The rafters were thick with them, bundles of not only dried herbs but flowers, all tied with bits of ribbon. They brushed against one another, twisting in the slight breeze from the open door. The scent they released was one familiar from childhood. A bittersweet memory surfaced; of his mama hanging a similar bundle in front of a window, the warmth of the sun teasing the fragrance from the desiccated plants until it filled the tiny room.
Johnny reached up. Brittle blooms shattered at his touch; flakes of faded red and yellow and blue dusting the warm air. The ill-advised movement reawakened the wound with a vengeance. He swayed; a wave of dizziness crashing over him and he gripped the edge of the table, leaning into it.
There had never been a question of him not making it here even with a still seeping wound and a pernicious fever. Johnny Madrid was nothing if not a man of his word.
The pain was slow to retreat but eventually became manageable. Johnny straightened, wiping the perspiration from his face. He sighed, frowning as he wiped the evidence of his weakness on one leather-clad leg.
A cat lounged on the window sill. It was black as soot, its color a startling contrast to the whiteness of the room’s walls. It had been there last night, constantly underfoot, weaving its long, sinuous body around the old woman’s legs. It yawned hugely then set to tidying an already immaculate coat before turning pale green eyes on Johnny.
Of the old woman who belonged to cat there was no sign. Even a cursory sweep of the immediate surroundings had yielded no clue as to her whereabouts.
Not that he was worried. Despite her apparent frailty, she seemed more than capable of taking care of herself.
Curandera, bruja, wise woman; he had seen her kind before. Her isolation, the clay mixing pots, the odd bottle of clouded glass sealed with wax, the feathers and bits of bone and teeth collected in woven baskets only confirmed his suspicions.
Three days in the saddle and he had been more than grateful for her offer of food and a place for the night. He had however refused her services as a healer, saying he was fine. She had skewered him with a knowing look yet conceded to his wishes with a graceful nod of her head.
The fingers of his left hand searched out the scrap of paper tucked under his belt, worried at an already frayed corner of the missive. The letter had finally caught up with him in San Matteo. He hadn’t lived this long by being careless but this time, Dios, this time the situation was out of his hands. He was going in blind.
He stood in the doorway; hand on his gun, testing the play of it in its holster.
The bundles rustled nervously behind him. The wind was picking up but failed to bring with it the normal sounds of the village coming to life. Even from this far out he should be hearing something.
The cat watched him motionless except for the occasional flick of its tail.
He lifted his hat, ran his fingers through the wild tangle of dark hair before easing it back onto his head.
He left on foot, passing the old woman’s garden. It was alive with flowers, bright faces turned upward, drinking in the morning sun.
On the outskirts of the village, Johnny paused, slipping into the dappled shadows cast by a piece of latticework. A single main street, what looked to be a store across from the cantina, a cluster of houses made of simple adobe; nothing to distinguish it from any of the countless towns he had ridden through here and on the border.
He made his way down the street angling for the cantina. A trio of chairs had been left conveniently parked under the building’s slanted roof. He took the one on the far right, stretching out his legs and propping his heels on a handy barrel. He shifted his hips seeking a more comfortable position but that proved impossible, the wound deciding to renew its annoying protest.
The sun continued its upward journey but still doors remained shut, shutters firmly closed.
Long before he heard the sound of a horse coming from the north an innate sixth sense warned Johnny of imminent danger.
He laced his fingers across this belly as he dropped his feet to the ground observing the approaching pair from under the brim of his hat.
The billowing cloud accompanying the rider was too large for just one horse. Johnny’s eyes narrowed at the implication. He rose, went to lean his left shoulder against one of the porch uprights as the rider slowed fractionally, one hand working at unwinding a rope from around his saddle horn.
The rope sailed free, rippling through the air like some insidious snake. The body lashed to the other end slid to a stop in a haze of dirt and dust. Bile surged into Johnny’s throat at the sight of the battered and bloodied body though his face remained impassive.
The stranger pulled his horse to the right, dismounting in front of the small store and looping the reins over the hitching rail. He ran a hand over the pinto’s flank, giving its rump an affectionate smack. Trail dust liberally coated his dark clothing; his hat canted downward cast his face in shadow.
The horse shook its head; the jingle of harness deafening in the silence.
Johnny pushed off the support, arms loose at his side as the man ambled toward the center of the street.
By unspoken agreement they squared off within speaking distance however Johnny saw no need for discussion; what he had just witnessed corroborated the message. This was no man but a rabid animal, terrorizing the villagers for no reason other than he could.
As if having read his thoughts the man raised his head, a malevolent grin twitching the corner of his mouth.
Only the iron discipline that had kept him alive kept Johnny from going to his knees in shock.
The unearthly silence that had gripped the village was ripped asunder by the explosion of two guns fired almost simultaneously.
It smelled strongly of horse; horse and hay, a combination both familiar and comforting.
Without opening his eyes, Johnny knew it would be gone; the dusty street, the adobe buildings even the fractious pinto. They were real or had been but the demonio, the fantasma who haunted him; he was of his own making.
Johnny eased himself into a sitting position, cradling his aching head in both hands. The tips of his fingers shied away from the swelling knot they encountered. A vague memory of stumbling, of his head coming into contact with the corner post of the stall flashed through his mind.
He shook his head. His belly churned alarmingly both at the movement and as his mind latched onto the pertinent part of the nightmare.
It was always the same; like looking into a mirror except for the eyes; soulless, the eyes of a cold-blooded killer.
A man whose honor, whose very humanity had succumbed to a lifetime of pain and hatred.
A man who was beyond redemption.
It wouldn’t have taken much, in the beginning. He would have embraced perdition itself if it meant they would be afraid as he had been afraid. That they would know how if felt to be powerless.
Johnny dug in his heels, pushing himself along the floor until his back found the side of Barranca’s stall. He drew up his knees, locking his arms around them.
The past wasn’t something he could sweep under the rug. Maybe he hadn’t fallen that far but he had come close.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw that he was being watched. A cat sat on the fringes of the pool of amber light cast by the lantern, tail curled neatly around its feet. Pale green eyes lifted to his, blinking once before returning to an intense scrutiny of something in the far recesses of the barn.
“Gooseberry eyes.” Teresa had called them after getting a glimpse of the barn’s newest resident.
Johnny let out a shaky breath; fighting to control his body’s trembling.
A noise, a rustling accompanied by the heady scent of dried herbs surrounded him and he froze, heart pounding in his chest. The cat loped across the floor and through the open door becoming one with the night.
Curandera—healer of physical and spiritual illness by the use of herbal medicine and home remedies.