At last! Pete Evans, Josephine Lewis and the gang have finally reached the end of the trail! So here we are with release day for Trail of Chances: Trail’s End, the final book of the Hot on the Trail series. This is the book that I had no idea how to write, but you guys kept on my case and kept asking for it. That gave me the inspirational boost to get it done. So thank you so much! You’re the best! I hope you enjoy it. Enjoy a little bit of chapter one right here to start out! And don’t forget, you can pick up your copy for just 99 cents, but only through this weekend!
Oregon City, Oregon Territory – 1865
“Well, there it is, Miss Josephine. The end of the trail.” Pete Evans pointed to a wide yard filled with wagons and people. Merchant booths and tents filled the area in front of the heart of the settlement on the other side of the last hill of the Oregon Trail. Oregon City at last.
“Thank merciful God in heaven above,” Josephine Lewis sighed, pressing a hand to her heart.
After three months, several storms, far too many deaths, one heart-wrenching parting of the ways, and more adventure than she’d ever bargained for in her life, her journey was done.
And in some ways, with forty years of life and the entire rest of the country behind her, she had a feeling her journey was only just beginning.
“Are we there? Did we make it?” Young Freddy Chance scrambled down from the back of the wagon, helping his smaller sister, Muriel, as he went.
“Yep, that’s it.” Pete pointed toward the settlement again. He swept his hat from his head to run a hand through his silver-grey hair.
“Where’s the ocean?” Libby Chance asked, hurrying up to join her younger siblings. Libby had turned eighteen on the trail, and in spite of her burst of enthusiasm, looked more like a woman than a child now.
“The ocean heard you were coming and it ran screaming.” Luke teased his sister, tugging on the long braid down Libby’s back.
“Ow! You pig.” Libby turned to punch Luke’s arm.
“Oink, oink!” Luke laughed.
Josephine rolled her eyes. All four of the Chance children had grown restless and irritable on the last leg of the journey. Maybe it was all the energy they hadn’t been able to expend in leisurely pursuits for the last few months, since starting west with a group of other orphans. Or maybe it was the uncomfortable question that hung over all of their heads now that they had reached Oregon City.
What happened to the four Chance children now that the journey was over?
“We’re still a fair ways from the ocean,” Pete stepped in to answer Libby’s question, fitting his hat back on his head. “But if you keep following the river for a day or so, you’ll get to your ocean eventually.”
“Unless it retreats once it hears you’re coming,” Luke added under his breath.
Libby huffed and balled her hands into fists. Freddy and Muriel snorted with amusement.
“Luke Chance, please stop tormenting your sister,” Josephine scolded. “I swear, you’ll give me more grey hairs than I already have.”
The minor feud was eclipsed as the Jacksons, one of the families they had been traveling with, rode past with their wagon.
“I bet you’ll be glad to finally be rid of that lot,” Beulah Jackson snorted, shaking her head.
Cold anger formed a knot in Josephine’s gut. “I—”
“You’re a mite too long in the tooth to be saddled with that kind of responsibility anyhow,” Beulah went on.
“Children like that need a younger hand,” her husband, Jim, agreed. “Someone with the energy to teach them manners.”
Josephine’s cold stomach turned over. She glanced to the children. Freddy and Muriel were busy chasing a puppy that had run close to the wagon. Luke and Libby had heard the comment though and looked decidedly put out.
“Thanks for all your help, Pete.” Jim slapped Pete on the back as he passed, not giving Josephine time to reply. “I expect you’ll kick back and enjoy a quiet retirement now, but I sure am glad you dragged your old bones across the frontier for this one last trip. We couldn’t have made it without you.”
“You take care, Jim.” Pete waved after him.
The Jacksons walked on, leaving Josephine speechless. She turned to Pete to see what he thought of the nasty set of comments. Long in the tooth? Old bones? Indeed! But Pete merely shrugged and walked back to check on the wagon.
Josephine sighed. Yes, that was probably the best thing to do. Ignore unhelpful negativity and unkind remarks. She turned her attention back to the cluster of buildings and wagons and people at the edge of the larger settlement.
