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What A Few Dollars Can Get You

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It was hot in San Miguel, hot and dry.

After aimlessly stumbling around in the desert for a few hours, you had passed out from exhaustion. The woman at your side later told you that it had given Piripero, the local coffin maker, quite the shock when he unloaded a coffin at the cemetery and discovered a woman unconscious near the grave. He had thought that you were the ghost of some widow guarding over her husband’s body. Well, at least until he noticed that you were very much solid, very much breathing, and thus, very much alive. It wasn’t often that he carried anything living in the back of his wagon, but that morning he, with some difficulty, hoisted your prone form into the spot where the coffin had just laid and made his way back to San Miguel. Apparently the first person to meet him was the innkeeper Silvanito, who took one look at your limp body and asked Piripero how in the hell he had gone to the cemetery with one dead man in a coffin, and returned an hour later with a dead woman. 

Once the two men had established that no, you were not dead and yes, he had no idea how you had come to be in the cemetery, the innkeeper ran to fetch Elena, the village healer. They, with the help of some of the women, had lifted you out of the wagon and carried you to Elena’s house, where you were laid down on a cot of straw and fed water and broth until you regained consciousness. 

Elena recounted all of this to you while treating your sunburnt skin with an aloe vera salve, whereafter she took a look at you and remarked in Spanish that you “resembled a chicken that had been over the fire too long”. This assessment, though not particularly flattering, was not inaccurate; It took a full two weeks for the blisters to heal completely, after which the skin was still a bit sensitive. Most of that time you spent in the house with Elena and some of the other women from the village, trying to be of some help as you recovered. Your mediocre sewing skills were put to the test as they had you mending shirts and patching up old clothes so that you could have something else to wear later on. When you asked how come they had so much clothing to spare the room grew deathly quiet, as if you had committed some sort of faux-pas.  

“There are many shirts in San Miguel that find themselves without a body to fill them.” 

The answer came from an older woman named Teresa who had often bluntly corrected your mistakes while sewing together, however at this moment there was nothing blunt about her. Her words were spoken gently, like a mother explaining something horrible to her child. All at once you felt like you had unwittingly stumbled upon something you shouldn’t have, but the kind look on her face soothed your anxiety. After the tense moment was over, conversation between the women continued as usual, although now you were a bit more cautious about which questions you asked. 

After that ‘incident’, moments like those were few and far between. Most of the time the atmosphere in the house was light and friendly, interspersed with laughter and the younger girls teaching you phrases in Spanish. 
“¿Cómo te llamas?” Sara asked you one afternoon. She enunciated the question very slowly, exaggerating the inflections as if she were talking to an old abuela who had lost most of her hearing. “Me llamo Sara.” The other girls, Binaca and Isabel, giggled as they both took turns dramatically introducing themselves to you until you could perfectly remember the phrase. 

“¿De dónde eres?” She asked next, not noticing Elena stiffening on the other side of the room. “Vengo de San Miguel.” The smile on your face faltered somewhat before you straightened up and attempted to answer her question in your broken Spanish. 

“¿De dónde eres?” You repeated, increasingly aware of how all attention in the room had shifted to you. “Vengo de…” Your voice became hesitant and shy. “Vengo de...somewhere”. At this point you could tell that Sara was beginning to regret her seemingly innocent question more and more as you failed to give an answer and Elena’s eyes burnt holes in the back of her head. 

“De los Estados Unidos.” Bianca cut in, seeming quite pleased with herself for solving the problem. The other two girls were visibly relieved at her intervention, quickly trying to change the subject. “Sí sí! You are gringa!” This statement made them dissolve into giggles at the somewhat perturbed look on your face, which then quickly changed into a fond smile at their antics. A glance cast at the other side of the room showed that the older women were much more relaxed than before, but there was something in the way that Elena looked at you that made you think she would have liked to have known the answer to Sara’s question as well. 

After the blisters on your skin had healed enough that it no longer hurt to move, you were tasked with outside work as well as your regular indoor chores. Although San Miguel was not a village of farmers, there were still crops to tend to and animals to feed. Many days you found yourself out in the Mexican heat trying to win a battle of wills with the stubborn hens that provided  the village’s eggs. This duty came to an end shortly after you came back to the house one afternoon with a particularly nasty scratch on your hand from one ill-tempered hen who was not inclined to let you anywhere near her nest. And thus, another job had to be found for you. 

Elena told you one day that you were like “a chicken yourself, only you don’t know how to lay eggs”. You weren’t quite sure what this was supposed to mean, and you weren’t exactly thrilled about being compared to fowl for the second time since you had met her, but you gathered that she was struggling to find a place in the village for you to be useful. The work available was limited; Most of the women in the village tended to their children and their homes, the few men that you had met so far did not seem to work at all. The only exceptions to this were the two men who had found you, and out of the two of them only Piripero had consistent work. You did not have children to raise or livestock to tend to, leaving you in the position of being an anomaly who did whatever odd jobs the villagers asked her to. You were starting to feel overwhelmingly useless. 

This dilemma was solved about a week after you had been banned from the henhouse; You were taking some food that Isabel’s mother had prepared that morning to Silvanito at the inn: Fresh bread, chiltomate and what you guessed was a bottle of wine. The path through the middle of San Miguel was clear, but you had been warned by Elena to stay out of sight of the two large houses on either side of the town, and thus had to travel through back and side streets. Knowing her to be a woman who didn’t enjoy being questioned, you didn’t bother to ask about the necessity of hiding. And so that day, in the shaded paths twisting between the small clay houses, you made your way to the inn, making sure that you weren’t visible from the main street. 

As you neared the back door, you passed the spot where you knew Piripero worked. At that moment he was sitting on a makeshift bench, hammering long nails into the light wood of a nearly-finished coffin, and the curiosity that had simmered in your mind since you first came to San Miguel finally bubbled over. 

“Why do you make so many coffins?” You blurted out, startling the old man. He wasn’t given a chance to answer as you carried on, all the questions that you had had for the last few weeks spilling from your mouth.

“And why are there no men in this village? All of the women here have daughters and granddaughters, and a few little grandsons, but the oldest of them is six years old. And who lives in the two houses on either side of the village? I have often seen men going in and out of there, but Elena says that I am to stay out of sight.”

The silence between you after you had finished your assault of questions lasted a few seconds. Piripero stared at you with an expression that suggested he wasn’t quite sure what to do with you, and you stared back with what you hoped was a look sympathetic enough to make him answer. The moment was broken by him huffing out a weak chuckle and placing his tools on the bench by his side.

“There are so few men here, pobrecita, because they are all dead.” 

He watched as your mouth snapped shut and waited for a second before continuing. 

“Come here, niñita, and I will show you.” He gestured with one hand to the empty space across from him, then turned his face towards the main road. 

“That house, near the well,” He said, pointing to the large home close to the entrance of the village, “it belongs to a family called the ‘Baxter’s’. And this house, on the other side?” Your gaze followed his finger to the house surrounded by a high wall on the other end of the village. “It belongs to the ‘Rojo’s’.”

When you turned your face toward him again, the look on it was puzzled. 

“But what does that have to do with all the deaths?”

Piripero picked up his tools once again and began to hammer in the nails. “The Baxter’s and the Rojo’s don’t much like each other. This town, it makes its money from selling guns and liquor to bandits and smugglers. The Rojo’s sell the liquor, the Baxter’s sell the guns, and they both wish the other wouldn’t!”

Suddenly the back door banged open, causing both of you to jump. 

“What are you telling her, Piripero? You know Elena told both of us to keep her out of it!”

Silvenito didn’t seem too happy as he looked down at both of you from the doorway, and you got the sudden feeling of being a child who had just been caught with their hand in the cookie jar. A glance at Piripero told you that he felt much the same. 

“It’s not his fault, I asked him!” You defended, standing up from where you had been sitting on a stack of wooden planks. “No one will answer any of my questions about this place, not Elena, not Teresa, not Bianca, not even you!” Your anger changed all at once to frustrated tears as your shoulders slumped and you sank back down. 

“I’m in a strange place, with strange people, and no one will tell me anything.” You scrubbed the dampness from your eyes, willing yourself to not start crying. Your next words came out as a whisper. “I don’t know who I am, where I come from, or even what I’m doing here.” 

A large hand slowly patted your shoulder as Silvenito awkwardly tried to comfort you. 

“There, there, pobrecita. I suppose you have to find out eventually.” 

He let out a long sigh as he took your arm and guided you to the door of the inn. Out of the corner of your eye you caught him shooting Piripero a dirty look as if to say ‘this is all your fault’ and Piripero shoot him a look back which might have said something much more impolite. 

You were sat down at a small table near the closed window. You could hear Piripero’s hammering, the sound of horses and hushed talking through the thin wooden boards. It suddenly occurred to you how little of this town you had seen since you had arrived here, and you were once again filled with a desire to know why everyone told you that San Miguel was such a dangerous place to live. 

“San Miguel is a dangerous place for men, but it is even more dangerous for women.” Silvenito’s words mirrored those in your mind as he unpacked the basket you had brought with you. “The men that those families pay, they kill any man who looks at them wrong. Every day, there is another coffin, another grave, another woman turned widow.”  

He looked up at you for a moment before continuing. “But if one of them sees a woman that they want, they will have her. No matter what she, or any husband she might have, has to say about it.”
 
A chill ran down your spine as you suddenly understood all of Elena’s warnings. ‘Don’t go outside unless I tell you to’, she had said. ‘Don’t wander away, don’t be seen’. Even her order that morning to ‘stay out of sight’ took on a whole new meaning as you considered for the first time that these warnings might have been born out of experience and not paranoia. Since you had arrived in San Miguel, you had forgotten that there were bad people in this world, people who could and would hurt you. 

“Now, do you understand?” He asked, momentarily pulling you out of your thoughts. You dumbly nodded, feeling like a child who had acted out for no reason. Your non-verbal answer seemed to satisfy him for the moment, as he then picked up the basket and carried it towards the small back room. You didn’t take much notice of him leaving, too wrapped up in thoughts of what you had just learned. The only thing that penetrated the fog of your mind was the steady sound of hammering coming from outside the window. 

