Lazy T Ranch, Wyoming Territory, 1878
A warm and brisk breeze whipped at Lydia’s skirt and pulled at the bonnet that covered her auburn hair. Several curly tendrils had worked loose from the braided coil that she had so carefully pinned at the nape of her neck that morning and fluttered across her face creating a mask of sorts, an annoyance, which she tried to brush back behind her ears. Soft wisps of white clouds floated lazily across the blue azure sky offering a peaceful serenity to the late May morning. Lydia felt no peace, though, as she pressed her white linen handkerchief that was tightly crumpled in her fist over her mouth to try to stifle her quiet sobs. She locked her knees in an effort to keep her legs from buckling beneath her and if it hadn’t been for Will’s strong arm around her she would have ended up as a blubbering heap on the ground. She barely heard Reverend Bishop’s words as her world seemed to disintegrate around her. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust … such a fitting phrase. That’s exactly what her life was now, ashes and dust, the wind scattering her hopes and dreams across the wide-open prairie. The woman she had been was gone, her former self being buried right along with Stuart in the crude pine casket the ranch hands had quickly constructed. Each nail pounded into the hardwood was a memento of the life she and Stuart had built here on this land known as Wyoming Territory. Blood, sweat, and tears had gone into this ranch and now, with Stuart gone, so was the dream.
Her normally five-foot-eight-inch frame was a good two inches shorter due to her sagging shoulders and drooping head, her grief dragging her down as if an anvil had been hung around her neck. Her chest heaved with another sob and she had to close her eyes as the ranch hands shoveled more dirt to cover Stuart, the husband she had vowed to live the rest of her life with. Their life in Denver seemed so far away, now, even though it had only been two years since they had made the journey to Wyoming. Stuart had been her one and only love. For six months he had courted and wooed her, his soft and steadfast voice declaring his undying love when he had proposed marriage. His gentleness and caring demeanor had won her over and she had readily agreed. Their wedding had been small with just a few family members and friends, but Lydia had never been so happy. A young couple caught up in the throes of being newlyweds. Stuart had seemed satisfied to help his father in his aspiring mercantile and Lydia had used the shop to advertise for custom sewing. They were both content, or so they thought, working together to make a living, hoping for children to make a family. The children they had hoped for had not yet come, but the news of Stuart’s estranged uncle passing away and willing him the ranch in Wyoming had. Within seconds of receiving word of his inheritance, Stuart was making plans to move. Lydia was soon caught up in his vision and within a few days, they had packed a few belongings and were on a train headed for Laramie. Once there, they had bought two horses, a buckboard, a meager amount of supplies, and had headed northwest for the small town of Sterling and the Lazy T Ranch three miles beyond. When the ranch had come into view, Lydia’s initial reaction had been to turn the buckboard around and head in the direction they had come. The dilapidated building that she assumed was the cabin could barely be called a shack. She loathed thinking they had given up their quaint, two-storied clapboard house in Denver for this forlorn shelter. The barn, or what she thought was a barn, was in worse shape than the cabin and the small building next to it was no more than a ramshackle shed. Her heart had plummeted to her stomach and she had squeezed her eyes shut to stop the tears. But Stuart had been ecstatic and before long she had succumbed to his enthusiasm. Will had been another surprise. The grizzled ranch foreman had stayed after Louis’s death and had taken it upon himself to care for the ranch, the few cattle, and had kept illegitimate squatters from trying to claim the land. Since Stuart knew little of cattle ranching, it had been Will that had assumed the role of mentor, teaching Stuart everything he could of running a cattle ranch. With his help, he and Stuart had made repairs to the buildings and the ‘cabin’ she had thought unlivable had soon become a cozy home. Will had been such a blessing and Lydia leaned on him now as she turned away from the casket that was disappearing under the rich Wyoming soil. With Will’s help, the ranch had prospered. Their cattle herd had grown from a measly fifty head to over two thousand. Thanks to Uncle Louis they owned over twenty thousand acres of Wyoming’s prime grazing land and held the title of one of the most profitable ranches in Wyoming. Lydia couldn’t say it had been easy, but with hard work, they had done it. Two years had flown by and even though they still had not conceived a child, she wouldn’t have traded it for anything. Anything, except to have Stuart back. Had it only been two days ago that Will had returned from the cattle drive with Stuart’s horse in tow, his lifeless body draped over the saddle? She had watched the old man fight the tears as he had told her about the storm and the horrendous thunder and lightning that had spooked the cattle and caused a stampede. Stuart, Will, and the other hands had been trying to get control over the animals when Stuart’s horse had stumbled among the raging cows and he had been thrown. There had been no hope for him. Lydia and Will had sat on the porch step and cried together, each lost in their own form of grief. It had taken every ounce of courage she could muster to make the funeral arrangements. Now, as she stood on the small knoll, the Wyoming earth claiming her husband, she wondered what she was going to do. Should she sell the ranch and return to Denver? Give it to Will? Or should she stay and try to hold the place together? “Miz Lydia?” Reverend Bishop’s soft voice summoned her from her thoughts. His hand on her shoulder felt comforting. “You want me to help you to the house?” Lydia used her handkerchief to dab at the tears on her cheeks and nodded. With his arm around her shoulders, she let him lead her down the knoll, her skirt tangling in the prairie grass, the clouds continuing to drift across the sky, and each step taking her closer to the stand of pines and the empty small cabin she called home.