Secondly I would like to thank Leitte and Suzanne for the endless hours it must have taken them, reading and editing these lines. Without them, and their patience no story would have got this far.
It is meant as the First part of an AR story. There are some parts, some might find upsetting. Please be warned.
This is my first ever attempt at anything like this, I hope you have as much fun reading this as I had writing it. Enjoy.
The relentless sun beating down gave no quarter. The heat was so oppressive and overpowering it radiated off the dry ground and rocks – a draining heat that sapped the energy right out of a body, making even the slightest action a chore.
With its dusty streets and pale adobe walls, the village gave the impression it was crumbling. A dust devil ahead whisked the dirt up at the corner of the last building sending a shower of debris everywhere. One dry dusty hovel looking like so many other dry dusty hovels both sides of the border. Mexican and American alike, they were dark, brooding, dangerous places.
Val Crawford stilled for a moment, surveying the scene below him. Shit! Places like this were full of cast-offs from both societies, Mex and Gringo. He snorted. And from probably many other places as well, come to think of it. What in the tar nation was he doing here? But, then again, he knew it was of his own making, his own choice.
Giving a huge sigh, he nudged his horse forward. The animal, tired and weary, put its head down and plodded on. He needed to get it out of the sun, to some water and grub. With that in mind he let the animal amble down the slight rise and pick its own way to the first building, and then on down the street. Or what passed for a street.
Val sat lax in the saddle, his left hand easy on the reins. His right hand rested near the gun tied low on his thigh. Not touching it. Not quite.
His whole being was ready to run in a heartbeat – if the horse could make it that was. They’d travelled far and hard—too hard in this heat. There’d been precious little food for either of them and even less water. If he didn’t rest the horse soon he’d lose it. Frustration threatened to engulf him. He felt so close to his goal, so close to a conclusion he wouldn’t reach if his horse died under him. He’d fail again. This close. That was not going to happen. Not here. Not today. After… well, he didn’t… hadn’t thought of an ‘after’.
Val shifted slightly in the saddle to ease the ache in his back, the residual effect of a bullet wound from many months before. He pulled his hat lower to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun. He missed nothing, appearing to look straight ahead while his eyes darted left and right. Nothing moved down the full length of the street. The only sign of life as far as he could see was an old cur dog asleep under a step. The old mongrel blinked its eyes open as he passed. Well, nothing new here. It was midday siesta time. Nothing wrong with that. Actually, he wouldn’t mind doing it himself.
The hot wind whipped up more dust and debris, coating the few chairs and a rickety old table outside, what appeared to be the town’s only cantina, in a layer of dust. The batwing doors swung in the breeze, the squeak of the hinges loud in the silence. It gave an eerie, sinister and deserted feel to the place.
Val drew level with the cantina. With a last searching look to the other side of the street, he turned his horse towards the hitching rail at the front of the building.
And that was when Val saw him for the first time. A small boy sat in a corner, formed where the front of the cantina met a low wall. The child hidden until now, had his knees were drawn up in front of him, thin arms wrapped tightly around his legs, his feet bare and dirty. Clothes that once would have been white were now grey with ground-in dirt. A rip in the sleeve at the shoulder gaped open almost to the elbow. Both knees in his pants were torn, revealing grazes beneath.
Even though Val was ten or so feet from the child, he could clearly see an angry-looking wound in the kid’s arm beneath the rip. The skin around the injury was red and inflamed while the blood below the gaping hole was old and dark. To accompany that was an ugly black and purple bruise on the side of his chin.
A mop of unruly black hair covered the boy’s eyes, but Val knew he was being watched. He knew his every movement was being gauged and assessed. He could see it in the child’s body language.
“Anywhere I can stable my horse, kid?” Val’s voice sounded harsh and dry even to his own ears. Was it due to a lack of water, or lack of use? He wasn’t sure. “Get it food, water?”
The boy remained silent, and motionless, appearing to regard Val through eyes shielded by his shaggy hair. Damn! Val supposed the Mex kid didn’t understand good old gringo then. How far south of the border was he anyway? In becoming so single-minded, focusing on his quarry, somewhere along the way he’d lost track of time and distance, even when to eat and sleep.
He swung down from the tired beast and, giving it a pat on its sand coloured neck, took a step forward. Hell, this horse was tired! Had he imagined it, or had he really heard the animal sigh in relief? Well, maybe not.
“You hear me, boy? Comprende?”
The boy tensed, turning his head as if he was searching for an escape route. Val couldn’t bring himself to blame the kid none. Seems someone had worked him over, and good, in the last day or two. Val’s anger rose. Whose was this boy? Who was supposed to be caring for him? Where were his folks? Hell, he didn’t have time to hunt down and look for the answers. In the old days he might have, but he was on another hunt today – and all the tomorrows it took until he found what he was looking for.
As he stepped closer under the shade of the cantina front, Val could see more dried blood over the boy’s cheek and just below his ear. It had run down his neck, black now and old, days old, staining his shirt at the shoulder. Shit! If he was his— Anger rose higher. No! No! Can’t go there Crawford. The more he studied this youngster the more his anger rose until it was a seething core within his gut an. He clenched his fists. Shit! How old was this kid anyhow? Val sighed, keeping his thoughts to himself. Looking back up at the child, Val once more took in his unkempt condition. He couldn’t – wouldn’t – get involved. Couldn’t afford to. He snorted. He couldn’t help thinking of the ironary of it all. It would only get him shot, probably by some irate bastard who’d call himself the kid’s father. No, he couldn’t. Not when he was this close.
Closing off the anger, dampening it down. He quickly regained control, and looked back up. The boy still appeared to be staring at him, unmoving and tense, like a wild colt ready to bolt if handled the wrong way. No not a colt. Suddenly he was reminded of a coyote cub he’d come across one summer when he himself was young. He’d been out hunting with his older brother, Jackson. The cub hadn’t seen them at first. Hell, they hadn’t seen him either, until there he was, skinny and unkempt. Half-starved, most likely. Their eyes had met for a long second while everyone was still. Then the moment Jackson had reached for his gun, the nervous little varmit had skittered away among the rocks. Gone.
