Authors: Shirley Kennedy
Gold Fever: 1850.
Pampered New Englander Lucy Schneider finds herself on a wagon train bound for California, alongside her gold-hungry husband and coldhearted brother-in-law. When her husband dies, Lucy wants to return home, but she cannot abandon her young stepson. Fortunately Lucy has an admirer and protector in ruggedly handsome Clint Palance, a former trapper and Indian scout. She continues the journey, yet more misfortunate lies ahead as the pioneers ford rivers, battle Indians, and endure harsh weather.
With California just around the bend, Lucy must say farewell to Clint just as their relationship has begun. Will Lucy ever be reunited with Clint? Or must she return to her former life in Boston, forsaking forever the beautiful West she has grown to love?Review
"A captivating story of perseverance and dedication .... This book is absolutely fantastic and worth the read .... I had no idea how much I would fall in love with it .... a vivid and moving portrayal ...." --Lady Victoria Kelly's Historical Romance Book ReviewsAbout the Author
Shirley Kennedy has published Regency romances for both Ballantine and Signet. Born and raised in Fresno, California, she has lived in Colorado, Texas, California, Bogota (Colombia) and Calgary (Alberta, Canada), where she earned a BS in Computer Sciences. Before returning to her first love, writing, she worked as a computer programmer/systems analyst for several years. Shirley currently resides in Las Vegas, Nevada where she belongs to The Romance Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and Las Vegas Writers Group. Currently she's working on another western historical novel. Check out her website: ShirleyKennedy.com.Heartbreak Trail
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Cover design by Sabrina Sun
Contact: [email protected]
Copyright © 2011 by Shirley Kennedy
ISBN: 978-1-60381-831-5 (Paper)ISBN: 978-1-60381-832-2 (Cloth)ISBN: 978-1-60381-833-9 (ePub)
My thanks go to Jackie Rowland, president of the Oatman Historical Society, for her help in the research of my novel. Jackie, an expert on Old West history, lives in the historic mining town of Oatman, Arizona, where she owns and runs a remarkable store called Fast Fanny’s.
My thanks also go to artist and gun expert, Andy Kohut, of Laughlin, Nevada, who told me what I needed to know about how to load and fire a rifle in 1851.Chapter 1
In the dining room of her family’s mansion on Beacon Hill, Lucy Parker Schneider bowed her head for grace. She had much to be grateful for. In fact, she couldn’t remember a time when she’d been happier than at this very moment. What could be more gratifying than being a new bride, having dinner with her family on a Sunday afternoon, her handsome husband by her side?
“Bless us, oh Lord, and these your gifts which we are about to receive from your bounty. Through Christ our Lord, Amen. Pass the potatoes.” From the head of the dinner table, Elihu Parker gazed fondly at his older daughter. “You’re looking well. It appears marriage suits you.”
Lucy cast a loving glance at Jacob, her tall, golden-haired husband who sat beside her. “Marriage suits me well enough, Father.”
A suppressed snicker came from across the table where Sarah, Lucy’s younger sister, sat. The knowing glance she sent Lucy spoke volumes. Only Sarah knew of the turmoil in Lucy’s heart the day her easy-going, widowed father announced he planned to marry Pernelia Robinson, iron-minded leader of the Lady’s Benevolent Society as well as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Since her mother’s death eight years before, Lucy had run the household and done a good job of it, too. Shocked and dismayed, Lucy couldn’t believe her beloved father would marry a woman like Pernelia, who hid a ruthless desire to get her own way behind an angelic smile, coupled with a barbed tongue wrapped in velvet. Lucy had always assumed her father also saw through Pernelia’s false facade of sweetness. Obviously, he hadn’t.
“Don’t you worry.” Pernelia batted her eyelashes. “You’ll always have a place here. In fact, you and I shall run the household together in perfect harmony, won’t we, dear?”
Sick inside, Lucy managed a nod but clearly saw her future. Pernelia and her iron hand would soon be running the household while she, already twenty-six years old, would become that most lowly of creatures—the worthless daughter who never found a husband. Though only eighteen, her sister, Sarah, thought the same.
As predicted, after Pernelia became Mrs. Elihu Parker, she swept through the house like a little Napoleon, crushing every obstacle in her path. Sarah soon became betrothed, mercifully to a man she loved. In a state of quiet desperation, Lucy wondered how she could possibly live her life under the same roof as her overbearing stepmother. Then a miracle happened. At Sarah’s wedding, she met recently widowed Jacob Schneider. How handsome he was, and a rich farmer besides! She instantly fell in love with him. He’d been courting his dowdy Cousin Winifred, but when Lucy revived her long-unused flirting skills, he didn’t have a chance.
Three months later, she became his bride.
So now, on this lovely September Sunday at her father’s mansion, Lucy counted her blessings. She had escaped Pernelia. She could hold her head high, the wife of a prosperous farmer, stepmother to his adorable five-year-old son, and mistress of a home of her own—a beautiful old farmhouse so close to Boston she could visit her family whenever she pleased.
Wrapped in a warm glow of happiness, Lucy fondly looked around the table at the two younger brothers she’d help raise, Sarah and her new husband Daniel, her dear father, and her stepson Noah, whom she already thought of as her own. Even pudgy-faced Pernelia didn’t look so bad on a beautiful day like this.
While they ate, the talk centered on the recent news about the California gold rush. Lucy was surprised at the fervor with which the three men at the table had taken over the conversation.
“I’d go in a minute,” Daniel declared. “Why, I hear there are gold nuggets lying in the streets just waiting for you to come along and pick them up.”
Sarah sat up straight and glared at her young husband. “Daniel Williams! How can you even think such a thing? I would never leave Boston to traipse off to the middle of nowhere.”
“Many are going.” Lucy’s father spoke in his usual quiet, authoritative way. “You’d be surprised at the number of farm sales my bank has handled. They use the money to buy oxen and a wagon. Then off they go to the land of gold.”
“They’re fools.” Jacob Schneider’s square jaw tensed visibly. “You’d never catch me selling everything I owned to go on a wild goose chase for gold.”
“My view exactly,” Father replied. “Just look at your neighbor, John Potts. He’s pulling up stakes, selling his farm lock, stock, and barrel, and leaving for California in one of those flimsy covered wagons, family and all. Such folly!”
Jacob nodded in somber agreement. “He doesn’t care that the risks are huge, what with Indians, drownings, starvation, and God knows what. From what I hear, some of them suffer so many hardships they turn around and come back. Though I must say, Abner thinks differently.”
Lucy felt a ripple of apprehension at Jacob’s mention of his older brother. She slanted a worried glance at her husband. “Just what does Abner think?”
Jacob flashed a reassuring smile. “He’s talked some about going to California. Just talk, though. You know my brother.”
Indeed, she did know Jacob’s brother, an intensely religious man who, as far as she knew, had never cracked a smile in his entire life. Unfortunately for her, he and Jacob jointly owned their farm, so Lucy was forced to deal daily with Abner and his shy wife, Martha, who lived on the plot of land next to their own. “Tell me he’s not serious.”
Jacob smiled in that reassuring way he had. “Of course Abner’s not serious. We have no intention of joining the fools headed to California.”
No need to worry.Lucy felt relieved. Not that she had even considered the possibility Jacob might want to go, but she was glad to hear that he positively did not.
And yet ...
When she’d married Jacob, she had put him on a pedestal. Soon after, she realized her perfect husband had one little fault: he deferred to his older brother in all matters. What if ...? Oh, no! Such a thought was ridiculous. Jacob had just confirmed that he never wanted to go to California, so she had absolutely nothing to worry about.
Two weeks later, Jacob’s neighbors, John and Bessie Potts, were about to leave. They’d sold their farm and most of their possessions and bought mules and a wagon. They planned to travel to Independence, Missouri, one of the popular jumping-off places to the West, where supplies would be bought and the wagon train formed. In mid-April, when the mud on the roads began to harden, they would begin the arduous trek west. Lucy hated to see them go. Neither Jacob nor his brother cared much for John Potts, whom they considered too loud and boisterous, and not nearly pious enough. However, she’d made good friends with Bessie, a likeable, down-to-earth woman, originally from the little town of Possum Creek, Tennessee. Bessie was afraid to embark on such a dangerous journey.
“They say it’ll take six to eight months to get to California,” she wailed one day while visiting Lucy. “Me with six children and expecting the seventh, and there’ll be nothing but a covered wagon to call home.” Her small frame shuddered with dread. “‘Twill be a miracle if we get there alive.”
Lucy asked the one question that deeply puzzled her. “Why does your husband want to give up his farm and go west? Is it just the gold?”
“It’s mostly the gold strike. John is crazy to go. He thinks he’s going to get rich just picking up gold nuggets off the ground. Also, the farm’s been losing money these past few years. Lots of farms are losing money.”
“I had no idea.”
“Ain’t you heard? The country’s been in a major depression. Farms all over are going broke.”
Of course she knew about the depression, but Jacob hadn’t said a word about any of the local farmers being in trouble, nor had Abner. Actually, Jacob didn’t tell her much of anything. But surely he would have told her if their farm was losing money. She searched for something optimistic to say. “Perhaps you could think of your trip as an adventure, something to write about and tell your grandchildren.”
Tears glistened in Bessie’s eyes. “If I ever have any grandchildren. If we ain’t all scalped by the Indians, drowned in a river, or bit by snakes.”
“Haven’t you told John how you feel?”
“My whole life is being ripped apart, but do you think he would listen? I’m only his wife, after all. I must do as he says.” Bessie’s shoulders slumped in despair. “That’s the way of it. Our husbands rule. We wives are like oxen, waiting for a whip to be cracked over our heads.” She gave Lucy a meaningful stare. “If you ain’t found that out yet, you soon will.”
Lucy inwardly cringed. Bessie’s unfortunate description of marriage certainly didn’t apply to her and Jacob. Even so, a feeling of uneasiness crept over her. True, Jacob didn’t beat or whip her; yet lately he’d grown more domineering. So far, she’d been compliant with his wishes, eager to please. What if she defied him? Why did she fear his reaction if she did? Well, there was no use thinking about it now, and besides, Bessie’s problems loomed large compared to her own.
Lucy searched for words of comfort but could find nothing appropriate. What she really wanted to tell Bessie was how appalled she was that any man would lead his family into such danger. Saying such a thing to Bessie at this late date wouldn’t do one bit of good.
The day before the Potts and three other families were to leave for California, the entire farm community held a farewell potluck dinner in their honor at the local church. Everyone in the neighborhood was invited, from the prosperous merchants and farmers to the servants and rough-and-tumble laborers who worked in the fields.
When Lucy, Jacob, and Noah arrived, she found Abner and Martha already there.What a gloomy pair they are.Lucy climbed from the carriage and lifted Noah down. Abner and Jacob were alike in some respects. Both presented imposing figures, with their massive shoulders and impressive height. The resemblance ended there. In contrast to Jacob’s blond hair and rather bland features, Abner Schneider had the look of a Biblical prophet with his long, dark beard, blazing brown eyes, and all-black attire. He commanded instant attention, especially when he quoted gloom-and-doom scripture from the Bible, something he did with annoying frequency. His wife, a timid little mouse who agreed with everything her husband said, lived in his shadow. She kept herself as unobtrusive as possible in plain black dresses, her dark, lifeless hair pulled into an untidy bun. Her skin was sallow, and her big eyes always held a hint of fear. Lucy felt nothing but pity for her, especially when she saw Abner treated her more like a servant than a wife. Even worse, Lucy had twice detected a discoloration around Martha’s eye. She never asked what caused it—surely Martha would lie—but she wondered what other marks and bruises might be hidden beneath the high necklines and long sleeves of Martha’s dowdy gowns.
“Mother, may I go play?” Noah asked.
“Of course you can. Run along.” The first time she met the friendly little boy with the bright gray eyes and blond curls, he instantly stole her heart. Now he called her “Mother,” which pleased her to no end.
As Noah ran off, Martha looked after him. “Such a dear little boy, and so very bright, too.”
“Indeed he is.” Lucy heard the longing in Martha’s voice and felt her usual surge of sympathy for the childless woman. Countless times Lucy had heard Abner lament the lack of a son, implying Martha was to blame. Apparently Martha thought so, too. That she remained childless after nearly ten years of marriage must be a constant heartache.
Abner greeted his brother, throwing the barest of nods toward Lucy. He pointed to a group of men standing in the churchyard, engaged in lively conversation with a beardless man in fringed buckskins and a soft, broad-brimmed hat, his face bronzed by wind and sun. “I see Clint Palance is here.”
Lucy hadn’t heard the name. “Who is Clint Palance?”
“His name is well-known in the West.” Abner spoke with admiration. “He’s been a trapper, trader, and Indian scout. I hear he fought the Cayuse in Oregon in forty-eight. Now he and a fellow named Charlie Dawes are partners. They own a trading company. Lately they’ve been guiding wagon trains to California. Safely, I might add.”
“So, what’s he doing here?”
“Business in Boston, something to do with his trading company. Now, from what I hear, he and Charlie Dawes will lead the Potts’ wagon train to California. Come, let’s hear what he has to say.” He started forward, Martha at his side; then he stopped to address her: “Go in and help with the food.”
Watching her sister-in-law meekly walk away made Lucy’s temper flare. How dare Abner treat his wife that way! Lucy had never heard her make more than the most inoffensive of remarks and certainly had never once heard her stand up to her husband.
Abner turned to her. “Why don’t you go in with Martha? This is men’s talk, not suitable for women.”
Lucy smiled back at him. “Perhaps not, but I’ll be the judge of that. I’d like to hear what this Indian scout has to say.”Good try, Abner. Her brother-in-law’s constant attempts to domineer were highly annoying, but so far she’d managed to conceal her disgust, not only with him but with her husband, who stood by in spineless silence and let his brother make the decisions.
Lucy drew closer to hear what Clint Palance had to say. Something about him immediately captured her attention. Perhaps it was the knife with the very long blade dangling in a buckskin sheath from his belt. Or perhaps it was the lean, sinewy, slightly dangerous look about him. He wasn’t especially tall, yet somehow he gave the impression of power as he stood, stance casual, yet with an air of complete self-confidence. He wore his black hair long and very straight, almost touching his broad shoulders. Drawing even closer, she saw his eyes were a deep shade of brown, wide-set, shrewd, and assessing. She also saw a scar, jagged and ugly, at least five inches in length, that ran from the middle of his left cheek to the bottom of his firm chin.
What an intriguing man. Suddenly his gaze shifted. He seemed to be staring directly at her, and in a cool, impertinent way. Her first panicked thought was he knew exactly what she was thinking! Her good sense quickly returned. She told herself to stop being foolish. Of course, he couldn’t read her thoughts. Even so, she felt strangely compelled to show him she wasn’t available. Fully gazing at the trapper, she stepped closer to her husband and made a show of tucking her arm through his. Almost immediately Clint Palance looked away, but not before she thought she spied the beginning of a smile tip the corners of his mouth.
Several men, including Abner, crowded around Palance, eagerly asking questions. To her surprise, Jacob left her side to join them. She drew closer, too, and heard one of the men ask, “So tell us, Mister Palance, which is the easiest trail to California?”
“There is no easiest.”
The trapper’s reply brought a clamor of questions.
“What’s the safest way to go?”
“What’s the best month to leave?”
“Will there be any gold left when we get to California?”
“Gentlemen!” Clint Palance raised a hand, and the voices stilled. “There is no easiest and there is no safest. April’s the best time to go, soon as winter’s gone. As for the gold you’re seeking ...”
The crowd pressed closer. A large, unkempt man with a straggly red beard asked, “Ain’t there plenty of gold for everybody?”
Palance firmly shook his head. “Not with thousands already at the gold fields and thousands more on the way.”
The man stepped forward. “That’s not the way I heard it! I heard there’s gold all over the ground, just a’lyin’ there waiting for a man to come pick it up.”
“That may have been true at the beginning, but not anymore.”
“That’s the truth.” Palance’s voice was so soft he might have been discussing the price of wheat.
The large man sneered. “You’re a liar! Everyone knows they’re paving the streets with gold in California. What’s your angle? You aiming for us to stay home so you can keep it all for yourself?”
The crowd instantly stilled. Bessie, frowning with concern, moved next to Lucy. “There’s going to be trouble,” she whispered. “Just look at the size of that knife dangling from Mister Palance’s belt.”
“I see it.”
“He would use it, too. I just know he would.”
The crowd seemed to hold its collective breath, all eyes, including Lucy’s, fastened on Palance, waiting for his response.
The trapper stood with an easy smile, hands by his sides, making no threatening moves toward the knife. He regarded the hostile man much as he would a bug, deciding whether or not to squash it. “I’ll wager a horn of Monongahela whiskey you won’t find gold on the ground in California.” His smile widened. “Now you have a choice. You can accept my bet or you can choose to call me a liar again. Which will it be, sir?”
In the taut silence that followed, Lucy watched as the red-bearded man twice opened his mouth to speak then thought better of it. No wonder. Clint Palance had retained his quiet, conversational voice; his smile seemed genuine, yet the ominous set of his chin and the hard glint deep in his eyes suggested only a fool would tangle with him.
Apparently, Red Beard thought the same. With a face-saving shrug, as if he weren’t the least concerned, he backed a step away. “I don’t want no trouble.” He spun around. Amidst an audible murmur of relief from the crowd, he walked away.
Bessie’s gaze followed him. “Mercy me, did you see that? I think Mister Palance is a little ... a little ...”
“Frightening?” Lucy said.
Bessie nodded emphatically. “Yes, that’s exactly right, a little frightening, and certainly not a man I would invite into my parlor.” She paused for a thoughtful moment. “On the other hand, there’s something about him … you must admit he’s devilish handsome.” Bessie gazed at Clint Palance with admiring eyes. “Don’t you think so?”
“He’s all right.” Lucy wasn’t sure why she concealed her true feelings when actually she found him most intriguing, as well as handsome. “How do you suppose he got that scar on his cheek?”
“They say ’t’was a grizzly bear. Imagine!”
No, she couldn’t imagine. All she knew was that in her entire sheltered, tranquil life, she’d never witnessed such a scene. She felt greatly relieved it had ended peaceably. As the questions resumed, she wanted nothing more than to get away from this disturbing man in buckskins. She moved in close, to where Jacob stood, and tugged on his sleeve. “Let’s go inside.”
Abner, who stood next to him, shook his head. “I think we should hear this.”
“So do I,” Jacob replied.
Lucy concealed her chagrin. Why, again, did her husband show this sudden interest in California? Something cautioned her not to ask; then she silently laughed at her foolishness. Jacob was a prosperous farmer, thoroughly content with his life. Never in a million years would he uproot them to join the foolhardy stampede to the West.
The potluck was over, thank God. Outside the church, Clint Palance stood alone and impatient in the weak, early spring sunshine. He was staying at the Potts farm and was anxious to return. He had much to do before the wagons bearing the Potts family and their possessions left for Independence, along with the three other families who had joined the trek west. They would pick up others along the way.
As he waited, a slender woman with thick brownish-red hair piled atop her head burst through the church door and started down the steps. Ah, Mrs. Schneider. When he first laid eyes on her, only hours ago in the churchyard, he felt a tug of excitement. Now here it came again. Funny. These days, rare was the woman who stirred his interest. During his years as a trapper, when he spent months in his isolated mountain cabin, he set his mind not to think about women. Had himself convinced he didn’t need a woman in his life and never would. Now, back in civilization, he hadn’t changed. Sure, from time to time he dallied with the occasional woman, but not the kind you married. Never would he be the kind of man who married, had a passel of kids, and settled into a life of boredom and, as far as he was concerned, entrapment. Still ...
Something about Mrs. Jacob Schneider caught his eye. Among the farm women here today, she stood out like a rose among thorns. Slender figure ... bright blue, wide-set eyes ... full red lips ... small, straight nose with its perky tilt. He could hardly keep his eyes off her.
A while ago he’d been amused when she clutched her husband’s arm, sending out that silly “I’m not available” signal. Like he couldn’t have figured that out. Too bad she was married. Wait. Why should he care? Leading the Potts’ party safely to California was all he cared about. He wouldn’t allow any female, married or single, to clutter up his mind.
She reached the bottom of the steps. “Mister Palance.” She gave a polite nod. Nose in the air, she was about to sail right by.
Oh, no, she wouldn’t. “Mrs. Jacob Schneider!” His voice rang out extra loud.
She stopped and turned her head. “You know my name?”
“I made it my business to know your name.”
Good. He could tell she was caught off guard and stuck for an answer. “I’ve been talking to your husband.” She turned to face him—one hell of a beautiful woman.
“You talked to Jacob?” She raised an eyebrow. “I do hope you weren’t trying to persuade him to join John Potts and head for California.”
“Why is that?”
He could easily see her struggle to remain polite and keep her mouth shut, but temptation triumphed.
“I think it’s insane. All these people leaving the only life they’ve ever known to take off on a wild goose chase for gold.”
“It’s not entirely the gold. Many plan to settle the land, make new lives for themselves.”
“New lives?” Her large blue eyes snapped with displeasure. “How can they leave family and friends behind? Go all that way, in all that danger, and for what? What will they find in the West they don’t already have right here?”
Clint shrugged. “It’s not for everyone.”
“It most assuredly is not, sir. Mister Schneider and I are quite content where we are. In fact, I doubt I shall ever set foot outside of Suffolk County.”
He cut off the sharp words that sprung to his lips. Long ago he’d learned there were times it was best to keep his mouth shut.
She tipped her head. “Are you originally from the East?”
“A beautiful state, I hear. If you don’t mind my asking, why do you make that fearsome journey west time after time? Why can’t you stay in Kentucky where it’s civilized?”
He could hardly keep from laughing at this prim young matron with her narrow, wrong-headed view of life. Maybe she came from a wealthy background, but he sure hadn’t. He’d had a hellish childhood back in Kentucky, all because of a father who thought he needed a beating every day.
“Why don’t I stay in your beautiful civilized East?” He repeated the question to gain time while his mind raced west in a lightning journey, soaring over the open plains with their astonishing sightings of tens of thousands of galloping buffalo; over pristine lakes, streams, and forests never seen or touched by a white man; over the mighty snowcapped peaks of the great mountain ranges, to the edge of the continent where he’d stood and watched in fascination the giant waves of the Pacific crash against the rocky shore.
How could he describe the beauty of a land she’d never seen?
There was no way to describe it, no way she would understand unless she saw for herself.
He shrugged matter-of-factly. “I go west to catch the sunset.”
“I don’t understand.”
“That’s the best explanation I can give you. West to catch the sunset. If you’re wondering, I have yet to catch it. I probably never will.”
* * *
He was smiling at her. For the next few moments, Lucy found herself speechless, gazing like an idiot into Clint Palance’s deep brown eyes. His answer had caught her unprepared. She hadn’t thought a man who wore buckskins, carried a huge knife, bore the mark of a grizzly upon his cheek, and doubtless had no idea of sophisticated culture, could possibly say something so imaginative. Still, even if he had, he was not of her world and never would be. “Well, Mister Palance, it seems you know your goal in life.”
“Seems I do.”
“I know mine, and that’s to stay right where I am and not go traipsing across the country after a foolish dream.”
“Well said, Mrs. Schneider. I wouldn’t dream of attempting to change your mind.” With a smile and slight bow he touched the brim of his hat and backed away. “Good day.”
Disturbed by their conversation, Lucy watched Clint Palance walk away. She wasn’t sure why she was disturbed, except she found him unlike any man she’d ever known. At least he spoke well and knew his manners—which was unexpected—yet she sensed the raw, ruthless power that lurked directly underneath all that politeness. The man with the red beard had sensed it, too, and skulked away, tail between his legs.
Jacob appeared. “You ready?”
Oh, yes, she was ready and very much wanted to get back to her home, garden, and lovely quiet life.
On the buggy ride home, Lucy felt a gush of affection for her husband. She snuggled close, tucking her arm beneath his. “We have much to be thankful for.”
Jacob held the reins in his hand. “Indeed.” He gave a solemn nod, his eyes focused on the road.
She had not expected more. In the months since they had married, she had gradually come to realize that the attentive man who’d won her hand no longer existed. She hadn’t expected Jacob would remain an ardent suitor, yet she hadn’t dreamed he’d grow more taciturn, a man with little humor. Perish the thought, but more like his brother every day. Even so, as the months went by, she made every effort to look at his good qualities and forget the bad.
Now and then she remembered what Sarah had said shortly after her marriage. “You’ll love married life. I cannot describe what Daniel does to me. It’s just so wonderful.” A blush crept over Sarah’s cheeks. “You might say I get carried away on the wings of love, if you know what I mean.”
No, she did not know what Sarah meant. Because of her sister’s glowing words, Lucy had assumed her wedding night would open the door to a lifetime of blissful nights where she, too, would be carried away on the wings of love. Ha! Such was not the case. Sarah had rhapsodized about “those joyous hours of passion,” but Lucy found that about one not-so-joyous minute practically every night would be more like it. After that, Jacob would quickly roll over and go to sleep, leaving her wondering what on earth Sarah was talking about.
Still, she loved Jacob. After all, she couldn’t ask for a better provider. Not only that, his honesty and integrity gave him great stature in the community. At gatherings, she always experienced a swell of pride when she stood by her handsome husband’s side, sharing the looks of admiration and respect cast his way. Then, too, there was little Noah. She was grateful to Jacob every day that he trusted her to be the mother to his adorable little boy.
Of course, Jacob could be more generous. He’d been the soul of generosity at first but lately had pinched every penny. All things considered, she was happy with her life and grateful to Jacob for making it so.
“I feel so sorry for Bessie,” she remarked as the buggy rolled along.
He slanted a glance. “Why?”
How could he possibly not know? “Bessie doesn’t want to go to California.”
A frown crossed Jacob’s face. “Why not?”
“How would you feel if you had a perfectly fine home and six children to raise, nearly seven, and all of a sudden you’re forced to live in a tiny wagon for months and months with all sorts of dangers? And end up, if you ever get there, thousands of miles away from home?”
“It’s her husband’s wish.” Jacob cracked the whip sharply, as if to convey a message that the subject should be at an end.
She wouldn’t let it end, not yet. “Would you do that to me?”
“Do what?” He stared straight ahead in that maddeningly detached way of his.
“Sell the farm and move west.”
He turned his head and looked down his nose at her. “We have a good life right here. You know what Abner says.” With a snap of the reins, he recited in the ponderous voice she was now so familiar with, “Psalm twenty-three, Verse five: ‘My cup runneth over.’ ”
Despite her growing annoyance at Jacob’s increasingly excessive recitation of the scriptures, she felt better. She hadn’t realized it, but Jacob’s obvious interest in Clint Palance had caused her unconsciously to worry. Now she felt at ease.My cup runneth over. Yes, she should remember that and remind herself every day what a fine, satisfying life she led as the wife of Jacob Schneider.
Days later, Lucy began to suspect she was harboring a wonderful secret. She waited, not saying a word to Jacob or anyone. Two weeks went by, weeks she spent in a state of ecstatic expectation, each day fearing she would find the tell-tale sign that would prove her wrong. It never appeared, and when one day she noticed how her breasts were swollen, and how she felt nauseous in the morning when she arose, she knew for certain a baby was on the way.
