Read an Excerpt Blaze of Lightning, Roar of Thunder
By Helen A. Rosburg
Medallion Press, Inc. Copyright © 2008 Helen A. Rosburg
All right reserved.
Chapter One Nothing was more beautiful or welcoming than the high desert in the spring. Louisa could feel the warmth of the sand through the thin leather of her sandals as she walked along ahead of her burro. The familiar fragrance of bushy, blossoming mesquite was a balm to her senses, and the startling green of the leafless paloverde tree was a delight to her eyes. Tall and stately saguaro cacti were comforting sentinels as she passed among them. Mountains surrounded her like a blessing. She was home, in the place of her birth, the place she loved and never wished to leave. She was happy.
And she was hungry.
The rumbling in her stomach was fierce. She felt she hadn't eaten in days, although her mother had sent her out that morning with a handful of corn tortillas. Soon, however, she would be home. The sticks she had collected would rekindle the kitchen fire, and there would be fresh tortillas, beans, and perhaps a stringy desert jackrabbit, if her father and brother had been lucky. Tomorrow, after they had cooked most of the day, there would be prickly pear jelly from the luscious, red cactus fruits she had carefully harvested. Louisa's stomach grumbled again with impatience. It covered, momentarily, the sound of approaching hoofbeats. Then the ominous, distant thunder came to her ears.
Louisa froze. The burro's ears pricked forward, and he raised his head, nostrils testing the air.
They needed somewhere to hide. At once. Riders, in these days and times, almost always boded evil. Louisa cast about her desperately.
Mesquite might hide her, but not her animal. The foothills of the bare, brown mountains shimmered tantalizingly in the heat, but were too far away to reach in time. Her only hope was an arroyo, a crack in the earth, a gully, formed by runoff rains from the mountains. But the only way to find one in the flat terrain was to stumble upon one. Louisa started to run.
The burro did not hesitate to follow. He had followed the girl every day of his life since being weaned from his dam. Never had he known an angry word, or the prod of a stick, and he trotted briskly at her heels. The bundles on his back bounced against his gray-haired hide.
Louisa's path was tortuous. Rock and boulders strewed the sand. Barrel cacti were interspersed with patches of prickly pear and the occasional, dangerous cholla, poised to break off and cling to her should the vibration of her step draw too near. Lizards skittered away in advance of her flying feet and, growing ever closer, the cloud of dust raised by many hooves.
Abruptly, the ground crumbled beneath her feet, and Louisa found herself falling. She had come too quickly upon the edge of the arroyo, and the soft, dry earth could not support her. She tumbled to the smooth, sandy bottom of the gulch. Her burro slid down the slope she had made, and stood over her, completely unperturbed. Louisa scrambled to her feet.
She heard them clearly now, the rhythmic pounding of the hooves and the chuffing of the horses' breath. She ducked instinctively, although the sides of the arroyo were higher than her head.
Who were they? Miners? Another group in the seemingly endless stream headed to California? A motley lot, they were known to take whatever they wanted or needed along their way.
Or was it a band of Apaches, traditional enemies of her people? Louisa's blood ran cold. She had once had a friend near her own age, a beautiful girl full of promise. She now slaved in an Apache camp, counted as mere chattel of the brave who had captured and, hence, owned her.
Or was it someone even worse?
Louisa did not know she had begun to tremble until she felt a weakness in her knees. Her breath came in shallow, panting gasps. She sank to her knees and leaned heavily against her burro's sturdy side.
Madre de Dios, she silently prayed. Deliver me from the devil.
For devil, indeed, he was. A man with no soul who collected Apache scalps for their bounty. And when he could find no women, or children, or braves of the tribe he sought, he indiscriminately killed her people, took their scalps, and trimmed them to look like the ones that would fill his pockets with bloody dollars. Despite the heat, Louisa shivered uncontrollably.
Because the hoofbeats were fading away. Fading, but not toward the west and north, where she longed for them to go. They disappeared to the east, toward the small village where she lived with her parents, her baby sister, Inez, and adored older brother, Tomas.
Fear replaced the bones in her limbs with water. Her heart hammered so painfully against her ribs she thought they might break.
Calm. Be calm, she told herself. It is only a band of my people riding on some urgent errand.
But her people had few horses. They had fewer errands of urgency in this quiet corner of the desert.
And then she was running, running down the bed of the arroyo as fast as her legs had ever carried her. Somewhere outside the immediate focus of her mind, she heard the three-beat rhythm of her burro galloping along behind her. But her only thought was for her family. And what she might find when she reached her village.
* * *
Santa Rita crouched against the foothills like a timid fawn resting in the protective shadow of its mother. Even its color was like camouflage, tan and dusty, almost indistinguishable from the barren hills behind it. The narrow trail that led to the cluster of poor adobe huts was a considerable distance from the main road that traveled northward into Tucson and, as a result, few came upon the village purely by chance.
So why did a dust cloud hover over the town like a veil of pale gauze? Not one horse, but many, had ridden into Santa Rita.
Louisa bent over, gasping for breath. The fear that crowded her chest made it seem even harder to breathe. Sweat poured from her overheated body and fell like rain to dampen the earth. She willed her heart to slow that she might run again.
Riders had come to Santa Rita. A band of men, riding hard. For what purpose?
An answer came immediately to her silent question, an answer that had come before and launched her headlong flight for home. For Louisa knew, with sure and certain instinct, that it was not miners or Apaches.
She could breathe again. She started to run.
The slap of her sandals on sand came but vaguely to her ears. Her body was damp with sweat, and her mouth was dry. Terror was a hand that tightened around her throat.
Because she could hear it now, the screaming. Men shouting. Gunshots.
