The Trials of Nellie Belle

By: Sydney Avey

For my family, with gratitude and compassion

for those who went before us,

with wonder and awe at the present generations,

and with hope that our stories, inspirational and cautionary,

will nurture generations to come.



Heartfelt thanks to family members down through the generations who have supported (knowingly and unknowingly) the telling of this story: to my great grandmother, Nellie Belle Scott, for writing and preserving the short stories that made their way into my book; to my grandmother, Opal Nellie Wolff, and my mother, Shirley Jane Matheson, for passing down to me Nellie’s writing and Leone’s scrapbook; to my cousins, Dorothy Meyer and Nancy Bishop, who spent an afternoon listening to me tell my story and gave me their blessing to write this book; to my sister, Cheryl von Drehle, my daughter, April Avey, and my good friend, Arnette Cratty, for their feedback and encouragement; and to Joel Avey for helping me maintain balance between work and rest.

No published book is the author’s product alone. Thanks to development editor Marcy Weydemuller, copy editor Katie Vorreiter , and publisher Wally Turnbull, for their diligence, gifts, and talents. Also to author Jane Kirkpatrick for suggesting that “the quiet one” in my story might have a larger role to play.

Finally, to my church family at Groveland Evangelical Free Church for their prayers, and my communities in California and Arizona for their support.

1 - A Progressive Woman


A Progressive Woman

Spokane, 1906

Try as she might to convince herself that her daughter’s death was not her doing, Nellie could not help but feel that her price for freedom had been Mabel. She smoothed a hand over the faded quilt spread on the grass, stretched her legs out in front of her, and reached her fingers into the damp weeds sprouting on the knoll that marked the young woman’s grave.

“John sent flowers,” She told her sister.

“That was nice.” Jessie reached over and touched the gold locket nestled against Nellie’s breastbone. Nellie slipped her hands behind her neck and undid the clasp. She opened the pendant and let it rest in the palm of her ringless left hand. The two women sat shoulder to shoulder, scrutinizing the photo inside, the familiar face so full of the promise of things to come that never would.

Nellie allowed her sister to wrap dry fingers, roughened by housework, around her own well-tended hands. She winced when Jessie squeezed a little too hard. She knew what Jessie would say. Selfishly, she wanted the comfort of her sister’s forgiveness and blessing.


Nellie hadn’t always been interested in what Jessie had to say. Growing up in a three-room sod farmhouse, squeezed between two older brothers and this afterthought of a sister, she often stuffed her ears. Sounds that she did respond to tended to be solitary in nature—the clop of her paint pony’s hooves as she raced him across the north-central plain; the ding of a bell as the Kansas Pacific chugged through the crossing and departed. Her ears were tuned to the sounds of freedom. But as the sisters grew older, Nellie came to value Jessie’s opinion more. After all, Jessie was the first to welcome Nellie and her husband John to the West and the last to criticize when Nellie left John.

Nellie had waited to make her escape until their son Johnny was seventeen. Twenty-year-old Mabel and ten-year-old Opal would accompany her on a summer trip to Spokane. Johnny would stay behind and work with his father in the building trade.

“Johnny and I will be just fine, Nellie Belle.” John had stepped forward and placed his hand under her elbow to steady her as she boarded the northwest-bound train. “Don’t you worry none about us.”

Johnny had handed luggage up to his sisters and flashed the same rakish smile his father always employed to charm the female members of his family. Dear boy.


Today, Nellie held back her tears as she had done five years ago when she blew her son a kiss good-bye, caught her husband’s eye, and raised her hand in farewell. Etched in memory were their hearty waves as the train pulled back from the station, their jaunty steps as they walked away, their arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders.

Jessie took the necklace from Nellie, pinched the heavy locket shut, and handed it back. “I think you should go. It would help you get past this terrible grief.”

“What about Opal?”

“She can come stay with us if she wants to.”

Nellie tugged up a ragweed rosette, shook dirt from its root ball, and added it to a neat row of weeds she absentmindedly plucked. “She’s a funny one, Jessie. She says she hates to be alone in the hotel when I’m working, yet she wants to go New York and audition for the stage.”

Hot Read

Last Updated


Top Books