Scary Writing Samples: A Cowboy’s Bride

A Writing Workshop Writing Sample (Right!?!)

(NOTE: Scary Writing Samples is a series of excerpts created by me and others for use in writing workshops. I needed excerpts that weren’t by “real people” so participants would feel free to say what they really thought. If you wish to use any of these as a sample in a writing workshop or other creative endeavor, please contact me first! This one in particular was for training contest judges.)

The sun rose like an egg in the middle of a vast blue frying pan, and Deke knew he was in for another hot one. The beginning of heat miraged across the horizon, giving the tall grasses covering the rolling prairie hills a hazy appearance. Looked like water, but the fact was, in this part of Kansas territory, at this time of year, the air was dryer than a potato sack and almost as scratchy.

No place for a woman. Hell, it might not be a place for man or beast, but he wasn’t ready to pawn his saddle just yet.

The herd clustered around the mostly dry creek bed that was a tributary, on a wet day, to the Kansas River that flowed near to the town of Manhattan. His jackass brother Caleb ran a traveler’s store there, overcharging railroad passengers and settlers or miners headed west. And his other brother, Matt, had taken off for parts unknown as soon as he’d turned sixteen. But Deke had remained on the ranch their father and his brothers had settled years ago–before Manhattan had been more than a dusty, low spot in the prairie frequented by buffalo and Indians.

Both pretty much gone now, which was how most of the residents around these parts liked it.

Deke doffed his hat and swiped his forearm across his brow, then waved at the cowboys down next to the herd. He liked to come out early and check on the boys and the cows alike. As current foreman of his father’s ranch, he did his fair share of the work. There was too much work to do for anybody to be slacking off, much less an able bodied man like himself.

His dad was no longer able bodied, which didn’t make him any less of a cuss.

Today, however, there was a different task on Deke’s schedule, thanks to dear old Dad, one that was a lot more difficult than roping a wild longhorn, riding a bronco, or wrassling a calf to the ground on branding day.

It was more confusing than tallying a year’s worth of receipts.

And it was more annoying than chasing a polecat out from under the barn.

Today, he had to clean himself up, hitch up a buggy, and get his cowpoke ass into town to get married.

***

Peering into the polished oval of metal that passed for a mirror in the safest-looking boardinghouse she’d been able to afford in Manhattan, Kansas, Wilhemenia Jane Cartwright adjusted the tight blue bodice of her stylish gown and tipped her hat, complete with two ostrich feathers, a bit further forward. Her mother would have said that only strumpets wore their hats down this low on their foreheads, so that the feather bounced forward and almost caressed their cheeks, but her mother had been dead three years this past spring.

Which had been the beginning of the end, as far as Willie was concerned. Though blessed with their mother’s beauty and some skill with the needle, Willie had been too young and inexperienced to maintain the family millinery and dressmaking business in Boston when Mama passed and had eventually been forced to sell.

When that money ran out, what little there was of it, Willie did what she’d never thought she’d have to do: sell herself. But not to the highest bidder. Willie had contracted with a company providing mail order brides for respectable Christian ranchers out West, and after exchanging several letters with one Deke Zachariah Calhoun, had agreed to become his bride.

And that was why she was here in this sterile boarding house in Manhattan, Kansas, dressed in the starchy remnants of a once-thriving dressmaking business, with butterflies in her stomach and ostrich feathers dancing against her cheek.

A knock on the door interrupted her ruminations. “You ready in there, Miss?” called out the house matron.

Willie’s stomach did a double flop, and she opened the door a crack. The round, puffed up bosom of the house matron met her eye, and she hastily lifted her gaze to the woman’s square face. She had never met a woman so tall as Frau Gunter, whose forbidding appearance and large biceps discouraged any unseemliness in her tenants.

“He’s here,” the woman said with a sniff. “Best you get on downstairs. The preacher can’t wait around for you all day.”

“What…” Willie’s dry throat closed. “What does he look like? Does he seem like a nice man?”

“Everybody in these parts knows Deke Calhoun isn’t what you’d call a nice man,” the woman said. “Takes after his papa. The man is as hard as nails and twice as rusty.”

“I see.” Willie pressed a hand to her stomach, as if that would calm the butterflies. He wasn’t a nice man? He’d seemed nice enough in his letters, though his spelling and penmanship had left something to be desired. “What would make a man like that want to take a wife?”

“What makes any man want a wife? Someone to cook and keep house for him, I expect, and look after the old man.”

He’d mentioned his father in his letters, but not that the man needed “looking after”. Willie definitely had experience in that, gained during her mother’s wasting illness, even if she might have exaggerated her abilities in the kitchen in her letters to Mr. Calhoun. And her abilities in the household. No, pretty much all Willie could do was sew a fine seam, advise women on what hats would flatter their features, and discuss literature and poetry.

“Surely some local girl…” Willie said. Or would no fathers in these parts allow their beloved daughters to be married to this hard as nails man? Oh, what had she gotten herself into now!

“Now, don’t you fret.” The frau nodded her chin decisively. “The Triple C is a good ranch, with water rights and fine access to the railroads. A woman could do worse.”

Willie managed to answer, “I suppose I’ll find out for myself.”

It was too late to back out, after all. She had nothing to return to.

Frau Gunter’s broad face fell into a neutral expression as Willie gathered her few things. Her trunks were already downstairs, awaiting delivery to the Triple C, and she had a portmanteau for her personal effects with her.

Frau Gunter cleared her throat. “This is a respectable boardinghouse,” she began, “and I don’t often have rooms to let. But if things don’t work out between you and Mr. Calhoun, if he doesn’t treat you well, we do have openings sometimes. And I could always use a hand in the kitchen.”

“Thank you, Frau Gunter. I won’t forget that.” Willie suppressed a sudden urge to hug the stolid woman and hoped the burning behind her eyes and the tight feeling in her throat would ebb before she met her future husband for the first time.

She gathered her things as the matron watched and breathed deeply. Her mother had always dreamed of Willie’s perfect wedding and obviously the perfect wedding dress and trousseau, but she’d never gotten around to telling her what happened after the big day, between a man and a woman. She’d always said Willie’s husband would explain it all when the time came.

If only she’d been able to find a man to marry in Boston before it had come to this! But a down on her luck heir to a struggling dressmaker’s shop who spent all her time sewing, begging her seamstresses not to quit, begging her customers not to defect–and to pay their bills–and begging her creditors for one more month to set things to right–that girl hadn’t been an attractive bride to the socially conscious young men of Boston’s middle class.

She hadn’t stooped to begging any of her former beaus to court her, but advertising herself as a mail order bride was bad enough.

Willie hooked her arm through the handles of her portmanteau and follow the frau through the narrow corridor of the second floor of the boarding house. The heels of their shoes clacked on the clean, worn boards. A female head popped out of one room, her red hair in disarray, and just as quickly disappeared.

Instead of using the rough staircase that led to the kitchen and back dining room, where the residents of the boardinghouse took their meals, Frau Gunter led Willie down the front stairs that descended into the foyer off the parlor where presumably Mr. Calhoun and the preacher waited. Willie held her breath until she began to grow dizzy.

***

© 2008 Jody Wallace