EL LOBO'S SACK OF GOLD

By Rusty         

 

The grass grew sparse on the slopes of the Rancho Montoya vega. The season grew uncommonly challenging on both sides of the border. Barely enough vegetation for scrub cattle to survive. And with the grueling dry spell, the High Chaparral crew shared the challenge of Don Sebastian Montoya. Rather, they had been propositioned to help drive the patron’s wandering yearlings back into Montoya's pasturelands. It wasn't the soundest idea the Americanos had heard but after hours of negotiations, the two heads of household, John Cannon from The High Chaparral and Don Sebastian Montoya, had agreed on a workable plan.

 

John Cannon and his ranch crew of seasoned drovers would take on the job of gathering Montoya's stray cattle. It was the idea of Don Montoya nearly begging for assistance that drew a fine edge on the crew’s raw nerves. Everyone knew that the idea of asking for help was well beyond the aristocratic Don's ability. But, in fact, it was a desperate plea for assistance. Montoya's ranch had been stricken by influenza. More than half his crew was down in bed and it would be that way for more days than could be acceptable. One man and his wife had already died from the outbreak.

 

 In return for their assistance, Montoya would give Cannon a sizable herd of breed stock to replace some of the High Chaparral steer stolen in several recent Pima and Apache raids. In the negotiations, there was never any mention of the resident bandits who fed their thinning ranks from the fringes of both American and Mexican herds. This was something that was known but just not spoken of in public circles.

 

Stepping beyond his strict business negotiations, the Don also agreed to provide a good variety of foods for the drovers: fresh fruit from his surviving orchards, and vegetables from his meager gardens. Although the drought had hit them hard, his rancho's deep wells had provided ample water for such established delicacies in the desert. The Don abhorred eating beans and rice as his only sustenance.

 

So it was that the Cannon crew enjoyed the hospitality of the old Don, yet suffered the exasperation of the two strong rancheros who often butted heads like two aging obstinate bulls. They entered paradise, of a sort, among the hanging gardens and cool shade.

 

 

 

 

 

Victoria Cannon stood buoyantly on tip-toes trying valiantly to pick some of the ripest peaches from a high branch and was desperate to do it without help. She hopped and pirouetted but try as she might, she could not reach them. Reno and Pedro walked by and without a word, Reno, the taller of the two, grabbed a branch and bent it down to her, while Pedro, grinning with delight, began plucking the fruits in a frenzy of arms and flailing elbows. Victoria stepped back and, placing her hands on her narrow hips, flew into a tirade about wanting to fend for herself, and doing for others was not necessarily the best you could do. She huffed and suddenly broke into a sunny smile when the two had filled her basket to overflowing.

 

"Well,” she consented to their gallantry by showing a sugary smile, “since you have so graciously filled by basket, now you may carry it to the pantry. Is there anything else I would have you do? Hmm, let me see. A Garden of Eden must have a few snakes around, no?"

 

"Snakes?" Pedro grew alarmed and bolted from the patio. Reno followed him stumbling under the weight of the basket.

 

“No, ma’am, we ain’t seen any snakes. Hurry up, Pedro,” Reno flinched as he took most of the weight of the basket. Pedro nearly flew to the pantry, barely touching the ground in an effort to carry the burden and beat Reno to the door.

 

Victoria laughed heartily and nearly missed the new activity at the gate. While she rushed to get the peaches before the heat of the day made work unbearable, the range crews had assembled and headed out for the main gate. Victoria sprinted across her family’s wide Spanish courtyard and stood near the fountain, catching her breath as the men were getting their last assignments. Her husband, John Cannon, spoke to them, giving their orders for the day.

 

"Okay, so if we can get the south and west pastures covered we've got maybe three or four more days of work here before we go home," John Cannon announced. His rough demeanor suddenly changed to a smile when Victoria appeared. “And I understand, that Vaquero is working with the cooking staff to prepare quite a shindig for us after our work here is done.”

 

The crew showed its enthusiasm with a wild yip and a toss of hats.

 

Victoria beamed. A party would be just what the two ranchos needed to form a good working relationship for years to come. The days had gone smoothly and though she enjoyed the time here with her father and the comforts she could not bring to her own home, she was still eager to leave. She bubbled with laughter thinking of the chores ahead on their return to The High Chaparral, and they did not seem like chores at all.

Now the crew sat ready to cover the broad stretches of the southern range. Humberto casually nodded when Cannon added him to join the others. His assistance with the terrain would help them work the strays out of the barranca --- a gully-laden stretch of broken ground toward the southern tip of the estate.

 

Buck Cannon leaned across his saddle and poked at Humberto's broad chest. "And how come you ain't taken ill with this cholera?"

 

"I have had the sickness when I was very young… twice. So I have been blessed with work instead of rest." He grinned and shrugged.

 

They all chuckled.

 

The men seemed more relaxed than they had been in a long time and the work moved along on schedule. It was with this thought that Victoria moved in closer and stood, hanging pensively against Blue's stirrup, and spying Buck Cannon smiling at her.

 

"You know what would be nice? I just thought it would be so nice to have all of my family around the grand banquet table --- just once. And this will be our chance as a complete family, no? Papá has been so gracious, at least for Papá," she added with a little laugh. "It would do you good to use your table manners again."

 

Blue snickered, "Hey, right, like I could even find them."

 

"Blue Cannon! There is a young lady out there somewhere wishing she could find a handsome vaquero with whom she could also be seen in public, and have the best of table manners." She knew how to cow his brashness. She smiled anyway, laying a hand on his leg and looking up at him and his boyish grin. "Promise me?"

 

Snickering, with his gloved hand casually across his mouth, Buck Cannon was enjoying the banter.

 

Blue looked chagrined by it all.

 

"I hear her callin', Blue Boy, and she wants a man that knowed which fork to use and when to wipe the grease from his chin." Buck snickered but couldn't control his laughter any longer and let loose with a howl.

 

Manolito Montoya shook his head and looked down at his sister. "Only would my sister be so inclined to match up young couples by their skills in table etiquette." His smile was infectious to say the least. "Do not worry, my sister. Blue has plenty of opportunity to find a sweet young señorita when we get back."

 

Blue blushed twenty shades and turned away laughing.

 

Victoria Cannon feigned a pout but then she too joined in the silliness of the situation. "It would be quite a sight to see any of you ready for a state dinner, white gloves and bow ties," she said.

 

"And don't forget tails," Blue chimed in. He pulled his hat down low to hide his wide grin and drew rein away from her.

 

Victoria stepped back as they moved toward the adobe gates leading from the grand hacienda of the sprawling Montoya estate and beyond to its wide dusky plains. "You promise to be back before nightfall. And I want you all to dress for dinner. As a favor to me. All right? Blue, you make sure they do not go to Nogales!" Her voice rose in a stern but playful tone. "Please?"

 

"Yes, ma'am," he called over his shoulder and waved.

 

"Tell me, Mister Blue Cannon," Manolito Montoya chided with a beguiling smile, "just how are you going to keep two of us from heading for the cantina when our work is done?"

 

Blue smirked. "Oh, I'll think of something."

 

 

 

 

Hours deep into the badlands, they had only found a handful of strays. Each bony steer was dried out and weak but eager to bunch together. The crews had split into several teams to cover more ground. Blue led their small party through a dry watercourse, framed in even drier desert willow and the raspy, yellow tufts of buffalo grass.

 

"Shorely can't say when I've seen it drier," drawled Buck. "Them bones are poking out like porcupine quills. It shore is a sorry lot of 'em."

 

Blue found a trace in the dry grass and followed it. "Looks like with the four of us," he calculated, "we can cover this short canyon in an hour if we split up some."

 

"Ah, a good idea, Blue. Bring back what we find and we'll join up here. Agreed?" Manolito said.

 

"That do be a good plan, Blue. Last one back gets to ride drag all the way home."

 

 

 

 

 

Down in a hollow of broken piñons and piles of debris from last season's flashflood, Blue found a newborn calf and followed it down to a dry wallow. On spindly legs it was determined to outrun Blue's palomino. Blue grinned as he rode at a slow pace watching for the mother's tracks. He studied a line of tracks and the freshest ones led south toward a break in the ground. Riding alone he decided the others would not take time to find the calf's mother. Blue felt sorry for the little fellow.

 

The little one bawled and ran to the piñons and down into the draw. Stepping down from the saddle, he continued following the calf, slipping in a soft embankment to the line where the floodwater's edge had carved away at the sandy bench.

 

Although this waterhole was now dry, it had not been dry long. Covered in partial shade by an old stand of cottonwoods, Blue walked to its former shoreline. Many tracks indicated riders of both shod and unshod horses. The cattle had culminated their wandering here as well. In pursuit of the cow’s single track and prodded by the calf's incessant bawling, Blue walked around a cove of rocks on the far side that brought him right into a bandit's camp.

 

"Oh, no… El Lobo," he murmured, and turned to run, only to be snagged by two of El Lobo's men. He stumbled into a hornet's nest, for sure. They held rifles to his chest and spun him around, forcing him to walk back into their camp.

 

Most of Lobo’s men were too absorbed in their personal tasks to notice Blue when he entered. He stood in the center of camp, head held down, and awaited the outcome in silence. A moment later El Lobo's second in command shoved him forward until Blue was brought face-to-face with the supreme bandit of the badlands.

 

El Lobo sat on the edge of a downed piñon rubbing his foot. He had found a shady clearing among the brushy weeds. His boot was off and he looked absorbed in his task of rubbing the pain away. He looked up briefly and continued rubbing.

 

“And what do jue want me to do with this boy? I am tired and I don’t need another mouth to feed.”

 

“El Lobo,” his man spoke up sharply, “he is a stray, no?”

 

The bandit began a slow menacing chuckle that grew to great volume before he eyed the boy more closely. “Wait. Wait, this is not just a stray. I know jue. Jue are from the High Chaparral. Cannon’s son, no?”

 

           

Blue nodded sheepishly.

 

Lobo returned to his foot rubbing and chuckled again. He swatted at flies attracted, no doubt, by the recent butchering of the calf’s mother. Even Lobo seemed reluctant to care about their visitor; he worked diligently on his sore foot.

 

“So if jue are here then it must be that your Papa and his men are near, no?” He shot a grin over toward his men. “It would be better to shoot jue than feed jue, I think.”

 

A young vaquero rose from his bed bedroll and came forward, glaring menacingly at their new captive. He stood taller than the others. Bony ridges marked his high cheekbones. This man, apparently with some standing in El Lobo's eyes, openly wished to kill the young gringo right then. His eyes reflected complete hatred. His voice emanated from somewhere deep, a raspy and venomous tone that sent instant shivers up Blue’s spine. "There is no reason to keep this boy. He is only a loose end to this trail you have us running down, Lobo," he hissed.

 

"Miguel, calma, por favor. Ever since our last rancho you have been telling me what I shall do. Take your knife. Carve yourself a steak," Lobo groused. He eyed the young cowboy and a sparkle suddenly changed his haggard face. "Wait. Maybe you are right. I have no use for a gringito. What is he doing this far south on his own? I do not care," he answered himself. "Maybe he has seen too much to be trusted until we get far beyond the border. He can't be worth our time."

 

Blue shook his head, refusing to believe that they would kill him just for that. He stood in silence, and as they determined what to do with him; he avoided looking directly at their leader. As wanted men on both sides of the border, El Lobo and his band of cutthroats were once again in hiding, no doubt. From the look of their heavily laden pack animals, they seemed to be well-stocked and traveling fast. But even at first glance, their animals were stranded under the load, and trail-weary. Blue licked his lips and waited; his eyes darted from one to the next.

 

El Lobo chuckled to himself, seeing the worry and apprehension in the boy's eyes, even as he tried not to be anxious, yet dreading the outcome. Lobo waved Miguel away like a pesky fly and said, "Do what you will with him."

 

Two men began to drag Blue away with Miguel not far behind. Blue fought them, yelling back toward El Lobo, "One steer ain't gonna make that much difference to anybody. We give more that that to the Apaches every year."

 

Amused by the desperate look in the boy's eyes, El Lobo casually conceded then once more waved Miguel to continue. Frantic, Blue strained at the grip on his arms as they dragged him away. El Lobo stopped them this time. "Wait. What is the brand on that steer?"

 

Miguel checked and muttered "Circle M --- the Montoya brand. We have once again stepped over the Montoya line, jeffe. And this young gringo will only bring another posse down on us."

 

"It has been too long since I set eyes on that bandit Manolito, the one who crosses the border without care," he snickered. "It would be nice to see him again. Don Sebastian has only so much patience for his resident banditos, no?" El Lobo slipped his boot on and swaggered over to Blue as he formulated his next move. "So, why is it that a gringo is running Montoya beef? So, one or two head of cattle will not bother Don Sebastian, huh? They are nothing but scrub." He glared at the boy closely. "Wait," he taunted, "Jue perhaps are of some value, even to me."

 

Blue cringed.

 

Then Lobo's face brightened with evil glee. "Ah, yes, yes! This young gringo is none other than Cannon's son. His only son. I am sorry to say, Miguel, but we'll have to keep him alive --- at least until we cross the border once more."

 

El Lobo stepped up to the panic etched in Blue's face. He grabbed Blue's chin in his strong hand, forcing the boy to look at him. "It is very nice of jue to come for a visit, young Cannon. And is Manolito well… and his lovely sister? He will surely come and want to find jue. This is good. You could very well be my next sack of gold." His derisive chuckle rolled in his thick chest and grew and echoed across the stone canyon. Blue tried to avert his eyes from the bandit. What was done was done; now he had only to survive it.

 

Miguel moved away and roamed the edge of camp, irritated that he could not be rid of the gringo. He called out at a distance from Lobo finding it easy to agitate the man. "He can't be alone. Soon they will look for him. The time is now, jeffe."

 

El Lobo acknowledged Miguel's chosen words but distractedly enjoyed the thoughts of money and fine things he imagined he could buy with the ransom of the boy. A satiated look came over him, as if filled with decadent dreams and rich food.

 

"Maybe it is a good thing that I have jue. Your Papá will not be so eager to cross the border and tangle with the old Don. He cannot afford to threaten the Montoya pact, heh? This is good, no?" His husky laugh rattled in his barrel chest. "For now," he pawed Blue away from him with a broad hand across his cheek, "you will be the guest of El Lobo. Tie him up. Alright, amigos, we break camp in an hour and head for the piños altos."

 

Blue stumbled, suddenly ushered off by two others. They dragged him to a dying piñon and cinched him tightly to a thick low-lying limb. Lashing down his wrists across its length, he had only enough room to shift his balance from foot to foot and stand in silence, arms outstretched. One man was selected as guard. Blue's apprehension mounted as he watched them make quick work of the slaughtered steer. He followed every move of Lobo and his segundo, Miguel.

 

Soon the camp activity grew steadily as the bandits readied for the trail. Oblivious to the frenzy of work, each pack animal overburdened with the loot of their raids, dosed in the warm sun. Once Miguel had finished with his personal packing, he came over to relieve the guard. Miguel had an extraordinary dark look and an evil grin that he flashed at Blue. There were nearly twenty men and Miguel was the worst of the lot by Blue’s estimation. Blue tried to shift away from Miguel's stare as he approached. There was no where to go.

 

The outlaw sat uncomfortably close and pulled out a double-edged dagger to pick at his dirty fingernails. Then in boredom, he played a game of mumblety-peg with a stray caterpillar that unknowingly crossed his path. Before long Miguel turned toward Blue for amusement. He lounged in the shade at Blue's feet then slowly raised the knife up to the sunlight, admiring it, flashing its light into Blue's eyes. It was not a feeling that Blue was accustomed to; he felt a rush of alarm envelop him. If he had been untied he would have attempted to race away.

 

Miguel rose to his feet to peer at Blue's avoiding eyes. Miguel only grinned derisively before he came closer, breathing into the boy's face, leaning against him until the fear in the boy's eyes was replaced by shock. He slid the blade along Blue's stomach. Then he laughed at his deed. Blue closed his eyes and hissed. The pain rose in slow waves, but he managed to stay quiet. He did not want to give the Mexican bandit any satisfaction.

 

Miguel, intrigued that the young gringo could withstand his sly attack, stared at him for a long held breath before sitting down in the shade.

 

Even under these circumstances, Blue instinctively held up under the subtle knowledge that Miguel could kill him at any time. The threat had been made. Blue closed his eyes briefly from the pain. He sulked, and considered the depth of trouble he was in. Blue glared at the bandit who now casually sat in the shade at his feet, returning him only a sideways glance whenever he felt the intimidation would do the most good. Blue shook involuntarily from the shallow wound along his waistband. Miguel had been too clever, injuring him only enough to make him desperately uncomfortable but not enough to bring too much attention to the deed. Blue closed his eyes again as the pain diminished only to resurface and radiate to his aching arms and hands. He opened his eyes once more to find Miguel rising to his feet and standing only inches from his face.

 

Blue's breathing rose sharply.

 

Miguel hissed under his breath, its putrid steam covering Blue's face until he wasn't sure he could keep up the unaffected appearance. Miguel gathered tightly a wad of clothing at Blue's throat and pulled him toward his cruel and toothy grin. Blue held his breath and returned an icy stare that easily melted away. The face of death stared back at him.

 

"I am not done with you, gringo. In the night many things can happen when one closes his eyes."

 

The voice of El Lobo broke his concentration. He slithered back like the snake he was. "Yes, jeffe," he answered, "I can get this one ready in only a momento." He never averted his eyes as he spoke over his shoulder to Lobo. Miguel pulled the knife again. Blue openly cringed. Miguel expertly slid the blade up along the branch, this time severing the rope bindings. He pulled Blue from the limb and shoved him forward to his horse.

 

While Miguel had kept Blue busy with his taunting demeanor. There, in the dappled light, a line of mounted and ready bandits now sat waiting. Blue moved slowly and shuffled like an old man to his palomino. He hesitated, his stomach burning, not sure if he could raise his leg to the stirrup or haul his weight up and over into the saddle.

 

His hesitation was not missed. El Lobo moved quickly and stepped between the two. He pulled at Blue's shoulder and swung him around. He forcibly pressed Blue up against the stirrup. His eyes flashed from Blue's strained features to Miguel's arrogant grin. El Lobo growled only once at Miguel before he grabbed at Blue's shirt. Blue flinched. He tugged the material away from the boy's stomach and recognized the slash mark instantly. By then a sudden burst of anger was tightly reined; El Lobo rolled his eyes.

 

"Miguel, mi amigo," his voice was soft and almost sincere, "your taste for blood is going to be the death of you. But, if you take away my sack of gold, be sure, I will be the one to see you dead." El Lobo pulled his knife concealed in his boot and cut away a leather cord from Blue's saddle. This he bound to Blue's wrists, tying them at the front. Blue looked disturbed with the situation but remained quietly standing until El Lobo cupped his large hand at the nape of Blue's neck, bringing him close like a bear would swipe at a cub. "Can you ride, hombre?" It was a sincere look, if anything.

 

Blue stalled, then flashed a quick look to each man, attempting to read his eyes, before he answered with a whispered "yes". It would be foolhardy for him to give any other answer. He knew El Lobo was capable of killing him at anytime. The bandit had come close before. He grew arrogant on the reputation he had fostered during his last raids into the territory. Since he was able to cross the border at will, it seemed that a hostage could travel upright in the saddle as well as over it. Blue knew the bandit's lofty attitude, had seen his cunning and vicious nature before. Once in a box canyon he had pinned Buck, himself, and the ranch crew, on the pretext of capturing their string of mules and supplies. By shear luck they had escaped, only to face him once more. Never mind that Big John Cannon would demand to see his son alive before he secured a handsome payoff. El Lobo faced a challenge if he planned to face his father…

 

Any courage wilted as Blue faced his next challenge, the arduous task of climbing into the saddle.

 

There again, El Lobo saw easily how the desperation crossed Blue's face. The bandit stiff-armed him to his palomino, then gave him a boost to the saddle. He waited until the obvious pain, marked by lack of color, diminished. In a lowered voice he growled, "Do not slow us down, gringo, or,” he showed the handle of his knife in his waistband, “I will make Miguel very disappointed, heh?" He chuckled lightly and wagged a finger back at Miguel as he strode away.

 

 

 

 

The large group of riders worked up trail through a tangle of cat's claw before Blue got a clear view of the valley floor slipping away. Ahead the serpentine trace cut through the chaparral-covered foothills before angling sharply upward through a ridge of piñon. No sane man rode the trail of Montañadura. He remembered that Manolito had called its mountaintop community, Las Zurrapas --- the dregs of the region --- more contemptible than any other hideout from here to Mexico City. It was known only as a thieves' paradise. There was no mistaking that the group had been moving fast and probably heading for that same haven in the mountain.

 

As Blue rode along gripping the saddle horn, he allowed himself time to study the men and their animals. Most of the stock showed heavy scarring on their chests and withers, underfed and beyond exhaustion. Their heavy bundles were strapped and tied for a long journey. The men fared no different. Riders wore a full complement of bandoleers, rifles, and carried extra supplies tied to their saddles. These banditos drove relentlessly to the border, sparing not even their animals to succeed. Blue chanced a coveted look down into the valley, and could see nothing that promised a quick rescue.

 

As the day wore on, and the horses and burros faltered under their heavy loads, they had made a decision to abandon heavier items. A scattering of precious loot trailed behind. At a short climb leading to a switch back, one of two mules ahead tripped and sprawled across the rocky trail. It dumped its cargo; the wooden boxes it carried cracked open like eggshells. The caravan refused to stop. As he rode by, Blue glared at the bandit stripping the mule. Minutes later, Blue was too far up the trail to get a clear look but the pistol report shook him to the core.

 

Many of the goods and undisclosed profits died with the beast of burden. Bandit voices along the trail chattered excitedly then fell subdued. Blue stared forward and blinked. Soon two bandits were scuttling across the trail with a few items to add to their already overburdened packhorses.

 

They moved on. The steady climb drove each rider to watch the narrowing, dangerous trail. Cliff-side boulders wedged into their path and overhangs forced them to move along the outside edges. Blue sat square-shouldered and kept an eye on the leader. But as the hours wore on, he lolled in the saddle before they reached a potentially dangerous slide section. He sat up noticing that the Spanish dialogue that he could not understand was clearly more urgent. Something was bothering them.

 

Ahead, the trail had received a recent torrent of rain that carved out a section of trail. They pressed on but slowed through the cut-away. Soapy's tired head swung low. He showed more signs of fatigue. Then he faltered and a hind leg slipped on loose rock. His stumble tossed Blue down slope. Blue tumbled down the cut a few feet and then slid on his side another twenty feet before coming to a stop. His shoulder had slammed into the embankment. He cringed and slowly rose to his feet favoring the shoulder. With his hands tied he brushed the dirt from his face with the edge of his sleeve.

 

 After the dust had settled, Soapy stood idle, favoring his hind leg. Blue scrambled up the slope, breathless, finding it hard to gain ground with his hands bound. When the trail was within reach, he encountered six pistols aimed at his face. He said nothing but watched numbly as Miguel took long strides to grasp Soapy's reins, released his girth, and dumped the saddle on the ground before leading the lame animal off trail toward the back of the pack.

 

Blue stiffened. "Aw, no," he whispered. He scrambled again, but could make no headway to gain the trail. Two men pulled him to stable footing. With wild eyes, Blue panted heavily not so much from the shear exhaustion of the climb but of the fear growing within. His panic rose in his throat.

 

From his perch on the side of the trail, Blue watched Miguel return in only a few moments with a bay gelding, saddled him using Soapy's gear, and pulled Blue to the stirrup. Blue drew up on the horn and slowly climbed on. The pain drove down his shoulder to his waist making every move bound in misery. His furtive glance down trail caused Miguel to grin. Quickly Miguel retraced his steps and left Blue unattended --- but always within view.

