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Idaho Territory, May, 1863
America watched her wagon train shrink steadily in the distance, dust billowing in its wake. How could it have traveled so far in such a short time? Oh, why hadn’t she let someone know she’d needed to stop? Her friend Addie, taking a turn holding America’s baby, might not look for her unless Liberty woke and cried for her mother. Bill Baker, driving her oxen for a spell out of kindness, wouldn’t notice her absence for some time.
“I can’t have lost it!” Tears blurred the trail beneath America’s feet. She’d been a fool to wear the locket Kyle had given her. She should have kept it stashed away. When she’d felt her necklace’s chain break, she’d stopped walking at once. Why couldn’t she find it? If she didn’t come across the locket soon, she’d have to leave it behind. Catching up to the wagon train would take some doing even now, and every passing moment carried her baby, only three months old, farther away.
A meadowlark trilled, the song a sharp accent against the deeper thud of hooves.
A shiver ran down her spine. She jerked her gaze upward.
A spotted pony pranced on the path. The rider on the horse’s back watched her from dark eyes. Beneath the quillwork adorning the brave’s chest, his skin gleamed the color of robust tea. A black stripe of paint slashed across the bridge of his nose. Two tight braids fell to the sash that bound fringed leggings at the waist. Strips of cloth crisscrossed a wide forehead, and feathers fanned sideways behind his head.
A group of Indians on ponies clustered beside him. One of them called out, laughing.
The brave held up his hand for silence.
Wisps of hair escaped America’s bonnet, stinging her eyes. She clawed them away with a trembling hand. One thought crashed into another, beating to the rhythm of her wild pulse. Could she outrun them? No.
What would they do to her once they caught her? Horrible.
She trembled at the very idea. They could scalp and murder her. Or. If they let her live, that might be worse.
With fear burning the back of her throat and her heart pounding like the wings of a canary against the bars of its cage, America walked toward the brave. Her legs shook so badly that they threatened to collapse. But she lifted her head high and pretended chance encounters like this happened every day.
She picked her way through the sagebrush and bunch grass beside the trail. The spotted pony snorted and showed the whites of its eyes. The leader’s dark gaze swept over America, making the hair on the back of her neck prickle.
The ground gave way as pain shot through her foot. She pitched forward and sprawled beside the pony’s prancing hooves.
The brave gave a command in his native tongue that quieted his pony. He leaned down to her. She stared at the hand he extended, then past it to his face. He watched her with an expression that told her nothing.
She pushed to her knees, drew breath, and took his hand.
The brave tugged America upward and caught her in a strong grip, lifting her to sit in front of him. She perched before him astride the pony with her skirt riding up to her knees. Heat rushed into her cheeks at being so immodestly displayed. He tightened his arm around her middle, and she fought the urge to scream. Whatever he intended, a clear head might help her survive. He’d spared her life so far, but for what purpose? She’d heard tales of women forced to live with natives but had never thought such a fate might befall her.
The pony lurched into motion beneath her and went through its paces, finally stretching into a gallop. The wind of their passing fanned her face. The thundering of hooves told her the other braves followed. The ground sped by as they overtook the train and curved into the path it would travel.
But this made no sense. Why would the brave carry her toward, rather than away from, the wagon train? Did he mean to trade her for goods?
A shout went up from the wagons.
The pony slid to a stop, and her captor lowered her with swift ease. He wheeled his pony to face his waiting companions but looked back with a smile touching his lips. “Brave woman.”
“You speak English?” The words jerked from her.
His smile broke into a grin, and the pony plunged forward as the shadow of a cloud raced over the ground.
America stared after this brave who had turned from captor to rescuer. He’d done none of the things she’d dreaded and everything necessary to help her. His behavior didn’t reconcile with what she’d been told about Indians, but now was not the time to puzzle that out.
She ran toward the wagons with the prairie wavering through a sheen of tears. Two riders pulled ahead of the train to meet her. America’s joy at being set free plummeted at first sight of the red-headed miner, Pete Amesly. Why would the last person she wanted to see right now ride out to meet her?
Grant Hadley, the wagon train’s scout, reined in his Morgan beside her. “Are you all right?”
