“And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death…” Revelation 6:8
Nick squinted his eyes and swallowed with some difficulty. “Heath, that first day you rode into the ranch… Didn’t you say you had worked as a hasher?”
Heath was sitting on a fallen log near the fire eating a plate of beans. He looked up. “Sure did.”
“How quick did they fire you?”
“What makes you think I got fired?”
“Anybody who’s tasted your cooking – especially them beans – and didn’t fire you needs their head examined! Ain’t no way any outfit would keep you around as a hasher!”
Heath glared back. “There ain’t nothing wrong with my cooking! And I can tell you for a fact it’s a darn sight better than yours, even though that ain’t saying much. Anyway, I never got any complaints.”
Nick raked the beans in his plate into the campfire and tossed the plate on the ground. “Well they must have been half-starved! I hear a starving man will eat just about anything.”
“Well, you heard right!” Heath snapped back, his face draining of expression as he stared intently into the fire.
Nick knew his brother was a thousand miles away right now and had a good idea where he was. For as much pain as the Pinkerton investigation had wrought, Nick was thankful for the insight it had given him into Heath’s life. He could see that beyond the expressionless face, Heath’s mind was teeming. Nick regretted that an inadvertent, innocent remark could sometimes dreg up painful memories for Heath. But Nick had also learned he could keep his brother from brooding by snatching him back quickly.
Nick picked up a tin coffee cup and clanged the side of it with his fork. “How about pouring me a cup of that coffee? You might not be able to cook worth a lick, but I will admit you brew up a mean cup of coffee. It will help warm me up.”
It seemed that each night on the trail had gotten colder as late fall settled over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They had camped amid the trees in an effort to block the chilly winds that were a constant reminder that winter was right around the corner.
Heath picked up one of the gloves that laid across his thigh and wrapped it around the handle of the hot coffee pot sitting over the fire. He poured Nick a cup of the steaming brew. “I sure hope the weather’s gonna hold out.”
“Yeah, I know. I never figured on making the trip this late. The weather can be pretty unpredictable up here this time of year.”
“Sorry.” Heath put his unfinished plate on the ground and poured himself a cup of coffee.
“Hey, now…” Nick said soothingly, “I didn’t mean it like that. What happened was out of your control. I didn’t have to wait on you to make this trip. I put it off because I wanted you here with me! Hell, for that, I’m willing to risk a little frostbite as well as whatever eating your cooking day after day will do to a man.”
Heath smiled. “That’s mighty brave of you, Nick.”
“You bet it is, Boy!”
“Guess I’d better make sure the horses are tied down secure for the night.”
“Already did that, Heath. Don’t worry; they’re not going anywhere. You keep sneaking peeps at that stallion like he’s gonna vanish into thin air!”
Heath grinned. “He sure is a beauty, Nick. Finest horse I’ve ever laid eyes on. I still can’t believe a man would be willing to part with a horse like that.”
“I’m gonna have to teach you some of my stock-buying tricks, that’s for sure! Rule number one is you don’t stand there wide-eyed and slack-jawed when you look at an animal. The seller will know just how bad you want it and up the price.” Nick smiled at the recollection of Heath’s first look at the beautiful bay. Even if it wasn’t obvious to Hank Watson that Heath was thoroughly taken with the horse, Nick could see it.
Nick had taken Hank off to the side to talk to him privately. “I’d like to buy Charger, Hank.”
The Barkleys were old friends and valued stock buyers but Hank shook his head. “Nick, I wasn’t showing Charger to you to offer him for sale! Two of those three mares you’re buying are in foal to him right now. I wanted you to get a look at the sire so you know you’re getting not only quality mares, but they are bred to my best! That’s why those two mares were so pricey.”
“I know that, Hank. But now that I’ve seen Charger, I’ve got my hat set on buying that horse! You’ve got some fine stock up here, Hank, but you’re still a small, out of the way ranch. The way I see it, selling that horse to me does two very important things for you. First, your reputation as a breeder is made if your stock is good enough to become part of the Barkley Ranch breeding program. Second, Charger is the best advertisement you could ask for. You still have all your foundation stock including Charger’s sire and your proven broodmares. Ranchers from the Valley will be knocking your door down, Hank, lining up for next spring’s foal crop!”
Nick smiled thinking back on his accomplishment. Hank had made him pay through the nose, but the stallion was heading home with his new master, just the way Nick intended. Mother always said he could sell coal to Newcastle when he turned on his powers of persuasion. Nick had told Hank to keep the purchase secret until he and Heath were ready to hit the trail.
Heath had the three mares tethered together and started to loop the rope around his saddle horn. “Boy howdy, Nick, I sure hope one of these mares will throw a bay colt next spring that looks just like Charger!”
Nick just shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly. “He’s alright, I reckon. I kinda wish they were in foal to Renown, that big chestnut in the last stall.”
Heath shook his head in disbelief. “Nick, you might be the best horse trader around, but I can see right now you’d better take me along to help you pick out the stock! No telling what kind of crockheads you’d bring home.”
Nick crossed his arms and regarded his brother, a devious little smile playing on his lips. “Well, it just so happens I managed to pick out a horse all by my lonesome just for you! There was this cow-hocked, ewe-necked, sway-backed plug out there in a back pasture and I said ‘Hank, that old nag would be perfect for my little brother!’ Now give me that string of mares so you can lead your new horse home.”
Heath groaned. This was just the kind of stunt his big brother would pull!
“So help me, Nick, if you make me ride back in there leading some…”
“Hold on, Boy! There he is now!” A huge grin burst out on Nick’s face as he looked past Heath toward the stallion barn. Heath turned to follow Nick’s gaze and let out an audible gasp.
Hank Watson walked the magnificent bay stallion toward them on a lead line. The stallion had fully collected himself to strut his stuff in front of the mare band in a nearby corral. He neighed to them so loudly that his whole body shook. Confident he had the mares’ attention, the stallion arched his massive neck and flagged his tail over his back. The muscles rippled beneath his bay coat as he snorted and pranced at the end of the lead line.
Charger was putting on a show but Nick opted to watch the expression on Heath’s face as he gazed at the horse. No doubt about it, this one memory was worth all the haggling Nick was forced to do and the price he had paid for the stallion.
“Take good care of him, Heath.” Hank Watson handed the stallion’s lead to Heath.
“Always, Mr. Watson.” Heath managed to utter in an awed whisper.
Heath maintained a stunned silence until they were alone a half-mile or so down the road. Heath pulled his mare to a halt and turned to his big brother.
“Nick, I don’t know what to say…”
Nick knew exactly what this gift meant to Heath. Words were not necessary between the two of them. Heath’s full, expressive blue eyes were speaking volumes to Nick. Nick’s hazel eyes began to fill with their reply. Nick knew he had better look away quickly. He cleared his throat.
“Ah… well… um, how about saying ‘Thanks Nick’.”
Nick flashed a self-satisfied grin as a hint of mischief danced in his eyes. “And how about saying ‘Sorry, Nick, for ever doubting your ability to choose horseflesh.’ How about saying ‘Only you, Nick, could have talked old Hank outta that horse!’ Or how about…”
Heath laughed. “I get your point, Nick! Guess I’m going to have to listen to you toot your own horn all the way home. But boy howdy, is it ever worth it!”
“So what’s rule number two?” Heath’s question brought Nick’s attention back to the present.
“Rule number two is, if it ain’t necessary, don’t tell anybody you’re a Barkley from Stockton!”
Nick finished off a cup of strong, hot coffee and glanced over at his brother. “You ready to hit the trail, Heath?”
“Been ready, Nick!”
“Then let’s do it!”
Nick had already looped the string of mares to his saddle. The morning had dawned with a chilling cold. Nick noted with concern that the morning had also dawned frostless. He had slept outdoors on enough occasions to know that depending on the season, dew or frost forms only when the atmospheric conditions don’t favor precipitation. That a frost had failed to form was worrisome.
“It’s just getting too damn cold to be sleeping out on the trail up here!”
“You think this is cold, Nick? You ought to be up in the Rockies in the dead of winter when it’s thirty below zero…”
“Uh-huh. Seen it all, ain’t you Boy? I swear, Heath, next you’ll be telling me you’ve ridden clear to the Atlantic Ocean and back on that short-legged Modoc!” Nick locked his brother with a withering stare.
