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High Plains, Kansas Territory June 1860
The farther west their wagon train proceeded, the more Emmeline Carter missed her former home in central Missouri. The political climate back there had been in constant upheaval, especially since the hanging of the abolitionist John Brown in Virginia a scant six months before. Still, it was the only home she'd ever known, and life on the trail had her missing that sense of security.
Although there had been recent fighting amongst her former neighbors to the point of bloodshed, what was to say that life would be any better in Oregon? The fact that her taciturn father insisted so was not nearly enough to convince Emmeline.
So far, the journey by covered wagon had been trying but not altogether unpleasant. Word among the other women was that there would be many terrible trials to come during their months-long pilgrimage, but Emmeline was willing to wait and see rather than borrow trouble.
One of the worst naysayers had told Emmeline, just that morning, "You'll soon see, my girl. There'll be many a fresh grave along the trail before we reach our new homes. If cholera don't get us, those horrid Indians will. I shudder to think what they'll do to you and your pretty sisters, especially."
"Then I shall pray earnestly that we don't encounter hostiles," Emmeline had replied, continuing to prepare the morning meal for her family while her sickly mother remained abed in the wagon, and her father, Amos, and brother, Johnny, tended to the oxen.
"Bess, Glory, fetch the twins," she called, using that as an opportunity to cease listening to the dire predictions of the older woman whose wagon was parked next to theirs. "The biscuits are almost done."
Emmeline knew that such rumors of catastrophe had to have some basis in fact. It had been frightening to leave home and hearth and start a journey into unfamiliar territory, especially since their already ample family of six now encompassed orphans Missy and Mikey, as well. Yet she was encouraged by the way everyone had helped gather firewood and dried buffalo chips for the fires and had taken turns caring for Mama when she was ill. Even little Glory had taken a turn. So had the eight-year-old twins.
If Mama had had her way she would have adopted their neighbors' children outright after their parents both sickened and died so suddenly. It was only by divine providence that Papa had allowed her to bring them along in the hopes of eventually finding them a permanent home. Thankfully, they were small for their age and didn't eat much. Keeping stocked with proper provisions to tide them over between supply stops was always a worry.
The responsibility of doing so had, of course, fallen to Emmeline, which was why she had walked from their camp to town after breakfast and was now getting ready to enter the prairie mercantile. This little town seemed peaceful enough, she mused. Perhaps the territories would be safer, less politically volatile, than her home state had been. As long as her father was around, however, a certain amount of trouble would keep dogging their path no matter where they went.
Emmeline felt like a mother hen as she shooed her brother and sisters and the orphan twins up the wooden steps and into the small store in her father's wake. Since her mother, Joanna, had stayed in her bed in the covered wagon and sworn she could not manage to rise, Emmeline had had to once again assume charge of the children.
Fifteen-year-old Bess, four years her junior, was helpful in this kind of situation, of course, but Johnny, the next youngest, was worse than useless. She'd thought he was as bad as he could get at twelve. When he'd recently turned thirteen, however, she'd realized that his rowdy years were just beginning.
Since she'd had the foresight to braid her hair and fasten it at her nape, she pushed her slat bonnet back and let it hang by its ribbons to help cool her head and neck. The morning was already sultry to the point of being burdensome in more ways than one. It intensified the strong odors of leather and spices and salted meats inside the store till they nearly made her ill. Rivulets of perspiration pasted tiny wisps of loose hair to her temples.
And it's only June, she thought, trying to keep her spirits up by sheer force of will.
"Bess, dear, you watch after the twins," Emmeline ordered kindly. "Johnny, keep your hands to yourself. You know the rules. No penny candy."
She hoisted five-year-old Glory, the youngest, on her hip and removed the child's bonnet too. Together they wended their way past kegs of molasses, sacks of flour and other sundry supplies that were piled on the rough plank floor and stacked high on shelves that lined the walls all the way to the low ceiling. Various kitchen utensils and farm tools were suspended from the rough-hewn rafters, making the store seem even more overcrowded.
A man who was clad as a cowboy, dusty from his labors, turned to glance at her as she approached the counter to place the family's order. Her father had already joined a group of men who were loudly discussing the conditions of the trail ahead of them and Emmeline knew that the mundane tasks had, as usual, been left to her.
The cowboy at the counter had already removed his broad-brimmed hat to show slicked-back, dark blond hair that curled slightly. His blue eyes seemed to twinkle as he nodded politely and wished her a "Good morning, ma'am," without being formally introduced first.
Emmeline knew social mores were more relaxed on the trail, but her strict upbringing nevertheless caused her to hesitate before she replied with a terse "Good morning." Seconds later, when he continued to speak, she realized that the man was assuming she was the mother of all these children! What an appalling notion.
"You have a lovely family," he said, ruffling Johnny's hair to distract him just as the boy was surreptitiously slipping his hand into a candy jar.
Emmeline, gritting her teeth, said merely, "Thank you," and gave her brother a scathing look. Then she turned her attention to the pinch-faced, portly woman behind the counter. "How do you do. We haven't been on the trail long, so we don't require much, but I was told it was best to keep my larders stocked."
"That, it is," the proprietress said as if addressing a nitwit. She accepted the list Emmeline was holding, then leaned closer to speak more quietly. "You're mighty young to have so many children. How did you manage it?" She briefly eyed Emmeline's father. "Marry a man with a passel of 'em already?"
