Copyright 2017 by Christopher Davis
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Disclaimer: The persons, places, things, and otherwise animate or inanimate objects mentioned in this story are figments of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to anything or anyone living (or dead) is unintentional. The author humbly begs your pardon. This is fiction, people.
Blowing sand peppered bubbled glass windows across the room. Outside, the night was black from the dust storm moving through this part of the country. It hadn’t rained in a generation or more and there was little vegetation to hold the topsoil together any longer.
The stub of one tallow candle flickered atop a small table. Shadows from the flame danced across the wall like a psychedelic dream.
Strong smells of alcohol and antiseptic permeated the place. It was an infirmary or hospital room of some sort, but where?
Bardwell had a nervous look around. There were four beds in total and only the one occupied.
His arm was bandaged, along with his ribs. A quick inventory of his appendages revealed that all were in working order.
The lawman was sore, but he was alive.
Soft voices spoke in whispers from the next room. The voices were praying in Spanish. It was Matins, the midnight prayer.
“Hello?” he said in a tired voice. His throat was dry and the lawman wasn’t sure when he had last had a drink of water.
“Hola, señor Bardwell,” the woman said with a pleasant smile. She was dressed in a long black tunic, scapular and cowl.
“Auga, por favor?” he replied, as the woman drew closer to draw a glass of cool water.
Bardwell sipped from the glass, closing his eyes. He was sure that he’d never tasted anything better.
“Gracias, Madre,” he said, falling back into the pillow behind his head. The lawman was weak from a harrowing desert ordeal.
The woman continued to smile as she watched the Sacramento lawman. “You are very welcome, señor.”
“You speak English?”
“Poquito,” she replied, pinching a thumb and finger together to help get the point across.
Another woman dressed in black from head to toe, walked in. This one was older, with a firm but pleasant smile.
“How are you, Mister Bardwell?” she asked, continuing across the room.
“I think I’ve been better?”
“You have been through quite a lot.”
“Where am I?”
The older woman smiled. “The Basilica de la Desierto.”
“How did I get here?”
“You gave Brother Francisco quite the scare,” she replied. “He came upon you in the desert, believing that you were dead.”
“I may have been?” the lawman said under his breath.
“With help from the natives,” she continued. “Our brother was able to find his way here.”
“Remind me to thank him.”
The older woman continued to smile as the—first—younger woman, saw about the wounds to his leg and arm.
“You will get your chance, come morning, Mister Bardwell,” she said. “Brother Francisco has agreed to remain with us and see about your horses.”
Bardwell smiled through the pain. “They are okay, the horses?”
“Yes. Whatever it was that you struggled with, did no harm to the animals.”
The older of the black-clad women prepared a syringe, which she stuck into his thigh. “You will sleep now,” she said. “We will speak again at breakfast.”
There were more questions that the lawman needed to ask, but the effect from drug was too strong.
“Water?” he asked in a low voice. The taste of the drug flooded his mouth as the Nun injected it.
The younger woman helped with a glass. Bardwell had a sip and fell back against the pillow behind his head.
Sand continued to blow against the window as the sisters pulled the door closed behind them. It was late, but the room was quiet now. Quiet other that the sound of his labored breathing. There were no longer nighttime prayers whispered in Spanish. The stub of the candle flickered until it was no more.
Bardwell kicked at the bed covering, with sweat beginning to bead on his skin. Outside of the small infirmary, a storm was building across the desert to the west. Another storm raged in his infected body.
The lawman’s face turned to the side as he drifted headlong into another fitful nights rest.
Brother Francisco—the Benedictine monk—had been three days in traveling south from the mission at San Juan Bautista. The journey was pleasant, traveling along the El Camino Real. After spending a day at the mission Paso Robles, he started a little south of east in hopes of making the border settlement of Tulare within three days. It would be a stretch across some treacherous ground, but it was possible. Anything was possible with Devine guidance.
The lone man’s name hadn’t always been Francisco. As a young boy, Gustav Quesada had lived through an uprising of the ruined. Hiding under a frail table, Gustav had visions of a man—in which he did not know—guiding him through death all around. A hand above protected him as he crawled to the safety of a nearby church.
Iron bells tolled over the screams of those unable to make their way clear of the unholy ones who roamed the streets of his Mexican small town.
With no mother and no father, the boy was raised by the sisters. Within the year, Gustav took the sacred vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Coming down out of the low hills that separated the dry valley from the great ocean to the west, Francisco noticed the black birds swarming near the old Mission de la Cantua. The place had been deserted for a century or more.
