Billy Munsen walked into the old bruja‘s tent and breathed an involuntary sigh of relief. He’d been riding for three days, the path out of Hope little more than a dried rut in the desert hardpan. It was hot out there – had to be 100 in the shade, were there any shade that wasn’t thrown by oven-hot mesas – hot enough for him to worry about the roan he’d ridden making the journey. He could hear it outside, whickering softly to itself as it took long draughts from the oasis. The caballeros in the other tents were nice enough not to snicker when he rode in, but he knew how he must look. Sixteen, raw, and pink and sweating like a dollar whore on penny night.
He stood in the relative cool of the dim tent and pulled out his wallet. He checked inside – 10 dollars – a fortune for a family like his. He knew he’d need some of it to refill his saddlebags with some food (water he could get from the pool in the oasis), and most of it for the bruja and her medicine. He slipped the wallet back into his shirt and let it hang from the thong around his neck. The leather was cool against his skin. It made him think of his mother, cold and pale in her bed, the sickness that was inside her long past fever. You could see it in the way her eyes were sunken and her skin hung from her cheeks like grey curtains, that the disease was eating her from the inside out.
A voice from deeper in the tent came to him, scratchy and inflected.
“Hola, nino. You rode a long way on el camino muerto. Have a seat.”
Billy stepped forward and found the back of the tent was dimly lit with a stumpy candle in a small metal holder. It lit the face of an old woman wearing a long purple dress and flowered scarf. Her skin was the color of old oak, and her face was lined like the bed of a creek after a summer with no rain. She smiled, showing yellowed teeth, her rheumy eyes crinkling at the corners, crazing her skin as though an earthquake had passed through the hardpan. She gestured at the chair across the small table from her.
Billy pulled out the chair and sat, the wood creaking under him. He shifted a little, the hard wood making the blisters on his flanks sting. He winced, and tried to hide it, afraid the old woman would think him too small or weak for his task. She continued to smile, as though she hadn’t seen a thing. He pulled a kerchief from his back pocket and wiped the sweat from his forehead.
When she seemed sure he was settled, the old woman let the smile fade from her face in dips and drabs. Billy tried not to be scared. He knew the old fools in the village whispered the word bruja like it was a snake that would rear back and bite them. She was no such thing to most – just an old woman who knew medicine. Those who said that she was evil or poison, earned those things, he felt. Despite his fear, more a fear for his mother than of this woman, Billy wasn’t one of them. She looked at him, a squint creasing her brow, turning it into a fleshy bluff over her eyes.
“What’s your name, nino?”
She nodded. “Si. Billy, you come to me for medicine for your madre?”
Billy nodded back. He could feel the lump in his throat. He watched the old woman stand and totter to a corner of the tent. There was another table there, with shelves attached to the top. She rummaged around, and he could hear the clink of glass on glass and the crinkle of butcher’s paper. After a moment, she muttered something under her breath, and returned, a small glass vial in her hand. Its contents were silvery and slick and seemed to move with a life all their own. She placed it on the table and sat back down.
“How much?” Billy asked.
He could feel the old woman weighing him. He thought of his mother, and the sweat that made the sheets cling to her pale skin, and the way she would shake despite the heat that radiated from her. He thought of her cough and the moments when fever would light in her eyes, pale fire that forced foul words and moans of pain from her chapped lips. He knew the old woman could ask anything of him – five dollars, or his soul, and he would gladly pay either, and yet she did not.
Billy felt confusion cross his face, then felt a flood of relief when he picked his wallet from inside his shirt and fished out a dollar. He laid it on the table and closed his hand around the bottle, the glass cool on his palm. He drew it to him and watched the old bruja to see if she changed her mind. When she did not, he let a breath he hadn’t been aware he was holding, and held the bottle a little tighter.
The old woman smiled at him. “Go. Vaminos. Ride well.”
Billy left, the bottle clutched to his chest. Behind him, the old woman had begun to hum to herself.
The trail was hot as ever, and Billy rode with his hat pulled low and his shoulders hunched, as though that would somehow deflect the fire in the sky from cooking him in the saddle. His legs hurt, and his body ached. He was on the second day of his journey back, and he’d found the hardpan no less forgiving than it had been on the way out.
Fortunately, the caballeros had been willing to part with enough salted beef and bread to keep him through the trip, though he preferred to eat at night when the desert was cool, and the dry food didn’t pull the moisture from his lips like a cactus drew blood. He rubbed at his eyes and thought of the ranch, and his mother there, and hoped that Ramon was keeping up with the chores.
