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The women wept for family and places to be left behind while the men spoke of new lives and unexplored lands.
The women dried their tears and sorted the minutiae of their lives, discarding memories and treasures, weighing each thing against the knowledge that it must be carried two thousand miles and more. Food was more important than foofaraw, needles and pins more valuable than velvet bonnets and shoes with French heels. Chests and trunks were packed with sturdy clothing and underwear, potions and simples. They mourned the chiffoniers they left behind and made room for the chests and chairs they took. And if an empty corner were found for grandmother's china platter or the family Bible, well, no one would know until they reached Oregon.
They learned much along the way. Shoes made for country lanes were too frangible for the mud and rocks and endless miles of the trail. Food tasted just as good cooked over buffalo dung and dusty bodies felt clean when washed in a cupful of precious water. A circle of spread skirts was enough for privacy, and no one noticed soft cries of completion when the ever-present wind soughed around the wheels and canopies of clustered wagons.
The prairie and the mountains taught hard lessons. That life was more precious than the china platter or the butternut cabinet, that a plowshare might mean survival while a silver teapot did not. That there were hardships far worse than leaving behind all they knew and loved, for Oregon was far away and many of them would never see its rich green valleys.
For Hattie Rommel, the journey West was but one more move in a life filled with moving. She hid her tears from Karl, for he had no patience with women's vapors. A wife went where her husband didÑit was her duty.
Perhaps, in Oregon, she would find a home.
CHAPTER ONE: 1845
"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And may God have mercy on your soul."
The muted chorus of "amens" still shivered in the chill of early morn when Colonel Whitehead shut his Bible with a snap. "Let's get rollin'," he said.
A light touch on her arm roused Hattie from her stupor. She let dusty soil dribble from her fingers onto the blanket-wrapped form that had been her husband. A gentle arm turned her away from the grave. The women around her murmured their sympathy. She let them lead her back to the waiting wagons, didn't resist when she was urged to climb onto the high seat of hers.
Dust choked her as the first wagon slowly swung into the broad track across the empty prairie. The oxen stepped out in line, big, gentle Odin not needing the touch of the goad carried by young Japhet Stone. The white ox was so intelligent that he hardly needed guidance, but Colonel Whitehead had nearly had a conniption fit when she said as much, back when Karl had first taken sick.
She was so tired, so numb. So empty. It seemed like she'd been nursing the sick forever. The cholera had caught up with them along the Platte and Annie had been one of the first to sicken. Poor little tyke, she'd not suffered much. It had taken her so quickly. Hattie still looked for her among the children of the train, until she remembered once again that the child she'd raised from babyhood was gone, left in an unmarked grave beside the trail. Karl hadn't grieved any more for his daughter than she had. Than she did, for her arms were still empty, her heart still aching.
And now Karl was gone too. She grieved, but she was angry too. With him. With herself.
He'd promised to protect her, to give her a home. Then he'd left her alone, halfway to Oregon, where she hadn't wanted to go in the first place.
No one had taken sick for more than a week now, so maybe they'd left the bad water and the miasma's behind them. The air in these high valleys seemed cleaner somehow than it did back home or even on those endless plains before the divide.
Soda Springs tonight, the colonel had said. Hattie had promised Japhet and Silas some of her precious store of sugar to sweeten the soda water that was supposed to gush from the ground. They, at least, were still young enough to be able to laugh and play at the end of a long, hard day. She was too tired, too old, even though she was scarcely twenty. She felt a hundred and twenty.
She could still turn back. Almost every day they encountered a group returning to the East. To civilization. To safety.
No. She could notÑwould notÑgo back. She'd left nothing behind. Her future, no matter how bleak, was somewhere out there. Toward the sunset.
In Oregon she could put down roots and build a place of her own, somewhere she would belong for the rest of her life. - - - Emmet topped a rise and halted, looking across the rolling countryside. A line of white shapes in the distance marked still another wagon train. Would they never stop coming, these seekers after paradise?
He'd been looking forward to a bath in the hot pools at Soda Springs. There was still a sliver of castile soap in his possibles, left from a long ago week in Paris. He had a hankering to feel its spicy scent on his skin, instead of the reek of wood smoke and horse. He'd been in the mountains too long.