"No. That's my father, Amos Carter, and these are my brother and sisters," Emmeline explained, taking care to raise her voice enough to disabuse the cowboy of her supposed motherhood. "Except for the twins over there. We're taking them to Oregon with us in the hopes of finding them good homes."
"I might be interested myself if they was old enough or strong enough to be of use round the store," the woman said. "How old are they?"
"Eight, but they've had a hard life so they're small for their age."
"I'll say. Plum useless, if you ask me."
Hoping that Missy and Mikey had not overheard the woman's cutting remarks, Emmeline noted that Bess was teaching them to play checkers at a small table next to the unlit, barrel-shaped, wood stove. Happily, their attention to the checkerboard and the overall din of conversation within the small store had apparently rendered them oblivious to the woman's unkindness.
The cowboy, however, was far from unaware. "Excuse me for saying so, Mrs. Johnson," he drawled, barely smiling at the older woman, "but don't you think it would be wiser to keep such untoward opinions to yourself?"
The proprietress huffed, "Well, I never," and turned to go about her business, leaving Emmeline and the friendly stranger standing at the counter together.
"Thank you," she said, meaning it sincerely. "The twins have had a difficult year since they lost their parents. They're just now beginning to act like normal children again."
"My pleasure, miss." He bowed slightly. "The name's Will Logan. I own a little spread south and west of here. The Circle-L. Maybe you've heard of it?"
"I'm sorry, no. I'm merely a traveler passing through. But I'm sure your ranch is lovely."
He chuckled. "Well…I wouldn't say that, exactly. Not yet, anyway. Give it time. I've only been in these parts for a little while, myself." Gesturing at the store building, he added, "My friend and I founded High Plains just a year and a half ago. It's his mill that's been providing most of the lumber for the town, of late."
"Even that magnificent church house we passed just east of here?"
"You can thank our town ladies and the New England Emigrant Aid Company for that," Will admitted. "The door and windows were shipped from Boston and so was some of the finer wood for the interior. But the structure itself took shape right here in High Plains."
"Then you should be very proud, Mr. Logan."
Will grinned and shook his head. "I try hard not to be too highfalutin. Don't want the good Lord to get mad 'cause I took the credit for His work."
"I'm sure that building the big church will satisfy Him," Emmeline said, noting that her companion did not appear to agree. His smile faded and he seemed to be studying her.
Finally, he said, "I doubt that the Father, the creator of 'many mansions' is too impressed by any building man makes." He replaced his hat and touched the brim politely. "Well, if you all will excuse me, I have to stop at the mill and then head back to my spread. I wish you and yours Godspeed, miss."
Watching the broad-shouldered, appealing rancher turn and start toward the door, Emmeline was taken by how optimistic he had seemed in spite of the obvious hardships inherent in his line of work, not to mention starting from scratch and building an entire town in the space of just a few years. What an admirable man. His attitude served to make him quite attractive indeed.
She supposed she would need that kind of extraordinary fortitude—and more—to face the rest of her journey. She just hoped she was up to it. Taking charge of her siblings and the twins wasn't new to her. It was being in unfamiliar territory that gave her pause. Still, as long as they were together, as a family, she supposed they'd manage to cope.
The idea of family caused her to glance over at her father and shiver in spite of the humidity and high temperature inside the stuffy mercantile. Papa might not be the meanest man in the world, but he had to be close to the top of the list.
Emmeline had spent most of her life trying to placate him and protect both her mother and her siblings from his unpredictable fits of temper. That was why she'd never marry or otherwise leave home. Papa had wasted his breath ordering her to stay until little Glory was raised. She wouldn't have abandoned her sisters, her ill mother or even troublesome Johnny. Not under any circumstances.
The Garrison mill sat west of High Plains proper, a little past Zeb's impressive, whitewashed, two-story house. Will found his old friend working on the cutting floor instead of sitting behind the desk in his small office.
"Morning," Will called, having to shout to be heard over the sound of sawing.
Zeb grinned, waved a greeting and loped toward him. "What brings you to town?"
"Just needed a few things over at Johnson's. And I want to order some two-by-six planks from you. I'm finally going to put a floor in the bunkhouse. There's no hurry, though. I've got all summer to finish the job."
"Good, because we're running near capacity."
"Even now? I thought the rush was over."
Zeb wiped his brow with a handkerchief as he gestured downriver. "Nope. Guess some of those new settlers are tired of living in tents and wagons. They're planning to build real houses and maybe a business or two. Good for them, I say—good for all of us."
"Yeah, definitely. It'll be nice to see the town continue to grow. I'm amazed it's come this far in such a short time."
"Hey," Zeb drawled with a lazy grin, "you told me this was the perfect place to build. I'm just glad to see that so many others agree with you."
"So am I. Start my order out with forty boards, as long as twelve feet if you've got 'em. Once I've used those I'll see what else I need."
"Done. Where you headed now?"
"Home. I've got plenty to do. Those heifers are dropping more calves every day. See you Sunday?"
"Of course. Can't miss church or Cassandra would have my hide." He chuckled. "I think my sister wants an escort more than anything else so she can show off those new dresses and hats of hers. What better place than in church?"
"And it also might do your soul some good," Will gibed.
"You just mind your own soul and I'll look after mine," Zeb shot back. He eyed the sky. "Take care riding home. The weather looks a bit changeable."