Maria was welcomed home by the distant boom of cannon, a twenty-one-gun salute to vanity and stupidity.
It wasn’t for her—thank god. Since Prince João and the entire Portuguese court had fled from Napoleon to Rio de Janeiro a year earlier, twenty-one guns saluted every ship that entered port. It had been a noisy year. Maria was thankful to have spent most of it trekking through the mountains.
She rode to a break in the trees, ignoring for the moment the raised voices behind her. The lush, emerald forest flowed down the mountain right up to the white walls and rippling roofs of Rio. The bay was dotted with ships. A whale carcass stretched along the sand, and Maria thought she smelled a hint of sun-rotting blubber on the breeze. Parrots flew by squawking in complaint, probably about the cannon.
Home filled her senses, and a knot tightened in her gut with every cannon blast. She couldn’t say if it was longing or dread.
“Oi, Maria!” Isabel, her sister, rode up. “You could survey from under the canopy. It’s not quite hot as hell there.”
“Harder to spot an ambush under the trees.” She pulled a spyglass from her bag and scanned the trail ahead.
“We could relax in the shade then see what lies ahead. Washed out trail. Thieves lying in wait. Nossa Senhora, I’d welcome some excitement.”
“Even if an ambush costs us a few crates of gold?”
“Small price to pay for a good fight,” Isabel said. “The story I’d tell would earn back our losses in drinks. And who doesn’t love surprises?”
Maria grinned from behind the spyglass. “Me.”
“Then you might want to know that Zé is about to shoot Berto.”
She snapped the spy glass shut and shoved it in the saddlebag. After weeks in the forest, everyone’s supply of patience was low, but she wouldn’t tolerate murder this close to home, no matter how damn hot it was. Plus, as captain of the mule train, shooting people was her prerogative.
Maria spurred past the tethered mules with their faces buried in foliage to where her team surrounded Zé and Berto. Mateus, her partner and second-in-command, stood between the men trying to calm them, but the men’s shining faces and the shirts plastered to their backs told her they were beyond the reach of reason.
“I’m not apologizing to that thief!” Berto, the newest man, spit at Zé’s feet.
“You calling me a thief, boy?” Zé bellowed.
“A thief and a goddamn cheat. Maybe I’ll see if your wife cheats as much.”
Zé yanked his pistol free.
Her whip sliced open the back of Zé’s hand before he leveled the gun. The pistol dropped. Maria landed a second blow at Zé’s feet. He leapt back, and Mateus snatched up the pistol.
Maria rode to the edge of the circle, the men parting in front of her. “Berto, if you play cards with a man wearing his sleeves down in this heat, you deserve the loss. I wonder if you’d notice a jaguar gnawing on one of your mules.” She hung the whip over her shoulder but kept a grip on the handle. “Zé, you’ve been with the train eight years. Can you tell Berto who pays for the shot and powder loaded in your pistol?”
Zé dropped his eyes to the ground. “Dom Joaquim.”
“And who buys the supplies in his name?”
“You do, captain.”
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