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Authors: Anna Murray

Unbroken Hearts

BOOK: Unbroken Hearts
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---Excerpt ---

 

   
Sarah pulled her arms from the dress and lowered the bodice until it
hung loosely around her waist. She heard Cal's sharp intake of breath.

"Sarah?"
 

She felt clumsy. Her hands trembled. Naked to her hips, her mind made up,
she boldly turned back to face him.
 

"Sarah! What are you--"
 

Her jades locked onto his golden browns.
"You said we could be together whenever and however we want." Her
face pinched with determination, and her eyes flickered back and forth as she
desperately searched for words for the union she'd never known. "I want
you to do it. With me."
 

The longing in her eyes shattered him. Gently he reached his hand to
touch soft skin as his eyes devoured the round white fullness of her breasts.
 

"Sarah, you're sayin' you want to be my woman. Now? You're
sure?" His voice was low, hoarse.
 

She nodded and whispered and fisted her
hands. Despite the threat from Crane, despite the humiliation of the white
pony, despite her station in life, she would have him. . . .
 

Unbroken Hearts

A Romance of
the West

By Anna Murray

Unbroken
Hearts
, Copyright 2008 by Renee
Murray. All rights reserved.

All rights reserved. No part
of this book may be used or
 
reproduced in any manner whatsoever, without written permission except
in the case of brief quotations embodied
 
in critical articles or reviews.
 

Prologue

July 1868
Montana Territory

      
Sarah
Anders soldiered up the trail, her brow creased with pain, exhaustion, and
frustration. Even the buffalo grass, clinging to balding wheel ruts, was
betting against her.

   
She slowed, and her green eyes slid back along
the wagon track to settle on a splitting shoe seam. Tugging soberly at loose
brown tresses that hung about her oval face, she considered her dim prospects.

   
A scant hour
had passed since the trainmaster had brutally culled them from the string; now
the remnant rumbled away into a vast horizon, oxen toiling heartily, straining
against canvas-covered box wagons in their attempt to escape the hellish heat.
A half-mile distant, Sarah could hear
Charles Petit's voice pounding out a bass murmur. It was punctuated by the hiss
of snapping whips drifting back like sharp accusations.
 

     
"Keep the pace! Yer draggin' us
back!"
 

      
She smiled bleakly at the
memory of "Cap'n Chawles". A burly-boned bull and stern as a
schoolmarm, with a lump of tobacco packed firmly in cheek, he was true to
the nickname. Ghastly lips gushed oil between gaps in his black teeth, and the captain's low
growls paralyzed every soul, right down to little Lars Bentsen.

Thus it was when Uncle Orv's wagon hit a
hole and came up lame. Petit cussed. In a hastily-called wagon council meeting four weary men caved to his decision: Sarah, her sister Emily, uncle Orv and cousin
Joey would be left behind to make repairs as Petit's flock moved on. The halted
party was left to catch up as best it could.

Sarah stared at the waving grass, shy
prairie dogs, and buzzing insects surrounding the broken-down rig. Sighing,
she lifted her mud-caked skirt and made her way over uneven ground to the
makeshift camp where pot-bellied Orv grunted and rose from a squat alongside
the wagon.

Orv's hungry eyes squinted as he raked
her rail-thin form. She stood warily at a distance, squaring herself to blunt
his anger.
Better me than Emily,
she thought.

 
"Gal, don't jis stand there!" Orv flung a hammer
though the air. It landed three feet short of his target. "Git yerself an'
that good-for-nuthin' chit down ta' dat water. We's got shirts need
washin'."

    
Sarah bowed her head
slightly. She'd spent eight of her nineteen years with this ginned-up guardian.
She knew better than to argue.

    
She spun on her heel
and hailed Emily.

    
Em was intent on
braiding blades of grass. Sarah waved again and caught the child's gaze. She
signaled the order to collect dirty shirts and trousers. In short order Emily
was twisting pants and shirts into a ball she tucked tightly against her chest.

    
Sarah ventured a
glance at Orv, who was busy shoveling a batch of grief to his son. Recalling
the lazy stream they'd passed, she stole the opportunity to grab their last
sliver of lye soap and two towels. A proper wash would surely mend her mood,
she thought.

Orv was cursing
over the toolbox when the girls slipped away.

Sarah and Emily
wandered over a rise and down a hill, where they were welcomed by rough growth
hugging a lazy stream. Pausing at the steep bank, Sarah winked playfully at
Emily.
 

