The Patchwork Bride

THE PATCHWORK BRIDE

Sandra Dallas

From Sandra Dallas, the best-selling author of A Quilt for Christmas, comes The Patchwork Bride, the irrepressible story of a runaway bride.

Ellen is putting the finishing touches on a wedding quilt made from scraps of old dresses when the bride-to-be—her granddaughter June—unexpectedly arrives and announces she’s calling off the marriage. With the tending of June’s uncertain heart in mind, Ellen tells her the story of Nell, a Kansas-born woman who goes to the High Plains of New Mexico Territory in 1898 in search of a husband.

Working as a biscuit-shooter,

more …

From Sandra Dallas, the best-selling author of A Quilt for Christmas, comes The Patchwork Bride, the irrepressible story of a runaway bride.

Ellen is putting the finishing touches on a wedding quilt made from scraps of old dresses when the bride-to-be—her granddaughter June—unexpectedly arrives and announces she’s calling off the marriage. With the tending of June’s uncertain heart in mind, Ellen tells her the story of Nell, a Kansas-born woman who goes to the High Plains of New Mexico Territory in 1898 in search of a husband.

Working as a biscuit-shooter, Nell falls for a cowboy named Buddy. She sees a future together, but she can’t help wondering if his feelings for her are true. When Buddy breaks her heart, she runs away.

In her search for a soul mate, Nell will run away from marriage twice more before finding the love of her life. It’s a tale filled with excitement, heartbreak, disappointment, and self-discovery—as well as with hard-earned life lessons about love. Another stunning, emotional novel from a master storyteller.

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  • St. Martin's Press
  • Hardcover
  • June 2018
  • 304 Pages
  • 9781250174031

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$26.99

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About Sandra Dallas

Sandra DallasAward-winning author Sandra Dallas was dubbed “a quintessential American voice” by Jane Smiley, in Vogue Magazine. She is the author of The Bride’s HouseWhiter Than SnowPrayers for Sale and Tallgrass, among others. Her novels have been translated into a dozen languages and optioned for films. She is the recipient of the Women Writing the West Willa Award and the two-time winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award. For 25 years, Dallas worked as a reporter covering the Rocky Mountain region for Business Week, and started writing fiction in 1990. She lives with her husband in Denver, Colorado.

Author Website

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

The bright morning light that seeped through the attic window fell in streaks on the trunk which Ellen had opened. It was the third trunk she’d searched. She’d already gone through the contents in the barrel-back trunk and in the black metal one that had belonged to her grandmother. Now she looked through the leather trunk that she had brought with her when she’d gone to housekeeping on the ranch. She hadn’t opened it in years. “At last,” she muttered, pulling out a swath of white. She held out the fabric, slightly yellowed, then hugged it to her chest.

“What are you doing?”

Ellen whirled around. She hadn’t heard him come up the stairs. “Looking for this,” she replied, unfolding the garment. “Do you remember it?”

“You bet I do. You wore it when we were married. It’s a dinger. You were, too.” His eyes lit up.

Ellen smiled at him, surprised that such a little thing had stuck in his mind.

“What do you want that for?”

“For June’s wedding quilt. The piecing’s done, and I’m stitching it together. This morning I remembered it. I want it in the quilt. I’ll cut a piece of it and tack it on.”

“June’s getting married?”

Ellen took a deep breath. She shouldn’t have climbed the stairs. Her doctor had warned her, had said it wasn’t good for her heart. She had taken the stairs slowly, resting on each landing, but still, she could feel the exertion. “June isgetting married.”

“Well, good for her. I hope he’s worthy of her. She’s the best of the bunch. When’s the wedding?”

“You can ask her. She’s downstairs in John’s room, sleeping.”

“June’s here. Why didn’t you tell me?”

Ellen clinched her fists, not at her husband but at fate. She had told him. In fact, he had gone into Durango with her the night before to meet June’s plane. She had told him about the wedding, too, several times, and he had met their granddaughter’s fiancé when the young man visited earlier in the year.

He turned his head to look out the window. “Maybe you did tell me. Maybe I just forgot,” he said, sitting down on one of the trunks. “I forget an awful lot, don’t I?”

