A Coffin for Santa Rosa (6 page)

She awoke, choking. Someone was pouring liquid down her throat. Raven opened her eyes and saw Almighty Sky bent over her, holding a gourd containing water. A silver moon sat on his shoulder. Feeling groggy, she blinked, wondering if he was a hallucination. His wrinkled, weathered face remained before her. But when he moved closer the moon slipped off his shoulder and returned to the starry sky. She looked about her and realized they were now standing outside the hogan.

‘Drink,
Ish-kay-nay
,’ Almighty Sky said. ‘You will feel better.’

She drank. For a few moments nothing happened. Then her stomach twitched. Suddenly, like a volcano erupting, she vomited. Almighty Sky gave her more water. She vomited again. Then her stomach settled, her head cleared and, as he’d told her, she felt better. Realizing she was still naked under the red blanket, she collected her clothes from the bush, ducked behind the Morgan, dressed quickly and returned beside the old shaman.

‘Come,’ he told her. ‘It is time to make good smoke together.’ Before she could protest, he led her over to the elders. Huddled in blankets, their bronze impassive faces showing no effects from the peyote, they sat smoking large fat cigarettes. They puffed slowly, holding the cigarettes pinched between finger and thumb so that the tobacco packed inside the loosely-wrapped corn husks would not fall out.

‘Wait,’ Raven said as Almighty Sky went to sit down. ‘There is something I must tell you. While I was chewing peyote I had this vision.’

‘Tonight there were many visions, my daughter. Yours will keep till morning.’

‘No, it won’t! It can’t wait! You don’t understand. It’s important!’

‘Tell me then, if you must.’

‘I saw my friend, Gabe – Gabriel. You remember him, don’t you – the tall Pale Eyes whose life was saved by the Sacred One?’

‘Yes,
Ish-kay-nay
, I remember. He was a man who spoke straight.’

‘Well, right now he’s in danger. He … he’s tied up in a barn and we got to get him out of there!’ Raven quickly explained what had happened to Gabriel and how in her vision she’d seen Stadtlander’s men hang him. ‘He could be dead already for all I know, but there’s a chance he isn’t an’ if you’ll help me we can—’

‘We?’

‘Your warriors and me.’

Almighty Sky wrinkled his withered lips, showing shrunken toothless gums, and gestured about him. ‘Look around you,
Ish-kay
-nay
. Do you see any warriors?’

‘No, but—’

‘All you see is a defeated people.’

‘My father,’ Raven said stubbornly, ‘told me there was no such thing as defeat. He said defeat was only a state of mind.’

‘Your father was a brave man and a true friend of the Apache. I will not quarrel with his words.’

‘That mean you’ll help me?’

The old shaman sadly shook his head. ‘I only wish I could, my daughter.’ He closed his eyes and was silent so long she wondered if he’d fallen asleep. Finally, he looked at her and said: ‘It is no secret that we Apaches call ourselves
Nde
, The People. We have lived here as warriors for a thousand moons. Like our ancestors, we roamed free, hunting where we wanted, fearing no one, living in harmony with the Earth God. But no more. The day of the warrior has ended. Forever. We have
become farmers who cannot farm, beggars with no food to beg for, prisoners in our own land, our once-proud spirit broken by Agency laws, starvation, and firewater.’

Raven had never heard Almighty Sky speak so passionately. Her heart ached for him. But she desperately needed his help. ‘What you say is true, Wise One. But surely there are still men among you who can ride an’ fire a rifle?’

‘We have no rifles,
Ish-kay-nay
. The White Eyes’ law forbids us to arm ourselves. As for ponies, those that have not been killed for meat to feed the hungry are so feeble they cannot be ridden.’ His tone softened and for a brief moment he rested his fragile, wrinkled hand on her shoulder. ‘Go now, my daughter. There is nothing here for you. Nothing here for anyone. Soon the desert sand will blow over this land, covering everything, leaving no trace that The People were ever here. It is written.’ He sat down, picked up the makings from a basket and began rolling a smoke.

Raven angrily stamped her foot. ‘If you won’t help me, Wise One, then why did you bring me here? Why did you send me a vision?’

