ON A WAGON TRAIN, WESTWARD bound, a family traveled among many. Jesse and her stepfather, Richard, were riding on horseback at the back of the wagon. Her mother, Elizabeth and brother, Mathew, drove the wagon. It was unbelievably hot for early spring but all things considered it was a nice day to travel. There had been nothing said about Indian attacks for some time and everyone thought things had settled down. Jesse was hoping there would be no Indians. She had a new life now. It was strange, coming back through this land she thought she had left forever, but soon they would be beyond it, into the safety of the mountains. She wondered what her mother was thinking. Whatever it was, her mother would not say, but each step further into the prairie was making her mother and stepfather more sullen.
They had left the fort a week ago and everyone was happy they would reach their destination in less than two month's time. Halfway through the third week disaster struck. A wheel on the Thompson's wagon broke and Richard's pride would not allow him to accept help from the other members of the wagon train. He stubbornly insisted he could fix any problem himself. Elizabeth had tried to reason with her husband but her worries were brushed aside and she was told Jesse could help with the work.
The second day was quiet except for Richard and Jesse's attempts to fix the wheel. By late afternoon the wheel was still not fixed. Richard blamed Jesse, ranting she was responsible for the broken wheel. Even though they both were watching for prairie dog holes and the hole had been on his side.
Fixing the wheel was going to take longer than expected. It seemed Jesse's stepfather was not as smart as he thought he was, suggesting they stay behind without any help. They also did not have much protection in case of an Indian attack.
While Jesse continued to work she was forced to listen to her stepfather gripe and complain. She had planned all this just so she could get herself out of his clutches. By that time she was ready to be rescued, but there were no Indians in sight. After about two hours he decided to help once more and they worked throughout the rest of the day and by evening the wheel was finally fixed. The family would have to wait to leave in the morning. The group bedded down for the night. They were eager to get an early start the next morning.
As the sun rose, they awoke to find themselves surrounded. Four painted warriors sat upon horses looking down at them. Two men stood over Richard with guns pointed at him.
They were dragged from their beds and quickly tied. The painted men took whatever they wanted from the wagon but they did not set the wagon ablaze. Instead they left the empty shell intact. The horses were taken as well. Luckily Elizabeth and Mathew were allowed to ride but Jesse and Richard had to walk.
It was not long before they reached a camp. There were more painted warriors and seven captives from other raids, none from the wagon train they had been with. Jesse looked at the three women, two children and two men. She cast her sad eyes downward and sighed. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, she thought to herself. They rested shortly and then started moving again. It was dark when they finally stopped to make camp. All the prisoners were placed together. Jesse's brother rested between her and her mother. Her stepfather was lying on the other side of her mother, resting.
After the Indian men had finished eating they gave their captives food and water. Mathew had finished eating but he was still hungry. Without thinking Jesse gave him the rest of her food. This did not go unnoticed by their captor. They were surprised the man did not share his food.
One of the warriors walked over to her. He said nothing but gave her some more food to eat. Her brother as well as her mother were still hungry and received half of her food. The warriors could not believe the young woman could care more for the boy and her mother's health than her own. It was obvious the young woman needed the nourishment but she would not deprive them of any extra.
The warriors could see the older woman agreed and said nothing. The man was a different matter. He seemed to disapprove of the fact the young woman did not share with him as well so he took half of his pregnant wife's food. The warriors frowned and looked at each other. Many of them shook their heads in disgust. They, themselves, would rather go hungry than to take food from the mouths of their family, especially a pregnant wife.
The prisoners tried to get as much sleep as possible that night. It seemed like they had just closed their eyes only to be wakened. All of them prepared for another gruelling day walking in the hot sun.
As another day past, Jesse had noticed the warrior, the one who had given her extra food, had been watching her very closely. Some of the other Indians had noticed this as well but none of them said anything or openly acknowledged it.
While they were making camp, the Indian whose name she had recently learned was Dancing Horse, came over and again gave Jesse food as well as the rest of her family. He said nothing, turned and went back over to the others in his group. He sat on the opposite side of the fire and watched her with dark eyes.
Richard gave her a disapproving glance. "Well, seems you have an admirer." He said in a whisper.
Jesse looked at him in surprise. What he said next was vicious and cruel.
"Like mother, like daughter. It seems to me you two like your men to be savages."
Jesse looked at her stepfather, the rage and disgust she felt for him burned deep within her. Her mother gasped in shock. She could not believe what he had just said. Elizabeth knew her daughter would not hesitate to slit his throat at any second. Her son sat looking from one person to another. Mathew did not understand why his daddy would say those things. There was enough tension between the two that everyone in the camp seemed to notice.
"I will bet that before this trip is over you will have bedded every one of these heathens. Just like your mother did with your father," he said in a whispered hiss.
That was the last straw. With a scream of pure hate and rage, she pounced on him faster than he could move out of the way. Her mother screamed in terror and grabbed Mathew out of the way. By the time the Indians pulled her off of him, Jesse had nearly choked the life from him.
