WINNER—BEST ORIGINAL SOFT COVER FICTION
2011 WOMEN WRITING THE WEST WILLA AWARDS
Me with my WILLA Award, 2011
MANAKWA NOOVIGADED PA’A TAVIDUAGA
That’s Northern Shoshone for the title of my novel, Light On A Distant Hill, a historical romance released December 2010.
Following is a short synopsis:
SALINA, KANSAS, 1874
A young girl stands at her window. She is fourteen, on the edge of womanhood. Looking out across the vast sea of grass that is the Great Plains, she dreams of the day when she might set sail upon it.
One day she does, venturing forth into that vast unknown as a mail-order bride journeying to meet her husband-to-be, a cavalry officer stationed at Fort Walla Walla in Washington Territory. But her traveling party is massacred by Indians at Elko, Nevada, and she is one of only two survivors. Badly injured, she wanders off into the wilderness and disappears. She will emerge two years later, older than her age and wiser than her years, having been shaped andl burnished in one of the great tragedies in American history. And now she must choose between two worlds—the one she was born to, or the one in which she became a woman. And between two men—the one she was promised to or the one she has grown to love. One man clings desperately to the hope that she is alive. The other would have considered her a mortal enemy—until he met her.
This is her story.
EXCERPT: Chapters One and Two
ON THE PACIFIC COAST NEAR CAPE MEARES, OREGON
Robbie McIntire wrestled with the steering wheel of the battered Chevrolet panel truck as it bounced over the rutted dirt road through the forest, ever higher into the coastal hills of Oregon. And with every jarring twist in the road, he cursed the day he had accepted his new assignment. But as a rookie reporter for the Portland Oregonian, fresh out of journalism school, he had been in no position to turn it down. Still, he had been taken aback when his boss, crusty city editor Seamus O’Flynn, had dumped it on him.
“You want to write for the Oregonian, you take the job, boy,” the bushy-browed old inkslinger told him in a gravelly voice. Seeing Robbie’s discomfort at the prospect, O’Flynn jabbed a finger in his direction. “When I was new on the job, I would have begged for an assignment like this.” He stood up and came around his big wooden desk. “Now, I’ve got a nose for a good story. I was reading about this old woman in a rest home over by Cape Meares. They say she’s chock full of tales about the Old West, that she was witness to some amazing things. Our readers could do with something to take their minds off the Depression. Now, it won’t be easy. I got the impression she’s a bit of a recluse. Guess no reporter’s been down there in years.” He clapped a big hand on Robbie’s shoulder. “Go to it, my boy. Bring back something worth reading.”
Robbie knew the moment he was handed the pitiful advance that it would be gone before he could complete the assignment. Nevertheless, he packed a bag and caught a rattletrap old bus to Cape Meares. There, he managed to talk the owner of a local garage into renting him the old panel truck. Now, as he jounced over the rugged road, grinding gears, posterior aching and kidneys beginning to float, he cursed his lack of intestinal fortitude once again. He should have had the guts to turn the job down. Just when he thought he must have taken a wrong turn and was ready to go back, a dusty wooden sign came into view ahead.
MOUNTAIN MEADOW REST HOME
Set on a rise in a clearing, surrounded on three sides by pine and fir trees, the dusty building was long and relatively narrow, with wood clapboard siding, fading paint, and a porch that ran the length of the front. It was topped by a clay tile roof that looked out of place among the mountain setting. With a sigh, he turned into the driveway, the old panel whining in protest as it climbed the slope up to the entrance. He hit the brakes and the truck jerked to a halt in a bare area in front of the building. Weary but grateful to be there at last, he turned off the ignition. The panel coughed a few times in protest, then finally fell silent. Robbie opened the door, put his left hand on the top of the door frame, and levered himself out to a standing position. He stretched his aching back, looking back the way he had come. Now he knew why the home was located at this spot. An opening in the trees provided a view into the distance, all the way to the ocean. He could see sunlight playing off the water. A tall promontory stood on the coast, punctuating the otherwise low coastline. It looked like a loaf of French bread stood on end. It must have been hundreds of feet high, and looked to be right on the surf line. The top of the promontory was mostly open ground, with scattered tall trees dotting a lush meadow. A patch of sunlight fell on the meadow and seemed to make it glow a vibrant green.
He was still admiring the view when the sound of a screen door creaking open and then banging against a door frame behind him spurred him to turn around. He found himself facing a stout middle-aged woman in a print dress covered partly by an apron. She had short curly brown hair held in place here and there with bobby pins. She frowned at him. “Reckon you’re the reporter fella that big-city paper called about couple of days ago,” she said sternly. “You must be him; no one else would bother to come up.”
“Yes ma’am,” Robbie said. He stepped forward, hat in hand. “I’m Robbie—ah, Robert McIntire from the Oregonian.”