It would cost the monk two hours of time in getting to the place and two more to find the dusty path that he now followed. He sought guidance as he continued to lead his burro along the narrow trail that he walked.
“Go, my son.”
“Si, Padre,” he said, turning himself and the small animal toward the crumbling adobe wall that had once been the Mission de la Cantua.
Desert scavengers and predators were gathering as he drew closer. A man lay dead between a saddled and unsaddled horse in the sand. The animals stood with their heads low. From the tracks and accumulation of sand around his prostrate body, the man had been there for some time, two or three day’s maybe?
“Señor,” he asked in a thick accent. “Can you hear me? Are you alive?”
Puffs of dust drifted away from the man’s mouth with each shallow respiration.
“Gracias, Padre,” the lone monk said looking to the heavens, “Gracias.”
The animals parted somewhat allowing Francisco to roll the dying man unto his back. Water was taken in the smallest of sips, as the young man tried to figure how he would get the man into his saddle.
Francisco had grown into a strong young man, but he had little faith that he would succeed at placing the unresponsive man on either of the horses.
Blood had dried in the man’s torn clothing with dust and desert sand clotting the wounds. The man was alive, but he wouldn’t be for long if he didn’t get help.
The horses raised their heads with ears twitching, while the burro brayed at the arrival of four mounted men.
Francisco feared for his life as the mounted men drew closer. An old Indian chief and three warriors drew rein just paces from where the young man tried to assist the dying man.
“O, Mi Padre…” he prayed in Spanish.
Neither the old Indian nor his warriors gave the impression of bad intent.
Francisco squinted up into a bright sun overhead. The old man with long gray hair and a single black feather tied into it nodded. He said something to the others which the monk could not understand. Rope reins were handed about as the warriors dismounted from their ponies.
Two of the men—native to the area—lifted the dying man to place him on a travois that trailed the bigger of the ponies. The other tied the braided rope lead of the burro to a long pole.
The old Indian grunted something that Francisco could not understand, but motioned to the dying man’s saddled horse. Francisco climbed aboard and turned to smile at the mounted Indian, who grunted a few words to his men.
One of the warriors started to the south and east with a second—travois behind—following. The third spoke again with the old man who had turned his mount to the north. Something was agreed upon and the old man started off with his warrior turning to follow the dying man.
Francisco followed, riding the saddled horse. He turned to look back at the old man, who was no longer there.
The dying man’s unsaddled horse followed as the foursome traveled in silence. The Indians spoke neither English nor Spanish and Francisco could speak little English and no Indian.
They seemed to be traveling in the direction of the convent and infirmary a group of sisters ran in the desert south of the old highway that run up into the mountains.
It was three days at best to make the old macadam highway as near as he could figure. Francisco had planned to be camping a night or two amongst the manzanita and desert sage.
Time passed in a blur for the young monk following three native warriors and the dying man on a sled. Francisco chuckled as he had never known the burro to be capable of such speed.
A white-hot daystar drifted slowly across the dirty sky to the west. Desert wind—warm and violent—came up from behind. The horses twitched their ears and the donkey brayed.
Francisco wasn’t sure what to make of it, but with no other choice, continued to follow the silent warriors across the no man’s land known to all as the border.
Into the dark night they rode with little or no conversation. The monk dismounted once to piss, as did the Indians, but they traveled south with bright stars crossing the sky above. Having no means of keeping time, he pondered at its passing.
They seemed to have only been on the road for a short while—an hour or two at most—and here the sun was rising just east of north. The ancient daystar clawed its way into a nuclear morning sky with great clouds of ash spreading farther with each passing calendar.
Looking down at the dying man on the native travois, Francisco knew well the kind of being that inflicted the wounds. It was the very same undead creatures who had ravaged the small village where he and his parents had once lived. There was no escaping the horror of the soulless ones who roamed with no other purpose than to kill those still with the living.
They were the devil’s legions he had heard them called by some over the years, the ruined, the undead or zombies by others. It didn’t matter what name one chose to call them, they were evil beings and they had nearly had their way with the dying man.
Men and their animals traveled across the afternoon on the dry, desert wind which continued to blow viciously. Another sunset behind dirty clouds over a dirty range of low mountains, another sunrise and then the outline of several building came into view through the heat shimmering up from the hot valley floor.
It couldn’t be the Basilica de la Desierto? They hadn’t been on the road long enough or had they?
