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 if he did?
“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.