A Hero’s Heart

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One

1846 Indian Territory

Death spiraled toward the sky in a hazy plume of thick black smoke, spreading its raucous odor across the hilly countryside. From his chestnut mare, Wade Ketchum gazed upon the burned wagons, scattered furniture and littered bodies. The sight seemed unreal in the early morning light, but the woman kneeling beside a freshly dug grave, shoulders shaking with grief, made the scene painfully real.

Wade slid from his saddle, the creak of leather echoing in the deadly quiet. Alert, he walked towards the woman, his boots crunching on the hard ground. As she bent over the grave, her sunbonnet rested against her slender shoulders, exposing a soft mass of mahogany tresses at her nape.

Her head was bowed her hands clasped together.

"Please, Father, I need your help. Guide us through Your wilderness."

Wade hesitated. The woman was praying.

"Send someone to help us. I can't do this alone." She sobbed. "Our lives are in Your hands. Amen."

Wade cleared his throat.

She jumped up, whirling around at the sound. Her gaze collided with his, and her shoulders seemed to sag with relief.

"I was afraid it was the Pawnee returning," she said, her voice filled with relief, her eyes wary of him.

"Are you hurt?"

"No, just terribly frightened,” she answered, her voice shaking with suppressed emotion.

Wade glanced at the camp. Smoke drifted across the area giving it a ghostly appearance, nothing stirred. The attack had been recent, and even one survivor was a miracle.

A feeling of unease crept up his spine. Why was she still here, vulnerable to another attack? “What happened?”

“The Pawnee ambushed our wagon train late yesterday evening. I've been trying to hitch up our wagon." She rambled nervously on. "I was beginning to wonder if we were going to all die here in this barren country." The woman held out a shaky right hand. “I’m Rachel Cooke.”

“Wade Ketchum, ma’am.” Gripping her cold palm, he realized the woman was skittish as a wild horse.

She withdrew her hand from his, wrapping her arms around her middle as if to protect herself. She stared at the destruction of what once had been fifteen or more wagons, and seemed to sag before his eyes. One wagon stood apart from the others, the canvas singed and ripped, but otherwise still intact.

"We were fortunate," she whispered, as a sob escaped her throat. “Somehow our wagon was spared.” She wrung her hands fretfully. "But the oxen were spooked by the raid, and I haven’t been able to hitch them, to take us away from here.”

“Ma’am, I’m surprised you still have oxen.”

“They were down at the creek being watered when the attack occurred. We heard the noise and hid in the bushes.”

Wade wanted to reach out and touch her, reassure her somehow. Knowing he had to be in Fort Laramie in three days, knowing she would only slow him down, and yet knowing he couldn’t leave her behind, he said, "I'll hitch your wagon and help you reach the next town."

"Just get us out of here. Away from all this. I don't care where you’re going," she said, her voice trembling with fear.

"I won't leave you, ma'am," Wade said, trying to dispel the fear from her eyes, nervous about the possible return of the Pawnee.

His gazed wandered to the single grave. “Your husband?”

She followed his gaze. "No, it’s Miss Cooke. The grave is my father’s." She choked up momentarily. “I couldn’t stand the thought of animals or Indians desecrating his body. So I spent the morning, burying him the best I could. But the others, God rest their souls, I couldn’t help them.”

While not a classic beauty, she was pretty, in an unusual way. There was a wholesomeness of face and spirit that Wade was not accustomed to in a woman.

He sneaked another glance, his gaze taking in the delicate profile and lush curves. Those curves would be a definite distraction.

Wade picked up the hitch and approached the oxen. He slipped the yoke around their necks and proceeded to fasten it on the animals. "I have to be in Fort Laramie in three days. I'll take you that far, but then you’re on your own."

She wrapped her arms around herself, as if a chill had passed over her. "I’m so grateful you came along. We were on our way to The Dalles, Oregon, to my father's new church."

"You should be able to catch up with another wagon train in Fort Laramie, Miss Cooke. They’ll see you on to Oregon." He checked the ropes one last time. "Are you ready? I don't want to linger here any longer than necessary."

"I agree. Just let me get the children," she said.

"Children?" Wade heard himself blurt the word. "I thought you said you weren’t married? That no one else survived."

"Just my sister and three orphans. My father was a minister. We ran an orphanage back home, in Tennessee."

