by Marsha Ward @Marsha Ward
Some writers plan out everything they will ever write. Not me. My brain doesn't work that way.
When I finished my first novel, The Man from Shenandoah, I thought I had written the only full-length novel I would ever write. I thought that was it for these people, and any further long-form fiction, as well.
But evidently I had more to tell. I left James Owen sorely wounded in heart and mind, and he demanded that I give him a chance to work through his pain.
Accordingly, I wrote Ride to Raton (It probably should have been called Ride to Raton Pass, but I liked the sound of the three words, and totally forgot the fact that there is a town in New Mexico named Raton). I thought this novel would finish up my account of the Owen family from Virginia.
Boy, was I wrong! The two books have grown to five, with offshoots and spinoffs going in all directions, and more to come.
This never-before-posted scene from Ride to Raton occurs after James is shot in Pueblo, Colorado Territory, by a disgruntled former Union soldier. Randolph Hilbrands, a friend of James's father, has taken him into his home to recuperate.
“Mister James, Mister James, wake up, please? You must be hungry.”
Surprised to hear his name, James rolled over, grinning at the soothing touch of the water on his naked body, and swam upward from exploring the bottom of the pond behind the flour mill on a creek feeding the Shenandoah River. He tried to shrug off the hand that gently touched his right shoulder, but the movement brought such a flood of pain to his side that he moaned before he could catch himself.
“Please, Mister James. Ma said I wasn’t to come back to the kitchen without feeding you. If you don’t wake up soon, your food’ll be stone cold.”
He thrust his head and shoulders above the water, opened one eye, then immediately shut it against the sunlight that streamed through an open window between muslin drapes and hit his face. His body felt bloated, invaded by aches and twitches. And although he was still naked, he seemed to be lying half covered by a sheet and quilt on a bed inside a room, instead of treading water in the millpond.
Someone besides himself was in the room. “Six little beans!” he grunted, trying to shade his eyes with his left hand, remembering that a girl’s voice had addressed him. “It’s brighter than noon day in here. Can you shut them curtains?”
A young girl put the tray of food on the washstand and ran to the window to pull the drapes together. She returned to stand beside the bed, and James blinked his eyes as she drew near.
The girl was about fifteen, he judged, slender and blonde. She wore a white bib apron with a full skirt over a light weight gingham gown patterned with sprigs of lilacs on a white background. Her wavy hair hung below her shoulders, tied back with a white ribbon. The girl smiled, tentatively, and one dimple appeared in her cheek.
“Who’re you?” he asked, wondering how he came to be between the sheets. The last thing he remembered, he had been lying atop the coverlet, enduring the sting of a thousand hornets as Amanda Hilbrands’ needle pierced the flesh of his side. Now he looked around. The tub was gone from the room, and the towel had disappeared from around his hips. James blinked twice, and reached down to draw the sheet over his chest, grateful that the quilt masked his nakedness from the girl.
“I’m Sylvia. My pa runs the hotel. Don’t you recall he brought you here?”
James shut his eyes for a moment, less to remember his arrival than to recall where he had heard the girl’s voice before. He gave his head a shake, then opened his eyes.
“Yeah,” he sighed, a long drawn out sound, and fingered the bandage around his chest. “Your ma put this thread into me a couple of hours ago.”
“That was two days back!” the girl exclaimed. “You’ve been asleep since then.”
“Six little beans! Did I take a fever?” James got himself onto his elbows, and the girl bent forward to put a pillow behind his back so he could sit partway up. As the sheet slipped and gathered in creases about his waist, the girl’s hair brushed his shoulder.
The blonde hair—he could see it on another head, arranged in tumbling ringlets behind a face twisted with fury. A voice—with the same timbre as this girl’s voice—batted at his ears: “You never came around, Carl Owen. Cecil was here. I have a right to marry a man I can trust!”
