After a few days spent in Ben’s company, Ellen knew that marrying him was what she wanted. Luckily, it didn’t take him long to come to the same conclusion. He invited her to an evening meal at the same diner where they had shared their first drinks as Ellen and Ben.
“You look absolutely stunning this evening,” Ben told her when he met her at the door of the hotel. Ellen thought she looked exactly the same as she had the evening before, but if Ben found her attractive, then she wouldn’t try to change that. She smiled and thanked him.
“Did you finish up the fencing today like you planned?”
“I did,” Ben answered. “I wish you could have helped. It would have gone a lot more quickly.” When Ben had told Ellen that he was planning to finish his fencing, she offered to help. There wasn’t much to do in town, though she had done a little sewing work for some of the ranch hands at Jeffrey’s ranch. However, Ben had thought it would not be propitious for them to be at the ranch alone. Ellen had reluctantly agreed.
“Well, perhaps in the future I can,” she said. She imagined what a life with Ben would be like. She would be responsible for the cooking, for sure. She grimaced at that thought, but at least she would live not far from Alice. Alice would be sure to help her whenever she needed it. “I’ve already finished all the garments you brought me yesterday, and when you walk me back to my hotel room, I will grab them for you. I’m sure the ranch hands will appreciate a timely return.”
“I’m sure they would be surprised if they knew who was the one fixing them,” Ben joked. Ellen giggled at that. She imagined one of the other ranch hands, Bill, for example, trying to sew the pants back together. Ben knew a little sewing, but most men couldn’t sew. It was a task she had learned well growing up at the orphanage.
“I suppose,” Ben didn’t finish his sentence. What was he about to say that he didn’t want to finish? Ellen waited patiently, a knot in her stomach. She knew that she couldn’t live in the hotel forever. But at the same time, she had been anxiously awaiting the day it came time to make a decision. She knew for sure how she felt about Ben, but did he feel the same way about her?
“Ellen, I would like to ask for your hand in marriage officially,” Ben reached across the table and touched the ends of her fingertips with his, and Ellen felt a tingle move through her body.
“Of course, Ben,” she readily agreed. “I think marriage is the next step for us.”
“Shall we get married this Saturday?”
Ellen counted the days until Saturday. It was only five, but she knew if she put Alice to the task, then Alice would have her a special dress for the occasion.
“Saturday sounds great to me,” she said. She smiled up at Ben and briefly wondered what it would feel like to kiss Ben before she pushed that thought out of her head. She shouldn’t allow herself to think such things.
“What do we need to do to ready ourselves for the wedding?”
“I’ll take care of making sure the ranch has a place for everyone to sit. The wedding should be at the ranch, should it not?”
“I agree,” Ellen nodded. “Your ranch has so much open space. It might be a bit hot, but if we could set up the chairs in the shade, I’m sure the guests would appreciate it.” She talked about this wedding as though she knew who she would invite. She didn’t know many people outside of those working on Jeffrey’s ranch and the hotel owners. Ben would invite his family, of course, but Ellen had no family to invite.
“I’ll prepare my dress,” she announced. “What about the food?”
“I’ll ask if Alice would mind preparing it. Or perhaps you think if you asked her, that would be better?”
“I don’t mind asking her,” Ellen offered. With their jobs divvied up, Ellen couldn’t wait for the next five days to pass in a hurry.
Saturday morning, Ellen tried on the dress that Alice had completed the night before. Ellen had done the cooking under Alice’s instruction while Alice sewed in the fading candlelight. Finally, it was ready. But as Ellen slipped the dress on, she realized that there was a problem. One of the sleeves had been forgotten. It had no hem!
Ellen stared in horror at the dress that looked beautiful from the left side only, but on the right side looked like a little girl putting on her mother’s dress. The sleeve draped over her hand. Ellen moaned. She didn’t want her wedding day to turn out like this. She would look like a disaster walking toward her husband to be wearing this. Her other redress had been carefully washed the night before and was not yet dry. She couldn’t wear a wet dress to get married. Even if she were to wear one of Alice’s dresses, she would have to wear something to leave the hotel room.
Ellen tucked the fabric on the right sleeve up inside it. There, that didn’t look so bad. But as soon as she moved her arm, the fabric fell out again, coiling in a long row past her wrist.
“Ellen, you have lived through a lot worse than a badly done dress. You will have an excellent day today.” Ellen stepped outside and looked up at the sky. Puffy clouds covered the sun, but it would take far more than dark, puffy clouds to ruin her day.
