Excerpt for Cowboy Music (Four Historical Romances) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Cowboy Music (Four Historical Romances)


Vanessa Carvo

Copyright 2017 Quietly Blessed & Loved Press

Oregon Trail Journey After The Civil War

Harriet & Gavin’s Story

Escaping Into The Arms Of The Oregon Rancher

Emma Travels To Her Arizona Rancher, Malory, By Oxcart

Oregon Trail Journey After The Civil War

Synopsis: Oregon Trail Journey After The Civil War, is the story of a southern woman and her older brother, striking out for the West to escape the hardships of the South after the Civil War. She didn’t want to leave her home but not wanting to be left isolated, she went with him. The wagon train along the Oregon Trail is led by a seasoned veteran of the War, on the opposite side. Romance develops but the brother is still bitter about the south losing the war. When a virulent disease erupts the wagon master abandons the wagon train, taking just the brother and sister and a single wagon, as he strikes off along the trail alone. Tragedy strikes later and the sister is forced to make a hard choice.

Mary looked at her dirt-stained gloves, the rain spattering down from the sky unevenly. She’d just thrown a handful into that gaping hole, the one that had become her parents’ final resting place. Her brother, Matthew, tossed his handful in, and it thumped against the caskets below. Mary shuddered. She preferred to remember Mother and Father in happier times — not like this.

They were riding in a wagon on the way home from visiting a friend one day when the horses had taken a curve in the road a bit too fast. The wagon, they’d surmised later, had hit a large rock in the dirt and overturned.

Both Mother and Father had died almost instantly, the sheriff told Mary and Matthew, as if that was some comfort. One of the horses was so badly injured that it had to be shot. The other they sold.

She and her brother had sold everything. It was more of Matthew’s doing, mostly. Mary had no choice but to go along with it. He was five years older than her twenty and was convinced that no one had her best interests in mind more than himself.

“I agree that it’s a tragedy Mother and Father have died,” he said as she sobbed in the sitting room, thirty minutes after the sheriff had imparted his grim tidings. “Think of it as an opportunity to shed this life and begin anew.”

Mary had no desire to “shed” anything about her life. She wanted Mother and Father back — Father’s ever-present pipe and the sweetness the tobacco infused his clothes with. Mother and the click of her knitting needles, creating scarves, hats, and mittens no matter what the season.

Matthew had presented this idea before, when their parents were still alive. He wanted to go west, to get away from the pervasive stench of defeat that still wafted throughout South Carolina.

“Absolutely not,” Father had said, his pipe puffing small clouds of smoke furiously.

“People walk around here hanging their heads like dogs,” Matthew argued, his face red with passion. “I can’t stand it, Father, I won’t. If you all won’t accompany me to California, I’ll go by myself.”

“I forbid you,” Mother said, the clicks of her needles punctuating each syllable.

Matthew had been fifteen at the war’s end, always embittered that Father refused to fight — and kept Matt, still a youngster, from going to war himself.

Mary remembered the Battle of Rivers Bridge, though she’d been just a child. She remembered seeing the lines and lines of navy uniforms marching past the farm, taking what they wished from the fields. As a little girl, she wept in outrage.

“They’re stealing from us,” she whimpered into Mother’s arms.

“They need the food just as much as we do,” Mother said calmly, even though she was shaking, her hands gripping the family bible. “They can have as much as they’d like.”

Father had to take a raging and frothing Matthew inside the house, as the boy ranted about the Union soldiers on their property.

“Why doesn’t Father fight?” Mary asked. Nearly all of her friends who attended lessons at the schoolhouse had fathers or brothers or cousins or uncles fighting in the war.

Mother had thought a long time before answering.

“Father thinks that only God should decide who lives and who dies,” Mother explained slowly. “He would only fight if God called him to do so.”

“And God’s not telling him?” Mary asked.

“That’s right,” Mother said. They sat down in a rocking chair on the porch of the old farmhouse, Mary sitting on her mother’s lap.

Mother opened the bible to Ecclesiastes. Mary knew the verses almost by heart, mouthing the words as Mother read.

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.”

Mother smiled down at Mary. “Now, you read it,” she said.

Mary began again. “There is a time for everything …”

They sat and watched the soldiers eat their ways through the fields.

Yes, that was how Mary preferred to remember Mother and Father. They had their problems, like any other family. Matthew was generally the source of most of them. He was brash and hotheaded, the very opposite of Father, who always thought things through.

Still, the vast majority of Mary’s memories were fond ones. Mother and Father’s lives were cut far too short. She wished it didn’t have to be like this.

