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Cyndie Dennis-GreerWith an intriguing setting amid the roots of feminism, this sweet story of a woman coming into her own is polished by Michelle Black’s lyrical prose.
— Romantic Times
A forbidden friendship turns to love amidst the social and economic turmoil of the Populist Uprising and, as women seek political equality with men, an unlikely heroine steps forward to make history.
When her father's death forces Laurel McBryde to leave her beloved childhood home in the Flint Hills to live with the Hartmoors, a prosperous banking family, she feels like a lonely outcast among the prim and proper Victorians of Chisholm, Kansas. Soon, a growing attraction to ...
A forbidden friendship turns to love amidst the social and economic turmoil of the Populist Uprising and, as women seek political equality with men, an unlikely heroine steps forward to make history.
When her father's death forces Laurel McBryde to leave her beloved childhood home in the Flint Hills to live with the Hartmoors, a prosperous banking family, she feels like a lonely outcast among the prim and proper Victorians of Chisholm, Kansas. Soon, a growing attraction to radical politics and to Carey Fairchild, a tenant farmer on the Hartmoor land, change Laurel's life in ways she could not have imagined.
The prairie once formed the floor of an ancient ocean -- an immense, prehistoric inland sea. Over the course of countless centuries, air replaced water, but the vast, rolling character of the seabed remained.
On cloudless days in the Flint Hills, visions of the ancient ocean persisted. The incessant prairie winds whipped and whispered through the switch grass and roared in the ears of the plains dwellers like memories of the primeval ocean currents.
THE south wind washed over Laurel McBryde like an epiphany on that April morning of her twenty-first birthday. The south wind was a fair wind, always the harbinger of good weather to come. Moist and gusty post-dawn breezes sent the peach-tinged cumulus clouds rolling wildly across the newly green plains. The sensuous sound, the feel, the very taste of the blustering wind entranced her as she walked along lugging her heavy camera and its spindly-legged wooden tripod. The scent of wet soil and new growth permeated the air.
Rapidly changing splashes of light and dark raced across the stark, tallgrass prairie. The huge, puffy clouds and their dancing shadows performed a vivid ballet for her on the treeless expanse of earth left fresh and shimmering from a pre-dawn cloudburst.
Laurel was certain such a landscape could give rise to dreams and prophesies. Her father's hired hand, Old Michael Touching Ground, spoke often of visions and vision quests, but she sensed no dark foreboding in the clearing skies.
Her goal was self-portraiture that morning. She wanted to memorialize her twenty-first birthday with a picture she could give to her father. He said he wantedone to frame and set on the desk in his study.
She carefully placed her boxy camera down on the black fringed shawl she used for a dark cloth to free her hands to set up her tripod. She paused a moment to pick some prairie violets and place them together with her bundle of blue-eyed grass in the pocket of her smock. She favored milkweed, but it would not bloom until mid-summer at least. She grabbed a handful of her long, dark hair and braided it loosely to keep the breezes from blowing it in her face.
The blustering wind died down for a moment, just long enough for her to catch the sound of her name being called. She whirled around to scan the surrounding plains and immediately saw Old Michael limping in an awkward half-run towards her.
"Meez Laurel, Meez Laurel," he shouted in his fractured English. "Come quickly -- your fadder... hurry, hurry."
She knew by the tone of his voice something calamitous had happened. She grabbed her beloved camera by its leather handle and took off running towards home, afraid of what she would find there.
She arrived at the house and dashed into her father's study. He sat in his favorite reading chair, surrounded by his cherished books. He sat so still and silent, he could have been sleeping, but when Laurel saw his eyes staring cold and fixed at the far wall as though he were gazing at the portrait of her mother which hung there, she knew he was dead.
She stood for a long time observing him, heavy camera still in hand. She had not experienced death since she lost her mother at the age of six. But she had been carefully sheltered from that loss. This one was hers to face alone.
Old Michael arrived at the door of the study, breathless and still agitated.
"What now, Meez Laurel? What now we do?"
