“Whew!” Johnnie Layman exclaimed to himself, as he wiped the sweat off of his forehead. Another hard day’s work had just been completed on his ranch. It had taken him years to get the place to where it was now, and every minute of toil in the fields was worth it.
He looked out at his ranch and marveled at just how far he’d come. It wasn’t that long ago when all he and his family owned was a little house for themselves and a few chickens. But with hard work and determination, they’d turned the property into the sprawling ranch it was now. It had a myriad of animals that Johnnie and his ranch hands cared for extremely well. Pigs, goats, sheep, cattle, and horses all had their place on his ranch.
His big sellers were of course his cattle, which he took much pride in raising. They were all strong and healthy, perfect for both meat and milk. His sheep were always praised for their high-quality wool and his goats were well known for their tasty cheese. His pigs were raised to be fat and happy so they would yield only the best cuts of meat, perfect for making bacon. Johnnie’s ranch was also home to a few strong stallions, whom he used as breeding studs that people from all over the state of Wyoming paid for. It was not uncommon for him to win prizes at the county fair.
Even with all of the blue ribbons that his livestock won him, there was nothing he loved more in the world than his fiancée, Lorraine. She was a very mysterious, dark beauty. She was tall, with long black hair, and pale gray eyes. Whenever she entered a room, men were intimidated by her, and women were scared of her. Johnnie, however, was a bit different from the rest of the men in the town of Greencrest.
Given his carefree attitude, he didn’t really see Lorraine as intimidating. He had been positively enthralled by her from the first day she arrived into town with her father. The moment he’d seen her in that red dress when she stepped off the stagecoach, he wanted to marry her.
And finally, after a year of courting and romantic endeavors, Johnnie’s dreams would soon come true. He’d have everything he wanted in life–a successful ranch and a beautiful wife.
Johnnie walked back to his house, his stomach growling as he approached. The smell of a home-cooked meal swept through his nose, and he was relieved to finally be able to relax for the day. As he entered his home, he greeted his fiancée.
“Evening, my darling,” Johnnie said sweetly to Lorraine.
“Good evening, Johnnie,” Lorraine said plainly as she finished cooking dinner. A slightly overcooked steak with vegetables that needed a bit more seasoning. She knew Johnnie wouldn’t mind, he thought it was what gave her cooking character.
Johnnie inhaled deeply through his nose, drinking in the smell of dinner. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph does that smell good!” he exclaimed.
“Why thank you,” Lorraine said. “Have a seat at the dinner table, I’ll have a plate ready for you in a moment.”
“As you wish, darling,” Johnnie said as he walked to the table.
Lorraine rolled her eyes as he walked away. She finished up her cooking and prepared a plate of food for herself and Johnnie. As she walked over to the dinner table Johnnie was looking back at her with a warm, loving, and happy expression. She placed a plate in front of her fiancé and sat across the table with her own meal.
They sat in silence for a moment before Johnnie began to regale his fiancée with the exciting events of the day’s work.
“Did I tell you one of the cows had a calf today?” Johnnie asked enthusiastically.
“No,” Lorraine replied as she stabbed at her steak with her fork.
“Well, they did. The calf is as healthy as could be!” Johnnie said excitedly.
“That’s good to hear,” Lorraine said.
“Oh, someone came in and asked to have one of their horses bred today too,” Johnnie said.
Lorraine stopped playing with her food, cocked an eyebrow, and asked, “How much did he offer you? Hopefully a lot more than some of the other people around here.”
Johnnie chuckled. “This feller wasn’t actually from around here. Some horse racer from back east, I guess the wind carried word of our stallions out that way.”
“How much is he willing to pay?” Lorraine asked again.
“Quite a lot actually,” Johnnie replied, “almost five hundred dollars.”
Lorraine’s eyes lit up. “Which horse is worth that much? Did you take his offer?”
“He wanted Gus,” Johnnie said before finishing another bite of his steak. “I didn’t take the offer though.”
Lorraine let out a sigh and stabbed her steak with frustration. “Why not?”
“It didn’t feel fair to me,” Johnnie said. “Gus is strong and well-tempered, but he ain’t exactly a fast mover. Then again, the man didn’t seem too worried about that. I offered him three hundred instead of that five hundred.”
Lorraine cringed. “Why on earth did you not take the five hundred?”
Johnnie shrugged. “Well it’s not like we really need the money. We have everything we need the last time I checked, and we still have a lot saved up.”
Lorraine just kept her focus on her food. Now very agitated with her fiancé, she stewed in her frustration for a minute, before she said, “It’s fine… Have you talked to your ranch hands yet?”
“About what?” Johnnie asked.
“About how they keep talking about me,” Lorraine said.
“Oh…” Johnnie said. “I already told them that you just aren’t made for ranch work. They just… Well, they just care a little bit too much, is all.”
“I think you should kick some of them off the ranch. There’s plenty of other people that come through Greencrest looking for work,” Lorraine said vindictively.
“Honey,” Johnnie said. “Most of these men have been working for me for years. It wouldn’t be right just to send them away like that. They mean well, I promise you, they’re just used to women doing more in our line of work. Not your fault that you’re from a big city.”
Lorraine didn’t respond, she just continued to work on her dinner. Johnnie guiltily resumed eating, hoping that she wouldn’t continue to be upset about the issue with his ranch hands.
After a few minutes passed in silence, Johnnie spoke up. “I’m sorry Lorraine,” he said. “I’ll do something about them.” As he finished his sentence, he heard the sound of a stagecoach pulling up to the front of the house. Lorraine’s expression immediately changed to one of relief. Johnnie watched as she got up from her chair and headed to her room.
“What’s going on?” Johnnie asked as he got up to follow Lorraine.
“You don’t have to be sorry,” Lorraine said, appearing from her room with two trunks full of clothes. “Because I’m leaving you, Johnnie.”
“What?!” Johnnie said as his heart broke.
Lorraine took off her engagement ring and dropped it on the floor, then picked her trunks back up and walked past her stunned fiancée. As she got to the front door, Johnnie called out to her.
“Lorraine, I don’t understand!” Johnnie exclaimed.
Lorraine cackled. “Oh you’re adorable Johnnie, you really are. Did you really think that I wanted to live on this ranch with you?”
“Yes…” he answered honestly.
“I just wanted your money Johnnie,” Lorraine admitted. “When I first saw your ranch, I hoped I’d be able to relax in this big house while you showered me with gifts. Instead, you tried to put me to work! You should have known I was above that sort of thing, I’m a woman of culture, for God’s sake!”
“You mean you never loved me?” Johnnie said.
“No, I didn’t,” Lorraine said. “I’m shocked you never realized it until now. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must be off.”
“Wh-where are you going?” Johnnie asked.
“To start a new life with Joseph,” Lorraine said. “A businessman who isn’t afraid to give a woman what she deserves, and who doesn’t smell like an animal when he comes home.”
Johnnie watched as Lorraine walked out the door toward the stagecoach. As she walked, he pleaded with her not to leave, promising that he’d change somehow. But it was no use, nothing he could say or do was going to change her mind. When she finally got into the coach and the door closed, she waved goodbye with a smug look on her face before the coach left.
Johnnie stood in shock. At first, he was overwhelmed with sorrow and a tear came down his face. He wiped it away with his hand and then looked down at the wet spot on his hand. His sorrow quickly turned into anger.
He walked back inside and slammed the front door shut. He paced around, fists clenched, teeth gritted, and anger flowing through his veins. He couldn’t believe what had just happened. All of that money he’d spent on the wedding was wasted now.
He stomped into the living room and sat down in his chair, the sword of betrayal stabbed deep into his heart.
“I can’t believe this,” Johnnie said to himself. “All this time I thought she loved me. All that talk about how she was so excited to settle down and start a family. She was taking advantage of me this whole time!” He rubbed his forehead in frustration.
All of the dreams Johnnie had for the future were now destroyed. The hopes of having a loving family and raising a few kids were shattered into a million pieces, along with his heart. He was left all alone, to stew in his anger.
Looking up from where he was sitting, the portrait of himself and Lorraine looked down at him from atop the fireplace’s mantle. The happy smiles on his own face and his ex-fiancée’s were almost mocking him. The hatred in his heart boiled over. He got up from his chair and walked over to the portrait.
His expression quickly turned into a scowl as he gazed at it. He couldn’t bear to look at the portrait anymore. In a moment of blind rage, he tossed it across the room. He watched as the portrait hurdled through the air and collided with the lit lantern that sat on the table.
Johnnie watched in abject terror as the lantern fell from its perch on the table. Everything moved in slow motion as he desperately tried to catch the lantern before it hit the ground, but his efforts were in vain. The lantern fell to the ground, and the globe shattered, causing the rug to catch fire while oil from the lantern leaked out, causing the fire to spread even faster.
After gasping in fear, Johnnie grabbed a nearby blanket and tried to put out the flames. But it was no use, the fire was becoming too large and was set to consume everything in its path, including the blanket he was using to try and put out the flames. He tossed the blanket aside and quickly decided that this was no longer a one man job.
Johnnie ran out of his house, yelling, “The house is on fire! I need help!”
As the ranch hands poured out of the bunkhouse, Johnnie looked behind him to see flames consuming everything inside of his house. He ordered his ranch hands to form a bucket line and sent one of them into town to see if he could find some extra help.
As the ranch hands organized themselves to help put out the fire, Johnnie remembered his father’s pocket watch. It was the only thing left of him in this world, he wouldn’t leave it to burn in his house. He rushed back inside. Walking through the open front door he was immediately confronted by the tower of flames and cloud of smoke that was devouring the living room. He could barely breathe as smoke filled his lungs and stung his eyes.
Holding his breath, he made it to his bedroom where he kept his father’s pocket watch in a chest in the corner of the room. He quickly unlocked the chest and rifled through it until he located the timepiece that had his father’s initials etched onto the back. It shined in the light of the fire. Johnnie stuffed it in his pocket and then quickly tried to run out of the building.
In his rush to escape, and with his vision obstructed by the smoke, he tripped. Johnnie fell to the ground and before he could get back up, the growing flames caught up to him. He screamed in pain as the fire burned the side of his face. He ran out of the house, clutching the part of him that was burned.
The ranch hands rushed to Johnnie’s side and took him away from the house so he could catch his breath. They gave him an uneasy glance as they looked at his face. He watched in horrified silence, clutching his wound, as much of his house burned. The ranch hands were able to save most of it, but the damage had been done.
Two months had passed since Johnnie had lost not only his fiancée, but also part of his house. The fire had not consumed it entirely, thanks to the fast acting of the ranch hands. The living room had been completely torched, but the kitchen had been miraculously spared by the blaze. The same could not be said for the bedrooms and the rest of the house.
Those sections were the first to be fixed, as most the ranch hand’s daily efforts were concentrated on rebuilding the house. Construction on the remaining section of the house had to be halted due to the need for both Johnnie and his men to resume work on the ranch.
