Leann Clark and Ralph Wade are in love and desire to be married, but obstacles stand in their way. Leann’s father, John Clark, insists she is too young, and Ralph cannot yet make a living farming his land in post Civil War Missouri. Times are hard after the war, and many farmers are struggling to keep their farms. Leann doubts Ralph’s love when adverse circumstances prevent him from courting her as he promised. They struggle to overcome the difficulties in their courtship, keep the faith, and wait for John’s approval of their marriage.
Heaven Must Wait
Their loud, harsh voices drifted to the porch. They weren’t exactly screaming at each other, but Pa didn’t sound like himself, and neither did Ralph. Leann knew both men to be headstrong in trying to get a point across. Should she go inside and stop this argument? She rose from the chair.
“Leave them alone, Leann.” Ma’s rocking chair creaked out a steady rhythm. “They’ll cool off in a minute. Your father and Ralph are both stubborn, but reasonable men.”
Leann stood beside a post on the front porch of the Clark home, gazing across the meadow. The summer sun began to slip behind the horizon, painting colors of pink and purple across the afternoon sky. The sound of clucking chickens came from behind the house in the chicken coop. The family dog turned around in the dust of the front yard until he made a bed then began licking a paw.
“I’m afraid for Ralph. Pa might forbid him to come around here.” Leann twisted the fabric of her cotton skirt.
“Sit down.” Her mother tugged on Leann’s sleeve. “Leave them be. The girls will be in from gathering the eggs in a few minutes, and your Pa won’t raise his voice around them.”
Leann sat down just as the front door opened and Ralph rushed out on the porch. He grabbed her by the hand, pulling her from the chair.
“We need to talk.” He nodded at Ma while speaking through clenched teeth. “Excuse us, Mrs. Clark, but I need to talk to Leann.”
Ralph led Leann along until they reached the large oak tree not far from the house where his horse stood tied. She heard the front door slam, again, and knew Pa came outside to join Ma on the porch.
Ralph turned to Leann, his face dark with a scowl. “He said, no. You’re too young, and I can’t provide for you good enough. We have to wait until you’re eighteen. It don’t matter your ma and mine were your age when they married. He’s expecting us to wait.”
Leann put her hand on Ralph’s arm and looked into his deep brown eyes. The unruly lock of brown hair escaped his hat and fell across his creased forehead. How could she comfort him with her own heart so heavy?
Tears filled Leann’s eyes. “I’m sorry. I wish he would change his mind, but I know he won’t.”
“Your pa’s a stubborn man.” Ralph looked toward the house where her parents sat on the porch talking in low tones, then bent down and kissed her lips with his hands clutching her arms. “He didn’t say I had to stay away from you.” His warm breath fanned across her face.
Leann wanted to stay in Ralph’s arms, but he turned and untied his horse.
With the reins in one hand, he gave her another kiss. “Nobody can keep us apart.” He mounted the horse.
“When will you be back?”
“Don’t know. I have the winter wheat crop to harvest and spring planting’s coming on.” He flicked the reins, turned his horse and rode away.
Leann took a handkerchief from her skirt pocket and wiped her eyes. She would miss him terribly. She stood under the tree, watching her parents on the front porch. Pa reached over and patted Ma’s hand. Leann wouldn’t go back to the house until they went inside. She didn’t trust herself to speak to either one.
Leann’s three sisters came out on the porch. They had finished gathering the eggs. Her brothers would join the family shortly after they finished with the chores. Usually on mild nights, the family laughed and talked and listened to Pa’s stories on the front porch until bedtime. Tonight, she wouldn’t join them.
“Leann, you might as well come on in here,” Pa called to her. “Your pouting won’t make me change my mind. I want to talk to you.”
Leann twisted her skirt until knots formed in the fabric and turned to look in the direction of Ralph’s retreat. If only he would come back to take her away with him. They could elope. The next time he came calling, if he did again, she would tell him to run away with her. She loved him and wanted to be with him. She couldn’t bear her life if he never came back.
