Can a love already tested to the limit survive on the trail to the wilds of California to their new home? After bidding farewell to her despondent family, newly-pregnant Charlotte drops everything to follow Sanderson to a promised job out west. The journey proves more difficult than any of them could have ever imagined. Wild animals, natural disasters, and a heavy Indian presence test not only Sanderson and Charlotte’s strength and endurance, but their faith in each other as well. Meanwhile, Minerva packs up the little rock cottage to journey west in the company of infant Jay Jay and Cotton just as peace Sanderson is trying to bridge between the Army and the Snake River Indians begins to fall apart.
“Shall we ride into town and say goodbye to George and Cotton, Charlotte?” Sanderson’s honey-sweet voice was thick in the early summer air. The sun had just begun to peek over the eastern horizon, tinting the sky a soft baby pink.
Morning had always been Charlotte’s favorite time of day, when everything was new and the pace was slow and sleepy. It was as if they all had another chance, a fresh start, the gift of a new day. Back during the War Between the States, when Sanderson was gone and nothing made sense, she would sit out in front of the little sod-roofed house she had shared with her father. There she could just be, with her steaming cup of coffee, one with the night birds in the darkness as the sun prepared to make its daily climb into the sky. But today was different.
She and Sanderson had taken their coffee in haste while packing their belongings for the long, overland journey that lay between them and California Territory. Jerry Thomas was already outside. It was no secret that he wished Minerva, her sister-in-law, and baby Jackson Junior, would come with them. Well, with him.
“Yes, I can’t leave without seeing Pa.” She glanced at Achilles, who Jerry had saddled. The old Gray stood swishing his tail absent-mindedly as Charlotte shouldered her bedroll. The adventure that awaited them on the long trail between Arkansas and California, where the job of Indian Agent was promised to Sanderson, was all consuming. Well, almost. “And I am sure going to miss Cotton.”
Just the thought of the bright, gapped-tooth grin of her former-student-turned-adoptive-brother and his sunny disposition was enough to dampen her resolve to head west. The adventuresome spark that had flared moments before flickered as the thin, sallow face of her Pa and the bronzed, shining one belonging to Cotton flashed through her mind. The bedroll that had seemed so light suddenly felt as though it contained lead bricks. She eased it to the ground, casting a glance back at her rock house.
The sign Cotton and George had made in secret, while building the house for them as a wedding present, caught her eye. S.C. REDDING Q. “Q was Cotton’s favorite letter.”
Emotion surged from the depths of Charlotte’s soul. “Don’t know if I can leave them, Sanderson.”
She didn’t realize she was trembling until her beloved’s hand fell gently on her shoulder, drawing her watery gaze from their first home to him. He was still handsome, he always would be, but in a more aged way since escaping from prison. Sparkles from the sunrise accented the brown flecks in his hazel eyes. A slow smile spread wide across his full lips, revealing those dimples that made her knees turn to water and her stomach turn up in knots. Everything will be alright, it seemed to promise, cloaking her fears in warmth. As long as we’re together, everything will be alright. Achilles nickered, breaking Charlotte from her trance.
“It’s not set in stone, Charlotte. We can stay.” A chilled summer breeze tousled his hair, swirling the thick, sandy locks this way and that. “I can find work around here…” Sanderson’s words trailed off as he tried to hide the hopeless note in his voice. He averted his eyes, focusing on Charlotte’s ear instead of her face. “I’m sure there’s plenty, what with most of the guys heading west with gold fever.”
Charlotte felt her shoulders rise and fall. Altrose had survived the war only to become little more than a ghost town as the south struggled to thrive as an integral part of the United States of America. Apparently, the promise of adventure and riches west of the Rockies proved more suitable a venture than staying to work in disgrace amongst the haughty carpetbaggers. Most of the shops along Main Street had closed, their boarded-up windows all boasting the same selfish farewell on splintery boards: GONE WEST FOR GOLD. The stage had taken to running only three times a week instead of everyday. Even then, it seemed to carry more and more of Altrose’s citizens away and never brought them back.
“Let’s go on and go if we’re going,” Charlotte whispered. Minerva’s soft sobs tore at her tender heart. “No use forcing them to keep saying goodbye.”
Her sister-in-law’s face was pressed on Jerry’s shoulder, his arm draped loosely around her. Tearstains soaked the fabric of his shirt in a giant halo around Minerva’s face. Charlotte knew the pain she was feeling. She had felt it at every one of Sanderson’s many impromptu absences during their courtship and marriage. How odd it was not to be feeling the old, familiar sadness herself, not to be the woman ripped from the promise of happiness in her beloved’s arms. I wish she’d come with us, her and Jay Jay. We’re family…
Before Charlotte could utter those very words, Minerva straightened her back and shrugged Jerry’s arm from around her.
