A soft wind gave voice to the stars watching over the world in silence. Their presence ever looming like an open window facing infinity, a lone man held the courage to truly see their beauty for the first time. For what he saw that night—three distinct orbs twinkling in the cosmos over the Great American Desert—held more significance to him than to any other man. It was a sign. A sign that redemption was still possible. But it wouldn’t come without struggle…
The lone man rode into the bare-bones town of Roca Roja. There was no hesitation in reaching his first stop; the Diamondback Saloon. He tied his old horse—a stubborn bastard way past its prime—to the water trough out front. Sweat glistened on its white back as the scorching sun took its place atop the noon sky. The saloon was little more than a wooden shack with four walls and a roof, but it had whiskey. And after a three day trip through the unforgiving High Plains, a few shots of whiskey was more appealing than 20 gold bars.
“Can I get fer ya, mister?”
“Bottle.” The lone man pointed to a brown jug set front and center on the shelf behind the barkeep.
The barkeep’s lips moved as if he were about to speak, but he couldn’t find the words. With stiff arms he grabbed the bottle, accidentally clanking it against the bar as he placed it on the counter.
“Glass?” the lone man asked.
“Do you expect me to drink straight from the bottle?”
“Ohh,” the barkeep said, half in embarrassment, half in surprise.
The lone man took a seat on a cracked wooden stool. He took off his dusty hat and placed it on the even more cracked and crooked stool next to him. “You know how far Toque Del Diablo is from here?”
The lone man’s direct way of speaking filled the barkeep with nervous energy. “Devil’s Touch?” he asked with a dry throat. “Why ya…why ya wanna go there fer, mister?” He licked the dryness from his lips and leaned in close to the man. “They say that town’s evil and—”
The lone man stared at him with unblinking eyes. The aging barkeep’s spindly legs nearly knocked together as he failed to hold eye contact; looking more often at the counter than at the rugged stranger before him.
“I…I reckon…no more than a two-day trip. But you don’t wanna be going—”
“Thanks.” The lone man stood up with authority, grabbed the uncorked whiskey bottle, and then tossed a double eagle coin onto the bar. “Change is yours.”
The barkeep’s eyes bulged and he fought to keep his voice from cracking. “Thank you, mister. Come back anytime. Take care now. Thank you!”
The excitement in the barkeep’s voice faded with the hot rush of wind from the dusty, empty street outside the saloon. The ground boiled from the sweltering heat of the uncaring sun; now hanging from the sky like a fire demon casting its rage upon the sinful world below. Its invisible waves of searing death left the quiet street void of people—save for the lone man who seemed to embrace the unbearable heat.
Adorned in a thin brown poncho and worn hat, thick beads of sweat gathered and broke from the man’s brow, then disappeared into the great forest of his beard. With the whiskey jug in his firm grasp, it was time to hit his second destination: Roca Roja Cemetery.
While the cemetery wasn’t far, in this heat the walk seemed like it had taken a lifetime. By the time he’d reached the entrance post, the lone man was sticky with sweat; no man could endure this heat long without succumbing to its brutality. He’d never been through this town before—let alone its cemetery—but he had to talk to her. Whose body rested below the dirt didn’t matter. For him, the only thing of importance was the memories places like this brought back to him.
He walked with a careful step through broken rocks until he came to a fully erected tombstone. It was the only intact tombstone in the old cemetery, as the rest were either wooden crosses or small pieces of stones with the weatherbeaten names no longer legible. The name etched into the full tombstone, however, was as clear as the cloudless sky: Azalea Renee Williamson. Whoever she was must’ve meant a lot to someone for them to go through all the trouble of buying such a grand tombstone.
The lone man knelt down on one knee in front of the tombstone and brushed his callused fingertips across its etchings. It said the woman was 27-years-old when she died. He closed his eyes and tried to picture what she must’ve been like.
Strands of chestnut brown hair flashed through his mind—tickling his senses as they blanketed him in silk. From there he found himself swimming in the deep waters of two soft-blue eyes. A feeling of adoration and love washed over him as the aching in his heart ceased. He felt a wholeness—a sense of contentment run throughout his being. Delicate lips caressed his. The scent of vanilla and cinnamon passed through his nostrils and filled his lungs with a familiar richness. This woman, this Goddess, he was hers, she was once his.
Claps of thunder shattered the fragile memory and left him floating in a world filled with infinite shades of black. In desperation, he reached for the woman, but she broke into thousands of colorful glass shards and plummeted deep into the eternal oblivion of his mind. White beams of light took over the dark void until the lone man was once again kneeling in the cemetery. The heat of the day returned to him twofold and left his body weakened. A faint clapping in the distance was drawing closer and he knew it was time to leave.
