A Woman on a Mission
The wagon train ride from Missouri to Kansas territory is rife with perils. But there are bigger obstacles for Dr. Victoria Fenway than cholera or creek floods. Years ago, she and wagon-train captain Joseph Rickard were deeply in love. Now, Victoria is tracking the man who killed her late husband, and she is determined to continue his work rescuing slaves. She can't allow herself to fall for Joseph againnot when he abandoned her once before.
Joseph told Victoria he'd love her forever, and he's been as good as his word. Misunderstanding led to her marrying another man. But with dangerous slavers on their trail, he'll do anything to keep her safe until they reach a new homeand a second chance.
About the Author
Discover more about their work at www.hannahalexander.com
Read an Excerpt
Dr . Victoria Fenway sat beside her young assistant in the opening of her host's covered wagon, grinding herbs with mortar and pestle as she studied the tree-shrouded wilderness for a shadow, a shape or movement that might tell her their camp was being watched by a monster.
Broderick Thames, her husband's murderer, was indeed a monster, and he was here in the south of Missouri. She had no doubt of that. For the past few days, after discovering the first unique track of the killer's fire-red horse, she'd lived on the razor edge of fear. He'd come this way for a reason, but why?
A screech of youthful male terror reached her from a distance. She jerked, startled, spilling powdered cham-omile everywhere.
Her fourteen-year-old helper, Heidi Ladue, dropped her empty teabags and caught Victoria by the arm. "Dr. Fenway, that sounds like Claude. Did you hear a splash?"
Victoria turned and tried to peer through the trees toward the roar of the flooded creek that had halted their journey today. "In that torrent? How could anyone hear a single splash?"
Another cry reached them from the direction of the creek. "The rope," came a familiar voice. "Help me, please! Get the rope."
Heidi scrambled from her perch on the wagon's edge, long strands of her flax-pale hair dangling over her shoulders and the calico ruffles of her sleeves. "That is Claude. He's in trouble!"
Victoria shoved her work aside and leaped from beneath the canvas of the Ladue wagon. "We don't have the ropes. Your mother tied the horses with them." They'd been unable to form a corral with the wagons on this narrow strip of land between cliffs and overflowing creek.
She ran toward the trees in an effort to catch sight of Claude but all she could see was muddy, churning water between giant trunks of oak and broadleaf evergreens. Heidi's younger brother was not a clumsy boy. Could Thames be nearby? Could that wicked man have pushed him?
Heidi clutched Victoria's arm and tugged. "He was with the Johnston boys earlier. Please come, Dr. Fenway. They had a rope. They were trying to make a pulley out of it to get the wagon across the water."
Victoria allowed herself to be pulled forward. "They told you this?"
"No, ma'am, I could see it with my own eyes." Heidi released her grip and turned toward the creek. "I heard them talking. I told the captain and he got on 'em, but they didn't listen. They've been up to something, and I don't see Claude, but right there's the Johnston boys."
She pointed toward Claude's constant companions, blond-haired Buster and Gray Johnston. They stood across a narrow clearing beside a huge oak tree that shaded a section of the raging water. They were struggling mightily to straighten a tangled mess of rope that connected their wagon to the tree.
Despite stern reprimands, the boys appeared determined to float their wagon to the other bank before the floodwaters died down, like children taking a dare to prove they were men. They were proving just the opposite with their careless disregard for safety.
"Buster?" Victoria called out, clutching her funereal-black skirts and hurrying through treacherous mud toward the boys, Heidi at her side. "Didn't you two hear your friend? He's in trouble."
"I know, but this here's what he needs." Buster held up an end of the rope in his hand. "It's too knotted."
Claude cried out again and Heidi turned to run toward the sound of her brother's voice. "It's the creek, Doctor. I know he fell into the creek!"
Buster tugged with more force on the rope, his face dripping with sweat. "I'm tryin', ma'am, doin' all I can, but he's got to have this to get out!"
"Heidi, be careful!" Victoria turned back to the Johnston brothers. "Boys, please hurry. What is Claude doing in the water?"
"Hangin' on for life right now," Gray said.
Victoria could imagine all sorts of awful endings to this and it made her dizzy. "To what?"