The woman snorted. “Hmph. You’re a young ‘un, aintcha. Fresh out of college, I reckon. Come up here to make a name for yourself, interviewing her.” She almost spat out the last word. “Well, no sense in standin’ out here jawin’. Come on in.” She turned back to the house and went inside, leaving Robbie to catch up to her. “Mind you, she don’t cotton to visitors much,” she said. “No one ever comes to visit anymore ‘cept her daughter.” She turned back to look at him. “Maybe you’ll get lucky and catch her in a good mood.” She turned away again. “Hah!” she snorted, walking away from him into her kitchen.
Robbie trailed hesitantly behind, fearful of committing a breach of etiquette.
“The ladies are having lunch on the back patio,” she said. “There’ll be no visiting until they’re finished.” She opened an icebox and withdrew a large pitcher of amber liquid. “Iced tea?” she said, holding it out toward him.
“Yes ma’am, that surely sounds good about now, but—”
“Down the hall, second door on your left,” she said, understanding the meaning of his hesitation. She chuckled as he scuttled off. “That road’ll do it every time.”
Robbie was back from the bathroom in minutes. The woman was standing by the front screen door, holding two glasses of tea. “Come on out,” she said. “We’ll sit a spell.”
They settled into padded chairs on the porch. Only then did the woman finally introduce herself. “Edie Maitland,” she said, extending a broad hand and shaking his firmly. “Don’t get much traffic up here,” she continued, looking out into the distance. “I get a hankerin’ to talk to someone else now and then, besides the residents.”
Robbie took a sip of his iced tea. It was wonderful, like he had tasted rarely, if ever. He decided to start the conversation with something that had nagged at him all the way up the long dusty road. “Mrs. Maitland,” he ventured, “this place is half an hour out of town, up a long bad road. Why are these residents of yours—these women—way up here?”
Edie was silent for long seconds, the quiet punctuated only by the buzz of insects. Finally, she spoke, still looking off into the distance. “Waiting to die, most of ’em,” she said softly. “Most got no family left, leastways none that care to visit much. So they come up here to commiserate—and wait. ‘Cept the one you came to see, Ellen O’Hara. Her, I don’t know what she’s waitin’ for.” She turned and looked at him. “Maybe it’s you.” She drained her glass and set it down with a thunk on a small table, then laboriously stood up. “They should be about done now. “I’ll let her know you’re here.” She went back in the house, the screen door slamming shut behind her. She was back in under two minutes. “She says you’re to wait for her in her room, and she’ll be in shortly. Come on, I’ll show you the way.” Edie led him down a dim hallway past the bathroom, all the way to the end. She opened the door of the last room on the left. “Go on in, and wait here,” she said. She turned to go, then paused. “Try not to get her wound up with those nosy questions about the Old West. She gets on a roll, we won’t hear the end of it for days. None of us believe that fantastical stuff she goes on about anyway. Mostly we just humor her until she winds down.” She turned down the hallway. “Good luck,” she called out to him as she walked off.
Robbie looked around nervously. He had no idea what to expect. The room was comfortable in a homey way, with country-style furnishings. A patterned quilt was spread over the queen bed. Drapes with a subtle farm-scene design flanked the large window, which afforded the same fine view of the ocean he had seen from the front yard. An oval area rug was spread over the polished wooden floor between the bed and two chairs near the window. There was a dresser to one side. Two items on top of the dresser caught his eye. They looked out of place compared to the rest of the furnishings. Curious, he moved closer. One item was what appeared to be a thick notebook in a leather case. It looked well-traveled and worn, and when he bent over close to it, it smelled faintly of sage and woodsmoke. The other object was a gray rock about the size of his fist. One side was ground flat, and polished to a high shine. He realized it was a thunder egg. Looking closer, he could see something was inscribed into the smooth surface. Unable to make out whether it was a pattern or lettering, he picked it up and held it in the window light for a better look. He was peering at the it closely when a stern voice from behind made him jump.
“Put that down.”
Startled, Robbie nearly dropped the rock. He put it back on the dresser top and turned around to see who had spoken. “Ma’am, I’m so terribly sorry—” he began. “My, ah, my manners surely slipped.”
A slender woman of medium height stood before him. One wrinkled hand rested on a cane. She had long white hair that flowed past her shoulders. Her features were well defined, almost delicate. Age had left its mark on her tanned and lined face, but it would take little effort to realize that she had once been a beautiful young woman. Her eyes were clear and an arresting golden-brown. She looked at Robbie with a gaze so unflinching it almost made him shiver.
“Ma’am, I’m really sorry to be so thoughtless,” Robbie said, desperately trying to make up for his faux pas. “I’m afraid I’m not off to a very good start.”
“Hmph,” she said, walked slowly across the room, and lowered herself into one of the chairs by the window. She looked up at him, frowning, one hand still on her cane as if she had a mind to whack him with it. “Well, sit down, young man, unless you want to do this standing up.”
Robbie sat quickly. “No ma’am,” he said, setting his shoulder bag on the floor.
“They told me you were coming,” she said, fixing him with a penetrating stare. “What do you want?”
Haltingly, nervous to his core, Robbie briefly told her what his boss had told him, and what he hoped to bring back from the assignment. “Ma’am, I read what I could find about you on the way down here,” he said. “They say there are few people left who saw the Old West the way you did. They say you were there when the West was alive. Are they right?”