He nudged his horse into a walk, letting the gelding find its own way down the hillside. Back when he'd come up the Mississippi with Clymer and Jones, he'd figured a year or two in the wilderness would be enough. The life had suited him, though, and he'd stayed until the itch in his feet grew too intense to resist. He'd found a certain peace in the cold, wet, difficult work of running traplines in frozen forests, a contentment in long winter nights in a smoky log cabin while he and Buffalo Jones spun impossible tales and repaired gear.
But it was time to move on again. He wanted music and laughter and most of all, he wanted silky, clean women who smelled of flowers, not of fish and bear grease.
Emmet waited until dark for his bath, certain the emigrants would be in bed almost as early as the chickens they carried in cages tied to the sides of their wagons. His moccasined feet made no sound on the hard-packed ground, nor did his well-worn buckskin pants rustle as wool would have. The sounds of the night were soft around him, usual sounds, nothing to alarm his well-trained perceptions.
Until he heard the splash.
It was not a fish, nor a beaver. He froze, each sense on the alert.
Another splash, followed by a formless cry. Emmet stepped off the path, into the sagebrush. Slipping from one tall shrub to another, he approached the bank that overlooked the creek.
In the moonlight, white shoulders gleamed with droplets of water; slim arms lifted a dark cloud of hair, dripping, from the water. Even as he watched, she stood, her body tempting and perfect in the pallid light. She wrung water from her hair, stepped carefully toward the shore. As she bent and turned, pulling on a white chemise and a dark dress, he almost wept at the beauty of her. His sex strained at buckskin, demanding, hungry. His body all but trembled at the force of his sudden desire.
She was within three feet of him as she climbed the path. He could have reached out and grabbed her, could have silenced her alarmed cry and carried her far from the security of her wagon, there to ravish her until his body was drained and empty. He could almost feel the satin of her warm skin, taste the sugar of her hot mouth.
She smelled of lilac and he let her walk on. - - - For the first time in weeks, Hattie felt almost alive. The long sleep, almost all day, as the wagon jolted and swayed along the trail, had healed her body of its crippling exhaustion. As for the other, the loneliness that she was all too familiar with, well, there was no cure for that. She'd known it before and survived. She'd survive again.
What a relief it was to feel clean once more. Karl had never understood her love of swimming, and had forbidden her to bathe in the pond, even wearing her chemise. As if anyone but him and Annie would have seen her, but that hadn't mattered to Karl. It was indecent, he'd insisted, for her to want to undress herself like that. If she had to immerse her whole body in water, a tub before the kitchen fire was enough, just as long as he was warned so he wouldn't embarrass them both by walking in on her.
"Silas? I'm back," she called softly as she approached the wagon.
"Yo," the lad answered, and she saw him lay down the shotgun he'd carried ever since the day Karl took sick. He crawled under the wagon, to the thin pallet where he slept, a boy who'd done a man's work for too many of his fourteen years.
Hattie climbed into the wagon, grateful that Karl had insisted that no wife of his was going to sleep on the ground. Now that he was goneÑshe tasted the word again. Gone. It was bitter on her tongue. Karl was gone, just like everyone else she'd ever cared for, and she was alone again.
She forced her mind away from self-pity. Now that Karl was gone, she was going to have to be careful. Already she'd seen hunger in male eyes, read speculation and intention.
Japhet didn't come to her wagon in the morning. Hattie helped Silas hitch the oxen instead of fixing breakfast. She gave him cold biscuits with bacon and milk instead of coffee.
Before she could do much more than finish loading up, the colonel blew the starting horn. She wished someone would steal that blamed bugle. It was bad enough that the colonelÑan honorary title, she was sureÑruled the train like a petty martinet. His not having a bit of music sense was the final straw. He hadn't hit a true note since they left Westport.
Without Japhet, Hattie had to walk alongside Odin. She had no chance to check on the boy, so was relieved when Eli Stone slowed his big gelding beside her later.
"Mornin' Mrs. Rommel," he said, his leathery face solemn. "I hope you're feelin' more yourself today."
