Will shifted in his saddle and frowned at the horizon. “Seems like we should’ve been there already.”
“It can’t be much farther,” Diana said. “We’re almost to Don Reymundo’s lands.”
“That’s what worries me.”
Diana fumbled in her saddlebag and pulled out a compass, squinting at the markings in the bright glare of the sun.
“We don’t need that,” Will told her. “The river has been to our left the whole time, so we can’t have passed it.”
They continued in silence for another mile, intent on their mission to deliver a message to the unit monitoring Don Reymundo’s growing fiefdom. As if Don Reymundo’s land-grabbing wasn’t enough, there were rumors he had allied with at least one of the northern states of Mexico, and this could not be allowed.
Will and Diana smelled the burn before they saw it—a heavy, sickly odor of more than just wood. Mingled into the charcoal smell of burnt cottonwoods was the choking scent of scorched plastic, trash, and flesh.
He and Diana kicked their horses into a trot. Ahead, they could make out the charred trunks of trees, the blackened walls of a small adobe dwelling, and the remains of a corral.
“Was this it, do you think?” Diana asked as she walked her horse through the ashes, skirting the grisly remains of humans and animals.
Will rested a hand on his gun, looking around as if there might be arsonists among the remains. Diana was about to tease him for his caution when a sound by the river caught her attention. She drew her gun and edged her horse closer to Will’s as a dirty figure dragged himself out of the brush by the water.
“Stay where you are,” Will shouted. “Who are you?”
The man looked at them with the pained expression of a wounded animal. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. He dragged himself a few more feet and collapsed with a whimper.
While Will kept his gun trained on the stranger, Diana jumped to the ground and approached him. She squatted by his side but made no move to touch him because what had looked from a distance like mud and soot was something else entirely.
“He’s burnt pretty bad,” she said. “He needs help.”
Will dismounted and fumbled in his saddlebag for his canteen. He gave it to Diana, eyeing the man skeptically while she tried to get him to drink. “I don’t think there’s much we can do.”
Diana sat back on her heels with a sigh. “I know. It’s just—”
“See if he can tell us his name and what happened.”
Diana wet her bandanna and moistened the man’s lips, leaning in close so she could hear his whispered words. She murmured encouragement as he answered her questions and when he had nothing more to say, she asked if he had any message for his next of kin.
The man mumbled something, but she couldn’t make it out, so she asked him to repeat himself. Instead, he shook his head and fell silent.
“Do you want to do it, or should I?” Will asked.
Diana got to her feet and walked away. She had gone only a little way when she heard the shot and stopped. When Will joined her, he found her staring at the river. Her eyes were wet and when she turned to look at him, she swiped at her nose.
“What did he say?” Will asked.
“That Don Reymundo’s people did this. They took some of our people away as prisoners.”
“That's just what we need. A rescue mission.”
“His name was Jacinto Torres. He had a daughter.”
“What’s her name? Where is she? Did he have a message for her?”
Diana shook her head. “She was with Don Reymundo’s people.”
“So was this guy one of ours or not?”
“He was ours.”
Will fell silent, pondering the implications. Finally he said, “Well, I guess the message we were supposed to deliver is pretty useless now.”
“I guess so.”
“We’ll bury him, then go back and tell central command what happened.”
Diana nodded and looked around at the blackened landscape. “Hard to believe people who are supposed to love each other could do something like this.”
“Mother always says war is hell.”
“Don’t ask. You’ll make yourself crazy trying to understand other people.” Will tugged at his hat, then reached for her hand. “Come on. We’ve got a job to do.”