Mariena Gu Achi gazed at the sun descending to the place where the sky met land. A sickness settled in her midsection. How would they make it?
Her brother stirred beside her. So young. So trusting.
He relied on her. Needed her to find a way. But that didn’t mean she could.
Her heart sank.
The chance of them being captured by Apache and sold into slavery…or worse…weighed on her.
That is if a coyote didn’t find them first.
How would she manage? It was too far. And everything was against her. She bit her lip. Perhaps the pain would stave off the tears that threatened to fall.
Nisto didn’t need that.
No, he couldn’t know that she was lost.
That they were lost. And hopeless.
Even if he tried, Cutie could no longer hear the sound of cattle. Noises that were the staple of his day would not fill this one. And he so needed a break from the dredery of normalcy.
Oh, it wasn’t that he didn’t love life on the ranch. He had become…accustomed to it. Comfortable with it. Where else would he want to be?
But today was his.
More often than not, he allowed himself to be drawn into Wharton City in his off time. But lately, he found solace in the dusty trails that lay far from the reaches of the city. Or the ranch.
Not a soul for miles.
He pushed his painted horse harder, harder. Striving for that peace he never seemed able to quite reach.
Had Brandon started to trust him again? His boss spoke of forgiveness and what that meant, but it seemed impossible. Cutie had wronged the man. And the rancher had nearly lost everything: his ranch, his wife…and his very life. All because Cutie got a little restless. A little greedy.
And for what? A handful of crisp bills to gamble away?
His chest ached. And so he shoved the thoughts to the edge of his consciousness, but they would move no further.
A stream appeared off to the right and the horse needed little prompting to veer that direction. How long had he pressed her?
The animal slowed as they neared the clear flowing water. Still, the thundering of the hoofbeats drowned out all other sound.
Even when the mare had all but stopped, just short of the cool water, the pounding remained. Did his own heart race so wildly?
Sliding from the saddle, he lay a hand to the horse’s slick muscled neck. The layer of sweat betrayed just how much she had worked for him.
Why had he pushed her so? He knew better. It would not be safe to run her like this on the way back. She would not likely survive it.
Clicking his tongue, he pulled on the reins and led her the short distance remaining to the stream.
While she drank, he crouched to soak his bandana. Wiping it across his face, he relished the coolness against his overheated skin. Had he been running from the devil? Or something worse?
He frowned and gazed at the swirling water.
Something…there on the edge of his consciousness threatened to creep forth. Was this what he worked so hard to elude?
Dare he, in this place, test this thing?
Settling back on his rear, he rested his elbows on his knees and squinted at great rock formations—seeming to have been painted unique shades of purples and reds by God’s own hand.
Now there was a thought.
He rubbed his face against his shoulder. And caught sight of movement further downstream by the water’s edge.
What was that?
Perhaps nothing. He focused again on the butte. Still, it nagged on the edge of his awareness. Something was there. Or someone. Had he been followed?
He almost laughed. Who would care to? He wasn’t important enough.
Glancing to that side though he kept his head turned forward, he sensed more than saw motion.
He jerked his head toward it.
There. In the brush. Not even a good hiding place.
He rose, keeping an eye on the bush as he did so and moving his hand to hover over his gun. “Who’s there?”
He shot a quick glance at his horse. She grazed nearby. Should he walk her over with him?
Backing up, he grabbed for the dangling leather and secured it to a tree branch. Never once taking his eyes off the place where he had noted the movement.
“Nothing? No answer?” He took careful steps forward, a hand on his pistol.
The closer he came, he picked up on more sounds. Smaller movements. Whispers.
The movements stilled.
His steps arced wide to come alongside the bush as he removed his gun from its resting place.
When the back of the brush was exposed to him, he found two sets of deep brown eyes staring at him.
Mariena stared at the pistol pointed directly at her face. She tightened her lips into a thin line and hardened her jaw.
With firm movements, she shifted Nisto until he was behind her. Though it mattered little. If this man wanted to kill them, he would simply shoot her and then Nisto.
Still, she could not help but create a barrier between the weapon, it’s owner, and her young brother.
The man continued to eye them. What was he thinking? Why didn’t he just do what he intended?
