The Spanish Bride (by Jenny G)

Summary:  Adam takes an unexpected horse buying trip to Mexico.  He finds an old friend, a luxurious hacienda, fine horses, a beautiful senorita and more trouble than a man ever wants to see.

Rating:  PG-13.  Implied sex and some violence.  (101,150 words)

 

The Spanish Bride

Fore-word

Hot, spring sunlight shone obliquely down from the west. It sent long fingers of midnight-dark shadow pointing towards the eastern horizon and highlighted the cloud of fine, white dust which hung like a pall over the solidly built, high fenced corral, turning it into a shroud of pure gold. Even at this tail end of a blazing hot afternoon, the heat was still intense, stiffing, all but overwhelming. The air was motionless, thick, hot and humid with the promise of an oncoming storm. It stank of wood-smoke from the small, smouldering fires that were scattered here and there and of sweat and fear and pain.

The dust was both the result of, and a mute testimony to, the day’s activity and the long hours of grinding hard labour that had worn the men down to a frazzle. That labour wasn’t all over yet. On a working ranch, even a vast, sprawling operation the size of the Ponderosa, the work started early, before the rise of the sun, and continued until it was dark. Hoss Cartwright, a big man by anyone’s measure, clad in a dirty, sweat-stained shirt, baggy pants and a very tall hat, straightened up from beside the fire and put a hand to his back. He twisted and stretched, gently easing stiffening muscles, and looked towards the corral. A grimace twisted his broad, bluff features and screwed up his powder-blue eyes.

“Hey, Joe, I reckon Adam’s gittin’ ready ta ride that hammer-headed sorrel ag’in. You want ta go see?”

Joseph Cartwright, an altogether smaller and lighter man, and Hoss’s younger brother by just over six years, swallowed the last dregs of his coffee and stood up as well. He came up just to the bigger man’s shoulder. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” His still slightly boyish, handsome face split into a grin, and he jabbed his elbow into his brother’s ribcage somewhere above the broad, leather belt. The two men started walking towards the scene of the action.

The big corral, at the centre of a web-work of fences and feeding chutes and lesser holding-pens, was a hive of purposeful activity. There were, perhaps, thirty hired men milling about in a state of well-ordered confusion. Some few were on horseback inside the corral; most were on foot. Garbed in hard-wearing work-clothes in muted earth colours: mainly dull browns and greys, taupe and henna and dark, forest green with an occasional flash of bright-blue or red, they were all experienced, hand-picked men. Every one of them knew where he should be and what he ought to be doing. Almost all had made sure that his job was done and that he was free to watch the shenanigans inside the corral. They lined the fences, using the thick boards like the rungs of a ladder to raise themselves head and shoulders over the topmost rail. They moved aside to make room for the younger Cartwrights; they were, after all, the sons of the owner.

Joe and Hoss climbed to the top of the fence and sat, each with one leg hooked over, and surveyed the area inside. It was a wide-open expanse, almost empty, roughly square with rounded-off corners. The sturdy, board fencing went all the way ‘round. It was filled with bright golden sunshine and inky shadows that made harsh, geometric patterns on the hard-packed, pale-grey dirt of the floor. Heat-hazes shimmered and played tricks on the eyes.

There were just two mounted men inside the corral; they were sitting at ease on their horses and talking quietly together while they waited for the fun to begin. They were hot, dusty and tired. The horses had dust-caked, sweat-darkened hides and their tails flicked restlessly at the constantly tormenting flies. Hoss jogged Joe with his elbow and indicated that he should look across at the chutes built in to the further wall.

Poised above the tight, wooden box that contained the wild, sorrel horse and silhouetted, just for a moment, against the bronzed bowl of the sky, was the unmistakable, powerful but strangely graceful form of their elder brother. Adam Cartwright was all dressed in black: black leather boots that reached to his knees underneath stout, black woollen pants, a black linen shirt opened almost as far as his belt and a black felt hat wedged firmly down on his head. Heavyweight leather gloves, shotgun-chaps and spurs completed his ensemble. Adam was a big man for a horse-beaker. They tended, generally, to be a small and light framed breed, much like his younger brother. Tall and wide-shouldered with a broad, deep chest, narrow hips and long, lean legs, Adam had a high centre of gravity which made it hard to stay in the saddle of a madly bucking horse. Nevertheless, he wasn’t a man to ask any hired hand to take on a task that he wasn’t prepared to tackle himself. What he might lack in balance because of his size, he made up for with skill, physical strength and pure sticking power.

At that exact moment, his face was lost in the dark shadow cast by his hat as he looked down at the horse. His body was tense, and every slow, measured movement betrayed his intense concentration as he spread his legs wide over the chute and then lowered himself carefully into the saddle. Sweat trickled inside his shirt and ran down his backbone; it glued the dark fabric close against his skin. It was only the heat that caused it. He wasn’t afraid of the horse, and he wasn’t nervous. There wasn’t a thing on four legs that Adam Cartwright was afraid of. He couldn’t afford there to be. Any trace of anxiety would transmit itself directly to the animal via his hands and his seat and his smell. Then the horse would have the upper hand and this battle between man and beast would be over before it was even begun.

A broad, jag-toothed grin split Hoss Cartwright’s face. “Ten’ll get you twenty big brother rides ‘im this time.”

“Not a chance!” Joe’s reaction was spontaneous. “That jug-head’s as mean as they come, and he’s got Adam’s measure. He’s gonna eat dirt!”

Hoss settled himself more firmly on the top of the fence. “We got a bet, then?”

Grinning with sly anticipation, Joe pushed his hat to the back of his head. “We got a bet, ‘though it’s a shame to take your money.”

Across the corral, Adam eased himself into the leather. He felt the big, red-bay gelding shift under him, muscles tensing as he felt the man’s hated weight on his back. This horse had won himself something of a reputation. Not only was he a big bucking-machine of corded muscle, tightly strung sinew and solid bone, there was a resident evil inside his head. He had a wicked and unpredictable whipsawing buck, and he’d learned the trick of dashing his rider’s legs up against the wall of the corral. He also had a penchant for turning on a fallen man with flashing, sharp-edged hooves and attempting to kick his head in. Adam might not be afraid, but he was prepared to treat this brute of an animal with a healthy modicum of respect.

He sat himself deep in the saddle and put his feet in the stirrups – but not too deeply: only his toes. He didn’t intend to be thrown and dragged by the foot. The horse lifted his blindfolded head, and his red nostrils quivered. An intelligent beast, as all dangerous horses were, he knew very well what this was all about, and he was more than ready. A quiver went through his hide. Adam made soft, crooning noises that he didn’t expect to work.

Adam tightened his hand on the reins, not winding them ‘round – that was another trap he wasn’t about to fall into: he had seen a man’s arm torn off with his fingers caught up in the bridle. A muscle ticked in his cheek. He was ready and saw no point in waiting. He nodded curtly to the two men designated to assist him and said a single word, “Outside!”

At that given signal the side of the chute fell open, and the red horse’s blindfold was snatched away. Without pausing for breath, the horse leapt sideways into the corral. A stinking, sweating, red-coated demon straight out of hell, he jumped high in the air, then came down on all four legs at once with all the power of a steam-driven pile driver. The force of the impact transmitted itself through bone and muscle and saddle leather into Adam’s back. The jolt was enough to drive the man’s backbone out through the top of his hat, but Adam was a practised and experienced rider, and he was expecting it. He was sitting loose in the saddle with only his jaw locked tight against the jar that could sever his tongue with his teeth, or knock his teeth out of his head.

Then the red horse arched his short, bony back and started to buck in earnest. He twisted and turned, jack-knifing his powerful, compact body and sending the shock of his landings first through one shoulder and then through the other. With the reins held tight in one hand, Adam threw his other arm wide to balance his body and to dissipate some of the gut-wrenching force that threatened to tear him apart. He sat very close to the leather, not giving the gelding a chance to shake him loose. Even so, the horse’s rapid progress across the corral gave him no chance to plan ahead. As the grey dust started to rise up around him, churned by the horse’s hooves, he could already see which way they were heading, and he knew that he was in trouble.

Apart from the odd, ribald comment, the watching men had been restrained until the chute door opened, discussing quietly among themselves the merits of horse and rider. When the pair emerged with such explosive force into the arena, a concerted roar went up from thirty assembled throats. The men whooped and yelled advice and encouragement to man and mount alike. Out in the centre of the packed-dirt expanse, the words were unintelligible, a rolling wall of sound that meant nothing to either. All Adam’s concentration was centred on the horse, and what the gelding wanted was to be free of this fenced in enclosure with its unaccustomed smells and sights and sounds; he wanted to be free of the saddle and the straps of the bridle that encompassed his head. Most of all, he wanted the clinging man-thing dead.

Adam had pressing problems of his own. As he had expected, the horse was heading, in his inimitable, stiff-legged manner, towards the wooden wall that surrounded the corral. Adam knew exactly what the animal had in mind; the horse’s intentions were perfectly clear: he was aiming to smash the man’s vulnerable knee joint against the unyielding, rock-solid post of the fence and reduce it to splinters of red cartilage and bone.

There was little that Adam could do to deter it. One of his mounted assistants pressed his horse close to the red horse’s flank, trying to turn him, but the wildly bucking sorrel kept right on the way he was going. Adam couldn’t unlock his jaw to yell instructions or even to call out for help. At the very last moment, he kicked free of the stirrup and lifted his leg out of the way, swinging it over the animal’s rump and standing in the other iron with all his weight on one side of the saddle and his hands on the saddle-horn.

The horse crashed the side of the saddle into the fence with enough force to make the earth shake. Adam was heartily glad that his knee wasn’t there. The horse hit the ground hard, spinning end for end. Adam lifted himself back into the saddle but there was no way that he could recapture the wildly flying stirrup iron.

The horse had him now and both of them knew it. It was only a matter of time. The animal started to jump in tight, stiff-legged circles, switching directions with every bound. Discretion being, by far, the better part of valour, Adam decided that it was time to part company with his less than agreeable mount. He kicked his other foot free of the stirrup and, as the big horse came down, half slipped and half fell from the saddle.

Shouts went up around the corral. Most of the men were disappointed although some few were pleased to see a Cartwright brought down. Adam rolled frantically to protect his head as the horse spun ‘round, determined to finish him off with his feet. The two mounted men yelled and waved their hats and drove the creature away. The whole ride had lasted, by Adam’s estimation, something less than twenty seconds.

With one watchful eye on the horse, still bucking frantically as he tried to free himself of the saddle, the flying reins and the stirrups that banged against his sweating sides, Adam picked himself up from the ground and banged off some of the dust. That horse had spirit and lots of potential, but he had one mean streak of temper, and Adam was starting to wonder if he could ever be broken. With one hand to the brand new, and still spreading bruise on his hip, Adam turned and followed his long, pointed shadow to that portion of the fence where he could see the unmistakable forms of Hoss and Joe – two extremes of the human design, perched on the topmost rail. Nothing much was hurt except for his dignity, but fatigue and the pain of the day’s accumulated lumps and bumps turned his lame-hipped walk into a positive limp. His spurs rang in an uneven rhythm on the hard ground as he went.

With a rueful expression, Hoss slipped a smug Little Joe the twenty dollars he owed him. Adam saw the money change hands, and a scowl creased his dusty, sweat-stained but still darkly handsome face. It was a fine thing, he thought with disgust, when a man’s own family took wagers against him. In one fluid motion he mounted the fence and settled himself astride the top rail. He pushed back his hat and favoured both brothers with a flash of his white-toothed smile. “I guess you two boys enjoyed the ride,” he suggested mildly with only a trace of sardonic humour to season the effect.

Hoss, at least, had the grace to colour hotly, but Joe still had a gleam of mischief lighting his hazel eyes. “Adam, when you stepped out of that saddle, I sure thought that horse was gonna toss you clean over that fence!” Now that Adam was out of danger, he could see the funny side of his big, bold brother being dumped in the dirt by a horse.

Adam didn’t see it in quite the same way. His eyes glowed a deep, tawny gold. “Is that a fact, little brother? I suppose you think maybe you could do better?”

The emphasis on that one word was enough to wipe the grin from Joe’s face. Bristling, his leaned forward and stabbed a forefinger into Adam’s broad chest. “Just maybe I can…”

“Well, I wouldn’t stand in your way.” For Adam, the affair of the bet still rankled; he wanted a way to get his own back.

Hoss looked from one to the other with a frown on his face. “Hey, fellas, that ain’t such a good idea.”

Hard faced, Adam applied smooth logic to the argument. “Why not? He thinks that he can ride the horse when I can’t; let him go and prove it.”

“Why don’t I just do that?” Joe responded hotly. He started to climb down from the fence.

Hoss, positioned in the middle between his two brothers, made a futile grab for his arm. “Don’t be a dad-burned fool, Joe! You’re tired. You’ve already ridden a dozen broncs today.”

Joe slipped free of him, and his eyes flashed in Adam’s direction. “No – no, that’s okay. Big-brother here wants a lesson on how to break in a saddle pony, and I’m about to oblige him!” He jumped to the ground and stalked away, shouting to the men to load the big sorrel horse back into the chute.

Hoss yelled after him, “Joe…!”

Still angry himself, Adam ground his teeth. “No, let him go. It’s time I had some entertainment.” Hoss threw him a look of exasperation. “Adam, you sure don’t mean that.”

“No, I suppose I don’t.” Adam began to regret his display of temper, but it was already too late. The horse had been manoeuvred back into position, and Joe was getting ready to ride. He couldn’t withdraw his challenge or ask his brother not to ride with the men all looking on. To avoid losing face, both of them had to go through with it.

Joe Cartwright eased himself into the saddle and took the reins in his hand. The big horse was trembling under him, and his red hide was darkened with sweat. Joe could feel the animal’s ribs heaving under the saddle leathers. It was just possible that big brother Adam had taken the edge off the horse. If that was so, and the sorrel could be ridden to a standstill, he thought with satisfaction, then Adam would really eat crow. Joe was just in the mood to do it. He used his free hand to wedge his hat firmly down on his dusty, brown curls and nodded to the wrangler. “Out!” he said shortly.

If the horse was weary or in any way the worse for wear from his previous outing, he gave no sign of it. With his head tucked in between his front feet, he erupted sideways into the corral in a long series of stiff legged leaps. The impacts jarred Joe’s teeth together and bounced him clear out of the saddle so that the sunlight shone under his rear before he landed back in the leather.

The horse tried his usual well-practised trick and progressed in a mixture of twisting jumps and jolting turns towards the high, wooden fence. It was a ploy that has proved successful before in dislodging a man-thing, and his equine mind saw no reason why it should not work again.

Joe, long the acknowledged bronc-busting expert in the Cartwright family, thought differently. He sawed hard on the reins. The horse didn’t like it and bucked even harder, fighting the bridle for all he was worth. Joe raked his sides with his spurs, just to teach him a lesson. The horse squealed with rage, but Joe had managed to pull his head around and had turned him away from the fence. Now he was bucking in circles, spinning end for end just as fast as he could in a cartwheeling motion that made Joe feel sick.

Joe waved his arm wildly for the sake of his balance and tried to sit tight in the saddle. His previous workload was taking its toll. His thigh muscles ached as he tried to clasp the big horse’s barrel; his back burned with agony, and every jolt from the horse’s feet shot right up his spine to his skull. Joe was giddy, and his senses started to scatter. The fresh sweat of fear broke out of his skin as the world all about him shatter into disjointed fragments of darkness and light. The roar of the men’s voices started to fade, and he was left all alone with the bucking horse under him and the grim determination to stay on his back.

Devil inspired, the big, red horse had yet more wicked tricks to play: in mid-leap he reversed his direction, falling away from the saddle and dropping down on his rump. Then, as Joe settled, the horse lunged upwards, putting his head in between his knees and kicking his back legs high in the air. Despite his years of experience, Joe was taken by surprise. He felt himself leave the saddle and kicked free of the stirrups as he started to fly. The next thing he knew, he hit the ground hard. Flat on his back with his face to the sky, he saw the horse turn to come back at him. He knew he should turn to protect face and his head but his limbs moved all too slowly. The horse was still bucking; Joe felt the vibrations as his hooves hit the ground. His last conscious thought as the red beast loomed over him was that his big brother would have the satisfaction of seeing him fail.

Adam had seen Joe start to sway, and he’d seen him lift out of the saddle. The sorrel gelding turned on a dime, and he was a great deal closer to Joe’s sprawled body than either of the two mounted hustlers. Adam leapt from the fence and hit the ground running, yelling and waving his arms. Running flat out, as fast as he could, it took half of forever to cross the corral. In some sort of slowed down motion, he saw the horse bucking with the reins and stirrup irons flying and his big hooves slicing the air. He saw Joe’s arms move weakly as he tried to roll out of the way. He yelled all the harder and tried to run faster; he yelled ‘til his throat was raw. He saw the hooves come down and Joe’s body tossed up like a child’s broken doll.

Then the hustlers moved in and chased the big horse away in the very same instant that Adam arrived at Joe’s side. Hoss was just one step behind him. “Joe!” Adam dropped to his knees and reached out to touch his brother. Joe’s lungs were working, but he didn’t move. The flesh of his face was warm and pliable but totally bloodless and unresponsive. His eyes were closed, and he didn’t answer when Adam called out his name. Sucking in breath, Adam sat back on his heels and looked at him critically, trying to think, trying to analyse what had happened, trying to bludgeon a brain numbed with shock into making decisions. He had seen where the horse’s feet had struck home: in the side of the body but missing the head. He had seen the dust puff up from Joe’s shirt. Joe’s right arm lay at a very strange angle, and his breathing was rough. He couldn’t see any blood.

Adam looked up and met Hoss’s pale, anxious eyes, a million miles away on the other side of Joe’s prone body. Hoss was white, shocked and bewildered. Adam didn’t feel any better himself. ‘Though his mind was spinning in helpless confusion, it was up to Adam to get something done. He struggled to gather some wits. “Hoss, carry Joe back to the house; gently – gently. Don’t shake him about.”

Hoss gathered Joe into his arms, cradling him like a baby. Adam rose with him, carefully supporting the broken arm, and laid it across the young man’s chest. His face a fine study of concentration, Hoss set out for the ranch house. Adam grabbed the nearest cowboy by the front of the shirt. “Find Jody. Put him up on the fastest horse we’ve got and send him to town for the doctor. Tell him to hurry.” Without waiting for any response, he strode out after Hoss.

 

*******

 

Despite the furious heat of the day, the great room of the ranch house with its double thick, caulked timber walls was cold. A great, pine log fire had been built on the hearthstone, and hungry flames licked at the grey-stone chimney. The chill atmosphere was tainted by the sharp smell of burning resin. Thin tendrils of heat crept out from the fireplace, but the high beamed ceiling encompassed a vast volume of air and there was little gain made. Hoss stood with his back to the fire, warming the seat of his pants, and watched his big brother pace.

Only two of the lamps had been lit: the one with the globular shade that stood on the long, polished dresser in the dining area, and the sturdy, wide based affair that rested on the coffee table and gave out enough light to read by. Adam strode relentlessly from one patch of light to the other, then turned on his heel in one, quick movement and paced his way back. He was still limping, favouring his hip. His dark features were compressed by a scowl. Adam was furious. He was mad at Joe, and he was mad at the horse, and he was mad at the circumstances that had brought the two together. Most of all, he was mad at himself for losing his temper in the first place and goading Joe into riding the rouge red gelding. He blamed himself for seeing things going wrong and not being quick enough on his feet to do anything about it; had the damn hip slowed him down? He was the eldest, and he was in charge, and he held himself ultimately responsible. He was using his anger to mask his concern.

Outside in the night, the dry storm had finally broken; thunder and lightening flashed and roared, lighting up the landscape and rattling the glass panes in the windows. The shutters had not yet been closed, and the lightening flashed into the room. The harsh, blue radiance challenged and defeated the pale yellow lamplight. It lit Adam’s face – all flat planes and angles – as he looked anxiously towards the staircase. Hoss empathised. He knew how his brother was feeling; he felt much the same way himself. Paul Martin had been upstairs with Joe for more than an hour and they were still waiting for news.

The French long-case clock alongside the door chimed out the hour, and more thunder rumbled over the house. Adam started another circuit, and Hoss heaved a heartfelt sigh. “Adam, why don’t you just settle down? You ain’t gonna do yourself no good, nor Joe neither, iffen you work yourself up into a state.”

Adam flashed him an angry glare and turned his fury on the obvious target. “I should have that damned horse shot!”

Hoss let out a breath. At least his brother was finally talking. Adam had the habit of storing things up inside himself until he had to explode. “Why don’t you leave that ‘til mornin?” Hoss suggested, wisely not adding that Adam needed to cool down before he made that sort of decision. Right there and then, Adam Cartwright wasn’t thinking too straight.

Neither did he appear to be listening. He continued to pace, and his face was still set in that furious frown. He had no idea how closely he resembled his father on other occasions, on other, similar nights. Lightening flared, and the thunder grumbled but further away this time; the storm appeared to be moving off, but Hoss knew better. Once thunderstorms got trapped in the valleys between the high hills they tended to go around in circles until they eventually ran out of steam and drifted out over the desert. A log fell in the fire and set the sparks dancing high in the chimney. Hoss tried again; “There ain’t no point in you blamin’ yourself over this.”

Adam threw out his hands in a despairing gesture. “Who the hell else am I going to blame?”

Hoss jammed his hands deeper into his front pants pockets, and his face became pugnacious. “You weren’t ta know he was gonna fall off.”

“I knew he was tired, and I knew that horse was a killer. I should never have let him ride it.”

Hoss chewed on his lip. What Adam had said was essentially true, although no one but himself would hold him to blame. It was just one of those things that sometimes happened. Adam, still pacing, was thinking along broadly similar lines, and he came to a different conclusion. He suddenly stopped walking, and his face became anguished. He clenched his teeth together. “What in hell am I gonna tell Pa?”

Hoss simply stared at him. He knew exactly what his brother was saying, and he didn’t know what comfort to give. Their father was away in Salt Lake City on a combined business and pleasure trip; he wouldn’t be back for several more weeks. Neither of them relished the prospect of telling old Ben Cartwright what had happened to Little Joe. It was Adam who put it into words. He looked at Hoss, and his face was stricken.

“You know how Pa feels about Joe.”

Hoss knew. To give him his due, Ben had always tried to be even handed, to treat his sons all alike, but, for a long time, Joe had been the youngest. Adam and Hoss were both well aware that Ben still tended to be particularly protective; how he might react to Joe’s injuries was unpredictable at best.

Hoss shifted uncomfortably as thunder groaned afar off; his butt was starting to burn. “Joe’s gonna be all right, Adam. You gotta believe that.”

Adam gave him a look of contempt, but before he could come back with a crushing rejoinder, a door opened and then closed in the upper part of the house, and Paul Martin’ measured footsteps sounded clearly in the carpeted hallway. Both Cartwright men moved to the foot of the stairs.

Paul Martin was the family physician, a middle-aged man in a grey woollen suit and carrying his black, leather bag. He looked tired. It was nothing unusual. Neither Adam nor Hoss could remember a time in the last twenty years when Paul hadn’t looked tired. He was a man who carried the weight of the world’s sick and wounded on his own shoulders. As he came down the stairs his blue-grey eyes switched from one anxious Cartwright face to the other. “It’s all right, boys,” he assured them. “Joe is going to be fine.”

Hoss let out a mighty sigh of relief, but Adam wasn’t so easily reassured; he had been the one who had gently eased Joe out of his clothes. He had seen the state of Joe’s arm, clearly broken in two, separate places, he had seen the spreading bruises along the side of Joe’s ribcage where the big horse’s hooves had driven home, and he had heard his brother’s laboured, raspy breathing. “Tell it to me straight, Paul.”

“I’m telling you straight, Adam.” Paul bristled a little as he put his bag down on the table, then relented as he saw the strain and the near-frantic expression on Adam’s face. “Your brother’s going to be all right, but it’s going to take time. I’ve set his arm and put it in splints, and I’ve wrapped up his chest. Looks like he’s got three broken ribs, maybe four. He’s not going to be moving ‘round much for a while, and he’s going to be in some pain, but you Cartwrights are tough. He has the constitution of a haulier’s mule. He’s going to get over it.”

The relief on Adam’s face was almost comical. It was Hoss who remembered his manners. “Hey, doc, can I offer you coffee? A bed for the night?”

Paul cocked his head on one side, listening to the vagrant, elemental rumblings from outside. “I don’t think so Hoss. I reckon I’ll try to get back into town before that storm comes around again.” He picked up his bag and his hat and nodded to the two Cartwright men. “I’ll try to get out in a day or two to check how Joe’s doing. In the meantime, you won’t have much trouble keeping him quiet. I’ll see myself out.”

Once Paul was gone, driving fast in his one-horse buggy to stay ahead of the storm, Hoss stood and fingered the little brown bottle of laudanum that Paul had left to help with Joe’s pain. Adam stood in front of the fire, one hand on the mantle, staring into the flames. His face was still set into ridged lines of self-recrimination. The muscles were knotted at the hinge of his jaw, and his eyes, dark brown in this, different light, were grim and determined.

“So, what are we gonna do now?” asked Hoss, finally.

Adam turned his head to look at him, the firelight falling on just one side of his face. “Do?”

“You forgot that Joe was due ta set out for Don Esteban’s at the end of this week? It’s taken all year ta set up that deal, an’ we sure need that breeding stock. Now Joe can’t go, either you or me ‘re gonna have ta take that trip down to Mexico an’ pick out those horses.”

Adam leaned his forehead against the back of his hand and, for a moment, allowed his tired eyes to close. His breath hissed through his teeth. It was true. With all the confusion and anxiety that had followed Joe’s accident, he had completely forgotten the impending trip to the Mexican border-lands and beyond to the impressive rancho and hacienda of his father’s old friend and business acquaintance, Don Estaban Padro. It was one more thing that he had to worry about.

The heat from the fire rose into his face. He felt its scorch on his chin, his lips, his unshaven cheek and on his lightly closed eyelids. His head was heavy. His body ached. He was exhausted, physically worn by the day’s hard work and drained by emotion, so tired that he couldn’t think. But he was in charge, he was responsible, and, now that he was sure that Joe was going to recover, he would have to come up with some answers. He was aware that Hoss was watching him, waiting for him to speak; he could feel the big man’s eyes like a pressure against his back. Adam made his weary brain work.

The arduous journey had been a long time in the planning, and the tickets were already purchased: first the stage to Sacramento and then a riverboat to San Francisco and a ship down the Californian coast to San Diego. There, it would be necessary for a man to purchase horses and supplies then backtrack along the Gila trail to Yuma in Arizona where the Colorado River drops down to empty into the Gulf of Mexico. From there he would turn south across the badlands and the desert into Mexico proper. It was not a trip to be envied, or to be undertaken lightly.

It’s a long trip,” he said, finally. “At least eight weeks to get there, more coming back with the horses, and then there’s the time spent at Don Esteban’s. He’s a grandee of the old fashioned kind. He regards the social side of a business deal as important as the hard talking. It won’t be a cut and run visit. Whichever one of us goes will be gone long into the autumn – way past fall round up. Whoever stays will have to take charge of the drive to the railhead.”

The two men gazed at each other in the dim, yellow light of the oil lamps: each watching the other’s face for a sign of expression, each trying to figure out what the other was thinking. Outside the window, the sky lit with lightening and the thunder rolled. The dry storm was drifting closer again. They both knew that this trip had to be made by a Cartwright; nobody else would do. Joe had been the obvious selection. Now that he was out of the equation, someone else would have to go.

It was Hoss who broke the long silence first, “I think you ought ta go, Adam. You’ve already met Don Estaban. He knows you. ‘Sides, I was kind o’ hopin’ ta go on the big drive this year.”

“Why’s that?” Adam’s tone was sharper than he had intended. He felt instant regret.

Hoss looked sort of sheepish. “Mary was plannin’ ta meet me in Sacramento this fall. She wants ta pick out some fancy do-dads fer the weddin’, an’ she wants me ta be there ta help her.” He looked at Adam out of huge, imploring eyes. “I sure didn’t want ta disappoint her.”

Adam’s expression softened. His brother’s wedding had already been put off twice; he couldn’t make himself responsible for another delay. “Then it looks like I’m going to Mexico,” he said with a grimace that almost resembled a smile. Another log fell in the fireplace, and outside, the thunder and lightening merged into one as the dry storm passed over the house in a gesture of benediction.

 

One

 

Adam pulled his horses over to the side of the path into the solid block of shadow offered by a huge, overhanging rock. It was the only patch of shade anywhere around large enough to accommodate both horses and man, and, at that precise moment, Adam felt a pressing need to get out of the sun. From where he sat, close to the spot where the trail tipped over the shoulder of the rounded hill and began its winding descent into the next, shallow valley, he had an eagle’s-eye view of all the country that he had traversed that day. It was a harsh and unforgiving land of shattered white rock and crystalline sand, of relentless sunlight and dense, stark shadows, of dust and heat and steadily rising thermals. This world was painted in shades of yellow and ochre, of sepia and cream with bright, white highlights that dazzled the eye and tricky perspectives that could make a man wonder if what he was seeing could really be. Adam had long ago found himself longing for the sight of something green to ease the monotony.

If spring had been hot in Nevada, then early summer in these border badlands closely resembled the interior of a blast furnace or the outer reaches of hell. Heat shimmered off the broken rock; it beat down on a man’s head without mercy and blasted up into his face from the ground. It sucked the moisture out of his skin and left him constantly thirsty. The air smelled of heat and dust and dryness; it hadn’t rained here for two years or longer. The landscape was blasted and desolate. In another week or so it would become impassable: a blazing inferno where nothing could live, a veritable death trap for man and beast alike.

Motionless, he sat and listened to the stillness. He heard the hiss of his breath and the sigh of his blood. One of his horses flicked its tail at an imaginary fly. A stone rattled loudly as it tumbled away from the horse’s hoof. From further away came the sound of rock creaking as it expanded in the gathering heat. The heat hazes shivered but nothing else moved; no breath of air stirred, and not even the dust devils danced. Adam wasn’t unduly surprised; he hadn’t expected differently. Other than himself and his horses, he hadn’t seen anything living in more than three days. Already the lizards and the snakes and the scorpions had abandoned this godforsaken place.

Nevertheless, something was out there, something living and breathing. Adam was being followed; he was sure of it. The burning itch that centred squarely between his shoulder blades told him as much, and he had never known it be wrong.

At first, he had though it was Indians, perhaps just one or two braves intent on stealing his guns and his horses and, perhaps, relieving him of his hide in the process, just for amusement. Thinking about it, that didn’t seem likely. Although these hills crawled with renegade Apache, they usually travelled in bands. A group of them wouldn’t bother trailing him, wearing him down; the first he would have known of their presence was when he found himself rather abruptly dead.

The second possibility, and one he feared even more, was that bandits had spotted him passing and latched on to his tail. The local outlaw population, a mixture of Mexicans, white men and outcast Indians, were know to be harder and crueller by far than any noble savage, and they were at least as persistent when it came to dogging a man’s trail. The bank draft he carried, made out for an astonishing amount of American dollars by the Cartwrights’ San Francisco bank and sealed inside a waxed paper packet, burned against the small of his back.

He squinted up at the sky. He had been in the saddle for hours, since the first light of dawn had lit up the sky, but it was only mid-morning. In this hot and arid country a man travelled early and late. In the middle of the day he rested himself and his animals in whatever patch of shade he could find.

Still studying his back-trail with intense concentration, he lifted his hand to scratch at the spiky dark stubble that clothed his cheek. It was a while since he’d had enough water to spare to moisten the edge of his razor, and the stubble was starting to itch. The beads of perspiration that gathered on his forehead he left undisturbed; although not especially pleasant, the tickling evaporation of sweat from his skin was necessary to keep him cool.

Thoughts of water and coolness made him think about drinking. He might be thirsty but it wasn’t time for that yet. Although he had water for several more days, a man had to ration himself and his horses if he wanted to stay alive. There were no bones littered among these white rocks – the elements and the unseen scavengers had made sure of that, but animals had died in these uncharted tracts – and so had men. He resisted the urge to lick his dry lips; they would split and bleed if he did. The membranes inside his mouth were already painful; his tongue was swollen and sore. He saw no point in adding further to his own discomfort.

And it wasn’t only a matter of drinking water. Two weeks unwashed, he knew that he stank. His dark clothes were stiff with sweat and dirt. A coyote would smell him a mile downwind – an Apache, twice that far. The bandits he wasn’t so sure about; some of them were breeds, of Apache or Commanche stock, and they had noses as keen as dogs’.

There was still no sign of life in the landscape below him. Whoever had him in their sights wasn’t about to show themselves, and there was no point in waiting any longer. Reaching out a hand, he gave the horse a pat on the sweat-darkened neck and clicked with his tongue. The horse’s hide quivered, and he moved off with a will. He was a big, rangy animal, dark bay in colour. He had a broad, comfortable back and easy paces and an intelligent eye. They were the qualities that had made Adam pick him from among a dozen likely animals, and he had fully justified that judgement, proving reliable and enduring. The packhorse that followed behind on a lead-rope was a sturdy, uncomplaining buckskin, not built for speed but all that Adam required. He wasn’t expecting to outrun trouble. The man and his horses were silhouetted only briefly against the skyline as they came to the top of the trail and started down the other side.

Adam found water in a place where he wasn’t expecting it: in a place where he had been told that it couldn’t exist, A wide, shallow river flowed quick and cool over an even, white-pebble bed. It was mid-day. The sky was a burnished pewter plate with the sun directly overhead. The heat devils danced, and the whole desert shivered under its onslaught. Adam’s shirt was soaked with his sweat. He should have stopped and slept through the heat of the day, but he didn’t trust his unseen pursuers to let him wake up again.

There were more of them now. The original watcher had been joined by another, perhaps by two or three more. They were closer now; he could feel it. Perhaps they were moving in for the kill. Adam hadn’t seen them yet, not hide nor hair, but he knew they were there.

The bay horse snorted, and Adam felt muscles jerk under the saddle. He tightened the reins and placed a settling hand on the animal’s neck. “You feel it too, eh, boy?” He scanned the hills all around him and saw nothing but rocks, sand and dust. He could feel the eyes watching him, burning into his back, but he couldn’t locate the watchers. They were driving him like demons, riding his tail, herding him to some unknown destination that was not of his choosing. Adam didn’t like it. It was, he figured, time to do something about it. It was time for a man to take charge of proceedings. The bay horse flicked a black-tasselled ear as if in unspoken agreement.

Adam sat in the saddle, alert and ready to ride, while his horses drank their fill. Then he rode across to the other side and stepped down onto the bank. With his horse’s reins held firmly in one hand so that the animal wouldn’t run off if startled, he filled his canteens, then hitched them back on the saddle. Only then did he crouch down to slake his own thirst.

Lifting the water from river to mouth in the cup of his hand, he drank slowly, filling his belly with care so as not to make himself sick. Then he washed his face and neck and let the cold water run down his body, until his shirt was soaking wet. All the while he kept a watch on the opposite riverbank, the one he’d just left. He was well aware that the faceless watchers, whoever they might be, could already have crossed the river, upstream or down, and be in the rocks behind him with rifle sights trained on his back. It wasn’t a thought he was easy with, but that illusive, seventh sense that he trusted told him that they were still on the far side of the water.

Straightening, he dried his hand on the leg of his pants. Then he walked a few yards to stretch the kinks out of his back before he swung back into the saddle. The broken pack-trail that he’s been following turned to run a mile alongside the river before curving again to cross the next hill. Adam rode it a while, then doubled back, heading his horses up into the rocks and climbing steadily until he had a high vantage point and could look down on the trail and the river crossing.

He loosened his Colt .44 in his holster, merely as a precaution, and sat quietly on the bay horse’s back, just below the skyline. He chewed on his lip while he considered the possibilities. He could run, although he didn’t give much for his chances. A chase across the desert with a packhorse in tow, or even without, was a risk that was more than perilous. And, whether redskin or bandit, his stalkers were bound to know this shattered country a whole lot better than he did. They could cut corners, and no doubt they would get ahead of him, ‘cutting him off at the pass’ in the time-honoured manner, and deliver some unwelcome surprises. Alternatively, he could stand and fight from up here in the rocks. He had a good view of all the approaches and plenty of ammunition among his supplies. For a moment he was tempted, but he had no real idea of how many he might be facing. It was always possible that they could use their superior knowledge of the environment and get ‘round behind him, coming from all sides at once. It was not a prospect he relished.

Or there was a chance that he could lie low among the rocks, with his horses tied down and muzzled, and hope that the hunters might pass him by. If the truth were told, he didn’t much care for that idea either. His only other option, and the one that he favoured, was to turn the tables on the men that pursued him, to turn the attack onto the attackers and make the hunters the hunted.

Nothing moved in the sun-soaked valley while the last of the hour ticked by. Obviously the watchers had some idea where he was and weren’t yet anxious to press their advantage, probably planning to come on him after dark while he slept or sat as his campfire. Adam wasn’t prepared to wait any longer. Moving off at a slow, steady pace, he allowed his horses to pick their own way. Feeling fresh sweat trickle inside his shirt, he lost himself in the arroyos and gullies, the brightness and shadows of the sunlit afternoon.

It was late in the day when Adam returned to the river. The sun had fallen below the western horizon, filling the sky with glowing echoes of orange and red. In the east, the light was already fading. He came on foot, having left his horses a long way behind him, tethered among the rocks. Carrying his rifle, but not expecting to use it, he moved on soft, soundless feet, padding silently from shadow to lengthening shadow. Adam had spent time with the Pauite and the Shoshoni, and he had learned their ways. No stone turned under his foot; nothing about his person rattled. He could drift like an unseen, noiseless ghost through the grey, evening light. He had taken great care to rub his body well with dry earth to kill the scent of his sweat so that not even his smell would give him away. Invisible, unheard and spreading no scent, he all but retraced his steps and returned to his vantage point above the trail.

With the last of the sunset reflected in the depths of his tawny eyes, he settled himself in amongst the rocks. From there, he could easily see the wide, river crossing and the banks on either side. There were two men in the river, sitting astride their horses. One was a big man, wide in the shoulders and powerfully built. The last of the sunlight sparkled on the edge of his cuffs. The other man was leaner, possibly taller, in a bolero and a full-sleeved shirt. The horses they rode were tall and broad backed with fancy bridles and silver decked saddles. Adam couldn’t see the men’s faces; wide brimmed Mexican hats concealed them from above. They were not Indians then but Mexican types and, perhaps, the bandits that Adam had feared. He had no doubt at all that the two of them had spent all afternoon searching the road and the surrounding desert and had returned to the crossing place to try to pick up his trail. He didn’t think that they’d done it out of concern for his health.

Carried clearly on the evening air, he could hear their voices as they called to each other back and forth across the water. He couldn’t make out the words, but he thought they were speaking Spanish. He wondered if he should try to get closer, to hear what was being said. The last of the glow slid out of the sky, and the desert began to breathe. He felt the movement of air against his cheek, rising up from the water. The broken stone was still warm, slowly exuding the accumulated heat of the day. Beneath a clear night sky, the desert would start to grow cold.

Adam leaned farther out, then sucked in his breath as he spotted movement on the trail below him. An animal snorted and kicked the ground with its foot. There was a dark-coloured horse half hidden in the gathering gloom. He had almost overlooked it with possibly fatal results. A stripped blanket was thrown over the saddle; the rider would be an Indian or some sort of breed – the worst possible combination. Whoever he was, he was somewhere in amongst these very same rocks, probably searching for sign. If he looked in the right spot he was going to find it.

Adam sat back on his heels to consider. The odds were not good, and, if there were more men concealed in the darkness, they could get rapidly worse. He couldn’t attack them from ambush – morally, that would make him no better than they were – and he still had no actual evidence that they intended him harm. He still had the choice to return to his horses and make his escape over the desert, riding by starlight and hoping his horse didn’t fall. He heard the two voices again, still calling but fainter now and further away as the men moved off, walking their horses downstream with the current. In the east the stars were starting to shine.

Adam’s sharp ear caught a whisper of sound: not so much as a footfall or even the rub of cloth against stone. It was more the soft brush of air moving on skin in the silence, the gentlest exhalation of breath. Someone was there with him in the gathering darkness and quite close at hand. Adam subsided into the deepest shadow, not holding his breath but keeping his heart rate steady. He hooded his eyes so that the whites didn’t show and withdrew everything that made who he was into a quiet central core, melded with the rock close beside him. He waited.

Long minutes passed before the sound came again, and then it was fainter, but nearer still. Someone moved on the hillside below him, a man’s dark bulk among the broken boulders. For an instant, Adam glimpsed a sharp profile etched against the paler sky like a cut-out silhouette from a book his stepmother used to own. The man had Indian blood; there could be no doubt of it. The face was all flat planes and hard, sharp angles with a vast hooked nose beneath a hat with an eagle’s feather stuck in the band. He wasn’t looking in Adam’s direction; he had no idea he was there. He was looking towards the river and the two horsemen riding away. Like Adam, he wore dark clothes and carried a long gun cradled against his body.

The half-breed straightened and continued to cross the hillside. He paused as if sensing – something – so close to the place where Adam was hidden that Adam could smell his sweat and the rancid grease that dressed his hair, and the faint aroma of something herbal: possibly something chewed. Then, apparently reassured by the silence and the deathly stillness, he moved on. Adam had a decision to make; there was no doubt at all that his trail would be picked up in the morning, just as soon as there was enough light to see tracks. He had to live with these men riding his tail or use the hours of darkness to do something about it. There wasn’t really an option; he was sick of the itch in his back.

He waited until the two men were out of sight, the sounds of their voices fading away into the silence; then he stood up, rising slowly and turned. Gravel crunched under his heel and starlight glinted on steel. It was more than enough to catch the half-breed’s attention. The man didn’t call out to his companions. As Adam had rightly surmised, he wanted this white man’s scalp for himself.

Employing all the guile of his Indian brothers, Adam used the old but still often successful trick of following his man from in front. He made just enough noise and disturbance to keep the man coming, always aware of just where he was and exactly what he was doing. Dark on dark, they stalked each other through the stone desert.

Adam led him where he wanted him to go, to the small encampment that he had carefully arranged among a grouping of larger boulders. He had lit no fire, but some of his belongings were carefully spread about and his horses tethered nearby. There, he stepped to the side, concealing himself behind a large, rounded rock. The ‘breed walked right by him, silent on moccasined feet.

Adam had left his blanket rolled ‘round some rocks to make it look like he might be in it. The half-breed hesitated on the fringe of the camp, a frown on his half-seen face as if he were wondering how a man tracking through the desert one minute could be sound asleep the next. Somehow, he didn’t quite believe it. This man was nobody’s fool. He stepped forward in silence, his weight on the balls of his feet. Something glinted in his free hand: the broad, flat blade of a small hatchet – enough of a weapon to make a nasty mess of a sleeping man’s skull.

Leaving his rifle among the rocks, Adam slipped his Bowie knife from it sheath under his shirt and stepped out silently behind his stalker. It would have been easy to slide the razor sharp blade between the ribs, angled upwards into the heart: all too easy. But Adam wasn’t a cold-blooded killer. At the last moment the half-breed sensed he was there; he stiffened, dropping into a crouch as he started to turn. Adam reversed the knife and smacked the man firmly behind the ear with the lead-weighted butt. The force of the blow was perfectly judged. The man dropped like a stone. Adam caught him under the armpits and lowered him with scarcely a sound.

Now very much the predator rather than prey, Adam crouched over the unconscious body and lifted his face into the wind. His listened to the quiet of the desert and sniffed at the cooling air. At first all he could hear was the half-breed’s snuffling breathing and the harsher rasp of his own. Then, from further away across the desert he heard men calling. Close by the river the Mexicans were seeking their friend. He looked at the sky. More than an hour had slipped away; a silver sliver of moon had emerged from behind the hills and cast the shattered landscape into stark relief.

Apart from the shoes, the man wore a westerner’s clothes: shirt, vest and pants. Adam pulled the man’s belt away from his trousers and used it to bind his hands tightly behind his back. The grimy neckerchief from around the man’s neck made an effective gag, and Adam made sure it was tightly tied. By now the half-breed was coming around. His face twitched and contorted, and then his eyes opened: deep, dark wells of hatred and pain. There was a huge lump swelling on the side of his skull, right about where Adam had hit him. Adam tightened the last knot and gave him a cheerful grin that didn’t quite reach as far as his eyes. “So you thought you’d help yourself to my hair, did you, amigo?”

The half-breed snarled at him through the filthy rag, and the hard eyes blazed with loathing, reflecting the silver sky. He had lost the feathered hat in his fall, and, for the first time, Adam got a good look at his face. Adam guessed him to be three-quarters Apache. He had razor-sharp cheekbones and a long, pointed chin. His skin was the colour of well-weathered teak, coarse and heavily pored and shiny with perspiration despite the increasing chill of the night. His uncut black hair was tightly braided into two long plaits, tied with leather cords and smeared with something greasy and highly aromatic. The smell of his sweat was sharp and acidic. The breath snorted out of his nostrils. Adam, who had very much the upper hand, afforded a chuckle. “That’s not a very friendly welcome to give a man when he comes visitin’,” he continued, undaunted by the other man’s fury. “But then, you don’t look to be the friendly sort.”

If the man hadn’t been gagged, he would have been incoherent. Adam fetched a short length of rope and proceeded to lash the man’s ankles together. He didn’t want him wandering off into the desert and getting himself lost. The half-breed stopped struggling and lay very quietly. His eyes still burned with implacable hate in the dark-coloured face. Just to annoy him, Adam spoke to him as he might to a recalcitrant child, “You lie here nice and quiet, and, come morning, I might just decide not to kill you.”

Adam had no compunction at all about leaving the half-breed to lie on the cold, stony ground where he had fallen, no fear that he might come to harm in the chilly desert night. Even on such a brief acquaintance he had decided that the fellow had few endearing qualities, and he contained a white hot well of fury burning deep down inside that was more than enough to keep him warm and alive. Adam retrieved his rifle and backed his saddle horse out of the rocky corner that served as a stall. As a parting gesture of goodwill, he tossed the man’s rifle and the little hatchet as far as he could into the desert. They landed with a distant clatter, lost somewhere out in the darkness. Adam gave the half-breed a grin. Leaving the black-backed packhorse to keep the man company, he stepped into the big bay’s saddle and turned the horse’s head towards the river. He still had the two Mexicans to deal with, but, with the half-breed out of the equation, the odds were more in his favour.

The men had stopped calling, and the desert was quiet. Adam had no idea where they might be, only the general direction from which he’d last heard their voices. The river ran swiftly and silently between its low banks, fluid and quicksilver bright. Adam’s saddle leather creaked in the silence, and the bay’s iron shod hooves made hard, sharp sounds on the shale.

By now, Adam’s keen eyes were well adjusted to the gloom. He spotted the Mexicans in the exact same moment that they lifted their eyes and saw him. They were four hundred yards up river, still riding their horses in the midst of the shallow stream. The starlight shone on the crowns of their light-coloured hats and made Adam’s face a pale, glowing oval. They all stared at each other. The larger lifted his arm and pointed in Adam’s direction. His shout carried clearly. Both men kicked their horses to a faster pace. Spray flew from the hooves in all directions and hung for a moment, high in the air. Adam hauled the bay round and dug in his heels. He had no intention of fighting out here in the open. He needed the shadow and the concealment of the night shrouded hills if he were to gain an advantage. This time, he’d be the stalker, and he’d choose the stalking ground. He let out the reins and kicked the horse into a run.

Several shots sounded behind him, explosions that shattered the quiet. Adam wasn’t concerned. A handgun barely had the range, and the chances of men on running horses hitting a moving target were rather less than none. Nevertheless, he didn’t want them to come any closer. He urged the bay into a gallop, praying he wouldn’t stumble, and leaned down close to his neck.

There were more yells behind him and more random shots, and then, all of a sudden, he was no longer being pursued. The curses and shouts of anger had turned into cries of alarm. He pulled up the bay and looked behind him. Adam had kept close to the curve of the river, riding up on the bank. The Mexicans, still in the water, had cut across the corner. It was a clever manoeuvre that would have halved the distance between them and given them a much surer shot. They had hit a pocket of quicksand and both horses had foundered, pitching their riders over their heads and into the sucking mud.

Adam thought about it but not for very long. The Mexicans might have wanted him dead, but he wasn’t the type of man to reciprocate, even though it might have been wiser. He turned the horse around and rode back along the bank. He didn’t know how extensive the quicksand might be and didn’t relish tangling with it himself. The larger Mexican was nearer the bank. He was struggling hard and rapidly going under. The water was already up to his chest. He saw Adam ride up, and a dazzling smile split his broad-featured face. He spread his hands in a wide gesture of supplication. “You throw me the rope, Señor? You get your fine horse to pull me out of this mud-hole, eh?”

Adam eased himself in the saddle and studied the stars while he considered it. The Dipper sat down low on the horizon, and the Great Bear was right overhead. “You give me one good reason why I should.”

The Mexican laughed and shrugged. The water crept half an inch higher. Adam had to admire the big man’s courage. “Because I ask it, perhaps?”

“You would have shot me in the back,” Adam reminded him amiably. In a perverse sort of manner, he was enjoying himself.

Another shrug. Up to his armpits in the river, the Mexican contrived to look sheepish. “I am the sort of man that I am, just as you are. We cannot help being what we are born to be – either one of us. You are a good man. Why else would you have come back if not to save me?”

Adam let out his breath in a long slow sigh. There was no disputing the big man’s logic. Adam had an uncomfortable feeling that, already, this man knew him as well as he knew himself. “I guess you could be right about that.” He made an elaborate show of stretching himself while the water rose to the Mexican’s shoulders. Then, in a leisurely fashion, he unhitched the rope from his saddle horn. He tossed the man a lazy loop just as the water crept over his chin.

Laughing and spitting out mouthfuls of river, the Mexican snatched at the lifeline and wrapped it ‘round his hands. Adam took a hitch around his saddle horn and backed up the horse. Slowly at first and then with increasing speed, the quicksand gave up its grip; the Mexican was dragged from the river. He coughed and spluttered, and his shoulders shook with laughter as he crawled up the bank on his hands and knees. Adam reflected that it didn’t take much to amuse this man.

Adam recovered his rope and turned to rescue the second man. He was in time only to see the crown of the man’s hat disappear under the water and a long trail of bubbles drift away downstream. Both of the horses were already gone, drowned in the river. The water flowed on undisturbed.

The Mexican got to his feet and brushed foul-smelling mud and river water out of his fancy clothes. He, too, looked out at the river. The night was loud with the rasp of his breathing; gradually, it slowed and settled. As Adam had already observed, he was a very big man, broad and solidly built if running a little to fat. Aged somewhere between forty and forty-five, he was typically Hispanic in appearance with dark eyes that constantly danced in a rounded, olive skinned face. A thin, black moustache adorned his wide upper lip. His mouth was full and fleshy, a little loose, and a double chin bulged over his collar. His dress consisted of a well-tailored suit cut in the Mexican style and now very much the worse for wear after its dunking in the river. Elaborately tooled, high leather boots and the wide brimmed hat that hung from a cord ‘round his neck completed the outfit. Dripping, he made an elegant bow towards the river. “Alas, poor Pancho,” he said with a noticeable lack of feeling. “He never did learn to keep his head above water.”

Adam looped the loose coils of rope over his saddle horn. “I thought he was a friend of yours.” Although he regretted the other man’s death, Adam didn’t experience any real sense of grief. It seemed that he wasn’t alone.

“Friends come and friends go,” the Mexican sighed. He turned and looked up at Adam. The smile was back on his face. It displayed large, square teeth that shone dazzlingly bright in the starlight; Adam caught a whiff of his breath: spice and tobacco and something alcoholic. “One loses one friend, and one finds another.” The smile widened a little bit more.

Adam didn’t know what to make of this man. He did know that he didn’t trust him: not one bit, and he certainly wasn’t prepared to name him a friend. At least, for the moment, he didn’t present much of a danger. His holster was empty, his pistol claimed by the river and lost in the mud. “I think you’d better start walkin’, Mister,” he suggested mildly, backing the horse to give the Mexican room. “That way – up the hill.” A nod of the head indicated the direction.

“The exercise will keep me warm, eh?” Still smiling, but not quite so broadly, the Mexican shook off more water and started to climb. Walking the big, bay horse at a respectful distance, Adam fell in behind him.

 

*******

 

The mingled aromas of coffee, crisply fried bacon and beans pervaded the small campsite and drifted downwind on the cold, night air. Adam was a connoisseur of good food. He had enjoyed fine meals in the grandest restaurants of San Francisco, St. Louis and Chicago. He had also become a pretty fair hand as a trail cook over the years and could produce a substantial and satisfying meal from the most basic ingredients.

The Mexican sat on a stone and watched him. The light of the small, brisk cook fire reflected in his ever-laughing eyes and threw flickering patterns of light and shade onto his face. He had taken off his jacket and set it to dry, but his elegant suit was all but ruined. The pants had shrunk considerably following their immersion in the river, and the colours had run from the elaborate embroidery and left ugly stains. Both the man and his clothing exuded the stench of the mud. The big man sat in his shirtsleeves with Adam’s warm, blue blanket wrapped ‘round his shoulders. He suppressed a bone deep shiver.

“It is very cold tonight, Señor,” he ventured by way of conversation.

From Adam’s observation every night in this stony wilderness was cold, just as every day was as hot as hell’s hallway. He squatted beside the fire and poured coffee, thick, black and steaming-hot, into a metal cup. “Get yourself around the outside of this; it’ll warm you up some.”

The Mexican wrapped his hands round the cup, sipped and smacked his lips with appreciation. “You make very fine coffee, my friend. You are most generous, kind and forgiving. Truly, you are a good man.”

Warming his hands on the outside of his own cup, Adam felt his face crease into a deep-folded frown. There was faint note of mockery in the Mexican’s tone: one he didn’t much care for.

The Mexican noticed the scowl and chuckled. “We should not be enemies, you and I.” He stuck out his hand. “I am Embule Torak, rider of the ways and the byways, Master of the Mountains, Lord of the Skies.”

From his side of the fire, Adam inspected the hand with considerable scepticism. He chose to ignore it. He said, in his most precise, clipped manner so that there could be no misunderstanding, “I think you’re an outlaw, a thief and a brigand.”

Slowly, Torak withdrew his hand. He inspected the palm and thoughtfully dragged it down the front of his shirt as if it were somehow unclean. “I see your point,” he said. “But you might at least tell me your name. You did save me from the sucking sands of the river, eh? And you have shared your very good coffee.”

Adam finished his coffee and put down his cup. What Torak had said was true, as far as it went. “I’m Adam Cartwright,” he said shortly. It was an admission that hurt. He found that he resented sharing any part of himself with this man; it made him feel soiled. He found he liked Torak less and less as the minutes went by. He wouldn’t be the least bit sorry when the two of them parted company for good.

Not bothering to keep the dislike from his face, he divided the bacon and beans into two and handed Torak a plate. The silence deepened as they ate. With the flickering flames lighting their faces, they eyed each other warily and summed one another up.

Torak looked from Adam’s face to the food on the plate. Deliberately, he forked up beans and put them into his mouth, chewing slowly. Both of them knew the old custom: if a man ate bread and salt in another man’s camp, he could not, in honour, kill him until they had parted a while and then met up again. Adam didn’t know if this man would adhere to the tradition – and Torak wasn’t telling.

Torak swallowed the mouthful of food and made a gesture with his fork that Adam’s eyes didn’t bother to follow. His gaze remained fixed on the Mexican’s face.

“What about my poor companion, Sorronoso? You have him all trussed up like the gallina, eh? Like a chicken? You might let me untie him.”

Still chewing, Adam shook his head and gave him a lop-sided grin. “I like him best just the way he is.” He didn’t trouble to look at the half-breed, who still lay on his side on the ground, bound hand and foot with the filthy scarf stuffed into his mouth. Above the cloth, his dark eyes gleamed with an implacable loathing. He was only biding his time.

“That’s not the way a man treats his friends,” Torak reproached him.

Adam stopped chewing and looked about him. He thought that he’s heard – or perhaps he’d felt – something moving in the darkness around him, but the silvered night was silent again. Hungry, he returned his attention to his food. “I think he’s more you friend than mine. He tried to part my hair with a hatchet.” Adam had allowed the half-breed to share the heat from the fire; as far as he was concerned, that was as much of a concession as he was prepared to make. He poured himself more coffee to wash the food down.

Laughter gleamed in Torak’s dark eyes. He gave Adam his expressive, trademark shrug. “I think you could be about to change your mind about that, Señor Adam Cartwright.”

The hair on Adam’s neck prickled. This time there could be no doubt about it. There was movement in the rocks ‘round about him. Putting his cup down, he straightened slowly. His hand slid towards the butt of his Colt but it was far too little and already much too late. There were a dozen men in a rough circle around him; their guns were trained on his chest. Theirs was a mixed batch of faces: Mexican, Indian, white, brown and black. Several were laughing. Adam didn’t doubt for a moment that their amusement was at his sole expense. Further back in the darkness, there were more men with horses milling about. He was more than outnumbered. He spread his hands in a gesture of helpless submission. There was little else he could do.

