Esmeralda exposed her deepest secret to the Cowboy she loves, but her Heartfelt Prayers seem to be in vain …
Esmeralda DeSantos has lost her beloved mother and her home in Denver. The lovely 18-year-old now finds herself alone in the world except for her strange, silent Aunt Maria. Esmeralda secretly fears her aunt but accepts Maria’s offer to come and live with her ― mostly because she has no one else.
Esmeralda’s arrival at the Circle T Ranch sparks a rush of flowers and candy from many love-struck cowboys; but Esmeralda only has eyes for the brash, brawling Will Parker, a bold ne’er-do-well she names the Beso Bandido.
But Esmeralda’s new life at the Circle T is soon clouded by trouble. She learns that her Aunt Maria is even stranger than she feared; and when two men appear at Maria’s door one night, events are set in motion that threaten Esmeralda’s newfound security ― and her life.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.”
The young redheaded priest in the confessional booth settled into the seat and tried not to glance toward the little window. The mumbled words on the other side had been spoken by a woman.
“It’s been forty years since my last confession. I accuse myself of these sins.”
The priest nodded, but his expression soon changed from patient attention to frowning shock. The woman’s tone was flat, almost expressionless, but she was admitting monstrous, cold-blooded crimes.
“I’m a murderer. I can’t remember how many people I killed. Dozens, maybe more. I killed lots of men by shooting. Ten by stabbing. I killed two women by poisoning and one man by pushing him downstairs.
“I stole lots of money for myself and others. I stole gold, jewellery, and horses.
“There were big rewards out for me, but I was never caught. They called me La Reina de los Bandidos―the Bandit Queen. I ran a gang of more than twenty men. We killed people to rob them. I lied to keep myself from being hanged. I did all I could to protect the guilty.
“I sometimes tried to kill and missed. Lots of times. The people were saved only by luck.
“I abandoned the innocent who needed help. They only lived by saving themselves.
“I’ve loved few and hated many. I’m cursed, an outcast from God. If I die tonight, I’ll go to Hell.”
The woman stopped talking, and there was a long, heavy silence. At length, the priest regained his composure and replied softly:
“God will forgive you if you are truly sorry for your sins. Will you turn from your sins, my child?”
There was another long, heavy silence, broken only by the almost imperceptible sound of the priest’s breathing.
“No,” the voice replied at last. “I am not sorry for my sins. Most I would do again if everything was the same.”
The priest frowned and replied urgently: “God will only forgive you, my child, if you repent from the heart. There is no forgiveness without repentance!”
“Then I must go to Hell. I am not sorry.”
“You don’t have to go to Hell,” the priest answered, “only turn to God and repent!”
But there was no reply, and to the young priest’s dismay, when he glanced through the little window, the booth was empty.
Maria Olivares walked silently down the darkened street outside the church. She was a small, stolid Mexican woman on the streets of Denver, and near-invisible to passersby.
They glanced at her once―short and fat under her drab brown poncho―and forgot her.
She made her slow, methodical way back to her sister’s house. It was a tiny plank board house with three rooms and a yard the size of a pocket handkerchief, but it had importance to Maria out of all proportion to its size.
Her sister Rosa and her niece Esmeralda were the only family she had left.
Maria entered the house and went to the tiny kitchen. She set the groceries she had purchased on the counter and began to cook dinner. Soon the smell of frying meat drew her niece from the back of the house.
“De nada,” Maria shrugged.
Her niece hugged herself and looked down at the floor. “Mama’s very weak tonight,” she said, almost in a whisper. “I’m afraid she only …” Her words trailed off into silence.
Maria kept her eyes on the skillet of frying meat. “Do you want to call the priest?”
Esmeralda glanced at her unhappily. “Yes. She would want it. I think she only has a little while.”
Maria stirred the pan vigorously. “Call him tomorrow, then. I’ll stay with you until Rosa passes. After the funeral, you can come and live with me. I work at a big, fine hacienda de ganado. I’ll ask the big boss if you can stay with me. I think he’ll say yes.”
Esmeralda hesitated for a split-second before she murmured: “You’ve been so kind to us, Tia. Mama would thank you if she was able.”
