"The Spirit of the Wind"

Chapter 2
For Land's Sake

By forestport12

Continued from Chapter One

Falling into the fresh air, fiery debris rained down. My cabin was going up like a torch. I retreated to the outhouse where I might not be seen if the Indians lingered. Then I heard one of them circle it. I feared I may have smothered my own son. I was about to plunge into the crapper with my gun at the door. I would be moved no further. Then it grew silent. No wind.

When it was safe I unwrapped my son, wiped the soot from his face. He smiled that smile, like his father. I sighed and shifted us over to the old oak tree. I laid him down beside his father's grave with my shawl as a blanket. With smoke billowing from what was left of the cabin, I craned my neck to see the McCords racing toward us from the sandhills.

I took my son into my arms. "Don't fret yourself none, my son. We didn't come all this way just to inherit the wind."

Chapter Two
For Land's Sake

As the winds spun our way, the smoldering remains of the cabin stung my nose and eyes. My child buried himself into my breast until the winds shifted and swept away the burning cloud of smoke.

I took stock of what I had left: my life, my son, my powder gun, and the soil beneath our feet. The Indians took our only horse and plundered what could be easily carried. The rest of my earthly possessions were charred and ruined in the fire.

The McCords and their ranch hands raced across the prairie like a stampede of desperation to reach me. I must have been a sight for sore eyes, covered in soot from head to toe. Jake was ahead of the pack and flew off his horse toward me. The others flanked us and kept an eye out for Indians.

Relief washed over Jake. "I thought for sure you were a gonner."

"I hid us like moles under the cabin. Then the fire..."

"Is the young 'un alright?"

Weak-kneed and trembling, I passed the child to him. It was none too soon, as I doubled over and coughed from my packed lungs.

Jake barked at one of the ranch hands for water from the well. He placed the child over his knee and palmed his back, until his lungs cleared and a healthy shrill cry boomed across the prairie. The cleansing sound awoke in me how desperate and desolate my isolation from others had become.

Jake was not good at masking his feelings for us. His sharp blue eyes pierced what veil of pride there was left in me. "I can't stand the thought of losing you both."

Tears pressed against my eyes because it was then I knew he loved my boy as if he were his blood.

Others looked on from their horses, pretending not to pay attention. But between the shock and the looks of men, I wished I could crawl into a hole like a gopher and sneak out from some other side.

Jake's father stepped off his horse with hawkeye that could see in a thicket. "Mrs. Taylor. This is no country for rogue men or young widows."

It kindled a fit of anger inside me. "Mr. McCord, a widow's place is on the land of her blood and sweat. In time, if need be, dig a grave next to my husband's. I won't cut and run."

Jake looked on with astonishment while the babe dribbled on his shoulder. I owed him to see I could be quick-tempered.

The weathered elder slipped from his horse and rubbed the stubbles of his chin. "I don't think you know how close you came to being carried off, Jane." He choked up with tears. He took me by the shoulders. "What the Sioux do to captive women would make a hole in the ground feel right nice."

The yolk of my burdens spilled. "No disrespect Mr. McCord. I don't where I'd be if not for you and your son."

Jake struggled for words. "I...I will help you work the land. You have sandy soil, better than gold, the best for miles."

Poor Jake proved love was blind. He could have had any girl he wanted this side of the Missouri River. I couldn't figure why he fussed over a young widow like me. "I've been too proud. The Lord dealt me a humbling hand. Losing my husband and home in one year. If not for my son, I'd be a blithering fool."

The elder McCord hugged me as if to save me from crumbling. "I think of you as the daughter I never had." Then he dabbed at his eyes and started toward his horse.

The hired men looked away and some acted as if they had saddle sores like they had a rash they couldn't itch. I reckoned they hadn't seen a widow so young rise from the ashes. Or it might have been they'd never seen Mr. McCord so vulnerable.

Mr. McCord mounted his horse. "No one will take your land. I've seen the gravel in your eye. But as you know, scores of Indians feel trampled on, maybe cornered. We build fences where they want to hunt. For now, rest easy at our place."

I held the child between us on Jake's horse as we rode beneath a pale blue sky of thin clouds. The others rode on ahead with eyes on the rolling hills toward the homestead. The tepid wind would sometimes create waves in the tall grass and make the men think Indians lurked.

Jake would move heaven and earth for us, but I didn't know how I could love him the same as my husband. I closed my eyes and leaned into him where the warmth of my cheek nudged his backside. All the innocence of youth was gone like a shrouded morning mist in the heat of the sun.

And as time would tell, grit and faith were like split rails held together by the same destiny.

Author Notes I changed Shane's first name to Jake McCord.
The first chapter can be found in the original short story as a preview to the novella.

Chapter 3
Shelter In Place

By forestport12

Our company of horses passed a tall wood sign planted with iron poles. Fencing stretched north and west far as the eye could see. Cattle grazed on the rifts to rolling hills of lush green grass and golden meadows. Despite the onslaught of Indian attacks, the McCord ranch was like a fortress. The sense of dread I had dissolved as the two-story house appeared on a bluff overlooking the town.

I had managed to stay clear of the town folk below and had always sent for supplies. I had no hankering to walk the streets where my man's blood was spilled. As I dug my chin into Jake's back on the horse, I looked that way with a heavy, knotted heart, knowing one day I'd have to depend on the town for supplies if I were to rebuild the cabin and work the land.

We must have got bigger than ants on a hill when Lydia McCord lit off the porch, drawing her dress to her knees until she made a beeline for me in a pitched run. I wanted to leap off the back of Jake's horse and hug her, but I had my child to pass off, tucked between us.

Lydia came alongside with glassy blue-eyed tears. "You...okay, Jane?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

Lydia sucked wind between words. "I...I we...we saw the smoke rising. It struck fear in our hearts. The men were on the range and must have got to you minutes later."

I nodded and passed the baby to her outstretched arms.

Lydia cradled him in her arms. "Poor child. For plumb sake."

Lydia's husband leaned over his horse. "Indians are spoiling for a fight."

Her mouth dropped. "I feared it was no accident." She turned toward Maya, her black maid on the porch.

Maya stepped off the porch and met up with Lydia, who gave my child to her. Her skin was the color of dark maple and her eyes bright as brown marbles. She was bone thin where a white shawl clung to her shoulders.

As I slipped off Jake's horse, Lydia hugged me until I soiled her blue and white dress. "For land's sake! You look as though you slipped down the chimney. Come with me where you can have a bath, and I will find you a change of clothes, my darling."

"I can't thank you enough for all you and your husband have done."

Mr. McCloud nodded and hopped off his horse, tethering it to the post.

Hot tears rimmed my eyes. Lydia was there for me when my son was born. She kept me above water from drowning in my own misery as a young widow. She was a mother to me and another woman I could share my hopes and heartaches with.

Maya shouldered my son and let him play with her frizzy black hair. "I will get this child cleaned up Miss Taylor, and before long he be white as virgin snow."

Maya and her husband Thad were hired on after they left riotous Kansas and hitched up with a wagon train west. No one asked if they had free papers. In Nebraska, they were a hard-working couple, free as the prairie wind.

Lydia led me inside as if I were some royal guest. There was a picture of our new president, Abraham Lincoln hung on the wall between a mounted antelope and a longhorn sheep. The room was large enough for dancing on the glowing pine wood. Mr. McCord walked inside wiping off his boots and throwing his hat on a hook. Lydia smiled at him and he looked shy as a man with needle and thread.

The men, including Jake, stirred the air with their horses and galloped off in the distance. Mr. McCloud pecked Lydia on the cheek. "I've sent the men off to circle around and be sure the Indians have headed for the hills."

"Fresh coffee is brewing on the Dutch oven," said Lydia. She kissed him on the lips.

"I reckon we can all breathe easy now. I best tend to the other men and tell them to keep an eye out. I'll be back soon." McCloud excused himself. But before he left, he turned to me. "Don't grieve our help, Jane. We don't keep a ledger. Your more family than friend."

It speared my heart to hear his talk of family. I wondered if the whole lot wasn't taken bets over me and Jake, including his father. And yet his son hadn't so much as pecked me on the cheek. What childish dreams I once had that left me the day my husband died. Folks here seemed to have made up their mind that I needed a husband if I were to make it as a homesteader. I was nowhere near ready for a man to come calling.

As I stood in the open between the hall and kitchen, I watched Maya take care to check the washbasin with a finger for the water to be tepid but not hot. We exchanged friendly glances. I did my best to thank her with a nod and kind blue eyes.

The ranch house was no mere dwelling. It had double-hung windows, a solid adobe brick foundation and above the structure was made of thick pine from the evergreen foothills. I was led to a private quarter off the stairs where I could have hot water for a bath passed to me. The sense of insulation from the world was heavy enough to make me want to plunge myself on the downy bed and sink away into a dreamless sleep.

I fought the urge to rest and checked on my child. Josh was laughing and cooing as Maya sponged him and water trickled down his soiled body from a pitcher on the cutting table.

Maya eyed me. "See there, Miss Jane, he takes to water like a little chick-a-dee. Don't you stay a sight for sore eyes? Get yourself that bath."

A chill from the day raked my spine to remind me of my homeless plight as Lydia searched for bedding and ordered Thad to fetch hot water buckets. As I plunged onto the bed, I listened to momentary silence, a sweet sound of silence where my thoughts wrestled over my burned down cabin, the land, the Indians, and the gulf between here and a place for my son to grow into a man.

A knock on the door jarred me off the bed. I flattened my skirt and took a look at the girl in the vanity mirror over a cherry dresser. I didn't recognize her with ratty hair and a blackened face. I refused to welcome the stranger in the mirror.

I cleared my throat. "Come in. Thad, Maya's husband was at the door with piping hot water in a row of wood buckets. "Afternoon, Miss Taylor, Okay if I fill your bath?"

Yes, Tad. You and Maya are a blessing."

His eyes danced away from me. Tears threatened to spill from mine over the weight of the day. He turned himself toward the tub. The water splashed and steamed up.

"Thad, you hear any more about the war?"

"Don't rightly know Miss Jane. I wanted to join the army," he said, as he dumped more steaming hot water in the clawfoot tub. "But oh, Mrs. McCord and my own wife put up such a fuss. I figured if I got into the war, I'd have to fight them before I got out the gate. And them two fight like Indians."

The thought of our country divided by war, brother against brother, our own families were torn asunder. And then the unhappy Indians as wagon trains and the Buffalo hunters become invaders. It seemed the world caved from all sides. And yet, it felt like we all belonged together, the ranch was like one big stew of lost souls finding their way.

"I don't want you leaving either," I said. "I might just have to get in your way too."

Thad smiled with a broad smile and a few missing teeth. Sweat gathered on his brow from the buckets he put in the tub. "Don't you worry none, Miss Jane. We all take good care of you and your son."

"I aim to pay everyone back one day. You'll see." I just wasn't sure how. As Thad left and backed away, I could see he had his doubts.

Author Notes This chapter is important to build a bridge to characters and an overall sense of place, but at the heart of it is whether Jane Taylor a young widow will make it on her own.

I love this part of American history because of the confluence frontier settlers, emmigrants west, the civil war, and the uncivil Indians who feel cornered.

Chapter 4
Homeless Heart on the Range

By forestport12

I prayed the plundering Indians from that morning would not invade my dreams that night. The ranch house was a fortress where even the sinister winds could not penetrate the thick walls of my guest room. In the dark swell of my sleep, they found me. As the dream took over, I heard myself in a mousy voice plead for help.

Shattered windows, torched furniture, and the hallway in flames, an Indian dragged me outside by the hair of my head. Unable to free myself from the nightmare, I watched in horror beneath a bulbous moon, as a painted Indian held my infant child up as a sacrifice to be made.

I jolted awake and gasped for air! My eyes strained in the ink of darkness. I heard footsteps in the hall, heart beating like a war drum.

The door cracked open. Light from the oil lamp flooded across the room until it burrowed into my eyes. Maya, the maid stood with the lamp at arms-length. Her black skin glowing. Her eyes, dancing with concern. "You all right, Miss Taylor?"

I dove for the bassinet. Maya shined the light over my child where I could see his cherub smile. "It was just a bad dream, Maya."

Maya looked at me, her eyes aglow as if the three of us were the center of God's universe. "He takes to sleep like cakes on a griddle, Miss Taylor."

I nodded, unwilling to speak of Indians in my head.

"You've had more than your fair share of trials, Miss Jane. Time we all count our blessings."

I shivered with relief and sat back on the bed. "Thanks, Maya. Sorry if I woke you."

Maya tucked her robe and flashed a smile. "You need anything at all, I be down the hall. Rest easy now."

After she departed I fell into a restless sleep. By daybreak, I nursed my child. I took him to Maya where she had already arranged a blanket for him in the parlor near the stone fireplace.

The smell of pork bacon filled the house. Coffee percolated and sizzled on the stove. But the McCord's who all rubbed the sleep from their eyes huddled around the kitchen and looked at me with sincere concern, like someone who had no business on her own as a widow before twenty and homeless.

I politely declined breakfast and made my way outside where a fervent sun sought the morning mist. Straightway to the stable I found Maya's husband feeding and grooming the horses. Tad's ears perked and must have heard my heavy steps.

"Tad, I need to rummage through my burned cabin for anything worth saving. I've got a money box too, buried in the ground near my husband's grave. I need to know I can start again.

He twisted himself off the stool where he brushed the hair of a honey-colored mare. "Now Miss, Taylor, I won't risk your scalp to be alone. Why the McCord's would have my head."

"Saddle this mare up, Tad. I know how to ride and shoot. But having your company wouldn't hurt."

He showed me a white horse with a spray of gray. "This here is Ole Smokey." He reached for his repeating rifle. And Ole, Henry, he will keep us company along the way, Miss Taylor. He only speaks when spoken to."

The path between the ranch house and my homestead had been well worn. But the rain that night made the trail slick and deepened with mud, putting our horses to the test. Ahead of us, in the sun, the breezy hills looked like rippling waves of amber.

As we followed our eyes and noses to the rain-soaked ashes, Tad sat on his horse and gave me space, all the while with an eye for rogue Indians.

I slipped off my horse and walked through the morning dew and mist. The air smelled of charred ruins. I stepped on broken glass and pottery. Then my eye caught the precious picture of my wedding back east. It was burnt on the corners, but I placed it to my beating heart and thanked the Lord for his tender mercies.

The horse was contented enough with some angel hair and spokes of grass nearby while I wandered over to the oak tree where my former husband had the morning shade in his favor. I knelt down and talked to him as if he were above ground. I knew I should have looked to the heavens. But my eyes were heavy as lead balls.

I spoke to my late husband as if I half expected him to talk back.

"I found our picture, Josh. The one that blinded me when it was taken. And you laughed when I thought I was blinded for good. We both left to build a life together with so much of a child inside us that we saw the world as one big pie to take a bite out of it. And now here I be with a child, and all the vision left is to keep the land and him a roof over his head."

I fell to my knees. "I feel so jaded, Josh. I want to take pleasure in life. I'm still a bit angered that you left me. But I know it weren't none of your fault. I just wish you had stayed with me that night. You know what the preacher says, 'Idleness is the devil's workshop.'"

When I stood and wiped my sore eyes, I saw Jake riding hard through the hills to get to me. I wanted to give him a piece of my mind. But he was a man. I had to bite hard on my tongue when he rode up and tipped his hat as if I need be his damsel in distress.

I could tell he had something on his mind. He looked uncomfortable now that he saw me having a ghostly conversation with my husband at his grave. "No need for you to be here. I have Tad."

"Not so. I figured you would lay out for me what you want for a cabin."

I dug the dirt over the grave and scrapped until I fingered the tin box. Superstitious Indians would not have touched the mound. I held up the tin box. "I have enough left for lumber."

Jake looked away and tipped his hat to Tad who rode over. "She was set on going alone, so I brought Mr. Henry too." He held up his rifle.

"No harm Tad, but I can take it from here."

Tad rode off. I knew there was something more pressing for Jake to say. "Is that all that be on your mind, Jake McCord? You don't think I'm in over my head?"

"No Ma'am."

"I don't like it one bit, Jake. When a man looks away and talks, he's got something hard to say."

The moment of silence between us was heavy as the mist that clung to the waves of grass.

He squirmed in his saddle as if he had an itch he couldn't scratch. "You need to hear it from me before someone in town spills the beans."

My impatience grew thin. "Speak your mind and spit it out. I don't need all the snake rattlin'."

Jake turned toward me and acted like he had a ball of cotton stuck in his mouth. "I...I was the one who should have been dead that night in town, Jane."

I was looking for something to hold on to. All I had was the carved stone with my husband's name. I was at a loss to say something. I just needed him to finish what he started while I breathed.

I was in the card game with your husband that night." Jake choked up and fought for his own words. "Josh thought he was fast enough to put the man's gun down when it was pointed at me. It went off on him. Then we all wrestled it away. The one truth was your husband's stubborn smile.

I plopped down in the dirt. My heart sank with me. "He got in the way of a bullet meant for you?"

"I promised him, I told him I'd take care of you..."

It was a rage that gave me the strength to stand and hop on my horse. "I don't need your pity. What I hear is you were the cause of all this grief. Why couldn't you just die and let him live?"

I kicked away and rode against the wind with no place left but to live like a penny lost in the dark well of my thoughts. I wanted to say more, as I caught up to Tad on his horse. But I knew a wall of silence between Jake and me would say more than all the words in a book.

Author Notes The reason I love the western genre as of how the human spirit has no pretense and is seen in its clearest form and how the greatest good or evil has no filter.

Chapter 5
In the Shadow of the Prairie

By forestport12

Bitterness churned inside me living in the town where my husband was shot and killed over a wayward smile. I breathed easy on the range, having ridden from the town until it looked like a speck from my tail.

Beyond a rivulet of a dry creek bed, I climbed the rise and saw where my heart lived. A breeze lifted and revived my spirit, as I witnessed the resurrection of my homestead. The men on the skeleton structure waved their hats from above and seemed pleased to see me. I breathed a deep sigh.

As I rode closer, I hoped my infant son could feel my excited heart while snug in his homemade sling. Though I shaded my eyes from the sun I did not see Jake McCord among the men. I had no mind to speak to him this side of heaven. Between us was no bridge far enough that could be made. My hope of homestead was resurrected.

I slipped from the saddle and laid my baby on a horse blanket. He squinted from the sun and fussed some until I fixed him on his backside in the shade of the oak tree near his father's grave. He squirmed and kicked his legs with a smiling affirmation. "This is your land, son. Your Pa saw to it. And when I rest my eyes, I see corn higher than a horse's bridle. I see pigs in a pen, cows in the pasture, and free-roaming chickens. We're not poor-by no stretch."

Tad rounded the corner from my well with a skin of water slung over his back. His dark face glowed with sweat. "Well now, Miss Taylor come to save some men from starvation."

As the men shimmied down the ladder, I chimed in. "I believe the men were happier to see my basket and have a nose for my biscuits."

Tad flung the skin of water on a table where the men could gather. "They sure do sniff better than they hit the square head of a nail."

One of the men commented, "I don't see you up there, Tad."

Tad reached for his rifle. "Somebody got to catch you when you fall, and me an ole Henry do just fine with feet planted on the ground."

As the men stirred around the meal that was spread, I slipped away to check on my son.

Tad followed me like a shadow. "Miss Taylor, have you heard the news?"

My thoughts raced. "Another Indian raid, Tad?"

"No, Ma'am. It's Jake."

After I stuck a pacifier in my son's eager mouth, I stood and turned with my hands on my hips. "I don't want to hear of Jake."

"I just thought you should know, Mrs. McCord. She near lost her mind."

A lump caught in my throat. My heart leaped inside. "What's he done now?"

"Jake done signed up with the union army. He never gave his mother a chance to run him down. By the time she got a note, the train had left the station."

It flared in my head, how I told him I wished Jake were dead. My mind was a storm of emotions. I feared his mother would blame me. "I should go see her then."

"He told his mother he'd keep his head low. But what he told the men in the bunkhouse don't fit with it none at all."

His words drove me to the ground beside my boy. I looked away into a blue sky with a veil of thin clouds.

"He said he knew how to take a bullet if need be for the cause."

Tad's words tumbled on me like a landslide. I was buried in guilt.

"I'm off to see Lydia, Tad." I wiped the tears on the sleeve of my dress and secured my son between myself in the honey-haired mare. I left Tad standing there with his weathered hat in his hands.

I rode hard as I dared with my son in his sling through tufts of grass until the trail broadened and my spirited horse found her stride.

Over the rolling hills, the ranch house loomed larger. My horse galloped under the gate toward it kicking up a dust cloud. I dismounted with my child. I met Lydia on the porch. We hugged with the child between us like a long lost family.

I stood back to see her sea-green eyes, deep enough to drown any soul. "I heard. I'm at fault for this."

Lydia shook her head. She placed the cold palm of her hands on my face. "No child. Do not put this on your head. You've done nothing but try to live through one hardship over another. I'll not have him be your burden."

"But I...I..."

"Say no more." Lydia placed her finger on my lips. "Good Lord knows how to get my attention. Praying helps to settle the soul."

I nodded, though my stomach was in knots.

Lydia wrestled the child from me and held him up. We need to thank the Lord for his tender mercies in a broken world."