"I must summon the Hartmoors," Laurel whispered with a plaintive formality, her eyes still fastened on the lifeless form in the familiar chair.
Thus, the Hartmoor family re-entered Laurel McBryde's life for the first time in the fifteen years since her mother's death.
"The Flint Hills. How could anyone live here and hang on to their sanity?" said Cassandra Hartmoor, Laurel's maiden aunt.
"It's so bleak and eerie," commented Alice Hartmoor, Laurel's aunt-by-marriage.
"There's nothing for the eye to catch onto," said Margaret Hartmoor, Laurel's grandmother, as she fanned herself vigorously.
"Laurel called the scenery 'mystical'," offered Alice.
"Mystical? What on earth did she mean by that?" asked Margaret.
"Who knows? She says such odd things," Cassandra complained in a tired voice.
"That's an understatement, my dear," said Margaret.
Fools, thought Laurel from behind closed eyes. She barely knew her traveling companions in the hot, crowded carriage well enough to fully distinguish the speakers by their voices, though all were her female relations by either blood or marriage.
They presumed she slept, and nearly she did but for the swaying and bouncing of the airless compartment that carried them south across the Kansas prairie. The grinding complaint of the wooden wheels against the rocky suggestion of a road played in rhythmic harmony with the ceaseless prairie wind outside.
The dusty, uncomfortable stagecoach carried Laurel and the Hartmoor family south from the McBryde ranch, called Windrift, to Chisholm, a small town just outside of Wichita.
"I suppose Laurel was happy at Windrift simply because she had nothing else to compare it with," Cassandra Hartmoor remarked.
"I tried to take her away from there fifteen years ago," said Margaret Hartmoor.
"When Sarah died?" asked Alice.
"Andrew wouldn't hear of it, the fool," Margaret grumbled. "A man trying to raise up a little girl out here in the middle of nowhere. The idea was absurd."
"What did he do for a living?" Alice persisted.
"He practiced law before he married Sarah," answered Margaret.
"But how could he maintain a practice out in this kind of isolation?" queried Alice.
"Didn't he ride the circuit as a judge for awhile?" asked Cassandra of her mother.
"Yes, but not after Sarah's death," replied Margaret. "He didn't seem to be interested in much of anything after that. Just kept on living in that big, old house. To this day I can't imagine what Sarah saw in him -- a man older than her own father."
Laurel inwardly burned with this criticism of her father. She longed to defend him, yet was too embarrassed to let the women know she secretly eavesdropped on their conversation.
"How did Sarah meet Andrew?" Alice pursued.
Laurel didn't know whether to be flattered or irritated by her Aunt Alice's interest in her family history. "He came to Chisholm when it was just a sprout of a town. Helped Gregory set up the Hartmoor Bank. Saw to all the legal details."
"Laurel must have been awfully devoted to her father, keeping house for him all these years," murmured Alice.
"He spoiled her quite thoroughly," Margaret pronounced with finality. "All that is going to change, I'm afraid."
"A shame he had to die on her birthday," said Cassandra.
This statement rankled Laurel even more. Her Aunt Cassandra made it sound like her father had picked the day on purpose. It wasn't his fault he suffered a fatal heart attack on her twenty-first birthday. His health had been failing throughout the winter. Though over seventy years of age, Andrew McBryde had enjoyed robust health until this last winter.
He tried to hide his shortness of breath from his daughter, yet she was a keen observer. She saw how frequently he gasped for air after climbing the stairs and how often he massaged the throbbing pains in his shoulder and arm. She didn't know what these signs meant, but she knew something was wrong. She begged him to see a doctor, though the closest one was a five hour wagon ride away. He dismissed his problems with a casual wave and a brave face.
"I was impressed with the manner in which Laurel handled all the arrangements," said Alice.
"Yes, admirable," agreed Margaret, her mother-in-law. "She seems reasonably intelligent."
"Yet she never attended school of any sort, did she?" Alice mused. "Jack said the nearest town would be Killdeer and there's no school there."
"There's hardly a town there!" laughed Cassandra.
The other women chuckled.
