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Chapter One

The golden haired woman sat beside the fire as the tiny, babe clutched to her breast tightly. She regarded the child with a mix of love, sadness, and resentment.

"Eat up," she scowled as she looked the child over. "Itíll be the last you get from me."

Beside her, on the floor, was a lone carpetbag, stuffed full of all of her earthly belongings. She rocked slowly back and forth, humming softly, more out of habit than from concern. The baby gently nodded of to sleep.

Silently the woman rose and quietly walked over to the crib. She placed the child tenderly into the soft blankets and covered her tightly, despite the warmth of the late summer Mexican night. After straightening out her clothes, she picked up her bags and tiptoed to the door.

The gray pre-dawn light stretched out in front of her. Soon the whole house would bustle with life, but now, the other two occupants lay sleeping as deep as their granddaughter in her crib. She wrapped her shawl around her and headed out. She paused slightly at the top of the hill overlooking the small homestead. A small tear escaped from her and trickled down her face. She made no effort to wipe it away.

"You wonít understand now," she whispered, "but when you are my age you will know why you canít be a part of the world I come from. Farewell."

With this parting words she disappeared over the hill. As dawn hit, Jose and Elena Escubar found their only sonís wife Maggie had run off in the night, leaving Miguelís only child, a daughter, alone and asleep in their small adobe. Elena thought of their rouse the night before. Miguel had been gone for over a year and wasnít likely to come back and Maggie didnít want to wait anymore. There had been many heated words and cold threats exchanged but she didnít think it would come to this.

Jose picked the child up and headed to their small house next door. "It is our duty to look after her. We want her and it is enough."

Elena followed her husband. Housework and farm work waited for them. They were too old and busy to run after a selfish child. So she did not want to honor her vows. What was it to them?

v v v v v v v v v v v v v v

"What is this abuelito?" She asked with such enthusiasm that Jose had to look up from shoeing the horse to see what she had. Usually it was a flower or rock of some kind, but lately she was growing bolder and brought animals, some of them very dangerous. He sighed in relief. It was only a spent shell from a shotgun.

"Sarah Jane, you know very well what that is," he answered as he picked up the shoeing nails and hammer and went back to work. "And pick up your books child. We didnít pay good money for schoolbooks for you to throw them around."

"Yes sir, sorry." She had flung her schoolbooks in the dirt in the excitement of showing him her discovery. After sheíd gathered them up and dusted them off she ran into the house.

"Walk, donít run," Elena cautioned even though her attention was focused on the tortillas she was making.

"Yes maíam," Sarah answered as she slowly ascended the steps that led to her room.

"Supper will be ready soon," Elena said loudly enough for her to hear. "Make sure you wash your hands."

"Yes, maíam."

The sun was just starting to set when Sarah was called down to dinner. Jose passed something to Elena and the two spoke in whispers as she walked down the stairs. Both adults silenced as she entered the kitchen.

"What are you talking about?" She asked tentatively.

"Nothing fit for an eight year-old girlís ears." Elena answered as she set down a skillet of beans. "Let me see your hands."

Obediently, Sarah held out both of her thin brown hands. Elena snorted, "Terrible. Go out back and wash them correctly. While youíre out there you can bring me in a bucket of water.

"Yes maíam." Sarah bowed her head and started out the door.

To give her a little boost, Jose smacked her on the behind on her way out. She turned and stuck her tongue out at him. For that she got a wink in return.

"Children!" Elena reprimanded briskly. Sarah turned and fled around the side of the house.

"Honestly Jose," Elena shook her head as she set the table, "You are as bad as she is."

"Yes," he answered as he brought out a box wrapped in brown paper and twine, "and I hope I will never grow out of it."

"What did you make her this year?" She asked, all sternness vanishing from her voice as excitement took over.

Jose playfully slapped her right hand as it reached for the package. "I already told you it was a surprise."

"All right," she said her voice twinged with a little disappointment, "you just wonít get that big of a piece of cake."

