Author Elizabeth Lane
by Elizabeth Lane
Excerpt from "Wyoming Wildcat"Wyoming Territory
June 12, 1866
Molly Ivins darted through the tall prairie grass, her seven-year-old legs pumping beneath the folds of her faded calico skirt. The two coyote pups scampered ahead of her, stumbling on their oversize paws. There was no sign of fear in their playful yelps. They seemed to know, as Molly did, that the chase was only a game.
Her white-gold pigtails flew behind her as she ran. It felt so good to be out of the dusty, lurching prairie schooner, even for a short time. Molly knew she should be sorry that one of the rear wagon wheels had lost a felly, loosening the spokes and forcing her family to fall behind the wagon train while her father replaced the broken wheel. She knew they would have to travel well into darkness, alone on the prairie, to reach the safety of the camp. But the day was so bright and sunny, the prairie such a glorious carpet of sunflowers, mallow, Indian paintbrush and blue-eyed grass that Molly could not muster so much a twinge of regret. She felt as if she could run forever, all the way to Oregon!
The two coyote pups had escaped. Molly stopped and prodded the grass for them, but succeeded only in startling a locust into buzzing flight. She sighed, feeling damp and sweaty in the summer heat. The pups were probably watching her right now, their little pink tongues lolling as they laughed at her in their doggish way. She hadn’t meant them any harm. She had only wanted to play with them. But never mind. It was time she headed back to the wagon before her parents started to worry.
Dragging her feet a little, she turned around and began to walk. She would watch for buffalo chips along the way, she resolved. Maybe if she returned with her apron full, her mother wouldn’t scold her.
She trudged through the long grass, zigzagging a bit as her eyes scanned the ground for dried buffalo dung to fuel the cooking fire. When she finally glanced up, expecting to see the wagon ahead, she discovered that it was nowhere in sight.
Molly blinked and rubbed her eyes. She was so sure she had come this way. But never mind, she would just retrace her steps to the spot where she’d lost the pups. From there she would have no trouble finding her way back.
With a growing sense of unease, she searched for her own footprints. But it was as if the bent grass had sprung back into place with the passing of her feet. Only the blazing sun overhead looked familiar.
Heart pounding, she stood in one place and turned herself in a slow, full circle. The prairie stretched in all directions, like an endless, rippling sea. And she, Molly Ivins, was no more than a dot on its vast surface—no more than a rabbit or a bird or an insect. Even when she shouted at the top of her lungs, her voice was lost in the huge emptiness of it, like the squeal of a prairie dog.
She shouted until her voice gave out. Only then did she hear it, off to her right—the unmistakable pop and whine of gunfire.
Molly’s heart jumped as she wheeled and raced toward the sound. It was all right. Her father knew she was lost. He was firing his rifle to guide her back to the wagon.
But as she ran, the fear grew that something was wrong. There were too many shots, and the difference in their tone and pitch told her they were coming from more than one gun.
Sick with dread, she plunged forward, stumbling now over the hem of her long skirt. The gunfire had ceased, and a terrible stillness had fallen over the prairie. Even the birds were quiet. Molly tried to shout past the knot in her throat but could manage no more than a gasp. Each swish of her skirt against the sharp-edged grass seemed to split the silence like the crack of a whip.
Her foot sank into a badger hole. With a little cry, she pitched onto her hands and knees. Before she could clamber to her feet again, she heard the sound of voices. Men’s voices. Laughing.
Did Indians laugh? Heart pounding, she crept forward. Through a blur of sunlit grass she could make out the faded canvas cover of the wagon. Dark shapes moved around it—men, four or five of them, dismounting, with their pistols still drawn. And they weren’t Indians, she realized as she flattened herself against the earth and bellied closer. They wore long pants and cowboy hats, and their horses were saddled. They were white men.
Molly bit back the sickness in her stomach as a man emerged from the wagon with her mother’s trunk. Laughing, he dumped the dresses and underclothes on the ground and pawed through them, pocketing the few treasures he found. Someone in the wagon train had mentioned there were bandits in these parts who preyed on lone travelers. But why would they bother her family? John and Florence Ivins were good people, and they had so little to steal.
Where were her parents? As the thought slammed into Molly’s brain, she heard her mother’s rending scream and the sound of rough laughter from the far side of the wagon. The screams and laughter went on and on, like echoes from a nightmare. Molly shoved her hands against her ears and pressed her face against the cool prairie earth. Please make it stop…please make it stop…please—
A shot rang out, and the screams abruptly ceased.
“Let’s get the hell out of here!” The tallest bandit had unhitched the team of horses and tied lead ropes to their collars. The others loaded whatever they could carry—flour, coffee, bacon, blankets and a few odds and ends of clothing—into bags behind their saddles. One of the men had taken her father’s rifle. Another, Molly noticed, was wearing his old felt hat. Her father had looked so handsome in that hat, with his blue eyes twinkling below the broad rim. The knot of rage that tightened in Molly’s throat threatened to choke off her breath.
