Joaquin Murrieta pushed open the Gem Saloon’s door and stepped into cool, bay-scented twilight. He turned and walked to the hitching post in front of Ma Krenkel’s boarding house. He patted his horse’s neck and unstrapped his saddlebags. Ma Krenkel herself stepped onto the porch as he untied his bedroll.
“You won’t need that, mister. I keep a clean house.”
Joaquin looked up. Ma was a rawboned woman with grizzled hair and more eyebrows than teeth.
“Thank-you.” He retied the knot.
“You’re Mr. Murrieta?”
“I got your note and the gold piece you left on the desk.” She swallowed. “That’s a lot more than I charge for a night’s sleep.”
“I have business here in Manchester that may keep me for several days.”
“Well, I thank you. Paying guests have been fewer this year than they once were. Mr. Murrieta?” Ma hesitated.
“I hope you don’t mind my asking, but are you the famous bandit?”
Joaquin grimaced. “Retired famous bandit, please. I’m wiser now, I hope.” Joaquin looked at her. “It surprises me that you’ve heard of me.”
“I have an old friend who cooks at the Dutton Hotel down to Jolón. Black Maggie’s her name.”
“Ah, Maggie is my friend, too.”
“She told me some stories about you.”
An owl hooted in the woods nearby as gentle darkness stole the day’s light. Joaquin’s horse twitched nervously. “Easy, Gallito.” Joaquin soothed him. “It’s just an owl. You’ve heard owls before.”
Ma plowed ahead, “She said you used to ride through these mountains long ago and that sometimes you’d bury a black iron pot full of gold.”
Joaquin stared at Ma, his dark eyes glittering in the lamplight. “There are some stories it is best not to repeat.”
Ma looked down. “Sure, Mr. Murrieta. I didn’t mean to bother you none. Your business is your business.”
Joaquin patted her hand. “Perhaps you may help me, however, Mrs. Krenkel. I need to find Mary Vasquez. Do you know her?”
Ma took a small step back. “Why do you ask?”
“She stopped writing to her father in San Francisco. He’s an old friend and he’s ill. He asked me to come here and find her.”
“Well . . . she and her child were here, but she left three or four months ago.”
Ma shook her head. “More like vanished.”
A woman’s sob sounded in the darkness nearby.
Joaquin looked into the woods. “A crying woman – is she a guest?”
“Ain’t nobody – leastways nobody you can help.”
A lantern dipped between and behind black trees in the middle distance. The sobbing continued. “A woman is in distress. Excuse me, Mrs. Krenkel. I shall discover what I can.”
Ma Krenkel touched Joaquin’s arm. “Hold on a second, Mr. Murrieta. She’s been around before. I tried following her some nights and didn’t find nothing.”
“The light went out and I lost her. She disappeared.”
“Perhaps I will have better luck finding her tonight.” He took a step toward the dwindling light.
Ma Krenkel cleared her throat. “I got close enough to see her once.”
Joaquin turned. “And?”
“She looks a lot like Mary. . . ” Ma paused as if searching for less provocative words, found none and plunged ahead. “But you can see straight through her.”
“A spirit, you think?”
Ma Krenkel said nothing.
“Spirits don’t trouble me.”
“It’s real dark in them woods, Mr. Murrieta.”
“Darkness doesn’t trouble me, either. I’ll be back.” Joaquin led his horse into the trees.
The lantern dipped and swayed, always an unvarying distance before him. After a mile, the trees thinned and the slope steepened. Joaquin tied Gallito’s reins to a sapling “I did not need you, after all. Wait here, old friend.”
The woman – her hair loose and long, her dress pale and flowing – stood fifty yards up the hill at the entrance of a cave. She held her lantern high and her face, radiant in its light, was turned toward him.
“She expects me to go up there.” Joaquin studied the rocky ground above him and sighed. “Even old goats must climb sometimes.” He stepped up on a rock that shifted beneath his weight. He found his footing and proceeded with greater care.
When he reached the cave, he found it was the entrance to a mine. The woman was gone, but her lantern rested on the mine’s floor. Its glow revealed death. Bodies, ten of them, lay in a jumbled heap on broken stones. A mummified child lay wrapped in a red and white quilt in an alcove on the left. Joaquin sighed.
He knew violent death, the chaotic murder of past battles, but these deaths were executions. The shriveled dead men lay twisted right where bullets had taken them. Judging by their clothes, they were Chinese miners. The child was a toddler, wan face framed by fine, dark hair. Joaquin nodded to himself. “This is why she cries.”