"I am, thank you, Mr. Stone. I think it was all that time nursing...." A sob caught in her throat and she bit her lip to hold it back. "I didn't get much rest, those last few days," she said, after a moment. "Karl was so restless, you see, and...."
"Well, glad we could help out," Stone said. "Japhet appreciated the chance to earn some money all his own."
"He's not sick, or anything?"
"Fit as a fiddle. The colonel put him and some of the other boys on the herd today." Then, as if the idea had just then occurred to him, Stone said, "You didn't need him any longer, did you? The colonel said...."
"No, I won't be needing him," Hattie said, wondering how on earth she and Silas would manage, without any help at all. But she'd seen what had happened to Elizabeth Wright after her husband died. It was not going to happen to her. The colonel wasn't going to force Hattie into anything she didn't chose to do. Nobody was, ever again.
Having expected him all day, Hattie was not surprised when the colonel appeared as she was preparing supper.
"Evenin', Mrs. Rommel." Winston Whitehead made himself at home, sitting on the tongue of her wagon as if he had a right to be there.
Hattie wiped her forearm across her face, knowing she was leaving streaks of dirt but not particularly caring. "Good evening, Colonel." She used the poker to replace the cast iron lid on the Dutch oven, squinting her eyes against the heat from the coals. The coffeepot sat at the edge of the fire, still hot, still partly full, but she'd be blessed if she was going to offer him any.
Not after he'd decided she no longer needed Japhet's help.
He sat silently for several minutes, watching while she finished the supper dishes and put them back into the chest at the back of her household wagon. She turned the spider upside down on a rock near the fire, after rubbing it with lard to maintain its season. Hattie wondered if he ever did anything but look important. Certainly she'd never seen him turn his hand to a task more strenuous than blowing his fool horn.
"You recall the agreement about single women?"
Hattie had almost forgotten he was there. She still had milk to skim and a big tear in Silas' second best shirt to mend.
Cautiously she nodded. Surely the agreement didn't apply to her?
"Well, then, I don't need to explain your duty to you, now do I? It's been four days since your husband passed on. I calculate that gives you until the fourteenth, but I'll not pressure you."
"You'll not pressure...." Hattie sputtered, clenching her fists and her jaw.
Hattie had signed no agreement, had been completely unaware of its contents until just the other side of the Chimney Rock when, in the course of forty-eight hours, strong young Leland Wright had died of the cholera and the colonel had insisted his grieving and pregnant widow be wed within two weeks. Dazed, lost, Elizabeth had complied, and now she was married to a dour, middle-aged wheelwright who'd been the only man willing to take her and her little brood of three on, given that everything she owned was in the single wagon pulled by three oxen and one old milch cow.
Yes, Hattie knew about the agreement, signed by all the men in the train, but affecting the women so much more. And she knew her only alternative was to leave the train at Fort Hall and hope that the next one to come by would take her on. Or she could go back.
Back to Missouri, where they'd wintered, waiting for the spring? Back to Pennsylvania, where Karl's farm now belonged to someone else? Or back to New York, where all that was left of her family was a line of headstones in a cemetery?
No. She would get to Oregon, come hell or high water. She was more than halfway there already,
Her aunt Nettie had always said she'd catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Hattie forced herself to smile. "I didn't think... well, we're so close to Oregon. I guess I figured I wouldn't need to remarry. After all, Silas...."
"Now, Mrs. Rommel, you know better than that." The colonel's voice was soothing, patient. "It's just not fair to the other men in the train, having a pretty young woman like you alone and needin' help with her stock and her wagon. Why, what would happen if you broke a wheel, or your cattle strayed? Without a man of your own, you'd be forced to call on the others, with no way to pay them back."
"I have money!"
"Money don't make much difference out here in the wilderness," he said. "What's needed is help in kind. Your neighbor helps you. You help him. But you can't. You're just a woman. It takes a man to do what's needed about a wagon."
"We've been managing," she said, knowing they hadn't. Both she and Silas were near to dropping from exhaustion. It was all she could do to cook them a decent meal at the end of the day, and they hadn't had anything but cold collations for breakfasts and dinners since Karl took sick. Two wagons, fourteen oxen, a horse and a milch cow were simply too much for a woman and a boy to manage. Hattie tested the bread, tipped it out onto the dishtowel she held. She set it on the wagon seat to cool.