“Your brain’s just not big enough to cram everything into it. Some things have to get shoved out to make room for the new.” She took his gnarled hand, the fingers twisted from where a devil horse had stepped on them, the skin mottled with scars and bumps, so many she had forgotten how he got them all. She loved his hands—gentle hands that caressed the horses, caressed her. She remembered those first years on the ranch, when he couldn’t keep them off her, and even now, when he reached for her in the night, just to hold her, to know she was beside him. His hands remembered, even if he didn’t.

He had forgotten so much. “It’s age,” the doctor had said, “age and being a rancher. How many times do you suppose he’s been bucked off a horse?”

Ellen had shrugged. “I don’t know. Too many to count. Surely there’s something you can do. I won’t have it. This just isn’t fair.”

There was nothing to be done, however. The confusion and the memory loss would only get worse, the doctor said.

“He mixes up things. He talks about something that happened forty years ago as if it were last week. And then he can’t remember what he did yesterday.”

“Old age is like that, Ellen. Just keep an eye on him so he doesn’t wander off.” He paused, then added that wouldn’t be easy with her own health. She couldn’t go gallivanting all over the countryside following him around. She and her husband would be better off living in town, finding a little house or better yet an apartment, so she wouldn’t be tempted to overdo things. “I don’t suppose old Ben would do that, would he?” he asked.

“We’re not that old,” Ellen replied. “Wild horses couldn’t drag Ben into an apartment. He’d dry up if he couldn’t be in his mountains. And I’ll die before I let anybody take him away from the ranch. You just wait and see.”

“You might do just that. With that heart of yours, you’d be better off in town, too. Think about it, Ellen.”

The doctor was right. Another year on the ranch might kill both of them. Still, Ellen wasn’t willing to give up, not yet, anyway. Oh, she had talked to a realtor. Prices for ranch land were good, and the ranch would sell quickly, but she wouldn’t sign the papers. She’d wait until spring and see how things were. She wanted one more winter in front of the fireplace Ben had built out of rocks he’d collected, the two of them warm in her quilts spread over the solid wooden chairs. They would talk about their life together. What did it matter that Ben couldn’t remember all of it? She would remember for both of them. Then the memories would die with her. Nobody cared about the stories of an old woman.

“Come on. Let’s go downstairs,” Ellen said, gripping her husband’s hand as she stood up, the white fabric under her arm.

Ben looked confused. “I know I came up here for something, but I can’t remember what.”

“You came up here for me.”

* * *

Later that morning, after Ben was gone, Ellen sat in the sunshine on the porch, sewing. The branches of the cottonwood tree sent shadows across the quilt top. Here and there, the sunlight seeped through the leaves, illuminating the swatches of silk and brocade, causing them to shimmer. Ellen stopped with half-drawn thread and smiled at the patches in the dappled light. She set down her needle and touched a scrap of the white stuff with the tip of her finger. It was as soft as butter and dear-bought because it was French and old even back then. She rubbed her finger against a bit of lace, now discolored with age, remembering. Then she slid her nail over the plain white piece of cotton she had rescued from the trunk, stitching it into place. It was still as sturdy as the day it was woven. As she flicked away a yellow cottonwood leaf that had fallen onto the quilt top, she lingered over a slip of brocade, still white as starlight. She had saved the scraps for years. They marked the moments in her life, her mother’s and grandmother’s lives, and the lives of friends. So many memories, she thought. She tucked under the raw edges of the tiny piece of white she had cut from the sash. It was plain cotton and didn’t quite fit in with the other scraps, but it held memories—the best memories, she thought, knotting her thread. It should be part of June’s wedding present. She took out a large-eyed needle and threaded it with embroidery floss.

“Is that my quilt?” June asked.

Ellen had been too lost in remembering to hear the girl approach. She looked up and nodded. “This will be the last one, the best one,” she said, remembering that Ben had said just that morning that June was the best. She had made a quilt for each of her grandchildren when they married. June was the youngest, and now, with the girl’s wedding set for the end of October, little more than a month away, before her fiancé was shipped out to fight in the war in Korea, June would get the last patchwork bride’s quilt.