“I would now like to read a favorite bible passage of mine,” the reverend was saying as workers flung shovelfuls of heavy mud into the hole. The caskets were very nearly covered.

Mary hooked her arm with Matthew’s, leaning her head on her brother’s shoulder. He patted her hand comfortingly.

“So we are always of good courage,” the reverend said. “We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”

He paused for several long moments for that to sink in. It was a small funeral, but theirs had been a small family. Mary and Matthew didn’t have any grandparents who were alive, and Mother and Father had both lacked siblings.

The friends whom Mother and Father had visited prior to their untimely death were at the funeral, of course, weeping as if everything was their fault.

“That passage was from Corinthians,” the reverend continued, “and it tells us that we should look forward to the time when we get to be by Jesus Christ’s side in heaven. Our lost loved ones are already there. We grieve for ourselves, left down here on Earth. They are home already, home with our Lord.”

Matthew and Mary walked back to the farmhouse, which sat only a few miles from the churchyard. By then, the rainclouds had parted and the sun slanted through, illuminating different parts of the open road in front of us.

“You don’t have to take me to California,” she said for perhaps the eighth or ninth time. “I have a number of friends who would be happy to take me in. I could get married and then you wouldn’t have to worry about me ever again.”

Matthew laughed at her. Her arguments were the same each time.

“We’re too good for charity,” he said, “and I won’t have you marrying some stranger. There will be plenty of men to choose from in California — and none of them will walk around muttering things about what could have been.”

Matthew was acutely aware of the defeatism present in our town, Mary noticed. Even though the war had been over for a decade, the recovery continued. Shattered homes were still being dismantled, copses of trees still bore scorch marks from the Union soldiers’ torches.

The only reason the farmhouse had survived intact was because the family had let them eat from the fields without trying to stop them. The soldiers had been hungry and desperate, after all, just as desperate as the Confederates.

Still, this state and our little hometown held so much personal history for Mary. It was her home — the place where she had happily grown up. She was beginning to suspect that Matthew’s memories of South Carolina were nowhere near as fond as hers.

“Finish packing, little sister,” Matthew told her as they walked into the door of the empty home. “We leave tomorrow.”

Mary went to her room. She’d already packed — dresses, boots, books, and little trinkets to remind her of South Carolina filling up a small trunk. She just wanted to be alone for a while, alone with her thoughts and alone with her home.

She sat on her narrow bed, picking up the bible Mother used to read from. Mary stroked the thin, gold-edged pages. Knowing that Mother had often done the very same thing offered a small degree of comfort.

Mary turned to Corinthians and reread the passage the reverend had recited at the funeral. The reverend was right. Both her parents were good Christians. They were surely looking down from heaven at this very moment. Couldn’t they help her? Couldn’t they save her from leaving? She didn’t want to go to California with Matthew.

She was sure he had some half-cocked idea about making his fortune in gold or some other mining activities. That was no life for Mary. She knew if Mother and Father were still alive, they would at least prevent Matthew from taking her across the country.

They were not here, not anymore.

A tear slipped down Mary’s cheek and spotted the open bible. She sniffed, passing her fingers quickly over the page so the liquid wouldn’t mar the fragile paper.

Mary read the passage her sorrow had highlighted.

“Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.

For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’”

Corinthians again, Mary noticed. It certainly had a lot to say about death.

She closed the book and reclined on the bed. It was going to be the start of a long journey tomorrow. Mary wasn’t immortal. She had to get some rest.

Jake checked his supplies, making sure the trunks were closed and barrel tops were tight before tying everything down. The trail got bumpier every time, it felt like. He’d gotten it down to a science, the packing and supplies. He could make it stretch like no one else, buying only the bare essentials at trading posts. Usually, however, he had to split some of his goods with others in the train who weren’t as frugal or careful.

It wouldn’t look good if anyone on his trains went and died on him.

Most people didn’t believe Jake when they asked him what he did for a living.

“You mean you go back and forth across the country all the time?” they’d exclaim, dumbfounded. “Don’t you get tired of it?”

He usually politely extricated himself from the conversation at this point. People made him uncomfortable, on the whole. He preferred open land, the trail, the sense of going in the right direction, a simple goal to simply travel to a landmark, then the next one, then the next, until they reached a destination.

Jake required simplicity in his life now. The war made it necessary.

He looked at the people assembling with their fancy wagons stuffed with all the trappings of their past lives. At least two families were hoping to drag their stoves across the country. Jake shook his head.

