After a whiskey still explosion destroys her home and nearly her life, Rebecca Packwood and her father must leave Missouri and her dear friends behind. After crossing The Oregon Trail, she sets out to discover her family’s secret history and to forge a home and community out of the raw farm land of Eagle Creek, Oregon Country, never suspecting a ruthless enemy is seeking to thwart her plans.
Hard-working banker’s son, Clark Sutherland, thought the toughest test he would face was getting out from underneath his father’s thumb. The last thing he expected was to be penniless, homeless, and smitten with a shy, dark-eyed stranger. With nothing to offer her, will he find a way to support himself and still pursue his dreams before they’re pulled apart?
When a man in shadows sets his eyes on their coveted prize, danger descends. Rebecca and Clark must act to protect the desires of their hearts before harm befalls them all. Will they learn to trust their future to the God who heals and sets the lonely in families?
Rebecca kicked a cold, burnt timber off a tin plate lying in the remnants of their kitchen. She could almost feel the blast that nearly killed Pa and sent her flying out of her boots. “Let’s be quick. I can see blood seeping through your pants on your bad leg. We need to get you back to Meramec while you can still walk.”
Pa ignored her as always and used the stick he’d picked as a cane to turn the ashes. He uncovered a destroyed piece of copper from his whiskey still.
Always the whiskey. Never her. Never a real home.
All Rebecca wanted to do was guide her limping pa the three miles back to town before he broke open more of his burns. He’d only been healing for two months. What was he thinking? Her foot had healed and her ears stopped ringing weeks ago, but this pile of charcoal they called home only brought back lonely, hollow memories. Even more so, after being around her friends—Heather, Rose, and Cora Mae.
They had real homes, even if things weren’t easy, they were loved and cherished, valued and seen. Rebecca watched her pa search through the soot and wondered what being seen and valued would feel like.
“I’ll help with that.” She beat Pa to the remnants of an old feather tick mattress, water-logged after being rained and snowed on—no roof to keep it dry. She crossed in front of him and helped lift or turn whatever she thought he wanted—keeping him from opening any more of his injuries.
“You look like your mother.” Pa turned his face away from her.
Rebecca’s shoulders sagged. The breath left her chest like he’d punched her in the stomach. Mother? Now? Before she straightened, she picked up the coffee pot and tossed it into the dirty snow.
After all the years she’d asked to know more about her mother, he waited until now to bring her up? She stared at him.
One time he told Rebecca that Mother preferred cherry pie. That was it. That was all she knew about her mother, besides the soft, happy feeling she got when she tried to remember. Cherry pie…and now this? She let him see her stricken face. What else was she to do? Get back to town, to Mrs. Mabel’s cooking, and to her friends—that’s what she wanted. This wasn’t home. This didn’t feel good.
Always the but.
Pa needed her. He always needed her. He stood there and held her stare. “She was some taller than you. Your eyes are the same.” Pa turned away and flipped the bulbous copper fixings that were the source of the explosion with his stick and said, “Useless.” He tried to pick it up.
Useless is right. Rebecca was forced to join him or have him too sore to walk back on his own. “Let me.” She carried the twisted metal and walked beside him, waiting for more—any morsel at all. His scowl told her the memories hurt.
I look like Mother—have her eyes. She tried to absorb it. Tears burned her throat and made her nose runny. All of this was sad. Even she could see what she’d missed out on. She didn’t need gumption like Cora Mae’s father asked of his daughter. The life she’d shared with Pa out here in the hills was no life. It was hiding. It was living without being alive. It was shattered and twisted like the copper tubing in her hand—beyond useless. They could have died rather than being blown off the porch. Would it have mattered, if they’d burnt along with the rest of their things?
She looked around at the mess, dropped the ruined whiskey still into the frozen mud, and tried to rub the scent of soaked ash from her nose. This place held no tender stories. She’d carried mash and hidden from Pa’s customers, and nothing more, for as long as she could remember.
She scrubbed at the dirty sleeve of her calico work dress that Mrs. Mabel and the sewing bee ladies made for her.
