Western Short Story
He estimates two miles, maybe two and a half. By dusk she’ll make the base of the mountain he's climbed. Whether she’ll camp and rest her horse or climb in the dark is anybody’s guess. She’s crazy. That she’s trailing him by herself is proof. From the cliffs below him a red-tailed hawk sails out over the desert floor and he follows it with the glass for a long time. Finding the rider again, now he can make out a heat-wavy image of the blaze on the bay mare’s face and lather across her chest. His sister’s rawboned profile, too, a stiff shadowed face under her Stetson. Around her neck is the yellow bandana he gave her and on her hip is their father’s .45 caliber Colt. The six point star, he doesn’t see. But it’s there, he knows.
When she reaches the mountain she’ll be within range of his Spencer rifle, but the light will be difficult. And his gelding needs water, which means he has to descend the back side of the peak to the river, down a series of treacherous headlong switchbacks. He knocks out his pipe, pulls himself up into the saddle. It’s not like she won’t catch up. She will. Best be in Mexico. Near midnight the black gelding splashes into the Rio Grande. The horse drinks in deep long draws, and when he’s done his shudder sounds like a cabin collapsing. William unbuckles his holster and hangs it on the pommel. As he dismounts his legs fold and he topples into the shoals where he throws his hat to shore and lies back for a very quick soak. Considering the moon. Considering what he’ll say to her if he gets the chance. “Are you here because I killed your husband or because you think I have the money?” If she allows him time to get this out, and if he doesn’t hesitate, he can kill her before she kills him.
Sunrise finds William crouched on an escarpment above a village with no name known to him, no more than a dozen low mud huts with roofs of ocotillo cane, strung along an ancient trail ribboning deeper into the Chihuahuan Desert. His glass detects nothing unusual, all in place, ready for the sun. He hears cocks crowing, a braying donkey, while around him desert nocturnals quietly retire. Into a rift of stone sneaks a gray fox, and a skunk and her kittens find their burrow under prickly pear. Three coyotes just vanish.
A child greets him. A child wearing a floppy sombrero, loose peasant shirt and pants, who leads William to a pen fenced with cholla wood. A child with a hatchet secured in his drawstring, a child quick to unsaddle and unbridle the horse. Then a scoopful of meal, an armful of hay, two buckets of water. “Para usted, la comida?” Yes, he’s hungry. He follows the child to a hut, stands with his rifle and his pouch in the doorway to a sooty room that smells of cold fires. An old woman gouges embers in the chiminea, flapping a withered arm at him. “Pasale! Pasale!” He sits on an ironwood bench, at a table made of ironwood planks, and when the anciana has revived her fire and her pots, she serves him coffee and gray stew and warm brown tortillas.
The child brings a man. “What is it you need, amigo?” the man says. “Mescal? A woman?”
“Hot bath. A razor.”
“My name is Elidio. I get you what you want.”
“Ask the boy to watch for a rider,” William says and Elidio laughs. “Is a girl, amigo.” In his pouch William finds a coin and gives it to the child who hands it impassively to Elidio.
“I get you what you want,” Elidio says again. “Anything.”
“La iglesia?” says William.
Elidio laughs. “There’s no church, amigo. But I get you a priest.”
In a wooden washtub, with a corn cob and one hand, the anciana scours him red, relinquishing a razor for his shave only after a playful tussle. She gathers his clothes, by gestures letting him know she will wash them. “No gracias, no tiempo,” he tells her, out of the tub, pulling on rank flannel drawers. She fingers the rosary around his neck and kisses it.
The wind whistles like a blind traveler, depositing cakes of dust on the huts as thoroughly as rain in a rainstorm if ever there was rain. The priest, Elidio says, lives in a cave beyond the village, an easy walk, and Elidio will go ahead and summon him. Eyeing scorpions and beaded lizards, William tracks a trail through the malpais to where an old man wearing a burlap robe and a crude wooden crucifix stands before a cave within a sandstone bluff. An old man with the snout of a rat and a near overpowering rooty stench.
“If you’re the priest,” William says, “I want to make confession.”
“You have money?” says the priest.
“You are a bad man?”
“How do you come to be this?”
