I’m happy to have Julia Donner (M.L. Rigdon) on my blog today to tell us a little about her newest novel, NO EASY STREET, the second book in her Westward Bound series. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon now. NO EASY STREET and AVENUE TO HEAVEN are historical Western romances, and I enjoy them every bit as much as the Regency romances she writes. Welcome to my blog, Julia!
Thanks for inviting me! I love the Americana 1800’s era as much as the Regency period. Since I’m a horse lover, I can relive the years riding the California canyons and fire trails. And to start off the second book in this series, there is a Goodreads giveaway for AVENUE TO HEAVEN from February 16th until the 26th!
Here’s the link for the giveaway: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36554481-avenue-to-heaven?from_search=true
- So, Julia, would you like to give us a brief idea of what NO EASY STREET is about? And what the time period of the story is?
The story takes place in 1886. It’s about a woman who is determined to make a new life for herself in Wyoming. It isn’t until she arrives at the ranch that she’s inherited that she realizes the magnitude of the task. I chose Wyoming because of its early support of suffrage, and Elsbeth immediately learns that just because a law in enacted, it doesn’t mean it’s respected.
- What was a typical day in the life of a ranch hand?
It depended on the time of year, the type and size of ranch. From what I’ve read during research, what is seen on film glosses over the incredible hardships. There was nothing romantic about it. Moving stock for grazing, branding, or driving to market was and is tiring. It required changing horses three to four times a day. One or two wranglers were needed to maintain the remuda (horses). There were specific times for castration, dipping for ticks, sometimes removing horns, the constant monitoring for injuries or illnesses of the herd, keeping an eye on newborns. After the era of open range grazing, stringing fence was a major pain. Have you ever had to dig a post hole by hand? They also had to maintain their tack, clothes, and ropes, of which there were different kinds required for each task and weather changes. One of the most blatant errors in movies is the union suit, the one-piece undergarment. It didn’t come into being until after the turn of the century.
Present day ranching is much different. In some places, such as Australia, they use small helicopters to herd. How times have changed!
- In your book, Elsbeth inherits Mr. Beresford’s ranch, but that wasn’t typical for women, was it? Even though, at the time, Wyoming treated women better than most states?
Depending on individual state law, women could inherit directly, but the estate was often managed by a man. Widows usually received only half or a third of their husband’s estate. Relatives got the rest.
In 1869, Wyoming officially became a territory. The first governor signed the Female Suffrage bill, which gave women the right to vote.
In the following year, a woman temporarily held the position of Justice of the Peace, women were empaneled for jury duty, and for the first time, a woman cast a vote.
- In your book, most ranchers had no good feelings for the Indians who lived close by. Was that typical?
It was mixed but none of them wanted tribes setting up camp. The buffalo were being eradicated to starve the indigenous people and to protect the rail tracks. It was a constant battle to curb stock loss from natural predators and ranch owners didn’t want the tribes taking stock. The general attitude was that the tribes had signed treaty agreements saying they’d stay on their reservations in exchange for provisions. Ranchers and politicians weren’t interested in the fact that treaties were never honored and still aren’t today. I can think of only one of the plains tribes that did well, for a while, the Comanche under Quanah Parker’s leadership. When he became wealthy and the tribe successful, the government broke up the reservation. I’ve not read much about the coastal tribes/nations. Some of them may have had better luck.
- Ezekiel Street, EZ, was taken out of school by his uncle when he was only 9 years old. What were the laws for education at the time?
I’m no expert on this subject but do know that education reform had arrived. The system was regulated by agrarian need, and it still dominates our system today, even though students are not needed as they were in the past. Farm families were usually large since there was so much work to be done. It’s doubtful anything was ever done about a child being kept home to work. The needs of the farm came first, but students were expected to attend school until they could pass an eighth grade test. One that I wonder if the majority of our high school students today could pass. One day while working in my aunt’s museum, I picked up one of the McGuffy readers. A spelling list for third graders had prestidigitation, prodigious, prevaricator.
- Elsbeth is a seamstress in your story. Could a woman support herself that way? What other occupations were open for women back then?
We have forgotten that prior to mid-nineteen hundred, a widow could support an entire family with one job. People were also more frugal. Nothing was wasted. Clothes, tools, equipment, everything that didn’t melt or spoil in the heat lasted longer.
Historically, women, especially widows, could and had to do just about everything. They had to be stubborn and persistent to survive or achieve a dream. If they didn’t want to go through the hassle of maintaining their gender, some pretended to be men. (Calamity Jane Canary) Women sometimes participated in battle by dressing like a man, recorded as far back as the Revolutionary War.
A female took a great risk traveling without an escort, either a man or a maid—
not a female friend. That could be construed as two unsuitable women in company and fair game. A maid put a different connotation it. A mother traveling with a brood of kids could expect to be treated with respect.
