Part 1 - Separation
Illinois – May 8, 1854
Nothing could have prepared her for this.
Becky Hollister gripped her horse’s mane, pressing her heels into his flanks. Samson raced along the muddy path, the sound of his hooves echoing in the stillness. The vast prairie loomed ahead of her like an endless sea. Miles from the nearest neighbor or town, she had no choice but to keep going.
Would she make it in time?
The sun sank lower in the western sky, illuminating the line of thunderheads to the east. Becky shifted her gaze from the remnants of the devastating storm, her attempts at prayer skewed by images of her fallen family and shattered home. Why didn’t You help them, Lord?
Tears stung her eyes. She alone could save Pa now.
Sweat streamed down the horse’s neck and withers. His pace slowed.
“Come on, boy. Pa’s depending on us.” The memory of her father lying face-down on the ground, spattered with blood and dirt, flashed through Becky’s mind. She smacked the reins across Samson’s neck, and he surged forward, giving her all his strength.
A piercing howl of a wolf sounded in the nearby timber. Samson lurched sideways, almost causing Becky to tumble. She tightened her hold on his neck, struggling to regain balance.
A dark figure appeared on the path ahead, half hidden behind a fallen branch. Becky pulled back on the reins, straining to distinguish the shadowy horse and rider. The dim light of evening toyed with her eyes. Treacherous men sometimes roamed the area. She hadn’t considered her own threat of danger when she’d left their only gun with Pa.
As the rider edged closer, Becky’s heart pounded in her ears. Should she turn aside or press forward?
With each breath, Samson’s sides heaved under her. He was too fatigued to outrun the stranger. She’d have to risk it. Clicking her tongue in her cheek, she dug her heels into Samson’s flanks. She could only pray the person was friend, not foe.
Matthew Brody pushed his broad-brimmed hat further back on his head, keeping his eyes trained on the horse and rider approaching at break-neck speed. He urged his mount forward, craning his neck to determine who it could be. The brunt of the storm had passed to the south, in the direction of the Hollister farm. Had someone been injured?
He swerved his horse to dodge a splintered branch in his path. Young leaves and twigs littered the prairie, evidence of a strong wind. Having taken refuge in an abandoned shack during the storm, he’d determined then and there to swing by to check on the Hollisters.
Perhaps he’d done right in coming.
Hunched low about the horse’s neck, the rider looked too slight to be Joseph. Surely Meg or one of the girls would have better sense than to ride out alone as night approached.
Or had there been no choice?
A peek of evening sun shone through a break in the clouds, revealing a bonnet atop the rider’s head. Matthew winced. There was something amiss.
He urged his horse into a canter. The thunder of hooves grew louder as the rider sped toward him. She certainly was in an all-fired hurry. As she neared, the woman straightened and tugged at the reins. One glimpse of her tanned face and wheat-blonde braid confirmed his suspicions.
Bringing his horse up beside her, he scanned her unkempt hair and smudged face. Were those blood stains on her dress? “What is it? What’s happened?”
Tears welled in her eyes as she met his gaze. She swallowed hard, seeming to struggle for words. “A tornado hit our farm. Ma and Melissa are…dead.”
The alarming words weighed on his chest. Just weeks ago he’d shared a meal with them at their cabin. Among his most devoted patrons, the Hollisters were ever willing to provide food and shelter when he rode this area of his circuit. Head bowed, he heaved a quiet sigh. “I’m sorry.”
Becky swayed in her saddle, and Matthew placed a steadying hand on her arm. Was she overcome with grief or merely exhausted? “You all right?”
She gave a hurried nod, mouth trembling. The pained look in her eyes intensified. “Pa’s injured. Please, he needs help.”
Her desperate plea seared Matthew’s heart. Veering back in his saddle, he slackened his hold on the reins. “Show me where.”
Becky wheeled her horse around, then took off toward the Hollister farm. Matthew chased after her, the acres of prairie passing in a haze. Each endless stride wedged the tragic news deeper. Was Joseph’s injury life-threatening? If he died, where would that leave Becky?
Lifting his eyes heavenward, he peered into the thinning line of clouds. Lord, see him through—for Becky’s sake.