All at once a thought came to you. You shifted your gaze from the table in front of you to your hands laying on top of it. They, much like the hands of the other women, weren’t soft and smooth, but calloused from years of work. The hammering outside continued as you considered the merit of your idea. You weren’t too strong, weeks spent laying or sitting down will do that to you, but you were pretty sure that old Piripero wasn’t much stronger. And besides, you had always been good with your hands, and it would get you out of Elena’s hair. 

Elena’s words came back to you once more: ‘stay out of sight of the main road’. Standing up, you pushed the window open and stuck your head out, ignoring Piripero’s inquisitive look. The wooden boards that made up the fence separating his work space from the rest of town were sparse in certain spots, but high enough that, if you were careful, no one from the main road should be able to see you. The potential of ending your uselessness was exciting enough to make you shove the disturbing discovery you had just made to the back of your mind and you swiveled your head towards Piripero. 

“Do you think,” You started, watching his face carefully, “that if I had Elena’s permission, and I were very careful to stay out of sight,” The old man raised an eyebrow at you, and you could hear Silvenito moving around in the room behind you. “do you think that maybe I could work with you?”

His second eyebrow joined the other in an expression of surprise before he let out a breath of air and shrugged, palms turned to the sky. 

“If you get Elena’s permission, that’ll be the day!”

As it so happened, that was the day, since the moment that you got back to the house you pounced on Elena and begged her permission. Whether it was because she felt sorry for you or because she had had enough of trying to find something for you to do, she agreed much quicker than you thought she would, and so you became an apprentice coffin-maker. It was, perhaps, not the most glamorous of work, but it was work nonetheless, and most importantly it was work that you were good (or at least decent) at. More than once you would come back to the house in the evening with large, painful splinters in your hands, but you never complained and so Elena never said anything other than to point you in the direction of the tweezers and salves. 

It was hard work, not just the work itself but also the effort that it took to ensure that no one saw you while you were working. Twice now one of the strange men had almost seen you, and once one of them actually had. Thankfully, he had been more interested in getting a drink from Silvenito than he had been in finding out more about the young woman working next to the inn, but that had been sheer luck. Every evening you sank into yourself with relief once you had made it home without any problems. 

The longer you spent in this constant state of cautiousness, the more you understood just how lonely life was for the girls in San Miguel. There were no more young men in their village, and the men that were there were more likely to rape and kill them than they were to marry them. Your best chance of survival as a woman was to pretend that you didn’t exist. Some of the younger children had spent most of their life shut behind closed doors and windows, with only their siblings or cousins as playmates. Any outsider that rode into town could feel the oppressive atmosphere. That is, if they didn’t die first.

That was another aspect of life here that you hadn’t yet become accustomed to: San Miguel was equipped with its own sort of bell-tower, the ring of which meant that another person had died. Up until this point you had always associated ringing bells with weddings and church services, now all you could think of was the death that they announced.

The heaviness of the sound seemed to have taken its toll on the bell-ringer too, one could often see him jumping and running around town, unnerving any newcomers with his declarations of death. You tried not to take too much notice of him, but more than once he had talked to you in his loud, cheerful voice, and you had suppressed the urge to use the hammer in your hand to shut him up before he drew someone else’s attention. 

Violent urges aside, things were going better than expected. The work was fulfilling and you had a friend in almost every woman in town. You were never alone or isolated, and all in all you thought that life could be a hell of a lot worse. 

So it only made sense that something would have to change. 

It wasn’t even really your fault, although Elena would argue that you should have been more careful. A woman named Marisol had recently been taken from her husband and child by one of the three Rojo brothers, and every woman in town was on edge. Now you made your way to the inn before the sun rose in the morning, and worked until the sun set in the evening. You were less likely to be spotted when creeping through the side streets in the dark, but it made you nervous to slink through the shadows like some sort of thief. The relief that overcame you upon reaching the inn in the morning was so great that it sometimes put you off-guard. 

It had been a quiet morning; Ramon, the Rojo who had taken Marisol, was out of town with some of his men doing God-knows-what. His absence meant that the Rojo’s mostly kept to themselves, and although the Baxter’s were still there and rowdy as always, the added security had you feeling more cheerful than usual. 


This cheerfulness manifested itself in a few different ways: A spring in your step, the quiet humming of a tune while you worked and, most importantly, forgetting to check if the inn was still empty before loudly entering through the back door.

“Silvenito!” You called out as you swung the door open with your elbow, eyes fixed on the splinter jutting out of your left hand. “I’ve done it again, could you hand me the pliers? Oh also, do you mind if I-”

The words cut off abruptly as you froze in place. There was a strange man in the room next to Silvenito, and both men were staring at you. 

The look on Silvenito’s face told you that he really wished you were somewhere else at that moment, and you shared the sentiment. Your entire body had frozen in panic, and your mind was reacting too slowly to be of any help either. All you could do was stare dumbly at the stranger while you waited for your brain to catch up.

He couldn’t have been there long, he hadn’t even sat down yet. There was a bottle of liquor and a bowl of stew on the table which were most likely meant for him, but he had stopped moving towards them as soon as you’d made your entrance. You didn’t care much what he had been doing anyways, you were too busy gawking at him in surprise.

The stranger was tall, at least a foot taller than Silvenito. He wore a green poncho and a faded shirt and pair of jeans. What was presumably his hat lay discarded on the gambling table to his left, leaving his dirty-blonde hair uncovered. It was longer than what you had grown accustomed to seeing on the men in town, and part of you vaguely wondered how long it had been since it was last cut. 

Your mind suddenly grasped the reality of your situation. You stumbled backwards, tripping slightly on the hem of your skirt as you tried to find a way out of this mess.

“I was just, I was looking for, um…” Your eyes zoned into the pliers on the countertop and you snatched them up before rushing back out of the door, accidentally closing it with your injured hand. You swallowed a curse, practically sprinting back to Piripero’s side. Your entire body was shaking with nervousness as you unsuccessfully tried to pry the slither of wood from your palm. Your fingers were unsteady and slipped three times before you got it out, after which you immediately pressed on the wound with your other hand in hopes of alleviating the dull pain. You felt like you were going to cry or be sick, maybe both and maybe at the same time. 

Elena was going to kill you when she found out about this. 

You froze when you heard the stranger speak behind the closed window.

“Who’s that?” His voice was smooth and calm, like he was in control of every word he said. It reminded you vaguely of the glowing embers in a fireplace after the flame had died down; It was soft and warm but there was something smoky about it, something that made you think twice before pressing your hand against the coals. 

“Don’t worry about her, what you need to do is get out of this place.” 

Silvenito’s answer snapped you back into focus, making you move towards the coffin that Piripero was sitting on with a handful of nails. He smiled at you gratefully as you handed them to him one by one. The loud hammering drowned out the noise of any conversation for the moment, and you found yourself grateful for the reprieve. 

Would the stranger bother you? He hadn’t looked malicious, actually he had mostly looked indifferent, maybe a little bit surprised. You hoped that Silvenito wouldn’t use this as a reason for you to have to stop working; The thought of being trapped inside the house all day with nothing to do was horrifying.  

The hammering stopped for a moment, and you looked up towards the cantina. The window was tilted open and the two men were looking out at where Piripero sat. 

“Saludos!” The old man greeted, raising one arm towards them. The stranger, who now held a shot-glass in his right hand, raised it slightly as well. When Piripero reached out his hand for another nail, the stranger’s eyes found yours, and you felt the colour rise in your face as you deliberately avoided eye contact. You weren’t sure why you felt so embarrassed, but some part of your brain was sure that if he looked at you for one second longer you were going to explode. You heard the window close again and finally allowed yourself to look somewhere other than the patch of dirt you had been studying. 

When you looked up at Piripero again, the corners of his eyes were crinkled and his mouth was slightly open, as if he were about to say something. Once he took in your red face and uncomfortable expression he let out an amused huff and closed it. He beckoned again for the nail, and your face burned even more as you realised that you had been so busy avoiding looking at the stranger that you hadn’t handed it to him yet. 

You continued to work, deciding that you would simply ignore whatever snippets of conversation you happened to hear from inside of the cantina. It worked for the most part, but at one point you realised that the two men had moved from the table to the balcony upstairs and now, although you couldn’t hear what they were saying, you were subjected to the constant reminder of the stranger’s presence every time he opened his mouth. 

As you shaped a cross out of two pieces of wood, you wondered who this man was. He didn’t look Mexican, so probably a gun-for-hire from the United States. That in itself wasn't uncommon; San Miguel sat right on the border between the US and Mexico. There was always a mix of Americans and Mexicans in the town, not that any of them ever stayed very long. 

You wondered how long the stranger would be in San Miguel, if he would seek employment with one of the families or stay at the inn with Silvenito. If it happened to be the latter then you would definitely see more of him, after all, you spent most of the early morning inside the cantina waiting for the sun to rise and Piripero to be ready for work. For a second you imagined him coming out of the small room that Silvenito shared with any overnighting guests; Would his eyes be blurry, his hair mussed? 

Your movements slowed as you sank further into your thoughts. Would he be surprised to see you sitting at the table? Or would he be indifferent, pretend that you weren’t there? Somehow you thought that would be worse than the embarrassment of being watched. 

You wondered if he would talk to you, try and figure out who you were, what your name was. You wondered what his name was, how it would sound in his voice, on his lips, in your voice, on your-

The sound of five gunshots ringing out broke you abruptly out of your train of thought. You jumped up in alarm and ran to look through a space in the fence. Piripero was no longer beside you, but instead had been standing on the side of the road, watching the situation go down. 

The stranger was standing in front of the Baxter house. There were four dead bodies on the ground in front of him, and two of the Baxter men staring at him from behind the fence. One of them was John Baxter, the man who Silvenito had once pointed out to you as the town’s ‘sheriff’. He had just said something to the stranger, but all you caught was the stranger’s response.

“...well if you’re the sheriff, you’d better get these men underground.”

With that he turned around and walked back past the inn, the corners of his mouth barely turning up. “My mistake,” he said, glancing at Piripero, “four coffins.” 

Your eyes slid from him to the three coffins that Piripero had obviously already just prepared, and you suddenly felt very silly for having missed so much in your inattentive state. When he walked past you, you instinctively pressed yourself against the wall, not wanting him to see you watching. As soon as he’d gone by, you felt silly again for having hid from him like a child and vowed that the next time you saw him, you would act normal. 

