The Locket

 

By: Ariel O’Neil

July 20, 2004

 

 

 

 

DISCLAIMER:

The characters mentioned in this Fanfic story remain the sole property of their creators, the various television networks who originally aired the shows, and/or the production companies and others so affiliated with the original copyright of the property.  This Fanfic is not intended as an infringement upon these rights and is solely meant for entertainment.

RATING: PG 13

For tense, violent scenes and mature themes (death, and some references to sex).

 

 

Abstract:  The Locket

Mano’s elusive demons have been working overtime. He is unhappy and irritable — and can’t explain why. He only knows that nothing feels good anymore. His carousing is becoming increasingly self-destructive — and every thing, including Buck’s horse, annoys him.

Mano has equated the emptiness that permeates his existence to a certain ‘worthlessness’ of his life    until  he spends some time with the owner of a locket he found down the side of a steep ravine.

 

 


Chapter One

 

 

Manolito Montoya shivered under his heavy wool serape.

It was unusually cold — even for a January morning in the Sonora Desert. The thin sunlight did little to warm man or beast as he rode steadily upwards and into the mountains — leaving the expansive, and warmer, desert floor far below.

A moody Manolito was grudgingly grateful for the lack of snow at this elevation. The cutting, icy wind blew down from the white shoulders of the mountains, whispering and moaning as it whipped and stabbed at him and his friend, Buck Cannon.

Manolito’s complaints were lost in the swirling winds.

“Ay yi yi! The frozen wind blowing right through my serape and I am miserable! My head! I just want to be warm and sleep forever.” He tugged the wool scarf up around his ears.

Lately, it seemed to take more of everything for him to feel anything — and Manolito’s latest round of desperate carousing was taking its revenge.

Two bottles of tequila — how much he spilled and how much he drank was uncertain — a knife fight and two fistfights left their marks. When he thought about it, he wasn’t sure who or what angered him, but it was clear to him that he was venting his anger on himself.

He was just so tired of it all; tired of being vaguely unhappy, tired of feeling unsatisfied — tired of the numbness that had become his life. No matter how hard he worked, drank, loved or fought nothing seemed to fill the emptiness.

He frowned as Buck’s horse, Rebel, jigged and pranced alongside him on the road. The horse shook his head, noisily chewing his bit in the crisp, bright morning air. Manolito knew Rebel would only behave for a limited time in ‘frisky’ weather like this.

He jerked the reins, reprimanding his horse, Mackadoo, for mimicking Rebel’s bad behavior. Irritated with Buck’s half-hearted efforts to control Rebel, Manolito snorted in disgust.

Rebel’s prancing trot became an animated lope that went more up and down than forward. The horse snorted sharp bursts of white breath and tossed his head with each bounding stride. 

Manolito tried to watch calmly as Rebel grew rowdier.

 “Hey now!” yelped Buck as Rebel added a small “crow-hop” to his buffoonery.

“You is jus’ plumb fulla your self, ain’tcha?” laughed Buck as the frolicking horse lengthened out into a full gallop with no apparent resistance from his rider.

Manolito scowled and held Mackadoo back. He would catch up with Buck later. His head still pounded from his hangover, and Manolito preferred Mackadoo’s fluid, rhythmic, jog trot to a bounding gallop.

He often bragged that Mackadoo’s collected stride was so smooth that a glass of water placed on his rump would not spill so much as a single drop. The big sorrel’s hooves barely cleared the ground as he moved forward. Mackadoo’s haunches functioned like steel springs, cushioning the hung-over Manolito from what would, on any other horse, have been a miserable ride.

He closed his eyes and listened to the sound of Mackadoo’s two-beat gait. Click-click, click-click; it reminded him of a metronome. The monotonous hoofbeats and the motion of Mackadoo’s gently swaying stride lulled him to semi-consciousness; his head drooped forward, nodding gently with the motion of the horse, his chin nearly touching his chest.

A bright flash of light startled Manolito. Suddenly alert and sitting bolt upright, he assessed the terrain around him. Sensing danger, he drew rein, stopping in order to locate the source of the light.

Was it the sun reflecting off a rifle-barrel? No, it was too bright for that. Or perhaps an Apache signal-mirror? His eyes scanned left, up the rocky cliffs above him, then to the right of the road and down the ravine, but he saw nothing to explain the flash.

Manolito softened his hold on the reins and moved Mackadoo forward at a slow walk.

Again, the light flashed, but this time he marked its origin. The hair on the back of his neck prickled as a cold shiver ran down his spine. Dismounting, pistol in hand, he walked to the right side of the road and looked down the slope, searching the landscape intently.

He peered over the edge of the road. Below him, a scree and loose rock slope plunged some thirty feet at a dizzying 20-degree angle. At the bottom of the slide was a rock ledge about two feet wide. The ledge paralleled the road for a half-mile or so. He could see it was actually the top of a red-rock cliff, dropping straight down another 8 to 10 feet before reaching the floor of the ravine. Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, he considered his next move.

Holstering his gun, he stepped off the road and picked his way gingerly among the broken rocks. Five feet down. Eight feet down. Now ten feet below the surface of the road, Manolito was working his way diagonally across the treacherous surface when he found it.

Carefully, he dug the object out from between two large rocks. It was heavy and egg-shaped, encrusted with dirt and gravel. The sense of having found something extremely precious filled him with excitement as he secured it in his jacket pocket. For the first time in months his broad grin was genuine, an expression of true pleasure emanating from the joy bubbling deep within him.

Climbing back toward Mackadoo, Manolito was almost to the top of the slope when the rock under his left foot gave way. Panic knotted his stomach. Down he plunged, uncontrolled, sliding wildly toward the narrow ledge above the red rock cliff.

Desperate to slow his rate of descent, he spread his arms and legs wide and dug in with fingers and feet. Terror lent him the strength to stop his downward slide just above the narrow rock ledge. Not daring to move, he rested his head against the rocky slope to catch his breath.

Slowly, testing every hand and foothold before trusting it, he began working his way back up the slope. A quarter of an hour later, he pulled himself onto the surface of the road. Breathing heavily from the effort, he looked at the slope below and shuddered, shook his head and grinned at his narrow escape.

