April 13, 2011
A Sneak Peek - MAGGIE'S JOURNEY by Lena Nelson Dooley
But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace.
On the Oregon Trail
Florence Caine huddled near the campfire outside their wagon, one of over thirty that were circled for the night. Winter rode the winds that had been blasting them for the last few days. Their destination couldn’t come soon enough to suit her.
She brushed her skirt with the palms of both hands trying to get rid of the ever-present dirt. Why did I ever agree to Joshua’s plan? If she’d known all the dangers they would face along the way, he would have had to make this journey without her … if he kept insisting on going. Her husband’s adventurous spirit had first drawn her to him, but she would have been happy to stay in Little Rock, Arkansas, until they were old and gray. Instead, she finally yielded to his fairy-tale vision—a new start in the West. The words had sounded romantic at the time, but their brilliance had dulled in her memory.
Florence rubbed her chapped hands, trying to help the warmth to go deeper. Her bones ached with the cold. After months of traveling the plains through scorching heat and choking clouds of dust, she had welcomed the cooler temperatures when they crossed the Rocky Mountains. That respite was the only thing she liked about the treacherous route they had to take. Because of the steep trail that often disappeared among the rocks and tree roots, they had dumped many items the men thought weren’t essential.
Huh. As if men understood the desires of a woman’s heart and what brought her comfort. The tinkling and crashing of her precious bone china from England breaking into a million pieces as the crate tumbled down the hill still haunted her dreams.
Florence kept many of her favorite things when they traveled from Little Rock to Independence, Missouri, where the wagon trains started their journeys. She had struggled with what to sell to lighten the load before they left. The one piece of furniture she’d been allowed to keep, her grandmother’s small rosewood secretary desk, had probably been used as wood to stoke some other traveler’s fire out there on the prairie where trees were so widely scattered. When they had to dump the treasure, a piece of her heart went with it. She’d twisted on the wagon seat and gazed at the forlorn piece until it was just a speck on the empty horizon. Joshua had promised there would be other secretaries, but that didn’t matter anymore. She squeezed her eyes tight, trying to force the pictures out of her mind. Regrets attacked her like the plague.
More than the journey sapped her strength. She doubted there would be the proverbial pot of gold at the end of their travels. No promised land for her, because what she really wanted, a child of her own, wouldn’t be found in the greener pastures of the untamed wilderness.
Clutching her arms tightly across her chest, she forced her thoughts even farther back, all the way to Arkansas. Their white house with the green shutters nestled between tall trees that sheltered them from the summer heat and kept the cold winds at bay. She remembered the times the two of them had sat before the fire—she knitting or sewing while Joshua read aloud to her from one of their favorite books. Or he might be poring over one of the many newspapers he often brought home after work. Now for so many months, they hadn’t heard any news except whatever they could glean at the infrequent stops along the Oregon Trail or from the few riders who passed the wagon train. Sometimes the men stopped to share a meal and spin yarns for the ones on the journey.
She had no idea how much of their information was even true. But the men hung on to their every word. Loneliness for family and the desire to know what was going on back East ate at her.
A shiver swept from the top of Florence’s head and didn’t miss a single part of her body on its way to her feet. Even with multiple layers of woolen hosiery, her toes felt like ice. She’d often worried that one of them would break off if she stubbed it. She yearned for the snug house where never a single cold breeze seeped inside. Would she ever feel warm again?
She glanced around the clearing, hoping Joshua would soon return to their campsite. If not, dinner would be overcooked or cold. Sick of stew that had been made from rabbits or squirrels these last two weeks, she longed for fried chicken or a good pot roast with plenty of fresh vegetables. At least the wagon master assured them they were no more than a three-days’ journey from Oregon City. Taking a deep breath, she decided she could last three more days. But not one minute more.
Strong arms slid around her waist. Florence jumped, then leaned back against her husband’s solid chest. His warmth surrounded her, and she breathed deeply of his unique musky scent mixed with the freshness of the outdoors.