Pete drew in his chestnut quarter horse on her other side and peered at her with narrowed eyes. “What were you doing with those Indians, anyways?”
“I’m well, thank you,” she answered Grant, ignoring Pete.
The grizzled scout squinted. “What happened?”
“I stopped for a few minutes and came across some Indians.” Describing her actions made them seem even more foolish.
Pete snorted. “Why would you do a fool thing like that?”
Heat flamed across America’s cheeks. She wasn’t about to tell Pete about Kyle or the locket he’d given her.
The wagon train reached them then, sparing her from commenting as the oxen lumbered by on either side. Here on the flat prairie, the drivers fanned out their wagons to avoid breathing one another’s dust.
“That’s not important.” Grant sent Pete a scalding look before returning his attention to America. “Let’s get you back to your wagon.”
“There’s Addie now.” She gave him a grateful smile and moved off to intercept her friend. Walking a safe distance beside her wagon and the oxen driven by her mop-headed son, Travis, Addie cradled Liberty in her arms.
“I was wondering where you were.” Addie gave her a quiet smile. “My arms are starting to ache.” She looked past America to Grant and Pete. “Gentlemen?”
America took Liberty’s weight into her arms and held her daughter close. Here was a treasure more precious than any locket. She fell into step beside Addie with tears blurring her vision.
Grant kept pace astride his Morgan. “She’s had some sort of mishap, ma’am.” He cleared his throat. “Maybe you can ask her about it. Find out if she’s come to harm in any way.” His ears turning pink, he gestured with his head to Pete, and they rode off.
Addie turned a frowning face toward her. “Tell me what happened.”
“He helped me.” America spoke on a note of wonder.
“Who helped you?”
“The Indian brave. I thought he meant to kill or kidnap me, or else trade me for goods. But he helped me instead.”
Addie shook her head. “Tell me from the beginning.”
“I lagged behind the wagon train.”
“You left the train on your own?”
“It was more like it left me, but yes. I meant to stop only for a short while to—well, to look for something I dropped.”
“But you know not to fall behind. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Mr. Hughes was talking with you, or I’d have said something. I didn’t want to call attention to myself. I was bound and determined not to slow the train.”
Addie sighed. “Does this have anything to do with Pete Amesly’s objections to your joining us?”
Moisture prickled America’s eyes. “Maybe he’s right. I can barely do my share with a baby to take care of.”
“That’s hardly your fault. Granted, if you had asked to join the train when we first set out, our captains might have refused, but leaving you stranded at Fort Bridger would be quite a different matter. Christian charity required us to rescue a widow in need. Under the circumstances, no one minds doing a little extra work for you.”
“Oh, pshaw! Pete is so taken with gold fever he’s lost his manners. The others don’t feel the same.”
“I fear he may be right, though. I’ve slowed the train and taken others from their own chores to attend mine. I can’t help feeling like a burden.”
“Why, America Liberty Reed! I’m appalled you would say such a thing. I don’t know what I’d have done after my Clyde—” She took a breath. “After the accident, I felt I couldn’t go on. My son tried to support me, but Travis had his own grief to bear over his father’s loss. Your company eased us both. You’re a blessing not a burden and remember—I need your help cooking for the miners at Bannack.”
The idea of cooking for miners held little appeal, but other options were in short supply. “I’m touched by your kindness, although I’m not sure why you want to cast your lot in with mine.”
Addie smiled. “That’s easy. Having your help makes me feel less—alone. And you need a friend. Never mind all that about not knowing you well, by the by. I’m a good judge of people, and I could tell right off you’re decent folk.”
Addie’s judgment of people must have faltered, but no need to tell her that. Liberty stirred. Her blue eyes opened to stare at America—eyes like her father’s. America hitched a breath.
No one ever had to know her secret.
Shane Hayes pulled the brim of his slouch hat lower and positioned himself in front of the enticing, tall open doors of Nell’s Dance Hall. Sharp smoke and the stench of rotgut whiskey fouled the air. He loosened his string tie, which all at once seemed tight.
“Take your partners for the next dance!” a jovial voice called. A piano ground out a tinny melody, joined by a bright whistle and the seesawing of a fiddle. Laughter and the clink of glasses rode above the lively melody, spilling into the street along with lantern light.
