Wagon Train Sisters

Wagon Train Sisters

by Shirley Kennedy

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781601835949
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: 07/19/2016
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.48(d)

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Wagon Train Sisters

Women of the West Series


By Shirley Kennedy

KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.

Copyright © 2016 Shirley Kennedy
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60183-594-9


CHAPTER 1

It was late afternoon before Sarah realized something was wrong. Earlier, the wagons had stopped for the noon meal beside a clear, gently flowing stream. The wagon master wanted to move on, but the women insisted they cut short the day's journey and spend the night. Who could blame them? After days of crossing the bare, dusty plains, each had more than her share of dirty laundry. Kneeling by the stream, Sarah enjoyed this ritual of chatting with her neighbors, despite scrubbing clothes until her knuckles were raw and red.

But where's Florrie? Sarah sat back on her heels and looked around. "Has anybody seen my sister?"

Lined along the bank, the ladies of the train dutifully halted their labors. "Haven't seen her since this morning."

"Haven't seen her all day."

"Maybe she ran away."

Everyone tittered at that last remark. After weeks living in the forced closeness of a wagon train, they knew each other well, and in some cases, better than they wished. Sarah was known to be the hard worker of the family. Her sister-in-law, Becky, was the one with the sharp tongue. Florrie was the quiet one, hadn't made many friends, and stayed close to their wagon. She'd be the last person in the world who'd run off. Besides, where would she go? Two days ago they'd left the last vestiges of civilization at Fort Hall and were now in a land where rivers raged, wild animals roamed, forests stretched to the horizon and beyond.

So where was Florrie? Come to think of it, Sarah hadn't seen her since right after they stopped for the day, and that was hours ago. It wasn't like her, but she must be visiting at one of the wagons. She'd surely appear in time for supper. Nothing to worry about.

When Sarah lugged her bagful of laundry back to her family's wagon, she half expected Florrie to be waiting, but she wasn't in sight. Ma was fixing supper, grunting with pain as she bent over the campfire. Sarah hastily set down the laundry and took the poker from her mother's hand. "Is your rheumatism acting up? Here, let me do that. You go rest. Have you seen Florrie?"

Luzena Bryan frowned with concern. "No I haven't. I was beginning to worry, but then I decided she must be with you."

"I haven't seen her for hours."

"Then she must have gone visiting one of the wagons."

"Of course. She'll be back any minute." As Sarah bent to stir the pot of beans hanging over the campfire, a faint quiver of worry coursed through her. Florrie never did anything out of the ordinary. She would never disappear like this. Twenty-three and still unmarried, she didn't have a whole lot of friends, nor did she seem to want any. Back home in Fort Wayne, she hardly went anywhere except church. Aside from helping with the housework, she spent her time producing bumpy needlepoint canvases and reading romantic, derring-do novels by the likes of Mrs. Southworth and Mrs. Wilson. No gentleman ever came calling, which Florrie said was fine with her, but Sarah knew otherwise. Florrie was no great beauty. In a rare moment of honesty, she once complained to Sarah, "God gave you the beautiful eyes and the nice little nose and the curvy figure, but me? God made me ugly, and don't tell me otherwise."

Sarah had hastened to reassure her younger sister with, "Beauty is only skin deep," and other useless platitudes. The truth was God had given Florrie a chin too weak, lips too thin, eyes too close together and a chest too flat. All of which wouldn't have mattered had she possessed the kind of bubbly charm that made men overlook such imperfections, but she didn't. Men never looked twice at Florrie Bryan. Her plodding gait, dumpy figure, and lack of sparkling conversation turned them away.

Her family cared deeply for her, though. No one could have a more generous heart or be more loyal than Florrie. Now, as the sun sank ever lower on the horizon, the Bryans finished their dinner while sitting around their campfire, discussing her disappearance with growing concern. "She's the last person on this train who'd do this," said Hiram, her brother. He looked toward the tall trees surrounding them and the mountain peaks beyond. "Where would she go? We're in the middle of nowhere."