Chuckling hugely at the joke, Torak poured the last of the coffee into his own cup. “Console yourself that at least you were right.” He lifted the metal mug in salutation. “I am an outlaw, a thief and a bandido, just as you said, and these are my men.” He gestured about him by way of a general introduction. “This is Señor Adam Cartwright: a very good man!” One or two men sniggered. Adam gritted his teeth. Torak continued, “We have been trailing you all day to rob you of your guns and your horses, perhaps to kill you, who knows? Or, perhaps, we would just have left you to die in the desert, eh? Maybe without your clothes.”

They searched Adam thoroughly and certainly none too gently. He bit on his lip to keep silent. They took away the Colt and the Bowie knife that he wore in sheath, underneath his shirt, and the small bag of gold coin he carried for travelling expenses. They didn’t discover the waxed package inside his pants, and Adam chose not to tell them about it.

Someone untied the half-breed. The man came up off the ground with all the fury of an unleashed tiger, snarling and clawing for Adam’s face. Adam stepped back before the onslaught. Someone grabbed hold of his arms and held him. Torak stuck out a foot and the half-breed went crashing, sprawled on his face in the dirt. He barely missed landing in the fire. A scatter of gravel flew into the embers and made the flames leap.

The half-breed was livid with rage. Torak grinned down at him, but his voice held steel, “Sorronoso, this is my new amigo, Adam Cartwright. You don’t touch him, eh? Not ‘til I tell you, you understand?” The words were spoken lightly enough, but there was an underlying threat that went not unnoticed by Adam or by the half-breed.

Sorronoso glared at Torak and said something savage and Spanish. He scrambled back to his feet and started for Adam again, his clawed hands reaching. He had gotten a knife from somewhere, perhaps from the man who had freed him, and he waved it under Adam’s nose, so close that he felt the breeze from its passing. Still held from behind, he was unable to back up any further. Torak pushed the half-breed hard in the chest. Sorronoso swore at him and came on again. The two men shouted at one another, a brief but angry exchange of views that went too quickly for Adam to follow. Sorronoso spat at Adam, and the burning eyes glared. The gob missed – just – but the look struck home: a look that promised long hours of pain before death. Adam met the stare evenly with a clean dislike of his own. Sorronoso sneered at him, gestured obscenely and shuffled off into the darkness.

Torak gazed after him, the firelight dancing in his eyes. For the first time since Adam had met him, there was a trace of concern on his face. “I think you have made a dangerous enemy, Adam Cartwright: a very, very bad friend.”

Adam shrugged off the hands that held him, his eyes still fixed on the half-breed’s retreating back. “I guess that’s something that I can live with.”

“It may well be something that you have to die with, my friend.” Torak’s smile was missing. “Sit down, Señor. Sit down.” With a wave of the hand he gestured Adam back to his seat at the fireside.

Knowing that he hadn’t much choice, Adam did as he was bidden and sat, perching his butt on the edge of a rock. All around them, the bandits were setting up camp. They had brought food with them: chunks of meat that they set to roasting over a dozen small fires. They made batches of trail bread that baked quickly in enamelled ovens buried in the embers of the fires, and they produced any numbers of bottles. With this many men on his back-trail, Adam wondered that the skin hadn’t burned clean off his back from the itch.

Torak turned Adam’s Colt over in his hand. He tested its weight and its balance, rolled the cylinder out between his fingers and inspected the load. His big teeth showed in a smile. “An empty chamber under the hammer,” he commented. “That sort of caution can get a man killed.”

“When I need six, I load six,” Adam said warily. “I’d rather not blow a hole in my leg.”

Torak slid the cylinder back into place. He levelled the Colt at Adam’s belly and pulled back the hammer. “A hole in the stomach would be much more deadly,” he said. The firelight flowed over his face. The slack mouth was compressed, the easy smile gone. “I could hold you to blame for poor Pancho’s death.”

Adam gazed into the maw of his own, deadly gun and then at the face of the man who held it. He pulled a slow breath. “You were both trying to kill me, and I didn’t know the quicksand was there.”

“Quite so.” Torak’s smile returned. He lowered the hammer and rested the Colt against his knee. “Oh, I don’t hold it against you, and you did save my life, eh?” I owe you something for that.” He hefted the small purse of gold in his hand, then worked open the drawstring mouth with his finger and held it up to his eye to squint inside. “Besides,” he added, “you are hardly worth killing. What sort of a fortune is this?”

It was Adam’s turn to shrug his shoulders. “A small one. It’s all I happen to have at the moment.” It wasn’t exactly a lie. He figured the bank draft didn’t count.

Suddenly serious, Torak gazed at him through narrowed eyes. “And yet, you do not strike me as a poor man, Adam Cartwright. The guns that you carry, the clothes that you wear, your fine horses – all these things are the trappings of wealth and prosperity.”

“You know prosperity.” Adam gave him an easy smile. “She’s a fickle woman. She loves a man and leaves him; she didn’t hang about too long this time around. As for wealth, it comes and it goes.”

“Indeed it does.” Torak eyed him with speculation. “So, what brings an Americano to our southern deserts at this time of years? Not the desire for our company, surely? And not for business or pleasure. There’s not enough gold here to finance either.” He jiggled the purse in his hand.

Adam’s mouth was dry and he felt rather sick. He resisted the urge to wipe his sweating palms along the seams of his pants. The barrel of the Colt was still aligned directly with his navel. He was in fear of his life and had to do some quick thinking. He met the bandit’s dark eyes with his own steady gaze. “Let’s just say I’m looking for work.”

Torak started to laugh, but the laughter was ugly and held no amusement. “A gringo, eh? In this poor country? What sort of work would you do?”

Adam touched his lips with his tongue. He had to play this bluff out. “I deal in horses,” he intoned, lending the words a whole wealth of meaning. “I move them around some and try to find them new homes.”

Torak stared at him with stunned appreciation, and then he started to laugh. “Ah, Señor, you are a bandido yourself, eh? A horse-thief! A man of my own flesh and bone!”

Adam, in the circumstances, chose not to disillusion him. He merely smiled and nodded in all the right places. Let Torak think what he liked if it meant staying alive until morning. Torak shouted to one of his men in Spanish and waved his arms about. A young Mexican with a small cigar clenched between his teeth brought a bottle over, and Torak splashed generous measured into both their cups. He lifted his in a toast. “Drink up, Adam Cartwright! Drink to our mutual occupation. We are brothers under the skin, you and I. May business always be good!”

Adam raised the cup to his lips and swallowed a mouthful down. The stuff was pure firewater, an original brand. It scorched across his tongue and burned down his throat and seethed like a cauldron of fire in his belly. The fumes brought tears to his eyes. He contrived not to choke, but he knew he’d gone red in the face. Torak swallowed his down in a single draft and poured out some more. Adam held up his hand in self-defence. His eyes were already bleary, and, above all, he needed to keep his wits about him. Whatever this stuff was distilled from, it could steal a man’s senses away.

Torak hefted the Colt again and then passed it, and the knife, reluctantly, so Adam thought, over the remains of the fire. “I give you back your life, amigo, and I give you back your fortune.” He tossed Adam the small bag of coins. “Tomorrow, we will ride south together!”

Adam holstered the pistol and slipped the money into the pocket under his belt. He was under no false illusions – he wasn’t out of this yet. But, it seemed he might live ‘til morning if his luck held. He celebrated that small triumph with another small sip of liquid fire.

Adam didn’t sleep that night – just dozed a little towards morning. Wrapped in his blanket with his feet to the fire, he lay on the ground close beside his horses and watched the slow wheel of the stars. The deep bowl of the sky was velvet dark, brushed over lightly with silver. It was lit with points of light so sharp and bright he felt he could reach out his hand and run them through his fingers like the fine grains of sand glowing on some celestial beach. His eyes picked out his favourite places: the red spot that was Mars and golden Antaries and, further north, the brilliant cluster of the Pliades. More northerly still, beyond the northern horizon, the Pole Star was clear out of sight.

The night had grown cold. The chill breath of the desert moved against Adam’s cheek. It carried with it the sharp smell of wood smoke, the odour of horses and the sound of men’s voices lowered in quiet, nocturnal conversation; the earlier laughter and song brought on by the drinking had faded into the silence. It all reminded Adam, quite forcefully, that he wasn’t alone. Inevitably, he started thinking thoughts of escape. The river provided the obvious highway; it flowed south and east, more or less in the direction in which he was headed, and cut an even path through the rough terrain. For a moment, in the eye of his mind, he could see himself galloping, hell for leather, downstream, the spray flying in arcs from the hoofs of his horses, turning into rainbows by the rays of the sun. Then he remembered abruptly that the swift, shallow water concealed fatal traps for the unwary and for those in a hurry: quicksand and sinkholes and quagmires of mud. The banks were littered with tumbled rock. With a hoard of angry bandits riding full tilt behind him, it was not a road to be taken at speed.

The other escape-route lay due east, straight out across the desert. That way, lay goodness knows what: a hellish inferno of sun, sand and stone with nowhere to run to and no chance of help. Before he could even attempt it, there was a more immediate problem in his way. All about him, men snuffled and snored, but he knew very well that many were not really as drunk as they might pretend, and not all were asleep. His chances of getting out of here with his horses, or even alone and on foot, were non-existent. It seemed that he would have to live with his lie, his spur-of-the-moment invented persona, until he could contrive to get away.

Dawn in the desert was a beautiful thing to behold. The sky above the low, eastern hills turned into silver and then changed to shades of peach and apricot, orange and gold. The edge of the sun dazzled as it inched above the horizon. The desert became a fretwork of sunlight and slow-creeping shadow. Adam rubbed the grit of sleeplessness from his eyes and set about tending his horses.

He didn’t feel good. He didn’t know what he’d been drinking last night, but his mouth had all the flavour and texture of an old saddle blanket, and his stomach sympathised. He had already turned down the offer of bread and cheese for his breakfast along with a drink of what looked like mare’s urine and had the smell of very flat beer. Instead, he’d moistened his dry membranes with a mouthful of water from his own canteen and eaten a small piece of bread. Even that wasn’t settling too well; he was alert for an internal rebellion.

He lifted his saddle onto the back of the bay. As he reached underneath for the cinch, he caught the whiff of cigar smoke.

“You have a very fine horse there, gringo.” The voice was light, faintly mocking, and it came from behind him.

Adam bit his lip at the insult and turned very slowly. Both his hands were still on the saddle and well away from the Colt at his hip. The man behind him was younger by four or five years: the same young Mexican who had provided the bottle the night before. Adam recognised the sharp, pointed teeth around the cigar. Standing a whole head shorter than Adam, he had a round, Mexican face with a thin, glossy moustache and cynical dark eyes. The quick smile he gave was less than friendly, more a smirk of mocking scorn. The small cheroot that appeared to be a permanent fixture in his face exuded a powerful aroma that did little to stabilise Adam’s dubious inner equilibrium.

“Of course,” the Mexican continued in that same, mocking tone, “a man in your line of work should know good horseflesh when he sees it and mount himself well.” Still smiling thinly, and still with the cheroot clenched firmly in his teeth, he stepped past Adam and ran his hand over the bay’s muscular quarters. His pale finger-pads traced the brands that were burned there: ‘Lazy S,’ ‘Bar Seven’ and ‘Diamond Three’. He gave Adam a slanted, sideways look that was almost sly. “I also know a thing about horses – perhaps as much as any man alive.”

Adam ran his hand down his horse’s smooth neck and gave the shoulder a pat. He kept his voice level, “Just what are you saying?”

The mouth worked around the cigar, producing words without the use of the jaw. “I’m saying that this horse comes from the west, not from the north as you would have us believe.”

Adam pursed his lips and sucked in his breath. He allowed amusement and annoyance in equal measure to show in his eyes. “Are you calling me a liar?”

Drawing on his cheroot, the Mexican considered. “I will tell you what I am thinking, gringo. I am thinking you are taking us all as fools. I am thinking that you are not really a horse thief at all. I am thinking that you are exactly what you appear to be: an honest man.”

Adam looked him straight in the eye. “Is that what you’ve told Torak?”

A foot brushed against stone close behind him. Adam felt eyes on his back. Both he and the Mexican turned. It was the half-breed, Sorronoso, padding softly by on his moccasined feet. He was a good deal closer than Adam liked: close enough for Adam to smell the grease on his glossy black hair, close enough for him to have overheard the conversation. The Indian-eyes gave no indication that he had heard anything, but they gazed at him with smouldering fury. Adam and the Mexican stared back with equal dislike.

The half-breed had spent the hour since dawn searching amongst the rocks for his hatchet. He had it now, tucked into his belt along with a business like, broad bladed skinning knife. The rifle he carried was totally ruined: the stock had been smashed. His lean, brown hand slid towards the hilt of the knife.

The Mexican stepped between him and Adam, his fingertips brushing the butt of his gun. “You heard what Torak told you, Sorronoso. You stay away from the Americano. His hide stays intact.”

Sorronoso snarled; spittle flew from his lips. His voice, when he spoke, was thick with Hispanic accent and heavy with hate. “Torak promised me this gringo’s blood. I intend to have it – spilled out on the dirt.” He pressed forward into the Mexican’s space, but his gaze remained fixed firmly on Adam’s face. “You going to stop me?”

His thin smile in place, the Mexican placed a spread-fingered hand on the half-breed’s chest and pushed. “I’m thinking that I might just fight you for the privilege.”

The two men bristled at one another. Adam could sense their hackles rising. It was a standoff, neither one of them was prepared to give way to the other. Adam stepped back and watched them square up. It was quite clear that neither had any liking for the other; this was simply one more dispute in a long-running argument. They reminded him of two angry dogs facing one another down over a bowl of scraps, and he was the bone in the middle. It was almost amusing.

It was the half-breed who backed away first. He glared at Adam over the Mexican’s head, and then he hefted the broken rifle as some sort of a threat and silently stalked away. The Mexican watched him go, a light aglow in his eyes, then he turned back to Adam and answered his question as if he had never been interrupted, “For the moment I keep my council. For the moment El Torak likes you; you saved his life, and he feels grateful. I am thinking that will change.” He ran his hand over the horse’s rump again. “When it does, I will be ready. I am Equantor Sebron. Remember my name. I am the man who will kill you.”

Adam looked down from his greater height and thought about it. “It’ll be interesting to see who ends up killing whom,” he said, genially. “You might be unpleasantly surprised.”

Sebron stared at him, sucking so hard on his cheroot that the ash on the end glowed gold. Adam out-stared him. Finally, Sebron’s lips twitched in the ghost of a grin. He turned on his heel and gave Adam a good view of his swagger as he walked away.

Mentally, Adam marked up one for himself, but he didn’t do himself any favours. He knew he was in a very dangerous situation. Now there were two men hell-bent on his murder, and he didn’t discount Torak’s promise to leave him, naked, to the desert’s dubious mercies should he find out his deception. It would not be an especially nice way to die. Steadying himself, he turned back to his horse and finished fitting the bridle.

Embule Torak’s moods proved changeable and illusive. His good humour of the previous evening had disappeared with the shadows of night. In the harsh light of the morning he looked ridiculous in his shrunken suit, and that did little to improve his disposition. The embroidered cuffs of his sleeves had retreated along his forearms towards his elbows, and the pants looked painfully tight. Adam noticed that nobody laughed. The bandit leader had found himself new armament; a fancy, bone-handled pistol filled the holster high on his belt, and he had gotten himself another horse: a flashy, dappled grey gelding in black leather trappings. Mounted, he sat in the centre of ordered confusion and bellowed orders in Spanish and English while the bandits broke camp around him. Before the sun was fully above the hills, everything was packed onto the horses, and twenty men were on the move. They left scarcely a trace behind them.

The outlaw band didn’t ride as a group. Instead, they travelled Indian fashion, spread out across the landscape in ones and twos, each small group barely in sight of another. Every man followed his own chosen path. The few tracks they left on the hard, stony ground were diffuse and confusing.

Steadily, but sparing the horses, they rode through the rising heat of the morning, then rested through the hottest part of the day. In the afternoon, beneath the polished brass bowl of the sky, they went on again. They followed the line of the pack-trail that Adam had used, travelling more or less south. Torak seemed to enjoy the friction between his lieutenants and was prepared to incite it further by having Adam ride alongside him.

Torak talked constantly in his slightly halting English; he seemed to like the sound of his voice. He revealed rather more of the bandit’s trade than Adam really wanted to know, talking lightly of deception, theft and murder. Sometimes he laughed as he talked of the crimes he’d committed. Sometimes he spoke with anger, expounding on real and perceived injustice. Sometimes, in Adam’s opinion, he was just plain wrong. Always the words followed the mercurial flow of his temper. His dark eyes were everywhere, watching his men, the horses and the country they rode through. Mostly, he watched Adam’s face. And he asked questions. Adam had to keep his wits about him to stay one step ahead of the game. More than once, he wished he had Joe’s fanciful imagination; his little brother could be relied upon to spin a good yarn at the drop of a hat. Then he remembered what his father had told him often enough: that what a liar needed most was a damn good memory. Mostly, he tried to remain non-committal. Adam was very aware of all the eyes that burned on his back. The sweat that broke from his skin and ran so freely under his shirt was not entirely caused by the heat of the sun.

In the early evening light, they came to a halt on a ridge of rock overlooking yet another shallow valley. This one was dry. The trail lipped over the edge and twisted down to the valley floor. There it divided, splitting into two, distinctly separate roads. One path led on to the south into the seemingly endless expanse of stone desert. The other angled more to the east, towards the low, dusty hills. Torak lifted himself in his saddle and stood in his stirrups, taking the weight off his butt. His eyes swept the valley. Then he looked across at Adam. “This is the parting of the ways, my amigo. You will go your way, and we will go ours, eh? South, where the Señoritas are pretty and the wine is cool.

Adam was looking over his shoulder. Sorronoso and Sebron were riding up behind them, emerging from the dust and the heat haze like the twin angels of death. Adam didn’t like either one at his back. Now, he looked sharply at Torak. He didn’t believe what he’d heard. Surely the bandit leader was playing some cruel game. He wasn’t simply going to let him go. There had to be more to it than that. Torak was watching him narrowly, watching the play of expression across his face. All of a sudden, Adam got the impression that the dark, laughing eyes could see right into his soul. Somehow, despite his precautions, he had given himself away.

The jingle of harness and the strong smell of cigar smoke warned him that Sebron had ridden up alongside him. He found himself sandwiched between the two Mexicans, with Sorronoso astride his sturdy black gelding on Torak’s far side. He saw the glitter of hatred deep in the half-breed’s eyes. Without doubt, this was a man who knew how to nurture a grudge and keep it alive. Sebron, who had been close enough to hear what Torak had said, wasn’t any too pleased at the decision and he was prepared to show it openly. Angrily, he glared past Adam at Torak. “You are going to let this Gringo go?”

Torak ignored the glare. He squinted off into the distance, his eyes searching the next horizon, the next rocky ridge. Now, his face held no hint of amusement. “We are going south as I planned it,” he said. “To the east are the ranchos where they breed the finest horses in all Mexico. You would not keep an honest horse thief from his business, eh?” A flash of his eyes warned Adam to silence.

So angry that he spat out his half-smoked cheroot, Sebron made a furious gesture. “He has seen our faces! He knows who we are. I do not trust him. I say silence him now.”

From Torak’s other flank, Sorronoso grunted in savage agreement. The half-breed muttered something obscene in barely audible Spanish. A man of few words, his eyes were aglow, and his hand had already slid to the hilt of his knife. Adam was grateful that these two hated each other too much to ever form an alliance – he knew he’d be dead if they did.

Torak looked from one man to the other, his gaze filled with speculation. “It is my place to decide this, unless either of you thinks differently?” His words and his eyes threw down a challenge. Each of the other men was bold enough to consider it. Tension crackled between them, charging the air. Then Sorronoso let his eyes slide away, and Sebron turned his fury on Adam. “I know you are not what you pretend to be, gringo…!”

“Enough of this!” Torak’s head snapped around. “Both of you, ride on ahead! Scout out a camping ground beyond the next ridge.”

Both men hesitated, still angry, still on the verge of violence. Sensing his rider’s tension, Sebron’s gelding danced on the stones. Sebron sneered into Adam’s face. “This is not over, gringo. I made you a promise. We’ll meet again, and then, I’m thinking, I’ll kill you.” With a clatter of hooves on bare rock, he rode down into the valley. Sorronoso spurred the black and went after him, following a different path.

Adam sat back in his saddle and squinted after them. Quietly he said, “One of these days, they’re not going to back down.”

Torak’s teeth showed in a grin, bright white in the shade of his hat. “Then you see why I cannot have you in camp another night, Adam Cartwright? One of them would surely find a reason to cut your throat, and then I would have to kill him, eh?” The look on his face told clearly whose lives he considered most valuable. Adam didn’t pretend to himself. Whatever Torak’s reasons for letting him go, they were bound to have more to do with internal discipline than friendship or gratitude or even tradition. Somehow, thanks seemed inappropriate.

Adam gathered his reins and glanced at the western sky. He figured he had three hours of daylight before he was forced to stop for the night. He wanted to put as many miles between himself and the outlaw band as he could. He nodded to Torak, pulled on the packhorse’s lead rope and kicked the bay hard in the ribs.

 

Two

 

The village had been named, somewhat imaginatively, ‘Spritos Christos el Monte Invisibales’: ‘Christ’s Spirit of the Invisible Mountain’. Certainly, there was no mountain anywhere in sight, only dust and desert and low, rounded hills in all the muted colours of the bone-dry earth. Perhaps, Adam decided upon reflection, that was precisely the point. Although it was an old and long established place of habitation, the fact of its existence had not unduly troubled the cartographers. It did not appear on any map. Nestled comfortably in amongst thorny acacia, fire palm, fig trees, Mexican lime and creosote trees, it lay in a fold in the land where, he assumed, water ran close to the surface.

As he approached, the dust kicking up in a plume from the heels of his horses, the tiny oasis emerged from the heat haze like a shimmering jewel. The trees were twenty different shades of green, the easement a man’s hungry eyes craved after all those days in the desert; the walls were the white of sun-baked adobe, the roofs, brown and grey. It was only as he drew nearer that bright details became apparent. A row of clean washing in rainbow hues hung from a line; the fiery red of geraniums flowered in pots beside doorsteps; the rich terracotta of tile trimmed the walls. A tethered milk cow groaned from a lean-to shed, calling a greeting to his horses as he rode by. An old man slept in the shade of an awning. Two black cats dozed in the sun.

Adam smelled the place even before he arrived; a heady mix of rich odours seasoned the wind. First, the sharp smell of wood smoke tickled his nose and the acid odour of fresh dropped manure. He smelled coal and hot iron from a nearby forge, the stench of hot tar and the fragrance of flowers and, as always, the peppery tang of the dust. He found he was right about the water. In the exact centre of the village was an open square, and in the square was a wide, low walled well. The stones in that wall were ancient beyond telling, weathered down until they were no more than shapeless, flaking boulders. The letters of the more recent Christian dedication inscribed below the rim were all but worn away. The well provided water for the entire population, beasts and people alike. Piled on the ground were several loosely coiled ropes and a collection of wooden-staved buckets. Several woman in headscarves and long heavy skirts, with shawls about their shoulders in spite of the heat, held animated conversations as they hauled water out of the well and filled up their pots. Alongside the well was a long, carved stone horse trough, filled to the brim. Adam decided to make that his first stop in order to water his horses.

He slowed his horse to a walk as the passed the blacksmith’s shop, feeling the inevitable blast of furnace-like heat as he passed the open doors. The steady pulse beat of hammer on anvil came from inside. As he rode, his eyes scanned swiftly over the rest of the buildings. At the top of the street, facing the square, a typical, slab sided church presided over the community. Built of the local materials, it was the pale yellow colour of well-mellowed cheese with small, unglazed windows like dark, blinded eyes and a stumpy square tower with a bell. A slight figure in a belted, brown robe was diligently brushing the steps: an elderly, white-haired priest with a broom and a world-weary face.

Facing the church across the square was a General Store and Trading Post with a half-loaded wagon parked outside in the sun. A swarm of large stinging flies pestered the horses. Across the street, on the opposite corner, stood a large cantina, single storied and built low to the ground. It was gaudily painted in bright red and green and boasted large, glass windows looking out on the street and trimmed with brightly checked curtains. Several horses and fly-spotted mules stood tied to the rails outside.

At not quite midday, life in the tiny village proceeded at a leisurely pace. Men and boys in simple, loose fitting, light coloured clothes and wide, shady hats strolled back and forth or lounged in the shadows. Their eyes moved to watch the big, dishevelled Americano on his fine horse as he passed. Adam would swear that their eyes were all that moved. Several women, dressed in many layers of darker cloth, stood on a corner and talked. Their heads too, turned to look at the stranger. Adam got the impression that newcomers were rare in town.

Two men stepped out of the store and loaded grain sacks into the wagon – but slowly – and then disappeared back inside. A group of young boys played five-stones in the dirt of the street. An elderly donkey leaned on the post of someone’s veranda; his eyes drowsed in sleep. Two brown and white dogs sniffed after a bitch in an alley. Red chickens scratched in the dirt. Smoke rose lazily from several stone chimneys and drifted away with the slow waft of the air.

Adobe houses and several small stores made up the rest of the town. As he rode by, Adam looked in shop windows. He saw fine leather harness and elaborate beadwork, woven baskets and carpets in bold, bright patterns, assorted clothing and all kinds of foodstuffs. As he drew near the cantina, he heard the muted sounds of laughter and music drifting out from inside and caught the aroma of rich, spicy food. In the back of his mind he was planning his meal: first, a glass of tequila to cut through the thick phlegm in his throat, then a large plateful of cabra, roasted kid-meat well spiced with chili and garlic and eaten with hot, fresh bread, and a glass of cool, foaming beer to wash it all down. It was the stuff a man’s dreams might be made of. He wasn’t expecting trouble and certainly not from a vegetable stall.

The place was ordinary enough: a simple, open-fronted stall like any one of half a dozen others. Long poles supported a canvas awning that reached out over the street. In the shade of the awning were large baskets of figs and apples and olives and the small, sweet oranges that Adam loved but could rarely get back home in Nevada. In the front were lemons and limes and strawberries and piles of sun-dried tomatoes. Two young women with cloth covered heads held a voluble, non-stop conversation as they pawed over the fruits. Adam nodded politely. He necked reined the bay and nudged with his knee to ride ‘round the awning.

Close at hand, a woman screamed: a startling prelude to precipitate action. Before Adam could properly react, a man’s body came hurtling towards him through the front of the stall. Airborne, with arms and legs flailing, he appeared to be trying to fly. That first impression didn’t last long. With a crash and a splatter he landed flat on his face among the fruit and the baskets. The young women stepped back, shouting and scolding. Adam’s horse reared, lashing the air with his forelegs. Adam was hard pressed to stay in the saddle. From inside the store came a bull-like bellow: a man’s angry roar. A second flying form took the same, quick exit route as before and landed on top of the first, sending him sprawling again and causing more disarray and destruction. A basket of walnuts spilled into the roadway, under the horse’s feet.

Wild-eyed, the normally placid packhorse fought with the lead-rope, doing his best to bolt. Responding instinctively, Adam shortened his grip on the rope and took a firm hitch around his saddle-horn, holding on tightly with strong knees and thighs as the bay squealed and shied again, trying to break free of the bridle. The two horses swung about each other, each of them pulling the other around. Their hooves crunched on nutshells while Adam swore and battled hard for control.

A huge man emerged from the shop. With ham-sized fists that were the obvious launching pads for the two men’s adventures, he picked them out of the scattered produce and dumped them into the street. Fastidiously, he dusted off his palms.

Adam had won his fight with the packhorse and was soothing the prancing bay. He put out a hand to pat the sweating neck while he summed up the situation. He decided, on balance, to swallow the scathing remark that perched, bitter and swollen like a red-bellied toad, on the very tip of his tongue. Bareheaded, the fellow was as tall as Hoss in his hat, equally broad and even further around the belly. There were not many men who could rival Hoss in statue, but it wasn’t the big man’s bulk that stopped Adam from speaking his mind. A large and powerful man himself, he wasn’t afraid of his brother, and he wasn’t intimidated by any man alive, but this vast man had a certain, commanding presence: an air about him that commanded immediate respect. He wore an ornately decorated, old-fashioned pistol in the Mexican manner, in a holster high up on his belt, and a silver star pinned to the front of his sweat stained shirt. Adam’s father had always advised him to stay on the right side of the law, especially in strange and far away places.

Feet wide apart, the big sheriff planted his hands on his hips and looked up at the man on the nervously dancing bay gelding. “Are you all right, Señor?”

Somewhat breathless, Adam finally got his horse to behave. “I reckon. What was that all about?”

The sheriff’s broad features split into a blunt-toothed grin, and his features transformed as he smiled. “Just a minor dispute about payment.” The wide shoulders shrugged expressively. “Neither of these two thought to put his hand in his pocket.”

“We was gonna pay. Honest we was!” The nasal whine came from the tangle of arms and legs on the ground. One of the two tried to get to his feet.

With a good-natured growl, the sheriff pushed him down with a vast and solidly booted foot. “You stay where I put you.” It seemed that this purveyor of law and order had a method of meeting out justice that was uniquely his own.

A second huge figure loomed in the gloom of the storefront, treading hard on the good sheriff’s heels. At first, Adam wasn’t sure if it was a man or a woman. The features were coarse and large pored, wreathed in fat and shining as if anointed with oil; the black hair was pulled back behind the head and tied with a cord. Huge breasts and belly sagged inside an enormous man’s shirt and the legs were encased in man’s pants. The figure waved its arms in the air and swore loudly in Spanish, startling the horses and setting them prancing again. It was hard to tell just who the invective was aimed at – Adam, the sheriff or the two on the floor – all were encompassed. The cuss-words would have caused a drover to blush. Adam’s ears burned. He felt his face colour and politely looked away. Definitely female, he concluded.

The sheriff answered in Spanish, and the argument went back and forth for a bit. The disagreement centred on, so it seemed, who would pay for the damage. In the heat of it all, Adam found himself forgotten. A small group of spectators had formed and watched the debate with interest. They effectively blocked the street. At the edge of his vision, Adam saw the small boys pilfering fruit and swallowed down his amusement. From high on the back of his horse, he studied the two on the ground. At seventeen years, or there abouts, they were old enough to be called men – just. Neither was a Mexican. One had black enough hair, to be sure, but his eyes were as blue as a bright summer sky. The other had tow coloured locks that he wore long on his shoulders and which were currently tangled with bits of tomato. He was garbed in a sleeveless vest several sizes too large; in fact all of his clothes appeared to belong to somebody else. Neither of the pair wore a gun. In his mind, Adam put them down as a pair of young drifters, away from home for the very first time and looking for trouble – and usually finding it. He had seen their kind in every town he had ever been in. It was a state they would eventually grow out of – if they lived long enough.

As the volume of the argument gradually diminished, the crowd lost interest and started to drift away. As the street cleared in front of him, Adam touched his hat, with respect, to the lady and rode on his way.

After the dazzle of sunlight on stone and the soaring heat of the day, the cantina was dim and comfortably cool. A combination of saloon and eatery, at this time of day it was the most popular place in the district, and it was filling up fast. Adam pushed his hat back off his forehead and stepped up to the counter that ran the whole length of one wall. He ordered tequila: the rough, white kind, the sort that made a strong man’s eyes weep. The bar was lined with small bowls of coarse salt and tubs of brown clay heaped with half-moon slices of pale green limes. His drink was served in a slim, cylindrical shot glass. He took a slice of lime between the thumb and first finger of his left hand. He raised the hand to his mouth and licked the small mound between thumb and finger. It tasted of sweat and leather. A pinch of salt was sprinkled on the moist patch. He picked up his glass, bent and licked the salt from his fist, tossed back the tequila in one fiery gulp and bit hard into the lime. Its sweet, tart juice spurted into his mouth. It cut through the dirt on the back of his tongue and scorched its way down to his stomach. Adam gritted his teeth and blinked back the tears. Turning his back to the bar, he looked the place over.

The big room was decorated in natural shades that rested easily on the eye: terracotta and russet, bronze, copper and brown, occasionally splashed with red, green and gold. Many small tables clustered about a clear, central area, each table adorned with an unlit candle in an old, empty bottle encrusted with wax, woven place mats and a small bowl of flowers. The big windows were draped with brown and green curtains, reducing the amount of light that got in so that interior remained always shaded. A young Mexican man with a pleasant face and a dreamy expression played soft guitar music from a seat in the corner. The growing buzz of conversation drowned out most of the sound but Adam found it pleasing.

The tables filled up. There were men talking business, families with children, dusty vaqueros and men simply getting in out of the sun. With a drink in his belly and more in his hand, Adam began to relax. The fragrance of rich spicy food drifting through from the kitchen made his mouth water and reminded him of the meal he had promised himself.

A pretty girl waiting at table captured his eye. Typically Mexican with glossy black hair and dark, flashing eyes, she wasn’t tall, but she had curves in all the right places, and she was meat for a hungry man’s eye. She walked with that certain sway that livened his interest and made him glad he’d been born.

She was aware of him too, and she showed it. The long glance she cast at him over her shoulder was an open invitation to flirt. Adam winked and smiled back. After twenty days in the desert, he wasn’t averse to the idea of a little female company, but he knew very well he was filthy. His hide was the colour of the dry earth outside, and he stank of sweat: his own and his horses, not the aroma he’d choose for courting. Still, he wasn’t averse to a little visual titillation, and there was always another occasion. They exchanged smiles again and, privately, Adam made himself another promise: he’d come back this way again.

He ordered a meal and found a place to eat it before all the seats were taken. He had to share a table with a jolly Mexican woman and two small boys. It gave him the chance to exchange the time of day and to practice his Spanish, much to their delight and amusement, and it gave him a view of the square. The priest had finished his sweeping and vanished inside the church. The well was deserted, the dark stain of spilled water drying into sun-hardened mud. All that moved in the midday heat were the horse’s tails as, dozing, they flicked off the flies and the occasional stamp of a hoof.

The chilli was hell-fire hot and the beer, foamy, pale and icy cold. Adam enjoyed both of them. He also enjoyed the pretty girl’s smile every time she passed by. He learned that her name was Maria. Laughing, the Mexican woman scolded him soundly. Once the meal was over, the cantina emptied as quickly as it has filled. It was time for siesta – a tradition of which Adam heartily approved and was more than prepared to take part in. Without a bed to go to, he was content to sleep in his chair. He folded his arms comfortably over his chest and stretched his long legs out under the table. While the woman in the kitchen rattled the pots and the pans, the serving girl and the barman worked together to tidy the tables. The guitarist was already asleep in his corner, and Adam himself soon dozed, his hat pulled over his eyes. Outside the village sweltered in the heat of the afternoon sun.

The cantina door banged open with a good deal more force than was necessary to let the two young men in. They were hot, dirty and dishevelled. The big, jovial sheriff had made them pick up every piece of the fruit that had spilled in the street, and he had given them just seven days to earn the money to pay for all that was spoiled. Neither their tempers not their manners had benefited much from the experience. They were arguing furiously about whom was to blame. Adam opened one drowsy eye at all the commotion.

Now he had gotten a better look, he didn’t care much for either one of them. The black haired man, who’s name appeared to be Davies, was long-limbed and lanky but had still not attained his full growth. He was the one with the high pitched, nasal voice that grated on Adam’s ear. The lighter-haired man was Mallory, shorter and stockier, more compact and very much louder. There was a mean and hungry look to his face that Adam had seen all too often. He was the one who slammed a heavy fist down on the counter. “Give me a beer!”

The barman had gone outside to wash glasses. There was nobody there to serve him, and that did nothing at all to improve his disposition. Mallory turned his back to the bar and made his voice louder. “I said I want a beer!” With a long stride forward, he grabbed Maria by the arm. Adam opened both of his eyes and started to pay more attention.

Maria objected in Spanish, “Señor Mallory, Mistress Ferno says no more credit! No more drinks ‘on the slate’. Now, you let me go!”

Mallory snarled and gripped her arm tighter; his thick, blunt fingers bit deep into soft, olive skin. He started to steer her towards the bar. Without success, she tried to break free of him. “Please let go of me!”

By upbringing and inclination, Adam wasn’t the type to sit and watch a woman abused. In one, fluid movement he gathered his legs and got to his feet. “I believe I heard her ask you to let her go.”

Still holding the girl by the forearm, Mallory swung round to face him, seeing him properly, perhaps, for the very first time. Pale eyes washed Adam over with a slow, semi-amused insolence, which Adam bore stoically. “What’s it to you, Mister? Nobody asked you to interfere.”

Adam smiled thinly. He was happy enough to revert to his native tongue – it made it easier to trade insults, to deflect the young man’s attention away from the girl and onto himself. “I’m making it my business, you wet-eared whelp. Now, set the lady loose.”

“Lady!” Mallory all but exploded. His spittle sprayed into Adam’s face. It wasn’t particularly nice. “Mister, you’re real new around here if you think she’s any sort of a lady!”

With the tips of his stiffened fingers, Adam pushed him hard in the chest. Pulled off balance by the struggling girl, Mallory was taken entirely by surprise. He stumbled backwards into the bar. Maria twisted away from him, and Adam glimpsed spreading bruises under her skin. The sight of them made him angry. Somewhat irrationally for a fully-grown man, he found himself wanting to thrust Mallory’s mocking grin down his throat, preferably sideways. He felt himself bristling and swallowed the bile that rose into his throat. He was, after all, an adult, and Mallory was only a boy who had not let learned how to grow into a man. Still, he decided, it could be time for a lesson, and carefully unclenched his fists. “Then let’s just say I don’t like the tone of your voice.”

The young man reacted exactly the way he’d expected and searched around for a weapon. What he found was one of the wax-encrusted bottles standing on the bar. Adam was acutely aware of the second man moving in close behind him. Mallory swung with the bottle, aiming clumsily at Adam’s head. Timing to a nicety, Adam ducked out of the way. He heard the heavy glass bottle connect solidly with bone as it connected with the head of the man behind him. Davies dropped at his feet. Mallory was thrown off balance again; he stumbled on by. Adam moved in behind him and brought the hard edge of his hand down smartly on the back of the young man’s neck somewhere behind the ear. Mallory fell over Davies and ended up on the floor. One was out cold with a fine, blue bruise on the temple; the other made feeble swimming motions while blood poured out of his nose and soaked into the dust of the floor.

Adam wasn’t sympathetic. As Mallory struggled to get to his feet, he kicked him hard in the seat of the pants and sent him sprawling again. He arched an enquiring eyebrow at Maria. “Are you all right, Señorita?”

She rubbed her sore arm, but she was smiling again in spite of the pain. “Si, Señor. Muchas gracious. Thank you. These two are always in here cadging free food and drink.”

Adam’s face lost some of its grim expression; his lips quirked into what was almost a matching grin. “I’m sure there’s something I can do about that.” He picked each man up by the collar and hauled him out into the street.

A heavy footfall half turned him around. The first thing he saw was the sheriff’s great boot, battered and scarred from long years of wear and covered in dust with huge, leather-covered buckles down the outsides. Adam’s eyes tracked upwards, past the thick corded pants and the wide leather belt with the big silver buckle, the carved, yellow ivory grip of the pistol and the sweaty shirt to the broad featured Mexican’s face, head and shoulders above his own. He met the sheriff’s eyes squarely and dropped the pair into the dirt. “They were bothering the lady inside,” he said simply.

The sheriff hooked his thumbs in his belt and heaved a mammoth sized, garlic-flavoured sigh. “Always it is these two causing the trouble: first Mama Manga’s down the street and now Señora Ferno’s – and not for the first time.”

Standing at ease, Adam tucked his hands into his front pant’s pockets and surveyed the pair on the ground. The two were trying to crawl away into the shade and the shelter of the alley alongside the building. Adam doubted he made them his friends. “They come from around here?”

“No, Señor. They arrived here three weeks ago, riding double on a spotted pony. The horse has since died. They show no inclination to be on their way.”

Figuring that he and the sheriff were of much the same opinion, Adam ventured a suggestion, “Why don’t you lock them up for a bit? A few days behind bars might make them think differently.”

The sheriff grinned. “Si, you could be right about that. Unfortunately, we have no bars to put them behind.”

“You don’t have a jail cell?” Adam found it hard to believe.

“Aye-ee. No, Señor.” The big man grinned wryly. “I have a small office along the street but nowhere to lock a man up. Look about you. What for should I want to lock anyone up?”

Adam took a slow look ‘round at the village: the well, the church, the cantina, a dozen shops, all closed at this afternoon hour, forty or so thick-walled, adobe houses and the blacksmith’s shop. The donkey still dozed, and the horses slept in the sun. Their brief courtship over, the dogs had retreated to some shady corner and even the chickens had gone home to roost. He had to confess the modest hamlet of ‘Spritos Christos’ hardly presented itself as a hotbed of disorder and lawlessness.

While Adam studied the village, the sheriff was looking him over. “And you, Señor, do you have business here?”

He had the right to ask it. “I’m here to buy horses from Don Estaban Padro. The name’s Cartwright. Adam Cartwright.”

The sheriff stuck out a huge fist that engulfed Adam’s hand. “I am Mezo.”

“I’m pleased to meet you, sheriff Mezo.”

“Just Mezo. Don Estaban is a friend of yours, huh?” Adam got the feeling that this big, bluff mountain of a man was a whole lot shrewder than he first appeared. In a few, short conversations he’d have a man’s whole life’s story. Adam found himself liking the man.

“He’s more a friend of my father’s. I’ve only met him once, a long time ago. To be honest, I hardly remember the way to the hacienda. I’d appreciate it if you could point me in the right direction.”

The man named Mezo hesitated, just for a moment, while he made a final assessment of the man before him. Adam bore it bravely. “You take the east road out of the town and follow the fork to the left.”

Adam was obliged for the information. Mezo went with him as he walked to his horses. “Will you have beer before you go, Señor Cartwright?”

Adam chuckled. The man was still fishing for information. Sorely tempted, he looked at the sky and estimated the hours of daylight left before dusk. “Another time, perhaps. I want to reach Don Estaban’s before it gets dark.”

Mezo nodded and stood back and smiled as Adam stepped into the saddle. “Convey my respect to Dona Marguerite.”

“I’ll be sure and do that.” Adam touched his hat in farewell and reined his horse away from the rail. He felt the sheriff’s thoughtful eyes on his back all the way out of town.

For the first several miles the landscape that he rode through remained much the same: an unrelieved wasteland of dust and broken stone relieved only by patches of grey-green scrub-brush and flowering mesquite bushes, lime trees and olives where the water ran close to the surface. Once he reached the fork in the road and turned into the rolling hills that had, for so long, dominated his horizon, the aspect of the country began to change.

The hills were bone-dry, clothed, for the most part, with sparse, moistureless grasses the colour of straw and sunlight. In between, the wide, shallow valleys were green – as lush and as verdant as the hills were arid. Broad, green pastures, vast fields without fences, stretched for miles into the haze of the distance. Neat clumps of trees dotted the grasslands and some of them even had water: long, slim lakes that reflected the sky. Adam filled his lungs with the fresh, rising air. It was good to smell moisture and grass and the scent of things growing.

The trail that he scarcely remembered ran on for a way along the side of the valley then climbed the ridge and dipped down into the next. Adam rode steadily, not pressing his horses but keeping up a good pace. Already, the sun was dipping towards the western horizon; the sky darkened and changed from brazen to a dusty blue-grey.

Out of the lengthening shadows a horseman was riding towards him, cutting across the grasslands and galloping hard. Puffs of pale dust flew up from the dark horse’s hooves. The rider waved his hat in the air, and Adam heard a shout of greeting: a distant halloo. He recognised the elegant sway in the saddle, the easy, flowing grace that made the man one with the creature he rode. He pulled the bay to a halt and sat quietly, a faint half-smile settling onto his face.

As horse and rider drew nearer he began to make out details. The horse was a fine one with a polished, brown coat. Typically, it had heavy shoulders and quarters, a short-barrelled body and muscular legs. Its harness glinted with silver. Despite all the years, the man in the high-fronted, Mexican saddle was dearly familiar. Adam felt the smile spread.

The other man pulled his horse to a sweating, snorting stop a few yards away, then walked him forward, closing the gap between them. He was smiling as well. “Adam – my very good friend! I am so very pleased to see you again.”

“It’s good to see you too, Miguel.” Still in their saddles, the two men shook hands warmly. For Adam, the years fell away. He was, once more, a very young man with all the world spread before him: a finely woven tapestry of light and life interwoven with bright opportunity. Miguel Riaz was the friend of his young manhood. The early summer months of Adam’s eighteenth year had been spent mostly on horseback, riding these very same hills and ranges and the nearby fringes of deserts with this man close at his side. The two had been inseparable, all but joined at the hip. Adam felt a surge of delight at the renewal of their acquaintance.

The grandson and heir apparent to Don Estaban Padro, Miguel was a smaller man than Adam, shorter and lighter framed. Even dressed in his work clothes, he was plainly no common vaquero. His vest was crafted from one, spotted hide, and his chaps were trimmed with silver medallions. Although he considered himself a Mexican, he had rich, Spanish blood; there was little of the Pueblo Indian to be seen in his narrow features. He still had the dark, handsome looks and the flashing eyes that Adam recalled, but there was something different – something about his face.

Adam’s smile faded and his face filled with speculation. He sat back in the saddle and looked his friend straight in the eye. As good friends, they had always been brutally frank with one another; he saw no reason to change the habit now. He lifted a hand to touch his own cheek. “So, what happened?”

Miguel raised his hand and mimicked the action, his fingertips tracing the long, curving scar that began at his temple and flowed down his cheek, turning again to make a deep notch in both perfect lips, and finishing with a final, cruel twist in the cleft of his chin. The scar wasn’t new; it was old and long healed. The wound that had made it had cut to the bone and almost cost him an eye. “You mean this?” Adam nodded, his eyes still fixed on the ugly, dark line. Miguel smiled crookedly. “An argument.” He shrugged. “It didn’t heal well. They had to sew it several times over.”

Adam winced at the thought of it. He suppressed the shudder and pulled himself sharply together. He forced a grin. “A horse or a woman?”

“Would you believe three bags of corn-meal? The man had a very quick temper.” Miguel joined in the laughter against himself.

Finally, Adam sobered and looked at the country around him. The lines of the familiar hills had softened, their colours changing from harsh browns and gold to purple and lilac and pale, misty blue. In the valley the shadows were creeping, spreading to cover the land up with darkness. A long way off he could see horses grazing – mares with their foals moving slowly to water. A smile of deep satisfaction pulled at his lips. “I can see why Pa figures this is the finest country there is for raising horseflesh.”

“Si, mi amigo. It is a very fine country.” Miguel sighed softly, a sigh of contentment, a sigh filled with his love for the land. “Tomorrow we will ride out together as we did in the old days and visit all our favourite places. It will be good to have you back at my side.”

Adam nodded agreement, glad that Miguel also remembered. “It’s something I shall look forward to.”

Miguel turned his horse around, dancing him ‘round on the spot and facing him back down the trail. “Let’s go home, Adam. My grandfather is waiting.”

“You lead the way.” Adam kicked the bay into motion.

The Rancho of Don Estaban Padro had grown in the past fifteen years. Certainly, it spread further across the valley than Adam recalled. Now, it resembled nothing more than a small, self-contained Hispanic township that provided for most of the needs of its own population. There was, of course, that essential tangle of barn-like structures, outhouses, storerooms and corrals that, of necessity, accompany every endeavour that involves livestock. They sprawled, looking vaguely organic, over the valley floor and contained, to the unpractised eye, a confusing assortment of half-trained horses and semi-wild cattle, sturdy mules and thickset oxen. The beasts gave off a foetid haze of smell, noise and heat that hung in a cloud over all.

Then there were the people – far more than Adam expected, more than he could even begin to count. It was almost entirely a male population, vaqueros and wranglers in wide brimmed hats, hauliers and stockmen with ropes and whips and a good many young men and boys intent on learning their trade. It was a well-ordered and purposeful confusion. Adam felt his blood stir. Part cattle ranch in the traditional sense, part breeding establishment for the raising of extraordinary, fine blooded horses, the estanzia was busier by far, more vibrant, more intensely alive, than the Ponderosa, in the cold heart of Nevada, had ever been.

He pulled his horse to a stop at the highest point of the trail and sat for a while, his eyes far-focused, while he made some sense of it all. Beside him, Miguel settled back in his saddle and waited with a faint air of amusement, watching the flow of expression across his friend’s face and finding, as of old, that he could almost hear his thoughts. On his own, handsome, disfigured features he wore an indulgent smile. This was his home and his inheritance and a justifiable pride shone out of his eyes.

Industry was the watchword of this small and intricately interwoven community. Immediately below the path where they sat was the blacksmith’s shop. It was the oldest building there and had been constructed even before habitation; its wattle walls showed many signs of repair and were blackened by smoke. There were three separate forges that rang with arrhythmic hammering and belched out steam and smoke in about equal measure together with the stench of hot iron. In the corrals, men schooled horses in the ancient, Spanish way. There was nothing here of the whip and the spur of the bronc-buster’s art, no gut wrenching ride and no crushing fall to break a man’s bones and a horse’s spirit, no buck and plunge of frantic, sweating horseflesh. Here, there were soft-spoken words and endless circles on the end of a lunging line.

Further away were small clusters of buildings strung like gourds along the far side of the track that ran the length of the valley. Adam remembered that they housed a wide variety of independent workshops; each produced some essential item for the men, women and children that lived and worked on the ranch.

Then there were the communal kitchens and a separate bakery, a distillery and a laundry. A tiny, white chapel sat up on the hill with its graveyard spread out around it and what looked like a newly built schoolhouse close alongside. A second and a third, long, low bunkhouse had been added to provide bunks for the single men, and the slightly uneven rows of ‘dobe houses furnished homes for those who had wives and families.

As the golden afternoon light faded into the twilight of evening, the work wound down toward the end of the day. Women laden with baskets and bundles made their way to hearthside and home. Men led their horses to barns and stables with dogs running underfoot. The final wagons hauling wood and water wound their way up the trail, and several riders approached from across the valley, drifting a small bunch of cattle out of the gloom – beef for the kitchens for the next several days.

Smoke coiled up from stone-built chimneys and drifted away to the west as cooking fires stated to burn; lamps glimmered from darkened windows and brought them to life. The night breeze that lifted up from the valley carried the sweet smells of wood smoke and warm horse manure, of the slowly cooling stockyards and richly flavoured foods. Children’s voices rang clarion bright through the evening air, and, somewhere, a light, Mexican voice sang to the fluid tones of an old guitar. All of a sudden it was very familiar, just like coming home.

 

*******

 

The passage of time had treated Don Estaban kindly. It had touched him in much the same manner as it had his oldest and dearest friend, Adam’s father, Ben Cartwright. It was true that his short cropped beard and the longer, swept back wings of his hair, both once as black as the underside of a ravens wing, were now white as the sun-kissed snow and the vertical lines either side of his mouth had become deep-folded pleats, but his somewhat hawkish, aristocratic features were essentially unchanged. He now walked with a stick to ease the ache of an arthritic hip, but his back remained straight and his shoulders unbowed. His dark eyes held a keen-edged intelligence that Adam had always admired. Here was a man very much like his father: a man of vision and faith and hard driving determination. Don Estaban had matched old Ben stride for stride in aspiration and in eventual achievement. He too had tackled and tamed a wild and unforgiving country and had shaped the world that he lived in,

In the last, blue light of the day, he stood in the centre of the flat, open ground in front of his house, a not very tall but stiffly erect figure, and watched the young men ride up. Except for that inevitable brush with the fingers of time, he looked exactly the same. Adam would have known him anywhere

As Adam stepped down from the saddle, the old man took a long, if lame, step forward with the help of his stick and held out his hand to greet him.

The Don spoke in perfect, educated Spanish but slowly enough for Adam to understand, “Adam Cartwright, so of my friend, it is a fine thing and a very great pleasure to have you return to my hacienda.”

“Don Estaban.” Adam took the firm handshake and held it. He couldn’t resist a glance at the house.

The grand hacienda was set quite apart from the other ranch buildings, the dust and the smell of the corrals. Designed and fashioned in the manner of the great, country houses of Spain, it was built on a rise in the ground that commanded fine views of the valley and the sweep of the hills beyond. It was constructed on two, separate levels, long and low to the ground at the front with a square second storey built up behind. A solid and substantial structure, it had roofs of red tile now edged and tinted with crimson by the light of the setting sun and deep-set, diamond faceted windows in thick, clay-faced walls. It was Adam remembered, both cosily warm in the cold desert evenings and cool in the heat of the day. It nestled against the landscape with the air of a long established invader.

Two sides of the house, to the south and the west, had the look of a cloistered garden. Perfectly curved archways opened into shadowy courtyards and paved, covered walkways. Red borganvillia and powder-blue wisteria draped white painted walls. The evening air was heavy with the scent of their flowers. There were vines on trelliswork panels, already laden with fruit; camellias thrived in the dry, dusty soil while the drought stricken roses struggled hard to survive. “I thank you for your welcome. It is my honour to be here”

Adam felt the dark eyes sweep over him, summing him up. “I received your message from San Francisco,” Don Estaban said. “Miguel has ridden out along that trail each day for a week, watching for you to come.” He looked at his grandson with gentle reproof, underlain with affection.

Hearing his name, Miguel joined them. He looked sheepish, but only a little. “I was looking forward to seeing you again. I was afraid you might get lost in the desert.”

“I had my adventures,” Adam admitted, grinning wryly. “I’ll tell you about it.”

Don Estaban shook his head frowning, but at the same time laughing at the two younger men, “Tonight your tales with be more than welcome. In the mean time, it is less than hospitable to keep a guest standing out in the yard. Ramon will take care of the horses.” He beckoned to a boy who hovered nearby. “I’m sure you would like to wash before dinner.”

Adam fingered the silky, black growth on his chin. “I’d like that a lot.”

Don Estaban made an elegant gesture that included the wide sweep of the steps and the grand façade of the house. “Do come inside.”

Adam was given a pleasant, spacious and well-appointed room on the upper floor. It was dark inside; the tall, narrow widows faced west and afforded a magnificent view of the valley. The last, faint light of the day was now in the sky, lighting the hilltops and plunging the hollows into darkness. A respectful, Mexican servant pulled closed the casements against the chill of the night and, at Adam’s given word, lit the lamps.

The first flare of the match highlighted the man’s rounded features; then the pale yellow light spread beyond him to gild the polished surfaces of a dresser and a bureau, to liven the bright patterns of the Mexican rugs that covered the floor and the quilts that festooned the bed. A small but intricately fashioned crucifix of wood and ivory was affixed above the place where his head would lay on the pillow, and a portrait of Madonna and Child hung in a shallow niche in the wall. A lamp on a table at either end of the room and another mid-way between the two windows filled up the room with a mellow and cool illumination.

Two other servants brought Adam’s belongings from the packs on his horse’s backs. The first man supervised their placement on the chair, the floor and the bed. “Is there something else I can do for you, Señor Cartwright?” he asked in passable English. “Can I help you unpack?”

“Thank you, no. I can do that myself. Is it possible you could get my suit pressed before dinner?”

“Indeed, Señor.” The servant took the offending garment. “Dinner will be served at nine” He went out quietly and closed the door behind him.

Left to himself, Adam gratefully pulled off his boots and peeled off the trail clothes that he had worn for far too long. In places, the cloth had stuck to his skin and some of the spots were sore. The shirt, pants and drawers were stiff with dirt and stank of sweat, his own and his horse’s. His body had become lean, hardened by the long weeks that he’d spent in the saddle. Trimmed of the several ounces of fat that he sometimes carried, the muscles of his arms, thighs and belly were taut and sharply defined. His face and his forearms were burned nut-brown from exposure to the relentless rays of the sun; the rest of his skin was paler, in places, almost milk white.

In lieu of the bath that he knew that he needed but didn’t have time for, he washed himself from head to toe in the water the servant had brought. Then he stood, tall and buff naked, in front of the mirror and considered his face. His features were regular and finely chiselled – what some ladies had been heard to call handsome. What Adam could see was a slightly receding hairline and very dark hair in serious need of a trim, heavy eyebrows and amber-brown eyes, deep-set and far seeing from squinting at distant horizons. He fingered his dark beard again. For just one moment he toyed with the idea of wearing a small moustache. Then he smiled a trifle ruefully at his reflection in the looking glass. He knew that his father would never approve. He wetted his face with warm water and reached for his razor.

By the time the quick rap came at the door, he was washed and shaved and dressed in clean linen. The pants of his best, black suit had been carefully sponged and pressed and looked almost new although the jacket, hung from the bedpost, was still somewhat rumpled. He wore a crisply white shirt that had travelled well and a bow of black silk at his throat. He turned his head as the bedroom door swung open.

It was Miguel who stood in the doorway, his sharp profile lit by the lamps in the passage outside. He leaned back with a casual grace on the stout, wooden doorframe, his arms folded across his chest and a familiar, much missed, faintly mocking smile on his face. From where Adam stood, he couldn’t see a trace of the scar. “I don’t think you’ll be likely to need that, compadre.”

Adam looked down at his hands. He was holding the Colt, carefully wiping away the last vestige of dust with a lightly oiled rag. “I guess you’re right about that.” With a grin, he slid the Colt back into its holster. Over all the years that he’d been a man, keeping the weapon spotlessly clean had gotten to be a habit.

