An 18-year-old girl slowly becomes the unacknowledged leader of a small wagon train bound for California--in a tough, unromanticized novel by the author of the non-fiction Hard Road West (1981). Young Helen Weir joins the train still wearing her velvet riding habit, hoping to marry some rich man in San Francisco. But she soon becomes the first woman to wear buckskin--as well as the sufferer of adult grief: her lover Bob MacKay is gored to death by a buffalo and buried on the trail. And though assorted males pay Helen goggle-eyed attention--alcoholic mountain-man Virgil Smith, wife beater Hinch (who leads the train), Salt Lake City guide Nathan Tombs--she remains serious, impassive, never flirting. Soon, indeed, Helen will need all the toughness she can muster--when a series of murders dogs the wagon train: a rich Englishman is killed and robbed; another traveler, framed for the crime, is shot, vigilante-style; Virgil is murdered (his horse too). Eventually, then, the women on the train outnumber the men. And, after Hinch (the crazed killer) is scalped by Indians, Helen finishes him off, becomes the train leader, and (with Nathan's help) will cross the Rockies. Leathery, low-key adventure--with extra appeal in its feminist and YA shadings.