Excerpt from The Scout, by Lynna Banning....
Nebraska Territory, 1860
Eleven white-sailed schooners crawled over the heat-shimmered plain, the oxen plodding forward to the snap of a bullwhip. The lead wagon, guided by a large-bellied man with an unbuttoned vest over his loose-sleeved shirt, veered north.
The next wagon followed, a short dumpling of a woman in a yellow poke bonnet perched on the driver's bench. Her long-limbed husband walked alongside, prodding the oxen with a goad stick.
Gradually the line turned in on itself until it formed a lumpy circle. The seventh wagon, the largest, painted bright blue with a crisp white canvas cover, lurched forward as the driver jockeyed it into position. The young woman on the bench flapped the reins and talked to herself. Her dark hair straggled from beneath a wide-brimmed man's hat, and the sleeves of her brown dress were rolled above her elbows.
At the top of the hill to the west, a single Cheyenne brave, one arm twisted at an odd angle, crouched among the granite and jasper rocks counting the horses.
I write this by moonlight, as it is so bright I need no candle. Sister sleeps inside the wagon, which is stifling hot, but she refuses to join me underneath where it is somewhat cooler, as she still professes her fear of snakes. It is too dusty for snakes, I tell her, but she will not be moved.
I cannot blame her. It seems only yesterday we had a roof over our heads, and now we are a month out of Independence, sleeping under an open sky.
I am worn to a nubbin. The heat is suffocating and the wind never stops blowing. The fine, silty dirt blows in our faces, into our hair, into our shoes. My teeth are gritty with it!
Tonight even the crickets have baked into silence. My hands are so dry and cracked Mama would turn over in her grave if I even touched the tea service!
A hundred times each day I wonder if I have made the right decision.
"Cissy, come quick!"
Constance sat up so fast her forehead banged into the axle. She rubbed the spot until the ache began to subside. "What is it?"
"Hurry!" her sister's voice commanded from the dark interior of the wagon.
She shoved her stockinged feet into the trail-worn leather boots she kept under her pillow and crawled out into the open. One big step onto the wagon tongue, another on the driver's bench, and then she dove through the gathered canvas bonnet and into the wagon.
"What's the matter?"
"I thought I heard something," her sister whispered. "There... there it is again, a scratching sound."