The blond met his gaze. “Once on the Modoc and twice on a turtle’s back.” Heath drawled with his best poker face. “So maybe I have seen it all, Nick.”
Heath threw Nick a crooked smile, swung up into his saddle and started off down the trail with Charger in tow.
Nick threw back his head and laughed, his breath frosty on contact with the air.
They continued down the trail for several hours, the collars of their coats turned up and the brims of their hats pulled low. Vapor clouds formed around the noses and mouths of man and beast alike. There had been no conversation as they concentrated on picking their way carefully down the narrow mountain trail.
Nick cast a worried eye toward the darkening skies. What little warmth the sun had provided earlier was now gone as the sky became increasingly overcast. Ever nearer peaks of the Sierra Nevada were disappearing into a slate gray shroud. Nature revealed yet another sign of the approaching storm as the higher winds extended to lower and lower air. A chill wind whined through the evergreens, a harbinger of the misery to come.
Heath reined his mare to a stop and turned to look back at Nick. “The weather’s not going to hold, Nick!” he called above the moan that swept through the trees.
“I know it!” Nick eyed the layers of gray clouds that sheeted the sky, darkening the day. Rags of clouds dangled beneath them like torn remnants. “Looks like we could be in for a snowstorm before nightfall. We need to think about finding shelter!”
“There’s an old abandoned mining town up river by the name of Delco. It’s about eight miles northeast of here as the crow flies. It’s out of our way, but at least we’d be sleeping inside tonight. We passed a game trail a few miles back. We could follow it to the river, and then follow the river up to Delco. You can’t miss it.”
A cold gust of wind rattled the spindly branches of a birch. Nick pulled his collar up higher around his ears. “Delco’s probably our best bet. I don’t feel much like trying to build a shelter out of evergreen branches. Lead the way!”
The men also knew laboring to construct a shelter could ultimately work against them. If they broke a sweat, the icy wind whipping through their clothes would chill them to the bone.
For another hour, they carefully negotiated the game trail, step by laborious step until they reached the river. This section of the Mokelumne River always seemed to Heath to be the proverbial tortured brown snake as it slashed and rambled down the mountain. Heath and Nick followed the river’s winding path northeast until the outline of Delco’s rooftops was visible against the slate-gray skyline.
Delco was but one of many towns that had sprung up in this mountainous stretch of mining country. What had started out as a primitive mining camp had quickly boomed into a full-fledged town when Roy Delwin had discovered a major vein. Millions of dollars worth of gold had been mined out of the Delco mine over a span of fifteen years. Eventually, the gold mine had played out and the town of Delco had seen a rapid decline. The town had gone bust just as quickly as it had once boomed.
Heath had seen it all before when his hometown suffered the same fate. He had heard that Delco was now completely deserted – a virtual ghost town. Heath felt sure that Strawberry would soon suffer the same fate. Soon there would be nothing at all in Strawberry, nothing except his mother’s grave.
They parted company with the fast-rushing Mokelumne and headed up the slope for the narrow road that led into Delco. The road was already starting to grow up from disuse. As Nick and Heath neared the deserted mining town, Nick reached over and tapped his brother’s shoulder. He pointed over to a slanted old signpost that seemed nearly ready to topple completely to the ground.
Delco had been X-d out and right above it, a new name had been painted. The letters were uneven and of different sizes, almost as if they had been painted by a child. The way the once-wet paint had run down beneath the lettering and dried gave the sign an eerie quality. The sign read ‘REMNANT’ in blood-red paint.
Nick and Heath rode past the steep face of Rim Rock Cliffs, topped a rise and looked down at the deserted town of Delco. The old mining town had one long street with a few vacant lots separating the storefronts. The livery and a doctor’s office stood at the edge of town. A general store, a saloon, the smithy and an old hotel were among the other businesses lining the street. A small church was the last building at the far end of town. The road then curved through a pass that led to the gated enclosure surrounding the Delco mining buildings and the old mine itself.
“We’ll get the horses settled in the livery and find a place to bed down for the night.”
Heath surveyed the town. “Looks like we’ll have our pick. How about the hotel?”
“Wanna check out the saloon first?” Nick squinted at Heath and smiled. “Couldn’t hurt. We might just get lucky!”
Nick led the way into Delco with the string of mares. Heath rode just behind him with the bay stallion in tow.
They stopped in front of the old livery. Nick swung down and handed the string of mares and Coco’s reins to Heath. He pulled open one of the livery’s large double doors and stepped inside. Nick looked over the abandoned building with an appraising eye. One of the stalls had been broken down, but the rest were intact as were the walls and the roof. There were even a few bales of hay in the loft.
“Bring ‘em on in, Heath!” Nick called.
The men got each horse settled in a stall and their tack stowed in the old tack room. Heath found the water pump behind the livery, primed it, and worked the handle until it drew water once again. He filled the water buckets in the stalls while Nick gave each horse a ration of hay.
Heath folded his arms atop the stall’s wooden slats and watched Charger contentedly munch his hay. A hand on his shoulder broke the spell.
“Come on, Boy. Let’s go get settled in ourselves.” Nick handed Heath his saddlebags and bedroll.
Heath smiled. “This sure beats weathering the storm out there on the trail, but I’m still planning on cooking beans tonight.”
Nick shook his head and started for the door. “You’re about as mean as they come… you know that, Heath? You got the rest of the family completely fooled!” Nick grumbled over his shoulder.
Heath grinned and gave Charger a pat on his neck. “See ya later, fella.”
They walked up the empty street, the jingling of Nick’s spurs echoing through the silent town. The narrow gaps between some of the buildings were in the shadows and the eyes that followed their progress were in deeper shadow still.
Nick and Heath stepped up onto the boardwalk and entered the saloon. The establishment had been emptied of all furniture except the bar and a couple of broken chairs.
Nick walked around behind the bar. He backed out gingerly as his boots crunched on shattered glass. Smashed wine bottles glittered like murky emeralds on the dirty floor.
“Looks like a couple of bottles were left behind and someone smashed them.” Nick’s tone was quizzical.
“I didn’t figure we’d find anything to drink here anyway, Nick. We’ll just have to wait until we get home. Come on, let’s go check out the hotel.”
They made their way across the street to the abandoned hotel. Nick grasped the door handle and smiled when it turned without resistance. He swung the door open and motioned for Heath to follow him inside. Heath had paused on the boardwalk and was looking up at the faded blue lettering on a white background.
The letters HEL were all that was left of the word spelled out on the faded sign.
Nick was coming around the reception desk with a handful of keys when Heath entered the lobby. Heath picked up the registration book, blew the dust off the cover and offered it to Nick. “You forgot to sign in, Nick!”
Nick took the book and tossed it back on the desk. “I’ll do it when I settle up on the bill. Come on, let’s see what shape the rooms are in.”
Heath chuckled as he followed Nick up the stairs. The first room they checked had broken out windows. The second was piled high with discarded furniture. The third room held an old bed frame with a bare, dirty mattress. The wallpaper had been pink at one time but now it had faded to a dusky rose. The floor’s wooden slats had warped in places and separated.
Nick flipped the mattress over so that the underside was up. “This side doesn’t look too bad.” He left his gear in the room.
They checked the room directly across the hallway. A decent enough mattress lay on the floor. Heath walked over and kicked it with the toe of his boot. “I don’t mind sleeping on the floor. I can spread out my bedroll right on top of it. It’s sure softer than the ground would’ve been.”
“Come on, let’s put these keys back and see if we can rustle up some wood for that fireplace downstairs.”
Heath put his saddlebags and bedroll on the mattress and followed Nick back down the hallway to the stairs.
“What you doin’ up there, boys?” a voice called from the lobby. The man looked up at them and smiled. He was a middle-aged man, somewhere in his fifties. He had a full set of healthy teeth, though darkly stained. The man spat a wad of tobacco juice on the floor.
“We’re just passing through and were looking for shelter to spend the night.” Heath said.
“Yep, appears we’re in for some snow tonight.” the man said.
The brothers descended the stairs. “We didn’t realize there was anybody left in Delco. We heard the town was completely abandoned.” Nick laid the extra keys on the reception desk.
