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New Mexico Territory, April 1882
"They're laughing at us, Samson, and it's all your fault," Rayna Templeton muttered as she trudged through the gates at Rancho Verde leading her Appaloosa stallion. Samson whinnied what could have been an apology, but his mistress suspected that he wasn't at all sorry he'd thrown a shoe for the second time this week. For the last four miles Samson had been quite content to poke along unencumbered by his rider, but Rayna was disgusted and bone-deep weary. She was also covered with dust from her wide-brimmed felt hat to the toes of her leather boots. Since dawn she had been scouring the countryside for calves that had escaped the spring roundup, and now she wanted nothing more than a hearty meal and a hot bath.
But first she had to get past the cowhands who had gathered at the corral to poke fun at her.
"Out fer another stroll, Miss Rayna?" Charlie McGinty hollered, making no attempt to hide the smirk on his weathered face.
"Yes, indeed, Charlie," she replied facetiously. "The air is so invigorating at this time of year I just don't seem to be able to resist."
While Charlie scratched his head, apparently trying to figure out what "invigorating" meant, Flint Piper took his turn. "Didja pick any pretty wild-flowers, miss?"
Everyone guffawed at that, and even Rayna had to bite back a smile. Dainty pursuits like picking posies were as foreign to her as words like "invigorating" were to Charlie. "No, Flint, I'm afraid the verbena and Indian paintbrush are past their prime. There'll be no flowers on Mother's dinner table tonight."
"That's too bad," Flint replied. "Miz Collie's gonna bemighty disappointed."
Rayna stopped and affected an air of sadness. "No more so than I, Flint. You all know how much I adore a pretty bouquet."
The men were still laughing at that when someone else called out an admonition against strolling in the sun without a parasol. He earned a back-slapping guffaw because he'd done such a good impersonation of Rayna's mother. The object of their mirth put an end to the laughter by dusting her hat on her trousers, sending up a cloud of dirt that set everyone to coughing.
Chuckling, Guillermo Rodriguez jumped off the top rung of the corral fence. "All right, vaqueros, the fun is over. The sun is high and there is still work to be done."
"Not the least of which is shoeing this horse," Rayna muttered to the range boss as the other men scattered. "Something has to be done about that new blacksmith, Gil. I knew he was too good to be true when he showed up last week looking for a job. I can do a better job of shoeing horses than he can, and that's not saying much."
Rodriguez grinned. "Do you want the job, señorita? I am sure Señora Templeton would be happy to know that you are working closer to home instead of being out on the range every day."
Rayna slanted an exasperated glance in his direction. "Don't you start on me, too, Gil."
"Oh, but the men, they love to tease you, señorita."
She patted Samson's neck. "That's because a walking target is easy to hit."
He laughed and held out his hand for the reins. "Here, I will take care of Samson -- and the blacksmith."
Though normally Rayna stabled her own mount, she handed the reins over gratefully. "Thank you, Gil. And by the way, I struck gold this morning. I rounded up ten head and drove them into the corral above Diablo Canyon. There are two maverick calves and a sleepered yearling in the bunch."
"Bueno!" he said, his eyes shining with respect. A sleepered yearling was a calf with an earmark but no brand -- indicating that the animal had escaped spring roundup for two years in a row. That usually meant the herd he traveled in was quite wild, and single-handedly corralling a wild herd was no small feat. "I will send Flint and Charlie out now to bring them in for the brand."
"Thank you, Gil."
"Will you be riding out again today?" he asked.
"No, I don't think so," she replied, removing her rifle from its scabbard. "I've eaten enough dust for one day."
Slinging her saddlebags over one shoulder, she patted Samson's hindquarters as the range boss led him away to the stable. The house lay in the opposite direction, and Rayna headed for the nearest entrance, through the walled garden that sheltered the hacienda's western exposure. The iron gate creaked a scratchy welcome as she slipped inside and moved across the flagstone patio toward the house.
The magnificent old two-story home had been constructed in the Spanish style over sixty years ago. Shady galerías encircled it on both floors inside and out, and each room had doors that led to the exterior galleries and interior courtyard.
The stucco hacienda had a long and colorful history, having survived Mexico's revolt against Spain and the American incursion that subsequently wrested the territory from Mexico. What mattered to Rayna, though, was that Rancho Verde was the only home she had ever known. She loved the house and the lush green Rio Grande valley that sheltered it. She loved the mountains and deserts beyond the valley, too. It was a harsh land that could be cruel and unrelenting, but it was her home.
Her mother had insisted that she and her sister, Skylar, received a proper education back east, so Rayna had seen other parts of the country -- places where water was never scarce, neighbors were plentiful, and the greatest danger to life and limb was being run over by a runaway carriage on a cobblestone street. Her brush with civilization had done nothing to change her opinion of Rancho Verde. It was the most beautiful place on earth.
