A love triangle in the most inhospitable countryside!
When Virginia leaves her home for Fort Laramie, Wyoming, answering to a mail order bride ad, she doesn’t realize the danger and the heartbreak she will soon have to face.
Her dreams of a better life in the frontier with her fiancé, the handsome and ambitious Lieutenant Charles Harrington, are quickly tested because of Jesse Wilson. Soon, she discovers herself also falling for that mysterious but kind-hearted man … even though his secrets can cost many people’s lives.
And now, Virginia finds herself in the middle of a vicious war with the fearsome Sioux and Cheyenne Indian tribes who look to avenge all the people and lands they have lost.
The war that rages on in the wilderness outside of Fort Laramie grows closer and more treacherous by the day and Virginia agonizes over the safety of Charles, Jesse … and herself.
Historical research is one of my favorite parts of writing a novel. It makes the past come alive for me.
I take pains to make my novels historically accurate, but occasionally I take artistic license. This is one such occasion.
General George Crook, Martha Jane Cannary (or Canary), and Ah-ho-ap-pa the Indian princess were all real people who lived and/or worked in the Wyoming Territory in the mid to late 1800s. But I’ve given them adventures in this book that they did not, or may never have had in real life. I say may never have had, because Cannary (aka ‘Calamity Jane’) told many dramatic stories about her exploits that are almost impossible to verify now.
This much is generally accepted as true: Cannary lived and worked in the Dakota and Wyoming territories and is reported to have occasionally visited Fort Laramie, imbibed too much liquor, and worked sporadically as a prostitute. She was featured in several Deadwood Dick dime store novels. However, the rest of her exploits in this story are my own invention.
Likewise, the Cheyenne attack against Fort Laramie, and the specific battle I created in this novel between Crook’s forces and the Indian nations are both entirely fiction. In spite of the fact that it had no walls, the Fort Laramie of the 1870s never suffered a large-scale attack.
I hope my readers will forgive these departures from history and enter into the romance of the western frontier. I hope that like me, they will marvel at the skill and courage of both the men of the U.S. Cavalry, and their awe-inspiring adversaries, the warriors of the Cheyenne and Sioux nations.
“Tell her a story fit for a lady,” Big Bill objected. “This little yaller-haired gal’s gonna be gettin’ married soon. A bride from back east don’t want to hear about no settlers gettin’ scalped.” The big, shaggy frontiersman lifted a leather flask to his lips, belched, and settled more comfortably into his corner of the swaying stagecoach.
Virginia Woods glanced out the window to erase the mental image, if she could; and Big Bill’s friend, known to her only as Dead Eye, elbowed him in the ribs. “I know! I’ll tell her the story of the Indian princess, since we’re getting close to Fort Laramie.”
“That’s more like it,” Big Bill rumbled, with a sleepy nod of approval.
“Well, miss,” Dead Eye began, with evident relish, “a few years back they was a beautiful Indian princess, name of ‘Ah-ho-ap-pa,’ who came to Fort Laramie every day. She’d sit off to the side of the parade ground and watch the young troopers marching back and forth, all slicked up and shiny.
“Her daddy was a powerful Sioux chief, and it made him mad to see her hangin’ around the fort all the time. He tried to get her interested in some of the young Sioux warriors, but no matter what he said to her, he couldn’t make her stop going.
“See, she’d fallen in love with one of them young buck officers, ‘cause he looked so purty in that uniform; and she went to the young fellow one day and told him that she loved him.
“Well sir, the young fellow got right sad. He told her, ‘Honey, you can’t fall in love with me. I’ve already got me a girl back east, and when my time’s up here, I’m going there to marry her.’
“Well, it just broke her poor little heart; and she stopped comin’ to the fort. She went back home to her daddy. And not long after, the whole outfit picked up and moved out to the plains, to meet with some other tribes and throw in together to fight against the settlers and gold diggers and railroad people comin’ out onto Indian land.
