In 1845, a young woman risks her life to travel the perilous Oregon Trail to marry a man she's never met. But when she falls in love with the leader of the wagon train, she must make a decision: to go through with her contracted marriage, or to follow her heart.
Chapter 1- A Sad Leave-taking
Cape Cod, Massachusetts
The sight of herself in the mirror frightened Mercy Montgomery more than anything. And at that moment, she was grieved by a great many things.
She'd been trying to tame her normally curly red hair into submission by twisting it into a bun on top of her head, but it was acting wild. As soon as she wrangled one lock into place, another tumbled out. It looked like she had just survived a wind storm, with hair sticking out in all directions. Her swollen cheeks were a horror as well, as splotchy as if she'd been attacked by a swarm of bees.
Mercy rubbed her eyes to try to stop her tears, but they kept streaming down her face. The more her shaking hands wiped them away, the worse she looked. Her big brown eyes were now reduced to pink slits, and when she stared into the mirror, everything was a blur.
She stifled a sob. On this day, of all days, she needed to at least appear to be happy. But she was failing, miserably.
She reached up to unfasten her hair, comb it out and begin again. But she froze when she heard footsteps in the hall. Perhaps it was a servant, in which case her appearance was none of their business. She threw her hands over her face, willing herself to calm down.
But it was only dear little Lucille.
"Miss Mercy-oh my-Miss Mercy." the little girl cried as she burst into Mercy's room. Her soft slippers made barely a sound as she half-ran, half-slid across the pine floor to the vanity. She stared at her governess' reflection in the mirror.
"Why are you so sad?" A frown creased the ten-year-old's normally cheerful countenance. "Aren't you excited about finally beginning your new adventure?"
Mercy slowly turned to face her and blinked.
"I thought you were happy." Lucille's voice trailed off but then she found it again. "About starting your new life in Oregon Country?"
Mercy tried to smile, but failed. She swallowed hard and met Lucille's gaze, searching for an answer that wouldn't upset the child.
"Aren't you excited?" Lucille cocked her head. "You are going to meet your new husband at last."
Mercy knew she should be. Everyone in the household had assumed she was, because until today she'd been putting on a cheerful face.
When she was alone, she tried not to think about it at all. But now that it was actually time to leave, she could no longer hide the truth from herself or anyone else.
She had been Lucille's governess since the child was a toddler. Never once had she cried in front of her. Her appearance must alarm her now, and that was the last thing she wanted.
Lucille's sweet smile faded as tears crept down Mercy's cheeks.
"Now, now," Lucille said, patting her shoulder, the way Mercy had often comforted her. Mercy stifled a sob. Barring a miracle, she would never see this intelligent, loving child again.
Lucille tilted her head. "Are you crying about Mr. Crawford? Are you worried about what he will look like?" She shrugged and gave Mercy a hopeful grin. "Because I'm certain he will be quite handsome."
Mercy shook her head. Truth to tell, she had not been giving Mr. Crawford's appearance much thought. Under different circumstances, she would have found Lucille's comment rather amusing.
She coughed, stalling as she tried to come up with the right words to explain her feelings. "I'll be alright in a minute," she said, reaching out to pat Lucille's hand.
The truth was, it would take her a long time to get over having to leave Lucille and the entire Sweed family. Not to mention their grand Cape Cod estate, which had been her beloved home for the past seven years. She'd been so happy there, had felt so secure and loved. After so much loss in her life, she'd allowed herself to believe the Sweeds really were her family, and that she could stay there forever.
Her apprehension about traveling west to marry a stranger was intensified by her grief about losing them.
She longed to tell Lucille how much she would miss her, but didn't want to burden her. The child would soon be leaving home for a girls school in Boston. Her brothers, thirteen-year old Edward, and twelve-year old Thomas, would attend a boys academy there. She was truly happy for them. But their school plans had put her out of a job. As a result, she'd impulsively answered the newspaper advertisement of a widower with three children on the other side of the continent, and agreed to marry him.
She touched Lucille's cheek, cleared her throat and found her voice."I am crying because I will miss you," she whispered. "But I am also proud of you."
Swallowing tears, she beckoned Lucille to her lap. Together, they faced the mirror and Mercy sighed. There she was, dressed in her purple tear stained traveling gown, and there was Lucille, in her pretty lemon-yellow dress. The imp was gaining on her in height, and would be a beauty some day, just like her mother.
Mercy lifted her chin. "Don't worry about me," she said, her voice raspy. "I'm just being a silly ninny. I know you're going to love your new school. And I am also sure that my betrothed is a very handsome man. I can't wait to meet him. Though-of course-it will be many months before I do."
Lucille's face brightened. "I bet Oregon Country will be very nice, almost as lovely as Cape Cod." She stood up. "I envy you going there, you know. You get to travel in a covered wagon."
"Well, that's true."
Lucille grabbed Mercy's hands and hopped up and down. A mischievous smile spread across her face. "I know. I could go with you! Then you wouldn't have to miss me."
Mercy shook her head. "Oh no, dear. For one thing, I am pretty sure there are no schools out there yet. It's all farms and wilderness. And." She noticed with relief that her tears had finally stopped. "And traveling the Oregon Trail will be quite perilous, you see. Few people have taken it yet, and those who have say there are many wild animals along the way."
Immediately, Mercy regretted her choice of words. Lucille's eyes grew large and her lips started to quiver. "Oh, no." Mercy reached for her hand and squeezed it. "It's just that..you see...your parents wouldn't like it at all if you went with me."
"But it would be so adventurous." Lucille said. "I would be brave."
Mercy sighed. "I am sure you would be. But the Trail is long. It runs through prairies and deserts and mountains and Indian Country. It's possible that we could run out of food and water."
Lucille gasped. She looked on the brink of tears.
"Look, I'm just being foolish," Mercy said, chastising herself for making things worse. "I'm so sorry for allowing my imagination to run wild. I really shouldn't do that."
She pulled Lucille toward her and hugged her. "I will be just fine. You know I will, because I'm strong."
Lucille jumped to her feet. She glared at Mercy with her hands on her hips. "How can you say that?" She stamped her foot. "You are not strong. You are a wisp of a thing-at least that's what Mother always says! She says that you are too skinny. That you need to eat more. That you need to put some meat on your bones." A tear slid down her cheek. "Miss Mercy, I'm afraid you might die."
Mercy's heart sank. What a mess she'd made. Lucille saw right through her pronouncement about being strong. Mercy wanted to believe that about herself, that she had the physical strength for the journey. But wanting it and having it were two different things. "Frail," her aunt always called her, reminding her she came from a sickly family.
"No, I will not. I wouldn't dare die," Mercy said, forcing a smile. "So you see, you have no cause for worry. I promise that, when I get to Oregon, I will write to you and tell you all about my wonderful new life."
She took a deep breath. "Now I really must stop all this nonsense and get myself ready. Because I look ridiculous. It is bad enough that you have seen me this way. I would at least like to appear presentable when I go downstairs."
She lifted a frizzy curl and grimaced. "Please be a dear and run and fetch me a wet cloth so I can wash my face and then try to repair my hair."
"Of course, Miss Mercy," she said. "I'll be right back."
Alone again, Mercy sighed and glanced around at her comfortable bedroom. She would never forget its four poster bed and floor-to-ceiling window with a sweeping view of the estate's gardens and woods beyond.
Her tears had stopped, but now she felt completely numb. Lucile...