Boy or girl? Which room would be the nursery? Her mind churned with questions and plans. When should she give Jacob the exciting news? She could hardly wait. Joyously, she pictured how happy he’d be, how delighted that he might soon have another son.
That night she put Noah to bed early and waited until she and Jacob sat down for supper. She planned on waiting until the end of the meal, but as soon as she sat down, she could contain herself no longer. “Jacob, I have news.” Heart pounding, she fixed her gaze across the table and awaited his answer.
With maddening slowness, Jacob placed a large scoop of mashed potatoes on his plate, then covered it with gravy. “What’s your news?”
“I am with child!” She couldn’t prevent the way her words bubbled or the happy smile that wreathed her face. As it was, she wanted to run around the table and hug him tight but knew him well enough to know he wouldn’t approve.
“Are you sure?” His expression hadn’t changed.
“Hmm.” He took a sip of water. He dipped his fork into the mashed potatoes and took another bite.
What was wrong? Why wasn’t he beside himself with delight? As she waited, she thought her heart would pound its way right out of her chest. “Jacob, answer me. What’s wrong? Don’t you think it’s wonderful?”
Jacob finally laid down his fork. “I suppose now is as good a time as any to tell you.”
“Tell me what?” Concern flickered through her. Whatever was coming, it wouldn’t be good.
“Abner and I have sold the farm. We’re going with the Potts’ wagon train to California.”Chapter 3
As the full meaning of Jacob’s words sunk in, Lucy gasped and gripped the edge of the table. “What did you say?”
“You heard me.”
“You lied to me!”
His voice was cold and exact. “Don’t you dare call me a liar. Negotiations to sell the farm took time. I wasn’t going to have you nagging at me. It was best you didn’t know.”
“You have actually sold the farm?” she asked in a suffocated whisper. Perhaps she hadn’t heard right.
“I cannot believe this.”
Jacob shrugged. “Abner and I made a joint decision. We have three weeks to move. Actually—” Jacob settled back comfortably in his chair, looking as if he were discussing the weather, “we plan on leaving sooner. As you know, the Potts’ party is undoubtedly well on their way to Independence by now. When they arrive, they must wait for the end of the inclement weather. That gives us time to catch up. Although we have no time to lose if we want to reach them before they leave for California.”
The truth dawned. “This is Abner’s doing, isn’t it?Hewas the one who wanted to go, not you.”
“I said it was a joint decision.”
“No, it wasn’t. You always do what your brother wants. You never stand up for yourself.”
Jacob’s face grew white with anger. “Shut your mouth. I’ve heard enough.”
Shock yielded to fury. “Why is it I had no say in the matter?”
He looked surprised. “I am your husband. I make the decisions, not you.”
“The baby!” She knew she was screeching, but she didn’t care. “How can I live in a wagon these next few months? Out in the open, never having a roof over my head? Well, I can’t do it. It’s impossible; the last thing in the world I ever would have wanted.”
Jacob nodded, maddeningly calm. “I admit, the timing is unfortunate. Even if I had known, I wouldn’t have changed my plans. I know it won’t be easy. In talking to Mister Palance, I gather women must take on a huge burden on these treks west. However, I won’t be hiring extra help and will expect you to do your share, baby or no.”
She felt herself shaking with anger, so distraught she could hardly speak. “I won’t go.”
“You are my wife. You will go.”
“You’ll have to drag me.”
He returned an expression of pained tolerance. “Perhaps you’d best reconsider. You can’t stay here. The farm is sold. You’d be without support of any kind, that is,” his mouth spread into a thin-lipped smile, “unless you return to your father and your beloved Pernelia. I know how happy you’d be, living under her roof again.”
How did he know? She had never revealed her desperation to escape the clutches of her stepmother. Jacob wasn’t stupid. Somehow he must have guessed.
“How long have you and Abner been planning this?”
“Haven’t you noticed the price of apples these days?”
“You mean the farm’s been losing money?”
“Three years in a row.”
The awful truth dawned on her. “You planned this before we were even married and never said a word?”
“The Lord spoke to Abner. He told him we must go.” Jacob cast a pious glance upward toward heaven. “Jeremiah forty-two, Verse six: ‘Whether it be good, or whether it be evil, we will obey the voice of the Lord.’ ”
“Well, the Lord never said a word to me!”
Jacob rose from the table. “I suggest you go to Boston tomorrow. See what your father has to say about a wife who refuses to obey her husband. Meanwhile, you might want to look up Genesis three, Verse sixteen, ‘Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.’ ”
Lucy sprang up from the table, thrusting her chair back so hard it toppled over. “If you quote one more scripture to me, I shall ... I shall ...”
“You shall what?”
Words failed her. “Never mind. I shall go see Father tomorrow.” Even as she spoke, she heartily regretted she couldn’t fire back with a more adequate response, something stunningly cutting to bring him down. In the shock of the moment, she could think of nothing else to say. Without another word, she fled the room.
The next day Lucy sat across from her beloved father in the old, familiar parlor on Beacon Street. She would never see him again if she went to California, or her sister or two younger brothers. “He never even warned me.” Her voice choked. “Never said a word.”
Elihu Parker leaned back in his chair, looking old, tired, and very concerned. “Of course, you can move back with us. The door is always open.” He regarded her with gentle understanding. “Daughter, do you really want to end your marriage?”
“He lied to me.”
“He had his reasons, did he not? Mind you, I’m not making excuses for the man. In fact, right from the start I ... but no matter. No man is perfect.”
“You don’t like him. You never did.” She stated it as a fact, not an accusation.
“Jacob is a fine man in many respects. What I don’t like is he’s too much under his brother’s thumb. That in itself wouldn’t be so bad if Abner Schneider were a man I admired, but the problem is, I find him to be far too rigid and self-righteous.” Father offered a small, sly smile. “I confess, there are times when I hear him spouting one of his endless quotes from the scriptures, I would like to take my own Bible and whack him over the head with it.”
Despite her despair, Lucy managed a laugh, but her despondence quickly returned. “What shall I do? I cannot go to California. The very thought—”
“Jacob is your husband.” Her father sat up straight. His voice grew hard. “You took a vow to obey him, did you not?”
“You are now with child?”
“You now want to deny that child its father?” Her father’s voice softened. “The final decision is yours, but think carefully. Do you really want to destroy your marriage? Do you really want to move back home? You’re a strong woman. Time and again I’ve seen you accept your responsibilities without complaint. Why can’t you do so now?”
Her own father! What had she been thinking? His question made her realize she had no defenses, no defenders. Everyone would say the same thing. Even her own sister, who understood her better anyone else in the world, would tell her she’d be a fool to come crawling home, reputation ruined, subjecting herself once again to the oppressing rule of Pernelia.I would be a pariah, living in disgrace for the rest of my life, the fallen woman who did the unthinkable and left her husband.
At that moment, Lucy realized further complaints were useless. Whether she liked it or not, her life was not her own. Her future lay in the hands of her husband. No matter what her pain and sorrow, she might as well make the best of it. Honor alone would prevent her from acting the coward, leaving her husband.
Tears filled her eyes, not so much from sorrow but from pure anger and frustration. “I might as well try to fight the wind. I have no choice, do I?”
“No, my dear, you don’t.”
“All right, I’ve decided.” Her voice was bitter-filled. “I shall go to California with my husband, but I don’t have to like it.”
Elihu Parker gave her an encouraging smile. “Like it or not, you’re smart and have got plenty of spunk. You’re going to do fine.”
“If you say so.” Lucy knew she’d need a lot more than spunk to get her through the months ahead.
When Lucy returned to the farm, she announced her decision to Jacob.
If he was pleased, he showed no sign other than a brief grunt. “We leave in two weeks. You must decide which items you wish to bring, but mind you, we’re taking only three wagons, so space is limited.”
During the next few days, Lucy learned to her sorrow how right Jacob was. Going through her possessions, time and again she discovered items she could not possibly do without, only to learn she must leave them behind.
Her precious books? “There will be little time for reading,” scoffed Jacob.
Her sketch book and paints? “No room.”
Her lovely clothes? When Jacob discovered she’d packed her blue satin ball gown, he held it up with scorn. “Do you plan on being the height of fashion for the Indians? I assure you, they won’t care how you look.”
Indians. The very thought struck fear into her heart, as did nearly everything else concerning this insane journey to California.
The night before they left, Lucy lay in bed, Jacob snoring by her side, and vowed from this day forward her husband wouldn’t hear one more word of protest or complaint. She would take good care of him and Noah. She would perform whatever duties were required and remain resolute and strong, no matter what hardships befell her.
As for Jacob, she still loved him and would always feel pride in being the wife of a man who was a natural-born leader, admired by all—at least all who didn’t know how he toadied to his brother. With a sad heart, she realized she had lost the unquestioning trust she’d once had in her husband. It vanished forever the day she discovered he’d lied. Vanished along with her dream of raising her child in the security and warmth of this sturdy Massachusetts farmhouse that she’d already grown to love.
She would manage, and most important ... Lucy’s hand rested lovingly over the spot where the tiny spark of life lay within her. “I vow,” she whispered into the darkness, “no matter where we are, no matter what happens, I’ll do everything in my power to keep you safe.”
In the lead wagon, seated between Noah and her husband, Lucy put her arm around her stepson’s shoulders and pointed toward the town square ahead. “It’s the jumping-off point, son. Civilization ends right here.”
Despite her deep reluctance and painful goodbyes to friends and family, Lucy felt a swell of excitement as the caravan of twenty wagons rolled into town. Independence bustled with energy. Even from a distance, she could see throngs of people buying and selling on street corners, crowding in and out of the town’s many stores and saloons. Never had she seen such a variety of mankind swarming the sidewalks. Blanketed, painted Indians—Mexicans in bells and slashed pantaloons—mountain men in buckskins—river men and roustabouts—negro stevedores—soldiers from what she later learned was Fort Leavenworth. Covered wagons, parked at all angles, lined the town’s central square.
Thus far, the journey from home had not been easy. The rocking motion of the wagon greatly added to the misery of her early-pregnancy nausea. She yearned to lie down and nap during the day, but her newfound duties prevented any such luxury. She was now the cook, not only for herself, Jacob, and Noah, but also for the two young men Jacob hired to help drive the wagons and herd their sixty head of cattle.
At the beginning, when Jacob informed her she must do the cooking, she said, “I have never cooked! I’ve never even boiled an egg, yet you expect me to cook all the meals for us and the hired hands? Impossible!”
As usual, Jacob remained stone-faced. “I’m not made of money. You will do the cooking.”
She was flabbergasted. “Then how is it you’ve hired two hands to help you with the wagons and the cattle? Surely—”
“The subject is closed.” Jacob clamped his jaw, a sure sign he wouldn’t tolerate further argument. She said nothing more but still harbored resentment over his miserly ways, especially when she knew he’d hidden a bag of five dollar gold pieces at the bottom of the flour barrel, far more than enough to pay the paltry wage for a cook.
At least they found plenty of farmhouses along the way to Independence where they were able to buy eggs, milk, and chicken—all the fresh food they needed. That was the easy part. The hard part for Lucy was learning how to cook over an open fire, sometimes with a strong wind blowing, sometimes in the rain. With the help of other women in the party, she managed, and true to her vow, she never once complained. Only when she was alone did she permit herself to remember the heart-wrenching scene when she said her final goodbyes to her father, sister, and two little brothers, knowing the chances were slim she’d ever see them again.
She had pretty much forgiven Jacob his deception. Holding a grudge was not in her nature, especially since it wouldn’t do her any good. Even so, she found Jacob’s subservience to his brother absolutely galling, now even more noticeable because of their day-and-night proximity on the trail. “Please, must we go to Abner’s prayer meeting tonight?” she asked of Jacob one evening after a particularly grueling day.
“My brother expects us.”
“I’m so awfully tired, and besides, I cannot see the point in going to a prayer meeting every single night. Am I a sinner if I miss one now and then?”
Jacob’s instant scowl told her he’d seen no humor in her question. She might’ve known he’d side with his brother. So, of course, they attended each of Abner’s nightly prayer meetings. He was not an ordained minister, but he sounded like one. Often she nearly fell asleep to the sound of her unctuous brother-in-law’s fire and brimstone warnings that she could easily be heading straight to hell.
“Keep a sharp eye out for the Potts’ wagon,” Jacob told her. They entered Independence’s town square. Jacob sat tall and straight, with a strong grip on the reins, showing no sign of emotion. In fact, he seemed to grow more serious by the day. Even their arrival at the jumping-off point couldn’t raise a smile or even the slightest sign of excitement. “Watch for Clint Palance and his partner, too. We must make arrangements for joining their wagon train.”
Clint Palance. His name had crossed her mind more than once as their small caravan headed west. She dreaded the moment she would encounter the trapper again. She could just picture how his lips would quirk mockingly when he expressed his surprise.
She could even imagine his words: “Are my eyes deceiving me? Is this the same Mrs. Jacob Schneider who declared she’d never set foot outside of Suffolk County?”
She told herself Clint Palance’s opinion didn’t matter a whit, and from that moment forward, she wouldn’t give him one more thought. Her advice to herself never worked. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t stop thinking about him. Worse, despite the embarrassment she’d surely feel when she saw him again, she was acutely aware of certain wicked, unacceptable thoughts that lurked somewhere deep in her consciousness. Shemustget rid of them. They were thoughts no decent, respectably married woman would ever entertain.
“As I live and breathe, Lucy!” cried a very pregnant Bessie Potts. “Oh, my stars!” Awkwardly, she climbed down from her seat on the Potts’ wagon and threw her arms around her friend. “I can’t believe it! What are you doing here?”
“Abner and Jacob sold the farm,” Lucy replied when they broke apart. “Jacob decided to go west. We plan on joining your wagon train.”
“What about Abner?”
“He’s here, too.”
“Oh dear.” Bessie bit her lip. “Sorry, I know he’s your brother-in-law, but I hate the way he presumes to speak for God. I declare, half the time he acts like Moses descending from Mount Sinai, stone tablets in hand.”
Lucy burst into laughter at Bessie’s description. “I’m afraid you’re right.”
Bessie asked, “Did Martha come?”
“Well, of course, she did.” They exchanged a knowing glance but said nothing. Poor Martha, what could they say?
Bessie and Lucy spent the next few minutes in a delightful catching up session. “It really wasn’t so bad,” Lucy referred to their journey from Suffolk County to Independence. No sense recounting all the misery. “Jacob is so well organized and efficient, he planned everything down to the last detail. Beside the cattle, we have three wagons, six oxen, two horses, and six pack mules—enough for all the household goods we brought. He hired two young men to help drive the wagons and herd the cattle.”
“A cook?” Bessie asked.
“We left the cook behind.” Lucy put on a cheerful face. “I do the cooking. In fact, I’ve become quite the expert at tossing slapjacks.”
A shadow crossed Bessie’s face. “Did you know my John hasn’t been well? He came down with typhoid. We nearly lost him. As it is, he’s not the same.”
“He’s getting better?”
“He’s still so weak ... Oh, here’s Hannah.” A tall, gawky woman strode toward them. Plainly dressed, she wore her thin, brown hair pulled straight back into an untidy bun. “Lucy Schneider, meet my sister, Hannah Richards.”
Hannah stuck her hand out. Her work-worn face lit into a beautiful smile. “I’m mighty pleased to meet you, Mrs. Schneider.”
“Call me Lucy.” Right away she knew they’d be friends.
Bessie continued, “By the way, all the women in the wagon train are invited for high tea this afternoon. Me and Hannah will be there. Want to come along?”
Lucy could think of no more unlikely place for a high tea than crude, rough-and-tumble Independence, where most of the population undoubtedly had never heard of such a thing as a high tea. She glanced around the square. “Is there a tea room somewhere?”
Hannah burst into hearty laughter. “Come back at four o’clock and bring your own cup. Her majesty figures her fine china is too good for the likes of us.”
Bessie explained. “That would be Mrs. Nathaniel Beauregard Benton, who’s stuck-up, puts on airs, and figures she’s God’s gift to society. You should hear her.” She assumed a snooty southern accent. “At all costs, we must remain refined and civilized, my dear, even if weareliving in a wagon.”
Lucy smiled as Bessie and her sister broke into laughter at Bessie’s imitation. “I’d love to come.” Despite her tactful reply, she reflected with regret that she probably wasn’t going to like Mrs. Nathaniel Beauregard Benton.
After Hannah left, Lucy, bursting to tell her news, leaned forward and said, “I have a secret to tell you.”
Bessie smiled. “If you’re going to tell me you’re expecting, don’t bother.”
“How can you tell?” At barely three months, Lucy was certain nothing showed.
Bessie flicked a glance toward Lucy’s bosom. “You’re bigger. Besides, it’s written all over you—a certain glow. Lots of women have it when they get in a family way, at least for the first, maybe the second month.” Bessie placed a palm on her swollen belly and sighed. “When you get to the seventh, there ain’t no more glow.”
Lucy was about to say more when she caught sight of Clint Palance striding through the square. Today he wore not buckskins but a long, black rifle coat, khaki pants, a stylish vest, and a black gambler’s hat with a soft, wide brim. So handsome! So very ... intriguing. As yet, he hadn’t seen her. She couldn’t face him. “I must run now, but I’ll be back for that tea this afternoon.”
“See you then. Ask Martha. She might want to come, too.”
Not likely.Lucy hastily turned and started away. She hadn’t gone more than ten steps when she heard Clint’s booming voice. “Mrs. Schneider? Mrs. Jacob Schneider?”
Damnation. She didn’t want to stop but had no choice. She smoothed down the starched white apron she wore over her brown woolen dress, affixed a smile to her face, and turned. “Why, Mister Palance, what a surprise.”
“Mrs. Schneider? I had no idea I’d see you here.”
She knew it! Just as she expected, his eye lit with a mocking gleam. She lifted her chin to a defiant angle. “Well, obviously Iamhere.”
His forehead furrowed in feigned puzzlement. “I can’t imagine what urgent event has led you to set foot outside of Suffolk County. As I recall—”
“Obviously, my husband changed his mind.” This was every bit as excruciating as she had anticipated. “If you had any manners, out of delicacy alone, you wouldn’t bring up the subject.”
He grinned, revealing white teeth that dazzled against his bronzed skin. “I’ve never been accused of having good manners.”
“Obviously.” What was the matter with her? Why did she feel so uncomfortable? What was it about this blunt man that set her all atwitter? She already knew he’ surely bring up her foolish declaration she would never leave Suffolk County, so why was she not prepared? Why was she now feeling a blush creep over her cheeks that he was sure to notice? Well, she would see this through as best she could. She squared her shoulders. “It appears we shall be joining your wagon train to California.” She was pleased at the bright, enthusiastic note she’d put in her voice.
“Are you actually happy you’re going?”
“I can hardly wait to get started.” Just amazing that she hadn’t choked on such a lie. “I’m very much enjoying living in the great out-of-doors and, uh, riding in the wagon ... all that wonderful fresh air. I just love cooking over an open fire and ... well, all of that.” She could kick herself. He wasn’t fooled.
After a moment’s reflection, he grew serious. “I have yet to meet a woman who truly wanted to make this journey.”
At least he wasn’t mocking her anymore. She’d planned another flippant answer but found she could no longer lie. She was equally serious. “I’m making the best of it.”
“I’m certain you are.”
The worst was over. She was proud of herself for having met Clint’s anticipated sarcasm with dignity ... well, something like it. Good manners decreed she ought to stand and chat a little longer, but the problem was, her pulse remained quick and her mouth had gone dry. Why this should affect her this way, she didn’t know, except that she’d never met a man so overwhelmingly masculine as Clint Palance. Even in civilized clothes and without the knife dangling from his belt, he had a certain menacing air. She was so acutely aware of him she couldn’t act her normal self. She decided to leave before he noticed. “Well, I must be off. There’s so much to do.”
For a fleeting moment, his brown eyes delved into hers, making her feel as if he could peer into her very soul and know exactly what she was about and what she was thinking. He smiled politely and touched a finger to the brim of his hat. “Then good day, ma’am.”
“Good day, sir.” She went on her way. Feeling his eyes on her, she forced herself to walk at a leisurely pace and not, as she was sorely tempted, to run as fast as she could to get to her wagon and out of his sight.
* * *
Rooted to the spot, Clint observed Lucy Schneider. He liked the way she walked—tall and straight, with a lightness of foot few women possessed. She was pregnant. What a shame. The trek to California was hard enough as it was, but for a woman with child it was a tortuous journey. He could never understand why many of the husbands didn’t seem concerned. Despite all the difficulties of pregnancy, they expected their wives to endure the hardships of the trail and work their full share. He’d wager Lucy’s husband was one of those.
So, Jacob Schneider had changed his mind, had he? What bullshit. The one time they’d talked, that jackass had outright told him he and his brother would be heading for California, soon as the farm was sold. Apparently, he hadn’t bothered to tell his wife.
Clint vented his disgust by kicking the dirt with the point of his boot. They’d had only the one conversation, but that was enough for him to peg Jacob Schneider as a poor excuse for a man. His brother, too. Cold and rigid in their thinking. Real pains in the ass and likely to be hard to deal with on the trail. If they didn’t cause trouble before they reached California, he’d be greatly surprised.
* * *
Stopping by Abner’s wagon, Lucy found Martha bending over a large laundry tub, her reddened hands scrubbing clothes on a board. “We’re invited to a high tea this afternoon,” Lucy said. “It should be fun. I’m going, and I hope you will, too.”
Her sister-in-law looked up from her task and frowned. “Thank you, but I have too much to do.”
Just the answer Lucy expected. “Nonsense. This is a fine opportunity to meet the women we’ll be traveling with for the next few months. Surely Abner wouldn’t mind.”
Martha used her forearm to wipe the perspiration from her brow. “I’m not so sure. Abner wants this wash done. You know how he is.”
Indeed I do know. Poor Martha always invited pity with her soft, timid voice and frail, stoop-shouldered figure. Her large gray eyes seemed to plead forgiveness for merely being alive. Perhaps if Martha had children she might think more highly of herself. Then again, perhaps not. Even a woman with iron resolve would have a hard time standing up to Abner’s constant criticism and stern rule.
“I’m sorry you can’t go. If you change your mind, let me know.” Lucy turned to leave, but to her surprise, Martha called softly, “Wait a minute. I have something to tell you.”
Lucy turned back. “What is it?”
“It’s just ... it’s ...” Suddenly Martha’s cheeks flushed a rosy pink. “I think, I think ...”
The truth dawned on Lucy immediately. “Are you expecting?” There could be no other cause for such a blush on Martha’s sallow cheeks.
“I ... think so!”
“Why, that’s wonderful news!” Lucy threw her arms around her sister-in-law and gave her an exuberant hug. “Have you told Abner?”
Martha’s blush deepened. “Not yet. I wanted to make sure, and now ... well, it’s been two months since I ... you know what I mean, so I’m almost sure.”
“He’ll be delighted.”True enough. Abner would be delighted all right, but just like Jacob, he’d still expect Martha to do her share of the work, and no excuses. That was too bad. Even under normal conditions, frail little Martha might have problems with a pregnancy. Lucy hated to think what could happen to her, considering the hardships of the trail.
* * *
So this was high tea in Independence, Missouri!
Lucy suppressed a giggle as she recalled the many elegant teas she’d presided over in her fancy parlor on Beacon Hill. Now here she sat on an overturned barrel beside a muddy street, holding her own tin cup, beside the covered wagon of that former scion of Atlanta society, Mrs. Nathaniel Beauregard Benton. A handsome woman in her early forties with a narrow face and aristocratic nose, Mrs. Benton showed her slender figure to great advantage in an elegant dress of blue silk taffeta over a hoopskirt. Quite a contrast to her guests who had all left their hoopskirts behind, if they’d ever owned one in the first place. Instead, every other woman there wore a plain, long calico or wool dress, laced-up boots, and starched apron.
Upon meeting Lucy, Mrs. Benton exclaimed in a thick southern accent, “So you’re from Boston? Beacon Hill? Do tell!” Her manner instantly grew warmer. “You must call me Cordelia. I declare, we have lots in common.”
No, we don’t.Lucy instantly recognized the woman as just another Pernelia, only with a southern accent—all soft and cloying on the outside, hard as granite on the inside. A snob besides. She suspected she’d soon be avoiding Mrs. Nathaniel Beauregard Benton.How could she?At home it was easy to avoid those she didn’t care for, but on the trail? Impossible. On second thought, she’d better make a special effort to get along with everybody whether she liked them or not.
Lucy sat quiet for the most part, observing the approximately twenty women who sat in a circle on an assortment of boxes, crates, and barrels. Each held her cup of tea, poured by Mrs. Benton from her solid silver teapot. Each held a pastry, freshly baked by a young Negro woman named Sukey, whom Mrs. Benton referred to as her slave. Lucy wondered how it was possible to own a slave while traveling on a wagon train headed west. Wasn’t this free territory? But now was hardly the time to ask.
So these were some of the women she’d spend the next few months with. Quite a variety. They included Bessie Potts and Hannah Richards, both from Possum Creek, Tennessee. One would never guess they were sisters, what with small, nervous Bessie constantly expressing her fears and tall, raw-boned Hannah coming across as fearless and unflappable. Both were pleasant and friendly, though, compared to a middle-aged, dour-face woman named Agnes Applegate. She, her husband, William, and their six children came from Pennsylvania. She talked a lot but had yet to utter a positive word about anything. Then there was Inez Helmick, a plumpish blond-haired woman in her forties with a broad, Scandinavian face. She, her husband, Stanley, and their five children came from Ohio. “My husband is a preacher, and I’m a midwife.” She had an air of great confidence. “In case any of you might need me on the trail.”
“Well, ain’t that a comfort to know. I just might be needing you.” Bessie glanced at Lucy. “And others, too.”
Oh, no. She could think of nothing worse than having her baby in a wagon in the middle of nowhere. But she needn’t worry. They’d be in California long before the baby arrived.
“I’m serving oolong tea today.” Cordelia seated herself on a box, carefully spreading her taffeta skirt around her. “My favorite. Imported direct from China. Mister Benton made sure we brought enough to last the entire journey.” She nodded toward her elaborate sterling silver tea set and the silver tray of pastries, both precariously balanced on a makeshift table. “I plan to serve tea every day of our journey. After all, one must continue to observe the niceties.”
Hannah Richards gave an audible sniff. “Well, I sure don’t know about that.”
Cordelia’s ever-present smile tightened. “Why might that be?”
“Ain’t you heard of the poor folks who’ve gone ahead of us on other wagon trains? Many’s the time when they run out of food and water, and the poor oxen are dead or about to die, they have to dump all their precious things along the wayside just to lighten the load.”
Cordelia glared at Hannah with reproachful eyes. “Throw away Grandmother Benton’s precious tea set? And her French Haviland china it took me a whole day to pack? That’s not likely to happen.”
“Well, I surely hope not.” Hannah took up the tin cup that held her tea and raised it high. “Ladies, here’s to a safe journey. May we not be kidnapped or worse by them pesky Indians. May we not get drowned in some river, nor any of our loved ones. May we find food for ourselves and grass for the animals and water for all, so we don’t have to toss our precious possessions over the side.”