“Hey, anywhere to stable the horse, niño?” This time Val spoke only in Spanish. If he didn’t get his horse watered and out of this unrelenting sun pronto, it’d probably loose it.
The kid’s attention appeared again to sway to the horse. “He needs food and water. Water first.” Val took a step forward. “Look niño, he needs rest and a stable.”
The boy scrambled to his feet, his hand on the low wall ready to vault over it and bolt.
Val gave up. It seemed he wouldn’t get anywhere here. He’d have to go into the cantina and ask there. He turned to his saddle, swung the stirrup up over the horn and started to loosen the cinch.
Val swung around. The words had been so soft he wasn’t sure he’d heard them but the boy pointed down the street when Val turned. “Señor Irish takes in horses. Sometimes…” The boy’s voice trailed off.
Val’s gaze travelled down the street in the direction indicated.
Val’s eyes flickered back to the boy. “Will you show me?” He dug a coin out of his pocket and flicked it in the air. It glinted, a bronze arc in the sunlight. The boy’s slight head movement indicated he was watching the spinning coin. “Make it worth your while.” Val paused with the coin once more in his hand.
The small boy’s attention appeared to sway from the horse, down the street and back to Val. Then, with his mind apparently made up, he nodded and moved off in the direction he had indicated.
The child kept slightly ahead and off to one side, keeping his distance, staying just out of reach. His eyes were probably darting everywhere, looking for an escape, a place to run. Val still couldn’t see the boy’s eyes, there was too much hair in the way. Still he didn’t need to. They’d be brown. . Brown to match his bronze skin. This boy had Mexican peasant written all over him.
Val let out a long sigh. That’s all he’d ever be, all he’d grow up to be. If he ever reached adulthood, that was. Judging from the state the kid was in, that wasn’t likely. It was obvious to Val that even if the boy did belong to someone, there was no one who cared about him or for him.
“Stay out of it, Crawford. Right out!” He didn’t even know he had spoken out loud, and especially with such force. It was only when the kid stopped abruptly at the sound of the angry words and whipped his head around in Val’s direction that he realized he had.
As the boy brought his head around sharply, a slight hot breeze took his hair up and off his face. Val was pinned by a pair of brilliant, deep blue eyes in the wide-eyed questioning stare. Val’s heart clenched. A half-breed.
“Its okay, kid. I’m just a mad old coot. Been out in the sun so long it’s fired ma brains.”
The boy lifted an eyebrow and moved off again, while Val followed. Val couldn’t help but wonder how old this kid was. He looked about ten or so, but it was hard to tell. The boy was, like the coyote, underweight and half-starved.
But that look Val had received was a look far beyond this kid’s years. Val couldn’t stop the fleeting thought that went through his mind. That this child was old before his time, but he’d be dead before long.
The boy turned off the main street behind what passed as a small dry goods store. Here was a corral of sorts, constructed out of dry, bent and gnarled tree limbs. Against the far two walls, the backs of adjoining adobe buildings, was a lean-to made from lighter wood and brush, giving a limited amount of shade to a dozen or so horses and mules sheltering below.
The boy half-turned to Val and gestured to the water trough. The gelding had already smelt and seen it. Its ears pricked and he pulled towards the water. Val gave with the reins and walked forward a few paces so the grateful horse could sink its nose deep into the life-giving fluid. Maybe not so cool, but clean and, nonetheless, water.
The boy had disappeared into an adobe building around the far side of the corral. Deep in thought, and dog-tired from the countless days, months on the trail, Val heard voices. Well one voice. The boy talked so softly you had to listen real hard and real close to pick up anything he said.
The boy re-emerged, followed by a large, overweight and scruffy man dressed in the usual Mexican attire. The large sombrero he was adjusting on his head was as tattered as he was. Val was unable to see the newcomer’s face until he raised his head as he approached closer.
“Not expecting to see a white man then, boyo?” His voice had a deep Irish brogue. A broad grin lightened his weathered, whiskered face and his grey eyes danced.
“No. Can’t say I was,” Val admitted, returning a slight smile of his own.
“The boy said you had a hoss you was wanting stabled. I told him to tell ya to come back later.” He grinned and looked down at the boy. “But the kid said it was almost dead. Said that I needed to come quick like.” He paused and glanced at the horse, “Not dead yet, but plumb worn out, so it is!” Another pause while he gave Val a searching look. “Someone chasing your ass, mister?”
Val hesitated before answering. “More the other way round, I’d say. Three of ’em. One riding a pinto, other two on sorrels.” He saw some fleeting emotion in the older man’s eyes, but it was gone too quickly to make any sense out of it.
“They’ll be bad uns then?” The Irishman glanced at Val’s gun.
“Could say that. Been following them from Texas.” Val’s voice was now full of thinly veiled hard emotion.
“I better watch out then. Name’s O’Hara. Best get your crowbait under cover. Get him outta the sun.” O’Hara turned towards the building he had come out of, calling over his shoulder, “In here.”
Val led the tired buckskin into the cool interior. There was an empty stall at the end of a narrow passage. The three other stalls were occupied. It was dark in there, almost impossible to see anything from the doorway. That would suit him fine by keeping his horse away from prying eyes.
It smelt clean. And from what he had already seen, the animals all looked fairly comfortable, and well cared for. A little lean, maybe, but this was a lean land. Val slipped the bar and led the horse in. He heard O’Hara say something to the boy, who scuttled out to do his bidding, returning in due course with a large armful of hay.
“I have oats but it’ll cost you extra, so it will. Don’t offer it to most.” O’Hara paused. “Those young bastards you’re chasing didn’t get any.”
Val whipped his head around. “They here?” he ground out, tense now, his hand unconsciously going towards his gun.
