And it was at that party that she met Steven Travis. He was four years her senior, the son of an Army officer, who, forced to choose a profession, had picked law as least objectionable of those open to a gentleman, but from his earliest days of reading it, there was dislike and no eagerness in his study. Secretly he thought lawyers were a nuisance, and what he really wanted was to be able to produce something concrete, not to simply batten off the quarrels of other people. He was a shy young man, with a dreamer's face and fine dark eyes, whose friends didn't know how to size him up. He was bashful and quiet, slow at a jest and poor company at a party. He didn't drink or swear, and preferred to stay by himself-- especially when anybody told an off-color story. He was too strong for a girl, too modest for a boy. So he was left severely alone--a misfit, a freak of nature, something they just couldn't understand. Yet he liked to fish and shoot, enjoyed dogs and horses and devoted a lot of time to reading, and he could walk thirty miles in a day, three to the hour, and not get tired. Somehow, each of them recognized a kindred spirit in the other. They danced hardly at all, but they sat off by themselves in the conservatory and talked and talked and talked. Mary was attracted first to his intellect, then to his kindness and generosity, and at last to a good humor and quick wit which most of his acquaintances hadn't troubled to hang on long enough to discover. From the first they had a meeting of the minds on matters of importance--education, slavery, women's rights. She thought him qualified in every way to make her happy. They would supplement each other: he was moderate, she impetuous; he was modest and humble, she forward and arbitrary. He seemed pleased (if at first a bit startled) to discover a woman who possessed brains and the self-respect to use them. She had no ambition to be either wealthy or socially prominent, and would not have minded marrying a man who was an idealist rather than a money- maker. When he confided that he was thinking about leaving the law behind and going into journalism, she thought it a splendid idea. The next day he came to call at Aunt Caroline's house, one of the stream of bachelors who made the rounds to the homes of eligible young ladies all afternoon and well into the evening. No one had ever known him to join in this custom before. And where the male callers were generally expected not to stop at any one house for more than half an hour, Steven appeared at high noon and stayed till six-- talking.
After she had gone home to Philadelphia, he followed. It was only the third time they had met, yet already he had made up his mind to change his life. He had given his notice at the law firm where he was a junior partner, packed his trunk, and obtained a place as a reporter with the Public Ledger. Having revealed this to her, he sat for a moment as if gathering his resolve, and then said, "Mary, you may know what--what I'm going to say. It was odd, the way we met when things were so different for us. But I believe everything's happened the way it was meant to."
Mary's breath caught in her throat. Pausing, he asked more slowly, "Don't you think so too?"
Mary reflected. She knew her mother and aunt would tell her to act uncertain, to say she didn't know. "Don't be too eager or you'll lose the advantage." But she didn't want any "advantage"; what she wanted was the man beside her.
"Yes," she told him. "Yes, I think it was meant this way." A moment later he reached out clumsily to her; she inclined her head and he kissed her-- tentatively, inexpertly, at first, then eagerly and possessively. Through her dress she caught the beat of his heart; she closed her eyes and was conscious of the pressure of his palms, of his chest against her, and then of nothing except his lips. This was what she had been waiting for all her life. Her hand went up to his hair; she smoothed it, her fingers remained there. From the next room came a sound and they drew apart.
Steven snatched up her hands. "I'd planned it differently, Mary, and I thought of the way I'd start, and explain how things should be with us. My work, I mean. But now--" His words rushed out. "You'll marry me, Mary?" In her delight she saw that his eyes had darkened with feeling, until they were almost black.
"Of course I'll marry you. Of course."
He took her in his arms again, more swiftly than before, and she caught him tightly in return. His voice reached her as from a distance. "I won't be just a reporter always, Mary. I've always been a quick learner; my father said so, and all my instructors at the Academy and at college. I'll use this job to find out all about how a newspaper should work, and then--then we'll go somewhere and start a paper of our own, a nice, modest country paper. We won't get rich at it, but we'll use the free press to attack corruption and chicanery and advance the reforms we believe in. We'll make a difference in the world, Mary, you and I."
