The cool night air bit into his face as night creatures scurried through the brush, perhaps looking for something to appease their hunger. Roan Penny’s weary eyes narrowed into hard slits. He leaned against the side of the shack—his temporary home—and stared up at the huge, star-dotted expanse. Those stars put a million periods at the end of a long list of unanswered questions.
How long he had to wander this lonely path seemed anyone’s guess.
The words his father had spoken in a drunken haze filled his head: You were cursed at birth when you came into this world under a waning moon. It’s bad luck you’ll be having, boy, and bad luck will follow you to your grave.
That summed up his life perfectly.
Roan shifted his stance against Mose Mozeke’s cabin. He glanced up at the waning moon, holding back the sense of foreboding. Something bad was going to happen—he could feel it in his bones. He only hoped that whatever trouble came calling was looking for him and not the kind man who’d become his only friend. Mose had taken Roan in about a year ago, saying he needed the company. Roan knew better. After taking one look at him, the kindly farmer had seen he’d had nowhere else to go.
Mozeke worked a small parcel of red dirt he took special pride in owning, only he was locked in a fight to keep it. Greedy men wanted that land, and the good folks of San Saba, Texas, were accusing him of being a squatter, trying to run him out. They’d have to go through Roan to do it.
Another skyward glance knotted Roan’s stomach. A shiver raced through him, and he wished for his jacket that hung on a peg inside the door. The night breeze held an icy bite to it and the promise of a hard freeze, but it was the omen that froze his blood. He couldn’t run, couldn’t hide, couldn’t abandon Mose.
Then he heard the pounding hooves of many riders. The ground trembled slightly beneath his feet, matching the quake inside. It appeared the trouble he’d been sensing had come.
“What’s all that racket, son?” Mose stood in the doorway. His thin frame barely cast a shadow, his graying red hair gleaming in the flickering lamplight.
“Either we’re having a bunch of callers or a herd of longhorns have stampeded, sir.” Judging by the hair standing on the back of his neck, Roan would put his money on the first. “Get your rifle, Mose,” he said quietly.
“’Tain’t loaded. Meant to do that when I came back from hunting jackrabbits, but clean forgot. Doubt I’ll need it.”
Roan prayed Mose was right but his knotted gut told him otherwise. He recalled something Mose had said days ago. Boy, he’d said, I’ve lived a long life, and this I know—fortune doesn’t come in pairs or trouble in ones.
Please let his gut be wrong.
He’d left his gun belt inside with his jacket, but thank goodness, he had one weapon on him—his Bowie knife. As riders emerged from a thick cluster of scrub cedar like a swarm of locusts, he took some tiny comfort in the sheath tucked under his shirt between his shoulder blades.
Each rider had his head covered. Holes cut in burlap sacks revealed the glint of eyes in the reflection of the light of their torches. The eerie sight brought an extra icy feel to the late October night air. They reminded him of hollow skulls unearthed from burial grounds.
The raiders stopped within several feet of Mose. The horses’ snorts created clouds of vapor in the cool air. Small pockets of his own fogging breath kissed Roan’s face.
The leader of the pack leaned forward in the stirrups. “Mozeke, we’re here to take back what you stole. Leave or you die.”
“I done told you before. Do what you feel you hafta do, ’cause my paper says this piece of dirt is legally mine.” Mose’s voice was firm but Roan knew he was scared. “Ain’t no one gonna take me off my own property, not ever. You just run along now, and I’ll be forgettin’ you took it on yourself to rid me of my land.”
“No one can claim we didn’t give you fair choice.”
“I can and I do.” Roan strolled into the light, his movement fluid.
“Stay outta this. ’Tain’t no concern of yours,” the leader barked.
“That’s where you’re wrong, gentlemen. Now, slink back to where you came from, and I’ll overlook your inhospitable nature.” Roan flexed his hand, ready to act.
A flash spat from the man’s rifle in answer.
Roan had been watching the marauders, anticipating the response, and dropped to his knees. The bullet missed him by an inch. Before the man could fire again, he quickly reached backward for the weapon hanging between his shoulder blades. The knife slid into his grip, and he sailed it with expertise into the flesh of the nearest assailant.
“Oh God, I’m hit!” The bushwhacker yanked the knife from his shoulder, holding it in disbelief.
To Roan’s horror, a second shot rang out, and Mose crumpled. Roan could only watch the scene unfold as if time and motion were held suspended. Overwhelming grief strangled him.
Other rifles fired, the blasts deafening.