William says nothing.
“Always you are this? When you are young?”
“Something happens I think to you,” the priest says. “Your papa, maybe he is in your bed with you.”
“Then your mother, she is a puta.”
William doesn’t answer, and the priest nods. “Yes, you are the son of a whore. In this you claim reason to be a bad man, and is why you need my forgiveness.”
“Not yours, God’s,” says William.
“What does God know,” the priest sneers, “of the need for forgiveness?”
William can see a dark figure in the cave—an animal perhaps, or someone on their knees--creeping along a wall.
“It would be just like him,” the priest mutters, motioning William inside, “to forgive an hijo de puta like you.”
“Are you a man of God?” William says, straining to see into the cave where the darkness is still shifting.
“A man of many gods. Come in.” But William begins to back away.
But William will not, and now the priest, scowling at the sky, raises his arms, palms upturned. “Oiga, Dios, pity this son of a whore and forgive us for what we do. We are a poor people, and there is no rain and we are hungry. You try us more than we can take.”
Out of the cave they file, like sullen bears. Three of them, Elidio last, carrying a stubby shotgun. The other two, young peasants in billowy blouses and pants, carry a machete and a double-bit axe.
“Give us the bag and the gun, and we let you live,” Elidio says.
“No,” says the priest. “Do not lie. You die here today, my son of a whore.”
Ignorance such as this, William thinks, is why Texas won the war. He drops the pouch, raises the Spencer and fires as Elidio fires, too, spattering birdshot into William’s shoulder as the .52 caliber bullet blooms Elidio’s chest red and Elidio flies backward, falling with not another breath nor half. Wild-eyed, the young peasants drop their tools, one fluttering his hands like butterflies, the other stumbling, scrambling away, and William kills them both.
“Can I make confession now, Father?” William says.
“I’m no fucking priest, hijo de puta.”
“I was afraid of that,” William says, levering another cartridge into the chamber.
The child is waiting in front of the anciana’s hut, the anciana, too.
“Donde esta Elidio?” the woman says.“
“Muerte,” William tells her.
She is angry at this, and as she curses him he comes to understand that Elidio was her son and the girl’s father, she who has no mother. The girl herself watches him impassively.
“See to my wounds,” William says. “I will see to the child.”
He had been working out of a line shack on the McInerny spread, a country for solitude, northwest of the Devil’s River, east of the Pecos, when Tom Miles, his brother-in-law, rode up after supper on a small roan filly that just capered over the rocky terrain. William was sitting on his camp stool, smoking his pipe, watching the sun slump through layers of pastel red.
“How is it, old boy?” said Miles.
“Adequate,” William said.
Miles swung out of his saddle and took a clay jug hung from the pommel, uncorked it and propped himself on the rump of the filly like it was a whorehouse bar and drank.
“I counted nineteen diamondbacks today,” Miles says. “My word but this is wicked country. Say, where’s Bushwack?”
“He picked a fight with a badger,” William said.
By the time Miles finished seeing to his horse, William had a bunk ready for him.
“Julia sends her love,” Miles said, standing his Winchester by the door. And not until their second cup of coffee next morning was there more talk, when Miles said, “We have an opportunity to make some money, a lot of money. A job that calls for your skills. What do you think?”
“About your introduction?” said William.
“About whether you want to hear more.”
“You rode a long way to tell it.”
“I did,” Miles said, ready with his smile. “The Butterfield Overland is closing. What with the war, the company can’t keep it open.”
“Texas is about to secede,” Miles said.
“Dear William, you did hear that thirteen colonies formed a country? Well, that country’s breaking up and there’s going to be a war over it in the South and people are headed to California in droves before the Overland closes. Including W. T. Bice’s boy. Old man Bice owns six thousand acres north of the Pecos and he’s sending his fair-haired boy on the Butterfield stage to San Francisco out of harm’s way, with somewhere around thirty thousand dollars in double eagles.”
William said nothing.
“It’s Julia, how I know this. Bice trusts her, tells her things. The young scion will catch the stage at Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos, and the money will be on a pack mule trailing the stage, one of Bice’s hands traveling along, too.”