While Johnnie’s house would no doubt be able to be reconstructed, his face and heart would not. Ever since Lorraine had run off and he’d gotten the burn on his face, his confidence had been completely shattered. He hated going out in public and rarely made trips into town anymore, save for when he had to settle personal matters, such as taking funds out of the bank.
Half of Johnnie’s face was now covered by a piece of sheet. It ran from his forehead all the way down his neck to his shirt collar. He had cut holes in it so his mouth and eyes wouldn’t be obstructed. He didn’t talk to the ranch hands much anymore, save for when he needed to give them specific orders.
To make matters worse, Lorraine had decided the best course of action was to drum up more trouble for Johnnie. While he was minding his own business, she spread rumors around Greencrest that the reason she left him in the first place was because he was awful to her. That he kept her cooped up in that ranch house on purpose to keep her freedom to a minimum, and abused her. Lorraine also said she was able to get out of the house that day and tell some good men about Johnnie’s abuse and that they’d lit the fire in retaliation.
Most citizens of Greencrest now believed Johnnie was some sort of monster. A recluse who was liable to pick on vulnerable people whenever he pleased. Though he had made the mask white on purpose to not intimidate people any further, it did not help his cause. It only made people talk more about what could really be hiding beneath it.
Even worse, rumors had circulated back to some of the ranch hands. They couldn’t stand working for a man who they’d heard was a monster. Only the men who’d been working on the ranch for many years had stuck around, and that left the ranch short-staffed. Johnnie attempted to recruit more ranch hands, but the rumors had spread around enough that there were no new hires willing to work with him.
Lorraine had cut a deep wound into Johnnie. She’d not only crushed his heart, but had also gone after his livelihood. With no way to defend himself or get people back on his side, he became more isolated. The carefree attitude people expected of him slowly vanished over time. It seemed like he was beginning to become the thing that the people of Greencrest made him out to be.
Thankfully, not all hope was lost for him. He still had a friend who didn’t believe a word of what Lorraine had said about him. A singular ally that saw through the horrible rumors and the mask to the man beneath. Philip North, the general store owner’s son, and Johnnie’s best friend.
As Johnnie spent the day finishing the replacement of the floorboards in the living room that had been turned to ash, he heard a knock at his front door.
“Who is it?” Johnnie asked.
“It’s Philip, John,” replied Philip.
Johnnie quickly readjusted his mask to make sure it was on right. He got up and walked over to the front door and opened it. Before him stood the tall, pale man with friendly green eyes he called his best friend. He was wearing nice clothes as usual, but nothing overly fancy, and he had short, curly brown hair. “What’re you doing here?” Johnnie said.
“What do you mean what am I doing here?” Philip said. “Can’t people visit their friends?”
“I don’t see why you’d want to visit me, Philip,” Johnnie said. “If you keep coming out here people are going to start talking, they’ll think you’re a monster like me.”
Even with half of his face obstructed, it was still easy to see the worried look on Johnnie’s face. It hurt Philip to see such a good man like him brought so low. He scoffed at Johnnie’s remark and said, “If you’re a monster, then surely God is just the Devil in disguise. You know I could care less about what people think of me. My actions speak more about my character than some rumors.”
“I don’t know, Philip,” Johnnie said. “I still don’t think it’s smart of you.”
“Oh come now John,” Philip said smiling. “Since when have I ever done anything smart? Now are you going to let me in?”
Johnnie looked behind him at his unfinished work. “I’ve still got work to do on the house, maybe some other time.”
Philip looked past Johnnie to see the inside of the house before saying, “Looks like you’re almost done, having another person would surely help move things along quicker though.”
“I can do this myself… I don’t want to bother you,” Johnnie said meekly.
“Nonsense!” Philip said laughing. “Come on, we can work and talk at the same time, let me help you.”
“All right,” Johnnie said. He knew it was impossible to refuse Philip, he was an unstoppable force of helpfulness.
Philip smiled and walked inside the house to finish up with the replacement of the floorboards. The duo conversed as they worked, though it would be more appropriate to say that Philip may as well have been talking to himself. He talked to Johnnie about all the new things that were going on in town. There was a brawl at one of the saloons that ended with the arrest of ten men; that was the most exciting thing that had happened in Greencrest since Johnnie’s house had burned down.
Eventually the two of them finished working. The living room now had a finished floor.
“Thanks for your help, Philip,” Johnnie said.
“Don’t mention it, John,” Philip said. “It’s what friends are for.”
There was an awkward silence. Johnnie didn’t know what else to say to his friend; he just wanted to be left alone so he couldn’t cause any more trouble. But then, Philip spoke up.
“How have you been doing Johnnie? Tell me honestly,” Philip said sincerely.
Johnnie looked at Philip, his eyes stricken with pain as he tried to find the words. “I’ve been better… a lot better. I still just… I can’t believe Lorraine would do that. She… Well she–”
“Ruined your life?” Philip interrupted.
Johnnie avoided Philip’s eyes and swallowed hard. “Yeah… Yeah she did… Philip I just want my old life back, except with someone who actually loves me.”
Philip could hear the pain in his friend’s voice, and tried to reassure him. “I know you do my friend. That woman had no right doing what she did to you. She was rotten from the start, and I could feel it. Any man would have fallen for her charm, though.”
“I just…” Johnnie strained himself as he tried to find the words to express what he was feeling. “I wish there was a way for me to prove to everyone that I’m not some horrid monster and maybe, just maybe, find someone who actually cares about me.”
As Johnnie finished his sentence, the spark of inspiration struck inside of Philip’s head. “Say, I think I know a way for you to prove to everyone you’re not the monster Lorraine says you are!” he exclaimed.
“You do?” Johnnie asked hopefully.
“Yeah! You know those ads in the papers? The ones men send out for brides? Why don’t you make one?” Philip said.
“What?” Johnnie said, shocked at the recommendation. “Philip, I don’t think that’s wise. I don’t think any woman would have me… Especially with how I look now.”
“Nonsense!” Philip said, trying to encourage his friend. “Johnnie, you’re a good man. That woman, Lorraine, she was the real monster. She broke your heart and turned the whole town against you!”
“But look at me Philip! How could any woman want to marry a man who looks like me! I’m as ugly as a mud fence!” Johnnie exclaimed.
“You’ve still got a good half of your face, it’s better than wearing a mask over all of it,” Philip said. “Besides, the women who look at these ads, they’re not exactly looking to marry a prince… Well most of them anyways.”
“What do you mean?” Johnnie said.
“I mean most of these women are just looking for a fresh start in life,” Philip said. “They want a nice man who will take care of them, love them, and give them kids.”
Johnnie looked around the house nervously, he wasn’t sure what to say. Talking about Lorraine still brought back the painful memory of what happened two months ago. He didn’t want to live like this anymore. “But how do you know it’ll work? What if I get stuck with a girl like Lorraine again?”
“Because I’ll be there to help you, of course,” Philip said cheerfully. “I’ll help make sure the ad you write will get the attention of the right girl for you. I promise!”
Johnnie was silent. He couldn’t find the words to express his thanks toward his friend. It had been months since someone was genuinely kind to him. It was refreshing yet shocking at the same time. He took a deep breath and said, “Okay, I guess we can write an ad up. But how is this supposed to prove everyone wrong?”
“Well, my friend,” Philip said confidently. “If the fine citizens of Greencrest see you happily married, they’ll realize that Lorraine was full of it. They’ll see you’ve always been a good man.”
Johnnie scratched his chin. A chance to prove himself properly to everyone and to show that Lorraine was a liar sounded too good to be true. But then again, what did he have to lose?
“What do you think, my friend?” Philip asked.
“I think… I think nobody would even reply to the thing,” Johnnie said morosely. “But… I don’t deserve to be alone.”
“That’s the spirit John!” Philip said gleefully. “Why don’t we get started now? Do you have any paper lying around?”
“I-I think so,” Johnnie said. “I’d have to check first.”
“Excellent!” Philip said. “Let’s get to work then. We’ll have a new wife for you by the end of the month!”
Much to Johnnie’s discomfort, they did manage to find some paper. However, pen and ink were nowhere to be found.
“Well, looks like we’ll just have to do this another day,” Johnnie said, relieved.
“Oh I wouldn’t be so sure about that.” Philip reached into his coat pocket and produced a fountain pen. As he pulled it out, a smug grin spread across upon his face.
Johnnie’s expression quickly turned to one of worry. “Where’d you get one of those?” he asked Philip.
“Birthday present from my folks,” Philip said. He handed the pen over to Johnnie.
“All right…” Johnnie said uneasily. “So… How do we do this then?”
“Well, first we should find a place to write on,” Philip said.
“I don’t have a desk,” Johnnie admitted.
“You don’t need a desk to write, anything will work really,” Philip said. “You’re not getting out of this that easily, John.”
Johnnie sighed and led Philip into his room where they found the dresser Johnnie had bought once the reconstruction of his bedroom was complete. “Will that work?” Johnnie asked.
“As sure as the sun shines, it will,” Philip said. “Now, let’s get to writing.”
“How should we start?” Johnnie asked.
“We need to decide what kind of woman you’re looking for, first of all,” Philip said.
“Well… I’d like someone who’s honest and hardworking,” Johnnie said. “And I’d like for them to be domestic… Oh and I’d want them to be good at cooking, too.”
“Good,” Philip said. “So everything Lorraine wasn’t, then?”
Johnnie chuckled a little bit. “I suppose so.”
“Then we won’t have the ad published in any states on the east coast,” Philip said. “The last thing we need for you is another city woman to ruin your life again.”
The duo continued to deliberate on what to write for the ad. Philip gave plenty of advice on how to make the ad sound appealing. He also assured Johnnie he didn’t need to mention the scars on his face from the fire. Eventually, they finished writing the ad. Philip agreed to mail the letter himself so Johnnie would not have to deal with the ire of the people of Greencrest.
When he mailed it, Philip had the ad sent to the city of Northam, Nebraska. From there it would be published in local newspapers and eventually to other towns in the state.
Artelia sat in her room in front of a mirror, putting her ginger hair up in a bun. She was having a peaceful time readying herself for the day when she heard the shrill cry of her mother-in-law from downstairs.
“Artelia! Hurry up, would you! This place won’t make any money with you sitting in front of a mirror all day!” Margaret yelled from downstairs.
Artelia cringed at the sound of her mother-in-law’s voice. “I’ll be down in a moment Mrs. Purcell!” she called out. She hastily finished her bun, so it was a bit more messy than she would have liked. Nonetheless, she walked out of her room, through the hallway and downstairs to the general store. Margaret was waiting for her.
“Finally!” Margaret said. “Now, make yourself useful, open this place up and start making us some money. I’ll be back in the evening.”
“Yes, Mrs. Purcell,” Artelia said begrudgingly.
“Are you giving me a tone, young lady?” Margaret asked accusingly. “Might I remind you that I’m the one who decided to let you live here in memory of my sweet Samuel?”
