She’s a woman on the run and he’s the aloof guide on the trail. They never seem to get along but their hearts always pound faster when they lock eyes. How will they let themselves love each other?
Ellie is a gentle young woman who must take care of her deaf younger brother after the sudden death of their parents. To avoid poverty and her unfortunate debts, she escapes on a wagon train on the Oregon Trail. Meeting Mark, the loner but witty guide of the party, causes her heart to pound faster. How can she cure his wounds and fears and show him that true love means when he’s just so detached?
Mark is an excellent scout and a trail guide who has suffered the loss of love. He should stay focused and get the job done but when he sees Ellie in danger, he instinctively saves her. After that, they always seem to bump into each other, and they never stop bickering. How can he let his heart show him the way when he’s just too stubborn to love again?
Life on the trail is challenging and filled with pain, poverty and loss. When Ellie is discovered to own money and her brother is in peril, party members will threaten them. How will Mark save the woman that stole his heart when the two always hit walls instead of breaking them down?
“Come on, give us a kiss, you little calico princess!”
Ellie Fletcher turned her face away from Nelson Darrow just in time to keep her mouth from being slimed by his slobbery lips. She clawed out of the older man’s clutching hands, dragged the back of her hand across her wet cheek, and backed away. Her eyes burned with anger, but she didn’t dare spit out the words that jumped to her tongue.
She couldn’t afford to.
Nelson pushed off from the front wall of the town mercantile. He was a tall, lanky drink of water with a wild shock of gray hair, a long face, and an unshaven chin. His eyes went narrow and dark with resentment, and she backed away as he advanced.
“You owe me a hundred dollars, sugar. I just loaned it to you because I felt sorry for a pretty young thing down on her luck; but it’s been two months. Now I’m a patient man, but that’s a lot of money,” he murmured.
“You’ll get your money,” she shot back, though she had no idea how. Nelson’s smug grin made her want to slap him until his head spun, but she was flat broke, and defiant words were all she had left.
“You know, you could pay off that hundred dollars right quick if you come and work at my saloon,” he grinned. “Yes, sir! Make my customers feel nice and welcome, eh?” He sidled up close and lifted a sprig of blonde hair from her brow. He twirled the shining strand between his pale fingers.
“Listen now, honey. If you’re telling yourself that the boys from this town are comin’ back from the war, you’re just dreaming. Ain’t none of ‘em coming back, Ellie. Least not in any shape to work a farm, or uh－take a bride,” he grinned. “They might come dragging in here, sure－but they won’t be the big, strong fellows you remember. One’ll be limping on crutches, ‘cause he lost a leg; another’ll have an eye patch and be missing a hand. No, missy, ain’t no soldier boys coming back to this town to marry you.
“And now that your folks is dead－why, they was all you had! What are you gonna do for money now, with that broken-down farm of yourn, and nobody to work it?” He nodded toward her young brother, Robey, waiting nervously beside their parents’ wagon. Robey was staring at them with an anxious frown on his face, but he was just ten years old.
“Who’s gonna work that old farm of yourn?” Nelson murmured, in a tone of mock sympathy. “Your little brother’s just a boy yet, and kinda puny, to boot. He can’t plow your front yard, much less a field! No, honey, you ain’t got no choice.” Nelson raised his eyes, and the look of triumph in them made Ellie’s face twist. She slapped his hand away, brushed out her skirts, as if ridding them of him, and raised her chin.
“I told you, you’ll get your money,” she repeated proudly. Nelson straightened up with a frown and looked as if he was going to switch to threats; but the door to the mercantile opened abruptly and someone flung out a tub full of dirty bath water. Nelson happened to be standing too close and got it slap in his face.
“Hey!” Nelson shouted and swore and put his hands to his soaked head. Ellie choked back a shocked peal of laughter as the elderly store owner, Mr. Wilbur, stuck his head out of the doorway and clucked: “Oh-oh! I didn’t see you standing there, Nelson! Sorry to get that purty silk vest soaked.”
“I should charge you for it!” Nelson sputtered furiously, wiping his soaked clothes with a handkerchief. “It’s ruined now!”
He turned on the words and stomped away, and Ellie rolled grateful eyes to the white-haired store owner. He winked and waved her inside; and once she was in, he closed the door after them.
The old man watched through the glass pane as Nelson Darrow stomped away, then shook his head. “I hate to see him hanging around you, Ellie,” he murmured. “I hope you don’t have nothing to do with him. He’s a bad man.”