The wall around the village was primitive; organ-pipe cacti planted close together. Even when they died, their skeletons left a prickly barrier. A barrier she could see through to the carnage beyond.
"Mama ..." The cry flew from her throat, mindless, as she ran through the open gate. A gate she doubted had ever been closed. The Mexican-American War was over. Her people lived in peace. Even the warlike Apaches had become scarce, almost wiped out by the man who hunted their scalps. The man who now took the scalps of her people.
Louisa became an animal, stripped of all humanity. A feral growl came from deep within her breast. Her lips curled into a snarl as she bared her teeth. She hurled herself at the man nearest to her, the one who had just shot her young cousin in the back of his head.
The man's horse skittered sideways, scared by the wild thing clinging to its rider's leg. Louisa was dragged along, hands gripping the stirrup, teeth searching for flesh beneath the coarse fabric of the man's trousers. She felt blows raining on her head, and her vision clouded. She gave no thought to the fact the man had a gun and had just killed a member of her family, just as the wolf gives no thought to the hunter's rifle. She simply reacted.
And then she could see only red. Her fingers lost their grasp, and the breath was knocked from her lungs. She tasted dirt and blood. Something hit her in the ribs. A boot perhaps, or a hoof, and searing pain shot through her side. She ignored it and pulled herself along the ground, reaching blindly for something, anything.
When Louisa's hand connected with something warm and soft, her mind rebelled and kept her from the reality of what she groped. The clothing that covered it was merely a useful tool, and she used it to wipe the blood from her eyes. She pushed to her feet, turning from the corpse as she rose. It was only to see the end of life as she had known it.... or would ever know it again.
The screams in the village had ceased, replaced by the pitiful moans of the dying. An occasional gunshot ended those sounds as well. The street was littered with the dead. Rough-looking men knelt among the bodies, knives glinting in the sun until the blades were too bloody to reflect light any longer.
Louisa couldn't think why they hadn't noticed her. She couldn't think at all, in fact. Her mind was numb with horror.
They were all dead. Everyone. Women, some with children still in their arms. Old men. Old women. Everyone.
Somewhere lay her mother and her father. Little Inez. Tomas.
The air reeked of death. The sun beat down relentlessly, mercilessly. Louisa stood frozen in time and space. The world ceased to exist.
The men continued their gruesome work, stringing scalps like fish on a line. Louisa's mind still refused to function. What she looked at, what she saw, did not register. It was meaningless motion, sound, and color.
Until a shout distracted them all. Louisa's head turned with all the rest, turned to the slender youth who appeared from behind an adobe wall. Blood smeared his face and simple tunic. An old, but carefully tended rifle was raised in his arms.
Something stirred to life in Louisa's breast. The beating of her heart returned. Blood surged through her veins. His name raced to her lips, but she stifled it.
"Throw ... throw down your guns," the boy ordered. His voice shook. The rifle wavered visibly in his grip. Someone laughed.
The hope that had blossomed so brilliantly dissolved into cold terror. Her brother had a single-shot rifle. All the men had repeat-shot pistols. Tomas hadn't the slightest chance of survival.
But he knew it.
"I know I'm going to die," he said in a hard voice Louisa scarcely recognized. "And I welcome it. But one of you is going with me."
"Noooo ..." Louisa hissed, all the breath, all the life going out of her with that single word.
Another laugh, this time from a thin, weathered man, the only man still sitting on his horse. It was the cruelest sound Louisa had ever heard.
"You just made a bad mistake, boy," the man said. "You thought you were gonna die easy. I ain't fixin' to accommodate you."
It was unbelievable how cold she felt, even with the sun beating down on her head and sweat pouring from her body. Her blood was as icy as the river water in winter.
The rider nodded at a burly man bent over one of the bodies, and made a motion with his fingers. Tomas swung the rifle toward the kneeling man, and Louisa's heart rose into her throat. The big man smiled. The lightning-like scar that ran through one eyebrow and down his cheek crinkled as if with merriment.
"If you aim to shoot me, son," he said, "do it now."
Tomas's finger tightened on the trigger. Louisa could almost feel it herself. She was as taut as a bowstring. The big man rose and walked to his horse.
"Stop," Tomas commanded.
The big man kept moving. He untied the rawhide that held a lasso to his saddle.
Louisa stood transfixed, paralyzed with fear. The big man uncoiled the loop and swung it around his head.
"Best shoot now, boy," he drawled.
Tomas's eyes darted between the man with the lasso and the tall man on the horse. The rifle shook in his hands. Rivulets of water ran from his temples.
Louisa's tension was too great, and the arrow was loosed from its bow. The scream flew away from her before she could stop it.
Heads turned in her direction. Pistols were withdrawn from holsters. The lasso's loop floated, as if in slow motion, toward her brother.
The man on the horse grinned as he aimed his pistol at her. She knew, with absolute certainty, that he was the one who would shoot her. He was distracted for a moment, however, by the lasso's flight.
Louisa saw it settle over her brother's head and come to rest above his shoulders. She watched it draw tight. The burly man threw the end of the rope over the branch of a dead and leafless tree, even as he mounted his horse. He tied the end of the rope around his pommel, then pulled on the horse's reins.
There was not another scream in her. Horror filled every pore of her body, every drop of her blood, every centimeter of her lungs. The big man's horse began to back.
The rifle in Tomas's hands fired uselessly and fell from his grip as his fingers groped at the noose about his neck. A moment later his feet dangled above the ground. His face turned dark, and his tongue protruded. His body spasmed.
She welcomed it, the bullet. She ran to it, arms outstretched. She saw the man's face again, his grin. Then nothing. She did not even hear the shot.
Excerpted from Blaze of Lightning, Roar of Thunder by Helen A. Rosburg Copyright © 2008 by Helen A. Rosburg. Excerpted by permission.
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