He approached the Rojo house until you could no longer see him, at which point you went to help Piripero with the coffins. When you later returned from the cemetery, Silvenito was still standing at the door. 

“Look, niñita, I think you had better come in late tomorrow. Ramon and his men are still gone, and the gringo is going to stay the night.” 

You flushed, remembering your prior musings about exactly that. Silvenito either didn’t notice or didn’t care enough to say anything, taking your small nod to mean agreement. He turned around and walked back through the swing doors of the cantina, muttering something to himself about ‘idiot Yankees’. 

That night, sleep eluded you. You stared at the clay ceiling of the room you and Elena shared and wondered what was so different about this man as opposed to all the other men that passed through looking for work. ‘One difference,’ part of your mind supplied, ‘is that this is the only one who ever saw you. A fact, might I add, that Elena would kill you for if she found out.’

You turned your head towards where the older woman was sleeping. Hopefully Silvenito wouldn’t find it necessary to tell her about your encounter today. Smiling ruefully, you imagined the fit she would have if she found out. ‘What do I tell you?’ She would say, glaring down at you as you unsuccessfully tried to explain yourself. ‘You go before sunrise, leave after sunset, and in between, you stay out of sight!’

Sighing quietly to yourself, you pulled the thin blankets further up and willed your uncooperative body to fall asleep. With your eyes shut so tightly that your nose scrunched and your body as still as a corpse, you rather comically looked like a small child trying very hard to fall asleep. You felt as small and unsure as a child too when, shortly before sleep enveloped you, something in you whispered ‘he has nice eyes, don’t you think?’

The next day passed quickly; A large convoy of Mexican troops passing through San Miguel made you extra cautious not to be seen that morning. They were guarding something in a carriage, but your curiosity wasn’t pressing enough for you to risk being shot to find out what. You had watched the stranger end up with a gun in his face after peeking through the window, and you weren’t keen to find out what they would do if you tried the same. 

Nothing too unusual happened until the day after that, when you decided that you weren’t going to go through the ordeal of coming in later again. By the time the sun rose, you were downstairs in the cantina drinking a glass of water and chewing on some bread that Elena had given you for your breakfast. All you could hear were the birds chirping, the beginnings of movement in the bedroom, and the quiet sounds of the soldiers leaving. ‘They are trying quite hard not to be noticed’ you thought, absentmindedly watching them through the open window. ‘How odd’

The stillness was broken by voices from the other room, and you could hear footsteps coming your way. 

“Tell me,” You heard Silvenito ask as the stranger walked into the main room, “is that the way you go to bed every night?”

He didn’t look much different than the last time you had seen him; Same shirt, same pair of jeans, but now he wore a vest that you assumed the poncho had hidden. His gun belt still sat squarely on his hips, and you wondered if he had slept in that as well. ‘Couldn’t have been very comfortable’ 

“Don’t worry,” He replied, lighting the cigarillo between his lips. “I didn’t dirty the sheets.”

He paused when he saw you at the table.

“Hello,” You greeted shyly. His eyes darted from your face to your feet and up the length of your body again. On anyone else, the action might have looked salacious, but on him it simply seemed like he was taking you in. You shifted your weight nervously, tucking more of your skirt behind one foot, and gave him a half-smile, hoping that you hadn’t grossly miscalculated this. 

“Hello.” He parroted back, voice still smooth and clear as the first time you heard him speak. You wondered if he ever lost control over himself, if his voice was ever rough in the morning or thick with emotion, if it ever lost that edge and became gentler, became fine whiskey and honey and come here, sweet thing.

Any attempt you’d made to appear indifferent to his presence was thoroughly ruined by the pink that stained your cheeks at that last thought. His mouth twitched like it wanted to smile but the rest of his face wouldn’t allow it. It struck you how nice of a mouth it was, not because it was perfect but because it was his, and it fit so well with the rest of his face. ‘Nice eyes, nice mouth,’ The familiar voice whispered, ‘I bet the rest of him is just as nice’

Silvenito obviously wasn’t pleased with this interaction, loudly clearing his throat from where he stood in the doorway. 

“I thought I told you to come in later.” He said, pointedly looking from you to the stranger.

“Well,” You started, acutely aware of the stranger’s gaze, “you said so two days ago, but not yesterday, and I thought that-”

“Ah, nevermind!” He interrupted, changing his focus to the stranger’s steps towards the door. “Wait, I’m coming too!” He grabbed his shirt and made to follow him out. “I want to see for myself how you’re going to get yourself in trouble.”

You watched him pull on the shirt as he joined the stranger, feeling somewhat miffed at his quick dismissal. Just before they went out the door he turned around and pointed a finger at you.

“Now you, you stay out of trouble!”

You weren’t in the habit of getting yourself into trouble anyways, but you decided against provoking him with a smartass reply. After all, he still hadn’t told anyone about the not one, but two interactions you’d had with the stranger, and you figured that you didn’t need to give him a reason to let them become public knowledge. He was a good man, but he wasn’t above hauling your ass to Elena to tell her about the latest ‘incidents’ you’d had at the cantina. So, you bit back any comments you might have had and watched them walk out onto the dusty road, saddle up their horses, and discreetly follow the departing soldiers.

Several hours passed before they returned; The midday heat had just reached its peak, and you were beginning to wish for a bucket of water to upend on yourself when your thoughts were interrupted by the unmistakable sound of a large group of riders coming into town. A quick peek through the gap in the fence revealed that the riders were none other than Ramon, the Rojo brother who had departed a day or so before, and his men. 

You had seen Ramon before in passing, but this was the clearest view you’d ever had. He didn’t have a pleasant face, but that judgement might have been biased from you knowing too much about him. His short, grey hair was unkempt and his face was dirty, making him look wild, almost predatory. But the most unpleasant thing about Ramon Rojo’s face was the way it was always furrowed at the brow so that even when smiling, he looked displeased, sometimes even murderous. You shuddered to think of poor Marisol, locked away in the Rojo house and subject to this man’s every whim.

Your recent assessment of the second-eldest Rojo brother did not inspire any newfound desire to meet him, and so you made double sure not to attract any attention as his group rode by. This turned out to be the correct choice, for not even ten minutes later Silvenito burst into the cantina, breathing heavily and visibly agitated. 

Niñita, you will never believe what we have just seen!” 

The other component of this ‘we’ stepped into the room after him, calm as you’d ever seen, and set his hat down on the table. 

“The convoy of soldiers, they were carrying gold!” 

Silvenito’s words weren’t particularly surprising, you had figured it had been something valuable hidden in that guarded stagecoach. Honestly, the revelation was a bit underwhelming, and you wondered why it had made him so upset.

“We saw them hand it over to another convoy, an American one it seemed, in exchange for guns, but they were tricked! They were shot, all of them, and the gold stolen. When we looked closer, the gringo and I, we saw that the attackers were not Americans at all, but Mexican! Don’t you understand, niñita,” He asked, grabbing one of your hands and ignoring your open-mouthed expression, “that it was Ramon and his men who have stolen this gold and made it look as if the two convoys killed each other for it?”

This announcement, unlike his first one, was not at all what you had expected. It took you a few seconds to process all the information that had just been handed to you, and when you were finished, your astonishment increased tenfold.

“But, I thought the Rojo’s stayed out of government business? Surely the Americans are going to send people to look into the mysterious disappearance of their convoy, and the Mexicans as well?” 

Silvenito shrugged. “Perhaps Ramon is hoping that they will think the two groups killed each other, and some thief later made off with the gold. I cannot explain his reasoning.”

A moment of silence passed before a thought occurred to you. 

“All of those soldiers on horses,” You remarked, looking at him inquisitively, “surely at least one of them was able to escape; What will Ramon do when he reports back to his government?”

 The clear voice of the stranger pulled your attention away from Silvenito.

“He won’t have to worry about that, none of them escaped.”

The full meaning of his words didn’t sink in at first. 

“But what about-” You broke off to stare at him, horror dawning on your face. Up until this point you hadn’t realised the implications of them sharing their discovery with you. Not only had they placed themselves in danger by being witnesses to a massacre, now you were in danger as well for knowing that it had happened. Ramon had killed every single man in that convoy to ensure his theft was a secret, he would have no qualms about killing a woman, an old man and a gringo to keep it that way. 

“Why are you telling me this?” You hissed at Silvenito, suddenly remarkably reminiscent of Elena. “Do you want Ramon to kill all three of us?” 

His eyes widened in shock at your boldness, but you plowed on before he could respond. 

“What were you thinking in the first place, involving yourself in Rojo affairs? They will kill you if they so much as suspect that you saw something, was life here not already dangerous enough for you?”

“And you,” You switched course, whipping around to face the stranger. “I don’t know what your business is in San Miguel, but you’d better leave. I don’t care how good of a shot you are, the Rojo’s will eat you alive.”

If the man in front of you was offended by your tone, he didn’t show it. In fact, he had that same almost-amused air about him that he’d had after shooting four of the Baxters’, and it was infuriating. 

“Don’t laugh,” You snapped, “I won’t make a coffin for you.”

At that he actually smiled, corners of his eyes crinkling as he looked at you with an expression more playful than chastened. It was the look a dog gives a puppy for yapping up at it, and it could almost be described as fond. You weren’t going to dive into what it meant other than that he wasn’t taking your warnings seriously, and after a few seconds of it you had had enough.

“Fine!” You exclaimed, throwing your hands in the air. “You two go and get yourself killed, see if I care! What’s life worth anyways?” 

You irritatedly muttered to yourself about 'stupid men' as you stormed away. Your agitation lead to an aggressive approach to the day’s remaining work, occasionally mumbling angry phrases both in English and Spanish as you hit the nails into the wood a bit harder than necessary. Your foul mood was not improved when you noticed the stranger leave the cantina and head for the Rojo house for the second time that week.

“Does he want to get himself killed?” You ranted to Piripero. “He shows up in town, makes an enemy of half of it, then later goes and seeks out trouble from the other half! I swear that every man in San Miguel lacks any sort of common sense.”