Miguel straightened out of the lean and on came into the room. He walked with the same, easy, swinging stride that Adam well remembered. He was resplendent in a pearl-grey suit, cut in the Spanish style with a short, bolero jacket trimmed with glossy back braid. A scarlet sash defined his narrow waist, and his boots were highly polished. He paused by Adam’s bed and surveyed his scattered belongings, the few, but essential, things that a competent and self-reliant man needed to travel in a cruel and unforgiving land and stand a chance of staying alive.

“I had thought you might come by the easier route, down the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans and crossed the border from there. Then you could have brought your wife with you.”

Adam laughed and held up his hands in defence. “No wife, I assure you. Do you think that I wouldn’t have put a thing like that in my letters?”

“Yes, I suppose you would have. Have you ever thought about getting married?

“Oh. I’ve thought about it – come pretty close once or twice.”

“But nothing ever came of it?” Miguel, in his friendly way, was naturally curious, probing the subject that intrigues young men the most.

There were some things that Adam preferred not to think about, except sometime in private, Remembering Regina, Ruth and Ellise and the endings of his relationships with each of them was too intensely painful, sometimes more than a man could bear. He declined to go into details. “Let’s just say things didn’t work out the way I intended.”

Miguel nodded. He didn’t press the matter any harder. The old rapport between the two of them was still very much intact. Adam turned the question neatly around. “What about you? No likely Señoritas on the horizon?”

“Plenty of girls.” Miguel shrugged – somewhat sheepishly, Adam thought. “But whether they are considered potential wife material, who knows.

“Can’t you tell?” Miguel had always had a keen eye for the ladies. Adam found his reticence strange. He studied his friend, and Miguel coloured under the scrutiny.

“I dare say my grandfather will decide before long whom it is I shall marry.”

The amusement faded from Adam’s eyes as he thought about that. “How do you feel about it – having someone else pick your wife for you?”

Another shrug, this one embarrassed. “It is the way it has always been done in the old, Spanish families. Besides, it’s not as if I have no choice at all – I have to like the girl’s face!” Adam laughed dutifully at the small attempt at a joke. “You know how it is,” Miguel went on. “You have brothers, but still, you are the eldest. One day it will fall to you to take charge and to work things out. It will be your responsibility.”

“I’m not sure that’s the way it will work out, but I know what you’re saying.”

“A man with such responsibilities should have a wife – and, eventually, a family – sons to pass his work on to.”

Adam heard the echo of Ben Cartwright’s voice in one of his more impassioned moments. “Now you’re starting to sound like Don Estaban yourself.”

“Does that surprise you?” Miguel’s grin returned. “Of course, you could always marry my cousin.”

“Your cousin?” Adam was taken aback.

“Why not? She is very beautiful. Soon, you will see for yourself. She is staying here with us, she and her brother.”

With a deep-throated chuckle, Adam slapped his friend on the shoulder. “Miguel, I think I’ve decided I’m not a marrying man.”

The two men smiled into each other’s faces. Miguel made a gesture towards the still open doorway. “Come, Adam. My grandmother is most anxious to meet you again before dinner.”

Adam put a final brush through his hair and reached for his jacket. “I’m looking forward to meeting her again as well.”

The staircase that united the upper floor of the hacienda Padro with the main body of the house below was a wide, sweeping curve of highly polished dark wood. It delivered Adam and Miguel, two handsome men walking side by side, into the heart of the great, central room. Hung directly above their heads, suspended by a great black chain, was Don Estaban’s pride and joy: an immense chandelier imported from France, a survivor of the French revolution: an intricate and artful construction of mirrors and glass that threw light into every corner of the room.

It was a room that was larger and more splendid by far than the somewhat homespun grandeur of Adam’s home on the Ponderosa. The wooden floors were carefully laid and highly polished and scattered with bright-coloured rugs, the furniture plush, lavishly upholstered in red and gold satin. Long, red-velvet drapes hung at the windows, tied back with gold braided cords to allow the light of the house to spill out into the night.

Miguel invited Adam to join the small group of people clustered about the room’s other main feature: a huge fireplace and chimney entirely constructed of white, red-veined stone. Inside the house, Don Estaban, in a smart suit trimmed with fine, silver thread, had discarded his walking stick as an unnecessary and unwanted encumbrance. He stood before the hearthstone, his back to the blaze, in conversation with a man Adam didn’t yet know. Dona Marguerite, a tall, straight-backed and very slim woman in a long and elegant evening dress was seated not far from the fire. “Adam,” Miguel introduced them, “of course, you remember my Grandmother.”

“Remember? How could any man ever forget?” Adam took the elderly lady’s black-gloved hand in his own and bowed low. “Dona Marguerite – it is such a very great pleasure to see you again.” Through the thin cloth of the glove he could feel tiny bones as small as a birds, so small and so fragile that it seemed a man’s normal handshake might crush them. He had known Dona Marguerite was elderly and in poor health; he hadn’t expected to find her so frail.

Daughter of one of the noblest houses of Spain, in her youth the Dona had been a great beauty, renown throughout all the land for her magnificent mane of black hair, her sharp wit and fiery temper and her remarkable and apparently endless collection of splendid clothes. Above the mantle was a fine portrait of her as she had been then, in a shimmering gown of ivory silk with her hand resting lightly on the back of a gilded, red velvet chair and a mantilla of fine black lace in her hair. At sixty years old, her hair was thin and silvery-grey, and her dark eyes were faded, although they still sparkled with laughter and a great love of life. Since she had come to live in Mexico with Don Estaban more than twenty-five years ago, her health had deteriorated sharply. For all the years that Adam had known her, she had been confined to a mobile chair.

The lady’s wits were as sharp as ever, and her fatal charm was intact. “Why, Adam Cartwright, You’re a fine young man indeed: at least as good looking as ever your father was.”

“And you are an enchanting woman.” Adam lifted the feather-light hand and brushed its back with his lips.

Marguerite chuckled, a rich, throaty sound. It was one of the few things she had left from the old days. “And you, Señor Cartwright, are a lady’s man. Miggy,” her eyes twinkled up at Miguel. “You’d better watch out for yourself. You have competition.”

Miguel joined in with the laughter. “I’m sure Adam and I can come to some arrangement.” Reluctantly, Adam relinquished the delicate hand.

Miguel turned to the other man, the one who was still a stranger “And this is my cousin, Charlo Marrinez. Charlo, meet my very good friend, Adam Cartwright.” The man stepped forward. Adam found himself confronted with a man as tall and broad as himself.

They shook hands warily while they looked one another over. Adam found himself inspecting a man of pure, Spanish blood. The features were fine and aristocratic, narrow nosed and sharp in the chin, undeniably handsome and rugged, but Adam thought them a little soft. He had black, wavy hair and very dark eyes and remarkably broad shoulders encased in a well fitting, velveteen jacket the colour of pine trees in winter. The handshake was dry and very firm as each tried to impress the strength of his personality upon the other man.

Miguel looked from one to the other, sensing unease. The two men’s eyes were still locked together. “Charlo and his sister are staying with us on a year-long visit from Spain.”

Charlo leaned back on his heels, pulling himself taller. “So you’re the man who farms cows in the wilds of Nevada? I’ve been hearing a great deal about you.” There was a sneer to the voice that Adam didn’t much care for. It was a deliberate insult, and Adam’s jaw set.

Adam reclaimed his hand. “It’s one way to earn a living,” he responded without humour, with almost a snarl. His dislike wasn’t instant, but it came pretty close. He studied the man once again. Marrinez might be big and have the build of a man who lived in the saddle, but his hands were thin-skinned, without a callus or scar or the sign of a rope burn or the slip of a branding iron. “What is it you do by way of an honest day’s work?”

Miguel was suddenly anxious. It was plain from the start that neither of the two men found any fondness for the other. They had no common ground – or perhaps they were too much alike. He didn’t quite know how to intervene.

Charlo looked down his aristocratic, blue-blooded nose. “I am the son of a grandee of Spain. I do not need to work.”

Adam sucked at his breath. He felt himself bristle and knew that his anger showed on his face. He met Charlo’s hot gaze with a flat level stare of his own. The man was trying to goad him, challenging him with his eyes, and Adam felt his blood stirring in angry response. “Perhaps you should try it some time,” he retorted hotly.

Don Estaban stepped between them. He thrust a glass against Adam’s chest. Adam’s hand came up automatically and formed a tight fist around it. It was tall, slender and cold. His eyes didn’t waver. To defuse the situation, Don Estaban proposed a toast, “Gentlemen, let us drink to the Dona Marguerite Padro, the most exquisite lady on earth.”

Four men raised their glasses and echoed his words, “Dona Marguerite Padro.” It gave the younger men a chance to back down, a chance to regain their composure. The Dona smiled, acknowledging their gallantry with a lift of the hand. She had missed nothing of the ugly confrontation, and her eyes were watchful and shrewd.

The drink was tequila, the mellow, brown kind, a liquor with many of the qualities of a fine, mature brandy but a good bit more of a bite. This had probably been two years in oak and the harsh taste of the maguey plant had been tamed to something that could be sipped, but Adam knew he would be foolish to forget its kick. It flowed over his tongue and helped to loosen the lock anger had set on his jaw. He wasn’t about to embarrass himself and his hosts with an unseemly display of temper in Don Estaban’s house. Miguel sidled up alongside him. “He’s only the second son of a grandee of Spain,” he said softly and dug Adam hard in the ribs. Adam laughed in spite of himself. With a savage shrug, he eased the fierce tension out of his shoulders.

Don Estaban, as always the perfect gentleman, resumed him conversation with Charlo as if the unpleasant incident had never taken place, moving him back to the fireplace. At the same time he exchanged a pointed look with Miguel. Miguel steered Adam away from them, sticking close to his side. For the sake of his friend, Adam attempted to shrug off his lingering irritation, but it stayed with him like an itch that he just couldn’t scratch. “How long have you been entertaining that big bag of wind?” It slipped out naturally, and Adam felt mildly absurd, using one of Little Joe’s phrases. Then he remembered; it should have been Joe standing here instead of him. In all probability, Joe would have punched the man right in the teeth.

Miguel chuckled. “Since early spring. You know what they say, Adam: you can choose your own friends. Your relatives are selected for you.”

Adam had joined in the chorus. Ruefully, he grinned. Living under the same roof as Charlo Marrinez was not a prospect he looked forward to with any degree of enthusiasm. He supposed he had to make the best of it that he could. He rather wished that he had another drink.

The rustle of silken skirts and a flash of scarlet at the head of the staircase turned both young men’s heads. The worried look faded from Miguel’s face, and was replaced with a bright smile of anticipation. “Adam, come and meet my other cousin, the prettier one of the two.”

The woman who descended into the room had an inborn elegance, charm and grace. Moderately tall but not overly so, slender without being thin, she came down the steps with a ramrod straight back that had more to do with deportment than the whalebone in her corset. Adam’s initial impression was of a narrow waist and a creamy-white bosom above the scooped neckline of a brilliant red dress and a countenance that rivalled Dona Marguerite in her prime in its outstanding and breathtaking beauty.

Her features were finely and perfectly proportioned within an oval face, her skin flawless and touched with a faint hint of gold. Her mouth was full-lipped and her nose thin and straight; her large, liquid-dark eyes flashed with life and fire and zest. Polished black hair swept up and back, held by a large, golden pin, then tumbled in ringlets about the white column of her neck. While Adam was not a man to be swept of his feet by a woman’s beauty, knowing full well that wit, intelligence and personality were at least as important, wearing a pretty face never hurt. An odd shiver ran down his spine.

Adam became aware that Don Estaban and Charlo had come up beside him. They all stood looking up. At exactly the mid-point of the stairway, the woman stopped to survey their upturned faces. The tips of the fingers of one perfectly manicured hand rested lightly on the burnished rail. She lingered a precisely calculated count of seconds to tease and tantalise before she continued down. Then Adam smelled her perfume, a rare and carefully blended mixture of mellow and sweet. He never failed to be aware of the scent that women wore, and, as always, it went straight to his head. He found his mouth had come open and closed it with care. He touched Miguel on the elbow. “Aren’t you going to introduce me?” He was glad he had practised his Spanish.

“But of course!” Grinning, Miguel stepped forward and offered his hand to the lady. “May I present my very good friend, Adam Cartwright from Nevada. Adam, this is my cousin, Señorita Valenzuela Marrinez.”

Adam took the small, pale hand from Miguel and brushed it with his lips in a gentlemanly manner. He smiled with his eyes in a way that he knew women loved. “Señorita, when my friend told me were lovely, he didn’t begin to do you justice.”

Valenzuela Marrinez met his eyes with a liquid-dark gaze of her own, cool and reserved perhaps but at the same time interested and not altogether unfriendly. She favoured him with an uncertain smile. He saw her exchange a glance with her brother but was unable to read the swift message that passed between them. Carefully, he avoided looking at Charlo; he could feel the heat of the man’s body close at his side, and he could sense his animosity. What he didn’t want was another altercation, not here and not now. His gaze stayed fixed on the lady’s face. The perfect lips moved in a smile. “Señor Cartwright, how interesting to make your acquaintance at last. Miguel has spoken of little else but your visit all summer long.”

Still holding on to the slim, white hand, Adam hoped his cheeks didn’t flush. He knew that his dimples were showing. “I’m sure Miguel flatters me.”

“Then it will be intriguing to discover what you are really like.” The dark eyes shimmered with amusement and the smile became more natural, more self-assured. Adam knew he was being teased and turned on the charm.

“I hope we shall both have the opportunity to find out more about each other.”

Adam sensed Charlo shift beside him; he was aware of his simmering rage. He felt Miguel’s anxious eyes on him and Don Estaban’s close scrutiny. After one moment more, he released her hand.

Don Estaban offered his niece his arm in a gentlemanly manner, a look of admiration aglow on his face. “My dear Valenzuela, tonight you look truly magnificent. Come and say good evening to your aunt.”

The two of them strolled away together to exchange words with Donna Marguerite. Adam found himself standing beside Miguel with his hands clasped before him and his head to one side as he looked after them and admired her back, the set of her shoulders and the way she held up her head. They looked a very handsome couple, the upright, somewhat lame, white-headed man and the young woman with the tumble of midnight-dark hair. He was only half-aware of Miguel’s spreading grin and the furious look that Charlo gave him in passing.

At precisely nine o’clock, not a moment before and not one second after, A Mexican servant, the same, pleasant faced man who had shown Adam his room but now dressed in a loose, white suit, appeared in the room and respectfully announced that dinner was about to be served. Everyone drifted towards the dining room. Don Estaban took it upon himself to escort Valenzuela, her hand on his arm and his fingers resting on her hands in a gesture of fatherly affection. The honour of pushing Donna Marguerite in her carved and upholstered chair fell to Adam.

In the accepted tradition of the locality, the kitchen of the hacienda occupied an entirely separate building, set apart from the main part of the house to reduce heat and smoke and cooking smells and to alleviate the risk of fire spreading. The covered passage between the two buildings served as a storage space for boxes and barrels and a two-wheeled cart and sleeping spots for the hacienda’s collection of cats and an occasional donkey. The kitchen itself, under the supervision of Don Estaban’s large and formidable cook, turned out very fine fare. Each course was cooked to perfection in the Mexican manner and then carried across as required. The dining room, magnificent in its simplicity, was built onto the side of the house. It had a high, arched ceiling and tall, glazed windows that overlooked the valley.

The room was filled up with gold. The plastered walls were painted warm yellow, perfectly plain and without adornment except for the vases of flowers centrally placed on the long, polished sideboards. The flowers were full-blown marigolds and yellow broom and sprigs of white flowered dogwood. Their fragrance seasoned the air. Elegant lamps with hand-painted, eggshell-thin shades were strategically placed at either end of each sideboard. They gave out a steady, pale glow. Massed banks of candles in candelabra vied with their own reflections in silver-backed mirrors and added their own, gentle light. Dominating the room from its centre, the long, polished table was laid with glassware and gilded silver set out on a white lace cloth.

At Dona Marguerite’s direction, Adam steered her chair to her place at the end of the table. She might be confined to a wheelchair and in failing health, but she was still a woman of indomitable spirit and was still very much in charge of her household. She gave commands to her servants with gracious authority and rapped out orders to her family that everyone jumped to obey. Even Don Estaban was content to oblige her, an indulgent smile on his face as he took his seat at the head of the table. Valenzuela sat on his right hand side and Adam on his left with Miguel beyond him and Charlo next to his sister. The careful placing did not escape Adam’s notice.

Don Estaban poured the wine. “Adam, I’d like your opinion of this Chablis.”

Charlo barely swallowed an impolite scoff. “I doubt a vaquero would know very much about wine, uncle.”

Don Estaban did not lift his eyes or look in Charlo’s direction, but his well-modulated voice held a note of reproach. “On the contrary, my old friend Ben Cartwright keeps a very fine cellar. I’m sure that Adam has received a more than adequate education.”

As he picked up his glass, Adam hoped he was right. He sniffed the wine briefly, then took a small sip, letting the chilled liquid warm on his tongue. He knew better than to jump to conclusions, but he was also aware that he should trust his instincts and not second-guess himself. “Definitely a Grand cru Chablis and certainly French.” He swirled the pale liquid and inhaled its bouquet again. “Austere and quite dry, properly flinty, but with a richness that suggests one of the smaller vineyards just to the south of town along the Serein River, perhaps Valmur?” He wasn’t entirely sure of the vineyard, but he took the risk. He took another sip and rolled it on his tongue. “Eighteen forty-eight I should think. It was a good year, and these grapes were really champagne quality. About the best I can do, sir.” He smiled pleasantly, set his glass down and cleared his palate with a bit of dry biscuit.

Don Estaban consulted the label. “Very good,” he said quietly – but loudly enough for Charlo to hear. He handed the bottle to the servant who took it away. Adam never found out if he were right or wrong. Dona Marguerite gave a signal, and the first course was served.

Over wafer thin strips of white fish served in a buttery, herb-filled sauce and garnished with slices of lime, Don Estaban inquired after Adam’s family. “We were most disturbed to hear of your brother’s accident.”

“Little Joe’s well on the mend.” Adam allowed himself an indulgent smile at the memory. “Last time I saw him he was sitting up in bed surrounded by dime novels and complaining that he couldn’t make this trip for himself.” He caught Valenzuela’s gaze from across the table. She lowered her eyes, but he saw her smile as she dabbed her lips with a napkin.

“I am, of course, delighted that you came in his place,” Don Estaban continued. “I had hope that your father might come with you.”

“Pa would have loved to come, but he had business in the east. They’re talking about building a railroad across the country, east to west, ocean to ocean. Pa wants a part of it.”

Don Estaban nodded. “That’s the Ben Cartwright I know.”

Adam continued, in between forkfuls, “He took Jenny and Daniel with him, so I guess they’ll stay on for a while.”

“Ah! The new wife and the baby,” Don Estaban smiled. His dark eyes twinkled. “How is it to have a young family on the Ponderosa?”

“It certainly livens the old homestead up a bit,” Adam confessed with a rather wry grin.

The servants served roast pork and a piquant, sour-apple sauce. Adam was encouraged to relate the adventures of his journey, first by stagecoach and steamship along the coast of California, and then on horseback through the desert. He did his best to make the account amusing and made light of the dangers for the sake of the ladies, although the men understood him well enough. Miguel helped him out with the narration, adding an anecdote here and there, and the company was duly entertained. The chatter went back and forth as the meal was consumed, and an hour and a half passed pleasantly. Only Charlo maintained a scowling and stony silence. Over a feather-light pudding flavoured with lemon and served with thick cream, Adam found himself describing bonnets and shoes as the women questioned him closely about the fashions worn on the west coast that season.

The meal over, the party withdrew one more to the central core of the house. The chill of the night was creeping indoors, and fresh logs had been piled onto the fire. Flames burned brightly in the hearth, leaping and roaring into the chimney space, belching out heat and scenting the room with the sweet smells of apple and lime. The ladies both took coffee in minute, china cups. Don Estaban poured the men brandy and opened a box of cigars. Miguel declined; he never smoked, but Adam and Charlo both accepted. Adam rarely indulged; not often enough to make it a habit, but away from home he did occasionally relish a fine Havana. After so long in the cold, stony desert, it was pure luxury to sit in a comfortable armchair with the heat of the fire on his face and puff the cigar alight.

Don Estaban eschewed the discussion of business matters at the table, but now he turned to Adam with his keen intellect lighting his eyes. “Your father tells me in his correspondence that he wants to buy horses to improve your breeding stock – several mares and one or two stallions. I imagine that you have some clear idea what you’re looking for?”

Adam recalled what Ben had said when they had discussed the matter at Christmas, although Ben, of course, had been addressing himself to Joe, ‘Remember, no fancy high steppers. Don’t get carried away.’ He exhaled smoke and settled back in the cushions. “Joe knows far more about our current breeding program that I do,” he admitted. “I shall be relying on your valued advice.”

Don Estaban seemed pleased by his response. “I’m sure that you are altogether too modest. In a few days, when you have had a chance to recover from your journey and made yourself at home, Miguel will ride out with you and show you some stock.”

Adam knew that Don Estaban liked to conduct business in a gentlemanly manner and at a leisurely pace. It would be rude to hurry him along. Still, there was one small matter he thought he ought to settle right away, and now was as good a time as any. “Don Estaban, I have a favour to ask you: when our business is concluded, I would like Miguel to ride with me when I take the horses home. He would be more than welcome to stay on the Ponderosa through the winter and into the spring.” He exchanged winks and smiles with a delighted Miguel. Already the prospect of the long trip excited them both, and they knew that the Don could hardly refuse.

If Don Estaban knew that he was being manoeuvred, and doubtless he did, he gave no sign of it. He smiled pleasantly and made an expansive gesture with his free hand. “But of course. I would not expect you to take the horses home alone.”

“And I would love to see the snow on the Nevada mountains,” Miguel added. His face was aglow.

Adam chuckled, “You might not like it so much when you’ve spent fourteen hours digging out steers.

Valenzuela put down her cup with sudden determination. There was a rosy flush to her cheek. “I, too, would like to see the snow in Nevada.”

In the silence that followed, five pairs of eyes regarded her gravely and with varying degrees of alarm. Charlo, subdued and surly since the incident with the wine at the table, reacted with anger, “Don’t be so foolish! The wilds of America are no place for a lady!”

The woman’s eyes flashed with instant annoyance. “Who are you to tell me where I can and cannot go? I am old enough to make up my own mind!”

“I am you brother! I am supposed to take care of you…” From there the Spanish picked up speed, and Adam was left far behind.

“My dear,” Donna Marguerite leaned forward and patted the young woman’s hand. “It’s really not a very practical idea.”

Valenzuela looked from one to the other, seeing opposition on every face. “I want to go. My father sent me from Spain to widen my horizons: to see something of the world. I have decided that the part of it that I want to see is Nevada. The lakes and the mountains are very beautiful, are they not, Mister Cartwright?”

Adam sucked in a breath but the elderly Dona jumped in before him. She was becoming quite agitated. “But you cannot go riding off into the wilds with just two men!”

“Charlo can come with me. He is more than able to protect my honour.” Valenzuela flashed her brother a defiant glance.

Miguel was also becoming anxious and for an entirely different reason. He got to his feet and took several paces, back and forth. “Cousin, you truly do not understand what you are asking. It would not be like a carriage ride in the country. It is a very long way to Nevada, and the way is full of pitfalls and dangers. There are deserts and badlands and rivers to cross…”

Valenzuela’s expression was angry and stubborn; it marred her beautiful face. “I can put up with hardships. I ride just as well as you do.”

“It’s not just a matter of how well you can stay on a horse.” Miguel spread his hands in a helpless gesture as he tried to explain what the men-folk already knew. “The country out there is hell on earth, and it’s crawling with bandits and renegades and wild Apache bands roaming off the reservation. It’ll be hard enough for Adam and me to keep ourselves and the horses alive.”

Valenzuela remained unconvinced. Adam concluded that it was time for him to step in. “I’m sure my father would be delighted to welcome you to his house, Señorita, as soon as a formal visit can be arranged. It would be quite impossible for you to travel with us.”

Don Estaban left his place by the fire. His urbane face was concerned. “Adam is quite right. It would be far too dangerous for you to ride with the men. I will write to Ben Cartwright. Perhaps a visit can be arranged for the spring, and then you can return with Miguel and rest there awhile before you start out for home.”

Valenzuela looked around for support and found none: only continuing annoyance on the part of her brother and varying degrees of disquiet. She drew a long breath, and her chin rose stubbornly. She was wise enough not to argue the point any further, but she wasn’t about to give up. “That is most considerate of you, uncle. I would appreciate your kindness.”

Pleased to indulge his beautiful niece and to have reached a peaceful solution, Don Estaban nodded and smiled. Charlo stepped forward taking Valenzuela firmly by the elbow. His eyes promised that their discussion of the matter was not yet over. “You must excuse my sister,” he said to Don Estaban. “Please do not trouble yourself to write. It is late, and I fear she has become overtired. In the morning, when she is rested, she will see things differently.”

Valenzuela snatched her arm away and glared at her brother balefully. His fingers had left marks on her skin. Adam got to his feet. Don Estaban took firm charge of the situation. “I’m sure that’s right.” He stepped adroitly between Adam and Charlo and kissed the young woman lightly on the cheek. I’ll write to Adam’s father in the morning, my dear, if that’s still what you want. I’m certain that he will be delighted to confirm Adam’s invitation.”

The woman’s dark eyes still flashed with anger, but she had more wit than to argue the point any further – upon that occasion anyway. “Thank you, uncle.” She bobbed Don Estaban a graceful curtsy and kissed her aunt a fond goodnight. Then she swept away towards the staircase and up, out of sight, a fiery eyed dark-haired vision in blood-red silk. The four men stood close together and watched her in a small, admiring group, each of them thinking his own, private thoughts.

Dona Marguerite cleared her throat, breaking into their reverie. “I also am weary,” she said to Don Estaban. “I would like to retire. Adam,” she held out her hand to him “it is so very pleasant to see you again.”

“The pleasure is entirely mine.” Adam bowed over the offered hand and matched the old lady’s smile.

“Gentlemen.” With a nod to the younger men, Don Estaban wheeled his wife away to her suite of rooms on the far side of the house.

Left alone by the dying fire, the three of them eyed each other warily. Miguel was uncomfortably aware of the animosity that had flared spontaneously between the other two. Both of them bristled, and neither one bothered to keep his dislike of the other off his face. Miguel made a placating gesture, “Can I offer either of you a drink? Something with a little more bite than my grandfather’s brandy?”

“No, thank you.” Adam put his empty glass down on the table. The cigar was long since dead and cold in his fingers, its flavour gone stale in his mouth. He threw the stub into the fire. “I’ve had a long day, and I think I’ll turn in myself.” He took a long step toward the staircase. He felt rather guilty about leaving Miguel to deal with Charlo Marrinez by himself, but he had no desire at all to stay in the same room with the man.

“Cartwright,” Charlo took half a stride forwards and put a hand on his arm. Adam looked him full in the face, challenging him, daring him, staring him down. The hand fell away. Charlo’s breath hissed in through his teeth. “Cartwright, you keep away from my sister.”

 

Three

The door of the room stood, quite properly, several inches ajar. The space was filled up with lamplight and the oddly angled shadows cast by the massive, four-poster bed, the full length, free-standing mirror in its finely carved, ebony frame and the dressing screen with its panels of richly embroidered oriental silk. Despite the chill of the night, the room was not cold; the heat from the fire that burned in the great room was craftily channelled upwards through the house to warm all the bedrooms above. Neither Charlo nor Valenzuela was in any mood to appreciate the comfort and luxury of their surroundings.

Valenzuela Marrinez tugged the golden clasp out of her hair with such violence that several midnight-black strands remained caught in the clasp. She threw it down on the dresser and tossed her head to free the dark tresses so that they tumbled down loosely over her shoulders. Unregarded, the clasp rolled away across the polished surface and teetered an instant on the verge of the long drop to the floor before rolling back. Valenzuela snatched up the silver-backed hairbrush and started to pull with indiscriminate ferocity at the knots and the snarls. Her eyes, still flaming with rage, flashed at their own reflection in the looking glass. Behind her, in the depths of her mirror, her brother, Charlo, paced back and forth. The pale light from the several lamps played upon the stitch-work of his embroidered jacket and turned the silver threads into gold. His fists were stuffed into his front pants pockets, straining the shiny material tightly over the contoured curve of his backside. His handsome face was suffused with anger.

As he paced, Charlo was cursing softly in Spanish, “Dios Mio, Valetta! Why do you do this? Why do you make such a fool of yourself in front of Don Estaban and Donna Marguerite?”

“A fool of myself!” Valenzuela hissed through clenched teeth. She pulled down hard on the snags in her hair. “It is you who makes me look foolish!”

Charlo scoffed, “You needed little help from me to achieve that this evening. Do realise that you publicly proposed to ride to Nevada with two unmarried men?”

“You make it sound as if I expected to go alone!” Valenzuela’s eyes spat fat sparks. The bristles of her hairbrush snagged and tangled in her hair. Frustrated, she tossed it down on the table. “And why should I not go to Nevada and visit the Cartwright’s home? You were right there in the room when father agreed I should travel.”

The pacing stopped abruptly. Charlo turned on his heel. “It was you who held him to an unwise promise. He only said it because he thought it would cure the itch in your feet.”

Valenzuela turned to glare at him directly. Her cheeks were flushed; her lips were parted. Even Charlo would have to admit she was beautiful when she was angry. She stole his breath away. “Before I am married off to have children, you mean,” she said with a hiss. “That’s all you consider women are fit for!”

“You know that is not true.” Charlo made a helpless gesture at the furious look on her face. “You know that I love you dearly: that I want only what is the best for you. Why would you want to go to the wilds of Nevada? America is a Godless and dangerous place full of heathens and savages. And what of this Adam Cartwright? I do not like the way that he looks at you. He devours you with his eyes.”

“You do not like the way he looks at me!” Valenzuela repeated, mimicking her brother’s inflection precisely. “Do you not yet know that a woman likes to be looked at as if she is a woman? I like Señor Cartwright. He interests me. He is intelligent and amusing.” Methodically now, she started again to brush out her hair.

Charlo resumed his pacing; his shadow stalked at his heels. “He is nothing but a vaquero – a cowboy. He has no breeding; he is a barbarian. What is worse, he is an American.”

Valenzuela tossed back her hair and bound it up with a green satin ribbon, holding it back from her face. “Señor Cartwright is a gentleman and an educated man. Undo me.” She stood and presented her back to Charlo. He unhooked the back of her dress. Shrugging her creamy-white shoulders out of the rouched, scarlet silk, she stepped behind the silken screen and continued to disrobe. The dress and the under-gown were followed by stockings and several lace-trimmed petticoats.

Still fretting, Charlo ran a hand through his hair. “What kind of an education can a man like that have possibly achieved, living out in the backwoods?”

“He has been away to college on the East Coast. He is a qualified engineer and an architect.” Valenzuela emerged again, pulling the folds of a green dressing robe over her chemise and belting it tightly. “And,” she added, tellingly, “He has a fine singing voice.”

Charlo gazed at her from beneath lowered brows. “You seem to know a great deal about him.”

“I made it my business to find out about him. I have been talking to Miguel.” She sat down again at the dresser and continued to primp and preen, dabbing her flawless skin with lotion. “And I can see for myself that he is handsome and charming. I look forward to spending many pleasant hours in his company.” This last might only have been said to annoy, or it might have been that she meant it.

Charlo threw up his hands in complete disgust. Like many men before him, he concluded that there was just no understanding a woman. “He is not good enough for you, chico muchacha. I want you to stay well away from him.”

It was altogether the wrong thing to say. Valenzuela lifted her chin in bright-eyed defiance. “I am no longer a baby, Charlo, and I will choose my friends for myself; if that happens to include Señor Adam Cartwright, so be it!”

Charlo spun around, spurred by sharp anger. He stood in the centre of the room, a tower of smouldering rage. “And I say you will avoid being in his company.”

“You will not tell me what to do!” Valenzuela matched him in fury. “Besides, in Don Estaban’s house, it would be impolite to snub the son of his friend.”

Now out of his pockets, Charlo’s fists clenched. “You are a disgrace to the family! A wilful woman!”

“And you are an overbearing bully!”

For a long moment, Charlo’s jaw worked. Then, he strode to the door. “Perhaps, in the morning, you’ll be prepared to see reason,” he said from the thresh-hold. “In that hope, I’ll wish you goodnight.” He resisted the urge to slam the door and instead, closed it softly behind him. In her turn, Valenzuela lowered the hairbrush she had threatened to throw and replaced it carefully on the dresser.

Despite the goose feather bed or, perhaps, because of it, Adam didn’t sleep well that night. His body had become accustomed to the hard ground under him and the bright, cold stars in his face. The four walls of the room constricted his breathing; the ceiling pressed down on his chest. The odd sounds and shifts of the building were so different from the silences of the desert that they served to keep him awake. Even through the thickness of the plastered walls he heard people talking: the murmur of their voices if not the words, the sound of a door opened and closed, soft footfalls in the hallway outside his door, pausing, then moving away. It was, he figured, going to take a while before he got used to being around people again.

He knew from experience that sleep could be an illusive animal: a hard beast to rope, throw and brand. The more a man chased it into the brush, the more it broke away from him down the draw and high-tailed it over the hill. It was a critter you had to dig a bear-trap for and then wait for it to come to you. So, instead of pursuing impossible dreams, he lay on his back in the cool, linen sheets with his hands clasped under his head and stared up into the darkness. His non-stop mind would give him no rest, instead playing and replaying everything he had seen and heard since his arrival.

Things were the same, and yet things were different. Don Estaban and his lady wife were growing old with the measured grace of the European nobility. Miguel was older, as were they all, and had become more mature. Despite the disfiguring scar, his ready, almost shy smile was very much the one Adam recalled from the old days. The calm authority with which he had stepped between Adam and Charlo was something entirely new. He had separated the antagonists with his own body and defused a nasty confrontation with assurance and skill. He had smoothed both men’s ruffled feathers with a few quiet words and suggested firmly that, as the hour was late, they might both care to retire while he saw to the bedding down of the household and the stoking up of the fire.

Adam supposed that he had changed also and in much the same ways. The carefree days of his youth were certainly over. Just as Miguel was slowly and surely assuming control of Don Estaban’s establishment, so Adam now managed great portions of his own family’s holdings, often with only nominal consultation with his father. As for his brothers – well, Hoss would soon be married and gone, off to build a fine house on that good flat land that he owned down by the desert and to begin founding a ranching dynasty all of his own. Joe – Joe was just Joe. One day he was wanting to be one thing and one day another; as yet there was no clear indication of which way his life’s path would take. And Daniel was still just a little tyke; it would be twenty years yet before he became a man to be reckoned with. Adam wondered, in passing, if Daniel had the sort of brain that he could train to take over from him when the time came, should he never produce any children of his own.

Adam shifted uneasily in the bed. For the first time, he took a long, serious look at his own eventual passing. Marriage and children were another part of the same package, and one that he didn’t often think about. There were women aplenty coming west these days, but not all of them were what could be considered ‘marriageable quality’. Adam’s lips quirked at the thought: the old fashioned term was one of his father’s that he hadn’t known he’d acquired. Whores and saloon girls might be good for a fling, to keep a man satisfied and his blood running cool, but they were not the sort a man of station was expected to marry. The few women that had meant something in Adam’s life, those that he’d thought he might wed, had all been lost to him. He doubted that there’d be another. Thinking about women, as he drifted ever closer to the thin edge of sleep, the face and the figure of Valenzuela Marrinez floated into his mind. Now, there was one hell of a fine looking woman. Adam wondered drowsily if her display of temper was merely highborn petulance or the sign of spirited resistance to oppression. It just might be worth a man’s trouble to find out.

As was his habit, Adam rose early. Beyond the tall, diamond-paned windows that graced his room the sky in the notch of the hills had just turned to silver, touched with the first light of day. Gossamer clouds hung in curtains of fine, sunlit mist over the silhouetted hills. The valley was still all in darkness.

The room had grown stuffy during the night. Adam opened the casement and let in a draft of fresh air. The chill of it on his hot, naked skin made him shiver. For a time, he stood by the window and breathed slow and deep, filling his lungs and driving the last of the lingering cobwebs out of his head before he reached out a long arm for his clothes. Taking his time, he dressed for comfort in tough, work-a-day pants and a midnight-blue shirt in soft but durable cotton that fitted him perfectly across the breadth of his shoulders and clung rather closely against the skin of his chest. Against that first, sharp chill of the morning, he shrugged into his leather vest, then sat down in the chair to pull on his long socks and boots. After the endless sweat and dirt of the desert, it was good to wear clean clothes again.

He tipped cold water from the jug to the basin and used it to freshen his face. He rinsed away the grit that the sleepless hours had left behind his eyelids. When he was done, he felt cleaner and fresher and ready to start the day. He paused for one more look out of the window. He was just in time to see the edge of the sunrise over the rim of the world and sunlight spill into the valley. His hat on his head and his gunbelt buckled around his hips completed the typical westerner’s costume and he was ready to go.

The big house was quiet, surprisingly so: its occupants still in their rooms and most of them sleeping. On the lower level, the servants were already abroad. They moved silently on soft, slippered feet as they dusted and swept and set the great room to rights. Adam didn’t care to disturb them. Instead, he found his own way to the back of the building where, as in most grand, Spanish mansions of the time, there was an outside staircase that wrapped itself around the walls. Adam let himself out and went down into the garden and from there to the yard. By now, it was almost broad daylight, and the men were starting to stir. After his uncomfortable altercation with Charlo the evening before, Adam didn’t feel much like going back into the house. Right there and then, he felt the need to get away for a bit, to be by himself and to immerse himself in the culture and everyday life of the friendly Mexican people.

A high-sided, open backed wagon with an ageing vaquero perched up on the driving seat was pulling out of the yard. Adam hailed the driver and sprinted after him. The old man was glad of his company and happy to give him a ride. Adam climbed up beside him and the wagon rolled on down the well-made road, pulled by a pair of sturdy, broad backed mules who knew the route they were to follow backwards and required nothing in the way of guidance from the hand on the reins. The Mexican puffed on an ancient pipe, older, even, than he was. The Lord alone knew what weed he was smoking. The acrid smoke made Adam’s eyes water. The vaquero told Adam something of the land’s history. The shallow valleys had been formed as the land folded in on itself. For a long time before the arrival of the invading Spanish they had been inhabited by a race of small, brown men: the forerunners of the Pueblo Indians. The ruined remains of their habitations were still to be found here and there in the hills, slowly crumbling back into the mud and dust from which they had first been formed. The old cowboy showed Adam a fragment of bright yellow metal that he carried as a lucky piece in his belt. It might have been broken and very well worn, but it was intricately carved and carried the unmistakable likeness of a feathered serpent’s face.

Adam stepped down at the crossroads and, with sincere thanks, waved the old man on his way. Avoiding, for the moment, the working part of the ranch, he crossed over the road and made his way into the village of sun-dried brick that straggled for some distance along the northernmost side of the valley. Arranged in no particular order on both sides of the short, irregular streets, the adobe buildings were mostly simple dwellings, single storied with the bedrooms built on behind or, sometimes, on flat rooftops, reached by an outside stair. Most had animal pens and some sort of well-constructed shed or workshop built alongside. Cooking was an occupation mostly undertaken out of doors or in the communal kitchens that occupied almost every corner.

At this hour of the morning the kitchens were already in full operation, and, for the time being at least, they were the hub of the small and intricately interwoven community. Prepared and laid ready the evening before, the fires had been lit at dawn; the smoke rose straight as a pencil into the pale blue sky until it finally feathered and drifted away on the breeze that blew off the hilltops. The open-sided building were crowded with people, alive with colour and bustle, the clatter of cooking pots and the endless buzz of conversation. Women with pleasant, Mexican faces cooked in open ovens in the traditional manner, some with plump babies sat on their hips. Outside, the men-folk saddled their horses and sorted their gear, or sat at long, trestle tables and drank coffee and ate while they prepared themselves for the rigours of a hard day’s work. They were surrounded by seemingly countless numbers of sleepy, dewy eyed children. Adam was greeted with friendliness and a certain amount of natural curiosity. Before very long, he had a seat among the vaqueros and found himself amply supplied with slabs of hot corn bread and strips of well-frizzled pork, a dish-full of tiny red beans with the flavour of fire and an endless amount of strong black coffee, as hot as a man could drink it. He joined in the discussions of horses and cows and what the weather might bring, all the time listening and learning and reacquainting himself with the facets of a lifestyle he had long since forgotten.

Afterward, when the men rode off to their work on the range, he spent some time chatting to the women and making them laugh, admiring their children and flattering the pretty young girls. Then he strolled on through the little township. The workshops were open now: little hives of industrious activity. It was a matter of personal pride for Don Estaban that he never turned away anyone who was old or injured. Older folk and men who had been hurt in accidents and were no longer able to work on the rancho produced much needed and valued commodities. Weavers made brightly coloured blankets, ponchos and shawls; leather workers crafted hardwearing clothing and fine pieces of harness trimmed with silver. Potters created practical, vibrantly hued ceramics out of the local, red clay. Two young girls, sisters, made bead covered purses. Clothes were created from spinning wheel to loom to finished, finely tailored garment by one extended family that lived and worked all together.

A young woman plaiting braid smiled and blushed as the handsome cowboy went by. A man who had no legs following a horrendous accident with a wagon and team, and who spent his day usefully carving buttons out of bone and pieces of horn, lifted a hand and cheerily wished him good day. Women tended sheep, goats and pigs and threw down wheat-meal for chickens and geese. Above all, from up on the hillside, the church bell tolled, calling the children to school.

Well filled and more at peace with himself, Adam turned his steps towards the barns and corrals. The sun was climbing up the side of the sky. Already, he could feel the first touch of its heat on his face, and he could smell on the warming air the tang of dung and manure and horse-sweat, the aroma of damp earth, of cattle and unwashed men and the dust that was just starting to rise. He felt strangely at home among these tall fences, the sights and the sounds of the busy ranchero.

As he walked passed an open barn door that breathed of straw and warm horses, he caught sight of Miguel in one of the outer corrals. His friend was working a large, red-bay mare on the end of a long, lunge rope. The only observer, Adam climbed up the fence and hooked a long, black-clad leg over the top-most rail. He settled himself to watch. Miguel, turning as he watched the horse circle, caught sight of him, grinned and winked a welcome. With a word and a flick of the long handled whip, he put the bay horse though the full range of her immaculate paces. She backed, and then turned at the walk and the trot, and circled in a well-gathered canter. She was superb. Miguel was plainly showing off and with every reason. Adam didn’t blame him one bit.

Adam sat on the fence in the warm sunlight and thoroughly enjoyed the display. It was a long time since he had felt so completely relaxed, so devoid of responsibility, so absolutely happy. His contentment showed in the smile on his face.

Miguel handed over the reins and the whip to one of the wranglers and joined Adam on the fence, climbing up to sit alongside him and watch the horse circle. Adam’s eyes followed the mare with sincere admiration. “That sure is a fine looking horse.”

Pleased with the compliment, Miguel gave him a slantwise grin. “She could be yours, my friend, for a price. I’m sure my Grandfather would be happy to come to an arrangement.”

Briefly, Adam thought about the banker’s draft, now tucked away in his room, and his father’s stern warning. The mare might be beautiful and perfectly trained, but she was not what Ben Cartwright would consider sound breeding stock for a working cattle ranch. He smiled ruefully. “That’s a sore temptation, but she’s not what I’m looking for.” The mare, true to her Spanish ancestry, had a deep, wide chest and massively muscled quarters, short, strong legs and a rather small head. She had that natural inborn tendency to pick up her feet that Ben had been specific about. Neither she, nor her offspring would be well suited to the rough highlands of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Adam was looking for something a little more mundane.

Miguel laughed and slapped him hard on the shoulder. As Adam had suspected all along, he was only teasing. “We missed you at breakfast.” Miguel’s voice had only a slight note of inquiry.

Adam could well imagine the comments made at his absence and reminded himself firmly to offer his apologies to Don Estaban at his earliest opportunity. Carefully, he kept his eyes on the circling mare. “I was up kinda early. I figured I’d like to stretch my legs.” He knew that the ladies would not have joined the menfolk for that earliest meal of the day. They would eat in their rooms, if at all, and not emerge until later.

“And you were a little dubious about the company?” Miguel suggested mildly. He was still probing, but lightly.

An answering smile just touched Adam’s lips. “I figured I’d best steer clear of your cousin Charlo – just for a while.” It was an easy admission that held just a thin edge of the truth.

With a low, throaty chuckle, Miguel nodded complete understanding. “He has, what you call, the head of a pig?”

Adam laughed out loud. He knew that Miguel’s command of English was better than that “He sure is pigheaded.” The last of the tension eased out of his gut.

“What say we get some horses and take a long ride? Put some fresh air between you and him?”

Adam thought about it for the space of a breath. In the last several weeks, he had spent a great deal of time in the saddle; yesterday, he had been only too glad to get down from the horse. On the other hand, he enjoyed riding, and it would be good to spend time with Miguel. Once he was up there with the sun and the wind in his face and the surge of an animal under him, the world would seem like a different place. He winked at Miguel. “Let’s go and do it.”

Miguel disappeared into the long, low barn and emerged again a few minutes later leading two horses by the reins. Both were geldings with dark, glassy hides and were much more the configuration that Adam was looking for. They were strong and deep chested without the overburden of muscle and were longer behind the saddle. Adam accepted the rains from Miguel and stepped into the stirrup, lifted himself and settled into the high, Spanish seat.

As soon as they could, they left the main road and the buildings of the ranch far behind them. Side by side, they headed out over the grassland, at first at a comfortable canter, and then, as the exuberance of freedom filled them, they gave the horses their heads. Each man relived, just for a short time, a joyous surge of emotion – as if they were boys again. With a whoop and a holler, they allowed the reins to slide through their fingers and let the animals run.

It was a ride to remember forever. In single file, they climbed the old but clearly remembered pathways and revisited the favourite haunts of the past. To Adam, the familiar places were strange: somehow smaller and less well defined, less brightly coloured than the images he held in his mind. Miguel pointed out spots that he had forgotten and some that he’d never seen. They took the time to talk and laugh together, and reminded themselves of the young men they’d been – remembering why they liked one another. Before very long, Adam could look at the other man’s face without even seeing the scar.

In amicable silence, they sat on a high place while the horses took a long blow and gazed with refreshed eyes at the green pastures and the panoramic vista of dry, dusty hills beyond. Their breathing slowed and their heartbeats steadied. A calmness settled over them. As the sun climbed higher and the morning wind dropped, the temperature rose. Both the men and the animals sweated. By mutual agreement and with no little reluctance, they left the last of their boy-hoods behind them and turned their horse’s heads for home.

The trail that led down from the hilltop was stony and narrow, allowing only one man to pass at a time. Adam took the lead, riding slowly, letting the gelding pick his own way. Firmly, he put aside all flights of fancy and brought his thoughts back to the here and now. He was a man with responsibilities and obligations, and he had a job to do. With the future prosperity of the Ponderosa at stake, he had to select the right horses and then negotiate the best price. It wasn’t going to be easy. Miguel’s grandfather might be a gentleman and something noble in Spain, but when it came down to hard bargaining there was no one tougher to deal with. “A mean old coot,” Ben Cartwright had called him in one of his lighter moments. Adam found himself wishing he had Joe’s appealing charm. His younger brother could sell a mule its own tail.

A call came from behind him. “Hold on there, Adam! I think I’ve picked up a stone.” Adam looked back to see Miguel climbing out of the saddle. His horse was limping, favouring his off side hind foot.

Miguel bent over and picked up the hoof. His face creased into a frown. He looked up at Adam. “This is wedged tight. It’s going to take a while.”

Adam eased himself in the saddle and prepared to wait. The late morning sun was hot enough to burn his skin through his shirt. He lifted his hat and wiped his sleeve over his forehead. The big gelding shifted his weight under the saddle and fidgeted with his bit, making his harness jingle. Something was moving down in the valley below them. It captured Adam’s attention. He sat up straighter, squinting through the heat haze that rose off the hillside and obscured his view. A mile away, following the path that ran alongside the tree-lined water, a rider was galloping hard on a horse that shone like burnished copper. It was too far away to make out the face, and the seat in the saddle was unfamiliar, but, instinctively, Adam knew who it was. Some strange emotion surged in his gut: a mixture of apprehension and excitement and something else that he couldn’t quite put a name to.

Adam looked over his shoulder. Miguel was standing, shading his eyes, gazing in the same direction. He had spotted her too. A smile touched his lip; his quick eyes darted to Adam’s face, catching there a strange look of anxiety and of something like hope. The smile widened. He said what Adam wanted to hear, “You go ahead, amigo. I’ll catch you up.”

Adam had already gathered his reins, setting his gelding dancing. He touched his heels to the big bay’s sides. The horse was more than willing, catching the flavour of Adam’s excitement through his hands and his thighs. He went down the trail rather faster than Adam intended, his iron-shod hooves slipping and slithering on the rocky path and sending a hailstorm of small stones bouncing on ahead.

They hit level ground at a dead-flat run, Adam hauling hard on the reins, fighting to keep the horse balanced and running while still maintaining control. He could feel the power surging behind the saddle, pushing him along. With all the skill born of experience, he got the head up. The horse still wanted to run. Adam let out the reins, just a few inches and aimed the animal in the direction he wanted to go.

The rider on the bright chestnut horse was already out of sight, but Adam knew which way she was headed. He let the reins go just a little bit more, and the gelding started to gallop. It was a ride that lasted for just a few minutes, yet it seemed it went on forever. To the man on his back, it felt like the dark horse was flying: his hooves barely touching the ground. The warm air drove into his face and made his eyes tear. He found himself wanting to shout and to holler, and he didn’t really know why.

The trail ran on for a good long way beside the still pools of water: elongated lakes fed by the underground springs. Groves of live oaks and willows lined the water’s edge; sedges and reeds clogged the banks. Running freely, Adam’s horse followed the pathway. Adam urged him on with hands and heels, keeping just enough tension on the bridle to keep him under control.

In front of him, closer now but still far ahead, he saw a flash of red-gold: the hide of the chestnut horse shining in the sun. There was no doubt in Adam’s mind that the woman knew he was behind her and gaining fast – in fact she looked back over her shoulder, her face a pale oval against the dark cloth of her coat. It seemed to him that she urged her horse even harder. She was a slender form in a dark red habit, leaning low on his neck. Adam kicked harder, forcing the gelding to run.

The trail took a turn and dived into a hollow filled with large trees. Adam lost sight of the horse and the rider. Breathless, he pulled on the reins. The bay horse steadied and slowed. They mounted the crest of the trail and dropped down, out of the sunlight and into deep shadow. It took Adam’s eyes time to adjust.

The woman had ridden her horse into a dense wall of foliage. There was no way through: nowhere for her to go. In panic, she sought right and left for a pathway, hauling hard on the reins. His mouth dripping foam, the chestnut horse sat back on his haunches. He whinnied and showed the whites of his eyes. Adam knew the danger signs when he saw them. In another moment, the woman could be thrown and trampled under the prancing hooves. He stepped swiftly out of his saddle and grabbed for the chestnut’s bridle, pulling his head down and ‘round.

Sitting sidesaddle high on the red horse’s back, the woman squealed in shock, surprise and alarm. She raised her arm in the air, prepared to strike down with her horsewhip. Adam saw the movement out of the corner of his eye. Still holding the horse by the cheek strap, he reached up left-handed and caught her wrist, fending off the blow that was aimed at his face.

Valenzuela struggled briefly, sobbing for breath. Then she stopped and stared. “Señor Cartwright!” Dark eyes blazed at him, still filled with anger and fear. High points of colour burned in her cheeks. Perfect pink lips parted in a gasp of surprise.

Still holding both the horse and her hand, Adam gazed back at her, his eyes lit to tawny gold by a stray ray of light. Even in anger, with his blood running hot, he couldn’t help but admire her. With her face all flushed and her bosom heaving, she was one hell of a handsome woman. “You were expecting someone else, Señorita?”

“I thought you were a bandido chasing after me.”

Adam released her hand and at once felt bereft. The chestnut horse was sweating and nervous. Adam ran a palm over his neck and felt him tremble. It wouldn’t take much to unnerve him again. “I think you’d better come down from there. Give this fella a chance to settle down.”

She hesitated, weighing his words, and then saw the sense of it. She relinquished the reins and unhooked her knee as she prepared to dismount. Adam reached up and lifted her down. No featherweight maiden, this: all skin and bone and thistledown; she had substance and weight. Under his hands, Adam felt whalebone corsets, tightly laced and restrictive, and a strong, sturdy body beneath the red velvet coat. Yet she didn’t feel heavy; he felt he could hold her forever up there in the air. He felt the heat of her, warming his hands through her clothing, and he caught the waft of her perfume: something mellow and rich with just a hint of excitement. He lowered her slowly and set her down on the soft leaf litter without even a jolt. Her chest lifted as she pulled in a breath. Adam let go and stepped away from her before she could notice he held her.

“You’re a very long way from the house. Should you be out here all by yourself?”

Valenzuela lowered her eyes as she smoothed out the folds of her skirt with her fingers. Cleverly, she used the distraction to conceal her gathering flush. “You mean that I should be riding with my companion? Laurencia’s idea of an exciting ride is a slow plot around the farmyard.” Adam couldn’t help but smile at the note of disgust in her voice. She looked up quickly and caught him. “You may laugh at me, Señor. Have you met Laurencia?”

Adam’s smile remained. “I haven’t had that pleasure yet.”

“Laurencia is my Great Aunt’s cousin.” She sighed in a tone that was apparently meant to convey everything. “She retires early every evening and rarely appears at dinner.”

Adam figured he knew the lady’s type. “Even two ladies together shouldn’t ride this country without an escort. Suppose I had been a bandit? I’ve heard that they’re very fierce, and that they make away with pretty young women.” The last was said with an impish grin that lit up his face like sunlight.

“Are you offering your services, Señor Cartwright?” Valenzuela flashed a coquettish look and turned, walking away from him towards the edge of the water. Adam took the opportunity to admire her again: her well-formed figure tightly encased inside the red velvet riding suit, her hair swept back and up and tied with matching ribbon to reveal the ivory curve of her neck, shapely ankles in glossy, black leather boots beneath the hems of her skirt. Adam was a man who had long ago learned to appreciate a shapely body and a well-turned ankle.

Standing very straight, she looked out over the lake. “You must think me very foolish.”

He drew a long breath, “It would please me very much if you would call me Adam. And why would I think that?”

She turned to face him directly. “Because of the things I said last night: declaring that I would ride to Nevada on horseback, and now this.” Adam waited with patience; he knew there was more. Valenzuela made a throw-away gesture with a black-gloved hand “I slipped away from poor Laurencia while she was talking to Donna Marguerite. Sometimes I just have to get away for a while. I feel as if the walls are closing in all around me – as if the ceiling is about to fall down. Don Estaban and Aunt Marguerite are very kind to me, but sometimes I need to be on my own in the fresh air and the sunshine – just to ride and to think.”

It was one of those hard-to-explain emotions that Adam could understand. He had felt the same way often enough himself. “And what does your brother think about that?”

“Charlo?” Valenzuela threw her hands wide; then she paced back and forth, tapping her leg with the end of her crop. “Charlo is very protective. He cares for me very much. But he does not understand me. He would lock me up in a box if he could, to be taken out and looked at on high-days and holidays.”

Charlo, Adam gathered, reading between the lines, was, as he suspected, a real pain in the neck. “I’m sure he’s very fond of you. If he knew you were out here…”

“Let’s not talk about Charlo.” Valenzuela turned again. “I would like you to tell me about your home in Nevada. I don’t suppose I shall ever go there, and I would like to know what it is like.”

“If Don Estaban writes to my father as he promised…”

“It will make no difference. At the end of the summer, I shall have to begin my journey back to Spain.” Valenzuela sighed. “By this time next year I expect I shall be safely married to a Grandee and living somewhere out in the country where I shall never see a human being again.”

Adam drew back, not hearing her self-mocking tone. The gates of his mind closed. “I didn’t realise that you were betrothed. Who’s the lucky young man?”

Valenzuela continued her pacing. “Oh, I’m not. Not yet! There are several possible candidates, every one ugly and as old as the hills. If I am fortunate, my father might even allow me to choose between them.” The tone of her voice, half-angry, half-amused, finally brought the smile back to Adam’s face. “Now, Adam,” she used his name and smiled in return. “Tell me about Nevada.”

Adam took time to think about it: to put his thoughts into order. He shoved his hands deep into his pockets and wedged his shoulder against a tree. He gazed out across the lake. The sun’s reflection was bright on the water.

His eyes lost their focus as he saw somewhere else. There really was only one place to begin,

“Sometimes, before it gets light, I ride up to the lake and watch the sun come up. The air can be so cold it freezes the sap in the pine trees and turns a man’s breath to frost in front of his face. The sky turns to silver and the water shines like a mirror. When the mist rises up from the hillside it looks like smoke. The deserts are hot, dry and dusty; they stretch for as far as a man can dream about. The mountains hold up the sky. It snows so hard in the winter-time you can’t see your hand in front of your face, and snow drifts so deep it can bury a man right over his head – and the horse he’s sitting on too. It’s cold, and it’s cruel, and it’s beautiful, and I wouldn’t exchange it for anywhere else on the planet.”

Valenzuela’s gaze was misty, fixed on his face; almost, she saw what he saw. “Miguel told me a great deal about you,” she said softly. “He didn’t say that you had the soul of a poet.”

