The first in a trailblazing trilogy of the brave men and women who risked their lives to build a future in the untamed heart of the American frontier…
Fort Kearney, Nebraska, is the gateway to the west for a new breed of pioneers. Civil War veterans and widows, card sharps and Indian agents, and drifters—they arrive every day hoping to forge their destiny. Colonel Henry B. Carrington of the U.S. Calvary is assigned the unenviable task of securing a trio of forts in the dangerous Dakota Territory. At his command is a rising young officer Mark Reynolds and his spirited bride Rose, who longs for danger and excitement. Her wish comes true when army scout Jack Gregory learns that three native tribes are preparing to defend their land against Carrington’s troops. As the drums of war intensify, Gregory takes off on a deadly mission of his own, Rose risks temptation in the arms of an army surgeon, and Carrington faces the greatest foe he has ever known…
Now, at a lonely outpost in the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains, they must make one final stand. The fate of a nation—and the history of America—will be written in blood.
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By S.K. Salzer
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Susan Salzer
All rights reserved.
Fort Stephen Watts Kearney, Nebraska May 16,1866
Lieutenant General William Tecumseh Sherman arrived in the middle of a windstorm that unsettled the animals, dirtied the freshly cleaned clothes hanging along laundresses' row, and sent the giant garrison flag to snapping like pistol shots. Women in poke bonnets, children in homemade clothing, shopkeepers in aprons, Mexican teamsters, blanket-wrapped Indians, all gathered shoulder to shoulder on the boardwalk to catch a glimpse of the great national hero and commander of all western armies. Sherman's visit was a major event for the soldiers of the Eighteenth U.S. Infantry, many of whom had soldiered with "Uncle Billy'" in Georgia, the Carolinas, and earlier, at Kennesaw Mountain, Peach Tree Creek, and Jonesboro. They loved him as one of their own. No matter how big he got, Bill Sherman never would be too big to sit down with a private and eat a plate of beans at his campfire.
Rose Reynolds tried to find a place in the crowd. Colonel Henry B. Carrington and the post's commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Wessells, stood before rows of sweating soldiers under the hard blue sky as Sherman's custom-made Dougherty ambulance rolled through the gate at the head of a column that included an overdue supply train. When it stopped the men shouldered their muskets with a rattling clatter.
A gust of gritty wind grabbed Sherman's hat as he stepped from the vehicle and sent it bouncing along the ground. A junior officer bolted after it.
"Welcome to Fort Stephen Watts Kearney, General," Wessells said, stepping forward. "It's good to see you again."
Sherman returned Wessells's salute without enthusiasm and surveyed his surroundings. A bustling and important place during the gold rush years, Fort Kearney by 1866 had taken on an aspect of decay. The original sod structures listed to one side like drunkards and even the newer wooden buildings were poorly constructed and in need of paint. The surrounding landscape, in all directions and far as the eye could see, was brown and sere, bare of any hint of green other than the rows of transplanted cottonwoods bordering the parade lawn.
"My God, Wessells," Sherman said. "This place hasn't improved any. What a country." He accepted his hat from the breathless junior officer and slapped it against his leg, releasing a cloud of dust.
"It has potential, sir," Wessells said. He was a small man with bushy white hair and a well-trimmed beard. "All it needs is more water and good society."
Sherman laughed without humor. "That's all Hell needs," he said. "Damn place is rotting away. I'm inclined to let it go to the prairie dogs."
Rose could not believe her ears. To her Fort Kearney was a magic place, far better than her native St. Louis with its dirty streets and foul smells. Kearney was the gateway to an exotic new world of beauty and strangeness and danger. New characters arrived every afternoon at two o'clock, when the heavy Concords of the Western Stage Company rumbled in for a team of fresh horses and to discharge passengers connecting with the Holladay lines out of Missouri. Rose entertained herself by inventing histories for weary, rumpled travelers from faraway places like Denver and Salt Lake City as they climbed down from the carriage and stood blinking in the white sun. Men in suits with waistcoats and top hats were card sharps, Indian agents, or felonious bankers absconding with suitcases full of cash; ladies in fitted traveling suits were heiresses fleeing abusive husbands, actresses bound for San Francisco, or women of opportunity returning to their families for a chance at redemption. The fort's dusty streets teemed with Indians, scouts, and malodorous mountain men with hair-raising stories of wild red warriors, giant flesh-eating bears, and arctic cold. Let all this go to the prairie dogs? Surely not.
