Monday, March 6, 2017

My Heart Belongs in Fort Bliss, Texas: Priscilla's Reveille by Erica Vetsch, © 2017



My Review:

Join in this visit to a frontier fort in the Territory of West Texas in 1874. Priscilla Hutchens is on her way from her home in Cincinnati, Ohio, to the sun-drenched desert of vast open space. Traveling with a bride-to-be, she is just in time for the wedding celebration. The festivities liven up the arrival of an unpromised young woman with hopeful anticipation to be the fortunate soldier to win her hand.

Priscilla believes she is going to retrieve her older brother's orphaned twins, unaware that his brother-in-law is very active and settled at Fort Bliss. Major Elliot Ryder is the post surgeon. He does not know the twins have another relative and is surprised by Priscilla's arrival and intent.
Old Picture of the Day: Colonel Robert Shaw/  A very interesting story--read it with a click.   (Also, I'm considering putting him on my Handsome Men page)Timothy HutchensTessa Hutchens
Priscilla Hutchens: ~ from the author's photo board on Pinterest! I love these interpretations as the author envisions her characters! Timothy and his sister, Tessa, enhance the story, especially with their love of riding their ponies, helping out at the civilian shops building on the fort property ~ the saddler, blacksmith, and bakery... Herbs and flowers used in the infirmary ~ especially the description of the Mexican Poppy plants poking through the cracked dirt. The author has brought to life the daily life in and around the fort. The story is very well-written and I enjoyed reading about this time.


EnJ*O*Y this excerpt from Erica Vetsch's My Heart Belongs in Fort Bliss, Texas: Priscilla's Reveille ~ Chapter One and page one of Chapter Two...

Chapter One

Trans-Pecos Territory of West Texas, 1874

Only the army would think a place like this worth defending.
   Priscilla Hutchens clamped her teeth together to keep them from rattling right out of her head. Grabbing the wagon bow, she sought to find an anchor as the converted military ambulance jounced up a slight rise. The howling wind, which a cheerful enlisted man had called a “freshening breeze,” tore at the canvas cover overhead. That same enlisted man had rolled up the stained fabric along the sides of the ambulance, and as a result, Priscilla had an unfettered view of. . .pretty much nothing.
   She’d had no idea when embarking on this rescue mission that so much “empty” existed anywhere. Miles and miles of brush, sparse clumps of grass, cacti, and bare ground stretched away to the edge of the world. In the distance, a humpbacked ridge of mountains poked up from the desert—a dusty, purplish lump on the otherwise flat expanse. The small company of soldiers, horses, and wagons she traveled with could be the last inhabitants on earth.
   How had her brother stood this everlasting openness? After the bustling, busy, and varied life of Cincinnati, how had he survived the tediousness of a frontier military post? And not only him but his wife and children?
   Fort Bliss. One of a string of forts along the San Antonio-El Paso Trail, and until now, a place Priscilla had never thought to visit. Only the twins’ need of her could’ve gotten her out of the city and to this forsaken desert. And the sooner she accomplished her purpose and returned to civilization, the better. Fort Bliss. There was nothing blissful about this awful place.
   A particularly fierce gust yanked at her bonnet, and she let go of the wagon bow to grab it before it tumbled to the dirt. Opposite her on the other bench, Fern Perry gave her a sympathetic smile.
   “That hat is going to take wing and fly away.” She had to speak over the rattle of the wagons and harness and the tramping of dozens of boots. Boots that raised puffs of dust to swirl around them, land on their skin and hair, and work their way into their clothing. Priscilla had never felt so gritty and dirty in her life.
   Fern braced herself against the lurch of the wagon. “When we get to the fort, the first thing you should buy is a sunbonnet. The sutler’s store is bound to have some, or you could hire one of the laundresses to make one for you. The sun will ruin your skin otherwise. Your hat’s so stylish, but it’s rather impractical out here.”
