Authors: Patricia Hagan
Then, heart leaping, he saw what he was looking for—Valdis. Tremors of rage rippled through him, and it was all he could do to keep from aiming his rifle and blowing the bastard to pieces. But then he saw that Valdis was pulling a woman down beside him, drawing her to him, wrapping his arms about her possessively. He kissed her passionately. The woman was Amber. And she was not struggling.
It couldn’t be. Perhaps she was drugged? Never would she go willingly to Valdis. Never. And he was not going to allow her to be violated.
He stood, a growl emanating from deep within like that of a wild animal ready to attack. All eyes below suddenly turned up to where he stood with rifle in one hand, his pistol in the other. “Let her go, Valdis!” Cord roared. “Now!”
To the others, he cried, “Don’t make a move. You may kill me, but I’ll get him first.”
Amber rolled from Valdis’s arms and propped herself against a rock. Cord strained to see her face, refusing to believe that she was smiling.
“Amber, come up here, now,” he yelled, his voice sounding hollow. Something was very wrong.
When she made no move, he cried hoarsely, “Are you able to get up, Amber?”
“Of course I am able to get up,” she called out cheerfully, and the others laughed. “Come join us, Cord. We are all good friends here now.”
He gripped the rifle. “Amber, you don’t have to be afraid. Just get up and walk up here. Valdis, you walk slowly right behind her, because you’re coming with us to make sure we aren’t followed.”
Amber got to her feet, and Valdis made no move to restrain her. “You don’t understand, Cord,” she called out, shading her eyes from the sun. “Things have changed since you left. I have come to know Valdis for the wonderful man he really is. He has made me very happy. I don’t want to go with you.”
“Amber, get up here. You don’t have to be afraid.”
“I’m not afraid.” She laughed. “If you wanted me, Cord, you shouldn’t have left me. Did you think I would stay behind and rot in that horrible little Indian village? Valdis took me away, and now I’m a happy woman. We have peace here. We are happy.”
Valdis spoke for the first time, shouting amiably, “Come down, Hayden. Have a drink with us. You will see how happy the señorita is. Do not be a poor loser. The best man won, isn’t that so?”
Everyone laughed raucously, and Cord saw that Amber joined in too. She allowed Valdis to draw her into his arms once more.
Slowly, Cord slid backward from the rock and turned and walked away, the ringing laughter echoing behind him. He kept on walking, not allowing himself to think or feel.
Somehow, despite the roaring in his head, Cord made his way back to the boy’s hiding place. Somehow, he was not surprised to find him gone.
Gerras leaped down from a ledge high above the one on which Cord had made his stand, a triumphant grin splitting his face. “He’s gone!” he cried, waving his rifle. “And not a shot was fired. He will not be back.”
Valdis turned and pulled Amber into his arms and kissed her long and hard, thrusting his tongue inside her mouth. When at last he released her, he laughed, “It is over. Tonight I will reward my men with all the tequila they can drink. They performed well, watching your lover every step of the way, watching where he hid the bastard so they could bring him here. Go to him now. Let him know he will be by your side as long as you please me. Tonight, after I have celebrated with my men, I will come to you, and you can show your appreciation for my kindness.”
He released her, and she stumbled away, tears blinding her as she made her way back into the cave.
. Her heart cried his name over and over.
Cord. I had to say those lies. I had to.
She struggled to breathe past the agony in her throat…dear God, she loved him so.
Amber held little Armand’s face in her hands and whispered anxiously, “Please, please, my darling, try to understand what I am going to say to you. We have to figure a way to get out of here. I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we’ve got to try. I can’t endure what awaits me, and I can’t bear the thought of your having to live here.”
She kissed his cheeks and fell back to sit on the ground. Armand stared up at her, not taking his eyes from her for a moment.
