Brain Child

PROLOGUE

The late-August sun blazed down on the parched hills with an intensity that was usually felt only much farther south, and south, the sixteen-year-old boy thought as he moved stealthily through the scrub-oak underbrush of his father’s vast rancho, was where he and his family should have gone long before now.

But his father had insisted on staying.

All year, since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had been signed, his parents had been quietly arguing about what to do.

“They will drive us away,” his mother had said over and over. She had said it again only this morning, her tall figure held firmly erect as she sat on a ladderback chair in the shade of the eastern wall of the hacienda, dressed, as always, in black, despite the heat of the morning. Her hands, their long slender fingers betraying nothing of what she might be feeling, worked steadily at the needlepoint with which she occupied herself during the few moments of each day that the pressures of the hacienda allowed her. But his father, as he had every other day, only shook his head.

“In Los Angeles they are honoring the Spanish grants. They will honor them here, too.”

Doña María’s eyes had flashed with impatience, and her mouth had tightened, though when she spoke it was with the respect she always paid her husband, and had taught her daughters to pay to both their father and their brother. “They have not found gold in Los Angeles. There, the land is worthless. Why not honor the grants? But here, even if there is no gold, they will take the land. In San Francisco the ships arrive every day, and the city is full. Where will they go?”

“To the goldfields,” Don Roberto de Meléndez y Ruiz had insisted, but Doña María had only shaken her head.

“Most of them will go to the goldfields. But not all of them, Roberto. Some will see into the future, and want the land. And those men will come here. Who will defend us?”

“The presidio at Monterey—”

“The presidio is theirs now. The war is over, and we have lost. Our troops have gone back to Mexico, and we should follow them.”

“No!” Don Roberto had replied. “We are not Mexicans. We are Californios, and this is our home. We built this hacienda, and we have a right to stay here! And stay here we shall!”

“Then we shall stay,” Doña María had said, her voice suddenly placid. “But the hacienda will not be ours. The rancho will be taken from us. New people are coming, Roberto, and there is nothing we can do.”

And now, this afternoon, they had come.

From a hilltop two hundred yards away, the boy saw a squadron of United States cavalry appear in the distance, making its leisurely way up the trail toward the whitewashed walls of the hacienda. Nothing in their manner indicated a threat, and yet the boy could feel danger. But instead of mounting his horse and riding home, he tied the animal to a tree beyond the crest of the hill, then crouched down into the brush.

He saw his father waiting at the open gates, and could almost hear him offering the men the hospitality of his home. But the riders did not go inside. The squadron waited while one of the stable boys brought his father’s horse. Don Roberto mounted, and the squadron, with his father in its midst, started back down the trail toward the mission village a mile away.

The boy moved as swiftly as he could, but it was slow going. There was only the one trail, and all his instincts told him