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Published on Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Box Canyons

By Terry Sanville


Leroy was riding out front when McGregor's men topped the mesa and opened fire. Their first volley killed his roan pony. He was flung down canyon, bouncing off red boulders, and came to rest on a gravel bar next to the churning river.


"We got Leroy," one of them yelled.

"Come on, let's finish the brother," another shouted.

"Don't shoot the girl."

"Ta hell with her. Kill 'em both."

Marty whirled, faced the oncoming posse, and emptied his revolver. Grabbing the reins of Felina's horse, he spurred them downward toward a grove of cottonwoods. An angry swarm of bullets buzzed around him. As they neared the trees, his sorrel gelding screamed and fell away. He rolled downslope and took cover behind a thick trunk. Felina slipped from her saddle and joined him. Bark chips flew as rifle fire tore at them. But they managed to crawl back into the blue-purple shadows. Five riders silhouetted on the low mesa stared down canyon, their long coats blowing in the evening wind.

"Don' make us come down there ta gets yew," one of them hollered, then laughed.

They were too far to reach with his pistol and Marty's rifle was in its sheath, trapped beneath his dying horse. A knife-edged pain took his breath away. He gingerly explored his belly and came away with a bloody hand; the front of his shirt dripped scarlet. With Felina's help, they crawled farther into the trees.

"You hurt bad," Felina said, her dark eyes flashing.

"Nah, just grazed ma ribs," he lied.

McGregor's men made no move to follow them and set up camp on the canyon's rim. As night came on, the couple inched their way to the river and knelt at Leroy's motionless body. By dawn the coyotes will have ya, Marty thought and stared up at the posse's campsite. That's when they'll come for us. I'll be laid out just like you... a damn long way from Vicksburg.

Felina untied Marty's neckerchief and dipping it in the ice-cold water, pressed it against his ribs. He moaned and lay back in her arms, his head pressed against her soft bosom. Across the river, a full moon cast blue light down the near-vertical walls. Ah Leroy... we lived through Shiloh... just ta get kilt... in these New Mexico badlands.

"Oh Marty boy, y'all sleep tight," echoed down from the rim. "We'll come gets you in the mornin.'"

With a trembling hand Marty raised his revolver and pointed into the darkness. But he thought better of it. One flash from his Colt and they'd know where he was. He wasn't about to be cut down so easily...and Felina still had a chance. She rose, pulled him up and they stumbled back into the trees. At the base of a huge cottonwood, he stretched out, breathed in the cold high-desert air and shuddered.

"I'm sorry, Felina. I'm afraid I gots us both kilt."

She pressed a finger to his lips, murmured something in Spanish, then disappeared. Yes, run for it, my love... down river... up canyon...anywhere...don' let 'em catch yew with me. He gingerly unbuttoned his shirt and exposed the ragged hole in his stomach. The night air felt good against his burning skin; but he couldn't feel his legs. Marty gazed at stars twinkling between the branches and dreamed about Felina...and about McGregor's son, Buddy.


*         *        *


Felina with the flashing eyes. Felina with the raven hair. Felina smiling into night, as if I'm never there. Marty stared across Rosa's Cantina at the Mexican beauty. She tended table with her quick smile and womanly grace. But on occasion he'd catch her casting a sly glance at him, as if she could read his heart, feel his passion.

"Why y'all moonin' over that whore?" Leroy complained. "Every man this side of the Pecos has lain with her."

"Shut yer big bazoo," Marty replied. "She's ace-high ta me."

Leroy shook his head and stared into his shot of Red Eye. On Saturday nights the brothers rode in from McGregor's spread, after a week chasing strays across West Texas. They'd stake out the corner table and drink whisky until the lanterns dimmed and Felina shooed everybody out. She'd disappear to her cozy casa with some cowboy. That night, it looked like it might be Buddy.

"Cum here, darlin'," Buddy crooned. "Give me a little kiss."

Felina wiped down the tables, the dull-eyed regulars watching her every move. Buddy slipped an arm around her waist and slammed her voluptuous body against his.

"Easy, hombre. I'm tired."

"Then we'd better find a bed, pronto."

Buddy carried a heavy gut and massive arms. But atop his big body sat a well-groomed head with good teeth. It was Buddy's schoolboy face that Marty detested the most. The way he'd smirk and make fun of the other ranch hands, hiding behind his father's name.

"No, Buddy, not tonight," Felina answered. "El tiempo is muy --"

"But I've been a waitin'..."

"NO. Quizas mañana."

