The day was long and tested their will. Heat from the afternoon sun had sapped their strength. Their endurance dwindled to the breaking point, but neither the horses nor their riders gave up. It was as if the driving force inside the lone man’s heart was so powerful, so genuine in its goal, that his will became the will of man and beasts alike. They were all now fighting against the odds to prevail in this one noble pursuit. Whether it was willpower, luck, or a combination of the two, they managed to endure the journey through the inhospitable plains and defeated the might of the furious sun.
When the evening came, the two found themselves fighting off the frigid winds of another hard night. Arturo’s horse was the first to quit. It collapsed in exhaustion about a mile outside of Toque Del Diablo. The lone man’s horse followed suit not long after. This forced them to make camp and tie the poor animals up for the night. This didn’t deter the lone man from his destiny, though, and he began walking the final mile to the fabled town. Arturo tried to stop him, but there was no use. All he could do was point the way and follow the hobbling stranger.
The walk was grueling. Especially for the lone man who maintained a slow yet determined pace ahead of the boy. Every so often the moonlight glinted off tiny blood droplets trailing behind the lone man. But with each sighting, the shadows of night hid them soon after they appeared. Freezing wind and a steady increase of hills made the tail end of the journey more laborious for the two. At times, Arturo wasn’t sure if the lone man would make it. And if he was honest himself, a part of him hoped they wouldn’t. His parents told him the blood of the innocent had built this land, and that blood was spilled in the name of greed. A sinner could enter Toque Del Diablo and the flame would cleanse their soul and absolve the sins of their past. For they were already touched by the Devil once, and he could not get to them again. But a pure soul, an innocent soul, a soul devoid of malice or sin is susceptible to the Devil’s touch. And while Arturo believed this to be a myth, deep down he feared there was truth in the legends. Inside his heart, a major battle was taking place. He could listen to his gut and leave this cursed land, or be true to his word and take this stranger to The Eternal Flame. He could lead the man into the heart of the ruins known as, Touch Of The Devil.
While the two closed in on the desolate town, the night grew still and an unusual warmth picked up in the air.
“Is that it?” the lone man said, pointing to a shallow valley beneath them.
Arturo nodded his head in nervous hesitation. “Si.”
This was it. Their journey had finally come to its conclusion. A surge of adrenaline pumped through Arturo’s weary body, but the lone man, as always, remained still as a statue. Only now, he didn’t look strong, stoic, or ready for action. He was injured, beat down, and on his last legs of life. Arturo figured climbing down the steep grade to the town would prove to be the lone man’s toughest challenge. He had no way of knowing that this stranger had gone through more pain than any physical beating could ever take out of a man. Not even death could stop him from reaching that flame this night. It was his destiny. It was his promise.
The danger of the rocky hills was behind them, but with the entrance to the town ahead, they faced a new obstacle. Before them was the remains of a rickety wooden bridge stretched and sagging over a dried up riverbed. Hardly any of the bridge remained intact—save for a few cracked boards and frayed ropes holding it up. There was no other way into the town, and darkness swallowed the riverbed below. Even if they were foolish enough to trek down into the black abyss, it was most likely overgrown with impenetrable brush.
“Guess we better cross one at a time,” the lone man said, lamenting the idea. “Comprende?”
Before the boy could answer, a familiar thumping echoed throughout the valley. They both whipped their heads around to see where it was coming from. A rattle of rocks tumbling down the side of the valley broke up the echoes of stomping hooves. Arturo’s heart sank when he caught a glimpse of three men charging down the last hill leading to them.
“You gotta be kiddin’ me.” The lone man grabbed each side of the bridge and shook it hard to test its sturdiness. “Go on boy. I’ll keep em off your back.”
“Pero no puedo cruz—”
“I said go!”