 

            A sharp pistol report echoed through the canyon, across the towering peaks, and down to the low range of foothills below. Blue froze. Twinges of grief cut him in half. There was no sign of Soapy. He slowly turned away and sat hunched, jaw clenched, incensed, forgetting to breathe, and forgetting that these men had no time to indulge in favoritism for man or horseflesh. From the rear, Miguel ordered the men to proceed. Blue moved his new mount forward. He could not look back.

 

 

 

 

He never knew when they arrived at the adobe shack in a highland valley near the peak. He had no interest in looking at anything anymore. Only the wind tore at his vest and chilled his belly. Here the trees were stunted and scattered, the wind gouged at the grasses, and the crispness in the air could cause a man to wear a woolen coat in early summer. A rocky prominence circled the highland valley. Long ago he lost sight of the desert floor where he had been captured.

 

When the pack train came to a halt, he sat woodenly in his seat before rough hands pulled him from the saddle. Few men entered the small thatched-roofed adobe. The remainder of men searched out a resting place in the low-ceiling barn, along the fence rails or under small shade trees near the porch. Others found comfort under a stand of stunted cedars.

 

 

*  *  *  *  * 

 

Buck Cannon angled his mount down through a notch once carved by a millennium of coursing floodwaters. Below, the channel widened to a densely brushed region where the floodwaters had done its most good. Lining the arroyo grew an old stand of desert willow, taller than most, greener than some. He picked his way carefully and let go a long ragged breath. "You'd think he was chasin' a cow to Nogales…" It was a comment that needed no response.

 

Manolito nodded knowingly and eased back into his saddle and let Macadoo select the best course to the sandy wash below them. "I agree," then as an added thought he said, "This does not make much sense. But, compadre, you know as well as I that when Blue is tracking a wandering stray, he is single-minded. Besides, I taught him. He does not give up easily."

 

"You taught him? I agree he got his single-minded from his Pa, but his trackin' skills come from a good deal more than ridin' this range with you." Buck snickered and shook his head. They reined up suddenly.

 

After what seemed like hours following one track, the arroyo held more than soft sand. Mano quickly dismounted. Humberto stood by shaking his head. Buck Cannon stood in his stirrups and whistled. Cutting across the soft sand deeply gouged, a ragged line of heavy tracks, burdened animals as well as shod and unshod mounts left evidence that something more than strays roamed this country. The ground was torn in a ten-foot wide swath. Blue's palomino tracks were obliterated by the traffic. All faced due South. It was Mano who studied the side banks and determined that Blue had pulled out of the arroyo long before the group of riders entered the wash.

 

"I can't believe he woulda missed that," Buck noted, scrubbing his face with his open hand. He grew intrigued as Mano reined quickly out and up the sharp bank. "They must a come through behind him."

 

"They are traveling fast." Mano's eyes softened. "Perhaps their paths did not cross."

 

"You believe that?"

 

 "He could be up one of these blind canyons. These foothills are full of them."

 

"These canyons are full of somethin' I don't want to run into if I don't hafta."

 

Humberto crossed himself and muttered.

 

"Agreed." Mano waited for Buck to join him on the steep bank. "You cannot tell what he may have run into." As Mano continued following the wide trail, he slowly shook his shaggy crop of dark hair. Reining his horse, he whistled lightly.

 

"If ever there was something I would not want to do, it would be trailing comancheros to the top of the world." Mano eyed the course that lay before them.

 

The outlaw trail, although easier than most to follow, drew a long and definitive line to the borderlands. Buck let Mano choose the best course. It was a single-wide path carved, at first across a series of choppy hills, then a groomed pathway covered by the duff of piñon needles. Buck caught himself speculating aloud. " … 'course it don't make much sense… bein's he musta run into them, cause he shore to meet up with them. Not here maybe but back in the arroyo."

 

Manolito allowed a concerned frown to wash over his face. The first rifle report echoed down faintly from a granite pinnacle. It echoed several times before fading.

 

Humberto sat sad-eyed and nervous.

 

 "Perhaps it is hunters," Manolito offered.

 

Buck gurgled, "Hunters! My eye, and how many's you said we saw in the sand?"

 

Manolito raised his shoulders and stared up the next slope. "Hearing that means they do not fear anyone coming behind them, nor are they hiding their intentions to reach deep into the badlands."

 

"I knowed we got rough country to cross but I'm more worried for Blue. They seem a might trigger happy for my well-bein'."

 

As the three crossed the rise, ahead a singular and well-defined path appeared from quite a distance. In the slant of afternoon light the shadows lined the trail to Montañadura and Las Zurrapas. Carved into the side of the mountain by laborious hands from centuries ago, the Indians had used and maintained it until the Mexican explorers claimed it. Then again the Yaqui and Pima reclaimed it before the banditos adopted this historic shortcut to the border. Most knew to stay clear of it.

 

It was definitely a feat of engineering when nothing in that region should be evident, not to the likes of a civilization that never could deal with the modern conventions brought by the whites.

 

"Ah heard of it. Never seen, though. Good trail, all the way?"

 

Mano cringed. "It depends what you regard as good. Passable, sí. Good, nunca. It has never had a reputation for being good for anything except the malgente."

 

Buck grinned in amusement at Mano's description as he stared above to the angular horizon. "Advice well taken, Mano. Ah think this is a good time for Humberto to ske-daddle his way on home. Let him tell Big John what the story is. Maybe they can catch up with us. We got a long climb ahead with a hornet's nest at the top. Seems like if that boy ain't bringin' home strays, he chasin' them into damnation."

 

Manolito gave Humberto a few additional instructions before he bade him to go. The man was silent and efficient as he quietly wheeled his horse to the north.

 

The two continued their southward journey, keeping a watch for side trails. Not more than two hours later the sharp crack of pistol fire echoed once more down canyon. Buck edged up alongside Manolito. "I don't like the sound of this. I suppose we gotta trail them, but I don't take kindly to being shot before I know what I'm gettin' into."

 

"There is no sign of him. We must assume that they have Blue. There is no other way, hombre."

 

"I knowed that. I just wanted you to say it. I got one of them feelin's in the pit o' my stomach..." He never attempted to finish the thought but reined his tired mount onward.

 

Mano pointed upward toward the rise of the last pinnacle. A dust cloud edged its way up and caught in a breeze. They had gained some distance on their string of tired burros and their overburdened cache. "This will be easy. It is very hard to hide a large group of outlaws."

 

"You'd know… “Buck drawled under his breath.

 

 

 

 

The adobe was stagnant with warm air laden with old greasy cooking fires from a poorly vented stove. Blue ducked under the squat doorframe and blinked, becoming accustomed to the lack of light and the sting of smoke. Miguel gave him no slack and shoved him across the small hovel to the rear wall.

 

"Sientese alli," he snapped. Blue hit his sore shoulder hard against the wall and slid to the dirt floor.

 

From a dark corner of the room a small dark family emerged. Few words were exchanged. Then the bent-framed patriarch, a wizened Mexican with a bleached-white moustache, pried his family from the dark recess by a strong arm and moved the children ahead of him. They stood as if ready for a firing squad, eyes down, arms at their sides. The children were young, their clothes clean but threadbare. The old man wore white cotton, loose-fitting clothing, that showed he had no muscular structure other than the bones that held him upright. The squat wife laid an arm on the two youngest, a small boy and a doe-eyed little girl of 7or 8 years. The eldest girl moved arrogantly ahead yet stood with a bearing of willful pride the others did not possess.

 

It was curious for Blue to see them act this way, but under the circumstances the jeffe did have authority over the peons across the remote mountains. Why would it be any different here? Blue hunched in the corner. The father stepped furtively closer and directed his eldest daughter toward him. Blue smiled and shook his head.

 

The father pressed the girl forward. "This is mi hijos Inez y Tomas y Benjamina. We are glad you here, aqui. My wife cook very good for jue."

 

Blue studied the man then shied away as El Lobo filled the doorway. The bandit took two wide steps to clear the center of the room before he chuckled and slapped the old man on the shoulder. The old man bowed slightly and grinned. His eye kept wandering to his eldest girl. She had crept back from the center of attention, not in fear or motivated by a sense of martyrdom for the family, but of boredom. She leaned against the wall and peeled the dry skin from her fingers. The bandit did not miss her calculated avoidance.

 

"You will take good care of my men, no? We have ridden hard." He turned to yell through the open doorway. "Miguel, bring in the beef for Señora Esmalia. Tonight we eat good." His vulgar rasping chuckle resonated throughout the meager dwelling; only the foul odors were disturbed by his presence. He then delayed his moves, staring at Blue, until his captive became noticeably uncomfortable. El Lobo openly brewed on a thought. He stepped toward the girl, grabbed her arm and sent her toward Blue. "Inez, make him ready to ride por mañana." Then he released her, turned and stepped out into the empty yard.

 

Blue gazed dumbstruck at the dark brown agate eyes of Inez and the vulgar man that now stood bleached in the lingering sunset beyond her. She pulled at his hat to break Blue's concentration from watching Lobo. Taking her time to remove his hat, she grinned, then slowly pulled his vest away. The bloodstains across his waist were evident now and he seemed surprised to know that they were there, although she sensed that he needed help like the others who she had tended. She made him lay on a serape in the corner, not far from where he landed. He eased down, fighting the grip across his stomach and the numbness across his shoulder. Her mother stepped into their dark niche with a basin of warm water. They exchanged only a glance. Inez was gentle and soon had him realizing how tired he was. As soon as her bandaging was finished, she sat next to him and waited, brushing his hair from his face and exchanging soft eyes. He slept like a man who had not seen a clear night in weeks.

 

 

 

 

Morning light came early. Warm breath on his neck mingled with the odor of a dew-laden straw roof. The dirt beneath them had retained its warmth. He enjoyed the little pleasure as it radiated through his sore shoulder and cold belly. Inez stirred. Blue realized the warmth came directly from the young girl, who, at first seemed demure but now brazenly lay her arm across his chest and had snuggled with him all night. He smiled warmly at first but then wondered why he was allowed any small comforts at all. Just as those thoughts clouded his mind, El Lobo banged open the plank door. Blue jumped, startled from any thoughts at all. The bandit's demeanor, suddenly blanketed by the fact that the girl had attached herself to his hostage, titillated him in only a way he could enjoy. He chuckled softly. And, raising his eyebrows with a choreographed gesture of a finger pointing at the couple, El Lobo let go a louder chuckle and suddenly slapped his leg.

 

"Ah! I knew it would be a beauty like Inez… ah, ah, you see? We are all vultures preying on the good people of Mexico! What do you say now, muchacho? Huh? Is she not the best for you?"

 

Blue reacted as only his first instincts allowed. He shook his head and, slack-mouthed, stammered helplessly, "I didn't do … anything. I found her like this… No. No, I didn't…" He gave up and pushed her slowly away from his chest as she awoke. "Inez, get up," he said, prodding her with his elbow.

 

She lingered, smiling that it had disturbed him so. "What do jue think? You would not get the hospitality of the house?" she cooed. "I am the very best that El Lobo has to offer." She flipped back tendrils of her long black hair and beamed at the gringo.

 

"What?" Blue choked.

 

"Did jue enjoy your night?"

 

"What?" He was crushed. He shoved her away like dirty laundry. The ceiling filtered specks of light and dust down into his eyes. He blinked repeatedly wondering what he had expected of them all.

 

Her laughter began slowly in the back of her throat until it came out like silver tinkling bells. She stopped suddenly. "Jue do not like my little trick. El Lobo only thought jue could use a good night sleep." She was playing coy now, pouting and touching Blue's cheek. Then she rose lightly to her feet and advancing on the big man, wrapped her thin arms around El Lobo's large waist, transforming into a lithe woman with mature desires.

 

"I don't think he likes me much, El Lobo. Make him like me." Her pout was playful and on the edge of vulgarity. They made a better couple.

 

Blue turned his head away in disgust. He wrapped his arms over his doubled up knees and sat in the darkness now slowly lifting to dawn. Did it matter at all that the beautiful child was possibly only a whore for the convenience of the bandits? Someone who gave pleasure along a difficult trail? The idea sickened him.

 

El Lobo quieted his amused laughter and pushed her away from him. "Make some hot food for the men. We ride soon." He gave her a quick slap on the rump and returned to his men.

 

As quickly as he commanded, she spun away from him and stomped to the stove. Señora Esmalia found the wood for the fire and joined Inez in the morning chore. The remainder of the family had left to do their farm chores, no doubt. Before long the adobe was warmed and smoky. Blue pressed his back into the corner of the room and watched without caring to show much interest. He watched the flicker of the fire charge the room with light but kept to the shadows. A cloud of despondency overcame him. He avoided her eyes. Such a flirt. Inez had only to make him look her way before she would flip her hair and wag her long skirts toward him. He gave her no notice. It infuriated her that much more. Finally not able to sway him, she stormed out of the adobe and left the door wide.

 

Outside, the others rose slowly from their sleep: from the wagon in the yard, from the small barn in the gully east of the house, from under the small grove of trees. Blue's narrow view of the outside through the doorway prevented him from seeing her wander toward Miguel. In a fleeting thought to escape, Blue imagined himself bolting for the door and racing into the underbrush. But it was too risky.

 

Inez and Miguel exchanged a few words before she wandered back to the adobe and her kitchen duties. She busied herself with getting the table ready, working around the tight quarters but keeping a trained eye on Blue. The table would service only a select few and he was among them.

 

He had studied her long enough. "So why do you stay here? Why does your father let them …" He dropped his eyes, ashamed for her. His tone, more bitter and disdainful, dropped with his eyes.

 

"My father! Hah, he is no more my father than jue are." She slapped the tin plates to the tabletop. "Perez is a beaten old man. He lives up here because no one will have him. He sits on this mountain just for the bandits to kick." Her soft eyes burned with hatred. "I despise him."

 

"Then that's just the more reason to leave." Blue tried to fit the pieces together. "You wait for El Lobo to ride through?" He didn't like his own question. "Do you have a family?"

 

She spat. Her eyes roamed across the room and she cast dagger eyes through him. "Ever since my father died at the hands of the French, killed by a gringo like jue, defending his own country, I have vowed not to be used like that again. I have no family. Perez, Esmalia and her starving children have no place to be. So we are the ones who drive ahead to make a future for ourselves. Who else will do this for us? Huh? Jue? A gringo boy?" She was baiting him, working the anger out and daring him to understand her.

 

"I've been fighting a war that don't have a place in your history. I lost my mother and I'll probably lose a lot more before it ends." He aimed a cold look that cowed her to icy silence. "But I ain't give up what I value most." He slowly rose from the floor like an old man and staked a place on the bench before the table, hunched and irritated. "You're selling yourself way too short." In a breathy whisper, he added, " 'Specially a beauty like you."

 

His words smacked at her. She turned away quickly and stood facing the fire crackling in the stove. Flames licked up through the separations in the cast iron. "Gringos always lie to get their way." She stayed in that position until the tears, welling and sliding down her cheeks, could dry.

Blue decided not to beleaguer the issue. He sat in stony silence, sullen and removed, watching her back.

 

Once the morning meal filled their bellies, Inez stood in the doorway and looked out at Miguel, who had taken charge of the pack train. "He is a good man," she said. "A good provider. Anyone who took him as a husband would never want."

 

"Except a home, and money to buy things for your home, and children to fill it."

 

She spun vehemently. "Why is it that gringos know nothing but gold and how to spend it. Jue live in a grande hacienda, no?  A spoiled hidalgo. And money jiggles in your pocket when jue ride to town on your fine horse. Am I not right?"

 

"It's a living. It's not much but it's honest."

 

"Honest? There is not a man I know that is truly honest. And women, for that matter, they lie and cheat better than the men."

 

"It's sad you got everything all worked out at 15."

 

"I am 16, and yes, much wiser because I have learned from the best." Her eyes danced with fire. She cleared the dirty plates away and booted out one last bandit at the table who apparently knew no English. She was done with them and wiped her hands across her narrow hips. This movement caught Blue's attention and she realized he watched more closely. "Honest. Jue are no better. If I came to jue, would jue take me?"

 

Her words shocked him. She stepped forward around the end of the table and bent down to press her lips to his mouth. He did his best not to return the kiss but she was good at her craft. Then just as abruptly she pulled away and laughed again. "There is not a man I can not have."

 

He stared at her, irritated with himself. Was she so beaten that she had no pride, no ambitions, no way out? He blinked then propped his chin in his hands with elbows on the table. The bindings at his wrists made his nerves raw. Selecting words came hard. He closed his eyes to think.

 

Victoria Cannon's deep brown eyes appeared before him and his father's rumbling voice echoed like a drum. Inez laughed a short throaty noise toward him. He watched her. Her eyes were not the same as Victoria's. They held no light.

 

El Lobo charged in. "I am going down trail with some men. Be ready to ride when we return."

 

"Am I to go? I can go with jue, si?" she bubbled, nearly leaping over the table.

 

Only with his eyes Blue followed her graceful flit to the door while nervously rubbing at his sore shoulder.

 

El Lobo's affected grin widened across his unshaven face as he took in the sight of his beautiful Inez. He took a wide stance and calculated what had conspired during the short time he was gone. "I have no more business here," he said. "The Federales are closing down too many of my trails. It is not safe." He thumbed toward Blue. "He is most of my worries. Soon the Federales will know about my little sack of gold. There is bound to be trouble here." He grinned and pawed her to come closer. A bear hug embrace hooked her to him. He planted a wet kiss across her delicate mouth. Blue closed his eyes.

 

"El Lobo," she cooed, reaching up to his shoulder and whispering.

 

"What? What is this?"

 

"I did not want to tell you until we left. It just ruins my day when you kill someone." She developed a tempestuous pout only to run her thin fingers along El Lobo's coat collar. "He has been a bad man to me."

 

Blue tightened. His eyes shifted from her to the bandit. Was she evil enough to condemn him to death? His lungs filled with acrid fire. There was no place to go. El Lobo blocked the only exit.

 

"What is this? I give him my house, my food, my bed, and this is how he rewards me?" El Lobo turned and slowly drew out his pistol. "Perez, old man. I have some work for you."

 

Blue rose to his feet, wanting to run, wanting to tell him what a scoundrel she had been, a flirt, and a skilled liar in her own way. Perez entered from the rear of the hovel. El Lobo aimed. The pistol blasted a hole through Perez's thin frame. He crumpled like a wet towel. Blue stood gasping, tangled in the bench, one leg over, wobbling, not realizing immediately that Perez was the target. He stood heaving for air, grabbing at the table edge, and gaping at the body behind him on the dirt floor.

 

Inez began her bell-like laughter. She wandered around the table to Blue and slipped a warm hand on his chest. "Did I mention, gringos are so easy to scare?" She brazenly planted another kiss on his mouth before she waved El Lobo good-bye across Blue's shoulder, as if he was an unwanted suitor. Blue pulled away this time. Stunned at her display, he was still sucking in air like a blacksmith's bellows, staring at her non-emotional connection with sudden death. She took it as an insult from him and stormed out of the building again.

 

Blue grappled for the table to steady himself. She was crazy, filled with a twisted hate he had never realized could ever exist. They were all crazy: ice cold, killer-crazy. The laughing, the smiles, the loyalty to El Lobo, all meant nothing. It made him realize that survival would be that much more difficult to insure. Blue sat down hard at the table and watched numbly as she walked out the door, across the yard, swishing her skirts, getting a few flirtatious looks from the men who knew better to keep their affections reined-in. El Lobo was now arm-in-arm with her. He planted another kiss on her before mounting his horse and leading his scouts down trail.

 

 

 

 

After the sound of El Lobo's scouting party left the high ridge valley, no one immediately returned to the adobe. The door stood open, inviting him to take that advantage. Blue stared out the door for a long moment, calculating where he would consider going if he could get away. Then he bolted into the early glare of morning sunlight, hugging along the rough mud bricks until he cleared the corner of the building. Once out of direct view, he crouched and ran across fifty feet of clear space before reaching a line of dense brush. The vegetation grew close along a dry watercourse. He slid down the sandy bank and skirted the depression parallel to the adobe shack. He moved carefully another hundred feet until the vegetation thinned out and would leave him exposed to more bandits waiting in the yard.

 

Voices at his back drove Blue to the cover of the sandy bank. He froze, flattening himself. They had found him gone and tracked him easily to the wash. Miguel dove on him from behind and tore him from the bank. They rolled in their struggle. Miguel's quick reflexes sent two, three sound blows to Blue's face. He was on his back extending his fists out, protecting his face, using his bound wrists as a blocking maneuver. He deflected two heavier blows from making solid contact. Miguel was not ready to let this fight go. He grabbed Blue by his wrists and flung him back to the bank. He drew the knife from his boot and sliced the ropes from Blue's wrists.

 

"Fight me now, gringo."

 

The challenge was set. Blue's first rabbit punch stunned Miguel but only made him mad. He tossed down his weapon as a new challenge to fight. Miguel scooped a handful of sand into Blue's face. His return blows sent Blue back against the sandy bench again and again. The last blow stunned him and he fought against the blackness, shaking off the roar in his head. Taking the clear advantage, Miguel brought his knife from the sand to Blue's throat in one fluid motion.

 

Inez found Miguel with the knife blade hovering at Blue's throat. "Don't kill him," she screamed.

 

 He only hesitated, flashing a menacing glare at her.

 

She held her position above them on the bank and aimed the rifle down toward Miguel's mid-section. "Does it take a bullet in the head from me or El Lobo to stop this?" Her eyes danced with a killer's instinct to protect what was rightfully El Lobo's property.

 

Miguel considered the woman's judgment. He drew a long breath and aimed a maniacal look at Blue. Blue held still, pressed to the bank by Miguel's weight against him.

 

"You are as crazy as he is," Miguel hissed then withdrew the blade. His adrenaline had peaked and now gradually ebbed, and with it his vilest anger.

 

Blue gulped in air and tried to get out from under the bandit, watching him closely, wary that he could turn on him at any minute. But Miguel had become subdued by Inez's charged rifle. He rose from the sloped bank and backed away.

 

Blue struggled to rise. He had been rescued by the only person who could have subdued Miguel and the only person he did not completely trust to keep him alive. He too puffed for air like a man just finishing a long, fast ride, glad to be free of the weight on his stomach, free of the current threat of Miguel's blade against his throat. He lingered a bit to catch his breath, realizing how weary he had become from the fight and how mentally drained from any ambition to attempt to run again.

 

Miguel did not leave. He only stood aside glaring down at the gringo and casually glancing at the rifle still aimed at his belly. He poked in his vest pocket until he pulled out a braided leather cord. He wrapped the ends around his palms and snapped the cord as if to test its strength. Blue assumed the worst: the man was ready to go at him again. He stepped back into the bank and flinched as Miguel snagged several loops around each of Blue's wrists and bound them tightly. The man yanked Blue to his feet and led him from the wash to the open yard back to the line of men who stood near their waiting horses.

 

Inez followed closely. She held the rifle balanced loosely in her hand. She was curious to see what Miguel was planning next.

 

"To run was stupid, gringo," he said flatly. Miguel made a beeline to the corral as Blue trailed behind led by the length of the cord. He flung Blue against the heavy up-right timbers, then grinned as he watched the boy slip to the ground.

 

With eyes wide and searching, Blue's heavy breathing rose with his fear. No one may try to stop Miguel this time. That current realization made controlling his fear that much harder. The other bandit's paid no mind to Miguel's games. Only Inez stood by grinning, pleased with the situation as it unfolded. Something treacherous grew between them. Blue fought back feebly but Miguel pressed him up against the rails. The full sun had just crested the first ridge of haze-shrouded mountains far to the east. The light flamed in Miguel's eyes.

