Title: Prequel: The Mail Order Bride, Beginnings
Category: Books » Twilight
Author: Lady Gwynedd
Language: English, Rating: Rated: K
Published: 07-23-12, Updated: 07-23-12
Chapters: 1, Words: 4,972
Chapter 1: Chapter 1
Bear Valley, Colorado
My horse's hooves skidded to a stop in the loose gravel at the top of the rise and I looked out over the Bear River Valley. The clean scent of the evergreens filled my lungs and I breathed deeply.
This was the biggest difference between Colorado and Chicago. I could breathe here. I could stretch my limbs and my mind in ways that I never dreamed of doing as a boy, constrained as I was by shallow society and stifling convention. This land filled me with a peace I'd never known as I grew up. From the first moment I arrived here, I knew that this was where I belonged.
The surrounding craggy mountains stood as sentinels while the early morning sun illuminated the snow lying in drifts across the pastures. Frost-covered firs sparkled like diamonds in its crisp light and the deep, clear Colorado sky embraced all in a richness that put King Midas to shame.
Though it had been a hard scrabble winter at Bear Valley Ranch, this sight still brought a thrill to my heart and a lump to my throat. This country was now a part of me as much as my hand was a part of my arm. It was my home. This magnificent valley was mine.
The pride of ownership didn't make living here any easier, though. This winter's record cold froze the sap inside the trees and caused them to fire off their limbs like gunshots during the frigid nights. The snow had fallen so deeply tunnels had to be dug through the enormous drifts in order to get from one ranch building to another. Worse yet, the cattle were suffering with the cold and the scarcity of feed. Plus, the river had frozen over so it was an eternal struggle to melt snow and ice to slake the cattle's thirst. I didn't know who was wearier, my hands or those pathetic beasts they were trying to keep alive. And I was determined that they would keep them alive. Cattle was the life blood of a ranch and I would do all I could to see that they prospered.
As a result, I was up at all hours riding faithful Carmen around the herd, trying to get stragglers to safety and ward off the occasional wolf hoping for an easy meal. I knew that with every steer the winter or wolf took, we would have to pull our belts a little tighter come the roundup; and on a personal level, I'd have to postpone my own dreams as well.
Those hopes, those dreams, centered upon the growing light in my darkness, one Miss Isabella Swan of Old Virginia. We had started a correspondence the past autumn and with each letter, I saw a clearer picture of the woman she was: intelligent, curious, witty and diligent, yet modest and gentle in spirit. I hoped she took as much pleasure from my words as I did hers.
She made it easy for me to pour my thoughts, dreams and ambitions onto paper, more than I ever thought I could. When I sent them off, I was half fearful she'd balk at my earnestness, half hopeful she'd understand it. I would be on tenterhooks until her next letter would arrive only to find her equally as earnest, hopeful and amusing in turns.
Oh, she had a wit, that one. Her words struck me to the heart and I found myself fairly memorizing each line to recite back to myself during my busy but tedious days. I knew I was enamored with her and I so desperately wanted to meet her. But I realized if I could cajole her from Virginia, marriage would be the only reason I could honorably give. No decent lady would come so far on a whim and for no less than a life-long commitment. I had to make sure I was prepared for that step before I made it but even before that, the ranch would have to be able to afford it. My pride and honor would accept no less than offering Miss Bella a comfortable home and secure future.
A niggling worry I had was that perhaps she'd no wish to marry me. Nothing had been said one way or the other but I read each letter carefully and while at times I could imagine her growing regard, at other times I convinced myself she saw me only as an interesting but foreign acquaintance, a curiosity. I told her of my life on the ranch, wanting her to understand what could be facing her should my hopes materialize but, when I reread my words, it sounded a harsh life. She was from the easy east. A rancher's wife was expected to work as hard if not harder than her rancher. What right had I to pull her from that soft existence into this trying one? And so, I was at an impasse. My heart was telling me one thing, my mind another.
Suddenly dissatisfied with my frustrating thoughts, I clucked to Carmen and she started down the hill towards the cattle where my men were watering a part of the herd.
Emmett met me as I neared. "Boss, we've pretty much got this lot taken care of. Where do you want us to work next?"
"I'm thinking across the river. There's about forty head there that need attention."
He nodded and said, "I'm believe this is the last time we will need to water for the year."
