Thursday, March 17, 2016

Release Day!

Today is the official Release Day for CORA'S PRIDE (Wilderness Brides, Book 1), although some fans found it early on Amazon yesterday!

Cora Miller is fiercely independent and stubborn to a fault. Betrayed more than once by men she thought she could trust, she’s learned to rely only on herself. As the oldest of four siblings, she feels responsible for leading her family safely on the Oregon Trail for a new start.

Nathaniel Wilder is no stranger to the hardships and dangers of the wilderness. Raised with his brothers by a trapper in the remote mountains, he left behind the mistakes he’s made in the past. He’s been called reckless and irresponsible, but won’t hesitate to help someone in need.

A foolhardy mishap puts Nathaniel in the direct path of a stubborn, yet beautiful woman with fire in her eyes. Despite her refusal of help, he is determined to prove she can depend on him. When her pride puts her and her family in peril, Cora accepts that she can’t do it on her own. If misgivings can turn to trust, or even love, both Cora and Nathaniel could come out stronger in the end.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

First Book in a New Series Coming March 17, 2016

I'm very excited to announce that in-between writing YELLOWSTONE LEGACY (Book 7 in the Yellowstone Romance Series), I've also been working on a new series. The idea just came to me one day, and I had to run with it. 

So, today, I'm happy to announce that Book 1 in the new WILDERNESS BRIDES SERIES, titled CORA'S PRIDE, will be available at all major e-book outlets on March 17, 2016!

To get you started, I'm posting the first two chapters in their entirety....