“Amen to that.” Lucy raised her cup, as did all of the women, with the exception of Agnes, who sat with her arms crossed and a dour expression on her sallow face.
“You all act like you’re happy to be here,” said Agnes.
No one spoke until someone murmured, “Well, indeed we are.”
Agnes returned a disdainful sniff. “If truth be told, there’s not a one of you wanted to come on this foolish journey in the first place. ‘T’was all your husband’s idea, now wasn’t it? I’d wager every last one of you was happy and content where you were until your man got bit by the gold bug. Now he wants to go to California and get rich.” Agnes glowered, her hazel eyes darting from one to another. “Well now, am I wrong? If anyone here was just dying to live in a flimsy wagon for months and months, and risk death and God-knows-what, then speak up.”
The silence spoke for all. Faced with the truth, even Lucy, who usually rose to the occasion, could think of nothing diplomatic to say. Finally Cordelia, her southern accent extra thick, said, “Mrs. Applegate, I find your remark a bit harsh. Don’t our husbands always know best? You seem to have forgotten a wife’s role is to obey her husband and follow his lead with good grace.”
All except Lucy and Hannah nodded in agreement, appearing relieved that Cordelia had provided an acceptable answer to Agnes’ tirade. Lucy wondered why she herself wasn’t instantly agreeing. After all, she was just like the rest, subject to her husband’s commands. As Cordelia pointed out, a woman’s lot in life was to obey her husband. She didn’t have to like it, though. A thought struck her, one she’d never had before: she most definitely didnotlike it. Much as she loved Jacob and accepted his leadership, she felt an ever-deepening resentment that she was required to obey him. Despite her wedding vows, she really didn’t want to obey anybody.
Hannah spoke up. “Just out of curiosity, what possessed your husband to head west? Looks to me like you had a good life going in Atlanta.”
Cordelia awarded Hannah an indulgent smile. “It has to do with manifest destiny, Mrs. Richards. You might not understand.”
“I may be poor, but I ain’t stupid.”
Visibly taken aback, Cordelia recovered quickly. “My husband was a noted historian back in Atlanta—”
“I’ll tell them.” A slight, beardless man of fifty or so stepped into the circle. Well groomed, dressed like a country gentleman, he had the dreamy-eyed look of a scholar.
Cordelia regarded him with pride. “My husband, ladies. Nathaniel Beauregard Benton.”
After a greeting, Nathaniel Benton addressed the circle. “For years I’ve studied the history of The United States and what its expansion implies. Why am I going west? I believe Thoreau said it best: ‘Eastward I go only by force, but we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure.’ ” Nathaniel’s face lit up. “Not only that, we must claim what is ours. I know in my heart that the land from Atlantic to Pacific should belong to us, not foreign nations such as Great Britain and Mexico who are already meddling in California and Texas.”
“My stars!” said Bessie, “I never thought of The United States spreading all the way from one ocean to the other.”
“It’s going to happen. It’s our manifest destiny.” Nathaniel Benton had a faraway look in his eyes. “We Americans are especially prone to setting out for the unknown. Like Mark Twain said, ‘It’s a human instinct like the need to love, or to taste spring air and believe again that life is not a dead end after all.’ ” He stopped and smiled. “That’s why we’re going to California.”
“Well put, sir.” Lucy put down her cup and started to applaud. They all joined in.
Benton returned a smile. “Well, then, ladies, I won’t further interrupt your tea.” With a courteous bow he walked away.
Cordelia reached for the silver tray. She held it out to Bessie and said with a sugary smile, “Another pastry?”
Bessie declined. “Well, land’s sake, I don’t know about manifest destiny. All I want is to get to California in one piece and find us a piece of land.”
Cordelia smiled indulgently. “You’re fearful of the journey, I know, but don’t forget we have Mister Palance and Mister Dawes to guide us, and they’re the very best. I’m not the least bit worried. Nothing will go wrong while they’re around.”
Every woman present except Lucy nodded her enthusiastic assent. Agnes noticed and focused sharp eyes upon her. “You don’t agree?” Before Lucy could answer, Agnes continued, “I saw you talking to Mister Palance in the square. Do you know him from someplace? You appear to be good friends.”
Lucy immediately caught the implication of wrong-doing in Agnes’ voice. How ridiculous. Her entire conversation with Clint could not have lasted more than a minute or two, so how much could the sharp-eyed woman know of her private feelings? Yet ... she and Clint Palance had not exchanged one improper word, but with uncanny intuition, Agnes sensed that a vague current of attraction, or whatever it was, passed between them. Well from now on she’d be extra careful. If she didn’t put the trapper completely out of her thoughts, that sharp-eyed woman was going to know.
Lucy smiled pleasantly. “I have barely met the man. My husband knows him far better than I.”
The disagreeable woman gave a skeptical sniff but had the decency to change the subject. “We leave in three days. Did you know that? I hope your husband will have his wagons fitted and ready.”
“Jacob will do whatever needs to be done, and on time,” Lucy replied firmly.
A chubby, fair-skinned boy of about twelve or thirteen with a shock of straight blond hair hanging over one eye suddenly burst into the circle. “What’s to eat?”
Cordelia’s face took on a glow of motherly pride. “Ladies, this is my son, Chadwick.”
The boy acknowledged no one. Spying the pastries, he headed straight for the silver tray.
“Now, dear, only one,” his mother called.
Chadwick acknowledged his mother’s advice with a pig-like grunt. He stuffed a pastry into his mouth and scooped up as many more as his chubby little hands could handle.
Cordelia reacted with a merry peal of laughter. “You bad boy! Now, sweetheart, you’d better put those back. You don’t want to eat too many or you’ll spoil your supper.”
After another grunt, Chadwick sped away, hands still full of pastries.
“Boys will be boys.” Cordelia seemed not the least bit upset over her son’s poor manners.
The entire assemblage of ladies had witnessed the episode in polite silence. Now, discreetly lifted eyebrows signaled messages of disapproval. “Did you see that child’s behavior?” Bessie whispered. “If one of mine acted like that, John would have him behind the woodshed in no time.”
Lucy silently agreed. If her little brothers had acted in such a manner ... But then, they never had because they’d been raised properly. Poor Cordelia. She was going to have her hands full on a journey like this with a child so thoroughly spoiled.
* * *
When the tea party ended, Cordelia took Lucy aside. “I’m so delighted you’re coming along. What a comfort to find someone of my own kind.” She lowered her voice. “I’m sure you’ll agree to the difficulty of having to deal with those of a lesser standing, but we’ll manage, won’t we?”
Lucy bristled inside. She hoped it didn’t show. “Of a lesser standing? I don’t know what you mean. Aren’t we all of equal standing here?”
“Yes, of course. You know what I mean. Good breedingisgood breeding.”
Lucy sensed how useless it would be to argue with someone as condescending as Cordelia. She’d never change. “I must be going. Thank you for the lovely tea.” She turned away. If she hurried, she could catch up with Bessie and Hannah. They might be “of a lesser standing,” but she already knew who her true friends would be on the long journey ahead.
When Lucy returned to their wagon, she found Jacob with his coat, shirt, and hat off, bending over a basin washing his face. When he saw her, he straightened and grabbed a towel. Wiping water from his face, he broke into a rare smile. “The men of the council had a meeting. John Potts has not been well and has stepped down. I’ve been elected the new wagon train captain.”
“Why, that’s wonderful news.”
“I wonder why they didn’t pick Abner. Of course, he would’ve declined. His mind runs on a higher plain. It’s best he remain our spiritual leader.”
Lucy could’ve told her husband she knew very well why Abner hadn’t been chosen. The men didn’t like him and made fun of his holier-than-thou attitude behind his back. Some things were best left unsaid, though. “Well, they couldn’t have made a better choice for a captain than you.” Her heart swelled with pride as she looked up at her husband, so handsome with those strong arms, that muscular chest, and those golden curls glinting in the sunshine atop his noble head.I do love him.She regretted that lately she’d begun to find fault. His constantly serious demeanor had grown more annoying, as well as his increased fondness for quoting of the scriptures—just like his brother. Too much like his brother. Then there was the thing that happened at night after they went to bed. She had hoped the lack of privacy on the road would give her a respite from performing the one wifely duty she’d grown to detest, but she wasn’t that fortunate. On the trip to Independence, when they stopped at night, Jacob pitched a tent beside the wagon, which only the two of them occupied. On the few nights they slept in the wagon, Jacob hung a blanket across the middle, between their bed and little Noah’s. As if a flimsy blanket could conceal the rocking and muffle the sounds! She could only pray her mightiest that Noah remained sound asleep each time.
The worst of it was, nothing had changed. From her wedding night on, never once had she received the least bit of pleasure from the act her sister had referred to as “so indescribably wonderful.”
She mustn’t think bad thoughts. She must try harder to be the appreciative wife of a man admired and respected by all. A leader of men!
“I’m so proud of you.”
“From now on, they’ll address me as Captain.”
“You deserve it. You have worked so hard—”
“‘All things are delivered to me of my Father.’ That’s—”
“Luke ten, Verse twenty-two. Yes, I know. Thanks to God, you’ve been elected leader, but I suspect it’s thanks to your fine reputation, too.”
“If you say so.” For one of the rare times in their marriage, Jacob laughed companionably and gave her a spontaneous kiss on the cheek.
Lucy wished his current mood would last forever, but she doubted it would.
That night she was preparing supper over an open campfire when Clint Palance and his partner, Charlie Dawes, rode up. Jacob went to meet them.
“Congratulations, Captain.” Clint swung off the black and white Appaloosa he’d told her was named “Paint.” “Since you’re now in charge, we’ve come to discuss a few things.”
For a while the three stood talking. Lucy found the conversation fascinating. She continued to cook dinner but listened closely as the two partners described preparations for the trip and the route they’d take.
“... then, when we start out, we’ll make our way across the Kansas River watershed, angling northwest,” said Clint. “When we hit the Platte River, we follow it, still heading northwest. Along the way, we’ll pass landmarks you may have heard of, like Courthouse Rock, Scotts Bluff, Chimney Rock. Then Fort Laramie ... at the foot of the Rockies, five hundred thirty-five miles from the start of the Platte River Road.
“The next stage, one hundred eight miles to Independence Rock, is difficult for the wagons. It’s the broken terrain of the Rockies foothills, where grass gives way to sage and greasewood. Then we come to Fort Hall. That’s where we’ll part company with those who are heading for Oregon territory.”
“We’ve got to get there first,” said Charlie Dawes, a lean man with hunched-over shoulders, long, grizzled beard, and weathered face. He shot a chaw of tobacco upon the ground. “When we start, just to get to the Platte it’s three hundred twenty miles, and there ain’t no trail. I guarantee we’ll run into floods and hailstorms along the way, so better make sure you got the canvas on your wagons weatherproofed and nice ’n tight.”
Clint spoke up. “While we’re on that subject, Captain, there’s been some talk about your wagons.”
Jacob’s pleasant expression disappeared. “What about my wagons?”
“Your wagons are too heavy. I’d advise you lighten the loads.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the way my wagons are loaded.” Lucy couldn’t mistake the cold edge in Jacob’s voice. “Are you suggesting I simply toss away my belongings at your request? I’ll have you know, sir, that everything I carry is essential.”
Charlie Dawes raised a cynical eyebrow. “Maybe you won’t be thinking everything is so essential when you get stuck in the mud and it takes a dozen men to push you out.”
“I shall be the judge of that.” Jacob’s tone clearly invited no further argument.Of course he isn’t going to admit the truth.Lucy had more than a twinge of embarrassment. In Independence, Jacob had purchased the usual provisions for their own use: two hundred pounds of flour, one hundred fifty pounds of bacon, ten pounds of coffee, twenty pounds of sugar, ten pounds of salt, and so on. He, along with his brother, had also purchased merchandise they planned to sell for a huge profit in California, like heavy tools and several barrels of whiskey. No wonder their wagons were so heavy.
Jacob asked, “Now, gentlemen, is there anything else?”
“That’s it for now.” Clint’s easy smile gave not the slightest hint he might be annoyed by Jacob’s hardheaded answer. “If all goes well, we leave in three days.”
Lucy watched the visitors mount their horses and ride away. Three days! Despite all her reluctance, a little thrill ran through her. Whether she liked it or not, the biggest adventure of her life was about to begin.
Three days later at dawn, a line of forty wagons headed out from Independence amidst the din of dogs barking, cattle lowing, men shouting, shrieking children darting here and there. At last the Schneider Party had begun the long journey west, the air heavy with excitement, spirits running high.
For Lucy, the departure was bittersweet. True, a small part of her sensed the thrill of a new adventure, but when she thought how every mile they drove west took her farther away from her Boston home, she felt an overwhelming sense of loss.
Her dear brothers, sweet sister, beloved father—oh, she would never see them again! Tears welled in her eyes, but there would be no turning back. What good were they? Finally, she ordered herself to cry no more. She’d look to the future with courage and determination—never complain—rejoice in the thought that a whole new life lay ahead.
During the morning hours, she enjoyed meeting some of the people she’d be traveling with the next few months. They came from all parts of the country and all walks of life. Like Adam Janicki, an out-of-work coal miner from Pittsburgh. He and his family planned to look for free land in Oregon. So would a bankrupt storekeeper and his family from the Mississippi Valley. Some, like the three rowdy Butler Brothers from the backwoods of Tennessee, were hell-bent on reaching the California gold fields. Jacob had already predicted that the disorderly brothers would all go straight to hell, what with their loud cursing and heavy drinking from what seemed like bottomless jugs of corn liquor they passed around.
As the morning wore on, Lucy’s newfound determination to make the best of her lot slowly faded. At first, while Jacob drove their lead wagon, she and Noah walked alongside, easily keeping up with the slow pace of the oxen. When Noah’s little legs grew tired, she lifted him up to sit beside his father on the wagon seat. After the mid-morning break, she saddled one of the horses and rode until her back began to ache so badly she had to dismount and walk again.
The trail turned muddy. In parts the mud was so deep that several times one or another of the Schneider wagons got stuck in a quagmire, causing the entire train to stop while a dozen men huffed and heaved with all their might to push them out. No one else’s wagons got stuck, only Jacob’s and Abner’s. She couldn’t help but remember Clint’s warning: “Your wagons are too heavy. I advise you to lighten the loads.” She didn’t dare remind her husband, though. One thing she’d learned, Jacob didn’t care to listen to advice or admit his mistakes. That went double for Abner, and she’d never dream of voicing her opinion to her overbearing brother-in-law.
They stopped at noon. Although tired already, she had no time to rest; she had to prepare the midday meal for the family, as well as Benjamin and Henry, their two hired hands. Both strong, healthy young men, they were working for their passage so they could reach the gold fields. Henry was the quiet one. Lively Benjamin, a clear-eyed man of twenty-two, played the guitar.
“Mighty good tasting beans and biscuits, ma’am.” Benjamin squatted beside the campfire, cleaning his plate.
“Why, thank you.” Lucy knew he was just being kind. Despite her best efforts, she had yet to conquer the art of cooking while bending over an open fire with the wind blowing smoke in her face.
After lunch, she decided to try and persuade Jacob to teach her to drive the wagons. So far, he had refused. During the morning, though, she’d witnessed several women, firm hand on the reins, shouting, “Gee up!” as they cracked a whip over the oxen’s heads, looking every bit as masterful as any man. If they could do it, why couldn’t she?
She walked up to Jacob, who stood next to his wagon chatting with Abner. “Let me take the reins for a while. It shouldn’t take long for you to show me what to do.”
Jacob opened his mouth to speak. She could have sworn he was about to agree, but before he could utter a word, Abner said, “Never.” He regarded her with cold, contemptuous eyes. “Driving a team of oxen is a man’s job.”
How dare he interfere! She could hardly quell her flash of indignation. She looked pointedly at her husband. “It’s a long way to California. Surely sooner or later I’ll need to know how.”
“It’s folly,” said Abner. “God never meant for a woman to drive a wagon. They haven’t the strength or the aptitude. I’d certainly never allow my wife to drive a wagon. Do you not agree?”
“Quite so. I cannot imagine Martha driving the oxen.” Jacob’s gaze shifted to Lucy. “Or you. I won’t permit it, now or ever. Is that clear?”
“Enough, woman.” Jacob climbed into the wagon seat, took up the reins, and started off without another word. With a look of triumphant scorn, Abner walked away, leaving her standing in the dirt, clutching her fists in frustration.DamnAbner! How dare he interfere? Damn Jacob, too, for allowing his brother to rule his life. Didn’t he have a mind of his own? How dare he call her “woman” in such a reproachful, degrading manner? In her whole life, she’d never been addressed that way. Acutely embarrassed, she started to walk behind the wagon, hoping no one had overheard.
She tried to calm down. Jacob simply wasn’t himself, she finally decided. No wonder he was cross, what with his new responsibilities and his wagons constantly getting stuck in the mud. She should ignore his coldness. He’d never act that way again.
As she walked along, calmer now, Clint Palance rode by on his Appaloosa. He’d been busy all day, riding up and down the line of wagons at least a dozen times, too busy to stop and chat. He would nod as he rode by, though. Their eyes always met, but in the most impersonal way.
Her drifting thoughts came together. She suddenly realized that no matter where she was, at what time of day, she was always aware of the precise whereabouts of Clint Palance. Whether he was ahead leading the train, or riding alongside one of the wagons, or following behind; no matter where, her eyes followed him. What on earth was she doing? Had she taken leave of her senses? Was she not Mrs. Jacob Schneider, a respectably married woman with a spotless reputation to preserve? The very thought she might become infatuated with another man was totally unacceptable, totally absurd.
Finally tired of walking, Lucy climbed into the back of the wagon to get some rest. It wasn’t long before the bumping and constant swaying made her nauseated. “Land sick” she supposed she would call it. She had to climb down and walk again. This was only the beginning.
At the end of the day, when the wagons had circled for the night, Lucy joined Martha, Bessie, and Cordelia’s slave, Sukey, in carrying sacks to the nearby woods to collect kindling. On the way back, their sacks full, Bessie wiped her brow. “In all my born days, I ain’t never been this tired. We only come ten miles the whole day.”
“Give me your sack.” Herself exhausted, Lucy could tell that Bessie, almost in her eighth month and heavy with child, was about to collapse.
After a weak protest, Bessie handed Lucy the sack. “I don’t know how I’m going to make it. I’ve still got dinner to cook, and then to clean up and put the young’uns to bed.”
“You’re not the only one.” A scowl appeared on Sukey’s face. “I cook and clean for Missus Benton, then I got to put up with her little brat, Chadwick, and her nagging besides. ‘Do this, Sukey, do that, Sukey,’ ” she mocked in a fair imitation of Cordelia’s southern accent. “ ‘Work yourself to death, Sukey.’ ” She wrinkled her nose and shook her head. “I didn’t want to come, but she say I’m still her slave. I wish I could go back.”
“Wouldn’t that serve Mrs. High-and-Mighty right if you did go back to Atlanta,” Bessie exclaimed. “That would bring her down a peg or two if she had to cook her own meals and collect her own wood like the rest of us.”
Lucy smiled to herself. Already the subject of Cordelia brought endless grumbling among the hardworking women of the wagon train. Not only did they heartily dislike her snobbish ways, they especially resented her having a slave to do her work while she, according to Bessie, “Just sits there in the wagon like Queen of the May.”
Trudging back to camp, carrying two sacks instead of one, Lucy found that not only did her back hurt, her whole body felt engulfed in a tide of weariness. She could hardly put one foot in front of the other. Worse, her stomach threatened at any moment to heave its contents.
Bessie pointed. “Oh, look, here come Mister Dawes and Mister Palance. Don’t he always look so handsome!”
Clint and Charlie rode up. “Afternoon, ladies.” Clint touched the brim of his hat. “I see you’ve survived your first day on the trail.”
Bessie cocked her head and squinted up at him. “I heard we only come ten miles. At this rate, I’ll be an old woman by the time we get to California, if I ain’t dead first.”
The men burst into hearty laughter. “Don’t worry,” Clint said. “We’ll be averaging fifteen to twenty miles a day before you know it.”
Charlie spoke up. “We would have done that today if it weren’t for them wagons getting stuck in the mud.”
Lucy felt her face go red. He meant Jacob, and Abner, too. But why should she feel any guilt? She wasn’t the one who’d overloaded the wagons. Still, as Jacob’s wife, she felt responsible.
As if sensing her embarrassment, Clint created a distraction by leaning from his horse and sweeping up the sacks of kindling from Lucy’s grasp. “Here, let me take those.” In the process, his hand brushed hers. His touch, so unexpected, gave her a thrill of excitement. Their gazes met. For a long, unguarded moment, she looked deep into his eyes, catching the spark of some indefinable emotion. Hastily, she looked away, wondering, what had he seen inhereyes?
They had started back to camp when Lucy realized that while talking to Clint, she had subconsciously tugged up the waistband of her white, starched apron, then spread her hand over the swell of her stomach beneath as if to conceal it. She glanced at Bessie whose stomach was so hugely distorted she didn’t walk, she waddled. In a few months, she would be waddling, too, so what was she trying to accomplish by hiding her condition from Clint?
She knew the answer, and she didn’t want to think about it.
* * *
Riding alongside Charlie, Clint shifted the two sacks of kindling across the saddle. They were heavy. Mrs. Schneider shouldn’t be lifting them. He didn’t like to think of all the misery she’d be enduring before the journey’s end. That jackass husband of hers wasn’t going to help; he could tell.
“Crazy white women,” muttered Charlie Dawes.
“What do you mean?”
“Did you see Mrs. Schneider trying to hide the fact she’s got a loaf in the oven?”
“It’s their culture. Women in our society are taught to believe their bodily functions are so shameful they should be hidden and not discussed. That includes childbirth.”
“Hogwash.” Charlie spat a chaw of chewing tobacco. “They want us to think they’re all virgins? Like they never went to bed with a man?”
Charlie’s remarks filled Clint’s head with an image of Lucy in bed with that jackass husband and ... No, don’t think about it. He blanked the image out. “Indian women have the right idea. To them, having a baby is as natural as breathing. They don’t try to conceal it, like it’s something disgraceful.”
They reached the circle of wagons, handed the sacks back, and watched the women go their respective ways. For a few moments, Charlie rode on in silence, appearing to be in deep thought. “You know what I suspect?”
“I suspect you’re taken with that pretty Mrs. Schneider.” He slanted a sly glance at Clint. “Ain’t you now?”
Only the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves broke the silence as Clint rode along, staring straight ahead. “Don’t give me any lectures.”
“Wasn’t going to. The stupidest man in the world would know not to mess around with a married woman, and you ain’t stupid.”
Clint nodded agreeably. No, he wasn’t stupid, and Charlie was right. Any special feelings he had for Mrs. Jacob Schneider—whatever they were—had to stop right there.
* * *
Later that night, legs aching with fatigue, Lucy crawled into the tent Jacob had pitched next to the wagon. Never in her life had she toiled as hard as she had today. Ah, just to lay her head on the pillow would be heaven! Not to mention how much she’d enjoy the luxury of sleeping soundly until dawn. She lay down next to Jacob and had half drifted to sleep when she felt a tug at her nightgown and a hand creeping beneath. Oh, please, not tonight! She didn’t think she could bear another of his near-nightly invasions of those personal, private parts of herself she had always kept sacred. Never had she refused him, but she was just so very tired ... “Jacob, please, I would rather not.”
His hand kept creeping. “Now, be a good wife,” he whispered as he climbed atop her.
She stifled a sigh and submitted, as she always did. At least she knew he’d be quick. Then she could roll over and get some precious sleep.
A few nights later, while most of the members of the party were gathered around the campfire after supper, a wagon headed in the opposite direction arrived. The owner, a tall, one-armed man named Augustus Turner, asked and received permission for himself, his wife, and three children to join the circle for the night.
“I don’t care beans about going west anymore,” Augustus said. He and his family had joined the others around the nightly campfire. “I just want to get back to Ohio.”
Millicent, his grim-face wife, nodded vigorously. “I knew it would be bad from almost the very start, when we started following the Platte. We started passing lots of dead animals—cattle, oxen, and such—and then there were the graves by the side of the trail. It was just the saddest sight you ever did see. Not a day went by when I didn’t see one or more. Sometimes the name was marked on a board, but some weren’t marked at all.”
“Most of the graves were shallow,” Augustus went on. “Like the people didn’t have the time or inclination to dig a deep enough hole.”
“It was just terrible,” Millicent said. “Some of the corpses were dug up by animals. Other times the Indians dug them up and stole their clothes.”
A collective gasp went up from the listeners around the campfire. Bad enough to die on the trail, but how awful to have some savage dig you up and strip you bare.
“We crossed river after river,” Augustus continued. “At one, the current was so swift that we lost our other wagon, two oxen, and a horse.”
“Is that when you turned back?” Jacob asked.
Augustus shook his head. “We kept going, and then—” his voice choked.
“We lost our little girl.” Millicent’s voice wavered. “Our little Leanna was just five. It happened so fast I couldn’t do a thing. One minute she was a’settin’ on the wagon seat, and the next, out she fell and got run over by a wheel.”
Amidst murmurs of sympathy, Augustus took up the tale. “She died right then. We had to bury her by the side of the trail.”
“Is that when you turned back?”
“We kept on.” Augustus brushed a tear away with the back of his hand. “It was tough going. By then, you should’ve seen all the furniture ’n’ books ’n’ bedding ’n’ I don’t know what, all thrown overboard from the wagons that had gone before ours. People are dumb, thinking they can haul all their fancy possessions clear to California.”
“I find that hard to believe.” As usual, Cordelia had not failed to dress for the evening and looked quite elegant in her hoop-skirted blue taffeta dress. She cast a skeptical gaze at Augustus.
“It’s true, ma’am. I even seen a piano thrown away. You see, there was times we went days without grass and water for the animals. They got weak, and when that happened, they couldn’t pull a full load. Nothing folks could do but throw their things away.”
Jacob asked, “So is that when you turned back?”
“We kept going. Then the Indians attacked. Comanche most likely.” He touched his empty sleeve. “Got an arrow in my arm.”
Millicent cast a pained gaze at her husband. “His arm got them red streaks, then it started turning black.” She shuddered. “I can still hear his screams when they took it off.”
Augustus cast a rueful look at his empty right sleeve. “That’s when we turned back.”
Later, before turning in, Bessie said, “Did you hear what the Turners said? Oh, Lucy, I’m so scared. When I think of the months ahead and what could happen ... I’ll never make it to California!”
Lucy patted her shoulder. “Don’t you worry. The Turners had some really bad luck, that’s all. It’s not going to happen to us. I’m not the least bit concerned, and you shouldn’t be, either.”
What a lie. Although Lucy had put on her most confident voice, the Turner’s sad tale had shaken her as well. The Schneider Party had only begun their journey. Fear knotted inside her when she thought of all the terrible things that could happen during the long months ahead.
Next morning, Lucy woke to the sound of hysterical screams. A woman’s voice ... it was Cordelia! “Something’s wrong,” she called to Jacob. They quickly pulled on their clothes and hurried outside where they discovered an empty space where the Turner wagon had been parked. In its place stood Cordelia, wild-eyed, clenching her fists.
“What’s happened?” Lucy asked.
