Chloe pulled Duncan closer to her with one hand while holding Lil-Pen’s with the other. They were standing with seven other women and a number of children on the train depot platform of Stones Creek, Colorado. The July day was hot and they were all sweating in their wool travel outfits.
“Ma, I wanna go stand with Ozzie,” Dunc, age thirteen, said. “We’re all going to the same place. I won’t get lost.”
Chloe nodded and released her son. He was right. As soon as all the luggage was removed from the train the group would be taken to Sanctuary House, the new boarding house built for the women coming from Sanctuary Place for Women in Iowa. Each woman had her own story of abuse or neglect. All had been accepted, taught skills and presented the Gospel while living in the safety of Nugget Nate Ryder’s mission.
A large group of men were building a mountain of trunks and cases at the other end of the platform as the items were removed from the train. Each man looked at the women as they moved from the growing pile of baggage back to the train to fetch another piece.
Chloe fought the urge to grab her daughter, Lil-Pen, into her arms and run back to Iowa. They had come to Stones Creek for the opportunity to become wives to the men living here and in the area. Women were scarce in the West. Just as many of the men had come here to begin new lives and have greater opportunities, the women standing huddled together were hoping for the same.
She hoped they would be accepted by the townsfolk. The past hadn’t been kind to any of the women and the choices made by or inflicted upon them were not those readily accepted by polite society.
“You’d think we were a bunch of saloon girls with hardly nothing on, the way they’s looking at us,” Myra said with a chuckle.
Chloe bit back a giggle. Myra was an ex-saloon girl who had run away when her madame wanted her to have an abortion. Her son, Troy, was about the same age as Lil-Pen who was four and her best friend, most of the time.
Myra’s comment eased the tension building in Chloe’s stomach. Yes, the men were interested, very interested, in the women. Who could blame them? Each one, or most at any rate, was hoping to attract one of the women into marrying him. Still the idea of being with a man, being married and belonging with one made Chloe extremely nervous. She could sense Myra eying her.
“Relax,” Myra said. “Nate and that pastor, I forget his name, set up them rules to keep us from marryin’ a no-account. I feel pretty safe with that an’ the Lord protectin’ us. ‘Sides, no set time when we got ta be married. Maybe I’ll just take my time in choosin’.”
Chloe laughed and gave her friend a hug. “No, you’ll be married real quick like. I know you,” she said with a smile. “Can’t wait to get to the benefits of marriage and a man.”
“Well, that’s one of the things I miss,” Myra’s eyes twinkled then became serious. “But I want me a good man. One who’ll stick to me like glue an’ be faithful an’ work hard an’ treat my Troy as his own. Ain’t gonna have a man what’ll be mean to him. No way, no how. Don’t have to neither. Nate done made sure we can all work to support ourselves.” Myra’s slight southern accent betrayed her Tennessee origins.
Chloe gave a small smile then looked at the other end of the platform. A tall man and two women were walking toward them. One held a baby. The chatter of the women and children stopped as they neared.
The man cleared his throat. “I’m Sheriff Newt Riverby and these ladies are Mrs. Noah Preston and Mrs. Eli Steele. They are the wives of our pastor and doctor who couldn’t be here because of an emergency out on a ranch. You’ll meet them later today or tomorrow.” The sheriff seemed to run out of words and looked at the ladies standing beside him.
“Welcome to Stones Creek.” It was the blonde haired woman holding an infant. “We are very glad there will be more women here. Maybe the men will stop staring at the sight of one of us walking down the street.”
The speaker looked sternly at the men unloading the luggage who had stopped their work and were gawking. They quickly went back to their task.
“I’m Vernie Preston and this little lady is Dorothy Mae. We call her Dottie. But let’s head to Sanctuary House. I’m sure you are all anxious to settle in, eat something and rest. Boys, you grab up those bags and come along. No dawdling.”
Vernie pointed and the boys whose ages ranged from thirteen to five picked up various carpetbags and totes. The girls did the same. At least those who were old enough. The four-year-olds, Troy, Lil-Pen and two-year-old Susan each clutched a small stuffed toy. The sheriff led the way up the dusty street. Vernie and Leah mingled within the seven women who had come with him.