Embarrassed, Adam chuckled, “I think I’d rather that you didn’t tell him.”

“All right.” Valenzuela broke the mood with an impish grin. “But you must promise me something in return.”

Adam looked at her. Beneath the trees it was warm and airless; he guessed that accounted for his shortness of breath. After all, the woman’s face was flushed pink. “And what might that be?” he asked, amused.

“That you will ride with me one day soon and tell me more about your home and your family.”

He didn’t foresee any hardship. Quite the reverse, in fact. Her interest gave him a warm and comfortable feeling somewhere deep down inside. “It would be my pleasure, Señorita. You must promise me something too – no more riding out here on your own.”

Dark eyes gleamed with laughter and pink cheeks became pinker. “I think I’d be willing to agree to that.”

Adam straightened up from his lean on the tree. The woman was standing in front of him, her face and her shoulder half turned away; she was close enough for him to notice her perfume again. He found himself wanting to discover more about this beautiful lady who had stepped so suddenly into his life – perhaps a great deal more. It was just possible that his visit to Don Estaban’s rancho would prove more interesting than he had ever anticipated. It was on his lips to tell her so. He moved himself just a little bit closer. Valenzuela turned to look at him. Her eyes were lustrous, filled with wonder. A flash of understanding and dawning regard passed between them. He wondered what she would say.

The rhythmic drumming of hooves on hard, dry ground alerted them both to a rider’s approach. They moved swiftly apart. Adam turned his face to the sunlight, expecting to see Miguel making an untimely entrance. Instead, he found a woman riding down the hill towards them, into the shade of the trees. “Cousin Laurencia,” Valenzuela muttered at his shoulder. “My watchdog and my companion.” Her tone of slightly resentful amusement made Adam grin.

Cousin Laurencia was a handsome, strongly made woman of about forty years. Her hair was still completely dark without any trace of grey: two swept back wings beneath a small straw hat worn slightly awry. Her pale skin was flawless. She wore, on this particular day, a short, tight, bolero style jacket of the deepest yellow brocade and a long, black riding skirt. Her unseen corsetry pushed her breasts up high beneath the sun-bright material and nipped her in sharply to a tiny waist. Sitting fiercely erect on the back of a dark-coated mare, she was a well-proportioned woman with pleasant features currently set in a frown. Adam went forward to meet her as her horse slowed down to a walk and lifted her out of the saddle. She might be well favoured, but set alongside Valenzuela’s remarkable beauty, she was as plain as parchment; his eyes didn’t see her at all.

Laurencia disengaged herself from Adam, shook out her skirts and brushed down her sleeves. She lifted a hand to straighten her hat and knocked it further askew. She turned her gaze on Valenzuela and scolded her sternly in a rapid flood of Spanish, “Valetta, why did you ride away like that? You know very well that you were supposed to wait for me.”

Valenzuela sighed but put up a spirited defence, “You spent so long in conversation with Donna Marguerite. I became impatient. I wanted to ride before it became too hot to do more than just plod along.”

Laurencia’s response was reproachful but well flavoured with obvious affection. “You ride altogether too quickly. It is not becoming for a lady to ride at the gallop. One day you will be thrown from your horse and then what will happen?”

Valenzuela shook her head and laughed a little, but not unkindly. “Do not fuss so, dear Laurencia. You know I ride well. And, as you can see, I have a champion.”

The older woman turned her attention to Adam. “And who is this young man?”

Valenzuela ‘s dark eyes sparkled. “This is Miguel’s friend that he has told us about: Señor Adam Cartwright.”

“Ma’am.” Politely, Adam touched the brim of his hat.

Arms akimbo, Laurencia looked him over again – from top to toe. Adam withstood the cool appraisal bravely, a slight smile on his face. He knew very well that this was one hurdle he had to cross if he was to become better acquainted with Valenzuela. He had a feeling that this Spanish lady missed nothing about him and could see right through to his soul.

Apparently, she didn’t dislike what she saw. Graciously, she held out her hand to him. “A pleasure to meet you, Señor Cartwright.” She arched an inquisitive eyebrow at Valenzuela, who at least had the grace to blush.

“Señor Cartwright was telling me about his home in Nevada.”

“Indeed?” The eyebrow arched higher. The single word held a whole wealth of meaning.

Adam stepped smartly into the breech. “Perhaps you ladies would allow me to escort you back to the house?”

The two women walked together by the water’s edge while Adam checked over the horses. The chestnut gelding had gotten over his scare and settled down; he seemed no worse the wear for his encounter with the bushes. Miguel rode up just as he was finishing, the ever present smile on his face.

“I see you are still the man I remember. Always I find you among the ladies.” Adam noticed that he said it softly so as not to be overheard.

Miguel swept off his hat and made a stately bow from the saddle as the ladies approached. Adam lifted Valenzuela into the saddle, enjoying the feel of her body, and then Laurencia. In deference to Laurencia’s preference, they rode in slow procession back to the hacienda.

Even from a distance, Adam could tell there was going to be trouble. As soon as they came within sight of the Estaban house, he could see the powerfully built frame of Charlo Marrinez standing alongside Don Estaban’s erect, white-headed figure. They stood at the foot of the sweeping front steps in heated conversation. Their attitudes and their faces told Adam all he needed to know. Neither of the two men were happy. Don Estaban’s expression was, principally, one of concern – almost certainly on behalf of the ladies. Charlo was angry. Don Estaban was clearly relieved when the small party rode into the yard and, with the help of his walking stick, he started forward to meet them. Charlo followed one step behind as if tied to Don Estaban’s elbow. His shoulders were hunched and his handsome face dark and working with scarcely contained fury.

Adam stepped down from his horse and went to help Laurencia out of her saddle while Miguel lifted Valenzuela to the ground. Charlo pushed himself forward and confronted his sister. For a moment, Adam thought he might even assault her, “Where have you been? I have been worried out of my mind! Why have you been gone so long?”

Laurencia reached up to tip her hat straight. She stepped in between brother and sister, pushing Charlo away. “We went for a ride by the lake. Blame me if we have been gone a long time. It was too hot to gallop, and besides, I like to ride slowly.”

“Were you with my sister all of the time?” Charlo’s eyes flicked swiftly to Adam, betraying his chain of thought. “Were these two alone together?” He knew that his sister had ridden away without her companion, and he was clearly suspicious.

Don Estaban laid a restraining hand on his arm. “Later, Charlo; all that can come later. Valenzuela, my dear, I am so happy that you have returned to us safely. Did you enjoy your ride?” He leaned forward to brush his lips on her cheek – carefully, Adam noticed, breaking the little group apart.

Valenzuela gave him a lovely smile and responded in kind, “I had the most glorious ride, uncle. It is a beautiful day and it was so pleasant beside the water.”

Charlo turned on Adam, just as he had expected. “Why were you bothering my sister again, Señor? I told you to stay away from her.” Charlo was angry, and Adam was more than annoyed.

Adam bristled; his belly tightened; his head came up. “The lady requested my company,” he said in a low, level tone. “I wasn’t about to refuse her.”

Valenzuela’s eyes flared. “Adam has been the most perfect gentleman. He has agreed to escort me on my rides.” She looked at Laurencia for confirmation, and the older woman nodded, obviously prepared to stick to her lie.

Don Estaban held up his hand, “Gentlemen, please!” His eyes switched from one angry face to the other. “Miguel, it’s hot out here in the sun. Please, escort the ladies inside so that they can refresh themselves and take their siesta.” Adam caught a brief look of sympathy from Miguel as he shepherded the womenfolk up the steps to the door of the house.

By the sheer force of his will, Don Estaban held Adam and Charlo apart until the women had gone inside and the door had been closed behind them. Then he looked from one to the other, his face a mask of carefully controlled vexation. He spoke very quietly but firmly. “I realise that the two of you will never be friends. It is sad, but inevitable. But I will not have you disrupt my household with your disagreements. While you are guests in my house you will conduct yourselves with decorum and treat one another with mutual regard and good manners. You will not raise your voices to one another in front of the ladies. Is that understood?”

The two young men glared and each other. In his heart, each blamed the other for causing the trouble. Their faces were taut with resentment. Adam found that his teeth were clenched so tightly together that the muscles stood out in knots at the sides of his jaw. His fists were wound into hard balls of bone. Irrationally, and against all his normal instincts, he wanted to bury one of them – or perhaps both – in Charlo’s arrogant, good looking face. He didn’t know what had come over him; it just wasn’t like him. He felt the sun burning on his back, and the sweat trickle down inside his shirt.

He steadied himself with a long, deep breath. “I’ll respect your wishes, Don Estaban. I’ll not be the one to abuse your hospitality.”

Charlo’s eyes still burned with rage, “I will also do as you ask, Don Estaban. But this man will leave Valenzuela alone.”

Adam shook his head, once. “That’s not a condition I’m prepared to accept.”

“You will stay away from my sister!”

The two men squared up to each other; it seemed that they might come to blows. Don Estaban stilled them both with a look and a gesture. “I’m sure Valenzuela is mature enough to make her own decisions about who she will see and who she will not, and her honour will be assured by Señora Laurencia’s presence.” He gazed at them unsmilingly, first one and then the other. “In the mean time, while you are living under my roof you will treat each other with courtesy and respect. If you must squabble, you will take your fight a long way from here.” The words were delivered without Ben Cartwright’s bull-like bellow, but they had much the same effect.

Adam considered himself suitably chastised. It left him with something of a dilemma. He was never going to like Charlo and he knew it, but he was Valenzuela’s brother, and as such, he had to be weighed as part of the equation. He knew also, for the sake of his father and of his father’s friend, he would have to be polite when he found himself in Charlo’s company. Otherwise, he would do his best to ignore the sad fact of the other man’s existence. There was one thing that he wouldn’t do and that was to pass up any opportunity to be in Valenzuela’s company; he felt he owed himself that, and besides, he had made the lady a promise. When it came to getting to know her better, he wasn’t going to let Charlo, or anyone else, stand in his way.

*******

 

It was late in the afternoon and the heat of the day was starting to fade when Adam and Miguel rode into Spiritos Christos. They had excused themselves from dinner at the hacienda and were determined to drown those of their sorrows that they could discover and to spend the evening in riotous living. Adam, for his part, wanted to stay well away from Charlo for a bit to give both their tempers a time to cool. He tied up his horse outside the cantina and looked around him, his hand on the gelding’s neck.

The streets were busier now than when Adam had passed through before. The well was a very popular place. Drawing water was a social event; a dozen or more women with their buckets clustered about their feet and their children playing games of tag in and out of their legs were gathered about the ancient, timeworn stones. The dusky light of the evening was filled with the brightness of their skirts and their shawls and alive with their conversation and laughter and the endless creak of the windlass rope. In the other direction the row of small shops and stalls were all busy, doing their best trade of the day. A wagon rolled by, heavily laden with bulging sacks; the hoofs of the mules and the iron shod wheels kicked up a cloud of dust. The whole village, as the sun dipped into the west, was peopled with creeping shadows. Lights already glimmered in some of the windows and in the church as the priest knelt to pray. The cantina behind him was filled with noise and light and movement.

Miguel slapped him hard on the back of the shoulder and raised the dust from his shirt. “Come on inside, and I’ll buy you that beer that I owe you.”

“You owe me?” Adam asked hopefully. “I swear I’d forgotten.”

“You? Forget when a man owes you beer? I’d never believe it.” Still chuckling, Miguel led the way inside.

The Cantina was already busy; they had to push their way through a line of men to the bar. Music was playing and the air was warm and thick with the smell of beer and of rich, spicy food cooking in the kitchens at the rear. All the best seats were taken: those by the windows and those around the edge of the small dance floor. The regular customers were already in place, filling their favourite tables with plates of hot food and tall glasses of cool liquid set out before them. As he hadn’t eaten since breakfast, Adam found the combination irresistible. There was a different man serving behind the long bar. He took Miguel’s money and poured out the beer. Maria was there, serving at table as before. She was occupied with other customers, but she recognised Adam and gave him a warm smile of welcome. She had been joined for the evening by other girls, all of them pretty and so much like her they might have been her big sisters. Miguel saw his look of appreciation, and a wide grin spread over his face.

“Pretty señoritas, eh, my friend? And all of them willing. Maria is a sweet girl, always anxious to please as you might have noticed. Alema has the stamina to keep a man awake all the night long, and Monet over there is the strongest of all. She has a beautiful body under that pretty blue dress; she can suck a man all the way in and spit out the pips.” He went on to give such a graphic description of the lady’s capabilities that Adam’s ears grew warm.

In retaliation, he made some suitably bawdy comments concerning Miguel’s taste in women, but somehow, to his own surprise, his heart wasn’t in it. He drank half his beer and ordered his supper: a huge bowl of fish soup sprinkled with herbs and served with chunks of toasted, fresh bread, followed by salchicha, a rich, baked pork sausage garnished with a green tomato salsa and thin, string beans. He ate it all, breaking the bread into the soup and using more of it to sop up the juices off the meat plate. Then he ordered more beer while he listened to Miguel’s general chatter and watched the swirl and the colour as the cantina filled up with the evening’s clientele.

Mezo was easily the biggest man in town; for all he knew, he might be the biggest man in all Mexico – perhaps, even, the world. He stood almost seven feet tall in his boots and he was as broad as the wall of a barn. Never the less, for such a very big man he was surprisingly light on his feet. He closed the door of his makeshift office – in reality a converted storeroom – softly behind him, locked it and stepped into the street. It was almost full dark. He looked up at the sky. The heavens were perfectly clear. The night was going to be bright with starlight, although the moon wouldn’t rise until the early hours of the morning. The air was cooling but not yet cold.

For a time, he stood outside the door. He breathed deeply, filling his massive chest with fresh air and purging his head of the muzziness that only long, lonely hours stuck behind a desk stacked high with paper could bring. It never failed to surprise him how much paperwork even a small, God-fearing community could bring to a man, what with writs for this and permits for that and official returns for some other.

He stood still and listened. In his job, he had long ago learned a man’s ears were every bit as important as his eyes. Despite the darkening skies, the little township showed no sign of winding down for the night; it was still wide-awake and thrumming with life. Mezo’s big belly rumbled. Like the thoughts of sheriffs everywhere, his turned inevitably toward supper. The cantina was the obvious place to eat. Mezo cocked his ear in that direction. The glass windows glowed like beacons, the light shining out from inside. He could hear the music and laughter and loud conversation, the noise level steadily rising. Señora Ferno always provided a wonderful meal, but, tonight, Mezo had another idea. Mama Manga might be as big as he was and as ugly as hell, but she was a fantastic cook, and he was always sure of a more-than-warm welcome. Her chili scorched a man’s mouth right down to his belly, and her big body was usually hotter. His broad face broke into a grin. Aye-ee, she was an almighty fine woman. If a man played his cards right, he might get invited to stay until late.

Adam leaned back in the comfortable, cane-backed chair and stretched out his legs. He sipped his beer. The third glass of the evening, pale, foamy and icy cold in his well-filled stomach had been good; the fourth, even better. This one, his sixth or seventh – or it might have been his eighth – was the best one yet. The evening had gone very well. He had eaten and drunk and laughed with Miguel and had been introduced to most of the local ganaderos and granjeros. Adam had discovered, with no real surprise, that the concerns and complaints of farmers and ranchers in Mexico were much the same as in far away Nevada: the weather, the high price of grain and the outcome of the local range war or political upheaval – in this case, would Benito Juårez put paid to the European backed upstart Maximillian.

Adam’s kidneys were working well. He had made several short trips outside to the public urinal. The night was becoming steadily cooler, but was not cold enough to make him shiver as he stood with one hand against the wall to relieve himself. The cantina was bright, warm and inviting. As the music played louder and faster, he had taken a turn or two around the dance floor with sweet and shapely Maria. He’d enjoyed the scent of her perfume and the feel of her body wrapped in his arms. He knew she was his for the asking, and he toyed with the notion as he sat there, drinking his beer.

Maria came to the table to collect empty glasses and to see if he’d like another. Adam decided against it – his head was already buzzing, and he’d rather keep some of his wits about him. She gave him a smile. He winked in return, and she slithered into his lap.

As if by magic, Miguel appeared beside him. His smiling friend had a pretty girl clinging to each of his arms. Adam struggled to remember their names: Alema was the lady with the amazing physical prowess and the other – was it Monet – was the one who needed so little sleep? It looked like Miguel had a long and exhausting night ahead of him. Adam blinked at them owlishly. Miguel was very pleased with himself and happy enough to find him with a girl ensconced on his knee; in fact, he seemed almost relieved.

“Maria will be good for you, Adam,” he said with a grin. She is soft and sweet, and her kisses will make you hungry for more. She will take your mind off my haughty cousin for a while.”

Adam acknowledged again that his friend knew altogether too much about him. Miguel jiggled his imprisoned arms, and both the girls giggled. “I will see you in the morning, and we will have breakfast together and exchange bedtime stories before we ride back to the rancho.” He disappeared with the women. Adam didn’t quite see which way they went. He didn’t expect to see Miguel again before sunrise. He paused to wonder if, once again, Miguel had put his thin finger right on the point. Here he was with his lap well filled with a warm and cuddly woman, her body pressing softly against him in all the relevant places, and his mind really wasn’t on the matter in hand. Maria slipped her brown arm around his neck and ruffled his hair with her fingers. Her breath was sweet in the curve of his ear. The face and the form in his mind might not be Maria’s, but at least he could go through the motions. He might even find he enjoyed it. He turned his face towards her and started to pay attention.

It was two hours later that Adam left the cantina. He had spent the intervening time with Maria in her little box room that was crammed alongside the kitchen. It was a small compartment ripe with the smells of cooking and filled with the noises of rattling pans and the mumble of conversation from beyond the thin wall. Adam wondered if he would ever settle to the business in hand. Life is full of surprises. Adam had been amazed to discover that the pretty young woman was not only a skilled seductress but also an expert masseuse. Having stripped him buff naked with the sensuous proficiency of a high-class courtesan, she had anointed his body with generous palmfuls of warm, scented oil. Wearing only her bright, cotton skirt, she sat astride him as he lay on the bed and squeezed and pummelled his muscles with her small, hard hands until he squirmed with delicious discomfort. She kneaded and stroked and caressed him, paying special attention to his various scars until his aches and pains had faded away. Eventually, he reached a state of complete relaxation. Then, in perfect continuation of her ministrations, she roused him again with her fingers and lips to an intense excitement. The sex that followed had been the most natural thing in the world. He had left her with a kiss and half a promise and a silver real pressed into the palm of her hand.

He looked both ways. The street was all but deserted. The well in the central square was stark white in the darkness, the relic of an ancient and bygone age; the solid, black bulk of the church loomed against the brighter sky, its bell-tower pointed to heaven. Above Adam’s head, the velvet night was arrayed with myriad stars, far more than a man could count in a lifetime. Each star was a sharp, bright point of light. There was almost enough starlight to cast a man’s shadow. He though he should be cold but he wasn’t. He was thinking like a Nevadan to whom a clear bright night meant ice on the water and frost on the ground and white puffy breath in front of his face. He had forgotten how far south he had come and how this cup in the land was protected from the chill of the desert.

The last two Mexicans wandered away out of sight, leaning one on the other and laughing at some private joke. Their voices faded into the distance. The night became quiet. A night bird chirruped out in the desert. Some way off a dog was barking, on and on, a constant, if faint, irritation. Adam knew that what he needed was a good long walk. The fresh air would dispel the last, lingering effects of the beer and allow him to sort his thoughts into order. His joining with Maria had been brief, transient and intensely pleasurable; it had satisfied the need that a healthy man often developed. But she was just one girl among many others, and he knew he would soon forget her. Valenzuela Marrinez was entirely another matter. She was a lady. He couldn’t stop himself thinking about her. Her beautiful face, her smile and her laughter had made a lasting impression. ‘Haughty’ Miguel had laughingly called her. Adam didn’t see her that way. To him she was proud but without her brother’s abrasive arrogance. She was, perhaps, slightly spoiled, but no more so than any highborn and privileged lady might be. She certainly had a great deal to find out about the savagery of the west and the harshness of life in general. It might be a pleasure to protect her from the worst of it while she learned. She was more intelligent by far than her brother gave her credit for. It was still too early to decide what he one day might feel for her, much too soon to be sure, but Adam knew he would have to think it through sooner or later, and he figured he’d better get started.

The same stars that looked down on Adam shone upon Mezo’s head. The big man stretched his body, threw his arms out wide and lifted his face to the sky. The evening had provided all the pleasures that he had anticipated. The chili had been hotter than Hades, the tequila ice-cold and Mama Manga’s huge body had been inviting, eager and pillowy soft. For a lady of such considerable substance she knew how to use a man. He could still feel her fingernails clawing his back, and in his head he could hear the bed- ropes creaking in time to the primordial rhythm. The memory brought a fresh smile to his face.

He put his head on one side and listened. He knew this village so well that every tick of the cooling stone was familiar. Everything was quiet and peaceful except for old Tessio’s brown and white dog. Tied up outside while Tessio played cards with his cronies, the dog would bark until after midnight. Mezo shook his great head; he had told the man about it many times before, but it made no difference. Three times a week, when the card players sat down, out went the dog on the end of his rope, and he began to yap.

Mezo started the long stroll along the street that would eventually bring him, in the most leisurely manner, to the small back street room that he thought of as home. At this late hour, the houses were mostly in darkness. A bare glimmer of candlelight showed at some of the windows. He crossed the street diagonally from the right to the left. A baby stirred and snuffled in one house as he passed, stilled before it could cry by the sound of its mother’s voice. Somewhere a door opened and closed, men’s voices rumbled in the night. Someone shouted. Tessio’s dog yelped once as it owner delivered a well aimed kick and was finally quiet. The abrupt silence was unearthly. It was the usual pattern. Mezo smiled and walked on.

A large white goose cackled loudly, sounding a sudden alarm. Mezo’s hand went to the butt of his pistol. Legs wide apart, he stood braced for action while he tried to track down the sound. His eyes and ears were sharply alert as he looked this way and that. A movement far down the street caught his attention – it was only the big Americano, the friend of Don Estaban who had come to buy horses, out for a midnight stroll. Mezo’s head went on turning, every sense straining for the sight and the sound of trouble. He knew something was afoot. A lazy old goose didn’t stir himself for nothing.

The goose squawked again, somewhere at the back of that next row of houses. Now Mezo had a focus for his concern. He pulled out his pistol and ducked quickly into the night-shaded passage, out of sight of the stars. With swift, silent steps he moved to the back of the buildings. All appeared to be quiet. Mezo suspected that a wily old fox had sneaked in out of the desert and was after the chickens in Señora Ulzara’s hen house. The old goose would have smelled him and called the alert. The back lots were divided into several small gardens, vegetable plots and animal pens, each separated one from another by adobe walls about three feet high. The bright eye of a burrow glinted in starlight; Mezo heard the soft bleat of a goat. Still moving, soft and soundless on the balls of his feet, he quieted the animals with a guttural grunt. If Mister Fernando Fox was still snooping about, it was the last mistake he would make.

A sudden disturbance away to his left caught him flatfooted and facing the wrong direction. He swivelled ‘round smartly on the backs of his heels. The shadowy shapes of two men erupted from the hen house amid squawking and flurries of feathers. Mezo barely caught sight of them as they darted away. He let out a yell and fired a warning shot over their heads before he set off in pursuit.

Adam Cartwright heard the shot. He had seen the sheriff stop and pull out his gun as if he had heard something that alarmed him. Then he’d disappeared into the alley, and now, he’d found something to shoot at. A staunch supporter of law and order, Adam drew the Colt .44 and went to see if he could render assistance.

The starlight filled the back gardens with silver and cast sharp, black shadows. Adam saw Mezo ducking and diving among the low walls. Ahead of him, two other men were running away. Adam knew them in an instant; he recognised the short, stocky form of one and tow-haired head of the other: the weasel-faced Davies and his sidekick Mallory making good their escape. Neither he nor the sheriff stood any chance of catching them; they were too far behind, and nether man would shoot to kill for the sake of a chicken or two.

Adam saw Mezo leap over a wall. The heel of the big man’s boot caught on the broken brick coping. He over-balanced with a startled yelp and fell with a crash. Adam holstered the Colt and hurried over to help.

The sheriff lay in a tangle of his own arms and legs in the middle of somebody’s pumpkin patch. He gave out a bellow and flailed his arms. It was plain that he couldn’t get up. Adam scrambled over the wall and hunkered down beside him, “Lay still now; let me get a look at you. Can you tell me where it hurts?”

Under the olive tone of his skin, Mezo’s face was bloodless. He tried to move and yelled out in pain. Without undue venom, he started cursing quietly, in Spanish. “My leg, Señor. I have broken my leg.”

Adam shifted himself round to get a better look at the man’s lower body. What he saw made him sick to his stomach. This was no simple fracture of ankle or shinbone. Mezo’s ankle and knee were turned outward from the line of his pelvis in a manner that meant only one thing. The man’s thighbone was broken midway between knee and hip. Adam put a restraining hand on his shoulder. “You lie real’ quiet now. I’ll get some men together, and we’ll get you out of here.”

Mezo’s only response was a groan. He was starting to feel the deep pain of his injury, and shock was settling in. Adam lifted his head above the level of the wall. The noise and the gunfire had finally aroused some response in the nearby houses. Lights showed in some of the windows, and he could hear men’s voices calling questions to one another. Adam put up his arm and shouted, attracting attention. Pretty soon, several men converged on his position.

It took seven men with boards and blankets to carry the sheriff away. It would be a very long time before the big man was back on his feet. He was destined to spend several months on his back in painful traction while the big bone mended, and it would be longer still before it could take the weight of his body. Only if he was lucky and the bone didn’t shorten would he walk without a limp.

 

Four

The days of that summer were long, hot and sultry. They passed all too swiftly and grew, as days inevitably will, into weeks. For Adam, they drifted past in a haze of happiness as complete as any he could remember. He settled swiftly into a pleasant routine, and each day followed much the same general pattern.

Washed and shaved, he shrugged himself into his shirt and looked at his face in the mirror. He had lost the lean and hungry appearance that his trip through the desert had imparted. The golden-brown eyes that smiled back at him held wry amusement at his own contentment and were lit by a deep, inner glow. Life, in Adam’s opinion, had taken a turn for the better.

The outside steps had become his regular escape route: they saved him walking through the rest of the house at that early hour. He made use of them now; he let himself out silently through the unlocked back door and stepped down swiftly on the balls of his feet. On these relatively warm and balmy mornings, breakfast was served out of doors. The air was not yet overheated and laden with stifling dust, and the garden that ran along the eastern side of the building was flooded with early sunlight. A trestle table had been set up on the patio paving and was weighed down with food freshly brought ‘round from the kitchen. Miguel, as usual, was there ahead of him and already eating. Adam had noticed that, for all his lean and wiry appearance, his Mexican friend could put away as much food as Hoss in the morning and still be ready for lunch. Adam couldn’t figure where it all went; he could only assume that Miguel burned it all up with his boundless energy and enthusiasm.

Miguel gestured towards the groaning table. “Good morning, Adam. Do help yourself.”

Grinning, Adam took him at his word. He picked up a plate from the stack and served himself with scrambled eggs and bacon, a heap of fried green tomatoes and several tortillas taken from the napkin that wrapped them to keep them piping hot. There was lots of hot coffee to wash it all down with. He found a seat alongside Miguel and proceeded to get it inside him.

“Today,” Miguel said ‘round a mouthful of food, “I have some more stallions for you to look at.”

Adam piled tomatoes onto his bread. “I thought we’d picked out the horses.”

“So we did. But you were not altogether happy with the roan, I remember. I have some others for you to look over. Perhaps you will like one of them better.”

“The roan’s a mighty fine horse. Just a little too flashy to please my Pa.” The lengths that the ever-cheerful Miguel would go in order to meet his requirements never failed to amaze him. He had a sneaking suspicion that Miguel enjoyed the time spent away from the hum-drum work of the rancho every bit as much as he did and was determined to make it last. He tucked more bacon into his mouth and washed it down with coffee. Miguel took his empty cup and went to fetch them some more.

A door opened and Don Estaban emerged from the house. As always, the ageing Spaniard was dressed immaculately. This morning he wore a smart and spotlessly clean, if somewhat out-dated, silver grey suit trimmed with black and red beading and snowy-white linen with a bow of black silk at his throat. The outfit suited him admirably. The golden sunlight turned his pure white hair into a halo about his leonine head. Despite his advancing years and the obvious discomfort caused by his crippled hip, it was a matter of personal pride that he still arose with the young men at the start of the day and joined them at breakfast. He wished them both a good morning and poured himself coffee, declining to eat until later.

Charlo Marrinez followed close on his heels. Valenzuela’s brother habitually wore a dark suit of clothes cut in the Spanish style. There was a flash of deep-purple silk set into the cuffs of the pants and a white silk shirt with the finest touch of lace at the front beneath the tight-fitting jacket. Charlo always managed to look suave, clean and polished when other men were sweating and covered with dirt. It was one more thing about him that got under Adam’s skin. Adam had no idea what the man did with himself during the course of a day, and he had no intention of asking. He was content that, for the most part, they managed to stay out of each other’s way.

The expression that Charlo wore on his face was, as usual when he came into contact with Adam, as black as thunder. They never had learned to like one another. Adam didn’t suppose that his own look was a great deal sweeter. They exchanged a nod and a wary greeting and then proceeded to ignore each other in an uneasy truce.

Don Estaban limped over to where Adam and Miguel were sitting. His hip was always worse in the morning, and he leaned heavily on his walking stick. “And what will you two be doing today?”

“I’m going to show Adam the black stallion – the one from the Barbary mare.” Miguel mopped the last gravy up from his plate with his last bit of bread, folded it neatly and popped it into his mouth. Chewing, he still contrived to grin.

“I know the animal. An excellent choice.” Don Estaban tapped his fingers on the carved ivory top of his stick. “Perhaps when you have finished with the horses, Miguel, you will take some men and ride down to the southern boundary. I would like those yearling heifers brought closer to the house before the grass becomes sparse in those drier pastures.”

Miguel nodded cheerfully. “Of course, grandfather.” He winked at Adam. Both men knew that tone of mild reproof when they heard it. Don Estaban was merely reminding Miguel that he had other responsibilities besides entertaining his friend. “I’ll do that later of this morning. I do believe Adam has another engagement.” Adam chuckled and tried not to colour too hotly. He caught the flash of raw anger and barely disguised hatred from Charlo’s dark eyes.

Miguel had three of his Mexican boys run the horses up and down outside the barn so that Adam could look at their paces. Like all of Don Estaban’s excellent horses, their condition was superb: their coats shone in the sunlight; their eyes were bright and their ribs were just barely visible. It was so hard to choose between them. Reluctantly, Adam discounted the beautiful chestnut on much the same grounds that he’d rejected the bright-blue roan. With the broad, white blaze on his face and his long white stockings, he was what Ben Cartwright would call, with a note of disgust, ‘a fancy-man’s horse’. The difficult choice was between the black-pointed bay with the neat, white star on his forehead and the black from the Barbary mare.

Adam had already selected his mares and one, strong, red-bay stallion. The animal was the finest he’d ever seen: everything that he could have hoped for. Big, powerful and intelligent, he had some Spanish blood to be sure but not enough to offend Ben Cartwright’s notion of what made up a good range horse. Now, all Adam had to do was find another to match him. He found himself torn two different ways. He went over both animals from the front to the rear, checking their teeth and their legs and gravely inspecting the openings under their tails. In the end, as Miguel had predicted, he picked the Barbary black.

If Adam had any concern, it was how best to pay for the horses. He had the bank draft to be sure, but that was only paper. He remembered his father telling Joe that Don Estaban was the old fashioned sort who preferred the clink of gold coins. A vague idea began to form in the back of his mind.

The young men stopped for midmorning coffee at one of the wrangler’s fires, and then, as their horses were led out for them, they parted company with a word and a wave. Miguel rode off to carry out Don Estaban’s instructions while Adam returned to the house on his own.

The ladies were almost ready, so he didn’t have long to wait – just half an hour or so cooling his heels in the shade of the portico while the horses sweated out in the sun. These regular riding expeditions with the Señorita Valenzuela, two or three times a week, had come to mean a lot to him – even if they were accompanied everywhere they went. Sometimes they would start out early – at about ten o’clock – and ride in sedate procession to look at the young stock that grazed, hock-deep, on the last of the lush green grass. Sometimes they took to the hills to marvel at the magnificent views of the desert and to wonder aloud at the works of the hand of God. Usually, though, they took the shorter trip down to the lake. The tree-shaded hollow beside the water held a special attraction. It had become their special place. That was where they were going today.

Adam folded his arms over his chest and took up a leaning stance against one of the portico pillars. A slight but entirely unconscious smile brought dimples into his cheeks. Certainly, thinking about Valenzuela imposed no undue hardship. He found her lively, intelligent and well informed with soundly reasoned opinions of her own, and she wasn’t afraid to argue them. She had a dry sense of humour that was often directed inwardly towards herself and her own situation. In the course of their long conversations they had discovered a lot that they had in common: a deep love of literature, of poetry, music and art, a sincere enjoyment of the great outdoors and an abiding pleasure in each other’s company. It was enough to make any man smile.

When Valenzuela emerged from the house, he knew that his wait had been worthwhile – in fact, all thought of it was dashed from his mind. “Adam!” Her smile was radiant. She held out her hand to him.

He took a deep breath of her perfume – something lighter and flowery this time – and bowed over her fingers. “You look truly lovely this morning.” He meant every word. Her beauty was stunning. Her flawless, peaches-and-cream complexion was overlaid by a hint of pure gold. It was set off to perfection by the high, silver trimmed collar of her black riding coat and her pert little hat. The pure delight that she felt in seeing him shone from her face.

Cousin Laurencia followed close on the hem of Valenzuela’s skirts. Already flushed by the growing heat of the day, the older lady was tightly corseted and dressed in a rich, chocolate brown velvet. She carried the small box that held her sewing kit in one hand and her riding whip in the other. Her hat had already slipped sideways. Adam wished her a cordial good morning. He escorted both ladies to their horses and lifted them into their saddles. They took a leisurely ride to the lake.

Don Estaban maintained a small but enviable library. He had given consent for Adam and Valenzuela to use it. While the ladies shook out their skirts and tidied their hair, Adam took the book he had borrowed out of his saddlebag. It was a small but valuable edition of Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ with golden-edged pages and a handsome binding of embossed and gilded leather. Cousin Laurencia spread out a blanket and settled herself on a sun-speckled bank. With her spectacles perched on the bridge of her nose, she took out her needlework and started to sew.

Adam and Valenzuela took a stroll by the water, chatting and laughing together. They took it in turns to read from the book and giggled out loud at some of the saucier passages. Laurencia didn’t hear – or pretended she didn’t. She sat and sewed a fine piece of linen with silken thread and a silver needle. She kept her eyes on her work.

The two young people sat on a log – rather closer together, perhaps, than Laurencia might have approved of; they had to sit close in order to share the book. Sitting so close beside her, breathing her scent, feeling the heat from her body and, very faintly, smelling her sweat, Adam found his interest stirrings in ways he hadn’t expected. He found himself studying intently her perfectly buffed fingernails and the tiny hairs that adorned the back of her neck.

Valenzuela was reading aloud from the book ‘The Second Nun’s Tale’. Adam was only half listening; he knew it already by heart. He was simply enjoying her nearness and the pleasantly mellow, slightly throaty sound of her voice. All of a sudden he wanted to move even closer, to throw propriety to the four winds. He wanted to touch her perfect skin with his fingers, to brush his lips against the velvet nap of her neck. Something fluttered deep down in his belly, a pack of cards falling higgildy-piggildy onto the floor: a stirring of interest he hadn’t reckoned with and certainly wasn’t prepared for. The palms of his hands became moist. Inwardly, he laughed at himself. This was a turn of events he hadn’t really considered: something he would have to think about. What had started out as a mild flirtation had turned abruptly into something with a great deal more import.

Somehow, she sensed the shift of his mood. Perhaps she noticed the change in his breathing or felt the new tension in his body. She stopped reading and turned to look at him; she caught that look on his face. Her pupils dilated. Her lips parted and trembled ever so slightly. He smelled the sweet tang of her breath. He could tell that she felt the same way. For a long quiet moment, while the stars and the planets slipped into alignment, their hearts beat as one.

Abruptly, he just couldn’t stand it: the sight of her, the smell of her, the soft press of her thigh against his. He got up and walked away from her, down to the edge of the lake.

“Adam?” Valenzuela called after him. He didn’t answer. She put down the book and followed. She came up behind him, standing close but not touching. “Adam, what is it? Are you unwell?”

He resisted the chuckle that welled from inside him, but he couldn’t keep the smile from his eyes. “I’m feeling just fine.” His voice had become unaccountably husky. Thumbs hooked on the edge of his belt, he stood and looked out over the water. He kept his back turned to her out of necessity rather than any desire not to confront her. He felt the cool air rise into his burning face. Adam had surprised himself with a stirring of forgotten emotions: feelings he thought he’d long buried. To distract her and to buy himself time, he changed the subject. “Tell me about your father.”

She walked a short way along the bank and kicked at some stones with the toe of her riding boot. She watched them plop into the water. “I think you would like Papa. He is a grand old man with silver hair and neat silver whiskers. He lives in a vast, sprawling house that my grandfather built on a hillside overlooking the bay. The house is filled with memories of my mother, and so is he. Sometimes it makes him melancholy, but he is a good man with an old fashioned idea of what is right and proper. He wants only the best for his children. When he dies, our elder brother will inherit the family estates, and I…”

“Will be married to a Grandee,” Adam finished for her. More composed now, he moved to stand beside her. “Have you considered another future?”

She turned and looked at him. “What do you mean?” Her eyes held a curious mingling of emotions: resignation and defiance, hope and despair. Her lips were parted ever so slightly. Adam half raised his hand as if to touch her, to brush his fingertips over her cheek, to trace the soft line of her jaw to her chin, to lift her face to his for that first, fragile kiss. A call from behind him interrupted the gesture and arrested his chain of thought. He and the lady turned their heads together. Cousin Laurencia was gathering her threads and her scissors and putting them back in her box. Adam glanced at the sky. He didn’t need to look at his watch to know it was almost midday. It was time to return the ladies to the house for a light lunch before their siesta. He swallowed the words that he’d been about to utter. Perhaps it was best to wait: to give them both a chance to explore their new emotions – besides, the moment was past.

He offered his arm and Valenzuela smiled at him almost shyly. An imp of mischief played ‘round her mouth. Adam winked at her, collected Don Estaban’s book and walked her back to the horses.

Adam waited until late in the evening before he made his suggestion to Don Estaban. Dinner was long since over, and the sounds of activity as the servants cleared up in the dining room had faded away. After a long and lively discussion on the comparative merits of English, French and German lace that left the men-folk completely bemused, the ladies retired to their chambers. He was alone in the great room with Don Estaban and Miguel, sitting close to the great stone fireplace with the heat of the fire in his face and the comfort of a good meal in his belly. He accepted a second large brandy and settled back in the armchair, warming the glass in his hands. He broached the subject with caution; “If you have no objection, sir, I’d like to make a trip to Ciudad Juarez before I head out for home.” He might have been a grown man these many summers past and not have to ask permission for anything, but it seemed the well-mannered thing to do.

Don Estaban raised an eyebrow, not entirely surprised. He was a wily old fox who knew well enough what was going on around him and the way in which a young man’s mind tended to work. “Indeed? I see no reason at all why you shouldn’t go. The bright lights of the city are calling, eh?”

Adam’s expression was sheepish. He couldn’t suppress a grin. Miguel laughed out loud, “I’d hardly call El-Paso a den of iniquity, grandfather.”

The Don sipped his brandy and thought the matter over. He cocked a shrewd eye at Miguel, “I suppose you’d like to go as well?”

Miguel was surprised and delighted. Adam hadn’t told him the way he was thinking – hadn’t mentioned his plans for a journey at all. He had intended to go on his own, not expecting Don Estaban to be able so spare his right hand man at the height of the season. Having his friend along for company was the nicest thing he could think of. Grave faced, Don Estaban looked from one hopeful countenance to the other. “It’s a hundred miles from here to the border,” he said, with an air of ultimate resignation. “My old friend Ben Cartwright would never forgive me if Adam got lost on the way. I expect we could spare you for the time it takes to ride there and back.”

The younger men exchanged happy looks; everything was going their way. Indulgently, Don Estaban smiled at their pleasure. “When are you planning to leave?”

“After the weekend,” Adam said, promptly. “If we get a good, early start, travel morning and evening and rest through the heat of the day, we should be there by the end of the week.”

To Don Estaban’s amusement, it wasn’t long before Adam and Miguel had their heads close together, making plans for their trip.

Friday night came ‘round very quickly. At this tail end of the week, as was their habit, Adam and Miguel rode to the village of Spiritos Christos for a few drinks and a little amusement away from the more formal gathering at Don Estaban’s house. In the late afternoon, they tied up their horses at the rail outside the cantina. There was the usual line-up of burrows and donkeys already installed, a grizzled old mare dozing in the warmth of the sunshine and a team of mules in harness waiting outside the store. Half a dozen Mexican boys of assorted ages were lying in wait.

“Look after your horse, Señor? I’ll make sure nobody steals him.”

Adam flipped the flop-haired tyke a peso. “Make sure you look after him good.”

The cantina was already filled with local farmers and ranchers and vaqueros from several of the nearby haciendas. Adam recognised many of the faces. He nodded greetings right and left and stopped to exchange a word with an elderly caballero he had been introduced to before. Miguel bought the beer, and they stood at the bar to drink it.

It was the only tavern for fifty miles, and the barroom was filling up fast. With shouting and singing and loud conversation it was hard to make yourself heard. Men with guitars and fiddles were playing up a storm; later, on the dance floor, there would be a real, old-fashioned Mexican fandango, and the folks were just warming up. Maria and her sisters, in their bright skirts and blouses, were busy serving at tables. Adam and Miguel got sweet smiles of greeting and a wink of a promise for later. Miguel jabbed Adam hard in the ribs with his sharp-pointed elbow,

“Tonight you stay with Maria, amigo. I know she is sweet on you. We will ride home together first thing in the morning.” Already Miguel had his eyes on his own lady friends.

Adam grinned dutifully but shook his head. “I have to see someone this evening. I’ll catch up with you later.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll keep her warm for you,” Miguel gave him cheerful assurance. “She’ll be ready when you get back.”

Adam pulled a deep breath, “I don’t think so. Not tonight.”

Miguel raised a quizzical eyebrow, gave Adam a look of surprise which turned rapidly into amusement. His eyes danced with mischief. “You find yourself already bewitched with my beautiful cousin, eh, Señor Cartwright? She does things to your insides?” He couldn’t resist a chuckle. “Take it from, me, you will not find her often without her chaperone following on behind, or, worse, her brother. Little Maria is here, ready and waiting for you. I know you’re not fool enough to turn her down.”

Adam hoped his tan concealed the flush in his cheeks. He finished his beer and slapped Miguel on the shoulder. “I’ll see how I feel when I get back.” He left Miguel more than a little bemused. In truth, he didn’t understand his responses himself. He went back out to the horses. Grinning, the young boy gave him his reins, and he stepped up into the saddle. In the blue gloom of evening he rode slowly along the street.

Mama Manga’s house was set apart from the rest, a large, square, rather ramshackle structure built half of adobe and half of old, weathered wood. A covered veranda reached around three of the sides, and there was a sizeable plot of cultivated land at the rear. Mama Manga herself stepped out to light the porch lamp just as Adam rode up to the rail. The lamplight fell softly on her big, ugly face as she greeting him with a smile. Her welcome, in enthusive, rapid Spanish, only slightly bastardised by the local dialect, was warm and sincere. In the weeks that had passed since Mezo’s accident, Adam had come to know the lady quite well. He had grown to like and admire her. She might not be young, slim or lovely, but she had a good heart and a pleasant nature and an inner beauty that shone out of her soul. She was always delighted to see him. She had taken Mezo into her house and installed him in her bedroom. Adam found him there now in the huge, double bed. His leg was securely fastened into a complicated contrivance of ropes and pulleys and weights in a stout wooden framework designed to keep his thigh under tension while the long bone healed.

The sheriff was half propped up in the bed, surrounded by pillows and rumpled quilts, his body a vast, rounded bulk in the bedclothes. The bedroom was unlit and filling with shadows: it was dark outside and no light spilled in through the window. Adam dropped his hat on the table and scraped a match to light the lamp on the dresser. As the lamplight spread outwards, he gave the big sheriff and wink and a grin. “How are you feeling?”

Mezo was not a good patient. He grunted and lifted his lip in a snarl. “How would you expect a man to be feeling, lying here flat on his back, stiff and sore, trussed up like a chicken and no one to talk to all day but the women? It’s enough to send me out of my mind!”

Adam chuckled at the big man’s disgruntled expression. A rough stack of books occupied the chair by the bed. Mezo was no great reader. Adam doubted he’d opened a cover. He shifted the makeshift library onto the floor and sat himself down. “Surely the priest comes to see you?”

Mezo exploded, “The priest comes to pray! I tried to teach him chess, dominoes – even poker. I think I’ve frightened him away.”

Mama Manga came into the room to draw the curtains and light the remaining lamps. She plumped up the pillows behind Mezo’s head and straightened out the quilts that covered his lower body and his good leg, all the while keeping up a constant flow of trivial chatter that clearly drove the sheriff quite mad. Adam suppressed a smile. As soon as Mama Manga’s back was turned, Mezo pulled the quilts crooked again, just for devilment Adam assumed. Mezo growled deep down in his throat.

“I am a prisoner of my own incapacity, Adam. Tell me something of the outside world before I entirely lose my mind.”

So Adam told him about the week’s activity on the rancho, trying to make the everyday work of horse breaking and riding herd on a bunch of cattle sound something worthy of note. Then he mentioned his proposed trip to El Paso. Mezo’s face fell. “Aye-ee, I shall miss you, my friend. If you go, who will come then to amuse me? I shall be reduced to tears of boredom with no-one but Mama Manga and the village women to nag at me and the priest to bemoan the state of my soul.” Ruefully, he joined in Adam’s laughter. He leaned a long way forward and massaged the knee of his broken leg. Clearly, it ached.

“Did you find out where Davies and Mallory went?” Adam inquired, changing the subject.

“A farmer saw them heading south. Then they disappeared. I thought they might have stolen some horses, but none have gone missing.” Mezo raised a ragged eyebrow “I don’t suppose Don Estaban has lost any horses?”

Adam shook his head, “None that I know of.” Mezo growled again.

Mama Manga served the men supper. Mezo took his in bed while Adam sat beside him and ate from a tray. They ate strips of lean beef with peppers and tomatoes in a hot, chili sauce with lots of new bread to mop it all up with. Then they drank their way through a bottle of tequila and played numerous games of checkers with the board propped against the splint of Mezo’s leg.

Around about midnight, Adam, surrounded by a warm and comfortable glow, rode back toward the cantina. The midsummer night was sultry; it would not become cold until the hour just before dawn. Crickets chirruped loudly from odd clumps of desiccated grass and dying weeds; fireflies enlivened the darkness with their pale flames and somewhere, out beyond the bounds of the village, a long-eared owl gave vent to a haunting, lonely cry. The streets were much quieter now, with no more than a few inebriated revellers wending their uncertain way home. The party was in full swing in the barroom; laughter and music and light spilled out of the open doorway. Outside, the long line of mules and burrows remained undiminished. Adam kicked free of his stirrup and lifted his free leg over the gelding’s rump. It was just at that moment, as he stepped down from the saddle, that a movement across the square caught his eye.

A diminutive burro with a man on its back was crossing in front of the well, picking his way with tiny hoofs across the worn flagstones, heading towards the church. The man was barely clinging on. He was slumped forward, almost lying along the small animal’s neck. His right arm dangled as if his shoulder was broken, and his feet dragged on the ground. Adam went to help him, catching up with the burro as it reached the foot of the steps. With one hand he grabbed for the bridle, and, with the other, he helped the man down, breaking his fall awkwardly as he slid from the burro’s back.

He was a young man, no more than twenty and slightly built. His clothing was simple: a peon’s loose shirt and light coloured trousers and soft, leather boots on his feet. He was bareheaded with long, lank dark hair matted with sweat and dust and something thicker and darker that might have been blood. There was blood on his shirt: old blood and new, and the smell of scorched flesh lingered about his body. His back appeared to be burned. His young, round face was twisted with pain, and tears squeezed out from under his eyelids. Adam lowered him carefully to the ground and knelt down beside him. The boy’s breath shuddered. Adam reached out to touch him.

“It’s okay. You’re safe now. You’re going to be all right.” Adam wasn’t at all sure that he spoke the truth, but he said the words anyway. The young man didn’t hear him, or, more probably, he didn’t understand. Adam, unthinking, had reassured him in English.

Adam was aware of the crowd that gathered about them. He had not been the only man to notice the burro arrive with his burden. The cantina had emptied rapidly into the street, everyone rapidly sober. Miguel hunkered down beside him, pushing other men out of the way. The young man’s eyes opened and focused on Miguel’s face. He gasped for breath. He said something in Spanish, his words barely audible. Miguel responded. The man spoke again. Adam caught part of it, a word here and there. He didn’t much like what he heard. As the young man went limp and lapsed into silence, a murmur went through the crowd. The sound carried tones of disquiet, of concern and of deep-rooted fear. Straightening up beside Miguel, Adam moved over to make room for the priest to step and take his place at the Mexican’s side. “What did he say?”

For once, Miguel’s face was dark with anger. It made him look older. His scar stood out whitely against the darker hue of his flesh. “He comes from a farm fifty miles to the south of here. He says they were attacked by bandits four days ago: a large band of them, looting, burning, killing. All his family are dead and their stock driven off, their crops trampled into the dirt.” Miguel sounded bitter. Adam knew why. Beneath his ever-cheerful exterior, Miguel disguised a grim secret. Marauding Apaches had murdered his parents; they’d been burned alive. Miguel, just a boy, had been there when they’d died.

Adam turned and watched as four men carried the young Mexican away in a blanket, the priest at his side intoning a prayer. With the excitement over, the crowd began to disperse, moving slowly, deep in conversation, heading for home. The party was definitely over. “These people are frightened. Are the bandits likely to come this way?”

“No, my friend. Each year this happens the same. They take a wide sweep to the south of us, following the lie of the land. This year they have come a little closer than usual.” Miguel shrugged. “They will go further west before they swing north to spend the winter across the border.” Despite the assurance, Adam heard a note of doubt in his friend’s tone of voice. Side by side, the two men strolled back to their horses.

 

*******

 

The streets of Ciudad Juarez drowsed in the midday sun. One day destined to split into half and become two separate townships on either side of the border, its buildings were of dull, local brick, sun-bleached timber scavenged out of the desert and mud-covered walls, tile and straw-thatch and shingle. Its colours were the pale shades of the sun-baked earth: creams and yellows, pinks, browns and gold with a flash of bright terracotta and a faint touch of dusty green. Its streets were the white of hard beaten dirt. In the motionless air, the smoke from the chimneys hung over the rooftops, and the heat haze shimmered, making lines indistinct.

The town could be smelled a mile away, the unmistakable stench of wood smoke and dung and human excrement that indelibly labelled every habitation of man, together with the miasma of rotting water and the peppery smell of dust. Adam and Miguel walked their horses down main-street. Sweat had turned dirt into mud, and they and their animals were all the ambiguous colour of the desert. Miguel pointed out landmarks: the bank, the hotel and the bathhouse. Men watched them pass, their eyes watchful, suspicious. Mexicans and Americans gathered in two distinct groupings. The two didn’t mingle. Adam sensed menace, and his backbone tingled.

The Rio Grande was a vagrant stream, its course never certain. At this time of year it often ran dry. No one who wasn’t a resident could ever be certain just where the border lay. The land here belonged to everyone and to no one at all. No man was prepared to give way to another. It all led to tension, distrust and dislike.

Adam drew rein outside the hotel and stepped stiffly down from the saddle. It had been a hard journey, travelling first thing in the morning and late afternoon, resting between times, snatching sleep when they could. The long days on horseback had taken their toll. Miguel called a boy over and gave him a dollar that shone in the sun. “Take good care of our horses, muchacho. Give them plenty of water and all the grain they can eat.”

“Si, Señor.” The boy took his reins and Adam’s and the lead rope of the packhorse and lead the animals away.

Adam hooked his thumbs in his gunbelt and looked up the street and down. He squinted into the sunlight. The deep-seated itch in his spine told him that hostile eyes were looking right back. He cast a glance at Miguel. “Didn’t anyone ever tell these men that the war was over a long time ago?”*

Miguel laughed and slapped him hard on the shoulder, raising the dust. “The men who live here fight a war of their own every day of the week. This is no man’s land, where no law has jurisdiction except what a man makes himself. Here, you must look out for yourself.”

Adam looked all around him. He saw poverty and sickness, anger, despair, desperation and resentment. He took Miguel’s meaning to heart.

Inside, the hotel was dark, dry and dusty. The blinds had been drawn down over the windows to make the gloom complete. The air was no cooler indoors than it was outside in the street. The two men each booked a room, then went through to the bar at the back for several cold glasses of beer and a free bar lunch of hard boiled eggs, fresh bread and pickles before they retired for siesta.

The late afternoon brought relief from the sun as the shadows marched eastward over the streets and filled the alleys with darkness but none at all from the heat. Men still sweltered and sweated. To make their misery more complete, dense clouds of black flies swarmed up from the levees where warm, stagnant pools still lingered. The flies were persistent, their bite ferocious, and the bitten spots reddened and itched for days. The smudge pots that burned in streets did little to dispel them, and they had a strange penchant for rich, Cartwright blood.

Adam pulled out a bandanna and swabbed at his neck. “I think I might take me a walk to that bathhouse,” he said with thoughtful determination, “and wash off this sweat before I get eaten alive.”

Miguel sniffed at himself and agreed. The two friends strolled down the street to the pink ‘dobe building with the graphic sign hung outside. A small silver coin bought two tubs of hot water and two bars of hard, yellow soap.

Adam shaved in front of a speckled mirror and soaped himself down before he got into the tub. He was amazed at some of the places those black flies had got to. He gasped at the kiss of the very hot water and lowered himself carefully in. Miguel, already submerged to his chin, couldn’t repress a chuckle. “Soon you will be as fresh as a daisy. The ladies will find you quite irresistible.”

Adam shot him a sideways grin. “I don’t have to ask what you intend to do with your evening.”

Miguel shrugged his shoulders and slopped grey, soapy water over the rim of the bathtub and onto the floor. “I shall have a good supper and a bottle of wine, and then I intend to locate the local Palace of Delights.”

“Did anyone ever tell you that you have a one track mind?” Adam smiled, rinsing his arms and his shoulders. Now that he was used to it, the hot water had eased the ache from his muscles and made his skin tingle. It was so good to be clean!

“And you have my cousin too much on your mind,” Miguel retorted astutely. Adam couldn’t deny it. He was glad that the water was cloudy enough to conceal the flush of his skin.

Shaved and bathed, the two friends dressed in their finery. Miguel wore black, trimmed with silver; the narrow jacket and tight fitting trousers set off his slender form. Adam dressed more conventionally in silver-grey pants and vest over a shirt of snowy white linen. In the last of the twilight, they found an eatery, a Mexican run establishment with a long, low frontage that curved ‘round a corner and faced onto two different streets. The walls were thick, the interior dim, lit by lamps with blue and red glasses. The atmosphere was friendly; the scent of flowers mingled deliciously with the aroma of food. Adam and Miguel selected a table not too far from the bar.

They took their time eating, enjoying their food. Adam had braised calf’s liver served with green onions, sweet potatoes and sweet, juicy melon. Miguel had his wine while Adam settled for beer. Miguel appraised the waitress with the practised eye of a connoisseur. He made one more concerted attempt to persuade Adam to join him for a night of drink and debauchery. Adam declined.

By the time they emerged, the warm night had turned to blue-velvet and the sky was sprinkled with stars. In this unruly, borderland town the night overlapped with the day. The saloons and barrooms were in full operation, spilling the sounds of merriment and music – and the occasional fight – out into the street, and the stores were still open, selling the usual selection of beans and butter, shirts and shovels, harness and hens eggs by lamplight. Miguel put on his hat and hitched up his pants, settling his supper into place. With a wink, he turned one way to seek out his chosen form of entertainment, and Adam set out the other.

The bonfires that burned on every street corner made his eyes tear. They did little to help with his problem. The flies had been lying in wait for him, and they attacked in full force. Dodging men, women and children and the occasional dog, he made his way down the crowded boardwalk and crossed the busy street. He knew the sort of thing he was looking for, but it took a lot longer than he had bargained for to find it.

Eventually, he discovered a tiny, back street emporium on the El Paso side of the town. It was gloomy inside, lit only by two small lamps, and the place abounded with shadows. It smelled of cloth and spices and leather and something else less easily defined: a certain sense of timelessness. The proprietor was a wizened Mexican man, something less than five feet tall with a face all filled up with wrinkles. Adam explained to him in his now well practised Spanish what it was that he wanted. The little man waved his hands in the air and gave him a gap-toothed grin. He disappeared into the even darker storeroom at the back of the shop. That left Adam all alone to browse for a while among the clutter of second-hand merchandise that filled up the shelves and the floor space. In amongst the haphazard stacks of woven blankets and ponchos, the towers of curly brimmed hats, the piles of braided trousers and hand sewn boots, the untidy rows of gaudy pottery and the stings of trinkets and beads there were one or two pieces of obvious antiquity. There was a two-handled cup decorated in blue, black and yellow with a design of stylised birds in flight ‘round the rim. They appeared to be chasing one another in endless procession that might have lasted for centuries. He found a half-buried box that contained scraps of gold jewellery that certainly wasn’t new and a figurine carved out of stone that had the time worn look of an ancient and long abandoned god.

