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A Land of Sheltered Promise
by Jane Kirkpatrick
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Chapter 1 – ENDURANCE

1901

Eva Cora Thompson Bruner falters. She's tired. The stagecoach ride across the purple hills to the Prineville, Oregon, courthouse has been long, and dusty pillows of soft earth swirl up to make her cough even though it's spring. Those hills that usually fetch her rest today rise against her, foreboding as the stillness that heralds a mountain storm. She's left her carpetbag at the hotel, no time to freshen. Now she stumbles at the courthouse steps. She lifts her skirt, hem high in case the men have ignored the "No Spitting" signs meant to prevent the dreaded consumption, which takes one's breath away. She's breathless now, but for other reasons.

All these people in front of the imposing building stare at her while she brushes her parasol free of grit. She hasn't slept well since this tragedy began, not that she slept easily before. Whenever her husband leaves their bed, she barely closes her eyes through the night, hoping for his safe return. She is seventeen years old. Today, Eva feels one hundred.

Men in vests with watch bobs sparkling in the spring sunshine step aside, but their wives stare openly. New felt hats sporting breeze-brushed feathers shadow accusing eyes.

Or do they pity rather than judge? Eva cannot tell.

She adjusts her white woven-horsehair hat, her gloved fingers feeling the tiny artificial roses that cluster at the brim. Shaped like a large tongue, the overhanging felt shades her eyes. White silk ribbons tickle the back of her bare neck, and she is aware, despite her fear and sadness, that some of the women admire.

She shouldn't be wearing something so fine on an occasion like this, but the hat had been her mother's, and it gives her comfort.

She moves up the first step and then the next, her legs as heavy as the oak trunks felled for the courthouse doors. Her parasol, as long and slim as one of Henry Hahn's cigars, pokes at the stone steps, making tiny scraping sounds. If she's fortunate, accusing eyes will go to that parasol, or to her silk embroidered lisle-lace hose rather than to the ten-year-old cape surrounding her shoulders. She keeps her hems raised, barely exposing her stockings.

The men look away as Eva meets their eyes. If the men return her gaze, she decides, they might reveal their own part in this conspiracy of fools. That's how she thinks of what's happening, as a conspiracy of fools. She wonders if she is the star.

The onlookers part, and Eva walks through them into the dark cool of the courthouse. As her eyes adjust to the wood-paneled interior, she wonders how Dee will look. She hasn't seen him for a month.

He doesn't go by Dee; he never has. "It's a woman's name," he told her once. "A man can't be called by such as that." He calls himself D. L., lets stand the error if someone refers to him as Dean or David. Eva wonders how the newspaper will record his name.

The last time she saw him, April 4, 1901, just a month before, he looked tanned and fit, the smell of sheep and gunpowder melded to his clothes. It had made no sense for him to be there in the shade of the cottonwood trees along Muddy Creek at the Station House. She heard his voice midday when he should have been with his flock, working the dogs, taking sheep to spring pasture.

"Eva! Come out, macharie."

She wiped her hands on her apron and pushed against the new screen door of the ranch house, half-happy to see him, half-wary at the surprise. The vein in his neck throbbed, her first warning sign.

His left eyebrow lifted.

"What is it?" she asked him. "Who's with the sheep?"

"Call the sheriff, Eva," her husband said, brushing at his pants.

He stared at her, that vein throbbing. "Do it," he said when she failed to move.

"What do I say?" Eva asked.

"Tell him I've just killed Tom Reilly."

The courthouse, with its false front, soars two stories above the high desert plateau in the city of Prineville, Oregon. A murder trial brings out the neighbors and witless as well as the merely curious, but only the sturdy and those who rise early have climbed these flights to the circuit court this May day. The rest will read of it in the Crook County Journal or the Antelope Herald. Eva keeps her fingers gripped around her reticule as though hanging on to it will anchor her taut nerves.

She wants to look serene, above the fray. She sends an arrow prayer, as she calls them, high and quick toward the target. Help me through.

Help me through. Inside, her stomach clenches as it did when, as a child, she watched her mother die. She steps into the courtroom.

The powers behind the Muddy Ranch have provided a legal mind, smartly dressed, dapper. She sees Dee's lawyer, George Barnes, bending near a seated man, his back to her. It's likely Dee, whom George Barnes conceals, or maybe one of the Muddy men of the Land and Livestock Company.

