Excerpt Toby woke with a headache that pounded so fiercely it made him feel sick to his stomach. Every muscle in his body ached mightily, every inch of skin felt as though it had been scraped raw. Lying facedown in the dirt, it took him several moments before he could sit up.
The Southern Star lay strewn around him at the base of a deep gully, fractured nearly beyond recognition. Sharp pieces of splintered wood stuck up like the skeletal remains of a huge beast amid battered valises and trunks. Mailbags had split open wide during the accident and hundreds of vellum envelopes had settled like large chunky snowflakes across the wreckage. The wind, nature’s gravedigger, was already beginning to cover the rubble with dust and dirt.
Scattered about amid the debris of the stagecoach were the bodies of the eight men with whom Toby had been traveling. The driver and his messenger lay motionless several feet away. Three of the mules had perished, the last standing with its head hanging low, its sides heaving, still in its harness.
Oh God, no, Toby murmured, his eyes flicking from one body to the next. He dragged himself to the closest man, feeling at his wrist for a pulse. There was none. No! he cried again, panic rising, squeezing his chest like a vise.
Rising to his feet, Toby scrambled from one man to the next, frantically checking for signs of life. It was of no use. His traveling companions lay like broken dolls on the sunburned grass, their eyes cast with the bluish pall of death. The smell of blood and bowels hung heavily in the air, mixing with the stench released from broken cologne and whiskey bottles.
Standing in the middle of the debris, his arms hanging limply at his sides, Toby gazed blankly at the carnage around him. For a few moments his mind refused to accept the grim finality of his situation but when the dire truth finally hit him, he began to tremble. He had been cast alone somewhere in the middle of the vast, barren New Mexico Territory, without shelter, food, or water.
His own injuries, although miraculously minor, were aching and burning. A gash on his forehead throbbed and when he gingerly touched it, his fingers came away bloody. Toby was not a seasoned traveler, but even he knew the dangers that he would face on his own. If the sun didn’t bake him into a human tartlet and he didn’t die from thirst or starvation, he might fall prey to any of a thousand other threats. The plains fairly teemed with rattlesnakes, scorpions, wolves, Indians, bandits, deep ravines, rushing rivers, any and all of which might prove deadly to a lone traveler with no means of protection and few survival skills.
Thick clouds darkened the sky; thunder boomed and lightning flashed as the storm neared, jarring Toby out of his shock. Hail began to fall, hard pellets of ice that stung Toby’s bruised skin like needles. Nearby the mule brayed, its large hooves clomping the ground nervously.
Without any firm plan in mind, feeling only a strong compulsion to get himself away from there, to put distance between himself and the dead, Toby unhitched the mule from its trappings with trembling fingers. He led the beast to a large rock that sat off to one side of the wreckage, climbed up on it and slid his leg over the mule’s broad back. Leaning down, Toby wrapped his arms around the mule’s neck, and held on as best he could.
The mule, already pushed to its limits by the wreck, bolted, trying to run away from the unfamiliar weight on its back and the smell of death that hung over the wreckage. Exhausted by both his injuries and his terror, Toby was barely able to keep his seat. He allowed the mule to take him in whichever direction the beast took it into his long-eared head to go as the storm bore down on them.