”William shook his head. “Stagecoach seats are filled in St. Louis. You can’t catch the stage in Texas.”
“Bice’s boy can,” Miles said. “At Horsehead Crossing late tomorrow. You’ll be waiting.”
“No. I won’t.”
“There’s nothing to this, William. Take out the shotgun guard and Bice’s man, it’s all over. The crossing is in Julia’s jurisdiction. The sheriff, your sister, my wife.”
“Julia’s in on it?”
“You think I’d try something like this without her knowing?”
“I expect you lack the anatomy,” William said, Miles only smiling at the insult, a man who affected a silky, cardsharp elegance, a man who wore a guinea feather in a hole in his hat from his wife’s .45.
“I’ve got traps to check, livestock to count,” William said.
“It’s not like you’ve never done this before,” Miles said, raising his voice a tad. “Fifty-fifty split. There may even be more money than what we think.”
William sat silent, rubbing his chin.
“A man needs a stash for when he’s older,” Miles said.
“I’m older than I ever planned to be,” William said.
“Why be poor to boot?”
“A man ain’t poor, he doesn’t want anything.”
“You’ve a bias to just dry up out here, die alone?”
“Yes,” William said. “Peacefully.”
“Sounds like you’ve lost your gravel for a little trouble,” Miles said.
“A man can’t size trouble.”
Miles sweetened his smile. “Say you’ll do it, William.”
“No,” William said. “You do it.” The refusal felt right. Standing up from the table, he took a small pride in it.
Miles trailed him outside. “I will,” he murmured and slammed the stock of hisWinchester into William’s head, and once William was down, he added several whacks into William’s ribs.
When William came to, he found Miles sitting the little roan above him, wearing William’s hat and holding a lead rope to the gelding, saddled now, the Spencer in its scabbard.
“Maybe,” Miles said, smiling at his brother-in-law lying in the sand, “you’re not the right man for the job after all.”
His ribs ached and his head hurt worse, bloodied, black ants crawling through the blood, across his face, through his hair. A moon like half of a white china plate hung so close it seemed about to settle on his chest. He could hear wolves howling, a sound that came at him differently lying flat, as if the wolves were not just around him but above him, too. He rolled himself to the line shack and passed out, woke while it was still dark, and elbowed-kneed himself inside. It seemed to him the wolves followed him. He slammed the door shut, squirmed himself hard against it. He thought he heard them scratching at the other side but his throbbing head precluded good thinking.
In a ruthless daylight he crawled under his bunk trying to sleep. That afternoon he drank stale coffee, too sore to get water, but by nightfall he made it to the well to pump long and hard for maybe a gallon to douse his head and drink, and after, he managed to keep down two pulls of jerky. Nothing broken save some ribs, he thought, that made breathing tortuous. He didn’t remember seeing Miles after the beating, and now he wondered where his hat was, and this, along with his missing horse, saddle and rifle, clued him in to Miles’ back up plan. Miles would secure his filly near Horsehead Crossing, fold his pomaded hair up under William’s hat and tie a bandana over his beard, then ride friendly up to the stage on William’s gelding, have some relaxed discussion about Miles’ wife, the sheriff, and then cut down the shotgun guard and Bice’s man. With the pack mule and the gold, Miles would return William’s horse and gear along with a few double eagles for Julia to find and then arrest William.
His second try roped one of his skittish burros who dragged him fifty yards before he could wind the rope around a juniper shrub and halt the animal. The bareback leg-dangling donkey ride jabbed his ribs like spears as he rode north toward Horse Head Crossing, following a sketchy Indian trail that William assumed Miles would use going and coming back, Comanche war parties unlikely in January. Up country William found a dry arroyo strewn with limestone boulders as if by a giant child in a boardgame, and his pain overwhelming him, behind one of these boulders he hunkered down to rest and wait, muzzling the burro with his belt, hobbling him close. Wolves had pulled down a calf whose rotting carcass lay further along the gully feeding a wake of turkey buzzards hopping excitedly. What with his sore ribs, he stayed awake easily as night fell and stars like sequins appeared overhead, and eventually he heard traffic above him. Miles wasn’t using the Comanche trail. He was riding the mesa topside of William.
