The shoe leather soup is gone, so Maddie and Aiden will starve to death soon, just as their family did on the Kansas prairie in 1865. But over the hill rides Jefferson J. Jackson, recruiting workers for the lumber camps in Washington.
He allows the teens to join the wagon train going west, warning them that “any way you can think up to die is out there waiting” on the trail. Aiden agrees that his first two years’ wages will go to Jackson in payment for their travel, and they head west, away from the graves on the hillside, away from the dried-up homestead.
Jackson is all too correct, and dangers face the travelers day and night – rampaging rivers to cross, wolves stalking them, Native Americans who might attack, and diseases with no cures.
Aiden works with his bow and arrow, bringing in deer and rabbits for his sister Maddie to cook. He meets friendly Indians who cross their trail from time to time, teaching him bareback horse riding and improving his hunting skills.
But soon smallpox, “the Devil’s Paint”, appears at a nearby fort, and the deadly disease threatens them all. The wagon train’s doctor soon runs out of medicines, the Indians blame government-issued blankets for the epidemic, and survival is now a gamble for everyone.
Will Aiden make it to the lumber camp? How will a scrawny, malnourished 15 year-old keep up with strong men and dangerous work? Smallpox is just the first challenge that he must face as he tries to live long enough to grow up. 365 pages
Recommended by: Katy Manck, Librarian-at-Large (retired academic/corporate/school librarian), Gilmer, Texas, USA