Selah Awards 2020 - 2nd Place Winner - Western Category
Why him? Why here? Why now?
Caroline Pierce O'Leary expects to work hard to earn her passage to the Oregon Country. She doesn't expect to find that the wagon train scout is a man with whom she shares a troubled past. Though Caroline is a Christian now, thanks to her late husband, she finds forgiving Michael to be the hardest part of her journey, harder even than the Trail.
Michael Moriarty thought he'd left his past behind in "green and hurting Ireland." Seeing Caroline on his wagon train, brings his past to the forefront. With a price on his head, he doesn't want her to get hurt, but he can't deny what they were...and could still be.
Michael once betrayed Caroline in the worst possible way. Can she trust him to get her across the Oregon Trail? Can he trust himself to accept her forgiveness and God’s?
Series: Western Dreams #1
St. Joseph, Mo.
Why him, why here, why now?
Caroline’s heart felt like it could pound its way out of her chest. The commotion from the street and the murmur of voices in the hotel lobby faded as her brain tried to absorb the shock.
“You know each other?” Wagon master Pace Williams blurted.
Michael Moriarty stood in front of her, bigger than life. Six feet four, shoulders straining at his checked flannel shirt, black curls springy from a recent washing. The hard planes of his face were the same, and those cobalt blue eyes stared at her in disbelief.
“Caroline?” he repeated.
She drew on the manners from her Eastern childhood, steadied her voice, and turned to Williams. “Mr. Moriarty and I knew each other back in Ohio. He was my husband’s best friend. Naturally, when I applied for the cook’s job, I had no idea he was your scout.”
“You never told me.” Michael still had a good chunk of his Irish brogue, made strong by his anger. He looked as if he wanted to grab Williams by the throat.
“You never asked—not her name, not what town she came from. Ohio’s a pretty big place, Mike. And it’s full of widows. But since you know each other, I’ll let you help Miz O’Leary get settled, and you can catch up on the news. I’ll take care of our other folks.” He beamed as though he were doing them a favor, and doffed his worn, wide-brimmed hat. “Glad you’re here, ma’am. Mike’ll help you find what you need.” Pace retreated, his tall form absorbed into the milling crowd.
Michael’s dark blue eyes that had always brimmed with fun and teasing were now as baffled as hers must look.
She could still bolt. But there was nowhere to run to and nowhere to go—except the West.
“How did you—”
“I answered Mr. Williams’ advertisement for a cook. There was nothing for me in Summer Pasture, not after Dan died. So I decided to work my way West.”
“I was sorry to hear about Daniel.”
Not sorry enough to come to his funeral, or send a note. Not sorry enough to—No. She wouldn’t feel anything. That wasn’t a luxury she couldn’t afford. Was that pity in his eyes? If so, she’d walk to the Oregon Territory.
“I’ll help you get your things upstairs,” he said. “The rooms are simple, but you won’t be in them that long.”
“Yes. That will be fine.” She walked ahead, her spine straight, feeling his gaze on her back every step of the way.
Michael squeezed through the door of the room Caroline would share with two of the Harkness girls. The room had two iron bedsteads, clothes pegs, a dresser, and plain plank floor. The girls were already there, and were bouncing and squealing on the feather mattresses.
Caroline hung up her hat, stood before the wavy mirror, and re-pinned her hair.
She wore a pale green traveling suit. Her hair was the color of old honey, her hazel eyes wide in a heart-shaped face. She had filled out some from her waiflike schoolteacher days. Caroline. Here. And more beautiful than ever.
“What do we do next, Mr. Moriarty?” Her voice was light, but he caught the underpinning of tension.
“Well…Mrs. Harkness is busy with the little ones. Ben and I must check on the wagons. Would you like to come?” he asked, and then berated himself.
Caroline considered, a world of activity going on behind her serene face. “I couldn’t possibly.”
And suddenly it became vastly important that she come. That he not lose her again.
“Ma said we have to take naps,” Rose Harkness, the twelve-year-old, said, pausing in mid-jump. “Only Sam’ll get out of it, because he’s to drive the wagon.”
Caroline didn’t look a bit tired.
“I could read,” she said, desperation tingeing her tone. “My books‒”
“They’re all in Pa’s second wagon, under the cookware,” Rose said. “And the anvil,” she added helpfully.
“Is there a library in St. Joseph?”