Manolito swung up on Mackadoo. Digging in his jacket pocket, he pulled out his newfound treasure. His heart soared at the touch of it in his hand, his eyes refused to be diverted from it. Without picking up his reins, Manolito clucked to the ever-dependable Mackadoo, trusting him to navigate the road as he jogged along.

Manolito concentrated on opening the beautiful but mysterious object. He rubbed away the encrusted dirt and examined the silver locket and chain. Both were of fine silver and together they nearly covered his palm. Exquisite filigreed spirals framed the perfectly oval locket.

The chain was made of a series of interlocking links, each in the shape of a flat spiral. It reminded him of something, but he couldn’t quite remember what.

Turning the locket over in his hand, he nearly dropped it when it suddenly popped open. Recovering from the surprise, he looked inside, where he found an elegant engraving of a brief and plaintive poem:

Together

We will always be

Forever —

Come to me . . .

 

He puzzled over the locket, searching again for some indication of the owner’s identity. This obviously belonged to a woman of quality, but what would a woman like that be doing out here? How did it come to be nearly buried at the side of the road? And, now that he thought about it, how could something buried down the side of that embankment have flashed such a bright light in his eyes? He was perplexed; he had many questions and no answers.

There were no other markings on the locket. Manolito frowned. He disliked mysteries. The ‘unknown’ had a tendency to put one at a disadvantage in difficult situations. He put the locket back in his jacket pocket and picked up his reins.

“MANO! LOOK OUT!” The alarm in Buck’s voice rang through the canyon.

Startled, Manolito looked up to see Buck galloping straight towards him, rifle raised and aimed in his direction. Little puffs of smoke issued from the barrel in rapid succession.

Then he heard the tawny giant of a cat scream from the rocky ledge directly above him.

He was nearly unseated as the panicked Mackadoo squealed and lurched forward. The cacophony of echoing explosions from Buck’s rifle terrified the horse even more.

Frantically, he hauled back on the reins with all his strength to keep the spooked horse from jumping down the embankment.

The dead cougar flopped onto the road and rolled under Mackadoo’s feet. The hysterical horse reared, screaming, and threw himself backwards in terror.

As Mackadoo went over backwards, Manolito pushed away from the falling horse to keep from being crushed. He arced through the air, landing hard on his right side at the edge of the road.

The momentum of the fall carried him over the rocky edge and sent him careening down the scree slope. This time, he was stunned and the wind had been knocked out of him; he was unable to slow his violent slide toward the bottom of the ravine.


Chapter Two

 

 

Unable to avert his eyes as Mano rolled and slid down the slope, Buck watched him crash into the rocky ledge, flip over, and vanish from sight. All was silent for a moment, and then he heard the small ‘thwap’ made by Mano’s body as it hit the bottom of the ravine.

Blinking in shock and disbelief, Buck realized he must somehow get himself and both horses down to the bottom of the gully, ‘cuz he was pretty sure his friend wasn’t gonna be climbing out on his own. Buck took hold of Mackadoo’s reins and began searching for a way down to the spot where Mano lay.

Just a hundred feet down the road, Buck found a well-used deer trail that would take him safely to the narrow valley floor.

Mano wasn’t difficult to find. He lay face down on the sandy bank of the little stream that flowed through the arroyo.

Buck jumped from his horse and ran to his friend. Feeling for broken bones, he ran his hands gently over Mano’s arms and legs. Finding none, Buck breathed a sigh of relief. Mano moaned softly as his eyelids fluttered.

“Mano, amigo — can you hear me? Mano, it’s me, Buck.”

Mano slowly opened his eyes, blinked and tried unsuccessfully to smile.

“Aw, Mano! Amigo! It sure is good to see them purty brown eyes open again!” Buck feigned a cheerful attitude as he rocked back on his heels to assess their situation.

Mano struggled to sit up, but swayed and slumped back to the ground with a pained grunt.

Buck frowned.

Mano weakly raised one hand in protest, and gasped “No, Buck… I am fine…. I just… need… to catch my breath…a little.”

Buck looked up and down the ravine, then once more at his injured friend and made a decision. “Mano, I shore am hungry. How’s about we make a campfire and cook us up sompin ta eat?” Not giving Mano time to answer, Buck set off in search of a good campsite.
Chapter Three

 

 

Manolo watched Buck disappear around the bend. Finding himself alone for the moment, he began gingerly checking for injuries. He found that he could move his arms and legs — no apparent broken bones.

Que bueno, it is difficult to ride with broken bones, no?” He chuckled weakly at his own joke and continued with his exploration.

All seemed well, except that his head hurt — much more than it did when he left town this morning — and his stomach was doing summersaults.

Bueno, perhaps I should take a little siesta until Buck returns, eh?” he mumbled as the darkness flooded in around him.


Chapter  Four

 

 

“Mano. Mano! Open your eyes, amigo!” Buck dabbed the injured man’s face with the wet neckerchief and tried again.

“Mano. Come on now — look at me!”

Buck studied Mano’s face as he mopped at the dirt and cuts. The pallor of his friend’s skin worried him, as did the shallow breaths he took and the tiny beads of sweat forming on Mano’s upper lip and forehead.

Mano stirred, his eyes opening part way as he whispered, “Oh, Buck… I was jus taking a little siesta. I am fine now.”

“Hey, compadre.” Buck tried to sound cheerful and encouraging but his southern drawl always got thicker when he was nervous.. “Let’s jus see if you kin walk over to the camp   it’s jus ‘round that bend, yonder. Ah’l help you. OK?”

He tried to hide his concern when his friend couldn’t stand without help. Saying nothing, he put his arm around Mano’s shoulders and helped him into camp. Mano made no fuss when Buck guided him over to the blankets already laid out next to the fire.

Leaving Mano to rest up, Buck walked along the bank of the stream, looking for additional firewood. He returned a while later with an armful and selected a few large pieces to put directly on the fire.

Looking around, Buck was satisfied the campsite he chose was a good one. Nestled in a large hollow in the rocky cliffs, they were sheltered from the worst of the wind and not visible from the road. The ground, a beach made of packed sand and gravel, was smooth and level — much more comfortable to sleep on than the sharp gravel in the open desert. Maybe by morning Mano would be well enough to ride. Buck sighed and walked back to his friend.

He didn’t like the puffiness around the dozens of small cuts on Mano’s face and neck. Some of them were still bleeding lightly and some had pieces of gravel and sand packed in them. He was grateful he had packed a little tin of honey alongside the biscuits Victoria made for their trip.