She wanted to sit and cry, but what would that change? She needed to get out of here. She needed something different—something more. “I can carry anything you’re determined to have.”
Back at his side, she shoved her foot into the debris where their beds used to be. She plucked away burned roofing until she found the remnants of her cot. Her hands were black as night.
She dug until she found her tin can full of special rocks. The sight of her beautiful collection made her eyes pool with tears. Maybe she had one sweet memory. She blinked to try to see through the moisture. These treasures had been her only friends during the long months between town visits.
Rebecca fished out the small handful of stones and dropped them into her pocket. She wanted nothing else from the ruins. Desperate to be free of the ashes, she stepped out of the burned shack. “I have all I want, Pa. I’ll wait for you.”
“Fine. Take this with you.” He shoved a dented pot into her arms as she passed him. “Go ahead and start back. I’ll catch up.”
Rebecca stopped and watched Pa limp-hop away from her over to the large rock next to the well. She didn’t start down the trail like he’d asked but followed him. Is he trying to kneel? She offered her arm for balance and strength. “Your burns?”
He started talking but not to her. “We got a mess here, Ophelia. Not sure what to do. I kept my promise…but not very well.” He patted the big stone.
Was he talking to Ma? Was this her grave? What promise…and why did it feel like it was about her?
Pa stood, sniffed deep, and spit off to the side. “Let’s go back. I need a bed and a hot meal.”
Instead of offering her arm for him to lean on, she gripped the back of his elbow. “Pa?” He wasn’t going to brush past this again like all the other times she’d asked him questions. Was this really Ma’s grave? All these years with it only steps from the door and he never said.
He wouldn’t look at her. He looked around with Ma’s rock right there beside them. Rebecca had assumed Pa came out here to hide from his grief—to drown it in drink. Not to visit a grave. “Pa?”
She kept ahold of his arm as he limped back the way they’d come. He cleared his throat. “Been nearly fourteen years since we lost her.”
“Fourteen?” She would have been nearly four. Her eighteenth birthday was only two weeks away.
“Her heart was broken. She never recovered.”
Before she could ask or say anything, he added, “April third. I couldn’t fix it.”
Rebecca swallowed wrong and choked. Her eyes watered.
“Ophelia was all that mattered.” Pa tried to escape her grip. He stepped over a charred mash barrel, lost his balance, and tripped over his stick.
“Ahh!” His pain-filled cry was followed by his more familiar string of curses.
She helped him up, dodging his flailing stick, and went around the back of him to check the place where she saw a little blood earlier. Fresh red bloomed bigger and made his pants stick to his wounds. “That’s it. We’re going back, and you’re not going to complain when I get Doc out to the pastor’s to check you over.”
She drew his arm around her waist, leaving the pot. He didn’t need it. There was nothing salvageable here—besides, he would be laid up again for a week or two after this misadventure. Rebecca wasn’t sure she was upset by that. She didn’t think she was a coldhearted person, but Pa’s pain almost seemed fair this time. What would things have been like growing up, if he’d opened up and talked to her earlier? If he’d answered her questions and explained his decisions? Could they have built a true home? He was obviously still grieving. And felt responsible somehow. Was that part of his secret promise?
Rebecca walked with one of Pa’s arms pulled over her shoulder for support, keeping a tight grip on his waistband. She looked back for one last view of all that was lost—all that was never found.
Rebecca and Pa came into town when church was dismissing. The noise of the townsfolk pouring out of the building broke the frozen silence between them. Cora Mae, Rose, and Heather spotted her and came running over.
“Rebecca!” Cora Mae waved. “We were looking for you.”
Rebecca’s mind was so full of the few things Pa revealed—and she was convinced he withheld more things she needed to know. New, unasked questions zipped and buzzed inside her head and nearly made her sick right there in the street in front of her friends.
The trio was around her and out of breath. Heather, the most nurturing person Rebecca had ever met, went to Pa’s other side and glanced at his blood-soaked pant leg.
“I’ll run for Doc. He’s going to need to help you. You might have to return to the Doc’s office. Rose, will you watch Mother until I get back?”