The stoves would be dumped halfway along the trail if they made it that far.

The number of people looking to leave South Carolina wasn’t surprising to Jake. He found himself leading more people out of the South and then westward.

The war had been hard on everyone, but the South was still in tatters — physically and emotionally. People wanted a new start, to forget about the bloodshed and burning and rancor.

He wondered if they found solace in California as easily as they found gold.

Jake walked down the wagon train, counting the wagons and tallying the people. Twenty wagons in total, including his own. Sixty-five people on the train, including himself. It was a good, sizable haul. He tallied his paycheck at the end of the journey and was vaguely pleased.

All the money went back to his bank account in Massachusetts. He didn’t know what he’d spend it on, yet, all the stacks of cash he’d accumulated by marching back and forth across the States, but he was sure he’d think of something.

Or maybe he wouldn’t. It didn’t bother him perhaps as much as it should have. He was content to continue the march and let the money stack itself.

Jake turned once he’d reached the end of the trail and limped back. It was going to rain, he realized, even though the clouds didn’t look threatening. The way his old wounds ached told him more about the weather than staring at the sky did. It was part of what made him such a good trail guide even if the old scars and twisted flesh pained him.

Could’ve been worse, he supposed. The wounds could’ve been the death of him. Then he wouldn’t be complaining of how they hurt when the weather changed.

It could always be worse.

“Moving out!” Jake bellowed once he’d reached the front of the train, beside his wagon and his horses. “Let’s go! Gee up! To California!”

“To California!” Jake looked over his shoulder to see an eager young man, perhaps five or six years younger than him, who’d echoed Jake’s shout.

“Eager to reach the West, sir?” Jake inquired politely. Being a trail guide mandated toughness, but also a small degree of politeness. Jake had no intention to make friends with anyone on his train. However, he wouldn’t get hired nearly as often as he did if he didn’t at least don the guise of friendliness from time to time.

“Eager?” the man repeated. “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this. Much obliged for your services.”

The young man’s blue eyes glittered as he held his hand out. After a moment’s hesitation, Jake took it. It was easy to discern a man’s life from his handshake. Soft hands meant he made his living with words. Hard hands meant he had to grab his fortune and wrestle it from the earth. Soldiers’ handshakes were always different and something Jake could spot right away. Hardness and softness at the same time, somehow.

This man had been a farmer.

“The name’s Matthew,” the man said. “Matthew Montgomery.”

“Jake Fischer.” Jake broke free of the handshake as they started walking.

“How many times have you made the journey?” Matthew asked.

Jake shook his head. “More times than I can count.” It was true. Each journey blurred into the next, muddling the past, present, and future into a fuzzy concoction that Jake preferred. Anything to keep from thinking about the war.

“Once will be enough for me,” Matthew said. “Once I get to California, that’s me for the rest of my days. I’m going to strike it rich out there, I just know it.”

Jake nodded politely. That’s what they all said. Maybe this young man had the hands for the hard work ahead, but no one really struck it rich anymore save a few lucky fools.

“You got family?” Matthew rattled on. “Oh, perhaps you don’t. How would you see them if you were traveling all the time?”

“I wouldn’t,” Jake said bluntly. He started looking for ways out of the conversation. He had no desire to continue talking to this man or anyone. He simply wanted to lose himself in the road, get to the point where all he existed to do was put one foot in front of the other, reduced to a machine of flesh, blood, and bone. It was getting harder and harder to sink into that place.

“I’m traveling with my sister,” Matthew said, oblivious to Jake’s discomfort. “Our parents just died, so I figured now is the best time to start fresh. Hey! Mary! Come here!”

Jake looked up dully to see the woman approaching and the word stopped. She had the same coloring as her brother, fair hair and blue eyes. However, while the features made Matthew look overzealous and overeager, her wide eyes and full lips made her look lovely.

Those lips trembled a little before forming a small smile.

“Good morning,” the angel said, and wings lifted Jake’s heart.

“Hello,” he said, his voice thick. “The name’s Jake Fischer.”

“Mary Montgomery,” she returned, her manners perfect as she held out her hand. “How do you do?”

“Very well, thank you,” Jake said, lifting her hand to his lips and kissing it. That hand had seen hard work beyond what a woman’s hand should know, Jake realized, but the realization made Mary’s hand sweeter still.

“I didn’t know the Robertsons were going west, too,” Matthew observed, looking over his shoulder. “I’ll go ask them what their plans are.”

Jake let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding and smiled.

“Are you as excited to go to California as your brother?” he asked.

