Word Count 2,985
CAUTION: Please be aware this story contains mild profanity and some sexual references.
New Year’s Eve – Mexico 1869
The starlight was so beautiful. Strange he’d never really appreciated the mystery of the heavens before. Tiny white glints of fire against the deepest, darkest blue. Like the glancing sparkle in a woman’s eyes that special moment in time when she softens, and you know she’s yours.
He smiled wistfully.
He’d known plenty of those moments – maybe more than his fair share. Soft eyes and soft voices. The melting touch of skin. Each one cherished and special in its way. Especially now in retrospect – when there would be no more. He twisted, and the chains rattled loudly in the darkness. Their presence a constant reminder that this time, there was no way out. No miraculous reprieve. No second chance.
Tomorrow it was over. Over, dusted, done. Staring out through the bars at the night – he was suddenly humbled by its vastness. By the glory of infinity and immensity of blue. It seemed so precious now. Immeasurable and dear. Hard, so hard that this was the last time he’d ever see it. The last night of his life . . .
A star fell – a streak of white fire across the sky. His heart jolted at the omen. A star falls and a soul departs. A portent or a premonition, the symbol of his whole existence. Full and fiery, never dull. Bright and burning like a blazing star!
He rested his forehead against the bars, grateful for the smooth impartial coolness. It was strange, but he was unafraid. This had been shadowing him all his life, just skirting at his heels. Every now and then, he’d caught a glimpse of it over his shoulder. Waiting like a patient phantom, half-seen then forgotten. Beckoning him like a siren – there had been times he’d found it hard to ignore it’s lure. Perhaps in a way, he’d even courted it, provoked and taunted it. Enchanted by it’s mesmerizing spell. Challenged it to take him if it could.
A part of him had reveled in the risk – laughed bitterly at the venture. It was knowing there were no winners at this game. Act like an immortal, never show your fear. Dare death to come and get you, if it had the balls.
He smiled softly, and the bright stars mocked him. The gauntlet had been lifted up this time.
* * * * * * * *
Perhaps he’d dozed or drifted off. It was later now, and the moon was out. Lustrous and aloof as she rose in the sky with a face of disdain. Impervious to the dramas and impertinence of man, perpetual in her splendour of calm, silver clarity. But he’d always had an affinity with the moon. She was beautiful and solitary – detached and self-assured. She didn’t even need the stars. So serene in her self-reliance, as she sailed the seas of night.
This then was the advantage of being alone. No one to mourn him after tomorrow. No one to suffer at the loss of his life. A comfort – a cold one. But relief nonetheless, that no one would undergo the ordeal of grief, the terrible tearing of spirit even time itself could not truly assail.
It had haunted and driven him all his short life. Given him hatred and fuelled his ambition. Given him heartache and the raw hurt of pain. The ache of a wound that never healed, open and weeping in the back of his soul.
He had loved her, and she was lost. Like a fragile butterfly – a mariposa. She had danced through life on painted wings, in perpetual search of the next flower. Seeking the sweetness, drugged by the nectar. An ephemeral creature of summer, bright and brittle. Doomed by the winter.
Looking up at the sky, he could almost see her dark eyes shining. Hear her light voice singing. Soft arms waiting to clasp him to her once again . . .
“Juanito mio . . .mi poco querido.”
He smiled in the darkness – wistfully, tenderly. Hoped maybe he’d meet her once this was all over. Tomorrow . . .
He’d known what she was. What she sometimes had to do to earn the money that put food on their table, clothes on their backs. The surly faced strangers, the whispering neighbours. The pre-arranged signal they used when the men came. A red blanket over the washing line meant he didn’t go home. Couldn’t go home until it was gone.
He’d grown self-sufficient. Knowing and tough. Playing and running wild with the other kids in the streets, fighting them in a fury of fists and kicks when they dared call him gringo. Or hanging round the Livery to earn a few pesos from Old Pepe. Mucking out the filthy straw and listening with a grin, as the fat Mexican snored like a buffalo in the hay, bottle of tequila clutched in his hand. But mostly he worked there to be with the horses. Talking to them, grooming them. Admiring the sleek musculature and soft sensation of their lips on his palm. The way their eyelashes curled like those of the whores’ in the Cantina – like his Mama’s. Like the black, spiny backs of the caterpillars the children played with sometimes, torturing them with pieces of broken glass that caught the sun, burning and shrivelling their writhing bodies.
He liked the horses, and they liked him. Asked nothing of him, but needed him too. And he needed them, the solidity of their presence, the unquestioning acceptance. Even the warmth and scent of their manes, the short, bristly hair of their bodies. The way they seemed to look out for him, faces long like coffins over the wooden stalls.
