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Fort Laramie, early summer, 1850
"Look out!" Faith yanked her sixteen-year-old sister to safety, barely in time. Massive wheels of an empty freight wagon ground across the footprints they'd just left in the powdery dust.
True to her nature, Charity gave a shriek. She cowered against the blunt end of a water trough while she worried the strings of her bonnet with fluttering fingers.
Faith caught her breath and waited for her heart to stop galloping. Fort Laramie was not at all what she'd expected. It was more a primitive frontier trading post than a real army garrison. No one seemed to care a fig about proper deportment, either. The rapidly rolling freight wagon that had just cut them off would most likely have run them down without a thought if they hadn't dodged in time!
As it was, she and Charity were both engulfed in a gritty brown cloud of powdered earth, undefined filth and bothersome, ever-present buffalo gnats. The tiny insects had been driving their mules crazy since before they'd reached the lower Platte. Not to mention getting into everything. Even her biscuit dough. She grimaced at the thought.
Waiting for the worst of the blowing dust to clear, Faith spied an opportunity, took hold of her sister's hand and dragged her back out into the fray. "Come on. We can't stand here all day."
"Ouch! You're hurting me." Charity's voice was a childish whine, far less womanly than her budding body suggested it should be.
At that moment, Faith's singular intent was surviving long enough to reach the opposite side of the roadway, whether Charity liked the idea or not. She refused to slow her pace. "Oh, hush. Stop complaining. You'd think I was killing you the way you carry on."
Charity's blue eyes widened. "You might be!" Planting her heels, she brought them to a staggering halt in front of the log-and-adobe-walled trading post. "I don't like it here. It's so
so barbaric. And it stinks."
Faith couldn't argue with that. Between the passage of hundreds of draft animals, plus careless, slovenly local inhabitants and travelers, the place smelled wretched. Though the high adobe walls surrounding the fort were obviously necessary for protection, she couldn't help thinking they'd all be better off if the tightly packed settlement was more open to the cleansing wind and rain of the plains.
Intent on finding the best in their situation, she nodded toward a group of blanketed Indians sitting silently against the front of the trading post. "Look, dear. Isn't all this interesting?"
Charity pressed a lace-edged handkerchief over her mouth and nose. "Not to me, Faith Ann. I think it's awful." She lowered her shrill voice to a whisper, her sidelong gaze darting to the stony-faced Indians. "Do you suppose they understand what we're saying?"
Faith boldly assessed the native women. They were short, like herself, but twice as wide and far more rounded, and seemed to be cautiously avoiding meeting her eyes. Even the smallest children were careful not to look up at the sisters.
"I suspect they may," Faith said, a bit ashamed. "Else why would they act so shy?" Lifting her skirts, she urged Charity up the high step onto the boarded walkway. "We probably hurt their feelings."
The blue eyes grew even wider. "Do you think so? Oh, dear." The fair-haired girl blushed as a tall, manly, cavalry officer in a uniform of blue and gold doffed his hat, bowing graciously as he passed.
Faith's quick mind pounced on the occasion to raise her sister's spirits. "There," she said quietly. "See? Aren't you glad you washed up and put on your best bonnet?"
"Captain Tucker already said I looked lovely, today," Charity countered, blushing demurely and twirling the tails of the bow tied beneath her chin. "I think he's wonderful."
Her sister was appalled. "Handsome is as handsome does, as Grandma Reeder used to say." Faith likened the horrid wagon boss to an unruly billy goat, bad to the bone and just as dangerous a creature to turn your back on. She knew better than to criticize him openly, of course, because he literally held their future in his hands. But that didn't mean she had to pretend to admire him. He was a necessity. Nothing more.
Leading the way into the trading post, Faith took one whiff of hot, stale air and wished she could hold her breath indefinitely. The cloying smells were no improvement over the pungent aromas of the street, they were simply more varied. Spices, coffee beans, vinegar, molasses and salted fish added their own tang to the almost palpable atmosphere.
Judging by the overwhelming odor of sweat and smoke liberally laced with dried buffalo dung, most of the custom-that Faith blamed them. Now that she and Charity had spent two long months traveling from Independence, Missouri to Fort Laramie in the Territories, they, too, realized how few of their old customs and manners fit the wearying trek.
Glancing around the crowded room for the proprietor, she spied an older woman with a topknot of gray hair. Faith watched her deftly wrap and tie a package, hand it to a matron in a dark wool dress, accept payment, then turn to help the next of the noisy, milling customers.
"Come on." Taking her sister's hand, Faith began to lead her between the piles of flour sacks, kegs of tar and barrels of pickles to wait their turn to order supplies.
