The Preacher's Bride Claim

By: Laurie Kingery
Chapter One

April 1, 1889—Boomer Town, Oklahoma Territory

Alice Hawthorne sat down quietly on an empty bench in the back of the tent church. She’d waited until the little congregation was absorbed in singing “Shall We Gather at the River?” so she could steal in unnoticed. There was a family of six on the long bench ahead of her, but none of them paid any attention to her arrival—except for the shortest of the four stair-step boys. He looked over his shoulder at her, his face full of freckles, a cowlick at the back of his shaggy thatch of hair. When he noticed Alice was watching, he gave her a cheerful, gap-toothed grin. Despite the anxiety constricting her heart like a coiled snake, it was such a comical sight that she couldn’t help but smile back.

“You turn around this instant, Otis Beauregard LeMaster,” his mother hissed at him, without looking to see what or who had distracted her youngest. The boy obediently did so, and Alice was once again alone.

That suited Alice just fine. She hoped to continue to be overlooked among the inhabitants of the tent city as much as possible until the day of the Land Rush, after she had claimed her own 160-acre homestead. Her own and her mother’s, she reminded herself.

It was the first of April. Just twenty-one days until the Unassigned Lands—the lands not claimed by one of the many Indian tribes that now called the Oklahoma Territory home—were opened for settlement by the Indian Appropriations Act signed by President Cleveland. His successor, Benjamin Harrison, had designated noon on April 22 as the moment the settlers could rush in, plant their stakes at the claims of their choice and become real homesteaders.

She’d be safe then, wouldn’t she?

He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust... She remembered the verse from childhood, and it comforted her now when she felt like a terrified little bird fleeing from a hunter. Her fear was the reason she had come to the chapel service, to be reminded of God’s love and protection.

As the hymn ended, so did her comfortable solitude. With a rustle of skirts, two women plopped themselves down to her left. Alice kept her gaze aimed at the front and hoped they would leave her alone. She had not been an unsociable person before she’d fled New York, but now, she feared each introduction.

The woman next to her didn’t take the hint. “Hey, you’re new here, ain’t ya?” she asked, smiling in a friendly fashion, which revealed incisors that would have done a jackrabbit proud. “Don’t believe we’ve met before. I’m Carrie Ferguson, and this here’s my sister, Cordelia.”

If she hadn’t said they were sisters, Alice would have guessed it, for the two women at her left were so similar-looking with their sun-weathered long faces, noses so sharp they could slice cheese, the same teeth.

“N-nice to meet you,” Alice managed to say. “I’m—” She thought about using an assumed name, but how could she lie—especially in a church, even one of canvas? “I’m Alice Hawthorne.” Hopefully the two women would forget the name—easy to do in a temporary city populated by hundreds of people, with more coming every day.

“Been in Boomer Town long?” Cordelia asked.

If only the service would start, Alice fretted. She didn’t want to answer a bunch of questions. But now that the hymn had concluded, the tall man who may be the preacher was talking to a middle-aged couple up front, and he seemed to be in no hurry.

Alice managed a small smile. “Just since yesterday.”

“Where ya from? We hail from St. Louis.”

“B-back East,” Alice said and prayed they would let it go at that. She wasn’t looking to make friends. Each person she gave her name to was one more person who could help Maxwell Peterson find her. And if he did, it would mean the end of her dreams.

* * *

“Looks like you’ve tripled attendance in the week you’ve been here, Reverend,” Keith Gilbert, his deacon, exulted as he nodded toward the nearly full benches. “You must be doing something right.”

“It’s the Lord’s doing,” he told Keith. “I have such plans for the church we’ll build in the territory. I hope many of the folks here will be able to settle near us.”

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