IT WAS always the same dream. The warehouse, reeking of cigarette smoke, diesel fuel, and desperation; the slow yellow flash of the lights rotating on the idling forklift, reflecting off the oily floor; the slosh of water against the riverside dock; the sharp, angry voices of the men around him.
And the woman—barely a woman, more a girl, her tight T-shirt stretched over the rounded belly she had her hands clasped on. Four, maybe five months pregnant, just starting to show. She was on her knees in front of the angriest of the men. “Little bitch!” He smacked her with the butt of the pistol; she went sprawling, her long dark hair spilling around her bloodied face, blending with the swirls of black oil on the floor. “How much did you take?”
“Not much, ’Chete,” she whined, and tried to get up. He kicked her in the thigh and sent her down again. “Just a little, a few bucks—para el niño….”
“Bullshit el niño,” Machete Montenegro said, and kicked her again.
“Boss,” Joshua—José—said quietly.
“Shut up, pendejo. Lina, how much?”
“Two grand,” she admitted, weeping openly now. “Just two grand. For the baby….”
“Fuck the baby. It wasn’t for the baby or you’d be long gone. Where is it?”
“Adelicio has it,” Lina admitted. “I gave it to Adelicio.”
“Fuck,” ’Chete said. He looked over at where José and the rest of his men stood. “I’m done with her. Finish it.”
JOSHUA sat up in bed, sweat soaking his T-shirt and pouring down his neck at the remembered sound of the gunshot. God damn it—it had been four months, and he was still fucking dreaming about it. It wasn’t as if ’Chete hadn’t ordered people killed before. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t killed people himself, for that matter. But it was always men before—rival gang members, traitors, whoever ’Chete or the other bosses said. Never a woman.
Never a pregnant woman. He ran his fingers over the fuzz of his growing-out hair, longing for a cigarette, longing for a drink. Longing for the heroin that once buzzed in his blood and kept him solid in the hell that had been his life for so long.
“You all right?” The tinny voice came from the speaker by the door. They’d taken to monitoring his room at night after the last couple of nightmares had left him broken and hysterical. They weren’t his jailers, he reminded himself. They were trying to help.
The problem was he didn’t know if there was anything left of him to help.
MORNING came eventually, and with it, the weekly visit from his mother. He hated the way she looked: far older than should be accounted for by the three years of his exile, as he thought of it. She’d shrunk in on herself, the tall slender beauty curved as if bracing for a blow, the sleek dark hair streaked with silver. He knew she’d visited him in the early days he didn’t remember, and thought maybe that was the reason she watched him with such fearful eyes, though he was always careful to move slowly and speak gently to her. Their conversation was of simple things—his sister’s new boyfriend, his mother’s business concerns, his uncle’s ranch—small, casual tidbits of news, without emotional resonance. Once or twice in the last few weeks, she’d tentatively mentioned the trial, but only in passing, as if it was something that didn’t quite matter. It didn’t, really. His part in that was done. It wasn’t as if he’d have to go to court—the evidence the Feds had was more than enough to put them all away.
But when the trial was done, so was he. There was nothing after the trial. It was as if the world had ended, leaving only a long, empty, blank space. He couldn’t imagine anything after that.
This morning his mother was wearing a spring jacket in a primrose yellow that made her dark hair glow. She’d had her hair colored so that the gray didn’t show, and she’d had her nails done. It looked so pretty he couldn’t help but smile, despite his weariness. “You look nice,” he said.
“Thanks, sweetheart.” She reached up and kissed his cheek, running her hand over his fuzz of hair, just as he had during the night. “It’s growing out. That’s nice. I didn’t like the shaved head. Made you look mean.”
“That was the whole point,” he said gently. He knew what she meant—it made him look skeletal, with his sunken cheeks and hollow eyes. He’d put on some weight since he’d been here, but it wasn’t more than a handful of pounds. He had no appetite. He only really wanted the drug. He only really wanted to forget. “So what’s the occasion?”
“I talked to your Uncle Tucker last night.”
