Late May 1869
"Guess th' soldiers whipped them redskins so hard this time, they'll think twice afore bothering us again," came the husky, masculine voice in the seat directly behind her.
Having no wish to eavesdrop on the conversation, Anna Wiley gazed steadily out the dirty window of the #17, or the Choctaw, the name given to the Kansas Pacific train. In a single glance she took in the station's platform and the few untidy tents set out on a flat stretch of Kansas prairie, and she wondered, was this all there was to Abilene's train depot?
Anna's spirits took a plunge at the thought. She had hoped for more...so much more.
Taking a deep breath and inhaling the hot, stale air in her crowded car, Anna set her gaze toward the outside of their caravan. There, beside the train tracks, in a line seeming to stretch off into infinity, stood the telegraph poles carrying the singing wires of modern communications. Farther away rose a building or perhaps two, which appeared to be all that there was to the "sprawling metropolis" of Abilene.
Brushing a fly that buzzed around her face, Anna allowed herself a brief smile, remembering the words of Mr. Bilsworth, the New York agent for the Society of Orphans, the man whom she had, of necessity, left behind in Kansas City.
"You and Miss Pagney go on west. They're expectin' you in Hays. Got a telegram from the orphanage in New York saying that they had contacted the church there. Word has it that this town has got plenty of folks there needin' a helping hand with the chores. They'll make the children part of the family." Mr. Bilsworth swallowed with difficulty. "You'll be able to place the rest of the children there...in Hays. I'm certain of it if only you can..."
The old gentleman collapsed back against his pillow, unable to say the rest of the words. Anna held her breath, barely daring to breathe for fear of disturbing him. She observed the sickly, white pallor of his skin and listened to his breathing. That he gasped for air as he spoke did not bode well for his role in the rest of her mission, she feared.
Although Anna was by no means a doctor, she had seen enough sickness in her young life to recognize the symptoms of cholera when confronted with them. No, Mr. Bilsworth would not be making the rest of the journey westward.
Were she and Miss Pagney capable of continuing the journey without him? Two women alone upon the open stretches of the Kansas prairie? Could they place the rest of their charges, these twelve remaining orphaned children, in good homes?
Well, they would have to, Anna resolved. As it was, she could only hope that the children were not infected with the disease that had so suddenly stricken Mr. Bilsworth.
Patting the elderly gentleman's hand, Anna placed his arm back at his side. She cleared her throat, trying to put a note of cheerfulness into her tone as she uttered, her voice barely raised over a whisper, "Don't you worry, Mr. Bilsworth. Miss Pagney and I will go on. We won't let you or the orphanage down. The two of us are capable, I am certain, of seeing to it that the rest of the children find good, Christian homes. I give you my word that I will not rest until it is so. You just concentrate on getting well, and after Miss Pagney and I finish our task, we'll return and reunite with you here. Then we can all return to New York together."
Upon her declaration, Mr. Bilsworth reached out, clutching at her hand. For a moment, his eyes took on the look of a wild beast as he implored, "Ensure that they are good homes, Miss Wiley. Be certain to obtain a written..." he gasped, having difficulty drawing in breath. His hand on hers suddenly took on a death grip, so tightly did he clench at her. "Important to have a written contract," he croaked. "Remember that."
Anna swallowed with difficulty before she uttered, "I understand."
Mr. Bilsworth fell back, his grip lessening. He muttered, "Do I have your promise? Will you vow to me that you will find these children good homes? Christian homes?"
"Yes, Mr. Bilsworth." Anna nodded. "I promise."
That was all he had been waiting for, it appeared, for with her words, Mr. Bilsworth relaxed his vigil, giving her a silent nod in acknowledgment before the doctor rushed in to usher her quickly out of the room.
That had been almost a month ago. Mr. Bilsworth had died a few days later, leaving her and Miss Pagney in charge. The two of them, along with the children, had waited the necessary few weeks in Kansas City to determine if the disease had infected any of the rest of their party.
Luckily, neither she, Miss Pagney, nor any of the children had come down with the illness. But the wait had given her the opportunity to learn sign language, the universal language of the plains. One never knew. It might come in handy.
"But, Pa, Ma says that them Injuns is on the warpath again," came the younger voice from behind her. "Ma says she heard tell that them Sioux has joined up with them Cheyenne Dog Soldiers. Said that together they's gonna fight it out with us."