Chapter One

Fort Laramie August 1852

“He left.”
Cora Miller straightened after dipping a rag in the pail of water at her feet. She wrung out the excess and held the cool cloth to her face. Despite the early morning chill in the air, her cheeks were flushed. Strands of her hair that had come loose from her braid whipped around her head and her skirts fluttered at her ankles with the relentless breeze. She glanced around camp, then faced Anna. Her hand wrapped tightly around the cloth as anger welled up in her, envisioning Ted’s throat between her fingers.
 “What do you mean, he left?”
Anna Porter pulled her shawl around her shoulders and stared at Cora as if she’d spoken a foreign language. “How can he just leave?”
 “That low-down, good-for-nothing scoundrel up and left,” Cora repeated. “I was tending the fire to fix breakfast when he saddled his horse and told me he was leaving.”
“Well, when’s he coming back? The wagon train is set to head out tomorrow,” Anna sputtered. Her eyes widened in disbelief.
Cora didn’t hold back her bitter laugh. It was better than crumbling to the ground and crying. “Apparently the fellas he met while gambling at the fort last night filled his head with nonsense about gold and California. He’s joined them to go mining.”
“But, what about heading to Oregon?” Anna shook her head, confusion in her eyes. “How can you be so calm about this? He’s your husband. What are we going to do now?”
Cora laughed again to cover the turmoil inside her. For the sake of her sisters and brother, and Anna, she had to remain calm. She was the oldest among her siblings, and they all depended on her. It wouldn’t do to let them see her fears.
  “I should have seen right through him back in Independence. He’s nothing but a cheat and a liar, and I’m glad to be rid of him.” She straightened her back, and held her hand to her hip. “Do you know what he told me?”
Anna’s head moved slowly from side to side.
“He said our marriage wasn’t legal. The preacher he had marry us in Independence wasn’t really a preacher. The certificate is useless.” Cora lowered her head. “That low-down, lying, good-for-nothing . . . chiseler used me.”
She cleared her throat in response to the crack in her voice. A chill raced down her spine. She’d put her trust in a man who’d been no more than a stranger. He’d taken complete advantage of her.
Anna’s eyes widened even more. She shot a hasty glance all around, no doubt to see if anyone had overheard. The Schmidt’s wagon next to them was quiet. Normally, their three children would be running around by now, but apparently they were taking advantage of their last day of rest before the wagon train headed across the Platte to continue their journey west. Marybeth Schmidt had gone to the river to do some early-morning laundry.
Panic seeped into Anna’s eyes. “How are we going to get to Oregon without your husband? We’ll have to turn back.” Her lips trembled.
Cora grabbed her friend’s arms and shook her. “We’re going to go on as before.”
Her dreams of making a better life for her siblings were not going to end this way, stranded in the middle of nowhere. They’d all worked their farm without the help of a man before. They could get to Oregon without a man, too.
Anna laughed bitterly. “You have two sisters and a little brother, Cora, as well as me tagging along. How do you propose we all get to Oregon now? Not to mention, I’m not your sister like you told everyone?”
 “I’m going to talk to Mr. Brown. He’s gonna have to let us continue on with the train. He can’t simply leave us here at Fort Laramie.”
Cora gritted her teeth. Truth be told, the wagon master would most likely do just that. He’d been reluctant already, ‘letting all these women without husbands join the train’, as he’d put it.
Ted had been her answer to get on the wagon train in Independence. He’d been handsome and charming, and he’d proposed marriage to her two days before the train set off for the Oregon Territory. Cora had agreed to the hasty wedding because there had been no other recourse. The wagon master had been adamant that no unmarried women were allowed on the train. Ted had been able to talk him into letting her sisters come along, since he’d taken over as the head of the family.
“For as long as I live, I will never trust another man,” she said between clenched teeth.  She would have never married Ted if she hadn’t needed him to get to Oregon. Anna had lived with Cora's family since her parents had died years ago, and she was practically a sister. It wasn’t much of a lie when she'd told everyone Anna was part of her family.
“Do the other girls know? And Patrick?”
Cora shook her head. “I haven’t told them, yet. I was going to go talk to Mr. Brown first.”
“What will we do if he says he won’t take us along?”