Just as he was about to respond, he heard riders approach. He rose and went out the door. Three men sat, unmasked in horseback. Behind them close to a dozen, veiled riders waited anxiously.

"What do you want?" Jose asked, his voice holding as steady as it could. Elena came to stand behind him.

The middle man smiled and said, "Jose Escubar, it is time you pay the debt you owe."

"I owe no debt to no man," he responded defiantly, "I own this land and everything on it. Now, Go!"

Elena passed him his rifle from inside the door. The action was smooth and effortless as only two people as close as they were could manage. She, herself, held a pistol behind her back, cocked and loaded.

The men laughed and the middle one moved his horse closer. "But you do owe a debt old-timer. A debt to people who give you all of this wonderful freedom to enjoy. You owe us."

"No, I donít."

The man dismounted his horse and strode up to Jose. "And what about your son. Weíve let him live for far too long and, well, look what heís done with his life. You, as a loving father, at least owe us for that."

"My son is a man," Jose answered, his head held proud and high. "I am not responsible for him. Not any longer."

"All right, have it your way," the man turned to walk back to his horse. He made one, small, unseen gesture to his companions that Jose had no knowledge of. Instantly, the men opened fire on the couple, giving neither person the chance to raise arms in retaliation. Both slid to the ground, Elena holding her dear husband for the last time.

"Fan out and find the girl," the head man growled as he mounted his black stallion. "The boss wants her alive."

"What about them?" One of the three asked as he jerked a thumb toward the dead bodies of Elena and Jose.

"Burn Ďem," the head man answered with malice shaking his voice. "Burn them and this pathetic excuse for a homestead. We canít leave any evidence."

Sarah had just picked up the bucket when she heard the riders approach. She crept up around the small stable and hid behind some bales of hay to watch. She saw the interaction between her grandfather. At first, she thought that they were leaving.

After all, they had to be mistaken, her father had been dead for several years. Her abuelita had said so. How could a dead man make deals?

Then she saw the slight movement of his hand. Then the hail of bullets rang out as they tore through her grandparents like tissue. Sarah, instinctively wanted to cry out, but inside her mind a voice ordered, "Donít. You have to tell someone. If you make a sound, theyíll find you."

So instead, he shoved her fist in her mouth and bit on it until it bled. She could not tear her eyes away from her beloved grandparentsí grisly death. She stood there, silent and still as a stone, bearing witness to this horrible atrocity. A few, silent tears coursed down her cheeks, but this was the only sign that she was alive herself and not a statue.

Then she heard the head manís orders and she acted. Quietly, she sped to the back of the stable. She was lucky. The darkness almost completely obscured her form from sight. She quickly made her way to the pigís styx. A gruesome sound brought her up short. They were burning the livestock, alive. She could hear the screams of the chickens and their little nag, Poca, as the flames torn at them. The sickening smell of burnt flesh began to permeate the air.

Sarah became confused and momentarily forgot where she was and what she was doing. She was lost in some horrible nightmare and all she wanted to do was wake up in her own, safe warm bed. Just as she started to descend into madness, the voice crept into her mind again.

"Into the pigs styx, little one," the voice advised. "Into the pigs styx. They canít burn mud, do theyíll most likely shoot them. Cover yourself in mud and hide behind one. You will be safe."

She hesitated slightly, unsure of whether to trust the voice. Then the sound of approaching hooves resounded toward her. She had one chance and she move like lightning. Up and over the rail fence enclosing the styx she vaulted, not looking back, but straight ahead. She fell into the mud and feces and rolled, trying to ignore the twisting in her stomach and burning in her eyes as she inhaled the noxious fumes.

After covered head to toe in the excremental mix, she ducked down behind their largest sow. She was old and crippled and not likely to move. Sarah remained very still.

Soon, two riders appeared around the edge of the styx. At first, the smaller of the two almost threw in a lit torch. His buddy caught his hand and shook his head.

