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CHAPTER ONE OF THE AWAKENING FIRE

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Apache Wedding Blessing

Now you will feel no rain
for each of you will be shelter for the other.
Now you will feel no cold
for each of you will be warmth for the other.
Now there is no loneliness for you.
Now you are two persons
but there is one life before you.
Go now to your dwelling place
to enter the days of your togetherness,
and may your days be good and long together. . . .

 

Chapter One

New Mexico Territory, 1882

Vultures circled. Soaring, spiraling pinpoints of death against the midday sky. Ladino watched them through slitted lids as he clawed his way to consciousness. No breeze blew, and not a cloud marred the perfection above him or shielded him from the harsh rays of the sun. Squeezing his eyes shut to avoid the glare, he rolled his head across the rocky ground. Pain slammed against his skull like blows from an Apache war club.

Damn! Why does my head hurt?

Where the hell am I?

Sucking a breath through clenched teeth, he slowly opened his eyes. His vision blurred as he scoured the landscape beyond his right shoulder. Bare, wagon-rutted earth gave way to grassland ringed in the distance by small mountains dotted with trees. He swiveled his head to the left. Rock-strewn hills marched by, curving around and enveloping the wagon path behind him. About fifteen feet off the road, nestled within a couple of large boulders and clumps of rabbitbrush, stood a single, dwarf-sized cedar.

One tree. One tree when he’d grown up hunting, hiding, and playing survival games in a forest. If he could recall visions of childhood, why couldn’t he remember why he lay here about to die?

A breeze stirred, fanning the odor of death across his face. Ladino lifted his head and peered over the toe of his moccasin. A corpse lay sprawled across the deep ruts. In this heat, the stench would soon grow unbearable.

Squinting to clear his vision, he scanned the cadaver. When he discovered the wound sliced between the ribs, he recognized the work of his own blade. Efficient. Deadly. Yet as he encountered sightless eyes, infested with flies, staring back at him from the face of a boy barely sixteen, his jaw fell slack with shock.

Ladino quickly lowered his head. He tried to swallow, but his mouth felt as if it were full of powdered gypsum. He fumbled at the waistband of his trousers, searching for his knife in its sheath on his gun belt. Missing. His gun belt was missing! Stolen? But wouldn’t that mean the boy hadn’t been alone?

He groped in the dirt, relieved when he touched something hard—the stag-horn handle of his Bowie. Grasping the knife, he brought it before his gaze. Dried blood, mixed with dirt, smeared the length of the blade.

Surely the youth had attacked first. Even among the White Eyes sixteen was considered manhood. Only a dead man refused to defend himself against a youth determined to fight with a knife.

Had the boy ambushed him? Ladino hated to admit it, but seven years in that damp cell on Alcatraz Island had obviously dimmed his father’s time-honored teachings. He had failed to sense the changes in his horse and the wildlife around him.

And where was his horse?

Nothing made sense. He’d not only forgotten today, but scattered events of previous days had also vanished. The memories he did see were vague, like rippled reflections on water, the images skewed and trembling.

Focusing on his clearest memory, he dove after it, seizing pieces before they could escape. An enormous rock surrounded by ocean, smothered with fog. A red-bearded guard unlocking the door to his cage. The surge of satisfaction. The bloodlust and war cry of a wild animal freed. He had wanted to slake that lust on Red Beard himself, but that wouldn’t have gotten him any closer to Smeet.

Smeet.

Yes! The name conjured images of brutality as clearly as if he saw them through a medicine man’s crystal. Nigel Smeet, not the guard, deserved to die. And die he would.

Fed by his obsession to find Smeet, to make the man plead for the mercy denied his Apache grandmother, Ladino summoned the return of damaged instincts. Lifting his head, he studied his surroundings with an intensity that matched the heat waves shimmering from the earth.

The midday sun seared his eyes, offering him no directional clue. But as he peered far beyond the dead man and the vast expanse of grassland, he recognized the jagged western face of the Sangre de Cristos. In the valley below those peaks lay Santa Fe.

Ladino didn’t remember believing he’d find Smeet in Santa Fe, but at this point he wasn’t sure what his reasoning had been. He imagined Smeet’s pale eyes, his face wreathed in a mocking sneer as he watched Ladino die while buzzards mutilated his body.