When William approached the line shack, Miles was on watch from the doorway, profiled in
candlelight. Circling to the southwest behind the shack fifty yards or so, William waited lying under the burro. Suddenly Miles stalked around a corner and opened up with his Winchester, knocking the burro down--a lucky shot, Miles was no good with a rifle--and now William huddled behind the burro as Miles emptied the Winchester into the animal and around it. When Miles had to reload, William ran for him, and seeing him, Miles fumbled and dropped his shells then dropped the rifle, too, and stood waiting with his knife drawn. Reaching his man, William launched himself into Miles’ gut, and for a moment William could only hold on as Miles stabbed wildly and ineffectively for the most part, but gradually he managed to lift Miles up and pitch him flat, Miles continuing to flail with his knife until William pinned both arms with his knees, then in a rage he bit off the end of Miles’ nose, gnawing flesh free of cartilage. Now what fight Miles had left vanished and he began to weep, while with Miles’ knife, William began cutting the man’s heart out of his chest.
The child believes that she is William’s now. When he has undressed and lain down, she finds clean rags, a bowl of water and stick of ash soap, then at length she pries and squeezes pellets out of his shoulder, painstakingly cleaning each sore and binding the lot with cloth and gut twine strung under his arm.
“I must go bury my father,” she says.
“Como se llama, hija?”
“Constancia. Y usted?”
“William. Will you watch for a rider, Constancia?”
Out she goes. And soon back. “There is a horse, William.”
From the doorway he watches Julia’s blaze-faced bay mare trot stiff-legged down the trace with an empty saddle and a wall-eyed stare. Constancia turns the mare in with the gelding and sees to the livery before joining several old peasants pulling a wobbly cart packed with dead men out of the village into the desert.
“I have a Bible, Constancia,” William calls. “I can read over your father.”
The child leaves the cart and returns. “No. He was good to me but he believed in the devil only.” She considers him with intense brown eyes. A reckoning gaze. “You have killed other men?” she says.
“Yes.” William says,
“Ninos y ninas?” she asks.
Her eyes dare him to look away but he will not, standing exposed and guilty before this child, and for the first time in a long pitiless time he is sad for himself without rage. In this, and in this child for whom he will be responsible, William recognizes mercy.
“Do you believe in the devil only, William?”
“No, Constancia. Not only.”
He watches her follow the cart through bristling cholla shrubs to a cluster of crooked white crosses, she a young one to help the old ones obliging death’s work with their picks and hoes under the selfsame sun their ancestors worshipped that even yet renders their days blindingly harsh.
He had been hardly older than Constancia when he fell in love, the girl but a child as well. A chaste love and no less intense for that, for he was a serious child and she likewise. Her name was Sally and they both thought it a silly name. Her father she didn’t know. Her mother kept a rooming house in a south Texas hamlet called Dixon, the first community of any size on the trail north to the Kansas railheads. William’s father was Dixon’s sheriff, and Dixon being a quiet town but for when the drovers and their herds rambled through, Sheriff Cross found time to run stock himself on a small spread that had seasonal grass and a cold stream. Of his mother William knew little, her sudden absence after Julia’s birth a thing terribly vivid in a three-year-old’s mind then and forever. Rumor held that the baby was fathered not by Miter Cross but a young traildriver, but when eventually, like an outbreak of fever, gossip had run its course and Miter’s wife was sure enough gone (Kansas, somebody said, just up the road in San Antonio,somebody else said), Miter kept on being sheriff and running a few cows and moved himself and his family into Dixon’s rooming house where the baby and William could be seen to by Sally’s mother, a big, kindly, florid woman who, it was well known, upon polite request and ready cash provided at reasonable prices services beyond bed and board.
The three children grew together as playmates, but they grew apart, too, for each one was of a singular mind. William was thin, somber and quiet—he would always be--and his was the life of the mind. He read constantly. Sally was a big girl, built on the lines of her mother, and though she was no less intelligent than William, she had a reckless streak, a passion for risk he lacked. Not so smart as William, but prettier than Sally, William’s sister Julia shared Sally’s pluck, each girl keen to dare the other to feats for which William trailed along.
