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For all of the good people of Nebraska, one of my home states, and, as always, for JC

Chapter One

Marietta Randolf pulled her aching body from the stagecoach which had shaken her insides for the last two hundred miles. Her tired gaze drifted over the vast Nebraska wilderness. She didn’t like it. She could scarcely believe anyone would willingly live in the Nebraska territory, let alone her beloved sister Kathy.

The journey to Fort Kearney from Chicago had been a miserable one, especially since leaving the steamboat on the Missouri River south of Omaha. Stagecoach treks were not for city ladies; they were for mules and men and other wild creatures. Marietta found it amazing that in the modern age of the late 1850s, travel to the west was still so primitive.

She massaged the aching muscles in her back as best she could without drawing too much attention to herself. She doubted her body would ever forgive her for leaving civilization.

“Do you see your young man, Miss Randolf?” Mr. Henshaw, a fellow passenger, asked.

“My young man? Oh, you mean my nephew Zack.”

“Yes, ma’am. I don’t see any children.”

“Likely he’s inside the fort. However,” Marietta said, looking around, “I am expecting someone to meet me. I don’t see him yet.”

Mr. Henshaw tipped the hat hiding his gray hair, smoothed a hand over his dark suit, and lit his deep-blue eyes the way he’d done numerous times on the ride from the river. “I need to board the stage once again, Miss Randolf. The driver has taken down your bags. He’s ready to leave.”

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