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On Sale: November 23, 2004
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Captain Sean Mulkerin comes home from the sea to find his family’s Malibu ranch in jeopardy. The death of Sean’s father has pushed his mother to the edge of financial ruin, and now it’s up to Sean to find a way out. The rumor is that the elder Mulkerin found gold in the wild and haunted California hills, but the only clue to its whereabouts lies with an ancient, enigmatic Indian.

When Sean and his brother set forth to retrace their father’s footsteps, they know they are in search of a questionable treasure—with creditors, greedy neighbors, and ruthless gunmen watching every move they make. Before they reach their destination, the Mulkerins will test both the limits of their faith and the laws of nature as they seek salvation in a landscape where reality can blur like sand and sky in a desert mirage.

Excerpt

Chapter One


The ranch house on Malibu was a low-roofed adobe with a porch across the front from corner to corner. A door and two windows opened on the porch, both windows showing evidence of being enlarged at some time in the past.

The two large ollas that hung from the porch beams contained water kept cool by wind and shade. A gourd dipper was next to them.

To the left of the house, about a hundred and fifty feet away, was a pole corral. Near the corral there was a long watering trough made of rough planks and a lean-to stable.

Shading part of the dooryard was a valley syca-more, a huge old tree with mottled bark, and nearby stood several cottonwoods and another sycamore. Behind the house were several pin oaks. Cottonwoods grew near the door.

The hills around were brush-covered and scattered with huge boulders or sandstone outcroppings. From the porch there was a good view down the winding trail and a glimpse of the blue sea beyond.

Eileen Mulkerin came to the door. The mother of two grown sons, she looked young enough to be their sister, a strikingly beautiful woman, as Irish as her name. "Are they coming, Michael?"

"Not yet."

"They'll not be long, you can be sure of that. It's the day Zeke Wooston has been waiting for ever since your father gave him that whipping for beating his horse."

"He's shrewd . . . and dangerous."

"He is that. It was the Valdez note that surprised me. When he bought it I knew we were in trouble," she said.

"You must not blame Valdez. He did not know Wooston as we know him, and times are hard. He needed the money."

"I do not blame him. He is a good man who thinks ill of no one. He is too sure of the goodness of the world."

They stood together in the late morning sun, looking down the trail. Eileen Mulkerin and her son in his brown monk's robe.

"I wish Sean was here," she said.

"Me, too."

"He is much like his father," she said, "and so are you. But there are things he can do that would not be fitting for a man of the church."

He shook his head. "Now, Senora. You are not thinking of violence? It would do no good, and besides, there is the law."

"Sean would think of something."

"What is there to think? Win Standish and I have both thought, but unless you have some money—"

"I have none."

"Then they will take the place, and we had better think of what we can do, of where you can go."

"This is my place. It was given to your father by the presidente for your father's service in the Army of Mexico. I shall not see it taken from us."

"Senora, that president is dead. I do not know if the president we have now knows of our existence. Win and I have written and there has been no answer."

"As for the governor . . . Micheltorena is their friend, not ours. If it was Alvarado--"

"He is a man," Michael said.

"Agreed. But he is also a man out of office."

"Wooston will not stop with us. He is greedy. He will want more and more land."

"You know why he wants our land?"

"He is a smuggler. He wants to use Paradise Cove, as they used to, in the dark of night."

"It is not only that. He has heard stories about the gold."

Michael glanced at her. "If there is gold, why don't we get some of it now?"

She shrugged. "Only your father knew where it was. He was killed when he fell from his horse and had no chance to tell anyone."

"He must have said something, left some clue, some idea of where it came from?"

"No . . . nothing. All I know is that he would ride off and be gone for several days, in the desert, I think. He always rode out on a different route, but I do know that the place the gold came from was somewhere to the north. I say 'always' but he actually brought gold back on only two occasions."

"Why did he go then?"

"To explore. Your father was a soldier in the Army of Mexico for more than twenty years, and he had the gift of tongues. He could talk to almost any Indian we ever met, and he made friends everywhere.