I wish I’d never met him, Ellie thought unhappily, but she was ashamed to admit to her friend that she’d ever been weak enough to accept a loan from Nelson Darrow.
She hadn’t known then that he expected more than just money in return.
She came to herself, opened her bag, and scratched around in it for the coins to buy a small bag of flour. Mr. Wilbur watched her with sympathy in his eyes, then waved her away when she offered the coins.
He leaned across the counter and whispered: “It’s on the house.” He put a finger to his lips. “Don’t tell my missus!”
Ellie’s face flushed red with shame and gratitude. She would’ve given her right arm to be able to smile and politely refuse the offer, but she couldn’t afford to be proud. She looked down at her shoes and nodded.
“Thank you, Mr. Wilbur,” she murmured. “Do you, um, maybe－have any work? I could tend the counter for you, and Robey could fetch and carry for your customers.”
She looked up at him in painful hope, but to her desperation, the elderly man shook his head. “I’m sorry, honey, nothing right now,” he told her sympathetically. “I’ll keep my ears open, though. If I hear of anybody needing help, I’ll let you know.”
“I’d be obliged, Mr. Wilbur,” she murmured, and turned to go. “Thank you for the flour.”
She walked to the door and curled her hand around the knob. She sighed and looked up but stiffened in dismay to see that Nelson Darrow had come back, and that he’d cornered her little brother. Robey looked up fearfully as Nelson Darrow leaned over him, yelled, and pointed at him.
Her little brother’s face was pulled into a knot. His blue eyes were glued to Darrow’s face as the older man shouted at him. Robey could read lips, and his hunched shoulders and clenched fists told Ellie that he was getting the message loud and clear.
Ellie bit her lip into a tight line and jerked the door open. The little bell jangled wildly as she burst out the door.
“Leave him alone!” she screamed. She dropped the bag of flour and rolled up her sleeves as marched toward Nelson’s back. She’d just raised her fists to pummel his head from behind when someone grabbed her arm.
An overpowering force swung her around as easily as if she’d been a rag doll, and to Ellie’s confusion, she found herself staring at a woman’s face.
It was Mrs. Wilbur. She was a big woman, with a face as round as a pumpkin’s. Her eyes locked on Ellie’s like a cat hypnotizing a bird, and her voice was as loud and blaring as a trumpet.
“Ellie Fletcher, what do you mean by visiting the store and not staying long enough to chat?” The older woman slid a big arm around Ellie’s waist and together they confronted Nelson Darrow.
“Nelson, pay attention,” the old woman commanded, in a tone that brooked no resistance. “I want you to do me a favor. Ride over to Wellman and pick up a package for me at the post office.”
Nelson lifted his head and turned to face them. He raised his brows and raked the newcomer with an indolent glance.
“I’m busy this afternoon, Miz Wilbur,” he drawled, and the older woman narrowed her eyes.
“Nonsense! You go to Wellman every weekend, and I know why, too! You might just thank me that I don’t publish your wickedness all over this town.”
To Ellie’s astonishment, Nelson’s expression changed instantly from annoyance to assent. He grinned at the older woman.
“No need to get huffy, Miz Wilbur! I was just funning with you.”
The older woman snorted and drew herself up as Nelson slouched past, untethered his horse, and mounted up.
They all watched as he kicked his mount and rode down the dusty street; and Ellie shook free of Mrs. Wilbur and hurried to her brother’s side. She asked, in sign language:
“Are you all right?”
Robey looked up at her and nodded. He signed: “I’m all right. He didn’t scare me.”
Ellie sighed and frowned down at her brother’s face. Robey was lying, of course; no little boy would ever admit to being scared out of his wits. She forced herself to smile and signed: “I know he didn’t. Jump up into the wagon. We’re going home.”
She watched as Robey eagerly clambered up into the wagon, and Mrs. Wilbur put the sack of flour into her hands.
“Here,” she nodded. “You dropped this.”
Ellie’s face went warm with gratitude for the second time that day. “Thank you, Mrs. Wilbur,” she murmured. “I was so mad. I don’t know what would’ve happened if you hadn’t stopped me.”
“I do,” the older woman snorted, hands on hips. “You would’ve boxed Nelson’s ears like a cat. He certainly deserves that someone should; but don’t let it be you, girlie. You hear me?”
The older woman gave her a keen look; and Ellie lowered her eyes. “Yes, Mrs. Wilbur,” she sighed; then looked up again with a gleam in her eye.
“What－what did Nelson do out in Wellman?” she whispered. “Did he kill somebody? Ruin some married woman?”
