Bruised clouds clung to the buttes overlooking 5Horses. Deacon walked onto the porch, set his coffee on the railing and stretched his arms over his head. He loved New Mexico, the bountiful sunshine and gusting winds, even the scarce rainfall. Not in July and August, he reminded himself, when New Mexico's rain for the entire year plunged to the earth amid severe thunderstorms. 'Embrace New Mexico as she is, son,' his father always said. 'Ain't no way a man can love only part of her and survive.' Deacon chuckled. One couldn't truly love scorching heat, whirling dust storms or the brutal desolation of the terrain, but a man could harbor reverence and respect for the wild, unpredictable weather. He and his brothers had learned over the years to hold that thought close.
His parents, Garrett and Audra, built the ranch in fifty-six and soon after, their five boys and two girls arrived every two years like clockwork. Gideon came first in eighteen fifty-seven and then Deacon, followed by Lawson, Tess, Rowan, Callie and the youngest, Sefton.
The Bannisters had thrived in the hot, arid climate and so did 5Horses. A shrewd businessman, his father came to the land with only five steeds—three stallions and two mares. From there, Garrett had hand-picked the rest of his stock, almost always mares, from the wild herds roaming the plains. After breeding them with his stallions, he broke the horses and sold them to local settlers. Once or twice a year his father would organize a trail drive. Sometimes the excursions extended into Louisiana where eager cotton and sugar growers on the bayou would pay top dollar for a herd. Another smile came to Deacon when he thought of his father's shrewdness. The man often bought subdued studs or brood mares for five dollars from the Mexicans and sold them the following week for twenty dollars a head. Damn if that wasn't how 5Horses turned into a five-hundred horse ranch.
Gideon and Deacon followed their father's path. Rowan and Lawson were expected to do the same when they came of age, but that was before the Indians attacked 5Horses seven years ago. Deacon had wondered a thousand times if the outcome would have been different if he and Gideon hadn't been on a drive, or if Rowan and Lawson hadn't been working in the south pasture that morning. By the time his brothers noticed bands of smoke snaking toward the clouds, his parents were dead and Tess and Callie had been taken captive. They found Sefton hiding in the corn crib, quaking like an aspen. Deacon couldn't allow the past to rest, not until his sisters were found... dead or alive. He owed that to his parents. Hell, he owed that to his sisters. It didn't matter how many days the sun climbed above the buttes or how many times the moon stood guard over the earth, he would search for Tess and Callie until he drew his last breath.
In the distance, the family plot crested a small hill. A trio of Mountain Ash anchored the black iron gate, a stark contrast against the cold, white tombstones. Blue indigo and prairie clover speckled the ground, a tribute to his mother. She'd be pleased to see the riotous blooms growing wild and free next to her eternal resting place. If Tess and Callie were lost to them forever, they ought to have their own markers, a reminder they were here once and loved dearly by their brothers.
Deacon turned when porch boards creaked behind him. Gideon could move with the silent stealth of a cat if need be. "A whistle for your thoughts, brother."
"You don't want to know my thoughts this morning. Besides, I'll never learn to whistle like you."
"Watch my lips, brother. You put them together like this and blow."
"Watch my fingers, Gideon. You cover three with your thumb and raise the middle."
"You're brooding again about the girls, aren't you?"
Deacon tossed the remainder of his coffee over the railing. "The first thing on my mind when I get up; the last thing on my mind when I go to sleep. They're out there, Gideon, I feel it in every bone in my body."
"The Indians might have killed them on the trail. If one couldn't keep up—"
"They wouldn't have faltered, not Tess or Callie. Ma and Pa expected the same from them as they did from us on the ranch. The girls were strong and feisty."
Gideon blew a sigh. "Seven years is a long time. You'd think someone would have seen them in a village or read about the ransom and brought them home by now."
"I can't allow myself to go there. I pray every day Rowan or Lawson will hear something while riding with the Rangers."
"Doesn't it bother you some we more or less forced them to enlist?"
"Hell, yes. You think I don't know lives have been put on hold, lifelong dreams shattered? But ain't nothing more important in this world than finding out what happened to Tess and Callie." Deacon blew a disgusted breath of air. "If anyone knows what the Comanche and Apache are up to it's the Rangers."
"We need the boys at 5Horses, Deacon. We're stretched thinner than a banjo string as it is."
