Zach focused on the tin can, purging the presence of two spectators from his mind. He closed his eyes, slowly inhaling until his lungs were full of the warm dry air. He held the breath captive for a moment before releasing it in a long exhale that drained the tension from his body. His hands were loose at his sides, as they might be if he was suddenly confronted. The 1847 Walker Colt was heavy in its tied-down holster on his left side. All cylinders were packed with powder and ball, ready to deliver destruction to the enemy.
Zach opened his eyes, nailing the target with a fixed gaze as he drew. The revolver came out of the holster and up, flashing as he pulled the trigger. The gun bucked in his hand, belching blue smoke. A deep boom echoed against the rocks as the tin can flew into the air like a startled quail. The loading lever jerked open with the concussion of exploding black powder, straining against the rawhide loop in each of three successive shots. Caught mid air, the can descended and fell in a frantic battle with gravity. As the last echo faded, it collapsed to the ground and rolled to a dead stop.
The stench of sulfur surrounded them with a smell akin to rotten eggs. Zach didn’t holster the gun immediately, allowing it to cool as Pa had taught him. Pa would have approved of his marksmanship, but not the fast draw. Having served in the Mexican-American war as a Texas Ranger, Pa said he had seen too much killing. He had given the old gun to Zach with the understanding that it would be used only to put food on the table or to defend a life. Pa believed the law should handle disputes. Maybe so, but the sheriff of Lava wasn't going to stand up to Cord and his men. The only thing that had stopped Cord so far was the fact that every rancher in the valley was willing to defend his land with a gun. Cord was smart enough to start with the one man who refused to use a gun. Pa wasn't afraid of Cord, though and maybe that made Cord cautious. It was hard to figure Pa. Their ranch was a worthless strip of dust. If he wanted to avoid a fight, why didn't he accept Cord's offer? Even Pa said it would be a profit for him. He could take that money and rebuild in one of those lush mountain valleys. Pa had no reason to fear the Apache the way most white folks did.
Jake's whistle jerked Zach into the present. His nasal voice was high with excitement.
“That was fast, but why didn't you empty the gun? You could have hit it six times.”
Pale blue eyes that looked small through the thick lenses of his spectacles questioned Zach. Jake's hair stood on end, the light blond color a stark contrast to his ruddy complexion.
Pete frowned at Jake. “You don’t use all your bullets target practicing. You always leave at least two in the cylinder – in case of an emergency.”
Pete was the youngest of the three men, but only by two years. Zach was the oldest at 19 and Jake was 18. Pete had been present during many of Zach’s target practicing sessions with Pa. Like Zach, Pete enjoyed Pa's stories about his Texas Ranger days.
Pete turned to Zach. “You’re fast enough, but there are a lot of Double C riders. You can’t get them all.
Zach frowned. I don’t want to kill them. I just want to scare them away from our ranch. They’ve been harassing Pa to sell – or else. Someone has to stand up to Cord. I figure if he knew I could use a gun, he'd leave Pa alone."
Pete shrugged. “But your father was here first, and he has a deed. What can Cord do if your father doesn’t want to sell?
“Dad says you’re a gunman,” Jake interrupted, his gaze fixed on Zach. “He says you're a melungeon.”
Zach looked away. He was half white man and half Apache. Why did the white man only see the Apache, and the Apache only see the white man? Jakes parents were raised in Kentucky, where someone of Indian descent who lived as a white man was called a melungeon. It was probably kinder than the breed, as some referred to him here in New Mexico Territory. Actually, Cord's men gave him the distinction of being a half-breed.
Pete scowled at Jake for a moment before directing his school teacher gaze at Zach.
“If you’d cut your hair, they wouldn’t be reminded of the Apache every time they look at you. At least get rid of the braids.”
Zach straightened his shoulders and lifted his chin, looking down at the two younger men.
“I’m not ashamed of my heritage.”
Every spring he cut his hair shoulder length, as was the Apache custom -- except for the two small braids that replaced sideburns. Those braids prevented the curly black mane from invading his face. Other than that, he dressed no different than his companions. It wasn’t the way he looked that reminded them. They didn’t need reminders. Their memories were all too good.
