Read an Excerpt
Wyoming Territory 1880
The West is where water has the same value as blood.
Miss Eden Devlin, spinster schoolteacher, felt a chill of foreboding as she watched Bliss Davis, a nester's fifteen-year-old daughter, and Hadley Westbrook, a rancher's sixteen-year-old son, making cow eyes at each other across the schoolroom. It wasn't that she disapproved of young love. In fact, at an on-the-shelf twenty-nine, she envied the blushing glow on Bliss's cheeks and the liquid warmth in her eyes that was sparked by Hadley's admiring gaze. What concerned Eden was the violent reaction their fathers would have if they discovered that their children didn't share their parents' enmity toward one another. Because, as sure as hell took sinners, Big Ben Davis hated Oakley Westbrook's guts.
To Miss Devlin's horror, it seemed the once peaceful community of Sweetwater was only one short step away from a full-fledged range war. Eden knew there were honest grievances between ranchers and nesters. The homesteading nesters had fenced water holes the ranchers needed for their cattle. The ranchers had retaliated by cutting fences and ruining crops. Cattle were being rustled in alarming numbers.
But Oak Westbrook had denied the ranchers were cutting fences. And Big Ben Davis had denied the nesters were rustling cattle. There seemed to be no hope of working out their differences peacefully.
With the exception of Bliss and Hadley, the animosity of the adult ranchers and nesters was being played out among their children at school, disrupting Miss Devlin's teaching efforts. It was a good thing she was a peace-loving woman, because Miss Devlin had a good mind to knock some heads together. She had about decided that if she wanted the sixteen young minds in her one-room schoolhouse to concentrate on geography and arithmetic and spelling again, she was going to have to do whatever was necessary herself to get the situation peaceably settled.
But first she was going to make sure that the love blossoming between Bliss Davis and Hadley Westbrook didn't provide the spark to ignite a blazing battle between ranchers and nesters.
"Children, you may pick up your lunch boxes now. Be sure to wear your coats if you decide to eat outside. I'm afraid we've seen the last of Indian summer."
Miss Devlin watched Keefe and Daniel Wyatt jostle Jett and Wade Ives as the four adolescent boysonce good friendsraced for the best seats at the picnic tables outside. The girls were no better. Sally Davis and Henrietta Westbrook, better known to her friends as Henry, fairly hissed at each other as they rushed for the sunshine. The Carson girls, Emmaline, Enid, Elaine, and Efrona, managed to stall long enough to irritate the twins, Glynne and Gerald Falkner. Even the youngest joined the shenanigans. Seven-year-old Elliott Wyatt yanked six-year-old Felicity Falkner's golden braid and then scooted for the door.
"Elliott!" Miss Devlin's voice held a ring of command that would have done a general proud. Elliott Wyatt skidded to a halt. Miss Devlin's voice was quiet but firm when she continued, "I believe you owe Felicity an apology."
"Aw shucks, Miss Devlin. Do I hafta?"
"Aw shucks. I'm sorry, Felicity," he said in a sullen voice.
"You stink like your cows and I hate you, Elliott Wyatt!" Felicity retorted.
"Felicity! That will be quite enough of that," Miss Devlin said, feeling the utter futility of her efforts even as she continued to make peace. "I want both of you to . . ."
What could she say? Make up and be friends? Hardly likely considering what they heard their parents saying at the supper table every night. No, the problem with the children wouldn't be resolved until the problem with the parents found a solution. Miss Devlin sighed.
". . . behave yourselves," she said at last. When Miss Devlin dismissed them, the two children bolted down the school steps like calves out of a loading chute.
Miss Devlin stepped in front of Bliss and Hadley as they reached the doorway. "I'd like to speak with both of you for a moment."
The nester's daughter and the rancher's son exchanged guilty glances that made Miss Devlin sigh again.
"Sit down, both of you." Miss Devlin watched as Hadley painstakingly pulled out a wooden bench and seated Bliss. It was true love, all right. "I want to speak frankly with both of you, because I think you're old enough to understand the importance of what I have to say."
Hadley and Bliss sat up straighter at this indication of their maturity.
"I've noticed lately that you both seem to have developed certain . . . feelings for one another."
Hadley reached out to grasp Bliss's hand, and their fingers automatically entwined. "I love Bliss, Miss Devlin," Hadley said in a solemn voice. "And I don't care who knows it," he added defiantly.
