Horses' hooves and wagon wheels churned up the parched desert until all she could see of the three figures were tiny dark silhouettes against the deep blue of the cloudless sky. She watched until even the dusty puffs they made as they rode blended into the stark sandy landscape, then disappeared completely.
Molly didn't move from the doorway of her adobe house until Inez spoke.
"Come inside now, señora," said the Mexican girl. "You've been there watching since sun-up. No more to see now, so come in and sit."
Molly moved slowly into the small room. She glanced at the beds, the one she shared with Sabino and the other one where their sons slept. They were 16 and 18 and had gone with their father to La Mesilla to testify at the trial of an American accused of shooting a man in cold blood. Tubac was soon far behind them.
Ever since Molly could remember, Tubac had been a lonely place, a little town deep in New Mexico Territory, not far from the border town of Nogales. Dominated by the crumbling presidio, it was kept alive by the presence of a few families like Molly's own, raising corn and squash and gathering peaches and pecans from trees they faithfully tended.
However, Molly's family was different. The others in the village were Mexican. She was the only American woman in town.
Until recently, that hadn't been true. Mrs. Robinson had that distinction. Molly hadn't counted as American when the beautiful lady from the East took her into her home and cared for her. She had been a wild thing, living with Utes and hardly able to speak English anymore. The Indians had fancied her golden curls and blue eyes and spared her when they attacked her family and slaughtered them all, leaving the small wagon train in bloody ruins. They took the little girl with them as their prisoner, treating her kindly but never fully accepting her into the tribe.
An Anglo raid on the Ute camp had resulted in her second capture, this time by Americans. They brought her to Tubac and into the household of the Robinsons, whose mistress took the teen-aged Molly to her heart. She taught the girl to read and write, to cook and to sew, and to speak proper English.
"Do you want coffee, señora?" Inez asked her. She spoke a little English. But living in Tubac, everyone learned Spanish. Molly answered her in that language.
"Por favor, Inez," she said. The girl brought the steaming mug to the table and set it before Molly. She sat beside her.
"I know how you worry, señora," said Inez. "I know why."
Molly looked at the girl and beyond her, at the rifle over the fireplace, mounted on iron bars driven into the adobe wall. It was a revolving rifle, it was new, and she knew how to use it.
She got up from the table and walked over to the rifle, taking it carefully from its place of readiness. She held it at her side and went to the door, looking out at the blazing noonday sky and the shimmering desert beyond.
"Just in case, Inez," she said.
Their day was quiet. In the scorching heat there was not much one could do except make sure there was enough water in the house. Later, when the desert heat fled and cool breezes brought them the gentle relief of evening, they would carry jugs of water to the garden and make sure their precious crops survived.
The day passed uneventfully. Molly picked up a skirt she was mending and Inez peeled vegetables for their evening meal. They rested briefly at midday, then had tomatoes and tortillas which they washed down with beer, warm and malty, brought home by Sabino on his last ride down to Sonora.
Molly missed Sabino. She had married him when she was 16, shortly before the Robinsons moved away to Tucson. He was a strong, caring man from a fine old Mexican family. Sabino was much older—a man of 40 when they wed and a widower with nearly grown children. Now they had homes of their own in the village and had prospered well—at least, for Tubac. Their lands along the Santa Cruz River proved fruitful, and they endured.
But like all Tubaquenos, they feared the Apache hordes, the nomadic tribes that swept down from the mountains and raided villages, taking horses and cattle and killing anyone who stood in their way. Their attacks were sudden, swift, and violent and were an ever present danger to the villagers.
Molly moved a chair to the doorway and sat there for a while, resting the rifle across her knees. The sun set behind the Tumacacoris, silhouetting the evening clouds in gold before slipping out of sight and bringing night abruptly to the cooling desert.
Inez brought a lantern and set it beside her on the ground. The girl crouched there, resting her head on her knees. Molly began to hum a song and Inez glanced up, smiling. She started humming herself, harmonizing with Molly. Their voices were gentle and sweet. Overhead, stars spangled the black sky like a carpet of poppies in the springtime desert, dense and brilliant.