Sherman moved up the line of men standing at attention, pausing occasionally to greet one he recognized, before he and the high-ranking officers retreated to headquarters for a cool drink and cigars. The ladies of the post hurried back to their quarters to make themselves beautiful for the soiree Wessells would host that evening. It would be a gala occasion, one of the few the families of the Eighteenth Infantry had enjoyed since arriving at Fort Kearney the winter before. The air was charged with excitement, not only because tonight there would be dancing and good food—thanks to an uncharacteristic spasm of generosity from the post sutler—but because Sherman's presence meant the long weeks of waiting finally were coming to an end. Soon their great adventure would get under way.
Officers blacked their boots and unpacked epaulettes, plumed hats, and dress coats while their wives pressed the wrinkles from their finest gowns. Rose took extra care, choosing first an Irish poplin of London smoke, with a mandarin collar and leg-o'-mutton sleeves, then putting it aside in favor of a Nile green silk that she knew showed her blue eyes to advantage. Her auburn hair she carefully arranged in a braided coil at the nape of her neck covered with a snood of sparkling silver thread. She was pleased with the effect despite the dusting of freckles across the bridge of her nose. She hoped Mark would not notice. He was critical of women who "used a hardship posting as an excuse to let themselves go," as he put it, but try as she might there was no escaping the Nebraska sun.
"Our mission must be very important," she said, admiring her husband standing shirtless at his shaving stand. "Why else would General Sherman come all this way from St. Louis?"
Mark turned his head to shave his clean jawline. "It's probably to do with Carrington," he said. "Maybe he's changed his mind about giving Carrington the command. One can only hope. Why couldn't he have chosen Custer? Or Hancock even?"
"You should be careful what you say, Mark. Someone may hear you." Rose could notjudge Carrington's military competence but he seemed to be a kind and intelligent man, and she liked his wife, Margaret, very much. You could tell a lot about a man by the woman he chose.
"Carrington's in completely over his head and everyone knows it," Mark said, wiping traces of lather from his face with a hand towel on which Rose had embroidered his initials. "Someone should have the courage to say it."
As he finished dressing, Rose sat on their bed and watched Sam Curry and the regimental band cross the parade ground to Wessells's quarters, the shining brasses reflecting the last of the golden light. Carrington had insisted the band accompany the regiment on its march up the Bozeman to the Powder River country, despite the disapproval of his officers, who called it frivolous and an unnecessary complication. Carrington said music was good for morale and would not change his mind.
Only officers and their wives were invited to the reception. Sherman stood in the parlor greeting them as they passed by in a line. Rose was a little disappointed at his appearance. Rail thin with uncombed red hair, a rumpled suit, and dusty shoes, Sherman looked more like a farmer than one of history's giants.
By the time Rose and Mark neared him, Sherman was showing signs of impatience, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. But when Rose reached him his hawk-like face brightened. He took her hand and raised it to his lips, giving her a roguish smile. Rose was surprised. The Savior of the Union was a flirt.
"General Sherman," Carrington said, "may I present Lieutenant Mark Reynolds? He's with us on detached service from the Second Cavalry. He'll have our boys riding like Tartars before we reach Laramie."
Sherman pulled his eyes away from Rose and returned Mark's salute. "Yes, Reynolds, I've heard good things about you from my brother-in-law, General Ewing. Tom says you were a great help to him in Kansas City with that border business. He says you've got a good head on your shoulders, studied law at the University of Michigan, I understand."