Artelia hated it when Margaret mentioned her late husband. He was a good man, even if he was a spoiled mama’s boy who drank himself to an early grave. She’d done her best to be a good wife to him, but Margaret was dead set in her belief that Artelia was the one who had indirectly caused the death of her son, that she had led him astray.
“I’m sorry Mrs. Purcell,” Artelia said. “It’s just that it would be nice to have some help around here.”
“Help?!” Margaret snapped. “I could have thrown you out onto the street, instead I give you a place to live and a job and you want help? If I was your age I would be able to run this place all by myself.”
Artelia stared down into Margaret’s aging, bloodshot blue eyes with her young, almond-shaped, emerald green eyes. More than anything, she wanted to tell her that if she could run this general store by herself then she could go ahead and do it. Artelia wanted to walk out the doors and be free of this wretched woman, but it just wasn’t possible.
Margaret made a point to pay Artelia no wages; all of the profits from the store went right into Margaret’s pocket. Because of this, there was no way Artelia would be able to make it on her own if she just decided to leave. She was effectively her mother-in-law’s prisoner and she hated every minute of it.
After a few more moments of frustrated silence, Margaret said, “That’s what I thought… Now get to work.”
Artelia watched as the slightly overweight woman walked out of the store and into the streets of Northam. She gave a tired and defeated sigh before preparing the store to be opened. Eventually she turned the closed sign around so it read open. Within minutes people were coming in to get the things they needed for the day.
During her time working, Artelia decided to restock some of the shelves when there was a break in the waves of customers. While she was in the middle of putting canned beans back on the shelves, she heard the door to the store open followed by a familiar voice.
“Artelia!” Holly called out. “Still stuck here, I see.”
Artelia turned around to see Holly, her only friend in the city of Northam. She had on a nice blue dress–perk of marrying a banker–that complimented her tall figure. She had her red hair covering her shoulders in many beautiful curls. It was a relief to see such a friendly face during the day. “Oh, Holly! Yes, I fear I may never be free of Margaret’s talons. What brings you to the store?” she asked her friend.
“I’ve come to talk to you about just that!” Holly said enthusiastically.
“What do you mean?” Artelia asked.
“I’m talking about this!” Holly held up a folded-up newspaper. “I think this is your way out of this city.”
Artelia gave her friend a confused look. “How is the newspaper going to get me out of this city?”
“I’ll show you! Come over here.” Holly led Artelia over to the front counter where she laid the newspaper out and flipped to the page where personal ads were placed. She scanned through the ads until she found what she was looking for. “Aha!” she exclaimed and pointed at the ad for a bride in the paper.
“What?” Artelia said.
“Read it!” Holly said.
Artelia looked at the ad and read it aloud. “Johnnie Layman, 31, writes from Greencrest, Wyoming. He is seeking a loving, honest, and hardworking wife to keep him company on his large ranch. He also requests that she be a good cook. Experience with animals is not necessary, but welcome.”
“So what do you think?” Holly asked Artelia. “He sounds nice, doesn’t he?”
Artelia gave her friend a frustrated look. “Holly, I don’t even know what the man looks like. And you can’t just tell what a person’s like through an ad like this.”
“I know, so why don’t you write to him!” Holly said with a big smile.
With an unsure glance at the ad and then at Holly, Artelia said, “I’m not sure about this Holly…”
“Artelia! This could be your only way out of this city and away from Margaret! More importantly, this could be your shot at love, real love!” Holly said reassuringly.
“I know… But what if I write to him and he never writes back?” Artelia said worryingly.
“Oh, he’ll write back,” Holly said confidently.
“What makes you so sure about that?” asked Artelia.
“Well because I’ll help you write your letter, silly,” Holly said.
“Wha- I don’t need help talking to men!” Artelia said defensively.
Holly gave her a doubtful look. “Artelia, we’ve known each other since we could walk. You never got a chance at true love. Don’t you want to be like Henry and I? Happily married and in love?”
“I mean… I do, but is this really the way to go about it?” Artelia asked earnestly.
“There’s only one way to find out,” Holly said. “Besides, I won’t stand by and let you waste away in this godforsaken store.”
Holly’s beautiful blue eyes watched Artelia expectantly. Artelia was unsure if she wanted to go through with this, but then again what could possibly be worse than living another day with Margaret?
“Okay… Let’s write that letter!” Artelia said, with renewed purpose in her voice.
“Really?! Right now?” Holly asked giddily.
“Yes! Come one, we can close the store for a moment and borrow some paper and a pen from Margaret,” Artelia said. She flipped over the open sign and the two of them hastily made their way upstairs.
They both went into Margaret’s room and found her late husband’s desk. They searched through the drawers to find a piece of paper and a pen that still had some ink in it.
“So what do I say?” Artelia said.
“You should sound appealing,” Holly said. “But make sure not to sound desperate, you don’t want him to think you’re just using him as a way to escape this place. It’s much more than that, after all.”
“Right,” Artelia said as she began writing.
Holly was constantly looking over her shoulder. Being the caring friend that she was, she wanted Artelia to sound as likeable as possible and she would make comments from time to time.
“You know… It wouldn’t hurt to mention you have a thin waist…” Holly said.
“Holly!” Artelia said, laughing. “I am trying to write a letter, not start a scandal.”
Holly laughed along with her friend. “I’m just saying, it helps to mention these things. You’ll have a bigger advantage over the competition that way.”
Artelia chuckled before returning to her letter writing.
Eventually, she finished and held the letter up, proud of it.
“Well? Read it aloud,” Holly said giddily.
Artelia cleared her throat and did her best impersonation of a fancy voice.
“Dear Mister Layman,
I do hope this letter finds you well. My name is Artelia Mott and I am writing to you because I found your ad in the paper and I would be interested in moving out to Wyoming and marrying you. To tell you a little about myself, I am twenty-four years of age, average height with ginger hair, green eyes, and a slim waist. I am a widow and I currently work at my late husband’s general store by myself. I am no stranger to hard work or domestic practices as most of my time is spent at home. Cooking is one of my favorite pastimes and I would love to make something for you someday.
I hope to hear from you soon.”
“Oh that’s brilliant,” Holly said, somewhat lying.
“You really think so?” Artelia said.
“Oh yes!” Holly said. “He’ll be in love with you just from reading that.”
“Oh thank you Holly,” Artelia said. “I just have to find the time to mail this now.”
“Why don’t I make the trip for you?” Holly said. “You’re always cooped up in this store, it’s the least I can do to help.”
“You’d do that?” Artelia said. “Oh, thank you Holly!” She hugged her friend close.
“Think nothing of it,” Holly said. “Now I must be off, may I have the letter?”
“Oh… Yes of course,” Artelia said. “I’ll see you out the door then.”
The two ladies walked back down to the storefront and said goodbye again before Holly left with the letter in hand. Artelia then flipped the open sign back over and readied herself to deal with customers for the rest of the day.
It had been almost a week since Artelia had mailed the letter and she was beginning to worry. Nobody had been by the house with a letter for her, nor had she had time to go check the post office herself. She wondered if Margaret had somehow found the letter before she did and ripped it up or turned it into ashes.
Thankfully, it was Sunday and the general store was closed for the day, so Artelia would be able to walk down to the post office first thing in the morning and see if a letter for her had finally come in.
That morning, she did her best to avoid Margaret and get out of the house so she could go right to the post office. Nothing could stop Artelia, she was both nervous and excited to hear from her prospective husband.
When she made it to the post office she walked right up to the postman who was working there.
“Are there any letters for me?” Artelia said excitedly.
“Woah now, little missy,” the postman said. “A name would be useful, first of all.”
“Artelia Mott,” she said. “I’m expecting a letter from a man in Wyoming.”
“Just a moment madam, let me check for you.” The postman went over to the many cubbies that dotted the walls of the post office. “Where do you live again madam?” he shouted back to Artelia.
“Over the general store, with Mrs. Purcell,” Artelia said.
The postman eventually found the cubby that housed mail for Margaret and Artelia, inside of it was a letter from one Johnnie Layman from Greencrest, Wyoming.
“Yup, got yourself a letter right here,” he said as he walked back over to her. “From Wyoming just like you said.”
Artelia took the letter from the postman’s hand, both relieved and shocked that she had even received it. “Oh thank you!” she said to the postman. “You have no idea what this means to me.”
“Uh, don’t mention it madam, just doing my job,” the postman said.
Artelia walked out of the post office while she opened the letter. She stopped at a nearby bench and read it to herself.
“Dear Miss Mott,
I am happy to have heard from you. You are the first woman to reply to my ad and I am thankful for it. You sound like a fine woman and I would be happy to have you at my ranch here in Greencrest. I can assure you that I will treat you with the utmost respect and care. My only wish is to have someone pleasant to share my time and property with and perhaps start a family of my own, if it would please you.
As for my appearance, I have been told on several occasions that I am a handsome man. My hair and eyes are both black and my body is of a strong build from my years of ranching.
P.S. There was an incident on my property about two months ago that led to parts of my house burning down. I am in the middle of rebuilding it. If you would like to wait until it is finished to move here, I would not mind.
Artelia was delighted after she finished reading the letter. This man sounded nice, and it also helped that he might be handsome. Maybe running off to marry him was the right idea after all…
She wanted to reply as soon as she could. She folded the letter and placed it in her pocket, then she headed off back toward her home, hoping that Margaret had left for the day so she could write a reply.
However, much to Artelia’s dismay, she found Margaret sitting on the front porch outside the store as she got closer to home. She mentally prepared herself for whatever remarks her mother-in-law was about to make.
“Artelia,” Margaret said as soon as her daughter-in-law got close enough. “Why is it that you are out of the house and not inside watching the store?”
“It’s Sunday, Mrs. Purcell,” Artelia said. “The store is closed for the day, remember?”
Margaret narrowed her eyes at Artelia. “Even so, I expect that place to be spotless. I’ve got a day out with my friends I must attend to, so you must stay home for the day.”
“Yes, Mrs. Purcell.” Artelia did her best to hide her relief that Margaret would be out for the day.
Artelia then walked into the store and tried her best to look busy until Margaret eventually got into a stagecoach with her friends. It was then that she bolted upstairs to write a response to the letter she’d received. With any luck she’d be able to send it along today.
Johnnie was actually in a good mood for the first time since his life had been turned on its head. A woman from Nebraska, Artelia, had responded to his ad and they’d been talking back and forth through letters a little bit. From the way she wrote, she sounded like a very nice woman. He was very motivated to finish the reconstruction of his house so she’d have a nice place to call home.
It was during another morning of house building that Philip came riding up to Johnnie’s property. This alone was a good sign as Philip went into town to receive the letters on Johnnie’s behalf.
“Johnnie!” Philip called out as he approached the house. “Something came in the mail for you from Artelia!”
The sound of construction stopped, followed by a bewildered, “Really?” from Johnnie. He then went around to the front of the house and met Philip.
Philip dismounted, hitched his horse, walked over to Johnnie and said, “Yup! Got it right here.”