That was exactly what Miss Devlin had been afraid of. "You know the situation between ranchers and nesters is a powder keg just waiting for a spark to ignite it. What do you think your fathers would do if they knew about the two of you?"
Miss Devlin paused long enough for both young faces to flush before she continued. "I'm not going to say you shouldn't share these wonderful feelings you have for one another. But I'm going to ask you to be very careful about expressing your feelings where they can be observed."
"Why, Miss Devlin?" Bliss asked. "I love Hadley. We want to get married."
"Do you think Big Ben would approve of such a match?" she asked.
Tears appeared in Bliss's large blue eyes, and one spilled over. Hadley had to clear his throat before he could speak. "We plan to be married whether our parents approve or not."
"I can understand your feelings"
"How can you possibly understand how we feel?" Hadley challenged.
Hadley said no more, just stared at her. Miss Devlin's lips took on a prunish look, and unflattering lines appeared around the edges of her mouth. Hadley was well aware that during the entire three years Miss Devlin had been teaching school in Sweetwater, she had never had a beau.
Miss Devlin had never had a beau in her entire life. Not that she had wanted one, of course. When she had left St. John's Academy for Orphans in Wichita at nineteen and headed north, the last thing on her mind had been finding a husband. She hadn't been sure exactly what she was looking for, she'd only known she had to go out into the world and seek it.
She would go somewhere and teach for a year, decide that the nebulous something she was looking for, but never able to define, was missing, and move on. It was a good thing teachers were so scarce, because after a while her reference letters always contained the acerbic warning, "While Miss Devlin is a superior teacher, she has not indicated a willingness to extend her stay beyond a single school term."
The day Eden arrived in Sweetwater, she had looked down into the lush green valley in which the small town was situated and felt her stomach tighten in recognition.
In the distance, beneath a towering cottonwood, a woman sat on a patchwork quilt holding a baby to her breast, while a man pushed a small boy on a wooden swing that hung from the same tree.
Several white frame houses boasted picket fences around the yards in front, and neat-rowed gardens out back. There were sod structures with dogs lolling in the dirt and long johns hanging on lines strung between oleander bushes. There was even a two-story stone mansion, with a manicured front lawn and a pale pinkyes, pinkgazebo out back.
Heart pounding with excitement, she had eyed the Powder River running like a blue crayon line down the center of the valley, surveyed the dark green pines overlooking the town from above, viewed the plowed fields that interrupted the miles and miles of grassy plains stretching as far as the eye could see, and thought: This is it. She couldn't explain her feelings, she only knew her heart had found a home.
Although Miss Devlin had stopped drifting once she reached Sweetwater, she had still avoided the usual courtship rituals. For her there had been no picnicking under the watchful eyes of the congregation at a church social. No stolen kisses on the porch swing. Not even a long, lazy stroll arm-in-arm along the river on a flower-scented summer evening. So Hadley had a good point. How could she possibly know how these two young lovers felt?
Miss Devlin swallowed over the unexpected lump in her throat. "Perhaps I should have said instead that I sympathize with your feelings, Hadley. It doesn't change my opinion about how you should act. I'm convinced your discretion is critical to keeping the peace," she finished with a hard-won smile.
Bliss looked up at Hadley with worried eyes. "Miss Devlin is right, Hadley. If Pa found out about us there's no telling what he'd do. I'd just die if the two of you got into a fight or . . . or worse. Maybe we should"
"No! I won't stop seeing you, Bliss." Hadley clutched Bliss's hand and gazed down into her luminous eyes. "I need you. I love you. I can't give you up!"
"I love you, too, Hadley!" Bliss turned to Miss Devlin and pleaded, "What can we do?"
Faced with those impassioned speeches, Miss Devlin felt her heart go out to the young couple. She was more determined than ever to find a way to end this horrendous war, which was being waged without visible battle lines. "Try to be patient a little longer," Miss Devlin urged. "I'll be meeting with the Sweetwater Halloween Dance Committee this afternoon, which includes both your mothers. Maybe we can find a way to make things right again."
Hadley's voice was bitter when he said, "If the damned nesters hadn't fenced all the water holes none of this would have happened."
"It isn't all our fault," Bliss cried. "What about the ranchers cutting fences? My father lost nearly his entire wheat crop."