 

Miguel tied off Blue's wrists high above his head. Although his belly wound seared with new depth; the excruciating pain he held. Miguel was not pleased. He expected to see the young man beg for mercy. He back-handed Blue across the face. It drew blood at the corner of his mouth. Inez followed his every move and drew closer to Miguel. He sent a quick powerful jab into Blue's chest. His air escaped in an audible gush. She watched, as a young child would, becoming mesmerized with the torture of a fly.

 

When Miguel kicked him in the ribs, Blue came close to passing out. He gave him no time to recover from the blow but kicked him soundly. Twice, three times to the ribs. This time Inez flinched at the resounding blows. She growled as El Lobo had done to get Miguel's attention.

"Miguel," she prodded. She cast a quick glance at the riders coming. Blue lolled his head to his chest, unable to draw adequate air, playing out the time between blows. Inez was satisfied and aimlessly wandered back toward the adobe. El Lobo would take care of his own business.

As El Lobo neared the high mountain cabin and assessed the situation, the grim expression on his tired face was enough for Inez to know he was displeased and openly irritated with Miguel. She stepped between the two men as El Lobo dismounted at the corral. He pushed her aside and faced Miguel.

 

"You are an idiota. I remember a time when you could be trusted to follow my commands." His irritation spread to his wide shoulders, then he took a stance. He stepped into Miguel and boldly dared him to countermand his authority without another word being said. Miguel studied the man's eyes briefly before he openly bristled and spun away. He walked briskly toward the line of riders awaiting their orders.

 

But as he passed Inez he lashed out at her and grasped her arm. "Come Inez, pack up the last of our food." She spun off balance and moved with him.

 

El Lobo continued the last steps to the corral rails. The boy seemed unconscious. He crouched and raised Cannon's face in the gentle cup of his hand. Blue stirred. Breathing shallow, his eyes wandered aimlessly until he could call to focus on the bandit. Blue then closed his eyes.

 

"I did not plan for you to be my men's source of pleasure, not like this. Perhaps you do not believe me." He spoke softly, almost apologetic to the boy's sullen face. The bruising across one eye and his swollen chin and lower lip filled his round features. El Lobo checked Cannon's eyes once more.

 

Blue pulled away slightly but this time the bandit wedged a tighter grip and would not let him turn away.

 

"In a short time we will be down in the village where you will be given better treatment until I can make arrangements for your release." El Lobo smiled warmly and grunted to a joke he kept to himself. "You will be back with your family in a day or two. I will try to keep Miguel on a short tether until then."

 

As the bandit spoke Blue's hate-filled look grew. "You figure I'll bring you a good price?"

 

"Why not? I know what your father will do when he finds you gone. It is just a matter of time, muchacho. Heh? But it puzzles me: why have not your friends tracked us? They cannot be far behind. I cannot imagine you roaming for strays on your own. I expect Manolito and your uncle to catch up with us soon. Es verdad? There can be only time."

 

Blue refused to play into the conversation. His head may have been in a spin but his mental faculties still fought to keep him alive. "Don't you forget that whoever is tailing you," he hissed, "has a lot more at stake than just some stolen goods and horses. You've got the Federales, a posse, maybe two, and then you've got my father to contend with."

 

El Lobo broke into a slow erupting belly laugh. He let go of Blue's jutting chin and stood to address his men. "The next man I see threatening this boy's life will face me. I do not make a statement like this very often. Mark my words, amigos."

 

After he heard what the bandit demanded, Blue let go a tight breath and leaned back against the post. El Lobo drew his own knife from his waist sheath and cut the binds at Blue's wrists. Losing control of his numb arms, he dropped them to his lap like flour sacks. The momentum brought him slowly over to one side and he passed out in the dirt.

 

 

 

 

 

Buck and Manolito flattened close to a cluster of scrub pines and a companion of granite ledge that gave them a fair view of the adobe. "If we just knew they got my boy…" Buck hissed, then suddenly drew a strong arm across Mano's chest. "Wait." The adobe shack puffed dark smoke like a steam engine stoked for the long haul. Across the wide yard a thin-railed bandit, more bone than flesh, led Buck's nephew out in the yard by a tether. Buck stiffened and the earlier apprehension of not knowing what had happened to him was now replaced by bitter anger. He hissed again, letting the air escape in one long, slow stream. "Of all the luck. El Lobo. He probably was the one that lit out to check the trail. Left early. He's a shifty one."

 

Manolito surveyed each man and animal. "They are, indeed, well-packed and heading for home. See? That one. I believe he is Miguel, El Lobo's right hand."

 

"My Blue Boy shore stepped into a hornet's nest this time." He watched with rising interest as Miguel made a bee-line to the corral and slung Blue against the rails. Their distance did not allow them to see what punishment Blue received. When Miguel backed away, Blue had slumped with his hands still bound to the rail above his head. If he had seen clearly, Buck, regardless of the danger, may have reacted by heart and not by common sense. Mano glanced at Buck, wary of the man's devotion to keep harm from his young nephew.

 

"Compadre, please. That will be foolish. Twenty armed men are not considered good odds." He directed his smile only to the man who could hurl them into a situation where they could all easily be killed. And in the aftermath, no one across the border would ever know where their bodies had been hidden. Mano cocked his head toward Buck. A twig snapped. They both drew at unrecorded speed but held back on their triggers. Behind them, a palomino grazed and pressed his muzzle into the moist tufts along the rocky crevices.

 

"That's Blue's old Soapy! Geez'us! That explains why we been seein' is prints. He's been followin’ the other horses." Buck secured his trailing reins and checked the animal over. His first touch caused Soapy to bolt and pull away. "Easy, now. He's purty spooked. Looks like he's favoring his hind leg. You figure maybe Blue got throwed? And maybe El Lobo just picked him up?"

 

"No. It is wiser to think that El Lobo had no use for a lame horse."

 

Buck nodded. "Either way, Blue's got a ride if we can get to him."

 

 

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

El Lobo Part Two:

 

 

Their second night, south of the mountain cabin, fell cold and still. A meager warming fire staved off the chill for most of those who huddled alongside the fire ring. Its warmth reached out only as far as the first bank of snoring bandits. Two sentries roamed just beyond the halo of light. Lobo had made sure to tie his young prisoner to a rotting log beyond the fire's light, beyond its meager warmth.

 

Blue Cannon slept fitfully, outstretched with hands tied and chest tucked up against the dense wood to defer the cold, like chinking wedged to a log cabin's draughty wall. Icy ground beneath him sucked the heat away until his body chilled through and shivered. The day's ride down the mountain face left his bones weary and his wounds tender. The cold night crept inside him.

 

In the dark gray of morning Inez stood over the young man. She at first wrapped the leather coat around her before tucking her arms across her chest. Her skirts billowed about her legs as the chilled air kicked up. After standing for a moment she propped her hands on her hips and cocked a smile that the boy did not see. She bent to him and laid her cold hand on the back of his neck. Blue did not respond and she fell into a sudden pout, nudging him roughly. Her gaze was discerning. Something was wrong. Inez slowly turned the boy over to face her. His arms, still tied above his head to the damp log, now cradled his bruised face. She felt his forehead. He shivered under her hand and moaned.

 

"El Lobo," she hissed loudly across the fire ring, while trying not to disturb the others. It was early and she had risen only to begin brewing coffee and fixing some basic foods for the men. "El Lobo! Your precious saco de oro is very sick. Come quickly." She stood beside the boy and watched impatiently as El Lobo rolled from his warm blanket and stood stiffly.

 

"I told you to take care of him. Why is he sick?"

 

"Take care of him? He rides all day with us. He did not look sick. How should I know?"

 

"Ah, you are as useless as a child, I think." He crouched by the boy's side and pulled at Blue's shirt then cast a mean glance at her. "He is ice cold. Go get my blanket." He cut the ropes at the log and maneuvered Blue close to the fire before wrapping the warmed blanket around his shoulders, holding him to his chest. "Get the coffee going. It will warm him." El Lobo softened his look to the boy. "I had no idea you would give me so much trouble, gringito. Soon we will be in Agua Zanja, we will eat, we will rest, and then, you see, I will send a messenger to your Papà."

 

Inez returned to Lobo and offered a mug of steaming coffee to him. He finally smiled at her, pulling at her arm.

 

"Come sit with the boy. Get more blankets if you need. Get the coffee into him. I will wake the men."

 

She took the orders in silence. Then, as she wrapped a second blanket about his shoulders, her thoughts rose in troubled waves. "Lobo? Jue will not leave me with him?"

 

"You are still a little girl, Inez. If I leave you I can expect the Federales to sweep down on me in my sleep." His eyes twinkled. He called to his men and the ground seemed to stir with groaning bodies rising from their dirty mounds. He left her to tend to the boy.

 

She seemed confused, wondering if his comment was a tease or what he perceived to be the truth. She pouted and brushed her hair from her neck before studying Blue's quiet face as she thought. She leaned close to him, brushed his hair from his face, and tucked the blankets tightly around. The wind gusted stronger. "Lobo. I want to come with jue. What if he cannot ride?"

 

"You will make certain he can. I can not have the Federales and his father too close. He must ride or I will be forced to kill him." His serious features suddenly bloomed into a rakish grin and laughing eyes hid in folds of skin. "Why do you worry so? He will ride. You will ride. We will all go swiftly to Agua Zanja, si? Es acabó." His confidence rose with him as he stamped his feet to get the blood moving. He called again to his men who quickly broke camp, busy with their gear; some were caught loitering expectantly about the campfire for breakfast.

 

Miguel slung his saddle over his back as he tramped through the weeds to his horse. "So," he called out. "Inez, what is wrong with your gringo boy this morning?" His tone grew belligerently as he returned to the fire. He stepped close to the prone body --- the one he had nearly killed the previous day. "Is this something you wish? To be a servant to a gringo? He is not worthy of you. He does not even know you."

 

Inez raised her skirts around her and stepped away from the fire yet hovering close enough to Miguel to warrant a smile. Then she teasingly dropped her flurry of skirts and walked away, letting the wind tear at the hems. She made a sauntering circuit around the campfire and arrived where she had started.

 

 "I am needed at the fire. Go tend to the horse jue love." She flipped her long hair across her shoulder and dropped in a crouch at the fire.

 

Blue moaned softly and opened his eyes slowly. He grew more alert as the blankets and coffee thawed him. He watched with increasing intent as the two talked about him. They paid him no mind as if they did not know he was awake. He felt out of touch, cast off and useless as he thawed. A packhorse would carry more value, he wagered. He sulked while leaning into the fire's warmth and let the heat penetrate his bones. He shivered. The wind returned harder and colder, and with it the mountain-crisp aroma of cedar and piñon. Pulling the blankets up and huddling with the mug in his gloved hands, he could no more warm up than if he were sitting in the fire. He shuddered again and felt the wind draw at his wet face and neck. He had to admit he was terribly sick, weakened by the cold, suffering with a sudden chill in his aching muscles.

Miguel had given up on Inez for the moment and eyed Blue from a distance but returned from saddling his mount to stand near Inez. "Why do you tend him? This bothers me to see you work for him."

 

 She turned and snapped, "Jue should know. He is sick from your beatings, your knife. If he dies it will be on jour hands." She tucked the blankets around the boy again. Raising the mug of coffee to his lips, she cooed and urged him to drink the warm liquid. The fear returned in his eyes as it had when she threatened him in the cabin and she felt suddenly sorry for the young man. She knew that Miguel watched.

 

"Drink up, we will ride soon."

 

Blue gratefully took sips until the color returned to his face. He gave in to a series of shivers that wracked him uncontrollably before he felt he could ride. If he didn’t, he knew they would kill him.

 

Inez hugged him and rubbed his back with strong brisk moves. She grew suddenly irritated that she was indeed caring for a worthless gringo. Miguel was right --- and that bothered her even more. She stood and spun toward him.

 

"Jue are loco. I work for whatever Lobo tells me. He is the one I care for. The boy is his, not mine." Her words were not directed to anyone in particular, and this seemed to anger Miguel because he chose to stomp off.

 

Inez turned away, busying herself with a frying pan. It sizzled with pork fat. She grew irritated as the others awaited their share of breakfast.

 

Lobo returned from his packing, and brought from the supply packs two tattered blankets draped over his shoulder. Without a word he drew his knife.

 

"He will be ready to ride when jue give the word," she suddenly pleaded.

 

He hacked at the center of each blanket making a slit large enough for a man's head to slip through. In silence he tossed the crude ponchos over the boy's head. She sucked in a breath, relieved to see that Lobo still wanted the boy alive. "That is what he needed," she beamed. "Ponchos… very clever for jue, El Lobo."

 

He nodded to his accomplishment and walked away. Inez followed him with her eyes, then cast a solemn glance at Blue. She dropped to his side, her words slipped out low and breathy, "Jue must ride good today or he will kill jue. I heard him say."

 

Blue nodded slowly, flooded with new warmth, and took another sip from the steaming mug.

 

 

 

 

 

Blue grew too weak to ride on his own. Two hours into the morning trail, the wind returned and blew icy gusts off the mountain canyons, then pick up speed in a down draft of rolling blasts. Blue hunkered in the serapes and wrapped them up around his ears with his hat pulled low. Inez rode beside him until, seeing that his listing to one side only meant the worst for him, she edged along and reached out to press the back of her hand to his face.

 

"The fever is higher, muchacho." She signaled one of the men behind to take her horse as she lightly climbed over to share Blue's saddle. He seemed unaware that she sat behind him. Inez tucked her arms around his waist then pulled the reins from his hands. He sat up suddenly but she cooed again in his ear, happy to be close and amused that this time he did not fight her. Blue settled in the rhythm of the horse's slow gait and the warmth at his back. They traveled slower today to rest the horses for the final miles to Zurrapas and beyond to Agua Zanja. Over his shoulder she perked up at the evidence of a small town wedged in narrow valley. She squeezed her arms around him and urged the horse to move on.

 

Hours later the train of pack animals and riders cleared the base of the trail. Their path grew to a wide wagon road with side trails leading to narrow, shadowed canyons. Inez snuggled closer and seemed electrified with the change in scenery. She leaned across Blue's shoulder and in a breathy whisper said, "We are near town, gringito. It is good."

 

Her warm breath against him rose young hairs along his neck. He sat upright and pulled at tight muscles before realizing what she described. He gazed slowly across the smoky village and imagined a warm bed and hot food.

 

The town of Zurrapas grew from a distinct and vile mud puddle. Its meager buildings constructed of adobe and crude logs carried the same color. The rooflines found no creative need to change from structure to structure. Each angular side stood near another and yet they stood separately as a group of strangers would wait in a bread line. Together but removed. The deep ruts, dissecting the only well-traveled street, favored individual horse travelers over buckboards. A hitching rail stood before each sagging storefront. Wagons seemed necessary only in front of supply houses. In all, the town appeared self-sufficient and capable of supporting several hundred, with more or less a scattering of remote populations hiding in the canyons.

 

Long shadows fell ahead of the weary pack train. A significant amount of curious eyes peered from the dark windows as the riders passed each brown building. It was expected that newcomers whether known or not would get a cool reception.

 

Lobo too felt the growing anxiety in the air. The first building loomed in whitewash with its inhabitant standing squarely in the doorway. Lobo slowed his animal to a foot-dragging gait. He turned and caught the discerning eye of Miguel. He signaled. Miguel had traveled long enough with the hunter’s way of El Lobo to read tension in the air. He drew rein abreast of their leader.

 

"Miguel, I sense that these people are waiting for someone."

 

Miguel nodded.

 

Soon the air drew uncompromising tense. Residents who gawked now pried themselves from deep crevasses and stood in the open dim light. Blue raised his head and cast a long studious eye down the main street. Movement in the first doorway near him caught his attention. A young boy in rags stood in the doorway. His angular body cast spider shadows across the broken plank porch. No smile emerged from his dark eyes, no acknowledgement but a vague unemotional stare then a quick disappearance into the safe shadows of his home.

 

The boy’s movement set a pattern throughout the quiet town. People appeared and then quickly closed their doors. Silent stares marked gooseflesh up Blue’s neck. He rode in silence as the others did but cast his eyes for only a few seconds on one window, on one doorway, then another. Eventually two graying Mexican men, bent at the waist and sporting thick handlebar moustaches, rose from their outdoor horno in an alleyway, their meal apparently finished, and ambled to the main street. Blue recognized the scars circling their necks. They had been hanged at one time in their long lives, perhaps becoming compadres of misfortune together. The taller of the two carried an additional thick scar down his cheek. Blue averted his eyes but their own curiosity outweighed their demurring attitude toward the strangers. They stared at Blue and pointed eagerly or rather in alarm to see him in their vicinity. Blue twisted in the saddle to look around and Inez gripped his arm.

 

“Pull your hat down low, hombre,” she whispered a warning. “These folks have not seen so handsome a haul or a gringito in many months.” Her sarcastic comment did not go unnoticed. Blue did as he was told.

 

Yet the prying eyes continued to gain in strength and apprehension. Blue grew uneasy and tightened. Inez wrapped her slender arm around his waist.

 

“I do not like this any more than jue. I know these people. They do not like strangers but I have never seen them quite like this. Something must have happened. Stay calm.”

 

At her words, the two elderly men stepped into the path of the pack train. The shorter man grabbed at Inez’s horse’s bridle and yanked her animal forcefully to a stop. Blue tucked his head down. Their determination to find out who entered their town only grew in frustrated glances between them. The taller one pointed again.

 

“Eso es el. Seguro que si.” He continued glaring with mouth open and eyes wide in alarm. He drew a bony hand up to Blue’s serapes and pulled at them. Blue pulled back and turned to search the faces on horseback for El Lobo. The bandit had seen the commotion and wedged his mount between the horse that Blue and Inez shared and the two men on the street. His distraction caused the old man to let go the bridle and back away.

 

“What is your business, old man?” Lobo said gruffly.

 

“You have a killer. We want him. He has caused much grief in our valley. These gringos come in and tear up what little we have.”

 

“He has been seen, two, three times, roaming like a lobo,” added the other.  With his compadre's words spoken, he stepped between the two horses and again clung to the bridle, his gnarled hands worked the leather as though it carried power to his words.

 

“We will take him off your hands, Lobo,” said the short one. He grinned suddenly and nodded to the other. Their eyes shared information without speaking.

 

Blue rose in the saddle. Inez kept a grip on him and wrapped her arm tighter around his waist. “Easy, hombre,” she whispered.

 

“You’re not gonna let them…”  Blue sputtered. Panic crossed Blue's face and he planned to bolt as soon as he could. Inez read his movements and grasped the cloth at the back of his neck, threateningly. Blue settled down from her unspoken threat but again felt the fear rising. The others around him seemed more amused by the misidentification than by the incrimination of the old man's biting words. Blue glared at Lobo, expecting him to stand up to these old fossils, but he found him only smiling devilishly.

 

Blue was devastated.

 

Before Lobo offered an explanation, the tall Mexican reached up and dragged Blue's hat from his head. "Es rubio! Es rubio!" he called out.

 

The blonde hair that had been partially hidden under his hat was now a condemning characteristic. Blue touched the top of his head with an open hand and gaped at the man. Inez quickly reached down and took the hat away, placing it canted on his head.

 

"Es stupido," she growled at the old man. "Jue are a foolish old man," she hissed. She glanced quickly to Lobo who seemed disarmed by the old man's actions.

 

"Come, come, my old friend," Lobo spoke up. "Did you think we would not extend an invitation to a hanging party? It's just that we are tired. We have come a long way, as you can see. And he has been such a handful. I planned to take him to the hidalgo that pays me the most reward for his sorry hide. The money is good. A big reward. If you have a jail house perhaps it would be best to secure him so no one else decides to hurry his hanging, no?" Lobo spoke generously but his compadres were now skeptical of his plan. They sat quiet in their saddles, eyeing his animated gestures as he once again talked his way out of trouble.

 

"Perhaps a quiet jail cell would be best," Lobo continued, "then I can finally get some sleep. It has been a long time without good sleep."

 

"Why is he not tied?" the short one pried. A small group of townsfolk began gathering beside him. They showed only interest at seeing the young gringo die. They raised their fists as Lobo talked. They grew boisterous, agitated.

 

"He is injured. He has given up the chase," he said with a flurry of his hands. "But it was many days. He is a slippery one, this gringo." Lobo leaned over and poked a finger in Blue's shoulder. He noticed the mild frown of disappointment change to outright fear in the boy's face.

 

"The jail, Señor?" he said, distracting the old man. He kept an eye on others who stepped awkwardly from the shadows.

 

Miguel came alongside riding his weary bay. Lobo nodded to him. Time was slipping if they were to move through the village and keep their prisoner to themselves.

 

Relieved to escort the travelers, the short elder led the way through the growing crowd. "I am Ojeda, Griego Ojeda, and I assume you are the great El Lobo. It has been many years and my eyes are failing me, but I know your voice, hombre. I know your voice." He nodded calmly through the milling onlookers now numbering about 20. Many others drew closer, gaining bravery in the midst of others. Their faces bore the misery of labor and lack of food. Older men huddled just outside the ring of younger, brazen men.

 

"Is it not right?" shouted one, finding a voice among many. "He is right. We should hang him now. Why wait?"

 

Blue raised his eyes to the elder man; then in distraction, his eyes darted among the haggard faces pressing toward them. They drove forward and pulled at his clothing, his serapes, and the reins from his horse. Blue sucked in rapid breaths, trying to stay seated, pulling away from them all. Inez kicked their horse to move on.

 

They kept ahead of the crowd until the jailhouse appeared several buildings away. Inez slipped from her saddle to land lightly in a puff of dirt. She looked back only long enough to see the townspeople easily gaining on them.

 

Inez stayed by Blue's side, reluctantly allowing him to drape an arm over her shoulder as they walked rapidly to the building. She looked at him unemotionally at first, watching his discomfort and wondering if he was managing the pain for her sake. He drew a short breath and tucked an elbow into his sore side as they stepped inside. Inez cast a quick look to Lobo who had kept them in sight even as the crowd came closer. She saw that he too was worried by the crowd’s agitated state. They knew these people; many had ridden with Lobo in the old days.

 

The crowd on the street grew in a mix of on-lookers and those looking for a type of justice that came only with a heightened intensity for retribution. Their eyes, hollowed and agate-brown, narrowed their visions. They vied for space in front, a good view at the head of the anger, at the head of their revulsion to the young gringo. They flowed in a sudden rush, like a breaker on the shore, and resisted only when Lobo stepped to the worn porch and halted any further advancement. The outlaw had seen this before and urgently ushered Inez to move their prisoner out of sight.

 

Inez pushed open the door and stopped to study the poor condition. In her urgency to enter, the sight of a large rat racing across the floor sent an alarm through her. The two elders pressed her to enter, coming from behind and anxious to get inside.

 

She led the way, entering the cell that was no more than a storage room stripped of all amenities. She turned and snapped at them. “If you call this a carcel,  jour jail, I laugh hard at jue, both of jue.” She strutted five short steps to the rear. A single, bare, square window intruded into the far wall. It seemed to be crudely built in as an after thought. The pane was obscured with a thick film. “This is not fit to put chickens.”

 

Blue had pulled away from her support and slowly slid down the wall until he hit the floor in a folded heap. She spun around and eyed him. She was immediately drawn to him. Her hand pressed to his forehead. “Your fever has not gone.” Then to the old men, she asked, “Do you have some blankets? This hombre is very sick. We have come along way.”

 

“Why worry about his health now, huh? Is he not hours from a hangman’s noose?”

 

Then the old one known as Ojeda patted her on the shoulder as she knelt by the boy’s side. “Get some rest. There will be much time tomorrow.”

Inez nodded but delayed following any of his advice. The two old men left her in the cell with her charge and ventured out to hold back the mob.

With Lobo's constant chattering, it had dwindled to only a dozen agitated townspeople. She fumed in silence doubting how Lobo would get them out of this one.

