Angela, the housekeeper, and her nine-year-old daughter, Gracie, turned to the open window, and they all heard it again—Martino’s far-off cry.
“Sound the alarm!” Carmena shouted. She jumped to her feet, and her seat toppled over. “God willing, the men will hear it up in the canyon!” Chair legs screeched across the adobe tiles. Angela and Gracie hurried after Carmena to the mudroom and out the rear door.
From the back patio, Martino was only a dark speck against Turtle Hill. The eleven-year-old boy yelled at the top of his lungs, “Soldiers are coming! Soldiers!” and kept shouting all the way down the hill.
* * *
Carmena sprinted toward the stables, issuing orders to Angela over her shoulder. “When you see any of the men, stop ringing the bell and head over to the barn. Get at least three milk cows up on the ridge!” In the same breath she yelled, “Gracie! Get up to your room!”
The wide-eyed girl pouted at the harsh reprimand and gripped her mother’s skirt as Carmena dashed to the stables. Angela struck the rod inside the iron triangle. The wild dinging continued until she saw one of the wranglers hotfoot it from the farrier’s shed. Jesse held the top of his hat on his silvered head as he raced to the stables.
As Martino staggered to the base of the immense hill, Angela dropped the metal baton. She spun around and, ignoring her daughter’s tears, stomped her foot and fisted one hand on her wide hip, pointing the other at the house.
“You heard Carmena. Go up to your room!”
Angela’s skirt fanned in a cotton circle as she hurried out the back gate. The housekeeper made her way to the barn and scuttled past the stables where Jesse slid a thick pad onto a nervous stallion.
* * *
“Hold still now, Dandy,” Jesse said to his horse as he hefted a worn leather saddle, carefully setting it on the pad. Veins bulged on his gray-haired arms as he gave a sharp tug and secured the leather straps around Dandy’s belly. His stallion normally stood stock still while being saddled, but this time Dandy stomped his hooves, his ears flipping forward and back.
Jesse recognized the tension in Carmena’s clenched jaw as she yanked lead ropes off the tack hooks outside of each stall. He helped her unlatch the doors and attach one rope after the other onto the halters of their best studs and brood mares, a few of which were in foal.
“Who’s goin’ up?” Jesse asked.
“You take this bunch. I’ll get the other mares out of the paddocks. Maybe they’ll follow Dusty up the hill.” Carmena unlatched the bar on the last stall and hooked a lead rope onto Dusty’s halter. “Damn it! I should’ve taken them up the hill like Carlos said!”
The wrangler kept silent and gathered the rest of the lead ropes as Carmena guided the horses out of their stalls. The animals fidgeted and, like Dandy, they nervously flicked their ears and pounded their hooves. Jesse’s soft cooing gentled the horses a bit, and he coaxed them to the center of the outbuilding. Once the muscular equines were gathered behind Jesse’s mount, Carmena wasted no time in throwing a pad and saddle on Dusty.
“Where the hell is that boy?” she demanded.
A moment later, Martino stumbled into the stables. He hunched over and planted his hands on his knees, his chest heaving as sweat dripped off his grimy forehead.
Carmena pulled the knot out of her bandana and tied her long, unruly hair into a frizzy bundle. “Where are they? How many?”
“No more—than a dozen.” Martino drank in air between his words. “They’re comin’ at a—slow gait. Still—a couple miles out.”
Jesse climbed onto his saddle and checked the horses behind him. In a level voice he said, “Lucky thing they ain’t in the mood fer breedin’.” He pressed his thighs into Dandy’s sides, and the powerful stallion strode forward, leading a parade of horses out of the stables just as Gracie staggered inside, a baby goat in her arms. Its wooly nap bulged between her short fingers.
Martino held a hand in front of his sister and gently pulled her out of harm’s way as the procession of horses filed out of the barn. The weight of the goat threw Gracie off balance, and she tottered back a few steps over the hay-strewn floor. Tears streamed over her pudgy cheeks. “Carmena, are they gonna take Hannah?”
“Dammit, Gracie!” Carmena scolded. “Put that kid down and go on up to your room!” Then she turned her furious gaze to Martino. “Grab some of those ropes!”
She angled her chin, indicating the lassos hanging on a large metal hook. Martino fetched them while Carmena placed a bridle over Dusty’s head. In a single movement, she jumped up, swung her leg over her mount, and sat atop her mare. She hung the offered lassos around the saddle horn then glowered at the little girl still clutching the wooly baby goat.
“I won’t tell you again to get on up to your room and hide, Gracie. Now! You need to follow orders so you don’t get hurt!”
She turned to the boy. “Martino, help your mother tie up some goats with the milk cows and get them up to the ridge. Then run over to the high meadow and tell the men what’s happening. They probably didn’t hear the alarm.”
Carmena gripped her bridle with one hand, held the lassos in place with the other, and squeezed on the horse’s flanks with her thighs. “C’mon, Dusty!” The beautiful tan mare galloped into the sunlight toward the paddocks.
Gracie stood her ground near the large wooden doors. The tiny goat uttered a “ma-a-a” in her arms. Martino ushered her outside, speaking tenderly the way his father would when his sister didn’t want to go to bed.
“You heard Carmena. Go on up to your room.”
“But what about Hannah?” She rubbed her cheek against the animal’s short bristles.
“The captain doesn’t need a baby goat. Take her up to your room, but don’t let her eat anything. I’ll tell Carmena I said you could bring her inside. Now get a move on.”
“Gracias, Martino!” Gracie smiled and wobbled away, the pet goat snuggled in her arms. Martino walked backward, watching his sister until she disappeared through the side gate leading to the back patio off the kitchen.
Then he rushed to help his mother gather the cows and goats penned in the barn.
* * *
“Did you hear that?” Carlos, the ranch foreman, stared up toward the tree line.
Javier tilted his head. “Sounds like a woodpecker.”
“I thought it was the alarm,” Carlos said.
Javier shook his head. “Nah. Believe me, I can hear the chow bell in my sleep. I didn’t hear nothin’. Besides, them woodpeckers can imitate anything.”
Both men faced the direction of the ranch in the valley below and listened. Steers grunted as they basked in the sun-warmed grass, ground squirrels twittered under the oaks, and scrub jays chirped from the high branches overhead.
Javier squinted at the cloudless sky. “Got a couple hours to go yet. I still say it woulda been easier to take the cattle and sheep to the east meadow down below instead of bringing them up here.”
Carlos scanned the area. “I’ve been keeping a record when the soldiers return to help themselves to our livestock. It’s been just over eleven weeks since the last visit. I don’t want to take any chances.”
“I bet that scalawag Franz is havin’ a hog-killin’ time helpin’ himself to more of our stock,” Javier said. “But why thieve from us? There’s lots a good ranches between here and San Antonio.”
“We’re about the only ranch in the state that breeds thoroughbreds and saddlebreds.”
“I bet the captain’s out to sea when it comes to the lieutenant takin’ our best horses and cattle or else I’d wager he’d clean Franz’s plow for sure.”
Carlos rubbed under the rim of his hat. “Even if they do come in the next few days, I’m pretty certain the cattle are safe up here.”
“Only ’cause Franz is too dim-witted to send his soldiers to search up here for anythin’. Too bad you couldn’t convince Carmena to bring the horses up, too.”
Carlos kneaded the tension out of his neck. “Let’s give it another quarter hour before we see how Martino’s doing with the sheep. Then all three of us can head down to the ranch for lunch.”
I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Chapter 4 of Eve's Amulet~Book 1.
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