He smiled politely and held the wooden guest chair for her, then sat across from her on the edge of the narrow bed. “How is Uncle Tuck?”
“Oh, he’s good. He’s making noises about getting old, but he always does that.” She fidgeted a moment, then said, “The lawyers came to see me. And Mr. Robinson.”
All the pleasure of seeing her drained away. “He’s not supposed to see you,” he said tightly. “He’s supposed to leave you alone.”
“It’s all right, Joshua,” she assured him. “He wanted to let me know—to let you know—that the hearing is over. Your part of it is done. This nightmare is over. The evidence they have is more than enough to put those bastards away forever, and the grand jury agreed. They aren’t being granted bail. Now it’s just the trial, and that won’t happen for years yet.”
He stared at her, at the new happiness in her eyes, the relief, and felt only the same emptiness. “That’s nice.”
“Nice? It’s wonderful. As soon as you can leave here, you can start over….”
She stopped. He spread his hands wide—those long-fingered hands, still broad across, though the tendons were sharp against the thin skin: the hands of a junkie. The hands of a killer. “I got nowhere to go.”
“Mr. Robinson said….”
“Mr. Robinson can go to hell.” There was no vitriol in the words—they were just words. “Do you think I have a snowball’s chance in hell out there? Yeah, they got Montenegro. But the cartel’s still in business. They’ll come for me, once they know I’m out. The minute I hit the street they’ll realize I was the one that sold out Montenegro, and I’m dead.”
“They won’t look for you. They think you’re in prison here in Cincinnati. Mr. Robinson said you and they were very careful not to involve us. They don’t even know your real name, so we’re not in any danger of reprisals. You can leave, and be safe.”
He cocked his head, looked at her, the words making no sense at all to him. “What?”
“That’s what I wanted to tell you. When Mr. Robinson said it was all over, and you were free to go, I called your uncle. He’s been wanting you to come to the ranch, to stay there and maybe take over someday, if you like it. Those terrible men won’t find you there. You can have your old life back. You can be my Joshua again, and leave all this behind. Cathy and the kids can come see you on vacations—they don’t even remember you anymore.” She smoothed her hand over his cheek. “I hardly remember you anymore. I want my Joshua back.”
He stared at her bright dark eyes and thought, Your Joshua is dead, lady.
ELI leaned on the fence and watched the kid working with the sorrel mare. She was feeling the cooler weather September was bringing, and she frisked delightedly around the patient boy. It was good to see her lively. He remembered when she first came here, her coat dull and shaggy, scarred from abuse and neglect, her tail tangled and droopy and her eyes sunken and hopeless. Now her tail flew like a red silk flag, the upswept conformation hinting at Arabian blood, her dark liquid eyes bright, her coat clean and well-brushed and healthy, though there were still white streaks where the scars had been. She was one of the lucky ones; too many of the rescue animals that came here lived such a short time before the years of neglect and damage took their toll. When she’d arrived, he’d judged her to be about twenty, at least, and was shocked when the vet said she was no more than five. Now, she looked it. “Jesse,” he called softly in his calmest voice, not wanting to startle either the mare or the boy, “see if you can get her to take the bridle. She took it yesterday—I want her to get used to wearing it.”
“Sir,” Jesse acknowledged with a faint nod, his voice low and calm, just as Eli had taught him. He moved slowly toward where the bridle was draped on the fence, never letting his attention stray from the mare. When he picked up the bridle, it jingled softly, and the mare bounced, not so much startled as seeing it as a new game. God, she was so young—she and Jesse would make a good pair once the boy had finished training. The Pueblo didn’t have a tradition of horsemanship, but Jesse—a member of the Isleta Pueblo near Albuquerque—hadn’t let that stop him. He was a natural, only fifteen and already one of Eli’s most promising students.
