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Worst thing about riding point on my first hunt? Waiting to find out if I was going to die on my first hunt. Of course, when we Del Toros said hunting, we meant monster hunting. Or, as my big brother Ben called it, the family rodeo.
Nervous sweat soaked my hands and neck. It didn’t help the sun was dialed to extra crispy. The towering sandstone and granite cliffs surrounding us corralled the summer day and turned the three-square-mile valley into a giant oven. The heat of the soil radiated through the soles of my cowboy boots. Easing from foot to foot, I wondered how long it took to be baked alive.
Tucking my mace—a club-like weapon with an iron ball on the business end—under one arm, I wiped my palms on my T-shirt for the third time. Last thing I wanted was to ‘slip yer grip,’ as the old saying goes.
Even after drying my hand, I left damp spots on the leather-wrapped haft I oiled just yesterday. As I sat on the living room floor cleaning it, I had wondered how many monsters—the ones we called skinners—the mace had sent into oblivion throughout its long lifetime. A lifetime that spanned four centuries of creepy creature busting, first in old Spain and then in the New World.
“Matt.” I jumped at my father’s voice. “Enough daydreaming. Focus.”
“I am focused.” Focused on not throwing up, I thought. Anxiety tied my gut into a half hitch. I wished those skinners would just attack already and get it over with. I peeked up at Dad. A little parental reassurance and all that.
My father was mounted on horseback a few feet away. He rose in the stirrups and scanned the valley. His face, stern and sharp featured, reminded me of a hawk on the hunt; his black goatee matched the stallion under him.
Man, if I could be just one fourth the hunter he was, I’d die happy. I wondered what it would take to reach that goal. I tightened my grip on my mace and glanced at Dad’s.
About three feet in length, it hung from a leather loop around his wrist and rested against the saddle skirt. Like mine, the head of his weapon was decorated on four sides with our family’s sigil: a crescent moon, its tips curved upward like the horns of a bull. Even though the designs were etched deeply into the iron, generations of monster whacking had pitted and scratched those Del Toro moons until they were almost invisible.
But they were still there—hard to see, kind of beat up, but fighting the good fight—just like us.
The black stallion stomped a front hoof the size of a gallon bucket. Dad patted Turk’s massive neck. “Easy, mi amigo. We will meet those skinners soon enough.”
Skinners. My flesh crawled at the thought of getting my first real look at the creatures. Licking my dry lips, I studied the terrain. The valley’s floor was trashed with scattered boulders large enough to hide a skinner or two probably salivating for a taste of fresh boy. A chill ran down my spine. Don’t mess up. Just don’t mess up.
Because messing up meant family members—both the two-legged and four-legged ones—might die.
Yeah. No pressure there.
Speaking of the four-legged. I laid a hand on the shoulder of another family member standing next to me. Family member and my best friend: the warhorse, El Cid. The warm, silky coat felt soothing under my palm. As did the powerful muscles beneath it.
The stallion lifted his nose, nostrils quivering, and his ears swiveled around. With a soft exhale, he turned his head toward me. The muscles in the thick neck rippled under a coat the color of weathered chrome. He studied me with an ebony eye half covered by a lock of white mane that hung to his nostrils in proper Andalusian style. Then, he opened his mouth and spoke.
“It’s normal, Matt,” he said, his voice a deep rumble, “to be nervous. We all are—to some degree.”
Turk snorted and curled his lip. “Speak for yourself, old goat.”
El Cid ignored him. “You’ll do fine.” He shook his forelock out of his eyes and butted me with the side of his long nose. “You’ve been well trained, both by me and your papá. And, when in doubt, always—”
“—listen to the warhorses,” I finished, repeating one of my father’s top three rules. The other rules were “do not get killed” and “do not get your brother killed.”
“El Cid.” Dad caught the stallion’s attention. “Anything?”
The gray sniffed the air again. “Nary a scent nor sound, Javier. We can stand down—at least for the time being.”
Another huff of derision from Turk. El Cid pinned his ears flat. I tensed. Great. Just what we needed. Another fight.
“Enough. Both of you.” Dad sighed and pushed back his cowboy hat, a Stetson as black as Turk’s soul. No, really. His golden amber eyes—a Del Toro trait Ben and I shared with him—narrowed in the afternoon’s glare. “So, my son. What do you make of those tracks?” He pointed his chin at the ground in front of me.
I bent over and eyed the dog-like paw prints. They circled past a nearby pile of boulders and disappeared. A single animal. Straightening, I checked for other tracks. Nada. Just to make sure, my gaze swept over the landscape.
Around me stretched El Laberinto Wilderness Area, a twenty-five square mile mesa jutting up from the prairie. The entire mesa was a labyrinth of deep ravines and needle-thin slot canyons—their openings were dark doorways to no place good. Ben once said the surrounding rock walls with the open valley in the center reminded him of a twisted version of the Coliseum, where folks went to die horrible deaths. The locals of the nearby town of Huerfano, Colorado, just called it the Maze.
“Put in some trails,” Ben often pointed out, “and Huerfano could be a world-class hiking and mountain biking destination.”
“Except for that one little problem,” Dad would respond. “People keep disappearing in it. Permanently. Not good for tourism.”
A breeze moaned through one of the slot canyons. The sound made me feel tiny and alone and isolated. If we got killed, no one would know. Except Ben. Longing for my brother swept over me. Too bad he wasn’t due home for another day or so.
