MR. FOSTER

That night in Independence, the Barry Company (as they were now called) officially banded together. They drove their wagons all into a circle, like they would be doing every night for the next few months on the prairie, and the men lit a large fire in the center. The excitement was so thick that Sara Beth felt it could be sliced with a knife. Boys ran about, throwing stones at each other to release their eagerness, racing, laughing. The women cooked one last meal using fresh supplies together, all chattering excitedly. The men sat and smoked pipes, while discussing various strategies and hardships that would inevitably come up on the journey. Finally, when the sun had set and supper was cooked, they all gathered about the fire, eating noisily off of their dishes.

Sara Beth ate ravenously. She knew that this would be the last full meal she would have in a long while, for she had packed nothing but bacon, jerky, cornmeal, dried biscuits, and preserves.

"Oh, this is simply grand, isn't it?" Lydia said merrily to Sara Beth; the two women were seated side-by-side at the fire. "Wouldn't it be heavenly if every meal on the journey could be like this?" She paused and both women laughed at the impossible. "Still, when times get hard ahead, I'll just remind myself of tonight, and tell myself that this night can be relived once we're in Oregon. Of course, it might take a while. Jeb and I have packed everything required for a little start-up farm of our own, but once we get there, we'll still cut up ground, build a house, dig a well, as well as making a crop for profit. Ah, but I am looking forward to new things. I could do with some fresh sights, Vermont was becoming mighty boring…what do you aim to do in Oregon, Sara?"

"Well, Pa's got his heart set upon claiming land and starting a large farm there." Sara Beth said, in-between bites of her chicken soup. "So I will be tending to household things and the animals while he cuts up the field and plants the crop during the first year."

"No plans of your own?" Liddie asked. "You could teach, I reckon there aren't many schoolmarms who care to make the trip out west."

Sara Beth chuckled. "No, I never took the teacher's examination. My sister, Jessie, did, though. She's certified; she taught at the local schoolhouse back home."

"Jessie? Funny, I'd ever have mistaken her for a schoolmarm. She doesn't seem the type, no harm meant, of course. Sara, simply look at her, laughing and flirting with those men, why she's a fast piece of baggage, that sister of yours." Lydia laughed good-naturedly, shaking her head. "She'll most likely have marriage proposals galore before we even get there!"

That is, Sara Beth mused silently, entirely possible. Her sister was sitting nearly directly across the campfire from her, in close vicinity of every single bachelor in the Barry Company. Jessie was in her element, her gray eyes seemed to dance as they reflected the crackling firelight, and her hands flew gracefully and charmingly around her face as she spewed forth whatever wit and cleverness she could think of from her mouth. They were all making very animated conversation, with Cade Mayer occasionally throwing his head back and roaring in delighted laughter.

"You're a riot, you are!" She could hear Cade's voice during one particularly loud chortle.

But while the great majority of the bachelors were entirely absorbed in Jessie's charms, Sara Beth observed that one particular man did not seem at all interested. The loner was absent-mindedly eating the food on his plate while gazing into the fire. His thoughts seemed to lie entirely elsewhere. Sara Beth could only assume that the only reason he was sitting near Jessie and her companions at all was to keep in company with the other men of his age and type in the company. Furthermore, excluding his apparent lack of interest in Jessie, there was still something else that set him apart from the other men. He seemed more fragile, more delicate to Sara Beth, for some odd, absurd and unknown reason. Even the way in which he ate the meal on his plate set him apart. She observed shrewdly that he was slower, his hand movements more gentle, in an almost more gentile way.

"Do you happen to know who that gentleman is?" Sara Beth asked curiously, for it seemed as if the active and outgoing Lydia Mayer had already made the acquaintance of everyone in the company.

"Know him? Why, he hails from my town, too, and he's quite infamous there." Liddie narrowed her eyes in an uncharacteristic scowl. She apparently held the man in great contempt.

"Infamous?" Sara's eyes widened; this was not the response she had thought Lydia would give her. "Why is he infamous?"

Lydia collapsed into conspiratorial giggles. "The man is infamous for being involved in the most melodramatic romance that has ever happened in our town!"

"What do you mean?" Her new friend was an excellent storyteller, and Sara Beth had no trouble being drawn in.

