October 20, 1997
Disclaimers and Warnings: Once again, I'm borrowing the characters from Xena: Warrior Princess in order to entertain all of you and satisfy my Muse. No infringement is intended. This is an Uber story set during the turmoil of the Mexican War. Some parts are completely fictional is history, yet others are as close as I could make them. History buffs should be able to make head or tails of this little story. (I learned more than I really wanted concerning the Mexican War. Did I really need to learn than more soldiers died of disease than warfare during this time?)
This story will be a little unique. An article written by Sherrie Johnson for Whoosh! impressed me greatly, and I thought I'd try a whole new style of writing--one based on Sherrie's essay on Romantic Friendships. The female characters will have a very affectionate and loving relationship--but it will not be based on sexual attraction. The story will have many similarities to the available alternative fiction for Xena, but will never contain anything of a sexual nature or any implied subtext. What you see in the story is what you get.
This version of The Cause will not be that much different from the original, but begin leading up to the changes for the next story of the series.
It also contains mild violence.
Author's note: all conversations held in Spanish are placed within < > instead of quote marks.
Dueña watched stone-faced as her papa's coffin was lowered into the ground while the padre made the sign of the cross and murmured a prayer over the casket of the slain man. Her mother sat next to her, weeping silently into her embroidered handkerchief that she used to dab at her face beneath her black veil.
Friends and relatives stood around them in support. One friend of her father's placed a comforting hand on Dueña's shoulder, but he withdrew it quickly when she stiffened at the contact. The young woman didn't want comfort, she didn't want sympathy.
The tall daughter of Alano was not ready to feel sorrow yet. The hatred for the Yanquis was too strong. It would not allow anything but the burning fury inside her to exist. It ate at her soul, consuming all that she was. Her father, Alano, had been taking a walk just outside their city, just enjoying the pleasant weather. The norteamericano soldiers had killed her father in sport.
They had taken control of Motamoros a month earlier, filling the town from one end to the other. In their boredom, they harassed the civilians that were living there in spite of the orders of their commander, General Taylor. No one really knew what happened. All she knew for sure was once they finished with him, they had left his body to the sopilotes, she remembered in outrage.
Dueña spun around and left the grave site, much to the shock of those around her. She didn't care. The dark-haired young woman kept walking, returning to her family's modest home a few minute's walk away.
Once there, she went directly to the stables and grabbed the empty saddlebags that her father kept in the livery. She entered her home and went to her room, where she tore off her black mourning dress and threw it onto her bed. Dueña dragged out her work clothes--the ones her mother disapproved of--men's trousers and work shirts. Quickly changing, she shoved the remaining clothing as well as some undergarments into the saddlebags and headed for her papa's private room.
There, she found his well-maintained pistols, his only rifle, and some ammo, inspecting them quickly before shoving them into the leather saddlebag. Dueña opened the safe and took some of the money her father kept there. Stuffing it into her pocket, she left her home of twenty-six years, never once looking back.
Brynn opened the window, allowing a mild breeze to cool off the stuffy, heated air of the room. She leaned out of the window, feeling the breeze cool the perspiration that had collected on her fair skin as she lifted the pale hair off of her neck. The American woman closed her eyes in pleasure, glad for the break from all her paperwork. A few minutes of laziness would do wonders for her state of mind.
She hated being stuffed inside, away from the life found outside the warehouse walls that her father and older brother owned. Hearing the sound of a cart passing beneath her window, she opened her eyes. Carlos waved to her. The elderly farmer was on his way to the market area and was one of the few native people here that didn't dislike her just because she was a norteamericano.
The merchants from America had come to Point Isabel in hopes to help the war effort--as well as fill their pockets. Brynn disliked the whole situation; the war, the hatred, the politics and even her own family. She was their unpaid laborer of a sort, keeping care of the accounting ledgers and freeing them to follow their pursuit of making money. *Blood money,* thought the young woman, *They make money from people's suffering.*
Point Isabel was a beautiful little village twenty-some miles from the Rio Grande. It was being used as a supply depot for General Taylor's army. He had left a small squadron of men behind to protect it. It was within the disputed territory that the two countries were fighting over, yet much of the port was inhabited by the citizens of Mexico, and some had fled with the advancing of the American troops. Now Point Isabel was one of the ports that received the incoming new troops from the US.
Brynn looked outward, overlooking the Brazos Santiago Pass. The harbor had a remarkable reputation for cutthroats, pirates, and smugglers in the past. She had also heard a tale from Carlos about how about 300 or so Spaniards and been shipwrecked and then hunted down and killed by the Karankawa Indians. Hard to believe so much death had occurred at such a tranquil looking place. She looked at the naval ships in the port and sighed.
The frustrated bookkeeper wondered if she should have listened to Aunt Mattie and stayed in Missouri. Her aunt had thrown a fit at the idea of a young lady being dragged into a war zone, but her father, George, had assured her aunt that it was under American occupation, and therefore safe. The argument between brother and sister had been fierce, but in the end, her father had gotten his own way. He needed Brynn to do his paperwork, saving him the money and expense of bringing along someone else to do it. Brynn also realized the second unspoken reason.
He wanted a hostess at his parties--and the presence of an attractive young woman did wonders for getting past men's natural defenses during negotiations. She felt like a slave on the auction block. They stared at her and often made passes when her father or brother wasn't nearby. More than one had touched her inappropriately. Only the fear of her father's ire had prevented her from slapping the faces of the pawers. She hated the dinner parties.
The young woman sighed once more. She wistfully hoped to be sent home, but knew that was unlikely. Until she married, she had little hope of rescue from this dreary little life she led.
Colonel Hays of the Texas Rangers left the major's tent. He sighed, hating the idea of ending his search for Canales. He really wanted to capture that sorry excuse, but now he was being sent out to track down a woman. Couldn't the US Army handle one Mexican woman and her gang on their own?
