by Patricia Rice
Copyright © 1994 Patricia Rice.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or republished without permission in writing from the author.
Texas, August 1835
Lily looked away from the eight-year-old studying at the table and glanced out the beautifully glazed window Jim had just installed this spring. She clenched her hands into fists as one of the farmhands outside shook his head in response to something another of them said, scuffed his moccasins in the dust, then turned determinedly toward the house. Hastily donning the apron she seldom wore, Lily opened the back door as if she were on the way to the outdoor kitchen.
She had known this confrontation was coming, but she had hoped to postpone it a little longer. Just a little longer. Anything could happen in a few hours’ time, a few days. Jim would be coming back. He had to. But a shiver down Lily’s spine reminded her that it had been a month already. It didn’t take a month to look for a lost calf.
She stepped down to the ground quickly so the man standing on the wide step didn’t have to look up at her any more than necessary. He twisted his hat in his hands and didn’t quite meet her eyes.
“Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am, Miz Brown, but I thought I orter let you know I’ll be packin’ my bags and movin’ on this evenin’. I got a offer from that Reynolds fella, and I reckon I can’t turn it down.”
“I’ll match the offer, Jack. You know we hate to lose you. You’re one of the best men Jim has.”
Jack looked as if he would rather eat his hat than answer, but he managed to say what needed to be said. “Ma’am, Miz Brown, we reckon Jim ain’t comin’ back. We’ve scoured them prairies high and low. There’s been signs of Indians up along the river. A man like Jim don’t disappear without word less’n somethin’ happened to him. I’m sorry to say this, ma’am, but we reckon Jim’s dead, and we can’t be workin’ for no woman. It don’t pay in the long run. Some of the other fellas are lookin’ ’round to leave, too.”
Had she been at her home in Mississippi, there would have been a dozen chairs scattered along the verandah for Lily to collapse into while sobbing with ladylike grace, but as it was, there was nothing but an acre of trampled grass and dust between the house and the stable and the barn. She wanted to sit on the back step and bury her head in her hands and pretend this would all go away, but she had come a long way in these last years. She held her chin up and straightened her shoulders, even though that made her a head taller than the bowlegged farmhand.
“Tell them to give me a little more time. Jim has been meaning to hire a foreman, someone to take some of the work off him. If I go and talk to the man now, would you work for him?”
Jack knew she was lying through her teeth, but she stood there so proud and tall, her braid glistening gold in the sunlight, her woman’s figure hidden behind the shirt and vest and trousers she had adopted for working beside her husband, that he couldn’t resist her appeal. Gnashing his teeth at the extent of his foolishness, Jack pounded his hat back on his head.
“All right, ma’am. If you’re bringin’ a man in here to run things, we’d be willin’ to stay a while. Jim was a good man. We don’t want no harm to come to his widow.”
“Widow.” The word ground into Lily’s soul as she threw off her apron and walked toward the paddock. She didn’t feel like a widow. Would she feel like a widow if she saw Jim’s body laid out in his coffin? He was dead. Everyone knew he was dead. His horse had come back with his provisions and his rifle still strapped to the saddle. That had been right after he’d left to look for that calf. The men had searched night and day for a week, but as Jack had implied, there was too much territory out there to find one man, or his body. He was dead, and she would have to start facing it.
She should be feeling grief. She should be weeping and donning mourning and asking for some memorial service and feeling sorry for herself. Instead, she saddled the horse and swung up, without assistance.
She had learned a long time ago that men needed her more than she needed them. She didn’t make a production of it. She let them think they were being considerate when they told her to do the cooking while they handled the roundup. She let them think that all she did at the ranch was supply their meals and keep Jim’s cabin clean and his bed warm.
Jim knew better and hadn’t minded. Texas was a rough country and he had appreciated all the help she could give. It wasn’t as if theirs was a romantic marriage. It had been a partnership. And although she missed her partner, she knew she could carry on without him.
Except in this one thing. The men wouldn’t take orders from a woman. Texas was a man’s country. She could ride a horse and lasso a cow, but they would never take orders from her. Only if they thought the orders came from Jim would they listen to her at all.
Lily would be furious with the stubborn asses if it would do any good, but she had been out here too long to expect anything else. Women were few and far between, and they had to work like dogs to make a living just like the men, but there was still that memory of how things had been “back home,” before they’d “gone to Texas.” Women were supposed to be too frail and delicate to think for themselves.
Lily had to laugh at applying that description to herself. Kicking the massive gelding into a gallop, she turned the horse toward town. She couldn’t remember the last time she had worn a skirt. When she’d first arrived here as a terrified sixteen-year-old, she’d been filled with her sisters’ notions of propriety. She had attempted to keep her elegant organdies clean and her petticoats starched as she had been taught.
