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The truck rocked and bounced along what felt like a dry, stony creek bed. Emma Muran's stomach rolled violently as she was jostled and pressed against the sweaty bodies that were crammed into the back of the type of small rental trailer used for moving furniture. Only this one was painted a dull gray.
Though the air outside was bitter cold. The air inside the crowded trailer was stagnant, the odors of urine and perspiration sickening. Babies cried. A kid in the back was begging to go home. An old woman wailed and murmured heart-wrenching prayers as she clung to her rosary beads.
The woman next to Emma slumped against her as her baby pushed away from the woman's semi-bared breast and began to cry again.
"Would you like me to hold him for a few minutes?" Emma offered, avoiding looking directly at her. Making eye contact created a bond. Emma couldn't afford a bond, no matter how tenuous.
"She's a girl," the young mother said, pulling away the lightweight cotton scarf she'd been using as a privacy shield so that Emma could see the baby's delicate white dress and tiny yellow trimmed booties. "She's eight weeks old. Her name is Belle."
The woman's voice was weak, her eyes wet and filmy as if covered with transparent gauze.
"She's beautiful," Emma said, "and the dress is exquisite."
"I made it myself for when she sees her papa in Dallas for the first time. I saved as much as I could from every dollar he sent us to live on until I had enough to pay for this trip."
"Why does she keep crying? Is she sick?"
"You just fed her."
"I don't have enough milk to satisfy her."
"Didn't you bring a bottle of formula to supplement?"
No money. No doubt she'd spent every cent she could scrape up to get to her baby's father. Emma had paid three thousand American dollars to be treated like cattle.
"Does your husband know you're coming?" Emma asked.
She shook her head. "No married, but Juan Perez is a good man. He take care of us in Texas." Emma assumed the woman wasn't an American citizen. Why else would she pay to be smuggled into the country? Emma was likely the only citizen amidst this group of desperate elderly people and mothers with children.
Yet she was no less desperate. Her fate in Mexico was certain death. And in America, as well, if the monster found her.
The baby started to cry louder. Poor thing. Emma weighed her own terrifying fears against the baby's needs. Staying unnoticed was no longer an option.
"This baby is hungry," Emma called in Spanish over the clattering rattles of the truck. "If you can spare a few sips of milk. Please."
Finally, a young mother whom Emma had noticed earlier nursing a boy of about six months reached for the baby without a word. A stranger's hands took Belle and passed the crying infant to the woman. Exhausted from crying, Belle sucked for only a few minutes before falling asleep.
By this time, Belle's frail mother had slumped against the shoulder of the young man next to her and seemed to have fallen into a deep sleep. Emma took the dozing infant and cuddled her to her own chest.
So precious. So innocent. She hadn't asked for any of this.
The truck came to a jerking stop and bodies collided with each other like rotting melons. The back door opened and everyone gasped as if choking on the fresh air their lungs craved.
The man in charge, who they knew only as Julio, climbed aboard. "We crossed the border a few miles back. You're in Texas."
A cheer went up from the disheveled group.
Tears wet Emma's eyes. She was back on American soil. A week ago, she'd all but given up hope of that ever happening. Unfortunately, even here she'd have to find a way to change her identity so completely that Emma Muran ceased to exist.
"If you want out now, you're welcome to haul ass and take off on your own," Julio continued. "But you're pretty much in the middle of nowhere. I'll take you all the way to Dallas if you stay on board, just as promised when you paid and signed on."
About half of the trailer's occupants pushed and shoved their way to the door. They knew that the longer they stayed on the truck the more chance they'd have of being stopped by border patrol or other lawenforcement officers and returned to Mexico.
For the most part, the ones who stayed seated had young children with them or were so frail they would have had difficulty making the trek across rough terrain on a freezing night. Even in January, bitter cold like this was extremely rare in South Texas.
Emma considered her options and decided to bolt, though she had no idea where she was. If she was arrested, the agents would immediately recognize that she was an American. She'd be forced to try to explain why a citizen was sneaking back into the country in a despicable human-trafficking operation.
She'd be fingerprinted and identified. And then there would be no avoiding the media blitz that would surround her return. Caudillo would instantly have a hundred men on her trail, and no amount of security could protect her.
The baby stirred in Emma's arms. She turned to hand Belle back to the mother, but the woman had been shoved to the middle of the trailer, facedown, her arms and legs askew, as if she were a rag doll who'd been dropped and left to lie as she fell.
"What's the matter with that one?" Julio asked.
Several who'd stayed behind shrugged and shook their heads. Julio climbed into the trailer and turned the young mother over so that she stared at the ceiling with blank, lifeless eyes. "Anybody here with her?"
Emma was about to answer that she was holding the woman's baby, but a warning stare from the mother who'd nursed the baby silenced her.
"No use to transport the dead." Julio picked up the body and tossed it off the back of the trailer. "Anyone else feeling sickly?" He smirked at his sick joke.
Belle started to fuss.
Julio turned and stared at Emma as if seeing her for the first time. He leered openly and then smiled as if they shared some private joke. Did he know that the baby in her arms was not hers?
Emma quieted Belle with a gentle rocking movement and avoided eye contact with Julio.
Julio took the gun from the holster at his waist and waved it around, asserting his authority. "The rest of you have five minutes to relieve yourself and stretch. You'll get food as you climb back into your smelly nests."
The woman who'd nursed Belle motioned for Emma to follow her into a dense thicket of shrubs, the best they could find in the way of privacy. They took turns holding the babies while the other relieved herself. Emma took her last packaged hand wipe from her pocket, tore it in half and shared it with the woman.