Shane glanced inside. A lantern suspended from a ceiling beam by a rope cast a pool of light on the dancers but left the edges of the room in shadow. Miners clasped each hurdy-gurdy girl on the floor in an energetic dance. The girls’ skirts glowed like jewels as they turned in their partners’ arms. Whenever their gyrations allowed a glimpse of lacy bloomers or a well-turned ankle, the men crowding the bar along one side of the room cheered.
Shane turned his back on the debauchery.
Boots thumped on the boardwalk behind him, and an arm caught him across the shoulders. “Well, go on in and be done with it!”
He tried to pull away, but the arm held him fast. Laughter barked in his ear. Casey Brogan’s fleshy face crinkled into a smile. At close quarters, his breath stank. Hands in pockets and with his blond hair sticking out from beneath a black bowler, Skip Jackson grinned at Shane from beside his mining partner.
Casey blinked watery eyes. “Admit it, Irish! You’re hankering to go inside. Why not live a little, eh? One of those gals would feel powerful good in your arms.”
Shane jerked out of the miner’s clutches. “Get thee behind me, Satan!”
Casey’s smile died. “Now what did you go and call me that for?”
“You tried to tempt a man of God.” Shane shrugged to throw off the feel of Casey’s arm about his shoulders.
“Come now, Saint Preacher.” The old miner blew out his cheeks, looking wounded. “You wouldn’t begrudge me a bit of fun now, would you?”
Shane took a breath, reminded himself of his mission, and went on in milder tones. “Come away, Casey. This is no place for you.”
“What? And sing hymns with you on Sundays? No, thank you.”
“I only want to help you.”
“If’n you weren’t a preacher, I’d put a fist in your stomach on account of that name you called me.” Casey pushed past Shane but turned to deliver a parting shot. “You’d best get out of this doorway, if’n you aim to stay healthy.”
Skip, about to follow Casey, cocked a bushy brow at Shane. “I don’t care if you are
a preacher.” He pivoted, and his fist bashed into Shane’s eye.
Shane splatted face down in the street. He turned his head to spit out mud and blinked to clear his vision. Shane pushed to his feet. The world swung around him. Blurred figures loomed above him on the boardwalk. They merged into Skip.
“Nobody calls a friend of mine names when I’m around, y’hear?”
A voice spoke from behind Shane. “What’s this rabble-rouser up to now?”
“Just a misunderstanding, deputy.” The blond brows came down. “Ain’t it?”
Shane covered his burning eye with one hand and made no answer.
Skip glared at him a heartbeat longer then turned on his heel and strode into the dance hall.
“You’re going to get yourself killed, Sean.”
“My name is Shane now, as I’m sure you recall.” He spoke without turning his head. “I can take care of myself, Con. I don’t need your help.”
“Look, I know you can handle yourself in a fight.” Con squatted before him in the light falling into the street from the dance hall. “I grew up with you, remember?”
“I’m a man of the cloth now. I don’t fight anymore.” Shane reminded him.
“That’s what worries me. You’ve gone soft. Bannack’s no place for you. A man who won’t fight shouldn’t put himself in the way of those who will.”
Shane shook his head. “God looks out for his own.”
“And suffers fools?”
Shane snatched his hat from the mud beside him. “I’m here to bring salvation to the lost souls of Bannack.”
“Oh, Sean. When will you learn that the lost souls of Bannack don’t want saving? At least not by you.”
“They don’t know what they want.”
The tilt of Con’s head in the moonlight gave his opinion on that subject. “Gold is the only god and savior they want.” He hoisted Shane to his feet. “No matter how much they find, there’s always the possibility of more. That fact can drive a man mad with gold lust.”
Shane wiped the mud from his slouch hat and put it on with quiet dignity. “And you? Why do you stay?”
“Me?” Con gave a dry laugh. “I’m no better than any of them.”
Shane opened his mouth to rebuke the remark, but Con hauled him backward into the shadow between buildings. Hooves clopped in the mud as two horsemen trotted past, moonlight silvering their familiar features. Con’s grip loosened, and Shane took advantage of the distraction to pull away from him. He stepped on wobbly legs into the light. “I wonder what Sheriff Plummer and Jack Gallagher are about, riding in this late.”