"We have to search it first," he stated calmly as he dismounted.

"Youíre jokiní right?" The smaller man asked. "All it is is pigs and shit. Ainít no way a little girl is gonna hide in there. Theyís kill her."

His companion looked around the styx carefully. For a moment, Sarah thought he had spotted her when he stared at the sow for close to a minute. He looked as though he were trying to take her apart. She held her breath. Finally he said, "I think that sowís already dead."

"Come on," the smaller man said, "letís burn it and leave."

"No," his companion shook his head. "You throw that torch in there and youíll burn us up too. Pigshit burns way too fast."

He pulled out his gun. "Iíll just shoot Ďem."

"But Jim said," the small man protested."

"Ainít nobody gonna investigate shot pigs." He answered confidently. "Besides, pig fumes been known to explode and that will grab someoneís attention."

"Oh, all right." The smaller man pulled out his rifle and started shooting.

The squeals of the pigs seemed to delight him. His smile broadened as they began to run this way and that, trying to get away from the eminent death that awaited them. But it was no good. The fence was strong. Jose had had too many escape in the past, and now, they were trapped. Sarah, lay behind the sow, who only cried at hearing the deaths of all the children she had had throughout the years.

Once the last one had fallen, screaming, to the ground, the small man raised his rifle to the crippled sow. His friend placed a hand on his shoulder and said, "Donít waste a bullet. Sheís dead already."

He lowered the rifle and, inwardly, Sarah breathed a sigh of relief. She wasnít sure, but she thought a bullet might find itís way through the old sow. That meant it could find a way through her as well.

The two men road off and, a moment later, Sarah peered out from around the sow. All was quiet. Most of the animals were dead, so their screams had silenced. The only sounds that reached her was the occasional popping of the burning wood and the muffled conversations of the riders. Most of them had headed back to town. All that remained were the brutish leader, angered at not being able the flush out his prey, and the small mean pigkiller.

She was about to slip out from the styx, when she again heard hooves approaching. Swiftly, she fell back to her place behind the ancient sow. She had stopped crying now. Her broken heart failed her and she lay dead with all of her children. Sarah peered around her hindquarters. It was the pigkiller. He had a menacing smile on his face. He took out his pistol and fired at the old sow. The bullet sliced through her skin and struck Sarah across the upper arm.

Sarah swallowed a cry of pain, even though her flesh burned from pain. She stayed perfectly still. Then she heard it, the sound of the torch hitting the mud. Anxiously she waited for the styx to be engulfed in flames, but nothing happened.

Nothing but the swearing of the small man, angry that his torture would not be completed. He kicked his horse a little too hard and it bucked him. Under ordinary circumstances he would have just busted his butt and had a funny walk for a couple of days. But now it seemed the wheels of justice had turned and Sarah heard the sickening crack of a neck being broken. She looked and there he lay, his body giving the final twitches before death. She walked up and looked at him.

"Serves you right," she said softly with an air of dignity only matched by a duchess. Then she walked out into the tall grass, knowing that the night would protect her. Behind her, the head man cursed at the discovery of the freshly dead body and swore he would punish her. Sarah laughed softly.

v v v v v v v v v v v v v v

Sarah strolled down the main road. At any moment one of her grandfatherís murderers could easily happen upon, yet she was strangely calm. She knew she was protected. She knew that they would not find her. Unfortunately, not too far in the distance, they had picked up her cross-country trail and were closing in.

Suddenly a black coach sped up on her from behind. As with the other passing traffic, an old man with a donkey and cart and two girls walking back from working late at the mill, she stepped aside and let them pass. The coach flew past her as if the dark horses guiding it had wings on their hooves. Suddenly the coach came to a screeching halt and a door open.

Sarah stopped in her tracks, surveying the scene. The driver was clad entirely in black finery. He turned slightly to look at her. All she could see of him was green eyes and black, artistically shaped eyebrows.

