A shrill scream laced with terror caused Sarah Walters to jerk upright and drop her laundry into the river. Her breath caught and her stomach clenched into one big knot of fear. The hair on her neck bristled and shivers ran up and down her spine. She whirled around from the river’s edge and almost went to her knees. There in magnificent glory stood a colorfully painted Indian, his spiked hair standing on end atop his head. Dressed in ankle-high moccasins and a loincloth he stood on braced feet in front of the women of the wagon train, a breastplate of bones and beads covering his wide chest. Cold, black, hooded eyes glared at Sarah and the other women as they stood in silent fear.
Almost a dozen Indians joined the first and Sarah’s heart bounced around in her chest like a bee desperately trying to escape a box. A hand came down on her shoulder and she jerked around, fists balled, ready to fight for her life. But it was Ben who stood beside her.
“You scared the devil out of me. Where did you come from?” she asked, breathless.
He pointed up river. “I was filling the water buckets.”
Sarah nodded, her heart still hammering. “What do they want?”
“I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see.” Ben pointed. “Andrews is on his way to talk to them.”
A short, stocky Indian emerged from the center of the assembled group. His greased black hair was adorned with feathers and beads and stood straight on end like the first Indian Sarah had spotted. He appeared to be the leader and waited, motionless, as Andrews, the wagon master, pushed through the gathered crowd of emigrants on shore.
Through sign and a few words, Andrews and the Indian parleyed for several minutes.
“They want a toll for passage over their land,” Andrews finally told the men and women gathered at the edge of the river. “They want coffee and tobacco.”
Sarah imagined they’d take whatever they wanted one way or another.
Sarah, Ben and the other members of the train hurried back to their wagons to gather the requested goods as the Indians unhurriedly wandered through camp.
One brave came around the side of the Walters’s wagon and stopped to gaze at Midnight, Ben’s horse, tethered there. Peeking through a small gap in the wagon top, Sarah gaped at the Indian’s missing right ear. She stared at the small opening surrounded by the thick, white scar tissue, stark in contrast against his sun-darkened skin, as the brave ran his hand over the animal’s firm haunches.
One Ear was still admiring Midnight’s fine lines when Ben poked his head out of the wagon. Sarah watched his back stiffen and his jaw ticked in anger at the sight of the Indian’s hands moving over his horse’s rump. Ben jumped down and stepped toward the brave, but Andrews stopped him in mid-stride.
One Ear pointed Midnight out to several braves who nodded their approval. His hand slid up the animal’s neck, over his head and grabbed the bridle.
Ben surged toward the Indian and horse, but Andrews held firm.
“Don’t Ben. It’s not worth it. It’s only an animal. He’s not worth your life.”
Ben yanked his arm, but Andrews wouldn’t release him.
“If he wants that horse, he’ll take it, Ben. Don’t give him cause to try and kill you. We don’t want any trouble,” Andrews hissed.
One Ear glared at Ben from the corner of his eye. The brave seemed to dare Ben as he continued to stroke Midnight’s silky coat. Slowly, he removed the bridle from the horse’s head, dropped it to the ground and replaced it with a length of rope. The Indian looked over at Ben, a smile of satisfaction on his face.
Ben lunged, but Andrews was a strong man with big hands and his grip held Ben in place. Unable to watch her husband trying to get himself killed, Sarah jumped down from inside the wagon and grabbed Ben’s other arm.
“Stop it, Ben! It’s only a horse for God’s sake. He’s not worth your life. That Indian has murder in his eyes. Can’t you see that? He’d love to challenge you for possession of that animal.” She paused and her voice softened. “I know you love him, but he isn’t worth your life.”
One Ear stared gape-mouthed at Sarah and his hand fell away from the horse. He stepped toward Sarah, his hand reaching to touch her.
With a savage growl Ben tore free of Andrews’s grip and jumped between Sarah and the brave, only five feet from her.
“You’re damn well out of your mind if you think you’re going anywhere near my wife.” He waved his hand at Sarah.
Ben stood his ground and One Ear stepped closer, their heavy breathing the only thing heard.
They faced off ready to do battle until a gruff, guttural voice shattered the heavy tension in the air. One Ear’s back stiffened and he whirled to face the apparent leader. He shouted and pointed at Midnight. The chief crossed his arms over his chest and spoke, his voice hard and controlled. One Ear shouted at him again, but the man turned his back and walked away. One Ear spun back to Ben, a look that could chill the devil’s soul on his face, before he stalked away.
