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Cherish by Catherine Anderson (1)

Pennsylvania, 1868

Moonlight bathed the rolling pastureland, its silvery glow turning the weathered fence posts gray and making the sections of sagging wire look like ribbons of tinsel. Not caring that the hem of her black skirt was growing heavy with evening dew from the tall grass, Rebecca Morgan strolled over the uneven ground, her hands clasped behind her back and her gaze drinking in every detail of the landscape. Everything looked the same as it always had, yet so very different. For one thing, no cows dotted the clearings amongst the trees now. The last of the livestock had been sold yesterday.

The night seemed oddly silent without the constant lowing of cattle all around her. An ache filled Rebecca’s chest. She had lived on this church farm all of her twenty-one years, and it wasn’t easy for her to say good-bye. A sad smile touched her mouth as she drew up near the fence. Propping her arms atop the post, she studied the old elm in the pasture beyond, her eyes stinging with nostalgic tears. She could scarcely believe that all of this land had been parceled off and sold.

All of her memories had happened here, yet now the earth beneath her feet belonged to other people, and in the morning, she would have to leave, never to return. She couldn’t help but recall the happy hours she’d spent climbing on the sturdy branches of that elm as a very young child. Where had the years gone? It seemed to her that time had passed so swiftly, taking her from childhood to adulthood in a twinkling. Now an entirely new chapter of her life was about to unfold.

Turning her gaze westward, Rebecca wished she felt lighter of heart at the prospect. For reasons beyond her, every time she thought about the long journey that she, her parents, and the other ten church members would embark upon in the morning, she was filled with foreboding. Silliness. Last year all the other church families had made the trip to Santa Fe without incident. There was absolutely no reason for her to feel so anxious.

The others weren’t transporting money, though, and we will be, a little voice whispered at the back of her mind.

For at least the dozenth time, she wished other arrangements could have been made to transport the funds. Once divided into parcels, this community farmland had sold to several different buyers for a great deal of money—far more than was wise for a small, unarmed caravan of travelers to carry. What if something happened? Rebecca’s lifelong friend Matthew, who was a bit of a rascal and was forever breaking the rules by reading secular publications, had told her all manner of horrific tales about the west. Between here and Santa Fe, there were men who actually earned their bread by stealing, robbing not only banks and trains but unwary travelers as well. It struck Rebecca as being foolish to take any unnecessary chances. It would have been easier and far safer to send the proceeds from the sale of the church farm to New Mexico by stage under armed guard. If anything happened to that money, their new church farm in New Mexico territory would be doomed. The church members who awaited them there would be unable to buy livestock, farming implements or seed to plant crops next spring.

But, no. Despite all of Matthew’s warnings, the brethren had voted against hiring someone else to transport the cash. As Rebecca’s papa had so patiently explained to her, the use of weaponry to defend themselves or their property was against their beliefs, and hiring armed guards would be a roundabout way of breaking that rule. The brethren trusted in God, not a Colt .45.

Rebecca understood the brethren’s reasoning. Truly, she did. And she believed as they did, completely and with her whole heart. But even so, her friend Matthew’s warnings rang in her ears. None of the brethren in her traveling party, her papa included, were equipped to handle trouble. In the event of a robbery, what on earth would become of the church?

Dragging in a breath, Rebecca said a quick but heartfelt prayer for more faith. Her papa and the other five brethren were intelligent men and would take every precaution during the journey west. They even planned to hide the money under a fake floor in one of the covered wagons they would purchase once they reached St. Louis. All would be well. She was just letting all the stories she’d heard about gunmen and hostile Indians unsettle her. The heavenly Father would protect them, just as He always had, and she was being foolish to worry.

It wasn’t as if they had a choice about leaving, after all. Relocating to Santa Fe was necessary for the good of all the church members, especially the younger ones. Even she could see that. Philadelphia had been growing by leaps and bounds. With each passing year, this farm’s boundaries had been more closely encroached upon by landowners of secular persuasion. While working outdoors, Rebecca frequently glimpsed strangers passing by out on the road, and occasionally their new neighbors were even so bold as to trespass on church property. The elders’ concern for the younger church members was legitimate, for even Rebecca had caught herself gazing with longing at the colorful clothing worn by females not of her faith. Worldly temptation was knocking at their door on a regular basis, no question about it, and sooner or later, the younger people might be led astray.

After living all her life in one place, Rebecca supposed her uneasiness about the move was due to the fact that she was more easily unsettled by changes than most people were. She’d grown up here, gone to sleep in the same bed for as long as she could recall, and had believed she would die here. Now all that seemed familiar and safe was being stripped from her life, and she was about to strike out for parts unknown. The farthest afield she had ever been was to Philadelphia, and then she’d always gone with her papa or one of the other brethren. Now she was about to travel nearly two thousand miles. The mere thought seemed frightening to her.

Once she was happily settled at the farm in New Mexico, she would laugh at all these misgivings, she felt sure, and before she knew it, she would grow as fond of her new home as she was of this one. There was much to anticipate in the near future. She would soon be officially betrothed to Henry Rusk, and next June she would become his wife. In no time, she would probably have a brood of children. How foolish of her to cling to the old when her new life would be so much more exciting.

Releasing a weary sigh, Rebecca took one last look at the elm tree, then turned to go. Dawn would come early, and she would have to do a lot of walking beside the wagon tomorrow. Like everyone else, she needed to get a good night’s sleep. There were probably last minute things to be done before leaving in the morning as well, and her mother was undoubtedly wondering what had become of her.

As Rebecca approached the church common, she saw that golden lantern light illuminated the windows of the half dozen occupied houses, the warm glow all the more marked because the other homes looked so dark and empty. Another wave of nostalgia washed over her. With only a handful of people still here, there were no voices or laughter to greet her. It struck her as being even sadder that the church bell, which had called her to prayer several times each day for as long as she could remember, would never be rung here again.

Realizing that she was about to cry, Rebecca straightened her shoulders and raised her chin a notch. Enough of this. She didn’t want her parents to see her with a long face. In preparing for the trip, they had enough on their minds without having to worry about her.

Even at a distance, she could see her papa checking the load on their buckboard, his shoulders jerking as he tugged to check the ropes. For days, he’d been fretting because her mother had insisted on packing so many of their things. A buckboard could bear only so much weight, and they were bound to encounter some rough roads before they could purchase a larger, sturdier conveyance in Missouri.

A smile curved Rebecca’s mouth as she surveyed the lofty jumble of possessions piled in the wagon. Even after sorting and tossing out a fair half of their household contents, they still had an incredible amount of stuff to take with them. Her papa was right; Ma was a little pack rat. Just the thought of having to transfer all that stuff into a covered wagon once they reached St. Louis made her feel weary.

As she crossed the common, Rebecca resisted the urge to look over her shoulder at the pastures that stretched almost as far as she could see behind her. The time had come to look forward, not back, and she meant to do so with a glad heart. No more anxiety. If she began thinking about the frightening stories Matthew had told her again, she would give herself a good scolding and pray for serenity. A good Christian had utter confidence in the Almighty. She would do well to follow her parents’ example and trust in God to watch over them.