Suddenly, a small army crashed through the brush. Wade whirled around and pulled his gun, expecting to face Pawnee and came face-to-face with a beauty. The young woman held a small baby in her arms and a little girl of about seven tugged a freckled-faced adolescent boy behind her. They all stopped, wide eyes fixed on him and his gun.

Wade stared at the group in disbelief. "What the hell?" He shoved the weapon back in his holster.

"Mr. Ketchum, please watch your language!" Rachel exclaimed.

He didn't have time for children. They were little creatures that cried or whined most of the time and had a way of getting under your skin, twisting your heart. He didn't need the aggravation, or the memories they evoked.

The little girl looked wide-eyed at him, and Wade growled, "I don't know, Miss Cooke. I didn't bargain for this."

Catching sight of Rachel, the baby started to fuss, holding out his arms. The young woman carrying the infant grimaced with distaste. She hurried over to Rachel, her long skirts swishing, and shoved the baby into Rachel's arms. "It’s your turn to take care of this wet, fussy brat."

With a toss of her blond curls, the other woman informed Rachel, "We couldn't stand waiting in that ravine any longer. The children had to see you were all right.”

"I’m fine, Becky. This is Mr. Ketchum. He’s going to see us to the next town."

Becky carefully assessed him from head to toe. For a moment he felt like he was sized up, tagged, and numbered. Trouble was etched in her smile, in the way she walked and in every line of her seductive body.

"Nice to meet you, Mr. Ketchum," she cooed.

Wade shook his head in bewilderment. These two women couldn’t possibly be sisters. They were about as much alike as a skunk and a porcupine.

"Rachel, the wagons--they're all burned," the little girl cried.

She knelt with the baby on her hip, putting herself at the child's level. "Yes, Grace, I know."

"Where is Papa Cooke?" the child asked.

"Remember what we talked about last night?"

"But I want to see him."

Tears filled Rachel's eyes. "We won't see him again until we get to heaven. Let’s say a prayer for Papa and everyone else before we leave."

Wade swore beneath his breath. "Miss Cooke, we don't have time for a prayer service. Those Indians could return any time."

She looked at him the way a schoolmarm would gaze at a misbehaving child.

"Please, Mr. Ketchum, the children and I need just a few moments to say good-bye. We'll make it quick."

How could a woman who looked so soft be so damn stubborn?

He watched Rachel gather her small brood around the lone grave. She pulled a Bible from her apron pocket and read a passage as unfamiliar to him as Greek. Then bowed her head and led them in prayer.

Not for the first time, Wade wondered what he’d gotten himself into. He shook his head, mentally chastising himself for getting involved. Three days from now the biggest card game west of the Mississippi was being played in Fort Laramie, and he intended on winning that money. He had to win a decent amount in that card game or find himself stranded, unable to continue the search for his brother.

But he couldn't just leave them here. And more importantly, the sight of Miss Cooke bending over that grave had touched a memory he’d rather forget.

"Thank you, Father, for sending us Mr. Ketchum," Rachel said. "Amen."

"Good Lord! Now she thinks I’m a damned saint," Wade mumbled his thoughts out loud.

Immediately, Rachel turned to face Wade, sending him a puzzled look. "What did you say, Mr. Ketchum?"

"I don't have time to cart a bunch of kids around," Wade said, running a hand through his hair as he gazed upon the children. "I have to be in Fort Laramie by Saturday."

Becky twittered with laughter. "Oh, I don't think a strong man like you would leave three small children and two helpless females all alone in the wilderness."

Helpless? Maybe they appeared vulnerable, but any woman who survived an Indian attack and buried a man, was anything but defenseless.

"Mr. Ketchum, I would like to leave here as soon as possible," Rachel asserted suddenly. "Are you going to help us or not?"

Everyone turned to him expectantly. Only the baby seemed uninterested in his response. The blonde-haired little girl looked so much like his sister Sarah, her gaze felt like a knife gouging his heart. They were wasting precious time.

He cursed under his breath."Of course, I’m going to help you. But I’m not going to spend another minute waiting for the damn Pawnee to return. Let’s go."

* * *

Rachel drove the team of oxen, just like she had for the last three months. The dust was still incredible and the heat intolerable as the wagon bounced along the rutted trail. But Rachel knew that yesterday’s Indian raid had changed everything, and she was frightened.

"If he ain't the best-looking man we've seen since we left Tennessee!” Becky said as her gaze devoured Wade.