“Matt?” Dad’s voice called me back. “Before Christmas.”
“Are you certain?” Removing his hat, he stuck it on the saddle horn. He wiped his brow and raked his fingers through hair sprinkled with a few silver strands that I swore weren’t there last year. “Not a coyote?”
His casual tone didn’t fool me. “I don’t think so. Too big.” I squatted down and splayed my fingers, measuring the skinner’s track; it was as large as my hand. “Not unless we’ve got coyotes the size of Turk.” And just as mean tempered. I kept that thought to myself. “I think it’s just one—”
“Quiet.” El Cid stiffened and raised his head.
The hairs on the back of my neck snapped to attention. I gulped, fighting back the impulse to crawl to safety behind him. “Skinner?” I whispered. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Turk circling his nose in the air, nostrils flared.
“One,” the black said. “About twenty-five strides away and sneaking toward us. Using the rocks as cover.”
Before my father asked, I did the math in my head. A horse’s walking stride was about two yards in length. “Fifty yards.”
“Bueno.” Dad screwed his hat down on his head, taking care to cock it just right. “An opportunity for some action, then. Mount up.”
Sticking my left foot in the stirrup and grasping the horn, I hopped once on my right leg, then hauled myself into the saddle and gathered up the reins attached to El Cid’s halter. My hands trembled. I told them to knock it off. You, too, I ordered my heart banging away in my chest.
I ran my hand over the mace’s ball for luck. My thumb traced each moon, one after the other, as a soft vibration traveled through my skin from the metal. Wrapping my fingers around the iron head, I squeezed it until my knuckles whitened. Please, I said to it silently, don’t let me do anything stupid. Like get eaten by that thing.
With a quiet word to Turk, Dad edged over to me. He gestured at my mace. “Take some warm ups.”
Swinging my weapon in a figure-eight loop on either side of El Cid, I rolled through the basic strikes Dad had taught Ben and me. We both started formal training when we were strong enough to hold an iron mace straight out in front of us for a full minute without dropping our arm. It wasn’t until two years ago, when I turned ten, that I was able to do that. Barely.
I flexed my shoulders. No, not really. “Sure.”
“Now, what is the most important thing to remember today?” Dad raised an eyebrow.
“Besides listening to El Cid and the not getting killed thing?” I frowned, thinking what topped staying alive. “Um…”
El Cid let out a long-suffering sigh. “Remain mounted at all costs.”
“Oh. Yeah. That.”
Dad shifted in the saddle. “El Cid? If things get hot—”
“Really, Javier? You’re giving me instructions?”
“My apologies.” In spite of what was coming for us, a corner of Dad’s mouth twitched. “What was I thinking?”
“Clearly, you weren’t.” The stallion flicked an ear. “But, rest assured. I’ll keep the boy safe.”
“Hey.” Pride elbowed aside my fear. “You guys talk like I’m some little kid…” The rest of the words crept away.
The soft crunch of gravel. Something moved behind a nearby jumble of boulders. A faint drone. I cocked my head, listening. The sound grew louder. Like a swarm of flies or mosquitoes, a buzzing that rose and fell but never stopped until a person was ready to scream. Another rattle of stones—probably under a giant paw.
“Oh boy,” I whispered. Goosebumps broke out on my arms. Had Dad felt this loose-boweled when he was my age and faced a skinner for the first time? Doubtful.
Nothing fazed Francis Javier Del Toro, old-school monster hunter, life-long Denver Broncos fan, and a true caballero: a gentleman of the horse.
“The first time is the worst.” His attention focused on the boulder pile, Dad reached over and squeezed my knee.
Fighting the urge to grab his hand and cling to it—sheesh, what a baby move that would be—I simply nodded, not trusting my voice. My heart whaled away, trying to crack open my ribs. Hoping to make a run for it while there was still time. I didn’t blame it. Through the thick leather of the stirrup, I felt El Cid’s pulse against my calf muscle, its rhythm slower than mine.
I wondered if it was too late to beg Dad to call off the hunt until I was older. Like thirty. I imagined how badly Ben would tease me if I chickened out. Aw, what’s wrong, Matty? Scared of the big bad wolf? I tightened my fingers around the haft and held on to my courage.
A fly buzzed my nose. I swatted at it. A few more joined in. They pinged off my face like tiny black hail. “What’s with all the flies?”
Turk’s hide shivered. He danced forward a couple of steps. Dad gave a soft hiss. The stallion eased back, tail lashing like a cat’s parked under a bird feeder.
El Cid sniffed. “I saw that.”
“Just warming up my legs,” Turk said.
Liar, I thought.
More flies appeared. They swirled above our heads in a cloud, casting a shadow. Over the buzzing, I caught another crunch behind the boulders, twenty yards and closing. “Dad?”
“I know. Stand ready.”
I reminded myself to breath. Skinners can’t be that creepy. Ben’s been hunting for three years, and he acts like they’re just a big joke. How bad can they really be?
With a roar and a shriek, the skinner burst from hiding. Horror froze me in the saddle.
A bloodied, fresh-skinned carcass. That’s what it looked like. Except that the carcass was alive somehow, raw hamburger molded into a wolfish creature. It wore a black cloak tied around its neck. No, not a cloak. Flies. Flies trailed the creature and feasted on the wet flesh. Like pilot fish following in a shark’s wake.
The skinner charged El Cid and me. Bile burned my throat. Gagging, I tightened my legs around El Cid’s barrel and raised my mace. Kill it, a voice gibbered in my head. Kill it now!