Ellen tucked up her sleeve once again and waited for Alice. Alice would come and pick her up in the carriage to take her to Ben’s ranch. Alice was supposed to deliver the food first, though, so they hadn’t fixed an exact hour she would arrive. Ellen shifted back and forth on her feet.
“You look mighty fine today,” the hotel owner’s wife told her.
“I’m getting married,” she told her.
“To that fine ranch owner?”
“Yes, to him,” Ellen acquiesced.
The woman looked up at the sky. “Looks like rain if you ask me. I hope you’re getting married in the next hour because if not, you might end up getting married all wet.” Ellen squinted up at the clouds. Some of them were darker, but they weren’t too bad. She tucked her sleeve back up and held it in place, trying to look as though she were casually clasping her hands.
Alice arrived a quarter-hour later, and Ellen hurried to her friend, who was driving the carriage like she had done it her whole life.
“Alice! You forgot to hem the right sleeve!” Ellen told her, letting the fabric out so Alice could see the full mess.
Alice stared in horror. “I was so distracted with helping you cook and getting the dress done. Oh no! I can get it done. I’ll only need a half-hour, but we need to go back to our ranch first. All of my supplies are there. Or do you have the supplies you need?”
“I don’t have the right color thread,” Ellen explained. “And I didn’t want to hem it with the browns and blacks I have. Oh, Alice! This would happen to me!”
“We’ll get this fixed up. The men can just wait a little bit. They’re in no hurry.” Ellen glanced up at the sky again and decided not to tell Alice what the prognosis of the hotel owner’s wife had been. She thought that it might disappear if she just ignored the possible problem. After all, it wasn’t exactly a problem yet.
Alice pushed the horse to move faster than it should while pulling the carriage. Ellen had never been one for caution, especially on a day like this, so she didn’t say anything. They arrived at Alice’s house, and Alice quickly grabbed her sewing kit.
“I can do it with the dress on you,” Alice said. “It shouldn’t take long.” Ellen looked out the front window as her friend started pulling and tugging at the sleeve to adjust the hem. “Stop wiggling. You’re worse than a child,” Alice said.
“I’m nervous. I can’t help it.”
“Well, I won’t be able to finish the dress if you’re moving. Maybe it’s better if you take it off. Jeffrey has already gone to Ben’s ranch, so no one else is here. We shouldn’t even be here.” Ellen could hear the worry in her friend’s voice. Why was her friend worrying? It wasn’t even her wedding. Ellen stripped off the dress and handed it to her friend, trying to see out the window to evaluate the state of the clouds. Were they getting darker, or was that just her imagination?
“Is it finished yet?”
“Give me five minutes,” Alice told her. Ellen saw how hard her friend was concentrating, and she kept her mouth shut even though she wanted to beg her to hurry. Finally, Alice completed the sleeve, and Ellen slipped back into the dress. She ran her hand carefully over the edge. She could see a slight difference in the carefulness between the stitches on that sleeve and the stitches on the other sleeve, but she didn’t say anything except “thank you.”
“Let’s get to Ben’s ranch now,” Ellen said, hurrying out to the carriage where the horse stood waiting and ready.
“Why are you in such a hurry?” Alice asked her friend, laughing a little. “Do you think if you give him too much time to think about it that he’ll run away?”
“I hope not!” Ellen responded, trying to sound light. She was eager to get married before the rain started, though now, as she looked at the sky, she wasn’t so sure it would rain at all. “I simply don’t want to make our guests wait. That would be inconsiderate and rude, neither of which I am.”
“I’m sure they would understand the situation.”
Ellen ran a hand over her sleeve again. It was slightly uneven. “I’m not sure they would believe that the Alice extraordinaire would forget to hem a whole sleeve, but I suppose we can try them.” The friends smiled, but Ellen’s eyes caught on something in the direction of Ben’s ranch, which she now knew exactly where it was. There was a steady funnel of smoke rising from the direction of his ranch.
“Is there a reason they would start a fire in the middle of a summer day?” Ellen asked.
“Perhaps, the men are roasting an animal?” Alice suggested, and Ellen quickly latched on to her suggestion.
“I think you may be right. Did you already leave the food at Ben’s ranch?”
“Yes, not an hour ago. Perhaps they are warming some of the food. I cooked some of it yesterday, so we would be sure to have plenty.”
Ellen nodded, keeping an eye on the plume of smoke. She wasn’t calm today. It was her wedding day, but she kept expecting something to go wrong. It always seemed to happen that way for her.
However, when they pulled up to the farm twenty minutes later, Ellen could see that her intuition about something being wrong with the smoke was right. The smoke was coming from the barn, and as Ellen hopped off the wagon, nearly stumbling over the edge of her dress, she saw a lick of fire on the far side. Fear clutched at her.