The little Mexican returned with a cloth wrapped bundle cradled close in his arms. He laid it down on the tiny counter: the only clear space that there was. “Perhaps this is what you are seeking, Señor?” Almost reverently, he unwrapped the bundle.

Unable to conceal his admiration, Adam caught his breath. “I think you might just be right,” Carefully, he drew the sword from its scabbard. It was heavy but perfectly balanced, made in the first place for a big and powerful man. The hilt was enclosed in a basketwork handle and bound with gold wire; an intricate design of vines and flowers was etched the whole length of the blade. The scabbard, when he looked at it, was even more elaborate. Originally fashioned, perhaps, for an even grander weapon, it was constructed of thick plates of leather and chased with three colours of gold. Here and there among the ornamentation, tiny blue gems twinkled and the whole thing shone in the lamplight. It was a weapon worthy of a conquistador or a sea captain from the Old Spanish Main. Adam knew it would make a much-valued addition to Don Estaban’s treasured collection; it only remained to agree on the price.

The diminutive Mexican drove a much harder bargain that Adam had expected, and he ended up paying a great deal more that he had intended when he first set out on this venture. When he left the store with the carefully wrapped sword in his arms, his purse was a whole lot lighter. Still, he was pleased with his purchase, and he knew that his father would not begrudge the expense.

The streets were quieter now, as the hour approached midnight. The stores were all closed and only the hard-core drinkers and gamblers still inhabited the saloons. Adam started back towards his hotel. In addition to the sword for Don Estaban, he had made several other purchases: tiny handkerchiefs – small scraps of white linen edged with old Spanish lace – gifts for Donna Marguerite, and, for Valenzuela, he had bought a blue hat. Amid the titters and concealed smiles of the ladies in the milliner’s store, he had selected the most ridiculous scrap of azure silk with pearl beads for trimming and a tiny net veil. He carried it now in an awkward, square box. He had a tiny, silver needle-case for Señorita Laurencia, shop-bought candy for the house servant’s children and a leather belt trimmed with silver conchos for Miguel. Altogether, he had his hands full of packages.

If he were honest, afterwards, he would have admitted to not being fully alert. As he walked through the maze of night-darkened streets, his thoughts were far away, back at the hacienda with the rare, dark eyed Mexican beauty, Valenzuela Marrinez. The thoughts of her brought strange feelings deep down inside. Did he love her? He still wasn’t sure. It was a strange and illusive emotion that had played him false before.

What sort of wife would Valenzuela make? She had a streak of naivety and petulance that he would have to learn to live with, and she had one hell of a temper when she was roused. A smile touched his lips; he foresaw some glorious arguments. Was she a woman who would get her hands dirty, to stand alongside him when the going got tough: to work and fight for their future and that of their children. He wasn’t sure of it. Was it a chance he was willing to take? Certainly he cared for her – did a man need more? It wasn’t the sort of decision he’d been expecting to make when he’d ridden to Mexico.

He almost stumbled on the step at the end of the boardwalk, coming down it rather faster than he had intended. Had he been paying proper attention, he might not have walked into the trap.

There were three of them. One was in front of him, apparently waiting; another moved in from behind. The third man, riding a skinny roan gelding with prominent hipbones crowded him in from the street. He didn’t know if it was him, specifically, that they were lying in wait for or if any unwary passer-by would have done. He didn’t get the chance to inquire. The man on the horse pushed him into the alley. The other two followed, cutting off his escape. One carried a knife and the other a pistol. With his hands full of packages, he couldn’t reach for the Colt .44.

The light fell slantwise over their faces. Adam could tell from their hair and their eyes that they were Americans. The two on the ground were big and broad with unpleasant smirks on wide, ugly faces. Adam could smell the raw liquor on their breath and see the greed in their eyes. He could guess what they wanted. They were out to rob him and give him a beating, and if he should die in the process, his would be just one more anonymous body found in the morning a long way from home.

Thug number one, the man with the pistol, moved closer; he backed Adam into the wall. Adam smelled beer and tobacco and second hand supper. He asked the obvious question, “What do you fellas want?”

Thug number one got right down to business, “Give us yer money!”

Adam’s eyes held contempt. “I’m not really worth robbing. I don’t have enough on me to make it worth while.” He spoke the truth. Having bought all the gifts, Adam had about enough in his pocket to purchase a beer.

Thug number one didn’t believe him. He gave him another shove and jammed the pistol hard into his belly. Adam couldn’t go back any further. His head banged on the wall, and he lost his hat. The sword, still wrapped, fell out of his hands and lay, unnoticed, in the dirt of the alley.

Thug number two, slightly smaller in build but equally unpleasant, interposed his face between thug number one and Adam. He put the point of the knife to Adam’s throat and reached out to finger the hand stitching on the front of Adam’s vest. “You don’t expect us to believe you ain’t got no money, what with these fancy duds an’ all? What ya got in the parcels?” He snatched the square box out of Adam’s hands. Adam tried to go after him; thug number one shoved him back.

“You want a hole front to back, you’re goin’ the right way about it!” Adam wisely subsided.

Thug number three, still on horseback and blocking the mouth of the alley, hissed at them all to hurry it up. A nearby saloon was turning out patrons, and they were kicking up a commotion, singing and shouting and firing off guns. The assault taking place in the alleyway went undetected. Thug number two tore the box open. “Hey! Will you lookee here!” He held up the hat. “Ain’t that a cutie!” Thug number one chuckled. Thug number two took a step forward. He held out the hat towards Adam’s bare head. “Let’s see how this looks on you, Pretty Boy.”

Spraying spittle into Adam’s face, thug number one laughed out loud.

The sight of the man’s dirty fingers on the tiny blue bonnet made Adam see red. He threw caution – and parcels – all to the wind and brought up his knee in thug number one’s belly. The man doubled over and grunted; the pistol fell out of his fingers. Adam chopped down with both hands on the back of his neck, and thug number one hit the ground. Adam kicked him hard in the face. Blood and teeth spattered.

Thug number two swung around with the knife. Adam waltzed with him, circling the alley, seeking for some advantage. Sneering, buoyed up by drink, thug number two pranced about him. The knife was in one hand, the hat in the other, just out of Adam’s reach. He brandished the blade before Adam’s eyes. “You want this, Pretty Boy, you come an’ get it.”

Adam got mad. He deflected the blade with his forearm and punched out hard with his fist. He felt bone and cartilage crumble. Blood spurted from the man’s broken nose, black in the night. It was hot, and it smelled of iron fresh from the forge, and it darkened the sleeve of Adam’s white shirt. Thug number two collapsed with a scream. He clutched at his face.

Seeing both his companions fallen, thug number three galloped off on his pony. The night became suddenly quiet. All Adam could hear was the hiss of his breathing and the singular sigh of his blood, the long, low moaning of thug number two and the sounds of his friend vomiting in a distant, dark corner. Adam collected up his belongings. To his relief, the hat was undamaged and unstained by the blood. Only the jellybeans had spilled from their package, and they could be replaced. Everything else was intact. He left the two thugs to lick their own wounds in the alley.

Miguel looked him over. “It looks like you had an interesting night.”

Razor in hand, Adam gazed at his reflection in the dresser looking glass. In actual fact, he had emerged from the alley almost unscathed. The only injury he had to show for last night’s encounter was the badly skinned knuckles of his right hand. And his good shirt was ruined. The thug’s blood had dried, and the stain would never wash out. “I guess you could say that,” he said, with a grin. He tossed the shirt aside and reached for his other one, still unpleasantly stiff with the dirt and the sweat of the journey.

With his back supporting the wall of Adam’s hotel room and his head on one side, Miguel watched his friend dress The faintest of smiles played around the Mexican’s lips, pulled slightly sideways by the scar on his cheek. Adam turned ‘round and caught the lop-sided grin. “What are you laughing at?”

The smile broke into the open. “I laugh at you, who else? I think that this trip to the city is not what you hoped it would be. Your heart isn’t in it.”

Adam shot him a glance that was meant to be angry but was, somehow, only amused. “Just because I didn’t go to the local cat-house with you?”

“That’s a part of it.” Miguel shrugged his shoulders “The Adam Cartwright I know wouldn’t let himself be bushwhacked by a gang of the local toughs. What were you thinking about? – the beautiful Valenzuela?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Adam said gruffly.

Miguel’s mouth still smiled, but now his eyes were serious. “I think you know well enough. You heart is in a state of confusion, and your head doesn’t know what to make of it all.”

Adam shook his head in rueful self-reproach. “I think you know me too well, my friend.”

Miguel straightened up from his lean on the wall. “Then this is what we will do: we will finish our business here in town and spend a day or two seeing the sights – such as they are. As soon as the horses are rested, we’ll saddle up and head back to the rancho. Perhaps by the time we get home you will have made a decision about what you want to do.”

“Are you sure you don’t mind?” Despite his age, Adam contrived to look bashful.

Laughing merrily, Miguel slapped him on the shoulder and handed him his hat. “Why should I mind? After all, the horses are very weary. We still have two or three nights to sample the local amusements and see the bright lights.”

“No whore houses.” Adam pointed a finger.

“And no more dark alleyways!”

The two friends went for breakfast. Less than a week later they went to the bank in El Paso, and Adam converted his bank draft. From then on, for a while, the two found themselves riding shotgun on a bag-full of gold.

 

*******

 

In the midst of the summer it was hot and airless inside the walled garden. The sun had been merciless and the nights stiflingly warm for the past several weeks. The weather showed no sign of breaking. The ladies sat in the shade of the arched colonnades and genteelly sweltered. For the tenth time that morning Valenzuela laid aside her embroidery and picked up her fan. In spite of the relative coolness the arbour provided and a constant supply of cold lemonade, the relentless heat made it hard to keep her mind on what she was doing. She gave vent to a sigh. She missed her rides in the country. Even if she rose early it was still often too hot to venture out. Besides, riding with Charlo as escort and at cousin Laurencia’s plodding pace, the outings were no fun at all.

The small sigh did not go unnoticed. Donna Marguerite dropped her rosary into her lap and reached out to pat her niece on the knee. “My dear, are you ill? You look very flushed. Would you like to retire to your room?”

“Thank you, no.” It was hardly surprising Valenzuela was pink. Even in her ‘indoor attire’ she was encased in a tightly laced corset and clad in a high-buttoned blouse and a long, dark green linen skirt. Her hair was bound up in green ribbons, and a gold mounted cameo was pinned at her throat. She was clammy and uncomfortable with perspiration, but sitting alone in her stuffy room was not the least bit appealing. “I’m just a little warm, Aunt Marguerite.”

“Aha. Indeed.” Marguerite smiled and nodded knowingly. A wise old woman, she knew well the ways of a young lady’s heart. Her dark eyes were shrewd, and she gazed at Valenzuela with thoughtful consideration. “Are you sure it is not your young man you are yearning for?”

Valenzuela succeeded in her attempt not to blush, but her furtive glance towards cousin Laurencia betrayed her. Laurencia, busy with her needlework and engrossed in thoughts of her own, didn’t notice, but Donna Marguerite did. The grand old lady closed her small prayer book and laid it aside with the ivory beads. Now was the time for more worldly matters. Rather than make the girl blush with her direct gaze, she allowed her eyes, still bright and sprightly despite her age, to drift around the familiar and much loved garden. Once more she admired the sun-kissed slabs of honey-hued stone, the glowing, terracotta pots and the fiery-red geraniums that cascaded over their sides. The hot colours sizzled against the dark green background of foliage. Don Estaban had built the garden a long time ago, and each nook and cranny had its own, special memory. She said, very softly, “Your uncle and I have known Adam Cartwright since he was a very young man, and, before that, we knew his father. They do not come from a grand old family, but they are good people, and strong, healthy stock. If you are considering taking a husband, you could do no better than to choose Ben Cartwright’s son.”

This time, Valenzuela felt the heat rise into her cheeks. She applied her fan assiduously. “Aunt Marguerite! How could you ever think such a thing?”

Marguerite laughed the same deep, throaty chuckle that had been so famous in the days of her youth. “I have seen the way that you look at him, and the way that he looks at you. I remember those feeling very well.” It was all she said, but her eyes spoke volumes more.

Valenzuela looked down at the hands in her lap: long-fingered, olive skinned hands with the fingers clasped over each other. “I do care for him,” she admitted. “He is handsome and fun to be with and a perfect gentleman. But if I decide to marry and stay in America, what will my father say? And Charlo?”

“If that is what you decide to do, your uncle will write to your father. They are brothers, after all. Your uncle will make him understand. As for Charlo – in time, he will learn that the world does not revolve at his bidding. It may be that Adam Cartwright is destined to be the one to teach him.”

For the first time in her life, Valenzuela contemplated a marriage to other than a Grandee of Spain, a life different to any she had ever known in a world a whole ocean away from her own. Did she love Adam Cartwright? She felt so strange inside when he was close to her – stranger still when he kissed her hand. Would she make a good wife to him? She would certainly try. She envisioned herself in a fine hacienda with a view of the mountains with servants and horses at her beck and call. It was a prospect that she found appealing. She looked at the fragile old lady, straight backed in her wheelchair, gowned in black satin and lace, calm, cool and collected, pale featured in spite of the heat, and saw her kind, caring heart. “Aunt Marguerite, how can I ever thank you?”

Donna Marguerite smiled. “Just live your life to the full and be happy. And make your young man happy too.”

“I will, Aunt Marguerite. I promise I will.”

A sudden commotion outside in the yard distracted their attention: men shouting and calling and running about in excitement, the neigh of a horse.

There were voices the ladies recognised. Unnoticed, Valenzuela’s fan fell to the floor as she jumped to her feet with a lot less decorum than cousin Laurencia approved of. “It’s Adam and Miguel! They have come home already!” She gathered her skirts in a bunch and started to run towards the front of the house. She didn’t get far; after two steps she stopped and darted back to plant a soft kiss of gratitude on Marguerite’s cheek.

Dinner that night turned into a welcome home party. Adam and Miguel were required to relate, in detail, the events of their journey – which they cheerfully did but with several notable omissions. Afterwards, Adam settled himself comfortable into his accustomed chair by the fireplace. To be sure, the fire no longer burned there – the nights were too warm – but old habits, he found, died hard. As always, Don Estaban provided cigars and fine brandy. As he lit up, Adam reminded himself firmly that this was a habit he would have to break before he returned home to the Ponderosa – his father would never stand for it. Miguel was engaged in his usual, restless prowling; he was a man who could never settle down. Charlo, as ever his brooding, darkly handsome self, nursed his globular glass and stared out into the night through the open windows that led out into the garden. He alone, of all the household, was not pleased to see the travellers home. Donna Marguerite, gorgeously gowned in her wheelchair, and the happy, vivacious Valenzuela completed the party, as always.

The young Spanish woman had put on her most elegant dress: a creation of pale yellow silk with pearls and small crystal beads as part of the decoration. Her hair was coiled and dressed with a comb and a small fillet of lace, and she had touched her cheeks with a dusky powder. She stood, because she considered herself more graceful standing than sitting, and waited for a lull in the men’s conversation.

“Adam,” she said with a mischievous grin in her dark, Spanish eyes, “will you take me riding tomorrow?”

Adam gazed up her, brandy and cigar for the moment forgotten. She looked beautiful in the yellow dress. His breath was stolen away, and he was taken aback by the question. He lost the opportunity to respond at once. It was Charlo that jumped in before him, turning angrily away from the open window, “Valetta! How could you be so forward? A lady would never ask such a thing!”

Valenzuela turned her eyes to her brother and almost quailed. She had never seen him so angry. Truly aroused to indignation, his face was as black as thunder. Still, she had made up her mind. “A lady who does not ask would never go anywhere,” she said pertly but with an air of sweet reasonableness.

Don Estaban touched her elbow gently. “My dear, it really is too hot to go out of doors in the heat of the day.”

She turned her smile on him, knowing that her eyes would bewitch him as well. “If we leave early, uncle, we will be back before it gets very hot.”

Charlo, still angry, put his glass down on a table and took a long step towards her. It seemed, for a moment, he might raise his hand to strike her. Somehow, he controlled himself. “I will not have you associate yourself with this man any longer!” He glared at Adam. “He is nothing more than a gringo!”

With slow deliberation, Adam straightened out of the chair. He turned to face Charlo. He still held the brandy glass in his right hand. Adam was angry himself, but his anger was cold and carefully controlled; his hand didn’t tremble, the surface of the brandy remained still and unruffled. He was prepared to swallow the insult, ‘though it stuck in his throat. Better men had called him worse. He knew he had to play this with caution. Charlo might be a bigot and a bully, but they were still both guests in Don Estaban’s house, and, perhaps more to the point at this exact moment, he was Valenzuela’s brother. Doubtless he had some influence over her decisions regardless of her apparent resistance to his opinions. Adam still hadn’t made up his mind about his future, but he didn’t want to alienate the girl.

Valenzuela turned to him; now, her eyes were serious – the flirtation and the amusement were all gone from her face. Her tone was determined, “Please take me, Adam. I have been so bored in the house, and I long to go to the lake.”

It was against his better judgement. Adam knew how hot it would get once the sun started to climb up the sky, how hard it would be on the horses, let alone the skins of the ladies. But if they started early, as Valenzuela suggested, and only rode as far as the lake… He hesitated calculating the odds. For certain, he wouldn’t put himself on the same side as Charlo. “I’ll take you,” he told her. “If cousin Laurencia will come. We’ll go to the lake in the morning.”

Charlo lifted his lip in a snarl; “I absolutely forbid it!”

Adam’s temper finally got the better of him, “You don’t tell me what to do!”

“Then I’m coming with you. I don’t trust you, Cartwright.”

Miguel stepped in between them, taking action to maintain the peace before his grandfather ordered them both from the house. “I have a better idea. Why not ride to the southern pasture? It is not all that much further, and we can all ride together. I have to go there tomorrow myself to check on the young stock. I’m sure they have been neglected while I’ve been away.” He cast a look at Don Estaban, daring him to deny it. If Adam and Charlo went riding together it was best if Miguel went along with them in case fur started to fly. Adam and Charlo, concentrating entirely on one another, missed the message entirely.

The next morning dawned bright and clear, with the promise of heat well before eight. Adam had the horses brought before breakfast, saddled and ready. He had tried to impress upon the ladies that they mustn’t be late or they wouldn’t be able to go. They had to start early if they were to return before it became unbearably hot. Valenzuela and cousin Laurencia were only a few minutes behind schedule, and not long after the little party was riding out of the yard.

They rode in procession at cousin Laurencia’s sedate pace across the high ridge and down the winding trail into the next valley: the one that doglegged away to the south. The pastures were dry now, the colours burnt-gold and sienna and umber and brown with only a faint flush of green at the lowest point where the deeper roots could still find some moisture. The hills ahead of them were low and rolling, tinged with purple and orange, and the sky overhead was a deep, upturned copper bowl.

The sun, still in the east, was too bright to look at; Adam felt its weight on his back. He was already sweating. Once again he doubted the wisdom of this adventure, but he was damned if he was going to turn back now. Valenzuela remained resolute, and Charlo was riding behind them.

The trail, as they approached the southern border of Don Estaban’s property, was a wagon road wide enough for two to ride abreast. Adam rode out in front with Valenzuela beside him, sitting sidesaddle on her bright chestnut horse. Discussing the various flora and fauna, they had allowed themselves to get some way ahead of the others, perhaps by unconscious design. Behind them, but someway removed, his eyes fixed on their backs, came Charlo on a short-bodied black gelding almost as bad tempered, in Adam’s opinion, as Charlo himself. The man wore a permanent glower that must make his face ache. Miguel and cousin Laurencia brought up the rear, chatting and laughing together. As Adam had often observed, Miguel could charm all the ladies without even trying.

Valenzuela looked over her shoulder; a naughty gleam came into her eye. She nudged her horse closer to Adam’s. “Let’s race to that next clump of trees.”

Adam thought about it, a frown on his face. It wouldn’t really be good for the horses to run them hard in the heat, but it wasn’t such a very long way – less than a mile – and he was sick to death of the feel of Charlo’s stare burning into his back. He flashed a quick grin. “All right; you’re on!”

He held his own gelding back while the golden horse flashed ahead of him. He was going to let her win. Then he let out his rein and kicked hard, giving his own horse its head.

With her head’s start, Valenzuela won easily as Adam had intended. Galloping hard, she overshot the trees by a considerable margin. She laughed with pure delight at her victory and hauled on the reins, bringing the chestnut around in a wide, sweeping circle. His mouth drooled saliva, and his bright coat was streaked with sweat. Adam pulled up his bay beside her. The horses were heaving, and the man and the woman were both breathing hard. Adam looked back. The other three riders had been left far behind; they were tiny figures away in the distance. He couldn’t make out Charlo’s face, but he could imagine it. The thought brought a smile to his face.

He looked around him, judging the lie of the land. They were very close to the unfenced boundary of the rancho. It would be unwise to go any further, and unsafe for the lady’s reputation to take her completely out of sight. “I think we’d better cool off these horses before we start back.”

Valenzuela was agreeable. Walking their horses at a reasonable pace, they rode back to the trees: a large stand of acacia with feathery leaves, growing close together for the benefit of their mutual shade. The shadow they cast wasn’t dense, but it was very welcome. Adam lifted Valenzuela down and tethered the horses. He loosened the cinches to give them a chance to blow. Charlo rode up to them on his lathered horse. His face was black with anger. He jumped down from the saddle and turned on Adam at once.

“What do you think you are doing! How dare you ride off with my sister! Suppose her horse had stumbled? She might have been hurt!”

Adam squared up to him. “Why don’t you stop telling other people what to do?”

Charlo was fit to spit horseshoe nails. His face scrunched up, and his hands wound themselves into white knuckled fists. “What happens to Valenzuela is my responsibility!”

“Perhaps it’s time we did something about that.” Adam’s fury was burning white hot. He’d had about as much of Charlo Marrinez as he was going to take. He was more than ready to knock the handsome Spaniard’s perfect white teeth out through the back of his head. He took off his hat and reached for the buckle that held his gunbelt in place.

“What are you proposing?” Charlo asked with a sneer. “You want to brawl with me like a common vaquero? But then, that’s just what you are.”

Adam’s breath hissed. He was sharply aware of so many things: the heat and the glare of the sun, now rising towards the top of the sky, the taste of the dust on the back of his tongue, the peppery smell of the acacia, the movement of the air on his face and the stamp of a horse’s hoof. Most of all, he was aware of Valenzuela’s stricken face and of Charlo’s naked contempt. Perhaps, at that moment, Charlo was a man that Adam would have happily hung for.

Miguel set cousin Laurencia down on her feet and then moved smartly to place himself in between the two other men. “Whatever you’re intending to do, this isn’t the time or the place for it.”

Charlo’s eyes didn’t shift from Adam’s face. “Right now, I can’t think of a better one.”

“And I’m ready to oblige him,” Adam added through gritted teeth.

Miguel held out his hands to them, one palm turned towards each man’s chest as if he would hold them back by the force of his will. “Before you proceed to knock the hell out of one another, perhaps we should all go look-see what that is all about, eh?” He indicated direction with a nod of the head.

Everyone’s eyes turned to the sky in the south. Two carrion birds, circling, were joined by another. Whatever had their attention lay over the next low hill. Adam refastened his gunbelt, and they all turned to their horses. Miguel led the way with Adam and Charlo following close behind, still eyeing each other with ill-concealed anger. The ladies rode behind but managed to keep well up with the men. They all crested the hill together.

Whatever had died wasn’t so easy to locate; it was way down in a gully choked up with scrub. The men dismounted, and Adam and Miguel began to climb down. By unspoken agreement they left Charlo to help the ladies off of their horses. The way wasn’t easy. The ground tended to crumble away from beneath their feet, and the bushes had long sharp thorns, which made them hard to grab hold of. They couldn’t see anything down in the ditch, but the stench of death thickened the air. Miguel came to a stop. Adam looked from behind his shoulder. “What do you think it is?”

Miguel squinted against the light that glanced up into his eyes. “I don’t know. A horse or a heifer, perhaps. Must have fallen over the edge and broken a leg or something. In any event, it couldn’t climb out.”

They picked their way down the broken path and made their way carefully to the bottom. Here it was harder to breathe. The stink of rotten flesh made them gag. It was old death that lingered, not new, but they still couldn’t see what it was. Miguel looked puzzled. Adam saw something. He pointed the way. “Over there.” Miguel edged his way forward; he gingerly moved the brush aside with his hands. The bushes had been deliberately uprooted and been used to cover whatever had died.

It wasn’t a horse or a cow that he uncovered; it was the bodies of two dead men. They had been dead for a while, perhaps as long as two or three weeks. Their flesh was partly rotted away and partly dried by the heat. Small animals had gnawed the remains – probably rats and foxes – but the thorny bushes had kept the carrion birds away. Struck in the face by the unexpected horror, Miguel recoiled and crossed himself. Grim faced, Adam pushed past him, prepared to take over. He gritted his teeth and turned one of the corpses over. The face was gone, but Adam knew him anyway. He knew them both: Mallory by his pale yellow hair and Davies by his lank, dark locks and the scarred leather coat he had worn the last time that Adam had seen him: that night in the starlight – the night that Mezo had broken his leg. He named them for Miguel and added, “They’re just a couple of drifters, petty crooks and bullies. I ran into them in town the day I arrived.”

Miguel, having regained his composure, crouched down for a better look. His face was still pale, but he wore the same determined expression. “I’ve seen them around. What do you think killed them? Was it an accident?”

“I don’t think so.” Adam’s jaw was still clenched with revulsion as he handled the bodies. He pointed out what he’d seen. “It’s kinda hard to tell, but I’d say they’ve been beaten and then shot, then dumped here and covered up.”

Miguel studied the evidence and pulled a sour face. “D’you think they got in a fight?”

Adam sat back on his haunches. He dusted off his palms against one another as if that might somehow cleanse them of the taint of death. “When I last saw them, they didn’t have guns, and they’ve been shot in the back of the head.”

“Murder then.” Miguel stood up abruptly. “Who would have done it? And then dumped the bodies all the way out here?”

They were the same questions that were running through Adam’s mind. “Mezo said they were last seen by a farmer, heading south.”

“What is it? What have you found?” The voice that interrupted that chain of thought was Valenzuela’s, and it came from behind them. She had dodged away from Charlo and picked her way along the difficult path into the gully. Even now, Charlo was coming after her. He didn’t look pleased. Adam stood up and took her arm firmly.

“You shouldn’t be here.” He tried to distract her with his brusque manner, to turn her away, but she had already seen what lay beyond him. Her jaw dropped in horror. She caught at her breath, and he thought she was going to scream. Instead, she buried her face in his shoulder.

Adam put his arm ‘round her. He felt her tremble. She wasn’t crying but she was shocked to the core by what she had seen. It was a sight that no lady should ever have to look at. Adam lifted his head and met Charlo’s eyes. “Help me get her back to the horses. Then we’ll need a wagon and some men to get these two out of there.” For once in his life, Charlo wasn’t prepared to argue.

To pay him his due, Charlo wanted to help with the bodies. Miguel, who took charge of the operation, was fearful of another clash between him and Adam. He had Charlo escort the ladies back to the house and send back the help that they needed. Extracting Davies and Mallory from the dry gully was a very nasty business indeed. The bodies were in an even worse state of decomposition than it had first appeared. They fell apart as they were moved. The only solution was to wrap the pieces in blankets and haul the bundles out with ropes. It wasn’t pleasant, and it wasn’t pretty, but it had to be done.

The stench of death was appalling. Even with their faces covered up with bandannas the air was too thick to breathe. All the men fought a constant battle with their stomachs, and blind eyes were turned when companions were actually sick. The hot, hard work took all afternoon. By the time Adam and Miguel rode back to the house, following the wagon with its gruesome burden, they were both weary and covered with dirt.

That night, dinner was a sombre affair. Nobody felt like eating, and the conversation was stilted as the men tried to maintain some appearance of normality for the sake of the ladies. It wasn’t easy. Valenzuela was pale and silent. She merely picked at her food. Donna Marguerite feared she might be unwell. Later, while the ladies talked together in lowered voices, Don Estaban gathered the men together around the brandy decanter while he poured their drinks. His aristocratic features were drawn and lined with concern as he studied the younger men’s faces.

“Gentlemen, I think that we are in a great deal of trouble. Our sheriff is completely incapacitated due to his accident, and it would seem that, this year, the bandits are raiding closer than ever before. It seems highly likely that the two young men whose bodies you discovered today have been further victims of their depravations, and it may well be that we are about to be overrun by them.”

Adam accepted the glass he was offered. It was cold in his hand. “Isn’t there another sheriff nearby that you could call on?”

Don Estaban shook his head. “There isn’t another accredited officer of the law for nearly a hundred miles. Whatever we decide to do about this, we’re going to be on our own.” He turned his grave eyes to Adam. “You are sure that these men were murdered?”

“I’m certain of it.” A closer examination of the bodies had confirmed that both men had been shot in the head. Miguel nodded agreement.

“Perhaps the bandidos will not come here,” Charlo suggested. “If they were nearby two or three weeks ago, at the time these two men died, surely, they have already moved on?”

Don Estaban looked doubtful. “That may not be the case. In recent years the patterns of the raids have altered. They have been known to double back on themselves to catch people unaware. And these two young men were tortured and murdered on the borders of my land. I feel I must do something about it if I can.” He turned to Miguel. “We are going to have to get in touch with our neighbours; see if we can come to some arrangement to offer mutual protection for our people and our property.”

Slowly, Miguel nodded. His keen mind was already considering permutations and possibilities. “I’ll ride out tomorrow and talk to some people. We should be able to arrange some kind of early warning system if trouble starts heading this way…”

The talk went on. Adam listened as the others made plans, but he was only paying them half his attention. The other part of his mind was on Valenzuela. How was she feeling? Was she still upset about what she had seen and experienced that day? He found that he needed to know. He looked around for her, but she was nowhere, now, to be seen. He caught Donna Marguerite’s eye and raised an inquiring eyebrow.

The tall, glass panelled doors that led out into the night-filled garden stood open to admit the cooling air. Donna Marguerite smiled and gave him a knowing nod. She inclined her head, indicating that Valenzuela had gone that way. Adam put down his brandy, almost untouched, and went after her. Engrossed in their conversation, the other men hardly noticed he’d gone.

Outside, the far distant stars and a small slice of moon lighted the night. Adam stood with his back to the window; the lamplight spilled over his shoulders and cast his long shadow before him. The adobe walls had retained the heat of the day and released it slowly. They kept the small garden warm throughout the night. The air was perfumed by the sweet scent of gardenias and roses. As Adam’s eyes adjusted to the darkness he made out substance and form. Colour was bleached by the starlight and sublimated into silver and all shades of grey.

At first he thought Valenzuela had gone, lost like a shadow, perhaps escaping upstairs to take refuge in her room. Then, almost at once, he realised that he was mistaken. She was standing beneath the arch of the outer gateway staring towards the low hills that guarded the valley. Her back was towards him, and he had the feeling that she was lost in thought and didn’t know he was there. He stepped out of the house and walked towards her, his footsteps all but silent on the flagstones. The murmur of voices faded behind him. All he could hear was the soft song of his blood.

Despite her understandable distress, the woman had dressed with her usual care. Her gown was of pale blue satin, turned into liquid silver by the faint moonlight. Raven hair was piled up high and then artfully coiled to tumble down over one shoulder. Adam admired the way little curlets had escaped pearl-headed pins to lay as tiny black tendrils against the nap of her neck.

She heard him, or somehow sensed he was there and turned towards him. To his surprise, her lovely face was serene, although the smile that she gave him was sad. “Adam, how kind of you to come.”

Abruptly, he felt awkward, as if his hands and feet were too big. He wished now he’d finished that brandy. “I came to find out how you were feeling.”

“I’m not upset. Not any more.” The ghost of the old amusement glimmered.

“I wouldn’t want you to go home thinking that we were all barbarians.”

Her fingertips brushed the sleeve of his jacket. That light touch made him shiver. “Adam, knowing you, I could never think that.” She turned to gaze away into the darkness, over the shrouded valley towards the slumbering hills. “It’s a beautiful country, and this is a beautiful night.”

She had turned away from him. He could see the pale curve of her neck. Below the lace that trimmed the elbow length sleeves of her dress, her arms were uncovered. He raised his hands to brush the pads of his fingers over her silken skin. The touch of cool flesh sent a jolt through him. It wasn’t desire, although that was a part of it. He drew a long, slow breath. “Not as beautiful as the woman I see before me.” It was true. Her hair was as dark as the midnight. The pearly radiance of that sliver of moon made her golden skin iridescent. He took her arms in her hands and turned her towards him. He was surprised at the difference in tone: his sun-browned skin against her olive-gold.

He drew her toward him. She didn’t resist. He didn’t know what he was feeling; he was warm inside and nervous. What he wanted to do was protect her, to keep her always from harm. His voice was husky as he whispered into her hair, “I don’t want you to ever go home.”

She drew back and looked at him. He eyes were surprised, faintly glowing. Her lips were slightly apart. “Adam, what are you saying?”

He knew only that he wanted the moment to last forever. “I want you to stay with me, as my wife.”

The night held its breath for the space between question and answer. Valenzuela moved into his arms. “Oh yes, Adam,” she said softly. “Yes.”

 

The Spanish Bride

by

Jenny Guttridge

 

Five

 

Don Estaban was not at all perturbed by the couple’s announcement; prepared, perhaps, by his wife, he was hardly surprised. He shook Adam’s hand warmly and kissed Valenzuela on both cheeks.

“We must have a grand party to announce your engagement,” he declared. “All our neighbours will be invited, and people will come from miles around to join in the celebration.”

Donna Marguerite smiled and nodded with satisfaction at the match, and Cousin Laurencia, when she was told, shed a few tears of joy. Only Charlo, of all the household, was less than enamoured at the prospect of Adam joining the family.

Adam studied his reflection in the mirror. Was his face really that of a man in love? That of a man willing and ready to commit himself to one woman for the rest of his life? He wasn’t certain. He had expected to see it written large on his face, plainly displayed for all to see – a light shining out of him. He didn’t look any different, and, what was more, the tawny eyes that gazed right back at him were dark and doubtful.

To be sure, he hardly looked like himself at all. Bathed and shaved with his black hair oiled and neatly brushed, he wore a new, midnight-blue suit cut in the Spanish style, snow-white linen and a cravat of brighter blue silk at his throat. Tonight was the night of the party, and everything was prepared. The kitchens had turned out enough fine food to feed a battalion, and the hacienda was decorated with streamers and coloured lanterns and filled with laughter and music – people had been arriving for the past several days, and the celebration was already well begun. Every window was graced by a candle, or spilled pale lamplight into the night so that the house, on its hilltop, shone like a beacon.

Don Estaban had written to Valenzuela’s father in far-away Spain: a long and involved missive that had introduced Adam fairly and explained the situation without recourse to excuse. Adam had been permitted to read the letter and had found nothing there to object to. It lay now, signed and sealed, on the rosewood desk in Don Estaban’s study, awaiting only dispatch.

Adam had tried to write home himself, to explain what had happened to his father, but every time he came to the word ‘marriage’ it just didn’t look right on the paper. Perhaps, he thought, it would be best to surprise him. Just how Ben would react when he arrived back on the Ponderosa with his own Spanish bride remained to be seen.

Adam pulled the short jacket down over his midriff, not at all comfortable in the tight fitting clothes. He turned sideways on to the looking glass, a frown on his face. The coat accentuated the breadth of his shoulders and nipped him in at the waist. He wasn’t at all sure of the embroidery that trimmed the collar and cuffs – they somehow didn’t seem right for a man.

“You look very handsome and dashing,” Miguel said from the doorway. Dressed in black velvet with silver braid trim, he had assumed his customary reclining position against the doorframe. “Valenzuela will be the envy of every woman on the rancho tonight, and you are a very lucky man.”

Adam returned the smile ruefully. “Do you think I don’t know it?”

Miguel winked at him. “Come my friend. They are all waiting for you downstairs.”

“Don Estaban must have invited half of Mexico to this party.”

“My grandfather is an important man in these parts, and his parties are legendary. He is also as wily as a sly old fox. Tonight we will celebrate your forthcoming wedding. Tomorrow, while all the men are still gathered together, he will discuss with them the defences we shall need to make against the bandidos.”

Adam pulled at the jacket again and glanced one final time in the mirror. It seemed there was nothing he could do to the thing to make it look right. “Your grandfather is a very clever man, but I thought the threat of the bandits had receded.”

Miguel gave a typical shrug. The smile was still on his face, but his eyes were suddenly darker. “We’ve heard nothing more of them, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still around. We have to take precautions and organise some sort of defence. Now is the ideal opportunity – but all that can wait ‘til tomorrow. Tonight is for you and for your beautiful lady.” He stepped aside to let Adam go before him out of the door.

The house was crowded, and more people were still arriving. A steady succession of varnished carriages with men on horseback riding in close attendance had been coming all day. In all, more than thirty proud and influential families had gathered for the celebration. The great room was alive with the buzz of conversation, laughter and the music of a small, Mexican band. Glassware sparkled; lace fans fluttered and bright dresses swirled beneath the chandeliers.

The menfolk were dressed just as grandly as the ladies. Don Estaban, resplendent in silver and red, had gathered most of the men together around a long table and was ensuring, expansively, that everyone was served with a drink. Adam and Miguel descended the staircase side by side. Adam was greeted by cheers and a small round of applause. Some of the people, house guests for the past several days, Adam had already met; Miguel introduced him to the new arrivals, and, before very long, his mind was awash with new names and faces. He knew for certain that he would never remember them all.

With a glass of wine in his hand he looked around, searching for Valenzuela. Miguel shook his head in reproach. “You do not yet understand the way of the Spanish woman. She will not appear until the very last moment before the announcement is made. Then she will make the magnificent entrance from the top of the stair. Her beauty will steal away the breath of the men and make all the women green with envy. Don Estaban will make the official announcement of your engagement, and then you will be betrothed.”

Adam’s mouth went dry. He sipped at his wine. He was well aware that his eyes still held that hunted, haunted expression that he had seen in the mirror. He wondered that nobody else could see it. Like so many a good man before him, he found himself swept away on a tide of events that he could no longer control. He was filled with questions that he couldn’t answer and emotions that he didn’t quite understand. Miguel turned away to talk to some friends. Adam was glad of the moment to regain his composure.

“Cartwright, I want to talk to you.”

The voice was Charlo’s, and it came from behind him. Charlo, as always, was garbed in unadorned black. He had made no concession at all to the gaiety of the occasion. His face wore its habitual scowl. Adam looked him over with dubious speculation. He’d been expecting this. Ever since the first announcement of his intention to wed Valenzuela, Charlo had redoubled his attempts to split them apart, slighting Adam and his ancestry at every opportunity and heaping insult upon insult. “I’m listening,” Adam said simply.

Charlo inclined his head. “Outside. In the garden.”

The tall glass doors stood open to admit cooler air. Adam was glad to oblige. He put down his glass on a table and followed Charlo out into the night.

The garden was deserted. Everyone else was inside enjoying the party and meeting their friends and neighbours and awaiting Valenzuela’s appearance with keen anticipation. The two men had the outside space to themselves. They stood face to face. Adam saw the dislike in Charlo’s eyes. He had no doubt at all that his own face mirrored the expression precisely. He and Charlo would never be friends, but he sensed within himself the need to come to some understanding. He guessed that the other man felt the same way. “What do you have to say?”

Charlo’s face worked. He had obviously thought about this long and hard. “I am assuming that you are a reasonable man. I am not rich, but my father is very wealthy. He will pay you well to step out of Valenzuela’s life.”

Adam grabbed a hard hold on his temper. “I can’t be bought off, Marrinez.”

“I try only to protect my sister!” Charlo’s voice trembled with rage. “Ride away now, tonight! Swear that you will never see her again.”

The muscles in Adam’s jaw clenched. His rage was so intense that, had he his pistol with him right there and then, he might have shot the man dead. Before he could make a measured response, Miguel stepped out of the shadows. “Enough!” For once his enduringly cheerful face was enraged. His gaze switched back and forth between them, favouring neither above the other, treating them both with equal contempt. “I can see that nothing is going to stop you tearing each other apart, but you won’t do it here and disgrace my grandfather in front of his guests.”

Adam and Charlo continued to glare at each other. Neither one was prepared to back down. “I think we have to settle this before the engagement is announced,” Adam said tightly. “I don’t want Valenzuela drawn into the argument any further.”

Charlo pointed a shaking finger; “I don’t want to hear her name on your lips!”

“All right!” Miguel held out his hands as if he would, physically, keep the two men apart. “You can settle it if you have to – but away from the house. And no knives and no guns,” he added ominously. “You’ll do it with your bare fists – and I’m coming along to see that you don’t kill one another.”

It seemed a reasonable stipulation to make. Adam nodded once in agreement and saw Charlo do the same. White faced and silent, the three of them went to the stable to saddle their horses.

With her primping and preening before the looking glass finally complete, Valenzuela rose to her feet. She half turned and lifted a finely drawn and perfectly arched eyebrow at Cousin Laurencia. “Tell me honestly, how do I look?”

Laurencia caught her breath and then let it out in a long drawn out sigh of pure admiration. She clasped her hands in front of her in sheer delight. The young woman before her was a vision of beauty. Richly gowned in ivory satin and lace, her throat adorned with pearls, she was every inch the grand Spanish lady. Her golden skin glowed with health and happiness; her hair, piled on top of her head, was held in place by a high, Spanish comb. Tiny pink rosebuds, culled fresh from the garden, peeped out from among the dark curls. Her form was truly lovely, with a huge sash at her slender waist and her breasts pushed high and proud against her bodice. The long train of her dress trailed on the floor behind her.

But it was in her face that her real beauty lay. Her strong, Spanish features were flawless, symmetrical and perfectly proportioned. Beneath the fine olive skin her high cheekbones were tinged with an underlying pinkness like the flush of the roses she wore. Her lips were lightly coloured, and joy shone out of her eyes. The image of unrivalled loveliness she presented was an exact replication of that of the youthful Donna Marguerite, whose exquisite portrait hung in the great room downstairs.

“You are utterly lovely, my dear,” Laurencia told her wistfully. “Adam Cartwright is a very fortunate young man.”

Valenzuela laughed and blushed, just a little. To cover her confusion she snatched up her ivory fan and used it to cool her flushed cheek. “I believe that, perhaps, I am the fortunate one. I am told that, as Señora Cartwright I will command a great deal of respect and be the envy of many American women.”

Laurencia put out her arms and hugged her, but carefully, so not to rumple the dress. “My dear, you have every right to happiness. No one could do anything but wish you well.”

The women walked arm in arm to the head of the staircase. Valenzuela stepped forward and stopped with her hand on the ebony rail. She looked down at the confusion of colour and motion in the great room below her. Gradually, all movement ceased and faces turned towards her. The noise level dropped to near silence. The men’s faces glowed with admiration. The expressions that the women wore were more complicated by far. Valenzuela waited a long, quiet moment, ensuring that everyone had looked his or her fill before she took the first step.

She descended slowly, her head held high. Her fingertips brushed the rail only lightly. In her right hand she gathered her satin skirts, lifting them out of her way. The men clapped their hands and called out “Bravo!” The ladies nodded and smiled their approval. Don Estaban stepped forward to meet her at the foot of the stair. He offered his arm.

“My dear, you look utterly charming!” He smiled and patted her fingers. “Come and greet your Aunt Marguerite and let her see how lovely you are.”

Valenzuela nodded and smiled to Don Estaban’s friends and allowed her uncle to escort her to where Donna Marguerite sat in her wheelchair. They embraced with affection. Marguerite smiled, seeing the reflection of her own perfect youth faithfully reproduced in her niece. Valenzuela kissed her Aunt on the cheek and then looked about her. “Where’s Adam?”

Don Estaban turned, scanning the assemblage. People were starting to gather about them chatting and laughing, their faces aglow, all in a state of excitement as they waited to hear him make the expected announcement. Then, of course, they would come forward throughout the evening in small family groups and present the young couple with their formal congratulations.

Adam was nowhere in sight, which puzzled Don Estaban. “I saw him a few minutes ago. He was with Miguel.” He gestured quickly to a passing servant and asked some questions. The man shook his head. Don Estaban dispatched him with whispered instructions to find the young men and tell that they were awaited. Then he turned a reassuring face to Valenzuela, “I expect he’s just stepped out for a moment. He won’t be long. Now, let me introduce you to one or two friends…”

Miguel insisted on riding all the way to the lake. He wouldn’t hear of stopping sooner. Perhaps he thought that an hour in the saddle and the fresh air that lifted up from the water might cool the other man’s tempers. In that he was disappointed. They didn’t talk much on the trail, riding in silence and in single file, exchanging only a grunt or a curt word when they had to. The moon had now grown to half full and rode high in the sky; its silver light and that of the stars were just enough to brighten the landscape. The trees stood motionless, untouched by the wind: looming monoliths lightly brushed by the moonlight. The darkling water, silver sheened, lay under the sky with scarcely a ripple to show that it still lived and breathed.

Miguel rode right to the water’s edge and then followed the bank for a while. Turning inland again, for just a few yards, he came to a spot he knew well: a place not far from the clump of waterside trees that Adam and Valenzuela favoured. Although the land looked no different, to the untutored eye, than any one of a dozen other patches of ground they had passed on the way, Miguel had determined from the outset that this was where they were headed. The ground was level and even, with a small depression more or less in the centre: a natural amphitheatre on a very small scale. He stepped down from his saddle, and Adam and Charlo, eyeing each other warily, did the same.

Miguel slapped the horses away, sending them off to graze down by the water and out of the way. He looked from one man to the other, his face flat with annoyance.

“If you still want to beat each other bloody, then this is the place to do it. But this will be the end of it. I will not have my cousin’s life blighted by your constant feuding. The first man that can’t get back to his feet will be the loser and must agree to the other man’s terms.”

Charlo pointed an accusing finger. “You do not love my sister, Cartwright. I, Charlo have seen this! And she does not truly love you.”

Adam wasn’t hearing his words. By now, he was barely thinking. Pumped full of red-hot adrenaline all he heard was the challenge in Charlo’s voice; all he felt was his own growing rage. He took off his coat and the fancy cravat and tore his shirt open. Tiny white buttons spun into the night.

 

*******

 

There was a sudden commotion at either end of the room. Don Estaban broke off his conversation and turned his head sharply as men holding guns poured in through the front and the back of the house. More came in from the garden. Men shouted and stumbled as the unarmed guests were herded together. Crystal glassware shattered. Somewhere close by a woman squealed, and a table was overturned. Then all turned into confusion – people cried out and milled around in alarm. The gunmen pushed and shoved and yelled orders, suppressing the burgeoning panic with practised ease and turning it to their advantage. With a swift, stern word, Don Estaban commanded a frightened Valenzuela to stay close to her Aunt and went to confront the intruders.

He pushed his way through to the front of the crowd, offering a calming word of assurance here and there where he could. The invaders, a mismatched mixture of men of several colours and creeds, were already carrying out their objectionable business, snatching the jewels from the ladies throats and the golden watch chains from the men’s waistcoat pockets. Anyone who resisted was pushed and jostled and threatened at gunpoint. Don Estaban’s hackles rose. He looked around for the man in charge, and it didn’t take long to find him. The bandit leader was holding court at the front of the house. A big man, powerfully built and generously proportioned, he was perched precariously by one meaty buttock on a delicate, spindly-legged table. In an elaborate, but well worn and dirty suit and a very large hat, he was smug and smiling and almighty pleased with himself as he watched the pillage taking place all around him.

Don Estaban drew himself up and stepped forward boldly; his anger was barely under control. “Who, by the devil, are you, Señor? How dare you come bursting into my home!”

The bandit’s smile became even broader, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “You have to be Don Estaban Padro, the master of this hacienda and all this magnificent rancho. I am Embule Torak; your humble servant, Sir.” Without rising from the table he made a low, mocking bow from the waist.

Don Estaban’s nostrils flared. He tried to ignore the thievery that was going on all about him, the obvious distress of his guests and the damage that was being done to his home. He found himself in a very difficult and dangerous situation; his main concern was to avoid anyone being killed. “I demand that you leave these people alone and get yourselves out of my house!”

A glimmer of annoyance crossed Torak’s wide features. For just an instant the wide smile faltered, then re-established itself. “I don’t find that very hospitable, Don Estaban. After all, you are having a party. I fear we did not receive our invitations – but that was an oversight, eh?”

Don Estaban took the time to look around him – at the pale and frightened faces of the people he had invited to a celebration and who now were in fear of their lives. The gunmen were gloating. There were fewer in evidence now; some were off somewhere ransacking the house. He decided that it was best, perhaps, to lower his demands. “You seem to know a great deal about my business,” he said with an air of defeated defiance. “Why don’t you take what you’ve stolen and go?”

Torak’s joviality faded. “I know everything about your business, Estaban Padro. Two young men told me a great deal about you – before they met with unfortunate and very sad accidents. You are a very rich man, eh? With many fine and valuable possessions.”

Don Estaban knew his reactions were being carefully watched. He tried very hard to control them. He had been right when he’d said that Mallory and Davies had run into the bandits. They had been tortured until they revealed what they knew about the local area and its population – he doubted it had taken long – and then murdered to ensure their continued silence. “So what do you intend to do?”

At that exact moment, before Torak could answer, another man arrived at his side: a Mexican smaller by half than the bandit leader, unshaven and wearing grubby, sweat stained clothes. He was smoking a small, black cigar; “There’s a safe in the library,” he announced without preamble. “It’s locked.”

Torak gave him a sideways glance – one of half-amused exasperation. “Idiota! Of course it is locked. Don Estaban is a careful man. I would wager my finest horse that he has the key in his pocket.” He turned his dark eyes on the ageing rancher. “I would suggest, Sebron, that you ask him for it.”

Equanto Sebron stepped around him and confronted Don Estaban directly. He thrust his face forward – so close that the Don smelled sweat and rancid food and the taint of a rotting tooth as well as the stench of the cheap cigar. Sebron snarled at him around the cheroot, “Hand it over, old man.”

With the muzzle of Sebron’s pistol pressed hard against his belly, Don Estaban was disinclined to argue. He reached inside his jacket and handed over the key. Sebron snatched it and favoured the Don with a sneer of unrivalled contempt before he turned back towards the library.

“Sebron,” Torak called after him. “Remember, take only what we can easily carry. We need to travel quickly, and we need to travel light.”

Sebron tossed the brass key in the air, watched it flash in the light as it turned end for end, and caught it again. “We can always carry gold,” he said lightly and laughed.

Torak laughed along with him and slapped his thigh. “Don’t worry, Don Estaban! You can afford it.”

Don Estaban ground his teeth. “The money doesn’t concern me. Just leave these people alone.”

“But of course!” Torak got off the table. He was an even bigger man than Don Estaban had supposed, and only a small proportion of him was blubber. He made a wide, expansive gesture to include the whole room. “We have no wish to harm anyone. We simply stopped by to take advantage of your hospitality as we were passing through and, perhaps, to relieve you of a few trinkets, eh? We knew you would be delighted to provide us with your fine horses and supplies for our journey.”

It was framed almost as a question but Don Estaban wasn’t fooled. He knew that Torak and his unsavoury crew would take anything and everything that they could carry away with them. There was nothing he could do to prevent it.

Another ripple of disturbance went through the crowd. A lank-haired half-breed in white-man’s clothing with a feather in the band of his fedora hat emerged from the now strangely silent press of people. He dragged Valenzuela along with him, holding her wrist in one vice-like hand. Her face was contorted with rage and hatred. She fought with him every inch of the way. She struggled and spat and tried to kick out at him. The sleeve of her gown had already been torn and her hair comb twisted awry. “I found the girl,” the half-breed grunted. “This has to be the one.” He gave Valenzuela’s slim wrist a savage twist that made her stumble and almost fall.

“Carefully, carefully,” Torak said mildly. “We do not want to damage the lady. She will be worth a very great deal to us.”

Alarmed and angry, Don Estaban leapt to his Valenzuela’s defence – or tried to. “Leave my niece alone!”

Torak planted a palm on his chest and pushed. Don Estaban’s lame hip gave way, and he went down backwards, landing hard on his rump on the floor. As one man, the crowd stepped back from him. No one was willing to help.

Sorronoso, the half-breed, pulled Valenzuela ‘round in front of him and held her firmly by both upper arms. His iron hard fingers dug into her flesh, and the bruises were already spreading. Although she still struggled valiantly the harshness of his grip effectively put an end to her resistance. Torak stepped towards her and took her hand. “Ah, Señorita Marrinez. I have been waiting to make you acquaintance. I was told that you were beautiful, but you are more lovely than words can describe.” He lifted her fingers up to his lips.

Valenzuela spat in his face.

Everyone, including Don Estaban, held their breath and stared, wondering just what the bandit leader would do. Even Torak was taken by surprise. Still holding her hand, he gazed at her in something like wonder. Apparently unnoticed, the fat gob of spittle ran down his cheek to his chin. For a space of time it seemed he might strike her. Indeed, his fist clenched. Valenzuela lifted her head with all the defiant pride of her Spanish ancestors. She returned his gaze angrily; her eyes flashed with dark fire.

Sorronoso, still standing behind her, still holding onto her, laughed. The sound broke the tension, and Torak started to chuckle as well – but without any real amusement. With a snarl and a sudden lunge forward he grabbed the woman behind the head, turned her face upwards and kissed her mouth hard. His face crushed her lips back into her teeth, and his eyes glared into hers. Restrained by the guns and the gunmen, people could only watch in white-faced horror. Some of the women turned their faces away. Valenzuela fought him as best as she could, but he was bigger and stronger, and, in the end, she had to submit. By the time Torak drew away from her she was breathless and bruised.

Torak grinned and filled his great chest with air. “A woman with spirit!” he declared to all those who listened. “I see that we are going to have a most interesting time.” He gestured to Sorronoso. “Put her on a horse, and tie her on well. We must be on our way.”

“No!” Don Estaban struggled to rise from the floor. His bad hip hindered him. “You cannot take her!”

Torak pushed him down with the sole of his boot. “There is nothing I cannot do, Señor.”

“I will give you gold – horses – anything you ask of me! Just leave her alone!” Don Estaban was desperate as he saw his niece pulled away.

Leering over him, Torak shook his great head. “There is nothing you can offer me that would be nearly enough. I am told the lady has a very rich father in Spain. Write him a letter. Tell him that his so-beautiful daughter has been abducted. Tell him it will cost him half a million American dollars to get her back again.”

It was a truly prodigious amount. The thought of it left Don Estaban speechless and stunned. Laughing at his expression, Torak called to his men, “Come, compadres; it is time to be on our way!”

In ones and twos and little groups, and not making very much noise about it, the bandits disappeared from the room, melting back into the night the way they had come and taking their booty with them. Torak was left with one other – one of his lieutenants, Equantor Sebron, loitered at the back of the room. Torak leaned down and grabbed Don Estaban by the front of his ruffled shirt. He hauled him onto his feet, not ungently, and allowed him to regain his balance before he let go. He waved the barrel of his pearl handled pistol under the rancher’s nose. In his huge fist the weapon looked like a tiny toy, but that made it none the less deadly. From the gleam in the big bandit’s eyes, Don Estaban didn’t doubt for a moment that he was prepared to use it.

“Remember what I said,” Torak told him. “The woman will be kept safely until the spring. By then I will expect you to have some news for me concerning a large amount of money, eh?” He breathed spice and wine into Don Estaban’s face. “In the meantime, we will leave you with something to keep you occupied while we ride away. I wouldn’t want your men to come after us.” He gave some sort of signal.

At the back of the room, Sebron overturned a lamp. The room filled up with the smell of spilled coal oil and then with smoke! Women screamed and started to panic as pale flames spread, and the big house started to burn.

Adam and Charlo locked eyes with each other, each man summing up the other’s strengths and weaknesses. Both were big, powerful men, evenly matched in height, weight and build. Adam thought he might just have the edge in fitness; long hours spent in the saddle and work on the range had equipped him with iron hard muscles and a deep well of stamina, He hoped that Charlo’s more relaxed and indolent life style had left him a little soft, but he wasn’t counting on it. He expected the Spaniard to be strong and quick on his feet, and he didn’t for one moment doubt his intelligence. His hope was to wear the man down with the relentless application of violence and wait for him to tire, and then to try to out-think him. One thing was certain: both were determined and had a tremendous capacity to soak up punishment. No matter who emerged the victor, neither of them would come out of this unscathed. Adam wound his hands into balls of hard, white bone.

Miguel stood between them, still keeping them apart. His handsome, scarred face was resolute, but his eyes were anxious. Despite the fact that the violence was unavoidable, he didn’t want to see anybody hurt. “I don’t care if you beat each other to pulp,” he reminded them; his voice cracked with tension. “Your disagreements end here. The man left standing imposes whatever sanctions he wishes on the other – even to ordering him out of the country. Do you both understand?”

“I understand perfectly,” Charlo said with ridged disdain. “I agree to your terms.” Adam merely nodded.

