Dust kicked up around the boy as he rode into the canyon. The red noon sun blazed down on him as the horizon simmered, baking in the heat.
At the sound of the gunshot, the horse whinnied and reared, bucking the boy. He landed on the hard-packed ground as his mount galloped off in the opposite direction. The boy clawed toward the cover of a nearby boulder.
KOOOOOF! the Winchester bellowed again, a thunderclap that tore through stillness. The shot ricocheted wide. The boy reached for the revolver at his side before he was another pile of bones without a story, but it was to no avail. The third bullet ripped through his right bicep. He howled on the ground and seized his blood-soaked arm.
"Had enough yet?" a smoky voice called out from the bluffs, echoing off canyon wall to wall.
"I'm leaving!" the boy cried in hysterics. "I'm leavin' your town behind me!"
"Well, now you have a parting gift," the voice yelled in response. "And if you ever come back, I swear I'll blow your head clean off!"
A scorpion scuttled toward the boy. He swatted it away. Tears streaked down his face and scarlet swam between his fingers.
"You hear me, dammit? I was savin' her, you son of a bitch!" A flock of birds flew overhead. "Did you think I was just goin' to let you go?"
The boy choked on dust. He wiped his nose with his sleeve and gritted his teeth.
"Enjoy the vultures . . . they'll be peckin' out your eyes soon enough."
The boy didn't dare look at the vicious man whom he'd come to know all too well this past month. Hooves clattered over the reddened earth. When silence settled, he knew he was safe: Roy Olsen was gone.
The boy stood up and kicked a nearby rock, cursing himself. "Damn it, Jamie. You fool." Then, he whistled for Mae.
* * *
Love had blinded Jamie. He had meant to simply pass through Arena Roja, but when he first laid eyes on the girl, he knew his plan would have to be put on hold.
Her name was Maricela Ortega and she had stolen his heart. She was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. Her hair was dark as obsidian and so thick you could get tangled up in it, lost in a world of lilac. The r's rolled off her tongue like a gentle river—the way water tickled stones and flirted with the banks.
Jamie stayed in town longer than he intended to. Much longer. He ended up working alongside a rancher named Mr. Roy Olsen who at the time seemed desperate for a hand. But time always revealed the inner workings of a man's mind and his intentions.
Maricela knew not of her family. She was an orphan girl who lived with an elderly, wrinkled woman whom everyone called Nana (or Baba, depending on who you talked to). Nana looked after several girls, all displaced for one reason or another. Her residence was the ramshackle dwelling on the outskirts of town, beyond the well.
Maricela spoke a few dozen words in English, but it didn't matter. Eyes spoke deeper and truer than words ever could. Besides, body language was universal. Maricela proved this true.
As Jamie tightly wrapped his wound with a piece of cloth from his bindle, he thought about the way she had first looked at him. Sure, she was only fifteen and he only a couple years older, but he knew that her unwavering eyes, her penetrating gaze, was one of love—and lust.
Several days before the incident in the canyon, the two hid out in a hovel—a work shed used to store harnesses, saddles, and the like—for the better part of an hour, exploring every inch of each other's bodies. They inhaled and exhaled the same air, taking in dust and each other's stale breath. The world could have ended and they would have been the last to know.
After they made love atop a pile of straw, they plotted out their future together: what they would do, where they would go, and how they would live. Jamie pantomimed when Maricela couldn't understand, and she the same for him. Jamie drew a map in the dirt with a broom handle as Maricela wiped her inner thighs with a tattered cloth that lay discarded on the floor.
"Leave. Run away with me."
Maricela cocked an eyebrow.
Jamie smiled, leaned in, and kissed her. He stood and pretended to run toward the door. She giggled and tilted her head.
"No entiendo," she murmured, shrugging.
Jamie pointed at her, then himself. He nodded at the door and galloped around the rickety, run-down room as if he was riding a horse. Dust followed him where he went, swirling in the rays of light that crept in from the cracks in the flimsy wooden walls.
Her eyes widened. "Ohhh." She laughed and stood up to join him. "Ahora?"
It was Jamie's turn to cock an eyebrow and tilt his head. "Huh?"
