For a Thousand Dollars
Rated—R minus, a bit of violence and some slightly less than mild language.
Disclaimer: I don’t own them, and I expect nothing from writing this.
Feedback: Appreciated, on or off site
Sequel to Some Nice People.
Many thanks to KC for her excellent work as a beta
I’m alive. The words pulsed in his mind with the rhythm of the horse’s measured, racing hoof beats.
He pulled his stare from the distance ahead of him and looked to the sky. “I’m alive.” This time he spoke the words aloud. The sound of his own voice whispering into the dry air brought him back to a true awareness of his surroundings; the sun blazed at him from high over his left shoulder, lathering his mount and sending sweat down his own back to soak the top of his pants. How long now, how long exactly had it been since he had started this race? Even though he wasn’t one to live by a clock, it still wasn’t like him to lose track of such a simple thing as the position of the sun. But, dear God, he was alive.
It struck him then, how very beautiful the passing of time was, that simple movement of the sun from horizon to horizon. A miraculous thing, really, like childbirth, or good sex, or the best damn poker hand ever. He looked at the sun’s position again and decided that by now it must be late morning. Surely enough time and rough miles had passed to take another break, to rest the poor laboring horse.
Lucia. The name tumbled suddenly through his mind, and he felt a stab of accompanying pain in his gut. What of Lucia? Teyo’s tearful words came back to him: “The Patron has her . . . I could hear her crying.” Oh God. He was putting distance between himself and her; he was riding away from her. He should go to her now. But he had a reason for riding away. Yes, that’s right, it had to be done. He had to be cautious. He was riding across the desert, south, away from Lucia. No. Not away. Not really. Not forever, only away for now. He suddenly felt desperate to be with her. He pulled back so hard on the reins of the galloping horse that it tossed its head wildly and nearly sat down on its haunches in an effort to stop.
In the near stillness that followed, with the desert heat shimmering the sand, he dropped a hand to his mount’s neck to calm it, and let himself listen and think. He heard the blow of the horse, the lazy buzz of flies in the heavy air and the call of a circling hawk, and, as before, he didn’t hear the sounds of pursuit. But, a man didn’t live long without being careful and very sure. The fact that he had managed to be alive even another hour was almost too sweet to contemplate—but it was also heartbreaking to think about what had gone before his not dying.
His memories of the last few days rushed at him, the disastrous, ill-conceived revolution; the jail cell in the cantina’s storage room, the air of it thick with the smell of fear, and then the single-file march out of town, stumbling along before the men of the firing squad who added their laughing cruelty to the day. He reeled a bit in the saddle, grabbed at the saddle horn, swung his leg and dropped from the horse. As he reached the ground, his knees nearly buckled. The back of his neck felt tight and burnt, and the stolen gun was heavy against his back where he had shoved it into his waistband. His head pounded, and in spite of having only a vague memory of his last meal, he bent over, hands on his knees, to retch in the sand.
It had all been just too damned close. Manuel and Esteban were gone with a blast of sound and barely a blink of his eyes. Vive la Revolución. So many were gone, and, ultimately, their fates had counted for nothin, accomplished nothing. Images of spilled blood swirled around him. He stumbled and grabbed for a stirrup with one hand, for the cross around his neck with the other. He said a quick prayer for Tomas and for his curious savior, the gringo Pinkerton. He prayed for their clean escape, for something good to come of it all, for Tomas’ children to still have their father. He prayed for the townspeople of Altar, for Juan, staring sightlessly in the ditch, and for Manuel and Esteban, lying dead on a lonely hillside. And then, he prayed for Lucia.
Madre de Dios, Lucia. He had to think now. He had to get to her. He had to figure out his next step. More than anything else, he had to believe that el Patron would not hurt her. The man claimed to love her. That would count for something, wouldn’t it? In his frantic fleeing, he had known enough to realize that he needed to buy himself some time. He rode wide of Altar. It was too soon to do anything more, and he knew he was very alone with his one “borrowed” horse and one “borrowed” gun.
The revolution had died just this morning, the morning of his death. It had come quickly and without ceremony, as though just another day. Almost before he could think about it, with the dry dust floating in the heavy air around him, Esteban and Manuel lay dead. When a man in a suit had come flying out of the sun along that ridge in a rattling wagon, it had occurred to Johnny that the shouting gringo was an emissary from the devil. And, in his confusion, and with other things to occupy his thoughts, he hadn’t quite caught what that man had said to the leader of the firing squad---something about someone in town saying Johnny might be there---something about muy dinero. What an innocent fool the man must be, showing those men such a fist full of money. Yes, the devil’s messenger had said something about a captain in town telling him that Johnny Madrid might be one of the prisoners out there. Johnny remembered that much.
Johnny answered that he was Madrid, and the gringo said his father wanted to see him, as he worked on releasing Johnny from the binding ropes. His father for God’s sake. Lancer. He had felt a tiny spark of hope then, at that moment, that maybe this was not his day to die. Dios, had his worthless bastard of a father actually somehow provided a reprieve for Johnny Madrid? That was something he might have to think a bit on later when he had a space of time, to think about the suddenness of this invitation and the bitter taste it left as well.
But what on God’s earth could that son of a bitch want with him after all this time? Of course, a thousand dollars wasn’t easy to turn down, no matter what the source, and the fact that it meant he would survive at least another day, well, yes, as he had told the Pink, he would ride into hell for that much money. Once he took care of some business of his own, of course, once he had Lucia, and the money left buried under the howling wolf cactus, he would do exactly that, for a thousand dollars—ride into hell and face the devil.
He rubbed the back of his hand across his mouth, trying to wipe away the sour taste of his sickness. His hastily borrowed horse was looking back at him, its stare curious, impatient. Damn, they needed water. “Yes, mi amigo, we will get out of this heat for awhile, and then we will find ourselves a drink. Come.” He hauled himself into the saddle with an effort, and headed for an outcropping of rock which promised shade.
Once there, Johnny slipped to the ground and led the horse to a spot where the poor beast could stand completely out of the sharp sun. He pulled the saddle from its back and let it fall with a dusty thud to the ground. The gun in his waistband was the next to go, and then, with a shaky hand, he found the rock wall behind him and slid down to sit. “What is your name?”he whispered, thinking of Solano, wondering if he would ever see the smooth-gaited pinto again. With one hand shading his eyes, he looked up at the horse from his spot on the ground, and got only a shake of mane in reply. “I’m hoping you won’t mind then, I will call you Arroyo, mi amigo, for luck.
Johnny and Arroyo stayed under their overhang for the better part of the afternoon, sweating and craving a drink. He didn’t bother with any more conversation. His mouth felt like he had swallowed one of Lucia’s dish towels, and the horse appeared to be dozing anyway. He knew that the two new compadres couldn’t hold out much longer without water though, and the outcroppings had proven to provide only shade and quick, skittering lizards. There was no water hiding anywhere near. He could not remember the last time he had seen rain.
Throughout that long afternoon, Arroyo stood, head low, constantly twitching the muscles across his back and flicking his tail at the biting flies. Johnny, in contrast, was lethargic and almost unnaturally still as he spent his time thinking about how he would manage to sneak into Altar and find Lucia; he wondered what he would do if Don Castel had already left with her for the coast. Well, really, no need to wonder; he would follow, of course. He would have to follow. Eventually, he managed to sleep for a while.
Then, as the sun settled its way toward evening, he rose to begin again. “Come, my friend. We must leave. We will not find water if we spend our time hiding in the rocks like the lizards.” Arroyo shied away from him a bit. The horse must have grown attached to the outcropping because it broke out a bit of stubborn on Johnny, pulling at the harness and sidestepping as he tried to get the saddle back on him, but on the whole, he couldn’t help but feel that a bit of spirit left in the animal was a good thing at this point. The Lord knew Johnny didn’t have much left in himself. Eventually, the two settled their differences, and slower this time, and heading Northwest, they turned towards Altar, towards Lucia, and from there, God willing, towards a thousand dollars from the rich, old, gringo bastard calling himself Johnny’s “father.”
The sky slowly turned a deep and disturbing shade of red as Johnny rode toward Altar. It spread itself out before him blood dark and angry. In places, long black fingers of jagged rock formations poked at it. The sight unsettled him; it looked as though the desert beyond must surely be on fire, or maybe the sky itself was molten and boiling. It sent a strong shiver down Johnny’s spine. He and Arroyo were within a few miles of the eastern edge of town, but, if the sky was any indication, they seemed, instead, to be heading straight into hell’s backdoor.
There were signs of civilization now, tracks in the dirt path, a broken wagon wheel, and Johnny was beginning to worry that he might run into someone he would rather not. His destination was a tiny, dirt-scratch farm just outside of Altar which belonged to Salvador and Felicita Aguilar. It was a fairly easy buggy ride’s distance away from town, but still isolated and separate. The couple had always been quiet supporters of the revolution and of Johnny Madrid, but most particularly they cared about Lucia.
The Aguilars had not been blessed with daughters of their own; instead, they had raised sons, twins, a blessing which had been granted to them later in life. They had sent the boys out into the world when they were barely fully grown, letting them go so that they might reach for better things than what the small farm and Altar had to offer.
Both were smart boys, according to Lucia. He knew without being told though that they must be smart—they had gotten away from Don Castel and the poverty of this desperate place. With their parents’ encouragement, they had headed north to California.
Seven years ago, Lucia had moved to Altar from San Ignacio with her Tio Cesario. The two arrived in the small town only a few months before the twins made their escape, and Lucia found a comfortable and comforting place in the old couple’s hearts. Salvador and Felicita, in turn, found someone to fuss over and care about. A couple of years later, when Cesario met a swift and bloody death on the horns of one of el Patron’s bulls, the Aguilars provided support, as much as she would let them. Even at fourteen, she had been independent and stubborn and determined to make it on her own as much as possible.
Johnny always enjoyed time spent with the couple. More than anything else, he enjoyed the concern and love they showed Lucia. Visits to their farm were filled with conversation and laughter. Somehow, every time they visited, there would be a vase of flowers there waiting to greet them on Felicita’s worn table. Johnny had never figured out where they came from, had never seen them growing on the farm anywhere, but the bright lavender or pink or yellow blooms were startling and lovely in the midst of a life dominated by browns and grays. And, when they left, every time, Felicita insisted that Lucia take the flowers home for her own table. Lucia told him it had always been so.
He could particularly remember riding out to visit the isolated pair, nearly a month ago now, with Lucia tucked in behind him on Solano. On most visits, Lucia would carry her sketchbook and a small bag of charcoal and pencils. This time, though, they had slaughtered several chickens which had inexplicably stopped laying, and they wanted to share their bounty with the elderly couple.
Lucia made him laugh with her efforts to keep the bag of dripping meat held away from her as they rode, particularly to keep it held away from the new green and lavender embroidered skirt she wore. It had been a recent gift from Felicita, hand-stitched with a swirling pattern of birds in flight along the wide hem, and she wouldn’t hear of wearing anything else for this visit, in spite of the bloody package she carried. Like a naughty child, Johnny had searched out spots of rougher terrain, just to set the bag swinging, just to hear Lucia laugh and throw mild curses at him.