Almighty Sky looked up at her, his watery red-rimmed eyes filled with compassion. ‘I have but shown you the mountain,
Ish-kay
-nay.
How you climb it is up to you.’ He took a stick from the fire and touched the glowing end to his cigarette. Puffed contentedly.

Raven stood there, dejected, hoping against hope that Almighty Sky would change his mind.

He didn’t. Frustrated, she had no choice but to mount up and sadly ride away.

 

Gabriel tried to open his eyes. His lids wouldn’t respond. His head pounded so hard he thought it might explode. Overwhelmed by dizziness, he lapsed back into oblivion.

He had been slipping in and out of consciousness ever since
the beating. Now, several hours later, he came around again and this time he forced himself to stay awake. Every part of him ached. He again tried to open his eyes. It took great effort, but finally he managed it and blinked a few times. His eyelids felt stiff and puffy. He realized they were swollen from punches. But he kept blinking and gradually his focus cleared.

Looking about him, he saw he was sitting on the urine-soaked floor of Stadtlander’s barn, roped to a post with his hands tied behind him. Every breath he took caused a stabbing pain in his side. Guessing his ribs were broken, or bruised, he glanced up and saw a sliver of pale gray sky showing through a crack in the roof. Dawn was coming, he realized. It reminded him of Stadtlander’s threat to hang him at daylight. He had to get free – and fast. Gritting his teeth, he ignored the pain and strained against the rope. When that didn’t work, he tried to wriggle his hands free. It was hopeless. The rope binding his wrists would not budge.

So, he thought sardonically. This was how his life was going to play out: dangling ingloriously at the end of his former employer’s rope! Hardly the death he’d hoped for – yet, he had to admit, probably justifiable. He had killed for the man and now the man was going to kill him.

How ironic.

How disappointing. Now he wouldn’t be able to keep his word to Ingrid and protect her daughter while she grew up. The thought of failing her chewed at him. He licked his split lips, the saliva making them sting. He didn’t mind dying so much – for a gunman or an outlaw death was always a heartbeat away. He’d learned to accept that. But to not be able to watch Raven, the one joy in his life, grow into the fiery, high-spirited, successful woman he knew she’d be – well, that was something he’d die regretting!

Once off the reservation, Raven wearily rode in the direction of Stillman J. Stadtlander’s ranch. Stretching north, east and west from the Mexican border, it covered tens of thousands of acres, including a large portion of the fertile Rio Grande Valley.

The closest boundary line was only five miles away, the
ranch-house
another mile after that. Raven still had no idea how to rescue Gabriel, but she knew she had to think of something fast. Stadtlander would most likely wait for daylight before hanging Gabriel and one look at the sky told her that dawn was no more than an hour away. Desperate, she kicked the Morgan into a mile-consuming gait.

They crossed a flat, arid valley sheltered on the north and east by mountains. The south lay open all the way to the Mexico, which was farther than she could see. Ahead, craggy outcrops loomed up like dark sentinels guarding the wasteland. In the east the gray, cloudy sky was turning pale and tinted with lavender, signaling the approach of dawn. Presently, a fresh breeze sprang up bringing her campfire smells. Exhausted and hoping a cup of coffee would keep her awake, she slowed the weary Morgan to a walk and looked around for signs of a camp.

Smoke spiraled up from behind nearby rocks. She steered Brandy in that direction. Clumps of Palo Verde and mesquite rose up in front of her. Riding between them, she skirted the rocks and saw several men gathered around a fire. Behind them grazed a herd of horses.

Gabriel had taught her that it was dangerous to ride in on
night camps without first announcing herself, some jumpy cowboy might instinctively fire off a few rounds. So, reining up a short distance from the fire, she was about to call out when a rider appeared out of the darkness.

‘Hold it right there,’ he growled.

Raven obeyed, instantly regretting that she hadn’t ridden on.

