It was the worst August Esther could remember. Not even the final leg of their journey to Vancouver two years ago had been as terrible as this.
Although, she reflected as she massaged her absurdly huge belly, she had been approximately this pregnant then. Besides, here they had clean water, shelter, and plenty of food. True, all eight children and herself were ill, but it beat having to walk fifteen miles a day. At least Amos was well enough to journey to Oregon City for medicine.
In the other room, Samantha was coughing again. Esther levered herself out of her rocking chair and wiped the sweat from her forehead. The clay pitcher was nearly empty – she’d have to go for more water soon. Maybe Curtis was well enough for that task…
The pounding on the door set her heart racing.
“Missus Short! It’s the Company. Open up.”
She froze. They weren’t supposed to be here – the neighbors were supposed to be keeping watch –
Then she remembered how Samantha had been playing with their daughter, how she, too, had been coughing…
“Missus Short, we will break down this door if we have to!”
She set down the pitcher with a trembling hand. Fine. She was on her own.
She opened the door with as wide and supercilious a smile as she could muster. “And what brings the HBC to my home today?”
The group of men before her seemed to tilt and she dug her nails into the soft wood of the doorjamb. The blood pounded in her ears and the only thing that kept her upright was the thought of what these cretins might do to her children should she pass out.
“I think you know, ma’am.” The leader hefted his shotgun. Belatedly, Esther realized they were all armed. Good thing her illness-clouded senses hadn’t even allowed her to think of grabbing her own gun. She was a good shot, but not that good. Plus, what a mess…
“Something humorous, ma’am?”
The group tilted again and the edges of her vision darkened. In her mind, Esther frantically cycled through the names of her children until the world righted itself. “Not remotely.”
“Then if you’ll come with us, please.”
Esther blinked, trying to focus. They were in a boat. The boat was in the river. Drusilla was vomiting into the river. Curtis was holding a lone oar. Alfred and Aubrey were crying. So was Grant, his tiny face flushed, his eyes glassy.
She looked back. No smoke over the treeline…at least they hadn’t burned the cabin this time.
“Jerusha.” Her voice came out a low growl. “Hold Grant.”
The boat rocked as her eldest daughter took him. Esther’s head spun afresh but she gritted her teeth and held out a hand to Curtis. “Give me that oar. You lose the other one?”
“They only gave us the one.”
“All right.” She settled onto her knees and fixed her eyes on the shore. “Row with your hands, then.”
He didn’t protest, just rolled up his sleeves.
Tears striped her feverish cheeks and her dress was ruined, but her expression was steely. “Sit up front,” Esther instructed. “Make sure we don’t hit anything.”
By the time the boat scraped the pebbled shore on the Oregon side of the river, the sun was setting. Esther’s arms ached and trembled, and she could feel something dreadfully similar to contractions. Curtis’s arms were blotchy from the cold river. Even steadfast Drusilla was crying. Esther braced herself on the prow of the beached boat, willing the baby to just wait a little longer, trying to come up with a plan.
The shout was so faint, she thought she’d hallucinated it. But as she slowly stood, she saw him: Amos, God bless him, running down the beach toward them.
He caught Esther and every child he could reach in a hug. “Traveling doctor saw you,” he gasped. “Are you all right?”
“I’m mad as hell, Amos,” she whispered.
“I know, darlin’.” He kissed clammy forehead. “They won’t take our land. The Griffiths offered to host us for a week or so to recuperate. After that –”
“The children can stay.” She met his eyes. “They need the rest. Me, I’m going back tomorrow.”
“Mama, the baby!” Jerusha protested.
“Baby’ll be fine. If they burn the cabin again…if they think for even a moment they’ve won…”
Amos studied her for a long while. “Damn, but I do love you, Esther. Tomorrow, then.”