"The price would be heavy," La Mujer said with a mixture of certainty and skepticism, the black curls clinging to her sweaty, tanned and rough cheeks as she leaned closer to Rose, the young white woman who sat in a wooden chair by the old kitchen table.
La Mujer’s eyes seemed to wax catlike for a moment, glinting yellow with flecks of orange and black as she spoke. Rose trembled despite the heat of the nearby hearth and pulled her handmade shawl tighter around her narrow shoulders. In the next moment, however, she had regained her determination and answered forcefully, thrusting onto the small round table a leather pouch that jangled with the promise of gold and silver.
"I can pay," she said through clenched teeth. Her pale complexion immediately flushed with red undertones and her auburn hair, once neatly combed in a tight bun, had fallen slightly, leaving strands of wavy hair dancing around her temples.
Seeing the young white woman speak with fire, La Mujer threw back her head and laughed for far too long. Just as Rose was wondering if the full-bellied cackling would stop, La Mujer slammed her hands down on the rickety table.
"Gold is fine for me, but I’m not the one who will extract the payment I’m talking about."
The candle between them flickered, coins spilled from the pouch and the younger woman flinched.
"Don’t waste my time," La Mujer spat. "You say it was El Cuervo that took your sister? Nothing from this world can touch him. He has very powerful dark magic. That is what you will need to defeat him, AND THAT comes with a very heavy price."
La Mujer fixed her stare intently upon Rose, looking for something inside those pale blue eyes.
"I understand," the young woman said at last.
"Do you?" La Mujer asked doubtfully.
"I would give my life. I would give anything that was mine to give. My soul? Is that what you want? Take it. What good has it ever done me?" Rose was shaking, now with anger rather than fear. "You say he has dark magick? Then give me darker magick. Do you hear me? Give me the devil himself to ride El Cuervo down and carry him back to hell!"
La Mujer smiled a mirthless grimace. The fire of the hearth cast shadows on the deep etchings around her eyes and cheeks, the light crawled over her scars of battle and the marks of the burning sun. She tapped her finger thoughtfully on the table and regarded the other woman for a moment.
"I know just the thing," she said, scooping up the bag of glittering coins and carrying them to the worn straw mattress in the corner.
When she had stuffed the treasure out of sight she went to the hearth that crackled and burst with licking flames. Using a pointed dagger she kept tucked beneath her stained rope belt, she scratched a large circle into the dirt floor just in front of the flames.
"Bring me that hat," La Mujer commanded, her hand gesturing to a black hat that hung on the wall.
La Mujer kept her eyes on the thick line of the circle as the young woman rose tentatively from the creaky chair. Rose walked quickly to the hat hanging to the left of the wooden door. Beside it a black linen sack dangled from another rusty nail protruding from the adobe.
As the younger woman reached for the hat something moved within the sack. On impulse, she quickly jerked her hand away, hastily snatching the hat.
"The cup too," La Mujer demanded.
"And the pitcher?" the young white woman asked.
"Just the cup."
La Mujer beckoned Rose into the circle and put the hat on the young white woman’s head. Her old, wrinkled hands took the cup and spilled the water onto the floor, emptying it completely outside the circle’s ring. Her eyes closed slightly, taking on a somewhat detached, distant look as she began murmuring something unintelligible.
She took the younger woman’s arm and pressed the pointed dagger into the soft white flesh near the underside of her elbow. Rose stifled a cry as the blood began to flow. La Mujer, still murmuring, swaying gently, caught the warm liquid in the earthen cup. When the cup was nearly full of Rose’s blood, she released her arm and licked the edge of the dagger, then placed it back beneath the rope belt wrapped around her thick waist. The younger woman clapped her white lace handkerchief over the wound and applied pressure, chest heaving, eyes shifting nervously from her arm to the cup.
La Mujer took the hat from Rose’s head. Raising it and the cup high, her murmuring increased to a fever pitch. The walls began to rattle and there was a deep, almost guttural drone that moved through Rose’s ears into her stomach and then out through her limbs.
La Mujer was vibrating softly, then her chest began to convulse, her arms and legs moved spastically in bursts and fits of energy. She held onto the cup, not spilling a drop as her full body heaved with the heat of flowing energy. Just as it seemed the little makeshift cottage held together with crooked nails, crumbling wood and adobe could endure no more La Mujer fell silent and a with a sudden gust the candle and the once roaring flames of the hearth were snuffed out.
There was a momentary darkness and then green flames sprang to life within the hearth. The young white woman gasped as the eerie light revealed a ghostly figure standing in the circle with herself and La Mujer.
"Amara," it whispered tenderly to La Mujer.
"Si, Damon, soy yo." She grinned
"Why have you called me?" The specter rasped.
