Below is an excerpt from the opening pages of historical novel The Shifting Winds.
This book was a finalist for the Nancy Pearl Book Award.
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, TwoDot Imprint
Oregon Territory, October 5, 1842. The forest looked like a place only giants should enter. Jennie grasped the soft little arms locked about her waist, seeking comfort in her smallest brother’s familiar presence, while the gentle mare carried them along the dark trail. She peered up into the monstrous firs for a glimmer of light, but only scattered pinpricks penetrated the thick boughs.
So different from the woods back home. This forest enclosed her, the pungent scent of evergreens filling her nose until she could scarcely breathe. She nudged the mare Rosy to go faster. Two more little brothers rode ahead on Pa’s horse Ranger, with Ma leading them. And Eddie, eldest of the brothers, marched in front of Ma, probably thinking he was leading the family, but Ma just wanted him where she could keep an eye on him.
Two Indian guides on horseback led the way. One had a face like aged leather that had sat out too long in a spring rain before shrinking into cracked ridges under a summer sun. He hunched into the heavy blanket wrapped around his shoulders as if suffering a chill. The second man looked no older than Jennie with his baby-smooth skin. A buckskin shirt, fringed and beaded, covered his torso but left his legs bare to the world. Like most Indians she’d seen, neither wore beards. Whether they shaved or lacked face hair, she didn’t know.
At a turn in the trail they all disappeared, swallowed in the tangle of greenery.
Jennie gripped the reins tighter and swerved in the sidesaddle to look back, expecting to see Pa following with the oxen. But she couldn’t see Pa either. Her heart raced. She felt alone with little Robbie. Adrift in this strange land.
As she watched the trail behind, anxious to see her father reappear, a tree bough slapped the back of her head. She swung forward again, and the prickly needles scraped her face. A burst of anger flared, but she swallowed it for Robbie’s sake.
He tapped her shoulder. “’Most there, Jennie?”
She managed to keep her voice light, only a subtle huskiness betraying her distress. “It shouldn’t be too long, Robbie.”
He bounced behind her, as if that could somehow hurry them up.
Ahead, Ma and the boys appeared again. The faint semblance of a trail had straightened once more. She could only see a depression in the layers of woody debris. What if they were lost? Did those guides really know where they were? Was Pa right to trust them? The older one seldom spoke, but the young one seemed to defer to him.
Glancing back, she saw Pa and took a fuller breath. His expression softened with a quick lift of his lips on one side. She tried to smile in return before looking away. But she didn’t know if she could ever forgive him for this. They had spanned a continent, the last two thousand miles without a sign of civilization except for a few crude forts and a couple of mission stations. They had crossed grassy plains, barren deserts, and rugged mountains to reach this Promised Land of Oregon. And what promise did she see now? Why had he brought them to this wild place?
She had never wanted to come. She’d hoped to stay at the academy, the Utica Female Academy, where she had begun her studies. She longed to do something interesting. Women had so few opportunities. Talk was buzzing among students at the academy about women demanding more rights after Mrs. Stanton and Mrs. Mott were barred from being seated at an antislavery convention in London—just because they were women. Jennie wanted to know what might come of those demands. . . .
The trail emerged from the tree line and descended right down the cliff face on a ledge cut into the bluff’s rock wall, dropping onto the flat below.
Through a blur of tears Jennie saw people. She wanted to cry out. They were Indians like their guides, all with those strange sloped heads, some wrapped in blankets like the old man, some in buckskin like the young one, others in cloth shirts and coats—some scarcely dressed at all. Like a welcoming committee, they surrounded the approaching riders, chattering to the guides, to each other, and to the Havilands, for all the good that did. None of the Havilands could understand a word of their language.
Pa shook the hands of several Indian men, talking to them through the help of the young guide. Then looking unduly cheerful, Pa moved to Ma’s side to help Charlie and Davie off their horse.
Jennie sat securely on Rosy’s back, pressing herself hard upon the saddle as if she might truly become a part of it. She didn’t want to get off. She wanted to stay on and turn around and ride back, all the way to Utica. Indians clustered about her now, and when Pa came to help her and Robbie down she clung tightly to the mare. “I . . . I think I’ll—”
Once he’d put Robbie on the ground, he reached for her. “Come on, honey. Better get off. We’ll go over to the Wallers’ house. It’ll be good to be in the company of others after such a long time. Come, now.”
She eyed the Indians encircling her, making her feel more absolutely a stranger in a strange land. . . .
Still Jennie clung to the mare.
Pa’s brow tightened. “Jennie, please get down and help Ma with the boys. I want to go talk to the men at the mill.” His hands were on her waist, and there was no use resisting anymore. Pa didn’t just support her to help her off. He took her off and set her firmly on the ground, but his voice softened. “Jennie, it’ll be all right.” Love shone in the face that puckered into ridges when he smiled, and Jennie wanted to return the love at the same time that she wanted to despise him for doing this to her. “Don’t hate me too much,” he said. “I do love you. Surely you know that.”
Her eyes teared again, and she felt a lump in her throat that wouldn’t let her speak. Nodding, she looked away from him. Ma stood beside Ranger watching them, holding onto the two small boys, one in each hand. Eddie and Charlie casually wandered about, peering here and there.
Ma beckoned with a tilt of her head. “Come along, Jennie.”
When Pa dropped his hands from Jennie’s waist, she began to move in Ma’s direction. The cluster of Indians moved with her, following close behind, and she couldn’t help looking back at them. Nor could she help noticing an odd smell. She sniffed deeper, trying to identify the scent. Fish. Of course. They were fishermen, and the rank smell of stale fish clutched her nose.
Still moving away from the Indians, but with her head turned to watch them, Jennie stopped short when she smacked into something. Someone. She looked ahead and saw buckskin. She had run into one of the Indians. Shuddering, she drew her arms forward to push herself away, and felt herself caught. She couldn’t push away because he was holding her by the shoulders.
“Please,” she said, “let me—”
She looked up into the man’s face. Not an Indian. Her mouth dropped open. He was dressed for all the world like an Indian. His dark-brown hair came halfway to his shoulders, the brown eyes almost black, but clearly he was no Indian.
“Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am,” he said, his voice deep, mellow, the dark eyes glittering with a smile.
She managed to push back to arm’s length and quickly surveyed him from the smiling face down over the buckskin-covered length of him to the moccasins on his feet. He wore a buckskin shirt, much like their young Indian guide’s—fringed, embroidered, belted at the waist—but unlike the guide he wore long trim-fitting buckskin breeches with fringes running down the outer seams. He was armed—a knife in a sheath on his belt, a pistol stuck into the belt, and powder horn and bullet pouch slung over his shoulder. With determination, she pushed back harder and he released his grip on her.
He spoke with a drawl, still smiling. “Ma’am, may I have the utmost pleasure and privilege of welcoming you to the fair Willamette Valley. My name is Jacob Obadiah Johnston.” He backed up a step, sweeping one hand before himself as he gave her a deep bow, the long fringes on his buckskin sleeve swishing with the motion. Standing straight again, he grinned wider. “My friends call me Jake. And you would be . . . ?”
She could only stand and stare, until another man approached, dressed almost the same, his dirty buckskins showing more wear, the fringes more ragged, his dark straggly hair longer, and this one had a brushy tangle of beard covering his chin. He stepped up beside the other and stood before her with a broad smile, and she felt herself surrounded by the two of them.
The first man spoke again, his tone deepening. “May I present my friend and comrade from the mountains, the rather famous—or infamous—Joseph Lafayette Meek. His friends call him Joe.”