“Very well.” Miguel stepped back. “Do what you must.”

It was a very hard thing to do, even with that deep pit of anger boiling away inside, to simply hit another man hard in the face. Adam moved to the right: one or two steps, still eyeing his opponent warily. Charlo turned with him. Each man watched the other, waiting for an opening, a gap in the other’s defence, a chance to make the first move. For them, Miguel and the moonlight and the rest of the world had ceased to exist.

Again Miguel stepped between them. He held up his hands. “One moment more, mi amigos.” He lifted his face. Adam and Charlo both turned to look. Beyond the hill, an orange glow lit the sky. Miguel raised his arm and pointed. “Fire! The rancho is burning!” The fight was abandoned, and all three men ran for their horses.

That ride through the night was like a bad dream, the sort that haunted childhood and lingered on through the adult years. Riding close to the tail of Miguel’s horse and somewhere in front of Charlo, Adam dug in his heels and pushed his horse as hard as he could. In the dark – the dark that grew deeper as the moon set in the west – the well-know trail became unfamiliar with forks and bends that he didn’t remember. He rode careless of the horse’s safety and of his own. He concentrated only on sitting tight in the saddle and let the animal run. He trusted the gelding to see the path a whole lot better than he could. His breath burned in his chest, and his mouth was bone-dry; the pound of the hooves matched precisely the thundering beat of his heart. It was hard working keeping up with Miguel. The Mexican rode like a madman, leaning low on his horse’s neck; he stayed on only by instinct and headed for home just as fast as he could.

The trail climbed over the ridge and dipped down into the valley. Adam swore it was longer and rougher than it had been before. It became a rutted cart track and then the road that led to the ranch. Miguel didn’t slow his horse down – if anything, he kicked harder. By now they could see many fires; half the village was burning. One of the horse barn roofs was well alight; the flames leapt high and drowned out the starlight. Shadowy figures ran about frantically as they tried to rescue the horses. Only when he reached the first of the buildings did Miguel slow the pace, and then not by much. He had no intention of stopping.

Adam saw the scene in a rapid succession of images – like pages flipped in a book. The houses, build of adobe, were mostly untouched, but the sheds and the workshops had been constructed mainly out of timber, and many of them were on fire. Men ran and shouted in the nameless language of anger and fear. Children, weeping, clung to the skirts of their mothers. Two dead dogs and a cow lay in the lane. In the deepest unsteady shadow cast by the firelight, a man sprawled on his face in the dirt. Miguel kept on riding right through the town and turned up the hill.

By the time they arrived at the hacienda, the fire in the main house was out, ‘though the air was still thick with smoke and the rank smell of burning. The walls were still standing, and the building retained its roof. In fact, half the house and the entire upper storey seemed barely damaged except for the soot-stains that marred the smart clay-facings. Adam saw in a glance that the main room was gutted and open to the air. Its palatial grandeur had been completely destroyed by the flames and the smoke and the water that had been used to put the conflagration out. Most of the other rooms were surely damaged to a lesser degree. It would be a while before they were habitable again.

The yard was filled with tired, dirty men in waistcoats and shirtsleeves. Once the bandits had made good their escape, Don Estaban’s guests had rallied themselves and helped fight the flames. Beyond the men, at the fringe of the crowd, the women were tending the injured, bathing and binding small cuts and burns. Don Estaban stood in front of the house directing operations. His shirt was torn, and his angular face was blackened with smuts. He looked close to exhaustion, and his expression hardly lightened at all when he saw the three young men come towards him. He reached out to touch each of them as if to assure himself that they were, in fact, real. “I was afraid that you had run into them. I thought they might have killed you too.”

Charlo looked up at the damaged house. “The bandidos did this?”

“Indeed.” Don Estaban nodded. “There were thirty of them, maybe more,” he said wearily. “They all had guns, and none of us were armed. There was nothing that we could do to stop them.”

Miguel was stricken. “I should have been here! I could have done something!”

“No,” Don Estaban said firmly. He touched the young man’s arm in a gesture intended to comfort. “It is best that you were away: all of you. You young men would have been a threat to them. I am sure that they would have harmed you.”

Adam picked up on something the Don had said earlier; “You said we might have been killed too. Who is it that’s died?”

With a great and sorrowful sigh, Don Estaban gazed at each of them and then turned. His grey face was lined with anguish. Adam, Charlo and Miguel all looked in the same direction. Donna Marguerite’s wheelchair stood empty and askew at the foot of the steps. “She was alive when we carried her out,” Don Estaban told them. “But she had breathed too much smoke. She died soon afterwards.”

Miguel’s face contorted. “No! Not Grandmother!”

Don Estaban held on to him, his eyes two deep wells of grief. “There was nothing that we could do to save her. And there’s worse…” He turned his head to look at Adam and Charlo. “The bandits have taken Valenzuela. They are holding her for ransom: more money that you can ever imagine.”

Adam’s world started spinning. Thunder roared in his ears. His gut churned with a half-dozen different emotions that he didn’t have the time to sort through, and his muscles burned for action, but in that same moment, his mind became as clear and cold as glacial ice.

From the jumbled descriptions of the raiders that the people around him were blurting out, he knew them to be the same lethally dangerous band that he had encountered in the desert. Why hadn’t the three of them run into the vandals on their way back to the house? Where was their winter hideout; would they hold Valenzuela there? Possible routes and distances began to click through his head, while a list of needed supplies, weapons, ammunition, horses and men began to drop into place like beads on an abacus.

He was making for his room intent on gathering his guns and changing into trail gear when Miguel caught his arm. Their eyes met, and he saw there the image of his own thoughts.

“In the morning,” Miguel said. “At first light. We can’t track them in the dark, and it will take some time to gather what we must have.”

Grinding his teeth edge against edge, Adam shook his head. He was weighed down with responsibility. His handsome face twisted into a mask of grim determination. “I’m not waiting for morning. Every minute I wait they’re getting further away. I’m setting out after her now.”

Miguel shook him, but gently. “They already have a very long start. It will do you no good to go chasing around in the darkness; wait until the sun comes up and spreads new light on the world.”

It made sense, even while every instinct cried out for immediate action. “Yes, at dawn. We should rest, drink all we can,” Adam said, his voice as flat and cold as his eyes.

They were interrupted by Don Estaban’s call, “Miguel, your assistance! It’s Charlo.”

The man was out of control, calling wildly for a gun and a horse and striking out at those who tried to restrain him. Adam and Miguel both went to help.

As Adam had surmised, Charlo was a powerful man, and he fought like a tiger. It took the strength of four men to subdue him, and they ended up by holding him down on the ground. At first it seemed that he had gone completely out of his mind with rage and grief. His face was contorted, and he took in his breath in great, heaving sobs. Only gradually, as he tired, and his struggles weakened, did he come back somewhat to his senses. His face was streaked with tears although he hadn’t really been crying. They waited until all the fight went out of him before they deemed it safe to let him go.

He finally regained his composure. He sat on the ground with his head hanging and his wrists rested on his widely spread knees. He was dishevelled and dirty; his clothing was tattered, and his hair hung down over his face. Adam, his own emotions torn and battered, was angry at the display of passion, but in a way, he almost felt pity. He stood with his hands on his hips and looked down at the Spaniard while he caught his own breath.

Miguel squatted down in front of Charlo. His eyes were haunted with grief and concern. “Tomorrow when the sun comes up, we will go after them, Adam and I. We will get her back.”

Charlo lifted his head and looked at him, and then up at Adam. “I shall ride with you. Valenzuela is my sister. I will not leave her in the hands of these men. It is my responsibility to rescue her.”

Miguel sighed as if he saw problems ahead. “Very well. You shall come with us. Eat. Rest. Sleep if you can. This could turn into a long, hard chase. We’ll leave with the first light of day.”

Adam found himself torn in two different directions. He wasn’t at all sure he wanted Charlo along, but didn’t know how to deny him. Valenzuela was his flesh and blood, and the man had his rights, after all. He met Miguel’s eyes and nodded, and the three were locked together in an uneasy alliance.

 

Six

With a sudden start of returning awareness Valenzuela lifted her head – then lowered it again, slow and careful, with a long exhalation of breath. Behind her closed eyelids, secure in the darkness if only for a brief time, she could pretend that the fear filled events of the night before simply hadn’t happened. In the short moment that spanned sleeping and waking, she imagined that she was a girl again, at home in the villa that clung to a Spanish hillside, in her bedroom that overlooked the shining blue bay. She held on to that thought desperately, willing it to be so, but her waking dream was only illusion; it quickly faded and left her alone with cruel reality.

The outside world intruded, invading her awareness one fragile sense at a time. She discovered, first of all, that she was cold. She had only the torn remains of the satin dress to cover her, and the chill of the pre-dawn hours was intense; it numbed her through to the bone. She’d slept where she’d settled with her back to a rough-edged boulder: the deep dreamless sleep of exhaustion. Now, there were small sharp stones under her buttocks that hadn’t been there when she’d sat down and something digging into her shoulder. Her whole body hurt. She ached with pain as if she’d been beaten, and all the new bruises throbbed.

The noises of a desert night were all around her: the studied silence of rock, soil and shale, the slip and slither of crawling things as they dragged their bellies on stone, a cricket that chirruped, alone and unanswered, among the sparse, dry grasses.

Valenzuela knew that she wasn’t alone. She attuned her hearing with care and heard the soft rub of metal on leather as men moved about, the subdued tones of their voices in low conversation ‘though she couldn’t make out the words, and the snort and stamp of a horse. She smelled horse dung, wood smoke and coffee on the cold desert air.

Reluctantly, she opened her eyes. Despite her wishes and her fervent prayer, it was all exactly as she had feared. The memories of every terrible moment from when she had been dragged bodily from Don Estaban’s house and the nightmare ride through the night-shrouded village while the bandits shot at shadows and set fires right and left as they rode, were absolutely true. Then came the wild and reckless gallop across country as her abductors put distance between themselves and any possible pursuit. They had ridden hard all the way to the fringe of the desert before they had stopped to rest their horses and their own tired bones.

Valenzuela, weary beyond belief, had dropped to the ground as soon as she’d got off the horse. In spite of her terror, she’d gone to sleep where she’d fallen and slept for nearly an hour. It was now almost dawn. The faint, silver light in the sky above the eastern horizon heralded the birth of a brand new day: one filled with questions and uncounted fears. She made good use of those first, still moments to take stock of her situation and dispel her confusion. An intelligent woman, she knew the peril she was in, and she was afraid, but she was the daughter of conquistadors, and now that her first panic was over, she wasn’t stricken with terror. While it wasn’t likely that she could soon engineer an escape, her agile mind started at once to seek a way out of her predicament.

Moving only her eyes beneath shuttered lids, she looked all around her. Here, on the very edge of the desert, at the fringe of a vast sea of shale, stone and sand, huge rocks were all jumbled together, oversized pebbles rolled by the tide of time to the shore line, leaning one against the other in wild disarray. Not far away from her sheltering rock, a small fire burned. Its pale flames were shielded from direct view by a carefully constructed hearth built of stones and surrounded by a low earthwork. From just a few yards away its light was almost invisible. The men she had heard were gathered about it, warming their hands and their faces; their features were cast into sharp angles and planes by the firelight. Beyond them, just visible in the slowly strengthening light were the dark bulks of the picketed horses.

The woman’s cramped limbs had stiffened. Trying to move in absolute silence, she stretched and shifted position. The big muscle in the back of her thigh knotted and tightened. She avoided a moan of pain, but the hiss of her breath betrayed her. The men at the fireside all turned at once and looked in her direction. One man spoke in a guttural grunt and another answered in kind.

A few more quick, quiet words were exchanged and somebody sniggered. A man-shape, long, lean and corded with muscle in that first, early light, got up, stretched and yawned. With a final, ribald word to his companions, he took the few steps to the rock where Valenzuela huddled.

Wide eyed, she murmured a prayer to her sweet lady in Paradise that the rock would swallow her up. As with her previous supplication, it fell on deaf ears. The figure loomed over her. A face, angular and quite remarkable for its ugliness leered; it was a face she knew well. The man was the same degenerate half-breed that had snatched her from the hacienda, the one who claimed a Comanche name. His huge, coarse-skinned hand reached down and grabbed her. She gasped at the pain. Her wrist was already sore from the ropes that had bound her and blue with bruising. Ignoring her protest and her discomfort, he pulled her bodily onto her feet. Valenzuela bit down on her lip to keep herself silent.

Using her arm as a lever, Sorronoso drew her in close to his chest. “You are a very pretty lady,” he grunted in some sort of bastardised Spanish. “You will make me a very happy man.”

Valenzuela pulled her head back from him and twisted her face away from his lips. “Let go of me!” The sight and the smell of him were repulsive. His eyes, so close to hers, were bright and wide open, very black, and his lips slack and moist. His whole body reeked of sour sweat, and the gust from his stomach was putrid. She smelled cheap liquor, tobacco and the universal dental decay that afflicted the country mixed with the fishy stench of his food. She felt his free hand on the small of her back as he pulled her closer.

Torak’s voice growled from the fireside, “Bring the Señorita over here. She is valuable property. I do not want her damaged.” His voice held no inflection: he might as well have been talking about a mule or a pair of boots, but the half-breed reacted to the half-disguised threat. He went back to the fireplace and dragged Valenzuela along with him. His grip was a strong one; struggle and twist as she might she couldn’t break free.

A heavy man, Torak got to his feet and tipped the dregs from his coffee cup into the fire where they hissed and spat. In the steadily gathering daylight, his broad, rounded features were amenable, but his eyes were black splinters of ice. He bobbed his head in a short, perfunctory bow. “Señorita Marrinez, I think it necessary that we come to some understanding.”

Valenzuela drew herself up to full height; she stood taller than Torak’s shoulder. Her face filled with indignation. “I want no understanding with you, Señor. I require you to return me at once to the hacienda of my uncle. If you are very fortunate, he will allow you to escape with only a beating.”

Torak’s chuckled gurgled up from somewhere deep down inside him and erupted onto his face in full-fledged laughter. Taking his lead, the other men joined in the merriment until the night rang. Valenzuela’s cheeks flared with hot colour. As the general amusement subsided, Torak reached out to stroke her face with thick, stubby fingers. “It is my intention to return you unharmed to your father, Señorita, and still of – shall we say, marriageable quality? But you know how it is with men of this kind; they are ill mannered and lustful, and with such a beautiful woman as yourself close at hand…” He gave an eloquent shrug of the shoulders. “Without your co-operation, I fear I cannot guarantee the sanctity of your person.”

Valenzuela flinched from the rough touch of his skin. She would have recoiled had not the half-creed Comanache retained his firm grasp on her arms. Instead, she hissed at Torak, and her eyes glowed with hatred. “You will not prevail, Señor! My father will send an army from Spain. He will hunt you down like the dog you are, and then I shall have the pleasure of watching you hang! It would be better for you to release me at once.”

“An army from Spain!” Torak laughed again but this time with more scorn than amusement. “That will be a fine thing to see. I’m sure we will be able to provide them with adequate entertainment – should they ever appear!” His hand tightened abruptly on her jaw, holding her face in a vice-like grip. Hot and hungry, his eyes swept over her statuesque body in the ruins of the beautiful dress. “Before his arrival however, we have a long way to travel over rough, hard ground. You will need something more suitable to wear.” He turned his head and spoke to one of his men, “Saverio, there is a spare shirt in my saddlebags; fetch it for Señorita Marrinez.”

Valenzuela pulled her head away. The deep marks left by Torak’s fingers filled up with blood. “I want nothing from you!”

Torak’s eyes glittered. “Señorita, if you want to live to return to your family, you will learn quickly to do as you are told.” He pulled out a knife.

Sorronoso’s powerful hands gripped her arms by the elbows – in spite of her struggles, she was held firmly. Torak bent down and slashed away at her satin skirts. He chopped them off at about knee level and threw the fragments of silken fabric into the fire where they curled and crisped until they were no more than ashes. The shirt that he gave her was almost clean. It was a faded reddish-brown in colour and of gargantuan, tent-like proportions that drowned her shoulders and came right down to her knees. Someone gave her a belt to cinch it in to her waist. They put her in the saddle of a big, bay horse. She had lost her high-heeled slippers somewhere in the escape from the house, and her silken hose were in tatters. They tied her feet to the stirrups and her wrists to the saddle horn; unused as she was to riding astride, it was impossible for her to fall off.

Valenzuela was surprised to find that the party now consisted of only half a dozen men. The rest of the bandits had melted away during the hours of darkness, vanishing into the black desert night. The fire was extinguished and the scorched stones and the ashes and all other signs of the camp were buried so that no trace remained. Sorronoso picked up the reins of Valenzuela’s horse and the group moved off into the wilderness. The red fire of sunrise lit up the landscape with a soft, rosy glow while strange formations of stone and sand cast grotesque, shifting shadows over the desert floor.

 

*******

 

It was an easy task to follow thirty horsemen through the fertile valley bottoms. As the made good their escape, the bandits had ridden hell for leather across the landscape and left behind them a trail that a child could have followed. It was when they reached the rim-rock that formed the northern boundary of Don Estaban’s land that everything changed abruptly. It was here that the desert began, and here that the outlaws entered an element that they might properly call their own. Within half a mile of entering the dry, dusty badlands, all trace of their passage disappeared. Adam wasn’t really surprised. He remembered from his previous encounter with Torak and his band of very bad men how it was that they travelled: riding spread well apart on the rock and the shale, they left no indication at all of which way they had gone.

Adam, Miguel and Charlo, riding with three other hard, grim faced men and trailing a long string of horses behind them, had pushed the pace hard. Now they found themselves slowed to a walk, searching for sign in an empty and desolate landscape that shimmered beneath a bright, morning sun.

There was nothing to find, not the scrape of a horseshoe nor a fresh fall of dung, nothing at all to indicate that men and horses had passed that way at any time in the last hundred years. The would-be pursuers found themselves crawling, like ants in a dustbowl, crossing and re-crossing their own confused tracks as they tried to pick up the trail.

Sometime just before noon, Miguel, who was in charge of the expedition, called a halt. They had reached the place where the desert properly began. Dry scrub and thorn bush and parched, yellow grasses gave way to dust and stone and harsh sunlight. He wiped his face with his sleeve and examined the damp patch critically before he called out to the other men; “This is a good place to stop, amigos. This is the last piece of shade for a good long way. We will make the most of it.” He gestured to the lee-side shelter of some large, jumbled rocks that stood in their way.

“No!” Charlo dragged his horse to a halt alongside him. Just like his rider, the big black beast was agitated, wet with sweat and wild eyed. Charlo held him on a very tight rein that made him dance in the dust. “We must go on! Every minute that we waste here, they are getting further ahead of us!”

Miguel had already dismounted and was easing the straps of his horse’s harness so that the animal could rest in comfort and, maybe, doze in the sun. “I very much doubt that. The bandidos must also take shelter from the afternoon sun. In any event, it would be stupid and pointless to ride our horses to death and maybe to kill ourselves as well in a hasty and ill considered pursuit.”

Charlo twisted in his saddle and looked around as Adam rode up behind him. Adam had caught the last part of the conversation and was well able to determine the rest of it. His own face was wet with sweat and, like the others, covered in a mask of whitish dust. His eyes were dark with determination.

Charlo called to him; “Miguel wants to stop!” He made an angry gesture that made his horse prance again. “I vote we go on. We have the chance to make up some time on them.”

Adam gazed at him. His tawny eyes were bruised and sunken from lack of sleep. He was already weary, annoyed and impatient. He wanted to agree with Charlo; he knew just how the man must have been feeling: all churned up and sick inside. He wanted to ride on at full gallop into the desert, to push his horse ‘til it dropped in the hope of getting the chance to break a few heads. That was a primordial instinct. The intelligent, reasoning man, the clever, experienced westerner knew a whole lot better than that. He had to agree with Miguel. “There’s no point in killing the horses,” he said simply. He stepped down from his saddle and started loosening cinches. For comfort and the ease of familiarity, he had abandoned the high, Spanish saddle and switched back to his own for-and-aft rig.

Miguel’s dark eyes switched from one man’s face to the other. His look held a distinct hint of irritation, and his voice had an edge. “I wasn’t holding an election,” he said shortly, and started for the cleft in the rocks. His back was ridged with righteous irritation and his stride, in his high-heeled riding boots, quick and over-long. His gelding trailed wearily behind him on a long, loose rein.

With a sigh, Adam lowered his stirrup back into place and gave the horse a pat. He turned his face up to Charlo, still sitting high on the back of his rangy mount. “Come on, Marrinez, give yourself a break. At the rate you’re going you’ll burn yourself out before you’re two days into this trip.”

He didn’t wait for response. He picked up his reins and followed Miguel into the somewhat dubious shelter of the leaning rocks. Charlo snarled after him, “I don’t need your advice, Cartwright!” Adam chose to ignore the remark and kept on walking.

Using the barrel of his long gun as a probe, Adam poked about for sleepy snakes and scorpions. Then he spread out his blanket in the shade of a rock and sat down on it. On the whole, he considered himself fortunate. Despite his room being thoroughly ransacked, he had found his belongings intact. He had his own guns and most of his own equipment and had added his own big bay saddle horse to his string of borrowed animals.

They had left the hacienda in the first of the light: a small, compact body of bleak-faced men. Miguel hadn’t stayed for his grandmother’s funeral, scheduled for later that day. “More important to rescue the living than grieve for the dead,” he said with a typically stoic practicality and added, only softly, “There’ll be time for grieving later.”

They rode in sombre procession through the burned and shattered village. The bodies of the dead, three brave men who had given their lives defending their homes and a woman who had been fleeing with her children and had tripped and simply got in the way, had been gathered up and carried away to the little chapel on the hillside. The carcasses of the animals still lay in the street where they’d fallen. They were already starting to bloat. The haunted eyes of women and children watched the men ride past. Adam wondered if he would ever forget the expressions etched in their faces. One thing was certain: the laughter had died; the rancho of Don Estaban Padro would never be the same place again.

He took a long drink of water from his canteen, then lay down with his arm under his head for a pillow. Not expecting to sleep, he closed his eyes against the glare of the sky. Not far away, the Mexican wranglers were talking together, their voices a low, constant drone as they played some obscure game with polished white stones. Adam heard the jingle of silver as money changed hands, occasional laughter and a muffled, good-natured curse as somebody lost. He was more tired that he expected. As his mind drifted on the dull edge of sleep he tried to summon Valenzuela’s face. Instead, to his intense disquiet, his found himself confronted by the vision of another, very different but equally beautiful woman: that of his mother, serene and smiling softly just as she appeared in the exquisite enamelled miniature that sat on his father’s bureau at home in Nevada. As he fell further into sleep, he thought that she spoke to him, calling his name, telling him something he needed to know, but he couldn’t quite hear her. The dream faded as his sleep became deeper and left him confused and bereft.

Miguel refused to move on until late afternoon, making quite sure that horses and men were thoroughly rested. By then, Charlo was almost out of his mind with impatience and threatened to ride off alone. Feeling detached, Adam watched the heated argument that developed between them with grim amusement and an emotion that felt disagreeably like satisfaction. Was he really that shallow and mean? He finally interrupted them and pointed out, in a voice as cold as a blizzard in spite of the heat, that they were merely wasting more time.

The stone of the desert was quietly roasting beneath a sky turned to burnished bronze. It was hot, airless and uncomfortable, but the direct heat of the sun was gone. Back in their saddles, the men rode on more quickly not bothering so much to look for illusive sign but heading generally northwards, following, by guesswork and intuition, the path they thought the bandits had taken. They didn’t talk much; men on a quest, all three were tight-lipped and silent, each of them out of sorts with the others and thinking his own, deep flowing thoughts.

They stopped only when it was too dark to see the treacherous ground in front of them. All the light had fled from the sky, and the moon had not yet risen. They set up their camp by starlight. Miguel lit a lantern, and he and Adam went over the horses inch by inch, treating small cuts and abrasions and paying particular attention to the animals’ legs and feet. The rapid pace across stone and shale was taking a heavy toll. Miguel selected all those that showed signs of incipient lameness to start back home with one of the wranglers first thing in the morning. At the farthest end of the picket line, well away from the other men and any chance of being overheard, Adam took the opportunity to talk to his friend.

“Tell me honestly, how long will it take to track these men down?”

Miguel forced a chuckle. “You are anxious to get to the marriage bed, eh, amigo?”

“That’s not what I had in mind.”

Miguel patted a dusty, chestnut rump. “Forgive me. I did not mean to be insensitive.” It took him a moment to meet Adam’s eyes and then it was with obvious reluctance. “It could take a very long time, my friend. I have lived close to this desert all of my life; I know its moods, and I know its dangers; I know how to survive. But these men, these outlaws, have made the desert their home. They can use it and manipulate it to their own advantage. They know where to find water and where to find food and how to disappear into the afternoon haze as if they have never been here at all. They travel through this desolate wilderness and live in its harshest places as easily as you and I live in our own front parlour. I had hoped we might overtake them quickly, but now…” He shrugged and patted the gelding again.

Adam finished it for him, “It’s going to be a long, drawn out affair.”

“So it would appear. We don’t know for certain where they’re heading. North, certainly, but where? To the east or the west? Where will they cross the border? We do not know. All we can do is follow and hope that at some point we will cross their trail.”

Glancing back towards the campsite, Adam saw the flames of the campfire dancing, the long wavering shadows of the men as they moved about; he smelled coffee and wood smoke on the still evening air and knew that supper was being prepared. It was a scene that lent an air of normalcy to a world suddenly turned topsy-turvy about his ears. He sucked in a breath. “What about Charlo? Is he going to hold together, or will he go off half cocked?”

Miguel chuckled disarmingly and put his head on one side. “I think he is wondering the same thing about you. That is a stream that we will cross when we reach it, eh? Come on, let’s go and eat.” He slapped Adam on the shoulder, and they walked, side by side, back to the campsite.

Supper that night was a very creditable affair. Despite the speed of their unexpected departure, Don Estaban’s kitchens had put together a large and varied selection of food for the men to take along with them. There was a strongly flavoured fish stew with seasonings hot enough to re-ignite hellfire. They drank it direct from huge metal mugs and dunked chunks of brown, grainy bread fresh baked in an oven sunk in the coals of the fire. They had pork and potatoes fried in a pan: the juices thickened into a rich, meaty sauce and lots more bread to mop it all up with. To finish the meal was a solid lard cake, thick with dried fruits and candied peel and thickly thatched with a coarse and crunchy brown sugar coating. There was lots of hot coffee to wash it down. Altogether, there was enough wholesome food to fill all the men’s stomachs, and they made sure that nothing was wasted.

Afterwards, the Mexicans cleared things away, using dry earth to scour clean plates, pots and pans. Miguel made a last check on the horses. Adam spread out his bedroll and sat down, his back to a rock. His whole body ached, and he was bone tired, but, for the moment, his mind was too active to allow him to sleep. Across the fire from him, Charlo sat cleaning his gun. Adam had never seen the man armed before, and he’d never seen a weapon quite like it.

Charlo felt his gaze on him and looked up. The flat planes of his face were stark in the firelight, his jaw line shadowed with stubble. His eyes, bright and resentful, reflected the flames. “What can I do for you, Cartwright?”

Adam swallowed a great hunk of pride. “An unusual pistol. Do you mind if I look?”

Charlo hesitated, but not quite long enough to be impolite. He gave the barrel a final wipe with the cloth and handed Adam the gun. It was a six shot revolver of anything but a standard design. It was bigger by far than a Colt and much heavier than Adam had expected; it pulled his hand down. Despite its weight, it was beautifully balanced. The solid, wooden stock was inlaid with silver and mother of pearl, and the barrel, hexagonal in section, looked like it belonged to a much larger gun and had been sawn off short. Adam had no doubt at all it could punch a hole right through a brick wall and would make one hell of a mess of a man. Because of its weight, Charlo generally carried it in a holster attached to his saddle.

“It was made for me by a friend of my father: a master armourer in Spain.”

Adam sighted along the barrel into the darkness. He eased the hammer to half cock, then pulled it all the way back. The cylinder turned smoothly with barely a sound. It was a beautiful piece of craftsmanship. Adam was impressed and wasn’t afraid to say so; “It’s a magnificent gun. The workmanship is exquisite.”

Charlo smiled. Adam saw his white teeth in the light of the fire. “My father’s friend also taught me how to use it.”

Adam heard a note in his voice – or, perhaps, he only thought that he did. Were the Spaniard’s words a lightly guarded warning or purely justifiable pride? He couldn’t make up his mind. He eased the hammer back down on the chamber and gave the big gun back. The two men watched each other’s faces over the embers. “What will you do when this is over?” Adam inquired.

“As soon as I have hunted these bandidos down and rescued Valenzuela, I shall, of course, take her back with me to Spain.”

Adam kept his voice level; “Perhaps we should let the lady decide what she wants to do.”

“There will be no deciding.” Charlo’s retort was sharp. “She cannot remain here. This is a barbarous country.”

“You can’t tar all men with the same brush, Marrinez.”

Again he saw that white flash of teeth but this time displayed more in a snarl than a smile. “Can’t I?” Charlo leaned a long way forward; the firelight lit his face from below. “Exactly what are your feelings for my sister, Cartwright? Have you bothered to think them through?”

Adam struggled to contain his burning temper. There was something about this man that set him aflame. Before he could formulate a measured, articulate response, Miguel returned to the fireside, crouching down to warm his hands on the flames. Any further words between Adam and Charlo remained unspoken, their conversation curtailed. Adam knew that Miguel was watching them both very closely. He had only the success of their expedition and the rescue of Valenzuela close to his heart, and he wasn’t prepared to stand any nonsense from either of them. Given sufficient provocation, like an out and out fight, he was quite capable of ordering them both to go home with the horses. Adam knew that he wouldn’t go, and he didn’t believe for one moment that Charlo would ride away without attempting to rescue his sister. In that alone, they were alike. The situation was ripe for trouble; one tiny spark would set it off.

A short while later they banked up the fire and retired to their blankets. With his head cradled in the bow of his upturned saddle, Adam closed his eyes and invited slumber, but despite the ache in his bones and the weariness of his spirit, sleep was reluctant to come. Charlo’s words came back to him, hauntingly clear. How did he feel about Valenzuela? Was he in love with her? Or was he merely enchanted with the thought of being in love: the idea of having a wife and children and a home and a hearth of his own? He remembered too well that, not very long ago, he had decided he wasn’t a marrying man. He was the same man now as he had been then – had he honestly changed his mind? Was Charlo right after all? It was something he would have to give serious thought to…but later. First of all he must rescue Valenzuela from Torak and his dangerous band and get her to safety… And then…

Adam awoke from an uncomfortable, restless sleep. The moon was up, a fat wedge of tarnished silver drifting above the eastern horizon; above his head the night sky was black and sprinkled with hard, bright stars. Adam lay on his back and listened. Not far away he heard the even breathing of men as they slept; two of the Mexicans were snoring in tandem. There was the shift and stamp of a restless horse. No other sound intruded. He judged the hour to be sometime shortly after midnight. Adam was accustomed to sleeping out of doors, and, wrapped in his blanket on ground that still radiated the warmth it had accumulated during the day, he wasn’t uncomfortable. Nevertheless, possessed of a restless energy, he was no longer tired and knew he wouldn’t sleep again that night.

He eased himself up on one elbow and looked beyond his feet at the fire. The flames had burned low, and the smouldering ashes glowed orange and red. The watch-hour was Charlo’s, but the rock that the Spaniard had occupied earlier was vacant, and the man was nowhere in sight. Adam disentangled his legs from his blanket and got soundlessly to his feet. On the ground beside him, Miguel slept on undisturbed. Beyond him were the noisy Mexican wranglers, mouths open, flat on their backs, their eyes tightly closed. The crack of doom might not wake them.

Adam felt the strong call of nature, Not bothering to strap on his holster, he tucked his gun into the belt of his pants and found a private place among the rocks to relieve himself. Beyond the outcrop of large, jumbled stones where they’d made their encampment, the desert was utterly still and breathlessly silent, jealously keeping its secrets. He wondered how far away Valenzuela might be and if she had a chance to look at that self-same sky. Was she even alive – or had the bandits decided she was too great a liability and killed her? What would Torak do when he discovered that angry men were riding hot on his trail? That was a chance that they all had to take.

Readjusting his clothing, he went to check on the long line of horses. Most of the animals dozed, asleep on their feet. A soft snicker from his own, big bay saddle horse welcomed him. The gelding nuzzled his hands, looking for treats. Adam stroked the soft velvet muzzle and patted the neck. “I don’t have anything for you, you know that?” Undaunted, the horse lifted his head and lipped at his face and his neck. With the snuffling animal so close to his ear, he didn’t hear the soft footfall behind him. The first he knew of Charlo’s approach was the muzzle of the Spaniard’s gun jammed hard up against his backbone and the hiss of his breath on his neck.

The Spaniard had the drop on him. With both his hands on the horse’s neck, Adam was caught stone cold; there was nothing he could do to defend himself. He couldn’t reach for the Colt in his belt or for the Bowie knife under his shirt. He turned his head to look back over his shoulder, trying to glimpse the other man’s face. “Is this how it finishes, Charlo? With a bullet in the back?”

Charlo gave it some thought. “It would be very easy to kill you, Cartwright,” he said softly, “and might even give me some pleasure. I could say I saw a man creeping about among the horses. The light wasn’t good. How should I know it was you?”

Small spiders of fear crawled over Adam’s hot skin on icy cold feet. For a moment, he thought the man might even do it. “Do you think Miguel would believe you?”

“But why would I want you dead?” Carlo crooned.

“You know the answer to that as well as I do.”

Adam sensed Charlo’s shake of the head. “You don’t understand me at all, do you? I have no wish to see you dead, especially not now. I might need you to help save my sister.” Adam heard the soft shift of the gun’s mechanism as he lowered the hammer back into place.

Adam turned ‘round. The two men stood toe to toe and looked into each other’s faces. Adam could understand the other man’s reasoning and his motives but not his emotions. “Why didn’t you shoot me when you had the chance? You would have gotten away with it.”

Charlo snarled, “I am not a barbarian, Señor. You think that, because I do not smell like an English woman’s armpit that I would shoot a man from behind? Now is not the time to settle our private disagreements. Later, I will confront you, and we will finish what we began.”

Adam bristled and ground his teeth. He might have gained some small insight into the man’s point of view, but there was still something about him that made his hackles rise. “I’ll be ready and waiting,” he responded dryly. “Just say the word.”

Charlo smiled a very thin smile. “That is very good. At last we begin to understand one another.” He slapped Adam hard in the chest with the back of his hand. “In the meantime, I believe the watch is now yours. I am going to get some sleep.”

Adam watched the Spaniard’s broad back as he made his way along the line of tethered horses towards the campsite. He had the uncomfortable feeling that in that encounter, he had come off the worse. Somewhat bemused, he followed more slowly back to the camp to gather his rifle and feed some more sticks to the fire.

The night was a long one; the hours dragged by slowly, but Adam, engrossed in his own, deep thoughts while the other men slept, was taken by surprise by the morning. He built up the fire and set water to boil for coffee. In the first, early light, a wide circuit of the encampment and another check on the horses were all he had time for before breakfast. When he got back, Miguel was up and about, cooking bread, beans and bacon, and the wranglers were packing their gear. Charlo had taken himself off into the rocks somewhere on his own, personal business. Adam poured himself coffee and speared his share of the bacon onto a plate; it was cooked to crispness, just the way he enjoyed it.

“So, which way are we going?”

“North.” Chewing, Miguel sopped up bacon juices with a large hunk of bread and stuffed it into his mouth. He seemed in no doubt about the decision.

Adam eyed him uncertainly. “What makes you think they went north? They could have gone anywhere from here.”

Miguel swallowed his mouthful and washed it down with a large draught of coffee. He looked over his shoulder, checking that Charlo wasn’t around. “They could have gone anywhere, but I think they went north, heading straight for the border. They know we’ll be following them. They’ll plan to lose us in the badlands before they reach their winter encampment. We need to catch up with them before they get there.”

Very carefully, Adam put down his cup. “What if you’re wrong? Supposing they’ve done something we don’t expect – like doubling back?”

“I’m not wrong. What we have to watch out for is a trap.”

Adam looked at him sharply. “You think they might lie in ambush?”

“It is a distinct possibility.” Miguel shrugged. “It’s what I would do.”

As soon as the sun clawed its way above the horizon the men were all in their saddles and ready to ride. Miguel dispatched one of the wranglers with four of their horses and enough food and water to get them all home. The rest of the party continued north. Without taking time to search for the bandit’s trail, they rode through the ever-shortening shadows, driving the animals as hard as they could. They formed a long line of tiny figures racing against time across a landscape vast, cruel and majestic in its hostility.

Every hour and a half, Miguel called a brief halt. Grim faced, gritty, hard-eyed men swapped their saddles onto fresh backs and drank tepid water from their canteens. There was little time or breath for discussion before they rode on.

It was shortly after midmorning, and the sun was high in the sky when Adam heard a shout from behind. He was riding second in line behind Miguel, concentrating hard on keeping up and watching his gelding’s footing as they crossed a steep slope of shale and slippery scree. He took the time to look back over his shoulder. Charlo’s horse was down; the man was out of the saddle, and both were sliding ignominiously and unstoppably downwards in a fall of loose rock, sand and soil. Man and horse arrived at the bottom in a small avalanche, and neither one got up.

Adam yelled ahead to Miguel and dismounted. He slipped and slithered his way down the hill, hitting the foot of the slope in a dead flat run, fighting to retain his balance. Charlo still wasn’t moving. Adam picked his way through the jumble of broken stone towards him. His feelings were ambiguous. How badly had the man injured himself in his long tumble? Would he be able to carry on or would he have to go back? Did the expedition stop here because of one man’s incapacity? Or might he even be dead?

The Spaniard groaned and opened his eyes as Adam turned him over. All his limbs were intact. There was fresh blood on his cheek and temple where he’d scraped his face on the shale, and he was dazed by the fall, but, otherwise, he was undamaged. Adam found himself relieved and promptly resented the feeling. Rather more roughly than was necessary, he helped the man into a sitting position. Miguel came sliding down the slope to join them, arriving in a rush in a fresh scatter of stones. He carried a canteen in his hand and wore a scowl of concern on his features. He addressed Adam shortly, “Has he hurt himself?”

It occurred to Adam that Miguel had the same concerns as himself. “I figure he’s all right,” he said abruptly as he straightened up. “Just shaken up a little.”

Charlo glared up at him, his dirty, blood smeared face dark with resentment. “I can answer for myself, Señor Cartwright.” He looked at Miguel. “It would seem I am undamaged.”

Miguel thrust the canteen into his hands. “What happened?”

“The cursed horse lost his footing and stumbled.” Charlo pulled hard at the water. “I couldn’t get him back on the trail. Before I knew what was happening, he had fallen, and I was out of the saddle.”

All of a sudden, Adam needed to get away. There was a whirlwind of emotion boiling up inside him, and it threatened to get away. He didn’t know how to handle it. He was glad, deep down inside, that Charlo hadn’t been injured. He might dislike the man, but he didn’t hate him. That wasn’t Adam Cartwright’s way.

He walked to where Charlo’s horse lay on its side in the rubble of the landslide, one hind leg in the air, kicking feebly. The animal was still alive, but he had broken his shoulder. There was only one thing to be done for him. Adam drew his gun and thumbed back the hammer.

Miguel shouted, “Adam, no!”

Adam turned in surprise as his friend hurried up. The Mexican pushed the six gun aside. “Don’t shoot him. The sound of a shot will carry for miles in the desert; it will tell the bandidos exactly where we are. Put away your gun.”

Adam holstered the Colt. Miguel moved past him. He crouched at the horse’s head and spoke to him: soft, crooning, senseless words than meant nothing at all but conveyed love and comfort. He covered the horse’s eye with his hand. One swift, stabbing stroke of a broad bladed knife cut through the tough hide and severed the main artery in the bay horse’s neck. Dark blood spurted, hot, with a hot-iron stink. The horse was dead in less than a minute. Miguel stood up; the blade vanished into his sleeve as swiftly as it appeared. Adam hadn’t known that he carried it.

Adam was angry. “That was a waste of a damn good horse.”

“It was an accident. You heard what Charlo said. The animal lost his footing and fell.”

“He should have been more careful.”

Miguel looked at him oddly. “You’ve seen horses die before, Adam. Ten, twenty times? Maybe more. It could have been you or me who took that fall. Charlo is not such a very bad man.” Now he avoided Adam’s eyes. “Come, mi amigo; we are spending time that we cannot afford.” Charlo was up on his feet, swaying a little. Miguel helped him climb up the hill, boosting him from behind.

Adam carefully unclenched his fists. Miguel, with his uncanny insight, had struck right to the core of his problem. He knew he was in the wrong about this. It was an accident, nothing more. There was no one to blame; it was nobody’s fault. How much else was he wrong about? It was one more thing he had to think out. One of the Mexican wranglers came to recover Charlo’s saddle and bridle, and Adam got out of his way.

Once past the scree slope, they came to an expanse of rough, broken land. Miguel wiped the sweat from his face with his sleeve and squinted into the distance. There was no shade or shelter for as far as he could see. He turned in his saddle and called out to the other men, “It is time to eat and take a siesta. We will rest here until it becomes cooler.”

Adam saw the look of fury that crossed Charlo’s face. Somewhat to his relief, the Spaniard said nothing. He was learning, at last, to control his tongue and his temper. They set up a camp on the open ground, using blankets and the canvas half sheets from the pack animal’s loads to create small patches of shade: one for each man to relax in. It was far too hot for sleeping. They feasted on bread, cheese and stale water, and Miguel checked the horses again. This time, he selected half of the animals, deeming them unfit to continue. He designated one of the wranglers to take them home, using a longer and easier route. It was his intention, by the end of the day, to have only the fittest and toughest animals left. Later, much reduced, the party rode on.

 

*******

 

The bandits made camp in a long dry and wind-eroded gully. Valenzuela found it hard to believe that the ancient riverbed had ever held water or that it was ever likely to do so again. It was choked up with rocks and rubble and old, broken branches that must have washed from a hundred miles away. The timber was dried and bleached by the sun, silver with age and made ideal firewood. It burned briskly with plenty of heat and no smoke at all to speak of. Torak’s men wasted no time in gathering a large supply. At a level some ten feet below the general floor of the desert, the campsite was out of the cold night wind and, from the bandit’s point of view, had the added advantage of concealing the light of their fire.

Valenzuela now found it hard to tell exactly how many men there were in the party. All through the day, riders had wandered in out of the desert, simply appearing out of the shimmering haze in odd ones and twos to join with the group; others had drifted away. The only constants were Torak, a veritable giant of a man who seemed to know where they were going and led the way on a spotted grey horse and the half breed, Sorronoso, who seemed to Valenzuela more beast than man, who had tied her securely into her saddle and led her horse on a short length of rope. She was sick and tired of the sight of their backs.

Every bone in her body was aching. They had ridden throughout the day, stopping only for a few, brief hours when the sun was at its most merciless. Torak was worried that someone was close behind them, and he pushed the group hard. Although she enjoyed an occasional gallop, Valenzuela was used only to the sedate paces of social riding; she had never before spent so much time on the back of a horse, and this saw-backed sorrel was particularly painful to ride. She was tired to the point of exhaustion: hot, hungry and thirsty and covered with grime. Her eyes were sore from staring into the reflected glare of the sun. The small of her back and her shoulders and neck were hot-beds of agony, and the lower bones of her pelvis had ground for so long against the hard leather of the saddle that she was raw.

Sorronoso untied her wrists from the pommel of the high, Spanish saddle and her foot from the stirrup iron. He walked around the back of the horse to the other side. Valenzuela felt the last rope fall free. Looking down, she saw that the reins, loosely knotted, lay on the horse’s neck. Valenzuela knew an opportunity when she saw one. Before the loathsome half-breed could reach up and drag her out of the saddle, she snatched up the reins, drove her bare heels hard into the horse’s ribcage and shrieked in his ear.

With a squeal the animal set off at a gallop. He sprinted through the encampment, scattering men and belongings in every direction as he went. Someone lunged at him, making a grab for the bridle. Wild-eyed, the horse shied away. He shied again at the newly lit fire and plunged away into the gloom of the gathering night.

In those first, vital seconds of headlong flight, Valenzuela didn’t try to guide the horse at all. She was a little shocked and surprised herself at the speed of their departure and trusted his eyes to see the way better than she could. She simply held on to the reins and clung to the saddle horn while she kept her head low and out of harm’s way. Within moments, the confusion and noise of the disrupted camp were left far behind. Valenzuela gathered the reins more closely and leaned forward, settling down to ride for her life.

At first the horse refused to respond to her touch. He was running wild: his eyes were wide and showing the whites, and his ears were laid back; his hooves were flying over the ground. Gradually she steadied his pace and got him into a more even rhythm. She found she was riding along the dry riverbed, following the course of the dried up stream. She had no idea which way she was going, only that she needed to get away.

She tightened the reins still further and started to guide the horse around the larger obstacles that loomed in their path. The horse responded, swerving right and then left at her urging. For a moment in time she was all alone in the world with the galloping horse under her and the freshly dark sky overhead. All she could hear was the hiss of breathing, his and her own, and the sound of his thundering hooves. She knew very well that Torak and his gang of cutthroats and thieves were bound to come after her. She chanced a look back over her shoulder. They were a whole lot closer than she’d imagined – several big men on powerful horses, riding hard on her heels. She kicked her mount harder and felt him respond.

The bed of the dried up river got deeper; the banks on either side grew. Valenzuela began to wonder just where she was running too. The horse, already tired after a long day’s work in the sun, began to falter under her. His breath was coming harder now, as was her own. In front of them, the way was blocked. One riverbank had slumped downwards, filling the streambed with a jumble of earth and stones and water-washed debris. She had galloped into a trap. Valenzuela hauled the horse to a prancing, dancing stop. The animal’s sides were heaving, and his neck was white-foamed with sweat. She looked right and left. She had only seconds before her pursuers arrived.

The collapsed bank offered the one possible route to salvation. In the faint light that remained a path revealed itself, leading upwards towards the desert floor. Desperately she pulled the horse ‘round and drove him to make one more effort. He started to climb, making the ascent in a series of great, lunging strides. Unable to do more than sit tight in the saddle, she called out encouragement; her voice was lost in the sob of her breath and the scramble of his iron-shod hooves on the rock. She looked behind her. The men hadn’t followed; they were milling about down below. One of them shouted – she thought it was Torak – a harsh, male voice ordering her to surrender.

For a moment, she thought they might make it, but the bank, composed mainly of loose earth and stone, had broken and crumbled away. The pathway, such as it was, was steeper than it first appeared, and they were only halfway to the top. The horse lunged again: a last, gallant effort. The ground broke under his feet. He stumbled and staggered and started to fall.

Valenzuela tumbled out of the saddle. The reins slipped through her fingers, and she was thrown clear of the horse. For a long, breathless moment, she was airborne, falling, while the world revolved ‘round her, and then she hit the ground hard. All the breath was knocked out of her body. For several long seconds she lay stunned by the force of the fall. She heard the men shouting to one another and the sounds of their horses coming closer. She couldn’t get up. Not far away from her, the sorrel gelding scrambled back onto his feet and trotted off, reins flying and the stirrups flapping free at his sides. He was unhurt and, she realised, so was she.

Without a horse she had no chance to get away, but the thought of recapture filled her with horror. She got up and stared to run.

Sheer terror sustained her long past the limitations of physical strength. She ran along the face of the landslide with no clear idea of where she might go. The horsemen came after her; she heard their shouted comments and their laughter. They didn’t hurry. They knew she couldn’t escape. Torak, it seemed, was happy to just let her run. He rode alongside her, his grey horse keeping pace. Valenzuela veered away from him and started to climb. If she could get to the top of the landfall, then the horses couldn’t follow. The bandits would have to go the long way around, and she could hide in the rocks.

Soil and stones fell on her. She couldn’t get a purchase on the loose, sliding earth and quickly slid back to the bottom. She started to run once again, but her legs wouldn’t work right. She stumbled and slipped to her knees, got up and stumbled once more. The stones were sharp, and she had no shoes. Her feet were cut in a dozen places and bleeding. She fell again and couldn’t get up. She couldn’t run any further, and her mind barely functioned at all.

Torak pulled up his horse and turned and rode back to her. She knew he was smiling. She could see his teeth in the night. He swung out of the saddle and reached down and grabbed her, lifting her bodily onto her feet. Valenzuela was shaking – with fear and exhaustion and righteous anger. She wouldn’t let herself cry; the tears in her eyes were the tears of rage. She yearned to spit and scream and claw in fury, to tear his smug face to shreds with her nails, but she was a Spanish lady, and she still had her pride. She drew herself up to full height. Dirt-smeared and dishevelled with her long, dark hair flying loose and in wild disarray, she was still a beautiful woman. High points of colour defined her cheekbones in a face otherwise bloodless and pale, but her dark eyes burned with unquenchable fire.

Torak held both her wrists in just one of his huge hands. He used them to shake her until her head swam.

He looked her over, and his eyes smouldered. In the oversized shirt, now torn at the shoulder, and the sad remains of the satin dress, her body was statuesque. As her breathing gradually steadied, so the heave of her chest. He lifted his free hand and touched her cheek and her chin; he brushed the roughened tips of his broad, spatulate fingers over her lips. “It was very foolish of you to try to run away, Señorita.” His voice was a purr but she sensed the tension that ran underneath. “You think we are taking a little ride in the country, eh? Where did you think you were going? Back to you uncle’s hacienda, perhaps.”

Valenzuela glared up into his face. “I would go anywhere and do anything to get away from you, Señor!”

A mixture of emotions crossed Torak’s face in rapid succession: incredulity, anger, amusement. “There is nothing out there but desert. Within a day you’d be dead.”

“Better death than dishonour!” she snapped.

Torak smiled a grim smile. “Or, perhaps, you expected your friends to ride to your rescue?” Valenzuela stopped trying to twist herself free and stared at him, shocked. Torak jerked his head in the direction of the desert. “I know they’re out there. Not a large force: perhaps three or four men, but they are hard and determined. I have no doubt that Don Estaban would send the best men he had to recover his favourite niece, eh?”

Lips parted and eyes open wide, Valenzuela stared at him. She knew in her heart that he didn’t lie, and she knew who the men would be: Adam, Charlo and Miguel coming after her, riding, perhaps, to their deaths. Torak saw her expression. “I know when I’m being followed – I get this itch in my back. You should hope they turn back; if they keep coming, I shall be forced to kill them.”

Valenzuela snarled at him, “You are an animal!” She started to struggle again, but her strength was as nothing. He held on to her easily, retaining his grip without trying.

He pulled her closer and lowered his face. She smelled his breath. She thought he might kiss her, but he did not. She felt the heat of his body radiating out through his clothes. The moonlight reflected on his silver buttons, but his eyes were deep, dark wells in which no light dwelt. “I have a great deal of time and trouble invested in you, Señorita, but if you defy me, I will beat you,” he said softly, so that only she could hear. “And if you try to escape me again, I will throw you to my men like a common whore.”

Valenzuela knew that he meant every word. Without giving her the chance to resist him, he boosted her into the saddle of his broad-backed horse. He climbed up behind her and put his arms round her waist to gather the reins. Holding her tightly, pinned against the barrel of his chest, he walked the horse slowly back to the camp.

 

*******

 

Lifting his face, Miguel sniffed at the wind. It had risen, like the hot, blood-tainted breath of a beast, in the space of an afternoon. It stank of time and distance and dust and sun-heated stone. The light was strange. He raised his eyes to the sky. It was darker, although it was not yet evening. He looked at Adam and beyond him, at Charlo. There were only the three of them now. Each man had his own saddle horse, the toughest and fittest of the bunch, and they had one small, wiry packhorse to carry all their belongings. “There’s a storm coming,” he told them. “Blowing in from the west. They tend to be bad when they come from that direction.”

Charlo was sceptical. “What makes you think so? There isn’t a cloud to be seen.”

“The clouds are up above the dust, kept high by the rising heat.” Miguel gestured towards the empty horizon. “That storm is coming in our direction and moving in fast. It will be on top of us before it gets dark.”

Adam studied the rock-strewn expanses in front of him. The ground was even rougher than that they had travelled through. It was fissured and creviced and broken with sharp upthrusts of yellowish-grey stone. It was insupportably hot. Adam took off his hat and mopped his brow with a big bandanna. “I don’t see anywhere to shelter. There’s nothing out there but rocks.”

“I guess that sums it up,” Miguel agreed grimly. “Nothing but rocks for as far as a man can see. From here, the going gets tougher.”

Charlo shot Adam a look of contempt. “What does it matter if we have shelter? After all this dryness, a little water might be good for a man. We can put up an awning and sleep underneath.”

Adam shook his head. He couldn’t help a grim smile. ”It won’t be that sort of storm, Marrinez. There’ll be no rain, but lots of thunder and lightening. It wouldn’t be good to be caught in the open.”

“Adam’s right,” Miguel said with a nod. “I know of a place we might shelter a few miles from here: an old abandoned aldea. I haven’t been there for many years. There may be a wall or two standing if the wind hasn’t blown them away.”

Adam wiped the bandanna around the inside of his hatband and put the hat back on his head. With one more glance at the bruised looking sky, he picked up his reins. He was glad to have his own horse under him: the tough, desert-wise bay that he’d started out with all those weeks ago. “Perhaps we’d better get moving.”

Charlo, as always, was prepared to voice and objection, “That will take us miles out of our way. We will never catch up with the bandidos if we keep making detours.”

Adam merely gave him a flat, sideways look and didn’t bother to argue. He pulled his hat down over his eyes. With his head held high, he kicked the bay into motion and followed Miguel down the hill.

 

*******

 

Embule Torak pulled back on the reins and stopped his huge, dappled grey horse at the top of the rise. He turned in the saddle and gazed back at the way they had come. There was nothing there but the vast, empty wastelands they had crossed in the last several days. Hard as he stared into the lengthening shadows he could see nothing moving. It was a land he knew well. There was nothing alive to concern him. It was a place of scorpions and snakes, salamanders and dead, rotting bones. Still, he frowned.

Sorronoso, astride his rangy black gelding and leading Valenzuela’s horse by the reins, rode up beside him. With his eyes, he followed the direction of Torak’s gaze. He instigated his enquiry with a grunt. “You still look for the men who follow?”

Sighing, Torak inclined his head. “They are persistent, eh? They do not give up.”

“They are still a long way behind.”

“But they get closer all the time.” Torak shifted uncomfortably and wriggled his shoulders as if he would like to scratch that unreachable itch. “They are determined men and there is a keen mind leading them. One who knows this country almost as well as I. I do not think that they will turn back.”

Sorronoso turned slowly; keen Indian eyes scanned the horizon. The yellow light of the evening lit the flat planes of his face and cast the sharp angles of jaw and cheekbone into sharp relief. “Soon we will leave them behind. We have reached el denonio’s cocina. They cannot follow us there.”

In front of them, the land had undergone a massive upheaval ten thousand years in the past. The earth itself was folded and creased into mile-deep ravines and sheer-sided gullies interspersed by high, rocky spines. A desolate region of near-waterless, dead-end canyons blocked by great walls of stone, of trails that led nowhere or ended in steep, deadly drops and of mazes of twisted and tortured rock that were littered with the bones of lost and foolish men, it was a place justifiably called ‘The Devil’s Cookhouse’ by all those who knew it well. Bitterly cold in the depths of the night, hot enough to roast the meat off a man’s bones in daytime, it was a spot designed by the Lord for neither man nor beast to inhabit: the landscape of hell with the fires put out.

The afternoon glare had faded away to become the more mellow glow of the evening. The heat rose up like smoke from the canyon below. The pinnacles and spires of twisted stone were still bathed in bright sunlight; dust obscured the furthest peaks. In the fathomless depths, night had already fallen. Men filed by on the narrow pathway, angling downward, out of God’s ken and the sight of men.

Sorronoso turned his eyes onto Torak. “Do you want me to kill them?”

Torak’s face became thoughtful as he considered the possibilities. He gazed into the desert with far-focussed eyes as if he could see beyond the dust and the heat haze into the hearts of the men who pursued him. He came to a conclusion, “Yes. I think it is time. Kill them.”

Valenzuela’s eyes widened. She had listened to the exchange with growing horror. Now, an exclamation was torn from her throat, “No!”

Turning, Torak observed the emotion that was etched on her face. “Would you have me spare them, Señorita? If they try to rescue you, I shall have them killed in front of your eyes: peeled out of their skins and left out in the sun to dry. And you already know what will happen to you.”

Valenzuela saw the half-breed’s eyes glitter. She didn’t trust herself to answer in case she betrayed her fear. Bound hand and foot to her saddle, she drew herself up as tall as she could. She knew it was useless to plead and it would only give the Mexican more satisfaction.

Torak’s attention switched back to Sorronoso. “Kill them all. Take whatever men you need.”

A sinister grin spread over the half-breed’s face; his teeth were discoloured and broken. He handed Torak the braided reins of Valenzuela’s horse and yanked the head of his gelding around with a cruel jerk of the bit. He lifted his rifle high in the air so that the barrel shone in the sun and shouted: loud, ugly words in a harsh and barbaric tongue. Four men broke out of the slow-plodding line. Every one was a half-breed like Sorronoso himself, cast in the same, savage mould. They all had the faces of eagles. They gathered into a group around Sorronoso and conversed in guttural grunts. Sorronoso spoke a few words to them and waved his gun in the air. As one, they wheeled about, and the group spurred their tough, stringy horses and rode off into the gathering gold.

