The greatest story never told … until now!
In the year of 1844, a party of fifty men, women and children set out for California. They walked two thousand miles, across trackless plain and desert, fording rivers and climbing mountains. They found a new trail through the wilderness, hoisted their wagons up a sheer cliff, were caught by the winter snows and faced starvation, with nothing to rely on but their own courage and trust in each other. These are their stories; the doctor-diarist and party co-leader, the old mountain-man who guided them, the feisty woman with her brood of children who means to rejoin her husband in California, the taciturn wagon master… all inexorably drawn to Truckee’s Trail!
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From Chapter 11 – The Choosing
From Dr. Townsend’s diary: “14th November, 1844 In the wilderness at the fork of Truckee’s River. This day, I can scarce put pen to paper, being distract’d with grief and worry. Our party is split yet again, this again being of our own decision. My own Dearest is gone ahead with five others, judged fit and sound, and without the care of little ones to attend. Yesterday, our labors brought us to where a tributary came down from the mountains, athwart our path, and leading to the south. We made camp in late afternoon, and Captain Stephens called a meeting.”
* * *
“We can’t take the wagons much farther,” said Young Martin flatly, as if daring anyone to argue with him. “Unless we follow the west tributary.” He dropped onto an upturned cask that he was using as a stool, and wincingly pulled off his waterlogged boots. He peeled off his socks, which were also soaked.
“Out of our way,” murmured Old Hitchcock, looking into the fire, past his eternal whittling, and his knife-blade. “The long way around.”
“The long way around may prove the shortest,” answered Stephens gently. “We done well before, heading straight west; at the Green, and again from the Sink. I’ll wait to hear what Isaac says.”
He sat a little way back from the fire on a half-rotted fallen log, Dog at his feet. Her great fawn and black head lay on her forepaws, golden eyes going back and forth as if she was paying intelligent attention to the conversation. The fire was the smallest of the three outside the circle of wagons and tents, set up on the lee side a barrier against the icy breeze roaring down from the high mountains, and the cold that came at sundown, the cold that was most particularly felt when the exertions of the day were over.
Allen Montgomery, and the Murphy brothers, Jamie, Daniel, Bernard and Johnny hunkered around the fire. It had the air of an informal meeting of the men, while the women cooked a sparse, but much anticipated meal. The horses and Hitchcock’s precious two mules were close-picketed for the night, just on the other side of the wagons, inside the circle jostling each other for mouthfuls of tall dry grass bristling up from the day’s accumulation of snow and armfuls of green rushes cut from the riverbank by the women and older children.
Around that fragile shelter of canvas, brush and fires, the snow was trampled to a muddy slush. At other fires, Isabella, Sarah, and the Murphy women moved in an intricate ballet, skirts, shawls and sleeves carefully held back from the fire, as they cooked the evening meal: stew and cornbread that tasted like sawdust with no butter to spread richly on it, dried apples stewed with a little spice. Even Isabella’s milk cow had gone dry, months since.
Mary-Bee Murphy sat with Mary Miller on a wagon-bench, dandling the baby Ellen, while her sons and Willie Miller and their cousin Mary leaned on Old Martin’s knees, or sat bundled in shawls at his feet as he told them another endless story about miracles, and goblins and old heroes of Erin. It was hard to judge by a casual looking, John thought, of how far along Mary-Bee was, all bundled in shawls as she was, but she still walked lightly. She was not far enough gone in pregnancy to be awkward, but she tired easily.
His glance was drawn finally, as it always would be, to his own Liz, her hair silver-gilt in the firelight, wrapped in two shawls and the buffalo robe that Old Man Hitchcock had traded for her from the tribes at FortLaramie. Sitting on another wagon-bench, she had Sadie in her lap, Nancy and Eddie leaning confidingly against her under the shelter of that buffalo robe.
Poor Liz, she had never been any shakes as a cook, had never even had to be, let alone over a campfire. But to do her fair, she tried her best, at a cost of burnt fingers, scorching her apron, and upsetting a pot a beans and near to putting the fire out, whereupon Isabella spoke out in tones of mixed exasperation and affection, somewhere back along the trail when the three families had begun to share a campfire. Elizabeth would do them all favors if she could but stay away from the fire and the hot kettles; chop the vegetables, if she would be so kind, and read to the children, give them lessons and keep them out from underfoot.
