by Cole Parker

~    P a r t   2    ~

Chapter 15

Escaping one problem only to find others, a boy can find unexpected courage when pushed to his limits.

> 1 <

They rode in during the morning hours when everyone would be eating breakfast. They dismounted about 300 yards east of the compound, hobbled their horses and silently approached, spreading out as they had done in previous raids as they neared. They’d spent the previous day hidden in the long prairie grasses watching the ranch through binoculars, lying low behind slight knolls which shielded them. They knew where the ranch hands slept, how many people were in the big house, where everyone was at night.

There were 15 of them in the raiding team and two others who were sent to watch for the two boys who’d been seen leaving on their horses earlier in the day. Silently, stealthily, staying low in the grass, they moved forward. Two of the raiders were assigned to the white ranch house. One went to each of the six family houses. One went to the vet’s house. Four went to the cowboys’ bunkhouse. Two, the leader and his second in command, simply moved to the center of the grassy lawn when the others had reached their targets, and there they waited.

At exactly seven in the morning, each house and building was entered.

These men were not new to this. They had learned how to subdue and control large groups of people. In the individual houses, they entered silently and quickly located a child, put a knife to its throat and a hand over its mouth, then paraded the child to confront a parent. Most of the families were eating breakfast, and it was a quick thing to step to the table, grab a child and brandish the knife.

The parents were then told to gather everyone together and take them out onto the grassy compound lawn. They told them if anyone in the house made any noise, or tried to escape, every one of them would die, but the child would die first. In every case, with a knife at the throat of the child, the raiders received immediate and complete compliance.

The bunkhouse was different. Here, there were all men, and men reacted differently, often instinctively, to danger. There was an added complication here, too: instead of one large room, the building was broken up into individual, small sleeping quarters, and then larger areas for eating and communal activities. But the four men assigned to the bunkhouse were also experienced hands, and the fact everyone should be at breakfast made it easier. Three of the raiders entered the eating area with drawn guns and a finger to their lips. One spoke in Spanish, telling the cowboys to keep quiet or they’d all be shot. The fourth man moved silently through the building, going room to room. He found all the rooms empty. All the cowboys were eating breakfast, which was why the raid was chosen for this time when it was expected the men would all be together.

The fourth man returned to the others and nodded. Then he walked up to one of the seated cowboys. He drew his knife and brought the tip of it to the soft flesh under the man’s neck and pricked the skin there so it bled. Then he said, “It would mean nothing to me to shove this all the way in. Up to the hilt. If any of you do not do exactly what we say, you will die, and after that, the rest of you will follow. Cooperate and live; do not and die. We are going to tie you up and gag you. If you resist, you will die on the spot.” And then he pricked the man again before sheathing his knife.

They took the men individually back into the bedroom cubicles. Each man was tied up and gagged, searched for weapons, then lashed to a bed and told to make no noise. As each was secured, the threat they posed as a group became smaller and smaller for the four men charged with capturing them. Only one man, an older man, resisted while they were tying him. The bandits had a choice. Each of them carried a rifle and a holstered sidearm. They could have hit him in the head with a rifle stock and knocked him out. But the knife was handy, and one less adult to deal with simply made the job easier. He died relatively quickly and silently, bleeding out while two men held him down and kept his mouth covered. His legs thrashed at first, but on the bed they made very little noise, and they didn’t kick for long.

When all the men in the bunkhouse had been tied up and no longer a threat, and all the guns and knives in the bunkhouse had been collected, the men were untied from the beds and taken, their hands still trussed behind them, to the grassy lawn. They were pushed to the ground and told to sit still. As they sat, people from the houses were being brought out and forced down onto the lawn with them.

Everyone was told to be quiet; any noise would result in punishment.

Mrs. Hanson and the Fairchilds were brought out. She’d been allowed to put on a dressing gown. This hadn’t been permitted of anyone else. Many of the smaller children had pajamas on, and some of the women wore nightgowns. The older boys were either dressed or in sleeping shorts, and the older girls were mostly dressed or in nightgowns.

When everyone from the ranch was seated on the lawn and silent, a man who had been there waiting stepped in front of them. He was wearing two bandoleers loaded with rifle bullets. His clothes were dirty and the sweat-stained hat on his head would have made his presentation that of a stereotype, a comical Mexican bandit, but there was nothing at all amusing about his appearance. He had the bearing of a hard man—a man in charge.

