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By Mary Connealy
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Mary Connealy
All rights reserved.
Mosqueros, Texas, 1867
Sophie heard God in every explosion of thunder as she listened to the awesome power of the approaching storm. But there was more. There was something coming—something more than rain.
Over the distant rumble, Sophie Edwards heard pounding hoof-beats. Her heart sped up, matching the pace. The horse came fast. Something about the way it ran echoed the desperation in the pulsing of Sophie's heart.
Sophie whirled to race inside the cabin. Exhausted after another day of grinding work, she prayed for strength and courage. God would have to provide it; she had none left. She scrambled into her disguise and waited until the last minute to wake the children, hoping the rider would pass on. She stood near the can that held the vile-smelling Hector scarf, hoping she wouldn't need it.
Was this the night someone would come for her and the girls? The night she couldn't talk fast enough or hide well enough to survive this rugged, lonely life?
The back of Sophie's neck prickled in horror as the horse veered from the main trail and came toward her cabin. For a second, she thought the rider meant to come to her place, but there was no letup of the running hooves. Sophie's fear changed. No one could safely ride the narrow, rocky trail down the slopes of the creek bank behind her cabin at that speed.
The horse charged on. Sophie could hear it blowing hard, its wind broken, the saddle leather creaking. She hated the rider for abusing his mount, but inside Sophie knew it wasn't the rider's fault. This pace—this reckless, dark ride—could only mean one thing.
And pursuit might mean a fleeing criminal with a posse on his trail. But not all pursued men were justly accused. No one knew that better than Sophie.
She almost ran out to wave the rider down. She let fear freeze her for a second. Then, ashamed, she grabbed at the door latch on her ramshackle cabin, praying, "Help me, Lord. Help me, help me, help me." Her prayers, like her life, had been stripped to bare bones.
The horse stormed past the heavy brush that concealed the house.
"No! Stop!" Sophie dashed out the door and down the stoop. "Stop! The cliff!"
She was too late. The rider was past. Within seconds she heard the dreadful screams of the falling animal, the coarse shouts of terror ripped from the throat of the rider.
Rocks dislodged along the top of the bank as Sophie ran in the direction of the accident. There was the rumble of falling rocks and the softer sound of the horse's big body striking stone as it plunged thirty feet to the creek below, neighing its fear and pain into the night. She heard the splash as the avalanche, and its unwilling cause, hit the moving water below.
She skidded to a halt and her long, white nightgown billowed around her. A gust whipped her blond hair across her eyes. Blinded for a moment, a cold, logical part of her mind told her that the best way to handle this was simply to ignore it and go back to bed.
But God asked more of her than cold logic. He even asked more of her than her own survival. It was a relief to admit it, because her strongest survival instincts couldn't stop her from going to someone in need, and she was glad to have God's support in the matter. She whirled away from the embankment and ran back to the house.
"Girls!" Her voice lashed like a whip in the darkness. The girls would be so frightened to be awakened this way, but there was no choice. If ever a family had learned to do what needed to be done, it was the Edwardses. "Girls, someone's fallen on the creek path."
Sophie tore at her disguise, putting everything in its place with lightning speed. She couldn't ever afford to be unprepared. "I need help. I'm going down. Mandy, bring the rope and the lantern and follow me. Beth, catch Hector and bring him. Don't take time to get dressed: just pull on your shoes. Sally, stay with Laura. Get blankets out and heat water. If he's alive he'll need doctoring."
Sophie heard the girls jump out of bed as she headed outside in her nightgown with untied boots on her feet.
She saw where he'd gone over and her stomach lurched. He couldn't have picked a worse drop. She stumbled and skidded toward the bottom of the creek, risking her own neck on the treacherous path.
Hearing Amanda call out from overhead, Sophie yelled, "Down here, Mandy. Quickly." Sophie picked her way over the jumble of dirt and stones edging the swollen waters of the creek. In the starless night, she couldn't make out anything. She glanced behind her and saw, with relief, ten-year-old Mandy coming with a brightly lit kerosene lantern.
Sophie continued to scramble over the debris. She stepped in mud and sank until water overflowed her boot. The thunder came more steadily now, until it was a constant collision of sound. The approaching lightning gained enough strength to light up even the depths of the creek.
Feeling her way, on her hands and knees now, she tried to pierce the utter darkness with her vision. Where is he, Lord?
A wailing wind cried at them that it was bringing disaster in its wake. Suddenly, the thunder and lightning held a worse threat than savage rain. The storm was coming from the north. It was probably already raining upstream. The creek might flood without a single drop of water falling here. And she now stood in the path of that flash flood. Worse still, she'd just ordered her children to come after her.
Sophie listened intently for the roar of oncoming water. She heard nothing. They still had time.
Mandy caught up with her. "Here's the lantern and rope."