A voice beckoned her to come closer. She approached the coach cautiously. Inside was seated an elegant woman, dressed in the most beautiful black silk gown. She was veiled in exquisite black lace and she motioned for Sarah to come closer. Obediently, Sarah walked up to where she was directly opposite the lady in black.

"Where are you going, child?" She asked in a strange accent which gave her voice a musical lilt. Sarah had never heard anything so beautiful before. She was, entranced.

"To my Auntie Paulinaís," she answered sweetly. Her eyes grew heavy.

"Perhaps we should help you," the lady seemed to sing. "You seem very tired."

"No," Sarah shook her head as her eyes closed. "Iím not suppose to talk to strangers."

The driver caught her before she hit the ground. His voice almost matched the same queer, enchanting accent as the ladyís. "What shall I do with her?"

"Put her inside," the lady opened her arms to receive her. "Sheíll be safe in here with me."

"Something hunts her," the driver observed as he placed Sarahís exhausted, thin body into his mistressís arms. He lightly touched the wound on the childís shoulder and she stirred slightly and whimpered. He took a whiff of her and retracted with a disgusted look in his eyes. "Who would do this to a child?"

"I donít know," she answered as she pulled some material from a bag nearby. "But they hunt her now. We must be on our way. We will make inquiries in the next town."

"Yes mistress," the man bowed slightly and shut the door. As he climbed into the driverís seat he looked behind. Four men about a mile away were in heavy pursuit. He sighed heavily and whipped the horses into pace.

"Savages," he growled as the horses kicked up and took off at break neck speed. "If it is a hunt they want, a hunt they will get."

Inside, the lady roused Sarah. For a moment, she didnít know where she was. Then she saw the lady and relaxed. The lady smiled through her veil. "You are in my coach. My driver and I found you."

"Thank you," Sarah answered as she sat up. She flinched at the pain in her shoulder. She rubbed it and found it had been cleaned and bandaged.

"Itís all right child," the lady said as she put away the bag of bandages. "Iíve put some salve on it and you should be right as rain in a few days."

"Thank you," Sarah answered as she looked around the coach. It was elegantly done up in red velvet and had little gold tassled drapes covering the windows. "This is the most beautiful coach Iíve ever seen, although from the outside . . ."

"Yes, the outside is quite a fright, " the lady answered as she pulled a small box from under Sarahís seat and handed it to her. Inside, Sarah found a few small, daintily decorated cakes and a small flask. She looked at the woman.

"Donít worry child," the lady reassured her, "the cakes arenít poisoned and the flask holds water. Eat up."

"Thank you," Sarah said for the third time and munched down on a cake. She ate it in almost one bite. She bowed her head slightly in embarrassment when she realized how rude she was being. She held out a half-eaten cake, "Iím sorry. Would you like one?"

Surprisingly, the lady smiled and shook her head. "I have already had my tea. Besides, I enjoy watching someone eat who has a real appetite."

Sarah returned the smile and gobbled down the rest of the cake. From outside they heard her driver yell, "Mistress, the pursuers are gaining."

To Sarahís terror, the lady replied, "Then stop the coach. I would like to give them a piece of my mind."

"No, no maíam," Sarah pleaded, pulling on her arm. "Theyíre murders maíam. They kill you."

"I doubt that." The lady said gently as she took Sarahís hands. "Lie across the seat as though you are asleep. I promise no harm will come to you."

Sarah did as she was told and a few moments later, the hunters banged on the coach door. Instead of opening it, the lady simply opened a side window and said, "What do you want?"

"Open the door," the head man hissed.

"No." She stated flatly.

"What?" He asked incredulously.

"What authority do you have to ask me that?" She asked indignantly. "I see no badges, no decorations that tell me you are men of the law. Be on your way."

The head man pulled out his pistol. "Open the door or Iíll blow your head off."

Suddenly the man flew off of his horse. He had moved so close to the coach that the driver had no problem in grabbing him and throwing him from his mount. The other men unholstered their weapons.