"Her father tutored her, I'm sure," said Margaret.
"Did you ever see a house more cluttered with books?" Alice whispered in a conspiratorial tone.
"Did you ever see a house more cluttered?" Cassandra offered another jibe.
Once again Laurel mentally winced at their laughter. Didn't the Hartmoors realize that books were her only friends? Books were her only outlet, her only window to the world beyond the vast, empty hills surrounding Windrift.
"Windrift will soon be a memory for our Laurel," said Margaret, the only one who had not laughed at Cassandra's joke. "She will find life far more interesting in Chisholm, back in the bosom of her family." She paused a moment and Laurel heard the old woman sigh. "And even if it's not, we have our work cut out for us."
"What do you mean, Mother Hartmoor?" asked Alice.
"Marriage, of course. At her age, we have no time to waste. Still, I'm sure a suitable match can be found. She has her mother's looks."
Laurel preened at the notion she resembled her mother. She had only limited memories of her, but had spent many an hour studying her mother's portrait, the one that hung in her father's study. She'd been surprised by the resemblance her Aunt Cassandra bore to her late sister, though where Sarah Hartmoor's features had been heir to a distinctive grace of line, her younger sister Cassandra's face remained as stubbornly plain as an unfrosted cake.
"She has the lovely dark Hartmoor hair," Alice commented helpfully.
"She doesn't know how to wear it," Cassandra drily observed.
"I sometimes wish my Christine had inherited the Hartmoor hair," Alice continued, ignoring her sister-in-law.
"But Jack's hair isn't dark," countered Cassandra.
"Christine's hair is very attractive, Alice," Margaret said.
Laurel thought her grandmother must be trying to be kind. She couldn't imagine anyone liking little, five-year-old Christine's riotous mass of carroty red hair.
"And Laurel's eyes," Alice continued. "Such a dark shade of blue in contrast to her fairness. Blue eyes with black lashes -- I've always thought that to be one of the loveliest combinations."
Laurel remembered how her father used to tell her she had eyes "as blue as the October sky." She held her breath to keep the tears at bay.
"Did you notice her clothes?" Cassandra continued to snipe. "At least ten or twenty years out of fashion."
"They're Sarah's clothes," said Margaret curtly.
A chilled silence fell upon the coach momentarily. Laurel sensed another reproach in the ladies' silence. Why did they consider it odd that she wore her dead mother's clothing? She had thought herself thrifty to make use of the garments, in addition to their sentimental value to her.
"She's had a strange upbringing, to be sure," Margaret continued. "Living on this Godforsaken, treeless plain. You probably don't remember, but Chisholm was once this empty. Back in the Sixties, the Government used to pay you to plant trees. Gave you title to land by the quarter section if you'd plant trees."
"Thank heaven they did," sighed Alice.
"Civilization," intoned Margaret. "We wrested civilization from this barren land. Civilizing our little Laurel shouldn't be much of a task compared to that."
"We hope!" laughed her daughter.
The stagecoach wheels rolled over a large rock, jolting its occupants in their seats. Laurel's head bumped against the frame of the window and she could no longer pretend to doze.
"Sorry about that, ladies," the driver shouted.
"Everyone all right?" called Jack Hartmoor, Alice's husband. He rode outside the coach next to the driver, disdaining the all-female entourage within.
Little Christine, who sat wedged between her mother and Laurel, now also awakened from her afternoon nap. She squirmed in her uncomfortable position between the two women and sighed with childish annoyance.
"Is mama's darling alright?" Alice asked her little girl. "The wheels went bump. That's all."
"How much longer, do you think?" Laurel inquired, as politely as possible. She attempted to stretch herself as best she could, given the cramped environment.
Her grandmother glanced at the small watch pinned to the lapel of her traveling jacket.
"It's nearly three," Margaret announced. "We'll be home before dark."
Laurel nodded and looked out the window at the prairie miles rolling past. She wondered when and if she would ever see Windrift again. Her lip trembled with another sudden urge to cry. She took a deep breath and shut her eyes tight to regain her composure.