The young lovers looked at each other and acknowledged there was wrong on both sides. But what could they do? They were helpless pawns in an increasingly vicious game of wills.
"Right now, I think you should go eat your lunches," Miss Devlin said. "And remember what I said."
"We will, Miss Devlin," Bliss said.
"All right, Miss Devlin," Hadley muttered as he reluctantly separated his hand from Bliss's.
Miss Devlin spent the afternoon watching the hopeless look in Bliss's eyes, and the longing in Hadley's, with growing concern. Eden was intimately familiar with the classics, and she saw all the signs in their budding romance of a modern-day Romeo and Juliet. She was not about to stand around and watch a similar tragedy occur. When she got Regina Westbrook and Persia Davis in here this afternoon, she was going to give them both a good piece of her mind!
The children's departure from school that day was followed closely by the arrival of their mothers. Since she was still nursing, Amity Carson brought her six-month-old daughter, Edna, along. She made an insulting point of joining Persia Davis and Mabel Ives on the opposite side of the schoolroom from Regina Westbrook, Claire Falkner, and Lynette Wyatt. The barely veiled hostility between ranchers' wives and nesters' wives had Miss Devlin clenching her teeth in an attempt to keep her self-control.
"Welcome, ladies," she began. "I'm glad you could all be here this afternoon. We have a lot of planning to do to make the traditional Sweetwater Halloween Dance a success. First, there's something I think we need to discuss. Namely"
At that point baby Edna burst into a long, loud wail.
"If you nesters insist on breeding children like rabbits," Regina muttered under her breath, "the least you can do is keep them equally quiet."
While Amity unbuttoned her dress to nurse the crying child, Persia jumped to her defense. "Better breeding like rabbits than looking like cows."
Regina rose to her feet, the fringe on her capelike black dolman quivering. She had always been sensitive about her large bosom, and Persia knew it. "How dare you!"
"The same way you do!"
Regina struck a militant pose as a torrent of voices joined Persia and Regina in reviling one another.
"Ladies! Ladies!" Miss Devlin's schoolteacher voice stood her in good stead, and the group fell silent. Eden took a deep breath, fighting for calm. "This isn't accomplishing anything."
"No, you're right," Regina agreed. "We're leaving." She turned like a queen surveying her court and bobbed her head farewell, nearly unseating the complicated black hat on her upswept snow-white hair. With dutiful obedience, Claire Falkner and Lynette Wyatt rose and followed her imperious exit out the door.
"Button yourself up!" Persia snapped at a startled Amity. "We're leaving too." Like an empress in her own right, despite her well-worn calico dress and scuffed black boots, Persia pulled her woolen shawl more tightly around her shoulders and led Amity Carson and Mabel Ives out of the schoolroom past the gape-mouthed teacher.
Miss Devlin stared in bemused wonder at the barren schoolroom. Not a woman given to swearing (it was beneath her intelligence), she resorted to a satisfyingly guttural "Oooooh!"
She sought calm by doing all the menial jobs that fell to her at the end of each school day. Once the blackboard was erased, she rearranged the benches behind the four rows of wooden desks, and checked to make sure the fire in the stove that heated the schoolroom was banked for the night. Finally, Miss Devlin took the broom from the corner and briskly swept the floor. She discovered a stray pencil and, pursing her lips at its well-chewed condition, set it back on Henry Westbrook's desk.
When Miss Devlin was done, she looked out over the pristine schoolroom and realized she hadn't found the calm she had sought. She gathered up the papers that needed grading and left, carefully closing the door behind her.
She headed off down the short, narrow dirt path that led to the home that had been built for the school's teacher. Eden loved the tiny white gingerbread-trimmed house, which was only a brisk ten-minute walk from the north end of town.
As she strolled homeward, a frown of concentration formed on her plain face. This wrangling had to be stopped. Nipped in the bud. Ended. But how? Lord have mercy. How?
Like all boys his age living in such an untamed country, Hadley Westbrook had responsibilities beyond his schooling that had to be tended to every day. But it was with growing reluctance that he forced himself to leave Bliss to take care of his chores. He stood with his arms around her, hidden by the copse of lodgepole pines that marked the divergent paths that led in one direction to the elegant two-story stone Westbrook mansion, and in the other to the dog-trot plank structure Big Ben Davis had built for his small family.