I so love writing my stories around REAL women who lived in, settled, and survived the West. My newest release, Hell-Bent on Blessings, is a special treat. Or at least it was for me writing it.
Harriet Pullen--my heroine--ran a reasonably successful and highly respected horse ranch in Oregon in the early 1890s. She and her four children. Her husband didn't seem to do much other than drink and add debt to their accounts. Eventually, the debt outweighed the money coming in and Harriet's man conveniently disappeared. She was forced then to make a brutal choice: start-over in Oregon at grub wages or follow the gold rush to the Klondike alone.
She placed her children with one set of neighbors, her horses with another, watched the sheriff nail a foreclosure sign to her front door, and then she hopped a boat to Skagway. Standing on the shore there, newly arrived--literally--she was offered a job cooking for a man whose "chef" had just abandoned a crew of eighteen hungry men. Harriet rolled up her sleeves and jumped in.
Ferociously driven to get back in control of her finances and her life, she cooked all day and then baked mouthwatering pies all night and sold them by the dozens. Before long, she'd saved up enough money to send for her boys AND her horses. All that baking had given her time to formulate a business plan. Harriet was going to open her own shipping company--an unheard of goal for a woman, much less for one in the rugged Alaskan frontier.
And I'll leave it there. Here's a snippet from Hell-Bent on Blessings. Hope you enjoy getting a glimpse of what set Harriet's destiny in motion.
“Momma, the sheriff’s in the parlor.”
Something in her thirteen-year-old daughter’s voice sent a chill of foreboding up Harriet Pullen’s spine, but she didn’t stop her work. She slapped the whip on the ground and shook the lunge line. “Gidup, boy.” The bay gelding on the other end of the rope picked up his pace to a trot and circled around her in the corral. “Good boy. Good boy.” Over her shoulder to Katie, she said, “What’s he want?”
“I don’t know. We ran into him coming home from school and he rode on out with us. Just said he had to talk to you.”
Harriet had much too much work to do to stop and fix another mess her worthless husband had caused. That was the only reason the sheriff ever came out here.
She sighed and slapped the whip one last time. Ricco was a good horse. Harriet was pleased with him. Willing and strong, he had heart and he liked pleasing her. When his training was done, she would hate parting with him.
Ignoring problems didn’t make them go away. Harriet lowered the whip and slowly pulled the horse around to face her, but she didn’t reel him in. “You got any homework, Katie?”
“Only a little.”
“All right, well…” She turned and walked the lunge line and the whip over to her daughter, who was draped over the corral fence. “Work Ricco here another fifteen minutes then put him up. Don’t forget his peppermint stick. And don’t get your dress dirty.”
“I won’t.” The girl took the tools from her mother, but held her gaze as their hands met. “Pa’s been gone a long time, you don’t think he’s—”
“I’m sure he’s fine.” The drunk’ll probably outlive me. “The sheriff just needs us to settle a debt for him or some such.”
The girl’s blue eyes cooled, and the crease in her brow said she wasn’t convinced, but she nodded. “All right. And I won’t forget the peppermint.”
* * *
Out of habit, Harriet grabbed an apron off the stove’s hook as she passed through the kitchen. Tying it behind her back, she marched into the parlor. Jason Meredith, Sundown’s unofficial sheriff—unofficial because the crossroads wasn’t incorporated—sat in her parlor tapping his fingertips together. A handsome man, he often wore a well-worn cowboy hat that he’d folded straight up in front, giving him an almost comic look. It sat beside him now on the settee.
Jason was certainly no man to laugh at, however. He was ridiculously tall—at least six foot six—sported a shock of hair blond as sunshine, and wielded a devastating, white, toothy smile that made most women swoon.
Harriet was immune to his soul-searching blue eyes and strong, straight jaw, however. She was immune to men. Period. Henry had used up all her passion and kindness.
“What’s he done now, Jason?” Not the politest way to start a conversation, but she was in no mood. Wrong. She was in a foul mood and didn’t feel like dallying with niceties.
He stood slowly, much like a behemoth rising to the sky, and offered her a sad, almost embarrassed smile. “Yeah, I’m here about him.”
She dropped her hands on her hips. “Do I need to bake something?” Her way of coping. It kept her from throwing things.
“Might not be a bad idea.”
She stopped a worried flinch—barely—and motioned for him to follow her. “Come into the kitchen with me.”
* * *
She poured a cup of coffee and handed it to him. “Sit down. I hate looking up at you. Makes my neck hurt.” He obliged, and she went to work gathering up ingredients around the kitchen for an apple pie. “Go ahead and spill it.”
