Uncle Joe looked at the long procession of stagecoaches stalled ahead of us on the trail. The line of settlers wound up into the mountain pass. He consulted his map, then spat into the dirt.
“It’s too far,” he said to Father. “We’ll never make it before sundown.”
Father nodded in agreement. He glanced at Mother. She made the sign of the cross.
We had to forge across the mountains in order to continue our westward journey. If we didn’t make it through the pass by sunset, we risked being massacred by the savages that stalked the hills at night.
“What will they do to us?” I asked Father.
Uncle Joe answered first. “They’ll kill us quickly, if we’re lucky.”
“And if we’re not?”
He didn’t respond. He didn’t have to. The somber look in his eyes said enough.
“Don’t you worry, Mae,” Mother said. “God will protect us.”
“What do we do now?” Uncle Joe asked Father.
Father climbed down off of his horse. “Bunk up, build a fire, try to stay warm. Then, we wait.”
“What if the savages come?” I asked.
Mother clutched her Bible tighter. “Then we pray.”
The screams started at nightfall. Howls of terror, agony, and grief echoed off the hills. I could only imagine the horrors people were experiencing at the hands of the savages.
As I cowered under my blanket, I heard a rustling outside our tent. I peeked through the flap. A brown-skinned woman with dark braids and dark eyes was sneaking through the shadows past our camp. Her dress was torn. Her face was slashed. Blood coursed down her neck and over her exposed breasts. More blood smeared her inner thighs. She carried a small child on her back. The child was naked. Shivering.
She saw me looking at her. She lifted a finger to her lips, pleading with her eyes for me to be quiet. I nodded.
Suddenly, Father’s voice boomed from nearby.
“Stop right there,” he warned. He chambered a round in his rifle.
The woman held up her hands, babbling in a language I couldn’t understand. She looked terrified. The child began to whimper.
“What should we do with her?” Father asked Uncle Joe.
Uncle Joe said something to Father that I couldn’t hear.
Father nodded. “And the child?” he asked.
Uncle Joe approached the woman. He wrenched the child from her arms, drew his knife, then slit the boy’s throat. The woman wailed in grief. Uncle Joe let the child’s body drop to the ground, then grabbed the woman by the wrists and dragged her screaming into his tent. Father followed him in.
I looked at Mother. Her eyes were wide open. She said nothing.
It was then that I realized the truth. The savages weren’t dark-skinned natives lurking in the shadows. The real savages had fair skin and light eyes. They clutched Bibles and carried guns. When they saw something they wanted, they took it. They were brutal. They were merciless.
They were us.