“Hey, chuck roast.” Turk reared. His front hooves boxed the air. “Over here.”
In between one stride and the next, the skinner shifted direction. The flies banked around and swarmed after it. El Cid groaned in frustration.
“No, Turk.” Dad clung to the reins. “Wait for—”
The black launched himself at the creature. My father cursed in Spanish, then leaned forward in the saddle, his weapon at the ready. Head low, the stallion’s powerful legs shortened the distance in a weird game of chicken. With a yelp, the skinner slammed on the brakes, its paws skidding on the gravely dirt. Turk sped up. To my surprise, he shot past the monster.
“Santiago!” Shouting our family’s war cry, Dad swung his mace in a deadly arc. The skinner’s skull exploded. Fragments of bone and gobbets of raw meat flew everywhere. Blood sprayed across Turk’s chest and right shoulder and flecked the ground around them.
For a moment, the creature staggered about, wagging its neck from side to side. A small knobby chunk of head was still attached to its spine. It staggered after my father and Turk. My stomach roiled.
Even broken, they are still a threat. Dad’s voice rose in my memory. Swallowing my lunch back down, I readied my weapon and pressed my heels against El Cid’s sides. “Santiago!” The battle cry came out in a croak. A tiny voice in my head rolled its eyes.
El Cid ignored my signal to charge. “Wait.”
“For this,” El Cid said.
Bang! The skinner vanished. I gasped. It was like the air had clapped its hands, then sucked away the skinner. A cosmic vacuum cleaner. Only the flies remained. They buzzed around, confused by the shutdown of the buffet, then drifted away.
“That is so cool,” I breathed.
“Stupid meat mutts.” Turk swung around in a high-stepping salsa. “They never learn.” His hooves stirred up the dust and crusted his blood-soaked coat. Tossing his mane, he trotted back toward El Cid and me.
My father yanked a handkerchief from his back pocket. “What was that, Turk? I thought we agreed to allow Matt the first strike.”
The black’s nostrils flared. “I never agreed to that, Javier.”
“We discussed it this morning.” Dad’s voice rose in frustration. Grasping the mace just under the head, he spat on the iron ball, then wiped it clean with short, savage strokes. “And what have I told you about rearing before a charge? Bravado like that is going to get you killed. Or one of us—”
“Javier.” El Cid’s ears snapped forward. “Leave off arguing with that mule and be on guard. I thought I heard—”
Four more skinners exploded from behind the boulders.
“Dad!” The scream ripped my throat.
The nearest skinner leaped at Turk, teeth snapping and front paws clawing. It chomped down on Dad’s right calf, then braced itself and yanked, trying to drag him out of the saddle and into the waiting pack.
Terror knifed me. No. Not my dad. I started to jump off.
“No, Matt,” El Cid shouted. “Stay with me.” He jerked to one side. Out of habit, I squeezed my legs and held on.
Cursing in a creative blend of English and Spanish, Dad flipped his weapon around and buried its butt end into the skinner’s skull. It cracked like a piñata. “Turk!”
The black planted his hind legs and whirled in a circle. Halfway around, the creature sailed off. With another one of those bang-claps, it vanished in midair. Screaming with fury, the stallion barreled into the others and sent them flying. He stomped on an unlucky one, his hoof snapping the monster’s spine like a stick of wood. It twitched and jerked, clawing at the dirt. A few moments later, it staggered to its feet, then shook its head and bared its teeth in a mocking grin, ready for another round.
Out of nowhere, a skinner lunged for El Cid’s throat. Almost running out from under me, the stallion spun away. The skinner tumbled to the ground, then snarled and leaped again.
“Get away from him!” I swung my mace, my muscles spasming from a combination of horror and panic. The weapon whistled through the air. Clean miss.
Lips twitching in amusement, the creature danced around, circling us. The sickening reek of spoiled meat burned my nostrils and coated my tongue. I gagged, then spat.
“El Cid!” Dad sent another monster into oblivion with a wet crunch, then pointed his weapon. “Go. Make for the Gate.”
“Hold tight, Matt.” The stallion kicked the creature to one side, then catapulted into a gallop. I grabbed the saddle horn with my free hand just in time to keep from being served up as a skinner appetizer.
Hitting full speed in three strides, he pounded across the valley, weaving around boulders and crashing through bushes. The aroma of crushed sage and creosote mingled with the sharp tang of horse sweat. The chuff of his breathing and the creak of leather filled my ears. Ahead of us, the Gate—a narrow corridor in the southern wall—promised safety. The last thing I wanted.
I tugged at the reins. “We’ve got to go back and help Dad!” It was like trying to stop the Colorado River in its springtime flood. I braced my feet in the stirrups and pulled harder. With a jerk of his head, El Cid yanked the reins from my hand. The leather burned along my palm.
Giving up, I twisted around and forced myself to look. Even before I turned, I knew what I’d see: Turk riderless. My father sprawled on the ground and a skinner crouched over him, its teeth buried in his throat. Oh, please, not that. Not Dad, too.
Sick with relief, I almost dropped my mace.
Eyes white-rimmed with battle rage, Turk gained on us with every stride of his powerful legs. Dad rode low in the saddle, mace at the ready and head turned, watching the pursuit. A tiny corner of my mind marveled that he hadn’t lost his hat.
