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  • Published: 3 April 2024
  • ISBN: 9780143795223
  • Imprint: Bantam Australia
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 800
  • RRP: $34.99

The Sweet Blue Distance


Carrie had just dropped off to sleep when the tuba woke her. It took a moment to remember where she was—a very elegant hotel room in St. Louis—and to make sense of the tuba. Then other instruments began warming up. She reminded herself that if she got out of bed now, she might not get any sleep at all. To be drawn downstairs would be a decidedly irrational thing to do.

But there was a tuba and a fiddle. Then cornets began tripping over each other, a clarinet, and . . . was that a concertina?

An accordion. She almost laughed out loud at the sound of it.

Now that sleep was out of the question, her choices were simple: she could stay where she was, listening until the last polka or mazurka had ended, or she could dress and go down to the ballroom. If Nathan was within earshot of the music, he’d be knocking on her door in short order.

They shared a common passion for every kind of round dance and had mastered them all together: waltzes, polkas and mazurkas, gorlitzas, galops, schottisches. Nathan and Carrie Ballentyne were well-known at Niblo’s and Lindenmüller’s and a half dozen of the other reputable beer halls in Little Germany.

Carrie would never admit it out loud, but it was dancing that made her hesitate, just briefly, about accepting the position in Santa Fe. She took a whole Sunday to think it through, saddling Pearl and packing food to sustain her through the day. As soon as the ferry docked on the Brooklyn side of the river, Pearl was off, prancing with satisfaction.

In the course of that long ride, rational thought got the upper hand and reminded her that dancing was a worldwide phenomenon. There must be dancing of some kind in New Mexico Territory. Of course she could not pass up this opportunity, even if that was not the case. She would miss her people, yes. And Pearl. And dozens of other things that she hadn’t thought of yet. Dancing was the least of it.

But now, here in St. Louis, was a reminder of what she was leaving behind: not just her mother; not only Amelie, the dearest and most beloved older cousin who had taught and mentored her; not all the rest of her very large family, scattered as they were from Manhattan to Montreal; but the beer halls strung along the Bowery, full of the wavering light from street lamps, pulsing with music and laughter.

After she spent a difficult day at the hospital or a challenging delivery, the thought of dancing could lift her spirits and give her the energy she needed to start again the next day. Now she was having the same reaction, to her surprise and—she could not deny—her delight.

Carrie got out of bed to turn up the lamp and retrieve the gown she had hidden away at the very bottom of the larger trunk. Periwinkle blue and scattered with small white blossoms, its gored skirt was full enough to dance even a polka.

With the dress were the ivory kidskin shoes with rosettes of the same shade of blue. After Carrie had spent days wearing sturdy boots that buttoned laboriously up the sides, the thin, supple leather and dainty heel seemed to her like something out of a fairy tale.

In the ballroom the band launched into an opening polonaise, and the familiar rush of excitement feathered its way up her spine. She gathered her chemise, pantaloons, stockings, and petticoats and began to dress with all speed. It was one of the more practical skills she had got from her training as a nurse at the New Amsterdam, but it was only possible because she wanted nothing to do with hooped skirts and never wore a corset. She had just stepped into her shoes when Nathan rapped on her door in a rat-a-tat rhythm that echoed her own impatience.

“Sister!” he called. “Don’t tell me you are sleeping, not with that music in the air.”

She unlatched the door and turned back to the mirror over the dresser as Nathan came in.

“Almost ready, but I still have to do something with my hair.”

“Of course,” he said, crossing his arms and leaning against the closed door. “And why don’t we build a bridge or roof a house or two while we’re at it.”

Carrie spared him a grim look, but in fact he was right. Her hair was a burden, a frustration of tremendous proportions, and a drain on her time.

Every night before bed she took it down, setting aside the dozens of pins required to keep it on top of her skull, brushed it all out, and braided it into a thick plait that reached to her hips. Every morning she reversed that process, brushing it out, twisting it into a coil, and wrapping it around her head, one, two, three times, to finally pin it in place.

It was tiresome and frustrating, but Carrie never said so. Her father had loved her hair, and so she would keep it, exactly as long as it was when she was thirteen years old, the day he drowned in a logjam on the Sacandaga while she watched from the shore.

“Leave it down,” Nathan suggested now. “They’ve seen plaited hair before, I’m sure.”

