In a Handful of Dust
A witch wind was howling out in the desert. I was praying for a storm to scour Coaling Depot 6 down to the ground, wipe it right off the Arizona Territory map. Apart from prayer, I still had a shot at redemption, by way of killing the man who took Maria from me. Too much of a coward to do it the day before, I was hoping for one last chance.
The door to the depot saloon opened. I figured it was one of Branson's outlaws sneaking in for a drink against the boss-man's orders. But I could tell right away that the man had come in from the desert, a thick layer of dust caked on his clothes. For a moment he stood there swaying, like he'd used up all his strength making it this far. But then he gathered himself and looked around. Nobody here but me, behind the bar. I watched as he unwrapped the ragged scarf from around his face, revealing smooth features and ash-gray skin. His eyes were completely black, like smoky glass marbles. When the Santa Fe company first sent me here to tend bar, Maria had told me to watch for things coming out of the desert when the witch wind blew. I'd always thought her more than half a witch herself. But whoever and whatever this man was, he needed a drink, so I poured out a tumbler of water beside a shot glass of whiskey.
He slammed it back and chased the whiskey with a measured sip of water. Then the stranger removed a pendant from around his neck and offered it to me with both hands, like some kind of ritual. A tarnished silver cross on a chain. Maria's. No mistaking it. I figured he must have been with the gang when Branson took her. Reaching across the bar, I grabbed him by the collar—he was smaller than me—but the man didn't say anything, didn't even pull away. After a moment, I let go. He couldn't be Branson's. He was too weird, too passive. He wouldn't have lasted an hour in Branson's gang, black glass eyes aside.
"Sorry," I said, not knowing if he understood. "But where did you get this? Do you know Maria? Is she—"
"Maria," he said, and a vortex of dust spun out of his mouth. Right there in my saloon his body disintegrated, turning into a swirling pillar that hung in the air for a moment before collapsing. Now a handful of dust on the wooden floor. Not knowing what else to do, I swept it up.
Later that night, a train carrying Mexican gold would be coming through from Nogales. The dynamite was already set in place at the station. Branson's men were out there waiting. They'd left me alive before, the one survivor from the whole depot, because I'd been so scared when they first came through, I'd never left the saloon. I'd even served them drinks before they took Maria. But now I had a shotgun ready, under the bar, hoping Branson would stop by for one last drink before the big event.
The afternoon light was fading when the door opened, and the boss-man entered with four of his lieutenants. Branson was a big man, blond and unshaven, with two Frontier Colts holstered at his hips. The others were armed, too. If I went for the shotgun now, one of them would be fast enough to shoot me down before I got it leveled. I'd have to wait. I told myself I wasn't yellow, just sensible.
"Well, now," said Branson, "barman's still here. I do believe you owe me ten dollars, Leroy." One of the other men cursed and dug in his pockets for a gold eagle. Branson laughed. "Keep it. Plenty to go around after our train comes in."
I didn't say anything, laid out five shot glasses, filled them.
"Smart man," said Branson, nodding at me. "Not even an Apache'd make it on foot through this godforsaken country. Not in high summer, anyhow."
They all took their drinks. One man reached for the bottle, but Branson grabbed his arm. "Later," he said. "Keep our heads clear for the gold."
I gritted my teeth. It would only be another minute. They'd turn to leave and I'd make my move.
Draining his glass, Branson paused. "That woman of yours. What was her name?"
"Maria," I said.
"Pity about that one," he said, leering. "Run off into the desert before we even had a chance to get acquainted. Buzzards probably picking her bones by now."
I didn't say anything. I couldn't.
Branson chuckled. "Oh well. We'll be back later for a real celebration."
And then they left. I'd forgotten all about the shotgun. I was thinking about Maria. About the desert and about the stranger, whatever he was. Now I knew.
Five minutes later I was out the door, into the desert. A blood-red sun sank in the west, and twilight descended. The wind was quiet at first, then it picked back up. It seemed to be leading me on. And then I saw a huge dust devil, swirling, howling, growing larger as I watched. I approached and it surrounded me. The sand should have flayed me alive, but all I felt was a warm embrace. Maria's embrace.
The gold train never made it to Coaling Depot 6. They halted for the night because of the high winds. Then the company had to send a work crew out to repair the rails, because Coaling Depot 6 was gone. A desert storm had scoured it to the ground.