Indian Country, 1845
Ten-year-old David walked along the creek bed, proudly gripping the bow and arrow he’d made himself. He’d tied turkey feathers to each end of the small bow and decorated the arrow with colorful stripes just like ones used by Indians. He ignored a rabbit that dashed back in its hole and continued searching for tracks of deer or elk. So eager was he to see his father’s look of pride when he returned with such bounty, he gave little consideration to how he could bring back the burden by himself, or the skill required to kill large game with a bow and arrow.
Looking up through the overhanging branches, he squinted at the sun beaming down from the center of the sky. He’d promised his mother he would be back in time to study his reading lesson with Glen before the noon meal. He knew he’d ventured too far from home and started retracing his tracks.
As he approached a large clearing, he stopped abruptly, straining to see through the distant grove of cottonwoods trailing the stream back to his family’s homestead. Why did everything look so dark and hazy? His gaze lifted higher. The sight raised the hair on the back of his neck. Ominous billows of black smoke rose above the treetops and swirled across the pale blue sky. An acrid smell wafted through his nostrils.
Swallowing his fear, he continued walking at an even pace, but he couldn’t convince himself that only some dry brush had caught fire. Something much larger was burning. Something in the direction of home.
Suddenly, a scream split the air, followed by the sharp crack of a musket. No longer able to hold back his fear, David hurled aside his bow and arrow and raced through the tall grass. He reached the far side of the glen, jumped a ditch, and scrambled up the other side. He clawed through the thick underbrush, thrashing his way closer to the acrid smoke. Sweat mixed with tears of fright stung his eyes.
Piercing yells echoed through the thickets. When he reached the open road next to the corral, the sight yanked the breath from David’s lungs. He stood frozen. His home was ablaze, flames leaping out the windows and shooting up through the roof. The fire roared in his ears. From where he stood, he felt its intense heat, yet he shuddered as cold, icy terror took hold of him.
Painted Indians astride shaggy ponies were rounding up the horses and mules from the corral. He recognized their shields and lances. They were the Pawnees he and his father had seen a few days ago on their way to the trading post. Herding the animals into the dense woods, the marauders swiftly made their escape.
David looked around. His insides began to shake with panic. Where are Ma and Pa? Where’s Glen?
He saw his father lying on the ground next to the corral gate, an arrow protruding from his chest. He ran over and knelt beside him. “Pa … Pa?” He lifted his father’s head. No words came from his mouth. No sound, no breath. Nothing but a thin trickle of blood. He lowered him to the ground, and then stood, looking for his mother.
He caught sight of her lying beside the garden. A scream exploded from his throat. “Mother-r-r!”
He ran past the burning house and flung himself down next to her. His mother’s beautiful, long auburn hair had been scalped from her head. Blood oozed down the side of her face and her eyes, devoid of any further pain, stared up at the heavens. David looked away, a wave of nausea gripping his stomach.
When he was finally able to look at her again, he saw something in her outstretched hand. Shaking uncontrollably, he picked up the cameo his mother had always worn and clutched the pendant in his fist.
Turning to look at what was once his home, he cried out his brother’s name. “Glen?” His only answer was the howl and hiss of flames devouring the wood cabin.
Shock replaced reality. Time stopped everything but the gentle breeze that tossed David’s hair about his face. Dreamlike, he stood and walked back toward the corral where his father lay. The prone, lifeless body of a Pawnee lay sprawled a short distance away, a gaping hole in his back.
Slowly, he scanned the vicinity and there, crumpled against the wall of the stable was Glen, a knife driven in his side, and an arrow sticking into his thigh. Circles of bright red colored the boy’s shirt and pants. A musket lay by his body.
David thought how strangely peaceful his brother looked, as if he were sleeping. Squeezing his eyes shut, he bowed his head in despair. Glen wasn’t asleep. He was dead. Like Ma and Pa.
The soul-wrenching sight of his family’s bloody massacre was too much for him. Shock gave way to fury. He screamed with helpless rage and dropped to the ground. Gripping his mother’s cameo, he pounded the earth with his fists.
Tears streamed down his face. His hands throbbed from cuts and bruises, but still he continued to beat the hard earth in a desperate need to release the pent-up rage against this horrible fate—the agony of being left alive but alone, when all he loved and lived for were dead.
David didn’t know how long he’d lain in the dirt, his chest convulsing with dry, wracking sobs. The fire was spent, leaving only the smoldering ruins of his home. Numb, he rose to his feet and rubbed his forehead, trying to gain control of his thoughts.
The sound of approaching horses jarred his mind back into focus. More savages came into view. From their garb and weapons, David knew they were a different tribe than the Pawnee raiders.