Maria didn’t lift her eyes from the pan. “I know it.”
Her niece nodded and walked out of the room. Maria glanced over her shoulder as the girl left.
Esmeralda was seventeen, a young beauty, with hair and eyes like chocolate and coffee, flawless skin, and a beautiful figure. She was the mirror image of her mother and all the things that Maria herself was not and never had been; but she was fond of the girl for Rosa’s sake.
Then too, Esmeralda was very young and needed someone to look after her. To protect her from the men who would try to take advantage of her.
And she was just the one for that job.
Maria tilted the pan sharply to one side and poured the pan drippings into a little bowl.
The next morning, Rosa regained enough strength to say a few words, and Esmeralda draped a shawl over her head and walked back to the church.
She returned with the young priest an hour later, and Maria waited silently outside the bedroom as the priest heard Rosa’s final confession. Maria noticed, with a flicker of conscience, that her sister’s confession was brief.
Then the priest allowed them to return and stood beside Rosa’s bed to administer the last rites. Maria watched as the priest carefully offered Rosa the bread of Communion, and he and Esmeralda prayed:
“Receive, sister, the Viaticum of the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, and may He keep you from the malignant foe, and bring you to life everlasting. Amen.”
The priest prayed again and then turned to them. “Please join me in prayer.”
Both Maria and Esmeralda bowed their heads. “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, let there be extinguished in you all power of the Devil by the imposition of our hands …”
But Maria only mouthed the words, as the priest prepared the anointing oil, and she watched with glittering eyes as the young man dabbed holy oil on her sister’s face, hands, and feet. Then he intoned:
“By this holy unction and his own most gracious mercy, may the Lord pardon you whatever sin you have committed.
“Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.”
“I’ll have to go back home soon.”
Maria chopped a cabbage in two on the kitchen counter and glanced over her shoulder at Esmeralda.
Esmeralda was still in shock, both from her mother’s death a few days before, and the ugly charity funeral that had followed. The ceremony had been stark and quickly over. And now, there was nothing left for Esmeralda in her mother’s cheap little rental house. No reason to stay.
But her niece’s tearful expression touched Maria’s heart. Esmeralda was a silent, humble girl who had little education and no money, and she expected nothing for herself but a life of toil.
She didn’t yet know she was beautiful, and what being beautiful could do for her.
Maria shook her head, and envy flickered in her heart, but she extinguished that resentment as deliberately as if she’d pinched a burning wick. For Rosa’s sake, she would protect Esmeralda.
She was going to make sure that her sister got at least one thing she’d wanted in life.
“Pack everything you want to keep,” Maria told her niece. “We’re leaving for Indian Rock tomorrow.”
The girl blinked back tears but offered no resistance. She left the kitchen and went to gather up her things.
Maria returned her attention to the cabbage. She pressed the heel of her hand against the severed head and began to chop it into long, thin shreds.
Paco had once told her that the only way to cheat death was to enjoy life as much as you could while you were alive.
And he had lived out his creed. Maria conjured him in her mind, with his big, bushy black head of hair, his big moustache and goatee, and his ferocious black eyebrows. Paco might not have been the most handsome man in the world, but he’d shown her a good time, for a while. They’d been young and wild and had cared nothing for God or man.
But her mother had been enraged and had beaten her when she admitted that she’d married Paco.
“You married a God-cursed bandit? A robber who lies in wait for innocent blood? I only pray that someone shoots him, so you can stop shaming your family!
“You’re no beauty, Maria, but even you could’ve done better than Paco Olivares. We won’t be able to hold our heads up in town, ever again!”
Her parents had cast her out of their house and their family that night, and so she joined Paco in the wilderness between Cheyenne and Denver. In the days before the railroad, a narrow dirt road was the only link between the two cities. That wilderness road had been perfect for robbery: it was overgrown, lonely, and lawless.
Maria looked out the small kitchen window into the dusty street, and it slowly transformed itself into a forsaken forest road at night.
They’d all been desperately poor―and ruthless as wolves.
At first, Paco chose only solitary travellers. They waited until their chosen victim rode past their hiding place, and then they shot him from behind. Very few men had lived long enough to return fire.