“But while they was out there, that little girl came down sick; and she was already pinin’ for that boy. The grip carried her off, but before she died, she made her daddy promise to bury her at Fort Laramie.
“Well, they was a long way off; but her daddy was so broke up, he and his people traveled more than 200 miles to bring her back to the fort. And when the Sioux chief told the fort commander what his daughter had asked, the whole place turned out to throw her the biggest funeral ever seen. Them soldiers slicked up all shiny, and marched up and down, and played purty music, and they buried her just outside the fort. You can see her coffin to this day. It’s on a raised platform, just as the road runs down to Fort Laramie.”
“That’s a pretty story,” Virginia told him, with a smile. “Very romantic! Even if it is sad.”
“It wouldn’t happen now,” Big Bill put in sagely. “Not after that business with Custer, and the Little Big Horn.” He lifted the flask again.
“What’s that?” Virginia asked.
Dead Eye shook his head. “Oh, honey, you don’t want to know.”
The story having ended, the rocking of the coach slowly lulled the other passengers to silence, if not to sleep. Virginia turned back to the window, but there wasn’t much to see outside. Her stagecoach journey from Cheyenne had so far revealed the Wyoming Territory to be a vast, open prairie, where grass was plentiful, but trees were scarce. At the moment, the grass on the landscape was wiry and small and grew in unsightly tufts all over the low, rocky hills.
It was the wildest and most frightening place Virginia Woods had ever seen; and her fellow passengers had added to its terror by telling her of every lurid massacre that had ever happened there. She couldn’t wait to get to the safety of Fort Laramie. It was the last outpost of civilization in this wild and dangerous wasteland; and Charles was there.
Virginia reached into her bag and pulled out a little daguerreotype of her fiancé, Lt. Charles Harrington. He was dark and very handsome in his dashing officer’s uniform, and she looked forward to meeting him at last.
She hadn’t been able to join him for six long months. Their wedding had been plagued by delays and difficulties, and it was a joy to know that in a few days, those frustrations would be gone forever.
Virginia smiled a little. Miss Fanny Beacham, the church organist back home, was responsible for her happiness. Miss Fanny was the one who slid an arm around her waist one Sunday, and whispered in her ear:
“I know that the war didn’t leave many men to come back to Poplar Grove. But don’t be downcast, girlie! You needn’t be a spinster. I’ve heard that the west is a paradise for single women. It’s full of young, lonely, unmarried men! If you want my advice, you should answer a mail order bride advertisement. From a military man, mind; he’ll be neat and clean and handsome, and he’s always sure of a paycheck!”
She had only laughed at first, but as time went on, she saw the truth of Miss Fanny’s words. Her home town of Poplar Bluff, Ohio, had been hard hit by the war. Of all the men who had marched off, only a few had come limping back. The town was bereft of all but old men and little boys; and the neighboring towns had fared little better.
So she had started to look in the newspapers for mail order bride ads. She hadn’t seen one that tempted her until she read Charles’ advertisement. He had sounded responsible and intelligent, and he’d described himself as a diligent young officer who would work hard for advancement.
But his picture was what really won her. Charles was a dashing fellow, and it had delighted and amazed her when he’d answered her letter. They’d become engaged in a matter of weeks, and everything had seemed set for her to take the train out west, when her elderly mother had fallen ill.
Virginia pulled her mouth down in gentle melancholy. She had nursed her mother for six months and had enlisted the help of a doctor all during that time; but in spite of their best efforts, her mother had passed away.
If there was one good thing about her harrowing journey, it was that its rigors took her mind off her sorrow for a while; and soon her husband’s embrace would comfort her.
Virginia closed her eyes, imagining it; and was still basking in that pleasant dream when the stagecoach jolted roughly to a sudden stop. There were pistol shots outside, and the driver yelled at the top of his lungs. Her two companions roused up with a start and dug frantically in their jackets.
The right-hand door popped open suddenly, and Bill and Dead Eye filled the open sky beyond with pistol fire.
