Garet said he’d only be gone for three weeks. He’d offered to get someone to come and stay with her, but she’d said no. After all, she’d fought off Apaches at Eagle Eye Mountain and crossed the desert by herself. Still, Laura Havelock got a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach as she watched her husband ride away with his two companions.
Laura tucked her long red hair under a broad-brimmed straw hat to shield her Irish complexion from the piercing sun of the Arizona highlands. She shaved soap into an old saucepan half full of water and set it on the stove. The heat would melt the hard soap into a thick liquid to add to creek water when she washed clothes.
Thank God I don’t have to haul water for fifteen miles like they do in Vulture City. She looked across the meadow toward meandering Silver Creek, which cut through the Havelocks’ H-Cross spread.
When the soap had melted, Laura perched on a three-legged stool in front of battered copper washtub full of water from Silver Creek and soap from the basin. In one hand, she held the washboard. With the other, she slopped one of Garet’s shirts in the sudsy water and vigorously worked it on the board. After half a dozen trips up and down the washboard, she dipped the shirt in the soapy water again, sloshed it around, gave it a healthy twist to wring the water out, and plopped it in another tub of clear creek water to rinse.
Though it was early May, the sun warmed the yard in front of the cabin, and Laura’s work brough a light sheen of perspiration to her face. Garet had promised to build a house, but that had to wait until the horses were here and broke and sold. Laura caught herself staring into the distance, seeing the ranch house in her mind’s eye. She smiled as she reached for another garment. She had no doubt that her husband would build the house. Garet Havelock was a man of his word.
Deep as she was in her daydreaming, Laura saw a mare grazing across the creek raise her head and prick her ears. A moment later, she heard the thunder of hooves.
By the time the riders arrived, Laura stood at the front door of her home, long-barreled Winchester .44-40 in hand, cartridge chambered and thumb on the hammer.
The man in the lead looked as old and craggy as the malapai rocks scattered across the plain. A big thick man riding at his side held up a hand, stopping the others. When the old man spoke, it was as if gravel were grating up and down in the back of his throat.
“Where’s your man?”
“He’s gone for horses. Should be back anytime now,” she said, her voice calm and her face expressionless beneath the wide brim of her straw hat.
The gravely voice continued. “I’m only gonna say this onct, so listen good. You and your man get outta here. I put up with the squatter because I could see he wasn’t the staying kind.”
The old man nodded his head at the garden plot Garet had broken for Laura. “Soon’s folks start planting truck, they’re thinking of staying. This here is Forty-Four range. Has been for longer’n you can count.
“I came to these mountains before Cooley and before Clark. I made my peace with P’tone and Pedro with no help from nobody, and I will not have two-bit nesters taking over my range. Not when I got fifteen thousand cows to feed.”
The old man’s horse danced. “Whoa down, hammerhead,” he said. He turned his attention back to Laura. “I let you stay and first thing I know you’d be putting up fences. Them Mormons is bad enough.
“Now git. You can find somewhere else to settle.”
Laura cocked the Winchester. The click was clear and loud in the silence following the old man’s tirade.
“Mister, I don’t know who you are and I don’t care. But I’ll make one thing clear. This claim belongs to us, me and my husband. It’s proved up fair and legal, and we won’t be pushed off.” She lined the muzzle of the Winchester up with the old man’s belly.
“She’s alone, Pa.” The one who spoke was a dark, handsome man with crackling black eyes and raven-wing hair. The likeness between him and the old man was plain. Laura moved her Winchester to a spot between the old man and his son.
“If you think anything of that son of yours, mister, you’d better ride. With him in front of me, I’m getting very nervous. And when that happens, my trigger finger tightens. And your son will be the first to die. I think you’d better leave.”
A flash of anger touched the younger man’s eyes, but the old man just glared at her. “My name’s Loren Buchard,” he declared, “and I own the Forty-Four. No one runs me off.”
When Laura spoke, her voice was edged with steel. “Mr. Buchard, I’m not running you off. I’m saying that if your son threatens me, I’ll shoot him. And if you don’t want that to happen, it might be a good idea to ride on back the way you came.
“Now, any time you want to come over for a neighborly visit, you’re more than welcome. But when you come to make threats, someone may die. As I said, if that happens today, the first to die will be your son.”
Laura stood like a statue. Her blue eyes were pieces of ice boring into the faded black ones of the old rancher.
He blinked. Then looked at his son.
“We’ll leave. For now. I’m not saying you have to lose anything. I’ll buy your land.”
“Shut up, Rafe. She’ll kill you.”
The old man reined his big brown horse around and led his riders away from the Havelock homestead. They’d come in at a gallop, they left at a walk. The rancher didn’t want anyone to think a woman was running them off.
The big thick man, astride a pinto stallion, stopped about a hundred yards off to stare back at Laura. He side-stepped the big horse a few yards as he looked at her, then raked the paint with his spurs and jumped after the others.
Laura watched them out of sight before she released the hammer and placed the Winchester back inside the door. She knew they’d be back. She just hoped Garet would be home when they came again.
For the next few days, Laura went about her chores as if nothing had happened, but once in a while a rider would sit on his horse atop the south ridge, watching. She knew he was checking to see if her husband was back.
Since Buchard’s visit, she’d taken to carrying a Colt in her apron whenever she went more than a few steps from the cabin. When she had time, she worked the garden plot, turning over the soil and breaking up the clods. The May sun climbed higher and the likelihood of frost was almost gone, even in this high country. Bits of green showed in the grass along Silver Creek, and the mule deer that came down to drink early in the morning carried racks of velvet-covered antlers. Quail sneaked in and out of the dry weeds and Laura knew they would soon be leading lines of chicks.
We need some hens and a milk cow or two. No proper home should be without eggs and milk. Besides, there might be children...
The May days pushed on, and mornings came without leaving rims of ice on the water barrel. It would soon be time to plant. Garet mentioned a store in Show Low and another in Concho, one west and the other east. Show Low was a Mormon town and that made Laura uneasy. So she decided to ride to Concho for seeds and such.
The next morning she caught and saddled Mandy, her three-year-old bay mare. With biscuits and salt pork in her saddlebags, money for the garden supplies, and a canteen full of clear creek water, she struck out due east, staying north of the pine line that marked the start of the White Mountains. Far to the south, she could see the white crown of Old Baldy, still snow-covered at nearly 12,000 feet.
Garet explained how to get to the mail road. Twenty miles or so to Concho, he’d said. Laura clucked to Mandy and the lithe mare set out in a ground-eating canter. But even at Mandy’s fast pace, it was well into the afternoon before Laura topped the hill above the adobe village of Concho. A dilapidated mission stood on the high ground above the creek, and several buildings bordered the village square, which for some reason did not front the church. Laura walked the mare down the dusty street. In a clearing, children shouted as they ran about kicking a ball. She could see women at the creek. They took their washing to the water rather than carrying the water to the washing. Simple. Laura smiled.
A sign above one of the buildings on the square said PROVISIONES. Through the door, she could see goods piled high. She looped the mare’s reins over the hitching rail, stepped around a sleeping dog, and walked into the cool store.
A man came from the back. His belly hung over the rope he used for a belt. He shifted the toothpick in his mouth and belched. Then the corners of his eyes crinkled as he saw Laura. “Perdon, senorita,” he said, “le puedo ayudar en algo?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand Spanish,” Laura said, spreading upturned hands.
“Perhaps I may be of assistance,” a soft voice said.
Laura turned to see a striking woman in riding pants walk through the door. She wore her black hair pulled into a tight roll at the nape of her neck and a broad-brimmed leather hat tipped rakishly forward to shadow her eyes. The eyes sparkled, and the woman’s smile flashed faultless white teeth.
“I am Margarita San Antonio Pilar y Guerrero,” she said, extending a hand. “My father is Don Fernando Alfonso Pilar y Aguilar. You Americans call him Don Fernando. And I am more commonly known as Rita.”
Laura smiled. “I’m Laura Havelock,” she said. “We live at the H-Cross ranch on Silver Creek. I came to buy seeds for my garden. But I’m afraid I’ve yet to learn Spanish.”
Rita flashed her faultless teeth in another smile. “How nice to have neighbors. Let me help you with your purchases.” She introduced the proprietor. “This is Senor Berado. Before the railroad came, he had a store at Horsehead Crossing, the town they named Holbrook. Now he owns this one.
“Now, what do you need?”
With Rita’s help, Laura soon had two gunnysacks of seeds. With luck and water from the creek, they’d have vegetables through the winter. Garet had mentioned digging a root cellar in the side of the hill just south of the ranch house site.
“You must not ride back to Silver Creek today,” Rita said. “You cannot get there before dark. Would you honor us with a visit to my father’s hacienda? Por favor.”
“Thank you for the invitation,” Laura said, happy to have a woman friend after so many weeks among men. “I’d be happy to join you, if it’s not too much trouble.”
Rita’s laugh was a silvery tinkle. “Trouble? None such! We’ll laugh the night away and you can tell me all about yourself and your husband and everything.”
“And you? You have no man?”
For an instant, Rita’s face was sad. Then she laughed again. “Me? Of course not. Who would want to court the headstrong daughter of Don Fernando Pilar? The one that wears trousers and rides and shoots as well as any man?”
But when her laughter died, Rita’s eyes still held pain.
She’s lost someone precious. “I’ll visit only if you promise to return the favor,” Laura said. “We have only a cabin now, but Garet will soon build a ranch house. He will raise horses, the finest in Arizona, he says. Perhaps your father will want some.”
“Perhaps. But let’s not talk about horses and business tonight.” Rita’s eyes sparkled again.
The hacienda of Don Fernando Pilar reminded Laura of a fort. But instead of palisades of logs stuck upright in the earth, the walls were of native malapai rock mortared with a mixture of clay and straw. They looked foreboding and had surely served to keep the Apaches at bay. A portly woman who was obviously in charge of the house greeted Laura and Rita.
“Please meet Senora Paloma Javez, keeper of Rancho Pilar and wife to Ramon Javez, our segundo,” Rita said.