They emptied the victim’s pockets, and sometimes took his clothing, and then dragged his body off into the woods and buried it; then they took his horse.
By the time they were finished, there was no sign he’d ever been there, and no reason for anyone to suspect that he’d been robbed and murdered, instead of attacked by the Cheyenne or mauled by some wild animal.
They were also careful to move to different places along the route, and not to hit everyone they saw.
Sometimes they’d make forays as far as fifty miles away, just to keep any potential foes guessing; and once they attacked, no matter how many people they surprised, they never left one alive to go back and tell the tale.
They worked by night and slept by day, and when their spoil was very rich, they went down into Denver to eat dainty food and drink fine liquor. Paco bought her pretty dresses and jewellery, and once they even travelled to San Francisco.
They spent up everything they got, as soon as they got it, because, as Paco always laughed, “Tomorrow the other man may be faster!”
Then Paco found a big cave in the Cheyenne territory, and they used it to sleep in and to hide the horses they stole. It wasn’t too far from the road, and they could disappear into it quickly. The Cheyenne had been strong and fierce in those days, and no one wanted to chase bandits too far into their territory―horses or no horses.
It became such a good spot for them that they made it their base.
Then Paco got the idea to dig a tunnel from the cave down to a spot near the road―a tunnel tall and wide enough to lead horses through. The tunnel would mean they could disappear quickly and leave no trail for pursuers to follow.
And once it was finished, they could set their sights on the occasional large target―a wagon filled with supplies, or two or three riders together.
They soon became rich, or would’ve, if they’d saved their money, but for a few golden years, she and Paco had lived high. When prospectors discovered gold in the mountains, the wilderness flooded with miners, and some had been carrying gold dust. Their pickings had been rich, and the presence of fierce Indians protected them from serious pursuit. The nearest sheriff’s office was in Cheyenne, and that place was wild enough to keep its lawmen busy at home.
Bit by bit, Paco extended the tunnels to connect to one another and to more distant places on the road. They were able to strike and disappear without a trace. The few who searched for them always came away empty.
The tunnels made them rich, over the years, but their success made Paco too greedy and reckless. One night, he went up alone on the Cheyenne’s sacred mountain to scout for more caves, and a party of braves found him.
They exacted a terrible revenge. It had taken her two days to find Paco’s body, and his horrified eyes and gaping mouth, frozen in a scream, still haunted her.
Death came for them all, sooner or later.
A soft voice from the doorway interrupted Maria’s memories. She blinked and came back to the present. Esmeralda was standing in the kitchen doorway.
“I’m ready, Tia.”
“Good. We’ll have supper and go to bed. Tomorrow, we’ll take the train to Indian Rock.”
Esmeralda’s dark eyes widened. “You have money to go on the train?”
Maria shrugged. “Yes. It isn’t far.”
“I’ve never been on a train before,” Esmeralda murmured. Maria glanced at her wryly and poured vinegar and oil into the chopped cabbage.
“You’ve been poor. But I’ll ask my boss to let you help me in the kitchen. Then you’ll have a good job and money to spend.”
She gave her niece another glance. “Maybe you’ll buy some pretty clothes to make the boys look at you.”
Esmeralda went a little red and looked away, and Maria shook her head.
“Ay! How young you are!”
Maria looked down at the steps before grasping the handrail and climbing carefully up into the third class train car. She turned to walk down the aisle and noticed that the car was already half full of travellers―mostly working men.
They scarcely acknowledged her as she passed, but their eyes fastened quickly on Esmeralda, who was walking demurely behind her.
A few low whistles and lecherous catcalls greeted Esmeralda as she walked past with her eyes on the floor.
“Plenty of room on my lap, honey.”
“Ummmm-umm-umm! Thirty-six, twenty-five, thirty-six!”
Maria chose the last row in the car and waited for Esmeralda to slide into the window seat before taking the aisle seat next to her. Some of the men turned around to laugh at them; but Maria met their eyes, one by one, and there was something in hers that wiped the smiles from their faces. Soon they all sobered and turned around, and there were no more catcalls.