“The town is abandoned. There are a few of us that live in the old Delco Mining Company buildings that sit near the entrance of the mine. The street out front curves through a pass and the mining compound is right there. You boys are more than welcome to spend the night here in the hotel.” The man spat a dart of tobacco juice on the floor again. “My name’s Zechariah Grimes.” He held out his right hand. “I saw you boys ride in. Fine looking string of horses you got there, Mister…”
A pause hung in the air. Heath didn’t bother to fill it. “Heath.” he said simply as he shook Grimes’ hand. “This is my brother Nick.”
Nick nodded to the man. It was obvious that no gun holster peeked out from beneath Zechariah’s heavy coat. Yet, Nick could sense an air of caution emanating from his younger brother.
If Zechariah noted the evasion, he didn’t let on. “Why don’t you boys come on out to the Delco Mining buildings and have supper with us?” His demeanor was friendly and enthusiastic. “We just had us a wedding this morning and the women folk are planning something real special for supper!”
“We wouldn’t want to be any bother…” Heath began.
“Ain’t no bother!” Zechariah smiled again. “Nobody hardly ever passes through this old town anymore. The women would be plum tickled if you would join us. It’d make our celebration extra special.” He spat on the floor and winked his eye shrewdly. “I know for a fact we’re having fried chicken, rice with gravy, and baked sweet potatoes. My wife Naomi is gonna open some of those jars of string beans she put up this summer and cook ‘em. And Esther is gonna bake cornbread and a pound cake that will purely melt in your mouth. How about it, boys? You ain’t gonna get a better offer than that!”
Nick cleared his throat and glanced over at Heath. “You’re right about that, Mr. Grimes. Heath was planning on heating up some beans.”
“Beans is alright if you cain’t do no better.” Grimes said. “But wait till you taste Naomi and Esther’s supper. It’s southern cooking at its finest!”
“We were just about to look around for some firewood, Mr. Grimes.” Heath said.
“Call me Zechariah, boys. There’s plenty of wood out behind the hotel. I’ll help you bring a load inside and then we’ll head on out to the mining compound.”
The three men walked down the dirt road through the narrow pass and around the bend to the deserted mine works. A ten foot high wood frame and wire fence surrounded the company buildings and the entrance to the old mine at the base of the mountain.
Zechariah unlatched the gate and ushered the brothers inside. He refastened the large gate once they were in. “I wouldn’t want Goliath to get out.” Zechariah said.
As if on cue, the hundred-pound mastiff bounded up to Zechariah. He eyed the strangers warily as the hair stood on end above his shoulders and a low growl rumbled in the big dog’s throat. “Easy there, boy!” Zechariah said as he caught the dog by his thick leather collar. “Just some friends coming to have a bite of supper with us. You boys go on over to the house.” He pointed to one of the buildings. “I’m gonna tie the dog.”
Nick and Heath walked over to what had once been the mine foreman’s house while Zechariah chained the mastiff. There were five other buildings within the compound: the Main Office, the Assay Office and several storage buildings. All had benefited from recent repairs except for the last storage building, which remained in a dilapidated state.
The brown withered remains of the past summer’s garden plot stretched behind the house. The residents had constructed a corral and a simple three-sided shelter for their horses. An even simpler lean-to shelter had been built for the milk cow that was staked out nearby. A small chicken coop appeared to be the only other addition.
Zechariah hurried over to where Heath and Nick stood. He spit his entire plug of tobacco out by the steps. “Naomi likes for me to git rid of my chaw before I come in the house. Come on boys, supper oughta be about ready!” He hurried up the steps and threw open the door. “Naomi!”
Nick and Heath followed Zechariah into the spacious front room. There was a large rectangular table with one of its legs balanced on a slab of wood to keep it from wobbling. It was covered by a red and white checked tablecloth and surrounded by eight ladder-back chairs.
“Shut that door!” Naomi shouted as she emerged from the kitchen. “That cold wind is whipping right through…” She paused at the sight of the two strangers.
Zechariah pushed the door shut and motioned to the brothers with his thumb. “I brung some company home for supper. This here’s Nick and Heath.” He pointed to each in turn.
Naomi wiped her hands on her apron. She had salt and pepper hair pulled into a tight bun and a weatherworn face. She was a stout woman, wide-hipped and large-breasted. Her brown eyes lit up as she smiled at the brothers. “Glad to have you! We hardly see any folks passing through up here anymore.”
“We appreciate your hospitality, Mrs. Grimes.” Nick said as both he and Heath politely removed their hats.
Another woman stood in the kitchen doorway. She lingered there as if to assess the situation. Her lustrous red hair was pulled back into a long, neat braid and her sharp green eyes scanned the room.
“That’s Esther.” Zechariah offered. “Just wait till you taste her pound cake!”
Esther nodded a quick greeting and disappeared into the kitchen.
“Take off your coats and sit down, younguns.” Naomi said.
The brothers did as she asked and sat down at the table with Zechariah. “I’ll get you some hot coffee while I get the table set.” Naomi said. “The men should be coming up from the mine directly.”
“The mine?” Heath queried Zechariah. “Are you folks still working the old Delco mine?”
“We surely do.” Zechariah replied. “It’s about played out, but we still manage to mine enough gold to take down to San Andreas and buy our supplies.”
“How many people are still living up here?” Nick wanted to know.
“There was eight of us made our way west right after the war. We all came from the low country of South Carolina and Georgia. There’s me and my wife Naomi, Reuben and his wife Esther, and then there’s Seth, Jude, Titus and, ah, Malachi.”
“So who are the newlyweds?” Heath smiled. “You said you had a wedding today.”
Naomi had returned from the kitchen with a large tray. She slammed the tray down on the table so hard that half of the fresh cream spilled from its small pitcher. Naomi cast an angry look at her husband who either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
“That would be Malachi and, uh, Martha.” Zechariah said as he grabbed the bowl of snow-white sugar.
“Malachi met Martha since we been living up here.” Naomi said as she poured each man a mug of hot black coffee. “He met her when the men were down in San Andreas the last time.”
“It must have been love at first sight!” Nick shook his head. “It’d be pretty hard to try and court a girl that far away.”
“Maybe so.” Naomi hurried to finish setting the table.
“And even harder to talk her into moving up here.” Heath said. The woman froze and he sensed a sudden tension. Heath had not meant to strike a nerve. “No offense, Mrs. Grimes. I only meant I know how tough it is to try to scratch out a living in a dead mining town.”
She smiled at him briefly, this time it did not reach her eyes. “None taken, Heath.” Naomi said and then she turned and walked back into the kitchen.
Zechariah had dumped the fourth heaping spoonful of sugar into his coffee when the door swung open. Three men hurried in out of the cold as the last to enter slammed the door behind them. The first man in had been reaching to unbutton his coat when he stopped at the sight of the strangers. He was of medium height, slightly heavy-set, with close-cropped black hair and gray eyes.
“That’s Reuben.” Zechariah pointed. “That’s Jude.” He motioned to the tall, wiry man with greasy brown hair and a full, bushy beard. “And that’s Titus.” He was a huge man. He had at least three inches and a hundred pounds on Nick, Heath mused. Titus had a wide face with flat cheekbones, dull brown eyes and his straight blond hair was worn in a bowl-shaped cut.
“This is Nick and Heath.” Zechariah motioned with his spoon. “They’re passing through and plan on holing up in the old hotel tonight. I invited ‘em for supper.”
“Welcome.” Reuben said simply and he and Jude began unbuttoning their coats. Titus was slower to react.
“You just keep your coat on, Titus!” Naomi emerged from the kitchen carrying two large baskets. Cloths covered the contents, but they smelled of fried chicken and fixings. “This one goes to Malachi and Martha.” She spoke slow and deliberate as she handed him the first basket. Two plates and two upright forks wrapped in napkins were tucked against the side of the basket and peeked out from under the cloth. Naomi handed him the second basket. “You eat with Seth tonight.”
Heath watched Titus’ strong hand wrap around the second basket handle. His fingers were the size of large cigars. Heath noticed Naomi had packed clean plates and forks in the second basket as well. He noticed something else – there were four of each.
Naomi held the door open for Titus while he carefully eased out sideways through the doorframe. She disappeared into the kitchen and quickly reappeared with a large platter of fried chicken. Esther was right behind her carrying a bowl of rice. The two went back and forth until they had covered the table with the evening’s fare.