 

Whether it was her need to help or her curiosity to find out what made a young gringo tick, Inez stayed. She raised the boy’s face to hers with a pry of her outstretched hand under his chin. It was easy to tell he had no interest in what was happening outside. He had grown weary and his eyes rolled out of focus. She placed a flat palm against his forehead again.

 

A moment later a shadow in the doorway offered her two worn blankets and a woven rug. She nodded to the taller of the old gentlemen and took his gifts without saying a word. Inez placed the rug on the dirt floor and pulled Blue from the wall. She fought to get him in place. After tucking the blankets around him, she stood on tiptoe to peer out the grimy window. Now bathed in copper tones of a late sunset, the view left nothing for her interest except a grove of cottonwoods. She sighed, removed from the excitement on the street; her body suddenly sagged in fatigue.

 

Distractedly, she rubbed at the glass. Two horses stood tied at the low branches. Blue stirred and arrested her attention.

 

“Inez?” His voice broke weakly.

 

She crouched near him and felt the skin along his cheek with the back of her hand. “It is better to rest. These people and Lobo, I’m not sure what Lobo has in mind but he will not stay here when there is too much going on. It is too dangerous for us … for jue.” Her words sounded thoughtful and she became irritated with herself. How had this gringo boy come to be so dependent upon her? She hid her frustration and flashed a calculated smile. “By morning, jue will be dead from a rope or from your wounds --- so what does it matter to me.” She rose and slipped quietly to the wall tiptoeing again to peer out the window.

 

“Inez, will Lobo let them have me?” His voice came soft like a young child who had no where to go.

 

“If he was smart he would. To him jue are worth the risk. I cannot say for the others. These people they want jue dead. Too bad for jue that another gringo gets away, huh?”  She allowed a small laugh to escape. “Don’t trouble yourself. If I were jue, gringo boy, I would sleep now and wait and see until morning.”

 

Blue let go a long sigh. He slowly raised his strong arm over his eyes. “I thought you said you knew these people. I thought Lobo would be welcome here.”

 

“You changed all that, gringito. You think that all Mexicans are alike? Hah, it is no different here. To us, jue are another blonde, blue-eyed Americano.” Her voice bit at him cruelly. “Some of jue are as cutthroat as Lobo, no?”

 

He grew sullen again as he had on the trail. But this time she knew what bothered him. There was no commitment in their lives, the lives of roaming outlaws, banditos who abandoned any stability. His words came silent but in his eyes disillusionment grew and threatened her. How dare he compare his life to hers --- was he not in their hands now? If he had lived another life, not of the great hidalgo ranchero, would he not be a catch for some peon’s daughter? Would he not consider the beauties available to him on either side of the border?

 

She watched him for only a minute before he closed his eyes.

 

 

 

 

Lobo had other intentions. Bar room voices and a shower of breaking glass filtered down the street. Most of the men who had comprised the earlier mob on the boardwalks had arrived late at the cantinas --- three in town. And at the invitation of Lobo and his cohorts, the bars filled with eager drinkers, exuberant to offer apologies to them for their poor behavior earlier in the day. El Lobo had done magic in a short few hours.

 

“Ojeda, mi amigo. Come join me in a celebration to our meeting again.” El Lobo swirled his beer mug high and Ojeda grinned openly.

 

"Perhaps I was a little rushed today. My people are good people, but they wish the killing to stop. It was not right for the gringo to slay so many in one family, and for what?"

 

Lobo nodded knowingly, allowing the old man to feed him what he needed. If the old man had not imbibed so much, the outlaw's target would have been deceptively clear. He wanted the key to the jail. He poured another round of whiskey for his renewed friendship. Ojeda accepted. Friendships were resurrected.

 

 

 

 

A sombreroed Mexican tugged at his chinstrap nervously. He held the reins of his horse and tied them loosely to the branch near his shoulder. A sliver of moon had just begun to rise. Wiping the sweatband with his bandana, Manolito Montoya stood casually still, listening to the last of the boisterous vaqueros drinking it up in the cantinas. For such a small town it boasted three rowdy establishments --- all of them full. Manolito had skirted the perimeter of town and calculated that most of Lobo's men engaged in the amenities of the drinking parlors or its backrooms. It would be a busy night; he hoped they would stay drunk by morning.

 

Mano peered back through the dense thicket behind him. Buck crouched in the shadows, grumbling. He too had made a circuit of town and found that their only strategy would come when the town settled to a drunken stupor. The townsfolk grew restless during the day, seeming agitated from the arrival of the Lobo’s company of outlaws. For both Mano and Buck, it remained quite puzzling what had transpired to force Lobo to toss Blue into the jailhouse. At least the boy was safe and not too worse for wear. Buck Cannon wanted to blow up the adobe and pull Blue out on the run, while Mano had opted for a more tempered rescue, walking in and subduing the sleeping guards. They had haggled over the method of choice; Mano had won by default: his method was quieter.

 

Manolito waved a flat hand toward the ground signaling to keep Buck’s muttering under control. He had been fretting ever since Blue’s palomino wandered into their camp. Now he was extremely annoyed with the delays. He had yet to get close to the building that housed his nephew. At a distance all Buck could do was wait.

 

“Hombre, please. I will go as soon as I feel it is right. Do you want me to wind up in their jail? I think not. Caution is warranted.” He signaled Buck again with his two hands pressed together in a pleading gesture.

 

Buck settled down as only a spring-loaded catapult could, and grew silent.

 

Manolito nodded and left.

 

At first he kept to the shadows of the grove until it opened to the weedless stretch of unfenced backyards. Beyond a corral fence line, Mano crouched in the angular shadows and then slowly worked his way to the rear of the jailhouse. The poor adobe building, under less than ideal construction, had settled over the years and listed slightly to the right of plumb. Mano worked slowly to the rear window. He rubbed the filthy pane with his gloved hand.

 

Blue lay on the dirt floor wrapped in quilts. Mano tapped on the pane. Voices from the street stopped him. Once it was clear he tapped again. “Come on, Blue. It is time to wake up if I am going to get you out, hombre,” he whispered aloud. He tipped back his wide sombrero and smashed his cheek up against the pane to get a broader perspective of the dark interior. The single cell building held no other prisoners or anything else for that matter. Mano pouted, losing his patience, and tapped again. Blue remained quiet.

 

The door to the jailhouse suddenly opened from the street. From the small cut window, Mano easily saw El Lobo skulk in and close the front door only after a young Mexican girl followed at his heels. Lobo nodded to the only door between them and their prisoner. The outlaw jimmied the doorknob easily with a length of metal he brought with him. Not one guard challenged them. In the moment they entered, Mano ducked, pressing his back to the adobe wall. So close yet he had been cheated from rescuing Blue when he had a chance. He thumped his fist into his hand. He would never hear the end of this from Buck.

 

 

 

 

Lobo drew his pistol as he covered Inez. She bent to the boy still sleeping on the quilts. She pulled the blankets and roused him roughly. It took several attempts until he opened his eyes. “Come, hombre, we must hurry.” She pulled at his vest lapels and tugged him to a sitting position. She pressed his hat to his head. He closed his eyes, involuntarily huffing through the moves while she levered him to his feet with Lobo’s help.

Lobo headed for the only exit, cautious to wait at the opening until the street was silent.

 

Inez draped Blue’s arm over her shoulder and laboriously ushered him out the door and down the side of the building. Two more of Lobo’s men stood in the shadows then came forward when Lobo emerged. The outlaw shoved Blue into the saddle and Inez quickly drew his reins, leading both their animals to the darker shadows in the far grove.

 

 

 

 

Manolito hunkered down and closed his eyes briefly, staying close to the ground. He glanced back only once toward the same dark grove knowing that Buck watched intently from cover. His pounding heart roared in his ears as he held his breath. If a cloud moved to expose the pale moon, it would be enough light to outline him against the adobe wall. He watched as Lobo swiftly passed by with the young girl helping Blue to stay in the saddle. Blue did not look as well as Mano expected. And he knew it would take every effort of Buck’s to stay still and wait this out. Pressed to the rough wall, he watched from the adobe as the outlaws mounted among the shadows and rode off. Manolito joined Buck a moment later. There grew a strained silence between them. Both knew how close they had come to being caught in their rescue attempt.

 

“Perhaps it is time we followed again. I would like to see that son of a she-wolf just one more time."

 

“Following ain’t the worst of it, Mano. It’s not knowing what we gonna find when we get there," Buck whispered harshly. "You know this Lobo. All I know is what I hear. And what I hear ain’t good. What I want to know is why he took Blue along. Don’t he know there ain’t no reward or ransom or whatever big enough to pay them off? What’s he think he’s got?”

 

“Perhaps it is not a ransom that Lobo seeks, but a bit of leverage through some rough country. There are many who Lobo knows would jump at a chance to have something over a man like John Cannon --- on either side of the border.” Mano rubbed the back of his neck as he considered how close it had been. "If they sense that we are too close, I know Lobo --- he will not hesitate to be rid of Blue."

 

Buck rubbed his chin. “Mebbe, and mebbe he got something else in mind."

 

"Whatever it is, the girl seems to be a part of this."

 

"Whatever it is, my nephew’s on the worst side of this deal. And I want him outta there as soon as we can get him. Agreed?”

 

“Was there ever any doubt? Agreed.”

 

 

 

 

 

Once beyond the grove and outside the far reaching halo of lantern light, El Lobo slowed up. He met with his men; split his forces, sending many off with Miguel while selecting a few to ride with him. At the dark crossroads, he then pointed to Inez. "For you, my pretty thing, Inez. You take the boy to the mountain trail. It is very risky at night. You will not be followed. I trust you to get him through, our camp, you know it well. As a promise to me, get him to our camp," Lobo glanced furtively. "Please, do not fight me this time. I ask this of you."

 

Inez parted her lips then stopped. "What has happened?"

 

"There is no time to explain. You men, take the pack train down Escarro Canyon. Miguel, you ride with me until we get to the flatlands. And my little one, you go into the rock cliffs at Corona Alta, up where there is little trail. Stay there until I come for you. If it becomes too dangerous, continue on and meet us at our camp --- go to our meeting place, pronto. By morning, do not let anyone see you."

 

"But Lobo," she found her voice breaking in small sobs as she asked, "he is so weak. I can hide in the canyon…"

 

"No, in the red rocks above town. Keep him hidden. From there you can see if we return or if someone comes for you." He slid his large hand under her delicate chin. "Hija, go now. I will lead these filthy peons down the canyon." Then he stopped and a broad grin rose across his face as if he had just thought of a clever joke that could not be told in mixed company. "Who am I to trust with my little sack of gold, huh?"

 

She drew the reins hard to the left and forced the animal across the open fields of short grass and clumps of silver sage. She glanced only once as the horsemen traveled fast in hazy moonlight. Silver highlights filled the long voids between rills with white swatches of shimmering light. Shadows muted the countryside until their horse tripped among the rocks and sage without the benefit of contrast. When the mountain of fiery red rock loomed before them, dark and ominous, Inez dropped the reins and slipped effortlessly from the saddle. She gathered the canteens, rope and a food sack before she guided Blue's feet to the ground. He stood trembling from the activity, and pitched toward the horse to regain his balance.

 

"I don't know how jue are going to climb this trail, gringito. Jue must do it or die. The fever has made jue weak but Lobo will hound jue or the good people of Zurrapas will string jue up."

 

Blue eyed her evenly. “I can make it,” he said.

 

She tugged at his sleeve to start him on the trail. From here on they would travel on foot to the heights of the red lava abutments that rose from the shouldered peaks and dared anyone to scale their ancient, pockmarked faces.

 

 

 

 

 

“What are jue looking at?” she pried. She hung her legs over the rock ledge and moved a little closer to him. They took a short break on the dark footpath. She slowly turned to face his stern look coming from warm tanned skin and those faded blue eyes. “Jue are thinking of me?” she said, beaming.

 

“Why would you think so? Never mind,” he muttered distractedly.

 

“Do jue like what jue see? Jue you think that men know what a treasure I am?" She laughed and pulled at his shirtsleeve. "Jue think I am chasing after every man?”

 

Blue fell silent and brooding. The view, breathtaking and rather daunting in the pre-dawn light, commanded the full attention of his senses. The valley floor, its rich, verdant patches of green fields and marble gray walls extending to the upper reaches of the far mountain range, cowed him. He shuddered again with the rise of the morning wind twisting around the prominent pillar of stone towering above them. His perch, sitting on lava rock, cold and hard before the horizon, chilled him. The sky had not brightened. Pre-dawn forecasted cold weather. He hunched deeper into the makeshift serapes. He felt her eyes on him. Her gaze could not be ignored. He turned to study her eyes for just a moment. Raising an eyebrow, he succumbed to her silent bantering, her deft scrutiny, and suddenly grinned.

 

 Inez grew perturbed with his silence. “Jue have a girl? Someone who waits for jue, no?”

 

“No.” He stared past her, glad to be resting but unsure of what she planned for him.

 

“I used to belong with Miguel. He is strong and exciting, hombre bueno. Now I am Lobo’s woman.”

 

She seemed prideful, having reached a position other than chore girl to poor old Perez. He found it difficult to think of her as a woman, although she did. He found himself wondering upon the relationship with Perez, where the widow and her children had gone since the death of the old man. The chill returned and with it the foreboding of where his life was going. How fast it moved without his input. The outlaws hid well beyond the borders he knew; they traveled corridors where no one ventured but the despised malgente. He glowered at her, then stopped as the sun found his face and brought warmth to their niche in the rocks. With the lumbering rise of the sun, he smiled inwardly and enjoyed the warmth. His bones still ached and his head throbbed. As soon as he felt a bit of comfort, he lost his bemused smile and flashed dagger eyes at the young woman. She was no help to him. She would drag him to Hades before allowing him to escape. He was sure they traveled below the border but just where, he had no idea. He took a ragged breath and winced with the effort. The knife wound and the beating were still taking their toll.

 

“Jue do not like me. I teased jue mucho.”

 

“I don’t have a reason to hate you … I guess.”

 

“Then tell me what jue are thinking, vaquero.”

 

It was the first time she had called him something other than a condescending nickname or title that Lobo had tagged to him, saco de oro. “I’m thinking that if I did get away that it wouldn’t do me much good. Lobo would shoot me, or let you do it.”

 

She leaned back and released her tinkling, bell-like laughter. “Jue are thinking of escape? Jue are in Sonora, my muchacho. Jue could not survive without me.”

 

“Mebbe. But I don’t figure I can get far on foot. Not now.”

 

He lowered his head then turned and focused on the sudden movement in the valley to their backtrail. Horses numbering more than 20 had gathered, their riders moved as a unit, a posse. From this distance, he could not tell whether they rode as Mexicans against Lobo or Americanos for his father against Lobo. He wished to stay hidden, to avoid anymore the conflicts he suffered at the hands of the bandits and the peons of the vulgar little town.

 

“Inez, when do you expect Lobo to return for you?”

 

“Oh, no. Jue are mistaken. He will not return for us. It is sunrise. It is not wise to wait here very long. He will meet us at the place we have chosen to meet." Her eyes roved down directly below them into the chasm that she called a canyon. "All of us will go. Jue stick with me and I will get jue safely to Lobo’s camp. It is my promise.”

 

Blue cringed. “His camp? What about getting me to Agua Zanja? He said…”

 

“Oh, never mind. He says a lot of things, hombre. But Inez will get jue there.” She again seemed pleased with herself. "We go at dawn. Soon."

He let go a delayed sigh before staring long and hard at the dull horizon etched with first gold.

 

 

 

 

 

From his throne among the rock, the descending trail cut away at his jangled nerves. The sun rose. They sat among the eroded pillars of red lava like the eagles that raised their young on the cliffs without caring whether the dizzying heights were a factor they could change. Blue had already used up any reserves of energy just to meet the demands of the beginning climb. Now, as he peered down the rock escarpment, its full view of their alternate trail dropping precariously through blocks of chiseled granite, he pulled back.  It was as if he had hung from these precipices for months and he just realized their danger. He shivered again. He pressed his shoulders to the rock wall and heaved a sigh.

On the narrow ledge any movement was immediately picked up by the closeness of her body. She cocked her head at him and his worrisome actions, but said nothing.

 

“I’m not a drinker but I could sure use a shot of red eye right about now.”

 

Inez grew suddenly compelled to comfort him. She squeezed his arm. “I have what we need, and only that.” She pulled at the canvas bag sitting beside her. In it held the equipment necessary for the road. She pulled out a length of rope and untangled it from the canteen strap before offering him the water and a piece of jerked beef from a smaller food sack. “Jerky, you call it, and biscuits for breakfast.” She shoved the meager offerings to him. He took them, plying the dried beef in his hands.

 

“What? It does not suit your hidalgo taste? Jue and your rich gringo friends.”

 

Blue pulled a chew from the dry hunk. He then looked displeased, and somewhat irritated with her crude and blanket statements of life. “I suppose this is our hidalgo beef we’re enjoying.”

 

His remark was taken coolly.

 

“Inez, I don’t know what Lobo and the others told you but I ain’t no hidalgo. We got a working ranch and get by okay. The only thing is that my Pa married Don Sebastian’s daughter, Victoria. If that makes me hidalgo, then I guess I am,” he consented, resolving to stay aloof. He gazed out across the canyon’s far-reaching vista and chewed the meat in silence. He desperately tried to avert his interest from the green valley of Zurrapas.

 

Inez blinked repeatedly. She considered what the young man said, but then dismissed it quickly. “Jue are not poor by any means,” she spat. “Jue eat everyday. Jue sleep on a clean bed in jour beautiful rancho, no? Then jue are hidalgo, yes.”

 

He turned his face away and rolled his eyes heavenward. In her fiery brown eyes, she had life all figured out at age sixteen. He could no more make her see that her views only followed the bandit’s way of thinking than he could correct the fallacies in her logical, yet undeveloped mind. He knew his station in life could be improved. He knew hers could be dramatically improved as well. They sat in a stalemate. He chewed slowly in silence.

 

After a time Inez grew restless. The first solid rise of the sun washed over them. She hitched her skirts up around her thighs and climbed from the ledge to the uppermost rock formation. The sun washed the valley in yellow gold.

 

“Lobo lied to me. He said it would be that he would send word to me by this morning.”

 

Blue drew only a boot heel hooked against the rim and cocked an amiable glance at her. “So even he lies to you. Maybe you’ll consider what I say. We can work this out. You can come across the border with me, find a job, make some hidalgo money; and I can go home.”

 

“Jue are teasing me. I know life is hard wherever I go. Why should it be any different for me in the Americano land, huh?”

 

“Because you can do what you want, not what Lobo says.”

 

His eyes held a warmth that she considered out of character for him. She glared at him as he continued his thought.

 

“Besides," he smirked, "you might like it, being your own person for a change.”

 

She considered it briefly. “Lobo wants jue and me in the camp by noon. It is early we can make it … if you can.”

 

He doubted that her enthusiasm to return to the trail stemmed from worrying about his health or her own goals. She answered only to Lobo, and nothing he could say would persuade her from that view. He tried to rise to his feet but his legs slipped out from under. He grabbed a rock pillar for support, shaking the dizziness from his head.

 

Inez scrambled to meet him on the ledge. She brought him to his feet and walked him steadily to an adjacent wide spot in the rocks. He slid down to sit against the cold rock wall and drew in rapid breaths. She tended to him like she had in the cabin and the adobe cell. Her cool hand pressed against his forehead. He was feverish. She pushed the serapes away and pulled at his vest and shirt. The large band of cloth she had wrapped his stomach with the previous day was soiled with dirt and dried blood. She delayed pulling the dressing from his skin until he nodded to her. He tightened and awaited the agony he knew would follow. Inez reached for the canteen knowing that the water would ease the cloth from his skin. His hand on her wrist stopped her. She glared at him again.

 

“Save the water. We’ll need it later,” he said softly.

 

She nodded, and returned to strip the cloth from his infected wound. She watched him go pale before her job was finished. “The wound is not as bad as I first thought.” She tore at her calico underskirts to produce enough material for a new bandage. This time she hesitated while touching the dark bruising across his ribs. "Miguel is a bruto. Next time I see him I will kill him for jue.”

 

“Thank you, but I can manage.”

 

That comment made her smile. “Manage to get yourself in more trouble, I think.”

 

He closed his eyes.

 

She immediately grasped for the canteen, drawing the cork from it. ”Take a little of this, hombre. I can spare it. But we must go soon.” She stared into his quiet face.

 

Inez did have a soft heart below the tough exterior. He took the drink eagerly but soon felt the overwhelming ache take over his tired body. She too saw that it would be awhile longer before he could navigate the rough trail.

 

 

 

 

 

She sat beside him, looking over his shoulder, and studied the distant cleave of the valley. Activity in the dusty little town, like a brown bruise on a green apple, caught her attention. She sat upright and stared as the horses whose riders had followed a wide dirt trail southwest out of the valley now returned on the same trail, heading for the convergence of several other trails. They bunched and wheeled their horses. Their leader pointed to a less traveled path, a wandering trail that pointed to the side of the mountain where she and the hidalgo boy now hid.

 

She stared at the riders while pulling at his shoulder, coaxing Blue to wake up. He stirred and moaned softly. “Get up, hombre, the riders have changed their course. We must go now if we think to escape them.” She tugged at him and pulled his shirt collar. “Come, come.” She quickly gathered their few possessions and stuffed the bag adding the canteen to the poke. He responded slowly, which only irritated her. She pulled him to his feet. As if standing like a drunkard from an all night binge, he wobbled under unstable legs. She hooked his arm over her shoulder and maneuvered him to the side of the outcrop in order to keep them both out of sight. Inez guided Blue to the ledge and forced him to step down off the trail to another small ledge below it. Blue tried to bolt but her hand guided him forward. Here they turned along the northern face of the rock abutment and stepped carefully.

 

Carved along the side of a dizzying parapet of native rock no wider than a man’s shoulders, the trail became a serpentine burro trace dropping down into a rocky crag. Blue’s awareness quickly came into focus. He sucked in a breath and relied on Inez’s steadiness. The sky seemed to swirl around him.

 

Together, with Inez leading him by the hand, they followed the bend of the rock wall. The fathomless canyon soon uncovered its secret garden of cactus, wild grasses and brightly-hued flowers tucked among the seemingly dirtless niches, wedged among gargantuan boulders.

The riders stopped at the base of the mountain.

 

 

 

 

 

The trail narrowed. Blue clung to Inez’s outstretched hand as they scrambled over a break in the rock wall. He now followed her lead with every move she made; he too considered her steps as the definitive way. Even in the cool of the morning, the sweat poured from his face and neck. He blotted the perspiration with his torn sleeve as they plodded downward. Blue never saw the deer in the upper stand of piñon, never heard the unexpected splashing sounds of a waterfall cascading down the narrow gorge or viewed the bones laying at its rugged base of the Indians that had succumbed to the slippery trail hundreds of years earlier. He could do no more than step carefully, focusing on the footpath and tucking his free hand against his burning rib cage. Becoming winded with the exertion, Blue fought his dizziness until he finally stopped, stiff-legged.

 

“Inez, I need some time.”

 

“We cannot. Walk now or jue will get us killed.”

 

“What happened back in town? I don’t understand. Why didn’t they go after Lobo and the others?”

 

Inez lost patience with the gringo. “Too many questions.” She retraced her steps to him and grasped his hand as he stood wide-legged.

 

 “Lobo did not stop to explain everything, even to me.” Only after she had moved him farther, pulling him along the winding trail, she decided to talk.

 

 “Look, hombre. Jue do not know these people. They are mountain people; they take care of their own. When something, when someone breaks their laws they have only themselves to protect. Only the old ones, they know that without their laws, even crude ones, they cannot survive long." She turned to study his vacant eyes, then pulled him along.

 

“El Lobo has used these trails and knows these people many years." She stopped and cupped a slender hand under his chin and made him listen. "He is a bandit but does not go against the laws that these people have made. But all of that changed last night.”