Sanctuary House was several blocks away from the station and one street back from Main Street which was dirt and rutted from wagon and horse traffic during wet weather. Along the way they passed the livery, Cutler’s General Store, a tailor shop, gunsmith, barber and bathhouse, and bakery on one side of the street. A feed store, the jail, a blacksmith, doctor’s office, bank and the Stones Creek Hotel were on the other. Sanctuary House backed up to the gunsmith, barber and bathhouse, and bakery.
Chloe wasn’t surprised at the handsomeness of the building. Nugget Nate never did anything halfway. Instead of being built of clapboard it was red brick. A porch wrapped around three sides. The porch, doors and windows were painted white. Chintz flowered draperies hung on the first floor windows. White curtains shielded the ones on the second and third floors. As they entered the children dropped the bags and scattered to explore.
“Ladies,” Mrs. Steele said. “You’ll find this floor is divided into two rooms to the left and right of the stairs, a parlor and dining room. The kitchen and laundry, bathing room are to the back. Upstairs are enough rooms for each of you. You can either have your children stay with you or they can stay in rooms across the hall. Each floor has a sitting room and one to house the necessaries.”
A black woman came from the room Mrs. Steele had indicated was the kitchen. She smiled, but Chloe saw a look of unease was in her eyes. Leah wrapped an arm around her.
“This is Mrs. Thomas Wilson, the very best cook you will find, I’m sure. She owns Almeda’s Bakery that we passed, but was gracious enough to volunteer to cook for you today. You will need to divide up the chores after today. The men of the town and surrounding ranches wouldn’t be pleased if they didn’t have their doughnuts tomorrow.”
Everyone laughed. Blanche Basking, the oldest of the women at thirty-five said, “Thank you, Mrs. Wilson. We appreciate all your work. I’m sure there are others we should thank, also. The house is wonderful and I’m positive we will be very comfortable here.” Blanche walked over to the three women who lived in Stones Creek and gave each a hug.
Chloe saw the uncertainty leave Mrs. Wilson’s expression. She understood a little of what Mrs. Wilson felt. Each of the women who had come to town today did. Each had been rejected and treated as worthless by the general public. Mrs. Wilson, because of her dark skin, would have had it much worse. The possibility of more such treatment was always there for her.
Chloe thought of the verse in Galatians, There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Chloe decided to make sure Mrs. Wilson knew that was how she viewed her.
“You ladies go on up and choose your rooms. The luggage will be here shortly, and the men will want to know where to take it,” Vernie said. “By then supper should be ready. It sure does smell good, Almeda.”
With murmurs of agreement they trouped up the stairs.
Chloe chose a room on the second floor in the front next to the sitting room. Lil-Pen would stay with her on the trundle bed. Duncan and Ozzie and Will Basking wanted to be in a room together on the third floor. Blanche Basking’s room was across the hall from theirs within easy hearing distance. John, her five year old would be in the room with her. Nancy, Blanche’s seven-year-old daughter, was rooming with Ruth’s daughter, Kathryn, who was eleven.
The trunks arrived and were distributed to the various floors and rooms chosen by the ladies and their children. Soon the sounds of sheets snapping as beds were made and mothers’ voices instructing their offspring where to place clothing being unpacked filled the formerly empty house. Children’s footsteps ran up and down stairs and hallways. A small body tripped, fell and was soon soothed in loving arms.
The children became peckish and grouchy as the fragrances of the food drifted up the staircases. Once the hubbub of the luggage coming was over they decided to have the meal Almeda had prepared. It was late afternoon and the meager lunch, of the last of the food they had brought on the train, hadn’t filled any of them.
Chloe left Lil-Pen with Myra and went to the kitchen, towing Dunc, Ozzie and Will along. “You’ll help with serving.”
“Ah Ma, how come we have to? What about Eddie and Mark and Kathryn?” Dunc complained.
“Don’t worry, they will have their chance. You know how it is. We just haven’t divvied up the chores yet. Be grateful the meal is ready and you don’t have to help fix it. That will change quickly enough.”
That silenced the complaining. Everyone at Sanctuary Place learned to cook, clean, sew and do laundry; boys and girls alike. It was one of Nugget Nate’s rules, although Penny had been the one to insist he make it one.