Julia limps into the village with one eye swollen closed, bald patches in her hair and shoulders slumped crookedly, no gun, star or hat, the yellow bandana, bloody now, binding a leaking wound in her forehead. William has seen her cry only once before, but she looks on the verge now, brittle and lame, and he feels no pity for his sister; he’s certain she wants none. In the cholla pen the bay whinnies and Julia trudges toward the sound, William following, Spencer in hand. Struggling, breathing with difficulty, Julia bridles and saddles her horse, climbs up and glares at her brother. “You killed my man, and you didn’t even trouble yourself to bury him.”
“Seemed appropriate to leave his body for the wolves,” says William. In his pocket he finds Tom Miles’ heart, withered and black, and tosses it to her. She examines it and bites off a piece, stuffing the rest into a vest pocket.
“He was nothing to brag on,” she says, chewing slowly, “but he was mine.”
“He tried to kill me.”
“He didn’t have the balls to go up against you.”
“He got me from behind.”
“He didn’t have the balls for that, either.”
“If you told him to, he would.”
ing?”“That y “Where’s the money?” she says.
“I don’t know, Julia.”
She is quiet for a moment, William thinking now is the time to kill her but she’s unarmed and that won’t do.
“If you don’t have the money, why did you run?”
“So you don’t send me to prison for holding up a stagecoach,” William says.
“And murder,” Julia says. “Tom was the second person you’ve killed who I loved.”
“Yours and Sally’s love was an abomination.”
“She didn’t think so,” Julia says.
William is silent.
“I should have killed you both,” he says finally.
“Far as I’m concerned,” Julia says, “you did.” She reins the bay to leave.
“Where are you going?” says William.
“To get my gun, my star, and revenge. “First, I need water.”
He gestures across the little road. “See the crippled woman in that hut.”
Cinching his saddle he hears Constancia climb the cholla fence.
“Where are you going, William?”
“To follow my sister.”
Leaving, he rides close by Constancia, and quick as a squirrel she leaps onto the gelding behind him.
“No,” William says. “I’ll come back for you. I promise.”
Just as quickly as she’s mounted, she jumps off and when he bends to offer his hand she kisses it. The potency of her smallness is intense. and her trust strikes a tender part of him he thought long lost. Suddenly he’s afraid for himself, about whether he’ll make it back for her.
There’s no hiding from Julia, not in a country flat and desolate. A mile or so ahead of him, she rides neither slow nor fast, and so does he, but unsteadily, still sore from Miles’ beating. And someone is trailing him. Stopping to scan the desert with his glass, he sees little Constancia riding a black burro, bumping along, jiggling like a can on the end of a stick. But there’s nothing he can do about it now, and what could he do that would be effective? He can only move on in his disjointed caravan, the sun directly overhead, insistent with heat. They’ve traveled about ten miles, Julia bearing northwest toward the Chisos Mountains, but after he’s eyed Constancia, he turns back and sees no Julia. He hies the big gelding to where Julia’s tracks turn into an arroyo. Tracks heading west, deeper into the arroyo, and so does he, confident that Constancia can track as well as himself.
The old river basin deepens into a slim canyon carved into the earth long ago in eras of rainfall and flash floods. From nests bulging high in the canyon walls, mourning doves bark gently, Coo-oo-Woo-woo-woo. The gelding is skittish, ears erect, hooves dancing, and suspicious that he’s being watched from above, William pauses to fill and light his pipe and steal a look upward, seeing nothing. But suddenly he hears above him a rattling, gravelly noise, and he looks up to see a keg-size boulder hurtling down, and had the gelding not perhaps sensed it and darted forward, William’s bones could have been an archeological find in the next century. He urges the horse into a gallop and the gelding streaks down the old river bed, elongating to run, William clinging to his hat, as rifle fire begins to spatter around them. Julia appears, sitting her horse off to William’s right, but there’s no stopping the gelding easily and William lets him gallop on. Not until gunfire sounds headon does he rein his horse aside, under a projecting shelf in the canyon wall cantilevered onto a limestone pillar, a peculiar formation that shields him and his horse. Close against the canyon wall, shortly Julia joins him.
