Zilpha Keatley Snyder author of The Egypt Game
Black Storm Comin'by Diane Lee Wilson
WANTED: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.
When Colton Wescott sees this sign for the Pony Express, he thinks he has the solution to his problems. He's stuck with his ma and two younger sisters on the wrong side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, with no way to get/b>/b>
WANTED: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.
When Colton Wescott sees this sign for the Pony Express, he thinks he has the solution to his problems. He's stuck with his ma and two younger sisters on the wrong side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, with no way to get across. They were on the wagon train heading to California when Pa accidentally shot Colton and then galloped away. Ma is sick, and Colton needs money to pay the doctor. He'd make good money as a Pony rider. he also needs to get to California to deliver freedom papers to Ma's sister, a runaway slave. The Pony Express could get him there too...
Does Colton have what it takes to be a Pony Express rider? And if so, will traveling the dangerous route over the mountains bring him closer to family, freedom, and everything he holds dear?
- Margaret K. McElderry Books
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- Sales rank:
- Product dimensions:
- 0.27(w) x 7.62(h) x 0.70(d)
- Age Range:
- 10 - 14 Years
Read an Excerpt
Black Storm Comin'
By Diane Lee Wilson
Margaret K. McElderryCopyright © 2005 Diane Lee Wilson
All right reserved.
On the morning of September 16, 1860, my pa shot me. Maybe that's what set him to running. And, later, me to galloping.
Running, walking, galloping, plodding. Seems like one way or another we were always moving in those days, be it leaving something bad -- like poor luck or general mean-spiritedness -- or chasing after something good, like gold or land or any kinda job that'd keep a bowl of beans on the table.
He didn't mean to do it, of course -- my pa didn't. I know that 'cause, somehow, in the blackness of that morning I caught the look on his face. When I close my eyes, I still see it. With no words at all it said, I'd sooner shoot myself as my son.
It was the last look I ever got from him.
We were somewhere in Utah Territory. God only knows where, 'cause we'd been chewing the same dust for days and still those mountains sitting low on the horizon looked to be no more'n knee high. But we kept moving toward 'em, one foot-achy, boot-heavy step at a time. We and about twenty other families, with all our worldly goods piled onto covered wagons that were hitched to teams that kept inching due west in one meandering line. Like the wobbly needle of a compass. Chasing hope. Or running from hurt. All of us following a dream.
The morning it happened, the sky was still dark. The night sentry -- as usual -- had fired his rifle straight up at 4 A.M. And that -- as usual -- had shot me right outta my blanket. After fifteen weeks on the trail I still wasn't accustomed to being wakened by gunfire.
Shivering, and rubbing my pimply arms to warm myself, I set about my chores. Laid some more wood on the fire. Rolled up the blankets -- mine and Pa's. (He was already off gathering up our four oxen.) Pulled the bridle from its hook on the back of the wagon and set off to locate Ned, our one saddle horse.
Most mornings I liked doing that. Gave me time to think. Gave my feet time to uncurl and spread inside my boots, set for another long day. But this morning, as I stepped outside the circle of wagons, I was balancing on my toes cross the crunching sand. Word was we'd camped on the edge of Paiute territory, and I wasn't 'bout to be surprised by some painted stranger crouching behind sagebrush. Dang that Ned, anyway, for wandering off as he had a mind to.
The deep black sky, with only its onion sliver of moon, yawned over the empty land. Made me feel small, awful small. I kept walking, peering into the darkness, my heart thudding uneasily under my wool shirt. As I got beyond hollering distance of the circle of wagons I pulled up and looked over my shoulder, wondering if I should return. With their swooping canopies, the wagons seemed to slumber like pale, swaybacked horses. Here and there I saw cooking fires being coaxed to life. Tents were being struck, livestock gathered. But it was quiet. People didn't talk much at this hour, specially worn-to-the-bone people like us.
Beyond the circle, no more'n pencil-thin shadows under the starlight, were the twin tracks we were all following. They'd been pounded into the desert by hundreds of wheels and thousands of hooves, and they shot straight west toward the mountains called the Sierra Nevada. Those tracks were like a couple of open arms, just begging us to follow 'em. Follow to a better life, they sang, follow to gold and land and easy living. Others have done it, they promised; you could too.
I was only twelve, but I'd spent enough of my days moving from place to place and back again to know that promises of easy living were no more'n words on the wind.
We'd started in Missouri, where I'd been born, then moved to Illinois, even though it was illegal for Ma, being colored, to cross the border into that state. Pa -- who was white -- had heard of work there milking cows, and so, jobs being scarce, we went anyway. He wasn't very good at it. The farmer complained that the cows got twitchy when Pa even looked at 'em, let alone laid a hand on their flanks. Didn't matter, 'cause somehow our cabin got burnt down. So we moved over to Kansas. For a while Pa worked in a dry-goods store there. But then there was some sorta trouble with "border ruffians" and lots of talk 'bout slave states and free states (you had to take a stand). Ma got a bucket of whitewash dumped on her, which wasn't an accident, and we were moving again. It was back to Missouri, where a letter was waiting for Ma. It'd come from a sister I didn't even know she had, a sister living in Sacramento, and Ma suddenly decided -- as womenfolk do, and even though she was expecting a baby -- that it was real important that we get there. Life would be better in California, she promised.