"That isn't good enough. We need your help right now." Victoria wanted to stamp her foot. Did these young men have difficulty grasping the plain truth? She still couldn't see the thirteen-year-old boy. "Find something else, a plank of wood, a branch. Something!"
"Gotta get this thing unwound to reach him." Buster's fingers slid on the muddy knots. "He's way out there."
Victoria wanted to thump their heads together as she watched the detritus being shoved along at a mighty pace down the widened creek. Couldn't they get a little more excited about the threat to their friend's life? "No stump's going to protect him from being knocked to pieces if he's in that creek. You need to try something besides the rope and do it quickly."
As if he hadn't heard her, Buster gave the snarl another tug, which made it cling more tightly to the tree.
Victoria nearly growled aloud. "Buster, now!" She could hear only Claude's cries for help over the flood-stage roar of Flat Creekwhich was anything but flat at the moment. It sounded as if an invisible giant rampaged through this southern Missouri valley, tearing trees from their roots to thrust them out of the racing, muddy water. And now Heidi, too, ran dangerously close to the edge of the steep bank.
Victoria turned, slid and nearly fell in the thick mud. "Heidi Ladue, you get away from the water! Help me find something long enough to reach him."
Heidi came rushing back, her dainty, even features tight with fear, pale hair flying out behind her in the breeze. "He's too far out, Doctor. We can't reach him." She grabbed Victoria's arm. "I'm scared," she said, her voice catching.
"Round up help from the camp. Now, my dear." Victoria gave her a quick hug and urged her up the hill, but as she looked over the girl's shoulder she finally caught sight of Claude. He was being flung back and forth in the water, choking and spitting, his head barely above the surface as he grasped the stump. "Get the adults quickly!"
As Heidi ran up the muddy track, Victoria raced along the side of the creek. "Hold on, Claude, we'll get you out!" She searched for a thick limb or a length of vine she might use to reach the boy, but the limb she picked up immediately broke. The vine fell apart. Everything was too soaked to hold up under Claude's weight.
She glanced over her shoulder to see if the Johnston boys were having any luck with the rope, but Buster and Gray were now in some argument she couldn't make out.
"Boys, grow up and get to work!" she called, but they didn't seem to hear her. With the sound of the water, she could barely hear herself.
She closed her eyes and screamed at the top of her lungs, "Gentlemen! Help!" Those young men should never have been allowed to leave home without their father. Instead of eighteen and sixteen, they behaved like eight and six. Why had Joseph chosen them to help build his town in Kansas?
She turned and ran toward Claude again. "We need more men on this trip," she muttered to herself. How would this group cross the state border safely into Kansas Territory if the Johnston boys kept pulling stunts like this?
With a glance uphill, she searched for the one man who claimed to always be there for help and protection, though she couldn't see proof that he practiced his assurances. "Captain Rickard?" she called at the top of her voice. "Trouble! Help us, please."
But Joseph was nowhere in sight. According to Heidi, he was helping collect wood for the fire, a job Claude and his friends were supposed to be doing. Instead of helping, Claude had hovered near the creek with Gray Johnston, both of them in apparent awe of Buster Johnston's glowing presence.
Victoria scowled at the thought, but she realized that, deep down, she'd been as hopeful as Buster that there would be a way past the flooding so they could cross, though they each had widely divergent motivations. She knew Buster wanted a fresh start as far from home as he could get, and he was in a hurry to get there. He'd suffered deeply after knocking over a lantern where he worked and burning down the general store in their town. A man had died because of Buster's clumsiness. Anyone his age would go in search of a new life after that. What she feared was that the clumsy bear cub would leave a path of destruction behind him.
She, on the other hand, wanted to scout ahead of the others and scour the fresh mud for familiar tracks. For the first couple of weeks she'd been able to put aside her thirst for revenge as she'd settled in with the friendly people of the wagon train, especially the Ladues. Last week, however, she'd seen evidence that the killer, Thames, had been through the town where the Johnston boys had joined them. She'd seen the unique hoof-print three times along the trail they now followeda horseshoe that had an inch of length broken off on the right front hoof of Thames's crimson-colored horse.