He cursed under his breath. All the woman and her small gang were doing was harassing the American troops. She didn't do much more than fire volleys at them from a distance and sabotage things here and there. Nothing really harmful. Not like some of the scum he and his men tracked down. Hell, she hadn't even killed anyone as yet. She managed to wound one once in a while, but she had yet to take a life. His men had bigger fish to fry .
Brynn carefully hid a yawn from her escort. Her father had allowed the young man to take her for a buggy ride outside the village walls. The young man was in charge of finding a supplier for the cloth bags the Army used for cannon gunpowder. She was bored out of her mind as he told her of the process of soaking them in oil and the steps taken to prepare them. Several attempts to bring up other topics had failed miserably, and she just suffered in silence, praying the jaunt would end soon.
She tugged on her white gloves and smoothed down her skirt, her boredom barely hidden. The young man kept talking, oblivious to her drooping eyes and the lack of conversation on her end. He was totally self-absorbed. He was so intent on his conversation, he didn't spot the approaching horsemen until it was too late.
Dueña and two of her followers spotted the buggy traveling along the small trail that led from Point Isabel. What a wonderful opportunity! By the looks of the Americano couple--they had pesos to spare. On top of that--the horse that pulled the buggy looked strong. Many of their horses had perished out in the barren areas they had been forced to live in. Heat and bad water often killed them. They could use another horse. She glanced at her companions and grinned. With a nod from each, they pulled their bandanna over their faces and began the hunt.
Brynn's companion stiffened as he heard the rumble of the approaching horses. She saw him look over his shoulder and she placed a gloved hand on his arm, turning to see what caused him to turn pale. Behind them were three masked riders nearing fast. The young woman turned around and ordered him to make a run for it. She doubted the lone horse could pull them quickly enough, but if they could reach the outer limits of Point Isabel, the American troops may be able to come to their rescue.
Daniel cracked the reins and urged the horse faster. It lurched forward but the road wasn't meant for a buggy. The ruts from the larger war wagons caused the buggy to wobble precariously. The two passengers held on for dear life, praying that the small carriage didn't overturn. The prayers didn't work. Within seconds, the momentum of the buggy tilted them over as they went around a small bend on the road.
Dueña and her two men thundered up behind the overturned carriage, her heart pounding, frightened at what has happened. She didn't want anyone harmed--she had only wanted to rob them. The woman from Motamoros jumped off her horse and ran to the two fallen passengers. Her men followed suit, guns drawn in case one of them were armed, walking cautiously toward the buggy.
As she ran around the vehicle, she saw the young couple on the ground. The man in the gray suit was laying on the ground, his head and neck at an unnatural position. She bent down and with a shaking hand, felt for a pulse. There was none. She felt the wave of guilt overwhelm her, and she felt faint. His death was on her hands. A soldier's death she would feel little, but this Yanqui was not a soldier. Dueña heard the steps of her companions behind her and she quickly masked her feelings.
It had taken a long time for them to accept her in their group. Tears now would only make them doubt her right to lead them. She had slowly gained the confidence of many of the men in the tiny guerilla band and was not going to loose her leadership because of tears. She would deal with the grief later--when she was alone in her tent. The tall woman turned quickly to the blond norteamericana and saw that she was coming to.
Her eyes were fluttering and a small hand reached out to bump against her arm. Dueña jumped slightly from the touch, but took the covered fingers in her own and held them still as she leaned forward to examine the face of the woman on the ground. She fancifully thought she resembled the faces painted inside on the church walls back home.
Sun pale hair, pale golden skin, and the soft features of a child. She reminded Dueña of the angels on those walls she remembered so well. The only flaw on her features was the ugly swelling that was appearing on her left cheekbone. The bandit was leaning forward for a closer look when the norteamericana's eyes opened. Eyes the color of gray moss stared up at her. *Ojos de angeles,* she thought to herself.
Brynn woozily came to, her body hurting from the hard landing. She had moved unconsciously and had felt a warm hand take hers to hold it gently. When was the last time someone touched her that softly? She had vague memories of her mother--who kissed her goodnight and would let her cuddle on her lap. Days so long ago. The hand holding hers brought forth so many dim yearning she had long forgotten. It gave her something to focus on and she forced herself to open her eyes.
Looking up, she found herself gazing into eyes as blue as the summer sky. The owner of those concerned heys quickly hid her emotions and pulled away--allowing her a better look at her. A Mexican woman with strong, yet feminine features knelt above her. The woman had hair the color of walnuts, high cheek bones, a strong straight nose, and what was probably a generous mouth except, at the moment, it was pressed tightly into a scowl. The woman looked at her like she was a bug to be squashed and Brynn froze in place.
Their eyes locked together, neither willing to break the contact first. Innocence fought against hatred. The battle was too much for Brynn. She looked away in defeat and closed her eyes. So much anger could be seen in those blue eyes. She turned her head and saw two dusty and worn boots standing next to her. the boots were connected to a masked man.
<We have to leave, Dueña,> said Enrico. He and Ramòn had searched the body of the dead man, and had taken his valuables. They were anxious to leave before any soldiers spotted them.
<Yes, I know. Finish unhitching their horse and let's get going.>
<Dueña, you have to kill her. She has seen your face and->
<Shut up!> she hissed,<My fight is with the soldiers, not with some chit of a girl. Killing her would accomplish nothing, there's already a price on my head.>
<Dueña, listen, you->
<Will do as I please,> her voice cold. Enrico turned and stomped away. Dueña would have trouble over this in the future, she could feel it.
Dueña looked back down at the young woman and offered her a hand up. The Yanqui hesitated for a few seconds, then took it, allowing herself to be pulled to her feet. The dark-haired woman looked down at the petite enemy that only came to her chin and scanned her for any signs of injury. Seeing nothing to worry her, she spoke, using her rusty Inglès.
"Stay. We are leaving. I'm sorry, but your...husband?...he is dead."
Brynn was surprised by the change in the woman's voice. When she had spoken to the man, her voice had been harsh--but was now like honeyed smoke. It took a few seconds for the bandit's words to sink in. Brynn looked down in horror, seeing death for the first time in her life.