Jesse began speaking to the mare, very softly. The mare stopped bouncing, flicking her ears forward in interest. He didn’t move but let the horse come to him, and she did, shifting in tiny steps, pretending not to move forward even as she let the boy’s musical voice and nonsense words—or maybe they were Tiwa, Eli didn’t know the difference—lure her to him. When she finally stood snuffling Jesse’s hair, the boy raised his hands slowly and let her sniff and lip the bridle before easing the bit into her mouth. He held it there a moment, then slowly slipped the leather straps over her head, letting her accept it at each stage, until the bit was settled in the gap behind her teeth. The only thing Jesse had to do was fasten the chin strap. He murmured to her softly as he scratched beneath her chin on his way to the buckle, and when he’d fastened it, scratched her cheek beside the leather and steel. “Beautiful girl,” he said, loud enough for Eli to hear it. “Beautiful, beautiful girl.”
She bobbed her head as if in agreement, then bounced away, the moment broken. They watched her carefully, but she didn’t seem to mind the bridle—didn’t try to scrape it off against the fence as some of them did, with damage to both the horse and the bridle. “Good,” Eli told Jesse, who came and leaned against the fence beside where Eli stood. “You’re coming on.”
“She’s a sweetheart,” Jesse said.
“Yep. I think you’re a good pair—I’m going to see if Tucker’ll be willing to assign her to you once you’re done. Give you some time to get used to each other’s quirks before the next NFS mustang roundup.” The Triple C, Tucker Chastain’s ranch, was one of the contractors for the National Forestry Service, which managed the mustang herds on federal land. “You can’t ride in the roundup ’til you’re sixteen, but if I recollect, you’ll have just hit that mark by next spring. In the meantime, though, you’re gonna have to take on a few more projects like Sallee, here.”
“I’m up for it,” Jesse said.
“I know you are, chico.” Eli tilted his hat back and scratched his forehead. “Okay, give her another twenty minutes with the bridle, and then I want you to introduce her to neck reins. Loop ’em up so they don’t dangle, but lay ’em across her withers so she gets used to the feel of them.”
“Yessir,” Jesse said.
Eli shot the kid a grin. “Gotta go—Big Boss is callin’.” Jesse gave him a matching grin, then turned his attention back to the mare. Eli straightened his hat, then turned and headed for the barn where Tucker waited. “Boss.”
“Eli. Kid’s looking good.”
“Yeah, he’s a natural.”
“Seems to have an affinity for that animal.”
“Yessir. Sallee and him are a good match, personality-wise. She’d make a good mount for him—he’s about outgrown Charlie. He’s ready for something a little more lively, more a challenge to him.”
“Yeah.” Tucker indicated the bench beside the barn door. It was in the shade, and Eli settled down on it gratefully. Chastain dropped down beside him, stretched out his long legs, and folded his arms across his chest. They sat that way in silence a moment; Eli didn’t have anything to say, and Tucker, he knew, took his time about saying what he did.
Finally Tucker shifted and said, “What do you think about the men we have on the payroll?”
Eli frowned. “Good men. Can’t say I’ve had a problem with any of them in general. Couple of them a bit mouthy, but since we got rid of that drunk, Leon, I think they’re a good bunch. Why? Thinking of laying someone off?” He didn’t like the idea, but Chastain was the owner, and he knew what the financial situation was better than Eli would.
“No. Bringing someone on, actually.”
The frown deepened, and Eli sat thinking. He might not know the finances, but as foreman, he sure knew the workload, and it didn’t warrant an extra hand. Unless Chastain was planning on bringing on more work. “You taking on more animals?”
“Not anytime soon. Not ’til the bank and I decide what’s gonna happen with the additional acreage. But that’ll be months yet.”
“Then we probably ain’t got work for another hand. Not so’s it’d be worth what we’d have to pay him.”
“He’s not a hand, exactly.” Tucker blew out a breath. “My nephew’s coming out. I need the help with the business, and I’m thinking of training him up to run the place after I retire.”
“You’re not thinking of retiring yet,” Eli said. He knew that for a fact—Tucker loved the ranch, loved the work, and was only in his late fifties. Far too young to think about retirement.
“No. But I’m spending more and more time on managing the business end, and less and less time training horses. Josh is a smart guy, a city guy, and I figure he’ll know what to do about websites and Facebook and Twitter and all that shit.”
