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SunLit Excerpt: In “Custodian of the Spirits,” a hopeful widow heads West

Bronwyn Long Borne's excerpt from the novel hints at a possible romance on the arduous trail toward a new life

“Custodian of the Spirits” is the first book in the Valley of Heart’s Delight series. Set in 1857, it tells the story of Fiona Lenihan, a recently widowed mother traveling west with 8-year-old Caleb and 3-year-old Maggie. They’re part of a wagon train led by Kier Moran headed for the Valley of Heart’s Delight, known today as Silicon Valley.

This excerpt depicts an interaction between Fiona, Kier, and Caleb. Fiona has befriended Kier’s parents, Clare and Gideon, and has been looking forward to meeting him.

Kieran Moran was a hard man, shaped by years of hard living. Lean and muscular, he radiated authority. His crystalline eyes squinted against the sun, dust sticking in the worn creases. He was sharp and quick, like his mind, which was busy taking in the detail of the scene before him during his first encounter with the people he would be leading West.

He compiled a mental inventory of the characters scattered around him, categorizing each by useful function: good shot, good cook, good scout, good leader, good follower, potential problem, dead weight.

Fiona came around the corner beside him and stopped short, watching him as he catalogued the entire wagon party in seconds flat. “American diaspora,” he muttered under his breath. “Bunch of greenhorns.” He spat a wad of chewing tobacco at the ground an astonishing distance away from him.

Fiona raised her left brow in a combination of astonishment and disgust. With an appraising eye, she took in all six-foot-three of his confidence. Her gaze traveled from his boots and deerskin leggings to his worn felt hat, which he removed with one hand while he wiped the sweat from his hairline with the other. Her heart sped when she realized he had become aware of her presence.

He turned to look at her with his mother’s blue eyes. She was struck by his unkempt appearance. Three days’ growth colored his jaw, making him appear dark and brooding.

He wasn’t handsome in a classic sense, yet there was an almost peculiar beauty about the construction of his face. It was chiseled and leathery, and worn like the land. From his pronounced cheekbones to his cleft chin, his features approximated mountains with their jagged peaks and granite valleys. His black hair was tied unevenly behind him with a scrap of rawhide. His enormous hands were scarred and calloused.

Something came alive in her, a mere flicker of the way she had felt years ago when she was young and the future was a vision of hope awash in idealism. When she and her brothers had cheated death and boarded the ship for America. When her employer’s son had cast a desirous eye toward her.

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Nearly all of it had become lost over the years, snuffed out in the Cushing household, withering under Simon’s blows.

Kieran smiled and her inhibitions fell away. His sudden attention disarmed her. She swallowed to regain her composure.

“Fiona Lenihan, I presume.” He tipped his hat to her.

She could see the resemblance now: Gideon’s natural sense of authority, Clare’s light of wisdom. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Moran. I’ve heard a great deal about you,” she said with practiced diction.

His eyes narrowed.

Feeling immediately ill at ease under his scrutiny, her composure wavered. He seemed to take in every detail about her without breaking eye contact.

“Do you have any concept of what you have signed on for, Mrs. Lenihan?”

“Traveling cross-country, you mean?” she asked.

“Why are you doing this, if I may ask?”

“The same reason the others are, I suppose. The belief that whatever lies where we are going is better than what we have left behind,” she said confidently.

“And that’s it. That’s all you have to sustain you?” he said, his tone less than reassuring.

“That and my children.”

“Then I encourage you to think of them when you consider the hardships of the trail.”

As much as she had wanted to like the Morans’ son, Fiona did not. The speed of her reaction surprised her. “We’ve come this far. I don’t see that what lies ahead poses such a difficulty. I have very clear expectations of what awaits us in the West, Mr. Moran. I spent my childhood in the fields. I know what it is to plant and harvest.”

“The first part of the journey is the easiest. Our greatest fears are the fantastic storms we may encounter when crossing the plains. The second part brings difficult topography, mountains, and gulleys. The final portion of the journey is spent battling failing draft animals and equipment and crossing first a desert and then the Sierra Nevada, hoping to avoid the early storms the Donner party encountered ten years ago. Cholera, dysentery, scurvy, heat, cold, starvation, and unfriendly Indians will be constant threats.”

“I will not be deterred from making this journey.”

He made no reply other than to look her over from head to toe. He stepped a bit too close to her. Their proximity made her nervous.

“That’s a beautiful dress you’re wearing.”

Fiona blushed. “Thank you,” she replied, her response guarded, wary of the turn in conversation.

“You aren’t planning to wear that on the trail, are you?” His words cut.

“I’m in mourning, Mr. Moran. I really haven’t anything else.”

“Then wear a black armband. I can’t have you fainting from the heat,” he said dismissively.

“But Mr. Moran, it wouldn’t be proper.”

“Mourn all you want when we get to California. Until then, I insist you are outfitted for the trail.”

“Please tell me where I can find a dressmaker in Independence,” she pressed him for information despite his growing irritation.

“There’s fabric at the general store.”

“I can’t sew.”

She regretted her response immediately.

A cloud of judgment passed his eyes. His dismissal left no question of how he had categorized her.

“Then barter.” He tipped his hat to her and was gone, leaving a chill in his wake.

Fiona seethed. How dare he prejudice himself against her over such a simple matter. She sensed in him a man devoid of compassion and felt the elder Morans’ disappointment in their only child.

Caleb and Maggie had spent too much time cooped up together. They needed to be separated before someone drew blood. Fiona donned her crisp, lesser-worn mourning dress and bonnet and took Caleb with her to the general store. Mother and son stepped into the streets of Independence, a scene that overwhelmed them once they were on the main artery. Fiona heard herself gasp. The chaos of Wheeling was insignificant by comparison. Mother and son’s hands met by instinct.