He cocked the gun and lowered it.
“What the devil?”
The devil? Did he think she a devil? Perhaps it was true that the white man thought all of her people nothing but savages. And her…a she-devil.
She forced her features to remain neutral. Best not to give the man anything else to support his assumptions.
“You are going to get killed all sneaking around behind bushes.”
She continued to watch him.
Nisto wimpered, still curled in a ball behind her.
The man ran a hand over his face. “Great. No English.”
Dare she? What good would it do for her to expose her language skills? Why shouldn’t she?
The best weapons are those kept in secret. One of Father’s wisdoms.
But this man might have food. Or may even help them. They had evaded death for too long already. They could not elude him for much longer.
This man had not ended their lives when he had the chance. Perhaps he could help. Perhaps he would.
“Ah…just nevermind. I’ll forget I ever saw ya.” The man waved his hands in their direction and turned toward his horse.
“Mister Sir.” She spoke. The words sounded strange even to her. Heavily accented by her native tongue. Could he even understand her?
He jerked around. Eyes back on hers. “What?”
She rose, with hesitancy.
Nisto put his legs under him and started to lift his body.
Shifting, she admonished him in their language and held a hand down. “No! Let me talk to him first.”
Nisto stilled and then crouched once more.
“You can speak English?”
“Yes.” Best to keep her words few. Better he didn’t find out how simple and limited her English was. Would it anger him?
“Who are you? Where are you from? What are you doing out here?”
Her head spun with the many words. She worked to decipher his questions. “We are of Tohono O’odnam.”
“The Desert Indians.”
“I thought what of ya didn’t go to Mexico headed to San Xavier to the Reservation.”
A great ache filled her chest. She looked to the ground. It wasn’t for him to see.
She looked off to the side. “My tribe started the trip to Mexico.”
“You took a wrong turn.” He made a snort-like laugh.
Her eyes jerked toward his. There was indeed humor on his face. Would she ever smile again? “We were attacked.”
His smile fell.
“My brother and I are all that is left.”
She folded herself in her arms, shivering despite the warmth of the sun bearing down on them.
“Are you headed for the Reservation now?”
Looking down at her arms, she worked to control her features. “We are lost.”
“In this wilderness?” His tone betrayed his shock. “Do you realize how dangerous that can…?”
His words trailed off. Why had he not finished his question?
She turned her gaze up toward him.
Their eyes met.
He looked away.
And she understood. The man felt sorry for them. Pitied them. Her heart sank. This was far worse than the fear of the gun. The heaviness in the pit of her stomach.
Must she appear so helpless?
She closed her eyes. What choice did she have? Without a home, without her parents, her family, her tribe…she was helpless.
What was he supposed to do?
Surely no one could expect him to do anything with this young woman and boy.
Was it even appropriate?
Would others think he was taking advantage? What would his boss think? Would Brandon let him bring these two refugees to the ranch? How could he even wonder such a thing?. Of course the man wouldn’t want these two left out here.
Would Cutie then be taking advantage of the man’s kindness?
But if Cutie didn’t help…an animal or another Native tribe would finish them off for certain. And they wouldn’t be kind or care what others thought.
He looked once more at the two Tohono O’odham. The girl, maybe five years his junior, watched him as well.
Her eyes narrowed. Perhaps she didn’t trust him.
There was, then, another barrier to overcome.
The smaller boy huddled near his sister’s skirt. What must he have seen? Have endured?
Too much for one so young. Boys his age should be concerned about what they would catch next time they went fishing. Not how they would survive. Or how they could overcome such hard memories as he must have.
Cutie glanced back in the direction of his horse. How would he bear them back to the ranch? This is, if he decided to help.
They were miles from any semblance of civilization. And the horse could not bear the weight of all three.
His gaze wandered to the stream.
Dare he leave them behind and seek out help?
Should they journey back at the pace of a dying snail?
The journey would take days.
He didn’t have food.
They had not the hope of shelter.
He would be risking his own neck.
“You will leave us then?” Her voice was not accusing as he would have expected. But gentle. Expecting. Matter-of-fact.
How could she know his thoughts? Was he so transparent?
He pushed out a breath.