Half hidden in Turk’s dust, the three remaining skinners raced after us, strings of venom and saliva flying from their open mouths. One creature dragged a hind leg that was mostly a splintered stick. Chunks of meat clung to it. Even as I watched, the leg grew back. The skinner gave a yip of delight and picked up its pace.
With a surge, Turk caught us. I glanced over. My father’s jaw was clenched and his lips were pressed in a thin line. “How bad?” I yelled. “Did it—”
“Matt, no matter what,” Dad shouted, “you stay on El Cid.”
I crouched lower, rocking forward and back in rhythm with his stride. My ankles and knees flexed with each jolt of the stallion’s stride, working like shock absorbers. All the while, I forced myself to stay relaxed, my weapon at the ready.
Just the way Dad had taught me and Ben. The way his father had taught him and his brother and sister. And his father before that. Generation after generation. All the way back to our legendary ancestor.
Four centuries ago, Santiago Del Toro had stepped off that frigate and waded ashore to this New World, a magic-enhanced mace in one hand and his Andalusian war-brother by his side. Spain in his wake and a vow to keep.
The thunder of hooves bounced off the valley walls. The echoes grew louder. Or was it my pulse thundering in my ears? Ahead of us, at the top of a short incline, the mouth of the Gate loomed. I could feel El Cid’s ribs heaving as he pounded up the slope.
Behind us, the skinners yelped, eager to munch on manflesh or horseflesh. Or boyflesh. I thought of what would happen if those monsters caught me. What their teeth would do to me. What it would feel like to be eaten alive.
Stop it. Don’t think about it. Just ride. I leaned forward and stretched out along El Cid’s neck, practically burying myself in his mane.
“Fear not, Matt,” El Cid panted between words. “No demon-spawned skinner has ever outrun an Andalusian.”
Man, I sure hoped that wasn’t just bragging on his part. I swore I felt the hot breath of the skinners on my neck.
We hit the opening to the corridor at full speed. Forty yards to safety. Blinded by the shadow, I clung to the horn. Cool air chilled the sweat on my face as the towering walls whipped past me. El Cid stumbled. I gasped, certain he was going down. With a wrench, he caught his balance and flung himself back into the race.
The howls of the skinners bounced off the cliff walls. My stomach clenched. Were they gaining on us? I didn’t want to check, because what if they were? The far opening seemed like a million miles away and never getting any closer. It felt like we were running in place.
Sunlight blasted my eyes. I blinked. When I could see again, open grasslands stretched before me, green and gold under a blue sky.
“El Cid. Matt.” Dad called from behind us. “We are clear.”
Panting, I slumped in the saddle. El Cid slowed to a lope, then a trot, then dropped to a walk, blowing hard. Sweat darkened his hide.
“Oh, man.” I pressed my palm on his wet neck. “That was…I mean…whoa. What a ride.”
“My words exactly,” he said.
Turk eased down, matching El Cid’s gait. He raised his tail. “Eat this, zombie dogs.” He let one rip. For a long minute, the whole world smelled like alfalfa. Could’ve been worse.
Feeling braver, I twisted around and rested a hand on El Cid’s haunch. The soaring cliffs of the Maze reminded me of an enormous castle wall. It stretched for several miles in either direction. Shapes moved in the Gate’s shadow. Skinners. They milled about, pacing back and forth and howling their frustration. Then they left. The darkness swallowed them up. Bummer that it wasn’t for real.
“Dad?” Out of habit, my gaze lifted to the tops of the twin buttes—stony towers that stood like sentinels on either side of the Gate. “How do we know the wards are holding?”
“Do you see any of those monstruos following us home?”
An odd tone in his voice yanked my head around. I choked back my anxiety and looked at his leg. A dark, wet patch marred the faded denim just below the knee. “Did its venom…?” I hated the way my voice quivered.
“It only got one fang into me. My boot stopped the other one. Good thing I wore my Tony Lamas, no?”
No, it wasn’t a good thing. Not one freaking bit. “How sick can you get from one fang? I mean, shouldn’t we tie something around it? Stop the venom from spreading?” Could he die from one fang?
He waved away my concern. “The best thing is home and rest and the evening meal, and my youngest son waiting on me hand and foot.” He forced a grin, his face pale.
El Cid snorted. “I ought to geld you, Turk,” he panted as he walked along. “Showing off. Again. Disobeying Javier’s orders. Again. Then, failing to protect your rider.”
Turk bared his teeth. “I didn’t see you fighting—”
“Dios,” Dad said wearily. “Give it a rest, would you?”
The two-mile ride back home took forever. The whole time, the shadow of the nearby mountains crept across the open prairie, inching closer to us. But not in a creepy way. The Sangre de Cristo Range was an old friend. It protected our ranch from the worst of the winter storms that roared in from the west.
Breathing harder than I liked, El Cid kept at a running walk, dragging his hooves through the grass and churning up dust and bits of dried vegetation. Turk stomped along beside him, lost in a mood as black as his coat. Me? I swore I aged a year and a half. Even with the summer afternoon being just about perfect—the air filled with the scent of sage and horse, the green-yellow grass lit up from the day-weary sun—all I could think about was getting Dad home.
Halfway there, a new worry crawled up into the saddle behind me. What was I supposed to do once I got him home? I didn’t know anything about skinner venom. All I did know was that too much was lethal. How much was too much?
I shot a peek at my father. He seemed okay. Except for the way he slumped in the saddle, one hand resting on the horn. Not typical of a man who always rode head up and heels down.