"Were you able to get some rest, Laurel?" asked Alice, smiling benignly over the head of her little daughter.
"Oh, my goodness, don't call me 'ma'am.' We're family, you and I."
"By marriage," Cassandra interjected.
"Are you looking forward to living in Chisholm, dear?" asked Laurel's grandmother.
"Oh, very much. Might I inquire when Chisholm's next city elections are held?"
"Planning on running?" asked her Aunt Cassandra, with barely concealed sarcasm.
"Oh, no -- voting. Everyone says the legislature is going to pass female suffrage for municipal elections next session. I can't wait."
"Uh-oh." Cassandra rolled her eyes and laughed. "Don't let my brother hear you say that. We'll never get him to shut up."
To answer Laurel's blank expression, Alice, with a complacent smile, jumped in to explain. "My husband is a very prominent member of the Republican Party in Chisholm, Laurel. Unlike some of the more radical members of the party, we don't care for the idea of woman's suffrage. I mean, election days are so rowdy. The very thought of a decent woman going out on such a day is so... unseemly."
This response astounded Laurel to such a degree, she didn't know what to say next. Her father had been a committed supporter of political equality for women, so she assumed all educated and right-thinking individuals naturally agreed.
"Oh, please, it's too hot in here to discuss politics," complained Margaret. She mopped her brow with her handkerchief.
"Tell us more about you, Laurel," Alice asked to change the subject. "We're all so anxious to get to know you better."
"Yes, do tell," mumbled Cassandra, with less sincerity. This remark caused Margaret to glance at her daughter with a warning look, which Cassandra deliberately ignored.
"Well... there's not a lot to tell," Laurel replied cautiously. Her companions smiled, taking this answer as a sign of Laurel's modesty. Actually, Laurel felt profoundly intimidated by the discussion she had just surreptitiously overheard, not to mention the shock of learning her new family's political persuasions.
"Tell us what you used to do all day," prompted Cassandra.
"Well, I'm fond of reading," Laurel asserted, suddenly intent on reproaching her Hartmoor relatives on the still-sensitive issue of leaving most of her favorite books behind. Her audience exchanged various glances in response to this, but said nothing. Feeling guilty for creating this awkward silence, Laurel added, "I like to make photographs."
"You can make photographs with a camera?" Cassandra asked in stunned disbelief. The other women also leaned forward, their curiosity piqued.
"Yes." Laurel smiled with new-found confidence at the interest she'd aroused.
"So where is your camera?" Cassandra pressed on.
"In my trunk."
Margaret's bright, dark eyes crinkled with amusement. "Jack swore you had the heaviest clothes imaginable when he and the driver loaded that trunk on the coach!"
Laurel had kept the existence of her camera a secret from the Hartmoors after the disagreement over the books. She didn't want to risk them forcing her to leave her beloved camera behind. She had carefully wrapped the lens, the camera body, the dismantled tripod, the glass plates, and all her other gear in her dresses and blouses and linens and placed them securely within the one trunk she was allowed to bring.
"Do you think you might photograph my Christine?" asked Alice eagerly.
"I'd be happy to. I can't just yet, though. I'm waiting for a new order of photographic chemicals to arrive from a firm in Chicago. Now I wonder if they'll find their way to me in Chisholm."
"Did you inform the postmaster in Killdeer of your new address?"
"We don't exactly have a postmaster in Killdeer."
Laurel ignored this, but did not wish to explain that the provisioner in Killdeer served unofficially in that function. He handled the job reasonably well-at least when he was sober.
Alice prodded Laurel with more questions about her hobby and Laurel, encouraged on her favorite topic, chattered on nervously for half an hour about lens settings and silver salts while the hapless Alice nodded and smiled politely.
Margaret studied Laurel with a penetrating frown as Laurel spoke with more animation than she had shown during the somber preceding week. Laurel caught her disapproving glance from the corner of her eye and wondered what was wrong.