The colonel went on as if she hadn't spoken. "We'll be getting to Fort Hall tomorrow. It's been a while since we took a day of rest, so I'm thinking about a layover there. We'll have a dance, kick up our feet a bit. It's time you got to know your neighbors better, so you'll come along to it instead of sitting here and brooding."
"I don't dance." Karl hadn't held with dancing, although she'd often thought it sounded like fun. Imagine prancing around in time to music, just for the enjoyment of it.
"Well, you can't learn any younger. There's four or five real nice fellas who'd be willing to take you as a wife. This'll give you a chance to look 'em over without makin' any promises." There was steel in his voice, for all its unctuous tones.
"I'll be there," she said, knowing if she wasn't, he would send his wife to fetch her. He nodded in satisfaction and departed, no doubt to bedevil some other poor unsuspecting soul.
She'd seen the "nice fellas." There wasn't a one she'd marry, not if her life depended on it.
There would be men eager to marry her, she knew. She was rich, by the standards of this train. There were only a few families with more than one wagon, even fewer by now with extra oxen. The gold Karl had hidden in his tool chest was a secret, but her wealth was nonetheless obvious.
What was she going to do?
Hattie forced herself to prepare supper, to plan tomorrow's noon meal. She skimmed the milk and poured the cream into the churn for tomorrow's travel to shake into butter. After washing the bucket and the skimmer, she sat on the tongue of her wagon, needing time alone. Most evenings there was a neighborly gathering at the Whiteheads' wagon, one she'd seldom attended since Karl took sick.
It was happening againÑthe dictating of her life as if she had no right to a say in it. And this time, she might not be so fortunate as she had been when Uncle James had sold her to Karl. There wasn't a man in the train she would trust to have a care for her, aside from her wagons and livestock and Karl's precious hoard.
She would notÑcould notÑgo back, but was she willing to pay the price of going forward? - - -
Emmet told himself he was going to Fort Hall to replenish his supply of coffee and bacon. It had nothing to do with the memory of white shoulders against black water. Riding overland, not burdened with the problems of a wagon or a team, he would be there and gone again before the train arrived. And he would never see her again, the lilac- scented woman.
Hell! He wouldn't know her if he saw her. He had glimpsed the curve of a cheek, an angle of chin, but had never seen her whole face. The only way he'd recognize her would be if he encountered her buck-naked.
Nonetheless, when the train finally arrived at Fort Hall, he was still there. And he sniffed as each woman passed him where he sat at the entrance to the post.
She wasn't among them, these women trading for more flour, more sugar, and more coffee. Emmet felt a relief, and a disappointment.
As the afternoon shadows lengthened, he followed the stream of women and men back to the meadow where this latest train was camped. Halfway there, he heard the brazen call of a bugle. The women he was following walked faster and two boys came running from behind him.
Curious, Emmet followed to the grouped wagons, finding a place at the edge of the growing crowd. He watched as a portly man in black broadcloth and a blindingly white shirt climbed onto a wagon seat and lifted his arms for silence.
"Since it's the Sabbath, there will be a short service at sundown," the speaker said. "Afterwards George Anderson and Bruce MacLeod will play some music for dancin'."
A cheer, quickly tapering off, as the arms were raised again. "You all know that Karl Rommel died a few days back." There was widespread nodding, and some long faces. "Now Mrs. Rommel has got herself a couple of good wagons and some nice cargo, and she's needin' a man to help her out. I want you single men to think about what kind of husbands you'd make. She don't need a lazy man, nor a drinkin' man. She wants a home out there in Oregon and she needs someone who'll help her build one. If you think you're able, come see me."
Emmet looked around the crowd curiously, trying to find the needful widow-woman. She must be a mean old bat, not to be able to catch herself a husband. Like most trains he'd encountered, this one seemed to run about five men to every woman of marrying age, and most of the men were young and apt to be horny as hell.