“No.” A frown furrowed Sylvia’s forehead. “I reckon you’re just wore out. You been through a lot of woe since you came to Pueblo City.” She turned away to bring the food tray, then sat gingerly on the edge of the bed with the tray on her lap. “This is a good room, though. Pa let Ida use it for her wedding night.”
A wrenching pain invaded James’s gut. Ida Hilbrands had breathed this air, her body had lain on this bed. The body that should have quieted Carl’s lusts was given to an English dandy—on this bed, beneath this quilt. James swallowed. His throat closed on cotton.
The girl touched his wrist. James’s arm twitched under the cool fingers.
“Are you all right, Mister James?”
He cleared his throat. “You sound like your…older sister.”
“You mean Mary?” The girl’s face brightened. “How is her little baby doing? We all want to see her.” Sylvia picked up a spoon and a bowl and stirred the contents.
James again eased the sheet up to cover his chest. “The little gal’s growing, but no, I wasn’t speaking of Mary.” The sheet bunched in his lap again, and James jerked it upward and pinned it underneath his arm.
“Oh. You mean—”
“Ida! I mean Ida.” His voice rasped in his throat as he said the name.
The girl looked puzzled. “Are you angry with Ida?”
James felt his face settling into ridges as he scowled. Angry? The word was wrong. Wrong and far too weak. I hate her. I despise her wide blue eyes and her lying, cheating heart. He cleared his throat again. “I have reason.” His breath left his lungs in a lengthy shudder.
Sylvia looked at him for a moment, puzzlement crinkling the skin around her eyes. Then she picked up a spoon.
“Here, have a taste of porridge. Ma made it fresh for you today.” Sylvia held the spoon to James’s lips, and he accepted the morsel. “What did Ida do to you? I thought it was Carl she threw over.”
For a moment, he could only chew, then swallow. He sensed no taste, no savor. Before he had a chance to speak, Sylvia put another spoonful of mush into his mouth. He swallowed that down, then, as Sylvia brought up another bite, James shook his head.
They’ll know sooner or later. Pa will come in for supplies, or Ma will send a note to Mrs. H. by a passing stranger. He turned his head to look at the doorway. Will I be gone, first? Or will Danny O’Brien shoot me in the back? He looked at the girl and squeezed his hands into fists. The pain forced his mouth open.
“You didn’t hear, I reckon. Carl got over being mad at Ida. He wed Ellen Bates about a week past.”
“Oh, Mister James! She was pledged to you!” Sylvia dropped the spoon into the bowl, and it clanked against the side.
Instantly, he repented of his burst of words. “Forget I said that. Just forget it!”
“I’m sorry.” Sylvia held her hands tightly together in front of her mouth.
James snorted. “It’s done and over.”
“How could that happen?” The girl moved the tray from her lap to the bed and leaned forward.
Bitterness rose in James’s throat, and he turned his head to swallow it down.
Sylvia bounced once on the bed. “Ida caused it. She sure is mean.”
James shuddered anew, slumping against the pillow. “Go away,” he said.
“Take your gruel and leave me be. I’m weary.”
“But you didn’t finish.”
“Tell your Ma I fell asleep again. It won’t be a lie. Look. I’m nodding off now.” James shut his eyes.
He heard her get to her feet and pick up the tray. “I reckon I tired you out, talking so much.”
“It’s not you. I’m wore out, like you said.” James twitched the quilt higher on his chest. Suddenly he bolted upright, winced, then lay down again. “You’d better get your papa, girl. I got to put myself deeper in his debt.”
I'm participating in the Payson Book Festival this Saturday. Come up to the cool pines of Payson, Arizona and bring your kids to this family-friendly event. It's FREE! Except for food and snacks, and of course, a multitude of books to purchase from nearly 100 authors, in every genre and for every age group, fiction and non fiction alike.
It will be at Gila Community College, 210 N Mud Springs Road(north off Highway 260, opposite the Ranger Station) from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. Come and go, or stick around for talks, kids classes, and music.
My novels will be in the Bookstore, and I'll be in the courtyard at Table 14. See you there!