The lantern’s glow faded. Joaquin stepped to the cave’s entrance in the last of its light, stopped and looked up. Stars, cold and serene, spread above him like a woman’s shawl. “Pues, tomorrow Ma Krenkel and I shall attend to the dead.”
Starlight bathed the stony slope as he made his way back to Gallito. Just as he reached level ground, a voice sounded behind him. “Raise your hands, high!”
Joaquin froze. The weight and power of a gun were in the words. He did not need to see it to know that it was there.
“Thought you’d be back for your horse before long. Strike a light, Jake!”
Orange light bloomed.
“Turn around, slowly.”
Joaquin turned to face three men. One held a lantern. The others held guns, a Winchester rifle and a pistol. The man with the pistol spoke. “How did you find this place, mister?”
“A young woman showed me the way.”
“That’s impossible, boss!” The lantern holder turned to his leader, the outlaw holding the pistol. “We took care of her and her brat at the cabin on Alder Creek, months ago!”
“Shut up, Jake.”
Ten dead miners, a dead woman, her dead child – Joaquin understood that he, too, was about to die. He would draw his pistol, but he knew he could not fire before at least one bullet found him. “What is here that is worth so many lives?”
“Gold. We’ve got more than a thousand ounces on a donkey back there. There’s at least a thousand more up in the mine. We’ll come back for it later.”
Joaquin dared to shrug. “I have a room in town. I will be missed.”
The man grinned, his yellow teeth shining. “Those fools in Manchester have other problems tonight.”
Joaquin said nothing.
The boss continued. “You saw the miners’ bodies. Everyone who knows how to find this mine is dead now, except for the three of us.” The man’s pistol made a loud click as its hammer cocked. “And you.”
Jake’s lantern suddenly flared, scorching his fingers. He screamed and dropped it. The young woman stepped out of its blossom of yellow flames and shattered glass.
“You!” The outlaw leader’s gun swung toward her. “You’re already dead!”
The woman leapt at him and pushed his pistol up just as he fired. The bullet tore through her hand and screamed over Joaquin’s head.
Joaquin’s Colt .44 was heavy and he was not a quick draw artist, but he had killed with this gun before. He drew his pistol, made sure his aim was true, and fired. The leader fell with a slug through his throat. The outlaw with the rifle was still trying to cock it when Joaquin’s second bullet tore through his right eye. Jake tried to run. Joaquin shot him in the back.
The young woman turned to him. Her dress, pale blue and translucent, brushed her ankles and a black scarf half-concealed her chestnut-colored hair. Her dark, luminous eyes locked with his.
“Your sorrow is mine.” Joaquin bowed his head. “Señora.”
When he looked up, she was gone.
A great fire blazed through Manchester, banishing the gentle stars, as Joaquin led Gallito down the mountain. Golden light, like some unnatural dawn, lit his path through the forest. He came to an old woman sitting on a log at the edge of the burning town. “Ma Krenkel?”
She looked up. “Glad to see you alive, Mr. Murrieta. The town is gone. Some rats set it afire on purpose.”
Ma gazed at swirling flames. “Them that done this will pay.”
“They have paid already.”
“You fixed them?”
Joaquin said nothing.
“You found the crying woman?”
“Mary – she helped me.”
“She will cry no more.”
Ma’s house collapsed in an explosion of sparks. A sudden wave of unbearable heat made her shield her face with her hands. When it abated, she stared at its embers. “Well, I’m tired of this place anyway. I’ll head toward Monterey in the morning.”
“I must return to San Francisco.” He studied flickering flames. “I have a sad duty to complete there.”
“The baby, too?”
Joaquin’s head bowed.
Ma sighed. “God rest their souls.”
After a moment, Ma glanced at him. “You live in San Francisco, Mr. Murrieta?”
“Sonora, in Old Mexico – I have grandchildren there.”
Ma grinned. “Well, that’s a blessing.”
“It is . . . ” He smiled. “Even if they sometimes require a pot or two of gold.”
He turned to her. “Ma, will you take charge of this donkey for me?”
Puzzled, Ma glanced at the mild eyed creature behind Joaquin’s horse. “Sure.”
Joaquin smiled. “You’ll find something in the saddlebags that may ease your new beginning in Monterey.”
Robert Walton is a retired middle school teacher and a rock climber with ascents in Yosemite and Pinnacles National Park. His published works include science fiction, fantasy and poetry. Walton’s novel "Dawn Drums" won the 2014 New Mexico Book Awards Tony Hillerman Prize for best fiction. His “Sockdologizer” won the Saturday Writers 2020 Everything Children contest.