Like a lost dog in search of companionship, Arturo trailed slowly behind the lone man. Not once during the short trip to town had the man bothered to look back to see if the boy was even following him. Arturo kept a safe distance, but he wasn’t scared of the man. No, what he feared was the brutality of the ruthless bandits. Once in town, the only thing separating them from him would be a thin wooden saloon door. The chance of another meeting with them seemed more than likely in his mind, and he wasn’t sure how much trust he could put in this lone stranger. If only his horse had the energy to take him far away, he might be able to escape this nightmare.
“We’ll be seein’ ya later, boy.”
Unfortunately for the boy, he needed to replenish the energy of his exhausted horse. If his horse collapsed again in this unbearable heat, it would most likely die. It needed water and a long rest in the shade. Was the lone man willing to stay in this town until the horse had recovered? Would the bandits be waiting to ambush them as soon as they entered the town? Arturo’s mind started to fill with macabre images unfitting of his age.
The wooden welcome sign of Roca Roja loomed over the town from the top of a hill. As the two neared it, orange beams of light passed through the red letters and cracked wood. On the other side, the beams of light bathed the dirt road with a rusty hue. With the dust kicked up behind the sign and caught at the right angle, one could see the town as if it were filtered through red and orange flames. To Arturo, it was a warning from God that he’d reached the gates of Hell—his time of judgment was near. Before crossing the threshold into the town, he touched his fingertips in order: head, heart, right shoulder, left shoulder, then a soft bow of his head. The Lord’s Prayer passed his lips in a near silent whisper.
Fear was long lost to the lone man. He marched forward without regard to what might happen if he were to run into the gang again. To him, death was the only certainty in life. Whether it came soon or in 20 years was inconsequential—for he stopped living the day the ash of his old life permanently darkened his view of the sky.
The lone man stopped at the crest of the hill and looked down upon the sleepy town. His horse was idling in the shade where he’d left it. “Boy. Tie your horse next to mine at the water trough.” He pointed to his horse but didn’t look back to see if the boy understood. Then he began to descend the hill going into the dusty town.
Nerves were getting the best of the Arturo. He hadn’t fully understood what the lone man said to him. He feared the stranger would abandon him if he made an error. This fraying of his nerves only intensified by the thought of running into the gang of bandits again. Surely the lone man wouldn’t want the added trouble and would hand him over to them if the situation were to arise. With this in mind, the boy caught up to the lone man and treaded behind him as light-footed as he could. He figured it best to make like a quiet mouse of minor annoyance rather than a giant rat of mass agitation. The less the lone man had to pay attention to him, the less likely he’d get the urge to rid himself of the boy.
“Careful by my horse, boy.” The lone man finally looked back. He could see the nervousness and uncertainty in Arturo’s face. “He’s a mean sonuvabitch and kicks somethin’ fierce.” He motioned his head to the post next to his horse.
The boy stood still with his eyes focused toward the ground. He was silently mouthing the lone man’s words to himself.
“Tie em there, boy. Comprende?” The lone man pointed to the post again. He realized he would need to be more precise with his words or the boy wouldn’t understand.
“Si.” The boy directed his horse to the water trough and wrapped its lead rope around the post—making sure to leave a wide space between his horse and the lone man’s mean one. “Hace mucho calor,” the boy muttered to himself, wiping his brow. His horse took large sloppy gulps of the warm, whitish water in the trough. This reminded the boy of the dryness in his own mouth. In all the excitement of the earlier chase, he’d lost his supply bag. Now he was sans canteen and had no money to buy another.
Having sensed the boy’s predicament, the lone man handed over his canteen without word. With a wild rush the boy nearly drained the metal canteen, but then was immediately overcome with a sense of regret. He didn’t want this stranger to see him as needy. And he definitely didn’t want him to think him greedy or unappreciative.
“Lo siento. Gracias, gracias senor,” the boy choked out. A flush came to his tan face and he felt the need to bow his head repeatedly in gratitude.