"What will you do with the baby?" the woman asked in Spanish.
"I don't know." The enormity of the problem she'd just taken on hit her full force.
"Julio will toss her out like rubbish if he finds out she belongs to the dead woman."
"But what am I supposed to do with her?"
Suspicion darkened the woman's eyes. "American?"
Emma shook her head and then shuddered and pulled her colorful rebozo low over her forehead so that only the bangs of her horrid wig showed as she approached the trailer.
Emma had counted on her clothing, the wig and her proficiency with the Spanish language to help her pass for a Mexican national. Otherwise, they would have thought she was an undercover cop or an investigative reporter. Either would have gotten her kicked out.
Julio passed out bottles of water and tortillas filled with bean paste as they reached the truck. Emma took only the water. She had a pocketful of wrapped churros and tortillas she'd bought in the small village where they'd begun their journey. Those would hold her over until she could get to Dallas.
Her other purchases had been made in the city where her escape boat docked. Her first purchase had been the wiry black wig she was wearing. In the same department store, she'd purchased the long colorful skirt, a Mexican-style white shirt, a bra, panties and basic hygiene items.
She'd quickly changed out of the long silk dress she'd been wearing when she escaped the monster. The better she blended in with the populations in the small villages she'd be traveling through, the better her chances of staying alive.
She'd bought the handmade rebozo at the last village for the explicit purpose of covering her head so that little of the wig could be seen beneath the bunched cotton shawl. It was the only protection she had now from the icy wind.
Julio grabbed her arm as she scrambled back into the trailer, forcing her to face him for a few seconds before he released his grip. His leering, lustful stare made her skin crawl.
"Guess we're ready to roll," Julio said. He jumped off the back of the trailer and slammed the doors shut.
Minutes later, the engine sputtered back to life and the jerky, bumpy ride began again. Only now Emma held the baby of a dead woman in her arms. How in the world did she ever expect to take care of a helpless infant when she was on the run?
Belle squirmed and balled her tiny hands into fists, swinging them into the air and twisting her lips into a pitiful pout. Emma trailed a finger down the baby's smooth cheek. Belle seemed soothed by the touch.
A quivery sensation stirred deep inside Emma, as if Belle had latched herself to Emma's heart.
Wood smoke curled from the chimney and filled Damien's nostrils as he stamped the mud from his feet and climbed onto the back porch of the sprawling ranch house. His brother Durk appeared before he reached the door, carrying an armload of firewood from the nearby shed. Damien held the door for him.
"I wondered when you'd give it up and get out of that sleet," Durk said.
"Had to move cattle into one of the closer pastures in case that snow they're promising actually develops."
"Don't you have wranglers for that?"
"I had them all working most of the day, too. This is a ranch, not that plush suite of offices you work in, bro."
"Don't think I don't know it. Cows are much easier to deal with than corporate policy and endless regulations."
Durk was the CEO of Lambert Inc, and spent only his weekends at the ranch. But Damien didn't let up on him. "Don't worry, if it snows tonight, you'll be recruited for ranch-hand duty in the morning," he said. "When did you get here?"
"About an hour ago. I would have been here sooner, but there was a major traffic jam coming out of Dallas. Bridges and overpasses are already icing over. Not a fit night out for man nor beast, with the exception of polar bearsand there's not a lot of them wandering around North Texas."
"It's awful quiet around here. Where is everybody?"
"Grandma's back in her suite. Aunt Sybil is in her room watching TV and sipping her afternoon sherry. And Tague is chauffeuring Mother. I told him to be careful driving in this."
"Where did they go?"
"Just over to the Double R."
"In this weather? Whatever for?"
"To take Mildred and Hank Ross some of the beef-and-vegetable soup she made this afternoon. Apparently Mildred's been sick, and you know Mother. She thinks she has to look out for the whole county."
"When did they leave?"
"Just after I arrived, but they were going to stop off and try to persuade Karen Legasse to come stay with us until the weather improves."
"That would make for an interesting weekend," Damien said. "You and your ex-girlfriend snowed in together."
"Ex is the operative word there," Durk said. "She's married now, with a baby. No way am I going near that, even if the sparks hadn't cooled to ice."
"It may be over between you two," Damien said, "but she and Mother are closer than ever. Karen shows up at the Bent Pine almost as often as the mailman."
Damien went to the coffeepot and filled a mug with the hot brew. "Where is Mark the Magnificent?"
"Apparently dear hubby is in L.A. for a meeting."
"And missing all the poopy diapers. Those rich investment types know how to suffer."
Damien lifted the lid off the big pot on the back burner of the range. The heady aroma of onions, stewed tomatoes and spices filled the room. His stomach rumbled in anticipation of his mother's famous homemade soup.
"I'm going to grab a quick shower," Damien said, "unless you need help bringing in logs." With three fireplaces in the rambling old house they could burn a lot of wood on a cold weekend.
"I've got it covered," Durk said. "And then I'll get to those boxes in the attic Mother asked me to bring down."
"The attic is full of boxes. Did she say which ones she wants?"
"Yeah. The ones she scooted next to the opening."
"I'll get started on the boxes," Damien said. "The shower can wait a few more minutes."
Not that he liked the idea of his mother spending another long weekend buried in grief and memories. Since his father's death, she'd spent far too much time going through old chests, boxes and trunks. It was as if she were trying to hold on to him by reliving every moment of their past.
Damien had no need for pictures or mementos. His father was so much a part of the ranch that he felt his presence every minute of the day. That didn't lessen his pain or the regret that he'd never had a chance to tell his dad how much he loved and appreciated him. The two of them had tended to leave too many good things unsaid.