They were interrupted by a howl. Carrington's striker, Seamus O'Reilly, pulled two boys by their ears from their hiding place under the stairs and hotfooted them out the kitchen door. One of the boys was Carrington's older son, Harry, the other his friend Bill Kellogg. The two had stolen into Wessells's house to get a glimpse of Sherman.
Later there was dancing, and Sherman repeatedly sought Rose as a partner. He was not a good dancer and smelled of cigars but Mark was proud of the general's attentions to his young wife and encouraged her to accept his offers. At midnight when the party ended Mark escorted her back to their quarters, then left to join the other officers for cards.
Rose lay in bed, anticipating the grand adventure that lay ahead, too excited to sleep. A bar of silver moonlight fell across the foot of her bed, and a cool night wind played with the calico curtains at the open window. Bored with life in St. Louis, sick to death of needlework, painting flowers on porcelain vases, and other polite ladies' pastimes, she had long dreamed of this. What was waiting for them in the Powder River country? What would a truly wild Indian look like? She had never seen one, only the hang-around-the-forts who struck her as sad and ashamed. How would the mountains be, and the rivers of snowmelt that ran so fast and cold your hands froze when you held the giant fish that swam in them? She had long heard of these things and soon she would know them firsthand. Finally, she thought, her life would truly begin. She was still awake when Mark, smelling of whiskey and cigar smoke, climbed into bed beside her and, to her disappointment, immediately fell asleep. She was still awake when the sentry called the hour at three. At last she drifted off only to be jolted awake by the boom of the morning gun and the sound of breaking glass. Overloaded with powder, it shook the walls and broke her parlor window.CHAPTER 2
Rose's head pounded like a blacksmith's hammer and she burned with fever. She tried to hide her illness from Mark, hoping it would pass. Many officers had disagreed with Sherman's decision to let wives and children accompany the regiment on campaign. A sick wife, she knew, would be a nuisance to her husband, so she stayed in the wagon—an army ambulance refitted and made comfortable for long-distance travel—all morning with a wet cloth over her eyes. When they stopped at midday she told her black serving woman to make her excuses.
"Tell them I'm resting, Jerusha. Tell them I couldn't sleep because of all the noise."
A week had passed since they left Fort Kearney. A pack of wolves had shadowed the column since the Old California Crossing, galloping alongside at a distance by day and fighting ferociously among themselves at night. Then at midnight they were startled by a new sound, a deep, rumbling thunder that seemed to flow from the very earth, rocking the wagons and frightening the horses. Women clutched their children and wide-eyed soldiers stumbled from their tents asking each other what was happening and getting no answers. All was confusion until chief scout Jim Bridger climbed up on a wagon tongue to announce the rumble and thunder were not caused by an earthquake but by stampeding buffalo, miles away. The campers returned to an uneasy sleep.
Rose's misery worsened as the day progressed. Every jolt of the wheels along the washboard road sent a rocket of pain up her spine. In her desperation she discovered the pain was less if she traveled on her hands and knees and Mark found her in this position during a rest stop. He went looking for Sam Horton, the regiment's chief surgeon, and found him eating gingersnaps with Margaret Carrington and her two sons, twelve-year-old Harry and Jimmy, age six.
"Excuse me, Doctor," Mark said, tipping his hat to Margaret, "but I wonder if you might look in on Rose? I think she has a fever. "
The plump surgeon got to his feet, brushing crumbs from his immaculate serge trousers. "Of course, Reynolds. I'll fetch my bag."
By the time he got there Margaret was already inside the ambulance sitting by the younger woman's side. Rose lay on her back, a patchwork quilt drawn up to her chin. Despite the day's heat, she was shivering.
"It's nothing," she said, looking at Horton with red-rimmed eyes. "I told Mark not to bother you."
"Shush now." The physician sat on the bed, measured her pulse at the wrist, then placed the smaller end of a belled, wooden stethoscope against her chest and leaned forward, listening with closed eyes.
