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Homestead, Dakota Territories Late October, 1865
Julianne Cooper coaxed her ox, Dusty, over the rutted and snow-covered path that connected her farm to that of Glory and Sam Foster. The Fosters were freed slaves who hadlike Julianne and her late husband, Luketaken advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862 and headed west to claim their one hundred and sixty acres. The dozen families that had settled in the area had already established a thriving community that they had named "Homestead."
"You should head back, Sam," Julianne called to her friend walking alongside the wagon. "It'll be dark soon and Glory will worry."
Her son, Luke, Jr., had run ahead searching for dried, frozen buffalo chips to stoke the fire when they got home. His twin, Laura, sat huddled under a buffalo robe next to Julianne. "Mama!"
Luke's cry of alarm had Sam running as Julianne halted the wagon and slid from the seat, sinking in slush that covered her shoes when she landed. "Stay here," she ordered her daughter. "Luke! Are you hurt?"
The boy did not reply, just pointed.
Near the grove of bur oak trees that her late husband had designated as the perfect setting for their house stood a riderless horse, saddled and loaded with gear.
"Can we keep him?" Luke asked.
"Go back to the wagon and stay with your sister," Julianne ordered.
Her mind raced with possibilitiesnone of them good. Over time, most of the Indians in the area had been moved to reservations by the government. The few who remained had come to accept the reality of settlers from the east; but still, every now and again there were stories of renegades. Or it could be a trap. Some poacher come to claim her land for himself. Or
"Over here," Sam called and knelt next to a lifeless form half covered over with drifted snow.
Julianne stumbled through patches of frozen high grass stalks. "Is he."
"Not yet," Sam replied as he hoisted the man over one shoulder as if he were no more than a sack of flour. "But we'd best get him inside and warmed up or he surely will be."
Julianne considered their choices. They could turn
the wagon and head back to the Fosters. But Glory was sick in bed. And Julianne's place was closer. Sam eased the man into the back of the wagon and then went back for the horse.
"I'll go with you," he said, mounting the horse.
Julianne nodded and climbed back onto the wagon, her skirt wet and heavy now.
"Is that man dead?" Luke asked, squirming around to study the form in the back.
"Not yet," Julianne replied through gritted teeth.
Captain Nathan Cook faded in and out of consciousness. One minute he was aware of sliding to the frozen ground from Salt's back, and the next he felt the bone-jarring motion of a wagon making its way slowly over uneven ground. One minute he opened his eyes to see an elderly black man riding Salt, and the next he was sure he heard a woman quietly giving orders as he was moved from the wagon and into a dark, close room that smelled of smoke and damp earth. One minute he was so cold that he was beyond shivering, to stir the embers of inner warmth his body might still provide, and the next he was buried under a soft pelt of dank fur. One minute he was tempted to give himself over to the blessedness of everlasting sleep, and the next he was following orders barked at him like his command officer once had, only these came with a feminine drawl.
"Mister? Open your eyes. Mister? Look at me. Who are you? Where were you heading?"
There was no tolerance for disobedience in that command, no matter how sweet the voice, so Nathan did as she ordered and forced his eyes open. He found himself staring straight into the eyes of what was surely one of God's most beautiful angels.
"California," he murmured, choosing to answer the question that was simplest. Then he closed his eyes again and gave himself over to his fate.
For two days the man lay close to death. But in spite of Sam's thinly veiled hints that Julianne should think about where and how they might bury him and get word back to his people of his passing, Julianne refused to even consider the idea that this man would die in her house.
It never occurred to her that what she was really fighting were the memories of her husband's death, and yet the similarities were astounding. Like this man, Luke had gone out in a storm. Like this man, he had become disoriented. Like this man, by the time they found him he was wracked with fever and at the same time half-frozen.
"This isn't Big Luke," Glory warned her the next day, when she arrived with the ingredients to mix up a generous helping of her special plaster for drawing out fever.
"I know that," Julianne whispered, mindful of her children not ten feet away. Hopefully, Sam had distracted them enough with his game of shadow figures that they had momentarily forgotten about the man lying where they had last seen their father. Even at noon, the house was dark enough for the game.
"It's not the same at all, but for them." She jerked her head in the direction of the children as she helped Glory lift the man's upper body so they could wrap the strips of torn cotton around the plaster Glory had spread over his bare chest.
He was muscular but too thin, as if it had been some time since he'd had a decent meal. Glory helped her ease the man back onto the cornhusk mattress, then stood with hands on hips and glanced toward the wooden table that dominated the center of the small room. "You make anything of those papers he was carrying?"
"His name is Nathan Cook. He was a captain in the Confederate Army. There's a letter of honorable discharge from General Lee and a paper that shows ownership of his horse. There's a picture of him in uniform and another of a young womanperhaps it's his wife or sister."
Glory frowned. "A southern boy? Way out here?" Glory's expression shifted from concern to wariness. "That can't be good." She stared at the items Juli-anne had spread out over the table to dry and fingered a small leather-covered Bible. "This was part of his belongings?"
