Prologue to A Lady in Defiance
Two of my sisters in Defiance?
A Lady in Defiance Book One
By Heather Frey Blanton
Copyright 2012 Heather Blanton
Cover Photography by Angirias
Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE,
KING JAMES VERSION – Public Domain
A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps. Proverb 16:9
Naomi anxiously watched her husband from her seat in the wagon. John leaned forward in the saddle to stroke Sampson’s neck and assess the narrow road before them. Little more than a rutted mule trail, it sliced unevenly across a steep, treeless, mountainside. The high bank along the left battled to hold back crumbling, jagged rocks while the right side of the road stalked the edge of a stark, breath-taking cliff. The edge plummeted several hundred feet to the ground below and then rolled into a wide, yawning valley surrounded by towering, snow-tipped mountains.
Truly a magnificent view, but the cliff sent an icy fear slithering up Naomi’s spine. The road was barely wide enough for a wagon; the wheels would be mere inches away from…nothing. What would they do if something went wrong? There was no room for maneuvering. She knew by John’s hesitation that he was thinking the same thing.
He turned and looked back at Naomi and her sisters perched together on the Conestoga, a deep V etching his brow. She tried a brave smile but realized she was choking the reins so tightly her nails were gouging into her palms. Perhaps reading her true feelings, John quickly traded the worried look for a mischievous smirk.
“You’re not scared are you, Wild Cat? After all,” grinning devilishly, he tilted his hat back and shot her a cocky wink, “you’re a better driver than most men I know.”
While she appreciated his attempt to encourage her, today his playful banter couldn’t ease her mind. She really didn’t want to make this crossing, but decided to keep her fears to herself so as not to alarm Rebecca and Hannah. By the looks of them, clutching each other’s hands and staring at the ledge with wide eyes, they were scared enough already.
“Would you rather I take the wagon across?” John asked more seriously as a breeze rustled through his shaggy blonde hair.
She bit her lip and pondered the request. Most likely everything would be fine. It was only five hundred yards or so. Surely they could make it across without any trouble. She looked out at the valley and saw a lone hawk drifting on the wind, peaceful and content. She took it as a good sign. “No, I can do this. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
She finished the sentence with a glance at her sisters, looking for their confirmation. Rebecca nodded. “As long as we don’t look down.” But Naomi saw the trepidation in her eyes. Hannah nodded, too, though her gaze didn’t leave the cliff.
Naomi circled her shoulders to loosen the stress and relaxed her grip on the reins. “It’s not looking down that worries me,” she muttered.
“Everything’ll be fine, ladies,” John promised turning back to the road ahead. “Slow and steady.” He prodded Sampson and called over his shoulder, “Keep the reins slack and the wagon smack in the center of the road.” He and the horse ambled forward, carefully pacing the mules behind them. After several slow, tense yards, John fell into an easy rhythm with the sway of Sampson’s body and Naomi breathed a little easier, too. Yes, this wasn’t so bad.
Cautiously letting go of her fear, she swung her eyes again to the majestic view beside them. Jagged, white-tipped mountains clawed the cloudless, azure sky; slender Ponderosa pines and perfectly reflective alpine lakes dotted the rolling green hills below. A distant river of shimmering, blue water snaked its way through the valley’s heart. Above them, the hawk dipped and spiraled on the breeze, frolicking in the glorious playground.
Naomi savored the gentle July sun on her shoulders and thought, with a little satisfaction, how folks back in North Carolina were already basking in intense heat and humidity. She for one was happy to be cradled in these high mountains and wondered if they might find a campsite near that river tonight. The possibility of a bath was positively intoxicating.