Both the bag of bloody poultry and the precious skirt had both survived the trip very well, in spite of Johnny’s teasing. Salvador had roasted the meat on a hand-hammered spit over an open fire behind the house. They all sat drinking tequila and listening to the sizzling of the rich fat as lazy globs of it fell down into the coals. They had feasted on the roasted chicken and on corn tortillas and squash. And later that night, with Lucia clutching a handful of drooping pink flowers instead of a bloody bag, they had taken a slow ride home in the moon-washed night. Lucia’a big bed could barely hold the love they brought to it that night.
Johnny shook his head a bit to clear that memory and the heart-gripping fear it brought with it. He rounded a small bend in the road. “It’s just here,” he whispered to the weary horse. “We will drink and eat now.” In the distance, with the angry sky as a backdrop, he could see Felicita as she shooed a dozen flapping chickens into their coop for the night with her apron. Salvador stood by the overhanging roof of their adobe home, watching his wife, with the smoke from his pipe drifting in the air above his head. Johnny thought he could see the man gesturing at Felicita, teasing her most likely, calling her “Old Woman,” as always.
“Hola,” he called, even though he doubted his raspy throat could even be heard by Arroyo at this point, let alone by the Aguilars.
Felicita always insisted that her husband was going deaf, but the man surprised Johnny by looking up immediately when he had called out to them. Salvador seemed to be staring, and then, “Look, Felicita, Holy Blessed Mother, it is Johnny. Hola, Johnny. Woman, look.” He was waving, and Felicita did stare in Johnny’s direction now. Then, she was waving and shouting too. As Johnny got closer, he could see her beautiful face crinkling into a smile.
“We thought you were dead, Johnny. Thank God, it was a lie,” she called to him.
“Antonio told us you were dead, boy. Shot down by the bastard rurales.” Salvador spit in the dirt. “Merciful God, you are alive.”
Felicita clasped her hands under her chin. She was crying. “Johnny.” Salvador shuffled to his wife with his distinctive bow-legged gait. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and half supported her, helping her to hurry. Then, as Johnny, weak and weary, dismounted in their well-swept yard, they threw their arms around him, pulling him toward the house. It seemed like they could only prove to themselves he was real if they were touching him. “You are hurt, si? You can barely walk, Johnny.”
“I’m fine, just tired, thirsty.”
“Come inside, sit, sit, nino. It is cooler inside.”
“Tell us what happened, Johnny. Antonio rode a circuit of the farms early this morning to tell us all of the trouble in town; he told us you had been taken away to be executed along with Manuel, Esteban and Tomas. We prayed for you Johnny, for all of you.”
“Muchos Gracias, Felicita. Tomas was alive the last time I saw him,” he said. Then, he hung his head. “Juan, Esteban and Manuel are all dead. Others too, I don’t know, many I think.” He heard Felicita gasp.
“What of Lucia? Antonio had not yet seen her or heard of her.” Felicita looked at him with so much hope in her eyes.
Johnny felt his gut clench. “I don’t know. Teyo said that he saw her yesterday, after they put us in the jail. She was with Don Castel. He was angry, pulling at her by the arm.”
Felicita fingered the rosary which hung at her waist. “Dios y Hombre verdadero, Creador, por favor,” she whispered. “Oh, my Lucia.”
“Tell us what happened.”
“Be quiet, Old Man,” Felicita snapped at her husband. “Can’t you see he is tired and thirsty. Do not bother him with any more questions right now.”
“I have to take care of the horse.” Johnny stood. He had completely forgotten about Arroyo. “He needs water.”
“You sit, nino. Salvador will take care of your horse. Go on, Salvador, go.” She made a half-hearted swat in his direction. “Can’t you see the boy is worried about his horse? I’ll swear you get more deaf every day, Old Man.”
Johnny watched as Salvador rose from his seat. He was truly grateful to sit a while longer and let the man help with the horse. “Gracias, Salvador. Arroyo will be very glad to see you.”
“Here, Johnny, drink this---cool water for you too, drawn from the well.” Felicita passed him a tin mug, and the water he drank from it was the best in all of Mexico. When he had drained the mug, she took it from him to fill again.
The room around him faded as he sat alone at the familiar table. It was the time of day when it isn’t quite dark enough to light the lamps, but the corners of the room sit in deep shadow. He was so tired, and the room was cool.
He looked up as Felicita put a flickering lamp and a plate of beans and warm tortillas before him. He had not even heard the preparation of the meal. He must have dozed. His stomach rolled at the sight and smell of the food, but he didn’t want to seem ungrateful, so he started to eat, slowly, small bites chewed carefully. Soon, he couldn’t seem to shove the food in fast enough and ate with a singular purpose, his eyes never leaving the plate. He was just mopping up the last bit of bean juice when two glasses and a bottle of tequila were placed near the lamp.
“Gracias, Salvador. You are a good friend and the perfect host.”
“Johnny, por favor, we need to know all that happened.” The man poured a swallow of amber liquid into each glass. He took up his own drink, threw it back with one quick motion and then pushed the other closer to Johnny. “You and I will have some drinks, and you will tell us everything.”
And he did.
By the time the telling was finished, Felicita was crying again, her eyes tightly closed, her hands restlessly worrying the beads again.
Salvador, with his mouth frowning even more than before, poured them each another more generous shot of tequila, and Johnny nodded his head in thanks as he picked it up to drink. Felicita stood and turned to the counter behind him. “What will you do, Johnny?” she asked him. “How will you get Lucia from that devil’s hands?”
Though she stood out of his sight, Johnny heard Felicita whispering, “Oh, mia, Lucia.”
He turned in his seat and grabbed for her hand. “I’m going to get her out of there, I’m going to get her out and take her away,” he said, looking back at Salvador. “You don’t have to worry. The bastard will not harm her again.”
“Si, we do trust you to take care of her, if any can. But, Don Castel, he is truly el Diablo.” Salvador was clearly scared.
“I will do everything in my power, believe me. I am so very sorry any of this happened at all.”
“Shh, Johnny.” Felicita was by his side quickly and cradled his head to her. “It will be all right, nino. You will steal her away, and we will all roast another fat hen to celebrate when you bring her here to us. Come, you will sleep now. Let me turn down the bed.”
Eventually, Johnny was shooed into the tiny back room which had belonged to the twins. It was a compromise. He had absolutely refused the couple’s offer of their bed. “The barn is fine,” he had argued. “I like sleeping in barns.”
“So, you will not be a good guest and take the better bed, but, I insist, you will sleep inside, with the door barred.” Johnny shook his head at the man. But Salvador was adamant. “No, Johnny, did you not hear me? I said, I insist.”
“You never know when someone might be lurking around,” Felicita had added.
Suddenly, Johnny just wanted to ride away as quickly as possible and keep them out of it. What had he been thinking? He was a fool to be here, to bring possible harm to these fine people. He stared at the floor and shook his head. “No,” he whispered.
“Johnny.” Felicita’s voice was firm as she stood looking up at him with her hands fisted on her ample hips. And, as usual, she won. To Johnny it was just more proof that he could not seem to stop himself from giving in to strong-minded women. But, he was just so damned tired.
As the house quieted, he lowered himself down onto the narrow bed, with the straw mattress crackling softly under his weight. He turned with a groan onto his side and stared at the wall. The moon was nearly full tonight. Its light filtered in through the small window and reminded him of the night before, of seeing Teyo in the alley behind the storage room from the cell’s high window. He had asked the boy if Lucia was all right. Teyo’s eyes had looked like quicksilver in last night’s moon. Like Teyo, like Lucia, the people in the town had only wanted a better life; Johnny had truly wanted that for them.
There was enough light shining in to let him to see the faint lines and shadowed cracks running through the adobe before him. The dizzying routes those cracks and lines took were random, comforting in their lack of pattern. He tried to lose himself in them, to follow them into sleep, but his mind was too full. This night was different from the last one, but it was also very much the same. Like before, he was still so frightened. And, in many ways, he was still a prisoner.
Sighing, he turned again, this time to his back. He listened to the near-stillness surrounding him, the whisper of the wings of a night-hunter moving the air softly, just outside of the window, and the quiet scurry of a cockroach across the room. Before turning again, he checked to make sure that his gun was within reach. He was very sure that for a second night, sleep would not find him.
And when he awoke with a small jerk to find the sun shining through the room’s tiny window, laying a streak on the floor by the bed, he felt guilty for sleeping when he should have been riding like an avenging angel to Lucia’s side.
Johnny was up and moving with little transition between sleeping and waking. He grabbed his gun, stomped into his boots, and raked his hand through his sleep-strewn hair. The kitchen and main room of the house were both deserted, so he continued on and out through the front door. How late must it be for Felicita to have let the fire die in the stove? It had to be after 9:00, at least. How could they let him sleep so late? As he moved outside, a few of the chickens looked up from their serious study of the yard to cackle and scold him for his intrusion, but most simply skittered away.
Faintly, he could hear Felicita’s and Salvador’s voices coming from the tidy old barn. Even though he couldn’t yet make out their words, he could hear the cadence and tone of the exchange, and they clearly sounded worried. As he rounded the corner to enter a small rear door, he caught Salvador’s rumbling words, “---just have to be.”
Felicita must have heard him coming. She turned to greet him, smiling. “Johnny, nino, see what Salvador has.” She swept her arm in a broad gesture.
The couple stood on either side of a short adobe wall separating Salvador’s forge from the rest of the barn. Slung across that wall was a saddle. Salvador was slowly working tallow into the dark leather with a large rag. “Nice,” Johnny said. But, he was far more interested in whether or not Arroyo had been fed. He turned to walk to the side of the barn where the horse was stabled.
“It was my brother’s,” Salvador said, and, out of respect, Johnny turned back, although it irritated him a bit to do so. “He has been dead for nearly 10 years now. His name was Elisando. It is an old family name. Every generation of Aguilars must have an Elisando. My brother was ours. We called him Sandolo. He hated it. He would get so angry and chase the offender every time. He was my older brother, by three full years. I used to follow him everywhere, and that would often make him even angrier than his nickname. Felicita and I have contributed our own Elisando. We called him Sandolito when he was small, although we’ve called him Sando since he got old enough to decide for himself. His brother, Emilio, has always had great fun teasing him about his name, just as my brother and I before them.”
Johnny didn’t understand why Salvador was telling him these things, going on and on. Elisandos and Sandos and Sandolitos and even Emilios tangled in his mind. He simply couldn’t sort such things out. He didn’t have time to catch up on Aguilar family history. He had so much to do. He had to get going. He had to find Lucia.
“I want you to have it, Johnny. In fact, there is no one I would rather have it.”