“It’s beautiful, Granny, but it’s not at all like the one you made for Elizabeth.”

“No, it isn’t.” Ellen had quilted a blue-and-white Irish Chain for June’s sister. That quilt and the others Ellen had made for her grandchildren had been pieced from cotton, with a mixture of ancient scraps of calico and new-bought percale from Penney’s in Durango. Ellen wasn’t sure why she had made a Crazy Quilt now, using cuttings of silk and satin and lace, with only here and there a bit of white cotton. She’d never liked the old-fashioned pattern. Crazy Quilts had always seemed indulgent and useless, too delicate for a ranch house. Many of the patches were irregular and wouldn’t work for any other design. Besides, you couldn’t piece a Lone Star or a Sunbonnet Sue or a Double Wedding Ring with such fragile fabrics.

She’d been a little shocked at herself for cutting up the old-fashioned dresses, although two of the garments were never finished. They had been stored in the cardboard box for too long. Some patches were foxed, others dark with age. The silk was split in places. It was foolish to cut apart the dresses, but what else would she do with them? They had been put away for fifty years, maybe a hundred. It was ridiculous to think anyone would ever wear them.

Besides, she thought, June was special. She deserved something unusual. June was the grandchild most like her, the one most like Ben, too. She loved the ranch, coming out from Chicago each year to spend her summer vacation with her grandparents. Those days would be over now that June was getting married. Ellen would miss her. Ben would, too. He had taught her to ride, had even given her one of the colts out of Little Texas. The other grandchildren had visited the ranch when they were small, but they had since gone on with their lives, sending postcards and thank-you notes for Christmas and birthday gifts, but they were too busy to visit. June was different. Instead of going to college in the East, like her brother and sister, she’d chosen the University of Denver, where she was closer to her grandparents and closer to the mountains she loved as much as Ellen did. When June couldn’t visit, she wrote long letters to her grandmother, telling about college classes and boyfriends.

Ellen knew before June’s mother did that June had fallen in love. In fact, she had met the young man even before June had taken him home to meet her parents in Chicago. David Proctor, his name was. June knew he was special or she wouldn’t have brought him to the ranch that summer. He was a nice enough man, a little stiff, but maybe that was because he’d never ridden a horse before. Ben had taught him, and he’d taken to it. June liked the way he’d helped around the place and how he’d understood that Ben was slipping. Dave had been gentle with Ben, hadn’t been annoyed when Ben forgot something or asked the same question three or four times. He told Ellen he wished he would one day know as much about ranching as Ben had forgotten.

“I was going to wake you, but I decided you needed your sleep. I’d thought you might want to go into Durango with your grandfather,” Ellen told June. “He took Little Texas to the vet.”

“Grandpa Ben still drives?”

“No, but he would if I didn’t hide the truck keys.” They’d argued over it, Ben demanding the keys and Ellen refusing to give them up. Ellen hated telling her husband he couldn’t drive anymore, but she’d had to. He’d already gone into the ditch twice. Wesley, one of the ranch hands, took him, she explained.

“He’s getting worse, isn’t he?”

Ellen nodded, taking a stitch in the quilt. She was using creamy white floss to embroider designs along the seamlines of the quilt. Gold embroidery floss was traditional in Crazy Quilts, but Ellen had thought it too brassy. The white was more elegant, more appropriate for a bride. She had almost finished the embroidery when she’d remembered the white fabric in the attic and had gone to get it that morning.

“Will he get better?”

Ellen shook her head. “I suppose the time will come when he doesn’t recognize even me. Frankly, I was a little surprised he knew who you were when you got off the plane. This morning, he didn’t remember you were here.” She paused. “The doctor says we should move into town.”

“Leave the ranch? Oh, Granny, how could you?”

“I won’t!” She paused long enough to settle down, then added, “I’ll see how your grandfather is in the spring.”

“And see how you are, too, Granny?”

Ellen didn’t reply. If it weren’t for her heart, she could manage the ranch, but she was winded just walking down to the corral. She got palpitations when she made an error in the ranch’s books, too. “Damn heart,” she muttered.

“I’m sorry.” June took Ellen’s hand and stilled it for a moment.

