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Scott came out of the general store to find his brother exactly as he had left him 20 minutes earlier, leaning against a post, staring up the road in the direction from which the stage would come. He stopped and studied Johnny's body language for a moment. To the casual observer, he may appear relaxed, but Scott had learned to read his brother pretty well and could tell that he was tense, maybe even angry. Even though he had been fine last night, after the stage had deposited them in this "one saloon" town, Johnny had been a little surly and very quiet since morning, drinking cup after cup of strong, black coffee. He adamantly refused to talk about anything that Scott brought up from the paper he had been reading at breakfast, about anything for that matter. Now, it
was afternoon, and his brother's mood had not improved with this prolonged layover. Scott could not get him to go for a beer, play cards or even have a conversation. He crossed the street and stepped between Johnny and his view of the road. "Hey brother, want some licorice?"
"What I want is to go home. The stage is late."
"What's your hurry, Johnny. This is far better than mending fences."
"To be honest," Johnny's voice became very quiet and hesitant. "I saw las mariposas this morning. You know, the Monarch butterflies. Hundreds of them. They were swirling around out back of the hotel. Saw them through the window when I was shavin'."
"Um, well, okay fine. Las mariposas are the spirits of the dead returning."
"You're pulling my leg, right?"
"It's almost Los Dias de los Muertos." Johnny's voice and manner were deadly serious.
"That's Day of the Dead, right? Like Halloween? Teresa told me about it."
"Yea, kinda like Halloween. Not exactly. I just don't wanna be here then."
"Be where then? Roger's Crossing?"
Johnny looked at Scott as he might look at a small child, like maybe he should be speaking more slowly. "No. Not Roger's Crossing. Here . . . in the desert. I just wanna go home. I wanna make an ofrenda, you know, an altar, for the dead. Go to the graveyard and clean up the graves. Eat pan de muertos. Do all those normal things, but I do...not... want... to... be...out... here... in the desert, especially not in this part of the desert."
"I'm glad that I didn't grow up with those particular traditions, brother. I like my normal Halloween
things; what was that one thing-bread of the dead? Very strange. Give me bobbing for apples, throwing flour and carving jack-o-lanterns, not cleaning graves and eating dead bread; that's just creepy."
"Not creepy, Scott, respectful. Anyway, I don't care, just get me home-hey, look-at last." He jumped from the boardwalk to the dirt road. "Here comes the stage--finally."
Johnny threw their bags up to the
driver, and they climbed into the stagecoach and settled quickly. As the
coach got rolling again with its two additional passengers, Scott's thoughts
turned to how he would have to show Johnny how to really celebrate Halloween,
Boston style, once they were home. Scary stories. Costumes-hard to picture
Johnny agreeing to a costume, though. He looked over at his brother who
had taken his customary seat facing backwards, just below the driver. His
brother. Now there was an interesting development in his life, that was
for sure. It hadn't been so long ago when Scott hadn't even known that
Johnny existed. Now, their two lives were so entwined, he couldn't really
remember what life had been like without him. His brother was fun-loving
and full of life. Then, for seemingly no reason, he would turn right
around in the next moment and be angry and sullen. He was an infuriating,
wonderful mystery. Even this always sitting in the same place on the stage coach
obsession of his-Scott had asked him a number of times about why he wanted that
particular seat, but Johnny always refused to say. "Just do," he
would mumble. Once the stage was barely on its way again, Scott watched as
his brother pulled his hat low over his eyes and faded into his own world, just
as he always did on these stagecoach rides.
The other passengers were apparently just as unfriendly as Johnny. Next to Scott was a frail looking, pallid woman, strangely, dressed all in white, although her outfit, soiled no doubt by her
travels, looked mostly tan and gray. She glanced briefly at Scott as he sat beside her, and her eyes had a look of sadness about them. He nodded at her, and she turned her entire body away from him and stared out of the window. And across from him, next to Johnny, sat a tall, extremely thin man with a long face, prominent teeth and a bald head. That the man was not wearing a hat made Scott very curious. Few men appeared bare headed, especially here in the West, and a bare, bald head in the desert was asking for trouble. He was dressed in a suit which may have fit him when he was younger and shorter, but today, his ankles could be seen below the cuffs of his pants, and his wrists shot from the sleeves of his coat. He held a black leather satchel on his lap, which he looked at constantly as he worried the handle of it. Scott wondered how the man could stand to wear a suit coat in this desert heat. He would have asked him, made conversation, but the man would not even acknowledge his presence. Their two traveling companions did not appear to be together, and, obviously, they did not want to talk about it either, just like Johnny. Scott sighed. It was going to be a very long and very quiet trip.
Not only was there no one willing to have a conversation, it was so unearthly hot out here. Back in Boston, he had known, intellectually, that deserts existed, of course, but he had never really understood that it could be this seeringly hot and this dry. Sweat rolled unpleasantly down his back, making his shirt stick to his skin. He lifted the window shade to see if, by some miracle, a breeze was stirring. This landscape could be so beautiful, but, at the same time, it was so unforgiving. With the shade up, the sandy dust nearly choked him, but there was some hot wind blowing in, so he left the shade up for now. Squinting through the dust, he could see that the monkey flowers were still blooming, though it was late in the season-tiny white and purple blooms bending in the wind. On an earlier trip which had taken them through a similar area, Scott had asked Johnny why they were called monkey flowers, after his brother had pointed them out to him, but all he had gotten was a
disinterested shrug. In the distance he could also see some desert willows holding on to the last of their blooms, delicate pink in the stark landscape, and closer to the sides of the road that cut through the desert here, creosote bushes with their yellow blossoms valiantly showing their color.
Scott sighed and closed the shade-the dust was just too much. How far did Johnny say it was to Campo Santo? From there, home was only a day away. He thought to ask him again, but his brother was sleeping, or making a good show of it anyway. He found himself hoping that when they reached the Vallecito Stage Station later this evening that they would have plenty of water so that he could wash off some of the trail dust that was billowing in through the windows now on the opposite side of the coach. Of course, it would be ladies first when the time came for washing up, but this particular lady didn't look like she cared all that much about cleanliness.
Several hours into the ride found Scott dozing, leaning against the leather shade at the window, his
shoulder digging into the side of the coach. He felt the stage lurch abruptly and opened his eyes to find that he and Johnny were the only ones left on board. Johnny had also apparently been awakened by the pitch of the coach and was looking at him. "Nice nap, Boston?"
"I must have been pretty soundly asleep. I didn't even notice the coach stopping."
"What do you mean it didn't? How did the other passengers get off if it didn't stop, jump?"
"What other passengers?"
"What do you mean 'what other passengers'? I'm talking about the ones who were on here when we got on at Roger's Crossing.'
"The stage was empty when we got on, brother. Been just you and me the whole time." The look on Johnny's face was hard to read.
Scott sat for a moment in stunned
silence. What did this mean? No, wait. This is a trick, he
thought. This is like the time he tried to convince me that cattle were either
right or left hoofed. Or with that snipe hunting thing. This sort of
trickery had been bad enough when he was a green dandy, but he had thought
Johnny had more respect for him by now. In fact, he hadn't pulled anything
in months. If he thought about this carefully enough, Scott knew he could
figure out how his brother was trying to fool him, what embarrassment he had
The two men didn't speak again until the stagecoach had pulled to a stop at the Vallecito Stage Station, nearly two hours later. Instead, Scott had spent the time shooting furtive glances at his maddening brother and studying the problem of Johnny's deception. While Johnny, characteristically, had pulled his hat down and slouched back in his seat once again. Scott was
getting angrier by the minute, but he knew that, for his own sake, he needed to make an attempt at
resolution. They would be spending the night here, apparently just the two of them, in this lonely
outpost, literally in the middle of nowhere. He had spent a very long, very quiet day in a hot, dusty
coach. He was hoping for at least some conversation this evening, and, his currently infuriating brother seemed to be his only choice. Once the stage stopped, Scott headed towards the long, low adobe building to ask about water for washing up. Johnny must have had the same idea, and he kept pace with his brother.
Scott was determined to hash this problem out. "You know Johnny," he began after a brief stop in which he had spoken for directions to precious water with the owner of the station, "it's really very childish when you try to trick me. I've been out here long enough now and know you well enough not to fall for your foolishness anymore."
"Just what foolishness are you talkin' about Scott?"
"The passengers on the coach, of course."
"Scott, I'm not foolin' with ya. That stagecoach was as bare as Millicent over at Chevy's whorehouse."
Scott snorted softly at the image Johnny had invoked, but it didn't change his mood. "You were asleep. How would you even know what was going on in that coach?"
"I never sleep on stagecoaches. Never."
"Could have fooled me."
"Did fool ya, I guess. Why don't ya tell me about these other 'passengers'?"
"This is stupid. Where are you going with this? What can the joke possibly be? If you're trying to scare me with ghosts and goblins, it's not going to work."
"Not tryin' to scare anyone, and I'm not jokin' either, just tryin' to figure out where you're goin' with it is all. Maybe I'm the one gettin' joshed."
Scott was frustrated and getting
more and more angry all of the time. Johnny should just grow up. Scott
wasn't about to give him the satisfaction of thinking that he had fallen for his
tricks. He walked with angry strides to the back of the building where he
had been told he would find blessed water for washing. He ignored his
After their heated conversation, Johnny took a detour and headed instead for the hills behind the station. He needed to do some serious thinking, some alone thinking. Just as he lost sight of the station behind a scrub covered hill, he disturbed a cluster of butterflies, and they rose up, swirling around him, touching his hand and arm, and then away. He slammed his eyes shut for a second. Las Mariposas again-a very bad sign. He opened his eyes in time to watch them flutter further into the desert twilight, and he solemnly made a quick, discrete sign of the cross. Johnny knew that this area around Vallecito Station was supposed to be filled with mucho andar muerto, the walking dead; in fact it was actually famous for its ghosts. As a child he had heard many tales of the dead in this part of the desert-some had kept him awake long into the lonely night. Even the old priests at the mission had talked about ghosts dancing at Yaqui Well and would cross themselves vigorously if the topic came up. He remembered one wrinkled abuela, in some nameless town, who had grabbed his arm as he had snatched at a tortilla on her tiny cooking stove. She had shaken him in her claws and had warned him loudly and enthusiastically about Headless Jake, how he wandered the desert, how he was looking for small boys, small boys who were thieves. Then, she shook him even harder, and pulling him so close he could smell the jalapenos on her breath, she had whispered to him, in his ear, what Jake did to those small boys.
Now, as a man, he had avoided this particular area whenever possible. The butterflies, the closeness of Los Dias de los Muertos, Scott's 'passengers'; he wished passionately for one of old Tia Adoncia's powerful charms to wear around his neck. On top of everything else, Scott was obviously going to try to rationalize those non-existent passengers away. Everything had an explanation for him. And, Johnny was beginning to see that if Scott couldn't come up with an explanation, then Johnny, himself, would be the explanation. There was just no way he was going
to be able to talk to him about the fears he had. It was such a stupid thing-Johnny Madrid afraid of
He sat down in the sand and leaned against a boulder. He turned to look out towards the Narrows at the entrance to Grapevine Canyon. He was thinking about the stories he had grown up hearing, the Lady in White, the dancing ghosts, Ol' Doc Chance, Headless Jake, of course. Johnny had lived many years steeped in a culture that took its fantasmas very seriously. He knew for certain that there were all kinds of things that went on which just couldn't be explained, had even seen a stigmata once in Nogales, when he was only seven years old. When they had come upon this man in the middle of a growing crowd, his mama had dropped his hand quickly, had fallen to her knees and had folded her hands in rapt prayer. To see the old man's bloody feet and hands and his mother's fear and confusion had left a strong, lasting impression on the young boy. The real problem was that he didn't think Scott would be believin' such a thing, even if he would see it with his own eyes. His brother would not be easily convinced, ever convinced, maybe. He knew Scott thought of himself as rational, a modern, educated man. He would never admit to anything supernatural-Johnny was sure of it. More than anything, he didn't want Scott laughin' at him,
thinkin' that he was just an uneducated peon-an ignorant mestizo. He just didn't think he could take
that. He was scared. But, he was too embarrassed to admit it. In fact, it was getting really dark now, and he was very alone out here in the desert, with the andar muerto and the damn fluttering butterflies. It was long past time to head back to the Station.
Just as he stood to leave, he noticed a sudden burst of light over his left shoulder. He turned towards it and saw a large ball of fire shooting out over the canyon. Instinctively he crouched a bit and put one hand up to protect his head and the other against the butt of his gun, but he couldn't move from the spot for anything. It was as though his feet had taken root in the sand. He stood and watched, incapable of doing anything else, as the fireball rose at least 100 yards into the air and then exploded into thousands of glittering lights that floated lazily to the desert floor. And then, another one rose from the same spot. Johnny was terrified. He was mesmerized. This one exploded too. No sound, just a shattering into points of light. Even when his eyes were closed, the
streaming lights were imprinted on the inside of his eyelids, like the explosion from a photographer's
Then from the area where the lights had erupted, a bone white horse abruptly appeared, as if from
nowhere, and was galloping towards him. Even though he could see the horse clearly, there seemed to be no sound. The desert around him was as still as church. The horse was coming straight for him; as it got closer he could finally hear a quiet thumping of ghostly hooves on the sand, and still he couldn't find the strength or will to move. Then, just as it looked as though the horse would surely trample him, the galloping stallion veered off, and Johnny could feel a light brush of wind across his face and neck. He stumbled backward, sitting down hard in the sand. He looked up to see where the ghost horse was headed, but it had disappeared just as quickly as it had appeared.
The frightened ex-gunhawk scrambled back to his feet and finally, thankfully, he could move his leaden legs. He took off, back to the Station, stumbling and sliding over the sand hills, as if Ol' Scratch himself was on his tail.
Scott walked out onto the portico and looked in the direction he had seen Johnny take earlier. This area was so desolate, mostly sand and scorpions. Except for Senor Castillo and his wife, there probably weren't any other human beings for 20 miles around, unless they were traveling through on the Butterfield Stage, like Scott and Johnny. The stars though almost made up for it. They were amazing, so many it was awe inspiring. Scott was sure there weren't so many stars at Lancer and even fewer back east. Nights in Boston had rarely found him looking at the sky and contemplating the stars, anyway. He would more likely have been contemplating some debutante's décolletage.
Earlier, several buckets of water had been sacrificed for Scott's cleanliness, and between washing up and the slightly cool breeze that had begun with the setting sun, Scott felt nearly human again. His brother had been gone, out in the desert, for over an hour now, and darkness had fallen completely while he was out there doing God knows what. It was so like Johnny to leave, instead of facing Scott's wrath head on. How many times had Scott witnessed similar behavior when Johnny and Murdoch were at loggerheads with one another? At least Scott knew that without
Barranca, his brother probably wouldn't go far. But, he had missed his supper and was making Scott even angrier with his absence.
From out of the darkness, he heard him before he saw him, the sound of feet pounding-he was panting hard, as though he had run a mile at top speed. He was coming towards the station at a dead run. Scott reached out to his brother, "Johnny, are you okay? What's wrong?" Johnny's normally dark complexion had taken on a pallor which instantly concerned Scott, and he was sweating even though the evening had cooled off a bit.
Johnny stopped short next to Scott and leaned over with his hands on his knees, gasping for breath. It took several moments before he could get enough air to speak. His fear made him momentarily forget his earlier thoughts that Scott would never believe that anything supernatural was going on, that he was about to embarrass himself. "Did you see them?" he gasped. "Did you see the fireballs in the sky?" Scott turned away without a word and headed inside the station.
"Scott wait." It took Johnny three steps to catch up with his brother. When he did, he grabbed his forearm and turned Scott around to face him. The look on Scott's face said everything Johnny didn't want to hear. He was committed now though. Or should be, he thought grimly. He had to try. "Look, I'm not tryin' to fool with ya. I'm sorry about all those times in the past when ya believed my hooey, but this time I'm not joshin' around. I saw explodin' fire in those hills, and a horse, an unearthly horse, damn near trampled me. And, Scott, really, the only passengers on that stage were you and me. I swear to you on my mama's grave."
"Johnny." Scott's voice held a note of warning. Surely, his brother would get tired of this soon.
"Scott, I'm not lyin' to ya."
"Okay, maybe you're not lying." The fact that Johnny was willing to admit to a fear made Scott think that maybe this wasn't some elaborate ploy, that and the fact that he was swearing on his mother's grave. "Maybe you're not trying to make me look like a fool. But, if you're not trying to trick me, then I think you were sleeping the whole time on the stage, and I just really don't believe you saw anything unnatural out there in the desert. There's an explanation." Scott's voice was still tight with anger.
And then, very suddenly, Johnny was just tired of it all. He was tired of being scared, and he was tired of knowing that Scott would not understand this. "Yea, well why don't you use your fancy college education and explain to this poor dumb breed just exactly what is was that I saw."
"Johnny stop. You're being ridiculous." His tone of voice left nothing to the imagination. Johnny's big brother was mad, madder than he had seen him in a good long while, in fact, as mad as Johnny. With that, Scott turned abruptly and went into the station, leaving him all alone-in the dark.
Johnny sighed. He let his hat dangle on his back and ran his hand through his hair. He was so tense, his muscles ached with it. It would seem that his night just couldn't get any worse. He noticed that he was completely alone and followed Scott inside quickly. There was no way he was staying out here by himself in the smothering darkness. Once inside, he saw that Scott had just kept going right down the long hallway to the room where Johnny assumed they would sleep for
the night. If he remembered it correctly from the last time he had been in this area, it was a dormitory style bedroom with bunks. Johnny stood just inside the door to the main room and watched him go. It was the first time he had felt truly alone since he had gotten to know his older brother, and he wrapped his arms around himself looking for some comfort. Moments later, the stationmaster, Senor Castillo, greeted him from the kitchen doorway. "Lo Siento, Senor, but you
have missed the supper. There may be something though. Beans and tortillas."
"No, gracias." Johnny needed to tell someone who might understand. "Senor," he hesitated for a moment, "when I walked out into the hills, I saw las mariposas."
"Ah, a very bad portent, si?"
"Si, very bad. And just now, out there, towards the Narrows, I saw something. . ."
"What was it, Senor-The dancing ghosts? The fire in the sky? The walking skeleton?"
"Fire in the sky," Johnny whispered, "and a white horse that appeared out of nowhere."
"Ahhh. The ghost horse. Very rare for someone to see him. You should be honored."
"Honored? Honestly Senor, I don't know if I've been that scared since I was a nino. And I've had reason to be mighty scared some in the past."