The hush caused by Eva's entrance penetrates Barnes, who lifts his head and turns to her.

The lawyer with his handlebar mustache frowns as his eyes slide down her dress, the cream dress she wore after her wedding reception two years before. She's dressed too proudly, not wearing enough humble. "Dress to please the jury," Barnes told her the one time they'd met. He wanted her to wear black, but the single black dress she owns, a hand-me-down from her aunt, she wore for her wedding. She can't wear it, not to this, not to watch her husband go on trial for murder.

Barnes advised, "Look saddened by what your husband's done."

Eva is appalled by what Dee's done. No dress will alter that reality. Her eyes send questions back to Dee as she frowns at him. How could you?

She'd asked him that day they waited for Sheriff Congleton.

"How? How did you kill Tom Reilly?"

Dee sat there, calm, a half smile creasing his handsome face. His blue eyes wore triumph, their look running icy fingers up her back. She felt her face grow hot, her skin tighten at her temples, her heart begin to throb.

"Was it an accident? What? Tell me."

He looked beyond her, as though seeing in the distance something no one else could see. The vein throbbed at his neck, pushed against his collarless shirt. "Duty," he said, the word hard and cold as old snow.

She sits in this courtroom now for the same reason: It is her duty to be here, her part in a journey begun two years before when she let herself be wooed by D.L. Bruner.

Barnes appears to catch himself. He gives her a polite nod, perhaps remembering that she is but a child. Seventeen, but still a child.

He touches the seated man's shoulders, steps aside. Dee turns to face her.

Eva sees relief, pain, and accusation in Dee's eyes. How could you?

My own wife never comes to see me while I wait out this temporary pause in my rising occupation. Doing my duty as a man should, following orders, and my wife fails to come to see me?

Eva knows betrayal. She knows it through her father's actions, her mother's weak choices, her husband's unkept promises.

The day Eva met D.L. Bruner, July 4, 1899, music from an oompah band pounded a steady beat for the Independence Day celebration in the park at Dufur, Oregon. The town was once called Fifteen Mile Crossing for the creek of the same name that meandered north fifteen miles to the Columbia River, east of Oregon's Cascade Mountains.

Mount Hood shone through fir trees. Eva sat on the grass and arched her neck to see the peak. Exposing the white of her throat, Eva risked her aunt's comments about unladylike behaviors, though her aunt rarely had reason to chastise. Orphans wish to please.

Eva leaned back and inhaled the view of Mount Hood. It looked cold, and yet the time she and a friend climbed partway up, she had seen its dips and hollows, which offered springs and wildflowers and warmth of landscape. Down in Dufur, she decided landscapes can deceive as well as nurture.

Beyond her, children squealed at finding frogs; their mothers retreated in quick disgust when the amphibians appeared in pudgy little hands.

"That D. L. Bruner dresses nattily," her aunt Fern said, nodding with her chin toward a man standing off to the side who was not much taller than Eva. "Don't you agree, dear?"

"For a sheepman he's downright formal," Eva's uncle Morrison said. "But I guess he's earned it, working way out there for Hahn and Fried on that Muddy Creek. A man's got to dress well when he can." He told Eva, "D.L. tends sheep for the Prineville Land and Livestock Company, the largest landholder in that area."

As though their discussion drew him, D.L. started toward them. Morrison kept going. "They control thousands of acres for their cattle and sheep. And I do mean control." Morrison hesitated. "A smart-alecky kid, but a hard worker. Been on his own a long time now."

"I'm sure she's heard the stories," her aunt Fern said. "We hired D. L. one summer. You were too young to remember. He's always worked, after his mother...well, after things got hard for them at home. Youngest of six, and mercy me, I can imagine what his mother went through and why she, well..."

"Need any more of my help, Mother?" Morrison asked his wife.

"Or am I released?"

"You go ahead. I know you like your horseshoe toss. Eva and I can tend to the food, can't we, dear?"

"Joe Sherar's over there. I'll do business, about getting wheat ground at his White River mill," her uncle said.

"Uh-huh," her aunt said. "You know the hardest thing about doing business is remembering to mind your own." She brushed a pie crumb from his vest.

Her uncle pecked his wife on the forehead. He was a man not afraid to show affection to his wife in public. Eva liked that about him, that and his willingness to take an orphan in.