Sophie took the lantern. "A rider and horse went over that drop-off. Help me find him, and hurry! It's raining up north!"
Her girls had lived in their little thicket hideaway long enough to know what it meant when rain came in from the north. Sophie saw Mandy glance fearfully over her shoulder into the darkness of the creek. Then, practical girl that Mandy was, she started searching for the rider.
"Oh, Ma. Can he have lived?" Mandy went ahead of Sophie to the very edge of the dimly illuminated area.
"I don't know, honey," Sophie said grimly as she surveyed the area, looking for a glimpse of fabric or a bit of horsehide. "I don't hear him. He might be buried under these rocks. He might have been swept away by the creek. We only have a few minutes to search."
"Here, Ma. I think I found him!" Mandy's voice was sharp with excitement. A bolt of lightning lit up Mandy's frightened face. Sophie saw Mandy's blue eyes, so like her own, glow in the jagged glare. Her blond hair, identical to Sophie's and the other girls', hung bedraggled and muddy to her waist.
Sophie rushed to her daughter's side and saw a single hand, coated with dirt, extending from a pile of mud and rocks. The two of them fell to the ground and began digging away the soil. They ignored the tear of jagged stones on their hands and the damage to their nightgowns, the only ones they owned. Sophie heard soft trudging steps as Hector came down the creek path. She dug faster, knowing that with the mule's help they could move the man as soon as they freed him.
Another rumble of thunder sounded closer. The lightning lanced the sky just as Sophie uncovered the stranger's face and pushed away the mud. The man was utterly still. As limp as in death. She didn't stop to check his condition. If there was life left in him after the fall, the suffocating dirt would snatch it away. She and Mandy uncovered his shoulders as eight-year-old Elizabeth came up.
"Get this rope around his shoulders, Mandy. Beth, hitch it around Hector's neck. We've got to get out of this creek before the water comes!" Even as she said it, Sophie heard the first distant crash of waves against the sides of the creek. Once the sound was audible, there were only minutes before the wall of water would sweep by their cabin.
She kept digging as she shouted commands. She reached deep into the muck to make sure there were no heavy rocks pinning him. Her girls worked silently beside her, following her orders. Sophie felt a surge of pride in them so great, she knew it to be almost sinful.
"Ready, Ma." Mandy turned her attention from fastening the rope under the man's arms and went back to digging.
"Hector's ready anytime, Ma," Beth shouted over the raging wind. A bolt of lightning flashed brightly enough for Sophie to see the man. His legs were still well buried, but there were no rocks on him.
He was so coated in mud that Sophie couldn't have told anyone what he looked like. She remembered the desperate speed at which he'd ridden and thought again the word: pursuit. Yet no one had come along behind him.
The thunder sounded again. The water roared ever nearer. Sophie shouted to be heard over the sound, "Once you start pulling, just take him all the way up! The floodwater is coming!"
Sophie knew Elizabeth, her second born, would handle the stubborn, rawboned old mule better than she could. Hector was a cantankerous beast on the best of days, but he had a soft spot for Beth, as did most animals.
Beth's gentle cajoling urged Hector forward to take up the slack in the rope. Mandy knelt at the man's head, and in the few remaining seconds, pushed more dirt off his arms and chest. Sophie braced herself to support his head and neck as he began to inch free. A bolt of lightning lit up their strange little group, this time with blinding brightness. The thunder sounded almost at the same instant. Sophie prayed for the man and asked God if the floodwater could just hold off another few minutes.
In answer, God sent the first icy drip of rain down the back of her neck. Sophie took it as a heavenly warning to hurry.
The man emerged slowly from the slide. As soon as he was free, with another lightning bolt to assist the lantern, Sophie yelled, "Keep going. All the way to the top of the bank. Mandy, you run ahead with the lantern." Anything to get her girls to safety, even if she didn't make it herself.
She looked at the man, now being battered even further by his ride up the hill. His body was coated in mud. The slime helped him slide along the rough ground. One particularly nasty jolt over the rutted path almost woke him. He took a deep breath and turned his head sideways. He vomited up filthy, muddy water and gasped deeply for breath as he was dragged along. It was the first sign he was alive. Sophie kept to his side to make sure his head didn't encounter a rock.
The rugged upward trail twisted and turned. Just as it faced the north along one of its steeper sections, a bolt of lightning split the sky. Sophie saw a wall of water raging toward her like the wrath of God. "Faster, Beth! The floodwater's coming! Get to the top!"
Elizabeth kicked Hector and yelled. Sophie knew her mule well, and whatever unfortunate qualities Hector had, stupidity wasn't one of them. She knew he headed for the top of that creek to save his own mangy mule hide, and if he saved the lot of them along with himself, well, that had nothing to do with him.