“That’s not a question to ask.” Con fell silent but then clapped a hand around Shane’s shoulders. “Come on, Cousin. Let’s see to that eye.”
They followed the boardwalk westward but left it to cross the street with mud sucking their boots. When they didn’t have snow or dust to slog through in Bannack, they dealt with mud.
Con’s cabin wasn’t much—a simple shanty covered in tar paper—but Shane welcomed any roof over his head. While traveling his preaching circuit, he spent many a night alone and without shelter in the wilderness.
His knees gave way, and he plunked onto the wooden bench at the scarred table dominating the cabin.
Con struck a match, and the stench of sulfur filled the small space. The flame flared and receded. Con raised a lantern between them and peered at Shane’s eye. He gave a whistle. “Just look at you! You’ll have that bruise for a good while, make no mistake. Now stay put.” He hooked the lantern on its rope above the table and crouched to rummage in a trunk against the wall.
Shane’s lips quirked in a smile. “And where did you think I’d be getting off to, might I ask?”
Con retrieved a container of salve and a faded bandana from the trunk. “Hard telling, but I wouldn’t put anything past you. You have a knack for bringing trouble down on your head, rushing in where angels fear to tread. What gives you the right to interfere with people?”
“I’d answer that question if I thought you’d understand. Ouch! Rub my eye any harder and there’ll be nothing left to doctor.”
Con continued scrubbing. “I don’t suppose you want an infection. Ah, but this takes me back. Me patching you up after a scrap. You didn’t use to put yourself in harm’s way without the sense to defend yourself, though.”
Shane sighed. “Must we go over all that again?”
“You still need convincing.” Con reached for the tin of salve. “I don’t want to find you in Boot Hill someday, or rotting on the prairie without a proper grave. A man who won’t fight doesn’t live long in the territories.” After subjecting Shane to more of his ministrations, he stood back with a glint in his green eyes. “You look like death.”
“Tact was always your redeeming quality, Cousin.”
“Tell me, are you sure of your calling? That’s something you should know for certain.”
Shane’s gaze fell before Con’s direct scrutiny. He wanted—needed
—to be sure of such a thing, but truth be told, he was not. He ought to summon the will to respond with enthusiasm, to cover his doubt, but no words came.
“Have you no answer, Sean?”
“Sometimes I doubt myself. No matter. I can’t do less than honor my word to watch over the people in my circuit. They are my sacred charge.”
“But what of you
? Circuit preachers live hard lives and die early.”
“Deputies aren’t known for growing old in the sun, either.” Shane couldn’t resist pointing out another truth.
Con laid a hand on the back of his neck. “Yes, well. That’s a different thing entirely. But now you mention it, I could be in trouble.”
“What sort of trouble?”
“It’s a long story. Let’s just say I may need to remove myself from town in a hurry.”
A rifle clicked in the darkness.
America’s feet hit the wagon box floor. Her hand closed on the stock of her rifle.
Liberty stirred in her rocking cradle.
America inched forward and parted the flaps that closed off the front of the wagon. A gibbous moon hung bright in the sky and reached fingers of light to touch the silver sagebrush. A long barrel gleamed, betraying the figure crouched where the front wheel of America’s wagon was chained to Addie’s rear wheel. That shock of curly hair could only belong to Addie’s son, Travis.
Beyond the circled wagons, shadows slipped through the dimness, too slight to be buffalo. One leaped into a shaft of moonlight, revealing nothing more sinister than a herd of antelope foraging near the wagons.
She let out her breath with a sigh of relief.
Travis turned toward her wagon. From the angle of his head in the moonlight, America knew he’d seen her.
“What are you doing there?” Her voice quavered, giving away the fear that hadn’t yet drained from her. “Surely the men can guard the wagons.”
His shoulders slumped. Her careless words had wounded him. He jutted out his chin. “It’s my
turn to stand watch.”
Travis had taken his father’s place in the wagon train in more ways than she’d imagined, but it hardly seemed fair that a boy of thirteen should bear such a burden.
