A Mighty Fortress

As promised after winning the poll, here is “a lengthy excerpt” from my soon-to-be debut novel, A Mighty Fortress.  Enjoy reading!

Chapter Three

 October 1875

   David and Matthew lifted the trunk on top of the stagecoach.  Was it really possible that they could be leaving?  To Joshua it seemed like the most wonderful dream ever.  Everything was packed, the family was all there to see him and Ruth off, everything seemed perfect.  Except for the fact that they would be leaving so many friends and family members behind.

Their parents had finally been able to save enough money to start building their lifelong dream: a cattle ranch out West.  The only regret Daniel and Harriet Brookings had that they couldn’t bring all of their children with them.  The family had always been so close, not just in proximity, but in friendship.  Joshua knew their parting would be hardest on Ruth.  She was shy and did not make friends easily.  Her best friends were her sisters, Esther and Martha.

Esther gave Joshua a big hug.  “Take care of our little sister, Joshua.”

Martha’s eyes were full of tears.  “Joshua, you are her only protector out there until you get to Pa and Ma.  Keep her safe.”

Joshua nodded  and swallowed hard as tears threatened to spring to his eyes.  “With God’s help, I will.”

David and Benjamin, Esther and Martha’s husbands, stood aloof from the group.  They were quiet farmers who were hard to get close to and did not say much.  Ruth gave each of them a hug before turning to her sisters.

“Take care of yourselves and those new babies,” she said.  Esther and Martha laughed with her.

“You should know you don’t even need to say that,” Esther scolded with a twinkle in her eye.

“I know, but I felt like saying it anyway,” Ruth teased back.

Robert and Eliza ran to Ruth.  “Don’t go!” they pleaded.

Ruth squatted on her heels and hugged them both close.  “I have to, darlings.  Your grandpa and grandma need me out on their new ranch.  I need you to stay here and take good care of your mama and papa for me.”

Robert pulled back and looked her in the eyes.  “Really?”  His eyes were wide and curious.  “How would we do that?”

“By listening to them and obeying them.  By helping as much as possible.  With Joshua leaving, your father will need a lot more help from you, Robert.  He will need your help with the chores, the planting, the weeding, and the harvest.  Eliza, with me, gone your mother will need you to gather the eggs, feed the chickens, and help with the cooking, cleaning, and laundry.”  She looked at them in the eyes as she talked to them.

“Will that help us from missing you so much?” Eliza asked.

“If you are so busy you do not have time to think, yes, it will.  I still expect that you will miss us, but I do think that helping out as much as you can will help you from missing us as much.”

Ruth stood up and found Leslie staring at her with an awed look in her eyes.  “Thank you,” she whispered.  “I will miss you terribly, little sister.”

Ruth melted into her sister-in-law’s arms.  “I will miss you, too.”

“Thank you for comforting the children…again.”   Leslie smiled through her tears.  “I will have to write to you for advice on how to handle some of their petty complaints.”

Matthew laughed.  “A grown woman writing a fifteen year old girl for advice on raising children?”  He shook his head in amusement before pulling Ruth into his arms.  “I’m gonna miss your calming influence and encouraging words, Sis.”

“I will write to you,” Ruth promised, her voice muffled by Matthew’s shirt.

Matthew let go of her.  “I will count on that.” His voice was gruff with emotion.

Joshua hung back and watched his family say goodbye to Ruth before moving in to say his goodbyes.

Joshua held his hand out to Matthew.  Matthew’s grip was strong and he slapped Joshua’s shoulder with his free hand.  Joshua’s voice cracked as he looked into his brother’s face.  “I don’t know what to say.  I don’t know how best to say goodbye.  And thank you.”

Their eyes met and the unspoken words and thoughts were communicated.  “You’re welcome,” Matthew said, swallowing hard.  “Thank you for all of your help.”

Joshua nodded as he let go of Matthew.  “Leslie.”

“I’ll miss you, Joshua,” Leslie said.

Joshua hugged her tight.  “I’ll miss you, too.  You have been a wonderful sister-in-law and hostess.”

“Thank you.  You take care of yourself and Ruth on the journey.  You never know what you might run into.”

“Yes, ma’am.  I will do that.”

David cleared his throat.  “Keep your gun handy.  I doubt you’ll need it, but you never know.”  He paused, looking past Joshua.  “I’ll miss our talks together, even though you always did most of the talkin’.”  He smiled.

Joshua smiled as he shook David’s hand.  “I’ll miss our talks, too.  Take good care of my sister and your kids.”

He shook hands with Benjamin, hugged his two sisters and then turned to Eliza and Robert.  He squatted down and stretched his arms wide.  Robert barreled into him with Eliza following close behind.  Joshua nearly fell flat on his back, but managed to keep himself balanced.  He whispered his goodbyes and last minute advice to his niece and nephew.

