A/N For those of you who wanted more of this story, you owe thanks to my beta, LJ Summers. Now that I'm posting on Twilighted as well, she encouraged me to revise and expand this tale. (By and large, when my beta says jump, I ask how high, lol. She's the only one that gets away with it, though. ;-D)
I hope you enjoy Pioneer Daddyward's adventures!
I stood on the top of the rise, my eyes squinting in the bright light. Tall, waving green grass as far as the eye could see in front of me. Behind and below me, the gentle wash of a shallow river lined with scrub brush and trees.
One year. It had been one year since I had seen this land for the first time. A land full of promise. A land that was also harsh and demanding. A lot had happened in those 12 months, more than I had ever dreamed possible.
When we had set out to come to this desolate and lonely place, our spirits were high, buoyed by hopes, dreams, idealistic expectations, and an irrepressible sense of optimism. Emmett was the dreamer, the big thinker, the idea man. I was the practical, nuts and bolts, make-it-happen one. Quiet and thoughtful, a bit shy, and more than happy to let Emmett have the limelight. We'd been inseparable since I was born — an unbreakable alliance — and together we had always been unstoppable. I sighed and looked to the ground at my feet.
"I miss him, Alice. I miss him every minute of every day. I don't know how to do this without him."
I could almost feel her small hand rubbing soothing circles on my back, her head resting on my upper arm. Could almost hear her sweet voice saying, "I know," in a comforting tone. I swore I could smell her in the warm April air. I shook my head to clear it and took a shaky breath.
"I miss you, too," I whispered and gently touched the earth before turning and striding away. I came here almost every day to visit my wife, my children. To both remember and forget why I remained here lost and lonely without them.
~ o ~
Alice had always been my confidante, my spark, my best friend, from the first moment she walked into my life when we were children. I had never imagined my life without her, and now she was gone, never to return, taken from me by a fever in the early winter after we lost Bea to the river.
I had just returned from the nearest town, a three day's hard journey away, making the final trip after the harvest and before the snows came. I had been gone nearly two weeks getting the last of the supplies to see us through the winter. It was a fine day, and I was with Samuel in the fields planning the plowing and planting for spring when Mattie came running and screaming towards us.
"Pa! Pa! Pa!" was all she could manage. She raised her little arm and pointed beyond the house. My stomach fell to my feet. Alice was expecting our next child sometime in the winter and I was immediately afraid something had happened to her or the baby.
I sprinted toward the house, calling for her as I ran. When I got there, the house was empty but I could hear Alice sobbing, and my heart clinched. I ran toward the sounds of her cries and found her crumpled on the riverbank.
I grasped her arms. "Alice, Alice! Sweetheart! What is it? The baby?"
She raised her tear-streaked face, red and swollen with crying. "Bea," was all she said.
I stood and began calling, looking along the bank in panic. "Bea! Where are you, baby? Where's my Busy Bea?" I headed downstream on the bank, still calling, terrified of what I would find. There were so many dangers out here, so many things that could hurt a three-year-old child. My frantic eyes caught sight of something in the water. A bit of fabric caught in a snag. A moan rose from my chest as I recognized the piece of cloth.
"NO, NO, NO!" I tore off my boots as I splashed into the frigid water, swimming as fast as I could to my youngest daughter. When I got there, I knew it was too late. Her body was limp and she bobbed gently in an eddy of the current. "Oh, Bea," I whispered, untangling her waterlogged dress and clutching her body to my chest. "My Busy Bea," I choked out before heading back to the shore.
Samuel had helped his mother to her feet. Mattie was waiting on the bank, holding my boots. In silence, we returned to our sod house where I lay Bea's body on the table carefully. She looked so peaceful — like she was sleeping — but even in her sleep, she had never been so still. Samuel followed me back outside, and we started our separate tasks. I grabbed a shovel, and Sam, a hammer. She was not the first child we'd lost, and I feared she would not be the last.
Alice and I had selected the spot on the rise not long after we arrived. Life was tough on the frontier. Death came easy and swift, just a natural part of things, though it was never easy and was always painful. I had not changed out of my waterlogged clothing, nor stopped to put on my boots. I needed to dig, to turn the earth, to pour my grief into that hole in the ground so I could be strong for Alice, for Sam and Mattie, for the baby to come. I loved all my children, but Bea had a special place in my heart because she was so like Alice.