The train whistle sounded, long and low, and steam hissed under the car and belched out onto the platform.
A porter outside called, “All aboaarrrd!” and hopped onto the car, and the train slowly started to move.
Maria watched in amusement as Esmeralda stared, wide-eyed, as the station slid past, and the train burst out into the station yard, and then on past the backs of shops and restaurants, and then beyond the city limits.
“We’re going so fast!” she exclaimed. “Can’t they slow down?”
Esmeralda’s eyes were dark. “We’re flying,” she murmured. “Can the train go off the tracks?”
Maria refused to comfort her. “Yes. I was on this train one night when it almost did.”
Maria settled down into the seat and closed her eyes. “Go to sleep, Esmeralda,” she grumbled. “Our stop is an hour away.”
Esmeralda closed her lips, therefore, and said nothing else, but she watched out the window, half in fear and half in wonder, as the countryside steadily became less settled, and more wild and beautiful.
She had never been outside of Denver in her whole life, and her eyes were full of new things: a rushing river, roaring in white froth beside the track, and a lonely gold prospector, ankle deep in water.
The first tiny town, and the barefoot children who ran as fast as they could alongside the train, waving and yelling.
A buggy with a courting couple, rolling down the forest road parallel to the train.
Esmeralda couldn’t close her eyes for fear she might miss something, and she wasn’t going to be able to sleep, maybe not even that night, when she laid down.
Her skin prickled when she remembered that she was going to spend the night in a new place, the fine rancho where her Tia worked. She’d never spent the night away from home before.
Grief pierced her, as she remembered her mother’s soft voice, and her gentle hands. Her mother was gone, and she had no one now.
No one, that is, except her Aunt Maria―La reina de los bandidos.
She glanced at her aunt’s stolid, sleeping face, and wondered if the whispered family stories were true. She frowned, imagining her silent aunt waiting in the forest with a handful of armed cutthroats, waiting for the next victim to come riding down the road.
Her Aunt Maria was old now; she was short and fat and slow, a rich man’s cook. She looked like a harmless old abuela. She was the last person on earth that anyone would suspect of being a murderous bandolero.
And yet―her grandparents had banished Maria from their home and refused to let anyone speak of her and said that she was a wicked outlaw, and dead to them.
So, as outlandish as they seemed―the stories might really be true.
Esmeralda glanced at her aunt again. She was deeply afraid of Maria, and always had been. Maria was strange and silent, and when she did talk, she said things that were hard to hear.
Maria always spoke of dark, evil things.
She had no words of comfort.
Esmeralda shuddered and pulled her shawl close around her shoulders, even though it was springtime, and getting warm.
Her mother had once told her that Uncle Paco and Aunt Maria were lost souls and that they needed prayer. And they had prayed for Uncle Paco and Aunt Maria every day, but their prayers seemed to have had very little effect.
Then Paco died mysteriously. Maria told them one day that he was dead, and they asked no questions. But even as a child, she’d known that it was very strange: No funeral, no candles, no prayers, and no explanation.
After Paco’s death, Maria remained as odd and frightening as she had ever been. Sometimes, when Maria had come to visit them over the years, she disappeared for days at a time, and then reappeared without any explanation.
Her mother had told her to pay no attention, and forbade her to ask Aunt Maria any questions, and so she had been silent. But she had always wondered what Aunt Maria did while she was gone.
Did she meet her long-lost cómplices, and drink tequila and tell stories of the old days?
Or perhaps Aunt Maria’s guilty conscience had driven her a little mad. Maybe she walked through Denver to silence the cries of the men she had killed.
Esmeralda shuddered, thinking that it must be terrible to have blood on your hands, to wake in the night to the fading faces of your victims, to see Hell yawning before you in your dreams.
Or maybe Aunt Maria saw none of those things.
Maybe the stories in the family were just tall tales, after all. Maybe her grandparents had been too harsh and had painted Aunt Maria and Uncle Paco much worse than they really were.
Maria had always been strange and grim. And she had defied abuela and made her angry. Abuela might have said things in anger that she didn’t really mean, or that―that might not have been strictly true.
At least, that was what Esmeralda very much hoped.