A small breeze blew through the tree, rustling the green leaves. The gentle wind brushed across her face, cooling her hot skin. The heady smell of Ralph’s horse lingered around the tree. Someone caught her arm and jerked her around.
Pa stared at Leann with flames of fury burning deep in his eyes. “I told you to come on to the house. I want to talk to you.”
She had very seldom seen him angry, especially with her, so she looked down at the ground to escape his gaze. Large fingers held her arm in a firm grasp.
Pa caught her under the chin, pulling her face up. “Look at me.” Their eyes met. “Just a few days ago I explained to you about why I wouldn’t let you marry Ralph. You’re too young, and he can’t take care of you. The war put everybody here in a bind. Some folk can’t even feed their families. He just started farming on his own land, and he sure don’t have any cash saved for hard times. In a couple of years, things will be better all around.”
Leann didn’t answer. Pa was right, but she didn’t want to wait to marry Ralph. He took her breath away when he kissed her. And when his hands discovered places they shouldn’t, desire for him swept through her body down to her toes. They couldn’t wait a year and a half to get married. Waiting was getting too hard.
“I told Ralph you two need some time apart. You’re too serious, and your relationship is getting out of hand.” He released her chin but kept a firm hold on her arm.
“You told him to stay away?” Leann cried, trying to jerk free of her father’s grip. “How could you do that? You know how much I love Ralph. I want to be his wife.”
“That’s the problem. I know how much you think you love him, and I know how much he desires you. If he really loves you, he’ll wait like I asked him to.”
Leann jerked her arm. Her father released her. She ran from Pa toward the house, rushed up the porch steps and into the house, ignoring the rest of her family. The screen door slammed shut. Taking two steps at a time, she climbed the stairs to the bedroom she shared with her sisters, flung herself across the bed and cried, fearing her heart might break in a thousand pieces.
Ralph gritted his teeth and clutched the reins with white knuckles as the town of Cuba came into view. He eased up and let his horse canter. He had pushed Maude too hard and needed to slow down. Leann’s father made him so mad, he could spit nails. The man had nerve to question Ralph’s ability to make a living for a wife on his farm. Sure, he’d only been farming on his own for a couple of years since the war ended, but he knew how to grow and harvest crops. He had farmed with his pa and brothers on his parents’ land all his life. He loved planting seed and watching it grow into crops ready for harvest. The pungent smell of newly plowed ground and the feel of soft rich, soil between his fingers filled him with contentment and joy. Farming was dirty, hard work, but it was in his blood. His heart belonged to Leann and the land.
Waiting a year and a half until Leann reached eighteen to marry would be torture. He wanted her in his arms for more than a kiss. Every time they embraced, her warm, soft body drove him mad with want of her. For the sake of his sanity, he’d have to keep a good distance—if he had the will power. He turned Maude in the direction of Cuba. His farm lay five miles farther, but going home didn’t appeal to him. He didn’t partake of hard liquor often, but right now he needed a stiff drink or two. Maybe his good friend, Mac Henry, would be free to have a drink with him at the saloon.
Ralph trotted Maude down Main Street in the direction of Mac’s home. His friend lived with his parents and served as a deputy for his father, Paul Henry, who was the town’s sheriff. Eyeing the sheriff’s office, Ralph noticed lights still burning in the windows, so he decided to look for Mac there first. Ralph stopped in front of the sheriff’s office.
Mac walked through the front door before Ralph dismounted. “What brings you to town?” Mac asked as he walked to the edge of the porch leaning against the sun-blanched post.
“Thought I’d have a drink and get something to eat at the saloon. You want to come along?”
“Yeah, I’ll go with you for one drink and a steak. Let me tell Pa.” Mac turned and went inside, pushing the door against the inside wall.
Ralph dismounted, tying Maude’s reins to the hitching post in front of the sheriff’s office. He didn’t want the town gossips to see his horse at the saloon and tell Leann or her family. Mac joined him and the men walked down the plank footway toward the Golden Goose Saloon. A wagon passed on the dusty street, stirring up the dirt. Ralph wiped at his eye when a piece of the grit flew into it.