Jesse looked up at the man holding on to her arm. She jerked her arm from his grasp and to their surprise spoke fluent Sioux.
"Let go," she said.
The warriors stared at her, stunned by many things that had just occurred. Never before had the warriors seen such power and strength in a woman. For a woman to do such damage to a man that size was truly unbelievable.
The young woman's mother went to where her daughter was standing. There was much pride and love showing in her eyes as she looked at her daughter.
"He should not have said such things to you."
Jesse smiled and hugged her mother tightly.
The third day with the Indians was the same as the other two. They walked, rested, ate and slept. Jesse had overheard two of the warriors talking and learned they would reach the village in two days.
Around noon of the same day they stopped to rest and water the horses. As they rested her stepfather approached Dancing Horse with a proposition.
"You speak English?" Richard asked hesitantly. The warrior watched him through dark eyes, studying him.
"Yes. I speak the white man's tongue."
"I have an offer for you. You let my family and I go and you can keep Jesse." He said looking pointedly towards his stepdaughter.
Dancing Horse was thoughtful a moment. "Is she not your family also?"
The white man frowned. Richard had never thought of her as family. She was a problem. One he wanted to be rid of. He shook his head slightly, no.
"If she is not yours then you cannot give her away." The warrior stated. Dancing Horse paused thoughtfully. "What makes you think I will not just kill you and take her?"
The warrior stood and stepped forward and grabbed the white man by his shirt collar. "If you do not get back over with the rest of the prisoners I will kill you. Or maybe, you would rather have your stepdaughter finish what she started?"
Dancing Horse could not believe his eyes. The look in the white man's eyes showed pure terror. He let Richard go. The terrified man moved as quickly as he could back over to the rest of the prisoners. One thing was for sure, he did not want his stepdaughter anywhere near him. Richard knew Jesse would make his death something no man should have to endure. He feared her wrath more than the warriors.
Dancing Horse walked over to the other warriors and sat beside the one called Two Bears. He was older by some years but was a very dear friend to the younger man.
"What troubles you my friend?" Two Bears asked.
The younger man turned to face him. "You saw the white man who left just now?" The other warrior nodded his head. He looked puzzled. "I feel that the white man truly fears the young woman with raven hair and sky blue eyes. He wishes to be rid of her and offered her to me."
Dancing Horse retold the proposition to Two Bears but when he told the older man what he had said to the white man the warrior shook his head in disbelief.
"How can this man fear this woman? He is much more powerful than she is," Two Bears said.
"You have seen what she is capable of." Dancing Horse let his dark gaze settled on Jesse thoughtfully. "I feel the white man is correct to fear her."
After the short stop and rest they continued on until dark. Richard never approached Dancing Horse again. He stayed clear of Jesse as well and always kept an eye on her.
Jesse had noticed and wondered what had conspired between her stepfather and the tall, handsome, well muscled warrior. She knew whatever had been said, Richard was very uneasy now. She suspected it had something to do with her.
Early that evening after making camp Jesse, her mother and brother as well as the other women and children were taken to the stream to bathe but they were not left unguarded. There were three warriors watching them, Dancing Horse, Two Bears and Fighting Bull, the older man's nephew.
The men were taken downstream, under guard, to bathe. They were to be kept there until the women and children were finished and back at camp.
While the women bathed, Jesse was more alert than before. Unnoticed, she watched everything and everyone carefully. Chest deep in the water, Jesse felt something brush against her leg. Looking down, she saw fish swimming past her. When she looked back up, she was looking into the dark eyes of Dancing Horse. Giving him a void stare she vanished under the water.
The warrior was wondering what was taking the young woman so long to return to the surface. As he scanned the water, he saw that she was nowhere in sight. Standing, he walked over to the water's edge. He looked upstream and downstream but did not see Jesse anywhere.
Jesse was watching Dancing Horse from behind a small bush on the water's edge. Jesse knew now that if she and her family were to escape they would have to get past him. When he got up and walked to the water, she ducked under the water and swam back to the others. When she surfaced beside her mother once again the older woman had a concerned look upon her face.
"Where did you go?" Elizabeth asked quietly her lips barely moving.
"I will tell you later," Jesse answered as silently.
When Dancing Horse looked back to the captives, he was not surprised to see the young woman back with her mother. What he was curious to know was where she had gone? He turned and went to stand next to Two Bears, who had also noticed the brief disappearance of Jesse.
"She is up to something," Two Bears said.
"Yes, but what?" Dancing Horse said.
As the women were being taken back to camp Elizabeth turned quickly when gunfire sounded in the distance and slipped on the mud as she was making her way out of the water. She would have fallen if it had not been for Two Bears. The older man caught Jesse's mother and scooped her up in his muscular arms.