Liberty wailed, and America went back inside. She laid her weapon aside and lifted her baby from the cradle Richard had made before he died. She stroked Liberty’s downy hair and for a time forgot all worries as she snuggled her tiny daughter against her on the narrow cot. Liberty slipped into slumber, and America soon followed.
Nate Whalen stepped into deepest shadow next to his wagon as young Travis’s voice carried to him across the moonlit wagon circle. He relaxed when he caught sight of the Widow Reed talking to Travis. The boy must have made some sound that roused her.
It troubled Nate to see him guarding the wagon camp in his father’s absence. He had no doubt Travis would do his diligent best to stand duty in his father’s place, but anything could happen in a wagon train in these days of unrest. Why had the wagon master thought that allowing a boy to bear an adult responsibility was a good idea?
Travis didn’t need coddling, but a little safeguarding seemed in order. Nate had taken to looking out for the boy without his knowledge, staying up to keep an ear out whenever Travis had night watch. Coupled with his own shifts guarding the wagon, sleep had been in short supply of late.
This had more to do with Travis than his mother, he told himself. Addie Martin had come to his notice, and he’d found himself increasingly smitten with her gentle ways. Loneliness and grief must hound her in the aftermath of her husband’s death, but she carried herself with quiet dignity, never letting on that she suffered. That only made him want to ease her way all the more.
Love came without invitation at odd moments dictated by no man. It was far too soon after her husband’s death to speak his mind, but he would count finding a wife of Addie’s worth of more value than the richest gold strike.
The thud of hooves and rattle of chains roused America in the gloomy dimness. She untied the pucker string at the rear of the wagon and looked out. The sky had lightened toward morning while the wagon camp came alive with movement. She’d slept later than she intended. Between Liberty’s interruptions and her own inexperience, it took her longer than most in the train to prepare for the day’s journey. She usually liked to get a jump on the early chores.
She didn’t have that luxury today. Men already moved among the livestock in the wagon circle. Young Johnny Taylor came from the river with careful steps while balancing a bucket of water in each hand. The Baker children darted about hunting firewood. Most of the women already stood over cooking fires with smoke spiraling.
Travis strode around the back of Addie’s wagon. “Ma sent me to let you know the flapjacks are ready,” he told America with a smile. “She says she won’t take no for an answer.”
America returned his smile. “I’ll be right over.”
As she approached, Addie poured steaming coffee into a tin cup. “Good morning. I hope you’ve recovered some from your ordeal yesterday.”
America accepted the cup. “I’m bruised and sore but otherwise all right.”
“You’re lucky to be alive, according to Grant Hadley.”
She took a warming sip from her cup and reflected on that. The grizzled scout’s views, when he ventured them, were generally well-founded. “I’m thankful the Indians brought me back.”
Addie flipped flapjacks in her three-legged spider skillet. “You must have done something to win their respect.”
The image of an extended hand and a painted face flashed before her. Pulling her mind back to the present, she shook her head. “Cooperating was safer than running.”
“It could have gone otherwise. Relations are tense after the army and cavalry put the Shoshone down at Bear River last winter. And then there was that incident at Bannack.”
“I sometimes forget you spent the winter alone on your homestead.”
Another image intruded, that of buffalo wolves snarling over Richard’s frozen remains. She’d fired her rifle to drive them away long enough to retrieve her husband’s body. With the ground frozen after the blizzard, she’d had to pile stones over him in the hopes of keeping the wolves away until she could bury him properly.
She shuddered. “I don’t like to think on it.”
Addie’s face held sympathy. “I’m sorry for what you’ve suffered.”
America frowned into her cup. “I survived, anyway.”
“No woman should have to birth alone. I’m thankful the good Lord watched over you and that he brought you to Fort Hall in safety.”
If God cared for her, He would not have taken her husband away. America didn’t speak her thoughts aloud. Addie, with her resolute faith in God, wouldn’t want to hear them. “What happened at Bannack last winter?”
Addie dished up the flapjacks and offered the plate to America. “Help yourself to molasses and bacon.” She poured more batter in the pan. “It was terrible. Two men took it into their heads to shoot into some tepees outside of town, and all because an Indian woman wanted nothing to do with one of them. An old chief, a young boy, and a baby died, as well as several miners who ran to see what was going on.”