We sat together on the front porch swing, catching up and watching the shadows of the day grow long.

We wondered what would become of the world around us with war closing in from all sides. We lived too close to the Sioux who raided the settlers. Fighting between the states pushed west with skirmishes in Kansas.

In the distance a storm brewed. The skies blackened like ink on blue. The winds whipped through us and cut to the bone.

We fought the wind and found Tara inside. The four of us made it to the root cellar outside as the funnel cloud took us for a bullseye. We hunkered down in the cool damp air with hardly a word between us, praying for a heap of God's tender mercies.

Author Notes Part of my aim in this story was to show the grit and determination of the early settlers from the homestead act of Nebraska 1862 during a confluence of time when the Indians and in particular the Sioux felt threatened and the civil war was inevitable.

Chapter 6
A Twist of Faith

By forestport12

We hunkered down in our dug out as the twister roared over us. It sucked the air from our lungs. I swear, it seemed we were in a crypt than a root cellar. Then in the aftermath a deathly silence took hold, until we all breathed a collective sigh. But soon our thoughts raced to others on the prairie.

Mrs. McCord's shattered the silence. Her words sharp as broken glass. "My husband! My husband. He was checking the fence line." There was this quiver in her voice and her jaw trembled.

Maya massaged my son's backside and held him to her breast. She tried to soothe the Mrs. With blind words. "He a smart man, your husband. You know he got himself out the way."

"I'll have a look see, Mrs. McCord," I said. I had no idea if anything was left right side up. My heart drummed inside to look.

Mrs. McCord piped up. "I can't bear to look. Please tell me girl! Tell me the world's not wrong side up."

As I craned my neck about, I could see the house still standing. "Looks like the house is where it should be. Roof will need patching."

"Tell me you see my husband. I can't replace him like the roof."

The pain of loss was etched on Lydia's face, as if for a moment she understood my widowhood. No one replaces the one you're meant to love your whole life. They had that singular love. Her eyes were about to burst with tears. I looked at Maya who worried with her.

With one big heave, I pushed the door all the way open. I climbed out of the root cellar, dug the grit from my eyes. "I see him! He's coming this way, walking his horse."

I waved her husband over. He looked covered in mud, but none the worse for wear. Mrs. McCord bolted out beside me like a wild mare. "For land's Sake!"

Mr. McCord stumbled a bit, but when she appeared, his face lit up. His eyes widened. The creases of his weathered face found a radiance. "Lydia, my darlin'. Everyone all right?"

Lydia took off for him. "Maya, Jane, and the baby were with me."

His wife rushed Mr. McCord, and nearly knocked him over. I stooped on the steps and gave Maya my hand who held my son. We huddled together as the sky turned purple and pink over a setting sun.

Down in the valley below I could see a path the twister took. It ground was churned up toward the town, as if God tilled a path toward it. I was relieved the ranch house looked whole except for the patches of roof gone.

My next thoughts thundered over the men like Tad who were on my new cabin. But in the distance where eagles fly, I could see in the veiled twilight, the men riding toward us over the hills.

Mr. McCord approached us, as we looked at each to be sure we were whole. My son's eyes danced with the wonder of a child who sees the freshness in all things.

Looks like you went for a tussle, Mr. McCord," I said.

"I was near enough to the ravine and creek bed. I had just enough time to drag the horse and dive for cover. I think I did the most damage when I tumbled into a wet hole."

Lydia clung to her man, like she had down for thirty years. She looked at me with warm regrets that I had no one to hold like that with my one husbands remains in the dirt. I turned away and took on my son and held him to my chest, so I could have piece of my late husband in my arms. He was my slice of relief as not a day went by without thoughts of my late husband.

When the men arrived in the twilight from my cabin, they reported it still standing. I breathed a sigh and danced with my son with relief than joy. But soon word came from a man in town who works for the ranch. He told of how the twister made a path through part of the town. Some building were pried open as they had a lid removed.

Next day I returned to the town with a horse and wagon, expecting to load up what remained my possessions since pieces and parts of the hotel were gone. I managed to climb the stairs that looked chewed away and with the help of Tad, the McCord's hired servant I was able to secure most of my possessions. It was then that on the second floor with holes I got a stark view of the brothel and could see it as one's insides were on display. Painted ladies were maneuvering about and helping the owner put chairs and tables back in place. One particular young girl an Indian half breed, I reckoned was no more that fourteen or fifteen was shoved back and forth between two men as if they had a mind to tug on her as a rope.

As we loaded up the wagon to return to the ranch, I spoke to Tad who was ready to tease the horse with the reins and get us moving up the hill on the path to where I find more comfort on the prairie. "I don't like what I see, Tad. It's like the twister peeled back the true nature of this place."

Tad looked over at where my eyes boiled over the way a girl became a man's property to be branded. "It don't hardly seem right, Miss Taylor. But I have clear word not to meddle with the towns business. They string a man up of my color just fer lookin' sideways."

"That girl looks to be stuck between two worlds who prefers neither. I think I will ask if she needs my help."

"No, Ma'am. Please!"

As I hiked my dress and lept off the buckboard toward the ruckus at the saloon, I told Tad, "Keep your place. I can handle myself."

I felt Tad's eyes bore a hole in the back of my head. As my heart fluttered, I knew I was risking his work and might be leveraging the McCord's influence too much. By the time I got to the platform of the saloon where harlots whisked about the men, I had my doubts. Then I locked eyes with the Indian girl of stark blue eyes, braided black hair, forced to where a feather on her head.

Author Notes Thinking about how there's so much uneven treatment still in the world today, I just wanted to lead this story into a place where people of faith understand what it means to give all people a fair break in life.

Thanks Cleo 85 for the perfect picture!

Chapter 7
Trading Flesh

By forestport12

The moment I stepped inside the saloon men's eyes played on me like I should be a prize. Dressed in my blue and white calico dress I was out of place but on display. Men in a corner stopped their card game long enough to take me in. Another man, alone, drank his whiskey from a bottle, licked his wet lips, as if he savored my taste.

The bartender, to his credit with white cloth over his shoulder and a wrinkled brow leaned over the bar. "Ma'am. Can I help you?"

The two men who were having a tug of war with the Indian girl stopped long enough to leave her stranded between them. I took the pair for brothers with rust-colored beards, dressed as prairie hunters-likely for Buffalo.

"Ma'am." This time the bartender broke my stare. I halted my forward momentum. Thoughts shifted to where I imagined standing on the stain of wood where my husband's life was ended by a gambler. "I reckoned it was time enough for me to see the place where my husband was killed."

The bartender rubbed the stubbles of his chin, as if trying to think back. "Sorry for your loss, Ma'am." Between his words the air was heavy with silence. He seemed sincere enough. "Say, you wouldn't happen to be the widow woman a few miles between here and the sandhills?"

"I'm the one and only."

"Ma'am this would be no place for a lady."

"Unless she be a painted one. What about this young girl? You reckon she belongs?" It was then a lump of fear caught my throat.

I turned to see Tad standing in the hard-packed dirt street looking through the gaping hole of the saloon. I had put him in a sore spot. I turned and eyed the men I took as brothers. The one in the chair stuck his legs out in front of me. "What's she to you?"

He smelled fowl as a carcass in the sun. He stood and kicked his chair away. Then he grabbed the Indian girl and twisted her arm toward the stairs where some harlots waited for business. I was taking her upstairs to get what I paid fer. Did you want to watch?"

The Indian's stark blue eyes pleaded with me. No doubt, she was considered a half-breed. "She doesn't look your type."

He smiled with a hiss. "Am I you're type?"

"Not hardly."

The other man stuck a leg in front of me. "Why don't you come sit in my lap?"

"Ma'am. I think you should leave," Said the bartender whose brow deepened.

The brother with free hands beside the table, grabbed me and tugged until I fell into his lap.

Without room to think, I slipped the derringer out from under my dress and shoved it into the back of his neck. As I sat there, I watched his blue eyes pop like cue balls. "I got no time for your kind." I shoved the nose of the barrel further into his neck.

I looked over at the girl. "You have a choice now girl. I need help on my homestead. Room and board if you want it."

The man stood over the girl and pulled out a bowie knife, holding it to her throat. The one in the chair squirmed, as I pressed on him.

A silver-haired man from the balcony yelled. "That's enough! If the woman wants the girl, let her go. But she owes me for her stay. I have papers."

I shoved away from the man in the chair. The other fellow shoved the girl into my arms. "What about my poke?"

What I took to be the owner of the establishment spoke. "Have another girl of your choice on the house with my best whiskey."

I pulled two gold coins from my sewn slip pocket. "Here's my retainer. Send me a bill and I will make good on the remainder when the crops come in." I swallowed the lump in my throat as I turned away with the girl.

The owner saluted me from above as one of the painted ladies swooned over him. "Have a nice day, Miss Taylor. Forgive some of us for our bad manners."

I breathed a sigh, as I led the Indian girl away with me into the dusty street, I was relieved that Tad had not pulled his rifle and come closer. I knew he figured me for too much grit, and not enough horse sense. But I also knew those kinds of men don't let insults die, when just the wrong look can get you killed.

I spoke to the Indian girl, as we climbed into the buckboard of the wagon. "What's your name child?"

"My mother named me Skye."

"You are free to work with me. I live alone with my son. If you go, I will not try to stop you."

"I was abandoned by white mother and raised by a Cherokee whore. My father is Cheyenne. This is the only life I know. A bird with broken wing knows no freedom."

Tad and I looked at each other, as he snapped the reins and we left the town behind us until a speck on the horizon. After a gulf of silence between us, I took stock in what had happened.

Within her blue eyes was a window to her soul, and I aimed to find it. I could see her true self hiding, the girl inside, never able to live that part of her life. Her wayfaring eyes spoke like an unread book. "I too have been lost in a man's world with nothing but my heart, and seeds to sow, and find my place. I suspect we need each for season."

Chapter 8
A Place in the Sun

By forestport12

Skye took to the land, as if the dirt were in her veins. She splayed the land with horse and blades beneath a boiling sun, as if failure were a grave thought itself. The black dirt would be our gold. As she cut the furrows, I followed, planting corn with my boy on my back in a sling until I was knotted in pain.

Sweat stung my eyes and blurred my vision, but I could see her rows were more like waves. I had no heart to break her stride. I couldn't figure out if we were too stubborn or foolish to work the land alone.

As the sun melted over the horizon west, the skies turned to rose and lavender. I imagined Jake returning home from the war and then I would tell him, and it would be no lie, that I loved him, and he was a good man. No matter what his mother said, I blamed myself for him going off to fight the war between the states. I could not forgive myself until I could ask him to forgive me. As I thought or imagined him appearing on the hazy horizon beyond the bluffs sweat gave way to tears. The hardscrabble of a homestead left hanging missed opportunities for companionship. But I had to wipe those tears and set another row of seeds before the darkness covered us.

I had no room left for worry over Skye the Indian girl going back to whoring, the worry over whether Jake would come back from the war in one piece. I resigned my thoughts, that God knew the end from the beginning, as I buried the corn seeds into the ground.

Skye took my golden mare, named Yellow Fever toward the open barn. For the day was spent and a cool blanket of relief swept over us. From the steps of the porch, I grabbed the ladle from a bucket of well water. I let it spill from my greedy lips until it ran down my neck. I set my son down in the bassinet, but he cried to be fed. As I took him to my breast in the cool, timid breeze, I spanned the horizon where my farm looked carved with character in the twilight. The earth was planted in my soul and no longer a dream.

My thoughts turned to the shotgun against a post and near my fingers when I heard a hawkish cry from the barn where Skye was. I set my son down for my double barrel shotgun and placed it against my hip. I strained to watch her walk backward from the double doors where the darkness was like a cave.

With a deep breath I curled my finger on the trigger and waited for Skye to back away with her hands on the reins of my horse. A creature leaped forward into the open air. Half man. Half bird.

"I mean no harm!" He held his arms up, as if he could fly. But then there was enough light to see he was really one poor excuse for a man, tarred and feathered. "Don't shoot. I'm at your mercy." He fell to his knees besides Skye and the horse. She looked at me then, as if to fillet him with her knife.

I didn't like the fact my son fussed without me to hold him. The sun had drained all patience. I held up a hand to Skye and shouted at the unwelcomed sight. "Come no further, and state your business, and don't bat an eye! I will leave you a hole the size of a wrecking ball!"

"I beg for mercy, Ma'am, I'm no thief. I was tackled, tarred and feathered."

"I ain't blind. I can see the white around your eyes. No one tars and feathers a man for sport."

"Ma'am, I beg you. My tongue is like sand, I can hardly speak. I fear my flesh is fried."

I kept the rifle on him. "Come clean, right quick. I can shoot a man on his knees as much as when he stands. Skye. Fetch a lantern and see to my son."

"I sold an elixir. They crashed my wagon into a ravine and then tossed a hot bucket of tar on me. I stumbled, blinded, and feared I lost my sight for good. Then I happened on your place."

"All right. Stand up and walk slow toward me."

"I'm at your mercy. I prayed, as I sometimes crawled in the tall grass as a creature for someone who would offer me Christian hospitality."

"Talk is cheap in town and worth much less on a homestead. Like I say, these men who assaulted you must have had good reason. Your potion must have done more harm than good."

"You are an answer to my prayers, Ma'am."

My toes curled as darkness settled. I lowered the gun. "I'm not sure you're an answer to mine."

"Names, Tom, Tom Healy."

"Stop! Come no closer. I don't need your hand."

It was odd to see a man who looked like someone's nightmare act civil with words. "And who might I have the pleasure of meeting?"

"This here is the Taylor homestead."

"At your service, Mrs. Taylor."

I dared not speak of husband's passing. "Time will tell. You go to the barn and wait. I will send Skye to bring you some of my husband's clothes and a meal. Don't try her, none. Meanwhile there's water in a trough, I suggest you get busy with it before the skeeters eat you alive."

Thanks, Ma'am. Much obliged to your husband too. You are an angel of mercy."

Pay no mind what you think of me. Keep yourself from the trough to the barn, rest and recover under a horse blanket. I'll see to it your fed and watered. When the sun comes up we can talk. Just know my patience hangs on a thread. Don't try me no further. I got no time for charity and I don't fret none what you think of me."

Skye took care of the unwanted guest while I tended to my son. As Sky passed by with a lantern to the front door, I watched her quiet, unwavering loyalty. As she hung the lantern on the nail in front by the door. I held my playful son on the floorboard. Skye knelt, and beckoned the boy to come to her.

He smiled with cherub smile. He wobbled a bit and then found his legs and stumbled toward her. I looked into the Indian's stark blue eyes as she gathered up my son. "We all need to take it one step at a time."

Chapter 9
Home on the Range

By forestport12

Mr. Healy, the elixir salesman turned out to be harmless without his snake oil. He was keen on telling stories bigger than life when he wasn't shoving one of my biscuits in his mouth. He devoured food like a bear to a honey hole.

I reckoned he didn't have much more experience in homesteading than my helper Skye and myself. But I figured if he wanted to stay clear of surrounding towns that caught wind of his oil, I'd ask him to stay on and put him in charge of the swine. I looked over at Skye who bounced my son on her knee at the table while feeding him mashed potatoes.

It was hard on my eyes to see Healy in my late husband's clothes. More-over they sagged on his bony frame. "Say there, Mr. Healy. You know anything about raising hogs?"

The normally polite man allowed his mouth to drop with some gravy dripping on his lips. "Well now, Mrs. Taylor, raising hogs and chickens is a valuable risk for lone homesteaders. Most of what I learn comes from the books I've accumulated during my enterprises. Field training has not been my strong suit."

"Well now, here me out. I don't know of a hog raisin' book or homesteading book, neither. But if you stay her awhile and expect to eat, I could use a man's help for a spell."

His eyes turned like cue balls in his head. "What about your husband? Do you mean to imply he's away on business?"

"Mr. Healy, don't go gettin' any wayward ideas in your head, but I will be square with you. I'm a widow."

"Indeed. And a young one at that." He devoured the last biscuit.

"I got the McCord family yonder, few hills over. I've got the fencing ready, and I need someone to pitch in with raising hogs and free-range chicks. I trust your in no hurry to skedaddle?"

"Well, Ma'am, I did consider joining up with a caravan heading west. I've always wanted to explore what's over those majestic mountains."

"Mr. Healy, I'd be more than happy to go into town and speak on your behalf, let folks know you have a mind to consign yourself to a wagon train west. I'm sure your reputation precedes you."

Mr. Healy swallowed his biscuit as if it were a lump of coal and waved me off. "No, Ma'am. That's quite alright. Consider me your hired servant."

With that answer, I cleared the dishes and put them in the wash basin. Our circle of the despised and rejected was near complete.

Next day...

McCord ranch hands delivered the pigs and chickens. Mr. Healy provided ample opportunity for entertainment, as he commenced to chasing the roaming chickens until he turned red faced. Then when it came time to feed the pigs with cornhusk, he slipped and fell inside the pen until covered in mud from head to heel.

As Skye and I watched, we gave him fair warning not to rile the pigs too much. "Best be careful," I said, "Mr. Healy. Those pigs might think your part of the meal."

"Ladies, I present to you a master of swine." For show, Healy picked up his hat and took a bow with one eye on the squealing pigs.

As we leaned on the railing, Sky smiled, as if her bad days were gone with the wind. And even my boy, Josh smacked his hands together, as if Mr. Healy were on a stage.

I held my nose. "You've taken on their smell, Mr. Healy. Best get washed up before supper."

"I will be sure to scrub myself until I bleed, if it means I may savor the taste of your tender and warm biscuits." He took one final bow, before scrambling from the pigs.

As the sun was retreating and lighting up the Rocky Mountains west with an orange glow, we left Healy to his pungent smells and found the cool fresh breeze of the porch. From my cabin, I could see the waves and rows of green growing corn in a sparkling hue across the range far as the eye could see. It was then, my eyes caught the movement of two men on a wagon pulled by two horses. The shoulder high corn at times obscured my view, as I believed they were heading toward town until the driver made a sharp turn our way.

"Skye! Set my son in his playpen and fetch my shotgun, along with the rifle. I believe there's a wagon heading our way. The cart stabbed at the trail to my homestead, almost getting stuck in the muck of the previous nights rain. But the chestnut colored horses got the better of my trail.

Skye handed me the double-barrel shotgun and then squared the rifle to her shoulder.

"Your eyes are like an eagle, Skye. Tell me what ya see girl."

"The men are clad in blue. I'd say they are union army, despite gray dust on their shoulders."

My heart flopped inside. "Least they ain't southern sow bellies."

"No, Miss Taylor. If you dust them off, they'd be all blue."

"I wonder what they see in us."

Before I could ask them their business. I noticed one had a bandaged head, as if a severe wound had given him a mile-wide stare. The man with the reins halted yards away before the giant oak that could be seen from near and far. He stood on the buckboard with a beard like a briar patch and waved his hat.

"I got close enough to shout. "Town's down yonder, what made you turn our way?"

"Ma'am, I've been looking for a lone oak tree with a grave stone this side of Nebraska."

"I don't reckon to be a famous landmark for blue coats or otherwise."

"We were near killed in a hornets nest."

"A beehive don't explain how you came to be here."

"We was at the battle of the Hornet's Nest, Tennessee. When I found him in the tall weeds he was muttering something about the biggest oak tree in Nebraska near a grave. I managed to get him to a field hospital where they stitched him up. I stayed with him, as I was treated for a bum leg. The army tasked me to find his family."

It was then I lost all caution and ran toward the men, tripping in the ruts with the shotgun at my side. My mind was a whirlwind of thoughts. "Jake McCord! Jake!"

As I approached, there was no answer. He kept his eye on the oak tree, as if he couldn't hear a word I said. "Lands Sake!" Jake!" I couldn't believe my eyes, as I reached up to hold him. Chills ran through me.

"You know this man?"

"He's...he's Jake McCord. His family owns a cattle ranch up yonder in the sandhills."

I heaved inside with, but then as I sought for Jake's soul through his eyes, my insides tightened. My enthusiasm dampened by the chasm I saw in his eyes. "Please, Lord don't tell me, he's not all there? Jake, do you know who I am?"

Jake stared at the tree, as if he expected it to talk to him.

The driver spoke for him. "Horace is my name, Ma'am," he said, as he placed his weathered hat to his chest. He shook his head. "I think that bullet took a piece of his mind too."

I refused to let go of him. I forced him to look at me. He set his eyes on me for the first time. "Your pretty girl on the prairie."

My pent-up tears broke free. It was then I had a piece of him again. A glimmer of him shined through, and it was enough for me to hold on to like a tender feather in the wind.

I wasn't for letting go of him this time.

Chapter 10
Thunder on the Range

By forestport12

Jake spent most of his days consigned to the McCord ranch where he lived behind walls. He was not the Jake I once knew. He once lived for the big sky and open range. I would leave my homestead and spend time at the ranch, trying to get beyond that far away look in his sky-blue eyes.

I'd rock away into the twilight with my child on my shoulder. He'd whittle away at a toy buffalo he was making for my son. Then suddenly he stopped and pointed his knife at some ghost in the air and said, "Do you still talk to you're husband beneath the old oak tree?"

I didn't dare answer him directly. I didn't have a mind to rub salt in an open wound, what with the scar along his temple and all. "When my husband died, it helped to have his grave nearby where I could talk things out."