   “I don’t anticipate remaining at the fort long enough to need to change out my wardrobe.” Priscilla anchored her hat once more, arranging the netting and hoping the silky black feathers adorning the left side of the royal-blue brim were sewn on tightly. The hat perfectly matched her traveling costume, and she couldn’t imagine how ridiculous a slab-sided calico sunbonnet would look in its place. She’d rather battle the wind.
   “Are you really only planning to stay a few days? It’s such an awful long way to come to turn around and go back so soon.”
   “I have no desire to prolong my visit.” Priscilla pressed her lips together. “Retrieving my niece and nephew is my only concern. And I must return to my job. The catalog will be getting woefully behind as it is.” Though her employers had given her a generous amount of time off, twelve weeks in fact, she had no intention of using all of it. Her work was too important to her. She’d spent the last four years creating the overall look and design of the catalog, and if she was gone too long, they’d have to turn things over to another artist who might not have her same style and vision for the publication.
   “I guess I never thought of where the artwork in mail-order catalogs came from,” Fern said. “Fancy being an artist for the Carterson Ladies’ Emporium Catalog. I guess that explains your pretty clothes. I’ve never seen anything as stylish as that dress.” Her eyes traveled over Priscilla’s clothing from collar to shoes. “My mother and sisters and I pored over every new Carterson’s that arrived in the mail. They’ll never believe me when I write to tell them I met the artist who drew all those beautiful pictures.” Her expression took on a wistful look. “I wish my family could’ve come for the wedding.” She shook her head as if ridding herself of unpleasant thoughts. “Still, it’s enough that I’m going to be with Harry. I’ve missed him so much.”
   Fern had rhapsodized about her fianc√© often and at length each night as they made camp. To hear her description, Lieutenant Harry Dunn was a saint, a knight in shining armor, a Byronic hero, and a brilliant scholar all rolled into one.
   Yet, while Priscilla understood the bias with which Fern described her beloved, the girl’s obvious happiness set up a longing in Priscilla’s heart that lingered well after the lanterns were extinguished and the night watch set. Her spinster existence didn’t have much to recommend itself. But the twins would solve that problem for her. She didn’t need a man to be happy.
   Not that she hadn’t had offers. Why, even on this trip she’d been accosted by soldiers proposing marriage.
   As if she would ever marry a soldier.
   “We should be nearing the fort. The sergeant said at breakfast we should arrive in the mid-afternoon.” Fern half-stood, peering over the shoulder of the enlisted man driving the wagon. “We might even be able to see the trees along the river.”
   Seeing trees again would be nice. They’d encountered few since leaving Fort Davis, the last outpost at which they’d stayed. The ever-present knot in Priscilla’s stomach tightened. Soon she would see the twins, her brother’s beloved children. She would hold them in her arms, and together they would grieve and heal and become a family.
   Teresa—known as Tessa—and Timothy. The niece and nephew she’d never met. How had they coped in the month since their parents died? Tears smarted her eyes. Tessa and Timothy were her only two relatives left.
   And they’ve suffered the same fate as you, made fatherless by the army. Only they’ve lost their mother, too. Though the argument could be made that the army cost you your mother, too. She died inside when your father was killed, and she spent every day of the rest of her life mourning him until she finally slipped away.
   The army had taken her parents and her sibling, but no more. The army would never take anything away from Priscilla again.
   “I see something.” Excitement leapt into Fern’s voice.
   Energy rippled through the soldiers around them. Footfalls became faster, reins were shaken up, and expressions lightened. Priscilla craned her neck, espying a dark smudge on the horizon. Shapes began to emerge, sorting themselves out into various structures.
   They drew nearer, and the closer they got, the farther Priscilla’s hopes dropped. Given the starkness of their surroundings, she shouldn’t have expected much, but the huddle of adobe buildings did little to meet even the basest necessity for beauty. Someone had planted a ring of straggly trees, and there were squares of parched vegetable gardens, but everything looked dusty and sad. Cracked earthen paths led to and around the buildings, and over all hung the odor of. . .stables.
   In the distance beyond the fort were trees in a winding line. That must be the river, the Rio Grande.
   How had Christopher stood it here? Even more, how had his wife? How did any woman?
   Priscilla looked out on the post and felt nothing but loneliness, grief, and apprehension. The sooner she got the children away from here, the better.
