Mirar la Luna
The Spanish devil returned again to haunt the night, wafting across the vast landscape of the Apache Desert. The sky, that vast canvas, remained a blanket of ebony beyond the horizon. Along the eastern edge, a minute cloud formation momentarily lingered, floating in front of a full moon. That huge, silvery orb created a mysterious spirit about the place, giving off a rich brightness that illuminated the surrounding dunes, till the shadows of dawn appeared once again. Then, as the sun yawned its sunset greeting in the Apache sky, the gallows beckoned for the next to be hanged.
Beyond Mansako Ridge, the stair-step tips of the Kolenga Mountains gradually ascended into a dark night and scattered in the distance. On the other side of that ridge, barren rocks decreased in size and eventually formed an elongated plateau that extended north of Black Edge Bluff and Miner Creek. The creek bed was shallow, but as it snaked through Iunka Valley, it increased in both width and depth, until it merged downstream with the Rio Grande River.
In a sky placid and dark, the moon dipped toward the horizon, increasing in size as it came to rest between the domed peaks of Okodez Ledge. Iunka Valley remained a desert wasteland, flat and sultry, its sandy terrain sprinkled here and there with sage and yucca, seemingly the only signs of life. Truly, it was the devil's playground, hellish with torrid heat, unbearable and sunbaked. Dead center in the valley lay the desolate town of Silver Ghost, a sparsely inhabited place, as only a few had remained, the caretakers of business.
Once a month, though, when the Apache moon was full, the town was infiltrated with witnesses who clustered at dawn near the base of the gallows. They gathered to watch as a rope executed the fate of any who dared to tempt the law.
The night before, an Apache brave sat alone atop Black Edge Bluff, unleashing a ritual to the spirit moon. His call to the sky was only a faint gesture of few words. Slowly, he moved his red, weathered hands about, quietly designing thoughts in the night air. He squatted then, bracing a tom-tom between his legs, on which he pounded out a haunting rhythm that beat into the dawn until the noose was yanked and the neck was broken.
A veil of darkness had painted the few buildings in town with a thick coat of absolute black. The main road, also ebony, remained abandoned. Reflections from the moon shifted in that direction now and again, shadows dancing here and there, but its luminescent glow would slowly disappear within the next hour.
The waiting area inside the jailhouse was occupied by spectators. In the back room, at either end of the holding cell, two candles flickered, casting extended, elongated shadows to frolic in their glow.
Single file, the would-be onlookers trekked in front of Brance Howard, careful to keep their distance as they gazed at the next victim. Some edged near enough to offer some verbal abuse, followed by a release of warm spit.
Although he continued to utter his claims of innocence, convicted killer Brance Howard could do little to escape his destiny. He did his best to disregard the strangers who heaped scorn and badgering upon him.
As the line of faces slowly disappeared through the rear door, a lone teenager walked forward, accompanied by a jail guard. A key was shoved roughly into the rusty lock and turned, and the cell door yawned open. The young man entered but kept his distance as he listened to the click of the lock being secured.
The youth's lips barely moved, but a vindictive smile found its way to his face. "Do you know who I am, mister?" he asked, his voice little more than a hiss. His dark irises increased in size, and the reflection of the candlelight turned the whites of his eyes to burnt sienna. When no one answered his question, the boy repeated it.
Finally, the accused managed to shake his head and mutter, "Nope."
Suddenly, hauntingly, a rush of warm air filled the entire back room. Swirls of the mysterious heat slowly drifted and danced in and out of the cell block, and the increased temperature was equal to that of high noon across the sultry Apache Desert.
As if to augment the strange, bizarre circumstance, one candle flame stilled, rich in color, with no movement to blemish the shadowy brightness of its texture. Only yards away, the second flame noticeably flickered in the warm breeze, fighting to keep its place on the wick, dimming and obscuring reflections.