Ellen looked down at their hands threaded together, just as she and Ben held hands sometimes. She had no reason to be angry. Theirs had been a wonderful life, the best she could imagine. She just had trouble accepting it. “If we move into town, well, I’ll still have my memories.”

“I want you to share them with me.”

Ellen smiled then and brushed away a tear, embarrassed. She was a tough old bird and didn’t cry often, not anymore. She patted the seat beside her on the swing and told June to sit down. “You tell me your story. Why are you here?”

“Isn’t it enough that I wanted to see you?”

Ellen harrumphed. “You’re getting married in a few weeks. You didn’t just up and decide to visit your grandparents when you were in the middle of all those preparations. What’s wrong?” She wrapped floss around her needle to make a herringbone stitch.

June shrugged.

“I imagine your mother has everything in order, down to the last detail. She’s the most efficient woman I know,” Ellen said about her daughter-in-law. She liked Evelyn, June’s mother, although the woman could be a taskmaster.

“I know. She’s arranged everything. All I have to do is show up.”

“And will you?” Ellen glanced at her granddaughter out of the sides of her eyes, but June was not looking at her.

“That would be a memorable wedding, wouldn’t it, if I didn’t show up.”

Ellen didn’t say anything. She fastened her needle to one of the scraps and pushed the quilt top aside. She wondered if June was having second thoughts. Perhaps she wasn’t ready to marry and Dave was pushing her, using the war as an excuse. Ellen understood that, understood it better than June could imagine. David would be shipped off to Korea and would want to know that June was waiting for him. It wasn’t enough that they were engaged. June could always break an engagement, write him a Dear Dave letter. No, he would want the assurance that June was locked up, a wedding ring on her finger. June was strong-minded. She was Ellen’s granddaughter, for heaven’s sakes. Still, she was young and in love, and perhaps she didn’t know what she wanted.

Ellen glanced at the girl and thought, again, that although they were separated by fifty years, the two of them were a great deal alike. Not that they looked alike. Ellen was tall and thin, with blue eyes and dark brown hair that was mostly gray now. June was shorter, with coppery hair and freckles that had come from Evelyn’s side of the family. June had Ellen’s hands, however. Her long fingers and long oval nails were just like Ellen’s, too. Of course, June’s hands were still sleek and pink, while Ellen’s were brown and gnarled, toughened by the ranch work, the veins prominent, and the skin spotted from the sun that burned through the thin mountain air. Hands like Ben’s. The two women’s appearances were different, but inside, they were similar. June had Ellen’s spirit, her sense of adventure, her love of the mountains.

“Do you have doubts?” Ellen asked.

“Maybe just a little.”

“Of course all brides do, and with good reason. Marriage isn’t easy.”

“You had them, too?”

“Oh, my, yes.” Ellen laughed. “I wouldn’t have been human if I hadn’t.”

“But you and Grandpa Ben are so happy. Mom said once that the two of you beat with one heart.”

Ellen smiled, thinking she was lucky to have a daughter-in-law who was so generous with her appraisal.

“You know, Granny, when I was little and came here in the summers, I thought you had the perfect marriage. I wanted mine to be just like yours.”

“No marriage is perfect.”

“I know. But I remember the way Grandpa Ben looked at you back then, the way his face lit up when you walked into the room. It still does, you know. I saw that last night. And you, Granny, your eyes follow him.”

Ellen knew her granddaughter was right, and she felt fortunate. Theirs had indeed been a good marriage, the best she knew. They hadn’t always agreed. Lord, no! She remembered the time she had wanted Ben to put a bathroom in the house, which back then was only three rooms. She was pregnant and wanted to take a bath without having to set up the tin tub in the kitchen and heat bathwater in a kettle on the stove. Ben said he was going to spend the money on a mare. Ellen had been so angry that she’d gone into town and withdrawn the cash from the bank to pay for the bathroom fixtures. Ben threatened to use the tub for a watering trough and didn’t speak to her for a week. Once he got used to the indoor bathroom, however, he stopped complaining. They still had the tub, the porcelain cracked and nicked and stained orange from minerals in the water. It was in the old lean-to off the kitchen with the washing machine.