A flight of pigeons over her wash line had been the beginning of the end of that notion. She’d tried the cotton wraps many of the women wore, but that idea had faded by the time Roy was old enough to walk. Without slaves, there were never enough hands to get the cattle to market, to plant corn, to pick cotton, to weed the meager vegetable garden. Lily had learned right along with Jim how to do whatever needed to be done, and skirts just got in the way.
Perhaps if there had been more children, things would have been different. Lily turned that thought away. Jim had accepted Roy as his own and had never shown much interest in having more. The challenge of conquering the land had been sufficient for him—that and the possibility of someday being rich. Lily looked out over the widespread acres flowing around her and felt some degree of satisfaction. They weren’t rich, but they were on their way to being well-to-do. Jim had always been a hard worker, and the early years of frustration and disappointment had gradually grown into years of plenty.
There was still trouble ahead, possibly even war, but politics was a topic Lily knew little about. If she couldn’t handle it with her bare hands, worrying about it wouldn’t help. The tangle with the Mexicans a couple of years ago had sent a number of her neighbors back to the states. The epidemics rampaging across Texas had given little time for the hotheads to develop cankers under their saddles after that.
But the fever had dissipated this summer, crops were plentiful, and some of the newcomers, with their bellies full, were swaggering disdainfully when Mexico and Santa Anna were mentioned. She and Jim, along with the rest of Austin’s settlers, had pledged to be citizens of Mexico when they settled here, but these newcomers had other things on their minds besides Mexican citizenship.
There ought to be a peaceful solution to the situation, but knowing men, they wouldn’t be happy without a fight. Bending her generous mouth with scorn, Lily reined in her horse at the town’s pitiful general store. Here was where she would find the land agents and speculators eager to twist money out of the hands of the ignorant and land from the defenseless. The one calling himself alcalde looked up from his makeshift desk as Lily entered and rose with effusive greeting as she turned in his direction.
“Mrs. Brown! What a pleasant surprise to see you here this early in the week. I hope you have come with good news?”
The idlers around the counter in the back watched with interest, but Lily was used to the attention any woman attracted. She could have been a ten-foot bear wearing a skirt and they would have looked at her like that.
“No, I don’t, Mr. Dixon. If we had a priest, I’d ask for a service to be said. But that’s not why I’m here. I need a man to help run the ranch for me. Can you recommend someone?”
This whole scene was a farce for the sake of propriety, Lily knew, but she maintained a straight face as Bert Dixon looked solemn, took off his hat, and scratched his head. As a lady, she was supposed to acknowledge only gentlemen, and then only those she knew. Since Dixon dressed in frock coats and occasionally wore a tall beaver hat, he was considered a gentleman suitable for her acquaintance. Lily would have preferred to talk directly to the men at the counter, as Jim would have done, but they would have ignored her, most likely.
The store’s proprietor wandered over, greeting her with a nod. All the ever-changing assortment of idlers in the back seemed to do was spit tobacco, knock back whiskey, and talk of war, but they knew everything that went on in the territory. Any news came here first. She waited hopefully.
“You ought to sell that place, Mrs. Brown.” Ollie Clark was tall enough to look down on her, and he did so with a certain proprietary air, as if he were the only man in town who could deal with her.
He was not only tall, he was a good-looking man. Lily had always considered Ollie favorably, since he didn’t spit or have rotted teeth, and he always spoke to her with the Southern courtesy she had once expected of any man. But his attitude now irritated her already frayed nerves.
“That’s Jim’s decision to make,” she replied maliciously, knowing her feminine refusal to acknowledge her husband’s demise would get under Ollie’s skin faster than anything else she could say. “Jim has been planning on looking for someone to help him run the cattle while he concentrated on the cotton,” she lied boldly again. “I’m just looking a little earlier than he’d planned.”
“Now, Mrs. Brown, that place is way too big for a little gal like yourself…” Dixon attempted to intervene between the two tall young people, but the look he received for this blatant idiocy sent him in another direction. “What I mean is, you ought to think about Ollie’s suggestion, Mrs. Brown. Settlers are pouring in here by the hundreds. You could sell off part of your acreage and have enough to live on for as long as you liked.”
“That’s Roy’s inheritance you’re speaking of, Mr. Dixon.” Lily lifted her chin defiantly. “If you won’t help me find a good manager, I’ll do it myself. I know most of the settlers around here. It may take me a while, but I’ll talk to them all, and maybe get better sense out of them than I’m hearing here.”
A man in red kerchief and brown-checked shirt, leaning with his elbows against the counter and obviously enjoying this argument, yelled out, “I hear Cade’s back in town. Why don’t you send her to him? He’s got all the experience she needs.”
Lily looked up eagerly. “Cade? What is his full name, and where do I find him?”
Dixon looked anxious and shook his head. “You don’t want Cade, Mrs. Brown. He’s not…”
Lily looked at him contemptuously. “Don’t say it, Mr. Dixon. If he has the experience I need, I’ll hire him.” She looked back to the man who had made the suggestion. “Where do I find him?”