In that mysterious way she had, of seeming to know when he was gazing at her, her eyes lifted from the book and met his for a smiling moment, quiet communion among the crowd around the campfire. He was here, she was there, and yet they were alone together. And then she went on reading to the children, and he was supposed to be also paying attention to the needs of others in the party.
They had all become a tribe, John realized, a tribe of nomads as like to any of the Indians, bound together, sharing hardship alike with those moments in the evening, those rare moments of rest. Across the trampled circle, Moses and Dennis Martin stepped out of the darkness between two wagons, each with an armload of firewood. They piled their burden roughly beside the largest of the fires, and a storm bright burst of sparks flew up like fireflies meeting the stars overhead.
“ Tonight, after we’ve supped.”
“A meeting?” John was startled back from his nearly simultaneous contemplation of his dear wife, and of Young Martin’s left foot, dead white, nearly bloodless, propped up on his knee. “Pardon – I was lost, considering this interesting combination of foot-rot and frostbite. Dry socks, Martin, dry socks and liniment. Contemplate sealing your boots with tallow and paraffin. Other than that, consider staying out of the water, as much as you can.” There was a dry laugh, shared around the circle around fire. In the last three weeks, they had been forced into the river-bed time and time again, as it provided the easiest, and on occasion, the only passage for the wagons.
“We must consider what we should do now,” Stephens said. “We might send a party ahead, along the south branch.”
He fell silent, as Mary-Bee Murphy came with a basin and a steaming kettle and Isabella, bearing a dry cloth and her box of medicinal salts. “Doctor, tell him to soak in this for a bit, and dry them carefully. We’ll bring a set of dry stockings, presently, and dry his boots beside the fire.”
“Mrs. Patterson, you are a tonic,” Extravagantly, John caught her hand, and took it to his lips. “And an excellent nurse; I shall see that the patient follows your advice to the letter.”
Isabella gave him a very severe look, as Mary-Bee awkwardly set down the basin and filled it with steaming water. Isabella added salts, and gathered up the socks and the sodden boots. Mary-Bee looked as if she would say something more, but she merely patted her husband’s shoulder and followed in Isabella’s wake. “See that he does then, Doctor Townsend, see that he does.” Isabella shot, over her shoulder.
When she was gone back to the cook-fire and out of hearing, Stephens remarked, “A good woman is above the price of rubies.”
“I long to meet the man who would play Petruchio to her Kate,” John said, just as Greenwood appeared as silently as a ghost in the circle of firelight, shadowed by Britt, and heralded only by the scent of tobacco smoke.
Stephens grinned, a flash of teeth in his whiskered face. “Nearly as much as I’d like to be warm again, and over those pestilential mountains; he must be a formidable man. I imagine a very Ajax.”
“Not so,” said Hitchcock seriously. “M’son-in-law’s a very mild-tempered man. Never has much to say for hisself.”
“Married to her, who’d wonder?” ungallantly ventured Bernard Murphy sotto voice, as Greenwood sank onto his heels and held his hands to the fire, looking every day of his four-score. Britt took up a seat next to Stephens on the log, and casually gentled Dog’s alertly-raised head. She lay down again, with an inaudible “woof.” Stephens merely lifted his brows, and Greenwood sighed.
“Not so good for wagons, Cap’n. Not ‘less you had a month of good weather and a hundred strong men and them with an ax in either hand. Horses? Yeah, easy enough. We blazed it, two, three miles, far as we could, ‘fore sunset. Horses and pack-mules. It looks right promising otherwise, but I’ve always said if you want to be over these mountains by winter, you’ll have to leave all your traps and ride hard.”
“No.” It was Isabella’s voice. She had returned unobtrusively to the fire-circle, joining the men, as was her right as a wagon-owner and the head of a family. ”We cannot just leave our traps, as you say. We have chosen out all the most valuable and useful of goods, and brought them all this way; we cannot just drop them by the wayside as things of no consequence.”
Greenwood shrugged. “They’re only things. You can get back things, or something like them.”
“Things? Things, as you say, but our things! We considered them very carefully; these are things that are not only valuable to us, but things that we need! They are not frivolous possessions, but necessary tools to earning our livelihoods! Without those “things” we should be beggars, dependant upon charity.” Her keen hawk-glance went round the circle of faces, and John thought of his books; the case of surgical instruments, Liz’ precious china tea set, that came from her grandmother, whose family had brought it from Germany and cherished through generations. “And what of the children? Can they ride hard? Can Mary Miller ride, with a baby at breast, or Mary-Bee Murphy, so close to term? The wagon is our shelter, our home! I’ll not be a beggar, I’ll not be destitute. What if any of us fall sick, though lack of shelter? What do you say, Doctor? How many of us would be fit to leave all behind and ride hard?” Her hard, inimical hawk-glance pinned him, challenged him to speak, to venture his opinion.
