Santa Fe Trail. December, 1848
“Why don’t you and Warren get married? Then everyone would have someone and be happy.” Ten-year-old Polly’s blue-green eyes filled with challenge.
Eighteen-year-old Mary Mae Clark gasped at the child’s question to her. Her insides burned with embarrassment.
Warren Russell sat across the campfire and appeared busy fixing a piece of harness. With his brother’s recent marriage to her sister, Mary Mae and Warren were now related, but she had never thought of him as anything more than a brother-in-law.
Was it remotely possible he hadn’t heard the suggestion?
He put aside the lengths of leather and pushed to his feet. “Marriage does not make everyone happy,” he said, with some feeling. “I, for one, have no intention of getting married.” He gave Mary Mae a look rife with accusation. Did he think she’d put Polly up to this?
Mary Mae rose slowly and met his gaze. “I am no more interested in marriage than you.” She’d had her fill of thinking a man—any man—could be trusted to hang around long enough to make a home with her. Her pa, fine man that he was, had always preferred to be on the trail and then, when she and her sister, Donna Grace, wanted him to escort them to Santa Fe, he decided he didn’t want to be on the trail. Good thing Luke had offered to marry Donna Grace and provide the male escort the wagon train master demanded. Then there was Randolph. Oh the dreams she’d built with that man, thinking he shared them. He’d allowed her to think so, even encouraged it. Then he up and headed for the gold fields, seeking better things than a wife and home could give him.
Polly stood between them, quivering. “But why not? Everyone else is married. Except Uncle Sam and he’s got me. I thought everyone got married and lived happily ever after.”
Mary Mae couldn’t speak to the happy-ever-after part. She’d never gotten the chance to find out, thanks to Randolph’s sudden departure. Nope, she’d seen a whole lot more of for-a-while-and-leaving than happy-and-staying.
Sam Braddock, Polly’s uncle and guardian, strode toward them. He paused and looked from one troubled face to the other. “Something wrong?”
Polly raced to her uncle and Sam swept her up into his arms.
Mary Mae’s throat constricted. How secure Polly was in the knowledge her uncle loved her and cared enough to keep her with him. What had Polly said? That he’d promised her a home for Christmas. Wouldn’t that be wonderful for the child? Perhaps Sam had a sweetheart somewhere to share his home with. At least Polly hadn’t suggested Mary Mae wed her uncle.
Her heart sank at the way Polly studied her uncle and then turned to Mary Mae with a gleam in her eyes. Don’t say it, she silently begged the child.
He was a fine man and all. She simply wasn’t interested. No. She’d make a life for herself back in Santa Fe where she’d grown up. One that didn’t depend on a man. Besides her wish to return to the place, a more urgent matter called her. She’d received a letter from her dear friend, Sophia, now widowed with a baby boy. Sophia’s in-laws were threatening to get guardianship of Sophia’s son. Mary Mae planned to appeal to her Grandfather Ramos to intervene on Sophia’s behalf. She’d already written her grandfather, but knew he would listen better if she presented her request in person.
Not wanting to be around when Warren or Polly explained what had happened, Mary Mae stepped across the wagon tongue and wandered down the line of wagons. The melody of a harmonica came from the camp where the teamsters hunkered down.
The wagon master, Buck, felt the teamsters would prefer not to share their evening with the paying travellers. Mary Mae guessed it was as much the other way. The travellers likely didn’t care to listen to the rough talk of the teamsters, though they surely enjoyed the music that came every night from that direction.
It was cold as she moved away from the fire and she turned back, hoping Warren had moved on, or that the others had come back to the fire. If not, she would make her way to bed. Donna Grace and Luke had married before they left Independence and shared the wagon Mary Mae and her sister had brought. Then Warren’s sister, Judith, had married Gil, the scout. They had taken over the Russell wagon. It left Mary Mae feeling like she had no place to call her own, and she’d spent time riding in the Braddock wagon with Polly. But Polly’s talk of marriage, and the look she had given Mary Mae when Sam held her, made Mary Mae uncomfortable doing so again.
But she had to sleep somewhere. She’d put up their little tent and sleep alone. Just like she meant to make her way through life alone. Independent. Free. She sighed. Free sounded a lot like lonely, but she wouldn’t let that deter her.
She marched back to the camp and saw that the others were busy preparing for the night. She went to the back of the Clark wagon and grunted as she struggled to get the tent from underneath a pile of bedding.
Warren reached over her shoulder and pulled the canvas roll out.
“Thank you,” she said, keeping her voice as polite as she could.
“I’m not interested in marriage to anyone, so don’t take it personal. Doesn’t mean I can’t be a gentleman and help a lady when she needs it.”
She murmured another thank you. “This is one lady who is going to learn not to depend on a man for anything. But don’t take it personal.”