"Lady," one of the men sneered, "You just made a huge mistake."

"I think it is you who have made the mistake," she answered and looked down the road. "Here comes the local sheriff. I wonder who he will believe."

The head man scrambled to his mount. He waved a hand and the other men holstered their weapons and took off. He paused momentarily to issue a threat. "I wonít forget this."

"I look forward to our next encounter," the lady purred as he spat on the ground. He turned his horse and headed back the way he came.

A few minutes later the sheriff rode up. He came to a stop just outside of the coach door. He tipped his hat as he said, "Maíam. Any problems?"

"Some men trying to make trouble for myself and my little friend here," she explained calmly as she stroked Sarahís long, dark hair. "So my driver gave him some trouble."

"I see," the sheriff answered. "Well, allow me to escort you to town."

"We can find our own way," she responded with a ginger tongue, "Besides I would feel much safer if you were to apprehend those men. I feel they are up to no good."

"Yes maíam," he answered as he tipped his hat again, "Eveniní."

"Strange man," the lady commented as she knocked on the side of the coach. Immediately they were jostling back and forth as they head toward their destination. Sarah sat up and looked at her. "Where do you need to go, little one?"

"Just drop me on the outskirts of town." She answered.

"Nonsense," the lady insisted, "we will escort you to your destination. It is now our duty to see to your safety."

"I can make it there fine," Sarah answered confidently. "I know where she lives."

The lady sighed. "As you wish, child."

The driver stopped the coach just before the entrance to the town. At such a late hour it seemed almost completely deserted. The saloon was in full swing and the only lively part of the area. The driver jumped down and opened the coach door. Tentatively, Sarah stepped out and looked around.

The lady leaned out of the coach and asked, "Are you sure you donít need an escort? I will be perfectly all right on my own for a bit."

"No maíam," Sarah gave the lady her best courtsey. "Thank you."

With that she wandered off in a northernly direction toward her auntís house. Unbeknownst to her, she had a figure shadowing her. The person was never more that a few steps behind her at any given time but, when she turned to check, he seemed to vanish into thin air. He stayed with her until she reached the safety of her auntieís house.

Upon his return, his mistress questioned him about the journey. He merely shrugged and said, "If there was another presence, then I am unware."

v v v v v v v v v v v v v v

Sarah tapped on the door, gently at first, then progressively louder until she heard movement from within. There was a light from within accompanied by a lot of banging and cursing. Finally, the door was cautiously opened. It was Carlos, Paulinaís husband. He held a loaded shotgun in his hand. At first he seemed confused, but, as soon as recognition set in, he grabbed Sarah and pulled her inside.

Once inside, he hugged her until he became aware of her awful stench. "Have you been rolling around in the pig pen, Sarita?"

He pushed her gently from him and noticed huge tears coming from her eyes. His face softened and he said, "Sarah?"

Sarah opened her mouth to say something but was struck dumb. No matter how hard she tried to push the words out, she couldnít say them. She knew if she said them, then nothing would bring her beloved grandparents back. Instead she flung her arms tightly around Carlosís neck and sobbed loudly.

"Paulina, Paulina," Carlos cried out, "There is something wrong with Sarita."

He picked the little girl up gently and carried her across the floor. His wife met them halfway. Paulina felt her forehead and the skin on her wrists.

"Sheís not sick." Paulina said. "But her skin is so cool."

Sarah clung tightly to Carlos refusing to let got. "Something happened, Paulina. Something that had to do with those me that came here earlier."

"Carlos," she answered, "they were book salesmen. How dangerous could they be?"

"I think they were lying." Carlos protested.

"First things first," she ordered. "Put Sarah in our bed, then fetch the priest and the doctor. Maybe one of them can help."

Carlos nodded and, after a gentle struggle, laid her in bed. He was beginning to cover her when Paulina hollered to him, "Donít cover her up. Those clothes stink. Iíll strip her and clean her before redressing her."

