Marie Owen pressed forward through the crowd that surrounded her brother Carl and his new bride. She pushed her way across the patch of trampled grass in the Colorado meadow, trying to get closer to the bridal pair. She could barely see Ma hugging on Ellen. Mrs. Bates dabbed at her eyes. Mr. Bates stood alongside them, looking stern. Pa stood back a bit, looking pleased with himself.
Someone in a great hurry to leave the site of the makeshift altar bumped Marie's shoulder hard, and a flailing hand knocked her bonnet askew. She cried out, "Have a care!" as she turned to see who had been so heedless, then shook her head as she realized it was only her next older brother, James, fleeing from Carl's triumphant grin.
"You behave, James," she muttered, loosening the strings beneath her chin so she could straighten her headgear. When she was satisfied that it was once again firmly in place, she returned to her purpose of reaching her best friend.
Her youngest brother, Albert, was her last obstacle. He had wormed his way to the front of the crowd, and was enthusiastically engaged in kissing Ellen's cheek. Marie elbowed the youth aside, reached her friend, and threw her arms around her.
"Lawsy," Marie whispered in Ellen's ear as she hugged her tight. "I'd begun to fear this day was never comin'. Now you're truly my sister!"
Ellen pushed back from the embrace slightly, her green eyes shining like dewdrops above her freckled cheeks. "It was so sudden. I didn't figure Pa would bring the priest with him." Her voice quivered. "Who would have thought . . . " She scanned the meadow, craning her neck as she looked back and forth. "Where is James?"
Marie squeezed Ellen's arm. "Now don't you fret about him on your weddin' day. He'll get over his little disappointment."
"I want to tell him I am sorry."
"Don't you bother. He's been acting like such a ninny. It was plain as the nose on your face that you loved Carl and not him."
Ellen ducked her head, but when she raised it a moment later, her radiant smile bespoke her happiness.
Marie couldn't help kissing her cheek. "I'm thrilled for you," she murmured, and gave Ellen another hug.
"I cannot believe this happened so fast," Ellen whispered. She took a deep breath, then turned to look at the new husband, who was sitting himself down on a chair, his face white.
Ellen's smiled disappeared, and she turned back to Marie as people shoved against them. "Carl's bleedin'. I have to get him back to the cabin." She gripped Marie's shoulder. "You'll be next to marry," she said in a rush. "I see the way Bill Henry looks at you."
"What?" Marie protested, but Ellen had slipped away, entreating Rulon and Clay Owen to haul up the chair and carry Carl to the house.
Marie stood rooted in place by her friend's astonishing words, and watched a crimson stain spread across the hip of Carl's trousers. A shiver of fear coursed down her spine. Carl had been wounded in a shootout with kidnappers. Surely he wouldn't bleed to death because he got out of bed to marry. Ellen was as good a nurse as anyone hereabouts. She would take ample care of Carl and pull him through this bad spell.
"James!" Ma's sharp call cut through the babble of voices.
Marie turned to see what had alarmed her mother, and saw James loping into the forest. She breathed out in exasperation. He had been so temperamental lately, stumping around like a bear with a hangnail.
"Rod, go see—"
Marie went to her mother's side. "He's fine, Ma. Give him a fortnight to clear his mind, and he'll be the light of your eyes again."
Ma grasped Marie's wrist without looking at her. She spoke low. "Daughter, he's not fine. Make your pa go after him." She glanced down at her clenched hand, opened it, and let Marie go free. "Tell your pa—"
"James is man-grown, Ma."
Her mother seemed not to hear her. "Good, Rod is going." She called out, "Bring him back," sighed, gave herself a shake, then turned her attention to the departing newlyweds.
Marie shrugged her shoulders and followed her mother's gaze. Ellen walked beside Carl, fussing a little, patting his hand. His brothers carried his chair toward the little log house Carl had built with his own hands to receive his bride. No matter that his wife wasn't the one Pa had intended for him. It seemed such an age since Pa had connived to arrange marriages for two of his sons before they'd all fled the ruins of the Shenandoah Valley and headed out for Colorado Territory. Carl's betrothed, Ida Hilbrands, was long gone.
"Good riddance," Marie said aloud.
"Good riddance to what?" a young female voice asked behind her.
Marie jumped and whirled to face her sister. "Julianna! Don't creep up on me like that. It's not ladylike."
"What do you know about being a lady? More like a spinster, if you ask me."
"Spinster? Don't you call me names!"
"I will if I want to. You're gettin' awful long in the tooth, Marie. You've got no beaus in sight. Papa surely wasn't thinking when he left you off his marryin' list." Julianna swished her skirt with both hands and stuck out her tongue.
Marie felt warm blood rising into her neck and face at her sister's insolence. "Leave Pa out of this," she barked. "You see how well his plans turned out." She gestured toward the departing couple. "True affection conquered his meddlesome—" She fumbled for a word, then spat out, "meddling. Ellen is happy, and so am I."
Julianna smirked, pointing toward the forest. "James ain't happy. He stomped off. Papa went after him, glowerin' almost as much as James."
Marie balled her fists, glaring at her sister. "Thank you for telling me something I already know, Miss Snippety Nose. James'll mend, given enough time."
"But in no time at all, Papa will have to put you on the shelf. Nobody will even look at you by Christmas, old maid!"