Tillie Acton laid awake in her bed, separated from her three younger siblings with a sheet. The cloth hung from the ceiling to the floor as a pretend wall. It first appeared when Tillie turned twenty-one to make her feel as if she had her own bedroom. It was only meant to be temporary since she planned to be moving out when she married her beau Jacob Nash, but those plans were ruined when Jacob died.
Her brother Seth was older and deserved his own room before Tillie. He decided a bed in the barn would be a perfect solution. He was always a gentleman and didn’t think twice about making a sacrifice for his sister.
“Jenny peed her bed again,” Dougie teased, “she’s a baby and should still be in a cot with rails.”
Lara, who shared a bed with her seven-year-old sister, joined in the chants. “Jenny peed the bed. Jenny peed the bed. Jenny is a stinky baby.”
Tillie heard Jenny beginning to cry, and she knew it was time to break up the shenanigans. Jenny was deeply affected when her big brother died only two years earlier. Seth was the oldest Acton child, and Jenny was the youngest. He was like a father to her, and it was taking time for her to accept his absence. Bedwetting was one of the things that came from her grief, and being teased by Dougie and Lara didn’t help.
“I’m climbing out of bed, and when I come in there, I want Dougie and Lara downstairs. Mother needs help with early chores,” Tillie called out. “There is more than enough work to keep the two of you busy.”
Tillie heard the pattering of feet and knew the children had done as ordered. Jenny had a problem and to each one of those was a solution. After dealing with the death of two loved ones, she focused on challenges she could fix. Unable to do anything when death was inevitable for Jacob and Seth was frustrating. Since then, Tillie was intent on solving problems both big and small.
Tillie pulled a muslin cap over her reddish-brown hair and rubbed the sleep out of her green eyes.
“Here I come, Jenny,” she said before pulling aside the sheet.
Seth called Jenny Sprout, and the first time Tillie used the nickname, she received a nasty glance. She did insist on a new nickname, so Tillie called her Sapling.
“We have a problem, Sapling, and what do we do when one of those comes along?”
“Solve it. I try, but I wake up, and it happened again. Lara feels it’s because we’re in the same bed, and then she tells Dougie. Then they tease me and tell me I should go back to the crib.”
Jenny sat with her legs crossed and her brown braids disheveled. Tillie hated to see her sister distressed at such a young age. Life was long, and worrying wasn’t the way it should start.
“First thing we do is put some clean clothes on you. Good thing we had the washboard out yesterday. As we clean up, we’re going to talk about Seth. Let’s tell stories about what you liked best about Seth. You can tell me what he did that made you laugh, and we just might end up giggling. We can keep him alive with memories that make you happy and not sad.”
“I don’t see how that will keep me from wetting the bed,” Jenny remarked.
“You’ve been holding thoughts of Seth inside, and it’s time we let them out. They’ve been sneaking out in the form of pee at night. I’m not positive it will work, but it’s worth a try. What do you say, Sapling?”
“I say, let’s give it a try!”
Three nights passed, and Jenny didn’t wet her bed. The three children were milking cows in the barn when Tillie’s mother and father invited her to the table for a chat. Frank worked hard on the family dairy farm while Edna Acton tended the garden and the children. They battled snowstorms, disease among the cows, and the death of their eldest son. When one calamity ended, another popped up to take its place.
“I don’t like the looks on your faces,” Tillie fretted. “Have you taken ill again, Mother?”
“No, I think your father and I are just exhausted, and it’s beginning to show,” she replied.
She was referring to the bags under their eyes and the greying of their hair.
“It’s been a couple of years since both Seth and Jacob died, and we couldn’t have survived without your help. You picked up the slack in their absence, and we’re both proud,” Tillie’s father declared. “Thing is, we think it’s time for you to move on. It’s for your sake and ours. We want you to have a life of your own, and we’d like to have one less mouth to feed. Folks are moving out of Herkimer, New York, to escape the harsh winters. That means we sell fewer dairy products.”
“Don’t think for a second we don’t love you. If you aim to stay in Herkimer, we’ll find a way to make it work. Your father suggested being one of those mail-order brides. Imagine the adventure. Think of the opportunities to see things that you’ve only imagined. I was at the general store and picked up this copy of The Marital Times.”
Tillie lowered her head and put her hands calmly on the table. She started to shake with laughter. “There is no way I’m traveling thousands of miles to marry a man I don’t know. I was in love once, and I know what that feels like. I’ll marry for love, or I won’t marry at all. Did the two of you marry for love?” she asked.
