From the Author
From the Inside Flap
Brooke Marie Baker pressed a hand to her thumping heart and forced herself to breathe normally as she walked into town beside the last wagon of the caravan. Whether she wanted to be here or not, they had arrived. Six months of grueling travel across rugged prairies and mountain passes. Aching back. Aching feet. Oppressive heat and little to eat. Yet she'd be willing to travel on forever if it meant she didn't have to be here. Didn't have to give up her freedom.
This morning Harry had said they would arrive in Lewiston today, but she had hoped something would delay the inevitable.
The weathered facades of the clapboard houses she walked past and the monotonous creak of the wagon wheels turning over the graveled street proved her hope had been futile.
Along both sides of the road, as they turned onto the main street, people stopped to stare. Brooke didn't meet their gazes but kept her perusal focused on the buildings. Real buildings with boardwalks, stairs, and windows. The last time she'd seen boardwalks had been three months ago at Fort Laramie.
Ahead, someone let out a loud whoop of joy.
She looked down the line of bonnet-topped Conestogas.
The first wagons had come to a stop, and apparently the gathered crowd had been anxiously awaiting their arrival. Toward the front of the throng, a cluster of men stood, studying the caravan expectantly.
Almost all of them had long, tobacco-stained beards. Not one looked like he was under fifty-five, and several had no compunctions about scratching themselves in public. One man, thick black suspenders holding up his baggy pants, ogled Brooke from head to toe. Then, still scrutinizing her, he leaned to one side and spat a stream of tobacco.
She felt a familiar quiver of fear and glanced away, offering the man no challenge.
"Let's get on with the marryin'," a deep voice toward the back shouted. "I got plenty o' work waitin' for me back ta home." A loud grumble of agreement followed.
An older man scratched at his beard and complained, "You all was supposed to be here two days ago."
"Gentlemen! Gentlemen!" Harry's spurs jangled as he jumped to the ground from his position in the lead wagon. He was using his let's-stay-calm tone--the same one he'd used when Emily Donaldson had discovered the much-too-friendly beaver in the bathing hole back on the Platte and every last woman had rushed screaming from the water. "Give me a moment to gather your brides, and then we can proceed."
The grumblings ceased and, apparently satisfied the men had gotten his message, Harry turned and strode Brooke's way, thumbs hooked into his large silver belt-buckle. "Come on, ladies. Everybody circle up. We're here." His familiar rap-rap as he knocked on the side of the first wagon resounded down the street.
Her stomach threatened to empty right there in front of God and everyone. She stepped back behind the tailgate, drew in a long breath, held it, and eased it out between pursed lips. Pushing aside memories of days gone by, she forced her shoulders to relax. While she dared not hope that things would be different this time, neither did she want her nervousness to be apparent.
Rap-rap. He'd reached the second wagon. Only four more to go.
She took another breath and released it on a low whisper. "You can do this. Calm down."
A moment later he peered around the end of the wagon. "Brooke? I need everyone to meet up front, please. The men have a minister here already."
"I know." The words emerged on a squeak, and she pressed moist palms together, rubbing them in circles.
Harry gave her a sympathetic look. "You don't have anything to worry about. I'm real careful to make sure all the men are honest, upstanding citizens."
Emily Donaldson rounded the wagon, her red-painted lips puckered in aggravation and one dark eyebrow arched. "Comforting, I'm sure, Harry, for a young girl like her." She pierced the wagon-master with a glare.
If only Emily knew. But she didn't. None of them knew anything about her or the real reason she was here.
Harry snorted and stalked off, grousing, "Just be up front in five minutes. And best you follow instructions this time, Emily Donaldson!"
Emily huffed. "What do men know?" She put an arm around Brooke and rested one cheek on the top of her head. "Come on, now." She gave Brooke a gentle squeeze. "No use us trying to postpone the inevitable."
"I suppose you're right." Brooke trailed after her past the row of wagons, feeling sweat trickle down her back.
All the women gathered on one side of the street under the overhang in front of the bank. The men clustered across the way, looking them over like meat on a market table.
She swallowed down the burn pressing at the back of her throat. Of course she hadn't expected anything better. She pressed the sleeve of her dress to the beads of moisture dotting her forehead. If it wasn't so hot, this might be easier to face.
The minister in the dusty street between the two groups raised his arms for silence. "All right, listen up now. To make this as efficient as possible, I will call forward each man. He will present me with his documents, and then I will call forward one of you women and we'll have a ceremony for that couple, then move on to the next one. My wife and Mr. Preston here--" he glanced over his shoulder at a plump woman and a frowning man standing off to one side, "have agreed to be witnesses, and the hotel down the street has prepared a special meal for the occasion."
A chorus of appreciation rose from the men. The women remained silent. Only one or two even shuffled their feet.
"Oh and one more thing." The minister again gestured for everyone's attention. "Is there a Miss, ah--" he patted several pockets then finally pulled a paper from the one in his shirt and consulted it--"Brooke Baker, here?"
Brooke blinked in surprise. Could this be a reprieve? Maybe the man Uncle Jackson had pledged her to had died or changed his mind. She stepped forward.
But Harry spoke before she could find her voice. "Yeah, she's here. What do you need with her?"
The minister peered at her over the top of his spectacles. "Miss Baker?"
Mouth dry, she nodded.
"Your intended has asked that I escort you by stage to a town about half a day's ride from here called Greer's Ferry. So you won't meet him until tomorrow."
Brooke's knees nearly gave out in relief, but by some miracle she stayed on her feet. "Oh, thank you, sir." Heat rose up from her collar and into her face. She'd sounded a trifle too gleeful.
Easing to the back of the crowd, she relaxed against the building's warm brick and tucked her trembling hands behind her. Her eyes dropped closed, and she tilted her face to the sun.
One more day. One more day of freedom.
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