"Porque carino, la mujer blanca paga su precio." Teeth flashing as her grin widened, she offered the cup to the specter’s lips.
As it drank the form became more material, its colors growing vivid and clear. The green of the flames slowly transformed and within moments, the hearth was restored.
Standing before them was a muscular young man with dark hair and blazing green eyes. His complexion was tanned, like La Mujer herself, but his cheeks were smooth and undamaged by sun and time. His clothing and boots were black leather and his spurs gleamed silver.
La Mujer placed the hat on his head. He flexed his hands and arms and smiled wryly at the young white woman with wide blue eyes.
"So," he said, "how can I be of service?"
"I want you to hunt down the man called El Cuervo."
As she answered she felt her legs buckle. The man in black caught her and steadied her.
"Hmm," he said, "his kind don’t die easy."
La Mujer laughed. "Lucky for her, your kind don’t die so easy either."
He looked the white woman up and down, noticed the purple and white print of her modest dress, the white lace frill along her neckline, the slight disheveled curls at her temples, the wound on her arm.
"What do you want Cuervo for?"
"He has my sister."
"You got a name?"
"And your sister?"
"You just call me Damon." He turned to La Mujer, "Amara, my guns."
La Mujer left the circle and fetched the black linen sack from the wall. Returning, she dipped her hand inside and withdrew two thick rattlesnakes and set them hissing into Damon’s rough, outstretched hands. The snakes coiled eagerly around each of his arms and writhed their way into his empty leather holsters where they transformed into gleaming six guns.
"They will need to feed and you will need to feed. You understand mi querido? Your power and theirs will wane unless you take life. For you, it must be her blood…while she lives. When she is gone…" La Mujer shrugged, looking away into the flames. "But your babies there, they will have to kill, one way or another. The greater the prey, the more powerful they become. Understand? Just like old times."
* * *
Under the moonlight they rode in silence, Rose and Damon side by side. The desert cold was still around them. The stars shone brightly.
After hours of quiet, many miles of desert were spread between them and La Mujer’s adobe hut on the mountainside. The spectral gunman made into flesh by chant and blood inhaled deeply and sighed.
"Smell that night air. There’s something special about the air at night. The stars and moon, the silver light, they change me somehow. Make me new."
Rose nodded silently, looking up at the sky full of light. She stared again at the black horizon, her body full of chill.
She asked, "Are you sure we’re going the right way? I mean," she said hesitantly, "there are no tracks."
"No, no tracks Miss Evans, but I’m sure."
"How can you be sure?"
"Because I used to ride with Cuervo’s gang a long time ago. I know where home is, way down past the border, beyond the river in the land of the dead. I know where Cuervo likes to roost. They wouldn’t have gone straight home after taking your sister. They would have gone east a bit first, grabbing more white girls, burning more farms, taking what they needed, having what they wanted… so we’ll meet up with them eventually in the canyon. All the routes home funnel into the canyon. We’ll get there first and wait in the caves."
"You were one of them then?"
"For a while after the war."
"And how did you die? I mean, you are dead?"
"Was dead. Now, thanks to you, not so much. Cuervo’s woman; that’s how I died. I ran off with her and he came gunning for us."
"So you’ll have a chance for revenge," she said.
"Looks that way." They continued in silence for a while before he stopped by a tall lonesome mesquite and dismounted.
"Why are we stopping?" she asked scanning the deserted landscape for explanation. His answer stopped her cold.
"I need to feed."
* * *
Before crossing the Rio Grande they stopped in a small waste of a town. The dust covered buildings were rickety and slap shod. Light and noise roared from the saloon until they entered and then a hush consumed the place and all eyes fell upon the grinning hired gunman and sickly looking young woman. When the shooting started Rose Evans, already pale from blood loss, crouched under a table and covered her ears. When she came to again it was because Damon was pulling her from under the table. He put her on her dainty feet and pressed a decanter of brandy to her lips.
"You need something too," he said and led her to a wooden table where a round man in a vest sat gazing vacantly over a plate of meat and potatoes. A perfect bullet wound in the center of his forehead trickled blood. Damon pushed the corpse from the chair with his boot and gentle guided Rose Evans onto it.
"Eat up," he told her as she stared at the slab of meat.
She covered her mouth to prevent herself from retching and shook her head. The bloody scene came through to her in short bursts and she felt as though the room were spinning. Shoving the chair away from the table, she let it topple as she ran to the street outside and doubled over. It was starting to rain.
Damon joined her, un-tethering the horses and putting the reins of her mare into her trembling hand.
"I’ll be dead won’t I? By the time we meet Cuervo?"
Damon glanced at her and took a swig from the brandy, but said nothing.
