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Love Comes Softly
By Janette Oke
Bethany House PublishersCopyright © 2003 Janette Oke
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Grim Reaper
The morning sun shone brightly on the canvas of the covered wagon, promising an unseasonably warm day for mid-October. Marty fought for wakefulness, coming slowly out of a troubled and fitful sleep. Why did she feel so heavy and ill at ease-she who usually woke with enthusiasm and readiness for each new day's adventure? Then it all came flooding back, and she fell in a heap on the quilt from which she had just emerged. Sobs shook her body, and she pressed the covering to her face to muffle the sound.
Clem is gone. The truth of it was nearly unthinkable. Less than two short years ago, strong, adventurous, boyish Clem had quickly and easily made her love him. Self-assured and confident, he had captured her heart and her hand. Fourteen months later, she was a married woman out west, beginning a new and challenging adventure with the man she loved-until yesterday.
Oh, Clem, she wept. Her whole world had fallen around her when the men came to tell her that Clem was dead. Killed outright. His horse had fallen. They'd had to destroy the horse. Did she want to come with them?
No, she'd stay.
Would she like the missus to come over?
No, she'd manage.
She wondered how she had even gotten the words past her lips.
They'd care for the body, one of them had told her. His missus was right good at that. The neighbors would arrange for the burying. Lucky the parson was paying his visit through the area. Was to have moved on today, but they were certain that he'd stay over. Sure she didn't want to come with them?
No, she'd be all right. Hated to leave her alone.
She needed to be alone.
They'd see her on the morrow. Not to worry. They'd care for everything.
And they had gone, taking her Clem with them, wrapped in one of her few blankets and fastened on the back of a horse. The kindly neighbor should have been riding it, but he was now leading the animal slowly, careful of its burden.
And now it was the morrow and the sun was shining. Why was the sun shining? Didn't nature know that today should be as lifeless as she felt, with a cold wind blowing like the chill that gripped her heart?
The fact that she was way out west in the fall of the year with no way back home, no one around that she knew-and she was expecting Clem's baby besides-should have filled her with panic. But for the moment the only thing her mind could settle on and her heart grasp was the overwhelming pain of her great loss.
"Oh, Clem! Clem!" she cried aloud. "What am I gonna do without you?" She buried her face again in the quilt.
Clem had come out west with such wild excitement.
"We'll find everything we want there in thet new country. The land's there fer the takin'," he had exulted.
"What 'bout the wild animals-an' the Injuns?" she had stammered.
He had laughed at her silliness, picked her up in his strong arms, and whirled her around in the air.
"What 'bout a house? It'll be 'most winter when we git there," she worried.
"The neighbors will help us build one. I've heered all 'bout it. They'll help one another do whatever needs to be done out there."
And it was true. Those hardy frontiersmen scattered across the wilderness would leave their highly valued crops standing in the fields, if need be, while they gave of their time to put a roof over a needy if somewhat cocky and reckless newcomer, because they would know far better than he the fierceness of the winter winds.
"We'll make out jest fine. Don't ya worry yourself none, Marty," Clem had assured her. With some reluctance, Marty had begun preparations for the long trek by wagon train to follow her beloved husband's dream.
After many weeks of travel, they had come upon a farmhouse in an area of rolling hills and pastureland, and Clem had made inquiries. Over a friendly cup of coffee, the farmer had informed them that he owned the land down to the creek, but the land beyond that, reaching up into the hills, had not yet been claimed. With an effort, Clem had restrained himself from whooping on the spot. Marty could tell that the very thought of being so near his dream filled Clem with wild anticipation. Thanking their soon-to-be neighbor, they hurried on, traveling a bit too fast for the much-mended wagon. They were within sight of their destination when another wheel gave way, and this time it was beyond repair.