I wiped the tears from my cheeks and returned to the house. Samuel had finished the box. We had just enough scraps of lumber from building our shelters for this one tiny coffin. It was so small, I felt my heart squeeze when I saw it. Alice had carefully washed and dried Bea's body and dressed her in her best dress. I felt a tear slip down my cheek as I saw her laid out on the table. I picked up the tiny body and gently placed her carefully in the box. Alice fussed briefly over her dress and hair, then Mattie tucked Bea's doll by her side, and Sam added a handful of dried flowers, each of us whispering a goodbye before I nailed on the lid.
I led my family to the grave and placed the box into the earth. Alice read a few Bible passages, and we each shared a favorite story or memory of Bea, telling of our love and sending her soul to God. Alice dropped in the first handful of dirt, waiting for Sam and Mattie to drop in theirs before she took them by the hand and walked back to the house, leaving me alone with my daughter as I tucked her into bed one final time.
It was nearly dark by the time I returned to our warm but clammy sod house. My clothes were still damp, and I was chilled to the bone. Alice had me strip and parked me in front of the fire, handing me a cup of warm soup with a piece of bread for my supper. The mood was understandably somber, the house too quiet without Bea's lively chatter.
When we climbed into bed that night, I pulled Alice to my chest, her back to my front, and holding her tightly. She whimpered quietly into her pillow. "Oh, my darling, I'm so sorry about Bea," I murmured reaching up to stroke her cheek, wiping away the tears I found there.
"Oh, Edward. I'm the one who's sorry. I couldn't find something in the dugout, and suddenly she wasn't with me. I ran out just in time to see her slip and tumble into the water. By the time I got there, the current had taken her too far out into the river. Mattie was running for you before I could say anything..." she let out a muffled sob.
I wrapped my body around hers, giving her my warmth and comfort the best way I could. Words were never my strength; I found it easiest to talk with my actions.
"Shhhh. It's okay." I stroked and caressed Alice tenderly, trying to ease her pain. I rubbed my hand lightly over her swollen belly, reminding us both that new life was coming. It would never replace the life lost, but it gave us something to focus on, to look forward to. I continued touching her gently, holding her close until we fell asleep.
In the morning, I was unusually tired and a bit shaky, but I went out to do my chores with Samuel regardless. I don't remember collapsing in our sod barn, but Sam and Alice had to practically carry me back to the house. I burned with fever for more than three days. Mattie fell next, then Samuel, and finally Alice. Of course, Alice wouldn't stay in bed, trying to nurse us all. On the fourth morning, I woke from my delirium and realized the fever had broken. Mattie's serious eyes met mine as she washed my face with a cool, damp cloth.
"Thank you, baby girl. Are you okay?" I croaked, my voice rusty from lack of use.
"Yes, Papa. I was sick a little, but Ma and Sam are bad."
I turned and jerked myself up onto my elbow to look at Alice next to me in our bed. She was deathly pale, her face glistening with sweat, her nightgown sweat soaked.
"How long has she been like this, baby?"
"Almost as long as you, but she stopped making sounds last night."
"Alice? Alice, sweetheart? Darling? Love? Can you hear me? Please, stay with me now. You have to stay with me — I need you." I smoothed her matted hair away from her face. I took the cloth from Mattie's hand and washed Alice's face tenderly. Her lips were swollen, dry, and cracked. She didn't flutter so much as an eyelash as I tended to her, spoke to her, touched her. If her stillness didn't tell me, the heat of her skin did. It was too late. Though I begged her to stay with me, not to leave, she breathed her last before noon.
Samuel lingered for several days. At one point, it looked like he was going to mend, even sitting by the fire for a bit. But at nightfall, he slipped into a deep delirium and by dawn, he was dead. He had been our oldest, not yet 13.
There was no more wood for coffins. Mattie and I did our best to wash and dress their bodies for burial, and I wrapped each in an old sheet. It wasn't much, but it was the best I could do. I placed their bodies in our dugout until I was strong enough to dig their graves. It was cold now, and I knew I needed to put them to bed before the ground froze and I'd have to wait until spring.