"You killed him. So, what are you going to do with me?" she asked, her voice steady as she locked eyes with the female highwayman.
"Do? Nothing. We are leaving."
"But..." Brynn stopped, realizing that they were leaving her alive and to just shut up. The bandits could have as easily chosen to kill her so there would be no witness. She watched the tall woman turn and head for her friends.
They were removing the gear from the horse when she saw them all stiffen. Brynn didn't understand at first, until she heard the sound of horses coming nearer. She looked up the road and saw a small troop of US soldiers charging towards them at full speed.
The bandits yanked the last of the equipment from the horse and tied a rope around it's neck. The tall woman suddenly grabbed her arm and pulled her towards a large gelding.
"Sorry, but we need...you will help us. The Yanquis, they will not stop us if you are with us."
Brynn realized she was being used as a hostage. She dug in her heels and tried to pull away from the woman's strong grip. The hand that held her tightened painfully.
"Listen to me. Don't fight. You are needed. Get on horse."
"No. I won't leave with you!" Brynn said defiantly. The tall woman answered by pulling a large knife from behind her, pointing at her menacingly. Her meaning was clear. Brynn lost her courage and did as she was told. She put a foot on the stirrup and realized she would have to straddle the horse. It was not a lady's sidesaddle. She pulled her skirt up, embarrassed at the action, but she had little time to worry about it. A large hand on her derriere put her in place. The female bandit quickly joined her on the saddle and grabbed the reins with one hand.
Brynn could hear the soldiers. They were very close now. She turned and saw them as they came to a stop not far from the small gang of bandits, pistols drawn. Her captor moved the horse between her companions and the army troop. Brynn closed her eyes, making a silent prayer that gunshots wouldn't be exchanged. Her eyes jerked open as the woman behind her shouted. She spoke in Spanish, and with her limited knowledge of the language, Brynn understood none of it.
One of the soldiers and her captor conversed heatedly, and the only thing Brynn fully understood was the act of the knife being held suddenly to her throat. She squeezed her eyes shut and held her breath, afraid of what would happen. Brynn heard more words passed back and forth and then the sounds of retreating horses. She opened her eyes and saw the US soldiers as they moved further away. The sharp blade retreated as well. She let out her breath and ordered her body to relax.
A long arm came around and came to rest on her stomach just before the horse was turned towards the west. Brynn had the oddest feeling she was being laughed at. The Fates had given her what she asked for. Like it or not, she was now involved in an adventure.
They road in silence for several hours. Brynn was too wary to start up a conversation with the tall woman that held her close to her. The bookkeeper kept back all the questions she wanted to ask, unsure she would like the answers. The woman behind her was content in the silence and said nothing even though her two companions quietly spoke to one another in their own language. The journey was slow as they made their way through the chaparral--the dense, sharp vegetation that made travel difficult.
Brynn looked towards the sun and knew it would be dark soon. She wondered if they had a camp nearby or if they would stop elsewhere for the night. It wasn't long before she found out her answer. They headed down a deep ravine that looked like a dried out river bed and traveled along its path. Soon, she saw a small grotto along its bank. The horses came to a stop and she knew this was where they were staying the night. She glanced at the tiny cave-like hole in the high bank and agreed that it would be a sensible place to stay. It would hide any fire they lit and block them from the cool breeze.
The woman behind her climbed off the horse and offered her a hand down. Brynn didn't fight her--her body was just too stiff. She let the woman support her by the waist as she swung a leg over and off the gelding. Her legs tried to buckle, but she managed to stay on her feet. She tried to straighten, but her back had locked painfully, leaving her to walk like she was a hundred years old. One of the men laughed, commenting quietly to his friend, who grinned at her expense.
Brynn felt annoyed, but hid her feelings. The small woman walked over to a large rock and sat down gingerly. She did her best to hide her grimace of pain, but by the laughter she heard--she didn't succeed very well. The bookkeeper sat still, watching as a small camp was quickly set up.
A tiny fire was lit and blankets unrolled and put on the ground. A cast iron pot was put on a tripod and a few tins of beans were opened and put on to heat. Brynn watched the woman approached her and stop.
"What is your name, Yanqui?" she asked softly.
"Brynn Hanson--and yours?" she asked, watching her face for any sign of anger. The woman didn't seem fond of Americans. The tall Mexican woman didn't answer right away--perhaps thinking it best she didn't know anyone's names. Brynn lowered her eyes and looked to the sandy soil at her feet. *Oh well, so much for polite conversation.*
Brynn looked up in surprise. "Dueña? It's a pretty name." She fell silent, unsure the woman would want to talk. Dueña seemed more comfortable with silence. Then the tall bandit surprised her. She filled two tin plates with beans, hard tack and brought them over to her. She handed one plate to Brynn and sat down on the ground next to her, apparently unworried about biting insects.
"You are not frightened, sì?"
"You mean about being out here--a prisoner?" Brynn asked. Dueña nodded as she used her biscuit to sop up the juices from the beans. The Missourian thought about it and smiled. Her captor was correct--she wasn't frightened. Considering everything that has happened, she couldn't find it inside herself to be worried. Maybe she was in shock or just too tired to be scared.
"No, I'm not scared. I was earlier, but not anymore." Brynn watched as Dueña's left eyebrow shot up comically. *How do people do that?* she wondered. She resisted the urge to run a finger along the lifted eyebrow.
"Why not?" The bandida personally thought the Americana was too stupid to be scared. Anyone in their right mind would be at this time.
"Hmph! Probably because if you had meant to kill me, you and your friends could have done it once we were safely away from the Army. You also had every opportunity to just dump me off several miles back and told me I was on my own." Brynn said honestly.
Dueña stopped chewing. She would have to change her opinion about this tiny blond woman. Maybe she was too smart to be scared. Naive yes, stupid no. She looked up into the green eyes of her enemy and was surprised by the lack of hatred she saw there. Dueña had been under the impression that all Americans hated their Mexican neighbors and even heard rumors that if the Expansionists took over her country, the church was even in danger. Yet here was this young woman, looking at her like they were having a friendly chat, completely at ease with the knowledge she was their prisoner. The blond was either loco or too innocent for her own good. For some reason, the woman's attitude irritated her.