Brance Howard sat erect on a wooden chair, half his face reddish orange from the color spray of the firelight. Deep wrinkles formed ravines in his hardened flesh, the remnants of a life lived rugged. His eyes seemed to melt into a deeper tone of black as droplets of salty sweat emerged upon his nervous face. Eventually, a steady flow of perspiration lathered the tough hide of his neck. When he was finally able to speak again, his words were tense and hollow: "Who are ya, boy, and what do ya want with me?"
The young man held his tongue for a moment, as if to collect his thoughts, but not once did his eyes give up their hard stare to a blink. His speech was gruff, that of an old-timer, in spite of his youthful physique. "You oughtta know who I am, considerin' ya done killed my pa!" he spat. Slight hesitation gave way to a rush of warm air around the boy's face, and his lips curled slightly upward as he seethed, "I'm gonna make sure they hang ya high, 'fore you run off again, mister. You knew Pa was lame and sick with fever, and he weren't no good with a gun, but that gave ya no right to kill my kin. Now, you's gonna die too. Come dawn, I'm gonna make sure the rope's good an' tight, just long enough for you ta take one last swallow . . . and I'm sure you ain't gonna end up in as good a place as ya sent my daddy too."
Weakness engulfed Brance's high cheekbones, and his face paled. Dime-sized beads of perspiration formed on his creased forehead. Garbled words from a scared man moved across parted lips, and cold sweat trickled inside his mouth. "I don't know you from Adam, boy. Just who the hell is ya anyways? I never see you before in my life, so what do ya mean, I killed yer pa?"
The kid released a rough chuckle. "Your memory must be awful short, mister," he said. "I come ta visit you last month, when the moon was full, just like tonight. I told ya then the same thing I'm a-tellin' ya now. You's ta be hanged, 'cause you's a killer. I know it were you. See, I never forget a face, 'specially such an ugly kind, with that nasty scar 'cross your cheek. I put that scar there. Don't ya remember? You tried to escape, but I pulled a knife an' got ya good. I only wish I woulda aimed for yer neck. When they tried ta hang ya before, you got lucky. That rope snapped, so they been holdin' ya here for a month now. You must be plain stupid if ya don't recall none o' that."
With one hand, Brance Howard touched his neck, the place where redness from rope burn still remained. With his other, he slowly traced the scar on the right side of his face. Suddenly the lower end of the wound opened, and drops of warm blood covered his chin and fell to the dirt floor in crimson splatters. The prisoner suddenly released a howling scream and declared, "I don't know you, boy! I ain't never seen you before, and I ain't the murderin' kind. I've been in this jail only five days, waitin' for the law ta bring word of my innocence. The marshal from Cheyenne River . . . He'll be here 'fore dawn to clear this mess up."
The boy laughed. "Ain't no marshal from nowhere's gonna save you now!" he shouted. "It's time for you to pay your dues, to get what you deserve." He gave quick glance beyond the bars of the open window and saw that the faint light of dawn was beginning to paint an eastern sky. When he turned to look at Brance again, his lips shed a wicked grin. "That's the light o' day out there, mister, your last day. Purdy soon, Pa won't hafta worry no more. You's just some sorry drifter, passin' through, and you went and shot my kinfolk, left 'im for dead while ya went runnin' off like a scared rabbit."
"But I ain't who you says I is, kid!" Brance shouted, desperate to defend himself. He stood and walked to the far end of the cell, and he lifted his eyes to stare down the dark hallway that led to the front office. "Sheriff!" he yelled, but his bellowing weakened, and he muttered something under his breath as Sheriff Sours entered with rusty handcuffs and leg irons in hand.
"Turn around and put your hands behind your back," the sheriff demanded, "an' keep your legs apart for these boot irons." Mack Sours was a muscular man with hard features. His hands were huge, easily able to subdue any unruly prisoner. His complexion was dark, baked by the sun. There were age lines around his eyes, and his broad mustache, perfectly curled around his upper lips, was peppered with gray
Brance obeyed, and, in one swift motion, the antiquated bracelets were slapped in place, the leg irons locked, and the prisoner spun back around to face the lawman.