He decided to attend the dancing tonight. Maybe he'd catch a sniff of his lilac-woman. - - -
On dragging feet Hattie walked across the squared circle of wagons to where George Anderson and Bruce MacLeod were tuning up, standing on two wooden chests. The wail of Bruce's fiddle sounded as lonely as she felt. Silently she entered the firelit circle and found a place between Martha Stone and Tillie Whitehead. She looked around the crowd, seeking Elizabeth WrightÑno Elizabeth Coonrad, now. The frail young woman was even more pregnant, even frailer than the last time Hattie had noticed her. And there were new lines in her face.
The music began, light, happy music, but to Hattie it was ominous, dark, mournful. Couples swung into the circle formed by their neighbors, faces bright with laughter, eyes sparkling. The last time they had rested an entire day had been at Fort Laramie, nearly six weeks ago. Tomorrow they would again face the unrelenting trail, the merciless sun, and the unknown future. Tonight they set care aside.
Bert Lytle took her hand and swung her among dancers without a single word. His dark face, with its twisted upper lip and dirt-lined creases, always seemed to be the evil visage of her childish nightmares. Karl had not trusted him, either, having suspected him of petty pilferage ever since Missouri. Surely he wasn't a contender for her hand.
After Bert, Matthew Clark led her through a round dance, patiently showing her the unfamiliar steps. He at least attempted conversation, although she found little to say to him. He was nice enough, but always stank of the tobacco that seemed permanently lodged in his upper lip. Jeremiah Thomas was next, his wooden leg making him awkward and clumsy. Then Bruce MacLeod danced with her to the haunting melody of George's flute. He was really a nice man, fatherly and gentle. Breathless, she let Bruce escort her back to the colonel's side. She wondered about the family that he was supposed to be joining in Oregon. Why had Bruce stayed behind, when his sons and a daughter braved the trail last year?
When other men asked her to dance, Hattie refused, pleading exhaustion. She had washed all of Karl's bedding today. The hours of bending over the steaming kettle, of squeezing the heavy linen sheets and wool comforts, and of draping them across willows and wagon tongues to dry had indeed worn her out.
"You should dance, Mrs. Rommel," the colonel told her after she'd refused the second man. You'll never find a husband by being shy."
"I'm not...." She took a deep breath. The last thing she wanted to do was offend this man who held her future in his hands. "I'm really tired, Colonel. I think I'll go to bed."
"You've made up your mind then?" Whitehead said.
Tillie interrupted him. "Joseph, leave the child alone tonight. Can't you see she's about dead on her feet?"
"This is your only chance to get to know the candidates, Mrs. Rommel. I'll wait until Rock Creek Crossing. No longer."
"You can't force me to marry!"
"I can and I will. There'll be no women on my train distracting the single men, causing trouble."
Before she could say more, a masculine voice broke the tense silence. "Could I have a word with you, Colonel?" Hattie looked up. And up. The man standing at her elbow was tall as the sky, his voice deep and rich. A faint odor of exotic spice wafted across her nostrils. Surely it couldn't come from him.
Colonel Whitehead answered impatiently. "Yes? What is it?"
"I heard tell you're lookin' for a pilot."
The colonel inspected the stranger. So did everyone else nearby, for he was indeed a sight to behold.
He wore buckskins, as many men did on the trail. But his were stained dark, supple and clinging, as if a second skin, only slightly looser than the one he'd been born with. His hair was fair, gleaming golden in the firelight. Pale eyes stared back at the colonel, unblinking, unflinching. The tall rifle at his side seemed a part of him, an extension of his arm, and the heavy knife looked as natural on his belt as her apron did at her waist.
"We might be," the colonel admitted.
"I'm headed that way."
Hattie slipped back into the shadows, taking advantage of the distraction to escape any further attention from the colonel. She stopped, still near enough to watch and listen. Searching the stranger's face for signs of dissipation, of evil living, of cruelty.
There were none. His eyes met the colonel's straight. His mouth didn't smile ingratiatingly nor did it sneer in contempt. His stance was easy, as if he saw no threat from any man or beast present. Firelight glinted on his face, golden brown and weathered, but breathtakingly handsome.
"Is there anyone who can speak for you?" The colonel asked.
