Jubal hiked with abandon through the mountainous forest, cradling the Colt slide-action rifle in his slender arms, proud his father had seen fit to allow him use of the small-bore .22. Not quite eighteen, he was just under six feet, nearly as tall as his father, and did his best to dress like him: whipcord pants tucked neatly into calf-high boots. Two rabbits he’d shot that morning hung from a leather-tooled belt around his waist, a gift from pa. He thought of cleaning them himself but decided he would let ma take care of that little chore. He imagined her proud face when he returned home with them. Rabbit stew would be a welcome change from the tough buffalo meat cured in the family smokehouse.
He thought of his sister Prudence, pouting earlier today when ma had told her to stay home, shuck peas, and tend the fire.
“Jube gets to have all the fun!” she’d said.
“Miss Prudence,” ma had replied, “you’re only fourteen, and it’s best you tend your chores.” Strict but fair.
Jubal didn’t mind the company of his sister, though, as they had much in common. Much to Mother Young’s concern, Pru often ventured alone into the forest to hunt berries and wildflowers.
The boy topped Morning Peak, seeing Colorado stretching out to the northern end of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A late afternoon sun warmed his chapped hands while he marveled at the painted landscape, aspens shimmering as their new spring leaves caught the sun. To the west he could just barely see his family’s cabin, nestled into a meadow lined with fir and limber pine. A gray smoky haze from the log structure filled the small valley, and he knew Pru had been doing her job with the fire.
The wind changed, and Jubal’s eyes widened. There was too much smoke. He noticed unusual movement around the house and heard eerie sounds of strange, jubilant voices floating up through the dense valley.
His reaction was immediate. Gripping the rifle in front of him to clear the way, Jubal broke into a dead run and began to close the hefty distance to the cabin. He tore through thickets down the canyon, sharp branches ripping at his leather coat as he plowed through the brush.
Minutes later, he stopped within shouting distance of the compound, his legs on fire with exertion, his lungs needing air.
A pile of bright gingham fabric lay on the earthen courtyard. Like a body. The clothing looked to be his mother’s, her dress cloth flapping with the breeze. Pru’s horse, Butternut, lay near the well, her legs thrashing as a rush of blood flowed from her neck.
Jubal counted five men riding on horseback in the courtyard, with several more stirring around the outbuildings and barn. They all seemed determined to celebrate, shouting as if they had achieved a great victory.
Trying to control his breathing, the boy slumped behind a massive pine. He wanted this day to start over, wanted to forget the body in the yard, wanted only to run, but Pa would skin him if he didn’t stand as a man.
Where was pa?
Jubal took several more deep breaths. He moved to his stomach and started to crawl. He’d gone only a few feet when he rolled onto his back, fighting panic, his nose stung by the sharp and disagreeable scent of burnt flesh and manure.
He had to keep moving. Rising, he darted between a stand of scrub oak, then bellied down and once again crawled, hiding behind the scattered chamisa.
Laughing and drunk, the men staggered around the toolshed and outhouse. One dark-skinned fellow looked different, wearing a feathered, flat-brim leather hat with a bright yellow braided string running under his chin. He carried a bow across his back and a quiver with arrows attached to his belt. He looked familiar, the way he carried himself. The whole raft of them seemed related.
Jubal’s thoughts drifted to more pleasant times. The family together, Pru laughing at his jokes, his parents sharing secrets. When was that? A lifetime ago. He forced himself back to the present. He had work to do.
He looked down at the rifle. He’d killed animals for food, but could he kill a man? He shifted on the rough ground. Maybe it didn’t matter.
A wail came from the barn, growing louder as Jubal crept closer through the thicket. He caught a glimpse of the two-story structure’s exterior.
And then he saw his father.
Jubal, Sr., hung from a pulley outside the hayloft, arms stretched high above his head, legs dangling above the wicked flames of a fire. Charred remnants of his clothing and strips of skin swung from his chest. A chunk of red cloth, which Jubal recognized as his father’s bandanna, had been stuffed into his mouth. A man with a filthy poncho wrapped around his shoulders tossed hay from the loft onto the torturous blaze.
Jubal’s pa was near to death, his bare legs burned. Blood matted his neck, arms, and chest.