“Sukey’s gone,” Cordelia screeched. “They took my cook!”
“Who took your cook?” asked Jacob.
Cordelia pointed a shaking finger southeast in the general direction the Turners must be traveling. “Sukey had the nerve, the audacity, to leave with the Turners. She left a note, hardly readable, I might add. I cannot believe this. She said she was tired of me, tired of cooking, tired of my darling Chadwick, and wanted to go to Ohio with the Turners.” Panic filled Cordelia’s eyes. “Sukey’s gone. I can’t cook! Captain, I must have her back.”
“That is impossible.”
“You must go after them! Tell Sukey I’ll even pay her wages, anything she asks.” Cordelia hesitated. “Within reason, of course.”
Jacob firmly shook his head. “Sorry, but we can’t hold up the others because you’ve lost your cook.”
By then, a sympathetic crowd had gathered, including Bessie, Hannah and her husband, Elija, and Agnes and William Applegate. Lucy noticed immediately that Clint Palance and Charlie Dawes had joined the crowd.
William Applegate said, “Turner couldn’t have gone far. Why not send someone back, or go back yourself?”
Jacob looked down his nose at William Applegate, a blunt, ill-mannered man he despised. “The sooner we reach the Platte, the better. That’s my plan. I won’t deviate.”
“Please, Captain,” begged Cordelia.
John Potts stepped forward. “Hells fire, we don’t mind waiting.” The crowd murmured its agreement.
“Well, perhaps ...” Jacob’s face softened. Relieved, Lucy observed he was about to give in.
“We shall not turn back!” came Abner’s thunderous voice.
In dismay, Lucy watched her brother-in-law lift his head and assume his I-am-the-prophet stance, a sure sign he was about to quote a scripture. Now was not the time. He wasn’t ... he couldn’t ... Lord help us, he was.
“Philippians two, Verse fourteen. ‘Do all things without murmurings and disputing.’ ” Abner cast a stern glance at his brother. “Is that not so?”
Not to Lucy’s surprise, but to her great chagrin, Jacob nodded in agreement. “I cannot argue with the scriptures.”
“So you refuse?” Cordelia’s lower lip trembled.
Jacob’s tightening jaw and cold eyes told Lucy in advance what his reply would be. “I have spoken.”
My husband is an idiot. Lucy caught herself. How could she think such a thing? But who, other than an idiot, would allow his brother to make his decisions?
“Don’t you worry,” called Bessie. “There ain’t nothing to cooking. We’ll show you how.”
Hannah nodded in agreement. “We’ll have you flipping slapjacks in no time.”
“I ... don’t ... cook!” White-faced, Cordelia stalked to her wagon and disappeared inside.
Hannah clucked in sympathy. “Poor thing, what’s she going to do?”
Bessie chimed in. “Well, she ain’t going to find a new cook in the middle of nowhere.”
“Cordelia either cooks or she starves.” Agnes gave a nod of satisfaction. “That goes for her mealy-mouthed husband and Chadwick, too. Serves her right for being so uppity.”
Lucy had heard enough. Amidst the continued murmurings from the crowd, she returned to their tent, pitched next to the wagon. She was rolling up bedding when she heard voices outside. Peering out, she saw her husband and his brother returning, followed by Clint Palance.
“Hold up, Captain!” Clint called.
Through the small slit opening, Lucy watched Jacob and Abner halt reluctantly. “What do you want?” Jacob asked. “If it’s about going after Sukey, I refuse to break my rule for some crazy woman.”
Clint smiled pleasantly. “I’m going to ride after the Turners. Maybe I can get Sukey to change her mind, maybe not. It’s worth a try. Don’t wait. Start without me, and I’ll catch up.”
Abner’s eyes blazed. His mouth took on an unpleasant twist. “No, you won’t. My brother is the leader of this wagon train, duly elected. You are under his command and will do as he says.”
Clint pushed back the wide brim of his hat with his thumb. He slung his hands to his buckskin-clad hips and rested his tough, sinewy body back on his heels. Ignoring Abner, he addressed Jacob. “Here’s the way it is. Charlie Dawes and I were hired to lead your wagon train to California, and that’s what we’ll do. What we won’t do is take any of your shit.” He flicked a glance at Abner. “Or your brother’s, either.”
Abner’s face suffused with red. His eyes bulged out as if he were about to choke. Before he could speak, Clint spoke, still addressing his remarks to Jacob, who stood sputtering. “Anything else? Have I made myself clear?”
Clint turned to leave, but Jacob grabbed his arm. “Don’t you dare turn your back on me! I’ll take this to the council. I’ll—”
“You do that.” Clint made no move to loosen his arm from Jacob’s grasp. Instead, he regarded Jacob with the cool, fearless eyes of a man who had fought a band of savage Indians and won, and an angry grizzly bear and survived. “Now take your goddamn fucking hand off my arm.”
Jacob dropped his hand so fast it could have been touching a red hot iron. Clint started to walk away. Puffing himself up with righteous wrath, Jacob boomed after him, “Exodus sixteen, Verse eight, Clint Palance, ‘Your murmurings are not against us, but against the Lord!’ ”
Clint stopped in his tracks and turned. The merest hint of a smile hovered around his lips. “Ecclesiastes seven, Verse sixteen, Jacob Schneider. ‘Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise.’ ”
He walked away, leaving both Jacob and Abner with their mouths hanging open.
Oh, hilarious! The look on Jacob’s face! Self-righteous Abner for once at a loss for words. Lucy had to clap her hand over her mouth to stifle her laughter. She wondered how an irreverent man like Clint could have delivered just the right scripture. Seconds later, she was making herself busy with the bedding when Jacob stepped into the tent, face still red, his breathing heavy from his rage. “Did you hear that? That profane man has taken the name of the Lord in vain! He must be dismissed. I shall not tolerate—”
“We’ll never reach California without him.”
“Didn’t you hear him? He blasphemed!”
“Then cover your ears next time.” Arms full of blankets, Lucy shouldered her way past her husband and out of the tent. Back in the wagon, it occurred to her that she’d never shown him such defiance. Because of it, her spirits soared in a way she couldn’t quite understand. What she perceived was, it was about time she spoke up, time she stopped allowing Jacob to bully her. In future, she’d speak her mind more often.
As for Clint, she ought to be incensed that he’d made a fool of her husband, shocked by his salty language, appalled at his disrespect. Instead, she kept picturing his fearless, nonchalant manner. Jacob was taller than Clint, and heavier, yet she sensed if he hadn’t instantly removed his hand from Clint’s arm, he would’ve found himself ass-over-tea-kettle on the ground, his dignity in tatters.
Throughout the morning, the wagon train made slow but steady progress. By noon Clint had still not returned. Cordelia stayed hidden in her wagon, leaving Nathaniel, Chadwick, and their two hired men to fend for themselves for their meals. Some of the wives, including Lucy, gladly gave biscuits, beans, and pancakes to the hungry men, but all knew such generosity couldn’t continue.
At the noon break, Bessie stopped by Lucy’s cooking fire. “That Sukey had better come back soon.” She rolled her eyes heavenward. “Jesus wants us to share, but John doesn’t like to keep handing out all that extra food.”
“Jacob’s the same.” Lucy didn’t care to describe her husband’s flare of temper when he saw her doling out food from their precious supply.
“We only have enough for ourselves,” he’d thundered. She’d talked him into being generous for one more meal, pointing out that a leader of men should not appear stingy. He’d reluctantly conceded. “But just one more meal. We’re not going to feed the whole camp. The Bentons can starve, for all I care, or better yet, turn around and go back home.”
She and Jacob were sitting on the wagon seat eating their noon meal when in the distance she saw Clint Palance riding back alone. With growing apprehension, she watched him draw closer. Jacob hadn’t said a word concerning this morning’s ugly scene. She wondered if he’d be polite to Clint or if he was still in a rage over the man’s failure to obey and his so-called blasphemy.
Clint rode straight to Jacob’s wagon and touched the brim of his hat in greeting, casually, as if the earlier confrontation never occurred. “Sukey won’t come back, Captain. She’s hell-bent on going to Ohio with the Turners.”
Lucy held her breath while her husband sat silent, his broad face expressionless. No doubt he was trying to decide whether to lash out at Clint again or stifle his anger and resentment. Jacob cleared his throat. “That’s too bad. Will you inform Mrs. Benton?”
What a relief! Jacob sounded none too gracious, but at least civil. He wasn’t going to dismiss Clint and Charlie, thank the Lord. “I’ll inform Mrs. Benton if you like, Mister Palance,” Lucy said.
Clint smiled in relief. “If you wouldn’t mind. I don’t relish being the one to tell her.”
Minutes later, Lucy approached the Bentons’ wagon, wondering what had possessed her to volunteer for the unpleasant task of breaking the bad news to Cordelia. She went around to the rear of the wagon and knocked on the backboard. “Mrs. Benton? It’s me, Lucy Schneider.”
She heard a sharp “Go away,” from inside.
“I have news of Sukey.”
Cordelia poked her head through the opening. “Good or bad?”
“For you, bad.”
Tight-lipped, Cordelia jerked back the canvas flap and climbed to the ground. She faced Lucy with crossed arms and a frown. “Sukey refused to return?”
“Mister Palance said he tried, but Sukey wants to go to Ohio. It’s a free state. I doubt she’d ever want to return to Atlanta where she’d still be a slave.”
“That little ingrate! I treated her well. Never whipped her once, and this is the thanks I get.”
“Apparently, she just wants to be free.”
Cordelia’s shoulders sagged. Her thin, aristocratic face grew haggard, the lines around her mouth more drawn. “What am I going to do? Nathaniel won’t even consider going back to Atlanta, and I can’t cook. I won’t cook!” She extended her dainty white hands palms up. “These are the hands of a lady. They weren’t meant for hauling wood and baking biscuits and God knows what. All my life I’ve had servants to wait on me. I’ve never had to dress myself or comb my hair. I have never once cooked my own meal, and I can’t change now. It’s too late.”
Lucy looked down at her own hands. Like Cordelia’s, they had once been soft, smooth, and alabaster white. Now they’d begun to brown and roughen. An ugly red burn from a cooking pot marred her palm. “I know it’s not easy, but—”
“I never wanted to come on this trip!” Cordelia wailed. “This was all Nathaniel’s idea, him and his manifest destiny. I’m much too delicate for this, much too ... too ...”
Spoiled and pamperedwere the words that sprung to Lucy’s lips, words she forced herself to suppress while Cordelia sputtered. She couldn’t suppress her anger. Just who did Cordelia think she was, some sort of princess? Better than the rest? The remains of the sympathy she’d felt for this mollycoddled woman vanished, replaced by mounting scorn. “Do you realize your husband and son have nothing to eat?” She was none too kindly. “To say nothing of your hired hands.”
The distressed woman fluttered her eyelids in bewilderment. “What do you mean?”
“Because you won’t fix them a meal, your husband and son, as well as your hired young men, have been begging food from your neighbors. So far, everyone’s been generous, but believe me, it won’t last.”
“Perhaps I can hire one of the women—”
“Not likely. Every woman in this wagon train is already worked to death, and furthermore ...” She paused, surprised at herself. What had come over her? She would never have uttered such a sharp retort in the fancy parlor on Beacon Hill. Instead, she would’ve mouthed the usual shallow platitudes, never dreaming of saying what she really thought. Now her cultured, cozy little world lay far behind her. On a journey like this, no one cared about genteel manners, idle chatter, or polite little lies. Simply surviving each grueling day was all that mattered.
“You have no choice. You must do what needs to be done. It’s as simple as that.”
“You’re suggesting Icook?”
“We’ll all help. Bessie and Hannah have already volunteered, as well as—”
“I don’t care to be beholden to women like that.”
“Women like what?”
“You know, of a lesser standing. Really! I suspect some of them don’t even know how to read or write.”
“Who cares? You should be grateful they’re willing to help.”
“I couldn’t possibly! I’m much too delicate, and frankly, such manual labor is simply beneath me.”
Something snapped. She’d had enough. “My dear Cordelia, let’s not get into a discussion concerning what’s beneath you and what’s not. Maybe you were the leader of Atlanta society, but you aren’t anymore. You’re no better than the rest of us. You’d best remember you squat behind a bush just like the rest of us.”
Cordelia gasped. Her hand flew to her heart. “Why, Mrs. Schneider! I find your remark to be ... to be ...”
“Yes, I know, extremely crude, and you’re shocked. Well, that doesn’t change the fact you’d better pull yourself together and start doing your part.” Lucy could hardly believe she’d just said that. Perhaps she’d gone too far, yet it was high time someone set this snobbish southern belle straight.
Cordelia remained silent for a very long time. Finally, she heaved a resigned sigh and muttered in a very small voice, “I see I have no choice. Very well then, I shall try.”
On her way back to the wagon, in high spirits after her success with Cordelia, Lucy passed by the one small wagon that belonged to Palance and Dawes. She saw Clint in front, building a fire. “Mrs. Benton says she’ll cook!”
“That’s good news.” Clint strolled over to chat. “Mrs. Benton has some funny ideas, but she’s got a lot of grit. I suspect once she gets the hang of it, she’ll be fine.”
“I think so, too.” Remembering the events of the morning, Lucy tried to stifle her curiosity but couldn’t. She tipped her head to one side. “By the way, wherever did you come up with that quote from the Bible? Was it just luck or do you know the scriptures as well as Abner and my husband?”
“You heard?” The lines around Clint’s eyes wrinkled in amusement. “Were the Captain and his brother properly impressed?”
“Oh, yes.” She let loose a bubbling peal of laughter. “Properly impressed, indeed.”
Clint nodded with satisfaction. “My father taught me the Bible. Yes, I could match your husband scripture for scripture if I had to.” There was a pause in which he seemed to debate whether to say more. “Back home in Kentucky, my father was a preacher.”
“Not really. He raised me with a Bible in one hand and a birch whip in the other. I got tired of being beat. Left home when I was twelve.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” She sensed he’d just revealed a confidence not often shared.
“Don’t be sorry. It was the best thing I ever did. I never looked back. Since then, I’ve led the life I wanted to lead.” He folded his arms and regarded her with curious eyes. “What of you? Are you leading the life you want to lead?”
She responded with a cynical laugh. “Now what do you think?”
“What do I think?” He paused, seeming to gather his thoughts. “You view this journey as the worst thing ever happened to you. I predict that some day you’ll think otherwise. That’s because I see depths in you that you don’t even know you have.”
“Really?” She was astounded.
“Yes, really. I see strength, determination, a will to survive. I see a woman who was meant for something more than sitting in a fancy Boston parlor serving tea, much as you might believe otherwise.”
“So far I’m hating it. So far I’m scared to death of all the things Augustus Turner talked about. Accidents, drownings, Indians—”
“You’re a survivor. If ever I saw a woman meant to pull through, no matter what, it’s you.”
Struck speechless, she wondered if he was only trying to flatter her. She searched his sun- and wind-burned face, marked forever by the jagged scar from the grizzly, and saw only honesty in his eyes. She should have known. Clint Palance was a man who didn’t tell lies, not even little white ones. She found herself immensely flattered. Aside from her father, none of the men she’d known had gone beyond mouthing meaningless blandishments about her pretty eyes, pert little nose, soft, silky hair. Come to think of it, Jacob hadn’t even said that much. Since they’d left Massachusetts, she’d spent endless hours cooking, scrubbing, and taking care of his child, yet he hadn’t expressed one word of thanks or appreciation. She doubted he ever would. “Thank you. That was kind of you to say.”
She wanted to stay and talk, but standing in the middle of the campground, she could almost feel the sharp eyes of Agnes Applegate drilling into her back. “I’d best be off.”
He touched his hat. “Good day.”
“Good day.” Her spirits high, she wiggled her fingers at him in a bubbly little wave. When she turned, sure enough, there was Agnes staring directly at her with a wise little smirk on her face.You old gossip.She gave a gay wave to Agnes, too. Clint’s flattering words still in her head, she walked toward her campsite with buoyant steps.
She was almost there when she saw Jacob standing beside the wagon awaiting her return, fists clenched, face livid. Dear Lord! Had he seen her laughing conversation with Clint? The gay wave? The happy spring in her step?
“What were you doing talking to Palance?” Jacob demanded when she drew close, the volume of his voice lowered only by his awareness of the sharp ears of close neighbors.
“I won’t have you talking to that man, do you understand?” His chest heaved. His breath came in short, angry pants.
“Do ... you ... understand?” His quiet words came hissing through barred teeth, reminding her of a wild-eyed, salivating wolf about to spring on its prey. The effect frightened her more than if he were shouting. She fought her impulse to bolt and run—mustn’t make a scene—and forced herself to stand and listen. “For the good of the company, I must tolerate that blasphemer, but that doesn’t mean my wife is to speak to him, ever! Do I make myself clear?”
She tried to answer but found herself unable to speak over the lump of panic in her throat. Thank God for the neighbors. She had the feeling that if Jacob were not aware of their curious ears and eyes, those clenched fists he held tight to his sides would surely have struck her by now. “Jacob, why are you so angry? I was only telling Mister Palance about Cordelia. She’s agreed to cook.”
She waited, desperately hoping she’d dispelled her husband’s fury.
Jacob remained silent, glaring at her until, gradually, his heaving chest and anger-contorted face returned to normal. “You mind what I said. Clint Palance is a wicked, worldly man. You stay away from him. Now get back to work.” He spun around and left.
Deeply shaken, she noticed little Noah peering at her through the canvas with round, frightened eyes. He must’ve heard every word. She wanted to climb inside the wagon and hide from the world, but for her stepson’s sake, she forced herself to be calm, act normal.
“It’s time for me to wash the dishes, sweetheart. Be a love and help me.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Noah hopped nimbly from the wagon to the tongue, then to the ground, eager to do her bidding. Once again, this sweet little boy, so kind and loving, so eager to please, touched her heart. He was smart, too, and immensely curious about everything, sometimes spouting questions a mile a minute until the adults tired of answering. “Is Father mad?”
Lucy tousled Noah’s blond curls. “He was mad, but just a little bit. Everything’s fine now.”
She busied herself with cleaning up after the noontime meal, thinking everything was not so fine. She’d already discovered there was no such thing as privacy in a wagon train. Gossip spread fast as lightning. Everyone would pretend otherwise, but Jacob’s tirade, muted though it was, had been seen, heard, and carefully noted. Surely tongues would wag. She’d wager that by sunset the whole world would be aware Jacob Schneider had roundly upbraided his wife over her behavior with Clint Palance.
Just what had she done? So unfair! Why couldn’t she have a conversation with a man without tongues wagging, without her husband raging at her? After grimly mulling for a while, she forced herself to face the truth. Clint Palance wasn’t just any man. He was a man she was drawn to, could not stop thinking about, no matter how hard she tried. Strange, how her unimaginative husband sensed the truth. It was almost as if he could read her mind.
Well, regardless of how harmless this foolishness was, it had to stop. Absolutely, she’d mend her ways. Even though Jacob couldn’t read her mind, from now on she wouldn’t care if he did. She was a good Christian woman who loved her husband. From this day forward, she wouldn’t waste one more thought on Clint Palance.
In the late afternoon, they came to a river so wide and fast-flowing that Clint and Charlie called for all to gather so they could discuss how they were going to get across.
Lucy, standing on the bank with a small knot of women, heard a lot of gloom and doom.
“My stars, how will we ever cross this one?” Bessie watched the water’s swift flow with dismay. “It looks so deep.”
“We shall all be drowned,” said Agnes.
“Do you think so?” Martha’s voice sounded small, scared. Lately she’d come out of her shell a bit, Lucy had noted with satisfaction, and now occasionally spoke her mind. Perhaps her pregnancy had given her more confidence.
Only ever-positive Hannah offered hope. “Fiddlesticks! Let’s just listen to what Mister Palance and Mister Dawes have to say. I trust they’ll get us across.”
Lucy agreed with Hannah. She gazed at the two experienced guides sitting casually atop their mounts: clean-shaven Clint lightly holding the reins with strong, practiced hands; grizzly-bearded Charlie regarding the crowd with his old, snappy eyes. Between them, they must have tackled dozens of rivers. They knew what to do. She was not afraid.
After gathering them all together, Clint said, “Folks, so far, the rivers we’ve crossed so far have been shallow. We waded across, both us and the cattle, and drove the wagons through without getting stuck or losing one wagon or animal.”
“This here one’s a mite different.” Charlie nodded toward the dark, swiftly flowing water. “You got a river what’s deep, running fast, and dangerous.”
“Can we get across?” someone yelled.
“Of course we’ll get across,” said Clint, “but you must listen carefully and do what we say. First, you’ve got to unload the wagons.”
“Everything,” Clint answered over groans from the crowd. “Then you’ve got to take the wagons apart, piece by piece, and that means wheels, canvas, tongues, all of it. Then we water-proof the wagons with wax.”
“Then we stretch a strong rope across the river with a tight wagon-bed attached to the middle of it. We’ll have men standing on either side to keep the rope tight and pull each wagon across, one by one. When we get all the wagons to the other side, we build rafts to haul the goods from the wagons, same way, attached to ropes. Everything a little at a time. When that’s done, we bring the women and children, then we’ll swim the cattle and horses.”
Shaking his head in disapproval, Jacob stepped forward. “Sounds like a lot of work to me. Surely there must be an easier way. Perhaps we could find a spot where the river isn’t that deep and we could simply drive the wagons across.”
“Not possible,” Clint answered firmly. “Every part of that river is treacherous. Do it the way we said or you’ll have drownings on your hands, and I mean people as well as animals.”
Lucy knew from the cold exactness in Jacob’s voice he wasn’t happy with Clint’s answer. He argued no further, though, aware that he had no choice but to bow to Clint and Charlie’s judgment. He called to everyone, “Very well, let’s get to work.”
The crossing took two days, during which every man, woman, and child over the age of five pitched in to help, all focused on the momentous task of crossing the river. Lucy toiled along with the rest, helping to unpack the wagons and take them apart. She also caught up on other chores. After baking a supply of biscuits, she heated water in a large kettle and poured it into a big wooden wash tub, set up by the river. In a line of other women, all busy with their laundry, she scrubbed a sizeable batch of wash, spreading clothes and linens to dry on bushes that lined the banks. She was doing Martha’s wash as well. The poor woman was suffering greatly from early pregnancy nausea, so Lucy constantly tried to lighten her load.
“Ain’t it a pleasure to have hot water to wash in?” Bessie was doing her wash beside her. Up to now, they’d had little time for heating water. Mostly they’d done their wash in cold water.
Lucy agreed what a pleasure it was, then found herself remembering another time, another place that now seemed so remote. Had there ever been a Miss Lucy Parker who lived on Beacon Street in Boston? Whose servants did her wash while she, spoiled creature that she was, never gave it a thought? Lucy looked about her, at the raging river crashing over rocks and huge boulders, at the surrounding forest thick with pine trees. Was there really a Boston? Her former life seemed a million miles away. She extended her hands— red and swollen from backbreaking scrubbing, hard soap, as well as the endless days of sun and wind. “They’ll never be the same,” she whispered, sadly shaking her head.
Bessie held out her own hands, equally red and roughened. “We’ll be out in the weather for months to come. There ain’t no way to prevent it, far as I can see. At least you’ve got your face covered.”
Lucy reached up to touch the blue cotton sunbonnet Bessie had made for her. At first she’d resisted wearing one, even though all the other women did. They were so unattractive. The brim poked out over her face in such a ridiculous fashion! What would her stylish friends in Boston think? After a few days in the outdoors, she gave in, forced to admit the ugly sunbonnets were the best protection against the hot rays of the sun.
Bessie looked to a spot along the bank where a woman, separated from the rest, struggled to wash her clothes alone. “Poor Mrs. Benton doesn’t want to associate with the likes of us. I’ve helped her some with the cooking, but she mostly turns up her nose and wants to be left alone.”
“I feel sorry for her.” Lucy wondered how she could carry on without the friendship and camaraderie of the other women. Even now, in the midst of washing clothes, her companions’ jokes and chatter made the backbreaking task infinitely more bearable. Everyone helped one another. Even Agnes, ill-natured though she was, had just helped her spread a bulky wet blanket over some bushes without being asked, not expecting any thanks.
The journey had only just begun, but already Lucy felt a strong bond with these women, even more than she ever felt with her dear Boston friends. Her present companions came from all different backgrounds—some rich, some poor, some educated, some illiterate. Wherever they came from, however imperfect their English, each woman had two things in common: each shared the same heartbreak at leaving her home and family behind. Each worried over the dangers that lay ahead, not so much for herself, but for her husband and children. What a shame Cordelia had chosen to isolate herself. She had no idea how funny Agnes could be with her vinegary outlook on life. Nor would she learn from Inez Helmick, the midwife, who was sharing her vast knowledge of the uses of herbs and other medicines.
Poor Cordelia. Lucy decided she’d try again, just one more time.
When all her wash was done, she made her way up the riverbank to where Cordelia scrubbed her clothes. She had even put Chadwick to work. Face clouded with twelve-year-old resentment, the chubby little boy was busy spreading Cordelia’s wash on the bushes to dry. With silent amusement, Lucy noted he wasn’t quite as chubby as when she first saw him. No doubt he wasn’t eating as much, what with Cordelia’s lack of cooking skills. Not only that, Clint had taken the boy under his wing and taught him to ride. Chad, mounted on one of his father’s horses, followed Clint around whenever possible.
“Cordelia?” Lucy pressed the back of her hand into the small of her back. It ached after hours of bending over the wash tub. “I just came by to see how you’re doing.”
Visibly annoyed, Cordelia looked up from her wash. Her expression softened when she saw who it was. “How’m I doing? How does it look like I’m doing?” With a wet, soapy forearm, she shoved a bedraggled curl back off her forehead. With disgust, she looked down at her soiled, wet skirt. “I cannot believe this is happening. Back in Georgia, I wouldn’t have allowed my scullery maids to look like this.”
“Well, we’re not in Georgia now.” With an unladylike grunt, Lucy sank wearily to a log and stretched her boots in front of her. “You should join us. There’s no sense isolating yourself.”
Cordelia’s mouth pulled into a bleak, tight-lipped smile. “Thank you, but I have nothing in common with those women.”
“You can’t ignore them the whole trip.”
Cordelia crossed her arms. “Yes, I can, and I will.”
“They’re lovely women. Granted, some don’t have a good education, and some are not, as you say, refined, but never will you find women more generous, more kind and thoughtful, more—”
“I have my standards.” Cordelia’s voice rang with finality.
Hopeless. Lucy knew when she was defeated. “Well, I hope your standards get you through the next fifteen hundred miles.” With another unladylike grunt, she pushed herself off the log. “Meantime, if you need any help, let me know.”
“Oh, I will. You know I wantyoufor a friend.”
Lucy found herself too tired to argue the foolishness of Cordelia’s last remark. Instead, she nodded a quick goodbye and started walking through a heavy growth of trees to the wagon. Not walking ... limping would be more accurate. Her back hurt. Her feet hurt. Her whole body ached, and all she wanted was to get back to her wagon and lie down, if only for a little while. Ahead she heard the clop of a horse’s hooves. Clint Palance rounded a grove of pine trees. Dear Lord, what if Jacob saw them together? Not only that, her appearance! Never had she looked and felt so bedraggled. Of all the people she didnotwant to see, it was him.
