“Noooooo!” The agonized cry echoed all across the frontier plains and Johnny’s heart broke for the girl. He watched as Jessica, hitching up her skirts, ran as fast as she could toward the smoldering remains of the wagon train and crumpled in a desperate heap in the dust next to the bloodied body of her mother. She kept screaming, a heartbroken, forlorn keening wail that went on and on as she scrabbled across the ground first to her little brother and then her father. All were dead.
Johnny had stumbled across the wagon train only a fortnight ago and had his eye on Jessica since the first moment he saw her—she was truly beautiful, with a mass of dark red curls, a few wild tendrils always escaping the pins holding it up to frame her delicate face. Her slim, yet curvaceous figure was accentuated by the height-of-fashion gowns she wore on the trail; despite the fact that plain pinafores would have been more practical, and were what the other women all seemed to prefer, Jessica always took pains to keep up her appearance. He’d thought of her as ‘his girl’ since first laying eyes on her, even though they’d barely spoken, beyond introductions and a few short, polite conversations here and there. She clearly thought herself above a dusty cowboy such as him, but that didn’t matter; she would be a challenge, and he liked challenges.
He wondered about her though; she was clearly so unhappy on the trail—what she had left behind? Why had she come out here, to the frontier, if she was so against it? And she was against it, that much was clear. Her general demeanor during their journey had indicated that, and the argument he’d overheard earlier that day had confirmed it.
As they’d circled the wagons and stopped for the midday meal, Johnny had edged closer to the Walshes’ wagon, hoping for the opportunity to talk to Jessica. But he hadn’t been able to; Jessica had complained to her mother of not feeling well—sick, sore, and exhausted—and she’d gone to rest in the wagon. Her father had followed her in, and he’d overheard him accusing her of idleness, of shaming him before the other men because she was the only woman who wasn’t out there working. Did she think she was the only tired one? The only sick one? The only sore one? She wasn’t; they all were—yet they all kept working. “Now you get out there and get to work, before I take a strap to you!” he’d ordered gruffly.
“Do you think I wanted to come out here? I didn’t! I wanted to stay in Boston, where I was happy!” she’d yelled back, before she stormed out of the wagon angrily, stomping away from camp.
“We couldn’t stay there, you know that!” her father had yelled, but she had ignored him, scurrying away from camp at as fast a walk as she could manage. It would have been the perfect opportunity for Johnny to go off after her, but then the wagon master had asked him if he would be willing to hunt for fresh meat—there were families to feed, and their fresh meat had run out. So he’d gone. As soon as he’d heard the shooting he’d turned his horse and galloped back, without any meat, but he’d gotten back too late to do anything. The Indians were driving the horses away triumphantly as he crested the hill above the trail, the wagons were all ablaze and bloodied bodies were littered all around. There was nothing he could do.
Johnny approached Jessica warily, not wanting to startle her. She was in shock enough as it was; he didn’t want to add to her terror. And that she was terrified he had no doubt—he could hear it in her screams, see it in her eyes.
“Jessica.” He spoke softly, crouching down on the ground near enough to touch her, but not reaching out for her. “Jessica,” he tried again. She looked at him through her tears, but she didn’t say anything; she was traumatized. Then she turned back to her family, pressing her face into their bodies, trying desperately to will them back to life. Johnny watched, helpless, as she screamed her outrage at the Indians, wailed her grief at losing her beloved, sweet mama, then turned her wrath on her father, collapsing on the ground beside him, screaming at his lifeless body the loudest of all.
“You killed them!” she hollered, beating at his brutalized body with her fists. “It was you who wanted to come west!” she yelled. “We were quite happy, me and mama! Now she’s gone and it’s all your fault! And Petey! He was just a baby, with his whole life ahead of him! Now he’s gone too and it’s all… your… fault.” She ground the words out between sobs, gasping for breath. Her flailing fists stilled and she curled up against the dead man’s chest, sobbing, her body shaking, a broken woman.
