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To Be Free

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Chapter Track: Merida Rides Away – Patrick Doyle, Brave soundtrack

 

In the middle of the night, she took off on her rocky mountain filly, galloping hard across the Great Plains as far away from Blackwater as possible. The young horse flew over the plains with unmatched speed and prowess, carrying the sobbing, fifteen-year-old girl far away from the pain and betrayal she’d been suffering from the past year. The wind tore at the young girl’s long hair, making it whip about behind her as her horse sprinted down the road and into the marshlands. The filly streaked through Thieves Landing at a hell-bent sprint, nearly trampling several townsfolk in her haste.

They left the marshlands behind them and galloped into New Austin territory, through a large and impressive ranch—Maddie didn’t care to look around her and figure out who’s ranch she was riding through; she merely concentrated on clutching onto her horse and riding as fast and as far away from home as possible. In no time at all, she and Gypsy found themselves crossing into foreign land. Gypsy had all but played herself out then, and after crossing a bridge, the filly came to a stop and stood panting with her head hung low and her legs shaking. The poor creature was drenched in sweat and her sides heaved.

Wiping the tears, sweat, and dirt off her face, Maddie sat up in the saddle and took in the scenery. The uncharted territory was majestic and beautiful, with promising wide-open spaces and an endless sky. White sand and desert sage covered the new land that Gypsy stood upon; large red mesas and canyons stretched up high into the night sky. The young girl was bewildered at herself as well—she had just pulled the gutsiest stunt in her entire life, and now that she was so far gone that she was utterly lost, she began to quiver. She looked over her shoulder at the bridge and debated whether or not to turn back around.

No, a voice within her head chastised. You’re a fool and a coward for thinking of turning back. You’ve come this far; don’t you dare turn back! You’re free now, so just keep riding.

The young girl dismounted to stretch her legs and give her horse a proper rest. While the filly tried to catch her breath, Maddie rummaged through her saddle bags. Everything she had, everything she valued, was in there. There wasn’t much, though—a wad of cash sat on the bottom, the last of her father’s and step-mother’s money; wrapped up in a cloth was enough rations to last her a week or so; a revolver and two boxes of ammunition sat in the other bag, as well as a canteen full of cool water. The only set of clothes she had was what she wore. She looked down at her shirt, trousers, and boots and frowned—she was covered in trail dust and horse sweat. Well, so much for keeping clean for a while, she thought. She frowned as she tried to run her fingers through her elbow-length dark brown hair; she was unsuccessful, however, as she came to discover that her hair was in knots. “Goddamn it,” she growled. With a sigh of frustration, she took her hand out from the tangles and gave up. “Guess I’ll have to get cleaned up somewhere…but where the hell am I?”

Clueless as to what to do next and seeking comfort, she reached within her shirt and took out the one thing she had left of her late mother. With both hands, she delicately clutched at the locket that was attached to a long golden chain around her neck. She opened the locket and stared longingly at the old photo of her beautiful mother in her wedding dress. Though the picture was black and white, she saw her mother just as she remembered her: her intuitive brown eyes, her pale, fair flesh, the flawless white dress, and her long, reddish-brown hair that fell to her hips. Irene Ross stared back at her, seemingly peering deep into her soul and inserting the answers to her daughter’s questions. Maddie recalled her thick Irish accent, the way the words floated off her tongue and sounded as if she were about to sing. And, oh, her singing… Maddie remembered the way her mother’s heavenly voice would travel throughout the house as she sang to her little daughter while she combed her hair or worked in the kitchen. So many Irish folk songs were sung in that house, songs that Maddie still remembered. She sniffed as tears began to well in her eyes; she hastily wiped them away with the back of a hand.

Ride on, my child, the photo seemed to say. Ride on…

Maddie tucked the locket back into her shirt. She mounted her horse and squeezed her heels to the filly’s sides, and the horse walked on down the road.

 

*             *             *

 

It wasn’t until the sun had begun to rise that Maddie and Gypsy stumbled upon a town; in the grey light of dawn, they’d ridden out of the white spiraling, twisting trails within the desert and up a large hill. Maddie tiredly looked about her surroundings as her horse plodded into town: to her right was a rickety marketplace, already bustling with people. To the left, she passed a building with a sign that read “BANCO”. She gazed over the citizens of the town—they were all dark-skinned, with black hair and speaking a foreign language that sounded so odd to her ears, yet it was lyrical and held a rapid beat to it. Wide-brimmed hats and colorful blankets adorned the locals; donkeys and emaciated horses were hitched throughout the town. If she didn’t know any better, she would’ve assumed that she’d ridden deep into Mexico.