“The very youngest or those of a weak constitution could not endure very long in such conditions as this without shelter.” John stammered. As many times as he had talked this over with Elizabeth in the privacy of their bed, he was still stuck on the two-horned dilemma, having never come to any conclusion in his own mind. “Nor the very old, either –” Old Hitchcock snorted derisively at this, and would have said more but for his daughter’s fierce gaze swinging around towards him. “The wagons are at least of some shelter. I would not choose to leave them. I do not think we could carry enough food and blankets and tents on our backs for the weeks of traveling we still must endure, not if we must carry the weakest of us.”
Stephens sighed, lines of weariness and responsibility harshly grooving his features in the firelight. “Our supplies diminish every day that we spend, this side of the mountains. I know that mine do, so I assume the same of you all. Old Man, how far do you think we might be from Sutter’s Fort?”
“I do not know for certain, “Greenwood answered, bluntly.” A week’s journey on a good horse to the summit, maybe longer; his place is down in the flatland, on the river, a good piece from the mountains on the other side.”
“What sort of man is he? If we sent for aid for ourselves, would he send it?”
“Aye, he would. I know nothing of him at first hand, but he is accounted to be generous, and he has ambitions.”
“As do most men, but I’ve a hankering to know what he has ambitions for.” Stephens stood, wearily and stretched. “Doctor, I’d like to call a meeting – not now, after we’ve all supped. Not just the wagon-owners. Everybody. Tell them it’s to consider sending out a small party ahead. He saluted Isabella with a touch to his hat-brim, “Pardon, all. I shall check on the stock. No,” he added as Greenwood looked to get to his feet. “You’ve earned some rest, Old Man.” Dog’s eyes snapped open as soon as Stephens moved, and now she lurched to her feet and padded after him into the darkness outside the firelight.
John sighed; he was wearied to his very bones, how Greenwood must feel after his long scout today, he could only imagine. The old man must be made of iron and buffalo sinews to have endured this kind of odyssey for years.
“Supper’s ready,” said Isabella abruptly. “The table is set. That is, if we had a table.”
John stood, and bowed, elaborately offering her his arm. “My dear Mrs. Patterson, then may I then escort you to our lack of table and our evening repast?”
Isabella nodded, regally, her lips twitching with her effort not to laugh. “How very kind of you, my dear Doctor.” She took his arm with a flourish, and they moved with elaborate gentility across the trampled mud to their fire, where Elizabeth watched them, laughing, while the children stared in baffled astonishment.
“La, Mrs. Patterson, I fear you are flirting with my own husband!” she said, while Isabella dissolved into hearty and infectious giggles.
“My dearest, I am wounded at the heart!” John slapped his chest theatrically, “How could I consider being unfaithful to you, even in thought!” He sank onto the bench next to her, as the children had sprung up to help Isabella pass out tin plates. He added in a low voice,
“Although I confess I now can see how Mr. Patterson’s affections might have been drawn towards our Kate.”
“Because she is altogether splendid, “Elizabeth replied. “But too many men are fools. A pretty face and a kind regard is all that is necessary for their attentions. A strong mind and a stout heart are not instantly apparent.”
“I am properly rebuked,” John said, and they sat together in perfect companionship under the buffalo robe, while Sadie brought around the tin plates and her brother a pan of cornbread. Isabella carried an iron Dutch oven, from which the most savory scents emanated. She carefully doled out a ladle and a half to each. Across the fire, John saw that Allen and Sarah sat next to each other, but separate. Elizabeth followed his gaze, and intuited his thoughts, perfectly.
“They are not happy. I doubt they will ever be. They married in haste, thinking they would come to love each other, but I cannot see how that will happen, under the trials of such a journey as this.”
“Perhaps when we get to California,” John ventured. “It may yet work out.” He took a mouthful of the stew. “Oh, this is truly succulent fare . . . or am I just amazingly hungry?”
Elizabeth twinkled merrily. “It is a Luccellian feast, is it not?”
