Meet Jean Hackensmith
A tourist wagon train of forty-two modern-day "pioneers" travel to the year 1847 and join a REAL trek west.
It’s the family vacation of a lifetime. A trip on a genuine wagon train headed west across the Great Plains of Kansas. The brochure promises adventure, realism and romance, but it says nothing about the possibility that your entire caravan of more than forty twenty-first century pioneers could become unwilling participants in a real trek west. A trip that is destined to take place in the year 1845; a trip that will test your stamina and courage as you cross endless deserts, towering peaks and raging rivers. Add to that a prairie fire and a ghostly caravan of immigrants who trudge through your circled corral of wagons and disappear into the endless void of a night sky. Then suddenly, gun shots. The cry of snarling wolves, and a man dressed in buckskin. He identifies himself as Luke Skinner, the most infamous wagon pilot ever to cross the Great Divide. He's the crazy one, right? He and his wagon train of four hundred determined immigrants are the ones living in the past. Or are you?
Luke’s agitated stride carried him to the lake in only a matter of minutes. His anxious charcoal gaze refused to reveal Rachel’s position in the darkness—until a strange light guided him to her. He breathed a silent sigh of relief when he saw that she was safe and approached her from behind. He halted on a dime again a few feet from her, and watched curiously as she performed a strange grooming ritual—or at least it was strange to him. Her loose copper locks hung over naked, wet legs that glistened in the moonlight. She was calmly shaving the limbs with what appeared to be a pink razor. It wasn’t the shaver that amazed him so much, or the fact that she was the first woman he’d met who chose to remove the hair from her legs. What he found fascinating was the light stick she held in her other hand.
“What in the hell do you think you’re doin’?”
Rachel jumped nearly a foot off of the sandy beach at his barked question and swung to face him. “My God, you just took ten years off my life!”
“Better that than the Cheyenne takin’ the whole thing! What were you thinking, comin’ out here all alone!”
“I just wanted privacy to shave—” She paused suddenly and her eyes widened in horror as her gaze dropped to the plastic razor and the flashlight she held in her hands. She looked back up at Luke, who’s jaw hardened.
“I think it’s time you did some explainin’.” He tipped his head toward the flashlight. “I thought I remembered seein’ one of those things the night your dad and brothers found me on the prairie, but I decided I was delirious.”
Rachel’s gaze fell to the objects she held in her hands again, and she could only stammer her confusion. “I...we...you see...Oh, hell!” She turned off the flashlight and flung it onto the sand beside her. The razor followed suit.
“I reckon this story is going to take a while,” Luke muttered as he moved to sit beside her. His gaze strayed to her naked and very shapely legs. The smooth, hairless skin almost seemed to beckon him, and his hands ached to touch the flawless limbs. He balled his hands into fists and moaned. “Damn it, will you put your britches on!”
Rachel scrambled to her feet and turned to scoop up the jeans from where they lay in the sand beside her. Her bikini underwear left little to the imagination, and Luke squeezed his eyes closed and prayed for self-control. He waited for a few moments before opening them again. Luckily, she was now fully clothed. He did find the metal closure on her pants interesting, though, as he watched her nervous fingers manipulate the strange device.
Rachel snapped the waistband of the jeans closed, then looked at him again. She ignored the curiosity in his dark eyes and, though she longed to run back to camp and avoid the inevitable, plopped down beside him.
“I...don’t know where to start,” she murmured.
“The beginning is always a good place.”
She couldn’t bear the strange mixture of anger and inquisitiveness she read in his eyes and moved her own gaze back to the calm lake before them. “I...or rather, me and my family...well, actually the whole train—.”
“Will you get on with it!” he growled.
She took a deep breath and met his gaze squarely. “We...don’t come from this time period.”
“What in the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“It means exactly what she said,” came a deep voice from behind them.
They both whirled just as Jason emerged from the shadows.
Luke released a heavy sigh. He didn’t want to get her whole family involved in this. “I thought you were on guard duty.”
“I am.” At the skeptical lift of Luke’s eyebrow, the youngest O’Conner brother shrugged. “That’s why I noticed the two of you down here on the beach. I’m good.”
“Well, if you’re so damned good, then we need you out there.” Luke tipped his head abruptly toward the dark prairie. “Now, git back to it.”
Jason ignored the order and moved to flank his sister on the right. He laid the M-16 carefully on the sand beside him. “Right now, I think this is more important.”
Luke stifled a curse, but didn’t object further.
“Like she said,” Jason picked up the explanation, “we don’t come from this time. I’ve wanted to tell you for a while now, but the others didn’t agree.”
”Tell me what!”
Rachel and her brother exchanged glances. He decided it was best to go for broke. “We come...from the year 2000, Luke.”
His head jerked toward them, and he emitted a short laugh that held no hint of humor. “Right, and I’m George Washington!”