"You know how it is here. Most of the Californios will not leave the missions or the pueblos. They like company and they are not adventurous. It was not so with Jaime. He loved the mountains and the desert, and was forever riding off to some lonely canyon or along some ancient trail he had found. I know how it was because I often went with him. But there is one clue."

"What?"

"When he went for the gold, he told of the trip, of the hard riding, the rough country . . . that sort of thing. But he always said 'we.' There was someone with him."

"Montero?"

"No, he always left Jesus here. Your father trusted him because Jesus was a sergeant in the old army when your father was a colonel. No, it had to be somebody we do not know."

"Look!" Michael got to his feet, indicating a dust cloud above the trail. "Someone is coming!"

"It's Win. Even when he is in a hurry your cousin rides like a soldier on parade."

Eileen Mulkerin put her hand on her son's shoulder. "You've been a good son, Michael, although sometimes I wish you had not become a monk. You were a fine hand with a rope or gun."

"Father was good. Very good."

She smiled. "He was that. And a fine upstanding man, too. I remember the first time I saw him. He was in uniform. He had a strong, bold way about him, and although he was half-Irish he looked the perfect hidalgo. He had just returned from campaigning against the Apache in Chihuahua, and I had come in on a ship from Ireland.

"There was a carriage to meet the ship and take me to my uncle's home. Jaime chanced to be there on some army business, and I was standing by the ship's rail."

"With all that red-gold hair?"

"Well? What was I to do with it? Pack it away in a trunk? Of course, I had it, and he saw it."

"He spoke of it once when we were riding. He said you were so beautiful he almost fell off his horse."

"He lied then. He never fell off a horse in his life, for any reason at all. Oh, we saw each other all right, and he came over, hat in hand, to help me into my carriage. He was the gallant one."

"Like Sean."

"Like both of you. There's a lot of him in you, Michael, and in Sean as well, and no better thing could be said of you."

Win Standish rode in, his horse dusty. He was a compact, solid young man of medium height, with a serious expression. He looked exactly like what he was, a rising young businessman.

"They are coming, Senora. I could not stop them. They would not listen and, of course, they have the law."

"Let them come."

Far down the road, the riders appeared. There were three of them.

"They'll get nothing. Nothing at all."

"There must be no violence now," Michael warned. "I cannot condone it."

"Nor I," Win added.

"Would you have me lose the place then?"

"You could not save it, Senora. They have the strength, and they have the law. You owe the money, and the debt is due."

"Yes, but we have the ranch, and we shall keep it. I lost a home in Ireland once, and I won't lose another."

The pace of the three riders slowed as they neared the ranch house. It was obvious that trouble was expected.

Zeke Wooston was a large, untidy man. Only a few years before he had come to California by the Panama route and had been involved in several doubtful business ventures. From the first he had curried favor with Captain Nick Bell, an adventurer who had been appointed commander of the local soldiery by Micheltorena. Micheltorena was a vacillating man who let his soldiers do as they wished, which to them meant robbing the citizens, drinking and carousing, and much random shooting. California was a long way from Mexico by ship or horseback, and not many soldiers wished that duty, so they had opened the prisons and the army that had come north to California was largely composed of confirmed criminals.

Jorge Fernandez, who rode with Wooston, was a lean, whiplash of a man known for his savage cruelty to horses, Indians, and women. Tomas Alexander owned a cantina on the road to Los Angeles. He was a gambler, smuggler, and bad man with a gun. It was said that he had many friends among the outlaws who hid in the canyons of the Santa Monica mountains.

Wooston started to dismount.

"No need to get down," Eileen Mulkerin said. "If you have business, state it."

"Senora, we have ridden far, if—"

"My door is open to friends and to strangers. You are neither."

"So that's how it is? All right, Senora, we'll make it plain. You pay up today or get out tomorrow. Go now and you may take your horses and personal belongings. Stay until tomorrow and you get nothing."

"We will pay."

"With what, Senora? With burned crops? With a few bales of hides? You have nothing, and nothing can come from nothing."

"The road lies there. Take it. You shall have your money."