“Senora, this is Laura Havelock from Silver Creek. She will stay with us tonight.”
“Comprendo, Senorita,” Paloma Javez said. “Please, Senora Havelock, come in, come in. The Don will be here soon.”
Before Laura could tell the woman to call her by her first name, she found herself standing in the huge front room, with its flagstone floor, beams that had once been the trunks of Ponderosa pine trees, and a mighty fireplace that dominated the center of the back wall. The furniture was made of local juniper, bound with rawhide and covered with woolly sheepskins. The walls and floors were decorated with woven wool of a kind Laura had never seen.
“The tapestries! The rugs! I’ve never seen the like.”
“Some were woven by Navajos, to the north,” said Rita. “Some are from Mexico. They add warmth to these stone floors, no?”
“Margarita, mi corazon.” A tall thin man with flowing white hair and ramrod straight bearing entered the room. Rita met him halfway, both hands extended to grasp his. Turning to Laura, she said, “And this is my father, Fernando Pilar, Don of this rancho and the third generation of Pilars to live here.”
“Welcome to our home, Senora,” Don Fernando said. “It is good for my daughter to have a friend. Please stay as long as you like.”
He paused for a moment, thinking, then continued. “Perdon, Senora. But did my housekeeper not say your name was Havelock?”
“Father!” Rita gently reprimanded the white-haired Don. “Give me time to make the introductions. This is Laura Havelock from the Rancho H-Cross on Silver Creek.”
“Ah. Silver Creek.”
“Yes, Don Fernando. Is there something about my name that bothers you?”
“Oh, no. It does not bother me. Would, perhaps, your husband be Garet Havelock?”
“Yes, he is.”
“Ah.” Don Fernando fell silent.
Laura raised an eyebrow and waited.
“Ah. I see. He is Marshal Havelock, no?”
“He was a marshal, Don Fernando. Now he just raises horses. Good horses.”
“Yes. Well. Please take care, Senora. The Americanos, the Mexicanos, the Indios, and the Mormonas ...sometimes we do not get along so well together,” he said. “Please take care.”
“Thank you.” Laura said, somewhat puzzled at the Don’s reaction to her husband’s name.
Rita and Laura spent the evening in laughter and talk that showed both how much they had missed the companionship of a close friend. And Laura thankfully slept until after the sun was up, luxuriating on a feather tick for the first time since arriving at Silver Creek.
“The trees will do well near the creek,” Rita said as she handed Laura the sacks of seeds. During the evening, Laura had told Rita all her plans for the H-Cross ranch—tall poplars as windbreaks, and apples and pears for shade and fruit. “I’d like some currant bushes, too, if I can ever find any. Currants make wonderful jam for morning flapjacks,” Laura had said.
Rita immediately spoke to Paloma and found that Rancho Pilar had slips and cuttings she could give her friend. “As soon as Arturo digs up the saplings and bundles their roots properly, I will bring them to Silver Creek in our buckboard. You can’t carry them on your horse anyway, and it will give me an excuse to visit you.”
Laura mounted the mare and dropped the seed sacks behind the saddle’s cantle where they lodged firmly between it and the saddlebags.
On her way back through Concho, Laura stopped for a moment at the mission chapel. She genuflected before the figure of the Sacred Mother and said softly, “Holy Mother. Keep him safe. Bring him home to me quickly.”
She quickly remounted and left the village at a canter. And from the northern heights above Concho, a man on a pinto horse watched her as she rode westward.
Laura expected Garet to show up any day. She now had the garden planted and carried water to slosh down the rows when she had time. No watching riders had skylined themselves since she came back from Concho, though she did notice strange hoof prints at the edge of the creek early one morning. Rita should come with the saplings soon, which would give Laura something else to do.
She started her days simply, with coffee, sourdough biscuits, and honey. Butter would be nice, she thought, but felt fortunate to have the honey. The sourdough starter came from Sally Mae Peebles, who kept hers in a crock at Crown King. Sally had insisted on sending some of it with the newlyweds when they spent a night there on their way from Vulture City.
Laura washed the coffee cup and plate in a small pan, turning them upside down on a dishcloth to dry. She took the pan of water under her arm and walked a few steps to the garden patch where she cast the water over her seeds. They’d soon sprout and the Havelocks would have fresh food instead of dried beans and salt pork.
She’d left the front door open as she stepped out, so she pulled it closed after her as she moved to the cupboard where the pots and pans were kept.
Suddenly a strong arm was round her neck, cutting off blood and air between biceps and forearm. A rough hand covered her eyes, fingers digging into them so she could not see. In her ear, a cold voice ground out blistering words that seared her mind.
“Don’t move, bitch. You fight and kick or anything and you’re dead pussy. You’re dirt. Shitty dirt. An’ I’m gonna carve you up like roast chicken on Sunday. Slut.”
Though she made no move, Laura fought for breath. Fire singed her lungs and burned at her brain. The fetid breath of her assailant nauseated her.
Live! I want to live! I won’t do anything, just don’t kill me.
She fought back tears and sobs, thinking they’d make her attacker even more violent.
He wrestled her to the bed at the far end of the room. He flung her face down on it and pinned her there with a knee in the small of her back. She groaned.
“Shut up, bitch. Just shut up and take it.”
He quickly tied her hands behind her back with a piggin string like the ones cowboys use to bind young calves for branding. She buried her face in the bed, afraid to try to look, fearing that seeing the man would spell her death. He blindfolded her with a bandanna.
He slit her skirt with a knife, tearing it from about her waist as it came free. He slipped the cold steel into her pantaloons. She whimpered.
“I said shut up. Don’t make a sound. Not one sound, harlot, or you’re mincemeat.”
He turned the knife edge up and slit the pantaloons from waist to knee. One side was free. Then he slit them down the other leg and pulled the underwear from her body.
She cringed. He drove his fist into her left kidney.
He hit her again.
“Shut up,” he hissed. “Slut. Tramp. Just shut up.”
He grabbed a shoulder, turned her up, then slapped her face—right, left, right, left. She tasted blood where his hard fingers smashed her lips against her teeth. She fought to keep from making a sound as her heart pounded. Tears coursed unbidden from her eyes, wetting first the bandanna, then rolling down her cheeks.
For hours and days and on through the maw of Hell Laura held carefully still as the man sadistically had his way with her. Then suddenly he was still, listening. Wheels creaked and harness clanked. A horse blew. Mandy whickered. Laura’s breath caught. Someone was coming.
With the tip of his knife, the man made two razor-like slits in Laura’s face, tracing the tracks of her tears down her cheeks. Blood mixed with the tears, dripping from her chin and spotting her torn blouse. “Now you have something to cry about,” he growled in her ear. And he was gone. Dimly, she could hear someone screaming.
She didn’t see Rita Pilar throw open the door. She just screamed. And screamed.
Horses boiled over the ridge with the rising sun and thundered down the draw, running right into the ketch pens, with a trail-weary Garet Havelock close behind. Garet and his two companions reined up at the mouth of the corrals, which they’d built just before going north to buy the prime breeding stock. Judd Travis pulled the counter-weighted gate closed and slipped the leather loop over its post.
“Thanks, boys. That was a good drive,” Garet said, rubbing the ache in his left knee. “Montana horses will do well in this high country.”
Travis had proved up on the Havelock claim here on Silver Creek, and Jeff Morgan, a tall one-handed black man, had been Garet’s friend since the two had stood back-to-back fighting reconstruction bluebellies in north Texas.
“Wonder what’s keeping the missus?” Morgan said, looking toward the cabin, which was out of sight around a bend in Silver Creek. “Figured she’d have Mandy saddled up and be down here afore we got these broomtails in the corral.”
“Well, she knows trail driving’s hungry work. There’s probably beans a-cooking and venison in the dutch ovens,” Garet replied. “Let’s go see.”
The three men reined their tired mounts toward the creek where they let them drink long draughts of the silvery-clear water.
Morgan sat atop his rangy mule and surveyed the H-Cross. “Havelock,” he said. “I gotta say one thing. You surely know how to pick a place to live. This is one of the prettiest layouts I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a bunch.”
“Thanks, Morg. But it’s gonna take a lot of sweat to turn it into a first-rate horse ranch. Still, with the Hashknife over to Winslow, the Forty-Four near to Round Valley, and army officers at Fort Apache, there oughta be plenty of demand for good horseflesh. I’m betting we can do well with those Montana horses, and that Appaloosa stallion will give the colts even more staying power. It’ll be something good, Morg. I can feel it.”
Morgan grinned. Half-Cherokee Garet Havelock had just said more in the past minute or so than he usually did in a whole week. They pulled their mounts’ heads away from the stream and rode over the rise toward the Garet’s chink-log cabin.
Reaching the top of the rise, Garet reined up. “Hold it,” he said, his voice sharp and hard.
Something was wrong. No smoke came from the chimney. No bay mare grazed across the creek. The garden showed no signs of having been watered. Garet’s eyes narrowed. He’d ridden as a lawman for too long not to recognize signs of trouble. He fished his Winchester saddle gun from its boot and jacked a shell into the chamber.
A deft shrug brought Jeff Morgan’s Ballard .50 around where he could hold it across the saddlebows, ready for instant action. Travis loosened his pistol in its holster and hauled his Winchester from the saddle scabbard.
The three men separated and walked their horses toward the cabin. Garet halted when they were still a hundred yards from the little house. He dismounted the dun horse and left it ground-hitched. The others followed suit. He strode to the cabin door.
“Let’s see what’s inside,” he said, and opened it.
The hard-packed dirt floor was clean, as Laura Havelock always kept it. A plate and coffee cup were up-ended on a dishtowel. Garet’s eyes slowly swept the room. Jeff Morgan stood just outside the door, watching.
Garet’s gaze locked on the rumpled bed.
“Morg, you come in here. I need your eyes. I don’t want to miss a thing.”
“All right.” The huge black man ducked his head to get through the door. He paused a moment to let his eyes adjust. Garet stood in the center of the small room, staring at the bed.
“What is it, Havelock?”
“I don’t like this, Morg. But it’s gotta be done.”