Ellen O’Hara turned her head and looked out the window at the coastline for long seconds. Then she turned back to him. “I was there.”
The heaviness, the sadness in her voice as she said the words left Robbie bereft of any response. Desperate for something to break the mood, he reached down into his shoulder bag and pulled out his notebook. “Well, can you tell me something about your time in the Old West?” he ventured tentatively.
She tilted her head and looked at him, as if studying something caught under a microscope, trying to focus on its true nature. “Tell me, young man, are you here for yourself or because your boss sent you?”
Robbie bit his lip. He knew there was no chance of misleading this woman. She would see right through any falsehood he concocted, he was sure. “Well, ma’am,” he said, taking a deep breath, “the truth is, at first I didn’t want to come. It’s a far piece from Portland, and it didn’t sound all that interesting.”
“You mean visiting some crotchety old woman in a rest home out in the middle of nowhere, who’d spin tales that may or may not be true, and probably fall asleep halfway through?”
Robbie hung his head. This interview might be over before it started. “Yes ma’am,” he said softly. “Something like that.”
“But you’re here anyway,” she said.
“Yes, I am. Because the more I read about you, the more I felt there might be a great story here. I’d be pleased to stay as long as you’ll let me. I’ll write faithfully what you tell me.”
Ellen looked down at the thick notebook in his lap. “Is that all you brought?” she said.
“Well, yes,” Robbie said, somewhat startled. “Do you think I’ll need more?”
Ellen leaned forward slightly and fixed her golden-brown eyes on him. “Young man, if you’re serious about your purpose here, you’ll need a lot more than that. You can get more in town when that one’s full up.”
She moved her body around in her chair, achieving a more comfortable position, glancing once more out the window. “You asked me a few minutes ago if I was there when the West was alive. I was.” She turned back to look at him. “And I was there when it died.” Her expression took on a new intensity, eyes seemingly focused on some faraway place and time. “Open up your notebook, young man.”
Robbie did so, pen poised, relieved he she was going to talk to him after all.
“We’ll start at the beginning,” she said.
“My convictions upon this subject have been confirmed. That those tribes cannot exist
surrounded by our settlements . . . is certain. They have neither the intelligence, the
industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any
change in their condition. Established in the midst of . . . a superior race . . . they must
necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.”
—President Andrew Jackson before Congress, 1833
April 23, 1876—Salina
Hello to my beautiful new diary! How exciting it is to fill your pristine pages with the prospect of our journey. For we are to depart at last this very day! Nettie, Liza, Clarence and I will travel by buggy and steamboat to Omaha, where I shall board the train and begin the journey westward to Sacramento, and thence northward to Washington Territory. What took months only a few years ago can now be done in just days. And can you imagine—I am to be a bride! Captain Morrow’s reply to my acceptance of his proposal of marriage arrived just last month. I am sure he is as handsome as his photograph! He has sent me one hundred dollars toward my passage on the railroad. As he is a U. S. Cavalry officer, I hope that was not too great a strain on his account. Nettie nags that it is high time I showed an interest in marriage, but she is such—
“Ellie! Ellen O’Hara!”
The young girl’s reverie was shattered by the shrill voice of her aunt calling from outside the house.
“Ellen O’Hara, you put that diary away and get out here this very minute! The buggy is loaded and ready to go.”
—an old busybody, Ellen continued. I try not to take her seriously, she concluded in deliberate fashion, then quickly closed the cover on her diary, a going-away gift from her Aunt Liza, leaped up from the desk, and bolted out into the packed dirt yard.
A red-wheeled buggy, hitched to two horses, stood at the ready. In the back of the buggy were three leather traveling bags. Ellen’s Uncle Clarence was in the driver’s seat, holding the slack reins. Ellen’s Aunt Liza, Clarence’s wife, stood beside the buggy, next to Ellie’s other aunt, Nettie.
Nettie was plain, and at thirty-three, resigned to spinsterhood. With the end of the Civil War only a few years distant, there was still a tragic shortage of young men of marrying age in the area. Many of them had gone off to fight—and had not come back. It was all the more reason Nettie was determined that her little niece, Ellen, would not suffer the grueling burden of life on the plains as a spinster herself. Attractive though Ellen was, Nettie fussed that the girl’s outspokenness and independent nature would drive off what few would-be suitors might find their way to their neck of the woods—or plains, as it were.
“Well, come on,” Nettie said impatiently, waving her over to the buggy. “Have done with that fool diary for a while and hop on in,” she said as Ellie did so. “Land O’ Goshen, child, if you ain’t a bothersome little bug. Ever since your mama died o’ grief when your papa didn’t come back from that accursed war, I’ve had to take you in tow, and t’aint been easy.”