This was true. And really, what did it matter if she flouted expectations and upset a few St. Louis matrons? Soon there would be no time to fuss with hair, and her plait would follow her across Kansas and into New Mexico Territory.

“All right. Let’s go.”

Nathan had been teasing, and now he was surprised. One eyebrow cocked, he tilted his head at her. “How bold.”

“Hardly.” She smoothed the bodice of her gown. “Tomorrow we’ll be gone and we’ll never see any of these people again. I’ll never know what they think of me.”

An unwelcome thought made her pause. “The dance is open to hotel guests, I trust?”

Nathan glanced down at his shoes.


He shrugged. “It’s a large wedding party, but there’s no one at the door asking for names or invitations. Half of St. Louis seems to be there already. Doubts?”

The band struck up a mazurka.

“None.” She simply could not refrain from smiling. “Let’s hurry.”


Carrie came to life on the dance floor, and Nathan loved to watch it happen. People who did not know his sister—and she was, undeniably, not an easy person to get to know—found Carrie Ballentyne to be too serious, without a sense of humor, quick to judge. Sharp of mind and sharper of tongue.

It was true that in the normal course of things she rarely smiled, but now Carrie was laughing, her color high, a few beads of perspira-tion on her brow, as he swung her around through the last measures of a schottische. He took note of a burly wedding guest who watched her openly, with unapologetic appreciation. Beside him his wife scowled, eyes narrowed as she watched Carrie, as if she had somehow willfully encouraged the man’s admiration.

The matrons might cluck their tongues at Carrie’s girlish plait, but they were envious of her heart-shaped face, the brilliant blue eyes she had inherited from their mother, the high color that flooded her cheeks.

Nathan thought of walking over to their table and setting the woman’s mind at ease. That’s my sister, he would tell her. Rest easy, ma’am. She wants nothing to do with your husband.

The corpulent St. Louis burgher who admired Carrie so openly was invisible to her, as were the other men who followed her with their eyes, young or old. Nathan had observed this dozens of times, and understood that while men appreciated the tight twist of her waist and the fullness of her bodice, it was the way she moved, graceful, strong, and still agile, that engaged their imaginations. If he were to tell her this, it would ruin some of the joy she took from dancing, and so he kept his observations to himself.

When the band stopped for a break, she took his arm and they went back to the small table they had found on the wall farthest from the wedding party. As soon as the musicians got back to work, she would be eager to return to the dance floor, but now they were both thirsty.

He signaled to a waiter and ordered ale for himself and cider for his sister, raising his voice to be heard over the singing that had started up among the guests. The bridal couple was alone on the dance floor, dancing to the melody of the serenade, and trying to ignore the comments their families and friends called out to them.

They watched all this for a good while until Carrie roused herself and half rose from her seat to look for the waiter. Nathan saw her gaze come to rest and then sharpen, one brow peaking in surprise before she turned back to him abruptly.


She put a hand to her ear as if she had not understood him, when really it meant she had no intention of answering.

The waiter appeared out of nowhere and put down their drinks. Nathan took a good swallow before he began to scan the room. He was about to give up—whatever had unsettled Carrie, she was unwilling to talk about it—when he saw the Ibarra brothers.

They sat at a table near the door, Eli on one side, his brothers opposite him. Beside Eli was a lady who was possibly in her early thirties, but still beautiful. She was telling a story, and all three Ibarra brothers were leaning toward her, laughing. In the short time he had known the Ibarras, Nathan had seen Eli produce something akin to a smile just once or twice, but now he laughed from the belly, at ease and enjoying himself.

Carrie said, “The musicians are back. Come on.”

Nathan waltzed her out onto the dance floor. A stranger would see her expression as neutral, he knew. A young woman who liked to dance, nothing else on her mind.

It was so rare for Carrie to show even the vaguest sign of interest in a man. The last time he knew of was more than a year ago. She would have denied it to her dying breath, but Nathan had seen how she brightened when Cornell Mueller was nearby. He was a friend of their Bonner and Savard cousins and came to visit with them now and then. Cornell was quiet but attentive and very bright, and his gaze fell on Carrie as often as hers fell on him. He was reading law at a firm on Broadway, and when he was finished, he would go home to Buffalo to join his father’s firm.

That day came, Cornell left, and Carrie never mentioned him again. Nathan had wondered if there might be correspondence between them, but saw no evidence of that. He mentioned this to his mother, who only reminded him of what he knew already: it was not his business, and must be left to Carrie.