“No, Salvador, thank you. I cannot take your brother’s saddle. You need to save it for one of your boys.”
“They already have saddles, Johnny. Do me the honor of accepting my brother’s saddle. The one you rode in on needs quite a bit of repair, which you do not have time for.”
“It will last just fine. You’ve done too much already.”
“Da nada. Will you please let me help you? Do not make me beg to do what I can to help Lucia.”
“It’s not fitted to Arroyo. It will rub him wrong and slow us--”
Salvador cut him off with a quick downward wave of his hand. “I have made the adjustments already. It fits the horse perfectly now. Speak of it no more.” He turned his back on Johnny and continued to rub at the saddle.
Twenty minutes later, Johnny had eaten cold, egg-filled tortillas and was headed toward town. He rode using Elisando’s saddle.
He approached the town from the familiar, mustard-covered hills which stretched out to the north of Altar. During his stay with Lucia, he had often walked them to gather in the goats. He knew the paths but tried to stay between the rising swells of the hills, worried that he might be seen before he was ready. He wondered briefly about Placido, Lucia’s favorite goat, and he was suddenly worried again about the neglected chore of milking the small herd the day before. He would see to it after he found Lucia. They would make the time to relieve the poor goats before heading north to collect a thousand dollars.
He tied Arroyo in the sparse shade of a lonely tree before he had quite reached town. “You will be fine here for a while my friend.” He stroked the horse’s silken nose. “I will come for you soon.” He decided he would work his way toward Lucia’s home along the backs of the small houses scattered about her neighborhood. He was on the north end of the Fountain Square. When he reached the first house which sat on the very edge of town, he began a slow zigzag pattern, moving quietly from outhouse to tree to outhouse and to tree again. The houses he passed all looked and felt deserted. Soon he could hear a murmur of voices up ahead. The hushed sound gave him a vaguely uneasy feeling.
He walked quietly through the alley behind Teyo’s house. Now he knew why the other houses seemed deserted. He made a quick accounting of the people gathered before him and it had him reaching for the corner of the rough plank outhouse he had been using to hide behind to keep his balance. Teyo was there clinging to his sister and his grandmother. Next to them stood Rosario, her arm in a sling. Ramona and the children were there, and even Tomas stood by, dressed in his Sunday best. Old Juan from just across the way, his legs swollen and his back crooked with age, sat in one of Lucia’s wooden chairs. Someone must have dragged it out of the kitchen for him. Others had joined around too, neighbors and friends, some crying quietly, some simply standing with their heads bent in an attitude of prayer.
All of the women had draped their heads with dark scarves; all of the men held their hats before them. They stood around a mound of dry, sandy dirt. Johnny watched as Padre Amados slowly made the sign of the cross over the mound. He moved closer, forgetting to take care about being seen. Now he was near enough to hear the priest’s final words---“Requiéscat in pace, Lucia Maria Antonella Alvarez. Amen.”
“No,” he shouted, and the small crowd turned to look at him. “No.”
“Juanito.” Teyo pulled away from Esperanza and ran to him. Johnny was on his knees by the time the little boy reached him, his head hanging, his face hidden by his hair. They reached out for each other.
“No,” Johnny whispered. He had only been gone from her for a day, only a little more than a day. There had not nearly been enough time for this. Teyo threw his arms around Johnny’s neck. Tomas soon stood close by too, as did Padre Amados.
“Juanito,” he heard Teyo say, nearly incomprehensible through his tears. “She is dead.”
“No. That’s not true. She is just with Don Castel. Not dead, Teyo. Just gone to the coast. She got a letter from the Don, and that’s what it said, you know, that he was coming to take her to the coast.”
The little boy laid his head on Johnny’s shoulder and sobbed. A watery whisper now, “No, no coast, she is truly dead.” Then, Johnny cried with him.
A fire began to build inside of him as he listened to the heartbreak of a small boy. He could feel it burning away at his grief. Don Castel had done this evil thing; he was sure of it. He would chase the bastard down and shoot him like a mongrel dog, lay his guts out on the ground to shrivel in the hot sun. No, no, he would find Castel and shoot him on a nameless dusty street, man to man, shoot him and walk away, not turning back once, even though the man would beg him to, would beg him to end his torment. Or, maybe, he would tie him to a cactus and put bullets in him until he finally bled to death. He imagined he could make such a death last a very long time, hours maybe. Wait, no, he would roast Don Castel on Salvador’s big spit. Dios mio, he would do it. “Where is he?” he whispered. “I need to kill the son of a bitch. Who knows where he is right now? Don Castel? Where is he?” He was moving from mourner to mourner, pleading with them. “Someone say something. Where is he, damn it?” He had worked his way through the small crowd, becoming louder and more frantic as he moved.
“Johnny.” Father Amados reached out to touch Johnny’s shoulder. Johnny made a move to shake him off until he realized it was the priest. With an effort, he held himself still. “Johnny, look at me. You will not take revenge.”
“You’re wrong, Padre. I know all about that turning the other cheek crap. Heard it all from the nuns when I was growing up. It usually ended with me getting my ass kicked. Now, I am very good at not turning that cheek, lots of practice. Sorry, Padre, but I will have revenge. I cannot wait for God’s will.”
“You misunderstand. Don Castel is dead. He is to be buried tomorrow at sunrise. His wife, Dona Mañuela, found the two of them together. She put a very bloody, very deadly hole in his head. It was one hell of a shot. Now she is the one sitting in the cantina’s cell.”
“This woman, she shot Lucia too?”
“No, no. Lucia was already dead, in the bed there next to him. Her neck was broken, Johnny. I am so very sorry.”
Teyo tugged at Johnny’s pant leg. Johnny absent-mindedly picked the child up, and they sat together in the kitchen chair which had been abandoned by Old Juan.
“I saw it through the window.” Teyo hung his head and hunched his shoulders to make himself smaller as he spoke. “I thought maybe I could help, but I could not think what to do. The patron, he started to get mean with her, pulling her by her hair, pushing her around. He yelled at her, told her she did not have you to protect her anymore. She was crying, calling him names, cursing him. She hit him back. For a moment, I thought she might win; she is always so strong and brave. I prayed he would leave. But then, he slammed her into the wall, more than once.”
Johnny wished that he could ask the boy to stop. He wished that Teyo didn’t have to tell this, but he knew that the boy had to say it, and he had to hear it. “There was much blood. Then, she was still. He looked at her like she had done something stupid, you know, like it was her fault she was bleeding. He even said, ‘Get up, Puta.’” Teyo looked over at his sister. “Sorry, Esperanza, but that’s what he said. Her head was covered in blood.” Teyo started crying again, and Johnny pulled him closer.
The words just came rushing out of the boy. “He picked her up, her head was hanging down. Blood was everywhere. He laid her on the bed, and then he got up on it too, right next to her. Lo siento, Juanito. I was so afraid, I couldn’t help her. I started then to sneak away from the window and to move across the yard. I heard him yelling. He started shouting, ‘Damn you, Lucia. Wake up.’” When he started talking to her like she was still alive, I ran as fast as I could for Padre. I prayed I was wrong, that maybe she was all right.”
Padre Amados put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder again. “I got there just behind Dona Mañuela. As I ran up, she burst into the room right in front of me and shot Don Castel. I think she has truly and completely lost her mind. She talks as though nothing has happened at all. She asked me this morning where the Don was, when they were leaving for the coast.”
“I couldn’t help. I didn’t help.” Teyo’s voice was small and hoarse from crying.
Johnny could hear Padre Amados assuring Teyo that he had done all he could. He should be the one comforting the child. He knew he should be, but Johnny couldn’t speak or even really think. His heart was about to stop beating any moment now. Surely he didn’t have much longer. He should let them know that they needed to begin digging another grave, for him, there, next to Lucia’s, one they could slip him right into when his heart simply stopped.
He put the child on his feet and stood. “Teyo, you were very brave,” Johnny whispered. “Go now see to your abuela. Look at her face, she is worrying about you.”
He pulled off the hat he had borrowed from Salvador, turned back around and looked down at the freshly turned mound of dirt. Someone had pushed a wooden cross into one end of it. All around him, the scene was painted in shades of tan and gray like the landscape of this entire village, like that of all of the villages he had ever known. His hands twisted at the hat he held in front of him. Lucia’s life had been so vibrantly bright and full of color. This sandy patch of ground had nothing to do with her, was not her. He turned away. There was nothing here for him now.
He had to get the hell out of here. He had to get far away from this place, and as quickly as possible. He couldn’t do this.
But he didn’t move. The small crowd of mourners drifted away as he stood by the grave. He could hear them though, talking quietly inside of the house. He didn’t want to go in there, didn’t want to listen to their words of grief and condolence. At the same time, he knew that he really should. He stared down at the scuff marks on the toes of his boots. He had been scuffed up a bit that day too, six weeks back, and bone weary, just coming off a job that had paid generously but had been one of the most brutal he had ever known. He was dead tired as he rode south. The dust of the trail clung to him and clogged his throat.
Coming upon Altar, seemingly out of nowhere, had been a surprise. He had been sure that Oazaka was the next town on his route, that he had at least another four or five hours of travel time to get there. He had simply been hoping to find an acceptable spot to make camp before nightfall. Instead, Altar appeared, rising up from the horizon. When he found himself in the small, unexpected town, he was more than ready for a hot meal and a beer. He also looked forward to a real bed and perhaps some grain for his horse. He hadn’t been in town five minutes before a commotion had him looking up from his task of watering Solano at the community trough. He saw a dark beauty rapidly crossing the square.
Johnny knew now that it was Teyo she had been chasing when she nearly ran into him that day. It looked as though the giggling, barefoot nińo who flew past him must have snatched the loaf of bread from her basket. He held it to his chest like a baby as he ran. The boy’s frantic race brought the two of them running right past Johnny, one behind the other. Johnny could see that the boy was not starving, but was instead only playing a game with the beautiful senorita. She moved like a cat, strong and graceful, but she was intent on the game and barely kept the rest of the baked goods safe in her broad basket during her flight. Her face was so beautiful as she laughed and called after the small thief. As she passed Johnny, brushing lightly against his hip, he caught a quick glimpse of her brown legs. She ran with abandon, her skirt flying, her hair wild.
The rest of the people who stood scattered around the square paid little attention to the pair, but Johnny watched intently as she suddenly gave up the chase shortly after she passed him. She had turned and walked serenely back then toward where he stood by the trough, a definite flirt in her step. When she was just past, he had impulsively reached out and snatched a treat from her basket, mimicking the nińo. He knew he would never forget the devil which lived in her eyes at that moment when she turned to confront him. And then, not even 20 minutes later, he had charmed his way to a dinner.
Johnny straightened his shoulders and raised his head with a real effort. He looked behind him once more toward the grave. He had to get out of here. Even going into a house which was groaning under the weight of sorrow was better than standing here alone with the freshly turned soil. He crossed the yard and approached the home he had shared with Lucia for the last six weeks. Dear God, only six weeks.