Remembering how silly that fight had been, Ellen turned her face back to the mountains. She could see the dark places where the clouds made shadows on the slopes, the horses running in the meadow, the snow in the crevices that had been there as long as she had lived on the ranch. “I’m a lucky woman,” she told her granddaughter.

“I just want to know that fifty years from now, I made the right choice for my life, like you did. I don’t want to end up sour like some of Mom’s friends, sorry I ever let Dave pressure me into getting married.”

Ellen studied the girl for a moment. “So you’ve run away, have you? That’s why you came here.”

June looked at her grandmother in surprise. “How did you know?”

“I just did.”

June put her hands over her face. “It’s awful of me, isn’t it? After all the work Mom’s put into making everything just right.”

“Does she know you’re here?”

“No.” June brushed the tears off her cheeks. She’d called her parents in Chicago when she knew they wouldn’t be home and left a message with the maid, saying that she didn’t believe she could go through with the wedding, that she needed time to think things over and was going away. “I said I’d call later and explain things when I’d made a decision. I just couldn’t talk to her then. How could I after everything she’s done, all the work she’s put in? I think Dad will be okay with it, but Mom will be furious.”

“Oh, not so furious. Disappointed maybe.”

“You won’t tell her I’m here, will you? She might tell Dave.”

“I won’t lie to her if she asks, but no, I won’t volunteer the information.” Then Ellen asked about Dave.

June studied her hands for a moment. “That’s the real question, isn’t it?”

“Did you tell him you were running away?”

“Well, sure, I couldn’t just leave him hanging, could I?” June stood and went to the edge of the porch and looked out. “I did it the coward’s way, though. I didn’t want to talk to him, so I left a letter at his place on the way to the airport, dropped it off when I knew he wouldn’t be there. He’ll have read it by now. I told him I just couldn’t go through with the wedding. He’ll be terribly hurt, won’t he?”

“Probably.” Ellen got up and stood beside her granddaughter, her arm around the girl’s waist. “It’s quite a view, isn’t it? Those mountains soothe me when I’m troubled. They’re so grand that they make what’s bothering me seem small. They’ve been there for millions of years and make me realize my problems are temporary. Of course, they’re my troubles, so they seem awful important.” She squeezed June’s waist. “I’m glad you came. This is the right place for you to think things through.”

“Dave doesn’t know I’m here either. Mom might guess, but I don’t think Dave will. If he did, he’d show up on your doorstep. I don’t want him to. I can’t talk to him.”

“You should.”

“I know. It isn’t fair to him.”

“Do you want to tell me why you ran away?”

June turned and sat down on the porch swing, while Ellen returned to her stitching. “We had the worst fight, Granny.” Getting married right away had been Dave’s idea. She had wanted to wait. The night before June left, Dave had told her she’d be the perfect army wife. He’d said she’d be in a coffee klatch with the other wives and maybe do some kind of volunteer work at the base. “He went on and on, and I realized that as long as we were married, I wouldn’t be me. I’d be a wife,” June said. She had spent four years in college and wanted to do something with her life. That was why she had majored in business. She’d even been offered a job in a training program at a bank in Colorado Springs, an hour south of Denver, but of course, she’d turned it down since she was getting married. With Dave in the military, she couldn’t count on staying in Colorado. “What Dave said made me look past the wedding. I’d feel buried. I wouldn’t even have a name. I’d always be Mrs. David Proctor, an army wife. He referred to me as the little missus, and I just blew up. I told him I’d never settle for that. We were both so angry. I said he wanted to smother me, and he told me I didn’t love him. Maybe I don’t.”

“It wouldn’t be forever,” Ellen said. “Dave will be discharged in a couple of years.”

“That’s just it. It will be forever. David plans to have a career in the military, like his father and his grandfather. Did you know he went to West Point? I should have thought this all through a long time ago.”

“He could always change his mind,” Ellen suggested.

June shook her head. “If he did, he’d resent me for it. The military’s the only career he ever wanted. He’d blame me if he didn’t stay in the army. That’s not a very good basis for a marriage.”

“So you ran away.”