She owed Matthew so much; finding his killer was the least she could do to honor his memory. She knew Joseph had wanted her to come with them as their physicianthough she felt herself to be a poor substitute for her late husbandbut she had her own reasons for coming, and the murdering slaver was never far from her thoughts. He terrified her and he enraged her, and she couldn't tell which emotion controlled her at any given time. What she knew, however, was that she could not rely on her emotions. They could betray her as ruthlessly as Joseph had done a decade ago.
But Joseph didn't belong in the same league as Broderick Thames. A man who killed for the simple pleasure of beating his political opponent was a monster, indeed. What would he do if he knew this wagon train was filled with abolitionists set on building a slave-free community in Kansas Territory? He would find a way to destroy them all, and he had the connections to do it.
"Someone, please!" Heidi's high-pitched voice echoed down to Victoria as she searched around the camp. "Dr. Fenway, look!" The girl's voice spiraled upward in terror, echoing against the cliffs that halfway surrounded the wagon train on the eastern side of the flooded creek.
Victoria saw Heidi pointing and turned to find that Claude no longer held on to the stump. Only a lone hand stuck out of the water. It grasped upward, much farther downstream than expected. The stump floated away, roots pointing toward the sky as if they were hands grasping for a firm foundation. The water was carrying Claude.
Before she could catch up with his progress, he shoved away from the tumbling log and lunged toward the bank, at least fifty yards from where the Johnston boys continued to wrangle with their rope.
She raced toward him, stumbling over vines that had been washed ashore. The Ladue family had already lost their father. What a nightmare if Luella and Heidi were to lose Claude, as well.
Even as she ran, however, she heard solid footsteps coming up behind her. She could imagine she felt the shaking of the ground when she heard the rush of heavy breathing. She looked to find one of the older men, Mr. Reich, racing by her, slipping and catching himself on the wet grass and mud, paunch hanging past his belt. The wagon train's scout, long-legged, raw-boned McDonald, ran barely a stride's length behind Reich. Victoria tripped over another vine and finally lost her balance for good to land in a patch of muddy grass. Others rushed to her to help her up, but she urged them to follow Reich and McDonald.
There was a sudden throng of rescuers, including Luella Ladue with her daughter. Luella surpassed all but the two first men, her light brown hair flying. She jumped into the creek with her grip on a thick vine connected to a gnarled oak tree.
Victoria sat where she was for a few seconds, glad for the rescuers but still anxious. No one should be in the water. True, it wasn't stagnant, but who knew how many stagnant pools and contaminated ponds now mingled with the running water? She'd seen too many cholera victims in her ten years of medical practice.
Mrs. Ladue locked her free arm around her son's middle. Luella was a strong woman, as she'd had to be since her husband's death last year, but Victoria feared she might not be strong enough to fight the water and the tossing logs and trees even worse, the contamination that could lurk in the water.
"Luella, you've both got to get out of there now!" Victoria pulled herself to her feet. Despite her warning, others followed Luella's lead and jumped in to help push Claude up. "Please, stay out of the water. It could be poison!" And yet, she saw no other way for them to haul the weakened boy from the fierce rush of the creek.
Mr. Reich and Mr. McDonald had flopped onto their bellies at the edge of mud, ready with arms outstretched to pull the others to shore. Typically the first person to help out when needed, Mr. Reich had a heft about him that suggested more padding than muscle, but he was as strong as a warhorse. Mr. McDonald, wiry and tall, matched his friend's strength.
The men and women of their group stood along the bank or knelt over the side to help, and several made use of the same vine Luella had used to lower herself into the dirty creek water. It appeared to the onlookers, of course, that Claude was safe for now as his mother grasped him and their rescuers formed a chain to aid his rise from the flood.
Knowing Luella, Victoria knew Claude was in for the scolding of his life, after his mother had smothered him with kisses.
She heard the voice and turned to see the man who had, to her shame, held her heart captive for ten years. He came running through the camp with a load of wood in his arms, his strength making the load look insignificant. Captain Joseph Rickard was a title she'd never become accustomed to these past four weeks of tedious travel through unmarked hills and over rocky terrain. After the first few days of attempting to use the formal address, she'd felt so awkward she'd reverted to calling him Joseph, despite a few raised eyebrows. After all, had he not abandoned her in St. Louis with Matthew, they would be married. It was his decision, his rejection, that had helped her keep her distance from him most of the time.