"It is true; the dead walk these hills most nights, Senor Lancer. I have lived here for nearly 5 years
now. None have ever hurt me; however, Rosita and I do always stay inside the Station after dark, you know, just in case. And wandering the hills is never good, never good." Senor Castillo crossed himself unconsciously. "However, there are those who say seeing the ghost horse will bring you luck."
"Ha, bad luck more'n likely. I don't think I want his luck. But I do think I need a drink. Maybe several drinks. Can I get a bottle of tequila, Senor, por favor?"
"Si, si, I will get it for you. Right away."
It was a bit after midnight when
Scott awoke to translucent moonlight streaming in the windows. He
lay there listening to the night sounds that came drifting in along with the light of the moon. He could
see that Johnny wasn't sleeping in any of the other bunks in the room. Pulling on his pants, he then lit the oil lamp next to his bed and wandered out carrying the lamp to see what the problem was now. This trip seemed to be filled to the top with problems. He spoke softly to himself, "keeps things interesting, I guess." The station had cooled off nicely in the night, and Scott relished the relief from the hot, dusty days they had endured on this trip. All was quiet-he was sure that the Castillo's had retired for the night much, much earlier.
As he walked barefoot across the smooth, clay tile floor and into the main room of the station, he could hear a soft voice singing in slurred, hushed Spanish-La Señora Justa de las Llanuras. Ella robó mi corazón. Estaré de vuelta este camino un día para la señora justa de las llanuras-the room was dark, but Scott followed the quiet voice and found his brother slouched in the only armchair in the room, in front of the infrequently used fireplace. It seemed that Johnny's head was just too heavy for him to hold up properly, and it lolled forward, chin on his chest, his hair flopping over his forehead and into his eyes. His voice was fairly clear as he sang, but he seemed to have difficulty forming the words, as though his tongue was a bit too big for his mouth. Scott watched him without speaking for a moment. He could easily tell that Johnny had been drinking, was actually, surprisingly, quite drunk.
After a while, his normally very aware brother finally noticed that Scott was standing there staring at him. He looked up through his fringe of dark hair, smiled broadly and waved his hand haphazardly. "Hey, broth'r. How's it goin'? Ya wanna drink?" He shook the more than half empty bottle of tequila in Scott's direction. "S'good. Real good for helpin' ya forget what's ailin' ya." Then quieter, "Real good. I don't hardly even care 'bout that damn horse now."
"S'right. I am." Johnny nodded solemnly.
"Come to bed, Johnny. The stage leaves early tomorrow."
"What do you mean 'nope'? Come on, let's get you to bed. We're leaving right after breakfast."
"Nope. Somethin' wrong with th' coach. Can't rmembr. Somethin' though. Said we're gonna be here 'while. Gotta stay 'wake, keep watch. Sorry, Scott, can't rmembr."
Johnny suddenly broke into song again and Scott shushed him. "Johnny. Shhhh. You'll wake the
Castillo's. Johnny, please be quiet."
"'K. I c'n be real quiet," Johnny replied in the loudest whisper Scott had ever heard.
"Oh yeh, you're in real good shape for keeping watch. Watching yourself fall down maybe. Come on brother, let's get you to bed." Holding the lamp in one hand, Scott used the other to pull an uncooperative Johnny to his feet, the bottle dropping from fingers made clumsy and thick. It hit a woven rug and rolled to a stop next to the fireplace, the sound of it loud in the quiet station. And Johnny turned to stare at it uncomprehendingly. Then, they started, haltingly, in spite of Johnny's protests, down the long hallway. Damn. Another day in this desolate spot.
"Nope." Johnny said suddenly into the quiet, pulling slightly away from Scott's supportive arm.
"Now what do you mean by 'nope'? You already told me about the stagecoach, remember?"
"Can't go ta bed. Gotta watch out, watch out for th' ghost horse. Senor 'stillo says he's g' luck, but
he's the devil's stallion, I know it. Wonder why I nev'r heard of 'm b'fore. He damn near ran me d'n.
And 's fire, Scott, in th' sky."
"Your ghost horse won't come into the station, Johnny. I promise. And we can't even see the sky from here, so no chance of seeing any fire."
"Know what, Scott? When I was a nino, I saw a man who had a stig...um, stigma...um, bleedin' han's 'n feet, ya know? Didja ev'r hear a that, Scott? Do ya b'lieve 't?"
"Uh huh. Okay. Sure. Whatever you say, Johnny." As Scott agreed with whatever his brother was mumbling, he finished maneuvering him as quietly as possible down the long hallway, into the room and sat him on the side of one of the beds. With some difficulty, he began pulling Johnny's dusty boots off for him. Even before he could get both of them off, Johnny had laid down on his side and was breathing slowly and evenly in sleep. He's going to be very, very sorry tomorrow morning. It was so unlike his brother to drink to the point of losing touch with what was going on around him. He finished with his brother's boots and swung his legs up onto the bunk.
"Brother, you are acting so strangely. I can't imagine what's gotten into you on this trip." He was
beginning to have serious doubts that joking had anything to do with whatever was going on. As he
completely, finally accepted that Johnny wasn't pulling his leg, and that he would have to start searching for other explanations, Scott got up to get himself a drink of water and glanced out of the small window by the chest as he did so. In the silvery glow of the moon, out near the corral, he saw something that made him frown with confusion; it was a small, pale woman dressed all in white. "What the hell?" Just looking at her made him feel suddenly unnaturally cold and very alone. She was pacing restlessly back and forth and looking down the road, staring into the distance. He thought to call out to her, to see what she was doing out there all alone, when she turned and looked into his eyes from across the distance. He sucked in a startled breath and grabbed for the chest next to him when he felt his knees get weak. It was the sad woman from the stage, the one Johnny insisted didn't exist-He figured now he had proof that Johnny had been sleeping on that ride. He had found one of the disappearing passengers. He was about to call out the window to her, find out what she was doing out there and how the hell she had gotten here to Vallecito in the first place, when he realized that he could see the rail fence right through her.
He had the presence of mind to reach down and shake his brother. "Johnny, wake up. Johnny, I want you to see this." But Johnny was dead to the world, completely and thoroughly passed out, and wouldn't be waking up for any reason for a good long while. Scott turned slowly back to the window, suddenly very nervous about what he might find, and the woman was gone.
Johnny had been awake for at least ten minutes, but he refused to open his eyes until he felt partially human. He must still be just a tiny bit drunk. His head pounded. It would seem that he had a whole mariachi band practicing in there, but it had been worth it. "Johnny. Johnny wake up." It was Scott, of course. It was always Scott. Johnny figured he probably wanted to give him hell about getting drunk last night. The youngest Lancer had a very vague recollection of his brother almost dragging him down the hallway to bed. This hangover and Scott's anger were a small price to pay, however. With that ghost horse bearin' down on him every time he closed his eyes, he never would have gone to sleep; he never would have escaped the fear, without his old friend, tequila, to keep him company. "Johnny?"
"I'm awake. Can't a man suffer in silence?" He slowly sat up and moved to the edge of the bed. He carefully slid his feet onto the floor, arms on his thighs, his head hanging low.
"Feeling poorly, brother?"
"Don't worry about it. I'm fine, just fine."
"I just wanted to let you know that Senor Castillo said that Smitty had to ride back to Roger's Crossing. Something about the running gear being broken on the coach. He was surprised we made it as far as we did."
Johnny groaned audibly. "Sangre de Christo." He suddenly remembered having that very conversation with the driver last night, before he had crawled inside of his tequila bottle. "I remember talking to him about it. This means we'll be here at least another day or more." And another night, he added silently.
"I know. So, maybe you and I could talk about some things."
"You know, there's really nothin' for us to talk about, Scott. I saw what I saw in the desert. You
saw what you saw on the coach. You don't believe me. End of story." Talking made the mariachi band play even more enthusiastically. And it was making him extremely short-tempered.
"Why don't you tell me about what you saw again, and then I'll tell---"
"No, I don't think so. I'm tired of you doubtin' me, thinkin' I'm lyin' to ya. You won't listen, so why
should I talk?" Scott tried to begin again, but Johnny avoided eye contact and ignored him completely. Instead of listening to his brother, he crossed the room and picked up the pitcher from the chest. He had a powerful thirst. His mouth was so dry, it put the desert out there to shame. As he stumbled around slipping on his boots and tucking in his shirt, the empty water pitcher had him complaining quietly, about big brothers who not only won't believe a word you say, but then they wake you up when you're so hung over that you just want to roll up into a ball and die, and on top of everything else, that same brother drinks all of the water.
At the mention of water, Scott immediately envisioned his visitor in the corral from the night before,
something he had been trying since then to figure out. Scott knew that Johnny had slept much better than he had last night, even if it had been alcohol induced. Instead of sleeping, Scott had twisted and turned and wrestled his pillow and then gotten out of bed and paced to the window and back to the bunk several times throughout the night, admittedly drinking all of the water from the pitcher as the night progressed. He hadn't slept, and he had the bags under his eyes to prove it. He hadn't seen the woman again either, but then, he hadn't really expected to. Although hesitant, he decided the only way his brother was going to let him get a word in was to just jump into this with guns blazing. "Johnny, I saw something last night after you passed out; it was out by the corral. I saw something, well, something impossible. Something I can't explain. I. . . ." He really was at a loss to explain, or even talk about, what he had seen the night before.
Johnny's mariachi band, in addition to everything else that had been going on around here, had pushed him straight into the bad mood from hell. "Very funny big brother. Let's make fun of the ignorant mestizo." Scowling, Johnny turned abruptly and left the room without looking back.
"Johnny!" Scott felt like he had just been slapped. This whole situation was getting more and more
annoying and strange. "Great, just great, first I think he's trying to make a fool of me, and now he
thinks I'm trying to make a fool of him." He followed his brother towards the kitchen. "Johnny wait.
Quietly, "Let it lie, Scott." And Johnny grabbed a biscuit and was out the door, headed straight for the well, before Scott could even wrap his tongue around another word.
Johnny charged across the freshly swept dirt yard towards the well, the very reason why this isolated place had become a stage stop in the first place. He could see Senor Castillo's wife busily sweeping more of the yard across the way in the area next to the corral, and he slowed his step to raise his hand in greeting to her. Finally, he drank his fill at the well-sweet, sweet water. He thought about the last few days and a small groan slipped out. This whole trip was turning out to be one of the worst of his life. Damn, it wasn't bad enough that he had self-medicated to the point of misery last night, but he was also so tired of being uncharacteristically afraid, shakin' in his boots over something he couldn't charm, stare or shoot into submission, and now he had Scott vexin' him about it.
He ran a hand through his sleep tousled hair and came to a very tough, very scary decision. Come night, he was gonna have to face this fear. He was a grown man. It was the only way. He knew, he just knew that the phantoms were real, at least he thought they were real, and he also felt that he needed to face them. Somehow he would face this fear so he could conquer it. In spite of a tiny voice warning him that he must be loco, that maybe he really was still a bit drunk, neither Johnny Madrid, nor John Lancer was willing to continue to admit that he was running scared from shadows. Even if they were real, he had to do this. He'd take a blanket and spend the night out in the hills, wrestle this problem head on. It was how he had always faced things. He could do this. He would
do it. No phantom horse or sparkly balls of fire were going to get the best of him. Growing up he had been taught that a man doesn't fear lady death; he flatters her, courts her, dances with her. He challenges her and by challenging her, she loses her power to intimidate.
Scott stood watching his brother through the open kitchen door, trying to decide how to approach him. Johnny's feet were planted shoulder width apart, as though he needed the extra stability. He watched as his brother's slumped shoulders straightened perceptively. He wanted desperately to talk to Johnny about what he had seen last night, to discuss with him what could have caused the strange phenomenon, because there had to be a logical explanation. And once they figured out his apparition, then they could work on the problem of Johnny's ghost horse and fire balls. They should be working this problem out together, just as they did most things these days, together. He squared his own shoulders and walked out into the yard, determined that he would convince his brother that he was not trying to make a fool of him.
"Johnny. Please. I'm not teasing you. And I definitely don't think you are ignorant. You know I
don't think that."
Johnny turned from the well with a dipper in his hand. "I can't talk about this with you, Scott. I know, I mean I really know for sure, that there are things in this world that we don't understand and can't put a name to. But you don't believe that. I know you; you think that everything can be explained. But, Scott, that's not always true. Some things can only be accepted."
Scott decided that the only way he was going to say what was on his mind was to just say it. And it all came out in a rush. "Last night, I saw the woman from the stage pacing out by the corral. I could see the fence rails right through her body."
"The Lady in White," Johnny whispered, dropping his eyes to stare at the ground.
"What? Who is she?
Do you know her?"
"I know of her. Have heard about her for years." He turned back to the bucket and scooped up another dipper full of water. Without warning, a spiral of dozens of butterflies moved upward, away from the opposite side of the well, a lazy brown and black butterfly dance. Johnny watched their progress; he dropped the dipper into the bucket with a splash and used both hands to massage his aching temples for a moment. Then he turned and started to wander away, farther away from the station.
Scott followed him immediately. "No, you don't get to stop talking; you don't get to leave," he called after his brother's retreating back. "You don't get to run away this time. You have to tell me what you know. Johnny. . . "
Scott caught up to Johnny in the well-kept barn. Dust and bits of hay from the stacked bales clouded the air, floating in the relentless sunshine streaming through the large open doorway. The day was awash with the promise of the even more stifling heat sure to come in the afternoon. It made sense that Johnny would head for the barn; horses, even horses he wasn't friends with yet, always soothed his brother. They seemed to represent security to him somehow. "Johnny, go on. The Lady in White, what do you know?"
Johnny turned slowly to face his brother. "The Lady in White is....no, you know, I don't think so; you're gonna give me that 'look' again if I tell you this."
"What look. I do not have a 'look'" And when Johnny turned away from him, he touched his arm to get his full attention before he spoke: "No 'look,' I promise."
His brother turned back to face him again. "Fine. Okay. Well, the story goes" he began hesitantly,
"that The Lady in White came here to this very station on the stage in 1852."
"She didn't look that old."
"Okay, sorry. Go on. Really, I want to hear this."
Johnny leaned against the stall behind him and started again. "She came here on the stage in 1852, and she never left. She took sick on her trip, and she up and died right here, most likely in that very room we were sleepin' in last night. They say she's buried 'round here close somewhere. She was on her way to Sacramento to meet her fiancé." Johnny looked up to see how Scott was reacting to the story so far and found him looking off into the distance; he appeared to be carefully studying the hayloft ladder. Since Scott was not looking at him, it seemed safe to continue. "This fiancé had struck it rich in the gold fields out that way and sent for her back in Missouri. The people who ran the station at the time looked through her things after she died, to find an outfit, you know, and they found a weddin' dress, so they buried her in that. They say some nights she paces the grounds all restless like, waitin' for a stage that never comes. You're not the first to see her brother; won't be the last, I imagine. Okay, there it is. . . .See, I knew you wouldn't be able to help yourself."
"The 'look.' You gave me the 'look.' Why is it so hard for you to admit that there might be things out there that you can't explain away?"
"I am not giving you a 'look'. And seeing his brother's skeptical face, "I'm not. So, what do these
people who see her say about her? Do they say she hurts people?"
"There was definitely a 'look.'"
"Johnny, just go on."
"Okay. Let's see. What? Oh yea. . . no, she's just a restless spirit. She can't find her way home. She won't hurt ya. Not like..."
"Not like what?"
"Not like some of the others."
The hint of desperation that Scott heard in his brother's voice brought everything home to him in that
instant. He didn't think he had ever heard it before-maybe that was why he hadn't recognized it
sooner-Johnny was truly, deeply afraid. "The ghost horse?"
"Honestly, I don't know. Never heard of him before. Never heard of those fireball things either. There's others though. Headless Jake-he's supposed t' be a seven foot tall skeleton, that's seven foot tall without his head. He has a lantern burnin' inside of him that you can see shinin' out through his ribs. He wanders these hills and even farther away, down towards the border towns; he's lookin' for his head. They say he'll take yours instead if he catches ya." Johnny shuddered visibly. Headless Jake brought back unwanted visions of his childhood, particularly that old crone who wouldn't share her tortillas with a starving boy, the horrors she had whispered to him that day.
"Well, and then, there was supposed to be a murder here too. In this station. A double murder,
actually, with a suicide thrown in. A cheatin' husband, his wife and girlfriend all on the same stage. The old man was a real bastard. Figured he could get away with travelin' with the both of 'em, and his wife would never be the wiser. She wasn't too happy with him when she caught the two of 'em together out in the hills. Shot 'em both dead and then put the gun in her own mouth. They say she don't have much love these days for other men either. Especially cheatin' ones. Heard tell she strangles 'em if she catches 'em out yonder where she wanders in the hills. They call her Mad Maudie."
"Well, I think we're safe from her, not being straying husbands."
Johnny looked up to see if Scott was making fun of him, but he couldn't read his expression. He actually seemed to be serious, so Johnny decided to forge ahead. "Well that's true, but then there's the Doc. Doc Chance. He was a murderer too. He killed people with the skills of a surgeon. Sliced 'em up good. Everyone figured he had to be a doctor; he was so good, so precise with a knife n'all. People see him, sometimes, not always, on a phantom stage, tryin' to get away from the law. They say if you get too close, he'll pull a dagger and gut you like a rabbit. They caught him and hanged him, near Roger's Crossing, but he can't seem to stay away. They say he's tall and skinny as a fence post. He has buck teeth and a bald head, and he carries a doctor's bag with him." Scott swallowed loudly, and Johnny eyed him curiously, "Something wrong, brother?"
"No, nothing." It couldn't possibly be. It was a coincidence. Scott needed to ground himself fast; he was falling under Johnny's spell, catching his fear. "These are ghost stories, Johnny. They're meant to scare small children, nothing more. We have lots of stories like this back in Boston. Everybody dusts them off for Halloween. They don't mean anything."
"Small children, huh? Well why don't you explain it to me then, big brother? What did you see out here last night? The Lady in White with the fence rails showin' through her-what was that then?"
"Okay, well, I thought about this all night. So, um, here goes." He glanced at Johnny and then started in a rush. "My best guess is that it was the moonlight shining off of the quartz in the sand, lots of sand around, you know, and then there's also, maybe, something to do with the adobe walls of the barn and how they hold the heat of the day, sort of like a reflection of some kind or something. And somehow those things worked together to produce some kind of an image. Or maybe, it was Senora Castillo out for a walk, and my eyes, they could have been over-tired. Maybe I wasn't seeing right; it was very late, you know. Well, and then there's you, of course, planting ideas in my mind, suggesting the supernatural, making me think about such things, which I never would have done on my own." Scott had started out pretty confidently, but listening to himself as he spoke, it all really sounded kind of weak and had gotten weaker as he progressed.