The path snaked back to the south. A few more feet. Twenty at the most. Sophie knew the water would come along right to the top of the bank. It had been cut to its current depth by these raging torrents over thousands of years. Sophie glanced over her shoulder and saw it coming. They weren't going to make it. Lightning lit up the sky just as Hector crested the top of the path. The roaring water changed to a scream. The thunder had become a constant jarring drumroll that only added to the fierce growl of the approaching flood. The rope dragged against the ground, and knowing she was out of time, Sophie reached down and twisted her arms through the rope that bound the man to the only anchor there was for them in the world.
The water hit like a crashing fist. Sophie heard her own cry of fear as she was swept sideways. Her arms wrenched nearly from their sockets as the rope tightened. Her body, literally tied to the man, lifted with the angry waters. The flood caught them as if it were a greedy child not wanting to let go of its toy. Sophie had a second to despair of Hector's strength and prayed Beth wouldn't be swept away with the mule. Flood water filled her mouth. The life her precious babies had to face without her was the image she'd die with.
Then they were up. They landed on the top of the creek bank like a couple of battle-weary trout. Sophie was too battered to move. She lay there, choking on muddy water as the world began to right itself. She tried to catch her breath and was having precious little luck, when Mandy got to her side, followed by Beth. Only when they rolled her off the man did she realize she'd been stretched out fully on top of him.
"Ma! Are you all right?" Mandy's anxious voice reached into her sluggish mind.
Her girls. She felt the scrambling fingers on the ropes that bound her to this stranger, and she heard their fear. She had to be strong for them. She forced the panic from her water-logged head. "Yes, I'm fine. Just got a good soaking. Let's see if our friend here survived it."
Sophie almost staggered when she got to her knees, but she didn't. The girls were watching. She turned her attention to the man and pressed her hand firmly against his chest. Beneath her palm was a strong heartbeat, even though, after his one spell of coughing, the man hadn't stirred again. She felt his chest rise and fall with a steady breath.
Sophie heaved a heartfelt sigh of relief. "He's still alive."
The spitting rain grew steadier, and Sophie wondered what a chest full of dirty water did to a man. A deep chill now might well be the last straw. With a renewed surge of strength, Sophie decided that, after all she'd been through, this man could just think twice before he up and died on her. Thinking aloud, she said, "There's no way we can carry him to the house, and we're not strong enough to get him up on Hector's back."
"If Hector goes slow, maybe we can just drag him," Mandy suggested. "Reckon it'll kill him, though."
Elizabeth said lightly from where she knelt beside her mother, "I don't know how he could get much worse. He appears to be mostly kilt already."
Sophie prayed in her heart, as she had been nonstop since she'd heard the first hoofbeats. But no better suggestions were forthcoming from the Almighty.
"Okay, we drag him. Take it real slow, Beth. Stay by his side, Mandy and ... and ..." Sophie was out of ideas. A sudden gust of wind and a prolonged glare of lightning, with thunder rumbling constantly now, prodded her. "Let's get on with it then."
They hauled him the same way they hauled logs to split for their fire. Hector pulled the unconscious man right up to the front door. When Elizabeth stopped Hector, Mandy asked, with the practicality her life had forced onto her, "Reckon Hector can drag him into the house?"
The house was small—one room, with a loft, no back door, and two front steps that passed for a stoop. Sophie tried to envision the big mule climbing the stairs, ducking through the narrow door, and then turning around in the cramped space. Hector was large and not given to cooperation at the best of times, even with Beth's gentle urging.
"How about we put him in the barn," Mandy suggested.
Barn was a highfalutin word for the Edwards's one and only outbuilding. The building remained standing more out of pure ornery stubbornness than sturdy construction. It was a three-sided shed that stood upright, thanks to the bramble that had wound itself around every inch of the building and practically reclaimed it as part of the vast thicket that hid the Edwards's home. Hector seemed inclined to head for it, though he usually disdained to go under the rickety roof.
The wind began driving the steadily increasing sprinkles straight sideways. The lightning and thunder continued, and the icy drops of rain grew fatter, soaking into their thin, mud-soaked nightclothes. This was all the man needed to finish the work of his fall. Sophie finally said, "The barn it is. Let's go."
They hauled the injured man down a nearly invisible trail that wound away from the cabin. Another small clearing, one of hundreds that appeared inside the twisting maze of the thicket, opened up at the decrepit barn. Mercifully, the rain was coming from the north and the shed opened to the east. The inside was dry except for the multiple leaks in the roof. A stack of the first spring prairie grass Sophie and the girls had cut took up the driest corner. With some quick pitch-forking, they got the man situated on a soft bed of fresh-scented hay. It was a better bed than the one Sophie had.
Hector was released. As if in a huff at the uninvited company, he went to the far corner of the tiny shed. That put about ten feet between him and the intruders in his domain.
Excerpted from Petticoat Ranch by Mary Connealy. Copyright © 2006 Mary Connealy. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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