Deacon smirked. "They'd smash your jaw in if they heard you call 'em boys."
"Suppose they would." Gideon drew a long sip from his coffee mug and followed it up with a snicker. "How's the leg faring?"
"Hurts like hell when the weather changes." He pivoted to face him. "Not as much as my heart when I think of Mary."
"Wasn't your fault. How many times do I have to say it?"
"If only I hadn't surprised her, if only—"
"Stop. The what-ifs won't bring her back." Gideon clucked his cheek. "Won't bring Tess and Callie back either." He placed a hand on Deacon's shoulder. "In town the other day, the Sheriff told me the Whitcombs are beholding to us for bringing their girl home. They told him you saved her; she's no longer suffering."
Anger burned in Deacon's chest. "And that's why I'll never stop looking for them. Ah, hell, I wish I was more like you brother, able to move on no matter what this unforgiving life tosses at your head."
"You think I've moved on? Hell no. I just won't allow what happened to eat me alive."
Vapor, the offspring of a doe-eyed collie named Cheena, released a throaty growl from a corner of the porch. The mutt came to his feet, the hair on his scruff sprouting like porcupine quills.
"What's got your dog riled?"
"Gotta be Indian or an unknown Mex nearby. He can smell 'em a mile off."
"I see him now." Gideon cocked his rifle and held it across his chest. "Mex, unless the local natives have taken to wearing white shirts and trousers."
Deacon dropped his voice to one notch above a whisper. "Heel, Vapor."
Gideon relaxed his stance and cupped a hand over his brow. "Riding hard and fast, ain't he?"
"Faster than a fart in a windstorm. Wonder what's so damn urgent."
Closing the distance to the house, the man waved his sombrero in the air. "Señor Bannister, señor!"
Deacon walked from the porch and grabbed the reins of the frothy-mouthed mare when the man reined in. "Whoa! You set on killing that horse in this heat?"
"My apology, sir." Panting in time with his mount, the man handed Deacon a folded piece of paper. "I ride all night with urgent message from señor Arrende."
His heartbeat picked up speed. News from El Vaquero, the Arrende hacienda thirty miles away, couldn't be good news. Especially when the man rode through the night. Madrid's face flashed behind his eyes—sleek, black hair, dark eyes and features to make the gods weep.
"You are señor Deacon Bannister?"
Gideon and Vapor had joined them in the yard.
"Good. Señor Don Erasmos say I must place this in the hands of only Deacon Bannister."
A sickening dread washed over him when he reached for the letter. His gut told him the missive concerned Don Erasmos' only child—his very beautiful only child—the woman Deacon walked away from a year ago. Remorse and guilt warred in his mind whenever he thought of Madrid.
How many nights had he fallen asleep with her name on his lips? He'd been a fool to call off their marriage; had regretted his decision every day. But Maddie deserved better than to live her life with a man who spent weeks and months chasing ghosts. And his heart couldn't wrap around the thought that Tess and Callie were living like slaves in some heathen village while he danced at his own wedding. He couldn't expect Maddie to spend her days waiting for his return, or worse wonder if this time he would. Commitment to Maddie meant commitment to her father too. One day the ranch and its thousands of acres would fall to her and her husband. She was worthy of having a full-time man who'd stand by her side through good times and bad.
And then there was Sefton the pride and joy of the Bannisters. Deacon couldn't dump that sole responsibility on Gideon. Their parents wanted one of their children to receive a proper education, have the opportunity to become a lawyer, a doctor, anything but a horse wrangler. Despite his indignant objections, Sefton would be the sacrificial lamb and their last chance to honor their parents' wishes.
Deacon's hand trembled, so slight no one would have noticed... except eagle-sighted Gideon.
"Damn, Deacon, you gonna open the note or make love to it?"
"I'm getting to it."
"Course if your hand is shaking too bad, I'll open it."
"Back off, Gideon." He unfolded the note and scanned the page. The message was brief and to the point, penned in Don Erasmos' familiar script.
Madrid kidnapped by Apache. Come at once.
Don Erasmos Arrende
The clouds spun above. His belly muscles convulsed. Worse, a vignette of scenes played out in his head. The pine boxes carrying his mother and father, a silver thimble from Callie's collection lying in the sand, and the bonnet Tess wore while working in the garden.
Deacon passed the paper to Gideon. His brother read the note, looked skyward and cursed. "Jesus."