Anna's thoughts came rushing back into the present. Was it true? Were the Cheyenne Indians, along with a smattering of Sioux, on the warpath?
When she had booked passage on this train, nobody had told her anything about an Indian uprising. Nobody had warned her.
Why hadn't she had the good sense to read a newspaper before she had ventured out farther along the Kansas frontier?
Would it have made a difference? a small voice inside her challenged. Anna glanced nervously toward her small charges, letting her gaze fall tenderly upon each child.
She breathed in heavily. It would have made no difference whatsoever, she acknowledged to herself. Placing these homeless waifs with adoptive parents who would raise and love them as their own was her responsibility.
Responsibility? It was more than that. She and Miss Pagney would scour the countryside for churches, for families, for anyone who would support their project, and in doing so, would always put the happiness of these children, their welfare and their eventual adoption, above their own needs. And why?
Anna had never really thought about it, yet, if she were to be truthful, she would admit that these children had become more than a simple obligation. They had become her life, the very reason for her existence. This project and others she had undertaken these past few years ignited her with purpose; and certainly no Indians, or even a threat of an all-out war, would come between her and the fulfillment of that duty.
Deep inside her a voice added that she would never permit anything to come between her and the role, perhaps for a moment only, of being a mother.
Anna closed her eyes as the truth of that thought found its mark. She might never find any other form of motherhood. At least not in this, her earthly existence, since Anna was painfully aware of her lack of appeal to the opposite sex.
At five foot ten, she towered over most of the gentlemen of her acquaintance, and this, as well as her willowy figure, did little to instill undying inspiration, she had found. Of course, there was also her mousy brown hair and her too pale skin, which only seemed to add to her homeliness.
She drew in an unsteady breath, deciding to turn her thoughts to other things, unaware that there was one trait about herself that she had missed, one that highly recommended her had she but known it: her eyes, green and lustrous. They shone with a kindness of spirit that could not be bought, sold or bargained. And perhaps this alone was their beauty.
Anna settled back and gazed out upon the Kansas frontier as the train came to a stop. Her glance took in the few tents that had been scattered close to the railroad tracks, and she knew a moment of despair.
"Is Ma waiting for us at Hays, Pa?"
"I expect so, son, I expect so."
Anna let out a deep sigh of relief while she tried to drown out the rest of the conversation between the father and son. If a woman lingered there in Hays, then that town surely had to be better than these few tents in Abilene. Please, dear Father, she prayed, let it be better than Abilene...for the children.
And, on this more optimistic note, Anna tried to settle her mind.
There was a sort of beauty to the plains, she acknowledged as her gaze scanned the prairie. At least there were no mountains here, Anna thought with a shudder. She particularly disliked high places and hated to think how she would have managed had she been required to cross a mountain or two in order to find homes for these children.
But that would be unnecessary, she decided as she glanced out at the stretches of flat land. The panorama from her window reminded her of an ocean of green, for no landmark could be seen to distinguish one area from the next. It made her wonder how, if she were to become lost from the train, she would ever find her way.
The chances of that happening were very slim, she reminded herself. Shaking her head, she brought her gaze closer to the train tracks where, up ahead, there stood passengers, waiting to board the Kansas Pacific Railroad. From her limited vantage point, she could see perhaps thirty people standing upon Abilene's depot, the railroad station being little more than a simple platform.
None of those people looked refreshed, Anna quickly observed. But then, why should they? The train was already close to ten hours late.
Still, Anna reckoned, those passengers would wait rather than risk trekking alone over the prairie. After all, better to travel by this more modern mode of transportation than to depend on the prairie schooners, the only other means of transport across this land.
Slowly the train swayed to a stop, which caused a stir amongst the passengers waiting outside.
Where would they be fitting all those people? Anna wondered. The train was full, with adults and children already sitting or reclining in the aisles.
Anna heard a high-pitched sigh and brought her glance back to the confines of her own car. A small child sat in Anna's lap, the child's head wobbling this way and that with the jostling motion of the train. Tenderly, with gentle hands, Anna reached out to bring the child's head in closer to her bosom.
The scent of the waif's filthy hair drifted up to her, causing Anna to reach a firm decision: as soon as their group reached Hays, she would ensure that all the children had a good wash. And it wouldn't matter the objections of Miss Pagney. Miss Pagney had already complained too heartily at Topeka--the last station--that the meager finances of the Society would not include a bath for each of these children.