Clint rode close and reined in his horse. “Good afternoon.”
In a panic, she threw a glance over her shoulder. “Uh, good afternoon.”
He looked down at her, apparently amused. “You’re safe. He’s across the river.”
“So you know.”
With one swift, graceful move, he swung off his horse and faced her. “Haven’t you found out yet, there are no secrets in a wagon train?”
“Then I guess you know my husband said I shouldn’t speak to you.”
“Your husband is no fool.”
It took a moment for the meaning of his words to sink in. When they did, she felt her face go crimson. How could he be so blatantly honest about what to her was her deepest, darkest, most shameful secret? In the world she came from, certain subjects were never to be discussed. “Mister Palance—”
“Don’t worry.” An easy smile played at the corners of his mouth. “If your husband doesn’t want us to speak, then we won’t speak. You should know, though, I find you ...” His smile disappeared. His gaze traveled over her face and searched her eyes, just like the day he helped with the firewood. Her heart jolted as the same intense message flashed from him to her and back again. She had to fight a near-overwhelming urge to lean into his arms and close the space between them.
“Good God.” His voice sounded strange. Abruptly, he broke his gaze, stepped back, and let his eyes travel down to the swelling beneath her apron, larger now, too big to conceal. She didn’t even try. For a moment, he squeezed his eyes shut, as if surprised at himself. Next moment, his foot was in his horse’s stirrup. An easy swing returned him to the saddle. “Time to go.”
She knew she shouldn’t ask but couldn’t quell her burning curiosity. “You haven’t finished your sentence. I should know you find me ... what?”
“I’ll save my answer for another day.”
She knew better than to ask again, much as she wanted to. Best to change the subject. “Will we be safe, crossing that river?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be there for you.” He rode away.
Throughout the next day, straining, cursing men, using all their strength, hauled forty wagons safely across the river’s swift current. Following that, they brought the rafts across, piled high with goods from the wagons. Women and children came next. At dusk, the final group, Lucy and Noah among them, waded through shallow water at the river’s edge and huddled together on what would be the last raft to cross.
Lucy held Noah in front of her, arms locked around him. The child twisted his head around and stared wide-eyed at the fast current. “Will we be all right?”
She wished she knew. She was every bit as nervous as Noah but hoped it didn’t show. “Of course, we’ll be all right. Didn’t you see how the wagons got across safely, then all the other people on the rafts? We’ve got your father to keep you safe, and Mister Dawes, and Mister Palance, and all the other men. This is going to be fun. Think of it as an adventure.”
“Adventure, my foot.” Bessie’s face was taut with fear. She sat by Lucy, clutching her three little boys.
Roxana, Bessie’s oldest daughter, sat on her other side, her fair-skinned face flushed with excitement. She kept a firm grip on her two younger sisters. “Ma, don’t worry, Mrs. Schneider’s right. The others traveled safely, and we will, too.”
Lucy thought that if she had a daughter, she’d want her to be like blond, sixteen-year-old Roxana, who was not only pretty but level-headed and always cheerful besides. She glanced around at some of the others on the raft. Agnes sat cross-legged like the rest, surrounded by her brood of six. For once, her caustic mouth remained firmly shut. The raft hadn’t yet left the water’s edge, but already she was hanging on for dear life. Inez Helmick, minus her usual self-confident expression, clung to three of her children while Bessie’s sister, Hannah, who had no children of her own, held the other two. And, of course, timid Martha, who sat with her eyes squeezed shut, muttered her prayers.
Cordelia sat by herself. Over her objections, Clint had enlisted Chad to work with the men on shore. Chad had gone gladly, happy to get away from his mother’s smothering care. Lucy noticed every woman on the raft had one thing in common: fear in her eyes. True, the other rafts had crossed safely, but two of them had almost tipped, one when the rope caught on a rock, and one when a log struck it midstream. The men managed to pull both to the far shore without further incident, but Lucy easily imagined what would’ve happened had the women and children aboard been flung into the icy water. Most of them couldn’t swim.
“Everybody ready?” Charlie Dawes shouted from the bank. “Let’s get this raft across.”
The men started hauling on the ropes. They started across, everyone hanging on tight. All went well until the middle of the river ... when one of the ropes snapped. Amid frightened cries, the raft spun around and tipped. Lucy gripped Noah tight while a spray of cold water from the river drenched them. They were going to tip over. Were they going to die? Her heart raced. Seconds later, the raft righted itself, and they were again underway. She saw Clint, atop Paint, fighting the swift current but hanging tight to the rope.
“Just look what Mister Palance done,” Bessie cried as the raft floated to shore. “Rode his horse right into the river and saved us all.”
“Yes, it looks that way.” Lucy remembered Clint’s words,Don’t worry. I’ll be there for you. He’d been there for the others, too, but somehow she knew he’d been watching over her especially, determined to keep his word.
* * *
When Clint got back to shore, his partner gave him a funny look. “That was a dang foolish thing to do. You could have been killed riding into that swift water.”
“I wasn’t, was I?”
Charlie took his time answering. “Looks to me like if a certain person hadn’t been aboard that raft, you never would’ve taken such a crazy chance.”
“Every life is precious.”
“Even so ...”
After a swift and definitely annoyed glance from his partner, Charlie closed his mouth. Both still astride their horses, they watched Lucy, Noah in hand, and the others wade to shore, all of them wet, bedraggled, and shivering from a sudden chill wind.
“Thank God, it’s over.” Bessie called to Charlie Dawes. “I surely hope we don’t have to do this again.”
Before Charlie spoke, he exchanged a rueful glance with Clint. “There’s many a river to cross afore we get to California. This here’s just the beginning.”
* * *
In the hours that followed, Lucy found herself so busy she barely had time to change from wet clothes to dry or even sit down. Along with Jacob, Benjamin, and Henry, she helped rebuild and repack the wagons. Despite her pleas, the men showed little regard to how, with her tidy nature, she’d originally insisted upon a place for everything and everything in its place. Now they heaped in everything in a complete jumble, causing her to wonder how she’d ever find clothes, dishes, pots and pans—anything at all. Too tired to complain, she collected firewood and built a fire, then fixed a hasty dinner of biscuits and beans. By the time she hauled water from the river, washed the dishes, put them away, and put Noah to bed in the wagon, she crawled into the tent Jacob had erected, totally exhausted.
Jacob lay in bed, sound asleep.Thank you, Lord. After such a day, surely he wouldn’t wake up now. She would have a whole, wonderful night’s sleep without having to endure his near-nightly attentions. Silently, she slipped into her nightgown. Stealthy as a cat, she slipped between the covers and lay next to her snoring husband.Please don’t wake up now.
Jacob kept snoring. Ah, she counted her blessings. She savored the thought of a few precious hours of peaceful sleep and was just drifting off when she heard the patter of light rain. Drowsily, she hoped it wouldn’t get worse, but soon, the patter turned to pounding. Not long after, she felt something damp seep from underneath. She stuck her hand out of the covers to touch the ground.Wet. “Jacob!” She shook her husband awake. “It’s raining! Water’s seeping into the tent!” As if to punctuate her words, a huge clap of thunder broke over their heads, so loud the ground shook. Seconds later, the heavens let loose with such a deluge of rain the tent sagged in, and a stream of water came running through.
“Lord Almighty!” Jacob leaped up and stared at the water.
Lucy cried, “Take the bedding. We must get to the wagon.”
They grabbed the mattress and what blankets they could. Through what seemed a wall of water, they ran for the wagon, just as a barrage of hail struck.
Inside they found Noah awake and sitting straight up, shivering with fright. He watched as Lucy and Jacob hastily climbed inside, both soaked to the skin. “Father, will we be all right?”
“Of course, Son. We’re under a heavy rainproof canvas, double thickness. Nothing can get through.”
Lucy couldn’t quite believe what her husband said was true, not with hailstones big as her fist pounding on the cover. Not with the enormous peals of thunder that assaulted her eardrums and the jagged bolts of lightning that flashed nonstop, as if to rip the sky apart. She gazed upward in time to see a split appear in the very top of the canvas, and then another. Water began to pour through the front and back, despite Jacob’s tightening the flaps. Soon mattresses, blankets, clothes, everything not packed in the trunks, was soaked through. A chill wind lashed the wagon, so hard she feared it would be blown apart. She was drenched and shivering. “Jacob, what shall we do?”
His face carefully blank, Jacob reached for his Bible, kept dry beneath his coat. “We shall pray.”
“Pray?” Sudden rage shot through her. “Here we sit in the middle of nowhere, cold, wet, and the cover ready to rip off any second, and that’s all you can do?”
He shook his head as if gently admonishing a child. “Psalms thirty-seven, Verse eight: ‘Cease from anger, and forsake wrath.’ ”
Oh, she could kill him! “You’ve got to do something. Not just sit there and quote the Bible.”
“Are you mad at Father?” Noah’s voice was small and frightened. His teeth chattered. He was shaking now, his little face white from the cold.
Shemustcalm down. Ranting at Jacob wouldn’t do a bit of good. “No, I’m not mad, sweetheart. Here, let’s try to get warm.” She gathered her stepson and lay down with him on the soaked mattress, pulling him close in her arms. No use pulling the covers up. They were soaked, too. “Jacob, there’s a piece of canvas in the trunk that might help. Get it and lie on the other side of Noah. We’ll put the canvas over us. Between the two of us we can try to keep him warm.”
Her husband seemed unable to move, as if overwhelmed into inaction. “We must pray first—”
“No!” she shot up at him through chattering teeth. “I shall pray when I’m not cold and shivering and wet. Now get that piece of canvas and get down here.”
To her surprise, Jacob complied without argument. The three of them lay together in a tight bundle, shivering, thoroughly soaked, sharing what warmth there was. After a time, the hail stopped, but the rain kept pelting the canvas, and the wind did not let up. Tired as she was, she found sleep impossible. She could only hope poor little Noah could sleep despite their misery and that he wouldn’t catch pneumonia. As for Jacob ...
Bitterness welled within her. Up to now she’d seen him as a pillar of strength, but tonight, for the first time, she had detected weakness. How indecisive he’d been! How helpless against the frightful storm! She seriously wondered why she married him. Father had warned her about the weakness he sensed beneath Jacob’s façade of strength. Sarah, too. No, she wouldn’t listen. She knew the reason. She’d been so anxious to escape the clutches of Pernelia, she took the first escape route that came along. Now, as a consequence, she found herself in the midst of the most miserable night of her life. Lying on the soggy mattress, her tears mixed with rain, she pictured her warm, snug bed back in Boston. Oh, how she missed it! Oh, how she wanted more than anything in this world just to be home. She wasn’t home because she was trapped in the middle of nowhere with no place to go, trapped with a husband she wasn’t sure she loved anymore. Oh surely not! Appalled, she wondered how she could eventhinksuch a thing. Of course she still loved Jacob. In the morning, when the sun shone again, she’d see all his wonderful qualities that tonight seemed to elude her. Then she’d remember all the good reasons why she married him, and all would be well.
Morning finally arrived but brought no sunshine. Instead, throughout the day, a steady, dreary rain fell upon the soaked, cold, wretched members of the Schneider wagon train. The muddy trail made continuing their trek impossible. They couldn’t even build a fire in the heavy downpour. Everyone huddled in their wagons, subsisting mainly on cold biscuits and beans. What Lucy wouldn’t give for a hot cup of tea! She spent part of the day sewing patches over the tears in the canvas, not easy when her fingers were numb with cold. The rest of the time she spent hunkered down in the wagon, trying to keep herself warm and Noah warm and entertained. Jacob arose early and left to make the rounds of the other wagons to see how everyone fared after the horrendous hailstorm. She should be proud of her husband, the fearless leader doing his duty, but she wasn’t. The memory of his indecision the night before, and his helplessness, hung heavy on her mind.
The next day the rain stopped, but they still couldn’t travel. Deep mud bogged the trail. Everyone in camp, all still cold and miserable, had to drag their soggy belongings from the wagons and lay them out to dry. Not an easy task, considering that scattered clouds hid much of the sunshine. As a result, the following morning when they rolled again, the wagons still smelled damp and musty. Lucy spent much of the day comforting Martha, who still fought nausea. Lucy didn’t feel so well, either, musing miserably that being pregnant in a smelly, rocking wagon wasn’t the easiest of fates.
Mid-morning, Jacob and Abner received a visit from the council, plus Clint and Charlie, after their wagons repeatedly got stuck in the mud. “Either lighten your load or get left behind,” demanded Agnes’ blunt, strapping husband, William Applegate. The other men of the council, including Elija Richards, Nathaniel Benton, John Potts, and Stanley Helmick, stood behind William Applegate in strong support.
John Potts, recently recovered from typhoid, proved especially loud, as well as crude. “Piss on your wagons, Captain. I’m done.”
Mild-mannered, always gentlemanly Nathaniel Benton said, “We simply cannot spend our time hauling your wagons out of the bogs. I, for one, refuse to give you one more push.”
After heated debate, Abner gave in, self-righteously asserting that God knew who was right and who was wrong. Finally, Jacob gave in, too. “All right, you’ve forced me.” He scowled. He ordered Benjamin and Henry to remove the barrels of whiskey from the wagons. “Bury them. We’ll come back later and dig them up.”
Charlie Dawes guffawed. “You think the Indians ain’t gonna find them? You’ve got to pour out every last drop. If you don’t, you’ll have every Indian twixt here and Fort Laramie so drunk they’ll come and scalp us all.”
William Applegate glared his contempt at Jacob. “Pour the fuckin’ whiskey out.”
Given no alternative, Jacob watched while his hired men hauled the barrels from the wagon and dumped his precious whiskey. He couldn’t have looked more anguished had it been his own life’s blood spilling on the ground.
Two days later the worn and weary members of the Schneider wagon train arrived after dark at the Platte River and set up camp. Next morning, Lucy awoke to bright sunshine. Her spirits rose as the day progressed. She bathed in the river, the “muddy Platte” they called it, and it certainly was. Even though the water wasn’t crystal clear, it was more than welcome to one who hadn’t been able to bathe for days. She washed her hair, loving its bouncy, clean feel. She donned a fresh calico dress and starched white apron. When she was finished, she felt as good as she had back in Boston after she’d primped and preened for a fancy dress ball.
In the late morning, Jacob and some of the other men went hunting. Before he left, she wished him luck, although so far all his hunting expeditions had been abject failures. So far he hadn’t returned with so much as a rabbit. She’d heard Charlie Dawes remark, “Farmers aren’t meant to be hunters.” Well, she certainly agreed.
Now, sitting upon the wagon seat clutching a rolling pin, she listened intently to Bessie, who stood below, giving her a lesson on how to bake a pie when stranded in the middle of nowhere.
“You take your dough and lay it right out upon the wagon seat. Just make sure there ain’t no splinters before you roll it out.”
Bessie’s words made Lucy burst into laughter, the first time in days she’d found anything to laugh about. “All right, no splinters in my pie. What’s next?”
“Then, after you get the apples in, you cook it in your Dutch skillet over the fire. ’Course, if it’s raining, you might just want to dig a hole in the ground. You jam in a hollow ramrod what serves as an air shaft, and then you fill the hole with small rocks and bake the pie on those.”
“That’s a lot of work,” Lucy replied. “What if I don’t feel like digging a hole in the ground?”
“Then you won’t get your pie.”
They laughed together companionably, Lucy thinking she felt almost her normal self again, and almost pretty, too. Or as pretty as a woman could look when pregnant.
Suddenly, Bessie quit laughing, pressed her hand to her side, and moaned.
Lucy was alarmed. “What’s wrong?”
“I’ve been having these pains, but the baby ain’t due yet.” Bessie leaned heavily against the wheel and gave a choked, desperate laugh. “What am I going to do? I don’t want to have this baby by the side of the road. What if something goes wrong? What if—?” She started to cry, covered her face with trembling hands, and whispered, “Oh, God, I mustn’t let the children see.”
Lucy swiftly climbed down from the wagon and put her arms around her friend. “There, there, it’ll be all right. My goodness, you’ve already had six, and didn’t you tell me not a problem in the world? Well, the seventh will be the same.”
Bessie laid her head on Lucy’s shoulder. “My feet and legs are all swollen. That never happened before. What will the weather be like? What if it’s pouring down rain like the other night? Or worse, we aren’t going to follow this river all the way, so what if there’s no water at all? Can youimagine—?” she pulled away and looked at Lucy with desperate eyes “—no water to wash the newborn in, no water for me! Then afterward, how long do you think the men will let me rest?”
“Well, I suppose a couple of days—”
“Ha! Don’t fool yourself. Your husband, my husband, all of them, what do they know? They’re so all-fired anxious to get to California, what would they care I just had a baby? They’ll want to start again, soon as I pop it out, and there I’ll be, lying in the back of that hot, smelly wagon, bouncing ’n rolling, so sick I’ll probably die, if I ain’t dead by then already.”
Bessie’s words sent a chill through Lucy’s heart. How could she comfort her friend when she harbored the same fears? Bessie had every right to worry. Bad enough to be pregnant, but what could be worse than having your baby by the side of the road? At least they had Inez, but that was small consolation.
Hannah arrived, then Agnes and Inez. They gathered around Bessie. With clucks of sympathy, they soon had her drying her tears. “Sister, you just come with me,” said Hannah, “You need to rest, so don’t be worrying about that baby.”
Agnes chimed in. “It’s the seventh, isn’t it? Then it’s practically going to drop out.”
“Besides,” Hannah added, “you’ve got Inez here to look out for you. Ain’t that right?”
The midwife firmly nodded her head. “You have absolutely nothing to worry about, my dear.”
Lucy liked Inez. With her matronly manner, she acted as a mother figure to them all. When she dispensed her herbal and medicinal advice, she gave the impression of great confidence, almost to the point, Lucy had to admit, of being a bit smug, as if she did indeed know all the answers. Did she really? Did Bessie have absolutely nothing to worry about? Several women in the wagon train were with child. So far, none had delivered, so Inez had yet to demonstrate her midwifery skills. Lucy could only hope she was competent, because the time might come ... no, don’t even think it! She would be in California long before her own baby was born. She would never need Inez.
After the women left, Lucy climbed up to the wagon seat again. She was sitting, soaking in the sunshine, when Clint rode up. Thank God she looked her best, and felt her best, too. So did he, judging from his smile and the twinkle in his eye. After a greeting he inquired, “So, what do you think of the Platte?”
She tossed her head. “You call that a river? After all I heard, I thought it would be ... well, majestic. Instead, it’s full of mud. Not only that—” she pointed toward a cow standing in the middle of the sluggish current “—I thought the Platte was supposed to be swift and deep. Then I saw that cow. Look, the water’s hardly above her ankles.”
“What! It’s up to her knees, at least.”
She smothered a grin. “Her knees then, but that river’s shallow no matter how you look at it. I’msodisappointed.”
He grinned. “The Platte may not look like much, but it doesn’t have to be beautiful. We follow it, and it gives us a clear road west.”
“For how many miles?”
“Never mind miles. If you start in April, you get to California by October,ifyou’re lucky.”
“Will we be lucky?”
He shrugged. “No telling.”
“Oh.” Her spirits dipped. Would her baby be born on the trail? Without thinking, she touched her hand to her stomach. “Such a long way.”
His tone was gentle. “You may very well have that baby before we get there. Better be prepared.”
She felt herself blush crimson. Certain subjects were never discussed, even within the family, Jacob included. Only once had she tried to express her concerns to him, but he’d stuffily countered with, “Lamentations three, Verse thirty-two, ‘Though He cause grief, yet will He have compassion.’ ”
It was nice to be reminded she had God’s support, but she hardly felt comforted. Now here she was, chatting about her delicate condition with a man she hardly knew. To be honest with herself, she shouldn’t be shocked. She’d known from the day she met Clint that he said what he pleased, and she shouldn’t expect otherwise. Perhaps ... was his honesty the reason she found him so fascinating? Well, she didn’t live in Boston anymore where manners mattered, so she wouldn’t act like a ninny. If he could be honest enough to speak his mind, she could, too.
She glanced at her bulging stomach, then at him again. “I worry a lot.” It felt good, openly discussing the forbidden. “I don’t want my baby born somewhere in the wilderness.”
He nodded with understanding. “We’ll get you there if we can. If not, you’ll have lots of help. I’ll see to that.”
“Thanks, that’s reassuring.” His words gave her a sense of comfort she’d never received from Jacob.
Just then Benjamin came trotting by on one of Jacob’s horses. Bessie’s daughter, rosy-cheeked Roxana, sat behind him, arms tight around his waist. “Going for a ride, Mrs. Schneider.” Benjamin spurred the horse, and off they went toward the river, both laughing.
Clint looked after them, amused. “Young love. Benjamin and Roxanna. Lately Benjamin’s been acting like a lovesick calf. Looks like your husband won’t get much work out of him for a while.”
“Still, love is a wonderful thing.”
“Yes, it is.” His gaze traveled over her face and searched her eyes. Here it came again, that look between them loaded with … what? Was she crazy? Was he just being friendly, no more interested in her than any other woman in the company? Or did his eyes reveal forbidden feelings between them that could never be expressed? Here came that jarring, tingling feeling in the pit of her stomach. Oh, he was so disturbing, sitting so easy in the saddle, his every movement so full of grace. Each time she saw him, the pull was stronger.
She forced herself to break their gaze. Frantically, she searched for the first subject that came into her head. “Benjamin’s such a nice young man.”
One corner of his mouth pulled into a slight smile. “That he is, and Roxana’s a fine young lady. They make a good couple. Good day.” He picked up the reins he’d rested across the saddle horn and was about to start away when he paused, let the reins drop again, and peered at her intently. “You’re a remarkable woman, Mrs. Schneider.”
Her pulse leaped. She searched wildly for an answer. “There are a lot of remarkable women in this wagon train.”
“None like you.” Tipping his hat, he rode away.
She sat on the wagon seat, heart pounding, and faced the truth. This was what it was like to want a man. She had never known before, but now she realized the desire she’d once had for Jacob faded to nothing compared to the searing, nonstop longing she felt for Clint. A desperate shiver of want ran through her. She shut her eyes and instantly imagined his arms around her, his kiss, and then somehow they were entwined together, in bed, and she was beneath him, only it wasn’t like with Jacob. It was like Sarah said ...
“Lucy, why are you just sitting there?”
Jacob. She opened her eyes. “Uh ... how was the hunt? Did you shoot anything?”
“What’s for supper?”
Fool. “I’m baking a pie, and we’re going to have beans and bacon.”
“Better get to it. After supper I’ll need your help greasing the wheels.”
She climbed down from the wagon seat, thinking she ought to feel guilty about her foolish daydream, but she didn’t. Maybe she was a terrible person. Maybe she’d rot in hell, but Jacob would never know she wasn’t the perfect wife. No one would know, so she’d allow herself her futile dreams. After all, aside from her baby, and a family she’d never see again, she didn’t have much else.
True to his word, that night after supper Jacob informed Lucy he needed her help greasing the wheels.
“Can’t you ask Benjamin or Henry to help?” She was highly annoyed. She had many chores to complete before bedtime.
“They’re busy with the cattle. I want you to hold the grease bucket for me.”
“Oh, very well,” she said none too kindly.
Jacob had finished one wheel and was lying under the wagon, starting the second, when a shot rang out, followed by two more. “What was that?” He rolled out from beneath the wagon.
“The damn fools!” Charlie Dawes came charging up to the wagon. “This foolishness had got to stop.”
“What were those shots?”
Charlie gestured toward the nearby woods. “Some of the young nincompoops in this camp thought they saw a bear and took off after it. Now they’re running around the woods like a bunch of idiots, shooting blind, bullets flying all over the place. Nobody’s safe.”
Jacob drew himself up. “This must stop at once. Come on, Mister Dawes.” He glanced back at Lucy. “Keep hold of that bucket. I’ll be right back.” Lucy watched the two men head toward the woods. Jacob had better not be gone long. She had better things to do than stand around holding a grease bucket.
Before Jacob and Charlie got to the woods, another volley of shots rang out.Charlie is right,those young men are fools, shooting their guns off so close to the camp ... but something is wrong.Jacob was clutching his chest and staggering. Why? Her hand flew to her heart. She watched in disbelief. Jacob staggered again, fell to his knees, slowly keeled over, and lay face down on the ground.
“Jacob!” Lucy threw down the bucket, gathered her skirts, and started running across the open field. Halfway there, she tripped and fell hard, but she picked herself up, hardly noticing, and continued to run. By the time she reached her husband, Charlie had knelt by his side, grasped his shoulders, and rolled him over to his back. She flung herself down beside him. “What happened? What—?” It was then she saw the gaping hole in the middle of Jacob’s chest, blood oozing out, staining the front of his shirt. “Oh dear God, Jacob!” Her gaze traveled to his face. His open eyes stared, still and sightless, at the sky.
Charlie laid two fingers on the side of Jacob’s neck. For a moment, suspended in time, he felt for a pulse. When he finally withdrew his fingers, he shook his head. “He’s gone.”
“You mean ... Jacob’s dead?”
“ ’Fraid so, ma’am. Danged if one of those stray bullets didn’t go straight through his heart.”
The words kept ringing through her head, yet she could hardly believe that in one stunning, incredible moment she’d lost her husband. She vaguely recalled the cries of shock as people crowded around, little Noah shouting “Father!” running toward his father’s body, stopped in time by Clint Palance who scooped him up in his arms and carried him away.
She remembered Abner arriving, kneeling beside his brother’s body, tears streaming into his long, black beard. Finally, he thrust a fist into the sky and roared, “God, why did you let this happen?”
Charlie Dawes spoke up. “ ’Twas just one of them mindless, stupid accidents. One that only God knows the reason for, and he ain’t telling.”
She vaguely recalled Hannah and Bessie leading her away from the scene, murmuring words of comfort, their strong arms around her. The next hours passed in a blur. She had a vague recollection of people coming and going, of Cordelia bringing a cup of tea, of Hannah quieting a sobbing Noah and taking him off to her own wagon to care for.
Sometime during the evening, John Potts, hat in hand, visited Lucy’s wagon where she sat by her cooking fire surrounded by her friends. “We’re all truly sorry, Mrs. Schneider. The captain was a good man and will be sorely missed. If it’s all right, we’ll bury him first thing in the morning.”
“That would be fine.” She heard a hollow voice that wasn’t her own. As if it mattered. As if Jacob wouldn’t be just as dead no matter when they buried him.
John continued, “We don’t know who fired that shot, ma’am. We tried, but—”
“It was an accident, wasn’t it? Then I’m sure whoever shot him is very, very sorry, and we should just let it go.” Why lay blame? What good would it do?
“I’m sure he is, Mrs. Schneider. Sorry, that is, if he even knew he’s the one who done it. But that’s water under the bridge now.” John fumbled with the brim of his hat. An odd expression came over his face, as if he was about to say something he didn’t want to say. “You might like to know the committee has elected its new captain.”
“Oh?” She couldn’t care less.
“Abner Schneider volunteered. We thought it was only fitting, him being the captain’s brother and all.”
