Baby on the Oregon Trail

Excerpt from Baby on the Oregon Trail
by Lynna Banning
Harlequin Historicals, January 2017

The wagon train leader stepped forward and laid both his weathered hands on her forearms.

"Mathias is dead, Jenna."

She felt suddenly cold, as if all the blood in her body was draining away. "What?"

"He was caught stealing a horse. The owner killed him."

A blade of anger sliced into her belly. Mathias had talked and cajoled and pushed until she finally agreed to join the wagon train and come west. And now here she was, embarked on an unwanted journey she had no choice but to continue; once a wagon train started out across the prairie, there was no way to get off. No way to go back to Ohio.

* * *
A shadow fell over her. "Mrs. Borland?"

She jerked to her feet. The man was tall, with overlong dark hair and steady eyes that were a soft gray. He held his broad-brimmed hat down by his thigh.

"Sorry to startle you, ma'am. My name's Carver." "I know who you are, Mr. Carver." He'd joined the wagon train at Fort Kearney. A former Confederate soldier, a friend had confided. A Virginian. From a slave-holding plantation, no doubt. Jenna's father had fought for the Union; he'd been killed at Antietam.

"I've come to yoke up your team."

Her stomach clenched, and it must have shown on her face.

"Ma'am? Are you unwell?"

"Mr. Carver, surely someone other than you volunteered to drive my wagon?"

His gaze flicked to the back of the wagon, where her older stepdaughter's face was peeking out from the curtain. "Mrs. Borland, is there someplace we can talk in private?"

"Why?" Gently he grasped her elbow and moved her away from camp. "I want to tell you why I volunteered."

"I don't really care why, Mr. Carver."

"I think you may when you hear what I have to say," he said quietly. "You see, it was my horse your husband was stealing. I was the one who shot him."

Jenna stared at him until her eyes began to burn. "Dear God in heaven, why would I want anything, anything at all, to do with the man who killed my husband?"

A flash of pain crossed his tanned face. "You probably don't, Mrs. Borland. And I can't blame you. But I'd sure appreciate it if you'd hear me out."

Shaking with fury, Jenna propped her fists at her waist and waited. She could scarcely stand to look at him.

"I didn't know who was taking my horse," he said after a moment. "Didn't recognize the man. But I knew my horse. The rider was heading hell-for-leather- Excuse me, ma'am. The man was riding toward the trading post we passed yesterday morning. I fired my rifle and he went down."

"You killed him."

"Yes, I did. I'm sorry he turned out to be your husband, and the father of your girls there." He inclined his head toward the wagon where three heads now poked out from the rear bonnet.

"Sorry, Mr. Carver, is not enough," she snapped.

"I realize that. I know nothing can ever replace your husband, but I'd like the chance to do what I can to make it up to you. That's why I volunteered to drive your rig."

"You cannot make it up to me, Mr. Carver. Ever. Don't you understand that?" She clamped her lips together, afraid she would cry.

"I mean to try, Mrs. Borland. Where's your yoke and the harnesses for the oxen?"

"Did you not hear me?" Her voice went out of control, rising to a shout. She hated him! He was a cold-blooded killer. "I do not want your help!"

He turned his back on her and peered under the wagon.