Mary shook her head, that small smile still playing around her lips. “I’m afraid no one’s as excited as my brother to go west,” she said. “It’s all he’s talked about for years.”

“I know the type,” Jake said. “He’ll see that California is about like anywhere else, just with a little less people.”

“He’ll like it or pretend he does,” Mary said, “just to save face. Oh, I’m sorry. That’s rude of me to talk to you about my brother like that.”

When she dragged her blue eyes up to meet his, Jake melted. They were slightly rimmed in red but no less beautiful than the sky itself. He realized she’d been crying — if not all night, then perhaps even as her brother called her over.

“It just seems like I can tell you anything,” Mary said, her pale brow furrowing in confusion. “I bet you get that a lot from the people you lead across the trail. They have to put their trust in you.”

They did, of course, but no one ever really confided in Jake. It was mostly “how much farther” or “are we floating or fording” or “please, can you spare some flour.”

“I’m sorry I’m so emotional,” Mary said, impatiently wiping away a stray tear with the back of her hand. “What you must think of southern women. We’re not all like this, of course. My mother and father just died in a wagon accident. I don’t want to leave South Carolina. I have no desire to settle in California. I suppose you can say I’m in a state of upheaval.”

“That’s all right,” Jake said. He could listen to her all day. He lost himself in her words just as he usually lost himself in the road. “So what are you all planning to do once you get out there?”

Jake surprised himself with the question. He was usually careful not to ask questions that led to more conversation. He was finding that he didn’t feel the slow-rising panic that he usually felt around most people when he was around Mary Montgomery.

She gave a short, exasperated laugh. “I don’t think even Matthew knows,” she said. “He probably aims for me to make house for him until he finds a wife, then marry me off. Only God knows, I suppose, what’s to become of us.”

“Well,” Jake said, “you’ll be seen safely across the trail, that’s a given.”

Mary blinked as she looked at him, her eyes searching his face.

“I know,” she said, smiling. “I know we will.”

Blisters Mary was familiar with. They were unavoidable when she worked the fields, the hoes, rakes, and spades marring her hands with painful pockets of fluid.

But if they ever got too bad, she could at least beg off of work.

Walking on the Oregon Trail was something that had to be kept constant. The wagon train couldn’t slow or stop for stragglers or the weak. Mary knew that.

Whenever the train stopped for a meal, she unbuttoned her boots and bathed the blisters in water, let them air out a little while they rested, and wrapped them in a clean scrap of muslin before easing her boots back on.

She became accustomed to the constant, throbbing pain quicker than she thought was possible.

Mary tried to ride in the wagon the one day she thought she couldn’t take another step, but that was even more painful. It seemed as though the horses found every bump in the rutted trail, jarring everything unlucky enough to be riding in the wagon bed.

The bruises and soreness Mary endured the day afterward made the blisters seem almost bearable.

What almost drove her even more was her desire to not look weak in front of Jake, the trail guide. He was so manly and capable, muscles practically bursting out of his shirt. He’d probably seen dozens of women cry and moan about how much they hated the trail and wanted to return home.

Mary didn’t want him to think that way about her.

The first day, starting off from South Carolina, had been the toughest for her even before she’d become acquainted with blisters and fatigue. The thought of never seeing the farmhouse again, of not being able to plant flowers on Mother and Father’s graves tore her apart. It was all she could do to put one foot in front of the other, blinded by tears.

Jake had seen her at a real low. Mary had surprised herself then, unloading all her problems on the poor man. She was sure he didn’t need to know all of that. Mary knew she had better upbringing than to lay her troubles at a stranger’s feet. She had to be stronger and would be, she vowed.

Matthew was having a grand time, of course. He liked to talk with the rest of the men on the train who already had a good idea of what they’d do in California. Matthew schemed and dreamed with the best of them, and Mary suspected the others were helping her brother light on exactly what he wanted to do once they reached their destination.

Mary hoped he’d figure it out before they got to California.

“Why so glum?” Jake asked. “Are you thinking about your parents again?”

Mary shook herself from her dark thoughts, resolving to revise her attitude immediately.

“They’re always on my mind,” she admitted. “I know they’re in a better place. I guess I’m just grieving for myself, for being left behind while they go on home.”

Mary remembered the passage from Corinthians that the reverend had read at the funeral. It brought her comfort, as always.

“You’re very wise,” Jake observed.

“I’m not wise,” she laughed, “just full of faith.”

