Word Count 19,451
I would like to say I don’t make any money from this, and write about these characters for fun.
This is an AR story and pre-Lancer with some violence and mild swearing. So be warned if it’s not for you.
It is second in the El Coyote series. It would help if you had read that first.
My heartfelt thanks to Sandy for Editing this. I can’t thank her enough for helping.
Second in the El Coyote Series
Val Crawford stopped the buckskin on the rise overlooking the little Mexican community. Nothing had changed, but then again, in the same vein, nothing had improved either. It was the same old dry crumbling hovel it had been the first time he had ridden through.
It had been midday siesta time then, too, he remembered with a huff. Even from the top of the rise, there appeared to be the same old mongrel asleep under the same battered step. No, nothing had changed on the outside anyway.
It had been what, all of six months and more since he’d ridden through. He had been close on the trail of three murders he had trailed all the way from Texas. Even though he had only been a few days behind them. It had taken another four weeks to finally catch up with them. Val had stopped the two brothers in a small town just south of Nogales. The third had given him the slip while his so-called friends faced him and died in the dirt.
The hunt for Durant had taken Val well north into California. With its beautiful rolling hills and valleys that took your breath away. Stunning haciendas left over from the time of the Old Spanish occupation. Gold mining camps, cattle ranches, and towns so wide open with no law made a body wonder how men, women, and children ever got a chance at growing older.
Val had started off towards Arizona on his long trek back to Texas. His heart wasn’t really in his return. During his long single-minded pursuit, he had never thought of the ‘what after.’ His mind had never bent itself around that self-imposed goal. The ‘what after’ just hadn’t existed. Sometimes if he had let it creep in, those thoughts. He would assume he’d be dead. Maybe even hoped he would be at any rate. What was the point? His dreams were gone. Dead and put to rest on a hillside overlooking a small ranch in southwest Texas, and had been for well over a year and a half now.
Val let out a deep sigh, and although he didn’t remember it, he let the same thought creep in that he had before when sitting in this exact spot those many months ago. What the Hell was he doing here? But as with the last time, knew it was of his own making, his own choice. Even if he had argued with himself over it.
He nudged the horse forward, letting it wander slowly down the hill, picking its own way. The last time he had ridden into this dust bowl, his horse had been so plumb tuckered out it was almost off its feet. Things were much different now. The horse was in prime shape, with the pressure on the animal removed. He had recovered from the punishing pace Val had set to finally catch up with his quarry and end the chase. And end it he had.
Under his hat pulled low against the sun’s glare, Val’s eyes were watching, assessing, searching. Searching for what he wondered? Well, who was he kidding-he knew.
His eyes flickered left and right, then up and down the dusty street, looking for trouble. Checking doors and windows for anything that could lurk behind the crumbling walls that might jump out and cause him grief. He knew, in his heart, he was searching for something else, and if he dug deep enough, he knew what. He just wouldn’t let his heart admit it. That would mean caring, attachment, and connection. Feelings he didn’t ever want to possess again. Or maybe he just didn’t think he had the right.
He drew level with the cantina, his eyes swivelled to its front, searching. No sign of life, his heart felt a huge wave of disappointment crash over it. But he noted with a mental shake, no threat ether. Carrying on, he knew from his last stay where to stable his horse. And turning off the main street, he found the corral there.
“There’s water and grub here, boy,” he muttered to the horse, stepping out of the saddle tiredly. The buckskin’s ears flickered, much more used to his master’s voice than before when Val hadn’t talked much. Now the buckskin had sensed a change in his keeper. A change for him that had been for the better, a bond had grown deep.
Suddenly a feeling of foreboding washed over Val. It hit him deep in the gut. He had come searching, and now he was apprehensive, a feeling he hadn’t felt in years, and it was a feeling he didn’t welcome either.
“Why you here, you bloody fool. You know what they’re gonna’ tell ya.” The horse’s ears flickered again at the soft sound of Val’s voice.
“Well, boyo, you don’t look too dead then.”
Val spun, right hand dropping to the butt of his gun at the sound of the lilting Irish words.
O’Hara stood in the doorway of the small building Val had stabled his horse the last time he was here. The rotund owner of the small stables and corral was just as he remembered him. Wearing what looked like the same scruffy old clothes. He dressed in the mode of the Mexican population. His face, deeply tanned and weathered, usually, as it did now, sported a week’s worth of greying stubble. Only his dancing grey eyes gave any hint that O’Hara wasn’t Mexican. Until he opened his mouth, that was!
“Well, you’ll be looking in one piece, so you are.” O’Hara tilted his head in a question. Uncertainness marring his features.
“The answer’s yes,” Val said grumpily, wanting to get what he knew was coming out of the way. “I caught up with ‘um. They won’t be coming back, and the whys and the wherefores don’t matter none.” Val paused, and a dark cloud of memory passed over him. “Don’t want’a talk about it neither.”
O’Hara nodded. That was all the information he needed. “I’ll speak to the others and make sure they won’t be botherin’ ye, so I will.” The Irish man jerked his head towards the stable. “Bring your horse in here.”
O’Hara turned to go.
Val paused before moving. “The boy?”
O’Hara stopped with his back to Val, head down. Taking in a deep breath, his shoulders rose and sagged tiredly.
Val felt his gut clench as anger rose. He closed his eyes and turned towards his horse. Suddenly, he wished he hadn’t come. He didn’t want to hear O’Hara confirm what he already knew. Other images flashed before his eyes. Oh, Dear Mother of God, NO! Not again.
“There was some trouble here with some other young bugga’s that drifted on through.” O’Hara turned half back, still not looking at Val. “Beat up the boy’s mother, so they did. Killed her. Gutted her like you’d gut a rabbit. I can still hear her screaming,” O’Hara sighed. “Don’t know why the boy ran to her aid. She never did for ‘im. Never caused the young’n nothing but grief and pain, so she did.”. O’Hara spat in the dirt. “Only about four… what…five days hence.” He hit the door frame with the side of his fist, showing his frustration. “I never once saw her show the young’n one ounce of kindness…or love,” O’Hara swore. “We’re all ‘t blame, Me old sainted mother used to say, For evil to flourish, it takes good men to do nothin’. That’s what we did. Bloody nothing.” He spat into the dirt again. “We couldn’t ‘ave stood up against those men, But we should ‘ave stopped her beating on the boy.”
Val closed his eyes even tighter and leaned his hand against the buckskin’s solid neck. The horse stood still sensing his master’s anguish.
“Anyway,” O’Hara sighed. “The boy got hurt pretty bad, so he did. He was unconscious. Left for dead.”
Val’s head snapped up. “You sayin’ he ain’t?”
“Might as well be. Given up, I think. Spends all his time out by the graves, so he does. Isabela cain’t get him to eat. She…….”
“Where is he now?” Val interrupted urgently and with force.
“Probably the cemetery. Back of the mission.” But O’Hara was talking to Val’s back.
Val’s mind was a blur as he strode up the street, eyes searching out the Mission and the graveyard beyond.
Something had drawn him to this small boy when he had ridden through. Filthy and unkempt and wise beyond his years. He hadn’t talked much, and it was the looks he had thrown in Val’s directions that spoken volumes. The boy had a rough life, and his mother mistreated the child unmercifully. Val didn’t even know his name. He had only seen him for a few short hours, but a connection Val did not understand and emphatically did not want or seek was made.
Val had reached the mission now and the graveyard beyond. His eyes raked the area. Nothing.
He was about to turn when something caught his eye. Just visible over a small mound of earth that was a grave. Val skirted around a jumble of burial sites, some with markers or rough crosses, others just piles of dirt or rocks.
Feet hastened as the object of his attention became most visible. Greying fabric, a jumble of rags that took some shape as he neared. They were being stirred in the hot wind that whisked the loose dirt and debris up, covering everything in its wake.
Val was horrified. The child was curled up next to the grave. Not a new one, this earth was baked hard. Not freshly turned, and not like the other one further off to one side.
A mop of black curly hair, even longer than before, was coated in dust and grime, a tangled mass that covered the boy’s face. His knees were drawn up to his chest. Hands skinned and bruised. There was dried blood on his shirt, a lot of dried blood! Val’s heart broke as he sank to his knees beside the child.
Stretching his hand out, much as he had done over a year ago, then turning another child over. Val froze as unbidden memories bombarded his mind. But that child had been blond, hair the colour of corn. Nausea threatened as his gut clenched, as fear took hold. When he had turned THAT child over, the terror and agony that was frozen in death on the angelic features had almost been Val’s undoing. He had fallen, retching to the ground. It had been for Val the start of a nightmare that would last a lifetime, in fact, until his own death.
Val’s hand dropped lightly on the child and just as gently rolled the child towards him. He wasn’t aware he had stopped breathing, holding his breath as he steeled his heart to find the truth.
A faint cry of pain…. Val let out his breath in a woosh of thanks. This boy was alive.
Starting to check the boy out, Val found his face had a liberal coating of dirt mixed with dried tears and blood. He had a lump on his temple and bruising over almost all of the left side of his face. Lips dry from a lack of moisture.
His arms and legs didn’t appear affected. It was his rib cage that, under Val’s gentle examination, caused pain. The boy moved weakly to escape Val’s investigations. Moaning softly. His eyes fluttered open and, dully, at first, looked around. Then as more awareness came, the boy began to panic and fight.
“Hey, Chico, It’s me, Val.”
The boy stilled with Val’s voice, his eyes focusing fully on the weathered face and with the recognition that followed. He rolled over, reached out to grab the Texan’s shirt, pulled himself towards him, and buried his head in Val’s chest. Causing the older man’s heart to hitch as he held the child close.
Gathering the boy in his arms and leaving the dead resting behind them, Val made his way first out into the street, then down to the cantina. Skirting the building, he went around the back.
He met the cantina owner’s wife at the kitchen door, Senora Gomez. Her face was pale and drawn. She still felt the effects of the violence that had happened here. She had seen death. She had witnessed men fighting, even a fatal shooting, but never, never in her life, anything like that. She had scrubbed the cantina floor repeatedly, but it was her mind she was trying to scrub clean, and that was never going to happen. Not in this life, she felt sure.
La Senora’s face became distraught at seeing Val’s burden. She turned to the bathhouse and wordlessly began the chore of filling the bath.
Val murmured to the boy, but there was no fight left in the child, no defiant looks, as he undressed him with La Senora’s help and lowered him into the bath.
Val got his first good look at the damage done to the child. Bruises covered the boy’s rib cage on his left side, and there were more bruises on his upper arms, consistent with fingers crushing and probably shaking the child. Some bruises were purple and would have been from about the time of the beating O’Hara had told him about. Others, however, were faded green and yellow, probably from his mother, Val thought tiredly. Well, one thing was sure, she wouldn’t be doing that again.
The boy sat through it all with his head down and silent. La Senora returned with more warm water, and together they washed his hair. Finishing, they lifted him out of the tub, and while Val dried him, La Senora found a clean shirt of her husbands to put on the child. It was way too large, but it acted like a nightshirt and would do for now.
Taking the boy through to the kitchen, Val managed to get a little warm broth down him before he fell asleep. Then Val wordlessly carried the child out through the cantina and up to the room he had occupied many months before.
With the boy tucked in bed, Val went over to the window and sat on a small wooden chair. Closing his eyes wearily, he let out a lungful of air.
“Now, what you gonna do, Crawford?” He forcefully asked himself as he wiped a weary hand over his face.