 
"I say we shuck and wash ourselves
first."

"You
bet!" Emily eagerly bobbed and dropped the burdensome laundry. They
stripped down to drawers and camisoles, and gingerly waded into the cool water.
Shivering like new colts as they stood in the sunless shelter of the scrub pine
bank they giggled through chattering teeth and splashed their arms, legs, and
faces. Emily's blond mane and Sarah's deep cinnamon flew like pennants on the
warm breeze.

"Captain
Petit said we'll be safe?" Emily's hands plumbed the water and spun tiny
whirlpools.

Sarah smiled at
the tiny hands and voice. "Truly. No Indians," she cooed as she ran
the soap up an arm and rubbed.

Indeed it was hard
to let go of the nagging fear. Every night on the trail they'd observed the men
taking precautions to ward off a surprise attack. The camp was made in
the open, in the shape of a large circle. Oxen, horses, and dogs were placed
outside the circle, and the resulting arrangement looked like a western corral.
Guards were assigned, and these were changed three times during the night.

Suddenly a shout
pierced through the howling wind. The sisters froze and strained forward.
Joey?
More shouts came, undeciperable, but the gunshots
that followed needed no translation.

Emily blanched.
Her blue eyes flew wide with terror, and her throat tightened around a strangled
sound.

"Hush!" Sarah exhaled.

Needles pricked painfully as she grabbed
at a tree branch, and sticky pine tar coated her hand. Wincing, Sarah pulled
and scrambled out of the water, straight up the steep bank. She seized onto
Emily's hand, half-dragging the young girl behind her.

 
They reached flat ground and found their clothing. Four shaking hands worked
frantically, pulling dresses over soaked drawers and camisoles.

"Get down!" ordered Sarah.

The girls slid onto their bellies, and
inch-by-inch, like ants, they crawled up the hill until they could see the
trail. Sarah kept Emily close at her side, shushing her every few feet. Upon
making the top she pulled Emily behind the cover of a large rock.

Without a second thought, Sarah threw her
damp, sticky body over her sister and burrowed her half into hot dirt. An
eternity seemed to pass before she stoked up the courage to peer around the
rock edge and down the brushy slope.

Then she pushed up, and breath rushed
from her at the sight that unfolded below. Two ugly, leering men pawed through
their possessions, which had been tossed haphazardly off the wagon.

Her eyes collided with the worst of it:
Splayed lifelessly on the ground were Uncle Orv and Joey.

Oh my God. Oh my God
. Sarah sucked in short, ragged gasps.

Over her hammering heart she heard
snippets of bandit conversation, riding on stiff gusts up the gentle slope.
Sarah's quaking knees pushed to get a better look at the outlaws.

"Where'd da' sonofabitch keep his
money?" spat a ruddy-looking man. His appearance was mean; a scar traced
straight across his neck where he'd been hard-bitten by a hangman's rope.

"Ya' check dem bodies?" This
erupted from a shorter, bulgy-eyed man.

Sarah's eyes burned with helpless anger
at the plundering. The older man unhitched and slapped old Buck and Whistler.
As the oxen trotted away she noted that two fingers were missing from the man's
right hand.

The murdering devil-banter continued as
Sarah shifted and dragged her feet to a squat position.

"Yay . . . here 'tis, bottom o' da'
tool box . . . jus' twenty-five dollar. Damn it! What dem thinkin' totin' puny
cash?"

"Lookie, dis' fiddle be worth
somethin'!"

Sarah's heart sank. The fiddle, cradled
with its bow in a wooden case, had been her father's joy. It was the last she
had of him and their sweet musical evenings together. Papa had taught her to
play jigs, reels, and waltzes. Inside she was screaming with fury.

One aching foot slid out from under
her.
 

Three-Fingers' head flew up.

"Who's it!"

Sarah 's heart beat thunderously

"Thar's someone thar!"

The scar-necked man drew a pistol from
his pants and ran up the hillside, ripping round the rock.

Sarah groaned. They'd been discovered!

"Ho! What 'ave we here!"
 

Three-fingers ran to join his partner.
"Couple o' skirts!"

"Aye, this one's wee," he
observed, his flint-eyes skipping off Emily. Then he grabbed Sarah's arm,
hauled her up, and shoved her against the rock.

"P-please, don't hurt my sister!"

