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Wagon Train Cinderella
By Shirley Kennedy
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Shirley Kennedy
All rights reserved.
Along the Overland Trail, 1851
Walking through the woods, Callie Whitaker was drawn to the sound of a waterfall. When a snake slithered across her path, she dropped her bucket and stopped in her tracks. It disappeared into the dense undergrowth. What brought me here? I cannot believe this is happening to me. Only a month ago, she was leading a dull but safe existence in the Tennessee farmhouse where she'd lived her entire life and rarely left. Now here she was in the middle of a wilderness she never knew existed, heading to California, a place she'd never heard of. Bone-tired from the endless work, she was sleeping on the ground under a wagon instead of her tiny bed under the eaves. The farm wasn't much, but she'd give anything if she could return to Tennessee where she didn't have to worry about Indians, snakes, and who-knew-what-would-happen-next?
A lump formed in her throat. Silly girl, you have no time for feeling sorry for yourself. Darkness was about to fall. She must get to the stream, scoop a bucketful of water, and hurry back to the wagon where everyone expected their supper. She picked up her bucket and trudged on. Through tall trees, the flowing water came into view. Ah, there it was. She drew close. How beautiful. Cascading water falling over moss-covered boulders, gorgeous ferns in every shade of green, clumps of tiny violets growing around the pool beneath and standing in the pool, the water up to his knees ... Oh, my stars. She froze in her tracks, backed a few steps away, and peered over the top of a red hawthorn bush. It was a man — tall, lean, sinewy, with long, dark hair — and completely naked. He appeared to be bathing, bending to scoop water into his palms, then bringing it up over his head with a giant splash. The water cascaded over a powerful set of shoulders, down over the rippling muscles of his stomach to his sturdy thighs, to his ...
Why was she gawking like a schoolgirl? Shameful. She'd seen her little stepbrother's thing many a time. She'd never forget when crazy Grandpa Pearson from the next farm escaped and ran naked down the road. So, of course, she knew what a man looked like, but still ... oh, my. Neither her brother's tiny thing, nor that of Grandpa Pearson's, all shriveled, looked anything like this ...so big, so very, very ...
He looked up. She ought to run before he spied her, but she couldn't move a muscle. His gaze caught hers and his eyebrows lifted ever so slightly. He'd spied her! Oh, she should run, but her feet refused to move, and her eyes refused to turn away from the fascinating sight before her. Taking his time, he casually looked to the left, then the right, as if he might find some kind of cover, which, of course, he could not. He shrugged, as if admitting defeat. With a mischievous smile, he spread his arms wide and bowed toward her. "Good afternoon, madam. Taking in the sights?"
Oh, Lord. His laughter brought her back to her senses. Her cheeks heating, she clutched her pail and started to back away from the hawthorn bush, intent on running off as fast as she could. But wait a minute. Why should she make a fool of herself and bolt and skitter off like a panicky calf? He was the one at fault, the one who should have done his bathing farther upstream. She didn't back off. Instead, gripping her faded skirt, she held it out and dipped a deep curtsey, boldly returning his grin as she did. Only after she'd risen, forcing herself to take her time, did she turn and head downstream at a dignified pace.
She hadn't recognized him. He must be from the large wagon train that had camped close by. In the morning, it would be gone, thank goodness, and she need never lay eyes on him again.
* * *
"Callie!" Hester Whitaker glared at her stepdaughter. "It's about time you got back. Where were you? Did you expect me to fix supper by myself?"
"Sorry, ma'am." Callie stepped to the campfire and set down the heavy pail of water. She didn't attempt any excuses. Ma wouldn't listen anyway. Nor would it do any good to point out that never in Callie's memory had her stepmother fixed supper by herself. "I boiled a mess of beans this morning and baked some bread. It'll be ready in no time."
Lydia, Callie's older stepsister, tossed her blond curls and pouted. "I'm getting awfully tired of beans."
"So am I." Nellie, her other stepsister, loved to complain.
"Sorry, girls. We'll just have to bear it until we reach California." Ma settled herself on a log next to their wagon and frowned at her stepdaughter. "Did you bake a pie today, or anything?"
"No, ma'am, I did not." Long ago Callie had given up making excuses that always fell on deaf ears. Nor did she question why Nellie and Lydia, both older than she, were required to do only the lightest of chores. According to Ma, they were both much too frail and delicate for heavy work. Ma often said so, whereas she, the lowly stepsister, was as strong as an ox and should labor to pay for her keep and be grateful she had a roof over her head. That was the way of it, all she could remember since she was born. Not that she minded, or ever questioned her fate. Ma often pointed out how lucky she was the Whitakers had found her abandoned on their doorstep all those many years ago and, out of the kindness of their hearts, taken her in.
A ripple of laughter floated across their campsite. Pa, who'd been working on one of the wagon wheels, rose up and cast a look of disgust at the source of the sound, a large company of wagons, at least fifty, that had camped in a circle on the other side of the meadow. "We were here first," he muttered. "The damn fools should find their own place." He addressed his wife and daughters. "You're to stay away from them. Is that understood?"