The outline of the bell tower was clearly visible as they drew closer with still nothing from the warriors on painted ponies.
Mother Frances ran both the convent and infirmary there. He liked Mother Frances. She had always been kind to him.
But how had they managed a three day ride without rest? Had he and the warriors ridden with the hand of God guiding them onward? Francisco made the sign of the cross over his head and shoulders, thankful either way.
Ahead in the mission, there would be food and water and rest. He was tired and puzzled as to how they had all traveled this far.
The Indians drew rein just outside of the iron gates, with Mother Frances and several sisters looking on.
“Francisco?” one of them asked. “Is that you?”
“Yes,” he said, dismounting from the dying man’s horse. “It is me, Francisco.”
Two of the warriors removed the dying man and untied the burro. The man, they drug to waiting sisters at the now open gate. The halter rope of the burro they gave to the monk.
The lead warrior remained on his pony and made a gesture of some sort by pounding his chest, smiling and pointing to the sky.
Francisco understood well the meaning and nodded his bare head. He continued to watch as the mounted men rode back to the north, across the unforgiving desert of Sacramento in a place that was once known by the elders as California.
The sisters had few animals other than a few cows and some chickens. The monk led the saddled horse past the garden to a barn behind the church and convent. The unsaddled horse and burro followed as if they understood the meaning of their being here at this place. All splashed in a wooden trough of cool water as he hung the saddle and blankets on the corral fence.
“What happened?” one voice asked.
“Where did you find him?” another asked.
“How did you come to be with those men?”
The questions were coming too fast for the simple young man to answer.
Six of the sisters were carrying the dying man inside—to the infirmary—on a door they used for such purposes.
Exhausted, now that the ordeal was over, Francisco started for the cool shade of the mission. The animals were safe and there was plenty of feed for the three of them.
“I was coming down out of the hills,” he started, “The hills between the valley and the mission at Paso Robles. Big birds…”
“Buzzards?” one of the sisters interrupted.
“Si, si,” he nodded. “The big birds…buzzards, circled near the old mission.”
“De la Cantua?”
“Yes, si,” he continued. “I decided that maybe I should see what might be at that place and I find this man?”
“And the Indians?”
“I do not know where it is that they come from and I do not know where they will go,” he continued. “But if not for their help, this man would have died.”
“In this, you are right, Francisco,” one of the sisters replied.
“Can I see him, this man?” the monk asked.
One of the sisters nodded. “I don’t think Mother Frances would mind if you did?”
Inside it was cool and dark and smelled like alcohol and disinfectant. The monk rubbed his eyes, allowing them to adjust to the dim light coming through the windows.
“You seem to have gotten him here just in time,” the sister in habit said as he walked closer.
“Will he live?”
“Yes, I think so? He’s lost a lot of blood and he’s fighting an infection of some sort, but I believe that he will live.”
“Gracias, Padre,” the monk said to no one in particular.
“Are bears known in the area where you found this man?”
One of the younger sisters translated. “Oso?”
“No,” Francisco said laughing.
The man who had had the five pointed tin star pinned to his shirt, lie on a table unconscious as two of the sisters dressed his wounds.
“He’s sure tangled with something?”
His body injected with antibiotics and pain killers, the lawman lie on his back covered in cold sweat as his body fought the infection that nearly claimed his life in the unforgiving desert.
There had been a cantina along the highway and a gun fight. A dozen men lay dead on the dirty floor, a product of their poor judgement, a dead man over the spare horse, a small fire and coffee. The dead man was left atop the cold ground as he slept near the rocks. A blood moon rose across the valley. It was late. There was a terrible buzzing that shifted grains of sand on the rocks.
Soulless eyes of the undead, they had no life. He had seen it before. He fired first one Colt and then the other. He reloaded on the run and fired again. The daystar would be making its presence known in an hour or so.
On they came to claim the dead outlaw, Duane Frances. Bardwell fired his cylinders dry, used the Winchester until there were no more bullets and then the long rifle became a club. Skulls split like ripe melons in the sun. The ruined lay in the sand where they went down. Still more came from the shadows. They clawed at both the lawman and the dead man. Then peace, the unholy were no more. Golden rays of the coming sun lit the underside of ash clouds in brilliant orange and red.
The mare was saddled. Bardwell had a last look about the camp. A scattering of torn clothing and a lower leg in a boot was all that was left of the dead outlaw. Frances had paid for his sins in full. The weary Sacramento lawman mumbled a prayer for the man as he turned his saddled mare south. It was two days at best to the mission at Cantua where he could find help.