Ellen’s father had gone off in 1864 to supply horses to the Union troops. He was not a soldier and did not expect to encounter the dangers of battle. Even so, he was caught in a Confederate ambush at the October 23rd Battle of Westport, Missouri, and killed. His body was brought home to Kansas by family friends. Barely a week after he was laid to rest on the farm, between the house and the barn, Ellen’s mother, who had barely spoken since her husband’s body came home, wandered off late one night onto the plains. They found her the next day, dead. There were no marks on her body. “It was the plains that killed her in the end,” Uncle Clarence had told Ellen. “She’d been on the edge for a long time. Too many tornadoes, too many long winters, too many grasshopper plagues, too little rain, too many failed harvests—your father’s death just pushed her over.”
“You have the money that Captain sent you tucked away, I hope?” Nettie’s sharp voice brought Ellen back to the present.
Ellen rolled her eyes and nodded. She knew her aunt’s lament all too well; she’d heard it enough. She also knew there was more to come.
“You’re a lucky girl, you know,” Nettie went on. “If that captain was here to know you better, why, he might not be so eager. This might be the only proposal you’ll get. You’re just a little tomboy, stubborn in your ways and far too outspoken for your own good. You’ll have to put all that away if you intend to be a military wife.”
Ellen bit her lip to keep from sassing her aunt, and settled into a gloomy silence as Clarence clucked the horses into motion and the buggy pulled away down the path through the tall prairie grass that stretched away as far as eye could see. She looked back only once, feeling a sharp pang of loss, then steeled herself to look forward, as the only home she had ever know receded into the distance.
It would take longer to reach Omaha—about 10 days—than it would to cross the whole distance west to Sacramento. What had once taken six months could now be accomplished in less than a week. But before Ellen could board the train, the party would have to head east to Kansas City and catch a riverboat north up the Missouri River to Omaha.
The money that Captain Morrow had sent her after she accepted his proposal of marriage would enable her to travel first class on the train. She would have a plush seat that could be converted at night to a snug sleeping berth. She would also have steam heat and fancy furnishings. For meals, though, Ellen would have to eat on the run at whatever stops the train might make along the way. Meals on board would have cost an extra $4 per day.
They reached Kansas City in five days, and there boarded a northbound steamboat. The voyage was uneventful, and Ellen, impatient and nervous, whiled away the time sitting near the bow, watching the steamboat push the placid water away and to the side. The boat was bustling with river men, gamblers, families, and people whose livelihood she couldn’t guess. The rear deck of the boat was piled high with cargo—boxes, barrels, bales of hay, implements she couldn’t identify, and more.
As the boat pushed northward, stopping all too often for her taste, Ellen would time and again pull from inside her diary a well-worn envelope and open it up in her lap. There was a photograph, a yellowed newspaper clipping, and a packet of letters written in a neat hand. The photograph showed a handsome young cavalry officer in uniform, posed in a studio looking very solemn, captain’s insignia on his shoulders. He had dark wavy hair, cut short, and a well-trimmed mustache. Ellen had tried time and again to read gentleness and compassion into his expression, but she was only guessing. When she tired of looking at the photograph, she would carefully hold the newspaper clipping in her hands. It was an advertisement her Aunt Nettie had seen in the Kansas City Times, and it had started everything she was now caught up in.
Cavalry officer seeks woman of marrying age
for matrimony. Will pay passage west. Can provide
a stable household. Have a promising career, and a
good income. Will consider children. References can be
provided. Reply via telegram or letter to Capt. E. Morrow at
Fort Walla Walla, Washington Territory
Ellen had shown no interest at first, but Nettie’s insistence had gradually won her over to at least writing to the man. She knew that Nettie, overbearing and fussy as she could often be, had her best interests at heart. She also knew she was not looking forward to aging into spinsterhood like Nettie. Not to mention that with her parents both gone, there was no one to run the small farm she grew up on. Her two aunts and Clarence were all she had left, and the loneliness of the long prairie days could be unbearable. So as a bit of a lark, she had written in reply. To her amazement, she had received a response in just under two weeks. She had opened the letter, heart pounding. More letters between her and the Captain followed over several months, the gentlemanly tone of his writing slowly sparking her interest. She had gone to the lone photography studio in Salina to get her photograph taken to send him. Three weeks after she had sent it, a reply came. It was a proposal of marriage. She was speechless for a while; not having expected it would really come to that, and uncertain how she should reply. She had written more out of boredom than anything, entranced with the notion of communicating with someone out on the frontier.
Nettie had no such ambivalence. “You don’t have to love him, child,” she had said, sitting with Ellen one evening on the porch of the small farmhouse, watching the light fade over the prairie. “You can’t live on just love, after all. He’s young, handsome, well-employed. There’s nothing for you here. Your Aunt Liza and Clarence and I are leaving too, you know. We can’t manage the farm by ourselves. Now with the railroad done, we can endure the trip. We’ll sell the farm and use the money to go west. I’ve got a powerful desire to see Oregon.”
Ellen had had a feeling that news was coming. She had risen from the porch swing, gone to her room, and flung herself down onto her bed, tears coming fast. At sixteen, she didn’t feel up to such change. But before long, she had written Captain Morrow back and accepted. The money for her trip had come swiftly.