“Three, maybe, er... four days ago.” O’Hara gave Val a measured look. “See to ya hoss and get settled. That hoss ain’t goin’ anywhere t’day. Then we’ll talk.” O’Hara walked towards the door. “Want anything, ask the boy. He helps me out when I need it. Pay him in food, not money. His mother, or what passes for a mother, will only drink it away, so she will.” O’Hara glanced at the boy and spat at the ground before walking out of the door.
Val turned back to the buckskin, loosened the cinch, then dragged the heavy stock saddle off and swung it over the wall of the stall. This horse had served him well. Val had brought him not long after crossing the Rio Grande. He paid well for him – too well, he thought at the time. But he’d been in no position to be choosy. Hell, he’d been downright desperate, and that old grizzled vaquero he bought him off knew that too well. Still, as the buckskin ate up the miles, Val had found no reason to complain.
Hearing rustling, Val turned towards the sound. The boy reappeared with a bucket and a measure of oats. Handing it off to Val, he wordlessly disappeared and came back struggling with a bucket of water, trying not to slop too much out.
“Here.” Val reached out to take the water. “I’ll have that.” He glanced down as he took the bucket. The boy’s hands were filthy; knuckles skinned, dirt ground under his fingernails. When had the kid washed them last? If Val was going to get into it, when was the last time the kid had a wash? Or a bath, come to that.
That reminded him. “I could do with a bath and a room, niño.”
The boy had been stroking the gelding ears as the horse ate its meal. He looked up at Val. “En la cantina.”
Val nodded and after a bit of thought handed the boy the coin from earlier. “Have you eaten?”
The boy shook his head.
“When did you eat last, niño?”
The boy dropped his head and studied the dirt as he scuffed it up with his toes. He just shrugged his small shoulders, still not looking up. Val sighed; too many raw memories were being dragged up here. Shit! He didn’t need this. Not today, not now... hell, maybe not ever. With a huge effort he shut his thoughts off.
Val gave a final pat to his horse. He was eager to see O’Hara again. He sensed the older man knew something. More than something. That man knew a lot. One hell of a lot. He felt the rush of expectation as the adrenalin rose.
While they walked back to the cantina, the boy was all but forgotten, as his mind drifted back months. How long had it been? Hell, who was he kidding; eight months, two weeks and three miserable stinking days, first of an all-consuming grief and blinding anger when he had made mistakes and lost their trail many, many times. Not concentrating, he got himself shot in the back, and laid up for a good ten days or so. Worst of all, in his temper and blind rage, he lost a horse. To his disgust, he ran the poor critter into the ground.
He was less than a day behind the murdering scum when the horse started to labour. Val dismounted instantly–but it had been too late. The horse had given its all. The bay died with its head in Val’s lap.
Val hadn’t been worried about his own safety. The devil could have his life and his soul after this. But the horse’s death reined him up real short and real quick, making him see he had to put all feelings aside, or these men he was after would get clean away.
He owed it to them… to the ones he once lov—. Well, he owed it to them not to let that happen.
So as the weeks turned into months, he focused on what he was good at. All the things that made him a good lawman: being cold, detached, calculating. He was feared by some and respected by most, even by those he brought to justice. He was known to be a fair lawman, but this time... well, this time these bastards he hunted would only get the same justice they themselves dealt out so many months ago. Here, he was no lawman. Here he was Val Crawford, gunman, hunter.
A shadow passed over him blocking out the direct rays of the sun, and with a start he realized he had walked under the overhanging front of the cantina. Shit! Wake up. What was wrong with him? He hadn’t daydreamed like this in months. What the hell had brought this on?
He glanced up and down the street. A handful of peasants were now moving about, chores being done. Even a few children had ventured out and were playing at the far end of the street. The small community was slowly coming back to life again, as the midday heat cooled slightly.
Satisfied he could see no threat there, he walked up to the half door of the cantina. Left hand on the door, right hand on his colt he paused before going in. Letting his eyes become accustomed to the dimmer light, he scanned the room. Two old men sat at a side table, drinking tequila and talking. A barrel of a man was behind the bar, sorting bottles and joining in the general conversation.
Val could smell the spicy aroma of cooking even before he made it over the threshold. His stomach rumbled.
About to push his way in, he glanced down to his left. The boy was still there but was hanging back, reluctant. “O’Hara said to feed you and you’d look out for my horse.” The boy looked doubtful and peered into the dim room through the half opened door. “Nothing in there to bite you, niño.”
The boy looked up at him this time with wide and troubled blue eyes. He glanced around the doors, still hanging back slightly.
“In,” Val ordered.
The boy shook his head.
“If you want the job of looking after my horse – in”
The boy entered the cantina following close on Val’s heels. Val swung his saddlebags onto the bar, or what passed for one: wooden planks resting on two upturned barrels. Conversation stopped on Val’s arrival. The portly Mexican behind the bar placed a glass and a bottle of tequila in front of Val. Measuring him up and down through guarded eyes, he noted the gun.
“Need a room for the night. And a meal for two.”
The Mexican bartender looked past Val and for the first time saw the boy, who tried to shrink back in an effort to make himself look smaller or disappear. The Mexican glanced up the wooden stairs to the side of the bar. “Does your mother know you’re in here?” he asked the boy.
The boy glanced up at Val then lowered his eyes. His spindly arms hugged his small body and he shook his head.
The Mexican looked back at Val. “I have a room, Señor, but the boy should not be seen in here.” He gave the boy a hard stare. “Go quickly, niño. Ahora.”
The boy turned to make a hasty retreat.
“No!” Val snapped in English. “Stop and come back here.”
The boy had turned and with wide eyes was still backing up to the door. The raw terror that was evident in his eyes made Val see that coyote again. In his haste, the boy hadn’t seen where he was going and slammed into the wall. Val took a few swift, long strides. He reached the door as the boy did, grabbed him by the shirt and hauled him back to the bar.
He gave the boy a mild shake and kept a firm hold of the child’s shirt collar. “Stay right there.”
“Señor,” the man continued in broken heavily-accented English, “It is not wise. The niño... him to eat in here.” He glanced towards the stairs again, as if at any moment he expected someone about to come down.