Lost in her misery, Amber did not at first feel the gentle poking of Armand’s finger upon her shoulder. He poked harder, and she turned to him. She reached for the objects he held out to her as he smiled triumphantly. “Mushrooms? Why—?” Then she knew, and her grin matched his. Somehow, somewhere along the way, he had found mushrooms. If he knew as much about growing things as his people did, then they were poisonous. Poisonous mushrooms!
She gave him a quick hug. “Armand, you may have found a way for us to escape. They were cooking a stew. All I have to do is slip these into the pot, and the whole lot of them will be ill.” It was hope, and the first she’d felt since seeing Valdis at the Indian village.
She searched for and found a smooth rock and two small, jagged stones with which to pound the mushrooms.
Armand and she worked feverishly and in moments had reduced the mushrooms to a residue like soft mud. Tearing a bit of material from the petticoat beneath her dress, Amber scraped the mush into it, tying it loosely to make a small pouch, which she tucked inside her bodice.
“Now,” she breathed raggedly as they both sat back, “all I have to do is get it into the pot. I suppose I will have to wait until dark, but first, I’ll make everyone think I’m drunk.” She giggled, reaching to clasp the boy’s hand, sadness suddenly overcoming her again. “If only we could find Cord,” she said wistfully. “I’d give anything if I could tell him the truth. Maybe he hasn’t gotten far. Once we get out, we can ride hard. But I suppose that’s wishing for too much…” Her voice trailed off.
Armand tugged at her sleeve, pointing to himself, then toward the outside, nodding and grinning hopefully.
Amber stared. “Are you telling me you can take me to Cord? You can trail him?”
He nodded, eyes shining.
“You understand some of what I say, don’t you?” she murmured in wonder. “I know it is probably only because you recognize familiar names, and you pay attention to gestures, but someday we’ll talk easily, I just know it.” Bounding to her feet, she held out her hand to him. “Come on, pardner, let’s go up there and put on a good act!”
Outside, they walked into the late afternoon sunshine. Valdis, drinking with his men, jovially called, “Ahhh, you have come to join us,
. Now we will truly have a fiesta.”
“I brought the boy up for sunshine and fresh air,” she told him evenly, careful not to sound at all eager about Armand.
He waved an arm. “Of course. Is this not his home now, too? As long as he doesn’t cause trouble, we will have no problems. The boy may play as he wishes. Come and sit with me. Wine will make you relax. You look tense.”
Amber motioned to Armand, and he understood what was expected. Wandering off, but not far away, as Valdis’s men regarded him warily, he went about inspecting cactus flowers among the rocks, pretending to enjoy chasing a pale yellow butterfly.
Amber sat down, eyes darting quickly to the pot of stew. It was near the cave’s entrance, so evening shadows would fall there earlier than on other parts of the flat space in front of the hideout. That was in her favor. The pouch tucked in the bodice of her dress was well hidden, but she would have to duck any amorous advances Valdis might make. She hoped he would wait until night before touching her.
“Come, drink,” Valdis urged. “You are one of us now. Smile. You must look happy, or my people will not like you. They will think you consider yourself too good to drink with them.”
“Yes, I suppose so.” She made her voice tight. “If I’m to be forced to live with you animals, I might as well try to enjoy myself.” She jerked the bottle from his hand and tipped it to her lips, pretending to swallow. She feigned a short coughing spell, much to the delight of Valdis’s men. “Maybe if I get drunk, I can stand you pigs!” A cheer went up as she drank again, and this time she swallowed some, fearing they would notice if the bottle didn’t seem emptier. Then she stood up and walked around, scowling. “I hate all of you, you know that, don’t you?” She grabbed another bottle from someone else, much to the delight of Valdis, who was clapping his hands gleefully. “I hate all of you, and I always will. Bandits! Murderers! I wish to see all of you dead.”
“Ah, you will have your hands full this night,” one of his men goaded Valdis.
Another chimed in. “This one is a wildcat. Never will you tame her.”
Valdis roared, “But I will enjoy the wildcat’s bites and scratches, and before the night ends, her only screams will be those of pleasure.”