He rode on for a time in near silence, his thoughts circling like buzzards over a carcass. He could hear the sounds of the roan’s hooves clipping against the desert floor, and the occasional scuttle and slither of snakes and lizards. Here and there cottonwoods would add to the sounds when the day kicked up a hot breeze, but aside from those things, the trail was bright and lonesome.
Night fell like a cool sheet over the desert, and for the first time, Billy looked up. Above, the whole of the sky was lit with stars, cold and distant and perfect points of light in a velvet setting. They formed clouds and constellations and whorls, God’s fingerprint hovering above the hardpan. It made him feel small, a sky like that, and though the sand hadn’t cooled yet, and the breeze hadn’t begun, Billy shivered a little – his mother would have said a goose walked over his grave.
He clucked softly to the roan, and she slowed and then stopped. Billy dismounted and led her to the side of the trail, near a small mesa with a depression at its base. He dropped the lead, and the horse wandered a few feet off. After a few minutes of using a small tin plate to dig a pit for the fire, Billy found a small pile of sagebrush fetched up against the rock, and brought it back, building a small fire. He dropped his roll beside it, then sat against the stiff fabric while he chewed a strip of jerky and sipped from his canteen.
The dark had closed in while he worked, black and sure of itself. He heard the roan whicker from somewhere near, and the sound of a lizard or a prairie dog scuttling through the sand. His heart trip-hammered a bit while the night drifted in, and he fought the urge to saddle back up and ride from here until dawn split the night. Instead, he forced himself to take small bites of the jerky, to chew it methodically, and to think of home.
He thought of his mother, before the disease wormed its way into her flesh, of the way she looked standing against the sun, the scrub grasses blowing behind her, and the fabric on the line snapping in the wind. She would shade her eyes and look out, calling to him where he was digging a fencepost, or watering the cattle, and he would look up to where she stood, haloed in the light. Times like that he thought of how it should have been his father she was waving to, his father the one who should have been planting the timbers for the fence or slopping the buckets in the troughs. Those days were gone, though – William Munsen had ridden down the trail and never come back, and left Billy the man. So it went.
He sighed, and washed the last of the jerky down with a few sips from his canteen, banked the fire, and rolled into his bedroll. He closed his eyes and let the image of the ranch, warm against the sun, the cottonwoods blazing in the evening light, lull him to sleep.
Billy awoke to the sound of someone stirring the embers of his fire. His pulse leapt like a wolf after prey, and he swallowed hard but managed to lie still, his back to the fire. He cursed himself for not pulling the rifle he’d brought from its place next to the saddle before he laid down. He lay in the dark, taking deep breaths, trying to pretend to sleep and listen at the same time. He felt heat flare against his back as the fire re-kindled and threw shadows against the mesa in front of him. He looked up at the puppet-show there, the black silhouettes stark on the orange rock – his, laying prone, and the stranger, sitting on a rock, a long stick in his hand. The fire flickered and Billy’s heart skipped as their shadows writhed, and he thought for a moment the man’s had become that of a giant raven, perched over him.
“Stop playing possum, boy. I know you’re awake.”
Billy felt the sharp end of the stick poke him gently in the back, and he instinctively shied away from it even as he tried to hold his water. He rolled in the blanket and sat up, pushing himself back from the fire a foot or two. No need to give the man an easy target. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes so he could see who it was that had commandeered his fire.
The man sitting across from him was old. Older, anyway. His face was the same color as that of the old bruja, though from the sun, not nationality. Lines rode his skin like a roadmap of one of the bigger cities Billy had seen in his primers – maybe Boston, or New York. The man had blue eyes set above a straight nose and full lips that looked almost swollen in the orange light. He was wearing a black shirt and chinos, and a blood-red kerchief was wrapped around his neck. He smiled, and Billy heard the roan whinny. He cast about for the rifle, hoping it had fallen from his pack, but it was nowhere on the ground.
“Looking for this?” The man asked. He held up the Winchester, its long barrel black in the firelight, the wood stock orange against the flames. He tossed it to Billy, who watched it land in the sand with a puff of dust. After a moment, the boy scrambled for the rifle and had it seated against the crook of his shoulder.
“Who are you?” He asked.