Several minutes later, with bags of coffee, flour and tobacco tied to their horses, the party of Indians rode off. Save one.
With dread sharp in the pit of her belly Sarah recognized One Ear. He sat atop his white and brown pony scanning the camp and stopped only when his eyes settled on Ben and Sarah. He jerked his horse’s reins. The animal reared up, its hooves slashing the air, its head flinging back and forth. The brave raised his lance high above his head and his shrill cry resounded throughout camp. Sarah’s skin bubbled with gooseflesh.
One Ear swung his mount around and raced away to catch up with the others, his challenge hanging on the air long after his departure.
A bad feeling overwhelmed Sarah. She held tight to Ben. They hadn’t seen the last of One Ear.
“Storm’s blowing in!” Ben yelled over the howling night wind, clutching his hat to keep it from flying away across the plains. “It’s coming in fast! We’ve got to secure the wagon and get these animals tied off!”
Sarah forced herself from the relative safety of the wagon and ran to help her husband. Her hair whipped and snapped painfully around her face and into her eyes and mouth. She ran from one side of the wagon to the other tying off every loose bucket and lantern she found. Her skirt stung her ankles and legs in the frenzied wind as Ben fought to tether the animals before the full force of the storm hit. The wagon swayed, the raging wind shaking everything in its path. Thunder rolled toward them; the ground rumbling beneath Sarah’s feet, echoing like the hooves of thousands of racing buffalo. Mean black clouds stretched the length of the night sky before white streaks of lightning split the inky darkness, momentarily blinding. The animals bellowed, shifted and lashed their tails in fear. Children cried in terror and men and women shouted orders as they braced for the storm’s fury.
Ben shoved Sarah inside the wagon only moments before the wind hit again, bawling like a calf at branding time. Shivers ran down Sarah’s back. The sky turned black as tar and the air grew icy cold. Hailstones the size of silver dollars battered and slashed at the dusty canvas, Ben and Sarah’s only protection against the mounting storm.
The hail subsided within a few minutes, but on its tail came a torrential downpour of rain, more thunder and lightning. The night glowed eerily as crooked fingers of light reached across the blackened earth and sky to strike and tear at the helpless wagons. The ground shook with each roll of thunder and pots and pans that hung from the wagon beam rattled wildly. Sarah covered her ears and curled into a ball as the wind wailed by like a banshee seeking her next victim.
The rumbling mounted again and Sarah waited for the explosion of sound then light. She closed her eyes against it, pushed her hands tighter around her ears. She was in the middle of a war of the elements, unarmed and helpless.
Strong, warm arms encircled her and she fell into Ben’s welcome embrace. But Ben’s warmth didn’t change her thoughts. Doubt overwhelmed her. Why had she come on this foolish quest? For fortune? To tame the wilderness? Fear of the unknown threatened to consume her, but she forced it back. What else would they find along the trail, alone, without benefit of civilization? More Indians? More hardships? More storms? She started to shake and Ben’s arms tightened around her shoulders.
“Shhh,” Ben whispered before he kissed her ear. “It’ll be fine. We just have to wait it out, but we’ll be fine. I promise.”
But would they be fine? If they survived this storm, what would they find further along the trail? She had read the publications heralding the vast beauty of the plains. But all she had seen so far was grit and mud and sweat. And Indians. She’d read of the bounteous grasses that grew six feet tall and waved in the warm, gentle breezes. About the beautiful flowers spread out across the plains and the wild buffalo that trod there. Of the land waiting to be claimed and turned into the ranch she and Ben dreamed of. But where were those lush grasses and beautiful flowers now?
“It’ll be all right, Sarah,” Ben soothed.
“Will it?” She pulled out of his arms. “How do we know that? This is the second violent storm we’ve encountered since we left Westport. Everything about the trail looks the same. Flat, desolate, few trees and wide-open, and either covered with dust or mud. And what about the Indians, Ben? Will we see more of them? And if we do, will they be friendly or more hostile than the ones we just met? What if their chief hadn’t stopped that brave from fighting you? What might have happened then?”
“What are you saying, Sarah? Have you changed your mind about going west? I thought it was something we both wanted.” Ben’s face took on a stricken look in the dim wagon. “We talked about this for days. Weeks. We agreed the only way for us to survive was away from your father. You knew there were dangers. I thought you wanted this as much as I did. To build a new life for ourselves on a ranch that might someday rival any back East. Even your father’s spread. One we can pass on to our children.”