The smells that met them as they entered the kitchen made mouths water. Stew, cornbread and apple cobbler would fill the bellies of the hungry women and children. There was a very large black man bringing firewood in through the back door.
“This is my husband, Thomas. I hope it’s okay for him to come eat. We can eat here in the kitchen,” Mrs. Wilson said.
“No,” Chloe said. “You both will eat in the dining room with us. I think you’ll find none of us cares about skin color. We’ve had a tiny taste of what you go through. Besides, under the skin we all look pretty much the same.” Chloe held out her hand to Thomas after he had placed the wood in the box. His smile when he shook her hand held relief and friendship.
“Just call me Almeda. I don’t think I’d answer to Mrs. Wilson.” The ladies invited her and Thomas to call them by their first names also. Then Almeda said, “Come on, now. Let’s fill these hungry bellies.” Almeda began ladling stew into bowls and indicated the boys take baskets of cornbread into the dining room. “Can they handle trays or pitchers?”
“Dunc and Ozzie can. If the pitchers aren’t too big or full, Will can.”
Eleven-year-old Kathryn Naylor came into the kitchen when the boys returned. “Can I help?”
A squeak came from a basket sitting in an out of the way corner of the kitchen. Almeda hurried over to it and lifted out an infant. Smiles broke out on the women’s and girl’s faces.
“Oh, Almeda. He or she is so cute,” Chloe said.
“He’s Abraham after President Lincoln. He’s free born because of him. Just about two months old, he is.” Almeda’s face shone with joy and pride as she snuggled her son against her breast.
“Can I hold him while you all serve the meal?” Nancy asked.
Chloe introduced her to the couple and set the children to taking the trays and pitchers to the other room. Nancy sat down at the kitchen table and gently rocked back and forth as she crooned softly to little Abe. Thomas, who had washed, carried a large coffee pot and began filling cups. Soon everyone was served and Almeda and Thomas were sitting at one of the tables.
Blanche stood up. “Normally, we have a schedule of who does what, but since we haven’t set it up yet I will say grace.” Everyone folded their hands and bowed their heads. “Our gracious and heavenly Father, we thank you for bringing us here safely. For the food and the hands who prepared it. Please bless Almeda and Thomas for their sacrifice of time and effort in having this meal to welcome us to Stones Creek. May we use it to the benefit of your kingdom. Thank you, in the name of your son, Jesus.”
A hardy, “amen,” followed and spoons clinking in stew bowls quickly commenced.
With the children settled in their beds later that evening, the eight women met in the parlor on the first floor. They were discussing schedules for chores and first impressions of the town.
Chloe was in the kitchen getting coffee and tea pots to refresh cups when there was a knock on the front door. She heard men’s voices identify themselves as Pastor Preston and Dr. Steele. Then the voice of Leah Steele whom they had met earlier that day. Chloe placed three more cups on the tray before heading to the parlor.
Placing the tray on the low table, Chloe stood back. Blanche, the leader of their group, would make introductions.
“I’ll take coffee,” Dr. Steele said. “And Leah will take tea, thank you.”
Chloe quickly poured the cups and handed them out as she was introduced to the doctor. They were sitting on a settee next to Cora.
“The pastor will take coffee, Chloe,” Blanche said. Chloe poured the cup and straightened, turning around to hand it to the man standing behind her next to the fireplace. “This is Mrs. Chloe Ashburn.”
Chloe glanced up at the tall preacher. His face made her heart drop. Her trembling hand rattled the cup in its saucer, sloshing coffee over the rim. She quickly lowered her gaze as the man swiftly took the clattering cup.
“Thank you. I’m sure the coffee’s cool enough without cooling it in the saucer.” Pastor Preston smiled, but Chloe was oblivious to his quip.
No, it couldn’t be. This man was too young to be her pa. Chloe’s mind shut down to all thought. He was tall with dark hair and brown eyes. A mustache hid the shape of his mouth and his cheeks were more chiseled, his face more oval.
“Noah Preston, ma’am. You met my wife, Vernie, earlier.” His voice was low with a slight gravel.