Occasionally, he’d hang around the back of the Cantina. And sometimes, if she was in a good mood, old Conchita the cook would take pity on him, maybe give him a tamale. Taking his face in her leathery, wizened hand and clucking her tongue at him.
“Aye, aye – pobre chico. Es muy malo, ojos tan azules.”
He bore it patiently, knowing it meant she was feeling sorry for him. That he’d be fed today. Other times when she was busy and irritable, she’d chase him off with a broom, exhorting him to; ‘Vamanos,’ to his silly little Mama.
If the red blanket was down, he’d go back to the house. Heart pounding with anxiety to make sure she was alright. For sometimes the strangers beat her. Smooth olive skin black and disfigured with bruises and cruel weals. Her face wet as she sobbed in his arms.
She cried often. Even when the men didn’t hit her. Tears rolling down her cheeks as she pressed him to her breast, and he hugged her back fiercely, as he told her he’d make it alright. Vowed that one day, he’d change her life.
“I will be a pistolero.” He promised her. “The best there ever was. I will buy you a grand hacienda – a horse and a carriage. A box full of jewels, a red silk dress . . . You’ll see, Mama. It will be alright.”
And she’d laugh at him then – drying her tears as she kissed his face, over and over. Told him he was her ‘handsome caballero.’ Her own, ‘blue-eyed Juanito.’
But at night she’d go to the Cantina again. Dancing for the strangers with a flower in her hair, as he lay in the darkness, his fists tightly clenched. Hating the men. Hating them all. But most of all he hated the one man. The Gringo – his father. Murdoch Lancer.
The man responsible for his hated blue eyes. The blue eyes old Conchita felt so sad about, the feo blue eyes that branded him as different – mestizo, breed. His taint of damnation, his mark of Cain. One day, he’d vowed – one day, the Gringo will pay. A drop of his white blood for every tear she’d shed.
Another time he’d let her down. Another promise he’d failed to keep. Murdoch Lancer would escape Scot-free, now. Never know the pain he’d caused her. The misery he’d been responsible for, when he’d turned aside, and cast them from his door.
* * * * * * * *
His hands clenched round the bars. Red anger coursing through his veins again. Familiar and corrosive as a festering wound. But it was too late for regrets. Fate had brought him to this point and stripped him of all options. No going forwards and no going back. This night then – this night would be his last.
And Murdoch Lancer would never know. Or at least not in this world, anyway. He smiled bleakly. There was no one. No one left to mourn him, or regret his passing. No one he would really miss. Friends and faces he’d known along the way, some, a few had been true. Most transient. Gone with the summer. Dead or momentary fragments of a life.
The bars were cold against his cheek. A rigid reminder.
“This road was not the one I chose to travel . . .”
The sentence mocked him. He’d had no choices. Life had chosen him instead. Set his feet on a path from which there was no return or reprieve. No turning aside once he’d begun to tread it’s way. There was only one inevitable ending. There only ever had been, and he’d known it in his soul since the first day he’d picked up the gun.
His devil and his angel. Both gift and curse. The skill that had set him apart from the losers and no-hopers – the victims. The talent that had given him a name.
Fastest man on the Borders. The gun, his gift with the gun, had given him dominance and made him strong. Men looked at him with fear and respect. Women with desire. He had known the heady taste of supremacy, the carnal delights of power. But transitory, all transitory. Empty, like a gun’s chamber when the bullets were fired. The men had feared the Gunhawk – the women desired his name. None of them had known the man behind the gun. None of them had known Johnny Madrid. Sometimes he still felt like that frightened little boy. Watching out for the red blanket – dodging the kicks and curses. Kneeling over her broken body – a pain deeper than crying.
* * * * * * * *
The sky was growing paler. Pearly shadows veiling the moon like a ghost. Fading the stars till they receded from his greedy gaze.
The dawn was rising, and soon the sun would follow in its footsteps. Red and inexorable, the last dawn he’d see. When it rose again, he’d be dead – gone. He felt a pang of deep sorrow. Whispering goodbye, then laughing at his foolishness. Saying goodbye to the moon, adios to the stars. As if they could hear him, as if they cared. But still, he was glad he’d said it, and for the first time, a tear choked his eye.
He’d wasted so much time. Taken so many dawns for granted, or missed them altogether. How could he have been so careless, so casual? Nature had given him all this beauty and he’d squandered it recklessly. Wasted it and taken it for granted. It was little consolation he wondered at it now. Held his breath at it’s glory.
The silver opalescence – the pale pink filigree that laced the edge of clouds. Rosy and seductive as the mouth of a girl, her lips parted with sweet desire. The blowsy falling petals of a flower. He gazed at it drunkenly through the bars, avid to absorb every memory, every last privileged glimpse.
In the distance, he could barely see the mountain tops. Gilded now with pale gold, as the sun began to rise, its face brightening the sky to pale blue, as the moon dissolved like a mist wraith in the wake of such vigorous strength.
