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Published on Thursday, December 1, 2011

No Place to Run

By Melissa Embry

 

Fredericksburg, Texas, September 1862

It took until dark for Peter Schoenfeld to push the runaway heifers out of the river bottom and back to the home place. The severed ears of the longhorned bull his grandfather called the old Mexican, the bull who had lured the heifers from their corral, swung from his saddle horn, knotted with a thong cut from the bull's own hide.

   

Tomorrow he and his grandfather would take a yoke of oxen into the bottoms to haul out the renegade longhorn's carcass. Tomorrow they'd eat beef. Tonight, he looked forward to the frying pan of squirrel his grandfather had promised for supper.

But the house was dark and there was no smell of cooking as he penned the heifers and replaced the top pole of the corral they'd escaped from. He unsaddled his riding mule and turned her loose. Instead of meandering into the pasture, she followed him, nipping at his shirt as if begging for turnips.

"Off, Schatzie," he said, slapping her away.

He saw her long ears, darker than the starlit skyline, prick toward the house.

There was no welcoming hail from the dogtrot house where he and his grandfather lived in isolation from their neighbors. Neighbors whose eyes followed them when they drove to church on Sunday, muttering against the young man who stayed safe in Texas when their sons were dying at Shiloh or languishing in Yankee prison camps. Neighbors who turned away without greeting since this month's news about bloody Antietam. Old Schoenfeld had begun to speak of joining the other German settlers who fled to Mexico to escape the wrath of Confederates against Union sympathizers.

The night was moonless. As Schoenfeld climbed the porch, his boot toe struck something where no obstacle should be. Something solid but yielding. The strangeness made the stubble of his young beard prickle.

He dropped to one knee to examine the thing, running his hands over it in the dark. It was the body of a large dog, his grandfather's bull terrier. He started to call out in alarm but found his mouth suddenly too dry to form words. He was close enough now to make out the gleam of broken teeth where someone had pried the dog's jaws open.

And close enough to make out a figure slumped in the doorway behind the dog. The body of a man, his homespun shirt gummed to his chest and side with deeper darkness. Young Schoenfeld didn't need the smell that stung his nostrils to know the darkness was blood.

He bent over his grandfather's body, running his hands gently over the dead face, over the coarseness of an old man's beard, over the dribble of tobacco and more blood from the mouth. The eyes -- he closed them, pressing his fingertips against the stiffened lids to hold them down.

He didn't think to swipe at the tears running down his face.

His grandfather's hair no longer waved back from his temples in thick white wings. The top of the old man's head was a scalped stickiness that made bile rise in his grandson's throat. But there had been no scalping Comanches here in the Texas hill country since old Schoenfeld and the rest of Jack Hays' Rangers pushed them out in '44, before Peter was born. When his father, dead of the yellow jack last year, was still the one called young Schoenfeld.

The men who killed old Schoenfeld scalped him to hide their own identities. But he could guess who they were. And that they would return for him.

A snort from the mule Schatzie startled him. He looked back to the yard to see her ears swiveling toward the road.

 

*         *        *

 

State of Chihuahua, Mexico

By the time he reached Mexico, swinging southwest to cross the Rio Grande, he had evaded Confederate conscription agents, a band of comancheros -- the mestizo outcasts who traded with Comanches, and the ragtag forces of Mexican president Benito Juarez retreating before the army of invading emperor Maximilian.

He dropped the reins of his mule, letting her pick a way through the thickets of mesquite and creosote. The scrub-covered dunes were packed snug as honeycomb cells in a hive. When he had looked over the countryside from the mountains beyond the river, the dunes covered it like herds of gray-green beasts.

The dunes rose head high in this country he had entered. The country in which, except for carrion birds wheeling overhead, he and the mule seemed to be the only breathing creatures.

As the sun neared the zenith he halted. The air was hot during the day even this late in the year. He dismounted and unsaddled Schatzie before nicking a vein in her neck. She stood exhausted, not heeding the tiny wound. He put his mouth to it and sucked. But he had drawn barely enough to wet his tongue before the flow clotted and ceased.

A fly appeared as if out of thin air and fastened itself on the last drop of oozing moisture.

Schoenfeld lay in the shade of the dune, his hat over his eyes, and slept until a faint breath of coolness roused him. The mule was nowhere in sight. He lay back again, eyes closed, sensing the ebbing daylight. When it was full dark he would rise, hoping for a star to guide him through the cool of the night. But where it would lead him, he couldn't guess.