While the coffee and beans heated on the fire, Buck cleaned each of Mano’s cuts with soap and water before dabbing honey in the wounds to prevent further infection.

“Buck, stop. This is Apache torture. I will be covered in red ants before morning — they will eat me alive.” whined Mano as he tried unsuccessfully to escape from Buck’s efforts to treat the wounds.

For the moment, Buck ignored the complaints as he surveyed his work. He noticed a slight swelling above the left temple. It was beginning to discolor slightly. He swallowed hard and tried not to frown as he realized his friend’s pupils were different sizes — very different sizes.

“Now Mano, ever’body knows them ants don’t come out when it gits cold.” Buck put some food on a plate, holding it out to Mano.

“Here, now. Stop your bellyachin’ and try to eat some of these beans.”

Mano made a face that clearly said the last thing wanted was food, but he struggled to sit up anyway. He took the plate of beans from Buck and picked up the spoon. Mano’s already pale face took on a greenish tinge as he pushed the beans around on the plate.

Across the fire from his friend, Buck sat down to eat.

He witnessed Mano’s struggle to hold the spoon with his right hand — his fingers would not stay closed and his arm flopped like a marionette’s. Finally, in an apparent fit of anger, Mano dropped the plate and spoon on his lap.

Buck ate slowly as he silently watched his friend grapple with the plate of food.

Suddenly, Mano looked up. “What? I am only trying to cash a fish gogoro…” Mano put his head in his hands and continued muttering incoherently.

A dumbfounded Buck blinked in confusion. Then he swallowed the mouthful of beans he had been chewing; his attention now riveted to his injured friend.

Yush guju fuu ahhhw cowffeenstead,” slurred the incoherent Mano without lifting his head.

Buck put his plate down and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth — the alarm growing in his eyes.

Mano lifted his head for a moment. His eyelids fluttered and he slumped to one side on his blanket, the plate sliding off his lap to the ground.

Buck closed his eyes in anguish and hung his head as he ran a hand through his short, curly blonde hair. He took a ragged breath and sat up, looking into the crackling fire as he tried to puzzle out the best course of action.

Muttering and shaking his head, Buck talked to himself, “Mano is hurt — bad hurt. If I try to put him on his horse, he’ll probably jus’ fall off again. Most likely, the next bump on his head could oughta kill him . . .fo sure.”

Buck was distracted by a low moan. Dismayed, he saw Mano, now on his knees, hands outstretched, staring into the twilight beyond the camp. His words were garbled except for one: Angela. He pronounced it with the Spanish pronunciation: ANG-hey-la.

Buck frowned and licked his lips in indecision. He was frightened and confused, but his instincts told him to humor the injured man.

“Hey Mano — who you talkin to?” he called to his friend.

Mano pointed into the growing darkness and looked at Buck as if to say “SEE?” Then he tried to tell him, but the words were slurred almost beyond understanding. “Sjee Bug? Dher, Sjee er?”

Buck responded gently, “See her?  — See WHO? I — I don’t see nobody out there, amigo.”

But Mano was looking into the deepening dusk, and trying to smile as he called out to his phantom, “I — I have locket — Iz jurz?”

Buck looked for any sign someone was out there in the blue-gray shadows, but there was nothing. The knot of fear tightened in his stomach. Buck stood up.

“Hey, amigo. I musta turned around too slow — I didn’t get to see your friend. Whad she look like?”

Mano whispered “Oh Buck. Bueiful, bueiful. All drez n whyd. Que linda… so… bueifuluna Angela . . .” as he slipped into oblivion.

Buck maneuvered the limp body of his friend back onto the blanket and covered him against the growing cold. It was now very clear that Mano could not sit a horse. Buck’s stomach cramped as he realized that his friend might not make it back to the ranch at all.

He hiked back up to the road where he could see for miles in all directions, searching for trees to construct a travois. There were none. Despair threatened to overwhelm him. He was afraid to put Mano over the saddle, deadman style. Hanging upside down over the saddle would only make a head injury worse. No, he would need a wagon or buckboard — that was the only chance Mano had to get home alive.

To make matters worse, as Buck returned from the road he noticed the temperature was dropping rapidly — and the daylight was completely gone. Could Mano even survive the night? Tears pricked his eyes and he looked up to the sky for guidance. The first stars of the evening twinkled merrily overhead, and Buck cursed them for their insensitivity.

An hour later, Buck looked around the campsite one last time. He had banked the fire and added his blankets over Mano’s for a little extra warmth. He explained he was going for help, but he was not sure that Mano understood anything that was said to him. Buck knew it was dangerous to leave Mano here alone, but he had no choice.

“Well,” Buck muttered under his breath, “it’s only around 7 o’clock now, and if I ride hard, and push the team on the way back, I should only be gone five hours, at the most.”

“I shore hope Mano kin hold on that long.” Buck recoiled at the thought and pushed it away. Of course Mano would be alive when he got back. Buck refused to consider any other outcome.

Buck swung up on Rebel and turned toward the deer trail. As he reached the stream, he stopped the horse and looked back at the camp.

Mackadoo whinnied.

Buck frowned.

His gut told him to take Mackadoo with him — it would be one less way that the campsite could be discovered before he got back with help.

Buck untied the sorrel from the picket line and led him alongside as he turned Rebel towards the trail again. As he reached the trailhead, he looked back one last time to make sure that the camp was not discernable from the road. Satisfied, Buck spurred his horse towards the ranch.


Chapter  Five

 

Manolo awoke to a moonless and very starry sky. He was pleased; his nap seemed to have cured his headache and upset stomach. He stood, wrapping a blanket around his shoulders, and stirred the fire. Once it was crackling again, he put a pot of coffee on to brew. The smell made him hungry and he happily rummaged in the saddlebags for jerky and some of Victoria’s biscuits.

Manolo returned to the fire and warmed his hands as he munched on the cold biscuit.

Behind him, a woman laughed. He spun around to look.

What he saw was himself, reflected in a large, cracked mirror. It hung on the wall behind the bar in a small and very dirty cantina. He shifted his gaze to the reflection of the woman sitting near him. She was relaxed, almost lounging, in a large, fan-backed leather chair.