“Well,” Jake said with a sour look. “There isn’t any reason to be proud of your heritage, either.”
Zach holstered the cooled gun and turned away. “I have to get home. It’s near lunch time and Ma will be wondering where I am.”
Jake laughed. “Mama’s little boy.”
Zach clenched his jaw and kept walking. Only a few years ago he would have challenged him. Since then, he had learned not to respond to that kind of goading. To fight was to give the antagonist satisfaction. Jake was too frail to make it a fair fight anyway.
Pete strode beside him. “Don’t pay him any mind. He’s having papa problems.”
Zach glanced at Pete and they both grinned. A glance back at Jake found him walking the other way. Zach shook his head.
“I’ve got to reload this gun.”
They hurried to the big flat rock where Zach always reloaded after practice sessions. Zach lifted the Colt from its holster. At over four pounds, it was impractical for most men to use. It took a big hand to handle it the way Zach did.
Zach used a soft cloth patch to clean the inside of the barrel and cylinders. Then he packed each chamber with carefully measured powder and a conical ball, sealing it with a plug of lard so that chambers wouldn't fire accidentally out of sequence. After seating the percussion caps, he wiped the barrel down and returned it to the holster.
Pete watched with interest as Zach packed everything in the leather bag and strapped it across his shoulder.
Zach nodded at Pete. “I’ve got to get to the house. I’ll see you Friday?”
Pete shook his head. “I’m starting a job at the mercantile tomorrow.”
Zach offered a hand. “Congratulations.”
Pete pumped his hand and nodded mutely. Without a word he turned and walked toward the cabin where he lived with his grandmother.
Zach headed for home. He had applied for that job, but there was no point in telling Pete. Pete needed the job worse than he did. Still, Zach had been looking for a job for a long time. They’d give him all sorts of reasons, but the real reason was that they didn’t want to hire a breed.
Using the sleeve of his dusty shirt, Zach mopped sweat from his forehead. It was hot for the end of May. He cast an uneasy glance at the White Mountain Range to the west. A spring storm was brewing in the peaks. They’d be white sure enough come morning.
He dropped into the draw back of their cabin. Pa said there was enough work to do around here. He was right, but it seemed that the same work needed doing every day – chop wood, clean the barn, haul water… He didn't mind the work, but it would be nice to see progress.
His boots sank in the sand as he walked to the edge of a draw. A gray lizard ran ahead of him, wiggling into a hole. Zach resisted a childish urge to chase it. He jabbed a boot toe into the soft soil of the embankment and grabbed the jagged stump of a greasewood bush in preparation of lunging out of the draw.
He froze as five Double C riders rode silently toward the cabin. The expressions on their faces made his stomach twist into a knot. Pa had been in town all morning and Ma was alone at the cabin.
With one quick jerk on the stump, he vaulted out of the wash. The last horse was disappearing around the corner of the cabin as he scrambled to regain his balance. His long legs finally organized into a terrain gobbling race toward their home.
As he neared the back of the cabin, Pa’s stern voice came from the front.
“I told you boys in town that I don't want to sell. If you come out here and harass my family, I'll be forced take legal action against Cord. You let him know that."
“You’ll sell alright,” a voice snarled. “Or be buried here.”
“Now Keiser,” one of the men began to protest.
“John, if you ain’t got the stomach for this, then point yer hoss east and jist keep ridin’.”
“Cord said…” John began again, but Keiser cut him off.
“Cord said to get that deed.” Keiser snapped. “Morton, hand over that deed and then take yer redskin woman acrost the mountain to her kinfolk. Take that half-breed boy with you. He ain’t worth the lead to put him away.”
Pa's voice was like a calm frosty morning. “He’s worth more than all five of you cowards. Now, get off my land. I've got…”
“He's going for a gun!” another voice barked.
“Put that gun away, Morton. We ain’t here to kill you," John said. "Just get that deed and ... Keiser!”