Esther added the final dish – one half of her pound cake – to the table. Naomi took her by the arm. “Esther and I are gonna eat our supper in the kitchen. It’ll give you men folks a chance to socialize.”
Reuben watched Naomi lead his wife back into the kitchen and glanced briefly at the guests. “Let us pray.” He bowed his head. “Thank you for this bountiful provision, Lord, and protect your Remnant from the coming storm. Amen.”
When the prayer was finished, the three hosts made a quick grab for the nearest bowls. Hands moved in syncopation, grabbing and scooping.
Nick looked over at Heath to gage his reaction to the orgy. Heath sat watching Nick with an amused expression on his face. When their eyes met, Heath mouthed the word ‘beans’. Nick glared at his brother and his eyes hardened with resolve. That was all it took for Nick to wade into the fray. He beat Zechariah to the platter of chicken. Nick helped himself and then passed the platter to Heath. Heath flashed a crooked smile. “Thank you, Big Brother. Keep ‘em coming.”
It was apparent from the beginning of the meal that the hosts were not interested in conversation. They shoveled down their supper like they were starving men, never uttering a word. Their breathing was loud and slobbery. After the cake plate was cleaned, they sat back in contentment.
Reuben remained silent, his expression solemn and guarded. Jude had relaxed. He glanced at the visitors and grinned. His bushy beard parted to reveal the rotten yellow stumps that remained of his teeth.
“Mmmm! What did I tell you boys?” Zechariah sighed and rubbed his stomach. “Better than those beans ya’ll were gonna have, I betcha!”
“That’d be a safe bet any day of the week, Mr. Grimes.” Nick nodded in agreement. “You weren’t exaggerating. Everything was delicious. One thing about being on the trail with Heath is you learn to appreciate good cooking.”
Heath raised an eyebrow at the last comment. “I think I’ll go outside and have a smoke. Thanks again for the supper. Be sure and give the ladies my compliments.”
Heath donned his coat and hat and walked out onto the porch. He smiled at the thought of leaving Nick alone to try and make small talk with the miners. Serves him right, he thought. Heath watched the wind whip tiny flakes of snow. The light, intermittent flurries heralded the very beginning of the approaching storm. Just a quick smoke and he’d let Nick know they’d better make their way back to the hotel.
Heath sprinkled an even line of tobacco onto a paper. He rolled the cigarette and licked the edge of the paper to seal it. Heath’s movements were deliberate and unhurried. He struck a sulfur match and lit his smoke. Beyond the weak blaze, he again noted a slight movement of the curtain. Heath took a drag off the cigarette and continued his smoke nonchalantly, but there was no mistake. Someone was watching him from the old Assay Office.
Darkness came down over the land early as Nick and Heath made their way back to the hotel. The temperature had dropped perceptibly. They turned their collars up to the wind and walked in silence. Fine flakes of snow stung their faces. The wind grew steady, where before it had been gusty and constantly changing direction, now it came consistently from the north. By the time the men reached the hotel, the snow no longer came in flurries, but had settled down to a continual fall.
Nick and Heath walked past the reception desk dusting the snow off their coats toward what had once been the hotel’s Sitting Room. An orange glow still flickered in the fireplace from the roaring fire they had started before leaving. The warmth of the old Sitting Room enveloped them and drew them pleasantly inside.
Nick knelt by the hearth and began to feed the waning fire from the stack of firewood. The dry wood crackled and popped as flames licked up between and around the logs. Nick rocked back on his heels, satisfied with the growing blaze.
“You know, this is the warmest room in the hotel. It’d be a shame to let it go to waste.”
Heath stretched his long arms toward the fire. “I was thinking the same thing, Nick. We could drag those mattresses from upstairs and bed down in here.”
Nick smiled. “I don’t reckon the management would object. So what are we waiting for?”
Nick and Heath settled into the soft pallets they had made on the floor near the hearth. The wind moaned outside the hotel, but the structure itself was still. It was a solid building – no creaking, no drafts. The only sound was the pleasant crackle emanating from the fireplace like a lullaby.
Nick pushed the heavy wool blanket down below his waist, suddenly overly warm. He turned over on his side and propped himself up on an elbow. Heath was snuggled down under his blanket with his eyes closed. The rise and fall of his chest was even and slow. Nick watched the firelight’s glow flicker and dance across his younger brother’s features and harvest blond hair. Another type of warmth, fierce and strong, welled up deep within him. The good Lord sure does work in mysterious ways, Nick mused as he thought back on the day that his brother rode up to the Barkley’s doorstep. A broad smile broke out on Nick’s face. Hasher my foot, he thought. Suddenly the smile disappeared. Nick cleared his throat.
“Hey, Heath? Are you asleep?” he asked softly.
“Uh-huh.” Heath didn’t open his eyes.
“No, you’re not!”
“Then why’d you ask?” Heath looked over at Nick whose face had become a study in concentration. “What’s the matter, Nick?”
“There’s something I just thought of that I want to ask you about… something you said that first day you rode into the ranch.”
Heath rolled over on his stomach so he could easily look his brother in the eye. “Sure, Nick.”
“It’s about the jobs you said you’d had. I’ve seen for myself you can do most anything, but I still can’t believe some outfit actually paid you to do the cooking.”
“Go to sleep, Nick!” Heath growled and started to roll back to his former position.
“Wait a minute! That ain’t what my question is about. You said you’d been a jingler. What’s that?”
A hint of a crooked smile played on Heath’s mouth. “Jingler may not mean anything around here, but back in New Mexico, everybody would know whose outfit you’d been working with.”
“And whose outfit is that?” Nick’s interest was piqued.
“John Chisum?” Nick was stunned.
“The one and only.” Heath replied.
“John Chisum runs the largest spread in the west!”
“It’s probably the largest spread in the world, Nick! Eighty thousand head of cattle. With a herd that size, rustling was a real problem. Mr. Chisum came up with a distinctive brand – the Long Rail – and what he called his jinglebob earmark. We made a long slit down the full length of the cow’s ear so the lower part of the ear flopped down. The earmark was quick to make and you could identify one of Mr. Chisum’s cows at a considerable distance. A rustler might be able to hide a brand, but there was no mistaking a cow that had been jinglebobbed. A few of us boys started calling ourselves ‘jinglers’ and the name stuck.”
“How did you come to work for Chisum?”
“I showed up on his doorstep and asked for a job!” Heath smiled at the recollection. “I had spent a few months recovering in Strawberry after I was released from the Army hospital. During that time I decided I wanted to be a cowpoke and I wasn’t going to waste my time on some smalltime two-bit ranch. So I headed on down to the Chisum Ranch. I was just sixteen, still about thirty or forty pounds too light, and knew next to nothing about being a cowboy!”
“Don’t tell me you told him you were an experienced cowhand!” Nick grinned.
“Naw. Mr. Chisum took one look at me and knew I was green. He said he couldn’t use me but that I looked like I could use a good meal before I moved on. He asked me in for a bite to eat. Pretty soon he was asking me questions about my background. I answered them straight enough. I didn’t figure there was any point hiding anything since he wasn’t going to hire me anyway. I told him I’d had plenty of experience working the mines and then about my stint as a sharpshooter in the Union Army. I didn’t think that would win me any points since Mr. Chisum had supplied beef to the Confederacy. But, by the end of the meal, he had a change of heart and decided to take a chance on me.”
Nick nodded knowingly. “I’m not surprised he hired you once he found out you were a crack shot. I hear Chisum has more than a hundred hands tending his cattle and another crew of at least fifty well-armed cowboys who not only work the herd, but also defend against any trouble.”
Heath’s jaw clenched and his eyes flashed. “There was plenty of trouble to defend against in Lincoln County and I saw my share of it!” His face darkened with memories he wasn’t ready to recount. “Like I said Nick, there was plenty of rustling and lawlessness in New Mexico. I believed in a man’s right to protect his cattle and to graze the open-range and I was willing to fight for it!” Heath paused and took a deep breath. “I owe Mr. Chisum an awful lot, Nick. He taught me everything I know about ranching. In ’67, he went into partnership with Mr. Goodnight. There weren’t two finer men I could’ve asked to work for.”
