W h i p p e d - c ream clouds danced across a stage of blue before an audience of oak. Shadows softened the sun’s glare on the water, allowing Ruth Ma rtin to peer beneath the river’s surface. She’d seen that wily trout .
Today she’d catch him without getting her feet wet .
She retied the bent sewing needle at the end of the butcher’s twine. California morning sun glinted on beads of water dotting the wet string like pearls. “Just one more little nibble and I’ll have you,” she said. Firm yet slender as a whip handle, Ruth sat astride her horse. Old miner’s pants cove red her legs. Ju mpe r, her horse, wiggled his ears, lifted a back leg to scratch at a fly, splashed when he set his hoof down. “Don’t lose concentration now, Jum per,” she whispered, more to herself than the horse .
Certain the needle was firmly attached, she flicked the willow fishing pole and watched as the breeze picked up the string, then set it and the makeshift hook adrift along the riffle. A reddish leaf broke loose from a willow, gentled in the stream following her line to the shaded pool. She eased the hook across the water. Waiting.
Sh e’d have to head back soon. She still had pack boxes only half filled. Flannels needed steaming and hanging, and the wagon w a s n’t nearly loaded. Then there was that Joe Pepin to contend with. T he wrangler’d said he’d take them north, but he’d been acting scarce of late.
Still, Ruth Ma rtin could make it happen on time. She was sure. She just wanted to bring in this last big trout before she headed back. Astrid e Jumper, she could do it without getting wet. She smiled.
Redwing blackbirds chirped in the tall grasses drooping with their weight. Sun warmed her face. Her eyes closed.
She felt a tug. Sitting straight, she jerked the willow and set the hook. “Gotcha,” she said. Skillfully she lifted the pole up and over the horse’s head, changed hands, then back again as the trout twisted and tired in the water before her. He was a big one.
When it felt right, she said, “Back, Jumper.” She barely touched the reins and squeezed her knees, easing the big animal back toward the riverbank. “Just a little more,” she said. Then with perfect timing, she slid the trout out of the water and onto the grassy bank. “We did it!” The horse lifted its head up and down as though to agree.
With one leg raised over his mane, Ruth slid off, still holding the pole. She stunned the fish with the hard end of her whip that usually hung coiled at her hip, then slipped the fish into the canvas bag with the others. She had over a dozen. This one alone weighed as much as a pork roast. A good morning’s catch. Plenty for them all at the big affair Elizabeth had planned.
She tightened the strap of the bag, then draped it over the horse’s neck. “You're a good fishing partner,” she told Jumper, hugging him and inhaling his scent before gripping his mane in her hands and pulling herself up and astride. “The best I’ve ever had.”
She pressed her knees and set a fast pace back to Poverty Flat . Riding always invigorated, took away any agitation or worry. It was one of the few luxuries she permitted herself, a woman with responsibilities. Today, with so much yet undone, she needed that burst of power.
A flock of geese lifted from the Sacramento as they raced by. She ducked beneath the oaks and through the pines embracing the meadow known as Poverty Flat and home—but not for much longer. She squinted.
Matthew Schmidtke and the children were pushing something on a cart. Coopered barrels. They were all laughing. Surely they had n’t already gotten all their chores completed. She did n’t see any blankets on the line, and no one stood near the butter churn. What had they been doing? She squeezed her knees, and Jumper sped forward.
“ Hey,” Ma t t h ew said as she approached. “Brought breakfast, I see.”
“ Supper,” she said. “Have you children finished what I asked you to do ? ”
“We’re helping Matthew,” Ru t h’s nephew Jason told her. His cowlick stuck straight up in the back, and he absently pressed his fingers against it as he talked.
“And it’s a surprise,” Jessie, her five-year-old daughter, said. “For you . ”
“ Don’t tell her,” Sarah warned, acting older than her eight years.
“I won’t,” Jessie answered .
“I don’t like surprises much,” Ruth said. She removed her floppy felt hat and wiped her forehead with her forearm. Her eyes caught Jessie’s troubled look, and she softened. “I’m sure this one will be fine. We just
have a lot to do. ”
“You’ll like this one.” Matthew smiled at her.
“We have to be out of here this week,” Ruth said, squaring her shoulders.
“ Maybe some of us wish you weren’t in such a hurry,” he said, his blue eyes never leaving hers.
“Wait’ll you see it,” Ned said. Her younger nephew pulled at his stockings tucking them up to his knickers. He stood with his hands at his hips just the way Matthew did. Neither wore a hat this morning.
“ It’s gonna be real chirk . ”
“ L et’s let her tend to her business while we take care of those fish , boys. Then we can finish up here.” Matthew sniffed the air. “Is that you or the fish?” he teased. The children giggled. “Must be the fish. You’l l
like our surprise for sure, if it isn’t . ”
32 re g
1st PASS PAG E S
Excerpted from What Once We Loved by Jane Kirkpatrick. Copyright © 2001 by Jane Kirkpatrick. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.