Published on Sunday, September 4, 2011
By Steve Smith
From somewhere in the darkness spreading east of him came a soft pop. Resendez stiffened. He gathered in the lead rope and clamped a hand over his burro's muzzle.
"Silencio, Esperanza," he whispered. He strained to hear, feeling the skin all over his torso prickle. A pistol shot maybe, the report deadened by distance. He breathed through his mouth but not another sound came.
A faint aroma of campfire smoke and cooking meat drifted to his nostrils. He permitted himself to relax. Only some ladron using green mesquite to cook with, he guessed. Maybe camping in the rocks he had just passed. A lone traveler, he speculated, or one of his pursuers who had ridden ahead hoping to cut him off.
The burro scuffed a hoof at the sandy ground. Resendez gave his shoulders a shake to rid himself of the tension lodged there. Yet a sense of anxiety clung to him. If he didn't linger here he could reach his camp in the Hueco Mountains by this time tomorrow. He had planned on maintaining a walking pace all night, though it was slow going now that dusk had faded and he had to follow the trail by feel. But he didn't dare sleep, or he might wake up to a pistol prodding his belly.
He watched the darkness roll like an unfolding black carpet over the landscape toward the Guadalupe Mountains to the east until he could make out only the jagged outline of the peaks against the dimming sky.
"!Aiyy!" he sighed. It was better to know if they were on his trail than to worry about it all night. He dropped his end of the rope and went back for the boulder he had marked off the rough path. Laying Esperanza's rope on the ground, he set the boulder on the rope to anchor her. He stood up and scratched the stiff brush between her ears.
"I must leave you here, Esperanza, because you make much noise. I will be back soon. I will not let the big cats get you." He grasped and shook the burro's coarse muzzle. "!Tenga valor, burrito!"
He withdrew his machete from the canvas pack draped over Esperanza's back. Despite his woolen serape he felt the cold creep beneath his cotton shirt.
He had sprung awake several hours before dawn the previous morning to the strike of iron-shod hooves against rock. In a panic he threw together his belongings--his rifle, sleeping roll, blanket, machete--all the while quietly cursing Esperanza for being such a miserable sentry. Then he took the high route directly over the mountain, which his pursuers would least expect.
The next morning he watched the trail wandering through the valley floor from a high ridge, but saw no one. He relaxed, but didn't reduce his vigilance. He was out of ammunition for his .30-30; his last shell had taken a young sheep two days before, the remains of which dangled high in an oak tree back at his camp. If the sheep-ranch riders caught him, at least there would be no evidence of it with him, except in his belly.
He shook a pebble from his left huarache and set off toward the rock outcropping, wishing he at least had a pistol, and a stick to feel his way and warn rattlesnakes of his coming.
The smoke from his fire was making Jim Stallmire drowsy. He shook his head abruptly to wake himself and listened, wondering what had alerted him. There was nothing but an intermittent breeze stirring the leaves of the young cottonwood tree nearby. Squatting on his heels he gave the rabbit a quarter turn on the spit and glanced around his campsite. His horse Rajah stood a dozen paces away, his head hung in half-sleep. Overhead, a brace of swallows banked swiftly as they chased diurnal insects stirred into flight by the false daylight of his fire.
He felt his vigilance wane again and stood up, taking a deep breath. Something in the moonless night troubled him, made him edgy. Things seemed to stir in the dark beyond the firelight that weren't there before, as if they borrowed shape and substance from the darkness itself. He knew it for his citified imagination, unused to places without street lamps. Yet, unease camped in his bones.
There was no reason to think he was being followed. He had nothing in his saddlebags of value; his prospecting trip into the mountains had been unsuccessful. He spent two weeks looking for signs and markers left by old man Sublett to help him find his way back to his gold mine in the Guadeloupe Mountains east of El Paso. The mine was supposed to be some forty miles west of Guadeloupe Peak, but Sublett had died six years earlier in 1892 without revealing its location to anyone. Running low on supplies, Stallmire decided to pack it in and head back to El Paso to find work to grubstake his next trip.
An old timer in the El Paso Mercantile told him he was better off traveling with someone who knew the country. Stallmire translated this as someone who knows what he's doing, but didn't take offense. The old man was just looking out for him, maybe wanted to partner up.But how was he going to learn how to handle himself in this spiky country with somebody holding his hand?
I'll take my chances, he'd said. Okay, the old man had said genially. Good luck, son.