“This cannot be a potato, surely? I thought we had eaten the last of the potatoes months ago. Murphy made such an event of it; I made a note in the trail diary.”
“No. “Elizabeth replied. “Those things that taste somewhat potato-like are roots of water-reeds. The Indians eat them, even dry and grind a flour from them or so Mr. Hitchcock says. And we found stands of wild onions when we first came up into the mountains. Truly, this wilderness is a garden if you know where to look.”
“Ah, well. “John looked with new interest into the contents of his tin plate. “We are well served, and well fed, Darling Dearest. I could not ask for better companions in all the world.”
“So,” Elizabeth ate with renewed interest. “What does Captain Stephens think we should do next?”
“He wants to hold a meeting.” John replied, “I think he wants to send an advance party, following the creek towards the south, whilst we move the wagons west along the main body. We cannot spare too many men, or horses, though. But at least, they could bring fresh supplies and teams from Sutter’s.”
“Who will he send?” Elizabeth looked around the camp. “Who can be spared? Who can be asked to leave their families behind?”
John followed her gaze. Across the fire, Moses and Allen laughed together. Sarah’s back was to her husband; she talked quietly with Isabella, who seemed to be listening with half an ear while she supervised the children. A tiny line worry-line appeared between Elizabeth’s level brows.
“He’ll ask for volunteers, first.”
“Moses will ask to be sent, I am sure of it.”
“Liz, dearest, he is not a child any more. He is a man, or close enough to it. And we will talk it all over tonight after we have supped.”
Elizabeth’s merry mood seemed to have fled, though, and they ate in companionable silence, until they could see that other men were drifting to Stephens’s campfire, carrying benches and stools; Old Martin Murphy and his sons and James Miller, Patrick Martin and his boys, young Sullivan, and the various drovers. Sarah and Elizabeth hastily scoured the plates clean, and followed Isabella. John clambered up into the wagon for his little writing-case; he had a sense that he ought to be taking the minutes.
The wagon-owners settled themselves in the first circle around the fire: Stephens and Greenwood, Isabella and her father, Allan, Martin Murphy and his sons, and James Miller, John Sullivan and Patrick Martin. Wives, older children, brothers, and hired men filled in the spaces, and spilled over to a second circle, and stood in the gaps behind benches and chairs brought out from the wagons. Coming to the confluence of waters meant a very real decision about what route to take now, a decision with nearly unbearable consequences, now that snow had been falling for weeks. No wonder Old Martin looked particularly worn, and cosseted his grandchildren. Fully half the party was his blood kin, and he the person most responsible for bringing them here, too.
“Aye, we must send for assistance, while we can, “Old Martin agreed. Like Isabella, he would not countenance abandoning the wagons; consensus regarding taking the slightly more open but possibly longer route along the creek was complete.
“And how many shall we send? Who can we spare, when we’ll need every strong man to move the wagons, hey?”
“No more than six, “Greenwood replied. “Strong riders, with little gear and just enough food. Eight of the horses are in fair condition, still; six to ride, two for spares and packs.” He cleared his throat and spat thoughtfully into the fire. He seemed almost to hesitate before saying more. “Whoever they be, ‘twill be six less on the foodstuff left to the main party. And they need not all be men, either.” That was a notion to cause an intake of breath around the fire, and a sudden, thoughtful silence.
Old Martin was the first to break it. “I’d not countenance asking a mother or a father yet, to leave children behind in a place such as this. No, no, never, ‘tis an unnatural thing y’d be asking. Not even the heathen savages would ask such.”
“No,” Greenwood agreed. “But among the tribes, women without children commonly ride with the hunting parties. They do the butchering and dressing out, and cooking and all.”
“What a wonderful time they must have, doing all the work of it!” Sarah said, in a voice that carried just far enough, and there was a rustle of wry laughter from the women on the edge of the campfire.
“So how do we choose the six; draw lots from among those of age, young, fit and without children?”
“Aye,” agreed Old Martin readily. “But it is in my mind; we should first pledge to assist the families of those chosen, whatever they may require. Our needs might leave them short of a provider, and ready hands.”
“Are we agreed on that, then? Draw lots for a place and to see to the needs of any family left short?” Stephens’ ugly, lined face appeared more than usually like a grim, fire-gilded gargoyle, looking around the circle. “We are agreed: Are there any exceptions?”
“None but you, Captain – and the Doctor. You are more needed here with us.”