The riverboat reached Omaha late on the third day. They stepped ashore, Ellen amazed at the bustle of the docks. She had never seen a city so big. Nettie wasted no time in getting her to the train station and seeing to it she purchased the proper ticket. Then they sent a telegram to Captain Morrow announcing that Ellen was to depart the next day.
The Pacific Express departed daily, bound for Sacramento. The day following their arrival in Omaha, Ellen stood on the train station platform in the morning light, trying hard to keep tears from falling.
Nettie put both hands on her shoulders, smiling broadly, her own eyes moist. “Look at you in that new travelin’ dress,” she said, softening from her usual stern demeanor. She suddenly put her hands to her face, stifling a sob. She saw before her a pretty girl, slender, of medium height, with long wavy light brown hair shot through with golden highlights brought forth by the sunlight. She had a beautifully shaped mouth, and refined features with a smooth pale complexion. Her most arresting feature, though, was the golden-brown color of her eyes. “Child, you’re the spittin’ image of your mama, God rest her soul. You’ll be a woman soon, sure enough.” Nettie put a hand under her chin as she saw Ellen’s lower lip trembling. “Now, you be the young lady your mother meant for you to be,” she said. “A bright future is waiting out west for you. I think this Captain Morrow will be a fine husband. And if he doesn’t treat you right, he’ll have me to answer to! I’ll come all the way to Washington Territory to set him straight, you may be sure of that!”
Ellen managed a small smile and hugged Nettie tightly. Then she did the same with Liza and Clarence.
“We’ll be along to Oregon as soon as we can get the farm sold,” Liza said. “Then we’ll come for a visit. Now, young lady, you write to us regular, you hear? Send a telegram if you can, when the train stops at a station.”
“I will, I promise,” Ellen said, face contorted with sorrow.
The boarding whistle sounded. Uncle Clarence picked up her bag and carried it for her to the passenger car entry. Ellen took it from him reluctantly and stepped up into the waiting car. She walked down the aisle and took a seat at the window. Within minutes Ellen heard two long blasts on the whistle. The American Standard 4-4-0 locomotive gave a roar, spun its big drive wheels briefly, and began to move out of the station. Ellen waved to her family until they were out of sight. Then she sat back in the seat and broke into heavy sobs. The tears would be denied no longer.
The locomotive sped westward, a smoking arrow shot across the endless sea of grass.
Ellen cried softly for a long time, unable to cope with saying goodbye to all the family she had left, and to all the world she had ever known—the vast plains that had made her what she was, for better or worse. All to marry a man I’ve never met, she thought. I so hope he is kind. If he is cruel, I shall run away. She looked out at the featureless plains rolling by the window. But to where? I am too young for this.
She was drying the last of her tears on the sleeve of her new dress when a soft voice interrupted her.
“You look like you could use a friend.”
Ellen looked up to see a girl about her own age, or perhaps a bit older, standing in the aisle next to her. She had short blond hair that covered her head in a mass of tight curls, and blue eyes. She was smiling broadly.
Ellen put a hand to her face, embarrassed. “Oh! No, I’m—I’m all right, I—”
“Nonsense,” the girl said, taking a seat next to her. “You most certainly are not. You’ve been crying since the train left the station.” She extended a hand. “I’m Rachel.”
Ellen wiped her cheeks and took the girl’s hand briefly. “Ellen. You can call me Ellie.”
“Done,” Rachel said firmly. “Now, it’s not right for girls our age to be alone on this contraption. I must sit with you a while.” She looked closely at Ellen. “You must be missing someone terribly.”
“It’s—it’s more than that,” Ellen replied. “I’m a bit scared.”
Rachel waved a hand in dismissal. “Well, who wouldn’t be? The west is still quite wild. I hope we shall not encounter any red Indians on this trip. But they say we should be safe on the train.”
“It’s not that, so much. You see, I am to be wed. I’m going to meet my husband-to-be.”
Rachel looked taken aback. “You’re going to marry a man you haven’t met?”
Ellen blushed. “Well, the truth is—I’m a mail-order bride. So to speak.”
Rachel’s eyes flew wide. “How fantastic! I must hear the whole story!”
Still embarrassed, Ellen recounted the story of how her Aunt Nettie had found the advertisement in the Kansas City Times, encouraged her to reply, and, more as a lark than anything else, she had.
“You must have been terribly surprised when he actually proposed,” Rachel said.
“I was,” Ellen admitted. “I didn’t know what to do—at first.” She smiled ruefully. “My Aunt Nettie can be very persuasive. By the time she was through, I realized that with my mama and papa dead, the only other choice I had was to go westward with my aunts and uncle when the farm was sold.” Ellen looked out the window briefly then raised her voice as the train passed between low hills close on either side; the roar of the locomotive ahead increasing. “That wasn’t something I wanted to do! Aunt Nettie is very old-fashioned, to put it kindly. She’s always tried to stuff me into her notion of what she thinks is proper for a girl—marriage at a young age, and motherhood. Me, I just want to do something more, something exciting. Something important.”