Julianne nodded. "And that journal as well."
Glory picked up the second volume and studied it. "Did you read it?"
"Read it," Glory instructed. "Folks will lie to your face, but when they write down their thinking, that's something you can take for truth. Might as well know who and what you're dealing with while he's weak as a newborn kitten." She let the diary drop back onto the table and turned her attention to the kettle simmering over the fire. "We'd best start getting some of this broth down him if you're determined to bring him back from the brink."
After ladling up half a bowl of the soup from the simmering stew, Glory perched on the side of the bed next to the man. "His breathing seems to have eased some," she noted. "Sam Foster, stop that foolishness and come help me get this man sitting up so I can feed him."
Julianne gave the children their stew while Glory and Sam attempted to feed the man. He coughed and muttered incoherently, but did not fully regain consciousness and after three attempts, where most of the broth landed on the buffalo robe, Glory gave up. "I'm sending Sam back to our place to get my things," she announced. "Don't know what I was thinking, leaving you here alone with those children and this stranger."
"We're fine," Julianne protested. "As you said, the man is as weak as a kitten. I'll signal if anything changes," she promised, as Glory launched into a fit of coughing that had Sam looking worried and scared. "Go take care of yourself for once."
"Sam will drive me home and be back before dark. Have young Luke there make a fire near the shed. Sam can bed down out there. And you need to allow him to take his shift watching the patient, while you get some rest." She put on her coat and handed Sam his hat.
Julianne saw her friend's plan for the compromise it was and, in the interest of expediency agreed. She stood in the doorway and waved until the wagon had disappeared into the gray afternoon.
Over the next week, she and Sam took turns sitting with their patient through the night, and Glory kept watch during the day. He'd been in and out of consciousness for over a week, and Julianne was beginning to worry that this might be a repeat of Luke's last days.
Julianne wheeled around to find the man struggling to throw off the covers and sit up. Both of her children stood close enough for him to grab them if he chose to do so.
"Get back," she ordered as she reached for the hunting rifle Luke had mounted over the door on a rack of moose antlers.
Both children, as well as the man, looked back at her. The children's eyes were wide with surprise at the sight of their mother holding the gun. The man's eyes were red-rimmed and half-closed with fever.
"Stinks," he muttered tearing at the bandages on his chest.
"Stop that right now," Julianne ordered, setting the rifle aside, but within reach, as she positioned herself between the man and her children. "Just stop that and lie back down."
He squinted at her, his thick black hair falling over his eyes, further hampering his vision. "Ah, my angel," he said. And to Julianne's shock, the man laughed.
The sound of it was so unusual in this place where laughter had died with Luke that, for a moment Julianne considered taking the children into the yard and firing the rifle for help. She felt the eyes of her children on her, questioning their next move.
She pointed to their bowls of stewcold now, no doubt, then wrapped her hands around an iron skillet and eased closer to Nathan Cook. "I'm no angel, mister," she warned. "Try anything and I'll use this."
She brandished the skillet in his direction.
His answer was a soft snore.
Seeing that he'd succeeded in loosening the bandages, and yet reluctant to touch him, Julianne pulled up the buffalo robe and dropped it over him. When Sam returned, she would see to the plaster while he stood guard. In the meantime.
"Mama, what's con-fed-er-ate?" Laura asked, fingering the letter of discharge as she picked at the last of her stew.
Luke had insisted there be no talk of the war, once they'd left all that behind them. But now the war had possibly come to their door, in the form of Captain Nathan Cook.
"There was a war," she explained. "One side was called the Confederate Army and the other waswell, the Federal Army, I guess you could say."
Luke Jr.'s ears perked up. "Did Papa fight?"
"Why not?" The boy was clearly disappointed. "It's complicated, Luke, but we decided to move out here."
"Klaus Hammerschmit said that's why they came over here from Germany. There was a war and his father decided to move out here."
"I don't like it when people fight," Laura murmured.
"No, neither do I," Julianne agreed, but she couldn't help glancing back at the man snoring away on her bed and wonder if, before this was all over, she might not have to fight. "Now finish up, and then get to your chores before it gets dark."
While the children scraped out the last of their stew and washed out their bowls, replacing them on the cupboard shelf, ready for their supper, Julianne restacked the papers that had sat on the corner of the table since they'd dried out. Sam had collected them from Nathan Cook's saddlebags and pockets and spread them by the fire to dry that first day they'd found him. She slid the papers back inside the cover of the Bible and placed it inside the saddlebag propped at the foot of the bed. She picked up the diary and paused.
Glory had urged her to read it, but what right did she have? Glory had suggested that the journal might reveal information that could help Julianne decide her course of action, should the man recover.
She fingered the cracked leather cover, then the leather thongs that bound the journal pages. Just the last few entries, she decided. Surely that would tell her why he'd come this way and where he was headed. The pages crackled as she pressed the small book open on her lap. She turned to the last entry.