“That’s a good way to be full,” he said gravely, even as his warm, brown eyes twinkled. “If you’d like to be full of rabbits later, I’ve shot a few.”

Mary laughed. “That’s very kind of you,” she said. “I know Matthew would look forward to something other than salted beef for supper tonight.”

She looked at the enigmatic man walking beside her. He was so strong, helping another family wrestle a makeshift axle into place when theirs had broken on a particularly rough patch of trail. Yet their seemed to be something almost fragile about him, like he was in danger of breaking at any moment. His dark, windswept hair made him look wild.

“Would you like to join us for dinner tonight?” Mary asked. “I could make a nice stew. There would be more than plenty.”

Jake seemed to hesitate for a moment, his eyes darting back and forth across the horizon. Mary followed his glances. They were walking through a heavily wooded area at present, but she couldn’t seem to discern what he was looking at.

Unless — oh. She sagged in disappointment. Jake didn’t want to come to supper with her and Matthew and he was looking for a polite way to decline.

“I would be honored,” he said finally.

Mary waited for the “but,” but it never came.

She broke out into a joyful giggle. “That’s wonderful,” she said. “I’ll be glad for the new company.”

Matthew had a one-track mind whenever he spoke to Mary anymore. Phrases like “strike it rich,” “make my fortune,” and “when we’re in California” peppered his speech like an over-spiced dish. It made him dull.

After they reached the other side of the woods, they set up camp beside a small stream. The water was good and cold, and Mary knew many of the women were planning to do a little laundry while they could. She planned to join them.

Jake gave Mary the rabbits — two fat ones, already skinned and gutted — and helped build up the fire. Matthew was in parts unknown, reliably making himself scarce when there was real work to be done other than walking along and running his mouth. Mary exhaled slowly through her nose.

“Lord, give me patience with my brother,” she prayed silently, filling her big pot with water from the stream before plunging the rabbits into it. “I only want to please you, Lord, and to be a good woman.”

She vowed to spend time reading the bible before passing out cold after dinner, which was her usual routine of exhaustion.

Mary set the pot on the fire and broke up some wild onions and carrots into the pot. Slowly, the water began to boil. She salted it and made dough from flour, salt, and water, kneading it until she could roll it into balls. When the rabbit was boiled through and tender enough to fall from the bones, she dropped in the balls of dough, waiting until they floated and fluffed up.

Rabbit and dumpling stew. This was certainly going to be a treat.

“I wasn’t sure where you’d set up camp, but I followed the most delicious smells over here,” Jake said, smiling from across the fire. Mary had been so focused on the dumplings that she hadn’t heard him approach.

“Well, I’m glad your nose led you true,” she said, smiling back. Something about the man’s presence was strangely comforting. The strange part was that she hadn’t known him for very long at all and was already feeling like she could talk to him about anything. She looked forward to the moments on the trail when he sidled up to her, his curious questions and talking taking her mind off the pain in her feet and the regret in her heart.

Jake was the best part of the journey.

“Well, I’ve been on a tour of all the campfires, and ours smells best by far,” Matthew announced, plopping down on the ground between Jake and Mary.

“Jake said as much, too,” Mary said, forcing a smile at her brother’s manners. She sent up another quick prayer for patience and understanding. Matthew was simply getting what he’d always wanted, that was all. He was excited. He was eager.

Jake shrugged. “The rabbits surprised me as much as I did them,” he said. “Stumbled upon them as we entered the woods.”

“You got two of them,” Matthew remarked, peering into the pot as Mary began ladling the stew onto plates. “You must be an excellent shot.”

Jake shrugged humbly. “I do all right.”

“I’m pretty good, myself,” Matthew bragged. “I practiced shooting cans and bottles off the fence posts at the farm. I got so I’d never miss.”

“Is that so?” Jake said, accepting the plate that Mary handed to him. She was starting to understand when Jake said something just to be polite and when he was being genuine.

“It sure is,” Matthew continued, oblivious to the overly polite tone to the guide’s voice. “I could’ve killed dozens of union soldiers if Father had let me go to war.”

“You were just a boy of fifteen ,” Mary reminded him, handing him a steaming plate.

“Boys younger went,” Matthew protested. “You and I both know it.”

“Sure, we know it,” Mary said, taking her own plate and sitting on the ground. “We also know they came home in boxes.”

The stew was marvelous, a rich and welcome change to their usual fare while making the long march down the trail. It warmed Mary’s body and soul, made her thankful for breathing, for her sense of taste, for Jake’s sharp eye to find the rabbits, for God sending the rabbits.