He smiled his most engaging smile as he admired her radiant presence. She was dressed in lace so white it glowed. Her hat was a wide loop of rigid net held in place with a gauzy veil that both framed and partially obscured her perfect oval face. Hair the color of raw honey cascaded in thick, luxurious waves down and over her shoulders. Her arms and legs were long and sinuous, her bones fine and delicate. Her skin was creamy and flawless, like fine porcelain. But it was her eyes and mouth that held Manolo captive.

Her sensuous, gold-flecked brown eyes were deep pools of calm, in whose depths a hint of merriment swirled. He felt he could fall into her eyes and happily drown in the joy they promised.

Her lips were soft and pink, delicately curled upwards at the edges in a haunting smile that sometimes flashed, full blown, to stab at his heart — a spell binding smile that emphasized her femininity and fragile beauty — one that made him forget everything but his desire to possess those lips. 

To himself, he said, “Andale, Manolo!”

To the woman, he said, “I will pour you a cup of coffee, yes? It is fresh, I just made it — and I make very good coffee.”

“No, thank you, I don’t drink coffee.” The woman smiled, and laughed quietly as she shook her head. Her laughter sounded like water bubbling over stones.

He poured himself a cup and returned to his seat at the bar. He felt drawn to this woman. No — he was compelled to be near this woman. He smiled into his cup as he took a sip and asked, “What do they call you?”

“Many things.”

“No, I meant, what is your name?”

The woman sat silent and motionless until Manolo looked up.

She held his gaze to hers as she replied, “Is it important?”

“No. No, I suppose not.” He made the effort to look away. “It is just that, well, out here it is usually men who do not wish to share their identities.”

“Hmmm. Why is that?”

Manolo regarded her for a long moment. Her scrutiny paralyzed him as he searched for an answer. The one that escaped his constricted throat surprised him.

“Fear.”

He did not consciously choose that word, but he knew it was a profound truth unshackled from somewhere deep inside.

The woman’s eyebrows went up. “Fear? Of what?” Fixing her languorous eyes on his, she waited for an answer. Her good humor taunted him with a small, impish grin that tugged at one corner of her sensuous mouth.

“Fear.” Manolo half sighed, half laughed as he felt the pressure of words bubbling up in his throat. The words reached his mouth and poured out in a torrent of pain — he was helpless to stop them.

“Fear that you will be found out! Fear that everyone will see that the Great Manolo Montoya is only . . . ordinary.” He looked away, struggling to control his voice.

His eyes dropped to the coffee cup in his hand, his voice was barely a whisper. “Not special.”

The cup in Manolo’s hand had become a bottle of tequila, and he took a long drink from it. He shifted his defiant gaze to her as he declared in an angry, biting, voice, “You know, to be a Montoya, ‘Ordinary’ — it isn’t allowed. It isn’t enough.”

“Hmmm. So, that old routine, Dazzle and Bewitch, covers up a lot?”

“Yes.”

Manolo was silent for several seconds. His eyes darted about the room as if looking for an escape route. There wasn’t one. Held transfixed by her eyes, he told the truth:

“Yes, I try to cover up many things.” There was another long pause before he added, “to be charming — well, it hides many imperfections, does it not?”

Manolo looked again at his image in the mirror. He chuckled at the disheveled sight, pointing at the reflection with his chin.

“Ha! There is nothing charming about that! The very picture of a reprobate, no?” He exhaled a harsh breath and rubbed his hand over his mouth as he waited for her answer.

Her eyes softened. Her smile saddened. He knew she waited for him to touch the heart of the problem.

 “Ah, yes. The whiskey. The tequila. The mescaline . . .and the women . . .many, many women.” Manolo closed his eyes, squeezing them tight. His voice betrayed his pain.

“You must be disgusted at even the thought of me.” He swallowed hard, and fixed his eyes on the bottle in his hand.

Again, the laughter tinkling like fine crystal, the eyes wrapping him in their warmth, the hint of a grin.

Gliding to his side, she leaned close to Manolo and whispered provocatively in his ear, “Disgusted?” She giggled softly. “No. Quite the opposite. I find you fascinating.”

Manolo smiled and let his eyes close as he sat breathing slowly, deeply, feeling life and vigor spread throughout his body with each breath.


Chapter  Six

 

The sound of running water prompted Manolo to open his eyes. Before him gurgled a stream that opened out into a tree-shaded water hole, an oasis, high in the White Mountains. He lolled contentedly in the dappled sunshine beneath the trees.

“And what then, is Life?” Her voice pulled him out of his reverie to bask, instead, in the warmth of her eyes and her smiles.

“Ah, Life. Intensity of feelings! The surging of blood in the veins. Awareness. The feeling that everything is a little bit more real.” He paused, fidgeting with a twig as he pondered the definition.

 “When I am about to fight a battle, yes, in those moments where I must risk everything, I truly experience Life. That is how I feel, too, when I make love to a woman. At that moment when our very souls are entwined — it is almost as if I could touch the face of God. That is Life.”

He glanced from the twig to her face. “To ‘not feel’ is a walking death.” He shrugged. “To be numb is survival or, at best, mere existence. I have been somewhere between numb and dead for a long time, now.”

She sighed. “I know.”

“And what about Truth?” She walked along the edge of the pond. Her garments flowed and rippled as if in a breeze.

Manolo smiled. “Hmm. Truth? The absence of lies.”

She laughed again. “And Lies?”

“Ah, well. Lies are always a matter of perspective, no? A thing that can only be judged from a particular point of view. What is a lie to me may be the truth to you, you see?” Manolo grinned and shrugged his shoulders for emphasis.

She stood still at the edge of the pond. Her face was soft, but devoid of expression. He knew he couldn’t evade the answer.

He sighed deeply. “These are slippery things. It is so hard to know.”

She did not move or speak.

His eyes filled with sadness and his shoulders drooped. His voice was barely audible. “Truth? The truth is that sometimes I do not know where the Truth ends and the Lies begin.”

“And Fidelity?” Her voice carried to Manolo as a sigh on a waft of air.

“Do you mean Faithfulness?”

“Yes.”

Manolo’s face clouded and he turned away from her. “I do not like to have to choose.”

“Sometimes, you have to choose.” She stood next to him now. Her eyes held his again.

“Why? Why must I choose?”

She said nothing, her eyes were sad, her smile wan.

Her silence pinned Manolo in place, refusing to let him escape in deflections or deceptions. The pressure to expose his soul infuriated him. He snapped at her.