Rajah gave a questioning snort. Clearing his nostrils to smell better, Stallmire figured. The big horse stamped a hoof. Rajah smelled something or someone, and Stallmire's heart began to thump in earnest. He crouched and moved sideways from the fire until far enough away that the light didn't affect his night vision. He squatted to reduce his outline and went still, his ears open to the night.
There came an eerie sound like a thorny mesquite branch scraping across canvas. He tensed, and turned his head to bring his left ear to bear. Something moving carefully. Not a nocturnal animal, though. Too heavy for that. Firelight glinted from something beyond the low clump of mesquite by a tumble of boulders some forty feet away. He pulled his Colt .38, muffling the cocking action in his free hand.
Putting a deflecting hand to his mouth, he called out, "Who's there? Quien es?"
Breathing through his mouth to hear better, he was conscious of the insistent nudge of his pulse at the side of his neck and a growing tightness in his stomach. Even the tiny voices of the night had gone still as if aware of the sudden tension in their dim world. Someone was there. And almost certainly carrying a gun cocked and ready. He pointed his Colt and waited. At a dull gleam closer than the last he tensed in surprise and the gun bucked in his hand.
Along with the sudden ringing in his ears came a dull meaty smack followed by a grunt of pain. With dismay he realized his shot had hit home. The first time in his life he had pointed his gun at another person, and not only had he not seen him, he didn't mean to fire. His nerves had jerked the trigger.
He quickly moved three steps to his right, knowing his muzzle flash might draw return fire. He squatted again, watching and waiting. He wasn't about to cross that ground in the dark, not knowing what awaited him in the flickering shadows of his own campfire. He swore silently.
A strained voice came out of the darkness, "Eyy, hombre?"
A Mex, Stallmire thought, wondering how many there were.
The voice came again, "You shoot me. I think it is bad. You come here? You help me? I have a knife only. You hear?" The chinking of metal on stone. "I throw it to you." Something hit the ground some twenty feet from him. It sounded pretty heavy for a knife.
Stallmire said, "Throw your gun across."
"I don' have no gun. I am a prospector." Stallmire could hear the painful exertion required to utter these words.
"All right. I'm coming." He waited for a moment, but when the muffled cocking of a pistol didn't come, he went to his fire and withdrew a flaming branch. Holding it out to one side he threaded the tangle of mesquite bushes and worked his way across the uneven ground that lay between them, his pistol leveled ahead of him.
A man lay propped against a hump of sandstone. Stallmire held the burning limb out and saw that he was Mexican. His face was twisted in pain. In his thirties, Stallmire guessed, wearing the simple clothing of a mestizo. The eyes that looked back at him were dark, weary, and dulled with pain. He was panting shallowly.
Stallmire thumbed the hammer off cock and shoved the Colt in his holster. "Why the hell didn't you answer me? I wouldn't have shot if you answered me, damnit!" He growled in irritation. "Where are you hit?"
The Mexican lifted one side of his serape to reveal the dark splotch of blood on the left side of his shirt. "You have given me another navel, hombre."
Stallmire felt himself draw up inside. In the guts, the worst wound you could have. Even if a doctor was available it was unlikely he'd live more than a week, and in constant pain at best.
"Why didn't you answer me?" Stallmire demanded, aggravated at being in this spot through a combination of pure stupidity and reflexes. Was he now a killer?
"I was trying to see . . . who you were. That is all. I thought you were after me for killing your sheep."
Stallmire heard the truth in this. The word had gone around that someone in the county was stealing an occasional sheep. Ranchers had hired men to ride the fringes of their property to round up and question anyone passing through that didn't have a good reason to be there. Stallmire himself had to answer some hard questions before being allowed to go on his way.
"Why were you killing sheep?"
"To feed my family, gringo. Why else."
Family. And he had done this. It made him even more angry. "Why the hell did you pull a knife on me? Why were you even here?"
"I had to, anhh . . . know who you were. And I did not pull it. I just carry it." He groaned. "We don' have time for talking. I am dying. And you are responsible. So you must do something for me now." He looked levelly at Stallmire. "You must take care of my family, or they will die also."
Stallmire stuck his dwindling torch in a nearby green mesquite bush. The story was plausible, and he supposed he was responsible. If he hadn't been so jumpy. And the poor Mex was in a desperate way. He could imagine himself poaching a lamb now and then to keep himself going.
"What's your name?"
"Resendez," he said with effort. "Alvaro. Ramiro. Resendez. I am from a small village in Chihuahua called Cinque."