“What happened to the men who did the shooting?” She plucked the wooden spoon from the molasses crock and trickled a thin stream over her flapjacks.
“From what I hear, very little.”
America looked up in surprise. “Just what kind of place is
Addie filled Nathan Whalen’s bowl with venison stew. After watching his pathetic efforts for weeks now, she’d finally broken down and offered him food. Maybe she shouldn’t have done it, but honestly, what harm could it do to feed a malnourished man?
“I’m obliged, Mrs. Martin.” Warm brown eyes returned her smile with a lingering look.
What harm indeed? Had she given the wrong impression by inviting Nate to supper? Surely he couldn’t think that she, barely a widow, had any interest in finding another husband. Fear of such a misunderstanding had kept her from inviting him to her fireside until now. She’d hardened her heart to his plight, despite the longing looks he’d cast in her direction whenever the smell of her cooking wafted across the wagon circle.
It was hard not to notice the unvarying portions of burnt bacon, cold beans, and hardtack Nate consumed. This afternoon, a sweet melody he’d played on his harmonica had pierced her heart. He couldn’t know that “When Summer Flowers are Blowing” was her mother’s favorite song. Addie’s resolve had weakened, and now he sat across the fire making inroads into a plate of stew while she watched, tongue-tied as a schoolgirl.
If she was honest, she’d admit to herself she was famished too, but in a different way. She missed Clyde beside her, the touch of his hand at her elbow, his conversation. She’d never understood until now how a person could feel alone even in the company of others.
She clasped her hands together. “I appreciate you looking out for Travis during night watch.”
He smiled. “Glad to do it whenever we stand guard together, but with that boy’s gumption and good sense, you might as easily ask him to look out for me.”
A smile touched her lips. “His father would be proud to hear you say that.”
“I reckon.” Nate returned his attention to his stew.
The silence stretched too long. What else could they talk about? Addie latched onto another subject. “Do you know when we’ll reach Bannack?”
“Probably tomorrow.” He spoke around a bite of biscuit.
“That soon? I didn’t realize we were so near.” She sighed. “I’ll be thankful to end this journey. I can’t wait for the chance to take a ba—to wash clothes.”
His eyes shone with humor.
The wind ruffling the grasses lifted Addie’s hair and cooled her flaming cheeks. She searched for something else to talk about. “Travis should be back soon. He’s gone to fetch water.”
“I see that.” He nodded toward the Snake River flowing past the wagons, where Travis leaned above the grassy bank and dipped a bucket into shining water. Overhead, a heron beat its wings and opened its throat in a raucous call. Travis straightened to watch the bird. He stood outlined against the Bitterroot Mountains that jutted above the plain.
“More biscuits?” She extended the plate.
He took two. “You watch yourself in Bannack. There’s plenty of hungry miners who’ll want to get hitched to a good cook like you.”
Not quite able to meet his eyes, she addressed her remark to his ear. “I don’t plan to marry again, Mr. Whalen. Mr. Martin was a good man, and I loved him.” There, it was said. She heaved a breath. “At least I still have our son.”
“That’s a comfort.”
“Travis is a good boy, almost grown. It’s hard on him, but he shoulders a man’s responsibilities now.”
Nate hesitated. “Must you go on to Bannack? Miners there are a rough lot.”
“I didn’t want to come west in the first place, but my husband insisted after hearing about the gold strike at Grasshopper Creek. He sold everything, and now we’ve got nothing to go back to. In a manner of speaking, gold fever killed him.” She clasped her arms about herself. “Be careful, Mr. Whalen, or it’ll get you too.”
The warmth in his eyes faded. “I’ll take my chances, thanks all the same.”
Travis walked past Nate and set the buckets down at Addie’s feet. “Water’s good and cold.”
“It should be,” Nate said. “It runs from snow melt.”
Addie smiled at her son. “Mr. Whalen tells me you have gumption.”
“I guess so. Leastways, I do when it comes to looking out for my own.” The direct look he gave Nate left no doubt as to his meaning.