They were married after what Mary's mother considered an indecently brief interval, and the following year their son Billy was born. By his first birthday the Kansas Territory, which was almost the same age, had demonstrated in two elections--one to name a delegate to Congress, the other, four months afterward, to choose a legislature-- that it was destined to be a crucial battleground in the struggle between pro- and anti-slavery forces. The "Bogus Legislature" that was brought into being by the intimidating tactics of the Missourians who crossed into Kansas to become "voters for a day" and push their program was denounced by everyone from Governor Reeder on down. The new young town of Topeka was one of the centers of free-state sentiment and the home of a newspaper, the Freeman, devoted to it. Steven, who had early proven his brilliance as a reporter, had been among the many who streamed out to Kansas to cover the March elections. What he saw infuriated and aroused him. When he came home, it was with the offer of a position with the Freeman in his pocket. The Travises packed up and moved West. In 1856, Topeka having by that time gained the county seat after a bitter conflict with its proslavery rival Tecumseh and being therefore by custom ready for two newspapers, Steven started one of his own. Though no abolitionist, he was a staunch supporter of free soil and a passionate and vitriolic foe of the Missourians' force, threats, ballot-box-stuffing, and illegal vote counts. He gathered the news, solicited advertisers, sold subscriptions and delivered the finished sheet, and like all country editors had to be willing to be paid in produce, flour, meal, kindling wood--whatever people had. To bring in a modicum of cash money, he sold insurance and practised a little law, and Mary assisted with the publication of the Clarion News, helping to edit articles, set type, work the press, and fold the papers. She found it wondrously exhilerating even though it meant leaving Billy in the care of their Delaware housekeeper most of the time.
And then, one warm evening in August, Mary went down to the Methodist church to cover an ice-cream social. Despite the ongoing turmoil and confusion- -uncertainty over the whereabouts and next likely outbreak of the infamous John Brown, who hadn't been seen in the Territory since the previous December; the open warfare which had existed for more than three years between the Kansan "jayhawkers" and the Missourian "border ruffians," all too often spilling over to bring terror to the lives of ordinary citizens who just wanted to be left alone; the question of whether the new Wyandotte Constitution, which barred slavery from Kansas, would be accepted by the voters in the election set for October, and whether, if it was, Congress would accept it and admit the Territory as a state; and the fact that the last two months hadn't seen a single rain heavy enough to soak two inches into the ground--Topeka at least was prospering. Ever since the discovery of gold in the western region the year before, a boom had been under way, with town lots selling at fantastic prices. Merchants were rolling in cash netted from the sale of supplies to prospectors rushing out to the diggings--for the Oregon Trail, which was the northernmost and most popular route thither, passed directly through the town. The population had passed 1200, and stagecoaches plying between Fort Riley and Kansas City crossed the river there. Most of the violence had shifted into western Missouri, and Kansans were beginning to think the worst might be over.
Mary came home from the social to a darkened house. She was bewildered at first; Steven always sat up waiting when she was off on one of her social- editor errands. Then, in the sitting room, she all but stumbled over him, dead on the rug. Five-year-old Billy she found upstairs in his room, uninjured, but traumatized, huddled under his bed. If he had seen anything, he was unable to tell what it was, but, as it turned out, the law didn't ask him to: the next morning it was found that someone had broken into the Clarion office, ransacked or destroyed all the files and correspondence, smashed the press, and presumably (since it was nowhere to be found) thrown the type into the river. The tactics were quite familiar to anyone who knew of the sack of Lawrence three years earlier, and the authorities quickly guessed that the Missourians were to blame. Fortunately Steven had been a member of the Odd Fellows, which, like most fraternal orders, offered for sixteen dollars a year not only membership dues but payment in full of the premium on $2000 of straight life insurance. It was more than enough money to maintain Mary and Billy for a while, until she could decide what to do. And now she had. Steven's father was the commanding officer at Fort Sedgwick; he and his wife had offered to take them both in if they wanted to come. She had been waiting for only two things: first, the grass to thicken up sufficiently to support livestock, and the initial wild rush of transcontinental emigrants, who naturally had to get an early start so they could be sure of crossing the Sierra before the first snow fell, to subside; and second, the delivery of the little $150 Army press she had ordered last fall.