“But now you’ve agreed to marry this man you’ve never met,” Rachel said.
“I have met him, in a sense, through his letters.” She smiled. “My acceptance of his proposal is conditional. I wrote him that if he is the gentleman he seems to be in his letters, I will marry him. If not—” She left the sentence hanging.
“They must be some lovely letters,” Rachel mused, sitting back in her seat and looking away.
Ellen got her diary out of her shoulder bag. “Would you like to read one?” She held up a packet of envelopes frayed from travel and handling.
“Could I?” Rachel said eagerly.
“Yes, I see no harm,” Ellen replied, having overcome her initial embarrassment about her status. “Here’s the one he sent when he proposed to me.” She opened her diary folio and retrieved a single envelope from an inner pocket.
Rachel took the envelope gingerly, and eased the letter out. She opened the folded pages, the paper crackling as she did so. She began to read:
My Dear Miss O’Hara,
I received your last letter of February the 27th with great pleasure. I feel that I have gotten to know you quite well as we have exchanged letters over the last few months. Each letter has made me more certain that you would make a fine mate for me. As you have come to know, I am an educated man of means, possessed of a good career, and working my way up in the U. S. Cavalry. I can provide a woman with a good, comfortable home and a solid household in which to raise children. Indeed, such a home is already purchased and awaits only the touch of a woman’s hand to bring it to life.
Therefore, I feel confident in asking you at this time for your hand in marriage. Will you accept my proposal? Please respond at your earliest convenience; I am anxiously awaiting your reply.
Capt. E. Morrow,
U. S. Cavalry
Rachel looked up from the letter. “Goodness!” she said, sighing. “Such gallantry! A girl could do worse.”
“This is his photograph,” Ellen said, laying the Captain’s photo in Rachel’s lap.
“Dashingly handsome,” Rachel said in admiration. “I would have accepted his proposal as well, I have no doubt.”
The two girls talked on for some time as the train rumbled westward. Rachel, as it turned out, was traveling with her parents to establish a new life in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. “We shall practically be neighbors!” she gushed when Ellen revealed where Captain Morrow was stationed. “It would be little trouble to visit now and again.”
Rachel at last returned to her seat with her family toward the front of the car. Worn out from the strain of parting at Omaha, Ellen was lulled into an exhausted slumber by the rhythmic click-clack of the rail joints. She awoke two hours later when she felt the train slowing. They were rolling into Grand Island. The train stopped there for just ten minutes, then it was speeding away again.
Night fell as they approached North Platte. Drained from the constant travel ever farther from her home, Ellen longed for the train to rest for the night. It was not to be. They were stopped long enough for her to dash off a telegram homeward, but after taking on water and fuel, the locomotive once again chuffed its way out of town into the featureless blackness of night on the plains.
When Ellen awoke the next morning in her sleeping berth, for a moment she did not know where she was. Then she realized the truth as the noise of the moving train invaded her consciousness. The sun was up, illuminating seemingly endless stretches of grassland, the tall prairie grass rippling in the wind like waves on the ocean. It is very much like an ocean, she thought. A porter came and converted her bed back into the seating position.
Hunger pangs were assaulting her when the train came into Cheyenne. The train had no sooner rolled to a stop than a gathering of people waiting on the platform stepped up onto the train and began walking through the cars. They turned out to be local farmers, who began offering a variety of fruits, vegetables, preserves, and baked goods to the hungry passengers. Ellen was delighted with the selection, and quickly purchased items that made a fine breakfast. Down the car, she could see Rachel motioning her to join her, which she did.
Except for such good fortune, the train travelers, excluding the Pullman car occupants, were forced to practically eat on the run when the train stopped for meals, which was usually for only twenty minutes. Whether breakfast, lunch, or dinner, they usually encountered the same fare—beefsteak, fried eggs, and fried potatoes.
After breakfast, Rachel invited Ellen to explore the rest of the train with her, and so they walked from car to car, holding onto seat backs to cope with the periodic swaying and lurching of the train over the uneven, hastily-laid frontier tracks. Ellen was amazed at the appearance of some of the people she saw in the day coaches, and confided this to Rachel.
“My father says that many of them are not going far. There are over two hundred stops on the way west, and many of these people are going only between one stop and another. I would think some of them are cowhands, hunters, or farmers. That’s why they are dressed more for work than travel. Good thing, because those who are going through have to sleep on these horrid benches, the poor dears. It must be almost impossible.” There were even two Indians aboard, much to Ellen’s surprise. She had seen very few in her lifetime, and rarely up close. The sight of them made her shudder.
“Not to worry,” Rachel assured. “As you may notice, many of these men have guns stuck in their belts.” Indeed, the gun-toters were a rough-looking lot who talked loudly and profanely, and blew out clouds of noxious tobacco smoke, which rose to the ceilings of the coaches. Opening the windows to let in fresh air was often not possible, as sparks from the locomotive smoke sometimes entered the cars if given the chance.
