The Merry Widows

By: Theresa Michaels

Chapter One

On a late January night when thick, ugly clouds hunkered across a full moon, Rio Santee crouched on a rooftop of the newest Indian mission school.

He had relearned the lessons of childhood that night was his friend, but it was a cruel moon. A hunter’s moon. The cruelty lay in that it made all things vulnerable—the hunter and those he hunted.

They were victims, all.

But his need was such that he could not abide a longer delay. The men who hunted him might know he would come here. Even now, they could be waiting outside the box canyon. He had lost them two weeks ago, then come here. Two weeks when he had hidden by day, and by night prowled the mission seeking what he had lost

He had watched and waited with the infinite patience that was his people’s legacy. No longer would he walk the white man’s path as his Irish grandfather had taught him.

For behind the stone walls, within one chamber, was where his heart lay. His life, all reason for living was locked within the walls.

Tonight he would steal back what had been stolen from him. A hunted man had little choice but to become a thief.

Rio was no more than a shadow as the biting winter wind sent clouds scudding across the sky to dapple the adobe and stone buildings on the canyon floor. He seemed oblivious to the cold in his thin wool shirt and buckskin pants. He was one with the darkness.

Yet, moving or stilled, there was an intensity that set him apart. Like all night creatures, his senses were fueled by fear and excitement

He was aware of every breath, of the pulsing in his veins, a raw quickening that indicated the end of his yearlong search was near.

One year. He wanted to howl his grief, his denial of stolen time. A bloodlust filled him as powerfully as the smell of his own warm sweat His hand swept down to touch the handle of the knife sheathed at his side.

He couldn’t fail. Not as he had in the past. But that was a thought path he refused to walk. The way was clear before him. It was time.

With a lithe roll he went over the edge of the roof, his fingertips hugging the rough stone as he hung for a moment, then silently dropped to the ground. He turned immediately and drew his knife.

The wooden shutter he faced was poorly made, the gap wide where the inside bar secured it shut. He used his knife to raise the bar. It wedged an opening for his fingers to slip inside. He caught and held the bar up as he eased open one side of the shutter. Sliding the knife into its sheath, he peered into the room.

There wasn’t enough moonlight to cast a shadow on the interior of the room. The darkness was absolute.

His breathing was shallow but controlled, and so at odds with the thudding pounding of his heart. A cloth headband absorbed his sweat If he were caught now, he would be killed and everything lost to him.

With extreme caution he lifted the bar free and set it on the ground. Like the shadow he had been likened to he slid over the windowsill. There in the dark he stood for a few moments, listening to the sleeping breaths of twenty young Indian boys.

Among them were his two sons. Half-breed Apaches forced to live among those of other tribes who hated them.

His soft-soled moccasins helped him move silently into the center of the room. He counted off the wooden bedsteads until he came to the first one he wanted.

Rio closed his eyes briefly. He was afraid to utter a prayer. The overwhelming emotions of standing this close to his firstborn son in more than a year stole his strength.

They had stripped him of everything—beloved wife, children, home and his wealth of horses. Memories flooded his mind until he stood and shook like an aged man with a wasting sickness.

His pride, his dual heritage and the precious peace he had fought to gain and believed his, were all gone.

But he could give those gifts back to his sons.

Now was not the time to savor the thought, or dream of what would be. Now was the time for the warrior.

From his cloth belt he removed strips of rawhide and a length of cloth. His hands trembled as he leaned over his sleeping son and covered his mouth.

The twelve-year-old’s struggles were no match for the man and were quickly subdued.

Rio could not take the chance to whisper to his son and calm his fear. He cursed the thinness of his child’s body as he gagged and bound him in minutes. Wrapping the boy in his blanket, Rio carried him to the window where he lowered Lucas to the ground. Every move he made had been planned without wasted motion.

He hadn’t planned on the pain it caused him to bind and gag his child, yet he made his way back to the bed where he quickly bundled the boy’s clothes. Another trip to the window to set the bundle outside and then he searched out his younger child’s bed. His was closer to the door.

With the lightest of touches he discovered the boy still slept belly down, arms and legs flung to the four bed corners as if he would embrace all he could, even in his sleep.

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