The house was quiet when Rayna slipped through the arcade that connected the patio with the courtyard. Through the open doors of the dining room on the other side of the enclosure she spotted one of the servants laying the table for supper, and she heard muted voices drifted down from the upper floor. Anxious to tell her father about the bonanza she'd corralled, she headed across the courtyard to the study. The desk was littered with open ledgers, but Raymond Templeton was nowhere to be seen.
Disappointed, Rayna ejected the shells from her Winchester, placed it in the polished gun case by the door, and returned her cache of ammunition to the drawer below the rack. She performed the ritual with the ease of someone who had been well trained in the proper care of weapons, as indeed she had been. Rayna had been working the ranch alongside her father for as long as she could remember, and only a fool roamed the countryside unarmed.
That chore completed, she returned to the courtyard and dashed up the nearest staircase with her usual abandon.
"Unless you're trying to escape a stampede, I suggest you slow down, dear."
Her mother's quietly spoken admonition brought Rayna up short, and she turned. Collie Templeton was approaching the stairs with an armload of fresh linens. "No stampede, Mother. I was just trying to see how quickly I could get into my room and out of these dusty clothes."
Collie gave her daughter a once-over as she started up the stairs. "In this instance I could almost approve of your haste. Did you have trouble with Samson again?"
"How did you know?"
Collie's blue eyes, so much like her daughter's, glittered with amusement. "Marie spotted you walking in."
Rayna groaned. "Marie and everyone else on the ranch. I told Gil to get rid of that new blacksmith. He's absolutely worthless." She extended her arms. "Here, let me help you with those."
"Not until you've had a bath, young lady," she replied sternly, shifting her bundle out of Rayna's reach. "Consuelo would skin you alive if she had to wash these over again."
"No, she wouldn't," Rayna argued good-naturedly as she turned and strolled with her mother down the gallery. "She's been threatening that for years and hasn't caught me yet."
"Lord knows you've given us both enough excuses -- muddy boots, soiled gowns, disgraceful tattered Levi's that no woman should ever be caught dead--"
"Yes, yes, Mother, I know," she said, silencing her with a kiss on the cheek. "I'm a wretched hoyden, the bane of your existence, and the most unrefined lady in the entire territory of New Mexico."
Collie sighed with exasperation. "You don't have to sound so proud of it."
Rayna chuckled as she stripped off her gloves. "Mother, you've been trying to domesticate me for twenty-four years and haven't succeeded yet. When are you going to face the fact that I'll never be anything but the son you and father always wanted? Skylar is the domestic one."
Collie wished she could debate the issue. She loved both her children dearly, but they were as different as night and day. Skylar was quiet and shy. She had mastered the fine art of running a household and was in all ways a dutiful daughter. Rayna, on the other hand, was stubborn, headstrong, and willful. She had inherited her father's business sense, and her only desire was to someday assume the responsibility of running Rancho Verde. If Raymond Templeton had ever once discouraged his daughter from such an unladylike pursuit, Collie hadn't been within earshot when he'd done it.
"Marie is preparing your bathwater, dear," she said, resigned to the knowledge that nothing she could say would change her daughter's deportment. "I may not be able to domesticate you, but I can at least make certain you don't appear at the dinner table smelling like a horse stall."
"Thank you, Mother." Tugging at the strip of rawhide that held her blond hair into a tight queue, Rayna glanced into her sister's room and found it devoid of life. "Where's Skylar?"
A small frown furrowed Collie's brow, but she kept her voice carefully neutral. "I believe she went out to the Mescalero encampment."
Rayna wasn't fooled by her mother's even tone. "Why does that upset you? She's always felt a special connection with the Apaches at Rancho Verde."
"I know that, dear. But she's spending more and more time with them lately. She goes out to the encampment every day now."
"Really?" Rayna stopped in front of her bedroom door.
"You didn't know?" Collie asked. Usually Rayna knew far more about what her sister thought and did then either of her parents. Since the day Raymond had brought Skylar home, the two girls had been virtually inseparable.
"No, I didn't," she replied, her own brow furrowed with worry now. It wasn't like Skylar to keep things from her.
"I believe Gatana is teaching her some sort of ceremony."
Her voice was laced with sadness, and Rayna finally realized what was upsetting her. Collie felt betrayed because she feared that all the advantages she'd given Skylar hadn't been enough for her adopted daughter. She had loved her and protected her as best she could from the inevitable prejudice the girl had faced. She had seen to it that she received an excellent education back east that had broadened Skylar's horizons far beyond the scope of most other young women in New Mexico, white or Apache.
