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.