Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Bride Bargain - Chapter 1

The Bride Bargain

Barbour Publishing, Inc (September 1, 2008)

Chapter 1
Nebraska Territory, Oregon Trail,
two weeks journey past Fort Laramie, 1855

That does it!” Clara Field gritted her teeth and tugged harder on her leather glove, which was currently clamped between the jaws of a cantankerous ox. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“I’ll get him in a headlock for you, Miss Field, and cut off his air so he’ll open his mouth.” Burt Sprouse sauntered over. “That should take care of things quick enough.”

“Oh, choking him wouldn’t be the right answer.” Clara struggled to hide her disgust at the very suggestion. “I have to marvel at how similar animals and humans can be. Neither group likes to be forced into anything, and try as I might, I can’t seem to convince him we’re trudging toward freedom.”

“Well, I reckon I could knee him in the chest to make him let go.” Sprouse shuffled closer. “Hickory’s got an eye on you.”

“Thank you, Mr. Sprouse. I’ll handle this.” Clara waited until the burly ex-lumberjack wandered away before pleading with the ox. “Your antics are going to get us kicked off the wagon train, Simon!”

At the sound of his name, the ox perked his ears and his mouth went slack, allowing Clara to yank away her glove. How an ox had a taste for leather escaped her, but bovine cannibalism counted as the least of her worries at the moment. She held up the mangled thing and sighed. Thank You, Lord, that I brought an extra pair just in case I lost one. Her lips quirked at the tooth marks on the leather. Though I never thought things would come to this.

Yanking on the length of rope she’d tied around Simon’s neck, Clara urged him toward the makeshift corral the trail boss had set up for the night. The obstinate animal refused to budge, his eyes fixed on her glove with a greedy gleam.

“There’s lots of good forage and fresh water,” she tempted.

“And plenty of rest.” Oooh, how good that sounded. A verse from Psalms floated into memory: “He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.”

For it being a river, the Platte came as close to still water as any running water could ever hope. Wide, shallow, and dark with mud, it was their constant guide and water source. Clara tried not to compare it to babbling brooks, flowing streams, or any other clear, flowing water with a friendly rush of sound.

As for the earlier part of that scripture. . .well, they’d only just stopped for the night. Until she got this last ox to the corral, gathered enough fuel for the campfire, and cooked dinner for herself, Aunt Doreen, and the blessedly helpful Burt, she wouldn’t be lying beside anything.

But we’re one day closer to Oregon. Eleven miles farther toward a new start. Not even Simon’s snacking can take that away.

Tension eased from her shoulders as Simon ambled toward the enclosure. She and Aunt Doreen had already lost two oxen on the trail, and when they settled in Oregon, the remaining stock would be used for food or trade. The sadness creeping over her at the
thought explained, at least in part, why Clara wasn’t an accomplished driver. Even after weeks on the trail, she couldn’t bear to use a whip harshly.

With Simon safely tucked away with the rest of the train’s livestock, Clara began hunting for buffalo chips. The tall, dry grass rustled around her skirts as she searched. Typically, the prairie held a large and ready supply of the quick-burning fuel. But the recalcitrant ox had cost her valuable time. The areas closest to the circled wagons were picked over by the other women on the train whose husbands saw to the animals. She needed to go farther, though never too far, to scrape together a fair-sized load.

By the time she got back to camp and started their fire, Aunt Doreen already had vegetables—the same supply of potatoes, carrots, and onions that they’d been using since the stop at Fort Laramie—chopped and in the pot for cooking, and the batter
ready for johnnycake. Once the fire burned hot enough to heat the Dutch oven and cook the stew, Clara gratefully sank down beside the makeshift kitchen.

A healthy breeze carried away the smoke from the fire, bringing welcome coolness as the sun faded. The moon came into view, its modest glow bathing the plains in whitish blue light.

“Grub ready yet, Miz Field?” Burt Sprouse’s head tilted forward as he sniffed the air like a hopeful bear. In exchange for their cooking, alongside a bit of washing and mending, the exlumberjack provided them with fresh meat whenever possible, took on the night watches assigned to their wagon, and lent a hand when he could.

“Not quite, Mr. Sprouse.” Apologies wouldn’t make the rabbit cook any faster. “I had difficulty finding enough buffalo chips tonight.”

“Looked like the oxen gave you some trouble tonight.” Burt’s voice held no censure as he squatted down. “I’ll take on your watch tonight, like we agreed, but Hickory’s getting antsy about having you and your aunt in your own wagon. You were last in the row and last to set up camp tonight.”

“Sure were.” The trail boss, Hickory McGee, stomped over to glower at them. Disgust filled his tone. “Same as every day on this trail. I warned you gals I didn’t want to take on two women with no menfolk to shoulder the night watches, wagons, and livestock. You know the law of the trail—pull your weight or be left behind.”

“We know.” Clara forced the words through gritted teeth. Men who believed women to be inferior in every way put up her back as little else could. If you spent more time helping and less time harping, things would get done faster. As it is, you accomplish nothing with threats, yet Aunt Doreen and I hold things together in spite of them. A true gentleman—the kind of man a mother would be proud to raise and a woman would be glad to claim as husband—would be respectful and helpful.

She kept the thoughts to herself. Speaking her mind was a luxury she couldn’t afford if it angered the trail boss. A quick prayer for patience, and she swallowed her ire.

“I haven’t completely mastered the art of unhitching the oxen,” Clara admitted before staring him down. “But Mr. Sprouse makes sure our watches aren’t shirked, and you know it.” She cast a grateful look at Burt.