I thought I saw a reckoning in his eyes. Or maybe it was the rosy clouds and powder-blue in the fading light. His folks said his memory tended to come in lightning flashes. I was hoping he'd recall more. I had to prod him some. "You recall my husband, Josh?"

He poked his knife in the floorboard and stopped rocking. "I think I killed him."

I leaned over with my child but too afraid to touch him, thinking I'd scare him away. "You didn't. Don't let no such thought fester in your head." I feared his scars besides the one on his head were somewhat deeper, between him in the creator. "I hate what war does to men. They leave with a world of color and then come back where all is gray."

"You're husband. He didn't deserve to die."

"I don't rightly know." Tears pushed against my eyes. "I reckon my husband was a good man. But what right we got to tell the Lord what we deserve, and what is fair? I've done my share of talking to his grave. Best I start taking my grief straight to the Lord. Besides, I'm holding a part of my husband in my son. There be some tender mercies."

There was a gulf of silence between us. I reckoned, I left something in the air to ruminate on when a few ranch hands came toward us with news that buffalo were said to have been grazing less than a days ride. They asked me if I wanted to come along. I jumped at the chance and hoped it would help Jake clear his thoughts or find the ones that mattered most.

By daybreak I kissed my sleeping son goodbye and saddled up my honey-colored mare. We road west with the rising sun on our backs across the sandhills and into the foothills. We trekked through trickling creeks until we could see the Rocky Mountains looming in the distance like God's ancient cathedral of steeples and jagged edges heavenward.

I kept a keen eye on Jake. He looked so far away, further than the clouds in the mountains and the blue beyond. I would have given him my farm to know where his mind lived. If only he knew how much I was ready to be with him. How even as a young widow, there was room for love.

We let our horses drink from a gentle flowing creek below a grassy bluff, a creek so clear we could see a reflection of ourselves beneath the gleaming sun. Thad, the McCord's most trusted hand lifted from his saddle and said, "Anyone who don't believe there be a God can't have been this far west."

I nodded my approval of his timely words, as the other men took in the scenery and rested on tufts of grass.

Thaddeus stuck a foot in his stirrup and lifted away from his horse with a skin for water slung over his shoulder. His black face sweated in the sun. He knelt by the creek and looked up at me. "I sure wouldn't mind it one bit if I found me a gold nugget at my feet," He said, as he let the water funnel into the horn of his skin. "I'd turn that piece of gold into a ring for the Missus."

As I knelt by the stream and cupped the crisp, cold water and placed it to my mouth, I said, "Thad, your wife herself is a gem. Poor people are the ones who don't know what they have in life, until it's long gone."

Thad looked up at me from the creek. "Miss Taylor, I sure do, got more than precious stone. I got my freedom." I watched a thick tear trail down his eye. "I got my Missus, and I got gold in the mornin' sun. I reckon, I need nothin' else this side of heaven. I'm a wealthy man."

"And we are all better for it."

I slipped off my boots, sat on a rock and let the icy water run over my sore ankles. Does the ground shake like an earthquake before you even lay eyes on a buffalo?" I looked at no man in particular though Redhawk, if he talked would be the authority on our adventure. With a stiff nod, he planted his boots on the other side where his horse followed.

The Indian, turned scout for the army and then ranch hand, walked his horse near some scrub brushes. I watched him, as he tethered his horse and put his ear to the ground. The rest of the men smiled, as if it were an inside joke they had no mind to share with me.

I looked at Thad, who threw his water skin over his horse. "What's Redhawk up to with his ear on the ground?"

"He's listening for the Buffalo."

I stood and put my hand over my eyes and strained to see. Waves of summer heat must have played tricks on my eyes.

Jake must have been watching too. He yelled out from his horse, having crossed the stream and placed himself near Redhawk. "Look!"

A cloud formed. The stampede was on. Something had scared the herd. And they headed toward us!

Redhawk pointed and confirmed a thunderous herd in the distance, drawing closer. The ridge from the creek was enough to conceal ourselves. As the sound grew deafening and we all looked at each other in wonder, I realized Jake hadn't taken cover.

Thad yelled at Jake. Redhawk grabbed his shoulders and forced him down.

The bison stormed through, threatening to overrun us while hunkered down in the creek bed. Most of the men had their guns ready to take aim, but then they pulled back and looked at each other with an astonished look. As the dust settled, Redhawk pulled out his scope and watched, holding his free hand back for us to lay low. The herd stirred beyond the bluff.

A small band of Indians looked to have triggered the rush. Arrows flew, some buffalo fell with a thud.

Thad reached over to his horse and pulled his henry rifle from its sleeve. "They want the buffalo, not us, Miss Taylor. Best we make ourselves small."

Redhawk turned and shuffled back toward us. "They are only a handful of Cheyenne. They hunt to survive. We hunt for other reasons."

I whispered. We build fences where the buffalo roam too."

Redhawk said nothing. Thad squeezed his rifle tighter and spoke in a hushed tone. "We best be on our way."

Without warning Jake stepped away from the bushes where Redhawk had been. He took his rifle, fell to a knee. A shot rang out. A buffalo stumbled and fell in some brush.

Redhawk pursued Jake. Thad looked at me with worried eyes. "So much for makin' ourselves scarce."

Jake didn't know how to keep his head down anywhere he went.

Chapter 11
The Gift of Life

By forestport12

The men stood slack-jawed over the party of Indians who happened on the buffalo herd. I'd been told most tribes were hard to read. One of the ranch hands with us said, "They sure do keep a good poker face."

The one with a band of feathers rode up with his staff held high in peace. Young braves flanked him.

Redhawk and Jake rode up to meet with the Indians. The other ranch hands fingered their rifles at a safe distance where we hugged the grass edge of the creek bank. My heart jumped inside. Flashbacks of the raid on my cabin jarred my thoughts. I blinked it away to stay focused, as if on knifes edge.

Thad held out his revolver. I looked at him and tried to hide the fear with my words. "How many you figure to take with just a pistol?"

It's what you're going to do with it, Miss Taylor. If we don't make it-you take your life. Things be better in heaven then what they will make you live through. I got my ole Henry to keep me company."

"You can't be serious? They aim to talk it over." I thought about my boy on the ranch and how he could become an orphan.

Thad looked at me with a fear of death in his eyes. "That Jake, with his messed-up head got us into this, let's hope Redhawk gets us out."

I took the pistol, but I wasn't going down without a fight. The thought of not seeing my son again rattled me something fierce.

If arms and hand gestures could talk, they all seemed to be having one big conversation. Then one of the braves held out his knife near the buffalo. He skinned it open, careful to keep the gut sack intact. Jake knelt down with him to help. The brave pulled out the heart and held it up for the whole world to see. He cut a piece with his knife and offered it to Jake.

Thad looked at me. "You can breathe now. Looks like we have an understanding."

I breathed a sigh. I was all too happy they weren't carving our hearts.

Before Jake and Redhawk turned their horses our way, Jake had given the chief his rifle. And just when I thought it was the price of our heads, a young brave handed him a buffalo robe. The pair came toward us high in the saddle with all their hair and pride in the right place.

Some of the Indian women converged with children who looked baked as cinnamon in the sun. A couple of the horses had their Indian sleighs to carry all the buffalo meat. The women knew how to smile, a trait that seemed illusive for the men. But I admired how they carried themselves with a sense of purpose and unity.

The winds lifted, as if they too sighed. The spirit of the wind was here again to remind me, of our delicate balance between life and death and how we were all connected to the land. All God's creation.

When it was all said and done we left with an uneasy peace, but it was peace enough, as we followed our trail back. Jake seemed more alive than ever, proud of his buffalo robe. He explained himself on our way back east across the range. "I told them the Buffalo was shot as a gift, and we meant no ill will." It seemed to resurrect his personality.

As we rode on, I looked at Redhawk and then at Jake. "Don't get too stiff in collar, we might have to pry you off that saddle."

Redhawk looked back at the setting, which looked like a fiery red ball over the mountains. "We will need to make camp. Too far to make it back before dark."

We settled on a place of a placid stream where there were reeds and cattails. We found a nice soft piece of ground from where we tethered our horses to the scrub trees. It was there we set out to have a feast fit for banquet and talk of our adventure for the day. A few men made use of their axes and found some deadfall trees along the water's edge, enough for a robust fire. We'd already figured to post a sentry near the horses. We trusted the Indians in the light of day. But when cloaked in darkness we wouldn't trust the slightest sound from a wayward wind to the snap of a twig.

We gathered around the fire, as it it's tongue lashed the sky and sparks flew like fireflies. I rested my head on my saddle and looked up into the stars, a billion or so like silver trinkets, as if there was no small wonder beyond and below. The men's laughter was catchy and seemed free of nerves over such a lively fire that could bring eyes from near or far.

I found myself in the midst of men, but alone like a star that filled the sky with no one to hold and keep me warm. My unspoken prayer was how Jake would forgive himself for my husband's death, and he would know I forgave him. It was then I knew I needed to let my words fly.

Jake was next to me his hat over his head. I seized the moment. "I'd like it if we could start over. If we could pretend, I was never mad at you before you left and nearly got your head shot off in the war."

There was a heavy silence between Jake and I, saved only by the roar of the fire.

"Do you remember what made us distant in the first place? Do remember how you cared for me when my husband died?"

It was then in the glimmer of the fire light, he lifted his hat, and I saw the soul of his eyes. "I know, I ruined your life."

"I've forgiven you. Why can't you forgive yourself?"

"I...I thought about you Jane. I thought about you, alone, a widow woman, so young. I'm too ashamed to remember some things. Ashamed that I fell in love with you so soon after your husband's death. You could melt the heart of any man. My care for you was selfish."

A shout rang out from the sentry. Reeds parted. We must have all strained to see by way of the fire and the stars. At first I reckoned it was a creature, but it turned out to be a young squaw with a baby in her arms. Just about everyone had their pistols cocked and ready. But she fell to her knees before us.

She spoke in her Lakota tongue. Redhawk interpreted her words. "She followed the light. She said she prayed for a sign."

She collapsed before us. I coaxed the child from her to check his condition. She released her grip, when Redhawk explained I could be trusted.

Redhawk took the lantern spreading light over the woman. It was then I heard the words kidnapped come from the girl in broken English. He let the light linger over her dirty blonde hair and blue eyes, in case anyone had their doubts. She'd been kidnapped, and God only knew since when, as a small child perhaps.

The men squashed the fire, knowing most of us wouldn't sleep a wink.

The infant in my arms was not moving or breathing. I gave the cold child back to his mother, sensing she hadn't accepted his death. Some things were best left until the morning light, and sunrise couldn't come soon enough.

Chapter 12
Beyond The Blue

By forestport12

Just before the breaking dawn and with hardly a wink of sleep, we saddled up our horses and rode east into the open range. The smell of our smoldering fire lingered, as we looked over our shoulders to see if the Indians trailed us.

The former captive woman leaned against Redhawk's back with the dead infant son tucked between them. No one wanted to make a fuss over it until the men put some miles between us and the band of Indians who were sure to follow. I rode my mare next to her and Redhawk, knowing her child had no more life in him than a ragdoll. The men ahead, talked of drawing straws to see who would convince the mother, her son wasn't coming back to life.

The open range meant there would be no hiding, between us and the Indians. I was thankful for the summer heat and withering sawgrass. I breathed easier when Redhawk would turn his horse and glass the horizon. His scope gave us some measure of comfort.

As I continued to ride beside the young mother, I carried the conversation through her blank stare. "Do you recall the name your folks gave you?" There was gulf silence between us as we moved east against the rising sun.

Just as I had given up and my thoughts turned toward my only son on the ranch, and how blessed I was, she blurted out her name. "I know my name is Emily."

As we rode, I didn't press any further. "Emily is a fine name. I think I should name a daughter Emily, should I be blessed to one day have a girl."

Her eyes suddenly found me. "I was named White Cloud by the Lakota."

Thad rode up next to me, his face sweating in the sun. "You folks all right, Miss Taylor?"

"McCord ranch would be a welcome sight before nightfall."

"I'm going up ahead and see if I can find a place we can rest a spell." He tipped his hat and rode off until he was a speck on the horizon.

A few hours later Redhawk glassed a crop of trees where we could rest our horses and bury the child. As we drew closer, Thad seemed to be dozing off against a tree. I wanted to poke him, just to make sure he was okay. But then, I heard a steady snore.

Some of the men circled me. They pried on me with their eyes. Their silence spooked me. I knew what they wanted. They wanted my help separating the child and her mother. I rolled my eyes but agreed. "I will talk to her about the baby."

Relief washed over the men's faces.
"Be best if someone was to hold her back when I speak my mind." I said this as Redhawk approached our circle with Emily and the child.

A large cotton tree held sway over all the others. As we dismounted and Jake helped the mother and her baby, I admired how in the gentle breeze, the tree released white strands of cotton like angel hair beneath an azure sky.

Thad and another hand started digging a pit where the ground was soft. As Redhawk and others kept a watch from the west, I played my role as a caregiver and offered to hold the child so she could drink water from a canteen. Once I held the dead bundle in my arms, I stepped away and locked onto Emily's rabid eyes. "It's no use pretending, Emily. Your child's gone. He's in a better place."

A venomous rage filled her eyes. She struck toward me. Two of our men held her back. Redhawk reasoned with her where she collapsed on the ground. "You did all that could be asked of you. Your son will look down on you happy that he lives in your heart."

It was then the wind stirred through the branches and flirted with the leaves. The mother snapped from her trance, as if a demon departed. Her countenance changed, and her eyes softened with some acceptance. But her words took us off guard. "They wanted me to leave him behind. I would not leave him to die."

Redhawk opened the bundle and further examined the baby in the light of day. "I suspect this child was born too soon." As I looked in with him, I noticed now how shriveled he was, a premature birth in a harsh wilderness."

Emily saved her remaining spite for her captors. "They told me my child would not survive. The Great Spirit was not happy."

I locked on to her eyes. "You did right by him. And the Great Spirit I know, has opened up his heavenly arms."

Redhawk looked at the other men. It's no wonder she escaped. She would not have dared try otherwise."

I watched as these hard-boiled ranch hands softened with tears in their eyes.

Jake stepped forward and helped the woman from her knees. "We have to give him proper burial, Ma'am, then best be on our way where my family can keep you safe."

She nodded, but I could tell her grief was all dammed up. She had learned to build a survivor's wall, but it was cracking in her facial expressions. It was bursting at the seams.

The men wrapped the child in a Mexican blanket the color of a rainbow. It was my turn to pry the men for words. "Anybody here know what to say to pay our respects?"

All the men took their hats off and Thad stepped up. "I'd like to say a few words. Lord almighty, none of us are deserving a long life. With you, we don't know the end from the beginning, but you hold time in your hands, and we don't deserve to slap those hands that welcome this young un. Amen."

My mind was in a whirlwind, trying to think of a song, any song I could recall from Sunday School that might fit the moment and lend some closure. Then it stirred inside me and wouldn't let go.

"What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear. What a privilege to carry, everything to God in prayer. Oh, what peace we often forfeit, oh, what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer."

After I'd finished there was soul stirring silence, and all we could hear was the Spirit of the wind in the trees.

Thad took his hatchet to a hickory shrub and fashioned a cruel cross from two limbs. As we departed, Emily looked back one last time where her son was buried and no doubt a piece of her heart.

We rode on for hours, sore in the saddle, and blistered by the sun. But before the sun melted over the horizon we caught a glimpse of the McCord ranch with a few sandhills and bluffs between us.

My heart raced to see my son. I'd heard his first words, seen his first walk, yet he had so much to learn. I knew then that I needed to teach him more than what the land gives us. I needed to teach him how to listen to the Spirit in the wind.

As I looked over at Emily, I wondered if she would be able to make a fresh start in a white world.

Author Notes 1. I want to make clear that American Indians were not the only ones who practiced infanticide. Just about all geographies and people in history have practiced it in one form or another. We have all sinned and come short of the glory of God. I only want to show the confluence and dynamics of the clashing cultures in the pioneering west and hopefully entertain.

2. The hymn, "What a Friend we have in Jesus," was written in 1860. I took the liberty and imagined it having been thought of earlier in Jane's young life, but believe it was widely sung in prairie churches in the 1860's.

Chapter 13
No Country for Old Soldiers

By forestport12

It was the deep end of summer. Our corn shined like gold beneath a setting sun and stretched as far as the eye could see. With a hand to shade my eyes, I watched Jake McCord ride toward me on the path from his ranch. A fresh breeze flirted with me on the porch, foretelling a cool summer evening.

I was comforted by the blessings of rich soil and a collection of helping hands, who couldn't fit into the world, but found a solace on my homestead. The fields and forts between us made us feel insulated from the war between the states.

Skye became my trusted friend and confidant. She was a far cry from the half-breed child raised in a whorehouse. In the late night hours beneath an oil lamp, I taught her how to read with my Bible. When she came to the place where Nicodemus was told he needed a second birth, she readily accepted a new life. She was determined to find a greater purpose in her life.

Mr. Greeley got along famously with Horace who understood animals and even talked to the horses and pigs. But when it came to Horace, he was elusive on where he came from. Maybe it was woman's intuition, but now and then his accent betrayed him. But on my homestead, I held the notion that one's past wouldn't matter if they lived good in the present. But I was wrong. Sometimes the past circles back like a pack of wolves who smell fear.

As darkness fell, Jake approached. He dismounted and tethered his horse to the railing of the porch. I was glad to have him back from the war that seemed to have claimed more than a piece of his mind. I held my son who fell asleep over my shoulder.

Jake pulled his hat and let the locks of his hair fall then took a knee in the Nebraska dirt. He ran his fingers through the soil and looked at me where I could see the reflection of his oft times, somber blue eyes. "You got the richest soil between here and the Rockies."

"I reckon it makes you wonder what the poor people are doin'?"

His face formed a crescent smile. "Well, I reckon it makes you something of baroness."

"I prefer a down to earth title. It sounds like I have fangs and claws." If only he knew how much I've fallen for him since he had come back from the war. "Do you reckon the war will come this far?"

Jake kept his eyes on me while on one knee. "The war is turning in the north's favor. But the Sioux have me worried."


"We got word of a massacre at Spirit Lake, Iowa."

"War is coming from one direction or another. Seems peace can only live in our hearts when we let it."

He looked at me like he did before his stint in the army. He looked at me with that glint his eye. I wondered what he really had in mind. Did he love me like man should? Would he propose?

I was ready set my son inside to his own bed when laughter filled the fresh air. oil lamps burned bright within. I didn't want to tread on their level of goodwill my help had with each other. We all deserved a bit of revelry, if but for a moment.

Jake noted the laughter. "Seems they know how to make hay."

"What about you Jake. You know how to make hay? Maybe cut a rug?"

Horace, the one who saved Jake from the battle of Shiloh, struck up a note on his fiddle. Suddenly, I heard the clapboard floor move and the noise was like small claps of thunder under my feet. With my son over my shoulder and with the palm of my hand to his back, I decided to put him in the basinet on the porch. Then my eyes wandered past Jake where my husband's grave was near the oak tree.

It was then Jake looked down, then at me with those sad eyes. My husband's grave must have been like a millstone around his neck.

I decided to break the trance between us. "You got a dance in you there, Mr. McCord?"

His eyes sparked. "I'm not sure I recall how to dance."

"Like riding a horse. Some things you don't forget."

Jake strode toward me with his shy smile.

As Jake stood before me on the last step of the porch, I prodded his sensibilities. "You trust me to show you where to put your feet?" I said this as the music seemed to move the boards and float beneath our feet.

"Yes, your baroness."

"I promise not to bite. It's time to put the past behind us, so there should be no room to doubt our future."

With our hands raised, we clasped each other's. Before I knew it we whirled in our own world on the porch. We kicked up a breeze that swept through me. As he drew me into him the heat of his person and the mint of his breath took me. I hadn't thought it possible to love another man, but that night it seemed not only possible-but destined. We all needed someone to love.

Suddenly the music stopped. We stopped dancing. He tugged on my backside and kissed me.

A voice called out from beneath the moon. It startled us both. My thought ran toward my child. I picked him up from the basinet, ready to rush inside for my shotgun.

Jake turned toward the voice and sounds of men on horseback. I knew Jake had set his revolver down, but he turned to them as he often does and faces the unknown. "If you folks were on the road to town, I reckon you got lost."

The leader of the pack drew close with his chestnut horse. This man was close enough, I could smell the smoke of an earlier fire on his clothes, and I could see his gray coat, a proud confederate the same color of the soulless look to his eyes. "Would there be a man named Horace here, if you don't mind me asking?"

I took advantage of the moment and opened the door where all stood when they must have spied our strangers. I gave Skye my son and took my shotgun. I swallowed a ball of fear. "Horace, these men claim to know you."

"Sorry, Ma'am." He was about to give his fiddle another lick, when he set it down on the table, his eyes widened where he could see a band of men on horses. He didn't look surprised. "I reckon, I will go see what all the fuss is about."

I nodded with a nervous smile. "Best if you do."

Skye put my son to bed and hidden from view, took the flintlock from its hiding place in the corner beneath a blanket. Mr. Greeley slinked backward and looked as if he wanted to shrink. From where I was, I couldn't see Jake. But I feared he might try something foolish in the dark.