When the wind-struck farm came into view, he slowed his pace to avoid the clutter of debris. Worse than he’d even imagined, the devastation sliced through him like a sword. Bits of clothing, furniture, and broken shingles littered the ground. Of the buildings, only the barn remained intact. The cabin site lay in total ruin, recognizable only by the fireplace and stone chimney. Not one log remained atop the other.
He shuddered. Were Meg and Melissa buried beneath the rubble? It was a miracle Becky had escaped unharmed.
There was something solemn, almost holy, in the quietness as he followed Becky to the barren field. The rich soil was glazed over now, black as tar. An abandoned harrow lay twisted beside it. Had Becky been helping her father when the storm hit? More than once, he’d witnessed her laboring alongside him. Within the confines of the cabin, she’d have been lost.
The Lord be praised for his mercies.
A low bark echoed in the stillness. Spurring her horse forward, Becky led Matthew to a grassy area beyond the field where the land sloped downward toward the creek. Their old dog, Nugget, rose to his feet, his thick, yellow fur ruffled and smudged. Clearly, he’d held vigil over his master in Becky’s absence.
“He’s over here.” She reined her horse to a stop and hopped down. Kneeling beside her father, she struggled for breath. “I’m here, Pa. Pastor Brody’s gonna help you.”
At Joseph’s lack of response, she gave him a gentle shake, the color draining from her cheeks. “Pa?”
Matthew squatted beside them. He placed a hand on Joseph’s scarcely rising chest, breathing a sigh of relief as warmth coursed through his fingertips.
Becky’s voice strained. “Is he…?”
She brushed a tear from her cheek. Her gaze trailed to the bloody rag around Joseph’s head. “He’s lost so much blood. I tried to stop it.”
“You did fine.” Matthew loosened the make-shift bandage and gently shifted Joseph’s head to the side, cringing at sight of the open wound. “Mighty bad gash.” He tossed aside the bloodied rag and replaced it with his bandanna.
“What can I do?” Worry lined Becky’s sapphire eyes.
With a sigh, Matthew sat back on his haunches. “Not much can be done till we get him to town. Let’s see what sort of shape your wagon’s in.”
Standing, he offered Becky a hand up. She slid her fingers into his, and he pulled her to her feet. Her drawn expression and weary eyes charted a map to her aching heart. Yet even in her frazzled state, she’d kept her head, showing a depth of maturity beyond her years.
Or was it faith that held her together?
Tethering his horse, Gabriel, to a nearby tree, Matthew took up Becky’s horse’s reins. Heavy silence hung between them as they strode closer to the demolished homestead. With a soft whimper, Becky averted her gaze from the cabin remains, concealing her face beneath her bonnet.
Matthew placed a hand on the small of her back and steered her toward the barn. What could he say to this distraught young lady? As her pastor, it was his duty to offer comfort. But he had no words to alleviate such a crushing blow. He could only offer up prayers for strength and for her father’s well-being.
The overturned wagon lay wedged on its side, beneath the collapsed lean-to. Together they cleared away broken timbers that had fallen. Matthew weaved his way around the wagon, assessing the damage and then pushed his hat back with his thumb. “Well, the axle’s a bit bent, but at least it’s still in one piece.” He gripped the wagon’s front edge, gesturing Becky to the back. “Help me turn it.”
She strained to lift her end, but with each attempt, the wagon fell back on its side.
He shot her a weak smile, his voice soft. “Try again. Put all your weight into it.”
With a nod, she tightened her hold, arms shaking under the strain. The wagon gave just a little, then a few inches more.
“Keep pulling.” Matthew ground his teeth, tugging with all of his strength. At last, a final heave sent all four wheels jostling to the ground with a thud. He rubbed dirt from his hands, a corner of his mouth lifting. Clearly, Becky wasn’t afraid of hard work. She’d been but a girl three years ago when he’d begun ministering in this region. He hadn’t been much over twenty at the time himself.
He glanced her way, stirred by the hurt emanating in her eyes. How he longed for words to alleviate her pain. And yet, none came. He touched a hand to her elbow, his voice catching. “I’ll need you to find what you can to cushion your pa’s ride, while I hitch the team.”
“We’ve plenty of straw in the barn.”
He gave a reassuring nod. “How ’bout your harnesses? Are they about?”