Johnnie eagerly took the letter from Philip and opened it. He read through every word and enjoyed every bit of it. It was good for him to receive some kind words after two months of constant belittlement from the people of Greencrest. As he got to the end of the letter, his eyes grew wide.
“Philip, we’ve got a problem,” Johnnie said.
“What’s wrong partner?” Philip asked.
“We’ve gotta get this place fixed up! That’s what’s wrong,” Johnnie said with a serious tone.
“Whoa, slow down there, you’re acting like she’ll be here tomorrow or something,” Philip said.
“That’s because she will be! Look!” Johnnie said as he held the letter up to Philip and pointed out the end of it. Much to Philip’s surprise and Johnnie’s terror, Artelia had written that she didn’t mind living in the house while it was under construction. On top of that she wrote that there was a train coming through her city Thursday morning that would take her to Greencrest the day after, and have her there by the evening.
“Oh God, tomorrow is Thursday!” Philip exclaimed. “Seems like you’ve got your work cut out for you then, my friend. And you did end up telling her about the fire in your last letter. That was good of you Johnnie… Wait, did you mention what happened to your face too?”
Johnnie hung his head low. “No…” he said.
“Why not?” Philip asked. “Shouldn’t you be honest with this girl?”
“I don’t want her to be scared of me before she even meets me,” Johnnie said. “I want her to like me for who I am. If I’d told her about… this,” he gestured to the masked side of his face, “then she might not have even responded to me after that.”
“I think you’re being a little too hard on yourself,” Philip said. “Based on what she’s written to you, it sounds like she cares more about you being a hardworking man more than anything. But I understand why you didn’t tell her.”
“Thank you but…” Johnnie hesitated. “That’s not what’s important. She’ll be here tomorrow evening and I won’t have her living in some wreck of a house.”
“She doesn’t really seem to care that much about it,” Philip said. “Don’t overwork yourself, Johnnie.”
“Are you kidding? There’s no way I could do this by myself, I don’t even have the supplies for fixing that hole in the roof right now,” Johnnie said, beginning to fidget nervously.
“Johnnie, it sounds like she’s just happy to have a place to call home, even if it’s got a hole in the roof,” Philip said, trying his best to reassure his friend.
“Maybe you’re right, my friend,” Johnnie said. “But I’m not about to risk it.” He turned away from Philip to look at his unfinished house, wondering how in God’s name he was supposed to get this place looking half-decent by tomorrow evening.
“Now I’m not a carpenter, but is there any way I can help?” Philip asked.
“Unless you can snap your fingers and fix this house… not really,” Johnnie said, sighing. Then, an idea bubbled up to the forefront of his mind. “What if… What if I went into town and managed to round up some folk to help?”
“You sure about that, Johnnie?” Philip asked. “I know you hate going into town.”
“I’m sure I can find a few fellers who would be willing to work for a day for a few bucks,” Johnnie said. “Besides, I don’t really have a choice.”
“Fair enough,” Philip said. “I’ll go with you, I feel like if I’m around you’re a lot less likely to have trouble with the people in town.”
Johnnie smiled at his best friend appreciatively. “Thanks, Philip. That means a lot to me.”
“What are friends for?” Philip responded.
With that, Johnnie and Philip got a wagon together so they could carry the supplies needed for working. With the horses hooked up to the wagon and the two friends soundly seated, they rode off toward Greencrest. Johnnie was very nervous about going into town as always, but he wasn’t as restless knowing his best friend would be with him the whole way.
As soon as they rode into town, people gave him all sorts of awful looks. Men looked on in disgust, some spat at the ground when he rode by and women looked on in fear, quickly averting their gaze. Johnnie did his best to ignore all of it, after two months it was something he was used to and now was not the time for him to be worried about it. After all, the vicious rumors had affected his life enough already.
Eventually the two of them reached the carpenter’s shop which sat on the edge of town. Johnnie parked the wagon close by and called out to the carpenter.
“Good morning Woodrow!” Johnnie said.
The carpenter looked up from his work. He was putting the finishing touches on a custom ordered chair. It was covered in fancy carvings, whoever had ordered it was obviously someone who was not afraid to pay any expense to get what they wanted. When the carpenter saw Johnnie, his expression quickly turned to one of disdain.
“What’re you doing out here? I hoped you wouldn’t be back for another month,” Woodrow said. “Ain’t you got some other poor soul to terrorize?”
Johnnie ignored his statement and said, “I’m looking to finish rebuilding my house and I need a few things to get it done. I was also wondering if any of your boys would be willing to work for me today.”
Woodrow looked at Johnnie and then to Philip. He wondered why an upstanding man like Philip would associate with that masked monster, especially after what he’d done to that poor girl Lorraine. He wanted nothing to do with Johnnie.
He narrowed his eyes at Johnnie and said, “I don’t want anything to do with you and I sure won’t be having my boys work for you.”
“Woodrow, please,” Johnnie said. “I’m almost done with it all, I just need help for today.”
“No,” Woodrow said, crossing his arms. “I won’t hear any of it, Johnnie.”
“Think of it this way,” Philip spoke up. “If you give Johnnie what he needs along with the help, then you probably won’t end up doing business with him again. It’s quick and easy money.”
Woodrow fixed his attention on Philip. “And why are you here? The monster can’t speak for himself?”
“I’m just here to make sure my friend gets a fair deal, is all,” Philip replied.
Woodrow sneered at Philip. He scratched his face for a second as he thought about whether or not to give the supplies and workers to Johnnie. Finally, he came to his decision.
“All right, fine,” Woodrow said. “I’ll sell you what you need and have some men go with you… But that’d better be the last I see of you, Johnnie.”
“As long as my house doesn’t catch on fire again,” Johnnie said.
“Right,” Woodrow said. “I’ll go round up some boys for work, go pick out what you need.”
Philip and Johnnie then hopped off of the wagon and went inside the carpenter’s shop to get what they needed. Nails and wood to finish up the hole in the wall and then some shingles to cover the roof once they’d fixed the hole there too. By the time they were done grabbing what they needed, and loaded it onto the wagon, four of Woodrow’s employees had showed up. They rode separately on horses so they could return to town after working for the day. Johnnie paid Woodrow for the supplies and for the help and then they all headed back to Johnnie’s ranch to work on the house.
The reconstruction of the living room walls and eventually the roof went pretty smoothly. Johnnie could tell that the men didn’t want to be there, he received constant funny looks and scowls from them. He acted like he didn’t notice and worked along with them to ensure that the reconstruction was carried out properly. Philip stuck around and played a less active role in the reconstruction as his skills as a shopkeeper were not needed. Instead he helped fetch supplies from the wagon as they were needed.
They all took a break during the middle of the day. The living room wall was almost finished. If they worked fast enough, they’d most likely be able to get the roof done too. While everyone was on break, Philip came to talk to Johnnie.
“You know, I’m really happy you took my advice,” Philip said.
“What do you mean?” Johnnie asked. “Are you talking about the ad posting?”
“Yup,” Philip said. “I think it’ll do a lot of good for you, Johnnie.” He patted his friend on the shoulder.
“What makes you say that?” Johnnie asked.
“Because you never got a good shot at love,” Philip said. “You got stuck with ‘you know who’ and look how that ended.”
Johnnie sighed. “I’m still really not sure about this whole thing. I mean what if… what if this Artelia girl ends up being worse than Lorraine?”
Philip laughed. “I find it hard to believe there’s another woman in the world as bad as her. And I find it even harder to believe there could possibly be a woman worse than that. That’s like saying there’s someone more evil than the Devil.”
Johnnie chuckled and then hesitated. A concerned look appeared on his face as he said, “I suppose you’re right… But then, do I even deserve someone nice?”
Philip looked his best friend dead in the eye. “Johnnie… You’re an honest, hardworking man. What you deserve is a woman who’s exactly the same, someone who’s willing to put as much effort into life as you do.”
Johnnie looked surprised to hear that from someone, “Thanks, Phil… I think I needed that.”
“No worries, my friend. I figured you might, since Lorraine still bad mouths you in town,” Philip said.
“She does?” Johnnie asked. He frowned for a moment and hung his head low, before shutting his eyes hard. When he opened them again there was a look of intense indignation. He then spoke, “Well… Let her say whatever she wants. I could care less about what poison she breathes, there’s nothing else she could do to make my life worse.”
“That’s a good attitude to have,” Philip said, nodding. “But it still ain’t right of her to be talking about you like that. I do my best to try and set folk straight in town, but it seems like Lorraine’s got her claws gripped around everyone.”
“Philip, you don’t have to do that,” Johnnie said. “You’re only going to cause more trouble for yourself. I’d hate for you and your parent’s shop to lose customers on account of me. Besides, they’re just rumors.”
“If you say so, John,” Philip said.
After a short, awkward pause, Johnnie said, “Well, we ought to get back to fixing this place up. Let’s go grab Woodrow’s boys and get this finished.”
“Right you are, my friend,” Philip said as he followed Johnnie.
Work resumed from where Johnnie, Philip, and Woodrow’s employees had left off. They managed to finish the living room wall, thankfully with no problems. Johnnie was positively ecstatic to see his house returning to its former glory. Soon all that would be left would be to buy some more furniture to replace what had been lost in the blaze from two months ago.
Sadly, as the day began to wind down, it was clear they wouldn’t be able to finish the roof on time. The attitude and motivation of Woodrow’s employees only worsened as the day dragged on; they didn’t want to be around Johnnie any longer than they had to. So they ended up leaving the ranch with the roof almost finished.
As they left, Johnnie thanked them but didn’t get a response back. He turned around and looked at his house, happy with the way it had come together but also disappointed that it wouldn’t be finished completely for Artelia’s arrival.
“Sorry things didn’t get finished, pal,” Philip said to Johnnie while he was looking at the house.
“Oh, it’s all right. I’ll just get up early and finish up as much as I can by myself,” Johnnie said enthusiastically.
“I somehow don’t doubt that you’ll be able to finish,” Philip said. “Well, I best be off. I’m sure my parents will want help closing up the shop.”
“Wait… Can I ask you a favor, Philip?” Johnnie asked.
“Of course, my friend,” Philip said. “What do you need?”
“Do you think you could get Artelia from the train station tomorrow?” Johnnie asked nervously. “I just think it would be a weird first meeting.”
“She’s arriving in the evening, right? I should be able to swing by the train station with a wagon,” Philip said.
“Thanks, Philip,” Johnnie said. “It means a lot.”
“No worries, old friend,” Philip said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” With that, Philip got on his horse and rode off back to Greencrest.
As Philip left, Johnnie turned around and looked at his house again. He felt lucky that most of the house had survived the fire but the circumstances of the event still filled his heart with anger. Even two months after it happened, his mind still struggled to understand why Lorraine would go out of her way to spread those horrible rumors, and why she’d run off with that good-for-nothing businessman. The only reasonable conclusion was that they were both rotten and they deserved each other.