“I should go now.” Nate smiled at Addie. “Thanks again. I enjoyed the food and the company.”
“You’re sure you won’t take more?”
He shook his head, and his glance traveled to Travis. “Thank you, no. I don’t want to wear out my welcome.”
“So you’re just going to quit?”
Shane looked up from packing his saddlebags and focused his good eye on his cousin, confronting him from across the scarred table. Early sunlight from the window behind him haloed his rumpled head. Conan wore a red-striped shirt and tan trousers, but his feet remained bare.
Shane sighed. “I don’t understand you at all, Conan Walsh. Only last night you warned me against staying. Something about ending up in an early grave as I recall.”
“Maybe I wanted to see if you still would. Stay, that is.”
“I don’t take your logic.”
“I hate to see you run away.”
“I’m simply moving along my circuit.” Shane spoke in clipped tones, enunciating each word. He tightened his jaw, yanked open the door, and stepped outside into a fine day at odds with his mood. The contrast brought him up short. “See you next time.” He nodded to Con.
His cousin offered him a faint smile. “Stay safe.”
Shane pulled the door closed between them more gently than he had at first intended and turned his steps toward Chrisman’s store. He shouldn’t have lashed out at his cousin for being so infuriatingly right. He would return to Bannack, but right now he craved the freedom of the open road. He yearned for the chance to be alone with his thoughts and draw close to God in solitude.
He had never fit in here at Bannack, a fact his blackened eye announced for all to see. Other stops on his circuit welcomed him more, and at the moment he needed a rest from the struggle of trying to reach his flock in Bannack.
George Chrisman eyed him from behind the counter as he entered his store. “What happened to you? Come up against the wrong side of a mule?”
Shane attempted a smile. “It’s nothing.”
“Sure don’t look like nothing from here. That eye is a mite colorful.”
Shane placed a tin of hoof salve on the counter and laid his money down right when Donald Dillingham emerged from the sheriff’s office at the back of the store. The deputy pushed his hat back on his head and swept a steady gray gaze over Shane. “I reckon you’ll be leaving town.”
Shane bristled. “I do have a circuit to complete.”
Dillingham held up his beefy hands. “Now don’t take any meaning from what I said. As a circuit rider, you’re already bolder than most in this town, including the coward who blackened that eye. Who did it?”
“I’m surprised no one’s told you.” Shane’s voice held a dry note. The male residents of Bannack enjoyed swapping stories in Chrisman’s store.
Chrisman’s eyes lit. “It’s early yet.”
“True enough.” Shane squared his shoulders. “I’ll be on my way before it gets any later.”
Chrisman gave a nod. “Yes, go before the jawing starts. Miners can be a rude bunch.”
Dillingham grasped Shane’s hand. “God speed, Reverend. Remember to keep eyes and ears open, and you’ll live longer.”
Shane smiled. “I suppose a man can pray with his eyes open.” He picked up the tin of salve, pushed through the door, and stepped onto the boardwalk.
Gunshots punched the air, and Shane skidded to a halt. Confusion broke out everywhere at once as men brandishing firearms spilled into the street.
“Indians are killing whites!” someone shouted.
“Watch out for the Injuns!” another voice warned.
Several dark-skinned natives that had been visiting the town rode into the hills.
One of the Indians turned at the top of a hill and shook his blanket in a message of fury. His pursuers took aim, but he disappeared over the crest of the hill before they could shoot him.
A shriek tore through the willows lining the creek.
Men carrying guns pursued another Indian escaping up the hill. When they came within firing range, the fleeing man turned back to his pursuers with hands raised. “Good Injun!”
They fired anyway.
He staggered, screaming, into a stand of trees.
“For the love of God, stop this!” Shane shouted. He might as well have whispered for all the impact he made. No one heeded him.
Running footsteps pounded toward him, and he stepped aside barely in time to avoid a collision with Dillingham. He hurried after the deputy. Dillingham turned down a street. A small crowd parted for him.
Shane followed with a sinking in his gut. The scene that met his eyes made him shudder. Dillingham stood in silence looking down at a prostrate figure. Shane recognized the features of the dead man with sorrow.