Pa seemed to be in too much pain to throw a stink about being moved back to the doctor’s office after being settled at the pastor’s. While he was tight with pain, Heather was putting Pa’s needs above her own mother’s. That’s how family was supposed to be. Pa should have done that for her.
Her spinning thoughts changed directions again. If she wanted real family connection with Pa, then she had to do as Heather did. She would put his needs above her own and begin to make a change. She must settle Pa so his leg could heal again, and then she would find a way to wheedle out the things he needed to tell her and hadn’t.
Heather ran off to get the doctor before they reached the steps of the church.
“Rebecca! I ain’t going in there.” Pa’s strident voice embarrassed Rebecca in front of her friends. Nurse Roe came out of the building and straight to their side. Pa saw her and made his way in the opposite direction with his stiff-legged gait.
Nurse Roe called after him. “Doc will be none too happy when he sees the mess you made of your leg.”
“I ain’t going back to that blamed doctor’s office.”
Pastor Clyde must’ve heard her father yelling. He came out of the church. “You feeling well enough, Otis?”
Pa made the face. The same one he made after he ruined a batch of prize drink. He was mad and about to let the whole town know. All the lovely ladies from sewing bee would be shocked when they heard Pa’s tirade.
Rebecca moved ahead of Pa to the bottom of the stair between them.
“I ain’t going back to sleeping at that cursed doctor’s office. It smells like death. I want my real bed at the pastor’s—at least until I get out of this town for good.” The string of curses he let fly burned Rebecca’s ears. She watched most of the ladies turn their heads or busy themselves gathering their children to protect them from whatever Pa would do or say next.
Thankfully, he’d had enough and went around the side of the church, heading toward the pastor’s home. He made it ten steps when a tall, thin man intercepted him. “Excuse me. Did the pastor call you Otis? By chance, would you be Otis Packwood?”
“I am. What’s it to you?” Pa tried to march past, but the man stepped into his path a second time. Pa tipped his head to look him in the face.
Why was Pa so angry? He was the one who kept her life’s history hidden. He’s the one who waited until she was nearly eighteen to tell her that her mother’s grave was right there next to their cabin. How did she die? Why did he feel so guilty? Rebecca was the one who should be railing at the top of her lungs.
“Please, sir. You said you’re leaving town. How long until you leave?”
“Not sure.” He reached back and almost touched the bloody spot on his leg. Pain evident.
Irritation left Rebecca in a whoosh. Pa was in pain. He’d lost wife, home, livelihood, and his health.
“Not sure why that’s any of yer business. Let me pass, you big—” Pa tried using his elbow to shove around the man.
“Sorry, Mr. Packwood. I don’t mean to be intrusive.”
Rebecca gave a self-conscious look around, relieved the man interrupted Pa’s next words.
“I work for the post office. I’ve had a letter for you on my shelf for a while.”
The postman nodded.
“Who in tarnation would write me?”
Pastor Clyde came around the corner during the exchange and caught up to Pa and the postman. “Why don’t you go get it and bring it to the house, John.” Clyde took Pa by the arm and led him forward even though Pa was craning his head around to watch the postman leave. “A letter?”
“Looks that way. Come eat. You said you wanted a decent meal. Mabel set a roast on this morning, remember? I can smell it from here.”
Pa moved along. His limp even more pronounced. Rebecca followed behind the two men and Mrs. Mabel, the pastor’s wife.
Doctor Kane came into view just as they were entering the two-story white house behind the church. He came trotting into the pastor’s house right behind Rebecca saying, “Heather said to tell you she’d see you later. She had to tend her mother.”
Before Rebecca could respond, Pa turned to him and stood with his fists clenched at his sides, interrupting the doctor. “Don’t you go and give me a lecture. These burns are scolding loud enough. But I had to go back. I left things undone.” He looked down at the floor and then at Rebecca.
The pain she saw had nothing to do with his burns. She had no right to judge. She could barely even remember Ma. What was she like, that Pa grieved her so? She wished she could know. She wished she could be so loved.
The doctor said nothing more but followed the pastor and his wife as they ushered her pa to the room he’d occupied for the last two months. Most of the winter was spent in this house. Most of the summer and fall he’d spent laid up in the doctor’s office.