The sea floor lost its rolling quality the farther south they traveled. More trees were seen on the flattening horizon. A town appeared in the distance. Laurel watched it grow in size with much anticipation. The Plains Transit coach pulled into Chisholm just before supper time, as Margaret had predicted. Jack fetched the wagon and horses from the livery while several men unloaded the baggage and carried it to their wagon.
On the short trip from Chisholm to the Hartmoor farm, Laurel watched the sun setting on the flat western horizon. As Jack guided the team off the main road and onto Hartmoor land, Laurel caught sight of a young man working in the adjacent field. She squinted her eyes to see what he was doing. As they neared, she realized he was mending a fence on the far side of a growing stand of winter wheat.
The Chisholm afternoon must have been as warm and sticky as the one they left at Windrift since the young man had removed his shirt and tied it around his waist.
The fair skin of his back, crisscrossed by suspenders, had reddened under the prairie sun's punishing veil. His tousled blond hair clung in wet curls to the back of his neck. The slanting rays of dying sunlight played upon the handsome, muscular lines of his shoulders and back.
As they drew closer still, she studied the lean, attractive figure he made as he worked so diligently in the early evening heat.
He heard the sounds of their wagon approach and immediately untied the shirt from his waist. He turned in the direction of their wagon and, with a broad grin, held the faded cotton shirt across his chest with an exaggerated pretense of modesty.
Laurel found his face to be no less attractive than his physique. Sweat-drenched, blond curls framed his fine-boned features in a pleasingly boyish way. Pale eyes shown from his face, even in the failing light.
"Don't look!" he shouted gaily as they passed him on the dusty path.
Cassandra waved to him.
Jack urged the horses into a faster gait while his wife, seated next to him, turned to her sister-in-law with a scandalized frown.
"Cassie! How could you wave at him?" scolded Alice. "He was... only... only half-attired."
"I've seen him in less." Cassandra laughed. "Well, not since he was five. But I'll wave at him if I please, Alice, thank you very much."
"We've all had a long day," sighed Margaret. "Let's get home and get some supper into us quickly."
"Laurel's enjoying the view," Cassandra archly observed.
Laurel snapped back into a forward facing position, flustered to have been caught so blatantly staring.
"I... I'm sorry," Laurel stammered. "It's just that he was so... so extraordinary looking. With his blond hair and muscular shoulders, he looked like a young Adonis. And--"
Laurel's innocent enthusiasm gave way to an awareness that everyone in the wagon now stared at her. An awkward silence followed in which Cassandra stifled a giggle into her handkerchief. Alice discreetly busied herself re-arranging her daughter on her lap and Jack glanced back uncomfortably to his mother to take charge of the situation.
"Laurel--" Margaret's voice carried a hard edge to it that made Laurel's hands instantly go cold. "It is inappropriate for a young lady to observe, much less comment upon, a young man's... physical appearance."
Laurel dropped her gaze into her lap, her cheeks burning with embarrassment. Her father had raised her to speak her mind and that was what she had done. In her artist's eye, she had found the young farmer's careless grace an attractive sight-just to look at, nothing more. She hadn't intended the innuendo assumed by her relatives. She wanted to explain this. She wanted to ask who the young man was and why Alice didn't think they should speak to him, but she couldn't.
The wagon jerked to a halt in front of the Hartmoor home and everyone jumped down as quickly as possible. All except Margaret, who sat quietly for a moment as her family withdrew into the house. Laurel heard her grandmother take a deep breath and murmur, "Our work is cut out for us."
Laurel now keenly sensed that in joining the Hartmoor household, she would be called upon to play the game of life by a new set of rules and she hadn't the slightest inkling what these rules might be. She retreated into the Hartmoor house to hide her homesick tears from the rest of the family. She was ashamed to be crying like a baby. She hated showing such weakness. She hated feeling publicly embarrassed. She hated being reprimanded for some infraction she didn't even know she had committed.
She hated the Hartmoors.
Copyright © 1999 by Michelle Black
Posted June 11, 2000
Michelle Black fearlessly writes Kansas as it was--the social millieu, the land, the spirit of growth and change--and places two wonderfully resourceful characters in the center of it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.