The leader of the pack called out. "Horace! I know you're in there. Come on out. We got business with you."

Horace tugged on his beard. He looked at me like a scalded dog.

The wolves were at our door in gray coats. They smelled our fear. But I wanted them to smell the smoke from our guns. If only I knew where Jake was from the door where I stood.

Horace moved toward the door. "Wouldn't go nowhere near the Black Hills on my own, not without you feller's."

"What's this all about, Horace?"

The men laughed to see Horace in a union jacket. "So that's how you got away with it." Someone said, cloaked in darkness.

Horace looked at me. The guilt was evident. "I brought Jake back. We all played dead. I found a blue coat and traded with a yank. He had no more use for it."

Horace stepped outside on to the porch. I almost forgot to breathe, as I kept my shotgun from view.

The man with a rust-colored beard inserted himself, as his horse reared up. "Where's the map?"

Horace shuffled toward them. "It's in my head. You think I'd hand it over? Just like that. I got a memory like an elephant, major."

One of the men cried out. "He's lying to save his skin."

Horace stood on the porch. "You have to trust me. Like I aim to trust you."

"I'm feeling all warm and fuzzy inside. Get on your horse, Horace. We need to get and make camp between here and the Dakotas."

I needed to make my voice heard. I let him see my gun. "You got your man! You got what you came fer."

The major lifted from his horse with his revolver cocked at me. The hair on my neck bristled. Fingering my trigger didn't help none with it pointed at the floor. I didn't know where Skye was with the flintlock, but I knew she had enough grit in her eye to back me up.

Jake was surrounded by the men on horses. But he cleared the air with his old friend. "Horace, you had a place here. You had folk who didn't care what side of the war you were on. You don't think I knew?"

Horace looked at me. I reckoned he'd seen the venom in my eyes.

Horace tried to explain, as he stood on the porch between the captain and me. "I was a dead man, and then I came across Jake in the weeds. If I hadn't carried him to the field surgeon, he would have died. We needed each other that day, ma'am."

"Then take your freedom with you," I said.

The major barked. "We just need some food and blankets. Then we will be on our way. We know how to be civil. We didn't come her to torch your place." One of his men knifed a pig in the pen. The squeal of it filled the cabin.

I spied Jake from the door with his hands in the air. I figured he knew what I knew, that if they went too far with us, they would be hunted down from town. A fire would only send someone a signal. It gave me a thread of hope. But if they were going into Sioux country for gold, then they were just digging their own graves.

Author Notes Cast of characters:

Jane Taylor: The young widowed homesteader
Jake McCord: The wealthy rancher who had an eye for Jane
Skye: The half Indian rescued from a life of whoring
Horace: The man who saved Jake during the battle of the Bees Nest in TN.
Mr. Greeley: A former snake oil salesman who joined Jane's homestead.
Thad: The black ranch hand and wrangler for the McCord Family

It was 1863. This was before general Custer surveyed rumors that there was gold could be found in the sacred black hills of South Dakota. But it is on record that from 1862 rumors swirled about gold in the ancient land. No telling how many tempted fate and searched before the gold rush later.

Chapter 14

By forestport12

We watched the rebel men leave with torches on horses where darkness and distance shrunk the flames into harmless embers. We all let go of a collective sigh. Even Mr. Greeley was coaxed out from hiding and joined us on the front porch.

Jake reassured my hired hands on the homestead that the old soldiers would not bother us again. "They got what they came here for. No sense in letting any fear linger."

I wanted to say I was haunted by what happened. But I was relieved Horace was exposed for his deception. Jake took my hand and walked me away from the front porch beneath a crescent moon where the cool air heightened my senses. I took advantage of the private moment and whispered in his ear, words slipping from my tongue with no where else to go. Vulnerable. "Well, Jake McCord, did you find what you came here fer?"

As his eyes shined in the evening beneath a billion stars, I was like butter on a hot skillet. "You got me, Jane, I didn't come here to see an ear of corn or run my fingers through your soil. It's always been about you. You brought me back to life. You're given me a second chance."

Jake took me away from the others into the corn rows where we could be alone. The earthy smell took hold. I breathed in the sweet savor of the corn, I breathed in his skin. He held me around my waist. "After your husband died, I wanted to kill the man, myself. I didn't want him to hang. I wanted to take him from jail and choke him to death. But what I knew was right took hold. Instead, I dove into taking care of you and the expected child. It saved me."

I clung to his words, as if they kept me from falling into a bottomless well.

"The good Lord has given me a second chance after you were left for dead in the war." Tears pressed against my eyes until they simmered inside."

"Will..." Jake cleared his throat. I gulped at the ring he produced that shimmered in the night. "Will you marry me, Jane Taylor? Will you be my wife?"

Words failed me in the moment. I nodded. My heart pecked like a trapped bird. "I will marry you Jake McCord. I know it be God's will."

Then Jake looked at me with doubt. "But do you love me, Jane?"

As he held me around the waist, I hugged his neck. I kept his eyes on me with my words. "I know what you think. I can't love another since my husband. But I've been taught I can love again for all the right reasons. Life on the prairie and this homestead is a hard scrabble. And some marriages, they be for convenience sake. But I do love you. I love you in a way all our own, Jake McCord."

We kissed long and deep. I'd almost forgot what it was like to feel the firm warmth of another man against me. And I was lost, as if the others on the porch disappeared and the stalks of corn hid us from the whole world under a canopy of darkness.

Jake slipped the ring on my finger. And suddenly, I realized fireflies filled the sky, as if there should be a celebration of life. They were sparks of hope in the depth of darkness.

Psalm 27:13
I had fainted unless I had believed
To see the goodness of the Lord
In the land of the living

Chapter 15
Winds of Change in a Sea of Blue

By forestport12

Part II The Spirit of the Wind.

Jake and I tied the knot. We had ourselves a proper church wedding during harvest time. He'd planted his love in my heart, and as a young widow of only twenty, we took our vows with a wide-eyed view. My son took front and center. It was as much a vow, that Jake promised to help raise him in way that would honor my former husband. Such was the hard life on a prairie homestead of 1863. But the winds of change seemed to be in our favor.

The Baptist church was a freshly painted dove-tail white, and the building with a spire into a sapphire sky of blue. It was planted on a knoll overlooking the town where it was meant to be seen far and wide. Even the timber smelled of freshly cut pine.

The preacher was a short stub of a man, with a shiny bald head, but what he lacked in looks, he made up for in handsome words. We stood at the altar with my boy between us.

The preacher sweated from his forehead, as the sunshine bathed a full house of witnesses. He swiped his forehead just before the ultimate decree. "With the power vested in me by God and the territory of Nebraska, I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss the bride."

Jake held up my boy who stood between us, so I could give my son a kiss on his plum cheek. Then Jake kissed me and held it long enough make the spirited witnesses on either side erupt with cheers. It seemed the whole town wanted to be a part of it. And some waited outside for a glimpse of the wealthy rancher and the poor homesteader.

As we started down the aisle, I thanked my maid of honor, Skye. She helped make my dress of silky pearl and white lace. When we were in our private corner near the entrance I had whispered in her ear, "This dress will be worn by you one day."

I couldn't tell if she had blushed, because of her copper-colored skin. She looked deeply into my eyes with her stark blue ones. "I know one day I will live the life meant for me."

"How could you know your purpose would not include this dress?" I'd asked.

We bounded down the aisle into the sun-splashed world where our horse drawn carriage waited. Someone shouted from the throng, as we put my son between us on the buckboard. "Don't forget to throw the bouquet!"

Girls were lined and waiting. I stood on the buckboard and tossed it behind me. The wind caught it, as the girls all tumbled for it. But it landed smack in the hands of Skye, who looked as surprised as me. I nodded. "You'll be next, Skye." If only I had known those words would come back to haunt me like the echo of a pebble to a dank, dark well.

Skye looked lost. Those poor maidens gave her a cross-eyed look. It wasn't her fault she'd been stuck between two worlds. She was still trying find where she belonged.

The wedding reception was a blended celebration and harvest time at our homestead. A hired man from town played the fiddle from a wagon and the crowd herded and danced in circles. Tables were lined in rows where we had roasted pig, pumpkin pies, and Mr. Greeley's famous corn whiskey.

Our honeymoon would have to wait a spell. The homestead needed us to be sure our goods were bought to the market and storehouses filled. In addition, homesteads were vulnerable to the Sioux, too far from town and too far from the army. If the Sioux visited your home, you were at their mercy, and often the only homesteaders defense was kindness and the prayer they would not take everything you owned. But in the Indian's eye, you were on their land where the buffalo roamed. There'd be no sleep without a repeating rifle in our bed, even on our honeymoon night.

After the fiddle played out and the crowds left, we held each other until the midnight oil of our lamps flickered and flamed away. The music and the noise of others still danced in my head. My son was fast asleep. Skye retired to her room, and Mr. Greeley had his loft in the barn. We finally found ourselves alone, as silhouettes in the dark, until we touched each other with a static alarm of warm skin to insure we were alive, and all was not a dream.

That night we both looked at each other, having shed our clothes and left nothing to the imagination under the vow of heaven. There was no burden of shame, no doubt left to linger. Our vows freed us. As we held each other naked between the sheets, words were no longer enough to hold us. We consumed each other.

In the early morning hours when the winds howled and pressed against the wall of our bedroom. It only deepened our resolve to hold each other under our thick patchwork of quilt. It was a strange but true comfort to hear the winds and lashing rain when hidden under the cover of darkness, as if nothing else in the world could touch us.

Chapter 16
Winter's Cold Bite

By forestport12

An early snowstorm took our prairie life by surprise. We were like gophers, not willing to stick our heads out into the suffocating snow and cold. Drifts formed against the cabin buffeted by howling winds. When I looked through the frosted window of my bedroom, the morning sky took on a pewter gray. I slipped back under the covers and burrowed into my husband, Jake's side.

The fire roared to life, thanks to Skye's early morning feeding. The door to our room was open enough for me to see her movements and thaw our room. The smell of coffee on the woodstove made me want to make a run for it. She cracked some brown eggs on the skillet and then mixed a batter for hotcakes. She had even sliced some ham to fry. From the corner of my eye, I could see she had my son in his highchair with a warm bowl of oats.

We loved these days with enough goods in the storehouse. It was a day when you could be lazy and make the world go away. I studied Jake's sleep. Those faint lines in his forehead, his unruly eyebrows, and sandpaper like stubbles of his chin. I took my finger and traced the scar along his temple. Now and then he'd wrestle with the war in his dreams. He'd sweat and mumble under his breath. It was like he was in the thick of battle again, led balls whizzing overhead. I wished I could take away those dreams, but Skye told me, it was just the poison of his past finding an exit.

I ran my fingers through his knotted hair. He stirred. I rubbed my soft face on the stubbles of his chin. I combed his dark hair with my fingers. He groaned awake. "What you doin' sweet. You know we're snowed in. No chores for today." He rolled over.

"Keep me warm," I Said, as we spooned under the covers.

"I'll do more than keep you warm." He rolled me over on top of him.

"Mind your manners, Jake McCord. The doors half open."

"Only thing on my list for today is you," He said, then kissed me.

"You regret living here, when you could have lived on the ranch?"

"I reckon, I'm the one who traded up. Hard work makes a man more than half what he is."

Jake rolled from the bed in his long Johns and followed his nose. He hopped on each leg to get his pants on. He fell back on the bed to put his wool socks on. He warmed his arms with his hands. "We need more wood from our stack by the root cellar."

I climbed from the bed and held him before he could get to the door. I whispered in Jake's ear. "We should fix Skye up with one of your father's ranch hands. Why not Redhawk? Everybody should have someone."

Jake looked at me with a sheepish grin. "Redhawk seems to be a loner. Former scouts are a funny breed. They get the wanderlust."

"I think he'd be a good fit."

Skye turned toward us with a smudge of smoke and the coffee spitting on the wood stove. "I got two good ears. I could hear ya even if I were six foot under."

Jake chimed in. "We were ruminating over the available men that would line up to meet you."

Mr. Greeley came bounding through the door. The wind howled behind him and the cold air rushed through us, rattling our bones.

Jake shouted. "Greeley, get a hold of that door."

"I'm trying, sir. But the winds got other ideas."

Greeley forced the door closed, stomped his boots, and brushed the snow off his wool coat and scarf. He found a square nail to hang his coat and kicked off his boots. "I smell coffee and fried ham."

My little boy looked at Mr. Greeley and laughed at the snowy man. He pounded the table with his spoon. "Snowman!" He'd learned a new word.

Jake looked at me and smiled. "Those children books must a been rubbin' off on him."

Mr. Greeley stomped over and made contorted faces. It didn't scare him none. The boy giggled and laughed all the more with a smudge of oats on his face.

Jake took the coffee pot and poured Mr. Greeley a steaming cup of coffee and then himself one. "Mr. Greeley, if you don't mind I'd like us to fetch some wood."

Mr. Greeley sipped his coffee. "I fear we will need another two cords before we can make it through winter. When this storm passes, I could take a team of horses down by the river where there's enough cotton wood left."

Jake sipped his coffee, took a bite of ham. He rubbed Josh's blonde hair until he messed it up.

In return, Josh flipped oatmeal on Jake. We all had a hearty laugh.

He smiled and blurted. "Da, Da."

We all froze in our tracks. Then Jake swallowed a lump in his throat. My heart jumped inside. Josh took to those words for the first time. Jake had earned the right to be called father. I leaked some tears. Jake tried to console me. "I'm sorry, Jane."

"Don't fret none, my husband would not have held it against you. No sad tears here, Jake. He needs a father image. And there' no finer man this side of the Missouri."

My boy seemed to sense he was the center of our attention. He rambled on. "Da, Da, Da, Da."

Our house was filled with laughter, despite the storm, we felt insulated from all the danger that lurked. We all had each other in the storms of life. We were like one big family.

Mr. Greeley took a bite of ham and sipped his coffee. "I best get some more wood for the box."

Jake set down his coffee. He headed toward the door with Mr. Greeley where he found his coat and boots.

The pair bundled themselves, as if they were prepared for a war with nature. Standing back, we braced ourselves for the unruly winds of the prairie.

The door opened and the wind rushed through us, threatening to put out the fire inside. The men slammed the door shut.

I helped Skye with the dishes and then cleaned up Josh to let him run around the main room and burn off some of the fire inside him.

The door flung open! I thought it were the ghostly wind. But it was worse. Greeley filled the door with a crazed look in his eyes. "It's Jake! He fell by the wood pile in the snow."

I ran through the door and plunged into the snow. I found his body squirming in the snow in fetal position, unable to control his shakes.

Mr. Greeley shouted. "We got to get him inside. Help me."

Greeley grabbed his shoulders. I had hold of his legs. "What's wrong with him?"

"Ma'am. Your husband's having a seizure. I've seen this before during the war. It's likely because of the head wound he suffered months back."

After we laid him in bed under the covers and Mr. Greeley gave him a piece of cloth to bite down on where he writhed until the seizure subsided.

I crumbled by his bedside. Mr. Greeley helped me find my knees. I prayed over him. But this time, I got mad at God. Through the bitter tears I reminded the Lord, "You promised not to give us more than we can handle. I'd say, I've had my fair share, Lord."

When the rage left me, I returned to begging God. Mr. Greeley and the rest knew it best leave me alone for a spell.

Author Notes Jake is Jane's second husband who came from a wealthy family ranch
Mr. Greeley used to sell snake oil but settled down on Jane's homestead
Skye is the half breed who was born and raised in a brothel.
Josh is the son of Jane's first husband who was shot over a poker game the first year of the homestead.

Chapter 17
Dead Silence

By forestport12

Winter took its toll on the stark, cold prairie with hardly a tree left for our fireplace. I refused to slay the old oak tree near where my former husband could rest in peace. We discussed who would take a team of horses across the snowy plains to the river forest. I argued to take my husband's place who was weakened from his seizure and a cold.

Thad and Redhawk crossed over from the ranch and offered their services. This settled Jake's mind. Beside Jake, there were no better trusted men to flank my side on the fringes of Sioux country. Besides, Thad insisted his Henry rifle wouldn't let us down. He near had me convinced that rifle had a soul.

As we drove the horses across the white snowy dunes, the spirited wind found us, and the cold knifed through our wool. Pinned between Redhawk who held the reins and Thad who held his rifle, I was thankful to be more buffeted from the cold. As we jostled about in the wagon, Thad offered me some of Mr. Greeley's elixir, which I suspected was nearly all corn liquor. "Care for a sip, Mrs. Taylor?"

No thanks, Thad. I prefer some pine tea, once we strike a match and make a fire in the woods."

"Not to worry for my soul none," He said. "Mr. Greeley's drink is strictly medicinal." Then he took a healthy sip.

Even Redhawk smiled as we navigated the ice-hardened prairie path. He'd swore off hard drink when he hired on the ranch.

After several rolling hills Redhawk halted and spied the spiraling trees along the river, shrouded in mist.

As we approached the canopy of trees, the wind left us, only to be haunted by the dead silence. A circling hawk shrieked and pierced the sky with jolt to my heart. It circled above, waiting for the sun to melt the mist. It seemed the whole world had its share of hunger pangs. I was wondering then, why I insisted on fetching wood and been having my tea at home.

Thad leaned into me. His brown-bloodshot eyes put fear in mine. "I like it when we see where a sound comes from. The sounds we don't see are what spook me."

"I'd say, you need a bit more polish on those words, if they were meant to smooth my fret."

The half-breed scout, Redhawk gave us both a stern look, and placed his finger to his mouth. Then we rode into the forested abyss until the mist swallowed us whole. It gave us some comfort that the snow muffled our entrance.

Rays of sun suddenly penetrated through the tall thin trees. I could hear the sound of water cascading beneath sheets of broken ice. Boulders and sometimes walls of rock lined the edge, as if God himself had taken his finger and carved the ancient land.

We halted and hopped off the wagon, filling canteens with a keen eye on our surroundings. With each quiet breath we left puffs of cold clouds. A small fire was made. I sat on felled tree, wrapped in an Indian blanket. Hardly a word was spoken, but our darting eyes talked enough.

Redhawk and Thad stood and warmed their hands over the crackling fire of pine brush. Redhawk was never one to let a history lesson go as a former Cheyenne scout. "Beyond our eyes, the Sioux winter in the Black Hills. But they don't like the white man's desire to mark off land and build fences where the buffalo roamed.

Thad and I got the message. My heart thumped inside over how they could be watching us, and we'd never know it. But Redhawk spied an abandoned cabin, where a pioneer tried to make a place by the river their home.

It was no secret that the family left so fast, they only carried away what they could hold. It didn't matter that the Indians never attacked. Fear alone drove the homesteaders out. Redhawk glassed the cabin some more.

Redhawk checked his revolver and went for an axe in the wagon. Thad followed his lead over to where he started on a crop of ash trees. Once the axes flew, it seemed we made more noise than a bunch of happy woodpeckers. I helped to carry the felled trees over to the cart. Under a haze of sun, we had a stack of logs and figured three or four cords worth. We'd keep our eyes wide as we made short work of our day.

The weather warmed enough to make us worry that the weight of our logs would cause the cart to get stuck as we returned. We turned down the river for clear path from the woods when I could see more of the cabin and smelled a hint of smoke coming from it.

Redhawk stood and glassed the area. "There's a dark skinned a boy on thin ice. Looks like he's trying to catch his dog."

In the distance, I could hear the faint sounds of a dogs bark. "He in trouble, Redhawk?"

"Not yet but will be if he goes far. Current's too strong. Ice too thin."

"This could be a trap," Said Thad.

"No trap," Said Redhawk. Only a fool's errand."

We took the wagon along the ridge where there was enough of an opening to get the horses to take Redhawk's lead and avoid the underbrush.

The small bushy, haired dog darted across the thin ice and scampered up the bank on our side. I leaped out over I knelt down with a piece of dried jerky in my hand. The small dog shivered but eagerly took the morsel

Redhawk sought to reassure the boy who looked up with great surprise and fear on his Indian face. He slipped and fell over the ice until he crashed into the water where the current moved him from the hole he was in. I watched the scene unfold, helpless to do anything.

Redhawk slipped down the bank with his hatchet. The melting snow left the ice transparent and deadly. Light on his feet, then stretching his body across the ice, he chopped a hole where he could grab the boy by the collar. He pulled him out across the ice. Thad leaned over the bank on the edge with a severed branch.

The pair lifted him from the bank. "What's your name, boy?" Redhawk asked.

Through the chatter of his teeth he blurted his name. "Jo-seph. But grandpa told me my Indian name is Jumping Fox."

Thad chimed in. "You speak English better than me. "But why on God's green acres were you on the thin ice?"

" grandfather and I, we've had nothing to eat for days. He told me. He...he told me, we needed to eat the dog."

Thad and Redhawk looked at each other, and then at me. Perhaps, Redhawk saw the pain in my face as I warmed the pup. "Some have had to kill their own horse to stay alive in the winter."

The boy sprouted tears. "I wasn't trying to catch my dog. I...I was trying chase him away. Honest."

Thad leaned in. "If I hadn't showed up when we did, that river would be your grave. You'd be no good to your grandpa."

Redhawk took his turn while the boy shook beneath the blanket. "Why haven't you trapped for rabbit or shot for grouse?"

