On the group’s third day in the Sonoran Desert, Danny found himself riding a mangy horse through a tangled stretch of crucifixion thorn, saguaro, and palo verde, wondering what the hell he had gotten himself into.
No trails ran through that that parched wilderness. The only markers that existed to guide them to Schulz’s gold were scattered pillars of rock that the murderous old miner supposedly left behind, but trying to find stacks of stone in that place was like trying to find a politician’s promise in a bag of farts, as Butch put it.
All Danny had wanted was enough money to get his mother and little sister Rose out of the southwest and into one of the big cities. Santa Fe didn’t hold a great deal of opportunities for an uneducated 17-year-old in 1856, and even joining a crew of outlaws to search for abandoned gold seemed like a better option that watching his family starve. Now, however, he was starting to worry he might not ever return to them at all.
Images of his sister with her curly black hair and hazel eyes, like a miniature version of their mother, flashed through his mind as he rode out of the thicket and into an arroyo, where an old woman squatted over a gutted rattlesnake coiled limply in a pile of its own entrails.
The crone’s head snapped up at his approach and her eyes narrowed. Wiry black hair stuck out from her head like clumps of dried creosote bush. A dusty, tattered skirt covered her legs, but the rest of her emaciated form was unclothed. She curled her lips back, baring her dead, black teeth, and hissed.
Desdemona reared back and neighed in terror, nearly throwing Danny. He dug his feet into the stirrups and gripped the reins and managed to stay saddled, which was no easy feat considering the fact he was just as unsettled as the horse.
Butch and Carl rode onto the scene, the grizzled brothers looking like opposite ends of a ballpeen hammer, Butch being stocky and round, Carl being flat-faced with the pockmarks checkering his face like a waffle iron.
The woman stood and appraised the new arrivals, holding the snake in one hand so that its innards dangled into the dirt and lay there like a question mark.
Butch sneered. “Your horse isn’t worth shit if it gets spooked by an old woman, kid.”
Danny patted Desdemona’s flank. “Horses never like coming up on snakes.”
“Kid, if your horse can’t tell the difference between a dead snake and a live one, then she still aint worth shit.”
The brothers laughed and spit streams of tobacco juice into the dirt.
Cisco came next, rifle at the ready, eyes placid as an alpine lake on a windless day. The possibility of danger and violence seemed to put him at ease.
Cisco eyed the woman. “This desert is crawling with all kinds of reptiles, isn’t it? Well, best quiet her now, in case she’s got friends around. Desert Indians are crazy.”
Danny watched Cisco’s hand move to his gun. “Wait,” he said, and then went quiet. He had no idea what to say next, only that he didn’t want to see anyone get killed. An idea struck him. “We should wait for Mr. Canfield.” It was a smart move. Not even Cisco wanted to risk angering that old man.
Cisco’s finger tapped the pistol handle. “Right,” he said, voice calm but eyes full of threat. “Best wait for Canfield.”
On cue, the old man rode up from the east. Wrinkles furrowed his skin and dark silver colored the hair jutting out from under his hat, but his green eyes glowed with an ageless, endless fire. He rode right past the other men and stopped a few feet from the woman. “You speak English?”
Canfield nodded. “Well, I guess you must be her, then.”
Danny looked to the other men to see if they knew who ‘her’ was. They didn’t show any recognition.
The woman picked up a dead branch and drew a line in the sand before her. She shook her head and pointed her finger violently at the party. Danny didn’t need to speak her language to know that she was saying back off.
“We better make sure she keeps quiet,” Cisco drawled, “or we’ll have Yaqui all over us.”
Canfield shook his head. “The pistoleros I talked to in Silver City said that the Yaqui think this woman’s a bona fide sorceress, and not a nice one. They won’t step foot in this part of the desert as long as she’s here.”
Danny sighed in relief. No one was going to get killed. Not today, anyway, he corrected himself.
They rode through the arroyo and around the woman.
After he’d reached the other side, Danny looked back to see her rooted in place, watching him. Without diverting her eyes, she scooped up the string of snake entrails in one hand, and took a bite.