Hiram's wife, Becky, spoke up. "Why the fuss? There's fifty-four wagons in this train. She could be visiting in any one of them."

Ma ignored her less-than-lovable daughter-in-law. "I'm worried. I think we should start looking." She looked at her husband. "Don't you think so, Frank?"

Pa gave an elaborate shrug. "I think we should wait. She's bound to turn up."

Sarah could tell her mild-mannered father was concerned and trying not to let it show. As if he didn't have enough problems. For years, he'd led a quiet life running his newspaper in Fort Wayne. When he wasn't working, he read books, wrote poetry, went fishing, and enjoyed his family. Sarah couldn't remember her parents ever arguing. Ma kept the household running and disciplined the children. Pa earned the money and gave wise advice. A perfect arrangement, but it didn't last. Ma's health had never been good, but this past year, she'd grown ever more frail. Pa's newspaper began to lose money. His worry over going bankrupt created constant anxiety in what had been a comfortably happy family.

How lucky Joseph died. The irreverent thought often popped into Sarah's head these days. At the age of twenty-two, she'd married Joseph Gregg and moved to his farm. At the age of twenty-eight, she became a widow. Childless, she moved back home, soon discovering how much she was needed, even more so now.

Since they left Indiana, her parents had changed, and not for the better. Pa, the respected newspaper owner, had always been elegantly dressed in frock coat and brocade vest, never without his walking stick, watch, and top hat. Now he was hard to recognize in his flannel shirt, baggy pants, and scraggly beard. Ma, too, had always dressed in the height of fashion. She wouldn't have been caught dead in the plain dress, sturdy boots, and white apron she was wearing now.

A look of sudden awareness crossed Ma's face. She slammed a hand to her heart. "It's almost dark. Where is that girl?" She leaped to her feet. "Florrie would never stay out this long. Something's wrong. We've got to find her."

Sarah put her plate aside, rose, and placed a comforting arm around her mother. "You're right. I'm worried, too, but I'm sure she's just gone visiting and isn't aware of the time."

Pa and Becky remained seated and unperturbed, but Hiram quickly got to his feet. "I'll start looking. We'll find her."

Becky sniffed with disdain. "She'll show up, Hiram. Sit down and finish your supper."

Why did he marry her? Sarah had long since grown accustomed to her sharp-tongued sister-in-law's selfish attitude, but there were times she'd like to give her a good shake. Ma and her brother were right to be concerned. "I'll come with you, Hiram. Let's each take half. We'll ask at every wagon."

Parked in a meadow by the stream, the wagons of the Morehead wagon train were positioned in a big circle. Starting with their own wagon, Hiram went one way around the circle and Sarah the other. "Have you seen Florrie?" she asked at every campfire. Always the answer was no. No one seemed concerned, and humorous suggestions abounded.

"Maybe she's playing hide-and-seek."

"Maybe the wolves got her." That was said with such an unfeeling giggle Sarah's temper flared. Couldn't they see how worried she was?

When Sarah asked when Florrie had last been seen, nobody seemed to know. No wonder. Who would notice her sister? Everything about her was unremarkable, from her plain looks to her dull conversation. Not until Sarah reached the wagon master's campfire did anyone take her seriously.

Dissension reigned in many of the wagon trains, but so far the Morehead train had traveled without major conflicts, thanks mainly to its leader. A tall, gray-haired man of about fifty, Albert Morehead always maintained a calm, reasonable attitude and was admired by all. When she asked if he'd seen Florrie, he replied, "No I haven't, Sarah. Have you asked around?"

"I've stopped at every wagon, Mr. Morehead. Nobody's seen her."

In the gathering darkness, the wagon master cast an apprehensive glance at the thick woods surrounding the meadow. "I'd hate to think she's lost in those woods, what with —" He clamped his lips. "If she doesn't turn up, say, in the next hour, we'll form a search party."

The wagon master's unsaid words increased her uneasiness. Since the train left the monotony of the plains and started toward the mountains, the eerie howling of wolves had kept her awake each night.