She rushed to her feet in a huff and stomped off into the bushes, muttering under her breath about crazy blonds and their lack common sense.
Jack Hays swore nastily. The trail had been obliterated by the wind and there was nothing to follow. The best he could do was keep going in the same direction and hope for the best.
He was angry at the death of a civilian, angry with the small band of renegades, and even more importantly, angry with himself for having such a petty attitude about them in the first place. If he had put more effort into tracking them down, this wouldn't have happened. A businessman would still be alive and an innocent girl wouldn't have been taken captive. Heaven knows what they were doing to her this very minute.
Dueña grinned as Ramòn threw down his cards in disgust. He and Enrico had lost the majority of their chips to the angel faced norteamericana. She had to be one of the best damned players around--or one of the luckiest. The tall woman had watched as the men, with their broken Inglès, had carefully taught the girl the finer points of playing poker and then promptly began losing to her.
Brynn seemed oblivious to their frustration as she slowly mixed the playing cards and dealt out the next hand. She smiled endearingly as she matched their bets and asked them how many new cards they wanted. Dueña watched from the sidelines, closely observing the girl's hands. She had a graceful way of holding her cards. She shook herself and went back to watching the plays. As far as she knew--the americana never cheated. That wouldn't matter much to Enrico, who often accused others of cheating when he lost. Dueña was surprised that he hadn't ended the game yet in a fit of temper.
The leader of the small band watched as Ramòn placed a large bet and knew by his twitch on jaw that he was bluffing when he only asked for one new card. Enrico, glared at him but matched the bet. Brynn smiled, then met and upped the ante. This went on for several minutes. The men had little left to bet with when Brynn finally called the bets.
Enrico spread his cards. He had a baby straight. Brynn spread hers out. She had a full house. Enrico tossed his cards onto the blanket facedown and grabbed the girl's wrist as she attempted to pull the chips to her. He let off a string of curses that even made Dueña blush and she stepped in to end this. She was furious at his treatment of her.
<Enrico, let go of her,> she ordered coldly.
<She is cheating! No one has that kind of luck!> he whined.
<No she isn't. I've been watching and she hasn't cheated yet. She's just a good player. Beginners often are. Now let go of her,> Dueña repeated. Enrico released her arm, but he wasn't happy. She'd have to keep an eye on him since he didn't like losing. In the past, people who have angered him mysteriously ended up dead or injured. The Mexican woman wasn't about to let anything happen to the girl. Brynn was going to be returned as soon as she was able to arrange it--unharmed.
"That is enough for the night. Get some sleep," Dueña suggested. Brynn picked up the blanket they were using as a table and shook it out, spreading it out near the fire. That was going to change.
"Brynn, come over here and bring blanket." The blond did as she was ordered, her eyes curious. Dueña laid down on her own bedroll and patted the spot next to her. The girl looked confused but did as she was told.
She sat down and watched as the older woman took the blanket from her and rolled it up to make a crude pillow and placed it behind them. Dueña then gently tugged her backwards to make her recline. The bandida then rolled to her side and threw an arm and leg over her, making herself comfortable.
"What are you doing?" Brynn whispered.
"Making sure you do not leave in middle of the night," Dueña said, "It is this--or I tie you up," the woman told her. Brynn watched as a mischievous smile curled the woman's mouth for the first time that day. Brynn liked her smile. Dueña's face looked so much softer when she relaxed.
"Or would you have one of the men as your guard...?"
Brynn blushed at the implied question. "No! I mean...no, this is fine." She forced herself to relax and closed her eyes. Growing up as the only girl, and never have been married, or never having so much as a pet, she was unaccustomed to sharing a bed. This felt so strange--having a warm body next to her as she slept. After a little while, she appreciated the warmth the larger woman gave off. The night was growing cold and Brynn drifted off to sleep.
Dueña woke before dawn as was her normal habit. The men would take a little longer to get their blood moving and stumble from their cozy beds. She opened her eyes and attempted to stretch, only to find herself in a tangle of arms and legs. The bandida smiled indulgently to herself. She had forgotten about Brynn.
Looking down at her sleeping face, she thought to herself that the americana looked even younger than she had the day before. Her lips were parted, and her pale lashes brushed her fair cheeks. She didn't realize until now that the Yanqui women could be so fair skinned. She looked at her own tanned hand that rested along the crook of Brynn's neck and saw the contrast in shade. The older woman sighed.
*Dueña, get up! You can't be a lazy thing and lounge in bed all morning with her. Go fix breakfast!* she scolded herself. The dark-haired woman extracted herself carefully and got up, managing not to wake her young hostage.
She stirred the embers of the fire, adding wood to feed it before putting on a pot for the coffee. She checked over the food supplies, and with limited choices, she began a kettle of oatmeal cooking. With that started, she made a beeline for the bushes.
Brynn woke up to the smell of food cooking and shivered. Dueña had gotten up,taking her warmth with her.The desert may be hotter than blazes during the day, but it was cold at night. She made her way to the fire and saw the kettle of oatmeal bubbling. She picked up the wooden spoon that sat on a stone and stirred the grain. Once satisfied it wouldn't scorch, she made herself comfortable, warming herself by the fire. Her mind wandered as she recalled the events of the day before, and with her focus inward, she didn't hear the approach from behind her. An arm came out of nowhere and pulled her backwards.
Brynn gasped as a strong arm grabbed her around her throat and upper chest. Her assailant put another hand over her mouth, cutting off her cry for help. She struggled, but her pitiful strength wasn't enough to cause more than the smallest of inconveniences to the person dragging her. The attacker half pulled, half carried her into the shrubs and far away from the camp. The girl gave up and allowed the person to support all her weight, knowing she may need her strength in a few moments.
Finally, she was tossed to the sun-baked soil and she looked up to see Enrico bending over her while pulling a knife from its sheath.