Danny woke at dawn to the sound of Butch howling obscenities. He threw his blanket aside and ran to find him kicking around a busted canteen and gesturing at scattered pieces of ruined supplies and equipment.
“That goddamn desert Indian cut the horses loose,” he said.
After all the others gathered to appraise the situation, they agreed that each man would follow one set of hoof prints, until all the horses were found. Two hours later, all but Desdemona were back. With all their water gone, they couldn’t waste any more time looking for her.
Canfield climbed atop his saddle and looked west. He spoke casually. “Let’s clear something up right now. No one’s going home until we find that gold. I’ll kill any man who tries to leave before we get it. Schulz had a whole lot of gold on the backs of a whole lot of mules, and we’re going to need all the muscle we can muster to get it out of here.” Without waiting for a response, he rode into the desert.
Danny rode with Butch and the pair fell into the back of the file. After Canfield was safely out of hearing range, Butch muttered over his shoulder. “We’re going to wind up just like Schulz.”
Danny leaned close to Butch’s ear. “What happened to him?”
“You mean to tell me you come on this trip and you don’t even know?”
“I needed the money,” Danny said, thinking of his mother and Rose.
“Trips like this one are for guys that don’t have nothing in particular to live for.”
“I had no choice.”
Canfield led the column into a ravine.
Butch shook his head. “During the Rush,” he said, “Schulz went out to California with a group of guys to stake a claim. They got lucky and found a good one. I guess Schulz got greedy, because halfway through the summer he tried to steal all the gold they’d dug up.”
The ravine narrowed and earthen walls loomed on either side of them.
“Couple of the guys caught him, so Schulz puts a pick axe through their heads. After that he rides south to rest of the team, and he ended up here. That’s the last anyone’s heard of old Schulz.”
The walls at their sides narrowed so much that their legs grazed against them and knocked off flakes of dirt.
“Other people looked for Schulz. None of them ever came back.”
An image of the old woman biting into rattlesnake entrails popped into Danny’s mind. “What killed them?”
Butch shrugged. “The desert. Gold makes men stupid and desperate. Stupid and desperate isn’t the way to be in the desert.”
A pebble bounced off the top of Danny’s hat. He looked up to the top of the ravine. A dark cluster flew over the side and broke into several silhouetted shapes twisting down through the air. Danny squinted and realized what they were.
He threw himself off the back of horse as one of the rattlers landed on the saddle and was kept there by the tight ravine walls. Butch spun around and was bitten in the hand. He shouted and clasped his hand to him as another of the venomous projectiles fell onto his back and struck his face.
The ravine walls trapped Butch. He grabbed the snake from his shoulders to throw it, but it struck his face again. Danny couldn’t see past the rear horse, so he didn’t know what was happening up ahead as the ravine filled with the panicked cries of horses and men.
Canfield poked embers around the campfire with a stick.
Carl sat outside the ring of flame, looking vacantly into the desert, as he’d been doing since Butch died. Cisco lay nearby shivering under a blanket, holding his grotesquely swollen arm to his chest and breathing raggedly.
“We’re going to kill that Indian,” Canfield said, sending a shower of sparks into the air.
Danny stared into the flames, trying to hide the anger in his eyes. They were the invaders, not the old woman. If they’d just done the right, sensible thing and turned back when she drew that line in the sand, then none of the deaths would have happened.
Canfield and Carl crawled under their blankets. Cisco lay unconscious, shivering as his breath came in little gasps.
Danny lay down and pretended to sleep, but knowing that he would escape that night. His mother and sister needed him poor more than they needed him dead. He’d been a fool to hire on with Canfield in the first.
As he waited for the others to fall asleep, exhaustion crept up on him. Before he realized what was happening, he slipped off to sleep. And he stayed that way, until the screaming.
By the time Danny and Carl finished extinguishing Cisco’s body, the man was already long dead. From the looks of the area where he’d been lying, brush had been packed under his body like kindling and set alight.
Canfield grabbed his rifle and his lantern. He probed the area outside camp until lighting upon the prints of bare feet.
“We don’t know for sure what happened,” Danny said. “He was out of his head with the snake poison. He could have rolled right into the fire.”