“Robert, you remember what Ruth said, help your pa and ma.  You also need to keep your sister safe.”  Robert’s head thudded into Joshua’s shoulder a few times as he nodded his head.  “Eliza, you also need to remember what Ruth said.  You are a beautiful young lady, stay close to God and you will grow up to be just like your mama.”

Eliza sniffled.  “I will.  Goodbye, Uncle Joshua.”

“Goodbye, Sweetheart.”  Joshua stood up and brushed the dust off his tan pants.  Not that it would matter in an hour.  He knew stagecoaches made people look like they had just been through a sandstorm.

“All passengers to board now!” a loud voice announced.

“I guess that’s us, Ruthie.”

Ruth looked up into the sparkling eyes of her brother.  “Yes, I guess it is,” she echoed timidly.

Benjamin stood next to the door and helped Ruth into the stage.   Joshua was just two steps behind her.  As Joshua sat down, Benjamin shut the door and told the driver they were both in the stage.  Ruth and Joshua waved their hands out of the windows while the driver started the horses going.  They  kept waving until they could no longer see the town.

“Well, we’re off,” Joshua said with a sigh as he leaned back against the cloth covered seat.

Ruth nodded, still looking out the window.  “Yes, we are.  Let’s just pray the trip goes smoothly.”

They bounced along all day with  a few quick stops along the way.  At the end of the day, they halted at a stage stop, ate a hot meal and slept in lumpy beds.  Joshua was so tired, he did not even realize that the beds were not comfortable.  As long as he could sleep in a bed, he did not care.

The next few days, the scenery changed gradually as they traveled through Illinois and into Missouri.  Joshua had expected adventure, but this was pure monotony.  They would eat breakfast at daybreak, get in the stage a little later, break for a quick breather while the horses were changed, pull into another stage station an hour after the sun went down, eat a quick supper, fall into bed, repeat.

   So much for adventure.  Joshua thought.  This was downright boring!  Even thinking about it makes me tired.

~ ~ ~

There were a few things those first days that were interesting.  First, they got to know the driver and guard decently well after their few quick meals together.  Joshua found out that their driver’s name was Gage Bradford.

After some gentle prodding by Ruth, Mr. Bradford opened up about himself.

“I always loved horses,” he said with a slight smile playing at the edges of his mouth.  “I grew up in Arizona on a cattle ranch.  I watched the stage everyday as it passed my house.  I always envied the driver as he handled the horses with such care.

“As soon as Father gave me leave, I applied to become a stagecoach driver.  I worked hard those first couple o’ years.  I didn’t start out driving, first I started out with the horses, taking care of them.  Grooming them, getting them in shape for their next journey.

“During that first year, I met Estelle, a beautiful Spanish girl.  I started courting her and we were married just before I started driving for the company.  After a year of marriage, I was transferred to this line.”

“Do you and Estelle have any children?” Joshua asked.

“We have three.  Jonny, Davy, and Maria.”  His face had a wistful expression.  “That’s the only thing I don’t like about this job.  It keeps me away from my family.”

The room grew quiet as they all contemplated their own separations.

The next night, Ruth asked the guard about his family.  His answer was short and simple.

“I got no family, they were all killed years ago.  Never had any use for marriage.  I am good at usin’ a gun, so I decided to hire out to sit on a stagecoach, keep the driver awake, and shoot at robbers and Injuns.”

Both men were perfect gentlemen, but Mr. Bradford was definitely the most friendly.  Joshua couldn’t help but wonder what kind of life the guard, Mr. Larson had had.  How was his family killed?  How old was he when they were killed?  What had he done after they were killed?  He wanted to ask Mr. Larson all of those questions and more, but something in Mr. Larson’s eyes warned him not to ask.

Halfway through Nebraska, the stagecoach arrived at its planned stop almost an hour earlier than anticipated.  Since it was sunny, but not too hot, Joshua, Ruth and Gage Bradford decided to wander the small property to stretch their legs.

After awhile, Mr. Bradford stopped walking and leaned against the fence to watch the horses in the corral.  Joshua joined him at the fence and Ruth walked down a little further to the corner.

They all stood there watching the horses graze and frolic.  A few minutes passed in silence until Ruth broke in, “Mr. Bradford, what is the funniest thing your kids have ever done?”

Joshua glanced sideways and saw a litany of emotions sweep across Gage Bradford’s face: surprise, humor, longing, remembrance, desire, joy.

“Hmm, let me think on that a minute.”  Mr. Bradford had a mischievous twinkle in his eyes as he tipped his head back and looked up at the cloudless blue sky.

“I believe this story happened Jonny was eight.  So, just about seven years ago.”  He paused as he stared ahead into the distant landscape.  “Yes, that would have to be the funniest.”