I was hoping Emmett or one of his boys would stop by and help me; and when they didn't, I just assumed they were still busy bringing in the last of their crops. It took me a couple of days in my weakened state, but I finally got both graves dug. Mattie had become my shadow and rarely left my side, doing all she could to nurse me until I was well and strong again. I finally got Alice and Samuel settled into place a week after they'd passed. I put Alice between our children, and said a special prayer for the soul of our unborn child as tears streamed unchecked down my cheeks and I held Mattie close by my side.
As much as I wanted to lose myself in my grief, I couldn't. I had a pair of serious grey eyes that captured me and kept me here. I now had all the farm work to do, as she had all the housework. Mattie was only nine, way too young to shoulder such a burden, but there wasn't anyone else. She was a strong little girl, and while she had always been on the quiet, shy side, she was now positively taciturn.
~ o ~
A few days after the burials, I saddled up one of our horses, Old Jack, and lifted Mattie into the saddle, climbing up after her. It had been too long without contact from Emmett or his family, and it was past time to share my sad news. I needed his help finishing up a few things around my homestead that required at least two strong backs. I was worried that the winter snows would have us trapped inside before I could batten everything down.
The air was cold, with the smell of snow in the sharp wind. I hugged Mattie close to me, taking comfort in the presence of her small body, while trying to keep her warm, not wanting her to catch a chill. We were so very alike in temperament and mood, each worried the other would die and leave us truly alone, it made us protective and cautious.
The familiar ride didn't take long, and I always enjoyed seeing how the land changed across the seasons. I knew something was wrong the minute we were in sight of Emmett's soddy. It was too quiet. No one was in the yard. There was no shout of greeting, no joyful welcome. Only the silence and stillness that accompanies death.
With dread, I climbed out of the saddle and told Mattie to stay put. I didn't know what I'd find, and I didn't want her to see whatever it was. Her eyes were huge in her face. I could feel her fear, and tried to smile to reassure her. I failed.
The house was clean but empty, and I moved on to check the outbuildings. I noticed then the wagon was gone, and felt relief pour through me.
They were simply out on the farm somewhere, not massacred, not dead. I let my breath out with a big whoosh. I hadn't realized I had been holding it. Knowing they'd be back soon, I settled Old Jack in the barn while Mattie and I waited in the house.
It wasn't long before I heard the jingle of the wagon. We went out to meet them, but only Bella and Thomas were on the seat, and the wagon itself was empty save a shovel. My heart sank. Instinctively, I pulled Mattie back into me, my arms around her shoulders. Thomas pulled up the team in silence and helped his mother down from the wagon seat.
"Bella," I nodded in greeting. She nodded in return, and entered the house without a word. When I went to follow, Thomas stopped me.
"Uh, I wouldn't right now, if I were you, Uncle Edward," he said.
"What's wrong, Thomas? What's happened?" I could see his eyes were red and swollen from crying. He sighed and looked down, not meeting my eyes.
"I need to get the horses unhitched and bedded down." He turned to his task.
"All right, I'll help you. Mattie, why don't you go in the house and see if Aunt Bella needs help with lunch." I gave her a little push as I could sense her reluctance to leave me.
As soon as she was out of earshot, Thomas told me everything. Not long after Emmett returned from his trip to town, Rose, only a few months old, came down with a stuffy nose. Emmett loved his boys and they roughhoused together, but I knew that deep down, he envied me my girls. He'd always wanted one of his own.
"We all did everything we could, Uncle Edward, but she started coughing, and. . . and," his breath hitched, "and she was gone." His voice dropped down to a whisper and he turned away to rub his eyes with the back of his hand.
Thomas said they were all upset by Rose's death, but Emmett was so torn up by it that even Bella couldn't calm him down. After they buried Rose, Emmett stayed out on the farm late into the night with the twins, Matthew and Mark. Thomas would have, too, but Emmett insisted he go and be with his mother.
Two days later, Emmett, Matthew and Mark were all struck by the grippe.
"Pa refused to stay in bed and went out day after day to do his chores. I. . . I found him in the barn, but I couldn't move him."
I sighed. Emmett was strong as an ox and unused to being ill or physically weak. It was his undoing in the end.
"Matthew and Mark got out of bed to help me drag Pa into the house. He. . . he. . . ." Thomas was openly crying now, "He just stopped breathin' after awhile, Uncle Edward. . . . " His voice trailed off and he swallowed hard.
I put my hand on his shoulder and patted it lightly. When he could draw a steady breath, Thomas finished his sad tale.