More than happy to let such trivial thoughts draw her away from thinking about that ledge, Naomi absently noted the small rock out-cropping ahead but paid it no mind. It wasn’t intrusive enough to alter John’s or the wagon’s path. Instead, she appraised her sisters out of the corner of her eye and appreciated how the journey had agreed with them. Neither of the three much cared for bonnets and, as a result, they all had a little too much sun on their faces, especially their noses. Hannah’s hair, like her own, had turned the color of wheat in late summer and even Rebecca’s dark hair flashed hints of caramel. The ladies back in Cary would have been scandalized by their earthy appearance, worn calico dresses and lean bodies carved by three months on the trail—lean, except for the slight rounding of Hannah’s stomach, that is.
Dirty faces and all, they weren’t very pretty right now and Naomi couldn’t have cared less. She was done worrying about what scandalized who. California was their chance to leave all that behind.
A clean slate was especially important for Hannah. No one there would know the son of a rich banker had led her on, lied to her, promised her the moon and then left her alone with a child on the way. No one had to know the rich banker had offered Hannah money to leave town and never contact his son. Of course, she hadn’t accepted, but the handwriting was on the wall. Their lives in Cary were over. John’s brother Matthew had been inviting them out to California for years. Unanimously, they had agreed to go West.
And what about Rebecca? Widowed seven years now, Naomi could see a change blossoming in her older sister. She held her head higher than she had in a long time and her shoulders were no longer slumped as if she was carrying a weight. Rebecca was done, too. Done with grieving, done with paying penance for having survived a fire that took her husband and her daughter. Done with living in the past. They were all ready to discover some new horizons. Hannah’s scandal had at least brought that about and Naomi was grateful for small favors.
She almost sighed in contentment. She loved an adventure and as long as she had that man up there on the horse, she would be fine. John was her rock, her oak, her everything. With him, she would cross a continent and not think twice about it. She wished she could be in the saddle with him, his arms, the size of small trees, wrapped securely around her. Oh, how safe and wonderful she had always felt with him.
A rumble of thunder drew her eyes to the west end of the valley where a mass of black clouds were carving their way through the jagged peaks. Even that made her smile. She could curl up beside John in the tent tonight, listen to the rain, trace that wide jaw and those broad shoulders, and kiss that silly grin right off his face. Warm. Dry. Safe. Yes, indeed, she was filled with all kinds of hope for their future.
Apparently John’s thoughts had drifted as well. Interrupting her musings, he hollered back to the girls, “That must be the Animas River down there. My map says it isn’t far from here. How do y’all feel about trout for our dining pleasure this eve—“
Sampson didn’t see the rattler sunning on the outcropping until it was inches from his head. Startled out of its slumber, the snake coiled and struck out angrily. The thirteen-hundred pound horse neighed, jerking his head away from the fangs with a mammoth movement of muscle. John, nearly flung out of the saddle by the unexpected reaction, clawed for the saddle horn and tried to hang on with his legs.
At the horse’s commotion, the mules snorted and jolted the wagon backwards. Rebecca and Hannah squealed in fear. Naomi tightened her grip on the reins and fought for control of her own spooked animals, yelling, “Whoa, boys! Whoa!”
Busy wrestling her team, she could only focus on the battle up ahead in snatches. Sampson attempted to bolt, but, clawing his way back into the saddle, John grabbed the left rein and yanked Sampson’s head around, trying to get the panicked animal to walk in tight circles. The snake rattled in fury again, throwing Sampson into another round of pawing, prancing, snorting terror.
“Easy, Sampson,” John commanded. “Easy…”
But fear in prey animals is as contagious as a cold. Mindless panic gripped the mules. Naomi seesawed back and forth with the reins as the pair tossed their heads, whinnied in panic and side-stepped, rolling the wagon away from the hysterical horse but toward the ledge. One wheel went over and the wagon lurched, tilting hard and then sliding further back. Gasping, Hannah and Rebecca clung to the seat and each other with white-knuckled grips.
“Oh, my Lord!” Hannah screamed. “We’re slipping!”
“Hold on, Hannah,” Rebecca croaked. “Hold on!”