Maricela threw her head back and laughed.
* * *
"Here, Mae. Good girl." Jamie patted his horse on her hindquarters and then rubbed her mane. She was spooked for a good five or ten minutes after the gunshots, but she eventually found her way back to him. Roy Olsen was halfway to town, he presumed.
The mare nuzzled into Jamie.
"We're going back," he said matter-of-factly. Sweat dribbled from his forehead and down the bridge of his nose.
Mae gazed into his eyes. Her muscles rippled with every breath she drew in.
"What? You think that's a bad idea?"
Jamie hesitated for a moment. "Hell with it." With his good arm, good hand, he gripped the reins and hoisted himself up into the saddle. He swung his leg around Mae, then slid his feet into the stirrups.
He knew he was lucky that the bullet had missed his major arteries. The blood still seeped from the hole in his arm, but it would congeal in time—he hoped. He'd have to get it treated soon, but there were more pressing matters to attend to.
Adrenaline flowed through his veins as he spurred Mae toward Arena Roja. His arm throbbed, but his heart was shattered: he couldn't believe he almost left her behind. He didn't know if he'd ever get her back, but he knew he had to try.
"Come on, Mae," Jamie said as he drove his heels into her sides. She picked up speed as they raced toward town, slicing through the lonely wind.
"Better shoot sharper, Roy." His breaths were steady despite his hammering heart. In his gut, he knew that more than one person would be waiting for him.
He checked the bandage on his right arm a final time to make sure it was secure, then patted the revolver at his hip.
Luckily, he shot with his left.
* * *
A memory played in Jamie's mind, almost like the splotchy motion picture he had watched before venturing toward Mexico.
Not twelve hours ago, Jamie was crouched behind a pile of split wood, waiting for the lights to go out in the dwelling. It's what he did most nights while in Arena Roja.
Eventually, once Nana was fast asleep, Maricela would sneak out a back window and the two tiptoed toward the stable for Mae. They'd ride up into the mountains, make love, and count falling stars, all while dreaming up their lives together.
Last night was different.
The lights didn't go out—at least, not for a long while—Nana never went to sleep, and Maricela remained inside. Jamie waited for what felt like hours, hoping to at least spend a few minutes with her. When he was about to leave, the lights were extinguished. He waited in silent solitude, yet nothing came of it. Temptation almost lured him to the back window to have a glance inside, but he thought better of it. He desperately wanted to hear her melodic voice, run his hands through her hair, and trace her slight curves with his fingertips. But as the minutes crept past, he knew his chances plummeted. His stomach turned.
Jamie decided to wait it out. On and off he dozed through the night, curled up behind the wood pile. Mosquitoes hummed harmonies and coyotes howled from the canyon. Before dawn broke and the town came to life, a horse and rider could be heard in the distance. As the clatter of hooves drew closer, Jamie peeked over the top of his hideout, rubbing sleep from his eyes.
It was Roy Olsen.
Jamie could tell it was him because he spotted his Winchester underneath a pile of burlap. Plus, nobody else wore a bowler hat in town—he was the only one.
Roy Olsen pulled up beside Nana's home and tied his horse to a wooden post in the ground. Jamie watched as the tall, lean man removed one of the burlap sacks from atop his saddlebag and rapped on the front door. There was a nervous air about him as he glanced from side to side.
The door creaked open, ever so slightly.
Roy Olsen and Nana engaged in a brief, hushed conversation, then Nana disappeared inside the dwelling. Roy slid beside the door, back against the wall. Jamie watched from his vantage point as the rancher's chest heaved up and down in quick bursts. He fiddled at his side with something, but Jamie couldn't tell what it was. When Roy looked up, Jamie could've sworn he spotted him.
When the door opened again, Nana stepped outside with one of the younger girls—Eliza, maybe. Without a moment's hesitation, Roy snatched her up into his arms and stuffed a handful of cloth into her mouth. The girl lashed out and tried to yell, but it was hopeless. The man doubled her in size and strength. Nana shut the door quickly and retreated inside as Roy bound the girl's hands and feet. Then, he tied the sack over her head, scooped her up, and was gone—nothing more than bad dream, a shadow, a phantom in the night.