With a deep sigh, Johnnie reached into his vest pocket and pulled out his father’s old pocket watch. It was damaged from when he’d tripped when his house was burning. The two hands didn’t move anymore, they’d stopped at the exact time he’d fallen, and the cracked glass showed a warped reflection of his face, the monster everyone in Greencrest thought he was. It was a constant reminder of the loss he’d felt that day. He shook his head, trying to clear his head of the pain, and put the watch back in his pocket before walking back into his home.
Thursday morning had finally come, and Artelia was beyond excited, her moment of freedom was finally upon her. As soon as she woke up, she began packing all of her clothes and other things. She couldn’t wait to finally be rid of this city, but most of all she couldn’t wait to be free from Margaret. As the latched her final suitcase closed, she heard her mother-in-law’s voice call from downstairs.
“Artelia!” Margaret yelled. “Where are you! The store should have been opened fifteen minutes ago!”
“Coming Mrs. Purcell!” Artelia said with fake enthusiasm. She picked up her luggage and marched down the stairs, full of confidence and relief that she would soon never have to hear another word come out of her mother-in-law’s mouth. As she walked into the store, Margaret immediately took notice of the suitcases she was carrying.
“What’s all that you’ve got there?” Margaret demanded. “Forget to stock the shelves with something?”
“I won’t be stocking the shelves in this store anymore,” Artelia said. “For that matter, I won’t be working for you anymore!”
Margaret placed a hand to her chest and gasped. “What are you on about, girl? You don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Artelia’s hands gripped her suitcases tighter; she mustered every bit of bravery her heart held and said, “That’s where you’re wrong, Margaret. I responded to an ad for a bride, I’m going to live with a nice rancher named Johnnie Layman out in Wyoming.”
Margaret scoffed. “What on earth makes you think that you can just drop everything and run away like this? You owe it to Samuel to look after this place!”
“Margaret,” Artelia said firmly. “I was married to your son, not you. I don’t owe you a thing.”
“If he hadn’t married you, he wouldn’t have turned to liquor!” Margaret yelled. “You’re the one who caused that.”
“Your son was a drunkard before I married him!” Artelia snapped. “I have a train to catch now. Good day, Margaret.” She then began to walk out the front door, suitcases clutched in her hands. But Margaret wasn’t done with her.
“You really think you’ll make it out there?” Margaret said. “If you walk out that door, don’t expect any sympathy from me when you come crawling back!”
Artelia hesitated, but then answered Margaret by walking out of the store. Her head was held high from pride, her first steps out of that general store were her first steps of freedom. Now, all she needed to do was get to the train station. She marched with confidence to her destination.
When she finally made it to the train station, Holly was there waiting for her. She was sitting on a bench on the platform. She was as beautiful as always, with her fine dress and everything. When Holly saw Artelia she practically jumped out of her seat. She ran over to her best friend to give her a big hug. Artelia set down her suitcases so she could return the hug.
When they stopped hugging, Holly excitedly exclaimed, “Artelia! You made it! I assume you gave that old hag a good talking to!”
“I’d like to think so,” Artelia said. “Oh, Holly. I can’t believe I’m actually leaving! I’ve been dreaming of leaving ever since poor Samuel died.”
“I know, darling,” Holly said. “But soon you’ll be on a train to a better life! I’m so excited for you Artelia, you’ve deserved this for the longest time.”
Tears started cascading down Artelia’s face. It was only now dawning on her that while she’d be leaving life with Margaret in the dust, she’d also be leaving her only friend in this city behind too. Holly, who’d been with her for so much of her life, who’d helped her through so much and was now helping her leave the city of Northam behind for good. Artelia’s heart shattered as she thought about it.
“Artelia, why are you crying?” Holly asked. “Don’t you want to leave?”
Artelia sniffled and wiped the tears away from her eyes before she spoke. “O-of course I do!” Her voice shook and her lips trembled as she tried to talk. “I-it’s just that… W-what about you?!”
“What about me?” Holly asked.
“You’re my best friend Holly!” Artelia exclaimed. “Leaving you here is like leaving behind a sister! I don’t know what I’ll do without you.”
Now Holly was beginning to cry. “Oh, Artelia… You don’t need to worry about me. I live a good life with my husband, but… it does break my heart to see you leave!” Holly brought Artelia in for another hug, the both of them sobbing into each other’s shoulders.
Artelia let go of Holly and wiped the tears from her eyes once more. “D-do you really think this is the right thing for me to do? What if Margaret is right? What if things don’t work out between Johnnie and me?”
“Artelia Mott,” Holly said, the tone of her voice very serious. “You were able to live with Margaret for far longer than anyone would have been able to stand her. That woman, she’s a spiteful, hateful creature who loves to bring people down.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Artelia said, chuckling through her tears.
“What you don’t know,” Holly began, “is that you’re stronger than you think. Despite what Margaret has told you, you don’t belong cooped up in that general store for the rest of your life. You’ve got lightning in your heels my friend and I think once you make it to Wyoming you’ll realize that.”
Artelia started crying even harder, “Thank you, Holly… Not just for that, but for everything! For being my friend and for always being there to help me when I needed it. And thank you most of all for helping me go through with this!”
“Oh don’t you worry about it,” Holly said. “But you remember that just because you’re all the way in Wyoming doesn’t mean that I won’t be there to help you. If that Johnnie ain’t good to you, you be sure to write to me and I’ll come out there myself and teach him some manners if need be!”
Artelia laughed and hugged her only friend for the last time. As she held onto Holly, the whistle of the train that would whisk her away to freedom echoed from down the tracks. Artelia let go of Holly, although she wished she didn’t have to.
“Well…” Artelia said. “That’s my train… I guess this is it!”
“That it is, my friend,” Holly said. She then reached into her pocket and pulled out a ticket for Artelia.
“Oh, Holly you didn’t have to do that!” Artelia said.
“Of course I did!” Holly exclaimed. “What are friends for?” She handed the ticket to Artelia who plucked it from her hand.
The train steadily rode into the station, before it began to gradually slow down. The breaks shrieked as it came to a halt. Artelia looked at Holly and then at the train, she wiped the rest of the tears from her face and picked up her suitcases.
“Goodbye Artelia,” Holly said. “Remember to write to me if you need anything!”
Artelia didn’t know what to say, she most certainly didn’t want to say goodbye to her only friend. She only gave a big smile and nodded before walking over to the train’s passenger car. It was there that one of the conductors took her suitcases and placed them in the baggage car. As she boarded one of the passenger cars, another conductor took her ticket.
Artelia found a seat that was empty and sat down. Her heart was pounding out of her chest from sheer excitement; she was finally going to leave this place to start a new and hopefully better life. She couldn’t help but put a big, beaming smile on her face.
After a few minutes, almost everyone else had boarded the train and it was finally time for departure. The conductor yelled “All aboard!” and a few remaining stragglers hurriedly boarded the train. The locomotive’s whistle blew, followed closely by its bell ringing. A loud hiss sounded as the breaks of the train disengaged; it began to move, chugging to life and toward freedom.
Artelia looked out the window to see Holly waving goodbye to her. She waved back and watched as her friend disappeared in the distance as the steam engine rolled on. The train continued to pass by the city. She watched all the familiar buildings go by her and memories of the good times she’d had with Holly and her late husband invaded her mind.
Eventually, the city of Northam became a speck on the horizon as the locomotive reached its top speed. Artelia let out a deep sigh and sat back in her seat. This was it, the moment that had been a long time coming, she was finally going to get a fresh start in life in a new state.
While she sat, Artelia wondered what her new life on a ranch might be like. She’d never actually been on one and had no real experience with handling any animals. But from the letters she received, it didn’t seem like that would end up being a big deal.
Artelia imagined a few things that might happen. In the back of her mind, she figured that Johnnie might teach her how to work with the animals on the ranch. She wasn’t afraid of hard work and believed that her husband-to-be would not treat her like a slave, the way Margaret did. In fact, she quite liked the idea of learning to work with animals. It might not be the most glamorous of jobs, but it had to be leagues more exciting than working at the general store.
If she wasn’t made to work with the animals, Artelia imagined a calm, relaxed life on the ranch. She’d do all of the housework, of course. That was nothing she couldn’t handle. She wondered if perhaps her new house would have a nice kitchen. After all the times she’d had to make dinner for Margaret and her friends, she figured her culinary skills were getting pretty advanced. A cowboy like Johnnie who lived by himself probably wasn’t used to a fresh, home-cooked meal every night and he would probably be very thankful to have something that wasn’t canned or packaged.
Regardless of what her new life in Wyoming would bring her, Artelia was just happy to finally be away from Margaret and her store for good. It seemed like every passing mile only brought her more and more happiness. She was still in disbelief that this was all actually happening.
The train continued in its speed, stopping at various places along the way to Artelia’s destination of Greencrest. Mostly frontier towns that were either just starting out or ones that had expanded quite significantly. As the morning became the afternoon, the locomotive left the state of Nebraska and entered Wyoming. The rolling plains she was used to seeing surround her city were prevalent here but farther out west she could make out grand mountains.
When evening came and the steam engine made the approach to Greencrest, the conductor sounded the whistle as the town came into view. Artelia gazed out the window and took in the town as much as she could. It was nothing like her hometown from Nebraska. It was much smaller by the looks of it, but then it looked much cozier and hopefully less crowded than Northam.
When the train came to a halt, Artelia got out as fast as she could. She couldn’t wait to finally be in her new home. She collected her luggage quickly and immediately looked around the station for Johnnie. Alas, she couldn’t find anyone that matched his description of a rancher that was tall, dark, and handsome. Instead, she was approached by a tall man with pale skin and curly brown hair.
“Excuse me are you Artelia Mott? I’m Philip, Philip North,” Philip said. “I’m a friend of Johnnie’s, I’m here to bring you to the ranch.”
“Why couldn’t he get me himself?” Artelia asked.
“He’s busy fixing up the house still.” Philip shook his head. “Poor man has been working on that almost nonstop ever since you told him you’d be arriving today.”
“Oh… Well, it’s nice to meet you, Philip,” Artelia said.
“Likewise Miss Mott,” Philip said. “Now come on, I’ll show you a little bit of the town while we ride.”
Philip then took Artelia’s suitcases and put them in the back of his wagon before helping her onto it and then hopping on himself. He snapped the reins and they began their drive through town. Philip pointed out all of the major buildings in town: the bank, the general store, and the post office. Artelia appreciated the warm welcome Philip gave her and she loved the look of the town. It seemed much homier compared to Northam.
When they reached the ranch, Artelia could plainly see that the place was well taken care of. The animals all appeared healthy and of strong stock. She was also impressed at the size of the property. She had never seen such large pastures in her life.
Philip drove her up to the house, where Artelia could see that it was almost completely restored, the only thing that needed to be fixed was a small hole in the roof that her husband-to-be was currently working on.
“John! Your bride is here!” Philip called up to Johnnie.
Johnnie stopped working and exclaimed, “She is?!” He looked behind himself and saw Philip helping Artelia hop off the wagon and fetching her suitcases. “I’ll be right down!” Johnnie yelled.
