Margarita saved Chase’s life one time already. What can she do now that his Faith is at stake too?
Margarita and her brother are nothing alike. She is a dazzling and kind-hearted young woman yearning to turn her life around, while he is the leader of a gang that is content with his way of living.
Chase and his twin brother look like two peas in a pod. They both lead outlaw lives. But while Chase is kind and wishes to live a righteous life, his brother is deceitful and would cross anyone who stood in his way, even his own spitting image.
Both Margarita and Chase have problems with their siblings. Both want to create a loving family of their own.
By divine intervention, Margarita saves Chase’s life, a life that had no value for his twin brother that left him for dead during a gunfight.
As Margarita and Chase get closer, disaster strikes. Their brothers have a deadly unexpected encounter, leaving one of them on the ground.
Will revenge ruin everyone’s chance for a loving family, or will their renewed Faith restore what is right?
“Here we go!”
The tall, scruffy, blonde grinned, pulled a red bandanna over his nose, and kicked his horse. His mount burst from the cover of the red rocks and galloped after the stagecoach lumbering down the desert road below. His companion cursed under his breath, pulled a blue bandanna over his nose, and followed, crying:
“Don’t plug the driver this time, for the love of－”
The sound of gunshots ahead made the second man frown and kick his horse savagely. His small, wiry pony scrambled down the rocky hillside and made a hard left onto the road, but the first rider was far ahead and already almost on top of the coach.
The second rider turned his head as he galloped past a stage guard on the side of the road. The man had been knocked off the rig, and was splayed over the rocky roadside like a dead thing. The rider faced front, stood up in the stirrups, and yelled:
“I’ll cover ‘em, I’ll cover ‘em! Put up the gun! Put it up!”
He galloped up even with the coach and covered the door with his shotgun as the first man leaned over and climbed up on the swaying roof. The driver turned and popped off a shot that made the first man duck. He scrambled over the luggage but was half-launched into the air when the coach hit a rock and jumped violently.
The second man turned his shotgun up and sent an ear-splitting blast into the sky. “Drop that gun!” he screamed to the driver and spurred his mount to pull even with the runaway horses.
The first man recovered and scrambled down onto the front seat beside the driver. The new arrival smashed his elbow into the driver’s jaw, grabbed the man’s gun, and took the reins.
The horses gradually slowed from a mad gallop to a steady canter, and then to a trot. The man in the driver’s seat called: “Whoaa, Nellie! Whoa now! Whoooaaa!”
The frothing horses slowly came to a stop, and the sound of screams and crying rose up from inside the coach. The rider with the blue bandanna turned back and trained the shotgun on the stagecoach door. “All right, I’ve got ‘em covered! Get the box!”
The first man shoved the driver headfirst into the road, lifted the wooden seat, and pulled at a strongbox underneath.
“It’s chained to the frame. Throw me the sawed off!”
The shotgun went flying through the air, and the first man caught it with one hand. He stood up, stepped back, and blasted the chain with a boom that rocked the coach and sparked fresh screams from inside the passenger’s compartment.
A man’s tremulous voice called: “There are women and children inside this coach! Take what you want and leave us in peace!”
The first man lifted the strongbox and the second rode up to take it from his hands. Seconds later, the two were flying down the road in a cloud of dust, and soon swerved off to disappear into the hollows of the red rock hills.
They galloped up a steep incline, on through a narrow passage in the stone, out the other side, and down into the cover of a maze of deep, narrow ravines in the valley floor. They followed the twisting curves of the gullies for a few miles, and then stopped to let their horses drink from a hidden stream.
The first man dismounted, pulled off the red bandanna, and knelt to soak it in the stream. He wrung it out, mopped the back of his neck, and raised a laughing face to the other man.
“You’re such an old woman! Why can’t you just relax? There’s nothing to it when you don’t give them any choice. The sight of a gun takes care of most of them. And the others, you just push off the wagon.”
The second man pulled off the blue bandanna to reveal a face identical to the first man’s. The two were both young men with blond hair; both tall, tanned, rough-looking, and dressed like cowboys.
