Grit rattled off the brim of his hat as he dipped his head shielding his face from the sudden burst of wind. Through the shimmering heat glaze of an unrelenting sun he had been able to discern the outline of a village in the distance. He didn’t know the town’s name and didn’t care. With any luck he’d be there by nightfall and on his way again come morning.
His shadow preceded him. A curious blend of man and horse it rippled across the barren ground, an undulating wave of liquid obsidian that grew and stretched and gradually disappeared as the sun settled lower in the sky.
He drew rein, the horse coming to a stop amid a swirl of dust. The gelding dipped its head to investigate the tufts of sere desert grass at its feet as the man leaned forward, easing the stiffness in his lower back. Straightening, he studied his surroundings through narrowed eyes, wrists crossed casually atop the saddle horn. The landscape was monotonous in its sameness. His gaze returned to the village, a haphazard collection of crumbling adobe and sun-blistered wood strewn along the eroded remains of a bone-dry creek bed. Tugging the brim of his hat even lower he gathered the reins, briefly fingering the smooth leather before touching spurs to the gelding’s flanks and resuming his journey.
He rode in at dusk. A few coins saw to the needs of his horse, a room for the night and information.
Even without directions the cantina would have been easy to find. Taking a table at the back of the room he all but fell into the chair. A cloud of trail dust rose to mingle with the pungent smoke of cigaretos and the hazy glow cast by the few copper lanterns hanging from the rafters.
Shucking the saddlebags off his left shoulder he tossed them onto the opposite chair to discourage unwanted company. He slouched deep into the chair, his boots scuffing the thin layer of sawdust coating the floor as he stretched his legs crossing them at the ankle. His left hand rested on the table, thumbnail worrying the old knife scar it found there, his right hand out of sight close to his gun.
He scanned the crowd, taking his time doing so. Drinkers mostly, hardly worth his notice except for the trouble they might cause.
The odor of unwashed bodies competed with the more enticing aroma of roasting meat and vegetables. His stomach growled.
A middle-aged woman wove her way between the tables, a large wooden platter skillfully balanced on one hand above her head. Solicitous hands were shooed away as she doled out a number of bowls, cheerfully admonishing the young gallants for their impertinence. There was something comfortable about the exchange, the warmth of familiarity.
He slowly raised his head when she appeared at his table to take his order, the platter tucked under her arm. Up close she had a weathered look much like the buildings he had seen.
A bottle and glass quickly appeared and he nodded his thanks. He poured a measure, carefully replacing the stopper before taking a sip of the fiery liquor.
Customers came and went as the night progressed. More lanterns were lit, the shadows stubbornly retreating to hover in the corners of the room. Young men who laughed too loud and drank too much replaced the old men who had been playing a hard fought game of dominoes at the table near the entrance.
He nursed his own drink; his belly full of half-way passable food, well aware of the curious looks being sent his way. One corner of his mouth twitched upward in the beginnings of a smile that was quickly tamed.
He reached forward, wrapping his hand around the still nearly full bottle of tequila and pulled it toward him, working the stopper free. The liquid was on the verge of splashing into the waiting glass when he suddenly reconsidered. Tamping the stopper back in, he nudged the bottle across the table with his fingertips.
What he needed was sleep. Ever since the letter had caught up with him he’d been living rough, pushing himself and the horse hard. More than likely it was all for nothing; the man he hunted having moved on by now. It had been his choice after all to ride out leaving unfinished business behind.
He eyed the set of battered saddlebags lying just out of easy reach. Snagging one leg of the chair with the toe of his left boot he drew it closer. As he reached for them, a flicker of movement in the doorway leading to the kitchen caught his attention. His right hand disappeared under the table, coming to rest on the butt of his gun as he casually leaned back in his chair.
The curtain separating the two rooms parted, the wooden beads clacking in the wake of an old man. Sizing him up in a glance, he relaxed, began to fiddle with his empty glass as he watched the man shuffle his way to the far end of the bar, hobbled by painfully twisted feet.