 

“Huh? Why last night?”

 

“Jue, gringito,” she said breathlessly. “The people were sure that jue killed two vaqueros. One old man thinks he saw you only two days ago. As jue know, his old eyes are mistaken. I do not believe you came to kill anyone. Jue are nothing but a vaquero on a ranch, as jue say.”

 

“Yeah, a hidalgo. Thanks for believing me,” he said wryly.

 

Her smile came slowly. “Perhaps we are different. I am not the whore jue think I am. I was a servant for Don Antonio Gaston de Meda. He thought of me very highly. And before that my parents… but why should I tell jue anything. It is jue they want to hang.” She pulled him off the trail, and he was suddenly grateful for the break. He stumbled to a short boulder and slumped down. She continued, brightening with the information. “Look, hombre. I know that the malgente are angered by another's death, especially if they believe it is a gringo like jue that caused it. They are bitter. They want revenge and they are accustomed to getting what they want.”

 

Blue sat still, closing his eyes and wrapping his arms around his chest to ease the fatigue. “Okay, so they want … a gringo to hang. That still doesn’t explain …  why they went after Lobo.” His eyes roved up to her pensive face, and he could easily see the unspoken words lingering in her expressive eyes.

 

 “Wait. Did Lobo have to kill anyone to get me out that jail last night?”

 

She nodded. “It was the worst thing he could have done, I think. That is all I know. He told me to get jue safely away. He did not expect them to follow the mountain path. I don’t know why they did. Lobo did not say who he killed. Perhaps that has something to do with it. I don’t know. That is why we left at night.” She offered him a sip from the canteen before slinging it into the satchel over her shoulder. “Come, we go now.”

 

He nodded and rose slowly. He did feel safe enough with her. She truly wanted him to survive the trail, though the complexity of their travel plans had strained. He smirked and whispered, “Things would go better if I didn’t feel so bad.”

 

She set off on a cutback trail then stopped short. Ahead lay a wide gap in their path, a result of damaging torrential rains. She turned to glare at him. “Can a gringito use a rope for more than cows?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“The trail is gone. We must use my rope to get across.” She slung the poke to the ground and pulled the length of rope from it. "This is all I have.”

He fashioned a loose slipknot and played out the kinks before he worked a loop to it. She pointed to a narrow outcrop above them. He aimed the loop and it fell short by a few feet. On his second try the loop opened and again fell short. He slumped against the rock wall and caught his breath.

 

“I don’t think it’s long enough. Help me get into the rocks. Hold me there.” He climbed upward and hooked his boot into a wedge of rock. From that angle she pressed his legs to the wall so he could extend his arm out over the canyon. He gathered the rope and set a loop to toss. On the second try it snagged a rock spire.

 

“Bueno, hombre.”

 

She released him from the rocks and took the rope end, wrapping it twice around her hand before taking a flying leap across the gap. Her landing was light. She stood ready to help him. Blue took the rope as it came back to him, wrapped a loop under his elbow and hung on. His dive across the gap dropped him on the edge. She pulled at his blanket serapes to guide him to safety. He scrambled on his stomach, clawing the last foot to reach solid ground. He flopped to his back; his chest heaved for air.

 

“We can not get the rope. Come.”

 

Blue struggled to his feet and she hooked an arm under his.

 

The first rifle report smacked at the dirt in front of them. She dropped down and pulled him with her. The posse members had gained more ground than either expected. Their rifles shortened the distance.

 

“Move along low until jue reach the stand of rocks with a double head. Jue will know when you see it. Go quickly.”

 

He did not want to leave her side now. If she failed to clear the trail with him, he still did not know the way home. With her able guidance he at least had a chance.

 

 “Let’s go together, please.”

 

She considered his simple request and nodded, pushing him to the path ahead. “Bueno, we go ahead. It is too bad that Lobo did not give me your gun. I could use it soon, I think.”

 

They struggled through two more eroded sections of the path before they dropped completely out of sight from the upper rim. The shadows lingered deep in the canyon. Succulents, green and tender fingers groping along the wall, a variety she had never seen before, grew from precarious little niches along the rock face. She stopped to touch the serrated edges and drew her finger back to her mouth. Blue watched enchanted by her sudden childlike curiosity.

 

“You think they’ll follow us?”

 

She sucked her finger. “No, maybe some, es muy sangre triste. Umm, bad blood, sad death here in these mountains, from many years ago. It turns away many men stronger than jue.  Come, it is not far to the bottom." She slid down the slick mud-covered trail.

 

The last of the cascade from the falls high in the rim, funneled to nothing more than a wet trickle of moss-laden rivulets coursing over bare rock. A hidden pool waited at the base.

 

He stopped and pulled at her arm. “We should refill the canteen if we have to cross that?” He pointed toward the expanse of desert plains that stretched out for miles from the base of the mountain to the horizon. The despair in his heart sagged openly across his shoulders. How many miles would they need to cross; he cared not to calculate it.

 

"Sí, jue are right. Down here we are hidden. We have water. They will not follow. This is a good place to rest."

 

Water trickled to a depression no larger than a soup bowl among small round stones. The green pool hidden in a clutter of large leaves kept the water surprisingly clean and cool. Blue pulled his glove and dipped his hand to drink. The water quenched him deeply, much deeper than his dry throat and aching bones. He allowed the liquid to run across his face. Inez moved close and waited for him to get his fill. Blue sat back to watch her take a drink. She even drank seductively, he thought. The water trickled down her blouse and she did not stop to wipe the droplets from her lips. She smiled sweetly and dropped her eyes to the pool. Her face was now flushed and eyes tired.

 

He leaned across to gently pull the canvas bag from her shoulder. “Better we get that canteen full. I don’t know where the next water hole is.”

 

She let him slip the bag from her shoulder and grinned. ”I do.”

 

He busied himself with the task of refilling the canteen, ignoring her comment. “Is it really safe here for now? I could use a break.”

 

“Sí, it is safe. I doubt they will try to cross that break in the trail. They will go the other way, around through the old canyon trail. There are many to choose from. I know all of them.” She flipped her hair over her shoulder and splashed water on her face.

 

Blue found himself mesmerized by her movements. He quickly lowered his eyes when he realized he stared at her. “Don’t you miss the things that most girls want? A home, a garden, pretty dresses and stuff?”

 

“Jue think jue know what a woman wants? Hah. I am not like the others. I have no need for those things. What I need Lobo provides. He is a good man.”

 

“He kinda treats you like his daughter, more than a …”

 

Her eyes flashed. “It is better jue keep your thoughts to yourself than to try to understand, hombre. Jue can never see what I have seen.”

 

He leaned back and pressed his shoulders to the damp wall. The coolness was now refreshing compared to the chilled morning. He removed his hat and rubbed his arm across his forehead, drawing in a deep sigh. “It’s things you get use to, like having a roof over your head, good food, your parents and friends to talk to. Someone to care about you, I guess.”

 

“Si, that is good, but that is what jue have. Me, I have the wind and the mountains, my place next to Lobo. It is freedom. Nothing to come back to, nothing to miss. It is a good life.” She crouched at the water’s edge then folded into a cross-legged position with her skirts bunched up around her thighs.

 

Blue found himself staring again. “But,” he snapped to, “I guess you miss your folks the most, huh?”

 

She brooded at his question. “Sí.”

 

“What happened to them?”

 

“They were killed when I was young. The farmers, the peons, we were all facing hard wars with the Maximillianos. It was bad for my family. Many of my brothers and sisters were killed in one night. I saw my Papá gunned down like a dog in his own house. My Mamá secreted me away in the wine cellar. When she never came back for me I left and went to the mountains. The French were everywhere.” She sat suddenly upright. “I counted 12 dead in the courtyard, many of my brothers and his friends.” Tears welled in her eyes but she did not allow them to run.

 

He felt awkward that he had brought up the question. She seemed destined to talk to him, even in her own way, embittered by everything he had tried to make her share. Blue fell silent again.

 

“And jue, hombre? In the jacal, jue said you lost your Mamá?” Her eyes grew expressive as if the story coming would be worth listening to.

 

Blue smirked at her bright-eyed interest. “We came from Virginia by way of Missouri then settled here in Arizona Territory. It wasn’t long after we came that an Apache’s arrow killed my mother.” He went suddenly quiet, too.

 

She twisted her head in slight puzzlement. “Jue don’t sound bitter for the Apaches killing her.”

 

“No, I guess not. They were only defending their land just like we were. I’ve met a few of them, and killed a few of them. I guess we have more in common than you would think. It’s been hard but you just go on, I guess.” He looked at her a little differently now, cocked his head and smiled quickly.

 

The silence grew. After a long minute, Inez moved to him and found a soft mossy place near by. She brushed her fingers through her hair and settled in. She eyed him casually. Slowly she moved her arm back until she came within inches of touching his shoulder with hers. 

 

“It is sometimes I wish for a home that I know will be just the way I want it. But before all, I must have the man who will be strong and love me for me. An hombreduro. Beseme, hidalgo mio.”

 

This time the red highlights in her cheeks came from a deep desire. She slipped a hand under his neck and drew him near, pressing her mouth to his and finding him less reluctant to enjoy her casual pleasures. This time he wrapped his stronger arm around her waist in an embrace. Her slender body against him overwhelmed any other senses until her mouth searched his. Her kiss lingered until he was out of breath. As she released him, she smiled, beguiled by how he had changed his attitude toward her. But her eyes grew suddenly eerie, icy and nearly murderous. She pulled a narrow bladed knife from her legging boot and pressed the metal to his throat.

 

Blue froze, his head held high and cocked back from the weapon. “What? What did I do?” He worked for air as she pressed against him.

 

“My dreams, hombre, are MY dreams. No one like you, no hidalgo can give me what I want. I would not ever take what you offered because you are a gringo hidalgo, the worst kind,” she hissed. She dropped her grip of him and rose to walk away.

 

He flew into an internal rage, heaving for more air and blinking his eyes wildly while replaying the incident in his mind. What had turned her against him, enough to threaten his life? She thwarted any attempt at kindness or base friendship. She was crazy, pure and simple. He sat in a huff, glaring at her, trying to isolate the mechanism that triggered her attack. He wiped his hand across his neck expecting to find evidence of blood from her handiwork. The blade had not broken the skin. He shoved his hat down on his head and drew his knees up to his chest, wrapping his arms around them, consoling his battered ego. If anyone had ever wondered what it would be like to meet a mountain lioness face-to-face he now knew. He let go a long pent up breath before returning to the pool for a deep drink and to saturate his bandanna. The cool cloth tied around his neck steadied his nerves.

 

“We better get moving,” he said loud enough for Inez to hear. She was out of sight but humming softly down trail.

 

“It is time we went, gringito,” she called back with a breezy lilt to her voice.

 

Blue rose slowly to his feet and shook his head. She had already forgotten the incident. The trail would feel much longer today, though the miles were shorter. “How far?” he asked tentatively.

 

“See the double head of the rock? Down to the north side of the mountain, there is a spring and a trail leading to Agua Zanja. We will not cross the desert, there. But here, to the north. I must warn jue the town is not much better than the one we left. I will tie jue. I will say that I am bringing in a wanted man. They will laugh at the site of me capturing a hidalgo, but it is all I can think of.”  She rattled on breathlessly with her plan. “We must go through town to the last building on the street. Behind it, along the creek is a canyon, is a meeting place for us. Deep in the canyon. People will know we are there. It is the way we track our members.”

 

Blue nodded in resignation.

 

They continued across the foothills of the mountain giant. Its sweeping canyon outlets carved numerous drainage side canyons. Later in the morning, the ancient trail did not waver but stayed true to course, leaving the craggy mountain, crossing many of the short sandy bluffs, rising and falling like frozen waves on the ocean. On the last rise a water-gouged arroyo followed a relentless course through the worst Mexico had to offer. Where the mountains had provided shelter for gardens honored by time itself, the arid flats of the desert drew the humidity and the precious life from the strongest plants. In withered grays and shades of pale green, the thorny brush gave way only to elusive yellow glory flowers carpeting the sand, springing upward with little fanfare only to succumb to the heat of mid-day.

 

Inez ignored these sights. She displayed the endurance of a distance runner and the agility of an antelope. She pressed on with the young cowboy tramping slowly behind. If they kept to the main arroyo the natural depression would keep them lower than the view of any traveler who may traverse that same part of the desert. Occasionally Inez would climb the short-banked wall to take a wider look ahead. She grew confident that they traveled on course.

 

Blue stood wide-legged, favoring his side at each of their short breaks. This time she led him to an undercut sandbank and allowed him to take a longer break in the shade. She pulled the canteen and sipped delicately before offering it to him. In his hands the canteen shook as he held it upward.

 

“Jue are doing well, hombre. Perhaps we can make the town before nightfall. It is still far but the trail is no more harder than this.” She beamed at him and grabbed her skirts before she plopped next to him. In the bag she withdrew the dried beef and handed him another leather strip. He slowly took it from her hand. She continued to stare at him unabashed as he chewed on the meat. “Gringo, tell me more of your home. It is a grande hacienda, sí?”

 

He was at once skeptical of why she seemed compelled to pry. He kept an eye on her hands and more so when they hovered near her boot top. “It’s bigger than most, I guess. We got a fairly big crew to ride the range. Bunkhouse and such. Why?”

 

She shrugged her shoulders. “Jue will grow up to be a haciendado like your Papá? Many servants, many bedrooms, no?”

 

“No,” he answered bluntly. “Things aren’t like that. We have enough to give everybody work, but my Pa, he ain’t the type to have servants and house maids and such. Between the ranch chores and moving stock to cover the contracts for beef, we fend off the Apaches. Don’t have much time for lazing around. Victoria cleans and washes clothes with Violeta.”

 

“Ah, so you do have servants to clean.”

 

He fell silent. She smiled wide, having won the argument. “Hidalgo,” she muttered. “Jue do not lie good. Jue work hard and have no woman. Why do you work for your father when jue can have the work for your own rancho? Que? Is it not what jue want?”

 

“I don’t know. I guess so.”

 

“I will be your woman. I will give you many children.”

 

“What!” he choked on the mouthful. “Who said I needed a wife?”

 

“Jue do not like me, I know this. But marriage is not all good, sometimes good. Am I not bad as any others, no?”

 

He decided silence was better than getting tongue-tied.

 

She took his silence as a consideration that she had some merit to her argument. Inez beamed and cast a sideways glance at him, her eyes flashing with glee. She suddenly draped an arm over his shoulder and ran her finger up and down his neck. Her hair brushed across his cheek, and she flung the long tresses behind. “Jue are handsome for a gringo boy. I would like to try this life of jours.”

 

Blue squirmed out from under her wandering arms; he grew leery, watching where she had hidden the knife. She pulled at his shirt collar. She did not give up easily. He stayed aloof as long as possible until Inez pressed against him and grasped Blue’s face in her small, sculpted hands.

 

She poised for a kiss, and in that moment in which she hesitated, she realized he too was anticipating it more than fighting it, although he did not move to her as she had hoped. He was at a loss what to do with his hands, so he kept them stiffly by his sides, hands pressed to the warm sand. She placed a soft kiss against his lips until he finally accepted. The kiss grew deep and long until he slowly pulled away. She beamed again, having won another favor.

 

“That is what jue need, gringo boy, fire in jour heart, laughter in jour eyes. I am good for jue, sí?”

 

He sat quiet and blushed. If his fever returned he would never know the difference. For all the women that he had ever worked up the nerve to say ‘hello’, she was not what he bargained for: brash, over-bearing, impulsive and prone to flights of vulgarity that bordered on lustiness. He blinked through his thoughts, wondering if she could read his mind as well. She took the breath from him like a blast of hot, moist air before a desert thunderstorm. He fell deep into a dark chasm, lost to his confusion, and only then did the reality of what she offered break into his sensibilities. He pictured himself riding into High Chaparral with a Mexican bandita hanging on behind him, sporting a dancer’s leg, and whore’s garish smile. His father would disown him, no doubt --- before he shot him. He grinned to himself and a foreboding thought flitted across his blue eyes. Victoria grew in immeasurable waves, her bright eyes and whimsical smile penetrated his thoughts and he grew sullen and pragmatic, once more.

 

“Don’t keep teasing me, Inez.”

 

“Jue think that is all I am good for? Maybe I do not deserve to give jue what I have? Maybe jue lied to me? Jue do have a woman --- I will kill her, and then jue will see.”

 

“What?”

 

“I will find her and kill her.”

 

“You’re nothing but a young girl and a powder keg at that.” He spouted the words bluntly then fell awkwardly silent, troubled that he had insulted her. She could abandon him at any time and he would find the trek home twice as hard without her help. Either way, it promised to be a long walk without encouragement from her. He cast a quick glance at Inez's piercing glare. Her look drilled through him. They were at a stalemate again.

 

“It is true,” she cooed, “that when men are troubled or frightened of things they cannot understand, they do things that do not help them. Jue have never had a Mexican woman like me.”

 

Her journey toward vulgarity launched precariously from the harbor. Blue returned her stare.

 

“It is not a shameful thing, hijo. I can make for you a love that none have ever seen from the fire of their deepest desires. And you, gringito, have the honor of knowing that first hand. No?"

 

"I'm sure there's a rich hidalgo waiting for you somewhere."

 

"No," she pouted. "Miguel killed him. He was a beautiful, dashing young man. Sat a fine horse and women danced at his feet. But he only loved me, Inez de la Meda."

 

"Meda? I thought you said you worked for the family."

 

"Jue had a bad fever. Perhaps jue did not hear me correct." She suddenly changed her tone. "How are jue feeling? Ready to walk? We have only twelve more miles, I think. The arroyos through the plains here are very dangerous. I do not recommend that jue escape." She flashed another beguiling smile that warned of potential danger whether he stayed with her or not.

 

He only nodded. "I can make it."

 

"Bien. But be careful. I know some of the bandits and they patrol the canyon trails. Between here and town is a long bank of palo verdes. Thick in the trees is a good place for an ambush. We walk carefully, gringito." She pulled him to his feet and hooked an arm around his chest to move him. She grew stronger as he grew weaker, and this caused him to consider how much he had come to rely on her.

 

He pulled away from her. "I can go on my own a bit, Inez."

 

She let go and stood wide-legged with hands on her hips, as if she could not imagine him wanting to be without her. She ran up behind him in his clumsy walk. "Jue are a foolish boy. I see jue can walk. Jue are strong and we will be in town in less than a hour."

 

It was a wild fabrication; she was teasing him again. He ignored her bantering and pressed on, but the strain of trudging through the deep sand brought on the sweats and tempestuous fever. He suddenly dropped to his knees. She was there, hanging on every breath. Inez pulled him to his feet. "Are all gringo boys like you? Stubborn and arrogant?"

 

Blue pulled away from her, and stood wobbly-legged. The ground rose and fell in waves around him. He flopped to the sand before he knew why he was there. Inez panicked and pulled the canteen from the sack. She poured more than necessary across his face and neck. Again her torn petticoat provided the material to cool his face.

 

"Muchacho, jue are very sick. We will stay here and rest." She dragged him to the meager shade of a palo verde, digging in the sand with her hands until she produced a pile of soft sand for a makeshift pillow. "Here, hombre." She pulled him and reclined his back and neck against the sand, using his rolled serape blankets. "I can go to town in the time it takes to get some rest. I can bring back a horse for jue." Then she stopped and thought better of it. "No, it is best we travel later when the cool of the evening comes."

 

 

 

 

While Blue dozed intermittently, Inez sat in the shade and flecked pieces of bark from a dry twig. Inez grew restless again. She pouted in her boredom and rose under the low branches, pulling at the feather-shaped leaves of a palo verde branch. Blue awoke and watched. She studied it as she had the strange plant on the mountain trail. Her eyes narrowed, contemplating the series of individual parts along one stem. Now fully awake, Blue was as curious about her as she appeared curious about the leaves. He enjoyed her intensity and engaged a smile. The girl was truly a beauty, like none he had ever seen but with an innate curiosity of nature that reflected a child who had never lived outside of her home or her village. She was a puzzling little treasure, capable of sending him crazy with glee then silent in apprehension … fearful for his life.

 

He found himself taken in by her features, her brown agate eyes focused and sensitive but capable of instantly transforming to fiery embers when agitated, her lusty smile and bell-like laughter that he enjoyed hearing, and her radiant skin tanned and iridescent in the clear air. Blue took a short breath and turned his head away and immediately turned back to find her gazing at him.

 

"I have something to tell jue, cowboy." She pressed away from the trunk and sauntered toward him swinging her tatter-hem skirts. Dropping to her knees in the soft sand, the girl dragged her delicate finger through the sand. "The town is ahead. Here. Jue stay up the trail. Here. Water is easy to reach. A small spring and a pool, but it is very dangerous there. I will go ahead. Stay well hidden. As I told jue many times," she smiled and touched his knee, "it is not very safe. Especially for a gringo. This place --- many bad hombres. Mucho malgente." She brushed away a stray strand of hair before she felt his eyes on her. "Do not smile at me, gringito. I am telling jue the truth." She too cocked her head at him and returned a warm smile. "The banditos will carve you up for their breakfast if they get a chance." Her eyes flashed, this time in glee. She pulled again at her long, chocolate brown tresses, cocked her head quizzically, and smiled a second time.

 

"I know now, niño mio. Jue have no woman. I know this easy. I have watched how jue hate to watch me. But jue want a woman. Perhaps not one like me but jue are thinking too hard. Jue let your guard down now and we are both dead, maybe."

 

Her threats came as teasing words. His head buzzed with them. He heard them but refused to believe much of what she said. He leaned forward bringing his knees up to rest his arms across them. His wound ripped across his stomach in hot waves. Blue drew a tight breath to speak then stopped.

 

"Am I not right?" she taunted him.

 

"Sure. You're right. Gringos are all alike." He blushed slightly and dropped his eyes.

 

"I told jue. Inez knows much about men." She turned sprightly and reached into the cloth sack near her leg and pulled out another dried beef chunk. She then pulled at his closed hand and stuffed the meat into his palm. "To keep your strength." Now she was close. The light layer of dust from the trail softened her tones, and caused her eyes to dance impishly. She again took advantage, leaning against his leg then hooking a strong slender arm up around his neck. For some reason Blue found himself unprepared for her advancement. She pulled him close searching for his mouth. Her warm kiss, long and moist, kept him off balance. She pressed him back to the sand without effort. Her mouth found his quickly again, and in his effort to stay aloof, only engaged her to be more aggressive. They rolled slowly together beneath the filtered shade canopy of the wispy-leafed palo verdes.

 

 

 

 

 

Had she fallen asleep in his arms, or had the heat and the rolling pain burning across his stomach caused him to black out? He wasn't sure. She brushed a soft hand against his cheek as he awoke. "Inez, what?"

 

"Shush," she cooed softly then rose. "The sun is down. I will go for water. Jue rest now. When I am gone one hour, jue go to the spring. Comprende?" She stood with hands on hips and turned to move with great strides. The deep sand forced her sway to overly exaggerate her swinging skirts. She had placed the blanket roll behind him. Her slender bladed knife he found protruding from the blanket roll. She had left her only weapon for him. Blue released a long breath and sunk back to the makeshift pillow. How she drained him. For a moment nothing hurt, the aches fell away, no sounds came to his senses and the warmth of her lips lingered. Another moment passed before he truly realized she had gone.

 

Slowly the sounds of the underbrush rose in the quiet dusk. Birds hopping above his head caused a few leaves to drop around him. Blue lay in a reverie he felt deeply intrigued to experience. She grew too enticing to ignore. His mind, lulled in relaxation, suddenly snapped to attention.

A woman's voice, high and piercing, screamed from the trail.  He rose and stumbled as he followed her small tracks across the wash. He shoved branches out of the way. The thought crossed his mind that without a weapon it could be futile going in after her, more than futile, foolhardy. Whatever he faced he would do without help. He had neglected to grab the knife as he left.