He stood in the open doorway. At least a dozen friends were crowded into Lucia’s small home. Through the window and the open front door, he could see that others had spilled out of the small house and were standing in clusters in the yard. The worn wooden table where he and Lucia had so recently shared dripping slices of mango was now covered with dish after dish of food and half a dozen bottles of tequila. These people had almost nothing, and so many of them had suffered their own losses and hurts in the bungled revolution, yet they still managed to organize a small feast to mourn Lucia’s death. It truly humbled him.
The deep adobe window sills, like the shelves above the dry sink, and the small table and dresser by the big bed, were alight with dozens of small candles. It was obvious that someone, probably Esperanza, had made an effort to remove the evidence of blood—an unfamiliar woven rug covered a section of the floor, which had never been covered before; the big feather bed was now draped by a red and blue patchwork quilt. Johnny knew Lucia kept this particular quilt folded away for special occasions. Dios, for special occasions. His hand clenched at the brim of his hat again.
Just looking at the big bed, which dominated the room, made him feel like someone had kicked him in the gut. The memory of Lucia sleeping there, turned on her side, of how it felt to wrap himself behind her, to kiss the silk of her shoulder and to touch her as she woke; it was just too much. He could almost hear her whispering to him, laughing her soft, throaty laugh. He could smell her scent, fragrant limes and corn flour, charcoal and rose water. His little wildcat. He had to get the hell out of here.
Inside of the house, people were talking quietly and filling plates with baked chicken, rice and beans, peppers and tomatoes. He simply stood in the doorway, neither in nor out, unable to even make such a small decision.
Something tugged at his pant leg, and he heard a small voice. “Juanito?”
He looked down into Teyo’s dark eyes and quickly reached to scoop him up into his arms. Moving into the room finally, he walked to the child’s sister. “Esperanza,” he said, his voice rough and foreign, “thank you so much for taking care of everything.” He handed Teyo over to her after kissing the top of the boy’s head. “I have to go, Teyo.” And the sound of it rang with the ending of things.
“I have to.” Johnny turned and opened the big chest at the end of the bed. He would change clothes and look for Solano. Then, he would head back to the Aguilars before turning toward California. He couldn’t even imagine how he would tell them what he had found here. He had failed them; it was that simple.
“Johnny?” Tomas stood at his side.
Johnny turned and clasped the man’s forearm in a grip of brotherhood. The two of them had survived a firing squad; it was a bond that no one else in Johnny’s life would, hopefully, ever share with him. “Tomas,” he said.
“I have your gun, Johnny. One of the men brought it from the cantina.”
“Gracias.” And Johnny truly was grateful to have his own gun back.
“Where will you go?” Tomas asked. Johnny turned and watched for a moment as Esperanza moved away with Teyo on her hip. She was talking to him, hugging him. He could hear the boy crying, even after she walked out of the front door.
Without looking back at Tomas, he began rummaging in the chest by the bed. He pulled out skirts and blouses, a fancy comb and stockings and laid them carefully on the bed next to his abandoned, borrowed hat. Where the hell was his stuff, his extra shirts, his black pants, his good hat and jacket? He knew they had to be here. Damn. Where could they be? He had to get out of here. He continued to work his way down through layers of Lucia’s things.
He pulled out a soft, yellow scarf he had seen her wear to Mass. It stopped him dead, and he stood holding it in both hands. A simple bracelet of blue beads fell from it to lay atop the pile of clothing still in the chest. He had bought those beads for her from a traveling peddler the first week he was here. It was a small gift, inexpensive, but she always wore it tied around her wrist when she dressed up for a special evening. With an angry jerk, Johnny wrapped the beads again in the scarf and stuffed the small bundle into his shirt pocket.
“Where will you go, Johnny?” Johnny wished that Tomas had let the question go.
“I think it is time to go see my father,” he finally answered. “Have you seen Solano, mi amigo?”
“The rurales are all gone, Johnny. As soon as they heard that Don Castel was dead, they hurried away. But they raided all of the barns before they left town. Many of the horses are gone. Lo siento, Johnny. I was hiding in the root cellar when they came, but Ramona saw them lead him away.”
Johnny slammed a fist into the chest’s lid where it stood propped before him. The sudden sound made him jump, so he wasn’t surprised when it also caused several people to turn and look at him. With a quick shake of his abused hand, he turned back to his task. He had to put this place, all of these nice people, behind him.
He finally found some of his things, grabbed blindly for them and turned to leave by the back door without even really knowing exactly what he held in his arms. One look through to the yard beyond, to the mound of dirt and the sad, little cross, had him turning again and pushing through the crowd to leave by the front door instead. He started across the long side yard. Between Teyo’s house and Lucia’s stood the goat’s shed. He was carrying his bundled clothes and his own gun in its holster, wrapped around by its belt.
He was nearly to the shed when he heard Rosario calling his name and turned to see her hobbling along behind him, her sling a slash of white stuck into the middle of this very bad day, just another reminder. “Juanito, a moment.”
“Rosario, please. I have to leave.” He stopped though, in spite of his words, so that the old woman could catch up with him.
“You must have it. I found this abandoned in the dirt in front of the house.” Rosario held out the small book Lucia had been sketching in right before he had been called away. At first he simply couldn’t move at all. Then, he reached out for it with an unsteady hand. They had argued that morning. She had wanted to sketch him; they had argued about the revolution too, about whether or not the town was ready for it. They had only barely made up, were sharing a sweet kiss, when Mańuel came tearing in to take him away to find Juan.
It was just too much. He couldn’t take any more. He forgot to be strong and hung his head to hide his face. Rosario was quietly aware of his grief and held him lightly with her good arm. “I have to get the hell out of here.” Johnny said it aloud this time.
“I know, nińo. I know.”
“The goats need to be milked,” he said. He had moved a step back from her; his voice was small.
“I will tend to the goats, Juanito.”
With a nod, Johnny turned and walked away from Altar.
The hike back to get Arroyo was studded with recent memories. Because of the damned, too much trouble for their worth, goats, he had walked these hills so often. It was nearly always quiet and empty out here, and he had found those walks a blessing, the perfect place to think. Now though, this final walk was a curse, too quiet, too empty.
He stumbled a bit as he thought about one particular night in these hills. On a night when there were more stars layered across the sky than he had ever seen before, he and Lucia had walked out here among the wild mustard plants. When he had pulled her along with him, through the front door and down the street, she had complained that it was too cold to walk into the desert, but Johnny charmed her with smiles and sweet words. She wore her dark blue shawl with the tiny silver beads tied in its fringes. He told her that night that she was even more beautiful than the amazing, star-filled sky. She carefully spread her shawl in the hollow between two of the rolling hills, and they made love there among those stars.
The wind blew hot across his face, making the sweat gather on his upper lip and between his shoulder blades. His hair tickled him, curling at the nape of his neck. He hadn’t even noticed that he had stopped walking and stood looking into the distance, at the cloudless, milky sky to the north. Would it never rain?
Johnny topped a rise and found Arroyo waiting there in a small valley, in his tiny bit of shade. “Hola, mi amigo,” he called softly. The horse shook his head as if to scold Johnny for taking so long. “Sorry, compadre. Don’t worry; I won’t leave you behind again.” Johnny dropped his small bundle of clothes and placed his gun carefully on top of it. He stripped off the clothing he had been wearing since the morning of the revolution, three days now, and dressed himself once again as Johnny Madrid.
He tied the bracelet of blue beads around his wrist and tucked the sketchbook and yellow scarf inside of his shirt. He left the white pants and shirt in a heap on the ground.
Too soon he was riding down the dirt track leading to the Aquilars’ home for the second time in as many days. He rode slowly, his shoulders slumped. He stared down at his hands, crossed on the saddle horn. When he had finished up that last job and ridden away from Salinas, stumbled upon Altar, he had simply been looking for a place to rest. Now he wished he had ridden right on past to the next dusty town. He even wished he had never met Lucia, never fallen in love with her. Maybe then she would still be laughing and playing with Teyo.
Dear God, he wished this day was over, but he also wished that this particular dusty road would never come to its end.
The farm shimmered in the dusty distance as he came around the final bend in the rutted track. In the hot afternoon sun, nothing stirred; even the chickens seemed to be dozing. So he slipped in quietly and unnoticed. Once he had ladled a drink for himself from the well, he led Arroyo to the trough by the barn. He wrapped the horse’s reins loosely around the fence post there before walking back to the small house.
He sat in the shade of the roof’s overhang, but couldn’t sit still for long. Soon, he pulled out the small knife he kept in his boot and threw it to the floorboard in front of him where it stuck with a satisfying thunk. He hadn’t asked to care about these people, any of them. Another throw of the knife had the blade sticking cleaner this time, with an even louder thunk into the wood. These villagers, they pressed down on him with their needs and desires, all of which were so foreign to him. Thunk. They needed him to laugh with them, to have dinner with them. They needed for him to care about them, to fall in love with them. Thunk. It was all so heart-wrenchingly new and terrifying. He rose, stuffing his knife back in its place and paced to the side of the house, looking back toward Altar.
All of his life he had heard people talk about broken hearts. He had heard hundreds, maybe thousands, of love songs sung mostly by female voices, both young and old. It seemed that Lucia couldn’t manage to cook without singing heartbreakingly tragic corridos in her “clear as cool water” voice. His mother often sang too. She seemed to have been most fond of the songs about lost love and lost opportunity. She even sang the sad, sad songs to him as lullabies when he was very small. How he had enjoyed hearing about the brave, doomed men and the beautiful heartsick women. Oh God. He just never knew the feelings that went along with the words. He stopped and pulled off his hat. He crushed it between his hands and then threw it with some force onto a small table sitting between two straight-backed chairs. He paced to the opposite end of the porch, dragging a hand through his hair. “Damn.” How could he tell them? What could he say?
Felicita startled a little and gasped softly when she opened the door to find him standing there right in front of her. He looked her in the eyes and reached a hand out to her. Instantly she threw her own hand up to grab at the front of her dress. She took the last step toward him and reached for his face, studied him, studied the truth in his eyes. Without a word between them, she pulled him to her and cried quietly. Over her soft tears, Johnny heard Salvador just inside, in the shadows. “What is it Mamacita?” he asked as he came to the door. And then, “Oh no, no.” The old man, in spite of his crooked legs, slid down to his knees in prayer.
Johnny stayed at their home for three nights and two days. After the initial shock and grief, Felicita would allow no more tears for Lucia, although they spent that first evening quietly praying for her.
Then on the second night of their private wake, they drank many shots of tequila with lime and salt and toasted her, told stories of her love, joy and kindness, celebrated her life. Felicita told the story of Placido, of where Lucia had gotten the crankiest goat in all of Mexico, how the two had become fast friends. Salvador told how he had watched the sketch Lucia made of Felicita, that one right there by the front door, unfold like a fan. What a talent she’d had. It was well past midnight before the three of them headed off to bed that night.