I raised a brow and asked, "You've turned weather prognosticator on me? How do you know?"
"I saw Tyler's union suit hanging on the line as I came down from the bunk house today. That's as sure a sign as I know."
I had to laugh then. Those under-britches must be frozen solid. "So Tyler's annual washing of his drawers is a sure sign of spring?"
"That it is—else it's a sign of the apocalypse. Since I've always been an optimistic feller, I choose to think that spring's a-coming."
"I hope your optimism and Tyler's long-johns are right in that. We could stand for spring coming soon."
Grinning, I turned Carmen's nose to check on the health of the steers as they noisily ate the hay that had been thrown down for them near the river bank. They were eating with gusto, a sign of their hunger. Watching them keenly, I noticed they'd sloughed some weight, as was to be expected, but not too much. I had had to buy several wagon loads of fodder at a usurious rate to keep my cattle fed this year. I swear to the Good Lord that next summer I was planting out one of the pastures so I could feed them myself in following years. Raising crops wasn't what ranchers usually did but there would be tremendous satisfaction to inform Mr. Cope I wouldn't need his agency with distant farmers in buying extra hay in the future. He was a greedy beggar if ever I met one but he had the only means of locating hay suppliers in our region.
I leaned over and patted Carmen on the neck, scratching behind her ears as she liked. They flickered in appreciation and she gusted out a satisfied huff. Sometimes I thought my horse could read my mind, so attuned was she to me. I'd never seen a better cattle horse and others agreed. I'd had many an offer for her but I refused each one. Mr. Dowling, who owned the ranch further down river from me, had been particularly eager to buy her, upping the ante every time he saw me but I believe he was mostly joshing. He knew what I knew; a cowboy was only as good as his horse and I'd be a fool to give her up.
But thinking of what Emmett had predicted earlier, I started looking around for signs of spring but everywhere I looked it was still winter. The cattle's breath left clouds of vapor in the cold air and their shit did, as well. All the cottonwood trees were bare of any sign of budding leaves and the river looked as frozen as a harlot's heart. Besides, it was still dang cold. I blew on my hands as I watched a steer saunter over to the water tank to drink, thinking I could use a cup of hot coffee myself.
I turned in my saddle and called out, "Hallo there, Emmett. Is there any coffee on hand?"
"Sorry, boss. Lauren made a pot or two this morning but it's all gone now. I could go up to the house and get more."
"Naw, I'll do it. You finish up here and then get the boys to see to those cattle across the river."
"Yassir." Emmett called to the men to load up the wagon. I directed Carmen up the far hill towards the house. Since it had been a full moon the previous night, I'd been up long before sunrise making the rounds. My stomach roared at the thought of coffee and maybe something to tide me over until the midday meal.
When I got to the cook house, I found Lauren Crowley scrubbing a pot in the sink. "Mornin', Lauren. Is there any coffee?"
It was unheard of not to have a pot of coffee, as strong and thick as molasses, sitting on the back of the stove, so I was sure there'd be some. I was surprised when she responded, "No, sir. No coffee."
Damn. "Could you make some?" I asked.
She stared at me with those big eyes of hers but didn't move towards the stove or the cupboard or the water pump. I raised my brows and stared back. This woman was thicker than a plank.
"Coffee?" I asked again, trying not to let my vexation show. She couldn't help her lack of sense, after all.
"No, sir. 'Tain't any left."
"I know that. Could you make some more?"
"'Tain't any," she answered again.
"You mean there're no more coffee beans on the ranch?"
Double damn, running out of coffee beans was a huge problem for the ranch. How could the woman not have realized our situation? Then, a worrisome thought crossed my mind. "What other victuals are we low on, Lauren?" I had trusted Lauren to keep me abreast of our provender needs.
"We ain't out of anything but the coffee beans now."
I decided it would be best to be more precise in my questions. "Are we close to being out of other things?"
The woman stood stock still, still staring at me for what seemed like a full minute. Then, she said, "I do believe we're low on corn meal."
"Cornmeal and flour? Is that all?"
"No sir, we're low on lard and beans, too."
"Well, Lauren what were you planning to cook for us when all these things ran out?"
"Best go to town and get some more."
"Don't you think it would be wise to do so before we ran completely out?"
She nodded slowly. "I believe so, boss."
