Authors: Kerry Newcomb
This novel is for Patty, my wife and best friend, and for my children, Amy Rose, Paul Joseph, and Emily Anabel who fill our house with noise and our lives with love.
May 1, 1846
HE BODY BEGAN TO
pick up speed the farther down the incline it rolled. Arms splayed out, legs kicked high. A boot went sailing off into the spiny embrace of an ocotillo. The falling man’s coarsely woven brown serape snagged on a prickly pear, but the momentum of the corpse pulled the plant out of the earth and carried it along with the tumbling body that no longer resembled anything but a rag doll, a toy man that someone in their haste had discarded.
The dead man, a ranchero from the look of his tattered clothes, started a small avalanche as he made his way down the hillside, head over heels, sliding on his belly in the brown rubble, then inevitably twisting, one shoulder up and the other down, loose-limbed and blood-smeared, until he came to rest against a tangle of creosote bush about twenty yards above the floor of the arroyo. The ranchero was joined there, a few seconds later, by another equally ragged man with red hair, who had spied the dead Mexican’s ungainly descent from the ridge and stumbled forward to examine the serape-draped figure.
Red Hair looked down at the lifeless form whose features, streaked by thorn and briar, had become a garish death mask with only the merest hint of how the ranchero had appeared in life. Had he been young or old, fair of face or homely as a wart? Was he a man of brave deeds, a coward, a proud man, or humble as a saint? Questions without answers … And perhaps most important of all, Red Hair thought as he lifted the man’s serape and gazed down at the gaping hole left by an exiting bullet, who shot the poor bastard in the back?
The front of the ranchero’s shirt was matted with blood, and now that he was still, the wound had already begun to attract flies. For a few seconds the buzzing of the insects was the only audible sound as they hovered in the hot stillness above the dead man on the hillside. Red Hair reached down and brushed sand from the man’s cheekbone. It was an oddly tender gesture, an act of pity for this battered corpse seeping the last of its fluids into the thirsty earth.
Gunfire cracked like thunder and echoed down the broken battlements of the ridge. Red Hair winced and ducked forward, the sudden exertion causing him to groan. He gingerly prodded the lump on his forehead and cursed. The scalp wound had been there since he had climbed out of the Río San Juan a couple of days ago. Something had struck him but he didn’t know what. The pain had lessened to a dull ache that only bothered him when he touched his scabbed flesh. Thirst plagued him now, and a lingering nausea that had returned after only a few hours lapse. He glanced up the slope as the gunfire continued to echo down the long-dry hills, and he realized with no small relief that the shots weren’t meant for him. He glanced again at the dead man at his side.
“Friends of yours? Well, it’s none of my business,” he muttered. But then what was? He noticed a familiar bulge beneath the ranchero’s sticky red-stained vest, and lifting a fringed flap, discovered the worn walnut grip of an Allan pepperbox revolving pistol tucked in the man’s belt. The six-barreled, .32 caliber percussion pistol was loaded and primed. The weapon’s walnut grip had suffered a crack at one time, but someone, perhaps the ranchero, had bound the wood together with sinew and hardened glue. The gun butt was as sturdy as new.
Red Hair leaned back against the baked hillside and, after turning on his side, glanced longingly at the east end of the arroyo. Common sense told him to avoid the gunfire. Every weary aching fiber of his being told him this much … that he was courting trouble the longer he remained in Mexico. For two days Red Hair had been working his way north and east as best he could, keeping to the high country as much as possible and avoiding all contact with the locals. Mexico and the United States were at war, and here in the foothills of the Sierra Oriental, a wounded Anglo was the intruder. After checking the loads in his second weapon, a Patterson Colt holstered at his side, Red Hair paused a moment to examine his own sun-browned, callused hands. They seemed like alien appendages to him. He could learn nothing about himself from them other than the fact he appeared to have a trace of Indian in him. Two days ago he had examined his features, mirrored on the surface of the Río San Juan: red hair; a blunt, square jaw; a youthful, good-natured face offset by his sad-eyed gaze. He was a big man, six-foot-two when not stumbling along, long arms dangling and his whole carriage stooped over by thirst and a throbbing headache. He had studied his own reflection but was staring into the dark green eyes of a stranger. Lying here on the hillside with a corpse for company, Red Hair ruefully confronted his own conscience and made a decision.
“Well, one thing’s for sure, whoever I am I must be a damn fool,” he croaked. This man with no name knew he could not walk away from the gunfire. He must climb the ridge and see for himself, no matter the risk. Five rounds in the Patterson, six in the Allan. He was ready for trouble. His bravado caused him to mirthlessly laugh, which in turn started his head hurting. He laughed anyway and rode out the pain.
When the delirium passed, the man with red hair rolled onto his belly and began to work his way crab-legged up the hillside, dragging himself along from one clump of creosote to the next and bruising his knuckles on the bleached rocks. Sweat stung his eyes and streaked his features, leaving a crisscross of trails upon his dust-caked cheeks and forehead. The sand felt like hot ashes in his boots as the climb began to take its toll, yet the sound of gunfire drew him on like a moth to firelight.
