The thick darkness of her bedroom pressed in until she cried out. She was suddenly awake. And alone.
With a gasp, she sat up in bed. Drenched in sweat with her legs tangled in the sheet, Eloise threw her pillow against the wall. Nausea rolled in her stomach. Scrambling out of bed, she leaned over the washbasin and retched.
At only twenty years old, she felt ancient. She had lived a lifetime already. Eloise Davidson, the widow, had woken up alone for the past fourteen months—months filled with weeks that felt like years.
The horrid nightmares had returned.
Gruesome though the dreams were, it was his warm arms, to have him hold her again, his kiss still burning her lips, that brought a new flood of tears. She woke to grief as strong as the day he was taken, and knew he was gone forever. Crossing her arms around her middle, she sank to the floor and let the tears run unchecked. She succumbed to the sobs that overwhelmed her.
Her mind clung to the beauty of what was, yet Death tainted the corners of every memory.
A door creaked; a warning preceding the footsteps coming down the hall. They stopped outside her door.
“El?” The soft voice of her brother called to her.
Zeke fought to keep his eyes open, though he moved his head in rhythm to the song he whistled. He had memorized all five verses to the new folk song “My Western Home” and annoyed his adopted family with it repeatedly.
The tune did little to pass the time today. Nebraska was endless. Grassland for all eternity. Mile after mile, forever and ever and always. Three weeks had taken him only halfway across the state.
He’d been advised to take the train.
Three weeks ago, traveling by horse had appealed to him as the adventure of a lifetime. But now the expanse of the endless sky only mocked him. There was a fascinating beauty in its emptiness, to be sure. Moving to the edge of Iowa with the Donnely family last year had introduced him to western life—it had also sparked his desire to keep moving west. As far as he could go. He wouldn’t stop until he fell into the ocean.
Another yawn stretched his sun-browned and dust-covered face. It was embarrassing how tired a man could be from doing nothing all day. Well, not embarrassing exactly since there was nobody else around. He wondered where Suzy Girl would take him if he fell asleep.
Probably nowhere. She was a lazy horse he’d bought from a farmer in Iowa only four weeks ago. Given the chance, she would find a shaded patch of new grass near a creek and live happily ever after. In hindsight, he should have asked a bit more why she went for the low price.
“Sing, Hooooo!” He called out to the prairie.
The prairie didn’t answer. He continued singing unchecked.
Oh, give me a home,
Where the buffalo roam,
And the deer and antelope play.
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the skies are not clouded all day.
He drawled out each word and switched to a whistle for the chorus until he lost interest halfway. When he’d imagined his life out west, he hadn’t considered the isolation of traveling alone. For three weeks, he’d followed streams, railroads, and bumpy paths from town to town. The next town should be beyond the next rise, or the next one. Three days ago, he’d looked at a map that someone had nailed to the wall of the diner and discovered he could trim five miles if he left the main road and cut straight to Ockelbo, a Swedish settlement with a population near a thousand. A town that size would have employment opportunities. Which he needed since his money and food supplies had dwindled. Again.
There was evidence of smoke some distance beyond the creek where it curved ahead. He would keep heading toward it and hope for the best. This prairie, though, the empty loneliness was enough to drive him out of his mind. Suzy Girl slowed to a plodding pace, but Zeke hardly minded. Grass, grass, and more grass was all he could see.
“Hey, horse. Can you imagine living without eyelids?” Anyone’s voice, even his own, was a pleasant sound these days. A few weeks of travel and he was ready to rethink his whole life plan. “Fish don’t even have ‘em. I think. Maybe. Do fish have eyelids? If they do, I’ve never seen’em. Frogs have extra.” He’d handled enough of those for close inspection.
Suzy Girl dipped her head to snag a bite and slowed again.
Zeke popped open his eyes. “Hey! What do you take me for? I didn’t say it was snack time. Keep on, girl. Let’s go.” She turned her head to look back at him with one large brown eye. She blinked and snorted before picking up her walk. “See, if you didn’t have eyelids, how would you so expertly express yourself?”
She ignored him.
“I know you can hear me.” He clicked his tongue and slapped the reins, but his heart wasn’t in it.
And she seemed to know it.
After another half-mile of silence, Zeke filled his lungs and was about to burst into an encore when he heard it.
Splashing. And . . . giggling?
The noise grabbed his attention, though he wasn’t near enough to see the water through the scraggly line of trees. Zeke did not see a settlement nor a homestead, but the sloping hills could hide a town a quarter-mile away if a man didn’t know where to look. Which he didn’t.
“We’re not alone, Suzy Girl. Think we should check it out?”
She didn’t respond.
“Good plan. Me too.” As he came into the brush where the prairie met the creek, he flipped the reins over a branch of the nearest cottonwood.
The splashing continued, and he heard a woman’s voice. “Ope! Was it cold? Here goes. Weeee!” She laughed again and Zeke wondered if this woman was deranged.