Unfortunately a connection to her heritage was the one thing Collie couldn't give her daughter, but it was the one thing Skylar seemed to want most.
Rayna searched for something to say that would lift her mother's spirits, but she couldn't think of anything. She knew that Skylar loved her adopted family, but there was a certain sadness in her that seemed to be growing stronger every day. Rayna thought she understood it, but she knew she could never explain it to the woman who had raised Skylar with the same love and devotion she'd bestowed on her flesh-and-blood daughter.
"I wouldn't worry about it, Mother," she said, trying to sound reassuring. "She's probably just looking for a little diversion to ease her boredom. I know that if I had nothing to do but change bed linens and embroider sofa cushions every day, I'd go stark raving mad."
"Yes, but you're not your sister," Collie retorted, then fanned the air to shoo away the words. "I'm sorry, dear. I'm just being silly."
"Yes, you are," Rayna agreed. "Learning a Mescalero ceremony isn't going to change the way she feels about you. You're her mother. She loves you."
"I know she does, dear." She started to pat Rayna's arm, then remembered the layers of dirt and the clean sheets she was carrying. She withdrew her hand so quickly that both of them laughed.
"Oh, go ahead, Mother," Rayna teased. "I'd love to see Consuelo threatening to skin you alive."
"Collie!" Raymond's deep voice reverberated through the courtyard, startling his wife and daughter.
"What is it, dear?" Collie stepped closer to the gallery railing and found herself looking down on the top of her husband's balding head.
Raymond twisted around and looked up. "Riders coming in."
Rayna joined her mother at the rail, her unbound hair spilling over her shoulders. "Who is it?" Visitors were rare and always a source of excitement because they varied the routine of ranch life.
"Looks like Ben Martinez and that Hadley fellow from the newspaper in Malaventura." Raymond grinned up at his daughter. "Hullo, missy. Hear you had a little trouble with Samson again."
"You don't have to look so smug about it, Papa. You're the one who hired that no-account drifter who claimed to be a blacksmith."
"Live and learn, missy. Live and learn. Gil's already given him his walking papers."
"Well, if he leaves on a horse he shod himself, we can expect him back by nightfall."
Raymond's hearty laugh bounced off the walls of the courtyard as he made his way toward the parlor at the front of the hacienda. "Are you two ladies going to come down to greet our guests, or not?"
"I'm on my way, Papa," Rayna said, tossing her saddlebags and hat on the chair just inside her door before heading for the stairs.
But Collie had other ideas. "Not until you've had a bath and changed into proper clothing, young lady," she said sternly. "You cannot receive visitors looking like a common cowhand."
"Don't be silly, Mother," she replied without stopping. "I've worked the herd right alongside Ben Martinez during roundup for the last six years. If he saw me in anything other than Levi's and boots, he'd have a fit of apoplexy."
She was right about that. Ben was Rancho Verde's nearest neighbor, and he was well acquainted with Rayna's unusual habits. The man with Ben was another matter entirely, though. "That may be, but Mr. Hadley is a fine gentleman from Boston. You should greet him properly."
When Rayna realized what her mother was getting at, she stopped at the head of the stairs and gave her the most wicked grin in her repertoire. "You mean he's a fine unattached gentleman from Boston, and I should pretend to be the delicate flower we both know I'm not."
Collie sighed with exasperation. "You do have manners and breeding, Rayna. It's just a matter of recognizing the appropriate time to display them. This is one of those times."
"Sorry, Mother, but I'm not about to trot out my best behavior for that Boston dandy," she said, continuing down the stairs. "He can't even sit a horse properly."
"There's more to life than sitting a horse!"
"Not my life," Rayna replied.
"I give up," Collie muttered, hurrying down the gallery. She had raised two of the most beautiful young women in the territory of New Mexico, and both, it seemed, were destined to remain spinsters -- Skylar by circumstance of birth and Rayna by choice, or just plain stubbornness, Collie wasn't sure which.
For safety's sake, Rancho Verde had been situated in the center of the valley so that riders approaching from any direction would be visible long before they reached the hacienda. That gave Collie ample opportunity to dispose of the bed linens and instruct Consuelo Rodriguez, the Templetons' housekeeper, to prepare refreshments for the guests. Then she went in search of her husband and daughter. She found them on the front veranda watching the riders approach. Rayna was telling her father about the unbranded cattle she'd discovered and the merry chase they had led her on.
"It's fortunate Samson didn't lose that shoe until after I'd corralled the herd."
"Fortunate for the blacksmith," Raymond commented with a chuckle. "I'd hate to see what you'd have done to him if you'd lost that yearling."
