Another dry gust of wind pushed through the town, whipping up dust squalls and smacking rocks against the sides of the buildings. The startled horses stamped their hooves and sent soundless ripples through the water through. Random eyes peeped through silent windows as the low hum of excitement buzzed from within.
“The boy is coming with me,”
The lone man stared emotionless at Otto’s grinning face. The smell of gunsmoke swirled in his nostrils while a burning heat permeated throughout his abdomen. He stepped back—almost dropping his gun as he did so—and placed his left hand to the spot where the heat was coming from. There was no pain, but when he pulled his hand away it dripped with dark crimson. Shocked, he sunk to one knee in front of the bandit. A final wisp of smoke drifted from the end of his gun’s barrel and disappeared with the hot wind.
“You ain’t… even… it,” Otto slurred.
And with those incomprehensible words, the alcohol took Otto away. It sucked him into the black void from where few men have escaped. Legs like wet cardboard collapsed under his weight and he crumpled to the dirt in a heap. Unable to brace his fall, his head bounced off the ground with a sickening thud. Loud gasps for air signaled his brothers to come to his aid. They did, but their legs were unsteady as well—for they too felt the same alcoholic poison flow through their veins.
“We…we… we’ll see you again,” the soberer of the two said to Arturo.
They each grabbed one of Otto’s arms and carried him over to the horses. They did this with their pistols pointed. One at Arturo—who was still cowered on the ground—and one at the lone man, who was now doubled over on his knees in agony. They fell several times during the short distance, then struggled to lift Otto’s limp body onto his horse. Moving as if this weren’t the first time they’ve been in this type of situation, they managed to tie Otto to his horse. Then they hopped up on their own and took off. The whole time they kept their guns pointed at the young boy and the injured stranger.
Something in their eyes made Arturo believe he would see them again. No matter how far he traveled, how long his journey through this life was, he felt deep in his heart that fate would bring them together. He prayed his savior—the nameless man he believed God sent to protect him—would be there when it happened.
Once the bandits disappeared behind the horizon, the young boy jumped to his feet and rushed to the lone man’s side. “Senor! You…okay?”
The lone man had trouble lifting his head. A shot of sunlight illuminated his intense blue eyes and traveled down his cheek with a single glistening tear. He took a harsh breath in, then exhaled through his mouth with short, painful bursts. In silence, he struggled to his feet, reholstered his gun, and then flicked his hand motioning that it was time to go. Arturo felt concern for the man, but he did the only thing he could. He went about his tasks and got the two horses ready for their journey.
While he finished doing all this, the lone man had gone back to the general store. He was in there for some time before he came back out. Arturo noticed the man was wearing a new shirt and poncho. There was little doubt in his mind the man had bled through his old clothes. He assumed he bandaged himself up, too. Why he didn’t go to the town doctor, Arturo couldn’t say. But he knew asking would be a fruitless endeavor.
“Ready?” the lone man asked with no emotion.
“You lead the way, boy.” All in one swift motion the lone man hoisted himself up and swung his leg over his horse. For a second, Arturo caught a slight grimace come to his face. But once on the horse, he carried on as if everything was fine. “Make sure to keep an eye out for good spots to set up camp.” He studied the boy’s face but couldn’t tell if his words were getting through their language barrier. “You understand?”
“Si. Yo llevo el camino y encuentro lugares para acampar.”
The rapid fire of words left the lone man in a stupor. All he could do was manage a subtle nod in response. Then he motioned the boy to move ahead and followed him out of the quiet town. With a faint whistle, the wind pushed through the cracked wood of the Roca Roja welcome sign. This would be the last time either of them would see it.
Day gave way to night and the full moon reclaimed its throne on top of the world. Its brilliant luminosity covered the peaceful plains with pale light; casting long shadows and bringing out the fierceness in the eyes of predators and the terror in those of their prey. A bitter cold had set upon the Earth—with the only warmth emanating from a small fire built near a lofty rock formation. Two blanketed feet stuck out from a half-formed tent. Heavy white cloth draped over a few medium sized sticks made up the tent. It was simple but held in the warmth of the fire crackling near its entrance, and it kept out the nipping of the icy wind. Even with the tent, blankets, and layers of clothes, young Arturo still shivered in a state of half-sleep. If it wasn’t for the exhaustion of the journey, he wouldn’t have been able to sleep at all.
Outside, huddled up near the fire and wrapped in a wool blanket, the lone man sat in silence. His heart beat with slow, gentle thumps, and his grizzled beard sashayed in the cold air. He couldn’t sleep, for he knew when he did, death would take him away. Once he cleansed his soul, nothing else mattered. But until that time came, he must stay alive. He must focus on every breath, on every streak of pain and every memory that came to him. Doing this was the only way he could stay in the world of the living until his journey was complete.
His body shuddered; not from the cold night, but rather from the blood loss. He rushed the stitches he gave himself in the general store and they weren’t keeping the wound closed. Infection would set in soon if it hadn’t already. The lone man didn’t care, though. His body only needed to last a few more days at most. But he now felt weak, cold, and the light shining down from the heavens had become skewed in his faltering eyes. The dull shimmer of the stars now streaked across the sky in blurred lines. The moon blinked in and out of existence as he drifted between this world and the next. Death’s grip was tightening around him and he was losing the strength to fight it. Darkness was taking hold, pulling him down, down, down. In a last grab for life, he flung his head back and focused his remaining energy on the sky. A sky as clear as crystal and more beautiful than any painting man could create. He stared at three stars twinkling brighter than the rest… then all faded to black.