Warren chuckled despite himself. He knew Polly’s lively imagination had seen everyone happily married. Good thing Sam had come along when he did. Warren didn’t want anyone thinking he had any thought of marrying Mary Mae. Luke and Judith had both mentioned it, but just because they had found happiness on this trip by marrying, didn’t mean it was for him. Nope. He’d remain the only unwed Russell. After all, it wasn’t like he hadn’t tried matrimony. He’d been married to Gina, a fine, sweet woman. They’d had a baby boy and called him Reggie.
His troubled memories drove him away from the wagons and into the night.
He’d been living his dream, building a ranch, striving to establish the best cow herd he could. His work consumed him to the point he’d neglected Gina and Reggie. He groaned back the memory of how he’d left her that last time, despite her saying she was ill and begging him to stay with her. He had a hundred cows to bring home and had to get it done. Gina would be fine on her own.
He’d returned to find both Gina and Reggie drawing their final breath. If he’d stayed he could have sought medical help for them, could have seen they got food and water. Could have done so many things, but instead he put his own interests first. And it wasn’t the first time. When he was fifteen, he was left to watch the wagon that held his two little sisters—Judith and Dodi. A friend came along with a new puppy and he forgot his responsibilities. While he admired the pup, a runaway wagon banged into the one he was to be watching. His sisters were thrown out. Dodi died and Judith’s leg was badly broken.
Losing his sister should have been lesson enough, but seems he was a slow learner and he repeated the same failure with Gina. However, he had no intention of inviting another failure, another loss and another pain to carry.
Like he said. He wouldn’t ever marry again. No woman deserved the kind of man he had proven to be. Never mind that he was twenty-eight to Mary Mae’s what? What was she? Eighteen or nineteen? He couldn’t remember and wasn’t about to ask anyone. The dark-haired, dark-eyed, part-Spanish young woman was much too young for him even if he’d been the least bit interested. Which he wasn’t.
“Wait up.” Sam called from behind him.
Warren slowed so his friend could catch up.
“I put Polly to bed. She said something about a story she told. Sounded to me like she made you and Mary Mae the main characters.”
“It was just make believe.” Warren did not want to get into a discussion about it. He and Sam had been together on the trail for a couple of years. Polly had joined Sam a year ago after her parents’ deaths. Despite their friendship, he’d never told Sam about Gina and Reggie.
“She just wants everyone to be happy.”
Warren nodded. “She’s a generous little girl.” Perhaps he could divert Sam’s inquisitiveness. “It sounds to me like she is dreaming of a home without wheels.”
“She is. I’m thinking I might settle down. There’s a little gal in Pecos that might be interested in setting up house with me.”
Warren chuckled. “Does her father own the trading post?”
Warren heard the smile in Sam’s voice. “I wish you all the best.”
Sam slapped Warren’s back. “You ever think about settling down?”
“I like freighting.”
“Can’t do it forever.”
“Can do it until I’m old and crippled.” Warren thought of the many men who had left the trail for various reasons. Some because of injury, some because of marriage, some because they took the money and turned to other things. Like ranching. “Are you on first watch?” He hoped again to change the subject.
“What are you going to do with all the money you’ve been making?” Seems Sam wasn’t about to be diverted.
“I send some to my parents.” He also sent some anonymously to Gina’s parents. The rest he saved. He figured he’d know what it was for when the time came.
“Yeah, I’m on watch. I told Polly you would sleep under our wagon. She cried some because Mary Mae didn’t climb into the wagon like she often does.”
Warren knew Polly’s innocent planning was the reason. It was too bad. Hopefully Mary Mae wouldn’t feel ill at ease with him.
They made their way back to the campsite. The others were in bed. Rustling came from the tent pitched next to Luke and Donna Grace’s wagon. Mary Mae settling for the night. One of the babies cried, then silenced.
He threw his bedroll under Sam’s wagon.
“Uncle Sam?” Polly called.
“It’s me. I’ll be here watching out for you.”
“I didn’t mean no harm.” Her voice quivered.
“It’s okay, little one. It’s nice that you want everyone to be happy. Just remember, some of us are happy the way we are.”
“Is Mary Mae angry at me?”
“I can’t speak for her.” He wondered if she overheard the conversation.
“I’m not angry,” Mary Mae said, her voice muffled by distance and the tent. “But like Warren says, some of us are happy as we are.”
“Exactly what I thought until I met Luke.” Donna Grace’s voice came from the wagon.
“Me too, until I met Donna Grace,” Luke echoed.
“Add me to those who thought they were happy alone,” Gil called from the other wagon.
“And me,” Judith added from the same direction as Gil.
From the fourth wagon, Mrs. Shepton spoke. “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’”
“Amen, my dear,” the reverend said. “And good night to all.”
A chorus of goodnights answered him.
The words of the Bible echoed in Warren’s head. It was not good for man to be alone, but better alone than regretting his inability to care for others.