"Our only gun is jammed, and I've tried to set snares. I had been raised in a white man's world before I tried to join up with my people. But I haven't measured up."

Redhawk sensed what happened. "Your grandpa a full-blooded Lakota?"

"Yes, and he's blind. I've tried to take care of him. I was treated as less than a dog. My grandfather was not willing to leave me to the wilderness to fend for myself."

Redhawk looked down over him. "Where can we cross? We need to get you out of those clothes."

"A beaver dam."

The wind picked up through the trees of birch and pine. The skies turned a pewter gray. Snow swirled around the group. Before Redhawk or Thad could speak, I knew we would have to hunker down for the night. We took our packs and slogged through the snow and ice to cross the abandoned beaver dam.

The patchwork of limbs and trees were slick. With the pup in my pack. I slipped and cut my leg. Thad lifted me up and we followed Joseph and Redhawk across the way where I could see smoke from the cabin rising on the ridge.

Redhawk spoke to the boy. "Ask your grandfather if we can spend the night with you. I have a side of beef and beans to fill everyone's plate. In the morning we will hunt."

Joseph's complexion brightened. "My grandfather will understand."

"I'd say this shaggy pup will be one happy camper," I said.

As we approached the warmth of the cabin, my heart panged inside over my child and husband back on the homestead. I hoped they would not fear the worst when we don't show up before dark. The warmth of love and family stoked the fire inside me.

Author Notes Cast of characters:

Jane: The former young widow, since remarried who fights to keep her land and a heritage.
Thad: A free black man who works on the McCord ranch and a staunch ally of Jane
Redhawk: Part Cheyenne and a former army scout but presently a ranch hand.
Jake McCord: The man Jane married after her husband passed.

Chapter 18
The Fire Within

By forestport12

Joseph spoke through the cabin door above the howling wind in his grandfather's native tongue. As he shuddered open the door, the snow swirled and stung our faces, but we caught a glimpse of the elder with a powder gun pointed at us. I fell backward in the snow. Redhawk and Thad each took an arm and plucked me from the snow. The boy stood between us and his grandfather, hands in the air.

Redhawk whispered in my ear. "The boy told me the gun does not work. It's meant to scare us."

Clutching Bear, the boys pet dog, I stuck my head toward the opening like a gopher would gaze at a hawk.

The elderly Indian man sat in a rocking chair, his back to the fireplace, gnarled hands, holding a rusted relic of a gun. With his hair white as wool, his blind cue ball eyes looked through us.

"Grandfather! Wich'akichop'i Kin! I brought friends who wish to share a meal with us."

Joseph went over to him and pried the gun from his hands. The grandfather spoke in his Lakota tongue. "T'a nuns' e."

Joseph interpreted for us. "My grandfather says, "He's nearly dead, with little life left. He feared you were spirits of the dead."

Redhawk stepped inside with the venison slung over his shoulders. "We offer food if you will give us shelter from the storm." He set about to use a large pot to boil water from the snow.

Joseph repeated the message. The old man's leathery face allowed the crease of a smile and words in broken English. All three of us were glad to be inside, having closed the door, and left the wind to seek it's own entrance. Above us, snow leaked from the roof. Flakes danced harmlessly between us and melted at our feet.

Redhawk spoke for the three of us. "We come from south of the river across the open plains to the and forested woods for fire."

The pup leaped from me and circled around the grandfather and nestled on rug by the fire. The elder seemed to sense my presence. "I hear a woman. I can smell her fragrance like orchids in the wind."

I approached him, partly to draw warmth from the fire. "Perhaps we were meant to meet. Do you believe things happen for a reason?"

"You make a good medicine woman. Have you come to tell me what you see?"

"I know of a father in heaven who had sent his only son and took on the form of man. He is the one who speaks to the Great Spirit for me."

The men, Thad and Redhawk were busy holding up a blanket and allowing the boy to get out of his frozen clothes. But both men craned their necks, caught in the moment, as my conversation rose above the crackle of the fire.

The Indian leaned forward in his rocking chair. "You must stay. I will hear more. I can see without eyes. My name is Standing Bear. Once a proud elder of Lakota."

He seemed to understand enough English, perhaps because of his grandson's teachings. I introduced myself and my two friends. "My name is a Jane Taylor. My friends are Redhawk, a former Cheyenne scout. And this is Thaddeus, who is a ranch hand and former slave of the white man. We like you and your grandson have had to find a not so snug place in this world."

The grandfather held a lost look. His grandson, Peter spoke up. "ai'khoyak! That is the word in Lakota for someone who finds a place to belong."

The old man blinked, and tears fell from his eyes. "The Spirit of the wind brought you. Therefore, you must stay. I fear I must go to...happy hunting grounds soon. But grandson...know not how to live between two worlds."

As Redhawk took his knife and sliced venison into a pot for a stew, he promised Standing Bear he would teach him how to hunt and trap. It was then as I looked into Redhawk's hazel eyes, I knew he latched on to the boy as a son the scout never had. He yearned to be a bridge for the boy. Thad and I looked at each other knowing we'd have to make snowshoes and march across the plains without him.

It all appeared to make Standing Bear relax and sink back in his chair.

Redhawk put together some spuds and wintergreen leaves to make for a hearty stew. It was set to boil on a bar above the fire. Standing Bear drifted in and out of sleep.

Outside, it was hard to tell if the sun had set, as the snow created a blanket of darkness. But there was a warm peace with all of us. A fire burned inside me to see my family. It was a pang inside me to think of my husband and son, not able to run my fingers through my son's waxen hair and kiss him on his forehead goodnight.

The venison stew lifted our spirits. We ate from clay bowls without spoons. After a hearty meal, I made my pallet near the corner by the fireplace. Thad gathered more wood from outside to keep the fire hot.

I drifted into a deep sleep, surrounded by Indians. Women touching my hair, smelling my clothes. I was told I had to marry the chief. I told them I was married. I told them I had a son."

The crackle of the fire awakened me. From the dim firelight, I found everyone curled up in their own corner. I willed myself to sleep, so I could be ready to trek back home where my heart would always be.

Author Notes Part of the reason I write this story is to show the reality of women in the old west lived with a hearty faith and true grit. They, I believe are some of the true heroes of the plains.

Chapter 19
Home Where I Belong

By forestport12

"Where your heart is found, so also will be your treasure."

We shook the snow off the evergreens and made snowshoes from the pine branches. Snow showered me, finding every sliver of skin. Bundled with skis over our shoulders, Thad and I said our goodbye to Redhawk from where we crossed over the river from the old beaver dam.

We managed to get the horse drawn wagon of wood through the tall thin trees and into the open prairie. We both had to tug on the reins and lead the horses through the blowing and drifting snow. There were times the wind would ease and reveal an endless azure blue sky. My lips blistered and my eyes ached, but I imagined seeing my family, the cherub smile of my beautiful boy and then the handsome, rugged face of my husband. It was enough to keep slogging through the snow, where my heart led each step.

My legs became heavy as sandbags, as I churned through the snow. My heart beat heavy in my chest. The snow and ice needled my eyes, so I could hardly leave them open long enough to carve a path. Thad never once took his hands off the reins or his rifle until I fell forward and couldn't find my feet.

He plucked me straight up and carried me to the wagon where he tucked me in with several blankets. I squinted to see icicles dangling from his scarf and black beard. "I got this Miss, Jane."

He took hold of the horses and walked them through the rifts and rises until we could see the cabin as just a speck on the horizon. I must have dozed off when I opened my eyes to see a faint outline of the cabin and smoke rising. It was a sight for swollen eyes.

"Miss, Jane! Miss Jane!" Thad shouted.

I perked up and shouted over the wind. "I see my home, Thad." My heart raced inside until I thought it would burst.

Thad marched on with the team of horses. I would never doubt his friendship and loyalty. He'd left his duties and his wife behind on the ranch to see our family had enough woods, and then he was there ready to defend me with his life when it seemed the Indians were about to run us over out west. He clawed his way through each rise until at last the cabin stood with warm, glowing lights from the windows and the unmistakable smell of smoke. I reckoned they'd been reduced to burning some of the homemade furniture by now.

I blinked away until I saw my husband, Jake on the roof, waving his gloved hands. He slid down from the roof and charged toward me. He held Thad up straight from falling. I tumbled from the buckboard and dove into his arms. He hugged me and kissed me on the neck. He warmed me with his brush of his skin and beard.

Thad looked us up and down with a smile. Just then his wife tumbled from around the cabin, holding my son in her arms. "It looks like I get my Missus to warm me up."

Jake looked at Thad. "There's hot stew on stove. I was worried sick. We was ready start a search party."

I looked in Jake's stark blue eyes. "I got no more hankering to ever leave again without you."

"Where's Redhawk?"

"He's okay," I said. "He's helping a boy, a half breed like himself, trying to survive the winter by the river with his Indian grandfather."

We quartered the horses and then all stumbled into the warmth of the cabin. I never knew how much the fire burned inside me to be alive in the moment. I held my son and looked him in the eyes, hugged him to my beating heart. "This is our home. You are my only son. This land is your land. This land is my land." But as I said it, my thoughts ran back through the woods and over river, where land was a perilous fight to hold.

Jake took me under his wing and warmed me along with the fire. "The war between the states is near over, but a war between the union army and the Indians is looming."

I said nothing. I simply wanted to stare into the flames of the fireplace and allow his warmth to blanket me and give me a sense of peace on the prairie, if only for a season. I welcomed the winter storm. It meant we likely would be insulated and left alone from incursions.

Such was our life on the prairie. We were but a step between faith and fear, life and death. But we were free to own each step we took.

Chapter 20
A Christmas Tree

By forestport12

A white Christmas on the prairie seemed a sure thing. And in the evening the vast horizon glittered as if there were clusters of diamonds we could skim from the snow's surface. The moon and stars reflected from the snow so we could see almost as good as day.

With Mr. Greeley to feed the livestock Jake was left with time on his hands, but I didn't mind. He liked to whittle with wood to pass the time, as we often sat with my son in a circle warmed by a glowing fire. He'd even whittled a miniature replica of the manger scene along with a baby Jesus. I took the time to knit some stocking to hang over the fireplace. That night he looked at me and I could almost hear his mind churning like a wheelhouse grinding.

I woke next morning to a gentle snow falling with edge of frost on the window of my bedroom. But when I swiped my hand across the sheet to feel the warm, firm skin of my husband, he wasn't there.

I jumped from bed, but it was too late. I threw my bathrobe on and dashed across the hard, cold floor in my bare feet. I could see where Skye had made coffee. Two empty cups sat at the table. "Skye, tell me Jake didn't hike out alone?"

Skye showed no concern. "Mr. Greeley and Jake went north toward the Dakotas to fetch a Christmas tree."

"But what if my husband has a spell? What If he passes out in the snow? How's Mr. Greeley going to take care of him?" I feared another seizure could come without warning.

"Have a little faith, Jane. You were the one that told me all we need is faith the size of a mustard seed."

"Did I fail to tell you common sense and faith do best hand and hand?"

Skye smiled and handed me a steaming cup of coffee. As I breathed it in, it cleared my head. Skye breathed a sigh. "No disrespect Ma'am. But sometimes we need spoonful of our own medicine."

It was then I knew Skye's faith exceeded the rest of us on the homestead. I was willing to let it rest.

Little Josh came running up to me with his matted hair, and tried the sleep from his eyes. I picked him up and held him on my hip. "My, boy. You are almost to heavy lift. Why you are heavier than a sack of corn?"

I noted Sky had plucked the feathers of our goose named Molly, and had the bird set to boil. I regretted the day we named her. And I was glad I didn't have to put the axe to her neck. All the same, it would make for a nice Christmas dinner.

I must have thanked Skye more times than I could count. "You must know by now, you're more than a friend, but you are more a sister to me I never had."

"And that's why I speak my mind. Isn't that what siblings do?"

"I reckon so. I don't ever want to lose you. But should you have a family of your own one day, I will be sure to dote over your children."

She hugged me. "Don't fret none about your husband. He's much stronger these days. Harmless flakes fall, and we will have a blessed Christmas."

I hadn't said anymore to Skye, but I reserved some worry over the men making it back before nightfall.

As the day wore on, I watched the rim of the sun fade away in the west. I pinned my hopes to the north and prayed in my rocker where I strained to see across the open prairie in the fading light. Skye stoked the fire. My son fell asleep on our rug, playing with cowboy and Indian men, Jake had whittled from wood.

As the night crawled along, Skye placed a shawl over my shoulder. My eyes fell like lead curtains and I dozed.

A rap on the door rattled my senses. It took my breadth. I wasn't sure who it was. I feared the worst. I reached for my double-barreled shotgun.

Skye slid the bar from the door. When she opened it, thick flakes fluttered in the brush of cold air. But no one stood before us unless it were a ghost. I held the shotgun up from my chair, but my son strode between me and the door. I yelled. "who's out there?

"Merry Christmas!" Jake roared and stood before me with a perfectly plum pine tree for decorations.

"I swear you have a death wish! I near put a hole in you."

Josh leaped into his arms. "Pappa!"

Mr. Greeley stepped inside along with Jake, doing the jig to shake the snow off. Jake set the boy down and then lifted me off my feet and gave me a wet bear hug.

After Jake set me down and let me breathe, I spoke. "Hang your coats on a nail and warm yourselves by the fire."

"Do you mind if I invite some guests?" asked Jake with sheepish grin.

"For Lands Sake, you mean for Christmas?"

Jake opened the door again before Skye could bolt it shut. Standing in the doorway, was Redhawk and Joseph.

I was speechless. Redhawk unloaded beaver pelts that were slung over his shoulder. "I brought Joseph with me. His grandfather passed away. He's agreed to live with me on the ranch."

I took turns giving them each a hug as they stepped inside from the sharp cold. "Merry Christmas and make yourselves at home."

I introduced Joseph to Skye and watched Redhawk take interest in Skye with his eyes.
That night the men told stories about how they followed the glow of the evening sky from the north star to the milky way, like a painted sky of trinkets leading them home where they presented gifts of fur.

When Josh was sound asleep, the men unfurled blankets on the floor and settled in our cabin for the night. When Jake and I retired behind our door, he slipped my Christmas gift into my hand, a necklace made of gold. "Merry Christmas, he said."

"Where did you find this nugget?"

In the darkness of our room he pressed me against the door and put his finger to my mouth.

I put the palm of my hand to his forehead. "What is that supposed to mean?" he asked.

"Just making sure you don't have gold fever." I secretly worried it was found on sacred land. But I never told him.

"The only fever I got is for you," said Jake.

Chapter 21
What Jaded Eyes Can See

By forestport12

It was the spring of 1864 and change was like the wind, unpredictable with a mind of its own. As I looked at purple posies painting the prairie, I was thankful for the constants in life: how we could depend on seeding the ground, seeing things come to life from the bottom up, providing the clouds were not too fickle to give us rain.

Beyond the sandhills and hidden from my eyes, war between the Indians loomed. General Sully and his men were driving the war against the Sioux into the badlands. And Sully had made a reputation for himself as a man without mercy on the Indians.

Jake came up behind me before I had a chance to put on my Sunday dress. With his chin resting on my shoulder, he tried to pry into my mind. "What do you see with those pretty blue eyes, Jane?"

"Sometimes I feel blessed to see far and wide. Then other times I feel we are vulnerable with the Dakota wars north of here. I just wished we had peace on the prairie."

Before I could slip my church dress over my shoulders, Jake pressed against me and brushed the back of my neck with his beard.

"Don't fool with me, Jake. You'll make us late for church. I don't like having all eyes on us if we walk in late."

He smooched on me until I was flushed with desire. "I'm thankful for you and the boy," He said. "Not a minute goes by, I don't count those blessings."

I had to pry his hands from my waist, so I could put my dress on.

Then from nowhere, like the prairie wind, he spoke into my ear that made it ring with hurt. "What if we moved west to Oregon where the soil is rich, and we are flanked by emerald forests?"

It triggered a sharp pain inside me too, like the tip of a knife you don't see until it's too late. "And what should I do with my former husband? Leave his grave behind until no one knows he was ever there?"

His face drooped. He stepped away like he'd been on broken glass. "Gees Jane, it were only a suggestion. I meant no ill." He took his fist and punched his heart. "It came from here, where you and the boy live. You are my life."

I spun around to see his eyes wet with tears. "I can't never leave here. I made a promise over my former husband's grave and to his son. I got no fight with you Jake. But I got a venom in me like a coiled snake to keep what's mine."

Jake sought to temper me with his words. "You look even prettier when your madder than a hornet."

That's how Jake was. He could talk a rattle snake out of a bite.

"I'm not the enemy," said Jake. "I'm on your side, the winning side. And I still want that honeymoon we never had."

We breathed an uneasy sigh. It seemed we found our way back to each other. "I don't like having a quarrel with you."

He held me tight. "I crave you even more when you get angry."


We left for church through town on our wagon with Josh tucked between us. Skye and Mr. Greeley sat on hay in the wagon. If it was my homestead, no one skipped church unless they were sick with fever.

We all rocked back and forth on the uneven trail until we got to the hard-packed flat ride through town. There were a sea of bluecoats. We feared they'd be kicking a hornet's nest with the Indians soon.

We found our way to hillside church outside of town. As we entered the small, dove- painted church, much to my surprise, I spotted General Sully. He turned and nodded his head. I recognized him from a portrait. He was polite. But I thought he looked like a ragged goat with his long-pointed beard.

We took our place in the pew, when the preacher stood and announced we had a special visitor. He stood and acknowledged the crowd while holding his hat in front of him. The preacher gushed over him. "This here is General Alfred Sully. His campaigns are known far and wide, and we must pray for him and his men, as he drives the savages into the hills."

I stood up and inserted myself before I gave it much thought. "I mean no disrespect here, between you and the general, sir. But to call them savages implies they have no soul and are not worthy to be saved."

It got deathly quiet. But the General's smile could not be defeated. Jake tugged on me and would have held my mouth--if it could have been corralled.

Author Notes As a work of fiction, I thought it was important to lay the ground work of true history to its background, and I found General Sully to be an interesting character to introduce during a fascinating time in western history.

Chapter 22
Honeymoon Hell

By forestport12

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

Ash Hollow was deemed a safe place for a belated honeymoon retreat, far from the noise of an Indian war in the Dakotas. It was where the Oregon Trail turned it into a popular landmark, where many an emigrant carved their names on the rocky bluffs, where the canyon deepened, and springs of fresh water sprouted from rock walls.

Redhawk and Thad accompanied us, along with Redhawk's adopted son, Joseph. Along the way, our party met up with Indian women and children who must have seen us coming. They hid in the tall grass. But Redhawk called them out in their Lakota tongue where they stuck out like sore thumbs and hardly enough clothing to cover their cinnamon skin. We figured them as displaced from the wars up north.

I climbed off my horse and offered blankets. One of the men gave them fresh water to drink from an extra canteen. I wished I could have done more, but we thought it wise not to linger only a few hours before dark.

We gained ground on the melting sun over the mountains when we could see the reflection of the flickering crops of rocks and how they seemed to turn into gold. The rough sandstones seemed alive with beauty and adorned with thickets of green shrubbery and tufts of yellow grass. Game would be plentiful, and the brooks would no doubt splash with trout.

As the sun disappeared, we'd set up camp and had a healthy fire of flaming tongues into a starlit sky. The horses were tethered between trees where the men took turns on watch. We enjoyed an evening meal and bold cup of coffee. I could not have felt more protected and comforted by the present protection of Thad, a free black man, who could rope and ride with the best of them on the ranch. And then there was Redhawk who brought his adopted son, Joseph, a half-breed like himself. They set themselves to scout the area in the light of the bulbous moon and stars. Satisfied that there were no rogue Indians or roving bands of confederates, we settled down.

Thad played his harmonica, as Jake and I escaped into the evening with our own lantern to be sure we would not miss a step on a rock ledge to the bluff where our private tent could make us feel alone and on top of the world. We kept each other snug and warm, letting our small fire die in the night.

Come morning, the sun waxed warm in blazing, blue sky. Jake and I took turns glassing the Rocky Mountains in the distance across the plains. There was no sense of danger and hardly the place given to threats. We sat there in the morning sun warming our backs where I buried my chin Jake's shoulder. "I finally see the majesty of the mountains and how they rise like cathedrals into God's heaven."

The smell of hickory smoke and ash burned from the campfire below and rose up to greet us. Jake kissed me with his minted breadth. "I best go down below and check on the boys. I smell the fire, but I'm not able to glass where they be."

A lump caught my throat. "Best be careful, Jake."

He kissed me again and reassured me. "I won't be long. I will fetch some fresh water from the spring. The men are likely bathing in the brook."

I watched Jake disappear down along craggy rocks. I decided it was time for me to take my carving knife and slip up along the side on a ledge and mark my name down. A few rocks slipped under my feet, and then I found my footing. I held my ground on a ledge and carved my name, Jane Taylor McCord. 1864.

As I climbed along back over to where our tent was on the bluff, I took the spyglass and could see movements, shadows between the shrub brushes. As I surveyed and watched I caught Jake swimming or slipping into the reeds, as if he meant to hide himself. It was then there was only faint whisper of wind. And no other sound. A deathly quiet.