Artelia watched as Johnnie carefully descended from the ladder. He was tall, and strong by the looks of things, just like he’d described. But then he turned around.
Staring down at Artelia was Johnnie’s half-masked face. She wanted to ask why on earth he’d wear such a thing but decided against it as she didn’t want to create an awkward first meeting.
“Uh, howdy there Artelia,” Johnnie said, tipping his hat that was covered with dust from working on the house.
Even with the mask, the other half of his face was still quite handsome, and it was very evident he was a hard worker. Artelia admired that about him. She returned the greeting and said, “Hello Johnnie. This is quite the ranch you have here, it’s very beautiful!”
“Why thank you,” Johnnie said. “I try my best to keep everything in order. I’m sorry about the house, I couldn’t finish before you arrived, but I’ve got a room set up for you inside.”
Artelia gave Johnnie a warm smile. “Why thank you!” she said. She wondered if her new husband intended to take off the mask, but she decided it was best left alone for now.
Johnnie was relieved to see that Artelia seemed to be a decent woman. Just from how she introduced herself, he could tell that she was well-mannered, which he was thankful for. However, the descriptions of herself she’d written in her letters did not do her any justice. Artelia was far more beautiful than he’d imagined.
He felt guilty that his first appearance to her was in his work clothes with the mask on his face. But perhaps it was best that he did for now as it was all too likely in Johnnie’s mind that Artelia would run back to the train station as fast as she could if she ever laid an eye on what lay beneath his mask.
He hoped desperately that it wouldn’t be a problem, that Artelia wouldn’t immediately ask about the mask and why he wore it. Even if she asked, he wasn’t ready to reveal the rest of his face to her. His plan was to get to know Artelia more first, that way she would be comfortable around him and hopefully, when Johnnie was ready to take off his mask in front of her, she wouldn’t run away in terror.
Johnnie wanted Artelia to see that his mask was not a vain attempt to hide from the world around him. It was a way for him to have a new identity, a new self. With the mask on, he didn’t see himself as the monster Lorraine had painted him as. He was just another man trying to live a good life. He’d tried to take the pain he felt on the day Lorraine broke his heart, and the trauma he’d experienced from watching his house burn and the subsequent rumors that had been started, and turn them into a strength.
After Johnnie introduced himself to his new bride-to-be, he invited her inside, so she could get settled and unload her suitcases.
“If you follow me, I can show you what the house looks like,” Johnnie said to her.
Artelia nodded and followed close behind him. Philip grabbed both of her suitcases and followed after them. The first thing Johnnie showed her was the living room, which had been completely rebuilt. It had a few little pieces of furniture that had survived the fire but it looked barren. It was nothing that a few new additions couldn’t fix.
Johnnie then showed Artelia the kitchen. It was the part of the house that had miraculously been untouched by the accident two months ago. He could see she was surprised at how nice the kitchen actually was. It was as if he’d built the house with the foresight that he’d have a wife who loved to cook. It had a large oven, spice cabinet, a nice table, and plenty of different cooking utensils. It seemed to have everything that made up a proper kitchen.
“Oh my God!” Artelia exclaimed.
“What? What’s wrong?” Johnnie asked worriedly.
“Oh, nothing,” Artelia said, turning to Johnnie. “It’s just that this kitchen has so much space! Plus you’ve got everything in here.”
“Well… you’re free to make whatever you want,” Johnnie said. “And if there’s something that’s missing you tell me and I’ll have someone fetch what you need from town.”
Artelia looked up at Johnnie and smiled at him, thankful that he would cater to her needs. It was the first time someone had given him a look like that in months. He wasn’t quite sure how to react to it.
“I uh… Let me show you where your room is,” Johnnie said nervously.
Johnnie then directed Artelia toward where she would be staying. She took her suitcases from Philip and eagerly went ahead to see her new room. Philip then caught up to his friend.
As they walked to the room he whispered to Johnnie, “She’s gorgeous, John. Like… Wow, you could not have gotten a prettier girl, I think.”
Johnnie looked at his friend but didn’t say a word. He simply nodded at what Philip had said, more concerned with getting Artelia settled in and comfortable than he was with talking about her undeniable beauty. After she was finished making herself more at home, Artelia came out of her room.
“Is it to your liking?” Johnnie asked.
“Oh yes!” Artelia said. “It’s quite cozy in there, definitely an improvement from where I used to live.”
Johnnie nodded and said, “Perfect, now if you’re ready I’d like to show you the rest of the property.”
“I’d love that,” Artelia said.
Johnnie then led Artelia and Philip out of the house and toward where he kept all of the livestock.
“We have a lot of different animals here,” Johnnie said.
“I can see that,” Artelia said. “Which of them will you have me working with?”
“What?” Johnnie said, surprised she even offered. When he was with Lorraine, she detested the thought of lifting a finger to help with the animals. “You want to work with the animals? You don’t have to if you don’t want to, my ranch hands and I manage just fine. Besides, I’m sure you’ll be busy with other things around the house.”
“Oh,” Artelia said. “Well, I’m not afraid of work, so if there’s ever anything that needs doing, I can help.”
Johnnie nodded and said, “I appreciate that.”
After Johnnie had shown Artelia where everything was on the ranch, he decided it was time to head back to the house so Artelia could make herself at home completely. As they walked back, Philip excused himself.
“I’ve gotta get back to town,” Philip said. “It’s getting late and my parents will expect me to help close up the shop.”
“No worries, Phil,” Johnnie said. “Thanks for picking up Artelia from the train station, that was mighty kind of you.”
“Anytime, Johnnie,” Philip said happily. “You have a good rest of your evening Miss Mott, it’s nice to have met you.”
“You too, Philip,” Artelia said and waved goodbye.
Johnnie and Artelia watched Philip get on his wagon and head back off toward town. They were now completely alone.
Johnnie turned to Artelia and said, “You must be thirsty after all this traveling today, can I make you some lemonade?”
“Oh, I’d love that!” Artelia said, clapping her hands together happily.
Johnnie nodded and led her inside to the kitchen. She sat down while he squeezed some lemons to make the lemonade. It was definitely a bit awkward at first, Johnnie didn’t really know what to say and he could feel Artelia’s eyes on his mask while she sat at the table. He needed to break the silence and stop her from fixating on it before she started asking about it.
“So…” Johnnie said as he squeezed the last lemon. “Tell me about Nebraska, what was life like there? And I know in one of your letters you mentioned you used to have a husband, what was he like… If you don’t mind me asking?”
“Oh I don’t mind at all,” Artelia said. “That’s all in the past now anyways, nothing I can really do to change it.” She gave a sigh before she started her tale of her life before she moved. “I lived in a city called Northam for pretty much all of my life. My pa actually worked as a blacksmith, making things like tools and horseshoes for the city. My mama just helped around the house really so that’s what I did. Around the time they died was when I met my late husband, Samuel.”
“Oh I’m sorry to hear that,” Johnnie said. “Losing parents is a hard thing.”
“It’s all right,” said Artelia. “They died naturally of old age.”
“I understand,” Johnnie said. “Same thing happened to my parents and then I inherited the ranch. But, please continue, I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“Oh it’s quite all right,” said Artelia. “Where was I? Oh, yes my late husband. Samuel and I met after my parents died. I wasn’t doing very well for myself and he had inherited a general store from his father. He seemed nice enough so I ended up marrying him.”
“Was he good to you?” Johnnie asked.
“When he wasn’t drunk he was really sweet to me,” Artelia said. “But he drank himself to death a year after we were wed. He was walking home from the saloon with some friends of his, when he tripped and hit his head just right.”
“Oh my God,” Johnnie said. “That’s awful Artelia, I’m sorry to hear that. You must have been devastated when you heard the news.”
“Yeah…” Artelia said, then she changed the subject, not wanting to go into detail about her life with Margaret. “So, what’s life been like for you in Greencrest? It seems like a nice enough town.”
“Oh it’s quite a nice town,” Johnnie said. “I would know, lived here practically my whole life. I used to live in Michigan with my parents when I was very young, but the government started handing out parcels of land after the war, so my dad packed us up and moved us out here. My dad built this place with his own two hands.”
“Really? Well, that’s amazing!” Artelia exclaimed.
“I’ll say,” Johnnie said. “He really knew how to put life into this place. I try my best to follow in his footsteps, though I’m not sure I could ever match his passion.”
“Well it doesn’t seem like life has left it at all,” Artelia said. “I’m sure if your father was here now he’d be quite proud of what his ranch has turned into.”
Johnnie nodded, turning his eyes away from Artelia for a moment. That was something he needed to hear. He gathered himself and said, “Well, I doubt you want to keep staring at a dirty, dust-covered rancher for the rest of the day. I’ll go get myself cleaned up.”
“Then I’ll make you some dinner in the meantime,” Artelia said cheerfully.
When Johnnie returned from getting some fresh clothes and cleaning himself off a bit, he found Artelia hard at work in the kitchen. His nose was treated to an amazing smelling roast. It was like smelling the air of heaven. He watched as she stirred the pot and occasionally sprinkled in more spices or added another vegetable or two to thicken the sauce. She was very much enjoying herself.
“There you are, Johnnie!” Artelia said enthusiastically. “Have a seat at the table, this is almost done cooking.”
“It smells heavenly,” Johnnie said as he took his seat.
“Why thank you!” Artelia said. “It’s a recipe I learned from my ma. I hope you’ll enjoy it.”
The roast finished cooking and Artelia prepared a plate for Johnnie and herself. After she sat down next to Johnnie she said, “Well go ahead! Let me know how it tastes.”
Johnnie took his fork and knife and cut a slice out of the roast. The meat separated easily and was very juicy, the vegetables were cooked to perfection. As he brought the food to his mouth, he could see Artelia waiting eagerly out of the corner of his eye to see his reaction. The food was simply brilliant, it had vibrant flavors and a superb texture. He’d never had anything quite like this in his entire life, his eyes lit up as he swallowed his first bite.
“So?” Artelia asked. “How is it?”
“It’s…” Johnnie couldn’t find the proper words to praise the food. “It’s unbelievably good! Oh my, where did you learn to cook like this?”
“Years of practice, of course,” Artelia responded smugly.
Johnnie continued to feast on the roast. In between servings he would talk with Artelia. They talked about their lives and told stories to each other. He was very surprised; she was extremely easy to talk to and always had something to say or contribute to the conversation. It was nothing like the one word responses he would get from Lorraine. Artelia actually cared about what he had to say. She was sweet, considerate, and funny throughout the whole dinner. It was unlike anything he’d ever experienced before.
Sadly, dinner came to an end. Johnnie looked out the window and saw that the sun had begun to hide behind the horizon. Johnnie needed to get some rest so he would be ready for the day tomorrow.
“I hate to end this,” Johnnie said morosely. “But I’ve got to wake up early in the morning so I’m ready for work. I plan on finishing up the reconstruction before the afternoon.”
