Arizona Territory 1880
Odessa Clay struggled to lift the overturned wagon off her father. Her muscles burned and splinters dug into her palms, but Papa’s ashen face and eyes squinting with pain inspired her determination. She bit her bottom lip and struggled to stay calm.
“God, please help me,” she muttered through clenched teeth, as she pushed, shoved, and lifted with every ounce of strength she had left. The veins in the backs of her hands bulged, but the wagon didn’t budge. At one hundred pounds and barely five feet tall, she proved no match for solid wood. Her chest heaved and each breath took effort. She brushed sweat-dampened hair from her brow and knelt. All her struggling had only succeeded in setting the left rear wheel into a slow spin and creating an eerie whirring in the silence.
“Hold on, Papa. I’ll find some way to help you.” Her nails bit into her fisted palms.
His pale features contorted, and fear clutched her heart. She rose and stared up and down the trail. Nothing stirred except the hot wind that whipped her long hair into tangles and sent a dust funnel swirling in the distance.
Turning her attention back to her father, she again attempted to lift the wagon’s cumbersome weight and failed.
“Can anyone hear me,” she screamed, searching the trail again.
The dirt unfurled like a brown ribbon between the expanse of cactus and sagebrush. Odessa, refusing to let her father see her hopelessness, blinked back tears.
Anger heated her blood. This was all her fault. First her mother died giving birth, and now her father was dying because of her. He wanted her to have a woman’s influence in her life—have more opportunities. Their trip had gone smoothly until Papa whipped the horses to a faster pace to combat the heat—stir a breeze where none existed. The same wheel that spun now had been the one that slipped into a ragged rut and tipped the wagon over. She’d jumped clear, but her father remained pinned beneath the sideboard from the waist down. The accident snapped the harness rigging, and the animals ran off. What she wouldn’t give for one to wander back right now.
She rushed to the other side and pulled with all her might on the front wheel. Praying for strength, she gritted her teeth and tugged until splinters from the prickly-wooded spoke tore into her flesh. There was nothing she could do. The wagon wouldn’t shift.
Something stung above her left eye and she swiped her knuckles across the spot. Blood mixed with the dirt on her hand and created rust-colored mud. She wiped the stain on her sleeve and scanned the area for something to use for leverage. Her father had often lifted things by using a piece of wood or a log from a fallen tree. She hitched up her skirt and traipsed through sparse knee-high growth, praying to find something—anything.
“Stay with me, Papa, I’m looking.” She cast another hopeful glance at the trail. Still no one in sight. Why had they decided to make this wretched trip to Phoenix? Just because Aunt Susan lived there? Odessa’s stomach churned with fear and her mind spun in a hundred directions. What if she couldn’t get Papa out?
She spied nothing but rocks, boulders and a broken saguaro limb too rotten to use. Her shoulders sagged as she returned empty handed to the wagon. Her father’s face appeared even more ashen and his breathing ragged. A scarlet pool colored the dirt beneath him. She hunkered beside him and took his hand. Why had God let this happen?
Before she found her voice, his eyes fluttered open. “Don’t fret, Dessie. I’m not afraid to die. Your Ma is waiting for me.” His weak voice faded into a cough then his face puckered into a grimace. He licked his lips.
“Do you want water, Papa?” She swiveled to fetch the canteen, but he grabbed her arm.
“No.” He took a shallow breath. “I’m worried about you, darlin'. Find your Aunt Susan and let her know what happened. She’ll take care of you.” He moaned and swallowed hard. “All I know is she’s somewhere close to Phoenix. Tell her I’m sor….
Odessa squeezed his hand. “Don’t leave me, Papa.”
His hand slackened in hers, and a final breath escaped his already blue lips. She remembered the distinct death rattle from when her grandmother passed away a few months back. Odessa collapsed across her father and wept. The day started out with such excitement, and now she’d become an orphan. Being alone in the middle of nowhere magnified the pain of her loss. Was she destined to die too?
She sat up and gazed through blurred eyes at her father’s face. Her chest ached as though someone embedded a knife within her heart. If not for the smudges of blood and dirt on Papa’s cheeks, he almost appeared to be sleeping. In a way he was. The eternal sleep of the angels. She splayed her fingers through his hair and sobbed. “Please wake up. I don’t want to be alone.”
Numb and disbelieving, she stared into space. Her thoughts drifted back to the conversation she’d had with Papa about this trip. His deep voice still rang as clear as a bell in her mind.
“Dessie, you deserve more than Tucson has to offer. This place has grown too dangerous.”
The neighboring milling sites, rich with silver ore, attracted a less desirable crowd. More and more wanted outlaws roamed the streets, cocky and almost daring anyone to draw down on them. The town grew, but the environment became more dangerous, and Papa wanted to move to a place where Odessa could get an education and perhaps find a suitable husband. At seventeen, the thought of marriage made her queasy.
“But, Papa, I like living here,” she’d argued. “Mama, Granny and Grandpa are all buried in the church cemetery. We can’t just pick up and leave them.”