He brought his eyes up and gazed out of the window. The dusty street still had only a few occupants. This sure as Hell is one unlucky town. Val’s thoughts were in turmoil. With no law in these parts, it was proving to be a very precarious place to try for an existence.
To top it all, since his return to Senora, word had started to filter north. The French had invaded Mexico, yet again, at the Gulf port of Veracruz, in southern Mexico. They were making their way north. This was not going to be a good time to be caught south of the border. The news was sporadic and, often, probably inaccurately, panic-driven hearsay. There was no way of knowing what was truth or myth. All he knew was he would need to get out, and that meant back over the Rio Grande.
As if that hadn’t been enough, others in the last town he had passed through had spoken of renewed attacks by the Chiricahua Apache further east. Cochise was a name he’d heard many times over the last few years. Val was, however, more familiar with the Comanche than the Apache. Saying that he still didn’t want to lock horns with either.
Val looked back at the bed and the sleeping child. What the hell was he going to do with the boy? His dilemma was all his own making, which he was well aware of. Maybe he shouldn’t have come. But Val knew, although he hated it all, he would have done it again. Probably sooner if he’d known the facts. Well, he didn’t have hindsight for foresight, so he’d have to go on from here.
A light knock on the door drew his attention away from the street. Drawing his gun, he made quick time to the door.
Speaking without opening the door, he asked, “Who’s there?”
“It is I, Isabela. Senor, your meal is ready.”
Val eased the door a crack to spy she was alone.
“You will join us in the kitchen?” She looked over to the bed and the sleeping child.
Thanking her, he reholstered his gun. Turning to look at the sleeping child, he decided he should eat and followed La Senora out of the room.
The meal, as always, was good. Val relaxed in the warmth, the heady smells of Mexican cooking wafting about the room. Mind still churning, he resolved nothing. The only thing he could come up with was to look out for the old Irishman. He’d talk to O’Hara and try and sort something out for the boy.
Val found O’Hara at the corral, checking an old grey mule over. O’Hara straightened as Val came up to the fence. The look in the older man’s eyes was one of exhaustion. It would have been hard to mask.
“You look like someone with something on your mind Boyo.” O’Hara raised a questioning eyebrow. “Penny for them.”
Val sighed and leaned his arms on the top rail of the fence. How could he explain when he didn’t know the questions and answers himself!
“Let me guess.” O’Hara paused. “The boy?”
Walking over to join Val. “He ain’t got a future here, Lad.” Continuing quietly, he added, “I know you know that, and I know that. The blue eyes, they’ll…..” He let the rest fade.
Val knew what was on the old man’s mind. That half-bred thing again, rejection, persecution. Then something O’Hara had said, or was it implied, filtered into Val’s mind. He snapped his head around. “What are you saying, old man? He ain’t my problem.”
“That’s why you came back? Because it ain’t your problem?” O’Hara continued to study Val in that quiet manner he had.
Val pushed angrily away from the fence and more or less stormed back to the cantina. He was still angry when he marched upstairs and into his room. Only cooling his temper as he laid eyes on the dark-haired boy, still sleeping in the bed.
What was the kid’s name, anyhow?
Dawn found Val sitting in a rocking chair, staring at the eastern sky. Still, no real plan formed in his mind. Just some vague ideas that were bouncing around, giving him no peace. In fact, they were giving him a damned headache.
But if he followed through with his plan, it was paved with danger. Many miles of dust-ridden, waterless barrenness that even an adult would find trying. Let alone a child and a sick one to boot. But Val knew time was ticking. The French could be anywhere on their march north, and he didn’t want to be in Mexico if they did blow in on the wind.
Texas. If he followed through with this plan, that would mean Texas. Returning made him sick to the stomach. So many memories, so many broken dreams.
But O’Hara was right; the boy was dead if he stayed. He stood and stretched; if that was the way of it, he’d better get to it.
So for a while, he’d push Texas to the back of his mind. They had to get there first, and El Paso was one hell of a ways off. Weeks of travel between here and there. Apache, Comancheros, the Rurales, Banditos, scoundrels, and scum. They would still be here next fall if he didn’t stop thinking like this. And then there were the French, mustn’t discount the French. Damn, quit it, Crawford.
Movement behind him in the kitchen let him know La Senora was up and preparing breakfast. The smell of coffee meeting his senses told him the day was well on its way.
Coffee… he needed coffee. He always thought better tanked up on the stuff; the stronger, the better. With that in mind, he followed his nose and found La Senora had already prepared a black brew for him.
He decided he would have to enlist La Senora’s help as he started ticking off things in his mind. He’d need supplies, not only for him but for the boy also. Clothes and extra food would be her territory, and boy would need a mount. O’Hara, he would have to look out for that confounded Irishman.
Dawn, two days later, found the boy and Val with the horses. True to his word, O’Hara had fed the buckskin and a grey pony he had found for the boy. It was still early. Val was keen to put in as many miles as possible before the day’s heat forced them to stop. He knew the boy wouldn’t be able to handle the heat well in his present condition, although he was improving slowly. The child was still sore at times; Val had caught the kid holding his side when he thought Val wasn’t watching. But the kid had sand,Val had to hand him that.
La Senora had arranged clothes for the child and a bedroll and arranged their food for the next few days.
He procured extra water bottles from the small dry goods store but no extra ammunition. He would have to get that elsewhere.
The grey pony had come from O’Hara. He had no use for it, he said. He found an old saddle from somewhere too. Val would have liked something that looked like it had a little more turn of speed. They would have to look elsewhere for a replacement.
As they left town, many curious eyes looked around shuttered windows to watch the Gringo gunman and the whore’s half-bred kid ride out of the town.
Just before they got to the bend in the road, the child turned in the saddle and gave the shambles of a community a long last look. It had been his home now for the best part of two years, O’Hara had told Val the night before. The longest the kid had stayed anywhere, probably. His only family was there. Val saw the child squeeze his eyes tight, trying unsuccessfully to stop the tears that fell.
It was on the first night out. The heat had been particularly oppressive that day, bouncing off the pale rocks. Even a good few hours after dark, the ground they lay on was still warm. The horses munched on some dry scrubby grass off to one side. The small campfire had burnt down to embers, only used to make some of Val’s ever needed coffee.
Val found himself studying the child. “Just what is your name, boy?” Surprised with himself, he hadn’t thought to ask it before.
The child rolled up in his blanket, opened his bright blue eyes, and blinked a few times at Val. “Juanito,” came the soft reply.
Val simply nodded. Well, that fitted somehow.
And so the hours turned into days. Short at first, but as the child’s stamina increased, so did their pace and the length of hours in the saddle each day. Val was constantly impressed by the boy’s quick mind.
As his health improved, the kid started to do more around the camp in the evenings. Without being asked, he would gather the wood for the fire, help set out the bed rolls while Val tended the horses, and picketed them for the night. So far, they had been lucky and found water and grazing each evening. Val wasn’t anybody’s fool and knew that wouldn’t always be the case. Ahead was some pretty dry country.
More than once, Val asked himself what the hell he was thinking. Bringing the child into this.
As was their way now, they had fallen into a routine. Just before daybreak, while the air was still cool from the night, Val and Juanito moved around the camp, packing up their meagre supplies and rolling up bed rolls. Coffee drunk and horses saddled, the two unlikely travelling companions prepared to mount.
“If’n I remember rightly, there’s a town up ahead.” The boy blinked at Val, not used to much conversation this early in the morning. “Need to get us some vittles and some shells for my rifle.”
“Café?” came the innocent question.
“Yes, and Coffee” Val studied the child for a long minute. Then seeming to make his mind up said. “Your gonna have to speak more English, kid. We’re gonna be on the Texas side of the border in a while. You need to practice some” He knew the boy understood most of what he said in English. But most of his replies had been in Spanish.
The only response was a long, questioning stare from the boy.
The town was not much different from the hovel Juanito had grown up in. Slightly larger, it held two cantinas and a gunsmith. Val was pleased knowing there would be ammunition here.
Putting their tired mounts in the care of a weathered old Mexican and his grandson Val ushered Juanito down the street into the dry goods store, better equipped than its equivalent in Santa Del Rosa.
Val could almost feel the boy’s panic. The boy’s eyes were everywhere. El Coyote was back.
“Señora, We need salt, sugar, flour, coffee, por favor,” the list ran on. “And some clothes for the boy here.”
Startled blue eyes turned to Val as he spoke. “Shirt, pants…well, you know…” Now Val looked uncomfortable.
The overweight proprietress scuttled about acquiring the things Val asked for, maybe fearing the scruffy Gringo would change his mind.
“We have these boots, they have been used, but they have more wear in them. Do they not?” She challenged Val. Taking the used footwear in his hand, Val looked them over.
“Try these on.” Val thrust the boots in the boy’s direction. Juanito looked questioningly at Val. Then taking the Boots slid them onto his feet. “He’ll need socks.” The last comment directed at the Senora.
Paying for their bounty and having put it in a Hessian sack which was then slung over Val’s shoulder. The two unlikely travellers exited the store and entered the Gunsmith, where ammunition was purchased. Val now felt he could relax; he’d been running low. Not that he thought he wanted to start a war. But then again. Maybe war would be forced on them. The French, the Apache…damn, the list was endless.
Having bedded their horses down for the night, Val and Juanito had eaten and hit the sack.
It was sometime during the night Val had woken to see the boy occupying the second bed, sitting on its end, nursing his newly acquired boots. The child sat there for quite a while, turning them over and over in his hands. Just as Val opened his mouth to speak, the boy turned over, dragging the boots with him like some treasured possession. Val frowned. They were only a pair of God darn worn boots. The boy had been amazed at the few items of clothes Val had brought him. He had treated them all with reverence before turning in. Like he’d never had nothing much, well maybe he didn’t.
It wasn’t until the next evening that the issue of the boots came up again. They had been travelling all day. Making camp in a secluded spot by a river. The trees were thick here, and the vegetation green. For once in a long time, there was good grazing for the horses. Val was lying back on his bed roll, cleaning his gun. Something had been niggling him all day, like a scratch you couldn’t itch. Something about the boy.
Resting his revolver in his lap, he studied the boy. He noticed what was missing. “Hey boy, where are your boots?”
The child jumped at the sudden, harshly spoken words. “Well….” Val waited.
“In the bag,” the boy stammered. Panicked eyes dropped to his lap. Val hadn’t seen that sort of panic since the boy was caught by his mother in the cantina many months ago. What brought this on.
“Boots are fur wearing, boy. Why ain’t you got them on? They too small?”
Val waited, but still no answer.
“I didn’t want t’…,” the boy grappled for the words in English, finding none, he continued, “I don’t want to damage them.”
“Boots are fur wearing and wearing out, kid.” Val studied the boy. “When did you have a pair of boots last?”
The child shrugged.
“You must remember… When?”Val leaned forward towards the youngster. “When?”
Miserable eyes lifted to lock with Val’s. The boy shrugged again. “You ever had a pair of boots?”
The question hung in the air. The boy shrugged a third time. Then in a soft voice, “I don’t remember.”
Val’s eyes returned to the Colt in his hand. “Make sure you wear them in the morn’n,” came Val’s gruff reply. Not waiting for an answer, he got up and marched off into the darkness.
Damn, that whore of a mother this boy had had. Damn the Gringo father who tossed the boy and his mother to the curb. O’Hara told him that’s what the boy’s mother used to boast about. Mind you, Val thought, he might have just tossed her out if’n she’d been his. But he would have kept the boy.