 

The brush grew thicker along the rising slope where a collection of boulders and dark-leafed trees appeared in a small clearing. Blue halted. He followed the tracks with his eyes. Ahead lay an opening where the sandy ground gave way to the spring's ample water supply. The pool was wide and dark, bordered by glistening trees.

 

The girl lay partly submerged in the pond with the hands of a Mexican bandit still grasping her throat.  "Oh… no," he whispered. The tall man continued, bent to work his hands around her throat as if to finish the job. He stood up to his thighs in turbid water where he had struggled with her. Blue sucked in an urgent breath before pulling a thick log from the shoreline. He rushed into the water, swinging wildly. He clubbed the man across the back of the head just as he rose turning and peering up to see who approached. The dark haired bandit, dirt-encrusted and bedraggled, wild-eyed and more than surprised, offered only one small grunt before his body sagged into the murky pond.

 

Blue rolled the man away from Inez, still holding the log overhead, threatening if he stirred. He grasped at Inez's arm. Her body moved away on the waves. The disturbed water lapped at Blue's chest. He stood reeling and waiting for the bandit to move. He had bashed him to his death in one blow. The very knowledge that he accomplished a deadly blow forced him to shake and stand in disbelief. He stared at Inez and then at the stranger, dropping the log from his shaking hand before he could move again. Pulling Inez slowly from the water, he rolled her into his arms on the bank. Purple welts rose around her throat but he continued to cradle her, burying his face deep into her saturated hair. She lay limp and lifeless in his arms.

 

"Inez…" His strongest arm drew under her shoulders and he raised her to his chest. She was gone. A desert flower left a lingering perfume much longer than she had in the short time they shared. A bandit girl killed by the hands of another. He dropped his head to her soft folds of hair. He drew away from her for a moment, gazing across her quiet face, her long lashes, full lips and glistening skin. Such a beauty. Such a waste. Tears welled and streamed down his face. He didn't know he was crying until his muddy tears blotched her skin. He felt the heat and grief rising in him. For so long he had fought how much her ways affected him; now he could not deny it.

 

 

 

 

 

He moved slowly, methodically. He draped the bandit's serape blanket over her and pulled her body into the thick brush. Blue found he had no energy or time with the night fast approaching to dig a grave for her. He promised himself to come back and take care of things. The bandit he hauled to the trunk of the closest tree and propped him up against it. He placed the man's empty rifle across his chest and pulled his hat down low over his brow. Whoever reached the spring would anticipate trouble. He hoped that they would spend their time wondering about the bandit and not find Inez's body in the bushes. It wasn't much but he felt satisfied it was all he could do for now.

 

 The warmer nights in the flatland eased his fatigue from the colder mountain air. By the moon's rise he drew a strong breath and aimed for the line of foothills in the velvet sky. She had told him enough to find his way, but in the dark, without a true sense for direction, he could only hope his own senses could be counted on. He refilled the canteen, tucked the dead man’s pistol in his empty holster, and slung the meager food bag over his stronger shoulder, and moved on.

 

Beyond the spring, if he kept to the left bank and stayed to high ground he could bypass the town of Agua Zanja. He followed her directions explicitly, hoping he could keep them correct. Her words haunted him. She had said to stay to high ground until he passed the small collection of buildings. The moonless night enveloped him as he moved cautiously through the rough terrain. Several hours before dawn, the sliver of moon rose and gave him hope. Early dawn grew slowly in the valley. After endless hours of trudging in half-light, he crested the closest foothill to town and dropped to brittle scrubs for cover.

 

 

 

 

 

Against a gray haze of soft light and the early morning fires spewing smoke from stovepipes, the poor town of Agua Zanja sprawled in a small depression at the bend of a river he did not know. Blue watched in fascination as gray smoke columns rose from flat-roofed adobes and bent to the prevailing westerly wind. He flattened to the pebbly ground. He grew anxious that the town had been so close to their last stop he shared with Inez. He wondered too if Inez had been truthful enough to give him correct information to find El Lobo's meeting place in the grove beyond Agua Zanja. But he had made it this far and without another confrontation.

 

He studied his choices. A gringo in the town below would cause too much attention. If he could get into town and attempt stealing a horse, he could just as easily be shot as a horse thief. He needed to find someone who would speak English and guarantee his safety. His best course of action would be to go where he could be understood. If his value was as great as El Lobo had predicted, then any down-on-his-luck vaquero could turn him in for the money, or fight over him as they seemed to do over fighting cocks.

 

As he contemplated the course he would take, he wiped the band of sweat from his nose and upper lip. He steadied his stare, bracing his chin to fist. It was dangerous either way. He had no choice but to wager that going directly to Lobo would guarantee his life than to wander into another bandit town on the hopes that none of the townspeople would shoot him on sight. He also assumed that whatever posse tried to follow them had returned on a different trail and could be nearing the town or had already arrived. If Inez cared for him to survive, she would have warned him of these dangers, not managed to make him stumble into them. He closed his eyes briefly before rising to his feet.

 

Blue waged a quiet war weighing each possibility against the outcome. He took the secret advice of Inez at her word. Blue gauged his steps carefully as the morning light cast lonely shadows across the foothills. He stuck to the silhouette, following the bare mounds, circled with thickets. Beyond the thickets, he passed the last form of an adobe on the outskirts of the small community. He rested and took long drinks from the canteen.

 

The sun flared and shadows fleeted. On what he had projected was the final ground swell before the river, a rocky canyon lay gouged into the foothills to his left. He took that high course and came upon the tracks of several riders. Here he sat listening, and gauging what he calculated as the short distance to the river. Twenty feet brought him to the rim of their canyon. Below stretched a green swath of grass and a grove of well-watered trees. A gang of sombreroed Mexicans sat around their morning campfire. The smell of beans and beef filtered up from the depths of the canyon, only then did Blue realize how hungry he had become during the last days. He studied the outlaws intently until the familiar stance of Lobo broke his concentration. Lobo rose from the fire and stretched, scratching his belly and rubbing his arms. His sentries waved down to him from their hidden perches. 

 

Blue sucked in a breath. He was no more than 30 yards from one of Lobo's guarded perches. He closed his eyes briefly before taking in the situation. With quick consideration, Blue set things into motion. He moved quietly, slipping behind the guard, and poked a stubby stick into the man's back.

 

"I got business with Lobo. You tell him he has company."

 

The bandit rattled his hat on his head as he nodded. His arms he held high.

 

"Tell him," he growled.

 

The guard nodded again. "Hey, El Lobo. Just this morning jue were saying what could be the delay, Inez and the gringo, no?" He licked his lips and stared at the boy before continuing. "I have an idea why. Jour gringo boy is right here! He wants to talk with jue!"

 

"What? Simone, you have a bottle you did not share with me? Huh?"

 

"He's right, Lobo," Blue answered. He stood wary and kept the stick poked into the sentry's back. "I want to come down. Now," he called to Lobo.

 

Lobo's belly laugh grew low and muffled as it climbed from deep in his soul and bounded out of his ample chest. His baritone laugh rolled across the narrow canyon and Blue worried that folks in town might become curious as to the noise and come out to investigate.

 

"Is it true? That I hear my little sack of gold wants to come back to me? This is too good. What, has Inez changed your ways, huh? She is good for that, no?" He chuckled again.

 

"Inez isn't with me. I came alone."

 

"You. A boy in these mountains? You make a joke with me, no?"

 

"No. I'm not joking. She told me how to get here." He stalled momentarily, anxious that the news would be his undoing, before he continued. "Inez is dead." Blue went cold inside with the echo of those words. He pressed the stick again. "Tell Lobo I mean what I say."

 

"He is a dangerous man, Lobo. He wants jue to know this."

 

Lobo nodded slowly. "So … my little Inez is gone. Okay, Simone, tell the boy he can come down. No one will hurt him." Lobo watched the ridgeline until his guard stumbled from the trail and slid part way down to camp. Blue walked closely behind until he neared camp and tossed the stick at the fire. The sentry guard stood chagrined.

 

"Jue used a stick on me? I kill you, jue gringo boy!"

 

"Enough." Lobo picked up a pot of coffee from the flat stone near the fire and casually raised a mug toward Blue. "So, my Inez. She died bravely for you?"

 

Blue stood quietly perplexed by his question. After a lingering thought, he answered in a whisper. "Yes, if that's important to you."

 

Lobo nodded and smiled. "She knew the risks. And I am sure you want to go home, so you told her many things. Things she has heard before."

 

"Maybe." Blue stood his ground, gauging their moves, their motives, and not sure what he comprehended. He set his jaw and grew more sullen. He took the mug of coffee that Lobo offered.

 

"Perhaps it was not good to take you into Mexico." He shrugged his shoulders half-heartedly. "You miss your family, no?" Lobo shot out a quick open hand and grasped Blue at the throat. "Tell me again, gringito, how she came to die."

 

Blue gasped. The mug flew and he hooked his hands over Lobo's strong wrists. It seemed a useless struggle. He held the last breath until the lack of air forced him to cough and struggle for more. "A bandit---"

 

Lobo let go his grip but just as easily hooked his shirt collar and toppled the boy to him. "I am a generous man. I will not kill you if I find out where she is." He studied the boy's wide eyes, and open mouth desperate to find air. "I do not like to hear stories."

 

Blue shook his head. "No story. I came from the spring. A bandit ambushed her. I wasn't there until it was too late." He tried to drop his eyes but Lobo kept him from doing so.

 

Lobo nodded. "The bandits are thick as smoke in this valley. She did well to get you here. That is what she was told to do."

 

Blue said nothing, still facing him.

 

Lobo grinned suddenly. "It is a good thing that I met you before Miguel. He will not be a pleasant fellow when he finds out what you have done."

 

"What I've done? Hey, I did everything I could to stay alive." Then he stalled for words again. "She did, too."

 

"Heh, losing Mi Corazon, it is not a good thing, muchacho. I could kill you, but then, it would lose me my money for you. And El Lobo does like his money, no?" He chuckled and pressed Blue back into one of his bandits that had come up from behind. The vaquero grasped the boy's arms and manhandled him to the grove.

 

"Tie him good and tight." Lobo's eyes grew sad and he tilted his head to the skies. "If he gives you too much trouble, kill him. Kill him for Inez."

 

 

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

 

 

EL LOBO  PART 3

 

 

 

 

 

Once Lobo lost interest in annoying the boy, he laid back with arms beneath his head in silent contemplation. Another hour passed without conflict until Lobo stirred from his sleep and began a slow, rumbling chuckle from deep in his chest. It shook him from head to toe. He raised his sombrero from his eyes and cast a devilish look toward Blue.

 

“Hey, muchacho. Pretty soon, you will be glad to know that Miguel is coming.” His words were absorbed in a lingering chuckle. “Right now he is leading my other men into Agua Zanja.”

 

Blue raised his head slowly. The sweat rolled down his cheeks and matted the hair around his temples. Barely focusing, he found Lobo sitting up and leaning against a log, cutting at a piece of beef with his knife. Blue licked his lips and tried bracing himself up against the tree. The scant aroma of sliced beef lingered in the air and tied his stomach in knots. Again he licked his lips and glared at Lobo; Lobo was not affected.

 

“It is interesting what I hear on the trail. You must be worth more than I thought. Your Papa, he has put out a warning. The word is out even as far as Agua Zanja that if you are brought in alive no questions will be asked. A hefty reward. It is very enticing.” Then as an afterthought, Lobo chuckled again. "Heh? How is my friend Manolito? I have not seen him lately. He is perhaps in Nogales again with that beautiful sister of his, huh?"

 

Blue cocked his head and tried to comprehend how the bandit was thinking. How did his father get word of where he was? How could so many miles of desert be so easy for a few words to travel? He found his body craving food and his brain too foggy to calculate much. Knowing his father had met the challenge of placing a reward instead of paying a ransom made him feel that, at the very least, there was a chance for him to be found. The wind blew up canyon, warm and scented with river water. He knew they camped close to the Zanja but he had yet to see it through the dense foliage. He still had no idea where they were. Even in the deep canyon natural compass directions did not come easily. Slowly his mind returned to the words with which Lobo taunted. Was he full of greed, vengeance, or both? It would have been better off for both of them if he had just ignored their chance meeting in the canyon in the first place. But that was something far beyond his control now.

 

“You see, for me, there is only one problem,” Lobo continued, rising on his elbow and sporting a vile smile. “You see, now every cutthroat bandito from here to Nogales will be wanting you. And me, I already have you. So now I must fight them off. That is possible for me --- but not what I want to do. These are my friends. I do not want to fight them.”

 

Blue shrugged his shoulders.

 

“And that is why my beautiful Inez met her death, as you said, at the hands of a bandito.”

 

“So why haven’t you done something about it?” Blue baited him.

 

El Lobo grinned broadly. “I could go and kill every outlaw for 100 miles but I would never get them all. Besides, isn’t that what they would wish me to do? Fight among ourselves until we are no more? I don’t think I will give your gringo father the pleasure.” He shot a demeaning glance at the boy then stared at him cruelly. “I could just as well kill you for taking my beautiful Inez away from me. Huh?”

 

“Then where will that get you? I killed the man. You should be happy for that.”

 

Lobo’s long-bladed knife cut through the air and met the tree with a resounding thwack parallel to Blue’s ear. He jumped and shuddered openly, glaring at the outlaw.

 

Lobo laughed.

 

“It does not matter now that the man is dead. I have the man that killed my Inez. The question is whether I want to collect the money you are worth. Maybe you are more importante to my friends than you are to me, my little saco de oro.” He chuckled again.

 

 

 

 

 

Blue remained nervous, biting his lip, watching as others came from the shadows and now showed interest in what Lobo had to say to him. It was their show of defiance in general that bothered him the most. Each bandit lounging in relative security glared openly, coming closer, leering at him as if he were a side of beef or perhaps that sack of gold. Blue closed his eyes briefly and shuddered. It was then that Lobo rose to his feet and stepped toward him. He pulled the knife from the tree trunk and wiped the blade across Blue’s shoulder. Lobo had an attentive audience now. Their interest gathered like leaves in a whirlwind. Nearly a dozen men watched quietly from a short distance --- like dogs they circled.

 

Lobo enjoyed the center stage. “Maybe you are worth more as the man who killed Inez, huh? The man that killed my Inez is still among us, companeroes,” he called out to his men. “He is a sad boy who wants nothing more than to go home. He thinks I have no heart, this one. He thinks I am a cutthroat like the one who attacked my Inez. He is worth ten times the jackal that killed her. When he killed her he took a bit of our hearts, no?”

 

Blue yanked at the binds. “Don’t twist this all up, Lobo,” he growled. “You know I wouldn’t have made it here without her help.”

 

“Perhaps.”

 

A rider stirred up the lower trail. “El Jeffe,” called out the sentry high above them. “Miguel, he rides fast.”

 

Lobo smirked like a cat knowing the birdcage had been left wide open. “Gringito,” he winced dramatically, “you have waited all day for this occasion. Miguel has yet to find out that Inez is gone. He expects her to be here --- instead he will find you.” Lobo rolled his eyes and grinned derisively.

 

Blue panicked. He yanked at his binds, eyes wide. He gulped for air but found no relief in it. He hoarsely yelled to Lobo: “You know what he’s gonna do to me then, Lobo! You want me alive! You do want me alive, doncha?" Sweat ran in rivulets down his face.

 

Lobo only gave a short laugh and walked away.

 

Miguel rode in hard and dismounted in a flurry of dust and flying leaves. The tall frame of Miguel slid from the saddle and landed lightly in the dust. A man met him to take his horse that continued to pull hard at the reins, wild-eyed and stamping, long after the rider had dismounted. He stood blowing like his horse and waited until Lobo met him. He hunched his shoulders with the load of what he had to tell his good friend, Lobo, then he rose his full height, straight-backed and tension-filled. As he gathered his thoughts, his eyes fell on the rancher’s son tied to the tree. He could not release his look while talking in low tones to Lobo yet openly distracted at seeing the boy.

 

Lobo grinned and quickly saw the fire rising in Miguel’s eyes. “Before you make any plans, perhaps you have something to tell me? Huh?” Lobo said, goading him and watching the two exchange looks. “I have some important news for you, as well.”

 

Miguel drew in a deep breath. “The men are in town. We came in late last night, not by choice. A posse has been tracking us. We gave them a good chase," he grinned. “Do not worry, my friend.” He stopped and eyed their captive. “How is it that you have the gringo boy again?”

 

“Never mind him, where are my men?”

 

“Most are drunk. They have no plans to run when they know the town will protect them.”

 

“Don’t they know we have more trouble than that? With my gringito, here, we have Americanos after us, his Papa. Do they not see?”

 

“They are too tired to care about what might happen.” Miguel dropped his eyes for a moment. “They want to rest, Lobo. We have pushed hard since before the border.”

 

Lobo nodded, stood in consideration while studying the boy, then nodded again.

 

“Am I not right, Lobo?”

 

“Si, you are right. But you are wrong to leave them there, wallowing in their stupidity. They think only of their bellies.” Lobo muttered under his breath and took a step away then returned, arms flailing in sudden frustration. “If you could not get them to return with you, then you can not lead them.”

 

Miguel brooded and returned his glare toward the boy. “You still have not said how you got him back. Where is Inez? I don’t see her.”

 

“Inez showed the boy how to find our camp. She did not come with him. She is dead, Miguel.”

 

Miguel pushed past Lobo. Lobo barred him, hooking a strong hand against his arm. “Amigo,” he warned, “she kept her promise to me, to bring the boy to me alive. You will do the same. Promise me to keep the boy safe, huh?” The two exchanged uncompromising looks. “Heh, heh, amigo mio, you would not cross El Lobo for the chance to kill him, would you now? Do not forget how much he is worth.”

 

Smoke in Miguel’s eyes swirled in livid clouds. He let go a long restrained breath. “How did Inez die? The boy?”

 

“No. One of the banditos heard of the reward. It is a hefty one. He ambushed her at the spring. According to the boy, she had no warning.” Lobo monitored Miguel's reactions as he took in the news. “The boy killed him.”

 

Miguel raised an eyebrow in disbelief. “Inez,” he whispered. The two bandits openly eyed Blue Cannon.

 

“I must get my men before they are all up against a firing wall. You stay. I will return with all of the men, and maybe a few more, heh? He is good for us, perhaps. More banditos wish to see what all the excitement is about. They dream of having more dinero in their pockets. Like flies to sugar...” Lobo left his lingering thoughts unspoken. To him, Miguel remained uncharacteristically calm until he had mentioned the reward. It worried Lobo deeply to have the unsavory outlaws come sniffing out the best catch he had received in some time. But Cannon had seen to that.

Miguel stomped to his dark horse and tended to him distractedly.

 

Lobo watched for a long while as Miguel busied himself with his saddlebags and his mount. He kept a discerning eye focused on the gringito and how Miguel eventually skirted the camp in the pretext of doing other duties while all the time targeting the boy. Cannon’s son clung nervously to the tree trunk.

 

After a few long looks cast at Miguel, El Lobo whistled sharply for his saddled horse and it was presented to him within moments. Lobo swung up into the saddle and gave a quick wave. Miguel’s circuitous route through camp brought him near the tree. Giving a final command, Lobo raised his hand to his men. “You answer to Miguel until my return.” It was a command that he knew would be followed to the letter. He spun one time and added in low tones, “My prize, Miguel. My prize…"

 

 

 

 

 

Miguel moved like a cat, staring down his prey and shifting silently. When he moved out of sight, Blue sucked in a ragged breath and tightened, waiting for the inevitable. Miguel approached from behind with knife in hand, and severed the ropes binding him to the tree. Blue pulled away grasping his throbbing wrists, dropped to his knees. Skulking from behind the tree, Miguel leaned against it watching as a cat would watch and wait for its prey to make a run for safety. Blue had given up. He crouched with his wrists on his knees and hissed through clenched teeth, keeping his head low and eyes down at the ground before him. He vowed to himself not to give Miguel the pleasure of knowing how the man frightened him. Miguel flashed the knife again and gouged it into the trunk of the tree at shoulder height. He wanted the boy to run.

 

Blue calculated the man's moves -- watched him pace slowly, waiting for a chance to pounce --- but he would never understand how the bandit thought or how he formed his treacherous motivations. It was Manolito who had told him that a man who must figure out how a criminal thinks will never himself be one, and therefore he cannot know the difference. When Blue had asked his good friend if he understood the criminal mind, the implication only made him smile. If I was the criminal sort, Mano had said, you would be laying on the ground in a pool of your own blood. Blue had gulped in surprise and walked away. Manolito had chuckled and walked the other direction. Later Blue had asked his Uncle Buck if Mano had some criminal history that he had ever shared with him. Buck had leaned back and smiled, “Everybody’s got history, Blue Boy, ‘cepting maybe those too young to have some.” He too had smiled and left Blue in a quandary. For a young man with very little history, his prejudgment gave him only one answer: he was surrounded by the worst breed of outlaws.

 

And now he faced the worst of them; a man with more history than he wished to know and the ability to exact it out against his desperate need to avenge the death of Inez.

 

Miguel’s strong will and vile temper exploded. He gripped Blue’s shoulder and brought him up against the tree and pressed him to the rough bark. Miguel wedged one arm under his chin. With the other hand he slipped a braided leather cord over Blue's head. He cinched it up to his liking, loose enough to breathe but tight enough to cause discomfort. Blue’s breath caught as the outlaw cinched it tighter against his skin. Calming his heart thrashing in his chest yet fighting to appear as aloof as possible, Blue avoided the man’s eyes as long as he could hold out before Miguel drew him to his face. Blue grasped at the cord across his throat. The cord wrapped over Miguel’s knuckles and Blue tensed. Face to face Miguel grinned callously.

 

“It will be a pleasure to see how close to death you can come, muchacho.”

 

Blue winced and closed his eyes briefly, a shallow breath caught in his throat.

 

The bandit pressed harder against Blue’s neck until he squirmed and choked.

 

“And you could die out here, and never be found,” Miguel added. He pulled his arm away and back-handed Blue to the ground before he hauled him back to his feet. He shoved the boy out ahead of him as they walked toward the rear of the camp. Beyond the shade trees, and into a trampled dirt area roped off as a corral, they walked. Miguel prodded his prisoner. The horses shied and snorted moving away from the two intruders. Fighting to stay on his feet, Blue pried one hand up under the cord, and sent a scathing look at Miguel. With a firm grip on the cord, Miguel escorted the boy through the rope corral and forced him to duck under the other side. They continued until a faint foot path appeared, dividing the dense underbrush. Here the sound of rushing water rose above the rustling of the grove’s arching boughs above them.

 

Blue stalled. Miguel pushed him forward. Another back-hand across the boy's face and they were down the muddy bank.

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

Elongated shadows of three horses emerged from a narrow passage below the Montañaduros. Manolito Montoya led the riderless palomino while the second rider followed at a distance. Buck Cannon stood in his stirrups and scanned past Mano’s shoulder as they cleared the deep shadows into stark sunlight. Ahead lay a single rise of dust arching up and over an isolated rocky knob in the flats.

 

“We got some action up ahead, I’d say.” Buck worked the reins of his bay and let him sidestep beside Mano. “I don’t mind telling you that we need some good news ‘bout now, and that dust column ain’t gonna be it.”

 

“From what I saw at Zurrapas,” Mano remarked under his breath, “there are more men with a much stronger desire to find El Lobo than we are to find one young vaquero.” He shrugged his shoulders. “I will check this out, solomente.” He handed over the lead rein of the palomino to Buck and toed his mount onward.

