A Claim on Her Heart

January 1863, colony of British Columbia
“Hurry up Jo, this is your second stop today!” Jakeb’s booted foot crunched the frozen white path. Jolian glanced between the snow-laden branches to the trail above her and saw her brother hop from one shabby leather sole to the other. His red cheeks were stiff to the cold and Jo saw his next words huffed out in front of him.
“Jo… Ma and Pa are getting too far ahead!”
“I’m coming!” Her frozen fingers fumbled with the buttons on her union suit. She’d waited as long as she could to relieve herself. Did Jakeb honestly believe she wanted to expose her bare skin to the raw Cariboo air for any extended period of time? She yanked homespun trousers over woolen-covered thighs, tucking the flannel shirt tight at her waist.
Her second stop today, ha! Didn’t he welcome the break from the non-stop walking? Their last break had been more than two hours ago with only enough time to nibble cold biscuits and down stale coffee. Her belly growled in response to the memory of the false nooning. She shook her blanket coat free of a dusting of snow and then slipped her arms into the heaviness of its sleeves. Would she ever feel warm again? Even the thickness of her clothing couldn’t stop her teeth from chattering. Time to walk again. At least it might take her mind off the temperature. For the fiftieth time today she cursed the weight of her canvas pack as it settled into place on her shoulder. The curse echoed in the hollow of her belly and sent back the ringing of her second favorite grumble: the fact that the entire miserable situation was of her own making.
With the toe of her oversized boots she covered the hole she’d made in the snow. No sense attracting unwelcome animals. A flutter of an entirely different kind, twinged in her belly. Who knew what creatures lingered behind the surrounding ancient pines and cedars? A barely audible prayer whispered from her lips. Shelter, or any thing resembling shelter, would be more than appreciated. The old map her father was following had been pretty accurate thus far, allowing them to find abandoned roadhouses and trappers’ cabins along their route. Maybe they’d get lucky again soon.
“All right, I’m finished!” She waded through thigh-high powder until she found the branch she’d clung to when she’d left the trail. Mittens slipped on the wet pine needles as she heaved herself up the branch, hand over hand. Her breath came out in white puffs and a very unladylike sound grunted from her throat. Jakeb reached out a hand to pull her back up onto the trail while keeping his eyes focused on the direction their parents had taken.
“Can you still see them?” She fiddled with her glove trying to right the fingers.
“They just rounded that bend yonder.” Jakeb motioned with a glove-covered hand. “I think they’re…”
The sound of the gunshot stopped him mid-sentence. The echo hung between them and it felt as though time suddenly began to move with minutes between each second.
“Maybe pa saw a rabbit.” Jakeb muttered as they stared in the direction their parents had gone. His astonishment rooted him to the spot.
“Run!” Jolian’s mind screamed, but she remained inert. Then Jolian heard a sound she knew she’d remember for the rest of her days. Her mother’s scream bounced off the canyon walls and reverberated in Jolian’s bones. Almost drowning out the sound of the second shot… almost.
Time sped for a moment as Jakeb removed his pack and tossed it off the trail into the trees. He lifted her up, pack and all, and then half threw her into the trees as well.
“Stay there,” he whispered. “Don’t make a sound. Stay right there until I get back. D’ya hear?”
Jolian half nodded and bit down hard on her lip to hold in her own scream. Blinking back tears, she tried to focus her eyes on Jakeb, as he turned from her. She supposed he was running, but he seemed to be moving at half speed instead. She crouched lower in her hiding spot, willing the snow-burdened evergreens and the mounds of soft powder to conceal her. Heart hammering in her chest, she fumbled for Jakeb’s pack. She grabbed the shoulder strap, and pulled it close, trying to quell the shaking that threatened to overtake her entire body.
She should be running too, with her brother. She shouldn’t be crouching lower and lower, frozen with fear. Her parents…Her parents! What should she do? Should she follow Jakeb? What if he needed her help? Should she just stay put as he told her? Her parents…Jakeb!
Through the evergreens, she had a partial view of the trail before her. She fixed her gaze there and pleaded with her mind to go blank. Her muscles tensed and the hair on the back of her neck stood up as she thought she heard her brother shouting in the distance. Then silence. She couldn’t move and her breathing became quick and shallow. Jolian summoned the will to lean forward and strained to see more of the path. Minutes passed, she commanded her ears to hear something, anything. Then it was there… the sound of hooves crunching the snow on the path above her. Her instincts took over and she scrunched her eyes closed and pursed her lips. Blood rushed through her head; making her feel woozy and she had to open one eye to maintain her balance. She turned her one, obligatory eye towards the sound of the ever-nearing hooves.
A horse came into her sight. It’s rider had a bushy black beard sticking out between his shabby felt hat and his gray overcoat. He was leading their two mules, burdened with their belongings. There was a pounding like drums in her ears and she held her breath as the man approached her hideaway. An odd sound reached her.
Laughter. He was laughing! Surely he could see her footsteps in the snow. They’d lead him to her… he was going to shoot her too! Tremors engulfed her heart and lungs. She had to move, but couldn’t. It was as if the frozen ground held her in its glacial grip. Her eyes were locked on the man before her, burning his face into her memory. His laughter rebounded throughout the gorge, mixing with the pounding in her ears until her vision blurred and narrowed.
Jolian forced herself to breathe in slow, measured breaths. She couldn’t afford to lose consciousness now! His horse snorted and blew dual white puffs of breath through its’ nostrils. Its’ hooves carried the man closer and closer to where she trembled. Behind the horse, the mules brayed their protest and the man’s laughter was their response. He was almost upon her! She could see his eyes staring at her through the bush. He’d seen her! She should run! She couldn’t move! Only her thoughts and pulse were racing.