The sharp crack of a rifle cut off his words. Zach skidded around the corner of the house in a spray of sand and dust. Pa clutched his chest and leaned slowly forward. He slid to the ground in a limp pile. Old Blue snorted and side-stepped.
“There’s the kid!” Five eager guns turned on Zach.
Instinct guided Zach's mind through the fog of shock. His hand jerked the revolver from the holster and he fired without aiming. The kick of the revolver jarred his body into action. He dove to the ground and rolled once, firing three more times into a hail of bullets before coming to rest on his chest. For a moment the yard was silent. One man hung by a boot in the stirrup as his horse danced nervously. Another slumped in his saddle. A third man lay motionless on the ground. One of the remaining men stared at Zach in disbelief. The other had a rifle to his shoulder, aiming at the house. In the time it took Zach to focus on the man with the rifle, the other man came out of his stupor. A bullet smacked the ground in front of Zach, tossing dust into his face. Zach rolled again and shot once. The boom of his revolver drowned the crack of a rifle. The man stiffened and fell backward off his horse, hitting the ground like a sack of grain. Zach twisted around to cover the last man and looked straight into the bore of a rifle.
Surrender wasn’t an option at this point. It was kill or be killed. Zach’s gun leaped in his hand one last time, belching a bullet that slammed the rider around in his saddle. The horse reared up in terror. The man’s rifle fell into the dust as the horse bolted. The injured man bounced wildly on the back of the horse as it raced away.
Zach staggered to his feet and stood in numb silence, gun dangling in his hand. The once peaceful yard was now deathly still. Old Blue nickered and sniffed at the still form of Pa. Zach shoved the empty gun back in the holster.
How or when he crossed the yard he wasn’t sure, but the next thing he knew he was kneeling beside his father. The face below him was as gray as the halo of hair that surrounded it. The lips would have been completely blue if not for the froth of bright red blood. Eyelids opened slowly and a pale blue gaze fixed on Zach. Pa's lips moved with a silent message.
“Why?” Zach asked. “This place isn't worth dying for.”
Pa's hand lifted, offering a bloody paper to Zack. A weak smile touched his lips. The hand dropped and his eyes glazed over.
Zach stared at his father, unable to comprehend the fact that he was actually gone. His gaze lifted to Ma for confirmation. She was sitting on the porch, slumped against the cabin wall. He scrambled to his feet and raced over to her. Kneeling beside her, he cradled her head on an arm. Her face rolled limply toward him. She would have no answers. A single bullet in her forehead had driven the life from those kind dark eyes. He ran a trembling hand over her face, cloaking the blank expression with her eyelids.
Stretching her body on the porch, he stood and surveyed the yard, shaking his head to clear the fog of disbelief. His stunned gaze was drawn to a distant dust cloud. The wounded man would go straight to Cord. It would take them a while to get the sheriff and gather a posse, but they'd be back.
He stumbled over to one of the attackers and stared down at the still white face of his first kill. His stomach heaved. As far as he knew, there was only one man among these riders who intended to harm his parents, and that man got away. Yet his fury focused on the ones who didn't. Right now he was seething with blood red rage.
“Was it worth your life – this dusty piece of desert?” he croaked through taught vocal cords. “What did you get out of it? Cord claims the whole valley, but what did he give you?”
He was appalled by a desire to kick the corpse or pump it full of lead. Yet a mystifying surge of pity lurked at the edge of his rage. Was this John, the one who tried to stop the shooting?
“Well, you’ve got a piece of the ranch now.”
He walked back to Pa. Kneeling beside him; he took the paper from Pa's hand. Pa didn't have a gun. Zach unfolded the paper and read the smudged words. It was a telegram from the New Mexico Territory Legislature stating that the deed had been recorded. He died trying to peacefully prove that the land was legally his.
Zach carried his parents reverently to the cabin and laid them side by side on the quilt she had made – on the bed he had built for her. He stood looking down at them in their eternal sleep. Finally he bowed his head.