The old man was completely undisturbed by your tirade, the only way you could tell he was listening was the occasional hum he gave in answer to one of your questions. When prompted to share what he thought about the situation, he simply replied “I think that you’re going to break that wood if you lean any harder on it.” 

After realising that yes, you might have been putting a little more weight than was smart on the thin plank while sanding it, you started to cool down. The initial shock and fear behind your outburst had faded, leaving you with a clearer head and the ability to rationally think the situation over. You weren’t responsible for the stranger’s fate, you and Silvenito both had warned him about the dangers of San Miguel and he chose not to listen. ‘It’s out of my hands.’ You told yourself, resolving not to worry about it any more. 

This decision seemed to have become a trend over the last few days; You’d resolve not to think about something any more, and then something would happen which threw you right back into the thick of it. Today was no different, for as soon as the situation had drifted to the back of your mind, you noticed Piripero loading two coffins onto his wagon. 

“Here, come help me.” He said when he caught sight of you. You quickly set down the tools you were carrying and went to help him shove the final coffin into place. Wiping your dusty hands on your apron, your brows knitted as you tried to remember who the coffins were for. 

“Has someone else died?” The question might have been a bit redundant, but you hadn’t heard any gunfire that day. Of course it was possible that someone had died of natural causes, but most deaths in San Miguel were anything but.

The old man lifted his shoulder in a half-shrug and jerked a thumb towards the cantina. “The americano told me to get two coffins ready” 

You glanced at the inn, fingers drumming impatiently on the wagon. A few days ago you might have felt apprehensive about what the stranger could possibly want with two empty coffins, but now you were purely curious. Realising that the Rojo’s had good reason to want both of you dead had dispelled your initial nervousness around him; You figured that the two of you were in the same boat, and that he wouldn’t be stupid enough to try something stupid and risk you ratting to the Rojo’s. 

The sun had already started to set by the time you found out what the coffins were for. Dusk in San Miguel was characterised by a dark, deep blue sky that enveloped the town, leaving only the occasional lantern to light the way. You watched a large group of the Baxter’s leave their house and make their way towards the Rojo’s, and got the distinct feeling that something big was about to happen. The atmosphere was tense enough to be suffocating. 

Once the group was out of sight, you heard the creaking of Piripero’s wagon. Poking your head out to investigate, you saw Silvenito climbing into it and making to drive off. The stranger sat on his horse, obviously waiting for the older man. 

“Wait!” You called out, voice just loud enough for them to hear. The momentary distraction that your interruption caused was long enough for you to wind through the beams of the fence and rush over to them, climbing up into the wagon and plopping down next to Silvenito. His hushed protests as you rearranged your skirts did not faze you. 

“Come on, let’s go!” 

He grimaced, “Niñita, I really don’t think-”

“Come on!” you interrupted, taking the reins out of his hands and spurring the horses on. “You involved me in this, like hell I’m going to sit back and miss the rest!”

That shut him up, most likely out of a sense of guilt, but you could tell that he was not pleased you were coming with. You, on the other hand, were feeling rather satisfied with yourself. For the first time since you had shown up in San Miguel, you had asserted yourself instead of letting everyone walk all over you. He wanted to go off on adventures with the stranger? Well fine, but this time you weren’t going to stay home and knit! 

He begrudgingly took back the reins, and started to lead the horses in the direction of the river. It wasn’t a long trip, maybe twenty minutes, but your burning curiosity made it feel like forever. The stranger had yet to comment on your presence; You wondered, not for the first time, what he could be thinking. 

Dragging two corpses from where they lay on the riverbank certainly wasn’t what you had been thinking when you’d wondered what the two of them were setting out to do. You grunted as you and Silvenito heaved one into the empty coffin. 

“What are we going to do with these?” You asked him, staring the dead man in the face. Death didn’t bother you much anymore after living in San Miguel, but it was still unnerving to be around corpses, especially at night.

“Ask him!” He shot back, jerking his head towards the stranger. Your eyes followed the movement, landing on where he stood, cigarillo in mouth, staring off into the distance. ‘Yeah, no’ You thought to yourself. “I’ll just wait and see.” 

And see you did, although rather puzzled as you later watched the two men unload the coffins in the cemetery. 

“You look as though this place suits you very well.” Silvenito remarked to the stranger, chuckling as he pushed the first coffin towards him. “If you go on like this, you will soon be here permanently!”

The stranger didn’t respond, leaning the coffins against the wagon so that the top was propped up. You helped him shove them into place, then sat back to watch them pop open the lids. 

“I do not understand,” The older man stated, prying open the second lid with a crowbar. “Why is it with all those bodies down by the river we are just burying these two?”

“We’re not.” The stranger hoisted the first corpse on his back. “We’re not gonna bury them.”

At that your eyebrows shot up. 

“What do you mean we’re not burying them?” 

The stranger set the man down against a headstone so that he looked as if he were sitting upright. “That’s right, we’re not gonna bury them.”

Silvenito flung off the second lid, gesturing pointedly towards the body inside. “If we are not going to bury them, I would like to know what we will use them for!” 

You watched the stranger arrange the dead man’s hat further down his face, then turn around and walk towards the second body. 

“Why are we taking the trouble to do this?” 

Silvenito’s question was a fair one, you had just lugged two corpses all the way from the river to the cemetery. The stranger stared at the body for a moment, exhaled a breath of smoke, then vaguely responded “The dead can be very useful sometimes.”

“They’ve helped me out of tough spots more than once.” He repeated the process with the second body, leaning it against the other side of the same headstone.  “First, they don’t talk,”

“Second,” He continued, tugging on the man’s clothing, “they can be made to look alive if I manage it right.” 

“Eh!” Silvenito exclaimed, waving him off with one hand. You helped him place the last coffin back in the wagon, sliding the lid into place.

“And third?” You asked, corners of your mouth quirked. 

He placed an unloaded gun in the first man’s hand before gazing up at you. “Well, third, if you shoot them, there’s no worry, ‘cause they're dead already. Understand?”

There was a thump as Silvenito bumped the coffin’s lid with his hand. “It doesn’t make a bit of sense to me, and I’m getting out!”

You could tell that all this work with corpses had agitated him. He gestured to the two dead men as he continued his monologue.

“I’m alive and I want to remain with the living, understand?” You scooted over to make room for him on the seat next to you as he approached from the back of the wagon. 

“And when I’m dead, I’ll want to remain with the dead, and I would be unhappy if somebody living forces me to remain with the living! I hope that’s clear!”

“And, also, ugh,” He swung himself up onto the seat, “I don’t like the idea that you’ve placed those bodies there!” 

He grabbed the reins from your hands and turned to berate the stranger some more. 

“The man who is buried in that grave is the only one who died of pneumonia in this cursed town!”

You smothered a snort with your hand, figuring that he probably wouldn’t find it amusing. The stranger didn’t seem to be taking him too seriously either. 

“Take it easy now, will ya?” His voice was as cool as the night air. “These two friends of ours here are gonna help me pay your bill.”

“Eh, get up there!” 

With that he spurred on the horses, leaving the stranger and his horse alone in the cemetery. You watched him stare at you for a moment as you grew further and further away, then don his hat and mount his horse. ‘He’ll most likely make it to San Miguel before us anyway’ 

You were promptly sent home as soon as the wagon reached San Miguel. “I’m sorry for ever having involved you in this, niñita,” Silvenito had said, “you must go home and forget all of this ever happened. Go home and stay away until I tell you otherwise.”

‘Like hell I will’ You thought as you trudged through the streets. You didn’t have to stick around Silvenito and Piripero your entire life; If he wanted you far away from him, then fine! But you weren't going to shut yourself inside until he told you to come out, not when you knew what was going on outside. 

When you crept inside the house, Elena was already asleep. A part of you felt guilty for defying her so much today, but mostly you felt rebellious. ‘I am not going to hide away my entire life in fear.’ You told yourself as you wrapped a dark shawl around your hair and shoulders and crept back out onto the streets. 

You had been right earlier about something big happening that night; The formerly still night air was now filled with the sounds of galloping horses and shouting men. Strangely enough, they were all making their way out of San Miguel as opposed to into, and you briefly wondered if this had anything at all to do with your earlier graveyard escapades. You watched the street until all the men had left the town, and then until you could not even hear them or their horses anymore. It seemed like hours that you waited for them to be gone, occasionally twitching with nerves. 

The dead silence after all that noise was unnerving, and it didn’t last long. Gunshots ringing out from the Rojo house made you flinch violently, heart racing and blood pumping loudly in your ears. There were a few more yells before everything went dead quiet again. 

It took you a long time to fully calm down from your fright, and by the time your hands had stopped shaking you could hear the horses approaching again. They sped past in a blur of colour and sound, the Rojo’s first, then the Baxter’s. There was a general atmosphere of upheaval, and you wished you knew what had just happened. 

The streets emptied quickly, the respective parties rushing into their houses, most likely to plan their next moves. There was some wild shouting at the Rojo’s again, but this time instead of hiding, you decided to investigate. Pulling your shawl closer around your face, you slunk around the edges of town until you had reached the side of the wall that surrounded the Rojo’s. You were just contemplating how you could get over it without being seen when a flurry of movement caught your eye.

“I don’t believe it.” You marveled, staring at the tall figure slinking away from the house. ‘He really is everywhere that there’s trouble’ 

He carried something large in his arms, and you desperately hoped that it wasn’t a body like in the cemetery. He turned a corner, and you lost sight of him. Cursing under your breath, you looked both ways across the street before sprinting to the other side in an effort to catch up with him. You headed for where you had seen him last, and caught sight of him near the Baxter house just as you rounded the corner. 

“Hey!” You called out, trying to keep your voice low. His reaction was instantaneous; His gun was out of his holster and pointed at you before you could blink an eye. You stared at the barrel facing you with wide eyes. 

“What are you doing here?” He asked, in what was possibly the only time you’d heard him speak with anything other than a completely calm tone. Your eyes darted from his gun to the hard line of his mouth and then to the prone figure in his arms, whereupon your mouth fell open.

“What is she doing here?” 

Though you had only met her once before, it was unmistakably Marisol in the stranger’s hold. Your mind sped at a thousand miles per hour trying to figure out what on earth he could possibly gain from stealing her back from the Rojo’s, before you were reminded of her limp state.

