Maddie sat the horse with back rigid and shoulders squared but her intestines burned with anxiety. Now and again she'd sneak a glance at the five Apache surrounding her—one riding lead, two flanking each side of her mount, and two bringing up the rear. Their gaunt, fierce faces showed little expression, even when speaking to one another in low, guttural tones. Born and raised in New Mexico, she'd learned a smattering of Apache, Comanche and Kiowa.
Events of this morning trickled through her brain in slow motion like a childhood nightmare—Bexar's lifeless eyes, and the bone-chilling fear in Carlos and Juan's when the Indians had surrounded them near the river. How many hours had passed since then? Dios, poor Poppy. What will he say when he hears his beloved daughter has been taken by heathens?
Around midday, one of her captors called out to the leader of the somber column, "Lupan!" The warrior pointed to a cloister of spruce to their right. "Maba!" The man had sighted a bear. Only once since the incident at the river that morning had her captors alluded to the reason behind her abduction. Their shoulders tense, their lips thin, they had whispered the Apache word for ghost…chidn. As the sure-footed ponies entered the foothills of the mountains, a rider at the rear of the small procession had scanned the terrain and then mouthed something more, chĭdn-túh-yo, their word for spirit land. Lupan's stern look had shushed them all into silence.
Summer had turned the brown leaves to verdant green. Under different circumstances, Maddie would have enjoyed the terrain they'd now entered. Here, piñon and ponderosa pine, alligator juniper and gambel oak, grew in abundance. Sprinkled throughout, mountain mahogany, spruce and Douglas fir had set down roots decades ago. On the steep ascent, mule deer scampered away, and once Maddie thought she saw a coyote dash for cover. The view did not ease her worry. She knew of the ongoing hatred between the Apache and the Mexicans, had seen firsthand the depredations both had committed against one another while growing up on the ranch.
She knew only one thing; they were willing to overlook her heritage because they wanted something from her. That something had to do with someone who had died yet still held the ability to terrify them. The natives held strong beliefs about the afterlife and apparently thought she was the answer to their problem. It didn't surprise her that the Apache knew she could speak to ghosts. Word traveled far and wide, crossed boundaries of culture and race, when it came to witches, sorcery and ghosts. But what kind of ghost haunted them, and why couldn't their shamans chase the spirit away?
While she couldn't change the precarious situation awaiting her when they arrived at their destination, she could control her reaction to it. Her father wouldn't cower under any circumstance and neither would she. As long as she remained useful to them, she would live. But could she do whatever it was they brought her here to do? She fingered the locket around her neck with her mother's image and drew a deep breath. Oh, Madre, journey with me; help me be strong like you.
Maddie's horse came to an abrupt halt, jolting her back to the present. The landscape had changed. A narrow passage ran between columns of rugged cliffs on both sides, rendering her claustrophobic.
The Apache leader turned to her with teeth bared and a scowl. He motioned the riders to dismount and again warned them into silence with a finger to his lips. The acrid smell of smoke spiraled up her nose, and the wind picked up speed, pitching the aspens into an eerie, frenzied dance. The village must be close; here the air smelled like death.
"La fantasma," her mother's soothing voice whispered in her ear, the Spanish word for ghost.
With invisible spiders crawling down her spine, Maddie drew a deep breath and followed the Indians into camp.
"Emmett will come for me," she whispered to her heart.