Her uncle stepped toward a cluster of men gathering near the horseshoe pit. It was cool for July. Cool for Dufur. Even though Mount Hood rose up to the west and timbered country spread out to the east, Dufur had a dry side marked by hot summer days and nights. Respite came from the rains that plagued farms west, in the Willamette Valley. Eva's mother brought them here after her father's "calamity," as her mother always called the time that followed Eva's joyful, brief memories beside the Muddy.

D. L. swaggered toward Eva and her aunt Fern. He touched his bowler hat. The other men topped their heads with Stetsons, or felt hats for which even the unique creases have names. D. L. was different. He wore a dark suit with a tie the color of whipped cream. Just above the stiff collar, a vein throbbed.

"Mrs. Thompson, ma'am," he said, tapping his fingers to the brim but not removing the bowler. "Wanted to take a look at your basket, to make sure I bid on the right one when the time comes."

"Now, D.L., that'd be cheating," her aunt Fern said. She fluttered her eyes. Is she flirting? "A fine upstanding man like you knows better. Mercy me, I taught you better than that."

"Cheating, good woman, is when you pour sugar in your beer before betting your friend that your stein will bring more flies than his," D. L. said. He ran his tongue over smooth, unchapped lips before adding, "And you accept the winnings without remorse." He grinned then, and his face lit up, his eyes narrowing with a twinkle in them.

Eva considered his features almost feminine and detected an accent of some kind braided through his words. "Only a fool would circumvent a certainty like an early look at a woman's decorated basket," he said. His left eyebrow lifted, and he winked at Eva. She felt her face grow warm as she lowered her eyes. "Besides," he said, "I won't know what's in that food basket, or whether it'll be worthy of the wager or not, so I'm still taking my chances."

He spoke like a man who preferred to take chances. It should have been Eva's alert. It wasn't. She could sugar her thoughts sometimes and only later realize what kinds of discomfort she attracted by such sweet covering up.

All things will be uncovered in this courtroom, Eva decides. With justice, there is nothing left to chance. Eva's legs wobble. She finds a bench to sit on; her parasol leans against her cream-colored skirt.

The prosecutor turns to look at her. Eva wonders what this man sees. A square-faced woman with a too-wide nose, too-thick lips, too- full cheeks, an elongated neck. Drab blue eyes, the color of standing water. That's what he should see, trained observer as he's supposed to be. Out-of-proportion is how Eva thinks of herself: wide shoulders, a narrow waist. Eva's father once said she had a mouth wide enough to take a slice of watermelon and still be able to move her tongue around to separate the seeds. Does the prosecutor see such imperfections? Does he care?

Her whole life is out of proportion now. She can't sleep. Her choices frighten her. How could I have chosen such a man? How could I not have seen the possibilities? Did I so want to go back home that I couldn't see the truth? Sugared thinking. Where was I going before D. L. Bruner took me aside?

Dee nods ever so slightly to her again, that half-smile making him look overconfident. His vocabulary, larger than one expects of a sheepherder, makes him suspect among the men. He sometimes uses French, calls himself a Frenchie to distinguish himself from Irish herdsmen or Basque. It paints him cocky. She wonders if his lawyer has thought of this, and how the jury will respond when Dee takes the stand. Eva thinks for just a moment that Dee is a small, scared boy using bully tactics to stabilize his life.

Dee lowers his head to listen to something his lawyer says, and in profile Eva sees the close-cropped hair cut clean around his ears, and the wide forehead exposed by horseshoe-shaped openings in a trim brown hairline. Without his hat, the side of his head shows up white.

He looks naked without that bowler, older than his twenty-one years and smaller than his five-foot, seven-inch frame. More vulnerable, his back now to the gallery. He's hunched over, listening.

The lurch beneath her heart, the sweet pain of seeing one she loves helpless while also harboring outrage toward him, surprises. She presses her long fingers beneath her breast. Her stomach hurts. She aches for him, for his poor choices, for what he's come through, youngest child of six, a mother...well, unavailable for much of his life.

They are orphans, both of them.

These are new thoughts, challenges that did not accompany Eva when she first joined her husband at the Muddy Station. But these courtroom walls, the stares and looks of outrage on the faces of the jury pool now entering tell Eva she has entered a new age that will demand a greater level of endurance. Eva wonders if an orphan like her is capable of such strength. Perhaps. Unlike her mother in the midst of tragedy, at least Eva has chosen to stay here, and this realization gives her a small measure of comfort.



Meet the author:
Jane Kirkpatrick


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