Anna liked to worry, but it made her the sensible one among them. Cora patted her friend’s hand and smiled to conceal her own apprehension. “You leave it to me. You know I’m not one to fret. It only takes time away from getting things done. One way or another, we’re going on to Oregon.” She paused, then added with a determined raise of her chin. “Without husbands.”
“That wagon master will try and marry us off to anyone who will take a wife. He’s already suggested it several times. He says it’s wrong for unwed women of age to be on this train. You and I are of age, and Caroline and Josie are close enough that he could very easily insist that they get married, too.”
Anna wrung her hands in front of her. No doubt, the thought that she would have to marry a stranger didn’t appeal to her, either.
Cora scoffed. “After my experience with Pa, and now Ted, you can rest assured that I have no plans to get married again any time soon and be at the mercy of some man.”
Anna smiled. “I admire your courage, Cora, but we may not have any other recourse.”
Cora pressed her lips together. She drew in a long breath. “If you’ll finish fixing breakfast, and have everyone help get the wash to the creek, I’m going to find Mr. Brown.”
With those words, she swept her unruly strands of hair out of her face and pushed aside her apprehension at meeting with the wagon master, then set out to find him. He sat, sipping coffee at the other end of camp. His booted foot was propped on a crate, his arm casually draped over his knee. He stopped talking with Mr. Melvin when she approached.
“May I have a word with you, Mr. Brown?” Cora raised her chin, clasping her hands in front of her to conceal their slight tremble. Her heart pounded in her chest, but she wasn’t going to show this man that she was nervous about this meeting.
A slow smile spread across the wagon master’s lips. He raised his coffee cup to his mouth and took a leisurely drink. He glanced at Mr. Melvin before looking her in the eye.
“What can I do for you, Mrs. Miller?”
Cora gritted her teeth. According to what Ted had told her an hour ago, she was as much Mrs. Miller as the wagon master in front of her. She’d use her maiden name again, once they were in Oregon. For now, it would do more harm than good to admit the marriage had been a sham.
“Ted decided to go ahead of us to Oregon,” she said quickly. “I assume that won’t present any problems tomorrow morning. My sisters and I are quite capable of driving our team.”
Mr. Brown raised his brows. He swallowed some more coffee, then stood straight.
“Your husband left, you mean?” It was more of a statement than a question. He laughed, first slowly, which quickly became louder.
“I don’t understand the humor in this,” Cora huffed, glaring at the wagon master. He was not going to intimidate her.
 Mr. Brown removed his hat and ran a hand through his hair. “You know the rules, Mrs. Miller. No unwed women in my outfit.” He scratched the back of his neck. “If a few of your sisters, at least the older ones, can find a husband by morning, I don’t see why you can’t continue on. I hear that Andrew Harper is looking for a wife to tend to his brood, since his woman drowned last week. There are a few unwed men on this train, too, that wouldn’t mind hitching up with one of your sisters. You all are a sightly group of ladies.” He stepped closer, his eyes raking over her, openly appraising her. “You’re far too pretty to be traveling without a husband. I told you that in Independence, and I can’t be looking out for you.”
Cora raised her chin. She fought the impulse to move back to put some distance between herself and this man, but she stood her ground. If she didn’t stand up to him, how could she hope to fend off the single men in their wagon company? She pushed aside bitter memories of her home in Ohio, and part of the reason she’d chosen to head to Oregon. She glared at the man in front of her.
“And I told you in Independence that I can take care of myself and my family. We’re quite capable of handling our rig. My siblings and I tended a farm on our own in Ohio, without a man’s help. I have no intention of marrying my sisters off simply for the sake of having a husband on this journey.”
“Seems to me that’s what you done already by weddin’ up with Ted Miller. I guess you didn’t please him enough for him to stick around.” He leaned forward to whisper in her ear. “Maybe if you’d spend some time with me, I’ll re-consider letting you come along.”
Cora’s hand tightened into a fist. Her fingers itched to slap the leer from the man’s face.  She stepped away from him.
“How dare you even suggest such a thing,” she hissed.
He shook his head and gave a careless shrug of his shoulder. “Then I’m afraid you’ll have to stay here, and go back to Independence with the next group heading east.” 
Mr. Brown handed his coffee mug to Mr. Melvin, who stood by with wide eyes, then tipped his hat to her and strode off.