How very odd. She remembered when Jacob was elected, how he’d told her the committee definitely didn’t want Abner. Now, no doubt sympathy had played a part in their decision. “Well, I think that’s fine.”
Agnes spoke up. “It won’t matter to Lucy who’s elected captain. She can go home now.”
John Potts fumbled with his hat again. “I expect that’s so, ma’am.” He addressed Lucy. “You’ll be going back then?”
“I haven’t had time to think, but, yes, of course, Noah and I shall return to Boston.”
John nodded in agreement. “It’s for the best. No need for you to continue on now that Jacob’s gone. As you know, hardly a day goes by we don’t meet a wagon heading back. We’ll see what we can arrange for you as soon as possible.”
Grateful though she was for the support of friends, Lucy welcomed the moment when she finally found herself alone, crawling into the tent Jacob had erected by the wagon. How strange he wasn’t there. How strange she could crawl under the covers without fear of his hand creeping under her nightgown. The knowledge gave her no comfort. Instead, regrets assailed her. Why hadn’t she been more agreeable when he asked for help greasing the wheels? Why, only hours before Jacob died, had she sat on the wagon bench, daydreaming about another man? How wicked could she be?Oh, Jacob...
She had held back her tears, but now she let them flow. Maybe she hadn’t loved him as much as she should, but he was a good man, in the prime of life, father of her unborn child, and now ...
It all seemed so incredible. One minute he’d been greasing a wheel and the next, gone forever.
Her tears flowed freely until, after a time, she made herself stop, resolving in the future she’d never put herself and her own feelings first again. She would return to her father’s home with Noah, bear her child in the safety and comfort of her own bedroom, cope with Pernelia, and lead a virtuous life filled with good works. Strange, but the thought of going home didn’t fill her with the joy she thought it would. How she would miss all these dear friends she’d made! Despite the hardships, she’d miss the day-to-day adventure of this journey, as well as ...Clint. How she’d miss him! But he was behind her now, as was this entire insane journey. It was over. Done. She should feel ecstatic that soon she’d be back in Boston where life was dull but safe. Somehow she didn’t, and she didn’t know why.
She remembered Jacob’s bag of gold coins safely stashed at the bottom of the flour barrel. It was hers now. She drifted off to sleep comforted in the knowledge she wouldn’t be entirely destitute and dependent. Did Abner know about the coins? She wasn’t sure, but if he did, he’d better not try to take them away from her.
* * *
A sharp cramp in her lower abdomen awoke her in the middle of the night, almost immediately followed by another. For a few moments, she lay paralyzed, knowing what she must do but afraid to do it. Finally, feeling as if her breath had been cut off, she reached under the covers and between her legs. The wetness told her all she needed to know.
What should she do? If Noah were here, she’d send him to fetch Inez Helmick, but Noah was spending the night with Hannah. She was all alone. Another pain ripped through her, sharper this time.Must get help. She threw a blanket around her shoulders and crawled from the tent. On unsteady feet, she walked to the Helmick wagon and rapped on the back. When Inez stuck her head out, her words poured out in a desperate whisper, “I need help.”
Had not Inez quickly climbed from the wagon and grabbed her, Lucy would have collapsed on the ground.
Far from Boston, at dawn in the middle of nowhere, a boy was born to Lucy Parker Schneider, so premature he had no chance of surviving. With a grief beyond words, Lucy named him after his father and requested he be laid to rest next to Jacob in the hastily dug grave.
Later that morning, she dragged herself to the graveside services held for her husband and son, so weak she could hardly stand. Grief and despair tore at her heart. Her mind worked endlessly, trying to absorb the shock of losing first her husband, then her precious baby. Beyond tears, she stoically listened to Reverend Helmick deliver a short sermon. Abner followed. Attired in his usual black, ministerial garb, tall-crowned, stiff-brimmed hat atop his head, he launched into a fire and brimstone eulogy for his brother. She remembered how Jacob’s blue eyes could occasionally hold a bit of warmth. Abner’s dark eyes constantly blazed, as if he must devote every moment to bringing the word of God to those many sinners headed straight to Hell. Would he never stop talking? Abner’s eulogy lasted so long Lucy suspected even in his grief he couldn’t forgo the opportunity to preach to a captive audience.
After the graveside service, Abner, with Martha beside him, came to talk to Lucy. Still in preaching mode, Abner loudly declared, “Lucy my dear, I want to reassure you you’ll have my protection for the rest of the journey.”
Lucy squeezed her eyes shut. As if she cared what Abner did! As if she cared about anything right now except her devastating loss. To her surprise, Martha spoke up. “Abner, I don’t believe this is either the time or place to discuss Lucy’s plans.”
Lucy nodded in agreement. “Martha’s right. I’m not in the mood right now to discuss my future.”
Abner seemed not to have heard. “From now on, you and Noah will take your meals with us. You can help Martha with the cooking and other chores. I plan to join our herds together, so either Henry or Benjamin will be free to drive your wagon. When we arrive, you’ll always have a home with us ...”
Abner rambled on, extolling the fine life Lucy would lead under his care and supervision. Her uneasiness grew as she listened. She could think of no worse fate than living with Abner and Martha for a day, let alone a week or possibly months, possiblyforever. Worse, even, than living with Pernelia. In her grief, she found it difficult to talk, but she had better speak up. She raised a protesting hand. “Wait. I apologize for interrupting, but you must know I have no intention of carrying on with this journey. We shall be going back to Boston as soon as we meet a returning wagon that’s willing to take us along.”
Abner’s bushy brows raised in surprise. “We?”
“Noah and I. Rest assured, he’ll have the best care in Boston. We’ll stay at my father’s home where I know we’ll be more than welcome. Noah will have every advantage.”
Abner returned an indulgent smile. “I understand how shocked you are at Jacob’s sudden death, and the baby, too. Obviously, you haven’t thought things through. You must realize Noah is mine now.”
Alarm shot through her. She never dreamed Abner might object. “I realize no such thing. I love Noah. You know how close we are. He just lost his father. Are you saying he must lose his mother, too?”
“Martha will make an excellent mother.” Abner threw a look of approval at his wife who wore a worried frown and was twisting her apron, a habit that appeared at the least bit of stress. “She’s his aunt, don’t forget. I am his uncle, his closest relative now that Jacob has gone to his reward.” The remnant of his indulgent smile disappeared. “Did you honestly think I’d let you take Noah away? From now on, he’ll be like my own son.”
Abner had never paid the slightest attention to Noah, so it’d never occurred to her ... she could hardly believe what she was hearing. “I do think the child will be better off in Boston where it’s civilized, and there are good schools—”
“Enough.” Abner used a quiet but forceful voice. “I have spoken on the matter, and there’s no more to be said. You’d best not forget you’re only his stepmother. You have no legal right to the boy. As a matter of fact, Jacob and I bought the wagons—oxen—cattle—all the supplies in both our names, so whatever was his is now mine.” His expression softened. He reached and patted the top of her head as if she were a child. “Poor Lucy, you’ve had a terrible shock—two terrible shocks, actually. But don’t fret. If you decide to stay, you have my assurance you’ll be under my care and protection. If you wish to return to Boston, then I’ll find you safe transportation, but bear in mind, you’ll return alone.”
In an uncharacteristic move, Martha laid her hand on Lucy’s arm. “I do hope you’ll stay with us.” Her voice was so meek she could scarce be heard. “Noah will miss you terribly if you leave, and so will I.”
“Thank you. I ...” A swell of desperation rose in Lucy’s throat. She couldn’t continue this conversation, let Abner see her lose her composure. She must get away. Must think what to do. “Excuse me, I must go now. We’ll talk later.” She turned on her heel and walked toward her wagon through the hustle and bustle of a wagon train about to depart for another day on the trail. Vaguely, through her inner turmoil, she heard the lowing of the cattle, the excited barking of the dogs mixed with the oaths of men hitching the oxen and the chatter of women packing the wagons.How ironic.Lucy trudged along. At home, several days would have been devoted to solemn mourning for the deceased. Grief didn’t last long on a wagon train. Now all thoughts were turned to another day’s trek.
She’d almost reached her wagon when she sensed someone come up beside her. A familiar voice said, “Mrs. Schneider?”
She stopped. “Good morning.” She hadn’t had a chance to talk to Clint but had seen him standing quietly, hat in hand, while Abner ranted over Jacob’s grave.
Clint looked down at her, sympathy brimming in his warm brown eyes. “I’m sorry about your husband. He didn’t deserve to die like that.”
“No, he didn’t. Thank you.”
“You lost your baby, too. It’s beyond me how life can be so unfair to a woman as fine as you.”
His voice was so full of sympathy and understanding she almost cried. “Thank you again. It was a little boy, you know.”
“I know.” There was a silence. “I suppose you’ll return to Boston?”
“Yes ... or at least I thought I was, but now ...” Her confusion showed, but with Clint, she didn’t care. When he stood looking at her like that, all warmth and sympathy, she wanted to open up, tell him everything. “I planned on returning home, but now ...” She bit her lip. “Now I don’t know what to do.”
“Why not?” He crossed his arms and regarded her quizzically.
“I planned to take Noah with me, but Abner says he won’t let him go.”
“Bastard,” Clint muttered under his breath. “No surprise there. Abner’s the kind of man who’d want a dozen sons simply to boost his ego. So will you go back without Noah?”
“I love that little boy.” She paused and continued in a sinking tone. “It’s true Abner’s his uncle, but I don’t care. Noah’s a bright, happy child. I can’t bear the thought of what sort of man he’ll become if he’s raised by that mirthless zealot. If I stay, I can at least make sure Noah doesn’t fall under his influence, but ...” She clutched her fists in frustration. “Can you imagine living under Abner’s supervision?”
“No, I can’t, but let’s be practical. Do you really want to go home?”
“Of course. I do so miss my family, especially now.”
“A sound argument, but is that all?” He paused, as if to carefully choose his words. “Look me in the eye and tell me you’ll have no regrets if you return to Boston. Tell me you won’t miss the friends you’ve made, the excitement of each day’s journey.”
She nodded reluctantly. “I can’t deny I’d miss the dear friends I’ve made, and yes, even the journey itself. When I wake up each morning, I look forward to the day, despite all the hardships.”
“Of course you do.” Clint’s eyes lit up. “Just think what you’ve seen already. Mountains, valleys, rivers, green forests—all the beauty that makes up this land. Birds and animals you’ll never see if you return to Boston. The best is yet to come.” In his enthusiasm, his voice had risen. He gave a rueful smile. “Sorry, you’re in no mood for this. I’ve said too much.”
“That’s the most I ever heard you say.” She smiled for the first time that day.
“I love this land. I wanted you to see it. If you go back to Boston now, I wonder, as the years go by, if you’ll grow to regret the choice you made. Something tells me you will.”
“You could be right.”
“You have a big decision to make, one that will affect the rest of your life.”
She gave him a rueful smile. “East or west, which way do I go? Well, you’ve given me something to think about. It’s just that the thought of Abner—”
“You’re a strong woman. You can handle the likes of Abner. Think about it. Look into your heart. What doyouwant to do? I’ve said enough.” Clint touched a finger to the brim of his hat and walked away.
Speechless, she watched after him, her mind spinning. Clint so intrigued her. He would be part of the reason she stayed, but how foolish was that? At the end of the journey, he’d disappear, off to guide another wagon train. Still ... how she hated the thought of never seeing him again.
She felt a tug at her skirt and looked down. Noah, his little face pale and strained, looked up at her with pleading eyes. “Uncle Abner said you’re going to leave me. Are you?”
She knelt beside Noah, putting her arms around him, and in that moment made up her mind. “No, Son, Uncle Abner was wrong. You and I are going to California, and everything is going to be fine.”
I’m a widow.I lost the baby.I’malone in the world. As the day progressed, Lucy lay in the back of her wagon, gathering her strength, slowly coming to grips with her new circumstances. Occasionally, when she had the strength to get out and walk, friends came to keep her company as she kept pace with the slow gait of the oxen. They expressed their sympathy at her loss and their pleasure that she’d chosen to remain. Some were amazed at her choice.
“You’re completely out of your mind,” said Agnes.
“I just can’t understand why you chose to stay,” said Bessie. “If I had the chance to go home, I’d surely take it.”
Lucy kept her own council. As far as she knew, no one other than Clint even suspected that her concern for Noah was her real reason for not going home. She had to give special thought as to how best to cope with Abner and Martha. So far, except for Jacob being gone, it appeared nothing would change. She and Noah would sleep in their wagon, just as before. She’d watch over Noah, just as before. She disliked the thought of taking her meals with Abner and Martha—those long, long graces before they got to the food—but she’d manage. At least afterwards she could join the others at the nightly campfire, which she always enjoyed.
Maybe living under Abner’s thumb would be endurable after all.
All that day, the Schneider wagon train headed due west, following the south side of the Platte River. The barren wastes of the great river valley stretched before them—level plains measureless to the eye, occasional clumps of woods through which coursed winding streams. That day death became even more real when she saw her second grave alongside the dusty trail. She had been walking alongside Abner’s wagon. She called for him to stop while she and Martha went to read the inscriptions printed on a pine board at the head of the grave. One read, “Harriet Susan Welsh, born January 4, 1829, died May 8, 1851.” The other, “Catherine Amanda Welsh, born May 8, 1851, died May 9, 1851.”
Bessie joined them, read the inscriptions, and sadly shook her head. “She must have died in childbirth and the baby next day.”
Martha laid a hand over the slight bulge of her stomach. At four months, she was beginning to show. “I do worry so. I send up prayers each day that we’ll get to California before my baby arrives.”
“I know I won’t be that lucky,” said Bessie. “Oh, dear.” Frowning, she addressed Lucy. “I’m so sorry. We shouldn’t be talking about our babies when you’ve just lost yours.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’d have to go around blindfolded not to see the number of babies on the way. I can’t just ignore them, can I?” Lucy knew she’d grieve for her stillborn child until the day she died, but she wouldn’t burden others with her sorrow.
“Martha! Lucy!” Abner shook the reins with impatience. “You’ll see plenty more graves before we’re done. Get back now.”
Lucy returned to the wagon, tears welling in her eyes. Harriet Susan Welsh must have set out for California with her hopes high. Now she and her baby were buried by the side of the road, alone forever in the empty prairie.
She thought of her own lost child, buried in a grave she could never find again. Martha ... Bessie ... pray to God they survive, and their babies, too.
That night, after they parked the wagons in the usual circle, Lucy saw her first Indians. With Martha at her side, she was bent over the campfire by Abner’s wagon, baking biscuits, when ten or twelve Indian braves rode into camp. Martha let out a frightened squeal, dropped her cooking spoon, and scampered up to the wagon seat where Abner sat. All around, women were screaming. Men were rushing to their wagons to retrieve their rifles.
“Dad burn it!” Charlie Dawes strode to the center of the campground, waving his arms. “Don’t get excited, folks. They’re friendly.”
Clint followed at his usual easy pace. “They’re Sioux, come to trade. Put your guns away. They want bread in exchange for beads and moccasins.”
When the camp settled down, the Indians began making the rounds of the wagons. Lucy’s heart jumped in her chest when five or six of the tall, copper-skinned savages approached Abner’s wagon. What a strange, frightening lot they were with their scowling faces painted in different-colored stripes and elaborate headdresses of feathers and fur. Brass rings hung from their ears and around their wrists and bare arms. She stood frozen, struck by their strange smell, while they milled around her, pushing, getting right in her face, so close that despite Clint and Charlie’s reassuring words, she very much feared she’d be attacked and scalped. Even so, she stood firm by the campfire, resisting the impulse to run and hide. She wished Abner was standing beside her, but oddly enough, he chose to remain seated on the wagon seat, rifle across his lap, Noah on one side, Martha on the other. “Give them what they want. Don’t let them see you’re scared.”
Easy for him to say. Abner sat high up, relatively safe. Shouldn’t he be down here? Just why was she the one who must deal up close with these frightening savages? “Good evening.” Her voice quaked. “Would you care for some bread?”
She offered her pan of newly baked biscuits. The Sioux accepted with a series of grunts and guttural words she couldn’t understand. They all seemed pleased, though, and one held out a pair of beaded moccasins in return.
Clint appeared. She felt a flood of relief just knowing he was there. He took the moccasins and held them out to her. “Take them.”
She accepted the moccasins and ran her hand over the soft buckskin. How soft and well-made they were. “Why, they’re lovely.”
“Save them. You’ll have quite a story to tell your grandchildren.”
She returned a wry smile. “Then is it your considered opinion I’m not going to get scalped tonight?”
“The odds are you’ll survive.” His light words reassured her, especially when she caught the glint of understanding deep in his eyes and knew he was well aware of her fears.
Soon the Indians moved on to the next wagon, Clint following. Abner finally climbed down from the wagon seat. “Thieving beggars.”
She didn’t care for his remark. “It’s their land. They didn’t invite us here.”
Abner snorted with disgust. “A good Indian is a dead Indian.”
A rather uncharitable opinion for a man of God. No sense arguing. She had yet to see Abner change his opinion on any subject. One question burned in her mind. Why had he not rushed to her side when the Indians came calling? Until Clint came along, she’d had to deal with them alone while the supposedly brave captain of the wagon train remained relatively safe sitting high on the wagon seat.
The word “coward” came to mind.
The Indians wouldn’t leave. All evening they wandered from wagon to wagon. They begged for food, offering beads and moccasins in return. After supper, everyone, including the Indians, gathered around the large fire in the center of the campground. Everyone except Cordelia. Despite Lucy’s advice, she hadn’t abandoned her “Southern lady of quality” pose and remained aloof as ever. Lately she’d chosen to remain in her wagon, apparently to avoid those-of-a-lesser-standing, although her husband and son always joined in with the rest.
A tenseness hung over the campfire, everyone heartily wishing the Indians would leave. Clint and Charlie advised the jittery group to act normal, as if this were just another evening. As usual, the rowdy Butler Brothers, by now roundly despised by all, annoyed everybody with their crude jokes and drunken laughter. At least one of the brothers, Erasmus, could play a mean fiddle. For a while, he entertained, pleasing the crowd with lively versions of “Rose on the Mountain” and “Billy in the Woods.”
After Erasmus, Benjamin sang and played his guitar, an adoring Roxana by his side. Halfway through “I have Something Sweet to Tell You,” a piercing scream brought his music to a halt. All eyes turned to the Benton wagon, where Cordelia suddenly appeared through the front opening. With no regard for her customary dignified demeanor, she jumped onto the tongue with lightning speed and leaped to the ground. With a horrified expression on her face, she headed straight for Clint and Charlie.
“Mister Palance, Mister Dawes, do something!” She turned and pointed a shaking finger. “One of those savages climbed right into my wagon.”
“Are you hurt?” Clint asked.
“No. I immediately escaped out the front, but I certainly could have been hurt.” Cordelia drew herself up. “What gall to enter my wagon without so much as a knock. Have they no manners?”
Charlie let out a hoop. Clint suppressed a smile. “Indians aren’t noted for their manners, ma’am.”
“Then they shouldn’t be allowed in decent society!”
Before Clint could answer, the subject of Cordelia’s wrath stepped from around the back of the Benton wagon and walked toward them. As he grew visible in the firelight, Lucy heard a low murmur of laughter. The murmur turned to a roar when the Indian reached the full light of the campfire.
He was wearing Cordelia’s hoopskirt.
Oh, what a funny sight! Never had Lucy seen anything so amusing as that painted-faced Indian strutting around the campground, feathers and fur atop his head, buckskin loincloth and bare legs clearly visible beneath the whalebone rings of Cordelia’s hoopskirt.
Watching Cordelia provided even more hilarity. First, her mouth dropped open. Next, her face froze in horror mixed with astonishment. Soon, amidst the laughter, her expression began to soften until finally her lips curved into a smile, and she, too, joined in the laughter.
Clint’s eyes were openly amused. “Mrs. Benton, do you want your hoopskirt back? If you do, I’ll—”
“Oh, no!” Cordelia waved him off. “Let him keep it. Do you think I’d ever wear it again after this?”
Clint called to the Indian in his own language, then addressed Cordelia. “I told him to take it.”
The Indian replied in words Lucy couldn’t understand.
Clint grinned. “He says thank you. He also says he likes you very much and will visit you again.”
“Oh, surely not!”
Lucy joined in another roar of laugher, this time at Cordelia. She watched the Indian, well aware he was the center of attention, prance about with a big smile on his broad face, making the hoopskirt tilt this way and that. Oh, hysterical! Tears streaked down the cheeks of many in the crowd, Lucy included, as well as Bessie, who surely needed a good laugh, and grouchy Agnes. Even Nathaniel Beauregard Benton was guffawing, his manifest destiny for the moment forgotten. His son, Chadwick, laughed so hard he rolled on the ground, his twelve-year-old funny bone tickled beyond all measure by his mother’s part in the humorous scene.
One of the Butler Brothers laughed so hard he fell off his seat and spilled his jug of whiskey. Even Abner’s and Martha’s ever-sober faces cracked smiles.
The last giggle faded. In the quiet that followed, Lucy perceived the raucous laughter had been more than just a few moments of hilarity over the sight of the hoopskirted Indian. After facing the dangers of the river crossing, the violent hailstorm, Jacob’s death, and all the hardships of the trail, they were all grateful for the chance to laugh. What a welcome release, not only from memories of dangers past but from the worry over the uncertainty that lay ahead. Petty conflicts abounded in the Schneider party, as they did in all the wagon trains, but for one brief moment, laughter bonded them together.
When the Indians finally left, Benjamin took up his guitar again and began strumming softly. A full moon rose over the tips of the pine trees; a warm breeze blew gently. Lost in reverie, Lucy faced the truth: once they got to California, and God willing they would, most of these people would take up the same dull, unexciting existence as the farmers they’d left behind. She wondered what she’d be doing. Right now she had little desire to speculate. After losing both her husband and child, all she could do was try to get through each grueling day and not fall apart.
She’d save the moccasins, just as Clint advised. Some day when she was very, very old, she’d dig them out of some musty trunk. They would remind her of the night the Indians traded for bread and one wore Cordelia’s hoopskirt, the night she had shared precious moments of warm camaraderie with the other members of the wagon train. She’d also remember how this journey, hard though it was, had given her a taste of something more, a brief escape from her ordinary, mundane life ... given her a sense of adventure, wasn’t that what Clint had called it?West to catch the sunset. Now she knew what he meant.
If she lived to be a hundred, she’d never forget this night.
Next day, the Schneider wagon train began its trek along the well-marked trappers’ trail that followed the Platte River. Edged by a thin fringe of timber lining the river bank, the trail led westward across the plains. They stopped to eat and rest at noon. Lucy was standing by the Potts’ wagon, chatting with Bessie, Hannah, and Roxana, when from the distance, they heard a strange roar.
Clint rode up on Paint. “Buffalo. Something’s set them off. They’re stampeding.”
Lucy looked toward the open plain and soon saw her first herd of buffalo. What a frightening sight! The herd was so thick that it resembled a great black cloud, filling the whole prairie and advancing toward them like a moving mountain.
“Should we run?” Bessie’s voice was panicked.
“We’re all right where we are,” Clint answered. “Come look.”
He led them to the top of a sand hill, where they stood and watched while thousands upon thousands of the huge beasts roared by, noses almost to the ground, tails flying in midair. Lucy had no idea how many there were, but the stampede seemed endless, the animals’ wild snorts and the thunder of their hooves assailing her ears.
After the last buffalo finally disappeared over the horizon, Bessie said, aghast, “My stars, they are horrible looking creatures.”
Clint replied, “They may not be beautiful, but I’ll wager you’ll be eating buffalo steaks from now on, and happy to get them.”
“So who’s going to hunt the huge creatures?” Bessie wrinkled her nose. “My husband can’t bring down so much as a squirrel.”
Neither could Jacob.Lucy felt guilty for demeaning the dead. Still, it was true, and that went for Abner, too.
“That’s a good question,” said Clint. “It’s not easy. Takes between fifteen and twenty bullets to kill a bull buffalo, but don’t worry, you can count on Charlie and me. We’ve brought down a few. Meantime, be grateful. Wood will be scarce for a while, but buffalo chips make a good fire.”
A frown appeared on Roxana’s pretty young face. “You mean we must start collecting buffalo droppings instead of wood? How nasty!”
Clint nodded. “Chips sounds better. The time is coming soon when you’ll be grateful to have them.” He grew thoughtful. “From now on, be careful. Of all the dangers we face, there’s nothing more deadly than a buffalo stampede.”
“What sets them off?”
“Lightning ... thunder ... a rabbit dashing across a field ... just about anything.”
Remembering the thousands of fearsome animals that had just pounded by, Lucy felt a pang of dread. What a horrible fate to get caught in their path.
Two days later, just as Clint warned, they could find no wood for the campfires. After the train encamped at the end of the day and formed a circle by the river, Lucy, along with most of the women, walked out on the prairie, sacks in hand, to collect buffalo chips. Even Cordelia collected chips. She kept to herself, though, still determined to avoid those-of-a-lesser-standing.
Why must she be such a snob? Lucy had hoped Cordelia would loosen up after the hoopskirt episode, but apparently not. How lonely she must be. It wouldn’t hurt to make another offer of friendship. She strolled over to where the snobbish Southern woman was picking up the chips so gingerly they could have been hot coals. “Hello. How are you doing?”
Cordelia smiled a greeting. “I’m as right as I can be, having to pick up these disgusting things.”
“We all feel the same way. Why don’t you join us? We’re in this together, you know. It makes the task a lot easier when—”
“I know what you’re trying to say, but don’t bother. I told you before, I shall not lower my standards.”
Lucy sensed there was no use arguing. “All right, but if ever you feel like joining us, please do.”
She left Cordelia and rejoined the others. Tall, raw-boned Hannah tossed a chip into her sack with extra zeal. “So what did Mrs. Stuck-up have to say?”
“She prefers to be by herself, that’s all.” Lucy would never dream of hurting her friends’ feelings by revealing the entire truth. One thing she knew for certain, though; she was done trying to convince Cordelia to come down off her high horse. If the woman made it to California still wrapped in her snooty shell, then fine. Somewhere along the way, Lucy suspected Mrs. Stuck-up would be in a situation where she needed friends. That would indeed be too bad, because she didn’t have any.Maybe I’m wrong.Maybe Cordelia had already suffered her worse disaster on the trail—losing her hoopskirt to the Indian.
Dressed in their sun bonnets, long skirts, and aprons, the women continued picking up chips, chatting comfortably amongst themselves. Roxana, looking extra pretty in a yellow sunbonnet and printed yellow dress, pointed to a spot much farther out on the prairie. “I see a bunch of them out there. Why don’t you quit now and go sit down? I’ll bring in enough for the fire.”
“I believe I’ll do just that.” Bessie, awkward and miserable in the advanced stage of her pregnancy, sighed with relief and looked after Roxana with pride in her eyes. “Ain’t she the best daughter?” She lowered her voice. “I’m not supposed to tell yet, but last night she told me Benjamin proposed. They want to get hitched real soon.”
Lucy joined the others in expressing her delight. “They make a darling couple and are obviously so much in love.”
“We’ll have a wedding by the campfire,” said Agnes, smiling for a change.
“My husband can perform the ceremony.” Inez turned to Martha. “Unless ... Your husband’s not ordained, is he?”