Here’s the link to pre-order NO EASY STREET:https://www.amazon.com/Easy-Street-Westward-Bound-Book-ebook/dp/B07NLFHX2G/ref=sr_1_15?crid=5OHORPHY2LYH&keywords=julia+donner&qid=1549977336&s=books&sprefix=julia+donner%2Cstripbooks%2C157&sr=1-15
Startling circumstances catapult Elsbeth Soderberg from her sedate life as a seamstress in Illinois to Wyoming, where she must cope with a new life on a cattle ranch and reconcile her fascination for a reclusive neighbor and his precocious daughter. Elsbeth must quickly learn how to adapt to the challenges of an untamed territory on the verge of statehood—one where women will have the right to vote, but where many men still think of women as inferior.
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“I’ve inherited what, Mr. Rayburn?”
The lawyer adjusted his spectacles and peered at the documents in his hand. He raised his eyebrows as he used a forefinger to skim down the page. “A ranch, Miss Soderberg, a rather substantial piece of property, outside of…ah, here it is. Near Laramie in Wyoming territory.”
Elsbeth stared at him, a scrupulously neat man behind his fancy desk, so different from the town’s grubby miners, teamsters, and wharf workers. “Begging your pardon, but you’ve not called me here to suspend my employment with your wife?”
He looked at her strangely, a combination of confusion with a hint of unsettling evasiveness. She’d spent a sleepless night waging a battle over whether or not to respond to this appointment. People who had dealings with lawyers and bankers were not her sort of folks. They were her customers. Rarely, if ever, was there fraternization with those who considered her little more than a servant.
“Mr. Rayburn, I’d assumed you asked me here to end my employment as your wife’s seamstress. Or that I’d done something to displease her.”
“No, not at all, Miss Soderberg. It is we at Holstein and Rayburn who hope to continue as your representatives. You understand, of course, that the late Mr. Henry B. Beresford was our initial client and continues as such until all of his estate is settled on you.”
With her mind swept clean by this improbable news, her voice came out in a whisper. “Sir, I have no idea who this Beresford person is.”
“That is not at issue. You have been clearly identified as his heir. Mr. Beresford must have known you or a family member of yours. He mentions nothing in the will itself as to how you are connected or related. It has also been established that he has no other living heirs.”
Her head in a fog, she sat and blinked at the glint of his spectacles and expectant expression. His office smelled of lemon oil and books. A gleaming, brass-encased clock bonged the hour of two. The furnishings were costly. This was no fly-by-night affair. Holstein and Rayburn, attorneys-at-law, represented or associated with the most influential people in Galena. Back in the day, they hobnobbed with the likes of the Washburns and even President Grant when he was in town.
Mr. Rayburn cleared his throat. “Miss Soderberg, I realize that this must come as startling news, but it is all quite legal. The estate includes twenty-three thousand in cash, some railway stock, Chicago utilities, the substantial property holding in Wyoming, and part ownership of a nearby ranch. And more.”
“Two properties?” she murmured on a shaky exhale.
“You are a very wealthy woman, much more so than anyone in Galena. You might consider purchasing the mansion that recently came up for sale on Prospect.”
She knew the one he meant. It had a ballroom, a spectacular view, and a carriage house larger than the Myerson residence where she rented out two rooms.
This was too much. She was a simple woman, an aging spinster. She had no one, scraped out a living sewing for others. She dressed well because she sewed beautifully and had a knack for style. Stylish or not, she’d passed thirty last year and no man had ever showed much interest. A few elderly gentlemen had tried to reel her in but she’d politely avoided their attention. She might be lonely but would rather live independently than spend the last half of her life taking care of someone forty years older.
“Yes, Mr. Rayburn. I beg your pardon, but I’m still reeling.”
“I assure you that there is no cause for concern. All of the firm’s expenses have been taken care of by the estate. If you wish, we could see to the sale of the properties in Wyoming, but I do advise keeping the stocks and other investments.”
Mr. Rayburn jumped to his feet when Elsbeth stood. “I shall need time to consider all of this. It’s rather alarming.”
The attorney walked her to the door and opened it with a flourish. It was as if she had stepped through a portal into another world. Jim Edmonds, who clerked for the firm, immediately got to his feet when she came through. Had he been this attentive when she arrived? So accustomed to being ignored, she hadn’t noticed.
In a matter of hours, her life completely changed.
Standing on a high hill above town, Elsbeth looked down at a world that looked the same but had radically altered for her. When she’d stood in the same spot this morning, she’d used the view to calm anxiety before the appointment with the lawyer. Below, the Galena River wove through the verdant valley. Businesses and homes had been built on both sides of its banks, now swollen from winter melt. Spring’s lush vegetation congested the countryside. Trees blossomed and sprouted tender, new leaves. The air smelled brisk and green.
