Walking up that dusty lane was the hardest thing Ezekiel Hamilton, or Zeke as he often went by, had ever done up to date. Dreading to know if he was too late, dreading to know if he was on time, Zeke plodded on towards the darkened windows of the farmhouse. His home. He'd successfully ignored the turned heads and whispers behind cupped hands as he rode through town, focusing instead on the weathered paper clutched in his hand. It read simply: Zeke, Ma's awful sick. Doc says she don't have too long. Come home, please? She wants you. Joe Now, if those words weren't heart-wrenching enough for the rancher to digest, what was more so were the three tattered letters accompanying it when he'd pulled into civilization after a long spell in the brush roping wild cattle. Joe had been trying to reach him for months. And now... It was a miracle they'd gotten into Zeke's hands at all. Approaching the front door, Zeke rapped twice before trying the latch. It opened easily. Stepping inside, he squinted into the dimly lit house and softly shut the door behind him. He tossed his hat on a wall peg and looked about. Everything was in disarray from the ashes piled in the hearth to the muddy footprints of various sizes caking Ma's prized wooden floors. Clothes, rocks, broken bird nests, and the like littered the place. Zeke licked his dry lips. If this was the parlour, he was petrified to see the kitchen. A noise from the stairwell along the side wall caught his attention. Four wide-eyed faces peered between the banisters. "Zeke?" one of them whispered hoarsely. "That you?" "Yeah, it's me," he replied, shame lowering his eyes to the letter still crumpled in his hand. He didn't even know which one was Joe. "Is-Is Ma...?" "Funeral was yesterday." Zeke turned to see a young, broad-shouldered man step from the kitchen into the parlour with a towel in his hands. Shaggy, dirty blonde locks hung over the man's dark eyes, a sharp contrast to Zeke's own chocolate curls and light grey eyes. The young man must have read the confusion on Zeke's face because he held out his hand to Zeke. "Joe," he said simply. ------- "Whatcha writin', Zeke? Huh? Whatcha writin'?" Ezekiel moved his shoulder to block the paper from Obediah's prying eyes. "Isn't it time for you to be in bed?" Obediah started to protest, but a sharp look from Joe silenced him and sent the four younger boys scurrying upstairs. "What are you writing, Zeke?" Joe asked as he sank into one of the chairs by the hearth and kicked his feet up onto the grate. That explained the soot prints. Zeke sighed. He'd hoped to keep this all to himself, but all this pestering was worse than any teasing might be. "All right, all right! Was talkin' to Ned earlier today. No one's willin' to take in all the boys and I don't think Ma woulda liked them being apart." "No, she'd like their oldest brother home and lookin' after 'em," Joe countered with a dark look. "You know I can't do that, Joe. I got a good head of cattle sittin' by and if I don't want to lose 'em, I have to go get them." "Cud-chewers are more important to you than family?" Joe admonished. He let that sink in a moment before continuing. "Anyway, what's that got to do with you writing all secretive over there?" "Ned suggested I send in an advertisement out east for a wife." Joe tilted his head back and crowed. "It's nothin' like that!" Zeke protested hastily. "We'd get hitched, and she'd stay here to look after you lot until Levi is grown while I go back to doing what I do best." "And what'll you do with her after Lee's all grown up, hm?" Joe laughed. "She'll still be your wife." "I don't know. Don't have it figured out that far," Zeke admitted. He turned back to the piece of paper on the desk and crumpled it up. "Aw, forget it. It's a fool idea." Zeke rose from his chair and stomped to the door. "I'm going for a walk." Joe cast a look toward the paper, a slow smile on his lips. If Zeke had himself a wife, he'd end up staying put, wouldn't he? Joe moved over to the desk and started unfolding the advertisement. "Eli! Obie! Jay! Lee! Get yourselves down here and help me, will you?" ------- Ezekiel never sent out that request for a mail-order bride, but somehow an advertisement made its way into one of those eastern papers Ned had mentioned all the same. In Need of Wife: A sensible, easy-tempered woman. Able to help raise a small family of angelic children. Must have all her teeth and a good singing voice. If interested, contact Ezekiel Hamilton. Much appreciated.