Michael suppressed a smile
Caroline’s shoulders sagged. “There are other people going to the wagon yard?”
Her expression wasn’t hatred, it was fear, and it made his heart pound. Yes, she disliked him that much. “I told you,” he said in an even tone. “Ben’s coming, and the boy, Samuel. And there’s nigh five hundred other people out there.”
“I guess I could. For a little while.” Sounded like she’d be taking medicine.
“Can you handle a horse?”
“You know I can.” The words slipped out and she turned away from him, seemingly ashamed of even this much of a history. “I’ll be down in twenty minutes.”
Caroline re-pinned her hair. Dan had marveled, “So much hair for such a little woman.” But he’d been not much taller than she. Not like Michael Moriarty, who’d never met a doorway he couldn’t duck. Slipping behind a screen, she fumbled with the buttons on her old riding clothes.
As she folded her street clothes and stowed her carpet bag in the corner, her fingers closed around a hard, slim object on top of her Bible. She pulled out the miniature of Dan, painted by a traveling artist the year before their wedding. He’d worn his only black suit, the one she’d buried him in. And though his face was sober—nobody ever smiled on canvas—a glint of laughter hovered behind his gold-rimmed spectacles. Of course, she remembered his slender frame best in overalls. Daniel Patrick Francis O’Leary, a gift she almost hadn’t opened.
On the trip down from Ohio she’d basked in the warmth and laughter of the Harkness clan. Oh, it had been good to be part of a family again.
Now Michael was here, and Dan wasn’t, and she felt his loss more keenly than ever.
The children were gone, summoned by Martha. Caroline sat on the bed and put her face in her hands. Oh, what was she doing here? The West and Michael Moriarty. But there was no place to run to. Not back to Ohio, to be snubbed and scorned; not back to Massachusetts, a home that didn’t exist anymore. Oh, Daniel, I don’t want to be here, and I’m so afraid. I didn’t know what else to do. Please, please tell me this is right.
Daniel, born in America, had only the faintest Irish lilt to his speech. His accent deepened when he was talking to his parents—or mimicking Michael.
And she knew what he’d say back to her. “Caroline, it’s not me you should be asking.”
Michael’s hands shook as he saddled three horses, one for him, one for Ben and his son Samuel, and especially the one for Caroline. Then he waited for Caroline.
Pace joined him on the porch and lit a cigar. The smoke curled out into the bright May morning and the bustle of St. Joseph. “Sure you don’t want to sign on again? Best scout I ever had.”
“Thank you, kindly, Pace, but no. ‘Tis the last one. If I stay on the trail too long, I’ll end up like yourself, sure I will.” A rootless man to whom everyone was a stranger. “Do any of the new people look promising, then? Anyone we won’t have to nurse along the way?”
“Couple,” Pace said. “There’s the family Mrs. O’Leary rode in with, Ben and Martha Harkness, and their five kids. Ben’s a tough nut, Martha’s a worker, and the kids are well-trained. They shouldn’t give us any trouble. There’s a man from Wisconsin, Caleb Taylor, looks as though he can handle anything. The others…”
They’d find out soon enough, sure and they would. The two-thousand-mile overland trail journey reduced each man, woman, and child to their substance. There was no way to hide what one was inside.
Except for him.
“And,” Pace paused for emphasis. “You’ll need a woman when you start your ranch. There’s more than one of them has marriageable daughters.”
Michael snorted. “That’s all I need.” Respectable women were trouble, and young respectable women were more trouble than any man deserved.
“Better you than me.” Pace wasn’t just marriage-shy; he barely acknowledged its existence.
Loneliness never quite left Michael because no woman would want him once she knew who he really was, when she’d clawed her way past the good looks and silver tongue that were his currency in this country. Better for him this way. Better for some poor girl. And better the trail, at least for now.
“People been askin’ about ya up ahead. When you’d be gettin’ to St. Joe, what outfit you’re with. Couple Irish fellas.” Pace told him.
Michael’s heart hammered. Anyone but them…
“Anyone tell them anything?”
Pace’s rare laugh rang out over the sunny morning. “Someone told ‘em you’re a teamster truckin’ goods back East. They’re headed toward Virginny.”
Someone had bought Michael some time. Time he’d never thought he’d need again.