It was plain I was going to have to find another cook. Poor Lauren simply couldn't manage.
"Well, there's nothing for it. I must go to town now. Where's Tyler?"
"He's in the big house finishing up them shelves you got in the parlor."
"It's not a parlor, Lauren. It's a library. It's where you keep books."
"Never seen so many shelves afore."
"Have you ever seen a library, Lauren?"
"I've seen where Mr. Cope has his mail order books."
Nodding, I continued, "And where does he keep them?" Surely the man had a shelf or two.
"In that ol' pickle barrel, next to his till."
I sighed and muttered, "Bear Valley, verily an intellectual Olympus."
"Wass that, boss?"
"Oh, nothing. I'm going to town. You fix the midday meal with what's on hand. I'll bring back supplies for the future."
I went into the house and found Tyler busily sanding the oak boards we'd seasoned the year before. His young son, strangely named Boy, was sitting in the corner playing with scraps of wood. I wasn't surprised. Usually, Boy could be found wherever Tyler was.
Tyler was a man of few words but many skills. He could create masterpieces out of wood, stone, cloth—whatever he put his hands to. I knew I was fortunate to have him as our handyman. In recent years, we'd expanded the old ranch house from a three room cottage to one that could comfortably house a fairly large family. No one dared to ask me why I wanted such a big place but they'd be a lummox not to realize I'd want to have my own family one day.
I hoped that day was coming soon. If Tyler's long-johns were accurate, our few losses should be covered at auction but we were wearing it thin. This unexpected run into town for supplies was going to set me back more than I had anticipated.
Nodding at Tyler, who didn't break stride in his work, I walked to my desk, opened the drawer, and slid aside the false bottom to reveal my money box. I lifted it out, unlocked the lid and counted the money I had left. If I was frugal, I had enough to take care of the expenses of the ranch until it was time to take the cattle to market. I did not have enough to get married on, though. I began to wonder if Miss Bella would be content to wait until the coming fall to meet me. After the drive, I should have plenty on hand in order to treat her like the lady she was. That was a good six months off though, and I sighed. I was definitely not happy to wait that long myself.
I took out enough money for supplies, put the box back, then went to the barn to hitch up a team to a wagon and a short while later I was on the road to Bear Valley, the little town that bore the same name as my ranch. The whole trip there, I tried to think of a way to bring Bella out sooner than the autumn but I couldn't come up with one. I almost didn't notice the sun felt warmer than it had for months past. Maybe spring was close at hand.
After driving down the main road through the little town, I tied the horses up in front of Cope's Mercantile and went inside to find Mrs. Cope in her usual place behind the counter.
"Good day, Missus." I doffed my hat and held onto it while we spoke. I may be in the west now, but my mother had raised me to be a gentleman and she'd be proud to see her lessons still stuck.
"Why, how do, Mr. Cullen. What brings you down to Bear Valley this fine day?" She had a way to make her words seem to mean the opposite of what she said. I could never figure how she managed that.
"I have a list of supplies I need to take back to the ranch today, if you will. But before you fulfill the order, I want to check the prices."
"Of course, sir. Let me see your list and I'll tot it right up." She was smiling now and I was sure she thought it was a friendly gesture but, truly, she resembled nothing so much as a spider getting ready to pounce on a hapless fly caught in her web.
I handed over the list and watched her figure out her prices, carefully writing each down with a crabbed scrawl. When she was done, I took the list and quickly scanned it. It seemed the costs had doubled since I was last here. The woman was a buzzard and a viper all rolled into one. She and her husband made quite a pair. I didn't say anything, just looked at her hard holding the list in my hand and waited for her to respond.
We stood there for a moment, me getting more stern, her getting more red in the face until she stuttered, "I-it's been a harsh winter, Mr. Cullen. Prices have risen."
I cleared my throat. "You have a choice, Mrs. Cope. You can either give me fair market prices or I'll start traveling to Denver for my provender. The savings I'd make in prices would make up for the inconvenience, I know for a fact. Maybe to cut my carrying costs, I'd partner up with other ranchers in the valley and the whole of us would bypass your establishment from now on. I'm sure you can see the ramifications of that, can't you? It wouldn't take much effort for me to do that but I'd much rather you be more reasonable, so that we may all prosper."