Edna and Frank looked at each other and nodded their heads.
“It’s a problem, and I’ll find a solution. I’ll be in the barn with the children while I think of a suitable plan. I know you have the best intentions, and I understand completely. It’s time for you to push this little bird from the nest.” Tillie kissed both parents on the head.
As she walked to the barn, Tillie recounted one of the last conversations she had with Jacob.
“You haven’t left my side since I took ill. You heard what Doc said, I ain’t getting better. I’m dying, and I don’t want you climbing into my grave with me. You have more to offer than Herkimer has to give. Make me proud, and I’ll be looking down at you and help if I can.”
“I wish I were a doctor so I could cure you,” Tillie said.
“I know how you are; you think every problem has a solution. There’s not a way to fix me, but you’ve made being sick a lot more pleasant than it could have been. You have a gift, and don’t let it go to waste. My love for you can’t do a lot of good after I’m gone, but someone will be lucky and fall in love with you. Use your love and your skills. I believe in you.”
That was one of the last days that Jacob was lucid enough to speak.
A spark was ignited in Tillie’s mind. It wasn’t the first time she had the idea, but now was the time to act on it. She burst back into the kitchen, where her parents were still sitting at the table.
“You hardly had time to make it to the barn,” Frank Acton remarked. “From the look on your face, I can see that you’ve come up with a solution.”
“Do tell,” Edna begged.
“I want to go to school and become a nurse! I’ve cared for both Jacob and Seth until they died. This is a way of making something good out of a devastating time in my life.”
Mr. Acton rubbed his face. “There is nothing that I’d like more than to send you to nursing school, but I can’t afford that without taking food off the table.”
Tillie was silent for a moment as she considered what she had just asked. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I understand where you’re coming from.”
“I’m sorry. I wish I could do more,” he said.
Tillie gave her father a reassuring hug before making it out to the barn. The children milked cows and created mayhem. They squirted the barn cats with cow’s milk and laughed at the hijinx. She went to the stable on the far end of the barn and tended to her beloved horse, Margie. Tillie created beautiful memories with Margie. When she did leave Herkimer, it would be difficult to say goodbye.
Tillie rarely had a hard time falling asleep. The dulcet sounds the children made as they slept usually put her to sleep. She decided to creep down the stairs for a glass of milk and a heel of leftover bread.
On the kitchen table was the copy of The Marital Times that her mother brought home. It had blown open to the last page, and the moon shined on an advertisement. It was for a caretaker. She reached down to pick it up when her mother entered the room and startled her.
“Mother, you scared me.”
“Want some company? It must be the full moon keeping me up because I couldn’t sleep either. Let’s take a look at some of the men seeking brides. It’s just us girls, and it will be fun,” Mrs. Acton said.
“Sure, but I saw one at the back of the magazine that seemed interesting,” Tillie mentioned.
“We’ll look at that one too. I’ll read then, and you tell me if you think they sound good.
Hearty woman needed. Cold Wyoming winters. 45-year-old man seeking a wife. Cooking, cleaning, help in the barn. Five children already and more wanted.
“No way. Sounds like he needs a slave and not a wife,” she commented.
A woman built to bear children. A 40-year-old widower needs help on a pig farm. Cooking, canning, and general help with the animals.
“No way.” Tillie laughed. “I hate pigs, and I don’t want to bear children for an old man I don’t love. Go to the last page and read the one in the bottom corner with the bold print.”
Her mother cleared her throat.
Wanted, patient, determined, physically strong, and kind woman to care for my son. He was in a terrible horse accident and may never walk again. Ranch in Thistle Texas near Austin. Room and three meals per day provided. Generous stipend.
“When I came into the kitchen, the magazine was blown open to that page. The moon showed on that advertisement, which sounds perfect. It’s too ideal to be a coincidence. I think my guardian angels Seth and Jacob are sending me a sign.”
“Believe what you want, darling, but it does sound like something that would suit you.”
Tillie sent an introductory letter to Nell Stone, the boy’s mother. She described what she did every day in helping her mother with the garden and three young children. Besides, she wrote of her taking care of two people close to her who died. With creativity and strength, she managed to prop them up and see as many sunsets as possible. Tillie told Nell that she would be available as soon as possible to travel to Thistle.
Tillie figured Nell might be looking for someone older than twenty-three with more experience. Her fingers were crossed as she waited for a return post. Sooner than she even thought possible, a reply arrived. She ran inside the house like her hair was on fire with the unopened note. The children were in the barn with her father.