"Not yet, you filthy, murdering bastard," Ladino whispered, his voice harsh with promise. "Not yet."

The vultures dropped lower, closer, until the first scavenger plunged from the circle. More followed. Ladino watched their wings spread to full six-foot spans as they flapped and hissed and grunted, scratching out territories atop the corpse.

He shuddered, chilled by the sweat creeping over his skin, unable to bear the thought of being eaten alive, of entering the Land of Ever Summer with his skeleton picked clean. He had to get away. Had to hide himself.

The tree. With such meager branches it only pretended to be the hiding place he truly craved, yet desperation demanded he reach it, even if he had to crawl.

When he lifted his shoulders and tried to turn over, the agony piercing his head shot its arrow into his stomach. He collapsed, forcing short puffs of air through his teeth.

He had to show the vultures he lived. If he couldn’t crawl, he’d pull himself back. Lifting his head, he pushed up on his elbows. His arms shook. The arrow of pain ripped through muscle and sinew. To keep from crying out, he squeezed his eyes shut, gritted his teeth, and dragged himself a few inches. And a few more. Across the rut. Halfway there. Beside one of the boulders now, just a yard from his goal.

Ladino gripped the hilt of his knife, dug in his heels, and lifted his body for one final stretch. As he gained the tree’s shade, a tortured growl shredded his throat. He clutched his stomach, certain he’d torn himself apart. Between his fingers flowed a warm, sticky wetness. He jerked his hand away and stared at his palm. Blood. His blood.

Frowning, he glanced down at himself and saw the blood-soaked gash in his dark brown serape. He fingered apart the rip and noticed the still soggier slice in his dirty gray shirt. Beneath that, a bright red bolt of lightning slashed across his belly. A deep muscle wound, slow to heal. And what skin he could see through the slick smear appeared red and swollen.

"Stupid . . . stupid," he murmured, his voice slurred. "You should have stayed put."

Forcing himself into a better sitting position, he clutched the woolen cape and slit the neckline completely open with his knife. Something hit the dirt with a soft thwack. Damn. He’d cut the thong of his medicine bag.

Later, he told himself. Deal with it later.

After pulling the serape from around his shoulders, he cut the woolen fabric into strips, then opened the pouch of healing herbs he carried tied to a suspender button of his trousers. He sprinkled powdered Acacia leaves into the gash. Rolling a serape strip into a pad, he pressed it to the wound, then wrapped another strip around his midriff to hold the pad in place. Clenching his jaw, he yanked the makeshift bandage tight and tied it off.

Exhausted, he fell back, still clutching his knife so tightly his fingers ached. In the sky, a few vultures continued their circular dance, absorbing him in their pattern of flight. The earth spun, and his vision blurred. He let his eyelids drift shut, too tired to fight the blanket of unconsciousness until he recognized the eerie rasp of feathers scraping against rock.

Startled, he turned his head. A vulture, perched atop the largest boulder, stared down at him, its wings outstretched. Black eyes glittered like Apache Tears in a background of wrinkled red skin. Ladino saw no intelligence, no cunning. Just patience.

Patience . . . and hunger.

Chills prickled his skin as the vulture hopped down from the rock. With a weak gesture he tried to scare the bird. But the vulture, which loomed just out of his reach, only spread its wings higher, wider, until a black, jagged shadow of death feathered Ladino’s legs where the tree’s cloak of safety could not reach. The bird hissed, then opened its mouth as if to laugh at the pitiful sight he presented.

"Touch me . . . and bánaagúúya—I’ll fix you." Voicing a savage growl, he knifed a clumsy arc in the air. "Go away, tseeshuuye!"

Fighting lightheadedness and the inevitable fall of his eyelids, he cut another arc, weaker this time. The bird did not move. With a courage that drove slivers of ice through Ladino’s soul, the vulture bided its time.

* * *

Can one serve God and resent Him at the same time?

Adela believed it could be true. Especially now, as she contemplated her first solicitation trip as a novice Sister of Charity. She and her companions, Sisters Blandina and Mary Antonia, had been traveling from mining camp to mining camp collecting donations for St. Vincent’s Hospital in Santa Fe. After weeks of riding sore-footed mules, walking hundreds of miles over terrain meant only for mountain goats, and being driven in borrowed ore wagons—as they were now—Adela had reached the end of her physical, emotional, and spiritual strength.