The Next few day’s travels took Val and Juanito into still drier territory. The days’ length was largely governed by water and grazing they found. If they came across a good spot in the mid-afternoon, they would stop. Sometimes it was almost dark before they found a place. Always the horses were first and foremost in their minds.
Val showed the boy where to look to find food. Which cactus water could be gleaned from. Each morning and evening on the higher ground, Val showed Juanito how to stay hidden but still peruse the lay of the land for the day ahead. How the rock formations would indicate where water might be found. The boy soaked up every detail like a dry sandy river bed.
It was on one such evening found Val and the boy lay side by side on top of a ridge. The ground dropped steeply away from them. Brush and brown grass littered the wide valley floor. The river meandered around like some lazy snake, water glistening in the descending sun.
Val felt his senses on high alert all day. Troubled by something, a feeling of being watched, maybe. But not quite like that. Damn, Crawford, you’re becoming paranoid.
The boy, who would by now be asking questions, was keeping quiet this evening and mimicking Val’s study of the area. So when the child spoke, Val was pulled out of his fixation on the pink rocky rise at the valley’s far side.
“There’s someone down there.”
Val glanced at the boy. “What?”
“There’s someone down there.” The softly spoken words were accompanied by a slight movement of the head.
“Coming out of the…,” the boy replied. “See the old burnt tree?”
Val’s gaze shifted to the knurled and twisted blacken tree as a lone figure slipped out of the undergrowth beside the river. Only a little upstream from where he and Juanito had watered their animals not two hours before. An Apache brave. Damn.
“Get back down there, pick up our things.” Val’s eyes didn’t leave the Apache as he searched the ground. He was looking for sign. What had he found already? Had he already picked up their trail?
The Brave turned slightly, making the sound of a bird call. An answering call floated back.
Val’s every sense told him to get out of there. But they needed to know what they were up against. Another Indian appeared between the rocks and scrub, and Val could see the faces clearer now. Young bucks. How many more?
The Apache moved into the water and crossed in the shallows. His eyes were down, intently searching the ground for signs. Val estimated they were still upstream from where he and the boy had crossed a few hours earlier. Still too close for comfort.
The second Brave was scanning the rocks. Val resisted the urge to duck down, fearing the eagle eyes would pick up the tiniest of movements. He knew he was low and not clearly visible, but it didn’t stop the tension from rising as the Indian’s head turned and looked higher. Val held his breath as the young buck appeared to pick out every rock and cranny. The brave appeared to pause for a long moment, and Val felt they were looking into each other’s eyes. The hardened Texan felt sweat trickle down his back.
The Buck turned to talk to the other brave, glancing back at the sharp rise. Damn, he knows something’s up here.
Another call faintly wafted up from the valley floor and Val picked up the sound of horses moving. A third Indian made his way into the clearing. Even at this distance, Val could make out the smaller, lighter stature of the new arrival. Little more than a child, the youth led three horses, all riderless, one with a deer strapped over its back.
A hunting party Val surmised. That could mean a larger body was not far off. But in which direction.
Val could hear Juanito’s soft footfall behind him. The boy stopped short of joining him at the top of the rise. Now that the Braves were watering their horses.
Val drew slowly and carefully backward.
“The horses saddled?”
The boy nodded. This is a one smart kid, Val thought. He was going to get him out of this. Now.
“Let’s put some distance in” The boy didn’t need telling twice.
Mounting and guiding their horses off at a slight angle Val let the tired animals pick their way over the stony ground.
“Why not faster?” Juanito questioned.
“Don’t want the Apach’ knowing where we’re at.” Val turned in his saddle to look back. “They got ears that hear trees grow.” Val glanced down at the black mane of his tried buckskin. “Sides, it’s been hot today, and the horses are tired.”
The boy glanced searchingly at Val. Then turning in his saddle to look back, just as his mentor had moments before.
The light was fading when Val called it a day. Picketing the horses at the base of a rise, by water and graze. Taking his rifle, Val made short work of getting to the highest point. The boy was not far behind him. There they settled, eyes piercing the gloom. Trying to see what the night hid.
The moon was lighting the sky in the east but hadn’t fully risen. The rock-strewn ground was still black before them. Val’s attention was snagged by something. There it was again. Slap bang in the same direction the last few hours had taken them.
The child stirred beside him. “They’re fires aren’t they?”
Val kept quiet. The boy’s words hadn’t really been a question. Just a statement of fact. Damn. This day was getting worse. The main encampment was straight ahead.
The full moon rose steadily. The large blue-white disk crept higher in the sky. The scene was very different from the pale yellow and ochre of the sun-scorched terrain during the day. The river before them appeared as a glistening band of silver and diamonds. And the landscape took on an eerie blue hue. The edges of the rocks became angular and shadowed. Flat and unwelcoming, mirroring the menace that lurked out there.
Val glanced at the boy, who was intent on the scene in front of him. What have you done, Crawford? Bringing this child into this mess.
While Val watched, Juanito had fallen asleep on the rise, and the older man had no heart to disturb him. It was past midnight when Val moved down to their saddles and packs and pulled free a blanket. Returning to the top of the rise, he covered the boy and returned to his post.
The sky was only slightly lit when Val shook the boy awake.
While they saddled the horses, Val watched the boy intently. Juanito must have felt the scrutiny.
Turning enquiring blue eyes onto the older man. “Que?”
Val paused, tightening his cinch for a split second while making up his mind what to say. He gave the leather a sharp tug causing the buckskin to jump.
“Look, boy. These Apach’ they ain’t very hospitable like.”
The boy lowered his eyes, scuffing his boot in the sand.
“They ain’t gonna drop in for tea and a quiet little talk.” Val studied the boy. “They come, you skedaddle and stay skedaddled. You understand me, nino?”
The child looked confused.
“If them Inju’ns come back, you run.” The boy’s eyes grew large, and he shook his head no. Terrified.
“You run.” Val grabbed the front of the child’s shirt. He gave the child a brisk shake. “You run. You mind me, boy” Another shake. “You run, and you don’t look back. You don’t stop.”
The boy nodded. His face showing his misery.
Finishing saddled up, they mounted and moved off among the rocks, away from the threat. But Val had no idea his instruction would be needed so soon.
The morning air was pierced with a blood-curdling scream. With no time to react, Val was hit by a flying body leaping out of the rocks that knocked off his horse. He fell hard.
Sweat, animal grease, and wood smoke were all smells that assaulted the ex-lawman’s senses. That and fear, which was his probably, he didn’t have time to think. Landing knocked the wind out of him. Fighting for breath and his life. Val rolled in the dirt, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw the boy kicking the grey pony into action.
As Val grappled with the brave, dust was kicked up in the madness. Stinging his eyes, making it difficult to see. He’d already grabbed his attacker’s wrist. Trying desperately to keep the Apache’s knife-welding hand deflected from his own body.
Over again until Val was again on top. The younger man fought like a wild cat. But the older man’s larger size won out, and his extra weight let him plunge the knife home, causing the writhing body to go slack under him.
Before he could congratulate himself. There was another scream and another flying body, this time brandishing a hatchet which caused a glancing blow to Val’s shoulder. In throwing himself off the first Indian, the Texan found himself again rolling in the dirt, fighting for his life. It was a fight, this time, he knew he was losing.
This second Apache had the look of a rabid dog in his eyes and was out for blood. The brave dropped the hatchet and grabbed a handful of Val’s hair. Forcing his head backward. Exposing his throat. The hunting knife Val was trying to ward off inched closer. He tried to use his legs and body to twist the brave off, but nothing worked. As the knife pricked his skin below his ear, the Apache grinned wildly savouring the moment of pre-victory.
Val’s only regret was he hadn’t gotten the boy to safety. He’d brought him from one Hell to another. Val just hoped and prayed the boy would make it out of there. He closed his eyes briefly. His strength waned as the knife bit deeper. Pain letting Val know this was now close. Bile and the taste of blood were in his mouth.
Suddenly the Apache jerked wildly. Val was able to force the knife back and away, now able to grapple the brave off his body. The Texan didn’t have time to think why the younger man looked dazed, and that wild grin had left his face. He just took the opportunity to turn the Apache’s own knife on him. Ending the struggle.
The hardened older man fell to his face in the dirt. Absolute exhaustion robbed Val of any ability to move. With every gasp, Val felt he was not taking in enough breath to satisfy his body’s needs. His lungs felt like they were on fire. A grey fog surrounded his eyes, robbing him of his vision, but he could feel a wet sticky mess oozing from a painful shoulder.
It took Val a good few minutes to let his senses take in other events evolving around him.
A sound of a struggle, sand and small rocks flying. Grunts and gasps.
Rolling over on his side Val opened his eyes just as a shower of dirt came his way. Flying grit caused him to jerk his head away, and eyes shut again.
Levering himself up, Val stumbled first to two knees, then one. Grunting in pain, he brought his hand up to swipe at his eyes in desperation to clear the debris robbing him of sight. His mind had registered something that forced his leaden body into motion.
With his vision returning, Val struggled to his feet, his eyes stinging and watering madly. He was just able to see two young bodies grappling in the dirt. The young Apache brave was older and larger than his opponent, and was rapidly getting the upper hand.
The focus of the young brave’s attention was squirming like a snake, trying to wriggle out from under the Apache youth.
Val stumbled as he bent forward to pick up the fallen hatchet. Still gasping for air and not seeing clearly, Val swung the axe with force, ending the short life.
Val stumbled away to the edge of the stream. Falling to his knees, he swiped up the water in an attempt to wash out his eyes. He only succeeded in improving things slightly, but at least he could make out the scene of the last few minutes of chaos.
Juanito was on his hands and knees, losing what little breakfast he’d had.
Val staggered to his feet. Fear at the thought of how close this boy had come to dying, probably violently, transferred itself to anger. Grabbing the child by the shirt, he dragged him to his feet. Bringing his face close to the deathly pale one, Val shook the boy violently, raging, “I told you to scarper.”
“I told you to run,” Val’s voice went up an octave. “You damn well came back.” Another shake. “Why?”
The boy was crying now. His whole body was trembling uncontrollably.
“Why?” Val shouted at the boy. “I ain’t worth you risking your life for.” Another shake. “You could have gotten your sorry hide dead.”
“I would’ve been dead if you’d been dead,” the boy screamed through the tears. “They would have killed me.”
Val released the boy, who staggered backward and fell to the ground. Just sitting there in the dirt beside one of the dead Apache.
Val struggled a few feet, his breathing still not returned to normal. “I shouldn’t have brought you to this, and I should’ve left you behind.”
“If you had left me in Santa Del Rosa, I’d be dead quicker,” the boy sobbed.
Val turned his head to look at the boy.
“You have been the only one who has ever done anything for me. No one has stood up for me before.” Still sobbing, the child whispered, “I couldn’t run from the only good thing in my life.” His head was bowed now, shoulders still shaking but less violently now.
Quieter still. “I would have been dead inside if you’d died and I lived. I’d rather be dead and gone.”
Val listened to the words. Now he knew all about that, didn’t he. Wanting to be dead and gone.
Val turned and walked away. He couldn’t take the reliance. Someone else’s need for him. His protection. He’d given that hope to others, and look where that had got him. Look where it had got THEM. They were killed because he’d failed them and hadn’t been there. Now they were dead. Cold and gone.
Reality began to filter back. These bucks were the hunting party from yesterday. He’d seen campfires off in the distance last night. They had to get out of here and fast.
