Near the Willamette River
Whenever the wind blew hard and the rain came down sideways, lashing the windowpane, Florence Harms heard her dancing song. As the wind increased, so did the song. It sang of distant mountain peaks and torturous trails winding through giant boulders. It sang of sweat and blood, and always it climbed upwards, trembling from the heights, beckoning, calling; its strange haunting melody set her feet to dancing.
A part of her wanted to whirl, stamp, and lift her arms to embrace the music, to move in unison to the raging wind and the flutter of the flame within the lantern bathing the cabin’s empty room in its soft glow. But the other part was fearful, her hand still clinging to the cane as her body slowly became more mobile, putting aside forever, or so she hoped, the illness that took her ability to walk and run freely, her energy to do her daily tasks.
The good doctor told her she had taken a turn for the better and she could expect to return to her full energy and freedom of movement. But it would take time. Will had returned from the icy north, and soon, even before winter ended, she would become his wife.
“Except I always wanted roses on my wedding day,” she whispered into the silent room of the newly constructed log cabin that Will and the men from Frog Pond Church had banded together to raise.
The day after Christmas they felled the young firs in the grove along the back field and cut them into lengths the horses dragged to the site she and Will had chosen at the edge of the garden. It had only taken another few days to raise the walls and put up the roof, using shakes cut from an old-growth fir tree felled several years earlier. All they needed now was the order of glass windows to arrive by steamboat.
But would it arrive? Whenever it rained steadily, she remembered 1894, the year of the flood. Since then, from her home on the West Hills of Portland, she had always kept a close watch on the river whenever the rains refused to let up. Would there be flooding along the waterfront come morning? And what about the boats and barges? Would they be swept out to the mighty Columbia River and on into the ocean?
Florence pushed her thoughts away from the year when First Street had flooded and tried to recapture her song. She was in a safe place now, high above the creek that raced through the canyon during high water. No longer would she live in a tent; she’d be safe with Will in the cabin he was building for her.
Instead, there was a loud knock. She whirled around to face the door. Who would be out on a rain-drenched afternoon fast turning into darkness? Tilly? Her Aunt Amelia?
The front door blew open as she leaned forward on her cane and rose to her feet. “Will!” She gasped then smiled at the tall, broad-shouldered man with the worried frown. He stood on the threshold, water dripping off the brim of his hat and streaking his coat. She held out both hands, and he ran to her while her heart danced and twirled and spun inside her.
“Oh, Will,” she whispered. She longed to reach up and caress his cheek with her fingertips, but he held her hands tight. She caught her breath. His tender smile put lights into his blue eyes, and the rough hands tightening over hers trem- bled. Will, how dear you are.
As the coldness of his hands penetrated hers, she stepped back. “Goodness, you’re freezing to death!” She looked down. Mud spattered his trousers, and his boots attested to the heavy rain and thick garden mud stirred up by the horse’s hooves and the men’s boots.
“I can’t believe you did this. Nobody knew where you were, not Tilly and not your aunt.” His voice softened. “Besides, I—I wanted to be the first to show you our new home.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just didn’t think.” Heat rose into her face. “I guess deep inside I’m still the little girl who wants to know what’s wrapped inside the pretty packages. I just couldn’t wait.”
A sudden chill ran down her arms and she pressed closer into his arms, felt them tighten around her. “I can’t believe you’re really here. It’s like I’m asleep and dreaming and I’m afraid to wake up.”
“And if you are, I promise, I won’t be gone.” “But what if—if you’re not there?”
“But I will be there. And if I have to leave—for any reason—I’ll let you know.”
He bent his head and kissed her tenderly, deeply without holding back. “We’re going to be married,” he murmured as he trailed his fingertips along her cheekbone. “I know what it’s like to want and have to wait.”
“But what if I can’t be the wife you need?” she whispered. “I’m tired of weariness and wanting to cry, sometimes without any real reason.”
“But Dr. Rutler says not to worry.” He gently released her and guided her toward the workbench someone had shoved beneath the window ledge.
“But I do worry,” she protested, as she sank onto the bench. “Not so much for me, but for you. Are you sure we shouldn’t wait until spring returns? Perhaps by then the warmer weather will ease the pain and swelling in my joints.”
Will shook his head. “I have waited too long already. It’s like I told you back then, in sickness or in health, I want you to be my wife. I still do, now perhaps more than ever. You are beautiful to me, just the way you are.”
He took her hands in his and raised them to his lips. Gently, like the touch of butterfly wings, he kissed her swollen knuckles and then her wrist. “I love you, Florence. You are God’s gift to me.”
Afterward, he knelt beside her, resting his elbows on the window ledge, his chin cupped in his hands. “Have you been to the spring lately? It’s one of the places I love most here, the cedars overshadowing it with their branches, the water dripping over mossy rocks into the deep pool surrounded by maidenhair fern.”
His blue eyes darkened as he looked toward a place she had not seen in a long time. “I saw deer and coon tracks, even squirrels, and other wild creatures go there to drink. It’s the perfect place. The creek below, and overhead more trees, giant maples and firs so tall they look like they’re trying to touch the sky.”
