I won't tell you the setting for this short excerpt. It's best to keep you in suspense.
Loud banging roused Andi what seemed like minutes later. The door rattled. “Open up!”
She groaned and opened her eyes. Sun streamed through the holes that passed for windows. She lurched across the dirt floor and unbarred the door. Procopio stepped inside with a flamboyant “buenos días.”
“Little Santos spent a restless night, but he ate breakfast without screaming and is now napping,” Procopio cheerfully told Lucy, who looked groggy but awake. “You may come and go as you like, señora, until your temporary illness passes. Eat when you are hungry. Lend a hand if you feel up to it.” He frowned. “But stay away from the child. I do not want him upset.”
Lucy sat on the makeshift mattress with her arms encircling her knees. She glared at Procopio and said nothing.
“You, chica. Come with me.” Without waiting for Andi’s assent, he whirled and left the shack.
Andi and Lucy exchanged glances. “At least he’s not leaving us locked up in this gloomy place.” Procopio’s impatient shout sent Andi scuttling out the door.
“You will do whatever Benita tells you,” Procopio told Andi when he led her to the fire. “She speaks a little English”—he grinned—“enough to make her wishes known.” He waved his wife over.
Benita strolled up, carrying a dozing, thumb-sucking Sammy.
“I have instructed this girl to obey you, querida.” Procopio smiled at his wife.
“Can I send her to the woods for firewood?” Her scowl showed how much she hated that task. “She will not run away?”
Procopio shook his head. “From what I have observed, she loves her family. She will never abandon them, especially not the niñito.” He gazed fondly at Sammy. Then he chuckled and kissed Benita’s cheek. “You have a servant for life, or at least until we return home.”
A faraway look came to the Mexican woman’s eyes. “How long, Tomaso? Give me hope.”
Andi stared at Sammy and feigned indifference to their conversation. She must learn everything she could about the outlaw’s plans.
“Not long. A few weeks. I have men out on jobs. They must return. I am also planning one last job of my own. Then we will be on our way. Have patience, querida.” He gently pinched her cheek, brushed a hand across Sammy’s hair, and headed across the camp where Jed, Vega, and four other men huddled in close conference.
Benita wasted no time ordering Andi around. “Wood. You get.” When Andi looked longingly at the cooking pot, Benita shook her head. “Wood first. Then eat. Go now.” She hiked Sammy up higher on her hip and pointed. “That way.”
Andi took off for the forest in the direction they’d originally arrived. She found the trail and followed it for a few minutes. When it curved, she left the path. Lofty pines and firs rose all around her. Brush, grass, and small trees covered the ground beneath.
But no branches. This place had been plucked clean of easy limbs and dead wood.
Andi trekked on, glancing behind her shoulder every few yards. Procopio was right about one thing. She would never run away and face her brother empty-handed. But she might get lost. A posse of a hundred skilled trackers could never find this hideout, much less find one person who wandered off by mistake.
“Even if I did decide to go for help and found my way out,” Andi mused aloud, “how would I ever lead anybody back through these hills?” She paused to listen. No river or creek bubbled nearby to show her the way to the lowlands. She’d wander around in circles until she died of thirst or starvation.
Andi shivered and checked her position. Keeping the smoke from camp in view, she dodged a dead tree trunk and veered to the left. She spent the next twenty minutes scrounging dead wood other scavengers had missed. When she had an armful, she headed back. “It’s going to take all day to trudge back and forth one puny load at a time.”
A rope. That’s what she needed. She could tie up—
Crack. A branch snapped.
Andi dropped her load and whirled toward the noise. Not far away, the underbrush rustled. Bobcat? Coyote? Her hand flew to her pocket. She curled her fingers around the derringer and slid it out.
She shook so much she knew she’d miss any cat or coyote that showed its face. Glancing behind her shoulder, she could barely make out her position to camp. Would running be better?
More crackling. She jerked her attention back to the moving underbrush and steadied the pistol.
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