Word Count: 2100
Marie sat down at her husband’s desk with a cup of coffee to compose a letter to her aunt, Héléne, in New Orleans. She regretted not letting her aunt know she was doing well since leaving New Orleans, but life had been so hectic after her marriage. Her Petit Joseph was six months old now and Aunt Héléne didn’t yet know of his birth. Dipping the pen into the ink, Marie began writing.
Dearest Aunt Héléne,
Please forgive me for not writing to you sooner. I trust you and Uncle Claude are doing well. Life in Nevada is very different from New Orleans yet I’m thankful to be the mistress of a vacherie1 such as the Ponderosa. My Ben is a wonderful husband and I feel as much a new bride as I did on my wedding day.
Our sons, Adam and Hoss (do you remember Ben telling you of them before we left?), have helped me to adjust to life out here. Please rest assured that I do not live in the wilderness surrounded by savages. We have a very fine house built stoutly of logs harvested from the land. Ben and Adam cut the trees, sawed the boards, and built the house with their own hands. Our house is one built by and filled with love.
Now for my biggest news—we have a new addition, a son. Joseph was born six months ago and reminds me of Grand-Pere with those sparkling green eyes. He has the sweetest little mouth and chubby little hands. Already he shows the del Vyre temper, so I know he’ll be a handful in a short time. If my other child had lived, I’d expect that he’d look similar to Joseph. At least I hope so—what a tragedy if that child had resembled that old crone, Mme. de Marigny! Ben says that Joseph reminds him of Adam when he was a baby—dark curls, long lashes, and little hands always searching for something to hold.
Marie’s thoughts were interrupted by the opening of the door. Adam walked in with a shawl wrapped and fastened across his body. A bulge in the shawl revealed where Little Joe was.
“Must you carry your frere that way?”
“Little Joe seems to like it. He snuggles in real close and sleeps.”
“I worry about him when you’re in the barn.”
“I was only grooming and feeding the horses; he wasn’t in any danger.”
Marie realized that she wasn’t going to make any headway with Adam on this issue, especially since he’d been Hoss’ caretaker when he was a baby. With a smile, she said, “Thank you for looking after your petit frere, mon fils. Would you please lay him in his crib?”
“May I read to him?”
“Of course, mon fils.”
Adam headed for the stairs with his precious bundle. He enjoyed having a baby to look after again and hoped there would be more babies in the coming years.
Watching Adam climbing the stairs, Marie was thankful that the baby had brought her closer to her older stepson. Before learning that she was carrying a child, she had had severe bouts of homesickness. Turning her attention back to the letter, she again began writing.
There are so many things I miss about my beloved New Orleans. I never thought I’d miss the oppressive humidity, but the air here is so dry. At least there are no mosquitoes buzzing all day and night. The heat here is stronger than there and some days I feel as if I will bake as a loaf of bread.
I took water for granted before coming here and must now admit that I was at times wasteful. Every drop here is precious to us, our neighbors, and the livestock. Most especially it’s precious when fires sweep through the forests during lightning storms. Remember how I always wanted to go see the marsh fires as a child? Now I have a mighty respect for an untamed fire.
The river here is so different from the Mississippi! I miss strolling the levee, watching families picnic on the batture2, or waving to the passengers going by on the steamboats. What I wouldn’t give to hear the noise from a calliope again! Here the river flows quickly and is both clear and shallow with a rocky bottom. No levees are needed to contain it since I’m told it rarely floods. There is no mystery to this river as with the Mississippi.
We have a large lake, Tahoe it’s called, bordering our land and we go picnicking there sometimes. The water in Tahoe is so cold! And clear! The boys love to swim and fish when time allows. Adam tried to build a raft, but it quickly sank. What a sight he was all wet and bedraggled! I thought Ben would help with its construction as he spent much of his youth on the seas, but he let Adam learn his way.
Adam is very curious about how things are built. He can busy himself for hours sketching floor plans. He’s been to New Orleans in the past with Ben yet I wish I could stroll through the Vieux Carre3 with him, pointing out our varied architecture. No doubt he could spend hours sketching buildings, people, and the passing scene. He’s very intelligent and Ben hopes to send him east to be educated. There are no schools here, yet Adam reads, does sums, and composes his thoughts on paper very well. I’m sure he’ll be running this vacherie in the coming years.
Hoss is so different from Adam. Where Adam is dark, Hoss is fair, and while Adam loves to learn, Hoss would rather explore. Ben tells me that Hoss resembles his mother in looks and temperament, yet I see my husband’s stubbornness in him. Please don’t misunderstand—he’s a very intelligent boy, yet his knowledge is of the land. I believe he could be dropped in the swamp and become as successful a trapper as Jacob Astor. At only six tender years, he’s an amazing judge of cattle and horses. Sometimes, I’m reminded of Jean—he, too, had an excellent eye for horses.
