Authors: Shirl Henke
With a gripping feeling of suffocation, he reached down and pulled a blanket over her nakedness.
Why, Dulcia, why did I ever ask you to leave Mexico City? Your civilization for this wilderness
He had been crumpled by the bedside with his wife in his arms for untold minutes when a voice rasped out in Spanish, ‘‘Don Leandro, oh, I am so sorry. Poor little one.”
His stiffened muscles crying out in protest, Lee stood to face Angelina. “Who did this? Where did he go?”
The old woman's bruise-blackened jaw made it difficult for her to speak. “Two men,
” she spat out the border slang used as an epithet for rangers. “I heard them talk as they forced me to serve them food and wine, Don Leandro, before the ladies came....” Her voice trailed away.
“How long ago?”
“Yesterday afternoon, late. When the carriage pulled up, one of them hit me and knocked me to the floor. I awakened to the sounds of screams. I could do nothing, Don Leandro, nothing. They had killed our men and the men Doña Gertrudis brought with her.” Her eyes pleaded for understanding. “I hid out behind the well until they rode away this morning.”
Lee stood up now, his face a frozen mask of hatred, oblivious of the terrified old woman's sobs. “Where were they headed?” His voice was ice cold.
“To San Antonio. They spoke of joining a company of rangers to fight against Mexico.”
* * * *
The tall, gangly Sears bent over to light a fat cigar, his back against the bar. Inhaling a deep puff, he let the acrid smoke drift out across the half-empty cantina. “We been waitin' round fer thet damn Captain Waller ta git his shittin' men mustered up all day. Lemmee see...” He consulted the ornate gold watch. “Seven hours,” he said and snapped the cover back across the face of the timepiece.
“Put that damn thing away, leastways till we git clear o' Santone,” his heavy set companion said in a harsh whisper that carried across the deserted room.
One man, a big Tennessean with an arsenal of weapons strapped to his person, slept at the corner table, coonskin cap over his face, snoring. A couple of men who worked as clerks at the mercantile played cards at another table. The bartender, a small man named Lyle Bricker, observed all that went on in his place but said nothing. The wild frontiersmen who frequented his establishment killed Mexicans, Comanche, even one another at the slightest provocation. They were loners, undisciplined and dangerous, none more so than Griggs and Sears, whom he knew had not come honestly by the antique watch with a Spanish inscription on its back.
Outside, a small boy was speaking rapidly in Spanish to a tall
. “They are in there, mister, two Texian devils, just as you described them. One is skinny with long black hair and the other is big and fat with his front teeth missing. They rode in from the north this morning. I stabled their horses and heard them say they were to join Captain Waller's ranger volunteers.”
Lee looked like a dark angel of death, his features graven in stone. He had searched every cheap hotel and cantina, questioning people and describing the two men as Angelina had to him. Finally, he had hit pay dirt. He flipped the boy a gold piece and said, “
As the boy scampered off, the
checked his pistols one last time, then walked through the wide door into the dim, smoky room. His black eyes slitted as he scanned the bar for his prey.
“We don't serve Mex in here, sonny,” Bricker said levelly.
As Lee sauntered toward the bar, something in his expression caused the proprietor to reconsider, that and the way the grim-faced young
hands rested lightly on a pair of .36-caliber Patterson Colts.
“I didn't come to drink. I came to talk with these two.” He motioned carelessly to Sears and Griggs.
Griggs put down his whiskey and looked over at the slim young man in dusty trail gear. Several days' growth of black beard gave his already icy-cold expression even greater menace. He was young, a
by the looks of him. Suddenly, the burly man knew who he must be. Reaching for his gun, he yelled, “Jake, it's her husband! Watch out!”
Caught sitting down, both men were at a disadvantage, made even worse by an afternoon of whiskey consumption. Lee's pistol barked twice, hitting the wide bulk of Griggs abdomen low before he could raise his gun halfway. Jake Sears got off a shot that grazed Lee's thigh as he spun and aimed his Colt. Before Sears' addled brain could focus clearly, Lee's next shot hit with sickening impact and knocked him backward, overturning his chair. He crashed to the straw-covered floor.
Griggs was unconscious, slumped back over his chair with his gun hanging in nerveless fingers. Sears was moaning and rolling on the floor as Lee knelt beside him, knife drawn. “Which one of you did it, you or your fat friend?” he rasped.
Sears' eyes bulged as he watched the light dancing off Lee's knife blade. He knew what the
meant. “Griggs—he done it. I only...” His voice faded to a gurgling gasp as the blade descended in a swift and bloody arc, cleanly slicing his jugular.
Hearing the sound of a weapon being cocked, Lee whirled and drew his other Patterson, leveling it at the Tennesseean whose rifle had not yet sighted in. ‘These men killed three young women. One of them was my wife.”
“How do I know yer tellin' th' truth?” Shrewd brown eyes took in the haggard but flinty face of the youth.
“The thin one's carrying a gold watch inscribed with the name Alfredo Santiago Velasquez.” Lee motioned to Sears' body.
“I seen th' watch on 'em right ‘nough.” Satisfied, the backwoodsman slouched down in his chair, laid down his rifle, and pushed his coonskin back over his face.
Lee turned to scan the rest of the cantina. The clerks sat rigid in fright, and Bricker cowered behind the bar. He turned back to Sears and searched the corpse. He found the watch and placed it carefully in his pocket. Then, he turned to Griggs. Once more the knife flashed.
“If I could’ve taken them alive, it wouldn't have been their throats I'd have cut,” Lee said softly in the silent room. No one moved as he walked out the door.