The longer I spoke, the redder she got. She didn't know I needed that food today, and so I was fudging a little but taking a chance, I handed the list back. She hastily adjusted her prices to a level that, though still higher than I liked, was more evenhanded. I nodded and signed the chit.
"I shall go down the street for some dinner. Do you think you can have all of this loaded on my wagon out front, ma'am?" My hat was still clutched in my hand.
"Why of course, Mr. Cullen." Her tone was more terse than it had been before.
Not wanting to part on a sour note, I smiled and said goodbye but was surprised to see her eyes widen and her face redden once again. Surprisingly, she fluttered her eyes and tittered. The woman was indeed strange. I shook my head as I walked down the street to Miss Kitty's and hoped she had something good on the table. I was as hungry as a bear just awoken from his winter's nap, as I had had nothing to eat since early morning.
When I entered the saloon, I was happy to see my old friend, Miss Katherine Russell, behind the bar.
"Hello, Miss Kitty. It's good to see you again."
Smiling, the older woman said, "As it is always good to see you, Edward. What brings you around these parts?"
"Just a supply run and the need for a good dinner. Mrs. Cope is fulfilling the first and I was hoping you could help me with the second?"
"Why of course. We have beef stew today. You interested?"
"Yes'm." I smiled and sat down at a nearby table. Kitty and I went way back, back to when I first moved to Bear Valley. I was a homesick pup in those days and Miss Kitty was a comforting woman. Without her tender care, I'd have left Bear Valley long before I'd given it a chance. Once, I hit my stride, however, I found that it wasn't comforting I needed, it was hard work and the education it brought a man. Kitty and I parted as friends but I still enjoyed a conversation with her now and again.
As Kitty brought a generous serving over with half a loaf of bread and fresh butter, she said, "I was just thinking I should send Festus up to your ranch for a delivery. You have a package here waiting for you."
My heart started thumping. A package? Could that be from Miss Bella? She'd sent me only letters in the past.
I eagerly waited for the lady to return with a small parcel. I recognized the handwriting on the direction as that of my dear Virginia friend. Sliding a knife under the seal that was affixed to the letter, I laid it flat on the table, gently teasing the folds out of the paper as I read her fine, copperplate handwriting.
March 12th, 1887
My dear sir:
We had a late season snow fall and I've spent a merry day or two shoveling the walkways that lay around our farmhouse. I was surprised at how little I felt the cold after I got going at it. I suppose it is like chopping wood, as Mr. Thoreau says: an activity that burns twice. But then, I suppose snow shoveling only burns once by his reckoning. All that I do know for sure is that my arms and back are both burning now!
I did so much enjoy your last latter. I found it fascinating to learn how to care for a herd of cattle during the frigid seasons. To think one must heat their water! Next I wouldn't be surprised to learn that you and your cowboys knit scarves to bundle them into when it gets so abnormally cold as this year has been. That would certainly be a sight to see; both the cattle wearing them as well as your cowboys knitting them.
That brings me to my own concern for you. I hope you are keeping warm, sir. If it is too cold for cattle, it must be doubly so for a gentleman and care must be taken to preserve your health from the worst of it. If it isn't too much of a presumption, I beg leave of you to accept the wool scarf I knitted for you and have sent with this missive. I was unsure of the color I should choose, so I simply used yarn that was left over from the knitting of my own scarf that I had made. My brother picked out the color saying it matched my eyes. (The yarn was his gift to me at Christmas.) I don't know how accurate he was about that but then again, brown is brown is brown and now you and I have matching neckwear. I made yours long so that you could wrap it about your head on the especially bitter days if you choose.
I took a moment to unwrap the package to find the scarf that she had made for me with her own hands. As though it was something holy, I lifted it out of its package, held it to my face and inhaled. The faint scent of lavender filled my senses and it was almost as though I was holding that wonderful gal in my arms. My heart thumped alarmingly fast and I was fearful of it pounding straight through my chest from sheer delight.
I heard an indelicate feminine snort which brought to mind that I was in the middle of a saloon not in the privacy of my study just in time to stop making a spectacle out of myself. I quickly looked around but none of the other patrons had seemed to notice my vaporizing. However, Miss Kitty was scrubbing at the bar like she was trying to wipe the stain off of it and there was a peculiar set to her lips that indicated she may have been watching my antics with amusement.
Time to get a hold of yourself, Edward.