Instead of drawing her closer to God, closer to being ready for full vows and the black habit she longed for, exhaustion hounded her with visions of hiding behind her homeless mother’s skirts as she begged for work . . . or a warm place to sleep . . . or a scrap of bread. Though the anxiety Adela felt now only echoed the terror and helplessness she’d felt as a six-year-old child, she still couldn’t forget the cold November day her mother had abandoned her at the convent.

"Look!" exclaimed Sister Blandina, interrupting Adela’s thoughts. She pointed at the sky. "Vultures. Just over the rise. I wonder what they’ve found?"

O’Gilvie, their driver, stared up at the circling creatures. The jaunty Irish airs he’d been whistling died on the breeze. "With the creatures hangin’ right over the road like that, I’d be thinkin’ it’s a mule, or maybe a horse."

"The animal will be dead?" asked Mary Antonia, her voice a squeak as she tucked her chin into the white collar of her habit.

Adela smiled wistfully, feeling old and too wise, envious of Mary Antonia’s sheltered life. She tried to be thankful her companion was a teacher at the orphan asylum and not a nurse—a nurse who tried to exorcise her demons daily by fighting for some control over mortality.

"If not dead, then dreadful close," said O’Gilvie. "We’ll be findin’ out soon enough." He slapped the reins and urged his mules to climb the hill. "If ye’ve got handkerchiefs, ye’d best get ‘em out in case the smell . . ." His words trailed into silence as the Santa Fe Valley spread before them.

"Holy Mary, Mother of God!" cried Sister Mary Antonia. She closed her eyes, crossed herself, and swayed in her seat.

"Whoa!" O’Gilvie pulled back on the reins, stopping his mules. "Bless me soul," he whispered.

"It’s a man!" exclaimed Sister Blandina.

A man! Adela shot to her feet. Only a pair of boot soles peeked through the tangled legs of the carrion animals. Despite the heat, gooseflesh shuddered down her arms as she watched the mass of black wings and red, welted necks teem over what had to be a body. Only once before had she experienced a sight to match this barbaric scavenging of human life.

O’Gilvie gripped her arm. "Sit down, Sister Adela! Ye make a grand target for any brigand still hidin’, and we don’t know how long ago this happened."

Adela obeyed. Yet as she crouched in her seat, waiting to hear a stray bullet or see some sign of danger, the compulsion to battle death overwhelmed her.

"We can’t just sit here." She touched O’Gilvie’s shoulder. "What if he’s alive? We have to save him!"

"Save him?" O’Gilvie gave a snort of laughter and shook his head. "It’s lucky we’ll be to find all o’ the man’s bones."

Adela flinched, glancing quickly back at the feasting birds. The ache of resignation settled in her stomach, and she turned back to face the Irishman. "If that’s the case, surely enough time has passed for any danger to be gone. We can still keep the vultures from destroying what’s left of the body."

O’Gilvie quirked his lips and nodded. "Aye, that we can."

He whistled at his mules and slapped the reins, but the animals refused to budge. Instead, they brayed and sidestepped in their harnesses, spooked by the vultures and the miasma of death.

Adela tossed the corners of her habit cape over her shoulders and scrambled out of the wagon. As she ran down the hill, the ties of her outdoor bonnet came loose, and the oversized cap of brown serge flew off her head, leaving a tightly fitted bonnet of the same color to cover her cropped hair.

"Shoo!" Waving her arms, Adela rushed at the vultures. "Shoo! Go away! Shoo, I said!"

The vultures hissed, flapped their wings, scattered, moved afield, but refused to go farther than a few feet from the corpse.

Finally seeing the extent of the damage, Adela let out a cry. Enough of the face was still intact that she could tell he’d been only an adolescent.

As the flies swarmed around her, and she smelled the first stirrings of decay, a convulsion tightened in her stomach. Adela gave way to instinct and averted her face, covering her watering mouth with her hand. The birds crowded back. Adela swallowed her revulsion and grabbed fistfuls of her brown habit. She flipped her skirt hem in the air, not caring who saw her petticoats and black stockings.

"Mr. O’Gilvie, hurry! I need help!"