“I am Francisco Mesa, the one who leads these men,” he said in heavily accented English. “I now own this place, and I own you. You will do exactly what I say. If you do, you may survive. I’ve killed many people. Killing a few more means nothing to me. I will probably die soon, as will my men. Until then I will do exactly what I want. I will not accept any arguments, any backtalk at all. My men all have my permission to kill anyone they take a dislike to, and they take dislike easily, so it would be best to please them, to do as they say. If they kill you, there will be one less person for them to watch. One of you has already died.”

The people on the lawn remained very quiet. They were frightened, they had no control over what was happening, and they were afraid for all the others, too.

Mesa looked at each of them, making eye contact. Then he spoke again. “We will be here not so long. A day or two. Then we will move on. We cannot stay anywhere for long. Men are looking for us. When they find us, many will die. You should hope we will be gone by then. While we are here, your men will remain locked up in a building under guard. If anyone tries to escape, we will kill many of them. Not just the ones trying to get out. Many. As an example.

“The women and girls will cook for us. The boys will do chores for us and help us as we look at what treasure we can take from this place. You have much, and we have little.

“We will be here this day and tonight. We will leave sometime tomorrow. What we will do today is go through all the houses and find what treasure there is. The boys will help us with this, and they will carry what we want out here so I can look and choose. If the boys do not cooperate, they will die. The women will be cooking for us. Butchering a steer, cooking it, so my men can feast.

“Tonight we will sleep here, in the houses. Each of my men will take a girl or woman he fancies. My men have needs, the needs men have. The girls and younger women will serve their needs. This will make some of you men angry. If you want to complain, do so now. Let the killing begin.”

He stopped and looked around. The fathers of the young girls had gone pale. A few of the mothers began crying. The older girls looked frightened. Then Pedro Gonzales stood up. “You cannot have my daughters,” he said.

Francisco turned his eyes to two of the group of men who had their guns trained on the people sitting in the grass. “Bring him,” he said, and two of the men stepped forward, each taking one of Pedro’s arms and forcing him to walk to the front. He was left standing there near the leader.

“You heard what I said?” Francisco asked. “You heard that arguments are not permitted? You would risk your life to say what you said. To me?”

Pedro stood up as straight and tall as he could and looked the leader in his eyes. “Yes, I heard. But I cannot let you have my daughters.”

Francisco nodded. Then he drew his revolver and shot Pedro in the chest.

A woman screamed, and Raymundo jumped up, only to be hit with a rifle butt. He crumpled to the ground.

“Anyone else?” Francisco asked.

No one said anything.

“You all needed to know that we do not mind killing. You have now seen that. A few of my comrades will take the men and oldest boys to the bunkhouse and lock them in now. Guards will be posted outside. If any of you resists being put inside, you will be shot, along with those closest to you.” The men, along with Eddie Mendoza and Luke Rivera, who were told to bring the fallen Ray with them even if they had to drag him, were herded into the bunkhouse. Cal was among them. The men all went without anyone resisting. Cal kept looking back, wondering where Ren was. He saw Julia Hanson sitting in the grass and holding Graciela Gonzales in her arms as the older woman sobbed.

> 2 <

After Ren and Andy were brought back to the ranch by their captors, they were taken to Francisco. One of the men who’d captured them spoke rapid Spanish to his leader, none of which Ren could understand. Ren saw the body of Pedro Gonzales lying in the grass.

Francisco spoke. “I have already explained to the others. One of them will tell you what’s happening. All I need say is: do as you’re told, exactly as you’re told, or you will die, and I’ll care as much as I would for stepping on a bug. Now go with the other boys.”

Ren and Andy were led to where the other boys were sitting in the grass. Ren saw the raiders separating the rest of the people on the lawn into two groups. The women and girls were put together in one group with one man watching them, his rifle held loosely but ready. The boys, Ren included, were then herded into the other group. They had three men watching them. One of them spoke fractured English.

“You boys. You not men. Not heroes. Boys. You do what we say, you stay alive. Go free when we leave. We need boys to help women cook. You, you and you.” He pointed to the youngest boys, Bobby, Ron and Del.

“We need boys to take care of our horses, feed them, brush them. First, to bring them from prairie. You, you, and you.” This time he pointed to JJ, Ren, and Andy, who were all right next to each other.

The boys stood and moved toward the stable, a guard behind them with a gun. When they reached the stable, the man pointed in the direction of where the horses were hobbled out a ways on the prairie. “They are there. Fifteen horses. You three, ride out and collect them and bring them back. But, you must all come back. If you don’t, we will kill your parents and some other boys. Do not fuck with us. You must be back in 20 minutes with the horses or we send men out to hunt you down and kill you. We will be very angry for the trouble you make for us and we know how to kill you slow.”

