When trail guide Jefferson J. Jackson discovers the orphaned teen and his sister at the creek, they are consuming mud and looking for grasshoppers to eat. Aiden and Maddy must stay and die or travel with Jacksons wagon train to the Pacific Northwest to find a new life. Compassionate, but practical, Jackson warns that if either one dies on their hazardous westward expedition, the other must pay off the deceaseds cost of passage. Aiden accepts that risk and decides they must move on. They begin a journey that brings hardship, hope and deeper despair.
After the arduous trek, Aiden works at a logging camp to pay off the cost of their trip. He encounters and hesitantly befriends some Indians, including Tupic who wants to obtain the life-saving vaccine for smallpox that has been denied to the natives. Today, the word smallpox is associated with possible bioterrorism, but is not an everyday term or daily reality for Americans. But in the 1800s the devils paintbox terrified those who might be exposed to the dreadful, merciless disease.
Author Victoria McKernan crafts an adventure, carefully researched and beautifully worded. The storyline is as harsh as the hot winds that dried the Kansas landscape and as brutal as the men who refused the Indians the medicine to save their lives. But like the hardy pioneers of the old West this rugged story faces fear and clings to hope.