Sadness washed over Sarah like a wave. He’d said the dreaded word. Children. They’d been married for eight months and had planned for children immediately, but there was no sign. Sometimes Sarah’s stomach hurt enough to make her think she was carrying, but she was always disappointed. Tears filled her eyes and Ben pulled her back into his arms.
“Oh, Sarah. We’ll have children, and if we don’t, there are worse things than going through life childless.” He paused and stroked her face with his forefinger. “Like living life without you.”
She lifted her eyes to his shadowed face. He loved her, of that she had no doubt, and she loved him with all her heart. Staring at his eyes in the flashes of light, she recalled the first time she saw them. She’d just left the barn after a hard ride on Jezebel, her favorite mare, smelling of sweat and hay, when she ran smack into the man. They collided and she’d nearly gone to the ground, but he’d reached out and grabbed her, helping her regain her balance. Their eyes met—and she was lost.
She touched Ben’s face in the darkness. She recited in her mind all the arguments as to why they shouldn’t go on, but she stopped at the one reason why she would. Because she loved this man with every ounce of her being and what he wanted, she wanted.
Why had she come on this journey? She had come for him.
The night seemed endless. Rain pounded the earth and soaked everything and everyone on it. It wasn’t long before the oiled wagon cover offered little protection from the downpour. Water dripped slow and constant. It seeped in through the sides, soaked the floor beneath them. Cloaked in as many blankets as they could find to ward off the bone-chilling moisture in the air, Ben and Sarah grew wetter and colder as the elements continued to unleash their beastly fury around them. The wagon rocked on its axles and sank deeper and deeper into the mud.
Hours later when the storm finally rumbled away into the darkness, Sarah drifted to sleep. Ben looked down at her slumbering form and a smile turned his lips. He searched the contours of her heart-shaped face, the high cheekbones, the small, crooked nose, and the lips that were soft, moist and sweet when he kissed them. She was his. Forever. He gazed down at the long, dark lashes closed in sleep and in his mind’s eye he saw the blue hidden orbs, always smiling and happy. He reached down and touched a lock of her wheat-colored hair; wanted to roll his hand in it and pull her lips to his in a passionate kiss. Instead, he let her sleep. His eyes slid down from her narrow chin to her silky neck where the golden locket rose and fell with each breath. He smiled, lay down beside her and remembered her words.
“I’ll never take it off,” she’d said as she caressed the locket. “I promise.”
Ben smiled in the dark. He couldn’t remember a day since that Christmas morning she hadn’t worn the necklace proudly. He was a lucky man. A lucky man indeed.
The following day the wagon bogged down in the mud every time they tried to move. Only when the sun had been out for hours and the wind blew constantly, did they make any headway.
When the wagon got stuck just before sundown, Ben dug them out one last time then announced they’d camp there, an uncomfortable distance from the rest of the train.
Ben ate a quick meal then curled up in the bedroll at the rear of the wagon. He was asleep within minutes of his head finding the pillow.
Snuggled beside him in the glow of lamplight, Sarah put the final stitches in a dress she’d been working on. Midnight snorted outside, drawing her attention. She listened, but all was quiet. Midnight snorted again and moved restlessly. Not wanting to disturb Ben’s much needed rest she put her sewing aside and waited. God how she wished they’d camped closer to the rest of the wagon train.
“Who’s there?” she asked, her voice barely a squeak. Silence. She moved the flap, leaned out and found herself looking into a pair of familiar, hard black eyes. She started to scream, but One Ear’s hand clapped over her mouth in an instant.
Midnight stamped and snorted and she prayed the horse’s noise would waken Ben. She tried to bite the Indian’s hand, but couldn’t grab any skin with her teeth. He dragged her out of the wagon like a rag doll.
She fought with every ounce of strength she had, but One Ear was strong and solid like a wall. He pulled her up against his chest, his eyes dancing with evil in the moonlight. Sarah’s mind raced as her feet dangled helplessly in mid-air. She kicked him and he grunted, but his grip never wavered. Desperate, she went limp in his arms hoping to make him believe she’d fainted.
His grip lessened, only slightly, but enough. With raw fear gripping her, she tore her mouth free and screamed with every breath she had.
“Ben! Help me! Ben!”