The steady candlelight ricocheted flames of color across Brance's scared face as he grasped for the words he hoped would save his life. "Wh-Where's the marshal from Cheyenne River, Sheriff? He's s'posed ta be here by now, carryin' word that I ain't no wanted man. I'm innocent, and that's the damn tru—"
"You ain't neither!" the teenager blurted. "You don't know nothin' 'bout the truth. My kin's dead 'cause o' you, and you's entirely ta blame, guilty as sin. The sun's up now, and it's high time you swing from that rope down the street." Every word dripped with anger as he stood there with his face taut, his teeth clenched, and his eyes menacing, hateful slits.
"Shut up, boy!" Sheriff Sours scolded. "I'm the law 'round here, and I'll decide this man's fate." He then turned toward Brance. "I've waited long enough for Marshal Warren Brothers ta get here from Cheyenne River. Maybe he'll show while we're walkin' to the gallows, but my job demands that I proceed with the hangin' at dawn. I'm sorry, Brance, but the time's come ta get on with business."
Brance Howard froze, paralyzed with fear. He trembled as his mind scrambled for the right words to say, anything that could delay the seemingly inevitable. His eyes were wide with fright, as wide as the full Apache moon he wished would return, and he couldn't peel his gaze off the sheriff.
The peacekeeper reached forward and tightened his thick fingers around Brance's frail arm. "Get a move-on," Mack said in a stern voice. "Maybe Brothers's horse went lame or somethin'. In this part of the territory, ain't no tellin' what his excuse might be, if he's a-comin' at all. He's got about a quarter-hour to show, and he knows the way. In the meantime, I got law to keep."
The fatherless boy was already in the hallway, and he barely turned to look when he heard the clinking and clanking of the ankle chains dragging along the floor. "Hurry on up, Sheriff," he said loudly. "Ain't no need ta wait. He's had plenty 'o borrowed time already, and we're ready to watch the guilty man hang for what he done to my pa." He then entered the office and led the way to the front door, as if he was running the show himself.
Mack Sours continued to pull at Brace's lean arm, and they walked together through the jailhouse entrance and out into the street.
At the edge of town, the gallows came into view, with a single rope dangling beneath the center crossbar. The gathered crowd lined both sides of the road near the wooden structure, the horde increasing in number by the minute. Most were silent and grim-faced, but some dared to whisper their opinions, and those hidden from sight voiced scathing curses every now and then. Some gasped when the young man was the first to arrive at the gallows, anxious and pleading with the sheriff to hurry the process along.
Then, without warning, in a sudden atmospheric change, the light of day dimmed into an overcast draping of gray. The sky cluttered with a thick quilt of dense, dark clouds, rapidly moving across the stormy cosmos. The gentle morning breeze became an angry gale, whipping and sweeping over those who'd scrunched up closer to the gallows for a closer look. From every direction, the furious wind swirled in an endless dance, encircling the fatal framework with a hurricane of desert debris, sand, and sage.
Many witnesses ran for cover, but those brave, stubborn souls who lingered were continually pelted with particles of grit. The tempest was violent and extreme, and the soft rain soon morphed into a wicked downpour. Torrents fell from the fast-moving clouds, soaking the execution sight.
"El viento la muerte! El viento la muerte!" a lone Mexican shouted, clutching his sombrero tightly as he gave his somber warning above the tumult.
Those around him were not sure about every word of his foreign tongue, but "muerte" was a word they recognized. Within moments, his Spanish prophecy came true, for a yellow sickness fell upon all those who watched.
Brance Howard stumbled on the first step of the gallows, but Sheriff Sours fought the storm somehow, keeping his hold on his weak prisoner. Both reached the top platform, and both cursed at the pellets of battering rain. The sheriff moved Brance into position and placed the wet rope around the neck of the restrained victim.
"Sh-Sheriff!" Brance cried, his voice thin, feeble, and debilitated. He struggled to move his face toward Mack Sours. "That Marshal Brothers . . . Where is he? He oughtta be here by now. You said he'd show before dawn, that he knows the way. Why ain't ya out lookin' for him? He's bringin' the truth with him, Sheriff. Yer 'bout ta hang an innocent man!"