Placing a gentle hand on her shoulder, Johnny spoke softly in her ear in what he hoped was a comforting tone. “Jessica, look at me.” She didn’t. Gently, he took her hands in his own and disengaged her fingers from the death grip they had on the lapel of her father’s coat, wrapping his arms around her securely and pulling her in close against his chest. “Shhhh,” he crooned softly, trying to calm her as though she were a baby. It worked. She responded to him, her sobs easing. Her shuddering slowly stilled, she got her breathing under control and began to relax in his arms. And she clung to him tightly, so tightly, as though she would never let go. Then she looked up at him and began to speak.
“They came out of nowhere, they just rose up all around us, as though they came up out of the ground. The wagons were completely surrounded. I tried to tell papa of the risk of Indians before we left Boston but he didn’t listen. And now look… look at them now.” She burst into tears again, sobs wracking her body once more as she stuffed her fist into her mouth trying to stifle her cries. Johnny wrapped his arms around her tightly again, wishing he could shield her from the pain, wishing she hadn’t seen her entire family, the entire wagon train, get massacred.
“Where were you?” she asked him sharply, the tone of her voice suggesting she was blaming him for the attack.
“Out hunting meat,” he told her gently. “I wish I’d been here,” he whispered regretfully.
“You couldn’t have done anything,” she conceded. “Not one man against all those Indians. There were dozens of them. It wasn’t just one or two—it was dozens.”
“I can shoot,” he told her.
“Some of the men did. But it didn’t help them. There were just too many.” She shook her head sadly. “One more gun wouldn’t have made a difference.” Swiping the back of her hand across her face to wipe away her tears, she wriggled out of Johnny’s embrace and looked around at what remained of the camp.
“Do you think they will come back?” she asked him, her voice trembling.
Johnny shrugged. “I don’t know. But I don’t think so. They’ve got what they wanted out of here and hopefully they won’t know there were any survivors.” He admired her bravery; she had just witnessed her entire family being killed, she was all alone in the wilderness, yet she was blinking back her tears. And while he was trying hard to be reassuring, he was frightened too. He looked at the trembling girl beside him and put his arms around her again. As scared as he was, he knew he wasn’t as terrified as the shaking girl in his arms with the vacant, haunted look in her eyes. And he didn’t know why, but he felt the urge to protect her. He was a loner, a drifter—he’d been forced into that lifestyle several years ago after his hand was forced in a gun battle after a rigged poker game—and there had been no room for females in the life that he had led. There had been no females he’d been interested in either, until Jessica. She evoked feelings in him that no one else had done. He wanted her. She was beautiful, she was vulnerable, and she was in dire need of a man to take care of her. She had nothing at all; the Indians had taken the horses, the food, the blankets… and what they’d left behind had been turned to cinders. He would willingly share the little he had with her; he would do whatever it took to prove to her that he was more than just a dusty cowboy.
“Come on.” He helped her to her feet. “We should make the most of the daylight that’s left, see if there’s anything we can salvage and find a shovel to bury the dead.”
A sob that turned into a strangled moan escaped her lips, but she grasped the hand that Johnny proffered and stood up on wobbly legs, a determined look on her face. Steeling themselves against the gruesome sight, they sifted through the charred remains of the wagons one by one, trying to find anything that might prove useful.
“Over there,” Jessica pointed to a shovel partially hidden under the remains of a wagon axle—it looked to have escaped the fire. While Johnny took the shovel and went to dig the graves, she continued to sift through the remains of the wagon train, desperately trying to find something, anything, worth salvaging. Her search proved fruitless—the Indians had destroyed it all.
As Johnny dug, he found his thoughts drifting to Jessica. He was curious about her—for a girl who seemed to be such a brat, she was coping so well now. She wasn’t falling to pieces as he’d been expecting her to do—she was keeping her emotions firmly in check, and aside from her initial display of shock and grief, she was very composed. She didn’t look to be very old; he guessed her to be around nineteen or twenty, just a few years younger than him.