"Yes, Pa," came quick answers. Caleb Whitaker ruled with an iron hand.
Ma gazed across the meadow. "Do you think I'd have anything to do with that trash? A while ago I saw one of the women wearing the most outlandish outfits I ever saw."
Lydia giggled. "Those are bloomers, Ma. They're like a man's pants only baggier and gathered on the bottom."
"Disgraceful." Ma's face took on its usual look of disapproval. "It'll be a cold day in hell before I, or any of my family, are caught in such an outfit." She addressed Callie. "Are you going to just stand there?"
Callie went about fixing hot biscuits with fresh butter, salted meat, beans, and green peas gathered from vines along the trail. When supper was ready, she banged the bottom of a pan with a spoon. Tommy, the baby of the family at seven, came running. He was the only young'un left. Ma had birthed eight children altogether. The two older boys were grown and gone on their own. On the day the family left for California, Callie had paid her last sorrowful visit to the three tiny graves under the big oak tree. Far as Callie knew, Ma never went there. She had never mentioned the babies she'd lost at birth or soon after. As it was, she paid little attention to Tommy, whom she considered, "not right in the head." No one knew exactly what was the matter with the boy, except he seemed to live in a world of his own, never played with other children, and didn't like to be touched or held. Sometimes Callie wondered what would happen to Tommy if she weren't around to take care of him. The rest of the family had long since given up and considered him nothing but a burden.
Their two hired men joined them for supper around the cook fire. Andy and Len, both in their early twenties, helped drive the family's two wagons and cared for the hundred head of cattle they'd brought along. They were working their way west so they could get to the gold fields and make their fortune. Callie didn't much like Len, who had a sly way about him. She didn't trust him, either. Andy, the tall, awkward one, was "dumb as a stump," she'd heard Pa say, but at least he was always pleasant and did his work well. Lately, he'd been casting longing glances at Lydia. It was clear he was smitten. Sensing his feelings, Lydia had begun to make fun of him behind his back, calling him her little puppy dog, laughing at his "moonstruck gazes."
Callie felt sorry for Andy. He might not be very bright, but at least he gave Callie a sincere "thank you" after every meal, which was more than anyone else did. Tonight was no exception.
"Those beans was mighty good, Miss Callie," he remarked in his shy way.
"Why, thank you, Andy."
He was just being kind. They had been on the road for two weeks, eating beans every day. There was nothing special about them.
After supper, when Ma and her two stepsisters sat around the cook fire, and Callie had just finished washing up the dishes, someone approached from the wagon train across the meadow. Lydia pointed. "Looks like we've got company."
Ma looked toward the lone figure and frowned. "I do believe it's one of those women wearing pants."
"Bloomers, Ma," said Lydia.
Ma's lips tightened. "I don't want to talk to such a woman. I'm going in the wagon."
She half rose, but before she could retreat, the woman waved and cried a friendly, "Woo-hoo, everyone!" from halfway across the field. "Are you going or coming?"
"Too late now," said Lydia. "We're going to California," she yelled back.
"Now you've done it." Ma sat back down, brow furrowed in a frown.
The visitor approached. She appeared to be in her thirties, a big, full-bosomed woman with a round, smiling face, wearing a small white cap. Two young children clung to her short, full skirt that fell to her knees. Below the skirt, a pair of bloomers extended to her ankles. How strange. Never had Callie seen such an outfit.
The woman reached their campfire. "We're going to California too. Hello, I'm Florida Sawyer, and these here are two of my young'uns, Augie and Isaac. There's more where they came from." Without waiting for an invitation, she seated herself on a log by the campfire and thrust her pantalooned legs before her. "Lordy me, it feels good to get the load off." She turned to Ma. "And who might you be?"
Ma's lips pursed, as if she'd bit into a persimmon. Would she be nice? Callie held her breath. Ma could be the soul of politeness when she wanted. She could also get downright nasty with someone she even faintly disliked.
"We are the Whitaker family, Mrs. Sawyer. As my daughter said, we're traveling west to California."
Callie let out her breath. Ma's reply was decidedly cool but at least civil.
If Florida Sawyer noticed Ma's less-than-friendly attitude, she didn't let on. Seeing Ma's gaze travel to her bloomers, she laughed. "I know they look strange, but they're the perfect thing for a woman to wear when she's got to walk clear across the country. You'd be surprised how comfortable they are compared to a long, heavy skirt. You ought to try them sometime."
"That's not likely to happen, Mrs. Sawyer."
Undaunted, Florida continued. "I'm a widow traveling with my brother, two hired hands, and my seven children. My husband, God rest his soul, passed on a short time ago — mind you, after we'd already sold the farm and bought the wagons. He was dead set on moving to Oregon. Then, all of a sudden, he was gone. His heart. One minute we were nearly ready to leave, and the next, there was Henry slumped over the milk pail, stone cold dead. Can you imagine? Left me and the young'uns to fend for ourselves. I didn't know what I was going to do until Luke, that's my brother, stepped in and saved the day. He's a trapper and mountain man, the perfect guide for our wagon train. I don't know what we would have done without him, bless his heart."