“Oh it’s no trouble at all Johnnie,” Artelia said. “I’m just happy that you decided to join me for dinner tonight, it was a very warm welcome!”
“And thank you for the wonderful dinner,” Johnnie said. “I’ll sleep out in the bunkhouse with the other ranch hands for now, that way you can get comfortable in here.”
“Oh…” Artelia said, surprised. “Well thank you, Johnnie. You have a good rest of your night.”
“You as well, Artelia,” Johnnie said before heading out the door and to the bunkhouse.
As Johnnie lay in bed, he thought about what had happened that day. Namely, he was extremely surprised with Artelia’s behavior. Not once had she brought up the mask he wore covering half of his face. He’d caught her staring at it a couple of times but even then she never seemed keen to ask about it. He wondered if the reason she didn’t bring it up was because she was scared of him, but based on her attitude today that didn’t seem to be the case. Maybe, just maybe, she was different from everyone else. Maybe she was the rare person who judged people on their actions rather than their appearances.
Regardless, Johnnie felt that placing the ad in the paper was one of the better decisions he’d made. He drifted off into a peaceful slumber, excited for what the following day would bring him.
Artelia awoke to the morning sun in her face and the sound of a hammer beating a nail. She yawned and stretched her arms out wide. She looked around and concluded that she must be dreaming, because she wasn’t stuck in Margaret’s general store. Instead, when she looked out the window, she saw Johnnie’s ranch. She had indeed moved to Wyoming, the train ride yesterday wasn’t some fever dream.
She was very excited. Not just because she was lucky enough to live on this ranch, but because she hoped to see what lay beneath Johnnie’s mask. Artelia thought that he would surely show her today, she was not afraid of what could possibly be behind it. To her, Johnnie’s eyes were passionate, full of life, and honest, it was not even a question in her mind that he would reveal the rest of his face to her today.
Artelia got dressed and walked out of her room. She went into the kitchen and decided to make breakfast for herself and Johnnie. She started by brewing some coffee, a staple of the working man’s diet. While she waited for it to finish brewing, she walked out to the front porch and called for Johnnie.
“Hey up there!” Artelia yelled up to Johnnie. “I’m cooking up some breakfast if you want some!”
“Oh that sounds great!” Johnny exclaimed. “I’ll be down in a minute, let me just get this last shingle in place.” Artelia heard the sound of a hammer striking after Johnnie finished talking.
She then went inside to get started on the main meal. Today she would make a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon. Artelia cooked the bacon so it was not too crispy but had a little bit of a crunch to it. Then she prepared the eggs by scrambling them in the same pan as the bacon, a trick she’d learned from her mother. She made sure to add the perfect amount of salt and pepper to the eggs along with some butter to give them an excellent flavor.
As she finished her cooking, Artelia heard Johnnie begin to descend from the roof. Her excitement was uncontainable, she was a bit nervous but nonetheless enthused to see what the rest of Johnnie’s face looked like. As she heard his footsteps on the porch, a smile grew across her face.
However, when Johnnie walked in the door, Artelia’s hopes were unfortunately broken. He still had that sheet mask over half of his face. Her smile faded. Johnnie noticed this and looked behind him, then he looked over his clothes.
“Is something wrong?” Johnnie asked.
“What? Oh, no…” Artelia said, disappointed. “Come on in, let’s have breakfast together.”
“What’re we having on this fine morning?” Johnnie asked.
“Scrambled eggs and bacon,” Artelia said. “It’s a simple meal, I know, but it’ll keep you going all day!”
“With the way you cook, I do not doubt that,” Johnnie said assuredly.
The two of them sat down at the table and began eating their breakfast and drinking their coffee. Johnnie went through his breakfast like it was nothing; the work on the roof must have made him hungrier than a wolf. Artelia, on the other hand, was only taking small bites. She was constantly looking down at her food and then up at Johnnie and his masked face, waiting patiently for him to address it.
Johnnie could tell that something was off, so he asked if she was all right. “Is something wrong? You’ve barely touched your breakfast.”
“Oh… No, I’m just not that hungry I suppose,” Artelia said nervously. She watched as Johnnie shrugged and went back to his food. She took a deep breath and mustered up some courage. She cleared her throat and said, “Actually… I was wondering if you’d tell me why you wear that mask?”
Johnnie’s happy, satisfied expression from eating breakfast quickly stiffened and he sat up straight. It was like he had turned to stone. Artelia could see the pain in his eyes after she asked her question. She began to regret asking.
“Artelia, if it’s all the same,” Johnnie said softly. “I’d rather talk about this another time. I’m just not ready to have that conversation with you.”
Unfortunately for Artelia, it seemed like getting Johnnie to take his mask off was a much longer endeavor than she’d first thought. But she understood his concerns and was willing to wait. She responded to him saying, “Oh I don’t mind. Just, whenever you’re comfortable I’d like to know about it.”
“I appreciate your patience,” Johnnie said. “It’s just not something I really like to talk about.”
Artelia and Johnnie continued to eat and enjoy their breakfast until it was all finished. Afterwards, Johnnie got up, ready to get back to work.
“Alrighty,” Johnnie said. “I’ve gotta finish up with the roof. You can do whatever you like with the place, to make it comfortable for you. I won’t be far away so if you need anything at all just holler at me.”
“Oh don’t worry about me,” Artelia said. “I’ll just be in here doing a bit of cleaning and getting ready for lunch while you’re out there. I do love cooking here!”
“Well, I’m excited to eat whatever you cook up,” Johnnie said. “So far you’ve made some of the best food I’ve ever tasted.”
“Do you have any neighbors or some other friends? Maybe you can invite them over and introduce them to me!” Artelia said hopefully.
“Uh… No, it’ll just be us I’m afraid, but thank you for asking,” Johnnie said with a tinge of sadness in his voice.
“Oh… Well that’s just fine, I do enjoy the time we spend together,” Artelia said. In the back of her mind, she began to wonder if Philip was the only real friend he had in Greencrest. Beyond that, she also began to wonder why that would be the case. Johnnie seemed like such a polite and nice man, it must have something to do with that mask he wore all the time.
Johnnie nodded, saw himself out of the house and returned to his work. Meanwhile, Artelia began cleaning up around the house. She first made her bed and then tended to the rest of the house. It was a bit disorganized, partly from the restoration of the house, and partly because a man had been living there on his own for the past two months.
Artelia got to work swiftly. She dusted, swept the floor, and reorganized everything she could so the house returned to order while also making herself familiar with the ins and outs of her new home. She took extra care when she cleaned the kitchen, the part of the house she was most grateful for.
She rearranged the spice cabinet to a more familiar setup, so she wouldn’t spend forever looking for the thing she needed while she was cooking. She washed the dishes, and cleaned the stove and tables. While she cleaned, she hatched her plan for how she would get Johnnie to finally take off that mask of his. It was clearly a matter of trust and finding a way to get him to open up his heart.
That’s when an idea exploded in her head like a stick of dynamite. What was the best way to a man’s heart? Through his stomach. If she continued to work hard and make all sorts of delicious meals while keeping the house spick and span, then surely he would be impressed enough to trust her with what was on the other side of his face.
But then, she thought to herself that perhaps that goal was a bit selfish. Artelia resolved that she wouldn’t worry about Johnnie’s mask and what was under it, instead she would focus on winning him over in general. She figured with time that he would come to really trust her and hopefully show her what was under his mask.
By the time Artelia had finished cleaning and organizing, it was a little past noon. She figured Johnnie was likely getting hungry by now, and began to prepare a meal for him. Thinking of what she could make, she decided on making a stew. She set to work immediately, cutting up meat and vegetables that would undoubtedly create a tasty, wholesome lunch.
When she finished cooking, she went out on the front porch and called for Johnnie. “Lunch is ready Johnnie!”
“Perfect!” Johnnie called out. “I just finished up. I’ll be there in a few minutes, just let me put away my tools.”
Artelia then took the time to set up bowls and silverware for herself and Johnnie. As her husband-to-be walked through the door, she was pouring a serving into their bowls. She watched as Johnnie took a deep inhale through his nose, drinking in the delectable smell of the stew.
“Now that is a good smelling stew!” Johnnie exclaimed. He was practically drooling.
“Well don’t be shy,” Artelia said. “Sit down and eat with me!”
The two of them sat down for lunch and began to eat. Johnnie was enraptured by the taste of Artelia’s meal as usual, it was an absolute treat of an experience for his taste buds.
Artelia then decided to probe Johnnie’s mind while he was in a good mood. “Do you mind if I ask you some questions about the house? Like how it caught fire?”
Johnnie’s expression quickly turned to concern, but he relented. “I suppose not, there isn’t much to tell.”
“Well, how did it happen?” Artelia asked.
“I was just…” Johnnie seemed to be struggling to find the right words. “I just had a really bad day, got into an argument with someone and I knocked over a lantern on accident.”
“Oh goodness,” Artelia said. “I won’t prod any further then.” The truth was, she wanted to know more. Like who could have possibly caused this man to get so angry that he’d accidentally set his own house on fire? Moreover, could that mean his face was burned in the blaze? She wanted to know more, to ask Johnnie about what happened that day. But she reminded herself of her plan, it was best not to provoke the poor man any further.
“Can you tell me more about your parents?” Artelia said, changing the subject to something more pleasant. “What were they like?”
“Oh, they were the best kind of people,” Johnnie said happily. “Like I told you before, my dad got this land when the government was giving out parcels after the war. I was their only child so they were very protective of me, my mother especially.”
Artelia giggled. “Was she a little too protective of you?”
“Oh no,” Johnnie said. “She was just very loving, but then again so was my dad. He loved my mama and I more than anything in the world. Seeing us happy was what drove him to wake up in the morning and work as hard as he could.”
“They sound like they were good parents,” Artelia remarked.
“That they were,” Johnnie said proudly. “Everybody loved them, they were just good people.”
“I can see where you get your drive to work from then,” Artelia said. “To me it sounds like you got that from your father, you just want to work hard and make people happy.”
Johnnie stared at Artelia. She just returned the look, locking eyes with him, letting him know that she was serious about her comment, that she really believed he was a good man.
Johnnie cleared his throat. “T-thank you Artelia, that’s very kind of you to say.”
“Don’t mention it Johnnie,” she said. “It’s well-deserved.”
Johnnie looked down at his food and played around with it for a minute. The moment of silence was pierced when he spoke again. “Hey do you want to watch the stars with me tonight? If my calendar is right, it’s a new moon tonight, and if there’s no clouds we’ll be able to get a really good view.”
“Why, I think that’s a wonderful idea! I’d love to!” Artelia said, surprised and happy he would invite her.
“Then it’s decided,” Johnnie said. “I’ll collect you when it’s time.”
The two of them finished up their lunches and Johnnie went back to work for the rest of the day. Artelia cleaned up the kitchen from the lunch she’d made and went back to sprucing up the house a bit more.
An hour after the sun set, Johnnie came up to the house. He opened the front door and called for Artelia.