"Yes," she repeated, "I have family, but--" a momentary hesitation as she reflected that good-hearted Eleanor would never be able to accept or understand the truth--"but my home is the West now. I've never been a person to back up; I've been going forward all my life. Besides, my father is dead and my brothers-in-law are absorbed with their own businesses and households; Billy needs a man in his life." What she didn't say was that she had no intention of subjecting herself to the renewed authority of her mother, who was now in her element as a matriarch, surrounded by grandchildren and queening it over the husbands of her younger daughters; or of either mouldering away in genteel and sentimental idleness and dependence (if not necessarily poverty) or finding herself aimed at one eligible gentleman after another as soon as her two years of mourning were up and she could re-enter society.
"Well, I suppose I can see that," Eleanor admitted, "but for Heaven's sake, why buy another press? Surely you don't intend to start a newspaper out there?"
"I don't know," Mary replied honestly, "but Orin--my father-in-law--says there is none from Fort Kearny to Salt Lake, so why shouldn't I at least be prepared to run the first? I certainly learned from a good teacher. And why pay the extra freight charges to have the press hauled the extra three hundred miles or more, when I can do it myself?"
Eleanor sighed. Her husband was a real estate agent and land locator and as such almost inevitably prosperous; though four years younger than Mary, she'd been married for ten and had three young children. She was far more conventional than her friend: she subscribed completely to the prevailing notion that a really admirable female should be at once resourceful and practical, gentle, sweet, and modest, charitable and devout and a paragon of all the housewifely virtues, skilled in domestic management. The possibility of scandal was the bête noire of her existence; once when Mary had volunteered to drive to Lawrence alone to cover the inauguration of the newly rebuilt Free State Hotel, which had been bombarded and set afire during the sack, Eleanor had cautioned her not to go, pointing out that the weather was uncertain, that she might end up having to take shelter in some outlying home, and that if she did "there might be talk." "And talk is more to be dreaded than pneumonia?" Mary had asked archly. "Oh, yes! You can always get over pneumonia," Eleanor agreed earnestly. She pitied rather than scorned the poor woman who had to earn a living in a man's world, and admired rather than rebuked the one who defied tradition to serve humanity, but was deeply disturbed by those who delivered political tirades, denounced officials, or participated in violent public demonstrations. She always dressed in the height of fashion, where Mary wouldn't give house room to hoops, never burdened herself with more than three petticoats, and wore her dresses hemmed to the arch of her foot so she could work without having to worry about her skirts and crinolines getting soaked with rain, picking up dust and trash from the floor, or tripping her up on stairs. Yet she had always been a loyal friend and neighbor to the older woman, and her scatterbrained fluttering concealed an ability to remember a thousand tiny details of a conversation and a cutthroat knack for cribbage. "Sometimes I wish I had your heart, Mary. You're so brave! Some widows get cross and cranky, and some just seem to fade away. But you're exactly as you've always been--except maybe a little thinner, and wearing your black veil."
"And I'm often sorely tempted to dispense with it," Mary replied frankly. "You know very well that I don't care for what is called mourning etiquette.' I don't believe in sequestering oneself for a specified number of weeks and then appearing in public veiled in black; I don't see what it proves, except that one is acquainted with the dictates of society. It seems to me almost a denial of one's belief that a loved one has exchanged the trials of this life for the peace of another, happier one. It's only because Steven was highly respected in this community, and I prefer not to seem wanting in respect to his memory, that I conform."
Eleanor reached out and laid a hand on her arm. "If anyone can succeed in what I think you're planning, Mary, you will. You were born for it."
Mary's heart warmed at that observation. She had rather thought so herself, but it was pleasant to hear a sympathetic friend confirm it. When she had first begun to venture to write for public consumption-- Letters to the Editor first, and then, after the Clarion News was founded, essays and articles--Steven had said that many of her arguments were entirely illogical and all impetuous, but that through them all her obstinate courage was to be glimpsed, a genuine sincerity for the principles she felt to be righteous and good. Like the famous Dorothea Dix, she was soft-spoken and at times gentle and sympathetic, but could also be brusque, recalcitrant, dictatorial, and opinionated--traits many men especially disliked. She was an astute politician and intelligent conversationalist who could forcefully argue a point and hold her ground with the best of them. "I think each of us must be what it is right for us to be, whether we are men or women," she said. "To believe in oneself is the greatest thing--more even than to know oneself, as Plato teaches us."