The man stirred the fire. Sparks jumped from the sagebrush and drifted upward, to the stars.
“Just an old man.”
“What do you want?” Billy flexed sleep-numb fingers and slipped one inside the trigger guard.
The man didn’t seem to hear and instead looked up at the stars. “I knew your pa, you know.”
“Bull,” Billy said.
“William Munsen. 40. Rode off this way a few years ago. Good man. Good man.”
The way he said good man made Billy think of teeth in the dark, and sharp knives.
“What do you want?” He asked again, a tremor slipping into his voice.
The man in black lowered his head so Billy could see his eyes. The fire was reflected in his pupils, setting them ablaze. Billy thought of hellfire and damnation, like Pastor Ree talked about on Sunday mornings, and wondered if this was the sort of thing sinners saw before their last moments on God’s earth. He wondered if his mother would see this. He gripped the Winchester harder still until his knuckles stood out white against pink flesh.
The man finally answered. “A trade. That medicine for your life. The old woman – she’s feeble. Hell, she’s probably already lying in bed, the flies circling her like a day old turd in the sun. Ramon’s long gone, the silver in his grubby fists. The little shit’s probably already drunk it all up.” He opened his palms in a conciliatory gesture. “Just the medicine boy. If you share, I’ll let you walk. If not, I’ll eat you. Legs first.”
Billy squeezed the trigger. The noise was loud and vast in the night and next to the tower of stone, and his ears rang. A cloud of smoke, smelling of cordite, puffed into the night. The man was knocked off his rock, his shirt billowing out with the impact. Not looking to see if he was dead, Billy, his heart hammering like a parade was tromping through his chest, jumped on the roan, snatching up the reins and kicking her flanks. She jumped into action, hooves tearing great clods of hard sand and throwing them behind the duo as they began to gain speed and pound their way across the desert.
They fled, the night slipping around them. Mesas and scrub blurred by while overhead, the stars seemed to slip their moorings and slide past in the night sky. They rode like that for some time, the sound of hooves and the roan’s heavy breathing covering Billy’s own heart, before he was aware of another sound, a loud rustling like a lizard’s claws scrabbling on the desert floor. He cast a glance over his shoulder and saw the man in black following, running on all fours, his jaw elongated, a great tongue lolling from his mouth amid long needle-like teeth. Billy kicked the roan again, and they surged forward.
Behind him, he could hear another sound begin. The man had begun to sing.
“Them bones them bones them dry bones! Eat ’em up suck the marrow! Little boys and old women, simple men and fools, eat ’em up, suck the marrow! Them bones them bones them dry-y-y-y bones!”
Billy spurred the roan one last time, and they flew through the night. He could feel the flecks of foam begin to appear on her flanks, and though he worried for her, his fear was greater. He would ride her until she fell, and then he would run until his feet bled, but he would not end a meal for the thing behind him.
They pounded on into the night, the vision of the thing behind them spurring them on. After a time, Billy no longer heard the man singing, though he did not dare slow their pace. Eventually, dawn broke the sky, pale and hot, and the roan began to slow. He could feel her heart hammering through her ribs, could feel her labored breathing. She stumbled, and stopped, and he leapt from her in time for her to fall to her knees. A part of him died inside seeing her like that, but he had no time. He dug into the saddle bag and grabbed the medicine. He stuffed it into his waistband and did the only thing he knew. He ran. He didn’t know if the man was still chasing him, but he wouldn’t be caught on his knees.
A mile down the road, he heard the horse scream. He ran on. He ran until his side threatened to split, and black spots flickered into his vision like flies fat from decay. Still, he ran.
Later, with the sun hot in the sky, and his feet bloody and blistered, the ranch came into view. He burst through the gate and into the house. Raul was there, wiping sweat from his mother’s forehead, and for a moment, all he could feel was relief. The man in black was a liar. He gave Raul the medicine, who brewed it into a tea and gave it to his mother.
When she came around for the first time, he didn’t tell her about the roan or the bruja, or the man in black. Instead, he held her hand and smiled back at her. Eventually, she fell asleep, and he did too, deep by her side.
His dreams were not all pleasant, and he often thought of the old woman who had helped his mother and wondered if she could help him. He knew she wouldn’t though – that was the nature of things – you could only be innocent once. She would shy away from him, as others did.
After, when he woke in the small hours, days and weeks months and years from then, he wondered if he would always be running from the man in black and if one day he would fall and not be able to continue.