"So, you saw this perfectly clear vision of a woman in a white dress with rails showing through her, and it was more 'n likely the moonlight on the sand and the childish ramblin's of your little brother that caused it. Is that about right?"
"Well, yes, actually." Scott's voice was very quiet, and he couldn't meet Johnny's eyes.
"And the passengers you saw that were never in the coach, in broad daylight, what caused that, Scott?"
"I, I don't know. I need to talk to Smitty, ask him if there were other passengers. I think I must have
dreamed them, maybe, or there were passengers, and you slept through them being there, and we both slept through them getting off at some point."
Johnny could see that he was going to be defeated no matter what and decided he was done with this conversation. As he turned to walk back to the station, he called back to his brother, "I never
sleep on stagecoaches, Scott. Never."
Later that evening, after a very
non-verbal supper, Johnny disappeared into the rolling desert hills
almost before his brother even knew what was happening. Scott had wandered outside after washing the heat of the day from himself in the privacy of the Castillo's bath house. He walked out of the main door just in time to see the back of his brother as he rode off on one of the station's little horses. He called after him but was either unheard or flatly ignored.
Scott shook his head sadly. The two brothers had avoided one another for the biggest part of the day. Johnny had spent the time nursing his hangover, sitting tipped back in a wooden chair, at the far end of the portico, whittling. Scott had noticed Senora Rosita bringing Johnny a cool glass of goat's milk at one point, but, for the most part, each time Scott had checked, he was still just staring off towards the looming walls of Grapevine Canyon, ever increasing piles of tiny wooden curls littering the ground at his feet. Scott, on the other hand, had spent the day inside the cool adobe walls of the station, playing solitaire and reading the book he had brought along on the trip, well, pretending to read the book.
In reality, he was pondering his ghostly visitor from the night before. It has been so real at the time.
How could it have been real? He also spent some time regretting his earlier conversation with his brother. Still, he was not willing to breach the gap between them. It would mean giving up too much of himself. He kept expecting Smitty to come riding up at any minute with the needed part for the stage, but there was no sign of him all day. He wanted to ask the driver if there had, indeed, been any other passengers on the stage that day. He was still holding out hope. Of course, he wasn't quite sure what he would do if Smitty answered negatively.
The two of them had spent the entire afternoon not talking it out, like petulant children. Scott had to
admit that he had been no better than Johnny. Both had been equally stubborn, and neither had done anything to rectify the situation. Where on earth could he be going? And didn't he as much as admit that he was afraid to be out in those hills after dark? Isn't he nervous about meeting up with his ghost stallion again? Scott was worried about his brother, and he was exasperated by the whole situation. He was so looking forward to getting back to Lancer-not just because it was generally cooler there than in this desert, not just because there were no ghost stories surrounding the Lancer ranch, but also because he would have lots of people to talk to. It was no wonder he was seeing things, and, as his grandfather would say, letting his imagination run away with him. He was beginning to think that people saw things, and told stories about the things they saw, because it was so isolated out here, so lonely. Right now he would willingly hand over his favorite pair of dress boots and a bag of penny candy for a conversation with...with anyone who wasn't here right now...with Jelly, yeah, that would be great, particularly if that conversation didn't include ghosts, phantom horses, balls of fire or butterflies. He wandered back inside to see if he could help Senora
Castillo with the dishes and to ask her. . . to ask her if she had, by chance, taken a walk in the
moonlight last evening.
# # #
As he rode out into the desert,
Johnny had to whisper encouragement to himself constantly to convince himself
that it really was a good idea, instead of a damn fool one, to keep moving
forward when he wanted desperately to turn back. The closer it got towards
full dark, the less sense this fascinating little side trip to the heart of the
land of the walking dead was making to him. He kept reminding himself that
he was trying to exorcise some of his demons. He knew without a doubt that
he was bone tired of running scared from the phantoms of his childhood and that
he was incredibly embarrassed to have admitted them to Scott. Doggedly
determined to stand up to whatever was out there, he touched the small crucifix
around his neck and vowed that somehow he would find the
strength. No ghost was gonna get the best of John Lancer ever again.
He had a bedroll with him, kindly but very reluctantly provided by Senor, and, while he still had a dying bit of daylight, he scouted the area looking for a likely spot to build a small fire and lay out his roll. His little horse wasn't flashy, but she was steady and sure footed in the sand. The air was cooling as the day grew short; he could feel the breeze starting to pick up, and it dried the sweat on the back of his neck. To the west, the setting sun was fashioning a glorious purple and gold backdrop for his adventure, and he found himself momentarily stunned by the beauty of it. But then, with a suddenness that took his breath, his appreciation of the sunset was shattered. He had unknowingly disturbed a large number of las mariposas as he came over a small rise, and they rose, a dark wavering cloud, into the evening sky. "Damn," he swore softly. "Madre de Dios." He ran a shaky hand across his face. "Buck up now, Johnny boy. No runnin' away tonight. Gonna catch me a wild, white stallion and ride him all the way to the burnin' fires of hell if I have to."
A bit later, he finally settled on a good spot, low between two small hills. There was a large dead
cactus nearby, which he could use for kindling. At least with a fire he would feel a little bit more
secure. He loosely tied the horse to a rope he had strung between two scraggly desert willows and took its saddle off, laying it on the ground close to where he intended to build his fire. Gathering some of the dry scrub grass growing on the dunes, he piled part of it in front of his new little amigo. After scooping a small trench in the sand, he started the campfire using the rest of the dry grass and used his knife and a swift kick to fell the cactus. He added some sagebrush to get the flame going stronger and then gingerly laid a piece of the cactus on. Finally, he spread his blanket and turned to look towards the Narrows. His ghost horse had come from that direction, and the fireballs had originated there. Fetching his borrowed canteen, he sat down to wait for the show he was sure would arise, no matter how long it might take. In spite of the falling temperatures, Johnny could feel a sheen of sweat on his upper lip, and his jaw ached with being clinched so hard. It promised to be a long and sleepless night.
# # #
Several hours had passed and Johnny had not returned. Scott wanted to be mad, but all he could manage to be now was worried. He wanted to hit something but settled for pacing the bunk room. How could he go out there all alone? Why didn't he ask me to go along? Of course, he knew why Johnny had not asked him to go along. Probably figured I'd call him a scared child again. When it was getting close to what he guessed would be the Castillo's bedtime, he could take it no longer. He finally searched out Senor Castillo and found him extinguishing lamps throughout the station. "Senor, excuse me."
Si, Senor Lancer. There is a problem? I can get you something? Perhaps you are the brother with a taste for tequila this night?"
"No, no tequila. I was just wondering if my brother told you what he was up to. Did he say when he would be back?"
"He said that he wanted to sleep all night out in the desert, Senor. I tried to tell him it was not a good idea, a very not good idea, but he was, um, insisting. It is not safe out there. Headless Jake wanders these hills, the ghost horse, Mad Maudie-"
"Yes, so I've heard. Would it be all right with you if I borrowed one of your other horses for a while?"
"Senor, you are not listening. You should not go out into these hills after the darkness falls. Rosita and I, we never go out at night. This was a bad idea for him, and it is a bad idea for you. You are as stubborn as your brother, no?"
"I am as stubborn as my brother, yes. So, the horse?"
"Si, si. You can, Senor. But you should not." Senor Castillo made the sign of the cross and then threw his hands up in a universal gesture of defeat.
Really, not much time had passed at
all. It couldn't have been too much later than when Johnny had made his
camp and settled down to wait. The cactus fire still burned and crackled
some, although not with nearly the same energy as before. Something had
awakened him, out there beyond the glow of the fire in the desert darkness.
Someone or something was out there; Johnny could feel it. While leaning
back on the saddle and staring off towards the west, he must have slipped into a
dreamless sleep, without even noticing that he was so worn down, from the trip,
from the tequila
hangover, from the worry. But he came awake very quickly, instantly aware of where he was and what he was doing here. He drew his gun and rolled onto his stomach, right arm extended, still as the night around him. It was quiet; but something had changed; something charged the air. Something didn't feel right. And this strange feeling of his deserved a closer look around. He inched his way forward, and at the top of the small hill, he slid down the other side and then took off at an angle, running hunched over, making himself a smaller target, towards The Narrows and Grapevine, the obvious source of his anxiety.
As he got closer, he started looking for a path that would take him up and over, rather than through, the aptly named narrow gap into the canyon. After some searching, the fat, full moon favored him, and he did find a goat trail to follow that wound to the top. His heart was hammering, and, in spite of the cool night air, his shirt was wet with sweat by the time he had labored to the top and slithered underneath a low-hanging rock with a limited view of the canyon floor below; he could see very little with only the moon for light; he would have to get closer.
# # #
It took Scott very little time to
saddle Senor's last horse and head out in the direction he had seen Johnny take
hours earlier. He had been riding for just a while when he crested a hill
and saw a thin line of smoke rising in the distance, visible by the light of the
moon. Urging his horse in that direction, he noticed that wispy clouds
were trying valiantly to blot out that moon, making travel a little more
difficult. Making his way to the drifting smoke, he finally came upon the
small camp and called out, "Hello, the camp." Scott didn't want
Johnny mistaking him for something that needed to be shot. As he got
closer, he could see that Johnny's horse was contentedly munching some dried
grasses that had been piled in front of it. The fire had burned down to
embers, next to it a saddle, and Johnny's blanket lay rumpled but empty next to
that. All seemed perfectly normal and peaceful, so Scott wandered on into
the campsite under the assumption that his brother must have stepped away from
the fire momentarily to take care of some 'personal business.'
# # #
Before he could move to a better vantage point, Johnny heard the sound of several horses galloping off into the distance, moving away from his position, and wondered briefly if the ghost horse had found himself a ghostly harem. Then, as he started to move, he felt a change in the air around him, that strange charge in the air again, and saw a fireball rise very quickly, sparkling and shimmering, into the sky, much like the one from the night before. The differences this time were his proximity and his angle of vision. The fire originated at the mouth of the canyon; Johnny could make out tiny people milling near from where it had arisen, and it rose just above his position on the ledge. It broke apart very near him, and he could hear a noise like a muffled shotgun. He could also see the very non-supernatural sparks falling to the rocks below and the smoke trails they left behind. One cinder landed on the rocks next to him and smoldered. He had never seen anything exactly like this, but he had seen something similar to it, could make some sense of it. This mystery was nothing more than some sort of explosive. The fact that the balls of fire could be explained, that they weren't ghostly, gave Johnny some bit of courage.
# # #
A flash of light caught his
attention in the western sky, and Scott found himself staring at Johnny's 'fire
in the sky'. The ball of light rose high above the desert floor and then
fell apart in arching arrows of sparks. It reminded him of cannon fire for
an unpleasant moment, and he expected the display to be accompanied by an
explosion of sound. But all was quiet. Then, from far away he could
hear the echo of a rolling "pop." The sound wasn't loud, but the
lights in the sky were spectacular, multi-colored and brilliantly bright, and
his horse was shying away at the end of his halter and rolling his eyes in
terror. It was over in moments, but there was a residual trail of smoke floating
in the moonlight where the ball had broken apart. This fireball was
something familiar, and he took a moment to place where he had seen it before.
Yes, he had seen this exact thing before, in Boston, two years ago on
Independence Day, shortly before he had left on his journey for California, and
Scott knew then that this was definitely no supernatural event; there was an
explanation for it, and he wanted to tell Johnny right now, to ease his
brother's mind. At least that one mystery was solved.
# # #
Johnny made his way along the rim of the canyon, and as he progressed, he could see a maze of narrow passages, twisting and turning in all directions between towering rock walls. These passages then finally opened up into a huge, open, green glade that looked to be more than a mile long, that he could see, before the walls of the canyon curved, and several hundred yards wide. It was obvious that there was an abundant source of water feeding this natural fortress, and the Narrows made its entrance easily defensible. He could see a narrow path that mirrored the one he had used to climb to this point winding its way down into the interior. Time to find out what's really going on out here. He soon found that it was impossible to make this trip silently. Slipping and
sliding down the trail, he created tiny landslides of pebbles with every step. He had a fleeting thought that he was making enough noise to wake the dead and then cringed at his choice of words. He hoped that if any of the distant people he had seen earlier heard him that they would think the goat trail was actually being used by a goat. As he reached the bottom of the path, he could hear indistinct voices, and as those voices got closer, he hid amongst the thick growth of bushes at the base of the canyon wall. Under heavy cover, he slowly worked his way farther into the heart of the canyon with branches pulling at his coat as he moved. What he saw, mostly hidden from above by rocky outcroppings, was almost inconceivable. It was so completely opposite of what he had expected to find when he had planned this little trip, he felt he must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. This couldn't be his desert, his canyon. He had quite clearly used his skills of deception to sneak up on a tiny, and completely unghostly, village.
Two women walked right by him, almost close enough to reach out and touch, as he lurked in the bushes, hidden from their sight. One, a pretty redhead, carried a large basket casually on one hip; the other, with the skin tones of a Mexican, a pretty turquoise comb holding back her dark hair, was swinging a bucket nearly full of water. They chatted amiably, with the redhead expansively explaining to the older woman how much Leonard was pleasing her with some new technique in bed. Beyond the women, with his limited view of the area, he could see several adobe buildings, and numerous ladders leading to a honeycomb of caves and a network of bridges high in the canyon wall opposite his hiding place.
When they were just past him, Johnny must have made a sound or moved the bushes or something, although he would swear that he hadn't, and the redhead stopped talking right in the middle of a sentence and turned to look directly at him, somehow honing in on him through the greenery. There was a moment of complete silence as they stared into each other's eyes, and then she let loose with a scream that could wake those walking dead that he had been worrying about over the last few days.
And in the space of a breath, all
around Johnny, all hell broke loose. Both women in front of him were
yelling and dodging away, and he could see water arching up from the wooden
bucket as the woman tossed it aside, shimmering teardrops in the moonlight.
Almost instantly, it seemed, men came running and shouting from the direction of
the adobe buildings, all with guns, all shooting those guns right at him. First,
he asked them politely to stop-"Stop damn it, somebody's gonna get hurt
here, crazy gun-happy-" but they definitely weren't listening.
He ducked his head, but he could hear bullets sliding past him, right next to him, whining by his ear; one pulled at his favorite coat as it tore a hole clean through it near the pocket where it flapped away from his hip. "Hey, my coat," he croaked. And then, one hit the canyon floor in front of his feet, sending large splinters of red rock shooting at him, one shard slicing his cheek and making him flinch and turn slightly away. The blood that dripped from his face convinced him that these people were definitely serious. As soon as the shooting started, Johnny had instinctively pulled his own gun, and he now began firing it as he struggled to untangle himself from the last bit of bushes which had grabbed and held tight to his legs.
Finally, ungracefully free, he lurched to his right, away from the loudly advancing flock of gunmen, barely keeping his feet; again instinct and desperation guided him, and he was headed, unfortunately, toward the women, hoping desperately that the people firing wouldn't shoot towards their own. When he saw the redhead quickly set her basket down on the ground, pull a pistol from a large patch pocket on her skirt and point it at him, he barely had time to register the thought that he had made a damn poor choice of direction. Before he could plunge back towards the boulders and bushes along the wall of the cliff, he felt white hot fire sear across, maybe through, his arm, hard to tell, and his gun fell to the ground from nerveless fingers.
As the sound of bullets bounced off of the rock wall behind him, Johnny was pushed off balance when the redhead's shot raked his arm. He staggered backward, but then, almost immediately, he surged forward again, reaching frantically for his dropped gun with his left hand. Just as he was within inches of snatching it up again, he saw a dark foot in a leather sandal kick it away, and he looked up, his face within inches of hers, to see the tiny Mexican woman. She blazed a hard look directly into his eyes before turning suddenly to scramble after the gun as it skidded across the rocks. The redhead held her pistol on him, steady and clearly unafraid, and the advancing men saw
that she had the drop on him and finally stopped shooting. Her voice sounded loud in the sudden quiet left behind in the aftermath of the echoing gunshots. "You jest hold it right there, stranger. You're shot in the arm 'cause that's exactly where I wanted ya shot. Don't be tryin' nothin' or I'll pick a new spot. Now then, how did you get in here? Who the hell are you, and what're you doin' in Castle Rock?" As she spoke, a bright fireball erupted in the sky behind her.
Johnny staggered a bit, blood dripping from his arm and from the slice across his cheek, and then he managed to hold himself upright, mostly steady. "Ma'am," he nodded. "Name's Johnny, Ma'am. Why don't ya just put that gun down? For some reason I just don't talk as free with a gun pointed at me. Makes me a mite nervous." Johnny wiped at his cheek with his sleeve, smearing blood, sweat and red dirt across his face, and then he clutched at his upper arm with his other hand, attempting to staunch the flow of blood there. He concentrated carefully on staying on his feet as the ground rolled unpleasantly under him. The group of men who had been shooting at him reached his position, and while one, a large, blonde, bear-like brute, comforted the red head, 'Leonard', Johnny thought inanely, the others surrounded him. Two of the men grabbed him by the arms, uncaring that he was hurt or that he was bloodying their hands, and he concentrated on keeping his feet as he was dragged unceremoniously away from the tiny village and further into the canyon.
# # #
Wondering at Johnny's continued
absence in spite of his hail of the camp, Scott stepped up to the campfire to
add another hunk of cactus to the fire. The quiet of the night was
abruptly shattered as he suddenly heard the unmistakable sound of galloping
horses, just out of sight toward Grapevine canyon. And in that same
instant, from the same direction, although further away, he heard a sound that
froze the blood in his veins-not loud, but unmistakable-gunshots, seemingly
dozens of them, the last straw for his cowardly horse, which had dragged its
lead from Scott's hand and was hightailing it for home.
Scott instantly dropped to the ground. He had time to wonder, in an instant, if that particular action had been instinctive, or left over from his time as a soldier. Maybe it had been learned from his time in this wild country around his wild brother. A second 'fireball' erupted into the sky, and he looked over at Johnny's horse, which was pulling at its crude bindings and screaming in fear. With one last
tremendous jerk, it pulled loose and followed its stablemate, running awkwardly, dragging the long
length of rope which had been tied to the willow trees. Again he wondered just where Johnny was; he was getting very scared for his brother and hoped the gunshots had nothing to do with him, but, of course, he didn't believe it for a minute. He scooted forward like a sand crab to the top of the rise. The clouds had swept on by the moon, and Scott hoped the light would be enough to see something, but he reached the top and saw nothing-no horses, no guns, no Johnny-just more sand hills and scrub plants and Grapevine Canyon looming darker even than the surrounding night in the
It wasn't a difficult decision-he could sit and wait, see if Johnny was out in the hills ghost hunting or
head out towards the canyon and the source of the sounds he had heard earlier. But, he knew, beyond a doubt, that if trouble was out there, then Johnny was out there too; if he didn't cause the sounds, he would have heard the sounds and would have, undoubtedly, headed off to find what had caused them. Scott really, really hoped that Johnny wasn't what had caused them. Standing up, he looked around the campsite one more time and then headed off, cautiously, in the direction of the canyon and, hopefully, Johnny.
