To celebrate the release of my novel Heart of a Warrior, I am so excited to share with you the first couple of scenes. I hope you enjoy!
Eyes clamped shut against the subsiding ache in her abdomen, Christina Astle sucked in cool mountain air. Pine saturated the breath and constricted her lungs like the corsets she’d happily given up only months earlier. Her hand stole across her extended stomach. What had she been thinking, agreeing to follow Anthony away from society, safety, and a house with four walls? What if they didn’t make it to Oregon in time? She refused to give birth with nothing but canvas overhead.
The wagon wheel dropped into another rut, and a gasp escaped her, drawing her husband’s gaze. “I’m sorry. I wish I could go slower, but we’re at least a mile behind them.” He glanced at the sun hovering above, then slipped the gold watch from his breast pocket and flipped it open. “It’s after three already.”
“I know…and I am fine.” Christina raised her chin a degree but refused to look at him and his perpetually concern-laden eyes. Anthony did everything within his power to keep her comfortable, stopping often, even when it meant trailing behind the rest of the wagon train. As long as they caught up by nightfall. Still, heat rose in her chest. They should have waited another year, or—better yet—never left Cincinnati in the first place.
The crack of a discharging rifle pierced the valley and deepened into echo. Then a scream, soft and haunting. More gun fire followed, ricocheting off the high mountain ridges.
The wagon lurched to a halt, and Christina grabbed for the seat. She stared ahead at the empty trail scarred with evidence of those who led the way. Horses. Cattle. Families with children. God, no!
The wagon jerked and rocked off the trail, reins slapping the backs of the mules.
Christina dug her fingertips into the raw wood. “What are you doing?”
“I’m taking it away from the trail. I’m not leaving you sitting in plain sight.”
“Leaving me? You can’t. We don’t know what’s going on.” Her head spun. “No, Anthony. Not with these mountains full of savages. Don’t you dare leave me here.”
The wagon tipped slightly then righted, dropped over the slope, and rolled into an aspen grove. White bark glimmered in the bright sun, and young saplings sprang back into place as the wheels passed over.
“There’s only one way to find out what’s happening. If they’re being attacked, they’ll need help.” Anthony lunged to the ground and unharnessed the mules, fastening them farther out of the way. All except the one trained to ride. Anthony left him near the wagon, heaving a saddle over his withers and forcing a heavy bit into his mouth.
Christina remained paralyzed on the seat. “Anthony…no. Don’t go.”
He said nothing as he loaded his revolver and strapped it to his thigh. With the Winchester tucked under his arm, he swung onto the back of the animal and twisted the reins through his fingers. “You’ll be safe here. Most likely it’s nothing.” He looked away, giving the mule an angry kick. The animal balked but lurched to a trot toward the trail.
He rotated in the saddle enough to meet her gaze and yanked back on the bit. His brown eyes studied her face, and his chest released a sigh. “Chris, I have to go. You know where the other rifle is, and the shells are under the seat if you have any need of them. I’ll be back soon.”
Christina sagged against the back of the wagon seat. The edge bit her spine. Hooves scraped the loose rock of mountain trail and faded with the distant gun fire.
William T. O’Connell.
The sharp point of the flint scored the flat surface of the boulder, deepening each letter, faded by time. Eight years. One would think the memories, the pain, and the anger would have faded as well, but those wounds had been etched deep.
Towan stood and chucked the flint against the broad base of an overgrown pine. He dusted the forest debris from his buckskin leggings. Enough hiding. He was no longer the hate-filled boy. Eight years in these mountains had made him a man. A warrior. Sucking breath into his lungs, he stepped away from the headstone, the resting place of everything he had been—everything his father had made him. William O’Connell Junior was dead. A fate that should be shared by the man who gave him that name.
Resting his palm over the hilt of his knife, Towan turned to his horse and mounted. A few more days would see him in Fort Bridger. If rumors held any truth, his father would be there.
The horse jerked its head as the cliffs behind him echoed thunder. Yet not a cloud in sight. He encouraged his sorrel mare down the slope into the thicker foliage and toward the Oregon Trail. He’d planned on staying away from the wagon trains and settlers that frequented it, but curiosity nagged.
With the sound of gunfire reverberating off every mountain ridge, it could not be trusted to pinpoint the source. Keeping to the shadows, he followed the trail east until the first team of horses came into view. Angry and frightened shouts had already replaced the booming discharge of rifles, and Towan slipped to the ground to secure his mare out of sight. He didn’t want to draw the fire of a nervous teamster.
Keeping his head down, Towan crept through the underbrush lining the trail, the silent placement of each step foremost on his mind. With little more than a dozen wagons, and this late in the season, it was improbable they delayed their journey for anything trivial. Something had armed every man and put them on alert. Most perched on their high seats, scanning the forests, rifles ready, while others hurried along the line, also carrying weapons. The only sign of women or children were the round eyes peeking from behind canvas.
“What do you see, Cal?” a large man hollered as he made his way from the front.
A lanky one slapped his wide brimmed hat against his thigh. “Not a thing. Do you reckon they’ve gone?”
“One can hope.” The first swore. “I thought the folks at Fort Bridger said we shouldn’t have any problems with Indians through here. Anyone hurt?”
“Just Wilson. He dislocated his shoulder. Still hasn’t learned to hold that Winchester right.” He pulled the hat back over his greying head, his gaze wandering over where Towan crouched behind a low juniper. “Makes you wonder if they were even trying. What if they’re scouts for a larger war party?”
“Let’s pray that’s not the case. With all that paint on their faces…” His head shook. “They obviously have something on their minds. I think its best we move again, find a safer place to set camp.” Cal sent a worried glance to the back of the train.
“What about the Astles? We can’t abandon that young couple out there with Injuns set on trouble. I don’t want that woman and her baby on my conscience.”
The large man spewed a string of curses. “Do you propose we wait here, or send someone back for them?”
A cry rang out and both men spun. A rider appeared around the last bend. “That might not be necessary after all. There’s Anthony now.”
Towan sank deeper into the woods and started back to his horse. Enough wasting his time. The first snows would soon settle into these passes. The fate of these people was none of his concern, and if he left now, he could travel another mile or so before nightfall.
Besides, as far as he knew, none of the people of the valleys were on the war path. Only vigilantes…like him.
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