She looked away. “We will do what we must.”
Raising her arm, she turned her face toward her brother.
He stood up beside her and pressed his face into her side.
“And you will do what you must.” Her dark eyes fell on his once more.
Cutie found himself unable to look away. Did she somehow bewitch him? For a weight fell upon his chest. And the prospect of leaving them out here, alone, in the desert became unthinkable.
Regardless of the challenges.
Regardless of the risk to him.
He would see them to safety.
Letting his hands drop from his hips to fall by his side, he took steps toward her.
She pulled back, eyes wide, hugging her brother to herself.
Was she so alarmed? So fearful of him? Even more so than when he had a pistol pointed at her?
He halted and held his empty hands up. “I will not harm you.”
Her brows furrowed.
He held a hand out, waving in the direction of his horse. “Come.”
Her expression of confusion deepened. “We will find a way. Together.”
Remaining as she was for several moments, he second guessed himself. Perhaps his plan was not so simple. Maybe they would not let him assist. If so, could he ride away, knowing their lives were forfeit?
He pushed out a breath. Had he been holding it? He couldn’t be worried, could he?
The young woman continued to watch him. Her arms tightened around her brother. The movement was small, almost imperceptible.
Would she be quicker to trust him with herself? But hesitant because she alone was responsible for hier brother’s wellbeing?
Did Cutie care enough to convince her?
He let his hand fall. Then turned to walk toward his horse. But slowly.
She stretched from the waist, leaning forward.
“Yes?” He kept his voice even.
“We need your help. May you help us?”
His eyes held hers. Did she know what she asked of him?
Her gaze softened.
Somehow he knew that she did.
He nodded and extended his hand once more.
This time, the woman stepped forward, keeping her arms around her brother. She moved toward Cutie. And, as she neared where he stood, he led them to where the horse grazed.
The journey ahead would be great. And frought with unknown danger.
And, with any luck, they would survive to face down the challenges that awaited them in Wharton City.
Mariena distracted herself with the movement of the scenery. As slowly as it moved. The man had insisted she and Nisto ride upon the horse.
Horses made her uneasy. They had too much of their own mind. Stubborn.
Wasn’t that how her mother described her?
This was not the time to dwell on Mother.
She leaned forward and whispered to Nisto in their tongue, “I think this man will keep us safe.”
He nodded, but remained silent.
Should she expect anything else? He hadn’t spoken much since…since the attack. How she wished she could have protected him from the images…from the memories. She could no more erase them from his mind than she could hers.
Best to let the horse’s movements keep her wary than to work to fight these demons.
Nisto had always been good with horses. She could rely on that at least. If the horse got antsy, Nisto knew what to do.
But the man had the reins. Surely he would not let the horse be out of control.
She had placed much trust in him.
Their very lives.
Or were they already dead and he their only hope?
Either way, his fate was now intertwined with theirs.
She opened her mouth to speak, but thought better of it. What was there to say that he would not abhor?
He turned toward her? Had she, in fact, spoken?
“Maybe we switch?” It would not do for her to let him walk the entirety of the distance.
Facing the horizon once more he shook his head, his hat swaying from side to side.
Why wouldn’t he let her share the burden? Did he intend to walk the whole way back to his ranch. What had he said? Perhaps three days’ journey?
What that would do to his body. To his feet!
She would not allow it. Yes, she could be just as hard-headed as he.
Reaching for the nape of the horse’s neck, she grabbed for the thick of hair there. And pulled.
The animal let out a screech-like sound and halted. But not before Mariena’s heart nearly bounded from her chest. Would the horse buck her and Nisto off? Had she made a serious mistake?
Dark blue eyes were on her in a moment. “What the…?”
She slid, somewhat more wobbly than she would like, from the mare’s back. But even as her feet touched the ground, she wasn’t certain they would hold her.
The man was beside her in a moment. “What are you doing?”
Dare she release the stability of the horse? Shifting toward him, she kept one hand on the animal’s side. “I walk now. You ride.”
He forced a breath through his clenched teeth and muttered a word she did not know. A curse of some sort?
His eyes settled on hers again. They fairly flashed as he spoke. “I won’t have it.”
“And I will not. You walk for three days. No good.”