"That’s the price," she continued. "You’ll take my life bit by bit and I’ll watch your guns take the lives of strangers. My soul, all that blood, on my soul. I never noticed I had one till now." Her hair was loose and wet and heavy under the weight of rain. Her face was pale, her blue eyes wreathed in shadow. "But you’ll save Grace, won’t you? Get her away from him. If you don’t kill him, at least get her away."
Damon lifted her onto the horse and took another swig before pressing the bottle into her hands. He looked radiant, almost godlike with his black leather clothes collecting moisture and clinging to his muscular frame. The six guns shone like lesser stars. They looked bigger and more menacing than they had in La Mujer’s hut. He swung onto his horse with one graceful leap and urged it forward as the thunder rumbled ominously overhead and a silver rod of lightning tore through the sky behind them.
* * *
They entered a short series of caves and waited. When Cuervo and his minions entered the narrow canyon, their raucous voices echoed through the red earth, stirring Rose Evans from troubled dreams. Damon pressed a finger to his thin, pale lips and they waited for the noise to die down. She drifted in and out of sleep for a while longer, waiting, waiting.
Was it a dream when she watched Damon un-holster one of his guns and let it slither onto the cave floor as a rattlesnake? Not a dream when he took a small drink from the tender wound on her arm? A scream. Then another.
"Vibora! Vibora! Aye!"
Gunshots ricocheting off the cave walls. Damon creeping away. More screams and gunshots. Terrible laughter. She pulled herself up and used the wall to steady herself as she crept towards the noise. The earth quaked and she stumbled to her knees, crawled a while, emerged into the main cavern.
There stood Damon, guns barking hungrily. Something was flying through the cavern screaming. A raven. A rattlesnake brushed against her hand, hissed at her and kept going. Against one wall a line of young women tied together in a train, mouths gagged, eyes wide.
And Grace. Not with the others, but standing among fallen bodies, searching for something, a pistol, pried from dead hands.
"Cuervo! La Mujer envia sus saludos!" Damon shouted with a grin. His gun barked and the bird fell from the air and landed with a heavy thud as a man.
"No!" Grace screamed, aiming the pistol at Damon and firing before running to the fallen man.
Rose stumbled towards her sister and tried to pull her away.
"Grace, Grace, it’s me."
"Rose? You?" Grace’s voice was full of disbelief as she hastily regarded her sister, then shoved her away. "Go home!"
"Grace, I came for you, to save you."
Damon and his guns were finishing the last few men. He seemed illuminated by shadow, if such a thing were possible, taller, more menacing than ever. Lightning flashed beyond the cave mouth.
"To save me? From what? From soaring above the world? From taking what I want when I want it?"
Grace was laughing, tears streaking her cheeks. Her pale hair hung loose over her shoulders as she kneeled to caress the face of the dead man before tugging his jacket off of him.
"I don’t understand." Rose said meekly as she watched her older sister.
"I’m Cuervo’s woman now," Grace said, "that’s all Rose." She continued pulling on the jacket and gently guided the dead man’s arms out of it. Without glancing at her sister she said, "you should have stayed home."
The jacket was covered in glossy black feathers that glistened as another flash of lightning illuminated the cave. Damon now stood silently as Grace slipped a ring from Cuervo’s tepid hand and placed it on her own. She kissed his cold lips, then bowed her head and shrank down.
In the blink of an eye Grace was gone and a raven leapt up screaming. It circled twice over Rose before flapping out of the gaping cave mouth into the canyon.
* * *
Rose awoke again on horseback, Damon’s arms encircling her.
"Grace?" she croaked.
Damon stopped the horse, slid down and lifted her off as well. He laid her gently upon the ground. The thirsty earth had already soaked up the rain, giving off a perfumed scent. It hardly felt moist against Rose’s back. The clouds were scattered like phantoms across the violet sky. The east glowed pink to herald the dawn.
"Grace is gone." Damon told her. "Soon you will be too."
"I know," she rasped through pale lips. "The others? The girls?"
"I cut them loose and pointed them towards the border."
They sat in silence for a time.
"You’ll fade too, won’t you?" Rose asked, her voice weak and brittle.
"By tomorrow night."
"What will you do till then?"
"I’ll say goodbye to La Mujer."
Pink was bleeding into the violet sky, seeping into it like ink from a spilled blotter, highlighting the clouds.
"She’s the one." Rose rasped after a moment. "The woman you stole from Cuervo."
"Yes," he said, his black eyes smiling, full of mischievous delight.
They sat in silence watching the sky slowly brighten. As the sun’s golden crown crested the horizon Rose pulled the soiled handkerchief from the wound on her arm and Damon took his last drink. A brown dove cooed softly in a nearby thicket of mesquite and coyote willow and a small shrew scampered to its den as the desert cast off the night and shone softly into wakefulness, brilliant, golden, and sharp.