“Should I read it aloud?” Tillie asked her mother.
“You had better, or I’m going to rip it out of your hands!” Edna exclaimed.
Tillie cleared her throat
Dear Miss Acton,
I was pleased to receive your response to the advertisement in the Marital Times. I had a stack of responses, and when I read yours, I was relieved. Your youth and stamina are just what I’m looking for. I’ve had many nurses and experienced caretakers come to the Stone Ranch, but they left. Max was too much of a challenge for them. You have an advantage with three younger siblings.
Consider this letter a formal invitation. I have a husband, two daughters, and a slew of ranch hands. We will welcome you with open arms. However, Max may take some time to get used to yet another caretaker.
Allow me to describe the Stone Ranch …
Tillie finished the letter, which described Thistle Texas and the Stone Ranch. When she mentioned it covered one thousand acres, Edna’s eyes popped. She continued reading, and in addition to heads of cattle numbering above two hundred and fifty, they had a stable of horses. Apparently, they were Max’s favorites, which meant she would have something in common with the boy.
Tillie replied immediately to accept Mrs. Stone’s offer. She spent the next weeks packing her trunk and preparing for her first train ride. It was going to be a long trip even if she were an experienced traveler. She wasn’t terribly nervous and felt ready to leave Herkimer. When her father suggested, it she was taken aback, but now she was glad he did.
Goodbyes were tearful, and Tillie held out hope that she would see everyone again someday. That may not have been possible, but it made saying goodbye a whole lot easier.
Tillie traveled from Herkimer to New York City, which was pretty darn exciting. Herkimer had no buildings taller than a couple of stories. The ones she saw were twenty stories or more. It was a dizzying sight. She had to get off the train, claim her trunks and get on a second train to bring her to Austin, Texas.
Tillie shared a bench in the station with an elderly couple. Mr. and Mrs. Burk had thirty minutes to wait before boarding the train to Texas. They were moving to Texas to live out the rest of their years on their son’s cattle ranch. The Burks held hands, and they told of being married thirty years.
“If you don’t mind me asking, do you ever tire of each other?” Tillie asked. “It looks to me like you’re still smitten like a pair of teenagers. I’m asking because I hope to someday meet a man to marry me. If we still look at each other like you do, it will be a dream come true.”
Mrs. Burk giggled. “Over thirty years, we’ve tired of each other, but then we realize there’s no one else either of us would want to be with. I fell in love with Leonard the very first time I saw him and never looked away.”
Mr. Burke didn’t say much; he just nodded and smiled. He seemed unwell.
“We’ve been told Leonard might not make it through the trip, but we thought we’d try. He wouldn’t allow me to travel alone, and he wants to meet his only grandson. He’s named Leonard.”
“I pray he can sleep on the train,” Tillie said.
“He can lean on my shoulder and sleep in a seated position, I suppose.”
Tillie looked down at her ticket, which was for a sleeping car all the way to Austin. The Stone family were well-off and had arranged her travel. She thought it was silly for a healthy twenty-three-year-old to travel with a bed while a man who needed it was forced to sleep sitting up.
“I have a proposition for you, Mrs. Burk. I’ve never traveled a long distance by train. I want to experience it in its entirety. I want to smell everything and see everything. Sleeping is the farthest thing from my mind, but I have a problem,” Tillie explained.
“What is your problem, dear?” Mrs. Burk asked.
“I have a sleeper car in first class, and I was hoping Mr. Burk might swap tickets with me. I’ve heard they’re plenty roomy, and perhaps you can squeeze in next to him.”
Mrs. Burk’s eyes glowed and grew dewy. “You must be an angel sent from heaven. That would mean the chances are good that Leonard will meet his namesake.”
Mrs. Burk gave Tillie a warm embrace as they exchanged tickets. To her, it was just another solution that needed fixing.
Tillie was astounded by the scenery as it passed along the way to Texas. The soot clouded the windows some, and the train was noisy. Despite the drawbacks, Tillie never regretted swapping her ticket.
The fog rolled down from the mountains in West Virginia. North Carolina was greener than Herkimer ever was in the springtime, and the heat increased as they moved west. A man from the train company was headed home to Dallas, and he told Tillie where they were and what to look for. He had been on the exact route several times.
“Do you have lakes and rivers in Herkimer?” he asked.
“Sure we do. We have a pond on our farm that freezes in winter,” Tillie replied.