The three boys mounted their horses and then rode out in the direction the man had pointed. As soon as they were out of earshot of the ranch, JJ turned in his saddle to talk to Ren. “What can we do? We have to do something. There’s no one but us, and we can’t let them do as they said. They’re going to rape the women and girls. We have to stop them!” He proceeded to tell them everything that Francisco had said.

Ren shook his head. “I need to think. And we need to get those horses back fast. We’ll think about what we can do, and later, when we’re working with the horses, maybe we can plan something. But right now, we need to get those horses.”

“Ren, we have to do something!” Andy was shaken, and Ren could see that he was losing it. “I can’t let them do that to Lu! I won’t! You saw Mr. Gonzales. They shot him. But I still can’t let this happen!”

“Andy! Stop it. We’ll figure something out. But you can’t just go off half-cocked. Mr. Gonzales was noble and proud, but now he’s dead! You can’t just stand up to these guys. I can’t…” He stopped for a moment, then said, “I’ll think of something. This is all happening too fast. I have to think!”

They kept riding, and Ren could see that Andy was getting even more worked up. He knew him. He was fun-loving and cute, but he’d heard other boys talk about how he’d protected Ryan from Hec and stood up to Hec. When he got like that, they’d said, he became unafraid; he didn’t think of personal consequences. Ren was scared for him. If he acted that way now, it would get him killed.

It was terrible thinking of any of them being killed, but especially Andy.

“Calm down,” Ren said, speaking sternly as they rode. “We have to analyze this. We can’t do anything just spur of the moment. We have to do something before tonight, but we have some time. A few hours. A lot of lives depend on us doing the right thing. So let me think. You think, too. What can we do? Don’t just think about saving Lu. We have to save everyone, and you getting yourself killed won’t help; it’ll mean one less person to help with whatever plan we come up with. We have to figure something out, think up a plan, and we need to do it together.”

Andy looked back at him. “No; not me, Ren. You. You’re good at planning. You have to figure this out. I’m with you, whatever you come up with—I’m in. We’ll all be in.”

They rode the rest of the way to the hobbled horses in silence. All three of them were scared. JJ said nothing at all. Neither did Ren or Andy, but at least Ren was thinking.

It seemed hopeless. The invaders had all the guns. They didn’t care whom they killed. They were men, and the people at the ranch who were able to move around at all were women, girls and boys. What could any of them hope to accomplish? And how?

The three boys found the horses easily. It took only a few minutes to remove the hobbles. Then Ren rode to one side at the back of the herd, JJ went to the other side and Andy took a position behind them in the middle. When the boys began moving their horses forward, the other horses moved with them. The boys were going to be able to bring them back to the ranch well ahead of the 20 minutes allotted.

> 3 <

With the horses moving, Ren sidled Midnight over so he was riding next to Andy. Andy was thinking of Lu. Thinking of what was about to happen to her. Thinking about standing up to the man who’d try to take her. Thinking how futile it would be, but also how he needed to do it.

Thinking of being shot. Thinking about Mr. Gonzales. Asking himself: was that better than letting what was about to happen to Lu, happen? Thinking he wouldn't be able to live with himself if he let that happen without doing something. Thinking about being dead.

Ren grabbed his arm, shook it, and said to him, “Did you see Ryan? I didn’t see him there.”

Andy took a second to come out of the dark place he’d been in. Then he looked around, gathered himself and said, “Ryan. No, he wasn’t in that group. Maybe he hid when they came to get his father. You know he likes to hide. Maybe they don’t know about him.”

Ren was thinking. “We can’t do anything without rifles. But we know where there are some. There’s a bunch of them in Ryan’s secret place, and these men don’t know about them. If we had those rifles…”

JJ spoke up. “The first thing the men are doing is cutting all phone lines and collecting cell phones and rifles. I heard that guy tell one of his men in Spanish to go through all the houses doing those three things first. Rifles and all phones. Only those and nothing else. He said they’d go through the houses again later looking for valuable stuff, but they needed to secure all the guns and ways of communicating first.” “So maybe Ryan is still hiding, and maybe…” Ren stopped. He had a lot of thinking to do. If only his head was working! He was so scared; his fear was making everything fuzzy.

Andy rode silently as well, also thinking. Then he said to Ren, “Even if we have rifles, what good would they do? The men would grab the women and use them as shields, and we wouldn’t be able to shoot.”