Mrs. Mabel said, “Let’s allow the doctor to use some of his potions and weeds on your wounds before you eat, Otis. We don’t want this to set you back. Once you’re settled, I’ll bring you a bowl full of roast and potatoes and a thick slice of buttered bread.” Pa followed Mrs. Mabel’s leadings.
“Smells good.” Pa gave Rebecca a sheepish look over his shoulder.
Rebecca waited in the hall while the doctor helped Pa into the night dress he’d lived in for months. She entered his room after he’d flopped onto the bed, stifling a moan of relief and pain. Rebecca watched as the doctor smeared ointment on the red, bunched and puckered, and sometimes cracked and bleeding skin.
Someone knocked on the door.
Pastor Clyde moved to answer it. “That is probably John back with the letter.”
“My letter?” Everyone heard Pa ask.
The doctor wiped his hands on a cotton handkerchief.
“That nasty smelling stuff stinks like the dickens.”
“I wouldn’t have to use it if you listened to me.” The doctor met Pa gruff-to-gruff.
“Leave me be. I’ve had my fill of your doctorin’ today.” He muttered on. “Enough for my whole life.”
“Hold still. And don’t give him his letter until he lets me finish.” The doctor didn’t let Pa get away with it. Rebecca should imitate the doctor’s way. Maybe she would learn even more about her past. Did she really want to learn more? She swallowed the lump in her throat.
The doctor didn’t let up. “I’d hate to see you deal with a limp forever because you couldn’t wait for your skin to heal for a few weeks. Might I suggest you stay here for four to six more weeks before you try visiting your home again.”
“Ain’t nothing left to visit.” Pa went silent. His expression was as if he’d swallowed a mouthful of sour whiskey.
Rebecca felt his loss settle like a horse kick to her chest.
The doctor didn’t wait for Pa to say anything more. “I’ll have Nurse Roe bring more of this to you. Spread it on all your burns, often. You can’t afford for infection to set in. I must get back.” The doctor pressed past the pastor and didn’t even glance at Rebecca as he left.
“Here’s the letter.” The pastor handed it to Pa and left the room, his wife following.
Pa was lying facedown. He tore the seal open and started to read to himself and then announced. “It’s from your uncle Leander.”
Uncle Leander? She had an uncle? Rebecca gripped her hands and felt her face match her father’s mulish look. What else could she find out in one day? Did she have aunts and cousins, was there grandparents she could meet? Where were these people? And why did Pa keep this all from her?
She knew why. She saw it in the way his shoulders slumped when he talked to the rock that marked Ma’s grave. She sagged inside. This was all so much. She craved more. What else was in the letter that Pa was silently reading?
She would read the letter. She would take whatever morsels of information she could glean from it, and she would find a way to discover her past and possibly find a way to a new future.
With their shack burnt and gone, they would have to start over somewhere. Maybe starting over with family made sense. Her stomach tightened. Maybe the letter would tell her if that was even possible.
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Oregon City, Oregon Country
The wood chair, hard under Clark’s backside, wasn’t the worst part of the day. His father came out of his office, scanned the bank lobby, and was coming toward him. Clark wanted to stand right up in the middle of the bank and tell his father to go “mother hen” someone else. He gripped the pen so tightly he could feel it bend. Father taught Clark himself, years ago now. Couldn’t he simply trust him?
The sound of his father’s fine boots clunking on the hardwood floor grated his nerves. Clark was about out of time. Again.
He coughed to cover a growl of frustration without stopping his work on the contract his father would put to use in an hour.
Everyone in town knew they could come to his father to lend and borrow as needed. Everyone knew Father would make good on their Abernathy Rocks. Who else would treat marked flint stones as currency? Who else would be as fair and honest as a Sutherland?
A tiny drop of ink splatted on Clark’s white page. Slow down. He should start fresh after that, but why? There was no doubt Father would take this contract and rewrite it as he did all the others. Did Father think him an imbecile? Clark was so certain of not being allowed to finish that he’d stashed his sanding dish on a high shelf two weeks ago and hadn’t had to reclaim it yet. The ink never had time to dry before Father took over.
