Lori Hodges is a professional emergency manager and freelance writer. She was born and raised in Colorado and currently lives and works in Fort Collins. She graduated from the University of Colorado at Denver with a master’s degree in Political Science and Public Policy and from the Naval Postgraduate School with a master’s degree in Defense Studies. She has published several articles related to her field.
She is the descendant of ranching pioneers in Colorado and Wyoming and is the family genealogist. While researching the family history, Lori became intrigued with the lives of her pioneer grandparents, Michael and Sarah Mullen. Her first novel, “Sweet Twisted Pine,” follows their timeline and reveals their pioneering spirit. Lori is currently working on a non-fiction book about her grandfather as well as a memoir about her life working disasters.
The following is an excerpt from “Sweet Twisted Pine.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
2020 Colorado Authors League finalist in Western literature
I woke with my heart racing, and I jumped hastily to my feet. I expected the nightmares as a part of my nightly routine, but each step along my journey made the dreams more disturbing. This last one left me with an image of my sister I had never seen. The joyful expression that usually covered her beautiful face had been replaced by a scared, bloody complexion, and her hair was filthy and tangled in knots. I experienced an overwhelming sense of fear that Lucy’s time had run out.
The sun barely lit the sky, but my nightmare lingered, making me feel anxious and alone. Even my aching bones didn’t disturb me as I packed up camp and got the horses ready. The fire still smoldered, indicating that Sarah had tended it throughout the night. I managed to get the fire going again and had water boiling in a small kettle before Sarah woke. Her smile and the twinkle in her eyes showed her surprise at seeing me up and managing the camp, but she said nothing. Instead, she grabbed a towel, wrapped her blanket around her shoulders, and headed toward the river.
I had breakfast ready and the camp packed by the time she returned from bathing. Other than checking her horse to ensure that I’d saddled it correctly, she followed my lead and didn’t argue when I insisted on a quick departure.
The sun’s rays warmed the air, and the heat was giving me a headache. I could think of nothing but bringing my sister back home. She counted on me. I tried to picture her laughing and smiling, but the image of that horrible bloodstained face always resurfaced.
By midmorning, sweat collected at my temples from the increasing heat, and my stress had caused a horrible headache. Sarah insisted on stopping frequently to allow the horses to rest and drink from the stream. At each stop, my irritation grew. I tried to hurry her along, but she refused to listen, which led to awkward silences and tense conversation throughout the morning.
When we stopped just before dinner, I found the shade of the woods too inviting to pass up. Sarah warned me against going into the woods without a gun, but I stubbornly dismissed her with a wave over my shoulder as I left camp.
“Fine, be a fool!” she yelled as I disappeared into the woods. “But don’t come running to me when you get into trouble!”
I knew I only had a few moments to spare, but I needed time to think without the sun beating on my face. I ate my sandwich slowly as I walked through the woods. The trees were enormous, and the smell of pine needles filled the air.
I couldn’t understand how the peace and cheer I’d felt in the river the night before could vanish so quickly. In a way, it would have been better to remain miserable, instead of having a welcome moment of peace and seeing it disappear again. The constant headache and pounding behind my eyelids made the sun’s intensity unbearable. To make matters worse, I’d been rude and unpleasant to Sarah all day.
I turned to go back and speak with her when I accidentally stepped on a branch, lost my balance, and reached for the closest thing I could find to keep from falling. Unfortunately, this caused me to hit a large, extremely unpleasant porcupine. Clearly seeing me as a threat, the beast decided to unleash its wrath upon my body, embedding quills into my right arm and side. I felt as if I had been stabbed with several hot pokers, but I had no time to think about the pain. I jumped to my feet and ran as fast I could through the trees.
I must have hollered—or, more likely, screamed like a little girl—because Sarah rode her horse into the woods with her pistol drawn. She had a frightened look on her face, which quickly changed to irritation when she caught sight of me.
“You are a stubborn, arrogant man!” Sarah yelled as she looked around the forest and shoved her gun back into her belt. “Why can’t you listen to what you’re told?”
In no mood to hear a lecture, I waved her away and walked toward the river. I didn’t know how many quills had actually struck me until I felt the moisture on my arm and looked down to see my sleeve blotted with blood and stuck to my body. I stumbled slightly when I saw the large quills sticking from my side.
Sarah started to ride past me toward Ginger but slowed when she realized what had actually happened. Her scowl disappeared, replaced by a look of great concern. “Michael, you’re hurt!” She swiftly jumped off her horse and walked toward me.
“I know,” I said sharply, continuing toward the river. “I’ll take care of it.” I looked down at the stab wounds again and knew I was the fool Sarah thought me to be. She followed me, but I never turned around to acknowledge her. My face grew red, and I couldn’t make eye contact with her. I shook my head in frustration over my foolishness.
I tried to strip off my mangled shirt, but the quills kept the material firmly attached to my body. Every small movement sent a jolt of sharp pain up my arm and into my shoulder. I counted at least fifteen quills in my arm and several more near my ribs. I couldn’t believe how bad something that small could hurt. Light-headed, I washed the blood away and tried to pull out the first quill. No matter what I tried, however, it wouldn’t budge. It held on dearly to the tissues beneath my skin. I tried again and again, but the quill just wouldn’t move. I sat clumsily on the bank of the river, laid my head against a tree, and tried to steady my swimming head and erratic emotions.
Sarah came up behind me. “Do you need help?”
“No, just leave me alone for a few minutes,” I replied crossly. The memory of her scolding me was still vivid in my mind. I felt horribly foolish, but I couldn’t bear to hear any more lectures.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“What’s the matter?” I repeated, turning to glare at her. “I’m sitting out here in the middle of nowhere. My sister is missing. God knows where. She could be in Philadelphia, or any other town, for all I know. Never in my life have I been helpless, but right now I am utterly and completely … lost.”
I stood, wobbling slightly before turning to look at her. “I am in a land where I do not belong, with a woman who detests me and cannot wait to see me fall on my face again so that she can laugh at my awkwardness. And a beast just attacked me!” I turned on my heel and took as deep a breath as I could, blowing it out as I stumbled away.
Sarah had remained silent during my rant, staring at me with a look of pain on her face. Why did I keep lashing out at the one person who could help me? It wasn’t her fault that I kept making mistakes.
After walking only a few hundred feet, I turned back to find Sarah only a few feet behind me. Trying not to act too surprised, I finally looked her in the eye.
“I want to apologize for my horrendous behavior.” I looked back at the ground and held my arm away from my right side, keeping it from striking the sharp quills near my ribs. “I was unforgivably rude.”
“You don’t have to apologize to me for expressing how you feel. Besides, there’s truth in the things you said. I’ve been very hard on you since we met, and not always for good reason.” She stood with her hand behind her back and her head tilted to one side, closely examining me.
“That’s no excuse for my unbearable behavior,” I protested. “I just don’t know who I am anymore.” I sat on a log carefully, aware that several sharp objects still protruded from my side.
“I do,” she said clearly. “You are a brother who dearly loves his sister, and you want nothing more than to keep her safe. You’re in a hard position, Michael, and I realize I haven’t made it any easier.”
“Thank you, but you’ve given me more than I hoped to find when I traveled to Colorado. No matter how it may seem, I do in fact appreciate your kindness.”
She smiled and turned toward the horses.
“Yes?” She hesitated but didn’t turn around.
I looked down at my arm and my side. “Could you please help me get these horrible things out of my body?”
“Of course.” She started walking again. “Let me get a few things from my bag.”