The rumpled bedcover with its starbursts of checkered gingham and bleached flour sacks was a patchwork quilt Laura’s mother had made for her daughter’s dowry before she died.
Garet moved to the head of the bed and motioned Morgan to the foot.
“Let’s lift this spread together,” he said, taking hold of two corners. Morgan did the same, and they lifted the quilt from the bed.
What the pattern of the quilt had obscured was clearly visible on the muslin sheets beneath. Splotches. Splattered, dried blood.
Garet’s heart nearly stopped, then it pounded. Someone had hurt Laura. Hit her or cut her and left her on the bed.
Morgan said nothing, letting his friend digest what the signs said.
“She’s hurt, Morg. I know it. I can feel it. She’s hurt and she’s gone and she doesn’t know what to do. God damn whoever injured her and God help me to find out who it was. And when I do, I swear, I’ll make him wish he’d never seen the light of day. I swear, Morg. I swear.”
Morgan stood silent for a long moment, then spoke softly.
“She’s a tough girl, Havelock. If she ain’t dead, she’ll be all right. You can trust her. I know that much.”
Garet lifted his tortured face. “She’s not dead. But she’s awful hurt. Awful. I wasn’t here when she needed me.” He let a tiny groan escape his clenched teeth. Laura, the love of his life, was gone because he’d agreed to leave her by herself, believing she would be all right, that she could take care of herself. Besides, men don’t attack women, he thought. Now he had to find her. He just didn’t know where to start looking.
He straightened up, swallowing his fear and grief. When people broke the law, they always left sign. He might not know where Laura was hiding, but he could read sign and he knew how to follow a hunch, like any good lawman.
“Havelock. A light rig’s been through here,” Travis said from outside. “Buckboard by the wheel tracks. Pulled by a small horse.” Garet and Morgan went outside to see what they could find.
A little later Jeff Morgan called from behind the cabin. “Havelock, you’ll want to see this.”
When Garet arrived, Morgan pointed to a spot where a large horse had been tied to a juniper tree. “Horse was here for some time,” Morgan noted. “Rider smoked, too.” He pointed at shreds of paper and tobacco ground into the dirt.
Morgan and Garet walked slowly back toward the cabin, eyes on the ground. The rider had walked that direction, leaving broken stalks of dry grass and an overturned pebble here and there. The unknown rider’s tracks weren’t distinctive enough to identify if they were seen again.
“I think he’s wearing moccasins,” Garet said. “No hard edges to the prints.”
They found more moccasin tracks next to the back wall of the cabin.
Garet followed the tracks around the cabin and right to the door. “He was stepping real careful. Sneaking, I’d say,” he said.
Near the door, the tracks became confused. Round-toed boot tracks hid the moccasin prints. There were two sets of them, one larger than the other.
“Look here,” Morgan said. “The gent in the round-toed boots is walking backwards, and it looks like he was packing something pretty heavy.” The big black man looked at his friend.
Garet said nothing. The face he turned to Jeff Morgan was made of iron, immobile and motionless. “We’ll just have to start looking,” the iron face said. “That means starting close in and working our way outward. Morg, I’d appreciate you going into Show Low and seeing if anyone in town’s seen Laura. Stop at the ranger station just north of Show Low Creek where the road from Holbrook crosses the bridge.
“I’ll ride towards Round Valley. Stop at the Forty-Four on the way. Their riders may have seen something.”
“Travis,” Garet called.
“Yo.” Travis’s answer came from down by the creek. He hustled back at a trot, alarmed at the tension in Garet’s voice.
“Find anything?” Garet asked.
Travis shook his head, a question in his eyes.
“Laura’s been hurt. There’s blood inside.” Garet didn’t say where they’d found blood. He quickly told Travis of the plan to spread out and look for Laura.
“Looks like the burden’s on you again, Travis. I’d be much obliged if you’d stay here on the H-Cross and keep an eye on those broomtails while we’re gone. You might want to start breaking that filly to the halter and get her used to a saddle. We shouldn’t be gone too long.”
Judd Travis’s nod sufficed. He and Garet had ridden together enough to make words unnecessary.
Back in the cabin, Garet folded the telltale quilt and sheets up and put them in the cedar chest that stood against one wall. Then he got provisions for Jeff and himself, what little there was, and the two men rode away on their tired mounts. Morgan headed west towards Show Low and Garet took the easterly trail.
An hour and a half from Silver Creek, Jeff Morgan reined in his big mule atop a cone-shaped mound of cinders left from some primeval volcanic eruption. It stood four or five hundred feet above the surrounding flats, and suited Morgan’s purpose well. A few moments later, a thin tendril of smoke arose, a series of puffs, then a straight column once more. Morgan created puffs of smoke again. One. Two. Three. Then a long unbroken column, and another three puffs.
He was still half an hour from the ranger station when a young White Mountain Apache brave stepped into his path. The smoke had been read.
Morgan spoke a few words to the brave in the guttural Apache tongue and gave him a talisman, one he’d been given by Chief Puma of the Jicarilla Apache band that lived in the Big Horn Mountains near Vulture City.
The young man nodded and struck out to the southwest at a dogtrot.
Jeff Morgan clucked to his mule and turned its head toward the ranger station. But the men at the station hadn’t seen anyone answering the description of Laura Havelock.
A freight wagon plying the supply route between Holbrook and Fort Apache stood in the yard, awaiting a change of teams. The driver, a young mustachioed Mormon, leaned against one of the large rear wheels. He eyed the big black Morgan with a look of trepidation on his face. Morgan knew Mormons figured his black skin was the curse of Cain, but right now he couldn’t worry about their bigotry.
“Headed for Holbrook?”, he asked the wagoneer.
“Wonder if I could get you to do me a favor?”
“I got a message here I’d be obliged if you’d get telegraphed from the railway station there in Holbrook,” Morgan said.
“Be worth ten dollars.”
“Reckon I can do ‘er.”
Morgan gave the man a folded slip of paper and a gold eagle.
The hostlers backed the fresh team into the traces as Morgan rode his mule toward Show Low Creek, trusting the Mormon man would keep his word.
Laura Havelock opened her eyes to dim surroundings. A fragrance of old leather and juniper smoke filled the air. She felt it was morning, though the room was dark.
She had not left the room since Rita Pilar and Ramon Javez, the Pilar ranch segundo, brought her to the hacienda. Her bruised ribs didn’t hurt as much, and scabs had formed on the two vertical slits beneath her eyes. They looked like dark purple tears. Her young body was recovering quickly from the brutal attack. Her body was healing, but her heart remained deeply scarred.
Laura knew no man before her husband and now she had been violated in every way imaginable – brutalized, heart, body, and soul.
That man didn’t want a woman. He wanted to hurt. To wound me, to humiliate me, to make me feel like dirt fit only to be trod upon.
A light tap sounded on the oak door.
“Yes.” Laura forced herself to get up and remove the bar.
Rita Pilar entered with a platter of bacon, eggs, fresh salsa, and flour tortillas. “We have no sourdough biscuits, mi amiga,” she said. “Tortillas will have to do.” Rita smiled. “I did bring the crock of sourdough starter from your rancho, however. Later, perhaps, you can show me how it works.”
“Thank you, Rita. You and yours have been so kind. You saved my life, you know. Now you want me to show you how to make sourdough bread. And you already have such delicious tortillas.”
Rita smiled again. “My people came from Spain many generations ago, and from Mexico to Arizona, though we called it Nuevo Mexico then. We are also Americanos, you see. And I think we should learn everything we can about you Anglos.”
For the first time in days, Laura Havelock laughed. “Good thing my father is not here to hear you call me an Anglo,” she said. She switched to an Irish brogue, imitating her father. “Sure and it’s Irish Celts we are and we hail from Erin, the emerald isle, that we do.”
Rita laughed with delight.
“Come, sit at the table, Laura. Let’s eat. Here.” The Mexican woman handed Laura a blouse and skirt. “You’re bigger than I am,” she said, “but Paloma is a wizard with her needle. Try these on. I wager they fit.”
“Thank you. You are a friend.” Laura used the tips of her little fingers to brush the tears away from the corners of her eyes. But it was no use. They overflowed anyway, and silently streamed down her face. She turned away from Rita, but she caught Laura’s arm and turned her back.
“Let the tears come, my friend. Let them come. When you try to hold them back, the hole in your heart just gets bigger. Let them come. So the inner wounds can heal,” she said.
“Oh, Rita.” Laura sobbed. “You bring me to your home. You clean me up and give me clothes to wear. But inside I’m so dirty. So dirty. So awfully dirty.”
Rita put her arms around Laura, pulled her close, and held her as she wept.
Garet watched Morgan out of sight before he turned his lineback dun’s head east. The Forty-Four lay between Silver Creek and Round Valley, so he’d stop there first.
The way he felt inside, Garet wanted to kick his horse into a run and push it and push it until he found Laura or the horse dropped dead. But his lawman’s brain overruled his husband’s fear. He couldn’t afford to kill his mount, and haste might make things worse for Laura.
He rode down one side of the wagon wheel-rutted road toward Round Valley at an easy canter, a pace the dun could keep up for hours, tired though he was.
The road swung north around a hogback topped with one-seed and alligator junipers. As Garet rounded the bend, he saw the Forty-Four up the draw to the south.
The old man, Loren Buchard, had chosen well. The buildings were protected from easy approach from the south by the base of the ridge. They formed a rough U with the ranch house at the bottom, what looked like a bunkhouse forming one leg and a stable and tack room forming the other. Hitching rails fronted all three structures and from their windows, riflemen had a clear field of fire as far as the road, more than half a mile.
Through the space between the stable and the house, Garet could see horses in a corral located between the buildings and the base of the ridge.
All three buildings were built of logs nearly a foot in diameter, squared and stacked one atop the other. No bullet could get through those walls. Nor could Garet see any sign of mud chinking. The squared logs were probably grooved for splines to keep out wind and moisture, and let the logs fit flush together. Whoever built this ranch knew what he wanted and how to get it, even if it meant extra work.
Garet reined the dun toward the ranch house. Perhaps Buchard or one of his men had seen Laura.