As they made their way toward the rear of the train, they came to a car at which Rachel halted. “This is the Pullman car,” she said. “We can’t go in there. It’s for the very rich only. So, our tour is at an end.”
The journey to Sacramento would take only an amazing four and one-half days. It was a speed that staggered the imagination of anyone who had experienced the hazardous six-month crossing by wagon train, with its attendant dangers of floods, prairie storms, wildfires, Indian attacks, starvation, snow-bound mountain passes, and a thousand other perils which could scarcely have been imagined to those raised in the east.
As there was little to do when the train was streaking across the featureless landscape, Ellen and Rachel spent considerable time together visiting and comparing notes about their childhood. They quickly became fast friends.
Around noon of the second day, east of Green River, Wyoming, Ellen felt the train slowing to a halt. Puzzled, she lowered a window and stuck her head out for a look. To her delight, she saw that the train had stopped for an enormous herd of buffalo rumbling its way across the tracks. “Why, there must be thousands of them!” she said to Rachel.
“Easily,” Rachel answered. The herd stretched from one horizon to another, on its way to a place only the buffalo could know. The ground shook with their passing. Enormous clouds of dust were thrown up, and before long Ellen was forced to raise the window. Even at a steady gallop, it must have taken fifteen minutes for the end of the herd to at last clear the tracks. But the last of the great shaggy beasts finally crossed over, and the great brown mass began to recede toward the far horizon, the thunder of its passage slowly dying away.
“I had expected to see them more often by now,” Ellen said.
“Me too,” Rachel agreed.
The Pacific Express rolled on into Day Three across northern Nevada. But when it pulled into Elko, bad news awaited. A conductor came through each car announcing that a bridge had washed out several miles west of town, and the train could not continue. Repairs would take several days at best.
Ellen stepped off the train onto the dusty platform in confusion and disappointment. Not knowing what to do, she went into the station and sent a telegram back east informing her aunts of her progress. Just as she had seen the telegram off, Rachel found her.
“I have heard news,” she said. “There is a chance to continue westward now. There will be a small wagon train party departing in the morning. It will head north several miles to where there is a safe crossing to the other side. On the other side, the wagons will come back south to the tracks. A train will be waiting there to continue the trip to Sacramento.”
Ellen was taken aback. Such a side trip seemed very risky indeed. “Do you not think it would be better to remain here until repairs are made?” she said.
“Piffle!” Rachel replied. “Look around. There is nothing here. We would be stuck on the train, and the food is sure to be horrid.” She looked down at the scuffed wood floor for a moment, her excitement suddenly seeming to deflate. “Truthfully, we can’t afford the expense of staying and buying food for several days. Father says we are nearly out of money, and we must move on. The railroad will charge us nothing for the wagon trip. Please, come with us! It would make it so much more bearable.”
Ellen was still dubious.
“Oh, I am so weary of train travel!” Rachel said, excited again. “We shall be back on the tracks in no time, I am sure. Then in about a day and a half, we will arrive in Sacramento! Dear friend, please come.”
Ellen looked away out the window at the locomotive hissing clouds of steam as it sat on the tracks at the platform’s edge. For the first time on the trip, it didn’t seem in a hurry to be away. She twisted back and forth in indecision for long moments. Then she finally looked back at Rachel. “All right, I will come. But only because we have become such good friends. I wouldn’t want to separate from you now.”
Rachel threw her arms around Ellen, pressing her blond curls to Ellen’s cheek. “Wonderful; it shall be a great adventure!”
Before retiring on the train that night, Ellen opened her diary and made an entry:
May 5th, 1870—Elko, Nevada
We are stranded here temporarily on our journey west. It is said there is a bridge out some miles west of here, and we must wait for repair. But my new friend Rachel and her family, along with some of the other passengers, are going to take up the railroad on their offer to take us around the bridge by wagon, there to re-board a westbound train on the other side. She has asked me to come. I am reluctant to venture such a distance from the train tracks, but I have decided to go with them tomorrow, as Rachel has become such a dear friend on this short trip.
Ellen awoke with a feeling of unease she could not shake. Something about the proposed detour by wagon train unsettled her. But hunger soon overcame her reservations. With no vendors in sight offering farm produce, she dressed, did her toileting, and stepped down onto the platform and into the station. She was sitting down with her lackluster breakfast when Rachel came sweeping in the door.
“Well, Miss Sleepyhead, about time! Hurry up and eat; the last wagon is waiting for your baggage behind the depot.”
“I’ll be there.” Grimacing, she wolfed down her food, rushed onto the train and retrieved her suitcase, and laboriously lugged it around to the rear of the depot. There she found three covered wagons garishly painted red and blue, as many western-migration wagons were, the white canvas tops offset by the blue bodies and red-spoked wheels. Two sturdy draft horses were hitched to each one. Three men with rifles sat on horseback nearby.
Ellen did a quick count. There looked to be about twenty people who had volunteered for the trip, an even mix of men and women, but no young children. She found Rachel, who helped her hoist her heavy suitcase up into the last wagon in line. Then Ellen climbed up underneath the covering top, and took a seat atop her suitcase, next to Rachel.