   They turned to cross a shallow gully, edging down between bare dirt walls. The horizon disappeared and then the wagon lurched, hooves scrambled, and the ambulance was dragged up the other side. Priscilla scrambled to keep her seat, banging her elbow on the side of the wagon and letting out a yelp.
   The buildings grew larger as they approached. Though she’d never been to Fort Bliss, she recalled the standard layout vaguely from her childhood, the open parade ground, the barracks, the officers’ quarters, and so on, all arranged in the manner prescribed by the military manual and carried out on every western post. But the forts she’d lived at in Kansas as a child had stone and wood buildings, sloped roofs, white-painted trim, glass windows. Here the adobe, flat-roofed buildings seemed to poke up out of the earth like square mushrooms. Everything was the same desert sand color. Window holes gaped like blank eye sockets with warped, wooden shutters or cheesecloth in the openings.
   A guard stopped them with an upraised hand as they reached the northeast corner of the fort, spoke to the officer in charge of their caravan, and motioned for them to enter the square of buildings. In the center of the open ground, a flagpole pierced the blue sky, the stars and stripes snapping in the stiff wind. One of the adobe buildings was under construction, men setting the baked-clay bricks into place, others smearing straw-laced mud on the walls. One long wooden structure she assumed was a barracks was undergoing roof repairs, a work crew hammering away in the hot sunshine. The ambulance lurched to a stop in front of this building. The men on the roof stopped working to stare at the newcomers.
   Priscilla’s gaze moved from building to building. Which one housed the children? The telegram informing her of her brother and sister-in-law’s deaths hadn’t said just who had charge of the twins, only that they were being seen to. Probably one of the officers’ wives. She scanned the row of smaller, identical buildings, a shade nicer than the barracks. Officer quarters. The children must be there.
   “Fern!” A lean, sandy-haired soldier broke from the knot of men on the end of the porch, vaulting a stack of crates, and skidding to a halt beside the ambulance. “Oh, Fern-girl, you’re finally here.” He reached up and plucked her from her seat, wrapping her in his embrace and knocking her bonnet askew.
   “Harry, Harry, oh, Harry,” she chanted his name as he covered her face with kisses. Her laughter drifted out, and several soldiers hooted and whistled, stamping their boots and clapping. The couple seemed to remember their audience, and he let her slide to the ground, though he kept his arm around her waist.
   “Fellows, this is Fern. We’re getting married tomorrow.” Harry’s voice rang with pride and deep emotion, and he never took his eyes from Fern’s face.
   Priscilla blinked back a tear and searched the crowd again. What would it be like to be met in such a manner? As if no one else on earth existed, and as if every moment apart had been sheer agony?
   “Ma’am?” The burly private who had driven the ambulance looked up at her. “Can I help you down?” His expression asked if she was going to stay up there forever.
   “Of course.” Priscilla gathered her reticule and her box of art supplies. She had little faith in the ability of the United States Cavalry to transport her belongings safely and preferred to keep her precious inks and pastels and papers under her own watchful eye. Her trunk was somewhere among the other baggage in the wagon train, and she only hoped it had survived the journey undamaged.
   Once her feet were on solid ground, she glanced at her dress. The navy poplin with an openwork silk stripe wore a covering of dust like a shroud. She slapped at her skirt, raising clouds. It had been the same with her burgundy silk yesterday, and her pink lawn the day before. She might as well purchase some burlap sacking and wear that, since it was the only thing that might hide the infernal dirt that coated everything. How did women out here stand it? She glanced up and stifled a gasp. A dozen soldiers now stood within arm’s length, staring at her with blatant curiosity.
   A squat, bristle-chinned, sun-dried soldier stepped off the porch and elbowed his way into the group. “Ooo-eee! Ma’am, you sure are a sight for these tired old eyes. I know Miss Fern belongs to Harry here—goodness knows he’s talked of nothing else but that gal for months—but, if you don’t mind my boldness, who do you belong to?”
   She jerked upright. The man’s hubris was beyond the pale. “I don’t belong to anyone, sir.”
