Star C Ranch, Texas
July 4, 1864
“You cannot be serious, Reuben!” Julia Colter shouted, not caring that she might wake her niece and nephew from their afternoon nap. Pacing back and forth across the length of the kitchen, she stopped in front of her older brother, her temper flaring almost as hot as the stove. “He is balding and fat and twice my age!”
“You will marry who I say!” Reuben thundered. “I expect you to treat Mr. Hiram Norton with the upmost respect this evening. He has shown great interest in you and the least you can do is be civil with the man.”
“But, I could never love him!”
As Reuben shoved her violently up against the wall, Julia’s breath left her lungs in a rush. Digging his fingers into her arms, she could feel the bruises starting to form. His brown eyes darkened with unrestrained anger as he glared down at her. She swallowed in fear, stunned by his abrupt action.
“Stop, you’re hurting me,” she said, trying to break free from his vice like grip.
He raised his hand as if he meant to strike her—something he had never done before. The action startled her to silence. Instead of hitting her across the face, as she thought he might, Reuben returned his hands to her upper arms squeezing even harder.
Leaning so close the heat of his breath warmed her cheeks, he said, “You have no idea what hurt is, Julia. You are an insolent little whelp. You will paste a smile on that tart little face of yours. And you will do your best to win his affections or,” his voice menacing, “you will suffer my wrath, the likes of which you have yet to see.”
Releasing his hold, he pushed her so hard that she tumbled to the floor in a heap. As he turned to walk away, he added in a sinister tone, “It would be best if you get used to the idea of Hiram Norton and give up fanciful notions of love, dear sister. You will not have that luxury. The sooner you come to accept that, the better it will go for you.”
She sat in stunned silence as Reuben stalked to his office down the hall. Tears streaming down her face, Julia bolted to her feet, running out the front door of the ranch house to the nearby stables, still frightened by her brother’s brutal behavior.
The smell of hay and horse assaulted her delicate senses as she selected a gentle mare. Throwing her saddle on the horse’s back, she led her from the barn. Once under the open blue skies, she shoved one foot into the stirrup, swinging her other leg over the mare, riding astride. Nudging the mare into a full gallop, Julia fled to the one place she would always feel free—the back of a horse in the wide open pastures.
Reuben may be her guardian now, but she had only to endure a few more years of this before she would be of age and in control of her life. If only she could stop him from marrying her off before then.
At seventeen, she considered herself too young to get married, though many women her age and younger married. She wasn’t ready. She didn’t pine for the responsibilities marriage entailed. She liked her freedom. But, when she was ready to marry, she would marry for love and not because Reuben wished it.
Certainly, she would never marry Hiram Norton. The thirty-seven year old rancher was the exact opposite of what Julia wanted for a husband. His short stature and fading hairline made him look even older. He had a reputation for loving excess. When it came to food, his waistline showed the results of that love. There were other unsavory aspects to his reputation as well—including rumors that he frequented the saloon and brothel.
No, the man for Julia would be young and handsome. His character would be impeccable, his honor undeniable. Land, money, and wealth held no importance to her. She only cared that her dream man would be able to provide for her and their family.
As the wind tangled her long, sandy brown curls, she continued to press the horse for more speed—needing it to soothe her fear and anger. In the distance the herd of longhorns kicked up dust. The sight sparked a memory of Will, the kinder, more honorable of the Colter brothers, sending her mind racing in another direction. So many times he’d taken Julia out to the pasture, teaching her how to rope, ride, and work with the cattle. Some thought such behavior unacceptable for a lady. She was glad to learn these skills. Should her handsome young dream man end up being a rancher, he might appreciate her ability to work the ranch by his side.
Why hasn’t Will written? The thought of him brought fresh tears as memories of his hasty departure flooded her mind. Not only had she buried her father, but she also lost the brother she was close to—all within a few short weeks. Almost a year ago, following her father’s death, Reuben forced Will to leave the ranch when he had been deeded the house and ranch. While Will and Reuben both received half of the herd and the financial holdings, Will was left with no home or land. Unable to find anything close, he moved to the Arizona Territory, leaving Julia behind. Alone.
The only time she heard from him was in November 1863. Will wrote that he, his men, and his cattle arrived safely and set up their new home near the Granite Creek settlement in the Arizona Territory—wherever that was. No other letters came.
Despite the thirteen year age difference between Will and Julia, they adored each other. She followed him everywhere, never far from his side even when he worked with the herd. When she needed protecting, it was Will who came to her defense.
Oh, how she could use his protection now. If he were here, he would stop Reuben from forcing her to marry that awful Hiram Norton.
But, he wasn’t here. He was in a distant territory, far from Texas, far from her aid. Her father left her in Reuben’s care—not Will’s—even though Will would have been the better choice as far as Julia was concerned.
Their father never saw the evil that clouded Reuben’s heart and he knew nothing of his manipulative ways. In her father’s eyes, Reuben was as good of a son as Will. If her father knew of Reuben’s late nights in town or of his forceful tactics for bankrupting other ranchers and taking over their lands, he turned a blind eye. She found it hard to fathom that father could have missed such thinly concealed behavior.
As the mare started to struggle for breath, sides heaving with great effort, Julia eased up the pace. She was so torn. She had thought more than once to runaway to Arizona, but was afraid Reuben would find her and drag her back. Now he wanted her to flirt with Hiram Norton and get him to marry her. She had no desire to do what Reuben was asking. Mr. Norton may be wealthy, but he was twenty years older than her. There was something indecent in that alone. Nothing about him or his character appealed to her.
