1878 Oklahoma Indian Territory
A bout of tremors attacked her knees and Millie St. Clair grasped the handrail of the train that had jostled her for miles on end. Swallowing hard and blinking, she hoped the scene before her might change.
They were naked.
Leastwise from the waist up—a sight she’d never seen before—yet they milled around the railway platform as freely as others who were fully clothed.
“Good heavens,” she muttered.
The porter took her arm. “Ma’am. Step down, please. There are other passengers behind you.”
“Oh, yes, of course, forgive me,” Millie stammered. It took considerable effort to unlock her knees and lower her feet to the metal steps and then onto the wooden platform, for all that skin was shocking. It couldn’t help but hold her attention. Fortunately, the porter, with a solid grip on her elbow, aided her the entire way.
He’d been a kind man, offering smiles and asking about her comfort several times since she’d boarded the Missouri-Kansas-Texas rail line back in Missouri. His elderly face, complete with bushy gray brows and deep wrinkles that reminded her of a garden gnome, held compassion now as he pointed toward a small building at the edge of the wide wooden platform. “Your baggage will be placed along that wall.”
A goose egg formed in Millie’s throat as her gaze once again snagged on the shirtless men mingling in the crowd. This was known as Indian Territory, so encountering some was expected, but she’d had no idea they walked around half-dressed. In public no less.
“Is there someone to meet you?” the porter asked, tugging her farther out of the way.
“Y-yes, yes, my br—husband was to send someone,” she managed to say. Husband. No matter how odd it was, she had to remember to refer to Seth Parker as her husband, not her brother-in-law, as he truly was. One slip of her tongue would send her back to Virginia, and that couldn’t happen. Leastwise not before she settled things. For years she’d dogged Rosemary’s footsteps, righting wrongs and cleaning up after her older sister, but this was by far the most imperative. Perhaps the one that would convince her sister that life was worth living.
Willing her nerves, and the familiar sorrow sitting heavy in her heart, under control, Millie did her best to pull up a smile for the porter, as well as tug her gaze off all the dark-shaded skin of the bare-chested Indians. “My husband’s sending someone from Fort Sill to pick me up.”
“Fort Sill?” The bobbing of the porter’s Adam’s apple above his smartly buttoned-up collar sent a shiver all the way to her toes.
“Yes.” The air was so hot and dry her lips cracked as soon as she wet them, and a chill settled around her spine. “Fort Sill,” she repeated. Her home for the next three months. A mere snippet of time, considering it would save a child from becoming motherless. That’s what had kept her putting one foot in front of the other since this trip had started.
“Rosemary’s just like your mother was,” Papa had always said, which was a fear Millie had lived with for as long as she could remember.
She didn’t have a single memory of the woman who’d given birth to her. Other than a few stories others had shared, her mother was nothing but a name. One that filled Millie with sadness, and only intensified when she thought of her sister following in their mother’s footsteps.
The porter had disappeared among uniformed men, women dressed in everything from common calicos to eastern gowns as stylish as those in Millie’s trunks, and of course, the Indians with little more than tight-fitting britches and soft-soled, knee-high moccasins. Some, she noted, now that she could see beyond the bronze-colored skin that had been so shocking, had on army jackets and pants, but even they had very long hair and feathers in their hats, as well as ornate necklaces hanging around their necks.
A weary pressure settled inside her chest. Seth Parker might not have sent someone to escort her. There was no way to know if he’d received the message of her impending arrival. It had been sent; she’d seen to that herself, five days ago, before boarding the first of several trains with so many separate railroad names she’d long ago lost track.
Someone jostled her elbow, almost pivoting her in a circle.
“Excuse me,” a man muttered, rushing past.
She nodded, but he was gone, one among many bustling about. The noisy surroundings, as well as the town—from what she could see of it—did suggest things were somewhat civilized in Indian Territory, which provided a bit of a comfort. She’d harbored considerable fears about residing at the fort, bearing in mind she’d never left Richmond before this trip.