“So why did you leave?”
“Mama’s health was starting to fail.” Heath’s voice was tinged with sadness. “Mr. Chisum understood I needed to find work closer to home. But he told me there would always be a job there waiting if I wanted to come back. Before I left, he gave me the custom-made Mexican rifle that caught your eye.”
Nick emitted a low whistle. “The man must have thought quite a lot of you, Little Brother!”
“Maybe so. I sure thought a lot of him.” Heath smiled briefly and then his expression grew pensive. “I went from odd job to odd job after that. I’d venture farther away if Mama seemed to be getting along all right. When they sent word that she was dying, I quit my job and headed straight home. I had decided if she did pass, I would go back to Bosque Grande. I never figured on her telling me about my father…”
“I’m sure grateful she did, Heath.” Nick locked eyes with his brother. “John Chisum’s loss was the Barkley family’s gain.”
Heath smiled and shook his head. “Boy howdy, Nick, that sure ain’t the tune you were singing that first night!”
Nick swiped at the blond head playfully. “Well, I’m singing it now, ain’t I? Didn’t I just show it by buying you the best horse in the whole damn state?”
“You show me every day, Nick, every day.”
Heath smiled, his expression beatific. His blue eyes shone with a deep and heart-felt appreciation. Except for one all too brief period, his life had been devoid of a strong, male role model. Heath had grown up needing his father’s guidance, his father’s protection… his father’s love. That was not to be. He looked deep inside in the days following his mother’s death and then set out to fulfill his heart’s desire. A name, a heritage, a part of it all…
Yet Heath had felt as though he was watching something perfect and beautiful, and he was not a part of it. They were a family. As long as Nick rejected him, Heath would feel like an outsider. When Nick had finally given him acceptance, respect and love – no one had ever given him such a gift! The priceless gift of family.
It was uncanny the way that Nick seemed to be able to read his brother’s thoughts. During those first turbulent months, he had erected a wall between himself and the newcomer. Nick lived by his own philosophy: if the boy was unobtrusive and worked hard, then maybe he’d let Heath stay on. As though that was all he deserved! Heath deserved so much more! The best of everything! His brother was a man of great character and worth. It saddened Nick that because of the circumstances of Heath’s birth, he had lived a life where he wasn’t treated that way. During that dark, stormy night when he feared that he had lost his brother forever, Nick had finally opened his heart. The look in Heath’s eyes assured Nick that his vow had indeed been kept. Heath knew what was in his heart. No gold, no silver, no rare jewel would have ever been enough for his little brother. He would pay any price…
The sound of the howling winds rushed up in their ears as the hotel’s front door was flung open. A sudden draft of sharp cold wind chilled the room.
In a seamless flash of movement, the men were out of their bedrolls with guns in hand. Nick was first to take up a defensive position behind the doorjamb. Heath saw the taut muscles of Nick’s back and shoulders relax as Nick lowered his gun. He stepped up beside his brother and peered out into the lobby.
She closed the door and leaned back against it for a moment, suddenly realizing how horribly cold she was. Esther shuffled toward the flickering firelight of the Sitting Room. Her gait was stiff from the chill in her legs and her hands were numb with cold. She stopped when she saw their forms silhouetted in the doorway. Snow lay white on her shiny red hair and her face was wet where melted snowflakes had mingled with her tears.
“Help me… please, help me!”
She was shivering uncontrollably. Nick led Esther over to his pallet near the fire and helped her sit down. He gently wrapped their woolen blankets around her shoulders. Heath had busied himself making a pot of hot coffee to help warm her. He looked back over his shoulder at Nick and the woman. There was an ominous mix of sadness and terror in the dazed green eyes.
Esther sat in silence for a long while, huddled under the blankets, sipping the steaming coffee and warming slowly. She felt her strength flowing back as her body temperature rose. The brothers sat on Heath’s pallet, quietly watching her. She handed the empty cup back to Heath.
“Would you like another cup, Ma’am?” Genuine concern was in the blond’s soft drawl.
Esther dropped her eyes and shook her head.
Nick glanced at Heath for a moment and then went purposefully to the heart of the matter. “What in the world were you doing out there wandering around on a night like this?”
Esther’s eyes brimmed with tears as despair settled down over her. “He’s killed her,” she whispered.
“WHAT?” Nick wasn’t sure he had heard her right. “Somebody was killed?”
“Yes!” Esther averred. “Martha.” She looked from one stunned and confused face to the other. “It’s true! Zechariah came to our cabin tonight and asked to speak with Reuben alone. I pretended I was going on to bed, but I kept the door cracked and listened in on what Zechariah had to say. He told Reuben that Martha was dead. Naomi was going to clean up the assay shack while he and Reuben took care of the burial. I… I snuck out as soon as they left. You are the only ones who can help now.”
“But why would a groom kill his bride on their…” Heath began.
“Malachi does anything he pleases.” Esther interjected. “And the others must do whatever Malachi tells them to do if they want to be part of the ‘Remnant’.”
“What do you mean?” Nick asked.
“Perhaps… perhaps, I should start at the beginning so you can understand how we… why we…” Esther stared into the flames with distant, haunted eyes. “You have to understand how terrible the war was for us, to have your homeland become a battlefield! Life was unbelievably hard. All the able-bodied men were off fighting. It only left the women, children and elderly to try and coax a little food out of the ground. And the disabled… Reuben had been sent home from his regiment very ill with the typhus. There was always hunger and shortages of everything! And then, Sherman came through. The Union soldiers took what little we did have and razed everything in their wake. Life as we’d always known it was gone. It seemed like the end of the world.”
She paused and hugged the blankets tighter around her. “When we were at our most desperate, Malachi came through with his little band of followers heading west. Reuben was so taken with Malachi! He genuinely believed Malachi was the ‘Last Days’ prophet and that Malachi had the answers to the suffering and despair that was all around us. Malachi claimed to know the true interpretation of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse!”
Esther took a deep shuddering breath. “He… he said the rider of the white horse – the rider that is given a crown and a bow, who seemed good but who had really come to kill and conquer – was Abraham Lincoln. The rider on the red horse had the power to take peace away and cause men to kill one another. Malachi said the red horse represented the Civil War. The rider on the black horse came next. In his hand were the scales holding a tiny measure of wheat. Malachi said the black horseman had brought famine and starvation. Everything seemed just as he said! Malachi warned us that the final horseman would soon make his appearance. He would bring pestilence, destruction and plagues. The rider of the pale horse is Death and Hell follows with him!”
“Esther,” Heath said gently, “the war has been over for years. There haven’t been any plagues or widespread death. Reconstruction has rebuilt the South…”
“Malachi has an explanation for that.” she said solemnly. “He says a remnant will survive: those who have followed him. This remnant is to repopulate the earth. The Pale Horseman will not come until the Remnant is safely in their place of refuge.”
“So how long do you plan to hide out up here in Delco, waiting for this, ah, pale horse?” Nick’s eyebrows furrowed, giving him the appearance of being skeptical of anything he was about to be told.
“I should have left long ago.” Esther sighed. “I’ve stayed on for my husband’s sake. In our private moments, I have tried to make Reuben see Malachi as he truly is… to see his madness! But Reuben is so caught up in Malachi’s teachings that he’d do anything for him. So would the others. I… I just can’t believe my husband took part in the kidnapping of those three girls!”
“He did what?” Nick’s hazel eyes flared as his brother’s went to steel blue.
“Zechariah came to fetch Reuben to a meeting Malachi had called. He said Malachi had been given another revelation. I don’t know what Malachi told them, but Reuben, Jude and Seth left early the next morning. They were gone for weeks. When they returned, they had the girls. I’ve wanted to help them escape, I really have! But they’re being kept locked in one of the storage buildings with Seth guarding them day and night. Naomi always insists on going with me to take the girls their meals. How could I have known what Malachi was going to do? Poor Rosa!”
“I thought you said the dead girl’s name was Martha.” Nick said.
“No, it was Rosa. Rosa Sanchez. Malachi has had such control over us all that he even changed our names. Mine is Ellen. Ellen Davis.” she stated resolutely. “I will tell you everything I know about Malachi, uh, Martin Murphy and the lay-out of the mining compound. I can help you get in and get the other girls out. Please help me get Magnolia and Annie far away from this God-forsaken place!”