As he approached the house, his hands in plain sight on his saddle horn, Garet noticed the man on watch in the loft of the barn that towered from behind the bunkhouse. He held a Winchester; not pointed at Garet, but handy. With Round Valley less than 20 miles away, and it being a main stop on the Outlaw Trail that ran from Canada to Mexico, Garet didn’t fault the rancher for being careful.
He reined the dun to a stop in front of the house. No one came out, so he raised his voice.
“Hello, the house.”
A moment later a bowlegged man of indeterminable age came around the house, wiping floury hands on a floury apron that had once been flour sacks itself.
“Boss ain’t here,” he said. “Anything I can tell him for you?”
“Where could I find him if I went looking?”
“I reckon they’re branding down by the sinks. But then again, mebbe not,” the cook said.
“That’s not far out of my way. I’ll jag over there and have a look. Much obliged. Happen I don’t see him, I’d appreciate you telling him Garet Havelock came calling. I’ve got a spread on Silver Creek called the H-Cross. He’ll know who I am.”
“I know who you are, mister. You gunned down Juanito O’Rourke when he already had the drop.”
Garet didn’t especially like to talk about his lawman days. “I got lucky,” he said. “‘Preciate it if you’d tell Mr. Buchard I was here. Be right neighborly of you.”
“I see him afore you, I’ll tell him, Havelock. You count on it,” said the cook.
With nothing else to accomplish at the Forty-Four, Garet returned to the wagon road and continued toward Round Valley, pushing the dun to an easy ground-eating canter.
Garet took the north fork, and a bit farther on, turned east toward the sinks.
He heard bawling calves and lowing cows long before he topped the rise to look down on the branding pens. A pall of dust hung over the corrals. Horses, riders, and men on foot were but dim shapes. As the dun moved closer, Garet saw a sock-footed brown cutting horse pirouetting in the far corner of the corral, keeping unbranded calves bunched up. No one paid any attention to Garet as he walked his horse up to the corral bars. A heavy man who looked to be in his fifties watched the branding from the top rail of the aspen pole corral. Garet reined the dun in. The heavy man threw him a glance.
In the corral, a calf rose, a big 44 branded on its side and its right ear chopped in a swallowfork earmark. A mounted cowboy dragged another calf over to the branding fire. In seconds, it was on the ground, held motionless by two sturdy men. A third cowboy stamped a 44 on its side with a red-hot iron. Tossing the iron back toward the fire, he opened a well-honed pocketknife and cut a swallowfork earmark, a large notch, in the end of the right ear. Bloody knife still open, he walked around to the rear of the calf and emasculated the animal. A cowboy lifted the cover on a bucket and the emasculator tossed the testicles into it. They’d get roasted and eaten later. Cowboys called them Rocky Mountain oysters.
The men moved quickly and surely, making short work of the dusty job. The milling gaggle of unbranded calves held back by the dancing brown horse dwindled rapidly. Garet sidled the dun nearer to the heavy man on the fence and dismounted. The older man’s face sharpened down as he saw Garet get down from the off side.
“Howdy,” Garet said. “Looks like you ‘bout got your branding licked.”
“Mr. Buchard, I was wondering,” Garet said. Again the older man gave him a sharp look.
From the other side, a tall slim young man came walking around the corral. His face showed handsome features, black eyes that showed most of the whites around them, and raven-wing hair. He paused slightly behind the older man, where he could hear what Garet said.
Garet continued, ignoring the younger man. “Mr. Buchard, I was wondering if my wife might have passed your spread recently. Maybe one of your hands saw her or something.”
Buchard swung a leg across the corral fence so he faced Garet.
“You’re Garet Havelock, and I saw your wife. I saw her standing in the doorway of that nester’s cabin of yours with a cocked Winchester pointed at my belly.”
Garet said nothing, but his features steeled into a hard mask.
Buchard’s gravelly voice continued. “Like I told her, Havelock. I built this ranch from nothin’. I came into this country when they wasn’t no one here but Mexes and Apaches. In them days, outlaw was just another name the carpetbagger bluecoats like Cory Cooley called us Southerners. Forty-Four’s got more’n fifteen thousand head a cows on this range an’ Silver Creek’s important water to them cows. It’s always been part of Forty-Four range and is now.”
The fire in the rancher’s eyes banked a bit, but didn’t go out.
“Some’d just run ya off, Havelock, former lawman or no. But I pride myself on being a fair man. Your lady said you owned that Silver Creek claim so I’ll tell you what. I’ll buy your spread. Long as your price is within a lariat throw of reasonable.”
Garet’s voice was hard and pitched low. “I’ve worked long and hard myself, Mr. Buchard, since I got shot in the knee by a renegade in a Yankee captain’s uniform. Like you, I wore gray, and I fought with General Stand Watie’s Cherokee Cavaliers. And I’ve worn a badge, and I’ve fought for and earned more than a little respect.”
The tall youngster standing by Buchard snickered. Garet nailed him to the corral fence with a piercing look. The boy-man’s face lost its sneer. He moved closer to the older man, as if seeking protection.
Garet shifted his gaze to the older Buchard. “I’ll not sell my land, Mr. Buchard. I’ll raise good horses there, and eventually good sons and daughters. If you want that land, you’ll have to kill me to get it.
“There was a time, Mr. Buchard,” Garet said, maintaining his polite but steel-hard tone, “when a man could run roughshod over a homesteader and get away with it. But those times are gone. I know Sheriff Hubbell’s going easy on them that’s on the Outlaw Trail, but that’s gonna change.”
Garet shifted so he could keep the young man in sight. “I hear people in Holbrook are getting Commodore Perry Owens to run against Hubbell in the next election,” he said. “I know Commodore. Believe you me. He gets to be sheriff of Apache County and we’ll see a sight of cleaning up.
“You can forget trying to take my land, Mr. Buchard. It’s just not worth the grief it would cause you.”
“But what are you gonna do without a wife?” the young man asked as Garet turned to mount his dun. Garet stopped with his back to the black-haired man. He stood as still as the malapai rocks that dotted the land. Buchard’s son took a hesitant step forward, the sneer back on his face.
“You ain’t even man enough to keep your own wife on your own place, Havelock.”
Spinning to the left on his good right leg, Garet used the centrifugal force of the spin to drive the middle knuckle of his left fist into the temple of the dark man, just below the brim of his hat.
He dropped like an ear-shot pig.
Garet stared at the rancher on the fence. Finally he spoke. “Buchard, if I was you, I’d teach that boy some manners. Way he’s going, he’ll end up dead.”
“Rafe never could keep his mouth shut,” Buchard said. “But that don’t give you no leave to knock him down.”
“Buchard. No one says a disparaging word about my wife. Me and her, we’re one whole. There are no halves. No man has the right to make light of our partnership. Him that does has to pay for it . . . like your son.”
Garet mounted the dun and turned its head toward the wagon road. He rode off at a canter, without a second glance at the inert form of Rafe Buchard.
Laura dreaded ever having to leave her room at the Pilar hacienda. The solid walls, the dim interior, and the solid oak bar across the door made her feel safe, as safe as any violated woman can feel.
Her ears were now as sensitive as a fox’s. She heard murmuring voices from distant parts of the sprawling hacienda, the click of boots on the stone floors, the brush of clothing against the walls. She thought she could hear spiders spinning webs in the rafters at night.
Each day her body ached less. But there was no lessening of the fear in her heart; fear that he.... that man... would be back to visit his fury upon her again, this time talking her life with him when he left.
Garet Havelock rode south from the sinks, knowing he would soon hit the wagon road that led to Round Valley. Still hours away from the outlaw roost as night fell, he decided to make a dry camp. Only a fool would venture into outlaw country in the dark.
He picketed the dun in thick grama grass so the horse had plenty of browse. Garet crawled beneath a low-hanging juniper with his saddle and blankets, hacking away a few branches to clear a space. He spread out the blankets and used the saddle as a pillow, hoping for a good night’s rest. He wasn’t worried about prowlers, knowing the dun would wake him if anything suspicious came around. Yet for all his weariness, Garet could not sleep. He closed his eyes and suddenly it was like the dun horse was chewing in his ear. A breeze sprang up, moaning through the juniper’s branches, making him think of Laura, somewhere, needing his help. Far off, a rabbit squealed, perhaps attacked by an owl. Garet’s eyes flew open. For an instant, he thought Laura screamed, not a rabbit.
Garet’s eyes were still open when the dawn pasted a gray curtain across the sky. They felt like raw wounds, and weariness carved crow’s feet at their corners and left deep crevices between his nostrils and the corners of his compressed mouth. After years of wearing a badge, Garet Havelock knew well that a man should sleep and eat whenever the opportunity arose. But when he closed his eyes, he saw the bloody sheets he’d folded and put in the cedar chest, and Laura’s screams echoed in his mind.
The sun was not yet up when Garet saddled the dun and set out for Round Valley. For breakfast, he chewed a stale biscuit, then washed the meager meal down with water from his canteen. Silver Creek water from the H-Cross. At least that was good.
He was miles down the wagon road when the sun topped the ridge and began to warm man and horse.
Julius Becker ran a store in the valley, but it stood apart, equidistant from the outlaws, the Mexicans, and the Mormons, who lived in their own enclave called Omer. He traded with all three groups but favored none. Garet stopped there before riding to see Gus Snyder, boss of the outlaw bunch that roosted in Round Valley.
“Howdy, Havelock.” Becker’s voice came booming from the dark interior of the store as Garet swing down from the dun.
“Not so fine, Julius, not so fine.” Garet’s limp was noticeable as he walked through the door. As his strength faded, he limped despite the iron brace that helped his knee perform more like a normal one.
A note of concern touched the storekeeper’s voice. “Never thought of you as one that might not be fine, Havelock, even when you ain’t,” Becker said, a tall spare man in spectacles and shirtsleeves.
Garet changed the subject. “Got any fruit?”
“Sure. What do you want?”
“Anything’ll do. I’ll eat a can right now,” Garet said.
Becker cut the top off a tin and brought it to Garet along with a fork. “You might as well eat ‘em like someone civilized,” he said. “Instead of using your Bowie.”
