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Prairie Roses Collection Book #13
BY DONNA SCHLACHTER
Calli works as a nurse with the US Army at Fort Bridger, Wyoming in 1880. When a wagon train full of discouraged emigrants passes through on its way east, a pregnant widow delivers her baby then dies. Bradley Wilson, leading this train, has few options. He asks Calli to travel with them until they find a relative to take the child in St. Joe, Missouri. Calli, drawn to both this dark and quiet man and the child, resists. But when she disappears, he wonders if she’s run away or been kidnapped. Can these two put their pasts behind them and move into a new future together? Or will Calli insist on having things her own way?
April 30th, 1870
Twenty miles west of Fort Bridger, Wyoming Territory
Bradley Wilson shielded his eyes from the burning sun and surveyed the trail ahead, thankful to be out of the wagon and stretching his legs. Eastward. He’d traveled this same trail two years before, heading in the opposite direction. What took him back now? Failure? No, more like disappointment. A cloud of dust as big as Kansas, kicked up by the prairie schooners ahead of him, blotted out whatever lay in that direction. Sweat dribbled down the center of his back. He longed to scratch but knew the action wouldn’t satisfy. Instead, he yanked a wrinkled ball of calico from his shirt pocket and swiped at his face. How a body could sweat so much in a land so empty of water was beyond him.
He wished he could guzzle the rest of his day’s ration. Or pour it over his head to cool his fevered brain. But neither would satisfy more than a second and a half. Wasting the precious commodity would haunt him.
Maybe he was too good for his own good.
Isn’t that what those who abandoned the wagon train had said? Right before they broke off on their own, forging ahead instead of waiting for Joe Collins to die? Two weeks it took. Fourteen days of listening to the man keen and holler night and day. And no amount of laudanum eased the pain of his broken back. Of his insides in knots, sewn back into place as best his wife could do.
Who knew a horse could drag a man for more’n three miles, and that person still survive? Even if for only a fortnight.
And Miz Collins, ready to drop her first young’un any minute.
Bradley shook his head and double-stepped ahead of his oxen. No, siree. Joe Collins was too good for this world. Along with his widow, Elspeth.
His oxen followed the team ahead as if he sat in the wagon and held the leads. He patted the muzzle of the one nearest him, Beau. The off-side lead, Bob, snorted.
“I know. You’re jealous. I’ll get you soon.”
The pair, purchased in St. Joseph two years prior, had carried him westward. Away from memories of the war. Hoping to find a better life. Away from his sweet Millicent. And their babe. Both now buried on a hill under a tree in east of the Missouri River. He should never have left them behind. Should have kept them safe. Away from the influenza.
But running wasn’t the answer. As he now understood. And so, he returned east, passing wagon trains of the hopeful and the excited and the naïve going the opposite direction every day. Them heading west, toward the new life he’d sought but never found.
The newly elected train leader, Dusty Moore, rode up on a dun mare. “We’ll camp out here tonight. Cold supper. No point in letting the Shoshone know we’re here.”
Bradley looked up at the man, who never deigned to dismount. To speak at eye level. To treat a man as his equal. “I think they already know.”
Dusty’s brow pulled down. “Huh?”
Bradley pointed to the palisades towering over the canyon they traveled through. “I see at least forty braves right there.” He swept a hand to include the path they’d driven today. “All day. Not quite in full sight. But plain enough if a body is looking.”
The leader’s skin paled beneath his wind- and sunburned skin. He yanked his horse’s head around to move on to the next wagon. “Long as they stay up there.” He spat a wad of tobacco juice on the ground within inches of Bradley’s boots. “Too scared to come down here.”
No, more likely figuring out how to pick us off one by one. Or follow in our path to see what we’re leaving behind.
Despite his dire warnings to the train members when they left Oregon City—when was that? The middle of March? Felt a lifetime ago—not to pack anything they wouldn’t use on the trail, folks still insisted on keeping useless things such as the pedal organ that was tossed aside at the first river crossing. He’d never forget the sight of the passel of kids from another train heading west who swarmed the musical instrument, several pounding the keys while the little ones worked the pedals. The racket roused a flock of crows, sending them into the skies, complaining about the disruption of their afternoon nap.
Or the silver tea set, balanced carefully on a rock, every piece in its place, sunshine glinting off the recently polished metal.
Well, nobody in their right mind would pick that up and carry it to Oregon. Although that family apparently had originally. He shook his head and kicked at a clod of dirt. No accounting for some folks’ common sense.
Beau and Bob took advantage of his mind-jawin’ and slowed, then veered off the trail to snatch at a couple tufts of grass. The wagon that usually followed him waved and filled in the space. Horse apples. Now he’d eat their dust until they made camp. Maybe he could hold back a little. Keep an eye on the natives watching them.
He came up on Bob’s nigh side and tapped his right shoulder with the stick. “Gee, Bob. Come up.” When neither ox moved, he repeated the action with the stick, this time hard enough to get Bob’s attention. “Come up.”
Bob stared at him as though contemplating his response, then snorted and stepped forward. Beau grabbed a last mouthful, then walked on as bidden, chewing his treat.
Bradley sighed. “If you two weren’t so tough, you might find yourself in the stew pot.”
He’d threatened such drastic action many times, but the three knew he’d never follow through. Unless he was desperate enough. And then who knew what choices a man might make?
An hour later, the sun slipped behind the palisades and cast a cheery orange glow across the canyon floor. Dusty called out for the wagons to circle for the night. Bradley pulled in, filling in the opening, then unhitched and hobbled his team. No stream in the immediate vicinity meant he didn’t have to haul water tonight, but they’d best make it to Fort Bridger tomorrow. He filled food and drinking buckets for the oxen, then settled in to look after himself.
A cold supper meant no fires. Which meant no cooking. Biscuits left from breakfast would convince his stomach that his throat hadn’t been cut. With water to wash them down—no coffee—he’d just about survive until arriving at the fort tomorrow evening. Being a military post, there was bound to be a place to buy a meal, a haircut and shave, a hot bath, and—no, other men might seek female company, but not him.
Bradley settled down for the night inside the wagon. A star high overhead peeked through a small rip in the canvas cover. Maybe if they stayed a couple of days in the fort, he’d have time to mend that.
If only he could fix his heart as easily.
A hybrid author, Donna writes squeaky clean historical and contemporary suspense. She has been published more than 50 times in books; is a member of several writers groups; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, traveling extensively for both.
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Thanks, Donna, for sharing your story with us!
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