 

Those on the other side of the knob remained upwind and made it easy for Mano to gain ground without them being aware. He pulled his rifle from the saddle scabbard and dismounted. The climb to the top provided him cover, an easy trail. He belly crawled and pushed the dry brush away. Directly below him the dry camp at the foot of the rocky outcrop kept a dozen well-armed men sheltered. They spoke in low tones as the last of the riders mounted. Tethering two pack animals and, in their preparation to leave, they had caused the dust to travel high above the knob. Among them Manolito searched for a sheriff or a man of some authority. Their clothing reflected meager means and designated them as the mountain stock he had tried to avoid in town. Not a posse … but rather vigilantes. He watched the last of the riders mount and kick their animals into a lope. Mano knew they aimed for the river town less than twenty miles away.

 

When Mano returned he remained sullen, overly serious. He busied himself with checking the cinch on his saddle, taking his time to be thorough. Buck cocked his head but delayed saying a word. In time, Mano raised his shoulders and let out a long sigh.

 

 “I suggest we avoid following those hombres. They are vigilantes, I am sure, from Zurrapas.”

 

“If that be true, then we caught up to them, which means they be catching up easy to Blue. I don’t want him in no crossfire, Mano. He’s been through too much already.”

 

“I agree. We stay to the foothills. Blue had to come down through the mountain footpath, the one the old men told me about. If we keep to the northern slope we’ll cut their trail soon enough."

 

Buck scrubbed his growth of whiskers on his chin and nodded. “Betcha that boy’ll be starved by the time we find him.“ As they continued a northeasterly direction, Buck resolved to chatter about inconsequential topics rather than dwell on the possibility of finding his nephew in poor condition. He also resigned himself to the fact that Mano had the best course of action. Buck knew the terrain was unfamiliar to him. He moved their gait up a pace and followed close, keeping Blue’s palomino at a tight rein. He glanced only once over his shoulder to the dusty trail and the riders who covered the southeastern route.

 

 

 

           

 

Mano had calculated the true course. As they dropped into a wide arroyo feeding at the base of the Montañaduros beyond the sloped tangle of overgrowth and boulders, a faint footpath appeared with recent boot heels marking the place where two people had crossed.

 

Buck crouched at the signs. “You’re good, Mano. This gotta be Blue’s tracks. And that little Mexican gal we saw at the corral, I bet that be hers.”

Mano nodded thoughtfully. “Perhaps Lobo has given the girl the task of seeing him through, but to where?” Manolito left the question open as he followed the tracks and leaned out of the saddle as he rode. Another few miles and he found the place where they stopped to rest, and farther on, where the dense brushy growth of the desert willows and vicious cat’s claw mingled to form a wall of sturdy foliage, more tracks indicated they stopped again.

 

"Buck, if I were to guess, I would say that Blue has become very close to this chiquita.”

 

“What?”

 

“Their tracks do not lie. Here and here they shared the same place.” He smiled and shrugged his shoulders. “It is what I see, compadre. No more, no less.”

 

“Well, I’ll be.”

 

 

 

 

 

In another hour they found tracks leading to the hidden pond. Buck drew his pistol on the sleeping guard at the water’s edge. The flies dispersed as he neared the body. He disarmed the Mexican bandit and grinned at Mano. While Buck figured the body as a scare tactic for other travelers, Mano continued following the drag marks across the damp shore. The tracks led him to the brushy arbor where a young Mexican girl lay wrapped in a tattered blanket.

 

Mano returned to the water’s edge. “I cannot say for sure,” he pointed to the sentry sitting in his frozen action, “but this could be the handiwork of your young nephew. He does have a flair for theatrics, no?” Mano’s smirk grew dismal. “Unfortunately, he is now traveling alone. The girl is dead. Strangled.”

 

Buck shook his head. “Strangled. Poor boy. You figure Blue is on his way to that river you was talking about? Mebbe she told him how to get there? Mebbe?”

 

Manolito nodded halfheartedly. “My money is on Blue. And if he is going where she has sent him, he is going directly to Lobo.”

 

“Huh? Why’d he do that? That don’t make no sense.”

 

“Perhaps it is the lesser of two evils. Remember he doesn’t know the land. He has been hauled all over this territory and he knows that Lobo wants him and will keep him alive. It is good judgment, under the circumstances, I think.” Mano nodded to himself.

 

Buck studied the recent boot marks in the sand. He raked his gloved hand through his hair once more before forcing his hat down to his brow. “From what I see they only want him half alive,” Buck groused.

 

 

 

 

 

They refilled their canteens before finding the tracks that Blue had left leading through the desert to the east. It was true, as Mano had speculated, that Blue had skirted the valley of Agua Zanja. By midday the tracks distinctly veered parallel to a shallow creek that fed into the valley from the main river course. Blue had stayed on track but in evidence of that he had fallen several times, and scuffed along wearily. As the tracks approached the largest rise of ridges before the river, the town appeared in the distance within a few miles of the trail. Its brown adobes wavered in bleached sunlight, each building dismal and colorless. Manolito signaled Buck to dismount. They crept up to an overlook.

 

Beyond their ridge, a grove of cottonwoods and old growth sycamores filled the narrow canyon below. In a clearing, lay the outlaw camp. Buck had easily spotted his nephew tied to the tree trunk and the knife-wielding bandit only inches from him. The Mexican cutthroat threatened him with a blade.

 

Mano braced an arm across Buck’s chest. The man was ready to bound down the mountainside, fully aware that he would be killed if he did. Buck let out a long-held breath and eyed Mano indignantly. He relaxed only in that he was no longer ready to get himself killed right away. Mano grinned at his friend’s bravado, but followed it with a shake of his dusty head.

 

“I'm beginning to hate that man. That one’s mine,” Buck growled, referring to the tall Mexican bandit with the knife.

 

“Agreed.” Mano suddenly frowned when he realized they were too much in the open on this ridge. “We must circle a bit to the northern face, come down on them from the top of the canyon, there.”

 

Buck followed Mano’s pointing finger to the dense grove leading upward into the channel. Then he rolled his eyes and silently moved off in the direction of the climb. They chose the faint donkey trail across the ridge. From their new perch among brush and rock cover, Buck hissed and pulled at Mano’s sleeve. He soon found that Blue was gone from the camp. The irritation brewed in his eyes.

 

“There!”

 

The bandit now escorted Blue through the temporary corral, dragging him when he stumbled, kicking at him when he refused to get up. They stood in confrontation but Blue had no fight left in him; his uncle could see that much; and, it set a fire in him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the muddy bank, Miguel grinned derisively and yanked a second time on the cord around Blue’s neck. He pulled the boy to his face and hissed, “It angers me to know that you let Inez die. She was a beauty, beyond any of our grand imaginations. And you, you whelp, had laid eyes on her for two days. She was crazy for me.”

 

Blue cowed and dropped his eyes but Miguel snapped him upward.

 

“You let a worthless outlaw take her from us.”

 

“It wasn’t like that. She told me to stay in the brush, to hide, in case the bandits were around.”

 

“You expect me to believe a gringo dog?”

 

“Believe what you want. But she saved my life. And I … I couldn’t get to her in time.” Blue let go an uneven breath as he confessed his own deficiency to the bandit.

 

Miguel tensed. “Did you care for her? Did she tie her heartstrings around you? She was an evil little wench, no?”

 

“No! She was … just a girl.” Blue drew an exasperated breath and pulled back.

 

“‘Just a girl’ is like calling the Madre de Dios just another woman. You lie to me. I know how she was. She got to you, gringito. She got to you as no other woman could.”

 

“No.” Blue bit his lip and closed his eyes briefly. The bandit read him like a handmade tapestry and he resigned himself to the fact that anything he said would be detrimental to his health. He shook his head slightly. “She wasn’t like that, not really. She wanted to get us past the bandits. She wanted to come back to…”

 

Miguel tightened his grip.

 

“… to you,” Blue rasped.

 

The bandit grinned. “Good, very good. You tell me what I want to hear. Just like she told you what you wanted, si? She told you she would be the best woman for you, that she would bear you many children, and be a good hidalgo wife, yes? This is true?”

 

Blue nodded numbly.

 

Miguel chuckled. “My Inez was many things, but a truth teller, never.” He glared at the boy in deep thought before he suddenly stepped off along the shoreline's thick brush, dragging Blue with him. “You want to know what I do with a whelp? I drown it.”

 

“You’re as crazy as she was.”

 

That comment, Blue reeled with the fear that he had triggered some other aspect of Miguel’s deep hatred, sent Miguel into a livid anger.

 

“Crazy!" Miguel growled. "You have not seen crazy until you have seen what she saw. To have your entire family gunned down would have any child reeling into the world of crazy. I know this. My relatives adopted her after they found this little French girl cowering in the bushes. The revolutionists had been wiped out. She was one of the few revolutionist children who survived the Mexican takeover.”

 

“What?”

 

“Si, our little Inez, she had no concept of her true life. She wanted to be accepted by the Mexicans who befriended her, only wanting to make everyone happy.” His eyes narrowed, “Even you.” Miguel hauled him farther along the river’s edge, tightening the cord as he moved.

 

Blue sucked in air knowing it was his last, struggling to stay on his feet. He dragged his heels as they approached the river’s muddy bank, fighting and beating the man's grip with feeble fists. Panic grew. He stood precariously on the rise above the water. He grasped both hands on Miguel’s wrists to pry away the rawhide cord. Miguel backhanded him across the face. The blow dropped Blue to his knees. Since the bandit still held the cord he easily drew him to his feet before slipping down the last foot to the water's edge. Once they hit the water, Blue tried jerking free but fought against a powerful hand. Miguel forced him under water once. He came up spewing water, and Miguel immediately dunked him a second time.

 

The force of the long-range rifle bullet hit Miguel squarely in the back and toppled him over onto Blue. They dropped into the current. Blue fought to the surface but the outlaw’s body dragged him into deeper water. Blue bobbed up fighting for breath. The water was deceptively deeper here.

 

Buck Cannon charged down the slope in continuous rifle fire. He made the downhill run quicker than most men half his age. Sliding down the slope with the rifle held out at his chest, he yelled to Mano that he would go after his nephew. He took out three men easily as they peered out from their shaded refuges. Buck shouldered his way through the high brush, across the corral, back into deep shadows of the dense foliage along the river. He tossed his rifle and holster to the grass and dove from the muddy bank. His long strokes across the strong current brought him to his nephew. Blue’s face was tipped up and held high as he struggled against the choppy current. Buck cupped an arm around the boy’s chest and paddled toward shore.

 

Blue coughed and choked out a mouthful of water. “Uncle Buck?”

 

“It’s good to see you, too, such as you are, boy. Let’s get you to shore. Mano be needing some help.” He grinned and pulled Blue to the bank.

 

Buck pressed his nephew to the damp, undercut wall, studying the boy’s face for some indication that he would be okay on his own.

 

Blue gave him a tired smirk. “It’s good to see you, too,” he whispered.

 

Buck patted him on the chest then signaled for him to stay put as he belly crawled away. He scurried up the bank and over, retrieving his weapons on the run. Gunfire continued sporadically from the canyon. Manolito had lived up to his reputation as a crack shot. Four more bandits lay dead in the shadows. Two others who still defended their positions in the brush soon met steady rifle fire from Buck.

 

The last of the bandits escaped into the underbrush. They took flight like frightened quail up canyon. The firing had ceased. Mano raced out from cover to the center of camp with his rifle held at the ready. Slowly, methodically, he toed each dead man and tossed their guns aside.

 

"How is Blue?"

 

"He's alive."

 

“What do you plan to say to him, hombre?” Mano asked breathlessly toward Buck, who stood draining water.

 

“I don’t rightly know. He’s been through a lot.” Buck rubbed the back of his neck as he thought it through. “First we gotta get outta here before Lobo gets the notion to come back. I don’t want to tangle with him again. And I figure Blue’s had about enough of him, too.”

 

In unexpected casualness, Buck strolled to the riverbank and looked over the grassy edge. His nephew hunched as he sat on the muddy shore. The boy was beaten; every nerve was raw, and Buck knew it. There wasn’t much the boy hadn’t gone through, especially the mountain trail and its aftermath at the spring. He wasn’t sure what Blue needed right now.

 

Mano joined Buck overlooking the river. He waited for Buck to say something but it wasn’t coming easy. Mano then chose to break the silence for him. “It is peaceful, this river. You would never know that so many have died here.” Then he watched as Blue hunched his shoulders and let go a long held breath. “It is time, compadres,” Mano added.

 

Buck hooked his rifle across his shoulders then draped his arms over each end. In this stance he found a breath of relief and considered what to say. His information to his nephew was slow in coming. “There’s some good news come out of all this, Blue Boy.”

 

From the muddy riverbank, Blue peered at Buck’s shadow only to find him staring down at him. Blue was sullen, hurt. Exhaustion now tempered his slowly formed words. “We ready to go home yet?”

 

“Yeah, we better get to going. But we got you a good ride,” Buck offered. “Strong animal, smart, I’d say. He got good instincts, like you.”

 

Blue glared at them both then rolled his eyes coupled with a strained smirk. He was tired of it all and too worn through to care about much else. He nodded without knowing why.

 

“Come on, Mano. Let’s get the boy home.” Buck slipped down the embankment and offered a broad, gloved hand to him. Mano did the same, levering him up the bank. They escorted Blue through camp.

 

Mano stopped at the rope corral and slung one of the bandit's saddles over his shoulder. Buck only gave him a sideways glance as they walked to the sloped trail leading toward the canyon mouth. A hollow of thistle and burro grass had kept all three horses busy during the ambush on the camp. Their horses browsed and each brought up his head when their rider’s returned.

 

Blue stopped in his tracks.

 

“Soapy!” he choked. “He’s supposed to be dead! Miguel shot him back on the trail. I don’t… I can’t believe it!” In a sudden burst of new energy, Blue sprinted to his palomino, rubbing the animal’s soft muzzle and scrubbing his mane. “Hey there, boy. Soapy, that’s a good boy.” He dipped his head under the horse’s neck and beamed to his uncle. “How did you ever find him?”

 

Buck gushed and let go a prideful laugh. “Well, he kinda found us. I’ll tell you more later. We gotta get across the river while we got daylight. Lobo and whatever friends he’s got left will be after us soon enough.”

 

Manolito dropped the saddle over the palomino's back and cinched it up. He clamped a hand on Blue's shoulder and helped hoist him to the saddle. “We have many miles to go just to get to Nogales. I tell you that I am not glad to lose El Lobo but today I would not be so glad if he was here to battle it out with us. Aye-eeii. Andale.”

 

They rode through thick brush cutting a line parallel to the river until a natural crossing appeared. Before long they had crossed the river and skirted the low hills along its bank then headed northeast to Nogales. It would be another two day’s hard ride until they neared the rangeland valley of the Montoya Rancho. Mano kept an eye on their back trail but nothing came of it, no dust stirred, no snipers fired from hiding. Buck kept an eye on his nephew who tired easily in the saddle. Concerned for him, by dusk, he rode abreast of Blue’s palomino, and laid a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder.

 

“There’s some things I gotta tell you, things that’s been happening since you been gone.”

 

Blue raised his head and stared off into the distance.

 

“Your Pa got a reward out for you, and from what we’ve seen on the trail, every cutthroat Mex and renegade from here to Tucson is keeping a keen eye out for you. You see, it does sort a put a bit of worry on me and Mano to keep you safe. We be taken the back trail home, if you get my meaning.”

 

Blue gave him a short nod.

 

“I wished I got to you sooner. We was trailing you for quite a spell 'til we lost you at the pinnacles. There’s a lot of things I wished I could of done better for you.”

 

Blue nodded again and cast a slow look across at him.

 

“You ain’t said a word since the river. You okay?”

 

“Good enough.” He closed his eyes and let the familiar rhythm of his palomino rock him into a sunset warmth as the last of the light flared over the far mountains.

 

“Good, cause me and Mano was worried about ya. We got some hard riding ahead.” Buck glanced back at Mano for some kind of assurance. He got none.

 

Mano only raised his shoulders and sidled up along Blue’s other side. He, too, rode for a short distance watching him until his own doubt forced him to take action. He extended a hand to Blue’s forehead, and the boy didn’t recoil or flinch to move away. Mano gave a silent signal to Buck and he reached over and pulled up on the palomino’s reins. Buck was off his mount in a rush and pulled Blue from the saddle.

 

“I thought he was looking a bit peaked. He’s burning up with fever, Mano.” Buck cradled his nephew against his chest, pulling the boy’s collar away. “I don’t figure he was shot.”

 

“No, but as I said before, he did not look good in Zurrapas.” Mano helped drag him to scant shade in nearby brush lining the wash. Fighting their hands, Blue moaned and grasped at Buck’s sleeve.

 

His words came slurred, “I’ve been fighting a fever since Miguel cut me up. She took care of it as best she could.”

 

“Huh?”

 

Mano nodded to Buck, and mouthed the words, “the girl”. He rose to retrieve the canteen from his saddle. Buck had assumed that something drastic needed to be done. He pulled open Blue’s vest and shirt. The wound had been bound with several strips of tattered calico petticoat. Buck slowly unwrapped the cloth, and with a face stone sober, stared at the heavy bruising on his ribcage and the festered knife cut across his waist.

 

“She did a fine job for you, Blue Boy,” he lied.

 

Blue winced and nodded. "She wasn't what you thought, what nobody thought. She was crazy, that was plain enough. But she was also something very special."

 

"Blue, it don't do no good to go on about her. She helped you and that's what counts, right?" Buck continued sopping the cloth with canteen water and attempting to quiet the boy. But Blue wasn't co-operating. He fought the tender care and rolled his head from side to side.

 

"I couldn't save her, Buck. I couldn't save her."

 

Mano had brought back his spare shirt from his saddlebags and proceeded ripping the material.

 

 “Another shirt to a worthy cause,” Buck chided to Mano. Manolito just nodded.

 

Blue clutched at Buck’s shirtsleeve over and over again, as if he couldn’t secure a good grip. “Inez, I couldn’t get to her in time. I couldn’t… She was so beautiful, Uncle Buck.”

 

Puzzled by what to say or do, Buck looked up and caught Mano's blank stare. They both chose not to say anything. Mano gave Buck the damp cloth and then sat back on his haunches.

 

"When I saw them in Zurrapas, the girl was with El Lobo," Mano added to Blue's ranting. "She was young but it could easily have been one of his women."

 

The realization moved across Buck's eyes. He whistled softly. "El Lobo could be a might ornery if Blue was there when she died. Or if he thinks he killed her. Mano, he may want to finish the boy off. He's bloodthirsty enough. What do you think be on his mind?"

 

"I think the safest place to be is Rancho Montoya."

 

"Yeah, I agree but he ain't been doing awful good at riding these past hours. Fever or no. He needs some time."

 

Mano shook his head.

 

"You got a place we can hide out for a spell, give him time to rest up before we move out fast?"

 

Mano stood up and roamed about the arroyo in thought. It was not that he lacked a place to go, but that he dared to expose more of his tainted reputation, the history that he had tried to let fade over time. He stopped and caught the anguished look of Blue as the boy lost focus again.

 

"Yes, there is a cabin hidden up in the rocks. I don't know what shape it is in. It has been many years. I can get us there."

 

"Good, Mano. That's real good. We take our chances there. How far?"

 

"Only three or four miles from here, at a creek that feeds into the river." He hovered over Blue for a moment before offering a hand to him. Together they man-handled him to his horse. Buck raised him into the saddle as if the boy was a sack of grain. He then climbed up behind him and wrapped an arm around his nephew's chest.

 

 

 

 

 

The cabin, nestled in a natural rock garden, set part way into the mountain itself, had lost its roof. Portions of it lay in broken strips across the porch. The porch piers had let go as well, canting the remaining porch roof and its wooden pillars at odd angles from the main structure. Mano kicked debris away and pushed over the front door. The single-room cabin held a stone hearth in one corner, a tipped plank table with two broken legs and two broken chairs plus incidental items perched on protruding rocks along its interior wall. Mano swatted at a wild gourd vine that had climbed to the window and hung from the doorjamb. Buck pulled it back like fragile draperies as he entered.

 

"Mi casa, su casa," he grinned.

 

Buck cared little for amenities and hauled Blue through the doorway. He stopped in mid stride and let go a frustrated sigh.

 

"Not fit for a pack rat. Say, Mano, shove that kindling outta the way. Help me get him to the hearth. That'll do for now."

 

As soon as Mano dislodged the table a kangaroo rat timidly moved across the floor then raced for the open door. "My apologies," he said to the mouse. They both pulled Blue to the back wall, leaning him against it. Buck left and quickly returned with a bedroll to slip under his nephew's neck. Blue watched them for a moment before closing his eyes. What amenities they could afford were meager. Mano fussed about the walls checking what, if anything, remained in the containers. When he was content he returned to the hearth at Blue's side. "Any idea how long we should stay?" he asked of Buck.

 

"Nope." Buck studied Blue's lack of interest in the shelter, how he gazed across the room but took in nothing. "Make it a day at least. He be a sick boy."

 

"I was afraid you would say that. I will go hunt something for us to eat." Before he walked through the tilted doorway, he turned back and watched Buck carefully tending to his nephew's old wound. By nightfall he hunted and returned with several quail.

 

Buck had taken a chance to tuck a small warming fire into the stone hearth. It blazed up as Mano approached. "Good, Mano. He needs to get his strength back some before he can ride outta here."

 

"How is he?"

 

"Don't know yet. Seems he been fighting this wound a long time. He don't have no fever now, just real tired."

 

"I do not need to tell you that El Lobo could be close by, if he chose to follow us."

 

"I'm aware of that." He poured a slight amount of water to the rag he used to wipe Blue's forehead. He stared at his nephew as he talked in low tones to Mano. "At first I thought the boy be shot but he's weak, real weak. This infection acrost his belly ain't pretty either. I figure she, that little scamp, helped him get to shelter. I'm glad for that. But just as well she helped him suffer this infection he's got."

 

"As my loving sister would say: 'Only time will tell', and, amigo, that is something we do not have --- not now." Manolito strolled from the hearthside and walked into the deep shadows beyond the firelight. Near the horses, he pulled his rifle from its scabbard and disappeared in the darkness. "I will stand watch,” he called softly from the darkness.

 

Buck continued fussing with his nephew. He had changed the bandage across his waist but it was more for his own well-being than anything for the boy's wound. He sat leaning against the rock hearth and watched Blue breathe softly in his sleep. The boy was bad off, but not so bad that he was beyond help. Of course, dragging him all over the countryside hadn't helped but now that he was among family, healing would be easier, he hoped. He'd gone days without much food and water. Still there was that chiquita. He wondered how close they really had become. He'd seen men go plumb crazy over losing a loved one. Blue hadn't taken anybody's passing in any ease of the word. Never had. It always tore him up inside. Maybe she was something special, like Blue had said. Maybe he was tore up inside more than he wanted anyone to know. Buck scrubbed his gloved hand across his stubble-covered chin and eyed his nephew from a different perspective. If the boy had got her killed in some way that could easily account for more torment for him than any ten wounds.

 

Buck sat back on his haunches and pulled his revolver, spinning the chamber and checking his load. The hairs had been prickly on the nape of his neck for nearly an hour now. Mano must have felt it, too. The fire flared up suddenly and cast light above the broken shelter. It highlighted the boulders reaching high into the night sky directly behind their cabin's rear wall. Each sandstone boulder held a specific shadow to its surface carved away by the light. Buck rose and walked out through the broken doorway.

 

A low rumble came from across the canyon slope. At first the sound resembled thunder, but in seconds it took on the echo and depth of a landslide. Rock debris rained down onto the shelter. Buck rushed back in to haul Blue from the back wall. The first tumble of rocks slid by, ricocheting off the wall and bouncing into the hearth. Buck hooked an arm around Blue's chest and ran with him for the open doorway. The first large bounding boulders hit the back wall and exploded as loud as a demolition blast.  Buck cleared the battered cabin as the brunt of the rock fall broke down its remaining walls and dashed it to a heap of rubble. The fire smoldered from beneath the debris and fizzled out.