“What were you thinking about?” Joshua’s breath gave her neck a delicious tickle.
“That our journey will soon be over.”
She could hardly wait to be in a real house with privacy. She had never felt comfortable knowing that people in nearby wagons could hear most of what went on in theirs, and she knew more than she ever wanted to know about some of the families on the train. She moved slightly away from him, but missed the warmth he exuded. Suddenly an inexplicable sense of oppression or impending disaster gave her more of a chill than the cold wind. This time the shivers shook her whole body.
He turned her in his arms, gently held her against his chest, then propped his chin on top of her head. “I know how hard this has been on you, Flory.”
He didn’t often use the pet name he gave her while they courted. The familiarity warmed her heart for a moment.
“You’re just skin and bones, but soon we’ll be in the promised land, and I’ll make sure you have everything you’ve ever wanted.”
Words spoken with such conviction that they almost melted her heart … almost, but the strange cold dread wouldn’t depart.
She pulled away and stared up into his eyes, basking in the intense love shining in them. “You’re all I’ve ever wanted.” That wasn’t exactly true, but she wouldn’t mention their inability to conceive a child. No use bringing that hurt to his eyes. “So what did Overton have to say to the men tonight?”
“Not all the men were there. Angus McKenna wasn’t. Neither was the doctor.”
A stab of jealousy jolted through her as she realized this could mean only one thing. Lenora McKenna was in labor. Florence stuffed her feelings of inadequacy and envy deep inside and tried to replace them with concern for Lenora. The poor woman had ridden on a pallet in the back of the McKenna wagon for about three weeks. She was actually the reason they took the easier, but longer, Barlow Cutoff instead of crossing the Dalles. The wagon train wouldn’t continue on to Ft. Vancouver as originally planned. But the wagon master assured them plenty of land awaited near Oregon City. No one but her minded the change. At least, no one complained, and she didn’t voice her feelings about prolonging her time on the hard wagon seat. No use letting anyone else know how she really felt. No one would care.
“Should I go see if I can help?” Florence really didn’t want to, but she didn’t want Joshua to see the ugly side of her personality. She didn’t want him to think less of her.
Thunder’s deep rumble in the clouds hovering low above the wagon bounced against the surrounding mountains and back. Lightning shot jagged fingers above them, raising the hairs on her arms. She had never liked storms, even from the inside of their house. Out here in the open was far worse.
Joshua hugged her close again. “I think a couple of the women who’ve … had children … are there with the doctor.” He dropped a kiss on the top of her head. “No need for you to go. The wagon would be too crowded.”
He didn’t mean the words to hurt her, but her greatest shame was her inability to give him children. She had watched Joshua as he enjoyed interacting with the various youngsters on the wagon train. He really had a way with them, and they often gathered around him when they were camped, listening intently while he regaled them with wild tales.
He had told her it didn’t matter to him that they didn’t have children, but that inability mattered to her … more than anything else in the world. What kind of woman am I? Ten years of marriage should have brought several babies into their family. Every other couple they knew had several by the time they had been married as long as she and Joshua.
She slid from his arms and bent to stir the bubbling stew, hoping he wouldn’t notice how his words bothered her. Without turning her head, she gritted her teeth. “Hungry?”
His melodious laughter, which always stirred her heart, bounced across the clearing, and some of their neighbors glanced toward them. “That’s a foolish question, woman. When have I ever turned away from food … especially yours?” He patted his flat stomach for emphasis.
Florence went to the back of their wagon and withdrew two spoons and crockery bowls before ladling the hot soup into them. She had already cut the hot-water cornbread she baked in her cast-iron skillet over the coals, so she grabbed a couple of pieces. They sat on the split log bench they carried in their wagon and set out at each campsite.
Joshua took her hand and bowed his head. “Lord, we thank you for your provision during this journey … and especially for tonight’s meal. Bless these hands that prepared this food for us.” He lifted her hand and pressed a soft kiss to the back of it. “And Lord … please be with the McKennas tonight.”
