Chapter 33

When Nate had told Emi that the buyers would be arriving early he hadn't been exaggerating. Before the roosters crowed there were boats at the dock and men standing around the citronella laced torches that lit open spaces near the water and the barn that had been chosen for the bidding as well as the path between the two.

Emi was feeding a very sleepy Bastian and doubly cranky Darla, wondering how she was supposed to look after the children and help Nate at the same time when there were steps on the porch. She tensed but then she saw several little Kikos staring in at her from the screen door.

"What are you little monos doing out there? Your momma know where you are at?"

Dora sighed unseen in the darkness and said, "Yes she does."

Emi hurried to open the door and drew the children and Dora into the kitchen before re-shutting the screen. "Nate didn't say …"

"I know. It wasn't planned. I just had to get away … good Lord … is she actually eating quietly?!"

Emi bit the inside of her cheek and said, "She will if she wants to get more than a banana to eat."

Darla sang out, "Bikit and banama and gits and hmmm hmmm hmmmm. Peeze."

Dora looked for a moment like she was going to fall down before shaking herself and saying, "Er … what's hmmm hmmm hmmm?"

Emi winced but before she had to answer Bastian said, "Emi sings real good and Darla likes it. Dad and me do too."

A male chuckle was followed by, "Dad and I like it too."

Emi momentarily felt like throwing a skillet at Nate who had quietly entered the kitchen from the front of the house to let him know what she thought of his foolishness but figured doing it in front of his sister wasn't the best strategic move on her part. She did however give him a look that would have peeled paint … or would have if it hadn't simply made Nate chuckle again. Emi tried to ignore him but he came in and gave her a peck on the cheek causing her to freeze at the public display with her hand half way to the pot that held the grits that needed to come off the heat.

Knowing he had likely pushed his luck as far as it could be pushed Nate reached around her and gently moved the pot himself before pushing Emi towards a chair. "Sit and eat."

"The children …," she objected.

"I'll fill their plates but I need you to hurry and come out and meet the buyers. I've got a couple new ones out there throwing the Spanglish around and I want you to tell me if it is legit or if they are playing me."

Emi tried again. "The children …"

Dora said, "I'll watch them. Like I started to say … before we were rudely interrupted …" She arched her brow at her unrepentant younger brother. "Kiko wants to get rid of some his portion of the salvage. Tony came with him but at the last minute he decided to also bring that menace that he married. She is a piece of high maintenance salvage that is getting on my last nerve and she is even wearing on Angelique's nerves."

Emi shrugged, not understanding the problem. "So kick 'em out. They big enough to get married without permission, they big enough to do the rest of it on their own too."

"Don't I wish," Dora sighed revealing just how tired she was and how the situation was truly wearing on her.

Emi glanced at Nate who missed it as he already had a lot on his mind – including trying to untangle from his daughter's banana covered hand where it had gripped his collar in an attempt to get more grits than he'd originally piled in her bowl.

Emi sighed and stood back up. "You'll need to change that shirt or the gnats will swarm you." Turning to Darla she gave her "the eye" and said, "Let your poppa go and eat your breakfast. Be good a good bebe for your Aunt Dora or no musica."

"I want …!"

One word left Emi's mouth. "Darla."

It was with a great deal of obvious disgust that Darla picked up her spoon and started attacking her grits and aiming them in the general direction of her mouth.

Emi turned to find Dora just looking at the little girl like she'd never seen her before. Emi asked, "You sure you … uh …"

"Go," she told Emi as her brother walked onto the back porch with a clean shirt he'd grabbed from a hook in the old utility area.

"Uh …"

"Nate wouldn't say he needed you if it wasn't true. Just do me a favor and see if you can keep Tony from killing a deal for Kiko." She sighed again showing she was really concerned. "Kiko loves his brother but lately … too much friction. He's turning into what he …"

Carefully Emi asked, "This girl really the problem? Or did Kiko … come home too much the man he used to be?"

With a shrug Dora answered, "You saw it? He's different now."

"Sure."

Like she had to believe it which let Emi know that at some point the man Kiko used to be had been a problem for Dora, Nate's sister added, "That girl is most of the problem but not all of it. And while Tony is far from a saint himself he has never been in the same league as Kiko and Kiko has tried to keep it that way. But this time Tony really bit off more than he was ready to chew and that wife of his is such a drama queen about it all. Neither one of them knew what they were getting into. Kiko grumbles but he wants to believe they'll work it out. I'm not so sure. I wish I knew what to do. It is starting to affect the children."

"Would anyone be triste if this girl … goes away?"

"What? No … I mean …"

Emi shrugged, accepting that her reputation made people think the worst first. "I do not mean permanently. I mean if a new living arrangement can be found."

A little guiltily Dora admitted, "It's something Kiko and I have discussed but while she may be a hot mess, she's not really trash. I wouldn't want to see the girl go to the block."

"Let me think on it. Maybe I know someone that could have some idea."

"Who?" Dora asked suspiciously.

"Woman that crossed the Gulf with us. She's now married to Nate's man Miguel. I haven't seen her since we came to Alma but I think I know a way to contact her."

"I … I don't want to see the girl hurt but …"

"Sure. But you need her gone so for Nate I'll do this."

"Why?"

Emi repeated, "For Nate … you're his familia. He won't want to see what you are trying to hide. Better for us women to handle this. Thing is Tony will have to cooperate and if he …"

"He'll cooperate or else," Dora replied grimly.