“Isabella! Get down!” the black man shouted. He hauled the ten-year-old girl back behind the wagon bed as a flurry of bullets struck the wooden siding, ricocheted off the coffin on the wagon bed, and spattered the two with splinters as they dropped to the creekbank. Zion’s strong right arm held fast the struggling child. Isabella Quintero was a high-spirited girl with too much courage for her own good. She lifted her face, spat out a mouthful of muddy water and tried to stand, but the former slave at her side pulled his charge back alongside him.
Isabella was a pretty girl, even with muddy features. Her black hair was gathered for the most part in a bun on the back of her head, although several strands had escaped to lie against the side of her neck. She had soft dark eyes and lips the color of cherry wine.
“Are you all right?” Zion asked. At five-foot-six, he didn’t stand much taller than Isabella, who had started to gain her height at an early age, but Zion was wider by several inches. His shoulders and arms were corded with muscles, and his ebony flesh, where his coarse cotton shirt was damp with perspiration, moved with sleek and supple grace. A little over a decade ago he had escaped his former masters in East Texas and crossed the Río Grande to freedom. Half starved and desperate, he had been taken in by Don Sebastien Quintero, Isabella’s father. Now, at thirty years of age, he had risen to the position of foreman and the don’s trusted segundo, Quintero’s second in command. It was not a responsibility Zion took lightly.
He rose up, sweat beading his close-cropped black hair, and brought his shotgun to bear on the boulder-strewn hillside that swept sharply up from the east bank of the creek. The shotgun boomed and belched black smoke, sending a load of buckshot toward the three shadowy figures who had ambushed the Quinteros’ wagon. One barrel was for the two men hunkered down to the right of the wagon about twenty-five yards up from the water’s edge. The second barrel of buckshot caused the lone gunman to Zion’s left to yelp and drop behind a limestone ledge. A plume of brownish-yellow dust erupted from the front of the ledge as the dark-skinned man in a scarlet and black serape vanished from sight. At about thirty yards the spread of pellets wouldn’t be fatal, but they’d sting like hell.
“Oh stop. Please. Stop this!” a woman with pale yellow hair fine as cornsilk shouted from up near the singletree at the front of the wagon. Josefina Quintero, Isabella’s stepmother, was holding the reins to the team of bay mares that had hauled the wagon along the road from Monterrey. Although distraught by the attack, she had enough presence of mind to keep the team from bolting.
“Stay down, Miss Josefina,” Zion called out as he rested his back against a wagon wheel and proceeded to ram another charge down the twin blue-steel barrels of his shotgun. The woman gave him a wide-eyed stare and nodded as if she understood, but Zion doubted she did. The sound of gunfire and the proximity of violence had left her visibly shaken.
Josefina had been Don Sebastien’s paramour for several years. Only fourteen months ago the widower had defied his country’s current political climate and taken the norteamericano governess to be his wife. Publicly, the wealthy landowners around Saltillo roundly criticized Don Sebastien’s choice of a bride. Privately, it was difficult for the haciendado’s friends to find fault with his choice, for Josefina was fair of face and her skin looked as soft and cool to the taste as sweet cream. She was slender and graceful. Sensitive and reclusive by nature, the gentle Josefina had grown utterly devoted to her husband and his child, displaying a loyalty that even Don Sebastien’s untimely death had not curtailed.
Josefina stood and reached toward the coffin with an imploring look on her face, her hands outstretched as if to summon the spirit of her deceased husband to shield her and Isabella from harm. Unfortunately, the killers among the rocks harbored no respect for the dead. They did not fear ghosts. But Zion and his shotgun was another matter. So far the segundo had kept the men on the hillside at bay.
Every time Josefina pressed her cheek to the side of the coffin and pleaded to the man within, the hackles rose on the back of Zion’s neck. The only way they were going to escape this trap was through blind luck and their wits. And damn it all, the widow was losing hers.
Zion knew he would have to hold off their attackers until night. He hoped they would be able to slip away and escape under cover of darkness. He intended to backtrack and return Josefina and Isabella to Monterrey. If the ambushers were Comanches, as he suspected, they probably wouldn’t shoot the mares. Zion didn’t want to consider the possibility of losing the horses. Afoot, he might still avoid capture, but the women wouldn’t stand a chance.
Zion’s worst fears were suddenly realized as a rifled musket spoke from the hillside and one of the bay mares staggered on its hind legs, fought its traces, neighed pitifully, and collapsed into the creek. Zion cursed and grabbed a revolving pistol from his belt, loosing a furious volley of gunshots at his attackers. His pistol was a .45 caliber Allan pepperbox, a heavy-barreled weapon with a kick like a Mississippi mule. He didn’t hit anything, but the burst of gunfire gave the men on the hillside something to worry about. Zion squatted down in the creek and winked at Isabella.
“You got me all wet,” she complained.
“Better than getting shot,” Zion retorted.
“Not so much better. I don’t think you hit a thing.” She shook her head in dismay. “Carlos is much more reliable with a pistol.”
“Carlos, if you remember, señorita, is not here. He scampered off like a frightened rabbit at the first sign of trouble. Right up the hillside he went after they shot his horse out from under him.” Zion glanced ahead at the carcass of Carlos’s prized nut-brown gelding, which lay on its side in the creek. Sure were a lot of horses getting killed for the attackers to be Comanches. Most bucks would go out of their way, even to the point of risking their lives, to secure the likes of the two dead animals. He’d never heard of a war party of Comanches that wasn’t on the lookout for remounts.