<Bitch! You thought you'd get away with cheating me, didn't you ? Well, no one gets away with it! I'm taking my pound of flesh...> Enrico looked down at the wide-eyed girl below him.
She was on her back, chest heaving and lips parted. Another idea came to mind. He replaced his blade into the sheath and smiled. He straddled her small frame and pinned her arms down as he leaned forward to sample her mouth. She turned her head, trying to avoid his kiss, making him even angrier. Enrico grabbed her hair and forced her to remain still. He leaned down again and almost reached his goal when a booted foot caught him in the ribs, making him gasp in pain.
He felt another kick and this time, he flew to the right as the impact lifted him up and over. The bandido groaned loudly and looked up through squinting, watering eyes. Dueña stood there, outrage on her face.
<You dog! The girl is under my protection. How dare you...> In her anger, she lost all ability to speak. In frustration and fury, she leaped over Brynn's prone form and began pummeling the unfortunate man. He never had a chance to defend himself. She beat him until she couldn't lift her arms anymore and then ordered him to get up.
Enrico staggered to his feet, his face a swollen mess and holding his ribs. She told him to get on his horse and leave, with a warning that she'd kill him next time they crossed paths. He limped to his horse back at the camp, Dueña and Brynn following him part of the way behind, and painfully got up into the saddle. Dueña watched him ride off before turning to the blond girl.
"You are alright?" she asked with concern. Brynn nodded her head.
"Thank you. I..." The girl couldn't finish, the tears overwhelming her. She found herself pulled into the taller woman's arms in comfort. Brynn buried her face into the rough material of Dueña's shirt and sobbed. Brynn didn't know how long she cried, but the quietly spoken Spanish whispered by her captor calmed her. She pulled away and wiped her face with the back of her hand.
Dueña searched her pockets and pulled out a linen handkerchief, which she handed to the petite blond. Brynn wiped her face and eyes and then looked up at her with grateful green eyes. Dueña felt her hatred of--at least for this norteamericana--fade away as though it had never existed. She had to admit to herself that she never felt anything akin to anger at this small creature. Being cruel to her would be like kicking a puppy. *It must be those damned angel eyes,* thought Dueña. The bandida turned away and told her gruffly to get back to the camp--they were leaving soon.
"Would you mind if I sat behind you today?" Brynn asked of her captor.
"Why?" Dueña asked with a little suspicion. She watched as the girl flushed and squirmed with embarrassment. Her eyes had a hard time meeting her own.
"Well, it's because...well, ...um...I feel kind of queasy when I'm a horse," she admitted.
"Queasy? What does that word mean?"
"Uh, well, it means feeling sick to your stomach. In my family, it's almost a joke going way back as far as anyone can remember. All the women in my family hate riding for that reason." The taller woman saw the truth in her captive's eyes and accepted it.
"And all the women in mine love to be on a horse. Funny. Alright, you ride behind."
Dueña mounted her horse first and lowered her arm to Brynn. Without thinking, the younger woman grabbed it and quickly joined her on the large horse in one smooth motion. The Mexican woman raised her eyebrow but said nothing. For someone who hates riding horses, her small companion got on one easily enough. She felt Brynn's arms circle her waist and Dueña clicked her tongue and heels.
"Hey, Coffee, It's no use. The trail is lost. We ought to just head back to Point Isabel."
Col. Hays thought about it and shook his head. His second in command was a good man, but tended to give up too easily sometimes. He forgot that the Texas Rangers never gave up. Anyone that has crossed their paths found that out the hard way. His men were often called savage, but they rarely lost a fight. Anyone stupid enough to confront them found that out. The Texas Rangers hit hard and fast--earning them the nickname of 'Texas Devils'. It was a name he was proud of. It brought the attention of the US Army upon them. They would soon join the war as a fighting unit.
He decided to break up the men. He sent Walker out with half the men towards the west while he took the other half towards the Rio Grande. They would find that band of killers sooner or later.
Brynn felt the eyes of Ramòn on her again. He kept glaring at her, making her nervous. She didn't know why he looked at her that way. *Maybe he's angry that his friend was thrown out of the group because of me--but it wasn't my fault! I didn't ask to be attacked.*
She became angry with that thought and glared back at him, meeting his own blatant stare with one of her own. To her amazement and satisfaction, he turned his eyes away. A small smile curved her lips and Brynn returned her eyes to look over Dueña's shoulder again. There wasn't much to see that way, Dueña was just too tall when she sat on the saddle, but made the smaller woman feel better. Now if she could only get the woman to talk, time would pass much faster.
"Dueña, may I ask something?" she whispered. A small hum came from her captor, making the stomach muscles under her hand vibrate and flex from the tone.
"Why are you riding with a group of bandits? I mean...well, you seem to be well educated and-"
"Why do you whisper?" Dueña asked.
"Because I didn't want your friend over there hearing what I say."
"No importante. He does not speak the Ingès much. Some of the others, they do, but not him."
"Oh, alright," her voice raising to a conversational level, "then tell me about why you joined them."
Dueña sighed. *Do I want to tell this Americana all about my father? Why not? It will cause no harm.* she thought. She began telling Brynn about the day her father was murdered by the soldiers, how he had been found dead outside the city's walls, being pecked at by the buzzards. The story continued on, telling how she sought out the band of men that have been known to harassed the norteamericano. They were not very well organized, nothing more than troublemakers, and began her campaign to join them. They hadn't taken her seriously, only thinking women good for pleasures of the flesh--not fighters. They had been surprised when she promptly beaten them fighting barehanded.
They didn't know her father had made certain she knew how to protect herself. He had been in the Spanish Navy as a young man, and had traveled in the Far East, where he had picked up some of the unique fighting skills the Orientals practiced. He had taught them to her, thinking that every woman should be able to defend herself. His friends had thought him mad, but he didn't care--and he had been correct--the skills he had taught her gave Dueña an edge over those clumsy fools.