I crept down through the rock enclave toward camp. But there was pit in my stomach fear swished inside. I'd forgot to grab my gun and had scaled down with only my carving knife. Soft as a cat's paw to the ground, I followed my nose and approached the smoldering campfire.

As I rounded the corner I saw Thad's body between scrub brushes! His head scalped and bloodied. Fear thundered in me. My heart clenched inside. I dropped down beside him and looked into his dead eyes. "It's my fault, Thad. My fault."

I clawed around to look for others. I wished I could get small as a gopher and find a hole. But it was too late!

I wheeled around to find the Indians in a circle. I lunged at them with my knife. They laughed and toyed with me. I swiped at them to keep them away. But they tightened their circle. I tried to run, but they pushed me back on to the ground.

They tied a rope around my wrist and pulled me along the with one of our stolen horses. They pulled me through the creek. The gravel bottom cut my flesh and dress. I was treated worse than a carcass. The pain knifed through me into my shoulders, and I was sure my arms dislocated.

Mercifully, when we were but a speck on the horizon, one of the Indians who had my honey-haired mare, spun off the horse, held his knife over me and cut the tethered rope. He picked me up and tossed me unto the horse with my hands still knotted. It was then I knew I'd live. But I wasn't sure how long that desire to live would flow through me.

I looked over my burning shoulder in the distance and prayed my husband hid and lived, so he and others would come find me. He was smart enough to know if he showed himself, his death would serve no purpose.

It was a thread of hope to be found, as I disappeared into the mountains and the day was lost to darkness.

Author Notes I dedicate this story to those women who were held captive and ransomed while some never survived their captors. I also dedicate to all the women who faced western war, red or white, who lost more than land.

Chapter 23

By forestport12

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

Tied to my horse, the Indian raiders led me toward the flickering firelights of a valley gorge. Faint stars like icy trinkets guided us along a narrow descent from the mountain. Our nervous horses neighed. I tried quieting my own mare while gravel and silt slipped away below us. But the Indians themselves seemed stiff and stoic, as if they welcomed every moment of mortal danger.

In the hidden valley, fire lights of an encampment grew, and so did the sound of drumbeats. I was thrust as a captive into ancient city carved by nature's rock walls where they were free to dance and torture souls without fear of consequence. It seemed hopeless to escape such walls and cliff-faces of nature's prison. As we descended, my heart sank into a pit of darkness.

As the revelry of their raids came into view, Thad's words came back to haunt me, when we'd been on the range and spotted Indians during the buffalo hunt last year. "Now, Miss Jane," he'd said. "Be sure to save the last bullet for yourself. Trust me, when I say, best you go straight to heaven then be led away."

My heart fisted in fear, as I watched in horror painted warriors dancing with knives around men tied to stakes set for a fire. The whole camp seemed a fevered pitch. All I had left inside to keep me sane, was that little light of mine, the one hidden in my soul for such a dark hour.

General Sully's words haunted me into the darkest trail of my mind from the foreboding exchange we had at church when he exclaimed, "Ma'am, I have negotiated with the Indians and fought them. I give them respect when it is warranted. But should a woman be held captive and live to tell the tale, you yourself might be inclined to call them something less than human."

Our horses finished the descent and trekked into a shimmering creek reflecting it's translucent waters. Our small party of a dozen or so warriors allowed themselves and their horse to quench their thirst. It reminded me how my tongue clave, and how I wished to drown myself in the creek. Slipping into the water, I cupped my hands to drink. They took turns kicking me from all sides until I thought I would drown.

The one warrior tugged me out of the freezing water and pulled on me through to the other side where I stumbled and fell. Curious men, women, and children rushed toward me with whoops and shouts. He led me through a gauntlet like a dog on a leash. Others pelted me with rocks. Others cut me with knives.

I was forced to watch the celebration, as warriors and braves danced around the half-naked men. Blood streamed down their sides where they'd been lanced. One of the men looked me in the eye with a defiant stare. I fell to the ground and closed my eyes. Someone kicked me in the head.

In the midst of my suffering, with my head down low and crawling like an animal, I looked up to see an Indian squaw, a bull of a woman with fiery red eyes. I found myself pleading with her in the dirt in front of her t-pee wishing to stick my head in a hole, so I could not see and hear the tortured cries of those burning at the stake.

I hoped she would take pity on me, while other squaws encircled. But she bore down on me with angry words I couldn't understand. She crouched down and scowled. She jerked my head back by my hair.

Someone from behind wrapped an arm around my neck. I closed my eyes to die. A brave snipped a loch of my hair and ran off yelping. I swallowed the knot in my throat, having thought for sure I would be scalped.

A young squaw in broken English stepped forward from the huddled mass and spoke to me with eyes of pity. From her complexion, I suspected she was a half-breed of thirteen or fourteen, with caramel skin and maple eyes. She indicated to me, they were a party of Cheyenne and Brule Sioux. "Do as they say. You will live and not die."

A thunderous fear ran through my head of what it would mean to obey without a chance to resist. The young girl left with a throng of others as sparks flew and a fire roared with the screams of torture and death. I prayed to see her again, as if she would be the angel I needed; a messenger of hope.

The wretched squaw held my head again She cursed at me in her native tongue. She spat in my face. It appeared she was left to keep an eye on me during the gruesome festivities. Somewhere in the blur of my vision and the quake of noises, I must have passed out, finding a temporary escape from my nightmare.

Author Notes Thad was Jane's close friend and ranch hand who died on the trail when attacked. Redhawk and his adopted son were not found. She held hope her husband Jake escaped to get help in order to ransom her.

Chapter 24
Laying down with the Enemy

By forestport12

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

I slept outside near the brutish woman's wigwam tied to a stake with only a deerskin to cover me. Her husband slipped inside during the night, waking me and looking at me, as if I should be his prize The evening cold seeped into my bones. I curled into a ball and imagined myself in a cocoon enough to dream I was somewhere else. A sleeping mind was my only escape.

The morning dew and arch of the sun over the mountains brought me back to my captivity. Indians stirred from their tepees. As I shifted awake and spied my realities, the pain in my shoulders surfaced like balls of fire. I licked my blistered and cracked lips for want of water.

My heart leaped as I watched Little Deer, whose Christian name was Mary, coming toward me with her husband, Standing Bear. I hadn't learned much, but was made to believe, she too wanted to escape. The other thing I knew, was that if a woman dared escape, if caught, she was sure to be tortured and killed.

Standing Bear was young and athletic. It appeared he had some influence over me. He offered me a stern look but saved his ire for the sleeping couple inside the tepee. He pulled back the flap and argued with the woman and the husband next to her.

Little Deer took the moment explain why her husband was upset. "My husband wanted you to be kept inside. They will council between the two tribes on who will have you. This is good that they argue over you. Pray to our God, the Arapahoe do not take you. We are in the Brule tribe. The one who sleeps inside is Stomping Bull, son of the Brule chief. He wants you for himself. That is why the woman who is with him is upset, but mostly we think she's been touched with madness."

I thought, oh good, not only was the woman jealous and hated whites, she's also touched in the head.

Her husband withdrew from the tent with much shouting. "Come." He crouched down, pulled his knife and cut the rope from my hands. He motioned for me to go inside. I complied and opened the flap. The Indian with sleep in his eyes, grunted. He offered to keep me warm. I resisted. He smelled like a wet dog. I turned to Little Deer with pleading eyes.

Little Deer stuck her head inside. "I will return before the sun sets."

"My name is Jane McCord. I own a homestead near the sandhills of Nebraska."

Her husband looked frustrated. He held her arm tight as tourniquet. But she resisted him for a moment and told me. "I've convinced the chiefs through my husband to come and care for you. My husband is respected by the chiefs, and I've earned his trust."

Tears swelled in my eyes. "Please, help me. I've a husband who hid and a child at home."

"I am a Yankton Sioux of Minnesota. But my father was a captain in the army who died in the civil war. I was raised by my mother and the love of a minister and his family at Christian mission. But I was taken during the 1862 Minnesota uprising. The starving tribe believed they were cheated from their land and did not want their people to die in the winter without their revenge. They killed the whites. But some despised us halfbreeds more. They spared my life and sold me to the Brule to punish my Indian family."

Standing Bear twisted her arm, and she was forced to go. I tried to hold my tears and push down my fear. I clung to the notion she was a God sent angel.

I hoped for mercy, left alone with my sorry caregivers. And even in the sour faced squaw seemed tame while her husband fed himself on some jerked buffalo. He offered me some if I would sit. I decided to play the humble captive. The hunger had eaten a hole in my pride.

He used sign language and beat on his chest, proud of his given name. "Stomping Bull." I had a newfound admiration for how the Indian names seemed to foretell one's personality. He examined my hair and teeth. Before he checked parts unknown, I swatted his hand. He in turn slapped my face. He left in a huff and stomped away just like his name. Then he muttered a few English curse words. It seemed whiskey and cuss words were introduced the same time as bullets flew.

The brutish squaw sat in a corner and hugged her knees, rocking back and forth, looking at me with disgust in her eyes. I worried she would sooner slit my throat. Suddenly, she stood with a willow branch in her hand.

At first I cowered and curled into a ball, as she lashed me. Her fierce anger turned demonic. She put all her momentum into each strike until I felt it cut through what was left of my dress into my skin. Then I don't know what happened to me. Anger erupted in me and overflowing, consuming any fear. I stood up and grabbed the whipping stick from her hand.

I lashed the squaw across the face and must have hit her dozen times until she fell to her knees, screaming with her hands over her head. "How do you like it, now? How's it feel old maid?"

Her husband and some other men rushed inside. The woman ranted on about my uprising. I expected the heathens to drag me out and punish me severely or even kill me. But their countenance changed. They smiled at each other amused that I subdued the mad squaw. It seemed I earned a notch of respect. And from that moment I was given enough space to lick my wounds and pray for an escape.

The squaw brought me water and fed me. I decided my best options were to make no complaints and act tough as a square nail. But the evening couldn't come soon enough, when it finally did, Little Deer opened the flap and sat next to me with herbs for my wounds along with other young squaws.

As the women gossiped in their own tongue, Little Deer whispered in my ear that she has a plan of escape with little fear of being understood. I learned she'd suffered for two years and through her patience, she'd earned enough trust. "The Lord has promised, he will not give us more than we are able to bear."

Author Notes I highly recommend the true life narrative of Fanny Kelly taken by the Sioux Indians. Although I did not use parts of her story, she is singled out for unwavering faith in the face of horrific circumstances. Truly inspiring true story.

Chapter 25
White Slave

By forestport12

Stomping Bull laid beside me in the tepee, sleeping off a bender from a cache of whiskey in a former raid. I dared not move a muscle, afraid he would awake and have his way with me. I endured the smell of his sweat and his snoring, praying for the sunrise.

Mercifully, the sun chased the shadows of the morning across the canyon. Seeing it bring light and life to the Indian village filled my heart with hope I could work with the other squaws and not have to look into the fierce eyes of Spotted Owl, or to catch a glimpse of Stomping Bulls sadistic grin.

I was taken out near the stream where the women busied themselves, gathering firewood or tanning hides. I was expected to stay with my ruthless guardian, Spotted Owl. Hopeless were all routes of escape where the canyon cliff faces were like prison walls.

Stomping Bull was never from us. I believed he wished I would run so he could torture and rape me without consequence or fear of what the council's decision would be.

During the morning hours, I carried several clay pots of water back and forth between the stream and the Indian village until my arms ached and the damage to my shoulders caused a knifing pain. On my last errand, I dropped a vat of water, spilling it at Stomping Bulls feet. He promptly kicked me in the ribs until I found my feet. Then I was given a new task to find wood to burn for a large evening fire.

Little Deer appeared in the distance. She washed a deerskin in the brook. I took a chance and walked over to her with my bundle of wood.

Oh, this poor half breed, caught between two worlds, ripped from a Christian home and taken captive. Tears pressed against my eyes because I knew prayers for her own freedom have gone unanswered into a void between this devilish den and heaven.

Little Deer was careful when and where she placed her words because some of the red devils are quick learners of the English language. I reckoned the noisy creek helped to conceal her voice.

On the water's edge, I kept my back to those who eyed me. "Do you know if there is a way out through the other side of the cave?"

She hesitated. I'm not exactly sure. I've heard stories. Some have felt the brush of fresh air and a breadth of wind from within. But this only terrifies them more, believing it is an evil spirit lurking inside."

"Where you go, I go. Live or die. If I die, I'm free."

Little Deer's brown eyes filled with tears. "My husband, Standing Bear, courted me when I was adopted into the chief's family. Surprisingly, it protected me afterwards from the cruel punishment I took at first. He would sit out in the rain at night in front of their tepee, even in a drenching rain. At first, I rejected him. I told him he was crazy. Indian or white men are both alike and lose their minds for love. But I knew there was no choice in the end. I knew he would not beat me like others do."

"Just maybe we were meant to find each other."

Then she told me why she was determined to escape. "I married Standing Bear and accepted my fate. I thought I could convince them of my Christian faith and bring change. But one night I looked into his items of protection and found jewelry of a friend and a piece of her scalped hair. She was a white girl I played with. Their family sought refuge in our home because we were Indians. We tried to hide them, but it was no use."

Little Deer tilted her head into the reflection of the water at her feet. There was an awkward silence between us, except for the flowing water at our feet.

Stomping Bull broke the peace. He stalked toward me, upset that I'd wasted time with girl talk. He grabbed me by my bruised battered shoulder and yanked me away. I lost the firewood. I crouched down to gather my bundle. He was about to kick me in the ribs, when he saw Standing Bear who had come for his wife.

There was a meeting of the warrior tribes, and I was ordered to be taken and placed in front of the painted elders in a circle beneath the tepee. Little Deer followed me through the opening with her husband.

I tried to push down the swelling fear inside me, as the painted men stared at me. It was impossible to be modest in my ripped and twisted calico dress from their prying eyes. I pretended to be fierce and fearless, as they passed the peace pipe between the Brule and Arapaho leaders. I was no better than a piece of property to be sold or traded.

A raw edge of silence fell between them. Their leathery baked faces seemed to show the deep lines like rivulets of life lived hard. Their stiff jaws hardly parted for air. Others sat with their legs crossed in bowed silence and respect. Chief Spotted Tail looked silently at me with his penetrating eyes. He was adorned with a parade of feathers and more scalps around his belt than I could dare count.

I choked on the smoke and coughed from my lungs, breaking the sacred silence. I was determined to remain planted and gave them the stiffest jaw I could muster, though my heart exploded inside with fear.

"Chief Spotted Tale spoke in his Sioux language. But Little Deer had forewarned me he speaks English too from when the army imprisoned him. "The chief says you will go with the Arapaho by dawns light. You will become one with them. Though we found you, we offer you as a token of peace to our warrior friends."

Then the chief spoke two words. "Thate Thanka." Before Little Deer could speak to interpret it, he spoke with his English tongue. "I call you Strong Branch." I reckoned it must have had to do with the beating I gave Spotted Owl. But he continued in English to make his point. "There is strong spirit in wind. We must face our future with deep roots and learn how to bend with the wind and not break."

I knew then I'd be taken over the mountains west and there would be little chance of ransom or rescue. Little Deer and her husband ushered me out from the council and guided me to their tepee. They were to dress me in a deerskin dress with ornaments as some kind of sacrificial lamb.

Stomping Bull had been listening. He wanted me for himself. He followed us with flared nostrils and venom in his eyes, cursing.

Standing Bear guarded the door. I fell to the floor of rugs with Little Deer who whispered in my ear. "We must leave tonight. When the village sleeps."

Author Notes Some names like Spotted Owl are used to take authentic characters and imagine moments not recorded in their life when he was between two worlds which is really a bigger part of the whole story of those who pushed west and the Indians who pushed back, a tug of war on how to live in freedom or peace.

Chapter 26
Into the Belly of the Whale

By forestport12

There was no sleeping in the tepee. The revelry and dancing around the big fire outside was deafening. I could scarcely breathe. Although Little Deer lay beside me and her husband guarded our lodge, the lure of escape made my heart pound like a heavy mallet.

It sounded as though the Indians were dancing and cutting themselves into a frenzy. It brought my mind to a scalding thought, whether it had something to do with me. But Little Deer whispered in my ear. "The whiskey makes them crazy. Pray they will be sleeping off their madness when we flee."

I prayed a silent prayer, looking up into the night sky where the smoke from the fire escapes and I see trinkets of stars. I thought of my son Josh and how he might grow up without his mother. I wondered then if Jake would remarry and what would become of the land I once was willing to die for. The land itself didn't seem all that important anymore. I imagined myself a bird soaring through the opening and over the canyon walls.

Shadows stirred about the tepee outside. I knew the women often bore the brunt of the Indian benders. But it sounded as if there'd been a small war outside until in the late dark hours and the noises subsided. I was subdued with the thought I could be dragged from the tepee. But as the next hour waned, silence hugged our thoughts. I knew then, in another moment, Little Deer and I would be a steps between life and death.

Little Deer, not knowing if her husband was passed out drunk in front of the flap, whispered in my ear. "It's time."

I took a deep breath and exhaled. I felt as if all the air the around me had been consumed. Little Deer stirred beside me. I watched her faint outline stuffing a satchel with items for our survival, including dried jerky. Then she pulled her knife from its sheath around her waist and quietly cut through the stretched wall covering of buffalo hide.

I crouched next to her, wearing one of her deerskin dresses. Inside a lined pocket, she'd given me a flintstone and an arrowhead. I also knew she had pine-tar branches for torches hidden in the brushes near the cave. She'd given me moccasins for my feet which had been bleeding and bruised. My legs tightened, as I watched her crawl out first with her satchel.

I held my breath and wiggled out through the hole like a snake in the grass. I took my first sip of free air. But little Deer motioned for me to stay close. The real danger lurked where the horses would be guarded. If a brave slept, it could mean his own death. Guarding the village was a duty for an Indian not to be taken lightly, as we darted past Indians asleep in their wigwams.

The illumined sky reflected from the canyon walls. We raced on foot skirting the outer edges of the village between bushes and tall weeds leading away from where we might spook a string of horses and a brave guarding them.

Then I heard the babbling brook and caught a glimpse of its silvery reflection. We soaked ourselves, wading through the icy stream. Slipping on the rocks in the water, I banged my knees. Little Deer lifted me across, and we tumbled to the other side.

We pushed forward through brush and uncovered the torches to light the cave. We slipped over rocks and crawled upward through a divide of boulders with eyes wide under a blanket of stars. I heard the snap of a twig behind and below us not far from the creek. I turned and caught a glimpse of the smoldering fires of the village. My mind churned on whether it was all a ruse or a trap, an excuse to kill me.

Little Deer handed me one of the torches. Crawling upward, we came to a jagged edge and slid down a boulder into the dirt. We stood, staring into a gaping hole of darkness, fighting to catch our breath.

Little Deer struck a match across the rock and lit her torch. She waved the torch in front of her, and I followed her into the mouth of the cave, a point of no return into the belly of the whale.

Author Notes Little Deer is Mary, a half breed captive
Standing Bear is her Little Deer's husband

Chapter 27
Listen to the Wind

By forestport12

I stuck close to Little Deer, sometimes tripping into her backside, as she waved the torch in front of her. The air in the cave thickened, heavy with moisture. Behind us was a wall of darkness. But it meant no one followed.

As Little Deer turned back, embers swept our feet. "Stay close and listen for a whistling wind. It will mean there's another hole." She whispered in my ear, but sound around us carried like an empty well.

"I'll be a tick on your back." I wasn't letting her out of my sight.

We stumbled into each other at a place where there was a hole no bigger than a bears den. She placed the torch in front of her, and I boosted her up through it. She grabbed my hand and pulled me through.

We crouched and sometimes crawled so not to split our head from above. The walls closed in. "Maybe we can go back and beg for our lives."

Little Deer was having none of it. She turned back toward me. The torchlight glowed over her bronzed face. "God will give us a way of escape. Listen." She spoke in a hushed tone.

I listened hard. "All I hear are drops of water."

We squeezed through a sharp opening that cut into my backside, as I hopped down into soft dirt where the cave opened into a dome of rock wall.

Little Deer's torch flickered and threatened to play out. I crouched beside her setting my torch to hers.

As my torch spread light across the cave walls, we stood up in awe of the giant drawings, surrounding us. There was a form of communication in the drawings: pictures of buffalo, stick men, giant bears, and even a saber-tooth tiger. When I looked down, there were animal bones at our feet. I jumped backward into a pile of bones.

She pulled me upward. I passed her the torch. I took in the world around me, as if the place should be a museum. But then Little Deer spoke in hushed tones. "We must keep going before we lose the light."

I followed her, sometimes clinging to her backside.

She persisted, waving the torch back and forth. My only solace was that we had hope there was another way out. Suddenly, she stopped. I stumbled into her. I stood frozen like a statue with her, too afraid to move an inch. Her glowing brown eyes met mine. "Listen. Sounds of freedom."

I didn't care to respond. I was dizzy with fear.

We stumbled forward, until forced to crawl over more rocks. I slipped and fell back into the darkness. She must have put her hand out, but I couldn't see it. "Come. I hear the Spirit of the wind."

My stomach knotted inside. I climbed back over the rock and slid next to her through the narrow path. She slipped forward like a snake. She turned her head to me, the torch nearly catching her hair on fire. "Feel that?"