He woke to the sensation of being watched. He opened his eyes but he could see no one in the darkness. The night air was cold on his face. He reached drowsily for his blanket, only to find something heavy encumbering his arms and shoulders. A fleece, he thought, from the smell of wool fat on it. As he raised a hand to touch the fleece, wonderingly, he became aware of a darker shape beside him.

He gripped the butt of his revolver. His empty revolver.

"Hola, " the stranger said.

A woman's voice, murmuring questions. He understood only a word here and there, but he relaxed a little. His eyes darted back and forth, searching for others before he sat up gingerly. The woman put a dipper of water to his lips and he sucked it greedily.

"Thank you," he said. "Gracias." He put a hand on the dipper, gesturing for more water.

By her voice and figure, she was young. But a shawl enveloped her head so that her face was hidden from him, with only the starlight to see by.

She filled the dipper again from a jug and offered it again.

"Where am I?" he asked. "Who are you?"

She sat silently, in an attitude of attentive listening.

"Donde es? " he asked, struggling to remember words, to frame them with unaccustomed lips.

She shrugged.

"Me llamo Peter, " he said, then corrected himself, "Pedro. Pedro Schoenfeld. Como se llama, por favor? "

She laughed softly and gestured with a finger over her lips.

 

*         *        *

 

He found the mule Schatzie when he woke before daylight.

"So you came back, did you, you philandering hussy?" he said.

Schatzie dropped her head, picking at something on the ground, something tied with a faded bandana. Before he could stop her, she flipped the bandana end over end, scattering its contents -- tortillas and a handful of beans. She nosed eagerly through the food.

"Damn your eyes, girl, you've gone and ate my breakfast."

In spite of his hunger, his heart soared as he vaulted onto the mule's back. The woman, the one he half thought he had dreamed, was real. She had brought the mule back to aid him.

He gave Schatzie her head. At his kick, she trotted down the trail with an air of knowing her way until whinnies from a herd of horses milling in the corral greeted them. An encampment of brush huts straggled along the banks of an arroyo, wisps of smoke still rising from the cook fires.

He passed three or four women, nodding and touching the brim of his hat to them. None returned his greeting with anything more than a stare. Nor did he, he realized with surprise at his own eagerness, feel any recognition for them.

Don't be a fool, Schoenfeld, he thought. You never even saw her face. You didn't hear her say a dozen words. How could you expect to know her again?

As he approached the stock corral, a man, perhaps alerted by some signal from the women, emerged from a hut. Another, younger man, soon followed. They sauntered toward Schoenfeld, who had dismounted, without any appearance of alarm. But both wore pistols shoved through their belts. The younger man dropped a hand to the butt of his gun.

Schoenfeld was aware of his own pistol with its empty chambers.

"Buenos dias, senores," he said. "You have many fine horses here. Muchos caballos."

  

He tried to keep his eyes off a bay Morgan with a U.S. Army brand, searching for words. The appearance of the horse thieves didn't help his memory.

"Do you need someone to break them?" he asked at last in English. He smiled, although his face felt as stiff and cold as his grandfather's night back in Texas.

He was so intent on the men's approach he didn't notice the woman who joined them until she lowered her shawl from head to shoulders. And he knew her, knew her in his heart, in spite of his earlier misgivings.

He swept off his hat. "Senora, gracias. Muchas gracias."

She took the arm of the older man at her side. "Papi," she said, "este es Pedro Schoenfeld."

Her voice stumbled a little, charmingly, Schoenfeld thought, over the unfamiliar consonants.

"At your service, senor." He bowed to the old ruffian, without taking his eyes of the man's weapons.

"Mi padre," the woman said, smoothing the man's gray-stubbled cheek. "Guadalupe Obregon."

The younger man stepped forward, still fingering his gun. "Permit me to introduce myself," he said. "My name is Garza. And I see you have already made the acquaintance of my betrothed."

The woman's eyes -- really, she wasn't more than a girl, Schoenfeld thought -- flicked toward Garza. A wary expression clouded them.

"You speak English real good, Mr. Garza," Schoenfeld said, unpleasantly aware of Garza's glance toward the woman.

"Like you," Garza said, "I am a tejano."