It was nearly dark by the time they had dug enough graves to bury the dead, marking them with the names as best they could. Then they stood there in silence, side by side, lost in their thoughts. Needing to honor the lives that lay buried somehow, to show respect, to give a decent burial, Johnny left Jessica standing alone and retrieved his harmonica from his saddlebags, returning to stand next to her before he began playing. His mother had loved his music, and he was hesitant to play it now, for fear of the memories it would dredge up; he missed her. Watching Jessica out of the corner of his eye, he raised the harmonica to his lips. He kept watching her, noticing the tears streaming down her face as she remained stoic, her hands clenched firmly at her sides, as the sweet refrains of Amazing Grace filled the air. Then he listened in astonishment as she began singing the words of the hymn in a trembling voice, quiet at first, shaking, but growing stronger and more confident as she continued.
He felt helpless. When the hymn was over, he didn’t know what to do, so he reached out for her, stretching an arm across her shoulders. She was tense at first, but she soon relaxed and moved closer to him, taking comfort in his presence. For a long time they stood there like that, both of them lost in their thoughts, their memories; his arm around her shoulders, her tears dripping on the ground at her feet.
“I’m going to get a fire going,” Johnny murmured quietly to her, and she nodded mutely. “We’re going to need it—it’s going to get cold real soon.”
Forming a small ring out of stones, he made a pile of sticks in the center of it and got a small fire started. He didn’t want to alert any nearby Indians to their presence, but without many blankets, they would need what little warmth the fire would provide. There was enough partially burnt wood from the destroyed wagons to keep their small fire stoked, a small mercy for which he was glad—he really didn’t want to have to leave their camp in search of firewood. He hoped his presence was a small comfort for Jessica, although it didn’t seem like she was aware of him at all at the moment, as she sat by the graves of her family, looking completely lost.
Fishing some jerked beef out of his saddlebag, he offered it to her, but she shook her head, her face expressionless.
“You need to eat something, you haven’t eaten all day,” he cajoled her. But she just shook her head again, ignoring him.
Filling a small billy with water from his canteen, Johnny added some of the jerked beef to it, making a broth over the fire. Jessica had to eat, he knew that much. The poor girl was probably still in shock, but it wouldn’t do to let her starve to death, or die of thirst, both of which were distinct possibilities if he didn’t act. Carrying the tin cup over to where she sat, he held it to her lips, urging her to drink. She shook her head and the liquid spilled out to dribble down her chin unchecked.
“Drink it,” he told her sternly, more sternly than he’d intended, and immediately he felt guilty. Yes, it was important that she drink. But it was more important that he not add to her anguish. But she took a deep breath, took the cup from him, and swallowed the contents down.
“Good girl,” he praised her. “It will help.” She didn’t look at him though; she just dropped the cup on the ground at his feet and continued staring at the mound of dirt where they’d buried her family just hours ago.
Throwing more sticks on the fire and stoking it to a decent blaze, Johnny unraveled his bedroll that he carried with him, tied to the back of his saddle on his horse. It was comfortable enough but it would be small for the two of them; however, it would have to do—the Indians had taken the bedding they wanted from the wagons and burnt that which they didn’t—Jessica would have a very cold, uncomfortable night out in the open if he didn’t take care of her. And he wanted to take care of her—her vulnerability appealed to the protective, masculine side of his nature and he felt a yearning to wrap her in his arms and hold her safe.
“Come over to the fire,” he invited her, his tone gentle, and was surprised when she looked up, grasped his extended hand, and struggled to her feet. Putting his arm around her shoulders protectively, he led her over to the fire and sat down on the ground beside her, wrapping his blanket around their shoulders. They sat there in silence for a while, both lost in their thoughts. The silence of the dark night was interrupted every now and then by Jessica’s sniffles, and the howl of a lone coyote.
“Are you okay?” he whispered some time later, giving her shoulders a squeeze, but there was no reply. Looking down at her, he could see she was asleep, her head resting lightly on his shoulder. Gently, he lowered her down to the ground, laying her out on his padded bedroll, covering her with a blanket. Stretching out on the other side of the fire, his head resting on his saddle, his hat covering his face, he went to sleep himself.