The stranger's mouth tightened. "I need no man to speak for me. I've nothing to sell, nor have I anything to gain, beyond ordinary neighborliness, offering to guide you to the Columbia."
It did Hattie's heart good to see the colonel buffaloed. "I'll think on it," he said, clearly grudging the concession.
"Don't think on it too long," the stranger told him. "I'll be riding out in the morning, and I'll make better time than your wagons." He turned and walked into the night. - - -
Emmet didn't know why he trailed along behind the wagon train. In the time it took them to reach Rock Creek, he could have been halfway to Grande Ronde.
He watched from a nearby promontory as nine wagons left the main train at the Raft River. The word was more and more emigrants were choosing to head for California. He didn't blame them. If he had to winter in the Willamette Valley, he'd be ready to wrestle a cougar barehanded, just for excitement. It was one thing to spend months inside a snowbound cabin in the high country, another entirely to listen to the never-ending drip, drip, drip of Oregon's winter rains.
Seeking silence and solitude, he went up into the hills. For three days he camped in a high valley, walking the bare ridges by day, counting the distant stars by night.
Lonely, yet wanting no man's company, Emmet was restless, but no destination called to him. Eventually he'd reach Fort Vancouver and take ship for somewhereÑthere were fortunes to be made in the China trade. The life of a sailor was one he could follow again, but he thought instead of being a trader, with solid ground on which to set his feet. Three seasons of trapping had given him a stake; it was time to move on. He'd been halfway around the world, and he'd a hankering to see the other half.
When he came down from the hills, he again followed in the wagon tracks. His mule carried a bundle of freshly dried venison and Emmet wondered in passing if one of the women would trade for warm bread and fresh-churned butter. It had been a long time since he'd eaten such vittles and he had his mouth set for them.
As so many had before them, the train halted at Rock Creek Crossing. Emmet set up camp on the far side of the shallow, steep-walled canyon, not wanting to be too close. He'd go over after supper, see about making a trade. - - -
Hattie saw her salvation coming over a hill. Dropping the Dutch oven carelessly into the coals, she ran to meet him.
He halted as she came up to him. She thought his nose twitched, and she wished she'd known he was coming. She could have washed her face with her precious lilac soap.
She stood before him and looked up into those far-seeing blue eyes and wondered if she had the courage to do what she must.
"Evening, ma'am," he said, and his voice was the same deep rumble she remembered.
"Good evening," she said, hearing her own voice high and trembly. "It's Mr. Lachlan, is it not?" The colonel had spoken to the factor at Fort Hall and learned that Emmet Lachlan was a man to trust. If he couldn't get them safely to the Columbia, Captain Grant had said, no man could.
He inclined his head, and his lips moved into that mocking smile again. "It is indeed. And how may I be of service to you?"
From the gleam in his eye, she had a feeling she knew exactly how he'd like to be of service to her, but he made no threatening move, nor was there disrespect in his voice.
Hattie bit her lip, wondering if she was mad. She'd been ready to go to the colonel, to plead with him for a few more days to decide. Of all the possible candidates for her husband, only Bruce MacLeod came close to someone she could imagine in her bed. The others made her cringe with disgust or shiver with loathing. And while Bruce was hale and hearty, he was still nearly sixty and set in his ways.
"Ma'am?" He was watching her, until Hattie felt like a mouse under a cat's scrutiny.
"I'll tell you what you can do to help me, Mr. Lachlan. You can marry me."
Posted July 12, 2001
I did not want this book to end. From the beginning to the end, I enjoyed every minute of the story. As Hattie and Emmet's love grew along with their heroic struggle to survive, I was enchanted. This one's a keeper!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 23, 2000
JBG's story line is taut, round, and believable. The book rings with understanding of the trail and settling life before electricity. Her characters deal smartly with with challenge and maintain your desire to know them better. Glad's vocabulary is precise and clearly opens views of the time, terrain, personalities and circumstance. The love scenes are muscled, satiny, and inviting; it is OK to look! This writer makes sure that the reader realizes the shock absorbtion quality of corn meal, the crushing justice of a rock slide and the repose of a safe view.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.