Ash and death filled the sky as his weightless body floated across a burning field. Smoldering rubble shifted beneath him as he passed over what was once a rustic farmhouse. He neared that familiar barn once more, but this time his son was not moving. The boy’s lifeless body lay curled up in the corner—a pool of blood gathering beneath his body. Then the lone man was on the move again. Not of his own accord, but by some unknown force carrying him through this world of bleakness and misery.
The farm faded from sight as he traveled down a lonely dirt road. What should take 40 minutes on horseback only took him one. Trees, creeks, and hilltops passed by in blurs of drab browns and grays. Then, in a flash, he found himself standing in a chaotic brothel. There was singing, drinking, fighting, dancing, yelling, men going to rooms with women, women getting the men drunk, and a slew of miscreants coming and going from every which way. The whole scene played in a loop like a damaged record.
A drunk man fell off a bar stool and hit his head while three women laughed. Then in the next instant, he was upright on the stool falling again—over and over. The piano player pounded out the same notes of a song and a group of people dancing repeated the same steps. The lone man floated through the bizarre scene and entered a backroom. There he saw a younger version of himself sitting at a round table playing cards. He was drunk and laughing, but the other men weren’t so jovial. They held the sour faces of men who’d lost a great deal of money. Then they started speaking in faded, muffled voices like they were far away.
“Shouldn’t you be going home to pay them thugs what you owe em?” one of the gamblers said to the lone man.
The lone man laughed and threw more money into the pot. “They’ll wait. I’m on a hot streak. You fools just don’t want me to keep taking any more of your money!”
A different gambler stood up and slammed his fist onto the table. “Dammit! Do you know who those men are?” The aggravated gambler shook his head and sat back down—calming himself with a healthy swig of beer. “I’m just saying, you had an appointment with ‘em. I don’t wanna see nothin’ happen to your wife an’ kids.”
“Yeah, yeah. Since when do you care about the likes of me?”
“I don’t give a harlot’s left tit about you. But your family, the ones who actually bother to show up to our church, they’ll be the ones who pay for you screwin’ around with them bad men. I’m tellin’ you, those boys said pay ‘em by nine o’clock, they meant nine o’clock!”
The lone man slapped his open palm on the table. “Look here, fella. I got their money two times over. A few more winning hands and my family don’t gotta worry about food for two years. Now either play or get out!”
With that, the game resumed. And like he’d said, the lone man won a few more hands, but it wasn’t enough. Wasn’t enough until the last man quit and the lone man bagged up all his winnings—tipping the wait staff, bartender, piano man, and the girls who remained downstairs on his way out. It was after midnight on a moonless autumn night. The lone man’s weightless body followed the memory of himself out into the dark street. He watched as his drunken younger self tried and failed to mount his horse, then stumble back into the brothel and pay for a room to sleep it off.
A sudden wind ripped through his weightless body and carried him into the midnight sky. Then he awoke—half frozen—next to the cooling embers of the campfire. It was that magical time on the plains right before the sun peeked over the horizon. The birds were beginning to sing their morning songs. Jackrabbits were sniffing at the entrances of their burrows with twitching little nostrils. And the wild buffalo were stretching their legs off in the distance.
“They said nine o’clock,” the lone man whispered with a quiver of his lips.
“Senor. How…are you…feeling?” Arturo managed in his best English.
The lone man’s body spasmed with the pain of stiff muscles as he sat up and tried to shake off the chill of the night. “I’m fine,” he grumbled, even though it took everything he had to sit up straight.
The lone man raised an eyebrow.
“Uhh, do you… want—”
“Breakfast?” he finished the sentence for the boy.
“No thanks. I’m fine,” he tried to suppress a cough in his hand, “you go ahead and eat, boy.” He looked down and there was a splatter of blood on his palm, which he wiped on his pant leg in hopes the boy didn’t notice.
Concern came to Arturo’s face, but he gave a simple nod and went to work fixing breakfast. He could tell the man was gravely injured and needed to see a doctor, but he gave his word to see him to the flame. Arturo worried this would be a pointless journey for the man, though, as the flame was only a myth. Even if it did exist, it wasn’t worth losing one’s life over.
The morning crept along until the sun was finally in full view over the horizon. Orange and purple swirls dispersed from the sparse clouds as the soft light began to intensify. Arturo had repacked their supplies and now waited on the lone man to give the order to leave. There was a heavy sinking feeling in his stomach when he saw the stranger almost fall while mounting his horse. A gunshot wound to the gut—especially at point blank range—was almost always fatal within 12 hours. The fact he was still moving amazed the boy. His managing to climb up on his horse was almost supernatural.
“Dio sea contigo,” Arturo whispered.
“Did you say something?”
The boy shook his head.
“Well, we better get going before we start to cook.”
He did his best to remain stoic, but he could tell the boy worried. They needed to get to Toque Del Diablo before his body failed him completely. The process had already started, and it wouldn’t be long before infection killed him. The lone man decided at that moment they couldn’t camp out another night; they had to finish the trip in less than a day. Any longer and he wouldn’t make it to cleanse his soul—to wash away the mistakes of the past. It was now or never.
With the heat rising, the two pushed forward. The lone man figured if they kept a steady pace and took minimal breaks, they should make it to Toque Del Diablo by midnight. What awaits them there—whether it’s salvation or damnation—was in God’s hands.