Rachel barely comprehended her sister's words. Her mind and body were weary. She was grimy. And even though she had scoured the blood and dirt from her hands, she felt stained. Stained with her father’s blood and that of other members of the wagon train.

"I’d bet the trail he’s traveling is littered with broken hearts," Becky prattled on as if this wasn’t the day after their father's death. "How could any woman resist a man who looks as fine as he does."

"Becky!" Rachel exclaimed, finally unable to ignore her sister's comments any longer. She peeked over her shoulder, worried the children were listening.

"I know you’re young, but must you always be so interested in men?" Rachel asked wearily, knowing she wasted words on deaf ears. "The soul is more important than physical beauty."

"You think about his soul. I’ll admire the way he sits a horse, that spark in his eyes and the muscles in his forearms." Her voice was barely audible over the rumble of the wheels and the creaking of the wagon.

Gripping the reins, Rachel guided the oxen up the steep incline as she sneaked a glance at the stranger who had aided her. His hat rested low on his forehead, shielding his gaze from the late afternoon sun. Reluctantly, she admitted her sister was right. Rachel had not failed to notice his powerful good looks, or the way his pants fit snug across his muscular buttocks.

His emerald eyes were dark and seductive and she knew Mr. Wade Ketchum was the type of man women acted like fools over. The type of man Becky attracted. The type Rachel avoided.

"We don't know him," Rachel warned her flirtatious sister.

Becky laughed, a satisfied sound. "Give me twenty minutes alone with the man, and I'll give you his life story," she promised, a smug smile pasted on her beautiful face.

"Please, Becky.”

Her sister frowned in irritation. "I’m not going to sit back and let an opportunity like him pass me by. You may be happy being a spinster, but I will be married."

Spinster! How could one word dredge up so many awful thoughts and gloomy feelings? Rachel took a deep breath to lighten the sudden heaviness in her stomach. Silently she acknowledged the truth of Becky’s words. She was plain and had spent the last four years taking care of her father’s orphanage.

“’He that trusteth in his riches shall fall, but the righteous will flourish as a branch.’ Proverbs 11:28." Rachel cited the Bible for her sister, hoping its message would penetrate her lovely, shallow skin.

Becky rolled her eyes. "Please! Papa's dead. There's no need to continue quoting scripture."

"Just because Papa is gone doesn't mean anything's changed."

A pout clouded her sister's beautiful face. "For eighteen years, I've been preached at until the stuff is oozing out my pores. Not anymore. I don't care if I ever step inside another church."

"Rebecca!" Rachel exclaimed.

"And I’m not helping you take care of those brats anymore, either," Becky said, her rebellion building with each word. "As soon as we reach Fort Laramie, I’m taking the stage home."

"There is nothing to return to, Becky.”

“This is all your fault.”

“I didn’t ask Papa to move.”

“Maybe not, but Papa knew how much you pined for Ethan. He thought you needed a fresh start.

Rachel sighed. “I do not pine for Ethan.”

"Ethan wasn’t interested in you, or he would have stayed," Becky said.

Rachel gripped the reins tighter. The memory of Ethan Beauchamp opened a wound in her heart, one that should have healed years ago. "I know that now. But I was younger than you when I met Ethan. And he left me after making promises I realized later he had no intention of fulfilling."

Becky sighed. "I know. You've told me a thousand times."

"And you still haven't heard me. I don't want you to get hurt, the way I did."

"Don't worry about me," Becky declared as she gazed at Mr. Ketchum. "I’m the one breaking hearts.”

"Don't you dare throw yourself at that man," Rachel whispered, horrified at the thought.

"I’m a grown woman. I can do what I please." Becky turned her back on Rachel, clearly indicating the conversation was over.

Rachel sighed. The belle of Memphis, while Rachel played housekeeper. The social life Rachel craved, Becky took for granted.

It hadn't always been that way. At eighteen, Rachel had fallen in love; then Papa caught Ethan kissing her. She'd been old enough to be courted, old enough to be kissed, even old enough to be married. Or so she thought, until the day Papa discovered them. Soon after, Ethan disappeared and Papa became angry at the mention of Ethan’s name.

The man she'd hoped to marry had gone away, and along with him, any chance for a family or a life of her own. For four long years, she had cooked and cleaned for her father, putting her needs aside.