"I'm sorry, Resendez. Where are your people?"
"My wife Estrella and my daughter Inocencia are at an old shack on a bluff by the dry river. About ten miles south and east."
"All right. What do you want me to do?"
Resendez gasped. "I want you to find my wife and daughter. Then you must take them to my brother Reyes, in Socorro. And find my burro . . . she is a little way, ahh--"
He tilted to his left side, his face contorting. "--west of here. If you do not there will be a fresh place in hell made for you."
Stallmire considered. It wasn't too much to do. He would want his kin to know what happened should something similar befall him. Still, he wasn't sure what he was walking into.
"What do I tell them?"
"Tell them that it was accident. That I do not blame you. That it was my fault for sneaking over on you." He gritted his teeth and twisted against the pain. He exhaled tiredly and went on. "When you talk with my brother, tell how it happened because he will know if you lie."
"Your brother will accept that I shot you by mistake? And not have me charged?"
"Yes. He will understand. And because you came to him with the story when you did not need to, he will not doubt you. He will--" He stiffened and hissed through clenched teeth. "He will go to the sheriff and tell him what happened, and he will . . ." His expression grew fixed.
"Speak for me?"
"Yes, he will speak for you." Resendez lay back and gazed at the stars. "Inocencia and I would lay outside and look at the stars together. Aiyy."
"That is all. Then we would go to sleep."
"I mean, what next--after the sheriff?"
Resendez' eyes came back into focus. "You must take my brother to where I am buried."
Resendez gazed at him. "Killing a man is a lot of trouble, yes?"
"And now you regret it, yes?""I regret it, yes."
"Good, gringo. I forgive you. Now let me make myself ready."
"Ready? For what?"
The thick eyebrows went up. "For you to finish it. I can not live with this pain for much longer. I want to die now before it gets worse."
Stallmire stood frozen, his mouth half open.
In answer to Stallmire's mute stare, Resendez declared, "You have to shoot me, gringo. Finish what you started."
"Good God. You want me to kill you?"
Resendez stared as if he was stupid. Stallmire shook his head. "No, I won't do it."
"Why you won't?"
"Because I've never killed a man. I don't want it on my conscience." He paused. "I'm sorry, but I just won't do it."
Resendez turned his face toward Stallmire, his teeth clenched in pain. "Let me tell you, Gringo, you have killed a man. Me. It will be on your conscience anyway. And say no more that you are sorry."
When Stallmire didn't answer, Resendez said, "Hombre, if you are too cowardly to do this, than I will do it. I am in pain, comprende?" He twisted, grimacing, and held out his hand.
Stallmire felt the tension begin to drain from him. Why not. Better that Resendez should borrow his gun to shoot himself, taking the onus for the act out of his hands. He could get some distance away and in a minute it would be all over with.
"Bueno. I need one bullet. Leave me for a moment so I can prepare myself."
As Stallmire turned and walked a few steps away, he heard Resendez suck air from a fresh attack of pain. Then he was mumbling some catholic incantation involving the Mother of God. Stallmire released the cylinder of his Colt Navy .38 revolver and ejected the four good cartridges and the expended shell.
"Alright, gringo," said Resendez. "I am ready."
Stallmire approached and leaned down, placing the pistol and a single bullet well out of comfortable reach on Resendez' left side. He would have to shift his weight and reach carefully for it, then load the bullet, a process which should give him time to melt into the dark. Resendez gazed wearily at him with a wry smile. Stallmire nodded in response, pivoted and walked rapidly back toward his fire.
"You will bury me, yes?" Resendez asked behind him.
"Of course," said Stallmire without turning. He strode rapidly, quartering now on instinct away from the firelight.
"Don' forget--you promise."
Shut up and get it over with.
At the soft double click his shoulders hunched in surprise.
That was damn quick.
He was about to hit the ground and roll when something struck high on his back with the force of a hammer blow. When the lights came back on in his brain, he found himself at a forward lean over his braced front leg. Fire ignited in his chest. His mouth gaped to screech his outrage but his lungs refused to work.
Should have listened to you, old man . . .
Grimacing, he twisted to one side in disbelief that anything could hurt so fiercely. It felt as if a hot poker had been thrust inside him. A numbing lassitude spread throughout his torso. Streaks of light flashed across his dimming sight. His knees wobbled and gave. He barely saw the ground rush upward.