The song ended, and they both smiled in the serene darkness. The lantern spread a path of light from the doorway out into the yard, illuminating the corral fence beyond. The shed and stable were black silhouettes, indistinguishable from the shadows surrounding the house and outbuildings.
The whinny of one of the two horses Sabino had left behind pricked Molly's hearing into sharp alertness. Then she felt Inez's pull on her skirt and looked where the girl was looking, to the right of the corral fence. She heard the horse whinny again and heard its hooves on the hard ground. Suddenly she saw a shadow, moving swiftly as another shadow mounted the horse and rode off. Someone opened the corral gate and led the other horse through.
Molly stood and fired the rifle into the air. She felt something fly close to her head and turned just long enough to see an arrow sticking in the adobe doorway.
"Quick, Inez!" she said. "Into the house."
Inez rose and turned to follow Molly into the house. Suddenly she screamed and fell in the doorway. Molly grabbed the girl by her right arm and dragged her into the house, slamming the door just as another arrow whirred towards them and embedded itself in the wood.
Molly saw an arrow protruding from Inez's left arm. She gently worked it free and laid Inez on her straw mat. She stripped off the girl's shirt and washed the wound with cool water. She had a tincture that would be good for a dressing and started for the shelf where she kept medicinals, when she heard the lambs bleating and realized the Apaches were not gone.
Molly went to the biggest chink between the adobe bricks of the house, where they'd all watched out for Indians on more than one occasion. She saw two shadows herding their small flock across the yard. She poked her rifle through the chink, took aim and fired. One of the Apaches slumped forward on his horse.
"I got him, Inez!" Molly shouted. She ran to another aperture between bricks and fired again, this time at nothing. But the Apaches wouldn't know that.
"Hurrah!" she shouted again. "Another good shot!"
She ran to another crack and hammered at it with her rifle butt, making it bigger. "We'll shoot the loin skins off of them, won't we, boys?" She pulled the trigger and fired.
"I tell you, Sabino, we're going to get rid of those rotten thieves," Molly yelled, racing to her first vantage point and shooting at the distant, retreating figures of the Apaches, taking care not to hit the abandoned sheep.
She wanted to be sure her charade had worked. She crept to the adobe's only window, on the west side of the small building, and flattened herself against the wall. She could see obliquely across the side of the pen where the lambs were kept. A figure hunched stealthily toward the loose animals, and Molly saw a horse standing untethered a few yards away. She lifted the rifle to her shoulder, took aim, and fired. Her bullet struck the slinking Apache, and he fell to the ground in silence.
Molly waited, scarcely breathing. Then, uncertainly, she propped the rifle near the window and returned to her care of the wounded Inez.
The girl was crying quietly but there appeared to be little bleeding from the gash in her small, plump arm. Molly made a poltice and tied it over the wound with strips from an old petticoat.
She walked to the door, hesitated a moment, then said, "I'm going after our sheep, Inez."
She grasped the rifle and slowly pushed open the door, staying close to the wall as it swung towards the deep, clear night. She crouched low as she edged toward the paddock, moving with the stealth she'd learned from the Utes as she grew up among them. She paused to listen for any telling sounds, searching the night with the sense of a desert creature. Coyotes howled their eerie chorus in the far-off foothills but these were not the sounds she was listening for. There were insect chirps and the rustle of the cottonwoods down near the river, but no sound of soft moccasins in the dry dirt, or of whispered commands or warnings. It was still enough for her to move out.
Molly moved, still crouching. She could see the sheep silhouetted against the nearly full moon, standing quietly just beyond the paddock. A couple had remained within its confines, even though the gate was open. She circled the fence, reached the sheep and rounded up all of them with gentle prods and herded them back into the paddock. She had to stand upright to lock the gate behind them, and that was when she saw the Apache sprawled on the ground less than 20 feet away.
Molly stood still, watching for any movement, listening for any sound. The figure on the ground remained motionless, and the cottonwoods whispered in the soft riverside breeze.
She hoisted the rifle and felt its butt pressing against her hip, the cool metal of the barrel resting on her arm.
Again she crouched and scanned the night, then scuttled across the short distance to the Apache. She stopped within two feet of him, when she saw his chest moving with his breath and knew that he was alive.