Then six months ago, Papa had decided to move West, and now here she was alone in the wilderness with three orphans and a sister that couldn’t even boil water.

Wade slowed his mare, pulling alongside the wagon. His muscular shoulders were clearly outlined through his chambray shirt. His strong hands held the reins. In the late afternoon sun, Wade’s long ebony hair shimmered with brilliance and fell to his shoulders in shiny waves. He was a handsome man, who would never be interested in a homely spinster like herself.

As if knowing her thoughts centered on him, Wade turned in his saddle and smiled, sending her pulse to pounding.

* * *

Wade watched orange rays from the setting sun streak across the purple shadows of the evening sky. The towering rocks of Scott's bluff cast long silhouettes over their campsite m as the wind softly rustled the pine needles in a gentle motion.

After a cold meal of dried fruit and meat, Rachel had hurried the children off to bed. Through the open tent flap, he could see her cradling the baby in her arms, rocking him to sleep. Pleasant memories of a woman who smelled of roses and flour pervaded his mind and drained his heart.

The vivid recollection brought an ache as fresh as the day his mother had died. Seventeen long years ago, he'd promised to take care of his brothers and sister, keep them safe from harm. But promises could be broken as easily as fine china, and even now, the memory of his failure wrenched his soul.

Wade paced away from the campsite, away from Rachel and the children. He couldn’t help but feel anxious. She and the children were dredging up painful memories from the past. Memories of Walker and the rest of his siblings.

He had to win that money, to continue his search for Walker. Separated from him for sixteen years, Wade worried he wouldn’t recognize his brother when he saw him. The last clue he’d received was that Walker had gone West, to Oregon, with his new family.

Now all he needed was to lose the women and children, and earn enough money playing cards to continue his journey. For, more than anything, the women were distracting. And if he was completely honest with himself, it wasn’t both of them, but one woman. He found his gaze searching out Rachel all day, making sure she was well, watching her with the children, admiring her strength as she pulled her group together and kept on going.

Forcefully, he reminded himself that there was no room in his life for a woman, especially a preacher's daughter. The sooner they reached Fort Laramie and parted, the better for everyone.

"Mr. Ketchum, are you busy?" Becky’s sultry voice called from the shadows.

Wade reluctantly strode back toward camp. The younger Miss Cooke was a practiced charmer, who had sharpened her wiles on him all evening. Becky was as predictable as the ticking of a clock, and Wade had known it was only a matter of time before she sought him out. "What can I do for you, Miss Cooke?"

He stared as she strolled toward him, a coquettish smile on her lips. "I hope I didn't disturb you, but I wondered if you would mind moving some boxes around in our wagon."

He watched as Becky deliberately ran her tongue across her bottom lip and sidled closer to him.

"I'll move the boxes for you, Miss Cooke," Wade replied, impatient to put distance between himself and this flirt.

She reached out and laid a hand on his chest. Gazing up at him with adoration, she pouted. "Don’t hurt yourself moving those big, heavy boxes."

Looking from the hand on his chest, into the most calculating blue eyes Wade had seen this side of Papa's saloon, he felt a chill all the way to his bones.

"I’m sure it’s perfectly acceptable to touch a man where you come from. But I was raised in a saloon with a brothel. And when a woman touches a man, she’s usually drumming up business."

He almost laughed as her blue eyes widened in horror.

Becky jerked her hand back as if she'd been scalded. Even in the near darkness, her cheeks burned a brilliant pink.

"Are you suggesting that I’m a whore?" she challenged.

"No, ma'am, not in the least. I just think you should know what I’m used to," he replied. "I'll move those boxes for you."

As he strode off, he could feel her gaze burning into his back. Women like her had tried to seduce him since he was fifteen. Growing up in a saloon, he’d quickly learned what was going on upstairs. A different game, called poke-her.

In his younger years, he'd taken advantage of every opportunity available in his father's saloon. But now he was choosier. While no one would ever call him a saint, at twenty-nine, he’d become bored with easy women and tired of the sleazy side of life.

Hoisting himself into the wagon, he gazed around at the neat stacks of crates. A few had indeed been knocked over. While he was moving the boxes back into place, curiosity overcame him at spotting writing on the outside of a crate: Bibles.

Shaking his head, he sat back on his heels and counted the crates. Four boxes of the Good Book took up precious space. Quickly, he shoved them back into position, thankful Fort Laramie would see the end of this bunch of greenhorns.

