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Partners in Time #5: A Change of Course
By Kristen Sheley
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Kristen Sheley
All right reserved.
Muddy water sloshed over the toes of my boots and soaked the cuffs of my pants as my feet struck the earth. Then the rain hit me, coolly streaking my cheeks and plopping down on the shoulders of my overcoat. I turned around, fumbling to button my coat but not crush what I held in one hand. I saw no witnesses to my sudden appearance near the Clayton barn and cabin, neither more than one hundred yards away.
I pulled the brimmed hat low and bent my head down, both to keep the rain out of my eyes and to watch where my feet went so I wouldn't slip in the mud. At least when I'd left my home it hadn't been raining ... but it was the middle of February in Oregon. I shouldn't have been very surprised by the damp conditions.
As I veered toward the buildings, I mentally rehashed my plan for just what I was going to do next. February 14, 1851 was a Friday; I'd looked that up before I left. This implied that Meg's family would be operating on a weekday schedule. I hoped this would mean that her younger brothers and sisters would be in school and her dad would be working away from the house, but I had no idea. I wished I had some way to contact her wherever she was, so she could meet me somewhere private, but that sort of technology would be insanely out of place a hundred and fifty-five years in the past.
I hoped I wasn't stopping by at a bad time. If that was the case, maybe the small gift I had for her would help. In my head, I recited the words that I planned to say when I found her. "I don't know if you celebrate Valentine's Day yet, but we do in 2006 ... and I thought you might like these roses because it's traditional to give flowers to pretty girls on the holiday. Oh, and I was hoping you might want to go somewhere ... your choice, remember? I owe you."
I grimaced at the mental dialogue, shaking my head a little. If it sounded that awkward in my head, how bad would it be when I actually said it out loud? How would Meg take it?
"What the hell are you doing here, Foster?" I asked myself under my breath. "This is nuts." I glanced at the small bouquet of lavender roses and baby's breath that I'd picked up at the grocery store on the way home from school. It looked like something a girl would like, and the color of the roses was sort of unusual. I'd carefully removed the plastic that had come with the bouquet and used a fabric ribbon to keep the stems together. I hoped Meg wouldn't laugh at the sight of it. A card might've been better, but at least flowers were biodegradable.
Even though the air around me was chilly, I was sweating a little from nerves by the time I reached the cabin. When I rounded the front of the building, I found a fully-saddled horse standing on the muddy road. The animal nickered softly as I approached it.
"Where'd you come from?" I asked softly.
The front door of the cabin was closed, and the windows were fogged up, totally impossible to see through. I took a deep breath and started walking toward the cabin, unsure how to avoid simply knocking on the door and asking for Meg.
I was only three steps from my destination when I heard something rattle and the door was suddenly yanked open. Instinctively, I hopped off the path and slid close to the cabin's wall, out of immediate sight from whoever was about to step outside. Although I was more or less prepared to face Meg's family, I was used to avoiding them at all costs.
"I understand you'll need time to think it over, Mr. Clayton," I heard a man say as he stepped outside, putting on his hat. I held still, but he didn't glance my way. "However, I think it's a generous offer. You can buy a smaller plot of land and build a new home for your family there."
"Be that as it may, I prefer to remain here," said another man in the cabin. He had dark hair and a mustache, but that was about all I could see with the rain and the gloomy light of a winter afternoon. He had to be Meg's father. "I have until the end of the month to make good on the note, and a lot may change in a fortnight."
The guy standing outside shook his head. Like Clayton, he had a mustache, but the facial hair was bigger, more of an elaborate handlebar thing. He looked like he was around thirty or so, but age was hard to tell with people in the past. Everyone seemed to look a lot older much sooner than they did in my time. "Unless you plan on mining for gold, I see no way of saving your land." His tone changed slightly, becoming confessional. "I'm trying to help you out. No one else will give you half the sum I will."
"Maybe so, but I'm not interested," Clayton said from the doorway. "Good afternoon, Mr. Thornburg."
"Let me know if you change your mind," Thornburg said, not willing to let the subject drop. He tipped his hat before turning around.
The door slammed shut as Thornburg strolled to his horse. I stayed frozen where I was, not wanting to snag his attention before he left. Fortunately, the guy seemed to be eager to leave; he mounted his horse and started off without a look back. Only when he was out of sight did I remember to breathe again.
Whatever nerve I'd had to knock on the door and ask to talk to Meg was rapidly fading. Clearly, her father was home and would probably answer the door. He would ask questions about who I was and where I had come from, and I didn't know if I could give him, or anyone else in Meg's family, satisfactory explanations. Meg's sister, Sarah, had already seen us leave once, and Meg had mentioned it took a while before her sister had let the subject go.