“We gotta find their horses, boy.” Val glanced at the child, who still sat in the sand. “We gotta make tracks outta here now.”
Juanito looked up at his mentor. Tiredly nodding. “I’ll go, your bleeding.”
Val looked down at his left shoulder. His arm was covered in blood, and his shirt was ripped. All he could do was nod.
Watching the boy go. It wasn’t the first time he had thought the boy had sand. He’d do to ride the river with. Hell, this half-grown man had just saved his life. Maybe they owed each other.
Val dragged a bottle of tequila out of his saddle bags along with a fresh shirt. Striping off the damaged one, he used that to clean up the wound. Using the alcohol to try and sterilize the area, the stinging pain it caused would have brought him to his knees if he hadn’t already been there. Binding up the wound up as best he could, Val was struggling into the fresh shirt when Juanito arrived back with the four horses.
They stripped the bridles of the Indian horses. The deer, still strapped to the back of a young Pinto, was retained. Val suggested they bring it and the deer along. He had a feeling the wound was going to cause a problem. He knew he wouldn’t feel up to much soon, but now at least, they would eat with no extra effort expended. They would need all their energy and focus on getting themselves out of this damn hole they had found themselves in.
They dragged the bodies under cover and threw the hatchet into the river. The area looked less like a war had taken place. Out of the corner of his eye, Val saw Juanito snag a hunting knife and sheath off one of the bodies, that and a smaller blade. The kid glanced around while Val struggled into the saddle. The youngster threw anything out of place under a bush and kicked dirt over the blood. His actions hadn’t gone unnoticed, but Val was too sore to comment.
Val took the lead as they entered the water, with the child leading the Pinto, heading upstream. The Texan had his rifle across the horn, his eyes on the rocks around them. It was many miles before he found what he was looking for. A gentle flat slope of solid rock out of the stream.
Val instructed the boy to follow him. Explanations had become the norm about intended actions; in this case, they needed to cover their tracks. So for the rest of the afternoon, they followed a pattern. Different terrain, different tactics.
Just before dark, by luck and not judgement, they found a clearing at the side of a small pool. There was a limited pick for the horses, and the rocks around were high enough to shelter the area from prying eyes. Juanito also managed to rustle up a little dried, dead wood for a small fire.
Val took the rifle and made a quick check of the area. On his return, he found the boy had watered, unsaddled, and picketed the animals.
Taking a knife, Val set about carving both hunches off the deer. Instructing Juanito to dig a pit and line it with smooth flat rocks to place the venison in. They covered it with more stones and built a fire over the top. Val then sliced thinner stripes of meat which they put on sticks to cook.
While the meal was underway, Val started to ease himself out of his shirt. Gasping with the movement. The child’s sharp eyes watched every move. The gash was on the back of the shoulder, although not to the bone but ragged and nasty enough. It wasn’t bleeding any more, but the edges were already reddening. If it was not taken care of, inflammation and localized infection might take a wider grip.
Val had long since stopped worrying about himself. The devil could take his soul; he’d taken everything else. But the boy. Val had made a sacred oath he’d get the boy out of this, come hell or high water.
Val ripped some of the cloth off and knelt down by the pool. He bathed the area as best he could. After taking a slug of the tequila, he poured some over his shoulder and missed. The boy, edging closer, snagged the bottle out of Val’s hand. Their eyes made contact. The Texan looked deep into the blue depths. He’d had long since stopped seeing a child of mixed race. Now, all he saw was knowing and wisdom far beyond his years. Val gave a brief nod to the unspoken question he had seen there.
The boy moved behind Val’s back. He looked at the bottle, then the wound, gave a little shrug, then brought the bottle to his lips, and took a healthy swig. Val saw the action in the pool’s reflection, but before he could react, Juanito sloshed the wound with a liberal dousing of the clear liquid. Val’s reprimand died on his lips as he gasped for air. Damn kid.
It was dark when they settled to eat. After having his coffee, Val instructed the boy to let the fire die down. The charcoal embers would carry on cooking the meat in the pit below.
Val knew he would have to sleep for a while. He’d been awake all last night, that and the fight and blood loss adding to his exhaustion.
So while he did, Juanito sat beside him, blanket over his shoulders against the chill of the night. Listening to the night sounds around him. Comforted by the constant chirp of the crickets and other creatures. Val had told him a few nights earlier that while you could hear the din, nothing bad would be out there skulking in the dark. Worry if it stopped; if it fell quiet.
Val woke with a start. Feeling dis-orientated. The boy’s light touch had roused him. The eastern sky was lightening. Val had slept the whole night through. Damn. And wasn’t he saying that to himself more often?
“Why didn’t you wake me?”Val struggled to sit up.
His eyes raked the camp. The horses were saddled, with Pinto’s lead rope attached to the saddle horn of the grey pony. The meat had been dug out of the fire pit and now rested on stones to cool. The youngster stood and retrieved the coffee pot from beside the fire and poured Val a cup of coffee that resembled tar. But nonetheless, coffee.
Val’s eyes were on the boy as he covered the embers in sand. Emptying the pot, he stowed it away.
“I asked you a question, Nino.”
The boy’s eyes dropped. He scuffed the dirt with his boot and wrapped his arms around himself. An action Val had become used to seeing when the boy was miserable. He glanced up through his mop of unruly hair before dropping his eyes again. “You looked sick.”
Well, that wasn’t far off the mark. He’d felt better, that was for certain sure. All Val could do was nod.
“Let’s put some distance in before the sun comes up.” Val bent to see to his bed roll. A wave of dizziness overcame him, causing him to stagger a little.
“I’ll do it.” The task finished before Val could insist differently.
“There’s a burlap sack in my saddle bag, nino. For the meat.” Juanito nodded. Retrieving the bag, the child wrapped up the meat.
Mounting, they slipped out of the area and moved out in the growing light.
Having travelled a fair distance, they gained higher ground before midday. A small stream bubbled out of the rocks forming a tiny pond before the water was sucked away by the greedy ground surrounding it. The other plus was there was a little green vegetation, the first they had seen in days. The horses looked most pleased as they were picketed out to graze.
While Val saw to cleansing his wound, he fumbled with the dressing. Having just finished with the horses, Juanito bent, picked up the fallen bandage, and shook the sand out of it. Quietly he wrapped up the older man’s shoulder. “It’s infected.”
“I know, kid. Ain’t nothing we can do right now,” Val paused. “Have you seen the smoke?”
The child looked confused. “We haven’t had a fire.”
“No, not us. Them,” Val nodded off to a distant high crop of rock. A puff of smoke followed another.
“Won’t the Apache see the fire?”
“That’s the Apach’ talking to each other. I reckon they’re missing those young bucks.” Val picked at the meat the boy had given him. “Or they’ve done found the bodies.”
“They’ll come looking then.” The statement was quiet. Val didn’t see the need to answer the obvious.
The boy looked at Val. “Shouldn’t we be moving?”
“The horses are tired, kid. We’ll be dead if we kill them,” Val paused, lying back against a boulder. “We’ll wait for the heat to pass. Sides, the grazing will do the horses good, and they’ll be done with it in a few hours.”
Val’s eyes fluttered shut. His last thought. He was dead, bone weary.
Val woke with a start. The boy was not in his line of sight. The Texan twisted his body to look around and found, the boy watering the already saddled horses.
The heat had abated slightly. But Val’s lips were dry, and his head pounded. His limbs were like lead.
Glancing at the sky, Val could tell it was now well past noon. The horses moving closer brought him back to the here and now. The boy dropped the reins and stepped closer, holding out a canteen.
“There was more smoke.” The child hesitated. “The other side of the valley.”
Damn, the Apache were getting agitated. Val struggled to his feet. “We better get outta here.” The child nodded and mounted the grey pony. The Pinto’s rope was still tied to the grey’s saddle. The older man’s mind was not up to asking why the boy still brought it along. So they moved out.
Val saw for himself throughout the day, smoke being sent skyward on two more occasions. It was just before sunset after they had stopped, and smoke was seen coming from four places. The signals longer this time.
Val settled on some high ground. The horses picketed and grazing below them. Juanito was not far behind and came to rest beside Val. They both saw the lights flashing on the high ground in the direction they had come, and Val estimated it was where they had been last night. They probably had their trail now. The Apache would have read the signs and been working out the previous day’s events by now.
“Is it true they can talk with the flashes?”
“Yes, nino,” Val nodded briefly. “They can talk like that as well as you and I are talking now.”
The boy digested the words. “They know where we’re heading, don’t they?”
Val just nodded. They were going to have to cover a lot of ground tomorrow. That old pony was getting tired and had held them up this afternoon.
Val had watched the boy with the Pinto this evening. The young horse responded well to Juanito’s touch and care. “Do you think you could ride the Paint?”
The boy shrugged his shoulders. “Let’s see how it reacts to the saddle.” Val got to his feet. “We’ll do it now so we know if it will work in the morning.”
Juanito followed. Gathering the saddle and blanket, the child lugged it over to Val, who was now speaking quietly to the young animal. The Pinto hunched his back and bucked with the cinch being tightened. However, it was short-lived, and within the hour, just before dark, Juanito was ridding the animal around the camp. It might give them a little more hope. A bit of an edge. Maybe.
Val had given the boy his watch. He had shown him how the hands moved, and they had talked about what it meant. So the boy woke Val when both hands faced upwards. He handed the old pocket watch back to Val. Having cradled it in his palm as if it was a fragile egg about to hatch.
“I’ll wake you at four o’clock,” Val glanced skywards. “We’ll still have light from the moon. It’s bright tonight, so we can move on early.” He looked off into the distance and then back at the horses happily munching. “So we can get ahead of them” Well, who was he kidding? It wasn’t himself.
So they were up and moving at half past four. Breakfast, venison washed down with water. No coffee. For once, Val didn’t complain.
The moon was bright enough to pick their way over the ground, and Val was sure it wasn’t bright enough to read sign and track them. Even for an Apache.
As the sun came up, they found themselves heading north. Having managed to top the rise and get over the high ground while it was still quite dark. They were now picking their way carefully over the rock-strewn ground to the valley bottom.
After climbing the steep and long rise, they stopped and dismounted to give the horses a breather. Smoke again could be seen ascending into the morning sky. The answering smoke had been from the high ground above the path they had taken yesterday. Juanito and Val exchanged looks. Nothing had to be said.
Dark clouds in the far distance spoke of a gathering storm. And, as the sun rose, it was obvious those clouds were coming towards them. Lightning flashed, the forks clearly seen. But no sound. Not yet. It was still too far away. But it was coming slowly. Would it be to their advantage or not? Val couldn’t decide.
While still descending, and with the help of the height afforded by the valley side. Val studied the wide and deep arroyo that cut a jagged mark right down the centre of the wide valley floor. It was going to cause a real problem. With this natural barrier in front of them and the Apache at their back, it didn’t take a genius to deduce if they couldn’t find a way to cross, they were in trouble. Val had thought this trip would be hard, but things had just gotten worse. A lot worse.
The deep scar in the rock before them stretched for miles in both directions. The sides were sheer rock in most places. This would make the opportunities to get into and out of the arroyo difficult. He did notice it was almost impossible to see the bottom of the area, even from this high up. At least it may offer some protection from searching eyes. For a time, maybe.
As luck would have it, a track down was found almost immediately after they reached the edge. Val was uncomfortable as they dropped down to the floor of what looked like a mini canyon. The storm was raging in the north. Thunder could now be heard as an almost consent rumble, and lightning flashed in quick succession. Marks on the rock walls bore testament to powerful water surges. Shaping and smoothing the walls. The risk of flash flooding was powerfully evident.