But after her mother died, she’d taken a six-inch kitchen knife from a drawer in the little house, and made a leather sheath for it, and tied it to her leg with a leather string.
Because only God knew what was in Maria Olivares’ heart, and he had not told her.
“Well, look who’s back!”
Jem McClary grinned and pushed his hat back on his head as Maria slowly descended the depot steps. “What did you bring me from Denver, Maria?”
Maria glanced up at the buggy, where Jem was sitting with the reins in his hand. “I didn’t bring you nothing.”
“Ain’t even got a kiss for your best fella?”
She waved a hand. “Ay, don’t pester me! I got things to think of. I’m bringing my niece back from Denver. I got to ask Mr Trowbridge to let her help me in the kitchen.”
“I didn’t know you had a little niece,” Jem replied and held out his hand. Maria took it, and he pulled her up into the front seat. “How old is she?”
“See for yourself,” Maria grunted and nodded toward the steps.
Jem turned his head, but the smile faded off his face as Esmeralda walked slowly down the steps. He could feel his mouth dropping open and only restrained an awed whistle by a conscious effort.
Leonie wouldn’t like it very much if she found out he’d been bumfuzzled by another girl. But Maria’s niece was a beauty, all right―her face was almost as pretty as Leonie’s, and she was every bit as curvy as Molly.
And if she came to live at the Circle T, that little girl was going to turn the bunkhouse upside down; he could see that plain as day.
He took off his hat and smiled. “Afternoon, miss. I’m Jem McClary.”
The girl stood still at the bottom of the stairs and lowered her eyes. “Hola,” she replied, almost in a whisper.
He rolled laughing eyes to Maria’s and looked a question, and she replied, gruffly: “Her name is Esmeralda. She don’t speak good English.”
Jem nodded and turned to Esmeralda. “Hola, senorita.” He climbed down out of the buggy and held out his hand. Esmeralda took it and let him help her up into the back seat of the rig. Jem climbed back up and smiled over his shoulder.
“Are we all in?”
Maria said nothing, and Esmeralda looked down at her hands, but Jem smiled anyway and shook the reins, and they rolled off down the dirt road.
“Everybody missed you while you was gone, Maria,” he told her. “Molly had to cook for two whole weeks, and I’m here to tell you, Nate and the boys had to grin and bear it.”
Maria made an exasperated sound. “Silly puppy!” she complained, but a reluctant smile curved her mouth.
“My hand on the Bible!” Jem told her, with a look of mock solemnity. “But I can’t much afford to laugh ’cause Leonie is such a bad cook, bless her heart, that we don’t even pretend. We got a lady comes in from Wolf Table to cook our grub, or we’d starve!”
The rig bounced violently over a rock in the road, and Jem put up a hand to his hat. “Woooo!” He laughed and looked back over his shoulder. “You all right back there, Esmeralda? We got to have this road scraped again. It’s a mess.”
Neither of them had a chance to reply because the sudden appearance of a rider on horseback made Jem add: “Well, there’s Will,” and his usually-cheerful voice sounded faintly worried. “He usually don’t come to the depot unless he’s going for the mail, or going down to Denver.”
Jem pulled the buggy to a stop and waited for Will to reach them.
Will Parker was a tall, broad-shouldered young man of eighteen, with a fringe of shining brown hair that fell over his eyes, dark eyebrows, and a dark, serious look. He rode up beside Jem and brought the horse’s head around.
“Well, what is it?” Jem asked mildly. “I can see you’re here for me.”
“Leonie says it’s time,” Will replied laconically, and Jem sat bolt upright.
“Give me your horse!” he cried and clambered down from the buggy, but a second thought made him turn back to Maria anxiously.
“Maria, can you―?”
Maria glanced at him and shrugged, and he grinned, jumped into the saddle, and disappeared down the road in a swirl of dust.
Will climbed up into the buggy and took the reins. Maria poked him in the ribs and pointed away from the entrance to the Circle T, to where the road climbed up the tall hill to the north. Jem was fast disappearing over the top.
Will grunted, shook the reins, and turned the buggy to follow him.
