain for his horses. It was a bitter, cold November day and when Hazel approached him about going with him, he said no at first.
“But I need some time to talk to you, Pa, alone.”
Hal studied his daughter’s face and said, “Are you ready to run off and marry that fellow in Texas?”
“Can I go with you, Pa, so we can talk?”
Hal sighed and told her yes. He wasn’t sure he wanted to hear what she had to say. Hazel bundled up and so did Hal and they set out for the docks. They were silent most of the way, making small talk every now and again.
Finally, when they were almost there, Hazel said, “I’m ready, Pa.”
“Ready for what exactly, Punkin’?” he said.
“I want to go to Texas. I’m ready to be with Heath. I’m ready to be his wife.”
Hal didn’t say anything, for a really long time. He pulled the wagon up near the docks and pulled the horse to a stop. Turning to look at his daughter, he said, “Are you sure, Hazel. It’s so far away…” He thought that his heart might well break if she went away.
“I’m sure, Pa. I can just feel that it’s right, like Ma could when she met you. She told me that she could feel you belonged together. I feel that, I’ve felt it from the beginning, but there is something you need to know first.”
Hal didn’t like the sound of that. He raised a bushy eyebrow and said, “What is that, Hazel?” His daughter took the letter out of her pocket. She had thought long and hard about it and finally decided that Heath could tell her father about his condition in his own words better than she could tell him in hers.
She held the letter out to him and said, “Read it, Pa. Then we can talk.” He took the letter and she got down off the wagon. She saw the captain of the Mighty Dragon and she headed over to see if he had any new books. As she walked away, she glanced over her shoulder at her Pa. He was reading the letter.
ON THE TRAIL FROM MEXICO
Heath, surprisingly, because he did own the largest cattle ranch in Texas, hated cattle drives. He did like the part he told Hazel about, wearing the bandana and looking like everyone else. But, he hated almost everything else about it and he particularly hated winter drives. Cattle drives were dirty, stinky, and dangerous in the spring time but in the winter, they were dirty, stinky, dangerous, and cold. Heath didn’t like to be cold, especially when he also had to endure hours in the saddle out in the elements. His skin, because of the thick scars layered across it, was particularly sensitive to the cold and the heat. The cold hurt worse. He was here for two reasons, however. That the Mexican rancher who had sold him the cattle was losing his land and the cattle had to be moved was the first one. Heath wasn’t going to ask his men to do anything that he wasn’t willing to do himself was the second. So here he sat on his night guard duty post, freezing his ass off and with no one to talk to but Jeff, the young wrangler who had also drawn the short straw that day.
“Mr. Key,” Jeff said thoughtfully, as he stoked the campfire. Heath eyed it warily and sat too far back from it too get warm. Fire still gave him nightmares. “Have you ever been in love?”
Heath suddenly realized what the boy said and made himself stop focusing on the fire.
“Why do you ask?” He said.
“I think I may be.” the boy said. “But I’m not sure if it’s love…Or…well, you know, urges.”
Heath laughed and said, “It’s smart of you to question it at your age. Most men don’t understand the difference even when they’re fully grown.” Jeff was only fifteen. He was the youngest man on Heath’s crew and the son of one of his best cowhands. This was his second drive with Heath’s crew.
“I met this girl named Mary Lou at the church picnic. She lives up in Houston, but she was here visiting her cousin at that time. She’s so pretty, Mr. Key, and I think she liked me too, because she agreed to let me write to her. The more I write to her, the more I have these feelings of…love, I guess.”
“The writing is good.” Heath said, thinking of Hazel for the hundredth time that day. “A wise woman once said that we should all go into new relationships with our eyes closed so that we can keep our hearts wide open and see what the eyes don’t see. Writing letters to her is a good way to get to know her and understand the difference. I know it worked for me.”
“You have a lady, Mr. Key?” the boy asked him. All of the men on Heath’s crew treated him as if he looked like the rest of them and for that, Heath was grateful. This boy wouldn’t think it strange in the least that a woman was in love with him.
“I have been corresponding with a woman I believe God intended for me, Jeff. Pray for me that it works out, will you?”
The boy grinned and said, “Yes, sir. Maybe you’ll do the same for me and Mary Lou?”
Heath smiled and said, “You can bet on it, son.”
“I sure am hungry. I smelled Cookie starting that bacon and coffee hours ago,” the boy said then.
