Wildest Dreams - By Rosanne Bittner



April 1863

Luke tightened the rawhide straps around the belly of one of the mules that carried his supplies. "Suck in that gut, you stubborn ass," he muttered. "I'm not going to hold up this wagon train because you spill my supplies all over the place."

The animal brayed loudly, and people turned to stare. "Shut up, damn it," he ordered the mule, yanking harder. It embarrassed him to have everyone witness his struggle with the obstinate animal.

He figured there were plenty of others amid this crowd headed west who were even less prepared for what lay ahead of them than he was. Including the children, there were about a hundred people camped here outside of Independence. He had counted eighteen wagons. He himself had decided against bothering with a wagon and oxen. His horse and four pack mules were enough. Some of his fellow travelers were herding cattle and extra horses as well, some had chickens with them, a few had pigs. Most of them were headed for California or Oregon, many fleeing the hideous War between the States and the ugly raiding that had been taking place between Kansas and Missouri. He had his own reasons for heading west, but they had nothing to do with the war.

He finished buckling the strap. He hated mules, much preferred horses. But he had taken the advice of experienced scouts back in St. Louis that mules were much better suited to carrying heavy loads for long distances, and it was a long way to Montana. As far as he was concerned, California and Oregon were already too heavily settled. He was going to a place where a man could still claim big pieces of land, where there was still hardly any law. That way a man could do whatever was necessary to keep his land without answering to anyone but himself. This wagon train would get him as far as Wyoming. From then on, he would be on his own. The prospect was exhilarating. He was determined to show his father and his brother that he didn't need the inheritance money that had been denied him. To hell with them both! His father could believe what he wanted. He knew in his heart he was not a bastard. He had every right to the Fontaine money, and he swore that someday he would be a hundred times richer than his father, and he would do it all on his own.

The crack of a gunshot startled him out of his thoughts. Horses whinnied, and a woman began railing at her husband for being careless with a handgun. When Luke looked up, a couple of horses had bolted at the noise of the gunshot and were running toward him.

Then everything seemed to happen at once. "Nathan!" a young woman shouted frantically. Luke turned to see a towheaded little boy running toward him from another direction, a stuffed animal in his arms, a big grin on his chubby face. The boy obviously thought his mother was playing a game by chasing him, but his path was taking him on a collision course with the runaway horses.

Luke ran to the boy, lifting him with one strong arm a split second before the horses would have trampled him. He ducked aside, landing on the ground and covering the child. He felt a blow on his right calf from a horse's hoof and grimaced with pain, wondering why it had to be that particular spot. He still suffered enough pain there from his war wound. He didn't need a horse's kick to awaken the agony. He heard the shouts of "whoa!" felt people gather near him. Someone grabbed the little boy right out of his arms. "Nathan! Nathan!"

A couple of men helped Luke to his feet, asked if he was all right. They held his arms as Luke limped over to a log to sit down. "I'll be fine," he insisted, rubbing at his leg. "Just got a little kick." He decided not to mention the war wound. In crowds like this there was usually a good mixture of Northerners and Southerners. Mentioning he'd fought for the Union army just might start a needless argument, and for the next four months or so, they all had to forget their differences and band together for the journey west.

"Sorry, mister," a man spoke up. "I accidentally spooked my horses."

"Don't worry about it," Luke answered. "I'm okay. All of you can get back to whatever you were doing."

The man who had