As the eighteenth century draws to a close, the Kwahadi Comanches seem to be making their peace with the settlers of the Spanish Colony of New Mexico. No one is as relieved as Marco Mondragón and his adored wife Paloma Vega, whose ranch, the Double Cross, sits on the edge of Comanchería. Their tranquility is short-lived, however, for other Comanches are terrorizing the plains, led by the ruthless renegade, Great Owl.
At the annual fair in Taos, Marco and his Comanche friend Toshua arrange to buy a team of bays from horse traders who sometimes wink at the law. Marco can't complete the purchase because he spends all his money to buy a slave from Great Owl, thus saving her life. Graciela accompanies them back to the Double Cross, along with Diego Diaz, one of those traders Marco still owes for the team.
Great Owl's threat to tentative peace between the Kwahadi and the Spanish must be squelched. Marco and Toshua bolster their small army of two with an unexpected ally in Joaquim Gasca, a disgraced former lieutenant with the Royal Engineers. They are joined by Diego Diaz, who turns out to be a key figure from Paloma's past. Adding two shady horse traders and the secretive Graciela, Marco leads his small but determined army north to land contested by both Utes and Comanches. Though woefully outnumbered, they must defeat Great Owl or die trying.
Book 3 in the Spanish Brand series.
About the Author
A well-known veteran of the romance writing field, Carla Kelly is the author of thirty-one novels and three non-fiction works, as well as numerous short stories and articles for various publications. She is the recipient of two RITA Awards from Romance Writers of America for Best Regency of the Year; two Spur Awards from Western Writers of America; two Whitney Awards, 2011 and 2012; and a Lifetime Achievement Award from Romantic Times. Carla's interest in historical fiction is a byproduct of her lifelong study of history. She's held a variety of jobs, including public relations work for major hospitals and hospices, feature writer and columnist for a North Dakota daily newspaper, and ranger in the National Park Service (her favorite job) at Fort Laramie National Historic Site and Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site. She has worked for the North Dakota Historical Society as a contract researcher. Interest in the Napoleonic Wars at sea led to a recent series of novels about the British Channel Fleet during that conflict. Of late, Carla has written two novels set in southeast Wyoming in 1910 that focus on her Mormon background and her interest in ranching. You can find Carla on the Web at: CarlaKellyAuthor.com.
Read an Excerpt
Paloma and the Horse Traders
The Spanish Brand, Book 3
By Carla Kelly
Camel PressCopyright © 2015 Carla Kelly
All rights reserved.
In which Marco packs for Taos, Paloma gives advice, and surprises him
In Marco Mondragón's mind and heart, he loved his wife, Paloma Vega. She was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, but why, in God's name, did she have to be so solicitous while he packed for his trip to Taos?
"Husband ..." she began, and he knew that amused look in her eyes, that spark of lurking humor that had already gotten them through crises both domestic and foreign — domestic in the royal colony of New Mexico, and foreign in the kingdom of the Kwahadi Comanche to the east.
She held up the loincloth that he had thought to stuff among his smallclothes and other things that Christian gentlemen wore to distinguish themselves from savages.
She surprised him then, as she often did, even though they had been married for more than three years and he knew her better than anyone. Grinning now, she moved up close and gave a gentle tug on the family jewels. "Big Man Down There, you want to hang loose, do you?"
She called him by his Comanche name, the one given by Eckapeta, the Comanche woman whose tipi he had shared with Paloma during their memorable trip to Palo Duro Cañón. Word had a way of getting around in Comanche encampments, and that was his name. He never told any of his New Mexican friends, but he couldn't help but take pride in the compliment, if only with Paloma.
She patted him there again, and he wanted to close the door to their bedroom and sport a bit in that quiet afternoon time. Wanted to, if not for their son Claudio, who slept on their bed where she had settled him after a prodigious nursing. And little Soledad Estrella — Soli — sang to her dolls in the next room.
Afternoons of casual coupling were long past. Thank goodness for nightfall, when the children were fed, sung to, and asleep in that room that he had kept closed, after his first family died of cholera while he was away inspecting brands. The room was a riot of color and activity now, good for playing and giggling and then sleeping, in that worn-out way of the young.