Realizing she was nearing the outer pasture, Julia turned the mare around to head back to the ranch house. She did not want to risk angering Reuben further by being unprepared for their dinner guests. Lord, please don’t make me have to marry that repulsive man. Will always said you could work things together for good. I am not seeing much good right now. Please give me the strength to make it through this evening meal.
As she pulled the mare to a stop in front of the stables, she slid off the horse. One of the young cowboys, Bates, took the reins from her hand.
“Miss Colter, you best hurry,” he said, nodding toward the lane leading to the ranch house.
A cloud of dust at the far end of the lane indicated their guests were already arriving. Julia shot a quick word of thanks to the friendly cowboy before picking up her skirts and running to the house. Reuben stood waiting with fury written on his face.
Rushing down the hall she slammed her bedroom door shut. She splashed some water on her face, wiping away the dust from her ride.
“Where have you been?” Mary’s panicked voice preceded her entrance into Julia’s room. Reuben’s normally calm, quiet wife seemed rather anxious as she picked up the corset she laid out.
“Whatever for?” came the squeaky, agitated response.
Julia tore off her day dress, tossing it over a chair. As Mary came to assist her with the corset, she took her last deep breath of the evening. She hated the confining contraption. Once the stays were tightened, she lifted her arms as Mary helped settle the lovely yellow silk down over her shoulders.
“You should have been in here an hour ago,” Mary lamented. “Now there is no possible way we can fashion your hair into ringlets. The other women will think you don’t care about your appearance.”
They would be correct, Julia thought. “You fret, too much,” she replied, brushing out her tangled curls. She would be content with twisting her unruly hair into a chignon, despite how much it fought against the pins.
“Go on. I’ll finish,” she instructed Mary, hoping to have a quiet moment to compose herself before entering the fray.
Mary hesitated for a brief moment before softly exiting the room. Taking as deep a breath as she could, Julia let it out in a heavy sigh. Undoubtedly, Hiram Norton was already here, waiting for her in the other room. Pasting a smile on her face, she squared her shoulders and left the solitude of her room.
“Hiram,” Reuben said as Julia approached, “I do not believe you have met my sister, Julia.”
It took every ounce of courage to hold her smile steady and extend her hand towards Mr. Norton’s rotund frame. Taking her hand, he placed a sloppy kiss on top. “Reuben, where have you been hiding this lovely filly?”
Filly? The distasteful comment sickened her.
“Mr. Norton, a pleasure to meet you,” Julia said with more decorum than she thought she possessed. As soon as his hold lifted, she discretely wiped the back of her hand on her dress.
“Miss Colter, you are absolutely stunning,” he replied, allowing his lustful gaze to rove over her neckline, down her curvy figure, making overtly inappropriate stops along the way.
She fought to tamp down her mounting abhorrence. As the guests were seated around the table, she eagerly helped Mary set out the food.
Still irritated by Mr. Norton’s uncouth comment, she decided to fight back as she took her seat. “Mr. Norton, my brother tells me you have been very successful with your ranch, despite the Union’s blockade. Tell me, how do you do it?”
Reuben’s eyes narrowed slightly, letting her know he caught her barely hidden sarcasm.
“My lovely Miss Colter, such matters are too complicated for your simple mind to understand.”
Another mark against Mr. Norton—condescension towards women, she thought, keeping the sweet smile firmly in place. Lobbing a spoonful of potatoes on her plate she waited for him to continue.
“However, I shall endeavor to enlighten you,” he said with an air of superiority, snatching the potatoes from her hand. “While the Union may have blockaded our route to drive cattle to the New Orleans market, they have made no such effort to stop us from driving to points north or west. It seems that as long as we aren’t supplying the Confederate Army, they care little where we sell our cattle. We have simply changed our route north to the railways in Missouri. While I don’t care for the Union and their imposing ways, a profit is a profit. And I have made significant gains by being one of the first Texans to sell to eastern markets by way of Missouri.”
“If a large profit is to your liking, why not drive the cattle west towards the California market where prices are more than triple that of the eastern markets?”
Reuben shifted in his chair uncomfortably. His darkening eyes warned her to hold her tongue. She knew she should have heeded the warning, but she preferred being forthright. Let Mr. Norton find that out now.
Mr. Norton laughed off her question, causing her to dislike him even more. “You are a spirited little woman, I will give you that. But your comment shows your youth and your naivety.”
Taking not one, but two large pork chops from the platter she handed him, he said, “While the prices west are much higher, so is the cost to drive the cattle such a great distance. The length of time it takes to drive the cattle to California is almost three times as long as the northern route. It is also much more dangerous. There are many more Indians and cattle thieves westward. It would simply not be profitable to drive the herd west.”
His snooty tone grated on her nerves. When she opened her mouth to speak, Reuben interrupted. “Perhaps, dear sister, you should leave the business matters to men. I’m sure you would be much more interested in knowing how Mrs. Withers’ new baby is faring.”
Mrs. Withers quickly picked up the conversation, monopolizing both Julia and Mary’s time. While Julia was surprised Reuben even knew the woman had a child, she was thankful for the opportunity to ignore Mr. Norton.
As the conversation continued, she felt something brush against her knee then move away. She kept her focus on Mrs. Withers’ overlong description of her young son and on eating the meal, until she felt the unmistakable presence of a man’s hand move above her knee. She stole a glance and confirmed Mr. Norton’s hand rested most inappropriately on her thigh. Angling her legs further away from him as discreetly as possible, her stomach churned. When Mr. Norton pressed closer, she thought she might lose her dinner. The man appeared to have no limits.
Standing abruptly, she said, “If you’ll excuse me. I’m not feeling quite myself.” Without waiting for a reply she hurried to her room.
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