On the third day, he strapped on his gun, readied Arroyo with Elisando’s saddle and left the Aguilar’s farm. He knew the old couple stood in front of the house watching him go, but he didn’t turn back to look. He couldn’t.
He rode around the outskirts of Altar heading to the area where the wolf cactus howled. Because he was avoiding the townspeople, he approached from a different angle than he ever had before. He knew he was in the right area when he crossed a dry wash that snaked around the hills like a sidewinder. When his particular cactus didn’t show itself right away, he circled Arroyo around several times, ever more anxious.
The desert here seemed to have sprouted a new crop of animal-shaped plants since he had last come to make a withdrawal. He wondered how such a thing was possible when it hadn’t rained in weeks. He saw a rearing horse cactus, an angry bull cactus, and even a stretching cat cactus, but no wolf, howling or otherwise. He had to find the damned wolf. He had no money, no supplies, not even a change of clothes. How the hell was he supposed to get to the San Joachim with nothing but a horse, a saddle, a gun, and a short supply of bullets?
He made another wider circle. There was nothing which looked even close. He had been out here twice before today to get money for the revolution. He had come straight to it each time. What the hell was his problem? What the hell? He gripped at the reins until he could barely feel his fingers and squinted his eyes to better imagine the shape he had seen that first day.
There. He jumped down and looked at the promising cactus from ground level. “Finally,” he told the horse. “I was beginning to think I was loco.” With his bare hands, he scraped away at the sand at the base of the wolf. He had buried the oilskin envelope fairly deeply, just in case of. . .well. . .just in case of any number of things. His fingers brushed what he was looking for, and he pulled at the pouch.
What? “Hijo de puta!” He couldn’t believe it. “Soy un pendejo.” Before he had even gotten the bag free of the sand, he could tell. Empty. Empty, and he knew he had left over a hundred dollars in there not more than 10 days ago. Desperate, he imagined that the money had fallen from the pouch. He looked back into the hole he had dug and scooped more of the sand out frantically. “Mierde.” Empty. Finally, he sat down heavily on the hot sand and dropped his head into his hands.
He felt broken. Pieces of him must be littering the ground. He couldn’t even think what he needed to do next. He couldn’t think. He only knew that he had returned to Altar for just three things----Lucia, Solano and his money----that’s all, just three things.
He looked up into the sky, his hat falling down to hang on his back. The sun had burned off the clouds which had held a tiny, hopeful promise of rain earlier in the morning. He looked to the east, back the way he had come. That way was bluer skies, but rolling sand hills, with no plants at all. He knew without a doubt that he could ride back to the Aguilars, and they would welcome him, take him in like a prodigal son, roast a fatted hen. He knew that Esperanza or Tomas would also be happy to make him a part of their homes, that Rosario or the padre would shelter him. But, he couldn’t stay here. He couldn’t even think about it. No, he had to get the hell out of here, leave these nice people in his past.
So, he looked to the north. Johnny had been to the Lancer estancia once. Rather, he had been nearly there, all the way to Green River. In fact, it was the farthest north, the farthest away from home, he had ever traveled. He knew from his mama that he had been born there, and he believed her, even though she couldn’t quite always be trusted to tell the truth, but he just couldn’t think of Lancer as home. He had no memory of it or of his old man. He had plenty of questions about him though. For one thing, he just couldn’t figure how the man could have just thrown away a son, like slop for the pigs. What kind of a man did that?
He had a long-held picture of that man, or rather, of what he imagined that kind of a man would look like, but he had very little real information on which to base that picture. Mama had never really described him; although, Johnny had to assume that he was blue-eyed. Whenever he asked about his gringo father, his mother got muy, muy enojado, so he had learned not to ask.
His nightmare vision of Lancer was fueled by a young boy’s imaginings in the empty black of the night. He had often heard the bruhas’ tales, ramblings of the bug-eyed, blood-sucking Chupacabra and of a horned and hooved el diablo, and those tales had spun around in his head to become Murdoch Lancer. His father had been his own personal boogey man for much of his life, and his mother did little to discourage his fears and imaginings. In fact, she fueled them by mentioning, when he was five or six, how very big Lancer was, a giant man, and how he never smiled or laughed.
He had taken a job in Los Angeles once, a minor range war, more of a range skirmish, maybe two years ago now. When it was done, he had thought to look up the old bastard, hurt him maybe, or scare him some, he wasn’t sure. The son of a bitch deserved it, whatever Johnny might have done.
He had ridden northeast, crossed the river into the valley there with every intention of making his presence known, but he had been distracted once he’d ridden into Green River. It was a surprisingly large and lively town, and on that night, the citizens seemed determined to raise a ruckus. The sun had barely set when music began to spill from several saloons and tangle together in the street. At the Mexican end of town, several lovely, dark-haired senoritas wearing low-cut dresses were whispering together and crooking their fingers at the passing men. They wore feathers in their hair and button-up, high-heeled boots. In an attempt to lure customers, they began a sudden flamenco dance on the wooden boardwalk. They clapped their hands and shouted. Johnny could see flashing legs and a flurry of satin and petticoats; they made the boards ring with their rhythms.
Later, as Johnny paid for his dinner at the local cantina, a large fight had broken out farther down, in the gringo part of town, right out in the middle of the street. Two men against one in one spot, three on one in another, but it wasn’t his business. No one showed a gun that Johnny could see from this distance, so he decided to ignore the commotion. Instead, he sat on a wooden bench in front of the boarding house where he had taken a room for the night and made the decision to head south again the next morning without confronting his father. He wasn’t afraid of this Lancer gringo. He just didn’t care enough. He didn’t think he was afraid.
Now, he sat in the hot sand with an empty leather pouch clutched in one hand and slapped at a biting fly on the back of his neck with the other. He could feel the burn of the desert through his pants. Nothing like a hot ass to hurry the indecision out of a man. He stood and grabbed at Arroyo’s halter. Somehow, he would get to Lancer and collect his thousand dollars. He had little choice. He would just have to find work along the way.
He couldn’t help but wonder if Lancer needed his gun, if that was the purpose of finding him, rather than any blood feelings the man might have. An hour of his time could be an hour to talk him into hiring on as the man’s muscle. But, so what if he did just want a gun? A thousand dollars would make this job the richest he’d ever had. You couldn’t eat or shoot blood feelings, after all. Johnny hoped the son of a bitch was looking to hire him. He hoped his being slowed down by a lack of funds didn’t get him to the San Joaquin after the need of him was gone. Just what else could it be? And if it was something else, something sinister, or, even, for God’s sake, some heartwarming family bullshit, how would he react?
“Come on, Arroyo, let’s get the hell out of here.” Just, please, let it be a job.
He guessed it must be about four or five in the afternoon, at the latest. With black clouds building and rumbling around him, Johnny decided to stop and make camp earlier than he normally would. He had been following a small stream, and it opened up and slowed down at this bend in the trail. The heavy branches of the surrounding trees nearly met above his head here, throwing the cloud-shrouded late afternoon light into shifting shadows as the growing wind tossed their leaves.
He had little hope of finding better protection from the weather. There were no cliff faces or caves that he could see anywhere near, and he doubted he would stumble across a farm or abandoned cabin in such a remote area. He pulled the saddle from Arroyo and hurried to find dry enough wood for a fire.
As the kindling caught and began to blaze, he settled back on his saddle. The green of the leaves was dizzying as Johnny looked up into their layered depths. They wove together into a canopy which served to keep him mostly dry, and to keep the fire he built mostly burning, in spite of the steady downpour which erupted around him not long after he had finished setting up his meager camp.
He had been making his way north for three weeks now, grabbing what work he could along the way, and even though the land had started greening at least a week ago, this was the first all out rain he had seen during his trip. Actually, this was the first all out rain he had seen in forever.
The day went from gray to black as the sun set. There was a steady drip dripping, but he wasn’t really getting wet. The rain tattered at the upper leaves above him, but, so far, most of it wasn’t reaching him. The random raindrops which did make it through the branches and leaves spattered onto the ground and hissed as they hit the hot coals. In the stream, the drops beat a steady rhythm as they dimpled the surface of the water. The rain and the green-so-green-it-hurt-his-eyes---he was simply drunk with it. This land in California was so very rich with warm rain and with life, just really damned green.
Nothing on earth could stop him, not even good sense. He jumped up, threw off his hat and jacket and walked out into the whole of it. With his arms held straight out and his face turned to the sky, he let the rain wash over him, let it soak him. His hair quickly grew heavy and his shirt plastered itself to him as he turned in a slow circle. Spitting and sputtering, he ducked quickly back under his sheltered canopy with a small embarrassed grin. He shook himself like a dog and slipped his dry jacket back on. With no regrets, Johnny knew he would stay at least partly wet for damn near the whole night now.
The wind chilled him, swept right up under his jacket and through the wet material of his shirt. He had pulled his saddle very close to the small fire, and he sat staring into the flames; he lost himself in them. Although he hadn’t come this way often, every time he had ventured north from the desert and border towns in the past, he was struck by the amazing changes in the landscape. He would never forget the first time, just after his sixteenth birthday, when he had taken a job in the north, a town whose name he couldn’t remember, hired by a man he would rather forget. He had ridden into a land crowded with wildlife and greenery. There were flowers, whole fields of them, rippling like color-drenched ocean waves in the wind. He had nearly unmanned himself and cried at the beauty of it. He had no idea that such a place could even exist. This part of the country, this valley where he now rode, was particularly heavy with nature’s gifts. These people had no idea how lucky they were, how rich they were. His heart ached with the wish that Lucia could draw it.
He had surely taken advantage of the riches on this journey. So far he figured he had killed, dressed and eaten at least half a dozen rabbits, two birds that looked and tasted a bit like chicken, although not quite, and a squirrel that was far fatter than any he had ever seen before. He had picked berries from thorn-heavy bushes and tart apples from gnarled trees.
He had also stood thigh deep in several streams and thrown silvery fish onto the banks, barely having to make an effort because they moved in such huge, languid schools. They practically invited him to grab them, so he did, and then he roasted them whole on pointed sticks and picked them open to reveal delicious, oily, white flesh. As he traveled, he had also bathed in those rolling streams which were crowded with the lazy fish. He had indulged in washing his clothes often and drying them and himself on secluded, sun-soaked rocks. The luxury of so much water was nearly unbelievable.
As he moved northward and managed to make some money, he had purchased, first, ammunition, then, coffee beans, a tin cup, and a small pot, which he kept in an empty flour sack he had found, which tied neatly to his saddle horn. He had also stuffed away a grand total of four dollars and 76 cents from several different unforgiving, sweat-producing jobs, including, breaking one man’s wild horses, helping another with a long day of branding, stringing at least a mile of fence wire and mucking out three separate very large and dirty barns. But he was reasonably well fed and fairly well rested, having eaten with the other hands on these estancias and slept in those very clean barns, once the work was done.