“Ah! But a desert is more than one cactus, no? Why should I not have the whole desert?”

Her voice was gentle. “So women are as cactus to you?”

“NO! NO. No…” He sighed in defeat. “Yes. In a way. Women are the hope of life in a sea of death. Hope of salvation. Of regeneration.”

He contemplated the twig in his hand.

“They carry life itself within them in a way that men cannot. I love them for it. They have a — a power over me. Sometimes, I hate them.”

Manolo looked far into the distance and sighed.

“With women, I am like a cat, chasing dapples of light as they dance across a wall in a tree-shaded garden.”

“So you chase them all?” Her voice sighed on the breeze.

“Yes.” Manolo breathed deeply, exhaling slowly.

“I have been unfaithful to so many good women who did nothing to deserve such treatment.”

He shrugged. “Even my father has had enough of my ways.”

She waited patiently, her eyes warm and accepting.

“Some son I have turned out to be, eh? Still, Pa-Pa wishes for me to marry, but I cannot imagine why any woman of quality would choose me — and I do not want a woman who does not want me.”

The white lace of her skirts floated across Manolo’s lap as the woman knelt in front of him. Her face was inches from his as she laid her beautiful, willowy hands, encased in their frilly, white, net gloves, upon his chest.

His breath grew ragged as his heart pounded beneath those fragile hands.

Slowly, caressing him gently, she moved her hands up the sides of his neck until they cupped his face. She leaned even closer. Her whisper so soft, it was little more than a thought.

“I can think of many reasons for wanting to be with you, Manolo.” She gently stroked his cheeks with her thumbs.

Exhaustion seeped from his heart, and spread slowly through his body. He sighed and closed his eyes, grateful for the darkness folding in around him.


Chapter  Seven

 

 

The heat made rivulets of sweat run down his neck and back. Manolo rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. Removing his hat, he offered his arm to her as they entered the chapel of Mission San Xavier del Bac, the White Dove of the Desert. Inside, beautiful stained glass windows and statuary surrounded them.

The woman looked around the room. “Hmmm. What of Beauty?”

Manolo sat down to think. “Beauty? An illusion. It cannot be placed: some beauty comes from a happy confluence of physical features, some from a source impossible to name.”

He cocked his head and aimed one of his famous smiles at her.

She smiled a bemused little smile and returned his gaze. Her eyes danced with merriment, but she said nothing.

He held his smile, moving only his eyes, letting them prowl slowly over the woman’s countenance.

She laughed, loud and hearty. “You are such a flirt!”

Her eyes beckoned to him as she turned and moved toward the walled garden with its small, private patio. The walls were whitewashed adobe laced with scarlet vines. She sat on a small bench near the fountain in the center of the garden.

“Hmmm. Mothers?”

He smiled and chuckled under his breath. “Ample. Cheerful. Dependable...” He paused and shot a sly wink at her. “Alluring.”

She ignored the wink. “And Fathers?”

“Yes, Fathers,” Manolo sighed wistfully. “Fathers are strength, guidance and protection. They are admirable.” He grinned. “And handsome!”

Mhhmmm. Your Father?”

“Ah. Don Sebastian Montoya. The Lion of Sonora. How does one escape so large a shadow?”

Manolo paced in the small space of the garden, staring at the tiled floor as he walked.

“He is a schemer, a cheat, a womanizer . . .a rogue! And he is a staunch defender of the helpless.” Manolo stopped and smiled.

 “In another life, he would have been a Knight of the Realm . . .if he were taller!”

Manolo was rewarded with more of the beautiful laughter that sent shivers of joy rippling through him.

“Ah, well.” He laughed under his breath. “My father. Well. Being who I am — which is all that I have ever, truly, wanted to be — has never been enough. I am always his ‘stupid son’ or the ‘wild one.’ For some reason, he sees only his expectations — he has never been able to see me. Sometimes I am almost willing to try to be like him, just so he would approve of me.”

He turned away from her.

“I fear we will never honor each other as Father and Son should.” Manolo walked back towards her.

“But, even so, I love my father. And my sister, Victoria, I love unconditionally, as she does me.”

“Tell me about her.”

“La Señora Victoria Montoya-Cannon. She is everything that a woman should be. She can be kind, gentle and understanding… or fierce, proud and unyielding — depending on the circumstances and what is required. She is beauty and grace; love, heart, and courage. I am proud to be her brother.”

The woman patted the bench beside her and Manolo sat down. She waited patiently.

“I remember teaching Victoria to ride. She did not want to kick the horse. She cried and called me a brute for kicking such wonderful animals.” He contemplated the fountain as he continued.

“To tell you the truth, until then, I had never considered it cruel to use my sharp-roweled spurs. Not even when the horses sometimes bled from the cuts they made.” He turned back to her. “Victoria has always shown me a different way to see the world. I love her very much. Perhaps I will introduce you someday.”

“Perhaps.” The woman’s smile was inscrutable, her eyes veiled and unreadable, but Manolo did not notice.

“Yes.” A wicked grin spread across his face. “But before that, I would keep you all to myself for as long as possible.” Manolo laughed at the delicious prospect.

“Are those the rules?” Her eyes were keen, sharp, and hawk-like.

“Rules? Oh. Well, some rules, they are followed all the time because if you don’t you will die or suffer some other horrible fate, No? As for the rest, well, I do what I can — for as long as I can get away with it, right?” His eyes were laughing as he caught hers and held them.

“Love. What about Love?” The golden flecks in her brown eyes glittered as she waited for his answer.

He could not explain it, but he could not seem to distort his answers to her, or redirect her pointed questions, no matter how unflattering to him the answers might be. His honest feelings were the only expression he seemed capable of in her presence. He found it exciting, exhilarating — and, at the same time, it confused him.

He plunged ahead, answering from his heart. “Well, I have found saying ‘I love you’ to be useful, certainly. But, there have been only a few times I may have actually felt love.”

“What was the name of the girl you bought the side saddle for?” Her smile taunted him, again.

He tried to wave the question away. “That is not important….”

“Yes. It is. You said you wanted to marry her. You wanted to dress her in silks. You loved her. What was her name? Sweetheart? Darling? Querida? Enamorada? Corazon?” Her eyes did not leave him as she waited for an answer.