Then he and Paloma could find their own bed to laugh, talk, make love, and argue a bit, as needed. Quiet times with Paloma, scarce now, were even sweeter. His life had gone from orderly desolation to one overflowing with abundance, chaos, and occasional confusion. He loved it.
And there was that loincloth. He took it from her and returned the skimpy bit of deerskin to the spot next to his smallclothes, which he planned to shuck as soon as he and Toshua were out of the district that he administered as juez de campo. Summer was the best time to ride nearly naked. Paloma had no idea.
He gave her that look down his long nose, the one that always made her laugh. She did so now, but quietly, after a glance at their sleeping son. "It's August and there is no one to impress between here and Taos," he said. "It's time for the jewels to swing free. You can't imagine the comfort."
She laughed again, then turned wifely. She spoke into his ear, her words tickling him. "Just have a care that the sun doesn't scorch you in spots not usually exposed."
She kissed his ear, then darted out of reach when he grabbed for her. "Hold that thought," she whispered, and blew him a kiss from the doorway. "It's time for Soli's bath."
Marco followed her to the door of their bedchamber. He watched as she went into the children's room and held out her hand for Soledad. When Soli was on her feet, Paloma nodded to the little one, only seven months past her second birthday. Paloma clasped her own hands in front of her not-quite-so-slender waist and stood there with all the lovely dignity of the Spanish matron she had become. Deeply appreciative of Paloma's mothering skills, Marco smiled as Soli imitated the graceful gesture.
They looked at each other, mother and almost-daughter, as Paloma gently instructed her cousin on her place in the world of women, even little ones. How did Paloma know to do that? he asked himself, admiring the ladies in his life.
"Time for a bath, my dear one," Paloma told Soli, and glanced at Marco. "Hija, remember to give honor to your father."
He managed not to laugh as Soli dipped him a small curtsey, then started at a walk down the hall to the room where the servants washed the clothes and the children. Her dignity lasted until the exuberance of childhood reasserted itself. Soli picked up her skirts and skipped toward the kitchen, Paloma following.
His wife had asked him to fold a blanket next to Claudio, so he would not roll off their bed. He complied, tucking blanket rolls on both sides of their son, eight months younger than his sister-cousin.
Marco stood a moment in profound gratitude, observing the child they had prayed for, during those many months when it did not seem that Paloma's body would ever nurture a baby. "God is good," he whispered.
Paloma returned a few minutes later, having surrendered her cousin to the care of the woman who had wet-nursed Soledad, spirited away from the dead house full of smallpox where her parents had perished. The Pueblo woman had lost her own child shortly after birth. She had relieved both sorrow and full breasts by willingly suckling the infant daughter of Alonso Castellano and his wife Maria Teresa Moreno, gone more than two years now.
Because she had no other, Soli knew who her mother was, the darling woman coming toward Marco now. Through her own morning sickness and increasing awkwardness as their own baby grew inside her, Paloma had nurtured and loved her infant cousin. To understand the deep love of a woman for a child, Marco only had to turn his head each morning and look at the woman who shared his pillow.
Once Perla la cocinera's grandson had been placed into service watching their sleeping baby, Marco and Paloma walked toward the acequia, where the waters of late summer were less generous than in early spring. Theirs was a dry land, a land both harsh and dangerous. It was a place for bravos who wanted land grants of their own, which King Carlos willingly allowed, because the king did not like his New World possessions empty and idle.
This stroll near the irrigation ditch had nothing to do with preparations for his journey to Taos. There was no need to give this capable wife of his any instructions. His mayor domo, Emilio, knew his business in the fields and corrals, and Paloma could handle everything else. He had to admit that she was gracious and more diplomatic with the people of Santa Maria who came to him with questions of brands, or water-sharing, or petty crimes and misdemeanors. A juez de campo could not have a better partner than Paloma Vega. She had spoiled him with her abilities, and he didn't mind in the least.
On Paloma's shy advice, they avoided his former office, which had become the temporary home of his dear Comanche friends when they visited. "I think Toshua and Eckapeta are saying goodbye in there now," she whispered to him.
"Tipi time, eh?" he teased, and gave her a little pat on her thankfully not so skinny rump.
"You'll get your time," she promised, and was true to her word. Once all the servants had been formally convened for his parting words and blessing before a journey, and their children slept, Paloma loved him with that ferocity he adored, reminding him that she didn't like being left behind and that she would miss such moments until he returned.