Without his horse, it did take Scott longer than he would have liked to cross the dunes and reach the
Narrows, but his worry for his brother and the abrupt silence after the dying echoes of the gunshots made the trip seem endless. He figured that the only place out here that could hide horses and men with guns and fireworks had to be Grapevine Canyon and that was his destination.
Finally, after much slipping and sliding over the sandy hills, he reached the narrow gap that was the
entrance to the canyon and headed in; as he moved forward, he found that the walls rose at strange
angles and the opening was more maze than anything else. He was moving cautiously, curious as to who was setting off fireworks out here in the middle of nowhere and why, but, more importantly, he was concerned about Johnny and where he had gotten to. The night was silent and the ever-shifting clouds now again blocked most of the light. The walls of the Narrows were configured in such a way that he was having to make left and right hand turns every few yards. It reminded him of a hedge maze he had enjoyed with a particularly lissome, dark-haired beauty at a garden party during his sophomore year at college. He made another turn as he thought about lovely, lovely Abigail and her many talents, and he found himself stepping out....into the desert right where he had started twenty minutes earlier. What the hell? he thought, as he stepped, once again, up to the opening to try entering the canyon once again.
After many more false starts, over
an hour of them actually, of being dumped back into the desert night, Scott at
last found the true opening to the canyon. He found it just as he was beginning
to think that there was no opening at all, and that the maze just wound from one
end of Grapevine to the other. He kept finding himself dumped out in the
same spot where he had entered, each and every damn time. How is this even
possible? What on earth is happening? While severely frustrated, it
struck him that the canyon was aptly named. The twists and turns were very
those of a grapevine. He had been turned around more times than the handle on Teresa's flour sifter. The situation nearly had him beating his head against the red rock walls. Even memories of the lovely Abigail ceased to be a distraction. As he finally, gratefully, came out into an open area with a sigh, he could suddenly hear the unmistakable sounds of humanity-horses neighing, dogs barking, people talking, even, oddly, what sounded like a blacksmith's hammer striking metal. All of these sounds had been hidden from him before in the twists and turns of the entrance. Some sort of natural acoustic trick, he thought. What the hell is going on here?
He dropped to a crouch, suddenly seeing the wisdom of making every effort not to be discovered until he had a clearer picture of what was going on. He decided that he would be wise to approach this situation with all caution. He found cover to the side of the canyon, behind some tumbled boulders. Just as he disappeared into a crease in the rocks, he saw a pure white stallion being led past him by a young, barefoot boy. Scott could see the horse nudge the boy's shoulder, and the boy, smiling, turned and said something to the horse. Scott heard the boy call his companion hermano blanco. He knew that hermano meant brother, had been called that by Johnny. He was a
magnificent stallion, tall and strong. As he watched them move by his spot in the boulders, Scott saw that the horse had light colored rags, flour sacks, tied around his hooves, muffling much of the sound as he walked through the rocky pass. Johnny's ghost stallion. He watched the horse pass, and as he wondered at the ease with which boy and horse seemed to have navigated the entrance, he mentally placed a tally mark right next to the one that he had placed earlier to mark off the 'fire in the sky'. That made two supernatural things that could be explained away.
Unfortunately, it was the last thought he was to have for a while. He started to turn at the sound of
leather scraping on the rock behind him and felt an explosion of pain as a solid and heavy object connect with the back of his head. He slumped over, unconscious before he even hit the ground.
# # #
"Scott? Scott, are you
okay? Scott....wake up. You're scarin' me." Johnny was sitting
with his back against and hands tied behind a tall pole set strong into the
ground smack in the middle of the grasslands of the open part of the canyon, and
he was shivering in the surprisingly damp and chill air. The temperature and
humidity here made it seem almost as though this canyon existed completely
separate from the rest of the desert. Despite the distraction of the pain
in his arm, hot and throbbing, thoughts about his situation nagged at
Johnny. How could this whole village be here and nobody knows about
it? And why? Why hide a village? Who the hell are these people?
Then, with the awareness that blood still seemed to be seeping very slowly from
his wound and with characteristic dark humor: How much blood can a man lose and
still be asking coherent questions?
It was deeply dark. The moon was covered, for now, by the ever-moving clouds, but he could see that Scott was just across the way, maybe five or six feet away, slumped over and tied to his own pole, still as unconscious as he had been when Johnny had seen them drag him there nearly an hour ago. Earlier, possibly the entire little village, close to 50 people by his estimate, men, women and children, had watched as "Leonard" and another man had stripped Johnny of his hardware, including the knife he always kept hidden in his boot. Finally, they had wrenched Johnny's arms behind him to tie him to this pole. He'd had to grit his teeth hard then, clamp his eyes tightly closed, to keep from crying out.
His right arm was still on fire even now, and the pain was working on him, and, along with the blood loss he supposed, making him light-headed. And there were other, lesser pains now added to that. At first his hands had ached at being tied so tightly, but now they had gotten numb and that was better. But his wrists were rubbed raw from the ropes, from his struggles with the ropes, adding their smattering of blood to what he was already collecting on the ground behind him. It had grown much colder as the night moved on; Johnny shivered in spite of feeling as though he may be warm with fever. His wandering thoughts brought him to another question. For some reason, the question that really bothered Johnny, more than the whys and wherefores of this village, was that he wondered what purpose these two tall poles normally served. He was becoming very nervous that it might be something entirely sinister. He also suspected that he might be just a little bit out of his head to be worrying about poles when he had so many more pressing things to consider, but the desire to know was driving him crazy, scaring him too. His brother, slumped over with his chin on his chest, was also driving him crazy, another scare. Seemed he had spent this entire trip bein' scared one way or another, and he didn't like it one bit. "Scott, come on now. Wake up brother," he called out.
"You ain't got no call to be talkin'. Shet yer mouth, stranger." They had all left Scott and Johnny here, in the dark, tied to these stupid poles, all alone except for this small, dirty man with a small, mean mustache and a very big gun. He had heard someone call the man Harley.
"Howdy, Harley. Name's Johnny," he drawled. "What do ya want with us anyway; we're just passin' through. What is this place? We don't want nothin' from you. Can you see if my brother's all right? What the hell are these poles used for most times, anyway?"
"Ya got no call ta be askin' me so dang many questions. We don't cotton to nosy folks round these
parts. Ya talk way too much, boy."
"Listen friend, I don't know what you think I've---"
And the little man reared back and backhanded Johnny hard across the face. "I said shet the hell up."
The force of the blow, deceptively strong for such a small man, bounced Johnny's head off of the pole behind him; he tasted blood from a split lip and, after the world calmed a bit, gingerly felt around in his mouth with his tongue, hoping the little man hadn't loosened any teeth. As he sat with his world tilting around him, he suddenly noticed one exceptionally large, brown and black butterfly posed on the tip of his boot, and it appeared to be staring right at him. "Gahhhh!" Johnny sucked in a startled breath and shook his foot violently. La mariposa. Dios, this whole business was wearing him down; he was just getting so damned tired of it all. Damned creepy butterflies. And now he was beginning to feel sick on top of everything else. He looked over at Scott again and saw that his brother still wasn't moving, but at least he could see his chest quietly rise and fall. It was too dark for Johnny to see him very well though, to tell how badly he was hurt, and the worry of it had him silently praying. However, at this point, he really didn't want to give the little man reason to hit him again, so he let his eyes slip closed, thinking that he might as well try to rest. There was little else he could do at this point anyway.
As he drifted off, he heard Harley mumble behind him, "H'ain't yer friend, boy. H'ain't yer friend a'tall."
"Johnny? Johnny, are you
okay? Johnny talk to me."
"Scott?" The name slipped out as no more than a whisper of sound while he was still more than half
asleep. But then, with sudden realization, Johnny jerked completely awake and wrenched himself around sharply so that he could look at his brother. The motion cost him dearly, awakening the throbbing pain in his arm and sending tiny pins and needles poking at his hands, but it was so good to see Scott with his eyes open. "Scott," with a little bit more voice this time. Through sleep-bleared eyes, he noticed that he had slept long enough for it to have moved on to daylight. Actually, the sun was trying valiantly, but the high walls of the canyon made it difficult to get more than ambient light until it could work its way higher into the sky. So really, it was hard to tell how late in the morning it actually was. Surely they hadn't slept into the afternoon. There was a small
herd of goats munching contentedly nearby and chickens ran haphazardly around the cool, green pasture. Again he was struck by the strangeness of finding this small oasis in the middle of the desert. He looked for their guard and saw that 'tiny' was about ten feet away, curled around his gun in the grass, sound asleep with his hat laying across his face. Then one more time--"Scott," he whispered. "Don't wake up the little guy; he packs a powerful punch."
"Are you all right, brother? I heard gunshots while I was out in the desert. You're bleeding."
"I'm fine, just fine; I've had worse; it's just a couple of scratches. What about you? You were out
for a long time." Johnny's voice was made slow from the cotton which had somehow collected in his head.
"Yeah, I guess I forgot to duck. A rock, I think, or something hard and heavy anyway. I've got one hell of a headache. What's going on here, anyway? Do you know?" Scott's voice and thinking were just about as fuzzy as Johnny's. By his estimation, they were a sorry pair, a sorry pair of prisoners.
"Wish to hell I knew. Near as I can tell, there's a whole little town here. I saw a tiny cantina, a
blacksmith's shop, a livery, as they dragged me past them." Scott could see, amazingly, a small smile quirk the corners of Johnny's mouth. His brother could sometimes find humor in the strangest places. "And they've got, I guess, homes up in the side of the cliff, with ladders to get to the caves and rope bridges between 'em."
"Wonder why they shot at you....or shot you? They did shoot you, didn't they? What are you not telling me? And I wonder why they knocked me cold?"
"Can't say for sure about you, brother, but as for me, a pretty redheaded gal with a quick temper and one hell of an aim didn't take to me right away."
"Some girl didn't 'take to' you? That does it; this place just isn't normal," Scott kept his tone light as
Johhny had done. "They don't appear to be very friendly with strangers, that's for sure---Johnny,
look out." Scott suddenly hissed at him in a stage whisper.
"Are ya slow, boy? Your mama raised herself a big-mouthed boy. Done turned into a stupid,
big-mouthed man, I reckon. I told ya already ta keep yer trap shet up." The little man had walked up behind Johnny as he was talking to Scott, and now he slammed the butt of his rifle into the side of Johnny's face. Johnny reeled with the blow; he felt his cheekbone crack from the force of it. And as he tried to stay connected to the world, a lone tear leaked from the corner of his eye and trailed down his cheek. Scott called out to his brother, and Harley turned to him with pure, white hot anger in his eyes. "Thet goes fer you too, Blondie."
As he pulled back his arm to take a swing at Scott, there was the sound of someone approaching, and a voice stopped him before he could strike. "Harley, let up there. I'll deal with these two."
Harley pulled his arm back looking slightly embarrassed. "Aw, Mr. Vasquez, I weren't hurtin' 'em
none. This un over here's got a big mouth on 'im is all."
"Go see if Angela needs some help now; I'm sure she'll need someone to gather eggs. Go on. And fetch Consuela for me; tell her I'm ready for her and her medicine box." As Harley began to scurry away, the man turned then to Johnny.
Johnny looked up and up at the tall Mexican. He was immaculately dressed in dove gray pants and a matching bolero jacket with black and silver trim. His boots were polished to a glassy shine, and he wore a large turquoise bracelet and a gold wedding band. His hair was silvering at the temples, but his body and face still fiercely held onto the hardness and strength of youth. He looked as though he might be ready to head off to his fine hacienda any minute now, right after he dealt with this small problem here. He stood very still for a moment, posing really, as though to allow the two men to appreciate the sight of him, and then he turned to Johnny. "Well, well, Johnny Madrid. The
entire village is talking about how we have the famous gunfighter in our midst. I had heard you were dead, something about a revolution and a firing squad."
Johnny's face was swelling and purpling rapidly, and his lip was fat from Harley's first blow, but he spoke around his problems. "I get that a lot. And you, I heard you were wanted for murder, Tiburcio. Have been wanted for murder for the last 20 years."
"Lies, mi amigo, you know that, all lies."
"Guess now I know how you keep slippin' away. Nice set up you've got here Vasquez."
"Si, Madrid. It has worked for me for many years. Nothing will disturb it---nothing." The iron in his
voice was unmistakable.
Scott turned to look more closely at Johnny as he spoke to the man called Vasquez. He was starting to get more worried about his brother by the minute. He didn't sound right. His words were spoken very carefully, too carefully, and he was beginning to slur slightly. Then Johnny addressed the man again. "Vasquez, what have I ever done to you? I've never bothered you; we've never gone against one another. That time in Yuma, I saw you steal those horses; ya know I did, you tipped your hat to me as ya rode away. I could'a told the law, and I didn't. You owe me."
"What you say may be true. But still. My people here. They have certain expectations."
"Your people? Who are they Vasquez? What are they all doing out here? Are they all hiding from the law too?"
"Some of them, si, not all. I found this place a long while ago, wandering wounded in the desert. It was like my own little paradise. A place to hide and to heal. I went back for my family, when I could, my wife, Dulce, my Aunt Rosita and her husband, others too, and they came here with me then, after I ran from the lies. Others here I have asked to come join us, to save themselves from other lies, much like my own story. We have lived here and raised families here for many years. And, yes, some of our number were originally wayward wanderers, much like yourselves. They made up their minds and decided to stay after their trial. The valley is good to us."
"Their trial?" Johnny looked directly into Vasquez's night black eyes, searching for compassion, searching for something that would indicate that the stories which circulated the border towns of this particular outlaw's reluctance to hurt anyone were not unfounded.
Scott had been very quiet during
this entire conversation, thinking long and hard about this odd
set-up they had found themselves in. Because of his musings, he had not connected Vasquez's mention of a trial with their own situation. But now, he spoke up suddenly. He was excited about what he had figured out, and everything came out in a rush. "I understand what's going on here now. Johnny, the ghost stories, these people have manufactured them. Don't you see? What better way to keep other people away? What better way to hide? That's why they used the fireworks. Your fire in the sky was fireworks, Johnny. And I saw your ghost horse too. He's as real as Barranca and Charlie. A pure white stallion, with rags tied to his feet to make him quiet, ghostly."
Johnny turned to Scott and nodded briefly to let him know that he understood, but his concerns, for the first time in a while, were far from ghosts at this point. Right now, his entire focus was on Vasquez.
"Si, you are correct." Vasquez turned slightly towards Scott and nodded as he spoke. "We have
'encouraged' some stories. It is for our own safety. But many of the stories were here before we came; many of the phantoms we fear also. It is the only bad thing about this canyon. And we do not venture into the desert at night unless we have to." At this point, as he spoke, Vasquez turned completely to study Scott. "And just who exactly are you, Senor?"
Before Scott could speak, Johnny deliberately drew the man's attention back to himself. "He's my brother, Vasquez."
"Interesting. Since when did you have family?" He turned very deliberately away from Johnny and back to Scott again. "The two of you, you are, well, you are quite dissimilar aren't you? But, no matter." Again, he turned his attention to Johnny. "What does matter is, what would you do to save your brother's life, Madrid?"
"Just what the hell does that mean?" Scott's feelings of foreboding were getting harder and harder to suppress. What did he mean by that?
"Well, Madrid, answer me. What would you do to save your brother's life?"
In the strongest voice he could manage, Johnny answered Vasquez simply, "anything," and then with even more conviction and a steady glare at the tall Mexican, he spoke again, "anything."
"What are you talking about Vasquez? What do you want with us?" Scott was now struggling against his ropes, the rough hemp scraping raw slashes across his wrists.
"And your brother, Madrid, what would he do to save your life?"
"Not something you'll ever have the opportunity to find out, Vasquez. But, if you hurt him, you will
live to regret it."
"Strong words for someone tied to a pole."
By now Scott was shouting, "What the hell are you talking about?"
Vasquez answered Scott calmly, "it is just that we may have occasion to find out the truth of your brother's words, that's all, Senor." Looking up the path to the town, he saw people headed their way. "Ah, here is Consuela. She is our best nurse. She will see to your wounds." With that, he strode away, without another word, his back ramrod straight.
The small Mexican woman who had kicked Johnny's gun away earlier approached the prisoners, passing Vasquez as he left them. Although her hands were full, she dipped a small awkward curtsey as she passed the man. She carried a black, wooden box under one arm, and a basin of water with the other. With her was a young boy, maybe a teenager, maybe not quite. The boy was
barefoot, but clean and neatly dressed. He had a coil of rope slung over his shoulder, and carried a
shotgun. In fact, he held the gun as though he had been born carrying it. The woman called him Emilio, instructing him to "set the rope down by the pole, Emilio." She set her own burdens down close to where the two men were tied. She then used Johnny's own bone-handled knife to cut the ties that bound him to the pole, and Johnny quirked an eyebrow at her when he saw it. She had the grace to look a little embarrassed. Emilio, meanwhile, kept his gun trained on where it would definitely hurt Johnny the most. As soon as the ropes were loose behind him, Johnny shrugged his lifeless arms into his lap and winced as the blood began to flow sluggishly back into his hands. The pins and needles lanced at him, and he awkwardly rubbed his hands together a bit to hasten the process of awakening his dead limbs, although that meant also awakening more of the pain in his wounded arm.
After helping him to remove his now ruined, favorite jacket, Consuela began cutting his shirt sleeve away from his wound and clucked softly at him. Johnny winced as parts of his shirt, where blood had dried, stuck to the wound. With some compassion, rather than simply ripping the material from the wound, she soaked a rag and laid it on his arm to help loosen those bits of sleeve. "It has cut a deep groove, there, through the muscle; the bullet is still in there, not very deep, I think---look, you can practically see it there, near the surface of your skin." She poked at it without gentleness, and agony speared him. "The bullet traveled right up your forearm and then lodged here in the muscle of your upper arm." She poked again, and watched him jump as though it gave her a perverse pleasure. "It needs to be removed, and the wound needs to be sewn," she told him in a flat, emotionless voice.