Rayna didn't share her father's mirth. "Rest assured, Papa, if that had happened there wouldn't have been enough left of that charlatan's hide to--"
"That's enough, Rayna." Collie said, then turned a stern eye on her husband. "And that's enough out of you, too. If you didn't encourage her--"
"Oh, now, Collie. . ." Raymond threw one arm over her shoulder. "You oughta know by now that nothing either one of us says is going to discourage Rayna from speakin' her mind or doing what she wants to do around the ranch." He winked at his daughter. "And she does it so well that I can't hardly complain, now, can I?"
Though Rayna smiled at her father and the affectionate way he gathered Collie to him, the mild disagreement between them made her uncomfortable. The only real quarrels she'd ever heard them engage in had been over her. Her earliest memories were of her father teaching her to ride and her mother protesting because she was too young. The same had been true when he taught her to use a rifle and a revolver.
Raymond had allowed her to ride herd as soon as he was confident of her ability to manage a cow pony from a sidesaddle, and Collie had objected to that, too. They had fought over Rayna's determination not to be sent away to school, and an even bigger argument had ensued when Raymond had supported Rayna's decision to abandon her inconvenient sidesaddle in favor of a more practical stock saddle. Collie had given in on the issue of riding astride only after her husband convinced her that cutting range stock from a sidesaddle was not only impractical but exceedingly dangerous. Collie had argued that Rayna shouldn't be working alongside the men like a common cowhand, but she'd lost that argument along with the original one.
In fact, with the exception of the issue of education, Raymond and his namesake had won nearly every battle. Rayna knew that would never keep her mother from trying to reform her, and she didn't mind. Collie might protest her behavior, but she would never stop loving her. That was all that mattered to Rayna. Being a bone of contention between her parents did disturb her, though.
But Rayna knew this argument wasn't going to get out of hand because their visitors were riding through the gates, and Collie would never have aired the family's quarrels in front of guests.
"Howdy, Ben. Mr. Hadley," Raymond greeted the two men as they neared. "What brings you all the way out here?"
Though Raymond's greeting was friendly, the two riders showed no sign of returning the affable welcome. They doffed their hats to the ladies, but their faces were grim as they dismounted.
"We got trouble, Raymond," Ben Martinez said.
"Oh?" He looked from one man to the other.
Samuel Aloysius Hadley nodded a confirmation. "Big trouble, Mr. Templeton."
"Well, spit it out," Raymond demanded.
Hadley looked at the two ladies uncomfortably, then made his decision. "Geronimo's on the warpath again."
"And he's headed this way," Ben added.
Raymond sighed heavily. "Hellfire and damnation. Come on in, boys. We got some plannin' to do."
\t The men adjourned to Raymond's study, and though Collie tried to discourage Rayna from participating in the conversation, a team of wild horses couldn't have kept her away. Their guests settled into the twin armchairs opposite Raymond's desk, and Rayna took a seat on the small sofa behind them.
With a minimum of embellishment, Hadley related what he'd learned of the Chiricahua renegade's bloody escape from the reservation at San Carlos in Arizona. Telegraphed reports gave several different versions of the outbreak, some stating that as many as thirty and as few as ten civilians and soldiers had been slaughtered.
Though Rayna had no direct knowledge of the attack, she would have been willing to guess that all the reports were exaggerated. As a general rule, anything that had to do with Apache depredations was blown out of all proportion by the press. Still, having Geronimo on the warpath was a dead serious matter. There wasn't a man, woman, or child in New Mexico who had forgotten the massacres of the previous spring when Chief Nana, one of Geronimo's most trusted allies, had terrorized the Rio Grande valley. His raids had lasted only six weeks, but before he disappeared into Mexico he had killed nearly fifty New Mexicans, taken several women captive, and stolen more than two hundred horses and mules. All that. . . accomplished by a seventy-year-old chieftain and forty Apaches who had a thousand soldiers hot on their trail.
If Geronimo was headed for New Mexico, Nana would undoubtedly come out of hiding to join him, and blood was going to flow like water.
Rayna was impressed by the way Hadley told the story of the recent outbreak. Obviously he had received several telegraph dispatches, sorted through them, and come up with the best conclusions he could draw, considering the limitations under which he worked. And unlike Ben, who was punctuating Hadley's tale by interjecting an occasional wild speculation, Samuel was remarkably calm. But then, he'd been in the territory for only a few months. He hadn't experienced the terror caused by Nana's raids or those of the Mescalero chief, Victorio, before that. Rayna had seen firsthand what destruction the Apaches could wreak.
"Tell 'im about the head," Ben encouraged, getting carried away with the story.
Hadley looked uncomfortable. "Well, it seems that. . . This is just an unconfirmed rumor, you understand. . . But it seems that one of the men at San Carlos was decapitated, and the savages. . . played football with the dismembered head."