Fear propelled him toward the protection of the woods. He tripped and stumbled his way along the high bank of the stream. Stealing a glance over his shoulder, he saw the small band stop to look at the destruction. Then several of them pointed in his direction.
Desperately, David searched for somewhere to hide. Hearing the horses picking up speed and getting closer, he leaped over the edge of the steep embankment. Sliding down the rocky slope, he spied a large, empty burrow and crawled inside. He tried to conceal himself by tucking his legs under him. Then he turned his face toward the opening.
Minutes later, horses’ hooves thudded to a halt directly above the small den. Dirt and rocks tumbled around David. As the seconds crept by, he wished with every beat of his pounding heart that he were a wolf hiding in his den.
He sucked in a deep breath when a pair of buckskin-clad leggings and moccasinned feet slid in front of his cramped hide-out. Suddenly, a bronze face appeared in the opening. Vermilion-painted cheeks lifted into a stiff smile, and animal black eyes stared into David’s grey ones.
Hours later, as the small army patrol rode past the charred remains of the ravaged homestead, a pall of grey smoke floated around the soldiers like an eerie fog, and every man sensed death before actually seeing it.
The lieutenant in command dismounted and stood in front of the first body they found. Near him lay a second body, an Indian.
“Damn Pawnees again,” he said to the soldier who had dismounted beside him. The lieutenant looked past the corral. “Search the area, Sergeant. I suspect we’ll be burying more than these two.”
It took only a few minutes after the sergeant had issued the order for the dragoons to find two more bodies—a woman bludgeoned to death and scalped, and another lying next to the stable, an arrow and knife protruding from him.
“Damn shame. This one’s only a kid,” the officer said, peering down.
Frowning, the sergeant knelt and took hold of the boy’s wrist, then opened one of his eyelids. “My God, sir, he’s still alive!”
Five-year-old Laura Westbrook swung her legs over the side of the bed, tucking her favorite dolly under her arm. She peered through the dawn’s waning darkness at Alex lying in his bed opposite hers. His rust-red hair had fallen across his closed eyelids, and a skinny arm hung over the bedside. She could hear Papa and Mister Dan’s voices downstairs.
Laura crossed the room and quietly opened the door. She eased through the narrow opening. Mister Dan’s voice grew louder. Quickly, she closed the door behind her, not wanting to awaken her brother.
“John, I’ve taken about all the city life I can handle.”
Laura knelt by the banister at the top of the stairs. She leaned against the wooden post, clinging to it with one hand, the other holding her dolly. She looked through the open doorway of the kitchen where Mister Dan sat at the table opposite her father.
“More to the point, I’ve taken about all of your mourning for Lucy I can handle. I’m sorry for being so blunt, but it’s been six months since the accident. It’s time to stop brooding about the past, my friend, and start—”
Wham! Her father slammed his fist on the table. “Enough! You’ve said enough!” He rose abruptly, sending the chair clattering backward to the floor. Grabbing his cup from the table, he walked to the cook stove.
Laura bit her lower lip. Papa was upset again. She watched him pour himself more coffee. Since Momma had gone to heaven, he’d changed. He didn’t seem to know she and Alex were still living there. He no longer read stories to her or helped her brother with his school work. Aunt Sarah kept saying he would soon be like the Papa Laura had always loved—happy and laughing. She remembered how he would sneak up behind Momma and kiss her on the neck, making her happy and laughing, too.
The sound of chair legs scraping across the floor interrupted her thoughts. Mister Dan stood and bowed his head. He was very tall with massive shoulders. Laura had been frightened by his size when she first met him last year, but she liked him now, especially after he’d given her the baby doll for her birthday.
Often he came over to sit in the parlor with Papa in the evenings while Aunt Sarah washed the dishes and put her and Alex to bed. Sometimes he’d eat Sunday dinner with them at Aunt Sarah and Uncle James’s house.
Dan released a deep sigh. He walked around the table and set Papa’s chair upright. “John … make up your mind.” Her father remained tight-lipped, staring out the window, his gaunt figure supported by a thin, outstretched arm braced against the wooden frame.
“I can’t stay any longer. Are you leaving with me or not?” Dan demanded.
“Yes, damn it! God, yes, I need to get away from here.” John shook his head. “I’m no good to anybody, least of all my kids. Be best if Sarah took them to raise.”
Laura’s eyes widened. Her father’s words resounded up the stairs, their meaning slapping her in the face. I need to get away from here. Her fingers tightened around the banister. Papa was leaving!
Hearing the door at the front of the house open, Laura scurried out of sight. When her aunt stepped into the hallway, she quickly returned to her bedroom, closing the door behind her.