Jesse nodded and gave Two Bears a grateful look as he carried her mother up onto the bank. When he placed Elizabeth on her feet she smiled and thanked him for his help.
Two Bears nodded as he looked at her swollen belly. He did not know how the white woman's husband could make her travel. She was very heavy with child.
"Is the child alright?" he asked in English. Elizabeth looked up at him and nodded yes. She looked worriedly in the direction of the gunfire.
Two Bears gently took her by the arm and started guiding her back to camp. Jesse could not help but smile slightly as she watched them but her smile disappeared when she saw Dancing Horse watching her. Jesse hurriedly caught up with the others. She was not afraid of him but he did make her very nervous. She wandered if her mother had felt this way about her father at first. Her mother had not spoken of her father in a long time but Jesse knew she still mourned for him. She missed him also. He had died trying to protect them and she would never forget that day. It had been cold. There had still been snow on the ground. The soldiers had come at them from all sides.
Shaking her thoughts back to the present, she followed her mother into the camp. Once alone, Jesse told her mother where she had gone. She also told her that if they were to escape before reaching the village tomorrow evening, they would have to slip past Dancing Horse.
"Yes, I have noticed his eyes watch you constantly," Elizabeth said softly. Her voice was a little sad.
"Did my father watch you like that?" Jesse asked timidly.
"Yes, he did," her mother replied, a smile warming her features.
Elizabeth looked down at Mathew and hugged him close. As the warriors came back to camp, Mathew asked where his daddy was because he did not see him anywhere. Jesse looked at her mother's worried face and got up to see if he was behind the warriors. Even though she despised him, her mother still loved him deep down. She did not want her mother to worry.
As she looked she noticed someone being dragged. When they got closer Jesse saw it was not her stepfather as she had first thought. It was the man he had spoken to that morning. Jesse started to wonder what had happened. She got a good look at the warriors and they did not look happy.
"I do not see him, Mother," she said, returning.
"Jesse, are you sure he was not behind the other?" She had a worried look on her face.
Jesse nodded her head yes after looking once more to make certain he was not behind the others. Mathew, again, asked about his father. Jesse's mother told him to be still until they found out.
She watched two of the warriors that were with the men speaking to each other. They gestured toward the body on the ground. Getting a better look, Jesse saw his chest was covered in blood. The man never once moved and Jesse knew he was dead. She sent a worried look to her mother and brother. Turning her attention back to the men she watched as the two went to Dancing Horse and Two Bears. They spoke briefly before both men nodded and Two Bears began walking towards them.
Stopping in front of them, he knelt down. He looked from Elizabeth to Jesse unsure of how to begin. The warrior did not want to upset Elizabeth.
"The man, that was with you."
"Yes, my husband, where is he?" Elizabeth cut in.
Two Bears looked at her for a moment then turned to look at Jesse. He was surprised by the intensity of her stare. It made him very uneasy. Dragging his gaze from hers, he once again looked at Elizabeth.
"The white man tried to escape," he stated cautiously. "He was shot."
Elizabeth paled at hearing the news and Mathew began to cry.
"Where is the body?" Jesse asked in a low emotionless voice.
Two Bears was startled by the sound of her voice and turned to look at her. He felt a chill creep up his spine under her scrutinizing gaze. "The body fell into the water and was carried away."
She nodded then looked over at her mother and brother. Mathew was so young it was going to be hard for him. Tears streamed uncontrollably down his face. Her mother was being as brave as she could. There were no tears but when her eyes locked with Jesse's there was something different. It was a look of relief. After a moment's hesitation Two Bears left. Jesse listened to the cries of the other women and children as she held her mother and brother. She closed her eyes trying to shut it out but she could not. Her tears slid quietly down.
"It is done," Two Bears told Dancing Horse.
The younger warrior nodded and walked away from camp. He needed time to think. Dancing Horse walked back to the water and sat on a log the stream for a long time.
After Two Bears departed as well, Elizabeth looked at her daughter with pleading eyes. "We have to get away from here before anything else happens and before we reach their village. Jesse, we have to leave tonight."
Jesse leaned forward and said in hushed tones. "This will not be easy mother."
"I do not care how, Jesse. Just, please, find a way."
"Mother, I do not understand. I thought you wanted to go back to my father's people. What has changed your mind?"
"Jesse, listen to me. I would like to have a doctor present when the baby is born. You remember how it was with Mathew. I do not want to go through that again."
Jesse could see her mother was scared. So she agreed. She did not want to upset her mother any further.
Jesse told her mother and brother to get some sleep. While they slept, she would wait. She needed to think, to watch, to learn and most of all, Jesse thought, she needed to figure out a way for them to escape. They would have to leave very quickly and quietly.
She thought about the horses only to change her mind. It would be too risky. If they could make it to the stream they might have a chance but they needed at least two horses. Her horse and her stepfather's would be best. They both were fast. She watched as Dancing Horse walked back into camp. He sat down beside Two Bears, obviously deep in thought.