Willow Madison thought by the time she turned nineteen, she would have the spirit of a wild mustang racing across the Texas plains─free of entanglements, liberated of sorrow, racing free with the herd. Wind in her eyes, unencumbered mane…
Instead, her mare pulled her in a buckboard, trotting across the rutted Texas countryside, heart heavy with what she was about to perpetuate.
She spat out a bug, then worked the handkerchief up her neck and over her mouth. Dust flew fro the mare's hooves and fogged her sight. Fear shaded her senses. The five barrels of kerosene in the wagon bed made her uneasy, but then, the whole sordid purpose of her journey was nerve-racking. If she had her say, she'd turn this rig around and head straight for home as fast as the horse could run. But she didn't have her say.
Although, after a year of war─living with death twenty-four hours a day, and then walking away last month with nothing more serious than a sprained ankle─fear should no longer be a part of her vocabulary.
She could do this. She had to do it. Copper and Audrey were counting on her.
Yet, deliberately setting her bonnet for a man wealthy beyond description and candidly in the market for a bride wasn't her idea of romance, or for that matter, integrity. She shook her head. Marriage was a sacred matter, and she planned to honor her vows. Love was highly overrated.
Money to the wealthy was a minute matter; two coins to Willow meant she and her friends would either eat or go hungry.
She lifted a hand to shield the late afternoon glare. Black clouds hung in the west, but the hot sun seared her back. Willow urged the horse to a faster gait. She'd spent tow nights on the trail, and she didn't intend to waste a third. Her eyes fixed on the lowering clouds, charged with torrential rain─or were they? Uncle Wallace warned that it rarely rained in Thunder Ridge─only thundered and lightninged. Regardless, she was ready to be done with this godforsaken journey.
An hour later, Willow spotted a wooden sign at a crossroad. An arrow pointed west, and the crude lettering read: Thunder ridge ½ mile.
Flicking the reigns, she set off. The buckboard bounced through heavy ruts. Kerosene splashes against tightly sealed lids. Would five full barrels be enough? She mulled her uncle's letter over in her mind.
Don't forget to bring kerosene. The men are busy rebuilding the mill so they don't remember that cold winter winds will come again.
And her reply:
Dear Uncle Wallace,
Due to circumstances, I am accepting your invitation to stay with you. I will come immediately and bring kerosene.
She winced, picturing Copper and Audrey, fellow soldiers and schoolteachers. The women's expressions had paled when she told them that she had accepted Uncle Wallace's solution to everyone's problem.
"It isn't right, Willow." Copper shook fiery-colored tresses. "It isn't fair to take advantage of the rich in the disgraceful manner."
"Right or wrong, we have to eat."
Audrey frowned. "But marry a man for money instead of love? Do you really think that's what God would want for you?" Well, it wasn't Willow's first choice, but she could do it. When the Yanks had come and burned, pillages, and killed, Timber Creek's surviving women had banded and fought back, formerly happy brides, and three single women. Willow and her friends had helped bitter husbandless women and mothers dig shallow graves and bury children before they took up arms. Then they had formed a small but formidable band, and they fought. Four had gone down fighting for what they believed, but the women had fought as hard and as determined as any man.