But really, Anna reasoned, how else were they to present these youngsters at their very best?
Anna rested her gaze on these six of her twelve orphaned charges who, without a fuss and with nary a complaint, sat clustered around her, their trust in her a real and tangible quality. All at once, a feeling of helplessness, all mixed up with hope, along with a healthy dose of fear, shot through Anna.
Ah, yes, she reaffirmed, she would do all she could to ensure the best homes would be given to these children. Thus, the necessity of baths.
"But Ma said in her letter that them Injuns might still attack us," came the young voice directly in back of Anna.
"Ah, there's nothing ta fear, young 'un," a deeper voice explained. "Didn't General Sherman roust them Injuns outta their wasps' nests like the varmints they are? Survival of the fittest, son, survival of the fittest. Them Injuns is beat." The deep, male voice laughed, though there was little humor in the sound. "Didn't all them Cheyenne chiefs, just last New Year's Eve, surrender at Fort Cobb? Why, them Injuns is no better'n animals and they run from anythin' resemblin' a good fight. Naw, they's got the fear of the good Lord in 'em now. Calm yourself, son, them soldiers has things well in hand."
"But Ma said that some of 'em didn't surrender, Pa. Didn't she call 'em Dog Soldiers? And ain't they still mad 'bout Sand Creek? I heard Ma sayin' that they's out ta kill anything with white skin."
Anna heard the masculine expletive from behind her and felt her face flush in reaction.
"Sand Creek!" came the deep-voiced hiss. "What does yer ma know about Sand Creek? Why, them Injuns was taught a lesson at the Sand Creek battle, I reckon. Got exactly what they deserved, and they would not be on the warpath on account of that. Why, Sand Creek was a victory for them cavalry soldiers, as great as any from the War atween the States."
Victory? Anna nearly choked. She really should not be listening, she acknowledged. Yet, she could not seem to help herself--at least, not without plugging her ears.
But to call Sand Creek a victory? Even she, an easterner, knew that Sand Creek had been no more than a massacre.
With interest, Anna had read about the incident in the eastern papers, and she had been appalled, as were most easterners, over the savage tactic employed by the United States Cavalry.
How could one call the slaughter of peaceful Indians, who had been promised sanctuary by the military, a victory?
For despite orders to the contrary, Colonel John M. Chivington had enlisted the aid of volunteer troops and had forced a seven-hundred-man march in the dead of winter. Then, one cold and blustery morning in 1864, he had reached a camp of peaceful Cheyenne Indians who had always been friendly towards the whites and who had been flying the United States flag within their grounds.
Under Chivington's orders, the volunteers and soldiers had hit that camp hard, and at a time when the Indians had least expected it, especially since their chief had been invited to move in close to the fort--for the Indian's own "safety."
The paper had gone on to say that not only had the cavalry been intent upon killing the fighting men in that camp, the soldiers had gone on to slaughter, with glee, well over a hundred women and infants, scalping and mutilating their bodies with such savagery, any sane person would have been left wondering exactly who it was in the West that were the savages.
"But Ma says them Cheyenne ain't never forgot," came the young voice again, followed by a snort from his elder.
"Them Injuns is licked, I tell ya. Iffen it weren't safe ta travel on this train into Hays, the train would not be runnin'. Now, don't let's talk about it anymore, son."
Should she believe the unknown man who sat behind her?
"Look, Pa, thar's an Injun!"
Anna glanced quickly out the window, calming herself when all she espied was a child--an Indian child--probably not much older than those children who were currently in her own charge.
But her calm was quickly replaced with indignation. Why, the boy carried upon him chains: shackles around his arms, holding both his hands together, and links--large and heavy ones--about his neck.
Chains? Lord help them, the lad was a mere boy.
Worse, the Indian lad was accompanied by three men who, as she watched, knocked the boy this way and that, stretching his chains to the limit, causing the youth's arms practically to be pulled from their sockets. Blood ran down the boy's neck and wrists.
All the while the big men laughed. Laughed!
Anna could barely restrain herself. A child was a child, after all, Indian or not.
Oddly, despite the discomfort that the child must be experiencing, no emotion--none whatsoever--could be seen upon the young man's countenance.
Anna came to her feet, settling the youngster she was holding onto her left hip.
"Hold my seat for me, sweetheart," she whispered to the oldest of her charges, Collin, who sat in the stiff, hard seat next to her. "I'll be right back."