Placing his hands on his hips, he turned his regard to the horse.
Nisto maneuvered a leg over the horse. Did he intend to drop down as well?
“No,” she admonished in their language. “You reamain astride.”
He stilled and settled his leg back around the horse, ducking his head as if he was being punished.
She hadn’t intended to speak to him harshly. Had she? Or was this, too, the effects of the images that haunted him? Her brother, barely seven winters old had started to withdraw. If only she could help him.
Her lip quivered and she bit it. There was no reason this man needed to see. He might think her weak.
When she looked at him again, she found him staring at her. What had he seen? More than she wanted him to?
His gaze softened and he crossed his arms over his chest. “Only for a little while.”
She nodded. So the man could be reasoned with.
Perhaps this journey would not be so terrible after all.
Cutie stoked the small fire. They didn’t need the warmth, but the rabbit cooking above the flames was the cause of the rumbling in their bellies. They had not had anything to eat that day, save what he’d had for breakfast that morning and the little rations he’d given them from his pack earlier that day.
The chorus of groans and grumbles from their midsections reminded them what exactly would make this journey difficult.
But he had the pistol.
Though he hadn’t thought to bring extra bullets.
How could he tell the young woman with the dark eyes that he only had two bullets left? And that they were best kept to protect them from any wild animals that may come upon them?
Gazing across the lapping light even then, the flickers on her skin highlighted her high cheekbones and thin features. She was lovely.
But he shouldn’t be thinking such thoughts.
Their survival was of utmost importance. And here he was gawking at her.
That was almost as bad as…as selling out your friend for thirty pieces of silver.
Oh, that he could take it back.
Looking to the side, he wished away the thoughts, the memories. But they remained. Taunting him.
Her gentle voice drew his attention. She spoke soft words to her brother. Did she soothe him? Tell him a story? Or talk about the strange man that tried to help them?
Perhaps he should ask their names. That would be a good bit of information to have.
He cleared his throat as he reached forward and turned the animal on the spit. “What should I call you?”
Her eyes shot to his. “Call me?”
His face warmed. “Your name? Or something other than ‘young woman’?”
She gazed into the fire. Did she not remember her name? Or did she not care for him to know it? Was there some mystical belief attached to names in her tribe?
“I am Mariena.”
“Mariena,” he tried the name. Not familiar to his tongue, but it fell smoothly.
“Cutie.” He pointed to himself.
“You are cute?” Her brows furrowed. “Small and pretty?”
He became thankful for the dimness around them. Could she see his face coloring? Running a hand along the brim of his hat, he tried to think of a way to speak to that. “Cu-tie. It’s a nickname. Like what people call me instead of my name.”
“Why don’t they call you what you are named?”
He licked his lips. “Because I have the same name as my father.”
“This is not good?”
“No. It’s fine. But it can be confusing.”
There was a moment of silence.
“And what is this name no one calls you?”
He hesitated. Why was he resistant to telling his given name? Embarrassed? Shy?
She watched him. Waiting.
Sighing, he picked up a stick and poked at the fire. “Charles.”
“Charles.” She enunciated every letter.
He smiled despite his discomfort. “Charles.”
She tried again. “Charles.”
That time it sounded more like one syllable, made almost music-like with her accent. He liked it. Was that okay?
No. It wasn’t.
Rising to his knees, he checked their dinner. Only a few more minutes. He sat back on his feet.
“This is Nisto.” She wrapped an arm around her brother.
“Does he speak?”
Looking at her brother, her features fell. “Yes. But no.”
Cutie’s brows furrowed.
She ran a hand through Nisto’s hair. “He does not say much since…” Her words trailed and she seemed lost for a moment.
But he could guess where her mind was. And where Nisto’s went often.
“That is over now. You are safe.” What a strange thing to say. They were far from safe. Still, he could not stop the words.
She looked at him. Her eyes glazed with moisture.
Did she trust him? Or had they come with him because he was the only hope they had?
He turned away first. And a weight grew in the bottom of his stomach. What a fool he was. There was no way to know what they had been through. And here he was offering them hollow assurances.
But getting them safely to the ranch was the least he could do.
And of that, he was determined.