"Dear God," Rayna murmured, then instantly regretted having spoken. She was behind them, and the men had forgotten there was a lady present or they never would have spoken so freely.
Hadley was instantly apologetic. "I'm sorry, Miss Templeton. I shouldn't have mentioned that."
"It's all right, Mr. Hadley," she reassured him. "I've heard worse."
"That may be, ma'am, but such matters aren't--"
All her life men had been giving her the condescending speech about matters that were unfit for ladylike sensibilities, and she didn't want to hear it again. "How reliable are the reports that he's headed this way?" she asked, cutting him off.
Hadley cleared his throat. He was never quite sure what to make of Rayna Templeton because she was so different from any woman he'd ever met. She hadn't fainted dead away at the mention of the head, and since her father showed no sign of being uncomfortable at having her in the room, he decided to continue.
"As reliable as they can be at this point. Apparently word was slow coming out of San Carlos because the telegraph lines had been cut, but the renegades also killed five teamsters near Clifton. That means they headed due east from the reservation." He wiped a hand over his pasty white face, and Rayna wondered if he'd gotten more than he bargained for when he decided to pursue his journalistic trade in this rugged, dangerous part of the country.
"This is a big territory, Raymond," Ben commented, "but we can't afford to take the chance that those savages won't come up this way. We'd better start preparing now. I've got some of my men out already, warnin' the ranches to the south. We were hopin' you'd be able to spare a few to ride north and west."
"I'll have Gil get some men out first thing tomorrow," he replied. Ben started to protest the delay, but his host overrode his objections. "Ben, you know as well as I do that it would take nearly a week for Geronimo to get this far."
"That may be, but what about the Mescalero?" he asked defiantly. "If they hear that Geronimo is on the warpath, they might decide to join him the way some of them did with Nana last year."
"The Mescalero reservation is well south of here, Ben. I don't think we're in any immediate danger."
"Yeah, but those ain't the only Mescaleros in the territory, Raymond," he said significantly.
"Now, just a minute--" Rayna was on her feet instantly, but her father silenced her with a wave of his hand.
"I'll handle this, honey. I think Ben knows he's gone too far."
"No, Raymond. You're the one who's gone too far," Martinez countered. "You got nearly twenty Apaches workin' for you, and it ain't right."
Raymond exchanged an exasperated glance with his daughter. He had lost count of the number of times he'd had this argument with his neighbors. When he purchased Rancho Verde he had inherited a small group of Mescaleros and had quickly seen the advantages of befriending them just as his predecessor had. Their leader was Consayka, who as a boy had broken away from his own people after being converted to Christianity by Spanish monks. When the land that was now Rancho Verde had been given to Don Diego Sebastian in a vast Spanish land grant, the don had allowed Consayka and his people to stay and had put them to work on the ranch.
Consayka was old now, and he had strong feelings about continuing the traditions of his Mescalero ancestors, but Raymond had no doubts about his commitment to peace. There was no way the ancient Apache would give a second thought to joining Geronimo on the warpath.
Unfortunately, getting his Johnny-come-lately neighbors to understand that was another matter entirely. "Ben, Consayka's people haven't made any trouble for sixty years. Most of them were born on Rancho Verde and have never even lived among their own people."
"Can you deny that they still hold their heathen ceremonies?"
"No," Raymond answered reluctantly. "But that doesn't mean they have any interest in joining their brethren on the warpath even if the reservation Mescalero do revolt."
Rayna could be silent no longer. "Ben, our Apaches are farmers, cowhands, and house servants. I seriously doubt whether they could even survive among their own people now."
"All the same, you're taking a terrible chance," Martinez warned them.
"I'm afraid I have to agree," Hadley said somewhat apologetically as he glanced between Rayna and her father. Rayna gave him a disgusted not-you-too look, and the young journalist hurried to explain, "It's not that I doubt the peaceful intent of your Apaches, Miss Templeton. You may be entirely correct in your assessment, but not everyone in Malaventura agrees. I've noticed a rising tide of sentiment against them."
"What have you heard?" Raymond asked, scowling.
"There have been no specific threats, but the community is growing increasingly uncomfortable with having a band of non-reservation Apaches in the area. Once word of Geronimo's depredations spreads, I'm afraid the citizens of New Mexico will begin to retaliate. The history of this territory suggests that they may not care whether the Apaches they retaliate against are peaceful or not."
A cold chill ran down Rayna's spine. Hadley may have been scrawny, pasty-faced, and a poor horseman, but he had an excellent point. If a panic started, no Apache would be safe from attack. During Victorio's raids several years earlier, rumors had abounded that the Rancho Verde Mescaleros were secretly aiding the renegade. Nana's raids last year had wrought similar rumors.