The older woman threw her head back and laughed. “Lord love you, child, I don’t know! I was bluffing－but he didn’t know that. Did you see how quick he got up on that horse?”
A slow smile curled Ellie’s lips, and she gave the older woman a kiss as she turned to climb up into the wagon. “You’re a sharp one, Mrs. Wilbur,” she murmured; and the older woman accepted the tribute as her due.
“Most men are guilty as sin, child,” she replied. “That’s all you need to get anything you want!”
* * *
Ellie felt Robey’s anxious eyes on her all the way back home. He didn’t say anything to her, but she could guess what was going through his head. He was wondering if they’d be able to make a go of their parent’s farm, or if she was going to give up and work for Nelson Darrow as a wretched dance hall girl.
It was the question that had kept her awake at night ever since their parents died. Ellie blinked back angry tears as she turned their old horse into the narrow, dusty track that branched off the main road to their farm. Pneumonia had swept through town the winter before and carried off twenty people in two weeks. Two of them had been her parents.
The illness had killed her folks outright and had almost snatched Robey from her, too. She’d nursed him night and day, and finally dragged him back from the edge of the grave; but she soon discovered, to her dismay, that the sickness had taken his hearing. Robey climbed out of his sickbed stone-deaf; and it had cost her a pretty penny to get the books they needed to teach him to sign. Ellie glanced at her brother as the wagon jounced over the dirt road. He still looked pale and weak, a year later.
She pulled her mouth down unhappily. Nelson Darrow was a rattlesnake, but he was right about one thing: poor Robey didn’t have the strength to walk behind a pair of plow mules. That only left her to do it, and she’d tried; but she soon learned that she couldn’t plow a field and cook and clean and take care of the animals, too.
The farm was too much work for her, and Robey was no in shape to help.
Ellie stared at the old house in despair as it slowly moved into view. The roof leaked and needed fixing, the front porch had dangerous sagging spots, and the kitchen window broke when she’d tried to raise it.
The fields that had once been thick with corn and wheat were barren and overgrown with weeds, and they only had a cow, a few chickens, a horse, and a pair of plow mules.
She hadn’t been able to find work in town, and if they hadn’t had their mother’s root cellar full of preserved food, and her little kitchen garden, they’d be hungry now.
Begging for food.
Ellie let the horse walk them up to the hitching post and pulled up the brake. The wagon had barely pulled to a stop before Robey climbed down and went running inside, and Ellie watched him sadly.
Robey had been their mother’s darling. He was a handsome boy, with sandy blonde hair and bright blue eyes. He’d always been more comfortable reading inside with their mother, than climbing trees or fishing with their father. Their mother’s last words had been about him. Ellie blinked back tears as she clambered down from the wagon and climbed the porch steps.
Take care of my boy, Ellie.
She’d promised, of course; but now Ellie wondered how she was going to make good when she couldn’t even take care of herself.
Ellie opened the door and looked around the front room in discouragement. She’d sold their mother’s prized velvet settee and matching chairs months ago to pay the taxes on the farm, and the grandfather clock that Pa had brought from Holland before that, to pay the undertaker for her parents’ funeral.
There wasn’t much of any value left to sell. All they had were their beds, and a few tables and chairs in the kitchen and living rooms.
Ellie sank down onto a chair and closed her eyes. She’d always dreamed of pairing off with some big, handsome farm boy who’d mumble sweet nothings to her beneath a harvest moon. She’d always assumed that she’d get married and have a farm and a family of her own, but the war had killed that dream. The boys she’d grown up with were gone.
They’d all marched off together one foggy morning, and more than half of them were never coming back.
Ellie rolled her eyes to the ceiling and tried to pray, but her spirit felt as withered and dry as an old woman’s. She couldn’t find a decent job, and she was fresh out of ideas.
She glanced over at Robey. He’d found a newspaper in town and was splayed out on the wooden floor with the paper unfolded in front of him. She couldn’t help smiling. Robey would read the print off the side of a can. She rose wearily and signed: “Go and wash up. We’re going to have dinner soon.”
Robey pulled a face but climbed to his feet and trudged off to the kitchen. Ellie heard the pump squeaking, then the splash of water. She glanced at the open newspaper in passing, then paused. There in big, blaring letters in the middle of the page, were the words:
WAGON TRAIN FORMING FOR THE OREGON TERRITORY. HOMESTEAD ACT OFFERS 160 ACRES OF LAND FREE FOR SETTLERS OF WILDERNESS TERRITORY. TRAIN LEAVING FROM INDEPENDENCE ON THE FIRST MONDAY IN APRIL.