They rode in silence, but Will glanced over his shoulder once or twice at Esmeralda. She was looking off into the woods at the side of the road and was unaware of his gaze, but he stared at her for longer than was polite and only turned his attention back to the road when Maria cleared her throat.
They arrived at the Hill House and found the horse tethered at the porch. Will pulled the buggy to a stop and jumped down. He crossed to the passenger side and helped Maria step down, and then moved back to extend a hand to Esmeralda.
The girl looked down into his face and hesitated before she took his hand.
But he wrapped his hand around hers and helped her step down, and his glance flicked over her boldly.
“Vamos,” Maria barked, and Esmeralda dropped his hand and hurried to her side. They moved quickly up the porch steps, and inside.
Will stared after them, frowning, and then unhitched the horse from the rig and led him out to the barn.
The Hill House was made of plank boards painted white, and was huge, with a wraparound porch on every side. There were swings and chairs scattered all down the length of the porch, and the shutters and the roof were pine green.
When Will walked up the porch steps and opened the screen door, it was easy to find the centre of the action in the big house. A woman’s voice was crying out from somewhere at the top of the main stairs. She was panting out prayers that were occasionally punctuated by screams. Jem’s agitated voice answered her cries like an echo.
“It’s going to be all right now, sugar pie,” his worried voice soothed, “you just lie back and rest.”
The sound of Leonie’s voice crying and moaning was his only reply.
“Now it can’t be as bad as all that, can it, honey bunch?” Jem ventured, in a tone that tried to be soothing; and three angry voices slapped him down: Leonie’s, Molly’s, and Maria’s.
“Oh, Jem, I feel like I’m going to die!”
“Wait outside, Jem.”
“Shut yap, perrito.”
Will climbed the stairs slowly. He’d lived through three births already, and he knew how it went. He’d been in the house for the birth of Molly and Nate’s second son Liam, and also for Jem and Leonie’s first, Jeremy Junior.
It could take a day or longer for a baby to be born, so it was no use to get excited right off. Leonie had only been in labour a little while, so they could have hours yet.
He sat down on the top step and casually pulled a piece of jerky out of his shirt pocket. It was a long time to dinner, if there was going to be any dinner at all.
He glanced down the hall and caught sight of Esmeralda, hovering nervously outside the room where her aunt was working.
Will’s glance flicked over Esmeralda again. She was so beautiful she almost didn’t look real. Her hair was dark brown, silken, and gently cupped her soft shoulders. Her face was oval, her eyes were huge and beautiful and dark, her nose was delicate, and her lips―his glance lingered over them―looked as plump and soft and tasty as ripe raspberries.
The dress she was wearing was kind of cheap, but the girl had such a figure that she’d make a burlap sack look good.
He’d never seen anybody quite like her.
Or even close to her.
Will licked his lips, sat up straight, and called out softly:
She didn’t respond, and he called again, a little louder:
She turned her head in confusion and then saw him sitting on the stairs. He held out a strip of jerky and looked a question, but she lowered her eyes and shook her head.
Will let his hand drop and didn’t call out again. She was a shy one, that was for sure. She looked as nervous as a cat.
He guessed that was because she was in a strange place and maybe because she couldn’t talk English. She hadn’t strung two words together in all the time they’d been in the buggy.
But then, Maria wasn’t a big talker herself, so maybe it was just their way.
“Oh, Jem!” Leonie screamed from inside the bedroom, and Jem replied, shakily: “Just settle down baby girl; it’ll be all right!”
“Get him out of here,” Maria said suddenly, in a disgusted tone. “Or I’m going to shoot him.”
He heard Molly laugh from inside the bedroom but noticed that Esmeralda frowned and looked worried until the door opened and Jem came stumbling out.
“You don’t have to push me!” he called over his shoulder but walked out and plopped down on the stairs beside Will. Will offered him a piece of jerky, and he took it.
“Ain’t the father got no rights?” he grumbled.
Leonie screamed again, and Jem jumped up, but Will tugged on his jeans leg and pointed to the steps.
“Sit down. Ain’t nothing gonna happen to Leonie.”
Jem looked indignant but sat down. “You just wait ’till you’re a father,” he retorted. “You won’t be so free and easy, then!”
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