Fiona did not fully appreciate the reality of Independence until she left the cloister of the wagon community and was swallowed up by the dusty streets. It approximated Fiona’s recollection of the docks in Philadelphia when she and Seamus had come to America. Such a collection of unsavory characters and desperation Caleb had never seen.

Skullduggery lurked everywhere. Rough men and hard women stared at the elegant widow and boy, the hunger in their eyes unnerving Fiona as she felt the covetous leers directed toward her handbag. She and her son were obvious marks that escaped no one’s eye.

What Fiona wished to make them understand was that they were not so far apart, that what they shared was their look to the West as their last hope. Instead, she felt like prey. Fiona glanced anxiously over her shoulder and realized they were being followed by a pair of men who seemed to delight in her fear. She urged Caleb down the street, quickening their pace toward the retail establishments.

She resented Kieran for sending her out of the camp without accompaniment, or at least a proper warning. The lawlessness that surrounded them was terrifying.

“Let’s hurry,” she said, feeling self-conscious in her extravagant dress with its layers of petticoats. Her jet earbobs and bonnet glittered in the sunlight, adding to her rich beauty. She breathed an audible sigh of relief when they reached a general store.

“How can I help you?” the proprietress greeted her, taking in the widow’s finery. “Your dress is exquisite. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“I need to trade it for another dress.” Before the woman could object, Fiona continued. “I need a simple dress to wear on the trail.”

“We don’t sell finished clothing, only bolts of fabric.”

“I see,” Fiona nodded, her composure failing. All this for yet another problem. A bolt of fabric and notions were of little use to her in the immediate future. She dreaded facing Kieran wearing her mourning dress.

The proprietress watched Fiona’s reaction and hatched a plan. She called her voluptuous daughter over to the counter and ordered her to take off her dress.

“But mother, it’s brand-new!” the teenager wailed.

“You can have her dress,” she gestured to Fiona’s garment, not once meeting her eyes. The proprietress was nearly salivating at the value of all that silk and lace and the one-of-a-kind undergarments. Fiona’s dress was worth far more than the simple calico frock the girl wore. In fact, carefully disassembled, Fiona’s dress could make a tidy profit when sold for its trimmings.

Fiona followed the sulking teen into a back room where their dresses were exchanged. She gladly surrendered all but the under layer of petticoats to the girl. The bulk of Fiona’s coins were stitched into that petticoat.

The calico dress hung on Fiona, for she did not possess the same assets as the girl. The dress emphasized Fiona’s thin figure that had been concealed by the mourning dress. She was secretly pleased to be rid of the cumbersome garment and all it represented.

Fiona removed the fashionable black bonnet from her head and set it on the counter. “Please take this, too.” Its fluted silk, lace, and jet beads were a work of art. The proprietress suggested a large-brimmed straw hat to protect Fiona’s fair skin and a pair of thick work gloves to protect her hands.

Determined to learn to sew, and anticipating free time on the trail, Fiona stopped at a rack that held an array of fabrics. The children were growing fast and would need new clothing. She selected a bolt of chambray. The thought of matching patterns at seams struck her as too great a challenge for a novice seamstress.

Giddy from her profit, the proprietress filled a bag with peppermints for Fiona’s children and wished her well. Fiona paused in the doorway before returning to the teeming streets of Independence. She noticed they did not attract the same attention now that she wore a simple dress and hat, similar to other women. She breathed easily and set out in the direction of their camp. Caleb insisted on carrying the bolt of fabric.

Fiona rounded the corner looking like a breath of spring. A breeze lifted the wide brim of her hat, and she reached up to hold its crown.

“You look beautiful, Mother.”

The dress made Fiona look younger. Its cornflower shade restored the roses in her cheeks the somber black dress had stolen. Its scooped neckline accentuated her long neck and revealed her graceful clavicle and bone structure, hinting at her modest bosom in the way her high-collared mourning dress had not. Without realizing it, her image had changed from that of a pious and repressed widow to that of an attractive woman.

Buoyed by their successful shopping trip, mother and son laughed and chatted, taking in the adventure of Independence. The simple dress garnered barely a nod from passers-by, and the threat had been lifted from their initial foray into the streets. They passed the pair of men who had followed them to the general store and to Fiona’s relief did not catch their attention.

Now Fiona and Caleb appeared as they were, two of hundreds of travelers. An air of confidence slipped into Fiona’s walk.

When Kieran Moran was on the street, people got out of his way. He was not menacing, but something about him demanded respect that people granted without question.

He walked toward Fiona and Caleb, not recognizing them at first. As a seasoned admirer of the gentler sex, the lithe woman and her young charge caught his eye. An enormous straw hat concealed her identity, but he recognized the boy as the one who had been sitting near Clare earlier that day.

It was an epiphany. He watched them approach, unaware of his presence. He watched her in particular.

Fiona had been transformed. Stripped of her layers of garments, she was young and beautiful in the simple dress.

Fiona’s gaze moved from one side of the street to the other, alternately discovering things to point out to her son and looking at what he had found for her to see. As she turned her head, the hat exposed and concealed portraits of her face, showing them a little at a time then suddenly not at all. And then she looked up and saw him, watching them, watching her. He greeted her with a subtle curve of his lips. 


Bronwyn Long Borne is a nurse by day and writer by night. She also wrote under the pen name, Rohret Buchner, which honors grandmothers whose courage and determination are the inspiration for her heroines. Bronwyn is published in health care-related academic journals and was a freelance wine writer for Examiner.com and coloradowineandfood.com. She lives with her husband in Denver. 


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