“Ah, Blue’s cousin, the one with eyes like the sky before a storm . . .yes . . .She rejected me for Sam Butler . . .” Manolo stalled for time, searching his mind for her name.

White lace fluttered in the hint of a breeze that drifted through the garden. She sighed and gave him the answer. “Caroline. Caroline Elizabeth Madigan.”

The name filled him with sadness.

“Oh. Yes. That was it.”

He suddenly felt drained and tired. His head nodded forward into his hands and he closed his eyes, retreating again into the darkness.


Chapter  Eight

 

 

Manolo squinted against the harsh afternoon sunlight as he finished tightening the cinch and put the stirrup down. He patted the big sorrel, and went to find his woman. He intended to take her for a ride in the desert at sundown. The spectacular scenery and skyscape would be a fitting backdrop for what he had in mind.

It was exceptionally quiet at the ranch today, but that suited his plans, too. There would be no interruptions, no interference.

Everything about this woman captivated and excited him. He had made up his mind to do whatever it might take to win her for his own — and yet, at some level, he knew no one could ever ‘own’ her. Still, he could not bear the thought of being parted from her for even a few minutes; how could he ever just let her leave?

He thought about the way she seemed to know him on some deeper level. No woman had ever made him so comfortable — and uncomfortable    at the same time. He felt he could almost see a physical connection between their souls. She knew his darkest secrets and fears, and she did not shun him. At times, her unconditional acceptance of him was overwhelming.

Manolo found her on the veranda.

Her smile was lazy and suggestive; her eyes, soft and deep, enticing him closer.

He swung up on Mackadoo and leaned down to lift her up before him. She weighed almost nothing. He sat her across his lap and put his arms around her.

The sky was just warming up for what promised to be a fantastic sunset. Thin strings of clouds spread low across the late afternoon sky, assuring brilliant colors and spectacular effects.

Neither of them had spoken a word. Yet, he felt totally connected to her, one with her. She sighed and leaned into him as they rode out through the main gate of the High Chaparral and towards the open desert.

“Hmmm. Bodies?” She nuzzled the base of his neck.

“What?” The question caught him off guard.

“Bodies. ”

Manolo took a long, slow breath, pondering the topic. “Bodies move in beautiful, sensual ways. The way women walk. The sway of their skirts as they follow the motion of the body. The caress of silk as it moves across skin. Touching, loving. All manner of sensual contact — that is what bodies are to me.”

He halted Mackadoo and lightly touched the woman’s cheek with the tips of his fingers.

From the open desert, a rogue blast of sandy wind howled as it struck them. He touched Mackadoo with his heel and the horse shifted, turning his hindquarters into the wind as Manolo tried to protect the woman with his body. Just as suddenly and inexplicably as the wind rose, it died.

Manolo smiled and leaned closer to her, letting the fragrance of her fill his senses. It made him giddy and light headed. Contemplating the rarefied beauty held captive in his arms, a fierce desire to possess her pushed all other thoughts from his mind. He would not leave her; not for anything, or anybody. This was his love for all time.

He let his fingertips linger on her cheek and trail gently down her throat to the base of her neck. She closed her eyes and sighed. He leaned forward to kiss her.

Victoria’s voice, thin and wispy, tugged at him. It sighed in his ear as if blown on the wind from far away.

His sister was calling him. He straightened and hesitated. No. Victoria will have to wait. This is more important.

Again, he leaned forward to kiss her. His lips brushed hers ever so lightly. Again, she sighed and did not move away.

Another blast of wind struck them. Manolo straightened again and strained to hear the sounds on the wind: Victoria’s voice, stronger this time, calling him to her. Again, he chose to ignore the voice in the wind.

The persistent wind whipped at him, savagely pulling at his clothes. Sobbing? Yes — he heard the far away sound of a woman sobbing as if her heart would break. Was it Victoria? Why would she be crying? The voice again, calling him, louder and more urgently this time.

He hesitated, and then chose to pursue his goal with the beautiful woman in his arms.

Manolo touched Mackadoo with his heels and rode to the top of a small butte to watch the sunset as the sobbing wind died behind him.

The golden light of the setting sun filled his heart with joy.

“This is fitting, no?” He whispered in his woman’s ear.

“In what way?”

“The spectacular end of a day to commemorate the end of a long chapter in my existence. I wish to make a change in my life.”

“Hmmm. What would that be?” The gold flecks swirled in the depths of her soft brown eyes and flickered with the promise of passion as she turned her face up to his.

 The words welled up and his heart overflowed.

“I wish never to be apart from you, ever. You have claimed my heart and my soul; will you accept the man, as well?”

She spoke slowly, carefully.

“Are you sure you want that, Manolo? If I grant it, you can never change your mind for all eternity.”

His heart soared — she was considering him!

The wind rose again, attacking viciously and shrieking as it tore at him with sandy fingers. The sheer fury of the attack forced him to close his eyes.


Chapter  Nine

 

 

“MANOLO!” “MANOLO!” Victoria was hysterical — sobbing and shouting in his ear. Vexed, he turned his head to tell his beloved sister to wait, that he would attend to her soon.

“Manolo! Don’t leave me! Come back to me!” Victoria’s head was on his shoulder as he lay in the bed. Tears ran down her face as she alternately shook him with all her strength and then pounded on his chest with her little fists.

Manolo opened his eyes. Standing around his bed were Blue, Big John, Buck, Vaquero and Don Sebastian. Victoria half-sat and half-lay on the bed with him, her face buried in his neck.

Calmate, hermana; calm yourself, my sister.” He searched Victoria’s face with concern. “I have not gone anywhere. I am right here. Why are you crying?”

“Oh, Manolito, I thought I had lost you forever. You weren’t breathing very well and you would not open your eyes,” sobbed Victoria.

Tenderly, he wiped her tears away.

“No, Victoria, you are mistaken. I just closed my eyes against the wind. But I have found my true love. You interrupted my proposal — she was about to accept me!”

Straining to sit up, he searched the room for his beloved.

“Where is she? Ah, she must have gone back out to the veranda, no?” Exhausted, he sank back onto the bed.

Shocked silence filled the room. The men exchanged confused, apprehensive looks — ‘knowing looks’ that said, other than Victoria and Violetta, there had been no woman in the room, the house, or anywhere on the ranch since he came home in the wagon nearly a week ago.