Irritation churned in his belly. Sometimes, at night, he dreamed of the things he wished to tell his father but couldn’t. He loved him, and more, he respected him in all his ways other than this.
Clark could feel the heat of his father’s gaze. “Here. Let me take a look at that.” Father’s voice boomed as if he was the mayor already and the townspeople were listening to his every word.
They probably were. They respected Father. Why wouldn’t they? He was helping organize a newspaper, a mail delivery system, and he was a prominent member of the debating society. But until their fledgling town required a mayor, Father would hover at Clark’s shoulder. His father’s manicured hand reached for the sheet of paper on his desk.
“I’m not finished yet.” Clark stood so quickly, the chair legs scraped. Teeth clenched against the rest of the things he wished to say.
“I can see that. I wanted to check your progress and lend a hand.”
Would Father take the paper from him if he could see his anger? Yes, he would. Clark was convinced. This was madness. Why was he working here at the bank at all? Maybe that was the problem. Maybe he should look into doing something else. Anything else. He forced himself to gentle his tone. “I wrote it exactly as we discussed. I didn’t forget anything. I didn’t make any mistakes.” Clark’s shoulders grew tight.
“We shall see.”
The growl in his throat became louder, and Clark coughed to disguise it.
His father glanced up from the contract. “Are you ailing? I should cut you off early today. Your mother requested me to send you home in time for luncheon, anyway.”
“She did? Why would she do that?”
“Not sure. But you can go. I’ll finish this. Take the rest of the afternoon off, and if Red’s doesn’t have a ready-made shirt, then stop by the tailor and get measured. You ruined that one with ink, and Mother has too much on her plate with Beatrice’s coming wedding to fuss with sewing a new one for you.”
Again, Clark was being treated like a stripling. He was no child. He was nineteen. He’d stuck out the last couple years of this treatment at the bank because he thought Father was simply being slow to give over freedoms and responsibilities, especially since it seemed like he was being groomed to take over the bank someday. But things were the same now as they were when he started working two years ago.
Clark had a hard time thinking of alternative jobs he could do, but maybe it was time to work harder on that. He needed out. “Do you need anything from Red’s, Father?” Clark forced the kindness, while matching his father’s professional rigidity. All the while he wanted to shove his shoulder into Father’s chest as he passed him on his way to the door. He pulled his coat collar up against the cold March winds and stepped around the worst of the mud.
He had to get out. But what kind of business could Clark start in Oregon City besides banking? What else did he know how to do? Surely, he could find something. He would adapt. He would have to, and soon, or he’d end up giving Father a black eye—and then where would he be? This day couldn’t get any worse—or could it?
A picture of his mother crying and carrying on about a breach in his and Father’s good relationship would be the outcome of the black eye. And that would be like jumping into hell on purpose. No thanks. He needed some time to think. He needed space to breathe. Maybe he would get both after he lunched with Mother.
The house smelled like dessert when Clark entered and hung up his work jacket.
“Clark, you made it,” Mother sing-songed from the other room. “I was hoping your father wouldn’t forget to send you.”
Before he could move to the kitchen, his sister Gwen, with her new short hair styled with combs pulling the sides back, stepped around the corner and found him in the entryway. “Good. I was hoping.” She only came up to his shoulder, but she clutched his arm in a bear trap vice grip.
He tried to sidestep her but was careful of her arm. He was the reason her shoulder was broken all those years ago and still giving her trouble. He wouldn’t hurt her ever again. “Gwen? What are you up to? I’m not doing anything else like cutting your hair, like I did this morning. So, don’t get any ideas. How did Mother react?”
He’d found Gwen out in the woodshed in the chilly air, Mother’s good sewing scissors in her one good hand, hacking at her hair. He was shocked at first, until she told him she was making a bolt for her own independence. Short hair and front-buttoning dresses were her first aim to keep Mother from being overbearing. He could relate to feeling smothered, so he succumbed to her requests for help to cut her hair more evenly.
