Friday, August 3, 2007

Prologue: Bought with Blood, Part III

At Matthew's left, Martha stood and peered into the night. "Where is Jonathan? He should have been back by now."

"He's fine. He's probably off sulking somewhere. Leave him be. A night out there alone might do him some good."

She turned. "You can be a cruel, heartless man sometimes. That is your own flesh and blood out there. He could be hurt or lying in the river, for all you know. I'm going to go find my son." She stepped out of the firelight and called back over her shoulder. "And get my brush."

"Have it your way," he muttered and waved dismissively. I don't know why she can't listen to reason. He jabbed the fire with a stick.

A muffled scream from the direction of the wagon brought him to his feet. Abigail moaned and rolled over in her blanket. A quick check showed she was still asleep.

"Stay here, honey," he whispered and grabbed a burning stick. "I'll go get Mommy."

Flames flickered above his head as he waved the torch back and forth. It illuminated the ground a few feet around him, but not as well as he expected, as if the night fought banishment. Shaking his head, Matthew dashed to the wagon.

Martha wasn't there. Neither were the horses. The ropes ended in a frayed mess a few feet from the knots still tied to the wagon. He hurried to the other side, still with no sign. His foot kicked something that rattled. Matthew bent down and picked up a battered pot. His wife's hairbrush lay inside. Where is she? Where's Jonathan?

He spun in a circle and started north. His path took him through camp. As he passed his daughter, Matthew slowed and halted. Martha and Jonathon were missing, perhaps injured. He needed to find them. But could he afford to leave his little girl all alone? Coyotes and Lord only knew what else stalked these lands, and most hadn't learned to be scared of men yet. His head swiveled from the night to Abigail and back. What do I do? Weeping, he tossed the branch back on the fire and collapsed on the ground beside it. I've got to keep her safe, if nothing else.

Of course, he had failed at that, as well...

Sunlight fell across his face. Matthew blinked several times, scrubbed a hand across his face and stood. He moved slowly, as if in a trance, his head moving back and forth as he scanned the ground. No trace of his family remained, not even Abigail's doll. He shuffled to the wagon outside the grove. It remained intact, but the canvas cover had been shredded and their belongings scattered. He picked among the ripped clothing like a buzzard moving through a battlefield. Shirts and pants that had survived the onslaught went into a small bundle in his arms, along with a few that looked repairable. Martha would kill me if she saw this mess. Fresh tears flowed down his cheeks.

His gathering complete, Matthew tied the clothing in the remains of one of his wife's dresses and faced south. It would take him a couple of days to walk to Paris, but he'd best get started now. Hopefully I'll be far away from this place come nightfall. Matthew turned back for one last look at the pecan grove. The Indians were right. We should have stayed away. From this vantage point, the place where they had camped looked like a perfect spot for a house. Martha was right; it really is a pretty place. But who could live here or lay claim to it?

His expression hardened. He could hear his wife chiding him for giving up so easily. I have laid claim to it. This is my land. How much blood had been spilt for this plot of earth? He'd shot and stabbed scores of Mexicans in battle for the right to come here. His family was gone, swallowed into the night that lived in this place. If it wasn't his, then by God, it wasn't anyone's. There's no bodies, he thought abruptly. Who's to say they're really dead? Perhaps if the night took them, it can give them back. I'll never find a way if I leave. I made it through one night; I can make it through another.

Setting his bundle on the back of the wagon, Matthew grabbed an ax. He walked among the trees and cut marks into the ones that would need to come down to make room for the house. He chose carefully. Martha didn't want them all removed. About noon, he stopped and collected a huge mound of firewood for the coming night. He started the fire well before sunset and lay down to sleep.

In the morning, Matthew Jennings would begin to build his new home.


Part I of Chapter 1 coming Monday!

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Monday, July 30, 2007

Prologue: Bought with Blood, Part II

A twig snapped under Matthew's foot with a loud retort like a pistol going off. He jumped, his heart racing. It's so quiet in here. He cocked his head. No birds, no bugs, no nothing. He picked up a few more stout branches and hurried back to their campsite to dump the wood on an already sizable pile. That ought to do us for a day or two. Shouldn't need much of a fire tonight, it's so warm. He stacked the wood and soon had a small blaze burning. The other three arrived, carrying only their bedrolls and a change of clothes. Abigail clutched a doll, as well. He shook his head. Martha directed the children in arranging their belongings, set her own blankets next to Matthew's and sat. She patted her pockets.