Hiram appeared, shaking his head. "I asked at every wagon, but nobody's seen her."

"That settles it." Morehead nodded decisively. "We'll start searching for that young lady right now. Come on, Hiram, let's gather the men. Sarah, get back to your mother. She's going to need you."

At her wagon, Sarah found her mother wringing her hands, pacing back and forth in front of the campfire. Both Pa and Becky were trying to calm her, but she wasn't listening. "It's dark," she cried. "Something's happened to Florrie! I know it has. Oh, Sarah, what are we going to do?"

Sarah told them about the search party. "Florrie must have been in the woods and lost her way, but surely they'll find her." After Pa went to join the search party, Sarah led her mother to a seat by the fire. "We'll wait right here. It shouldn't take long."

Becky busied herself making coffee. She slammed the pot down with obvious annoyance. "I'd wager Florrie's doing this on purpose, just to get some attention. You know how she is. She'll show up when she gets hungry enough."

Shut your mouth, Becky. Sarah's sister-in-law loved to give her so-called expert opinion on every subject. Usually she was wrong, and now was no exception.

"I don't think so, Becky. Florrie has always been afraid of the dark. There's no way in the world she'd hide in the woods at night by herself."

"No, she wouldn't." Ma spoke in a voice both fragile and shaking. "Florrie must be very frightened by now. Alone ... in the woods. ... Soon the wolves will start howling...." Tears filled her eyes. She could not go on.

The three sat waiting as twenty men or more fanned out from the meadow into the surrounding woods. Soon night fell. All they could see were lights from the searchers' lanterns eerily bobbing among the trees. "Florrrieee ..." came hollers from all directions. "Florrrieee ..." The sounds drifted farther away.

"How kind of them to search," Ma said. "They didn't have to."

Sarah agreed. A grueling day on the trail left everybody exhausted, yet these men had given up their evening of rest for a girl they hardly knew.

After an hour of anxious waiting, rain began to fall. In minutes, they were caught in a drenching downpour and had to run for cover. Becky ran to her and Hiram's wagon, parked next to theirs. Sarah led her mother to their own wagon, helped her inside, and pulled the canvas flap back so they could keep an eye on the campground. "They'll soon be back, Ma. No one can search in this."

Sure enough, Pa and Hiram appeared shortly after, accompanied by Albert Morehead, all three cold and drenched to the skin.

"Any sign of her?" Sarah called.

Grim-faced, Hiram shook his head. "Nothing."

"Oh, God, my baby's lost!" Ma let out a heart-wrenching wail and started to rock back and forth. "She's out there in the wet and cold. You must go back. You must find her."

Pa took her hand. "We're doing all we can, my dear. Surely she'll come home soon."

Home? In the middle of the wilderness? What irony. If they hadn't found Florrie by now, she could be gone forever. Sarah kept her bleak thoughts to herself. For her mother's sake, she must appear optimistic. Florrie might be twenty-three, but she was the youngest, the baby of the family, and Ma's favorite child. Sarah never minded. She was only six when Florrie was born, but from the beginning she'd done more than her share of caring for her baby sister, sometimes feeling more like a mother than a sister to Florrie. Now she didn't know which was harder to bear — her own distress that Florrie was gone or her mother's anguish.

Albert Morehead walked to their wagon, wiping the rain from his face. "That's all we can do tonight. We'll search again in the morning."

"We must find her." Ma clasped her hands together imploringly. "You won't leave until we do, will you, Mr. Morehead?"

The wagon master's long, hesitant pause spoke volumes. "We'll do our best, Mrs. Bryan, but you've got to realize people on this train are hell-bent on getting to California. We have a schedule to keep. You know if we lag behind, we could get stuck in the snow. They're not going to like it if we stay too long."

Ma gasped. "You mean you'd leave without Florrie?"

"Let's see what tomorrow brings." With a somber shake of his head, Albert Morehead walked away.

