“The greatest thing a human being ever does in this world is to see something . . . to see clearly is poetry, prophecy, a religion all in one.” John Ruskin
It’s 1890 and Idaho Territory is celebrating statehood. The event will draw two individuals who, like the new state, must redefine and prove themselves. While the artist, Luke Brennan, is captivated by Dawn Fairburn’s bewitching, jade green eyes and brilliant mind, the world characterizes her as less than an acceptable model of womanly perfection. Both are lacking in society’s estimation, he for his Irish heritage and she for her deformed leg, but together they may prove them all wrong. Like the new state, their combined strengths will give them the courage to step into the wilderness of their uncertain future.
“The greatest thing a human being ever does in this world is to see something . . . to see clearly is poetry, prophecy, a religion all in one.” John Ruskin
June 24, 1890
For a future yet to be written, an unbridled imagination is a dangerous thing. Although Dawn held to such philosophical convictions, as she turned to her slumbering father sitting beside her, she allowed herself to travel that treacherous path leading her thoughts to notions of what might be.
Even in sleep, with his chin nodding gently against his chest in easy rhythm to the rocking motion of the train, he looked dignified and even—presidential. Dawn smiled to herself, pleased by the notion. She considered her father’s pleasing features, his strong, square jaw, the touches of gray giving him that suggestion of experience and wisdom that could build confidence in his constituents. She pressed her lips together and lifted one eyebrow a slight degree higher than the other. Why not? Her skin prickled at the image. If he could go from legal counsel to the next U.S. Senator for New York, why not President? And she would be the one to help put him there.
Dawn shifted in her seat, frowning. Mr. Pullman’s train cars were a definite improvement from those wooden seats of early years when she and her father traveled from New York to Washington. But comfortable, they were not. She envied his ability to fall asleep so effortlessly—the benefits of a man with a clean conscience.
She reached down to retrieve her father’s brochure from the floor, the one he’d read to her with such enthusiasm moments before he’d fallen asleep. Now, with the campaign before him, did he insist on this trip into Idaho Territory? They needed to be planning, not traipsing off to the frontier for . . . Reading the advertisement again, she felt a scowl pinch her brow. Come to the Hartmann Ranch where you can experience the frontier ranching life.
As the train rounded a bend, the view from her window shifted to the east, the direction from which they’d been traveling since yesterday morning. Streaks of palest yellow heralded the break of day. It should have cheered her as it usually did, but unlike her usual day of ordered routine, this one held too many uncertainties. She looked down at the twisted brochure still gripped in her hands. The word adventure peeked between her fingers. It wasn’t a word that often appeared in her vocabulary. Adventure conjured up images of safari hunters in wild, foreign lands.
Careful not to disturb him, Dawn lowered her head to her father’s shoulder, breathing in the familiar scent of his pipe tobacco and starched collar. How could she ever remain impatient with him? With a skill she’d honed since earliest childhood, she focused her thoughts on this moment. In this moment, she was blissfully content. Tomorrow was yet to be. With luck, she would see the adventures only from the windows of a rolling train.
From the train window, the indistinct reflection appraised the serious young woman with green eyes. Dawn had been told often enough they were the same shade that made her mother so attractive. But unlike her mother, Dawn lacked the golden locks. Her brown hair favored her father’s, as did the firm line of her jaw. And like her father, her thoughts rarely strayed from her duty to support and serve.
Luke Brennan sat as rigid as the straight-backed chair, prepared for the worst, as his employer squinted at him through a dense cloud of cigar smoke.
The barrel-chested man behind the desk pursed his lips as he studied Luke’s most recent drawing. “It isn’t the quality of your illustrations, Luke.”
Luke tried to interpret the editor’s tight, pained expression, uncertain whether the man was commiserating or experiencing another bout of chronic indigestion. He suspected the latter. Empathy was not among Mr. Carrington’s virtues.
The older man leaned back and shoved the cigar between his lips, taking one long draw and puffing another fetid cloud in Luke’s direction. “It’s business, purely business. The St. Louis-Dispatch is foremost designed to make money for our publisher, Mr. Pulitzer.” He waved his hand, and the cigar sent a thin smoky trail, spiraling to the ceiling. Luke imagined how he’d capture smoke with his pen. Of course, he’d need to consider the limitations of the engravers.
Luke followed the ribbon of smoke curling back upon itself and watched it transform in width as it drifted to the ceiling.