"Well, 'tis quite a mystery. In fact, the man himself is somewhat of a mystery to our entire town, though of course, no one dares bring it up openly. That there man goes by the name of Will Foster, and he first came to Woods Crossing, Vermont, in early spring last year. Immediately, we all noticed there was something queer about him, for he traveled with a young woman to whom he was not married or related to. Quite scandalous, you know, but we were all more curious about the pair than we ought to have been. Looking for work, they both were. The young woman, who had a startlingly beautiful face to commend her, found a job at the General Store, while Mr. Foster was taken on hastily by a farmer desperate for more field hands. From there, their paths divulged. While this young lady, Miss Phineas, quickly made a success of herself on the job, her partner, Mr. Foster, failed miserably. Where she was diligent and clever and efficient with her work and sweet-tempered above all, he was rumored to be slow, bumbling, and awkward. Why, Farmer Brown told me himself that it was as if the man had never even been near a field prior to coming to Woods Crossing. So, it was no surprise that Mr. Foster was quickly relieved of his duties. And in this exact same manner, the man went through a variety of jobs, for no one who saw his clumsy work habits was willing to keep him on long.

"In fact, the only reason anyone hired him at all was because the beloved Miss Rebecca Phineas asked them to. Oh, that girl was one of a kind. I've spoken with her on many occasions at the General Store, and she is just as beautiful and sweet and intelligent and elegant as everyone claims her to be. The store has been simply impeccable since she's come to the place, not a speck of dust to be found anywhere! And her large blue eyes are so very lovely and beautiful, as well as her thick ebony chair. Oh, what would I give for hair such as Miss Phineas had! Anyhow, after the unfortunate Mr. Foster had been released from his sixth or seventh job, it seemed as if he would be doomed to leave southern Vermont and seek his fortunes elsewhere. By then, word of him and his dismal work record had spread and all employers knew no one in their right minds would hire this one William Foster. But Miss Phineas was apparently desperate to have him around. She went across the street and begged the tavern keeper to give him a job. The tavern keeper, who had once before employed Will as a sheep sheerer, now grudgingly made him a stable hand, all to keep himself in Miss Rebecca's good graces. Surprisingly, this proved the one task that the man seemed capable of performing. And he worked there, until, I suppose, he saved enough money to head west."

"But that does not describe the great melodramatic romance you mentioned earlier." Sara Beth realized she was being astoundingly more pushy and nosy than she should be, but she could not help it, for Liddie had drawn her in with her animated retelling of Mr. Foster's history.

"Oh yes that, just setting the background, dear," Lydia winked, took a sip of coffee from her tin, and continued. "During all this, while Miss Phineas worked in the Barrys' General Store, it was obvious to anyone who cared to look that Mr. Barry's eldest son, Arthur, had fallen deeply in love with our darling little Becky."

"And of what relation is this Arthur Barry to Mr. Tucker Barry of our company?" Sara Beth inquired.

"Oh, Mr. Arthur is Tuck's older brother...and let me tell you, I've happened to have been in the store on a number of occasions where both Arthur and Becky were there…and there is simply no doubt to any eyewitnesses that the poor man is helplessly besotted. His gaze on her could've melted down the largest chunks of ice on a winter day. He began attempting to court her quite regularly; there were other men, of course, who clamored for Rebecca's attention (who wouldn't fight for the heart of such a beautiful girl who was also highly accomplished and adept?), but Arthur always remained the primary suitor. Finally, Arthur Barry proposed. But, and this is only a sliver of a rumor that I've heard, it is said that Miss Phineas refused and collapsed in tears upon seeing the handsome golden ring Arthur offered her. And thus, we all surmised that the reason Miss Phineas had turned down Arthur Barry was because she still cared deeply for that idiot Will Foster. After all, there must have been some reason that they were traveling alone when they came to Woods Crossing.

"Well, you could have imagined the uproar Miss Phineas' rejection of Arthur Barry had on the whole county. The Barrys were one of the wealthiest and most respected families in town, Arthur, being the older son, was set in line to inherit everything, the store, the house, even a few acres of land the Barrys owned but never ploughed! And who was William Foster? A poor ragamuffin whose sole ability in life, it seemed, was to look after horses. In addition, he was apparently unwilling to hang about Woods Crossing for her, even after she gave up the most delectable bachelor in town for him, as he decided to head west a few weeks later! Of course, Miss Phineas was quite distraught with this news. The poor dear burst into tears the last time I talked to her, when I informed her that my husband I, along with Will Foster and Tuck Barry, were going to Oregon. And that, is the solid story." Lydia Mayer finished triumphantly, then lowered her voice a notch and whispered rather conspiratorially to Sara Beth, "But there is still more that one can easily gather through speculation."