Our horses here are strictly for work, not pleasure like Jean’s thoroughbreds. Ben is not interested in racing stock and insists that any horse we have must be used for working the cattle or as breeding stock. Did you know there are wild horses here untouched by people? They’re very scruffy in appearance with shaggy coats. When gentled, they do make wonderful horses for the men who work with the cattle. I don’t believe they could be convinced to pull a buggy, though.
Oh yet another thing I miss! Riding over the brick-paved streets, hearing the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves, looking up to see bougainvillea trailing over balconies and inhaling the varied floral scents—roses, gardenias, jasmine—wafting from courtyards and balconies. I have a small flower garden now and a couple of window boxes, yet it’s the scents I miss. The winter here is too cold for the delicate blooms of New Orleans. I include myself among those delicate blooms. You could not imagine the amount of snow here in the winter! It falls and falls as if it’ll never stop. I’m told the mountains become impassable when winter sets in.
Hoss taught me how to make snowballs and we hid behind the side of the house, waiting for Ben or Adam to go to the barn. Just as I thought I’d freeze to death, Ben left the safety of the house and we pelted him with our weaponry. He snatched up handfuls of snow and threw snowballs back at us. When he finished, Hoss and I went in for hot coffee.
As I despaired that I’d never see green grass again, the snow began to melt and the temperatures warmed up. Hopefully, I’ll become accustomed to the length of the winters here. At last I can wear my furs on more than just special occasions, such as the opera.
Would you be so generous as to inquire at Doussan’s4 about shipping several bottles of my perfume? We do have a mercantile in Virginia City, yet they do not carry the merchandise I’m used to seeing. I’m sure I’d be thought extremely vain if everyone knew my perfume came from New Orleans. Not that people here need an excuse to whisper about me. Ben, my gallant knight, has found himself defending my honor with his fists on several occasions. Ladies hold their hands in front of their mouths as they whisper about me to each other. I hear them imitate my accent as they giggle among themselves. Of course, all such talk stops when they realize I’m within earshot. Don’t worry, Tante, the gossip doesn’t bother me—after all, I’m a veteran of Mme. de Marigny’s vicious lies and this nonsense I can easily bear. It’s my darling Ben I worry for—he finds it harder to ignore the gossip, even though I assure him that mere words no longer bother me.
Marie stopped writing to flex her hand. Reviewing the letter, she realized that her aunt might be left with the impression that she wished to return to New Orleans. Before she could dip her pen, Hoss came in and over to her.
“What are ya doin’, Mama?”
“I’m writing a letter to my Tante Héléne.”
“I believe you’d say aunt.”
Looking at the paper, he didn’t recognize any words. “How come I can’t read what yer writin’?”
Slipping her arm around her son’s waist, she pulled him closer. “I’m writing in French. Tante doesn’t understand English.”
Hoss looked at his mother in amazement. “How come?”
“She was born before the Americans bought Louisiana. The only language she knows is French.”
The boy was still amazed. “How come you know English?”
Knowing his question to be innocent, she replied, “I was born after the Americans took over. The nuns who taught at the school knew it would be important to know English. Do you know why they were right?” Hoss shook his head. “Because your pere doesn’t understand French.” Both Hoss and Marie shared a giggle. “Why don’t you go upstairs and check on your brothers?”
“Can I take some apples with me?”
“Of course, mon fils.” She watched Hoss go to the fruit bowl and then up the stairs. With a sigh she began writing again.
Now I must make a serious request of you. If something should happen to Ben and me, I would ask that you serve as my son’s tutrix5. Adam’s grandfather still lives in Boston and Hoss has an uncle in California. However, I would like my Joseph to be raised in the city of my birth and learn of his heritage. Would you consider my request? I pray to God that you should never have to fulfill this obligation and that Ben and I will grow old surrounded by many grandchildren.
I want you to know that I am very content in my marriage and life here. Please, Tante, don’t think I regret leaving for Nevada. Glancing at the ceiling, she boldly wrote I have no regrets for following my heart to the Ponderosa.
Finishing the letter, she pulled an envelope from the desk drawer and addressed it to Héléne. As she sealed it, Ben came inside. He placed his hat on the sideboard and crossed the room to his wife. She tilted her head up and he leaned forward to meet her lips. No, she had no regrets about becoming a wife and mother in what must surely be thought of as the wilderness.
“Where are the boys?” Ben asked.
“Adam was going to put Petit Joseph in his crib and read to him. Hoss went up a short while ago.”
Looking up, Ben said, “The house is certainly quiet. Should we check on them?”
“I have a better idea,” she said with a come-hither smile.
Responding to his wife’s desire, he led her to the downstairs guest room. As her passion was aroused by her husband’s kisses, she knew deep in her heart that she had absolutely no regrets. Here at the Ponderosa she was home, surrounded by love, and sheltered from life’s storms.
The French settlers of Louisiana called their cattle ranches vacheries.
- The batture is the land between the levee and the river.
- Today, the Vieux Carre is called the French Quarter.
- Doussan French Perfumery, established in the French Quarter in the 1840s, is now known as Bourbon French Parfums.
- A tutrice is a female appointed as a guardian to a minor child.