One landowner had even been having a fiesta to celebrate his daughter’s wedding during Johnny’s time there, and he had slipped into a corner of the celebration with the other hired men and had eaten hunks of spit-roasted beef and a piece of dried apple pie while standing in the shadows. Once his belly was full, though, he had hurried away from so much heartbreaking joy.
Most importantly, each clean stall and forded, fish-filled stream found him closer to his thousand dollars. He figured that by now he was no more than twenty or thirty miles from his money. One more mucked out barn ought to do it.
As an added benefit, the hard work was distracting. When a man is so tired he falls asleep nearly before he has time to lie down, there is little opportunity to think. More than anything else, he wanted to stop himself from thinking, from remembering.
“Hello the camp.”
Damn. Johnny’s gun was in his hand before the speaker had even finished yelling out. “Come into the light,” he called back instantly, “slowly, and with your hands out to your sides.” He couldn’t believe he had let someone get so close without noticing the approach, and with him sitting here staring into the fire like a greenhorn---a stupid mistake.
“Mighty touchy there, friend. I mean you no harm.” A tall man with a drooping mustache moved slowly into the outer edges of the firelight. The conchos down the sides of his pants reflected the light of it. He wore a rain-soaked poncho and a beat up hat. He had saddle bags slung over his shoulder, a bedroll and small travel pack in one hand and a rifle in the other. “Just want to share your fire, my friend, nothing more. The night’s not fit for man or beast, and you’ve managed to find the driest spot in the whole damned countryside.” He was looking down at Johnny, and swollen drops of water were dripping from the fraying brim of his hat. The man towered above where Johnny sat leaning against his saddle, but the cocked gun in Johnny’s hand evened the advantage considerably.
“Where’s your horse?”
“Well, you sure are jumpy there, son, aren’t ya then? And downright suspicious. Ya got no reason ta be. He stepped in a gopher hole yesterday, had to shoot ‘im. Damn good horse too. Miss ‘im. I’m mighty footsore, my friend, walkin’ in these boots.” He made a twisting, stretching motion which had Johnny sitting up from his slouch. “Think I wrenched my back some in the fall too. Hey, I smell coffee. Are you of a mind to share, my friend?”
“Toss me your gun,” Johnny said, and the man did without hesitation. He was holding his arms away from his sides now, as he had been directed, but Johnny couldn’t tell what he might have under the folds of his poncho. “Now, take off that poncho.”
“What? I don’t---it’s rainin’ son.” He walked a few steps closer, and Johnny’s gun pointed a bit more accurately.
“Stop right there. Take off the poncho.”
“Ah, oh I see, you’re worried I got a gun under here. Friend, I got no reason to hurt ya. And from the looks of you and this paltry camp, you ain’t got nothin’ worth stealin’ even if I was of a mind to try. Just lookin’ for a warm fire and a bit of good company, that’s all.”
“Drop the bags and take off the poncho.” Johnny took the chance to stand as the man did drop his gear and reached down to pull the poncho over his head, dragging his hat off too in the process.
“There, friend. Ya satisfied? I don’t know I ever met a more careful traveler. Name’s Jeff, by the way. Damn, it’s cold.” The man’s hair fell long and wet, nearly to his shoulders.
Without taking his eyes or his gun from this Jeff, Johnny reached down, set the man’s rifle behind his saddle on the ground, and, one handed, he pulled the leather ties on each saddlebag. He dumped their contents out onto the damp ground. “Sit,” he said, “but keep your hands out in front of you where I can see ‘em.”
The man did as he was told, but not without complaint: “I ain’t give ya no cause for that. What the hell gives ya the right ta go through my stuff?”
Johnny sorted through the things that lay before him without comment---a shirt, socks rolled into a ball, a razor and a small bar of soap, a large hunting knife, which Johnny pulled from its case and stabbed to its hilt into the ground next to him, a small leather pouch with tobacco and rolling papers in it, a tin box half full of lucifers and a small bottle half full of clear liquid. It looked too small to be a practical amount of tequila or some other kind of alcohol, barely enough for a taste. Johnny figured it for some sort of medicine. “You sick or something?” he asked, holding the bottle out in front of him. He wondered if the man might be carrying something catching.
“What? Me? No. Oh, that? That’s Captain Montgomery Livegood’s Miracle Water. Good for what ails ya. Ain’t ya ever taken a tonic before, friend?”
“Hmph.” Johnny unrolled the bedroll next, flipping out the blanket and ground cloth, again one-handed. Something made of cloth flew away as the roll snapped out, and he looked over to see a crumpled pair of long johns lying in the dirt. Then, he dumped out the travel bag to reveal a coffee pot, a skillet, a kit with a plate, cup and spoon, a deck of cards tied together with a piece of twine and some basic travel supplies, including small bags of coffee, sugar, flour, a jar with lard, some jerky, an amber bottle of H. R. Cutter whiskey, which Johnny shook to determine how much was left, and a wrapped bundle, which was opened to reveal a slab of salt pork.
Really, it all seemed harmless enough, like the things any traveler might pack along. It did seem like the man’s story held together pretty well. Mostly though, Johnny kept his own counsel, followed his own path, and another person at your fire could cause changes in that path. Of course, it was a pure fact that he had surely shared his time with much less savory looking characters over the years. The man looked normal. But unsavory characters he was acquainted with trumped normal looking strangers every time.
He was well acquainted with the fact that it always paid to be careful. On the other hand, a man could be too suspicious, he guessed, maybe. He hadn’t had anything to eat since early morning. Biscuits would be a welcome treat, that was for damned sure. Although, getting involved had nearly always gotten him into trouble. But, a game of cards might be distracting for a while. And Johnny had been traveling for three days without talking to another human being. Arroyo was decent company, but he sure as hell wasn’t much of a talker. It couldn’t be easy, losing a horse like that. Johnny had to put one down himself once. Overall, he could definitely understand a man wanting to get out of the rain and make himself more comfortable, to find a dry camp.
“Jeff what?” he asked.
“T. Jefferson O’Malley, originally out of Kansas City, Missouri. Ever been there, friend?”
“I don’t have much trust for anyone born east of Chihuahua.” Or west, south or north of there either, he thought, but Johnny wasn’t willing to give this man, this Jeff, anything of himself or an inch in any direction, truth be told, so he held his tongue.
“Don’t blame ya, friend. Man’s gotta watch his own back. Never did know a man I’d trust farther than my old gray-haired ma could throw ‘im.”
“You willin’ to share your grub? Ain’t had a biscuit in a week.” He figured if the man had trouble on his mind, Johnny would have his weapons anyway. Any gunslinger worth his salt ought to be able to put an early stop to trouble from a man without weapons.
“You willin’ to share your camp? I’m wetter than a man should ever be, ‘cept on a Saturday night at the bath house, and colder than an old maid.”
Johnny slid his gun back in his holster and, sitting back down against his saddle, he gestured toward the fire in a welcome, of sorts.
Birdsong woke him. The sliding scale of notes fluttered around and above him, dizzied him. It was very cheerful. Even more importantly, it was annoying and painful as hell. “Shut up,” he whispered, but even that soft exhale of words clamped itself down on the sides of Johnny’s head and twisted. Damn. The pain, which started right between his eyes and then ran across the top of his skull and down the back of it, was amazing.
What the hell had he done to deserve this? Even more puzzling, what the hell had he done the night before? The cold sweat drying on his body, coupled with this headache from hell, told him that alcohol must have been a part of whatever it was he had been doing, alcohol or maybe a bullet in his brain. The memory of what the night had involved wouldn’t come. The pain was so intense that thinking about anything at all was nearly impossible. For several long minutes he simply held his head and drifted.
There was no going back to oblivion; the birds wouldn’t shut up, and the blackness had deserted him. He sighed, prepared himself for the agony of deeper thought, and began taking a slow inventory. His mouth was dirt dry, and his tongue felt swollen in his mouth. More evidence for his “drank myself blind” theory. He used softly laid fingertips to explore the contours of his own face as though he were a blind man. It didn’t appear that anything there had been rearranged, so if he had ended yesterday with a brawl, it hadn’t left him with any noticeable swelling or cuts. Maybe this is what winning felt like. He shifted his arms and legs a little. It didn’t feel as though he had any broken bones, well, maybe a damn broken skull. Felt like a smashed melon from the inside. Hands placed carefully proved to him that his head was still perched on his neck, but it didn’t matter all that much, since his brain definitely felt loose in that head, unattached and floating.
Before he had begun his explorations to make sure he had a head, his hat had been pulled low over his face. He was lying on his back against his saddle. He was stiff enough to think that he had been lying in this exact position for a long time. With some hesitation and a small groan, he opened himself up to listening again, but heard only the damned chirpy birds, oh, and something else now too, water moving, a stream or river rolling along behind him. Great, just great. Another low groan slipped out when the pulsing sound of the water suddenly and insistently woke up his bladder. He pushed that thought firmly away for now. There was no way in hell he was going to try standing up just yet, let alone walking.
The sound of tossing leaves above him filtered through the mattress ticking filling his head. He dug as deep as he dared for a memory. The first thing that came to him out of the foggy recent past was Lucia. Dios. His hat, which he had pushed down to his chest, fell to the dirt beside him as he sat up quickly. The memory of Lucia took his breath completely for a moment. Then he sucked in sharply. Damn. His Lucia. A prayer for her came to him automatically, and he stared up into the tossing leaves. The small bits of light filtering through the trees above him were like lightning bolts straight into his brain, and he reached for his suffering head again.
The pain was simply too much, and was compounded by his upright position, so he eased himself carefully back down onto the saddle. A few more deep breaths, a painful squinting of his eyes, and he recalled that he was headed for his father’s ranch with a borrowed horse and almost no other assets, heading for his listening money. He must still be on the road north to his father’s estancia, or maybe he really was riding through hell for his thousand dollars.
The air around him was, however, thankfully cool and smelled of after-rain, not his normally held view of hell. Yes, he remembered that it had been raining, that he had felt blessed by it. A cool damp breeze blew across his sweaty face, easing the pain a little. Slowly this time, he opened his eyes again.
J. H. Cutter whiskey and Jeff O’Malley. Damn it anyway. He knew better. He damn well knew better than to drink with a man he didn’t know. He could hear his stepfather’s voice chiding him: “You are ever the fool, boy. Do you not know you should never drink with a man unless you know him, Juanito? It is a lesson which will serve you well.” Enrique Madrid wasn’t given to holding down a job, or even lifting a finger very often, really, but he could read men, and had wisdom concerning their ways. What a fool Johnny felt to have let his guard down.
But O’Malley had been just so damned good at making him feel comfortable, unguarded. He had talked about a wife and two red-headed daughters back home, how he couldn’t wait to make his way back to them, to kiss his wife until her toes curled. He jawed on and on about this and that, about how he had a good old dog he had picked up in a poker game. How that big, yellow dog had become just another member of the family, playing in his yard with the kids, going hunting with him for game birds, and he had talked about the flower boxes on the windows of his house, how his wife insisted he build them, “cause you know how women are, my friend.”