“Where else can he eat?” Val was getting angry now. The fat Mexican shrugged. He didn’t care. That fact was written all over his fat ruddy face, his eyes blank and uncaring.
Val didn’t need this. How had he gotten into it? He felt the starting of a headache. Tired and grubby, all he wanted was something to eat, a bath, and a bed. Just how complicated could that be?
“If you want my money you’ll feed the boy, I can always sleep with my horse.” Val looked around, “And who owns this place anyway?”
The fat Mexican pulled himself up to his full height and puffed out his chest. “I do, Señor.” He didn’t want to miss taking the gringo’s money. There was precious little new money to be had in this dust hole as it was.
“And so who says who eats here, you or a whore who can’t look after her own kid?” Val’s eyes narrowed “Are you ruled by women, Señor? And whores at that?”
“Sit, I will bring food.” The fat owner looked uncomfortable, as he backed up to a door behind the bar.
“The boy, too.” Val made it a statement, not a question.
With a nod the owner disappeared into the kitchen. There was the sound of pots and dishes, general kitchen sounds. A man and a woman’s voice, much rapid-fire Spanish, and although he was fluent, most of it too fast for Val to follow. The fat owner reappeared, “En un momento,” he said as he gestured for Val to take a table in the middle of the room.
“I’ll sit back there if it’s all the same with you.” Val was already walking to the table at the back far corner, dragging the boy along with him. He would be able to see the whole room from there, both doors, and the window. From this position he could also see the stairs. And the top of the landing as well. Sitting in the corner with his back to the wall, he ordered the boy to sit.
The boy’s eyes were everywhere, mostly on the stairs Val noticed, and he looked scared, shit-scared of something. But he sat, and he stayed – yep, the boy definitely had sand, no doubt about it. With that fleeting thought Val relaxed back in the chair. He felt tired, and his back was beginning to ache again.
“You got a name, niño?”
The child studied him, his eyes shielded by the unruly mop of hair again.
Val tried again in Spanish “¿Tienes un nombre?”
The boy nodded, but was saved from answering by the arrival of a woman, as large as the cantina’s owner, who brought out the two dishes. Laying one before Val, and a smaller one before the boy, she muttered something about eating slowly to the child. Then ruffling his hair she was gone.
Before Val could pick up a fork the boy was shovelling the food in. He regarded the child for a moment. “You choke kid, you’re on your own.”
The boy hesitated for a split second mid chew, glancing at Val with one blue eye visible, before returning to his onslaught of his meal. The corner of Val’s mouth twitched as his thoughts turned to his own plate.
The woman reappeared, presumably the owner’s wife, with a glass of milk and set it before the child. Pausing between mouthfuls, the boy looked up at her. Then, there it was, a smile to light a thousand hearts. The boy’s whole face lit up. His large blue eyes shining as he looked up at the woman.
Val enjoyed the meal, a spicy chicken dish, washed down with a beer the owner brought him. Meanwhile a few more patrons entered the cantina. One of them, a small elderly man, came in, glanced at Val, then took a table by the door. He sat there quietly, looking down at his hands, ordering neither food nor drink. He seemed to be waiting for something, or somebody.
Shortly after, a Padre entered, and sat with the elderly man, patting him on the arm. Val watched them. Neither spoke, they just sat there waiting. For what? He sure didn’t know. Finishing his meal he glanced up to see that O’Hara had entered with two more elderly men. Proud men, family men, Val thought. Suddenly, the hair on the back of his neck started to prick.
Damn, he didn’t want to be tangled up in something, certainly not now, and not here. He tried to pretend it was nothing, but his sixth sense, the one that kept him alive so far, told him trouble was coming, that’s if it hadn’t already arrived with O’Hara.
The boy still sat next to Val, finishing off some cherry pie La Señora had given him. O’Hara walked up to Val’s table, now accompanied, not just with the two dignified Mexicans he entered with, but also by the Padre and the old man. The owner of the cantina reappeared from the kitchen with a bottle of tequila and many glasses.
“Mind if we join you, boyo?” O’Hara’s brogue was thick even when he spoke quietly.
Val shrugged a shoulder, and with his left hand gripped the boy’s chair by the seat and pulled it closer. “Draw up a pew.”
Chairs were grasped and the men sat. The boy looked up at Val questioningly. “Eat,” Val gestured to the boy’s food.
“Señor, the niño... maybe he should leave.” The Padre looked clearly uncomfortable with the boy there.
“Maybe.” Val wanted to get on with whatever was on their minds. “But he’s eating what seems to be his only meal for days. Get it said.”
The group looked ill at ease. They were all looking at each other, all waiting for someone else to start.
O’Hara cleared his throat. “These men you’re looking for, you have followed them a long ways, boyo?”
“May we ask, Señor, are you a lawman?” The Padre sounded cautious and probably with good reason. In some places asking a man his name or business got you very dead real quick. Sometimes.
Val wasn’t sure where this was going. He was usually closemouthed about such things. This time however, he sensed that if he opened up just a little, he might get some answers. He was sure there was some to be had here today. He felt it. He could almost smell it, taste it.
“Some places.” Val let it sink in. “Not here, not today.” And maybe never again, after it was over. Well, maybe he wouldn’t have to worry about that. He looked into his glass as he swilled the dregs.
“You are here to take them back to justice? Si?” The Padre tried again, sounding hopeful.
“Maybe the justice bit,” Val drawled. “Wasn’t planning on takin’ ‘em back.”
The Padre cleared his throat. “I am Padre Francisco.” He paused looking at Val. “Señor O’Hara you know.” The introductions went on: Garcia, Torres, Rodriguez, and the cantina’s owner, Gomez.
Val nodded. “Val Crawford.”
“These men you seek don’t come from here”
Val knew that already. John Durand, who rode the pinto was from Arkansas? His mother was part Chickasaw Indian, part French. Val had checked their background. That’s what kept him alive, made him good at his job. – And that’s what this was—just another job. Until it was over, that was. The other two, Bart and Slim, the Harris Brothers, were from a North Texas dirt farm.
