This is the first of the books about the Archer brothers, a Christian book set in Texas in the 1880s. I’d read book 2, Stealing the Preacher, and loved it, so I picked up Short Straw Bride, which introduces the four Archer brothers, Travis, Crockett (who is the hero of Stealing the Preacher), Jim and Neill. These four have a very sad backstory – their mother died from childbed fever after having Neill, and their father continued to raise them for a few years before he died after falling from his horse. On his deathbed he extracted a promise from the eldest boy Travis, then just 15 years old, that he would protect his brothers and stay on Archer land. Mr Archer’s fears for his boys were just ones, as they were sitting on some prime land and were therefore vulnerable to attack or conmen. Travis followed this promise and the Archer brothers soon had the reputation of being wild and unfriendly to visitors, scaring off do-gooders who wanted to take in the orphan boys as well as people with less altruistic motives.
The only time Travis has left Archer land in the intervening years was the day that 10 year old Meredith Hayes trespassed onto their land to retrieve her lunch pail, which a bully had thrown there. Her leg got caught in a trap that Travis had set to deter trespassers, believing that they wouldn’t truly hurt anybody. Travis frees Meredith from the trap and takes her safely home. Following this interlude Meredith is about the only person who thinks well of the Archers, and she has a particular soft spot for Travis, making him the hero of her dreams.
12 years after the incident with the trap, Meredith is being pressured to accept an offer of marriage from Roy Wheeler, a business associate of her uncle, which will see her family’s land signed over to him. Walking out with Roy, Meredith overhears a plan to burn down the Archers’ barn, containing all their winter stores, to force them to sell their land to Roy. She tries to warn the Sherriff’s office and isn’t believed, so she heads out to the Archers’ land to warn them of what is coming. Unfortunately for Meri, she ends up being there as the attack happens, and winds up with concussion, which leads to her having to stay at the Archers’ home. Her uncle is outraged at her loss of reputation and demands that one of the Archer brothers does the honourable thing and marry his niece. Meredith has the indignity of walking in on the brothers drawing straws for who will marry her but the scene isn’t quite how she sees it...
Choosing marriage to Travis over the alternative of moving away, Meredith is faced with a situation she hadn’t anticipated – she can marry the man of her dreams, but he’d be doing it for duty rather than love. However, Travis feels more for her than she knows – he sees her good qualities, her kindness, her bravery, but he feels that she has drawn the short straw in being forced to marry, so he sets about courting his bride. The time following their wedding reminded me a bit of the film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, with Meredith taking over the chores from her new brothers. Meredith was a very likeable heroine, brave, hardworking, kind. She had been left with lasting consequences to her leg from the incident with the trap so it was interesting to see people’s attitudes towards her and you could see that it had affected her self-esteem somewhat. Meredith tries to make the best of her situation – she has a husband to encourage, as best she can, family issues are falling into her lap and all the meantime she tries to do God’s work for the family, which she believes is encouraging them to open their hearts and their gates to welcome in their neighbours – they are no longer the unprotected young boys that they were when their father died, but grown men who have no need to hide, and should be able to feel free to follow their callings in life.
I loved this introduction to the Archer clan! They were wonderfully close and each contributed willingly to help the upkeep of the home, taking on the roles of doctor/preacher, cook, launderer etc, and they were fiercely protective of each other, but still teased each other like brothers would. I couldn’t help but feel for Travis, who’d been carrying a burden of guilt for his father’s death in addition to the huge responsibility of assuring the protection and welfare of his younger brothers. The younger brothers, Jim, Crockett and Neill, are less major characters in this book, but I was particularly fond of Jim with his stoic silences.
Crockett has his own story, told in Stealing the Preacher and I noticed that in May 2014 a novella is coming out containing Neill’s story, called Cowboy Unmatched (UK / US) which I’m sorely tempted to get, despite the length of my to be read list! I believe Cowboy Unmatched is also available in the collection of short stories by various authors called A Match Made in Texas.