“You ain’t seen nothing like the Mississippi River. It’s too big to freeze, and it’s too warm where we’re crossing.”
“Is there a bridge?”
“Sure is, and I hope it holds.” He smiled because he was teasing.
Tillie realized what a small life she lived in Herkimer that was growing with each mile she traveled. Crossing the Mississippi was something she never expected to do. It was something her father hadn’t done or his father. She was filled with excitement and anticipation.
Mrs. Stone said Max was too much for some to handle, but she was confident in herself. Her brother Dougie was a handful at times, but he never got the best of her. Her brother was nine, and she guessed Max would be about the same. They passed meadows with so many flowers that it looked like a rug had been rolled out. America was so lovely that Tillie was astounded when the porter came through and announced they were crossing into Texas.
“That was fast!” Tillie exclaimed.
“Yup. It tends to be that way on your first trip.”
Tillie nodded her head. “I’d do it all over again if given the chance. How soon to Austin?”
“Texas is a big place. The sun will set and rise before we get to Austin. In all my days riding these rails, I’ve never come across someone like you.”
“I hope that’s a compliment,” Tillie said.
“It is, young lady. You have such wonder and optimism. I don’t think there’s a scared bone in your body.”
“I’m scared; I’ve been through some things just like everyone else. I just don’t show it. Why dwell on what’s not right in front of you?” Tillie chirped.
“Well, it’s been a pleasure. I’m going to get some shut-eye because my stop will be in an hour or two.” He pulled his hat down.
Tillie’s excitement wore thin when the sun began to set. She didn’t want to miss a thing, but she was physically unable to keep her eyes open. She dreamed about her brother Seth who was also her best friend. It was just the two of them for so long, and then came the three little ones. They relied on each other for support and were always able to make each other laugh. It was during their years together that Tillie learned the importance of laughter. Taking the little things too seriously darkened the soul and was a waste of precious time.
“I don’t want you to get sick, Tillie. Just let me be because I’m going to die anyway,” Seth spoke, although his voice was faint.
“I tended to Jacob didn’t I? So the doc says I’m immune. I don’t really know what the heck that word means, but I think it means I won’t get sick. You’d die of boredom if I left,” Tillie joked.
Seth laughed. “It’s my death bed. I could do without the jokes.”
“Not a chance. Doc says you have a few days left where you’ll be awake enough to talk. If I leave, you won’t have anyone here to listen to your silly jokes.”
“When you get it in your head to do something, there’s no convincing you otherwise. I worry about Mother and Father after I’m gone, but I don’t worry about you. You have a gift, Tillie, and I hope you go on to share it with as many people as possible,” Seth managed to say as he touched his sister’s arm.
“I expect to see you again someday.”
“Don’t talk crazy,” Seth urged. “We both know I’m going to die.”
“I know that, but we’ll see each other in heaven. I know we will,” Tillie promised.
“Not for a long time. I have to come up with some new jokes while I’m up there, and you have work to do. I want you to know love again like Jacob would have wanted. One thing’s for sure. You have to have a son and name him Seth.”
Tillie pushed away tears from her cat-like eyes. “I will. I promise.”
“Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you’re less than you are.”
Seth had exhausted himself by speaking, so he closed his eyes. Days later, he drew his last breath.
The train jerked, and Tillie woke up. The man next to her was gone, having gotten off at his stop while she was sleeping. The train screeched and lurched before coming to a complete stop.
“Last stop. Austin, Texas,” the porter announced in a long slow drawl. “Ya’ll are out of luck if you missed your stop while sleeping. We ain’t going back, so you’ll have to walk.”
Since leaving Herkimer, Tillie hadn’t felt nervous or scared in the least. Now, things were changing, and it was the worst possible time. Where were her guardian angels when she needed them?
Folk began filing off the train, so Tillie did the same. She grabbed her blue wool coat that had been used in Herkimer for five consecutive winters. Actually, it had been used in fall and spring, too, when the weather called for it. Summers back home were hot, and she knew to expect the same in Texas. It was not even May yet, so she assumed she’d need the coat for a couple more weeks at least. It was stale, sticky, and warm on the train, but she expected to be met with cooler air when she stepped onto the platform.
As she stepped on the steady ground, there was no cool air but dry, and it lingered somewhere between warm and hot. She pulled her bonnet tight and tried pinning her hair up where it was supposed to be. Tillie was scheduled to be picked up by a man who was instructed to fetch a woman in a green bonnet.
