The continuing episodes of my re-working of a certain classic Western adventure! Part One is here. Another adventure or two and I will have enough for the first Lone Star Sons YA adventure, which will be available in print and as an e-book sometime late this year.)
The goatherd from Laredo which Toby recollected had set up a small temporary steading not far from the spring, which bubbled clear water into a small rock-lined pool, and then trickled away for some distance before it subsided into the ooze, ending as a small green pocket-handkerchief of a marsh. The shallow declivity led into a larger arroyo, a dry stream bed, to judge from the evidence of tumbled gravel and bits and branches of trees and bushes polished into the semblance of ghost trees by the actions of water and sunshine. There were the prints of many hooved feet in the mud, not all of them goats. A cluster of spindly trees with sparse grey-green leaves shaded the tiny hut of upright beams plastered with mud and topped with rough thatch and more mud. A swift sinuous movement at the water’s edge drew Jim’s eye; the snake vanishing almost before he recognized it as such.
“A veritable garden of Eden, in this harsh country,” Albert Biddle noted. “But I note that there is a snake in it. And there is no Eve.”
“And the Adam is dead,” Jim observed in harsh tones, as he dismounted. “I suppose we must do our Christian duty. Do you think, Brother – we should have a chorus of grave-diggers follow us about, just to clear away those impediments? I feel as if we have arrived in the last act of Hamlet, strewn with corpses. Are you certain this is your acquaintance of last year?”
“There is only the one,” Toby remonstrated mildly, as he dismounted. “I am certain that is he. Armando – I recollect the outer robe… his wife had woven it for him.”
The body of the goatherd lay in the trampled space before the low hut – already some days past putrefaction in the dry desert air. The scavenger birds had done such damage that his features were no longer recognizable. The flesh and such congealed blood as there was had already dried to the consistency of morocco leather. Albert Biddle briefly held his gloved hand to his lips, his countenance grey with revulsion – and likely, Jim reflected – fighting the urge to vomit.
“Who has done this?” Albert Biddle asked, as Toby hunkered on his heels by the body. “Was it … Indians or bandits from Mexico?”
“There are the marks of shod horses,” Toby answered, after a moment. “So – not Indians, no; Armando was killed with a gun. They took his scalp, though.”
“Gallatin,” Jim said, from between clenched teeth. “Speak of the devil and he appears. “I have no doubt this is his work. Who else would have reason to kill a poor harmless goat-herder? Whoever it was, looks like the looted what little he had.”
“Perhaps,” Toby showed little of his own emotions but rather a calm detachment. “Other men take scalps for pay, Brother. We should water the horses well, and move on after burying him. I do not care for spending the night in this place, where his spirit may linger as well as anger towards his murderer.”
“You will have no argument from me,” Albert Biddle agreed. “I have little liking for this place, even if I do not believe in ghosts and hauntings… but …” he fell silent, suddenly cocking his head as if listening to something. “Listen … did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Jim began, but Toby swiftly held up a hand in warning.
“It sounds like a goat bleating,” Albert Biddle didn’t sound as if he was entirely convinced. “A little one. As if it is hungry or hurt.”
“That’s not a goat,” Toby answered. “It sounds like a baby … Armando had a woman in Laredo, I know…”
“Surely he could not have brought his wife out here!” Albert Biddle exclaimed, in disbelief, as Toby gestured for quiet again. Now Jim could hear the faint wailing sound, barely discernible over the stirring of the breeze in the sparse vegetation, the water bubbling from the ground, and the more ordinary sounds of birds calling to each other. “There – I think it’s coming from over yonder.”
He gestured towards the wider arroyo, scarcely believing there was cover enough in it to hide anything larger than a squirrel.
“Stay with the horses,” Jim ordered Albert Biddle. “Draw up a fresh canteen before you let them drink from the spring. Mr. Shaw and I will search …”
“No, I’m coming with you,” Albert Biddle was obstinate. “Three pairs of eyes are better than two.”
“As you wish,” Jim yielded with some reluctance. They tied up the three horses, reasoning that they might search more efficiently on foot … and that they would not be going very far anyway.