“Luke, are you listening to me?” The editor leaned forward, resting his arms on the edge of his desk, a scowl lining his brow.
Luke cleared his throat and brought his gaze back to the man.
Apparently satisfied, the editor continued, “It’s a problem of speed. You submit half as many illustrations as everyone else on my staff.” His lip lifted into a sardonic smile. “Personally, I like your work. You have an eye for humor, like the drawing you made of the governor last month—the one where the woman’s hat is covering his lip.” He demonstrated with his cigar, posing with it close to his upper lip. “Looked like he was wearing the peacock feather right there! Brilliant!”
“Are you giving me notice?”
“What? No! You’re good. I just wish you could turn yourself into a photographer. As soon as we can figure out how to print the darn things cheaper and faster, no paper will waste time with illustrations. As much as our noble publisher would like to kick us into the twentieth century, we aren’t ready. But the writing is on the wall, so to speak, or should I say in the typeset? Or should I say, engraving?” He cackled at his own poor attempt at humor. “Illustrations will soon be passé. We are moving into the modern era of photographic journalism, at least that’s the term they’re using in the windowed offices down the hall.”
Luke had yet to understand fully his tenuous position, and his patience was growing thin. “Are you telling me I’m not covering Idaho’s statehood?”
The editor tapped ash into his coffee cup. He pursed his lips. “Yes, and no.”
“I’m still sending you to Idaho, but not to the capitol. We’ll be assigning someone else for the bigger event. All the political posturing will happen in Boise City or. . .” He glanced at the paper on his desk. “a town called Hailey. I want you to go to Ketchum to capture the—let’s call it, the more prosaic side of the occasion.”
Luke imagined this Ketchum would be less a city and more fitting to a setting for some Western dime novel, filled with saloons and drunken miners. If he was lucky, maybe he’d see his first street shootout. His mood made a radical shift. Perhaps, this wouldn’t be so bad. He’d have a chance to encounter some real wildlife, the bison, the antelope or even the bears he’d only seen in zoos.
“We have some patrons who are investors in the Philadelphia Smelter in Ketchum. They’ll be attending the celebration.” The editor interrupted these positive thoughts with the realities of his assignment. “You might do well to figure them prominently into any illustration you make for the paper.” A cunning smile inched across his face. “I’m certain that our financial department would be appreciative.”
“Good!” The big man waved a hand to the door. “Miss Turner has your train tickets for you. Oh, and I’ve arranged accommodations for you at a place called the Hartmann Guest Ranch. Seems some couple has opened their ranch for people interested in—” He picked up the same paper from his desk. “Experiencing the frontier.” He raised a bushy eyebrow. “Can’t imagine why anyone would want to. But see if you can ferret out a good story without getting scalped.” He let out a loud guffaw, adding, “Although, that would make a topnotch story.”
When the man stuck his cigar back between tight lips and began shuffling through the mess of papers on his desk, Luke assumed he was being dismissed. He left the office feeling more hopeful than he thought he’d be when walking through the door minutes earlier. The wild western frontier, a ranch, and real adventure might be just what he needed. His excitement tempered as he glumly realized that it might also be his last assignment.
With Elena Hartmann’s straight brown hair and brown eyes and Jessie Long’s freckled nose and strawberry blond curls, no one would have mistaken them for sisters, but Jessie was the closest Lena had ever come to having one. Besides the sharp contrast in their appearance, they were even further dissimilar in personality. Jessie was always the impulsive big-hearted optimist while Lena remained the cautious, reserved introvert. Being brought together through adversity had forged a bond that nothing in four years could weaken.
Lena scanned the telegram a second time before handing it to Jessie. “It’s a good start. Four guests will give us a good opportunity to see if we’re ready to become innkeepers.” She folded her arms, tapping one nervous finger against her forearm. “From what I can determine, only Mr. Fairburn has expressed an interest in hunting or fishing, so that shouldn’t tax Evan’s time with the normal ranch operations. I’m wondering what we’ll find to entertain the others.”
Jessie nodded in a slow, thoughtful manner. “Evan and Bart can easily take turns escorting the gentlemen and teaching them things about ranching and such.” She folded the telegram and returned it to Lena. Her eyes sparkling, she added, “I’ve already planned menus for a week. We’ll have a new breakfast pastry every morning.” She ticked off the days on her fingers. “Monday—popovers. Tuesday—cinnamon rolls. Wednesday—spiced muffins. Thursday—apple pandowdy. Friday—currant scones. Saturday—fritters. Sunday we’ll serve leftovers.”