“Is she…” 

“She’s not dead.” The stranger scoffed, holstering his gun and slinging his arm back under her legs to properly carry her. You trailed alongside him as he made his way towards the large house. 

“How are you going to get her through the door without being seen?” 

“I’m not.” 

He stopped at the side of the house, lifting his head to look at the large window slightly above him. You followed his gaze and raised an eyebrow incredulously at it’s focus. 

“How are you going to get her through the window?”

“Well,” He said, passing her over to you before stepping onto the fence and hoisting himself up, “I hadn’t really planned this far ahead.” 

You struggled to keep the woman upright in your arms as you stared up at him. “Is this how all your plans go? Impulsive decisions and figuring out the details later?”

“It happens.” He deadpanned, unhooking the lock on the window and opening it fully. “Though usually I don’t have someone to hold the women I knock unconscious.”

“Don’t get too used to it.” You grunted out, jumping slightly in an effort to keep her from sliding down. He motioned to a large stone near the base of the fence, and you gingerly stepped onto it. 

“Am I supposed to just toss her to you?” 

“Something like that.” 

He held out his arms, which you awkwardly maneuvered Marisol’s body into. You watched him somehow set her down on the windowsill then swing one of his long legs into the house without letting go of her. He pulled his torso through the window, then swung the other leg in as well. Marisol disappeared from your sight as he hauled her inside, but she was quickly replaced by him leaning out the window, arms outstretched again.

“Well?” He asked after you simply stared at him, “How about it?”

“You must be joking.” You said by way of reply, “It’s all well and good if you’re unconscious, but I’m not going to just jump into your arms and hope that you’ll catch me.” 

He continued to expectantly hold out his arms. You cursed and then begrudgingly started to climb the fence. 

“If I fall and break something, it will be your fault.”

Standing precariously on top of the fence, you closed your eyes tightly and mumbled under your breath. 

“What are you doing?”

You popped one eye open. “Praying to whoever will listen before I jump and break my neck.”

You heard what could almost be a huff of amusement, but when you opened your eyes he looked the same as before. 

Stretching out your arms, you jumped towards him. To his credit, he did catch you, but not as smoothly as he’d likely hoped. The two of you came crashing down onto the floor, him letting out a distinct oomph as you fell on top of his chest. 

“If you were trying to be discreet,” You gritted out through a wince, “I don’t think that was the way to go.”

“I’ve never been very good at it anyways” He deadpanned, face similarly twisted in discomfort. A face which, you had just now noticed, was very, very close to yours. There was a tense moment of silence before you rolled off of him with a pained groan. 

“I think that would have been more comfortable had I been unconscious.” You gestured with one hand to where Marisol still lay on the floor. Your comment seemed to bring him back to reality; He quickly straightened up and moved towards her, bending down to carry her bridal-style. ‘He must be pretty strong,’ You mused, ‘to be able to carry a grown woman like a ragdoll.’ He slung one of her arms around his neck and stood up again. ‘Especially for someone so slim.’

Commotion from outside the room broke the moment you were having, head snapping towards the door. Before you could say anything to the stranger, the door burst open and you were looking down the barrels of two of the Baxters’ guns. They were obviously not expecting to see a woman, surprise flashing across both of their faces quickly followed by a cloud of confusion. 

“What the-” The taller of the two began before catching sight of the stranger. “Oh,” He said, lowering his gun somewhat, “it’s you.” 

You looked from the two men to the stranger, then back again, eyebrows drawn together in confusion as you realised that not only had he met these men before, but he was on good enough terms with them for that to be a good thing. Maybe you should have already questioned his motives for bringing Marisol to the Baxter house of all places, but the whole getting-a-woman-through-a-second-story-window ordeal had taken priority. 

No one took any particular notice of your confusion; The stranger had already moved closer to the two men, looking down at the one who still had a gun trained on him. 

“I’m here to see Mrs. Baxter.” 

That didn’t help much to diffuse the tension. The first man scoffed, raising his gun again. 

“And what makes you think she wants to see you?”

“John!” A voice snapped, and you all turned to look at its owner. Consuelo Baxter was standing in the doorway of the small room, glaring daggers at her husband. She was dressed in her usual black attire, her face drawn with annoyance and what might have been fatigue. The two men begrudgingly holstered their guns. 

“What do you want?” The question was clipped, her eyes trained on the tall man next to you.

“I heard about the Rojo’s taking your son,” He answered, voice calm as he drew her attention to Marisol. “thought you might want to get him back.” 

All of a sudden the full meaning of his words struck you. That must have been what all the commotion was about; The Rojo’s must have somehow captured Antonio Baxter, thus gaining the upper hand over the Baxter family. ‘And so he went and stole Marisol’ Your inner voice whispered, ‘except he didn’t do it to save her, no, he’s going to exchange her for Antonio’

Anger welled up inside of you at this realisation. ‘He’s going to send her right back to that hellhole, he doesn’t care one bit about what happens to her.’ 

From the way Consuelo’s shoulders relaxed, she must have reached her conclusion on who Marisol was. “That was very quick of you,” She remarked, still somewhat suspicious, “the Rojo’s only managed to capture him very late.”

The stranger merely shrugged. “A man’s got to be quick if he wants to succeed.”

She seemed to accept this response, beckoning to him. “Come.” She said, pausing in her movement as she finally noticed you. The surprise that flashed across her face briefly broke through her unruffled mask before she evened out her expression. “And your...friend can come as well.”

Still fuming, you trailed after the two of them, very aware of the two Baxters who followed you out. Consuelo led you to a large bedroom, and the stranger set Marisol down on the bed. 

“Was it really necessary to knock her out?” She asked, voice incredulous as she checked on the unconscious woman. He didn’t answer, choosing instead to watch her determine Marisol’s state. “Here,” The older woman said, addressing you for the first time, “tuck her into the blankets.”

You did as she told, feeling the stranger’s eyes on your movements. You used the opportunity to take a close look at Marisol. She didn’t appear as though she had been starved or mistreated; You reckoned that Ramon was too proud to let her grow any less beautiful under his ‘care’. ‘She does look tired though’ You thought, noting the dark circles under her eyes, ‘Probably hasn’t had a good night’s sleep since she was taken’ 

You almost choked on your anger as you remembered what they were going to send her back to, gently propping her head up with a pillow. Staring at the peaceful expression on her face, you were suddenly overcome with the urge to just take her and run, to steal her away from these people who were using her for their own benefit and send her and her family away from this cursed town. The feeling gripped you so intensely that you had to physically restrain yourself from doing something stupid, simply watching her breathe as you struggled internally. 

Consuelo took no notice of your tenseness, but you had a feeling that the stranger rarely missed anything. 

“Strange, how you always seem to be in the right place at the right time.” She remarked, gazing up at him from the side of the bed. You didn’t look to see if he responded, eyes fixed on where Marisol lay. Consuelo stood up and moved towards the door, stopping next to the stranger. 

“It’s nothing serious. A headache that will pass. She’ll sleep”

You heard the door open, but remained rooted to the spot next to the bed. All you could do was stare at the slumbering woman, and think of her family. Imagine her young child wailing for his mother as he often did, her husband powerless to do anything other than keep him away from her, and Ramon; Ramon with his terrible eyes and mean temper, Ramon who had stolen a woman away from her family simply because he wanted to. 

You didn’t notice the pink half-moons embedded in your palms from your tightly clenched fists, all you could see was the woman in front of you who had done nothing to deserve her situation, who was a loving mother and a loving wife but most importantly a good person. The absolute unfairness of her circumstances, the fact that someone who was so profoundly kind had to endure separation from the two people she loved most because of some man’s desires, made the air stick in your throat and the blood boil under your skin and the muscles covering each part of your body wind up with the desire to strike

You flinched like a wounded animal when a hand touched your shoulder. Every muscle in your body tensed as you whipped around, staring the stranger right in the face. The audacity of him to touch you, to be anywhere near you after what he had done, the liberty he took with touching you so casually, as if you actually knew each other, as if you were actually friends.

“Come on.” He stated, voice as hatefully calm as always. He just stood there, waiting for you to join him so that he could follow Consuelo into the other room. ‘He doesn’t even know,' You stared at his blank expression, at the casual way he leaned against the wall, ‘he doesn’t know the meaning of what he’s done, of what he’s going to do’ You slowly stood up, every move precise and loaded with tension.

Each step you took seemed to add to the fury simmering just below the surface. You followed them out of the room and down the stairs, silently listening to their conversation.

“I wouldn’t mention anything about me bringing her here, I wouldn’t want the Rojo’s to think I’m on your side.” 

Consuelo scoffed, pulling open a drawer in the cabinet in front of her. 

“Don’t be worried. I am a woman who is rich enough to...appreciate the men that my money can buy.” 

She pulled out several large bills, and you saw red. The rage that the sight of such a huge sum of money elicited was almost too much to contain, and you were sure that there had never been any woman so close to exploding as you were in that moment.

John Baxter hurriedly entered the room. “I’ve been to talk to the Rojo’s,” He said, striding towards his wife. “they’ll give back Antonio in exchange for Marisol. It’ll take place in the morning.” 

Consuelo turned to the stranger with a satisfied expression. “Very soon,” She started, holding out the wad of cash, “you are going to be rich.” 

“Mhh-hm.” He hummed, taking the money and going towards the fireplace to leaf through it, “Yeah, and that’s not gonna break my heart.” He tipped his hat to both of them, gesturing for you to follow as he strode out of the house. You did not say goodbye to either of the Baxters.

It was dead silent when you exited the Baxter house. The streets were pitch black and the air should have been cold, but the anger that consumed you warded off any chills. The silence between you was tense, the stranger only breaking it to tip his head back and sigh.

“Here,” He said even as you refused to look at him. He took one of the many bills and held it out to you. “since you helped and all.”

The tension snapped.

“I don't want your money.” You snarled, your voice thick with anger as you looked him in the face. “And I wouldn’t have helped if I knew what you were going to do.”

His hand was still outstretched, his body unchanged except for the slight furrow of his brow. His lack of reaction infuriated you even further.

