Published on Saturday, May 25, 2013
One Life Between Earth and Sky
By Kenneth Mark Hoover
The wind stopped on the morning of the twelfth day. I ran outside and screamed at the waning stars to prove I was alive.
The empty desert answered in moon-drenched silence. I clasped my hands over my ears and screamed again. My head roared with silence now that the wind nails had disappeared.
"What's wrong with you, girl?"
The stranger sat motionless. His quiet hands held the plaited reins of a big horse.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"You Mex or Indian?"
"Some of both."
"Where are you from?"
"My grandmother was from Mexico City. People say I have her beauty but I do not feel it in my bones. She had power. She married a war chief. They had seven strong sons. My father sold me so the family could eat. But they took fever-sick and died and their memory is gone from this world."
He listened without speaking. He was a patient man. He asked, "You got any water to spare?"
"I will get it for you."
"It's for my horse."
I filled a leather bucket from the pump and held it while the big horse drank. The rider sat with his back to the sun. No matter how I moved around him, his back was always toward the sun so I could not see his face. I think it was one of his powers.
"Why were you screaming like that," he asked. "Are you brain sick?"
"For two weeks I heard nothing but the wind tear at the roof of the world," I said. "When it ended I needed another noise in my head so I would not feel empty."
He shifted his weight in the saddle. The well-oiled leather gleamed in the gathering light. He considered my words with care before he spoke again.
"You live alone out here?"
I did not answer right away. I remembered the loaded gun inside the dugout. I wondered if I could reach it before this stranger leaped off his horse and caught me and did what men do.
"I work here," I said.
"Who owns this way station?"
"An old Indian fighter called Trout. This was one of the stops on the Butterfield stagecoach before the railroad came through. Now he drinks cheap corn and drowns his past in sourness."
"A no account man like that, I suppose he beats you some."
"It is the nature of men to be cruel." I pointed south. "He went to Albuquerque for supplies. He said the wind was going to stop, but it did not stop. He has not returned."
"You speak good American for a half-wild kid," the stranger said.
"I learned to read and write English at the mission."
The stranger studied the rundown adobe station with its tilted columns, shuttered windows, and sagging roof.
"You say your name is Leotie?"
"You remind me of a girl I knowed once. She was desert wild like you, and had her own way of doing things."
"I heard there are mirrors of people in the world," I said.
"Maybe." He looked at me from the back of his horse and smiled. "I doubt there are many men like me, though. But, maybe."
Something had changed in his face, as if he made up his mind.
"This Trout," he said, "he a big man with a forked beard? Rides a four-stockinged bay?"
The stranger turned in his saddle to show me the way, came back around. "I found him and his horse twenty miles back," he said. "Looks like they got caught in the storm and rode off the lip of a cutbank. They were got at by coyotes. There wasn't much left but ribs and cracked bone."
I looked at the stranger and the station and the hard ground under my feet. The sun was up now and the blue sky pressed down on my bare head.
"You ain't go nobody else to go to?" he asked.
"No family other?"
"I ain't nobody's look out," I said.
"Well, you can't stay here. Not alone you can't."
He leaned off the side of his horse and spat. "Don't be stupid, girl."
There were mountains in the distance like gray crumpled paper. "Will you ride me to Albuquerque? I have no clothes, and little food."
"I am not headed that way," he said. "All right. They have a mission to see you right. I guess they will feed you at least once before you run off."
"I will not run."
"Girl, you have runaway marked all over you. I wouldn't be surprised if there's paper on you already. Get your poke."
I went inside the dark station house and packed a few possibles. I took nothing else, except a half pound of parched corn and the loaded gun which I hid in the bottom of my poke.
The stranger helped me on the back of his horse.
"You know how to shoot that gun?" he asked when we were some miles down the road.
"How did you know?" I asked.
"Saw the outline of the barrel in your poke sack. You can't take that into the mission," he warned. "That wouldn't be right. Anyway, them nuns find out, they'll bite back mean."
"I will hide it outside," I said. "I will not use it, but I will have it there."
"You ain't got much going for yourself, do you, Leotie?"
I do not think he meant it in a mean way. I did not say anything for a long time, but when I did I told him, "When I was living in San Francisco I saw the ocean. It was wide and blue, like the sky. There was chopped foam along the shoreline. They had little white birds running up and down the sand with funny legs. When I chased them they flared like quail and become white angles across the blue water. I tasted the water, and it tasted like tears."
We rode on.
"I have some good memories, too," the stranger said at last.
"They are quiet treasures."
"Yes. When memories are all you have left to your name, they are a comfort."
In Albuquerque he dropped me down off his horse. "The mission is down that street," he said. "You get along with yourself and don't cause them nuns too much of a ruckus, or I'll have to come back and strap you some."
"You ain't going to walk me in?" she asked.
He shook his head. "No."
"Because I know you are going to run once't I turn my back." He smiled. "It's what I would do."
"I guess I don't know who you are or anything," I said.
The stranger looked between the ground and sky. "I used to law out some," he said quietly. "Had some things happen so I got shed of the badge. Talking to you make me think about things I had forgotten. Memories. Little treasures. I've felt like I've been stuck in the same place for a long time and couldn't get out. Now, maybe I see a way out."
"I will go to the mission alone," I said.
"No, you won't. Anyway, you shouldn't lie to your elders. Lying is a sin."
"Mister, living is the real sin adults hide away from children."
His lips pulled into a thin smile. "I guess that's true, too." He touched the brim of his hat. "Goodbye, Leotie."
He rode out. He turned at the cemetery and became lost in the heat haze like smoke returning to the wide desert.
I hid the gun under a thick patch of nopal and walked inside the cool dark of the church. I sat and watched the altar while shafts of light fell like beams from the open windows.
After half an hour two nuns came and took me to the kitchen and fed me. Later, they gave me nice clothes and a place to sleep.
That night, while lying in a straw bed, I listened the wind beating against the walls of my heart.
KENNETH MARK HOOVER is a professional writer currently living in Dallas. He has sold over sixty short stories. He is at present working on a dark western series set in the mythical town of Haxan, New Mexico, circa 1874. His newest novel, HAXAN, was accepted by ChiZine Publications and will be released in 2014. You can read more about his work at his website Kennethmarkhoover.com, or follow his blog at Kennethmarkhoover.me.