Lena lifted an eyebrow by a skeptical degree. “That’s something we may need to discuss, Jessie. Your twins aren’t even a year old. I’m afraid your plans might be a little too ambitious.”
Looking more like a petulant child and less like a mother with two children, Jessie wrinkled her nose. She opened her mouth to respond when a crash brought both women swinging heads to the kitchen door. Another thud and Jessie started saying, “Oh, bother! Bart is supposed to be watching them.”
Jessie passed Evan coming from the kitchen. Evan grinned and said, “Your husband looks like he could use your help.”
From the kitchen came a pair of gleeful squeals along with Jessie’s dismayed voice. “Oh Lord, have mercy.”
Evan chuckled as he crossed the room, sweeping Lena into his arms. “Never boring with those two. Good thing she has you around to help.”
“You mean, those three. I’d put Jessie in the same grouping.”
He kissed her, not the chaste peck of a greeting, but a warm resounding kiss on the lips. Then he asked, “How was your afternoon?”
Lena rested her cheek against his chest, breathing in the earthy scent of horses and cedar. “The bedrooms are ready for our guests and I’ve closed all the doors to keep them that way.” She looked up. “I missed you.”
“Only been gone one night.” He stroked her back and rested his chin upon her head. “Are you all right?”
He always knew, could read every subtle shift of her mood. Empathy for others had attracted her to him four years ago when they’d first met in Sawtooth City. His boundless compassion, as he’d expressed it for others, had nearly stifled their budding romance before it blossomed. Those misunderstandings no longer mattered.
But this ache, this sense of longing, she must never speak into words. “I’m just glad you’re back.” She unraveled herself from his arms. “We have two more guests arriving this month, that makes four in all. Edward Fairburn and his daughter are coming.”
“Seems the good Lord might be smiling on your dream.”
“Our dream,” she corrected.
“Our dream.” He took her hand and started for his favorite chair near the fireplace, but pulled up short when Lena cleared her throat. He followed her gaze to his muddy boots and the layer of trail dust covering his pants. “Sorry. Guess I shouldn’t.
“No, you should not.” She laughed at the boyish look of chagrin on his face. “Come on out to the porch. You can tell me about the ranching half of our enterprise and take my mind off the guesting side.”
“You mean you want to hear about how your shrewd husband sweet-talked Nate Gallagher out of that bay stallion?”
Lena spun to face him. “You didn’t?”
“I did.” His mischievous grin told her there was more to the story. He took her hand again and led the way to the porch railing where the view of their long valley stretched west to the Big Wood River. “And would you be surprised to know how I got him to throw in that pair of pintos you’ve been adoring for the past year?”
Lena covered her mouth as she let out a cry. “Oh, Evan, did you really? The little mare?”
His lips curved into a teasing grin, his eyes sparkling. “And the stallion.”
She threw herself into his arms again. “You dear man.”
Evan breathed into her hair, “There’s nothing too good for you, my sweet lady.”
Even as she accepted his love with an open heart, she marveled at his words. He stood, offering all he was to her, a good man who had seen something within her worth cherishing. Had she continued to think herself unlovable and refused him, she would have never known this contentment.
What more could she desire? The open range land rolling down to the river belonged to them now, and it’d been hard earned, making it all the sweeter. As happy as she was in this moment, a nudge of worry kept her from savoring it. What if her gambit failed? What if all those articles she’d read about the numbers of people heading west from the cities searching for frontier tours had been exaggerated? All they’d invested could be lost. Was her dream too ambitious?
Evan stroked the side of her neck with his thumb. “Stop worrying.”
“You know me too well.”
“Yes, I do.”
“What if the dream has been too risky? All your money saved for the ranch . . . the profits from your mine. . .”
He lay his finger beneath her chin and lifted her face to his. “It’s our dream, Lena. It’s always been our dream.”
Luke’s hand moved rapidly across the white paper, his slender fingers, dusted black, capturing life with swift sure strokes. The thin charcoal stick snapped in his grip as the train hit a rough section of track. An ugly smudge spoiled the drawing. Luke tucked the smaller piece into his jacket pocket and pulled out a handkerchief as soiled and gray as his fingers. He dabbed at the corner of his sketch, where he’d drawn the child’s fingers burrowed beneath the kitten’s fur. A few more strokes with the broken edge of his charcoal and fine strands of sketched hair covered his mistake.