He glanced at the coffee. “Nah, I’d rather drink it.”
She hit him with a stink eye as she plucked four eggs from a bowl on the counter and set them next to a clay crock marked sugar. “You know what I mean.” She pulled a paring knife from the drawer, clutched another bowl to her side, this one full of apples, and joined him at the kitchen table.
He watched her hands warily as she set to peeling. “I’m not sure I want to talk to you with a knife in your hands.”
Harriet didn’t look up from the apple she was peeling. “Jason, I’m tired—” Unexpectedly, a lump tried to constrict her throat. She was plain worn out. Henry took her and the children two steps forward and then three back, day in and day out, and had for years. Every time they got a little ahead, he somehow managed to foul up their plans. He’d gambled away their extra cash, practically given away a good horse she’d been training, gotten arrested for drunken behavior over and over, incurring fine after fine. The last time, she’d had to bake a dozen pies for the sheriff and judge over in Whitney to cover court costs.
And this had been going on for sixteen years. She should be used to it by now, but she couldn’t forget all the love and promise Henry had once shown. The early years of their marriage had been filled with planting dreams and watching them blossom. Then Henry had fallen into the bottle. “I’m tired of the mystery. Just tell me,” she said flatly
Jason took a sip then set the cup down. “Henry’s dead.”
Harriet’s first thought was of the children. How would they take this? Surely they would be sad. He was their father. But he had never been a very good one, drunk more often than sober. The children were aware of the struggles the ranch endured because of his less-than-reliable behavior. So, they would be sad, yes. Devastated? She didn’t think so. She certainly wasn’t. She wondered what that said about the state of her conscience. Maybe she was just in shock. “How,” she heard herself ask.
“Near as anyone can tell, he drank himself to death. I guess he wandered down to the Willamette, a bottle in his hand. Just died, sitting there beside the water. But seeing as how he’d been there a while, there wasn’t much to—I mean, well, identifying him took a little work. This was the clue.” He pulled a gold wedding band from his breast pocket. “That is yours?”
Harriet took the ring and examined it. Engraved on the inside, it read, To my darling Harriet. Love, Henry. Yes, it was hers. She’d lost it a month ago, but suspected all along he’d taken it to pawn.
“Are you aware he hasn’t paid the mortgage in six months?”
This news hit her harder than Henry’s death and froze her hands.
She squeezed her eyes shut, despair and rising anger gripping her heart. She couldn’t do everything. She kept up with the ranch. She raised the children. Did the shopping. Did the cooking. Balanced their ledgers. The only thing Henry had to do was literally pay two bills—the feedstore and bank.
Oh, Lord, please don’t tell me—
She looked up and saw the sympathy in Jason’s eyes. It made her feel ashamed, but not of her pragmatic thoughts. Of the man she’d married. Of her poor choice. “I counted it out every month for him. Put it in an envelope. All he had to do was walk in and hand it to the clerk.”
“I guess…” He swiped a hand over his stubbly chin. “I guess he couldn’t pass up the saloons. O’Dell at the bank talked to him repeatedly about it, Harriet—”
“Why didn’t someone talk to me?”
“A woman?” She spat out the word, sick to death of it being equated with weakness and stupidity. “But you’ll talk to me now?”
“Yes and no. I mean, you’re Henry’s wife but he’s legally in charge—”
She waved the knife at him. “Was legally in charge. You said he’s dead. Before that, I hadn’t seen him in almost a month. So I’m here to deal with things. How much does he owe the bank?”
“Well,” Jason rubbed his neck and a sinking feeling lapped over Harriet like a rising tide. “It’s more than the bank. He owes the feed store and a couple of merchants in town. I’ve been trying to put this off for you, Harriet, thinking he might come back—”
“How did you know he was gone?”
“When Henry Pullen misses more than three nights at Pauline’s Parlor, everybody in this valley knows. And nobody had seen him in a month. If you’d asked, I would have looked for him.”
“He came and went like he wanted. We never knew…we never knew when he was coming back.” Harriet set the apple and the knife down and pressed her fingertips to her forehead holding back a headache. “How much?”
“Unless you’ve got three thousand dollars, the bank is foreclosing in three days, and Bill at the feedstore is making a claim, too.” He flinched a little. “And the saloon.”
Come along for the ride as Harriet fights for her place in the wild, gold rush town of Blessings, California! Find out why I chose the Shakespeare quote, "Though she be but little, she is fierce," as my tagline! You can get your own copy here!