"Well.  Here I am.  Now what?"

Prairie Valley
Autumn 1845

My dearest Mary,
After a lengthy and exhausting trip, I arrived yesterday in Prairie Valley.  Imagine my surprise when I inquired at the general store and learned that our uncle and aunt no longer live here!  I can only guess that they failed to receive Father's letter and were unaware that I would arrive this autumn.  The storekeeper told me that they headed west only two weeks ago, in search of a place not quite so busy and settled up.  (Although I look around me and can't imagine anyone thinking this tiny town as "settled"!)

Another family had already purchased Uncle's house and had no room for a stranger.  Land is plentiful here, so I selected a parcel nearby and instructed the wagon driver to unload my belongings.  Sister, I cannot tell you how desolate I felt when I saw all of my possessions occupying a few square feet of ground under a vast and uncaring western sky!

Of course my first concern is shelter.  The townspeople are very kind and have volunteered assistance in building.  I must have a roof over my head before cold weather sets in, and I would prefer not to be lifting wood and carrying furniture when the baby is farther along.  My new acquaintances are not yet aware of my situation but I am sure they must suspect.  (I get the impression that most of these people are here to escape something in their own pasts.  It's a town filled with secrets, and nobody's secret is more or less terrible than anyone else's.  This is oddly comforting to me.)

Until the house is built, however, I must sleep in the open, under all of this sky.  It is somewhat overwhelming but also freeing; this is a place without boundaries where I can achieve anything I set my mind to.  How different from back East!

Please tell Mother that I miss her, and tell Father thank you for the money and that I am sorry I disappointed him.  I of course miss you most of all.

With much love,

Juliette finished her letter and looked around at her new home, trying hard not to feel discouraged.  This was not going to be easy.  She climbed onto the bed, wondering at the distant howls of wolves and the chirping of strange insects, and remembered.

Being an unmarried pregnant woman did not bother her; the talk of snooty politicians and businessmen and their wives was of no consequence.  However, her father was a minister and would lose his standing in society if one of his daughters sinned so flagrantly.  Better to lose a daughter than lose his whole flock, he said.  Mother said nothing, deferring to her husband in all matters.  Mary, to her credit, was outraged by her father's words, but to no effect.

And as for Thomas... it was better that he did not find out where she went.  His rising political star could not survive such a scandal.  Juliette missed him terribly, but resolved to keep this secret from him forever.

Autumn 1845
Prairie Valley

My dearest sister,
I have enclosed a sketch of my new house--it is so good to have a roof over my head!  The house is small and coarse but it serves its purpose.  Building materials are plentiful just beyond the valley, where oaks grow thickly in the river bottom.  I traded cooking and gardening for materials and labor, and I care for my neighbors' children occasionally.  I suppose I need the practice.  I have spent the last of my money on food for the winter.  I expect the baby to be born around April or May.  I very much wish I could spend a bit on another dress for myself but I must put survival before fashion!

Early Winter 1845
Prairie Valley

Darling Mary,
It is so lonely here.  I have seen none of my neighbors in several days; the cold and snow keep everyone indoors and extra time must be spent with the livestock.  I am showing now and trying to rest as much as possible.  Sometimes I feel very unsafe; not that anything bad has happened, but the isolation makes one imagine all sorts of horrible things.  It's not at all like back East where you are always aware of people on every side of you.  I am trying to be brave, but it is difficult.

I have been studying every book on my shelf and learning how to run a farm and raise crops and livestock.  I will be very prepared when spring comes!  I also discovered a book of games--did you slip that into my trunk?  If so, I thank you; it has been a source of much amusement and I even constructed a crude sort of chessboard for myself.  Alas, I make a very predictable opponent.

Spring 1846
Prairie Valley

Dearest sister,
Wonderful news!  The endless winter has ended, and I have had my baby.  I named him Thomas for his father.  He seems to have my eyes but when they're so small it's hard to tell which parent they favor.  The less said about the actual childbirth, the better.  I don't wish to frighten you from having children of your own!

My neighbor, Mrs. O'Reilly, loaned me a crib, which was very kind of her.  Having an infant in the house is exhausting, but he is very sweet and cheerful and will be a good companion in my great Western adventure.  I no longer feel so alone.  I am even happy to wear my boring grey dress again; the purple shirt and trousers I borrowed from Mr. Tellerman were a bit embarrassing.

In between feedings and washings, I have managed to get some vegetables planted and a fence installed so the neighbors' cows don't eat my plants.

The homestead is very cozy and I think Thomas and I will be very happy here.

With love,

Summer 1847
Prairie Valley

Dear Mary,
I have never been so tired in my life.  The garden is all weeds, young Thomas is very demanding, and I can hardly keep my eyes open!  I must admit I cannot wait until Thomas gets older so he can take over some of the chores.  I apologize for not writing for so long but I barely have time to eat, much less write.  Things will get better, I am sure.  I am determined to make this work.

Thomas is a joy, a cheerful, industrious baby with much curiosity about everything.  The shopkeeper gave him a toy, a pink rabbit, that he plays with constantly, and the Brutys loaned us a child's chamber pot, painted a shocking shade of red.  I cannot wait until he masters its use!  Diapers everywhere!

Autumn 1852
Prairie Valley

My dearest sister,
I hope this letter finds you well.  I was very sorry to hear about Mother's illness.  Please tell her I am thinking about her and wishing for a speedy recovery.

Thomas has entered the township school and is making friends.  Prairie Valley has increased in population; many families traveling out west stop here to water their horses, and then just stay.  The soil is good, and the valley protects us from the worst of the Plains weather.  There is a definite need for more shops and commerce, and I am actually considering opening a business of my own now that the homestead is well established.

I treated myself to some new clothes for both of us, then stopped by Miss Kitty's for a drink.  The saloon just opened and she and Miss Rosie are hopeful that business will pick up soon.  (It amuses me to think of Father's reaction if he knew his oldest daughter drinks spirits at saloons run by ladies of ill repute!)

I have been hard at work building a shelter for the animals.  We now have three cows, some pigs, and a horse named Flamingo (Thomas named him; don't ask). 

I want to buy some chickens, and then we will be pretty much self-sufficient.  I will be so glad when the construction is done...

I still miss you and I hope someday you and Charles and the kids can come out to visit me.  I think you would like this place; it takes some getting used to, but there is nowhere I would rather be.

With love,

The Kinzie farm in 1855

The weeks and years passed quickly for Juliette and Thomas.  She became well-respected in Prairie Valley for her fine cooking, and she played a mean game of chess.  She claimed she had never played before arriving in Prairie Valley, but nobody believed her.

And then one day, while Juliette was scouting for a location for her shop, a visitor arrived at the homestead.

"Hello, young man!  Can you tell me who lives here?"
"I live here with my mother.  Her name is Juliette Kinzie," answered the boy.
The man hesitated.  "And what is your name?"
"Thomas," he said.
"Thomas.  That's a good name," the man said slowly.

Juliette came home a half hour later.  "Ma, a man was here while you were gone.  He wanted to know who lives here," Thomas said.
"Who was he?"
"I don't know, just a man.  He looked at me strangely."
"Well, you are strange, so that makes sense," she replied with a laugh, hugging him close.  Strangers came to Prairie Valley all the time, and she thought no more of the mysterious visitor.

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