“It’s the truth,” Jason responded evenly. “At first, we thought you were a little loony. The way you dressed and talked, the gun you carried—it was like something out of an old western movie. Then when you mentioned that we’d be getting into Indian territory soon and should join your train, we really thought you’d flipped your lid.” He met Luke’s stony gaze. “All those things are part of our past, Luke—a hundred-and-fifty years into our past.”
Luke pushed himself to his feet abruptly and stomped off to stand a short distance away. He ran a shaky hand through his sandy hair before swinging back to them. “I reckon you all are the ones who are crazy. Why in the hell can’t you just be honest with me! There’s no need to make up such a far-fetched tale!”
“It’s not a tale, Luke. It’s the Gospel truth,” Rachel returned quietly.
“Folks don’t just…jump from one time to another. You’re born when you’re born, and you live out your life—” Luke clamped his mouth shut in frustration. He couldn’t even find the words to make a logical argument.
Rachel grabbed the flashlight and the razor and bounded to her feet. She turned on the portable lighting device and pointed it directly at his eyes. The wagon master squinted against the brightness and held a hand up in front of his face.
“Then explain this!” She stalked to stand before him and forced the flashlight into his hands. “Have you ever seen anything like it?” She snatched the flashlight away and replaced it with the razor. “What about this? Look at the material it’s made of. It’s called plastic, something that won’t be invented for another fifty years!”
Rachel turned off the flashlight and tossed it and the razor aside. “Look at Jason’s gun. Have you ever seen a weapon like that?” She pointed to the M-16 before her gaze moved to her brother. “Show him the night scope.”
The soldier stood and picked up the military weapon. He leveled it against his own shoulder, then turned his head to look at Luke. “Look through here.” He indicated the proper end of the scope.
The wagon master, though still skeptical, took a step closer and did as instructed. He immediately jumped back. “What in the hell…!”
His wide, wary eyes moved back and forth between the two O’Conner siblings. Finally, he reached out to take the M-16 from Jason. He put his right eye against the scope and, once again, the stand of trees off to their right lit with a strange, greenish aura. He tipped his head to the left of the scope and looked at the trees again. They were enshrouded in darkness. One final glance through the strange apparatus on the rifle brought a return of the eerie illumination. He lowered the gun finally and looked at the brother and sister. “What in the hell is this thing!”
“She told you. It’s called a night vision scope. It...allows you to see into the darkness,” Jason tried to explain. Even he did not fully understand how the night vision scope worked. “That’s how we managed to find you in the dark that first night out on the prairie.”
Luke handed the gun back to the other man. Unfortunately, his eyes relayed even more confusion. Rachel, however, wasn’t done yet.
“Now, explain the equipment Peter used that night he tried to save Clara. Have you ever seen medical equipment like that? Have you ever seen anything even close to that? And what about the anti-venom he gave you when you were bitten by the rattle snakes? You told Bill Osterman that it was some kind of miracle medicine. And it is, to you—and to all of the people in this time—because it hasn’t been invented yet.”
Luke dismissed them both with a wave of the arm and started back toward camp. “I don’t want to hear anymore of this.”
In truth, he couldn’t let himself hear anymore of it, because it made sense.
Rachel grabbed his wrist and bolted to stand before him again. “You have to hear it, Luke, and you have to understand! You may think we’re crazy; but, in truth, we are scared! We’re living in a time that is totally alien to us. Every day is like a dream, and we all keep waiting to wake up! It’s like existing in a damned bubble! We’re afraid to experience anything, to enjoy anything, to feel anything, for fear we’ll be left hurting if we go back!”
“Go back where?” he gritted.
Rachel rolled her eyes in exasperation and her outstretched arms appealed to the heavens to make him understand. “To the year 2000—where we lived, where we existed before we came here. Where I was a firefighter, where Jason was a Navy Seal, where Vince was a police officer—where civilization has become so advanced that they’ve sent a man to the moon and beyond!”
“A man to the moon?” Luke could only shake his head. It was too much to fathom.
“Yes! Many times. Men have walked on the moon many times!”
This bit of information was simply too much for him to comprehend, so Luke chose to start with what he hoped would be a simpler topic. “You told me once before that you were a—firefighter. What exactly is that?”
Rachel glanced back at Jason in exasperation. Of all the things she had just told him, why would he direct his first question to something so trivial?
She turned back to the nineteenth-century wagon master, and the child-like curiosity she now read in his eyes answered her question. He was, in fact, like an infant when it came to her time period. He knew nothing about anything, and chose to learn what he could most easily understand first.
“We...put out fires and, if we’re lucky, we save lives,” she answered slowly, choosing her words with care. “It’s really no different than the volunteer fire departments back east in this time. Like them, we put of fires in houses, businesses, even grass fires. That’s why I knew how to stop the prairie fire, because I studied it in school. In my time, though, we’ve learned a...scientific way of fighting a fire; a way that saves a lot more lives and also protects us while we’re doing our job.”
“So, you go into burning buildings and save people...and get paid for it?” Luke was incredulous.
Rachel couldn’t help but smile. “Somebody has to do it. There are a lot more people and a lot more buildings in the year 2000 than there are now. All large cities, and most small towns, have their own fire departments.”