“Mary, the stew is delicious,” Jake said, his tone genuine. How could Matthew not notice how differently Jake talked when he spoke with her brother? It was the difference between whispering and shouting to Mary.

“Thank you,” she said, hoping he’d attribute her light blush to the heat from the fire. “I’m happy you like it.”

Matthew was wolfing the stew down. “I still can’t help but feel like I could’ve made a difference in the way the war turned out if Father had let me go fight,” he said, unable to let it go.

“How would a 15-year-old change the tides in a war?” Mary asked incredulously. She was tired of this train of thought. She’d heard it enough while Mother and Father were still alive, when Jake was embittered at the Union soldiers laying waste to the state around them.

“You’d be just another dead boy in a box,” Jake said suddenly, entering the conversation on the war for the first time.

“How’s that?” Matthew asked, squinting at the guide.

“I saw just as many boys lying dead in the field as I did men,” Jake continued, his eyes faraway, probably gazing upon those horrors from the past. “All those boys had the same dream as you, to win the war. They all ended up the same way — dead.”

“I wouldn’t have ended up dead,” Matthew said hotly. “I know how to shoot. I know how to fight.”

Jake shrugged. “Even the best shooters and the best fighters end up dead,” he said. “War doesn’t pick favorites. One day you’re alive, shooting your gun true. The next day, someone shoots truer than you, and you fall.”

“I would never fall,” Matthew declared.

“Please, I’d rather not talk about the war,” Mary said stiffly, recognizing the tone of voice her brother was using. Things would only get worse from here if the conversation was allowed to continue. “It makes everyone upset and I’d like to sit and enjoy this meal.”

Matthew let out air from between his teeth in a hiss before pushing himself off the ground and walking away.

“Perhaps I should leave,” Jake said, looking down at his half-eaten plate.

“Please stay,” Mary said, laying her hand on his arm. “I don’t want this stew to go to waste. It’d be a pity.”

“I absolutely agree,” Jake said, attacking his plate once more. “I hate to see anything as delicious as this stew go to waste.”

Mary smiled and continued to eat. “I’m sorry about my brother,” she said. “He did want badly to go fight, but Father wouldn’t allow him.”

Jake shook his head. “It’s me who should be sorry,” he said. “I’ve never talked about the war since it happened. I hate to talk about it. I don’t know what made me say all those things.”

Mary was quiet for a while. “You were in the war.”

He nodded. “I was. I was twenty-one years old by the end of it. I enlisted when I was eighteen.”

“Three years,” Mary marveled.

“I thought it was my duty,” Jake said. “I thought I had to fight for what was right.”

“That’s what everyone thought,” Mary said, reflecting on what she’d heard her parents talking about through those dark violent days, and the ashy gray ones that followed the end of the fighting.

“I don’t think war solves anything,” he continued, his eyes still far away. “I don’t think it solves anything at all.”

“We’re in agreement,” she said. “I saw it ruin so many lives. I hope our country never comes to that again.”

They both had second helpings — and a third for Jake — of the stew, talking about happier things than war. After their bellies were full of rabbit, just like Jake had promised earlier in the day, Mary pulled her mother’s bible from the trunk.

“I’ve been too tired to read it up until now,” she explained. “Tonight I really wanted to read it. Do you have any favorite books or verses?”

Jake shook his head. “I’m not much of one for the bible,” he said, though it seemed to pain him to admit it.

Mary frowned. “Why not?”

Regret was etched into Jake’s face. “It was the war,” he said finally. “You can’t imagine the horrors I witnessed. The most terrible thing was that horror became so mundane. You didn’t remember seeing anything out of the ordinary during the day until you went to sleep at night and revisited it in your dreams.”

Jake stared at Mary. “How could God let that happen?” he asked brokenly. “How could he let all those people die?”

Mary clutched the bible to her chest for several moments before opening it. She remembered a passage in James that her mother used to read to her when she asked the very same question.

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?” Mary read aloud. “Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.”

“I’ve asked God repeatedly why,” Jake said, looking at the flames of the campfire. “Why doesn’t he answer me?”

“I don’t think God wants for bad things to happen to people,” Mary said. “I think bad people cause bad things to happen. God loves everyone. He loved the Union soldiers just as much as he loved the Confederate soldiers, and it hurt him to see them hurt each other.”

“Would you want to read some more?” Jake asked. “I like listening to your voice.”

“Sure,” Mary said, smiling gently. The guide seemed calmer after hearing the word of God. She flipped to Ephesians.

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

“Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness.”