One of them had attempted to grab her and she sent him flying across the saloon. The rest of the men had taken offense and rushed at her, only to be given the same treatment. (Brynn had laughed at this image in her head, she didn't see the indulgent grin on Dueña's face.) After they picked themselves off the floor, some of them listened to what she had to say. Some were sceptical, but they had allowed her to join them. She soon began her plan of slowly taking over. It had only taken about six weeks, but she now led them in the raids.
Her only opposition came from a man named Chale. He resented her rise in power and fought her control both openly and behind her back. He had been one of the original group and didn't like her in the least. She would have to deal with him soon.
Brynn listened, enraptured, to Dueña's story. Sensing that the bandida rarely spoke this much, she held back all her questions that she so desperately wanted to ask and waited until the story was done. At that moment, the silence was thick-- both were surprised at how much had been spoken.
Dueña suddenly felt embarrassed. She had gushed out so much that the Americana must think her a little loco. She tightened her jaw and lifted her chin to stare at the horizon, seeking emotional escape from the small young woman behind her. The tall rider was surprised when she felt her passenger press her cheek against her shoulder and tightened her hold around her waist. Dueña felt her tension fade and she relaxed. It was amazing how much better she felt after the hug.
"Feel better? Keeping all of that inside for the last few months must have been hard on you." Brynn didn't get a verbal answer, but she didn't need one. Dueña placed her hand on top of her own and gently stroked it.
"Good. But I have a few questions, Dueña. Did you ever go to whoever was in charge of the US troops and ask for your father's death be investigated?"
"I did not, but one of Papa's friends did. The Major-he looked into it for many days. No one would say. He told Tìo Carlos that maybe me padre had..." she stopped, fumbling to remember the exact words, " that he had done something 'suspicious' and the men guarding the town may have killed him. He say many of his men are new..."
"Recruits?" Brynn supplied.
"Sì, recruits, and they may have been afraid--so they hid his body."
"Dueña, this may not help you, but you have to understand. This is a war situation and sometimes innocent people get killed. The man or men that killed your father will have to answer to God on their Judgement Day. You can't make yourself his avenger--you need to let go of your pain and move on. Dueña, do you think your father would be happy you've done this?" Brynn asked gently.
The Mexican woman was silent for long moments. "No. He would not," she answered sadly.
"Then end this. Leave this gang of cutthroats and go home."
"I cannot go home. They know who I am. They would take me and put me in prison. I can never go back."
It was Brynn's turn to be silent. She had no answer to give her companion.
Dueña blindfolded her prisoner around noon. She told Brynn that it was for her own protection. She could not know exactly where the camp was. Brynn didn't argue, but allowed the tall woman to place the strip of cloth around her eyes.
"There. Now your ojos de angeles are hidden," Dueña teased gently.
"What does that mean?" she asked.
"Never mind, no importante," the bandida dismissed, glad that the Americana could not see her blush.
"I think I'll have to take some lessons in your native language, my friend. I don't like everyone talking and my not being able to understand a word."
Dueña laughed at the tone, but felt another flush of pleasure redden her cheeks when Brynn called her friend.
They rode into the campsite of the bandits late in the afternoon. Brynn could hear the bustle of the busy camp, the low conversations, and even the sounds of a brawl or two. The smell around the camp left much to be desired. Brynn wrinkled her nose in annoyance.
She heard someone shout, apparently to Dueña since she answered quite loudly, her tone somewhat angry. The male voice seemed more subdued after her captor's reply. She then felt a tap on her thigh.
"You may take off cloth now," Dueña told her.
Brynn reached up and removed her blindfold. She blinked rapidly as the sunshine hit her eyes. She waited for them to adjust and then took the offered arm that Dueña held out. She dismounted and waited patiently for the tall woman to join her on the ground.
A boy in his mid-teens took the reins of her horse, holding it steady as Dueña got down. With a nod from her, he led the horse away. She then placed a hand on Brynn's elbow and pointed for her to enter a nearby tent.
Brynn looked around the smallish interior and found it well kept and clean. A large cot on one side of the tent was freshly made and everything was tidily placed inside. The American girl turned and looked at Dueña.
"Is this my tent?"
"No, it is mine. You will stay here with me. It is too dangerous for you to be alone. Many would be like Enrico. They would hurt you. You must always stay here or be with me. I do not want you harmed. You will promise this?"
Brynn saw the silent plea in her captor's eyes. She understood Dueña's reasoning. The camp was filled with people who hated and fought the Americans. Just because she was a woman didn't guarantee her safety. She nodded and agreed. The dark-haired woman relaxed and gave her a shy smile in appreciation.
"Are you hungry? We have not eaten since morning."
"I could eat a whole cow at this very moment," Brynn joked.
"I am sorry. No cows. Food is little here. Come, let us see what there is." Dueña led the way to a central fire in the middle of the camp. Many men had already helped themselves to what was in the large kettle hanging over the fire.
The leader of the bandits explained that they cooked early in the day. They did not have fires at night. A fire would make it too easy to be spotted from a distance. She took two tin plates and spoons and handed one of each to Brynn before lifting the heavy lid from the pot with a metal hook. She placed the lid on a nearby stone and took a ladle from a post. She indicated she wanted Brynn to bring her plate closer. She scooped up a large spoonful of a reddish mixture and poured it into the waiting plate. She then took a serving for herself. She recovered the kettle and they found a place to sit down.
Brynn looked at the odd looking stew. It contained tomatoes and beans--that much she was sure of--and an assortment of small, diced vegetables. She looked to her companion, who was happily eating. She gathered up her courage and took a mouthful of the mixture and began chewing--and stopped. She felt a fiery sensation burn the inside of her mouth and she choked.
Dueña pounded her on the back and handed her a cup of water. Brynn gulped it down, but it did little to cool the fire. Her grinning friend then handed her a piece of bread and the blond took it, taking a bite. The pain lessened. She wiped the back of her hand across her forehead. She felt as though her whole body was burning up.