Huh. Promises again. Well, I had eyes, didn't I? I'd been walking this trail, hadn't I? So I knew you couldn't count on any such promises. The slapped-together crosses along its sides told me that plain enough. And all the cast-off furniture and the broke-down wagons and the bleached bones of animals that had given up pulling 'em. No, this trail was only a guide. It wasn't a promise for what would happen when we got there. It wasn't even a promise that we would get there.
I heaved a wearisome sigh. For close to four months we'd been trying, though. One day at a time. Fifteen miles a day. Every day the same. Except when we crossed the Platte River. That had eaten up three days. And when we stopped to bury the little German boy. He was run over one morning by his own wagon and killed flat out. We only made eight miles after stopping to bury him.
So that we could make our miles each day, we had to rise at four every morning for chores and be hitched and ready to move out at six. Then we had to be circled by four in the afternoon so we could drag ourselves through the same chores, eat, and get some sleep before the clock rolled round to four again. Numbers were what this journey was all about, it seemed. Numbers that kept rolling round like the wheels of the wagons. They could crush you, they could.
A horned toad, caught out in the morning cold and sluggish, tried to skitter away from my footfall. I managed to miss him, and he tilted his head to watch me pass, blinking solemnly. There was a sunken, leathery look to him, sorta like the one Ned had been wearing of late. We weren't even riding the ribby horse now, he'd gotten to looking so poorly. At the end of every day we turned him loose with the other livestock to graze the area inside the circled wagons. He must've thought we were funning him, 'cause there hadn't been a blade of grass to whistle on for two hundred miles. Sand and salt and scattered sagebrush were all that constituted this part of the territory. Even the jackrabbits were thin as rails, if you could spot one. So Ned had taken to sneaking out and away from the wagons, leaving me to track him down every morning. He did have a sense of humor.
The cold night wind was still blowing some, busy with its work of shifting the sands from one side of the desert to the other. A devilsome gust picked up a handful and blew it at me, and those little specks hit my cheek with the bite of broken glass. All I could do was turn my collar up and trudge on.
When I finally spotted the dark hump on the flat gray plain, I knew that Ned had heard me coming. His pointy ears said that. But that bold rascal didn't bother getting up. He stayed resting, his legs tucked under nice and neat, making me come to him. As I got closer, he nickered. Good morning.
I shook my head and squatted. "Good morning yourself, you sorry animal. Find anything to eat?" I scratched behind his ears while I spoke with him. The hairs there were stiff with yesterday's sweat and caked with the white dust that covered us all. There was a raised scar there too, where someone's rope had cut into him at some time. When I stopped working my fingers, he shook happily, let out a groan -- like he knew the long day ahead of him, and of course he did -- and climbed to his feet. I slipped the bridle on him and fastened it.
I didn't really need it. He'd have followed me anyway. Horses always did, always had. Don't know why. They just cottoned to me somehow. Made me feel special, and I liked that.
The piece of moon was lower in the sky as we headed back, tipping the sage with a frosty coat of silver. Seemed unreasonable that in just a few hours we'd be burning in a fearsome heat. Just like yesterday. Just like tomorrow.
Pa had gathered our four oxen by the time we got back to the wagon. That's 'bout all he'd managed, though. Those stubborn beasts did next to nothing for him on a good day, and this morning they were hardly budging.
"Give 'em a little inspiration, will ya, son?" Pa fought to make his voice cheery. Over the years I'd learned it took an awful lot to drown his spirits. But the waters were rising. I could see it in his face.
Flicking the ends of the reins, I stung first one ox and then the other. Ned was a no-nonsense animal, and he rushed to help, pinning his ears and raking his teeth cross the nearest flank, and if that didn't get them on their way! They came close to hurrying. While trying to get 'em yoked, Pa got himself stepped on, not once, but twice. Then one of the hickory bows that was already split opened up more. "Hang it all!" he shouted.
"You want me to finish hitching 'em?" I asked. I held some sway with oxen, too, it seemed. Leastways, more than my pa did.
"Sure," he answered. Through the morning's gloom I could see discouragement weighing him down. But Pa being Pa, he shook it off with an effort and replaced it with the confidence of a man holding all aces. "I'll take Ned and throw the saddle on him. Least he can do is carry his own pack." He forced a grin and took the reins. Ned snorted and followed.
I glared at our oxen. They rolled their eyes and licked their wide, wet noses with their wide, wet tongues. Not only were they a scrawny bunch, but if those imps of Satan had ever been broke to a hitch before Pa paid good money for 'em back in St. Joseph, then I'm a natural-born fool.
Shoving my shoulder into the near one, I whooped. "Get up!" I ordered. He wasn't convinced, so I grabbed hold of his ear, threatening to give it a good twist. Sullenly he stepped into place, his teammate moving with him. When I leaned into the second pair, they moved over before I could holler, and in no time at all I had 'em hitched. Sky wasn't even near pink. For once we wouldn't be the lone outfit everyone was waiting on.