“Darlin’, where they’re at is a much better place, believe me. Besides, your Ma wouldn’t want you raised in this God-forsaken place. This town wasn’t like this when we first came here. The population is being overrun with gunslingers and fallen women. It’s not fittin’ for a girl your age not to be able to walk down Main Street and be safe.”
“But where will you work, Papa?”
“I’m sick of mining and I can’t afford cattle to start a ranch. I can find something in Phoenix. Hear tell the Phoenix-Maricopa Railroad is about to start. There’s bound to be something I can do. Don’t you worry your pretty little head. I’ll take care of us.”
And so the decision was made.
Slumped beside her father’s still form, she lapsed into another crying fit, wishing she’d argued more for staying in Tucson. When she had no more tears to shed, she took stock of her predicament and realized she was wasting what was left of daylight.
Her only choice was to leave and hope some kind soul would come along and bury Papa. There was no more she could do. Determination to see her eighteenth birthday built within her breast. Dying wasn’t an option, but living was. If indeed her time to pass had come, she wasn’t going willingly.
Should she sit and wait for help to come? What were the chances? Granny always told her an idle mind was the devil’s workshop, and Odessa wasn’t about to tempt fate.
Unlike their few belongings strewn about, Papa’s rifle, the food they’d packed for the trip and two filled canteens were somewhere beneath the wagon. Odessa wriggled under the bed and crawled toward the front. Cactus stickers poked through her clothing and pebbles and stones scratched her legs, but she found the things she needed. Inching backwards with them in tow, she made her way out from under the overturned rig and, rising to her knees, inhaled the fresh air. Her fingers held tight to the pouch holding the few spare bullets Papa had brought.
Pondering her options, she muttered an oath. She wouldn’t have minded if they’d stayed in the town where she’d been raised. Tucson had grown in the past year, with another general store, a new boarding house, and two laundries operated by Chinese men in silken suits and funny little hats. But her father saw danger she didn’t. “Oh, Papa,” she groaned. “You didn’t have to die because of me.” A lump formed in her throat.
She stood, purposely avoiding the other side of the wagon and his body, and bent to pick up the lap blanket normally kept stored beneath the seat. After shaking the dirt and thistles from the cover, she folded the material across her arm. Although the late April day grew hotter, desert nights were often cold and unpredictable. Flash floods were common, and even an occasional snow flurry wasn’t an odd sight on the higher plains.
The thought of being alone at night raised the hairs on the back of her neck. Predators filled this barren land and she had no desire to become a meal for one. Something rustled through the nearby scrub brush. She jumped, but sighed when she heard nothing further. At least if she remained with the wagon, she’d have some sort of shelter and could start fresh in the morning. She’d spent the night with Granny’s lifeless body in the house, so being with Papa was the lesser of her concerns. He loved her in life, and death wouldn’t change that. Perhaps he’d watch over her and keep her safe.
Odessa propped the rifle against the wagon, hung the canteens and pouch from a wheel hub and spread the blanket by the tailgate. Her stomach rumbled. She hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Papa had planned to stop for an early dinner in a good place to camp for the night, but the trip hadn’t lasted that far.
She dropped to the ground, tucked her skirt around her legs, and pulled a sandwich wrapped in a blue-checkered cloth from the basket. The thought that Papa lay only a few feet away stole the taste from the ham and brought tears to her eyes again. While she chewed, she watched the bright orange sun sink into the western sky. Her heart hammered with dread of the coming night.
The temperature dipped along with the sunlight. The air grew cold and raised goosebumps on Odessa’s arms. She kept vigil at the end of the wagon and snuggled beneath her blanket. A golden slice of moonlight hovered above. The outline of the nearby saguaros took on a human appearance. Arms and legs and faces masked by darkness. She shivered as a coyote howled in the distance.
Before long, another desert dog launched into a hair-raising cry, only to be answered by yet another. This one sounded too close. Letting go of the blanket, Odessa reached for the carbine and pulled the weapon across her lap. She’d never shot at anything other than a bottle on a tree stump, but having the rifle slowed her racing heart.
Her gaze scanned the shadows for movement. An occasional rustling indicated something small skittering about, but that didn’t frighten her as much as the continued yowling that grew nearer. Her rigid shoulders ached and her eyes blurred from staring. Despite only muted moonlight, being so exposed made her uncomfortable.
What if the remaining food attracted the coyotes? Odessa pushed the basket back beneath the wagon then realized a dead body was more likely to attract scavengers than her meager fare. Feeling foolish, she stood and gathered her canteens, then lay on the dusty ground and inched her way back beneath the tailgate, pulling the rifle in with her. There was not room enough to spread the blanket, and despite the stickers and pebbles poking at her, she’d much prefer the discomfort to the sharp teeth of a hungry animal.
On her stomach and clutching her weapon, Odessa peered into the darkness. She focused on happier times when Granny was still alive and told stories of her own childhood. Most of them were tall tales, but what she wouldn’t give to be back next to the hearth and a roaring fire, listening to those yarns. Her favorite had always been about the ghost who lived in the pasture, but the fright Granny inspired by telling her spirit story was nothing compared to the lump of terror building in Odessa’s belly. She never realized the night held so many strange noises.