“She reacted as you’d expect. But what can she do? She can’t make me sew my hair back on. She was easy to distract, which is why I picked today. That’s where you come in. With a house full of company, she has to back off and give me some space.”
“I come in? Company?” Oh, Lord. What now? It really was the best prayer for the situation. It wasn’t like he could run from the room. Mother knew he was here.
His sister tugged him forward. The table was set with Mother’s finest china and surrounded by ladies of all ages dressed in their Sunday best—hats included. The rest of his sisters—Hazel, Matilda, Abigail, and Beatrice—all sat sipping tea, chatting amongst each other and their guests. Once they noticed him, each watched his every move without meeting his eye.
Gwen positioned her fingers to pinch the soft skin on the underside of his arm and muttered under her breath in his direction. “Best behavior. Mother went to a lot of work for all this, and I need her to have a lovely time while all these ladies get used to the shock of my hair.”
He backed up a step.
“Don’t even think about running.”
It was inevitable. He’d been caught in his mother’s web. The day definitely grew worse. “What is all this?” He shook off his sister’s clutches and bent to kiss his mother’s cheek, ignoring the sting of Gwen’s last pinch.
Mother tipped her head back to keep her hat from banging his face. “A bridal tea for Beatrice. Haven’t you heard us planning and talking about it all week?” She rattled on. “But of course, you didn’t. You’re always running about town with Edward, chasing those beasts of his. Why don’t you sit by Viola Evelyn? Doesn’t her new lilac dress look lovely on her?”
So, this was his mother’s plan. Even here at home he was pressed in a vise between respecting his parents and having his life planned for him. He wasn’t even free in his own home. “Looks like a happy gathering for ladies. I should be going.” He tried to move toward the door. He patted Gwen on her good shoulder. “I’m sure your friend’s dress is just right, if one knows about those sorts of things. Congratulations,Bea.”
His mother bounced up and blocked his escape. Then she clutched his arm as Gwen had and used it to bustle him over to the chair of her choice.
And the growl was back. If his mother hadn’t kept him in the room, any of his five sisters would have—together they picked out his seat, his food, and his clothes. Always the hovering. At least they switched from pinching his cheeks to pinching his arm. Heaven be praised for that, at least.
He kept his gaze from landing on any one face, looking at each woman in turn. It was better that way. I’m trapped. Before he could loosen his string tie, Clark found himself wedged between two ladies, each with a tiny sandwich in one hand and a flowery teacup in the other.
“Ladies.” He greeted them all together, nodding his head, but he couldn’t bring himself to smile.
Everyone said there was a shortage of marriageable women around, but apparently, they all came out of the woodwork and sat in his mother’s parlor today. “May I?” he asked. He waved at the food.
Mother nodded, and he stacked six of the sandwiches into a pillar on his tiny plate.
He wished he’d looked through the window before he entered the house, but he had been too annoyed with his father to notice. Gwen was onto something with cutting her hair. Mother couldn’t make her sew it back, she’d said. He needed to find his own independence. If he did something—anything—other than what they’d planned out for him, what could they do? He needed to come up with a plan and soon. He needed to bring about the changes he craved, but it wouldn’t do to be distracted right now, surrounded by unmarried ladies. Who knew what he might accidentally agree to?
He nearly drowned in muslin and lace before he made his excuses and ran to his room. Maybe his best friend Eddie had an idea for a new business. He should meet with him soon.
Sunday seemed like the hungriest day of the week. Clark didn’t know if it was sitting and listening in church that made his stomach seem louder than every other day, or if it was because he saw his mother put in a roast with new potatoes. Either way, he was glad church was over so he could go eat.
Gwen offered, “Do you want to come home with us, Eddie?” as she left the pew. “I’m sure there is enough roast for everyone.”
Clark’s plan to meet with Eddie might be easier to make happen than he’d thought.
“Roast? I’m coming.” Eddie, Clark’s best friend since childhood, stood from the pew. “Your mother makes good grub.”