 

*         *        *

 

January 1863

By the time the new year had past, Schoenfeld had risen from Manuela's dog -- perro, Garza called him instead of Pedro -- to fellow bandit. When he had time to think -- when he could bear to think, he wondered what his grandfather would say. And if "risen" was a proper term to use among robbers and murderers. But in that time also, Manuela's condition began to show.

"When I find him, I will kill him," Obregon said, staring at his daughter across the hearth fire of the shack built of upright posts and adobe that was the gang's winter quarters.

Schoenfeld leaned against a far wall, swathed in his poncho, following the conversation with his eyes on the girl.

"Who is he?" Obregon demanded again. "Was it a soldier?"

"Yes, father, yes," Manuela said. "A soldier. One of Juarez's men."

Good, Schoenfeld thought. Let your father follow them to El Paso del Norte and we'll escape across the river, you and I.

"Patron, how many months have passed since Juarez's men were here?" Garza asked. "And how many months does a woman carry a child?"

No one else dared speak. Only Garza. Schoenfeld saw Manuela shudder under Garza's stare.

"Do you think I can't count?" Obregon asked. "Of course she's lying. It is someone here. Someone in our midst."

His eyes roamed around the room, searching one after another of his men, but not even the insolent Garza would meet his gaze. Not for the first time, Schoenfeld wondered how the daughter of a villain such as Obregon could be so unlike her father. She walked among the desperadoes with the assurance of a queen, the assurance that made him love her.

While Schoenfeld watched her, his own face hidden in the shadow of his down turned hat brim, Obregon sprang. Kicking aside the coals of the fire, he seized Manuela's shoulder and jerked her upright. Schoenfeld's hand tightened on the revolver he clasped under the folds of his poncho.

As he held Manuela, Obregon drew one of the pair of pistols he wore at his waist. He locked an arm around her shoulder. Baring the few teeth left in his mouth, he turned her to face the row of men leaning against the wall. The muzzle of the gun in his other hand thrust upward under her jaw.

Schoenfeld's gaze moved from Manuela's eyes, their dark irises ringed white with fear, to Obregon's. He watched the eyes, searching for any flicker of warning in their opaque depths that the maddened man meant to carry out his threat to the girl.

Schoenfeld straightened a fold of his enveloping poncho so that the opening under his arm would give him a clear shot. He felt Manuela's look slide over him and move on.

"Which one is it, daughter? Which of these cowards do you fear? Confess and his death will be a slow one. He will live to feel you spit on him."

Schoenfeld glanced at Garza, third in the line past him. He guessed from the line of his arm that Garza had also drawn his pistol and pointed it toward him. If Manuela indicated Garza as her attacker, he would shoot Schoenfeld. Manuela's face told him she understood.

Garza yawned loudly. "I confess, patron," he said.

The muzzle of Obregon's pistol moved from Manuela to Garza.

"I confess that these proceedings bore me," Garza said.

Schoenfeld caught Manuela's look of mingled horror and relief. Her eyes flicked to the half-hidden muzzle of Schoenfeld's gun and signaled no.

"You are bored with living, perhaps?" Obregon asked Garza. "That can be remedied."

"What man among us would throw his life away for a girl?" Garza asked.

"Only look at her. Someone seized her in the dark as she went to the well to fill her water jar."

"You're saying she doesn't know who attacked her?" Obregon asked.

"She dares not point out a man at random and say he was the one. That might leave her still at the mercy of her ravisher."

"So must I kill you all?" Obregon threw Manuela down and drew both pistols.

"I must shoot all you miserable vermin to wipe out the stain on my honor?"

But there were a dozen of them and he was only one.

"Hear me," Garza said. "What one man has hidden may be uncovered if all search. But perhaps a reward would make the search more diligent."

"Whoever discovers the villain will have my daughter as his wife," Obregon said.

"A dishonored woman? What prize is that?" Garza asked.

"Then I will add this to her dowry." Obregon tore open his shirt, pulling out the great diamond and emerald ring he wore on a chain around his neck.

"I will consider it," Garza said.

Schoenfeld watched as, leaning his head back against the wall, he pulled his hat over his eyes and composed himself to sleep.

 

*         *        *

 

"You should have named him before he spoke," Schoenfeld said to Manuela the next morning as he lifted an olla of water from the well.

"He would have killed you if I had. You saw that," she said.

"We must flee," Schoenfeld said.