The old man cradled a guitar lovingly in his arms. One of the young gallants whipped a chair about for his use and he sank onto it with a look of tired relief, legs splayed, boney knees tenting the fabric of his pants. Bracing the instrument on his right thigh he slowly strummed the strings, head bent. Gnarled fingers turned one key then another, adjusting the tension. A hoary fingernail rasped across each string in turn. Another slight adjustment, another chord, this one quieted with a gentle touch and a satisfied nod.
The piercing whistles and exuberant clapping of hands that accompanied another clatter of wooden beads startled him. He swore under his breath. In his line of work a distraction could get a man killed. Hand coming to rest on the handle of his gun he turned his head.
She was quite simply the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
He was also quite good at reading people. Something told him she didn’t belong here any more than he did.
Their eyes met briefly, hers so dark they were almost black, fringed with long sooty lashes.
She’d be a handful; he could see that right off. Heaven help the man who tried to tame her. Or love her. She would turn that love into a weapon, a whip she would wield with a child’s reckless and often callous abandon.
She strolled across the floor coming to stand beside the old man, her hair loose, falling in a silken wave to her waist. Leaning down she whispered something in his ear, a smile raising a dimple as she assessed the crowd
He watched in secret amusement as the gallants jockeyed for position as a space was hurriedly cleared.
She twirled onto the improvised dance floor with a flourish, eyes demurely lowered. Her smile however was anything but.
Like everyone in the cantina he was soon swept up in the magic created by the odd pair, his exhaustion forgotten. The wild rhythm of the music set his blood to pounding, his blue eyes trailing after the woman’s slender form as she spun and swayed and dipped. There were tantalizing glimpses of lace edged petticoats, shapely calves and trim ankles accentuated by the black ribbons of her slippers. She proved marvelously adept at evading the clutches of her more zealous admirers bestowing upon each of them a brilliant smile or a saucy toss of her head.
He was still ensconced in his chair long after the last of the customers had left. All but a couple of the lanterns had been extinguished, the detritus of the busy evening cleared away. They had left his bottle and shot glass. Both sat untouched in the middle of his table.
He didn’t know why he stayed. It wasn’t like him to let a woman get under his skin. And there was more to her than met the eye. If it were any other time he would actually enjoy getting to the bottom of this little mystery.
He gathered up his saddlebags and the bottle. At this rate he’d not be in any shape to ride out as planned.
He made it as far as the bar.
Several long minutes passed. Muffled sounds drifted out of the kitchen area; the murmur of voices, the stacking of pots and bowls, the sloshing of water being tossed into the night. He turned, propping his rear against the edge of the counter, head down, staring at the toe of his boot. He lifted one foot, balancing the tip of his spur atop the other boot, watching the light spark off the metal as he waggled his foot back and forth.
His patience was eventually rewarded. A grin worked its way across his face at the clatter of wooden beads. He lifted his head, felt the smile suddenly falter then fade.
Beside her, clutching a fold of her skirt in one hand was a sleepy-eyed youngster. The kid looked to be three maybe four. The boy cracked a huge yawn, rubbing one eye with his free hand.
To her credit she recovered more quickly than he did. Squaring her shoulders, she took the child by the hand and marched confidently up to him.
“Can I help you senor?”
He nodded his head at the child.
“Si, mi hijo, my son Juanito.”
The little boy looked at him, tipping his head back so his eyes could travel up the tall length of him. He found himself being scrutinized by a pair of bright blue eyes.
He wondered if the man even knew the kid existed.
Well, they all had to make choices in this life. Shame it didn’t make living with the consequences any easier.
“My husband, he was killed in an accident. We have only recently come here to stay with relatives. Not that it is any of your concern.”
She probably had told that lie so often she believed it herself. Not that it was any of his business.
The kid who had hidden his face at his mother’s sharp tone peeped at him shyly from the shelter of her skirts.
“No ma’am, it ain’t none of my business. Might I see you and the boy home senora…?” he left the question hanging.
“Ibarra. Maria Ibarra. And your name, senor?”
Her skin was honey-kissed, glowing in the light cast by the lantern.
“Bartlett, ma’am.”At her quizzical look he grinned, touching the brim of his hat with one finger. “Just Bartlett.”
Themes—lies, choices, mystery
Situation—hunting, letter, dance