A raven—as black as night—landed, an old friend, Ahote. He and the Indian spoke near a small fire.
The Indian was no more and then a feeble priest in black robe, Father John. Adobe walls crumbled as they spoke.
A boy and his jackass gave him much needed water under a hot sun. Buzzards circled closer. There were Indians…Ahote—the restless one—and three warriors. They traveled with the sprits, the great Father leading the way.
Another mission, a convent, maybe? Nuns in habit. Needles pierced torn skin as black thread drew taunt to close the wounds.
“It will scar,” one voice said. It was the voice of a woman, a young woman. Her words were soft and pleasant with a Mexican accent.
“The scaring will be the least of his worries,” another said, this one much older and wiser. She was Anglo, this one.
“Will he live, Mother?”
“Only time will tell…”
Rain from the first storm in memory greeted the lawman as he dared open his eyes.
“Good morning, señor,” the pleasant voice from the dream said.
Bardwell rolled his face to the voice. A young Mexican woman sat in a chair at his bedside, dressed in black. She had an old book in her lap.
“Coffee?” she asked.
“Am I alive?”
The young woman smiled. “Si, it is a miracle, señor.”
“Then, I’ll take that coffee, sister.”
The book placed on a small table, the black-robed woman left the infirmary for the requested bitter brew.
Strange smells of rain dampened earth drifted on unseen currents of morning air. One of the windows had been raised to allow a cool breeze inside.
“Thank you,” he said to the young woman when she returned. “Gracias.”
“You are welcome.”
She took her seat next to the bed.
“Is it raining?”
“Yes,” she said. “There will be water for our garden.”
The lawman smiled. “Does it rain often?”
“No,” she replied. “It is a miracle. Some of the sisters and I have never seen this?”
The young woman turned to a knock on the door. A young man of maybe thirty stood just outside of the room.
“Come, come,” she said, getting to her feet. “This is Brother Francisco. He is the one who found you in the desert.”
“Gracias, mi Padre,” the young man, dressed in heavy brown cloth said to no one.
The young man drew closer to the bed, reluctant to say more. He seemed frightened of the man lying there.
“Thank you, son,” Bardwell said in a low voice. “You may have saved my life?”
The young man nodded, but said nothing.
“Francisco,” the young woman said. “You take the chair. I will leave the two of you alone.”
“Where did you find me?” Bardwell asked, once the young woman in habit had left the infirmary and pulled the door closed.
“The Mission de la Cantua.”
“I saw the black birds.”
“Did you see the old priest, Father John?”
“No, señor,” he said. “But I did see an old Indian.”
“I believe this was his name?”
“Then you have walked with the spirits, Francisco.”
The expression on the young man’s face went blank. Sweat beaded on his brow as he continued to stare at the lawman in the infirmary bed.
“Did you see those who did this?”
“No, señor,” the monk said. “But I have seen them before, when I was a boy.”
“Is that how you came to the church?”
“Si, they killed my madre and padre. They killed my whole family. I am the only one left.”
“Do the others know?”
“No, señor, they do not.”
“Then you are special, Francisco,” the lawman said. “There are few who have witnessed the undead and then traveled with the great spirits.”
“Si,” Bardwell replied, “espiritu.”
A knock was followed by several of the nuns. Only the oldest of the group spoke.
“How are you this morning, Mister Bardwell?”
“Good, I think? How long have I slept?”
“Yes,” she said. “You are fighting a bad infection. You have lost a lot of blood.”
The lawman nodded.
“You will stay with the sisters and I for a few days, until you are well enough to travel.”
“Is there a town nearby?” he asked. “A train station or telegraph?”
“Tulare?” the older woman said, questioning those in the room. “I believe they will have a coach that leaves each week for the capitol?”
“Si,” Francisco replied.
“I need to get there,” the lawman said. “I must get word to the capitol that I am still alive.”
“But you are too weak to travel, Mister Bardwell?”
“Do you have a wagon here at the convent?” Bardwell asked. “Could Francisco not drive me into town?”
“We do, but no horse to pull it,” the black-robed woman replied. “We have no need.”
“Either of my horses will. Would you do me the favor, son?”
“Si, señor,” the monk said. “When you are ready, I will drive you into town.”
Three days passed as the lawman healed enough to travel. It rained a little each night, bringing new life to the surrounding desert.