She saw the grins going around the room. She knew she was the brunt of some male joke, but she was long accustomed to that position. Holding her spine straight and her chin up, she demanded respect with her silence.
The man in the back pushed his hat back on his head. “Out at the Langton ranch. He’s been punchin’ for Ralph this past month. People just call him Cade.”
Lily gave a regal nod and ignored the hand Ollie held out to halt her. Stepping around him, she sailed toward the door. She would have a foreman before the day was out if it killed her.
* * *
The prairie grass rippled in a sudden breeze, sending waves of green as far as the eye could see, but one stand remained stationary. Always alert for the unexpected, Cade eyed the unbending grass with disfavor. The circle of buzzards overhead was fair enough warning. He knew better than to go closer, but human nature compelled him to investigate.
A few minutes later, bending over the dead man, Cade jerked out the arrow he had seen from a distance, ripping it from the deteriorating flesh with a sudden viciousness. He had known better.
Swearing, he gazed down at what had once been a man of middle age, his receding hair falling back from the bland features of a farmer, his soft paunch indicating a life of relative comfort. The arrow had protruded from the center of a homespun shirt that had been carefully washed and bleached in the sun until nearly threadbare, and then mended with loving, even stitches. Cade cursed again and then looked at the arrow in his clenched fist. He had meant to arrive in this place without disturbance or notice of his presence. He could well imagine what would happen should he report this body.
Black hair glistening in the sunlight, Cade brushed away the length rubbing against his chambray collar. Eyes dark as midnight gazed in contempt at the arrow’s feathering and unmarked shaft. The man’s assailant had the devil’s own luck to kill his victim with a poor piece of work like this one—a piece meant to resemble an Indian weapon but all too clearly made by a white man’s hand.
Cade glanced down at the unlucky bastard at his feet and felt fear clutch at his insides. They weren’t going to blame him for this one. Not if he could help it.
Glancing around at the rippling plain dancing in the glorious sunlight, Cade found the spot he remembered. Callously closing his senses to the stench of the dead man, he flung the body over his horse’s saddle. This was one murder that wouldn’t be solved soon.
Later, after giving the body a decent burial, Cade leaned against the bark of a live oak and sipped at the flask from his saddlebag. Contemplating the snake slithering through the grass in front of him, he felt the ache that the liquor seldom assuaged—the ache of loneliness, a hurt he had carried with him all his life.
Remembering another day and another snake, Cade took a second gulp of the fiery liquid and tried to forget, but the childish voices singsonging the alphabet through an open window haunted his memory.
The urchin he had once been grubbed in the dirt just outside that window, pushing a stick through the dust in rhythm with the chanting. He didn’t look up even when a large shadow fell across him.
“Andale, bastardo.” The kick was swift and sure, sending the boy Cade sprawling in the dust. “Get back to your whore of a mother.” The words were in elegant Spanish, but their viciousness had naught to do with the grace of the people who used that language.
Scowling at the destruction of his dust letters, the boy didn’t look up but merely returned to his previous position, a little farther from the man’s boot.
The man’s curse and the lift of his boot for the next kick was interrupted by a gentle voice. “Leave him be, Ricardo. He harms no one.”
“Apaches have to be taught their places when young,” Ricardo replied, his belligerence barely disguised by the voice of respect he used for the priest in his long black robes.
“He is not just an Apache, my son,” the priest rebuked him. “He is the grandson of Antonio de Suela. Who knows, one day de Suela may return. Would you have his anger turned against you?”
“A de Suela would not acknowledge the spawn of an Apache and a whore. Why do you think he left us?”
The priest shook his head and clicked his tongue. “Do not hold your grudges against the innocent, Ricardo. Vaya con Dios.”
The man called Ricardo snarled as the priest walked off. The boy a footstep away sat silently drawing his letters in the dirt, not acknowledging any threat. The child had the tough, sturdy body of an Indian, not the slender grace of his Spanish mother. The black hair that cropped over his eyes and shirt collar badly needed trimming, but there was a certain dignity in his stoic stance. He knew the kick was coming, but he did nothing to resist it.
Cursing at the priest’s interference, Ricardo spit in the dust near the boy’s bare foot, then turned on his heel and walked away. Only when he was completely out of sight did the boy look up, check the entrance to the alley, and reach for the wooden box beside him.
The snake inside coiled and rattled and hissed, and the boy smiled as he refastened the leather latches. The snake grew calm as the boy lifted the box and swung it gently. He slipped down the back street to his mother’s hovel, whistling solemnly. His father had taught him of the Snake’s nature. He was quite certain the man named Ricardo would not understand, however. He had almost looked forward to the moment when the man would kick the box. For the snake’s sake, he was glad the man had not tried a second kick.
* * *
Sitting in the present with the liquor flowing through his veins, Cade wished the child hadn’t been so generous. Ricardo had deserved to die.
by Patricia Rice
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-105-4