“That first fellow you pulled off the stage looked almost dead,” his companion objected. “He wasn’t a young man, Victor. You could’ve broken his neck!”
“Let me see that box,” his brother replied, and took the metal strongbox from him. He set it down on the ground, pulled the shotgun out of its holster, and stepped back a few paces.
When he pulled the trigger, the blast made the horses jerk their heads up and dance back. The report flushed out a covey of grouse hidden in sagebrush nearby, and his brother frowned and followed them with his eyes as they flapped off.
Victor knelt and quickly opened the box. He looked up with a grin and shook a sheaf of cash at his brother. “Ha!” he laughed. “We hit the jackpot this time. There must be”－he glanced down at the box again－“ten thousand dollars here!”
“Is that all?” Chase asked, and Victor gave him a quizzical stare.
“Ain’t that enough?”
Chase shouldered over and knelt beside the empty box. He ran one fingernail along the bottom, and it flipped up with a tiny click.
Victor pushed his hat back on his head and stared in astonishment as Chase pulled five velvet bags out of the false bottom of the strongbox.
“Why, those sneaking devils!” he sputtered, and then put his hands on his hips and laughed. “Bankers are crafty ones, ain’t they?”
Chase stood up, opened one of the bags, and shook ten big gold nuggets into his palm.
“Stuff these into the bag along with the cash, and let’s go,” he told Victor. “We can’t stay here too long. There might be other travelers coming along the road. And it won’t take long for the news of a stagecoach robbery to get back to Santa Fe.”
His brother stuffed the bags and bundles into his saddle bag. “You need to relax, Chase. You can’t lose your nerve in this line of work.” He looked up with unholy laughter in his vivid blue eyes. “We’ll divvy up later,” he added, and tied the bag of cash to his saddle with a rawhide string. “Fill up your canteen, and let’s get out of here.”
“That’s the most sense you’ve made all day,” his brother grumbled, and knelt by the stream to take a drink, and fill his canteen. He looked up at his brother. “We shouldn’t waste it this time, Victor. Ten thousand’s enough to stake us for a nice little ranch in Mexico. We could make plenty of money that way. The price of beef’s way up, and they say it’s going higher. We wouldn’t need to do this anymore.”
His brother laughed and reined his mount away. “What’s wrong with doing this?” he shot over his shoulder, and his laughter wafted down to his brother as his horse disappeared around a bend in the gulley.
Chase shook his head, muttered under his breath, and capped his canteen. He mounted up, kicked his horse, and followed his brother’s lead.
Just like always.
“I mean it, Victor. I’m tired of this.”
“Aw, that’s what you always say,” his brother replied easily. “And you always do just fine. It ain’t a thing in the world but nerves.”
“We can’t get away with robbing stagecoaches forever,” Chase shot back, frowning. “Sooner or later, they’ll get us, if we keep on.”
Victor turned to look back at him. “Ain’t got hung yet, have we?”
Chase scowled. “We will if we keep this up! I like my neck the way it is.”
Victor turned back around. “What you need is a woman. You’re way too tense.”
“And that’s another thing,” Chase added, warming to the subject. “We need to ride out to the badlands and hole up for a few months, not go sticking right back into town. You think them wagtails don’t know we’re bandits, and that there’s a price on our heads? They’d turn us in for a lot less than two thousand dollars!”
Victor turned again to frown incredulously at his brother. He demanded: “You mean you don’t trust Miss Flossie and her girls? I’m surprised at you, Chase. It’s ungentlemanly to insult a lady.”
Chase gave him a grim look. “Ain’t none of them ladies. If they’d go professional for money, they’d do a lot more besides. You think they wouldn’t turn us in? Makes me dizzy to think of how fast they’d sell us.”
“You’re a pessimist, is your trouble,” Victor replied philosophically. “As long as we’re careful, ain’t no reason why things should go wrong. But I go along with you, in that we should disappear for a while. Maybe camp up in the hills for a week or so, and then ride south to one of those podunk desert towns and hole up in a shack someplace for another week or two. We’ll keep pushing south.”