His stern tone frightened the boy, but Arturo knew he had no choice. If the bandits caught up with him now the lone man wouldn’t be able to protect him. Like the branches of a tree during a storm, Arturo’s legs shook uncontrollably. Galloping hooves grew closer and the click of a gun hammer rattled his nerves even more. His fingers squeezed around the ropes of the bridge as he took the first step. The first board gave a little under his foot but felt sturdy enough to support his weight. With each careful step, he moved forward—inch by inch. Every few feet he had to leap as one or more of the wooden planks were missing. When he got to the middle, the dry-rotted bridge started creaking with tremendous strain. It was only a matter of time before the boards would begin to splinter and break under his weight.
“Now, now. The rough n’ tough cowboy lives.”
Arturo couldn’t look back without the risk of taking a fall, but there was no mistaking that terrible voice. It was Otto.
“S’matter? Cat gotcha tongue?” Otto guffawed loud and long. “You ain’t lookin’ too good there, fella. Last time we talked, did I get ya?” This time he made the mistake of looking back at his brothers while they all laughed in unison. When he turned back around a second later, he was staring down the barrel of a revolver. “Now we ain’t gotta do all tha—”
With only the moon and stars giving light to the valley, it was difficult to tell if Otto’s body hit the ground before or after the second bullet pierced his brother’s chest. The flashes from the revolver sent the horses into hysteria. The third brother’s horse threw him to the ground. The second brother—slumped over after getting shot—fell and was dragged behind his horse as it took off into the night. Its hooves echoed only for a minute, then a loud crashing of rocks boomed from below. A still silence returned a moment later—the horse had run afoul of the riverbed and plummeted to the bottom.
During the violence, Arturo had doubled his speed across the bridge. He jumped over the last remaining boards and landed safely on the hard dirt. His heart pounded like a battle drum and he was too scared to look at the eerie ruins before him, or at the lone man on the other side of the bridge. He had never seen a dead man before, but he knew the time had come. For the stranger he’d given his trust to was—if not before—a murderer. Arturo didn’t know how to feel. For the man killed to protect him, but what value did he have for human life if he could pull the trigger with such wanton aggression? Could the fabled Eternal Flame even hold the power to wash away such an act? Would God himself forgive the violent actions of a man if the cause was just?
Arturo finally pulled from deep within himself the courage to look across the bridge. A figure draped in shadows loomed over the lifeless body of the once menacing bandit. It was the lone man, the bringer of death, a statue with a black heart who stood over the corpse. His clothes fluttered in the soft winds of the valley—calling out to the night with a gentle palpitation of flapping fabric. A long groan climbed up from the blood-soaked soil. Then movement followed as a figure stirred five or so feet in front of the lone man. Mercy was not shown this night, as the lone man’s arm rose to meet the battered O’Leary brother who had fallen from his horse. The final bandit wasn’t able to get to his feet before a distant scream pierced the night air.
Arturo’s pleas weren’t enough to stop the inevitable. When the bandit got to his knees, the lone man bestowed upon him the honor of sharing his last words on this mortal plane. An honor his two brothers were not granted.
“I’ll see ya in Hell!” the bandit said, seething with hatred.
“I look forward to it.”
With that, a flash of lightning and a boom of thunder exploded through the metal barrel—ending the bandit’s life in an instant. The lone man knew he had allowed the bandit more dignity in death than his wicked life deserved. But he wanted the boy to see that even the most miserable of lives warranted a final opportunity to repent for their sins.
It took great effort and time for the lone man to make it across the bridge. His body was now failing at a rapid rate: vertigo made his steps unpredictable, weakness plagued his muscles, and a chill from fever set deep into his bones. Infection and blood loss had taken a deadly toll. Only his will allowed him to live this long, but no man can run from death forever. His time was near at hand.
“Senor. The flame.” Arturo pointed to a faint light pulsating from within a structure in the ancient town. It was the only structure still standing among a stretch of rubble. “We…made it.” His voice cracked and his hands shook. To keep his word, all he had to do was lead the man to the light.
“Okay,” the lone man said, using more energy than he had.