“Take her now!” someone called out. “Now, in front of us all. We have seen you tame others, and this one will be a real challenge.”
It was all Amber could do not to protest. Much to her relief, she heard Valdis declare angrily, “No. This one is special. She is not a
. She is to be my mistress when I return home. You will respect her. When I tire of her, or if she displeases me, then you may pass her around as you do these bottles. Until then, let there be no such talk.”
She continued to weave through the group, pausing to sip now and then. Valdis settled into a game of cards with some of the men, and Amber felt a rush of encouragement as others wandered over to watch. She was even happier when the women all left to go down to the stream to bathe.
The sun continued to drop until, at last, the purple shadows that she had awaited so anxiously began to descend over that part of the camp where the cooking pot was. No one was looking at her anymore, and she fished into her bodice, quickly extracting the pouch and untying it. Then she began to wander toward the pot, pretending interest in the simmering contents.
A sharp voice caused her to almost drop the pouch.
“What are you doing?” growled one of the men.
She reached for the stick that was used for stirring. “What does it look like I’m doing?” She slurred her voice. “Someone must do the cooking. All you pigs do is drink.”
She was rescued when Valdis snapped, “Leave her be. It will give her something to do.”
Amber took a deep breath and began to stir the bubbling stew. After a few moments, she slowly looked around to make sure no one was paying any attention, then dumped in the glob of pulverized mushrooms, quickly stuffing the rag back into her bodice. Giving the stew a few more turns with the stick, she turned away, pausing to look at Armand, who was watching her in rapt attention. She winked, and he grinned. It was done.
She wandered as far away from the pot as possible and, finding a grassy spot, lay down and pretended to sleep. One of the men snickered. “The señorita drinks too much. Now she sleeps it off.”
“Let her,” said Valdis with a chuckle. “She will need her rest for tonight.”
They all joined in the raucous laughter.
The women returned from the stream, and Amber was thrilled to hear one of the men order that the stew be served. She heard the sounds of moving and remained perfectly still, tensing only when someone asked whether she should be awakened so she could eat.
“Let her sleep,” came Valdis’s voice. “Tonight, I will have some special food for her!” he added, laughing.
Soon she could hear slurping sounds as they ate, and she dared to open her eyes just wide enough to make sure all of them were eating at once.
Gerras was the first to show symptoms. “Ayo!” he cried, belching loudly. “My stomach makes noises like castanets. I think I am going to be sick. Maybe the meat was bad.”
“Maybe we drank too much,” someone else said feebly.
Valdis grunted. “We also ate too much. The pot is empty. The meat was not bad. It was too good. Now we pay the price for being pigs.”
Amber peered out from beneath half-lowered lashes and saw that Gerras was swaying on his feet. “My eyes! I can’t see clearly. You are moving. All of you are moving. And now I will fly like a bird—”
Two women began writhing on the ground and several men stumbled, falling into one another blindly, mumbling to themselves. A guard who had come in from his post to eat fell unconscious.
Sick cries blended together, making one awesome sound as everyone was struck by the mushrooms. Amber strained to see Armand but could not, and wondered frantically where he had disappeared to. Soon they would make their move, and there was no time to be wasted searching for him. Then she heard a movement behind her in the brush, and turned slowly, hesitantly, to see him crouched there, smiling at her.
She turned back to the scene once more. When she saw that Valdis was stumbling about, lost in a trance, saw that everyone in the camp was affected, she decided it was time. Rolling under the brush, she crawled on her hands and knees, Armand leading her.
When they were out of the endless stand of brush and could stand up, Armand grabbed her arm as though he knew where he was going.
Around a jutting rock, Amber was thrilled to see several horses corralled in a crude pen. Armand slipped between the railings to disappear among them, returning with a small pony. Grinning broadly, he moved back once more and returned with a horse for her. Pushing a railing aside, he led the two animals out and then mounted his pony.