"How long will it take you to reach your father-in-law's fort?" Eleanor asked.
"If the wagon train can keep up a steady twelve miles a day, which shouldn't be difficult on level plain, twenty-eight days of travel, which will be just under five weeks if we lay over Sundays to rest the stock. When we get to Fort Kearny I'll write him a letter and send it on by stage; it should reach him in a day or so, and that will give him and Evie plenty of time to prepare to receive us."
They watched as the men loaded the wagon, streaming out of the six-room, two-storey house with trunks and packing boxes and pieces of furniture on their backs or slung between them, back in again empty-handed to take up new burdens, while Eleanor's children and Billy played quietly in the corner of the front yard. Steven had built the house for a thousand dollars, and Eleanor's husband had agreed to buy it, and its outbuildings and acre of ground, for resale, paying twelve hundred dollars for the whole. The wagonmaster had given Mary a reduced rate since she was joining the outfit after it had left Kansas City and leaving it short of Denver--only thirty dollars--and her prairie schooner, horses, and harness had cost just over three hundred, plus supplies for the trip: flour, bacon, coffee, tea, cornmeal, molasses, salt, dried peaches and apples, vinegar, potatoes, rice, dried beans, brown sugar, saleratus, raisins, chipped beef, dried pumpkins, mustard, pepper, allspice, cream of tartar, a barrel of pickles, some sardines, cheese, tinned beef, maple sugar, and canned fruit for special delicacies, soap, matches, axle grease, powder and lead. With what was left of Steven's insurance, she would have a good stake. The wagon was of the same type as those used by Russell, Majors, & Waddell, though not so large; the freighters could carry seven thousand pounds, this one only a fraction over two tons. But for a trip short of the transcontinental that was enough, and enabled Mary to take with her all the furniture and household items that made life seem rich and comfortable.
The loading process took most of the day, for the packing had to be done scientifically, heavier items on the bottom fitted together like pieces of a dissected puzzle, lighter ones, along with food boxes, bedding, tent, and similar things that would be in daily use, on top. In the morning Eleanor and her husband and children gathered to see the Travises off. Mr. Pruitt lifted solemn blond Billy onto the high spring seat and handed Mary up after him, looking taller and thinner than she really was in a cool black marceline silk lightened up, as custom allowed after the first six months, with touches of white lace at throat and wrist. She had unfastened the neck and sleeves and rolled the latter back a bit for comfort, and though she retained a black bonnet of drawn crepe, trimmed with crepe ribbon, it hung down her back by its strings and she had removed the heavy knee-length veil, on the principle that it would be a fire hazard while cooking on the trail. "Do take care, Mary," Eleanor said, "and write as soon as you get settled."
"I will," Mary promised, leaning back a moment to make sure Steven's long shotgun was handily wedged behind the seat where she could get at it in a moment, then unwrapping the lines from the brake handle and reaching out to release the blocks. She snapped the reins across the six-up's back and whistled. "Get up, boys! Haaa!"
The team threw their weight into their collars and the wagon lurched forward and headed for the campground just outside of town where it would join the waiting train. Billy glanced back only once to return the frantic waves of the three Pruitt children, then quickly faced front again, blinking rapidly and swallowing his stomach down as the sight of his home brought back the pictures of the night his father died.
"Everything will be better in Nebraska, Billy," his mother told him, not taking her eyes off the team. "Living on an Army post in Indian country must be terribly exciting. Your grandfather has officers with families, so there'll be other children to play with, and maybe you can have a pony. Would you like that?"
"That'd be nice, Ma," the boy agreed, though he didn't sound particularly enthusiastic. Once again she worried about him. What exactly had he seen or heard that night?
The wagon train was formed up and ready, and they fell into place at the rear just as the call was given. For the first time in nine months Mary felt a clinging weight lift from her heart. This is what we've needed, she thought, to move on physically as well as emotionally, to find new scenes, new challenges.
Nebraska will be better. I'm sure of it.
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