“They are not from here.” Señor Garcia thumped the table with his fist.
Señor Torres swore under his breath and his face took on a purple colour.
Señor Rodriguez, the frail elderly man, spluttered out a stream of Spanish as he clenched his fists and waved them in the air. Val could only pick up a few words here and there, like pigs and murdering dogs, but as the old man became stricken, slowing in his anguish, Val was able translate more. He could understand why the old man thought the bastards had no right to live among decent folk.
Val thought they shouldn’t live at all.
O’Hara suddenly leaned forward and stared into Val’s eyes. His voice took on an edge “You’re sure you’re a lawman boyo? You wouldn’t be friends with these bastards now would you?”
Val took a deep breath. “They committed some crimes in Texas and I aim to track them down. That’s all I’ll say.”
“They committed some crimes here too, Crawford, so they did.”
O’Hara went on to tell Val how these men had stayed in the village for over a week. They stole from the dry goods store Torres owned and destroyed anything they didn’t want or need. They drank their fill in the cantina without paying a cent. Then raped Garcia’s daughter who was with child at the time. She had since lost the unborn baby and hasn’t been the same since. Señor Rodriguez’s granddaughter was fourteen. They took her from her home one evening and no-one had seen her since. His son tried to stop them, and they killed him.
O’Hara dropped his head murmuring. “So much grief, so much pain.”
Val had been studying the glass in his hand. The cold fury he’d pushed down for many months was now attempting to rise. He didn’t need the burden of other men’s need for revenge, or other men’s grief on his shoulders. He had more than enough of both to last two life times.
O’Hara stopped talking, but Val needed a few moments before raising his head.
“They tried to beat him.” O’Hara added, indicating the boy at Val’s left. “They were going to kill him for just having blue eyes, so they were. But the boy, he was too quick and got away.”
Yes, Val knew what that was all about; the boy was a half-breed, less than a dog in some people’s eyes, only good to be kicked, if not worse. Again he thought of how it would always be for this boy – as long as he lived and breathed. It was then Val noticed a weight on his arm. The child had fallen asleep in his chair and was leaning, with all his weight – which wasn’t much – against Val. All he could see was the top of the boy’s head. Overly long, his unruly hair flopped down across his eyes. Eyes of a deep brilliant blue now shut in sleep. It would be those eyes, in this lawless and deadly land, which would contribute to the death of this child.
“I won’t hunt these men down for you.” Val raised his eyes to look at every man, one by one. “But I will stop them.” His gaze finally stopped on O’Hara. “They will pay.”
Señora Gomez came to the table, interrupting them. “Your bath, Señor, it is ready.”
Padre Francisco coughed. “We must leave Señor Crawford to his bath and his meal.”
The men rose and bid Val a good evening.
Hell, it had been months since he had a good evening or a good night. Months. He didn’t see he’d ever have one again. Nightmares came calling every night. With them, the guilt came gnawing at his gut. The guilt at not having been there.
Val sat there for a short moment, with the boy asleep on his arm. He contemplated his drink and sighed, he needed to dig deep to find the strength to move. More than once of late he had admitted to himself that motivation came hard these days, mostly being conjured up out of anger and the need for revenge.
“What are you doing in here you little bastard?” A woman’s voice spat the words out in plain unadulterated fury.
Val looked up to see a beautiful woman descending the stairs, anger and hatred marring her stunning features.
The boy awoke in an instant and stumbled to his feet, looking around wildly with a raw all-consuming fear.
Val could feel his own heart beating faster as it pounded hard against his chest. He, too, found himself stumbling to his feet.
She was making her angry way towards their table. She was quite possibly the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. Small, and slightly built, her skin flawless. Long black hair, the colour of a raven’s wing, fell almost to her slim waist. But it was her eyes that drew Val. They were coal black and full of hatred. He had seen hate before, but this was something more. This left him cold. She looked murderous, and she was making directly for the boy.
“I have told you I do not want to see you in here.” She grabbed the child, yanking him towards her. Before Val could stop her, she slapped the boy on the face, spinning him backwards with such force that he bounced off a neighbouring table and crashed into the wall. “I do not want you in my sight.”
Eyes flashing, she started after the child, now curled in a ball on the floor. Tears were streaming down his cheeks, his bottom lip bleeding from the blow. “I do not need the memory of the gringo scum who sired you.”
Val was not easily shocked, but this time it took him a moment to pull himself together. He grabbed the women’s arm and spun her around, but her hand came up, and he felt his face burn as she slapped him across his cheek. “Puerco,” she spat.
Val grabbed both of her arms, trying to prevent her from striking out again. “If I’m a pig, what does that make you?”
“Maria.” The cantina owner rushed over. “No más.”
Maria struggled out of Val’s grip and turned on Gomez as if she was about to bite him. “You will not tell me how to treat mi hijo.”
Gomez looked worried but he stood his ground. “If you wish to carry on working here, I will tell you how to behave in here.”
“He is mi hijo and I will do with him as I wish.” Wrenching herself out of Val’s grip, she turned on the child still cowering on the floor, his body racked with silent sobs. “You are worthless to me; at least una chica could have made me some dinero. You cry like un bebé. You will not grow up un hombre.”
Val stepped in front of the boy. “Look here, lady…”
“He is my niño. This is no business of yours, gringo.” She took a step closer to Val. “You gringo pigs think you can take what you wish then throw us to the wind.”
Her eyes raked Val from head to foot like he’d been dead for six weeks, and then crawled out from under a log. Maybe he smelt like it.
“I make it my business when I see a kid treated like a mongrel dog.”
She unleashed more fury on him, this time in Spanish, but at least she was leaving the boy alone. He was now in a tight ball with his arms over his head and ears, like he was trying to block out the world.
“Maria.” Gomez picked up a bottle of whisky, and held it up to the woman. “Take this and leave us.”