“The bible talks about fighting holy wars like they’re glorious,” Jake observed.

Mary thought about this for a while. “It’s glorious to do God glory,” she said. “We’re always at war, spiritually, to do right in the face of temptation. The bible talks about real people. Real people are petty, are violent, are sinners, and go to war. Only Jesus Christ is perfect.”

“Will you read something else?” Jake asked. “If it’s not too much trouble.” He sighed suddenly and shook his head.

“What is it?”

“It’s just that I don’t know what’s bringing me greater comfort,” Jake said, “your voice or the bible.”

Mary laughed and blushed. “I hope it’s a mixture of the two,” she said.

They read until the embers grew too dim to see anymore.

Jake watched as the last wagon forded the river. He urged the train onward as he looked at the water for several long moments.

Crossing this particular river usually wasn’t so easy. However, it hadn’t rained in quite some time, causing the water level to drop. In some areas, the river didn’t rush by at all — it meandered or even stood still in pools. He remembered almost losing a wagon at this very crossing. It had always made him nervous for the rest of the years he’d been doing this.

Now, he was extra nervous, extra sensitive about all of the dangers the train could face along the trail. Scenarios that he had never experienced played out in his mind: a wildfire ripping up the prairie, Mary trapped at her wagon; an attack by unfriendly tribes, Mary taken hostage; raids by bands of thieves, Mary harmed; a sudden early winter, Mary getting frostbite.

It wasn’t lost on Jake that he was most bothered by the idea of anything bad befalling Mary.

He had never been closer to anyone in his life, he realized, than he was with Mary. Something about her soothed him, made him eager to share her company. He had become a regular at her campfire, sharing his supplies so that he wouldn’t deplete hers, bringing her fresh meat whenever he could find it.

He’d taken down an antelope when they’d first entered the vast prairies and shared it through much of the train. She’d roasted their portion until it was crusty on the outside and juicy on the inside.

Jake didn’t know what it was about Mary. Something about her made him feel safe and scared all at the same time. He craved being around her at all moments, even when he was checking on other members of the train, as was his responsibility. At the same time, he was terrified of having her on the journey.

What had her brother been thinking?

If Jake were Mary’s brother, he never would have made her come on this perilous trip across the country. He would keep her locked up, away from danger and other people.

Other times, Jake was exceedingly grateful that he wasn’t Mary’s brother. He found that he was falling in love with her.

One night, after a dinner of salt pork and biscuits with Mary at her campfire — Matthew liked to rotate his presence among campfires, often leaving his sister alone — they were reading the bible and talking about its passages. Reading God’s word with her was increasingly healing his spiritual wounds.

He thought he had lost all belief in God during the war. There had been so many horrors, so many dreadful injuries and needless deaths that Jake lost faith. The devil in men? He believed it. Good still existing in the world? He was doubtful.

Sweet Mary, kind Mary, godly Mary brought him back in the direction of the fold. She was the salve on his hurts.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” Mary read aloud from the book of Hebrews as Jake played with a blade of grass, letting the words wash over him. “For by it the people of old received their commendation.

“By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”

“That’s easy,” Jake said, smiling at Mary, delighted to see her answering smile. “You just have to have a little faith in things, even if you can’t tell they’re there.”

Mary held up a finger and flipped to another passage.

“Ephesians,” she said. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

“Faith is what saves us,” Jake mused. “It’s what helps us get from day to day. It’s what gives us our greatest reward, in the end.”

“This from one who thinks he’s not much for the bible,” Mary said, teasing him lightly.

“I used to not be,” he said, “until I heard God’s words from your lips.”

His fingers brushed hers, an urge he could no longer smother. She opened her hand like a flower, her slender fingers peach-colored petals, and Jake twined his hand in hers. He wanted to squeeze it hard, let her know how much he cared for her, how he would never let anything bad happen to her, but he kept his grip light and comforting.

“How long have you been a trail guide?” Mary asked, looking up from the open pages on her lap.

It was usually a question that Jake discouraged or walked away from. Inevitably, the followup question was “what did you do before this?” He hated to talk about the war with anyone other than Mary.

“Nearly ten years now,” he said. “Feels like yesterday when I made my first trip across.”

“How was that?” she asked, leaning forward eagerly.

Jake thought about it for several seconds before answering. “It was magic. Everything completely new. Grass-covered hills rising and falling like oceans in the middle of the land. Stars so bright you could read by them. I wish I could see the trail as you’re seeing it now, for the first time, again.”