She picked up a kettle she always kept hot and a rag. She looked at Carlos. "Donít just stand there. Put on some pants and shoes and go."

Within minutes he was dressed and gone. When Paulina walked into the bedroom, Sarah was standing and removing her dress. Paulina smiled ate her as she sat down the bowl and rag and walked over to her.

"Skin the rabbit," she said playfully as she pulled the tattered dress over her favorite nieceís head. It was then that she noticed the blood spotted bandage. "Oh, your hurt."

Pauline gently removed the bandage. To her amazement what looked like a deep bullet graze was already starting to heal. She made light of it as she walked over and pulled out a pitcher and basin. "Quick healer. Just like Miguel. You know I donít think he was sick a day in his life."

She poured the hot water from the kettle in the basin, then added cool from the pitcher. She looked over her shoulder. Sarah was seated on the bed, staring at her feet. "Take off the rest of your clothes, Sarah. Iíll give you one of my dresses to wear until we make you one tomorrow."

Sarah stood slowly and removed the rest of her clothing. Paulina guided her to the basin and sat her down in the warm water. A little soap and a lot of scrubbing later every inch of Sarah was squeaky clean from the hair on her head to the toes on her feet. Paulina put her in one of Carlosí shirts and then laid her in the bed. The events of the night seemed thousands of miles away.

Instantly, she fell asleep. As she lay there in a fitful slumber, Paulina stroke her hair and whispered, "You tell us tomorrow. It will hold until then."

Carlos returned within an hour with both the priest and the doctor. The doctor examined Sarahís wound as she slept.

"You found no other injuries?" He asked as he admired the healed flesh.

Paulina shook her head.

"Well, the injury has been well cared for," he closed his case and walked with them into the other room. "If she feels ill for any reason, please notify me."

He walked out, leaving the priest to sort out the details. He felt the authorities should be notified, but, as with many local families, consultation with the parish clergy was in order. Father Michaelson was reliable and honest and very caring. He, generally was able to help with big decisions. However, his advice in this matter was enigmatical.

"I donít understand father," Paulina protested, "Sarah has been shot. My parents would have never allowed this. Something is wrong. The Sheriff must be told."

"Paulina, calm down," he answered placing steady hands on her shaking shoulders. "We donít know anything for sure."

"I know something," Carlos added. "Your brother, Miguel, owes some people. The word is that he traded Sarah to pay off the debts."

Paulinaís eyes flashed angrily. "He would not do that."

"Paulina!" Carlosís voice shook with anger. "You havenít seen your brother in over eight years. Since before Sarah was born. You donít know what he is capable of. He hasnít ever seen her. He never writes her, never wants to know how she is. And you know he knows about her. Obviously he doesnít care. I donít think it is that hard to believe he would do something so unconscionable. Do you?"

"I donít want to," she said softly as she sat down with a thump. She buried her face in her hands and cried.

"What should we do with her?" Carlos asked. "It is not safe for her here."

"Send her to her motherís," Father Michaelson suggested.

"What?" Carlos asked.

"I remember, some years ago, when Maggie first left that Elena asked me to track down the address of her family. Since I was from Richmond, it wasnít hard. I gave her that address. I might still have it." He rose from his chair. "Let me go to the vicarage and look for it. I will be back shortly. Donít let anyone else in."

"All right," Carlos agreed and showed the priest out. Then he came and sat beside his wife. "Paulina, I want more than anything else for her to stay with us. She is like our own daughter. But it isnít safe here. And if these rumors are true, her life may be in danger. Her place is with her mother."

"A mother that resents her," Paulina asked between choked sobs. "A mother that hates her?"

"You donít know that," Carlos answered. "She was very young when Sarah was born. Frightened and alone, she did not understand. Eight years is a long time for a heart to heal."

"I donít like it," she buried her head in his shirt.

"Neither do I," he said as a tear ran down his face, "but we have no choice."

(Copyright 2002 Gina M. Wood - Random Quote Productions)