Astonished, Manolo realized they didn’t believe him.

“My jacket; give it to me, please, Victoria. I will show you her locket. I will show you I am not making this up.”

Victoria stiffened and clutched her stomach, her eyes filled with alarm. 

“No, Manolito, your jacket is not here. It — it was badly damaged when you fell and Violetta is fixing it, and you must rest now.”

Buck’s eyebrows bunched as a look of confusion spread across his face. He looked down at the floor, shook his head and looked up at Victoria with a question in his eyes, but he said nothing.

Manolo saw Victoria look sideways at Buck, her eyes pleading. She turned her worried gaze back to Manolo and busied herself with straightening his covers.

“You need to rest now, my brother. You are just a little over wrought.” Victoria patted his cheek and kissed his forehead.

Buck let out a big sigh, shaking his head, his face still a picture of confusion, he shrugged his big shoulders and reached behind him to gather something Manolo could not see. Buck sidled towards the door, keeping one hand behind his back and trying to look nonchalant as he crabbed through the doorway and disappeared into the hall.

Victoria watched Buck leave with grateful eyes. Manolo noted the interaction but was too tired to question anything. His eyelids drooped and fluttered as he tried to stay awake.

 Victoria fussed over him. “My poor Manolito. We will talk more when you have rested.”

Victoria rose and spoke to the room at large. “Now, everyone out of the room! Manolito must rest.” Victoria herded everyone out and closed the door behind her.


Chapter  Ten

 

 

Downstairs the little group reconvened to discuss Mano’s plight.

Big John’s brow was deeply furrowed. He was very concerned about Mano’s hallucinations.

“Now, I don’t suppose that anyone here has seen this woman, have they?” He growled, as he looked each person in the eye.

One by one, they each shook their head “No.” Except when Big John got to Buck.

Waal, Brother John, Mano was talking to somebody when we was in camp. You remember me tellin’ you that, right? He kept on sayin’ how she was dressed all in white and was real purty. ‘Bueiful’ he kept sayin’. ‘Course, he couldn’t talk real good then and that’s why I went for the wagon to fetch him . . .”

Big John’s face hardened as his frustration level rose.

“BUCK!” he bellowed. “Enough! I asked if anyone saw a strange woman here on the ranch. Did you?”

Buck looked down at the toes of his boots. “N-no, Brother John, I surely didn’t.”

“Thank you. That’s what I thought. John sighed and sat down on the couch next to Victoria.

“Well. This is a difficult situation. The doctor said not to upset him if he did regain consciousness, so we need to play along with his little fantasies until his head can heal up from that fall.”

Victoria’s beautiful face crumpled; fear showed in her eyes and a torrent of supplications followed.

“But John, please. You are only going to encourage him, I do not think we should indulge these visions. They could be dangerous. The Padre told me so when he came to give Manolito the Last Rites. He said there could be demons and even the Angel of Death could tempt him! Please, my husband, don’t encourage this.” Victoria broke off and looked away as the tears rolled down her face once more.

He hated to see his wife upset, but choosing between authorities was not his decision to make. He took a deep breath and looked to Mano’s stunned father.

“Well, Don Sebastian, he’s your son. I think this is your call. Do we listen to the Doctor or to the Priest? Tell us what you want here.”

“Ay, Dios mio. I think the Doctor ees more believable. God forgive me, but I do not belief een demons and the like. And if this beautiful woman of breeding and quality ees the Angel of Death, then she will know to stay far away from my stupid son. How could he have seen such a creature, except as a result of this injury?

Don Sebastian paused and shook his head.

“No, I belief the Doctor” He sighed.  Victoria, where ees the jacket? It was een the room on the chair, no?”

Buck spoke hesitantly. “Uh, Don Sebastian, I took it. It seemed like Victoria was goin’ to a lot a trouble to keep Mano from gettin’ over excited, so I jus helped her out a might. I got it right here.” Buck held up the jacket.

Blue looked up at Big John with sad eyes. “Pa? I got an idea.”

“Yeah, Blue?”

“Well, Mano was insisting that he found some kind of locket and that it’s in his jacket, right? So why don’t we just look and see, before we give it to him, just to be sure.”

Big John harrumphed.

“Normally I would tan your hide for suggesting that we search a man’s personal possessions with out his permission. But, in this case, I think you may be right. Victoria, Don Sebastian, what do you think?”

Victoria sniffled, dabbing her nose with a delicate handkerchief as she refused to look up or answer. Don Sebastian nodded his agreement.

Big John studied the rest of the group.

“All right, are there any other objections?”

No one spoke.

Don Sebastian’s eyes were full as he looked around the room. “My son ees very lucky to have so many good friends. I am sure he does not deserve them. Buck, the jacket, por favor?”

Buck handed the jacket to Don Sebastian.

“If Manolito is to be angry with anyone, let him be angry with me. That way, it will not change his relationship with anyone here. For that matter, it will not change his relationship with ME, either. I will look een the pockets.”

Don Sebastian fished around in each pocket, finding nothing but odds and ends. Finally, he searched the inside pocket.

Don Sebastian pulled out a large handful of gravel. “I do not believe it. But why would he have a pocket full of gravel?”

John sighed. “Well, Don Sebastian, let’s put it back and we’ll go see what he has to say about it.”


Chapter  Eleven

 

 

Manolo was floating, weightless, in the soft, warm darkness when the voice roused him.

“Mano, wake up.” Big John gently shook his shoulder.

Manolo struggled to open first one brown eye and then the other.

His brother-in-law was standing over him, holding the brown suede jacket.

“Ah, thank you, John.” Manolo mumbled as he struggled to sit up. Vaquero moved quickly to assist him.

As he settled back against the pillows, Manolo glanced around the room and noticed Victoria standing rigidly at the foot of the bed, alternately dabbing at her red, tear-filled eyes and staring daggers at Don Sebastian. What had Pa-Pa done to upset Victoria this time? Manolo decided to ask her about it as soon as this business with the locket was settled.

Across the room, he watched Buck place his arm over Blue’s shoulder as if to console him. It made Manolo wonder, what was going on? Why did they look so sad and anxious? They looked more like they were attending his funeral than the announcement of ‘Don Manolo Montoya’s engagement.

Stifling his annoyance, Manolo managed a tight little smile as he took the jacket from Big John and rummaged in the inside pocket. His fingers found the locket.