Garet offered half a grin. He drank a big gulp of the syrup and settled back for a moment, waiting for the sugar to hit his bloodstream. Then he forked a pear half into his mouth. The can was empty in moments, and Garet felt much better.
“Got a place a man could wash his face, Julius? Sure would like to get some of this dust out of my ears.”
“Out the back door and to your right, Havelock. Take your time.”
Garet used the two-holer while he was out back, and he returned looking like a different man. He bought shirt, pants, and underwear from Becker, too, shedding the trail clothes he’d been wearing for nearly three weeks. Becker would put the stuff on his tab until he sold some horses. He knew Laura would get after him if he threw away good clothes that could be washed and used again, so after he’d changed into new duds, he folded the dusty, dirty things into a tight roll and wrapped them in an extra flour sack Becker gave him.
He looked like a greenhorn in his new clothes. The California pants were a size too large so they’d fit over his brace, but Garet’s face was weathered and trail wise. His gaze was almost fierce as he stepped toward the storekeeper. Becker took an involuntary step back and came up against a rack of trousers. Garet leaned across the counter, bringing his face close to the lanky storekeeper.
“Julius, my wife is missing.” He thought for a moment and decided to trust Becker. “She’s missing, and there was blood in our cabin. I think she’s hurt. Have you seen or heard anything?”
“Good Lord, Havelock. Missing!” Becker fell silent for a moment, but quickly recovered. “Serious that your wife’s gone missing, Havelock. I haven’t heard a thing. Not a thing.”
“That’s certain. I’ve got a feeling she’s alive. Sore hurt. But alive.” Garet hung his head.
“Julius. I’d appreciate it if you’d kinda keep Laura’s being gone under your hat,” he said softly. “Word’ll get out soon enough as it is. And keep an ear out, if you would. Be obliged.”
“Of course. What now? Round Valley?”
“If anyone knows where my wife’s gone, I mean if there’s been foul play, well, Gus Snyder is likely to know. I reckon I’d better talk to him.”
Becker lowered his voice. “Just so’s you know, Havelock. Juanito O’Rourke’s little brother’s running with the Snyder gang. He’s not a big man like Juanito was, but he’s quick. And he’s upset about his brother, Havelock, so you ride in there with your gun loose,” he said.
“It was a fair fight,” Garet said. “In fact, O’Rourke had the drop.”
“I know the story. The whole country knows the story. That carries no weight with Luis O’Rourke. He’s loco and he’ll try to kill you.”
“I have no quarrel with O’Rourke. And I’ve got to talk to Gus Snyder.” Garet’s tone of voice said there’d be no backing down.
“I hear you. And Gus Snyder does have mighty big ears. Still, you ride careful, Garet Havelock. You got a woman who needs you alive. I’m sure of it,” the storekeeper said, concern in his voice.
Garet paid for his purchases and strode out into a bright May day. His lineback dun waited hipshot at the hitching rail. He took a moment to unroll the slicker-covered soogans behind the saddle, extracting a Colt’s Frontier .44 in a soft leather holster on a plain leather belt. He reached into the off-side saddle bag for a handful of shells, which he put in the pocket of his black leather vest. He strapped the gunbelt on, settling the holster over his left hip so the gun rode butt forward only inches from his right hand when he was in the saddle. Garet was riding into Gus Snyder’s home territory, and he wanted to be ready for anything.
After securing his soiled clothes inside the soogans and rewrapping the bundle in his oilskin slicker, he tied it behind the cantle of his saddle. He put half a rasher of bacon and some hardtack in the saddlebags, too.
He walked around to the off side of the dun and withdrew the long-barreled Winchester .44-40 from its saddle scabbard. He pulled a piece of flannel from the saddlebags and wiped the gun down, removing trail dust and leaving a light sheen from the oil the cloth had picked up from previous cleanings. Replacing the cloth, he jacked a shell into the chamber and let the hammer down to safety cock.
Becker watched Garet’s preparations from the store’s boardwalk. “I know you’re a careful man, Havelock, but riding into Gus Snyder’s town seems foolhardy to me. Why don’t you ride on to Saint Johns and let me listen for you here in Round Valley?”
Garet pushed his dusty flat-crowned Stetson back on his head. “Julius, you’re a good man and no doubt you’d do what you say. But my Laura may need me before you could get your listening done. I’ve gotta keep looking. Gus Snyder’s a hard man, but I can’t imagine him hurting a woman. Most men wouldn’t. But my Laura’s hurt, and I have to ask Snyder if he knows anything. It’s a risk I’ve gotta take.”
Garet mounted the lineback dun from the off side. His shattered left knee would not let him mount in the ordinary way. He reined the horse around toward the wagon-rutted road leading to Round Valley.
True to its name, Round Valley forms a circular vale with its back to the southern highlands that form the foothills of the White Mountains. The Little Colorado, just a stream at six thousand feet, ran down the middle of the valley. The settlement of Round Valley lay up against the south foothills west of the river. Few structures smacked of any kind of permanence, and the saloon was the center of the community.
As he rode, Garet considered what he’d heard about Gus Snyder. Strangely enough, he was a teetotaler, but he understood the ordinary owlhoot’s craving for spirits. So the saloon in Round Valley was stocked with good whiskey, they said. Still, Snyder insisted that everybody dry out for two days before any job, as he wanted them to have their wits about them.
Snyder was by nature ruthless, Garet had heard. But whiskey never clouded his judgement. If there was one thing that caused him grief, it was his volcanic temper and his sensitivity to insult, real or imagined.
Garet knew Snyder’s biggest business was in livestock. Mostly horses stolen in Canada and passed down the Outlaw Trail through Hole in the Rock, Brown’s Hole, Moab, Mexican Hat, Round Valley, and on to Mexico. Then the proceeds came back in the opposite direction with each operation along the way taking its share. The system worked on honor, and those who operated it felt their word was law. The outlaw whose honor could not be trusted lost either his life or his livelihood.
Gus Snyder ran the outlaw roost with an iron hand. Rules were few, but to be obeyed with no exception. No gunfighting. Quarrels could be settled with fists but the fighters had to pay for any property damage. Obnoxious drunks were barred from the saloon. Card sharks were unwelcome. No barroom women. And the bar closed at midnight.
Garet rode into Snyder’s town just after noon. He passed a row of dugouts built in the side of a low hill, then some tarpaper shacks. He reined the dun up in front of the saloon, the town’s largest building, and dismounted. He left the dun ground-hitched, in case he had to make a hasty exit, and the Winchester in the saddle scabbard, trusting that Snyder’s no-gunfight rule extended to visitors as well. Just the same, the Colt .44 high on his left hip felt very comfortable.
He lifted his hat and ran his fingers through his black hair. He touched the butt of the .44 with the fingers of his right hand as he shouldered his way through the batwing doors into the saloon.
Six pairs of eyes glanced up at his entry, but only the bartender met his gaze. The other five instantly returned their attention to the cards in their hands.
“‘Lo, Jim,” Garet said.
“Howdy, Havelock. Long way from Vulture City.”
“Some. Seems the last time I saw you was in Ehrenburg. What brings you to this neck of the woods?”
“Shot the wrong man. He needed it, but it was Jim McCarty’s word against that of Big Ben Wright. I left on a fast horse, an’ Mr. Snyder don’t ask questions here.”
“Never saw a flyer on you. Maybe you don’t have to be here,” Garet said.
“I’m awright. Peaceful town. Law don’t come and I got no problems.” McCarty paused. “What brings you to Round Valley?”
“I need to talk to Gus Snyder, Jim. Is he around?”
“I reckon he’s over to the house. You can’t see it from here, but there’s a big two-story log place just over that rise,” McCarty motioned on down the rutted road. “You can’t miss it, Havelock, but you ride mighty careful. He’ll have men watching and they got quick trigger fingers.”
Garet nodded. “I’ll take care,” he said. He turned toward the door, then looked back at McCarty. “You’re a good man, Jim. Don’t go wasting yourself running when there’s no one chasing you, you hear?”
McCarty smiled and nodded. The card game continued uninterrupted.
Garet saw the house as soon as he crested the low rise west of the saloon. It stood back against a hillside, two stories of squared Ponderosa pine logs. The windows were small and heavily shuttered. Garet could see the loopholes cut in them. The oak shutters looked at least two inches thick, enough to stop anything but big-caliber buffalo guns. It was Gus Snyder’s house, and his fortress.
Garet walked his horse down the wagon track toward the house, his hands in plain sight on the saddle horn. He was still nearly a quarter mile away when a man stepped into the road, a Winchester casually pointing in Garet’s direction. “Whoa up, mister. What business you got in these parts?”
“My name’s Garet Havelock. I own the H-Cross spread on Silver Creek. I need to talk to Mr. Snyder.”
The man considered Garet’s proposition. “I’ve heard of you, Havelock. You was marshal down to Vulture City. Folks say you’re a hard man but fair. Awright. Give me your hardware. I’ll take you to the house.”
Garet had no choice if he was to speak to Snyder. He pulled his Colt from the holster with thumb and forefinger and handed it to the man. Then he plucked the Winchester saddle gun from its boot and offered it butt first.
“I believe you’re as good as your word, Orvil White, or I’d never go unarmed.”
The man looked up at the mention of his name. Garet smiled. “I’ve seen the flyers, White. They seemed a bit farfetched.”
White said nothing. He turned and walked toward the house, Garet’s Colt shoved in his waistband and carrying both Winchesters in the crook of his left arm. His right hand was free to use his own pistol if the need arose.
Fifty yards or so from the house, White sang out. “Visitor coming in.”
Men appeared at each corner of the house, both armed with long-barreled Winchesters. One was so blonde he looked almost albino. The other was dark, Mexican or Cajun with a hint of African blood, perhaps.
White and Garet continued their approach. Both guards jacked shells into their rifle chambers. Garet ignored them, concentrating on the front door.
It opened inward, and a slight man with a receding hairline stepped out. He’d have looked more at home behind a teller’s window than in Round Valley. He wore no guns and his pants were held up by suspenders over a collarless white shirt.