The lone man reached over and took back his canteen from the overeager youth. He gave it a shake and the little water that remained sloshed against the inside walls. The boy worried this was to show disapproval of him drinking so much, but the man’s expression didn’t give any clues to what he was thinking or feeling.
“Come on.” The lone man motioned to the general store a few buildings down.
Upon entering the general store, the strong scent of cedar wood assailed them. A sleepy old man shuffled to his feet and greeted them from behind the counter. They both nodded politely in return.
“I’d like to pick up a few items, sir,” the lone man said.
“Sure thing, partner. What we lookin’ to buy today?”
The lone man pulled out a torn piece of newspaper from his pocket. Scribbled on the blank corner of the paper was a list of items. He handed it to the old man then looked over at the boy. “You need anything while we’re here?”
The boy looked around and contemplated for a moment. Then, with a sheepish tone, he said, “No tengo dinero.”
“Si,” the boy said, too ashamed to look him in the eyes.
“It’s okay, boy. I got it.” The lone man pointed to himself. “What do you want?”
The boy’s eyes flashed to the candy counter and fixated on the peppermints. His wide-eyed desire for the sweets quickly turned to a look of shame. He glanced back at the lone man once more. “Nada. Gracias.” Disappointment streaked across his face, but he knew he was in no position to have this stranger help him any more than he already was.
The kind old shopkeeper took his time walking around to gather the items on the man’s list: salted jerky, jarred fruit, pickled vegetables, dried beans, cigars, and an assortment of non-food items. While the shopkeeper gathered the supplies, the lone man made himself at ease—leaning against the wooden counter—and read the newspaper. Bored from inaction, Arturo’s eyes wandered from shelf to shelf. He attempted to read some of the more familiar English words printed on the various packages.
“Says here the O’Leary brothers escaped from jail last month and still haven’t been caught,” the lone man announced to no one in particular.
The shopkeeper plopped two sacks on the counter. “Heard they been terrorizing their way across Texas. Bounty on em should be pretty high by now.”
“I reckon it must be. Don’t say here how much they offering on em.”
The lone man held up the newspaper and shook open the second page. Sunshine peeked through the shop’s windows and seeped its way through the thin paper. Only the blackest parts of the ink were visible through the yellow light. The boy caught a glimpse of the O’Leary brothers’ picture on the front page and shuddered deep to his core. The three wanted men in the paper and the three bandits who chased him earlier in the day were indeed one and the same—those same ruthless bandits who were across the street getting drunk right at this moment. Or were they? The boy realized he hadn’t seen their horses tied up at the horse trough. He hoped they had changed their minds and decided to flee the area.
“I’d hate to have a run-in with those boys. Apparently, they killed four men and two lasses in San Antonio.” The shopkeeper looked a bit nervous talking about them like this. “Even took the time to ransack a saloon before leaving town,” he added with a softer tone.
“I hope for your sake you don’t have the displeasure of meeting them. Unfortunately, I ran into them at the cemetery not even 45 minutes ago.”
“Wish I were old timer. They was chasin’ this boy here.”
The sleepy-eyed shopkeeper was at full attention now. “Ya don’t say?” His eyes looked the boy up and down but his body didn’t move an inch. “Why him? He can’t be no more than 14-years-old.”
“Don’t know. He don’t speak much English.” Even though he knew why they chased Arturo, the lone man didn’t want to drag this conversation out any longer. His mind was already crossing the unforgiving plains that his body would soon follow. “Anyway, I gotta get going. How much do I owe you?”
It took a few minutes for the shopkeeper to tally everything up. Business had been slow with the blazing heat keeping travelers away from the area. This was the most money he’d made at one time from an out-of-towner in over a month. While the total excited him a great deal, he almost lost control of his wits when the lone man paid well over what was due. Before the shopkeeper could express his gratitude, the two travelers had already picked up their sacks and walked out into the dry heat.