When they stopped, his friend was no more.
Mose Mozeke sprawled faceup in the dirt, clutching his chest. Blood spurted between the man’s hands—hands blackened from trying to make something from nothing.
“Damn you!” Most of all, Roan damned himself for leaving his Colt inside. He cursed the assassins for executing a man whose only crime was fighting to keep what was his.
“Throw your torches. Set the shanty afire.” The gravelly rumble was wrapped in cold contempt. “Save the drifter. I got plans for him.”
Air left Roan’s lungs with great force. To burn Mose’s house would complete their annihilation of the man as though he never existed. A huge beast inside yearned to give voice to the bloodcurdling yell that bubbled in his chest. Six men leaped from their horses on him, silencing the roar. Fists pummeled his face and body, the pain so intense he couldn’t breathe. He lost count of time and might’ve lost consciousness for a spell. When he opened his eyes, the small, wooden structure was ablaze against the midnight sky. The few possessions he’d acquired, the most prized of which was the friendship of a lonely man, had vanished in the blink of an eye. He freed himself of his assailants’ grips and stumbled toward his fallen friend.
Flames illuminated Mose. Eyes that had seen only the best in everyone now stared unseeing at the heavens. Roan jumped to his feet, his arms outstretched in an attempt to grab the nearest rider.
A rope whirred and tightened about him before he could, settling under his armpits. He grabbed hold of the rough hemp, his gaze on the man on horseback who’d snared him.
“We’re gonna teach you what happens to meddlers, drifter.” The rider’s spurs dug into his horse’s flanks. The animal launched into a full gallop and pitched Roan forward.
The hard fall knocked the wind from his lungs. He fought to breathe as he hurdled through a bramble patch. His teeth bit into the soft flesh of his curled bottom lip. The taste of blood strengthened the fight in him. He clenched his jaw and grabbed the rope. Pulling himself forward just a few inches made sure he wouldn’t lose more than the second layer of skin and kept him out from under the trampling feet of the whooping followers. His arm sockets paid a heavy price for the effort. Pain blinded him, stealing the air from his lungs.
It was nothing short of a miracle that he managed to hold on through the wild nightmare. Liquid fire had burned a path through every inch of him by the time the pack’s bloodlust faded and they halted.
“Had enough, drifter?”
“Go to hell, you murdering bastards.” Blood and dirt slurred Roan’s strong words.
“Reckon it’s time for more teaching, then.”
“Yeah, we ain’t near done yet.” The hood-muffled second rider moved near—a mistake on his part.
Roan leaped for the masked man, yanking him from his horse. The hard ground knocked off the burlap bag, and Roan stared into the features of a young man who had yet to see his first shave.
That face burned into Roan’s memory. One day they’d meet again.
Before Roan could land a punch, men grabbed him, and fists pounded his midsection. Others stomped him with their boot heels to satisfy their madness. Leaving him more dead than alive, they bound his hands and hoisted him across a horse’s rump, then rode for miles over every rock, gully, and cattle trail. Each jolt gave his pain added meaning. At last they stopped, but he didn’t take it as a good sign. They’d probably arrived at his grave.
He dragged in a breath, the icy air a shock to his lungs.
They dismounted and shoved him onto what appeared to be a road.
“Step foot back in San Saba, and we’ll kill you,” snarled the gravelly voiced leader.
Gasping for air, Roan curled on the rocky ground and stared up at the dreaded omen high above. The waning moon winked down from its perch in the heavens.
It had never brought anything but trouble. The crescent had appeared after midnight as his mother died, and the night his father had given him away. Then again, a few years later when the old woman who cared for him had passed on to her reward, and not one person on earth had given a damn about the welfare of a twelve-year-old boy.
He cursed through the blood in his mouth as the vigilantes thundered off into the distance.
An unforgiving, unseasonable north wind pelted him, freezing his tears before they fell. He tried to struggle to his feet but sank back to the ground, fighting spasms that made everything whirl. If he didn’t find shelter soon, he wouldn’t have to worry about taking up breathing space any longer. His badly swollen eyes narrowed to mere slits, Roan scanned the area. No barn, outhouse, or chicken coop in sight. Hell, he’d settle for a fresh dung heap. At least the smelly stuff would offer a bit of warmth.
He hugged his tattered shirt against him and crawled forward off the road into some dead brush. Sharp stones poked into him and scraped off more skin. Although he grimaced, he savored the aches that proved he still had life in his body.
As long as he lived, so, too, did his chance for justice.