“Inside, by the stalls.”
Together, they strode into the barn. Matthew found the harnesses hanging untouched on their pegs. While he worked at hitching the team, Becky carried out several armloads of straw and spread them in the wagon bed. More than once, he caught her staring in the direction of her father. She should be with him. Matthew placed a hand on her arm. “Go see to your father. I’ll finish here.”
Appreciation settled in her blue eyes, then she turned and dashed away. Matthew watched her go, amazed at her stamina. What was she now, seventeen? Somehow, today, she seemed much older. She’d managed well for one so young. Most people would buckle under such circumstances.
He scratched at his chin. When had Becky become a woman?
Becky tramped over the fallen grass, eyes moist as she stared into the darkening sky. Shades of purple and pink cloaked the western horizon, its beauty only mocking her pain. Were Ma and Melissa looking down on her even now? Did they sense the longing in her soul, the loss she felt at not having the chance to even say goodbye?
Worse yet, would she lose Pa too?
She tugged on a stubborn grass stem and tossed it aside. Nothing would ever be the same.
Kneeling beside her father, she clasped his hand, his fingers lacking their usual warmth. Fear strangled her heart. How would she survive on her own if she lost him? She pushed the thought from her mind.
Nugget grunted and sat up beside her. His heavy tail thumped the ground as she leaned against him. They were a family now. The three of them. A tear trickled down her cheek, fueled by an overwhelming hollowness inside her. The image of Ma and Melissa lying intertwined on the cabin floor remained seared in her mind. She’d watched desperately for some sign of life in their limp forms. Yet their sunken chests hadn’t stirred. It had all happened so fast.
The creak of a wagon curtailed her thoughts. She dried her eyes on her sleeve as Pastor Brody brought the team to a halt beside her. What would she have done without him? His calming presence had given her renewed strength.
He hopped down and knelt next to her father. “Let’s see if we can get him in without any more damage.”
Looping his arms through Pa’s, he hauled him to the edge of the wagon and climbed in.
Becky took a firm hold on Pa’s legs, her eyes never leaving his face as she helped slide him into the wagon bed. The kind pastor pillowed Pa’s head with a blanket and gathered straw around him to cushion his ride.
A cooling breeze caressed Becky’s cheeks as she moved to the side of the wagon. Pa’s ashen complexion stirred unwanted angst within her. He looked so weak. Would he survive the trip?
Pastor Brody hopped from the wagon bed and helped her onto the seat. “Take it slow and easy. A rough ride would do more harm than the time it’d spare you.”
He slid Pa’s muzzleloader onto the floorboard, locking his eyes onto hers. “Be careful.”
“You’re not coming?”
“I’ll be along, once I tend to things here.” He lifted his hat and raked a hand through his chestnut hair, shifting his dark eyes to the cabin remains. Understanding washed over Becky. Of course. He intended to lay their loved ones to rest. No telling what would become of their bodies if left unattended, even for a night. A proper burial would have to wait.
“Thank you.” She reached a hand down, moisture pooling in her eyes.
With a slow nod, he wrapped her hand in his. “God be with you.”
Turning, she released the brake, a lump rising in her throat. Fatigue tore at her muscles. Could she manage the five-mile trip alone?
Nugget’s raspy bark sounded below. Doubtless, he didn’t want to be left behind. Pastor Brody lifted the old dog onto the wagon seat, and Becky stroked his rough coat. Somehow, having him at her side offered her a sense of security. She gave Pastor Brody a gentle nod. If there was one redeeming element in this appalling day, it was the chance meeting with the pastor. Strange he’d happened by so soon after the storm. At one time, she would have credited it to the Lord.
But not now. Not after He’d abandoned them.
The western sky turned fiery red as the sun dipped low on the horizon. She would need every stitch of daylight for the long trek to town. Taking a firm grip on the reins, she struck them across the horses’ rumps. As she guided them onto the muddy path, the memory of Pastor Brody’s warning to take it slow squelched her urge to press them faster.
A glance back at Pa’s motionless form sent a wave of unease rippling through her. Such a long way. Would he make it?
Everything in her longed to cry out to the Lord. But why should she? He’d failed her.
She squared her shoulders, tightening her hold on the reins. From now on, she’d trust only herself.