Mary leaned her head against Jake’s shoulder, bringing her other hand to cover their twined fingers.

“The coyotes in the night make me feel free,” she said quietly. “The day we saw the buffalo, I knew that there had never been anything as magnificent. The way the tall grass ripples in the wind, I never want it to end. I can understand why you would make the trip so many times.”

“It was the only thing that made sense to me after the war was through,” Jake said. “I didn’t know it at the time, but I saw God in the land. He comforted me through the very sights that comfort you, even if I didn’t recognize him.”

“God has a way of sneaking up on all of us like that,” Mary said. “That’s what I think.”

“I’m glad you’re seeing the beautiful parts of the trail,” Jake said. One of the finest things he’d ever experienced on his multiple journeys was taking place right now, feeling Mary’s fingers tangled up in his. He’d take this moment over a million buffalos.

“I was scared, at first,” she confided. “Scared and tired. Everything seemed like a threat, but I knew I was safe with you.”

This swelled Jake’s heart. “You’re always safe with me,” he said. “I won’t lie to you. There are dangerous parts of the trail. I’ll always do everything I can to protect you.”

Their bodies were so close. The firelight twinkled, the sparks reflecting in Mary’s eyes. She tilted her chin up, looking at him, and he dipped his head down, his eyes not leaving hers. Their lips met in just the way they were meant to.

A scream from another wagon made Jake jerk away from her.

“What was that?” Mary gasped, her grip on his hand tightening.

“I have to go see,” Jake said, extricating his hand from hers as gently as he could. “Please stay here — I’ll be right back.”

He slung his rifle over his shoulder as he stood and jogged toward the source of the sound. The scream had disintegrated into wild sobbing, the kind that made Jake’s heart rise in his throat.

“My baby is dead!” a woman was sobbing, clutching a small bundle to her chest. “My baby is dead!”

“How did this happen?” Jake demanded as politely as he could in such a situation.

The man cradling the woman’s shoulders looked up at him. “The baby’s been sick,” he said, coughing wetly. “We’ve been giving him tinctures, but nothing soothed him. He burned.”

Jake’s eyes widened. Fever? In his wagon train? It would spread like fire on dry plains.

Another cry went up. Jake strode toward the sound.

“Please, sir,” a child said, staring up at him with wide eyes. “We can’t wake my mother.”

Even in the dark and from a distance, Jake could tell the woman was dead. Some sickness was ravaging the train and all he could think of was getting Mary far away from there.

He sprinted to his wagon and hitched his horses. They were good beasts, able to pick out the smoothest path in the dark. They’d done it before. Everything he was about to do went against his nature.

Jake didn’t care enough about being the best trail guide. He just wanted to save Mary from whatever scourge had infected other parties in the train.

He ran back to Mary’s campsite.

“We have to go,” he said, out of breath. “We must leave now.”

“What’s wrong?” Mary asked, standing up and clasping Jake’s hands.

Matthew ran up to the fire, his eyes wild. “The Robertsons are all burning hot, raving like lunatics,” he said. “What’s going on?”

“Fever,” Jake said grimly. “We have to get away. Now. Before any of us come down with it.”

“Agreed,” Matthew said briskly.

They transferred a few supplies from their wagon to Jake’s and saddled up the two horses. Matthew mounted one and Jake lifted Mary up to him.

“I ride better alone,” her brother said bluntly, spurring the horse onto the trail.

Shaking his head, Jake mounted and pulled Mary up in front of him. They rode to his wagon, where he urged the other horses onward. They pulled the wagon onto the road without any trouble.

Like shadows, they departed, leaving the wails of the bereaved and the moans of the sick behind them.

Jake looked back once, feeling a pang of guilt. He’d deserted his train, left the people to die.

“You did the right thing,” Matthew said, which didn’t make Jake feel any better.

“How did this happen?” Mary asked.

Jake didn’t understand how the fever had taken hold of so many people so quickly until he thought back to the river they’d forded. What was usually rushing with water had almost been at a standstill, muddy pools everywhere. Had anyone stopped for a drink after they’d crossed? Jake was sure of it.

“People can sometimes catch fever by bodies of water,” he said. “I’ve seen it happen a few times, but nothing like this. I don’t understand what vicious thing had hold of those people.”

“It was terrible,” Mary said, shivering.

Do you feel all right?” Jake asked, feeling a sudden surge of panic at her shudder. “Are you hot? Dizzy? Cold? Tired?”

“I feel healthy, just scared and sad,” she said. “Don’t worry about me.”

“I am always worried about you,” Jake said.

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