"Too fast," he said. "When did this start, my dear?"
"Do you have pain? Headache? Stomach? Any bowel complaint?"
"I do have a headache."
Horton took from his bag two glass vials—one blue, the other green—and gave them to Jerusha.
"This is quinine," he said, raising the blue vial.
"Give her a teaspoonful every hour. This"—he raised the green—"is laudanum. Of this, four drops every three hours. No more, no less. Keep her comfortable and make sure she takes plenty of water. Do you understand?"
Jerusha nodded and Horton turned back to his patient. "We'll be at Fort Sedgwick this evening," he said. "I can do more for you there."
Margaret insisted on traveling in Rose's ambulance the rest of the afternoon. Despite the difference in their ages, the two women had grown close during the long weeks at Fort Kearney. Rose was intelligent and, like Margaret, fond of reading novels. Most important, she did not try to impress or curry favor with her the way some of the other officers' wives did.
At sundown the column pulled into Fort Sedgwick, a run-down collection of sod buildings on the South Platte River. Mark carried Rose to the blockhouse, hastily converted by the post quartermaster into a lady's sickroom. Harry Carrington watched the effortless way he carried her, even as he climbed the steps of the blockhouse, as if she weighed no more than a box of groceries. Harry wished he was strong enough to carry her like that.
Semiconscious, Rose was only vaguely aware of being moved, of being placed on a mattress that smelled of fresh hay and pipe tobacco. Her bones ached and her clothes were wet with sweat. She drifted into a troubled sleep, at times struggling for consciousness like a drowning swimmer fighting for the surface. Always she failed, sinking back into the dark and suffocating depths. The fever burned inside her, taking her to a different time and place. She saw her favorite brother, Tim, killed in '61 at Wilson's Creek, Missouri, standing alone on a hillside of glowing autumn colors. She tried to call out to him, to warn him of the Rebel sharpshooter in the tree, but could not make a sound. He jumped when the bullet hit him, then lay crumpled and still on the ground. As his spirit left his body, floating heavenward, she heard the faint and distant sound of a string orchestra, a soothing melody of violins and violoncello, clarinets and flute, French horns and tuba, alternating with a chorus of booming male voices, then the crunch of wheels on gravel.
A gentle hand lifted her head and pressed a cool cup of water, sweet as wine, to her lips. She opened her eyes expecting to see Mark but instead found herself looking into the eyes of a stranger. They were alone in the red twilight.
"Who are you?" Her voice was raspy and hardly recognizable as her own. "Where is Doctor Horton? Where is my husband?"
She tried to sit, but the stranger pushed her back on the pillow. The room spun and she thought she would be sick.
"You're a strong woman, Mrs. Reynolds," he said. "Stronger than most. I believe you've turned the corner today. You had me worried."
Exhausted, Rose closed her eyes and dreamed of water. She woke to a sunlit room and ravenous hunger. As if on cue, Jerusha appeared carrying an ironstone mug.
"Beef broth," she said, setting the mug on a table beside the bed. "Can you take it?"
Rose nodded and Jerusha helped her sit, packing pillows behind her back. Dizzy and lightheaded, Rose sipped the broth slowly till the mug was half-empty. Feeling better, she took stock of her surroundings.
The room was small, with a canvas roof and log walls chinked with plaster. A cannon stood in the center, its muzzle pointed toward a small square window. The wall on either side was pierced with a double row of loopholes, one high and the other low, for standing and kneeling gunmen. Jerusha's straw-tick mattress was on the floor.
Excerpted from Frontier by S.K. Salzer. Copyright © 2015 Susan Salzer. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I read S.K. Salzer’s first novel, “Up From Thunder,” several years ago and really enjoyed it, so when I ran across “Frontier” at the local Walmart, I bought it. I wasn’t disappointed. The writing is good, the characters believable, and best of all, it was thoroughly researched. I’m a huge fan of well-researched historical fiction, and “Frontier” fits that category to a T. If you feel the same, I’d highly recommended this novel.