Standing in the entry, Sarah Osbourne removed her shawl and bonnet and placed them on a chair. She rubbed her hands together to ward off the chill from her early morning walk to her brother’s house. “Landsakes,” she whispered, “that wind is brisk.”
She noticed a light in the kitchen and called out to her brother. “John, are you—” She faltered when Dan stepped out from the doorway. Clasping her hands, she asked, “Daniel, why are you here this time of day?” Her gaze darted from him to the kitchen, then back to him. “What’s the matter? Is John all right? The children …”
Dan laid a hand on her shoulder. “The children are fine. They’re still asleep. I came over to talk to John.” His eyes met hers. “Sarah, I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“Leaving … tomorrow?” she repeated, her voice breaking. She skirted around him and into the kitchen.
John stood at the window. He gave Sarah a cursory glance before returning his gaze outside. Taking her apron from its hook beside the cook stove, she cleared her throat. “If you two men will give me a few minutes, I’ll fix some breakfast.”
“I’m not hungry,” muttered John.
It was the way he said it. No, more than that, it was the way he’d spoken to her for the past six months. Pitching the apron aside, Sarah spat out her words in a voice seething with anger. “John, I can’t take your self-pity any longer! It’s those children upstairs you should pity. But you don’t seem to care about them anymore.” Her voice trembled with emotion. “Lucy is gone and, God knows, I’ve understood your grief and heartache. But Laura and Alex are not gone. They need, more than ever before, love and understanding. Harboring this deep depression is not only destroying you, it’s affecting your children.”
Strong hands gripped her shoulders from behind. “Sarah,” Dan said in a firm voice.
She put her hand over her mouth, ashamed of her outburst. She turned and hurried from the kitchen.
Dan heaved a sigh and glanced at John whose head was bowed.
After a tense moment, the silence was broken when John reached for his jacket off a peg and said in a tight voice, “Got some papers to sign at the office. Then I’ll be back.” He looked over at Dan. “Please, go talk to Sarah. Tell her … well, you know what to tell her.”
Dan watched John walk out the back door. “Do I?” he questioned under his breath. “I’m not so sure, old friend.”
Across the hall, he found Sarah seated in the open parlor, staring into the fireplace. He sat on a settee facing her. “What you said about John is true .” He leaned forward, resting his forearms on his thighs. “That’s why he wants to go with me. I’m heading back west out to Oregon Country.”
At her groan of protest, he raised a hand. “Now before you get all riled up again, hear me out. I know he’d be leaving his family and law practice. But you said it yourself. In his present state, he’s neither a decent father nor a good lawyer. John’s not only fighting despair but guilt. He’s torn between wanting to leave with me and thinking he should stay for the children’s sake.”
He stood and walked over to the fireplace. Resting one boot on the raised hearth, he propped his arm on the mantel. “And yet you, Sarah, are the one Laura and Alex need most. If John did stay, you’d still be running from your house to this one to care for them. He’s convinced it would be best if you took the children into your own home.”
All the while Dan spoke, Sarah had kept very still, her hands clutching the arms of the chair. Now she stood and began pacing. “Daniel, Lucy’s tragic death was a terrible blow to us all.” She sighed. “And yet, I actually feel blessed in being given the opportunity to care for Laura and Alex. I love them as if they were my own children.”
Dan understood. Barren all these years, Sarah was grateful to have her niece and nephew fill that void in her life. Compassion for her welled up inside him. For an instant, he wanted to take her in his arms and remind her that once he had wanted her to bear his children. Instead, he pulled his gaze away from her and picked up an iron poker.
“How would James feel about their living with you?” he asked, idly stoking the fire.
“James is a good and generous man. He would welcome the children into our home. He loves them as much as I do.”
“Then it seems they’d be well taken care of, doesn’t it? You know John will provide for their financial needs as well.”
“Yes, Daniel, but tell me, how long will John be gone?”
Dan shrugged his shoulders. “That I can’t answer. We’ll be traveling clear across the continent.” For the first time that morning, he smiled at her. “Hey, don’t go worrying your pretty head. I’ll make damn sure nothing happens to your brother.”
Nodding, Sarah tried to smile back. “In time, I hope he meets someone else. John needs a woman to love and care for him.”
Dan placed the poker back in the stand. “Most men do, but I never found anyone else.”
Not giving Sarah a chance to respond, he strode into the hallway where he lifted his hat and jacket off the coat rack. Before letting himself out, he turned and said huskily, “Tell little Laura and Alex good-bye for me.” His gaze lingered on her face. “Take care of yourself, Sarah.”