“Do you have water?” he says.
“Why did you follow me?” says Julia, handing him a canteen.
“Been pondering that myself,” William says, pouring water for the gelding into his
hat. “What’s up ahead?”
“Nine,” she says. “They’re running a remuda of stolen saddle horses. They had a white kid, too.” Julia pauses, looking away, then “They raped him, left him to bleed out.”
“They well armed?”
“To the teeth.”
“So you walked into town from here?” William says.
Julia shakes her head. “I stole a horse, ran him ‘til he gave out, and I walked the rest of the way.”
“How did your own horse arrive in town before you did?” William asks, typically skeptical of his sister.
“They roped me out of my saddle but they couldn’t catch the bay.”
Two shots splatter the sand nearby.
“Looks like we’ve lost the advantage of surprise,” William says.
With her back to William, from one of her saddlebags Julia retrieves her Colt .45, wheels and presses the barrel into William’s temple.
“Come on!” she shouts. “He’s mine.”
The boss seemingly has no neck, his fat round head resting flat on his shoulders under a clownishly small black bowler hat practically useless against the sun, his face sun-scalded red under a scant red beard. He wears knee-high moccasin boots and cavalry pants, and beneath a black gambler’s vest, no shirt. His horse is a wiry dun mare, his vaquero saddle black with silver conchos, and recognizing the horse and saddle as belonging to his boss, Jess McInerny, William wonders if the venerable rancher is still alive.
“My name is Finn. You can avoid a lot of pain by telling me now where the money is.”
“I don’t know. Ask her,” William says, nodding at Julia.
“We did already. She says you got it.”
“Then she’s a liar,” says William.
“I doubt it, we hurt her pretty bad,” Finn says.
William shrugs and Finn sighs, shaking his head sadly.
“It must be a lot of money,” Finn says, “if you’re willing to die for it.”
“How much money there might be doesn’t matter,” William says, “if I have to die for it.”
Finn chuckles, “Yeah,” and as he rides away, he calls,“Traerlo.”
The camp is sited beside a green pool sustained by a trickle of underground water. A sparse camp with only a few canvas road bags and livery items scattered around a pit where no fire has yet been laid. The secluded canyon appears safe but the remuda’s need for grass and water will keep the bandits moving, William figures. That they’re still here is likely due to Julia and the money.
They strip William to his drawers, tie his hands and feet, and fix a noose around his neck, securing the rope over a branch of a desert willow tree so tightly that William must stand erect to avoid strangling. Shrieking--”I did what you said!”--Julia is dragged to the same tree and her arms tied around it. The gelding is unsaddled and led into the remuda and the Spencer passed among the outlaws, who examine it respectfully. Ultimately Finn takes the rifle.
It’s a gang long in tooth---dark, blunt-faced Mexicans, Mestizos and Apaches, and under trail dirt and sun scorch, a couple of white men. They’re often stumbling drunk, chasing each other with knives drawn, howling with laughter. And from their taunts as they pass William, he knows they’re looking forward to getting their hands on him, but in fact, if they don’t start in on him soon, they’ll miss their chance. It won’t be long before his legs give out.
Hardly into the canyon, hearing gunfire ahead Constancia reins her burro around, backtracks, and spanks the donkey up to the overlook and travels on, not a little afraid, listening, listening. Hearing William’s sister shout, the child stops and stakes the burro, drinks the rest of the water in her goatskin and continues on foot cautiously, listening, giving wide berth to a sentinel peering down into the canyon. Once the sentinel is well behind her, she creeps to the canyon rim and sees below a cluster of men examining William’s rifle, and nearby, guarded by two men on horseback, a herd of horses including William’s gelding. She watches William sag, violently jerk himself upright, sag again. She creeps along the rim until she locates a possible way downward, a spot she marks with a pile of quartz chips before skulking back into the desert.