Molly inched her way to the Indian. His bow lay beside him, a bent arrow a few feet away. His buckskin shirt was spattered with blood. He was lying on his back, face up, and his breathing was jagged and labored. She drew close enough to see his skinning knife sheathed at his hip. She slowly reached for it and began to slip it from the sheath when he moaned softly and his head rolled toward her.
She looked straight into his black eyes, and her heart pounded. She held herself motionless, silent as the cold moon shining down on them. Her hand was still on the half-sheathed knife.
The Apache held her gaze. His parched lips mouthed something she did not understand but she guessed his request.
"Quiere agua?" she asked. No response. "Water?" she tried again. Still he stared at her soundlessly.
She slipped the knife from the sheath and hid it beneath her skirt. She rose and stood over him. She had offered him relief from his thirst but now she thought, why should she help him? He had attacked her home, Inez lay seriously hurt, her horses had been stolen. Why not let him die of thirst and his bloody wound?
She looked down at the Apache. He was young, probably no older than her son Jaime. If she helped him, he might return the favor and persuade his tribe to bring back her horses.
"I'll get water," she said. She backed toward the barrel, keeping her eyes fixed on the Apache and pressing the rifle close to her side. She could feel the cold metal of the knife through her petticoat, where she had hastily knotted it into the hem of her chemise.
Molly grabbed the dipper and slid the lid from the barrel without taking her eyes off the Apache. He remained motionless but he was watching her. She returned to him, shakily holding out the dipper. But he did not move to take it from her.
She hesitated to touch him. But then she knelt and set the rifle on the ground so she could lift his head. He drank the water.
Molly placed his head on the ground. She saw blood oozing through the buckskin covering his left shoulder, and she moved around his body for a better look. His gaze followed her. He said something but she couldn't tell if it was a request or a warning. She stared down at his young face, debating whether to help him further or leave him there to die.
He moaned and turned his face away. Molly gingerly touched the shirt and realized the buckskin would have to be cut away from the wound.
Slowly, she slid the Apache's skinning knife from beneath her skirt. It gave off a glint of moonlight as she inched it towards his shoulder. She paused a moment, looked down at his impassive face, then began to cut away the blood-soaked buckskin.
The Indian flinched as she gently pulled the cloth from his wound. Then he closed his eyes and his face seemed to turn to stone, and the hatred she had felt during the raid rose up in her.
Molly looked at the exposed flesh and knew the bullet must have pierced through the shoulder into the back. She looked at the still face of the young Apache, and again thought of her son. She made her choice.
"I have to turn you," she said in English. She repeated the phrase in Spanish and in the language of the Utes, but the Indian did not respond.
So she gently rolled him onto his side, and when he did not react, she pushed him further so he was nearly face down on the hard ground.
Molly saw what she'd been looking for. A spent bullet lay beneath the Apache's broad back, having passed through the muscle and tissue of his shoulder without striking bone or moving on a deadly trajectory toward some vital organ. She knew she could help him.
She left him lying there and walked quickly to the house. A glance at Inez told her the girl was sleeping. She grabbed her medicine kit and a clean cloth and returned to the still form of the Apache. At the water barrel, she soaked the cloth and returned to wash away blood from his wound. He flinched but remained silent.
Molly applied ointment to the wound and bandaged it with cloth. She went back to the house and returned with a burlap bag and an old Mexican blanket. She rolled up the burlap and placed it under the Indian's head, then covered him with the blanket. She filled the dipper and left it on the ground within his reach. She backed toward the house, scanning the moonlit yard and the trail beyond, and listening for unwelcome sounds. All seemed well. She glanced over at the Indian's drowsy horse and decided to loosely tether it for the night. She entered the house and closed and locked the door.
The slow, quiet breathing of the Mexican girl on the floor was reassuring. Molly slipped off her dress, stained with the Apache's blood, and pulled her nightgown over her head. She lay listening to the sounds of the night for a while and thought of Sabino and her sons, camping somewhere in the desert—safely, she prayed. She slept uneasily, willing daybreak to end the unpleasant dreams that seemed like harbingers of more violence and pain.
When dawn crept rosily around the door frame, she got up and went to Inez's pallet. The girl asked for water. Molly pulled her shawl over her shoulders and slowly opened the door. She'd have to get the dipper back from the Apache.