But the left-hand door flew open a split-second later, and the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun covered them through it. A tall, dark figure on horseback commanded:
“Throw those guns out now!”
The two men cursed him in the vilest language Virginia had ever heard but threw their pistols through the open door.
The robber commanded: “Everybody outside. You men first!”
Virginia watched in terror as the big men crawled clumsily out of the cramped space. She was about to follow, when to her dismay, the bandit jumped down off his horse and vaulted up into the coach with her.
She got a glimpse of a sharp smile beneath the mask, and the next thing she knew, she was clamped up against the man’s chest, tight. He bent his head and gave her a wild and shockingly intimate kiss. She gasped and struggled against his chest, and the man pressed his lips to her ear and whispered:
“Sorry, miss. I just can’t resist temptation!”
He turned his head to give her cheek a sound smack, and then laughed to see her break free and scramble out of the coach.
The two men outside helped her climb down, and Dead Eye frowned:
“You all right, missy?”
Virginia dug in her bag and pressed a handkerchief to her lips to hide their trembling. Big Bill yelled hoarsely at the robbers as they hauled the strongbox away.
“Crow bait! We’ll be at your necktie party, boys!”
The masked man climbed down out of the coach and grinned: “You’ll have to catch us first!”
He jumped up on a big black, and the horse snorted and bounded away. The rest of the bandits spurred their mounts for the hills, yipping and yelling. The instant they turned their backs, Virginia’s two companions scrambled for the pistols they’d thrown on the dusty road, and ran after the fleeing bandits, shooting wildly.
The world went gray, and Virginia grasped the coach wheel with a gloved hand. The gunshots, the shouting, and everything except an odd buzzing faded away into the distance.
But she bowed her head and struggled fiercely, and gradually the world around her brightened, and the voices of her companions became sharp and clear again.
“This driver’s drilled. You’re going to have to climb up into the box, Bill.”
Virginia leaned her head against the side of the stage and fought as the gray wave surged over her again.
The groaning of the wounded driver filled the silence inside the coach as they set off again for Fort Laramie. Virginia gave him a sympathetic glance; he was a fresh-faced boy, not much older than she was herself, and he’d been shot through the shoulder.
Dead Eye uncorked his pocket flask and dripped whiskey into the wound, and the boy grimaced and writhed in pain. Virginia donated one of her unused handkerchiefs, and Dead Eye folded it up, pressed it onto the wound, and tied it up with his big, and not overly clean bandanna.
“There you go, boy,” Dead Eye grunted. “That’s going to have to hold you till we get to the fort.”
“They’re getting brave,” the boy groaned. “This makes the second time we’ve got hit this month!”
Dead Eye shook his head. “Ever since they found gold in them Black Hills, no stage run is safe anymore. But how them lunkheads could think that a run from Cheyenne could be a treasure coach, beats me!”
“They was gold in that box,” the boy gasped. “Not as much as a treasure coach, but they got a bag full of nuggets and some cash on its way to the fort.”
Dead Eye scowled and swore under his breath. “The fort payroll, most likely! They’re going to love that news! That whole fort should roust out and comb these hills. Them road agents are worse than the Indians!”
Virginia closed her eyes and rested her head against the window of the coach. She did her best to block out her surroundings, but it was a challenge. The coach was cramped and uncomfortable and she’d wanted to get out of it fifteen minutes after she’d climbed aboard in Cheyenne. But after days of coach travel, she was getting used to weariness, of being unpredictably jolted, of not being able to sleep. She withdrew inside her own thoughts, and the coach gradually became quiet. She drifted in a gray twilight for what seemed like hours.
She had lulled herself to a light drowse when Dead Eye’s voice roused her again. “Lookie there, missy,” his voice beckoned. “There’s the princess’ grave, just like I told you!”