Val wondered what the boy thought of it all. He was holding up well. Better than some men Val had ridden with in similar circumstances. The Texan didn’t think it was nativity. Although the kid was still young and had a lot to learn. He was sharp and proved he was nobody’s fool. Way older in actions and thought than his years. Perhaps that’s what drew Val to the boy.
Val motioned for the boy to go down first so he could have a final look at the surrounding area. Nothing seen, Val turned his attention to the boy. The Pinto was picking his way down the rocky path with the sure footedness of the wild mustang pony that he was. Juanito handed him well. The grey pony, free of its burden, followed, untied to the Pinto’s flank.
“Go faster, boy. We gotta get out of this.” It could prove a death trap if they stayed down here. On reaching the canyon floor, Juanito started out at a brisk trot.
They had travelled only a couple hundred yards when the Pinto came to a sudden halt, almost unseating the boy. With its head held high, it snorted loudly. Feet planted.
Val’s buckskin followed suit. The hairs on Val’s neck prickled as the Pinto blew hard again.
A stream of brown water came tumbling around the corner. At about the same time, a dull rumble became detectable.
“Run,” Val roared at the boy, spinning the buckskin on its hunches.
Juanito gave no such command to the Pinto; it just spun. The child swayed out of the saddle and was left hanging onto the horn and mane. Only his natural balance and need to survive kept him clinging on and righting himself. But by now, the three animals were galloping at full stretch.
Val’s first instinct had been to head for the path on the right side out of the arroyo they had just used. But Juanito’s Pinto was in full flight, having past the buckskin and its heavier load. As it had all morning, the grey pony stuck to the Pinto’s flank as if glued there.
The rumble had turned to a dull roar and was gaining. Val could feel his heart thumping. It wasn’t often as an adult he had known fear. But he felt it now, pure unadulterated, and in its rawest form. Memories of another flood when cattle, horses, and men had been caught up in an ensuring disaster flickered at the edge of Val’s mind.
After about a half mile, Val glimpsed a path on the left. Yelling at the boy in Spanish to go left, left. The boy, to his credit, hauled on the left rein with all his might, only bringing the fleeing Pinto just over in time. In doing so inadvertently bumped the grey pony over and up the track too.
Val’s buckskin was labouring now and scrambled at the path just as the first of the water washed at its hocks. The horse went to its knees as the water rushed over its hindquarters. Val was off in a flash, hauling the reins with him. Fear of losing the animal to the torrent lending him strength. Masking the stabbing pain that ignited in his shoulder.
The sand-coloured horse stumbled to get up. The water caused the dry dirt to turn instantly into mud, and the rock became slick. The buckskin screamed as it slid backward, back legs now being pulled by the power of the deluge. Val put in a momentous surge of strength in what he knew would be a final effort. A do or lose it moment. God Please.
The horse lunged. Val strained, suddenly stumbled backward, then laid flat on his back. The buckskin was scrambling forward and, for once, not too choosy where it put its feet. Scrambling up and over the arroyo’s rim and catching Val in the thigh as it did so.
“Damn, Bloody ungrateful ass.” Val rolled over on his side, grabbing the top of his leg as he did so. “I should have let you drown.” That HURT.
The rain came then. Cold. Accompanied by lightning that split the sky and thunder that shook the earth. Val, still rolling in pain on his side, was now on a bed of mud. Bringing him back to reality.
Rolling on his side, his eyes raked the area for the child. Juanito was still astride the blowing black and white pony. Staring across the brown torrential mass that now came halfway up the side of the canyon wall.
Val twisted his body and looked across the now impassable chasm. Thirty or so Indians were making good time towards the other side. Val struggled painfully to his feet.
Lightning cracked deafeningly overhead, causing man, boy, and beasts to flinch. That and pain hindered Val as he struggled to get in the saddle. Turning, they rode away from the arroyo that had nearly been their death trap.
The horses were spent. Both Val and Juanito stopped a few hundred yards from the canyon. Their horses turned to face the way they had come, turning their rumps to the lashing rain.
The Apache had reached the rim of the arroyo, now sitting their horses in the pouring rain as if the irritation didn’t exist. A few were shaking a spear or bow in the air, and others were sitting stony-faced and menacing.
Val knew it had been close. And in truth, he had only thought the night before it would take a miracle to outrun them. Val glanced at the jagged cut in the earth, now boiling with muddy water. The roar of the torrent masked whatever the braves may have been yelling.
What the hell had just happened. If Val had envisaged a miracle, he would have never thought to dream up that. Maybe there was a God; if there was, he had a funny way of showing it.
The rain continued for most of the morning. The weary travellers used it to their advantage, changing direction abruptly while the deluge continued, so their tracks were obliterated by the water. As they carried onwards, Val couldn’t help himself. He looked over his shoulder many times to check the lay of the land behind him. It was after one such time he caught Juanito’s eye.
The boy glanced back also.
“They won’t have crossed.” Looking back at Val for affirmation.
“Don’t know,” Val shrugged. “The Apach’ know this land like the back of their hand. Maybe they’ll find a way across.”
“Across that?” The child’s eyes were wide.
“It could go as quickly as it came.”
Following Val’s comment, the boy twisted in the saddle, searching their back trail before turning, kneeing the Pinto into a ground-breaking trot.
Val found his buckskin moving out to keep pace with the boy. The Texan let out a huff. Now, who was taking the lead? Well, the older man was too bone weary to argue and too realistic to not want to pick up the pace.
So their travel continued. At their backs more than once, smoke could be seen drifting skyward. Well, in the distance for now. Val would have preferred that he and the boy were not pushed further south, which meant they would have to make a wide loop to enable them to head north towards the Rio Grande and Texas again.
The terrain changed little. Dry dust and rubble of boulders, the vegetation scant and dry. Always with the inevitable presence of the towering Saguaro Cactus, small watering holes, and, if these weary travellers were lucky, a supply of a little lusher pick for the horses. The heat, well, that was relentless.
Val’s shoulder remained red and sore. It had, however, started to dry up. Healing from the edges in. The boy had cleaned and dressed it each morning and evening. The intermittent fever he had been suffering eased after the third day following their encounter with the flood. When Val thought about it, he reasoned a body should be grateful for small mercies.
On the evening of the third day, they had brought their horses up a steep rise and found a neat little place amongst a jumble of boulders and scrub that hid them from the surrounding area. There was a small stream, water for them and for the horses and the grass for once lush. The horses dug straight in.
Having just finished a cold meal of jerky, the child had wandered off to get some dry wood for a small fire while Val turned to see to the horse’s needs.
About to free the buckskin’s cinch, the boy was back, jabbering in Spanish. Stopping, he turned, and the best Val could make out of it was “An Army.” The boy had seen an army. Hell, what now.
Scrambling up the slight rise, they could take in the broad flat valley below. Sure enough, on the far side were a handful of mounted men, behind them, two or three dozen men afoot, walking two abreast. Following this column came two wagons pulled by mules. Ahead of the main group were two, no three outriders. Even from this distance of almost half a mile or so, Val could make out their uniforms of blue, red and white. He’d never seen a French infantry, but he could guess.
The boy was agitated. Val turned his head briefly to the child. “What…what did you say?”
“Quienes son ellos?” (who are they)
“They look like the French to me, kid.”
The child’s eyes were large as he glanced at Val now “He escuchado historias…” (I’ve heard stories…..)
“Yeah, well, I’ve heard stories too, nino, but I ain’t of a mind to hang about to find out if they’re true.”
Val turned to tell the boy to skedaddle, but the boy already had. He gave the French one last brief look to assess their direction. Well, it didn’t take a genius to see they were heading, more or less straight for them. Those outriders would pick up their trail at the base of the hill pretty soon. He didn’t need this. Not today. They needed to get outta here. Quick!
Val backed down the rise, staying low. Then when he was below the top of the hill, he turned and made short work of getting to the horses. Grabbing the kid around the middle. He slung him up into the saddle, then turned, clutching the saddle horn, and vaulted aboard the buckskin. Turning the startled horse, Val jabbed it hard in the ribs with his spurs, causing it to go from standing to a gallop up the arroyo.
After about a mile, Val slowed his mount and instructed the kid to do so too. In the last few days, the horses had done some hard riding to put some miles between the Apache and themselves. Just when he thought they were getting clear. Damn.
Val glanced in the boy’s direction. The kid had already dropped his reins allowing his pony’s head to drop so that the blowing Pinto could breathe easier. Smart kid.
They let the horses plod on, heads down; their heaving flanks paid testament to the hard run.
“We’ll go on till dark, start again before sun-up.”
“No fire,” Val confirmed
“No coffee?” The boy had a ghost of a smile, but he kept his eyes straight ahead as he asked the question.
“No coffee,” Val grumped. Then under his breath. “ Smart ass’ed kid.”
The boy turned his head away, looking off into the scrub.
“That’s it, laugh it up.” Val found it hard to cover his own smile now. “But remember, kid, I ain’t worth living with without coffee.”
The boy turned his head back, looking at Val, eyes sparkling. “I remember”
“Good, you make sure you do.” Val pushed his buckskin into a trot, leaving the boy to catch up.
They had covered a lot of ground by the time Val finally called a halt on the bank of a small river. Trees lined the banks, and there was a good pick for the horses. Although half an hour or so before dark, Val doubted they would find anything better for the horses if they pushed on.
Leaving the boy to set up camp, water and picket out the animals. Val took his rifle and made his way up the rise so he could have a look around. The Texan cursed, is leg still hurt like the devil making, and not for the first time, curse his horse. He unconsciously rubbed the affected area as he settled down to keep watch.
The light was fading now, but not enough so Val couldn’t make out the landscape below him. The rock-strewn land in front of him stretched out to the south. Behind him, a good two hundred or so miles would be the Rio Grande. They still had a ways to go, but the boy was now holding his own. Val glanced back at the youngster as he moved around the camp. Not so much the Coyote now, he mused.
Val was still contemplating the land in front of him when he heard pebbles moving, heralding the boy’s arrival.
Juanito settled quickly and mimicked Val, searching the land in front of him. Val began planning tomorrow’s travel. South would take them back towards the French, and North would have them going back in the direction of the Apache. He tried to remember the location of a town he had passed through. They needed provisions, and Val wasn’t convinced he could remember exactly where it was. Hard to think it had been over a year ago.
He’d travelled a whole lot of rough ground since then, with a lot of death and destruction to mark its passing. Val blew out a long breath. East, it would be east. That looked dry, with very little cover from prying eyes and shade from the sun. It would be another early start to get a jump on the scorching heat that zapped the energy out of man and beast.
East, as it happened, had taken them into a changing terrain. The barrenness gave way to more vegetation. Scrub at first. But with the bonus of many rivers and streams came trees and grazing. It started to look like prime cattle country to Val.
The trees lined the river banks gave welcome shade, and wildlife became more abundant, allowing Juanito to prove his talents at setting a snare. The unlikely travelling companions ate well on more than one occasion because of it.
Val’s wound healed slowly. His energy level, low at first, gradually improved. He was grateful that the child took over responsibilities with the horses, setting up and breaking camp.
Val, however, always partial to a little trout, decided to teach the boy how to fish. He surmised afterwards he would have got more luck trying to get milk out of a bull.