Molly started toward the spot where she'd left him but stopped short. The dipper lay on the ground, and the blanket and burlap were there in a heap. But the Indian was gone.
She looked down the trail, shading her eyes from the sun blazing on the horizon. There was no one in sight.
A light breeze crept past her and fear rippled along her skin. She moved slowly along the parched earth, looking for footprints. Or hoof prints. There were none.
The Indian was young and strong. But he was terribly wounded and had lost much blood. How had he left without a trace?
Or had she lost her tracking skills?
Molly pondered this as she picked up the dipper and brought water into the house. The girl drank it in big thirsty gulps. Molly slipped Inez's nightgown over her head and gently peeled the bandage off her arm.
"Your wound is healing, Inez," she said. She applied another poultice and bound the gash in fresh cloth.
Inez struggled to her feet but grimaced with pain when she dressed herself. She went out to the paddock and began filling troughs with feed for the livestock while Molly brewed strong coffee and sliced bread for their breakfast.
"Inez, you're not strong enough to be out here," Molly called from the door. "Come in the house."
Inez staggered round the side of the lean-to and Molly ran to her.
"Your chores are way too much for you," she said, supporting the girl's small form. "You better go lie down again."
She wearily picked up the feed bucket from where Inez had dropped it. There was a job to be finished, and the animals eyed her in anticipation.
While the sheep and the old horse munched and the chickens pecked, Molly put away the bags of dried corn and oats, hung up the feed bucket and started across the dusty yard for the house. She stopped when she heard hoof beats. They came from more than one horse, and judging from the clouds of dust she could make out down the trail, there could be as many as three.
She shaded her eyes against the fierce sun and moved back toward the house, squinting toward the trail. A mounted figure came into view, leading two riderless horses.
"Jaime!" she cried, rushing toward her son. "Where's Juan and Pa?"
She held out her arms to him as he dismounted. She guessed the answer before he said, brokenly, "They're dead, Ma. Damned Apaches killed 'em as we were setting up camp. I hid and lucked out."
They held each other and let their grief out in choking sobs.
"Sabino, my husband," Molly cried into Jaime's shoulder, "and my little son . . . " Both had been murdered in the dry, barren land far beyond home.
Slowly, they made their way to the house. Jaime sank onto his cot and buried his face in his pillow.
"We'll have to go back for them, son," Molly said gently. "We can't leave them out there."
"No, Ma!" he said vehemently, sitting up and grabbing her arm. "You can't go out there!"
He covered his face with his hands.
"But they're our flesh and blood!" she said. "I want to pray over them and bury them. We can't just leave them there."
"I couldn't let you see what they've done to them," Jaime said. "Anyway, there's cougars about."
She knew what he meant and felt sick at the thought.
Molly looked at her son. "Jaime," she asked, "how did you get away with all three horses? That seems almost a miracle."
He stood with his back to her.
"I went to water the horses at a little stream not far from where Pa and Juan were setting up camp," Jaime said. "Suddenly I heard horses coming so I hopped on Old Pedro and dragged the other two to a little rocky cove nearby, where I hid out. I couldn't see anything, but I heard it . . . "
He stopped speaking and choked back tears.
"A bunch of Apaches attacked Pa and brother. I waited . . . and after all was quiet again, I rode back a ways . . . "
Jaime couldn't say anything else. Molly wept quietly, and then her son said, "They butchered them, Ma. I couldn't get too close because I could see what they done to them. I didn't want to see."
Jaime looked up and dried his tears.
"I rode away from there as fast as I could," he said, "and the other two horses tore right along. Guess we must have rode nearly all night."
Molly wiped tears from her eyes and started wearily toward the door.
"We better water them horses now before they die of thirst," she said. Jaime followed her and untethered the animals to lead them to the corral. Near the gate, he stopped, staring at the ground.
"What are you looking at, son?" Molly called.
"Looks like a moccasin print," Jaime said. "Had some visitors?"
So the young Apache had circumvented the corral during his pre-dawn getaway.
"I see our black mare is missing," Jaime said.
"Yes, we got raided," Molly said. "That's how Inez got an arrow in her arm."
