Cuento de Mi Id
From a distance, the mission thrust up against the sky as if it was part of the natural landscape. There were hundreds of ruins like this in the American Southwest, Taylor realized, scattered throughout the land like broken teeth. An empire had died here -- a far-flung empire which had conquered the great cities of the Aztecs and the wily Moors but had proved powerless against the onslaught of red-skinned barbarians.
The barbarians always win in the end, thought Taylor. They had defeated the Spanish dandies at Goliad and Veracruz and now were in the process of taking over the Great Plains from other barbarians. It was not civilization which counted in the end; it was strength. As soon as a nation forgot that, it was doomed, but Taylor’s nation was still young and prided itself on its barbarism. It had been built up not by silver-haired dandies in Boston and Richmond but by frontiersmen like himself, who were socially just a step above the Indians as far as their so-called “betters” were concerned.
Taylor took pride in that fact, and also in the fact that for seven weeks, he had avoided a posse of Tucson’s finest. If they ever caught him, it was back to Tucson for an appointment with a rope, but in the meantime, he had led them a merry chase through territory no white man in his right mind would dare to enter. Now he was exhausted, and his canteen was nearly empty. The mission looked deserted but a nearby aqueduct promised water and there was sure to be a well.
Taylor staggered forward, too tired to run although part of him yearned for shelter from the blazing desert sun. The mission would be a good place to rest before he went over the mountains. A good place to hide, too, in case any of his pursuers showed up over the horizon.
With those thoughts in mind, he staggered inside the open gate, taking note of his surroundings until he reached the well in the main plaza. The well was sealed by a metal lid chained down and engraved with words which Taylor recognized as part of the Spanish language. From what he read, the well appeared to be cursed, perhaps poisoned by rebellious Indians.
No matter. There was still the aqueduct. But first, rest. The chapel was deserted; a broken communion chalice lay broken on the ground before the altar. On the back wall, a gold cross covered with light brown stains dimly reflected the desert sun. This should have rang a warning bell in Taylor’s normally suspicious mind, but he was too tired to think about it.
He sat down in a heap behind the back pew. Exhausted from days of travel, he soon fell asleep. In his mind, he seemed to hear the posse behind him. A rampaging mob out to lynch him from the highest tree. He awoke once or twice and looked out upon the horizon but no one was there.
At last his stomach awoke and he nibbled on his last piece of jerky. Not much else to eat out here and he wasn’t sure where he was going to find another supply. Perhaps in the mountains, he could find something. In that case, he’d better conserve his bullets.
He went looking for water and found the aqueduct totally inadequate for his purpose. With the departure of the Spaniards, the structure had gone downhill, its water now blocked by masses of fallen stone. Perhaps the original source had dried up and the Indians had simply lacked the knowledge to find another one, much less build another aqueduct. Whatever the reason, its channels were now as dry as dust, evoking a strangely powerful thirst in Taylor’s parched throat.
But there was still the well. The chains clung tightly and Taylor was forced to search for a tool to pry them loose. In one of the outbuildings, he found some digging tools, put there, no doubt, for use on the once fertile fields. He found a pickaxe and hauled that over to the well. A few strikes with it upon the massive padlock and the hasp broke. The chains came off. The well was open.
Taylor had just pulled off the massive lid when he realized that there was no rope or bucket. The brackish water appeared to be about a half-mile down and there was no way to haul it up. With a curse, Taylor stalked off to search through the outbuildings again. He finally came up with a rusty metal bucket and a length of old rope. He attached one end of the rope to the bucket, and let it down into the well very slowly. But the rope wasn’t quite long enough. So he had to search for another length of rope.
A scurrying noise sounded behind him, but when he looked, no one was there. Perhaps it had been a rat. Perhaps not. He drew out his revolver and searched the grounds, but he couldn’t find a trace of any living creature besides himself. Yet the peculiar feeling of having missed something persisted.
Where else could he have looked? The well? He found his piece of rope and went back to the well. Knotting the two lengths together, he formed a strand long enough to reach down into the well water. He let the bucket down easily and hauled it up half-full. The water tasted brackish, but it was still water. It had an odd, fishy taste to it, but it beat dying of thirst.
Night would soon be upon him now. No time to make it to the mountains. Shame. He would have to sleep here at the mission.
He walked back to the church, slightly surprised that the water that had looked so brackish wasn’t affecting his stomach in any manner. A man’s body will accept anything if he’s thirsty enough, he thought, and with that, he entered the church.
He heard another scurrying noise behind him. He turned and saw nothing.
Then he turned back toward the altar and saw something step toward him out of the darkness. He suddenly dived behind the back pew, drew out his revolver, and without looking, fired four shots in the direction of the altar. Then he looked up.
A woman in a nun’s habit and a black veil was standing there, smiling.
“Ten cuidado,” she said with a Castilian lilt to her voice. “You could have hurt someone with that thing.”
Taylor just looked at her. “How come you ain’t dead?”
“You weren’t exactly aiming too carefully now, were you?” She said with a smile. “Perhaps you missed.”