Just my rotten-apple luck that Ben was still gone. For the hundredth time, I wished my brother was back already.
For the millionth time, I wished my mother was still alive.
I sighed in relief when the top of our barn peeked over the low hill we called the Buffalo’s Hump. The house’s chimney appeared a few minutes later. Under us, the horses lengthened their strides. Turk stepped out in front and took the lead. Guess he was worried about Dad, too.
“I can feel you fretting right through the saddle,” El Cid said. “But you needn’t. Javier is going to be fine.”
“You’re just saying that to make me feel better.”
“No, I’m saying that because it’s true. Have I ever lied to you, Mateo Del Toro?”
“Only about a bazillion times.”
“Ah.” A long silence. “Well, only when it was for your own good.”
We rounded the hill. I relaxed even more at the sight of our home sweet home on the range. The ranch house and barn sat tucked against the south side of the Hump and faced each other across an open yard of dirt and gravel. The wooden sidings of both buildings were weathered to khaki brown.
Reaching the yard, I spotted a canvas duffle bag on the lowest porch step. I stared at it. At first, my head refused to process the meaning of the duffle. “What’s that bag doing…Oh.”
My heart kicked like a jackrabbit. I looked around, joy and nervousness wrestling for dominance inside of me. Maybe now, I thought, it’ll be different between them. Even a little change would be nice—heck, I’m not greedy. I’d take even one less fight a day. Before I could point out the bag to Dad, a figure appeared in the barn’s doorway.
“Whoa,” said a familiar voice, “you guys look like something even a skinner wouldn’t eat.”
Fingers fumbling, I looped my mace onto the saddle horn, then jumped. I hit the ground running, my boots slipping and crunching on the gravel. “Ben!”
“Hey, Matty.” My brother sauntered out of the double doors, his grin mirroring mine.
Ignoring the stupid nickname, I threw myself at him and hugged him, then let go and stepped back. “Man, am I glad you’re here.”
“Sick of doing all the chores—”
“Dad’s hurt. Bit by a skinner.”
Ben’s smile disappeared. “How bad?” He hurried over to Turk’s side, acknowledging El Cid on the way with a nod. He glanced at the injured leg, then peered up. “Looks like I came home just in time, Pop.” My brother knew our father hated that term. Which was why he used it.
“Oh, we would have managed. Reuben.”
Ben stiffened at the use of his full name. Which he hated. Dad’s payback. A muscle in his jaw twitched.
Really, guys? I wanted to kick them both right in the seats of their Wranglers.
The black stallion’s head whipped around, big square teeth snapping all Rottweiler-ish; he just missed my brother’s arm. “Drop the wise-guy routine and help your father.”
“Nice to see you too, Turk.” Ben offered a hand to Dad. “Stomped on any kittens lately?” Helping our father swing his bitten leg over the cantle, a worried expression flitted across my brother’s face. My earlier anxiety bounced back into the red zone.
Wincing from the movement, Dad took his time dismounting, easing his weight onto the wounded leg with a sigh. He flexed his knee a few times, nodded, and ran a hand down his goatee. He studied my brother. “You have grown.”
“I guess.” Ben shrugged. “Listen, let’s get you inside.”
“A boy leaves. Two months later, a young man returns.”
Ben looked away. Even so, I spied a flush of pride on his face.
To me, he looked like a younger, leaner version of our father. Both of them trim and athletic, their movements quick and sure. And both gifted with features that had earned Ben double, if not triple, looks from girls since he was my age. And still earned Dad sidelong glances and over-bright smiles from waitresses and store clerks.
“Did you walk from Huerfano?” Dad asked. “We would have picked you up.”
“I wanted to stretch my legs after that bus ride. Speaking of legs…” Ben started to take his arm.
Our father stopped him. “The injury is not that bad.”
“No, come give your old man a hug first.” Still taller by a few inches, he took Ben by the shoulders, kissed him soundly on the cheek, then wrapped his arms around him. My brother stiffened for a moment, then relaxed and hugged back. Hard and fierce.
“Hey, Papá,” Ben whispered over Dad’s shoulder.
“It is a gift to have you home, mijo.”
Love swelled my chest. A big wad of it pushed a lump into my throat. Part of me itched to join them, wiggling in under one of Dad’s arms.
I shoved that thought away. Sheesh, I told myself. Get a grip.
Movement behind me. Popcorn crunch of hooves on gravel. Then, the rest of our little nuthouse on the prairie family joined us. My brother stepped out of Dad’s embrace to face El Cid.
“Ah, Ben.” The older stallion blew in delight. “As your father said, a gift to have the family back together again.”
“Hey, El Cid.” Ben bumped his forehead against the gray’s, then tugged on the white forelock. “So, what happened in the Maze? Turk pull a rookie move?”
“While I wish I could blame it all on him, I must admit we were outnumbered. A surprise attack by a pack of skinners.”
Ben blinked. “Wait. What? Did you say a pack? Since when are there enough of those stinkers to form one? Anyway, I thought skinners mostly worked solo.” His head swiveled from our father to me and back again. “What’s going on?”
Dad’s brows knitted. “The coffer must be compromised.”
“Meaning what?” I tried to keep my voice from squeaking. Failed.
He paused, then spoke. “Meaning more of them are escaping from their ancient prison.”
My heart froze. More skinners? I tried to imagine fighting an even larger pack. All I could see were the gaping jaws of the one that had attacked me and El Cid. Oh boy.