   “That’s all right then.” Elbows jabbed into sides, and the men shifted.
   He clapped his hands once and rubbed them together before turning to the assembly. “She ain’t married nor promised from what it sounds like.”
   Grins aplenty, and the soldiers crowded around once more. While it was flattering to have the attention of so many men at once, Priscilla grew distinctly uncomfortable.
   “Hey, don’t you fellows make a move until we can get down there. It ain’t fair to have us treed up here when a pretty lady shows up.”
   Priscilla turned to look up at the roof of the barracks. A redhaired man with a barrel chest started over the parapet, grinning and trying to keep ahead of the others. He grabbed the top of the ladder, but there was a tussle, and with a holler, the man missed his footing and plummeted to the ground, landing with a thud that traveled up through the soles of Priscilla’s shoes and raised a puff of Texas dirt that obscured him for a moment.
   She sucked in a breath and forgot to release it. Was he dead?
   Time stood still as the dust settled and nobody moved. Then the man let out a low groan and squirmed, and her heart started beating again. The air trickled out of her lungs, and her muscles loosened. She’d thought he might’ve broken his neck. Men hustled down the ladder and sped toward him, and the soldiers who had been surrounding Priscilla left her to go to the injured man.
   “I think he’s busted his leg. Somebody go get the doc.”
   Priscilla edged away from the crowd, clutching her box and reticule in one arm and holding her hat on with the other. Shock and weariness leached the strength from her limbs. The poor man.
   Something jolted her shoulder, and she spun, her art box and purse flying out of her arm. Her hat toppled into her eyes, and before she could right it, firm hands gripped her upper arms. “Beg pardon, ma’am.”
   Shoving her hat back onto her hair, she stared up into the most beautiful, silvery-gray eyes she’d ever seen. Eyes the color of a coming storm and fringed with dark lashes. Eyes that pierced hers and stole her breath away. Her heart hiccupped, and she felt as if she’d swallowed a goose egg. She took in the insignia on his hat and collar. A major. Medical Corps. For a moment everything froze, and then his hands fell away and he turned toward the injured man.
   Priscilla found herself threading her way through the knot of men surrounding the fallen soldier.
   “Glad you’re here, Major.” The patient grimaced. “Looks like I need a doc.”
   The major was slim and straight as a steeple. The yellow line down the outside of his light blue pants accentuated the length of his legs. His navy coat rode his wide shoulders like a second skin, and dark, slightly curling hair fell on his collar. He knelt beside the injured man. Fabric stretched taut over the major’s thighs, and sunlight gleamed on immaculate black boots. Though his every movement spoke of power and manliness, his long, slender fingers were gentle as he examined his patient.
   “What happened?” His low-pitched voice rumbled out, setting butterflies to flapping in Priscilla’s middle.
   I wonder if his mustache is as soft as it looks. That frivolous and disjointed thought scampered across her mind, and heat started building around her lace collar and chasing up her cheeks. Where on earth had that come from? She wasn’t some silly schoolgirl. A grown woman had no business wondering such things, especially about a stranger. And a soldier at that.
   “Well?” He scanned the crowd of men leaning in close.
   “Matthews was trying to get down here quick to meet the pretty new lady. Guess he came down a mite quicker than he planned.” The soldier who spoke up couldn’t cover up a snicker, but the doctor quelled it with a steely glance.
   “He’s fractured his femur. You two”—he pointed to two privates—“ go fetch a litter and tell Samson to prepare the surgery for setting a bone.”
   They sped away. The man on the ground groaned again, and the major thumbed up one of the man’s eyelids. “He might have a concussion as well.”
   The major’s eyes met hers, and Priscilla couldn’t look away. She didn’t miss the disdain and even accusation in his stare. Surely he didn’t blame her for the man’s injury? Her indignation brought her back to herself, and she realized her hands were empty. Looking back to where the doctor had collided with her, she saw her possessions on the ground.
