While dinner was being prepared, Al Resendez walked out on the porch, pursuing his well-padded chair. Grunting gently he settled in and pulled a well-worn serape over his skinny old legs. A small flask slipped in and out of his ragged sheepskin coat. Whiskey spoke to him, testing his discipline; conscience fought desire in a familiar ritual. Every sip meant there was less to sell, and Al loved both money and whiskey. While dutifully confronting his conscience, movement to the northeast caught his eye.
A lone rider coming down the hill appeared briefly from behind big manzanita bushes. The trail they were on was well-used and Al had no reason to expect trouble. Living this close to Prescott, he got a lot of people riding by, mostly mule and burro pack trains moving supplies out to the mines at Jerome. He survived here because of the strategic location of his water supply. For the packers and their animals, and everyone else who traveled this route, it was a perfect stop. It wasn't only water to be had: He also kept a good supply of mescal, whiskey and food on hand. The packers often wanted a few warm-up nips to get ready to hit town, and at times they needed a bit of the same for medicinal reasons on the way back.
The way this horse and rider were moving, however, triggered Al's instinct for trouble—there was something unnatural in their movement. He reached for the double-barrel shotgun leaning against the wall behind him and placed it across his lap. His suspicious nature and a willingness to point a gun at people had helped him to keep his watering hole for a long time. Al studied them. He decided it was the rein hand that bothered him; it was unsure, yet he could see they had traveled a long way. The hair on his neck rose.
“Hijo de la ... no quiero eso ahora
,” he whispered.
This visitor, who was still a hundred yards off, was ruining Al’s evening. He rubbed the stubble on his jaw and continued his study. The horse had been ridden hard, the hide dirty with sweat and dust, yet it came off the hill in a ground-covering walk, the front legs reaching out, crunching the loose rock. This is a horse of quality
, thought Al. One hand began to shake, adrenaline replacing the whiskey in his old veins. The rider was running to something or from something, and Al's intuition was telling him it was the latter. His fingers crept towards the triggers and hammers of the shotgun. On the last bend it came to him—the horse and rider had no rapport. Al now understood this was a stolen horse.
At the bottom of the hill the trail changed from loose rock to chalky soil. Dust swirled underneath and gently out behind the horse as it headed straight at him. His eyes met the stranger's. He lifted a hand in a wave, and the rider returned it. The horse veered towards the water trough, but the rider angrily held it straight. Al knew that the horse had been here before, but not the rider. The man was well-armed: two pistols and a rifle. Al felt his body tense—this is a real bandit
. Again the horse pulled in the direction of the water, and the rider, who could now see the trough, let it turn this time and asked for permission with a gesture of his hand.
Al gestured back waving him on. “The water is for everyone,” he said.
As the horse turned, Al could see the long, curly mane, the outline of the Morgan jaw, the deep girth and strikingly perfect confirmation. Madre de Dios. That's Leon's stallion, Viking
. Al knew Leon; he was a regular on this trail—he would never have sold the horse. He had been bringing that horse to Prescott for years and had turned down every outrageous offer made for the animal. I need to capture this bandit
, he told himself. There has to be a reward out for this hijo de la. ... Don't be afraid old man, this is opportunity
Viking's head came up, muzzle dripping.
.” Al set the bait.
“Is that right? Well I bet it ain't free like the water.”
Al could feel his hand shaking at twice the speed of his pounding heart. The reward was probably huge, though. He was sure he could get twenty dollars from Leon just for returning the horse.
“That is correct, amigo.” Intentionally Al waited until the man was looking directly at him and then he took a drink from his flask.
“I suppose you got whiskey and food for sale?”
“A meal and bottle. Sí, amigo.”
Viking lowered his head for another drink. Al's wife crept to the window for a peek at the stranger. She sensed the danger as well.
“How long from here to Prescott?”
“Three hours.” Al stretched the actual time.
“I'll take a bottle of whiskey and a meal wrapped up to go with me.”
“Me amor, dos tamales para llevar, tambien una botella
.” Al called back to his wife.
The door opened a crack right behind him. His wife spoke to him in a whisper. Al nodded ever so slightly, his trembling thumb tapping the hammers of the shotgun.
As Viking lifted his muzzle, the outlaw jerked his head around and headed over to the porch.
Al's wife was quickly wrapping a meal up in old newsprint.
“Two dollars, señor.” Al moved the barrel of the shotgun slightly to cover the bandits approach and drew back the hammers.
The bandit counted coins as he walked over leading the stallion. He looked up at Al, ready to hand him the money, but Al made no move. He gestured with his eyes and the shotgun for the man to put the money on the railing of the small porch.
As their eyes met, Al spoke, “One has to be careful living so far from town.”
“Especially when the price of food is so high.”
“You live here alone?”