She’d always found comfort from the view at the corner of High and Prospect Streets. It was why she again climbed the long flight of steps up the hillside from Main Street to look down on the place of her birth and reconcile the emotional ghosts of an unhappy past. When she’d been born, Galena had been a boomtown, a thriving city made wealthy by the lead in its veins. Now, she could see its glory waning. The War Between the States ended two decades ago. The abundant minerals that fed the conflagration and Galena’s commerce were becoming scarce, the demand tapered off to a fraction of what it had been. The wide river that had carried a constant stream of riverboats had begun to shrink from silt created by the runoff from surrounding farmlands. Without dredging, it would dwindle and fade, perhaps even disappear to a trickle in the future.
A shiver of anticipation skated down her arms. It was time for something new, perhaps even adventurous. Since the appointment with the lawyer, she entertained that idea with hope.
The clatter of approaching horses shifted her attention. A team of white-socked bays pulled a surrey up Prospect Street’s steep slope, where elegant stone and brick mansions rose up to the sky in stately grandeur. Elsbeth stepped closer to the wall above the flight of steps that flanked the hillside, the ones she’d just climbed to organize her thoughts.
The surrey stopped when it reached the corner. Mrs. Rayburn peered down her nose from the open-sided carriage. “Girl, when will you finish my blue poplin day frock? I need it for a garden party on Monday.”
Years of tolerating condescension and outright rudeness had conditioned her to tolerate this sort of treatment. Not all of her clients were as toplofty as Mrs. Rayburn. Some were kind and generous, understanding of her financial circumstances, paying more than necessary, or giving a gift at Christmas. Mrs. Rayburn treated most people as her inferiors. Whenever Elsbeth went to the Rayburn’s for a fitting, she pitied the household staff. The atmosphere in the house was solemn, the servants rigid with resentment.
Elsbeth winced and stepped back when Mrs. Rayburn leaned out of the carriage to poke her shoulder with the point of an unfurled parasol. “Speak up, girl!”
Umbrage pushed the words from her mouth. “I haven’t been a girl for more than a decade, Mrs. Rayburn. Furthermore, your unfinished dress will be delivered to you this afternoon. I no longer wish to have you as a client.”
As she moved to go down the steps, she heard Mrs. Rayburn give a shrill order to the footman standing on the back of the carriage. A strong arm grasped her upper arm to escort her back to Mrs. Rayburn.
Under his breath, the footman said, “Sorry, miss.”
Elsbeth had been taught from childhood to give way to her so-called betters. Bow and scrape if you wanted to find work, but the news of this morning cracked the seed of bitterness held tightly in check for too many years. She was leaving this town and her life of poverty, mistreatment, and sad memories, leaving it all behind. Today was the start of a new life. With it came a vow to never back down from a tyrant.
“Mrs. Rayburn, you will tell your man to unhand me or I will take this matter to a constable.”
A tiny, satisfied smile thinned Mrs. Rayburn’s mouth. “You are displeased because my husband scolded you for the botched work on my nephew’s christening gown. I told him about it last week, that I refuse to pay for inferior work. My husband’s clerk said you had an appointment for this morning. You may complain to him and to others all you like. You won’t be paid for the gown, and if you don’t deliver my garden party frock by the end of the day, you won’t be paid for that either.”
The horrid woman hadn’t been off the mark. When the request for an appointment at the law office arrived yesterday, Elsbeth had immediately supposed it pertained to Mrs. Rayburn’s anger about the christening gown, which had taken many days of handwork to embellish the white satin and its matching cap. Mr. Rayburn hadn’t yet told his wife that Elsbeth was now his client. But it would be all over town by nightfall.
Elsbeth twisted from the footman’s loose grip. “You had best speak to your husband. And may tell him that if you ever accost or speak to me again, I shall no longer require his services and will take them to another attorney.”
As she descended the flight of steps to Main Street, satisfaction calmed the burn of indignation, soothed the injustice of so many individuals who must bow to the vile manners of the Mrs. Rayburns of the world. Well, thank God above that she no longer had to keep silent and take it on the chin.
She calmed her turbulent emotions with plans. The cramped rooms she rented from the Myerson’s would have to be packed up, most of the items sold. Since she’d purchased the blue material for the garden frock, she would take a scissors to the lovely poplin and send the pieces in a burlap sack to Mrs. Rayburn. It was a petty and spiteful action, but years of suppressed hurts, insults, and offenses were surging to the surface. In a few weeks, she’d be making a journey to Wyoming and a much different life.
As soon as she got home, and with a tight-lipped smile, she lifted Mrs. Rayburn’s finished and carefully folded frock from its tissue paper wrapping. The shears felt heavy and cool against her palm as she hacked into the material and sliced it into shreds.
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