Ellie tilted her head and read the ad again. You had to be plumb desperate to pull up stakes and set out across the country for who knew what. It took five months or more to travel to the west coast by wagon, and it was by all accounts hard and dangerous.
But where she was now, she was hopelessly indebted to a saloon owner and doomed to become a dance hall girl unless she could get away. There were no young men where she was, no hope of finding a husband to fix their house and work their farm.
And it struck her then, like a beam of light from heaven－when you had no hope, and especially when you had nothing to lose－you were free as a bird.
Ellie bit her lip, glanced toward the kitchen, and bent down to read the ad again.
Three months later
“Have we got everything? Are you sure we haven’t forgotten something?”
Ellie smiled at Robey and signed in return: “I’m sure we’ve forgotten something, Robey; but we’ve got everything we need. Relax. It’s going to be fine.”
Robey grimaced and signed something back that made Ellie utter a shocked crack of laughter. “Where on earth did you learn that word? Ma would wash your mouth out with soap!”
Ellie laughed again, then sighed. She didn’t want to bring up Ma and Pa. It was an emotional enough day as it was. She glanced back over her shoulder at their wagon, all fitted out fine and proper thanks to the Christian charity of their neighbors, and especially the Wilburs. When they’d found out that she wanted to go west, the kindly couple had conspired to raise the money for all the things they needed.
And it hadn’t been cheap: Fitting out a Conestoga wagon was almost like furnishing a small house. They had a miniature cast-iron stove, pots, pans, plates, cups, silverware, and a coffee pot; three chairs and a table; two long wooden chests that they’d sleep on top of at night, pillows, and all manner of quilts and blankets; bed warmers; and several barrels for water to drink and to wash with. They had casks of flour, sugar, coffee and meal, a cow, and chickens in a big cage that could be strapped to the side of the wagon. Ellie shook her head. She still couldn’t believe that their neighbors had raised that kind of money; but she and Robey were sitting in the Missouri sunshine on the driver’s seat of a brand-new wagon. And instead of their two raggedy, bad-tempered plow mules, they were going to be powered by three yoke of big, strong oxen: four to pull their overflowing wagon, and two spares to walk behind them with the cow.
They were as ready as they possibly could be, thanks to the love and generosity of their neighbors. She and Robey owed them a debt they could never repay.
Ellie blinked back tears when she remembered their farewell to the Wilburs in the yard of their house. Mrs. Wilbur had taken her in her big arms and hugged her tight.
“You two be sure to write,” the older woman had commanded.
“We will,” she’d replied, and added, “first chance we get!”
Mr. Wilbur had rubbed his nose and coughed a lot. “You two be extra careful,” he’d warned. “Stick tight to the others. It’s dangerous territory out west, they say. Folk have come to grief. There are wild Indians out there, and they stick at nothing. They’ve killed young and old without any mercy, they say!”
Ellie shuddered. She didn’t need the reminder; she’d heard whispered tales that made her skin crawl, about Indian massacres of helpless families passing through the wilderness. These horrifying accounts told that the cruel Indians peeled the scalp right off their victims with knives and had no pity on women or even their helpless babies.
Of all the stories she’d heard about the deprivations that settlers endured, the cold and heat, the danger of sickness, and the sheer weariness of a long journey, the tales about Indians daunted her most. Ellie hugged herself as if she was cold, even though she was sitting full in the sun and it was a warm morning.
She could only pray they never met any Indians on the way to Oregon.
A man on horseback suddenly came riding past, and he shouted, “Everybody form up! We’re leaving! Get your kids in the wagon and your animals tied, and line up to cross the ferry!” He raised an arm, waved high in the air, and let out a whoop that went right up Ellie’s spine.
“Wagons hooooo!” he yelled, turned his horse, and galloped off to the front of the line.
Ellie looked to Robey, and the two of them stared at one another. Ellie reached for his hand and squeezed it.
“Well, this is it,” she signed excitedly. “We’re off!”
Robey’s eyes met hers with a mixture of hope and uncertainty, and Ellie poured as much reassurance as she could muster into her smile.
“We’ll be all right,” she told him; and to her relief, he grinned as he released her hand.
Ellie glanced at the next wagon over. It was being driven by a fair-haired woman with two young daughters, and the trio smiled at her as their eyes met.
“Well, we’re off,” Ellie quavered, and the older woman smiled and nodded.
“Off at last!” she retorted. “I’m so tired of waiting I don’t care if I have to walk, just so long as we get going!”