Matthew and Mark were set on digging Emmett's grave, and the three boys buried Emmett the next day.
"They'd been getting better, Uncle Edward, but that night they took sick again. . . ." I didn't need to hear what he couldn't bring himself to say.
Thomas had to dig the graves to bury his brothers alone. There was not enough wood for coffins for them, so Bella wrapped the prepared bodies in old sheets, as I had had to do. They were just coming back from burying the twins when Mattie and I greeted them in the yard.
Tending to the horses was comforting to both of us as we shared our unhappy stories of sickness and death. I was shocked, the breath literally knocked out of my body, when I heard of Emmett's death. I couldn't imagine him weak or felled by a fever or illness. My older brother had been larger than life my entire existence, and I didn't understand how I could survive when he didn't.
It was sobering. In a matter of weeks, our large, ever-expanding family had been reduced to just four — Bella, Mattie, Thomas, and me. Winter was coming, the frozen pellets of cold, dry snow beginning to pelt the ground as we crossed to the house. The vow I made to Emmett the night before we left home loomed large in my mind.
"Edward, promise me that if anything ever happens to me, that you will take care of my Bella for me. I know you love my kids like your own, so I'm not worried about them. But Bella is special. I know you don't agree, and you two don't always get along, but please, for me? She's my wife and I love her with my whole heart. Please take care of her, look after her, keep her safe for me."
His eyes were full of tears as he looked at me, begging me to care for his family. Bella and I not getting along was an understatement, but I didn't think I'd ever have to worry about it, figuring if either of us weren't going to make it, it would be me.
"You know I'll take care of Alice for you like she were my own. She's like a sister to me, man. And your girls... your girls would be safe with me. I would protect them with my life if need be. You know this. I'm only asking you to do the same for me."
"Of course I'll take care of your family, your wife, Emmett. You don't even need to ask me that. We're brothers till the end, and I do love your kids like my own. And I promise to do my best by Bella, knowing you'd do the same for Alice."
He'd wrapped me in a bear hug, tears spilling down his cheeks in gratitude. It had been an unspoken agreement between us since we'd each married, but it clearly eased his mind to hear the words out loud. I'd never dreamed then that I would be honoring that promise so soon.
How could we ever survive this? How could I keep us all safe in the months and years ahead? I'm the only man for two families. How do I do this?
I had no idea. I was at sea.
~ o ~
Bella had refused to speak with me that day. She had silently dropped a plate of cornbread and beans in front of me before going to their sleeping area and drawing the privacy curtain. I sighed, and the memory of our first meeting flashed in my mind.
Walking down the sidewalk as boys, I pushed Emmett and ran being playful and rowdy after school one day. I could hear his footsteps getting closer and I looked over my shoulder to see where he was when I crashed into something warm and soft, causing us both to fall. When I looked up, Emmett had disappeared and a girl was lying facedown in a mud puddle in the street. I couldn't help laughing when she raised her head from the muck, I'd never seen anything the like before. When I went to help her up with a big grin plastered on my face, she angry swatted my hand away calling me a heathen before stomping off with her head held high.
It had only gone downhill from there. I somehow always managed to make some sort of mistake that humiliated her or ruined some piece of her property whenever we ran into each other. I thought it'd get better when Emmett started courting her, or at least after they married, but Bella had a long memory and nursed her grudge at every opportunity. She and Alice got along like a house a fire, and our children grew up together, but it was always plain she just couldn't abide me at all.
Mattie and I went home after lunch, and returned the following afternoon. I helped Thomas with a few things that needed doing, and he promised to come help me the next day. Bella would not come out of the house and disappeared behind the privacy curtain when I went in to speak with her.
"Bella, Thomas is coming to my place tomorrow to help me with a few things. I hope you'll come with him." My words were met with silence. I sighed and left with Mattie.
Thomas came by himself the next few days. At 14, he was bigger, older and stronger than Samuel, which was a big help, but there was more to do on my farm than I realized to finish my winter preparations. On the fourth morning, Thomas didn't come as planned. I was immediately worried, and started out towards Emmett's place. Less than halfway there, I encountered Bella, stomping her way towards mine.
"My son is no longer coming to help you. We have our own farm to run, and he has all the chores he can handle without having to do all of yours, too. You'll just have to make do without him," she spat angrily.