   Her supplies! Oh, no! The box had burst open, scattering its contents. One of the ink bottles had broken, spilling the precious liquid into the indifferent dirt in a black puddle. Kneeling beside the chaos, her hands flitted over the chalks and dusty pen nibs. Those supplies, the badge of her occupation, had safely traveled fifteen hundred miles in her possession, only to be jarred and upset by a careless officer looking for fault where none existed.
   Someone touched her shoulder, and she found herself looking up into the sunshine. Dazzled, she couldn’t make out more than a silhouette against the white-blue sky. Blinking, she shielded her eyes. “Ma’am, I understand you need to see the commanding officer? I’d be happy to escort you there.”
   A dark-skinned face looked down at her. She’d heard that there were Negroes serving in the cavalry, but this was the first whom she’d seen in uniform. He squatted and helped her gather her belongings, holding the box open for her as she laid the least damaged bits into the trays.
   “You can just leave that broken glass, ma’am. I’ll come back and clean it up.”
   Rising, she couldn’t help but glance once more at the doctor. He was busy with his patient and didn’t look up at her. But he didn’t have to. She wouldn’t soon forget those piercing gray eyes or the accusing expression they’d held.

That woman has no more business being at a frontier fort than a crystal chandelier in a horse barn.
   Slender as a willow reed, with shining dark hair and amber colored eyes. A woman like that would wreak havoc among the enlisted men. Already had, considering Matthews had taken a notion to fly off the roof at the sight of her. A little garden pansy that would wither under the hot desert sun. This country called for hardy stock, and the new arrival was anything but hardy from the look of her.
   And what on earth did she think she was dressed for? A cotillion? This was the frontier, not some Boston drawing room. All those frills and furbelows wouldn’t last a month out here. Was she staying at the fort or just passing through on her way to California? Regardless, she’d need to get more practical about her clothing if she wanted to last in this part of the world.
   Major Elliot Ryder assessed his patient’s condition. Femur breaks were the worst. Painful, and took a long time to heal. His mind raced ahead to what he would need to do to set the bone.
   The litter arrived, and one of the sergeants barked for the men on the roofing detail to get back to work, retaining a handful of soldiers to help transport the patient.
   “Get hold of him under the shoulders and lift him when I say.” Directing the men, Elliot supported the injured man’s leg near the break. “Now.”
   A shriek erupted from Matthews’s lips, and he stiffened, clawing at the air. His thrashing made him difficult to hold, and the men stopped moving halfway to the stretcher.
   “Keep going. Get it done.” Elliot spoke through his teeth, straining to keep the leg immobile.
   When they had Matthews on the litter, they all breathed a sigh, some mopping their brows. The patient shifted his grip to the poles of the litter, holding them so hard his arms shook.
   “Easy, Soldier. I’ll get you something for the pain soon.”
   The litter-bearers, one on each corner, hefted him up and started toward the adobe structure behind the barracks, one of the few original dwellings left at the fort since the building boom. Eventually, Elliot would have a new stone hospital to house his infirmary and surgery, but for now, the old adobe was good enough.
   Samson met him at the door. His faithful helper and friend, Samson was a former runaway slave who had attached himself to Elliot’s regiment during the War and was one of the most dependable men he’d ever met. Elliot didn’t know what he would’ve done without Samson’s help, especially over the last month. His gentle ways and wise, obsidian eyes were a comfort since Elliot’s world had been dumped on its ear just four weeks ago.
   “Everything’s ready.” Samson stepped back, rubbing his palm over his short, graying hair, his knuckles large and knobby. “Infirmary’s empty fo’ now.”
   “Good, because this won’t be pleasant.” Elliot turned left into the room he used for a surgery, dispensary, and office all in one. “Let’s get him on the table. Samson, support that leg.” He turned to the well-stocked shelves and inhaled deeply the smells he loved— vinegar, antiseptics, and over all, the earthy, fragrant aroma of hundreds of different herbs. Row upon row of glass jars and bottles greeted him on ranked shelves from floor to ceiling, each containing dried leaves, flower heads, stems, roots, tinctures, elixirs, unguents, all collected and prepared by him at his various postings. Lined up like his own private army against pain, illness, and suffering. He gathered several of the jars, reciting the names as he worked. “Arnica, comfrey, sorrel. Snakeroot and elderberry.”