She pulled up her horse before a hitching post in front of a building with the words “ALCALDE DE CHUPAROSA” on the front. Before she had dismounted, Gypsy stuck her muzzle into the water trough beside the hitching post and began noisily drinking. Maddie’s legs screamed at her as she dismounted and walked around her horse, trying to stretch out her sore, stiff legs and taking in her surroundings. The town was beautiful, in its own strange way, and the locals seemed friendly enough. The men and women that passed by stared at her white skin and tangled dark hair; they gawked at her uncanny dress and her enervated horse. Maddie nodded amicably and greeted them shyly, but they didn’t seem to understand her. She grew silent and stood close to her horse while she drank her fill.

Suddenly, her uneasiness rose. Wanton eyes fell upon her, lingering on her small frame much longer than she wanted. Turning, she looked over to a building labeled “POSADA” and met gazes with an old man that wasn’t as dark-skinned as the others. And unlike the other men in town, he had grey hair and a large mustache. His grey eyes held her captivated, and she froze with fear as he rose from his seat and strolled her way. Subconsciously, she stepped even closer to her horse, who had lifted her head from drinking and eyed her rider with curiosity.

“You look a long way from home,” the old man said as he came to stand before her. His raspy, deep voice betrayed his threatening impression. Maddie stared up into his steel-grey eyes. They were the only part of his old body that remained youthful and bright. He rested his hands on his gun belt; the butt of his revolver peeked out from behind his grey coat.

“Hell, you look like some runaway mail-order bride, miss,” he continued.

"I sure as shit am not!” she snapped and, much to her dismay and shame, burst into tears.

The man put a hand on her shoulders. “Whoa, whoa, whoa there, sweet girl! What’s the matter?”

“I…I r-ran away from… h-home! My m-m-mother’s dead and… my father got remarried to a… h-heinous bitch that tried to make her step-daughter, and…and I HATE her!

“So what in the hell are you doing here in Mexico?”

She couldn’t stop sobbing long enough to answer.

“Easy there, girl. Calm down.” He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and led her toward what looked like the local saloon. He sat her down at one of the poker tables and took a seat across from her, not once taking his eyes off her. “What’s your name?”

She stifled her sobs and ran a hand over her face.

“How long has it been since you ate? You look a little rough around the edges, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

She shrugged.

“Well, let me make you a deal: how ‘bout I take you to a room to clean up, and when you’re freshened up, I’ll give you something to eat and you can tell me everything that happened. How does that sound?”

She nodded, too upset to argue.

“Well, alright then. Follow me.”

They rose from their seats and walked around the corner of the saloon to a wooden door. He opened it for her and ushered her in. “There’s a wash basin and a tub for you. I’ll have one of the ladies give you some spare clothes; they can clean what you’ve got on as well.”

Numbly, she stumbled over the threshold and into the spacious room. Once she had entered, the man closed the door behind her. It was complete with a bed, a dresser, a wash basin, and a tub, as the man had said. In a daze, she undressed and filled the bath tub with the water that was in the basin. She took her time scrubbing off the dirt and horse sweat that had seeped through her clothes and caked her flesh. She took great care in washing her tangled hair as well, and once she was clean, she stepped out of the tub and did her best to comb through her matted hair.

Just then, there was a knock on the door. Frightened, Maddie gave a scared squeak and covered her nude self with her hands just as the door opened and a beautiful Latina woman walked in. The woman seemed unaffected by her nakedness as she strolled forward and handed her a stack of folded undergarments, a beautiful Mexican dress, a comb, and a jar of oil. As the woman spoke in the language she couldn’t understand, she gesticulated toward the clothing and the oil, demonstrating with the comb and her own long dark hair. She faked dipping her hands in the oil then rubbing them together and running her hands over her body and through her hair, and then combing it. Maddie nodded all the while, clueless as to what she was saying, but understanding what she was hinting at. Once the woman seemed satisfied that Maddie understand well enough, she picked up Maddie’s soiled clothes and left the room without another word. Maddie imitated the woman’s actions and moisturized her body with the oil. Once she had done so, she put on the undergarments and then the dress, even though she deplored wearing dresses now. She ran her oiled fingers through her hair, starting at the ends and working upwards, combing it free of the tangles. Once she was done, she stepped out of the room and looked about for the strange old man.

He was standing beside the door leaning up against the wall. He looked her over and smirked. “Feel better now?”

Maddie blushed and stared down at her dusty boots.

“C’mon, let’s get some food in you.” He led her into the saloon and seated her at one of the tables. As he sat down across from her, the bartender came over and looked down at her and the man. He spoke in the foreign language Maddie didn’t understand, so she sat in awkward silence, not knowing what to do, but just then the old man answered back in the same strange language. The bartender nodded and walked away, disappearing behind the bar and through a door.

“He’s getting you some food,” the old man explained, “and some water, too.” He leaned forward on his elbows and looked deep into her eyes. “Now, what’s your name?”

“What’s yours?” she retorted.

“You needn’t be frightened of me, girl. There’s no need for such hostility, especially since I’m providing you a bath, some clothes, and a meal. It’s only fair that you answer my question, now, isn’t it?”

“I’m Maddie Ross.”

“And how old are you, Miss Ross?”