Just as the friends started to cross the street, a female voice called, “Ralph, Mac. Wait.”
They turned in the direction of the voice to discover Ginger Farris, Leann’s friend, hurrying toward them.
“Oh, no,” Ralph said to Mac under his breath.
“Now, be nice, man,” Mac answered, then tipped his hat.
Ralph removed his. “Ginger, how are you this fine day?”
With her head ducked and a seductive smile, Ginger stopped in front of them. “Hello, Ralph and Mac.” She glanced across the street in the direction of the Golden Goose. “Are you going to the saloon?”
The two men looked at each other. Neither wanted to admit they were going to have a drink. Ralph looked at the ground and shuffled his feet. Mac spoke up, “We were going to have something to eat, maybe a steak.”
“Well, go right ahead. Of course, I could accompany you to a good meal at the hotel restaurant.”
Ralph looked at Mac. Mac looked at him. Mac’s eyebrows rose. Ralph spoke up, “I think I’ll go on home. I’ve got chores.”
“I’ll go with you, Ginger,” Mac said and then turned to Ralph. “Be out to see you tomorrow.”
“I wish you would come, Ralph.” Ginger turned toward him as Mac took her arm.
“Not today.” Ralph put his hat on and untied Maude from the hitching rail. He mounted the horse.
Ralph watched Mac walk away with Ginger on his arm and waited until the couple entered the hotel, then he rode Maude to the rear of the Golden Goose Saloon. He dismounted, tied the mare to a tree, and went inside through the back door. The building smelled of stale tobacco smoke, whiskey and unwashed bodies. Looking around for a friend or acquaintance and seeing none, he stomped to the bar and ordered a shot of whiskey.
The bartender gave him an eye then filled his glass with the amber libation. “Haven’t seen you in here for awhile,” he said as Ralph tipped the shot glass to his lips.
The whiskey burned going down. He hadn’t had a drink of alcohol in long time, but intended to have more than one tonight. “Haven’t been in here for awhile. Pour me another one.” Ralph downed the second drink. His stomach growled. Maybe he should eat something first. He found an empty table.
One of the saloon girls sashayed to his table. She asked if she could join him, and to be polite, he said she could. The waiter came to the table. Ralph ordered a bowl of stew instead of steak and another shot of whiskey for himself. He asked the lady, who’d said her name was Pearl, if she wanted a bowl of stew. She replied she only want a drink, so he ordered a whiskey for her.
She smiled, showing white teeth between bright red lips. Hazel eyes with flecks of gold watched him from under long, dark lashes. Her skin had the look of sugar and cream. Long golden hair lay in ringlets around her bare shoulders and across the exposed tops of her creamy white breasts. A large pearl hanging from a gold chain rested in the cleavage. The tight-fitting, blue velvet gown she wore left little to the imagination. Ralph could only stare. He couldn’t help noticing the woman’s unusual beauty.
An image of Leann’s pretty, innocent face suddenly formed in his mind. What was he thinking, anyway? He couldn’t be unfaithful to Leann, no matter how attractive the woman. He quickly looked away and was glad when the waiter brought his food.
Pearl didn’t say much. He felt her eyes quietly watching while he ate the stew and drank the whiskey. She finished her drink. Ralph motioned for the waiter, gave him the order for two more whiskeys, and paid for the drinks and food.
Pearl said, “I haven’t seen you in the saloon before. Are you new in town?”
Her eyes followed as he took money from his pocket to pay the waiter. “No. I’ve lived in Cuba all my life. It’s been awhile since I’ve been in here.”
“I just recently moved here. I heard in St. Louis this town is growing, so I came to see for myself.”
“Do you like Cuba?”
“Yes.” She smiled over the rim of her glass. “I think I like it even better now.”
Returning her smile, Ralph finished eating and pushed the bowl away. What did you say to a woman like her? His head began to swim. Heat surged through his body. Sweat broke out on his forehead. The room must be getting hotter.