He looked to the sky but it was still cloudless. That’s when he realized it wasn’t thunder clapping in the distance; it was the hooves of raging horses. Three brown steeds were in pursuit of a smaller white one. The men riding the brown horses were hooting and hollering at what appeared to be a young boy escaping on the white horse. Two of the men had their revolvers drawn and aimed at the boy, but the excitement on their faces showed more mischief than menace. The boy, on the other hand, was scared for his life; even in the distance, the lone man could see the wild flashes of fear in the boy’s eyes. He couldn’t tell if the three pursuers were serious in their desire to catch the boy—as they should have already since they had bigger horses—but he knew in the boy’s mind, getting caught meant death.
Great plumes of dust kicked up into the sky as they neared the cemetery. The lone man realized he would not have his time of peace today. Then something came to him; had fate brought him to this specific cemetery to intervene at this exact moment? He snarled his lip at the thought. Fate had given him enough trouble in his life, he didn’t need this, too.
Like an out of control locomotive, there was no stopping or delaying the oncoming mayhem. If the lone man had ridden his horse to the cemetery, he might’ve been able to avoid them. Unfortunately, he felt it would’ve been more trouble to ride the stubborn horse in this heat than walk. All he could do now was watch the dust clouds crest the hill to the cemetery.
“Where you think you’s gettin’ to, boy?”
With a roar of wind, the white horse made a mad galloped down the declivity to the entrance of the cemetery. Once there, its front legs finally gave out from exhaustion. The boy—much younger than he looked from a distance—tumbled over the head of the horse and landed in a heap. All the commotion kicked up a choking cloud of dust that filled its path with a brown opaqueness. It took several seconds for the dust to clear, and when it did, three sun-drenched men on horseback were trotting through its remnants.
“Now, I said where you think you’s gettin’ to, boy?” The man spit venom but was the only one of the three not brandishing a revolver. “What’s a matter, young Arturo? No hablas Ingles?” He smiled a mean, brown, crooked-toothed smile. “Yeah, I know who you is, boy.”
All three men guffawed. The lone man—watching the scene unfold from the middle of the cemetery—could practically smell the putrid breath escaping between their rotting teeth. He was instantly repulsed by them. Not so much by their filthy appearance, but more so because he’d met far too many like them in his life. These were men of consequence: they breathed tobacco, had blood of bourbon, and reveled in cruelty as if it were their sole means of sustenance. The lone man balled his fist. He knew what came next.
“Come on, Arturo. We won’t bite. We just wanna talk a minute.” Brown teeth again peeked through the man’s unkempt mustache. He had an air of confidence about him that resembled the general of a great army. The lone man took a mental note; this guy was the leader.
“Aye, Otto. Reckon we hit that lil’ town fer a drink? S’mighty hot out here, an’ I don’ wan’ see ol’ Francis here drop like that mangy beast,” the rider to the leader’s left said, pointing his revolver toward the white horse on the ground. “This lil’ Mexican ain’t worth the trouble.”
“Yeah, boss. Georgie here ain’t movin’ so good, neither. Too hot for all this ridin’ ‘round,” the man to the right said.
The leader, Otto, didn’t acknowledge either man. His eyes remained fixated on the boy pressed up against the cemetery post. “Why you runnin’ boy? Thought we wouldn’t find you this far out from Silver Creek?” There was no smile or jesting this time. Only a look of stone-cold hatred.
“P…P…Por favor, no lo hagas,” the boy, Arturo, struggled to say.
“The hell he say?” Otto asked the man to his right.
“Think he said ‘please don’t’, boss.”
The evil smile returned to Otto’s face. “Don’t what, boy? Don’t hang you from that there tree for talkin’ to that pretty lil’ lass over in Galloway? He motioned toward a bent limbed tree on a nearby hill. “You know your kind ain’t ‘pose to be at no town dance. Maybe that flies in California or Silver Creek, but it sure as hell don’t fly in these here parts.”
“Come on, Otto. He’s jus’ a kid. Don’ you think we scared him enough already?”
“Just a kid? He wasn’t actin’ like no kid when he was movin’ in on my niece!”
“He don’ even speak English, boss. Let’s jus’ go get a few drinks and forget all ‘bout—”
“No!” Otto whipped his leg over the horse and pulled his pistol out in one swift motion. “I ain’t puttin’ up with no filthy Spaniard boy slitherin’ in on my kin like some snake in the grass. I’m gonna teach him a lesson he ain’t soon to forget.” His face flushed hotter than the sun as he took giant strides toward the frightened boy.
“Leave the boy alone.”
The deep harshness of the voice hit Otto in the chest like a cannonball, stopping him mid-stride. Caught off guard for a second, he regained his composure in the next instant, laughing off the voice that buried itself so deeply in his heart. While he put up a front to show he wasn’t bothered, his eyes gave away his fear. Something in the voice’s tone had instilled in him a warning no pistol shot could replicate. He all but forgot about the boy in that moment.
“Ye…Yeah?” Otto’s mind began racing at the possible consequences his next words might bring upon him, “Says… says who?” he stuttered as danger draped over him and twisted his thoughts.
“Whatever business you have with the boy should be taken elsewhere. This is a place for the dead.” The lone man stepped out from behind the large tombstone and walked daringly toward Otto and his men.