Johnny caught her eye and smiled at her, slow and lazy. "Then cut it and sew it, Senora." He used his 'you are so beautiful that I want to give you jewelry and make slow, sweet love to you' smile. He figured it couldn't hurt-might even gentle her hand a bit.
"It will hurt when I cut you and sew you, Senor." She looked up at him through her dark lashes, and the smile seemed to be unbending her just a little.
"Si, I'm thinkin' it will at that." The same smile still tugged at his lips.
Scott was looking on with a worried frown from across the way and addressed his question to Consuela, "how bad is it?"
"He will not die from it," she said curtly and then turned to Emilio. "Run and fetch me a bottle of
"Mama, I have to keep the gun on him. Senor Vasquez said."
"And I'm telling you to fetch the whiskey. Senor Madrid is not going anywhere. He probably can't even stand up judging from the amount of blood that has soaked the ground behind the pole.
"Amount of blood?" Scott twisted further around to try to get a better look at Johnny.
Consuela continued to persuade Emilio, "The other one is already tied to the pole; what can he do? Now go on with you."
"Mama." Emilio's voice had taken on a distinct whine.
"Emilio." It was Johnny, his voice soft. "You know your Bible?" Senora Consuela gave him a wide-eyed look and a frown as he spoke to her son, but did not interrupt him.
"Si, I know it very well, not that it's your business, stranger." The tone of his voice allowed Johnny to know that the boy felt only contempt for him.
"Name's Johnny," and he nodded at the boy, ignoring his attitude.
"Yeah, I heard that already." The boy's sullen attitude came off of him in waves.
"If you know your Bible, then you know that you should honor your mother and do as she says. Don't you?"
With a look of pure malice thrown at Johnny and dragging his feet, Emilio grudgingly started towards the heart of the town, walking backwards, his gun still trained on the two men.
"Prisa, nino. Le zurraré," Consuela called at his retreating form, and with that threat of a whomping
from his mother, Emilio turned and was off and running.
"Hello," Scott called to Consuela. "What did you mean by 'amount of blood?'"
Johnny and Consuela both ignored Scott as they watched Emilio leave. When they looked at one another again, she let him know with her eyes that she was feeling a little bit more friendly toward him now, so he engaged her in conversation. "Gracias, Senora Consuela. Thank you for helping me." Johnny was hoping that her improved attitude would translate into a less painful experience for himself. He felt more comfortable asking her about their situation now too. "Tell me, why does Vasquez care if my arm gets fixed anyway? Sounds like I might not have much use for it after this 'trial' he's got planned."
Consuela dabbed at Johnny's face
with a wet cloth, wiping away the grime and dried blood from the cut on his
cheek and his swollen lip, gently now, but still it made him wince. She
folded a square of cloth and soaked it in the water to lay on his
cheekbone. He tried to pull away, but she cupped her other hand on the
back of his head to hold him still. Johnny looked up and found that they
were in a similar position to the one they had been in the day before, as she
had helped to disarm him, had kicked away his gun and then looked into his eyes
with hatred. Her eyes were definitely softer now. Her voice was soft
to as she spoke to him, "You are afraid that Senor plans to kill you, but I
believe you are wrong Johnny Madrid. Tiburcio Vasquez does not kill for
fun. He has never
taken a life for no reason, no matter what the rurales may say." When she said the word "rurales," the small woman turned to spit on the ground. "We, all of us here, are forbidden by him to take a life."
Johnny snorted softly, "Even Harley?"
"Anyone who would do so would have to leave, to walk the desert. We're a peaceful people---living a peaceful life. There is only the trial. If you survive, you can stay or go. It is up to you."
"Makes me wonder who would have been walkin' the desert if one of those men had been a better shot last night. And just what do you mean by 'if you survive'? Sounds to me like Vasquez better not be applyin' for sainthood anytime soon." She looked at Johnny sharply, and he felt as though he may have lost some of the advantage he had gained with her earlier. Maybe he really did have that big mouth Harley accused him of having. This woman was getting ready to stick a knife in his arm, and he had managed to rile her up.
Scott joined the conversation. "I don't believe that Vasquez would take that chance and let us walk out of here, even if we manage to survive this "trial" you are talking about, even if we gave our word not to tell. Say we do survive this trial of yours, what would it take to make the people here believe that we would not reveal the location of the town?"
"It does not matter what you will or will not do after the trial. If you decide to go, you will go. It is
our way for these 20 years. If you survive it, and if you decide to leave, you will not tell." At that
moment, Emilio ran up carrying a bottle of whiskey and his ever-present shotgun. Consuela took the bottle from her son and held it towards Johnny. "Here, Senor Madrid. This is the only thing I have to help see you through my nursing and my needlework."
With a look on his face that said he vividly remembered how he had felt after his very recent tequila adventure, but with also a strong awareness of what was to come, Johnny took the bottle and drank. He jerked sharply as the whiskey touched his split lip, but he continued drinking. Consuela had finished pulling the pieces of his shirt from the wound and cutting his sleeve off completely at the shoulder by the time he had swallowed as much as he could stomach. She looked at the small amount missing from the bottle and thought that it was not enough to blunt his pain. She took the bottle from him after she was sure he wouldn't drink more, and, without warning, poured a portion of the whiskey directly onto his arm. Johnny winced sharply and tried to tug his arm away from her
grasp. "Madre de Dios. Are you tryin' to save Vasquez the trouble?"
"It is all I have for the infection too, Senor. Hold still." With that she used some of the whiskey on the bone handled knife also and began to probe his arm for the bullet. At the first cut, he couldn't help himself, and he shouted a string of colorful obscenities.
"Johnny?" With the woman between him and his brother, Scott's view of the proceedings was blocked.
"It's all right Scott----I'm okay----Senora Consuela has the touch----of an angel." In spite of the
lightness of the words, Johnny's voice sounded hard and forced, as though he were speaking through clenched teeth.
"Emilio," when she looked up at him, Consuela decided she needed to pull her son's attention away from the bloody work she was doing. She noticed he had a fixed, round-eyed stare. "Get the other one a drink of water," she said, as she turned back to the stubborn lump of metal in the stranger's arm. Under her ministering hands, Johnny tensed and again unconsciously tried to pull away from the pain. "Emilio," sharper this time, "go get the bucket and dipper and give the other one a drink of water." Johnny moaned as she probed the path of the bullet, and blood ran freely down his arm. Emilio stared at his mother's blood covered hands, and from where he sat, Scott could see that the boy was suddenly as pale as Consuela's cotton blouse.
Realizing the need to get Emilio to look away before he passed out completely, Scott called to him,
"Emilio, go get the bucket, boy." At Scott's words, Emilio dragged his eyes from the awful tableau of his mother with the stranger's blood smeared nearly up to her elbows and looked toward the other prisoner with his large, dark eyes looking in Scott's direction, but not really seeing him. "Go on. Nobody's going to hurt your mother." And Emilio startled and turned away at last. He took off at a jerky run towards the "town" without speaking or looking back. Scott saw him stop suddenly about 50 yards away and brace the hand which did not clutch his shotgun on one knee as he heaved up his breakfast.
Some time later, Consuela took Johnny by his good arm and finally eased him down flat onto the ground next to his pole. His eyes rolled back in his head for a second, and then she could see him consciously pull himself back from the brink. Regretfully, she had not had him lie down before starting to probe for the bullet, and he had tried his best to stay upright as she cut it out. She did not think the job would be so difficult, would take so long, and before she was done, he had slumped so far forward, he was nearly bent double over his own legs, which were crossed Indian-style in front of him. By the time she realized her mistake, realized that he was in deeper
trouble than she had ever suspected, she was too far into it to stop, had to wait for the right time, and she had been forced to support him for a while with one bent knee as she poked away and cut at his arm.
As she had worked, a crescent of sweat had darkened her blouse between her breasts. Sweat had also popped out on Johnny's forehead and dampened his shirt, but after her initial probing, he had kept his silent peace, for the most part. At one point, one startled cry of pain had Scott calling to him frantically again, and he had worked harder after that at keeping quiet. Johnny's courage and concern for the man she now knew was his brother had impressed Consuela, and that, along with his earlier sweet smiles and the way his amazing blue eyes softly watched her, had thawed her heart towards the two strangers. They obviously had great love for one another, a trait she respected and could not ignore. She could almost physically feel the melting of her suspicion and anger towards them. At last, she used a finger to probe the bloody hole she had dug in his arm and pulled out the lump of lead that had been embedded much deeper than she had thought. As she helped Johnny to get a bit more comfortable on the ground, he looked up at her, and those amazing eyes were pain-filled. "Time for the fancy needlework, huh," he said quietly. It wasn't a question, just a statement of acceptance.
"Si, it is time for the stitching. Do not worry, Senor Madrid. I am known in the village for my careful stitching. When one of the men takes goods to sell at Campo Santos or Roger's Crossing, my embroidered shirts get top dollar from the storekeepers. Everyone says it is the finest work they
have seen, tiny, even stitches that a person can barely see. I make clothing for many of the people
here too, and I have stitched many cuts, for many people in Castle Rock." She rattled on in an attempt to distract him from what she was about to do. Johnny lay there quietly, his eyes fixed on a hawk which circled lazily overhead.
"Please Senora, is he all
right? Johnny? Are you okay?" Scott was so worried and so
frustrated. Not only were they not telling him what was going on, but until now, as Consuela moved toward her medicine box to gather her needle and thread, he hadn't been able to see what was going on. Emilio's reaction hadn't helped his feeling of helplessness and dread. And now that she had moved, he could see blood, much more than he could have expected, on the ground and on the Senora and, especially, on Johnny. The sight of it brought the smell. It had been there, a nagging thing, in the back of his mind, but seeing it, suddenly he could taste the coppery, sweet smell on his tongue. The sense memory of battlefields and amputations was so strong, he nearly swooned. In a breathy voice he scarcely recognized as his own, he called out again. "Johnny?"
After too much time, "Senora Consuela's takin' good care of me brother----Quit worryin' so much." To Scott, Johnny's voice sounded far away-much farther away than the small distance between them accounted for, and there was too much breath to it, not enough sound.
Scott could see the Senora wash her hands and arms in the basin of water and then take something, a needle, from her black box and pour whiskey over it, allowing it to also splash his brother's arm, causing Johnny to jerk and moan deep in his throat. She poured even more of the, seemingly, never-ending supply of whiskey onto a length of black thread and on her hands, and then threaded her needle. Scott watched her every move carefully, growing, by the minute, more sympathetic with Emilio's earlier flight. As the Senora straightened Johnny's arm from where he had curled it protectively next to his body, laying it in her lap, and moved to push the needle through his brother's flesh, Scott slammed his eyes shut. He wondered briefly if Emilio's malady was contagious. He would just have to trust her. He couldn't monitor this situation any longer.
Although he had tried to will himself far away from the canyon on the wings of the lazy, circling hawk, he was forced to shut his eyes tightly, mourning the loss of his connection with the soaring bird. It seemed like all of his senses were exaggerated. He could smell the sharp woody smell of the whiskey as Consuela moved in closer to him. The sound of her rustling skirt seemed loud in his ears as she settled in to begin her task. He could feel her fitting the ragged edges of the long wound together and thought for a moment he might have to be sick again, but battled through it. Soon after, there was a sharp pinpoint of pain, then an ache as the needle wove through his skin. Next came the pulling and burning of the thread as it slid through the holes Consuela made with the
needle. Finally, there was a tugging and tightening that sent a knife sharp pain up his arm and to his
shoulder with each and every stitch. The pain was alive, hot, and it burned through him.
At first, as a distraction, he had tried counting the stitches as she went. At the count of five, tears
that had gathered in the corners of his tightly clenched eyes began to fall slowly down the sides of
his face, burning tracks on his cheeks, some pooling in his ears. At number eight, he'd had asked her to stop for a minute, to let him catch his breath, to give him time to have another drink of whiskey, and she had stopped, had held his head and helped him to drink. After an even dozen, counting became too much trouble to think about. His arm had been plunged straight into hellfire, and his stomach rolled. "Senora! Stop, please, my stomach," he had gasped. And she had stopped once again and had pulled him up and to his side as quickly as she could, just in time. Soon though, she was at it again, such a relentless woman. Johnny's world had been reduced to one of pain, one of poke, push, pull, tug and tighten.
And finally, at last, she had chosen to stop torturing him. She tied off the last stitch, sat back on her
heels and reached around for a jar of salve that she had set out earlier. Johnny was really fairly lucid, now that she had stopped pokin' at him, and he took advantage of this small bit of inactivity to check on his brother. "Scott, how are ya? Did you survive my stitchin'?" Johnny croaked out, after he had gained a measure of control. He was breathing shallowly and talking was taking both too much air and too much effort, but, for some reason, he needed to reassure himself that Scott was still with him, to hear his voice.
"Yes brother. I survived----barely," Scott whispered. And he felt a tear trickle down his cheek. He unclenched the fists that he had been unaware of clenching.
Johnny lay very still listening to the sounds of the canyon, thankful that Consuela was nearly done-Scott was breathing somewhat harshly, to his left. He could also hear chickens softly clucking and the goats as they called to one another. And there was birdsong-birds had found this tiny paradise too. Everything sounded so normal, but the smells that assaulted him were anything but. Rather than the normal odors of his world, cows and horses, hay and leather, instead, he smelled whiskey and blood, and the salve she was getting ready to smooth on his arm, which smelled of animal fat and that bitter medicine smell he associated with Sam. He also caught the scent of Consuela as a light breeze blew across her and tangled her hair. She smelled of spices and, under
that, something more subtle, something sweet. She pushed her heavy hair away and behind her ear. Then, as she wrapped the freshly stitched and salved wound with a clean white cloth and tied off the ends, Consuela spoke for the first time since this part of her nursing had begun. Her voice was quiet, and it was clear that she was reluctant to say what she had to say. "Senor Madrid, Johnny, I am finished with your arm. Now that I have cleaned it, I can see that the cut on your face is not bad; I will not stitch it. It will not even leave much of a scar. I am going to put salve on your wrists and wrap them. But, when I am through, I must tie you back to the pole. Lo Siento, Senor. I know it hurts, that tying you will hurt."
"Senora, please. Can't you just let him lie there. Maybe you could get Emilio to stand guard over him. You can surely see that he can't go anywhere."
"I'm okay. It's all right, Scott." Johnny struggled to push himself upright, with Consuela helping, and
then he leaned back against the pole once again. "Senora, when you finish with me, will you please
check on my brother?"
"Si, I will check on him, of course." She took the new length of rope which Emilio had set on the ground near the pole earlier. Carefully, she pulled his arms behind him, slowly, waiting for him to adjust, allowing him to move slowly, inches at a time, and tied him, less tightly than before to the pole. "I am sorry. It is the way it is always done. If I do not do it, someone else will, and not so carefully, I think." By the time he was settled, Consuela noted that his face had definitely paled over the last painful forty-five minutes, and his eyes had a brightness which undoubtedly meant fever. She put a hand to his forehead and then turned to her medical box again. She carried her supplies over to Scott and carefully felt around on the back of his head. "You have a nasty lump here. It bled a little, but you are lucky that the cut is small. Were you knocked out for very long? Did you vomit, Senor?" She used a wet cloth and gently cleaned the dried blood from his wound.
Scott grimaced and pulled away as she touched a particularly sensitive spot. "I was unconscious for the whole night, I think, but I didn't vomit. Listen, I'm okay, I just. . . . please, just take care of
Johnny. Even from here, I can see that he has a fever." She began salving and wrapping his wrists as best she could without untying him.
"If Senor Vasquez allows it, I will return with something for his fever and for your headache in a
while; I have no clean water to mix with the powders with me here." She kept her eyes lowered. "He is very brave," she said softly. "And the two of you, you and your brother, you are very close."
"Yes, Senora. We have only just found one another. We had to live apart for so many years. Surely you and your people would not deny us a chance to..."
"It is not up to me," she snapped at him. "I have no control over Senor Vasquez or the trial." When she looked around and into his face, Scott could see real regret shining in her eyes. She finished tending to his wrists and then stood and walked back to Johnny. She knelt down in front of him abruptly, as though she had come to some sort of decision. She put her hand under his chin, made him lift his head so she could look into his eyes. In a very quiet voice she spoke to him. Senor Madrid, can you hear me? You must listen to what I say."
Johnny answered her at last.
"Si, Senora. Escucho. I hear ya." Without her hand to hold
his head up, he would not have had the strength to look at her. "But
I'm thinkin' I'm not gonna like what ya have to say."
Consuela turned to Scott. "And you, you must listen to me too. Es muy importante. I must hurry. Listen. The trial. It will start soon. Whatever happens, you must not speak during the trial. That is the test. You must prove that you can keep quiet. Do you both understand? Do not speak. It will prove that you have courage and that you can be trusted. No matter what they do to you, to either of you, you must hold your tongues." Then she stood quickly, gathered her things and hurried up the path away from the clearing without a backward glance, without further explanation.
As she disappeared from view, Scott turned, as well as he could, back to his brother. "Johnny. Are you still with me?"
"Yeah, sure. I'm okay." Johnny's voice came slow and was very soft.
Scott had to form his words carefully too around the throbbing in his head. "We need to figure out what we're going to do."
"I've already figured it, Scott; we're gonna not speak, like the lady said." Johnny was feeling just a
bit guilty about this situation. If he hadn't been chasing non-existent ghosts, the two of them would be in Campo Santos by now, nearly home.
"Johnny, I need to get you out of here."
"That'd be great. And just how're ya gonna do that, brother?"
With a frustrated tug at the ropes binding his hands, Scott growled in defeat. He knew Johnny was right. His head was pounding at him. There was no way he could even get loose from this pole, let alone get himself and his brother out of this damned unnatural canyon with a whole little secret village full of people chasing them. He didn't even think he could get back through The Narrows at all, even if they would kindly draw up a map for him, put them on the ghost horse and point the way. "Okay, you win. So, any idea what this trial might be?"
"No. But I do know that Tiburcio has always been a flashy man. You saw how he was dressed. That was normal. Everything always had to be a production with him, even horse thievin'. He will probably design something with some kind of twist to it, some kind of drama to impress his followers. I'm thinkin' that the only person who has shown us any bit of friendliness just told us to keep our mouths shut when it's goin' on, so I plan to be real quiet."
"Sure. I guess. Doesn't sound too difficult. But then, do you really think they will let us go just
because we don't speak to them?
"I don't know, Scott. Doesn't sound real likely does it? But, in our favor, Vasquez has always been known as a man of his word. My best guess is that not too many are successful with the trial, ya know, they don't live ta tell the tale, and then if they do survive, that most of those people stay right here, become part of the town. We may be some new strange dog to them." His voice had gotten softer as he spoke, and now he yawned broadly and laid his head back against the pole, his eyes closing.