“Artelia? It’s time, make sure you grab a few blankets,” he said.
“I’ll be right out!” Artelia called back. She fetched some spare blankets and came out to meet Johnnie.
He led her outside to a spot behind the stable. There was a perfect opening in the trees where one could gaze up into the night sky and get a perfectly clear view. Artelia found the spot to be very peaceful and serene.
“Here, lay those blankets down in the middle of the clearing,” Johnnie said.
Artelia put the blankets side by side in the middle of their stargazing spot. She watched as Johnnie took off his hat and lay down on one of the blankets and then invited her to do the same. As Artelia lay back on the blanket she was struck with awe at the beautiful sight of the hundreds of gleaming stars that lit up the night sky. She couldn’t remember the last time she did something like this, if she’d ever done anything like this at all.
As she lay next to Johnnie, staring up into the heavens, she felt happy and safe. She’d no longer have to wake up every morning listening to Margaret’s horrid voice, running a general store by herself, and having no freedom. The move to Wyoming was a big step in the right direction, Artelia knew it.
Johnnie looked beside him at Artelia as she was enthralled by the night sky. He loved seeing the mystified look on her face, it was the same kind of look he’d had when his father first took him stargazing when he was young.
There wasn’t a day that went by without Johnnie missing his father; he’d done so much to set him on the right path in life. His dad had taught Johnnie everything he knew about ranch life and he wished that he could see what had become of his ranch now.
That wasn’t what tonight was about though, now was the time for Johnnie to relax and enjoy the company of Artelia. He decided that he should try and entertain her a bit more.
“Hey, Artelia,” Johnnie said.
“Yes, Johnnie?” Artelia replied.
Johnnie pointed out a cluster of seven stars in the sky. They stuck out amid the crowd of other gleaming heavenly bodies. “Do you see that gathering of seven stars over there?” he said.
It took Artelia a moment, but with extra guidance from Johnnie, she found the bright cluster of stars he was talking about. “Oh my!” she exclaimed. “They’re beautiful!”
“There’s actually a myth about them, if you’d like to hear it, I could tell you,” Johnnie said.
“Why I’d love to!” Artelia said, her interest piqued.
“All right,” Johnnie said happily. “So those seven stars up there, they’re called the Pleiades. It’s an old Greek name.” He looked to Artelia for a moment to see if she was impressed by this new knowledge before continuing. “The Greeks said that the Pleiades were seven sisters and they were the most beautiful women in the world. In fact, they were so beautiful that everyone in the world wanted to get their hands on them, especially this guy called Orion, a giant hunter. The story goes he was always trying to find these seven sisters but they hated being followed by him. They did everything they could to get him off of their trail, but nothing worked, he never gave up chasing them. So, the sisters asked Zeus, the king of the gods, to help them.” Johnnie stopped for a moment again and looked at Artelia, who was listening very intently to the story.
“Well?” Artelia asked. “What did Zeus do, surely he helped these poor girls?”
“Well, he thought their situation was pretty sad,” Johnnie continued. “So he turned all seven of them into these pretty little doves. They were so quick that they were able to all fly away into the sky, away from Orion. The girls decided that they could keep their father company.”
“Well who was their father?” Artelia asked. “And did Orion ever find them again or did they escape for good?”
“If I remember correctly,” Johnnie said, putting a finger to his chin, “I believe it was Atlas. He was a god too and his job, well it wasn’t really his job, the other gods forced him to carry the sky on his shoulders.”
Artelia looked up at the stars again and said, “Well he must have awfully big shoulders!”
“Indeed he does,” Johnnie said. “Anyway, the girls thought they got away from Orion and were safe in the sky with their dad, but Orion was a pretty stubborn hunter. You see those stars next to the ones I showed you?” He pointed to another constellation that vaguely resembled a man holding a bow and arrow.
“Oh no…” Artelia said. “Don’t tell me that’s him.”
“Yup, that’s Orion,” Johnnie said smugly. “He’s still chasing after those poor girls. He won’t ever reach them, but he keeps chasing them.”
“Wow!” Artelia exclaimed. “That’s quite the story, where on earth did you hear it?”
“Well, my dad wasn’t always a rancher,” Johnnie said. “Before he met my ma, he was a bit of a traveling merchant. He went all over the world selling odds and ends. He always told me he met a lot of interesting people in his travels, some of them were wiser than he ever could have hoped to be and they told him stories like the ones I just told you. He told me as many of them as he could remember, I suppose he was trying to make me wise as well.”
“That’s wonderful!” Artelia said. She was looking at Johnnie with a dreamy look in her eyes. “You must have learned a lot”
Johnnie chuckled. “Not really, I’ve always cared more for ranching than I have for tales of gods and monsters. Still, a lot of those tales have good lessons in them.”
“Really?” Artelia said, inquisitively. “So what’s the lesson in the story you just told me?”
Johnnie’s head turned toward the stars. He looked up at the constellation, pondering what the lesson behind their story could be. “Hmmm,” he said before turning back to Artelia. “I suppose the lesson is that you shouldn’t bother girls too much or else they’ll turn into doves and fly away!”
Artelia laughed and shook her head, “You are a strange man, Johnnie. But in a good way.”
“What do you mean?” Johnnie asked.
“It’s not every day a girl gets to go and live with a rancher who knows stories about the stars,” Artelia said. “You’re just interesting, is all.”
“Oh… Well thanks,” Johnnie said meekly. He wasn’t quite sure how to respond to Artelia’s compliment. He was used to Lorraine telling him to stop talking about the stars and whatever else his father had told him. She thought the stories were a waste of her time; she found them boring and outlandish.
Johnnie and Artelia continued their night stargazing for a while longer. Johnnie continued to point out different constellations and Artelia continued to listen; she enjoyed every moment spent with him. As their night continued, Johnnie noticed that she was shivering, even with the blanket she’d brought wrapped around her. He stood up with his own blanket, Artelia watched him attentively.
“What are you doing?” Artelia asked innocently.
“You’re shivering, you look like you could use an extra blanket,” Johnnie said.
“Oh, you don’t need to do that,” Artelia said unconvincingly. “I’m fine, really.”
“Nonsense,” Johnnie said. “We can’t have you feeling cold.” He then wrapped his blanket around her.
“Won’t you be cold?” Artelia said.
“No, I’m used to it out here,” Johnnie said. “I do this a lot.” He sat back down on the grass next to her and continued to watch the stars. They sat there together for a little while. Johnnie continued to point out different constellations his father had taught him about. Artelia listened in awe to each of his stories and he appreciated her attentiveness.
They did this for a few hours, before Johnnie had exhausted all that he knew of the heavens above.
“I think that’s just about everything I know,” Johnnie said.
“Well… What about what’s beyond the stars?” Artelia asked. “What do you think is past them?”
“I’m not quite sure,” Johnnie said. “I suppose I’ve never really thought about it.”
“There’s got to be something out there, anything,” Artelia said.
“Your guess is as good as mine, Artelia,” Johnnie said.
“What if… What if those stories you told me are true?” Artelia asked. “Maybe there were actually a bunch of girls running from some rude hunter and they got turned into stars by someone like Zeus.”
Johnnie chuckled. “I’ve never met a man who could turn women into stars, and if I did, I’d keep my distance.”
“Why do you say that?” Artelia asked.
“Nothing good ever comes from anyone with that much power,” Johnnie said. “Someone who can turn you into something as beautiful as a star, is just as likely to turn you into as something as ugly as a hog.”
“I suppose,” Artelia said. “But I don’t think there’s anyone like that out past the stars.”
Johnnie tilted his head and said, “What makes you say that?”
“I feel like someone that lives out there must be awfully shy,” Artelia said. “I mean if your home was only visible once the sun went down, when everything goes dark, they must be a bit bashful.”
“Huh,” Johnnie said, nodding along to Artelia’s statement. “I never really thought about it like that.”
“Maybe… I wonder if they’re just scared of getting hurt or hurting someone. That’s why they feel the need to hide behind the stars,” Artelia said solemnly.
Johnnie could feel one of his hands float up and touch the side of his face covered by the mask. He didn’t even notice he was doing it, he was lost in Artelia’s words and his own thoughts.
Artelia looked up, saw Johnnie’s hand over his mask and said, “Is everything all right?”
Johnnie’s hand shot back down beside his body and he answered, “What? Yes, everything’s fine… My face just itched a little is all. Don’t worry about me.”
“If you say so,” Artelia said as she turned her attention back to the heavenly bodies that gleamed, glistened, and shimmered in the night sky.
Even though he was still a bit touchy when it came to the mask, Johnnie had begun to feel more comfortable around Artelia. He hadn’t felt like this around someone since the accident. No, maybe even before then, he couldn’t remember a time he felt like this when he was with Lorraine. In fact, he only remembered feeling on edge around her, like anything that he might say or do would be met with ridicule and disdain.
Sitting outside and watching the stars with Artelia was probably one of the most refreshing things Johnnie had done in a long while. After the many lonely nights and the hard hours spent on rebuilding his house, Johnnie finally felt at peace tonight. For this brief moment, he felt like he didn’t have a care in the world.
“Johnnie… Johnnie?” Artelia said, trying to get his attention.
“What? I’m sorry my mind was elsewhere,” Johnnie said.
Artelia giggled, “It’s getting late, we should get back to the house, don’t you think? You’ve got a roof to finish and animals to look after in the morning and I’ve got breakfast to cook.”
“You’re right,” Johnnie said. “Let’s head back then.” They both headed back to the house, Artelia still had both of the blankets bundled up around her. Johnnie walked her up the steps to the front porch, making sure she didn’t trip on the blanket. After he made sure she was up the stairs, he opened the door for her.
“Thanks again for spending the night out there with me Artelia, I had a great time,” Johnnie said.
“Don’t mention it! I had a grand time as well, I’ve never done anything like that, it was so much fun. I hope this means we’ll be able to spend more time together,” Artelia said honestly.
Artelia’s words struck deep into Johnnie’s heart. He didn’t expect her to act like this with a man who hid part of his face behind a mask. “Uh… Well, the house will be done after tomorrow… I’m sure I can make more time once I’ve closed up that hole.”
“I’ll hold you to it then Johnnie,” Artelia said.
“Right then… I’ll see you tomorrow Artelia,” Johnnie said.
“Good night Johnnie,” Artelia said, as she looked deep into Johnnie’s eyes.
Johnnie looked back. His heart felt like it was going to beat right out of his chest, like it was being brought back to life after remaining dormant for so long and the cause was Artelia’s gaze, attitude, and of course, her staggering beauty. It was now clear to him that he wasn’t dealing with a girl who was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. This was a real woman, who wasn’t afraid of work and had an honest heart.
“Yes…” Johnnie nodded and then cleared his throat. “Good night Artelia.” He watched as a warm smile showed up on her face before she went inside and shut the door to the house. He then walked to the bunkhouse and got ready for bed. As he lay down in his bed, he fell asleep quickly and slept like a rock. It was perhaps the best sleep he’d had in his life.
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