Jostling her way through the rest of the passengers, Anna came at last to the door of their car. No sooner had she reached out to open that door when those same three men flung the door wide, pulling the Indian youth through it.
Quickly Anna jumped back, barely avoiding being squashed against the train's walls. Regaining her footing, however, she planted herself directly in front of the men.
"Excuse us, ma'am."
Anna raised her chin in the air. "You are not excused." The man to whom she had spoken appeared momentarily taken aback.
Anna, however, barely paused, going on to demand, "Unhand that child."
"That...that youth you have in chains." With her free hand she pointed toward the boy.
The fellow in front of her--a very large man--laughed at her before he went on to explain, "This here young 'un ain't no youth, ma'am. This here's the brother of War Cloud. Why, that Injun's become more outlaw than Injun in these here parts."
"That's right, ma'am."
"I don't understand," she said. "What has any of that to do with this boy?"
The big oaf of a man scratched his beard-stubbled chin, as though he were contemplating his words, before he went on to say, "Well, now, ma'am, the way we's figurin' it, iffen ya want ta catch a mean old bear like War Cloud, ya gotta sweeten the trap. That's what this here young varmint is fer."
Anna gulped. "Are you telling me that this young man has done nothing? That you are simply holding him here--in chains--only to catch his brother?"
The man, however, appeared oblivious to her tone of voice and he went on to elaborate, as though she were in full agreement with him, "I knew ya weren't no dumb 'un, ma'am."
Anna stiffened her spine, clutching the child she held on her hip as though the small lad were her only lifeline to sanity. She scolded in her very best schoolmarm voice, "Are you aware that what you are doing to this boy is highly illegal?"
The big man appeared somewhat taken aback. "Illegal, ma'am?" he asked as though he hadn't heard correctly. "I don't rightly think so. And this 'un here ain't no boy. This here's an Injun."
"I disagree," Anna uttered. "The child that you hold is a human being, Indian or not."
"Not out here in Kansas, he ain't. Nits make lice." The man gave Anna an inspecting look. "Youse must be one of them silly easterners, ain't ya, ma'am? Not a very pretty one either."
At the insult, Anna lifted her chin.
"Now, look here, ma'am," the man in front of her offered, "we don't want no trouble. We's only holdin' the boy as hostage until we's--"
"As hostage!" Anna interrupted. "A youth who has done nothing more than be a living relative of another man! And in restraints? Look at the poor boy's wrists, and his neck."
"Yeah, jest look at 'em," the man chuckled inanely.
But Anna would not be kept silent and she reproached them even further, "If you are merely holding the youth as hostage, then I demand that you at least let him out of those chains."
"You, ma'am? Demand?"
Again Anna was met with that senseless laughter, but this time from all three of the men.
"Why, ma'am," another of the men, farther away from her, chimed, "it ain't like we's hurtin' the boy or nothin'." At the same time, that man tugged on the lad's fetters, causing a fresh rivulet of blood to run down the child's wrists.
Anna snorted. "Why, shame on you, gentlemen," she chided. "Didn't your mothers teach you any better than to lie? Just you look there at the boy's wrists and his neck! And from my window I saw the way you were manhandling this child. Now, tell me, has this lad himself--not his brother--done anything to merit such harsh treatment?"
All three of the men chortled with laughter--not a pleasant sound. One of them replied, "He's Injun, ain't he?" as if that explained it all.
Anna stamped her foot. "I will not tolerate this kind of treatment. Not of a child." She stood her ground when the three men flashed her irritated looks. "And not within my sight," she added.
All three men guffawed, one of them pushing her aside, none too gently, as though to get by her. Another of them mimicked her accent as he, too, made to move around her. "Then, ma'am, might I recommend that you not watch."
To another round of coarse laughter, the three men pushed on past her.
Anna glanced down at the poor Indian boy when he filed by her. She smiled at him. But it did no good. The boy didn't even look at her.
Anna, however, was not through with these men and she threatened, "I will tell the conductor about your maltreatment of this child, if you do not cease this barbaric approach at once."
The last of the men, the biggest one, turned back toward her. "You easterners, with your highfalutin ways and your big words, seem ta all think alike. Now, I's tellin' ya, ma'am, you go right on and tell the conductor." A foolish grin followed his words before the man added, tipping his hat to her, "You jest do that."
And with nothing more to be said or done, at least for the moment, the three men pushed their way into the next car.