Mother Frances spoke in private with the lawman on the morning that he and Francisco—the young monk—were to leave.
“We are in the season of what the natives call an evil moon,” she said. “As it is a day’s travel in getting there, I would suggest that the two of you remain at the settlement for the night and return on the morrow?”
Bardwell nodded his agreement.
“There are many unholy things in the desert at night.”
Francisco had the mare in harness. The sisters had packed food and water to see them into the settlement. Goodbyes were said and shopping lists were handed off as the young monk helped the lawman into the seat.
On the board floor between their feet laid a pair of timeworn leather saddlebags and the saddle holster with a pair of blued Navy Colt pistols. Two more of the Colts were at the lawman’s side with the Winchester long rifle standing between.
“Nothing will bother us, señor,” the young man said as they pulled away. “You have the pistolas to protect us, no?”
The lawman laughed. “I have no bullets, son. I used them all.”
“Will you get more?”
“Yes,” Bardwell said. “When we get into town, I plan to buy plenty. There is much evil in this world as you already know.”
“Have you ever shot the pistola, Francisco?”
“Si, señor. As a boy, mi padre would often take me out into the hills to shoot his guns.”
Time passed as the pair covered miles of highway macadam. The rain had long since passed and the sky was clear for the first time in memory. With the recent precipitation, hardy desert grasses grew and forgotten flowers bloomed.
“Mi padre,” the young man continued. “They say that he is the reason the unholy came upon our village?”
“My father,” Francisco repeated. “They say that he brought the undead with him.”
“What did your father do?”
The young man paused, reflecting. “He was a highwayman.”
“No, señor,” the young man with the reins continued. “Did you ever hear of Roberto Quesada?”
“Chased the man for years, never did corner him?”
“He was my father.”
“So the church and the vows and…”
“I am trying to make things right,” the young man said.
“You doing right don’t make up for what your father did, son,” Bardwell replied. “It is not your place to right his wrongs.”
“I know señor.”
Silence settled as the wagon rolled along.
“What will you do when we get into town?”
Bardwell laughed. “Besides buying tobacco and bullets, I need to get word to Sacramento that I am still alive.”
“A man like you does not die señor.”
“Huh,” Bardwell said, looking at the bandages on his arms. “And how do you know this?”
“As a boy, I was told of a vaquero, an hombre that was put here many calendars ago to keep an eye on things.”
“You didn’t hear this in the church?”
“You are right, señor, this I hear from the elders,” the young man said. “But in the church it is also written of the Angeles?”
The lawman said nothing.
“Am I right?” the young man asked. “No one survives the attack of the unholy and lives to tell about it.”
“Then you are like me, son?”
“How is that, señor?”
“You survived it also.”
“You are wrong,” the young man said. “I was a little boy and was able to crawl along the floor undetected.”
“Bullshit, son,” Bardwell replied in a firm voice. “You survived because God wanted you to survive. There are few of us left, but it is our calling.”
“No, no, I don’t believe what you say.”
“You can believe anything that you like, but you are one of the chosen, Francisco. You can continue to hide behind the church if you wish, but you know as well as I do that I am right.”
“How did you know?”
“I knew it when we first met.”
“At the Mission de la Cantua?”
“We met in Matalores, where you lived with your mother and father as a boy.”
The boy nodded, remembering. “Yes,” he said. “There was a gringo gunslinger. He spoke to me and told me where to go. If he had not come along, I would have perished along with my family.”
“I and others have watched over you, Gustav.”
“You know my name, señor? How do you know this?”
The Sacramento lawman smiled. “There are many things that I know, my son and many things that you will also know in time.
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Other Stories by Christopher Davis
Ain’t No Law in California…A Dan Bardwell Western
Scratches…A Dan Bardwell Western
Walking to Babylon
Meet Me in Tulsa
Going Back to Dallas
A cantina gunfight along the highway sees Dan Bardwell get the outlaw that he is after. Riding south from the border town with the dead man tied over the unsaddled spare horse, the lawman makes camp in the desert for the night. Awakened by a terrible hum, the unholy roam under a blood moon. The Sacramento lawman fights them off until his bullets run out and survives the ordeal, but barely. Three days later, a Benedictine monk named Francisco finds the lawman lying face down in the sand outside of a forgotten mission. With the help of the great spirit--Ahote--the monk is able to get the dying lawman to help and remains at the lawman's side until... If you enjoy this Dan Bardwell western...look for Scratches and Ain't No Law in California