Dillingham swung back to the crowd. “Who killed Chief Snag?”
No one answered.
“Tell me what happened!” he thundered.
A miner Shane knew as John Carroll pushed through the crowd. “Buck Stinson shot him in cold blood while the chief was talking with his daughter, Jimmy Spence’s Indian wife.” Bitterness edged his voice. “Buck said he’d learn Indians not to kill whites. Afterwards, he and his pals shouted about Indians killing whites to cover what Buck did.” His jaw worked. “I say hang the murderer.”
“You would say that.” George Dalton, a young miner with blazing red hair, shouted at John Carroll. “What with raising Snag’s granddaughter like your own and all, everybody knows you’re an Injun lover. When are you going to paint your face too?”
“Now, now.” Dillingham put up a hand. “There’s no call for rudeness.”
Dalton snorted. “Indians were mighty rude, I’d say, when they killed those miners last week.”
“That’s only a rumor, so far as we know.” Crossing his arms, Carroll glared at Dalton.
Angry voices snarled at one another within the crowd.
“This isn’t about loving or hating Indians.” Shane found his voice. “It’s about what’s decent.”
“That so?” A big man, one of the town’s merchants, leaned over the body. His hunting knife flashed. “I thought it was about keeping my scalp.” He straightened and held aloft a hank of skin and hair. Laughter, shouts, and curses blistered the air.
Shane’s stomach heaved. He staggered backward, tripped over his own feet, and fell hard. Rolling onto his hands and knees, he fought the urge to retch. These people didn’t want his message of peace. He might as well face the truth. He had failed in his duty to them.
The door banged open, and Shane lifted his head from his hands. Moonlight reached him across the rough floor.
“What’s this?” Con asked from the doorway. “Still here?” A match struck and flared as Con lit the lantern. “Why are you sitting in the dark, Cousin?”
“I couldn’t seem to care.”
Con flung himself into one of the chairs at the table. “I thought you planned to leave today.”
“I thought so too, but circumstances changed my plans. Even I know not to travel alone at such a time. How many died today?”
Con ran a hand through his dark hair, leaving it rumpled. His face wore a haggard expression. “Three Indians, and the men who started the trouble almost went to the noose. We sent them packing instead. This was a hard day, and it’s not quite done.”
Con rubbed the bristles on his chin. “I don’t suppose you prepared any food?”
“No, but I can make myself useful by cooking something for you.” He heaved to his feet and started toward the rough board that served as a kitchen counter.
“It will have to be quick. Chrisman heard there’s a wagon train camped on the Indians’ side of the hill. A group of us will ride out tonight to escort them to town.”
“Let’s hope nothing goes amiss.”
“Amen to that. You made a wise choice postponing your journey. For the time being, you’re better to remain in Bannack.”
“Where it’s safe?” Bitterness crept into Shane’s tone.
“Where it’s safer
. You’d meant to stay longer, anyway.”
“The sooner I leave, the better.”
“Better for who? The sacred charges you’re running out on or you?”
“I’m tired, Con.” The words wrenched from his soul. “Maybe by the time I return I’ll have figured out how to reach this town.”
Con filled a tin cup from a jug of water on the table and drank it down in one gulp. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “You won’t come back.”
“Is that so? Maybe I should ask you what I mean to do instead of trying to sort it out myself.”
“No need to snap at me.”
Shane reined in his temper. Con was in a foul mood, but he didn’t have to respond in kind. “I’m sorry. My head aches.”
“You said yourself that you’re thinking of leaving the ministry.”
“Not in so many words, but I’ll admit I’ve come to question my calling. Why do you care so much what I do?”
Con’s finger traced one of the scars in the table. “Maybe I wanted to see what you saw, to believe there could be something better.” He looked up, his green eyes dark. “But I reckon you don’t believe it yourself.”
“That’s unfair and untrue.”
Con’s gaze fell. “I’m sorry.”
“My belief in God isn’t about being a preacher, just so you know. There’s so much more to faith than service. It’s a quiet joy, a sense of peace, and the assurance that life won’t destroy you, even when you don’t know how to go on.”
The strain in Con’s face eased. “You almost make me think it’s possible to leave the slum behind, after all.”