Hank Marsden was dying. Wounded, starving and thirsty; there wasn’t a doubt in his mind.
He watched the sun begin its slow descent beneath the stark desert horizon chasing off the wraiths that plagued him in the daylight and casting the sky in hues of purple and amber and gold. All he knew was their shadows; the wraiths. Too fast and too numerous to count, immense and silent and haunting drawing irregular circles around his prone figure; he assumed they were buzzards. Marsden hadn’t the energy to confirm his suspicions. They may as well be ghosts. That’s how he’d come to recognize them, the flitting shadows circling relentlessly day in and day out waiting for him to grow too weak to fend them off.
Joke was on them, of course. Dragging himself across the dusty clay for a day or two now, he’d long since given up any urge to fight. He rarely took the time to bat away the occasional biting fly, though Hank was surprised by how few there were. The flies would come later though, he supposed. Didn’t even know why he bothered—with the dragging that is—he didn’t know where he was going and had already come to terms with never arriving. But something primordial, something deep inside far, far older than his 40 or so years, something used to crawling about on its belly just wouldn’t quit. Still they circled, tirelessly floating on warm air rising from the cracks in the baking earth. Yeah, dying at night would be preferable to being picked apart while he still clung to breath in the searing heat of day.
The night, of course, held its own host of threats. A coyote howled in the distance, barely audible above the constant drone of cicadas roaring in his blistered ears. Somewhere an owl hooted, a mouse scurried in the fading light and met its end. The air smelled of sage and the festering wound in his leg. Far off on the breeze, a hopeful part of him could swear it heard songs sung ‘round a campfire warding off the evening chill. And damn, it was cold at night. The kind of chill that made the cold-blooded thing driving him want to curl up and sleep.
In time the reds gave way to purples, the purples to blues, the blues to a starry black. For what seemed an eternity the world was two halves divided far in the distance. Above the horizon the pin-prick stars twinkled and danced a hopeful dance. Below; the inky void of a lightless desert. The image hung with him seeming to present him with a choice. Hank Marsden pulled in his aching arms and laid his head in them, abiding that ancient urge to rest.
He awoke some time later and lifted his head to a bright world. A full moon had risen above the desert illuminating the world in shining silver light. A scorpion scurried away at his sudden movement, glowing and translucent in the earthshine. Marsden scanned his surroundings wearily. The desert glistened with a fresh coating of dew the likes of which he’d never seen. His parched tongue yearned to lick every stone clean but his body wouldn’t respond. He tried to roll over, just to feel the cool moisture on his scorched back. It took every ounce of energy to coax his weigh in the desired direction shoving against the dampened clay with arms that felt as though tied to anvils. He imagined himself a dried husk of a man, more scarecrow than card-shark; dehydrated and starving, how could he still be so heavy?
One final push to the left and a pain induced howl that silenced the cicadas and he was over, staring up at the unblinking moon, watching the stars in their slow parade across the sky. His eyes were caked with dust and grime and the scene was blurry but there were worse ways to go, he decided.
“You are wounded.” A voice spoke nearby; a decidedly feminine voice.
“A’yeap,” he answered after a hard swallow. He found it amusing how easily he accepted the sudden company. He didn’t even turn his head to look.
“How did this happen?” The voice asked.
“Got shot.” Hank responded, matter-of-factly, “Reckon it lodged in the bone.”
“You are in pain then?” The voice sounded genuinely concerned. Hank grew curious.
“Hurts like hell,” he said, angling his head in the direction he had rolled, his right arm still limply lying across his chest. “Why do you ask?”
To his right, just out of arms reach, a woman sat on her knees. Her face was broad and tanned like deer-hide, her calloused hands held lightly in her lap. She was dressed in a robe of buck-skin ornamented with beads and feathers. Her raven-black hair tied in two long braids on either side of her face shimmered in the silvery light. Her eyes, wide and dark and alert hinted at a youth not so readily displayed in the rest of her features.