The horse reared and whinnied, pulling at the rope snugged around its neck and fastened to the trunk of a nearby young cottonwood. When the slipknot tightened, the horse calmed somewhat, stamping its hooves restlessly in the area circumscribed by its tether and snorting and shaking its head at the fresh scent of blood.
Resendez limped into the firelight, crooning at the agitated horse, "!Calmase, caballito! Chu chu chu. !Quedate tranquilo!" He approached the horse with his fist held as if it contained a treat. The horse shied but kept its place. Keeping the horse's attention on his fist he grasped the rope and loosened it, swearing at the gringo for not knowing how to properly hobble his horse.
In one saddlebag he found oats. He took a handful and offered them to the horse. While the horse ground the oats noisily, he crooned and caressed the long flat neck.
He returned to the fire and pulled his shirt above the bruise where the blade of his machete had absorbed the brunt of the .38 before it deflected and tore at an angle through his side. This produced copious blood but little serious damage. He marveled at his fortune. All he had to do was keep it clean and it would heal of itself with an interesting scar.
He limped over to the dead man and felt in his pockets, withdrew some coins, a pocket-knife, three bullets, a sticky something in a wrapper, probably a candy. In a back pocket was a letter. He withdrew the single folded piece of paper, turned it to catch the firelight and saw that it was a letter; there was a single word on the top line and another near the bottom.
He looked down, momentarily allowing himself the insincere luxury of regret over killing a gringo who had someone who would miss him and always wonder what had happened to him. He stuck these things in his pocket.
He bent to twist the feet around so he wouldn't drag the dead man's face over the ground, noting the quality of his boots. The head flopped over. Blood had poured from the man's mouth, and bloodied dirt smeared his features. Walking backwards, Resendez pulled the body downwind behind a sand-clumped mesquite. He tilted the gringo's torso toward his feet to work his coat off one arm at a time, then let the torso drop to the sand.
"Gringo," he said, pulling off the boots one at a time. "I hope you have no family to wonder about you. But it is your fault for being out here where you don' belong. This is my country. You were too decent and that is a weakness here."
He pulled the dead man's shirttail out of his pants, draped it over his face and made the sign of the cross over him.
Suddenly aware of how ravenous he was, he limped over to the fire where he lifted the rabbit from the spit. It was charred on one side, the other side raw but edible. He hunkered down, pleased with himself and his prospects, and bit off a chunk. While chewing he held one of the boots sole to sole with his left huarache. The boot was longer but not as broad. He shrugged; if he couldn't wear them, he could always sell them below the border.
In the morning he would bury the gringo and have a look through the rest of his things. If he was a prospector he would have useful tools. Maybe there was a rifle and some ammunition. The horse and saddle were a problem. The rider would be known and his horse as well. If he could get them to Mexico he could safely sell them.
Burying him was going to be the problem. It was difficult even to breathe without discomfort. He decided to think about these things in the morning.
He lifted his shirt and looked at his side, shaking his head at his luck. The bleeding had slowed, but the bruise around the tear in his side was going to be the size of a piñata. It would hurt for a while, and the wound would take a while to heal, but he, Alvaro Ramiro Resendez, was used to hardship. He chewed another mouthful of rabbit, savoring the situation.
It was a good trade--his blood and pain for some poor gringo's food, the weapon he meant to kill him with, his horse, his boots, his life. He pulled the pistol from his belt and turned it in admiration, hefting its steely weight, studying its lethal lines, smooth finish and fine craftsmanship. The gringos truly know how to make guns. Too bad they don' know how to use them.
Resendez chuckled at his wit and winced as a stab of pain lanced through his side. As it subsided, he shook his head and took another bite of the rabbit, wishing he had some salt. Then he eased himself erect, holding his breath against the pain. He would be stiff tomorrow. Aiyy.
He put the rabbit back on the spit and limped off to get Esperanza before the big cats smelled her and came hunting. On the way he detoured to pick up his machete. He flung it near the fire so he wouldn't forget it in the morning.
A lover of the desert and all things western as a result of growing up in Hobbs, New Mexico and El Paso, Texas, Steve Smith moved back to Southeast Arizona after his Army tour and forty years in the humid summers and cold winters of Michigan. He lives on a "ranchette," a designation given to properties around four acres in size, with wife Peggy, several cats, and assorted tarantulas and vinegarones. He and Peggy are volunteers at the Horse'n Around Horse rescue located at Bud Strom's Single Star Ranch just up the road, y'all.