   The leather-covered surgical table creaked under Matthews’s weight as he was transferred from the litter. He groaned, stirring. Elliot glanced at the tray of instruments Samson had laid out. Perfect, though he hoped they wouldn’t have to use the restraints. Cuffs and rope lay on the workbench nearby, ready to be attached to the short posts on each corner of the surgical table if they should be needed.
   “You men can go. Samson will give me all the help I need.” Elliot arranged his medicines, smothering a smile at the relieved expressions on the men as they filed out. One man stayed behind.
   “He’s my buddy, sir. I’d like to stay.” He twirled his hat in his hands, his brow scrunched.
   “Then stay out of the way. If you feel faint, sit down against the wall and put your head between your knees. I won’t have time to catch you if you pass out.”
   The young man paled but nodded, setting his jaw. He was tall and thick-bodied, not unlike Matthews, with the shoulders of a buffalo bull. Elliot had a theory when it came to strong stomachs. The bigger they were, the harder they fell. He’d been proven right often enough, especially during the War. Some of the brawniest men he’d ever encountered were the first to faint at the sight of blood.
   “Matthews, I need you to drink this.” Elliot leaned close and lifted the man’s head, holding a glass to his lips. “Just a few sips. It will help with the pain.”
   Samson removed the boot on Matthew’s good leg. “What you want to do about the other?”
   “Don’t cut it off.” The words came from the patient through clenched teeth. “I just got these boots.”
   Gripping Matthews’s shoulder, Elliot nodded. “As precious as footgear is out here, you know we’ll do our best to keep them in good shape. We’re going to have to set that leg, and I won’t kid you—it’s going to hurt. Do you want us to tie you down, or can you take it? It’s going to feel like we’re playing tug-of-war with you.”
   “I can take it, but let’s get to it. I don’t know how long my nerve will last. Can I have some whiskey?” A hopeful light burned through some of the pain in his eyes.
   “Let’s see how what I gave you works first. We’ll give it a few minutes.” Elliot was loathe to give medicinal whiskey, and he had better options in his pharmaceutical arsenal, though many men were slow to believe it. Within a quarter of an hour the drugs he’d administered began to take effect. Matthews was slurring his words, and his eyes had gone cloudy and unfocused.
   Time to begin.
   The next half hour was something Elliot would not soon forget. Halfway through setting the bone, Matthews’s buddy sank to the floor, moaning and holding his head in his hands. Matthews squeezed his eyes shut and held onto the table edges. The medicines had taken the worst of the edge off the pain, but it wasn’t pleasant.
   Samson was a rock, following Elliot’s orders, never questioning, never seeming to hurry, but anticipating Elliot’s needs. For his part, Elliot braced his weight and pulled on Matthews’s ankle until he was sure the broken ends of the thigh bone were in alignment.
   “I’ll maintain the tension and the angle while you get those splints in place and wrap the leg, quick as you can.” Sweat rolled down Elliot’s temple and along his jawbone. “Hold on, Matthews. We’re almost there.”
   Though it was only about an hour from the time of the fall to when they had him splinted and moved across the hall into the ward, Elliot felt he’d aged a decade. He wiped his forehead, rolling the stiff muscles in his neck and shoulders.
   “You did well.” He patted his patient’s shoulder. “Things will get better now. I’ve mixed up a draft for you that will help you sleep.” After giving the dose, he straightened. “You sit with him, Samson, and I’ll clean up.”
   Elliot returned to the surgery, startled at hearing a groan. He’d forgotten about Matthews’s friend. The private still huddled near the wall, and Elliot stooped to check on him. “How are you doing, Soldier?”
   The young man raised his head, his eyes wide and blank, his face pale as alkali dust. “That—” he broke off to swallow. “That was awful. I had no idea. When his leg started moving. . .” He wobbled.
   “Soldier.” Elliot put some iron in his voice. “Pull yourself together.” He rose. “Attention!”
   Muscle memory and discipline took over, as Elliot had known it would. The young man snapped to his feet, chest out, arms locked, eyes straight ahead, though still pale and trembling.
