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Published on Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Last Rites

By Connie Vigil Platt

 

October in Colorado is like any other place. Clear blue skies and clean air with the fresh smell of pinon and cedar trees, a hint of winter to come in the atmosphere. The snow covered Rocky Mountains stand like silent sentinels in the distance.

On the high desert, a slight breeze ruffled the grass and brushed lightly on my cheek, drying the tears. I wiped away the offending mess. I was on the way to the funeral of my beloved Uncle Javier Delgado. He had taught me everything I knew about horses. He taught me how to ride and how to live. He had been a wonderful teacher and friend. Now he was gone at the age of eighty- three.

I was known as a bandita, not a term Uncle would have approved of, as he had always been law abiding. I didn't consider myself a bad person, but the law did. I may have rustled a few head of cattle but I never took from someone that was struggling to get by. I only took from men that could afford to lose a few head, probably never even miss them. I only robbed strong boxes from men that were already too wealthy. I may not have robbed from the rich to give to the poor but I didn't rob the poor either. I had my standards.

I knew there were posters out offering a $500.00 reward for me. I didn't care. I had to find a way to pay my last respects to my Uncle. If I could avoid being seen for a short while as I visited the church where he was waiting for his last ride to the cemetery.

   

I hadn't been home for quite a while and I'm sure Uncle had heard the stories that were circulating about me. If he had been able he would tell me he was disappointed in me and the wrong path I had taken. Yet it was the path I had chosen for my own reasons.

My trusted bay horse moved smoothly, covering the miles with little effort. My six-gun lay heavy on my thigh, as I thought about what had brought me to this life.

When I was eight years old, I had seen my father gunned down unarmed, while he was cleaning out our water supply. Someone had thrown debris in the water to contaminate it; they didn't see me behind a cottonwood tree where I had gone to relieve myself. Then these men rode to the house and set fire to the barns and forced my mother to do unspeakable things. As she lay there bruised and broken she told me to go to Uncle Javier before she closed her eyes for the last time. After Uncle calmed me down he rode for the Sheriff. Even though I had seen the men no one wanted to listen to a kid. When it was all over Uncle took me in and treated me as if I was his own child. I appreciated everything he did for me, yet deep in my heart I vowed I would find a way to avenge the death of my parents.

The Sheriff knew who these men worked for but it was a powerful rancher and he was never held accountable. Justice was served at last when one of his own men turned on him. It was too late for me; I had already turned to the wrong side.

For the most part I rode alone; few men are willing to take orders from a woman. It is better not to depend on someone else anyway. Better to work alone than with someone you can't trust and I didn't trust many people. Uncle Javier was one I could always rely on and now he was gone.

The outlaw trail is a lonely way to live, with nothing but your jacket for a pillow and your horse for company. I have spent plenty of nights listening to the fire pop and crackle as it died down and watching the stars overhead. I slept with my gun in my hand, always on the alert for a voice from the shadows. When you live the life I do you learn not to trust anything but your primal instincts.

Once I joined a couple of girls that had left home and were looking for their brother that had drifted into the dark side. They were willing to do anything to find him. I was still searching for the men that killed my parents, at that time, so we had something in common. Except the brother was a wanted man. A man wanted for murder as well as robbery. They met up with some men that were not above any foul deed. I drew the line at killing or whoring. So we parted company, on good terms, but I was alone once more.

My friends were the majestic eagle high in the clear sky, the mournful coyote howl, or the elusive road runner hunting for a meal. They were the only living creatures I could trust.

Most people thank that is only men that ride the owl-hoot trail. That is not so there are plenty of women also that go their own way. Not all young girls want to grow up to be wives or mothers with babies tugging at their skirts.

Deep down I wanted a conventional life. I didn't know how to change things after the actions I had taken. It's hard to escape a wanted poster.

As I came over a rise in the ground I could see the outline of the town below. The simple adobe church, with a steeple with the bell tower pointing toward the heavens, stood apart from the rest of the town. As if to announce to any passer by who would listen there is someone, something much greater than you watching.

I rode around to the back of the church and changed into a dark skirt I carried in my saddle bags. I covered up my face with a black lace mantilla. Hoping no one would recognize me from my bad girl posters of blazing six-guns to wearing this type of clothes. I made my way down the alley beside the church, to the front and pushed open the heavy ornate wooden door the brass hardware showing the patina of aged brass. The dim light was shining through the high arched windows. I could make out the shapes of the pews and someone kneeling by the coffin. I knelt at the font of holy water. I could see my Aunt Teresa, wearing her own black lace mantilla, was kneeling at the casket covered with desert flowers. She looked up when she saw me but hid her eyes immediately. In that way I knew she grasped who it was and would keep quite. A priest in dark garments shuffled toward me.

"Can I help you my child?"

I made the sign of the cross. "I came here to ask you for sanctuary, I'm here to see Javier Delgado." I hoped I could trust this man of God.

"Yes he was a good man. But why do you need a safe haven?"

"I am his niece but still I am wanted by the law. If the sheriff finds me here you might have a shoot out in your church. You don't want that do you?"

"No of course not, under the circumstances, I will offer you the protection of the church while you are here. I can refuse entry to the sheriff but if you wish to go to the burial you will be on your own."

"I want to pay my last respect and then I'll be out of your way. "

"Go ahead; I'll not judge what you have done. Your judgment will come from a higher being than me. Go in peace my child." He put his wrinkled hand on my head.

I made my way past my Aunt, who had done her best by me also. I patted her shoulder as I past. She didn't look up, not wanting to bring attention to my presence.

I knelt by Uncle Javier, leaned on the wooden stand and asked him to forgive me my sins. It seemed as if he was smiling at me. I could almost feel his hand on my hair as he said "You can do better little one. You know the difference between right and wrong. I have faith in you."

It felt as if he was giving me the Last Rites of my outlaw past. Cleansing my history and forgiving me of my sins and so enabling me to do better in my life. I took a deep breath and stood up, perhaps it was time to let go of the past and move on.

Without looking around I went to the back door. I opened it slowly to see if there were any lawmen lurking around waiting for me. The coast seemed clear. I took off my skirt and mantilla, before I mounted my horse. Stuffed them in my saddle bags for safe keeping and rode off.

My Uncle and I were both going to a better place.

Maybe I'll go to California and start a new life, an honest law abiding life, someplace where I won't have to be constantly on the alert, looking over my shoulder and behind every cedar tree for bounty hunters. San Francisco seems like a good place, it is already full of pirates so I'll fit right in. They say the weather is mild but damp. I'll be able to have a real bed for a change. I'll start an eating establishment or get a job at a dry goods store. There must be plenty of opportunities for an enterprising young woman such as myself. I'll make Uncle Javier proud of me yet.

THE END

 

Connie Vigil Platt has gone kicking and screaming from writing on cave walls to the electronic age. She is now published in Australia, Canada, England and Japan as well as the United States.

 

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