Clad only in a pair of low-slung calzoneras Johnny knelt in front of the window; head tipped back savoring an elusive bit of coolness.
All too quickly the breeze played out. Making himself comfortable on the plank floor he fingered one of the lace curtains aside, a frayed bit of scalloped edging snagging on hard earned callouses. Keeping to the shadows, he propped his left elbow on the windowsill, curtain dangling from the crook of his finger.
Only a few torches were still lit, the shadowy silhouettes of revelers reluctant to call it a night randomly spilling across the pale adobe walls. A smoky haze dappled the moonlight, the air thick with the pungent remnants of wood ash and spicy food.
After more than a week in the saddle, Johnny had yearned for nothing more than a bath, a hot meal and a little company. Finding a fiesta in full swing when he rode into town had been a surprise. So were the emotions the sight evoked.
They came in bits and pieces, the memories. Being carried on Bartlett’s shoulders, the man’s wide brim hat perched on his head. Mama smiling up at him, the sunlight winking off her silver earbobs as she cocked her head, laughing at something Bartlett had said. Men with guitars in the back of a wagon and people dancing dressed in their finest. The side of beef suspended over the fire and the hiss and sputter of dripping fat. The fluttering of cotton tablecloths and the pleasant ache of a tummy full of roasted meat.
He dropped his hand, the curtain falling back across the window; the soft glow of the quarter moon filtering through the sheer material. The unexpected spurt of nostalgia left him feeling unsettled. He wasn’t one for looking back. Looking back made it harder to keep the ghosts at bay.
Things had been good with Bartlett. There’d been a little house with a garden and enough money so mama didn’t have to work at the cantina. Even when Bartlett was gone, sometimes for weeks at a time, he always came home with a surprise for mama and a little something for him. When quizzed about where he’d been and what he’d been doing Bartlett would just say it was “part of the job, pard”.
Yeah, things had been good, real good.
Of course they didn’t last, nothing good ever did.
One morning Bartlett rode out and it was almost two years before they saw him again. They left the house with the garden and he had cried, wondering what Bartlett would do when he came home to find them gone. Mama went back to working in the cantinas and he lost count of the times they moved. It was like she couldn’t settle, as if she was looking for something and when she didn’t find it they would move again.
Bartlett tracked them down having heard of the woman who danced in the cantina in San Mariano. He had taken a gunshot wound to the hip, been laid up for months north of the border. Gotten his man but almost all the bounty had gone to pay the so-called surgeon who had done nearly as much damage as the bullet.
Mama’s slender fingers had alternately pleated then smoothed the fabric of her skirt as she listened. When Bartlett finished she left without a word taking her shawl from the peg as she went out the door. Bartlett didn’t follow; massaging the ache in his leg, seemingly lost in thought until he noticed Johnny watching him. Johnny was sure he meant to reassure him but the smile hadn’t reached Bartlett’s eyes.
“She’s just put out with me is all.”
Why couldn’t Bartlett see mama was unhappy? He had been a kid and he knew the signs. First she’d get real quiet. Then she’d disappear, be gone for hours at a time. That had scared him when he was little; wondering what would happen to him if she didn’t come back. He quickly learned to make himself scarce when mama did come home and never ever ask where she had been. It didn’t do to question mama when she was in one of her moods.
Problem was Bartlett kept asking questions.
When they argued mama would call Bartlett a cazador de recompensas sucia and Bartlett seemed to take pleasure in reminding her how happy she had been to spend the money the filthy bounty hunter brought home.
It had been a night like this; air so stifling you could hardly draw breath when he and mama left San Mariano.
Bartlett didn’t bother tracking them down.
Johnny rose lithely to his feet bracing his hands either side of the window. Lightning flashed, a jagged trail scrawled across the sky. There was no accompanying rumble of thunder, no sharp tang of rain in the stagnant air; heat lightning. This was a dry land, a hard land.
The lace curtains rippled, lifting from the window. Yellowed with age, fragile and delicate as the strands of a spider’s web they drifted across the palm of his upturned hand before settling once more.
“Admirin’ the view?”
Johnny turned, casually crossing his arms as he leaned against the wall studying the girl lying amidst the tumbled sheets. He ducked his head, mouth quirked in a sheepish grin as he willed the tension in his shoulders to subside. It never paid to let his guard down even here. Stupid got a man killed.
The girl held out her arms, wagging her fingers in invitation.
“Well cowboy, you gonna stand there all night?”
His calzoneras hit the floor, shed as easily as a snake shed its skin. He joined her, let her hands and mouth coax his thoughts out of the past and back to the here and now, drawing a curtain across the memories, the ghosts fading returning to where they belonged.
Bingo Challenge August 2014
Fiesta, bounty hunters, town, surprise, nostalgia