“This here’s Garet Havelock, Mr. Snyder,” White said. “He says he’s gotta talk to you.”
Snyder shifted his piercing blue-eyed gaze to Garet. “Well?”
Garet held the outlaw leader’s eyes. “It’s very private, Mr. Snyder,” he said. “Could we step inside?”
Snyder stood silent a long time. Then he nodded to himself. “All right,” he said. “Come in.”
The two guards exchanged surprised glances and Orvil White looked vindicated, almost proud that he’d brought Garet to see the boss.
Inside, the small windows made the house dim. Light-colored pine boards covered the walls, set vertically from floor to ceiling. Snyder closed the oak door behind Garet and slid a beam three inches thick down to lock it solidly shut.
The slight man folded his arms across his chest and regarded Garet with a somber expression. “Now what does a used-to-be lawman want with the likes of me?” he asked.
Garet’s voice was level and his tone serious. “Mr. Snyder, I’ve heard a lot about you. Folks say you’re a hard man, but that you don’t jump to conclusions. Now I have a problem and I figure you’re one of the few men in the territory that might be able to help me. I’m asking you a favor, Mr. Snyder. I have nothing to offer in return except myself. You do me this favor, and Havelocks from here to Galveston will be your friends when you need them.”
“Yes, sir. You see, my wife, Laura—she’s a tall, redheaded woman, Irish—well, my Laura, Mr. Snyder, well, she’s missing. When I got home from bringing horses from up north, she wasn’t there. And there was blood in my cabin, Mr. Snyder. I’d take it as a real favor if you’d keep an eye and an ear out for that girl. I’m afraid she’s sore hurt, one way or another, and I’ve got to find her. Can you help?”
“Gone, is she?”
“How long, you figure?”
“No way of telling for sure. I don’t think she’s been gone more’n a week.”
“Blood, you say?”
“That’s right,” Garet answered. “Were I to guess, I’d say she was beat up some. Maybe cut.”
“Once in a while, I hear of a soiled dove that got herself beat and cut, but never a rancher’s wife. Why do you think she left?” Snyder asked.
“From the sign, I’d say someone carried her out and put her in a buckboard. Two people in round-toed boots, one large and one smaller. Looked like a man and a woman.” Somehow Garet trusted the slight outlaw and told him more of what they’d found at the cabin that he’d told anyone else.
“Havelock. I know you’re straight. People up the trail say so. And Johnny Havelock’s your brother. Right now, I don’t have anything to tell you. But if I hear a word, you’ll know it.”
“That’s all a man can ask, Mr. Snyder,” Garet said.
“Name’s Gus. Call me Gus,” Snyder said.
Garet grinned. “Gus it is. And much obliged.”
Snyder lifted the bar and opened the door. “Orrie!”
“Yessir, Mr. Snyder.”
“Give Havelock his guns. He’s riding out and he’ll likely need them.”
White brought the weapons. Garet first shoved the Colt into the cross-draw holster and then took the Winchester. He stepped into the saddle and touched the brim of his Stetson with the barrel of the Winchester in a salute to Snyder. “Much obliged,” he said.
The outlaw leader’s face showed a hint of a smile and he lifted his hand a little. “Vaya con Dios, Havelock,” Snyder said.
In the dark of her room, Laura felt she could see the cabin at the H-Cross ranch. It had served, and she’d been perfectly willing to wait for better surroundings. Now she could never ever live in the cabin again. Now she was violated and soiled and beaten. And who knew when that man might come again. He knew where the Silver Creek cabin was. He knew how to get in without anyone seeing him. He knew just how to hurt Laura so all she wanted to do was live; so she would submit to anything else. She shuddered and whimpered and buried her face in her pillow so the sound of her anguish would not reach the ears of the others asleep in the Pilar hacienda. Even in her pain, she got from her bed and felt her way to the door to check the bar once again to make sure it was securely lodged in its holdings. At least that man could never get in here. At least it was safe in here. Wasn’t it?
Garet started the dun back down the wagon road, this time toward Valle Redondo.
As he rode, he pulled a piece of hardtack from the saddlebags and patiently chewed bite after bite, chasing each down with sips of water from the canteen looped over the saddle horn. Silver Creek water was tasty to him, even after more than a day on the trail. But the taste brought the memory of the bloody quilt and sheets racing back. He closed his eyes to chase the dark thoughts away and concentrated instead on the day he and Laura had arrived from Vulture City.
Judd Travis lived in a small shack on the claim at Silver Creek. He knew the Havelocks were coming and had gotten logs from Porter Mountain. He even had most of them hewed square, ready for the Havelock cabin.
Laura lived in the wagon for the week it took Garet and Travis and one-handed Jeff Morgan to build the cabin. They worked quickly but carefully, and where many cabins had sod roofs, the men spend hours splitting juniper shingles instead.
The north end held a fireplace built of malapai rock and adobe mortar. It was almost big enough to walk into, so Laura didn’t have to continually bend over to cook. Garet promised her the ranch house would have a Franklin stove.
He wouldn’t let her move into the cabin until he finished the bed. The frame was native juniper branches, stripped of bark and burnished till they gleamed, bound with wet rawhide that dried into joints stronger than could be made with any nail. Rawhide strips woven crosswise and lengthwise supported the cotton tick they’d brought from Vulture City, with just enough sag to roll them together into the middle of the bed.
Garet remembered the night the cabin was finished. He’d kept Laura out, urging her to ready a garden plot with help from Jeff Morgan. That evening, before she had time to start supper, Garet called her over.
“I understand it’s good luck for the bridegroom to carry the bride across the threshold,” he said, picking her up in his arms. He pushed the door open with a shoulder and stepped in to set his bride on her feet in the middle of the room. His face didn’t show that her weight had painfully stretched the scars in his side, mementos of his gunfight at Eagle Eye Mountain some weeks before.
“Garet, it’s lovely. And it’s ours!” She pushed the door shut, threw her arms about Garet’s neck and gave him a thorough kiss. Naturally he kissed her back.
The newlyweds didn’t wait ‘til after supper to make use of the new bed, either. But smoke soon issued from the new chimney as Laura prepared a meal of beef, egg dumplings, gravy, and baked beans.
Morgan and Travis obviously enjoyed the meal, but didn’t linger after. They took their leave after only one extra cup of coffee. Laura and Garet did the dishes together.
“Thank you, Garet,” Laura said when they were done. “You’re everything a woman could ever hope for in a husband.”
“And you’re the perfect wife,” he said.
Two days later, Garet, Morgan, and Travis rode north for the Montana horses, leaving Laura alone at her own request.
Garet reined the dun up at the crossing of the Little Colorado; Radito, the Mexicans called it. He let the horse drink as he looked over the Mexican settlement on the far side.
It bore a resemblance to other Mexican settlements in arid lands. Most of the buildings were adobe, plastered outside with clay. A few of the buildings had been whitewashed in the distant past.
Garet knew Arizona’s Mexican citizens. Spanish was their native tongue, and they made delicious food. He knew of the ones who rode outside the law, and he had been forced to kill Juanito O’Rourke. With that knowledge to guide him, he took the same course he would in any other Western town. He dismounted in front of the low structure with the word “Cantina” printed on its mud walls in whitewash. Where men gathered to drink, information flowed.
Touching the butt of his pistol with the fingers of his right hand as if to make sure it was in the right position, he ducked through the low door, pausing to let his eyes adjust. The small cantina had no bar and only four tables. The room was empty so Garet took a seat at a table where he could see the door while keeping his own back to a wall.
A man whose face showed the tracks of his years came through the door from the back.
“Sí, señor,” he said.
The hardtack had been precious little as a midday meal. “Got anything to eat here?” Garet asked.
“Sí, señor. Frijoles y tortillas. It is very poor food but my Maria she does wonders with the chili.”
“I’ll have some,” Garet said.
“Sí, señor.” The old man disappeared through the back door.
Silence invaded the room. In fact, the whole town seemed to be without the sounds of life. Garet drew his Colt and put it in his lap beneath the table, cocked.
Several minutes passed.
Then came the sound of boots. Someone walking fast. Someone coming this way. Luis O’Rourke burst through the door.
“Hello, Luis,” Garet said. His Colt pointed at O’Rourke’s belt buckle. “What can I do for you?”
O’Rourke stuttered for a moment, beside himself with rage. At last his words made sense.
“Murderer of my brother. You. Havelock. Now you wear no star to protect you. Now you must die for what you did. Now . . .”
“Luis. In case you didn’t notice, I hold the gun, not you. How do you plan to kill me?”
“I see your gun,” shouted the outlaw. Spittle formed at the corners of his mouth. “I will not draw mine against you in here. But outside. Out there in the sun, I can avenge my brother. Out there I will wait. Out there, when you appear, I will kill you.” Luis O’Rourke turned his back to Garet and left.
“Your frijoles y tortillas, señor.” The old man set a large bowl of steaming beans in deep red sauce before Garet, along with a plate of thin tortillas.
Garet attacked the meal as if his life had not just been threatened, using the wooden spoon provided. The food was spicy and hot and delicious. Garet used the last tortilla to wipe the bowl clean and ate it with gusto. All the while, the old man watched, smiling at Garet’s appetite.
“Algo mas, anything else?” he asked.
“No, my friend. I have never had better. My compliments to whoever cooked that meal. It was splendid.” Garet stood and replaced his hat, which he had removed to eat. He left coins on the table for the food, knowing they were more than enough. He pulled the Colt and checked its action. He put a sixth bullet in the cylinder and returned the gun to its holster.
The old man watched with somber eyes.
“I won’t kill him unless I have to,” Garet said. “I don’t like to kill.” He turned to go outside.
“Go with God, señor,” the old man said softly.
Garet stood back from the open door for a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the bright sunlight. He’d heard Luis O’Rourke prided himself that his killing was always in self defense. Perhaps that meant a way out. He stepped out of the cantina into the dust of the street. The dun raised its head, expecting Garet to mount. He walked by.
“I am here, Garet Havelock,” O’Rourke shouted. He stood with his back to the sun about a hundred feet away — some thirty long strides.
