Will the man of mixed blood save her life, or will she save his?
When Sarah Collins sets her sights on California for a new beginning, she never dreams a war party will attack the wagon train she travels on. She and her new-found friend Molly are the sole survivors, but when Molly succumbs to her injuries, Sarah is left alone to find her way back to civilization. While trying to mount a stolen horse, she suffers a rattlesnake bite that threatens to accomplish what the Indians failed. Is it her time to die or does Sarah have a purpose she's yet to discover?
1850 – Somewhere on the Santa Fe Trail
Sarah Collins struggled to open her eyes against the glare, but the pounding pain in her head urged her to keep them closed. She swept the tip of her tongue across cracked lips, her mouth as dry as the feathers in her pillow—yet she felt no downy softness beneath her, only an uncomfortable jabbing in her back. Her palms groped along something gritty. Where was she?
Suddenly patchy memories flooded back. The taste of bile filled her throat. She struggled to sit, groaning as she pushed herself up from the dusty ground and the offending stone stabbing at her spine. Her eyes misted with tears, and fear clutched at her chest as she surveyed what remained of the wagon train.
Grasping her constricting throat, Sarah stood, scanning the eerie site. The bodies of her new friends lay scattered amongst the smoking ruins, some oddly contorted and others positioned just 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, why kill a defenseless infant?
Was she the only survivor? As evidenced by an attacker’s body lying a few feet from her, someone had interceded and saved her life. There had to be someone else alive. There had to be! The hair on the back of her neck bristled.
If not for the carnage, the day would be beautiful—wispy clouds floated in a powder blue sky, and an endless sea of waving prairie grass announced the arrival of spring. The only sound came from water bubbling in the nearby stream as it traveled over a rocky bed.
Sarah remembered everything now. They had just made camp when war cries sliced the air. A few hours of daylight 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 off and inspected her body for injury. Other than her throbbing head, she assumed she was all right until something warm trickled into her eye. Her fingertips reddened from touching a sticky substance on her temple, and she flashed back to the terror of looking into the scarred face of the brave whose tomahawk struck only a glancing blow. Recalling those hate-filled eyes sent a shudder through her.
Her bonnet dangled down her back, its ribbon annoyingly tight across her throat. She pulled at the ties, easing the choking feeling, and then inspected the stained head covering. After wiping her bloodied hand on the yellow gingham, she tossed it to the ground where her body’s partial outline still etched the dirt.
The sun hadn’t risen very high above the horizon. She must have been unconscious all night. Releasing a pent up breath, she lifted her dress and ripped a piece from her petticoat, folded the cloth and held it to her wound. Fear clutched at her core, and unbridled tears ran 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. Why would God spare only her?
“Hello, can anyone hear me?” She called out in a faltering voice, then 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 the wagon 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 be. Headed for California, she wanted to leave all her bad memories in Missouri and forge new and happier ones. Maybe any minute she would awaken and discover this was all just a horrible nightmare. The pain in her head dragged her back to reality.
The smaller wagon behind Sarah’s, unscathed except for the arrows jutting from the canvas covering, bore testament to the violent attack. In contrast, the delicate feathers decorating the shafts gently swayed in the breeze. Drifting smoke stung her eyes. She called out again, but still no response.
Gathering her wits, Sarah forced her reluctant legs to move. Unsteady at first, her determination gave her strength. She fought the urge to retch when passing 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 see three more male bodies, one clutching a lance stuck deep in his chest. All had been desecrated in the same manner.
She swallowed hard and forced herself to continue her search, circling the camp and finding more bodies as she went from wagon to wagon. Next to what remained of her own, she found Fred Tanner, her driver. 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. Bending, and focusing only on his placid face, she gently closed his lids, fighting guilt. In their business arrangement, he had ended up paying far more dearly than she had.