Valenzuela found Torak watching her. His eyes held amusement and lust. A new and abiding hatred kindled inside the proud woman’s heart. Torak saw it burn in her eyes. He picked up his reins and nudged the grey gelding hard with his heels. Leading Valenzuela’s horse, he rode down into the canyon.

 

*******

 

The abandoned village resembled nothing more closely than the classical ghost town except, perhaps, that it was in an even worse state of repair: all ancient, broken timbers and crumbling adobe walls. It possessed a sinister aspect in the deepening, discoloured twilight: a scattered collection of derelict buildings unevenly spaced along a single, meandering street. Adam half expected to see tumbleweeds bowling along and to hear the slam of an unhinged door. As they rode into town, all three abreast with the packhorse trailing behind them, the storm, which had been gathering steadily all afternoon, finally broke in earnest. Thunder rumbled and rolled round the sky, and jagged streaks of blue and white lightening leapt from the clouds to the ground. The charnel house wind blew much stronger, ruffling the horse’s manes.

After some looking, Miguel located a ruin that had two rooms still standing and retained a small portion of roof. They led the horses in through the shattered doorway and stabled them in the room at the back. Adam rationed out water and grain and dried grasses and started to check the animals over. Miguel came up behind him, holding the lantern so he could see. “How are they doing?”

“Not good.” Adam applied ointment to a cut on a fetlock. “Pushing them as hard as we are in this sort of country’s taking its toll.” The animals were certainly suffering. Their ribs were starting to show through their hides. It wasn’t possible to carry enough feed to keep them in any sort of condition.

“It’s inevitable.” Miguel put his hand on the horse’s leg, feeling for the heat of infection. “As long as they don’t go lame we’ll still be able to ride them.” He slapped Adam hard on the shoulder. “Stop worrying. Come and eat.” It was the first flash of Miguel’s innate good humour that Adam had seen in a good long while.

In the smaller room at the front of the building, the one that was nearer the street, Charlo had gotten a small fire going, feeding it bits of the broken doorframe until he had a good blaze. A much-welcomed pot of coffee was already warming. He set out their supplies. Their diet was not as rich and as varied as it had been before. They still had dried fish, smoked cheese and bacon and rock-hard, twice baked bread, but soon they would be reduced to eating the dried strips of meat that tasted like leather and hard-tack biscuits, washed down with stale water. To make the oil last longer, Miguel put out the lantern, and they ate their meal by firelight while the wind moaned outside, and the thunder crashed across heaven.

Outside, unnoticed, night had fallen. The storm raged harder than ever. Thunder rolled continuously, and there was a constant flicker of lightening: sometimes nearer, sometimes further away. The air was charged with a strange tension that made their skins crawl. Charlo still fretted over lost time and distance, but even he was glad to be under some sort of roof.

Lit by the uncertain light of the fire, all their faces were dirty, unshaven and showing the strain of the journey. There was no water to spare for washing, and all of them stank. Adam scratched at his cheek and his chin. His three-day old stubble was starting to itch. He considered shaving dry with the razor sharp edge of his knife. It wasn’t a pleasant operation and always left his face raw, but looking around at his companions, he decided that the discomfort might almost be worth it. They began to look like a bunch of bandits themselves.

Tired as they were, there was no point in trying to sleep. While the violent forces of nature did not intimidate them, the storm was too noisy, too immediate, too intimately close to be ignored. Instead of sleeping, Adam and Miguel swapped tales of the mountains for those of the desert, and Charlo told them of summer in Spain.

Around about midnight, Charlo went outside to relieve himself. Adam and Miguel regarded one another over the embers of the fire.

“Tell me honestly,” Adam said quietly. “What are our chances of catching up with them? In all this vast boneyard, with the horses failing, will we ever find Valenzuela?”

Miguel poked a stick into the fire and watched the sparks jump around it. “Dead or alive, we’ll find her, although what her condition might be when we do…” He looked up at Adam. His dark eyes swallowed the light. “That’s something you have to prepare yourself for, my friend.”

Adam knew what Miguel was saying. It was a thing he had been thinking about for some time, and it was a subject that didn’t make for comfortable contemplation. Torak and his rough crew of bandits and desperados did not have a reputation for treating women with respect. The four walls and the fragment of roof formed an oasis of calmness around him, but they did little to shelter Adam’s troubled soul.

Charlo’s bellow brought both men scrambling onto their feet. They grabbed their guns and hurried outside.

The electric storm raged all around them but, in between flashes of lightening, the dark was complete. The hot wind lifted the dust and blew it into their faces, blinding their eyes. Adam looked this way and that and called out to Charlo. The boom of the thunder drowned out his voice. As the lightening flickered again, he saw the scene in a succession of starkly lit images: the broken windows and doorways, the crumbling walls. In the centre of the street, away to his left, Charlo was down on the ground. Adam thought he was fighting with two, savage animals. He touched Miguel on the arm and pointed. The two men started to run.

As they got closer, they saw that Charlo’s assailants were men, although, indeed, they did fight like beasts. Adam kicked out at one of them and caught him squarely under the chin, knocking him backwards and all but breaking his neck. The man landed flat on his back in the dirt. In the next flash of lightening, Adam got a look at his face. He had ugly, Indian features twisted into a bestial snarl by hate. He wore a dirty white man’s shirt and a grubby breech-clout over his trousers. With a snarl, he lunged up at Adam, straight off the ground. There was a glint of steel in his hand. Adam found a broad bladed knife driven straight at his belly. He stepped aside and shot the man in the face.

A second shot sounded close behind him. He swung around. Miguel was holding a smoking pistol. The Mexican was sweating and looked vaguely sick. The second attacker lay sprawled at his feet, the back of his head blown away. Both the dead men were Indian types with sharp, well-weathered features and black braided hair. Their clothes were a mixture of Indian and Mexican garb, and they both carried guns, hatchets and knives. They had been out to do murder and had come equipped for the task.

Adam offered Charlo a hand and pulled him onto his feet. The Spaniard had put up a fight for his life, and he was covered with blood. There were several long, shallow cuts on his rib cage and another along the length of his forearm. He was bleeding profusely from elbow to wrist. He didn’t whimper or whine. Angrily, he shook the blood from his fingers. “They came up behind me,” he said with a snarl. “There are more of them. They vanished into the shadows” His words were echoed by thunder.

The lightening flashed. Someone shot at them out of the ruins. The bullet ploughed into the ground between Adam and Charlo and made the earth spurt. The three men dived in three different directions and scrambled for cover. Adam and Miguel still had their six guns in hand. They slid into the shelter of the broken buildings, each of them, by unspoken agreement, going his own, separate way. Charlo made a bolt for the house where they’d made their encampment. His gun was still on his saddle and he felt a strong need to recover it.

Adam ducked ‘round a corner, slipped to the left and then to the right. He moved like a big, rangy cat: in his dark trail clothes, a shadow in the deeper darkness dodging the flashes of light.

He rounded a corner that took him out of sight of the street, then paused to gather his wits and to steady his breathing, and to get some idea, in the dark, of his bearings. So, Torak had sent his renegade ‘breeds to kill them. That had to say something about the man’s state of mind. Perhaps they had gotten closer to his hidden stronghold than they had supposed. It didn’t worry Adam at all that his opponents had Indian blood in their veins. The months he had spent living with the Shoshone and with his Pauite friends had taught him the ways that an Indian thought.

He quietened his breathing and calmed his heartbeat and listened to the sounds of the night. He heard the lonely wind whisper its secrets; it sighed for the souls of the dead. Thunder grumbled a long way away. He thought for a moment that storm might be moving off. Then the lightening flickered right overhead, and the sky-gods roared. He heard nothing else; nothing closer; nothing to tell him that danger was close at hand.

Very carefully, he stuck his head ‘round a corner, following it up with the gun. A long stretch of wall reached into the darkness. With his back to the brickwork, he ran, swift and silent on the balls of his feet, to the next corner and sidled around it. Now he approached the street from a different angle, along an alley between two, ruined walls. Each wall had a gaping doorway, minus its door. Adam crept up to one, his eyes intent on the other. He wasn’t about to take any chances. He listened again and heard nothing: not the soft sound of a footfall nor the slide of leather on stone, nothing other than his own quiet breath, the pulse of his blood and the omnipresent storm.

The street was deserted. Adam went down it on soft, soundless feet. In Indian fashion, he watched every which-way at once. The Colt in his hand was a big responsibility. He had friends out there as well as enemies, and he couldn’t afford to shoot the wrong man.

At the end of the street was a maze of small buildings in worse repair than the rest. No wall stood more than shoulder height, and many had fallen into loose piles of rubble, their substance and structure returning to the desert from which they came. The ground was loose and granular, threatening to crunch underfoot. Adam moved even more carefully. The short hair rose on the back of his neck, and sweat trickled under his shirt. There was someone moving somewhere in front of him; he could sense it. He tasted it on his tongue.

He slid around one wall, edged his way past another. He saw two men in front of him. Both had their backs turned to him and were looking away. He levelled the Colt, aiming carefully at a point between the nearest man’s shoulder blades. Then he let out a breath and lowered the gun. The two men were Miguel and Charlo. They were intent on something in front of them that was out of Adam’s sight and had no thought at all for anything that might be behind them.

Adam saw a figure move. His clothes were much the same shade as the walls and the rubble, a fringed leather shirt and dusty grey pants. Lank, black hair hung down from beneath a soft, felted hat. He moved with a stealthy, lethal grace, unheard above the constant noise of the storm. He had a rifle in his hands, and he aimed it at Charlo’s back.

Adam yelled a warning. At the same time, he stepped to one side to clear his own shot. The half-breed fired, but he was already dead when he pulled the trigger. The bullet went high in the sky, and the man who had fired it pitched forward onto his face.

The three men stared at the body while the thunder echoed the gunshot. A flare of flickering lightening lit the scene up. Another man moved in the bright, blue-white light, firing a snap shot upward from the cover of a half-tumbled wall. Adam spun round and shot straight from the hip. At that range he couldn’t miss. The ambusher’s chest exploded in a dark flower of blood.

“Adam.” Charlo called out his name.

Adam turned. What he saw he would never forget. Miguel had been shot. He was down on the ground, and he wasn’t moving. Adam went to him, his heart in his mouth, not really believing, not wanting to understand. Miguel was unconscious, breathing in great, snoring gasps. Crouching down at his side, Adam reached out to touch him. His hands came away wet with blood. He stared at them in something akin to amazement, as if he’d never seen blood before. A great wave of emotions swept over him, shock, grief and horror foremost among them. How would he ever tell Don Estaban?

“Adam! Watch out!” Charlo’s yell split the night.

Adam’s head came up, his eyes wide with surprise. Sorronoso the half-breed loomed over him, his sharp-edged hatchet held high in the air. His face was contorted with hatred and rage. The Colt forgotten on the ground at his side, Adam stared his death full in the face. He started to rise. Sorronoso screamed as he leapt from the top of the wall.

Charlo’s big gun spoke twice, a loud, booming bark. Both balls went in through the half-breed’s chest and burst out of his back. The force of the impact carried him backwards. He was dead before his head hit the ground.

Adam unfastened Miguel’s blood-soaked clothes. The bullet had torn its way into his belly: a neat, second navel alongside the first. It had angled upwards, glanced off bone and exited out through the back somewhere just under the heart. The exit wound was a huge, jagged crater that kept on filling with blood.

Adam tried to push the blood back with his hands, but it just wouldn’t stop. It overflowed and ran through his fingers and dripped off his wrists to the ground. He closed his eyes tight in agony. Miguel was dying and nothing he could do would prevent it.

Working closely and carefully together, Adam and Charlo carried Miguel back to the shelter of the four, standing walls. By the light of the fire, Adam packed the wounds with cloth and bound them up tightly. The bleeding slowed but it didn’t stop. Miguel’s skin was already grey and cold to the touch. Only the scar on his face was livid.

Miguel never really woke up. He moaned and groaned with the pain of his wounds, and, once or twice, he opened his eyes, but he didn’t see the men who were with him, and he didn’t respond to his name. His strength faded with that of the storm as it drifted away to the east. He died just before dawn: simply sighing and going away. He left Adam behind with a great gulf of emptiness and a vast all-consuming rage: at himself, at Miguel, at the whole world in general. Adam took steps to contain the emotion, burying it deep down inside. It was something he’d work through later.

They interred Miguel in a shallow grave at the edge of the village and covered it over with rubble and rocks. It was all there was left to do for him. Adam turned his horse loose in the hope he might find his way home. Both he and Charlo were shocked and saddened and anxious to get away. They didn’t find much to say to each other, just a few taciturn words as they packed their gear and saddled their horses. The sun was a finger’s breadth above the horizon when they rode away.

 

Seven

Adam and Charlo stood side by side and stared down into the canyon. Adam had seen badlands before but never anything quite like this; he had the strangest notion that he was peering over the edge of the world. Below him were a thousand levels of wind-carved stone, a thousand slight variations of colour and tone, myriad shades of pink, gold and brown. Every level was different in density, hardness and structure and each had weathered in a different way. There was an infinite variation of fanciful forms.

The fissure, deep, wide and long, was filled up with sunlight. The sun hung directly over the two men’s heads and cast few shadows down in the chasm that opened up at their feet. Bright light and distance rubbed out the detail, but Adam thought he saw tumbled boulders and stubs of broken pathways here and there among the fallen debris of ages gone by. The bottom was a long way down.

As if to emphasise what Adam was thinking, Charlo kicked a pebble over the edge. The two men watched it morosely as it fell down and down, bounced off the eroded walls and skidded away out of sight. The sound lasted longer; the oddly metallic echo rebounded back and forth long after the small stone had reached the canyon floor. “Every chink of harness will be heard for miles,” Charlo said grimly.

“Then we don’t chink harness,” Adam responded. “And we muffle the horse’s hooves.” He was well aware of how far the ring of an iron-shod hoof against rock could travel, given the ideal conditions that they had here. His eyes were already searching along the broken rim, seeking signs of a trail leading down.

Again, Charlo’s thoughts mirrored his own. “And you think this is where they brought Valenzuela?”

It was a curious thing, Adam reflected, how the Spaniard managed to make the simplest question sound like a challenge and convert a statement into a personal affront. He supposed that, by now, he should be getting used to it. “It’s what I’d do. A man could hide an army in these canyons, if he could find himself a water hole and a little fodder for his horses. There’s probably a whole community hiding out down there: men, women and children.”

“You mean they live down there?” Charlo grimaced and made a gesture. “In a hole in the ground?”

“Outlaws have families too.” Adam couldn’t resist the dig, “We’re all barbarians, remember?” He turned on his heel and walked back to where the horses stood hitched to the ground. After a few moments more staring into the depths, Charlo followed him.

Back in their saddles, they rode along the edge of the canyon. They walked the horses only slowly, not working them hard in the full heat of the sun. Adam knew he should stop and water the animals if nothing else, but he had a devil riding his back, and the devil had spurs on his heels. He’d stop, he told himself, just as soon as he located a way to get down.

The route he eventually found was little more than a crumbling track: a place where an ancient landslide had broken away and left a steep slope of tumbled rocks and loose, sliding stone. Charlo pulled up beside him. “Are you planning on riding the horses down there?”

“No.” Adam climbed out of the saddle. “I figure on walking – and I suggest that’s what you do too.”

Charlo stepped down, but he still wore a doubtful expression. “Shouldn’t we rest up here for a while? Go down when it’s cooler?”

Adam looked at him over his horse’s back; his tawny eyes narrowed. “You sound like you’re scared, Marrinez.”

Hot temper blazed in Charlo’s eyes, was replaced at once with resentment, amusement and then calculation. “I’m not afraid of anything, Cartwright. If you can do it, so can I.”

Adam nodded, accepting the claim at face value. He figured he’d explain himself, just a little: just enough so that Charlo understood that he knew what he was doing. He was, after all, a reasonable man. “I’m going down now so that I can see where I’m going. When the sun starts to go down, these canyons fill up with shadows blacker than the inside of Satan’s hat. I don’t fancy climbing down in the dark.”

Charlo wasn’t about to take Adam’s word for anything. He looked at the sky and then at the western horizon, calculating the angles. “I see what you mean.”

Adam picked up his reins. “One thing you ought to know before we go any further; this is our point of no return. From here, if we’re careful, we’ve got just enough food and water to get back. If we go on…” He left the sentence unfinished. He figured Charlo could work out the rest for himself.

For a second or two, Charlo considered it, then gathered his own trailing rein. “Why don’t you lead the way, Cartwright?”

The first few yards were very steep. Adam quickly discovered that high-heeled riding boots were not the ideal footwear for climbing. The rock had degraded to slippery shale that slid away from under his feet. The big bay horse balked at the edge and then followed, his ears laid back and showing the white of his eyes. The packhorse, tied by a long lead line to Adam’s saddle, refused to go at all until Charlo twisted his tail and started him down. Adam soon found that what he’d thought was a trail was in fact a thin fault line where two immense blocks of stone had shifted apart in the far distant past. There was a path – of sorts – but it was narrow and treacherous underfoot; in places it had fallen away entirely, and he found himself out on the scree slope with the horses sliding away from him and his own balance more than a little precarious. Each step created a small avalanche that tumbled all the way to the bottom.

As nearly as he could, he followed the shoulder of the rock fall. He was quickly drenched in sweat; his heart was pounding inside his chest and his hands were covered in blood, cut to ribbons by the sharp edged stones. He paused to look back, to catch his breath and to see if Charlo was coming. The Spaniard was true to his word. Grim faced, he was scrambling after him, leading his horse by the reins. Looking up, he met the challenge in Adam’s eyes with comparative composure.

A devil’s-breath wind, hot and dry and carrying the stink of doom rose up into their faces. The sun beat down without mercy, baking their backs. A vast cloud of dust, stirred up by their feet, drifted around them. Adam questioned the wisdom of his own decision. The dust was a give-away. Any bandit who chanced to look over his shoulder would know their position instantly. Perhaps he should have waited until nightfall and tried the descent in the dark. It might have been suicidal. In any event, the commitment was made, once started on the downward path there was no turning back. There was no place to stop and no place to rest; they had to keep going right to the bottom.

Adam arrived on floor of the canyon in a slide of stone and loose earth. He was breathless and sweating and bloody and flushed with success. Both his horses were trembling and flecked with white foam, but both had made it down safely. A moment later, Charlo landed beside him in a shambling, uncontrolled run. Adam grabbed his arm as he went by and saved him from falling over. Looking back the way they had come, it was nothing short of miraculous that they made it at all.

Adam checked the horses’ legs carefully, looking for fresh cuts and bruises and searching for the signs of incipient lameness, while Charlo tried to work out their bearings. It wasn’t an easy task. The canyon ran from somewhere more or less northwest to somewhere southeast. The sun, their one true means of telling time and direction, had disappeared over the western rim. Night already filled the valley floor, and, as he watched, it crept stealthily up the eastern escarpment.

“So,” The Spaniard asked finally, ”Where in all of hell are we?”

It occurred to Adam that Charlo’s assessment of their position might not be all that far wrong. He straightened up briefly and squinted around him, not really expecting to find a sign post but looking, just the same. “Somewhere north of the border,” he said at last, turning back to the packhorse. “These badlands don’t start in earnest until you get out of Mexico.”

“Which way do you propose we go?” To Charlo, all the vague and broken paths looked the same.

Finished with the horses, Adam dusted off his hands. “North,” he said, without hesitation. “That’s the way they’ve been headed all along. I see no reason for them to turn around now.”

“You seem very sure of yourself. If you’re wrong, you’re taking a risk with Valenzuela’s life.”

Adam pushed his hat back on head and pulled a long breath. He planted both hands squarely on his hips and thought about it. How could he explain to Charlo about that special feeling a man got in his gut when he knew he was right? Whatever happened, he was taking charge of things now, and it was just about time that Charlo figured it out. He looked around him at the bright blue sky and the night-shrouded rocks. “Let’s just say that I know this country a whole lot better than you do.”

That was a point that Charlo conceded. He made a vain attempt to brush the dust from the front of his pants, then swung himself up and settled his butt in the high Spanish saddle. “You lead the way then.”

Adam mounted the bay and turned its head northwards, pulling the packhorse with him. He didn’t intend to go far. He was tired and so were the horses. He didn’t look back, but he was well aware that Charlo fell into line just behind him.

It wasn’t long before he found the spot he was looking for: something less than an hour. It was a place where they could make their camp in the shelter of the canyon wall without any danger of being overlooked. Wind-borne grit and dust had carved out a smooth hollow in the rock, and there was an overhang to dissipate the smoke of their fire. They heated water for coffee and, by mutual consent, cooked the last of their bacon and beans. Adam fed the horses: there wasn’t a great deal of fodder left, and he was concerned. The animals hadn’t eaten well for a week, and he wasn’t happy with their condition. It wouldn’t be long before their strength began to falter.

By the time they had completed the trail-camp chores and prepared their evening meal, the sky had changed from blue to silver-grey and then to an ever-deepening purple; soon, it would be velvet black. In the depths of the canyon it was already totally dark and silent. There were not even the soft sounds of the desert night to intrude on the absolute quiet. They found they were talking in whispers. Adam and Charlo sat either side of the fire and, as they ate, watched the dance of the firelight on each other’s face.

Both men had changed. They had lost weight; their faces were gaunt and their eyes were haunted. Their conversation over the meal was monosyllabic and incidental. Charlo waited until his plate was empty before he said what was on his mind. “How much longer before we find them?”

Adam mopped up his plate with his last piece of bread. “Perhaps tomorrow,” he said without looking up. “Perhaps the day after.” He wondered how the devil he was supposed to know. He did know for certain that they’d better find the bandit’s stronghold soon. Their supplies were almost exhausted, and neither they, nor their horses, could go on for long without food or water. He figured he didn’t need to spell it out for Charlo chapter and verse; they had already discussed the state of their resources, and the Spaniard wasn’t a fool. Charlo, however, had other things on his mind besides the sparcity of their provisions. His question had merely been an opening gambit.

“I think we need to discuss tactics, Cartwright. What do you plan to do when we get there?”

Adam chewed his last mouthful of food carefully before he swallowed it down, then followed it with the remains of his coffee. It gave him a few seconds to put his thoughts into order. “We’ll have to sneak into their camp at night and steal food and water: enough to get the three of us out of this desert. But first we’ll have to study the lay of the land, figure out how their camp is laid out, where they post their watchmen, where the men sleep and where they keep Valenzuela.”

Charlo sat very still. Adam wondered if the man even bothered to breathe. He saw his eyes glitter in the light of the dying flames. “You seem very practised at this.”

Adam chose to ignore the remark. “When we’ve got her, we’ll steal fresh horses from their picket lines. If we’re lucky, we can run the rest off: slow down the pursuit some. We might have to fight our way out.”

“You think they’ll come after us?”

Adam almost laughed in his face. “Marrinez, you can bet your life on it.”

Adam took the first watch himself. Wrapped in his blankets, Charlo slept soundly. He didn’t toss or turn or thrash about. It was the deep, still sleep of the innocent and the just. Adam wondered at it. Adam took his rifle and moved away from the glowing embers that were all that remained of the fire. If unwelcome visitors came sneaking around, he had a better chance of spotting them from out in the rocks. Besides, it wasn’t cold, and he felt the need to be by himself.

He discovered a halfway comfortably spot between two wind-worn boulders, checked it out carefully for snakes and settled in for a very long wait. While he waited, he considered their situation. It wasn’t good. There were pretty long odds against being able to snatch Valenzuela out from under Torak’s nose, even with Charlo along to help. There was a damn good chance that both of them would end up shot before they got out of these canyons. It was a prospect he viewed with a certain amount of equanimity. He guessed he’d accepted death as a probability the day he’d started out on this trip. One thing he knew for absolute certain, he didn’t mean to start back without the woman he intended to make his wife.

Around one in the morning, he woke up Charlo and the two men changed places. The Spaniard found his own place among the rocks while Adam wrapped himself in his blanket and settled his head into the bow of his upturned saddle. He had a very hard time getting to sleep.

Morning. When Adam woke up, early sunshine was creeping down the western escarpment. He smelled coffee. Charlo had used some of the last of their water to make up a brew. Adam couldn’t object. His eyes were gritty and his mouth was as dry as the dust.

After a meagre breakfast of bread and cold beans, they saddled up and moved on. They rode only slowly, picking their path through the twists and the turns of the canyons and heading, generally, north. Adam rode out in front, letting his instinct lead him; Charlo followed behind with the packhorse. As small and insignificant as tiny, blue backed beetles on the face of creation, they rode deeper into the ferocious, fractured and harshly beautiful expanse of badlands that was called, variously, ‘The Devil’s Kitchen’ and ‘The Cauldrons of Hell’. It wasn’t easy riding. There were no true trails to speak of – just vague suggestions of pathways that meandered around the twisted formations and disappeared beneath the rock piles.

The horse’s hooves, wrapped up in canvas, made little sound on the shale. It was so quiet that the sound of their breathing was loud. Adam didn’t like it one bit. The sun was pitiless. At this time of day it shone directly into the canyon. The heat bore down like a physical force on his back. He wiped his hand over his mouth and looked all around him. The canyon was filled up with heat haze and the sharp smell of hot stone. He couldn’t see anything moving, but he had that inexplicable itch centred squarely between his shoulder blades that told him with unerring certainty that he was being watched.

He pulled up his horse. The end of the canyon closed up in front of him and the path he was following petered out. He gazed up at the rock wall before him. It was crumpled and broken; rock falls slumped from either side. There was no way out. Charlo rode up beside him He didn’t look at Adam but stared at the blocked way ahead. Adam narrowed his eyes and glanced across at him, daring him to criticise – to make any remark at all. Charlo had the good sense to stay silent, but the accusation on his face was quite plain enough.

“It’s another dead end,” Adam said, unnecessarily stating the obvious. It was the third of the morning. “We’ll have to turn back.”

Charlo stood up in his stirrups, taking the weight off his butt. He had shown remarkable stamina, but both men were starting to suffer from the long, hard days in the saddle.

“The trail forked about half a mile back; it was narrow, but we might be able to force our way through.”

Adam conceded. It was a reasonable suggestion and right there and then, he couldn’t think of a better idea. He moistened his mouth with the tepid water from his canteen. There was no longer any to spare for the horse. Then he reined the animal ‘round. “Let’s go take a look at it.” Carlo fell in behind him, and they rode back the way they had come.

The cleft that Charlo had spotted was certainly narrow, and the bottom was littered with shattered rocks and rubble and the accumulated debris of a thousand years of attrition: the war of weather on stone. Restricted though the passageway was, winding its way between two vast upthrustings of rock, it did provide access to another, wider canyon that led off in that same, north-westerly direction that Adam wanted to go. Working together, it took the two men an hour of hard, backbreaking labour to manhandle the reluctant horses through.

The sight that greeted Adam’s sore eyes as he led his saddle horse around the last, house-sized obstruction fairly took his breath away. The floor of the canyon was a mile-wide desolation of broken stones: great jagged slabs stacked one on the other to form towers that teetered and monuments that leaned and banks of sliding shale that shone in the sunlight. Standing close to his elbow, Charlo lifted a hand to point; “It that a trail down there?”

Adam screwed up his eyes against the glare. He saw the feature that Charlo referred to: a lighter line that switched back and forth through the jumbled landscape; sometimes it passed out of sight between a larger boulder; sometimes it was obscured by the dirt, only to re-emerge a little further along. Was it a track, or just a paler striation in the earth? Adam just wasn’t certain.

Charlo didn’t give him the chance to make up his mind. “Come on, Cartwright, let’s get moving.” He swung onto his horse, kicked it hard in the ribs and rode off down the slope.

Adam snatched at his breath. He almost shouted a warning, to call Charlo back, but he hesitated, afraid of attracting attention. In any even, he doubted the Spaniard would listen. He was riding out of the shadow into the sunlight, making himself a sitting target for anyone who might have a rifle pointed in his direction and the inclination to shoot.

Poised undecided between fight and flight, Adam was ready to ride to the rescue, ready to turn tail and run. He watched Charlo’s progress with baited breath. He half expected the desert to open up at the Spaniard’s feet and swallow him whole. He was most surprised when nothing of the kind happened. Charlo reached the foot of the slope without any harm and walked his horse back and forth for a bit, looking down at the ground. Then he lifted his head and waved his arm in the air, calling Adam down. Adam couldn’t see the expression worn on the handsome face, but he could imagine; it would be something just short of contempt. He gathered his reins and stepped into the saddle. Leading the packhorse, he set off down the hill.

An animal track or a natural feature, Adam couldn’t decide. It could have been either or, perhaps, some of each. There was no indication that men ever used it. The trail, if that’s what it was, wandered on up the valley, just showing itself here and there. Because it made travelling easy, Adam decided to follow it. The horses were starting to stumble, and the men were starting to sway. He wiped his face with his bandanna and then tied it loosely around his neck. With the packhorse still trailing behind him, he set out in front.

The vague trail narrowed eventually and became more distinct. Adam was sure now that he was on the right track. It dipped down sharply between two large boulders and turned abruptly left. Adam drew rein and studied the ground. He wasn’t absolutely certain, but he thought he saw hoof prints, faint in the dust and partially brushed away.

Charlo’s mount crowded the packhorse from behind, pushing it into the big bay’s rump. “What do you see?”

“I’m not certain.” Adam pulled breath. “It might be what we’re looking for.” He clicked to his horse with his tongue. Leaning a long way out of the saddle, his eyes on the ground, he nudged the bay forward.

The world erupted around him with the flash and thunder of gunfire. Adam was stunned by the noise. It came at him from everywhere at once: from in front, from behind, from the rocks above the path. He got no chance to recover. The packhorse was hit twice in the neck by flying lead and went down squealing. His lead rope, looped around Adam’s saddle horn, snapped tight and jerked the bay off balance, pulling him round. That probably saved Adam’s life. With a waspish whine, a rifle bullet sped by his head.

Adam heard the thud of lead into flesh and felt his horse shudder. He cast the rope loose. Then they were falling end over end as the bay fell off the trail onto rough, broken ground, sliding down the hill to the bottom. He didn’t know what happened to Charlo, ‘though he saw his dark horse down on the ground, kicking.

The bay landed hard on his side and couldn’t get up. Shot in the chest, he was dying. Adam was trapped in the saddle with his leg underneath. The Colt was still in his holster and his rifle was under his knee. Both were pinned to the ground by half a ton of dead meat; there was no way on earth he could get to either.

There was grit in his mouth and dust flying all ‘round him. He couldn’t see anything. He wasn’t in very much pain and nothing was broken, but he was simply and effectively trapped. He couldn’t make out why he wasn’t dead.

Adam kicked at the horse with his free leg, urging it to one final effort. The animal didn’t respond. Adam thought he was dead. A shadow fell over him. Adam blinked the dirt out of his eyes. A familiar face hovered somewhere between him and the far-distant sky. He squinted his eyes into focus and found himself gazing, as he had expected, into the broad Mexican features of Embule Torak.

Smiling a welcome, Torak hooked his thumbs on his gunbelt. “Well, if it isn’t my horse thief friend from north of the border. I always knew we would meet again. I hope you find yourself well, Señor?”

Adam gritted his teeth and sucked in his breath. He had to control his temper. For all his apparent bonhomie, Torak was a violent, volatile and unpredictable man. Adam knew that if he wanted to stay alive, he must put all thoughts of what might have happened to Valenzuela out of his mind and sit on his anger. He let out the breath in a long, soft sigh. “Torak, get this damn carcass off of my leg.”

Torak’s over-friendly grin widened to display his profusion of big, blunt teeth: the bright, white smile that Adam remembered. “Si, si, Señor Cartwright. It will be my pleasure. But first you will oblige me by putting both of your hands behind your head, eh?” Pinned under the horse as he was, Adam found himself with no choice but to comply.

Charlo had survived being thrown from his horse. Apart from some scrapes and some bruises he was unhurt. At least, he hadn’t stopped lead, and he could still stand up -although not without swaying. It occurred to Adam that the ambush was not exactly as it had first appeared. The bandits had been shooting at horseflesh, cutting the animals down in a hail of hot lead and aiming to capture the men alive. He had to admit their plan was effective; they had succeeded admirably.

The two men were searched and disarmed. The bandits were brutal about it. With their arms bound behind them at the wrists and the elbows, they walked the last, rough mile to the stronghold. Adam got his chance to look the encampment over, ‘though not in quite the way that he had intended.

The settlement was a good deal larger and more complex than Adam had anticipated and had obviously occupied its present site for a very long time. Its squalid urban sprawl filled one entire end of the canyon, while, in contrast, the multi-coloured, wind-carved walls formed a magnificent backdrop that made it look small. Tents and hide-covered tepees and crude canvas shelters all the shades of dirt and dust intermingled in a haphazard fashion with more solid structures constructed of low, mud walls and sun silvered shingles. It had more the frenetic, disorganised appearance of a raw, frontier township than of a temporary encampment of outlaws. That air of permanence was greatly enhanced by the presence of founding industries: carpentry, iron working and distilling. Smoke rose lazily from smokeholes and crude, misshapen chimneys. Adam smelled wood smoke and roasting meat, hot iron from the forges and the sour stench of fermenting grain, cheap woman’s perfume, tobacco, human sweat and excrement and a faint, underlying scent of general decay.

At the far side of the canyon, where the ground fell away, there was water: the well spring and life force of the small community – it simply bubbled up out of the ground. Cattle and horses grazed on the sparse, desert grasses.

The narrow, uneven streets, roughly paved, were alive with the sounds of children laughing and crying and being comforted by soft, soothing voices; men shouted, women sang, there was even a stray strain of music. There were yellow, cur dogs that yapped and sniffed and urinated at every corner, brown-feathered chickens and snowy white geese, lop-eared burros and wide-backed mules and picketed horses harnessed in fine Mexican leather with silver trappings, and a big, lazy, tabby cat asleep in the sun.

There was certainly a cosmopolitan population. The abrupt and unannounced arrival of prisoners in their midst caused a stir of excitement, and the curious gathered to watch them pass by. Adam and Charlo had been escorted closely by their captors and harried at every step. Stunned by the comprehensiveness of their capture, the men found it hard to resist. Torak’s men tormented then with insults and laughter and took a savage delight in nudging them with their horse’s shoulders to make them stumble and fall. Adam had gone down several times, and both men were bruised and bloodied. Adam had lost his hat, and the sun made him giddy and somewhat confused. He found that the inquisitive, thrusting faces revolved around him in slow and stately procession: ugly faces that laughed and taunted and jeered. It was going to be hard to find a friend in this place, and, right now, a friend was just what he needed.

There were a great many half-breeds and Indians among the crowd – half a dozen different tribes were represented – Mexicans and white men of every description and a scattering of Negroid types. He saw men, women and children of every age from venerable grey beards to babies in arms. They all showed an absorbing interest in the exhausted, shambling men.

Torak allowed his people to jostle and push the two men into a small, partially paved square. Lifting his head, Adam saw a smile on the big bandit’s face. Torak was content, so it seemed, to let them be mauled, punched and pummelled just as long as they weren’t too badly hurt. From the expression on his face, he rather enjoyed it. Adam’s senses reeled as a hundred voices heaped scorn and derision in Spanish, French and English down on his head. The noise flowed over him in a dizzying wave and carried him down.

The amusement value in beating the daylights out of two bound and helpless men was a transient thing, and it quickly faded. It was evening; the canyon was darkening as the sun slid into the west. It was time to eat, and food was a greater attraction. The crowd lost interest and gradually drifted away. Adam and Charlo were left with Torak and ten or a dozen of his most favoured men.

Torak rode close on his tall, grey gelding. Legs wide apart, Adam stood swaying. He felt blood on his face, running freely from a fresh cut on his temple. For a moment he though that the bandit would ride him down. Torak leaned a long way out of the saddle. His dark eyes were hard. “So, Señor horse-thief, where is my good friend Sorronoso and his companeros, eh? Did you kill them, you and your friend? Is that why they haven’t come home?”

Neither Adam nor Charlo made answer. It was their expressions that gave them away, and besides, Torak – a wily old desert fox – had already guessed the truth. He grunted. Their silence gave him his answer. In the gathering gloom, he stepped out of the saddle and the grey horse was led away. The bandit leader wasn’t taking any chances. He pointed to a spot on the ground. “On your knees, gentlemen. Both of you.”

Someone shoved Adam hard in the back. Trussed like a turkey for a thanksgiving meal and with a strong man behind him forcing him down, Adam had no choice but to bow his head and obey. With Charlo beside him, he knelt down in the dirt.

Torak prowled back and forth in front of them. “You are a determined and resourceful man, horse-thief. I knew this the first time I met you. Now I find that you are also intelligent and persistent – a dangerous combination. You have cost me some very fine men.”

Charlo’s sharp eyes arrowed from one to the other as he tried to make sense of the conversation. “How is it that you two know one another?”

With a long, slow release of breath, Adam explained, “We’ve met before.” This wasn’t going the way he had planned it. He raised his face. “I guess you’ve got the upper hand, Torak. What are you going to do?”

The large, amazingly white teeth appeared again, this time in a vulpine grin. “Much as I like you, I can hardly let you go – not this time. I must, of course, kill you – but there is no hurry. I think that tomorrow will do. In the meantime, there is someone you really must meet.” He made a swift gesture. Equantor Sebron stepped out of the twilight pulling Valenzuela with him by the wrist.

The woman’s beauty was undiminished by the harshness of her ordeal, but her appearance was changed. Gone was the fair skinned, sophisticated, grand Spanish lady. Her fine complexion was no longer porcelain-pale but tinted a light golden brown. Her black hair, long and unfastened, flew in wild disarray. One of the Mexican women had loaned her some clothes: an ankle length skirt in a coarse brownish material and a simple, peasant blouse. Her magnificent breasts strained against the thin fabric as her chest lifted to pull in her breath. Teeth bared and dark eyes burning with anger, she fought with Sebron every inch of the way.

Adam saw the men gathering, raw anticipation plain on their faces. He had a terrible sense of foreboding. His heart climbed into his throat and threatened to make him vomit. Laughing, Sebron shoved Valenzuela in Torak’s direction. Her bare feet stumbled against the ground. Torak caught her deftly and spun her around to face in the captive’s direction. Adam saw her stricken expression.

Lightly bearded, covered in dirt, sweat and blood, they were scarcely recognisable. Valenzuela knew them at once. With a cry, she tried to wrench herself free, but Torak’s grip was too strong. He held her easily in his big hands.

“You’ve come a long way to visit the lady. I wouldn’t want you to die disappointed.” Torak studied the two men with some speculation, reading the desperate looks in their eyes. “I can see that she means something to you.” He dragged Valenzuela hard against him, crushing her close to his chest. “I told you what would happen if your friends tried to take you away.” He threw her down to the ground.

“No!” With a bellow, Charlo lunged to his feet. From close behind, someone laid a gun-barrel along side his head and he dropped, senseless, into the dirt. He was the lucky one.

Adam was witness to what happened next. He turned his head away and tried not to look. Sebron jammed the muzzle of his pistol under his chin. “Keep your eyes open, Señor; blink, and I’ll blow your head off.”

Adam knew that he meant it.

 

*******

 

Equantor Sebron lit his habitual, small black cheroot and lifted the flap of the tent. The small, roughly paved area outside had cleared and was all but deserted now that the excitement was over and the prisoners had been hauled away. The golden gloom of the evening had deepened into a silvery night. The stars and the new-risen moon were bright in the sky; on the ground, watch fires and lamplight brightened the bandit encampment. Somewhere, a woman was singing a love song as a man strummed on a guitar. The night had an almost mystical quality of peace and tranquillity with an underlying thread of tension that couldn’t be concealed or denied: it flowed like a slow, deep river with a furious undertow. The aesthetic aspect was entirely lost on Sebron. He had other things on his mind. With the cigar clamped firmly between his teeth he allowed the flap to fall into place and went back inside. His youthful, handsome features were aglow with a fierce anticipation.

Within, the tent was aglow with the light of several ancient and somewhat battered lanterns and noisy with conversation, laughter and the rattle of dice. Although it was crowded with men eating and drinking and dancing with satin skinned, dark eyes women, Embule Torak had claimed a table all to himself. A piled plate was in front of him and a tankard of wine at his elbow. Sebron hitched his thumbs onto the edge of his gunbelt and sauntered over, chewing the cigar. “Why don’t you let me kill them now? You know that I made the Americano a promise.”

Torak tore chicken meat off the bone with his big, blunt teeth. When he spoke, it was around the mouthful of food. “You are too impetuous, my young friend. I am in no hurry to deal with the horse thief and his companion. First, we will see if he lives up to the reputation he claims.”

Sebron’s eyes narrowed. His lips worked around the cigar. “I don’t see the need to take chances.”

Torak laughed and sprayed bits of chicken; “Where’s your sense of adventure, eh?”

“Just what are you planning, Torak?”

“Tomorrow you will see. All the arrangements are made.” Torak emptied the tankard and banged it down on the table. With a wave of his arm, he called to a serving girl, “More wine here! Hey! Bring more wine!”

A copper skinned wench with a wicked smile came over with a flagon and poured out more drink. Torak reached under her skirt and ran his hand over her rounded bottom. His eyes on the girl, he said, “Tomorrow, the fun will begin in earnest. We will find out just how much entertainment Señor Adam Cartwright can provide.” His broad face split into a smile, and he pulled the serving girl onto his knee.

 

*******

It was dark in the shelter. Little light filtered in from outside. It was cold, and it smelled of hide and leather, musty old cloth and lingering pain. For the two men who lay bound hand and foot in the darkness, it was both a prison, with guards stationed outside the makeshift door, and a retreat from torment. Both men had taken a beating, but Charlo had fared the worse. Instead of absorbing the punishment and blotting out the pain, he had roared defiance and fought like a tiger. It had made him more interesting to their abusers. Both of his eyes were blackened with bruises, and his lips were swollen and split. Adam could hear the rasp of his breathing – and of his own. From outside, and a lot further away, came the sound of men’s voices raised in some kind of drunken celebration.

Adam was empty: mind, heart and soul; he was totally drained of emotion. He didn’t want to start thinking again – didn’t want to remember. He lay on his back on a pile of broken harness with his bound arms trapped under him. His belly hurt from the punches he’d taken and from growing hunger, and his mouth was woolly with thirst. Men had looked in on them from time to time, but no one had provided food or water. Something sharp jabbed him hard in the shoulder. He welcomed the pain. It gave him a focus for his attention: a physical discomfort to lessen the mental hurt.

He heard Charlo shift and groan in the darkness. The rhythm of his breathing changed as he tried to alter his uncomfortable position on a heap of half-empty sacks. Disembodied, his voice came out of the gloom, “Cartwright? Are you still alive?”

When he tried to answer, Adam discovered that his teeth were clenched tightly together. It took a conscious effort to unlock his jaw. “I’m alive.” Saying it made him acknowledge it really was so and unlocked the floodgates to pain.

In obvious discomfort, Charlo moved about some more. Then, “Cartwright – did they..?”

Adam chose not to answer – to let his silence speak for him. Instead he stared without seeing into the dark. He heard Charlo swallow followed by a harsh, gasping sob and he knew that the other man cried. Eventually, the noises subsided. Charlo said, brokenly, “I should have stopped them. I should have done something. I would rather be dead.”

A disjointed phrase sprang into Adam’s mind: one of his father’s adages from a very long time ago: ‘Be careful of what you wish for; the Lord might be glad to oblige.’ “We might not get a choice about that,” he offered dryly. He tested the ropes that bound him. There was no give in them at all. The man who had tied him up had done a professional job.

“Why does Torak call you ‘horse thief’?” Charlo inquired.

“It’s a long and involved story.”

“We seem to have plenty of time.”

So Adam told him the bones of it: his previous trip through the desert and his encounter with Torak’s band. He realised now, somewhat ruefully, that he should have left Torak to drown.

Charlo pulled in a deep, shuddering breath. “So how do we get out of this?”

Adam examined the future as it reshaped itself in front of him. He didn’t much like what he saw. “I’m not sure that we do.”

“You’re one tough hombre, Cartwright.” It was the closest Charlo would ever come to a complement.

Adam smiled grimly, although his head ached. “You too, Marrinez.”

The silence between them extended. Beyond the walls of the shelter, the raucous, drunken singing faded away as the bandits found their beds or sought out other amusements. The hour grew late. Adam allowed his mind to drift lightly over the later events of the evening. Once again, Torak had stood by with a benevolent smile on his broad featured face and allowed them to be rough-housed and beaten, but he had stepped in and put a stop to the violence before any serious damage was done. It occurred to Adam that the bandit leader had something special planned for their demise – something to make it interesting for everyone concerned. He doubted that it would be pleasant. The sharp jab in his shoulder became a positive pain and sudden cramp in his legs was agony. He made a big effort to roll off his back and made the pile of harness creak underneath him.

“Cartwright!” Charlo hissed at him loudly. “Somebody’s coming!” Adam lay still and both men held their breath.

An eternity passed before the sound came again. Adam wondered if Charlo had dreamed it. Then he heard it himself, a soft, stealthy scrabbling outside the door, and then a furtive footfall. The men prepared to do battle: to offer what resistance they could. The blanket lifted and a woman’s form, silhouetted briefly against the paler night sky, slipped inside.

Both Adam and Charlo knew without sight of her face or sound of her voice that it was Valenzuela, although how or why she came to be there, Adam couldn’t for a moment imagine. They struggled to sit up, and Charlo whispered her name, “Valetta!”

The woman carried a shuttered lantern, which she set down on the floor. As she opened the single panel, the lamplight fell on her face. Adam caught his breath and held it until he was giddy. He was shocked at the sight of her. Her eyes were deep and lightless, sunken into her skull; her cheekbones jutted. There were bruises all around her mouth, and the marks on her shoulders were livid. Adam’s emotions surged in his blood: rage and outrage, grief and unleavened hatred, compassion and something akin to disgust.

Charlo started again, “Valetta, are you..?” It was a stupid question and he bit it off short.

Valenzuela lifted her chin and gazed at him with those dark, empty eyes. Her lips didn’t quiver. “They have done nothing to hurt me.” Her voice was no more than a whisper. “I am a woman; what they have done, I will survive.”

In the dim, yellow light of the lantern, Adam and Charlo met each other’s eyes. They admired her courage and her savage resistance. “How come you’re here?” Adam asked softly “Did Torak’s men let you go?” If it was true, he could hardly believe it.

Valenzuela turned her gaze towards him. Her expression was all but unreadable. Her eyes were fathomless, but her spirit still dwelt in their depths, brave and indomitable. He knew that all her emotions were buried deep down inside, locked away to be dealt with very much later. It was the way he handled trauma himself.

“I made friends with some of the women,” she said simply. “They helped me get away long enough to help you escape.” She shrugged off the shawl that covered the torn top of her blouse and produced a short-bladed dagger. Adam saw that her nails, as she clasped the leather-wrapped hilt, were torn and bloody, evidence, if any were needed, of the fight she’d put up for her honour. She started to saw at the ropes that bound Charlo’s arms. “You have to get away from here now, just as fast as you can. In the morning, Torak will kill you for what you did to his men. He intends to skin you alive and stake you out in the sun.”

Adam hadn’t really expected less: it would take a strong man a long hour to die. “We’re not leaving without you.” He offered his wrists to the blade of the knife and within just a few seconds the woman had freed him. He started to pull at the cords on his legs and then rubbed the circulation back into his calves and his ankles.

Valenzuela shook her head, causing her dark hair to fly. “I have to go back. Soon, they will miss me, and then they will come after you.”

“They’ll do that anyway,” Adam told her quietly. “You must come with us.”

Her cheeks flushed hotly under the tan. “I will only slow you down.”

Charlo stood up on legs that still quivered and gathered her into his arms. “You took a great risk, coming here to save us.”

Valenzuela’s face was full of fear and defiance. For a moment she snuggled into her brother’s chest. “Not as great as the risk you took, coming after me to rescue me.”

Adam felt he should gather her up and offer her the love and the comfort that she deserved: the love that Charlo so unselfishly gave her. For some reason he couldn’t properly account for, the emotion just wasn’t in him. This was neither the moment nor the place for it, he told himself; they simply didn’t have time.

Charlo stroked the silk of his sister’s hair with his fingers and made soft, crooning noises; “There will be no argument. You are coming with us, mi querido, my darling, or we shall die where we stand.” Adam said nothing, but his eyes signalled agreement.

Valenzuela hesitated, but only briefly, before she made up her mind. It was clear to her that neither man would attempt an escape without her. “Then we must go quickly. The men who were set to guard you are drinking and playing dice. The women made sure they have plenty of wine.” For an instant, her old smile sparkled in the midst of her ruined face. “Every one else is sleeping.”

Adam didn’t believe that for a moment. “There’ll be guards on the guns and the horses and more men watching the trails.” Already, his back had developed an unaccountable itch.

Charlo gazed into his sister’s face with an absolute adoration that Adam envied. “The first thing is to get Valenzuela safely away. Then we’ll discuss a plan of campaign.”

Adam decided he didn’t have time to argue. He stepped past Charlo and lifted the blanket to peer outside. He judged the hour to be shortly after midnight. The moon was just setting over the canyon brim. The bandit’s encampment lay very quiet – too quiet to Adam’s thinking. It was mostly in darkness under the stars, although a few fires still burned here and there. Not all the bandits were safely asleep in their blankets; a slow moving figure was still to be seen, wending his sleepy way home. A yellow dog howled: a long, lonely sound that was broken off short by the abrupt and cruel application of the toe of somebody’s boot. A man’s voice was raised in a furious shout, and a woman answered him sharply: a short, loud argument, quickly quelled, that ended in violence or passion.

Not far away, four men sat ‘round an open campfire. They were talking loudly, laughing and drinking, passing the bottle around. One of them was clearly already asleep, his chin tucked into his breast. Of the others, Adam glimpsed fire-flushed faces and drink-glazed eyes beneath the large brimmed, Mexican hats. Apparently forgotten in the fervour of their celebration, their rifles stood stacked up beside them.

Adam lowered the blanket carefully back into place. His palms had sweated. He dried them off on the legs of his pants. His glance travelled quickly around the inside of the shelter. Made from crudely cured hides on a rough, wooden frame, it served as a storehouse for some of the goods the bandits had stolen, as well as a temporary prison. Saddles, bridles, blankets and heaps of old clothes were piled up on the ground. In vain, he searched for another way out.

He held out his hand to Valenzuela; “Let me have the knife.”

Using the dagger, he sawed through the crudely sewn seam that stitched two horse hides together. He made a hole just large enough for a man to step through. He gestured to Charlo. “You lead the way. Keep low and stay out of sight. I’ll help Valenzuela.”

Charlo glared at him angrily “I’ve a better idea, Cartwright. You go first. I’ll help my sister.”

Adam bristled briefly, just enough to make it look good. It wouldn’t do for the Spaniard to realise that he had been duped. Adam had always intended to go out first, and now he had got his own way.

With great stealth, he climbed through the hole. Even with the moon hidden behind the western escarpment, the sky was still bright. On swift, silent feet he crept to the front corner of the shelter. The Mexican guards were now very drunk. Two of them argued in Spanish about who would fetch the next bottle. The sleeping man was now curled on the ground, his feet to the fire. None of them looked in Adam’s direction; they seem to have forgotten what they were there for. It suited Adam’s purpose admirably. Without making the faintest whisper of sound, he slipped back to the hole he had made and helped Valenzuela step through. Charlo followed a trifle clumsily, ripping the stitching a little bit more. He was a big, dark hulk of a man who loomed in the night. His marred face was strangely stark in the moonlight; Adam saw his eyes glitter.

The night had grown cold as the heat stored in the rocks leaked out of the canyon and was lost in the depths of the sky. Valenzuela suppressed a shiver at the increasing chill and drew her shawl more tightly around her shoulders. Adam picked up her hand. Her bones were small and fragile and her fingers icily cold. He put his finger close to his lips to caution them both to silence. With a swift look about him, he selected a direction and set off down the slight hill.

The bandit’s stronghold encampment, hidden as it was, in the heart of the badlands, had been erected without any of the bothersome concepts of town planning; it had simply grown in a haphazard fashion out of the canyon floor. There was no rigid grid work of streets or neat market squares, Each man or woman had unloaded their gear and constructed their dwelling in the spot they preferred. While it was true that the shelters of Torak and his most favoured lieutenants were gathered together on the higher ground, furthest away from the water and the grazing animals and the tormenting flies, the other shanties, tepees and tents stood cheek by jowl with each other in no particular order at all.

The inhabitants were not the tidiest of urban dwellers. The ground space between the various structures was littered with the detritus and clutter of a human existence conducted almost entirely out of doors. There were tumbledown stacks of broken boxes, the contents of bales strew over the ground, tethered goats and donkeys and penned up fowl. Treading carefully, Adam used them all as cover, drawing Valenzuela with him. Charlo followed behind.

A cur barked sharply as the passed by and was soundly cursed into silence. A woman moaned as a man stroked her flank. One woman laughed and another sang a fretful child into slumber. At a certain point, as he went down the hill, Adam’s sixth sense warned him of danger. He grabbed hold of Valenzuela, pulling her close to his side and hunkering down close against the wall of a leaning building constructed of old wood and canvas. An instant later the rickety door creaked open and a Mexican stepped outside. He was all but naked and sleepy eyed. Short and stout, his belly hung over the drawstring waist of his drawers – the only garment he wore. Adam felt Valenzuela stiffen beside him and tightened his grip on her arm. He looked at her and found her face pale, her lips parted and slightly trembling, her eyes wide open and staring.

The Mexican stretched and yawned and lit a cigar. The flare of the match illuminated his features. He was an unlovely man with small, porcine eyes and full rounded cheeks adorned by a drooping moustache. He puffed his cheroot into cherry-red life and waved out the match. Idly, he scratched at the sparse grey hair of his chest and at his pendulous belly. Then he fumbled beneath it and turned and watered the wall in a steady tinkling stream. His spindly shanks were inches away from their faces. They could smell his hot urine, and Adam thought he might feel the spray.

The Mexican shook himself dry and tucked himself back in his pants. Then he stood in the doorway and filled his lungs with cigar smoke. Valenzuela was rigid with terror, and she was starting to shake. Adam could feel the uncontrollable tremor building up in her body as she pressed hard against him. Crouched almost directly at the Mexican’s feet, it could only be a matter of seconds before they were discovered.

The Mexican stood in the doorway and smoked his cigar while he made a long and leisurely survey of the sleeping village around him. Adam wondered, but only briefly, if it might be possible to rise silently to his feet and bury the little dagger in the fat man’s heart before he could raise the alarm. At once, he decided against it. To get to him, he would have to step over Valenzuela; he didn’t think he could make it in time.

With another long breath drawn through the cigar, the Mexican exhaled a great cloud of smoke, turned and went back in the shanty. Adam kept still. He held Valenzuela tightly against him with an arm round her waist and lent her some of his strength. He listened. Through the thin wall he heard a rumble of conversation: the voices of the Mexican and his wife, the groan of the bed ropes as the big man lowered his bulk down beside her. Then, everything went quiet.

Adam lifted his head and looked for Charlo. He found him crouching a few yards away. The Spaniard’s face was twisted into a snarl; his teeth were bared and vividly white in the darkness. He had a large rock in his hand for a weapon and murder very much on his mind. Adam thought that he wouldn’t have like to have been in the Mexican’s place if the threat to Valenzuela had materialised. He helped the woman onto her feet, and, stepping very quietly, they went on down the hill.

Most of the horses were picketed close to the water, and they were heavily guarded. Small groups of armed men manned watch fires at either end of the long, tethered rows. It was almost as if they were expecting some sort of trouble. Adam wondered at that. Certainly they were more alert and watchful than their comrades had been. They were sober, talking quietly together and not staring into the flames. Adam fully appreciated that they were taking care to preserve their night vision – it was something he would do himself. They kept their guns very close to their hands and seemed ready and willing to use them.

Using the main trail was out of the question; they would be too much in the open, too exposed to scrutiny and the other men’s guns. The alternative was a long, steep slope of loose soil and stones retained by a rough wall of large, broken timbers. Adam left Valenzuela in Charlo’s keeping, warning them both with gestures and facial expressions to stay silent and to keep out of sight. Adam tried to get down the slope quietly but soon lost his footing and slipped and slithered all the way to the bottom, arriving rather sooner, and with rather more noise, than he had intended in a shower of dry earth and stones.

A pair of the guards turned in his direction, peering into the dark. Adam crouched down behind the broken end of the wall and held his breath. He heard the crunch of the gravel under their heels and heard their voices as they exchanged a few comments in Spanish. They came so close he could smell them: a rich, ripe mixture of spices and scented oils and cigar smoke, horses and leather and sweat. Adam gritted his teeth and grimaced with pain. The pebbles he knelt on were hard and sharp and cutting into his knee.

Dislodged by his somewhat precipitate passage, a few more stones thudded down on his back. He kept very still. From what he could see all around him, gravel and stones and some larger rocks fell down this hill all the time – that was why this wall had been built in the first place. After a minute or two, when nothing else happened, the two guards spoke again, joked together and dismissed their fears. Sharing a match, they lit cigarettes and finally wandered away.