For that reason, neighbors -- even good ones like Ben Martinez -- had been seeking the removal of the Rancho Verde Mescaleros for years, and this recent outbreak would undoubtedly fuel even more unfounded rumors. According to Samuel Hadley, the kindling for a conflagration was already being laid.
Raymond launched into a vigorous speech about his commitment to protecting the Apaches on the ranch, then moved on to the topic of stationing lookouts at strategic passes throughout the area. Hadley and Martinez apparently felt it was wise to let the argument drop, and once they had a firm plan in mind, they took their leave. Rayna and Raymond escorted them to their horses and watched as they rode away.
"This is going to upset Skylar," Rayna said quietly as they turned back to the hacienda.
"I know." He shook his head. "When is this all gonna end, honey? I feel like I been fighting Apaches all my life, and for the life of me I can't figure out why. This country should be big enough for all of us."
"But it's not. Mankind is basically greedy, Papa. We always want what our neighbor has, and only laws and the constraints of civilization keep us from preying on one another. Unfortunately those same laws don't apply where the Apache are concerned, and they don't seem inclined to accept our views on the value of civilization."
"Very nicely put, honey," Raymond said, his eyes twinkling with mirth as he threw one arm over her shoulders. "And here I thought your sister was the philosopher in this family."
"Don't poke fun at me, Papa," she said, slipping one arm around his ample waist as they strolled inside. "I've had enough of that for one day."
"All right. What other views of the Apache would you care to share with me?"
"None, because you'll only tease me about it later. I think, instead, I'll stroll out to Consayka's camp and fetch Skylar. Word of Geronimo's outbreak is probably spreading all over the ranch already, and I'd rather she heard it from me."
"That's a good idea."
"Tell Mother I'll be back shortly."
It was a brisk ten-minute walk to the tiny encampment behind the hacienda. Unlike most other Apache tribes, the Mescalero lived in tall, stately lodges similar to those of the Plains Indians. The eleven homes were grouped together in a seemingly haphazard fashion, no two exactly alike except that each entrance faced the sunrise.
As Rayna approached, she saw her sister and two elderly women sitting under the brush-covered ramada the ranch hands called a squaw cooler. Skylar's head was bowed, and her hands were working busily on an object that rested in her lap. Rayna had always envied those delicate hands and the genteel way her sister carried herself. In fact, there were many things about her sister that she envied, not the least of which was Skylar's gentle disposition. But it had never occurred to Rayna to try to be more like her demure, ladylike sister. It would have pleased their parents no end, but Rayna didn't know how to be anything but what she was.
Under the ramada, Consayka's wife, Gatana, was facing Skylar, deep in concentration as she studied the young woman's every move. The third woman, Tsa'kata, sat apart from them and seemed to be paying no attention to the others. Rayna knew that was not the case. Tsa'kata's eyesight was poor and her hearing even worse, but little happened on Rancho Verde within her sight -- or out of it -- that she was unaware of.
Of all the Apaches on the ranch, Tsa'kata was the one Rayna knew and understood least, for she had never worked as a house servant, as her daughter Gatana had. Her face was a leathery mask of deeply cut wrinkles and sagging flesh, yet no one would have guessed her to be nearly a hundred years old. She spoke enough Spanish to make herself understood when necessary, but she had refused to learn English -- or at least she refused to speak it; Rayna had always suspected she knew far more of the white man's language than she let on.
As a child, Rayna had been secretly terrified of the old woman, and even now Tsa'kata was one of the few people in the world who had the power to intimidate her.
Though the women had undoubtedly seen her coming, no one acknowledged her presence, so she slowed her pace as she neared the ramada. If Gatana was teaching Skylar a ritual ceremony, it would be disrespectful for Rayna to interrupt, and she had no desire to incur Tsa'kata's wrath. Instead, she moved to a nearby outcropping of boulders and sat, giving every appearance of someone who'd been out for a casual stroll and had decided to stop and rest.
Watching covertly, Rayna finally identified the object in Skylar's lap as a necklace of some sort. Her small, graceful hands were carefully weaving beads and strands of grama grass into an intricate bib that was suspended from a beaded choker. Rayna could vaguely hear Gatana and Skylar speaking, but their voices were too soft to allow her to catch any of the words. It was just as well, she reasoned, for they were undoubtedly speaking Apache, and Rayna's knowledge of the language was limited.
When Skylar had first come to Rancho Verde, Rayna had taken on the job of teaching her new sister English, and Skylar had tried to reciprocate. Skylar had proved to be the better pupil. Over the years, Rayna had kept trying, but whenever she used her limited vocabulary with the Mescaleros she invariably received snickers or outright laughs because she was so bad at it. She had finally given up completely after she mispronounced a phrase that had conveyed some terrible insult and had received an incomprehensible tongue-lashing from Tsa'kata. Now she left the difficult language to Skylar.