Virginia opened weary eyes. Sure enough, there was a stark, lonely monument just outside the fort: a doorway, with two upright beams, and one wide cross beam holding a simple coffin. But her eyes quickly moved beyond it to Fort Laramie, lying in a broad, shallow basin just beyond the river. To her astonishment, the fort had no walls. It was a huge complex, with dozens of white buildings loosely ringed around a long, broad parade ground in the center.
Dead Eye’s voice interrupted her thoughts. “Are you staying at the hotel, missy?”
Virginia nodded, and her companion grunted: “We’ll bring you back, then. But we’re going straight into the fort now, to get this boy some doctorin’.”
“Of course.” Virginia gave the boy a pitying glance. He was lying slumped against the seat, with his eyes closed and his mouth open.
The coach rattled loudly across an iron bridge spanning the river, and Big Bill blew a horn to announce their arrival. Virginia saw people come running out of the distant buildings to meet them, and she closed her eyes and exhaled in relief.
She had arrived at Fort Laramie and was safe at last.
Thirty minutes after her arrival, Virginia found herself sipping tea in the parlor of a small private house facing the parade ground. One of the officer’s wives, Mrs. Parker, had seen her standing alone by the empty coach and had taken pity on her. The young woman had invited Virginia back to her home and offered her refreshment after her long journey.
Virginia took a polite sip of the tea and nibbled the jam-smeared biscuit with ladylike reserve; but it was the first decent food and drink she’d had for three days, and she was famished.
Mrs. Parker gave her a sympathetic glance. “Do you have family here, my dear?” she inquired politely. Virginia looked up at her and smiled.
“Yes, my fiancé. He doesn’t know I’m here yet, though. I’d like to rest and freshen up before I meet him.”
“Who is this lucky young man?” the woman smiled. “I’m sure to know him. This fort is a small place.”
“My fiancé is Lt. Charles Harrington,” Virginia replied proudly, and dug the little daguerreotype out of her bag.
“Charles Harrington? Are―are you sure?” her hostess stammered.
Virginia raised her brows. “Of course. This is his picture.” She handed the daguerreotype to her hostess, who took it with a stricken look. “We were engaged six months ago, but my mother’s illness prevented me from coming out until now.
“She passed away two weeks ago.”
The woman raised troubled eyes to Virginia’s. “Oh, I’m so sorry, my dear.” She handed the picture back. “You’ve been through a shocking ordeal, and you must be exhausted after your long trip. Why don’t you spend the night here with us? You can wash up and take a nap in my daughter’s bedroom. I’ll wake you when it’s time for dinner.”
“Oh, I couldn’t impose on you,” Virginia told her. “I’m staying at the Rustic Hotel. The driver would’ve dropped me there, except for the wounded young man.”
The woman rose and extended her hand. “It’s no trouble at all. Kurt and I will be hurt if you don’t stay with us. We always make a great fuss over newcomers.”
Virginia smiled, rose, and allowed herself to be led away. “You’re very kind. I am a little tired.”
“Just follow me.”
The woman showed her into a clean, bright room with a small bed, a few cupboards, and a big picture window overlooking the parade grounds.
“I’ll tell the children to be quiet, so you can rest,” Mrs. Parker smiled. “There’s water and soap in the wash basin, and a fresh towel.”
The sight of the soap made Virginia brighten. “Thank you so much,” she murmured gratefully.
“Not at all. I’ll call you when it’s time for dinner. If you need anything, just let me know.”
“I will and thank you again. You’re an angel.”
Mrs. Parker smiled, and the door closed softly behind her. Virginia unfastened her bonnet and moved immediately to the wash basin. She took the little bar of soap, lifted it to her nose, and inhaled its clean scent with deep and profound appreciation before plunging her hands in the clean, cool water.
Virginia glanced at her reflection. The young woman looking back at her in the little mirror had worried eyes but was otherwise not too evidently worn by her journey. Virginia smoothed her bright blonde hair back from her face and unpinned her hair. A thick blonde braid fell down across her shoulder, and she uncoiled it with deft fingers. She could brush and style her hair fresh before dinner.
She didn’t want Charles to see her looking mussed or untidy.