Cora stared after him. “The nerve of that man,” she grumbled. Some choice swear words came to mind for men like him, but she held them in. Without a glance at Mr. Melvin, she stomped back to camp.
You can do this on your own, Cora. You relied on yourself back home, and you can do it here, too.
Patrick, the youngest of her siblings at eight years old, and the only boy, crawled out from under the wagon, rubbing at his eyes. He yawned, and stretched his hands in the air. Bacon sizzled in the frying pan over the fire while Anna whisked together a batter of biscuit dough.
“Gather your dirty clothes after you tend to the mules and the horse, Patrick.” Cora poured a cup of coffee. She usually didn’t drink the bitter brew, but she wasn’t going to let it go to waste. She’d been up early to get the kettle heated for Ted, as she had every morning since they'd begun their journey.
Patrick returned moments later with a puzzled look on his face. “One of our horses is missing,” he announced.
Cora glanced at her brother. Her heart thumped against her ribs. What if Ted had taken their other saddle horse as well? She wouldn’t put it past him.
“What about Gray?”
“He’s there with the mules.”
Cora breathed a sigh of relief. Ted had taken what little money he’d brought to the marriage, and had even been bold enough to ask her for some of her funds. Luckily, he’d never found her hiding place where she kept her family’s life savings. It was all they had now, and would have to see them through to their new start in Oregon.
He couldn’t have taken any of their provisions from the wagon. Josie and Caroline slept in there. She made a mental note that, before packing up for the journey tomorrow, she would check for any missing items, just to be sure. And, it was high time she practiced shooting her rifle.
 “Once your sisters are back from washing at the river and we sit down for breakfast, I have something to tell you.”
Cora met Anna’s curious stare before smiling at her brother. No doubt she was full of questions about her meeting with Mr. Brown, but she kept her thoughts to herself for now. She’d have to tell her siblings the truth, that they were now on their own, but in a way that wouldn’t frighten them.
Anna served up biscuits and bacon when Josie and Caroline returned to camp. They all gathered around the fire, using various trunks or an overturned pail to sit on.
“Did Ted already eat?” Josie asked. She glanced from one person to the next. At sixteen, she was the youngest of the girls, and had the most reasons to be mistrustful of men. Cora glanced at her sister and her chest tightened painfully. Growing up, Josie had never failed to see the good in everything, but that had been before . . .
Cora swallowed her biscuit and washed it down with the last of her coffee. What had happened to Josie was one of the reasons they were leaving their old life behind. She looked at Josie, then at Caroline, before settling her eyes on Anna.
“We have a lot of work to do today. All the washing needs to get finished, and we have to repack the wagon. I’m going to see if I can trade a few things at the fort. We have to be ready first thing in the morning when Mr. Brown plans to head out.”
Caroline sighed. “It was nice to have a few days of rest.”
Cora smiled at her sister. “Yes, and now we have to keep moving, or we’ll never get to Oregon.”
She inhaled a deep breath. Good thing they’d had a few days to relax as they camped by the fort. Things were going to get a lot harder from now on.
Anna’s forehead wrinkled. “Did you have something to tell us, Cora?”
Cora frowned at her friend for forcing the subject she had been putting off. She was right, though. There was no sense delaying what she had to tell her siblings.
“I have some bad news,” she started. All eyes were instantly on her. “Ted decided he no longer wanted us as his family, so he rode off early this morning to head for California.” She raised her hand at the collective gasp from her sisters. Patrick’s eyes widened.
“We’re not going to let that stop us from going on to Oregon, however.” She smiled to ease everyone’s fears. “We have each other, and we’ve done just fine since leaving Independence. Without Ted, everyone has to pull some extra weight, but it’s not going to change anything else.”
The girls murmured and Anna stepped up to her. “Mr. Brown is letting us continue with the train?” she whispered.
Cora suppressed a scoff. “Not without husbands.”
Anna stared at her, wide-eyed. “We’re going to have to find husbands?”
Cora glanced at Josie, whose eyes glistened with tears. Her chest tightened. With a determined lift of her chin, her gaze returned to Anna.
“No. We’re going to follow the wagon train. There’s nothing Mr. Brown can do to stop us. Come hell or high water, we’re getting to Oregon, and we’ll do it without being at the mercy of that buffoon, or any other man.”