She was to have been mother to an entire race, the fount from which the brown-skinned peoples would continue to flow in a post-apocalyptic world. Malachi let the large bloodied rock drop from his hands. It was a chunk of iron pyrite – Fool’s Gold – that had been left behind when the assay office had been abandoned. It was impure, worthless – just like his father had told him he was… just like the whore who had given him the sores.
The voices in his head told him something very different. The clock of world history was winding down. Every genuine prophet is called when he is most acutely needed. It was to Malachi the voices had chosen to speak, not his Methodist minister father. He had been the worthy one – the Chosen one.
The voices had finally revealed to him why the Pale Horseman had yet to appear. Noah, his wife, their sons Shem, Ham and Japheth and their wives – eight souls – had been saved from the flood in which the ungodly perished. The three young, postdiluvian couples were to be fruitful and multiply… Malachi’s little remnant was to do the same following the coming judgment. And yet, no children had been born to them. Naomi was past childbearing and Esther had remained barren these many years. Malachi had once heard that according to ancient oral traditions, Shem and his brown-skinned wife were the progenitors of the Middle and Far-eastern peoples; through Ham and his dark-skinned wife had come the Africans and through Japheth and his fair-skinned wife, the Europeans.
Another revelation had been given to him. Malachi was to take not one bride, but three! The men had obediently followed his instructions and brought three girls back to Remnant. Malachi had given them each a new name. Magnolia Pearson, a Black girl of just fifteen, was now Sarah. The sixteen year-old White girl, Annie Blake, would henceforth be known as Ruth. Rosa Sanchez, he had called Martha.
Martha… She was eighteen years old and Malachi had chosen to take her as his first bride. She should have been honored and grateful, for to be brought to Remnant was to be saved from the Wrath to come. Malachi touched his smarting cheek. She had raked his face and neck with her nails and yet the deep scratches had not stung him nearly as much as her words. Loco, she had called him, ‘El Loco Diablo’.
His rage had been long spent when Titus had appeared on his doorstep. He had thought to send Titus to fetch Zechariah until Titus had told him of the arrival of the two strangers. The task would have to wait until the strangers had left the compound.
Malachi beckoned Zechariah and Reuben into the Assay Office, the building he had chosen as his home before assigning the others their respective living quarters. Naomi was already there, on hands and knees, scrubbing the bloodstained floor. She had covered the bludgeoned body of Rosa Sanchez with a blanket.
It appeared as though the violent struggle had begun in the bedroom and ended here. Reuben thought of how Malachi’s mood swings had begun to frighten his wife more and more. Why did this girl have to die? It made no sense to him. Malachi’s demeanor made no sense. He was cheerful, as if nothing had happened. He was smiling and at ease.
“Bury her far outside the camp.” Malachi gestured toward the body. Reuben stood numbed by the gruesome scene. Malachi looked deep into his troubled eyes. “It is not given to you to know all that I know, Reuben. Do you remember in the Book of Daniel, that only the prophet could interpret what was written on the wall by that ghostly hand? It said ‘Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting’. The king was slain that very night, Reuben. Judgment is swift, and judgment is sure! Take away the unworthy one.”
Malachi’s smile was serene. He remained innocent, his sacred vestments angelically pure.
The scenery was spectacular this morning, though Nick and Heath hardly noticed it. The air had been washed clean and a pristine blanket of snow covered everything in sight. The low-hanging clouds of yesterday were gone and the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada stood visible in all their grandeur. The large flakes of snow that fell silently through the long night had ceased before dawn.
Nick urged Coco on through the foot of freshly fallen snow as they climbed the road leaving Delco. As the lead horse, Coco had the difficult task of cutting the trail through the snow. The string of mares trudged behind him. The two horses bringing up the rear could move through the trail the others had cut through the mantel of white.
The narrow trail they had followed up from the Mokelumne was no longer visible. Nick picked his way carefully through the deep snow until they were safely down the slope and at the river’s edge. Nick and Heath tied their horses amid the cover of the trees and waited. She needed ample time to carry out the plans within the compound.
Ellen felt lucky. Many factors were playing in her favor. She had made it home undetected before Reuben had arrived. He had not come to bed. Had he done so, he might have noticed that her hair was damp and her hands and feet were ice-cold. He had sat by the hearth, staring into the fire until dawn. If Malachi had allowed alcohol in Remnant, she was sure Reuben could have used a stiff drink. At daybreak, he had departed for a long day of work in the mine.
It was providential that snowfall was not an impediment for the miners to continue their work. Regardless of the season or conditions, the temperature remained about fifty-five degrees year-round deep within the mineshaft. Zechariah, after he had spied on the strangers leaving town, had joined the other men in the mine.
It was also fortunate that Naomi had no real desire to wade through the snow. She appeared tired, her unnaturally wan complexion contrasting with the dark circles beneath her eyes. It had not been difficult to convince Naomi that there was no need for both of them to make the arduous trek. The women had fixed a large basket of sandwiches. Ellen would make the trip alone to drop off the miners’ food. She would deliver Malachi’s lunch and then finish up her task at the building where Seth was guarding the girls.
Goliath trotted along beside Ellen. The big mastiff’s attention was fixed on the basket she carried. The dog hated everyone in the world except Zechariah. He merely tolerated the rest of the little band. Goliath passed his days wandering the perimeter of the fence or lying beneath Zechariah and Naomi’s porch, hoping some outsider would pass through the gate and challenge his teeth. The dog’s ever-ravenous appetite played right into Ellen’s plan. He would wolf down anything put in front of him seemingly without either chewing or tasting it. The dog would follow her anywhere for a morsel of food.
Ellen opened the door to the unused, dilapidated storage building. She walked in and unwrapped a large piece of cornbread she had also packed in her basket. “Come on, Goliath. Come on in, boy.” The dog eyed the cornbread, licked his jowls greedily and stepped inside. Ellen closed the door behind them.
Ellen walked through the heavy beams of timber that framed the entrance of the mine. An old rusty tramcar sat askew, its wheels off the rails. She could still make out the word ‘Delco’ painted on its side. Ellen picked up an iron rod, rapped the tram sharply several times and waited. She peered into the pitch black interior of the mine and shivered.
Ellen had once talked Reuben into taking her deep into the mine soon after they had settled here. She had romanticized the underground, thinking it would be cavernous and eerily beautiful. Instead, the tunnel felt ominously crypt-like, its dimensions too confining. The air was very dry and somewhat dusty. The men chewed tobacco while they worked to keep their mouths wet. But most disconcerting was the sound in the bowels of the mine – it was deadly silent.
She heard his footsteps echo through the mineshaft and then saw the light from his lantern. When Reuben emerged from a curving tunnel, Ellen was waiting near the mine entrance, wrapped in a heavy wool coat.
“I’ve brought your lunches,” she said.
Reuben looked past her. “Where’s Naomi?”
“She seems very tired today so I told her to stay at the house.” Ellen glanced sideways at him. “I don’t think she got any sleep last night.” She took a bag stuffed with sandwiches from the basket and handed it to Reuben. “I’ve still got to drop off food for Malachi and the others.” Ellen turned to go.
“Wait!” Reuben said hastily. “Maybe… maybe I should walk you back.”
Ellen paused and studied her husband’s grime-covered face for a moment. She looked deep in his eyes. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing!” Reuben said, a defensive edge to his voice. “Nothing is wrong, Esther!”
“Then there’s no need for you to walk me back.” Ellen said insistently. “The men are waiting, Reuben.”
Ellen left Malachi’s sandwiches on a table in the front room and eased out the door as the sound of his soft snores drifted from the back room. She took a deep breath, relieved that Malachi slept. Could she have looked into those disturbing eyes and hid her utter loathing of him? Could she have kept up her facade of normality knowing what had transpired the day before? “Your luck’s still running, Ellen…” she whispered to herself as she descended the steps of the Assay Office.
