Prairie grass tufts undulated beneath the wagon’s creaky axles. Dusk bled its final rays between jagged angles of the looming ridge ahead. Millie jostled into Pa’s dusty shoulder.
He pointed a gnarled finger across the fly-swarmed landscape at fleshy mounds lining the trail. “Buffalo hunters just days ahead of us.”
Rancid odors wafted from the maggot-ridden carcasses and stung her nostrils.
“I’m so weak.” She shifted on the rough bench and rested her cheek against the gingham of Ma’s sleeve. “How long?”
Pa snapped the reins. “We’ll camp just past this field. Could be something to hunt.”
Millie’s lashes fluttered until a whinny perked her attention.
Millie raised her woozy head as the stallion hooves slowed to a halt. Twilight spilled blue shadows across the plain. Ink collected among tree clusters and puddled around brush clumps.
Pa hopped to the ground. “Make a small fire. I’ll scout for—”
Their attention snapped to a lone rider galloping at full speed toward them. His uniform buttons gleamed in the moonlight as he reined his horse to stop beside their wagon.
The soldier tipped his stetson. “I advise against making camp alone here. Angry injun tribes in these parts. Best keep on a few hours to the wagon train.”
“Much obliged, sir.” Pa pinched the brim of his stovepipe hat with a nod. “How many settlers in it?”
“It’s a bigun. Fifty families, I reckon. Shall I escort you up the road a ways?”
Ma climbed down from the wagon. “We need to rest for now. Regain our strength. Would you consider joining us for dinner?”
“This ain’t a good spot, ma’am.” He gestured toward the carnage lined trail behind them. “Dead buffalo tend to stir up the natives.”
“Oh, my. Such an excitement.” She exchanged a glance with Pa.
“How likely are they to attack us?” As Pa approached, the cavalry steed reared.
The soldier tightened his grip on the reins and patted his mount’s neck. “Purty high.”
“Please stay with us, sir.” Millie extended a trembling hand toward their visitor and lighted her other palm on her heaving chest. “I’d be ever so grateful for the company of a gentleman.”
“My orders are to scout the area for stragglers. And watch for hostiles.” His eyes met Millie’s gaze.
“Perhaps your orders would be best fulfilled here.” Ma took her daughter’s fingertips and helped her descend from the wagon.
“I suppose I could stay and help you nice folks.” He dismounted.
Millie batted her lashes and strode toward him. “Can’t tell you how relieved we are.”
“A soldier must prove himself a true gentleman. Just doing my duty, miss.” The officer lifted Millie’s fingertips and kissed them.
“Mebbe so.” Pa wrapped the steed’s reins around his bony hand. The cavalry horse neighed and reared, pawing the air. “But, you’re wrong about one thing.”
“What’s that, sir?”
Ma smiled as she whisked to her daughter’s side. “We aren’t nice folks.”
Pa swooped in to join his family as they encircled him, fanged sneers glistening in the moonlight.