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Katie rubbed her neck, but even that motion did nothing to soothe the raw and burning ache of her throat. If anything, it made it worse. Actually, just thinking of her dry throat and the last time they’d had any fresh water to drink was just shy of torturous. “Didn’t know Texas was quite so hot,” she rasped. “Never got this hot in Indiana.”
Peter flipped the reins to urge their thirsty Sookie onward. They had come a long piece since Vinita and had been so wrapped up in the affairs of Clayton Allison that they had neglected to pack extra water. “We’re not in Texas yet, Katie.”
She watched a fat pearl of sweat slide down the side of Peter’s face. “I figured us to be almost there by now.” Adjusting her seat brought no comfort as the blackness of the buggy made the inside little more than a rolling oven. “Where are we then?”
“Remember when I said we were leaving Vinita, just inside Indian Territory?”
Katie thought back and attempted a swallow. “Yes. Doesn’t Texas come after Indian Territory?”
Peter’s lips tipped into a half-smile. “Most folks still call this land we’re in now Indian Territory. Others think it’s part of Oklahoma. Whatever it is, we still haven’t made it through yet.”
An icy shudder slid down Katie’s backbone. Leaning, she peered out of the buggy and into the scrub brushy hills that surrounded them. “You mean, there really are Indians here? Wild ones, like Mr. Allison, spoke of?”
A smile danced across Katie’s lips at the recollection of Clayton Allison. “Have you noticed that the closer we get to Texas, the less out of place we both seem?”
Peter coughed a dry cough. “Full of colorful characters, Texas is. Figure we’ll fit right in.”
Katie sucked in a lungful of air so hot that it burned her raw throat. “So where do you suppose the Indians are?”
“Well, since this is their land we’re traveling across, my guess would be anywhere around here.”
Thank you, God for having the divine foresight to send Peter to help me, Your stubborn but faithful servant, on this journey. She twined her fingers together tightly to keep them from shaking.
“Why did they all move here? Because of the fine weather?” Katie’s attempt at a joke fell on deaf ears as Peter stared straight ahead into the hot, unchanging hills.
“The United States government moved them all here Katie and most are none too happy about it.” He flipped the reins again and scanned the horizon. “To most of these Indian folks, white people are the enemy. Not only to them, but to everything they love and hold dear, as well.”
Katie dabbed at the sweat that tickled her forehead. “Oh.” Her heart sank a bit. Even though they weren’t English, both she and Peter would probably still be considered white from an Indian’s perspective.
Craning her neck, she struggled to see what Peter pointed to in the distance. Squinting, her eyes only saw the same scrubby hills. “What is it?”
“Looks to be a town,” Peter said, shielding his eyes with one hand. “Where there’s a town, there’s water.” He licked his lips with his tongue, which was no doubt just as dry, swollen, and gritty as hers. “As long as it isn’t a ghost town,” he whispered.
“Thank you, God,” Katie rasped, choosing to ignore the ghost town remark as they passed a roughshod shingle nailed to a tree. “Thank you for the town of …” Katie squinted to read the shingle as they passed. “Badland.” She glanced at Peter. “Badland? Did I read that right?”
“Badland it is.”
Katie licked her lips again. The mere thought of water had sent a ravenous surge through her mouth and throat. Unfortunately, that resulted in nothing more than a dry ache that encompassed her entire neck and chest. Thinking that there might not be any more people here was too horrific a thought to bear, so she didn’t think it. “The well. Let’s find the well of Badland, Peter.”
Sure enough, there in the center of the dusty and overgrown street sat a dilapidated well house. Katie perched on the side of the buggy, ready to dive out, the moment it rolled to a stop. Peter had only just reined in Sookie before Katie dove out, hitting the ground running in her once-shiny black shoes. Hand over hand, she began hauling up the bucket.
“I find it strange,” Peter started, “that we haven’t seen another soul since pulling into Badland.”
A dry breeze swirled down the street, bringing with it a round and rolling tumbleweed, but no hint of any nearby moisture. A derelict wooden door hung, squeaking, on a rusty hinge punctuating the eerie silence. The haunting sounds of the deserted street echoed ominously as Katie hauled the splintery bucket up over the side of the broken down well. Before she could get it to her mouth, Sookie stuck her dry black nose smack dab in the lifesaving liquid. Katie smiled. “I suppose you ought to get to go first, Sookie.”
Peter’s voice was more adamant than before, edging on worried. “Katie, don’t you agree? Don’t you find it odd? Katie?”
Tilting up the sloshing bucket, Katie ignored Peter as the remaining liquid ran down her throat in welcome gulps, soothing what was dry and healing what was cracked and aching. Katie also ignored the slick horse spit that accompanied it.
“Hey, stop!” A woman’s voice, peppered by a deep and rattling cough, echoed through the empty town. “Mister, stop that gal!”
Katie watched from the corner of her eye as Peter approached the woman, whose head poked out of a nearby ramshackle door. He held his hands out in peace. “I’m sorry for our intrusion ma’am, but we’re mighty thirsty –”
She thrust a bent and gnarled finger out the door. “Stop her Mister, can’t you read?”
Turning to search where she pointed, Peter caught sight of something that made him pale. “Katie, stop!” Turning on his heel as she wiped her damp lips on her sleeve, Peter dashed full force to her side. “Put the bucket down, this whole town is quarantined!”
Katie’s arms went limp and the bucket fell from her hands into the dirt. A rolling, nauseous feeling surged in her stomach. Sookie, however, had no qualms about slurping up what water was left in the misbegotten bucket. “What did you say, Peter?”
Peter pointed to a pitiful excuse for a sign, also nailed to a tree. Running both hands through his hair, he brought them down hard against his sides and muttered things under his breath that she couldn’t rightly understand. One thing for certain, she had never seen such a wild-eyed look on the face of her sweet Peter.
“I should have checked closer when I got that bad feeling.” Stomping his foot, Peter swore an oath for the first time since she had known him.
“Peter,” she admonished.
Sobering, Peter exhaled a long breath. “Can you read that sign, Katie.”
Katie squinted and tried to sound out the misspelled word. “Gr … gripe.” She looked to Peter for confirmation, her hopeful brows arched skyward. “Gripe. Isn’t that what English people do when they are upset?” She forced an uneasy smile in an attempt to lighten the heaviness of the moment. At the same time, she willed the emotion building inside of her not to explode.
Peter’s face had grown deathly pale. “That’s not gripe, Katie, it’s grippe. As in the grippe.”
Katie tried to remember where she’d heard the word before, but fear fuzzed her memory. Glancing at her fingers, she realized she was trembling. Hard.
Picking up his hat, Peter shoved it back down on his head without bothering to dust it off. “That’s what most people call the influenza. Shuts down whole towns and has been known to wipe out a few.”
Katie gulped, but the knot that had formed in her throat refused to budge. “So it could make me sick if I catch it?”
Peter looked at her, his strong shoulders slumped. “Sick? Yes, I’d say so. At the least.”
“The least?” She accepted Peter’s hand and clambered back into the buggy. “What do you mean, the least?”
Peter snapped the reins, but didn’t look at her. Sookie appeared as though leaving the well was the last thing she wanted to do, but she turned away from it grudgingly. They passed the last of the tar-paper houses before he answered her question. “It’s deadly Katie. Mighty deadly.” He snapped the reins again, driving them on out into the suffocating heat. “And it’s catching.”