It was Toby, of course – with his senses finely attuned to the wilderness who found the shallow cave, carved by the force of a sudden and long-ago flood; not so much a cave, but a hollow at the base of a crumbling clay and stone arroyo bank. The wailing came from there, the huddle of cloth and human forms veiled by a pile of weathered dry sticks, tossed up by that long-ago flood. A woman lay there, half-covered in a dust-colored blanket roughly woven in natural sheep wool. An infant lay in her slack arms; a young woman but in the throes of sickness so near to mortal that she appeared as old as Dona Elvira in the house of the muleteer Gonzales in Bexar. The child wailed in renewed energy, a tiny thing with a red face and an incongruous tuft of black hair. The coppery stink of fresh blood and bodily fluids hung in the air.
“Dear god,” Albert Biddle exclaimed, as Toby sank onto his heels, close enough to touch the woman’s fever-flushed cheek. He drew back his hand with a startled exclamation.
“She burns as in a fire,” Toby said. “I think the birthing has gone ill with her, although the child seems strong enough.”
“What can we do?” Albert Biddle demanded; no, the fine Yankee clerk and gentleman would never have had to deal with this before. Jim was fairly certain of that.
At those words, the woman’s eyes opened, struggled to remain open, as if she was about to spend the last of her strength.
“Gracias a Dios que estás aquí …mi hijo tiene que vivir.”
Toby answered in the same tongue, gentle words to sooth and comfort. “She says to us,” he added over his shoulder. “Thanks to God that we have come. Her son must live.”
“She was … is Armando’s wife?” Jim ventured, and Toby nodded. The woman whispered again, with a feeble gesture of pushing the infant towards Toby.
“Prométeme que va a llevar a mi hijo a mi hermana Graciela … en Laredo. San Agustin plaza. Prométeme …”
“She says that we must take him, to Laredo. She has a sister with a house on San Agustin square. We must promise.”
“Yes, certainly we will take the child,” Albert Biddle said, adding, in a lower voice, “As if we would leave a child out here for the wild animals. Ask her what his name is.”
“Usted debe ser padrinos de mi hijo. Dale a él su nombre.”
“She says that we are to be his godfathers and name him in the manner of Christians, with holy water blessed by the priest of San Augustin. She has some … the priest gave it to her when she and Armando left Laredo a month ago.”
With these words, the woman’s voice failed, and her dark-shadowed eyes closed. There was a slender horsehair cord around her neck. With a hand which trembled with weakness, she took the cord at her breast and pulled it free of her shift. There was a tiny glass vial and a silver crucifix affixed to the cord
“Oh does she?” To his embarrassment, Jim’s voice came out as a squeak of dismay; he had little to do with children save for Daniel’s boys, and nothing at all to do with infants. Now this one seemed to be munching on his tiny fist – quiet for the moment, although his dark eyes glared with an accusatory scowl. Only Albert Biddle seemed suddenly equal to the occasion. He stooped in the narrow shelter of the cave and took the infant in capable hands – yes, it was unmistakably a boy. The birth-cord attached to its stomach was still fresh, although it seemed the woman had been able to tie and cut it short.
“Give me the bottle,” Albert Biddle worried the tiny cork loose in one hand, as he held the infant in the other. Toby and Jim looked on in horrified fascination. “By the authority of those powers spiritual and temporal invested in me as an agent of the United States of America, I baptize thee, James Alfred Toby, into that faith practiced by your parents – Papist I suppose. In nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti, amen,” he added, sprinkling a drop or two three times on the tiny head at each phrase. “There. That’s done.” The infant thus named appeared quite unimpressed by the ceremony and gave every indication of beginning to wail again, but his mother smiled.
“Prométeme…” she whispered, one last time, the expression on her face one of gratitude, but in that moment life departed altogether. The three young men looked at each other in shocked silence.
“Her spirit is gone,” Toby observed, somewhat unnecessarily, as Albert Biddle made the gesture of crossing himself in the old-fashioned manner of the Catholics in Bexar. Catching Jim’s eye, he added, “Episcopalian, but I was raised in the old form. Well, what do we do now?”
“We round up one of Armando’s goats,” Toby answered, rising to his feet with some difficulty in the cramped space. “A suckling female; there should be some, close by the water.”
To be continued.