"Matthew, could you go to the wagon and get my brush and mirror?"

"Nope." He hunkered down and rummaged through the cookery for a pot, which he held out to Jonathan. "Go fill that with some water in the river." The boy opened his mouth. "Do it." Jonathan snatched the pot and stalked off toward the river. Shadows swallowed him from sight before he'd gone a dozen paces.

"What do you mean, 'no'? You know I can't get to sleep unless I fix my hair."

"I know." He broke a hunk of hard bread and passed it around. "You want your brush, you go get it. I've got to get supper cooked as soon as that boy gets back here with my water."

A clipped yelp pulled their heads northward. His wife started to rise. He grabbed her wrist and pulled her back down. "Leave the boy be, Martha. He probably just kicked a root or something. He ain't a baby; he's nearly sixteen years old. It's time for him to crawl out from underneath your skirts and grow up."

She glared at him, but didn't stand again. Night fell for good as the silence spun out between them. The quiet grew brittle. Then Abigail shattered it with a question.

"Daddy, why don't the Indians live here?"

Matthew bit back a curse. He thought he'd kept her from those conversations – she'd never asked about it before now – but he should have known those little ears would pick up on just about everything.

On the trip north, he had asked about this place at various towns and outposts, trying to get a feel for their new home. News from Paris was hard enough to come by; this untamed land at the Republic's northern boundary might as well be on the edge of the world. Bits and pieces came together as they journeyed – a few who mentioned how pretty the country was up near the Red River and many who offered dire warnings about moving so near Indian territory. One or two even talked about stopping in a stand of pecan trees after crossing the river, usually with frightened eyes and hushed tones. Martha fretted over the danger of Indian attacks, but as they talked to a few red-skinned travelers along the way, it became apparent they avoided this area. None offered a specific reason for the taboo. All Matthew could gather was it had something to do with their superstitions, which he could dismiss easily enough – until they stopped for the night in Black Jack Grove.

He kept the family close to the wagon that night. The small community served as a stop for freight wagoners and other rough sorts. Texas Rangers also camped there, but he didn’t see a need to take any chances. Kicking Eagle apparently felt the same. The old Caddo politely asked to share their fire. He smiled when Matthew nodded and offered him a bit of meat and bread. He proved an entertaining dinner companion, more than paying for the meal with his stories. His wrinkled, animated features brought each one to life as he became the people and animals in his tales. Martha and the children dropped off, still smiling in their sleep. Matthew and the Indian talked late into the night. Their conversation turned to more serious matters and ventured into his hopes for their new home.

"You say you are headed north," Kicking Eagle said. "Are you going to Paris?"

"Nah, we're headed a little further on. Ain't nobody up there now. I hear even you Indians won't go there for some reason." He chuckled. "Never thought y'all would be so scared of a few pecan trees."

The Caddo's eyes narrowed. "This place, is it on the Red River?"

"Yup." He frowned at the Indian. "You know something about it?"

"You must not go there."

"Why? All I get from you redskins is a bunch of superstitious mumbo jumbo. Is there something wrong with the land? The water? What's up there that y'all are so scared of?"

He shook his head. "It is not for me to reveal our secrets to one not of the People." He sighed. "But I will offer you this warning: There are dark places in the world. You should beware the shadows in your homestead. If you go there, they will consume you."

No matter how he prodded, Kicking Eagle would say nothing more on the subject. Finally, Matthew gave up and they went to sleep. The old Indian watched them with sad eyes as they continued north. Jonathan and Martha had a good laugh over the Indian's "superstitious nonsense," but his words put a shadow over Matthew's mood that took most of the forty miles to Paris to lift.

Abigail's question brought that shadow back.

"I don't really know, darlin'," he said at last. "They just don't like this place for some reason. It's nothing to worry about."

"Okay, Daddy." She crawled over and kissed his cheek, then whispered: "I don't like this place, either. It's spooky." She crawled back to her blanket and lay down.

Part III coming Friday!