Out of the corner of her eye, Rayna studied her sister. Her simple white shirtwaist and beige skirt were a striking contrast to the loose overblouses and colorful calico skirts of her companions. Only those clothes and her age set her apart from the other women, though. Her hair, which she normally wore in a loose chignon or a braided roll at the nape of her neck, was unbound today. Jet black, it fell in gentle swirls around her shoulders and framed a face of such delicate beauty that all who saw her felt compelled to comment on it. Hers was an exotic, intriguing face -- or so it had seemed to the easterners Skylar and Rayna had encountered while they were at school in Boston. While no one had feared the Indian named Templeton, her appearance had set her apart from the other girls, making her an outsider.
In this territory, however, Skylar's square jaw, high cheekbones, deep-set black eyes, and light bronze skin labeled her an Apache. No amount of culture, grace, education -- not even the considerable influence of Raymond Templeton -- could overcome the prejudice that kept Skylar from being totally accepted. She was still an outsider.
Was it any wonder that Skylar felt such a bond with the Rancho Verde Apaches? Rayna wondered, remembering the pain she'd seen in her mother's eyes earlier. As much as Collie loved Skylar, she couldn't understand her daughter's need for a connection with her past. But Rayna understood. Skylar was a beautiful, demure young lady trapped squarely between her vague memories of life as an Apache and the Anglo world she had been raised in. The tragedy was that she could never truly belong to either.
Even the Rancho Verde Mescaleros, who had accepted Skylar and indoctrinated her in their ways, were not really her people. She had been stolen from a band of White Mountain Apaches, whose culture was in many ways different from that of the Mescalero. Over time, Skylar's memories of her first family had fused with the beliefs of the Mescalero and the legends Consayka told around the fire on winter evenings.
Rayna ached at the sadness she often saw in her sister, but she didn't pity her. Skylar would never have stood for that, and Rayna loved her far too much to demean their relationship with pity.
Never one to enjoy being inactive, Rayna soon grew tired of pretending to admire the scenery. She kept still, trying not to fidget, but by the time the ceremony was complete, Rayna had exhausted her meager supply of patience. She sighed with relief when Skylar wrapped the necklace in a cloth and placed it along with several other bundles in a beaded buckskin pouch. As she rose, she spoke quietly with Gatana and Tsa'kata, then slipped out from beneath the ramada.
"Hello, sister. What brings you back to the ranch so early today? Did Samson throw another shoe?" Her dark eyes were twinkling merrily, and though Rayna didn't know how it was possible, she suspected that Skylar already knew the answer to her question.
She stood and stretched her legs. "Yes, he did, and if you're going to tease me about it, too, you can walk back to the house by yourself."
Skylar stopped in front of her. "You've had a difficult day," she said sympathetically.
"That is something of an understatement," she replied, all hints of teasing gone. For the sake of courtesy, she moved to the ramada and greeted Gatana and her mother. Tsa'kata did not deign to acknowledge her, but Rayna spent a moment conversing with the old woman's daughter, who had long since stopped working at the hacienda because of her advanced age.
"What brought you out here?" Skylar asked when she and Rayna finally started for home.
Dreading having to tell her about Geronimo's outbreak, Rayna stalled for time. "Mother said that you were learning a ceremony, and I thought I'd better see what you were up to. What is Gatana teaching you?"
Skylar's eyes danced with excitement. "You won't believe it, Rayna. I've been asked to participate in Mary Long Horn's maiden ceremony. Gatana is teaching me the ritual prayers for making the necklace of the sons-ee-a-ray."
Rayna gave her a sidelong glance. "Would you care to translate that for me? You know how good my Apache is."
"It's the symbol of the morning star, one of many that will decorate Mary's dress. Once I have learned the prayers, I'll make the actual necklace that she'll wear in the ceremony. The one I was working on today is only an imitation. We use several different necklaces for practice so that none will be invested with the power of White Painted Woman."
Rayna needed no explanation of that. White Painted Woman was the deity revered by the Apaches as the mother of their race. Apparently the symbol of the morning star belonged to her. "When is the ceremony?"
"In July, four days before the full moon. I suppose that would make it somewhere around the eighteenth."
"Hmmm. . . That doesn't give you much time to learn the ritual and complete the necklace."
"I know," Skylar answered, growing pensive. "And there's more, Rayna. I have been asked to attend Mary on each of the four days of the ceremony." She paused a moment. "Will Mother be upset, do you think?"
Rayna couldn't lie to her. "It's possible, but she won't try to stop you from participating."
"I know that. I hate to cause her pain, though."
