by Robert Walton
Joaquin Murrieta walked to the hitching post in front of Ma Krenkel’s boarding house. He patted his horse’s neck and untied his saddlebags.
Ma Krenkel stepped onto the porch as he untied his bedroll. “You won’t need that. I keep a clean house.” 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 that may keep me for several days.”
“Mr. Murrieta? Are you the famous bandit?”
“My friend Black Maggie cooks at the Dutton Hotel in Jolón.”
“She’s my friend, too.”
“She told me stories.”
An owl hooted in the woods nearby. The horse twitched nervously. “Easy, Gallito.”
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’s dark eyes glittered in flickering lamplight. “Some stories it’s best not to repeat.”
“Sure. Your business is your business.”
Joaquin looked down. “Perhaps you may help me. I need to find Mary Vasquez. You know her?”
Ma took a small step back. “Why do you ask?”
“She stopped writing her father in San Francisco. He’s ill, so he asked me to find her.”
“She and her child were here, but she left months ago.” Ma shook her head. “More like disappeared.”
A woman’s sob sounded in the darkness nearby.
Joaquin turned. “Who is that? A guest?”
“Ain’t nobody. Leastways, nobody you can help.”
A lantern dipped between and behind black trees in the distance. The sobbing continued.
“A woman in distress! Excuse me, Mrs. Krenkel.”
Ma Krenkel touched Joaquin’s arm. “I tried following her. The light went out and she disappeared.” Ma Krenkel cleared her throat. “I got close enough to see her. She looks a lot like Mary.”
Ma Krenkel said nothing.
“Spirits don’t trouble me.” Joaquin led his horse into the dark trees.
* * *
The lantern dipped and swayed, always an unvarying distance before him. After a mile, the trees thinned and the slope steepened. Joaquin tied his horse’s reins to a sapling “Wait here, old friend.”
The woman stood fifty yards up a hill at the entrance of a cave, her lantern high and her pale face turned toward him.
Joaquin studied the rocky ground and sighed. “Even old goats must climb sometimes.”
The cave was the entrance to a mine. The woman was gone, but the lantern rested on the mine’s floor. Its glow revealed bodies, ten of them, in a twisted heap. A mummified child lay wrapped in a red blanket in an alcove on the left. The dead men were Chinese miners. The child was a toddler. He nodded to himself. “This is why she cries.”
The lantern’s glow faded. Joaquin stepped to the cave’s entrance. Stars spread above him like a woman’s shawl.
“Raise your hands!”
Joaquin froze. The power of the gun was in the voice. He did not need to see it to know that it was there.
“Strike a light, Jake!”
Orange light bloomed.
“Turn around, slowly.”
He turned and faced three men. One held a lantern. The others held guns: a Winchester and a pistol. The man with the pistol spoke. “How’d you find this place?”
“A young woman showed me the way.”
“That’s impossible!” The man holding the lantern looked at the man holding the pistol. “We took care of her at the cabin on Alder Creek, months ago!”
“Shut up, Jake.”
Joaquin understood he was about to die. He could not draw his pistol and fire before at least one bullet found him. He played for time. “What’s worth so many lives?”
“Gold. A thousand ounces on a donkey back there. We’ll come for the rest later, after the fire we set drives Manchester’s folks away. Everyone who knows about this mine is dead except the three of us.” The man’s pistol made a loud click as its hammer cocked. “And you.”
Jake’s lantern flared. He screamed and dropped it. The young woman stepped out of its blossom of yellow flames and shattered glass. She rushed the outlaw leader as he fired. His pistol jerked up and the bullet screamed over Joaquin’s head.
Joaquin’s drew his heavy Colt .44, not quickly, but he did not hesitate when his aim was true. The leader fell with a slug through his throat. The outlaw with the rifle was trying to cock it when a bullet tore through his right eye. Jake tried to run. Joaquin shot him in the back.
The young woman, now standing beside her child’s body, turned. She wore a long dress, dark blue, and a black scarf half-concealed her chestnut-colored hair. Her dark, luminous eyes locked with his.
Joaquin bowed his head. “Señora.”
When he looked up, she was gone.
* * *
Joaquin stepped from shadows, entered Manchester and approached a woman silhouetted by flames. “Ma Krenkel?”
“The town’s gone. Some rats set it afire.” Ma gazed at swirling, orange smoke. “Them that done this will pay.”
“They’ve paid already.”
Joaquin said nothing.
“You found the crying woman?”
“She’ll cry no more.”
Ma’s house collapsed in an explosion of sparks. She stared at its embers. “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.”
“God rest their souls.” Ma sighed. “You live in San Francisco, Mr. Murrieta?”
“I have grandchildren in Sonora.”
Ma grinned. “Well, that’s a blessing.”
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. “Yours?”
“A refugee from the fire. You’ll find something in the saddlebags to ease your new beginning in Monterey.”
Copyright © 2020 by Robert Walton