Whereas Juanito had patents to burn when it came to the horses, or sitting on a rise watching the terrain for unwelcome visitors. He became restless and then agitated as he watched their prospective meal refuse to take a bite on the line. Jumping up, jabbering in Spanish, and on one occasion, demanding Val’s gun so he could shoot them out of the water. This amused Val no end. Before Val’s dark mood took hold again. He was getting attached to this boy. Way too attached.
The day after the fishing incident, found Val and Juanito riding Northeast along a river bank. Reins lose they let the horses amble along. It was cool under the trees, and the river, lazy and clear as a bell, rolled over the amber stones.
A piercing scream, a woman’s scream, sliced through the morning air.
Val and Juanito brought their horses up short. A heartbeat later, Val had drawn his gun and spurred the buckskin forward. A fog surrounded Val as he manoeuvred the Buckskin at breakneck speed between the trees. The Texan’s mind was in a different place and time. Memories flooded back. As did the taste of fear. Fear he’d find them dead all over again. Fear he’d be too late. Again.
Thundering into a clearing, Val encountered chaos. Two men, one smaller than the other, lay face down on the ground. A further, two men fought with a beautiful young woman, and Val realized she was little more than a child. One held her from behind while his equally scruffy friend ripped at the girl’s clothing. Their intent was clear.
Val saw red and did what he rarely did; he lost control. Hurtling himself from his still moving horse at the nearest attacker, knocking him sideways, beating him over the side of the head with his gun opening up a nasty gash. The seriously dazed bandito scrambled to his feet. Val began a vicious onslaught of punches and kicks that finished the job and rendered the would-be rapist in a heap in the dirt. Unmoving.
A piercing pain in the leg brought Val’s attention back to the second man. Turning, he saw the man had freed the girl and thrown a knife at him. The blade of which was now half embedded in Val’s outer thigh. The scruffy Mexican was grabbing for a rifle. Bringing his pistol up, Val put a bullet in the man’s chest, sending him withering to the ground.
Stepping forward, Val kicked his rifle away. Although it didn’t take a genius to see the bandito was almost dead. But Val had learned some hard lessons in the early days. All but a dead man could pick up a weapon and use it, even someone almost dead. He still carried a piece of lead in his hip as a not-so-silent testimony to that. And didn’t it give him what for in the colder winter months.
Juanito had arrived now and was helping the sobbing girl to her feet. But it was evident her worries were not for herself but for one of the still forms on the ground.
Suddenly the clearing was full of angry men. Vaqueros on very fine horses were all Val’s mind had time to register. Juanito was grabbed by a large burly Mexican, and Val turned to assist when a ringing pain exploded at the side of his head.
The last thing Val heard was the girl screaming, “no les hagas daño.” Val’s world went black. His last thought. I’ve failed the kid.
Val’s first conscious thoughts were, “there’s a bloody drum beating in my head.”
He felt hot, and shivery. His muddled thoughts couldn’t make sence of it. The hard ground was soft, sweet smelling, and light. Was he dead? This didn’t feel like hell. His daddy had always told him he was destined for hell. He felt himself floating. Someone was humming and singing softly in Spanish. Were the guardians of Hell Spanish? It was hot enough to be Hell. But he felt so cold. Too tired, he couldn’t make anything out of his scrambled thoughts. So he let the darkness drift him away again.
Val felt thoughts came and went in a jumbled sort of way. A time or two, almost becoming conscious, before drifting off into some corner of his mind. Reliving times he’d buried deep. Faces and voices from the past came visiting. His Pa was there, and his Ma. Commanches, soldiers, outlaws. Angie, Angie was there. Calling him home. He felt himself floating again. The light was bright; he couldn’t quite see her. Tommy was there as well, laughing. His hair, the colour of corn, lifted on the breeze. Tommy turned as he ran, his light blue eyes becoming dark, a startling blue. His hair darkened until it was black, like a raven’s wing.
Val sat bolt upright, eyes wide. The Kid.
Staring wildly around, he made the Mexican woman beside him cry as he startled her. Her hand flew to her throat as she stumbled to her feet. Her sewing falling to the floor.
Pain lanced through Val’s head. White pain that brought his hands to his head and caused him to collapse back onto the pillows again. Damn, that hurt.
More cautious the second time when he opened his eyes. He turned his head slightly to find that although the woman had taken her seat again, she watched him with a wary eye.
Val tried to croak out a question. The words, however, were stuck in his throat, too dry to make their way out. And as Val watched, the woman reached for a glass of water and brought it to Val’s lips. He drank greedily. Almost choking as the liquid wanted to find its way down the wrong route.
“El Nino,” he was able to rasp out.
The senora’s face brightened. His son, she informed him, was here earlier, but she guessed he would now be down at the stables seeing to their horses. He wouldn’t let anyone else look after them. She chatted on. A good nino, he should be very proud. He opened his mouth to inform her he was not his son. But a yawn robbed the words from his mouth. His eyelids became heavy, and he drifted into a deep sleep knowing the boy was safe.
When he awoke again, the boy was there. Curled up in the chair, the Senora occupied earlier. The child was asleep. His unruly hair across his eyes. His breathing steady.
Shifting his position, Val reached for the water on the table beside the bed. But his choking woke Juanito, who helped him to sit forward so he could drink some more without drowning.
“Where are we, kid?” Val looked the boy over. “Are you living?”
“Are you in there, Val?” Juanito cocked his head to one side like an inquisitive puppy. “I don’t think I’m dead.” The boy’s eyes took on a mischievous glint. “You don’t smell as dead as you did. La Senoras gave you a ….what you call it, a bath in the bed.”
Val’s eyes became wide. The boy laughed and chatted on. La Senorita they had saved from death, or worse, was the daughter of Don Sebastian Montoya. Her name was Victoria. Her brother Monoleto was one of the injured they had first seen, and he had been knocked unconscious but also was not dead. This was where they were now at the Montoya Estancia. The hacienda was nothing like Juanito had ever seen. Each bedroom was bigger than any shack he had ever known.
Victoria had fitted him with clothes that her brother had outgrown. For the first time, Val noticed the boy’s attire. He wore a white shirt with fine embroidery down the front. And fine leather calzoneras with silver conchos down the outside of each leg.
“Are they treating you right?”
The boy nodded, and his eyes dropped to the floor. Val had come to read the signs. The kid did it when he was insecure. “They think I’m your son. I was scared of what might happen if I said I wasn’t.” The boy chanced a glance at Val. “I’ve never been treated like this before.”
“Like I was someone.” The boy’s eyes had reverted to the ground. “Like I wasn’t nothing.” The boy’s head dipped even lower. His soft voice turned to a whisper. “I will tell them if you want.”
Val regarded the miserable child in front of him. “It’s alright, kid. Let it stand.”
The child brought his head up and regarded Val with his startling blue eyes. Hope shone there, and as Juanito opened his mouth to say something, the door swung open with a bang making them both jump.
In the door frame stood a distinguished gentleman. Not tall, but a man in command. His style of dress set him apart. It screamed wealth and standing. There was also an arrogance about him. It showed in the way he stalked into the room. This man was born a cut above those around him, and he knew it.
“I see you are awake.” The newcomer spoke good English, even if it was with a heavy accent,
Val took in the finely made clothes, the embroidered braiding that trimmed his cut-off Mexican jacket and trousers. His whole attire screamed money, and Val guessed this was Don Sebastian.
“I have been waiting to thank you. My daughter and son would not be alive if you had not stepped in to help.” He bowed slightly at the waist. “I am forever in your debt, Senor. If there is anything I can do for you, please name it.” He paused and looked expectantly at Val.
Val cleared his throat. “I need to thank you for taking care of the boy.” His eyes moved to Juanito, whose eyes had reverted to the floor. “We will get out of your hair as soon as I can ride.”
“Nonsense.” The Mexican made a dismissive sweep with his hand. “You are not fit to ride. And your horse is not fit to be ridden.” Turning to leave, he continued. “Until then, Mi casa es tu casa” And with that, he swept out of the room.
“That was…” The boy began.
“Don Sebastian…,” Val interrupted.
“Montoya,” The boy finished with a nod.
“You said you were scarred” The child nodded. Val eyed him. “I think I can see why. Strutting Bantam comes to mind.”
“Bantam?” The child asked.
“Small Cockerel.” Juanito frowned. “A small male chicken” The child nodded.
Both their eyes looked at the door where Montoya had just exited. Their eyes then meet, and they both burst out laughing.
Then something Don Sabastin had said came to mind. “What’s wrong with my horse?”
“It stumbled and fell after you got off” The boy became serious. “ I have been standing him the stream during the day, and the swelling is going down. He has never been lame?”
Val blew out a sigh of relief. It never crossed his mind to question the kid or doubt him. For all his young age, this kid was good with horses. A thought played at the corner of Val’s mind, and something started to form there. It would maybe put down some building blocks for a future for the boy. He would speak to Dan first, clear it with him. With these thoughts, Val rested back on the pillow and drifted off to sleep.
It had taken 3 days for Val to finally stand unaided without the room spinning violently around him. While convalescing, he met Don Sabastian’s two children. The rather headstrong but beautiful Victoria, and Manolito, who didn’t quite seem to take life as seriously as his sister.
By the time he made it down to the stables, the buckskins leg was much improved, although not completely healed. He had spent the last few days grazing one of the extensive paddocks. Juanito had been right. The estancia was vast, and its workforce huge. To a man, they were loyal to their Padron, to whom their very existence depended.
Don Sebastian was everywhere. When he wasn’t holding court at the dining table or holding forth with his son about something he had, or normally hadn’t done. He was outside on a magnificent horse, possibly a high percentage breed Andalusian, overseeing his domain and directing his will.
Val watched the boy over the coming days. He was gaining confidence. He spied him many times when he didn’t know Val was watching, Laughing and joking with the other young people around the stables and large square formed by the employee’s quarters. One such young man was none other than Don Sebastian’s son.
Manolito and Juanito had struck up quite a friendship. Laughing and joking as young men do about things they would only speak about amongst themselves. The boy was growing up. He seemed taller, and Val thought he couldn’t have grown that much in a few short weeks. Val summarized it was partly due to the fact the boy was standing straighter. This was not the scared half-starved Coyote Val had seen so many months before. Here was a young man in the making, a fine young man.
Ten days rolled by. Val had ridden the buckskin both yesterday and today and he was sound. So mind made up, he went to find the kid.
“I thought of moving on in the morning, nino.” Val watched for a reaction. “I was thinking…” Val paused, “You could…”
“No,” the boy interrupted in a firm but sure voice, “I want to come with you.” The child turned and threw back over his shoulder. “I’ll get things ready for tomorrow.”
And so they found themselves on the trail again the next day. Don Sebastian had gifted the boy with a better saddle. Worn, not new, but supple and well cared for. Out of the corner of his eye, Val watched the boy. He rode straighter. Val couldn’t help himself feel proud. For once, the dark cloud didn’t wash over him. He didn’t even call the past to mind.
The miles fell behind them as the days passed. Val had become quiet and watchful. The boy, ever mindful of his mentor, watched him and followed suit in his wake. They dismounted at the base of a high rise. They lead their horses up the rock-strewn hill. Val made his way between two large boulders. “We’ll leave the horses here, kid.”
From there, they continued upwards on foot. At the ridge, Val peered over cautiously. Even though Val had told the child a thing or to about the Rio Grande, his reaction on reaching the rise of the hill had been to gasp.