 

"So much for dinner. Come on, Blue, move over this a-way." Buck drew his pistol as he escorted Blue to better cover. A crack of rifle fire stopped them in their tracks. Buck pulled Blue to the ground.

 

"Adios, amigos mio. Did you think that I would let you take back my little saco de oro, huh?" The lilting accent of a Mexican bandit they both knew too well, filled the evening air as if he stood right next to them, yet he coveted the shadows. Fine dust still filtered down from the rockslide.

 

Buck hung onto his nephew without moving. "Seems to me you done lost him a couple of times. I got him now. Besides, he never was yours to begin with." Buck peered upward toward the voice in the boulders. "That was pretty clever of you to get that rockslide going. Got my attention real good." Buck scanned the darkness for movement. Finding nothing, he smiled and continued. "So what you have in mind for the boy, Lobo? Gonna drag him all the way to the border? It's gonna be a tough go with every yahoo bandit and cutthroat on your tail." Buck stopped and listened for any telltale sign that El Lobo moved in the shadows. Silence echoed painfully like the open nerve of an aching tooth.

 

"You have a good point, hombre," Lobo consented. "To take him would be foolish for me, but to let you have him would be foolish for you. I have many friends who would be willing to share a piece of that boy."

 

"The shape he's in he won't go very far." Buck eyed the bulk of the mountain framed by the meager light rising from a crescent moon. Still, as he scanned the heavy yet indiscernible shapes, he could feel the bandit circling the place where they stood. "Say. El Lobo, I got me an idee."

 

"What is it, my friend?"

 

Buck laughed and shook his head good-naturedly. "I was thinking that if you just came along to Nogales, and we located my brother, kind of talked things out, that mebbe, just mebbe he might give you a reward… uh, call it a finders fee. Something I'm sure you and he can agree on."

 

"And for this wondrous transaction to be completed I would have to be an utter fool. Please, Buck Cannon, do you think that I have lost all my senses? Do not humor me."

 

"Fine then. You go right on and try taking him to get your reward money. See how many 'good friends' you truly got." Buck stalled, letting the words soak in before he glared into the darkness again. "We did some exterminating of our own while you was trusting your 'good friends' to take care of this boy. Did you find Miguel? Your so-called right-hand man? He was trying to drown my Blue Boy when I caught up to him. I don't mind telling you that he be one awful cuss. The world won't be missing him too much."

 

El Lobo's voice softened slightly, "He had his good moments. Tell your nephew that I am truly sorry Miguel wanted him dead. The knife wound was his doing. I was not happy for that. But I can only … how you say, ramrod these men for so long. They do have minds of their own, no?"

 

"I was assuming 'no', not with the likes of you, Lobo."

 

"Ah, you give me more credit than I am worthy of."

 

A shift in the rocks caught Buck's attention to the left side of the boulder pile. High up on the shoulder of the slope a glint of metal caught the moonlight. He ducked and rolled to the right, pulling Blue down with him. His nephew pulled back in irritation and turned to glare up at the disembodied voice of the bandit.

 

"I had enough of him and his men." Blue grappled for Buck's pistol, attempting to fire it at the jumble of rocks. "I ain't getting out of here alive and you know it," he hissed.

 

"What you doing, Blue?" He tempered his voice and aimed a dagger look at his nephew, straining to keep his tone low. "What's got into you? You know we aim to get you out. I didn't come all this way for the tequila."

 

Blue let go and slumped in the deeper shadows.

 

The raucous belly laugh of the outlaw rumbled down the slope. "Perhaps this is what you call a stand off, I think? Time for us to decide what is important."

 

"Yeah, perhaps --- if we was one-on-one. But it ain't that way." Buck shuffled Blue to move on his own feet to better cover. He urged him toward the next clear spot away from the bandit's voice. Blue stood wobbly-legged and out of touch with what was going on. Buck gave him a slight push to move him to the deeper shadows near the right of the rock slide. Blue stumbled and sat on a short crumbled wall.

 

"Blue, get down and stay put," he whispered hoarsely. Blue obeyed sullenly.

 

Lobo moved again and this time the glint of metal off his silver conchas attracted Manolito's attention. At the first crunch of rock grating under foot, Manolito fired from cover. Lobo groaned unexpectedly. Satisfied with his target met, Mano followed only the movement of sounds across the short rock wall. Buck had moved to cover Blue. The two of them sat hunched alongside the protection of their makeshift fortress. Buck drew his pistol on an approaching shadow waiting until he was sure. Manolito raced across the open yard to the crumbled wall --- the best of cover. At last second Buck pulled up the barrel of his revolver, and let go a breath.

 

"Mano, you got to be more careful. I coulda blowed a hole right through you," he hissed.

 

Mano nodded. "I took a chance. Did you see Lobo?"

 

"No."

 

"He must have turned back when I shot him."

 

"You shot him? For sure?"

 

"I believe so."

 

Buck whistled softly. "Good thing you is on our side, Mano buddy. You think we need to move on?"

 

"That is what I think is best for all of us… not so for Blue."

 

"You be right, Mano. We best get out of here before those shots bring more interest than we care to know. I surely would like to know that Ol' Lobo can't be shadowing us all the way to your Daddy's place."

 

Like a child with a bouquet of freshly picked weeds, Manolito raised a handful of silver conchas and braided leather bridle out toward Buck. "Let us say that El Lobo will be spending some time finding his horse before he can ride it." Mano let go a little chuckle and it soon spread to a well-deserved devilish laugh.

 

Buck pounded him on the back. "I do like your style, amigo." Buck gathered Blue by one arm and Mano at the other.

 

"We can only go by night. You realize this, no?"

 

"I realize this, yes. You ride ahead a bit and I'll stay with Blue."

 

Fortunately, neither man had begun pulling their saddles and gear from their horses when they first arrived at the rock cabin, so the horses stood ready. Manolito quickly mounted and disappeared into the darkness. Buck levered Blue into the saddle. The boy was alert enough to know of the urgency to leave, but not focusing well on the trail. Buck knew that if they expected to get out alive they needed to move fast. No telling how many men could be in the dark recesses of the canyon.

 

"Blue? You hang on tight. You let Soapy do the leading, and just follow right after me. You comprende?"

 

Blue rolled his eyes. "I can ride, Uncle Buck. I'm okay."

 

"Okay, like my big toe with a bunion," he muttered. "Whatever you say, Blue. Either way it's gonna be fast and hard down this canyon … faster and harder to the border. No other way."

 

Blue nodded with a determined expression. He grasped the reins then twisted his right hand into his palomino's mane for a good grip. "I'm ready."

 

 

 

 

 

Their race to the border, propelled by the urgency to gain enough miles ahead of any of Lobo's attempts to regain what was once his, grew fast-paced and dangerous. The dark night and ominous boulder-strewn country coupled as partners: where faint trails and faint hearts would worry the best riders of the wild lands. They drove their animals to near exhaustion. In Mano there embroiled a resurgence of his early years when riding through the barranca on a fast steed was no more than child's play. He blinked away the memory of his race across the plains with the Federales in hot pursuit. He had been a crafty one and found leading the officers on a merry chase half the fun.

 

For Buck it rekindled the seldom seen evenings in the dark canyons above the mining town of Globe where a man could ride for hours and not see a star above his head. Then as he neared an outlaw hide-away, nestled among the tall spires and deep gorges, the sentries would stand outlined in the pallid, rocky horizon like pinnacles, waving their rifles to signal his advancement. He wished, nearly aloud, that Blue did not have to experience this ride for their lives, this seemingly endless surge through ground they only hoped their horses could negotiate without incident.

 

Blue had been quiet, remorse, and nearly so withdrawn that Buck was afraid his nephew would not try to stay up with the run. Buck chose to fall back and take up the rear guard. He was proud to see that, even though he reserved the fear of losing the boy so close to the rancho, Blue managed the trail well, even in his weakened condition. His sure-footed palomino and the endurance needed were matched only by the unspoken urgency to flee this land.

 

At the base of the foothills where the ground flattened and gave way to eroded rills and gentler rolling benches, Manolito eased up the pace. He glanced back and reined up a full five minutes before Buck and Blue came into view. Mano eyed Blue first and noticed the sweat-soaked shirt and sheen of perspiration across his face and neck. Blue did not seem to notice Mano as he allowed his palomino to pass by. Mano reached out and drew up the boy's reins. Blue slowly turned his head to see what the interruption was.

 

"Blue, we need to rest the horses." Mano slipped down and eagerly led Blue from the saddle to the soft sand of the wash they now stood in. He watched Buck coming near. "He is exhausted. I don't know how he managed to stay in the saddle, compadre."

 

Buck grinned, and wiped his own sweat-soaked face. "Sheer will power, I expect. That Blue surprises me some days. It's getting close to dawn. What's your plan, friend?"

 

Manolito stretched and stood near Blue who was now sprawled on the ground breathing heavily. He scanned the early light touching the rim of mountains to the east and the stretch of valley that would soon be brightened by the coming of day. Mano crouched and drew with a stick.

 

"Beyond this valley, 20 miles or more, a gorge, steep and cut by an old river is our best way out. It goes near the edge of my father's range. Another half day after that and we are safe."

 

"This country is a lot bigger than I ever saw," Buck observed.

 

"And there is much more where this came from," Mano chuckled. "As far as the eye can see, my father has carved out his land. Even I have not seen every corner of it."

 

"Ain't that something, Blue. Land he don't even know." Buck looked to his nephew who was now in a deep and fitful sleep. "Mano, can we take a bit of a rest, a bit longer for his sake.?"

 

"A bit longer." Mano watched as the sun burst like hot flames across the ridge. "We must reach Chaca Canyon, as I said, before too long. It can be unbearably hot in there --- no winds some days. And we have little water to share."

 

 

 

 

 

Buck nodded and stretched his legs, took a swig of water from the canteen and hovered over Blue for several minutes before he glanced to Mano. He woke Blue with a stern hand and gave the boy a swig of water. Blue sat in sleep-induced stupor for a full minute, before Buck yanked him to his feet.

 

"Just think of that nice clean bed at the end of this trail, Blue. That pillow's got your name on it." He grinned and pressed the boy forward toward his horse. "You did fine, Blue Boy, by tomorrow we won't have to be watching our back trail."

 

Blue nodded and as he climbed up, gouged a handful of the mane once more. "Any sign of Lobo?" he rasped.

 

"So far, my bullet has slowed him down," Mano said rather buoyantly.

 

Blue just nodded and sat the saddle. He had no visions of what might be, no care as to what was just ahead on the trail, but the past crept into his bones and wedged deeply into his memory. He lost focus as they urged their mounts onward. He rode as if he was bound to the seat with rope. Blue closed his eyes and saw Inez taking him by the hand leading him out of danger. His uncle repeated the question, and Blue muttered, "What?"

 

"I said, you don't look good. We been riding for hours. You need some food? I got be a bag of dried beef."

 

Blue shook his head and it spun in a frenzy of color.

 

They rode in a deeply eroded path of sorts, high on a bluff overlooking the entrance to a remote and craggy canyon. At its mouth a stand of dead piñons marked the downward trail. That, as if someone had made a joke about a trail being suspended at the edge of the earth, suddenly seemed to fall into the chasm.

 

Buck urged his bay forward and rode alongside to rein up Blue's mount. "I said, I don't want you toppling off the saddle whilst my back is turned. We're getting ready to drop into that Chaco Canyon. You ready?"

 

"I'm okay, Uncle Buck."

 

"Sure, sure. Just like you been saying all the way back." Buck pulled Blue from the saddle without a fight and stood him on two rubbery legs. A bullet whizzed just inches from where Blue had been seated and the velocity of it snapped a dead branch overhead. Buck pulled Blue to the ground and covered him. "Mano! Up behind the ridge at our back. You see anything?" They were all on the ground searching for scant cover.

 

"No, not yet!" Mano called back. He had dived from his horse and flattened into the rocky barrier at the mouth of the trail. Ahead lay a long downhill stretch and the eight-mile gorge of Chaco Canyon. "We cannot enter the canyon without being an easy target."

 

"I see that. Circle around?"

 

"That, my friend, is impossible. The only way down to the river, and Nogales, is this passage --- for 50 miles in either direction."

 

"Well, that beats all," Buck huffed. "Are you sure?"

 

Mano winced but took the question good-naturedly. "Very sure. Let me see what I can do. I know the territory." Manolito ran forward with his rifle in hand. He climbed the short slope to the ridge across the canyon from the sniper.

 

"You be careful, Mano. I need a guide to get us out of Mexico." His warning came clipped but was followed by a worried grin. He kept a clear view of Manolito. "This ain't the country I was born and bred in. Not what you call hos-pit-able --- not by no long shot." Buck lay propped against a boulder with Blue crouched low near by. He soon turned toward his nephew and watched solemnly as the boy held one of Mano's extra pistols in his hand but did not have the interest to aim it in any particular direction. Buck turned his attention to the ridge for movement. "We come too far to get dry-gulched in some crack in the ground," he muttered.

 

The lilting, affable voice of Mano came over the wall of rock like chocolate syrup oozing over a scoop of ice cream. "Hola. It is Manolito Montoya you are shooting at. No doubt, “he yelled a higher pitch, "you are the son of a she-dog and not worthy of showing your face. But that is okay --- because if I know who you are, you are going to be more worthless than a … than an empty bottle of tequila."

 

"Ooooh... that's telling him, Mano," Buck quipped under his breath.

 

"Are you going to come out so I can see the jack ass that is shooting at the property of El Lobo? Heh?" Manolito bellowed, adding a bit of bravado to his words.

 

"Now, I wouldn't a thought of that…" Buck said, grinning at Blue.

 

A somewhat apologetic voice came from across the canyon. "Is Lobo with you? He told us to stand by the Chaco just in case you should happen to get this far." The voice came again sweetly, "I did not see him."

 

"And you were doubting that Lobo would make it into Nogales to collect his reward? Is that because you had some other plans? Heh?" Mano pressed his back to the boulder and strained to hear any movement from the rocky ledge where the sentry had positioned himself. Hearing none, he gambled on the unknown man's desperation and greed. If he was one of Lobo's men, so be it; if he was an outlaw trying to gain the prize without Lobo’s knowing, and hoping to secure the reward before Lobo's return, then he was the lowest scoundrel of them all.

 

Manolito stretched his neck, just so, to peer around the edge of the boulder. He caught the glint of the rifle and ducked back down. "You know, I was thinking that you were not very clever to take a shot at the prize like you did. What possessed you to try to kill the boy?"

 

"You have been away too long, Manolito Montoya. It is said that to bring the son of John Cannon in, it does not matter that he is dead or alive."

 

"Que? What good will that do?"

 

"I did not make the rules, Senor."

 

Buck Cannon scrambled around on his stomach until he was at the base of his boulder and sprawled like a lizard. From his new position he would be able to pick off the sniper if he chose to stand and fight. He caught a hand signal from Mano and he too was pointing to the rocky outcrop across the trail. If they waited patiently the sniper would show himself.

 

Blue moaned. "I'm tired of this. I'm tired of everybody shooting at me." He dove out from the cover of rocks and rolled to the dense bunch grass.

 

The sniper raised to shoot and both Mano and Buck picked the stranger off his perch with their first shots. The bandit tumbled down the ravine.

 

Blue stood and brushed himself off, unconcerned about what he had done. Buck scrambled to his feet and grabbed Blue's shoulder spinning him around. Hard eyes met his own and Buck simmered, not knowing what to say. He stammered for a second, making a clenched fist ready to pop the boy in the mouth, but then again he couldn't bear to retaliate on the premise that he even understood what the boy was doing or feeling.

 

Blue glared at him then picked up his hat and walked slowly to the canyon's trailhead, looking over the edge.

 

"Blue."

 

The boy stood on the edge of the cliff and mechanically looked from one length of it to the other reaching far to the north.

 

"Blue."

 

He turned. His expression was less than mechanical now; it was void of emotion. Buck snagged a hand out to the boy and grappled with him to come away from the edge. He turned the boy around and wrapped his arms around him in a huge bear hug. Pressing his chin against his ear, he drawled slowly as he clung to him.

 

"You ain't the kind to give up. I never seen you do it, and I don't plan to see you do it now." He gripped both shoulders and extended his arms so he could look into his nephew's eyes. "I don't know what she meant to you --- I won't pretend to know. But she's gone, Blue, and there's nothing more to do about it. El Lobo's on the prowl and there's more of his kind ahead most likely."

 

Blue brooded with out moving. He took in each breath deeply and stared through the man before him. "I can't, Uncle Buck. She wasn't what you think --- not that way." He was slowly letting out the words that he had held tight for so long. "I don't know what to do. I don't know how I feel."

 

"This ain't the time to sort it all out, Blue. We got too many trigger-happy bandits ready to make our decisions for us." He let go and waited for sufficient time to have Blue respond. The boy was quiet again, brooding and not ready to verbalize his emotions. Buck clenched a fist. "Sorry, Blue, but we don't have time for this." He swung hard and laid Blue out cold. "Mano, quick. Help me get Blue to his saddle."

 

Mano sprinted to gather up the reins of his mount and the palomino. Buck tossed Blue over the saddle and hooked the boy’s boot heel to the stirrup to secure him on their long ride down the canyon trail. Together they led their horses slowly over the edge of the trail and moved cautiously down the incline on foot. The path was rocky and meant for slow, deliberate steps. Mano led the way. Once the trail widened and lost its near vertical plummet to the canyon floor, Mano signaled to Buck that he was going ahead to scout the trail. Before he climbed into the saddle, he eyed Buck and pointed to his nephew draped over the palomino’s saddle.

 

"I don't need to tell you, hombre, that your nephew will be worse than a bear when he comes to."

 

Buck grinned. "I thought about that…"

 

"Adios, I will meet you up trail." Manolito allowed a dismal little smile to part his lips.

 

 

 

 

There had been times when Buck Cannon had wished he had never come west, never set eyes on the gold and silver that tempted so many, never had the need to arm himself against every Mexican bandit and renegade Apache, and above all, never had to worry about the welfare of anyone else except his own hide. He gazed back at Blue and saw him stirring. He would be a handful today. And most of it had to do with his choice of tactic to get the boy on the trail. Buck sighed, swaying in the saddle, and cringed as Blue raised up his head and shoulders from the saddle skirt and hissed.

 

"You get me down from here."

 

Buck pulled up and waited.

 

Blue raised slowly and hooked one leg over the saddle, pulling himself upright. In a slow burn, fanned by his uncle's meager smile, Blue Cannon fumed in silence, unable to lash out at any one reason for his vile temperament.

 

Buck moved along, leaning back in the saddle. He tossed the reins back to his nephew. Staying quiet was safer than opening his mouth. There wasn't much to say anyway. He watched only in glances cast when the trail bent to the edge of the cliff walls and offered him a clear view of the boy. Blue was tucking in, favoring his side and not inclined to speak.

 

 

 

 

John Cannon had seen the first of their horses stepping slowly down the trail. He viewed the terrain with concern. His men perked up and stopped to stare at the lone procession winding down the narrow ribbon of trail. John smiled but when Manolito appeared before the others, he stepped forward as if getting closer would help him see the riders clearly. The last horse, a palomino, had carried a body draped over the saddle. Cannon went numb and cold inside. Could it be that after all the struggle to find the trails that had been used, contacts made with peons along the border, and the incessant questioning for information leading to his son, that he was dead? Cannon turned away. The wind that had lay quiet all morning at their camp in the Chaco Canyon, now stirred. It conjured up memories of riding the range with his son, moving through tall thickets for strays, and hearing the boy call across the arroyos.

 

He glanced back to the riders and they had disappeared in a hollow but soon reappeared much closer. The last horse now carried a rider sitting tall in the saddle. Cannon brightened. He began a shuffling run toward them. Mano appeared and stepped his horse aside.

 

"Senor Cannon, it is good to see you. And we have a special gift for you." He smiled and watched Cannon lumber past.

 

"Mano? Is the boy alright?" John called back, allowing his emotions to surface. He dared not take his eyes off the trail, not until he was sure.

 

"Right enough. He is hurt and exhausted but, that he is going home is the best of it, no?"

 

"Thank you, Mano."

 

"Well, it was not all our doing, John. He had a little Mexican bandita help him, too. I will let Blue tell you all about it. I would like to hear about it myself." Manolito's eyes twinkled as he watched Buck appear from the last leg of the trail.

 

"Buck," he called to his brother.

 

"Big John," he grinned. Buck turned in the saddle to watch Blue. "Take it easy on him, Big Brother, he been through some rough times."

 

John shot him a sideways glance but then thought nothing of it. Blue rose into view at last and slipped slowly from the saddle. He stood in reserve, twisting the reins in his hands.

 

"Pa."

 

"Blue, it's good to see ya, boy." John wrapped a sweeping arm around his shoulder and squeezed once before grinning up at Buck and Mano. "Good to see you all in one piece." He let the boy go and seemed caught in an awkward silence until Buck broke in.

 

"Ah been smelling that coffee from way up on the rim. You got some for me, I hope? We can't wait too long. I don't want to share the brew with any more bandits today. Blue, why don't you get yourself a mug. Something strong to settle that pain inside you."

 

John walked his son back to the small fire and waited as he accepted the cup from Pedro.

 

"Good to see you, Blue. I was never so glad to see that ---" Pedro said and watched the boy walk off without acknowledging him. "--- But then again, my coffee is nothing to get exited over…"

 

"Blue?"

 

Blue gave a weak smile. "Pa, I'm really tired. There's nothing really to talk about."

 

"Suit yourself. I'm sure when we get back to Rancho Montoya there will be much to talk about." John Cannon was buoyant, cheerful and ready to get going.

 

Blue on the other hand walked away from the group and sipped on the mug of coffee. He scanned the rangeland sweeping to the north and east, dotted with green plots of fields and a few orchards. It was Buck who sauntered up behind him and slurped from his own mug.

 

"Blue Boy, I am truly sorry I had to pop you one."

 

Blue shrugged with his back to him.

 

"You do understand?"

 

Blue nodded.

 

"Good. I was afraid you was never gonna speak to me again."

 

Blue shrugged again and reconsidered what had become of logic and these long days of events. The man he knew as his uncle would probably never know what he had gone through, neither would his father. He wasn't too sure himself. If it was something he lost then it had to be something he found without knowing it. If it was love, then it had to be the strangest thing to have found it the way he did --- trapped in the eyes of a wild child. If it was love that he had truly lost then maybe it could be found again --- somewhere else, someone else who would know what it was, who could make it work out better. He shrugged his shoulders, standing in a cloud compressed by days of fear and worry. Yet when he thought of her, the feelings were fathomless. She would always be with him.

 

Buck swirled the dregs of his coffee in the bottom of the mug. "You know, Blue, you ain't the first or the last that got into a bad deal. Ah knowed it was hard but maybe that was just what you needed --- something hard to make the rest of your life easy. I figure it ain't all bad. It ain't all been bad, has it?"

 

Blue turned and smirked slightly. "No, not all bad. I just don't like losing something so precious --- no matter where I find it."

 

Buck nodded. "Well, you always been good at findin’ strays. If it's something you lost mebbe its something you can find again. Somewhere where there's a better chance for it to survive, huh?"

 

"Yup, that's what I was just thinking."

 

"You was?"

 

"Yup, I was."

 

Buck scrubbed his hand over his face and beamed. "Well, that be the best news I heard for days." He hooked an arm around Blue's shoulder, swirled out the last of the liquid from his cup. A smile beamed intensely from his broad face as he escorted his nephew back to the fire. "Are you hungry? Ah be hungry. I bet Victoria's been in a cookin' frenzy. I bet there's a big, juicy piece of pie waiting for you. I can smell it from here…I truly can…. You take a whiff o’ that air…. Ain’t that peach pie…"

 

 

 

THE END

 

 

 

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