This weekend, I thought I’d post a sample from my novella “Pete’s Wife” and talk about the inspiration behind it in tomorrow’s post.
This story takes place in 1876. Janet Syas Nitsick’s character, Opal Preston, is the heroine in the other novella in this anthology. You can think of this anthology as the story about two women who meet on a train that goes to Lincoln, Nebraska where they will find love (just in different ways).
Below is the beginning of the novella I’m writing. My character is Ada Wilcox. (This is in first draft.)
With a glance over her shoulder at the door of the train, Ada Wilcox fought the urge to get right back off. But as much as she wanted to avoid this, she couldn’t. Her destiny was set and there was no turning back.
The conductor motioned to a seat in the front row. “Please sit here, Miss.”
Sighing, she thanked the conductor and sat down. She didn’t know whether to cry or yell about the unfairness of it all. She glanced out the window and saw her brother give a hesitant wave. Forcing herself to be polite, she returned the gesture then shifted so that she didn’t have to look out the window again. She knew it wasn’t nice of her to do, but at the moment, she couldn’t bring herself to do what was right. She was much too upset.
The conductor leaned forward and smiled. “If you two need anything, let me know. Miss Preston, this is Miss Wilcox. Miss Wilcox,” he told Ada, “this is Miss Preston. You two won’t believe it, but you’re both headed for Lincoln, Nebraska. It’s a small world.” He chuckled and headed to the door to assist other passengers.
Miss Preston turned toward Ada. “So you’re going to Lincoln? How unusual for us to be traveling to the same place.”
“Yes, it is.” Ada retrieved a handkerchief out of her drawstring purse, tears welling up in her eyes. She forced a smile at the pretty young lady beside her who wore a lovely green and white shirtwaist and matching skirt. “I worried about traveling this distance by myself.” But all things considered, that was the least of her worries.
The train jerked forward, and Ada ventured a glance at her brother who at least had the decency to look guilty.
Miss Preston leaned toward her, eyebrows furrowed. “Are you okay?”
“I,” she sniffed and wiped her eyes again, “I suppose I’ll be.” She’d never seen Miss Preston until today and judging by the quality of her clothing, she was better off than her. Not that anyone would know it since Ada had on her best dress. She didn’t know what she could possibly have in common with such a refined lady, but it probably didn’t matter since they’d most likely never see each other again. “Are you scared?”
“Yes, I’m leaving my beloved Virginia for an unknown place. It’s disconcerting.”
Ada nodded. “It is. I don’t want to leave, but my brother worried about me and,” she grimaced and wiped more tears away, “arranged a marriage to secure my future. I’m sorry. I can’t seem to stop.” She sniffed. “I’m Ada, by the way.”
“So may I ask why you are going to Lincoln? I-I don’t want to pry, but since we’ll be traveling together, I thought it might be nice to-to talk.” And it would take her mind off her situation, if even for a few hours. She could use the reprieve. She hadn’t enjoyed a moment’s peace since her brother gave her the news.
Opal turned toward her. “Of course, you can and I’ll be happy to talk about it. I’m taking a governess position for two children.”
“Oh?” A governess. That made sense. Opal seemed educated. “How old are they?”
“Abigail’s six and Theodore’s eight.”
“Those are good ages,” Ada said, finally able to take a deep breath to help settle her nerves.
“It is.” Opal paused. “That’s very perceptive of you.”
“Well, I come from a large family. I have five brothers and two sisters.”
“I have five brothers and two sisters too.” She laughed. “I can’t believe the things we’ve got in common. It’s uncanny.”
Ada gestured to Opal’s dress. “Even to the point of our choice in colors.”
Opal nodded. “I noticed right away that we were both wearing green. I’m glad the conductor put us together.”
“I am too.” And she was. Now she wouldn’t have to spend the whole trip in dread. “Who are you meeting once we reach Lincoln?”
“My employer, Alexander Boyer. And you?”
Ada gulped and clasped her hands together so she wouldn’t start crying all over again. That’s all Opal needed. A traveling companion who cried more tears than the Mississippi River could contain. When she could answer calmly, she said, “Pete Kelly. That’s all my brother told me about him. Oh, he did say Pete’s well off.” But she doubted Pete Kelly was as well off as Opal. Then again, to her brother, anyone who didn’t have to worry about eating supper was prosperous. “So, you’re going to work as a governess? Are you looking forward to it?”