Was Ben in the fire? She took a few steps forward, drawn to the fire, though not sure what she would be able to do if she got closer.
Then she saw him. She spotted Ben. He wasn’t far from the fire at all, but he wasn’t in the fire. His clothes were streaked with black, and the fire was a lot louder than Ellen had expected, crackling and popping at her as she tried to do something. A line of ranch hands had been set up, moving water back and forth from the well. Perhaps she could help pump the water.
As soon as Ben saw her, he rushed over.
“Stay back!” he said, not taking the time to greet her in the normal manner. “I know you want to help, but I don’t want you to get hurt.” Alice had firmly tied the horse, even though he was straining against the reins at the sight and smell of the fire.
“You’re safe here,” Alice told the horse. “You’re all right.”
“Alice, please keep Ellen safe,” Ben said. “I’ve got to help them put this fire out. It’s so big that it’ll take down the whole barn if we take a break now. There is still hope right now.” Ben ran off again in the direction of the water brigade. Ellen turned around to see neighbors she had never met coming to help. The men were stripping off their shirts and bringing their own buckets. Now, two lines were formed, taking water to the fire. But the buckets were so small, and the fire had already grown to lick at the roof of the barn.
“Why is Ben getting so close?” Ellen practically screamed. “He’s going to get burnt! He’s going to get hurt!”
“They have to try to save the barn,” Alice comforted Ellen, as though she had years of experience living in the West. “There’s Jeffrey.” Jeffrey was right beside Ben, sweating from being so close to the fire. His skin was bright red.
Ellen scanned the crowd of men, working as hard as they could, seeing nothing except the fire and the water. But then, behind the other men, not lifting a hand, she spotted Bill. Ellen narrowed her eyes at him.
“He’s not helping!” Ellen said. She wanted to scream at him for what he had done, blackmailing her, knowing she was a woman, and forcing the worst chores upon her. Now, here he was in the midst of an emergency doing nothing to help.
Alice didn’t hear Ellen. She was too transfixed watching her husband dump tiny bucketfuls onto the flames. Ellen started to take a step toward Bill, but Alice automatically reached out and grabbed her friend’s arm.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “These men can do it. One more won’t make a difference.” A large piece of flaming wood fell from the rafters down below, making a loud sound. As soon as it fell, the heavens opened up. Rain fell in thick droplets.
The group of men cheered, egging the rain on. At first, it seemed to make no difference, but then, Ellen saw as it gradually beat back at the fire. After only a few minutes, she couldn’t see the flames above the room anymore. The rain didn’t slow either. It continued to pour heavier and heavier.
Ellen watched as Ben assigned a couple of people to keep an eye on it. If the rain stopped, they would need to get back to work. But as soon as he had assigned the work, he hurried over to Ellen.
“Are you okay?” he asked, the rain plastering his dark hair to his forehead.
Ellen took a deep breath and nodded. She glanced to where Bill had been standing, but he was no longer there. “Yes, I’m fine,” she said.
“I was worried. I thought something might happen to you.”
Ben turned his face up to the rain and felt it on his face. “I have never been more grateful for a spring shower than this one right here.”
“What happened? How did the fire start?”
Ben shrugged. “I don’t know. I have a feeling, with so many people here, one of the men decided to smoke behind the barn. They weren’t careful to put it out, and now, here we are.” Ben seemed awfully calm about the fact that he had just lost his barn, well, half of his barn. He took Ellen’s elbow and looked worriedly into her face.
“Are you sure that you still want. . . to get married today? I know this is not the ideal situation, and now with rain, we have no way of making space for all of the guests in the house.”
Ellen smiled up at Ben. “I think nothing about our meeting or our relationship has been typical. Why should we get married in a typical way? If the pastor is still willing to marry us, I say we get married now.”
Ben didn’t even know about the fiasco with her dress, but if she could get through all that the world had thrown her way that morning, She thought it would be better if they went ahead and got married. Who knew what they might have to face the next day.
Ben and Ellen clasped hands with the rain pouring down their faces and listened to the pastor guide them through their vows. A few people had umbrellas, but Ellen had pushed one away when it was offered to her. What was a little water? She was marrying a man she truly loved.
“I do,” she said when the pastor prompted.
“Then, I now pronounce you Mr. and Mrs. Ben James.” Ellen squeezed Ben’s hand, and they started walking between the rows of seats, squishing through the mud. Her dress was splattered with the stuff, but Ellen didn’t care. She had finally found a home and the family she had always been seeking.