Her teeth seemed awfully white for a woman who had been alone in this mission for so long. Or did she come from the mission? Could she have traveled across the desert like himself? And if so, where had she been all this time? Taylor would have seen anyone coming from miles around. And he was sure he had searched every hiding place before. Everywhere that is except the well. But surely…
“You really should be careful with that thing,” she said, indicating his gun. “You could have hurt someone.”
“Who are you?” said Taylor. “And how did you get here?”
“My,” she said. “How impolite.”
He cocked his gun and aimed it in her direction. “Well?”
“You really shouldn’t be so rude,” she said. “After all, it was not I who trespassed upon your domain, but you who trespassed upon mine.”
“Never mind that,” Taylor said. “Just answer my question or in five minutes, your gray matter is going to be spread out all over them church tiles.”
“You don’t really want to do that,” said the woman. “The posse you’re worried about could be coming within earshot of this place any time now and all it would take to bring them here in a hurry would be one more gunshot.”
“How did you know about the posse?”
“How can I not know about the posse? Dios knows you’ve been thinking about it often enough. Besides, shouldn‘t you be saving your bullets for hunting?”
The woman’s skull exploded and she went down. Whatever she had been, she was certainly susceptible to cold lead as much as the next person.
Then he turned. And saw a man in a priest’s outfit blocking his way. He too seemed Spanish. And his clothes, hair and skin were all wet. Almost as if he had been hiding in the w--
He hastily aimed his revolver but the pseudo-priest just knocked it out of his hand as easily as it had been candy.
“You shouldn’t have done that to my wife, señor. It was not very polite.”
Taylor reached for the Bowie knife in his boot, only to find the stranger clutching his two hands and dragging him out into the sunlight.
Behind him, from the direction of the altar, he heard a gurgling noise. Almost as if something was trying to revive itself from a severe injury.
But no. That couldn’t be.
As the man dragged Taylor out into the sunlight, he noticed to his horror that he was being dragged toward the well.
“My wife was hiding in the hills when the Spaniards came and trapped me,” said the man. “Had she been stronger, she would have set me free herself. But she wasn’t strong enough…and of course, there was that whole holy water thing. But she got her vengeance upon the Spaniards eventually. And now that you have freed me, I am quite sure that she would have paid you back for that favor -- had you not been so impolite.”
Taylor tried to say something. “Creatures like you... you can’t exist.”
“But we do exist,” said the man. “And for the record, we’ve lived in this area far, far longer than you.” He smiled. “Or the Spaniards.”
He came to the wall and grabbed a length of rope. With one hand he held Taylor down while with the other he tied his hands and feet.
“You can’t be meaning to do what I think you’re meaning to do,” said Taylor. “It wouldn’t be civilized.”
“You did say much earlier that the barbarians always win,” said the man. “Just think of this as yet another inevitable victory.”
He tied the other length of rope to Taylor’s feet and started lowering him into the well. From the direction of the church, Taylor thought he heard something heavy bump against something. Almost as if it was stumbling against a door or something.
“Please,” said Taylor. “You can’t do this.”
The man stopped and looked at him. “And how many of your victims did you spare when they cried for mercy?”
“Well, that was different,” said Taylor. “I couldn’t have let them live. They would have fingered me at the next trial and then they would have hung me.”
The pseudo-priest smiled. “And yet you ended up fleeing to escape a death sentence anyway. You humans and your ludicrous morality.”
He dropped the rope and Taylor fell the rest of the way into the well. He should have drowned... but he didn’t. The water was just deep enough to break his fall and shallow enough for him to stand up and keep his mouth out of the water. Now if he could only find a way to cut the rope and then climb up.
The pseudo-priest looked down at him again and smiled. “Lucky for you that my wife and I aren’t hungry yet. But I suspect that we both will be... later on.”
He put the lid back on the well and left Taylor in darkness.
Too late Taylor reached his Bowie knife but the way his limbs were tied, he couldn’t quite reach it. If he could get out of here in time, he’d make them two sorry they had ever treated him like this.
Perhaps if he could reach a jagged rock or broken brick.
Then he heard the sound of metal moving. Someone was removing the well lid.
The posse, perhaps? Or some kindly passerby?
Instead, he just saw the man again and the thing he called his spouse. In one hand he was holding Taylor’s revolver.
The man grinned. “My dear wife just reminded me that you had left this behind up here and that it would not be very polite of us to keep it. Indeed, one might say that it would not be civilized. And you so much wanted me to be civilized when we had spoken before.”
Taylor shrugged. Perhaps his luck was changing.
If the two were dumb enough to give him back his gun while the two were still within shooting range...
The gun fired. Just one time.
Afterwards, the pseudo-priest tossed the now-empty gun into the well and replaced the lid.
But Taylor didn’t even try to grab for it.
He wasn’t ever likely to grab for anything ever again. And he did not even feel it when his body fell over and the brackish water started entering his mouth.
Labels: Arizona, Cuentos de Mi Id II, Cuentos de Miedo