She didn't tell him about the help she'd given the young Apache. She knew his anger and grief would make her act of compassion seem unconscionable.
Molly wrapped an arm around her tall son and walked slowly with him back to the house.
"You better try to get some sleep," she said.
"I can't sleep, Ma," Jaime said. She knew sleep wouldn't come easily for either of them.
Jaime slumped onto his cot and sat with his head in his hands. He was silent for a long while. Then he looked at Molly. She was searching through a bureau drawer. She stopped suddenly, holding something small in her shaking hand. He recognized the worn brown leather case, for she had shown it proudly to her boys many times in the past. Within the case was a Daguerrotype of his parents on their wedding day.
Molly's tears blurred the image, and she wiped her wet cheeks on her sleeve as she held the small portrait out to her son, who took it from his mother's hand. He stared at the picture, his jaw clenched.
"Ma, I'm getting even with those bastards," he said, rising from the cot. He fastened his gun belt and checked his bullet supply.
"Jaime, you can't go looking for trouble," Molly said. "I don't want to lose you too!" She sank to the floor at his feet, her sobs wracking her slender body.
"Ma, they can't get away with this," the boy said. "I'd go back for Pa and Brother if it would do any good, but by now . . . " He bit his lip. The horror of what he'd been about to say was all too plain to Molly. She remembered an Apache attack years earlier that had left an entire family mutilated almost beyond recognition.
Inez stirred and asked for water. Molly got wearily to her feet and went to help the girl. She had just awakened and stared wide-eyed at Jaime.
"Where is señor? Where is Juan?" she asked.
"Dead," Jaime said. "Killed by the same redskins that put an arrow in your arm, Inez."
The girl burst into tears. She threw her undamaged arm around Molly's neck and clung to her.
Molly held Inez, rocking her gently as they both cried out their grief, compounded for Molly by the anguish of knowing there would be no burial for her son and husband.
They stayed in the house until midday, when the sun blazed down and the air was still in the dry desert heat. Their weeping ceased, and they sat in silence, drained of feeling.
Jaime opened the door and walked to the barrel for a dipper-full of water. He brought the dipper to the house for his mother and Inez, then returned it to the nail next to the barrel. He paused there, thinking he heard some distant sound. He listened closely but decided it was only the horses in the corral, shifting as the noonday flies buzzed over their flanks.
He turned toward the house. Then, unmistakably, he heard the far-off sound of hoofbeats.
He pushed open the door.
"Ma! Someone's coming!" Jaime grabbed the rifle from its place on the adobe wall and thrust it into Molly's arms. He checked his own gun barrel and adjusted his holster.
"You better stay inside till we find out what's going on," he said. He ducked out of the door and slid against the wall to a corner of the house.
Molly held the rifle against her side and opened the door a crack to peer out. She saw clouds of dust in the distance and heard the hoofbeats of more than one horse approaching.
"Get down, Inez," she told the girl, who was struggling to her feet. "You're better off lying down." Inez sank back down on her pallet.
The hoofbeats were loud enough now for her to make out the number of horses racing towards them. There were two. Her heart thundered in anticipation of another attack, this time in broad daylight.
Then she saw a rider down the trail. He was alone, leading another horse. He came close enough for her to see that he was bare chested, with a white bandage wrapped around his left shoulder.
Molly lowered the rifle and pushed open the door. She recognized the black mare the Apaches had taken the night before. She started forward as the young Indian rode into the yard.
When the shot rang out from the far side of the house, she stopped. The young Apache fell sideways from his horse. Jaime approached him, warily.
Molly and her son reached his body at the same time. Molly looked down at the dark handsome face that had been so close to hers in the moonlight. She looked at the blood seeping through the bandage she had wrapped around his shoulder. And she saw the bullet wound in the center of his chest and realized he was dead.
"This won't bring back Pa and Brother, but I feel good I got one of them bastards," said Jaime.
Molly said nothing. She sat beside the dead Apache and stared across the endless desert. The Indian boy had more than repaid her kindness to him. She felt no sense of retribution for the deaths of Sabino and Juan. Only sadness at the brief bond that had been between them, now broken by her own son's reckless grief.
She rose to her feet and turned to face Jaime.
"Guess you better help me bury him, son," she said.