Agnes nodded her assent. She would be fine. From the safety of the front porch, she would help Ernestine comfort the youngest and keep an eye on the oldest and listen to her work out her anxieties and fears about that day’s tremor. With quick waves, Hans and Ben mounted their horses and headed for the Rutherfords’ place. As Agnes watched the two men ride off, she was reminded of other men, years before, leaving too. Agnes nestled the sniffling Sally closer on her lap and remembered.
The town had been surprised when all their boys signed up and left for the glory of war. Agnes’s father had forbidden 19 year old Peter and 17 year old Josiah to volunteer and yet when the town threw together a hasty farewell parade for the newly declared soldiers as they marched out of town, there were Peter and Josiah with their friends. Most of the personal belongings they had smuggled out of the house were secreted away in army issue rucksacks. Their regiment was garbed with a mix of ill-fitting uniforms, homespun cottons, and cocky, youthful smiles.
Agnes had been allowed to go to the parade, but her parents had declared it a foolish waste of time and stayed home. They were not keen on war, especially when it was so far away and they had no dog in the fight. Her parents had come to Kansas to be away from people and government oversights and political and philosophical arguments. Her father’s refusal to engage in the war and support their hometown regiment is why there was no confrontation between father and sons in the town streets. By the time Agnes was able to rush home to report to her father that their boys had signed up, they were long gone. And her father too betrayed to go after them.
After the war shuddered to a close, they thought some local boy would find his way home. Maybe the letters informing them of deaths or prisoners of war or missing in actions were wrong. Maybe a miracle would show up one day in the form of a boy turned man with a peg leg and shell-shock, carrying his belonging and memories of their town with him.
But, not one came home.
They found out after the war that Kansas had lost more men per capita than any other state fighting for the union. Agnes could never quite figure out why their boys had gone. She supposed the romance of war had seduced them. To her, the union felt years and millions of miles away from their edge of the wilderness.
Peter and Josiah had always been the gregarious ones in the family, getting together with friends and bursting with energy in the social situations that made Agnes cringe. With time, Agnes was able to overcome some of the shyness that had plagued her as a child, but small talk was always painful and if Agnes could avoid it, she would. Folks were friendly enough; she was frequently invited to quilting bees and the like, but often she would decline. On the occasions she forced herself to accept, she had to give herself a pep talk to go and after coming home, she felt strung so tight that she would need time to unwind. In this regard, Agnes took after her parents. They were not so sociable either. While the boys were away, the family drifted toward becoming more isolated.
And so eventually, after the brothers disappeared in the fighting, her mother withered away with cancer and her father abruptly died of a stroke, Agnes was left alone. The farm was hers, and as smart as Agnes was, she couldn’t run it on her own. Even after her brothers had gone to war, her father had consented for help with the animals in the barn, but he resolutely refused her help in the fields. A farmer’s daughter, Agnes did not know how to farm. It was good land, but the war had decimated the economy. Agnes had no way to pay hired hands. Sleepless nights of going round and round in her head for a solution to keep the farm led Agnes to consider that a husband might fix the problem. If she could convince someone to marry her, he would also own the farm and have a vested interest in its survival. How to find someone able-bodied and honest, though?
Agnes’s plight was brought up in church council. People felt for the girl whose family had all suffered a demise in the preceding few years. 23 years old when her brothers left to fight, Agnes was now pushing 30 and there was a dearth of eligible men in town. A whole generation of young men Agnes’s age were wiped out. The remaining single boys were just coming of age and here was Agnes feeling old enough to be their mother. There was currently no old-timer widow available to consider as a husband--a fact which made Agnes undeniably happy.
Mrs. Larson, the only one who could coax a tune out of the church organ, volunteered that her cousin’s son might be willing. She didn’t know if there was a young lady in his life, but she had recently heard through the family grapevine that he had survived the war and was eager to move west. He was about the right age, hopefully unattached, and knew farming. Agnes swallowed her pride, threw all her eggs in one basket, and asked Mrs. Larson to send an inquiry to him.
Benjamin was a farmer by birth and choice, but he had been pressed into service as a medic during the war, ushering patients and often bodies on stretchers to temporary havens. Orphaned just as he became an adult and having few family ties, he yearned to leave his battle memories as much as he could and start fresh somewhere. He had been delighted when Mrs. Larson’s letter appeared. Ben had never met her, but he knew that she and his mother were quite close while they were growing up as cousins in Pennsylvania. She was thrilled to hear he survived the war and had a proposal for him to consider. A young, or rather youngish, woman was in need of a husband to make a go of it on her farm. Would he be interested in initiating a correspondence?
Yes, he would.
The intent of their acquaintance and courtship was clear from the get-go. Agnes and Ben exchanged letters over the course of a few months while Agnes’s fields lay neglected and her anxiety grew. Agnes was not asking for love, she was asking for a man to help save her farm. She hoped to find someone honest and passably kind who would share the farm with her and not commandeer it. To expect love in the bargain was more than Agnes would even consider. And so when Ben’s letters seemed to prove that Mrs. Larson was right, that he was intelligent and skilled with an acceptable amount of education to boot, Agnes decided to take a leap of faith and felt the time was right to invite him to come to Kansas.
Ben came to town on the afternoon train. Agnes, Mrs. Larson and a gaggle of church ladies met his train. Agnes was secretly pleased with his appearance as he descended the car’s steps. He was certainly tall and looked strong. His face was a bit gaunt and pale, but Agnes had heard that riding the train didn’t agree with everyone. He was not classically handsome, his nose especially being large and sharp and his ample forehead made even larger by his receding hairline. But that worked for Agnes; she didn’t suppose herself much of a beauty. They would be a good match. Agnes had heard that the handsome ones often had a wandering eye and she wouldn’t want him distracted from his work.
His manners were more than satisfactory and Agnes detected signs of intelligence and some education. The three of them passed a polite evening by sharing supper together at Mrs. Larson’s home. Ben spent the night in the one inn in town and that next morning they were married by the somewhat reluctant pastor even before Ben had seen the farm. It was spring and the weather conditions had been favorable the last few weeks. Agnes was getting anxious about not getting the crop in. She spent her honeymoon giving Ben a tour of the farm, including the bedroom that had belonged to Peter and Josiah and would now be all his. Ben was busy in the fields by that afternoon. Agnes had a late supper ready for him when he came home from his new fields, stomping the soil from his land off his boots before ascending the porch. Wash day was the next day, Wednesday. She told him if he left his clothes in the hall, she would gather them up in the morning. They bid each other a courteous good night and began their marriage.
Check back tomorrow to learn more about Agnes and Ben.