“It’s all about money with you men isn’t it? Money and guns and killing!” You continued, spitting the last word as if it were a curse. “Well, I don’t want your money! And I don’t want your guns and I don’t want to have anything to do with this pissing contest between the Baxter’s and the Rojo’s, or with the game you’re playing between them!”

He hadn’t moved at all other than letting the hand drop to his side. He just stood there and watched you with those unreadable eyes, not saying a single word. 

“Don’t you know that she has a child?” You pleaded, your voice breaking as your anger melted to grief. “His name is Jesús and he’s six years old and he cries for his mother every night before bed.” 

All of the strength left you as you slowly sank into yourself. “He’s only a kid.” You whispered, eyes trained on the ground in front of you. “And he doesn’t understand why he can’t see her, why she can’t leave the Rojo house and why his father tries to keep him away.” Your vision blurred and you dipped your head, trying to hide the tears. 

“She’s been gone for weeks now.” You stated bitterly, “And he keeps trying to get into the house to see her, and Ramon’s men keep throwing him out. They’ve given Julio several warnings but he just can’t be everywhere and one of these days-” 

The words stuck in your throat. The silence was heavy with the weight of what you were telling him, even heavier because he didn’t respond.

The remnants of your anger sprung up one last time. 

“You don’t care.” You accused, tilting your head up to look into his eyes, showing the tear stains on your cheeks.

“You don’t care that men like Ramon will eat a woman whole, will consume everything she has to offer and then will leave her to rot. You don’t know what it’s like to spend every waking moment terrified that someone knows that you exist, to try as hard as possible to stop living, to stop drawing breath for fear it might reveal you to someone that wants to hurt you, because that’s all the people there are in this town, those who want to hurt you and kill you like some sort of animal.”

The wind blew your hair into your eyes, but your gaze was unrelenting.

“And you don’t know any of this because you are one of these men, obsessed with money and killing and not caring who gets in your way. And so you’ll stand there tomorrow in the street, watching a woman be delivered into the jaws of a beast without any feeling of guilt or anything halfway decent. Well,” You said, straightening up and staring at him defiantly. “I won’t!” 

He remained silent as ever, but as you stalked off you could feel the heavy weight of his gaze on your back. 

 


You did not go to the inn the next day, refusing to play a part in the performance that took place on the main street. Elena seemed to know that something was going on, but she didn’t mention it, and focused on keeping you too busy to think. 

“I have only one day where you do not leave me,” She had said that morning as she started you on your chores, “I don’t intend to waste it!” 

Although you found the notion of you ‘leaving’ her every morning a tad dramatic, you did all the work without complaint. By noon she was having trouble finding things for you to do, and so she sent you to the sewing group at Isabel’s house. Immediately you were swept up into the comforting atmosphere of the women working together, and it was easier to ignore what had happened the night before. 

“Psst, look!” Sara whispered to you at one point, making sure the older women couldn’t hear her. “Bianca has learned how to read palms from that gitano who comes in once a month, do you want her to read yours?”

The group of girls gathered together, hiding you and Bianca somewhat from view so that she could ‘read’ your palm. 

“I see…” She began dramatically, tracing one of the lines with her finger. “a long life! You will live to be one-hundred-and-five, then strain yourself when scolding your grandchildren and bam! Up you go to Dios!” The flourish with which she ended her prediction made you all burst into giggles, the other girls egging her on to continue.

“Here it says you will meet a dark, handsome man with” She paused to wiggle her eyebrows up and down, “smouldering eyes, and that you will be married and have ten children, all of them boys!” 

You gasped, placing a hand on your forehead. “Can’t I have just one girl?”

“Alright,” She conceded with a grin, “but only one!”

The rest of the ‘reading’ continued much the same, her constantly making outlandish predictions about your future life. 

“Ooh, I actually remember this one!” She exclaimed, immediately getting shushed by the other girls. “Sorry,” She whispered, voice now quiet enough not to draw attention from the older women. “but it’s true! I remember what he said because he actually took my hand to show me! Can you believe it?”

“You really shouldn’t be around strange men.” Isabel chided, shifting nervously. 

“He’s not strange.” Bianca practically purred, leaning in, “We’ve spent plenty of time together.”

“Would you just tell us the meaning already?” Sara cut in, bringing both girls back on track. 

“Right, sorry. Anyways,” She said, turning back towards you. “this means that something big is about to happen, a big change or adventure or something. He wasn’t very specific, and really I wasn’t paying very close attention when he leaned over and-”

“Bianca!” 

“Sorry! Ooh, that’s interesting.” 

“What is?” All of you leaned in to peer at your hand, but all any of you could see were the lines and calluses, nothing too interesting. Bianca, however, was staring intently at your palm, following the line with her finger. 

“This represents reconciliation, are you fighting with someone?” 

All at once every eye was on you. There was a lull in your smile when you thought of the night before.  

“No, of course not!” You denied, plastering a smile back on your face. “Unless Elena is about to scold me for not cutting her herbs properly.”

Your deflection eased the spotlight on you, but you could tell they didn’t quite believe you.

“Well, that’s alright,” Sara said, obviously trying to cover up the awkward pause. “We have enough fighting here as it is. Did you know that there was nearly a gunfight today between the Baxter’s and Rojo’s?” 

Your ears perked up at the mention of the two families. “What happened?” 

“Well,” She started, leaning in conspiratorially, “apparently when they were exchanging Marisol for Antonio, Jesús ran out into the street and into his mother’s arms.” 

Your heart seized with fear. 

“And then Julio ran out after him and they all embraced right there in front of both families.”

You gaped at her, the feeling of dread growing.

“And it all seemed like Ramon was going to shoot them off her when the gringo intervened and told Marisol to go to Ramon, and Julio to take Jesús inside.”

“Really?” Isabel gasped, none of them noticing the slackness of your jaw. “Maybe he’s not so bad after all.”

“Don’t be foolish.” You snapped, making her jump. “He just wanted it to be over with, it was most likely taking too long for his tastes.” 

There was a pregnant pause before you noticed Isabel’s wide-eyed look at your harsh rebuttal, whereupon you sighed and raised a hand to rub at your face. 

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap.” You apologized, feeling like you had just kicked a puppy, “I didn’t get much sleep last night and I’ve begun to tire of all this new conflict.”

“It’s alright.” She said, looking at you with big, concerned eyes. “But are you feeling quite well?” 

You nodded at her, managing an unconvincing smile. “It’s just that I will be glad when things go back to normal.” 

“I don’t know,” Bianca remarked, “I think it’s interesting to watch the gringo disrupt things!” 

“What are you girls talking about?”

All four of you jumped at the sudden intrusion. Isabel’s mother stood next to you, hands on hips and not looking very impressed. 

“There is too much talking going on here, and not enough sewing!”

Thoroughly chastised, you ceased conversation and focused intently on your sewing. Every once in a while, someone would make a comment, or ask for help, and another would respond, but for the most part you were silent. You stayed like this until the early evening, when Isabel’s mother sent you home with a bundle of herbs and a loaf of bread. “This for Elena,” She’d said, handing you the herbs. “And this for you. You are far too skinny.” 

With that you swiftly made your way home, wondering about what had happened with the stranger. ‘You’re a fool for thinking his actions were anything other than selfish’ The voice whispered. ‘Don’t read into something that isn’t there’

The rest of the evening passed unremarkably; There was lots of music and shouting from the Rojo house, most likely in celebration of Marisol’s return. At one point you heard the rattle of wagons pass by your house on their way out of town. 

Ramon leaves again.” Elena remarked, staring out of the window. “Good, may he never return!”

You hummed by way of agreement, fingers twisting through your hair as you undid the braids. Elena watched you for a second before huffing and beckoning you to her.

“Here.” She ordered, gesturing to the stool at her side. You obediently moved to sit in front of her, folding your hands in your lap as you waited to see what she would do. The older woman took the half-undone braid from where it lay on your shoulder, and with skilled hands fully untwisted it.

“You know,” She said, combing her fingers through the loosened hair, “I never had any daughters. Three strong sons, yes, but no daughters.” 

She moved onto the next braid, gently unpinning it. “They are all gone now, my sons, one taken by a fever and two by war.” Her fingers stilled momentarily, and you felt the weight of them on your hair like the weight of her words. “They were good boys,” She said fondly, resuming her movements, “but none of them married.” 

“So you see,” Your hair fell around your shoulders as she picked up a comb and sorted out the knots, “I am an old woman, with no sons and no grandchildren, and a husband who died many years ago.” She paused to work on a particularly bad knot. “And so I help the other women and I make sure the children are kept safe and healthy as best as I can. And then one day,” Now she was just running her hands through your hair, “they bring me a girl on the brink of death, dying of thirst and sunburnt to a crisp.” 

“And so I lay her down on a cot and I force her to drink and I slather her with salves until she is not quite so close to dying, but she still doesn’t wake.” The crackling from the fireplace was the only sound to be heard as you waited with baited breath for her next words.

“And so I pray to Dios and I plead with him to spare her, to let this child live and breathe and wake, and he listens.” 

“The same God who took away my sons all those years ago listens, and he lets her awaken, lets her recover from her wounds and learn how to sew and cook, how to heal scratches and bruises and the aches and pains of her own body and she does, she does all of that until she needs something else to do and then she learns how to find it herself.” 

Elena grabs the comb again, and starts to twist your hair into one large braid. 

“I don’t have much more time on this earth.” She stated impassively, shushing you when you made to speak. “And so I am glad for the gift God decided to give me in my old age; Three sons and a daughter.” 

You were rendered speechless, emotion welling up in you as you turned around to face her. You opened your mouth to respond, to say anything at all to the declaration of love she’d just given you, but she shushed you again. 

“Come, get ready for bed.”

You mutely obeyed, pulling on your nightgown and laying down on the straw mattress. You lay there for several minutes, overwhelmed with what Elena had just said. She had already fallen asleep by the time you started to drift off, head filled with images of mothers braiding their daughters’ hair and heart filled with an all-encompassing feeling of peace. 

You were awoken two hours later by the door being kicked open.

“¡Dios mío!”

You stared with frightened eyes at the two men who entered your house. They took no notice of Elena or you, choosing instead to search all the rooms. There were bells ringing and men shouting outside, and the panicked screams of a few women. Elena quickly grabbed a shawl off the chair next to her, and wrapped it around herself. 

