Wagon Train Sisters (Women of the West)

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After the death of her abusive husband, Sarah Gregg is free to join her family along with thousands of others in the nation’s westward march for gold. But in the middle of the hard journey, Sarah’s younger sister, Florrie, disappears. Devastated by the family’s failed attempts to find her missing sister, Sarah now wants only to settle into a quiet, uneventful life when she reaches California . . .

 

But Jack McCoy, a drifter and one-time gambler riding along their wagon train, sees so much more for Sarah. In the roaring mining town of Gold Creek his attentive persistence points Sarah toward new vistas. Then unexpected news of Florrie arrives—and it’s worse than anyone expected. But driven by a new hopefulness, Sarah seeks help from Jack, despite his troubled past. The two have traveled a rough road together, and only their hearts can tell them where they are headed . . .

 

 

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Books by Shirley Kennedy

 

Women of the West series

Wagon Train Cinderella

Wagon Train Sisters

 

 

Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation

 

 

 

Wagon Train Sisters

Women of the West series

 

Shirley Kennedy

 

LYRICAL PRESS

Kensington Publishing Corp.

www.kensingtonbooks.com

 

 

 

Copyright

 

Lyrical Press books are published by

Kensington Publishing Corp. 119 West 40th Street New York, NY 10018

 

Copyright © 2016 by Shirley Kennedy

 

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First Electronic Edition: July 2016

eISBN-13: 1978-1-60183-593-2

eISBN-10: -60183-593-0

 

First Print Edition: July 2016

ISBN-13: 978-1-60183-594-9

ISBN-10: 1-60183-594-9

 

 

 

Dedication

 

As we go through life, friends come and go. Only a few last a lifetime. This book is dedicated to three lifetime friends dear to my heart: Julie Gettys, Carol Eversole, and Larry Wonderling.

 

Chapter 1

 

It was late afternoon before Sarah realized something was wrong. Earlier, the wagons had stopped for the noon meal beside a clear, gently flowing stream. The wagon master wanted to move on, but the women insisted they cut short the day’s journey and spend the night. Who could blame them? After days of crossing the bare, dusty plains, each had more than her share of dirty laundry. Kneeling by the stream, Sarah enjoyed this ritual of chatting with her neighbors, despite scrubbing clothes until her knuckles were raw and red.

But where’s Florrie?
Sarah sat back on her heels and looked around. “Has anybody seen my sister?”

Lined along the bank, the ladies of the train dutifully halted their labors. “Haven’t seen her since this morning.”

“Haven’t seen her all day.”

“Maybe she ran away.”

Everyone tittered at that last remark. After weeks living in the forced closeness of a wagon train, they knew each other well, and in some cases, better than they wished. Sarah was known to be the hard worker of the family. Her sister-in-law, Becky, was the one with the sharp tongue. Florrie was the quiet one, hadn’t made many friends, and stayed close to their wagon. She’d be the last person in the world who’d run off. Besides, where would she go? Two days ago they’d left the last vestiges of civilization at Fort Hall and were now in a land where rivers raged, wild animals roamed, forests stretched to the horizon and beyond.

So where
was
Florrie? Come to think of it, Sarah hadn’t seen her since right after they stopped for the day, and that was hours ago. It wasn’t like her, but she must be visiting at one of the wagons. She’d surely appear in time for supper. Nothing to worry about.

When Sarah lugged her bagful of laundry back to her family’s wagon, she half expected Florrie to be waiting, but she wasn’t in sight. Ma was fixing supper, grunting with pain as she bent over the campfire. Sarah hastily set down the laundry and took the poker from her mother’s hand. “Is your rheumatism acting up? Here, let me do that. You go rest. Have you seen Florrie?”

Luzena Bryan frowned with concern. “No I haven’t. I was beginning to worry, but then I decided she must be with you.”

“I haven’t seen her for hours.”

“Then she must have gone visiting one of the wagons.”

“Of course. She’ll be back any minute.” As Sarah bent to stir the pot of beans hanging over the campfire, a faint quiver of worry coursed through her. Florrie never did anything out of the ordinary. She would never disappear like this. Twenty-three and still unmarried, she didn’t have a whole lot of friends, nor did she seem to want any. Back home in Fort Wayne, she hardly went anywhere except church. Aside from helping with the housework, she spent her time producing bumpy needlepoint canvases and reading romantic, derring-do novels by the likes of Mrs. Southworth and Mrs. Wilson. No gentleman ever came calling, which Florrie said was fine with her, but Sarah knew otherwise. Florrie was no great beauty. In a rare moment of honesty, she once complained to Sarah, “God gave you the beautiful eyes and the nice little nose and the curvy figure, but me? God made me ugly, and don’t tell me otherwise.”

Sarah had hastened to reassure her younger sister with, “Beauty is only skin deep,” and other useless platitudes. The truth was God had given Florrie a chin too weak, lips too thin, eyes too close together and a chest too flat. All of which wouldn’t have mattered had she possessed the kind of bubbly charm that made men overlook such imperfections, but she didn’t. Men never looked twice at Florrie Bryan. Her plodding gait, dumpy figure, and lack of sparkling conversation turned them away.