Brynn glared at Dueña, who was grinning ear-to-ear. The smaller woman shook her spoon menacingly at her captor, silently promising revenge. The smile got bigger.
Brynn took a lot of good-natured teasing from some of the men around her, smiling along with everyone as her eyes and nose watered from the spicy meal. She managed to eat more of the edible fire without choking, and she had to admit it tasted good. Now if she could just stop sweating...
After they finished eating, they headed back to Dueña's tent and had to found a metal tub that was waiting there. Someone had left a small bathtub, filled with hot water, in the middle of the tent.
"I thought maybe you would like to get clean?" Dueña asked.
"Yes! Thank you. I feel like a pig in a pen." She closed the tent flaps and begun undressing.
"Any chance for some clean clothes while I'm at it? It almost defeats the purpose when you put on the same clothes again," Brynn added. She saw her companion nod and reach inside a small wicker trunk. She pulled out a nightshirt and laid it on the cot.
Brynn smiled her thanks and began unlacing the intricate strings that held her dress in place. She looked down at her dress and considered it a loss. The silk material was probably beyond cleaning. She hoped Dueña would be able to find her something other than a nightshirt to wear. She reached behind her back and found she couldn't handle this on her own. Brynn had a maid back home that aided in her dressing when she wore the elaborate clothes she had to wear when her father entertained.
Dueña saw she was having difficulties and stepped in to help. After the outer layer was removed, she began unlacing the ties of the corset, loosening the stiff material. She smiled to herself, thinking this was one thing she would never miss from her old life--the torturous clothing expected by women to wear. She always preferred the her 'inappropriate' attire she wore when helping her father at his shop. Her mother always nagged Papa over the issue, but he just told her mother that she fit no true mold. She was the wind and couldn't be tethered.
Dueña felt wave of sadness overtake her and she pushed back the emotions. This was not the time for getting weepy. She masked her feelings and continued with helping Brynn undress. She pulled the corset from around the smaller woman's waist, noting the imprints of the material on her pale skin. She knew from experience it would take hours for the skin to recover. Dueña ran her palm over the wrinkled skin briefly in a smoothing motion, enjoying the softness of the young woman's flesh. She felt Brynn quiver and the bandida pulled her hand guiltily away, thinking it was perhaps too soon for such intimacies. The Mexican woman continued to help until the most difficult pieces were removed and stepped back, letting Brynn do the rest.
"Do you want me to go?" she asked, not sure if the blond would want privacy.
"No, you're fine. Why don't you sit down and keep me company?" Brynn had been disappointed when Dueña had stopped touching her. The woman's hand had been soft and soothing.
"Alright, what would you like to talk about?"
Brynn smiled naughtily. "How about you tell me why such a soft-hearted woman such as yourself is going around snatching innocent girls."
Dueña smiled devilishly.
"Why do you think me soft-hearted? The men in this place would say you are loco."
Brynn saw the twinkle of humor in the blue eyes looking at her. She smiled in return and carefully let herself sink into the water. She gave a contented, pleasurable sigh and relaxed in the hot water. She took the bar of soap her companion handed her and began lathering up.
"So, you think you have all the men fooled here? Dueña, if I can see it, chances are others can see it too. You have a large capacity for caring. You may act tough, but I think some of the men follow you because they see it too, knowing you would do anything you could to help your men."
"You make me sound like a mother chicken," Dueña said in a pretended hurt voice.
"Mother hen," she corrected with a grin, "and that's exactly what you are. I saw the regret in your eyes when you told me Daniel was dead. A cold-hearted bandit wouldn't have cared, and would have killed and robbed me too."
"I am sorry about your husband's death."
Brynn held up her bare left hand. "I'm not married. I was his distraction."
"Què?" The look on the bandida's face showed her confusion. One eyebrow was lifted high.
"Sorry. It's easier if I give you more details. My father is a businessman who likes to use any method he can to gain new customers. Like using his daughter as a distraction here and there. Daniel was taking me out for a ride when you came across us."
"Your padre...did he..." Dueña broke off, unsure how to word it. She tried again. "Did he expect you to be a prostituta?" She blushed at her own words.
Brynn felt herself blush as well. The word may be in Spanish, but it's meaning was quite clear. "Dueña! No, not in that manner!" She ran a hand over her face.
"I am sorry. I did not mean to anger you." Her eyes looked down in shame.
"You didn't anger me. If I'm angry at anyone--it's my father and myself. I didn't know when we came to Point Isabel that he expected me to be a hostess and some sort of decoy. My Aunt Mattie tried to warn me, but I didn't listen. I was so proud of the fact he needed me for once. I never thought about why he changed. You see, my father has always ignored me. I was a daughter, not a son. Nathan got all of his attention--Nathon is my brother," she clarified.
Dueña knelt next to the tub, placing a hand on the smaller woman's wet shoulder. She bent down close to her new friend and spoke softly. "Many men are like that, Brynn. It is not you--but him. He cannot see the good person you are. It is his loss. Maybe I will keep you here," she teased half-heartedly. That got a laugh from the blond.
"That wouldn't help you much. A leader of an American-hating rebel group keeping an American as a companion. That should go over well with your men."
"But you make me smile. They do not."
"Keep me like some kind of court jester? Hmmm...now there's an idea. I get promoted from a hostess to clown."
"I did not mean it that way--I like you. I know keeping you would be wrong. I will take you to a town nearby. They will take you home. But, Brynn, If I gave you the money--would you go to another place? I think it will get worse with him. It is better you start over."
Brynn stared into the blue eyes of the woman next to her, considering the question. "I will if you will. Go with me. Staying here with these men will get you killed. We can both use a new beginning."
Dueña stared at her. It was true, she felt a dissatisfaction with her life, but give up the fight? She didn't know if she could. The Cause was too great.
*But how much do you really accomplish?* her inner voice taunted, *You snip at the edges and only annoy the soldiers. You aren't willing to hold the gun that kills another person. You didn't think of that when you joined the rebels--did you? All you wanted was revenge, but didn't think about the price you would have to pay to get it.*
"I will think about it."