Gwen’s chin-length hair was a shock, but it looked fetching pinned back from her face, making her blue eyes seem more visible. And if the goggling gaze Eddie was giving her was any indication, he agreed. Clark stepped between Eddie and Gwen. “She does, at that. If we eat fast, we might have time to fish before nightfall. The rains look like they’ll hold off.”
“Fishing on a full stomach on a Sunday afternoon is perfection. Sounds good to me. Let me tell my folks.” Clark watched Eddie track down his parents. Both had the same squat look of solid, hard work as his friend, but only his mother’s hair matched Eddie’s carrot red.
Clark’s stomach rumbled again.
Gwen said, “Mother asked if we would go on ahead to the house and pull the roast off the heat. She needs to talk to the pastor’s wife.”
Clark knew Mother asked him because Gwen couldn’t manage a hot roast with only her one good shoulder. Guilt made his stomach flop. He could never silence the regret. He didn’t want to.
“First dibs on her roast? Let’s go.” Clark moved around his sister and let Eddie catch up.
“Mother also said to keep your digits off the meal until she gets there, or you won’t get any apple pie.” Gwen’s pointed finger wagged under his nose.
Clark was about to push back on her pushiness when Eddie pressed between them. “I’ll make sure he minds. No sense jeopardizing apple pie.” He reached out and clasped Gwen’s wagging finger in his own and gave her a princely bow, before he kissed the back of her hand. “I do beg pardon. We must leave. A perfectly cooked roast’s future depends on our prompt departure.”
Gwen was smiling at Eddie. “And there’s whipped cream for the pie.”
Trying to knock some distance between them and some sense into his blunderheaded friend, Clark let his shoulder bump into them both as he moved down the church aisle and out the door well ahead of them. Eddie caught up before he was down the front steps. “Don’t mind me.” Eddie shoved him back. “I do beg pardon,” he mocked.
“What were you doing back there? That’s my sister.”
“And a fine beauty.”
“But it’s Gwen.” Clark heard how pesky he sounded and turned to make sure that his sister didn’t overhear and misunderstand. He didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but what man could tolerate his best friend flirting with his sister?
“Look around. We live in man country. Not a lot of ladies dangling about, except in your family’s parlor.”
“And none interested in waking up to a grizzled-face idiot that resembles the backside of an unshorn sheep. Not even Gwen.” Clark winced.
He was teasing Eddie, but his joke could have been very hurtful if taken the wrong way. Gwen would probably be the easiest to be married to out of his sisters—each with their own faults. But with her being crippled…it still hurt to think about how one day of his teasing had changed her future forever.
She’d been different since she cut her hair—braver somehow. She made her own jokes now about not being able to pour the water off the boiling corn or having all her dresses be out of style because she had to have the buttons run down the front. But would her limitations keep her from marriage and hearth and home? His heart carried a heavy brick weight of Gwen. And here he was irritated that Eddie was flirting with her. That should be a good thing. Clark aggravated himself.
“What I don’t have in looks”—Eddie swiped a hand over his thick red beard—“I make up for in charm and wit.”
“You’re full of wit, all right.”
Eddie laughed and swatted at Clark with his hat, but he dodged out of reach.
“My sisters are off limits to you. If you get snagged by one of them, then your future house will hold one of my sisters. I’d have to endure them to hang out with you.”
“But don’t you think Gwen and I would make cute babies?” He jogged out ahead.
“Eeeeddieee! You better run.” Clark needed to stay close and keep watch over Gwen. There was no way he could bring up his need for a new business venture while Eddie had him so distracted. Maybe after lunch.
They were in the house with the roast settled in the middle of the table, enjoying the smell, when the rest of Clark’s family made it home. “Hurry up, everyone. This smells amazing, Mother.”
Then it happened again.
A woman, not one of his sisters, came into the room ahead of Mother. They wouldn’t.
The lady, Widow Jenson, looked right at him with the same eyes he’d seen before. The ones that pleaded “marry me and fix all my problems.” They’d done it again—set him up in his own home.
Was there any place safe? He’d seen the widow around town, and he’d seen her at church. She was a fine woman, nearly his age.