 “What are you doing here? What do you want?” 

Her questions were ignored, the first man concluding his search of the house and joining the second where he stood in the main room. 

“He’s not here.” He said, and the other man cursed. As quickly as they’d come, they left, leaving the door open behind them and letting in the noise from outside. You hurried over to the doorway, and gaped at what you saw.

There was smoke coming from the Rojo house, and a horde of people escaping from it. A team of men worked to put the fire out with buckets of water, shouting amongst themselves. The main commotion, however, came from Ramon Rojo, who stood on the porch of one of the buildings, rifle in hand, shouting angrily at his men.

“Get away from there!” Elena snapped, pulling you away from the door and closing it. She hurriedly bolted it again, panic written on her face. The two of you sat together at the table, listening to the chaos outside.

“Elena,” You started, “what do you think is-”

A loud explosion shook the ground. You clapped your hands over your ears, staring at the door with wide eyes. Out of the corner of your eye you could see Elena with her hands clasped together, praying fervently under her breath. When you lowered your hands again, you could clearly hear the sound of gunshots and then a woman screaming.

“Murderers!” Came the chilling shriek of Consuelo Baxter. “I hope you rot in hell! May you and your brothers die spitting blood! Curse you for this!” 

“Murderers!” 

There was two last gunshots, and then all was quiet. 

Horror overtook you as you rushed to the window, ignoring Elena’s cries of protest. The Baxter house was up in flames, and the Rojo’s were standing outside, watching it burn. But you didn’t look at them, no, your eyes were glued to the dozens of corpses littering the ground in front of them. 

“Dios mío.” You whispered as you took in the massacre that had just taken place. You collapsed into the chair behind you, horrified at what the Rojo’s had done.

“They’re all dead.” You told Elena, voice strangely devoid of emotion. “They killed all the Baxter’s, even Consuelo.”

The heavy silence that settled between you lasted until you dozed off, still sitting in the same chair. You mutely stared out the window as your eyes began to droop, mind eager to forget everything that had just happened. 

This numbness carried on into the next day. You dumbly helped Piripero shovel body after body into coffins, for the first time not caring who saw you. No one took notice of a single woman, they were all too busy with their own plans. Ramon and some of his men were going from door to door and interrogating the townspeople. 

“They’re looking for someone.” Piripero said, “But they’re not going to find them.”

“What do you mean?” You asked, face drawn with fatigue.

He simply raised his eyebrows, eyes twinkling. “I’ll show you.”

You felt a sense of unease at the man’s cheerfulness, even more so when he turned off the road on the way to the cemetery and continued along another path.

“Where are we going?”

He didn’t answer, and you shifted anxiously as you waited to see where he was taking you. After twenty minutes the opening of an abandoned mineshaft came into view. He stopped the horses and hopped down onto the ground.

“What are you doing?” You asked, watching him open up one of the coffins and take a brown sack out. He gestured for you to follow, and made his way into the mine. Still somewhat hesitant, you trailed after him. 

He whistled loudly when he reached the entrance, and you were shocked to hear a voice answer him. 

“Piripero, is that you? Come, come quickly!”

Silvanito’s voice was unmistakable. You clambered over the old scraps of metal into the mineshaft, and stopped still in shock once you caught sight of them.

“Good Lord!”

Silvanito whipped his head up towards you, obviously not expecting you to have accompanied Piripero. 

“What is she doing here? Have you gone crazy, old man?” 

“Is he dead?” 

Your question broke off the discussion between the two men as you looked down at the figure lying limp on the floor. The stranger looked like he had been in several fights, and lost all of them; He was bleeding from more than one spot on his body, and one of his eyes was swollen completely shut. You rushed to check on him, and were relieved to feel the weak rise and fall of his chest. 

“See?” You heard Piripero say in the background as you looked over the stranger’s wounds, “she’s good at healing, so I bring her with!”

You tuned out Silvenito’s vexed response, opting instead to gently prod at the stranger’s left hand. “This is broken,” You muttered. His split lip caught your notice, and you winced. “That’s gonna make talking difficult.”

You turned around, squinting up at the two men. “I need better supplies to heal this, what do you have on hand?”

Silvenito reluctantly handed you a few long strips of cloth. “Tore apart some of the towels.” He explained, “I didn’t have time to grab anything else.” 

You took them from him, silently cursing Piripero for not telling you where he was taking you. “I need much more than this to fix all this, I will come back after sunset to do what I can.”

“If the Rojo’s see you, you will be captured and interrogated!”

“Well then,” You retorted, shoving a beam under the stranger's arm and tying the cloth around it, “they’d better not see me!”

You were especially efficient about completing the makeshift splint, mind racing as you thought of all the things you would need to grab from Elena’s medicine cabinet. Silvenito did not accompany you and Piripero back, he said that he would stay with the stranger in case he woke up. Once you had dropped off the coffins at the quickly-overflowing cemetery, you came back to San Miguel, and loaded another batch. 

The work continued until the late evening, at which point you agreed with Piripero that you would return in an hour with the supplies you needed, and then the two of you would go back to the mine. Scampering through the darkened streets, you were reminded of how it had been before the stranger arrived in San Miguel. So much had happened, and yet somehow so little had changed. You wondered what he had done to earn the ire of the Rojo’s, and you wondered what they would do if they found out you were helping him. ‘Why are you doing this?’ Your inner voice asked, ‘He’s not your friend, he’s not even a particularly good man, why bother?”

‘Because I can’t just let someone die.’

The house was empty when you reached it, and you swiftly went about packing a bag of everything you would need. You paused when you opened up the medicine cabinet, and just decided to take one of everything. ‘Lord knows he’ll probably need it’

You jumped when someone loudly cleared their voice behind you. 

“You’re not very discreet, niñita, you never have been.”

Elena didn’t look angry, as you had expected. She looked older than usual, face weighed down with fatigue. You opened your mouth to try and explain yourself, but no words came out. The older woman sighed, and held out a brown purse. 

“I know what you’re doing, I’ve known since the first night you snuck out. Now, I don’t know exactly what it is that you’re up to with Silvenito and that americano, but I want you to take this,” With that she placed the purse in your hand, ignoring your dumbfounded expression, “and get him to take you out of San Miguel.”

You gawked at her, feeling the weight of the purse in your hand. 

“There’s enough money in there to get you over the border, I want you to leave this cursed town. Without the Baxter’s, there is nothing to keep the Rojo’s in check. Do whatever you need to do, but get out of this town before you get killed.”

“I can’t take this!” You protested, trying to hand it back to her. “I won’t just leave you here!”

“Don’t be foolish!”

She firmly refused to take it back, putting one hand on your shoulder and looking you straight in the eyes. 

“Listen child, I am an old woman. I have led my life, raised my family, and buried every member of it. There is nothing in San Miguel for me but death, and I have accepted that. But you,” She gripped your shoulder, emphasising the last word. “You have your whole life ahead of you, and I refuse to bury you before you have led it!”

“Now,” She continued, releasing you and grabbing a large brown sack, “take this and pack your things, and be out of the town before anyone notices that you’re gone.” 

Your resistance must have been written clearly on your face, because all at once her expression softened and she cupped your cheek with one wrinkled hand. 

“Come now, child, don’t be worried. I had you for these past months, and I am grateful for it, but it is time for you to move on.”

You blinked back the tears in your eyes, and silently nodded. 

“Good.” She said, busying herself with gathering your things together. “You be careful out there, you hear? Don’t talk to strange men and don’t ever accept favors.”

“Yes ma'am.” You said, forcing a teary smile. 

“And when you find yourself a nice husband and have a few children, you come visit me, alright?”

Her voice thickened a little on the last few words, holding out the bag and waiting for you to take it. “You’d better hurry.” She said, gently nudging you towards the door, “I’m sure Silvenito is waiting for you.”

“Piripero, actually.” You choked out, and her lips quirked upwards. 

“Crazy old men.”

There was a moment of silence while she just looked at you, taking in your features one last time. Disregarding her usual aversion to affection, you surged forward and embraced her, holding her tightly in your arms. 

“I will miss you.” You mumbled into her shoulder, a few tears escaping your eyes. She squeezed you back. “You’ll be alright, you’re a smart girl.”

She pulled back and patted you on the back before opening the door. You reluctantly stepped out of the doorframe, and took a few steps away before you turned around to look at her one last time. 

“Te amo.” She whispered, so softly you almost missed it. 

“Te amo.” You echoed back, scrubbing the tears from your eyes. She smiled, the most genuine you had ever seen her, and shut the door behind you. 

Thankfully, Piripero didn’t question your tear-stained appearance or the occasional sniffle you let out on the ride to the mine. He probably didn’t want to open that particular can of worms, and so he made no remarks whatsoever. By the time you reached the mineshaft, you had composed yourself, pushing your emotions to the back of your head and switching on your healer brain.

“What do you need all that for?” Silvenito asked incredulously when he saw the two bags you were lugging with you. “This one” You answered, setting it down on the ground with a thump, “is for him” You pointed a foot at the still-unconscious gunslinger, “and this one is for me.” 

“For you?”

“You can’t stay here forever,” You casually explained, unpacking the supplies you were going to need, “so I’m going to watch over him.”

“Now you listen here!” 

You stared up at him, one eyebrow raised. “Yes? What was it you were going to say? Because the last time I checked, I’m the only one here with any knowledge of healing, so if you don’t want him to die, I stay!”

That was the end of that, and with a constant stream of grumbling, Silvenito left with Piripero, promising to return the next morning. The mineshaft was quiet without them, and you wished that the stranger were awake so that you wouldn’t feel so alone.

You looked over at him, sighing as you remembered the extent of his injuries. “Looks like you’re going to be stuck with me for a while.”

The first thing you did was replace the splint on his arm with a better one, wrapping his hand in soft bandages until it was immobilized. Then you cleaned his face and applied various salves and ointments to the different wounds. You dipped a cloth in cool water and then wrung it out, placing it on his black eye in an attempt to calm the swelling. As you worked on his face you again wondered what he had done to get in such bad shape. 

“You must have really pissed someone off.” You remarked softly, feeling his weak exhales on your hand while you treated his split lip. Once you had finished with his face, you sat back to glance at the rest of him. 