“And more means trouble for us,” El Cid said. “Those creatures are clever enough to use superior numbers to their advantage. Such as today when they sacrificed that first creature as a decoy.”
“As long as the wards hold, we will deal with whatever is inside the Maze. We always have.” Dad stared at the distant mesa, one hand resting on the saddle. Then he shook his head and straightened with a grimace. “But, for now…” He pointed his chin toward the barn. “Mateo. Barn duty. Then, after supper, the five of us will talk. See if we can determine what is going on in El Laberinto.”
watched Ben help our father limp inside, my whole being lighter at the sight. Okay then. I turned and tagged along behind the horses. Matt Del Toro—equine indentured servant.
“Wanna go first?” I asked El Cid.
He paused at the water barrel just outside the double doors. “Oh, I can wait. Go ahead before Turk becomes impatient.” He stuck his lips in the water and began slurping.
And he takes it out on me, I thought. I followed Turk over to his corner—the one near the back door with a window—and unsaddled him. I wiped him clean of blood and skinner leftovers with a damp cloth, then went to work on him with a grooming tool that looked like an oversized scrub brush. Even with the brush, I had to use my fingernails to scrap away some of the dead flies. Yeesh. I scrubbed my hands on my jeans. “Good?”
He shook himself like a dog, then pawed at the straw. The stalks snapped with each blow. “You missed some.”
I gritted my teeth. “Where?”
“On my belly.”
“Are you sure?” I squatted down for a look. “I thought I got it all—” A hoof swiped past my head and grazed my ear. I flung myself backward in the straw. “Hey!” Rubbing my ear, I glowered up at him. “Watch your big feet.”
“Just pointing out the spot.” He stared back, eyes black shiny marbles behind a heavy forelock just as dark.
Like heck you were. “I can see just fine.” I cleaned him as fast as I could, shoulders hunched, waiting for a blow. None came. Probably because I was ready for it.
All finished, I sighed in relief at having survived another round. Before he complained about the service, I hurried over to the covered storage bins lining one side of the barn and filled two huge scoops with grain. Balancing them carefully, I carried them to his feed tub and poured them in. The oats pattered against the hard rubber. The sound reminded me of those flies pinging against my face. I shuddered. Double yeesh. “Need anything else?”
“No. Go away.”
I rolled my eyes. Why don’t you go away? Like to Alaska.
Turk arrived at the ranch three years ago when Ben started hunting. There was something sharp and cold, like a shard of obsidian, about him. And, from day one, the black stallion wanted nothing to do with me or my brother. After getting thrown off or trampled on repeatedly—all by accident, according to the big fat liar—the feeling was mutual.
Jaw clenched, I stomped over to El Cid and unfastened the cinch’s buckle, then yanked the strap from around his barrel with a snap.
He flung up his head. “A bit rough there.”
“Sorry.” Guilt poked me.
“Was Turk giving you a bad time?”
“As usual.” Hands busy, I lowered my voice. “Turk the Jerk.”
Leaning his head closer to mine, El Cid blew softly. The warm aroma of grass and grain wafted over me. “Best not let him hear you say that.”
“Not if I want to live another day.” I slid the saddle and pad off, careful not to bang him with the stirrups, and carried the tack to the racks next to the feed bins. Ben’s saddle sat there, covered in dust. Can’t have that. After placing my saddle on its holder, I took a moment to swipe Ben’s clean and smooth out the cinch strap before refolding it neatly.
Grinning, I snagged some fresh rags and a clean grooming brush. As I worked, El Cid stood with head lowered and eyes closed in bliss, one hip cocked in repose. White horsehair drifted around my face. I sneezed, blowing bits out of my nose, then spat to one side.
In spite of the barn’s peace, the image of the skinner chomping down on my father’s leg looped through my head like a horror movie trailer on repeat. I chewed on the inside of my cheek, almost afraid to ask.
“Are you sure Dad’s going to be okay?”
“I am.” El Cid shifted position and cocked his other hip.
“How do you know?”
“Because Javier would’ve already felt the effect of the venom if he had received a full dose. Or even half a dose. I doubt the skinner injected him with more than a drop or two. So, not to worry. He’s a tough hombre—he’ll be fine.”
Heart lighter, I swept the brush along his spine and over his haunches, my hands on auto-pilot. In spite of the joking earlier, I knew El Cid wouldn’t lie to me about important family stuff. If he said Dad was going to okay, then Dad was going to be okay. Simple as that. I moved down to his ribs, whistling softly between my teeth.
After a few minutes, the stallion spoke, eyes still shut. “You missed a bit on my back.”
“No, closer to my mane.”
“Got it.” I gave the spot a couple of swipes.
“And I believe I’ve a pebble embedded in my right fore shoe. See to it, will you?”
Even though he bossed me around almost as badly as Turk, it was totally different with El Cid. “Anything else, m’lord?”
“Just calling it like I see it. Dad says you take your name too literally sometimes.”
One eye opened. “Oh, he did, did he? Hmm. I’ll have to work on that.” The eye closed. “By the way, I’d like molasses drizzled over my grain this evening.”
Walking out of the barn ten minutes later, I hurried across the yard. Dad was alive. Ben was home. The skinners were locked tight behind the wards. I practically skipped up the porch steps.