Here the river was wide and slow. The shingle on the shallow banks sloped gently down to the sparkling clear water’s edge. The valley was wide and lush at this point. The trees and tall grass sheltered some parts of the river’s banks. A fair way off, on the far bank, towering cliffs rose up as if to meet the sky.
“We are going to have to wait, nino.” Val settled down to watch. “A lot of folks know about this crossing.” He pointed to the cliffs on the far side of the wide valley. “They come here because there’s a pass up there that’s easy to use. Not all the men who use this crossing are honest and would shoot us for what we have.”
The boy just nodded. Content to just settle beside Val and watch. “You ever been to America?”
The boy shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe.” There was a long pause. “Mama said he kicked us out.”
“Who, nino?”Val looked around at the child whose eyes were on the valley in front of him.
“My Papi.” The boy picked up some dirt and let it run between his finger. “Mama said he didn’t want no half-bred as a son.”
Val could feel the anger for the man who had sired this boy rising. “What was his name?” The boy shrugged his shoulders in answer to the question. “Do you know where he was from?” Juanito just shock his head, no.
There was another long pause. Val thought the child was not going to give anymore. “He was a rich rancher or something” The boy shifted to lie next to Val. “I remember some things. I remember a big man holding me up on a horse, taking me for rides.”
“How old were you?”
“Dunno. Maybe five or so” The boy stared off into the distance, “My sister was a baby, mama said.
“I remember once he gave me a wooden horse” A smile flitted across the child’s face. “I called him Barranca.”
“Mama said I was estúpido and couldn’t say La Blanco.”
“What happened to it?”
The child shrugged his shoulders again.
The conversation was cut short as Val spotted movement on the far bank.
“That’s…..” The boy started.
“I see nino,” Val cut in. “I only see one.”
Gradually a scruffy man appeared, hurrying up the trail leading a lame horse. Furtively looking over his shoulder many times to check on his back trail, giving the impression he was being followed. Without hesitation, he waded into the river hauling the tired and injured animal into the water. He had only taken a few steps when a shot sounded, and the man was propelled forward face down into the water. He didn’t move, and the freed horse staggered back onto the bank and lowered his head to eat.
Two men appeared out of the cover of the thick undergrowth. Running forward, they pulled the flaccid body unceremoniously out of the water onto dry land. They proceeded to search the dead man.
Another of the bushwhackers appeared out of the long grass and tried to catch the frightened horse. Unsuccessful in this act, he drew his pistol and shot the stricken animal.
At the shot that finished the poor animal’s plight, Val felt Juanito physically jerk beside him. Val fingered the rifle he held.
Then two more men appeared on a ridge further back. Waving franticly and pointing back up the trail. The murders with the body dragged it out of sight. Now dust could be seen coming down closer. Indicating many horses travelling quickly. Soon out of the dust cloud, the riders, although a good ways off, could just be seen. It was their horses, more than anything at this distance, Val noticed first. Mostly coloured ponies.
“Move,” Val snapped, retreating backward.
The boy unquestioningly ran down the hill in front of Val. Reaching the horses first was already leading them out of their hideaway before Val got to them. Together they led the two animals down the rocky and tricky terrain. Reaching the bottom, where the ground was much more stable underfoot, they mounted. It was then they heard the crack of gunfire in the direction of the river. Val made a decision. He hoped the men fighting would be so preoccupied they wouldn’t hear anything, so they took off at a good canter. Slowing the animals before they were blowing hard. But maintaining a good pace, alternating between trotting and walking. They covered a lot of ground.
For the next few hours, they moved downriver. Val searched desperately for shelter and graze for the horses. The boy frequently turned in his saddle to look back.
“They ain’t there, kid,” Val spoke with assurance.
“How do you know?” The boy twisted in the saddle again.
“I cain’t feel ’em.”
The child looked at Val with some scepticism. But didn’t question the older man. He trusted Val completely. It was just sometimes he made no sense.
“Who are they?”
“Dunno know.” Val glanced at the boy. “I just didn’t want to sit down and drink tea with them’s all.”
“They were Indians coming.” The boy made it a statement.
Val snorted to himself. This boy had sharp eyes.
“Where they Apache?”
“I doubt it, nino” Val was quiet for a moment. “We’ve come into Commanch territory.”
“Are they as bad as the Apache?”
“I wouldn’t want to tangle with either kid.”
With that, the two travellers came over a rise; they looked below at a shallow valley with a good covering of trees. Val veered in a direction as if to go through the trees and onto the Rio Grande. Riding through the tree line, they came upon a shaded stream in the dense vegetation. Still at an angle as if to follow the river bed towards the larger river. On entering the water the older man got the boy to stop. He pushed his horse on a fair way, then he returned.
“Turn the horse around quietly, boy.” Val came up beside the child. “Try not to disturb too much of the stones.”
Juanito did as ordered. They rode gently upriver. The trees caused a tunnel and gave them protection from the outside world. But it also meant they couldn’t see what was coming either. The river forked, and they continued away from the threat.
On they rode until it was almost dark.
Finding a spot on the bank for the horses. Val left Juanito to settle the tired beasts. He took his gun and disappeared. Returning late, the boy had set up a dry camp with no fire.
“We’ll have to push on early.” Val hunkered down and gave the boy his watch. “Wake me at midnight, nino.” He took the jerky the boy handed him. “Are the horses alright?”
The boy nodded. “Did you see anything?”
“No, But that could be good or bad.” After a pause, Val continued, “The good thing is they didn’t know we were there.”
Val settled down and the boy draped a blanket over his shoulder and took up his post. Listening to the night and watching the horses for any reactions. The Pinto had proved on more that one occasion he also listened to the night, even when appearing to doze.
Morning again found them moving. Juanito had woken the older man at midnight, and the child had slept a little. They broke camp before dawn. Having left the small river behind, they swung in a large loop. Val moved with purpose. He knew where he was. Before long, they were riding toward what looked like a tall rock wall.
Val continued onward towards a small clump of trees. Entering the trees, which they quickly passed through. Val steered his horse closer to the base of the wall. Leaning down, he drew his rifle. Looking back, he directed the boy.
“Stay close, kid.” With that, he disappeared between a crack in the rock face.
Barely wide enough at times for a horse to ride in a single file. The child kneed his pony forward, keen to keep up.
The sound of rushing water was becoming deafening. The dampness felt in the air. The walls of the rocks were becoming slick with moisture until they ran with water. And suddenly, they were out of the pass and on the bank of the vast river. The reason for the noise and moisture-ridden air became evident as they were at the foot of a powerful waterfall. At its base, the water appeared to boil with the force of the fall.
Glancing back to ensure the boy was following, Val turned his mount and entered between the rock and the curtain of water. Beneath the fall was a sizeable cavern. The mist caused by the falling water filled the air, and soon both travellers and their mounts were soaking wet.
They continued under the fall to the other side. Val motioned the boy to keep up. Talking would have been futile; the rushing water would have blanked out even a shout.
Then they were making their way out. This time getting a good drenching in the process and onto the rock bank on the far side. Again Val entered a narrow pass. Longer than the last one, it did not end in trees or bushes, and its entrance was masked by a jumble of boulders. And then they were out. The sounds of the river faded into the distance.
Val laughed as he turned in his saddle to see the boy shake his head like a wet puppy.
“An Injin showed me that pass, nino. Not many know of it.” Val looked around. “We’re not far from El Paso now.”
“It’s where I’m from, kid.”
Juanito looked at Val with enquiring eyes. “What do you do?”
“I’m a lawman, kid.” Val looked off into the distance “At least I was.”
“Like the Rurales?” The boy’s eyes had grown wide. Val looked around and could see fear there.
“Yes, and No,” Val wanted to reassure the child. “Not all Lawmen are bad, nino” He stated quietly. “I’d like to think not anyways.” But Val reflected he had known some pretty bad ones in his time. Nothing but outlaws with a badge pinned on their shirts. Nothing but murdering scum.
Val glanced at the boy, who had settled into his saddle quietly. There was a story, or two there, Val thought. He didn’t give himself time to dwell on it. Soon his own thoughts overtook him. The boy forgotten, his mind drifted back to darker days, of a time and place that in reality, he did not want to revisit. But here he was, ridding straight for it.
The Sun was dipping in the western sky as the two weary travellers reached the first shack on the outskirts of the town. Juanito had kept his pony close on the approach, and Val didn’t notice, his eyes were straight ahead. The child had picked up a change in his benefactor, and it scared him. The dark and brooding cloak that had descended had an unfamiliar and dangerous feel.
Even with all they had been through, the boy had never been scared by the older man. Even now, he didn’t feel directly threatened, but he did sense the danger that lurked there. This man was not all he seemed.
The boy watched the reaction of the few people still out on the street as they made their way forward. Some expressions were blank, others startled. One or two faces lit up as they made their way forward. A storekeeper stopped sweeping dirt out of his store’s doorway to watch the duo pass. Turning to the open door to excitedly beckon someone from within. The child turned slightly in the saddle to witness a worn, middle-aged woman appear. Relief clearly flooded her face as she stood beside the man and clutched a rag to her chest.
Halfway down the street, Val swung his horse into the hitching rail in front of a solid looking building. He gruffly instructed the boy to dismount. Tying their horses off, Val led the way as they entered the building.
Val walked in, while the boy hovered just inside the door and stayed back, ready to bolt.
“My God, by all that’s holy,” A voice boomed from one of the three men in the room. The owner of the voice levered himself out of a chair behind the large wooden desk.
A tall skinny man with a scar on his face whooped in sheer glee. “Shit, Val, we had you for crow bate for certain.” The energy was evident in the younger man as he bounded towards Val, his arm outstretched. On taking Val’s hand in a firm pumping shake, he turned excitedly to the other two men. “He’s real. He ain’t no ghost” Still pumping Val’s arm, “Shit Val, we had you for dead or lost or stolen.”
“Can I have my arm back before you rip it off, Slim?”.
“Sure, Val, sure. God, it’s good to see you.” The younger man stepped backward, thrusting his hands into the pockets of his pants. His glee palpable.
“You too, Slim.” Val glanced by Slim to look at the older man, who was now grinning from ear to ear. “Burt,” Val nodded a greeting. Val’s eyes travelled to the sour looking man standing at Burt’s side. “Red, thought you’d be dead by now.”
“You hoping, Val?” The man’s eye squinted. As he stepped forward into a shaft of evening light streamed through the window, the metal casings of the bullets on the double belts that crossed the man’s chest glinted. As did the Ranger’s star pinned to the front of his jacket. His red hair fell long and lank to his shoulders. “Personally, I was figgering you wouldn’t be back,” he sneered.
“You hoping, Red?” Val mirrored the other man’s earlier question.
Red huffed and made for the door. Obviously, seeing the boy for the first time. Taking quick steps, he covered the remaining distance to the door. Grabbing the boy by the shirt front, he almost lifted him off the ground and began to shake him viscously.
“What you doing, you filthy greaser” Another shake. “Answer….”
The rest of the diatribe was left unsaid. Val had reacted at the same time Red had. He almost flew across the room. Grabbing Red by the shoulder, he hauled him around. His right fist came up in a viscous cut that slammed Red’s head back against the wall. Val followed it up with a solid punch to the abdomen, but Red didn’t feel a thing. The first contact to his chin had him unconscious, and he fell to a crumpled heap on the floor.
Burt was shouting, and Slim was bounding forward to what…. It didn’t look like he was coming to Red’s aid.
“Wowee, remind me to not piss you off, Val.” He whooped as he looked down, not compassionately, at the crumpled body.