* * * *
He rode northwest for several days, avoiding Comanche raiders and bands of Mexican and Texian guerrillas. He was eager to shake the dust and dreams of Texas from his body and soul forever…that was, if he still had a soul. He doubted it. Lee headed toward Santa Fe, intent on losing himself in the vast wilds of the
of New Mexico.
The fire crackling in the grate cast a soft, warm glow on the faces of the three people standing in the library of the imposing brick mansion. Still straight and tall, despite his seventy years, Adam Manchester interrupted his pacing to turn his intense gaze on the serene, lovely face of his daughter, Deborah. The gray-haired banker spoke quietly.
“Lord knows she's a brilliant student and a loving girl, Deborah. But I'm afraid you must prepare yourself. She is very different from the girl you were at her age.”
Deborah's lavender eyes and patrician features softened as she smiled. “When I consider what a highly unconventional daughter I was, Father, I realize that you may be trying to soften a blow for us.”
Deborah's tall, dark-haired husband interrupted. “Adam, exactly what kind of devilment has Melanie been up to?” Rafe Fleming's face at age thirty-nine had changed little since he had moved to Texas fifteen years earlier. Sun-darkened and scarred, it was both fierce and arrestingly handsome at the same time. He scowled at his father-in-law, awaiting a reply.
Adam Manchester had not become a power in the New England business community by hedging. His level blue-gray eyes locked with Rafe's glowing black ones. “She's joined forces with William Lloyd Garrison and his mob-inciting revolutionaries, I'm afraid.”
Deborah's eyes widened. “Garrison. Isn't he the abolitionist who publishes
Rafe scowled. “One and the same, my dear. It's been foaming at the mouth about how the slavocracy of Texas trash should never have been allowed into the United States!”
“Since the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law last year, there have been several riots and disturbances. Even our city officials are helping slave catchers return runaways,” Adam replied angrily. “I can't say I agree with Garrison's inflammatory rhetoric, but I do despise what's going on in Boston.”
“And, of course, so does my daughter,” Rafe said dryly.
“The right or wrong of slavery isn't the issue, however,” Adam continued carefully. “It's the way the cause has affected Melanie that alarms me. When you sent her to me four years ago for formal education, she was a spirited young girl who loved to dance, read poetry, and even take an occasional carriage ride with an admiring young swain.”
Deborah's face puckered in a mock grimace. “Quite unlike her disgustingly bluestocking mother, I warrant. I tried hard over the six years she lived with us to teach her to use her mind but still to enjoy life with more self-confidence than I had at her age. She was happy, Father, if a bit overeager to obtain a higher education than Texas could afford her.”
“She still thinks she's happy,” Adam shot back.
“But you obviously don't think she is,” Rafe interjected. “Her letters have been full of the starry-eyed idealism any bright young college student would prattle on about—male or female,” he added with a nod to his wife.
“Yes,” Deborah said. “She wrote about going to the women's suffrage convention in Worcester last year and even that she'd joined the Temperance Union. I'm scarcely surprised that she's added abolition to her list of causes. After all, Father, she has African blood and has every right to feel proud of it.”
Adam threw up his hands and cast an exasperated look at Rafe. “You see, they're united against me, daughter and granddaughter, free-thinking females, God help us mere men!”
Rafe grinned ruefully. “After the way you spoiled them both, don't blame me for not curbing their willfulness! Seriously, though,” Rafe said, his expression sobering, “I don't like seeing her involved with radical journalists like Garrison. She could be endangered. I think you were right to have us come collect her. We're Texians now and Texas is her home. She's had all the education she'll ever need—from books. It's time she got on with her life.”
“You mean at the advanced age of twenty-one she's a virtual spinster,” Deborah teased.
“Well, you thought you were when I married you at the ‘advanced’ age of twenty!”
Adam stifled a chuckle at his son-in-law's sally and tried to present his calm banker's facade for Deborah once more. “Much as I love my granddaughter, Deborah, I fear I agree with Rafe. She talks of nothing but dedicating her life to the abolition of slavery and the rights of womankind. Maybe if you take her away from all this agitation, she'll consider changing a few things.
“Such as?” Rafe questioned.
At that moment the subject of their discourse came dashing into the front hall of the Manchester house. Drenched from the autumn rain, Melanie’s inky hair hung in tangles, clotted with mud and debris that the downpour had only partially washed away. Her cloak, however, was a total loss, stained with ground-in filth. She had been pelted with rotten eggs and garbage and pushed into a mud puddle by one of the slave catchers after she had scuffled with him.
Ramsey, the unflappable Manchester butler, took Melanie's cloak, carefully holding it at full arm's length from his immaculate black uniform. “I'll see that this is cleaned, miss,” he said calmly, as if this were an everyday occurrence.
“Well, I managed to salvage the broadsides for Mr. Garrison!” Melanie announced with satisfaction as she took the bundle she had been shielding beneath her cape and placed it reverently on the polished marble table in front of a large beveled-glass mirror. She unwrapped the stack of printed broadsides that proclaimed in boldface type:
Colored People of Boston
Kidnappers and Slave Catchers are at large!
Glancing up into the mirror, she let out a small gasp of dismay. “Oh, drat! I'd better get upstairs and change before Grandfather sees me.” Both her hands and her face were smeared with the same muck as her cloak. Although the cloak had protected her dress, her shoes were muddy and left tracks across the light rose-colored carpet and gleaming hardwood floor of the entry hall.
Just as she was in the process of removing one offending shoe, the study door opened and Adam, Rafe, and Deborah emerged.
“Ramsey, I thought I heard the front door,” Adam said and stopped, frozen. Melanie, too, was frozen, stocking-clad foot planted daintily on the rug, thick-soled muddy shoe clutched tightly in one small hand. Speechlessly, she glanced from her grandfather to her parents.