Then the wailing stopped, the body swaying like a pendulum. Jubal stared, looking for recognition. His father’s lips were moving. With each group of words, a nod, then he would begin again. He gazed at Jubal. Did he speak? Did he call out, “Save yourself”? His eyes rolled toward the smoked sky, once again the same litany, but this time the head drooped, the shoulders and legs relaxed. The body settled into its trusses.
Jubal chambered a round in the .22, raised it, and took a long, dreadful moment to pray. His head pressed hard against the rifle’s breech. He wiped the moisture from his eyes, adjusted the rear sight, and shot his father in the head.
The sound, though muffled by the crackling fire, still startled the fire-tending Mexican. He turned toward the noise as Jubal stood and pumped another round into the Colt. Trembling, he fired, his bullet catching the man in the lower stomach. The man dug his hands under his heavy leather belt, searching, then doubled over as if looking for something on the ground.
Jubal’s second shot pierced his head just above the cheekbone, dropping the man like a rock from a high place.
The boy slumped to the ground, watching the remains of his father swinging from the barn. “Help me, Pa. What have I done?”
Fifty yards off to his left, two men, their hair pulled tautly into braids on the sides of their heads, dragged tied bundles of his mother’s and father’s clothing. They soaked the pile of garments in lamp oil and lit it. Trailing the fiery bundle behind a crazed horseman, they made great circles around the house and barn, setting fire to the dry grasses.
“Be the man I taught you to be,” his pa had once said to him. He eased to the ground, too frightened to move and yet strangely not seeming to care. Jubal looked down at the two paltry rabbits still hanging from his belt.
The men by the house stopped their whooping to look at the area of the barn, the structure now fully taken by rising flames. The cracking and popping of the dried timbers had partially covered the sound of the small-caliber .22, and Jubal was still safely unknown to them.
He watched as they cavorted in his family’s vegetable garden. Others circled the lifeless form of his mother on the ground, making coarse gestures and poking their rifles at the body.
Pru. He hadn’t seen her anywhere. Where is she?
Jubal started to pick himself up. He was sick with fear and remorse, but he’d do his damnedest.
Crouching low, he sprinted to the edge of his mother’s root cellar. There he remained unseen behind the canted door, thinking how easy it would be to slither out of the clearing and into the welcoming shelter of the spruces and whitebark pines that surrounded the homestead—then run for his pitiful life.
A high-pitched scream came from the edge of the woods, beyond the burning barn. Pru was running into the clearing where their mother lay, her bonnet streaming behind her, tangled in her long blond hair. Wildflowers fell from a basket on her arm. She ran like a frightened animal, shouting to her mother.
A horseman spotted her and pursued her across the open field.
Ignoring the other men, Jubal took quick aim with his rifle and pulled the trigger. The shot went awry. The horseman scooped Prudence up in one swift powerful move, gripping her waist and swinging her up beside him. She protested loudly, beating her fists against the man’s head and chest.
Jubal had very little chance for a shot now, he was afraid of hitting her. The other men honed in on Jubal’s position and fired at him, bullets dancing past his head. He collapsed onto the ground and crept to where he could use the burning farmhouse as cover.
Pru was taken into the tree line from where she had just emerged. He moved along the ground. Once he was at the other side of the farmhouse, he ran into the nearby woods. All of his instincts told him to keep his head down and pursue cautiously, but he couldn’t ignore his need to chase the horseman. He had lost his parents. He couldn’t lose his sister.
Once in the woods, he could hear Pru’s voice coming from several directions, all of her cries amplified by the reverberating valley walls. For some time he searched for her, scrambling from one tree to the next. When he was finally resigned to the idea that the horseman had moved out of the valley, he heard hoofbeats coming from the east. He ran in that direction, only to see a lone rider bolting at a gallop between the trees a hundred yards in front of him.
The man had left Pru in the woods.
Jubal quickened his pace and backtracked from where he had last seen the rider. After a lengthy search, he found her… her face bloody from a deep forehead wound, clothing twisted about her body. There was so much, too much blood. On his knees, he pleaded with her to speak to him. He cradled her in his arms and rocked her, trying to coax a spark of life.
The wildflower basket was still looped around her arm. Jubal gently pulled out the leaves and...