Zeke Wooston leaned on the pommel. "Ma'am, we'll be back tomorrow with our men. If you ain't gone, we'll throw you off." His smile was not pleasant. "And ma'am, I won't care what happens to you when you get throwed off. I'll just leave you to my men."

"That rabble? You call those men?"

Turning their horses they rode back down the trail.

Win Standish watched them go, his expression indicating his worry. "Nothing is solved, Senora. You have only angered them."

"It gives us a little time, just a little more."

"Haven't you a clue about the gold?"

"It was Jaime's secret, and he died with it."

"I can talk to Pio," Win said after a minute, "but he is out of power and has troubles of his own. He and the governor do not see alike."

"Pio is only Pio. He is a good man, a very good man, and he is our friend, but at this moment our enemies have more strength."

Eileen Mulkerin looked toward the sea. From the porch only a narrow triangle of blue water could be seen, and it was empty. There would be gulls flying over that blue water, and driftwood on the beach. She loved to walk the damp sands when the tide first went out, as once she had walked it with Jaime, in their bare feet. She could no longer do that, for she was the Senora. Yet someday she would again.

"Sean will come," she said, at last. "He will find a way."

"If there was a way we would have found it," Win said, somewhat irritated. "I am afraid the place is lost."

Suddenly she could think of it no longer. Turning, she walked inside, fighting against the sudden rush of tears. How long since she had permitted herself to cry?

She stood for a minute, looking about, pressing her lips tightly together.

How bare the room was! How different from the rooms back in Ireland! Any furniture they had must be made on the spot or brought around the Horn by ship, which made it far too expensive.

There was a large table, a cowhide settee, two big chairs studded with brass nails, a handwoven rug on the floor, and a chest along the other wall. Over the mantel crossed halberds that Jaime had found up a canyon, souvenirs of some nameless battle lost by their owners.

Brother Michael followed her in. He sat down again, his loose brown robe giving no hint of the powerful muscles beneath. He had suddenly turned to religion after being known as a wild and somewhat dangerous young man. He never explained why, and nobody asked, respecting his privacy. When he wished to tell them, he would.

"We must think, Senora. There has to be some clue, some memory. You must take paper and pen and write down every memory you have. The writing will help to bring them to your mind, and among them there may be a clue, some little word, something he brought back . . . it might be anything."

Win Standish sat in one of the chairs. "Senora, I have thought of everything. You have many cattle, but so has everyone, and there is no market except for the hides. We have horses, but so has everyone. To sell the ranch would be impossible even if there was no loan against it. The last place that was sold brought only ten cents an acre . . . everyone has land."

"If it had not been for the fire," Brother Michael said, "all would have been well. I still think the Senora was right to plant wheat."

"And you had to borrow to buy the seed," Win agreed.

Eileen Mulkerin sighed. "That is past. What is done is done. The wheat was a good idea, and it was growing beautifully. We would have had the best income ever . . . and then the fire."

Brother Michael dismissed it with a gesture. "Twice father went to the mountains for gold and each time he found it. He must have known where he was going . . . the second time, at least."

"There was never very much. The first time was when you were born, Michael. Times were very bad, and we needed money. Your father took his horse and two others, one a pack horse."

"And a spare horse? For someone else to ride?"

"Who knows? Maybe to switch saddles and save the horse he rode."

"How much food? For a day? Three days? A week?"

"For a week, I think. It might have been more, but he would have hunted, too. He always killed game for meat."

"A week's ride?"

"If there was only something I could do!" Win said. "I've borrowed money on the store. I suppose I might--"

"You have done enough, more than enough."

She looked out over the hard-packed dooryard. Money was hard to come by in California in 1844. There was food, good beef, beans, all the necessities, but cash was another thing. It seemed that everybody was in the same situation, and now this.
Louis L'Amour

About Louis L'Amour

Louis L'Amour - The Californios
Louis L'Amour is the only American-born novelist in history to receive both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. He published ninety novels, thirty short-story collections, two works of nonfiction, a memoir, Education of a Wandering Man, and a volume of poetry, Smoke from This Altar. There are more than 300 million copies of his books in print.

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