"It's just a quick trip," he reminded her, when she curled up close to him, not bothering to hunt for her nightgown. "I wish I had time to break two horses to a team, but I don't. Rumor says the horse traders are bringing some good horseflesh to Taos."
"You won't drink too much," she admonished.
"Do I ever?"
"Well, no, but a wife has to give advice," she replied, ever practical.
"You're not going to warn me about wenching?" he teased.
"Of course not." She kissed his chest. "You know where you sleep best."
No argument; he did.
She chuckled; she knew him. "No gambling?"
"Maybe a little. I'm hoping Governor de Anza will be in Taos, at least to open the fair. Letters are well and good, but I can tell him how matters stand in Santa Maria. Kwihnai has kept his word, and we have had no troubles from the Comanches for nearly four years."
And yet. No sense in worrying Paloma, but in the last few weeks Marco had felt a certain unease, maybe because Toshua stood longer each night, looking to the east. When questioned, the Comanche merely shrugged.
"Should we not go to Taos?" Marco had asked Toshua only yesterday.
"We will go, but we will not linger," Toshua had replied.
When pressed, Toshua had admitted his own concern. "I see many horses in my dreams," he had said, then shook his head, as though to ward off foolishness. "But aren't we going to Taos to find horses?"
"Are there riders on these dream horses of yours?" Marco had asked. "It's just a horse herd?"
"No riders," Toshua had replied, almost a little too quickly to suit Marco.
His fingers in Paloma's pillow-soft hair, Marco tucked away any misgivings. He knew Toshua would never leave the Double Cross if there was something in the wind, both for his own wife's sake, and Paloma, whom he called his little sister.
Marco's eyes were starting to close now. He knew from sweet experience that one or the other of them would touch and stroke in the middle of the night and there would be more of this love that made him the happiest husband, father, and juez in his district, perhaps in all of King Carlos' New World possessions. Time to sleep, except he had a question.
"Will Eckapeta stay here while Toshua and I are gone?" One never knew about Eckapeta. She might surprise them a day later on their journey by joining them, or she might return to her people on the Llano Estacado. Lately, though, the attraction of little ones to caress and tend had kept her close to the Double Cross.
"Eckapeta says she will teach me to bead."
"What will you make, my love?"
"Probably a mess. I do not have deep wells of patience these days."
He silently agreed with her, just thinking of a typical hectic day on the Double Cross. Feeling Paloma relax in his arms, he smiled into the darkness, happy to be the author of her satisfaction. His eyes closed, as testament to her own mattress skills.
But first, he had to ask his usual question. He assumed he would get the usual answer. He asked it before every trip, in order to sound like a thoughtful fellow. He understood marriage politics as well as the next husband.
"Anything in particular you would like from Taos, mi corazon?"
"Actually, there is," she told him, which made him open his eyes in surprise, since she never asked for anything. "You've been so busy this past month that I don't think you noticed."
"Aha! I didn't get my box of monthly supplies from the storeroom," she said, her voice muffled against his chest. He knew she was shy about some things.
He may have been lulled into a near-coma by Paloma's love, but he was not a slow man, by any means. He tightened his grip on her shoulders and hugged her closer, even if it was August and hot. Was it possible for a husband to feel even more blessed and grateful? Did the law even allow such happiness?
"When, Paloma?" he whispered into her hair.
"Let's see: it's August now, and in July we did find a few quiet moments." She laughed outright. "Your servants probably admired your diligent attentiveness in the hayfield. Some diligence!"
He remembered that afternoon when Paloma came along with the house servants, taking food to the men in the field. She had stayed behind, and one thing led to another, as those matters often did.
She was counting on her fingers now. "I'm thinking April, when the lambs and calves are born," Paloma said in her quiet way. "I really need another servant to help with Soli and Claudio, since I will be even busier." She rested her head against his chest again, and he felt the dampness. "I have prayed to Santa Margarita."
"And she listened?" he asked.
"I know she did," Paloma told him. "Her feast day is July twentieth, in case you have forgotten, and that was when we were in the hayfield." Her low laugh vibrated on his chest. "She knew we wanted more than one child from our bodies. It was not too much to ask."