   “You will return to your duties immediately. You aren’t paid by this man’s army to loaf around here.”
   “Yes, sir.” He snapped a salute, turned on his heel, and fled.
   Elliot turned to the shambles on the work bench and surgery table. Piling instruments and bandages onto a tray, he planned out and reviewed a strategy for caring for his newest patient, as was his method. As soon as he finished cleaning up, he’d write everything in his records and inform Samson of the regimen of herbs and medicaments. They would need to work out a way to keep that leg immobile and provide some tension on it to help it mend straight.
   He had just put the last of the equipment away when a clattering and pounding akin to stampeding buffalo sounded on the porch boards and two seven-year-old little whirlwinds erupted into the hospital.
   As always, Tessa spoke for the pair in a rush of words, barely stopping to breathe between questions. “Is it true? Did Matthews fall off the roof and break his leg? Is he dead? Did you have to cut his leg right off? I can’t believe we missed it all.”
   The words tumbled out one on top of the other. Silently, Timothy adjusted the canteen slung crossways over his narrow chest and shoved his white-blond hair out of his eyes, while his twin sister, Tessa, eyes bluer than the center of candle flames, peeked out from under the brim of her kepi. He had no idea where she’d gotten the battered forage cap, but it had been her constant companion for the past month. What would her mother have said at her disheveled appearance? Once more he was swamped with feelings of inadequacy and loss. Why, when it was his own family who needed him, had his skills been inadequate? Why hadn’t he been able to save his sister and brother-in-law?
   Tessa’s pink little mouth opened to start another barrage of questions, and he fell back on the only way he knew to gain control.
   “Ten-hut.” He barked the order.
   They snapped to attention, shoulder to shoulder, eyes staring straight ahead and narrow shoulders thrown back, just as the woozy private had done moments before. One shoulder of Tessa’s pinafore drooped onto her arm, and Timothy’s cut-down army coat, still miles too big for him, had been buttoned askew. But they imitated the recruits they saw every day, straight as stair rods.
   Elliot clasped his hands behind his back and paced the open floor in front of them, considering what to tell them and what they might pick up from listening to the soldiers. “He did fall off the roof. He did break his leg. He is not dead. I did not have to amputate. Now where have you two been?” Since Tessa had straw in her hair, and the distinctive odor of horse drifted about the twins, he had a pretty good idea.
   “Samson told us we could go visit our ponies.” Tessa glanced up at him out of the corner of her eye. “There were lots of new horses and soldiers. A new company arrived, though they aren’t staying for long. Dusty said they brought a couple of ladies with them. Not laundresses, but real ladies. One of them is set to marry Lieutenant Dunn, but Dusty didn’t know who the other one was.” She frowned. “He sure talked about her a lot though, and he says a woman as pretty as she is won’t go unbranded for long. He says it’s a miracle she made it this far without someone throwing a loop at her. What does that mean? Is someone going to tie her up like a maverick cow?” Her little nose screwed up, and she tilted her head to the side before remembering she was supposed to be at attention.
   “Unlikely. I believe Corporal Rhodes was referring to someone asking for the lady’s hand in marriage.”
   “Dusty says a woman like that on a military post is nothing but trouble, but he said he’d die a happy man if he could suffer that kind of trouble every day for the rest of his life.” Tessa rolled her eyes and shook her head. “I think he’d been nipping at his ‘special canteen’ again. He wasn’t making any sense.”
   Elliot blew out a breath. The children encountered far too much gossip when hanging around the stables. He’d have to speak with Dusty again. The kids thought the world of the horseman, and Tessa in particular was prone to repeat everything he said, wise or not. Though he had to admit, Dusty was probably accurate in his prognosticating this time. A beautiful woman was bound to cause trouble. And this one had already caused Matthews a bushel of pain.