Chapter Two

Droplets of frigid water from the mountain stream splashed his face every time his feet hit the ground. Nathaniel Wilder didn’t stop to enjoy the refreshing reprieve. Rays of the early afternoon sun beat hot against his back, making the sweat trickle uncomfortably along his skin. He ran through the water, sending up more spray. The water only came up to his ankles, but the rocky bottom slowed him down considerably.
He glanced over his shoulder while continuing his course through the stream. This was his best chance to lose his pursuers. Other than the loud splashes he created, all was quiet behind him. No galloping horses or shrill war whoops followed him.
Nathaniel grinned and lengthened his strides. It would be a cold day in hell before a band of Crow was going to get the better of him, even if he was on foot and without his rifle. He squinted against the bright shimmers of the sun as it reflected off the water in front of him.
He kept to the middle of the creek, following its course downstream until it forked, the two channels creating an island as the water flowed around a rocky embankment. Several dead trees had washed up on the berm, remnants from the spring snowmelt when the water flowed stronger and deeper.
Nathaniel stopped to catch his breath. After a quick glance in both directions of the fork, he stumbled for the bank to his right. He kicked a rock loose from its resting place in the dirt and touched the heel of his moccasin into the damp earth. Wheeling around in the water, he changed direction to continue downstream, following the fork to the left. His false tracks might fool his pursuers long enough to put greater distance between him and them.
While he didn’t relish being hunted like some animal, his heart beat faster with the thrill of the chase. Outwitting an opponent was a favorite game among his brothers and their friends, and this pursuit certainly broke up the monotony of his journey so far.
He scrambled from the water under some willow branches hanging over the edge, taking care not to bend any of the twigs. Following the creek close to shore, he entered the water again another mile downstream, crossed, and finally headed toward the dense woods ahead. With any luck, the Crow would search in the wrong direction long enough for him to get away.
His lungs burned by the time he slowed his pace. Sweat ran down his face and he swiped a hasty hand over his eyes. He stood, staring off into the distance, and listened. Other than the soft breeze swishing through the canopies of the trees and various birds chirping overhead among the branches, all was quiet.
Six Crow on horseback would make at least some noise, unless they had abandoned their horses to pursue him on foot, which was highly unlikely. They knew he was without a rifle, and would feel fairly confident in their pursuit. Hopefully, it would work to his advantage.
Nathaniel’s grin returned. All he had to do now was backtrack and find his horse and pack animal, then he could be on his way home. If his brothers or old Harley ever found out that he’d been careless enough to let a band of Crow steal his animals, he’d never hear the end of it.
He’d already stolen his horses back from the Crow once after a careless night camping out in the open. He’d foolishly mocked the Indians for his success, and they'd taken after him again. If it hadn't been for his saddle horse stumbling and tossing him to the ground, he wouldn’t be in this predicament right now.
Returning home from Fort Hall with wounded pride was one thing, but he couldn’t come back without the provisions for which he’d traded. An entire season of hunting and trapping was not going to go to waste.
Nathaniel pushed away from the tree he rested against, and set out for the sunny clearing ahead.  If he traveled a few miles west of the creek, then headed east again, maybe he’d find his horses before the Crow did. He cursed his dumb luck for the hundredth time.
His older brother, Ethan, would love nothing better than to call him irresponsible and reckless if he returned without their winter supplies. His younger brothers, Trevor and Travis would gloat while silently wishing they could have been with him to give the Crow a good run for their money.  Old man Harley would take him aside and tell him that a man always learned the most valuable lessons the hard way.
Nathaniel picked up the pace. He wasn’t irresponsible like his brother seemed to think. Reckless perhaps, but it had always gotten him out of harried situations before. Unlike Ethan, he wasn’t averse to taking chances when necessary. It wouldn’t be any different this time. If he didn’t find his horses, no doubt the Crow would, and then he’d simply have to steal them back a second time.
The sun was slowly creeping toward the western horizon by the time he changed course and made his way further east. He’d climbed the rise of a gently sloping hill blooming with yellow flowers when he stopped and sniffed the air. The scent of wood smoke was unmistakable.
Nathaniel slowly scanned the valley below. Had the Crow made camp somewhere? He shook his head at the unlikely notion. Stands of spruce and cottonwoods obscured his vision, but there was a definite thin wisp of smoke rising from beyond the trees. Who’d made a campfire in the middle of the day? Other than Crow, and perhaps some Shoshone, there weren’t any other Indians in this area.
He hurried down the slope into the valley and cut through the tall grasses at a fast run. Losing his pursuers should be his main focus, but he couldn’t leave without finding out if there were other dangers nearby. By the time he reached the woods, the smell of smoke grew stronger, and faint women’s laughter reached his ears.