Pearl rose from her chair and walked around the table, stood beside Ralph, removed his hat and placed it on the table, then ran her fingers through his hair. She smelled sweet like roses.
“Would you like to come with me?” Her voice purred when she spoke. “To my room.”
Ralph swallowed hard. Before he could answer, someone grabbed the woman by her arm and pulled her away. She twisted, trying to break free.
“Get over here. You know better than to mess around with someone else.” The man’s gruff voice had a mean edge.
The large man pulled Pearl toward another table. She tried, again, to break loose. He slapped her across the face. Anger rose in Ralph like heat rising in an oven. He bolted from his chair, turning it over, and grabbed the man by the arm holding Pearl. Ralph jerked the arm, making the hand release her. The man turned, doubled his fist and hit Ralph in the face before he saw it coming.
Ralph fell backward, landing on the foul floor. The pungent taste of blood from a cut on his lip filled his mouth. Furious, he sat up and started to stand with fists clenched, ready to strike. A boot connected with his stomach, pushing him back to the floor, pinning him down. He pushed at the boot, trying to twist the leg and get it off.
“That’s enough, Wesley. Leave the woman alone.” Mac’s voice came from above Ralph. The big foot belonged to his friend.
Ralph lay back on the floor and waited with a head that felt like a watermelon about to break open. He couldn’t see Wesley or Pearl but heard them move away. Mac reached down and helped him up. Ralph saw Wesley at the bar glaring at him, but he still couldn’t see Pearl. She must have run from the room. Ralph jerked his arm free of Mac’s grasp and headed for Wesley. He intended to plant a fist right on top of the man’s big fat nose. Mac grabbed him around the waist from behind, pulling him back.
“Whoa, big fellow. You’re staying right here.” Mac held tighter. “Get your hat and come with me.”
Ralph’s head pounded. It hurt too much to fight. He grabbed his hat from the table and followed Mac outside.
Mac turned to him, “What were you thinking? Going in there and getting drunk, then making a pass at a whore?”
“I didn’t make a pass at her. She made one at me. I only had a couple, or maybe three drinks. I don’t remember.”
“You haven’t had a drink in awhile. It didn’t take much to get you going. You need to go on home and tend to your chores before you get into more trouble. What happened? You have a fight with Leann?”
“No, with her old man.” Ralph passed a hand through his hair then twisted his hat around on the band.
“Oh, I see. He said for you to lay low for awhile and give Leann a break. I told you John wouldn’t like Leann getting so serious right now. And he sure wouldn’t like you pressuring her to get married, or whatever. He’s pretty strict on his kids and watches those four girls.” Mac grinned at him. “He can spot a wolf in sheep’s clothing sniffing around his daughters.”
“I’m not a wolf.” Ralph pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the blood off his lip.
“Yep, you sure don’t look like one right now.” Mac laughed. He nodded in the direction of the sheriff’s office. “You want to come over to the office and wash up?”
Ralph glanced across the street to see Ginger standing on the porch of the sheriff’s office waiting for Mac. She watched the two men. “Nah, I’m going home.”
“She has a thing for you, you know.” His friend motioned his head toward Ginger.
“Yeah, but I’m trying to keep my distance. I don’t want Leann to know how fickle her best friend is.”
“She’s waiting to move right in, if anything happens between you and Leann so be careful. You’ve already given her gossip fodder with this saloon thing. Better stay out of town for awhile. Away from the Golden Goose and Pearl.”
“You can count on that.” Ralph shoved the bloody handkerchief into his denim pants pocket and extended his hand to Mac. “Thanks for saving me in there. I was about to jump on that Wesley fellow.”
“Then you would’ve ended up in Pa’s jail. And what would John Clark think about that?” Mac clasped Ralph’s hand in a strong handshake. “Wesley’s new in town. He’s a logger with a gang hanging around him all the time. He’ll be after you for making eyes at Pearl.”
“See you tomorrow.” Ralph left his friend to walk to the rear of the saloon, mount Maude, and ride out of town. He felt sure Leann and her family would know about the incident before he could get home.