Gritting her teeth and praying, Naomi jammed her foot firmly on the brake as she struggled with her team. “Whoa! Whoa!” she raged at the mules, sweat breaking out on her lip as she yanked on the reins. Frantic to get the team moving forward, she released the brake and snapped the reins. “Yaaa, get on now!” Rock and sand made a grating noise as the the wagon slid again, and tilted at a sharper angle, but the mules obeyed the snap and tried pulling.
“Jump,” Naomi commanded her sisters but they didn’t move. She couldn’t worry about them, too, and their foolish hesitation incensed her. She yelled again, this time with fury in her voice, “Jump!”
Hannah and Rebecca flinched at her tone then leaped from the wagon as it bucked again. The mules couldn’t get that back wheel up over the ledge. In front of them, John abruptly gave up trying to calm Sampson. He sprang from the saddle and raced toward Naomi’s team. The mules, seeing Sampson rear and then run in the opposite direction, made an attempt to follow.
“Stay on’em, Naomi!” John shouted, fear lacing his voice—his tone frightened Naomi even more than the cliff. She obediently whipped the reins again as he grabbed a mule’s halter and whistled the plowing command to pull.
The mules strained forward again, then backed up a step. Naomi quickly slammed her foot down on the brake to stop the backwards motion, snapped the reins and urged them forward, releasing the brake when she felt some traction. Working the lever was exhausting but she was determined not to lose the wagon without a fight. Suddenly more gravel gave way beneath the back wheel; the wagon bucked and jumped as gravity and the mules fought it out. Naomi heard Rebecca and Hannah shriek.
“Get off a there, Naomi!” John yelled. “Just jump!”
“Not yet,” she cried, meeting his gaze. They couldn’t lose everything. “Not yet!”
Not wasting time to argue, John cut the air with another whistle, this one much louder and longer. Naomi slapped the reins again as John pulled on the mule’s halter. Sampson came running back at his master’s call, eyes wide, nostrils flaring, reins twitching and jumping on the ground like live snakes.
John gathered the reins, tied them quickly to the yoke then grabbed Sampson’s halter. “Yah, back,” he yelled, coaxing Sampson to pull. Naomi popped the reins hard across the mules’ backs, praying to God Sampson would be strong enough to get the wheel back up on the road. The strain was tremendous; the mule’s legs quivered with the exertion. “Yah, come on now, mules!” She barked.
John switched from Sampson to the mule closest to the ledge. He yelled, “Gee, Gee,” while pushing the mules forward but away from the ledge. The wagon jumped and bucked again as it tried to crown the road. The path was so narrow John had to work with the mules and Sampson mere inches from the ledge. “Almost, Naomi! We’re almost there!” She could see the veins bulging on John’s neck as he pulled the mule forward.
She felt the tension on the wagon and the mules. Sampson was straining using his massive bulk to pull backwards; his leather reins looked as tight as guitar strings as he tried to bring the team with him. She heard her sisters’ voices lifted up in desperate prayer and added her own Please, God, help us…
At the moment that the rear wheel jumped back up on the road, a cracking, shattering sound exploded from the front of the wagon. In a blur of a motion, the mule closest to the ledge and Sampson broke apart; half the yoke hung from the mule’s harness and it swung round like a hammer, catching John in the side of the head. Naomi saw in a split second the look in his eyes, that he knew what was coming, but there was no stopping it. He and the mule, loosed so suddenly from the wagon tongue and harness, simply launched like projectiles over the ledge.
Naomi saw John reaching out for her but before she could even react, he disappeared over the ledge.
She heard her sisters scream. Or was that her? She heard the mule’s panicked, desperate braying and then…silence.
THANK YOU FOR READING! I’LL POST CHAPTER ONE NEXT WEEK. IN THE MEANTIME, YOU CAN ALWAYS GET YOUR OWN COPY AT http://www.amazon.com/Lady-Defiance-Romance-Rockies-ebook/dp/B0078T6YHY
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