“I had no intent of leaving this company, until we are all safe,” replied Stephens, dourly. “Nor does Doctor Townsend; so, how many will draw?” He leant down and began pulling stems of dried grass from the brown tufts still un-trampled around his log seat.
The quiet murmurs ran around the campfire, quickly tallying names; Alan and Sarah, Greenwood’s two sons, Stephens’ young drover Tom Flomboy, Oliver Patterson, old Martin’s youngest children, Daniel, Bernard, Johnny, and their sister Helen. The four drovers, Edmund Bray, Vincent Calvin, Matthew Harbin, Oliver Magnent, and Francis, John’s own hired man. Joseph Foster, and Moses’ close friends, Dennis and Patrick Martin. Not the Sullivans; after some discussion. John and Mary had the care of their younger brothers. But that left Moses himself . . . and his Elizabeth. John’s heart turned over in his chest; all of them, fit and strong, young and childless, twenty of them, nearly a half of the party.
Stephens cut twenty straws, and cut six of them in half. He set them in his palm so they were all level, and closed his fist. He held out that fist towards Allan Montgomery first, then Britt and John Greenwood. Allan and John Greenwood drew long straws, and so did Britt. Moses also drew a long straw. His disappointment was obvious, but John hoped that his own relief was not. The hired men drew in a body: the Irish drover boys and Stephens’s drover lad, the dark Louisiana French boy whose name was such a tongue-twister; all drew long, but Oliver Magnent and Francis Deland both drew short. Joseph Foster stepped forward to draw: another long.
“Tarnation take it, another two months of this!” he said, in good-humored disappointment. “And all on short rations, too!”
“Daniel, Johnny, ye and Bernard step forrard. Where’s Helen?” Old Martin chided his four youngest into the circle and looked on with a deathly countenance, when Helen, Johnny and Daniel all drew short straws. Oliver Patterson stepped forward into the firelight to draw.
Stephens looked at him with a particularly severe and interrogatory frown. “Boy, are you of age for this venture?”
Oliver blushed deep red as Isabella said, white-lipped, “He will be eighteen in three months.”
Oliver drew a long straw though, leaving a pair of wispy straws in Stephens’ fist; Sarah and Elizabeth stepped forward, and John’s heart felt as if it turned over entirely within his chest. Sarah drew a long straw, and could not hide the disappointment on her face. Elizabeth then took forth the last of the straws from Stephens’s hand: a short straw for the horse party. Elizabeth, not Moses; John was shaken down to the soul. Old Martin looked hardly better.
Stephens let the murmurings of excitement and sympathy die down and quietly commanded, “Doctor, take down their names into the trail journal. I’ll want to talk to them, all together. They must leave in the morning, at first light.” He spoke a little louder, to the gathering at large. “Thank-ee all, sitting out in the cold for this. It’s only trail business we had to settle tonight.”
Taking their cue, the women began chivvying away the children who already had not been settled to bed. The younger men and the families of those who had not been chosen drifted away from Stephens’ campfire in their wake; after such a day of travel, a warm bedroll had a powerful and irresistible allure.
As the evening meeting broke apart, Greenwood thoughtfully sized up the six chosen. “You were well-guided, Cap’n. They are well-suited. Among the women, Mrs. Townsend has the best seat on horseback, and little Helen is young and strong. It is good that her brothers are among them, they are both good hands with the beasts, and fearless about venturing into wilderness. Magnent and Deland are good shots, and as trail-wise as they come, besides being used to the cold and the snow”
“For me, I am glad Mrs. Townsend is amongst them.” John said. His voice sounded hollow to his own ears. “The cold and the hardships are so extreme, I fear for her under these circumstances, and welcome any means for her to escape farther exposure to the winter chill.”
“It may be best at that.” Old Greenwood looked grim. “Would that I could urge all to travel so light, and escape these mountains. At least, they will be six less appetites upon the supplies we have left.”
Old Martin and his children, Elizabeth and the two French lads, all the chosen lingered by the fire as they were bidden. In the firelight, Elizabeth looked as young as they; all so eager, fired by the prospect of adventure, just as they all had been six months ago at Council Bluffs, when the grass was lush and deep, escaping the drudgery of a mundane existence. Now they looked fair to escape another trap, of everlasting cold, and the brutal labor of moving the wagons another mile or so farther up the river, that river whose jaws were closing in on them like a trap.
