Shrill, blood-curdling cries ripped through the placid desert air, accompanied by the pounding of hooves and the blasts of rifle-fire. The shouts carried to the bottom of the arroyo and Nora O'Sullivan leapt to her feet, her heart pounding.
She froze, her eyes wide. Screams of pain and terror followed the war cries and Nora dropped her gathering basket and ran to the arroyo wall. Hoisting her skirts, she scrambled over the rocks. The terrifying sounds could only mean one thing--the wagon train was under attack!
Her breath coming in gasps, Nora pulled herself over the crumbling sandstone wall in a frantic effort to get to the wagons and help her companions. The sounds of the massacre assaulted her ears, and her heartbeat matched the hoof beats of the invaders' horses. This can't be happening!
Nora tested a tiny ledge with her foot before trusting it with her weight. A woman screamed in agony in the desert above. Nora repositioned her hands on the rock and tried to pull her other leg up, but it refused to move. She pulled harder, with the blind strength born of panic. Still it wouldn't move.
She looked down and nearly lost her grip entirely. A savage crouched at the foot of the rocks, his face a fierce visage, his hands wrapped around her ankle. Her scream entwined with the cacophony of hellish sounds from above, and the arroyo tilted and turned black as she toppled from the wall.
When Nora regained consciousness, she was on her rear with her skirts bunched around her thighs. The sounds of killing were drowned out by the ringing in her ears, and she couldn't remember where she was. She put a tentative hand on the ground beside her.
The earth beneath her felt warm and more yielding than rock. It actually seemed to shift beneath her. At first, she thought it was her imagination, but she felt it again. The sensation of movement was real. Something moved beneath her hand.
"Sna ... a ... mmph!" Nora started to shriek and leap up when she felt a large hand cover her mouth and another grasp her arm.
Turning her head, she saw she had landed, not on snake-infested ground, but on a large Indian, who watched her with a dark, unreadable stare. Her own eyes widened in terror. She snatched her hand away.
"You murdering redskin!" she tried to scream, but his hand over her mouth muffled her words. She twisted and pulled against his grasp, until she realized the effect her struggles were having on the 'snake' beneath her.
Freezing, Nora glared at the man. He wore buckskin adorned with feathers, and his long hair was pulled back and fastened with a cord behind his head. He must be one of the attackers. What would he do to her?
"Promise not to scream and I'll take my hand away."
The perfect English coming from the mouth of the murdering savage jarred her. Eyes still wide, Nora nodded.
He removed his hand from her mouth.
"Please don't hurt me."
"I don't plan to. I'd like to let you get up, actually, but I can't risk you running off or screaming and getting the two of us killed by those renegades."
Surprise momentarily overcame her fear. "You speak English."
"So do you." His voice was sharp. "Now keep your voice down and stay still."
"I ... I won't run."
"Do you promise?"
"Y ... yes."
Standing on shaky legs, Nora backed away, casting her eyes around for a small rock or a stick--anything to defend herself with. The gathering basket she had used to collect healing herbs rested on the ground a few feet away, the few plants she had found earlier strewn on the ground around it.
She seized the basket, brandishing it like a weapon and backing away. "You're one of them! Murderer! Stay away from me!"
Turning, she tried to scramble back up the wall, only to find her foot stuck firmly in the savage's grasp again. This time, when she lost her grip on the sandstone wall, the man reached up and grasped her by the waist to steady her as she slid down to the ledge.
Trying to break away from his grasp, she kicked and scratched and squirmed.
"Let me go!" She tried to scratch his face but he caught her hand.
"Sssh. They'll hear you," the man said. "Get down."
Nora stared at his blood-stained and torn shirt and stopped her struggles.
"You're hurt," she said.
"Not as much as you will be if those outlaws come back this way and see what they've missed." His dark eyes echoed his warning. "Get down behind these bushes. Now."
"Please! I've got to see if I can help."
"You can't. What can you do against armed men?"
"There may be wounded I can help."