Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Sarah from Sarah's Journey

Imagine being left all along when your family dies and trying to hold onto the small parcel of land you've lived on all your life.  When the hideous and gross banker sets his site on your as his wife and uses any hope of saving your home against you, what's a girl to do?

Sarah chooses the only option--sell what you can, buy a wagon and join a departing wagon train and hope that life in California will be better.  She hires a nice man to drive her, then deals with the guilt when he and every other member of the train is killed during an Indian massacre.  Here's the opening scene of Sarah's Journey:

Sarah Collins struggled to open her eyes against the glare. The pounding pain in her head urged her to keep them closed. She swept the tip of her tongue across cracked lips and shifted away from whatever jabbed at her back. Her hands groped along something gritty and provided no clue to her whereabouts.

Patchy memories filtered back, and bitter bile rose in her throat. “Oh, Lord,” she groaned, pushing up from the pebbled ground. Her pain dimmed at the sight before her; fear seized the breath from her chest as she surveyed what remained of the wagon train.

In a haze, she stood and scanned the area. Her throat constricted at the eerie site. The bodies of her new friends lay scattered amongst the smoking ruins, some oddly contorted and others positioned as they’d fallen. Her heart ached for the mother who sat propped against a wagon wheel, clutching her baby to her breast—both obviously dead. Sarah covered her mouth to stifle a scream. Oh sweet Jesus, who could kill a defenseless infant?

“Oh, God, there have to be others alive,” she muttered against her palm. As evidenced by an attacker’s body lying a few feet from her, someone had interceded and saved her. Surely, there were others alive. There had to be! The hair on
her arms bristled. Perhaps it was a bad dream. If not for the carnage, anyone would consider it a
beautiful day. She stared up at wispy clouds floating in a powder blue sky then scanned the endless sea of prairie grass. The only sound came from the nearby stream—peaceful water bubbling over a rocky bed. Dizziness left her unsteady. Her head sagged.

Total recollection flooded back. Sarah bit her knuckles and shivered. They had just made camp when war cries sliced the air. A few hours of daylight had remained, but one family’s illness prompted the wagon master to halt travel for the day. Supper fires hadn’t even been lit when a band of whooping Indians with painted faces stormed the group. There must have been twenty or more on horseback. The last thing Sarah recalled was running to fetch her rifle.

She dusted herself off and checked her body for injury. Other than her throbbing head, she seemed all right until something warm trickled into her eye. She touched her temple and felt a sticky lump. Her mind displayed the image of a scarred-faced brave, whose tomahawk struck only a glancing blow. She stared at her reddened fingertips and shuddered, seeing those hate-filled eyes again.

Her bonnet dangled down her back, its ribbon annoyingly tight across her throat. She pulled at the ties, removed and stared at the stained and dirty head covering. In its present condition she preferred going without one; she wiped her bloodied hand on the gingham material and tossed it to the ground.

The sun hadn’t climbed far above the eastern horizon. She figured she must have been unconscious all night, and with a sigh, lifted her dress, ripped a piece from her petticoat and held it to her wound. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she prayed to see another living soul. Surely she was no better than the rest of these simple folk who were trying to find a new start. She cast blurry eyes skyward. “Why would you spare only me, Lord?”

“Hello, can anyone hear me?” Her voice faltered. She scanned the campsite and listened, but no answer came. Nothing moved.

Sarah started toward her smoldering Conestoga, now barely recognizable. She’d used her last penny to buy it to make this trip, hiring a driver and packing everything she owned into the beautifully-crafted prairie schooner. This wasn’t how things were supposed to turn out. Headed for California, she wanted to leave all her bad memories in Missouri and forge new and happier ones. Maybe she’d wake up and discover this was all just a horrible nightmare. Her throbbing head told her it wasn’t likely.

The smaller wagon behind Sarah’s stood unscathed except for the arrows jutting from the canvas covering. In contrast to violence, delicate feathers decorating the shafts swayed in the breeze.

Her eyes smarted from drifting smoke. She called out again, but still received no response. Sarah summoned strength, gathered her wits and forced her reluctant legs to move. 

Unsteady at first, her determination gave her strength. She fought the urge to retch when she passed by the body of the wagon master, Mr. Simms. The top of his head had been slashed off, leaving a bloody pulp. She jerked her gaze away only to view three more male bodies, one clutching a lance stuck deep in his chest. All had been desecrated in the same savage manner.