Canfield stopped and looked back over his shoulder. The lantern light case half of his face in light and the other in twisted shadow. “You say one more word, boy, and I swear to God above that I will shoot you first.”
Danny hesitated, walked back to grab his rifle, and followed Canfield and Carl into the desert night. He tried to gather his thoughts, to formulate a plan, but all that was jarred from his thoughts when Canfield’s lantern light fell upon the old woman standing beneath a bitter condalia and watching them through the leaves.
Carl walked up to stand abreast of Canfield.
“I know you can’t understand a word I say,” Canfield said, “but I want you to know that you’re a damn fool for dying this way. Nothing you could do was ever going to keep from that gold.” He raised his rifle and peered through the sites at her. “Nothing.”
The woman remained perfectly still as the two men started shooting. The force of the blasts threw her backwards into the darkness. Canfield marched forward, lantern in one hand, firing more shots with the other.
When it was over, dust and silence filled the desert.
Everything in Danny told him not to look, yet he looked, and saw the moment that Canfield’s light fell upon the dead whites of the woman’s open, sightless eyes as she stared up at the sky through a mask of red.
Danny’s stomach heaved and he turned to vomit into a cactus patch.
Canfield walked past, back to the camp. “If we hadn’t lost two already,” he said, “I’d shoot you dead and lay you next to your girlfriend over there.”
By the time they got back to their camp, the sun was coming up over the horizon. They gathered their things, mounted their horses, and left.
Not long after, Carl whooped excitedly and pointed out one of the rock markers. After that they found another, and another, until finally they were dismounting their horses and scrambling up to the mouth of a cave.
Canfield lit his lantern and went inside. Carl followed, and then Danny.
The deaths and the murder sickened and haunted Danny, but now in the cool darkness inside the cave, the proximity of gold made his face hot with anticipation. A new dress for ma. Ceramic dolls for Rose. The blood had been shed already. He might as well get something for all he’d seen.
The tunnel widened enough that they walked side by side, and were moving that way when they turned a corner and the lantern illuminated the old woman standing at the end of the shaft. Tattered sacks of raw gold lay against the wall, a human skull atop the highest one like a grim cherry over ice cream.
Canfield barked in terror and stumbled backwards. The lantern fell from his hand and shattered. Flames rolled out over the fuel spilled over the ground. Only for a moment, and then the tunnel was cast in darkness.
Wheezing laughter filled the cave. Danny turned to flee. He made it a few steps, with Canfield and Carl shrieking behind him, before running straight into the wall of the cave. The impact knocked him to the ground where he groaned once before slipping into unconsciousness.
Danny woke. He stared into the dark, wondering how he’d gotten there. The memory of the snake eater leapt into his mind and he scrambled to stand. His foot caught on something heavy and he nearly tripped. Crouching, he felt the tattered sacks full of gold.
He weighted the chunks of raw gold in his hands, confused at the metals’ proximity. As he did, a ragged breathing became audible from a few feet away.
He turned to flee before the crone spoke.
“Take it,” she said.
He looked back into the darkness suspiciously. It had to be a trick. He’d pick the gold up and be immediately torn to pieces. “Why?”
“Because I’m tired of killing the fools who come looking for it. Take it and let everyone know you’ve taken it and that there’s no reason anymore to come to my desert.”
Danny’s voice wavered tentatively. “That’s all you want?”
He thought of fleeing again before the gold flooded his mind and he turned to lift a frayed sack into his arms, tight against his chest the way he held his sister when she was a baby.
Getting the gold across the desert alone wouldn’t be easy, but he’d find a way. His family was depended on him, and that sort of thing gave a person strength.
His mother had always told him to never look a gift horse in the mouth, but he couldn’t stop himself from asking the old woman a question.
“Why didn’t you kill me like you did the others?”
“You’re not like they were,” she said. “You never harmed me.”
Danny nodded. “Well, how come you don’t take the gold for yourself? A person can do anything in the world with this much gold.”
Raspy laughter echoed through the tunnel.
“My desert has more snakes than I can ever eat. What else do I need?”
Copyright 2018 by Jeff Suwak