He turned to challenge his grumbling brother with a short, straight look. “That all right with you, Grandma?”
Chase’s only reply was to chuck some empty pecan shells, that he happened to have in his pocket, at the back of his brother’s head. Victor laughed again. The sound fizzed along Victor’s nerves, like fire running along a dynamite fuse.
They traveled cross-country through a maze of deep, sunken gullies that riddled the desert floor. As the light faded, they reached a cave in the hills, and they entered it and disappeared to the outside world. The cave had a small, narrow mouth, but was vast inside, like a small cathedral, and contained a little stream for drinking water.
The rivulet trickled out of the back wall and pooled to form a shallow basin just big enough for bathing if they sat down square in it and splashed themselves with the water.
They hobbled their horses near the stream, shook out their bedrolls, and made a fire. The interior walls of the cave hid them from the mouth of the opening, so they could be comfortable.
Or at least, as comfortable as it was possible to be in that country after dark.
Chase pulled a pot out of his gear, filled it with water, and set it over the fire. He opened a can of coffee and tossed the grounds in.
“We’re young,” he grumbled. “We should be sparkin’ girls and going to dances, not hiding up in the hills like wolves for fear of the law. This is a crazy way to live!”
His brother cocked his head and gave him a dry look. “Five thousand bucks ain’t crazy, is it? And I’ve got news for you,” he added, and dug a bag of beans out of a knapsack. “You’ll get a lot farther with the ladies with money, than without.”
“With the kind we’re seein’ now, sure enough,” Chase muttered, and flopped down on the rock beside his brother.
“With any of ‘em,” Victor countered. He laughed and slapped Chase’s back. “Don’t worry, brother! There’re enough women in the world, that even you can snag one.”
“Aw, shut up.”
Victor stuck a piece of jerky in his mouth, and walked over to the horses to unstrap the saddle bag, and return to sit cross-legged beside Chase.
He pulled a thick sheaf of bills out of the bag. “Time to divvy the loot,” he said, grinning. “That should cheer you up! Here, you count it.”
Chase reached for the sheaf, unsnapped the rubber band, and began to riffle through the bills.
“Looks like a thousand in this one,” he muttered, “all in twenties.”
Victor rummaged in the leather saddle bag. “There’re ten bundles,” he replied. “If they’re all the same, that’s a nice, round ten thousand, all right!”
Chase gave him a sideways look. “What about the gold?”
Victor rubbed his jaw and returned his glance. “Oh－that’s right. I was forgetting about that.”
“There were five bags,” Chase told him.
“Five? Are you sure?”
Chase raised his head and scowled. “Yes!”
“All right, all right. Let’s see here.” Victor rummaged in the bag and dropped five velvet bags, one by one, into Chase’s waiting palm. He opened them and poured the nuggets out onto the cave floor, where they glowed red and orange in the firelight.
“Ain’t that a pretty sight?” Victor sighed, and picked one of the nuggets up. “How she shines! Bet there’s enough in there for a whole year of living high and wide!”
Chase looked up at him. “Victor, how about we put our money together and buy a nice ranch down in Mexico? Land’s cheap there. We could set up and live like nabobs for the rest of our lives, if we’re smart with this money now!”
Victor was still staring at the gold nugget in his palm. He shook his head slowly and raised his blue eyes to his brother’s. “You just got finished tellin’ me that we’re young,” he drawled. “You can act like an old man if you want, but I’m going to live it up. I’m going to have fun while I’m young. And now I got the money to do it!”
Chase watched him grimly. “That’s right, throw your money away on whiskey and whores! I’ve tried to beat some sense into your head, but I can see right now that you’ll never have a pot to pee in. And that’s if you don’t get hung.” He spread the nuggets out on the rock and pushed one toward Victor, and one toward himself. “Looks like twenty here, so that works out ten nuggets for each of us, plus the five thousand in cash each.”
Victor scooped up the nuggets and placed his share back into one of the velvet bags. “You live your life, and I’ll live mine, little brother,” he murmured. “I’m willing to take the risk, to get the reward.”