"C'mon, there has to be a way to do this," I whispered under my breath. I turned away from the door and walked quickly to the corner of the cabin. I took a cautious look around the roughly cut ends of the logs and saw a wall that had only one window, which was obscured with condensation. I wasted no time in rounding the corner to relative privacy. The only way I could think to avoid direct interaction with Meg's family was to peek in through the windows until I spotted Meg, and then do something to get her attention. With the windows all steamed up, though, that would be a little challenging.
As I wracked my brain to come up with a better idea, I heard the front door open again. Footsteps slogged through the mud toward my exposed position next to the wall. I looked around frantically for a new place to hide, but I was out in the open; no bushes or trees were close enough for me to reach in a few seconds. My eyes had just registered this when a short, petite figure came into view and stopped abruptly at the sight of me.
I looked the person over quickly, taking in the details. The long brown dress that fell to the ankles. The hooded cloak clutched around the shoulders. The large hazel eyes blinking in surprise, set in a pale, freckled face. As she shifted her weight, the hood fell back, revealing a fluffy, auburn cloud of hair pinned up in a frizzy knot.
I grinned, relieved. "Meg, you scared the crap out of me!"
"Sam," Meg said after a pause, squinting at me through the raindrops. "Did you just arrive right there?"
"No, I hiked in."
"Oh." Meg frowned faintly, preoccupied. It wasn't exactly the kind of greeting I had expected after a separation of almost two months. Where was the smile? Couldn't I get a hug?
Instead of celebrating, Meg was blandly businesslike. "Here, come with me before anyone sees you." She walked in my direction, sidestepped me, and continued on toward what looked like muddy doors set flush into the earth at the base of the cabin.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
Meg crouched down next to the boards, reaching for a small piece of wood that was wedged under two wooden handles. "I came out to fetch some preserves from the root cellar," she said without looking up. "It should be safe for us to speak down there." After freeing the kindling-sized piece of wood, she pulled open one of the doors and looked at me. "You go first. Watch your head, the ceiling is low."
Eager to get out of the rain, I hurried forward and ducked, moving slowly down the five wooden steps that led into a small, earthen room. The space was not much larger than the back deck at my house, and I glimpsed shelves lining the packed-dirt walls with the bit of light that trickled through the single open door. Glass jars glittered from some of them. Meg joined me a second later, pulling the door closed behind her with a small length of rope that was attached on the inside. The sound of the rain instantly grew louder as it drummed on the barrier. It also became pitch black; I couldn't see a thing.
"Wait a moment, I have a candle in my pocket," Meg said from nearby. I heard her fumble around, followed by the sound of a match being dragged across the sandpaper side of a matchbox. A flame sparked and then flared brighter, pushing away some of the darkness. Meg dropped the matchbox into a pocket of her apron and quickly pulled out a stub of candle. She touched the flame to the wick, gave the match a quick shake to snuff out the flame, and wedged the now-burning candle into a cast-iron holder that was resting on an empty shelf.
The light from the candle was weak, yellow, and cast about a million shadows. Meg turned around to look at me, and I saw strands of her reddish hair plastered against the side of her face from the rain outside. My heart gave a half skip at the sight. Without thinking about it, I held out the wet, slightly crushed bouquet of roses that I'd been blocking from her view. "These are for you."
Meg accepted the flowers slowly, her eyebrows drawing together as she looked at me. "Why?" she asked.
The explanation I had rehearsed in my head failed to materialize on my lips. "Uh ... I thought you'd like them...for Valentine's Day," I stammered instead. "Don't you have that holiday now?"
"Yes." Meg looked at the flowers a moment before raising her head to gaze at me, beads of rainwater glittering on her brow. "Why are you giving me roses as a sweetheart might?"
I hadn't expected the blunt question. "In my time, friends give each other things like that," I said hastily, hoping that the hat and the crappy singular candlelight would keep her from seeing that my cheeks were starting to burn up. What had I been thinking in getting her those?
Now you're gonna freak her out! Idiot!
"Is that so? Well, thank you." Meg offered me a faint smile of gratitude before she set the flowers down on the shelf next to the candle. "Where are you planning on going this time, Sam?"
I pounced eagerly onto the new, non-awkward subject. "Well, that's actually your decision. Remember last December? You get to pick the next trip. We had a deal."
"I see," Meg said. She sat down on the bottom step, and I followed her example, my neck starting to ache from being hunched over. The ceiling, with its large beams of wood that supported the floor of the cabin above, was about five feet high, barely above Meg's head and almost a foot too low for mine. "You want me to pick a date and a place to visit?" she asked.