“We have our animals and many, many visitors.”
The bandit looked at the shotgun and saw Al's hand shaking. “Why you so nervous?” he asked.
“You might not like the food,
señor,” replied Al.
“Well, if I were you I would relax. You might pull them triggers by accident.”
Tense seconds passed as they waited for Al's wife. Finally she appeared with the food and whiskey. Being careful to not get between the muzzle of the shotgun and the bandit, she placed the bottle and package on the rail, scooped up the coins and moved quickly back into the house.
“You two make me nervous,” said the man as he backed to his horse. Tucking the bottle away into his gear, he mounted and as he gathered the reins stared down on Al.
“Hasta pronto, amigo
.” said Al.
“I don't speak much Mexican, but don't call me amigo, you nervous son-of-a-bitch,” said the outlaw. He yanked on the stallion's mouth and turned away from the porch.
“Sí, señor,” Al said quietly. He could hear the outlaw chuckling to himself as he rode off.
Al's eyes remained fixed on the trail where the bandit had disappeared. His hand shook violently as he brought the flask up to his lips for a guiltless drink. “You are right ... you no mi amigo ... you are, you are a ... gift from God.” After a few moments he rose, walked inside, took a glance at the kitchen counter, and then hugged his wife. “Eres magnifico, mi amor.”
His wife didn't respond, but it was clear she didn't share his absolute confidence in their plan. Al shrugged off the coat, put on a few more layers of clothing, then shoved a pistol behind his belt before putting the coat back on.
“Me voy a regresar en dos horas, mi amor
,” he said.
,” his wife called after him.
Al saddled his old mare Chula and headed down the trail studying tracks. In five minutes he saw the newsprint lying on the trail. After another half-hour of travel he turned off the trail at a familiar spot and rode up on a ridge to gain a broader view. The land here was more open than where his little rancho sat, and he soon spotted movement.
Viking, trailing the reins without a rider, was grazing but still moving slowly in the direction of Prescott. There was no sign of the bandit. After a couple of sips, Al kicked Chula into a fast trot down a well-worn goat trail and set out after the stallion. He would have to circle and come at him from the Prescott side or he would not be able to catch him.
Forty minutes later he finally emerged back on the main trail ahead of the stallion. His relief was double as there would be no long trip chasing a horse heading to familiar territory and he could stop trotting. Oh my God, I am too old and drunk for such rough riding
, he thought. He made a mental note to slow down his consumption as he headed down the trail.
mi amigo,” said Al as he stepped down from his horse. “Cá
Al radiated good nature and was able to catch the weary stallion easily. Leading Viking, he started for home.
In less than ten minutes they came across the unconscious body of the man, curled up like a baby clutching his stomach, a broken bottle off to the side. Al was slightly alarmed by his contorted position and hoped his wife hadn't put too much in the food. Deadly nightshade could kill a man with ease. Drawing his pistol before stepping down, Al cautiously approached the bandit, and gave him a kick to the ribs. Nothing.
“I no nervous now, cabrón,” he said as he searched the bandit's pockets and gear. Sixty-three dollars, two percussion Navy Colts, an 1863 Winchester repeating rifle, thirty-one rounds of ammunition, a book, his saddle and the potential rewards. This was life-changing money.
“Ay, Dios mío.”
It took a bit of grunting and wrestling to get the bandit over his shoulder, and Al was breathing hard as he approached the stallion. With a big heave he tried to flop the man across the saddle. Viking calmly stepped out of the way and the bandit hit the ground hard. That would hurt if he was awake
, Al thought.
Laughter took hold of him while his hand went for the flask, which he shook to gauge the amount left. He decided he could afford to rest for a bit. His wife would not worry too much if it took three hours for him to arrive home.
Al made the decision to switch the saddles and eventually he managed to load the bandit onto Chula. Stepping up on Viking, his mood soared—he'd just captured a dangerous bandit and was heading home riding one of the best horses in the territory. He would take them both to Prescott tomorrow and collect all the money. Al looked up into the sky, small fast-moving clouds momentarily obscuring the stars, which were making their presence known as full dark approached.
“Gracias,” he said in a loud voice.
Al arrived home drunk, but utterly elated.
“Mi amor, venga
!” Al bellowed for his wife. “Mira que tengo
!" Swaying wildly in the saddle, one hand holding the reins and one hand holding his flask, he reached both arms skyward and made his toast to God.
“Gracias a ti, somos ricos
Comments from Michelle Wildgen, finalist judge:
This story packs a good amount of plot and tense detail into a tightly structured package. That opening, in which a character slowly recognizes that the horse and rider aren’t matched, is particularly well done, as is the Western-noir-ish sensibility in which everyone is culpable for something, and the winner isn’t the best man (or even the most sober), but the one willing to play dirtiest.