Inside our wagon Ma was nudging my sisters through their chores. I knew what was coming and hunched my shoulders. Sure enough, there it was: little Willie's piercing wail. He was only a few days old, I understood that, but the one time he wasn't wailing, it seemed, was when he was sleeping -- and that wasn't near often enough. Since our place was at the end of the line of wagons, Pa had taken to easing up on the oxen, letting 'em travel slow enough to put a little ear space between us and the others. He wasn't 'bout to provide any new excuses for them dropping us off at some two-cabin "settlement."
Folks already had their opinions 'bout our family belonging, mixed as we were and looking different from them. Some of those opinions had been expressed in passing at the creeks or while bent over collecting firewood. Others were held behind tight lips and turned shoulders. That was something I couldn't do anything 'bout. Animals I could manage. People were a whole different matter indeed.
"Here's your soda biscuit, Colton." Althea, the older of my two younger sisters, stuck her arm out over the wagon seat. "And some coffee." A tin cup followed. "It's cold," she warned. "Fire went out before the water could boil." She ruffled her feathers and disappeared back inside the canvas canopy. It was the same as her henhouse now. With Ma so worn and sickly from birthing my brother, and little Willie not giving her any sleep since, Althea had taken charge. She'd "rose to the occasion," as they say, though I don't think it'd stretched her much.
My stomach growled even before the biscuit passed my teeth. It was always growling of late, though you'd think it'd give up hope by now. The sour cake settled on my tongue and started to swell. It tasted like paste. When I twisted my neck and tried to swallow, I dang near choked. A swig of coffee was no help. It was only spit-warm, made with bitter water and more dust than beans. Too late I discovered a grasshopper trying to climb outta the cup by way of my tongue. I spat him -- and the coffee -- out.
"That's all you're getting, Colton," came Althea's voice outta the darkness, like it was spoke from God himself. Bossy for ten.
To my surprise, the man from the next wagon suddenly turned and headed our way. He was marching, like he'd taken orders he was none too happy 'bout having to deliver. "Your pa here?" he asked.
I didn't have to answer 'cause Pa was just coming round the wagon. "Mr. Suttles! Good mornin' to ya."
"Supposed to pass the word that there could be trouble today. Rifles to be at the ready."
Pa reached up to the wagon seat. "Got her right here." He smiled at the man.
Mr. Suttles stayed stone faced. "Try to remember what we told you 'bout using it," he said. "And for God's sake, fire at them and not us." He spun and stalked back to his own wagon.
Pa looked like he'd been whipped. Mr. Suttles was still making references to the first week, back in Kansas, when we'd all been a little jittery. Pa had shot off his rifle at a bear coming toward him in the night. He'd just missed hitting Mr. Suttles's brother. No one let us forget it.
Willie's crying climbed another earsplitting pitch. Pa and I exchanged helpless looks, then walked to the back of the wagon. Wedged in between a pine cupboard and boxes of breakables and three mismatched chairs and an iron kettle and quilts and pillows and Ma's precious tin buckets of rose cuttings was Ma herself. Or a shadow of Ma.
"Willie hasn't nursed all night," Althea announced, somber as a preacher. She was holding Jewel, our four-year-old sister, on her lap, braiding her hair into pigtails. "And there's no more rice and almost no cornmeal."
In a weak voice Ma scolded, "Hush now. We'll make do."
"He needs a doctor," Althea insisted.
No one scolded her for that. It was probably true. But where were you going to find a doctor way out here? Even the last settlement, if you could call a half dozen scattered shanties a settlement, was five days' ride behind us. And they probably hadn't seen a doctor themselves in the past year.
Pa started to go under then. He looked like a packhorse partway cross a river that finds itself loaded too heavy. Losing its footing, it goes tumbling and spinning, helpless against the current. Jewel started whimpering, low and gaspy, like she was going under too.
"Get on with you, now," Ma said. "Sun's coming up. All we can do is keep moving."
Pa nodded and trudged back round the wagon, and I followed. He pulled himself up into the seat. Fumbled with his rifle, a Hawkins .50 caliber. Cocked and eased the hammer, then cocked it again. Reached down to check his ammunition. His movements were jerky. Like he wasn't thinking, just acting. He kept digging for something in the bottom of the wagon, then sat up suddenly and moved the rifle cross his lap.
And that's when the gun went off.
Copyright © 2005 by Diane Lee Wilson
Excerpted from Black Storm Comin' by Diane Lee Wilson Copyright © 2005 by Diane Lee Wilson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Diane Lee Wilson is the author of Black Storm Comin’ (which won a Spur Award for Best Western Juvenile, was a Booklist Editors’ Choice, a VOYA Top Shelf fiction pick, a Notable Social Studies book, a Bulletin Blue Ribbon book, and a Book Links Lasting Connection), Firehorse (which was a Booklist Top Ten Mystery/Suspense pick and an ALA Amelia Bloomer Project pick), Raven Speak, and Tracks. She lives in Escondido, California. Visit her online at DianeLeeWilson.com.
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