I wasn't so sure. But I prayed it was the breath of wind she talked about. "I think so."

She touched her face, as if she could feel fresh air. Sparks danced about us.

As I happened to glance behind me, a flicker of a flame appeared somewhere toward the belly of the cave. I blinked. Eyes wide, I looked again, only to see a light flashed toward us.

My throat croaked with fear. "Someone's coming... for us."

Confidence drained from her face. For the first time, I saw fear in her eyes. She turned and moved faster than any snake could slither. Loose rocks crumbled and fell around us until I tasted the gravel. I used my elbows to pull me forward to keep pace. She fell headfirst. I tumbled over the edge on top of her, snuffing our flame. We sat in a hole like moles hiding in a crevice.

"Air," she said with a whisper. "Sweet, fresh air. We are close."

"Quiet," I said, afraid our voice would carry and give us away. In the ink of darkness, I could not see her face. But I closed my eyes and breathed in what I believed would be a taste of freedom.

A light from the cave passed over us. Her finger crossed my lips. I understood the sign of silence. But I heard her draw the knife from her sheath and the scrape of metal along the rock.

I dared not breathe. I was prey, waiting to be snatched! Delivered into the jaws of death! Little Deer screamed and bolted upward toward the flaming torch.

Author Notes This is a work of western fiction, but I've strived to put it in context of historical events and times.

Chapter 28
Let there Be Light

By forestport12

Little Deer's knife sliced into his arm. His torch fell in front of me. Before she could thrust the knife again, the shadowy man had her arm, lifting her from our hole as if his hands were a claw trap. She kicked and screamed, it having no effect on the ruthless Indian.

I picked up the torch and tried to scorch his naked legs. He dropped her and stumbled backward. In the glowing light, I saw who it was. "Standing Bear!"

His look changed from anger to the kind of pain that comes from within. It was then I realized, he must have suspected our plan to escape and followed us.

I aimed the torch toward the black hole that was beside of us. I watched fiery flakes from the bark fall off into what seemed like a bottomless pit where the stray flames disappeared into the darkness. I could scarcely breathe.

Little Deer turned toward me, almost falling. I placed my free hand in front of her. Standing Bear seized her and held her in his arms, ignoring his flesh wound.

Hope of a hole to escape fell away like a stone to a well. I reckoned we were to be taken back and face a savage trial with the Brule tribe. Then I wasn't sure what he would do, as he held Little Deer by her arms, knowing he could throw her into the black hole beside me on the ledge. We could disappear without a track or trace. Little Deer held her knife, but he had her arms in a death grip.

I expected his brown eyes to turn a fiery read. Instead there was the glint of tears in his eyes. He looked at her with pleading eyes. "You leave me. You no love Standing Bear."

I thought to myself. He had to ask why? She'd been captured, her family slaughtered. She'd been led away, raped, until adopted. She was only fourteen, a tender delicate flower of the prairie in Minnesota. But at the same time, as I held the torch up like Joan of Arc in a cave, I detected Standing Bear may not have the heart to kill us, after all. Despite his savagery, he loved her. And it might just save us.

In my own shadow, and in that moment, I realized his humanity among a village of warrior savages had been my only protection. Little Deer looked at him, as if to scold him while the knife glistened in the half-dark. "My love for the Great Spirit is greater. I told you this. You could not have my whole heart, until the Great Spirit changes yours. I never really belonged to you."

I thought then that it was over for us. I questioned her timing with our life on a razors edge. But her faith was deeper than the hole before us. I froze with the torch, waiting for his brown eyes to spark anger. Instead, he released Little Deer from his grip and his shoulders sagged.

"You hate me and shame me?"

Little Deer looked at me then back at Standing Bear. "I do not hate you. And I do not wish to bring shame to your people. But you cannot just treat me like the spoil of war."

The tension fear tightened my backside and made my legs tremble. I feared falling off the edge.

Standing Bear held her shoulders. Her hand was free. She could have thrust it into his heart. I reckoned he wanted to see if she would. It was a savage test of love.

Little Deer wisely put the knife in her sheath but said nothing.
"I no go back to my people," Said Standing Bear. "I kill Stomping Bull by cave, son of Brule chief. Me no go back way I came."

The knot in my heart loosened. But we didn't have anymore time for chit chat. The one good torch would not last more than several minutes.

I watched Little Deer breathe in the air around her, as if she could use her nose to follow the scent of a fresh air pocket. We followed her while Standing Bear took the torch from me and used it to cast the light where we sometimes crouched or crawled along a side wall and ledge.

Gravel and dirt spilled over the shrinking ledge. I thought for sure it would be a dead end and soon we'd be lost in the pitch-black dark. We crouched and slipped along the side wall until it opened into what a natural chamber. Standing Bear flooded the space with light.

Little Deer followed her nose and held out her hands searching for a change in the air. She spotted a patch of moss in a wedge of rock wall. She took her knife and poked it until a pinprick of light met our starving eyes.

Standing Bear helped Little Deer pry away the moss until the size of a gopher hole. Natural light spread across our faces. Warm air claimed space with the cold, damp cave. I shook off the rattling cold in my bones. "Sweet Jesus," I said. "It be good as a light from heaven."

The pair were having trouble making the hole much bigger. I held the fading torch, as Standing Bear grappled with the dirt and stone. He flexed his muscles and with all of his strength and managed to loosen one of the large stones. The rest of rocks around him threatened to bury us back inside.

Little Deer slipped herself through the hole first where she popped her head up and took a look around, deeming it safe. "I see the mountain stream that leads into the canyon."

Standing Bear used his hands for a stirrup and boosted me into the opening. I didn't mind that he shoved me from my backside, so long as I was moving into the free world.

Little Deer was right. You could taste the fresh air. As a half breed, she had tracking senses beyond any Indian scout I'd known. I wasn't sure how her marriage with Standing Bear would play out, but I knew we all had to help each other in order to survive.

As Little Deer sat on a stone and surveyed the craggy and mossy green rifts around her, I put my hand out to help pull her husband through the hole that seemed too small for his frame. I feared him getting buried back inside.

Standing Bear looked at me with anxious eyes. "I no want to be left in here with spirit of Stomping Buffalo."

Little Deer rolled her eyes. "You see, these men of the village, they would sooner fight a grizzly with bare hands than be in a cave with dark spirits."

I nodded, pulling Standing Bear through the hole, as rocks fell around him from inside. I slipped from his hands and fell backwards rolling down a grassy patch toward the mountain creek. I found my feet quick enough and laughed to see Standing Bear covered in a plume of smokey dirt.

I looked a Little Deer who searched her satchel. "I reckon I've seen my first ghost." Standing Bear wasn't laughing.

Little Deer pulled out some Buffalo jerk and offered me a piece and then one to her husband who sat down beside her. He snapped a piece into his mouth, chewed hard. It seemed his mind churned away for what to say to the wife who took flight.

It was a heavy silence between them. She looked at me. "We need to go west until it is safe to turn south."

I knew it meant we would circle the mountain, taking several more days before we dared plot a course for home.

Standing Bear was quiet. He could have left us in the lurch. He kept up a poker face.

Little Deer put her finger to her mouth. The hair on the back of my neck stiffened. We all got down behind the mossy rocks and watched, tribal braves combing up stream for us. We cut the moss and used it to cover us to blend in with the craggy landscape.

We listened and heard the horses neigh and the splash of water across the mountains stream toward us.

Author Notes Cast of characters:
Jane McCord: a captive homesteader from Nebraska taken by the Indians
Little Deer: a former captive who married into the tribe
Standing Bear: Little Deer's wife who searches for them

Chapter 29
Earth, Wind, and Fire

By forestport12

The three of us burrowed ourselves into the moist, mossy ground. Wedged in a pocket of boulders between the cave and stream, we did our best to blend in with nature since our lives depended on it.

We listened to the splash of water from the horses crossing the stream until we could hear them moving on the game trail below us. It seemed the Indians were hunting for food and not for us. But it was only a matter of time before the village suspected our escape and found that the son of the Brule chief, Stomping Bull was dead. With our faces blackened by the soil, Standing Bear and Little Deer spoke with their eyes and hand signs. I didn't need words to know we had to put as much distance between us and the village.

We moved upward using our hands and feet over slippery rocks and boulders, keeping between the mountain and stream. The thought of working our way further west and away from my home on the plains pained me. It was like a hot iron to my heart to think of my family would be searching for me, trying to make a trade for my captivity. They would not know that I escaped into the Rocky Mountain wilderness.

It was a deceptive sun with little warmth in a swimming blue sky. My thighs thundered inside with each step to get a foot hold and find the crest beyond. Standing Bear followed us and sometimes craned his neck to be sure we were not spotted. The lack of footprints and broken twigs between us gave me hope we would not leave signs to be followed. It seemed no one in their right mind, not even a mountain goat would take our path.

As I was ready to collapse, Little Deer challenged me to reach the top. She stood above me, having scaled a ledge where she declared with signs, we could turn to the south. I had arrived at the source of the stream, as it traveled beneath patches of snow and ice by my swollen feet. I fell to my knees on the edge and drank by cupping my hands for water. I drank to a new lease on freedom.

The air was thin with brisk winds that cut to the bone and rattled my person. We managed to find a place on the other side of the crest where we could huddle beneath a ledge. We could see for miles. Snow-crowned peeks with pillars of clouds. But scaling down the forest floor and to be covered in the forest was vital.

This time Standing Bear led the way. We followed down a game trail with saplings from bushes slapping me in the face or lashing my exposed legs. As we dug in along a narrow path, the forest closed around us, shrouded in a mist with a mix of poplar trees and pines.

Standing Bear stopped, he put his hands up and drew his knife. As the mist broke, a brown bear and her cubs sniffed the air upwind of us coming down the mountain. The burly mother stood on her hind legs. Standing Bear held his arms out wide and let out a shrill sound. Little Deer and I looked at each other, knowing enough to back away but not run.

The mother and her cubs retreated. Standing Bear looked at us. I could tell he was nervous, having made a loud noise in the dense forest. We continued our path moving south by east to circle back around any Indian search party, until we settled on a place where we could hide ourselves in an outcrop of boulders surrounded by trees.

I helped Little Deer, as she cut pine-boughs and took some sap from the tree. The pine bough were for our bedding and then Standing Bear dug a trench to help conceal a fire sparked by his knife. I finished helping find dead fallen branches that could be easily snapped off to get fire going.

I sat there warming my hands to the fire, surveying my cuts and bruises. I kept an eye on Standing Bear and Little Deer who both sat on either side of me. They weren't talking unless you considered the eyes.

"I reckon I can't hold it in no more." Little Deer handed me her knife in case the mother bear showed up for some jerky. I figured if I left and relieved myself in private, they might talk things out.

I reckoned we had several days on foot before we could reach a white settlement or an emigrant train.

As I returned from behind a tree, Standing Bear went off to be alone. "What did you say to him," I asked.

"He's not happy with my silence. I told him he should keep watch and learn how to pray to our God."

I knelt down beside her as darkness blanketed us and the glow of the fire met our eyes. "Nothing worse for him to feel he don't belong with the red man or the white man."

"Try my life as a half-breed. At times we were treated as less than human who belonged with the swine."

"It's best then, God looks after our heart since man tends to judge the color of our skin."

Little Deer hugged me. "I told you to trust me. I knew way to escape."

"No matter what happens, you will live in my heart, as my sister." Tears pressed against my eyes.

As my body caved to forest floor on pine boughs for a bed, I looked up to see more stars than I could count, and I wondered if my boy back home in Nebraska could look up and see the same stars. I cried inside when I thought how I taught him to look up at the evening stars should I not be there, and I would meet his eyes upon those stars.

Author Notes Cast of characters

Jane, a young widow, remarried on a homestead taken captive by an Indian uprising

Little Deer (Mary), another former captive forced to marry after having lived with the tribe.

Standing Bear, Who faces an uncertain future after killing the son of the Brule chief and having discovered his spouses plan of escape.

My chief desire has been to shed notoriety and light on those women of true grit and faith who faced horrific consequences as hearty pioneers of an untamed west.

Chapter 30
Facing the Enemy

By forestport12

The damp cold rattled my bones. It stole what sleep I could endure. Digging the grit from my eyes, I realized I was alone. Was I left behind by Little Deer and Standing Bear, my Indian guides?

Shafts of light chased the morning mist of the forest floor. I listened for any sounds, the snap of a twig, rustling leaves, or the call of a bird. But it was quiet as a coffin to a grave.

The smoldering fire had spent itself despite the heated reflection of the rock enclave. I drew to my knees, hugged myself for warmth. Hunger scraped my insides like a carving knife.

Fear churned inside me over where Little Deer and Standing Bear must be. I hoped they were hunting for a meal or on the lookout for the Brule tribe party. I danced around the spent fire, rubbing my shoulders, straining my eyes to see through the forest.

I slipped from the ledge and snuck through the ferns on a game trail leading around the rocks, quiet as a mouse. The pounding of my heart drummed in my head.

I climbed on some slick rocks toward boulders hemmed in by white elm trees. Little Deer called out, making the sound of a jaybird. As I climbed, the pair were already scouting the valley to see if it was safe enough to cross and make our escape and circle the tribes.

They looked down over me, as I crawled toward them. Their cinnamon skin glistened in the sun breaking through the mist. They knew best how to live in this wilderness. But I only knew how to plant and grow on my prairie homestead. As I got within a few feet of them, I breathed a sigh and spied the vast valley below.

As the sun burned the remaining mist from the valley. The Arapaho party moved along a natural path by the river's edge. Their garments were like the color of a rainbow on spotted white horses. It appeared they had given up finding me. They were to me like a ghostly parade in the vast wilderness. They were heading through the pass west of the Rockies.

Little Deer grabbed my hand and whispered in my ear. "Once they have gone, we follow the river leading us away from the valley of the Brule. The Great Spirit has made a way of escape."

Standing Bear said nothing. He seemed unwavering in his commitment to save us, though it meant for him he no longer had a tribe or a place to belong. I learned right quick they valued their word as much as their life.

After an eternity, we climbed down over rocks where some loose stones gave way and we had to duck. I clung to edges and grasped what limb or roots I could until my hands throbbed. We managed to whittle away at the mountain until we could hear the roar of the river and welcomed a path easy on our feet.

I collapsed on the soft grass near the slick silver stream where I could drink from the splash of water. We all breathed a sigh.

Little Deer and Standing Bear knelt and collected water into a skin of pouches to sling over their shoulders. We sat on round rocks and shared the last bites of jerky. But our eyes kept trained along the trails edge. Then they looked past me. I turned to see members of what looked like the Brule tribe rounding the bend of the river on horses. Our surprise cut both ways into razor focus.

I froze, couldn't breathe, and waited for an arrow to pierce my heart. Thoughts of my son without his mother struck a bolt of fear in me. The hiss of arrows filled a frail blue sky.

Author Notes Cast of characters:
Jane McCord, a homesteader taken by the Indians into the Rockies.
Little Deer, a half breed captive, later adopted by the Brule tribe and married.
Standing Bear, Little Deer's husband who helps them escape because he had killed the son of the Brule chief.

Chapter 31
The Falling Away

By forestport12

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

Standing Bear took an arrow to his side. He stood between us and the tribe, unflinching. Arrows pierced the mountain sky, some falling into the rocks above and below us.

Little Deer and I tucked ourselves behind a rock. We watched helpless, as Standing Bear fought with his tomahawk to fend the tribe off who prized his scalp. Without a word, our jaws dropped along with our hearts as he fought them off one by one, until at last he was taken down and scalped.

Little Deer climbed over to the edge of the raging water. I, frozen in fear, heard the banshee cries until it filled the mountain side and echoed with a bone chilling shrill in the valley. Standing Bear paid the price of his betrayal and killing of the chief's son.

I turned to Little Deer standing the cliff's edge, as if she could once again find our escape as she had done in the darkness of the cave. But her answer was to jump to an almost certain death. I staked myself toward her in a hypnotic gaze. She smiled, made a sign of the cross, to let me know, that no one could quench her faith. She stepped off the ledge and disappeared into the torrent of water.

I fell toward her until my bruised and bloodied knees scrapped the granite rock. I looked down into the cavernous jaws of jutting rocks and the spray freshening my face of death. I turned and twisted back to see the painted braves drawing closer, blocking any other escape.

A certain awakening took hold like an ice pick that dug into my spine, lifting me, making my blood run cold. One of the Indians put their hand out toward me. It was then I realized I was worth far more alive, to be abused and tortured. I stood backward until my heart dropped and my arms had nothing to hold, unless I surrendered to my captors.

The icy water cut through me like a thousand blades, as I plunged into the abyss below. I closed my eyes and held my breath expecting to feel the battering ram of rocks. The thunder of water filled my ears. I waited for the shouts of heaven's chorus to take its place. But the water and its weight consumed me, buried me where I let go and waited for it be my silent grave, to hold me down and drown me. Water filled my lungs, choking, suffocating my once promising life.

I opened my eyes to see that the threat of death was not over. The white water snared me like a ghostly grip toward rocks and boulders. My head smacked and bled from dead wood branches, blood stinging and blinding my eyes, reminding me I lived. Clinging to deadfall debris, I fished myself from a slow bend of silt and gravel.

I crawled until finding tufts of grass and a fallen tree. I curled into a ball and shook with violence. From the corner my eye, I watched, wondering if the Indians would scale down and search for me. As I spied the foam and swirling water, Little Deer's body drifted over and caught on a branch. She looked to me, lifeless as a ragdoll.

I dove toward her from the bank and tugged on Little Deer until she was half out of the water. I sank to my knees and cradled her in my arms where I said goodbye despite the threat of being found.

Author Notes My goal is to show the risk and rewards of pioneer women who lived one step between life and death, showing a determined faith and grit unlike modern times.


Standing Bear, the wife of Little Deer who risked the wrath of his tribe to lead her and Jane to safety.
Little Deer, who befriended Jane and helped her escape.

Chapter 32
Follow the River

By forestport12

Jane cradled her dead friend, Little Deer. She heaved and sobbed without a care whether the scouting Indians slipped down the treacherous enclave of the falls to find her. The hiss of an arrow piercing her broken heart wouldn't be heard over the white water raging beside her.

Jane said goodbye to Little Deer and let the current take her to a final resting place below. Thoughts thundered inside her. She couldn't believe she was alive after the fall, bruised and beaten, but alive. The Indians were on the other side of the raging river. If she followed the river, she might find an emigrant train or army scouts. She pushed herself toward the forested shadows. All her thoughts now funneled toward her son on the prairie and how she needed to live for him.

Hiding in pines, Jane limped along a game trail, but not too far from the sound of the water. She imagined the Indians on the other side searching the river's edge. As she stumbled down the mountain, her muscles cramped and forced her to fall over writhing in pain. She pounded on her legs to get them to work again and then found her feet. But as soon as she stood she was light-headed with blurred vision. Every snap of a twig in the woods or bird call brought a prickly fear to her beleaguered beating heart. But she stumbled forward, one sprained foot in front of the other, until she was forced to crawl when her legs caved again.

Jane crawled into what looked like an abandoned bears den from the uplifted root of a deadfall tree. She took the black earth and rubbed it all over her to hide her scent and blend in with the scenery. Crawling out she took a broke branch, combing away her tracks until she felt safe enough to crawl into the uprooted trees cavernous space where she tucked herself into its surprising warmth. Head between her knees, she let out a low moan, like the groan of animal, attempting to quietly release the pain in her joints.

Despite the gnawing pain of her empty stomach, Her eyelids fell like steel trap doors where sleep brought its own escape from the realities of her desperate plight.

Startled awake, Jane thought she heard voices. She dug the dirt from her eyes and strained her ears to hear. All she heard was the comforting sound of the moving water, but nothing else. Sneaking a look outside like a nervous mouse, she could tell the sun wouldn't last long. She rubbed her shoulders. Her teeth chattered. Her damp clothes were like a wet blanket. She needed to find a safe place where she could spark a fire with the flintstone she found on Little Deer. She considered it a parting gift that would be needed to keep herself alive. Crawling out from her hibernation, she sensed there might be only an about an hour of daylight left.

Jane walked with a limp and kept low, masking herself with the cover of pine branches and elms. She'd stop and listen long enough to first hear the silence and then the faint sound of water. She spooked a deer chewing on a leaf, send the animal scampering through the woods and looking back at her, as if she should be feared.

The landscape changed, as shadows loomed larger on her path. It turned marshy. In some places Jane's bare feet sank in the moist, spongey ground. Gnats circled her. The critters left welts, but she persisted until she found some kind of clearing. She climbed over deadfall trees and slipped past thick ferns. As darkness blanketed the horizon, she spied a pond glowing in the moonlight, cutting off her path and leaving her without a river to follow.

The bugs were relentless, sometimes flying past her parched lips and into her dry mouth or in her ears. She stumbled over broken fallen branches until they cut her legs enough to act is a lure of sweat and blood for more gnats. Her heart clenched. She thought her eyes saw the shadow of a black bear along the murky waters edge.

Panic set in on Jane. She stumbled along in the darkness, sometimes clutching trees until her eyes caught a firelight. At first she thought it was a lightning bug on the water. She stared until her eyes ached. As she smacked her face and forehead, she decided to take a chance. She stumbled along, following the pinprick of light until it appeared as a flickering fire, and then she clearly saw a flaming tongue licking the sky of a clearing beneath a host of stars bright as silver trinkets.