Two young kids came around the corner next, talking to Gwen. Gwen’s arm anchored to her side with the familiar sling. “You two sit here beside me. Eddie on your other side. He doesn’t bite once he’s been fed. I can’t make that promise for my brother.”
The others chuckled at Gwen’s joke. Clark didn’t laugh. Clark wanted to strangle someone, but he was too busy stuffing down all the cutting things he wanted to say to his mother and sister that he never could. He stuffed them down hard and fast before they flew out of his mouth and hurt the poor woman who looked uncomfortable and terrified in front of him.
She didn’t deserve hiswrath. He could simmer while eating roast beef and be kind for apple pie. But when the widow left, and he was with family alone, he would let free. He had to. Enough was enough.
Clark’s shoulders sagged. Because he knew full well that he couldn’t dress his mother down and tell her to back off on the matchmaking. She considered it an act of love and good parenting. Every time he’d tried to make a boundary fence, she jumped right over it.
The things he would have to say to make his point would cost him too much. He loved Gwen, and hadn’t he just promised himself that he would make sure he did his part to enhance her future? He loved his mother—even if it felt like she was sitting on his chest, suffocating him with pounds of petticoats.
But Eddie would pay. Clark would make it real clear he wasn’t interested in his flirting with Gwen…and then he’d ask him for business ideas.
Eagle Creek, fifteen miles from Oregon City
A man stepped out from his hiding place in the trees and watched Leander lead a string of massive horses, stepping with high knees, down the trail. Leander was in the front riding the biggest, blackest draft of them all.
He lifted his gun and aimed. Ready and steady. Just skim the animal. Leave no sign. He blew out a tight breath and waited for the barrel of his gun to settle.
Closer and closer the man and the horses came to his chosen spot. Leander would never know what happened. Served him right.
The gun bucked against his shoulder.
The bullet burned the beast’s rump perfectly. The horse screamed, reared, and sidestepped closer and closer to the edge of the ravine.
Come on. Come on.
Leander dropped the lead ropes, cried a “Whoa!” and tugged his reins, trying to hold his position. “Easy!” Then the horse underneath him stepped off the trail. “Ahhh!”
The crashing whoosh of horse and rider falling down the thirty-foot embankment made the shooter smile. No way Leander could survive that fall, not like last time. The land was nearly his. The waft of gun smoke lingered. The loose horses lunged and scattered, each massive beast finding his own path to safety.
When the crashing came to a stop, the shooter checked a whooping victory cry. He whispered to himself, “Not yet. Not yet, Mama.” It comforted him to talk to his mother as if she were really there. What he wouldn’t give for her to still be alive and see all his plans go off without a flaw.
When the crashing turned to settled silenced, he crept out from his hiding place, bringing his rifle with him. He tramped randomly through the brush, leaving no discernible path in the wet undergrowth. He wanted to hope. He wanted to dream, but first, he had to know and see with his own eyes that Leander was down for sure—that he’d done what he came to do.
When he got to the spot, he looked over. At the bottom of the ravine lay the sight he’d waited and planned for—Leander, unconscious and on his back with a trickle of blood flowing from his mouth and nose. Completely still.
“Yes. This will work.”
He scanned the area, the surrounding hills, at the bare trees that were beginning to push buds, the muddy valley below him, and the horses. When he was sure nothing—and no one—saw him, he scampered back, jumped the dirt trail as he took a slightly different way to the tree he’d shot from. He collected his powder horn and pack and wiped away all signs he’d been there.
No witnesses, no tracks…no proof.
Mother would be proud, if she’d lived. “The house and property will be ours. I’ll put the oval-framed picture of you on the wall. I’ll hang your fringed, Derby curtains, and lay out your fur rug. Reuben and I brought it all, Mother. You would be pleased.” He looked around. Expecting to get caught. But no one was there to see. Perfect. His secret.
As he ran, his breath cameheavy. He quickly untethered his dapple gray, sucked his paunch in, and pulled himself into the saddle—whirling off in the opposite direction of the ravine, rifle slung over his shoulder. The farm would all be his now. Finally.
He needed to go home to his brother and behave like normal so Reuben wouldn’t suspect anything. His dream was so close to becoming a reality.
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