Her eyes, now hungry, lit up. She ran to Gomez and snatched the bottle from his hand. Turning to Val she spat on the floor before flouncing her way up the stairs, slamming a door behind her.
Val let his breath out. God, he was angry enough to spit nails.
Gomez walked across and stood over the child. “Chico, out now.”
The boy didn’t move.
“Ahora.” Gomez poked the child, none too gently with the toe of his boot.
Val grabbed a bunch of the man’s shirt at the neck and looked him in the eye. “You leave the kid be.”
Gomez shrank back.
Val knelt beside the boy and put a hand on his shoulder but the boy flinched as if struck. “Here… son.” He almost stammered over the word. “Let’s get you off this here floor.” Keeping his voice low, not wishing to frighten the child, he moved the boy first into a sitting position then effortlessly lifted him into his arms, stood and turned. The delegation was still by the door. They had watched the whole drama unfold, and hadn’t done a thing.
His eyes met theirs. To a man they all dropped their gaze to the floor before turning and shuffling out.
“Where’s the bath, Señora, el baño?”
Señora Gomez gestured, and then led Val to the rear of the building to a room off the kitchen that doubled as a laundry room, with a wash tub and scrubbing board in the corner. Large pots of water boiling on the black range made the room hot and oppressive.
A wooden tub in the centre of the room served as a bath. He placed the injured child on the chair next to the tub then strode over and locked the doors. He had no desire to be caught in the raw and, most of all, with no gun.
Val still hadn’t fully calmed down when he turned back to the child. God, he’d shot men for less. He was appalled at the way that infernal woman was treating her kid.
Val looked back in the child’s direction and noticed that his arms were still wrapped tightly around his chest, his head still bowed, shoulders trembling.
He sighed. He had left this fatherly thing behind him what seemed like a million years ago. In fact it was only eight months, two weeks and three pain ridden days. It might as well have been another life, someone else’s life. It certainly wasn’t his. Not anymore.
“Chico.” Val stopped in front of the child. “Get undressed. You’re going in the bath.”
The boy was staring at him now with uncertain eyes. “Undress.”
The boy shook his head.
“Get in the bath.”
He shook his head harder this time.
“I’m not going to drown you, niño.”
But he still looked uncertain.
“It won’t bite you.”
The boy touched his split lip and looked right into Val’s eyes. “That's what you said about la cantina.”
The boy’s sarcasm took Val by surprise and made him laugh. A real laugh, right from the belly, something he thought he wouldn’t do again. The boy stared at Val, and then his own mouth twitched a slight smile in return.
“You got me there, niño.”
The boy looked into the bath then cautiously poked a finger in the water.
“Get in the bath, niño. I’m going to see if Señora Gomez has any clean clothes for you.”
The boy was still eyeing the bath with distrust.
“You’d better get in nino,” Val paused for a few seconds. “Or I might be of a mind to drown you if you don’t.”
He left the boy and found Señora Gomez in the kitchen and told her what he needed. She came back with a white shirt and pants which her son had grown out of.
Val offered to pay, but she would have none of it. She then proceeded to give a scathing account of the whore and the way she brought up her children.
“There’s another one?”
“No, la niña died of a fever months ago.”
Relieved, Val returned to the wash room in time to stop the boy from climbing out the window. “Oh no, you don’t.” Val grabbed the squirming child around the middle. “In here and get in the bath.”
The boy gasped as Val’s grip tightened, then became rigid and still. He was clearly hurting. Val put him down gently, and ordered him out of his clothes.
“Do you want me to get Señora Gomez?” he asked, this time in English.
The boy’s eyes widened. Val had an inkling this boy understood English. “Comprender?” The boy nodded and started to strip off. Val turned his back to the boy as he undressed. He used the time to shed his gun belt and lay it on a small table. When he turned again, the boy was lowering himself carefully into the hot water.
Val could only stare wordlessly when he saw the child’s body. The injuries he’d seen on the child weren’t the only ones this boy had ever received. Clearly someone had taken to him with a belt and applied it with vicious force over the years if the scars were anything to go by. And heaven knows who or what had inflicted the other bruises on the boy.
He had seen some things in this harsh land, it was a tough time. Lawlessness was everywhere. But the abuse of someone so young, so innocent! Where was the boy’s father? His mother was no damn good. Maybe it was her? The fresh bruising on the child’s body and a wound to his upper arm could have been her doing. O’Hara had said those scum he trailed also had a turn with this child. Would the kid ever grow older? How the hell had he grown this old? Maybe the boy’d be better off gone. Val stamped that feeling out as soon as it had surfaced.
The child sat still in the water that came up to his shoulders. “Here.” Val gave him a bar of soap. “Wash.”
While the boy started to soap himself, Val walked over to a small window and looked out into the late afternoon. An old man with a burro loaded with sticks walked in from the surrounding wasteland. It never ceased to amaze Val that people could actually eke out an existence in a land like this that was no good to man nor beast.
He heard splashing water over his shoulder and turned to see the boy about to get out. “Nope, not yet you don’t.” Val fished around in the water for the soap then held it out to the boy. “Hair.”
“You understood, you little coyote.”
The boy’s eyes widened.
Val put a hand to his hair. “Cabello.”
The child sighed and started to soap his hair. Val turned to the range and filled a jug with warm water then poured it over the boy’s head. This brought about a string of Spanish cussing that would have made a seasoned vaquero proud.
Val cuffed him lightly around the head. “I should wash your mouth out with soap boy for usin’ language like that.”
The look Val got would have frozen the fires of hell. Val laughed then sobered. He was moving on in the morning and in all likelihood wouldn’t return. The child’s fate wasn’t in his hands. It was probably already written anyway.
Ignoring the boy’s protests, Val inspected his shoulder with a light touch. It looked clean now and was healing. The blood, old and new, was washed off his face. Satisfied, Val said, “Out.” The boy scrambled to his feet. Val almost laughed; no need to translate this time.
Val handed him a well-used towel. The boy dried himself then looked around for his old clothes.