“No, although he was a deacon in the church. He was too busy farming, but I suspect when we reach California ...” From a distance there came a faint, muffled roar. “What’s that?”
They all froze, listening. Through her boots, Lucy felt the ground tremble.
Clint and Charlie appeared at the edge of the plain. “Run!” Clint called. “Drop the sacks and run!”
“Stampede!” Charlie shouted, “Get off the prairie, girls, them’s buffalo a’comin,’ headed straight toward you!”
Lucy dropped her sack, grabbed up her skirts and started to run. Then she stopped. All the other women raced ahead of her, but where was Bessie?And Roxana. She cast a quick look over her shoulder. Dear Lord! With clumsy strides, Bessie was running, but in the opposite direction, out to a distant spot in the prairie to meet Roxana, who was running full-out toward her.
Here came the advancing herd, now so close that Lucy’s ears were assailed by the thunderous sound of their hooves. With mounting horror, she judged the distances between the animals and Roxana, between Roxana and the edge of the prairie where safety lay. Her heart sank. No way in the world could Roxana reach safety in time. “Bessie, you’ve got to come back. You’ll never—”
“Bessie!” Clint called. All at once, Lucy had a sense of Clint sprinting past her, toward the desperate mother. “Bessie, come back. You can’t reach her!”
Lucy watched, numb with horror. The huge dark cloud of buffalo was closing in. She saw Clint reach the pregnant woman and take her arm. For a moment, they argued, Bessie frantically pulling away. Clint grabbed her firmly. He began to guide her back to safety, but she still resisted. They were going too slow. They would never make it with Bessie dragging her heels.
Lucy shook herself out of her paralyzing fright and started to run toward Clint and Bessie, her boots fairly flying over the sand and dry sage.
Clint spied her. “Lucy, go back!”
She couldn’t spare the breath to reply. All she knew was she couldn’t leave her friend to die under a thousand pounding hooves. Strong as he was, Clint needed help. Not only was Bessie fighting him every step of the way, she was so heavy and awkward that she could hardly walk, let alone run.
When Lucy reached them, she grabbed Bessie’s other arm. “Run! You must run!”
“Let me go!” Bessie stretched her arm toward the spot far out on the plain where the small figure of Roxana stood, still as a statue, facing the buffalo. She must have known. She wasn’t trying to run anymore.
“Let me help my child!” Bessie’s anguished cry carried over the prairie.
“It’s too late.” Clint’s jaw was clenched with determination. “Quick, let’s move.” Between the two of them, they half-dragged, half-carried Bessie, kicking, screaming, sobbing, back across the plain. They reached safety just as the first red-eyed, frothing beast charged past. Bessie collapsed, and Lucy knelt to gather the woman in her arms, holding her while the herd of animals pounded by.
An eerie silence fell across the prairie after the last buffalo passed. Spectators stood helpless, not knowing what to say, what to do. Helped by Clint, both Lucy and Bessie staggered to their feet. Barely comprehending, they gazed in silence at the empty prairie where, only faintly seen, a splotch of yellow lay on the ground. Bessie sagged into Clint’s arms. “She’s gone, ain’t she? My little girl is gone.”
John Potts appeared, his face white with shock. “Let me have her.” He took his weeping wife’s arm and gently led her away.
Clint turned to Lucy. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, but ...” she looked toward the prairie. Far out, she saw that small patch of yellow, all that was left of a beautiful young girl on the brink of life. She looked toward the sky. “It happened so fast. I can’t believe she’s gone. I ...” She choked back a sob.
Clint brought his hand to her cheek. She closed her eyes, feeling the rough comfort of his calloused palm against her skin. “You were very brave.”
When she opened her eyes, she caught his brown ones looking directly into hers. They were full of pain, and there again, deep inside, she caught the spark of that indefinable emotion she’d found before.
“Clint?” Charlie called, “we’d best get out there and find what’s left of that poor girl before the critters get her.”
“You’ll be all right.” Clint’s voice was strong and reassuring. Through her tears, she watched him follow Charlie onto the prairie.
Abner appeared at her shoulder, stony-faced as ever. “Come with me, Lucy.”
“Oh, Abner, have you heard? Poor Roxana—”
“I heard.” He gripped her arm. “Come along.”
She went with him gladly. The shock had left her weak and trembling. She felt sick to her stomach, too, and wanted very much to lie down.
Abner walked her to her wagon. She made a move to climb in, but he tightened his grip. “No, you come with me.” He ushered her past the wagon. They kept walking toward a small grove of trees.
Where were they going? Lucy began to feel alarmed and pulled back, but his grip tightened even more, his strong fingers digging into her flesh. “Abner, you’re hurting me.” Silence. Again, she pulled back.
“You’ll come with me, woman,” her brother-in-law commanded quietly, through clenched teeth. He yanked her forward so hard she tripped and nearly fell. It was then she realized he was angry, very angry. She couldn’t imagine why.
“All right, I’m coming. You needn’t be so rough.” Hadn’t she gone through enough today? Thoroughly perplexed, she offered no further resistance. They stopped when they reached the center of the grove of trees, a spot far enough from the wagons he could yell, if he wanted, and not be heard. He turned to face her.
She stood waiting, wondering why he was standing there, eyes ablaze, upper lip twitching, obviously so angry he could hardly speak. Finally he loosed his painful grip on her arm and let his hand drop. “Abner—?”
“What have I done?”
“What have you done?” His voice was heavy with sarcasm and rage. “I’ll not allow you to disgrace the family.” Before she knew what was happening, his hand shot out and delivered a swift slap across her face.
Stunned, she brought her hand to her cheek, unable to speak. “You dare to hit me?” she finally asked in a horrified whisper.
“You deserve to be punished.” Again he drew his hand back, far back this time. She had easily endured the lightness of his first slap, but now she saw he intended to hit her with even more force. Oh, no he wouldn’t! She threw up both hands. “Abner Schneider, don’t you dare strike me again!”
He still held his hand at the ready, prepared to swing again.
‘You, you ...” She was so mad she choked on her words. She drew in a deep breath that filled her lungs. “You lay a hand on me, and I swear, I’ll scream at the top of my voice. Everyone will know. Is that what you want? For the whole world to know Abner Schneider hit a woman?”
Although Abner’s eyes still blazed, he lowered his hand and went into the scripture-quoting stance Jacob had imitated—the one she’d come to despise. “Nahum three, Verse five: ‘I will show the nations thy wickedness and the kingdoms thy shame.’ ”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“I will not tolerate your wickedness.”
“What wickedness are you talking about? I was only helping rescue my friend, so what could possibly—?”
“I saw you with my own eyes. You made a spectacle of yourself, flaunting yourself before God when you ran out into that field in front of everyone.”
Appearing not to hear, Abner raged on. “Then you consorted with that wicked blasphemer, Clint Palance. He touched your cheek. I saw him!”
“What if he did? I’m not your wife. Why should you care?” The moment the words left her mouth, she regretted them. Abner would be the last person who could give her a logical answer. She’d never suspected him of harboring lustful feelings toward her, and she didn’t now. Rather, his inflexible attitude stemmed from his rigid notions of right and wrong, leaving no room for tolerance. According to Abner, the world would be a better place if he were in charge of everyone’s morals. Dear God, what did the future hold? As if she didn’t have enough problems, she now must deal with a lunatic who wanted to dictate her behavior. “Abner.” She struggled to keep her composure. “I’m very tired. As you know, I recently lost my baby and haven’t completely recovered. I absolutely must go lie down. Have you anything more to say to me?”
He blasted, “Stay away from Clint Palance. If you don’t, Martha will take over Noah’s care, and I shall not allow you anywhere near the boy.”
Noah in the hands of Abner? A chill swept through her. She thought of those bruises that appeared from time to time on Martha’s face. Lord only knew what was hidden beneath her dress. She thought, too, of Abner’s cold treatment of the boy, of how he ordered Noah about, with never a laugh or smile. Oh, never. Noah must remain in her care. “All right, I’ll do as you say. Just don’t ever even think of hitting me again.”
“You’re my responsibility, under my command. I’ll do what I want with you, and you’d better obey.”
How outrageous! She felt her temper rising in response and wanted to set him straight. Increasingly she felt weak and dizzy. If she didn’t soon get to her bed and lie down, she’d collapse. She turned on her heel and left Abner standing in the middle of the grove. By the time she got back to the wagon, she felt sickeningly numb, as if her mind couldn’t cope any longer with the death of Roxana, Bessie’s grief, her own grief, and Abner’s unreasonable rage.
She’d hoped she could slip quietly into her wagon, but Henry, their shy, sandy-haired hired hand stood feeding the oxen close by. “Benjamin’s down by the river. It’s just awful, the way he’s been crying over Roxana. They were going to get hitched, you know.” His own eyes were red.
“Oh, dear. I shall go to him shortly.”
The young man took a closer look at her. “Mrs. Schneider, are you all right? You look ... your face is so white, like you’re going to faint or something.”
“I’m just upset over Roxana’s death. Such a terrible thing. There’s nothing to worry about. I’m fine.”
The horrible truth struck her. Clint’s words came back to her: “Haven’t you found out yet there are no secrets in a wagon train?”
Had she and Abner really been alone in the woods? She doubted they had. A sick feeling swept over her. Soon everybody would know the captain of the wagon train called her wicked and slapped her. Worse, she’d have no way to defend herself because all the gossip would take place behind her back. No one would dare say a word to her face, but everyone would know, just the same.
Next morning, Lucy gathered with the rest of the somber members of the Schneider party around the hastily dug grave of Roxana Potts. Earlier, when she awoke and looked in her mirror, she cringed at the sight of her drawn, pale face. She really did look bad and could only hope everyone would attribute her wan appearance to her grief over Roxana. At least Abner’s slap hadn’t left a mark. He’d offered no apologies, nor had she expected him to. This morning he acted as if yesterday’s terrible scene never happened.
Now, standing by Roxana’s grave, she forgot her own troubles and listened while Reverend Helmick gave a eulogy, followed by Abner reading from the Bible. When he came to “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” she couldn’t hold back her tears. Hard to believe only yesterday Roxana had been a vivacious young girl, her whole life ahead of her. Now she was gone forever, doomed to lie in a forsaken grave by the side of the trail.
There had been no wood available for a coffin, so they’d wrapped Roxana’s remains in a blanket before placing her in the ground. When Abner shut his Bible and stepped back, Bessie said in a choked whisper, “Not even a coffin for my little one.”
John Potts, subdued and quiet, wiped his tears away. “My God, I hate to leave her here.”
“We must move on,” Abner said.
“I can’t just leave her,” Bessie cried. “She’ll be all alone, and I’ll be so far away.” She sank to the ground and laid her head close to the board placed at the head of grave. Its inscription read, “Roxana Potts, born April 14, 1835, Died June 22, 1851.” “I can’t bear to think of her here, all alone. What if the wolves get her? Or the Indians? Or—?”
Charlie stepped forward, his hat in hand. “We buried her as deep as we could.”
Bessie bowed her head in resignation. “I know.” She gazed up at her grieving friends. “I’m sorry for being such a pest. It’s just so hard, leaving your dear child alone in the wilderness, knowing you won’t even be able to bring flowers to her grave.”
John Potts turned to Abner. “We need to stay another day. Bessie will be better by then. Only a day.”
“We cannot wait.”
Lucy’s heart sank. She could tell from Abner’s stern, unbending expression he’d never soften.
“Every moment counts,” Abner continued. “You’ve heard of those unfortunate wagon trains caught in deep snow in the mountains? Horror stories abound.”
Bessie rose to her feet. “Please, Captain.”
“Sorry.” Abner addressed the assemblage. “We leave in an hour. Come, Martha, Lucy.”
“I’ll be there in a moment.” Lucy turned to her weeping friend. “I know it’s hard, and I’m so sorry.”
Bessie stood with her head bowed and, for a time, remained in an attitude of frozen stillness. When she looked up, her eyes were dry. “Don’t you worry. I’ll be ready. I don’t know how I can bear it, but I will.” She lifted her head. “We must endure like good soldiers. My mother taught me that.”
Lucy’s heart wrenched with grief, not only for Roxana but for brave Bessie, laden with sorrow but willing to carry on.
Before they left, Lucy went to Bessie’s wagon. Hannah, her plain face pale and strained, stood outside as if on guard. “She’s asleep. Best leave her be. Oh, what are we going to do without Roxana? How could God let her die in that terrible way? I wish we’d never came on this horrible journey.”
Lucy could only nod over the lump in her throat. Of the two sisters, Hannah was the strong one, yet even she showed signs of breaking over the death of her pretty young niece.
Hannah went on, “I’m not blessed with children of my own, so I guess I can’t exactly feel Bessie’s grief, but ...” Her eyes moistened. “I loved that girl.”
“We all did. Poor Benjamin couldn’t even come to her burial ...” Lucy proceeded to tell Hannah about the young man’s grief, how she’d heard him sobbing during the night.
Hannah listened intently. At one point she seemed to see Lucy’s face for the first time and gave an almost imperceptible start. When Lucy finished, she said, “You look bad. Your face is all strained and white.”
“Well, Roxana’s death—”
“Abner done that.”
Lucy put her hand to her face. “There’s a mark?”
“No, there’s no mark, but we all know what happened just the same.” Hannah’s face twisted into an angry scowl. “That no-good bastard! There’s some as don’t like the captain. There were some who didn’t like Jacob, either, but at least he wasn’t quite so self-righteous and smiled once in a while. Abner not letting Bessie stay an extra day didn’t set well with a lot of us.” Compassion filled her eyes. “I guess you know we all heard how he yelled at you and slapped you, and, bless your heart, you didn’t let him give you anymore sass and stood right up to him.”
She could almost laugh. “Is nothing sacred?”
“Not around here it ain’t.”
“Please, don’t say anything more.”
“You think I don’t know you have your pride? Don’t worry. I’ve had my say.”
Lucy raised her chin. “It won’t happen again. I informed Abner in no uncertain terms that I—”
Hannah’s scornful laughter cut her off. “You think he’ll listen to you? These men! Well, you’re not the only one.”
“Has your husband ever—?”
“Elija? He’d better not, the little runt.”
Lucy couldn’t suppress a quick smile. Hannah was a big woman, taller and heavier than her husband. Come to think of it, Hannah could probably knock the poor little man flat if she had a mind to. She wished she could do the same with Abner.
Hannah patted her shoulder. “You’ll be all right. You’re strong, and you’re smart enough to know how not to rile him again.”
Lucy nodded silently.
“I know he’s got a hold on you. It’s Noah, ain’t it?”
She could only nod again. How very perceptive of Hannah. “It’s Noah and a lot of things. I feel so trapped. Out here in the middle of nowhere there’s no place to run. I couldn’t leave now, even if I wanted to.”
“You’re right, you can’t leave.” Hannah’s voice was practical. “My best advice to you is, stay with Abner for now. You’d best be very, very careful. You know what I mean.” Hannah cast a knowing look, as if she knew every shameful secret Lucy harbored in her head concerning Clint Palance. “Meanwhile—” the animation left her face “—say a prayer for Bessie, will you? I worry about her.”
“Of course. I know how she loved Roxana.”
“It ain’t only that. My sister’s having problems this time. We used to joke about how the seventh would just pop out, but lately I’m not thinking so.”
“I’ve noticed her feet and legs are swollen. Is there anything else?”
“She’s having sharp pains. Not labor pains, just the kind of pain she shouldn’t be having.”
Not Bessie. Lucy’s heart sank at the thought her dear friend might be in trouble. “We can only hope for the best, out here in this God-forsaken wilderness.”
Hannah sadly shook her head. “Sometimes I think God truly has forsaken us.”
“Bessie said it best. ‘We must endure like good soldiers.’”
“Yes, our mother used to say that. ‘Like good soldiers.’ ”
Mere words ceased to be adequate. Lucy and Hannah embraced and stood silently for a time, each drawing strength from the other. When they finally drew apart, Lucy had a wistful smile. “I amsucha long way from Boston.”
“I’m sure as heck a long way from Possum Creek, Tennessee.”
Together they shared a moment of laughter, a small consolation on such a dark day.
For days, mile after mile, the bare plain stretched before them. Here and there the Platte River, their constant companion, divided into thread-like sluices wending through the open prairie and through the occasional clumps of woods that relieved the monotony.
Not nearly enough clumps of woods. These were days when not one single tree, bush, or hill broke the horizon. Only endless miles of flatland that stretched on forever. As a result, the lack of shelter made life a daily agony of embarrassment for the women. Their long, full skirts supplied the only privacy for “nature’s call.” The best arrangement was for at least two or three women to stand together and hold their skirts out, but even one woman extending her skirt was far better than nothing.
“I allow, I’m getting mighty tired of hunkering down in the middle of the prairie,” Bessie complained to Lucy and Hannah one day while they stood patiently, their skirts fanned out.
Hannah retorted, “It wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t have to go every fifteen minutes.”
“Just wait ’til you get pregnant, my fine sister!”
Lucy could surely commiserate with Bessie, as well as her shy sister-in-law. As the weeks went by, Martha’s pregnancy had caused more frequent treks to the bushes. At first she’d suffered agonies of embarrassment. Now, with no bushes at all, she’d grown accustomed to relying heavily on her women friends. Not one woman complained, though. The spirit of camaraderie and helpfulness never ran stronger than it did when each provided the other her privacy.
The lack of any kind of plant life forced even Cordelia to make use of the curtain of skirts. She hadn’t changed, though, and acted as if every minute she spent with those-of-a-lesser-standing was a great sacrifice she must endure. By now her popularity had dipped even further. Bessie said it best. “If I didn’t have such a kind heart, I’d drop my skirt at just the right moment and let the men get an eyeful of Mrs. Stuck-up squatting just like the rest of us.”
Not a day went by that Lucy didn’t see at least one grave dug by the side of the trail. Not surprisingly, Agnes kept a record of each and every grave site in her journal. “The road that runs beside the Platte River is like a graveyard,” she wrote in her usual glum style. She wasn’t far from wrong. They had yet to reach halfway to their destination, but already she had listed over eighty graves. She also took note of the cause of death, included on many of the inscriptions carved into rough boards that marked the graves. “Died of cholera,” was common, or “Died of typhoid ... died of measles.” Every day, Lucy gave thanks that so far no one in the party had been stricken with one of these deadly diseases. Still, there were always the accidents to worry about. She was keenly aware of the ever-growing list of tragedies in Agnes’ journal: “Died of a rattlesnake bite ... died from drinking poisonous water ... died when he accidentally shot himself ... drowned in the river ... killed by a grizzly.”
One cause of death was never noted. “Died in childbirth” was much too delicate a subject to identify, but when an inscription listed the names and birth dates of a woman and baby who died the same day, the cause became obvious. Lucy did her best to divert Martha’s attention from such grave markers. Each time she saw one, Martha became visibly shaken. “What if me and my baby were the ones buried under the little mound of dirt, with only a rough board for a marker? How awful to lie in a cold, dark hole for all eternity with never a loved one to come and leave a flower, shed a tear, or say a prayer.”
Lucy could only attempt to assure her sister-in-law she’d never suffer such a fate. She knew she didn’t sound too convincing. After all, she’d lost her own baby, and she wasn’t nearly as tiny and frail as Martha. She tried her best to appear confident. Worry was a useless emotion, and besides, she was far too busy to indulge herself. Simply surviving each day on the trail took all her energy.
As the days went by, and the Schneider wagon train rolled on, the shock of Roxana’s death faded, along with the memory of the horrible scene with Abner. Lucy felt better. Her color returned. She continued caring for Noah as before. As for Abner, he never mentioned the slapping incident and acted as if nothing had changed between them.
Now she was beginning to look ahead and wonder what would happen when they reached California. Would she have no other choice but to remain with Abner and Martha? Her mind rebelled at such a thought, but the dilemma remained. She wouldnotspend the rest of her life with a man she’d come to detest, but on the other hand, how could she face losing Noah? Somehow, some way, she’d solve her dilemma, but at the moment, she could find no easy answer.
To her constant frustration, because of Abner, she strove to steer clear of Clint. The irony hadn’t escaped her. She wasn’t a married woman anymore, yet because of her brother-in-law’s self righteous wrath, she didn’t dare go anywhere near Clint. That didn’t prevent her from constantly thinking about him. In those moments when she looked into what seemed a dismal future, all she had to do was think of Clint Palance, and her spirits lifted. She pictured him riding Paint, so easy in the saddle, so confident, so honorable and trustworthy, so handsome, too, despite the scar. She thought of the times they talked, when he looked down at her with that glint of humor in his eye. His eyes told her a lot more, too. They said he wanted her. It was so very plain. How unfair life was, never to know the feel of Clint’s arms. Now, because of Abner, she must avoid him. She blamed herself for being stupid enough to marry Jacob in the first place, especially when both her father and sister had warned her not to.
If she hadn’t married Jacob, she never would’ve been on this wagon train, and if she hadn’t come on this wagon train she never would’ve gotten to know Clint Palance.
Sometimes in the dark of night, when she was unable to sleep, she’d imagine it was Clint, her tender lover, who lay beside her, that she was thrilling to his touch, just like Sarah said, carried away on the wings of love. She wasn’t sure what that meant. She hadn’t learned from Jacob, but she had the feeling Clint could teach her.
She knew her secret thoughts were utterly foolish, yet she felt not one twinge of guilt. After a grueling day on the trail, her fantasies of Clint Palance gave her most of the happy moments she could find amidst the toil and heartbreak of her harsh new world.
On a day when heavy showers prevented the wagons from moving, Lucy stayed inside her tent, doing her best to keep Noah and his little friend Jamie entertained. In the late afternoon, she took the boys to the Helmick wagon, then went for a walk to get much-needed fresh air. The rain had stopped for the moment, replaced by a muggy stillness that hung like an oppressive mantle over the camp. There wasn’t one person in sight. Everyone must be hunkered down in their tents and wagons, which was most unusual, but how very nice. Privacy was a rare luxury these days, so she welcomed the idea she could actually go for a walk and be all by herself. She strolled out of the camp, through a grove of trees to the river, swollen from all the rain. Finding a log that extended into the water, she sat down, stripped off her boots and stockings, and dabbled her feet, enjoying the feel of cool water running across her toes. For a while, she took in the glorious view across the river, where a herd of deer had ambled down to the edge for their evening drink.
Finally, in the gathering darkness, she stepped to the shore. When she bent to retrieve her stockings, she felt a burst of sharp pain in the sole of her right foot. “Oh, oh, oh!” she cried and began hopping about. Something had bit her, or stung her, she wasn’t sure which. She looked down in time to see a horrible looking creature scurrying under the log. It had crab-like front claws and a long body with a high arched tail that curved around. She had never seen anything like it.
Tears welling in her eyes as she stood on one foot waiting for the excruciating pain to subside, clenching her teeth to keep from crying out again. At last, when the pain had lessened slightly, she knew she needed help. What should she do? Stay and wait? Surely, sooner or later, someone would come along. What if she didn’t have that much time? What if the creature was poisonous? She could be dead in an hour if she didn’t get help right away.
She had to get back to the campsite. Had to get to Inez Helmick. With all those herbs and potions, surely she’d know what to do. Wincing with pain, she picked up her boots and stockings and began hobbling back, stepping on her left foot, gingerly balancing herself with the heel of her right.
When she reached the campsite, she found only one person in sight—Clint, standing by his wagon. He saw her at once, painfully limping along, and immediately went to her side. “What happened?”
“Oh, Clint!” She was so relieved to see him. “I stepped on this ... this awful thing, and it bit me. It hurts! What if it’s poisonous? Do I need to see Inez?”
“What did it look like?” When she described it, he looked relieved. “You got stung by a scorpion. There are a lot of them around these parts. Let’s have a look.” He swept her in his arms, carried her to his wagon, and set her down on the yoke. “Hold out your foot.”
Grimacing, she extended her foot. “It feels like I got stuck with a red hot needle. Is it poisonous?”
Clint bent over, clasped her foot gently, and raised it enough so he could see the bottom. “A little, but you’ll survive.” He gave her a reassuring smile. “It should feel better in a few minutes. It’s slightly swollen but shouldn’t get any worse. A cold compress helps. I’ll get one.”
Clint disappeared inside his wagon. Just as he returned, the heavens opened and a deluge of rain began to fall. “Quick,” let’s get you inside.”
Despite the rain, and the dreadful burning pain in her foot, she took a cautious look around the campsite. Still not a soul in sight. She couldn’t even feel the prying eyes of Agnes upon her.
Clint regarded her with a mocking gleam in his eye. “Still worried about what people might say?”
Why had she been thinking such nonsense? “Absolutely not. Help me inside.”
He helped her into his wagon and had her sit on a bed that wasn’t much more than a mattress on the wagon floor. “A sting from a scorpion is pretty much like a bee sting. Hurts like hell, but you’re not going to die.”
“I didn’t think so.” She was inwardly relieved. She watched Clint dip a cloth in cold water, then carefully wrap it around her foot. Instantly the burning eased. “That feels better. I’d wager this isn’t your first scorpion sting.”
“Scorpions ... spiders ... snakes ... you learn a lot when you live in the wilderness.” He finished applying the compress, sat back on his haunches, and regarded her with concern. “Is that better?”
“Oh, much.” It was. No need for Inez Helmick. She might have known Clint could help her.
“So, how are you?”
“You’ve just lost your husband and your baby. Don’t tell me fine.”
Clint’s blunt response reached the constant torment in her heart. Since the day her husband and son were buried, she’d mostly grieved to herself. How could she expect sympathy when everyone she knew was simply struggling to survive? “There is nothing worse in this world than losing a child.” Her voice quavered.
“I can only imagine what you’ve been through. You’ve been very brave.”
His deep understanding nearly brought her to tears. She swallowed hard. “Thank you for that. It hasn’t been easy.”
“Actually, for a city girl, I think you’re doing pretty well.”
She smiled. “Thank you for that, too.” His remark not only jerked her out of her gloomy mood, it caused a warm flood of feeling to course through her. So nice to hear praise for a change. She certainly got none from Abner. “I’m not like Mister Benton and his manifest destiny. I mean, I’m not out to expand The United States or any such thing. I just want to get where I’m going and find a place for Noah and me.” She laughed. “And then die in bed of old age, not from having my scalp removed by an Indian.”
He nodded agreeably. “I admire all you women. To endure what you do every day takes great courage.”
“This may surprise you, but in some ways this journey isn’t as hard as I thought.”
“It’s not? In what way?”
She paused to put her thoughts together. “Sometimes when we’re riding along and I see the beauty of the mountains we pass, and the rivers and forests, I realize these are all things I would never have seen had I stayed in Massachusetts. I wouldn’t have even known they were there.”
For a long time he didn’t speak. “West to catch the sunset,” he said in an odd yet gentle tone. “You see that now.”
“Oh, yes.” She looked around his wagon, crowded but neat. “I’ve never been in here before.”
“Well, I wonder why.” There was a trace of laughter.
“Umm, you’re right. Now it’s different. I’m not a married woman anymore.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You might as well be.”
She didn’t want to think about Abner right now. She sighed and searched for a change of subject. “Where’s Charlie?”
“Gone to try and find a trapper friend of his. I don’t expect him back until tomorrow.”