Ben stumbled out of the wagon. One Ear dropped Sarah, untied Midnight and flung himself onto the horse’s back. Ben pulled a knife from his boot and ran toward the brave. He grabbed for One Ear’s leg and Midnight reared in the commotion. Ben caught and held on, his feet dragging in the dirt as the horse hit the ground and started to run. Ben yanked the Indian from the animal’s back and the two crashed to the ground.
They gained their feet at the same time and faced each other. One Ear drew his knife to match Ben’s and moved in a circle. Two blades flashed in the moonlight and Sarah thought she’d be sick at the sight of the men facing off before her. The Indian lunged forward. Ben jumped aside, the blade missing his stomach by mere inches. One Ear whirled and smiled, as though pleased for a worthy opponent.
Each time Ben jumped, Sarah jumped. Unable to stand and do nothing, she ran to the wagon to find something she could use as a weapon. She scrambled inside and threw aside anything that wouldn’t help her in her quest. She finally looked up and spotted a heavy cast-iron skillet above her. She grabbed it with both hands and scooted back outside the wagon in time to see the brave dive toward Ben with his knife ready for the kill. But Ben kicked the knife away and swung his own blade toward One Ear’s belly. The Indian grabbed Ben’s wrist and the two struggled for control. One Ear shoved his knee into Ben’s gut and he staggered. The knife clattered down beside him and One Ear leaped to retrieve it.
Fear tore through Sarah. She ran up behind the brave and swung the pan with all her might. But the Indian jerked aside and the pan merely glanced off his shoulder. He grabbed the knife from the ground and swung back around.
“Ben!” Sarah screamed as she ran away. “He’s got your knife!” The weapon glinted in One Ear’s hand as he stood to his full height, Ben’s death in his eyes.
Ben’s hands were on his knees and he was gasping for air, but he looked up in time to dive away from the slashing blade.
“Come on!” Ben yelled, gasping for air to refill his lungs. “Let’s finish this. Now!”
The Indian’s face became hard. He charged. The knife narrowly missed Ben’s neck when he rushed past. Ben swung his leg and kicked One Ear in the back as the brave ran by. He stumbled, but didn’t fall and turned back to Ben, a murderous scowl on his face. He charged again. The two met, chest-to-chest, the knife poised between them above Ben’s back.
Ben struggled to keep One Ear’s arm suspended above his head. In a burst of effort, he plunged his knee into the brave’s stomach. One Ear doubled over. Ben punched the Indian in the face, knocking him to the ground. The knife flew out of One Ear’s hand and skittered away. The brave scrambled toward the knife, Ben at his heels. They rolled and tumbled, each man trying to gain the advantage.
Sarah had never seen such stamina. Ben was a strong man, but this Indian seemed invincible. She ran to the front of the wagon and screamed. She screamed at the top of her lungs for someone to come and help them. It was then she remembered the pistol. She ran to the wagon seat, lifted the lid and reached inside, her mind a whirl. Where were the others? Why didn’t they hear her? Why didn’t someone come and help them? Unable to see inside the seat in the darkness, she fumbled around until her fingers finally touched on the smooth wood of the box that contained the Colt Ben had told her about over and over again. She pulled out the box, ripped it open, grabbed the gun and ran back to where the two men struggled.
One Ear had broken away from Ben and was clawing his way toward the knife that lay in front of them. Ben, right behind him, grabbed at his heels. The brave reached the knife, rolled and jumped upright, landing on his feet as easily as a cat, Ben still on the ground, defenseless. One Ear muttered something, settled the knife in his hand and raised his arm to plunge the knife into Ben’s heart.
Gunfire tore through the night and the Indian’s arm stopped in mid-thrust. His body jerked, his knees buckled and he fell to the ground, his face in the mud.
Ben’s eyes went wide before he jumped to his feet and ran to Sarah. He pried the smoking gun from her trembling hands, just as the others from the train reached them. She muttered incoherently as she looked down at the brave’s lifeless body.
“What happened?” Andrews yelled over the voices of the other emigrants, pushing his way toward Ben. “What the hell happened?”
“I had to kill him,” Sarah said over and over again. “I had no choice.” Her hands trembled and her face was as white as parchment.
Ben jerked his chin toward the dead Indian. “I guess coffee and sugar weren’t enough for him.” He put his arm around Sarah’s shoulders and led her toward the wagon.
“I had to. I had no choice,” Sarah continued to mumble as she and Ben disappeared into the darkness of the wagon.