The rider nudged his horse closer, his rifle glinting in the moonlight. His Stetson was battered and soiled, and by his unkempt beard and grimy clothes she guessed he was a drifter. As he got close enough to see her face, he gave a surprised grunt. ‘Well, I’ll be a Judas goat! You ain’t nothin’ but a sprout. What’re you doin’ way out here, girlie? You lost?’

‘No-I-ain’t-lost.’

‘’Course you’re lost,’ the rider said, mockingly. ‘Why else would you be ridin’ around in the middle of the night?’

‘I’m on my way to visit someone.’

‘Yeah? Who?’

‘My grandpa – Mr Stillman Stadtlander.’

She’d only intended to impress him enough to make him let her go, but by his expression and low whistle she realized she’d done much more than that.

‘Halleluiah, boys!’ he yelled to the others. ‘Reckon we just hit pay dirt!’ Before Raven could stop him, he grasped the Morgan’s bridle and led her into camp.

The cruel-eyed, bearded faces that stared at her as she approached the fire all belonged to border trash. Raven tried to hide her fear, but inside she went numb. These were brutal, lawless misfits who killed, robbed and raped without reason or conscience. Drifters, gunmen, rustlers – she couldn’t have been in more danger if she’d ridden into Geronimo’s camp twenty years ago.

Meanwhile, the rider was whooping it up. ‘Know who her grampa is, fellas, Stillman J. Stadtlander hisself.’

The rustlers crowded around her, peering, grinning, jostling
each other just to get a closer look at her.

‘Well, well, if this isn’t justice,’ one said. ‘Y’all remember me, sister?’

Raven looked at the gaunt, gray-bearded, tobacco-stained face grinning up at her and realized it was the older of the two wranglers at the train station in Deming who’d wanted to know if Brandy was for sale.

‘Reckon you’re not feeling so feisty now, huh?’ He spat, rolled his chew to his other cheek, and turned to the others. ‘She’s the little gal I told y’all about – one who was with her pa, a gunman, looked like, who shot McClory and Little Bill in Black Water Canyon.’

The rustlers glared at Raven. Realizing they blamed her for the death of their companions, she panicked and tried to back the Morgan up. But the rustlers quickly grabbed her legs and pulled her off the stallion’s back.

Enraged, Brandy reared up, lashing out with his forelegs, scattering everyone around him. Free to escape, the Morgan instead charged the men holding Raven. They jumped aside, one of them dragging her with him.

‘Run! Run!’ she yelled to Brandy.

But the stallion wouldn’t abandon her. Again he charged her captors. Again they dived aside. As Brandy wheeled, ready to charge again, several of the rustlers threw ropes over the stallion’s head while others lassoed his legs, jerking the Morgan off its feet.

‘Stop it!’ Raven screamed. ‘Leave him be!’ She struggled to break loose, but her captors quickly overpowered her.

‘You better let me go!’ she hissed at them. ‘Right now! Or my grandpa will hang every last one of you!’

The rustlers howled.

‘Not one of us here ain’t got a rope waitin’ for him,’ a wiry, long-legged drifter said. He jerked his thumb at the stolen horses behind him. ‘As for your high and mighty grampa,
reckon he and his boys are already out combing the hills for his stock.’

‘If you let me go,’ Raven said desperately, ‘I promise I won’t tell him about the horses. I won’t even say I saw you.’

‘That’s mighty considerate of you,’ the old wrangler drawled. ‘But turning you loose wouldn’t be conscionable. Pretty little flower like you, all alone out here in the desert, who knows what might happen?’

‘I say we forget the horses,’ the long-legged drifter said. ‘I say we go brace Stadtlander an’ see how much he’s willin’ to pay to get his precious granddaughter back safe an’ sound.’

The old wrangler chuckled. ‘Ordinarily I’d play along with you, Luke. But I already rounded up a buyer for them broncs. So unless y’all feel like pissing away money you already risked your necks for, I say drive them to Valley Verde like we planned.’ He waited for the chorus of ‘ayes’ to die down before adding: ‘I’ll catch up with y’all later. Then once Mr Eldon pays us off, we’ll figure out a plan how to get ransom money out of Ol’ Man Stadtlander.’

The rustlers nodded in agreement. Mounting, they began herding the stolen horses together.