Stephens looked at them, and smiled, wryly. “No great words . . . wish I did. Ride hard. Look after each other and the horses. Get to Sutters’ place and bring back help.”
“We shall!” Elizabeth’s chin lifted, and her eyes were fired with determination. “We are leaving our kin and dearest ones, and our friends, knowing that their very salvation depends on us. Depend on us, Captain Stephens, we will not fail.”
Even if Old Greenwood appeared to hide a half-cynical smile, the others – Helen and her brothers, the two Frenchmen, all shared the same look of bright dedication. They could not fail; they would throw themselves at the high mountains, the rocks and rivers and the ice, they would win through it all, they would come through, and rescue their families. John’s heart felt as if it would burst with a combination of pride and dread.
“We will not fail, “Elizabeth whispered, when they lay tucked together in their bedroll of blankets and quilts, and the trusty buffalo robe, spread on top of the platform of boxes and flat-topped trunks in their wagon. The drawstrings and flaps had been drawn tight against the cold. A kettle of coals taken from the fire lent an illusion of warmth to the tiny, canvas-walled room. A pair of flat stones heated in the fire, wrapped in a blanket and tucked in the bottom of their bed produced a slightly more convincing degree of warmth, together with the warmth of each other, curled into each other, spoon-fashioned.
Around and outside this fragile shelter, came the quiet, near-to sleep voices of Isabella’s children, Allan Montgomery’s irritated voice, raised and quickly hushed, a quiet crunch of regular footsteps in new snow, the horses pawing the frozen ground, searching for more of the thin dried grass. Under it all, a nearly-imperceptible yet menacing rustle, the constant sound of more snow falling, brushing the canvas and pine branches; fat flakes like feathers, like falling leaves.
“I wish,” said John, into her hair, hugging her dear and familiar self into the shelter of his own body. “I wish that we . . .”
“Had not taken this journey?” Elizabeth picked up the thread of his thoughts as expertly as she had always done. “Oh, my dear, never wish that. No, never. For I am glad that we have, even if this would be the last night we spend in each others’ arms.And it will not be,” she added firmly. She took his hand in hers, and held it first to her lips, and then her cheek. After a moment, she continued, thoughtfully. “I almost feel as if my life before we started this journey was lived in shadows, a sort of half-life, and then I came out into bright sunshine. Did not we decide upon this great adventure partly because of my own health? And now I am in good heath, and have shared your life in a way that I never could before. In our present emergency, I am accounted strong enough to be given a great task, a responsibility? There should be no greater reward, I do not ask for any such. Dearest, there is nothing to regret. I love you all the more for having made this possible. Have no fear for me. I will be safe, and we will not fail.”
“I pray that shall be so, “ John tightened his arms around her, at once wishing for this night with Elizabeth never to end, full knowing it would be the last they would spend together for weeks if not months, and that it were tomorrow already, the agony of parting already over. He was torn between pride in her courage, and worry for her that shook him down to his bones.
“We should go to sleep, Liz, you’ll need as much rest tonight as possible.”
“Mmmm. Don’t stay awake yourself, watching over me,” Elizabeth said, teasingly, but John did try to fight off slumber for a while, until sleep claimed them both.
And then too soon it was dark morning, snow still falling, and he was standing, wretchedly tongue-tied in front of people, for once. He had promised Elizabeth, back in the desert, that he should not have to go on a long scout again, and be separated from her. Now, ironically, she was riding on a long scout, leaving him to plod behind.
“Promise me rather, that wherever one of us will go, the other will follow after in a little while,” she had said, and so he would be following after, but it was bitter, bitter. Moses and he had saddled Beau, rolled up the buffalo robe and two or three blankets around a pitiful bag of dried meats, hard-tack, and a little ground coffee and strapped them behind her saddle. Isabella and Sarah had fussed over what to send with her, just as the Murphy women were fussing over Helen, Johnny and Daniel.
Old Martin had tears rolling down his cheeks as he gave his youngest daughter a boost into the saddle. Daniel’s paint pony danced impatiently, crunching the fresh-fallen snow underfoot; the lads were eager to be away.
“Dearest, I must go now.” She leaned down from the saddle, and brushed his cheek with her lips. Then she was gone, following the rest of the mounted party. They were veiled in falling slow before they reached the first bend and lost to sight, but he was almost sure she turned in the saddle and lifted her hand in one last farewell.