The sheriff darted his eyes to and fro over the scant crowd, in search of the town preacher. "I ain't seen no marshal yet, and I've given 'im plenty o' time ta show," he said to Brance. "Pastor? Preacher Deder!" he hollered, time and time again.
The local clergyman ascended the stairs at a slow gait, impeded by the storm, and all three men stood together.
"Go on and say a few words of faith for the dyin', Preacher," the sheriff said, fighting the torrential conditions and eager to get the execution over with.
"Dearly beloved," Deder began, "we are gathered here today to bear witness to this necessary punishment of one of our own kind—"
"This ain't no gospel meetin', Pastor. We ain't got time for no sermon," the sheriff screamed over the whistling wind. "Just read the man his last rites and slap an amen on it so we can get this nasty business over with. Ain't right ta prolong his misery, Preacher . . . nor ours."
The pastor sighed, then spoke in a hurried but sincere tone, "May God have mercy on you and forgive your sins. Amen."
Sours and Deder glanced one last time at Brance Howard, then slowly walked down the slippery steps.
The pastor, soaked to the bone, turned and slowly made his way back to his church at the other end of town, wanting no part of seeing the man take is last breath.
The disgruntled son caught sight of Sheriff Sours and hurried to stand near him at the right base of the gallows, near the pull ring that would release the trapdoor. Few words were spoken as the sheriff breathed heavily and gradually moved his fingers toward the steel ring.
The severe storm viciously pounded Mack Sours' face, lashing a relentless zigzag of violent wind and rain. Sharp, smarting bits of Apache Desert repeatedly stung his hand like a whole nest full of angry hornets while he curled his fingers around the pull ring.
Then, in a sudden, instant change in Mother Nature's demeanor, the rain diminished and scattered, though the wind came on even stronger, stiff and unrelenting as it howled across a gray morning dawn.
Far on the outskirts of town, the battering storm blinded the approaching riders.
The lead horseman removed his Colt and pointed it at the sky. He squeezed the trigger, firing off two quick warning shots, and those were followed by two more echoing through the storm.
Sheriff Sours heard the discharge of bullets and recognized the territorial signal immediately as the approaching of another lawman. He rapidly removed his fingers from the pull ring, stepped away from the gallows, and squinted toward the other end of town, still fighting the rigid storm and its swirling drafts.
Two men on horseback, with bandanas covering their lower faces, struggled against the violent wind, approaching from a good distance away.
The first rider quickly lowered his faded red handkerchief and yelled, in a voice that was as stern and hard as the wind, "Sheriff Sours! I'm Marshal Brothers, and I've got Averil Stanley here with me. Release that prisoner, Sheriff! This one was thought ta be killed, but as you can see, he's alive and well. There was a brawl an' gunfight back in Meredosia Springs, and word spread that Averil was killed by Brance Howard, but that ain't the truth. Howard ain't killed nobody. You can't put a noose on an innocent man."
Averil Stanley tugged at his bandana as the horsemen continued to fight the elements, nearing the gallows. "I come back for my boy. He's a li'l sick in the mind, see. Whenever a full moon comes 'round, he gets ta believin' I'm dead, and he's always got somebody ta blame. He's just confused, needs to be with his pa."
Refusing to believe the reality before him and completely immersed in hallucinations of his father's murder, the boy's eyes remained candlelight orange, and his separated lips formed a chilling smile. "Sheriff!" he screeched, his voice harsh and scratchy, tinged with panic and frustration from his relapsing mental disorder. "Ya can't let a guilty man walk free, Sheriff." In a flash, his hand suddenly gripped the steel ring, and he jerked the center pin out.
The trapdoor swung down, back and forth on silver butt hinges, making an eerie squeaking noise in the violent breeze.
As the rattling ankle chains echoed across the desert, the Indian brave on Black Edge Bluff lowered his sticks. The tom-tom resumed its silence then, not to speak its beat again until the next Apache moon.