A Crow or Shoshone woman would never make this much noise unless she were secure in a large camp. Nathaniel frowned. He moved quietly through the trees until the light-colored canvas of a wagon cover stood out against the landscape. He stepped lightly through the underbrush, keeping to the trees so he wouldn’t be seen. He tilted his head to the side to listen for any surprise movement, while his eyes scanned the small clearing. One hand remained close to his hip, near the hilt of the knife strapped to his belt. At least he wasn’t completely without a weapon.
Clearly, there were no other wagons, and the one that was stopped here had a broken wheel. What was a lone emigrant wagon doing in this area? The last wagon train he’d seen roll through had pulled into Fort Hall nearly a week ago as he was leaving the outpost.
The sound of women’s laughter and talking grew louder. The small figure of a young boy darted between a group of four mules that were picketed between two trees. Nathaniel’s eyes fell to the lone horse tethered a short distance away from the mules. He glanced over his shoulders. If those Crow were anywhere near here, they’d smell the smoke, too.
Nathaniel studied the camp, his eyes taking in everything. It appeared as if these people had been camped here for at least a night. Trunks had been unloaded from the wagon, and several dresses and women’s unmentionables fluttered in the breeze from a line strung between a couple of saplings.
The fire was beyond his line of sight on the other side of the wagon. Two women were talking, but he was too far away to make out what they were saying. He glanced at the saddle horse again. Were there others? There were no men in camp, that much was certain. Perhaps he - or they - had left the camp to go hunting.
Regardless of where the men of this camp were, it didn’t matter. Nathaniel was wasting time. His Crow pursuers could be close. He moved through the trees and entered the clearing, making a wide arc around the wagon so that he’d be seen. The young boy spotted him first.
“Hey, mister,” he yelled. Nathaniel faced him and smiled. The women’s chatter quieted instantly, and someone even gasped. Nathaniel suppressed his own surprised reaction when he strode toward the camp, spotting four women sitting around the fire. He blinked, then frowned. Who in their right mind had left these women unattended in the middle of nowhere?
Before he could contemplate his question, two of the women, who looked to be just girls, darted for the wagon and disappeared inside. A third stood, staring at him from her place by the fire, while the fourth jumped up and moved quickly toward him, pointing a rifle at his chest. Nathaniel stopped and slowly lifted his hands away from his sides.
“I ain’t armed,” he called. “And I don’t mean any harm.” He plastered his best smile on his face. The woman holding the rifle straightened and raised her chin. Her gaze didn’t waver from his.
“That’s close enough,” she warned and raised her weapon.
Nathaniel stopped. His jaw muscles twitched. That female might just be crazy enough to take a shot at him. He rubbed at the back of his neck while his gaze darted to the horse tied to the tree. He cocked his head to the side to listen for any sign of his pursuers.
He eyed the woman again. She stood tall and proud, glaring at him suspiciously. The slight trembling of the rifle in her hands gave away her fear.  Damn, she was pretty, even from a distance of twenty paces. She would no doubt be even prettier if she didn’t look like she was thinking of putting a bullet into him. Where were the menfolk?
“Looks like you ladies could use some help.” Nathaniel pointed at the broken wagon wheel.
“We’ve got it handled,” the pretty woman retorted, her voice firm and as cold as her eyes.
Nathaniel took a slow step closer, his eyes locked on the girl. She instantly stiffened and adjusted the rifle to point toward his head.
“What’s a man doing out here without a horse?” Her question was laced with mistrust.
“What are a bunch of women doing out here without men?” Nathaniel countered. Her reaction was instant. The distinct sound of the rifle’s hammer being cocked resonated in his ears. He’d obviously asked the wrong question.
“Go and be on your way, mister,” the woman called out.
Her eyes blazed daggers at him, as if the rifle she had pointing at his head wasn’t enough. Her hair fluttered in the breeze. Strands had come loose from the single braid that hung down her back. The rest of it was concealed under a scarf she’d tied around her head. All it did was frame her pretty face.
Nathaniel cursed silently. He was wasting time if he didn’t want that band of Crow to come swooping into this camp. The woman and her rifle would be useless against a half dozen warriors.
“Didn’t mean no disrespect, ma’am. It’s unusual to see a lone wagon out here. Just wondering where you’re heading.”
She seemed to hesitate before answering. “Fort Bridger.”
Nathaniel’s brows rose. He leaned forward slightly, as if he hadn’t heard correctly.  “Fort Bridger?” he repeated, then frowned. “Where’d you come from?” Telling her that she was lost was probably not the smart thing to say.
“We came from Fort Laramie. We’re trying to catch up with our wagon company.”
Nathaniel’s brows rose. “Left you here alone, did they? With a broken wagon wheel?”
“I said we can manage just fine on our own.” The slight hitch in her voice was unmistakable. He’d eat one of his moccasins if he wasn't correct in the assumption that these women and the boy were out here alone, defenseless. Something close to anger brewed under his skin. Memories he’d buried long ago pushed to the surface.
 “I’m sure you can, ma’am, but I hate to be the bringer of bad news. Fort Bridger is about 100 miles southeast of here. You must have taken a wrong turn.”
Her eyes widened and a fleeting moment of panic flashed across her face.
“At this point, you’d be better off heading to Fort Hall. It’s about a week’s travel away.” He turned slightly, pointing to the west. “That way.”