They were quite near their goal by the time Faith paid full attention to the tall, broad-shouldered man at the counter ahead of them. He was as rustic as anyone present, yet different. Intriguing. For one thing, he didn't smell as if he never bathed! While his back was turned, she took the opportunity Sighing, the man turned to go. With the Beal sisters directly in his path there was little room for polite maneuvering.
For a heart-stopping instant his troubled gaze met Faith's. Held it. His eyes were the color of smoke, of a fog-shrouded mountain meadow at dawn. And his beard, almost the same hue as his buckskins, continued to remind her of a stalking mountain lion. Faith caught her breath.
The man nodded politely, pushing past them toward the door. Charity gave a little squeak of protest and fell back as he passed. Faith stood her ground. She had never felt so tiny in her entire life. Yet she experienced no fear, even though the plainsman was rough-hewn and dusty from the trail.
The gray-haired woman noted Faith's watchful interest. "Feel kinda sorry for him, I do."
Faith frowned. "I beg your pardon?"
"That big fella. He's lookin' for his betrothed. Might as well be lookin' for a will-o'-the-wisp. Got about as much chance a findin' one."
"Oh, dear. I'm so sorry."
Faith saw him pause to show something small to several groups of people, then square his hat on his head and leave the trading post. Thinking of her own home and family, her heart broke for the poor man. She knew all too well what it was like to lose a loved one. As she absently laid her hand over the heart-shaped onyx pendant containing a lock of her mother's hair, she vowed to add the stranger's quest to her nightly prayers.
The shopkeeper shrugged. "Happens a lot out here. Folks windin' up lost, I mean. Now, what can I do for you ladies?"
Focusing on the reason for their visit, Faith took a scrap of paper from her reticule and handed it over. "We'll need these supplies. Do you have them all?"
"Coffee'll cost you dear," the woman said, licking the point of a pencil and beginning to check off items on the list.
"The flour's no problem, though. And the bacon. You'll have to go across to the mercantile if you want a paper of pins."
"All right." Faith couldn't help glancing toward the doorway where she'd last glimpsed the intriguing man. Sadly, he'd gone.
"Indians steal pins if I keep 'em here," the shopkeeper went on. "Candy, too. Regular thieves, they are."
Charity grasped her sister's arm in alarm. "You see? I told you we shouldn't have come."
"Oh, nonsense. Surely you don't think there were no thieves at home in Ohio." Faith shook her off.
"You in a hurry?" the proprietress asked. "Otherwise we'll have this packed up and ready to go in an hour or so. Have to send Will out to the smokehouse for another side of bacon. You put aside enough bran to pack it in a barrel real good like?"
"Yes. And there's no hurry," Faith assured her, ignoring Charity's scowl. "Our friend Mr. Ledbetter is at the black-smith's getting a wagon wheel fixed. No telling when we'll be ready to go back to the train."
"I got lots o'pretty Indian trinkets," the woman urged. "Or you could do what most of the ladies do and go wonder at the dry goods in the mercantile. They got twenty
thirty new bolts o' calico since winter. Been meanin' to go have a look-see myself. Never seem to find time." She wiped her hands on her apron. "Tell 'em Anna Morse sent you."
Faith thanked her for her advice. "We'll be back in a bit, Mrs. Morse. We're the Beal sisters. This is Charity and I'm Faith. We're with the Tucker train."
"Yes," Charity added proudly. "Captain Ramsey Tucker is kindly looking after us."
Faith noticed an immediate change in the woman's countenance. Her gray eyebrows knit, her wrinkles becoming more pronounced as her eyes narrowed in a wary expression. It was somewhat of a relief for Faith to see that she, herself, was not the only one disturbed by references to the captain.
That realization gave her pause. What might Mrs. Morse know about their wagon train? And would she reveal the truth, if asked?
Faith glanced nervously at her sister. Any candid conversation must not take place in front of Charity. The silly girl was too smitten with Tucker to be trusted to hold her tongue, especially if the news was disturbing.
Pondering alternatives, Faith recalled their schedule. They were to lay over in camp the rest of today and tomorrow before pushing on to California. In that length of time she was bound to be able to sneak back into the fort and make some discreet inquiries of Anna Morse. She only hoped she could live with whatever secrets were revealed.
The sun had crested and started toward the west as Faith waited on the plank walkway in front of the trading post. A small bundle from the mercantile, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, lay at her feet where it had been for the past three hours. The rest of their purchases remained inside.
Shielding her eyes from the afternoon glare, she seemed oblivious to the people pushing past. She fanned her burning cheeks with an embroidered handkerchief while looking left and right in anticipation of the arrival of the Ledbetters' wagon. Repairs to the wheel must be taking a very long time.