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Friday, July 27, 2007

Prologue: Bought with Blood, Part I

Dawn painted the sky in hues of blood. Sunlight had started to wash across the land, but lacked the strength yet to penetrate thick shadows huddling beneath the stand of pecan trees. A campfire at the grove's center pushed the darkness back a little ways. A man dressed in ripped and tattered clothing crouched well inside that small circle of light, hunkering nearly on top of the flames despite the summer morning warmth. His blue eyes, unblinking, remained fixed on the diminishing blaze as if it were the last source of light in the world. Panasonic EB-GD68 Codes

The man's legs trembled. He grimaced and tried to settle to his knees. The motion dropped him to his butt. He caught himself with hands flat on the ground. A whimper escaped his throat as he caught sight of his right hand half in the shadows. His shoulder jerked, but the appendage remained still, as if nailed to the earth. Then it began to slide, away from the fire and into darkness.

Grasping his elbow with the other hand, the man leaned back and heaved. His right arm quivered like a tent rope. His feet dug furrows in the dirt. His wrist slipped into shadow. Cords stood out on his neck as he pulled harder. While he struggled, the sunlight grew and shadows lessened slightly. He fell back, just stopping himself from landing on the fire. He sat up, locks of greasy, black hair quivering as he shook. He ignored the long, bloody scratches that covered his wrist and hand. Similar injuries marked his arms and face and peered through rips in his dinghy wool shirt and pants. Tears cut tracks through the blood and dirt on his cheeks.

Just like little Abigail, Matthew thought. I should have kept her closer to the fire. I was so sure we were safe. His fingers traced patterns in the dirt where his six-year-old daughter had lain wrapped in her favorite green-striped blanket. She had looked so peaceful, watching her lifted some of his sorrow. He stared so intently he barely noticed when she kicked one corner of her blanket into the night beyond. Besides, her foot remained in the light. Abigail wore a small smile that never left her face even when the blanket grew taut and slid her into the darkness. Matthew had leapt over the fire and tried to grab his daughter. He never found her, no more than he had her brother or mother. But something cold had snatched at him, ripping flesh and cloth alike in its eagerness to have him. Somehow, he managed to pull free and fall, shaking, back to the campfire.

He stayed there the rest of the night, staring at the flames. Nothing you could have done. That's what he tried to tell himself, but another voice spoke louder: You should have known better, Matthew. Hadn't he heard his wife scream out there? Should have been me. He'd refused when she asked him to go get her brush, complaining he was tired after the long haul in the wagon. It took them all day to journey the twenty miles north from Paris, the last leg of a long, exhausting trip from San Antonio. Of course, they were all tired. Martha nagged him from the time he got up to hitch their old, scrawny horses until they stopped near sunset in this stand of pecan trees just south of the Red River. Abigail whined the entire way, and Jonathan, so sure of himself and the experience of his fifteen years, kept glancing sideways at his father and making little comments about how he should have left the family in San Antonio and traveled up here to build the house first. As if the boy could have talked Martha out of coming. If he was going to drag her away from her kin to settle some homestead the Republic had granted him for his service in the war with Mexico, by Heaven, she was coming along to make sure he did it right. All told, it made for a perfectly miserable day. Only rain might have made it worse, and the August sun beating down on him more than made up for the lack.

Somehow, he managed to keep his silence. He didn't want to spoil their new beginning here, even if it meant sore teeth from clenching his jaw all day. When they arrived, Matthew slid off the wagon seat and straightened with a grunt, fist pressed against his spine as he stood. Martha stepped up beside him. She smiled slightly as she scanned the stand of pecan trees. "Pretty enough, I suppose, and the shade will be welcome until you get our house built." She turned and wagged a finger under his nose. "Don't you go cutting down all those trees, either. You've got plenty of land here to farm without taking those down."

He scowled and unhitched the horses. It had only been a passing thought. No telling how she had guessed, but he'd long since stopped trying to figure that one out. So far as he could tell, all women could read men's minds. Even Abigail had started showing signs of it. He rubbed the horses down and tied them on long leads to the wagon, then grabbed his bedroll and cooking gear from the back.

Matthew marched into the middle of the grove and dumped everything on the ground with a loud rattle. He breathed deeply and smiled. The sun still hung above the horizon, but already shadows lay thick under the trees. The shade cut the heat to a surprising degree, although something here set him on edge. Shadows seemed to shift and stretch when he wasn't looking, although they remained still enough when he looked straight at them. He shrugged and set about gathering firewood, glancing at the wagon every now and then. Martha stood between their children, arms folded and foot tapping. All three stared at him working. Finally, they took the hint and gathered their own things. What did they expect after their attitude today? He shook his head. They probably expected I'd keep doing everything like I have this entire trip. Well, not any more. We've all got too much to do. The sooner they learn that, the better.


Part II coming Monday!


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