They had camped for the night, still on the neighbor's land, and Clem had piled rocks and timbers under the broken wagon in an effort to make it somewhat level. In the morning they had discovered more bad luck. One of the horses had deserted them during the night, and his broken rope still dangled from the tree. Clem had ridden out on the remaining horse to look for it. And then the accident, and now he wouldn't be coming back. There would be no land claimed in his name, nor a house built that would stand proud and strong to shelter his wife and baby.
Marty sobbed again, but then she heard a noise outside the wagon and peeped timidly through the canvas. Neighbors were there-four men with grim faces, silently and soberly digging beneath the largest spruce tree. As she realized what their digging meant, a fresh torment tore at her soul. Clem's grave. It was really true. This horrible nightmare was actually happening. Clem was gone. She was without him. He would be buried on borrowed land.
"Oh, Clem. What'll I do?"
She wept until she had no more tears. The digging continued. She could hear the scraping of the shovels, and each thrust seemed to stab deeper into her heart.
More sounds reached her, and she realized that other neighbors were arriving. She must take herself in hand. Clem would not want her hiding away inside the wagon.
She climbed from the quilt and tried to tidy her unruly hair. Quickly dressing in her dark blue cotton frock, which seemed to be the most suitable for the occasion, she snatched a towel and her comb and slipped out of the wagon and down to the spring to wash away her tears and straighten her tangled hair. This done, she squared her shoulders, lifted her chin, and went back to meet the somber little group gathered under the spruce.
* * *
There was a kindness, a caring, in all of them. She could feel it. It was not pity, but an understanding. This was the West. Things were hard out here. Most likely every person there had faced a similar time, but one didn't go under. There was no time or energy for pity here-not for self, not for one another. It took your whole being to accept the reality that death was part of life, that the sorrow was inevitable, but that you picked up and carried on.
The visiting pastor spoke the words of interment, committing Clem's body to the dust of the earth, his soul into the hands of God. He also spoke to the sorrowing, who in this case was one lone, small person, the widow of the deceased; for one could hardly count the baby that she was carrying as one of the mourners, even if it was Clem's.
Pastor Magnuson spoke words that were fitting for the occasion-words of comfort and words of encouragement. The neighbors listened in silent sympathy to the familiar Scriptures they had heard on similar occasions. When the brief ceremony was over, Marty, her head bowed, turned from the grave toward the wagon, and the four men with the shovels went back to the task of covering the stout wooden box they had brought with them. As Marty walked away, a woman stepped forward and placed her hand on the slim shoulder.
"I'm Wanda Marshall," she said, her voice low. "I'm sorry we don't have any more than the one room, but you'd be welcome to share it for a few days until you sort things out."
"Much obliged." Marty spoke in almost a whisper. "But I wouldn't wanta impose upon ya. 'Sides, I think I'll jest stay on here fer a while. I need me time to think."
"I understand," the woman answered with a small pat, and she moved away.
Marty continued toward the wagon and was stopped again, this time by an older woman's gentle hand.
"This ain't an easy time fer ya, I know. I buried my first husband many years ago, and I know how you're feelin'." She paused a minute and then went on. "I don't s'pose you've had ya time to plan." At the slight shake of Marty's head, she continued, "I can't offer ya a place to stay; we're full up at our place. But I can offer ya somethin' to eat, and iffen you'd like to move yer wagon to our yard, we'd be happy to help ya pack yer things, and my Ben, Ben Graham, will be more'n glad to help ya git to town whenever yer ready to go."
"Thank ya," Marty murmured, "but I think I'll stay on here fer a while."
How could she explain that she had no money to stay, not even for one night, and no hope of getting any? What kind of work could a young, untrained woman in her condition hope to get? What kind of a future was there for her, anyway?
Her feet somehow moved her on to the wagon and she lifted a heavy hand to the canvas flap. She just wanted to crawl away, out of sight, and let the world cave in upon her.
It was hot in there at midday, and the rush of torrid air sent her already dizzy head to spinning. She crawled back out and down on the grass on the shady side of the wagon, propping herself up against the broken wheel. Her senses seemed to be playing tricks on her. Round and round in her head swept the whirlwind of grief, making her wonder what truly was real and what imagined. She was mentally groping to make some sense of it all when a male voice suddenly made her jump with its closeness.
