All the wrath of the sea gods, combined, could not have come close to approximating the pain she felt. Barbara Nelander-Ward had prepared herself for the worst, but this agony surpassed her wildest expectations.
Face flushed, heart racing, fists clenched, she stifled one cry, but as the spasms came again in fresh waves, she howled an invective.
“Damn!” Ashamed of her weakness, for she was not one to surrender easily, Nelander clenched her teeth, spat, then offered a weak apology. “I am sorry. I had not meant to cuss. But at least,” she tried, “I did not put a ‘God’ in front of it.”
The tall, solidly-build man at her side, himself the color of a furled topsail, forced a grin. “That would have been swearing.”
“I promised I wouldn’t, but you damned landlubbers have such delicate ears.”
He didn’t remark on her second use of the impolite word.
Offering his hand, Seth Ward encouraged her to take it.
“Hold onto me. Squeeze as hard as you can. Concentrate on —”
“Crushing your fingers? That is an incentive, if ever I heard one.”
Despite the temptation, she did not oblige. “Go to the door and look out. Just one last time, to see if anyone is coming.”
Slipping silently away with the grace of a deer, which belied his stature, Seth crossed the living room and stood in the open entranceway. A breeze blew in from the north, cooling his body, if not his nerves. He might have saved himself the trip. The road leading to the farm had not been traversed in several hours, and then by the doctor. No sign of any wagon, carriage or foot-weary traveler met his eye.
He wished it otherwise. His wife put a great deal of stock and not inconsiderable faith in the arrival of her friend. As unlikely as it seemed for a woman to travel by herself from the Nebraska Territory all the way to Lawrence, Kansas on a journey of mercy, such events were known to happen.
But not by an ordinary woman, he reminded himself. By an extraordinary one.
Barbara Nelander-Ward, familiarly called “Nelander” by friends and foes alike, had undertaken just such a trip only five months before. It had been winter then, but she swore to go, and by God, she had. Making her way across one territory and into another, she had sought and ultimately found the temporary home of their former neighbors, Terrance and Beth Windsor and their two sons, Jed and James.
The reunion had not been a happy one. During the summer of 1859 when drought held the land in a viselike grip, burning the soil and parching all living creatures to the point of death and beyond, the Windsors had opted to pack their bags and seek greener pastures. While the Wards held steadfast and ultimately persevered, they had not.
Nebraska had proved proven greener, but only in a figurative sense, for it did the Windsors no good. Without land to till or money to take them further, they had settled in a shanty town named Snow Bluff.
For all their chance of escape, it might better have been named Hell's Bottom.