"Naw, you got mo' fer a man,"
he spat, and his eyes strayed down to her full breasts, made more prominent by
her gaunt frame. Scar-neck twisted her arm, painfully driving her to the ground.

Sarah felt the wind knocked from her as
he slammed his body down upon her. She began to struggle against his weight and
sweat. Oh, but he was strong.

She felt him tugging at her dress,
wrenching at the tired fabric until it was twisted above her knees.
Oh God.
Oh God.
The wretched man
was ripping at her drawers and digging those awful, dirty fingers into her
smooth skin.

As he reached between them she tried to
bring her knee up. She bit hard on his neck. Angered, he drew a knife and
slashed her leg, drawing blood. Leaning on one elbow he brought the knife to
her face, threatened, grunted and kicked her knee down. Then he fumbled to
loose his belt. This task complete, he moved to find the slit in her drawers.
Sarah's back and head throbbed, and her body grated against the hard packed trail.

"Hurry up!" Three-fingers poked
a sharp boot toe at Scar-neck's backside.

Scar-neck ignored his friend.

"Damn, you hear? Injuns is comin'!"

But I ain't got in her yet!"

"Get off!"

The Indian threat persuaded Scar-neck to
draw himself off Sarah. His face and neck were brightly flushed.

"Next time gal," he panted.

Sarah's back and thigh hurt, and she was
only dimly aware of the bandits hurriedly moving away from their hideous crimes
as they swung onto their horses and bolted. Their fleeing hooves echoed a dull
and hollow thud.

Dazed, Sarah quickly brought herself up
and reflexively pushed her dress back down.

Emily was several feet away, rocking back
and forth on her knees, biting at her fist and moaning as if she'd been punched
in the belly.

Sarah jumped to her feet. She wobbled,
slumped back to the ground, and
was sick. After a minute she wiped the back of her hand
across her brow.

"I'm ok. It's ok," she insisted. "Did they hurt you?" She sat up again and met Emily's gaze.

The younger girl stared at the blood
smeared on the back of Sarah's hand. "No. Oh but Sarah, he hurt you."

Anger rose in Sarah. She'd worked hard to
protect her sister's precious childhood after her own had been shattered. No
good could come from talking about this assault, she thought. "Em, I'll be
all right. I'll be ok." She hiked up her dress to examine the wound on her
thigh. It would likely leave a scar. She pressed her hand against it to stop
the bleeding.

"For sure?"

"Yes," she replied tersely as
she twisted her hands across her midsection. "Listen," Sarah breathed
low, "forget what you've seen!
 
There's no use in dwelling on it."

The young girl bit her lip and nodded.

They heard hoof beats approaching. More trouble was riding straight
for them.

"Indians!" Emily shrieked and
pointed.

They sat erect on their sturdy horses,
midnight hair and trappings floating on the breeze. Naked above the waist,
their legs hung bare, all long sinewy copper muscle.

Slack-jawed, Sarah stared at the men. The
strange natives appeared as mystical silhouettes against the rolling
velvet-prairie backdrop. The pair paused at the scene of the tragedy, and the
older one dismounted and walked around the wagon, slowly and quietly surveying
the damage. His wary ebony eyes lit upon Uncle Orv and Joey.

Standing a scant distance away from the
carnage Emily trembled and glued herself to Sarah's side.

The Indians appeared to understand what
had happened to the pioneer family. They spoke in low tones, in a strange
language.

Sarah was focused keenly on the older
warrior. While his body and face were stone, she saw something akin to sympathy
flash in his eyes. The younger Indian advanced, prodded the bodies, and
retreated back onto his horse when the older one waved him away. Then the elder
looked into Sarah's face, saw the blood on her hands, and he pointed to a
grass-overgrown spur path.

"To your people. Not far." He gestured
toward the north and swiftly stepped onto his mount. The Indians dug their
heels into the horses and rode off, leaving the dazed sisters clutching each
other and staring.

The wind howled a lonesome refrain while
Sarah moved slowly and deliberately to clean up the camp. A rush of emotions
flowed through her, and suddenly she felt limp.

And yet, they'd survived. She ripped a
strip from a clean rag, tied it around her wound, and collected the remnants of
their clothing and personal items, shoving them into a satchel. As
afterthought, she picked up Orv's battered portable writing desk -- a simple wooden
box that held his letters.

Drawing what strength they could muster
from each other, Sarah and Emily linked arms and walked briskly up the path
toward the town.

BOOK: Unbroken Hearts
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