“Fifteen.”

“And what’s a fifteen-year-old girl like you doing here? Where are you from?”

She crossed her arms. “Blackwater.”

The old man’s bushy white eyebrows rose. “You rode that far to get here? Why?”

“Like I said, my mother’s dead and my father remarried. I got sick of it all and wanted to get away. So I did.”

“That’s a hell of a long ride just to get away from home, don’t you think?”

She shook her head. “The farther away I am, the better I’ll be.” She motioned to him with a jerk of her chin. “My turn to ask the questions. What’s your name?”

“Landon Ricketts, miss.”

“And what’s an old man like yourself doing in a place like this?”

He crossed his arms as well and shrugged. “Living quietly, waiting.”

“For what?”

“I don’t know. Just waiting, I guess.”

She eyed him with a strange countenance. “That doesn’t make much sense.”

“Neither does a little girl running away from home.”

She glared at him and opened her mouth to shoot back an angry retort, but just then the bartender set the plate in front of her. She stared down at the foreign concoction, bewildered but hungry. It certainly smelled delicious.

“Go ahead,” Landon coaxed. “Dig in.”

“What is all this?”

“Beans, rice, and an enchilada. Eat, girl. You’re a skinny little thing. You look pretty famished.”

She took up the fork and ravenously began to eat. The new food was indeed delicious and filling, and in between bites and sips of water, she looked up at Landon with growing fondness. As much as she wouldn’t outright admit it, the stubborn, sharp-witted old man was beginning to grow on her.

Her meal was abruptly interrupted by a terrified scream from outside. Maddie jumped in her seat and dropped her fork. Landon leapt to his feet, his hand grasping the butt of his revolver. A second later, a distraught woman ran into the saloon, shouting Landon’s last name. He hailed her from across the room, and she came running up to him. She stammered over her words, sobbing and afraid, and in the rapid language, she prattled off a story that Maddie was totally clueless about. The next thing Maddie knew, she was following Landon and the woman outside; they stumbled upon a terrifying scene.

Before the saloon, two Mexican men stood ten feet from each other with their revolvers pointed at each other’s faces. They were arguing back and forth about something. The woman tugged on Landon’s arm and pleaded with him.

“What’s going on?” Maddie demanded, looking from the two men to Landon.

Her question fell on deaf ears as Landon strolled forward and spoke to the men before him. For a long tense couple minutes, the three divulged into a heated conversation. It looked as if the men’s revolvers were slowly beginning to lower. The minutes dragged on, and so did the conversation…until the man who’d drawn first decided to take action.

In the split second that it took for the man to raise his gun and point it at the other, Landon had drawn his gun and shot him down. It was too fast for Maddie to follow, and as the man fell dead upon the ground, the other man holstered his gun and turned towards Landon. He ran up to his savior and fervently shook his hand, speaking to him in rapid Spanish. Landon brushed off his gratitude and acted as if it was nothing, like killing the man wasn’t a huge deal.

After the man and woman graciously thanked him and gave him what little money they had on their person, Landon turned and headed back inside the saloon.

“Holy shit!” Maddie exclaimed as she jogged after him. “How…How did you do that? I didn’t even see you take out your gun, Mister Ricketts! Wow!”

He turned around sharply and stared her down, causing her to stop abruptly. “First of all, Miss Ross, I’ll have you not speak in such an unladylike fashion. And second, it wasn’t that exciting as you’d like to believe. Things like that happen here in Chuparosa all the damn time, whether or not I try to stop it. Crime is everywhere Mexico. It’s just the unfortunate way of things in this country.”

“What happened? Why did you shoot that man?”

“Those two idiots were fighting over that woman. I tried talking the one down, but he wasn’t going to have none of that, so I did what was necessary.”

She gaped up at him in wonder. “So… are you the sheriff of this town?”

He chortled as he turned and walked back to their table. “I guess that’s one way of seein’ it.”

“Can… can you teach me that?” Maddie asked as she took her seat.

He blinked and looked up at her. “What does a little girl like you want to do with guns and violence?”

“I want to be able to defend myself as you just did.”

The old gunslinger looked her over with a mixture of emotions. “You want to be a gunslinger, too, huh? So does every young person. Trust me, kid, it’s not as great as you think it is.”

“Please, Mister Ricketts! Please teach me! If I’m gonna be out on my own, I want to be as good with a gun as you are.”

Again, he regarded her with indecision.

Please, Mister Ricketts. Please teach me.”

With a sigh, he holstered his revolver. “I suppose teaching a little thing like you how to shoot couldn’t hurt. Alright, kid. Let’s get you started tomorrow, then. But if I’m gonna teach you how to shoot, you’ll have to do something for me in return.”

“What is that?”

“You’re gonna have to tell me your story, little Miss Ross.”

“Only if you tell me yours.”

A twinkle entered his eye as he smirked at her. “Deal.”

Maddie smiled as she picked up her fork and returned to her meal. “Deal.”