August, 1854—Oregon Trail near Fort Laramie
The pungent scent of stale sweat mingled with something wild and musky, knotting Ellie Jefford’s stomach. Coal-black eyes locked with hers as a foul-smelling Sioux warrior circled her, clad in only a breechclout, leggings, and moccasins. Her heart raced and sweat snaked across her skin. The sweltering summer heat didn’t help matters.
Do not let on that you’re afraid, Ellison.
Guttural words broke the stillness, and she turned toward the two braves behind her. Ellie forced a slight smile. “Have you found something you want?” She formed the stilted sign language gestures that Frank had taught her, and after a moment, the three men laughed.
Wrong word, Ellie. It must have been. Yet knowing it was wrong and being able to fix it were two very different things. Using the right signs was of utmost importance. Their little business couldn’t survive if she agreed to trades that would benefit only the Sioux.
“Where. . .Frake?” The one named Wise Eagle labored over the English pronunciation as he signed the question in fluid motions.
“Frank is busy. I will help you today.”
Lord, forgive me.
It wasn’t really a lie.
Wise Eagle’s brow furrowed, and Ellie stumbled to sign the answer. He frowned at the trade goods she’d draped over the front porch railing. He and the other man, Kills Many, spoke quietly in their native tongue. Ellie’s skin crawled. They could be plotting anything, and she’d never know. If only she understood their words.
Something stirred the damp tendrils of hair that tickled her neck. She swiped at it, and her hand contacted something solid. Ellie spun. The third warrior stood behind her, his malformed hand, devoid of the last two fingers, poised as if to touch her hair. Her stomach clenched so tight a wave of nausea swept through her.
“Don’t touch me.” She adjusted her stance to see the other two men, who had turned to watch.
Broken Hand signed the word for trade, then pointed in her direction.
“What do you want?” Her throat went dry as she signed the question.
Again he reached toward her hair, grasping a loose tendril near her ear while producing something from a pouch at his waist. He pressed the small item into her palm, and Ellie held it up. A bear claw—for her hair. Tremors rolled through her, and she stepped back, pulling her hair free from the man’s grasp.
“No. No trade.” She held the claw out to him on her open palm.
Wise Eagle spoke, and all three looked toward the horizon. Broken Hand snatched the bear claw and returned it to his pouch before the three scurried toward their horses. They swung onto their mounts and rode away without a word.
As their hoofbeats faded into the distance, Ellie’s knees trembled. She searched the horizon. Nothing. Yet something had spooked the warriors. The horses in the nearby corral all focused on the same distant point. She squinted. Faint plumes of dust colored the sky, and a few wagons appeared in the distance.
“Lord, thank You for more customers.” She sighed and gathered the goods she’d brought out to show the Sioux. After she’d stashed the items on the counter, she slipped through the blanketed doorway that separated the storefront from their residence and hurried to Frank’s bedside.
Her aging father-in-law slept, his stubbly cheeks damp with sweat. Ellie wet a clean cloth in the nearby basin, sponged his face, and placed the folded cloth on his fevered forehead. He barely stirred. A knot clogged her throat, and her lower lids stung for the hundredth time that day.
“Father, please. This place has claimed my husband and child. I can’t bear to lose Frank too. Make him well.” She adjusted the blankets and laid a gentle hand on his too-warm shoulder. “Frank, there’s another wagon train coming. I’ll be right outside if you need me, all right?”
He didn’t stir.
Ellie straightened and headed toward the doorway again, though she paused to smooth her skirt and tuck the stray wisps of blond hair in place. She checked her appearance in the tiny mirror above the washstand. Far from perfect, but it would have to do. She exited the trading post to stand at the edge of the rickety porch.
She shaded her eyes and perused the long line of wagons, horses, and livestock. Quite a group, this one. At about the fourth or fifth wagon, her eyes scanned past, then returned, resting on a single familiar silhouette sitting tall atop a large black horse. At the sight of him, her pulse quickened and a smile parted her lips. A tendril of hair fell loose and tickled her jaw, and her fingers strayed to it.
Mercy. Had she known he was coming, she would have taken the extra minute to make herself more presentable.