Smiling with genuine pleasure, his eyes glowed with pride as he placed the locket in his palm and held it out for everyone to see.

“See? Did I not tell you it was beautiful? I have never seen such fine workmanship, have you, Victoria? Look at the fine filigree work in the chain and on the edges of the locket. And the engraving on the inside — Here, I will show you the poem.”

Instead of showing interest in the locket and happiness for him, the people crowded around his bed were long-faced with dismay — Victoria was weeping.

Manolo shifted his attention to the locket and savored the calm that enveloped him as he lovingly stroked the filigreed  decorations. Proudly, he opened it to show them the engraving.

They were staring at him like he had lost his mind!

Manolo fought his anger. He couldn’t understand it — why were they reacting this way? Was the locket not enough proof?

 

 

“Fine. I will read it to you. It says:

Together

We will always be

Forever —

Come to me…”

 

 

Manolo smiled and gently traced the words in the locket with his fingers. “You see? She loves me, just as I love her.”

Manolo heard a giggle and looked up. His beloved stood in the corner behind Buck. Her eyes beckoned to Manolo. Her mouth teased him with her seductive smile.

He wanted her. Desire smoldered in his blood.

Her honeyed voice was warm, rich and thick. “Sometimes you have to choose….”

Manolo held his hand out to his beloved and smiled broadly.

“Ah, my love, come here and sit with me — I want to wrap my arms around you again.”

Gliding to Manolo’s bedside, she passed close to Buck, her flowing raiment brushed against his arm and leg. Buck shivered and skittered sideways, brushing his arm as if to remove something nasty that had stuck there.

Manolo’s attention shifted to Buck, who was frantically searching the floor around him. Buck rubbed his hand over his face and took a deep breath.

“Buck, what is wrong? You are very pale, my friend.”

“O-oh, nuthin’, Mano. I jus’ felt a chill is all.” Buck swallowed hard and shrugged. The fear lingered in his eyes.

The woman sat gracefully on the edge of the bed, placing a lace-gloved hand on Manolo’s chest, over his heart. He felt warm and safe — and content — with her there. Yes, he loved this woman.

“Will you stay here with me?” he begged.

She trailed her fingers down his chest, resting her hand just above his waist. The gold flecks in her brown eyes glittered with the promise of ecstasy. Her lips brushed his ear as she whispered, fire raged in his veins in response.

“No. You must choose, now. You have only to close your eyes and you will be mine, forever.”

His breath came in short gasps. How could he choose between his loved ones and the one he loved? In anguish, Manolo hesitated, clutching the locket to his heart.

He looked to Victoria, then to each person in the room.

Victoria was clearly heartbroken, she cried openly. A sharp stab of pain ripped through his heart. He could not bear to see her distraught.

Don Sebastian looked old and sad . . .and beaten. Hope faded from his eyes as they filled with tears. Manolo’s heart swelled, he ached to first crush Pa-Pa to his chest in a bear hug and then curl up and hide in his arms for comfort, as he had done when he was a boy.

Buck stared at the floor, ashen-faced with agony. Ah, Buck — his best friend. He could not help but smile when he thought of Buck.

Big John was stone-faced. His eyes darted around the room. Ah, his brother in law was frustrated and angry, as he always was when Victoria was unhappy. A deep glow of satisfaction spread through him — his sister had married well. This man loved her and it made Manolo glad.

Blue’s eyes filled with tears. He looked away and stuffed his curled index finger in his mouth to keep from sobbing. Manolo smiled. Such a sensitive little friend — with the heart and soul of a poet. Sympathy swept over Manolo — how deeply the boy feels! How upset he is that I might go away.

A flash of pique flared in Manolo as sad-eyed Vaquero made the sign of the cross and joined Victoria in prayer. He had come to depend on the stalwart monolith of a man for rational thought and behavior — surely he should be happy for the bridegroom?

Finally, Manolo looked back to his beloved.

“Please, don’t make me choose!” His voice was deep and raspy with emotion. “I love them all and cannot bear the thought of leaving them, yet I cannot let you go, either. My heart will be torn in half.”

The woman smiled a knowing smile. “Is that how you feel?”

“Yes. I am in agony!”

Her voice was a sigh. “Hmmm. But, you do feel.” Her smile radiated warmth that enveloped him. Slowly, silently, substance turned to vision. Like a mirage, she shimmered, translucent and iridescent.

Manolo desperately clutched at the shimmering specter with both hands; his breathing ragged, open-mouthed.

The veins in his neck stood out as he sobbed, “NO! NO! Don’t leave! PLEASE, come back to me!”

His shoulders drooped and his voice trailed off to a tortured whisper, “I love you?” Tears formed and trickled down his cheeks.

His plea was denied. The vision shimmered again and faded completely.

Panic rose in his throat. Nothing felt real. He looked down at the locket in his hand. The fine silver chain began to crumble.

“NO! NO!” Horrified, Manolo shrieked in anguish as the edges of the locket began to flake off.

Little by little, the locket fractured. He tried frantically to push the pieces back into place — to make them turn back into the locket — but the crumbling continued until nothing was left but bits of gravel, rock and sand.

Even as he clutched the gravel to his chest, Manolo knew with bitter certainty he had made the choice himself.

Panicked and sobbing, Victoria moved to the side of the bed and knelt with her rosary praying fiercely, beseeching God and the Virgin Mary to protect her brother’s soul.

From depths of his pain and anger, Manolo heard Victoria’s tearful, frightened prayers. He was instantly remorseful. He had caused this pain and she needed the comfort only her brother could give.

“Oh, Victoria, I am so sorry.” He reached for her and pulled her up to sit next to him on the bed as he cradled her head against his chest.

Shhh. Shhh. Everything is all right now, ’Toria.” He rocked her and patted her back to calm her.

“I have chosen what I love most, my family and friends. Do not cry, Victoria, I will be fine now. I could not leave you, I would never leave you.”

Manolo heard a man sniffle. He was surprised to see tears running down his father’s face. He shot a questioning glance to Don Sebastian.

“Pa-Pa?”

“Oh, de smoke from de fireplace bothered me, but now, I am fine.” Don Sebastian hurried to wipe away the evidence.

Manolo buried his face in his sister’s hair and mumbled, “I love you too, Pa-Pa.”

The End.

 

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