“You ain’t the ones doin’ it,” Hickory groused. “No call for a man with his own wagon and responsibilities to shoulder yours.”

“I don’t mind taking the extra watch in exchange for their cooking,” Burt put in.

“Don’t recall askin’ you, Sprouse.” Hickory turned his glare from Clara to the lumberjack. “But anyone causin’ problems can be left behind.”

“Worse comes to worse”—Mr. Sprouse shrugged—“I can sear some meat. Got an iron stomach, I do.”

“Glad to hear it.” The guide returned his attention to Clara.

“You’re lagging behind as it is. Not being able to control your animals is one more hassle to endanger the train. One rampaging ox can set off a stampede.”

“We managed to sort it out.” Aunt Doreen tugged a bucket of water toward them. “We always do.”

“It didn’t put anyone else out.” Clara shoved aside her remorse over Mr. Sprouse’s late dinner. “We’ll be ready to pull out at dawn, same as everyone else.”

“Better be.” The disagreeable guide punctuated that statement by launching spittle toward their cookfire. It hissed as he stalked away.

When we get to Oregon, it will be worth it, she vowed to herself for the thousandth time since they left Independence and started out on the trail. The Lord will see us to a new life and a happy home.

“The johnnycake should be about ready.” Clara pushed the ashes off the top of the Dutch oven with her ladle handle, wrapped her hand in a dishcloth, and lifted the lid. The sweet smell of warm cornbread wafted toward them. “Let me slice a piece for you to have now while the stew finishes.”

“Mmmph.” A moment later, Mr. Sprouse plunked himself down and set to munching the hot bread. His obvious enjoyment didn’t soothe Clara as it usually did—not when he’d made it clear that their agreement wasn’t as strong as Hickory’s warnings.

“Here, Aunt Doreen.” Clara made sure her aunt got a large portion. After weeks on the trail, not only did their simple dresses boast enough dust to plant a garden, but the calico also hung from her aunt’s thin frame. After a grueling day of travel, any moment they could use for a good night’s rest was another small loss her aunt didn’t deserve to bear. Unacceptable.

Aunt Doreen passed Mr. Sprouse another piece before he asked. Their success on the trail depended on keeping the man well fed. So long as they did that and kept pressing onward, the trail boss couldn’t leave them behind.

Clara filled a tin with the steaming stew. Onions came from their supply, greens they’d gathered along the way, and the rabbit came courtesy of Mr. Sprouse’s shotgun. If it weren’t for their little arrangement with him, she and her aunt would be surviving on jerky.

“Best deal I ever made.” His grunt made both of them smile. Burt made no bones about the fact he liked to eat but couldn’t cook. Another’s misfortune was rarely cause for prayers of gratitude, but. . .

“I was just thinking the same thing.” Clara knew Aunt Doreen’s reply came from the heart, to say the least.

Until now, Mr. Sprouse was just one more example of how the Lord watched over them and would see them through this arduous journey, which had become more wearing than Clara anticipated. A continuous stream of mishaps drained their supplies and energy.
And they’d yet to make it past the prairie to the hardships of the mountains.

“When we reach the mountains, things will go more slowly.” She meant the words as a comfort to her own aching bones and her aunt’s worries, but Burt Sprouse didn’t see it that way.

“Yep. Snow can make us lose days, get off the trail, have so many delays food runs out and animals freeze. Everything’s harder once you hit the Rockies.”

“Our oxen are too ornery to freeze.” Clara couldn’t help smiling even as she muttered the words.

“Even so, we’ll all probably lighten our loads.” Burt shrugged.

“I hear the mountains are littered with furniture and heirlooms abandoned by travelers so they can get free of a snow bank or make it up a steep pass.”

Her aunt’s gasp made Clara wrack her brain for something positive to say.

“After that rough river crossing, we already lost several items.”

She quelled the sense of loss that overcame her at the memory of her childhood trunk, filled with her doll and doll’s clothes. The last thing her father gave her, lost in the Platte forever. “So we probably won’t need to leave anything else behind.” She forced a smile.

“For all those reasons, you have to be careful not to get on the trail boss’s bad side.” Burt waved his spoon in the air. “We won’t make it without him, and he’s dead serious about leaving behind anyone who causes problems.”

He does care. Surely Burt said that nonsense about having an iron
stomach just to placate Hickory.
She eyed him fondly as he made his way back to his own wagon. Who would have thought a burly ex-lumberjack looking to make his fortune gold mining would be their saving grace?

“You go on ahead and get to bed,” Clara encouraged her aunt after they’d eaten their fill. “I’ll clean up and join you in a few moments.”

Aunt Doreen’s lack of protest and grateful nod spoke of her weariness more eloquently than if she’d carped over the long day. Yet the older woman never uttered so much as a word of complaint. Not that she ever had, even throughout the long years of living under Uncle Uriah’s thumb.

No matter how many verses her uncle warped out of context, how often he misinterpreted her own words or actions, Clara held firm to the conviction that Uriah’s chauvinism was personal prejudice, not truth. Oft-repeated lectures against the frail values and fragile mindsets of the so-called weaker sex only underscored
the quiet strength of the woman who’d raised her.

The few months when she’d had Doreen’s sole attention soothed her soul, pulling her from the endless cycle of guilt and anger over Ma’s and Pa’s deaths. Clara owed everything to the self-sacrificing love of Doreen. Then she’d married Uriah Zeph, and their world tilted once more. For the worse.

Hopes ahead; regrets behind. Grandma’s saying had become their motto over the years and seemed more appropriate with each passing day. Tonight, as Clara fell into her quilt, she added one more phrase. . . .

And God alongside.

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