18 July 2012

Crossing the Gulf

Hot wind pushed its way into the room, blowing grit and despair into Josiah's eyes. The door to the taqueria was propped open by an adobe brick that looked half-melted. A battered fan stood to the side and seemed offended, letting out a low rasp as the blades sped up briefly. Aside from the fan, the only other occupant was a short, roundish woman leaning half-asleep on the counter across the room.

Josiah cleared his throat around a lukewarm swallow of acrid coffee. He blinked in the heat, a lizard pondering the shadow of the hawk about to grab him. The money was nearly gone and he had only made it as far as Sonoita. San Felipe and the coast beyond was starting look like another fever-heat dream.

Heat. "Goddamn it hot," Josiah muttered to himself. Sweat beads were rolling down his face from under the salt-encrusted hatband but did little to cool. On his skin, they felt like drops of molten lead. The drops glistened on the pistol shoved into his waistband. It was pressing into his side, a blood-warm metal thorn that he could not afford to pull out. The gun and the silver dollars in his pocket were their own economy, one in which he was the working class.

Be that as it was, he found himself still hungry. A tin plate lay before him, its battered surface obscured by a thin film of frijoles charros sauce. The beans had long ago made their way to his waiting belly; little shreds of tortillas littered the pock-marked wood of the table. A dented tin cup stood at his elbow. The dregs of the coffee looked like oil or evil, he didn't know which. Either way, it was wet, so he lifted the cup and drank.

There came a low buzz and a sharp crack from outside in the street. The lights flickered and went out. The fan came to a wheezing halt. Josiah sat up straight as he sat the cup down too hard. It clanked against the table top, startling the sloe-eyedseñoraslumped against the counter. She stood upright and peered through the dusty, bubble-pocked glass of the small window at the end of the piñon wood counter. She muttered something in Spanish, too low for Josiah to catch. He guessed she was cursing the blackout.

Josiah glanced out the door. The sky was darkening, purplish clouds laced with dirty silver rolling in over the mountains in the distance. He reckoned rain might be a relief even if it slowed him down. Less dust would be a blessing. Of course, and Josiah smiled at the thought, it would slow down Webb's henchmen, too.

Webb's boys. Josiah felt his stomach roil to think they might catch him.  Dumb as a box of rocks, but long on muscle and bad intent.They wouldn't give a good goddamn that the fugitive had only taken back what was rightfully his, in spite of everything Len Webb had done. "Ruined my father, stole my land, he did, but he ain't going to keep it" Josiah said. The señora looked over, eyes narrowing and eyebrows cocked. He couldn't tell if she understood him, or thought him just plain crazy. He looked away, quickly.

Webb's reach was long and he might well have someone in place down here. Might even be the señora; the thought made him dizzy. He looked back at her. She was looking out the window again, nervously it seemed. "Time to move," he thought. He stood up, reaching in his pocket for a coin. The señora heard the rattle as he fished it out, turning to eye him carefully. He held up the money for her to see. "Silver, see?" he smiled a little too big and patted his belly. "Bueno, señora, bueno!" he added, flipping the coin to her across the room. She hardly moved except for a lightning-quick grab that snagged the coin out of mid-air. She raised it to her lips, and bit it. She smiled, wrinkled lips parting to reveal a snaggle-toothed smile. "Gracias, señor," she said shyly.

Josiah picked up the leather satchel that had been laying under the table and limped across to the door. He leaned out cautiously, turning to look both ways up and down the avenida. As main drags go, it wasn't much, but in these parts it might be considered a regular El Camino Real. It was wide, too wide for Josiah's liking but ran straight through the center of town.

Out on the packed dirt, he could see a few dozen horses, some donkeys, few people and one lone motorcar. From the polish and shine, Josiah guessed it belonged to whoever held the most land and power around the town. Not many as could afford a good horse, much less a machine that no one would be able to easily fix. The car sat catty-cornered across the road  from the taqueria, in front of what Josiah thought to be a hotel. The car was empty.

Josiah looked south, where the sun was still shining. The avenida was empty, he could no one nor any dust trails on the slow, hot breeze. He turned to look north, into the storm. The sky in that direction was the color of old lead, and getting blacker. He saw a fork of lightning touch down on a hill in the mid-distance. He jumped a little, and he remembered to look down at the road.

There was a dust cloud on the road. It roiled and drifted off in a gauzy smear. In the fading sunlight, he could see glints of something down on the surface. It was moving relatively fast, shimmering a little in the heat. Josiah swallowed hard. He couldn't tell if the approaching objects were cars or horses, but he had no desire to find out. Fear spiked his belly as he scrambled painfully down the worn wooden steps. The hard-packed dirt of the road burned through the soles of his boots. He hobbled as fast as he could to his waiting horse, a slow warm trickle of blood oozing down his belly from underneath the makeshift bandage he had tied there two days ago.

The wound was shallow, a testament to how fast he had ducked and to the luck of another's bad aim. He grunted a little in pain, regretting he didn't have time to find another bandage as replacement. That would have to wait until he put some space and hopefully the Gulf of California between himself and Webb.

The horse nickered in recognition as Josiah placed a hand on the animal's flank. "C'mon, boy, we've miles to make," he said, patting the horse gently. Josiah's other hand strayed to the satchel. In spite of the urgency, he opened it up, reassuring himself that the precious contents were still there. His fingertips found them both, one a stout silver cross and the other a packet of heavy parchment pages bound in twine. The cross was on a heavy silver chain, and studded with emeralds. The parchment was browned, the color of suntanned leather and worth more than the cross ever could be.

Josiah sighed. He shut the satchel, resetting the clasp tightly. One foot in the stirrup, one hand on the pommel of the saddle, he steeled himself against the pain as he swung himself up on the horse. The stabbing tear in his side forced a gasp from his aching lungs. There were tears in his eyes as he blinked rapidly to clear them. Time was getting short.

He looked again to the north. The dust cloud had gotten larger, looking eerie against the nearly black sky behind it. Whoever it was they were gaining. Josiah tugged on the reins, turning the horse to the south. He pressed his heels against its flanks, urging it into a fast trot. He prayed they would get out of sight before whoever was back there could eyeball him.

Behind him, the door to the hotel opened. Three men stepped out, one dressed in linen too clean for honest day's work. The other two were dressed in clothes the color of rock and adobe. All three looked well-groomed. They eyed Josiah suspiciously, saying nothing. Josiah touched the brim of hat, then set his heels to the horse again.

The horse picked up speed, trotting into the shadows on the south side of the avenida. Josiah leaned forward and pulled his hat down low. His left hand on the reins, his right hand drifted down to rest on the satchel. The heft of it filled him with hope and dread. Cross and paper would be his salvation, he thought, if only he could make it across the gulf.


"Let your laws come undone
Don't suffer your crimes
Let the love in your heart take control..."

-'The Hair Song', by Black Mountain

Tell me what is in your heart...