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Late May 1869
Guess th' soldiers whipped them redskins so hard this time, they'll think twice afore bothering us again," came the husky, masculine voice in the seat directly behind her.
Having no wish to eavesdrop on the conversation, Anna Wiley gazed steadily out the dirty window of the #17, or the Choctaw, the name given to the Kansas Pacific train. In a single glance she took in the station's platform and the few untidy tents set out on a flat stretch of Kansas prairie, and she wondered, was this all there was to Abilene's train depot?
Anna's spirits took a plunge at the thought. She had hoped for more. . .so much more.
Taking a deep breath and inhaling the hot, stale air in her crowded car, Anna set her gaze toward the outside of their caravan. There, beside the train tracks, in a line seeming to stretch off into infinity, stood the telegraph poles carrying the singing wires of modem communications. Farther away rose a building or perhaps two, which appeared to be all that there was to the "sprawling metropolis" of Abilene.
Brushing a fly that buzzed around her face, Anna allowed herself a brief smile, remembering the words of Mr. Bilsworth, the New York agent for the Society of Orphans, the man whom she had, of necessity, left behind in Kansas City.
"You and Miss Pagney go on west. They're expectin' you in Hays. Got a telegram from the orphanage in New York saying that they had contacted the church there. Word has it that this town has got plenty of folks there needin' a helping handwith the chores. They'll make the children part of the family." Mr Bilsworth swallowed with difficulty. "You'll be able to place the rest of the children there...in Hays. I'm certain of it if only you can..."
The old gentleman collapsed back against his pillow, unable to say the rest of the words. Anna held her breath, barely daring to breathe for fear of disturbing him. She observed the sickly, white pallor of his skin and listened to his breathing. That he gasped for air as he spoke did not bode well for his role in the rest of her mission, she feared.
Although Anna was by no means a doctor, she had seen enough sickness in her young life to recognize the symptoms of cholera when confronted with them. No, Mr. Bilsworth would not be making the rest of the journey westward.
Were she and Miss Pagney capable of continuing the journey without him? Two women alone upon the open stretches of the Kansas prairie? Could they place the rest of their charges, these twelve remaining orphaned children, in good homes?
Well, they would have to, Anna resolved. As it was, she could only hope that the children were not infected with the disease that had so suddenly stricken Mr. Bilsworth.
Patting the elderly gentleman's hand, Anna placed his arm back at his side. She cleared her throat, trying to put a note of cheerfulness into her tone as she uttered, her voice barely raised over a whisper, "Don't you worry, Mr. Bilsworth. Miss Pagney and I will go on. We won't let you or the orphanage down. The two of us are capable, I am certain, of seeing to it that the rest of the children find good, Christian homes. I give you my word that I will not rest until it is so. You just concentrate on getting well, and after Miss Pagney and I finish our task, we'll return and reunite with you here. Then we can all return to New York together."
Upon her declaration, Mr. Bilsworth reached out, clutching at her hand. For a moment, his eyes took on the look of a wild beast as he implored, "Ensure that they are good homes, Miss Wiley. Be certain to obtain a written..." he gasped, having difficulty drawing in breath. His hand on hers suddenly took on a death grip, so tightly did he clench at her. "Important to have a written contract," he croaked. "Remember that."
Anna swallowed with difficulty before she uttered, "I understand."
Mr. Bilsworth fell back, his grip lessening. He muttered, "Do I have your promise? Will you vow to me that you will find these children good homes? Christian homes?"
Yes, Mr. Bilsworth. " Anna nodded. "I promise.
That was all he had been waiting for, it appeared, for with her words, Mr. Bilsworth relaxed his vigil, giving her a silent nod in acknowledgment before the doctor rushed in to usher her quickly out of the room.
That had been almost a month ago. Mr. Bilsworth had died a few days later, leaving her and Miss Pagney in charge. The two of them, along with the children, had waited the necessary few weeks in Kansas City to determine if the disease had infected any of the rest of their party.
Luckily, neither she, Miss Pagney, nor any of the children had come down with the illness. But the wait had given her the opportunity to learn sign language, the universal language of the plains. One never knew. It might come in handy.
"But Pa, Ma says that them Injuns is on the warpath again," came the younger voice from behind her. "Ma says she heard tell that them Sioux has joined up with them Cheyenne Dog Soldiers. Said that together they's gonna fight it out with us."
Anna's thoughts came rushing back into the present. Was it true? Were the Cheyenne Indians, along with a smattering of Sioux, on the warpath?
When she had booked passage on this train, nobody had told her anything about an Indian uprising. Nobody had warned her.
Why hadn't she had the good sense to read a newspaper before she had ventured out farther along the Kansas frontier?
War Cloud's Passion. Copyright © by Karen Kay. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.