“Goodness gracious me.” She let out a breath and clasped her hand to her chest. “It’s been so long since we were around any significant number of people that that budding new town looks like a veritable city.”
“There must be a hundred people there at least,” Muriel added, coming up to Josephine’s side to take her hand.
Josephine chuckled and hugged Muriel closer. There were far more than a hundred people in Oregon City. Tens of thousands of people, if not more, had made the same journey they’d just finished in the last fifteen years, and while not everyone stayed put at trail’s end, a good many had set up shop and planted roots in the burgeoning little town nestled between two rivers. All that hope and industry and planning for the future settled cozily in her heart, no matter how weathered it was. There was something comforting about real chimneys with smoke coming out of them, livestock grazing in the fields, and people going about everyday businesses without a care for how soon they would have to pick up and move on.
“I tell you,” she said to Pete and the children with a satisfied sigh. “That sight right there is enough to make me feel as though we’ve reached a new world.”
“It’s certainly a new world for me,” Pete muttered, striding back to her side, hands thrust in his pockets.
Josephine’s brow rose. It rose even more when she twisted to find Pete watching her, his face pink with…was that bashfulness? Her lips twitched into a grin. “What’s that supposed to mean, Peter Evans?”
“Nothing.” Pete shrugged, cleared his throat, and marched forward. “There will be all sorts of merchants and land agents down in that crush,” he told her, looking around to make sure anyone else listening knew the advice was free for all. “They’ll be willing to buy your wagons and oxen and anything else you brought for the journey but don’t need anymore. But careful, some of them are shysters who will take everything you’ve got and then some.”
More families from the back of the long line of wagons were rolling up around them or heading down into the shallow valley where trading was going on.
“You got anyone down there that you trust in particular?” Graham Tremaine asked as he and Estelle and little Tim rolled to a stop beside them.
A few feet beyond Graham, Charlie and Olivia Garrett stopped their wagon and looked on with interest.
Pete rubbed the back of his neck and squinted into the tangle of merchants and tradesmen. He studied them for a moment, then raised his hand to point at a portly man in a faded blue jacket. “That’s Russ Ryan. He’s a fair dealer when it comes to wagons. And Vincent Gordon down there is one of the more honest men that will take other goods off your hand that you don’t need anymore.” He turned back to the group. “If you were sticking around, I would recommend Paul Karlin to help you find and claim a patch of land to make your own, but you all have other plans, right?”
“We’re going to take Gideon and Lucy up on their offer of visiting the Haskell ranch in Wyoming with a view to settle,” Graham confirmed. Their friends, Gideon and Lucy Faraday, had parted ways with the wagon train at Ft. Bridger and headed out to Lucy’s father’s ranch to settle.
“And we’ve got business to take care of in San Francisco before we decide,” Charlie added, smiling at Olivia.
Pete nodded, then turned slowly back to Josephine. “And you, Miss Josephine. Do you know what you’ll do next?”
A completely unexpected lump formed in Josephine’s throat. Pete’s question wasn’t a difficult one. She knew the answer. But the unspoken uncertainty in Pete’s eyes, the wistful way Muriel stopped playing with the puppy and glanced up at her, the way Libby bit her lip…all of it made Josephine’s reply harder than she could have imagined.
“My…my niece, Callie, is waiting for me in Denver City. I’m supposed to move in with her and her new husband, John. John runs a store in Denver City, you know. I’m told my life there will be quite comfortable. Suitable for a woman of my years.”
There was no reason she should be justifying the life that awaited her—or bringing her age into the discussion—but she couldn’t help herself.
Pete nodded. “Well, you’re not going to need a wagon in Denver City, that’s for sure.” He took a few steps toward the edge of the town, almost as if she’d offended him.
Josephine’s heart dragged after him. Her arm twitched, and she almost reached pleadingly after him before reminding herself that it was unseemly to go chasing after a man of Pete’s standing like a girl trying to snag her first beau.