Florence smiled. “Don’t forget the dipper tied to the branch. It’s the first thing I saw when I pushed back the vine maple branches at the end of the path. It was like entering a safe place waiting just for me and gave me the feeling of coming home. And I was, but I didn’t know it then.” She sighed. “I wish I could go back there, but it’s not possible. At least not now.”
“But I could go with you, even carry you if you needed me to.’’
“But the rain,” she protested. “Why, the mud on the paths would send us end over teakettle. Let’s leave the water fetching to the young ones for a while. We’ll take our turns later.”
“I’m glad Tilly’s here, especially this winter. She’s a great girl. So is Hal’s nephew, the redhead who’s sweet on her. They make a cute couple.”
“Yes, they do. I wouldn’t be too surprised if they wed this summer. But we’d better get back to the tent. No sense worry- ing the family.”
She paused as a worried frown creased his forehead. “It’s who we are now, Will. Aunt Amelia, you and me, Tilly and her little sister. For better or worse, it’s the way it is. We’re a family.”
“But, it doesn’t mean . . .”
“No, it doesn’t mean they’ll be staying with us after we’re married. Besides, Aunt Amelia has her own resources. And, yes, the girls do have their little place on the other side of the settlement. But they’re all alone. Their father, even their aunt and the boyfriend she ran off with are still in the Klondike, at least as far as they know. They’ve had no word. Right now they need us—and we need them.”
“But where will they . . .”
“Where will they sleep? They’ll be in the tent. We’ll be in the cabin.” Her gaze wandered out the window. She could see the dark brown soil of the garden, the firs beyond, the road curving out of sight into the canyon below where birds sang in the spring and wild creatures lived and roamed.
“This window with the bench is my best spot,” Florence confided. “I hope we sit here often, together, looking out the window, watching for spring, perhaps even put up a fence to keep the deer out of the yard. We can plant hollyhocks and heartsease when the soil warms.”
Will got to his feet and again took her into his arms. “And your mother’s rose.” He gestured toward the open window. “Tomorrow I’ll dig it up from beside the tent and plant it where we can see it from here. Of all the gifts we’ll receive on our wedding day, the gift we’ll treasure most will be your mother’s rose.”
“That and Mother’s pearls.” She laughed. “Just think I’ll be able to wear them on my wedding day!”
Will smiled. “You haven’t taken them off since I’ve arrived home from the Klondike at Christmastime, have you?”
“No,” she whispered, as she slowly and awkwardly struggled with the top button of her coat.
“Here, I’ll help you!” Will exclaimed. His hand came over hers, and he undid the button beneath her chin. Florence’s hand slid beneath the collar, then around her throat.
“Will,” she gasped, her voice hoarse with fear. Her stom- ach dipped downwards. “The pearls, I’m not wearing Mother’s heirloom pearls. They’re gone! I had them on this morning, I know I did. I saw them in the mirror when I put up my hair.” For a moment, her hands covered her face. “I can’t believe I lost them,” she wailed. “Almost more than anything, I want to wear them on my wedding day. And now, look what I’ve done!
They could be anywhere, here, on the path, even in the tent.” Will reassured her. “We’ll find them, Florence. They can’t be far, they can’t be. We’ll look everywhere, spread the word. Aunt Amelia, Tilly, Faye; one of us is bound to find them.”
He took her arm, and they walked slowly through the front room and into the smaller back room, pushing aside building debris and sawdust that lay across the board floor. It felt like it took forever. He reached for her hand, then with the lantern in the other, he guided her out the door, the faint fluttering flame their only light to push back the shadows.
There was no pearl necklace shining through the brown leaves moldering on the path, no tangled necklace caught in the underbrush grabbing at their clothing.
Tilly met them at the doorway leading into the tent. She took one look at Florence’s face. “Are you all right?” She turned toward Will, noted the consternation written by the twisting movement of his lips, the worry in his blue eyes. “What happened?” she asked. “Where have you been?”
“Just over to the cabin,” Florence explained. “I—I shouldn’t have gone alone, but I did. Will found me there. And then I discovered the pearl necklace wasn’t around my neck. She reached for her handkerchief and wiped away tears threatening to run down her cheeks. “We looked everywhere—the cabin, the trail, even held the lantern high to see if a stray branch might have grasped it up as it fell off my neck. But we saw nothing, it was getting too dark.”
Aunt Amelia came up behind Florence and put her arm around her. “Did you have it this morning when you wakened? It might very well be here in the tent. If you want me to, I can help you look through your things.”
“And if it isn’t here, we can check the path again when day- light comes,” Florence replied. “Oh, Aunt Amelia, I’m so sorry. You kept Mother’s pearls when she gave them to you for safe keeping before the train wreck that claimed her life. I—I only had the necklace a little while, and already I’ve lost it twice— once on the river when the steamboat we were on collided with another. I’ll never forget how awful I felt when the trunk with the pearls was swept overboard and disappeared beneath the water.” Her lips trembled. “Now I’ve lost them again.”
“Now, now, dear. No more tears. What is lost doesn’t necessarily stay lost. And you know praying makes a big lot of difference, girl. Like you said, them pearls have been lost before, and not so long ago either.”