“They’ve been burnt, kid.” Val handed him his second-hand acquisitions. “These are for you.”
The boy raised his eyes and looked searchingly at Val. Carefully taking the clothes, and keeping his eyes down, he made a hasty retreat to the back of the room where he got dressed behind the hanging clothes.
Someone knocked at the door. Val opened it and Señora Gomez bustled in. She quickly emptied the bath with a bucket, tipping the water out the back door onto her tomatoes, chilli and pepper plants. She then made short work refilling it. The boy was dressed now, standing in the corner with his head down.
“Now niño, can you go see to my hoss? I’ll have a bath and a shave and I’ll be over.” The boy scuttled out the back door and was gone, needing no further telling.
Val left his handgun on the chair by the tub and settled down into the water after relocking the doors. He leaned back and relaxed. A rare event these days. Something he could have done in his past, but that time was now long gone.
As the water cooled, Val washed his hair then got out and dried himself.
Dressed in clean clothes from his saddle bags and with shaving gear in hand, Val looked at his reflection in the cracked mirror behind the door. He rubbed the week – or was it ten days – of stubble on his cheeks. And his hair sure needed a cut.
Angie used to say, “You ain’t no clothes hoss, are you Mr Crawford?” She would laugh and toss her corn-coloured hair as she straightened his collar. “Still I reckon iff’n I wanted a clothes hoss’ I could’ve married me a banker or the like.” And every day he would wonder how he’d got that lucky.
A knock on the door brought him out of his dreaming. Señora Gomez was back again, chatting about dinner, bustling around, picking up things and readying to empty yet another bath.
Val went to pick up his dirty clothes only to have them taken from his hands. She would wash them, she said. She would have them dry by the morning, she said. He wasn’t to worry.
He scuttled out much as the boy had done, not sure if it was embarrassment, or the memories that had slipped unbidden into his mind that left him feeling a little shaken.
He found his little waif standing on an upturned bucket, grooming his horse. The gelding was munching contently on some freshly-supplied hay. Fresh water in the bucket showed the boy had not been idle.
“Treat him like this and he won’t wanna leave with me.” Val grinned. The boy looked up from his task and gave him a shy smile. “Señora Gomez says for us to go back. She says we can take dinner in the kitchen.”
The boy was watching Val, his hands now stilled.
Val cleared his throat. “She says your mother won’t be down again tonight.” Well she hadn’t exactly put it like that. She had used words like puta and perra – whore and bitch – and Val hadn’t seen fit to correct her.
“She's working,” the boy said tiredly.
The words were so soft they were like a whisper on a breeze. He looked up straight into Val’s eyes. In the blue depths, Val could see knowledge and understanding. The boy, for all his young years, knew exactly what his mother did for a living. Val nodded. No use denying the truth.
They finished up in silence. Val had never been much a talker, the boy even less so. But somehow things didn’t feel awkward. They walked back to the cantina and went around the back. The kitchen was warm and friendly, bustling with activity. Three young girls, all in their teens, laughed and chatted. The Gomez daughters, most likely. The air was heavy with the aroma of spices and chillies.
One of the girls bade them sit at the table while another put food in front of them. Val and the boy ate in relative silence, enjoying the food, and the conversation around them. Señora Gomez was a good cook. The boy appeared to have good manners, answering when spoken to. He obviously had Señora Gomez wrapped around his little finger.
The meal finished, the boy melted away as Gomez appeared and sat at the table with Val.
Gomez bowed his head. “Not many customers tonight. The grief that death brings weighs heavy on this town.”
Val understood that. And for one of the families, no closure because a body hadn’t been found. It would be a body. Gomez said the townsfolk were sure of that. Val was sure, too.
O’Hara appeared at the back door. “Will yourself be off in the morning then, boyo? I told the boy to be feedin’ that hoss of your’n early, so I did.” He paused. “He could really be doin’ with a day or twos rest.” O’Hara looked thoughtful and added, “You too.”
Val nodded. “Yeah, I know.” He paused, head down. “But I can’t let ‘em get anymore than a jump ahead or I’m like to lose ‘em. And I don’t aim to let that happen. Not when I’m this close.”
This was the closest he’d been since the Texas border – and that had been months past. Trails that had been warm had suddenly gone cold and been lost. He was sure then that they knew someone was trailing them. But since crossing into Sonora, the bastards had slowed down, and become careless. They hadn’t tried to hide their identity either. Val guessed they wouldn’t think the Texas Rangers would come this far into Mexico. They had no jurisdiction here. Maybe they thought they’d lost them. Well, the Rangers had stopped at the Rio Grande, or a little after, but Val had left them and ridden on alone. Here he was no lawman, no Ranger. Not any longer.
Val got up and thanked Señora Gomez, who had come back in after seeing to his clothes. They were now hanging over the stove in the washroom to dry.
“I’ll be leavin’ at first light.” Val turned to her, his hand going in his pocket. “I’ll pay now. I plan to be gone before anyone’s up.”
She said she’d be here, and would see to it that he would leave with a full stomach. He could pay her then.
Val put some money on the table in front of O’Hara for his horse’s keep then stepped to the door.
“That boy’ll be sleeping in the loft above your hoss, so he will.”
Val turned to see O’Hara studying the cup of coffee Señora Gomez had given him.
Val shook his head and left, leaving O’Hara still seated at the table.
In the fading light, Val walked down to the stable, aware that O’Hara now stood at the door watching him. He knew he didn’t have to check on the horse. Deep in his heart he knew he wasn’t; something was drawing him to the boy. He didn’t know what. He didn’t remind him of anyone in particular. No-one at all. And certainly not Tommy. His hair had been light, like his mother’s... the colour of corn.
Reaching the stable he found his horse lying down and sleeping. And was it any wonder? It stirred as he looked in on it. It had hay and water for the night. He guessed the boy had seen to that again.
Glancing to his left, Val spied a ladder leading to the loft. He climbed a few rungs and looked over the edge. The child was curled up in the straw, an Indian blanket pulled over him, eyes shut, breathing even.