“Suzy Girl, guard my back, will ya?” The horse snorted and picked at the lush green grass. “Wonderful. I knew I could count on you.” With a pat against her neck, he left her there. He was pushing aside the low hanging branches when a scream froze him mid-step. Instantly reaching for his gun and searching for danger, he scanned the creek. A steep bank separated him from the sandy creek bed. Other bushes and shrubs grew around the water’s edge.
Looking below, he took in everything quickly. He was confused by the blue cloth hanging from a tree root waving in the breeze. A woman stood knee-high in the water and held a naked baby as if to use him as a shield. Her arms were wrapped around his middle, hugging him close to her chest. Baby arms and baby legs wiggled, trying to get back into the water to play. Her eyes, on the other hand, large and serious, did not waver. Staring at him, she froze.
Her brown hair hung loose down her back, and her pale arms were bare. The skin of her shoulders was visible through her wet underclothes. The child cried out; he begged to be released from the iron case of her arms. The thin muslin of her shift and pantaloons was plastered tightly to her legs, leaving little hidden. The woman’s face was quickly turning bright red.
Ah, I’m the reason for the scream.
Apparently, she was not expecting company. She shivered in the Nebraska wind. The sun shone brightly, but spring was still new. The baby was unafraid and continued to windmill his arms and legs all around. One chubby hand flapped up and down at him. Both she and Zeke stood still, staring at each other for a few more seconds. He scratched his scalp under the side of his Stetson. He guessed he did look a little gruff these days. A bath would have been a good idea before entering a town.
“Stay back!” She dropped into the water, scrambling away as best she could with the boy in her arms.
Zeke paused and cocked his head at the sight. Good grief. He hadn’t meant to frighten her. Here he was, yearning for company, for some other human voice, and the first one he sees screams at him. He holstered the gun. Raising both hands as a sign of peace, he planted his feet. A squall from the child sliced through the air.
“It’s okay!” Zeke said. “I’m terrible sorry to come across you this way, if you wouldn’t mind just—”
He’d seen that look in her eyes in wild animals before. In startled chipmunks. And rabbits. He had once seen a chipmunk turn so quickly it bounced right off the nearest tree. His laughter rang out when he pictured a half-dressed wet chipmunk holding a naked baby.
She was furious.
“No! I’m sorry,” he said. “Please don’t be frightened. I’ll stay over here, promise.” She grabbed a handful of wet pebbles and threw them in his direction. They showered the ground near his feet. Her chin jutted out in defiance. Braver than a chipmunk.
“You should not be here,” she said.
She was right. What was he thinking? Suddenly he felt like the greatest cad this side of the Mississippi. He spun around and turned his back to her. “How’s this?” he asked. Another shower of pebbles bounced off his boots. Dutifully, he covered his eyes with his hands and turned slowly back to her. “See? I’m not looking. I can’t see a thing. Ma’am? Miss? I’m not intruding, but I heard a noise. Just passing through. Funny thing happened, actually, maybe if you’d just like to point me to the nearest town.”
“What’s the matter with you!” she said. “Leave me alone!” A fist of pebbles rained on his chest and neck, a few settled on the top of his wide-brimmed hat.
Her aim was improving.
He kept his eyes covered and ducked. “Okay! Okay! I’m going.” He turned his back to her again, hands on his face, when more pelted him. “Would you stop that? Don’t you listen? I said I was leaving.”
His foot slipped off the edge of the bank. Caught off guard and distracted by flying pebbles, Zeke tumbled onto the gravel by the water’s edge. The girl screamed again as he fell. His arms and legs flailed about and he landed in a heap, headfirst. Cold gravel pressed into his cheek.
He didn’t move. Ow! That’s one way to get her attention.
If he stood and climbed the bank without speaking, maybe he could forget this whole miserable encounter had ever happened. Slowly, he uncrumpled himself and lay on his back with one forearm tossed over his face. His heart pounded in his forehead. He would get up. Soon. He just needed another minute to catch his breath.
Great. Now I’ve bashed in my head. You really know how to impress the ladies, Zeke. I don’t know how you’ve remained unmarried this long . . . it’s probably the horse. No woman wants a man with a lazy horse.
More splashing signaled her return across the water. She was no longer running away or throwing rocks.
He groaned. She probably felt sorry for him now that he was wounded, blind, and ridiculous. He didn’t need her help. He’d be on his way. Just as soon as he could get up. He attempted to stand.
“Please,” she said, “sit and rest a moment. You’re bleeding.”
“Yup.” Zeke slumped back against the bank in a more refined position. Keeping his face downcast from her, he gathered his wits. His head throbbed. And he wasn’t sure where the blood came from, but it was on his hands.
Fell off the stupid bank.
Mostly naked woman standing nearby.
Her bare feet sank into the pebbles, and the water caressed her ankles. Not that he noticed. He didn’t know where to look now that she stood right next to him. Suddenly, her face appeared in front of his, and she looked directly into his eyes. She still held the baby close to her chest.
“You okay?” she said. “You have blood all over your face.”