Luke’s gaze moved on to Jason. “What’s a...Navy Seal?”
Rachel’s brother, too, chose his answer with care. “They’re members of an elite unit in the United States Navy. We receive specialized training in weaponry, combat and survival techniques, and mercenary control.”
“Mercenary control?” Luke repeated the unfamiliar term.
“There are a lot of terrorist groups in our…time period. They use a lot of underhanded tactics—bombs, hostages and even murder—to achieve their goal…which, a lot of the time, is to kill as many American citizens as possible. They’re also willing to sacrifice their own lives for the cause, which makes them even more dangerous. We do what we can to infiltrate their organizations and stop them.”
“So you’re a kind of vigilante?” the wagon master tried to understand.
“Sort of, I suppose.” Jason smiled. “But on the side of the law. We’re backed by the power of the United States Government.”
“So, you’re sayin’ that the government condones your actions, no matter what you have to do, to stop these... terrorists?”
“You have to understand the kind of people we deal with, Luke. These people would kill their own kind, and not think twice about it, to get what they want. Even worse, they kill thousands of innocent people every year; people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Luke could only shake his head and decided it would be best to let the complicated subject of Jason’s occupation drop. “And you say that all forty-eight of your people, including Clint, come from this...other time?”
Rachel nodded. “We were on a vacation trip together. That I didn’t lie to you about. Actual wagon trains, like yours—” she glanced over her shoulder at the camp “—are a part of our past…a part people have always been fascinated with. Somebody decided at some point to capitalize on the average person’s love of adventure and started a company that took people west on an actual wagon train. Our own ancestors traveled west in 1839, on one of the first trains ever to head west, so we thought it would be fun to follow in their footsteps…so to speak.”
“You have...relatives who went west in ‘39?”
She nodded. “Martin and Ruth McGregor.”
“Martin and Ruth McGregor? Are you sure?”
“As sure as I can be. I spent almost five years doing a genealogy study on our family. I finished it a few months ago.” She paused and corrected herself. “Or rather, a few months before we came here. Those were the names I came up with. Why?”
“Because I know a couple named Martin and Ruth McGregor,” he replied slowly. “I lead their wagon train to Oregon in ‘39. He was president of the council, so I got to know both of them pretty well. In fact, I still make it a practice to visit them every time I bring a train west.” He looked at Rachel closely, his suspicion mirrored in his eyes. “They told me they had no living relatives, except their kids. They lost their entire family to scarlet fever, and that’s what made them decide to pull up roots and head west.”
Rachel’s eyes widened in recognition as she glanced at Jason. “It has to be them. That’s the same story that was passed down—”
“But they can’t be your relatives, because they don’t have any!”
The redhead’s chest rose and fell in a heavy sigh. Had he listened to, had he believed nothing they had told him? “And I just said, they’re our ancestors. Martin and Ruth McGregor are our great-great-great-great grandparents.”
Luke ran a hand threw his blond hair again and turned away. “So, we’re back to that again. The...time thing.”
“It’s the truth, Luke!” she railed.
He swung back to her. “And Ruth McGregor is your great-great-great-great grandmother?”
“The woman can’t be more than thirty-five or forty years old, Rachel!”
“And what does that have to do with anything! It’s not like she’s still alive in the year 2000!”
“Then how can you be related to her!”
“Because she’s my ancestor, just like you had ancestors who lived a hundred years ago!”
Luke could stand no more. If she chose to fabricate stories rather than tell him the truth about where she came from, then so be it. He would listen to her ridiculous ranting no longer. “Fine! Live in your own little make-believe world. Tell the whole damn train, for all I care! But I don’t want to hear about it anymore. When you’re ready to speak the truth, I’ll be there to listen.”
He started to stalk back to the camp, but paused when his foot kicked the strange lighting device she had shined in his eyes. His gaze dropped to where it lay in the sand at his feet. He glanced back at Rachel and Jason and, muttering a curse under his breath, snatched up the flashlight and stomped back to the circle of wagons.
“Somehow I don’t think he believed us,” Jason quipped.
“Oh, really? What was your first clue?” She turned her back to him and stomped to the edge of the water. “He’s too damn closed-minded to believe anything that’s a little out of the ordinary.”
“A little out of the ordinary?” Jason mocked her understatement. He moved to stand beside her again. “Give the guy a break, Rachel. If you were in his shoes, you’d probably have a pretty hard time believing it, too.”
“But at least I’d give him the benefit of the doubt.”
His shoulders lifted in a small shrug. “Maybe not, if you were born in this time. Where we come from, people are a lot more open to the possibility of time-travel. Hell, there are hundreds of movies and books on the subject. Consequently, we can more easily comprehend the concept. But to people in Luke’s generation, it must be totally incomprehensible.”
Rachel glanced over her shoulder at the camp, and her delicate jaw hardened with determination. “Well, I’m not through with him yet. And, believe me, Mr. Luke Skinner is going to hear a lot more about the year 2000, whether he likes it or not.”