She lifted her head and looked up. A man stood before her, cap in hand, fingering it determinedly as he cleared his throat. She vaguely recognized him as one of the shovel bearers. His height and build evidenced strength, and there was an oldness about his eyes that belied his youthful features. Her eyes looked into his face, but her lips refused to respond.
He seemed to draw courage from somewhere deep inside himself and spoke again.
"Ma'am, I know thet this be untimely-ya jest havin' buried yer husband an' all. But I'm afraid the matter can't wait none fer a proper-like time an' place."
He cleared his throat again and glanced up from the hat in his hands.
"My name be Clark Davis," he hurried on, "an' it 'pears to me thet you an' me be in need of one another."
A sharp intake of breath from Marty made him pause, then raise a hand.
"Now, hold a minute," he told her, almost a command. "It jest be a matter of common sense. Ya lost yer man an' are here alone." He cast a glance at the broken wagon wheel, then crouched down to speak directly to her.
"I reckon ya got no money to go to yer folks, iffen ya have folks to go back to. An' even if thet could be, ain't no wagon train fer the East will go through here 'til next spring. Me, now, I got me a need, too."
He stopped there and his eyes dropped. It was a minute before he raised them and looked into her face. "I have a little 'un, not much more'n a mite-an' she be needin' a mama. Now, as I see it, if we marries, you an' me"-he looked away a moment, then faced her again-"we could solve both of those problems. I would've waited, but the preacher is only here fer today an' won't be back through agin 'til next April or May, so's it has to be today."
He must have recognized in her face the sheer horror Marty was feeling.
"I know. I know," he stammered. "It don't seem likely, but what else be there?"
What else indeed? raged through Marty's brain. I'd die first, that's all. I'd rather die than marry you-or any man. Get out. Go away.
But he didn't read any more of her rampaging thoughts and went on. "I've been strugglin' along, tryin' to be pa an' ma both fer Missie, an' not doin' much of a job of it, either, with tryin' to work the land an' all. I've got me a good piece of land an' a cabin thet's right comfortable like, even if it be small, an' I could offer ya all the things thet a woman be a needin' in exchange fer ya takin' on my Missie. I be sure thet ya could learn to love her. She be a right pert little thing." He paused. "But she do be needin' a woman's hand, my Missie. That's all I be askin' ya, ma'am. Jest to be Missie's mama. Nothin' more. You an' Missie can share the bedroom. I'll take me the lean-to. An' ..." He hesitated a bit. "I'll promise ya this, too. When the next wagon train goes through headin' east to where ya can catch yerself a stagecoach, iffen ya ain't happy here, I'll see to yer fare back home-on one condition-thet ya take my Missie along with ya." He paused to swallow, then said, "It jest don't be fair to the little mite not to have a mama."
He rose suddenly. "I'll leave ya to be a thinkin' on it, ma'am. We don't have much time."
He turned and strode away. The sag of his shoulders told her how much the words had cost him. Still, she thought angrily, what kind of a man could propose marriage-even this kind of a marriage-to a woman who had just turned from her husband's grave? She felt despair well up within her. I'd rather die, she told herself. I'd rather die. But what of Clem's baby? She didn't want death for their little one, neither for her sake nor for Clem's. Frustration and anger and grief whirled through her. What a situation to be in. No one, nothing, out in this Godforsaken country. Family and friends were out of reach, and she was completely alone. She knew he was right. She needed him, and she hated him for it.
"I hate this country! I hate it! I hate him, the cold, miserable man! I hate him! I hate him!" But even as she stormed against him, she knew she had no way around it.
She wiped her tears and got up from the shady grass. She wouldn't wait for him to come back in his lordly fashion for her decision, she thought stubbornly, and she went into the wagon and began to pack the few things she called hers.
Excerpted from Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke Copyright © 2003 by Janette Oke. Excerpted by permission.
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