Heath remembered what it was like to be an adolescent and hungry all the time.
“I think it wasn’t quite that long ago, Jeff. It should be ready soon though.”
"Bacon in the pan, coffee in the pot!" They heard only moments later. That was Cookie’s way of announcing
breakfast was ready. A few minutes after that, two more cowboys came over to relieve Jeff and Heath so that they could eat. The sun would be up soon and they would need to get moving. They would be back in Texas by nightfall if things went smoothly.
Heath and Jeff ate first because they had sat up on duty the last part of the night. The rest of the cowboys were rising, slowly. It was so cold, and they were all hesitant to leave their bedrolls. The only thing that really got them moving was the draw of Cookie’s breakfast and coffee. They rolled up their bed rolls and ground blankets, throwing their personal items in the middle of them as they did. Then they tied it at both ends and stacked them all in the chuck wagon. Their guns were stacked in there as well. The only cowboys who carried guns on the drive were the guards. The rest of them didn’t want to take up the space on their horse or take the chance of shootin’ off their leg or other important appendages with a pistol in their pocket when they’re riding hard.
After they ate, they tied their bandanas across their faces to keep the dust out of their noses and mouths and got ready to head out. When the other cowboys had their bandanas on, there was no telling Heath apart from them. Sometimes, he wished that he could wear one all the time. He also had eyeglasses that he had to wear when he rode. He didn’t care for them, but the fire had caused changes to his eyes and if the dust got into them, he would have trouble seeing to ride. He put his hat back on his head and mounted the quarter horse Jeff had brought him. The wrangler was in charge of the Remuda. That was their back up stock of horses on the drive. This particular drive was smaller than most. They had only brought fifty horses along. On many of their longer drives where they’ve brought back more cattle, they’ve had as many as a hundred and fifty horses. The cowboys would usually need to change horses five or six times a day when they were riding hard.
They stopped before crossing the river to allow everyone to fill their canteens. The next few hours would be the coldest and most dangerous of their trip. They had to cross five hundred head of cattle across an ice cold, rapidly moving river. If one animal spooked, it was likely to spook the others. A stampede in the river could end in the deaths of many cattle, or worse, many cowboys.
They were lucky and none of the cattle got spooked and tried to run or turn around during the crossing. It was still a bitter cold crossing for everyone and Heath thought his legs were likely going to crack off like icicles before they dried. Two hours later, they were back on the trail. John, as foreman of the ranch, was often trail boss but he hadn’t come along on this trip because he had just gone to Ohio and Heath didn’t want to force him to travel again so soon. Heath’s second in charge, a man named Luke Gray, was in the lead as trail boss with the column of cowboys, cattle, and horses stretching behind him for miles. Heath liked to ride in the back. He didn’t have a specific job because, technically, he was the boss, so he liked to be in the back and make sure things were running along smoothly.
The cattle never moved in a straight line, it was more of a wedge shape. They took the same position each day, knowing where they belonged in the line. The more aggressive ones moved to the front while the weaker or lazier ones hung back behind. They were a lot more like humans than people wanted to admit. Heath rode along behind the wedge of longhorns as the cowboys rode alongside them and he wondered if, when he got back to Texas, there would be a letter there telling him of Hazel’s pa’s decision. He said another prayer that it would be in his favor.
Laura sat on the edge of the bed and watched her sister pack with tears in her eyes. “I don’t understand why I can’t go with you. If you get married to him, he will be my brother by marriage. Shouldn’t I get to meet him, too?”
“You will get to meet him, Laura, eventually. This first meeting is for me.”
“And Pa.” Laura said. Hazel sat down next to her little sister and put her arm around the younger girl.
“Pa is going to make sure that I am safe. You know how Pa is, he would never agree to me going alone the first time. I promise, Laura, as soon as things are settled, I will let you meet him, okay? If I get married, you can even come out and stay with me for weeks at a time. He has a really big ranch with a river right on the property.”
Laura pouted but said, “Okay.” She eventually grew bored watching Hazel and ran outside. Hazel was just finishing up when her ma came in, carrying a little box.
“Almost ready?” she asked her. Harriett’s heart was heavy but she’d had to accept that God had a plan for everything, even her children.
“I think so.” Hazel said. “I’m not sure what women wear in Texas.”
Her mother smiled. “I think about the same things we wear here.” she said. “Here, this is for you to give to Heath. As long as you decide to go through with the marriage once you meet.”