June gave a little smile. “Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

“Oh yes.” Ellen ran her hand across the quilt top, then folded it and set it on a chair. There was coffee in the kitchen, she said. Maria, the cook and housekeeper, kept it on the stove in case Ben or one of the hands came in. She suggested June fetch coffee and Maria’s bread, along with the apple butter the cook had made the day before. Then they could talk. “I’d like an excuse to do nothing but sit here in the sun,” Ellen lied. The truth was, she didn’t want to sit in the sun at all. She’d rather be on a horse, showing June the improvements she and Ben had made on the ranch since the last time June was there. But her riding days were over.

June got up and went inside, the screen door slamming behind her. Ellen watched her granddaughter disappear, then turned to study the horses as they raced across the meadow, the stallion in the lead. The sun shone on him, making his light brown coat appear almost white against the green mountains. He was descended from the stallion Ben had purchased years before. She was glad Ben had bought him, although she’d been angry enough at the time. She had wanted to remodel the kitchen, get rid of the old wooden Hoosier cupboard and put in cabinets, and they had quarreled. Then, perhaps remembering her defiance of a few years before when Ellen had spent their money on bathroom fixtures, Ben had gone ahead and bought the horse without her knowledge. She’d given him hell, but Ben hadn’t backed down. The next year, however, he’d told her they ought to fix up the kitchen. He’d even insisted she get a gas range to replace the cookstove.

Ellen watched the horse as his tail swung in the sunlight. She loved the vista, had designed the porch for that side of the house so that they could sit there in the evening and watch the sun slip behind the San Juans. The mountains gave her a sense of calm, of peacefulness. She liked a God who had created mountains—and a husband who had given her a life among them. Of course, there would still be the mountains if they moved to Durango. They just wouldn’t be at their doorstep, and there wouldn’t be the ranch. No, by God, she’d have to find a way to stay here a little longer.

The screen’s hinges squeaked again, and June set down a tray with slices of homemade bread, a crock of apple butter, and the coffee. The cups and saucers and plates were brown with ranch brands around the edges. The china had been manufactured after the Second World War, and everyone in the valley had it. Like Ellen, her neighbors had survived the bad years, the Depression and the war, and now that livestock was bringing good prices, the women felt entitled to splurge a little. June handed her grandmother a spoon and an opened can of PET milk.

Ellen poured milk into her coffee and stirred it, then sipped. She’d developed the habit of adding canned milk to her coffee years before, when the only coffee you could buy in cattle country was Arbuckle’s and the only milk came in a can. She and Ben both preferred it to fresh milk. “What’s your dress like?” she asked her granddaughter.

“White, of course. Silk with a chiffon train that’s about as long as this porch. It would break Mom’s heart if I didn’t wear it. What do you do with a wedding dress if you don’t wear it?”

“You could make it into a quilt. A Crazy Quilt.”

June laughed. “That would be tragic, wouldn’t it, cutting up all that expensive silk.”

“Better than letting it rot away in a box.”

“It would make a pretty quilt, at that.” June reached over and picked up her grandmother’s quilt and ran her hand over the patches. “A quilt like this.”

Ellen nodded. “That’s what it is. That patch there is from your great-grandmother’s wedding gown.”

“You cut it up?”

“There are several wedding dresses in here.”

“Is one yours?”

Ellen nodded and pointed to the piece of white she had added to the edge just that morning.

June set aside the quilt and gave a brittle laugh. “Maybe you can cut up my wedding dress. That way, you at least will get some use out of it.” She took a sip of her coffee. “I guess I’m a freak, aren’t I?”

“No,” Ellen replied as she traced one of the brands on her cup with her finger. “I know of a woman fifty years ago who ran away. She ran away three different times. The first was in 1898.”

“Three times! From the same man?”

“No, three different men. Three different reasons. Do you want to hear her story?”

“I love your stories, Granny. If I were a writer I would put them into a book.” June settled into the chair. It was her grandfather’s chair, with a tattered old Indian rug for a cushion. “Were they good reasons?”

“Yes.”

“You think she did the right thing?”

“She thought so at the time.” Ellen shrugged. “But you tell me.”

 

Copyright © 2018 by Sandra Dallas