"Good," Brynn smiled broadly at the taller woman. She grinned again when Dueña bent down and placed a quick kiss on her top of her head.
Brynn got out of the tub and reached for the towel her companion handed her. She dried off quickly and picked up the nightshirt left out for her. Slipping it on, the blond pulled it over her and laughed.
Dueña glanced at her and joined in. The gown was much too long for the petite norteamericana. Brynn flapped the long shirt sleeves in the air and giggled before looking down and seeing the hem dragging on the floor of the tent.
"I feel like a little kid wearing her mama's clothes," she commented.
"You look it too. Here, let me help fix them." The bandida began rolling up one shirt sleeve while Brynn watched. Once that sleeve was finished, she held up the other arm and let Dueña roll that one as well. Brynn's hands now visible, the dark-haired woman looked down and gave a little grunt. She turned and opened her trunk and removed a pair of scissors. Brynn began protesting the cutting of the gown, but Dueña shushed her and began cutting away about six inches from the hem.
Brynn sighed and remain still while her captor circled around her as she cut the material. The sound of the cutting was the only sound made in the room. Dueña cut slowly, almost too meticulously for Brynn's patience, who rolled her eyes. When the tall woman finally finished, she ran her fingers across the toes that peeked out. Brynn jumped.
"Hey, none of that! I'm ticklish." Brynn watched as Dueña lifted her head and smiled evilly. "Uh--you didn't hear me say that." The smile grew larger as the woman stood slowly, the smile turning feral on her face. "Dueña! Think about this! Do you really want your people to hear you having fun in here?" she said with panic. She really hated being tickled.
"No importante. Let them think what they wish." Dueña began stalking the blond around the tiny tent. Brynn had no place to escape to unless she left the tent in her nightgown. She slowly walked around the tiny washtub and grinned when the blond sidestepped nervously in the opposite direction. Dueña made half-hearted grabs at the bookkeeper just to hear her squeal and jump to avoid her hands as they circled the tub. This went on for several minutes, and both women were getting dizzy. The bandida lunged and reached for the small young woman--and caught air.
Thrown off balance, she landed in the tub with a huge splash and a painful thump. Dueña was knocked unconscious. She didn't hear the gasp of shock from her young friend, nor feel herself being pulled half-out of the water so she wouldn't drown. The bandida never heard her men charging into the tent and grabbing the norteamericana, believing that she had tried to harm their leader. Dueña didn't hear the young woman call out her name in panic as they dragged her away.
Brynn felt herself panting in fear as the men dragged her out of the tent. Dueña was still in the tub, out cold, and couldn't help her. The men dragged her to the center of the camp and threw her into a heap on the ground. She winched and turned over, looking around at the angry faces around her.
They were arguing among themselves, their words laced with outrage at the gall the Americana had. They were debating what to do with her when a tall, bull of a man walked up to the group, parting them as he walked. He made his way over to where Brynn sat on the ground. His name was repeated several times during their whisperings and speculations. Chale.
The bookkeeper thought she was afraid before, but now the terror increased twice fold. This was Dueña's greatest foe in the camp--and he was looking down at her with a smirk on his face.
<What do you think my friends? You think she tried to kill Dueña? Then I think this spoiled little American woman should be punished--with her life.>Chale slipped a large hunting knife from the sheath on his belt and played with it with his thumb, testing its sharpness as he grinned.
The smile never reached his dark eyes. He had watched the two women earlier that evening and knew that the whole thing wasn't an attempt on her life. Anyone with half a brain should have known that. The women had become friends in the short time they've been together--and now he was going to kill the Americana. Killing her would hurt Dueña, and that was all he cared about.
That prissy woman had taken over as the leader of his group. It didn't matter that their lot had improved by the act, or that she was, in fact, a much better leader than the others. The thing that bothered him the most was that she was a woman. Women were meant to marry, have babies, and run a household. That's it. They had no business telling men what to do. Now her unfortunate friend was going to pay the price for her being unnatural.
He stepped closer to the blond americana and grabbed her by the hair and pulled her to her feet. Brynn squeezed her eyes shut, not wanting to know when he ended her life, only to open then again when he gave her a shake and spoke to her in English.
"Open your eyes you little bitch." Brynn did as she was told.
"Good. You are gonna die." Chale leaned forward and whispered so only she could hear. "Dueña likes you, and so when I kill you, she will go crazy when she finds out. She'll be careless, and I will kill her too. Tell the Devil to expect her soon!"
Chale lifted his knife and paused for effect. He then bunched his muscles to put his full weight behind the jab--and stiffened as a gunshot went off. Everyone froze in place, only their eyes moving, shifting to see Dueña standing there, dripping wet--a smoking pistol in her hand. It was aimed directly at Chale's back. Everyone's eyes shifted and looked at the bandit. A crimson stain was spreading on his shirt.
Time stood still, the seconds taking what seemed like hours before the huge man's body relaxed into death and hit the dirt in a heap, knocking Brynn down.
Dueña stared at him, her face a mask of indifference as she looked at his body. The crowd remained still and silent. Dropping her pistol, she walked over to Brynn and offered her a hand up. The pale girl took her hand and allowed the bandida to pull her up--and into her arms. The tight embrace lasted for but a few seconds before the taller woman pulled away.
"You wanted me to go with you, sì?"
George Hanson went to the foyer to speak with the man who was waiting for him. The man was dressed in Army blues and if he read the rank correctly, he was a Colonel. Perhaps he was here about the military contract that he and his son had proposed.
"Please, come to my private den. Would you care for some refreshments?"
"No, I'm just here to give you this. My men and I were following the people who took your daughter. We never found them or your girl--only an empty camp, but we did find this. It was addressed to you."
George took the letter and ripped it open.
I have chosen to begin a new life for myself. I know this comes as a surprise to you, and I hope you understand and accept this. I cannot be the daughter you wish me to be. I cannot be the daughter you need. I will be long gone from this war-torn land by the time you receive this. Please, do not worry about me. I am in good company.
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