Hazel took the box and lifted the lid. Inside there was a silver ring. It was big, and heavy. “Oh, Ma. Is this your pa’s ring?”
Harriett nodded. She had tears in her eyes now. “My ma didn’t care that most men didn’t wear rings. She said that she wanted her man to have a symbol of her love on his finger so that he could look at it any time and remember how much she loved him. I know that he would want you…Heath, to have it.”
Hazel threw herself into her mother’s arms and they both cried. Hazel had always known that middle child or not, she was her mother’s favorite. Her mother was her best friend and she didn’t know what she was going to do without her.
When she was finally able to speak through her tears, Hazel said, “I’m going to miss you so much, Ma. I almost don’t want to go, thinking about leaving you and Laura behind. This is harder than I imagined it would be.” Harriett hugged her daughter close and said, “I would keep you forever if I could, but this is part of becoming a woman. You told me that yourself. ”
“I know.” Hazel said, wiping her tears. “But I was feeling a lot braver then.”
“You’re one of the bravest girls I’ve ever known.” her mother told her. “I mean that. I’m so proud of your independence and your beautiful free spirit. I love you and I will pray that it all works out when you get there. He sounds like a good man.”
“I love you, Mama, so much.”
Hal was already waiting in the wagon when she came out. They would drive the team into town and board the train and then Matt at the livery stable would drive the team back home. Hazel had insisted her father buy a one way ticket for her. She wanted to go into Texas with the belief that it would be her home, which was strange because she had no idea what Texas even looked like. Her father had a round trip leaving Ohio today on Monday, arriving in Texas on Wednesday and leaving again on Friday. It would be a long, exhausting trip for him but he was insistent that he go along and for fear of being forbidden to go at all, Hazel hadn’t argued with him.
Once they had boarded the train, Hal asked her again if she knew what she was getting into. “Marriage isn’t always as easy as your ma and I make it look.” he said with a grin.
“I know, Pa.” she said with a smile. “But Ma already took the best man there was, I have to settle for second best.”
Turning serious, her pa said, “You know that seeing him in person with those scars he told you about will be entirely different than reading about them.”
“I know, Pa.” she said. “I have faith that my feelings for him are strong enough to overcome that, or anything.” she said. Her pa hoped so, for her sake. He knew his daughter would never want to hurt someone’s feelings. He was worried that in order to not do that, she would commit herself to a life she didn’t really want.
The trip was long and hard and cold. It was December and the train had to stop several times because the snow had covered the tracks to the point of being too thick to pass through. Instead of taking two days, it took three. When they pulled into the station at Brownsville, Hazel and Hal were both ready to get off the train and kiss the ground. They found John waiting for them. Hazel had finally told her father about John coming to t
own to bring the letter.
After introducing John and her father, Hazel said, “You haven’t been waiting since yesterday, have you?”
John smiled and said, “No. The conductor sent a telegram to the station about the delay. When I got here yesterday, he had a sign posted. They didn’t know what time you would be in today so I came early. I’m glad I did.”
Hal hadn’t really said anything since they got off the train. He seemed to be just taking it all in. The look on John’s face when Hazel had introduced them had been almost comical. John was a tall man, and he’d had to tip his head all the way back to look up at Hal. Shaking his hand was a treat as well, as most hands disappeared into Hal’s massive one, and John’s was no different.
He told them the ride to the ranch was a little over an hour. Conversation was awkward as neither Hazel nor John were completely comfortable talking about Heath in front of Hal. They finally came to a nicely made sign that said,
A long, lush carpet of green grass led up to what Hazel could only term a mansion. Although she had never seen one in real life, Hazel knew that ten of the homes she now lived in with her family would sit down into this one comfortably. That had to be the definition of a mansion. There were pastures all around it, filled with icy, wet, green grass and grazing longhorn cattle. Hazel was fascinated by the longhorns. She had never seen one in real life. There was a big barn and stables visible behind the main house and another building with five circular openings where the carriages were stored. She saw two big cannons sitting in front of the carriage house and a small pond out near the stables. It was all impressive, and a bit overwhelming to a poor girl from Ohio. The big house had a big wraparound porch and balconies in each of its second story windows. She looked at her pa. His mouth was hanging as far open as hers was. The man came forward and introduced himself as Mr. Lee, the “houseman”. He was a Chinese man, but his English was flawless.