The other woman who’d stood silently by the fire stepped up to the one with the rifle. She leaned forward and whispered something. The girl pointing the gun at him shook her head.
“We can’t trust a complete stranger,” she said, loud enough for Nathaniel to hear.
“He’s offered to help, Cora. And he seems to know where we are,” the other one said adamantly. 
Nathaniel flashed a smile when she stared in his direction.
“Why can’t he stay and help?” the boy chimed in, appearing from around the other side of the wagon.
Nathaniel nodded in silent agreement, although staying in this camp was the last thing on his mind at the moment.
“Looks to me like you could use my help,” he offered again.
“He doesn’t even have a gun, Cora. We need help fixing the wagon.” The more sensible woman placed her hand on top of the rifle, and smiled at her companion. Cora’s lips tightened in disapproval. Slowly, she lowered her weapon, then eased her finger off the hammer.
“Fine, you can stay and help fix the wagon in exchange for a meal,” she conceded. “But you can’t go with us, and I’ll be keeping an eye on you.” Judging from the suspicious look on her face, she’d made her offer begrudgingly.
Nathaniel’s smile widened. “Much obliged, ma’am.”
He lowered his hands and strode toward the wagon. He chuckled softly. Damned if he hadn’t escaped a snake pit just to fall into a hornet’s nest. The woman standing next to Cora came up to him. She squared her shoulders and held out her hand.
“Anna Porter,” she said with a hesitant smile, her eyes shooting to the woman with the rifle.
Cora simply glared at him suspiciously. Nathaniel grinned and shook Anna Porter’s hand, then stuck his hand out to the hostile one.
“Nathaniel Wilder. Pleasure to meet you all.”
Cora whatever-her-last-name was didn’t shake his hand, but turned away from him and moved toward the wagon, pushing the young boy in front of her.
“Is she always this friendly?” Nathaniel stared after her.
Miss Porter eyed him with a slight disapproving look. “Her name is Cora Miller, and the girls in the wagon are her sisters, Caroline and Josephine. The boy is Patrick.”
Nathaniel studied Anna Porter. Her features were soft and delicate, matching her quiet demeanor. She clutched at the scarf covering her own head and pushed some strands of her dark hair out of her face.
“Where are your men?” Nathaniel couldn’t hold back the question.
Anna’s lips tightened. She seemed to hesitate with an answer.
 “That’s none of your concern, mister.” Cora had spun around to stare at him again. “Now if you’re really here to help, I suggest you get to work. The quicker the wagon wheel gets fixed, the faster we can be on our way. You can eat supper with us for your trouble, but we’ll part ways right after.”
Nathaniel held her stare in silence, meeting the challenge in her eyes. He’d much rather tell her what a foolhardy woman she was for thinking she could get through this wilderness on her own. Hell, they were already lost, and would have gotten even more lost, had he not come along.
He glanced over his shoulder toward the trees. He was running out of time. The Crow were not going to simply give up when they realized he had tricked them. He eyed the horse again.
“I’ll go take a look at that broken wheel,” he said.
With a quick nod to Anna Porter, he moved to the wagon. Nathaniel passed Cora, and offered her his best smile. She didn’t return it. Her face remained as icy as before. Once she lowered her weapon fully and turned her attention to the other woman, he knelt to inspect the broken wheel. It would take at least a few hours to fix. Time he didn’t have at the moment.
What if he’d led his pursuers straight to this camp? If the Crow had found his trail,  these women were defenseless. He glanced toward Cora. That woman seemed too disagreeable for a sensible conversation. Better to act now and explain later.
He straightened and moved around the wagon to the horse. Giving the animal a pat on the neck, he glanced over his shoulder, then slowly untied the reins from the tree.
He eyed the women again and shook his head. They were foolish if they thought they’d get to Fort Hall alive. Anna busied herself with the fire, while Cora spoke to the two girls inside the wagon. No one paid him any mind when he swung up onto the horse’s bare back and kicked it into a run. With any luck, he’d put some distance between himself and that wagon before the Crow found his trail.
The boy yelled at the same moment a shot reverberated through the air. Nathaniel cursed and kicked the horse into a faster run, steering it into the trees. Damn stupid fool of a woman! A gunshot could be heard for miles. At least she wasn’t a very good shot. He urged the horse forward. Hopefully her next shot wouldn’t find its mark, either. It never came. Her yell grew faint as he put some distance between the wagon and himself.
Backtracking the way he’d come, there was no sign of his Crow pursuers. If they had given up the chase, they must have found his horses and supplies. Perhaps they didn’t think he was worth pursuing anymore. By the time he came to the creek where he’d laid the false trail, it became apparent that the warriors had followed it. Thankfully, it would have led them in the opposite direction from where the women were camped.
Nathaniel dismounted and allowed the horse to drink. He stepped into the water and splashed some of the cold liquid on his face. He straightened to stare off at the mountains. Uncertainty gripped him. He had a horse to ride, but his supplies were lost. He shook his head. He couldn’t return home until he found his own horses.

Then there was the matter of the women who were lost in the wilderness. He’d succeeded in keeping the Crow away from their camp, but for how long? Nathaniel gathered up the reins and was about to swing onto the horse’s back, when twigs snapped behind him and hooves clacked against the rocky riverbank.

(copyright, Peggy L Henderson 2016)