Garet started walking directly toward O’Rourke, moving swiftly despite his slight limp. The half-breed gunman looked confused.
“What do you think you are doing, gringo lawman?”
Garet kept walking.
“Get your gun, I tell you. You must pay for my brother’s death. You must pay!”
Garet was less than a dozen paces away and coming fast. O’Rourke’s breath came faster. He couldn’t take his eyes off the fast-walking man.
“Get back, I tell you. Get back!”
But it was too late. As Luis O’Rourke desperately tried to draw his gun, Garet Havelock clamped a strong left hand over the cylinder and hammer of O’Rourke’s Remington, preventing him from pulling the trigger.
“You can’t kill me, Luis. God won’t let you,” Garet said in a low voice. “Your brother died for all the wrong reasons. Don’t you follow him. Live, Luis. Live. Don’t let hate for me kill you. Now. I’m going to walk away and get on my horse. I’ll leave your gun at the cantina.”
Garet turned away, still holding O’Rourke’s Remington in his left hand. He retraced his steps to the dun and handed the gun to the old man standing in front of the cantina.
“When I am gone, return that to Luis, por favor,” Garet said to the old man.
As he mounted the dun, a voice called to him from across the street.
A Mexican vaquero walked his palomino horse to Garet’s side. “I am Miguel Jose Pilar y Guerrero,” he said. “I can take you to your wife.”
Laura heard the distinctive click of Rita Pilar’s heels on the flagstone floor and rushed to unbar the door. She slid the bar from its place as the first tap came. But instead of throwing the door open for her friend as she would have in earlier times, Laura Havelock stepped back from the door and stood there, trembling. What if it wasn’t Rita? What if it that man had found her? What if . . . Laura’s thoughts were a frenzy of unanswered and unanswerable questions. Her fright and confusion kept her feet nailed in place. A hand fled to her mouth.
Again the light tap on the door. Swallowing painfully with a dry throat, Laura croaked, “Yes.”
“May I come in, amiga?” Rita never entered the room without Laura’s permission.
“Yes, of course.” Laura’s voice was hardly louder than a whisper. She took a step back, putting more distance between herself and the door, just in case.
Rita quietly opened the heavy door, closing it behind her when she entered the room. Laura was instantly at her side, replacing the oaken bar. She took Rita by the hand, standing close, feeling more secure in the presence of her friend.
“Laura, I have good news,” she said.
Laura made no reply.
“My brother, Miguel, has ridden to Silver Creek to find your Garet Havelock. Before long, he will be here to get you. Isn’t that wonderful?”
Laura squeezed her eyes shut and tried to stop the trembling of her body. She clenched her teeth. She tasted the coppery flow of blood as she bit her lip. But the trembling would not stop.
“Garet?” The question came out more like a squeak. She looked at Rita with pleading in her eyes.
“I can’t go back to Silver Creek, Rita. I just can’t. Not even with Garet there. After what has happened to me, he may not even want me there.”
Rita put her arms around the larger woman. “Laura, you must let go. You must put it all behind you.”
A lot she knows. Laura buried her face in her friend’s shoulder. Laura Havelock died at Silver Creek. I’m still breathing, but the Laura Havelock that Garet loved died on that bed in the cabin on Silver Creek. There’s no way to resurrect her or bring her back.
Laura looked at Rita with torture in her eyes. “Garet’s coming?”
“I am certain Miguel will bring him here soon. Are you not happy?”
“But look at me.” Laura’s fingertips touched the scabs that ran like purple tears down her cheeks. “Look at me. A scarface. A soiled woman. Afraid. I’m so afraid.”
The tears welled in Laura’s eyes as she fought to control the panic deep in her chest. Her eyes darted back and forth. Her fingers dug into Rita’s arm. Her breathing accelerated until she was panting for air. She started shaking her head.
“No. No. No. He can’t come yet,” she said. “Not yet. I’m not ready. I’ll never be ready. I don’t dare. I can’t bear to look at him. He left, trusting me. Look what happened. Oh, no. I can’t see him. I just can’t.”
The words stumbled from her mouth, bubbling with her hysterical logic. And as ever, in the back of her mind, the dark threatening shadow of her attacker. Who knew when he would strike again?
Garet Havelock studied the vaquero at his side, the man who rode with a ramrod back. Where Garet and the lineback dun moved loosely, ebbing and flowing, the Mexican horseman sat in his ornate saddle as if on parade, deftly handling his spirited palomino stallion. While his round-toed boots sported Mexican spurs with rowels some four inches across, they never touched the stallion’s sides. Nor could Garet could see any indication on the stallion’s sleek flanks that the spurs had ever been used. Here was a man who, though dressed as a dandy, cared for his mount. Garet decided he liked Miguel.
The wagon road they took followed the Little Colorado for some distance before it turned north toward Concho. Garet had heard of the old Mexican settlement, but had never been there.
The sun was low in the west when the two riders topped the rise above the town. Red-gold light burnished the adobe of the old church. Its cross stood white above the belfry, outlined against the blue hills in the distance.
“God, I love this high country,” Garet said with reverence in his voice. “That’s a beautiful sight.”
“Come,” Miguel Pilar said. “Our rancho is but a short distance further.” He turned east, riding just under the brow of the hill. Still, the sun had set and the last of the rose and coral highlights had faded from the sky before they reached the hacienda.
When he saw the rancho’s lights, Garet’s pulse quickened. He could tell it was their destination by the way the palomino pranced, and that meant Laura was there.
Miguel had said nothing about Laura’s condition, saying only that he was to take Garet to her. Respecting the vaquero, Garet had not pushed. Now all the anxiety of the past few days came back full blast, questions raced through his mind. How badly was she hurt? Was she herself? Was she really alive?
The horsemen entered the hacienda grounds through a tall gate with PILAR branded on an oak plank hanging from the crosspiece. A passage separated the big house from the quarters of the vaqueros and the smaller home of the segundo. All were within the malapai walls, as were the corrals and the stables where they dismounted their horses.
“Our people will care for the horses,” Miguel said when Garet looked around for something to rub the dun down with.
“A man should look after his own,” Garet said. Then he fell silent as the meaning of his words sank in.
Miguel smiled. “We have our ways, señor. I assure you. Your horse will be well cared for. Come.” He turned toward the big house. Garet followed, reluctant without really knowing why.
Paloma Javez was at the door. “Señor Miguel,” she said. “Surely you have ridden far without anything to eat. The table is set. The antelope roast is ready . . .” She turned to Garet. “Señor Havelock, I am Paloma Javez. It is good that you are here. Please come and eat.”
“Isn’t my wife here? I’d like to see her if she is.”
“All in good time, senor. First we shall eat,” the woman said in a tone that brooked no refusal.
Garet frowned. He didn’t like the runaround they were giving him. But he could not refuse their hospitality. He’d come this far. He could wait a few more minutes.
Judging by the looks, the roast and the squash and the beans were good, but Garet could hardly taste what he put in his mouth. Miguel tried to make conversation, but Garet only grunted in reply. And he looked up sharply, expectantly, whenever a sound came from another room or from outside.
Once he heard a quiet rap at the front door, which Señora Javez hastened to answer. A man spoke in low tones. Garet couldn’t hear what he said, though he listened intently. The murmuring voices faded toward the rear of the house. Garet picked at his food and wondered why they wouldn’t let him see Laura. Maybe she was critically injured. Maybe she was dead. Maybe . . .
Garet looked up to see Miguel Pilar watching him. He stared back, saying nothing, but the question was in his eyes — Where is my wife?
Miguel dropped his eyes. “Have a little more patience, señor. Por favor.”
Garet nodded, not trusting himself to say anything. For the first time in his life, he faced something he didn’t know how to handle. In the past, direct action, usually fast and hard, had always been the best course. But in the past, all he had faced were other men determined to do him harm. In the past, right and wrong were as distinct as black and white. Garet believed in rule of law, others did not. And now he didn’t know what he faced. He only knew that something he didn’t understand was keeping his wife away from him. He decided to sit quietly until he could get a grasp on what was going on. Then maybe he could act.
Footsteps sounded. Both Garet and Miguel Pilar looked expectantly at the door. The footsteps paused. The swinging door pushed open and Rita Pilar came in.
“So you are Garet Havelock,” she said, walking toward him with both hands outstretched. Garet stood, a bit embarrassed.
Rita took his hands in hers. “I’m Rita Pilar, Miguel’s sister,” she said. “I’m so happy to meet you at last. Laura’s told me so much about you.”
“Pleased to meet you,” was all that Garet could manage to say.
“I’m sure you are anxious to see Laura,” Rita continued. “But there’s someone else I would like you to speak with first. Is that all right? Please say it is, por favor.”
Garet could only look confused.
“Come.” Rita pulled on his hands.
Not knowing what else to do, he followed. Miguel Pilar stayed seated at the dining table.
Rita led Garet to a small room lined with leather-bound books. “My father and his father before him treasured books,” she said. “Most of these are from Spain. But there are a few in English. After all, we are Americans.” Rita smiled.
As the two entered the room, a smallish man in a brown cassock stood up from where he’d been sitting in a corner. Rita led Garet over to him.
“This is our padre,” she said. “Padre Juan Bautista. He lives at the mission.” She smiled at the friar. “He watches over our souls.”
Garet studied the man. His face was open, though lined with years. And his brown eyes were guileless. If any man were ever harmless, it’s this friar, Garet decided. He offered his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Padre. I’m Garet Havelock.”
Padre Juan smiled and his gentle face lit up. He grasped Garet’s hand firmly. “Thank you, my friend,” he said in perfect English. “Come, let us sit. We have serious things to talk about, you and I.”
Garet took a leather-covered chair facing the one the padre has been seated in. Rita Pilar quietly left the room.
“As you know,” the padre said quietly, “Your wife Laura is in the hacienda.”
“So I’ve heard, but I have yet to see her.” A harshness crept into Garet’s voice.
“I ask you for a little more patience, my friend. You see. It may be that she won’t see you this night.”
“Won’t see me? Why not?”