He looked up again, and studied the child’s face in profile. Her eyes reflected an old soul, but her thin arms and round face made her youth clear to any casual observer. How did he translate that dichotomy to paper? How did he truly communicate her essence? He’d seen the work of artists who had mastered such skills, but he had yet to see it realized in his own work.
“May I see?” The child peered curiously at him from across the aisle.
Luke caught and held her round curious eyes—too serious for one so young. The kitten in her lap stirred awake while the older woman beside the child slept on. He passed the sketch pad across the aisle.
The child studied it for a time, then looked up, a frown drawing her thin brows together. “It’s very nice, but my kitten is white.” Her lips pursed as she lowered her gaze to the drawing once again. “But I suppose one could not expect much else if one was drawing only with charcoal.”
“I would suppose you are correct, Miss.” Luke glanced down to conceal his amusement. Critics abounded, and he’d heard from his share over these past years as an illustrator for the St. Louis-Dispatch. From newspaper patrons to editors, he’d received both praise and condemnation. For the most part, he’d come to accept them both with equal detachment. Besides, he was his own worst critic.
She handed the pad back to Luke, a polite smile briefly lifting her countenance. “You are an artist.”
Luke hitched one shoulder. “I imagine you’ve drawn some pictures. Have you made any of your kitten?”
The child’s face grew somber, almost grave. “My grandmother says drawing is idle child’s play and I should give up childish ways and learn to behave like a lady.”
Her answer took Luke aback. A question seemed the better response. “And is that what you think as well?”
She dropped her gaze to the kitten, wiggling her fingers behind its ear. “Grandmother says it is.” Softer, she added, “You see, Grandmother is always right.”
Who was he to refute the child’s dutiful conviction? “Ah, yes. I see.”
He closed his pad and slipped it into his leather satchel, then seeing the girl returning to her lady-like composure, he turned his face to the darkened window. A ghostly reflection of his own features superimposed itself onto the rolling landscape beyond the glass. The blue eyes staring back were like those of his mother. The one time he’d tried to paint her, he’d used a mixture of Prussian blue and aquamarine, never finding the distinct hue.
He brushed a hand through his unruly brown locks, then ran it down his cheek bristly with a day’s growth of whiskers and frowned. As usual, he looked older than his twenty-three years. He always had and he blamed it on the annoying fact that he’d been shaving for over five of those years, a hereditary gift from his Irish father whose face Luke had never once seen free of whiskers except for the day they laid him out in his casket. With pale clean cheeks and his thin body clothed in a borrowed suit, he’d looked a stranger.
Why his mother would have ever said that Luke would one day steal the hearts of young ladies remained a mystery. He certainly hadn’t, but, when he was honest with himself, neither had he tried. Responsibilities to his family left no room in his life for a wife. At least, that had been true until four months ago when his mother had passed. But habits aren’t quickly altered.
He threw a glance at the child, now cooing softly to her kitten. Her childhood would probably fade as quickly as the first blush of sunrise if her grandmother had her way. Responsibilities had a way of doing that. In the child’s case, he wondered if the needs of the grandmother had superseded those of the child to remain a child for a little longer.
Under the ambient light of a nearly full moon, Luke could just discern a flat landscape stretching into the moon shadows cast by a distant mountain range. The terrain was so unlike the cityscapes he’d lived in for all his life. He felt a shiver of excitement course through him. Here in this vast and sprawling landscape he’d find subjects to fill the blank pages of his sketch books, the wild, the living wonders he’d long dreamed of seeing with his own eyes.
He checked himself, because he had an assignment to complete if he wanted to keep earning a living, even if it was for a job as unsatisfying as illustrating the news. But the concern nagged at him; would even his best be enough?
Worry never put food on the table nor coins in your pocket. Only hard work and a firm determination had the power to do either. Those were the words his mother had lived and died by. He pulled his collar close to his neck and sat back, as the train rocked him into an uneasy sleep.
Samantha St. Claire is the pen name of an author passionate about American history and the people whose legacies are woven into the fabric of a nation. She writes those characters to life in her novels of the western frontier, their trials and triumphs. Coming from a family of pioneers, she honestly claims her roots as a Daughter of the American Revolution and descendant of a Scottish Laird.