Moments later, Scott spoke again. Johnny? ------------ Johnny?" But Johnny's head had now
fallen forward, and he was either asleep or unconscious, leaving Scott alone with his pounding
headache, his worry, and from what he could see coming along the path from town, Harley.
Apparently the mean little man was to be their guard once again. Scott eyed him warily as he walked up to them, and he made sure not to speak. Johnny's earlier experiences with Harley had definitely taught him a lesson. He would not give this man a chance to take his constant anger out on him. The sun was flaming down, and Scott could feel the heat straight through to his bones, and his headache seemed to be sapping every bit of strength he had left. Although he fought it for a while, trying to plan, to think of some way out of this mess, he eventually joined his brother in sleep, away from Harley, away from the canyon and away, for a time, from his worry about his brother and their situation.
# # #
It seemed only moments later, but
really, Scott had no idea how much time had passed when he came awake very
slowly. Just as slowly, he became aware that his nightmare of being tied
to a pole in the middle of unfriendly people in a secret canyon was not a
nightmare after all. He looked around and could see dozens of people
coming from the area that seemed to hold the town he kept hearing about.
The crowd made its way gradually toward the prisoners, packed into a bunch,
scattering goats and chickens in front of them as they walked. Several
dogs followed along, yapping at their heels. Scott could see that they
were stirring up a small cloud of red dust in their wake. The whole of them were
walking very leisurely, as though out for a Sunday stroll, apparently keeping
the pace slow to accommodate several much older people who were part of the
"Johnny. Johnny, you have to wake-up now. Something is definitely about to happen.
"Come on, Johnny. I think maybe we're both going to have to be as clear-headed as possible here real soon." The crowd moved closer by the second.
Johnny opened his eyes at last and turned to look at Scott blankly; his eyes were unfocused, and Scott found it almost painful to look at his swollen face. After a minute, Johnny seemed to become more clear-headed, and the two brothers shared a look, with Scott hoping that Johnny was really with him, and then they both turned toward the advancing crowd. Finally Johnny answered Scott, mostly to let him know that he was awake and aware. "Think you're right, brother. Trouble." His speech was a little slurred, but to Scott he now seemed fairly alert, really more than he had before they had both fallen asleep.
Johnny could see their tiny guard from the corner of his eye as the man stood up from near the pole and moved toward the edge of the crowd with his typical feral, hungry look on his face. And as Harley stepped away from him, several lazy butterflies circled around the small man, as though he had been giving them safe harbor, and then they sluggishly fluttered their way towards Johnny. He turned his face aside quickly, but they brushed softly, insidiously across his face and hair; they felt icy cold in the heat of the day, and Johnny was reminded of accidentally disturbing cobwebs in a cold, winter barn. It sent a shiver straight up his spine. He had to take a long, slow, steadying breath before he could look back at the progression headed their way.
At the front, regal and most definitely in charge, marched Tiburcio Vasquez and with him, a tall, beautiful woman, obviously his wife. What had he called her? Dulce, Johnny thought. She had her black and silver-shot hair twisted up into an intricate design and was dressed far too elaborately for the situation and the weather. There was complicated, ivory colored lace hanging from her long sleeves and around the high neck of her raven black dress. She looked every bit the fine lady of the manor, matching her husband's arrogance perfectly. Near the back of the crowd walked the redheaded sharpshooter, with Leonard, who had his arm around her shoulders, possessively. Johnny figured whatever that technique in bed was, it must be damn good because Leonard looked about as smart as some of the cows back at Lancer. At the center of the crowd, he could recognize Emilio and, next to him, Consuela, with her eyes staring intently at the ground in front of her, unable or unwilling to look at the brothers. His eyes widened as he saw Senor and Senora Castillo. What the hell? Then, Vasquez's words echoed in his mind-"my Aunt Rosita and her husband." Well, that certainly explains why Senor was so against me roaming around in the desert. And why he was so anxious to let me get drunk and to talk about the ghost stories with me too. He looked over at Scott and could see the exact moment when his brother recognized the Castillo's. After his discovery, he turned to look at Johnny, and Johnny rolled his eyes at Scott, wondering why he hadn't figured it out before. Part of the set-up. Vasquez certainly had every angle figured. And
suddenly, he wondered what the Castillo's had told Smitty about their absence, what Murdoch would think when they didn't show up in a few days.
The sun was straight up noon. Vasquez stood before them. The man seemed to be given to dramatic pauses. He turned to address his gathered followers in a booming, official tone, with his arms raised above his head in a "V." The crowd fell silent at his gesture. They had obviously been through this before. "These two men were found intruding on our home. They were not invited here. As it has been ever since the founding of Castle Rock, those who find their way here uninvited must face the trial. The outcome of the trial cannot be challenged."
Johnny interrupted Vasquez's
oratory. "Hey......Vasquez......Hey. Do we get a lawyer for this
trial?" he called to the self-proclaimed ruler of Castle Rock.
"'Cause you know, a fair trial would mean we get a lawyer, wouldn't it
brother?" Johnny turned to Scott. "Wouldn't it
Scott? My brother would know; he's a real smart man." Johnny
knew that nothing he said would matter one way or the other. He just
couldn't resist getting his shots in.
"There is no lawyer!" Vasquez roared, clearly flustered. "I am the law here. This is my town, and
I make the rules."
"Well, you just ain't no better'n those rurales who are after you then, are ya?" At this point, Scott
really wished that Johnny would just shut his mouth, and he gave his brother a look which said that if they survived this, he might have to cheerfully strangle him.
But it really didn't matter because from that point on, Vasquez completely ignored Johnny and motioned for several of the men to come forward. The two brothers quickly had their bindings cut, and they were both hauled to their feet before they even had a chance to worry about the pain in their arms. Still using an 'official pronouncement' voice, Vasquez announced that the trial was about to begin. He turned to Scott and Johnny with a glare, pointing from one to the other. "From this point on, you will not speak. At all." There were notches cut deeply into the sides of the poles, and Scott had wondered at their purpose earlier. The men slung ropes up and around, settling them into the notches that could be seen about 10 feet up. Johnny was sagging, about to fall and Scott took
a step toward him-his mouth was opening to protest the treatment his brother was receiving, but Johnny seemed to be able to sense what his brother was about to do and caught his eye, shot him a warning look. Scott remembered Consuela's words and, not without some effort, held his tongue.
As two other men held Johnny, Leonard stood in front of him and crossed his wrists one on top of the other, looping the rope around them several times; another of the townspeople was doing the same to Scott. Other men began pulling the ropes taut, stretching the two men's arms above their heads. Johnny bit back a moan. Gotta keep my smart mouth closed for once. But the pain, it was truly amazing. The ropes were pulled and pulled until the two men were barely able to touch their toes to the ground. Then they were turned to face the poles, and Johnny slumped his shoulder against it for some support. Although he knew that Vasquez was doing so, Johnny couldn't clearly hear the vain, annoying man talking and talking through the buzzing in his ears, and, really, he was grateful for that.
He opened his eyes and forced his head back and around to where he could see Scott and sucked in a breath when he saw his brother's eyes looking right into his. Scott's expression said everything he couldn't speak aloud. Johnny could see pain, anger, exhaustion and intense sympathy warring for dominance and figured his own face probably looked much the same. Someone grabbed a handful of his hair and jerked him around. It was Vasquez trying to get Johnny to focus on what he was saying. "Tonight at midnight, if you have not spoken by then, you will be allowed to decide. Stay or go. However, if either of you do speak, you will both be left here to hang---indefinitely." At that moment, Johnny decided that for him it would be no problem to hold his tongue; he could feel the blackness chasing away the light, creeping cat-quiet around the edges of his reality, and he looked over at Scott one last time before slumping into unconsciousness.
# # #
At first, Scott was having a hard
time dealing with the fact that Johnny had left him to face this
situation alone. Soon, however, his whole world revolved around the fact that his arms ached and his head pounded with an intensity that was both amazing and agonizing. He imagined that being hung, really hung by the neck, might be a little bit like this-except, of course, he could breathe. Okay, maybe it wasn't like this. There was nothing like this-nothing in his life to prepare him exactly for this, not even being a prisoner of war. The sun seemed to be concentrating all of it's energy right on top of his head. For the first time since finding his way into this canyon, the feeling of having found a cool, green oasis, yes, full of crazy people, but cool and green none the less, was gone, and he felt as though he really was still in the unforgiving desert. Having had that thought, it was impossible to dismiss the idea that maybe he was still in the desert, wandering, lost, dying of thirst. Perhaps everything he saw around him was one giant hallucination. But, no, if he were hallucinating, surely it wouldn't hurt so very much.
His brother had fallen unconscious shortly after being pulled up to hang from the pole, and Scott's worry for him was eating at him, making his head pound even harder. Johnny hung from the rope, with all of his weight pulling at his wrists and shoulders. He worried about that newly-stitched arm. Scott could see that Johnny's head slouched low between his tightly stretched arms, and he was so much dead weight hung from the rope, like a cow waiting to be slaughtered. He spent part of his time morbidly wondering how his brother's arms kept from popping right out of their sockets and if he had pulled out any stitches or was bleeding again. In spite of all that, he almost wished that he had suffered the same fate, could become unaware. Red dust puffed around him each time the wind picked up a bit, and it clogged his parched throat and made him remember the misery of
when he'd had to ride drag during the last cattle drive. In retrospect, the misery seemed relatively
As he stood there on his tip toes, trying to save his arms for as long as possible, he again, for at least the hundredth time, thought about the fact that he and Johnny had not been given any water since they had found this hell hole. In fact, along with Johnny's abused arms and shoulders, as well as his own, it was just about the only thing he could think about. Emilio never had made it back to the meadow with that bucket and dipper, nor had Consuela appeared with headache or fever medicine. How long had it been? His thoughts were slow and labored-he figured it must be at least six hours since they had been trussed up here, so that made nearly 24 hours without water. As he made the calculation, he could feel his throat become even more parched, and he could almost feel his tongue swelling in his mouth. A slow droplet of sweat crept down from his hairline, and he distracted himself from his overwhelming thirst by counting the seconds until it would drip into and scald his eye.
Oh no, here they come again. For the entire time he and Johnny had 'been on trial' here, five men had sat on a pallet near Scott playing poker, laughing, and of course, one of the men was Harley. In his pain-fogged brain, he thought of these men as 'the jury.' The rest of the crowd had drifted away a few at a time, throughout the afternoon, after they had been hung from the poles, although some had stayed long enough to eat picnic lunches, and a few of the children had played tag out in the meadow for a while. He did notice that Consuela and Emilio had been the first to leave, almost before he and Johnny had even been pulled up tightly. He could hear these five men, who had been left behind, talking and enjoying their afternoon and, worst of all, drinking something. He could swear they were purposely making loud gulping sounds just to torment him.
Every 20 minutes or so, one of the men would get up from a poker hand and wander over to Scott and Johnny. Each one had a different tactic, but the object of the game was to get one of the brothers to talk. Of course, Scott was their main target because Johnny had unintentionally deserted him. He had been taunted, threatened, spit on, had his feet kicked out from under him and had listened to them threatening and even striking a totally unresponsive Johnny, for his benefit of course. But still, how he would never know, he had kept his composure and had held his tongue. There were two men this time, a team effort he supposed. They passed a canteen between them,
right in front of him, and drank deeply. They even spilled some over their faces and at his feet, and he watched the ground swallow it up, greedy and selfish. "Want a drink, stranger? If'n ya ask for it you kin have it." Again, dredging up the distant memory of Consuela's instructions, Scott only nodded his head, a barely perceptible movement, but that wasn't good enough for them to pass him the canteen. They wanted words, sounds. "Want we should give your brother a drink?" Another nod with the same result, except that this time the two men doubled over in laughter.
Scott's thoughts were beginning to wander even more erratically than they had been before, so much so in fact that he worried he would forget that the one thing which mattered in his life, the most important thing in his world right now, in Johnny's world, was that he should be silent. He began to wonder also why anyone who survived this 'trial,' if anyone ever actually did, would even consider staying here in the canyon afterwards. Maybe the trial made the participants totally, irrecoverably crazy. That had to be it. Hey, maybe these five had gone through the trial themselves at some point in the past. That would surely explain their lack of sanity. On the other hand, maybe he was already as crazy as a bedbug, and he was really, right now, in his room at Lancer---locked in and chained to the headboard of his bed so he wouldn't hurt anyone. He was probably babbling and drooling right now in front of his extremely horrified father and a weeping Teresa. As he pondered his own lack of sanity, Scott reeled from a sudden blow to his left kidney. It took every bit of military training he had to keep from crying out as the pain flared across his back.
That was new. He clamped his jaws shut and tried to will himself to a better place. As the hours had ground by, that trick had become harder and harder to achieve, but he was still able to drift away at times. This time, he was riding Charlie in the Black Mesa area of the ranch. Johnny was loping along next to him on Barranca. The sky was as blue as he had ever seen it; there were big clouds, incredibly white, and they were as fluffy as a feather mattress. A sunny breeze swept the faint scent of apple blossoms across their path. Spring grass grew in the meadow, so green it hurt his eyes. And he could hear the horses breathing hard as they ran. Newly awakened honeybees
and deer flies buzzed around his head, and he swatted at them as he rode. In the distance, peepers were carrying on, loudly and repetitively, over by the pond. He turned in his saddle to look at his brother, and, blue eyes flashing, Johnny was laughing at something, laughing for the sheer joy of it, his head thrown back, and his hat hanging down his back.
There was a heavy handed slap to his cheek, and his head jerked to one side from the force of the blow. "Hey stranger, don't ya go passin' out on us. Thet h'ain't fair a t'all. We jest might have ta start carvin' up yer brother over there if'n we don't have you ta talk to." Although his eyes were closed from pain and exhaustion, Scott recognized Harley's voice, and knew that this man, for some reason, would use any excuse to do more harm to Johnny. He had hung here so long, next to these men, listening to them, looking at them, smelling them, that he could tell exactly who was torturing him by each one's odor; he could easily recognize Harley's particular stench without opening his eyes. While Scott was aware that he couldn't possibly smell all that good himself, after being hung
up like a Christmas ham in the sun all day, Harley apparently didn't believe in soap and water, ever. In spite of his pain and exhaustion, Scott pulled himself together and back from the void. His willpower and patience were almost completely depleted, and he wasn't sure how long he would be able to hold out. He was desperately worried that if he passed out, 'the jury' would turn their attention more strongly towards Johnny. He wanted so badly to strike back in some way, against the situation, against his tormentors, against disgusting, mean little Harley. He considered spitting in the man's ugly face, but knew that if he gave in to the temptation, he would be risking not only his own life, but also his brother's. And really, he knew he didn't have enough saliva for such a gesture anyway. Instead, he looked his torturer straight in the eye and glared silently.
# # #
But now, Harley had really messed
up. Really, he had defeated his own purpose. In a fit of anger, when
the blonde intruder had arrogantly glared at him and when he couldn't get the
man to speak, even when he had begun poking at his unconscious brother with the
tip of a wicked looking knife, he had used one of his rock hard fists on the
side of Scott's head, just above his ear, and Scott had gotten his wish to be
unaware, for a while. Harley really hadn't meant to hit him so hard.
The other men there with him had been livid. They already didn't have one of the
intruders to play with. Unconscious men very seldom speak. Now, they
had no one at all to torture. So, the other four took their aggression out
on Harley. These men had not been chosen randomly to keep an eye and,
especially, an ear on the intruders. They were all known in the village
for their mean dispositions and relentless natures. One large brute used his hat
to smack at Harley; another kicked him in the shin and pushed him down on the
ground next to the prisoners.
And some time later, when Scott had, at last, opened his eyes again, with an interesting new headache raging, night had fallen completely around him. With the setting of the sun, the air was cooler against his parched skin, but it seemed to be pulsing around him. He finally decided that it was his own blood pulsing in his aching head which created the effect. In the light of the newly risen moon, Scott saw that Johnny was still slumped, hanging from his rope. He couldn't even imagine what Johnny's arms must feel like after being unconscious and hanging there for so many hours, but there was a pretty little beam of moonlight shining right on his brother, and he could see that the bandage on his arm had blood on it, and more disturbing yet, his hands looked wrong somehow,
slightly blue and lifeless. His own arms ached so much that he wanted to cry, and he had probably only been unconscious and hanging with his full weight on the rope for a couple of hours. He could feel that his lips were scorched, cracked to the point of bleeding, and there was so much cotton in his mouth, he though he might choke on it. In spite of his preoccupation with misery, he noticed that it had gotten very quiet in the clearing. The goats must have been gathered up, taken to shelter for the night, and the chickens must all be roosting. The jury must be roosting too; Scott could hear light snoring from the area where poker had been played earlier.
He heard a scuffling over by Johnny and worried intensely that Harley was back to do more damage, but when he found the strength to lift his head and look that way, he saw his brother trying to get his feet under himself to take some pressure off of his shoulders, and Scott was amazingly relieved that his younger brother was finally conscious after so many hours. Finally, Johnny stood again on his tip toes and slowly drew his head up, and with his hair flopping onto his forehead, he looked with bleary eyes past his bicep and over at Scott. And when he saw Scott looking at him, amazingly, he smiled, a big, broad, Johnny Lancer smile. His crazy brother smiled at him. And then, after hanging from a pole for nearly 12 hours, he winked. He winked. And Scott had to choke back a sob of relief. For the first time since they had been trussed up to these poles, he felt like maybe they just might get out of this mess. He lifted newly hopeful eyes to the panorama of stars
above him, and the night sky mesmerized and comforted him almost as much as his brother's stubborn, cocky attitude.
Then, there was a low rumbling sound of people talking, and Scott realized that the villagers were
once again headed for the clearing. He cringed to think of what they might still have in mind for the
two of them. Was it midnight? Was the trial over? His thirst was raging, and he found himself praying that it was midnight, mostly just so he could get a drink of water. Someone in the crowd called out, and one of the guards answered. Scott felt himself being turned away from the pole and, at long last, the rope above him was cut. He was allowed to collapse onto the ground. He looked over and saw Johnny lying near his pole too. The loss of pressure on his arms was so sudden and overwhelming, it almost felt like this must be another one of the dreams he had been having off and on all night long. Maybe it was.