There was only Seth left to deal with. He wasn’t nearly as big as his brother Titus, but he had a sturdy, mountain-boy build. Seth would be hungry. Ellen was a woman who knew herself and the men around her. She knew that Seth had hungered for her a long time though he’d never done anything out of the way. He was waiting. Waiting and hoping that someday Ellen might grow cold toward Reuben and make room in her heart for him. She felt nothing for Seth and had never given him the slightest sign that she did. Would he be suspicious of her sudden interest? No, Ellen decided. Seth would think about how and where and when, but he couldn’t care less about the why.
“I’m here with lunch, Seth.” Ellen said casually as she closed the front door.
“Took you long enough!” Seth teased. “Where’s Naomi?”
“No need for both of us to be out tromping through the snow.” Ellen said as she placed the basket on the table where he sat. “It’s just me today, if that’s alright.”
“That’s just fine by me.” His face reddened, as it was prone to do whenever she was near.
“I was hoping you’d say that, Seth.” Ellen whispered as she leaned in close to him and stroked her fingers through his hair. She seemed to undress him with those jade green eyes and her Cupid’s-bow lips curved into a seductive smile. “I’m gonna give the girls their sandwiches and I’ll be right back.”
Seth fumbled through his pockets and dug out the key. Ellen took it from his trembling fingers. “I think I can manage to unlock the door on my own.” She strode over to the locked room.
Seth watched her unlock the door and disappear into the room, closing the door behind her. He pumped his fist into the air and then tried to slick back his blond hair with his fingers. Seth paced the floor, too nervous to eat now. He was too preoccupied when she emerged to notice Ellen had failed to relock the door to the small room. She sauntered over to where he stood and handed him the key.
Ellen gave him her best plaintive look. “Me and Reuben have been going through a rough patch, Seth. He’s been treating me mighty bad at home and…” she hesitated as if it suddenly dawned on her that they weren’t really alone. “The walls of that room are like paper. Do you mind if we stepped out back and talked a bit?”
Seth glanced out the window toward the Assay Office. “The girls will be fine.” Ellen said. “Their door is locked and besides,” she lied, “Goliath is sitting right outside the front door.”
Seth had dreamt of the day when Esther might feel something for him. It was not simply because she was the only woman in the group close to his age – Esther was stunning. It was obvious that she had been a great beauty in her youth, and she still was. According to Malachi, he wasn’t to even think about a woman and yet… It might be a sin, but Seth had longed for this woman for years. He was willing and ready to offer any form of comfort she would accept. Neither Malachi nor Reuben need ever know.
“Come on!” Seth said eagerly. He took Ellen by the arm and ushered her to the back door. Seth undid the latch and swung the heavy door outward, letting Ellen lead the way. Just as Seth stepped out the door, Nick brought the butt of his rifle down like an axe across his head. Seth’s unconscious body crumpled against the rear wall of the old storage building.
Ellen didn’t flinch at the violence. “Hurry!” she said without hesitation. “They’re in here!”
Nick and Heath followed her into the building. Ellen turned the doorknob, eased the door open and beckoned the occupants of the room. “Maggie? Annie? Come on out. It’s alright.”
Annie Blake and Magnolia Pearson stepped tentatively out of the room, their hands tightly clasped. They had put on their coats as they had been told to do. The girls had dared to hope that this was not part of some ruse, that the woman they knew as Esther was telling them the truth. They quickly scanned the interior of the building. There were two cowboys with Esther – strangers to their eyes. But there was no sign of any of the men who had taken them by physical force. And there was no sign of the one called Malachi.
Annie smiled. She was dark-haired, with vivid green eyes and a heart-shaped face. Her nose was small and slightly up-turned. Dimples rippled in Annie’s cheeks as she realized Esther had indeed found help.
Magnolia peered out from behind Annie. She was small at about five feet, her complexion café au lait, her lips full. Maggie’s walnut-colored eyes remained cautious and full of suspicion.
“This is Nick and Heath. They are going to get you away from here and see that you both get back to your homes.” Ellen assured them. The four exited the back door and passed the still out-cold Seth.
“Wait! What about Rosa?” Annie asked.
Ellen’s eyes welled and a lone tear trickled down her cheek. She shook her head. “I’m sorry.” Ellen said. “Malachi…” she couldn’t finish. “Hurry! He’s liable to wake up anytime now and start wandering around. I don’t want to see the girls caught in the middle of any trouble.”
“As soon as we get to San Andreas, we’ll send the sheriff and a posse back up here.” Heath said.
Nick clenched and unclenched his fingers. “You could still go with us too, Ellen.”
“I told you I wouldn’t leave my husband.” Ellen replied. “Do it, Nick. Please!” she implored. A black-gloved fist slammed Ellen on the high point of a perfect cheekbone and knocked her backward against the wall.
“Let’s go!” Nick said.
The foursome made their way to where the horses were tied beyond the gate of the mining compound’s enclosure.
“Do you girls know how to ride?” Heath asked.
Annie nodded her head vigorously. “I… I cain’t…” Magnolia stammered.
“You’re about to learn, Maggie.” Heath replied. “Come on, Annie.” Heath helped the girl mount his small Modoc mare. “Now you, Maggie.” He lifted the tiny Black girl and settled her in to ride double with Annie. “This horse is as gentle as summer rain and she’s sure-footed.” Heath said soothingly. “Just relax, keep your weight balanced in the center and hold on tight, Maggie!”
Heath’s attention moved to his brother. “I think we ought to stick to the main road, Nick. It’d be safer traveling for them if we avoid the back trails. We can put the girls out front with you and me riding behind them.”
Nick nodded. “Yeah… a kind of buffer if those men try to follow us.”
“You take Charger and the two broodmares and ride behind the girls. I’ll bring up the rear on the other mare.” Heath began to untie the lead line of the newly purchased mare that wasn’t carrying a foal.
Nick scowled at his younger brother. “Heath, you heard Hank say that mare is barely green-broke!”
“Yeah, and I also heard him say the two broodmares and the stallion weren’t broke at all. Coco won’t hold up carrying both of us through knee-deep snow.” Heath observed.
“She may be hard to handle…”
Heath flashed a brief hint of his crooked smile. “I’m betting her herd instinct will make her just want to keep with the other horses. And I ain’t planning on trying to stop her.” His blue eyes narrowed and locked Nick with a cutter gaze. “No matter what happens behind you, Nick, don’t stop until you get those two girls to San Andreas.”
Heath tied each end of the lead rope to one of the metal rings on either side of the mare’s halter. He figured he would be able to easily pull her head in either way to guide her direction. Heath wouldn’t have much leverage to stop the mare, but like he’d told Nick, he didn’t plan to. “Get going so this mare gets it in her head she wants to follow!”
“Go ahead, Annie.” Nick instructed. The girl neck-reined the mare toward the abandoned town and nudged the horse into a gentle canter with the ease of an experienced rider.
Nick had seen a similar look of resolve on Heath’s face many a time. “Don’t fall behind, Boy!” he said simply. Nick’s liver chestnut horse lunged into motion pulling the string of three along when Nick’s spurs raked his sides.
The mare’s head shot up and her ears stood erect as she watched her familiar stable-mates head off without her. Heath gently patted the roan’s withers. “Ready to catch ‘em, girl?” The horse tossed its head and pawed the snowy ground as if ready to fly to the chase. Heath swung up on her bare back as she whinnied to the retreating horses.
The mare snorted and spun in her surprise. Heath dug his heels in the mare’s sides and pulled her head around until she had completed a three hundred-sixty degree spin. He clucked to her and the mare plunged forward.
The sound of a horse’s soft nicker drifted from the direction of the gate. Naomi pulled back her kitchen curtain and strained to see through a clear spot on the hoarfrost-covered window.
The main road lay under nearly twelve inches of snow. The sun had made an appearance mid-morning and a brief thaw came, but the partially melted snow refroze under once again clouded skies. The empty buildings of Delco were hung with icicles and snowdrifts arched up against their walls. Somewhere back in the Delco Mining compound, the old metal alarm bell tolled with urgency.
Beyond the town, snow and frost turned the trees into cascades and towers of silver lace. The icy crust covering the soft snow crunched loudly with each fall of the horses’ hooves.
Nick glanced back to see Heath’s roan mare following hard behind the other five horses, trailing their lead. He reined Coco back to a canter and allowed the young mare to draw close to them. Nick could tell by the flare of her nostrils that she was breathing hard.
“Whatcha slowing down for?” Heath called.
“Nothing.” Nick replied.