His words brought a picture into her mind, of him caring for her while she was in labor with their child. She needed his tenderness, but that was one kind she’d never have. She swallowed the lump that formed in her throat and blinked back the tears.
Since the McKenna wagon was at the far side of the circled wagons, Florence hadn’t heard many of the sounds of the labor. Occasionally, a high shrill cry rose above the cacophony that divided them, announcing Mrs. McKenna’s agony. Just that faint sound made Florence’s stomach muscles clench. She wouldn’t relish going through that kind of pain, but the reward … Oh, yes, she would welcome it to have a child.
Her stomach growled and twisted. Hunger had dogged her the last few weeks as the food dwindled. They dove into their bowls, and she savored the stew which contained the remnants of the shriveled carrots and potatoes they’d bought at Fort Hall, the last place they had stopped that sold food to the wagon train. She wasn’t sure what she would cook when this pot of stew was gone, but they should have enough to eat for a couple of days, maybe three if they were careful. At least the cold air would keep it from spoiling. Hopefully by then, they’d be at the settlement.
Joshua cleared his throat. “By the way, Overton mentioned that the impending birth might delay our departure tomorrow.” Then he shoveled another spoonful of stew into his mouth, grinning as he closed his eyes and relished the taste. A habit he’d formed soon after they married.
Florence’s food turned bitter in her mouth. She rubbed her hand across her barren belly where her empty womb mocked her. A few tears leaked from her eyes. Why had God chosen not to fulfill her desire to be a mother? And this news was most unwelcome. She might go mad with the delay.
Another flash of lightning, followed by a loud burst of thunder, opened the brooding clouds. Cold rain sprinkled down on them, then gradually grew in intensity. They scrambled to gather their belongings and thrust them into the wagon. Last she covered the stew pot and hung it at the edge of the wagon bed. Then they clambered under the protection of their canvas roof. At least the rain kept Joshua from seeing the tears, which would upset him. He tried so hard to make her happy through their arduous journey.
Once again, tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. She carefully brushed them away and willed herself to fall asleep and squash the thoughts that plagued her. Just before her eyes closed, a light appeared at the opening of the wagon. Florence slid their Wedding Ring quilt up to her chin and sat up, but Joshua didn’t stir.
Reverend Knowles stood in the glow of the lantern, water dripping from the brim of his floppy felt hat. “I’m sorry to bother you folks, but I’m asking everyone to pray for the McKennas. She’s having a hard time … and it’s difficult for him, too.”
“Of course, we’ll pray.”
Florence whispered the words so she wouldn’t awaken Joshua. He had been really tired lately. She could keep a prayer vigil throughout the night because she knew she wouldn’t sleep with the storm raging around them. For hours she whispered petitions for Lenora McKenna, interspersed with occasional prayers for a child of her own. She knew it was selfish, but since so many people were praying to the Almighty right now, maybe He would answer her personal request as well.
The screaming wail that reverberated all around the clearing broke through Florence’s slumber, jerking her wide awake. Nothing like the weak sounds she’d heard earlier, and the voice was too deep to be a woman’s. She shook her head and glanced out the opening to the soft, predawn light. Evidently, she had fallen asleep, but she didn’t feel rested.
Joshua stirred beside her. “What was that?”
“I’m not sure.” She sat up and clutched the quilt close to her chest. “It almost sounded like a wounded animal … but not quite.”
He started pulling on his trousers. “I’m going to see what’s going on.” He kissed her on her nose. “Don’t leave the wagon until I get back and tell you it’s safe. You hear?”
He leaned to give her one of his heart-melting kisses. “I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
Florence didn’t want anything to happen to him either, but he wouldn’t appreciate her asking him to stay with her and let the other men take care of things. After he jumped down from the wagon, she stretched a sheet of canvas across the opening and started to dress for the day.
Joshua loved her so much. Her father had never kissed her mother in front of anyone, even the children. But Joshua showed her how much he loved her no matter who was around. Why wasn’t his love enough for her? If only that love would produce a child.
