Copyright 2017 by Christopher Davis
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Disclaimer: The persons, places, things, and otherwise animate or inanimate objects mentioned in this story are figments of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to anything or anyone living (or dead) is unintentional. The author humbly begs your pardon. This is fiction, people.
After a hot day under an unforgiving desert sun, the lawman drew rein just paces from the rusting iron gate that was the Mission de la Cantua.
The headless statue of Saint Bartholomew kept a silent watch over the churchyard, as silent as old Bart himself. One of his open palms was raised, while the other arm had been carried off ages ago. Bullets from three wars could be found in the pockmarked pedestal where he stood.
A scorpion watched as the weary Sacramento lawman fell from his saddle to the hot sand where his mount stood with twitching ears. There was no use expending the energy in leaving the little shade offered from the sparse vegetation that clung to life here in the no man’s land.
Blowing sand traced eddies around the prostrate lawman as Saint Bartholomew looked on. Daytime temperatures were known to climb to 49-50 degrees Celsius or better here in the borderlands. There was little the unconscious lawman could do in his present state.
The saddled mare stood close to shade him from an unrelenting daystar, while the unsaddled spare kept watch over the barren desert prairie, where not even a song bird dared.
Overhead, buzzards circled silently. The scavengers would keep their distance for a time. One bird landed on a hewn wooden cross atop the church steeple. Another looked to rest on an iron bell. The bell protested with its clapper striking the hot iron and sending the scavengers away to a safe distance with the bell continuing to toll. They’d be back in time, but were content for now to ride the warm thermal breeze above.
Dark clouds boiled over the range of low mountains to the west. The clouds threatened rain which the dry valley floor would never see. It hadn’t rained here in a generation or more.
With his lead rope dragging in the sand, the unsaddled spare could do as he pleased. The white-footed sorrel kept an eye on a mutant coyote that paced in the distance. From time to time the horse would charge, sending the timid animal out into the desert.
Blood clotted and dried in the lawman’s torn clothing. Its scent carried on the dry wind. In an hour, every animal within five miles would come to see about the dying man with a five-pointed tin star pinned to his shirt.
A solitary raven cawed its arrival as it swooped over the forgotten mission. Both horses continued to shade the unconscious man while the bird landed and stood watch from the cantle.
Bardwell lifted himself onto an elbow. A feeble Indian gentleman sat across a small fire with one black feather in his gray hair.
The lawman smiled. “Ahote,” he said. “It is good to see you, friend.”
Stoking the coals of the fire with a few dry sticks, the Indian returned the gesture. His smile exposed gums the color of clay mud. “It is good to see you also, Dan Bardwell, who rides with the coyote.”
Bardwell had a look around their desert camp. His blued Navy Colts and time worn leather saddlebags rested within arm’s reach. The lawman removed his tobacco and bit off a good chew.
“You are not well, Dan Bardwell,” the Indian continued. “The great Father has sent me to see about you.”
“I’ve been worse,” the lawman replied, spitting in the fire.
The Indian nodded his agreement, reluctantly. “Two warriors travel to the border town as we speak.”
“Tulare?” Bardwell asked. “That’s three days on a good horse.”
The old Indian chuckled. “Did I not say spirit warriors?”
Bardwell understood the meaning of the old man’s arrival. Ahote only made his appearance under the most trying of circumstances.
Diverting the conversation for the moment, Bardwell asked. “What does it mean your name?”
The old man chuckled. “Ahote means, the restless one. How could my mother have known?”
It was Bardwell’s turn to laugh. “She named you well, friend.”
Pausing to look into the fire, the Indian continued. “I have been thinking of giving you my name.”
“Why would you do that?’
“It fits you, Dan Bardwell, the restless one?”
“You keep it.”
Silence settled over the desert camp. Coyotes yipped in the distance now that the daystar had settled into a dirty western sky behind the range.
Bardwell flinched in pain. One of the timid desert animals howled a mournful song.
“Your brother knows that you are not well,” the Indian said in a low voice. “He calls to his brothers to let them know also.”
The lawman shook his head to clear his mind. “It was the cantina.”
Ahote nodded from his side of the fire as flames licked the dry wood.
“I had trailed two men south from the city,” Bardwell started. “We met up at the cantina along the macadam highway, Duane Frances and Hector Sanchez. There was gunfight and I led Frances away, tied over my horse. The Mexican I left for the locals to deal with. My orders were to bring Frances in.”
“It was he who brought this upon you,” the old Indian said.
The lawman took inventory of the damage to his torso and the torn clothing. “I should have known,” he replied. “It was the ruined, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, Dan Bardwell.”
“No,” the Indian said, lighting his pipe with a stick from the fire. The old man drew hard on the stem, exhaling smoke that shrouded his features in a veil of blue. “But the scent of blood will bring the undead.”
“Well, fuck,” Bardwell said, spitting in the fire. “Did I at least come out on top?”
The old Indian laughed. “Yes, Dan Bardwell, with the help of your brothers. A great fire was set. The smoke could be seen by the tribes that live in the hills.”
Bardwell shook his head in trying to remember the ordeal. Cold sweat beaded from his skin, saturating an already damp shirt.
Staring into the flames, Bardwell tried to remember the events leading up till now. As he had told the Indian, he had ridden hard to cut off the escape of the Sacramento outlaws who had killed a man in the streets for no reason other than the shoes he wore.
There was a cantina along the highway where the elders had once traveled. The lawman wasn’t the kind to tie the horses and sneak up on his prey. Instead he rode closer knowing all eyes were upon him. He took his time in tying the horses and seeing about their well-being, before starting inside.
Policia, gringo and diablo, was heard in hushed whispers around the room.
“Hola, señor,” the bar maiden greeted, in a tone she would have reserved for the devil himself, if he had walked in.
The lawman smiled, hanging his black hat on a peg near the door. “Whiskey, por favor?”
“What the fuck brings you down here, Marshal?” Frances asked from his seat at the bar.
Sanchez—under a big sombrero—chose to hold
his tongue, a wise choice for the Mexican. He too would die before the sun was fully down, but he didn’t know it yet.
“Oh,” the lawman said walking closer. “They’ve got me riding after a couple of no good sons of bitches.”
“My mother,” the Mexican said with a thick accent. “She was no bitch, señor.” He continued to look into a nearly empty glass.
“No,” Frances said, slapping his partner on the back, “But she sure could fuck.”
Sanchez said something in reply as the lawman had a look around the tiny cantina. Men played cards at two tables in the back room. The bar maiden had left a bottle of whiskey and one of tequila on the bar in front of where Bardwell, Frances and Sanchez sat. She herded those nearby to the safety of a back door.
Frances held his ground as the Lawman turned up his glass. The Mexican stood with one of his pistolas in hand. Bardwell got to his faster, ending the man’s life there on the dusty boards of the cantina floor.
“Don’t do it,” Bardwell said to Frances, who was in the process of reaching for a six-shooter at his side.
Steel flashed from the back room. The room was abuzz with flying lead that splintered and tore at the dry boards.
Men in big hats fell to the floor as the tired lawman alternated firing his Colts.
“Not bad, Marshal,” Frances said from across the room. The outlaw stood near one of the tables with a group of armed men.
“You tell your boys to put away those pistolas,” the lawman said. “We can do this the easy way or the hard way, your choice, Duane?”
The outlaw laughed. “I never