“From what do you flee?” She asked.
Marsden didn’t answer, choosing instead to focus his attention on stars above.
“Your wound,” she explained, “I do not see it, yet you say it lodged in the bone. You were shot in the back. You were fleeing.”
A shooting star crossed his gaze. “Are you going to help me? Or just watch me die?”
“My people have a story,” she began, “of a woman called Piyata.”
Hank Marsden groaned and closed his eyes. The sand and grit broke loose from his eyelashes stinging madly. He couldn’t even produce the tears to wash it away. By no means was he going to produce the energy to chase this woman off.
“Piyata found herself wandering the desert; hungry and thirsty. Though both young and beautiful, she too had been chased from her home. Piyata ran for hours, she walked for days, and finally she crawled. Much like you crawl.
“One night, when Piyata stood on the precipice of eternity, Coyote came to her in the guise of a man. Coyote said to her, ‘Woman, why do you crawl? Surely one of such youth and beauty cannot be alone on these plains, surely she would be carried. Where is your man? Where are your people?’
“Piyata hung her head and did not answer and again Coyote asked her, ‘Where is your man? Why does he not protect you?’
“This time Piyata put her head in her hands and wept, ‘I have shamed him!’ she cried. ‘I have lain with another who is not my husband!’
“Coyote nodded knowingly, ‘I see,’ he said, ‘and he has chased you out into the desert for your infidelity.’
“’No.’ Piyata answered, ‘he does not know. I have left my people for fear of humiliating him, for I truly love him and could not bear him the knowledge. So I ran away to escape my shame or die trying. But the guilt will not cease. It haunts me where ever I might roam, it plagues my dreams. So it seems I shall die.’
“Again Coyote nodded his head. ‘So it seems you shall die.’
“But Piyata did not want to die and she said as much. She could not return home and face her husband because she loved him so, but she feared dying alone on the plain. She told Coyote this and he grinned.”
The woman took a breath and continued. “Coyote said to Piyata, ‘I shall give you a choice. You may lie with me tonight and on the morrow you will awaken free of your guilt, you will only remember this as a dream and you may return to your people free of sorrow or shame where you will live a long life and die peacefully among your loved ones.’
“`Or,’ he said, ‘I shall save your life, but you will live forever on the plains, unable to return home to your people and possessing full knowledge of the choice you have made.’
“It was only now that Piyata noted the man before her was dressed in the skins of Coyote and she recognized his identity. Coyote, you see, is a trickster and cannot be trusted. So Piyata knew she must choose carefully.
“On one hand, Coyote offered exactly what she wished for. Freedom from her burdens, from her phantoms and nightmares, but in order to gain this she must commit again the act which drove her into the desert to begin with.
“On the other, she would carry her burdens forever, but her husband would never know the humiliation of her transgression. She would live, but she would never return to her home.
She paused here for a long moment and Marsden was surprised to find he was listening intently. His head had drifted of its own volition—or the inability to hold itself straight—and he was watching her speak. Her eyes were shut as though recalling a memory long forgotten.
“Go on.” He muttered.
“Piyata pondered her choices for some time but finally decided that an honest life spent alone with her guilt, the knowledge of her own choices and actions was preferable to bringing upon her and her husband still greater shame, regardless of whether or not she would remember it. She could not bring herself to lie with Coyote and felt that, given all of eternity, she might still find peace with her choices. She told him as much.
“Coyote, being a prideful beast, was angered that his advances had been rebuffed. So he reached into her body and stole her heart whereupon her body died. But making good on his promise, Coyote squeezed out the blood onto the plain and there grew a thorny cactus which today bears her name and bears a heart-sized fruit with flesh as red as blood. Forever would Piyata live upon the plain aware of her actions and shame and her thorns would keep any from approaching her or offering comfort.