Victor knew that Chase hated when he called him little brother. They were twins, born only minutes apart, but Victor was the first born and loved to tease Chase with that fact.
Victor raised laughing eyes and shook a bundle of bills at Chase. “They say nobody ever got rich unless he was willing to risk everything.”
Chase met his eyes. “They were talking about stocks and banks and suchlike. A businessman fails, he loses money. We fail, and we’re dead.”
“That’s right,” Victor echoed softly, and stared into Chase’s eyes with a serious look. “That’s the risk. I accept it.”
“Well, I don’t,” Chase retorted, with a frown. “Not for much longer.”
The smile returned to Victor’s face. He slapped his brother’s arm.
“I’ll put these beans on, and some bacon. You’ll feel better when you get some grub in you. And since you’re so nervous tonight, we may as well put it to good use.
“You get the first watch. Hope the sheriff’s men ain’t tracked us here yet!”
Chase felt another cold frisson of fear, and shuffled closer to the fire. Luckily the dry wood was burning without any tell-tale smoke to give their location away. And it was nigh impossible to track hoof prints in those rocky gullies they’d traveled here in. Wasn’t it?
Chase wrapped his blanket close around his shoulders and moved to sit on the ground just inside the cave’s mouth. It was past midnight, and getting chilly, because they were in the high desert of northern New Mexico. The land might be dry as a bone, but it was at a high elevation, and cold at night.
Chase settled in and stared up into the sky. There were millions of stars spattered across the deep, and the full moon was as white and high as a silver dollar as it rode across the sky. It lit up the desert below them almost as bright as day. He could make out the desert floor, and the folds of the stony hills, and every little scrub bush on them for miles.
Chase sighed. The tiny crackling sound of their fire gradually faded, and Victor’s snores slowly regulated to deep, even sighs. Silence settled around them like a blanket.
Chase hugged himself and fought a wave of drowsiness. He was bone tired, after the wild ride with the stagecoach and the long trek through the barren hill country; and more than once, he roused up with a start after falling half-asleep.
A sudden, shuddering howl from somewhere nearby made Chase sit up in alarm and reach for his pistol. The country was full of roving packs of wolves, and he hated them. He rubbed his jaw, and then sent one hand up his sleeve to slide over an old scar.
He’d been attacked by a wolf when he was seven years old, and if Victor hadn’t taken a hammer and beaten the monster off, it would’ve killed him.
Chase pulled his hand over his face. Just the memory gave him the shudders. If he closed his eyes, he was seven again, holding off that grinning face with his bare hands and screaming for Victor as the lobo’s slavering jaws clamped down on his arm.
Victor had been his only hope, and his only slightly-older brother hadn’t failed him.
Victor had always been that way. Ready to do what had to be done. And for that matter, so had he. They’d gotten so used to taking care of one another that they never even thought about it anymore. It was automatic, like breathing.
Their motto had been: What happens to one of us, happens to both of us.
Chase half-turned and stared back into the cave. Victor was out of sight, rolled up in his blanket near the fire.
He sighed and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. Victor was fearless, he couldn’t deny it, and Victor had run the show for as long as Chase could remember.
Somebody had to do it. Their mother had been a prostitute, and Chase’s earliest memories were of a constant stream of strange men moving through their house. Some of them had been frightening, and some kind, but none of them had been their father. Their mother had told them that their father had abandoned her before they were born; and when they were both six years old, they woke one morning to find her gone, as well.
They’d been fending for themselves ever since.
Another spine-shivering, trembling howl made Chase cock the pistol and scan the moon-washed landscape. He didn’t see any sign of wolves but something else made him tense in alarm: the shadows of a dozen mounted men, moving slowly across the desert floor far below.
Chase inched backwards into the full cover of the cave before scrambling to where Victor lay fast asleep. He grabbed his brother’s shoulder and shook it.
“Get up!” he hissed. “We’ve been followed!”
Victor opened his eyes and pulled his hands across them. “What’s wrong now?” He yawned.