“Perhaps I will—” She wiped her purple velvet housecoat sleeve across her nose. “Perhaps after.” Charlotte watched Minerva’s eyes glisten as she searched her English vocabulary for the very words that wouldn’t hurt Jerry Thomas while, at the same time, would explain her heart. Words they all wanted to hear.
Jerry held a finger to her lips. His chestnut eyes gazed into Minerva’s. Neither pain nor suspicion clouded them. “You don’t have to explain yourself to me, Minerva Dika Glasgus.” His thumb trailed lightly across her cheek. “I know a thing or two about women, and I understand that you need that paper from Dr. Jernigan. Life has dealt you many blows, and none of us are certain of the future. Should we marry—”
Minerva’s cream complexion deepened until it was scarlet. “Go on.”
Jerry’s lips twisted into a seductive smile. Charlotte felt her own insides quake at the intensity of the moment.
“Should we marry and tragedy strike, you need to be able to make it in a white man’s world and provide for yourself and Jay Jay…and whoever else may have come along at that point.”
Minerva clasped both of her hands over his, holding them to her lips as the tears—no doubt, welcome ones—ran in rivulets down her cheeks. “Thank God, you understand.” Her voice was breathy.
“I’ll be in California, Camp Bidwell. Send word when you have your paper in hand, and I’ll send the funds for your travel.”
Minerva nodded, her eyes squeezed shut. Charlotte’s hand tightened around Sanderson’s.
“I love you, Minerva.”
Minerva’s sobs came harder, faster. She nodded, sending the tendrils of soft, inky hair flouncing about their hands. “I love you, Jerry.”
He kissed their hands. “Just promise me one thing.”
With a lone sniffle, Minerva sobered. Charlotte knew in her soul that Minerva didn’t have any more promises to give, what with having herself and baby Jay Jay to care for. “A promise?”
“Promise me that you won’t even consider coming west until you have that paper in your hand.” He kissed their hands again. “Promise?”
Minerva exhaled. “Promise.”
Jerry mounted his horse with the special saddle. She laid her hand on his wooden leg. The tears of love, relief, and understanding shimmered in tiny pools on her pockmarked face.
“No more tears,” Jerry instructed, cupping Minerva’s chin in a hand. “Now, give me a smile and go on inside so you don’t have to see us leave.”
After allowing a smile to tease her lips, Minerva scooped up Jay Jay and turned to comply. As she neared where Charlotte and Sanderson stood, she turned back to Jerry.
Jerry waved her unspoken words away with a smile. “Not a moment before.”
Minerva nodded in agreement before turning back to Charlotte.
Jerry’s voice broke through the quiet. “Hey, Minerva.”
Ever silent, she turned back to face him, Jay Jay balanced on her hip in all his three-month-old glory. Her voice box useless, she could only stare at the man who smiled at her so sweetly from atop the horse.
A distant roll of thunder sent a shudder down Charlotte’s spine.
“I love you, Minerva.” With a mischievous wink, Jerry turned and galloped off towards town.
Minerva sniffled again and shifted Jay Jay from one hip to the other. “He said if I wanted a rock cottage like this of my own, then he will make me one out west.”
Charlotte extended an arm to her sister-in-law. “You can have this one as long as you are of a mind to stay, Minerva,” she whispered.
“I know,” Minerva said, giving Charlotte a little squeeze. “I will watch over your home as though it were my own. When I get my paper, I will come.”
“We—your family—will be there waiting for you and baby Jay.”
With a smile and quick flick of her housedress, Minerva disappeared into the house. Charlotte thought she heard a sob resonate from one of the open windows.
“There, got it,” Sanderson exclaimed as he heaved the giant board upon his shoulder. He carried it to the wagon and stuck it over a wheel. S C REDDING Q. “Now we can take a little bit of home with us wherever we go.”
About the Author:
Sara Barnard is a mother of four beautiful children and author of the children’s nonfiction book THE ABC’S OF OKLAHOMA PLANTS and the historical romance series AN EVERLASTING HEART. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, hiking with her family, or tackling the ever-growing pile of laundry produced by her family of six! Sara holds her B.A. in history and is currently pursuing her Master’s in Fish and Wildlife Management. Along with their four children, Sara’s family consists of a plethora of rescue animals, each with a story of their own. Sara and her family currently make their home in the beautiful, historic hills of Oklahoma.