Charity tugged at her sister's sleeve. "It's fearful hot and dusty out here. I'm going back into the store." She pulled harder. "Come with me."
"Just a moment more." Faith pushed her slat bonnet off the back of her head, letting it hang down her back by its strings while she dabbed away the drops of perspiration on her forehead.
"No. I'm frightened," Charity insisted. "I told you, Ramsey
warned us not to come into town at all. He said he'd take care of buying our supplies for us. He was right. We should have listened to him."
Faith could hardly tell her gullible sister that the nefarious captain was not going to get his hands on any more of their money if she could help it. Not even to run simple errands. She'd paid dearly for their spot with the train because she hadn't known any better. Now, she knew they'd been cheated. She wouldn't play the fool twice.
Instead of arguing she merely said, "We'll be fine." Cupping one pale hand around her mouth, Charity made a pouting face and leaned closer to whisper. "The Indians get more terrible looking all the time. See them scratching? I hate to think why. Makes me want to dip the hem of my skirt in kerosene to ward off the fleas!"
"You're being a silly goose." Faith took her sister's shoulders, physically turned the girl to face the door to the trading post, shoved the paper-wrapped bundle into her hands and gave her a push. "All right. Go on. Suffer in the stench of those stacks of awful buffalo hides if you want. I'm perfectly happy out here."
Charity turned back. "The captain told us to stay together."
"Captain Tucker is merely our guide," Faith said flatly. "I will not pretend we aren't beholden to him, but neither will I cede to his every command."
"I can't believe you're being so mean. He's a brave and wonderful man."
"That remains to be seen." Faith took a deep breath and made a decision. "Look, I can't abide standing here wasting my time any longer. I have wash to do and food to prepare back in camp. Fixing one loose wagon wheel shouldn't take this long. I'm going to walk to the blacksmith's and see what's delayed Mr. Ledbetter."
Charity gasped. "You can't do that! Not here. Not alone."
"Then you'll come with me?"
The pale girl stepped back quickly, clutching the package to her breast. "I can't. It's not fair to ask me."
That reaction was what Faith had counted on. Two months as her sister's constant companion and chaperone had been an insufferable trial. If the Lord hadn't granted her an extra dose of patience, she'd surely have throttled the girl by now, especially when Charity had claimed she'd accidentally lost both their black dresses while washing them in a flooded river and they'd been forced to cease wearing mourning for their mother far too soon. For Faith, a few minutes respite from her familial duty would be like a breath of cool breeze in the midst of oppressive heat.
She composed herself, then said, "All right, Charity, dear. Then why don't you go inside and check the rest of our order to be certain everything is exactly as it should be?"
"I could do that." The younger woman began to blink and smile sweetly. "The captain would be proud of my efficiency, wouldn't he?"
"Undoubtedly. I'm certain Mr. Ledbetter will tell him you are the picture of virtue. And you needn't worry about me. It's obvious the army has plenty of men here to keep the peace."
"Oh. Well, if you're sure you'll be all right
" Wheeling quickly, Charity gathered her skirts and darted through the door.
Faith breathed a relieved sigh as she turned away to look down the street. She'd often thought it must be a sin to wish for self-serving favors from heaven, yet there were times she couldn't help hoping some suitable young swain would soon rescue her from her sister's trying foolishness.
Tiny flies continued to buzz around Faith's head. Beads of perspiration gathered on her temples while sweaty rivulets trickled down her back between her shoulder blades. Ignoring the discomfort, she squashed her bonnet back on her head, whipped the ties into a loose bow and started off.
Wide cracks between the rough-sawed boards of the walkway captured the narrow heels of her best shoes, forcing her to either descend into the street or chance taking a bad fall. Since Charity had never learned to handle the mule team, Faith certainly couldn't afford to be incapacitated. Not unless she wanted to be compelled to put up with whatever form of retaliation or retribution the unctuous Captain Tucker decided to arrange.
Since their last set-to over his brutality toward one of her mules that very morning, she'd suspected that the captain would shortly come up with some lame excuse why relief drivers, Ab or Stuart, could no longer be spared to handle her wagon. Well, fine. It would be her pleasure to show Ramsey Tucker that at least one Beal sister was capable of something besides giggling helplessness. If he wouldn't provide the assistance he'd promised when she'd joined the train, Faith would handle the lines herself, just as she had at home in Ohio.
She set her jaw. Tucker had underestimated her for the last time. She'd stood up to him before and she'd do it again. And, oh, was he going to be scalded!
Faith shuddered at the memory of his dark, penetrating eyes, the way he'd stared at her, spitting that disgusting tobacco juice at her feet. He was not a person to be taken lightly. But then, neither was she.