“Hello, ma’am. You must be heading to …”
Tillie finished his sentence. “I’m going to the Stone Ranch in Thistle. You must have been sent to collect me. I heard you would recognize me.”
The man’s eyes lit up when he heard she was going to the Stone Ranch. He must have been pleased that he came upon the right woman.
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll load your trunk and take your bag.” He gestured towards his rickety wagon. “Then we’ll be off to the Stone Ranch,”
He reached for Tillie’s bag, but she refused to let go. He hadn’t used her name, and the wagon did not appear as something Nell Stone would have sent. Her father had always said that if something seemed wrong, it likely was. She scanned the dwindling crowd for someone who could come to her aid.
“I’m not about to let a lady carry her own bag. Let go.” His toothless grin showed a touch of frustration.
“Who sent you?”
“Mrs. Stone,” he replied.
“What is her first name, and what is mine? What garment were you told to look out for?”
The man looked nervous, and when he saw a gentleman tap Tillie on the shoulder, he bolted.
“Miss Acton?” A man with graying hair that peeked from beneath his black hat stood behind Tillie. “I’m Michael, and I’ve been sent by Mrs. Stone to bring you back to the ranch. The carriage is waiting, and it should take only a couple of hours.”
“You don’t know how good it is to meet you. I almost got swindled on my first day in Texas.”
“It isn’t your fault, Miss Acton. People who’ve lived their lives in Texas still get hoodwinked now and then. It happens a lot around the train depot when people are thinking about everything but getting swindled.”
Together they walked to retrieve Tillie’s trunk. Michael had a cart on wheels to carry it, which he said was safer than putting it in the hands of strangers. He joked that his back wasn’t what it used to be. He used to be able to carry a trunk over each shoulder.
Tillie was about to step into the shiny black carriage. “Michael, would you mind terribly if I rode up front with you? I’ve been in that metal tube for over a week, and I need the fresh air.”
“Not at all, ma’am. I’ll help you up.”
Tillie and Michael exchanged pleasantries and light conversation. She learned that she would be the fifth caretaker for Max in as many months. He had been to Austin to pick up nurses and even one doctor. Within a couple of weeks, he was returning them to the train depot, and it seemed like they couldn’t leave fast enough.
“I think you’ll be different, Miss Acton,” Michael commented.
“I bet you said that to every caretaker.”
“No, I really didn’t. You smile a lot easier than any of them did, and you’re the only one who wanted to sit up front. I realize I shouldn’t be commenting on anyone in the Stone family, but I will anyway. Max Stone is a handful. He was when he could walk, and I’d say he’s more difficult when he’s spending his days in bed,” Michael warned.
“The first thing I’ll do is get that boy out of bed. I’m surprised his mother and father haven’t done it sooner,” Tillie said.
Tillie couldn’t get over the open spaces. It sure wasn’t like Herkimer, and it was nothing like New York City. When there were trees, they were massive oaks with vines hanging from the branches. Michael said they were referred to as live oaks. Tillie thought that meant the other oaks weren’t alive, and she knew that wasn’t true.
There was a lot to learn about Texas before it felt like home.
“Falling for His Guarded Soul” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Tillie Acton is struggling to cope with the loss of both her brother and the man she intended to marry. Adding to her misery, when financial ruin strikes her family her parents suggest she become a mail-order bride. However, marrying a man she doesn’t love is out of the question for her. Determined to live life on her own terms, she is hired as a caretaker for Max Stone, a young rancher who is bed-bound due to a terrible horse accident. Tille finds herself dealing with a bitter and ungrateful man who is far from what she expected, but everything is about to change forever… Could she eventually see past Max’s flaws and find the love she always hoped for?
After a tragic accident robbed him of his ability to walk, Max has been spending his days in bed overwhelmed by his grief. When his mother presents Tillie as his new caretaker, Max has no reason to believe she’ll be any different from the previous ones that couldn’t handle him. In reality, he couldn’t be more mistaken… They both have a deep love for horses, which is the first of many things they share. Max never imagined Tillie’s bubbly personality and positive outlook on life would inspire him to embark on a journey towards recovery. Soon, he begins to feel a rush of love every time he sees her… but could Tillie ever feel the same?
Love is inevitable for Tillie and Max but fate throws someone in their path intent on shattering the future they only dare dream of. Wanting to protect what lies between them, they try to keep their love a secret, but their efforts will be in vain… Will love prevail when an enemy disguised as a friend threatens their happily ever after?
“Falling for His Guarded Soul” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.