Jane kept a safe distance. She circled the camp and studied the men, not knowing if she could trust them. From what she could see in the firelight, she reckoned them as former rebel soldiers. The unmistakable gray caps on a few, and one who seemed to be in charge had on a gray buttoned up coat. She wasn't sure if she could trust them more than the Indians she was running from.

She kept far enough away, so hungry it felt like her insides would cave. She was cold and couldn't stop the rattling noise of her body and feared they'd hear it. She kept to the dark shadows of the forest, swatting the bugs that thought of her as a blood sucking meal.

As the men lay in a circle with their saddles for a pillow, they passed a bottle. She hoped to wait long enough for them to get sloshed and steal some food, and maybe a horse. Icy air settled into the forest floor, building a wall of fog between her and the men.

Chapter 33
The Hunger for Freedom

By forestport12

Jane found herself under the cover of darkness, her back to a tree, listening to the voices of ragged rebel men telling stories around the warmth of a campfire. Hunger gnawed the pit of her stomach. But she feared revealing herself to the men, more than the hunger. It was a tug of war inside.

Her eyes grew heavy. She caved into the weight of sleep. As her mind slipped away into darkness, a bone rattling cold shook her back to the harshness of the night. She couldn't decide if she should sneak inside the camp when they slept.

As Jane's eyes blinked in and out of consciousness a torch lit the starry sky above her. A man with gnarled hands, bushy eyebrows, and a crooked jaw loomed over her.

Startled but unable to move, Jane looked at him as if he should be a ghost.

As the man leaned into her, he spoke with a cotton mouth and foul breath. "You sure are a sight for sore eyes. I thought you was some swamp thing."

Jane opened her mouth but couldn't conjure any words. He must have been on guard duty tending to the tethered horses.

The lanky soldier waved his torch to get the attention of others in camp. "Cap'un! I got somethin'."

Jane jumped to run. But the old man yanked her arm down enough to jar her shoulder. She was as good as a treed cat.

Shouts from the camp. A couple men grabbed their rifles. One had a lantern, leading the way toward her. The old man waved his torch, while pinching the blood from Jane's arm. "Where'd you come from?"

Jane worked her jaw until the words fell. "I was captured by Indians."

The man craned his neck, as if expecting an arrow to split open his insides. "You got away?"

"They look for me."

The man looked like he wanted no part of an Indian raid or search party. He crouched down beside her, kept his head on a swivel.

The patchy fog played tricks on the eyes. But the other men flanked Jane and the confederate sentry. "What you got, Blake?" Asked one of the bearded men in a gray cap.

Jane's choice was made for her. She knew most confederates that made it west, lived by their own set of rules. She feared them near as much as the tribe.

"This here girl, says she was taken by reds."

"Other side of the mountain." Jane added.

Come now. You got no reason to fear. We ain't savages. We might smell like one, but you don't need fear us," said the young man with a sunken face.

Together they stumbled through the fog. The old man spoke. "Look-he here cap'ain. We got ourselves a white girl."

Jane could see the captain in his button up coat, resting against his saddle where they brought her to him. His eyes were a sapphire blue in the light of the fire.

Captain waved his hand. "Set up a perimeter. Watch the horses." He stood with a stiff determination. "Ma'am. What is your given name?" His English was good. She could tell he was an educated officer.

"I'm Jane. Jane McCord. I...I was taken by band of Arapahoe and Cheyenne."

"You think they are tracking you? Close?"

"I don't know, sir. I crawled into a dead tree. I covered my tracks. I think they are on the other side of the river."

There was anger in his eyes. The old man who had Jane and another gawked at her. "Bring this fire down to the coals. And take your eyes off this woman!"

They kicked dirt on the fire. By the time the old man let go of her arm it burned from his vice grip. But she shook the blood back into it. Then she rubbed her arm.

"I'm Captain Roberts. We headed west when our land was burned like brimstone because of Sheridan. Most of us lost family and the land. Near all of us left with the clothes on our backs." He stood up and pulled a blanket from his saddle bag. He stepped around firepit and placed it around her shoulders. "Care for supper?"

The smell of beans and cornbread made her mouth water. Captain took a spoon and scooped the cornbread and beans into a tin plate and handed it to her. "Thanks, sir."

Then she lost all manners. She took the spoon and shoved the beans and then fingered the cornbread into her mouth. She squatted when her legs trembled, and she almost lost her balance by the fire. The hunger and feeding frenzy made her forget about any imminent danger. By the time her belly ached, she was looking around and wondered if she could put her faith in the captain who stroked his fine beard and rested his head against his saddle, feet crossed.

As Jane looked up with cornbread on the corner of her mouth, she noticed he never took his eyes off her. She blinked away, might have blushed too. She knew she must have looked more like a swamp creature than a lady. She could tell he was sizing up his situation. His men took the threat of Indians on the prowl seriously. What she saw of his eyes in the firelight, he was weighing his options.

Jane wiped her mouth. "You reckon I could have a horse, so I can get back to my family in Nebraska?"

He kept a poker face, hard for her to read.

Jane appealed to his humanity or what could be found that was left of his soul. "I've got a boy back home. He needs me. I'm not sure if my husband is alive or dead. Before they took me, I saw him hide in the reeds. I banked on him being smart enough to know he couldn't save me until he fetched help."

The captain folded his hands as if to pray and breathed a sigh. He closed his eyes for a moment and then spoke. "I had a family once. Yanks burned the house down. My wife and son, they hid in the basement crawl space. They couldn't get out. By the time I got to em', there was nothing left but charred remains. I buried them together, unable to pry them apart. Once you lose everything you cared about in life, it gives you a whole new perspective. I'm guessing you're almost there."

Jane didn't know what to say. She could see he'd been to hell and back a few times, enough to smell like brimstone. "Sorry for your loss, sir."

"I can tell you been through the fire that tries our sanity and sainthood. For now, you're safe with me. Stay here by the fire, sleep. And by sunrise we will lead you down the mountain. We are not savages. We are men without a home, but not without a heart."

"Thank you for your generosity. I reckon I look like someone who crawled out from the grave."

Captain hadn't said another word. The men would all have a sleepless night. Jane was able to curl into a ball with her blanket like one small speck in the wilderness whose dreams would tell her loved ones she would see them soon. She had no choice but to close her eyes and believe come morning she'd be free of the Indian captors for good.

Author Notes Some may have noticed that I changed my last few chapters from first person narrative to 3rd person. I'm in a state of flux as to best tell the story but will likely return to first person account.

Chapter 34
Foothills to Freedom

By forestport12

Jane awoke by the jerk of a rope around her waist. Hands bound, mouth gagged, she was unable to protest. With wild eyes and flared nostrils, she breathed in the dead rot of the forest floor. Then her eyes settled on the captain's sharkish ones.

He sat stoic and stiff on his horse, while the other men mounted theirs. Jane was tossed on a horse and held in place. Jane saved her spit like venom for the captain she had trusted as a fatherly figure. While adjusting his wide-brimmed hat, he looked away and said nothing.

As the runaway rebels filed down the mountains trail, Captain Roberts rode back to Jane. With tears in her eyes, she choked on the rag buried in her mouth. With his gloved hand, he put his finger to his lips as a sign to keep quiet, then he dug the rag from her mouth. She knew enough not to scream, or the Indians would be on them. She spat on his beard with a look that sent him to hell.

The captain lifted in his saddle and plucked a hanky from his pocket to wipe his beard. He spoke with a hushed tone. "I'm sorry, Miss, but we have an uneasy alliance with those Indians you named last night, but one, nonetheless. I would let you go, unfortunately this has put me between a rock and a hard place."

Jane thrashed about on the horse and kicked it's sides, but the one young rebel with grey eyes and a peach fuzz face held the horse in place and walked her on the trail down the mountain. He said nothing, his face looked soured, as if he forgot how to smile. The captain whispered in the lad's ear and rode back to the front.

The rebels snaked their way down the mountain trail where Jane listened and heard the sound of the river flowing eastward where she expected it to roll into the foothills and open plains within a matter of hours. Her stomach churned. Her heart ticked with shallow beats, as if set to explode with each moment. Her freedom appeared to be snatched away by the grip of a hawkish leader.

Jane sometimes nodded off in her saddle. The one young rebel, barely a man had to nudge her from falling. Now and then the young soldier looked at her with pity in his eyes, as he tugged on the reins. Jane spoke softly. "I need to use nature's privy."

The man looked back, as if he wasn't sure what she said.

"I need to take a leak."

He nodded, but quietly kept on.

The band of men came to a clearing where the river's torrent slowed. Horses drank from the water. Men dismounted and filled their skins. But the young man wouldn't take his eyes off her. He pulled her from the horse with her hands bound. He pointed to a nest of weeds.

"What's your name?" She asked.

"Billy. You best do your business, Ma'am."

"You got family?"

"Captain and them, are my family. Miss, please go relieve yourself, we must be on our way soon."

Jane stumbled over into the weeds. Other men craned their necks. Billy stayed close enough to listen if she darted away. Heart racing, she eyed a path to run. Billy parted the weeds with his head turned. "Ma'am, please. Trust me. Do as I say, and I will cut you free. But you have to get back and not breath a word."

The Men along with their sinister grins mounted and they continued the trek on the trail until slipping through a crevice between boulders. Suddenly the prairie opened up before them. Jane's eyes ached to see how close she was to the trail that could lead her home. Would he truly set me free? Did he say this to keep me in line?

The sky was robin blue with waver thin clouds on the horizon. The men stopped for a moment and also took in the change of landscape. The foothills were before them like mole hills compared to the descent from the craggy mountain. And from the view, Jane could see for miles where her freedom could sooner be found. Her heart lurched inside, as if to leap at the chance to break free. She looked at Billy, hoping to see a sign. There was nothing but an empty stare. She feared he told her she would be set free, to keep me calm. She was dizzy with fear.

In the distant foothills, painted warriors rode on spotted horses. Jane didn't need to look twice to know a trade would take place between the confederate soldiers and the tribe. Fear ignited a fire to flee. Just then, Billy tugged on her horse and lead them into the bushes and on to another trail. She dared to look back, only to see the captain saluting her. It was then she knew, he intended to set her free and take his chances with the tribe.

Billy lead Jane down an uneven trail of gravel where stones slipped beneath the horse. He pulled a knife from his sheath and cut the rope from her hands. "Captain changed his mind, he needed to keep the men in line, but told me to let you go when they all had their backs to you."

Jane looked back but breathed a sigh. She turned to Billy. "You're a good man, Billy. I hope one day you can set down roots somewhere and make a life for yourself. And tell the captain, I'd take back the spit on his face if I could."

Billy nodded. "Yes um, Ma'am."

Jane swallowed a knot in her throat and kicked the sides of the horse with no more time left to look back if she wanted to stay free and live. Several hard turns later she found herself in a meadow circled by white elms. Holding her breath, she dug her heels into the horse and raced across the opening. She slowed to trot and slipped past the skinny elms until the flatlands of the prairie were within her grasp.

Trotting out into the clearing, Jane turned to see a scouting party of Indians. If she died it would be on the range. She dug into the sides of the horse and held on. Her horse lifted and dug in for the race to live. She did her best to be small as a fly on his backside, but the air got between them. Lead balls whizzed beside her ears.

Her eyes spied a camp of men, uniformed men of blue. Smoke rose from a firepit. The ground gave way. Her horse left her. She catapulted through the air and tumbled into a ravine where a stream lay between her and the men.

On her knees, as if she should pray, she looked up at the cowboys and soldiers to see their shocked look. Shots rang out above her head from the bluff. She dove into the water and swam for her life. She crawled to the muddy bank where a hand reached across to pull her to safety.

As bullets pinged around her, she ducked behind a deadfall tree. Arms grabbed her shoulders. She turned and was stunned to see the wide dark eyes of Redhawk. "We've been trailing you, Mrs. McCord, but it looks like the Spirit of the wind brought you back into the fold."

Chapter 35
Freedom and Glory

By forestport12

Jane crouched behind the deadfall tree, next to Redhawk who spent his revolver. Indians paraded on the bluff until their bravery waned, as the spencer rifles from the men behind the wagons found their targets. Jane dug in, small as a mole with her fingers to her ears.

A cloud of smoke rose up from the bluff. The smell of sulfur lingered in the air. A gulf of silence followed, bringing smirks and smiles to the men's once startled faces. Then all eyes found Jane, who was the reason for them scouting the foothills in the first place.

Jane knew she looked ghostly. She was slick with mud from head to toe. But it didn't stop her from giving Redhawk a hug. She latched on to him and didn't want to let go. She breathed deeply, until her lungs hurt. When she pried herself away, she looked at him with her stark blue eyes, alive with freedom. "My husband, Jake...Is he..."

"He lives. Your husband lives."

Jane had stood, but then her knees wobbled. She put a trembling hand to her face, as if she replayed the last time she watched him from the crop of rocks in the canyon.

"When you were taken, he managed to hide in the reeds. Joseph and I were on a hunt when the party of Indians rushed into the camp. When I found Jake, we had to yank him off my horse. He was determined to go after you or die trying. I had to convince him that if he tried, they would kill you first and make him watch."

"Where is he? Is he close?"

When you were taken, I sent him back to get word to general Sully and his men. He aimed to bring the boys in blue along with a herd of horses to trade for you."

Jane was lost in thought with what the General once said after the church service, that her opinion of the Indians might change, if she'd ever been held captive. "How many?"

"Ma'am?" Redhawk seemed surprised.

"How many horses to trade?"

"Maybe, twenty."

"Just twenty? I would have reckoned they would throw in a couple egg laying chickens for me." She cracked a smile that surfaced through her muddy face.

Redhawk escorted her beyond the gauntlet of gazes, as if the men had never seen a freed white woman before. He bounded with her toward a wagon. He stopped her at the back of the canopy. Put his hands on her shoulders. His dark eyes made him seem reserved. As a scout, it wasn't his first exploit to retrieve captives from Indians. "Just in case, one of the women from the fort gave us clothes."

Jane had been so long in captivity she'd forgotten how she'd been living. Her deerskin was nearly shredded. She welcomed the blanket Redhawk wrapped around her shoulders. He helped her inside the wagon where she could freshen up and change.

While Jane surveyed the clothes, she noticed a hand mirror. She dared look at it, afraid she might not recognize herself. She took a strip of cloth and wiped away some of the mud that hadn't dried to her face. She breathed a sigh. For sure she'd changed. There was a wildness to her bloodshot eyes. Her hair smelled of smoked wood, and she searched for a comb or brush to get the knots out of her hair. When she found a brush, she found every stroke painful. Her hair looked like an abandoned bird's nest.

Jane heard the men call to order. Redhawk called to her from behind the folded flap. "I believe your husband and Sully's men are half a day's ride. We will retreat east until the sunsets. Whatever you need we will do our best."

She called out, as tears pressed against her eyes and she stared into the mirror. "I'm thankful and blessed the women at the fort thought of my safe return enough to give me clothes and such."

Horses stirred outside. The wagon jostled Jane about. Redhawk's silhouette could be seen beyond the folds. "Jane, you rescued yourself. No doubt you have a story to tell. No man here saved you. You saved yourself."

Jane stayed silent, as Redhawk backed away and the wagon moved. But her thoughts flushed like water on hard gravel over what to expect ahead. And then her mind flashed back to Little Deer. Had it not been for her faith and grit, she may not have made it. She knew then, she'd have to tell her white folks in Iowa what became of her. Then, she fretted over her husband, and the guilt he must have lived under.

As Redhawk's boy, Peter rode through the night beneath a blanket of stars on the prairie, she could only lay back on the pile of clothes and imagine the wonderous look on her husbands face to be told the news. She lives! She's alive and free.

The movement of the wagon wheels on the uneven terrain helped her sink into the pile of soft fabrics around her. She buried herself into the cloths and the smells of lavender and other perfumes filled her head until she fell asleep.

The wagon rumbled to a stop. It jerked Jane awake. When she looked out, the setting sun looked as if it set the mountains behind the men ablaze with a reddish glow. She couldn't put enough distance between her and the Indian uprising. Her thoughts turned toward her son. She imagined him on the McCord ranch looking at the stars and being told, she'd wish on the same ones.

There was nothing like breathing the fresh free air around them and to be in the company of a small army. She fell asleep as night surrounded them. Every now and then she heard the sound of men talking or catch the sweet smell of hickory wood on a fire. There was nothing left but for her to fall into a cavernous sleep until daybreak, the day she would lay eyes on her husband-the day she'd start a new chapter in her life.

Chapter 36
Winds of Change

By forestport12

When the wheels of the wagon rested on the pancaked road of traveler's, I jumped from the back and took my place beside Redhawk and his horse. He glassed the army of men and horses east beneath the rising sun. With the naked eye, I couldn't spy my husband among the wagons and masses. Hot tears pressed against my eyes to see such a wake of souls who came to wrest me from captivity in the wilderness.

I did my best to press out my dress with my hands one of the officer ladies gave me for my journey home. It was a far cry from the deerskin I was forced to wear in captivity. There was lingering smell of the lavender perfume mixing and mingling with the damp dewy earth before us. The air was a sweet savor of home.

Redhawk looked down from his brown mare. "It's them, Mrs. McCord." This I reckoned then to be General Sully and his marching men along with a supply line and my husband with his horses.

He reached down from his horse and pulled me up to his backside. The others in our group fanned back. The lot of them seemed to understand the moment. Doing my best to hold on and shield the sun from my eyes, Redhawk smacked the reins of his horse. We took off like a bolt of lightning across the open prairie.

With my heart in my throat and the wind whipping our faces, I dug my chin into his back and hung on for dear life. As we approached the line of men, Redhawk having made the sign with his hand, I took a spill from the rear of the horse and landed on my rear. It wasn't exactly how I imagined greeting my once left for dead husband.

The boy Joseph was the first one to reach me with his hand to help me up. I dusted myself off when my husband blotted out the sun. I sprang into his arms, knocking him over to the ground where we held each other without shame.

As I looked up at the army of men who flanked us, I'd never seen so many leathery skinned soldiers blush on the horizon. I couldn't speak. I choked up inside until I couldn't breathe, but I didn't care, I held my husband on the ground until we brushed ourselves off. Then he kissed me and swept me back off the ground.

"It's my fault," he said. "I should have stayed with you."

I looked into his moist eyes and kissed him, so he couldn't catch his tongue to talk more nonsense. "No, Jake. You proved your valor once, enough to be left for dead in the war. Don't fret over the Indians giving you a bloody haircut. We got a new start, that's all that matters." Tears pressed against my eyes. "I gave no more thought for the land, only for you and my son."

"Every stitch I own meant nothing without you."

I hugged his neck. "By the looks of it, you brough twenty horses to trade with the Indians for me."

"Nothing is worth more to me than you," he said.

We circled back against the grain of General Sully's men, horses, and wagons. The soldiers passed by on the dusty trail, heading for the foothills to punish the uprising or make peace, depending on which came first.

General Sully strolled up to our wagon on his horse to greet me. He tipped his hat. "Mrs. McCord. Thankful to see you survived when many women don't. Most former captives that do, can never speak of the horrors, and some have lost their minds all together."

With my humble nod, he knew I appreciated life more so. No one man, general or not, husband or no, wanted to speak of things done to women. "You might say, I had an angel by my side, named Little deer, but I got plenty of scars, though some are on the inside."

General Sully looked away, hesitant to ask. But I reckoned he'd get around to it. "If you don't mind, Ma'am, we'd appreciate your scouting information on where they might be holed up, and what their strength in number might be."

"They have been in a canyon, impenetrable by a large army. But they are an army with the Arapahoe. Know this too: the chief is not happy, because his daughter fell in love with an army man at fort Laramie. He rebuffed her advances, which left the woman in a deep depression. She threw herself off a cliff. You might say, she died from a broken heart, and it makes the chief's heart both heavy and hard."

The general's eyes widened and, then he nodded. He stroked his Billy goat of a beard. "Maybe, there's some wisdom to be learned from what you tell me."

I felt the worn edges of smile come to life. "I reckon we should make more love and less war. Love and marriage could bring more of us together. I reckon we all have to figure out how to share the land. We all can't live in the wind." I said this, knowing their goal was to put them on reservations and take the best land for the whites.

The general tipped his hat to me again. "I see by the light in your eyes you're a changed woman with a story to tell. I do hope to read about it someday."

Perhaps I will, someday. For now, I'd prefer the solitude and to be surrounded by the ones I love."

"I suspect you'd make one hell of a negotiator, Mrs. McCord? We could use someone like you to help us make peace and not war."

"Thanks just the same General. But you seem to be lookin' hard enough for a way forward. Godspeed."

"Good day, Ma'am."

We rode for home with the wind behind us and the land before us. But I knew the land was not my heart anymore. None of us, Indian or white will hold the land forever. But sow and reap we must, knowing this world is no permanent home, only a place between heaven and hell.

John 3:8
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So, it is with everyone born of the Spirit.


Author Notes The part about Jane's explanation to the General about the Sioux chief's heavy heart because of his daughter's unrequited love is taken from true annals of history to bring realism into the final chapter. Redhawk is the McCord ranch hand and former Indian scout. Jake is Jane's second husband who was thought to have died in the Indian raid.

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