I was stunned into silence, my eyes wide. Our interactions in the past had been disasters, it was true, but we had worked side by side and our families had helped each others for years. I couldn't believe she would say such things to my face.
That's just the grief talking.
"I know, Bella," I said in a voice meant to calm her. "I've wanted to talk to you about that very thing. If we're going to survive this winter, we have to work together."
"We don't need your help. We can do just fine on our own, thank you very much."
"That's not what I was saying..."
"I don't want to hear it. I've said my piece and I'm going home. You are not welcome on our property."
"But, Bella, I promised Emmett..."
"Don't you ever speak his name to me again. Do you hear me? I've had to put up with you all these years because you were his brother, but now he's gone and I don't ever want to see your face darken my door. Goodbye, Edward." She whirled and started back the direction she'd come.
She whirled back and glared at me fiercely. "Goodbye, Edward," she hissed, and left me standing there on my own with my mouth open.
Emmett, need your help here. She's your wife. I know I promised, but she's forbidden my help. What do you want me to do now?
In answer, the heavens opened up and rain spilled from the sky.
~ o ~
The days following this encounter found me busy from before light until after dark trying desperately to finish preparing our sod house and barn for winter, laying in enough wood and water, and marking paths to all these places so I could find my way to them and home again should a blizzard blow or the snow drift over my head.
Mattie was busy collecting the dried prairie grass and any lingering nuts or berries she could find. I went hunting every few days, bringing us small game and fowl to butcher and dry. Alice had turned our first shelter, a dugout on the creek bank, into a root cellar to store our food and supplies. I was grateful I didn't have to fortify our stores against plunder by large predators like bears. The smaller raccoons proved to be quite crafty, and I had to be especially inventive to defeat their thieving little hands.
The first major snowfall found us well prepared and reasonably snug in our dirt and grass home. I'd had to fill in the window openings, so it was dark inside, and with a dirt floor and dirt walls, it could only be so clean. But I'd worked hard to seal up all the places water dripped in when it rained, and where the wind blew in, and was pleased with my efforts. It was still cold inside, with frost greeting us every morning, but once the fire was bright in the hearth and the lantern lit, I daresay it was cheerful.
On fine days, I took Mattie out hunting with me or to check the few traps I'd set up. I didn't expect much, and didn't have much luck, but it gave me something constructive to do, and provided fresh meat for us on occasion. When the weather was foul, I focused on Mattie's education, teaching her to read, write, and do basic ciphers. I didn't have much education myself, but, as with everything else, I did the best I could and hoped it was enough.
On Thanksgiving, Mattie dug into our food pantry and prepared a special meal of dried rabbit, with canned peas and potatoes from our garden. For dessert, we shared a small bowl of fruit crumble she'd concocted out of some odds and ends in the root cellar. After I said grace, I cleared my throat and spoke, "As has long been our family tradition, I'll share some things I'm grateful for. I'm grateful for the gift of life, for this food I'm lucky to have, for the grace of my daughter, and the beautiful land we live on."
Mattie surprised me by chiming in. "I'm grateful for Papa, and for Mama watching over us in heaven with Samuel, Mary, Sarah, and Bea. I know there are other little girls out there who are not so lucky as me."
Her words caused a lump in my throat I had to swallow down before I could take the first bite of my supper. As Mattie and I ate in our usual comfortable silence, I wondered how Bella and Thomas were spending the day. Bella was a fine cook, but she was used to the fuss and ruckus of a house full of rowdy boys who ate each meal like it was their last. The quiet along with so few mouths to feed must be painful for her, and I had no doubt that Thomas missed his Pa and older brothers. Like me, he'd always been in the shadow of the twins and I'm sure he was lonely and at sea without them. I was surely lost without my larger-than-life big brother to lean on.
A/N: The next chapter will post sometime soon :-)
My o/s All That's Left is up for a Vampie Award – voting runs from February 14-28th. To see the full list of nominees and vote, please visit http:/ / vampawards/ ?page_id=294 (remove spaces)
In March, the Foxy Fics compilation benefitting The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research will be available. I've extended my popular o/s I Burn for You Gladly by one chapter especially for this worthy cause. Chapter 2 will ONLY be available in this compilation. There are 48 authors contributing work, including tara sue me, so it's well worth the $5 minimum donation. Go to http:/ .com/ 2010/11/ foxy-fics-round-2. html (remove spaces) for all the details.