He only managed a few steps before his body surrendered to its maladies. His strength was at last gone and he could no longer walk unassisted. Arturo gave the lone man his shoulder to lean on and acted as the man’s legs. With the lone man’s body pressed against Arturo’s, the boy felt warm dampness seep into his clothes and onto his skin. The boy glanced down and could make out an oil-like liquid leaching onto the fabric of his tan poncho. Each step felt as if it carried the weight of the heavens. The closer they got to the light, the more powerful Arturo’s will became. It was his strength, his determination that carried their fates now.
The closer they got, the warmer the air became. Sweat ran down Arturo’s face, his knees buckled, shoulders sagged, and his back cramped from the labor of carrying the man’s almost dead weight. Finally, they fell to the ground at the foot of an ancient shrine. Two stone steps led into a room only big enough for one person at a time. From the outside, they watched with exhaustion as black shadows danced along the yellow-orange lighted walls.
“Es time,” Arturo whispered.
He helped the lone man to his feet, but he knew he couldn’t lead him inside. The end of this journey must be taken by the one who started it, and no eyes could lay witness to the flame but those of a sinner in search of redemption. The lone man steadied himself as best he could, took a painful breath in, and staggered up the two little steps. He barely managed the first one, and the second one might as well be a mountain. But the man pushed himself with every last ounce of strength he could muster. It was a strength pulled from the bottom of a deep well within himself. It was more than he could take, but he refused to give up now.
Finally, underneath the threshold, the lone man stood and caught his breath. A shot of pain surged up from his stomach and sent his vision spinning. As he went to take the final step inside, something stopped him. It was no obstacle—no trap or the spell of ancient black magic. It was a memory. The face of a young boy taking his last breath. The fading smile of innocence from his son—a youth trying in vain to comfort the man responsible for his death.
The lone man could feel the weight of the world upon his heart. A weight he’d carried within him for a long time. It was his carelessness, his greed that caused the death of his wife, infant daughter, and his teenage son. A son who admired him, trusted him, and looked up to him as a hero. And he let the boy down. He let his wife and daughter down. He didn’t deserve redemption. Didn’t deserve to have his soul cleansed of sin before death took him.
His back bumped against the wall of the entrance and he slid down to the rough floor. Arturo rushed to his side—kneeling on the top step of the shrine.
The lone man looked at the boy with half-closed eyes. “I’m sorry, son. I failed.”
Arturo grasped the man’s shoulder and gave a gentle shake, but he was fading too fast. This was the end. “Pero…we made…it.” Tears welled up in the boy’s eyes. He had done everything to keep his promise.
“It’s okay, boy. I’m okay.”
The lone man reached out and grabbed Arturo’s hand. His grip was loose and the boy could tell this gesture used up the last of his life force. The lone man smiled and his head fell back against the wall. Arturo stared deep into his eyes and saw a flame dancing in his black pupils. The flame was so beautiful, so magnificent in its otherworldly dance that Arturo couldn’t look away. It dimmed and flickered with a final burst of blinding white light. Then it was gone—the lone man was gone.
Arturo sat for several minutes in solitude—still holding the lone man’s limp hand. The dancing shadows on the wall were now gone; The Eternal Flame extinguished. When he finally let the lone man’s hand drop, he realized there was something hard in his palm. Through the darkness, he lifted his hand toward his face and rolled a smooth, round object between his fingers. He stepped out into the moonlight where he could get a better look at it. He held it up to the night sky and marveled as the starlight bounced off red and white stripes. It was a peppermint.
Arturo allowed a small amount of joy to his face as he looked at the lone man one last time. The man’s body was lifeless, but he had a smile on his face that made the boy hopeful. He prayed this stranger had finally found his peace. In the lone man’s open eyes there was a glint of white light. Arturo followed his gaze upward where he watched in awe as a group of four orbs—four stars more vibrant than all the rest—shone brighter and brighter until the boy had to look away. When his eyes adjusted to the night again, he looked up once more, but the twinkling of those four stars was gone. They all had vanished.