Sarah watched after him with a sinking heart. One thing was certain. Sympathetic though he might be, the wagon master would stick to his schedule.

* * *

In the morning, the rain had stopped, the sun came out, and most of the men of the company, and some of the women, returned to the woods to search for Florrie. Sarah wanted to search, too, but by now Ma was in such a despondent state she couldn't be left alone. "Sarah, don't you leave me," she had implored. "You're the one I count on. Don't leave me here with Becky."

If she hadn't been so upset, Ma would have probably gone into her usual rant about why Hiram, her adored son, had married Elizabeth "Becky" Marshall, a pretty enough young woman with her rosebud mouth and voluptuous figure, but known for her sharp tongue and superior attitude. Sarah knew very well why he hadn't escaped Becky's so-called charms. At twenty-two, her tall, affable brother held an ordinary clerk's job in a lawyer's office, but he was also an artist with a dreamy look in his blue, deep-set eyes. With his finely drawn features and blond, rumpled hair, he'd been so popular with the ladies he could have had his pick. Then Becky set her cap for him, and he resembled a helpless insect caught in a spider's web. Flattered by her interest, he'd shown her some attention. Sarah wasn't sure how much he loved her, if he loved her at all, but apparently he'd given her enough "attention" that when Becky announced she was in a family way, he married her without a murmur. Two months later, when Becky "lost" the baby, Ma suspected Becky had lied. Sarah was sure of it. Too late now. The family did their best to make her feel welcome. At first, she was pleasant enough, but as time went by, she became difficult to deal with. It was easy to see why. Becky desperately wanted a child, but as months, then years, went by with no sign of a baby on the way, she grew sour-faced and always complained. Most annoying of all, Hiram wouldn't stand up to her. Sarah cringed whenever she heard Becky ordering her easy-going brother around and saw how eagerly he did her bidding. Assert yourself, she would silently call, but he never would.

By mid-morning, discouraged searchers began to straggle back to the camp.

"Not a trace of her. Sorry, Mrs. Bryan."

"We scoured the woods. There's just no place left to look."

A glazed look of despair covering her face, Ma could barely manage a reply. Despite Sarah's pleas, she refused to eat.

By noon, the disheartened members of the wagon train had all returned. Sarah's father and brother were the last ones back. Shoulders sagging in discouragement, Pa sat by the campfire beside his wife and took her hand. "Our girl is gone, dear. Lord knows what's become of her."

"No, no, no!" Ma stared at him wild-eyed. "Florrie's out there somewhere. You must keep looking."

Hiram knelt by his mother's side. "We've looked everywhere, couldn't find a trace."

"Then keep looking. I won't leave without my Florrie." Ma clenched her jaw and looked away.

Albert Morehead appeared at their campsite. Ma rose to greet him. "Tell me you've found her."

Morehead swept off his hat, regretfully shaking his head. "We can't find her, Mrs. Bryan. Scoured the woods. Looked everywhere. I can't think what happened to her unless she ran off by herself and —"

"Florrie would never run off!" Ma's eyes blazed with anger.

"Then ... of course, she wouldn't." For once the confident leader of the wagon train appeared unsure of himself. "It's surely a mystery, and I don't know the answer, but the thing is we've got a schedule to keep. We can't —"

"But you must keep looking." Ma turned a shade paler than she already was. "We can't leave without her." She turned to her husband. "Tell him, Frank."

Pa bit his lip. "They can't find her, Luzena. They can't wait around forever."

Desperation flared in Sarah's chest. She stepped beside her mother and looked the wagon master square in the eye. "Florrie can't have gone very far. Surely someone will find her if we search long enough. You can't —"

"Sorry, Sarah." Morehead turned to Ma. "I have no choice, Mrs. Bryan. The others want to leave and there's no stopping them."

The desperate look on Ma's face changed to one of stubborn resolve as comprehension dawned. "Go ahead if you must, but I'm not leaving until we find Florrie."


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Wagon Train Sisters by Shirley Kennedy. Copyright © 2016 Shirley Kennedy. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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