There was something in her tone that made me a little uneasy. "Within reason. No going back in time to mess around with your family history or change some kind of historical event."
"Well, of course, that's obvious by now." I knew Meg was probably thinking of the last time we'd traveled together, trying to repair my parents' broken marriage and failing miserably in the process. She grew silent, staring down at the packed dirt floor. The patter of the rain was the only sound.
"I think I have a time and a place in mind," Meg said finally. "To be honest, it's something I've thought about a lot during these last few weeks."
"Why these last few weeks?"
Meg sighed and turned her head to face me. "My family has not had a very good year with the farm," she said. "The crops did not fetch as much money as Papa thought they would, and there have also been unanticipated expenses. In short, Papa cannot afford the sum needed to pay for the taxes on our land, and we may have to leave."
My heart sank. "You mean leave O'Hara?"
Meg shook her head. "No, not leave O'Hara. We would stay on in this area, perhaps move closer to town, and have less acreage in our name. I don't want to leave this place, though, not after leaving Boston three years ago. I'm tired of being uprooted. This is our home; this is our land. We gained it fairly in the Donation Land Act, but we have to remain on it for four years to own it outright." Her posture grew increasingly rigid as she spoke and she leaned forward, her eyes narrowing. "Even worse is the matter of Nicholas Thornburg, that shifty scoundrel, wanting our land. Mama heard from the pastor's wife that Mr. Thornburg was writing away to the Oregon Territorial Legislature in Oregon City to argue that those who couldn't afford land taxes should lose any land they were given in the act."
I got the general gist of what Meg was talking about, though my knowledge of Oregon's pre-statehood government was shaky at best. "That Thornburg guy just left your house."
"You saw him?" Meg looked at me sharply.
"Yeah, I caught the tail end of the conversation he was having with your father." I frowned. "I know I've heard that name before...."
"He is the neighbor who asked Papa for my hand in marriage last summer." Meg shuddered at the memory. "Thank goodness my parents did not argue with my decision! This situation simply proves even more to me that he is not to be trusted. Mr. Thornburg is a vulture, circling and waiting for us to leave so he can have our home! He has already done this to other men in town."
"Sounds like the real estate barons of my time," I said. "Okay, so how does this tie into wanting to time travel somewhere? You don't want to go back in time and snuff out Thornburg before he's born, do you? Because I really can't support a field trip like that."
Meg smiled humorlessly. "No, Sam. Frankly, that would be a fate better than he deserves. If you wait here for a few moments, I'll share with you the particulars of what I have in mind." She stood and brushed her skirts off. "Mama is waiting on the preserves for supper tonight, and if I stay down here much longer, I'm afraid she may send one of my sisters after me."
I watched as she collected a couple jars from one of the shelves and climbed the stairs. "Wait here," Meg reminded me, pausing with one hand on the door. "I'll return as soon as I can." She pushed open the door, climbed out, and let it fall closed before I could answer.
I sighed and leaned back against the step behind me as the candle bobbed in the faint breeze stirred by her departure. What did Meg have in mind? My brain chewed on all sorts of possibilities, from sneaking in to mess with the deed of Thornburg's own land to helping her family discover a gold mine. Nothing I could come up with seemed remotely likely to succeed. I really hoped that I could pull off whatever it was Meg had come up with; I didn't want to disappoint her.
Above me, I heard the occasional pop of the boards when someone in the cabin moved, but no voices or conversations. The rain probably had a hand in that. It would be an advantage for us, letting me and Meg talk without a fear of being overheard.
Meg returned several minutes later, the sudden sound of the door flying open making me jump. I jerked around in time to see her hop down the steps and pull the barrier shut. Her cloak was wrapped tightly around her.
"Mama believes I'm in the privy now," she said breathlessly, sitting next to me. "I may have no more than ten minutes before she wonders about my absence ... perhaps more if she is distracted by the smaller children. I'll explain everything as quickly as I can."
"All right," I said. I watched as she peeled back her hood again and abruptly opened the cloak. Tucked under one arm was a leather book of some kind, the cover stained and cracked. Meg set it on her knees and turned to face me.
"For Christmas last year, before she passed away, Nana left me a journal that was owned by her aunt, a woman by the name of Claire Robinson. Claire was an unconventional woman, and Nana was close to her."
"So, you want to go back in time and meet Claire?" I guessed.
"Although I think that would be interesting, that is not quite what I have in mind." Meg glanced at the plain cover of the book. "Claire began this journal in September of 1717, when she crossed the Atlantic to settle in the American colonies. She was the first member of my mother's family to leave the country of England, and she did so by herself."
Excerpted from Partners in Time #5: A Change of Course by Kristen Sheley Copyright © 2010 by Kristen Sheley. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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