When she’d washed up, Virginia unhooked her jacket and skirt and corset, and climbed into the little bed wearing her shimmy. She felt cooler and more comfortable than she had since she left home, and she closed her eyes and stretched out luxuriantly in the little bed.
But when she turned over, slipped her small hand under the pillow, and gazed out through the big window, she happened to catch sight of Mrs. Parker’s little daughter.
She was running madly to the far side of the parade ground, and her calico skirts were flying.
A soft knock at the door wakened Virginia a few hours later. “Miss Woods? I’m going to set dinner on the table in a little while. My husband is going to be detained by his duties this evening, so it’ll be just you and I.”
“Thank you,” Virginia mumbled sleepily, and rubbed her eyes. When she turned to look, the parade ground outside the window was purple and blue with dusk, and small, golden squares of light glowed from the buildings across the compound.
There was a small pause from the other side of the door. “I also took the liberty of sending word to Lt. Harrington that you’ve arrived. I hope you won’t mind if he joins us after dinner this evening.”
Virginia sat up. “No, of course not!” she smiled. “I can’t wait to see Charles! I’ll be ready in a few minutes.”
There was no reply from outside, and Virginia threw the bedcovers back eagerly and rose to dress. She fished a small brush out of her bag and tamed her hair, braided it up neatly, and coiled it into a sleek, shining crown on the top of her head. She dressed with special care and smoothed the white cotton dress jacket spangled with tiny pink roses, and her pink satin skirt. She opened her bag, fished out a pair of tiny rose earrings, and fastened them on her ears.
Virginia took a deep breath and looked at herself in the mirror. She was as presentable as she could make herself; and she reached into her bag, unstopped a tiny vial of rose cologne, and dabbed a bit of scent behind her ears.
When she opened the bedroom door, the scent of beef stew drifted down the hall to greet her. Virginia put a hand to her stomach and prayed that it wouldn’t growl, because she hadn’t eaten much of anything in three days.
She followed the aroma of braised beef into a small dining room. The table was set with linen and proper pottery dishes, instead of the greasy tin plates at the stage sleepover stations. Mrs. Parker came in carrying a soup tureen, and Virginia asked anxiously:
“Can I help you set the food out?”
The older woman set the tureen carefully on the table. “No. You’re our guest. I want you to relax and enjoy your meal.”
Virginia sank into a chair and shook out a napkin. There was an empty glass at her elbow, and Mrs. Parker soon appeared with a bottle and filled it with red wine. Virginia took a sip and asked:
“Are your children going to be eating with us?”
“Not tonight,” her hostess replied. “They’re staying over at our friend’s house next door. Our children go back and forth constantly,” she told Virginia, with a twinkle, and settled into her chair. “All the children at this fort rotate from one house to another.” She set her glass down. “Shall I say grace?”
Mrs. Parker bowed her head. “Lord, thank you for bringing Virginia here safely across such a tremendous distance, and through so many dangers. Please be with the stage driver who was shot and heal him. Thank you for this family, this home, and this food, and please bring Virginia back to our home again. Amen.”
Virginia glanced at her hostess gratefully. “Thank you again. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t invited me here,” she confessed. “The man who was driving the stage disappeared.”
“I was glad to do it,” Mrs. Parker replied. “I can’t imagine how terrifying it must have been, to be held up at gunpoint! They’re going to have to do something about those road agents. They come down here to rob the stage, and then skin out to the Dakota Territory, because they know no one is going to chase them into the Indian lands.” She shook her head. “Did they dare to take anything from you, my dear?”
Virginia felt her cheeks going red. “No. Or at least, they didn’t take any money or valuables.”
Her hostess looked a question as she ladled stew onto Virginia’s plate, and Virginia added: “One of them jumped up into the coach and kissed me.”
“The brazen nerve!” Mrs. Parker exclaimed, her eyes flashing. “It’s beyond everything, when a thief can force himself on an innocent girl in broad daylight! Don’t you worry, dear,” she added angrily. “Once Colonel Yeager finds out what happened to you, he’ll find them, never fear!”