The bandits swung into their saddles. The one nearest the wagon crumpled some pages from the discarded family Bible, touched them with a match and tossed the burning paper into the wagon bed. Within seconds, the wagon was ablaze.
As gray smoke curled skyward, they spurred their horses and galloped away in a cloud of dust. Molly lay perfectly still, scarcely daring to breathe, until the riders had vanished over the horizon. Then, slowly, she rose to her feet and forced herself to walk toward the wagon. Left foot, right foot; each step was an act of will. She knew what she would find. But she had to see for herself. She could not leave this place of horror until she knew what had happened to her parents.
The acrid smell of burning canvas stung her wind-dried eyes. Through the smoke, she could see her father sprawled on his back beneath the burning wagon, his shirt stained dark red where the bullet had struck his chest. Florence Ivins’s body, lying spread-eagled on open ground, was little more than a heap of bloodied, tattered petticoats, bare legs thrusting at odd angles from beneath them. Crouching beside her, Molly touched the sole of one trail-worn boot. She could not bring herself to look at what remained of her mother’s beautiful face.
Her stomach had begun to heave. Clutching her belly, Molly stumbled back into the grass, bent double and retched until there was nothing left inside her. She wanted to cry. But crying was for babies. Mama and Papa were watching her from heaven now, and they would want her to be brave.
Straightening, she wiped her mouth on her sleeve and turned toward the wagon trail. By now the other families would be far ahead. But if she kept moving, she might be able to reach the campsite before dawn. There she would find Mr. Campbell, the wagon master, tell him what had happened and ask him to send someone back up the trail to bury her parents.
Walking was easier at the side of the trail than in the knee-deep wheel ruts. Blinded by unshed tears, Molly trudged along in the blazing midday heat. When her fair skin began to burn, she hiked up the back of her skirt and put it over her head, like the hood of a cloak. It crossed her mind that Mama would scold her for leaving her sunbonnet in the wagon—but no. The wagon was ashes, and her mother would never scold her again.
The sun crawled across the blinding sky, its heat blistering even through the fabric of the calico skirt. Molly had brought no water, and thirst raked her small body. The heat waves that swam before her eyes began to take on images—the flaming wagon, the blurred, vulturine bodies of men dancing around it. From the edges of her vision, a red-tailed hawk swooped on a rabbit. The rabbit’s death scream joined with the screams that reverberated in her head.
Hour after hour, Molly forced her feet to keep moving. She did not even notice when her dragging steps left the trail side and began to wander across the prairie. The sun had dropped low in the sky. Its glare dazzled her eyes. Sick, dizzy and no longer able to see her way, she stumbled on. She had to keep going, had to reach the camp before…
The thought evaporated as her legs crumpled beneath her. Her body pitched forward into the grass. For an instant the aroma of sweet earth filled her senses. Then darkness closed around her like a gentle hand.
Molly whimpered and stirred, struggling against the bonds of sleep. She was dimly aware of a cool wetness on the back of her neck, a wetness that soothed her skin and dampened her sweat-encrusted hair. Was it raining? Was some curious animal licking the salt from her skin? Or was she only dreaming?
With a moan, she rolled onto her back and lay staring upward. The blazing sun was gone, and she saw that the sky was the deep, dusky blue of evening. A rasping chorus of crickets quivered around her, their song a soothing chant in the cool twilight.
The presence beside her was silent. Only when Molly heard the nicker of a nearby pony did her eyes move in the direction of the sound. Her cracked lips parted as she saw a figure crouched next to her in the grass.
At first her blurred gaze could only make out a dark shape. Then a face swam into focus—a man’s face, as brown and wrinkled as a walnut, with fierce, aquiline features and birdlike eyes that peered at her from deep sockets. Two long braids, twined with otter fur and bright glass trade beads, hung over a beaded buckskin shirt. He looked of an age to be her grandfather, and when he spoke, his voice was like the rustle of wind passing through long-bladed marsh grass.
Molly’s mouth worked in an effort to speak, but only a feeble croak emerged from her parched throat. The man’s fingers, dripping moisture, moved toward her face, brushing her burning cheeks, her painfully cracked lips. His words took on a cautionary tone as he lifted her head and tipped the corner of a water-swollen skin bag to her mouth. Molly sensed that he was warning her not to drink too fast or she would be sick, the same thing her father had once told her. She willed herself to take small sips, even though the water was so fresh and cold that it was all she could do to keep from gulping it. The man rewarded her with an approving nod.
He spoke to her again, in a low murmur, as if he were soothing a frightened animal. His hands slid carefully beneath her legs and shoulders, arms lifting her, cradling her against his broad chest as he strode toward his tethered pony. He smelled of wood smoke and horseflesh and prairie grass.
Too exhausted to be frightened, Molly pressed her face into his soft buckskin shirt and closed her eyes.