* * *
Before the town came into sight, Jamie plotted out his course of action. He steered Mae toward the home near the well.
He heard Roy Olsen's voice in his head—the conniving bastard: "What's more important? Your life or the girl?"
The scene came into view in Jamie's mind. The two stood outside the rancher's abode, not six hours ago. Dawn had just opened her eyes.
Roy Olsen chuckled. "Well, I'll let you in on a little secret . . . Maricela ain't nothing. Hell, none of them are. This is a man's world, son, our world."
Jamie stood in silence, staring at his feet and grimacing at what he'd been called.
Roy put a hand on Jamie's shoulder. "I knew you was with her. I knew all along. You thought you was clever, but boy, I knew." He cracked a smile, revealing yellowed teeth. "And I've got to tell you, I ain't happy about what you've done. You might've cost me a small fortune."
Jamie looked up at him.
"Look . . . I ain't proud of who I am, of what I do. But a man's got to make a livin' somehow. You'll figure this out sooner or later. And that's why I called you here to talk this mornin'."
"About what?" Jamie asked.
Roy stepped closer and spoke in a hushed tone, a breath above a whisper. "About last night. A few hours ago. You see anything you didn't like?"
Jamie's heart stopped.
Roy smiled. "You see me hightail it out of here with that little girl?"
Jamie didn't dare break away from the man's gaze. His eyes were cold, blue steel.
Roy turned his head and spat. "I'll take that as a yes. Thought that was you." He wrapped an arm around Jamie and walked with him, the scent of tobacco and whiskey stronger with each word. "Work with me. And I don't mean tendin' no horses or muckin' stalls. There's good money here in this business. More people involved in it than you might think."
Jamie shuddered and tried to shy away from Roy.
"If you don't want to . . . well, problem is I might have to kill you." Roy winked, then let Jamie go.
Once he was out of the man's sight, Jamie bolted toward the stable, mounted Mae, and fled toward the canyon.
* * *
Jamie saw black spots when he blinked. His head was heavy. A steady flow of blood streamed down his arm.
The dwelling came into view. Nana was alone outside hanging some clothes on the line. When a slight breeze passed through, they waved.
No one else was around, and that was probably for the best.
Jamie pulled up beside her. When she turned to say hello, he shot her in the chest. The impact of the bullet sent her reeling backward into a basket of dirty linens. She held the hole in her chest and then reached for Jamie. He fired another round for safe measure before he rode off to find Roy.
Jamie steered Mae toward the rancher's home. He passed a few townspeople, all of whom shot him obscure looks. Some trailed after him while others broke off in the opposite direction—possibly to investigate the sound of the gunshots.
When he stopped before Roy Olsen's abode, the rancher was seated on his front porch. His feet were kicked up on a bale of hay, and the Winchester rested sideways on his lap. A box of shells sat on the small, crude table beside him, and a bottle of whiskey, three quarters empty, gleamed, waiting for its next pull.
"Thought you'd bleed out," Roy said as he shifted his bowler hat.
When Jamie dismounted, he noticed that a small crowd had gathered behind him, a safe distance back.
Roy chuckled, then used the butt-end of his gun to push himself up out of his chair. "Well, what—"
In one motion, Jamie slipped the revolver from its holster and let his weapon sing.
Roy staggered and fell back as the bullets rained all around him. Despite the storm, he managed to get a single shot off. The man crumpled to the ground beside his whiskey.
"Well, shit," Roy gurgled through a mouthful of blood. He reached for the bottle, but died before he touched it.
Jamie slumped to the ground, clutching at his stomach. When he pulled his hand away, he knew it was over.
He leaned back in a pool of red. A puffy cloud moved above him in the beautiful sky.
That's when Maricela came into focus.
"Jamie," she whispered, choking back tears.
"Get out of here. Take Mae. Go far . . . far away." Jamie nodded at the horse.
Before everything turned white, she kissed him: his forehead, cheeks, and mouth.
Jamie smiled a final time, then he was gone.
Within seconds, so was she: riding to the canyon, the mountains—somewhere—far away.