“Yes, but I’m going to miss my Virginia. What about you?”
“Not really. I’m just afraid of what kind of man my brother arranged for me.”
“It’s going to be difficult for both of us.”
Opal reached out to squeeze her hand in silent encouragement. Ada returned the sentiment then turned to the window, hardly noticing the scenery.
With each mile that separated Ada from Virginia, she didn’t know if she felt better or worse. She kept telling herself that her brother wasn’t a bad man. He’d made the arrangement with Pete Kelly because he needed the money and because it would ensure she’d be provided for for the rest of her life.
But even as she tried to console herself with such logic, knowing her brother had seen fit to sell her to a stranger out in Nebraska—far removed from anyone she’d ever known—hurt. And just what kind of man needed a wife so badly he’d post an ad offering to buy one? Surely, a man who had to buy a wife wasn’t the kind of man worth marrying.
What had her brother been thinking? Even if Pete promised her brother he’d take good care of her, she didn’t know if that was really true. And her brother should have known better than to take Pete at his word. For all any of them knew, Pete was lying. Maybe he had something other than marriage in mind. What if he had a brothel and was looking for more women? As much as she struggled not to consider the possibility, it could very well be the case. Or it could be something as equally horrendous. She didn’t know what could be as bad as working in a brothel, but she was sure men could think of all kinds of ways to use a woman.
No, she had no reason to be lenient with her brother. Her brother should have had the decency to make sure Pete was a good man before he made the transaction. He never should have sold her without knowing what it was exactly that he was forcing her into.
Maybe she could run away. But how? And where would she go? She had no money, no way to get back to Virginia, no one to go to. She was trapped. If this Pete Kelly wasn’t the honorable young man her brother believed him to be, her life was good for nothing.
From beside her, someone gently nudged her arm. She stirred in her seat and saw her traveling companion smiling at her. “We’re approaching the station,” Opal said.
Ada stared at her for a moment then returned her smile. The only source of solace she had during the long and heartbreaking journey was having Opal to talk to. Now they would part: Opal to be a governess and Ada to be with someone who would either be good to her or not. “I will miss you.”
“Me too. I’m so glad we got to know each other.”
Ada pulled out her damp handkerchief and wiped more tears from her eyes. With a glance out the window, she saw the Lincoln station as the train slowed.
“Don’t forget to write,” Opal said.
Ada blinked back more tears and nodded. If Pete Kelly was the kind of man who’d allow her to write, she would.
The train came to a stop, and the conductor called out, “Lincoln!” Then he turned to the two women. “Stay here and I’ll make sure Mr. Kelly and My Boyer are here to greet you.”
Ada pressed her handkerchief to her mouth, hoping her nerves wouldn’t make her vomit. This was it. There was no turning back.
The passengers started departing from the car, and the conductor waved to them. Opal gave her an encouraging smile, and while it did little to ease the tension, Ada took some comfort in it. She reluctantly got out of her seat and trudged to the door. With a deep breath to steady her nerves, she took a shaky step off the train.
She glanced back at Opal who seemed so at ease with being in this new and unfamiliar place as she stepped off the train. Ada wished she had her ability to display such confidence.
“Are you Miss Ada Wilcox?” a man who appeared to be in his late twenties asked.
Her gaze went from him to the woman and child beside him. Surely, this couldn’t be Pete Kelly. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she nodded. “I am. You’re not Pete Kelly, are you?”
“No, ma’am,” he replied. “I’m his brother, Jimmy. This here is my wife Cheryl and my boy Ron.”
“I’m six,” Ron said, making the others laugh.”
With a chuckle, Jimmy motioned to an older man whose hair was starting to gray. “And this is Preacher Thompson who’ll marry you and my brother.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Cheryl said with a smile that helped to ease some of Ada’s nerves, though not all of them.
“Is Pete here?” she asked, scanning the busy station.
“No, he’s waiting for you at his house,” Jimmy replied.
One of the baggage handlers came over to her. “Ma’am, do you have a brass tag for me?”
“Oh, yes.” Ada quickly opened her purse and dug in it, feeling the heat of everyone’s stares on her as she fumbled around for it, and finally retrieved it. Goodness but her hands wouldn’t stop shaking. “Here it is, sir.”