My stomach growled. Patting it, I pondered deep and profound thoughts about meatloaf. The onion-y kind with chunks of bell peppers and topped with a thick slab of tomato paste so hot from the oven it shredded the skin off the roof of my mouth. Nom, nom. I slipped inside. The screen door whapped shut behind me.
A combination living room and kitchen welcomed me, illuminated by the sun’s lingering rays through the back window. In the living room, a worn sofa and a pair of recliners clustered in front of a stone fireplace. A modest-size television sat next to the hearth. In one corner, a hallway led to our bedrooms. Beyond the living room was a kitchen just the right size for a table and six chairs.
In the other corner sat a large desk, complete with a laptop we all shared, and where Dad homeschooled me and Ben because he couldn’t stand the current state of public education. His words, not mine. Behind the desk were floor to ceiling shelves made from leftover wooden planks stacked on cinderblocks. Books of every size neatly lined each shelf according to subject. Topics ranged from metallurgy to edible plants of the Southwest to car repair for dummies. There was even one on how to conduct a Viking burial. My father had read them all. Of course.
But it was the Renaissance Fair-looking object hanging over the fireplace that always caught people’s attention: our family’s coat of arms. The shield-shaped plaque displayed a silver crescent moon on a sable background. The moon’s tips pointed upward like a bull’s horn. It took up most of the space above the mantel.
“Dad? Ben?” Hanging my mace on the coat hooks by the front door, I checked my boots for mud or manure. Good enough.
“Here.” Dad’s voice echoed along the hallway from his bedroom. “Start supper, would you?”
“What do you want?” I yelled.
“Anything but meatloaf,” Ben shouted back. “Stuff gags me.” A moment later, the shower from our bathroom started up with a thunk and a hiss.
“Except you’re not cooking,” I muttered, “so meatloaf it is.” After pulling the Tupperware from the freezer, I placed it in the microwave and punched the thaw button. The machine hummed gleefully over its ability to turn a frozen burger brick into something edible. I added a bowl of green beans to the meal.
Pulling dishes from the cupboard, I grinned to myself because I was setting the table for three instead of two. I started to move aside yesterday’s Denver Post, then paused. The words “El Laberinto” jumped out at me. Uh-oh. Still holding the stack of plates, I leaned closer.
In the “News from around the Centennial State” section, I read silently: Possible funding is pending for a joint archeological/paleontological research project for the El Laberinto Wilderness Area. The area is located on the eastern slope of the Sangre de Cristo Range in southern Colorado near the town of Huerfano. If approved, the project will be organized and directed by scientists and staff from the Field Museum of Natural History out of Chicago. Dates are still undecided.
A whisper of bare feet on the wooden floor. Dad appeared, one pant leg rolled up to his knee. A white gauze bandage was wrapped around his calf.
“Did you see this?” I held up the paper.
Pulling a pair of reading glasses from his shirt pocket, he slipped them on and scanned the page. “I did. I spoke to Inez Ortega already.” He sighed. “Our good mayor is in favor of the project, in spite of the Maze’s reputation. Anything to bring money into the area. However, she said it did not look like the project was going to go through. Lucky for us.”
“Lucky for those scientists.” Tossing the paper in the trash, I gestured at his leg. “Does it hurt bad?”
“Badly. Does it hurt badly is the correct form.”
Whatever. “Well? Does it?”
“Nothing that simple aspirin cannot handle. It is more like a bite from a dog than anything else. Señor Fortune rode in the saddle with me today.”
Thinking back to the conversation with the gray, I nodded. “Because if that skinner had tagged you with any venom, it wasn’t very much or you would’ve felt it by now. Yeah, that’s what El Cid told me.” I finished setting the table, then sank down in one of the chairs.
Dad joined me. Hooking another chair with his foot, he dragged it closer and rested his injured leg on it. He probed the skin above the bandage. “A drop or two just makes a person, or horse, feel sick. Like they have the flu. Horses can handle more because of their larger body mass. It takes a full-on bite with both fangs to kill.”
“Does it happen right away?”
“Death? No. The venom spreads slowly. That way, the skinner can drag the victim back to its lair to be eaten later.”
My scalp tightened. “Eaten alive?”
“Bones and all.” Ben appeared, dressed in a worn but clean T-shirt, his wet hair slicked back. “Like a skinner take-out meal. Roman told me that they usually start with your face. Cheeks. Lips. Under the chin. You know, the softest flesh—”
The microwave binged. “Supper’s ready,” I announced in a loud voice. Anything to shut Ben up.
We gathered around the table. Over our protests, Dad spooned extra helpings of the green stuff onto our plates. And, in spite of his earlier complaint, my brother hunched over his meatloaf, hammering down on it until Dad cleared his throat.
“Sorry.” Ben straightened with a rueful grunt. “Guess I was hungrier than I thought.”
“I hope you did not eat like that at Kathleen’s table.” Dad slid another thick slab onto Ben’s plate, then mine, before helping himself. “She will think I have not taught my sons manners. Did you thank her and Roman for having you at their ranch again?”
“Yeah, Dad. I always do. Sheesh, I know how to act in public.”
“How’s Jo? Still ignoring you?” I couldn’t resist teasing Ben about his long-standing crush on the Navarre’s daughter, who was seventeen and a year older than him. It was one of my favorite brother-chain-yanking. “She still out-hunting and out-riding you?” He kicked at me under the table. I pulled my leg to safety with a practiced move and grinned wider.