As the night wore on, he had told Johnny jokes about loose women and drunken cowboys, had called up bawdy stories of talented whores and acrobatic sex. He had talked about how bad he felt having to put down his gopher-holed horse, and about all the different jobs he had worked to keep his family safe and cared for, riding drag on a cattle drive, slaughtering pigs until he couldn’t look at one for nearly a year, about how, for six months, he had eaten enough sawdust at a small, family-owned sawmill in Colorado to fill the Rio Grande, about panning for gold which never appeared in California. He had talked. And he had fried pork belly and made biscuits. Together they had eaten, and then they had opened that bottle of whiskey, and the man had poured them both a drink. They had drank that smooth-assed whiskey, and they had played cards, just a friendly game, according to T. Jefferson O’Malley, playing for pennies, and Johnny had won a few hands.
Johnny didn’t remember having more than two cups of the Cutters, or did he even have two? He knew for sure that first one had gone down smooth as cream. As O’Malley had said, it was damn fine whiskey. But, something had happened between the first and the second.
It was so hard to think around the hammer smashing into his forehead. But some important memory was trying to worm its way through the chaos. He knew for a fact that the first cup had gone down smooth all right, smooth as the man’s stories and joshing. But then, he remembered now, Johnny had heard the call of nature. With Jeff teasing him about staying out of the rain while he “watered the greenery,” he moved outside of the fire’s light to the far side of a tree to take care of his business. He had heard the man moving around over near the fire, but had assumed he was getting up to find his own tree. When Johnny returned, T. Jefferson O’Malley was smiling his toothy grin at him, smoothing his mustache with his thumb. He was saying, “welcome back, friend. Have a nice trip?” and was holding out a second cup of that damn fine whiskey. And that was it; that hand holding out that cup was the very last thing he could call up, no matter how hard he tried. For Johnny, the night was simply over. His next memory was birdsong.
He found that by squinting his eyes just right, he could actually look around the camp without feeling like a knife was piercing his skull. The first thing he noticed was that the rain of the night before had stopped completely, leaving behind cool, freshly-washed air. The sun shone without being at least partially hidden by cloud cover for the first time in two days, and it was already well above the horizon, late morning. The fire had burned down to nothing, just cold, dead ashes. No one had bothered to throw any more wood on it for a very long time. Except for the chirpy damn birds, the rain-swollen churning stream and a scolding squirrel somewhere in the branches above him, there was nothing stirring and nothing else to see. In fact, he was alone. Completely. T. Jefferson O’Malley, along with his rifle, his bedroll, his fine whiskey, his crumpled long johns, and his, well, his everything, was gone. Everything was gone.
He rolled to his hands and knees and then got his feet under himself to stand. He could not believe it. He could not believe it. The man had stolen his damned horse. Arroyo was gone. Damn it all to hell. The son of a bitch had stolen his horse. “Why the hell didn’t you just take the saddle too?” Johnny shouted at nothing. “And my boots. You forgot my damned boots you silver-tongued son of a bitch.” He reached up to hold his aching head. The noise of his own shouting felt like a mule kicking him.
Somehow, the bastard had drugged him---a stupid, greenhorn child could have seen through the man’s pretty, droning words, his whiskey and his biscuits. He haltingly paced the campsite in agitation, and stumbled upon a small, empty bottle laying next to the ring of stones he had built to contain the fire the day before. Bending to pick up that small clear bottle after he had shuffled over to it was proving to be a harder thing than it ought to be, possibly because his brain was much, much heavier than it had ever been before and was threatening to come streaming out of one or both of his ears if he didn’t hold it still.
Slowly. Take it slowly, Johnny. He got the bottle in his hand and held it up in front of his still-squinting eyes. Captain Mongomery Livegood’s Miracle Water. Johnny snorted. Well, it had performed a miracle here last night then hadn’t it? It had surely helped T. Jefferson O’Malley turn whiskey into a horse. Damn it to hell. With only a fleeting thought of the pain he was about to inflict upon himself, he reared back and threw the small bottle as hard as he could. He stood staring at the spot where the bottle had disappeared.
With a suddenness that had his head pounding again, he burst out laughing. What else? What the hell else could happen to him? What else could God throw at him? Well, nothing else, he guessed, because there was nothing else. He had even less now than he’d had when he’d left Mexico. One horse less to be exact. Of course, to be completely honest, Arroyo hadn’t really been his in the first place. So, there was that. And he had to admit, T. Jefferson O’Malley had done a bang up job, had worked hard for the horse. He reached up and felt in his shirt pocket. The man had been kind enough to leave him his little dab of money and his, praise the lord, yes, he still had his gun. And at least he had slept well. Maybe he ought to get himself some of that Captain Whatever’s Miracle Water. Get himself a good night’s sleep whenever he felt the need. He scrubbed his hand across his face and laughed again. Really, what else could he do?
The day after O’Malley blew painfully through Johnny’s life had been spent napping, staring at trees and sky, and thinking. He couldn’t move without pure agony; he couldn’t eat without finding or killing something, both of which would involve moving---wasn’t going to happen. Anyway, he didn’t think his stomach would allow anything near it. Over the past 18 hours or so, he had moved only to take in and put out water; staring and thinking seemed like a good option. Thank goodness for a warm evening. He hadn’t even had the energy to build a fire.
He was beginning to feel like he had spoken too hastily about “riding through hell for a thousand dollars.” Tempting fate was never a good thing. He had been raised by a mother who believed strongly in fate and signs and portents, in not wishing bad luck on yourself, on knocking word if you spoke of good luck, and, most importantly, in not attracting the evil eye. Her habits of crossing herself and of holding her cross as she said a quick prayer had been passed, unconsciously, on to her son from a very young age.
He had even remembered a time when he had been forced to witness a ceremony for El Ojo; he was nine years old. He had often laughed at his mother for believing that someone in the market place or at church or in the cantina had given her the evil eye, but she had always hurried to visit an ancient woman who lived across the village when she had felt the curse of someone’s eye. This particular old woman was known for her ability to lift the effects of El Ojo.
Mama was always worrying about it, guarding against it, making signs in the air, and she had taken him along to this particular ceremony so that she could try to convince him to believe her and to take his own precautions. A very young baby had grown sick, and the first-time mother was afraid that someone had given it El Ojo when it would not sleep, and cried all night long. As his mother had dragged Johnny across the town square, he had protested the whole way, but once there, he had then stood stiffly in a darkened corner to watch the strange commotion, his mouth set in a straight line, determined not to believe in something he could not see, hit, or eat. The old villager, a stooped woman, well known in the neighborhood, had broken a raw egg over the child’s head. Everyone standing around the child had gasped, all claiming to see a small eye forming in the messy yolk. The child had howled at the mess rolling down its face, and the mother had sobbed right along with it. The whole thing had given him nightmares for weeks afterwards.
He had seen the portents himself since then, though. He wanted to be skeptical, but it was hard not to believe when being surrounded by people who lived their lives by the signs they saw, in raw eggs, in tossed knuckle bones, in cloud formations for his whole life. Eventually, he had decided it was better not to take any chances one way or the other, to believe in his gun and the solid world around him, but not to temp the fates. He knew better than to call up bad luck, to laugh at the devil, to say things like “it could be worse,” or “what else could happen?” Ride through hell, my ass, he thought. “Should learn to keep my big mouth shut,” he told the trees. Next time, he decided, as the moon crept across the sky, next time he would keep his thoughts, ideas, plans, everything, to himself.
By full dark of the day after T. Jefferson O’Malley, he was sleeping, curled in a ball, with one arm under his still-sore head.
He woke with the dawn and found that he was ravenously hungry. He would have preferred sleeping another day away, but his stomach and his awakening bladder would not let him sleep any longer, and once up, he found that he was on the mend and should be on the move. His head had finally settled to simply grumbling quietly at him. He shuffled to the same tree which had played a part in his downfall. As he buttoned his pants and turned back to his barren camp, he could almost reach out and touch his wish for a cup of hot coffee. In fact, he would have given everything he owned at this moment for a cup, but then, the idea of “everything he owned” had him laughing again. Everything he owned added up to a big fat not much.
Sighing, he bent over the stream and scooped a handful of water. He let the ice-cold wetness dribble down the back of his neck. Next he plunged both hands into the rolling water and scrubbed at his face, the whiskers there rough to his touch. He imagined that he looked much more like a horse thief at this moment than T. Jefferson O’Malley ever would. Another handful of water acted as a poor substitute for the longed-for coffee, and he filled his complaining stomach with it, hoping the feeling of being full would last for a while.
He looked down at Elisando’s saddle and considered the weight of it, the awkwardness of lugging it on his hip for miles. It would be so much easier to just leave it laying there, an unexpected gift for a future traveler. No one would ever no; Salvador would never know. A quick swipe of his hand through hair, and he leaned down to hoist it up. He found he couldn’t leave Salvador’s trust and friendship on the side of the road. He simply could not leave this last solid reminder of Altar behind.
He had done a lot of thinking since waking to the stupid, chirpy birdsong yesterday. Over the past three weeks, he had come a great many miles, had worked hard to get to this place. But, one of the things rolling around in his sore head, along with recent sorrows and future plans, was the story his mother had told him all those years ago, of how his father had thrown them out, how he didn’t want a Mexican wife and a half-breed son. What could the man be up to? What could he want? Why now? And, was Johnny willing to play his part, whatever that might be? Could he face this man? Did he even want to? Sometimes not knowing the truth was so much better, and just plain easier.
As the sky had darkened around him and the stars slowly came out the night before, he found he had made a decision. He had worked his way north; he could work his way south again. Money was just money. If he was completely honest with himself, years of having nothing had made his wishes pretty simple. As long as he had a good horse, a gun, and enough food and tequila, he didn’t care much about money one way or the other. It hadn’t always been easy come, but it had pretty much always been easy go. Maybe he could find a job towards the border. A job that involved letting him borrow a horse, until he was paid and could buy one. There were just too many things working against him here to continue on. He wasn’t scared. He wasn’t. He just needed to go home. He would look up some of his old compadres in Sonora or even farther south, and try not to attract too much rurale-type attention.
With that, when he woke, drank water for coffee, and got the stiffness from his bones, Johnny turned to the south, the saddle on his hip, and started walking. It was still early, not yet hot. There would be a browning of his surroundings as he moved away from this land of plenty and that would be kind of hard to take. He had gotten attached. He would definitely miss the green. And the rain. And the fish-stuffed streams. A harsh cry had him looking to the so-blue sky, and he automatically started counting as crows flew across in front of him. One, two, three, four, five, six. Six crows. Six. He stood and waited for some time for a seventh, but it never came. Great. Six crows---a sure sign of death on that path. He grabbed the cross hanging on a chain around his neck, lifted it to his mouth, and turned, without hesitation, back to the north, turned toward Murdoch Lancer, and began walking. His path was set.