“Lord, I don’t know if you figure I’m any better than those who did this, but I hope you don’t take my sins out on these two.” He paused and lifted his head to look at them. “And I hope you forgive me for what I’m about to do.”
Yesterday he would have said it wasn’t in him to run, but yesterday he was a boy of nineteen. Today he became another person – not a man. Today he would leave the burying of his parents to strangers and run from the law. It wouldn’t matter that what Zach did was in defense of himself and his parents. Cord owned the sheriff and Zach was trapped in the wrong color of skin. They'd be coming after him. They'd give him a trial and then they'd hang him.
He exited the room with shoulders drooping, his heels dragging a funeral dirge across the rough plank floor. His word would be worthless to the judge. Cord owned everyone. No one dared stand up to him. Zach stopped abruptly at the door as a thought occurred to him. Cord wasn’t going to let the only witness get away – not unless he had the deed to the ranch so he could forge Pa's name. With that deed in his hands, he could say Pa refused to leave his property; that his men were the attacked, not the other way around. Four seasoned men lost their lives fighting a woman, an old man and what his own men referred to as a kid. Cord might make ambush a logical explanation, but if he didn’t have the deed to wave in his defense...
The search lasted longer than he anticipated, but he finally found the deed in Pa's family bible. Much good either had done his parents. He placed the bible in his father’s hands and left the room. It wouldn’t take any courage to accomplish his next plan of action. He paused long enough to reload his revolver and then grabbed a flour sack. He shoved a couple cans of beans into it along with some fresh cornbread. It wouldn’t last long, but it would get him across the mountains if he used it sparingly. Too much of a load and Old Blue would never make it. He made another trip to the bedroom and retrieved Pa’s pearl-handled Sheffield pocketknife. Pa didn't need it now and he wanted to carry a part a Pa with him.
In the yard he ignored the other grazing horses and went straight to Old Blue. He'd have a murder charge against him now but there was a slim chance he could defend himself against that charge. Horse theft was another story. He led Old Blue back over to where the injured man had dropped his gun. Leaning down, he picked up the rifle that had killed his mother. A meek voice inside advised that he should keep it, but it was the angry voice that held his attention. He bashed the gun against the ground until the stock splintered. He tossed it aside. The fit of rage had changed nothing, but he felt better. He grabbed a canteen and saddlebag from the back of one of the horses standing in the yard. Mounting Old Blue, he turned toward the mountains. A slicker on the back of one of the horses caught his attention. He could use that. He dismounted and untied it.
The rumble of hooves jerked his attention to the horizon - a posse already? He swung into the saddle and jabbed his heels into the horse. Old Blue leaped into a gallop, racing for the mountains.
The riders spied him and split up. Some headed for the cabin and the rest followed him. They would be looking for the deed, no doubt. Let them look – long and hard. Old Blue was leaving the others far behind, but he couldn’t keep up that pace long. Zach pulled back on the reins.
“Save yourself for the hard part, old boy.”
But Old Blue wasn’t listening. He always did have a mind of his own. Zach let him run until they reached the foothills. Foam was flying around them by the time he got the horse to slow down. Over a hill and into a ravine they rode. It was time to slow down and stop leaving a trail that could be followed on a moonless night. The sun was directly overhead but the air was turning cooler. He stopped long enough to remove the saddle and wipe Old Blue down. When the breath stopped rattling in the lungs of the horse, Zach walked him for a while. On the next hill he stopped and looked back. The riders were no longer in sight. What was in sight brought tears to his eyes. A cloud of smoke billowed into the air over a flaming ranch. Those flames were red – blood red. The posse had burned all the evidence except what he carried. By now they must know he had the deed.
He mounted and turned Old Blue toward the looming mountains. Their gray peaks were already lost in dark descending clouds. A snowflake landed on his gray woolen shirt. Clouds shrouded the sun, but the snowflake twinkled, as if winking an invitation. If the posse chased him into that storm, they might think the mountains would kill him. They couldn’t know how many times he had roamed them, hunting with Pa. Not that it would matter. Cord needed that deed. He’d keep following – as long as Zach lived.