God must be tired of hearing all her petitions for a baby. But just as Rachel in the Bible kept telling God that without a child she would die, Florence would continue begging Him for one, until she had no breath.
She slid the covering from the opening and peeked out. Sunrise lit the area with a golden glow. Everything looked new and fresh after the rain washed away the dust. Even the bare branches of the trees glistened with diamond-like drops clinging to the bark.
Joshua hurried across the circle toward their wagon. He was deep in conversation with Overton Johnson. Even from here, she recognized the seriousness that puckered both of their brows. She wondered what they were discussing so intently.
A few feet from the wagon, her husband glanced up and waved. She stepped down and waited for the two men. Maybe Overton would stay while she fixed breakfast. A single man, he often took turns eating with the families.
Overton approached. “Miz Caine, sorry the yell woke you. Miz McKenna died birthing three babies. Her husband took it real bad. What with the three babies and all. He shore weren’t prepared for such a thing.”
“Three babies?” Florence clutched her dress above her heart. Pain speared through her. She could almost feel her empty womb heave inside her.
Could anything be worse? She couldn’t even have one baby, and they had three. Her breathing deepened, and she fought to hide her thoughts from the men.
But Lenora died. The words bounced around inside her brain. Chagrined, Florence kept her mouth shut. How could she be so callous and selfish?
Joshua slid one arm around her and cradled her by his side. “What’s going to happen now?” He aimed his question at the wagon master.
Overton pulled off his hat and held it in front of him, turning it nervously in his hands. “We’ll have a funeral service and bury ’er today.”
“I could help plan a group meal.” Florence had to do something to redeem herself … at least in her own eyes.
“That’d be right nice, Miz Caine.” He scratched his bearded chin. “Mr. McKenna’ll have his hands full caring for those triplet girls. That’s for sure.”
The long day rushed into eternity. A funeral and burying. A grieving husband. A somber noontime meal. Three baby girls without a mother. Everything ran together in Florence’s mind while she hurried to aid whomever she could. Late in the day after nursing the child, Charlotte Holden placed one of the babies into Florence’s waiting arms before she headed back to her wagon to nurse her own baby.
Having never held a newborn, Florence couldn’t believe how tiny the infant was. She settled onto a stump and cuddled the crying child, trying to calm her. Emotions she’d never experienced before awakened inside her, and a mother’s love flooded her heart. As Florence rocked back and forth and held the infant close, the cries diminished, and the tiny girl slept. She cradled the baby in one arm and with the other hand lightly grasped one of the tight fists until it loosened. The skin felt just as velvety as she had imagined. She tucked the baby’s arm and hand inside the swaddling blanket and touched the fuzzy red curls that formed a halo for the tiny head. Everything going on around her in the crowded circle faded from her awareness. She couldn’t get enough of studying everything about the baby girl.
Wonder what your father will name you. She gathered the fragile baby even closer against her and dreamed of holding her own child. Surely it wouldn’t hurt for her to pretend just for a little while that this infant was hers.
Florence lost all sense of time while she enjoyed this little one. The baby rested in her arms, totally trusting that Florence would take care of her. She hadn’t thought about what it would feel like for someone to completely depend on her. She leaned over to kiss the baby’s forehead and crooned a nameless tune. Is that what a real mother does?
“Florence.” Joshua’s voice drew her back to the clearing between the circled wagons.
But her husband wasn’t alone. All the clamor of the camp had masked the sound of the approaching footsteps of the two men. Mr. McKenna accompanied him with a blanket-wrapped baby in his arms. For a moment she almost hadn’t recognized the man they’d known for so many months, but the sleeping baby on his shoulder was a good clue. He looked as if he hadn’t slept for a month. Bags hung under his red-rimmed eyes, and the remnants of tears trailed down his cheeks. He hadn’t shaved for at least a week, and his clothes hung on him as though they belonged to someone else. He resembled a man at least ten years older than she knew him to be. He clutched the baby, as if he were afraid someone would take her away from him.