With her hatchet she hews a mesquite branch into a pole, the end of the pole into a two-pronged fork, so she can nudge a fat diamondback out from under a creosote bush and pin its head, a snake as long as she is tall. Then she clasps the snake behind its head, struggling to keep her grip as the rattler writhes, baring long curved fangs in a pink mouth astonishingly agape. Back at the rim she locates her quartz chips, re-fixes the location in her mind and creeps to a spot above the remuda. Angry snake still in hand. Night falls in the schizophrenic way of the desert--hot to cold. A huge full moon rises. And Constancia drops the big rattler into the herd, the snake landing athwart the neck of a roan filly before falling to the sand, coiling, rattles erect and buzzing, and now all hell erupts into a maelstrom of trumpeting horses running harem scarem, falling and scrambling up, and finally stampeding back down the canyon through shocked outlaws trying to hold their own horses while dodging the panicked herd, and when the storm has passed, saddling up, giving chase.
The climb down the canyon wall is steeply perpendicular with scarce outcroppings of strata for random tiny steps and handholds. In a scary frontal fall, Constancia bloodies her face, William dimly making her out with awe and worry. Once on the canyon floor, she finds William and with her hatchet frees his hands and feet and slashes the rope. He falls hard, groaning.
“Esta bien, William?”
“Si, si. Muchas gracias.”
“What’s happening?” Julia calls. “Are you free?”
Constancia points her hatchet in Julia’s direction. “Do you want me to…?”
“No.” William says softly. “Can you climb back up?”
“Leave me the hatchet. Meet me where the canyon begins.” He watches her find her path and reach for a handhold in the rocks then raise herself to secure purchase with her rope sandals, then stretch for another hold, slowly accomplishing what appears impossible, contorting to find handholds and climb a little higher, feeling again for a new hold and climbing higher, feeling yet again and zig-zagging higher still, risking a fall ever more dangerous.
“William!” Julia hisses.
He crawls to her.
“Cut me loose!” she says.
Dizzy with pain he struggles to stand, unsure if he can walk much less ride.
“You’re leaving me here?” Julia cries. “Wait! Wait!”
He wants to leave her, and not so long before he would have, but lately he’s foreseen a future different from the past---he will be a different man. He cuts his sister’s hands free.
The moon has moved beyond the canyon, deepening the darkness from which the gelding looms.
“Help me on to my horse, Julia.” Then he pulls her up behind him, and grasping the gelding’s mane, reining him with his knees, William rides back down the canyon. On the way he gives the hatchet to Julia. “If we’re lucky this will come in handy, but I can’t do what’s necessary,” he says. “I’m not up to it.”
“Do what?” she says.
“Do you think Finn will just let us ride away, Julia?”
“Do what?” she says.
Where he is to meet Constancia he finds Finn sitting his mare, holding the child.
“This is some girl, hey? I’ve known her since she was a baby. And you killed her father?”
William says nothing.
Finn shrugs. “He was no good. Mamma, too.” As he ruffles Constancia’s hair, she fidgets to avoid his hand. “I just want the money, amigo. I get the money, you and your little family can ride away. You see?”
”William eases the gelding closer to Finn until the men are facing each other side by side, and now from behind her back Julia brings out the hatchet. Finn’s horse, however, shys from Julia’s sudden movement and her inexplicable shriek and rather than striking Finn in the neck, she slices into his shoulder. As Finn reins away, reaching for his pistol, Constancia plunges her fingers into his eyes and leaps to the ground, and Julia, too, dismounts, pulls the blind outlaw off his horse and sinks the hatchet into his skull.
Knowing what will happen next, William cries “Run, Constancia! Run!” as he grabs the reins of Finn’s horse and gallops away, the dun mare in tow. When the girl breaks for the desert, Julia breaks for Finn’s horse but he’s no longer within her reach, and she can only stand helplessly, watching in moonlight the girl flee and William, still saddleless, still in his drawers, range circuitously before picking up the girl and riding away.
They ride north, navigating by stars, and without rest until the sun rises when William can glass the way they’ve come.
“You want to change horses?” Constancia asks, “take the saddle?”
“Si,” William says.
“We’re out of water,” Constancia says, shaking the last drops out of Finn’s canteen.
“We’ll reach the river soon,” William says.
”Are they following us?”
“Probably,” William says, scanning the desert, “but I don’t see them. Once we’re in the mountains, which won’t be long, we’ll be safe.”