Still unable to budge his mules, O’Gilvie tied off the reins and vaulted from the seat. He grabbed his rifle from the wagon bed and shot into the air. The mules jumped at each sharp report, braying even louder as they jerked in their harnesses. The vultures lifted to the sky, drifting on the final thundering echoes.

Adela turned and saw O’Gilvie help Sister Blandina down from the end of the wagon. Sister Mary Antonia grasped the box board and crept toward the tail gate, clutching her handkerchief to her face with her free hand.

"Leave Mary Antonia there," Adela called up the hill. "She shouldn’t see this."

The frail sister sat back down, and even from this distance Adela could see her shoulders sag with relief. O’Gilvie trotted down the hill carrying a shovel. Sister Blandina followed, her petite form two heads shorter than that of the burly Irishman.

When O’Gilvie reached Adela’s side, he shook his head and issued a low whistle.

"A boy, Mr. O’Gilvie," Adela whispered, fighting to keep her teeth from chattering. "Just a boy."

"Aye, but old enough to fight with a knife," he said, pointing to the blood-stained blade just beyond the youth’s stiff fingers. "It’s still a shame the lad came to such a bad end, even before the buzzards."

Sister Blandina scooted to a halt behind O’Gilvie, breathing heavily and waving flies away from her face as she peered around his arm. Shock and horror flew into her wide hazel eyes. She spun on her heel, clutching her stomach. For long moments she remained motionless. When she turned at last, Adela recognized the stiffness in her shoulders, saw the effort it took her to school her features into a mask of acceptance.

O’Gilvie dropped the shovel aside. "Well, we’d better get the poor lad off the road." He sighed, lifting the stiffening body at the armpits. "You sisters take his feet."

Blandina knelt quickly and grabbed one of the youth’s ankles with both hands. Adela grasped the other, and together they helped O’Gilvie drag the body away from the road.

"After I dig the grave, I’ll take a closer look at the area and see if I can figure out what happened."

Blandina nodded. "I’ll administer last rites."

The words sent a visceral shiver through Adela. She glanced down at the mutilated body and began to pluck absently at one white point of her turned-down collar. Feeling a light touch on her arm, she lifted her head.

"Are you all right, Adela?"

She stared at Blandina. Seeing her companion’s expression of shared understanding, Adela felt the familiar bloom of gratitude and admiration. However frightened Sister Blandina Segale might be, nothing daunted her when duty demanded. Always, she met her own fears with faith and courage, her actions challenging others to do the same. Never wanting to disappoint her mentor, to lose her respect, Adela tried. But death was so final. How could one have faith and courage, or feel anything but guilt and loss of control in its irrevocable presence?

She managed a nod. "I’m fine."

Blandina offered a gentle smile. "Then perhaps you can check on Mary Antonia."

Adela nodded again and hurried away, hating the relief that coiled into her conscience like a snake. As she gained the road and skirted the blood-spattered dirt, movement caught her eye.

Blown by a sudden gust of wind, a dusty, broad-brimmed black hat rolled across the rocky ground until it slapped up against a boulder and stopped. Beside that boulder, Adela saw bloody scraps of material.

Clothing? And under the tree . . . another body?

She braced herself as she neared the cedar, expecting to find only flies, picked bones, and gore.

What she did see defied imagination. This man had suffered no disfigurement whatsoever, though his savage looks made it even harder for her to keep from shivering despite the heat. Instinctively she knew this man had murdered the boy in the road. But why? What had happened?

As if it were possible to find answers merely by looking, she searched his face and found his eyes closed. Yet his expression was feral, defiant of death and danger like a sleeping wildcat. His head lay collapsed to one side, a red band covering the expanse of his brow, while along his smooth jaw, dirt caked in dried rivulets of perspiration. A leather thong bound his hair at his nape, leaving a long tail of thick mahogany waves to riot over the ground. Blood smeared his shirt above a makeshift bandage, but there was no sense of death, no odor of its finality. Only the hint of sweat and leather and wounded flesh.

What if he was still alive?

That thought was all she needed to shove down her dread and dash to his side. In the loose curl of his crimson-stained fingers rested a knife. Crusted at its hilt were traces of more blood, but the blade itself shone, no doubt cleaned of the boy’s life fluid when this wildman had cut up his serape to form the bandage around his midsection.

She dropped to her knees. Avoiding his knife hand, she grasped his other wrist and gasped.

He had a pulse!

 

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