Virginia took a bite of stew and was momentarily distracted by the luxurious pleasure of an excellent meal. The beef simply melted in her mouth, and she could taste that some of the wine had gone into the stew. She closed her eyes in deep appreciation. “I’m afraid that won’t be the only reason the colonel will have to chase them,” she replied at last.
“What do you mean?”
Virginia gave her a rueful look. “The driver said they’d gotten money that was coming to the fort. Probably the payroll, they said.”
Mrs. Parker stared at her in open-mouthed amazement and was momentarily speechless.
“Yes,” Virginia murmured. “The two men with me picked up their guns and fired at the robbers as they were riding away, but as far as I know, they didn’t hit anyone.”
Virginia glanced at her hostess. Mrs. Parker was sitting there with her eyes squeezed shut and was clearly fighting to hold back an angry outburst. Virginia took another sip of wine and felt a pang of regret for the temporary, but real hardship the theft was going to pose for all the families at the fort.
To Virginia’s relief, Mrs. Parker forced herself to move on to other subjects, and she listened with interest as her hostess described the people and everyday life of the fort.
“We have a nice life here,” she told Virginia. “There’s been a lot of unrest with the Indians, of course, but we haven’t had anything alarming here at Ft. Laramie. Most of the fighting happens off to the north, in the Dakota Territory.
“This fort is a busy place. We’re right on the frontier, the last big trading post, and the last real bit of civilization. We’ve always had wagon trains full of settlers pushing west, and now that gold’s been found in the Dakotas, we get wagon trains full of prospectors going north, as well. And, of course, the stage headquarters are right across the river.” She took a bite of buttered peas.
“I saw my hotel,” Virginia frowned, “and I saw the way stations for the stage line. But what was that big U-shaped building a few miles out of town? I asked the men riding with me, but they only laughed, and refused to answer.”
Mrs. Parker gave her a short, straight look. “It’s a place I wish the colonel would have torn down,” she replied briskly. “It’s a scandal, but most military outposts are plagued by such places. It’s a house of ill repute, my dear,” she grumbled. “They call it the hog ranch, and for good reason. The creatures in it―because I can’t bring myself to call them women―look and behave like pigs. A dirtier, more hard-bitten, wicked lot never walked the earth! I hope you never have to meet them.”
“What, you mean they come to the fort?” Virginia asked in astonishment.
“Yes. To trade, and to tempt the foolish young men. Though any man who could be tempted by those filthy creatures has to be in a very sad way.”
Virginia digested that news in silence, and gradually worked her way through the beef stew, the buttered peas, and a slab of cornbread as her hostess painted a picture of the fort and the country round. At last she asked the question that had been in her heart for hours.
“Charles and I only corresponded by mail,” she confided shyly. “I haven’t even met him yet. Can you―can you tell me what he’s like?”
She raised hopeful eyes, but her hostess didn’t meet her glance. Mrs. Parker took a sip of wine and looked away. “Charles will be here soon, and the two of you can talk for as long as you like,” she replied. “I’ll let you have the parlor. You’ll want your privacy.”
“Thank you,” Virginia murmured.
Mrs. Parker rose from the table. “Would you like dessert, Virginia? I made a nice berry pie.”“Oh, no,” Virginia replied gratefully. “Everything was so delicious that I stuffed myself. I couldn’t eat another bite!”
The sound of a soft knock from the front of the house made both of them turn their heads. “That must be Charles now,” Mrs. Parker murmured. “I’ll be right back.”
Virginia’s heart jumped into her mouth, and she watched in wordless anticipation as her hostess rose from the table and disappeared through the dining room door. There followed the sound of a door opening, a brief, whispered conversation, and the sound of heavy boots walking across the floor.
The door opened again, and Mrs. Parker beckoned to her. “Come,” she said simply, and Virginia took a deep breath and rose to follow her.
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