Bent over, he turned to leave and almost bumped into a large, draped object occupying the back corner of the wagon. With growing suspicion, he lifted a corner of the quilt, half expecting more Bibles. Instead he found an intricate wood-carved case with ivory keys. An organ. He dropped the blanket back into place, laughing until he realized he was stuck with this group of fanatics till they reached Fort Laramie.

Was she planning on playing the blasted thing all the way to Oregon or straight into heaven? Whoever had convinced them to make this trip had never crossed the rugged trail awaiting them. With a chuckle, he crawled outside to the waiting Miss Cooke.

"Good night, Miss Cooke," he called, before strolling off.

They would never make it over the mountains with the extra weight of an organ and Bibles. He was surprised they’d made it this far. Every greenhorn deserved one warning, and hopefully this pious, stubborn female would listen with the God-given sense she had and lighten the wagon load.

Strolling to the tent, he yanked the flap open. Rachel glanced up at him, clearly startled, then returned her attention to the children.

He watched as Rachel moved to each one, kissing their cheeks in a good-night gesture. The girl wrapped her arms around Rachel's neck and hugged her. "I love you," the child said.

"And I love you, sweetheart."

Rachel crawled to the tent opening. "I'll be outside if you need me, Toby."

“Yes, Ma’am,” the boy called into the night.

The words of warning Wade had been ready to sling at Rachel died away as he watched her with the children. The long-forgotten memories of tucking in his brothers and sister assaulted him, bringing back the searing blade of guilt.

He strode away from the tent, taking deep breaths. The sound of Rachel’s footsteps alerted him she followed. He’d been too young when his mother died, leaving his younger siblings in his care; with a father who was too busy working his saloon to concern himself with children. He’d worked hard to keep them all together, and in the end, his efforts had been for nothing.

Pushing the dreaded memories away, he willed his thoughts back to the present. Dusk covered the camp area, wrapping it in the coziness of twilight. Until he was certain they had traveled safely away from the Pawnee, there would be no campfire.

Even the fading light failed to hide Rachel's exhaustion. Her eyes, had lost their sparkle. Her voice lacked its earlier vitality.

"Did you want something, Mr. Ketchum?" Rachel asked.

Her voice, low in the darkness thrummed his nerve endings, like a soft guitar.

In her present condition how could he berate her about the impossibility of traveling across the mountains with a wagon load of Bibles and an organ?

"It can wait, Rachel. You look like you need to rest."

Rachel rubbed the back of her neck. "I slept very little last night. I don't know if I'll be able to sleep tonight, either." She ducked her head and said softly, "I keep seeing their bodies."

An incredible urge to shield her from the nightmares-to protect her, to enfold her in his arms--overcame him. But his hands remained at his side.

"Don't think about it. You and the children are safe." His voice sounded gruff, even to his own ears.

"I know, but so much has happened." Her small shoulders sagged as if the weight of the world rested upon them. Without thinking, he stepped toward her, placing his hands on her neck.

She jumped at his touch. "Mr. Ketchum…I appreciate your concern, but…"

Her voice quivered, yet she didn't move away. The tenseness in her shoulders seemed to relax under his fingers' gentle massage. Soft wisps of hair curled alluringly on the back of her slender neck. He wondered how she would taste there.

"Can't you call me Wade?" he whispered.

A heavy sigh escaped her lips. "Wade…" She faltered and stepped out of his reach. He watched her chest rise and fall in rapid breaths. "We should talk."

What had possessed him to touch her? His rough hands tingled from gliding over the warm calico of her dress, leaving him yearning to feel her skin.

"My sister…" Rachel paused. "My sister can be…"

Wade couldn't help but grin. He stood back, folded his arms across his chest and waited for her to complete the sentence.

"Please don't misunderstand Becky's actions. She’s young and used to getting her way."

The urge to pull her into his arms was strong. All he’d done was touch her. How could one small caress of a woman who'd probably never been touched by a man leave him aching for more?

The months of being without a woman had certainly caught up with him if he was responding to a prim and proper preacher's daughter. Women like Rachel were never interested in men like himself. They wanted marriage, babies, stability. Not that he was interested, but if he were, a gambler didn't have anything to offer a woman, especially one like her.

"Don’t worry about Becky. She can take care of herself,” Wade replied.

But the way he burned after touching the prim Miss Rachel Cooke, who in the hell was going to take care of him?