July 1878, Bitterroot Mountains, Montana Territory
The pine forest embraced a silence so profound, not even a bird dared speak. The danger seemed palpable, yet the sixteen-year-old could find no reason for her awareness. Only her newly honed senses seemed to cause the prickling on the back of her neck. Eyes wide and searching, she moved, her feet automatically seeking soft earth without snapping any twigs, in spite of shaking legs.
I have to hide. They can't find me...I will not go back to them. I’m old enough to be on my own. I’ll change my name. Her thoughts circled as quickly as her eyes.
Reaching the familiar giant cottonwood tree with a hollowed-out base just big enough for her, she dropped to her knees. Crawling into the cavity, she scrunched her tall, bony body into the tight space, biting back gasps of pain as the rough bark poked into tender flesh through her lightweight jacket and dress.
Chapped and bleeding fingers with broken nails clutched the toes of brown, ratty, high-topped shoes with soles worn thin. She pulled them closer to her body and took slow silent breaths. Her long skirt covered the goose bumps on slender legs. She glanced to see if her ragged hem was gathered into the hidden hollow.
Shrubs and trees muffled the burbling of the nearby Bitterroot River. The absence of squirrels scolding and birds calling to their mates was ominous.
Her stomach growled. She pressed against it with a shaky hand.
Escaping the family wagon three weeks earlier with nothing but dried biscuits and jerky hidden in her bodice, she was now kept alive by the mountain streams, minnows, wild blueberries, tiny strawberries, and chewing grass. Though she sometimes doubled over with belly cramps.
The same stubbornness that got her punished at the St. Louis orphanage would help her survive. Or get her killed. For the first time, fright pushed up through her chest, closing her throat. She fought to take a deep breath. Death seemed a possibility. She hadn’t thought this through. Only getting away had filled her mind before.
Her throat burned. She swallowed the emerging bile. What would happen to her? What could she do? Taught to pray by the Sisters, she'd also been told the Lord helps those who help themselves.
Should she have left "Ma" and "Pa"? Yes. A new life. A new name. If she found a way to stay alive. She had to find a way.
She sniffed the air. An unidentifiable odor wafted into her shelter. Not unpleasant, but smoky and woodsy.
A hand reached into the hollowed trunk. She sucked her stomach in.
"Come!" a deep, guttural voice commanded. "I no hurt you" was said more softly. The hand opened in a gesture of invitation. Wide-eyed, she stared at the creased brown skin. Trembling, she crawled out of the tree.