Otto laughed loud and hard, making a real show of it for this stranger—this unknown threat. His two accomplices followed his lead, but the nervousness in their half-hearted chuckles betrayed their false bravado. “Sorry, partner. We’ll let you be… soon as we take care of this lil’—”
“I said this is a place for the dead.”
Otto stared in awe at the lone man. He knew the exact intentions insinuated by the man’s words—for the stranger already had his poncho pulled up and hand by his waist. White heat from the sun glinted off the silver metal that grazed the lone man’s fingertips. Guessing the quickness of the stranger’s hand could prove to be a fatal game. The blinding light reflecting off the revolver’s frame only intensified the danger.
“Hey, mister. We don’ want no trouble, ya hear?” the man behind Otto said.
“Yeah, we was jus’ gonna talk to the boy, is all,” the other man said.
The lone man’s response came in the form of unblinking stone—a solemn statue of a man stood before them. He hadn’t moved a muscle, yet he already won this fight. The two men sat on top of their horses and waited with uneasy alertness. It was Otto who was to make the next move in this deadly game of chess. They couldn’t do anything until he steered the course of the moment.
With the controlled speed of a master puppeteer, Otto raised his palms out to his sides. “Okay, partner. You win,” with his thumb hooked behind the trigger, he let the revolver flip upside down in his hand, “we’ll mosey on our way. You can deal with the boy if ya like.” Slowly, he began walking backward until he reached his horse.
The lone man didn’t say a word; he never even moved a muscle. He just stood there glaring at the three bandits. Another gust of hot wind whipped his grizzled salt-and-pepper beard back-and-forth. His hat cast a shadow over the top half of his face, while the heat of the day warped the hillside behind him—causing a mirage which made the lone man appear more phantom-like than human. And for all the bandits knew, he was a phantom; the leader of the dead protecting the peace of the cemetery. Even they had to respect that.
“We’ll be seein’ ya later, boy.” Otto’s eyes flickered with the flames of hate, but his face softened when he looked back up at the lone man. “Ya have yourself a good day now, partner.” He tipped his hat, but the lone man didn’t move. For only a second, the hate in Otto’s eyes returned, then he gave his partners a sharp nod and they all took off toward town.
The lone man watched as the bandits vanished behind the clouds of dust their horses kicked up over the hills. Once they were out of sight, he took his hand from his gun and placed it upon the tombstone. After a quick breath, he too started in the direction toward town. His business in Roca Roja was about finished.
The voice was a cricket chirp in a cyclone. The lone man stopped moving before realizing the boy was still huddled up next to the entrance post. “Did you say something?”
“S…S…Senor, puedo ir contigo? the boy finally got out.
The boy crawled over and pleaded, “Puedo Ir contigo? Por favor?”
His brow furrowed at the sight of this strange boy. There was something familiar in his face, but the lone man couldn’t quite place what it was. “Son, do you speak any English?”
The boy’s lips quivered as he mouthed the words to himself. “Oh, si. Yo quiero… I, want, join you?” He gritted his teeth in anticipation.
A gentle wave of emotion sparkled at the corners of the boy’s eyes. The innocence of his years shone through glints of hazel as hopelessness took hold of his mind. “Estoy comp—” He bowed his head for a moment until the right words came to him, “I am, all…alone.”
Even though Arturo’s English was rudimentary, the lone man knew deep inside, the boy wasn’t lying. There was no way he could leave him here all alone. The look on his face—it was—familiar. The lone man had seen that desperate look before. It touched his heart in a way few things in this cruel world ever could.
With the image of the boy in his mind, the lone man pulled deep within himself.
Smoke from a smoldering corn field assaulted his nostrils. The clouds turned gray and heavy; it became hard to tell where the smoke ended and they began. A house popped up in the distance—his house. Panic hit him in the gut with the impact of a shotgun blast. His legs burned deep within the muscles as he pushed himself as fast as he could toward the house. But it was too late. The house and its memories had been reduced to ash. Then a voice cried from the barn—his son’s voice. The words were jumbled and didn’t make sense. Splashes of crimson and death pulsated from the sky. Then a face emerged. Suddenly his son was looking into his eyes. The boy spoke slowly but the voice was silent. He held a look of desperation in his hazel eyes—the desperation of a human life fighting against time, against the fading of the light. His son reached out a bloodied hand, but as the lone man tried to grab him, the boy got sucked into a world of blackness. The fear in the boy’s hazel eyes was the last image to fade from the light—then he was gone forever.
Arturo’s voice muddied the memory, snatching the lone man’s attention back to the real world. It took a moment for his thoughts to settle, and when they did, the boy standing before him had finally regained enough composure to speak.
Before Arturo could plead his case to the rugged stranger, though, the lone man interrupted. The boy’s wish had already been granted. “Come on.”
The lone man gave him a slight nod, turned, then started walking toward town. The boy hesitated—watching the man move ahead—then ran over to revive his horse and catch up to him. Little did he know, this decision would alter his life forever.