He’d have to thank whoever had done it, when the threat was gone. Probably Jenny, the saloon girl who’d tried to capture his attention on previous visits. Jenny was quick.
Two nuns passed, their attention on the plank sidewalk and their hands tucked inside their sleeves. Michael hated nuns. Ironic, since he had a sister in a cloister in Dublin. But he hated priests even more. Religion was a waste of time. Except for Daniel. Daniel’s faith hadn’t been like that. But nothing about Daniel had been like other people.
Pace stretched a little. “Come on inside, meet the Harknesses.”
“What about Mrs. O’Leary—”
“She’s a woman. She’ll be a while,” Pace drawled.
Inside the lobby, pilgrims to the Oregon Territory lined up to register for their rooms. Others slumped on the mismatched furniture or stared at the flocked velvet walls. He caught snatches of their conversation. “Where you from?”
Pace paused by a shabby velvet sofa, where a couple sat almost obscured by hatboxes, suitcases, and a small trunk. A girl, maybe two years old, slept in her mother’s capacious calico lap. A bright red sunbonnet hid most of her face. “You folks settlin’ in all right?”
The man, sturdy in his dust-caked clothes, grinned up at Pace. “Doing well, thank you, Mr. Williams. The rooms are ready, but we didn’t want to wake Hannah, so we sent the older kids on up.”
“This here’s Michael Moriarty, our scout. Best man on the trail today. Mike, Ben and Martha Harkness.” Pace must like this couple. He wasn’t much for introductions, or for talking to the passengers more than he had to.
Ben Harkness extended a meaty paw. “Glad to know you, Moriarty. Good to know we got someone else to depend on.”
“We got five kids, Mr. Moriarty.” Martha Harkness’s rich laugh caused the emigrants, however weary, to turn around and smile. “Hope we don’t take up too much of your time.”
“Children are never a waste of time,” Michael said.
It was blarney, the easy flattery that rolled off his tongue. Too easy, but it worked on Mrs. Harkness, who dimpled before she turned back to her husband. “Ben, I forgot to tell ya—”
They bent their heads together, hers dark and shining, his with the brown strands already thin, shutting out the world the way couples did.
As he went back to the porch, Michael sneaked a quick backward glance. If only…
He’d had a built-in excuse as Pace’s scout: one couldn’t ask a woman to take on the trail life. It was all most of them could do to make it from St. Joe or Independence to Oregon, and the trip usually broke a few.
When he got to the Colorado River, built up his ranch, and stopped roaming he had plans. Ranching was a hard life and a woman—his woman—would make it much easier. The triumph of building a life together was what made it all matter. Having something to pass on to someone. It was what Da and Ma had had, what this Ben and his Martha possessed.
A woman to fill his hollow places, a woman to complete him.
But he wasn’t the marrying kind.
And no woman alive could erase the scars Ireland had carved on him.
Keywords: Oregon Trail, reunion, prairie, wagon train, Irish Cowboy, wagon scout, inspirational romance, forgiveness
Question 1: If you were an impoverished yoiung widow, would you take to the trail as Caroline did? Why or why not?
Answer 1: subjective
Question 2: What part of the Trail experience would you find the most daunting?
Answer 2: subjective
Question 3: What part of the Trail experience would you find most appealing?
Answer 3: subjective
Question 4: What's a modern-day equivalent to the Trail?
Answer 4: Space travel; missions work to untouched regions
Question 5: Have you ever had trouble forgiving someone, as Caroline did Michael? What did you do?
Answer 5: subjective
Question 6: Why did Caroline compare Daniel's love to that of Christ?
Answer 6: Becasue Dan only wanted the best for her, and was willing to take on another man's woman and child.
Question 7: Why was Michael bitter against the church? How did he overcome it?
Answer 7: He was bitter, in part, becuase the Church didn't do anything to help him and his family in their struggle against the English. He overcame this when he remembered Daniel's sacrificial love and saw the same kind of love being expressed by Caroline.
Question 8: Contrast the male missionary's faith with Ben and Martha's.
Answer 8: The missionary only cared about "converting" the Indians. Ben and Martha lived their faith.
Question 9: Name one way God protected Caroline on the journey.
Answer 9 He saved her from the cholera.
Answer 10: Michael was willing to give up his life in Ireland to save his sister and take the blame. Don't know how else he could have handled it. We learn in the second book that Oona did not want to go into the convent.