Ren just shook his head. He had to come up with a plan, and his head wasn’t cooperating. They were almost back to the ranch by then, and Ren said, “We’ll talk later. I need more time! But we should have time to talk while we’re feeding and grooming the horses. The thing is, whatever we decide, we’ll need to find a way to talk to the other boys.”

The three boys herded the horses to the corral. One of Mesa’s men opened the gate, and the boys drove the horses inside. Then they took their own horses back inside the stable area. The man who’d sent them on their roundup was waiting for them.

He sent JJ back to be with the other boys, then faced the other two. “You boys are mine. I give you orders. You do what I say. You don’t obey, I hurt you bad. Make example of you for other boys. You understand?”

Andy and Ren nodded, and Ren said, “Yes sir. We won’t give you any trouble at all. We’re all too scared.”

“That good! Now go feed and tend to horses in corral.”

The boys grabbed some brushes and a hoof pick each and went back outside. The man watched them, then sat down in the shade where he could keep an eye on them. He tilted his hat forward to keep the sun out of his eyes.

Andy spoke very softly to Ren, both brushing the same horse. “What are we going to do?”

“We need to find Ryan. I have an idea. Not good but it’s something at least. Still have to figure out some things. Look, move so you can keep an eye on that guy watching us. He didn’t seem like he was all that sharp, and now he looks like he’s falling asleep. We don’t know when these guys last got any sleep. I need to find Ryan and talk to him.” He paused for a moment, thinking, then said, “I have to try this.”

Before Andy could stop him, Ren was walking toward their guard. Andy could hardly watch. The vision of Mr. Gonzales sprawled lifeless in the grass came back to him. Killing didn’t seem to bother these guys at all.

Ren stopped a few feet away from the man who hadn’t raised his head. Ren was fairly sure he’d fallen asleep. Still, he couldn’t count on him staying that way, and if he’d wake up and see Ren was gone… He couldn’t take the chance.

“Sir? I need some medicine for one of the horses. Sir?”

The man jerked his head, then lifted his eyes to Ren while reaching for his pistol. “Sir, I was cleaning a hoof and it looks like he has a sore foot. There’s medicine in the vet’s house I can get. It won’t take me long to find it. But I wanted permission first.”

The man shook his head, then said, “You not back in five minutes, I shoot your friend.”

“OK. If I can’t find it by then, I’ll come back without it. Or you could give me a few more minutes. I’m sure I could find it then and treat your horse.”

He began walking away, and the man yelled, “OK, ten minutes. No longer.”

“Thank you, sir,” Ren called back over his shoulder, and quickened his steps.

> 4 <

Ren felt entirely inadequate to his task, but at the same time realized it was unlikely any of the others could accomplish anything. He was scared because he knew if he tried and failed, they all might well die. But, would these men leave anyone alive even if he didn’t try? He doubted it. They were alive now because the men wanted them to help find and carry things for them. But when they were no longer needed? Ren remembered the story the sheriff had told them about the other ranch that was raided. The sheriff hadn’t gone into detail, but what he’d said at least suggested that the rancher and his people hadn’t survived. Was this the same group of Mexicans? Hard to imagine more than one group was going around doing this.

Anyway, Ren didn’t think they should leave their survival to the will of Francisco Mesa!

He’d had an idea and now was thinking of all that would need to happen for it to succeed. It seemed impossible. He had to be able to talk to everyone! But first, he had to have access to those rifles.

He had no problem finding Ryan. He was hiding in the basement in a place where he’d hid before.

Ren spoke to him like you would to a smaller boy. He said what he had to say very clearly. Made sure Ryan knew just what to do. Didn’t bother telling him what not to do, which would have taken forever. He told him what was needed, and afterward that he should hide again. And to stay hidden; Ren or Andy would then come for him if they could.

Ren then went upstairs to where Doc Masters kept his medications and found a jar of salve. He spotted a package of powdered horse tranquilizers and some hypodermic capsules of the same stuff as well, and the quick thought came to him of trying to dose the raiders’ food, but that seemed as unlikely to work as his own plan was. No, he decided, he’d better stick to what he was already doing.

He was back outside and in the corral before his ten minutes were up. Barely. It wouldn’t have made a difference, however, as the guard was fast asleep.

Ren took the opportunity to explain his plan to Andy. Andy grew pale. Ren nodded. “Probably won’t work. But I think they mean to kill us, so it’s us or them. This has to be done before dinner tonight, because right after that the women will be…” He stopped, not wanting to say it.

“We’ll only have one chance,” he continued. “It all has to work right. The thing is, we need to talk to the others. We can’t do this without talking to them, and I don’t know how to do that.”