Rachel smiled and squeezed her hand, just as the wagons lurched into motion and headed north. Ellen looked ahead, squinting in the bright morning sunlight far out into the distance. She clutched her stomach. The feeling of unease had returned with a vengeance.
They traveled through mostly level country—arid, treeless land dotted with sagebrush and alkali flats. Heading slightly northwest, they were soon rolling alongside a great dry wash, the bottom of which was dotted with willow and other scrub bushes.
“What awful country,” Rachel said. “I’ll be glad when we get to the tracks again. We can’t leave this place soon enough.” She looked down at the wash. “This must be the riverbed the tracks cross. I hope we reach our own crossing point soon.”
The sun climbed higher in the clear sky as the wagons bounced along over the dusty terrain. After about an hour and a half, they reached the crossing point. The sandy banks of the wash had been broken down and shoveled into slopes which the wagons could negotiate. The bottom of the wash had been made firmer by the laying down of willow saplings to form a crude bridge.
The wagon drivers eased their charges down the slope into the wash, then across. At the beginning of the upslope on the other side, everyone got out of the wagons to lighten the load and help push them up the slope. In just fifteen minutes, all three wagons were across.
“We’ll rest here,” one of the mounted guards announced. “The horses could use it.”
Everyone gathered near their respective wagons as the guards dismounted but continued to scan the area. Rachel’s parents were in the second wagon. Rachel and Ellen stood beside the third wagon, taking sips of water from a tin cup.
“We shall be back on board the train very soon,” Rachel said reassuringly. She looked at Ellen’s diary, which was slung across the girl’s shoulder by homemade straps. “Do you ever part from that thing?”
“Not often,” Ellen said. “I got tired of fishing it out of my shoulder bag, and fashioned these straps for my shoulder. That way I can open it and write any time the notion strikes me.”
“Very efficient, I suppose,” Rachel replied.
What happened next would be forever burned in Ellen’s memory as if by branding iron. She would remember later that the air around them had grown very quiet. The sound of insects in the bushes had died away to nothing. Only the faint breeze made any noise at all. Ellen reached out with the tin cup for a refill from the canteen, but the cup slipped out of her hand and fell to the ground. She bent over to retrieve it.
She had just grasped the cup handle when there was a loud thunk above her and she heard Rachel gasp. She straightened up and saw Rachel’s eyes wide in shock, staring at an arrow sunk in her chest. Her hands fluttered in the air around the arrow as bright red heart blood pumped from her chest and down her calico dress. She looked up at Ellen in disbelief. Then the color drained from her face and she collapsed on the ground.
Ellen was frozen in horror for long seconds. Then she fell to the ground beside Rachel just as her world seemed to explode into a blur of screams, savage cries, gunfire, and the neighing of panicked horses all around her. Frantically, she looked up just as Rachel’s father came running across the open space between the wagons.
“Rachel!” he screamed. He was hit by a volley of bullets, collapsing onto the ground in an explosion of dust. “Rachelllllll!” he screamed again, reaching out toward her. Then his face sank into the dirt. Rachel’s mother shrieked and ran toward him, only to be struck by an arrow halfway across. She sank to her knees, agony on her features, blood staining her dress. Two more arrows slammed into her before she fell forward just feet from her husband.
Ellen was in the grip of panic. This wasn’t supposed to be happening! It couldn’t be happening. She looked down at Rachel.
Rachel was trying to pull the arrow out, as if doing so would somehow save her. Ellen pushed the girl’s blood-slick hands away and, in a blind panic pulled hard on the shaft. It wouldn’t budge.
Rachel seemed to be fading. Even with the violent chaos swirling around her, Ellen knew Rachel was dying. She lifted the girl’s head onto her arm. “Listen to me!” she said, tears flooding her cheeks. “Repeat what I say! Father in Heaven, accept my soul this day!” She shook Rachel as the girl’s eyes fluttered. “Say it!”
“Father in Heaven,” Rachel slurred. “Accept my—” Her head rolled to one side.
“Rachel!” Ellen shouted. “I believe in Jesus Christ the Savior. Let me be with You this day. Say it!” she sobbed.
Rachel suddenly seized Ellen’s dress in a strong grip, looking into her eyes. “Remember me!” she gasped. Then she fell back as her eyes rolled up in her head, and she was gone.
“Rachel! No! No! No!” Ellen screamed, clutching her head in agony.
The wagon shook from heavy blows of combat above. Gunfire and dust and panicked screams filled the air as horses pulled this way and that in fear. She looked up to see Indians everywhere. One of them saw her and immediately pointed a gun at her.
From less than a dozen feet away, he fired.
Ellen felt hot pain explode in her head, and she fell back on the ground over Rachel’s body.
It was nearly sunset when a man standing on the depot platform at Elko froze at the sight of a lone woman staggering toward him in the dust. As she came closer he could see blood on her dress, and her hair wildly askew. He ran toward her, and she collapsed into his arms just as he reached her, her face contorted in agony. “Dead,” she gasped. “All dead.”