She swallowed hard and forced herself to continue her search. Circling the camp, she found more bodies as she went from wagon-to-wagon. Next to what remained of her own, she found her driver, Fred Tanner. His eyes stared lifelessly at the sky; an arrow protruded from a dried circle of blood in the middle of his shirt. He, too, had been scalped. Sarah bent, and focusing only on his placid face, closed his eyelids. Guilt gnawed at her, and she straightened and whispered a silent prayer on his behalf. In their business arrangement, he had ended up paying far more dearly than she had.

Hope pushed her onward in a quest to find someone alive. The dead children sickened her  more than the deceased adults. Barely starting their lives, they came to a bitter end far too soon. She discovered most of them huddled with their mothers in the backs of the unburned wagons, fear still etched on their tiny faces.

The smell of charred flesh hung heavy in the air and made it difficult to breathe. Sarah crinkled her nose in disgust. Her shoulders sagged. Each person deserved a proper burial, but she couldn’t do it all by herself. Her head pounded in rhythm with the panic in her heart as she realized the seriousness of her predicament. The Indians had taken all the animals, and from what she could tell, most of the food. She had no idea where she was or how she would survive. Sarah collapsed to the ground and buried her face in her hands. Sobs wracked her body as she mourned each person’s passing. She’d barely gotten to know them. Only fifteen days ago in Independence, Missouri, these twelve wagons had gathered, full of excited and happy faces, ready to journey to a new life.

She cried until her tears ran dry, then finding composure, convinced herself weeping wouldn’t help. At twenty-two-years old, she was determined to see twenty- three. But how? She could walk for help, but in which direction, and how far? Even if she filled her canteen with fresh water from the stream, how long would it last before she reached another source? What if the Indians came back? It appeared they had taken all the weapons leaving her defenseless. She couldn’t just sit and wait. Besides, in the warm spring weather it wouldn’t be long before the bodies started to decay. Leaving appeared to be her only option.

I can't imagine how hard it would be to travel via wagon train and cover such a vast destination.  The mileage made each day depended largely upon undependable weather.  Traveling from Missouri to California required at least six months.  The wagons carried food, cooking utensils, water, and anything else required for the journey.  Imagine that a family of four carried 800 pounds of flour, 200 pounds of lard, around 700 pounds of bacon, a couple hundred pounds of beans, a hundred pounds of fruit, plus coffee and salt.  There was little room left inside for personal belongings, and it wasn't unusual to find items tossed alongside the trail to lighten the load.  On good days, the majority of the passengers walked alongside the conveyance.

Picture dressing in the period and hoofing it for miles each day along a rutted path lined by high grass.  Women traditionally wore stockings that reached the knee, leather boots that laced, and for safety reason and ease of travel, usually low-heels.  Undergarments consisted of a chemise (wide-necked and short sleeved, usually hemmed just above the knee.  Stays served as the bra of the day to support the breasts and back.  Usually made from bones, they molded to the body.  Sounds torturous to me.  :)

Underpants, or drawers as they were called, were full cut and hemmed about mid-calif.  All that walking was bound to cause chafing, and drawers helped prevent the discomfort. Petticoats were limited to at least one, but two or three weren't uncommon.  Times were tough but I think women always wanted to be seen as feminine.

Pioneer women usually didn't have more than a few dresses, so aprons were commonplace.  Most were plain and didn't match the garment worn by the woman, but usually were long and tied at the back.  Wouldn't it suck to have three items in your wardrobe to choose from?

Today we wear "hoodies" but in the olden days, women wore shawls.  Usually shaped from a square of wool cloth, the material hung in a triangle and wrapped around the body.  I'll keep my hoodie, if you don't mind.

Sunscreen hadn't been invented, of course, so for protection, women wore bonnets to shield their skin.  The stiff brim trimmed a lightweight, lighter colored material long in the back to cover the neck.  I've never looked good in hats of any kind, so I guess I'd just look like a nerd.  ;)

Hairstyles weren't as important as comfort and sensibility.  Long hair coiled into buns or braided kept hair washed only a few times a month from looking shabby.  Safety was an issue as well and common hairstyles made sure the pioneer traveler didn't get her long locks caught in a wagon axle.  Hey, it happened.

Face it, being a woman in the 1800s wasn't easy.  Now imagine your traveling companions have been slaughtered, you're alone, and have to decide  how you're going to survive.  Sarah made the decision and lived to tell about it. Read Sarah's Journey...available at Eternal Press or in print and download at Amazon.com.

1 comment:

Roseanne Dowell said...

I have to quit reading these. Another for my to buy list. I'm going to go broke just buying your books. LOL

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