Lying on his side in the damp grass,
Johnny was only just barely hanging on to reality. He didn't think he had
felt quite this badly since he had been gutshot that one time in Agua Prieta,
when the mission priests at Santo Mary de Guadalupe had reluctantly tended to
him and had then turned him out on his own far too soon, with little more than
the clothes on his back. No gunshot wound he had ever had, before or since, had
pained him like that one. Now though, rather than that kind of agony, his
hands and the long jagged tear in his arm throbbed mercilessly, and the ache in
his shoulders was nearly unbearable. And he wondered if there was even a
word to describe how parched and dry his mouth was. He looked up slowly
from his place on the ground, and Tiburcio Vasquez stood in front of them with
an abbreviated crowd behind him. Many of the townspeople standing behind
him carried lanterns in spite of the brightness of the moon. Apparently
the elderly and the children didn't stay up until midnight in this town, even
for trials, and would miss the end of this show. Senora Vasquez seemed to
have other obligations as well. Also missing, he noticed, were Consuela
and her son. The five men who had been left to 'guard' them had melted
back into the small crowd, anonymous once again. As Vasquez approached,
Johnny struggled to get into a more dignified position than 'in a heap.'
The crowd stopped several yards in front of Johnny and Scott. Johnny had managed to sit up with one shoulder supported against the pole, similar to the way he had supported himself earlier in their ordeal, and he surveyed the assortment of people who had come out to see the end of the drama which had played out over the last 12 hours. Vasquez stepped forward, faced the crowd and held his arms up for silence, just as he had when this hellacious day had begun. When the crowd had quieted, he turned then to the brothers. With long strides he made his way to Johnny and grabbed the suffering man's chin in one of his strong, brown hands. Johnny jerked his head, trying to get away from the grip, but the self-proclaimed Emperor of Castle Rock held him fast. "Senor Madrid, Do you have anything to say? Would you like to throw a few smart mouth quips at me, mestizo?" He stood then and looked down at Johnny for a full minute, waiting for Johnny to speak, expecting him to be unable to resist taunting him, expecting him to fail the trial at this moment when the end was so near. But when the ex-gunslinger only stared at him, Vasquez growled with frustration and was forced to admit defeat. "Fine." And his voice showed his disgust with the outcome. "According to your guards, you have both been silent for the entire day. You have proven your ability to hold your tongues under duress. You may now decide if you will stay in Castle Rock, join our family here, or if you will go." It was clear from his voice and body language that he would not be the most welcoming of hosts should they decide to stay.
Johnny tried to speak, but all that came out was a ragged croak. Now that he was allowed to speak, he had lost the ability. He just didn't have enough moisture in his mouth to produce words. Next to him, he could hear his brother also struggling to be heard. Finally, so much later, Scott was able to form only one word, but it was enough. "Go."
Leonard's woman and another female from the group ran up to them then with goatskin bags, and Johnny and Scott each gulped at the contents greedily. By the time either of them realized that the water they were drinking had been laced with something, something which tasted bitter, it was too late. As the world faded away from him again, Johnny thought he heard Vasquez speaking. And the voice said, "This isn't over, Johnny Madrid. This is far from over."
# # #
For some reason, which was just beyond his comprehension, it seemed to Scott that every time he
turned around, he was waking up, actually, that he was waking up with a headache. This time, instead of sitting tied to a pole, or hanging from one by a rope, he was waking up with the right side of his face planted in rough sand. He was lying on his stomach, and his arms were stretched full out above his head. He had a terrible taste in his mouth, and he wished desperately that someone would bring him a cup of water so that he could rinse his mouth out. The taste was vaguely familiar, but he couldn't quite place it. Why was he lying in the sand? It was dark, but through one slitted eye, he could see that the moon, nearly full, was starting to set; morning couldn't be too far away. With a groan, he pulled his hands underneath his chest and turned carefully over onto his back. There were cobwebs littering his brain. Where am I? Turning to his right, he saw Johnny, and he was staggered by the relief he felt. His brother was lying several feet away on his back, with one
bloody, bandaged arm cradled against his body and the other arm straight out, as though he was reaching for Scott. His chest rose and fell rhythmically in sleep. Where are we? he amended. He used his elbows to help himself sit up, and finally, he was upright, although slumped forward, with one hand on the sand between his splayed legs to support himself. "Johnny?" But his brother did not respond.
As he sat looking around himself at the nighttime desert, at the amazing expanse of stars which had been his touchstone on this trip, trying to make sense of their situation, the final part of the previous two days came roaring back at him, and he groaned again. He had been so thirsty. After hanging from a pole for 12 long hours, he had been so damn thirsty. Before he had even noticed that the water had contained something, laudanum maybe, he had already swallowed too much to avoid the effects of it. He could only assume that the same was true for Johnny. He had a vague memory of spiraling down into deep darkness and comforting quiet. Then, for a while, there had been nothing, just peace. Now, he was aching and tired, and he was trying so hard to find the energy just to crawl over to his brother.
As he got to his hands and knees and starting crawling forward, just a short distance away, on top of a small sand hill with the north star shining just above it, in the moonlight, he saw something moving. Was someone coming? Could it be help? Or was it, more likely, even more trouble? He saw that it was a woman, and she was on foot. Consuela? His next thought was that one of the villagers was keeping an eye on them still, maybe the sharpshooting redhead. But this woman was dressed in white. Pacing. For several moments, he was totally unable to move or speak. He stared at her, and he noticed that stars were, inevitably, shining not only around her, but also through her. Fear slammed into him, cold and hard, and he desperately wanted Johnny to witness this vision too, ached with the need of it. "Johnny. Wake-up," he hissed, reaching one hand out towards his brother. He sat back and was kneeling in the sand. At the sound of his voice, the Lady in White looked in his direction for a moment. Her sorrow reached out to him, threatened to pull him under into her private sea of misery. But soon, she nodded her head at him, opened her mouth as though to speak, and then slowly faded from his view with a look of intense longing on her face. Scott sagged back onto the ground trembling and rubbed at his eyes. Well, that definitely wasn't
moonlight reflecting off of the sand. Why is she dogging me? What can she possibly want from me?
He shook his head trying to clear it, which brought on a strong bout of dizziness, and he was ready to lie down again in defeat when he heard a soft groan in the darkness. He turned his head carefully towards his brother. "Johnny? Johnny, please wake up."
"S'kay. M'wake." The words were soft, but, for Scott, infinitely comforting.
"Johnny, thank God you're awake. Are you all right?" Stupid, stupid question, he thought. "How's your arm. Are you with me Johnny?" And then, softer, with a hitch in his voice that he couldn't stop, "Don't leave me alone." He was hurting and afraid; he didn't want to be alone too. Johnny's eyes were closed, and his breathing was shallow. All Scott heard from him now was another low breathy groan, so he gathered what strength he had left and finishing crawling the few feet to his brother. Before he even got next to Johnny, he could feel the heat rolling from him in waves. "Oh God, you're so hot. What are we going to do?"
Scott laid down next to his brother
in the cold sand and gently pulled Johnny's head over to lie on his
shoulder. As he did so, a tiny crucifix on a gold chain slipped from the inside of Johnny's shirt and
fell across Scott's arm. He looked at it curiously and felt something shift inside of himself. This small cross was a vivid visual reminder for Scott that he may need to learn to put his faith in something he couldn't see or explain-something that didn't have a thing to do with logic or a college education or moonlight bouncing off of the quartz in the sand. Johnny was right, not everything had or needed an explanation. "There are more things in heaven and earth . . . than are dreamt of in your philosophy." He remembered reading Shakespeare's play during Sophomore Literature and not really understanding what Hamlet had been trying to say, but now, here, at this time, in this place, it all seemed very clear. Touching the golden cross with his index finger, he closed his eyes and said a short but sincere prayer that somehow he and his brother would survive this trip. But first, he just needed to rest for awhile; then he would figure everything out. He reached over and pushed Johnny's hair back, out of his eyes, a familiar and comforting gesture and thought that his hand would scorch from the heat coming from his brother's forehead. He would get them out of this, get them home somehow. He needed to rest, just for a few minutes. And even though Scott was worried and more than a little bit afraid that the sad lady ghost might come back, with Johnny's head cradled on his shoulder, his brother's presence as well as his brother's crucifix gave him some comfort, and he drifted off to sleep.
# # #
The first thing Johnny was aware of
was the feel of a cool, wet cloth on his forehead. Maybe he was still hanging
from 'the pole,' and this soothing cloth was simply wishful thinking. In his
sluggish brain, he decided that maybe if that were true, he should try to wish
up a drink of water too. Or, maybe he was lyin' in his own bed, and Teresa
was tendin' to him after one of his various accidents or illnesses. More likely,
maybe he was dead, and he hadn't ended up in hell after all; although, except
for the cool cloth, hell seemed likely. Then he heard a soft voice
murmuring something and a softer, farther away voice answering, but he was too
lost in this strange black void to interpret the words. One of the
someones lifted his head and set off an explosion in his brain. But then,
sweet, healing water was flowing over his dirt dry tongue and down his swollen
throat. He choked and coughed, and the gentle helping hands pulled him up
a bit further and rubbed his back until he could breathe again.
Finally, he was able to open his eyes and found himself held up to and looking over a tiny, feminine
shoulder. The long, heavy dark hair and turquoise comb told him that his ministering angel was Consuela. She was rubbing slow circles on his back. He felt hot, his eyes gritty with fever, and his arms throbbed, where the long jagged wound had been stitched, where his abused shoulders had been forced to support his weight, and his hands hanging uselessly at his sides were so swollen, he could barely identify them as hands. In the distance, he could see that the sky was just starting to wake up, soft pinks and golds rising from the sandy horizon-it was very, very early, a new dawn, a brand new day. He heard a soft snuffling sound and could see the ghost horse standing quietly nearby with his head down, tearing at pieces of the scrub grass. Senor Castillo's words came back
to him, "there are those who say seeing the ghost horse will bring you luck." Maybe he was right after all. Johnny laid his head down on Consuela's shoulder-it was far too heavy for him to hold up on his own right now, but he was worried about his brother, and he whispered his name.
"You're brother will be fine Senor Madrid. Emilio is helping him to drink water right now."
"Why?" he whispered.
She laid him back gently in the sand and used the wet cloth on his forehead again. "Why what, Senor?"
"Why're you helpin'? Vasquez'll be angry. Hurt you." He looked up into her soft brown eyes and found compassion there.
"You speak the truth. I'm not sure what he might do, what we will do, but right now we must get you and your brother out of this desert. That is what is important at this moment."
"Where are we?"
"Several miles out beyond Grapevine Canyon, left here to die. Por favor, I did not know, Senor Madrid. I swear to you, I did not know." He could see genuine tears brimming in her eyes. "I have only seen one other intruder refuse to stay at Castle Rock; there have been so few to come there over the years. Vasquez told us that he took that man to Campo Santo. Dios me perdona, I believed him."
"But not this time."
"No, I didn't this time. I was worried about you and your brother; for the first time, I was suspicious
of Vasquez and his posturing. Emilio and I followed behind, out of sight, as they brought you both out here slung over the backs of mules and dumped you here on the ground. Only Vasquez and Harley. All of the others had gone to their homes."
Scott and Emilio had come to sit beside her in the sand, with Emilio holding most of Scott's weight.
"How did you come to be there in the first place, Consuela?" Scott asked as he reached out and gripped Johnny's left forearm for a moment, needing to make a physical connection with his brother.
"More than a dozen years ago now, my young husband, he was accused of being a thief, Senor. He was a good man, not guilty; es verdadero. Senor Vasquez found us as we fled the law and brought us to Castle Rock, saved us. Emilio was born out here, has never been away."
"And what of your husband now?" Scott continued questioning her.
"He has been dead for several years now. I think he missed the town, the people, was never meant to live in isolation. He withered away; he was so very sad. Not even Emilio could make him smile. But, I never thought of leaving. Now that I think about it, no one leaves. Just that one man, that one time, and now I think that we might find his skeleton if we were to search."
Scott looked over and saw that Johnny had closed his eyes and had disconnected himself from the
conversation. Consuela continued to bathe his face and neck with the wet cloth. "Senora, it will be full daylight very soon. We need to get out of here before the people in the village discover that you are missing Can Johnny travel?"
"It will not be easy, Senor, but we must put distance behind us. It will be at least four or five hours
before they become too concerned about Emilio and me. They will think that we have gone to tend the goats. It is our habit. We will put Johnny on Diablo. Can you walk Senor?"
"Yes, yes, I can walk. I'm all right." Scott stood up as he spoke, and his knees buckled.
As he swayed to fall, Emilio dropped his shotgun onto the ground and moved to help him. "Diablo can carry you both for a while, Senor," he whispered as he pulled Scott up to his full height.
And so, Scott had spent part of that
early morning riding on the white stallion, holding onto his
feverish brother, and part of it walking, somewhat unsteadily, in the shifting desert sand, supported by Emilio, or sometimes by Consuela, and finally not needing much support at all. When he walked, Emilio or Consuela would take his place and ride for awhile, holding onto Johnny. It was hot, hard walking, but he found his strength returning with the water and the bit of food Consuela had provided. She had also, at long last, mixed up the promised headache powders for him to drink, and now, for the first time since he had crouched in the boulders at the opening of Grapevine Canyon, Scott didn't have a pounding headache. She really was a very good nurse. Their two saviors had brought several canteens full of water along, and Emilio had quietly assured him as they stumbled through the dunes that, if it became necessary, he and his mother were also very good at finding the right cactus to cut into for more life-giving liquid.
Consuela had brought along other bits and pieces of her medicine box as well, not just the miraculous headache powder, tied up in a pretty red silk scarf. Additionally, she had packed a set of scuffed leather saddlebags which lay across the back of the stallion-some food, the medicine scarf, shot gun shells and, from what she had told Scott, money, her life savings, earned from stitching those shirts she had told Johnny about as she had prepared to stitch his arm. She told him that after they had seen Vasquez and Harley dump the two brothers in the sand, she had left Emilio to watch over them and had hurried back to their home to quickly and quietly pack a few things. She knew that they could never return and live in such circumstances, that she and Emilio would somehow have to make a new start somewhere. Consuela did not foresee that she and her son would ever be returning to Castle Rock, at least not willingly. It must have been a nearly impossible choice for her to make-risking her own and her son's lives in order to escape from a madman's den and to take a stand against his cruelty, his insanity.
Johnny had moved in and out of awareness all morning, sometimes able to carry on a quiet conversation with whomever was sitting with him on the horse, other times being gripped even more tightly by his riding companion to keep from falling to the ground. He wasn't much help in keeping his seat on the horse-his hands were nearly useless. However, Scott could tell that there was less heat rolling from Johnny each time he climbed up behind him on the stallion. Periodically, Consuela forced him to take drinks of something from a dark, glass bottle stopped tightly with a cork, the taste of which, from the look on Johnny's face, rivaled anything Jelly had ever cooked up. And, in spite of his protests about drinking the 'foul tastin' poison,' and even though his hands were swollen and clumsy, Johnny definitely seemed to be doing better as the morning progressed. His moments
of lucidity had stretched for longer and longer periods as they moved ever onward, so much so, in
fact, that Scott worried he would be saying he was 'fine, just fine' any moment, and would insist that he could walk now.
As the sun reached its highest point in the sky, the odd quartet of travelers found an outcropping of
boulders shooting haphazardly out of the desert floor in a jumble of odd turns and angles, and they moved into the shade of them, a blessed chance to rest the horse and themselves. They were all in desperate need of a break. Emilio helped to settle Johnny in the shade of a boulder so that he was leaning on his left elbow with his legs stretched out and then the boy laid one of the canteens near him before wandering off to tend to Diablo. Scott turned to study the desert behind them. "Scott?"
"Yeah, Johnny?" He turned back to see intense blue eyes looking at him.
"Do you see something out there? They surely know that Consuela and Emilio are gone by now. It won't take them all that long to catch up with us. We're movin' kinda slow." It was obvious from his tone that Johnny felt very personally responsible for their slow pace.
Scott turned and could see Consuela moving toward where his brother lay. "I don't see anything yet, but I expect you're right-they're out there."
"Consuela, get away from me with that stuff." Scott smiled when he heard Johnny complaining about the medicine. He could think of nothing more convincing to prove that his brother was starting to feel better.
"Senor, it is taking away your fever. You must drink it."
"It tastes like hell." He tried half-heartedly to swat her hand away, but she was ready for it and
pulled the bottle away in time.
"Si, it does. But you are better because of it."
As Scott turned back to look out across the expanse of sand again, he heard Johnny mutter something that sounded like 'dang woman must be related to Sam,' but he knew without looking that his brother had taken the bottle and was obediently drinking the medicine. He knew that, because Johnny felt like he was slowing them down, he would do whatever it took to stop being a liability. Although he was reluctant to share the information without being certain, Scott thought that he had heard horses and voices across the expanse of sand just as they had moved into this sheltered area, and in spite of Johnny's cooperation with Consuela, he was very aware that they were nearly helpless out here. He had a tiny woman, a young boy, an injured man with nearly useless hands, one shotgun, thanks to Emilio and one bone-handled knife, courtesy of Consuela by way of Johnny. Once the Castle Rock 'gang' caught up with them, and he was pretty sure they would, were, in fact, probably very close now, the fight was likely to be short and very ugly.
He pushed off of the boulder he had been leaning against and moved to join his brother where he rested in the shade, gathering his strength for the next leg of the trip, hoping to stay ahead of their inevitable pursuers. "We are a long way from Grapevine Canyon now, Senor Scott. We have come far." Consuela looked over at him from her place next to Johnny and handed him the canteen. She seemed to sense Scott's mood and was making an attempt to lighten it.
Johnny had pushed himself more upright and was sitting now, against the side of one of the boulders. He joined the conversation as Consuela moved off to get something from the saddlebags on Diablo, who was ground tied around a small turn in the rocks, next to where Emilio napped in a spot of shade. "Lo siento, Senora, but I don't think that Tiburcio will let you two go without a fight," Johnny called softly to her retreating back. "We have dragged you and Emilio into our problems.
"It was my choice, Senor Johnny. No one was dragged." She was nearly out of sight, but he could still hear the conviction in her voice.
"He can't have anyone out here loose knowin' about the canyon." Johnny's worry for the woman and her son was palpable. He was definitely feeling responsible for slowing the group down. "And that's not even considerin' the fact that he will be madder'n hell when he finds out me and Scott are still alive. He'll dog us for sure."
At that very moment a bullet ricocheted with a high pitched whine off of the boulder just above Scott's head, sending small pieces of rock up into the air and then down around his shoulders.