"I can't wait till tomorrow."


Felina spun away from him and backed against the bar. Buddy slammed a fist on the counter and lunged for her. She danced away. Smashing a whisky bottle, Felina held it up, lips trembling, as if daring him to attack.

"Hey, Buddy, leave her be," Marty called. He stood facing the two, a hand resting on the butt of a pistol stuffed under his belt.

"Hobble yer lip, ya little weasel."

Leroy reached up and tugged at his brother's arm. "Easy there, Marty. We'd better vamoose."

"Yer the weasel, Buddy. Pickin' a fight with a woman."

Buddy let out a low belly laugh. "She ain't no woman, she's a --"

Marty's revolver roared twice, then once more, the last shot drilling a neat hole between Buddy's smirking blue eyes. He tottered, open-mouthed, then crumpled to the floor. The air stank like wet ashes in a campfire. Outside, El Paso's dogs gave a few exploratory howls, then quieted. Jolted from their stupor, the cantina's patrons fled.

"Ya done it now, boy. You stupid..." Leroy began.

Felina glared at him. "They be after us muy pronto. We must run."

"They won hurt you, Felina," Marty said.

"You loco. They kill me just like you, maybe worse."

The brothers waited while she cleaned out the cash drawer and collected her horse. They pushed north into the badlands, riding hard through the night and the following day. But a cloud of dust dogged them the whole way... and toward sunset it had closed in.

The light of a comet shown on Marty's face, destroying his dream. He raised a hand to shield his eyes. River sounds thundered in his head.

"Felina, where are you?" he cried into the darkness.

But the river gave no answer.


*         *        *


Moving carefully through the night, Felina bent to tear strips of cloth from the hem of her skirt. She dipped them into the water and wrung them out with strong fingers. The moon sank below the canyon rim and the blackness thickened. She felt her way back through the trees to where Marty lay and pressed a hand to his chest, searching for the rise and fall of life. But like the night, this man was still. She bowed her head.

Another crazy gringo to bury, she thought. But... but he was like the beginning...when we first crossed over. Felina rocked back on her heels and remembered the night she and her first lover braved the Rio Grande's waters and took refuge in a barn outside El Paso. At fourteen Felina had reached full womanhood and was awfully pretty. But Ernesto still wore the smile of a boy, his high cheeks smooth and unblemished.

He was killed when the first scoundrel laid siege to Felina's feminine virtues. She went to work for Rosa Vargas in her cantina for the price of room and board. But the wages of sin were better. Diez Años and I am still the town's whore. She leaned forward and stroked Marty's smooth cheek. Where do men like these live... that I might join them and regain my life. She stared at the cold canyon walls and felt their weight press against her heart. This room under the stars es muy grande...but like all others, it holds the same fate.

The night passed slowly. On the mesa, the posse's campfire flared but soon died. Near dawn, Felina tugged Marty's body onto the gravel bar and laid him out next to his brother. The coyotes had been merciful. She studied the canyon rim, pulling fingers through tangled black hair, waiting. The sun was well up before she heard the clip-clop of horses and saw the posse slowly descend the trail. They came at her five abreast, riding slow, their saddles squeaking in the morning air. She backed into the river until she was knee deep. The water tore at her strong limbs.

Pushing his hat back, the big one in the lead grinned. "Buenos Dias, Felina. Looks like y'all ran outta customers." He motioned to the dead men.

"I'm used to lying with the dead. Weren't you with me last week?"

The grin on his face froze. "Y'all don' have ta get nasty." The rest of them snickered.

Felina glared at the men till their smiles faded.

"So what da ya think boys? Should we kill her now, or have a little fun first?"

Felina stepped backward. The leader reached for his holster.

She raised both pistols hidden in the folds of her skirt and opened fire. A round caught the big one in the face and he toppled from his pony. A man to his left went down. But the posse's return volley tore into her chest.

I'm coming Ernesto. I will see you soon. Her body fell back into the surging river. It spun like a leaf caught in a whirlpool and disappeared downstream, to be carried over the falls and southward to El Paso and her Mexican homeland beyond.



*This story was first published in print by "Plain Spoke" in June/July 2007.

Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and one fat cat (his in-house critic). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, an occasional play, and novels (that are hiding in his closet, awaiting editing). Since 2005, his short stories have been accepted by more than 90 literary and commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies (both print and online) including the Houston Literary Review, Birmingham Arts Journal, Boston Literary Magazine, and Underground Voices. Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist - who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.


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