"No, it wasn't. I'll find you another servant," he promised, "someone good with children, since our other servants have their own duties."
Marco put his hand on Paloma's belly, touched to find her own hands there already, cradling and protecting a baby so tiny that no one but its parents was aware of its existence.
"Horses and a servant," he whispered. "Paloma, te adoro."CHAPTER 2
In which big and little Mondragóns are not pleased
With a creak of saddle leather, Marco bent down from Buciro to give Paloma a final kiss. "I don't like adios," Paloma whispered into his neck.
"It's only Taos, and I will behave," he told her. "We'll be there in three days, maybe four, if we dawdle."
"Go with God then, husband," Paloma said as she stepped back. She raised her hand to Toshua. "And you, my friend and brother."
Toshua nodded. He bent down and touched her head, then touched Claudio in her arms. "Eckapeta will watch over you now."
The Comanche must have noticed the unease she thought she hid so well, because he smiled, a rare occurrence. "I'll keep Big Man out of trouble."
He exchanged glances with Marco, who laughed, telling Paloma all she needed to know about just how soon Marco would be bare and in his loincloth, once they left the Double Cross.
Marco's expression turned tender. Paloma looked over her shoulder to see Soledad in Eckapeta's arms, struggling to get down and follow her dear papa. Marco blew his daughter a kiss, then turned his attention to Paloma again.
"Be easy. Take care of yourself and the little one we cannot see yet."
She knew she would do as he asked, because their servants would insist upon it. She had discovered early in her marriage that Marco never kept a secret. Before she was even out of bed that morning, he had been up, taking their joyous news to Sancha and Perla first, and relying on them to spread it throughout the Double Cross before breakfast. Before her master was even out of sight, Sancha would be bullying Paloma to lie down and prop up her feet.
The prospect had its appeal. Paloma relished the idea of being firmly coerced into rest by Sancha, the family housekeeper who had come with Felicia, Marco's first wife, and who extended her devotion to Paloma. Even now, with the sun still low in the east, she was already tired. How did a baby no bigger than her smallest finger command her whole body? God's mystery.
She watched the men ride to the open gates, just the two of them, because Kwihnai had kept his promise and reined in his warriors in return for the gift of smallpox inoculation that Marco and Paloma had taken east to the Texas plains nearly two years ago. Still, two men seemed too few, when one of those men was the husband she adored. Paloma calmed her fear by considering the two riders, both of them warriors seasoned by warfare but governed by caution.
My darling leaves his guards for us, she thought. She gave Marco the medium-sized curtsey that custom dictated, the best she could do with their son in her arms. In turn, Marco made the sign of the cross over her and their children and blew her a kiss. The kiss was not part of the ritual, because most Spaniards were circumspect people. Paloma smiled and waved, thinking how they had changed after their months in the Comanche winter camp in the sacred cañón. Marco kissed her in front of the servants now, which would have astounded his parents. These are modern times, Paloma thought, pleased with her man.
When Marco and Toshua rode through the gates, which shut behind them, Soledad started to cry. Startled, Claudio turned around in her arms to stare at his sister. His lips began to tremble.
"No, son," Paloma said and gently turned his face into her breasts. She watched as Eckapeta put her hand over Soli's nose and mouth and gave her head a little shake. After a gasp to breathe and a shuddering sigh, the child went silent. Eckapeta set her down, knelt beside her, then gathered her close, so there would be no hard feelings.
In another moment, Soli wriggled out of Eckapeta's loose grasp and walked purposefully toward Paloma. She clung to her mother's skirts, then tugged on them until Paloma set Claudio down beside her. In another moment they were cross-legged and playing with blocks on the veranda, the crisis over.
After making certain that Perla's little grandson would sit with her children, Paloma walked with her dear friend into the house. "I wish you could cheer me up as fast," she said.
"Just think! You have your whole bed to yourself for a while," Eckapeta said. "No one to steal your blankets or put cold feet on your legs."
"But it's August and hot!" Paloma couldn't help her tears, which more than her late monthly told her she was with child again. "I miss him already!" she wailed.
Excerpted from Paloma and the Horse Traders by Carla Kelly. Copyright © 2015 Carla Kelly. Excerpted by permission of Camel Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
As always Carla Kelly never fails to satisfy the reader. Thanks Carla Kelly for a great story.