“I thought he was some big shot FBI agent,” Eli said idly.
“He was. I don’t know the facts, but I know this last assignment of his went bad somehow, and he quit. He’s been in the hospital a while, and Hannah wants him out of the city and someplace he can take his time recovering.”
“He get shot or something?”
“Hell if I know. You know those Feds—they don’t tell you nothing you don’t need to know.”
The only Feds Eli knew were the guys at the NFS and the ones at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and they were all pretty decent fellas, so he didn’t say anything. He just nodded and stared out across the paddock.
“So I figured we’d kill two birds with one stone. Josh can come out here and get his health back, and I can teach him about ranching while he’s doing it. Working in the office probably won’t hurt, either.”
“I don’t think I’ve met him,” Eli mused. “I know your niece and her kids—they were out a couple summers ago—but he ain’t been out here so’s I remember.”
“Not since he was a kid. They used to come out every summer. Hannah’s been living back East since college.” He didn’t say anything more. Eli knew that there wasn’t a Mr. Hannah, and Josh and Cathy had their mother’s last name (though Cathy was married and divorced, from what Tucker had told him), but he didn’t know anything more than that. Wasn’t his business anyway.
“So why d’ja ask about the men? You think they won’t be happy with a Fed living among ’em?”
“Him being a Fed ain’t the issue. I was thinking more about him being my nephew, and him not knowing nothing about ranch life and all. Could be a lot of resentment and such.”
Eli shook his head. “I don’t think that’ll be a problem. As long as he ain’t an asshole, I think he’ll be fine. Can he at least ride?”
“Hell if I know,” Chastain said again. “He did as a kid.”
“Then he’ll probably be fine. There’ll be some jockeyin’, the same way there is whenever we take on a new hand, but it’ll all shake down okay. As long as he ain’t a prissy bitch or an asshole, and seeing as how he was an FBI agent, I kinda doubt he’s a prissy bitch.”
“He better not be an asshole,” Chastain said. “I don’t need the trouble, and I’d really like to know that I’m leaving the ranch in good hands. Of course, I can’t make that decision until I get to know him, right?”
“You sick or something? Talking about retiring, and leaving the ranch in good hands…. Jesus, Tuck, you’re making me nervous.”
“Nah, I’m fine. I’m just…. Shit, Eli, I’m turning fifty-nine next birthday. In another year I’ll be sixty. Out here, sixty is damn old.”
“Yeah, it is,” Eli said, then grinned as Tucker elbowed him.
“Says the guy who’s half my age.”
“No, I’d be half your age if you were sixty-six. Jesus, old man, no wonder you need help with the business end of the ranch, if you can’t even figure right.”
“Hey, I may be old, but I can still fire you.”
“No, you can’t, ’cause you can’t find nobody else that’ll put up with your cranky ass.”
They grinned at each other a moment, then Tucker shook his head. “So. Josh’ll be staying in the house, so you don’t need to find space for him in the bunkhouse. You’re just lucky I ain’t putting him in your place.”
“That’s the foreman’s cottage,” Eli pointed out. “I’m the foreman. That’s non-negotiable.”
“I’m still the boss.”
“Yeah, and you live in the boss’s house. You gonna make your FBI nephew who ain’t been on a ranch in dunno-many years the foreman?”
Tucker shuddered. “Oh, hell no. Okay. You’re safe. Anyway, Hannah didn’t know when he’d be coming out—she needed to talk to him yet and arrange things. I’ll let you know as soon as I do. There’s not much you need to do, at any rate. Just your job.”
“And I do that anyway. But thanks for the heads up. You want me to pass the word among the vaqueros?”
“Sure. Might as well keep them in the loop.” Chastain sighed. “I suppose there’ll be all kinds of speculation about my health after this.”
Eli grinned. “You bet your ass, old man. Better make sure you git out here and show ’em you’re still alive, or they’ll be taking bets on your life expectancy.”
“Smartass.” Tucker got up, kicked him lightly in the boot, and sauntered off back towards the house.