“What’s wrong? There’re a dozen riders out there in the desert,” Chase hissed. “Looking for us! How are we going to get away with a posse on our heels?”
Victor threw off the blanket and jumped up. He stalked over to the cave entrance and stood watching through narrowed eyes as the tiny figures moved slowly across the black and white landscape. He put a hand on the cave wall and leaned languidly against it.
“Well?” Chase whispered.
“Well what?” Victor drawled. “If you wasn’t such an old woman, you’d have figured out that they ain’t a posse.” He slapped the side of Chase’s head.
Chase yanked his head out of range and barked: “How do you know who they are?”
Victor gestured toward the riders lazily. “They’re riding single file,” he drawled. “A posse rides spread out. You don’t line up all together, like ducks in a shooting gallery, when you expect you might be taking fire.” He glanced at the distant figures again. “They’re a gang of road agents, most likely,” he mused. “Or maybe Apache. They ride single file to hide their numbers.”
Victor paused and considered the passersby. “I’d say they’re a gang, though,” he decided. “There’s more than one out this way. You could even say that we’re trespassing,” he went on, and turned to Chase with a smile. “This territory belongs mostly to two gangs. The Mescalero gang, the papers call the Indian Boys. Nasty crew, too. Likes to play with knives.”
“The other’s mostly Mexican. They call themselves Los Lobos Rojos. They mainly rustle cattle, but I hear they hit banks now and then. They’re jealous of their territory. They’ve fought the Mescalero crew more than once.”
“And that’s why we should take our money and get out of here while the getting’s good,” Chase retorted.
Victor slapped Chase on the shoulder. “Don’t look so glum, Grandma! They don’t know we’re here. Go and get some sleep. I’ll take over the watch. It’s about time anyway.”
Chase walked off grumbling and settled down beside the embers of the fire. He wanted to toss some scrub brush onto it and warm his hands as it blazed up. But the night air might carry the smell of smoke to the gangs below. Los Lobos. The wolves again.
He sank down on one elbow, stretched out on the flat cave floor, and pulled his blanket up to his chin. As he dropped off to sleep, the last sound he heard was Victor’s lazy voice, singing softly:
I got a girl in New Mexico;
Hair as black as a dozen crows.
Eyes as dark as a midnight sky;
And lips that never tell a lie.
Margarita Montoya wiped down the bar for the fifth time and settled back on the stool. She’d already straightened up the little counter, and the tables and chairs in the tiny parlor beyond. She’d done it just to feel like she was doing something.
No one had come into the bar for three solid days.
Margarita sighed and cast bored eyes around the room. The Rooster Bar, like the rest of Plaxico’s buildings, was constructed of ugly mud-plaster and was glorified with a handwritten sign; she was heartily sick of it.
She slapped the bar counter with a small hand. Nothing ever happened in Plaxico, and nobody ever came there. The only visitors were deadbeat drifters and outlaws, and they were always as poor and dry and wrinkled as the landscape.
Margarita sighed and traced invisible patterns over the countertop with her finger. She was beginning to worry that boredom and frustration might actually drive her crazy.
She was desperate to escape that ugly little town; and the only way she was going to do it was to catch a man who’d take her with him when he left.
Unfortunately, there were no men in Plaxico. Nobody young and good-looking enough for a nineteen-year-old girl, at any rate. The only men under fifty who ever came there were her brother’s grubby friends, and they were incredibly ugly and obnoxious. She flicked a bit of dust off the counter.
Mateo was a bandit, and that was bad enough; but it was past all endurance when his ugly friends came into the bar and tried to pull her down onto their laps.
Mateo, she’d told him a thousand times, the least you can do is tell them not to bother me. Don’t you care that they come in here and behave like pigs to your sister?
But Mateo had only laughed and told her that she was stuck-up; and so now, she carried a pistol in the pocket of her skirt. She’d learned that even if they had no respect for her, Mateo’s friends could be brought to respect her gun.