Pretending to ignore me, Ben finished the second slice of meatloaf and started on the green beans with less enthusiasm. “By the way, Roman said he’d bring us Isabel whenever you want.”
Isabel? Chewing, I thought back to the last time we visited the Navarres at their ranch that straddled the state line between Colorado and New Mexico. Sixty or so miles along the crest of the Sangre de Cristos if I were a crow. “Oh, wait,” I asked around a mouthful. “Is she that sorrel mare we met in October?”
“That’s the one. She’s a real fireball.” Pride and fondness colored Ben’s voice.
“How so?” I wondered if she was going to be like Turk. I hoped not. One in the family was enough.
“She attacked a pack of coyotes that’d been hanging around the Navarre ranch trying to snatch one of the foals.” He gave up on the green beans. I didn’t blame him. “She hid behind the corner of the barn, watching for them one evening. Then, when the pack showed up, she burst out and stomped two of them into the ground before they knew what hit ’em.” He grinned. “That’s what they get for trying to pull something around a herd of warhorses.”
A question popped in my head. “Dad? Have any of the other hunters ever tried using normal horses?” Normal horses—what El Cid referred to as livestock, usually with a sniff of derision.
“You mean for our kind of hunting?” Dad shook his head. “My grandfather tried. And Roman, too, years ago. But it is nearly impossible to train an average horse to stand its ground in the face of a skinner or other kinds of monsters, much less attack or defend us. The Montoyas down in Arizona are trying some crossbreeding, but so far, nada.”
“What would happen if we didn’t have the Andalusians?” My fork hovered over the last bite of meatloaf. Its moist red topping reminded me of the skinner’s peltless body. And there went my appetite. I laid my fork down with a clink and pushed my plate away.
“We would hunt them another way.” Dad scooped the leftovers off my plate and added them to his. “Until then, we still have El Cid and Turk. And, soon, we will have Isabel.”
“She likes to be called Izzie,” Ben said. “We did some training together, just for kicks. And because she kept bugging me for some practice.” His face lit up as he talked. “You think Turk is fast? Wait till you see her in action. Man, is she going to keep our boys on their toes. Er, hooves.”
Dad grunted in surprise. “You trained? Without Roman having to break your arm?”
My brother’s grin slipped a notch. “Well, sure. Why wouldn’t I? Just because—”
“I thought our method was too old-fashioned for you.”
Oh, man. My heart sank. Not this again.
A muscle in Ben’s cheek twitched. He slouched back, one arm hooked over the back of the chair. “Look, I just think there could be a different way to hunt those things. One that’s more effective and less dangerous.”
“Our way has worked for almost five hundred years. And, in case you have forgotten,” Dad pointed his fork at my brother, “we Del Toros have always—”
Ben made a face. “Yeah, Pop. We all know the family’s history.” His voice deepened, taking on a story-telling cadence that sounded a lot like our father’s. “For you, my sons, are the descendants of the knight, Santiago Del Toro. He, along with a band of fellow knights, rid seventeenth-century Spain from a plague of devil-spawned creatures, sealed their evil spirits in iron chests called coffins—”
“Coffers,” I interjected, “not coffins.”
“—coffers,” Ben continued without missing a beat, “and then sent the chests across the ocean to the New World to be buried in remote regions.”
“That is enough, Reuben,” Dad warned.
Ben clearly had a death wish. He kept going. “And with those chests sailed the Knights of the Coffer and their allies, Andalusian warhorses with power of human speech, to stand eternal watch.” He waved a hand in the air. “Cue the theme music.”
In spite of everything, I laughed. Ben joined me. Until I noticed Dad’s expression. Gulping down my amusement, I lowered my gaze and pretended a fascination with my plate.
“Why do you always ridicule our family?” Dad’s eyes narrowed. A hawk zeroing in for the kill.
I shifted in my seat and took a swing at peace-keeping. “He wasn’t, Dad. Not really. Ben’s just kidding around.”
“When he mocks our family, he is mocking me.”
My brother rolled his eyes. “I wasn’t making fun of you. I was just—”
“You were. Be a man and admit it.”
My pulse sped up. “Dad, I don’t think he meant to—”
“You know, you’re always saying that.” Ben leaned forward and planted his forearms on the table. “About everything I do. Be a man. Man up. Then, when I do, you slap me down like some kid.” He glowered across the table. A challenge offered.
Dad stared right back. Challenge accepted. “Then act like a man. Old-fashioned or not, you have a responsibility for being part of this family and this family’s mission. Without me prodding you every step of the way.”
I swore the temperature in the room plummeted twenty degrees. My skin tightened with goose bumps. “Ben. Dad,” I tried again. “C’mon. I thought we were going to figure out what’s going on in the Maze.”
“Responsibility?” Ben raised his chin and his voice. “You’re one to talk.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Dad dropped his fork with a clatter and shoved his plate away.
“I can’t freaking believe you took Matt in there today. He’s eleven. You think—”
“Twelve,” I protested.
“—Mom would want him hunting this young?”
I cringed. The Mom card. We rarely played that one. It was too painful. But, once it was on the table, all bets were off.
Dad stiffened. His mouth worked for a moment, then he spoke. “Your mother is not here to make that decision.”
“I wish she was.” The unspoken instead of you stunk up the air between them.
Silence wailed through the house. They glared at each other, re-enacting so many meals and so many fights that I wanted to smash my plate on the floor. Instead, I bolted, banging the table leg and rattling the dishes on my way out.