That problem was solved for them. One of the raiders came and saw them working and their guard asleep. He kicked the guard, waking him, and told him the women had made lunch for them, and Francisco wanted the boys fed, too, so they’d have the energy to haul all the stuff he wanted to take from the houses. He said the food was ready.

“OK. I’ll have these two bring me my food here, and then they can go eat.”

Ren and Andy went with the messenger back to the lawn. The boys were all sitting in a group. One of the bandits had been assigned to watch them, but he was eating his own lunch and chatting with one of the other raiders in Spanish, seemingly oblivious to the boys.

Ren was happy to see Izzy was with them. She’d been dressed like a boy when her family was taken, and they’d assumed that was what she was. Ren was pleased because he needed her.

While Andy took the guard by the corral his lunch, Ren managed to get the boys all within hearing distance of him and then began talking. He had a lot to say, and they had a lot to hear, and understand and accept. He impressed on them the need to do this in the afternoon, today, and that they had to make it work.

They all understood why.

He set the time for 4 o’clock. They had watches. He asked for questions, and there were a few. He answered them. He asked if anyone couldn’t do what was being asked of them. He looked them all in the eye. Then he nodded. “I believe in you guys. Whether we live or die, whether everyone here lives or dies, is up to us. But we can do this. We have to. Good luck, guys. Be brave.”

Ren and Andy went back to the corral after lunch. Ren saw the guard was sleeping again, an empty plate on the ground next to him. Could he take a chance? Well, yes. If it didn’t work, he’d be the only one to die, and it was worth the risk. So, instead of going into the corral, he slipped back into the vet’s house. There, he made sure Ryan had done everything he’d been assigned, then he grabbed a filled syringe from the vet’s supplies and took Ryan with him back to the corral.

They started grooming the horses again. When it was getting late, Ren looked at Andy and said, “It’s time.” Andy put down his brush and walked toward the guard without hesitating. Ren followed, telling Ryan to stay with the horses.

Andy sunk to his knees next to the guard on one side at the same time Ren did the same on the other. Andy had said he wanted to be the one to do this, but Ren had shook his head. Looking at Andy, he knew the boy was upset and shaky. This had to be done without faltering. He took the syringe and, nodding to Andy, shoved it in the guard’s neck and pressed the plunger all the way in, hard and fast. Andy clapped his hand over the guard’s mouth and held it tight.

It was a fast-acting horse tranquilizer, and the man had been in a dead sleep. He was still waking up as the drug hit him, and then he was out.

The boys left him like he was, sitting against the barn door with his chin resting against his chest. Anyone seeing him would think him asleep. Ren didn’t know if he was asleep or dead. Nor did he care. It was now us-versus-them time. Every boy on the ranch knew it and was prepared to do what was necessary for the ‘us’ side to win.

Andy grabbed two of the rifles Ryan had loaded and stashed outside along the back wall of his house. He carried them into the stable and upstairs, leaving them against the wall under the trapdoor that led to the roof. Then he got two more and, giving Ren a quick hug that surprised him, walked behind the corral, letting the horses screen him. He stopped behind the last horse; moving on would be when he’d lose his cover. This was the tricky part. He had to get to the back side of the storage building without being seen, and the way the buildings were situated, there was a gap of about twenty feet where there was nothing screening him from the lawn.

He peeked past the rear of the horse. Francisco and his second in command were sitting on the lawn, observing the women and talking. The women were near the middle of the lawn not far from the Hanson House, which meant the men were looking away from the stable and corral. The other raiders and boys were out of sight, probably, he thought, going through the houses for valuables.

It was as good as it was going to get. Andy crouched and, trying not to think, ran for his life. It took only seconds before he reached the side of the storage building, his heart beating faster than it ever had. He stopped and listened. No shouts, no shots.

He’d made it.

Now he had it easy. He put one of his rifles near the fire escape leading to the roof, then took off running again, only having to worry when he passed the gap between the storage building and the kitchen/first-aid building, and the gap between that building and the bunkhouse. These gaps were small, and someone would have to be standing looking directly at that empty space to see him. Still, he was careful and reached the bunkhouse unseen.

He had to be quiet there. He knew three of their captors were inside. Even though the ranch hands were locked in a large storage closet in the building, three men had been assigned to make sure they remained locked inside. Men with rifles and pistols.

Andy silently climbed the fire escape to the roof. Then he wriggled forward to the crest of the roof, stopping before his head cleared the high point. He took off his hat and peeked over. He had a perfect view of the lawn.

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