“With a howl of frustration, Coyote left her there alone. And that night, as the full moon rose above Piyata’s body the Great Spirit looked down and took pity on her. It etched her husband’s face upon the moon and granted the cactus a blossom so once a year, by the light of the brightest full moon, her heart may bloom and she may see the face of the man she loved.”
Hank Marsden closed his eyes once and heaved a shuddering sigh. “I killed a man.”
The woman nodded but said nothing.
“He was a no good thief and a cheat and I shot him for it.” Marsden continued. “The law frowned on it and saw fit to have me hanged. On the day of my hanging I busted loose swiped a six-gun and a horse and headed into the desert.”
Marsden opened his eyes and found her dark gaze staring back at him once again.
“They chased me for a couple of days; shot at me . . . Hit me once, in the back of my thigh. But eventually they gave up. I knew I couldn’t turn back so I kept headin’ on out into the desert, sure I’d find a town . . . or a trail to a town . . . Or something. I dunno.” He took another slow breath.
“I had no supplies and no way to treat my wound; tied it off as best I could. No food, no water . . . between the sun and the infection in my leg . . . I got so sick I fell of my horse. Couldn’t get back on.
“I walked for a while. ‘Til I couldn’t walk no more. Then I crawled. Little here, little there, between blackouts; eating or drinking whatever I could find. Lost track of the days a long time ago. “
“You still carry your pistol?” She asked, inquisitively, her eyes drifting to the holster on his belt.
Marsden let forth a weak chuckle, “A’yeap, I guess so. Lotta good it did me.” Hank drew the pistol slowly and held it in front of his face with both hands ponderously. A sigh of resignation escaped his lips. “No man deserves to die over a card game.”
He looked back at the woman beside him. She had produced a water skin from somewhere and was drinking. “There is a town nearby,” she said, “About half a day to the east. Your people. You should head east; they have food and water and could perhaps treat your wound. You might well live.”
Hank Marsden’s heart fluttered in his chest. But for the reptile, he’d given up hope so long ago and now here was his chance. His chance to live, his chance to find some way to right his wrong, to start over. . . Assuming the law hadn’t gotten there first. But it was a chance he was willing to take a beautiful wonderful chance. “You have to help me.” He said, “I’ll never last another day like this, I’m too weak, too slow, it could take me days to get there. You have to help me. Walk with me.”
“I cannot.” She stated, “They are your people, I would not be welcome.”
“Then give me some of your water, at least give me a fighting chance.” He pleaded.
“I cannot.” She responded, “I too am thirsty and far from home. If I give you my supplies, I will surely die.”
Hank Marsden closed his eyes, hard, squeezing them as tight as he could against his frustration and welling anger. Day after day exposure and starvation had robbed him of strength and will. Slowly his will to continue on and dwindled to almost nothing until now, until he became angry. All hope faded until this woman showed up, this woman arrived at the brink of death taunting him with stories and talk of a town close by and refusing to share her water. Water! That’s all he needed, just the water skin might give him enough to get to salvation. He felt the traces of a tear form at the corner of one eye.
“You still carry your pistol.” She stated quietly. Almost a whisper.
The pistol! Rage boiled inside Marsden, slowly, shakily he raised the six-shooter. He looked at the woman, stared her right in the eye. Her dark, bottomless eyes wide face and tanned skin stared back at him, unflinching. She nodded, slowly. With both hands supporting the heavy implement, the light of the full moon glinting off the tarnished metal. Hank Marsden aimed the gun and fired a single shot.
With the morning light the wraiths returned. Wheeling and circling they stared down at the prone figure of Hank Marsden just as they had for days before. Today, though, he was face up; watching them. On his chest rested the tarnished body of a handgun. Beneath his head blood pooled and soaked into the parched landscape. On his right, just beyond an arm’s length away, a stunted cactus stood bearing a single wilted blossom. A coyote gnawed and tugged on his leather boot. The flies came later.
© A. Stephen Getty 2012
All Rights Reserved