“Jonny has always been our mischievous child.  He gets the other two into the worst trouble.  The good thing is that he is always there and willing to get them out of the trouble.  Estelle and I have gotten to the point where we know Jonny will drag his sister and brother into some funny, harmless, but crazy antics.  We don’t even worry about it anymore.”

Mr. Bradford’s grin widened as he bent down to pick a long blade of grass.  Putting the grass between his teeth, he leaned his side against the fence to face Ruth.  “The funniest thing my kids ever did was to play a prank on their parents and have it backfire majorly.”  He chuckled at the memory.  “Instead of pranking us, they ended up pranking themselves.

“Jonny had the brilliant idea of switching the salt and sugar on the table.  That way, when I went to put a little sugar in my coffee, I would end up with salty coffee instead of sweetened coffee.  It would’ve worked great, except that we were almost out of sugar in the sugar bin.  Davy’s birthday was the next day and Estelle baked him a cake.  But, she need another half cup of sugar, so she took the sugar bowl off the table and used a half cup of sugar from the sugar bowl.”

Joshua could hardly keep the laughter boiling in him from bursting forth.  Glancing at his sister, he could tell she knew where this story was going.

Mr. Bradford was a great storyteller.  If it wasn’t for the twinkle in his eyes and the laughlines around his mouth, Joshua would almost believe the man had no emotions at all.

“Now, in our family, it is tradition for the birthday boy to choose who gets to take the first bite out of the cake.  Davy had been watching his mother bake the cake the night before.  He also knew what Jonny had done.  After all, he had helped Jonny do the switch by holding the sugar bowl while Jonny poured the salt in.

“Davy has always been a smart boy.”

Ruth cocked her head to the side and interupted.  “How old was Davy?”

Gage smiled, “Davy was only three, but very bright for his age.”  After a brief pause he continued,  “After watching his mother put a half cup of salt in the cake, Davy knew Jonny needed to be the first to take a bite of the cake.  Davy blew out his three candles, Estelle cut the cake, and I asked Davy who he wanted to give the honor of the first bite to.

“Without missing a beat, without a smirk, smile, or any giveaway, Davy said, ‘Jonny’.  Jonny grinned and cut a large bite out of his piece, stabbed it with his fork and stuffed it into his mouth, chewing vigorously.”  Gage Bradford cleared his throat and tried to wipe the grin off his face with his hand.

“Jonny chewed and swallowed the whole bite, but the look on his face was priceless.  He was thoroughly disgusted with the taste and grabbed for his glass of milk to wash the cake down and get the flavor out of his mouth.

“As soon as the milk was swallowed, Jonny choked out, ‘What did you do to this cake, mama?’  Estelle looked at him in astonishment.  She had no idea what he meant.  Before she could speak, Davy saved us all.  ‘She ran outta sugar in the bin and used the sugar in the bowl, Jonny.’  The accusing look Davy had on his face caused me to grab the sugar bowl and taste the substance inside.  ‘How much sugar did you put in the cake from this bowl?’ I asked my wife.

“’Half a cup.  Why?’ she asked.  I looked at Jonny.  Jonny’s eyes were wide and guilt and horror were written all over his face.  All I said was, ‘Somebody put salt in the sugar bowl.’  Estelle’s eyes went wide.  ‘You mean I put a half cup of salt in that cake?’  Davy, Maria, and I burst out laughing.  Estelle eventually joined in the laughter, but Jonny didn’t.”

Mr. Bradford shook his head with a grin plastered from ear to ear.  “It took months for Jonny to touch either sugar or salt again.”

Joshua gave up trying to contain his laughter.  Ruth and Mr. Bradford joined him until they all had tears streaming down their cheeks.

“That is priceless,” Joshua gasped.  “I can see that happening with Matthew and I.    Too bad we never thought of that.  That would have been hilarious.”

“Can you imagine Mother’s reaction?” Ruth asked.  “She would be horrified that she had allowed that to happen in her kitchen.”

“What about Pa’s reaction?”  Joshua burst into another fit of laughter.  “He would have been laughing the hardest of all of us.”

Gage Bradford wiped the tears off his face.  “I surely do miss my family.  Sometimes I wish I could find another good occupation so I could see them more.”

Ruth walked over to Mr. Bradford and put a comforting hand on his arm.  “I’m sure you’re doing the best you can and that is all that can be asked of you.  You care for your family and you take care of them.  I can tell you are a good father, even if you are gone a lot.”

Joshua watched his sister with tears in his eyes.  She always knew exactly what to say.

“Maybe once Pa has the ranch started, we could hire you on to take care of the horses and help with the cattle.”

Gage Bradford shook his head and grinned through the tears forming in his eyes.  “You two are very special young people.  I’ll have to keep your offer in mind.  Thank you, Joshua.  And thank you, Ruth, for making me feel better.”

A clanging sound reached their ears.  “I’ll bet that means supper’s ready,” Joshua said.  “I’m all for it.  I’m starved!”

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