Her family cared deeply for her, though. No one could have a more generous heart or be more loyal than Florrie. Now, as the sun sank ever lower on the horizon, the Bryans finished their dinner while sitting around their campfire, discussing her disappearance with growing concern. “She’s the last person on this train who’d do this,” said Hiram, her brother. He looked toward the tall trees surrounding them and the mountain peaks beyond. “Where would she go? We’re in the middle of nowhere.”

Hiram’s wife, Becky, spoke up. “Why the fuss? There’s fifty-four wagons in this train. She could be visiting in any one of them.”

Ma ignored her less-than-lovable daughter-in-law. “I’m worried. I think we should start looking.” She looked at her husband. “Don’t you think so, Frank?”

Pa gave an elaborate shrug. “I think we should wait. She’s bound to turn up.”

Sarah could tell her mild-mannered father was concerned and trying not to let it show. As if he didn’t have enough problems. For years, he’d led a quiet life running his newspaper in Fort Wayne. When he wasn’t working, he read books, wrote poetry, went fishing, and enjoyed his family. Sarah couldn’t remember her parents ever arguing. Ma kept the household running and disciplined the children. Pa earned the money and gave wise advice. A perfect arrangement, but it didn’t last. Ma’s health had never been good, but this past year, she’d grown ever more frail. Pa’s newspaper began to lose money. His worry over going bankrupt created constant anxiety in what had been a comfortably happy family.

How lucky Joseph died.
The irreverent thought often popped into Sarah’s head these days. At the age of twenty-two, she’d married Joseph Gregg and moved to his farm. At the age of twenty-eight, she became a widow. Childless, she moved back home, soon discovering how much she was needed, even more so now.

Since they left Indiana, her parents had changed, and not for the better. Pa, the respected newspaper owner, had always been elegantly dressed in frock coat and brocade vest, never without his walking stick, watch, and top hat. Now he was hard to recognize in his flannel shirt, baggy pants, and scraggly beard. Ma, too, had always dressed in the height of fashion. She wouldn’t have been caught dead in the plain dress, sturdy boots, and white apron she was wearing now.

A look of sudden awareness crossed Ma’s face. She slammed a hand to her heart. “It’s almost dark. Where is that girl?” She leaped to her feet. “Florrie would never stay out this long. Something’s wrong. We’ve got to find her.”

Sarah put her plate aside, rose, and placed a comforting arm around her mother. “You’re right. I’m worried, too, but I’m sure she’s just gone visiting and isn’t aware of the time.”

Pa and Becky remained seated and unperturbed, but Hiram quickly got to his feet. “I’ll start looking. We’ll find her.”

Becky sniffed with disdain. “She’ll show up, Hiram. Sit down and finish your supper.”

Why did he marry her? Sarah had long since grown accustomed to her sharp-tongued sister-in-law’s selfish attitude, but there were times she’d like to give her a good shake. Ma and her brother were right to be concerned. “I’ll come with you, Hiram. Let’s each take half. We’ll ask at every wagon.”

Parked in a meadow by the stream, the wagons of the Morehead wagon train were positioned in a big circle. Starting with their own wagon, Hiram went one way around the circle and Sarah the other. “Have you seen Florrie?” she asked at every campfire. Always the answer was no. No one seemed concerned, and humorous suggestions abounded.

“Maybe she’s playing hide-and-seek.”

“Maybe the wolves got her.” That was said with such an unfeeling giggle Sarah’s temper flared. Couldn’t they see how worried she was?

When Sarah asked when Florrie had last been seen, nobody seemed to know. No wonder. Who would notice her sister? Everything about her was unremarkable, from her plain looks to her dull conversation. Not until Sarah reached the wagon master’s campfire did anyone take her seriously.

Dissension reigned in many of the wagon trains, but so far the Morehead train had traveled without major conflicts, thanks mainly to its leader. A tall, gray-haired man of about fifty, Albert Morehead always maintained a calm, reasonable attitude and was admired by all. When she asked if he’d seen Florrie, he replied, “No I haven’t, Sarah. Have you asked around?”

“I’ve stopped at every wagon, Mr. Morehead. Nobody’s seen her.”

In the gathering darkness, the wagon master cast an apprehensive glance at the thick woods surrounding the meadow. “I’d hate to think she’s lost in those woods, what with—” He clamped his lips. “If she doesn’t turn up, say, in the next hour, we’ll form a search party.”

The wagon master’s unsaid words increased her uneasiness. Since the train left the monotony of the plains and started toward the mountains, the eerie howling of wolves had kept her awake each night.

Hiram appeared, shaking his head. “I asked at every wagon, but nobody’s seen her.”

“That settles it.” Morehead nodded decisively. “We’ll start searching for that young lady right now. Come on, Hiram, let’s gather the men. Sarah, get back to your mother. She’s going to need you.”

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