"Good enough. I'll see what I can do. Even if she doesn't go, maybe she could be … encouraged … to ser major … be better. For the family. Now I'd best get out there before Nate sends Benji to give me what for." With another look of warning Darla's way Emi slung her rifle over her shoulder and stepped out into the yard.

She could tell as soon as her eyes adjusted that Nate was irritated beneath his good-natured salesman act. She headed in his direction but caught Benji as he ran by and asked, "Who is getting on his nerves? Me for being late?"

"Oh no Mrs. Bale. More people showed up for the sale than were invited. Some of 'em are getting kinda pushy and wanting to see the goods before the agreed upon time."

"Should I head for the barn?"

"Uh … no ma'am. Mr. Miguel showed up and he's stationed some of his brothers over there. But maybe you'd best go … er …"

"Smooth Nate's feathers?"

Benji bit his lips trying not to smile. "Yes 'm. Dad says he's getting a little hot under the collar."

Emi nodded then strolled over slowly listening to the conversations flowing around her while observing the people crowding Nate more closely than she was happy with. Some of them were even women and there was one in particular that made her want to grind her teeth though she refused to contemplate just why that was.

Noticing where some of the torches were unlit or had been put out … some of them throwing shadows where there shouldn't have been any … Emi grabbed an extra torch, lit it and then walked around relighting things. She then nonchalantly tossed the torch into a burn barrel perilously close to the one hanging all over Nate.

When the barrel suddenly flamed to life the woman gave a little shriek and backed away. Emi walked into the space the woman had vacated but said nothing and kept her face carefully blank. Nate looked down and asked, "Kids ok?"

"Dora is with them."

Nate looked like he wanted to say more but was interrupted by the other woman asking, "Who the hell are you?"

Neither Nate nor Emi had to answer because another woman said, "Trouble you definitely do not want to find. Or hadn't you heard that Nate here had gotten hooked up by a priest?" Barb. Emi glanced her way and a silent message passed between them.

The other woman made a face. "So the rumor is true? Funny. He wasn't acting married a minute ago."

Emi suddenly flicked a blade and a snake fell from the tree they had been standing under. She stepped over and used her booted foot to give the snake a boost into the air so she could remove the blade which promptly disappeared again … causing a few whispers at how fast it had happened. She gave a piercing whistle and Benji came out of the dark. "Yes Mrs. Bale?"

"Your father said you need a new Sunday belt. See if this will work."

"Yes ma'am," Benji said enthusiastically as he took the dead boa and left to find his father who'd promised his next good belt could be of snake skin.

Emi was silent once again and just looked around. She saw two men step back into the shadows and saw that one of the torches she'd just lit was once again dark. A suspicion began forming in her mind and she turned and in a pretense gave Barb a hug while passing a blade to her and whispering, "Cover the kids in the house. Somethin' don't feel so good."

Barb stepped back hiding her surprise with a cackle of laughter and saying, "Wait 'til Miguel hears."

Both Nate and Kiko had caught her very unusual display of affection but didn't say anything. They did however start maneuvering themselves around in the crowd. Nate started drawing some of the buyers into an area where he'd stationed several guards. Kiko directed a young man and woman who could only be Tony and his bride to follow Barb. He then strolled by and mouthed, "Mira tu espalda chica."

Emi had every intention of watching her back. The question for her was whether the ultimate target was her back or Nate's? Or was it a two-fer. She'd spent too much time on the street not to think of the possibility that Nauldo's people were here for venganza … for revenge. She glanced at Nate just in time to see him looking into the dark behind her and his eyes fill with fury.

Emi swung around just in time to avoid the woman that she had displaced come at her with a knife. The woman obviously had some experience in knife fighting … but just as obviously not as much as Emi. And her technique was very sloppy. She held her knife like an ice pick; good for penetration and close work … and for stabbing your opponent in the back … not so much for anything else. Emi preferred to hold her blade in a hammer grip that was best for long and midrange moves allowing her to make body cuts and stabs while still being able to move out of range before her opponent could take counter measures.

Emi also noted that the woman wasn't just holding the knife wrong, she was using the wrong knife. The one she held was something that Emi would have used for throwing … thin, lightweight, sharpened on both sides, and no significant hilt. For fighting Emi preferred a fixed blade … one with a good grip and a hilt substantial enough that it too could be used as a weapon if need be.

The woman's attitude was also questionable. She was all sharkteeth grin though Emi could also sense a great deal of anger beneath the grin. Emi's passive visage and lack of fear aggravated the woman just enough that she took a second attempt by making a sudden circle to the right and a tight lunge where the woman attempted to put her blade between the ribs under Emi's breast. Emi spun at the last moment and though she took a small cut, that was all.

"Hah! Not so good are you?" the woman sneered. "Look at you bleed."

Emi relaxed her stance and picked up her rifle. "So do you."

That's when the woman looked down in confusion and saw the blooms of red across her stomach. She grabbed herself and slid to her knees while blood began to pour faster. No one else had moved. The woman looked around in shock and slowly fell over. Emi could tell she wasn't dead yet but shock and blood loss would take care of that shortly.

Emi once again used the toe of her boot, this time causing her opponents knife to shoot upwards, but rather than holding onto it she spun and sent the knife into the dark where it found its mark and a man fell out of the tree to land crumpled at Nate's feet. "Gringo, you got too many snakes around here. Think we need to clean them out."

Miguel chose that moment to step into the firelight and whisper something to his former Captain who then announced, "Already accomplished but Don asks if you'd go to the dock and handle a couple of bulls that are getting in their way of salvaging the pirate sloop."

"Eh. You're the boss."

It was a toss-up who was being watched more, Nate … or his killer bride.