Zeke stared at his hands. They were covered in mud, bits of grass, and some blood. “I’m sorry.” He looked at her, then turned his eyes toward the creek, the trees, the bank, the clouds, and anywhere else but her. And then he started talking.
“I’m Ezekiel. Zeke. People call me Zeke. Ezekiel James. Whatever you want. My mother used to call me Zekey James, which is just kinda weird if you ask me. Which you didn’t, I mean, you asked me to leave. Earlier. Which I didn’t. But I was—I would have—I was. Leaving. I was leaving. I didn’t mean to, I tried not to, I wasn’t even looking. I mean, I looked some, just because I came across you so suddenly on accident.” Shut up, Zeke. Stop. Talking. He squeezed his eyes shut.
“Why don’t you stay here for a minute. I’ll be right back.” She adjusted her shift, pulling at it so it flowed over her backside. She put the baby in the sand a few feet away from the water. Finding the end of a rope, she tied it securely around his waist. The other end was already tied to the nearest tree.
The baby scrunched up his face and stuck out a lip, then noticed a bag near him and began pulling all the things out of it. “Naa? Naa?”
“Yes,” she answered. “It’s in there.” By the time she snatched the bag from him, he had dumped half of the contents out. A brush and hairpins lay scattered at the boy’s feet. “Here.” She handed him a large muffin, and he sat down to eat it.
Reaching for her dress and stealing a glance back at Zeke, she hid behind some shrubs. Zeke felt his face warm and pretended to be interested in looking downstream.
“Hi!” the baby called to him.
Zeke smiled and waved his hand. “Hi.” It was the best he could do while keeping his other hand pressed against the cut on his forehead.
The woman returned, damp but dressed, and leveled her eyes at him with her chin held high. She didn’t trust him. He found that ironic, given that he was the one who fell on his face trying to get away from her. He turned his head. How much more could he humble himself in this situation? She swished something in the water and came toward him, stopping a yard away.
“I don’t understand you,” she said.
“Well,” he said slowly, “I was just as surprised as you. I need to ask; like I said, I’m lost, and you’re the first person I’d seen in a while. When I set off, I was told Ockel-something was only a day’s long ride.” He waved his hand toward the west. “That way. And then you and your baby threw rocks at me and pushed me off the bank.” He flashed a cheeky grin at her.
She didn’t find humor in it. Instead of smiling, she shoved a wet rag at him. “Here. Let’s see how badly you hit your head. And you look terrible.”
“Thank you. The bleeding has stopped, I think. I’ll mend.” He patted his face gingerly and then washed the dirt and mess from the rest of his face, neck, and hands. The rag turned brown.
“There is a town,” she said in a measured tone, holding his gaze, “downstream a few miles. Keep following the creek, and you’ll find a bridge. You can’t miss it. Don’t mind the rag; I’ll wash it. You can be on your way.” She took the stained rag from his outstretched hand. “I’m glad you weren’t seriously injured when you . . . fell.”
He stood, testing his legs. Everything was functioning again. He tipped his hat. “Ma’am.” Without looking at her again, he climbed the bank with as much dignity as the situation allowed. He grappled for roots, and sand gave way beneath his feet. His ears burned, knowing she was standing there watching his backside. Reaching the top, he strode through the dry grass to his horse. She waited patiently where he’d left her. She snorted a greeting as she munched the grass around the bit.
“Hey, Suzy Girl, you’ll never believe what just happened to me.” She ducked her head and then knocked his hat off with her nose. “Real smart. Clever. Just because you had to stay up here and eat the best grass you’ve had all day doesn’t mean you can mistreat me.” With a grunt, he swung into the saddle.
“Come on, girl. We’re on the right trail.” He nudged with his heel, and she walked through the brush into the open prairie again. “When you have time later, I’ll tell you all about the chipmunk I met playing in the creek today.” Suzy Girl dipped her head again. The sky was empty and blue. The sun was shining with the freshness of spring. The day was looking up. Despite his humiliating meeting.
He smiled, thinking of the woman’s concern when she’d knelt in front of him. It was sweet. Unnecessary. But sweet. It had been a while since anyone cared whether or not he had blood on his face. Her deep blue eyes showed strength. Her soft round cheeks held a blush of color on each side. He pictured her mess of brown hair, wet and dripping onto her dress.
He shook his head to clear his thoughts, pushing aside images of the woman. He reminded himself how glad he was to be free, strong, and independent, while shoving aside all other thoughts of her. Especially how her legs appeared through her wet underclothes or the water swirling around her ankles. He thought instead of the ocean and how the waves would look cresting and falling. He’d read before the waves could be taller than a man.
With the wind pushing at his back and the promise of a bed and real food for dinner, he couldn’t help but laugh at the sky for his good fortune. “Hy-aw!” he said to Suzy Girl, kicking in his heels.
She seemed to feel his shift in attitude more than his verbal command, and when he urged her again, she leaped forward and they sped across the prairie.