Florence rose, knowing what that felt like. He’s going to take this little angel from me. What could she say to a man who had been through what Mr. McKenna had? She had no words to offer. And after luxuriating in the feel of this child in her arms, how could Florence ever give her back to her father? The pain would be like amputating another part of her heart. How many more hits could her heart take before it completely stopped beating?
“Mrs. Caine.” Angus McKenna came to an abrupt stop and cleared his throat before starting again. “I’ve come to ask you something that … I never dreamed I’d … ever ask anyone.” His voice rasped, and he stopped to take a gulp of air, staring off into the distance.
She couldn’t take her eyes from him, even when the baby in her arms squirmed. “How can we help you?”
New tears followed the trails down his cheeks and disappeared into his beard. He grabbed a bandanna from his back pocket and blew his nose with one hand.
“I’ve just lost the most important thing in my life.” He paused and stared at the ground. “I don’t know how I can go on without her.” His voice cracked on the last word. Once again he paused, but much longer this time. His prominent Adam’s apple bobbed several times. “I’ve been crying out to God, but I don’t think He’s listening to me right now. If He were …”
What a thing for a man to admit to them. Florence knew he must be near a breakdown. He did need help, but what could they do?
“I’ve decided … it would be best to find another family to raise one of my girls.” He stood straighter. “I’ve watched you with Margaret Lenora …”
“Is that what you’ve named her?” Florence gazed at the sleeping baby, and her heart ached for the child. To grow up without a mother.
“Yes.” He stared across the clearing with unfocused eyes. “My wife’s parents couldn’t agree on a name for her … Her father wanted Mary Margaret … Her mother wanted Catherine Lenora. So they gave her all four names.” Mr. McKenna seemed relieved to be talking about something else besides what had happened that day. “I’ve named this one”—he indicated the baby on his shoulder—“Mary Lenora.”
He didn’t say anything about the third girl, and Florence was afraid to ask.
Angus looked straight at Joshua, and her husband gave a slow nod. “Your husband has told me … how much you’ve wanted a child.”
For a moment, anger flared in her chest. Joshua shouldn’t share her secret with anyone. She took a deep breath to keep from saying something she’d regret. Even though she didn’t even look at her husband, she could feel his gaze deep inside. She was grateful he couldn’t see the ugly jealousy and covetousness that resided there.
“What I’m trying to say, Mrs. Caine, is …” His Adam’s apple bobbed again. “Would you consider adopting one of my daughters and raising her as your own?” He snapped his mouth shut and just stood there … waiting, staring at the ground and clinging to the tiny baby in his arms.
As her own? Was this God’s answer to her prayer for a baby? It could be. She knew she should try to encourage Mr. McKenna to keep his daughters. He might marry again and want all three of them, but she pushed those thoughts aside before they could take root. This might be the only chance she would ever have for a child, and she didn’t want to lose it. Finally, she turned her attention toward Joshua.
“I’ll be happy with whatever you decide, Florence.” Love poured from her husband and enclosed her in its warmth.
How could she refuse? She held this precious bundle close to her heart right now, and she didn’t want to ever let her go.
“I’m just asking you to keep the name I’ve given her.” Mr. McKenna looked as if he might collapse at any moment.
“I’d be honored to have your daughter. I love her already.” She kissed the fuzz atop the sleeping baby’s head.
Finally, it hit her. I’m not going to have to give Margaret Lenora back. Florence swayed. Joshua was instantly at her side with his arm supporting her.
“I’ll send some clothes and blankets for Margaret Lenora. Melody Murray will come over a little later to nurse her. She and another woman are working together to feed the babies.”
Her heart broke for him as she watched Mr. McKenna turn and trudge toward his own wagon. Along the way, other people spoke to him, but he just kept going as if he didn’t even notice them.
Florence didn’t even think to tell him that Charlotte Holden had already fed Margaret Lenora. She clutched the baby girl close to her breast, rejoicing over his gift to her … to them. If only she didn’t feel so guilty for what she’d been thinking.