A new day – a new year, he recalled with a start of surprise. A grim smile. A time for beginnings and fresh resolutions. The hope and promise of a clean slate. Double the irony then. Only endings for him.
The Prison was stirring to life. In the cell next door to him, one of the other condemned men sobbed brokenly, like a child. He closed his eyes in empathy for the man’s pain. Willing him the courage for silent dignity. Praying for it himself, as the hour pressed upon them. Soon – it would be soon.
He hoped it would be over quickly. Like a storm in summer, fast but ferocious. That the Rurales were good shots – one of them perhaps, having enough pity to aim at his head instead of his heart. To make it count. He’d been shot before. Knew the tearing, visceral agony of a bullet’s path through flesh. What he feared most, was a gut shot. To die in slow wrenching torment, as his abdomen filled with blood and stomach contents. Clenching and convulsing, as his intestines perforated and spilled their contents.
Madre de Dios – not that. Anything but that.
He was afraid of losing his self-control, his pride. Of having to beg them to put him out of his misery if the shots did not strike true. He swallowed hard. The man’s cries ceasing abruptly, as though his prayer had reached him. It was easier then. The fears diminishing again, as his breathing slowed to normal, his mind growing suddenly calm.
Maybe it was better this way. To have it ended this bright morning. The alternatives were no prettier, no more desirable. A few more years of watching his back, living with one eye over his shoulder. Walking the shadowy side of the street, too afraid to walk in the sun. Pocketing gold for taking a life, the blood on his hands like tarnish on his soul. Working for men he despised, in towns full of hopelessness. His spirit had been dying anyway. Shrivelling, dying. Hating who he was, hating what he’d become. Seeing through the hypocrisy and lies.
That’s why he’d taken this last, ill-fated job. No money, nice people. Decent folk with a genuine cause. He smiled ironically. At least he would die for a reason. Poco consolation, it hadn’t all been wasted. That he hadn’t died a useless, pointless death, like his useless, pointless life.
* * * * * * * *
The cell doors rattled. The Rurales, a Padre. It was time, then. Over, all over. He shook his head at the Padre, turning away to raise his eyes briefly to the sky between the bars again. To the perfect , cloudless, sky.
When he was a boy, he’d played a game. A stupid childish game with himself, that had continued into adulthood.
“Where will I be in one year’s time?”
He thought of it now with wry amusement. The answers had been many and varied. Nogales, Sonora, Tijuana, El Paso. And always he’d followed it with a proviso.
“Things will be better then . . .”
They never had been. Many times they’d been worse.
Hands on his arms, pulling him away from the window. Unlocking the chains and dragging him to his feet, a rifle butt in his back, nudging him none-too-gently out into the courtyard towards a wagon. It was not to be here, then . . .
The sun blinding, but welcome as a old friend. Tilting his face to it, oblivious of the taunts of the guards, the crying and pleading of his fellow prisoners, only glad of its warmth on his skin. Like a benison, a last, tender caress. Moving like a dreamer, aware, but unaware. The wagon lurching forward, wheels trundling laboriously over the dusty ground, as a curious silence shrouded every man.
No more misery, no more begging. A sense of resignation and strange relief. Grinding to a halt in the middle of nowhere. A dip in a valley, hidden by hills. Curved like the up-turned palm of a hand, holding them gently in its bowl-shaped embrace.
There was a tree, an oak. Gracious and shady with spreading, dipping branches and twisted, wizened roots. He looked at it gratefully, just glad for the sight of it. Filled with an absurd desire to run his hands over the knobbled bark and roughened limbs, feel one of the green leaves between his fingertips. To get some sort of final affirmation of having lived from its silent majesty. From such a potent symbol of life.
They thrust him onto his knees. The bindings too tight on his wrists, circulation long since vanished in a prickle of pins and needles. Forcing him to watch as four men went before him, a mean, gratuitous delight in leaving the ‘Gringo’ until last. Looking steadfastly away, as his worse fears were realised, and the Capitan of the Rurales had to put his pistol to the head of two of the men.
Footsteps in the grass, as they came for him. Struggling to his feet, mouth dry as sand, face still as stone. He closed his eyes briefly, and pictured her face. Her soft, sweet voice, the silk of her hair.
“Juanito mio . . .mi poco querido.”
Stumbling slightly as they forced him forwards – barely aware of a buck board racing across the hillside towards them. Another ghoul to watch the ‘Gringo’ die, no doubt. They’d get no show, no pleading or crying from him. He smiled grimly, and stood up straighter. This was it then – the game was over.
“Where will I be in one year’s time. . . “
He had his answer now. There would be no ‘one year’s time . . .’
THE END . . . OR THE BEGINNING…
Lisa Paris 2003.
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