"How fortunate for you."
Callie inwardly winced over Ma's abrupt answer to their friendly visitor. How could she be so rude? To cause a distraction, she got to her feet and indicated a pot of coffee next to the campfire. "I believe the coffee's still hot, Mrs. Sawyer. Would you like a cup?"
"Well, I don't mind if I do."
Callie had scarcely picked up the pot when a horseman approached. A man on a horse was one of the most common sights imaginable, yet the graceful, easy manner in which he sat in the saddle held her spellbound. He drew close. He was casually dressed in buckskin. Closer still, he was somewhere in his early thirties with long, dark hair and ... Oh, no, the naked man in the river. It's him.
He reined to a stop.
"Here's my brother now." Florida's voice filled with pride. "Luke McGraw. Ain't he something? Luke, say hello to the Whitaker family. They're traveling by themselves."
In acknowledgement, Luke briefly touched a finger to the brim of his hat and returned the briefest of smiles. He addressed his sister, "Better come along. Hetty needs you."
Florida threw back her head and laughed. "Hetty always needs me. Luke, you come down here and be nice to these people. Hetty can wait."
Luke gave her a reluctant nod and swung from his horse, performing a graceful dismount that revealed his lean and sinewy body, muscular legs, and broad shoulders.
Lydia stepped forward, cocked her head, fluttered her eyelashes, and thrust out her ample bosom. "So, you're going west, Mister McGraw? Are you going to hunt for gold or go into farming?"
"Don't I wish!" Florida gave her brother a rueful glance. "Luke's a trapper. His idea of a wonderful winter is to live in a lonely log cabin high in the mountains by himself. Can you imagine? Nobody to talk to for months and months, which I'll never understand. Now, out of the kindness of his heart, he's guiding the Ferguson wagon train west. I keep hoping when we get there he'll decide to stay, but he says no, he'd rather be fighting Indians and chasing grizzly bears."
Luke flashed a wry glance at Florida and seated himself beside her. "My sister exaggerates. She's right, though. I've got wandering feet. I wasn't meant to be a farmer or a gold seeker either." One corner of his mouth pulled into a faint smile. "I do better when I'm off by myself."
Lydia came up with her best, most flirty giggle. "Perhaps you should try it. Don't you want to settle down someday and raise a family?"
Don't be so obvious, Lydia. Callie hid her amusement with her stepsister, a silly girl to begin with, vain and rather shallow. Actually, she had every reason to be conceited, with her curly blond locks, blue eyes with long, fringed lashes, and tiny waist.
Luke, apparently realizing he couldn't make a quick getaway, turned his attention to Lydia. "The day I settle down is the day I'm dead."
The arrival of a handsome young man had dispelled Ma's hostile mood. She gave Luke a friendly smile. "This is my oldest daughter, Lydia, Mister McGraw." She nodded toward her second oldest. "This is my second daughter, Nellie."
Nellie remained seated and managed a barely acceptable greeting. A sullen girl, she contrasted with her flighty sister in temperament as well as looks. She tended to sulk a lot when she didn't get her way.
Luke gave the barest of nods to the sisters. His gaze shifted to Callie as she stood by the fire, coffeepot still in hand. She froze. If he said anything about their meeting by the stream, she'd die of embarrassment.
He didn't. Instead, with an interested nod of his head, he asked, "And you are ...?"
Callie opened her mouth to speak, but before she could, Ma replied in an offhand way, "That's Callie. She's my stepdaughter."
If Luke noticed the contrast in introductions, he didn't let on. Solemn-faced, with only the slightest hint of a twinkle in his eyes, he looked at Callie. "Haven't we met before?"
"I don't believe so." Warmth crept over her cheeks and she wanted nothing more than to run and hide.
"Callie, if you're going to pour the coffee, then pour it. And offer Mister McGraw a cup."
Grateful for the diversion, Callie busied herself serving coffee to their guests. She hardly noticed Ma's pointed reference to her being a stepdaughter, not a daughter. Long ago she'd learned her place in the Whitaker household, which was somewhere between unwanted stepchild and lowly servant. She should be grateful just to have a roof over her head and three meals a day. Grateful forever, she supposed, although every once in a while she gave some thought to the fact she was now twenty-two, old enough to have a family of her own. Not often, though. Working from dawn to dusk on the Whitaker farm hadn't left much time for contemplation.
Night had fallen. Florida pointed across the meadow where the glow from a large campfire cut through the darkness. "See our campfire? We have one every night when the day has gone well and the weather's good. We sing, dance, play games, tell jokes and stories. Oh, we have grand time! One of the reasons I came over here was to invite you over to join us."
Excerpted from Wagon Train Cinderella by Shirley Kennedy. Copyright © 2014 Shirley Kennedy. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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