   Once more he found her image invading his thoughts. Skin smooth as porcelain, lips dusky as a summer rose, and eyes as big and liquid as a newborn colt—what was he doing? He shook his head and forced himself to stop that river of thought. He of all people should know better than to judge a woman by how she looked, and what on earth had gotten into him to rhapsodize about a girl he didn’t even know? He scowled and smoothed one side of his mustache. She had no place in his thoughts or his life, and she certainly had no business on a military installation on the frontier. Still, by nightfall half the regiment would be besotted, and some silly fool was bound to marry her. It happened every time an unattached female landed at the fort. Though why this time it should bother him so much was beyond his ability to comprehend at the moment.
   Tessa broke form, clasped her hands under her chin, and hopped in place. Timothy elbowed her, shoving his shoulders back and scowling to remind her they were supposed to be standing at attention.
   “Stand still, Tess,” he hissed. “What are you doing?”
   She elbowed him back but resumed her proper stance. “Don’t you see?” She spoke out of the side of her mouth, as if Elliot wouldn’t overhear. “If she’s going to get married to a soldier anyway, she can marry Uncle Elliot. He needs someone to take care of him, and then we’d kind of be like a family again.”
   The wistfulness in her voice stabbed Elliot’s heart like a Comanche war lance, but he knew he had to stem her thoughts immediately. This wasn’t the first time Tessa had hinted—more than hinted—that he needed to find a wife, something she’d learned from her mother, his sister. Rebekah had been after him for a long time to take a bride.
   “Don’t start spinning fairy tales, Tessa. I have no intention of getting married. I am a bachelor, and I intend to stay that way.” He had no desire to stick his neck into that particular noose, especially not if the bride was the arresting beauty he’d collided with earlier. Tessa needed to face reality, and hearing it out loud wouldn’t hurt him either. “And if I was to marry, it certainly wouldn’t be to a decorative piece of baggage straight from the east. I’d want someone plain and sensible, someone who could take the two of you hooligans in hand and bring you up right.” He held up his hand when Tessa started to speak. “I’ve said all I’m going to say on this topic. You’ll just have to make the best of things, Tess. I’m not getting married, not to one of the laundresses, not to the chaplain’s niece who visited last month, and certainly not to a stranger who has no business being west of the Mississippi.”
   A mutinous pout struck the little girl’s mouth, so reminiscent of her mother when she was young that a pang of guilt and grief swept over him. But though her eyes brimmed with things she wanted to say, she held her tongue.
   A miracle, that.
   The strains of a bugle drifted on the air.
   Timothy perked up. “Boots and Saddles. Can we go watch mounted drill?” Timothy loved everything to do with horses, and he never seemed to tire of watching the men drill on horseback.
   “You may, but stay out of the way and stay out of trouble. In fact, it would be best if you stayed on the barracks porch. Don’t wander off.”
   They were outside before he finished, their legs churning, feet kicking up dust. Neither had bothered to close the door, and he shook his head as he performed the task. Again the feeling of inadequacy swept over him. What was he—a bachelor of thirty—doing raising two children? Raising was rather too grand a term for it. They were running wild as tumbleweeds on the wind. In one thing Tessa was right. They needed a proper family. Too bad they were stuck with him.

Chapter Two

Standing orders, ma’am. All newcomers to the post must report to the colonel.” The dark-skinned soldier walked along the path, keeping a respectable distance between them and his eyes straight ahead. Each time they encountered another soldier, he would stop and either salute or return a salute, standing straight as a yardstick and crisp as starched cotton.
   Priscilla grew exasperated when this maneuver occurred for the third time in twenty paces. “How on earth do you get anything done with all this stopping and saluting?” Her nerves, already on edge, stretched thinner. She only wanted to get this meeting with the post commander over so she could see her niece and nephew.
   “We’re on the parade ground, ma’am.” He glanced at her, clearly expecting her to understand. “Things are more formal on the parade ground.”
   Priscilla shrugged. She wouldn’t be here long enough to relearn the rules and customs of the United States Army. When the next eastbound transportation left this pile of sand and creosote called Fort Bliss, she intended to be on it with the children and never visit another military post for the duration of her days.

Erica Vetsch
author Erica Vetsch




***I received a complimentary copy of this book from Barbour Publishing and was under no obligation to post a review. This review was written in my own words. No other compensation was received.***


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