Rayna slipped her arm around her sister. It made walking difficult, since Rayna was several inches taller, but Skylar needed the comfort. "You're a grown woman, Skylar. You have to do what you think is best."
"Even if it hurts someone I love?"
Skylar shook her head sadly. "No, she doesn't."
"Then we'll find a way to make her understand how important this is to you."
Skylar glanced up at her, grateful for her support. For nearly as long as she could remember, this sister had been her buffer against disappointment, frustration, and anyone or anything that tried to harm her. Skylar had vague memories of another sister, older than Rayna, who had also watched over her -- who had, in fact, died while trying to protect her from the Indians who had kidnapped her. The memory saddened her, but she couldn't imagine loving that sister in the shadows any more than she loved this one.
"It is important to me, Rayna, but I don't think I could make anyone understand why -- not even you."
"But I do understand," Rayna insisted.
"No, you don't." Skylar stopped suddenly and glanced at the high blue sky near the horizon to the east. She seemed lost in thought, as though looking for something that wasn't there.
Rayna stopped, too, facing her. "Then explain it to me."
Skylar did not look away from the horizon as she spoke. "It's the necklace," she said softly.
Now Rayna really did understand. Or thought she did. Years ago Consayka had told Skylar the romantic tale of a young Apache brave who had married a maiden from an enemy clan and united both their peoples. The brave had defied custom and given his bride a magnificent necklace of turquoise and silver with a medallion carved in the image of the Thunder Eagle.
Consayka told the story often, and not always in the same fashion. In one version the brave had been from the Jicarilla Apache tribe; in another, he was White Mountain. Depending on Consayka's mood, the handsome brave and his wife had many children and lived to a ripe old age, or died tragically at the hands of a Chiricahua renegade. Rayna had heard so many versions of the story that she found it virtually meaningless.
Skylar, on the other hand, believed the story was true. What was more, she believed that somehow she had been a part of it. When she was fifteen, she had even made a replica of the necklace Consayka had described. She kept it hidden, and no one but Rayna and a few of the Mescaleros even knew of its existence.
"Making this necklace has reminded you of the Thunder Eagle legend, hasn't it?" Rayna asked.
"Yes, but that's not all." She looked at her sister. "It's sons-ee-a-ray."
"Morning star? What has that got to do with the legend of . . ." She searched her memory for the names of the couple in Consayka's story, but drew a blank. "Oh, what were they called?" she muttered impatiently.
"He Stalks the Gray Wolf and She Sings by the Willow," Skylar supplied, her voice almost reverent as she spoke the names.
"Right. What has the morning star got to do with them?"
Skylar shook her head helplessly as tears shimmered in her eyes. "I don't know. I can't remember. There's a memory in my head that tantalizes me like a mirage in the desert, but when I reach out to touch it, it vanishes. All I know is that sons-ee-a-ray should mean something to me."
Rayna had no idea how to ease her sister's distress, and there was nothing she hated worse than feeling powerless. "Perhaps the memory will come to you in time," she suggested lamely, and earned a small smile for her effort.
"I was taken from my people nineteen years ago, Rayna. It's not likely that I'll suddenly wake up one morning with all those memories intact. My old life will never come out of the shadows. I have learned to live with that."
"Until something like this reminds you."
Skylar nodded. "The feelings will pass. Come. Mother will be wondering what's keeping us." She started again toward the hacienda, and Rayna fell into step beside her. "All right, now, sister. You may tell me the real reason you came to fetch me."
Rayna laughed. "I never could fool you, could I?"
"Not for very long," Skylar replied, sharing her sister's amusement. "Your eyes betray your emotions. Others can't always see it, but I can. Something has troubled you deeply, and you don't want to tell me about it."
Rayna took a deep breath. "Geronimo has fled the San Carlos reservation and is rumored to be heading this way."
"I see." Though Skylar continued to walk, her body became very still, as though she had somehow drawn into herself, and a curtain fell over her features, making them unreadable. Rayna had seen it happen before. Her sister had inherited the stoicism of her ancestors, and when she chose to shut out the world, no one -- not even Rayna -- could penetrate the barriers she erected.
In an evenly modulated voice, Skylar asked questions, eliciting all the information her sister knew. Most of it was speculation, but even that was enough to cause concern. Where the Apache were concerned, everyone always assumed the worst.
"Did Mr. Martinez try to persuade Father to send the Mescalero away again?" she asked quietly.
Rayna knew Skylar wouldn't believe a lie. "He did mention it, yes. But Father stood his ground. Nothing is going to happen to Consayka's people."
It was a long moment before Skylar replied. "I pray you are right, sister."
They completed the long walk to the hacienda in silence.
Copyright © 1992 by Constance Bennett