The youth nodded and went to get her small wooden trunk.
“Do you have anything else?” Cheryl asked.
Ada shook her head. “This is it.” All the things she owned were in a trunk so small that it wouldn’t hold much more than Ron if he wanted to hide in it. This was just another reminder of why her brother said this was her best chance at a better life. She examined Jimmy as he lifted the trunk for her then turned her attention to Cheryl, the boy, and the preacher. They seemed like nice enough folk, at least they didn’t seem like the kind who’d haul her off to a brothel.
“What did your brother tell you about Pete?” Jimmy asked as he led the group out of the station.
“Um, not much.” Ada squinted in the sunlight and adjusted her hat to protect her eyes. “Just that he’d be a good provider.”
“He will be,” Cheryl quickly assured her. “He’s a hard worker. He tends to the animals and his gardens with fine dedication. You’ll never want for food. And he does good with fixing up the place. The home is in good condition. He also has some money set aside. Jimmy will often take whatever food Pete doesn’t need to eat and sells them. Pete doesn’t buy anything, really, so you’ll have some money. This all very important to remember.”
Ada’s eyebrows furrowed. Wasn’t it strange that Cheryl felt the need to say all of that? If she guessed right, there was an uncertainty in Cheryl’s expression. Her steps slowed as they neared a buckboard wagon. Maybe she shouldn’t do this. She took in her surroundings, specifically the other people and saw Opal get into the wagon with the man who had employed her. Should she run over to them and pray upon their kindness to take her with them? She might not know anything to teach children, but she could cook and sew. Maybe she could do that?
“It’s hard to explain the situation,” the preacher said.
Ada turned her attention to him. “I’m here to be Pete Kelly’s wife, right? He doesn’t have another wife or illegitimate children or engages in immoral pursuits, does he?”
“No,” the preacher said. “Pete lives by himself on a farm. He’s tender and kind. He’s a good man.”
Jimmy placed her trunk in the wagon then came over to them. “The situation with Pete is a delicate matter.”
Her stomach tensed and her grip tightened on her purse. “What is his situation?” she forced out.
He glanced at Cheryl and the preacher who nodded. “Alright, I’ll tell you now. It’s best to be prepared.” After he took a deep breath, he said, “Pete doesn’t have normal intelligence.”
“What?” Ada asked, not sure she understood him right.
“There’s nothing else wrong with him,” Cheryl quickly added. “He doesn’t harm anyone or anything. He’s very gentle. You needn’t worry about your safety.”
“But…? I don’t understand,” Ada said, glancing from one person to another.
“He’s a good friend,” Ron finally replied. “We ride horses together and play horseshoes.”
Jimmy patted his son’s shoulder. “Think of Pete as a child. You two will have your own bedrooms. You’ll be like a mother to him.”
“A mother?” To her own husband? Ada didn’t like the sound of that at all.
“There are worse husband you could have,” the preacher said. “Some men get drunk, hit their wives, sleep with other women… You won’t have to worry about that with Pete.”
“And I’ll come by to check on things, to make sure you get everything you need from town,” Jimmy added. “I go to the general store once a month to get the things Pete needs. I’ll do the same for you.”
“It’s just that we need someone to look after him,” Cheryl said, turning to Ada with a hopeful look in her eyes. “I’m expecting another child and Jimmy acquired more land and cattle for our farm. It’s just not as easy to check up on Pete as it used to be.”
“And it wouldn’t be right to have you out there by yourself without being his wife,” the preacher added. “It’s easier this way.”
Ada didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t as bad as she feared. She wouldn’t end up in a brothel or in some other precarious situation. But it wasn’t ideal either. As a little girl, she had envisioned marrying a young, handsome man who’d be her companion. Pete Kelly would not be that companion she’d hoped for, someone to share the good and bad moments life would offer. He’d be someone she’d have to watch after and care for. But she supposed of all possibilities, this wasn’t so bad. She could live with this. At least she’d never have to go to bed hungry or wear mend clothes for the tenth time. She’d also have a warm place to sleep in the winter. There was something to be said for not having to sleep on the floor with one’s brothers and sisters to stay warm.
She released her breath. “Alright. I’ll marry him.”