“Señor Havelock. Your wife has been through an infinitely traumatic experience. One that harmed her body to be sure. But also one that deeply wounded her soul.”
Garet said nothing.
“It pains me to have to tell you this, my friend.” The small padre seemed to reach inside himself for some extra fortitude. “You see. While you were gone ...” The friar stopped again to marshal more courage. After a moment, he spoke again, his voice pitched even lower and softer than before. “While you were gone, Señor Havelock, a man ... an unknown man .... attacked your wife Laura. He struck her. He cut her with a knife, senor. And how can I say this?”
Garet felt like he could not breathe.
“Senor Havelock, he violated your wife. Violated her with force and violence.”
Garet’s shocked eyes held those of the priest. “My dear God,” he whispered. “My dear God.” He bowed his head and covered his face with his hands. For a time, his mind was blank.
Garet Havelock had killed men in the past, but never before had he felt the unbridled urge to shed another man’s blood. A burning hate for the man who had raped his wife grew inside him. The flames of this anger rose in his eyes. He raised his hard gaze to confront the priest.
“Do you have any idea who did it?” The words reflected only a portion of his pain.
The padre regarded him with solemn eyes and shook his head.
“I understand your anger, Senor Havelock. And truly, under God’s Law, such a man has no claim to life. But by the same token, we humans have no right to act in judgement over life and death of another.”
Garet clenched his teeth and the muscles of his hard jaw rippled in frustration. The priest held up a placating hand.
“I seek not to preach to you,” he said. “But let me say this. At this moment, the victim of this man-demon needs help to recover from her ordeal. It will take a long time, and she may never be the woman you remember as your bride. I feel the way will be long and fraught with pitfalls. But we must try. And above all, you must help.”
Padre Juan paused.
Garet watched his face.
“Will you help me?” the priest asked.
Garet locked away the hatred to be brought forth another day . . . the day he found the man who had raped his wife. On that day he would be judge and jury and the animal who had violated Laura would die the kind of death such a varmint deserved. This Garet pledged to himself.
“Of course. I’ll help any way I can,” he said in a mild voice.
The priest sighed. “Let us embark then on that long long road.” He stood and beckoned for Garet to follow. “Let us go speak with your wife,” he said.
Laura often curled up on the juniper and rawhide couch instead of sleeping in the bed. She preferred the rough wool of the Navajo rug thrown over it and its feather-filled pillows felt so good.
She was lying there when she heard the soft murmurs that could only be Padre Juan Bautista. She lay with her eyes open wide, listening intently. The voices faded, probably into Don Fernando’s library. The single candle flickered fitfully as she stared at the dark ceiling.
Padre Juan had come. That must mean Garet was either here or would soon arrive. Laura had been happy to have the gentle padre come to talk to her and to listen to her fears. Always he counseled to lay her fears at the feet of Christ. Laura had often gone to mass with her mother as a child, and she took comfort in this soft-spoken padre. But she could not find the courage to go to confession. Somewhere in her heart, she felt her sin was too great.
She heard Rita walk by, going toward the rooms at the other end of the house, to the dining room, perhaps. A moment later she heard a voice that brought her upright, hands to her mouth, eyes wide in the feeble light.
Laura squeezed her eyes shut as the sound of her husband’s voice rang in her mind. Tears came unbidden to her eyes and rolled over the scabs where her attacker had cut her cheeks.
“Oh, Garet,” she whispered. She curled into a tight fetal knot on the couch. There, in the flickering light of the candle, she waited, terrified.
Garet followed the diminutive padre out of Don Fernando’s library into the dark hallway. The walls of the hacienda were thick adobe, plastered over with clay and whitewashed. No marauding Apaches could ever burn this house down. Garet absently brushed his fingers against the rough wall. He’d been in forts not nearly as solid as this house. He peered ahead, hoping for a glimpse of Laura.
Candles on spikes lit the way. Doors in along the hallway marked the entrance to bedrooms in this far end of the hacienda. The padre’s steps slowed. Rita Pilar waited for the two men near a massive, iron-strapped oak door. There were loopholes in the door and more in the walls on either side. This is the refuge of last resort, Garet thought. This is where the surviving vaqueros and their families would fall back to make a last stand if raiders overwhelmed the hacienda.
“I think she sleeps,” Rita said in a low voice.
Padre Juan Bautista nodded. Turning to Garet, he asked, “You heard what Senorita Pilar has said, Senor. Do you wish to disturb her?”
Garet searched the face of the padre, then looked at Rita Pilar. Neither gave a hint of what they thought he should do.
At last he nodded. The padre and Rita stepped back from the door, indicating that Garet was the one who should knock.
He raised his hand, knuckles toward the door. Holding it aloft for a moment, he took a deep breath, then rapped on the thick door.
The answer came immediately. “Garet?”
“Laura? Honey? It’s me. Garet. Open the door, Laura.”
He rapped again. “Laura?”
Through the thick wood, he thought he could hear a stifled sob. His heart went out to the woman in pain on the other side of the door. He wanted nothing more than to hold her in his arms and brush the tears from her cheeks. It seemed like months since he’d ridden north, leaving her alone... alone to be so savagely attacked. Garet took two more deep breaths, breathing quickly in and out to keep his own torn heart from breaking his composure. Still, his voice cracked when he said her name again.
“Laura. Open the door, girl. I’m back. I’m here now. I won’t leave you alone. Nobody’s ever going to hurt you, Laura. I swear. I won’t allow it. I surely won’t. Open the door, honey.”
He stood in silence for a moment, then spoke one more word.
The sobs on the other side of the door were louder now.
“Oh, Garet,” Laura said so softly that only Garet could hear what she said. “I love you so. But please. Please don’t make me open the door right now. I’m scarred, Garet. I’m not the Laura you love any more. I’m another Laura. One you’ve never even met.”
Garet stood silently, listening to the low voice of his wife coming through the fortress-thick oak. His heart beat a slow rhythm that pulsed between his eyes and pounded in his brain.
“Garet? Forgive me,” Laura continued. “Forgive me, but I cannot bear the thought of entering that cabin on Silver Creek ever again. And dear, dear Garet. I cannot stand to see you face to face the way I am.”
“But Laura. You and I are a whole.” Garet was pleading for the first time in his life. “Your hurts are mine, love, and we’ve got to heal them together.” Garet forgot the others who listened to his side of the conversation. He thought only of the soft voice on the other side of the oaken door.
“I cannot open the door, Garet. It’s just too much. Forgive me and please know that my refusal does not mean I no longer love you. It’s just that . . .” Sobs came again from the room of last resort. “It’s just that I’m not strong enough to do it right now. Please go, Garet. Please go, and leave me to heal a little more. But come back soon. Come back soon and let me hear your dear voice again.”
Garet leaned his forehead against the door. Then he straightened up, seizing upon something Laura had said, something he could do to help make things better for her.
“All right,” he said in a kind but steady voice. “I’m riding back to Silver Creek. I’ll return in four days, after I’ve done what I have to do there. I’ll come back, Laura. I’ll always come back. I wouldn’t leave you now, but I know you are secure in this room in this house. Adios, my love.”
Garet turned to the waiting Mexicans. “I can’t see her now,” he said. “I must do something for her in Silver Creek. It will take a few days. Then I’ll be back.”
Rita put a sympathetic hand on his arm. The padre nodded.
“Padre Juan,” Garet said, “Laura was raised a Catholic. I’m sure she would welcome you. Please look after her while I am gone... and you, Rita Pilar. I cannot thank you enough for what you and your family have done for mine.”
Rita smiled. “De nada, señor,” she said. “We became friends, and what good are friends unless they give help when help is needed?”
Garet looked at her for a long moment. “It’s my debt, Rita,” he said, his voice grave. “One I may never be able to repay.”
They returned to the dining area where Miguel still sat at the table. The meat was gone and an earthenware cup of coffee sat in front of him. He looked a question at his new friend. Garet shook his head.
“Miguel, my dun has been on the road for some days now and needs a rest. Do you have a horse I could borrow? I need to do some work at Silver Creek. I’ll return the horse inside a week.
“We’ll choose one for you in the morning.”
“If it’s all right, I’d like to get on my way,” Garet said.
The Pilars lent Garet a blood-red bay gelding with an off-centered star on his forehead and black stockings on his feet. The horse had bottom and a friendly gait and would let Garet mount from the off side. The Pilars called him Pelarojo, Red Skin. Garet shortened it to Pela. Keeping the bay at an easy canter interspersed with intervals of walking, Garet reached his H-Cross spread on Silver Creek in the still of the dawn. Juniper trees hunched dark against the silvery green of gramma grass, looking like buffalo grazing across the flats north of the creek. Smoke drifted from the cabin’s stone chimney. Judd Travis and Jeff Morgan were standing in front of the cabin waiting for him when Garet rode up and stepped stiffly from the saddle. Pela paid no attention as he got off the wrong side.
“Howdy, boys.” Garet could tell they wanted to ask about Laura. He decided to tell them what he could. They’d just have to trust him about what couldn’t be told.
“Laura’s all right,” he said. “Well, mostly all right. She’s at the Pilar rancho just past Concho over east of here. But she’s been hurt pretty bad, body and soul, and she won’t be coming home for a while yet.”
Garet let the silence build.
“That’s all for now,” he finally said, because he could say no more.
Jeff Morgan stood huge and black and unmoving. His eyes searched Garet’s face, looking for a sign of what was really going on.
Garet stepped over close to his friend. “Some man attacked my Laura,” he said softly. “I aim to find that man and make him wish he’d never seen the light of day. I’d appreciate your help.”
Morgan nodded and shifted the Ballard .50 that hung over his shoulder.
“That place where he stood watching, where he had his horse tied . . . no one’s messed with it, have they?’
“Travis roped it off so no livestock or nothing could get to it.”
“Right now, those tracks are all we got.”
“We’ll get him, Havelock. Help’s a coming.”
Garet raised an eyebrow.
“I sent word to Puma,” Morgan said simply.
“Travis. Morg. I want you to help pull everything out of the cabin. I’m gonna burn it down. Time to start work on a real house for this spread.”