“Buenas noches, hijo,” Val whispered. He wasn’t really sure if he was talking to this child or Tommy.
Val lay awake in his bed well before dawn. His mind drifting back and forth to things he had to do, and things that had been. The faces came calling as they did every night. Unbidden. Uncalled for. Unwanted.
He might as well get up. The dreams had renewed his anger and purpose, giving a drive to limbs that would rather not move at all. Some days his body could have just rolled over and died. What was the point? He had nothing left to get up for. But then the dreams with their memories would come calling in the night. Many mornings he saw dawn from the saddle as the nightmares drove him on. There would be time to stop after all this was done. Maybe he’d roll over then.
Fumbling around for a match, he lit the candle on the bedside table. Then he dressed, strapped on his gun belt, grabbed his saddlebags, and made for the door and then the short passageway to the landing.
A lantern was lit in the cantina below. As he descended the stairs, he could hear noises in the kitchen at the back. He made his way there, not knowing whether he should be surprised or not to see Señora Gomez at the stove preparing what looked like a meal for an army. After all, she had told him she’d get up before he did.
“Señor Crawford,” she said in her lilting Mexican voice. “Come. Sit.”
He sat at the family table where he had sat the night before and she placed a platter in front of him loaded with eggs, ham, and freshly baked bread. “You shouldn’t have.” And he meant it. This was too all too much.
“Eat,” was all she said, pouring him hot coffee.
Val wondered how to broach the next subject. He had thought about it hard before sleep had come the night before. After making his way through the feast before him, and having sipped thoughtfully on his coffee for a moment, he cleared his throat.
“Señora, I was wondering...” Dear God, how to continue? “I mean, if I paid, would you see to it that the niño gets at least one meal a day?” He had taken a handful of coins from his pocket and placed them on the table. He had no use for them. They had come from the sale of his small ranch – his home. But a home no longer, just a resting place for his lost dreams. “Por favor?”
The money on the table was more than they took in months. It would partly help with the losses at the hands of the bandidos this week past.
Señora Gomez looked at him and smiled. Nodding, she said he should not fear, she would make sure the niño was fed. “Gracias.” She dabbed at her eyes with a corner of her apron. “Usted es un buen hombre.”
She was wrong, deadly wrong. Good men didn’t plan what he had planned. Embarrassed, he snatched up his hat. “Best see to my hoss.”
“Leave your bags, I will pack your clothes I have drying. I will bring them down to the stable.”
He thanked her again and walked out into the darkness, that inky blackness just before the grey light of dawn starts to filter in. It surrounded him like a blanket. The coolness was refreshing. Val knew it wouldn’t last, as with the dawn, the dry oppressive heat that accompanied the day in these parts would come.
A small lantern cast a pale glow at the end of the short passage in the stable. He could hear his horse munching on something. Looking in, he spied the buckskin’s head in a bucket, finishing a feed of oats.
“Gracias, niño,” he said to the blackness. He knew the boy was there, he could feel it.
At his words, the boy appeared out of the shadows into the dim pool of light.
“Gracias,” Val repeated. The boy shrugged his thin shoulders. “Did you sleep well?” Val cleared his throat. A knot had formed in his throat and it was difficult to get his words around it. This fatherly thing, this caring, came at a price.
The boy nodded and kept his head down, toes digging up the dirt. He had his arms wrapped around his own body again, as if to hug himself. Guess that whore didn’t do much hugging. Not with her son anyway.
The horse had finished its breakfast now. Val slipped the bar and entered, then pulled the heavy saddle off the wall and started to saddle the buckskin. “You got a name, kid?”
But when he glanced around, he was alone; the boy had gone. Out into the greying dawn.
Val turned back to saddling the gelding. His heart sank a little. What drew him to this boy? He’d seen orphans and dirt poor kids all over. That wasn’t it. Hell, he grew up poor as well. His pa had been a no-good drunk and had hardly ever been there. His Ma died when he was fourteen… just plumb worn out. He and Jackson stayed for a while but in the end, both he and his brother had to find work and they drifted apart. He didn’t even know where his older brother was now. Val returned once while looking for some rustlers. Jackson hadn’t been back at all they said. And his pa, well neither had his pa. Didn’t even come back for his ma’s burying. No real loss there. Jackson had been all the pa Val had needed anyway.
Leading the horse out, Val saw streaks of light in the eastern sky. At least he would travel a few miles in the relative cool. He noted his canteen was full. A second canteen had also been added to it, as was a small flour sack of oats. The boy again. Old before his years. Smart. Quick. But would that be enough to save him?
Señora Gomez came up as Val was readying the horse. His saddlebags seemed a little fuller than usual, but he wasn’t sure. He thanked her, secured his saddlebags and mounted to go.
Val cleared his throat. “The niño...”
“I said I would see to it he is fed.” She looked Val in the eye. “As Dios is my witness.” She crossed herself.
Val turned his horse west out of the town, heading further into the Sonora Desert. The last thing he heard was the voice of Senora Gomez calling to him. “I will light a candle for you.”
Val set a steady pace out of town. The buckskin was refreshed somewhat and moved easily along. He would stop at midday. O’Hara had told him about a good place to water his horse. There would be shade, and maybe some pickings for the horse. If he was lucky.
Nogales was to the north of him, three or four days ride. He had never been there, but had heard the stories. One hell hole they said. Full of scum from both sides of the border and all trying to stay one jump ahead of whatever law there was in these parts.
As he turned a slight bend that hid the small grieving community from sight, Val heard the distant call of a coyote in the greying dawn, barking and snapping at something or other in that angry way they have.
And off to Val’s right, on the ridge behind town, the eyes of another coyote, bright blue and unblinking, watched the Gringo ride out.
He sat motionless for hours, staring at the spot where the Gringo had disappeared from sight
In his heart, he knew the Gringo would never return.
But that didn’t stop the hope.
And hope… well… hope was all this coyote had.