Wrapping a fist in the scarf, I held it in my lap and read on.
I have some news for you at long last, Mr. Cullen. My brother has gotten married. My new sister's name is Jessica, or as she prefers to be called—as indeed we have always called her— Jessie. She is the belle of the town, the daughter of our local scion, and my brother is quite over the moon in his adoration of her. After a short trip to Richmond, they returned here last week and we are now adjusting to living together.
Frankly, I feel as though I am intruding but I suppose that is natural when one lives with the newly wedded. My sister does a lot of sewing and the loft my mother and I had for the purpose is too inconvenient for her use, so I have now moved my chamber there and she uses my old room for her handwork. The loft is quite roomy and so I have plenty of space to organize my trifles. I was fortunate to find another wool blanket tucked away in a chest up there, so my bed is now as toasty as though I slept in front of a blazing fire.
Since there is a new Mrs. Swan, another change was that we dispensed with the services of Mrs. Stevenson, the charwoman who came in to help me with my work when it was just me and my brother. Jessie and I can do the chores Mrs. Stevenson did as well as our own.
I feel badly for Mrs. Stevenson, though. She supported herself with the money she made, but Jess says it would be unchristian of us if we squandered our blessings. So, I've spent the last few days reacquainting myself with the scullery and knitting Mrs. Stevenson's children some good socks. They may not be able to eat them, but they'll at least keep their feet warm as they go hungry.
After rereading my letter, I find it sounds rather bleak. Please, sir, do not take it so, for I am in good spirits. Your letters are enough to sustain me.
Yours very truly,
Miss Isabella Swan
I read through the letter the first time with a smile on my face but as I read through it a second, my grin changed to a frown. Something wasn't right there.
Why was Bella shoveling snow? She shoveled until her back hurt as well as her arms? What could Michael Swan have been thinking? Then, her sister-in-law commandeered her bedchamber and now Bella's lodged in a room that is so drafty she was grateful to find another blanket to ward off the cold? Piecing together what Bella had unwarily implied, I could discern a deeper and darker meaning to her words. That heifer of a sister-in-law was making my dear girl a servant in her own home! I reread it a third time just to make sure.
The rush of anger and protectiveness that came over me felt as though someone had punched me in the gut. I wanted to jump on my horse and immediately ride to Bella's rescue.
Bedamn with my money issues.
Bedamn with her sister-in-law.
Bedamn with her worthless brother.
I was sending for her today.
After paying for my dinner, I went out and double checked the supplies that had been loaded onto my wagon. I know I was a little distracted when I paid Mrs. Cope for them. I didn't even notice the simpering look the woman was giving me until after I'd tipped my hat and left. Again, she was a strange woman.
Wrapping Bella's wool scarf around my neck—I wondered if her arms there would feel as good—I drove the wagon home praying for a solution to my monetary woes. As I rounded a bend in the road, I happened to look over to the side and was pleased to see, there under the sheltering arms of an old fir, some purple flowers poking their heads up above the fallen needles. I believe my mother used to call those flowers crocuses. At that moment, the sun appeared from behind a cloud to shine brightly upon this tender beauty of nature. Spring had indeed arrived.
Heartened, I clucked to the horses as a verse of scripture rattled through my mind: "For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle dove is heard in our land; … Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away."
"Yes," I said out loud, "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away."
A gladness came over me that I could hardly describe for I knew in my heart what I must do.
As I was passing the Dowling ranch, I pulled through the gates and headed toward the house. I hoped Mr. Dowling was at home.
That evening, I sat at my desk and turned up the oil lamp, so it shown brightly. I took out my stationery and pens then sat there a moment as I rested my hands on the polished wood surface and pondered a bit.
Taking a deep breath, I rolled up my sleeves and began to write.
April 2, 1887
Dear Miss Bella,
What with the passing of the vernal equinox, I have been eagerly looking for the harbingers of spring…
The quote from the Bible is from the Song of Solomon-which plays another part in this tale in Chapter seven of The Mail Oder Bride. For those of you who have read that story already, you'll recognize Edward's words as the beginning of the letter he wrote inviting Bella to come to Colorado to be his bride.
This prequel was my donation to the fandom for no hungry kids fundraiser. I was delighted to contribute and I hope you feel I did Colorado Edward justice.
Thanks to my friends for prereading this for me and thanks to my muse for returning to me.