Margarita sighed and drummed on the bar with her fingers. The occasional, unpleasant visits of Mateo and his friends to the bar, when they blew into town, were the only exciting things that ever happened there.
Her eyes moved to the single row of liquor bottles on the shelf behind the counter. She’d memorized them. There was a bottle of whiskey, two bottles of tequila, a bottle of rum, and a bottle of something called mezcal, with a disgusting red worm lying dead at the bottom. She’d asked once, and to her amazement, she was told that the worm was put there on purpose.
Every one of the bottles looked a hundred years old. Dust had collected on their sloping shoulders, and the labels had started to yellow and peel. They were opened so seldom that she’d never had to replace them in the two months she’d been working there.
Business was so bad, in fact, that it was beginning to look like she might be out of a job soon. Her employer, the ancient and tight-fisted Señor Trujillo, had told her that if things got any slower, he was going to have to cut her salary; and he only paid her five dollars a month anyway.
She didn’t know what she was going to do if she lost her job. There were no others for twenty miles. Plaxico stood on a wide spot in the road; a cluster of low structures surrounded by desert and mesas for as far as the eye could see. Plaxico had a tiny church that also doubled as the city hall and post office; a cafe where Rosita Cardones sold watery chicken stew; and the bar. If they needed a doctor, or a lawyer, or some other representative of civilization, they had to ride twenty miles north to Mesa Caliente, which was just as ugly, but somewhat bigger.
There were no young men there, either.
The sound of approaching footsteps made Margarita straighten up and fold her hands hopefully on the bar counter: but when the door opened, it was only Rosita Cardones entering, and she’d come to sell, not to buy. Margarita’s face fell in disappointment.
“Hola, Margarita.” The older woman smiled, and her brown face creased into a dozen lines.
“Hola, Rosita,” Margarita replied, in a dull voice.
Her white-haired visitor closed the door behind her and added, in a confidential tone: “I killed a chicken last night. I studied his entrails. Do you want me to tell your future? Just a quarter to find out who you’ll marry one day. A bargain!”
Margarita crossed her arms and gave her visitor a skeptical look. “You always kill chickens, Rosita. You run a café. And the circuit rider says that it’s witchcraft to have your future told. A sin.”
“Bah,” Maria scoffed. “What does he know? Can he tell the future? Can he see the spirit world? I was born with a cowl over my face. I can see the dead.”
Margarita rolled her eyes. “If they died here, they have nothing interesting to tell you,” she retorted.
Her visitor sat down at a table and produced a pack of cards from a pocket in her big cotton skirt. She shuffled the pack and began to deal them out.
“Oh … come and see what’s in the cards for you, Margarita. Ah!” she cried suddenly, “You lucky girl! I’ve never seen such a good omen!”
Margarita glanced toward her but replied: “I might lose my job any day. I’ll keep my quarter, thank you.”
“Suit yourself,” the old woman replied, and raised her brows. “But if I was a pretty young girl, and I had this kind of future ahead, I’d want to know it.”
Margarita nibbled on her thumbnail and watched as Rosita pulled one card after another out of the pack.
“My, my, my!” The older woman clucked. “See－see there!” She jabbed at a card with a brown finger. “The cards say you’re going to marry a tall, dark, handsome man. Very soon!”
Margarita kept her arms crossed and looked away.
Rosita leaned forward and stared at the cards, as if she was seeing something from far away. “He’s a very wealthy man!” she declared and gestured toward the table in triumph.
“Joy,” Margarita drawled dryly; and her visitor’s smile was replaced by a thunderous scowl. The older woman scooped the cards up and thrust them back into her pocket.
“That’s the last time I tell you anything, girl!” she declared. “I could show you things about your future that you’d never guess, things that would help you! But if you’d rather be smart mouthed－I’ll let you find it out the hard way!”
Rosita jumped to her feet and swept out of the bar in a huff, and Margarita blew a tendril of dark hair away from her eyes. The cards must be lying, she thought. But what if they’re not? Maybe I should have paid a quarter. What if I’ve just jinxed the only hope of happiness I’ll ever get?
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