Val wasn’t listening. He had turned his attention to the boy. “You alright, kid?”
Juanito’s eyes were huge as he turned them on Val. The boy was speechless, and all he could do was nod.
Val slipped his arm around the boy’s shoulders and guided him in. “Burt, this here is Juanito. He’s saved my ass a few times, and I owe him. Comprende?”
Burt nodded and looked at Slim, still standing by the fallen Red. “Wha’ch want done with him?” While talking as if to inform the other occupants of the room who he was talking about, just in case there was any doubt, Slim toed Red with his boot.
Burt looked irritated. “Fetch the Doc, Slim” The older man turned to Val. “Val, I got Comanche trouble brewin’. I need him fit t’ ride in in the morning.”
“I don’t care where he goes or what he does. If he touches this boy again, he’s dead.”
Val stepped over the fallen body. Beckoning the boy to follow. Juanito only hesitated for a heartbeat, then he jumped agilely over the unconscious ranger as an elderly man walked into the building.
“Well, I’ll be damned, Val,” The old man exclaimed as he thrust out a hand.
“Doc,” Val nodded, shaking the old and surprisingly strong hand.
“Are you around long?”
“Nope, not long, Doc. Here to get supplies, then head out to The Lazy K.” Val glanced at his old boss. “Burt, I’ll be seeing you.”
He nodded before turning and leaving, the boy following in his wake.
Three days later found Val and Juanito riding east out of El Paso. Heading, Val had informed the youngster, for the Pecos river. They hadn’t seen Red again to talk to. He had ridden out with the other Rangers just as dawn broke. Juanito had been standing by the window to watch them ride out. Val had made some comment about hoping Red had a headache. It would serve him right, Val had grumbled. His chin had been hard, and Val’s right hand hurt some.
Their time in town had been filled with getting supplies. Val brought the boy some new clothes, at which Juanito had protested. He’d never owned so much in his life. Val also purchased old, but well looked after saddlebags. The child was in awe.
Val had also spent some time writing what he had explained to the boy as a report. Listening to the Texas Ranger Captain, Burt and Val talked. Juanito had learned that the men Val had been after when he passed through Santa Del Rosa had killed Val’s wife and son. He’d caught up with them in California, Val had said. The boy had seen a dark mood pass over Val like a wave, but all he had said was they wouldn’t be returning. Burt didn’t press Val for details, and Val didn’t offer.
So the two unlikely travellers headed west out of El Paso. The area they passed through was dry, crisp, and brown. Until they reached the valley where the Pecos River flowed. Here the grass was greener, and cattle grazed happily. A handful of Vaqueros were riding in from the west.
A House, barns, bunk house, and corals were situated on the rise above a smaller river, a tributary that flowed into the main Pecos. The clear water wove itself around the knoll.
Sentries watched out over the surrounding flat land. The elevation of the main homestead and the river gave their sharp eyes a clear sight of any inbound danger. Val was aware the Lazy K had fought off many attacks from Comanche, Mexican and white raiders from this well-positioned location. Dan had chosen well.
So it was when they rode into the yard, the sentries were all on their guard, Vaqueros stopped their work, some edging nearer the rifles. Others grinning from ear to ear. There was much Mexican chatter, and even the few elderly white cowboys spoke in rapid Spanish.
A tall willowy man, skin the colour and texture of old leather, Clothes dusty and well warn walked out of the main house to greet the two weary travellers.
“Well, I’ll be a white-tailed skunk,” The leathery old face cracking into a smile. “ Cat, Catalina, come out here and see what the wind blew in.” He didn’t stop or break his stride. “Juan, Miguel, come take these wore out old nags.” Turning to the house, he shouted again. “Cat, where are you, woman?”
A tall, distinguished woman was walking around the side of the house with a basket of freshly picked vegetables. Clearly of Spanish/ Mexican descent. Her long black hair gleamed in the sunshine.
“Why do you shout so, my husband?” Smiling, she continued to walk forward. “ And don’t be disgraceful to our guests” She came to her husband’s side.
Val and Juanito brought their horses to a halt in front of the couple. Val leaned forward on the horn of his saddle. “Dan, you don’t look a day over ninety.” He grinned, touching the brim of his hat with his free hand, his eyes moved to the woman. “And Catalina, you are more beautiful than when I last saw you.”
“That was over three years ago, Val” She smiled and turned to her husband. “You see, Val knows how to be polite” She waggled her finger at him. “ You could learn a thing or two.” She turned, waving her free arm about. “Well, don’t just stand there with a stupid grin on your face ask them in.”
And so they stayed. For the first time in his life, Juanito was given a room of his own. Val was just next door down the passage. The window looked east and caught the morning sun. Juanito was at the window most mornings, watching the first rays of light filter across the Texas range.
A month drifted past. Cat had started to teach the boy to read and write. Val had asked her. She’d been a school teacher when Dan meet her. And she taught all of the children on the ranch. The boy would do his chores with the horses in the morning and then settle to his book with a handful of the other children.
Val made himself useful on the range. Since he’d been gone, the War for Southern Independence had begun. Sucking many young men off to fight. All Dan was left was Vaqueros of Mexican descent and a few battered up and almost wore-out Texas cowhands. And what looked like an Indian wrangler, who warmed to the boy. Showing him much. Junito sucked it up.
As the fall approached, Val became quiet and one morning, announced that he would ride out on his own at breakfast. He’d be back in a few days but there was something he had to do alone. Although not happy, Juanito just nodded. He felt safe with these people. A new feeling he couldn’t remember having before.
As it happened, Val was gone a whole week. On returning, the ex-lawman was quite and distant. It scarred Juanito. He felt that although he was here. Val was lost to him. Gone and lost. Cat and Dan felt it too.
Juanito caught many glances the husband and wife threw at one another. Catalina’s questioning, while Dan would just shrug and draw on his pipe.
It was one such evening Val cleared his throat. They were all sitting around the fire after dark. Winter was approaching, and a cold wind had that autumn bite to it.
“I’ve been thinking.” He spoke to the fire. “I should have spoken about this before,” he hesitated. “I’d like to leave the boy here. I….. I’ve got some places to go.”
“Is this law work?” Catalina asked.
“I guess that’s all I know,” came the gruff reply. “I’ll send word when I get there.” He looked up at the stunned boy. “I want you to stay here. Mind Cat and her lessons. I want you to learn good mind nino. Next time I see you, I want to see you read a whole book.”
“You’ll be back?” Tears unshed glistened in Juanitos eyes.
“Maybe not here but we WILL meet again” The child nodded and dropped his eyes to his hands.
“When?” Dan cleared his throat. “When will you be leaving?”
“Tomorrow. I thought tomorrow.”
Tomorrow came far to quickly for Juanito. So, just as the fire in the sky to the east gave way to brilliant blues of a new day. Dan and Catalina stood with Val by the corral.
“You’ll look out for him?”
The beautiful woman turned to Val and poked a slim finger at his chest.
“I …. we told you we will,” She glanced over to the left, where a small graveyard was. “As if he were my own boy.” She looked up at Val. “You have my word.”
With that, Juanito appeared out of the barn leading Val’s buckskin. His face was pale and his eyes red.
“You mind these folk, boy.” He held out his hand, which the boy ignored, throwing himself forward and wrapping his arms around the older man’s waist. Burying his head in Val’s freshly laundered shirt front. The older man dropped his head, ruffing the boy’s raven locks with his hand. He whispered to the boy quietly in Spanish. The boy hugged him tighter, before releasing him and stepping back.
Val cleared his throat, turned, and stepped up into the saddle. Hat drawn low, so it was impossible to see his eyes, Val turned the sand-coloured horse and nudged it down the road, easing it into an easy ground-eating lope.
Catalina turned. Not wishing to see the husband of her dearly missed best friend leave. Knowing she would never see him in this life again saddened her. But she knew it would be so.
The boy and Dan stood as the colours of dawn gave way to the day. They quietly watched the man who meant so much to each of them in so many ways become smaller, as he headed west, taking a part of their hearts with him.
Below out of the small scrub trotted a coyote. Bold as brass without a care in the world. Then unseen until the last moment, a lone wolf rose from a slight dip in the grass, snapping at the coyote and sending it yipping the way it had come. The wolf turned its eyes, apearing to pick out the distant rider before slinking off itself.
Dan cleared his throat. “What is your name, kid? Your full name?”
Distracted the boy, eyes still on the distant dot moving ever further away answered in a hushed tone, “Juanito Madrinio.”
“My old wranglers called Juan Madrinio and his son is Juanito, eeee got two or three Juans running about.” He thought for a moment. “This is Texas, boy. And Texan for Juan is John, and my wife’s people are from Madrid, that’s in the old country of Spain. So that’s what I’ll call you.” He seemed pleased with himself. “Come on, The day’s a-wasting and we’re burning daylight.”
Dan moved off, leaving the boy to blink down the trail. He would see him again. Val had said so. Val had never lied to him. He’d always been straight.
“Breakfast is on the table,” Dan’s voice filtered over the yard. The boy half turned his eyes, still hoping to pick up movement in the distance. “Come on in, Johnny Madrid”
And off in the distance, a lone wolf let out a lonesome howl to the sky. Ushering the Coyote into the distance.
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20 thoughts on “El Coyote…The Return by Jane-Louise”
Well written. Loved the continuation of the Coyote series. Bravo. Exciting. Love Val point of view.
Thankyou for your kind words. I loved writing it.
So much so I’ve started the next one.
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This is a compelling backstory for Johnny and Val. I am anxious to read more. Your descriptions, the dialog, and the storyline are top notch.
Beautiful and compelling story. Normally I don’t like young Johnny stories but this one is well written with a brisk pace.
I will wait for the reunion some years later.
Thank you for writing and sharing
Thankyou for reading.
And yes next one started
Thankyou so much. I’ve read lancer fanfic for so long.
But it’s been fun writing as well. I’m glad you liked it.
Great story. Thank you. I hope this will be continued?
Oh yes I’ve started a new one.
Glad you enjoyed this
Really enjoying this series. Your descriptions of the landscapes are so evocative and the characterisation is excellent. I loved it when the Montoyas popped up. I hope the old grey pony was OK! Looking forward to the next episode.
Glad you enjoyed it.
Lol I didn’t think about the pony. One day I’ll have to add something
I love stories with Johnny and Val. Your series is great! Thanks for writing and keeping us entertained!
I’m glad you enjoyed it.
I enjoyed writing it
Hi, Jane Louise! This is a great series and your portrayal of Val and Johnny is exceptional! Ha, and that is saying something because I’m not a fan of reading about the Lancer sons as children. But you have created a great interpretation and I am anxiously awaiting more. Love this series!
Thank you so much for sharing this story! You are an amazing storyteller who really understands the characters. Looking forward to next one
OMG! This is so good. I am loving this series. Please have another part coming.
Great story! I love your vision of the past between Johnny and Val. Your story showed how the two made a lifetime bond.
I’m happy you continued the Coyote line. I’m hoping you’ll write another telling how Johnny and Val met up again.
I was so excited to see the continuation of your ElCoyote story, and you didn’t disappoint! You developed a lovely relationship with Val and a young Johnny. I will look forward to your next story. Thank you
Great series so far,I’m looking forward to the next one.
Loved both of your stories. Hope you do a sequel telling how Johnny and Val meet up again. I tried to leave a “like” but for some reason I couldn’t.
Awesome job! Absolutely love this series. So happy to read that there’s a 3rd story in the works. Have no doubt it will be just as good as the first two.