Chloe dropped her eyes to look at the floor. “P…p…pleased to m…meet you.” She turned and fled to the other side of the room choosing a straight chair away from the lamplight. Sitting down she adjusted the chair slightly to make sure her face was in shadow.
No, no, no, Lord. How could you do this to me? Noah. My Noah. My little brother. How could you bring me to the town he is pastor to? Chloe’s thoughts were in a whirl. How could she stay? No, he wouldn’t recognize her. Yes, he would. How would she explain the children? Where could she go? Each of the women had a bank account in their name with thirty dollars in it.
Chloe thought about where such a large amount of money would allow her and the children to go away from Stones Creek. No, they could not take more than one dollar out of the bank at a time without giving good cause. It was a safe guard Nate had put in so none of the women wasted what he had given them. The conversation was simply background noise to her confused thoughts.
“Chloe? Chloe, would you like some tea?” It was Myra standing in front of her holding out a cup. There were questions written in her expression.
Chloe lifted a shaking hand then let it drop again to her lap. “Please set it on the table,” she said, indicating the small side table.
Myra reached out picking up Chloe’s hand and giving it a slight squeeze whispered, “It’ll be fine,” then she returned to sit in her place.
Looking over the people in the room, Chloe saw smiles on the women’s faces and acceptance from the two men. Noah blushed at the mention of the birth of his daughter three months before, but the twinkle in his eyes told her he was accepting of Leah’s teasing.
“Now that I’ve been thoroughly discredited as the pastor of this mangy town, I will invite you all for Sunday services. They begin at nine-thirty. You may not have noticed the church today. It’s just a ways further along the road. We’re in the process of getting ready to raise a school building. It will be beside the church.” Noah smiled, then said, “Now we’ll leave you. I’m sure you are all tired from the trip and moving in. We hope you find living in Stones Creek a blessed and fulfilling life. Let’s have a moment of prayer.”
Chloe tried to find peace in the words her brother lifted to the Lord but her agitation kept it from coming. During the leave taking she was able to keep to the background avoiding contact with either the doctor and wife, or the preacher by gathering the cups and saucers and piling them onto the tray. She escaped through the door leading from the parlor to the washroom and through it into the kitchen.
Chloe was standing at the sink gripping the edge with white knuckled hands when someone began rubbing her back. She dropped her head and released the tension in her shoulders.
“Okay, so who is he?” Blanche asked.
Chloe simply shook her head. There was no way she could utter a word around the lump in her throat. Another hand was placed on her shoulder.
“Is he one of the men?” This time Myra spoke. “Don’t worry, the other ladies are all upstairs. We told them we would help with the dishes.”
Chloe opened her mouth to explain but only a ragged sob came out. Blanche spun her around and pulled her into a tight hug. “Go ahead. Get the tears out.”
For several minutes it was beyond Chloe to control her weeping. Finally, she pulled in deep shuttering breaths, stepped back and opened her eyes. Myra and Blanche watched her with worried expressions.
“He’s my younger brother. The last time I saw him was as I looked back when I was being taken away. He was in the woodpile. I remember his eyes, so big and terrified. He reached out a hand to me and yelled my name. He was only six, but he did more than my pa did. Pa was standing facing the barn not even looking as they took me away.”
“Oh, honey.” Blanche pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve handing it to Chloe.
“What’re ya gonna do?” Myra asked.
“I don’t know. I’m going to pray and see if God gives me any answers. That’s all I can do right now.” She told them of her thoughts earlier and how confused she was.
“Well, let’s pray right now and do these dishes. The day’s been long and tiring. We need to get some sleep. The children will be up and ready to go at the normal time.” Blanche said as she took the hands of the other two ladies and bowed her head.
Chloe stared into the darkness. She’d tried to fall asleep but each time she closed her eyes she’d see Noah looking from the woodpile reaching out to her. Then he’d morph into an adult who knew what she had done during the years they’d been separated, and he’d frown and turn away.
Tears slipped from her eyes, down her temples and into her hair. Oh, how she had wanted a new start, a new life. She’d decided to release her fears to the Lord, yet He’d brought her to face her shame with the one person she’d never thought to see again.