“Then quit burning daylight!” Heath retorted.
Nick felt the sting of cold on his teeth and realized he was smiling. “Hee-ah!” He urged Coco and his string of horses to a gallop. Up ahead, the swift, nimble-footed Indian pony was setting a fast pace. Nick could see Maggie holding on for dear life even as Annie’s heels were flailing the sides of the Modoc, beseeching the animal to run faster.
The larger horses had lost ground to the smaller Indian pony as her hooves pounded the snow-covered road. Every muscle in the mare’s body strained as she and her two riders disappeared over the slope, like a ship over the curve of the sea. As the black mare galloped past the steep precipice of Rim Rock Cliffs, the sharp crack of shifting ice reverberated through the thin mountain air.
Nick and the string of horses thundered past the Cliffs. The young roan mare was gathering speed in pursuit. Heath felt the strength of her bare back pulsing beneath him and her shoulder muscles pumped in hard ripples under his knees.
It was sudden and unexpected: the ball of snow and ice that caromed down Rim Rock Cliffs and across the road in front of the roan. Heath felt the mare shift her weight back as she locked her knees to skid to a halt. He braced himself, but the mare’s response still nearly slung him off her back. Another chunk of snow tumbled past and the roan spun in her panic. Heath slewed sidewise as the working of her powerful body threatened to unseat him. With one hand wound into the mare’s mane, Heath pulled himself back into position where his knees had their grip.
It was Maggie, who had kept glancing back wide-eyed and fearful, who let go with one hand to motion furiously behind them. She shouted in Annie’s ear, and Annie began to rein the Modoc to a stop.
One glance over his shoulder, and Nick knew his brother was in trouble. He looked up ahead at the girls. “Keep riding and don’t stop!” he barked the order in a fierce tone that dared no disobedience. Nick jerked back on Coco’s reins and then swung his horses around.
The young roan stood stock-still in fear. She snorted nervously and Heath could feel her body quivering beneath him. He spoke to her softly and tried to nudge her forward. Another piece of icy crust slid to the bottom of the precipice and shattered on the road. The mare reared and whirled once more. Heath slid from her back and held firmly to the lines as the roan shied backward.
“Whoa, girl!” Heath got the nervous animal to stop and slipped the lines over her head. He realized he would have to lead the young horse past the Cliffs.
Heath cast a wary eye up at the steep south-facing slope. The wind out of the north during last night’s snowstorm had whipped the soft snow into a curling cap. From Heath’s vantage point, the snow-blanketed slope appeared convex, like the crest of a tidal wave frozen on an ocean of white.
“Come on, girl.” Heath said softly. “Let’s get out of here nice and quiet.” He walked the mare through the trail already compacted by the other horses. Heath looked up the trail to see Nick dismounted with Coco’s reins in hand standing just beyond Rim Rock’s edge. He narrowed his eyes in irritation and was met with a no-give hazel stare in return. Heath almost smiled at the irony. Here he was beneath a steep snow-covered slope, a weakened layer in the snow cover and the loudest man he knew not more than thirty yards away.
Nick watched his brother leading the mare gingerly past the unstable slope. He saw the momentary consternation flash across Heath’s face. Any other place or any other circumstance, Nick would have shouted to his hard-headed brother right then, loud and clear: I never agreed to leave you and I don’t intend to… come hell or high water!
The sharp crack of a large slab of snow shifting rang out overhead. Two heads snapped in the direction of the ominous sound. It was the final straw for the jittery roan and she bolted, snatching herself from Heath’s grip. The slab tore free, breaking up and charging down the slope like a dense cloud.
“Heath!” The thundering din of the avalanche drowned out Nick’s cry.
The fast-moving layer of snow overtook Heath. He was swept off his feet and carried along by the unrelenting tide. Heath tried to stay on top of the flow and get to its edge by making swimming motions. As he felt the avalanche slow, Heath flailed with his arms and legs to create breathing space around him.
Nick followed Heath’s movement with his eyes. As much as he wanted to rush to his brother’s aid, Nick knew he could not enter the flow of snow while it was still moving to attempt a rescue. The wave of snow had a two- to three-foot crown at its deepest point in a thirty-foot wide section. It came to a stop on the far shoulder of the road, inches from a downhill plummet toward the river.
Heath had traveled the final few feet on his back. He felt fortunate that he had managed to keep his head above the snow. But Heath was buried up to his armpits and his legs felt locked into place. He began pushing at the snow around him in an attempt to free himself.
Nick waded to his brother’s side. Their eyes met for only a moment and neither man uttered a word. Both knew they were still in a very dangerous place. Nick began to dig as fast as he could. Heath pushed and struggled to free his body from the heavy blanket of snow and ice.
Nick pulled Heath to his feet as a low rumbling emanated from high on Rim Rock. Everything seemed to happen so fast and at the same time in slow motion. Nick and Heath were ripped apart by another slide as a secondary wave of snow from high above slammed them over the mountainside.
Annie had rode on just as Nick had ordered. Then the conviction to turn back had been too compelling to ignore. The handsome strangers had risked their lives to rescue them. The girls just couldn’t ride away and not help the brothers if they could.
Annie applied pressure to the Modoc’s mouth to slow the mare and then swung her around. Annie gasped as the avalanche, gaining mass and momentum every instant, hit the brothers from behind and she saw them no more. The girl urged the black mare back up the road toward Delco. Annie stopped the horse near where she’d last seen Heath and Nick.
“Look!” Magnolia cried, pointing down the mountainside. She had spotted the familiar brown and sage green coats in the sea of white. “They ain’t movin, Annie.”
Annie said nothing, a feeling of helplessness sweeping over her. “Is they dead?” Maggie’s voice was tight with fear.
The Modoc mare turned her head toward the abandoned town and pricked her ears. The soft beating of many hooves drifted up to them through the thin air. Four riders were coming hard down the street of Delco, their horses whipping up a glittering white spray.
Even at this distance, Annie recognized the man riding the gray and her blood froze. “It’s him!” Magnolia cried with a sob. The trance that had held Annie snapped. She neck-reined the Modoc to the left and raked the mare’s flanks with her heels.
The Modoc was accustomed to harsh mountain winters with snow up to her belly and there was still plenty of running in the mare. From the tip of her nose to the tip of her tail she stretched in a straight line as Annie lashed her neck in time to the whipping of her hooves. The beauty of the mare’s speed buoyed Annie’s spirits – she knew the pursuers would never catch them.
The four riders reached the base of Rim Rock Cliffs. Rock and red, wet clay lay bare on the treacherous inclination of the mountainside. The snow slide had plowed across the road and over the embankment, still widening its triangle until it reached the timberline.
“Catch those horses, Jude!” Malachi gestured to the well-trained liver chestnut horse pawing the snow-covered ground nervously, the lead line of the other three horses still tethered to his saddle horn. A roan stood off to her self, not far away.
Malachi’s pale eyes narrowed as he peered down the slope. “Reuben. Titus. Follow me.” The trio guided their horses with care down the snowy ridge to where the unconscious brothers lay half-buried in the snow.
Malachi smiled with satisfaction at the brothers’ fate. The meddlesome pair had dared to assault the Remnant and kidnap his brides. Divine retribution had been their reward. Yes, judgment is swift and judgment is sure.
“Kill them.” Malachi ordered Titus. Reuben’s expression registered dismay, but he remained passive, saying nothing.
Without hesitation, Titus pulled a revolver from his waistband. Malachi cut his eyes at the young man. “If you fire off a shot, Titus, more of that slab on the face of Rim Rock might give way. Throw them in the river.”
Titus replaced the revolver in his pants and dismounted. He grabbed Nick under his arms and with one powerful effort pulled his body from its snowy encasement. Titus started to drag the dark-haired cowboy toward the Mokelumne.
“Titus!” Malachi’s voice had taken on a hard edge. “How many times must I tell you? Take the Devil’s money to do the Lord’s work!”
Titus quickly rifled through Nick’s pockets. His searching hands located Nick’s wallet and he handed it up to Malachi. Titus lumbered back to the unconscious cowboy to finish his task.
Malachi began thumbing through the contents of the wallet. His eyes widened in surprise and recognition. “Wait!” he barked to Titus. “Take them both back to Remnant!”