Meanwhile, the old wrangler dragged Raven over to the fire, made her sit down and bound her ankles.

‘How you going to take me to my grandpa,’ she demanded sullenly, ‘if you let those men steal my horse?’

The old wrangler grinned, showing broken teeth. ‘First thing you ought to know, sister, is Stillman Stadtlander doesn’t have a granddaughter. Doesn’t have a wife or children or next of kin, either. He’s the last tree standing. So quit feeding me fish stories an’ tell me where your pa is?’

‘I ain’t telling you anything.’ Raven turned her head away and angrily watched as the rustlers rode off with the stolen horses. Two riders had ropes around Brandy’s neck and were forcing the half-choked Morgan to run between them.

‘Suit yourself.’ The old wrangler picked up a discarded bottle of rye and drained the last few drops. Then wiping his lips on the sleeve of his old fringed jacket, he flung the bottle away and hunkered down in front of Raven. ‘But I’m not long on patience, sister. So unless y’all want me to use ways to make you talk, you better answer my question.’

He thrust his face in hers. He reeked of sweat, liquor and trail dirt, making her recoil.

‘Go ahead,’ she said defiantly. ‘Do what you want. I still won’t tell you nothing.’

The old wrangler sighed, as if what he was about to do went against his nature. Then reaching behind his neck, he pulled a foot-long Arkansas Toothpick from under his shirt and poked the tip of the blade into the fire.

‘Despite what you think,’ he said, watching the steel turn red then white, ‘I’m not a mean cuss. But Little Bill was kinfolk. And before I grow much older I aim to settle the score with your pa.’ He paused, took the now-glowing-white blade from the fire and held it close to Raven’s face. ‘For the last time, little sister, tell me where he is.’

Raven felt the heat from the blade and shrank back fearfully. ‘He’s not my pa,’ she blurted. ‘That’s the truth,’ she said as the old wrangler inched the knife closer. ‘I swear. Can ask anyone in Santa Rosa. They’ll tell you. My father’s dead. Was shot down in the street a while back.’

‘Then who’s this fellow?’

‘Just a man my momma liked. Me’n him come out here by train from Old Calico. Momma caught a fever and passed a few days back. Made him promise to bury her next to my father. You saw the coffin. It was in the wagon while you were shooting at us.’ She paused, a plan now forming in her head. ‘Soon as Momma was in the ground I ran away from him. I hate him much as you do. Maybe more.’

‘And why would that be?’

‘’Cause he’s flat-out mean. Was always whipping and cussin’ me behind Momma’s back, making me do stuff for him.’

The old wrangler, sensing she was telling the truth, lowered the knife. ‘When you ran off from him, where was that?’

‘At Mr Stadtlander’s ranch. He and Gabe – that’s the man’s name, Gabriel Moonlight – are old pals. If you want,’ she added, seeing she had him hooked, ‘I could take you there. We’d have to ride double and get there before daylight so no one sees us sneaking around. But if we find a place to hide, like maybe in the barn, when Gabe comes in to saddle up, you could take him down.’

The old wrangler mulled over her suggestion. Raven could see he found it appealing, but daunting, and knew she had to convince him.

‘I ain’t saying it’ll be easy. But you got no choice. Before I ran off, Gabe told me he was going back to California soon as he left the ranch, so this’ll be your only chance to get even with him for killin’ your kin.’

‘By God, I’ll do it,’ the old wrangler said. Then, sobered by the thought, he grasped Raven by both shoulders and pulled her face within an inch of his. ‘Better not be telling me tall tales, sister, or I swear I’ll cut your gullet out.’ He pressed the point of the still-warm blade against her neck, making her gulp with fear.

Other books

Feather Light (Knead Me) by Font, Lorenz
Black Swan Rising by Carroll, Lee
Moonlight and Shadows by Janzen, Tara
The Samurai's Daughter by Lesley Downer
Dirty Blonde by Scottoline, Lisa
Girl at Sea by Maureen Johnson
The Rose of Blacksword by Rexanne Becnel
UNSEEN by John Michael Hileman