As the day wore on, Johnny realized was that the one thing he could be sure that T. Jefferson O’Malley wasn’t lying about was the fact that walking in boots was a damned pain in the ass---well, and in the feet. In fact, his feet were nearly rubbed raw. The narrow toes of the boots, so practical when it came to pushing them into stirrups, were pinching his toes like there was no tomorrow.
He figured he had walked nearly ten miles since he had pulled himself together, picked up Elisando’s saddle and started hiking, of course, part of that had been to the south, before the sign of the crows and then part had retraced that southern path to the north. He was never going to get anywhere if he kept stopping and doubling back. At first, each step had been a nail pounded into his still-healing skull, but eventually the headache became little more than a dull background throb, and the agony of abused feet became more of a focus.
Lord, it would surely have been the perfect day for a ride. The recent rain had left behind air that sparkled. The weather was warm, but not too hot, nothing compared to where he was coming from, and a light breeze blowing from the river tugged at his shirt and tried its best to cool him too. He carried his jacket; but he had only shed it because he was traveling under his own steam and had worked up a sweat. On horseback, the jacket would have been welcome.
He had been walking along the banks of a wide, lazy, smooth-flowing river for hours now, wondering occasionally if he would need to find a way to cross it at some point. Not 20 feet away, there was a fairly well-traveled road, just up a steep bank, and, beyond that, there were rolling foothills leading to a range of towering mountains. The river bank was strewn with rocks which pulled at his sore feet and tripped him up now and then, but Johnny had kept away from the easier going of the road, not wanting to run into any more T. Jeffersons, gunslingers, rurales, or, even, nice people.
Although, really, he had seen very little activity on this particular road, one rough looking man on horseback early this morning, a buggy with two cowboys following it a little later, a farm wagon about an hour ago. It made him wonder what day of the week it was, if there might be more traffic on Sundays as families came in from the outlying ranches to worship, or on Saturdays for some sort of a market day. It could very easily be Tuesday, he really had lost track, and if it was, it was very possible that people had simply chosen to stay home because of that. His mother had always warned him not to travel on Tuesday. It was unlucky.
He had climbed the embankment earlier to read a wooden road sign, and it had said “Morro Coyo 15 miles.” He thought there would surely be a stage along at some point. He had tried to place Morro Coyo from his earlier trip north, but he could only remember that it was near the Lancer estancia, not how near or which direction from. Surely someone there would know of Lancer though. He knew the man’s reputation. He was some kind of a patron or something, and surely a rich one to go throwing money at Pinks and offering up a thousand dollars to gunslinger sons.
He found himself walking shorter distances and taking longer breaks as the day wore on. In the middle of one of those breaks, he suddenly heard the squeak-creak of the coach, the jangle of tack and an even pounding of hooves, so indicative of a coming stage. He grabbed up the saddle again, and hurried up the embankment, hoping to catch a ride, at least for part of the way to his goal.
He stood in the middle of the road so that the stage driver had little choice but to stop. He didn’t want to take any chances.
As the stagecoach slowed and then stopped, he walked up to the driver and squinted up at him. “You going to Morro Coyo?” The man seemed friendly enough, although the other man uptop kept his shotgun trained on Johnny.
“Unless I’m lost.”
“Mind if I get a lift?” Johnny asked. A dandy-looking man in the craziest hat he had ever seen had popped his head out of the side window of the coach, wondering, most likely, if the dirty Mexican was about to rob them.
“Sure thing.” Damn, he couldn’t believe his good fortune. “We’ll take care of that gun of yours,” the man added.
My gun? Damn. Not so friendly after all. Johnny really didn’t want to give up his gun. His feet were damn near killing him though. Damn it to hell and back. He knew it was policy for many of the stage lines to disarm passengers, Mexican or not. “Sure.” He simply didn’t think, with a ride waiting for him right here, that he could take another step in these God forsaken boots. His feet would have never forgiven him.
He tossed his gun to the driver. Then, he picked up the saddle from where he had dropped it on the road and passed it up to the man riding shotgun. When he turned to walk towards the coach, the dandy man had pulled his head back inside. Johnny figured he was probably busy looking through his jacket for one of those fancy silk bandannas soaked in some kind of smelly, girl’s scent to hold up to his nose to hide the Mexican stink. He had seen a fancy man from Spain do that one time. He had kept that silk up at his nose for the entire day he stopped by to find out why the peons weren’t paying their taxes.
He opened the door and looked to the left and then to the right—a stern looking man, a woman Johnny felt must be his wife, and a young woman who had to be either his daughter or, in Johnny’s mind, a more interesting turn of events turned her into the man’s lover. They took up the entire seat on the right. He nodded to the pretty, young women in a deliberate effort to irritate the man. To his left, a monk of some sort nodded his head in greeting, and the dandy busied himself with an open book. With a grin, he allowed the sudden forward motion of the coach to plop him squarely in the dandy’s lap. The man looked satisfyingly put-out by it all. “Didn’t mean to mess up your outfit,” Johnny said, barely able to keep from smirking.
“Can’t be helped.” And that was it. Although Johnny had tried to chat a bit with the monk, asked him where he was headed, the young man had held a finger to his lips and had shaken “no,” although his smile had been big and genuine. Vow of silence, no doubt. He had then flirted a little with the younger woman, to keep the stern man stirred up a bit. The dandy hadn’t said another word for the entire trip to Morro Coyo, had simply kept his attention on the book in his lap. Johnny could understand it though. The man was obviously a stranger in this land. He must feel like a fish in the desert.
They rolled into the small town, and Johnny was the first one from the coach, as anxious to get away from the silent, tense atmosphere of the coach as he was to have his gun back, and, now that he had made the decision, he was also anxious to get this “hour of your time” over with and get his money so he could get on with his life, buy himself a good horse for that trip to Sonora. He had heard that Ismus was hanging out down that way.
As he collected his gun and saddle, he heard a soft, female voice calling his name above the noise and hustle of the town, “Uh, Mr. Lancer?”
“That’s me,” he answered. And for some strange reason, so did the dandy in the funny hat.
Would it never rain?
Weeks had trudged by since they had felt any hint of relief from the heat, seen any clouds at all. Johnny kicked at a clod of dirt and walked to the scraggly tree sitting all alone in the middle of the rolling pasture. He stretched the ache from his back as he walked. When he reached his horse, he unhooked the canteen from the pommel of his saddle. The water was warm and tasted of tin. The sweat rolled from his face, well earned sweat, from mending what he was beginning to believe must be the longest fence line in the world. Earlier the blaze of the sun had pulled stubbornly at his shirt, and he had shrugged it off. It hung limply from a broken branch which stuck out at an odd angle low on the tree
“Infierno,” he said aloud. It was nearing noon, and the sun was so unrelenting, he could see lines of heat shimmering up from the dusty grass. South of the eternal fence line, a cluster of cows stood nearly motionless, with only their swishing tails betraying them. Tattered hills, he thought.
His stomach rumbled low and long with hunger. The cool shadows of the estancia surrounding him in the early morning hours while he enjoyed breakfast and conversation seemed decades past. Shortly after that demon red rooster had crowed the dawn, he had been tucking into bacon and biscuits and teasing Teresa about wearing pants all of the time. Scott, smelling of hay and horse, had come in through the kitchen door to join them. He was smiling broadly. He had swept his hat from his head with an exaggerated gesture and had kissed Teresa on the cheek, saying “Mademoiselle.” Johnny had grinned up at him as Maria handed his brother a mug of coffee.
“Mornin’ Boston,” he had greeted him. “You look like a cat in cream.”
“Don’t you know? Today’s a special day, Johnny.” Scott sat backwards in the low-backed chair.
“What? Is it somebody’s birthday again? Seems like you all sure put a store by celebratin’ somebody’s birthday every month or so. Never saw so much celebratin’ in my life.”
“You liked it fine when you were opening presents,” Teresa had tossed at him over her shoulder from her spot at the big stove. Johnny looked up in time to see Maria nodding and hiding a smile behind a flowered dish towel.
“Well, today is a sort of a birthday I guess. Yes, I would have to say, a birthday.” After a small gap of time, long enough for Johnny to look up from his food, Scott had added, “today is the day my brother was born.”
“You’re loco. Teresa, he got another brother tucked away somewhere I don’t know about?”
“Johnny, don’t you remember? Exactly one year ago today, you stopped that stage to Moro Coyo and nearly sat in my lap when you boarded.”
“What a dandy. Never would have guessed.” He shook his head and smiled.
Now, shaking his shirt out, he used it to wipe the sweat from his face and neck. He was anxious to get to the food in his saddlebags, a thick hunk of bread and an apple, both wrapped in a piece of flour sack which Teresa and Maria had hemmed and dyed green. He remembered the day, nearly six months ago now, when they had heated up the big pot in the yard. They had filled it with water and wolf lichen, slowly feeding in the scraps of cloth and then picking them out with a long wooden pole. He had teased the two of them, wondering why it was necessary. But, even in such little things as having their rags hemmed and dyed, he had found over this last year that the two women were consistently fussy. It was nice.
He lifted the leather flap and reached in to pull out his lunch. His fingers brushed against the book, and he pulled back for a second, like something had burned him. He kept it with him, always. Scott’s words at breakfast had raised mixed feelings for Johnny. It was true, Johnny’s brother had been born on that day too, on that dusty road to Lancer, and for that he would be forever grateful, but that new beginning came on the heels of an ending too.
Lucia. He sat in the sparse shade of the small tree and tore at the bread. He opened the sketchbook. The first picture was of Placido, and he grinned to think of the cantankerous goat. He stood on a hillside. Lucia had caught his regal bearing perfectly. He was looking into the distance as though hearing someone calling to him, his ears cocked forward. The picture was so real, so immediate.
Johnny turned the page. He looked down into the eyes of Rosario. She had her head swathed in a scarf, so Johnny knew that Lucia had imagined her on her way to church. The woman was smiling. Johnny thought she must have been on her way to thank God for Pepito. Across from Rosario was a quick sketch of Ramona's and Tomas's three children. They squatted in the garden, clustered around a flower. The youngest was turned slightly, looking at the artist, her eyes full of wonder.
The picture of Teyo peeking over the top of his cards was next. The devil lived in his eyes at that moment, and the look on his face was so heartbreakingly different than it was the very last time Johnny had seen him, a lifetime of different. He would never forget how Teyo had looked clinging to Esperanza and his abuela next to the freshly turned grave behind the cottage. The lump that grew in his throat made him nearly choke on his bread.
Finally, smudged from lying in the dirt, the last picture in the book was of Johnny, of Johnny and Lucia. He had known she was drawing it, even though he’d had to act like he didn’t know. Every stroke of the pencil was so alive. The two of them looked happy and relaxed. He stood with an arm slung casually across her shoulders. Behind them in the shadows, with sheets tangled and mussed, stood the big feather bed.