In her own time, she said. And not before.

He might have said, And maybe never, but Nathan could no more remind his mother of the reason they had left their home in Paradise than he could raise the subject with his sister. Thirteen years past, but the wound still seeped.

The band was very good, and the musicians had had just enough ale to liven them up. With every new dance, people drifted toward the dancing, so that by the time the last waltz was announced, his shirt was damp through with sweat.

Carrie turned her head away and stiffened ever so slightly in his arms, and in that moment he realized that Eli Ibarra was dancing with the young woman from his table. He was studying her face with interest, as if there were some secret to be found there.

When the music stopped, Eli’s partner was facing Nathan and Carrie directly. He generally didn’t notice such things, but the woman’s left hand rested lightly on Eli’s arm, and the outline of a wedding ring under her glove was unmistakable.

Carrie said, “High time we got to bed. We have to be up at five.”

When they turned away, they found Jules Ibarra waiting there, head ducked, clearly waiting to ask Carrie to dance. Nathan knew that she would accept, no matter how desperate she was to be elsewhere. His sister had always been very keenly aware of shy people, and went to great lengths to make them comfortable.

Nathan went back to drink the last of his ale, and watched them dancing. Carrie did all that was expected of her: she smiled, but without looking at him directly; she spoke when it was required of her, but no more than was necessary.

At his shoulder, a familiar voice. “Ballentyne,” Eli Ibarra said. “Having a good time?”

“Ibarra. Didn’t expect to see you here. My sister likes to dance. We both do.”

It wasn’t easy talking over the music and the noise of the crowd, but Ibarra made a go of it.

“I wanted to introduce you to my friend Eva Zavala. Mrs. Zavala. We grew up together, but now she’s gone off to dance with Mo.”

What he wanted, Nathan was suddenly aware, was to find a way to make clear that the lady he had danced with was not his wife.

“You could tell Carrie that yourself.”

Eli’s gaze sharpened. He was good at getting his point across with a glance. In this case: Tell your sister because I can’t tell her myself.

Then Eli let the subject go. He said, “Jules tells me you’re sailing on the Annabelle tomorrow too. At least it will be more comfortable than the railcars.”

In his surprise Nathan turned to face the other man. “You’ll be on the Annabelle?”

“All the way to the Kansas border.”

That was an interesting bit of information. “Your brothers?”

Eli shook his head. “Driving the sheep home overland.”

This was a surprise. “Isn’t that dangerous? Given the unrest.”

A one-shoulder shrug. Nathan hadn’t yet figured out what it meant, but Ibarra used it a lot.

“There are armed guards who ride with them,” Eli said. “Ah, Eva wants to go back to her room. Pardon me. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

When Nathan left Carrie at her door a half hour later, he considered telling her that Eli Ibarra would be on the Annabelle. He could mention Ibarra’s friend Eva, too, but it was a gamble. He was pretty sure he knew how she would respond. Her tone would be ordinary, and her expression slightly puzzled.

Is that so? she would say. And: Have you finished packing yet?


The dream was waiting for Carrie, as she had known it would be. As she had feared. On the night before they boarded a packet to travel the Missouri, she saw herself as a little girl, standing on the bank of the Sacandaga while men struggled with a logjam. Watching as her father’s feet got tangled in a snarl of roots. In that moment, before the Sacandaga took him and he knew that he would die, he sought her out where she stood on the riverbank, and their eyes met.

She had dreamed of this a hundred, a thousand times, but the dream came most often when she was especially worried or under duress. And when she woke, the eternal question remained: What had he been thinking in that last minute of his life? He had wanted her to understand something, but the river took him too quickly.

Then again, as she learned, death didn’t seem to matter to Simon Ballentyne, born and raised far away in Scotland, when he had something to say to this particular daughter. He came back to her again and again when she slept, but why? What message was she meant to understand? Carrie had asked this question of the clan mothers at Good Pasture, who took such dreams very seriously. Even they had no answers, or at least, none they would share with her. It was her dream and her truth, and she must wait until the answer presented itself.

The Sweet Blue Distance Sara Donati

In the 1850s a young midwife braves the perilous journey west to Santa Fe in this captivating epic from the international bestselling author of Into the Wilderness and The Endless Forest.

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