We’re alone. “Oh really?” She tried to sound casual.
He shot her a gaze that swept over her, soft as a caress. “Really.”
The look he gave her made her forget the pain from the scorpion’s sting. She grew acutely aware of her surroundings. Only a thin layer of canvas separated her from the world outside, yet she felt snug and warm, sitting on the bed in Clint’s wagon, listening to the soothing patter of the rain. “We’ve never been alone like this.”
He sank down beside her. “No, we haven’t.” He lifted a hand and touched her hair. No sunbonnet today. She wore it loose, streaming down her back. “I’ve wanted to be alone with you since Independence.” He thought a moment. “No, since Boston, when you were such a little snob.”
She began to laugh. “And said I would never set foot outside Suffolk County.”
He joined her laughter. When it stopped, he regarded her a moment, then his breath caught and his arms went around her. Almost of their volition, her hands slid around to the back of his buckskin coat. He pulled her close. She pressed her fingers into the broad shoulders she’d admired from afar for so long. Their lips crushed together in a kiss so long overdue that she felt him tremble and knew she was trembling, too. She returned his kiss with reckless abandon, her mind spinning in several directions at once. How wonderful to be in his arms. How incredible. She could hardly believe her impossible dream had finally come true.
When they finally broke apart, he looked into her eyes, his face only inches from hers. “I don’t want this to end.”
She understood his meaning. He was giving her a chance to say no. For a clearheaded moment she faced the fact that although the campsite was temporarily deserted, chances of discovery were still high. Like him, she didn’t want to stop. How could she when a crazy jumble of feelings were pouring through her? None had to do with caution. They were all about excitement, yearning, and her burning desire. “Neither do I.”
He gripped her wrists, lowered her all the way to the bed, and lay beside her. He began kissing her again, and she eagerly responded. Somewhere, during a frenzy of kisses, they undressed each other: first her dress went, then his coat, pants, and boots, finally her bloomers which, in a heavy-breathing moment for both of them, he slid slowly down her hips, over her silky mound, continued down over her legs, then clear off. She knew not where he tossed them, or cared.
“You’re beautiful.” He looked down on her, his eyes brimming with admiration.
She lay naked beneath him, basking in the warmth of his gaze, experiencing a wanton delight that every inch of her was exposed to his gaze. With his swelling manhood pressed hard against her hip, he began to swirl gentle fingers around her pink nipples, watched as they hardened, then with the lightest of touches, teased them harder still. The gentle massage sent currents of desire running through her, and when he whispered, “You have beautiful breasts. I’ve been wanting to kiss them,” her whole body throbbed. When he lowered his head and sucked her nipples, running his rough tongue over each in turn, her body arched, and the pleasure of it made her bite her lip to keep from crying out.
“Oh, that was good,” she gasped, “very, very good.”
“He took her hand and guided it to his manhood. “Hold on to this while I do some things to you.”
Heart pounding with excitement, she clasped the most intimate part of Clint Palance, marveling at how thick it was, how long, and how very, very hard. Next, just like he said, he began doing things to her, incredibly exciting things like running his thumb deliciously over her palm, nibbling at her ear, moving his hands magically here and there over her body. Often he returned to her breasts, where his hands roamed intimately, and he nibbled, sucked, and kissed until she thought the exquisite feeling would drive her mad.
She now experienced such ecstasy that she moaned, frantically eager for his next touch. When at last he slipped his hand between her legs, the sweet sensation of his fingers touching the most intimate part of herself was so intense ... “Oh, I can’t bear it. I need you inside me. Now! I shall die if you don’t.”
“Happy to oblige.” His voice was thick with passion. He reached to spread her legs apart, and she eagerly slid them open. Slowly he guided his shaft inside her, causing her to emit little groans of pleasure each time he moved. By now she’d abandoned all logical thought, her mind nothing more than a mass of delicious sensations, all centered on that pleasure spot where they were joined. At last, when he was all the way in, he paused and looked into her eyes. “Feel good?”
“Oh, yes, I’m in heaven. Don’t stop!”
“I won’t, not until you’re pleasured.”
“Oh, I’m pleasured all right,” she managed to gasp through her rapturous haze. “Do keep on.”
He began a series of rhythmic strokes, each one driving her to a higher arousal. In return, her hips rose and fell in a natural rhythm that matched his own. His own passion turned wild and hard until finally he stopped. “Are you almost there?”
He drove in hard, pushing her over the brink into a sensation so fantastic, so incredibly wonderful she was forced to press her lips together, muffling her screams of ecstasy against his shoulder.
At the same time, he, too, experienced an explosive pleasure and soon lay spent and panting beside her.
While the rain pattered on the canvas above, they lay for she didn’t know how long, wrapped in each other’s arms, their beating hearts slowly returning to normal. Finally, voices in the distance brought her back to the real world. She sat up. “I’d better go.”
“Yes, you had.” He immediately arose and pulled on his clothes. “I’ll be outside. Let me know when you’re ready.”
Alone in the wagon, she washed herself as best she could and pulled on her clothes, all but her right shoe. Her foot still throbbed from the scorpion sting. Funny, but when she was making love with Clint, she’d entirely forgotten. When she was ready, she called softly, “Is it clear?”
She slipped from the wagon and took a quick look around the rain-soaked camp. No one was in sight except Clint. “It’s clear for the moment,” he said. “You’d better go.”
Her heart swelled. There were so many things she wanted to say to him, but already her mind had turned to matters more practical. Time to start dinner ... Noah would soon be back ... where was Abner? Hard to believe only minutes ago she was in such a state she wouldn’t have cared if the whole world had seen her making love with Clint. Now apprehension coursed through her. What if Agnes had seen her? What if Abner found out? What if ...? No more euphoria; she was back on earth again.
“Goodbye.” She gave a wicked little smile. “Whenever I see a scorpion, I shall think of you.”
Not waiting for his reply, she hobbled away, wondering how she could’ve been so flippant with the man who’d just turned her whole world upside down.Carried away on the wings of love.Yes, she had been, and yes, she knew there’d be sleepless nights ahead when she remembered the sheer bliss she’d experienced on this bleak, rainy afternoon.
“Lucy, what happened to you?”
Damnation! Agnes’ voice. Lucy turned to see her gossipy friend’s head sticking out of her tent.
What happened to me? Well, if you must know, I just finished making mad, passionate love with Clint Palance right under your very nose. By the way, do you have any idea how large he is? It was so long and hard it drove me wild. In fact, he’s such a good lover, I had to bite my tongue to keep from screaming and waking the whole camp up. It was just so wonderful. So what do you think ofthat, Agnes!
“I got stung by a scorpion.”
“Oh, you poor dear. It must have been terrible, getting stung like that.”
“Yes, it was pretty bad, all right. If it isn’t one thing, it’s another, isn’t it?”
“It’s just awful, the hardships we must endure.”
“You’re so right.” Lucy nodded her head in solemn agreement and hobbled on her way.
A few days later when the wagon train was underway again, Noah called, “Look, Ma, what’s that?” Seated on the wagon seat between Benjamin and Lucy, he pointed to the distant horizon where a lone pillar of rock reached toward the sky.
“I don’t know what that is.”
Just then Charlie Dawes appeared, pacing his horse to the slow plodding of the oxen. “Son, that there is Chimney Rock. They call it a great natural wonder.”
“Why do they call it a chimney?” Noah asked.
“Because when you get up close, it looks like one. It looks close now, don’t it? You ain’t going to reach it for two more days. It’s the first of our landmarks. It tells us we’re five hundred and some odd miles from where we started. Folks like to climb it, at least the lower part. After we pass it, Fort Laramie’s just three days away.”
Abner rode up. In his usual brusque fashion he inquired, “What’s going on?”
Charlie’s eyes shifted to Abner. “We’re talking about Fort Laramie. By the way, we’ll need two or three days’ rest when we get there.”
Abner stiffened, as Lucy knew he would. His hard-driving ways drew many protests, but he kept insisting they move at as fast a pace as possible. “We must not waste time.”
“The folks need a break. There’s plenty of wood at Fort Laramie, and grass and water. The people can trade at the fort and bathe and wash their clothes.” Charlie Dawes, until now always congenial, regarded Abner with a hard glint in his eye. “I highly recommend you stop for a couple of days. Otherwise ...”
“These people are tired and worn. They’ve still got a long way to go, and they need a couple of days to get clean, buy some food, give their animals a good feed, and get their spirits back up. Plain and simple, there’s going to be trouble if you don’t let them rest.”
Abner’s jaw clenched. His lips pinched tight. “I shall keep your advice in mind, but may I remind you the final decision is mine?”
After Charlie shrugged, gave a curt goodbye, and rode off, Lucy couldn’t keep silent. “You’d better listen to what he says. We’re so in need of a rest, and—”
“God and I shall be the judge of that, not you.”
Lucy knew better than to waste another word, even though she was hearing constant rumblings of unrest and dissatisfaction with Abner’s leadership. Surely he sensed how unpopular he’d become. She’d even heard rumors many in the party wanted him deposed and another leader elected.
Better than anyone, she could understand why.
“Ain’t this grand?” exclaimed Hannah. “Two whole days in Fort Laramie.” She, Lucy, and other women from the party, pails in hand, strolled toward the thick woods near the fort to pick berries.
“We surely need the rest.” No need to mention the heated argument Lucy had overheard between Abner and the members of the council. A shouting William Applegate threatened to depose Abner as leader if he didn’t allow a two-day rest in Fort Laramie. All the other men agreed. Lucy silently applauded when Abner finally gave in to the pressure.
Fort Laramie, situated on a tongue of land formed by the junction of the Laramie and North Platte Rivers, offered a heavenly abundance of water. How wonderful to wash all over and feel really clean! Lucy had spent an enjoyable day with her women companions, bathing, cleaning out their wagons, and washing all their clothes, while Abner joined the men in mending wagons and equipment, and turning the cattle out to graze on the plentiful grass. Now, in the late afternoon, she strolled toward the woods feeling better than she’d felt for days ... weeks! She wore a newly laundered blue calico dress and left the hated sunbonnet behind. How nice, the carefree feel of her freshly washed hair falling loose around her shoulders.
She wished Clint could see her now. Since they had made love in his wagon, he’d constantly been on her mind. She longed to be with him, away from prying eyes, but the chances of that happening again were slim to none.
She pulled her thoughts back to earth. “I’m going to make a berry pie for dinner, and one for Bessie,” she called out to Hannah, Agnes, Martha, and Inez when they spread out to collect berries. Poor Bessie, who was near her time, remained behind.
Engrossed in her berry picking, Lucy soon found herself alone, although she hardly noticed, so intent was she on filling her pail with the plump gooseberries and chokeberries she found in great quantities. Finally, when she had filled her pail to the brim, she stopped, raised her head, and looked around. Surprised, she found high walls on either side of her and realized she must have worked her way into a canyon filled with tall trees and thick undergrowth. Where was she? How still it was. Where were the others?
“Agnes?” she called. “Hannah? Martha? Inez?”
No answer. Only her own words echoed back at her. She called again, louder, and listened intently, but the only sounds she heard were the caws of a passing raven, the gurgle of a brook, and the rustle of soft wind through tall pine trees.
“You can’t be lost,” she muttered to herself, annoyed but not alarmed. Her friends couldn’t be far. All she had to do was retrace her steps, and she’d be sure to find them.
Which way? Clutching her pail of berries, she turned in a slow circle and tried to decide which way she’d come. Trouble was, each bush looked like another, and each tree looked like the next. She had no idea which way to go.
“Agnes?” she yelled at the top of her voice, more impatient now. “Hannah? Inez?” No comforting reply, but she still felt no alarm. She’d find that creek she heard and follow it, and in no time she’d be back with her friends.
She followed the sound of flowing water and soon found a gurgling brook flowing over moss-covered stones, edged by tiny violets and moss roses. How pretty. She’d like her friends to see it, but meanwhile, should she go upstream or downstream? She had no idea. Downstream, she supposed. That was as good a guess as any.
She started walking, finding the way easy going at first because she could follow along the bank. Farther along, the underbrush was so thick in places that she had to wade through the creek in order to get around it. She kept a firm grip on her pail, though. Bessiewouldhave her pie. And Noah, too, and Henry and Benjamin. Even Abner.
Over and over, she called her friends’ names, but no one answered. She had no idea of the time, but it seemed an hour at least that she’d struggled down the stream with no end in sight. She wondered how she could have wandered so far. Surely, she should’ve found someone by now. She glanced up at the sun and saw it was about to set behind one wall of the canyon. That meant she was facing west. But from which direction had she come? She didn’t know, and soon darkness would set in.
Now she recalled the warning she’d been given at the fort.Don’t stray too far. Indians ... grizzly bears ... snakes!
A sudden fright overcame her. Soon she’d be all alone in the dark, lost in the wilderness. She sank to the ground, her back to a tree, her heart pumping with fright. She had no place to run, no place to hide, no weapon of any kind. So vulnerable anything could get her! Her mind racing, she remained absolutely still against the tree, terrified something monstrous would leap from the bushes at any moment and pounce on her.
Just then, she heard a slight rustling in the bushes. Must be her imagination. Again a rustling. She turned her head toward the sound and saw, not six feet away, the glittering black eyes of a snake staring straight at her. Panic like she’d never known welled in her throat.Run! cried a little voice within her.Get up and run! But her body refused to cooperate. The snake, its body a blotched mixture of yellow, gray, and brown, left the bushes and slithered straight toward her. She let out a small scream, pressed her back to the tree. In the wink of an eye, the snake wound into a menacing coil, its head swaying back and forth, forked tongue flicking rapidly. She heard a funny sound. Rattles! A rattlesnake! She could hardly breathe.
Again she told herself she must get away, must run. Barely had she started to put thought into action when she heard a voice.
“Lucy, don’t move.”
She shifted her eyes toward the sound of the voice. Dressed in his buckskins, knife in hand, Clint Palance stepped through the bushes, his eyes on the snake. With a motion so swift it was just a blur, he sent the knife flying square into the snake’s head, killing it instantly. She slapped a hand over her mouth and gazed wide-eyed, unable to speak, first at the dead snake, then up at Clint.
“Good afternoon.” He retrieved his knife, slipped it into its sheath, and smiled. “Out for a stroll?”
Hand shaking, she pointed at the remains of the snake. “Get that thing out of here!”
“My pleasure.” He picked up the dead reptile and tossed it back into the bushes. “Better?”
“Much better.” Her fear gone, she was so relieved to see him she wanted to leap up and throw herself into his arms. Pride prevented her, though. Since that day they’d made love, they’d hardly said a word to each other. As a result, she felt a certain constraint had grown between them, and the intimacy they’d shared was gone. “Well, it appears you’ve saved me again.” She picked up her pail of berries and held it up to him. “Care for a gooseberry?”
He sank down beside her. “Did you know everyone’s looking for you?” He took a berry and popped it into his mouth. “Hmm, good. Why didn’t you stay with the others?”
“Why didn’t they stay with me?” She managed an elaborate shrug. “Actually I wasn’t really lost.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Really? Not scared, I suppose.”
“Not at all. I was just resting. How did you know where to find me?”
He grinned. “You left a trail a mile wide. Footprints—snapped twigs—broken branches. An elephant would be harder to find.”
“Really?” She tilted her nose up. “I’ll have you know I knew what I was doing. I was following the stream, just like I’m supposed to. Sooner or later—”
“You’d have ended up in Texas. You were going the wrong way.”
“Oh.” She put her hand over her mouth and started to laugh. “I made a mess of it, didn’t I?”
“Pretty much.” He weighed her with a critical squint. “You shouldn’t have wandered off. There’s plenty of Sioux around here. They’re not always friendly.”
Her laughter stopped abruptly. “I worry a lot about the Indians.”
“They’re pests more than anything else. You’ll see a lot more of them coming into camp, begging for food or anything else they think you might give them. If you don’t watch, they’ll steal anything that isn’t nailed down. You can’t blame them. This is their land, and we’re stealing it.” He paused, as if weighing whether or not to go on. “ I won’t lie to you. Ahead we’ll be running into parties of Shoshones. They’re a dangerous lot. Arapahos, too.”
“Do you think we’ll be attacked?”
“Just keep an eye out and be careful. Tell Ben and Henry to keep their guns handy, and loaded.” A chill ran down her spine, but before she could pursue the subject, he continued, “Do you realize this is only the second time we’ve been alone?”
“I guess it is.”
He smiled ruefully. “I know it is.”
A tingle of excitement shot through her. She wasn’t going to pretend she didn’t understand his meaning. He stood abruptly and cast his gaze to the last rays of sun fast disappearing behind the canyon wall. “Time to go. You wandered a long way. We should get back before dark.” Solemn-faced, he reached down. “Take my hands.” His powerful arms brought her to her feet with one easy pull. Instead of breaking apart, he remained close, still clasping her hands. She drew a deep breath, catching the dizzying, masculine smell of him: buckskin mixed with gunpowder, and maybe a touch of the towering pine trees thrown in.I’m almost in his arms again, and all I want is to get closer still. His eyes captured hers. She could see they’d softened, filled with longing ... passion ... all the things that had been there before, that rainy day he’d taken her in his wagon. With a ragged breath, he moved his hands to her shoulders. She could feel their trembling. She leaned toward him, her heart beating madly. He pressed his lips to hers, caressing her mouth more than kissing it. When she flung her arms around his neck, he claimed her lips with crushing intensity. She returned his kiss with a hunger that spoke of her memory of their passionate encounter in his wagon. When they finally pulled apart, he showered kisses around her lips and jaw. “I haven’t forgotten. It’s just so damn hard to get you alone.”
“Almost impossible.” His hands slid a slow, eager path downward. She could feel the warmth of them pressing against the sides of her breasts. Then one slid over and cupped her breast. In a dreamy intimacy, she felt its warmth through the fabric of her gown. A hot ache grew in her throat.Don’t stop now...
* * *
Clint had to catch his breath. No woman had ever aroused him like this one. Just standing close to her caused such an animal urge within him he wanted to throw her on the ground, pull off those bloomers, and ram it in. He laughed to himself, thinking how thin the veneer of civilization men possessed was. A good thing women couldn’t read their minds.
When he heard she’d gotten lost, he was sick with worry. So many dangers out here in the wilderness. As he’d frantically searched, he’d pictured the worst: wild animals, Indians, and of course the snake, which only proved he’d been right to worry. He hated to admit it, even to himself, but he cared deeply for this woman. Since the day they had met, thoughts of her had hung heavy on his mind, especially since they’d made love in his wagon. It wasn’t just the sex, although that had been wonderful beyond belief. Her beauty, bravery, saucy attitude—everything about her kept him awake at night. Most of all, he kept imagining how he would make love to her again. No, not throw her on the ground. He longed to bring her to the heights of passion again—hear her moan with pleasure when he kissed her breasts, scream as loud as she liked when she climaxed, and not have to bury her head against his shoulder.
Good God, when could they be alone again?
“Lucy? Lucy where are you?” a voice intruded far in the distance.
With an oath, Clint firmly thrust her away and dropped his hands. “Should have known.” She started to speak, but he shook his head. “Out of my mind. Come on, let’s go.” He scooped up her pail of berries. “Don’t forget these.”
She took the berries, the turbulence of their pent-up passion still swirling within her. “We’re not done yet.”
He stared at her a moment, then burst out laughing. “No, we’re not. It’s still a long way to California.”
She bit her lip. “Abner won’t be too thrilled when he hears I’ve been in the woods with you.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Do you think I’d let him hurt you?”
“Whether I like it or not, I’m obliged to do his bidding.”
“Well, you’re right. We’d better go. They must be wondering where I am.”
On the way back, Lucy followed closely behind Clint, clutching her pail of berries. At first all she could think about was Clint and how they’d kissed. Then she began to think about Abner and what he’d say when he discovered she’d spent time alone in the woods with the man he detested above all others. He was going to be angry. Would he try to hit her again? She would be compelled to take action if he did, but for the life of her, other than screaming at the top of her lungs—which she was loath to do—she wasn’t sure how she could defend herself.
When they reached the edge of the clearing between the woods and the fort, she saw people milling about. Agnes and William Applegate were there, as well as Hannah, Inez, and their husbands, and ...Abner.
She stopped before anyone saw her and grabbed Clint’s arm. “Wait. I must go ahead alone.” She heard the panic in her voice but couldn’t help it.
He gave her an easy grin. “You don’t want to be seen with me? Wonder why.”
“You know very well why. Do I have to spell it out?”
“Why don’t you?”
She turned to face him. “I have a short-tempered brother-in-law who, for some reason, doesn’t want me to associate with you. He most especially doesn’t like you.”
“I know. He hit you because of me.”
“Apparently, the whole world knows.”
“There are no secrets—”
“I’m aware of all that.” She placed her hand on his forearm. “Can’t you see? How would it look if we came strolling out of the woods together? Lord only knows what he’d do.”
“I wouldn’t worry if I were you.”
“You’re not going to leave me hidden in the woods. Let’s go.”
“No! Abner will kill me.”
“Abner will never hit you again.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“He’s going to be very, very angry.”
Maybe she was a fool, but if Clint Palance said to trust him, then she would. When it came down to it, she’d trust her life to this man. “All right, if you’re sure; let’s go.”
They stepped into the clearing and had barely started across when Hannah Richards pointed and joyfully called, “There she is!” Seconds later, her friends surrounded her, expressing their relief.
Smiling, Lucy held up her pail of berries. “Bessie’s still going to get her pie.”
Her smile faded.
Abner strode up. “Where have you been?”
“I got lost in the woods. I—”
“Come with me.” He took her arm, none too gently.
She could tell from his strangled voice and the tightness of his grip he was furious. All eyes were watching them. Her legs began to tremble, but she returned a pleasant smile. “Of course, Abner.”
They had just started off when Clint called, “Captain, I want a word with you.”
Abner stopped in his tracks and turned. “Can’t you see I’m busy now?”
“It can’t wait.”
“Are you sure?”
“It can’t wait.”
“Very well. You go ahead, Lucy. I shall be right with you.” Under his breath he muttered, “We have much to discuss.”
He turned to Clint. Not disguising his annoyance, he inquired, “So, Mr. Palance, what was it you wanted?”
Charlie Dawes was sitting by his campfire, supper plate in hand, when his partner rode up. “So there you are. I hear you found the little lady.”
“Yep.” Clint dismounted, went to their wagon, and found the piece of sandstone he used for sharpening his knives. He returned and sat across from Charlie. “She got lost in the woods.”
“I seen the captain come by just a minute ago. Had a funny look on his face. Sort of pale, like something just scared the shit out of him.”
Clint drew his ten-inch Bowie knife from the sheath that hung on his belt. With great deliberation, he rubbed the sandstone along its curved, sharp edge. “He’ll never even think of hitting her again.”
Charlie regarded the gleaming, ten-inch blade. “Holy Jehosaphat! You threatened him with that? No wonder he looked bug-eyed.”
“I never mentioned it. Never drew it out. Let’s just say we came to an understanding.”
“Do you remember down in Texas when the Comanche were on the warpath?”
Charlie nodded. “Them Comanches is surely an unpleasant bunch. You wouldn’t want to be their captive, especially if you was white.”
“Just what I mentioned to the captain. Do you recall that Army sergeant who fell into their hands a few years back?”
“You mean the one where they cut his eyelids off and buried him up to his chin in the blazing sun?”
“That’s the one.”
Charlie thoughtfully scooped up a forkful of beans. “What about the trader they staked out spread-eagled on a red ant hill? Ain’t he the one where they cut off his private parts? Then they stuffed them in his mouth and sewed his lips together.”
“The very same. I told the captain about him, too. Made it clear these things could happen to a man, especially one who raises a hand to a woman.”
Charlie let out a deep chuckle and slammed his hand to his knee. “So that’s why that tight-ass son-of-a-bitch looked like death warmed over when he came by.”
“You don’t think he’ll want to get his revenge?”
Clint slowly shook his head. “Abner’s a weak man, as well as a coward. My guess is, he’ll have nightmares tonight about someone cutting his balls off and stuffing them in ...” a half smile crossed his face “... I can think of a couple of likely places.” Clint ran a thumb along the sharp edge of his Bowie knife. “He won’t hit her again, nor that poor wife of his, either. I guarantee it.”
* * *
Lucy couldn’t imagine what Clint had said to Abner. Whatever it was, the unbending captain of the wagon train acted like a different man when he returned to his wagon. She had braced for his wrath. Instead, he withdrew within himself and had never been so quiet. He even cut his nightly prayer service short and didn’t quote a scripture all evening long, a record for him. As a result, she felt vastly relieved knowing she didn’t have to concern herself about any further violence from her brother-in-law. A good thing, too. She could never have obeyed Abner’s wishes and put Clint out of her head. Thoughts were one thing, acting upon them quite another. There were no secrets on a wagon train, and no privacy, either. To be alone with Clint again, she’d have to get stung by a scorpion, lost in the woods, or something equally dramatic. Yet the difficulties made her want him all the more. Who knew what the future had in store? So much had happened since she left Massachusetts. What lay ahead, she didn’t know, except that they still had a long way to go.
Two days out of Fort Laramie, the party had stopped for lunch by a small stream when Hannah came running to the Schneider wagon. “Captain, we can’t go on. Bessie, it’s her time.”
“Are you sure?”
Abner squinted his eyes shut in annoyance. “We must adhere to our schedule. We’ll keep going, but we’ll slow down.”
“What!” Hannah jammed her hands on her hips. “How can you slow down from two miles an hour? We will do no such thing. Bessie’s come to her time, and I ain’t going to have her bounced around in the back of a wagon. Bad enough what the poor girl’s got to go through.”
Lucy, who’d been helping Martha with the midday meal, spoke up. “We must stop, I—”
“That will do.” Abner swung his gaze to his wife, who stood staring at him, wide-eyed. “You, too.”
If the situation hadn’t been so serious, Lucy might have laughed. Poor, browbeaten Martha hadn’t been about to open her mouth.
John Potts came on the half run, frowning with concern. “My wife can’t go any farther.”
Clint and Charlie rode up and immediately apprised the situation just as Inez Helmick arrived, closely followed by Agnes and some of the other women.
Clint addressed Abner. “It’s best we don’t move on.” He nodded toward the small stream nearby. “We know we’ve got water here. We don’t know if we’ll find any ahead.”
Charlie added, “Ladies in these situations have got to have water.”
“How could you even think of moving on?” demanded Inez. “Mrs. Potts has certain complications, which might be aggrieved if we moved an inch farther.”
Grim-faced Agnes folded her arms across her chest. “We’re not moving. I don’t give a hoot what you say.”
For a time, Lucy remained silent, growing increasingly disgusted with Abner’s stubborn attitude. Had he no heart? How could he turn a deaf ear on such desperate pleas? She gripped Abner’s arm. “We must stay. Can’t you see—?”
“Hush!” Abner jerked his arm away. “I make the decisions here.”
“Then you’d better make the right one.”
Abner chose to ignore her, but the increasing hostility of the crowd must have finally wore down his resistance. “I see I’m outnumbered. Very well, then, against all common sense, I have decided we shall stay.” He accompanied his grudging words with an expression so sour he could have been sucking a lemon.