"But you just said yourself that that was the end of the solid story!" Sara could not see how there could be more. Liddie's tale had already deeply impressed and enthralled her.

"Well, as I said, that was the solid story itself. However, there are many more theories and rumors concerning Will Foster and Rebecca Phineas. For instance, do you wonder where exactly they came from? Or why they were traveling together? And how could one not be curious about what exactly was the reason for Miss Phineas' strange and stubborn attachment to a man so unworthy of herself?"

Sara Beth hadn't considered these questions before, but now that Lydia brought them up, she found herself wildly interested to know the answers. "Well, yes..."

"The other women of Woods Crossing and I, we all attempted numerous times to inveigle clear answers about of Miss Becky, but she was very clever and squirmed her way out of our questions with grace. However, with what pieces of information we could scrape up, the other ladies and I have formed a rough background of their history that we believe has very much potential to turn out accurate."

"And that is?" Sara tried to restrain her excitement, for after all, it wasn't very proper for a girl to be so eager for gossip, but she could not help herself.

"Purely judging from their accents, we were able to discern that they weren't born anywhere that any of us had been. England, is our best guess, as they speak English ever more fluently than the other foreign immigrants who have ventured into town. Also judging by Miss Phineas' mannerisms, we've come to the conclusion that she had been an important person of some sorts back in England. A distant member of royalty, the daughter of a baronet or knight, that sort of thing."

"Did you really believe so? You can't very well tell someone's lineage purely by behavior, can you?" Sara asked skeptically. She had trouble seeing why an English noble would take it upon herself to come to rural America.

"Why of course you can!" Liddie declared confidently. "For a while, there was a wealthy Boston lady who resided in Woods Crossing. Gave herself airs, as she considered herself above us in rank. You should've seen the sorts of finery she had; three sets of the best China to be had, elaborate clothing, more lace and trimmings than I would have thought possible. And she always walked about with her nose in the air, being dainty and whatnot. Well, though Miss Phineas didn't put on airs and didn't wear elaborate clothing, she had just as good etiquette as the over-stuffed Boston woman. Finer, if you were to ask me. Anyhow, so that led us to wonder why in the world Miss Phineas, with her marvelous background, had come to Woods Crossing. Finally, we came up with the idea that in England, perhaps Mr. Foster had been a butler, or a driver, or a servant of some sort in Miss Phineas' household, and she'd become smitten with him there. You know, the sort of story that is so common in those deliciously sinful romance novels. Then, obviously, Miss Phineas' father had cut her off, and she'd had no choice but to flee with her beloved to America. From there, we can only guess that Mr. Foster turned fickle-hearted against her. But she remained in love with him, shielding him, making sure that he had employment, turning down a fine proposal for him..."

"And look where that got her," Lydia finished, shaking her head sadly. "He just up and leaves her for Oregon, after she gave up all her fine family riches and worked so hard to keep him fed. Aye, there are too many rotten men out in the world today, I'm just giddy glad that I married someone as darling and pure-hearted as Jeb."

Sara nodded fervently in agreement. Though she did not know this Miss Phineas, her heart went out to the poor girl. Imagine, a noble lady, caught in the throes of a terribly mistaken passion, giving up her family and fine life, coming to America with her lover, only to be abandoned and thrown aside. Sara's heart hardened considerably toward Mr. Foster.

She looked again across the fire to examine him, this time with a new perspective.

His position had changed slightly from last time. He was not sitting absent-mindedly, no, upon closer inspection, it appeared that Mr. Foster was brooding over something. There was the slightest of creases in his forehead, his eyes were concentrated intently upon the nothingness that he was staring at, and he did not seem to hear a single joke or laugh that was made so loudly near him. He was a man clearly lost in his own thoughts.

"Is he sorry to have left Miss Phineas behind?" Sara whispered, though there was no chance at all that Mr. Foster could hear her over the raucous group.

"I do not know." Lydia shrugged. "He might very well be regretting his choice right now. What man would not miss such a beautiful and elegant creature who did so much for him? But then, he has already proven himself to be rather odd…so really, who knows?"

"He looks like he misses her very much, that is quite regretful to have left her behind." Sara decided. "And serves him right too." She added firmly, though in the deepest parts of her heart, she felt a slight lamentation that Mr. Foster still longed for his Miss Phineas.