Adam’s breath sighed out through his teeth. Keeping low, he looked around the end of the wall and studied the long line of horses – they were still fifty yards further on and quite out of reach. With the stealth he had learned from his Indian brothers and all the luck in the world, to spirit just one animal away would be the next best thing too impossible – and they would need several in order to get away. He chewed on his lip and thought hard.

Charlo and Valenzuela arrived at his side. Using more initiative than Adam had given him credit for, Charlo had looked for, and found, an easier way down. Adam had to concede that the Spaniard wasn’t a fool. Charlo took a long look at their situation as Adam, speaking in whispers, explained their problem. “So, what do we do now?”

Adam studied the sky. It had grown darker at moonset, and he could see stars. By his estimation, there was only an hour until morning. They had run out of time, and once again his plans were going astray. “I want you and Valenzuela to hide out here while I go back for some guns. It looks like we’ll have to fight out way out.”

“Adam, no!” Valenzuela put out her hand to him; it looked very small on his arm.

Charlo hissed at him, “Cartwright, you’re going to get us all killed!”

One long and steadying breath was all that Adam allowed himself. His eyes glittered dangerously. “Do you have a better idea, Marrinez?”

He never found out. At that exact moment a furore erupted up-slope at about the place they had come from. Adam had been expecting it. Someone had, at last, gone to check on the prisoners and discovered their escape. Men turned out of their shelters and wigwams in various states of undress, pulling on shirts and buttoning trousers and putting on hats. All of them carried their guns. Men started shouting and running about and firing off shots in all directions. They were shooting at shadows, Adam supposed.

The sudden commotion had a galvanising effect on the men who were guarding the horses. They kicked out their fires to reduce the likelihood of becoming a target and snatched up their rifles. Adam’s chances of stealing even one animal from under their noses had now reduced to a lot less than zero.

Angry men began to run in their direction; someone had figured which way they’d gone. Unarmed and defenceless except for his wits, Adam felt a swift surge of fear. Charlo seized the moment and the initiative. Awkwardly, he grabbed Valenzuela and pushed her into Adam’s arms. “Take care of my sister, Cartwright. I’ll lead them away.”

Valenzuela cried out to him, “Charlo!”

Adam snarled, “Don’t be a fool, Marrinez!” But Charlo had darted away. His hands full of voluptuous, struggling and amazingly strong young woman, there was nothing that Adam could do to stop him.

Charlo didn’t look back. Doubled over, he ran to the far end of the wall. He took a quick look around, then crossed the trail in open view and disappeared into the gloom on the other side. An animal howl went up and a whole bunch of men charged down the hill and went after him.

Valenzuela’s struggle was brief. At least, she had the good sense to keep quiet. She clearly wanted to go after her brother, but Adam just plain couldn’t let her. He held her tightly against his chest and kept her hidden behind the wall until she stopped fighting him. He felt her shudder. Her beautiful face, already bruised and dirty, was twisted with raw emotion. Several men ran by on the far side of the wall. Charlo had succeeded in what he had set out to do and taken the angry, violent men on a chase that led them away from his sister. It might be, Adam thought, that he had succeeded too well for his own continued survival. It was all down to him now to get himself and the woman out of there without being seen.

He checked again and found the horses still closely watched. There was no escape there. None of the guards were looking in his direction. He took Valenzuela by the arm and led her away, moving stealthily in the other direction to the one in which Charlo had gone. He wasn’t about to squander the opportunity that the Spaniard had given him. Very soon, they found themselves beyond the edge of the encampment, among the jagged rocks that littered the canyon floor. Adam noticed that the sky began to grow lighter. Stumbling, he tried to pick up the pace. He felt a driving need to put more distance between himself and Valenzuela and the inevitable pursuit. They hadn’t gone far when a great shout went up behind them. Men started yelling and firing guns. They both stopped and looked back.

With a cry, Valenzuela broke away from Adam’s grasp. “Charlo!” She started to run back the way they had come. Adam went after her and caught her in just a few strides. He grabbed her by the arm and the waist. “Valenzuela, wait!”

She fought to be free; “But Charlo needs help!”

“There’s nothing right now that we can do to help him.” Adam wouldn’t let go of her. Instead, he turned her and held her against him until her struggles weakened and ceased. He felt her sob. “Charlo will be all right. He knows how to handle himself.” He hoped what he said was true. “He’ll catch up with us later. Don’t be afraid.”

The rising sun turned the sky to lilac and then to shades of apricot-gold. The canyon flooded with sunlight. Their situation wasn’t the best. They were afoot in an inhospitable country with no food or water, not even a hat to keep off the sun. Valenzuela’s bare feet were cut and covered with blood. In the white-hot heat of their escape, Adam had completely forgotten that she had no shoes. “They kept me barefoot to stop me running away,” she told him. She didn’t complain. Instead, she kept running as fast as she could.

It was clear that they couldn’t go on any further, and, before very long, men on horseback would be hunting them down. Adam searched around for some sort of shelter. In all that wilderness, it wasn’t easy to find. Eventually, he discovered a hollowed out place under a fallen slab of rock. The entrance was narrow and low to the ground. They had to get down on their bellies to crawl inside. Adam helped Valenzuela get inside, then carefully brushed out all trace of their tracks before he crept in alongside her. She reached out bruised and torn hands to him. “Adam, I’m frightened – and I’m so, so tired!”

Adam settled beside her – there wasn’t the headroom to sit – and put his arms round her, drawing her close. “Try not to worry. It’ll be all right. I’ll get us both out of this.” It was all the comfort he could offer, and, in truth, he had no idea how he was going to carry out his pledge.

Valenzuela snuggled up to him as a small child might. Despite her distress and discomfort and her concern for Charlo, she was already almost asleep. Adam himself was close to the point of mental and physical exhaustion. He needed to eat and he needed to drink and he needed to rest. He eased himself out full length on the ground. With his arm for a pillow and the woman curled into his side, he stared at the underside of the rock, just inches above him. It was scored with circles and spirals left behind by an ancient people now long gone from the world. One hour, he decided: one hour to rest, and then he would address the rest of his problems. With that first decision behind him, he closed his eyes.

 

Eight

 

Adam hadn’t intended to sleep, but he did – and for something more than the allotted hour. When he woke up, the morning was already well advanced. The sun was peeping over the eastern brim of the canyon and the sky was a flawless, periwinkle-blue. Adam stifled a groan. His tongue and his lips were swollen with thirst, and his throat was on fire. He lay there in the half-light and worked his mouth for saliva, but there wasn’t much to be had. He was starting to suffer badly from the effects of dehydration. If he didn’t get water soon, his internal organs would start to shut down and death would follow soon after. He tried to turn onto his side to ease his position and, this time, couldn’t suppress a moan. His joints had stiffened from the beatings he’d had, and his muscles ached with pain. His movement disturbed the woman who slept beside him, curled into his side.

Valenzuela make a soft mewling noise and tried to sit up. She almost cracked her head on the low rock ceiling. “Charlo!” she whispered, still half asleep. Adam motioned her to silence. Had it been a sound that had awakened him? He wasn’t certain. Was it Charlo wandering about among the rocks, exposed to the sun and searching in vain for his sister, or were Torak and his men investigating the area? Had he been careless in his haste and confusion and left some trace of their passage out in plain view: a trail that a skilled scout could follow? There were half-breeds and Indians who could follow a white man’s spore with his nose, simply by the smell of his sweat. He shifted around so that he could look out of the narrow entrance.

There wasn’t much to be seen. He had a snake’s-eye view of a small piece of the canyon floor, a limited vista of rocks and gravel and, if he twisted his neck, a patch of the sky. Nothing moved in his line of sight and there was no further sound. Had he imagined it? Had it been merely a few stones falling, a natural event of erosion? He guessed it was time to find out – after all, a man couldn’t hide forever.

Valenzuela put her hand on his arm. “Adam, don’t go! Don’t leave me alone.” Her eyes were big, dark and frightened.

“I’m not going far. I’m just going to look around outside.” He covered her fingers with his own hand, squeezed them and set them aside.

With scarcely a sound or a trace of disturbance, he eased himself through the low opening. Bright daylight revealed a landscape as desolate, dry and deserted as any he had yet seen. The rocks and stretches of glittering, crystalline rubble seemed to go on forever. His eyes ached for the sight of something green. There was no sign of anything living. They might have been alone in the world. Valenzuela crept out of their shelter and huddled close to him. “What shall we do now, Adam?”

Adam touched his tongue to his swollen lip and the two stuck together. The thin skin of his lip tore as he pulled them apart, and he tasted his blood. He made a decision: the only one that he could. “I have to go back to Torak’s encampment.”

“Adam, no! You’ll be killed!” Valenzuela clung to him desperately,

Adam squinted into the sun as he tried to figure the time. “I don’t have a choice. We need food and water, horses and guns. It’s the only place we can get them.”

Valenzuela was frantic. “But they’ll be waiting for you!”

“Maybe not. With luck, they’ll think we’re out in the desert and still running hard, trying to make a getaway. In any event, I don’t have an option. A couple of days in this wilderness and we’ll both be dead.”

He made a move to get up. Valenzuela still clung to his arm. “Let me go with you. Don’t leave me here.”

Adam shook his head. “This is man’s work.” He saw the determination flare in her eyes. “I’ll go faster and quieter on my own – and I want to know that you’re safe.” In spite of her injured feet she was in a lot better shape than he was. She had been watered and fed in the last eighteen hours. If she stayed in the shade, he figured she’d easily last out the day. “I want you to stay here and wait for me. Keep out of the sun. I’ll make sure I’m back by sundown.”

Valenzuela looked at her toes, bare, bloodied and bruised. She saw the wisdom of what he was saying, but she didn’t much like it. “Torak took your guns into his shelter. It’s the one with the red blanket hung outside as an awning, right at the top of the hill.”

Adam nodded and sucked in his breath. It was information he needed. All the bandits would be carrying their own guns with them, armed to the teeth. He couldn’t expect to find any weapons just lying about. He got to his feet and stood swaying. His head felt light and his legs were heavy. He straightened his back and the breath hissed in through his teeth, Valenzuela clutched at him “What about Charlo?”

Adam met her eyes squarely. The truth of it was, he just didn’t know. “You have to face it, Charlo might be dead.”

“I know that.” Valenzuela kept her voice level and gave him a long, steady stare. “But if he isn’t dead, then we can’t leave him. Torak will kill him horribly.”

Adam struggled with conflicting obligations, then made up his mind. Whatever he might think of Charlo on a personal level, there was no way he could leave him to Torak’s tender mercies – or, worse, to those of the Indians that ran with the pack. He made Valenzuela a promise; “If I find him alive, I’ll bring him back with me.”

He ran a hand through his hair and wiped the last residue of sleep from his eyes. It was all the preparation that he could make. He made sure that Valenzuela was well hidden, completely concealed by the sheltering stone. Then he meticulously eradicated every trace of their presence before starting back towards the bandit’s encampment.

The two Mexicans rode side by side, so close together that their knees almost touched. Adam couldn’t see their faces, hidden as they were beneath the brims of their hats, but he could tell from the sound of their voices that they weren’t very old, certainly no older than Adam himself, and they were already bored with the search. It was clear from their conversation and from their laughter that their had other things on their mind; things they would rather be doing than searching down a man and a woman afoot in the desert, starving and dying of thirst. They had a jug of liquor that they passed back and forth between them, each drinking out of the neck. Adam kept a huge boulder between them and himself, moving around it as they rode by and keeping the bulk of the stone in between them. From what he could hear, their talk centred around the skills and physical attributes of a certain, sloe eyed Mexican wench whose favours they had both enjoyed the previous evening and who they were looking forward to sharing again. They rode on through the rocks with never a glance in Adam’s direction.

The stronghold encampment resembled a nest of red ants that had been stirred up with a stick. Adam crouched by some rocks at the edge of the village and watched for a while, getting his bearings and judging his moment to move. It was the first real opportunity he’d had to see the place in full daylight. Riders were coming and going. Men galloped about, waved their arms and shouted out orders that no one seemed to obey. It occurred to Adam that the disruption and the confusion was out of proportion, but he thought, if he were careful, he might be able to use it to his advantage

He had arrived at a place close to the spot where the water bubbled up out of the ground. He could see it and hear it and smell it. His body yearned for it. His first instinct was to break out of cover and make a dash for the pool, plunge in his face and drink ‘til his belly burst. The reasoning part of his mind told him that he’d never make it. Women with leather buckets, cattle and horses, children and dogs not withstanding, the water was guarded by men who had guns. Adam wiped the back of his hand over his gritty, dry mouth and looked in another direction.

Moving with care, he slid around the back of a ramshackle hut that, from the smell of it, served as an outhouse. The nearest shelter was not far away. Adam’s luck held. He reached the doorway without being noticed, and, when he lifted the flap, he found nobody home.

There was a canteen half filled with water, warm, slightly brackish and very sweet. Adam decided not to wait for an invitation and helped himself. He tried to sip slowly but, in the end, filled his belly and then struggled not to be sick. He borrowed a wide brimmed hat and a bright banded blanket which he draped ‘round his shoulders. He hoped that his broad shouldered build and a confident stride would save him from discovery.

Stepping into the sunlight, he found no one was looking in his direction. It seemed too good to be true. He rationalised – nobody had expected him to come back the same way he’d gone. Moving quickly, as if he had business, he made his way up the hill.

The life of the settlement went on around him. Concealed in his makeshift disguise he was absorbed by the population. A baby wailed in an outdoor cradle, ignored by its mother, while a sibling tried vainly to quieten it. Yellow dogs squabbled over bones on a rough piece of ground. Older children played ball with a rag-stuffed bundle and a rough game of chase, tagging and dodging around Adam two or three times before running away. He smelled bread and bacon and hot meats roasting and remembered that he hadn’t eaten since yesterday’s dawn.

Men rode by on galloping horses. Hooves pounded the dirt into dust, and the dust flew up to sting Adam’s eyes. There was a whole lot of squealing as three laughing women cheerfully slaughtered a pig. Adam smelled the hot blood and felt his gorge rise.

Torak’s shelter was easy enough to find, marked as it was by the red blanket awning that Valenzuela had described. It stood slightly apart from the others on the highest part of the hill. Its back was to the steep slope of shale that leaned against the canyon wall, fully half a mile away. Adam didn’t dare hesitate. He walked with a long hurried stride as if he were a man whose affairs might be urgent – as indeed, he reflected, they were. His mouth was dry with apprehension as well as the renewal of thirst. His body found sweat to moisten his spine. At every moment he expected a challenge, a shout or a bullet. None came. He paused outside the shelter. There was no sound within. Ducking down, he lifted the leather flap and went in.

Torak wasn’t there, but the inside of the leather and wood walled shanty bore the indelible stamp of his rich and divergent personality. In was warm and airless, simmering gently in the heat of the midday sun. In the dim light that found it way in, Adam could see a huge, brass bedstead of unusual design with knobs at each corner that glowed like burnished gold. The bed, unlikely and incongruous in its setting, occupied half the available floor-space. It was heaped high with finely woven blankets in vivid combinations of colour, well-stuffed pillows and beribboned cushions and a brocaded coverlet with a fringe like a woman’s yellow hair.

The rest of the single, misshapen room was filled with the assorted bric-a-brac of a successful bandit’s existence: the accumulated, second-hand wealth of a magpie thief. Among the tangle of bedding and discarded clothing, Adam spied odd jewelled trinkets and painted Chinese boxes, long, silken robes and embroidered slippers piled together in disorganised heaps. It all smelled of leather and scented oils, spices and perfumes, old semen and sweat.

In amongst the confusion he found his own gun – the Colt .44 was still in its holster – and Charlo’s big pistol which he tucked in his belt. With the weight of the weapon strapped to his thigh, he felt a little less naked. He uncovered a broad-bladed knife, which wasn’t his own but would do just as well and a hat that fitted. A second, soft felt hat that would fit Valenzuela, he folded up and tucked inside his shirt.

He visited several more likely shanties on his way down the hill. As he went stealthily from one to another, he appropriated two fresh loaves of bread and some meat, pounded to pulp with berries and spices in the Indian manner and dried in the sun until it resembled slabs of tough leather, a canvas bag filled with dried apricots and, most important of all, he found several canteens full of water. Without compunction, he stole them.

It took a long time to locate Charlo. Adam had despaired of finding the Spaniard alive. He suspected his one-time companion had been shot and now occupied a shallow, unmarked grave somewhere among the rocks, already stinking and starting to rot. In the end it was the guards that made him think differently. They were two hard-bitten Mexican types with business-like pistols on their belts and rifles cradles lovingly in their arms. They had quick, watchful eyes. They were standing close together outside a low walled shelter, talking and smoking cigarettes.

It occurred to Adam that they had to be guarding something: either a treasure or a prisoner. He had to know which. He hung back in the shadow of somebody’s wall and estimated his chances. He didn’t think they were good. The shelter had no back door, and he couldn’t get past the guards. He couldn’t get close enough to use the knife and one shot would rouse the encampment. What made matters worse, his backbone was starting to burn.

He was still hesitating, chewing at the sore spot on his lip in an agony of indecision, when the two guards reached some conclusion and moved off laughing, leaving the shelter unwatched. Adam looked this way and that, hardly believing his fortune. No one was watching. Carrying his bags and the stolen canteens, he went to the doorway and ducked inside.

The circular floor had been dug three feet down to the bedrock and the sides of the pit lined with mud brick walls. There was just enough room under the roof for a man to stand up. It was several degrees cooler under the earth than in the sun-baked village outside, and darker. It took Adam’s eyes several seconds to adjust to the gloom; what he saw when they did shocked him. In the exact centre of the room, Charlo was bound to the post that held up the roof.

The Spaniard had been beaten again and, this time, severely. There was blood on his face and ribbons of it spilled down his shirtfront. His nose had been smashed and it looked like he’d lost several teeth, although it was hard to be certain. A gag was tied round his mouth and he slumped against the tight leather throngs.

Charlo was conscious. Although they were closed by the bruises, Adam saw his eyes glitter. He dumped his ill-gotten gains by the door and eased the rag out of the big man’s mouth. Charlo snarled at him; would have spat if he’d had the saliva. “Cartwright, for God’s sake get away from here! Can’t you see it’s a trap!”

Adam turned on his heel. There was no one in the doorway. He took a long look outside, but there was no sign of undue excitement. The camp had settled down for its midday siesta. He went back to Charlo and started to saw at the leather with the edge of the knife.

Carlo was furious. “Leave me alone” Get my sister away from here!” His speech was slurred but decisive. Fresh blood sprayed from his mouth and ran down his chin.

Adam had one eye on the doorway and one on what he was doing. “Valenzuela won’t leave if she knows you’re alive.”

“Then tell her I’m dead!”

“I’m not that good a liar.” Adam continued to cut.

Charlo was bound tightly at wrists and elbows and knees. The rawhide was tough. His wrists and his hands were swollen and made the job harder. A braided tether was tied round his throat just under his chin in order to keep his head up. It took several long minutes to sever them all. As the last one came free Charlo staggered and slumped; Adam had to catch him and hold him up. The Spaniard gasped “Careful there, Cartwright. I’ve broken a rib.”

Adam left him to catch his breath and restore some circulation while he checked outside again. Everything was quiet. This escape from disaster was all too easy and Adam didn’t trust it – not one little bit. He couldn’t put his finger on just what was wrong, but he felt he was dancing to another man’s tune. Charlo came up beside him. He looked even worse in the light of the day. He face was misshapen and cut, blackened with bruises and covered in blood.

“It looks quiet,” he mumbled through split, swollen lips.

Adam passed him his pistol. “It’s too goddamned quiet. Someone’s helping us get away.”

Charlo gazed at his with open disbelief. “Tell me why they’d do that?”

Adam just shook his head; he didn’t know and this wasn’t the time to discuss it. Charlo sipped water and spat out more blood. Replacing the stopper, he slung the canteen over his shoulder. The movement cost him some pain. He hefted his pistol. “So let us see how far they’re prepared to let us get.” Adam held back; his guts told him something was wrong. Charlo tried a grin that the damage to his face turned into a grimace. “Have you a better idea, Señor Adam Cartwright, or are you afraid?”

Adam pulled in a breath. “Oh, I’m afraid all right, Marrinez.” In truth, he was sweating. “But right now, I can’t think of anything else.” He gathered the rest of his newly acquired belongings – things that made the difference between life and death – and went first through the doorway.

Three steps later, he was surprised at still being alive. No one had shot at him; no one had shouted. With Charlo close on his heels, he headed down hill. They moved quickly now, running whenever they could. The time for stealth was over, and they were in fear of their lives.

Saddled and bridled, the horse stood all by himself behind a crooked, timber-built hut, tied to an upright post by the reins. He was a big animal, liver chestnut in colour with four white socks on his feet and an intelligent, white painted face. Adam couldn’t have chosen better; the horse was the ideal type: short in the body with powerful quarters and shoulders and a massive, deep chest. He wouldn’t be fast, but he looked like he’d go on forever.

Charlo tapped Adam on the shoulder “That’s our ticket out of here.”

Adam knew better. “We need more than one horse.”

“It looks like all our compadres are prepared to allow us. At least Valenzuela can ride. You and I can walk if we have to.”

Casting a sideways look at Charlo’s face and hearing the rasp of his breath, Adam rather doubted that the Spaniard could manage to walk much further at all, let alone home. He shook his head “I still don’t like it.” Still, with one horse, perhaps he could steal another.

Charlo gave him a look “We have a saying in my country – don’t look at a gift horse’s teeth.”

At Charlo’s urging Adam stepped forward. The horse lifted his head and watched him warily, one ear laid back. Adam gave him a pat and a word of encouragement. He hitched his gear to the saddle, an elaborate, high backed Spanish affair, much like an armchair, thought Adam, with elaborate, silver trim. He lifted the stirrup to check on the cinch. Sweat trickled down his back, right between his shoulders. From behind him, Charlo hissed at him, “For God’s sake, hurry, it up!” Adam reached for the reins.

Two men emerged from a shanty further uphill. They wore big, Mexican hats and carried long guns. They stopped and stared at Adam and Charlo. Adam and Charlo stared back. The Mexicans pointed and yelled and started to run, heading in their direction. Charlo raised his pistol and fired three shots. All of them missed, but the two men dived into cover.

Adam shouted at Charlo, “Get on the horse!”

Charlo turned to reach for the saddle. The Mexicans both started shooting. Charlo slammed into Adam’s back and then into the side of the horse. He didn’t cry out but Adam caught sight of the stricken look on his face.

Adam fired twice and had the intense satisfaction of seeing both the men drop. By now, the camp was in uproar, men were shouting and running and grabbing their guns. All of a sudden, this wasn’t a healthy place to be. Adam holstered the Colt and turned to Charlo. There was fresh blood on the Spaniard’s shirt: a whole lot of blood. A bullet, almost spent, had lodged in his back. Adam grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and shoved him against the saddle, then boosted him onto the horse’s broad back. Without the help of the stirrup, he jumped up behind him and reached past him to grab at the reins. He yanked the horse’s head around and kicked the beast hard in the ribs.

The ride was a wild one. Charlo, slumped in the saddle, lay on the horse’s neck. His body was a dead weight in Adam’s arms. Adam thought he was unconscious or, maybe, dead. There was no way of telling. Bullets flew by his ears so close that he heard them whine. By the miracle of God’s intervention, the gelding didn’t go down. The horse proceeded in odd leaps and bounds, knocking armed men out of his way with his shoulder and charging them down.

Adam did nothing to steer him: just sat tight in the saddle and allowed him to run. In less than a minute they were beyond the last shanty and galloping hard into the maze of twisted pathways that led among the jumbled rocks and boulders that littered the canyon floor. They’d gone a mile before Adam drew rein. He pulled the red horse to a dancing stop, then sat and listened, watching their back trail. All he could hear was the grunt of the horse’s breathing and the rasp of his own, the hammering pound of his heartbeat and the iron-shod hooves on the stone. There was no sign of pursuit, but he knew that it couldn’t be far behind and had to be catching up fast. They wouldn’t be that hard to track. Charlo was leaving a blood trail behind that a blind child could follow.

Adam steadied the gelding with his hands and heels, then neck reined him off the main trail, heading, by an indirect route, back to the hollow where Valenzuela was waiting.

It took a while to find it – all the rocks looked the same – but Adam had the place marked fairly well in his mind. He slid off the horse and half lifted, half-pulled Charlo down. The Spaniard’s eyes were closed and his breathing was shallow. He slumped to the ground. Adam went down with him to break his fall and lowered his head carefully – not that he thought it would make any difference; the writing was plain on the wall. Valenzuela came running to meet them; “Charlo! Charlo! Adam, is he..?

Adam caught her a moment and held her, his hand on her arm. “He’s not dead, but I think…” He let his face tell the rest of the story.

Valenzuela knelt down at her brother’s side. She touched his ruined face with her fingers: his cheeks and his lips and his chin. Her head hung down, and her tangled, dark hair hung forward, concealing her face. Adam thought he saw her shoulders shake, but when she looked up at him, her eyes were quite dry.

“Adam, please help me get him inside and out of the sun,” she said simply.

Adam did as she asked and, with her help, carefully manoeuvred the unconscious Charlo into the hollow under the rock. He made a second trip to leave a canteen of water, then concealed the horse among the rocks and set about hiding their trail. He had no chance at all of fooling the Indian trackers, but he did what he could.

When he returned, Valenzuela was bathing Charlo’s face with a moistened strip of her skirt. Her face was bloodless and strained.

“Let me look at him.” Gently, Adam moved her aside.

His examination was rapid and not especially thorough. It didn’t need to be. The bullet had torn its way in just under the line of the belt, angling upwards, and lodged somewhere deep in the body. Dirt and debris had been carried into the wound, and, from the blood and the fluids running out, Adam suspected a kidney had burst. Valenzuela made up a pad and Adam pushed it into the wound. He knew that it wouldn’t help much, but it was all he could do.

There wasn’t really the room for all three of them to hide out under the rock. Adam made room for Valenzuela to squeeze into the restricted space at her brother’s side and laid his weary, battle worn body in the narrow entrance and wondered if he would sleep.

He must have dozed. When he opened his eyes again, the sun had moved in the sky. Before, it had shone directly into his face. Now, it was out of sight behind the overhanging rock, and the afternoon shadows had started to lengthen. His throat was parched, and his mouth had the texture of carpet. He shifted his shoulders and stifled a moan. His muscles had stiffened. Then he froze. The sound came again: the one that had awakened him: the faint chink of a horse’s shod hoof on stone. A shivery sensation crawled over his body.

Ignoring the protests of much abused bones, he wriggled backwards as quickly as he could. “We have guests,” he hissed at Valenzuela. “You’ll have to keep Charlo quiet. Make sure he doesn’t cry out.”

Valenzuela’s eyes were huge and dark in the pale-gold mask of her face. “Charlo won’t make any noise at all,” she said softly. “Charlo is dead.”

Adam reached past her to touch Charlo’s face. The skin was waxy and unresponsive. The chest didn’t rise. There was no doubt about it: Charlo had gone. His soul had slipped silently away into the afternoon shadows and left all his pain behind. Adam sucked in his breath. He felt a wave of emotion. While never a friend, Charlo had been a companion for many a difficult mile. They’d been galls under each other’s saddles, but they’d saved one another’s lives. For all the bad blood between them, he was sad that the big Spaniard had died.

He didn’t have time to offer condolence. He merely touched the woman on the arm to convey his feeling and wriggled back to the door.

Two men were walking their horses up the trail towards him. Adam ducked out of sight. He drew his Colt and pulled back the hammer. He had three bullets left.

The horsemen came close, riding in single file. They were Mexicans; Adam could tell by the hats. As they came closer he held his breath, afraid that the thundering beat of his heart and the song of his blood would betray him. The horsemen stopped right outside, where the trail widened and they could sit side by side. In the dark space below the low ledge of rock, Adam lay very still. He caught a whiff of cigar smoke: the strong, familiar and unwelcome scent of ‘Old Stogie’, the smoke that Sebron preferred. He heard the two men talking in Spanish although he couldn’t make out the words. All he could see from his ground-level viewpoint was the white-stockinged legs of their horses.

Adam weighed the Colt in his hand. He knew he could get both of them with two quick, snapped shots, but he would never be able to catch their horses, and how many more of their kind would the gunfire attract? Ten, endless minutes later both men climbed out of their saddles and relieved themselves on the rocks. Remounted, still talking, they rode slowly away. His eyes open, unfocused, Adam followed the sounds of their passage until they were out of his hearing.

Adam stripped Charlo’s body. It wasn’t a pleasant undertaking, but it was something that had to be done. The Spaniard’s clothes were sticky with blood, but there was no way to wash them. He handed them to Valenzuela. “You’ll have to wear these.”

She stared at the crumpled, blood stained bundle with undisguised horror; “Adam, I can’t!”

“You have to. If you’re going to survive in the desert, you’ll need the protection a man’s clothes can give you.”

It made perfect sense, but at first he thought she was going to rebel. Then she bit her lip and nodded mutely. She blinked back a tear. “I understand.”

Adam turned his back to allow her to change in private. He studied the distant canyon wall. “We’ll leave tonight, as soon as it’s dark.”

Valenzuela struggled with the unfamiliar clothing. “But Adam, we’ve only one horse.”

“We’ll have to make do.” Adam didn’t fancy his chances of stealing another. “We’ll travel at night and rest up in the day.”

“What about Charlo?”

This was the question Adam had been dreading. He turned to look at her. Now, she was dressed. She looked absurd in the oversized clothing. She had rolled up the sleeves of the shirt and the cuffs of the pants. There’ weren’t enough holes in the leather pants belt, so she’d tied the ends in a knot, cinching the whole thing together. The boots were a mile too big. Adam rested his hands on her elbows, holding her lightly. “I’m afraid we’ll have to leave him,” he said quietly.

“But can’t we bury him – or, at least, cover him up?”

“I’m sorry. We don’t have a shovel.” He didn’t bother to add that the floor of the canyon was virtually solid rock. “And we don’t have the time or the strength to spare to haul rocks.” He pulled her close to him, and she pressed her face into his chest. He tried to offer some sort of comfort; “I don’t think Torak’s men will find him. They’ve checked this place once; they might not come back for a while.” It was hardly complete reassurance.

*******

 

They set out in the faint afterglow of the day. The sky had changed in colour from gold and apricot to pink and violet and mauve and then to ash grey. The floor of the canyon was already in darkness. The woman rode on the horse, sitting high in the Spanish saddle. The man went on foot. They left Charlo’s body behind them under the rock, guarded by the spirits and the symbols of a vanished people, his soul commended to God.

The night was cooler than daytime, but not really cold, and the walking kept Adam warm. It was only in the early hours of the morning that it became chilly. Adam took the blanket from under the horse’s saddle for Valenzuela to wear ’round her shoulders. He didn’t know how far they travelled. He had only his innate sense of direction to guide him – that, and the less than familiar stars.

They stopped sometime shortly before dawn and hid out in the rocks. Adam didn’t dare light a fire. Instead, they huddled together against the pre-dawn chill and shared their personal warmth.

On that first day, the country swarmed with Torak’s men. They rode in pairs or groups of three, criss-crossing the landscape in search of a track. Once or twice, they came so close that Adam could have reached out his hand and touched them. They knew the terrain a whole lot better than he did. On the second day, there were less of them.

Walking was hard and not without danger. The broken, wandering pathways were pitted with holes and littered with rocks. Adam stumbled often and sometimes fell. The darkness was peopled by perilous denizens: diamond backed rattlesnakes five feet long and as far around as Hoss Cartwright’s arm, small yellow scorpions that hid, by day, in holes underground and grey Gila monsters with their fiery, venomous bite. Adam pushed the pace hard, knowing their luck couldn’t last. That night they reached the canyon wall, and, within a mile, he found a way up.

A deep fissure angled upwards between two wind-carved buffs. It was a steep narrow crevice that looked, at first, like it might be blocked, but, with a quick reconnoitre, he found a way through. It was too dangerous to climb in the dark. Adam decided to wait until daybreak. Both he and Valenzuela were weak from hunger and suffered with thirst. Of necessity, they had strictly rationed their supplies right from the outset, and their strength was starting to fail.

In the last hour of the night, Adam located a cave. The various layers of the rock had collapsed and fallen in on themselves, making a cavern of considerable proportions with an entrance large enough to lead the horse right inside.

It was very dark in the cave, and cooler. With the horse in the darkness behind them, they sat in the entrance and watched the stars fade. They finished the last of the bread, and each ate a handful of fruit washed down with water. It was the best meal they had eaten for days.

They talked for a while. He described in detail the bustle of San Francisco, the beating heart of the nation, how a snow-fed river became filled with leaping silver fish in the spring and the way the forest-clad mountains of western Canada swept straight down into the sea. In return, she talked in soft, wistful tones of the grand dress balls held by the King of Spain in a palace, of the ruins of ancient civilisation recently unearthed on the shores of the Grecian sea and the magnificence of the newly opened, three-tiered library in Rome.

But Valenzuela was exhausted. Using her blanket for her pillow, she lay down on the ground, and soon, she was fast asleep. Adam settled his back against the rock and watched the first light of the new day creep into the sky: a mixture of pink, cream and gold. Long shadows leaned towards him; the eastern ramparts remained inky-black.

The last time he had come this way, he had been in hot pursuit of the men who had stolen the woman he meant to marry. Now, the positions were exactly reversed; he had stolen her back, and now they were pursuing him.

The new light etched patterns of pain into the sleeping woman’s face. Her experiences had scored deep lines around her mouth and her eyes; her cheeks were hollow and her cheekbones jutted. Her eyes had sunken into her skull. He wondered if she would ever regain that smooth, youthful beauty that had stolen his breath away, her lively exuberance for living. Certainly her innocence was gone, her trust in the world and her faith in the future.

Adam examined his feelings. Something fundamental had changed. He was no longer driven by the twin passions of anger and indignation, but rather by duty and responsibility – to Valenzuela, to Charlo, to Don Estaban and to himself – and the need to finish what he had begun. He looked at the sleeping woman. If, by some chance act of providence, they should escape this ordeal in the desert, where would their futures lie? Together, or separately? After all they had been through, he found his emotions were clear. As he studied her sleeping face, he felt sympathy and respect for her strength, admiration and a certain affection, but not romantic love.

When the light was stronger, Adam went to the back of the cave to strap their belongings back on the saddle. The horse nuzzled him anxiously, looking for food. He was beginning to suffer; his ribs showed clearly through his red hide and his hip bones jutted. Adam had no fodder to give him.

The cleft was even steeper than Adam had anticipated and almost too narrow for the gelding to get through. Adam went first, slipping and sliding on the loose stones, leading him by the bridle. Valenzuela scrambled after, grasping the horse’s tail. It took them an hour to climb all the way to the top, and every moment Adam expected a shout from below, or a bullet from the rim of the canyon above. When he finally clambered over the edge, hauling the horse along with him, he still wouldn’t stop but kept going another half mile, until they reached a formation of rocks that afforded some sort of shelter. Five leaning boulders made a stone circle. He put Valenzuela and the horse inside, drew his pistol and went to study their back-trail. No one emerged from the bright glare of the morning to try to overtake them. He had to assume that Torak and his band knew of an easier trail and were moving ahead of them, intent on cutting them off. Right now, there was nothing he could do about that; he just had to grin and bear it.

Valenzuela had settled herself in a diminishing patch of shade. Adam undid the cinches and took the saddle off the red horse’s back, then joined her. He opened their last canteen of water. “Here, take a drink.”

When she lifted her head there was a tear on her cheek – the first one he’d seen her shed. Like most strong men, Adam was completely bemused and bewildered by the sight of a woman weeping. He didn’t know how to deal with it. He no longer had a handkerchief to offer. “What is it?” he asked stupidly. To his amazement, Valenzuela started to laugh.

“My feet hurt!” she cried.

Adam blinked at her. “Your feet?”

She grinned and sniffed and nodded. Adam laid the canteen aside and eased off her boots. She had stuffed her brother’s footwear with the rags of her discarded skirt in an effort to make them fit better. It hadn’t helped much. Both feet had blisters of immense proportions on the toes and the heels: blisters that had broken open and bled. Although he sympathised with the pain, Adam came to the same conclusion that his father had reached many years before him: no matter how long he lived, he would never truly understand women. After all the terrible things she had gone through, she cried because of her feet.

Adam used the torn strips of cotton as makeshift bandages to bind up the blisters. She watched him, her head on one side. When he had finished, she smiled at him sadly. “You are a very kind man, Adam.” Adam got the feeling it about summed up how she felt.

That day turned out to be the hottest they had endured so far. The sun beat down on them without pity and burned into their eyes even when their eyelids were closed. It sucked every last drop of moisture out of their skin. Their patch of shade shrank until it didn’t exist, and, for an hour, they were fully exposed. It was too hot to sleep in the heat of the day; it was only towards evening that Adam managed to doze. The sun had set by the time he woke up, and it was dark before they moved on.

Two days later, their food was gone, and they were down to the last of their water. Adam had lost track of the time and his sense of direction. He had only the vaguest idea of how far they’d come and where they ought to be going. He knew they were nearing the edge of the desert. Here and there he saw small barrel cactus, all leaning east-west – he knew the Apache could extract water, but all he found was a bitter sap – and there were clumps of grey-green desert grasses, well spaced as if planted out by some heat-maddened gardener in even ranks. Adam had tried chewing on the bleached, white bases of the wiry stems in the hope of extracting some moisture. They were tough and dry, and he only succeeded in cutting his mouth.

Valenzuela had ridden for part of the way, but now she walked alongside Adam: the brave chestnut horse was starting to stagger. Adam was loath to leave him behind but he couldn’t see much help for it. Afoot, it became increasingly hard to keep going. Walking together, holding each other up, the man and the woman could only travel for an hour or two in the evening, and in the early morning, before collapsing, exhausted, onto the ground

Behind them, the hunters still followed, but their numbers were much reduced. Adam guessed that there were two or three determined men left. He saw little of them: just an occasional glimpse afar off through the vagrant heat haze. He considered, once, lying in wait for them and trying to pick them off, but they never came close enough for the waste of a precious bullet. They were playing with him, a fine game of cat and mouse, waiting for the heat and the hunger and thirst to wear down his resistance. He didn’t think they’d hold back much longer.

When dawn broke, on that second day, the only shelter he could find was a gravel-lined hollow on the side of a dusty, dry hill. Valenzuela dropped to her knees. “Adam, I can’t go on any further.”

Adam looked around him. He wiped his hand over his face, then knelt down beside her “We’ll rest up here a while,” he said, not looking at her, looking at the distant horizon with the face of a haunted man. “When you feel better, we’ll go on for a way before it gets hot.”

She gazed at him with empty, lack-lustre eyes. “We’re going to die in this desert.”

Adam’s face tightened. “I wouldn’t give Torak the satisfaction of finding us dead.”

Valenzuela managed the ghost of a smile. Adam sat down beside her, and they shared a mouthful of water. Despite his fine intentions, he didn’t have the strength to get up again – not just then. Instead, he closed his sore eyes for a moment to rest them and fell into a doze.

Some time after noon, Adam’s sixth sense awakened him from a fitful, uncomfortable sleep. He opened gritty eyes and lifted himself onto an elbow. Always cruel, unforgiving and beautiful, now, the desert presented a different aspect. An odd, creeping light cast strange shadows. The wilderness played tricks on his eyes. Everything was hazy and out of focus, as if someone had drawn a muslin curtain over the landscape. A hot wind blew over the ground from the east. Adam scrambled quickly and somewhat painfully onto his feet and looked in that direction. As he lifted his head, a sudden gust blasted grit in his face. The air was a whole lot denser and harder to breathe than it should be.

Adam reached down and shook Valenzuela awake. “Come on! We’ve got to be on the move!” Even as he spoke, the fine, airborne dirt found its way into his mouth.

“What is it?” Valenzuela stirred and sat up. She was slow and unresponsive. “What’s happening?”

Adam grabbed hold of her by the arms and pulled her up. “There’s a dust storm coming!” He shook her awake. “It’ll be here in minutes!” Already, he could hear the rising wind and feel its sting on his neck.

Valenzuela gathered her wits. She blinked at the closing horizon: the steadily advancing wall of dry, airborne soil and sand. The eddying wind whipped hair over her face.

They had no time to stand and stare. Adam took the woman by the elbow and the horse by a very short rein and led them both over the hill. The wind in his back pushed him along.

There was nowhere to offer them shelter, Adam pulled the horse down onto the ground on the lee side of the hill and covered his head with their blanket. It was all he could do to protect it. He and Valenzuela took shelter behind the bulk of the big horse’s body.

Adam was only just in time with his makeshift preparations. The moan of the wind rose to the howl of a woman in torment as a semi-solid mass of dirt and debris broke over the top of the hill and swept down upon them. Visibility dropped abruptly to nothing. Adam pushed Valenzuela’s head down, holding her tightly against him and covered his head with his arms. He tried to maintain a small space to breathe in. He felt the vortices within the storm tug at his hands and his hair and pull on his shirt. A dull vibration throbbed in his bones; a hollow drumming transmitted through the earth.

His world contracted until it was constrained solely within the dimensions of his own body. Blinded, he was confined in darkness with the howl of the storm in his ears and the hiss of his blood and the regular thud of his heartbeat. All that kept him sane was the sure and certain knowledge that this wouldn’t last forever. He lost all track of the time, but soon, it became hard to breathe. Every lungful of air was laden with dirt. It clogged his mouth and his nostrils and sifted into his ears. It got under the collar of his shirt and into the tops of his boots.

An hour later, it was over. Adam felt the wind lessen and fall away. Valenzuela stirred alongside him, emerging, at last, from her own, personal prison in hell. He lifted his head and saw the last dust settle. The desert was the same, and yet, it was subtly changed. Before, it had been silent; now, it was hushed. The sounds of their breathing were loud. He had the faint satisfaction of knowing that the storm had covered all sign of their tacks.

He helped Valenzuela onto her feet. “Are you all right?”

“I think so.” She sounded shaky. She vainly brushed at the dust on her clothes and shook it out of her hair. Her cheek was scratched and, somehow, the sleeve of her shirt had been torn, but she was essentially undamaged and her spirit unbowed.

The red horse was dead. Whether he had suffocated in the storm or if his great heart had simply given out, Adam had no way of knowing. He took the canteen from the saddle. When he shook it, it rattled. It contained, perhaps, four mouthfuls of water – two each. With his hand beneath the woman’s elbow to offer her support, he picked out his direction, and they started to walk.

So, now, it became a battle of wits: one Adam feared he was losing. He played hide and seek with the hunters around the low hills and the boulders and among the jagged, upthrusting rocks. The hunters had the advantage: they were the better equipped, and they knew where he was headed. He had no idea where they were, but he sensed they were close. Keeping Valenzuela near to his side and helping her when she stumbled, he kept moving south.

They rested often. Starved of vital water, they no longer sweated. They sucked on small stones to draw the last of the moisture out of salivary glands and into their mouths. It became painful. Adam found it increasingly hard to maintain concentration. His mind wandered to thoughts of his home and his family. Had Hoss finally married his Mary? Was his father back from his trip? Had Joe’s arm mended well, and was he back in the saddle? Were they things he would ever know? The dry, rocky hills began to dance in front of his eyes.

Valenzuela fell and took Adam down with her. They landed on hands and knees in the dirt. She looked at him and her eyes spoke volumes. Adam unslung the canteen and handed it over.

“Have a drink.”

She took out the stopper and had two, big swallows before she gave it back. Adam took the last mouthful and swallowed it down. He felt it run all the way to his stomach in a stream of cool, molten fire. He hung the empty canteen from his shoulder by its strap, just in case, by some chance, they should find water or a miracle might occur, and it would actually rain. He got up and pulled the woman onto her feet. “Now, we walk, and we don’t stop until we’re out of this desert.”

Valenzuela drew on a deep, inner strength. “We walk,” she agreed through split, swollen lips.

The sky, still filled with a very fine dust, turned brassy in the late afternoon. Adam wouldn’t stop, and Valenzuela wouldn’t suggest it. They both knew that if they sat down they would stay in that place forever. Adam began to hallucinate. He heard music and laughter and the roar of a crowd. Bright lights flashed in front of his eyes; he smelled cigar smoke.

Adam stopped dead in his tracks. He did smell cigar smoke on the afternoon air. He grabbed Valenzuela by the arms and manhandled her roughly and fast into the shelter of a nearby outcrop. She bit her lip at the pain of his grip. “Adam – what..?”

He hushed her quickly. “Sebron’s here –and not far away.”

Her eyes grew wide in alarm. She looked around her in panic. “Where..?”

Adam pulled Charlo’s pistol out of his belt and pressed it into her hands. He knew it contained two loaded chambers. “Do you know how to use this?”

“I know how.” Valenzuela touched her tongue to her lips. She clasped the big gun in both her small hands.

“Stay here with your back to the rock. Don’t let him get behind you. If he comes near you, shoot him.” Adam gave her a grimace that was meant to convey reassurance, but Adam had murder in mind.

He left her there and went stalking, his gun in his hand.

As the light faded, he suddenly felt more aware, more alert and more alive as his final reserves recharged his system. Swift and silent on the balls of his feet, he made a wide sweep through the hills. Sebron had threatened to kill him a long time ago, and now he was here to carry out his threat. If it came down to a duel between them, Adam was determined that he wouldn’t lose.

Her back to the rock as she had been bidden, Valenzuela was horrified to see a horseman silhouetted against the skyline. He rode slowly down the hill towards her, allowing the horse to pick its own way. She didn’t know if he had seen her. She didn’t think that he had. She shrank back against her sheltering boulder, licked her lips with her sore, dry tongue and kept very still. Sebron came close, riding slowly, swaying easily in the saddle and studying the ground. Silently, Valenzuela offered a prayer.

Now he saw her. His head came up, and he pulled his horse hard around. She heard him cry out, “Aha, Señorita!” and his round face slit in a grin. With a whoop that carried a long, long way on the evening air and started Adam running, he kicked the horse into a gallop.

Valenzuela saw the evil smile and the glitter of eyes beneath the brim of the hat. Terror welled from deep down inside her. Forgetting all about the pistol in that sudden surge of fear, she started to run. Sebron rode after her, crowing with cruel delight. She heard the thunder of his black horse’s hooves and heard the grunt of the animals breath close on her heels. She didn’t dare to look back. Running as fast as she could, she tripped and fell in the oversized boots and sprawled headlong.

She heard the horse coming closer. She rolled frantically out of its way. Sebron was bearing down on her; he leaned far out of the saddle, ready to snatch her up in his arms and carry her away. The grin on his face was insane.

Valenzuela brought up her brother’s gun and held it in both shaking hands. She fired twice, and then the hammer fell on an empty chamber as she pulled the trigger again. At that range, she couldn’t miss. Both balls went through the man’s body, front to back. Adam, arriving just a fraction too late, shot him again, in the head. Sebron pitched out of the saddle and the black horse galloped on by, dragging the body by the left foot trapped in the stirrup, the ruined skull bouncing along on the ground.

Adam picked Valenzuela up off the ground and held her against him while she cried out her shock and her fear.

“Horse-thief? Where are you hiding, horse-thief?” The voice was Torak’s, and it came from not far away.

Adam looked all around him, but the Mexican was nowhere in sight. These low hills and rock formations played peculiar tricks on a man’s perceptions. He shoved Valenzuela back into shelter. “Stay here.”

Torak’s voice rang down the valley, now sounding more distant. “Come out, little horse-thief! I know you can hear me. It’s time to end our little game.”

Keeping his head down, Adam climbed the flank of the dusty hill. From the top, he could see into the next shallow valley. The bandit leader was a good way off, sitting his dappled grey horse and looking in the other direction. His hackles rising, Adam crouched down to watch. His clothes, now the exact same colour as the grey, desert dust, were the perfect camouflage. If he kept still, he doubted that Torak would see him.

“You think you escaped me, eh? I let you go! You have led me a merry dance through the desert and cost me many good men. Now it is time for you to die!”

Adam ground his teeth. It was as he had suspected all along. He hadn’t escaped from the bandit’s encampment at all. Torak had been instrumental in letting him go. In frustration he wiped a hand over his mouth. He resented very much being used as a toy for someone else’s amusement, but he wasn’t about to let his annoyance overcome his better judgement. He didn’t underestimate Torak, his intelligence or his savagery; the last thing Adam needed now was to get careless.

Torak turned his head slowly. His dark eyes scanned the hills. “You give to me the woman, eh?” he suggested. “I will make for you a quick, easy death. You make me search for her, and I guarantee that you will take a long time to die.”

Torak was riding down the valley, walking his horse. It was clear that he had no real idea where Adam was. Adam chewed on his lip. He couldn’t shoot a man down in cold blood – not even a man like Torak, but he wasn’t about to be chased any further. Perhaps if he took out the horse… It was a very long shot for a handgun. He had to get closer. Moving with care, he started to ease down the hill.

“Maybe I hand you over to the Apaches,” Torak suggested, addressing the distant skyline. “Those red savages really know how to make a man die. Perhaps I will give them the woman also, when my men have finished with her. They might give me a better price than her father.” His laughter was loud.

Adam took aim. The light was fading fast, and his hand shook more than he liked. He wrapped one hand over the other and steadied the gun in both, hard-clenched fists as he squeezed the trigger. At maximum range the ball went wide by two or three yards, but the sound of the shot, and the puff of smoke from the muzzle gave away his position.

Torak’s head snapped around and his eyes narrowed as the grey horse pranced. Adam ducked down but he had no hope, now, of remaining undetected. The big bandit laughed at him across the width of the valley. “I see you now, horse-thief!” he yelled, and spurred the grey horse in Adam’s direction.

With Torak coming right at him, Adam stood up and pointed the six-gun directly at the Mexican’s chest. He pulled the trigger. This time there was no buck or explosion. He heard the dull, dead click of a misfire and knew, with a sinking heart, that the dirt had worked its way into the mechanism and jammed it. It was his last shot.

Adam didn’t waste time on a curse. He started a staggering run – it was all he could manage. Torak came after him, driving his horse as hard as he could, intent on riding the fleeing man down. Adam heard the horse coming closer. He knew that he couldn’t outrun it. With no clear plan in his mind, he headed for a place that he’d scouted earlier: a place where the ground dropped sharply away.

Adam’s breath hissed in through his teeth. His chest was burning; his legs felt like lead. It seemed he moved slower and slower. He turned to run along the edge of the ridge. The soft soil crumbled from beneath his boots and he heard the stones fall away. The horse was close behind him. He felt its breath on his neck. He heard Torak’s laughter. Sliding on loose soil and stone, Adam dodged sideways, out of their path.

He heard the sound of a small avalanche and heard Torak yell. He chanced a glance back over his shoulder and saw horse and rider go over the edge. The grey horse tumbled end over end. Torak was thrown from the saddle but continued to fall, contained in his own, personal landslide. He arrived at the bottom first and the big grey rolled over him the high cantle of the Spanish saddle digging deep into his ribcage. Torak lay perfectly still. Unconcerned, the grey horse got up and ambled away.

Adam pulled his knife from under the back of his belt and slid down the slope, careful to keep his balance. One way or another, he was going to finish the job if it fell short of cold blooded murder.

Torak was lying flat on his face, arms and legs akimbo. Held in place by its corded string, his hat was still in place on his head. It hid his face. Adam grabbed him by a wide flung arm and flipped him over. Kneeling, he put the point of the knife to the soft spot under the Mexican’s chin and prepared to drive it into the brain with a thrust from the heel of his hand. “You listen to me, Torak,” he snarled. “This is as far as it goes!”

Torak opened his eyes and looked at him from just a few inches away. His breath rattled and rasped inside his chest. “So you are the winner after all, little horse-thief!” he said with the ghost of a grin. “I told you right at the outset – you are a very good man.” His chest creaked again and he coughed. Blood spattered and foamed from his mouth: a bright, bright red. Adam sat back on his heels and watched the life fade out of his eyes. Then he stood up and slid the knife back under his belt. He picked the Colt up from where it had fallen and slipped it back into his holster. Without looking back, he walked away.

Everything a man could want was attached to the grey horse’s saddle – a treasure chest of riches. Adam found food – a bagful of biscuit, dried meat and dark, dried fruit, ammunition to fit Torak’s fancy, pearl handled pistol, even a bottle of whiskey. Most important of all, Torak had left them a canteen more than half filled with water and a canny, desert-wise horse.

 

Nine

 

The roses in the walled Spanish garden were dusty and tired. No one had seen to their care in a very long time. Adam stood in the archway and gazed towards the distant, dry hills. He was clean and clean-shaven and dressed in fresh, dark trail clothes. His body was as hard and lean as it had ever been and burned to a deep, nutty brown. There were hollows and lines in his face that would take a long time to fill.

It was a week since they had stumbled out of the desert: a man and a woman, staggering, on the very brink of starvation, with a dappled grey horse leading the way. Adam was rested and fed and his body was healed, but it would take a long time to put his ordeal and the bloody and violent deaths of his friends behind him. He ached for their loss and their shadows haunted his eyes.

A sound from behind him turned him around. Valenzuela had come into the garden from the door in the side of the house. Clad in a simply styled, olive-green dress, she was very much thinner, pale and drawn beneath the golden tan of her skin. She was still very beautiful and her face was serene. She held herself straight and regally tall. She smiled at him; “Adam!”

Adam took off his hat. “I wanted to see you. I wanted to say goodbye.”

Valenzuela’s sad smile became sadder. “I’m sorry you have to go.”

“Don Estaban has loaned me two of his best men to help get my horses home. If we don’t start out now, we won’t get through the badlands before winter.”

“You know Don Estaban has decided to sell the hacienda?”

Almost embarrassed, Adam fiddled with the brim of his hat. “I know. He tells me he already has a buyer.”

“With Donna Marguerite and Miguel both gone, this place holds too many painful memories.”

“What are you going to do? You can’t remain here.” Adam made a vague indicative gesture towards the house. The hacienda was being repaired, but the work proceeded only slowly. Understandably, Don Estaban’s heart wasn’t in it. Many of the rooms were still stained by smoke and not fit for habitation.

“I’m going to the mission at San Alvatore. I shall stay there a while with The Sweet Sisters of Mercy. I shall not be alone. I shall have cousin Laurencia there to look after me.”

Adam shifted awkwardly and looked at his feet. He felt sick and confused, but he knew what a man ought to do. He lifted his head and confronted her bravely. “Valenzuela…”

She held up her hands to stop him, then clasped them demurely before her. “Adam, you are a kind and generous man. But you must know that I release you from your promise.”

Adam felt his cheeks colour. “What happened doesn’t matter to me,” he said quietly. He wasn’t quite sure that it was absolutely true, but he needed to believe it, and so did she.

With a trace of a wry smile, Valenzuela shook her head. “We must be honest, Adam – with ourselves and with each other. You never loved me, nor I, truly, you. Not in the way a man and a woman need to love if they are to spend their lives together. We were both in love with the idea of being in love.”

Adam didn’t like to think it, but in his heart, he knew it was true. He had known it, deep down, for a very long time. Although he was prepared to do the honourable thing and fulfil the pledge he had made, he understood that she had removed that obligation. “Will I see you again?”

“I don’t think so.” Valenzuela gave him a courageous smile. “You must return to your life in Nevada, and when Don Estaban has completed the sale of the hacienda, I shall return with him to Spain. He will live with my father in the big house by the bay.”

“And you?” he asked gently. “What shall you do?”

“I think I shall enter the convent at San Rosa Christa for a while. Who knows, I may even become a nun.”

He took a long step towards her and stopped. He wanted to reach out and touch her, to draw her to him and hold her close, but his hands remained at his sides. Although his heart ached, somehow it wasn’t an appropriate thing to do. Already, whole worlds stood between them. He had to ask her one more time for the sake of his own peace of mind. “Are you sure about your decision?”

She put her head on one side and her dark eyes glimmered with just a hint of her former joyous mischief. “I’m quite certain. I wish you well, Adam.”

Adam bowed to her; “Goodbye, Valenzuela.”

Halfway across the yard, Adam looked back at the fine hacienda. From here, the damage didn’t show. The pale walls glowed gold in the bright, early sunshine; the red roofs burned like fire. It was a sight he would always remember. He turned to his horse and stepped into the saddle and rode slowly away into the morning light.

 

 

* Mexican/American war 1846 – 1848.

 

References:

‘Cassell’s Dictionary of Modern American History.’

‘America’ by Tindale and Shi.

‘A History of the American People’ by Paul Johnson.

‘The Penguin History of the USA’ by Hugh Brogan.

‘Down Mexico Way’ Web Site.

‘The Mexican Kitchen’ Web Site.

‘The Sonora Desert (Flora and Fauna) Web Site.

‘Surviving the Wilderness’ Web Site.

‘Ray Mear’s Survival’ (The Arizona Desert) Television Documentary: BBC 1 Television.

‘World Encyclopaedia’

‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’

 

Potter’s Bar 2002.

July, 2002

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Author: Gwynne & JennyG

With Gwynne's permission, the late Jenny Guttridge's stories are included in the Brand Library. Gwynne and JennyG were more than writers, they were best of friends. Because of this, you will find both Gwynne's and Jenny's stories listed on this page and comments for Jenny's stories will be routed to Gwynne.

1 thought on “The Spanish Bride (by Jenny G)

  1. Beautifully written story with a surprise ending that somehow seemed right and you did so well in alluring to creating that foreboded feeling throughout the plot. This was a magnificent story of joy, jealousy, action and love found and lost again…thanks for a great read, I look forward to checking out your other works now!

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