The two men shot brief looks at one
another and then scrambled up as quickly as they could, but,
unfortunately, neither was armed, and Johnny really wasn't capable of moving very fast, or really even holding a gun, even if he had one. They instinctively worked toward trying to get something between themselves and the shooters. More bullets were slammed into rock and sand as they headed for cover. The sound of the gunfire was incredibly loud within the rocky walls, and each shot echoed fiercely. As they rounded the boulder which Consuela had disappeared behind earlier, they could see Emilio holding tightly to the frightened horse, which tugged wildly at his lead. The boy was on the verge of real panic himself, his face becoming more pale by the second, his eyes incredibly large and round. Consuela, though, was nowhere to be seen. Scott was working hard to get to where he could get his hands on the shotgun, but there was an open expanse between him and the boy, no cover, no chance to get there unscathed. They were all quite effectively pinned where they were.
"Madrid. You and your brother. I know you are there. You will not escape from me. Do not be so foolish as to think that you can." It was, of course, Vasquez shouting at them from just beyond their sanctuary.
Johnny called out to him. "Vasquez, we passed your stupid trial. Before I came to your Godforsaken little canyon, I knew that you were a horse thief, but I never thought that you were a liar. Are you proud of proving me wrong?"
"I have not lied to you. I have let you leave Castle Rock, have I not? That was the agreement, that you could go. That doesn't mean you can be alive after you leave. When did I ever promise you that, Madrid? I think that you both must be more dead than alive right now anyway. No man survives for long after the trial and the walk in the desert. And what of Consuela and her son? Are they here? What have you done to them? Must they die too? If anything happens to them, it will be on your head you know." Johnny was far, far beyond tired of hearing the vain, pompous man make speeches at him.
"Vasquez, por favor, you cannot hurt a woman and a child. Let them go. Are you loco? You will have us; you don't want to hurt them. What would your followers say if they found out you had hurt your own people-a woman, a young boy?"
As Johnny spoke, Vasquez, with Harley at his side, had dismounted and the two of them were moving forward into the rocks and shadows, confident that the men were unarmed and too worn down and injured to put up a fight. Johnny wondered intensely if these two were the extent of their pursuers; were these the only two who had come searching for them?
Vasquez was not worried in the least about what Consuela might do. She had followed him like all of the other canyon sheep for years now; he had no reason to think that she would not cower in his presence now. He came around a jutting rock and zeroed in on his intended victims. He and Harley both had their guns out and at the ready. Scott and Johnny stood helpless-too far from Emilio to get to the shotgun, too tired and hurt to jump the armed men. Johnny didn't even think he could stand without bracing one swollen hand on the rock wall behind him. Vasquez laughed out loud when he saw Emilio standing off to the left of the two intruders holding his shotgun pointed at himself and Harley. On the other hand, Harley looked decidedly uneasy. Apparently the angry little man was only able to hit a man when he was down, or tied to a pole. The fear and cowardice rolled off of him at the sight of the boy pointing a shotgun in his direction. The thought that he might be in danger himself seemed to take all of the mean out of him, and suddenly, a dark stain spread across the front of his pants and down his leg. If their situation hadn't been so dire, Johnny might have laughed to see tangible evidence of the bully's cowardice. Vasquez had very little fear of Emilio, however. "Emilio, my boy, you want to put that down now. It's dangerous. Someone might get hurt. You might get hurt."
For all of Emilio's life, this man had nearly been God. Whatever Senor Vasquez said, that's the way it was. Everyone in Emilio's world did exactly what Senor said, always. And Vasquez was also the one who spent time 'outside,' brought bits and pieces of the outside world into the canyon-books which his mother had used to teach him to read, spices for her to cook with, and one very special time, when he was eight years old, real hand-tooled leather boots, just for him. And, oh, Emilio had always longed to see what lay beyond the canyon, beyond the life he knew; he burned with wanting to see and know it, so Vasquez was the one who made that outside world seem a little closer. It was also Senor Vasquez who had put him in charge of the magnificent Diablo, when the man had first come home with the white stallion, and Senor had shown him how to wrap Diablo's hooves in flour sacks to scare the 'unsuspecting fools' at Vallecito station, and they had laughed to think of it.
Emilio had no loyalty to these other two men, these intruders, had never even seen them before yesterday. They were strangers to him. Suddenly, he began to wonder why his mama's head had been turned by them. Then he thought about seeing them on the mules, dropped onto the sand. When his mother had seen the two men dumped unconscious in the sand, she had whispered to him that Senor Vasquez was very wrong, that this situation was all wrong, and that Senor Madrid and his brother were right. "We must help them, Emilio." Emilio had spoken the truth when he had told Madrid that he knew his Bible; he knew that it was wrong to take a life, maybe the most wrong someone could be, but this was Senor. He was so confused. It was too hard. There was too much. He needed more time to think this through. How could he turn on the man he had looked up to all of his life? He knew that he needed to honor what his mother told him to do, but he was nearly a man, could make his own decisions. Couldn't he? But, he had seen, just as she had. Senor Vasquez and Harley dumped the two men in the desert. He had left them to die; there was no doubt about that.
And then Vasquez made a mistake-the biggest mistake of his life. If he had been patient, if he had waited it out, Emilio may have talked himself into loyalty for the way he had lived his whole life, loyalty for Tiburcio Vasquez. But the man turned his gun away from Johnny and Scott and pointed it instead right at Emilio.
And Johnny, without hesitation, turned and moved slightly, pushed himself away from the rock wall
behind him so that he stood swaying directly between Emilio and Vasquez. It didn't matter to him whether or not Emilio had a shot at Vasquez anymore, as long as Vasquez didn't have a shot at Emilio. Emilio saw and understood the subtle move. It was the first time in his life he had ever seen anyone sacrifice himself so completely, so unselfishly, for someone else. His world came sharply into focus at that moment, and he stepped one step to the side and shot his shotgun in the direction of Vasquez and Harley.
The sound of it was deafening in Johnny's ears. The gun had gone off within a few feet of him and had taken him somewhat by surprise. He looked up in time to see the back of Harley as he took off like a cat with his tail on fire, out of the boulders, towards his horse. The man definitely had a yellow streak a mile wide. Vasquez looked at Emilio with a strange, puzzled look on his face, but Johnny could see that there was no blood. If Emilio had not missed, there should be blood. Instead of tearing a hole in the man, he could see that the shotgun had torn a deep hole in the sand and rock right in front of the man. He turned to make sure that Emilio was still behind him, that the boy was safe from Vasquez's gun, and when he turned back around, he saw Tiburcio drop his gun and begin to fall bonelessly to the ground. There behind him, revealed as he fell, stood a white-faced
Consuela, a bloody bone-handled knife clutched tightly in her hand.
Time seemed to stop for a moment, and then, Emilio, shaky, but trying to be so grown up, called out to his mama and was running to her, holding her. And Scott was moving to make sure that Diablo hadn't gotten away from them, grabbing the horse's reins, calming him. And Johnny, with his energy suddenly and completely gone, was sliding down to sit ungracefully on the hard ground.
Vasquez was really quite dead, dead
before he hit the ground, in fact. The bone-handled knife was long and
wickedly sharp and had done an adequate job of disposing of the small-time
dictator. Consuela stood with a blank look as Emilio, his face scattered
with random tears, held her and patted her back. Johnny could hear him
murmuring to her as they sank to their knees behind the dead bandido, "será
bueno. No preocupar. Todo será fino." From his seat on the ground,
he watched as Scott checked to make sure that Vasquez was definitely not going
to bother them again, tucking the man's gun into his belt, and he then moved
off, beyond the boulders, to make sure that there were no other Castle Rock
citizens waiting to attack. Johnny used the rock wall to pull himself upright
again and then made his way slowly to mother and son. He took the bloody knife
from Consuela's lifeless hand, threw it aside and fell to his knees to better
embrace them both. He turned Emilio's face away from the bloody corpse and
pillowed the boy's head on his shoulder. They were all in shock to some
degree. Consuela couldn't take her eyes off of her own bloody hand. Scott
returned leading Vasquez's horse and nodded at Johnny. Yes, they were
alone. And the four of them then sat huddled together for some time.
They spent a part of their afternoon piling stones on the body of Tiburcio Vasquez. Finally, when they had done the best they could, under the circumstances, Consuela had pulled a battered Bible from the saddlebags, and they said a quick prayer over the grave before they started off towards Campo Santo again, all able to ride now that they had two horses.
It was hours later by the time the bedraggled quartet made their way into the sleeping town. Johnny's fever was all but gone, thanks to Consuela and her potions, and his hands were even beginning to look a little bit better. Mother and son were still pretty badly shaken from the events of the day, but Johnny had eventually coaxed a smile or two from Consuela with his complaints about her 'bottle of poison' and his futile attempts to avoid it, and Emilio had finally confessed quietly to Scott, at one point as they rode together on the ghost horse, that he was not sorry that Vasquez was dead, that he knew now, believed in his heart, that the man had been wrong, a murderer.
It was fully dark as the little group moved slowly down the main street of town; they had spent the
entire day in the desert, from the pink and gold dawn that Johnny had witnessed over Consuela's shoulder as he opened his eyes this morning, to now, nearly midnight, and rather than wake the town's doctor so late, the four amazingly weary travelers decided that Johnny needed rest more than anything else, that they all needed rest. They left the horses at the livery and secured two rooms above the local cantina. With Emilio on one side and Scott on the other, they had managed to get Johnny up what seemed to be the longest flight of stairs ever built, and then, all, exhausted
beyond belief, had fallen immediately into bed.
The next morning, after baths and a large and satisfying breakfast, Johnny had reluctantly agreed to
a visit with the doctor, insisting the whole time that he was fine, but he had gone, saying it was just to shut up his overly protective big brother. The visit had gotten him fresh bandages, smelly salve, a fancy sling and a severe tongue lashing concerning the state of his wounds from the local Doc. Under the circumstances, Johnny felt like his wounds were in pretty good shape; anyway, he was beginning to think that all doctors were required to take a class in tongue lashing, and that this one must have gotten an 'A' in that particular class.
They had sent a telegram to Lancer as early as possible that morning as well, first thing, even before they had eaten breakfast, explaining that they had been delayed, but that they were now on the last leg of their trip, and, in a couple of days, they would be on the stage for home. Johnny had been reading over his brother's shoulder as Scott had written the telegram to Murdoch. When he read Scott's words, he had laughed out loud at the cryptic message. "Delayed in Campo Santo-will explain later-leaving for home in two days-send money."
As they made their recovery in the bustling little town, Scott and Johnny spent a great deal of their
time watching Emilio's reactions to various things. He was fascinated by everything he saw and did. "The buildings are so big; there are so many people; it's so loud; you can go to this place and have a meal rather than always eating at home; there are so many horses; those women standing outside of the saloon don't have enough clothing on do they, Johnny?" Even the fact that Johnny could buy a shirt ready-made to replace the one Consuela had cut the sleeve from had amazed the boy. It was so much fun for the more jaded brothers to be there as he discovered each new and
infinitely interesting thing. At first, it had been difficult to get him to agree to leave his shotgun behind in the room as they moved about the town, but Scott still carried Vasquez's gun and then when Johnny had fitted himself out with a new rig, from money wired to them by Murdoch, the boy had felt even easier about his own lack of firepower, especially after he had spent some time watching Johnny as he practiced drawing the gun left-handed across his body with his still-swollen hand. Emilio found it comforting that his new friend could be fairly fast and accurate with the gun, in spite of his obvious current disadvantages.
Whenever the subject of Consuela's and Emilio's future came up, the brothers were united and insistent. Johnny had used his considerable powers of persuasion and a variety of sweet and sexy smiles and had finally convinced Consuela that she would very much like to come to their part of the country to make a new home-away from desert ghosts and, especially, away from Castle Rock. Johnny and Scott had discussed their new friends' future at length, and Johnny already had plans to introduce Consuela to Sam, to see if he had need of a part time, stubborn as he was, nurse. Or, maybe Hattie Landry could use some help at the dress shop in Green River. And of course, he had
first-hand knowledge of the quality of both Consuela's doctorin' and her fancy stitchin' skills. He'd be
glad to give her a recommendation for either position. And Emilio would make an excellent stableboy, his care and concern for Diablo proved his good heart and love of horses. It had nearly broken Johnny's own heart when, during their first full day in the town, mother and son had made a trip to the livery. The boy had been forced to turn away to hide his tears when Consuela had sold the ghost stallion, as well as Tiburcio's black, to the owner. The worry of someone else from Castle Rock finding mother and son would diminish the farther they could get them away from the area, but she was afraid to be associated with the distinctive horse, or with one that had belonged personally to Vasquez, even though they all figured that without his influence, the little community would probably fall apart.
Finally, on their last day in town, the brothers had taken mother and son shopping. They bought them traveling clothes, over strenuous protests from Consuela, who insisted that she had money, that she could take care of her own, and they had also bought a satchel in which to pack the new clothes. Right before they were done, Johnny found Emilio running a reverent hand over a pair of hand-tooled, leather boots, a wistful look on his face. He looked down at the boy's sandals and was reminded of a time in his life, when he was of an age with Emilio, when he would have given almost anything to have such a beautiful pair of boots, any pair of boots actually, and he had gone back to the store after their dinner that evening, had roused the owner from his second floor home, and had bought the boots, left them for the boy to find when he awoke the next morning.
As Johnny lay in bed that night, contemplating the fact that they were, at long last, going home, he knew that he had wrestled with and won a few personal battles on this trip, but none was more important than the one that he had waged which had exorcised some of the ghosts of his childhood. He knew he would never believe that everything had an explanation, didn't want to believe that, but he also knew now that sometimes it was important to look for one.
Finally, the brothers found
themselves in a situation very similar to the one they had been in several days
ago in Roger's Crossing, only this time, it was Scott who stood on the plank
sidewalk looking impatiently down the street, waiting for the stagecoach, which
was late again, and Johnny who had gone to the general store to pass some
time. After about 20 minutes of browsing, he stepped out of the store with
a small bag held just a bit awkwardly in his left hand. He was starting to
feel human again at last. The wound in his arm was already beginning to
heal. His hands pained him some, and he did worry that it might be quite
some time before they felt completely normal,
before he could draw and shoot smoothly, but things were looking decidedly better all around, worlds better than they had looked just a few days before.
He had moved to step off of the small porch to cross the dusty street, when, from beneath the wooden steps in front of the store, there rose a fluttering shadow which moved upward and drew his eyes with it. Las Mariposas, at least a dozen of them, hovering now above his head, then tangling themselves in the awning over the store window; only this time, for the first time since he was a nino, his heart didn't lurch at the sight of them. Somehow, something had changed. Oh, they were still pretty creepy; he guessed he would always carry that around with him, but he didn't feel
malevolence from them or have a real fear of them like he had before. Instead, he felt profound sadness as he thought of the souls of loved ones who were lost to him forever, thought particularly of his mama.
However, those departed souls didn't frighten him anymore, not like they had in the past. He now knew that many of the spirits which had scared him as a boy may have had explanations-some were conjured by Vasquez, that was for sure. And the ones that didn't have explanations, well, somehow it just seemed all right that they didn't. He was still very sure that there were some things, some wondrous things, some frightening things, that he couldn't 'put a name to', would never be able to put a name to, but that was all right too. Suddenly he hoped desperately that he would still make it home before Los Dias de los Muertos, home in time to make an ofrenda, in time to go to the graveyard and tidy the graves. To eat pan de muertos. He smiled and thought of Scott and his
reaction to the traditions Johnny had learned growing up and decided that maybe he would also carve a jack-o-lantern this year, or bob for apples, if he could figure out exactly what that might involve.
Scott called to him and pointed up the road at the approaching stage, and Johnny hurried across the
street to join the others. This time, as they settled into their seats, there was no disputing the number of passengers on the stage. Johnny looked at his brother, smiled broadly and held up four fingers. Scott nodded and sat back with a grin, remembering how his new friend, The Lady in White, had been a part of the catalyst for this whole strange adventure, how she had taught him a very important lesson. Consuela, in a brand new dress and a colorful shawl, courtesy of the brothers Lancer, sat across from Scott and smiled softly at him when she caught him studying her new outfit with appreciation. "You look lovely, Consuela." he said, and she blushed just a bit. Next to her in his usual seat beneath the driver was Johnny, his arm in a new and very bright, blue bandanna sling. Next to Scott on the red leather seat was Emilio, scuffing brand new hand-tooled leather boots rhythmically across the floor of the coach. During his visit to the general store, Johnny had bought him a bag of peppermints, and, in spite of the fact that he had never ridden in a stagecoach before,
his attention was entirely taken by the candy. Johnny figured everybody had priorities.
As the driver called out to the team, Johnny leaned across and tapped his brother on the knee. Scott had turned to look out of the window before the dust got too bad, and when he felt the tap, he turned back to the interior of the coach. He caught a glimpse of his brother's crucifix as Johnny leaned towards him, and it instantly grounded him, just as it had that night lying in the desert sand. Johnny handed him a pamphlet that Scott had seen him pick up and put in his pocket at the stage station in town as they had waited. He had that 'bothersome little brother' look on his face, and Scott was suddenly very afraid that he might be planning something again. Although, after this trip, he didn't think he had to worry about having his leg pulled by Johnny any time soon. The little pamphlet was turned back to a certain page, and it was obvious that his brother wanted him to read
something specific. He settled back to see what had caught Johnny's eye, what kind of mischief he might be up to, and began to read:
Hints for Plains Travelers from The Butterfield Stage Company
1. Never ride in cold weather with tight boots or shoes, nor close-fitting gloves.
2. Don't smoke a strong pipe inside the coach, especially early in the morning.
3. If you have anything to take in a bottle, pass it around; a man who drinks by himself in such a case is lost to all human feeling.
4. Don't swear, nor lop over on your neighbor when sleeping.
5. Never attempt to fire a gun or pistol while on the road, it may frighten the team; and the careless handling and cocking of the weapon makes nervous people nervous.
6. Don't discuss politics or religion, nor point out places on the road where horrible murders have been
7. Don't grease your hair before starting or dust will stick there in sufficient quantities to make a respectable 'tater' patch.
8. Spit only on the leeward side of the coach
9. The best seat inside a stagecoach is the one under the driver; you will get less than half the bumps and jars than on any other seat.
Scott looked up sharply at his brother, who looked back at him briefly, but he was already busy pulling his hat down over his eyes, another of his 'stagecoach' habits, and turning his face slowly
towards the window. But Scott could see, under the brim of that hat, as his brother turned away, a huge smile. He settled back in his own seat and let out a small, surprised laugh. While he may never know if some of the ghosts on this trip were real or not, or find out all of the intricacies that added up to make his little brother who he was, at least one of the great mysteries in his life had, at last, been solved. Now he knew, finally, why Johnny Lancer always sat in the same seat on the stage coach, every single time.