Ellie laughed and nodded. It did feel good to be off at last, to leave the past far behind and embark on a great adventure.
To go out boldly to meet your future. To build it yourself, instead of having it pushed on you by somebody else.
That reminded her of Nelson Darrow; and Ellie hugged herself again, this time with glee. The thought that she was never going to suffer another of Nelson’s slobbery kisses, and that she still owed him $100 that she was probably never going to repay, gave her such a guilty pleasure that she’d probably have to repent it; so she enjoyed it while she could.
It was a fine, cool start to the day, but the nip of early morning was wearing off, and soon the sun would climb up into the sky and make their going hot work. Ellie craned her neck impatiently. Their wagon train, and many others, were packed up on the southern banks of the Missouri River. When she looked back, it was like a small city of wagons and tents behind them, spreading out from the ferry, and for a half-mile north and south of the crossing.
Ellie shaded her eyes against the low morning sun and gazed off across the water. Many ferries, and even a few steamboats altered for ferry duty, were shuttling the wagons across the river. Ellie watched as each wagon rolled up to the wooden ramp and was carefully guided aboard. She watched as men with poles pushed off from the bank, and as the whole rig floated precariously over the river. She watched as the ferries receded to tiny dots on the far bank, then turned and grew again as they approached.
Ellie bit her lip. The steamboat ferries looked nice and safe, and she hoped she and Robey drew one when it came their turn to cross, because the smaller ferries looked dangerous. Some were little more than crude rafts built out of logs, and the ferrymen used nothing more than long ropes cast across the river to guide them.
She glanced to one side and saw her own thought on the face of her fair-haired neighbor, the woman with two little girls. The older woman laughed aloud and nodded.
“I know!” she retorted. “I don’t like the look of those log rafts either. They look like a stiff wind would send ‘em to the bottom of the river!” The woman chuckled again, and Ellie laughed with her.
The woman leaned forward. “I’m Judy Bertel, and these are my daughters Nell and Dana.”
The Bertel girls were pretty little things, probably two years apart, about ten and eight, if Ellie had to guess. She smiled and responded, “Proud to know you and your girls, Mrs. Bertel. I’m Ellie Fletcher, and this is my little brother Robey.”
Mrs. Bertel nodded and addressed herself to Robey. “How old are you, young man?”
Ellie didn’t wait for the silence to become awkward. She jumped in: “My brother’s deaf, ma’am. He can generally read lips, but he can’t hear you talk.”
A look of dismay flitted over Mrs. Bertel’s face, as well as over the little girls’. The oldest girl, Nell, had already been making eyes at Robey, but at this new information, her shy smile was replaced by a look of pity.
Mrs. Bertel leaned out over the seat of her wagon and called, loud and slowly: “Hello, young man. Pleased to know you!”
Ellie stifled an irritated sigh, and she felt rather than saw Robey stiffen. Most folks didn’t know how to talk to a deaf person, at least at first. It was a constant battle to keep from saying something cross out of sheer frustration; but Ellie smiled, took Robey’s hand, and gave it a warning squeeze. She let go to sign the older woman’s message, and Robey signed back:
“Tell her I’m not a dummy. I get so sick of people looking me in the eye, and talking slow, like I was addled!”
Ellie signed back: “They’re just ignorant, Robey. When they know better they’ll do better.”
Then she turned and replied to the Bertels: “Robey says he’s ten years old, and pleased to know you ladies, too.”
Mrs. Bertel beamed at Robey, and the oldest girl brightened visibly and smiled at Robey again.
Mrs. Bertel shaded her eyes and glanced over their wagon. “Where’s your folks, honey? You two surely ain’t making this long journey by yourselves?”
Ellie felt her face going warm, but she replied: “Well, yes, Mrs. Bertel, we are. Our folks died last year, so it’s just Robey and me now.”
The now-familiar look of pity flitted over Mrs. Bertel’s face, and Ellie looked down and told herself to be patient. Mrs. Bertel only meant to be kind, she knew that, but she hated to be pitied, hated it like poison. She was sick and tired of folk feeling sorry for her and Robey, as if they were the most pitiful creatures on earth.
“Oh, honey, I’m sorry to hear that,” Mrs. Bertel murmured. “Why don’t you and Robey stick with us on the trail? I lost my husband two years ago, so we’re without the head of our home, too. But there’s strength in numbers, they say.”
Ellie looked up and relaxed a bit. Maybe Mrs. Bertel’s look wasn’t pity, after all. Maybe it was just … understanding.
“We’d sure be glad of that, ma’am,” she replied gratefully.
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