John and Ward Hawkins
THE day had a steamy warmth. The mud was drying underfoot as Mary climbed the hill path to the Wagner encampment. She was tall, well boned, and her mouth was a smiling mouth. Her hair was brown and her eyes were brown. And though the hill was steep, she moved with a light, quick step, climbing toward the corral that lay just short of the wooded crest.
She saw Jeff Hazen there, working with the men who were repairing the pole fence. She called, and he came toward her, his eyes alight with recognition and pleasure.
Mary," he said. "You're a long way from home."
He was a solid, stocky man. His bare arms were corded and brown; his hands blunt-fingered, square. The scar, down-slashed across one temple, hadn't been there when he left Sweet Valley. The years had toughened him, but his smile was the same, quick, white.
"Seein' you here in St. Joe's like seein' a ghost," he said. "It was '46 when I seen you last. Six years, Mary--Mrs. Van Dorn. A long time."
"I heard you was wintering here," said Mary.
"My company leaves May first."
"Can we go with you, Jeff? To Oregon, I mean."
"The company votes on who's to go. I can put it up to them."
"Would you do that, Jeff ?
His face was sober. "Seems like it's a man's place to deal with the company," he said. "The equipment and such's got to be checked. The men won't like to deal with a woman."
"There's just the children and me, Jeff. Papa died last year."
"I'm sorry," he said.
"I sold the farm and most of the stock. I--I"
"You come from Sweet Valley by yourself?"
Mary said, "Yes, Jeff."
The rest she'd planned a hundred times, seeing this day in the ruddy flames of cooking fires on the long way west. But it wasn't easy to say. Jeff was so quiet, his thoughts so deep hidden. He'd courted her back in Sweet Valley. She'd all but promised to marry him, and then Clyde Van Dorn had come along to beat Jeff's time. That old hurt was between them now--and a wall of years that made it hard to speak.
She said, "Jeff," and her voice had a scratchy, far-off sound. "Clyde left me just when Tuck was born."
"That makes it bad," said Jeff.
Stoutly Mary said, "I got along."
Jeff was frowning. "You must have found it hard to raise up a family in Sweet Valley without help. And what's bad in Sweet Valley is ten times worse in St. Joe. I'll put it tip to the company, but I know the answer won't be to your liking."
"I come this far alone."
"It's a long road to Oregon. A hard road."
"I got a good wagon and good stock. I can pay for what I need. And I got a gun. I can fight."
Jeff's teeth shone in a brief grin.
"We got to keep close guard on the stock. The men take night watch by turns. We got to build rafts to get across some of the rivers. It's share and share alike, and a family without a man is just a dead weight."
"I'll take my turn at guard."
"The men wouldn't stand for it." Jeff scrubbed his palms together. "I'd have to side with 'em," he said awkwardly. "You better go back home."
Mary said, "I'll do no such thing."
"You force me to speak plain," said Jeff. "This's St. Joe. There's ten thousand emigrants here, waitin' to take the trail. The law can't keep pace with that many folks. There's plenty of stealin' goin' on. Plenty of--well, everything that's bad. A man can fight to keep what's his, but a woman?"
"I'm goin' to Oregon, Jeff Hazen," said Mary firmly, "and all your talk's not goin' to stop me."
"Time's gentled you none."
Jeff's voice was soft but the words struck home. He had said that once before--long, long before.
Mary said, "Jeff, you?"
He made a fist of one square hand and pressed it hard against the palm of the other. "I knew about Clyde," he said heavily. "His leaving you, I mean. I saw him in St. Louis 'bout two months ago. He was house man in one of the games there."
"Clyde is in St. Louis?"
"He probably went down the river." Jeff's scowl deepened and he did not meet her eyes. "Him and that--that--woman he had with him."
"I thank you for telling me," Mary whispered.
Jeff cleared his throat. "I'll speak to the company 'bout you going with us," he said. "I'll let you know."
She left him then, turning back the way she had come. Clyde was in St. Louis. Her mind was full of that.