But he knew it was too late. Since Obregon had pledged not only Manuela but the great diamond and emerald ring he wore on a chain around his neck as reward for the name of the man whose child she carried, the eyes of every bandit followed her to the well, followed her as she drew water. But avidly as they watched her, their eyes slid away from hers, fearing some sign of fear or favor by which she might betray a man to death.

"No, my darling," Manuela said. "You must flee."

Then she slapped him, walking away to complain that now every rogue, even this cursed yanqui, thought he could accost her.

 

*         *        *

 

Schoenfeld sat on his mule, a coil of rope at his saddle horn, as Obregon conferred with Garza at the end of that day. Manuela stood beside her father, her eyes cast down.

He and Manuela should flee now, Schoenfeld thought, now, before lying Garza had a chance to name him. But they had no place to run, caught between Juarez's army and the French, a prize on their heads from both side as members of Obregon's bandit gang. To the north there was only Texas, where his grandfather had died.

Schatzie sidled uneasily beneath him. He touched the mule's sides with his spurs. He would do it after all. He could spur the mule forward and seize Manuela. They would be gone before the others mounted.

"And you have found the man?" Obregon asked.

"I have found him," Garza said.

"How do I know you will not point the finger at someone else to save yourself?" Obregon asked.

Garza grinned as if in answer to Obregon's question, but as he spun his pistol's chamber, its muzzle pointed toward Manuela. She would die before Schoenfeld could lift her to his saddle.

"All of us have been with you for years," Garza said, "and your daughter has walked among us without harm. Until now."

Schoenfeld couldn't look away from Manuela. As if she felt his gaze, she raised her eyes to the rope at his hand.

Garza pulled off his hat and held it over his heart. "As God is my witness," he said, "The name of the man --"

"Sing, Schatzie," Schoenfeld said in desperation.

And Schatzie brayed.

The sky-rending sound drowned whatever Garza had been about to say. His mouth made the shape of a curse, unseen in the din, as he turned to the mule -- away from Manuela -- and raised his pistol.

Before Garza could shoot, a loop flew from Schoenfeld's outstretched hand onto his enemy's shoulders. At the same instant, he whipped the mule to a gallop, reining her toward the sunset so that the eyes of those who pulled their guns were too dazzled to shoot well.

Garza screamed, once, as the rope jerked him from his feet.

Then the scream stopped abruptly and he was only a bundle bounding at the rope's end behind the mule, caught in the mesquite thorns and torn loose to be caught and torn again.

As Schoenfeld flung himself onto the far side of the mule, clinging with one hand and foot hooked over the saddle, he heard a bullet whine past, close enough to singe Schatzie's brush of mane. He dared not look back, not at Manuela, not at the thing whose weight tugged at the rope trailing behind him.

And then Obregon yelled. The firing stopped. Despite that, the sun had slipped below the horizon before Schoenfeld dared circle back to the camp. He glanced at the bloodied nakedness he dragged behind him. Only the scraps of boots marked that it had once been a man.

He watched Obregon stroking his mustache appraisingly as he returned. Saw the old bandit wave down the guns of his men.

"I suppose Garza was the villain, then, daughter?" Obregon asked.

Schoenfeld turned his eyes to her, willing her to answer, yes. He saw her nod, saw her smile at him. But he couldn't smile back.

She was beautiful and he loved her more than his life. But a cold wind struck his back as he searched her face in vain for any sign of pity, any sign of remorse for the man, terrible though he was, who had died so violently for her sake.

She looked at Schoenfeld, at the thing he offered Obregon in return for her hand, and waited for him. He was tied to her now, he knew, tied more tightly than Garza's body was to his saddle horn. She had recognized in him, Schoenfeld thought, the man who could do this thing, who could free her, no matter what the means, from someone she hated. They two were alike, he and she, and the thought chilled him more than the winter wind.

THE END


Melissa Embry is a former journalist who grew up on military posts across the United States and Europe before ending in Texas. Her short fiction has appeared in "Mystic Signals," "Pulp Empire," "Short-Story.me," "Pulp Modern," and Moonlight Mesa's anthology of Westerns. "No Place to Run" was a finalist in Moonlight Mesa's 2011 Cowboy-Up contest. When not writing, she volunteers at a nonprofit stable that provides therapy through horsemanship to disabled children and adults. Learn more about her at http://nojobforsissies.blogspot.com/.

 

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