“I’m sure you’re covered in bruises,” You told him, scanning up and down his body, “but it’s cold enough in here already without me stripping you to find out.” Standing up to grab the bag which contained your clothing, you rifled through it until you found the thin wool blanket Elena had packed. 

“I am going to check your ribs though.” 

With a grunt, you pulled him up until he was leaning against the structure beam. You winched when you saw the new scratches from the less-than-gentle way you’d shoved him, and told yourself you’d deal with those later. 

First you undid his vest, maneuvering it off both long arms with some difficulty. “How can someone so lean,” You huffed as you pushed him forward to slip it across his back, “be so heavy?”

Once that had been accomplished, you undid the buttons on his ripped shirt and went about the difficult task of getting it off him. At one point you leaned his whole upper body on your shoulder while you tried to get his second sleeve off, subjecting you to the warmth of his bare skin seeping steadily through your dress. You steadfastly tried to ignore how intimate this whole thing was, tried to be professional and unbothered by this half-naked man draped over you. 

You let out a little noise of victory once the offending garment had been removed, and shifted more of his weight on you in order to wrap the blanket around his shoulders. Carefully, you lay him back against the beam. 

His torso was littered with reddish-purple bruises that made you inhale sharply. The skin was mostly unbroken, save for a cut on his shoulder that you had noticed while propping him up. You stared mutely at the expanse of his chest, unsure of how you should even begin. 

Grabbing the small pot of ointment, you opened it and spread some on your fingertips, all the while trying to determine which bruises were worst. You looked at him for a long time, strangely reluctant to start treating them. Before, you had just been touching his face and hand, this was different. You knew that the bruises needed to be treated, but it seemed so intimate to press your fingers against his bare chest. You felt like you were doing something dirty or wrong, like you were taking advantage of him simply by touching. 

‘He’ll just have to forgive me’ You thought as you noticed one particularly nasty bruise near his right shoulder. Taking a deep breath, you gently pressed your fingers against it and rubbed in the ointment. His skin was warm even in the cold night air, and you shivered. 

“You’ve got it good,” You remarked, talking to him to distract yourself from the skin-on-skin contact, “you’re wrapped up in that warm blanket. I would light a fire, but I don’t want to risk drawing attention to us. Not until you’re awake and able to use that gun of yours anway.” 

You glanced down to his hip where the pistol usually lay. 

“Guess they didn’t let you keep that, huh?” 

He didn’t respond, leaving you to continue treating his bruises with a feather-light touch. “You know, I’m almost glad there’s no one else here,” You said conversationally, “it’s less awkward to cross social boundaries when the only witness is unconscious.” 

A strong gust of wind blew into the mine, causing you to shiver again. You wiped your hand on a cloth, cleaning the ointment off to grab a thicker shawl. Wrapping the warm fabric around your shoulders, you plopped down next to him on the ground. 

“I wish I had something soft to lay you on,” You commented, “but I don’t think I could move you onto a mattress if I tried.”

Spotting his discarded vest out of the corner of your eye, an idea came to you. You scooched over the floor, grabbing it and rolling it into a bundle. Carefully you tilted his head forward and placed the makeshift pillow behind it. Sitting back, you looked at the result and huffed out a laugh. 

“That can’t be comfortable.” You mused, observing the awkward angle of his head. After a moment of amusement, you resigned yourself to the fact that, if you wanted to save him some severe neck pain, you were going to have to rearrange him. A little more careful this time, you maneuvered him off of the beam and onto the ground, placing the vest under his head. He looked like an oversized ragdoll lying there, limbs splayed out half-hazardly. 

‘It’ll have to do.’

You secured the blanket around his shoulders a little better, then looked around for a place to sleep. There were two options: You could try and clear away some of the scrap metal and wood, or you could sleep upright against one of the beams. Glancing at the small, sharp shards of metal littering the ground around you, you made your decision; Upright it was!

After settling against your spot of choice, you stared into the darkness, contemplating how life was going to continue for you. ‘¿De dónde eres?’ The question from months ago suddenly came to mind. It had been so long since you had stumbled into San Miguel, but you were still no closer to finding the answer. For a while you had thought that it didn’t matter, that the past was past and the present was what defined you. But now, with no home and no idea what the future held, you desperately wished you knew something for sure. 

You drifted into a restless sleep; Every small noise made you jerk awake, after which you would eventually doze off again. It did not lend itself to a state of refreshment. An especially violent jerk had you wide awake at six in the morning, watching the beginnings of light crawl into the mine’s entrance. You felt sluggish and cried-out, and you were sure you didn’t look any better. Resigning yourself that you weren’t going to be able to fall back asleep, you decided to check on the stranger. 

He hadn’t moved a muscle from where you had set him the night before. Had it not been for the rise and fall of his chest, you would have thought he’d died while you slept. The bruises on his body had darkened overnight to a purple, making them look even worse against his tanned skin. You straightened up, groaning at the stiffness in your joints. The morning air, although not as cold as the night before, was chilly enough to make you regret having moved from your cocoon of warmth. 

Trudging over to where you had put down your bags, you fished through them until your hand touched soft sheep-skin. The waterskin you had packed wasn’t huge, but it contained enough water to tide you and the stranger over until Silvenito’s next visit. 

“Well, big guy,” You said, moving over towards him and slipping your hand under his head to tilt it upwards, “let’s see if I can keep you from dying of thirst.” 

You took a cloth and dampened it with water, sponging the liquid on his mouth. The awkward angle made your arm start to ache, and you shifted so that his head rested on your thigh. This new position made the process much easier, but you felt conflicted about him now basically resting his head in your lap. 

What concerned you the most was how comforting the weight of him was; As if just because you could tangibly feel him, you weren’t so alone. This was completely silly of course, because not only was he unconscious at the moment but also because even when he woke up, he would have no obligation to stay or to help you. Still, you couldn’t help but feel that here, with your hand on the back of his neck and his head resting on your thigh, you were connected somehow; Not by similarities or any grand friendship, but because you were two humans in such a natural moment, in such a deeply intimate position, with your hands on his face and his head in your lap, and because it was so quiet, nothing other than the sounds of you gently tending to his wounds. 

The situation was so vulnerable and so raw that it unnerved you. You were fully responsible for his well-being, he was completely and utterly dependent on you until he woke up, and you weren’t sure how to feel about it. Your contact with people, men especially, had always been strictly limited to platonic, always within the bounds of what was considered ‘appropriate’. But this didn’t fit in those bounds; It wasn’t even sexual or somehow immoral, but you knew that it wasn’t something a lady should be doing. 

“You’re not even aware of the trouble you’re causing me.” You mused, looking down at where he lay in your lap. “And when you’re awake, I’m sure not gonna tell you.”

It was late in the evening when something changed. You had propped his head up on the pillow again, and were mending his shirt to the best of your ability. Silvenito had come by less than an hour before, hurriedly dropping off provisions and returning to the village. 

“It’s very bad,” He’d said, voice hushed as if he were scared the Rojo’s would be able to hear him, “Ramon’s anger grows with every hour they are unable to find him. They’ve torn every house in the village apart in their search, and I fear that he will soon do something radical.”

Now you were alone again, free to let your mind wander as you sewed with practiced stitches. You cursed yourself for not having ordered an explanation from the old man before he had run off, by this point you were horribly curious about what the stranger had done. 

“I can’t imagine it was anything less than shooting one of them in the face,” You shared, tying the knot on a neat row of stitches, “but I saw all of his brothers when they killed the Baxter’s, and they all looked intact. Granted, my sight wasn’t too clear, but I think I would have noticed if one of them were missing something important.” 

“Hnng…”

You whipped your head up, staring with wide eyes at the man who had most definitely just made a noise. Sewing forgotten, you rushed to check on him, tripping in the process and letting out a loud curse. When you reached him, you saw the light fluttering of his eyes as his body struggled to wake up.  

“Water…” He rasped, so quiet you barely heard him. It took you a second to get over your shock, but you swiftly grabbed the water-skin from where it lay on the ground. With an oomph you lifted him into an upright position, one arm wrapped around his back as you held the bottle to his mouth. He drank weakly, barely swallowing at all, and you made sure not to give him too much. Once he had had his fill, you tossed it aside, wrapping the other hand around his arm in order to move him against the support beam. He still wasn’t fully conscious, but you could see his mind quickly catching up to his body.

“Silvenito?” The question was quiet and asked through squinted eyes. 

“Not exactly.” You answered, watching him realise who was sitting in front of him. He didn’t say anything for a while, still too weak to do much of anything other than lean against the beam. An awkward silence settled over you. 

“You’ve been busy.” 

You glanced up at the remark, not really understanding what he meant until you saw the focus of his gaze. The blood rushed to your face as you looked from the shirt in your hand to the blanket still around his shoulders.

“I had to check if your ribs were broken.”

He hummed noncommittally, resting his head back against the beam. “What’s the verdict?”

“You’ll live, but I wouldn’t recommend doing it again.”

A smile ghosted over his lips at your snarky response. “Where are we?” 

“In a mine somewhere between San Miguel and the desert.” You answered, gesturing vaguely at the entrance. “If you want particulars, you can ask Silvenito. He should be back tomorrow.”

At that he lifted his head. “And what about you?”

“What do you mean?” You asked, fully aware of what he meant.

“What are you doing,” He grunted, wincing in pain as he shifted to better look at you, “sitting here, in a mineshaft, mending my shirt?”

‘I’m not even sure myself’ You thought, trying to come up with a suitable answer. Somehow, saying ‘I need you not to die so that you can get me across the border. Oh, and by the way, you’re the source of some very conflicting feelings that I don’t know how to deal with, but I can’t just leave because I have nowhere else to go!’ didn’t sound very appealing.

“Silvenito can’t sew.” You quipped, internally cringing as soon as the words left your mouth. ‘Real smooth’

“And besides,” You continued, attempting to save yourself, “I’m here to make sure you don’t die in your sleep.”

“I’m touched.”

His remark was cool, but you could tell that there was something still bothering him. He looked at you like he didn’t really understand you, and like he was trying to figure you out. ‘Not that I can blame him’ You thought as you avoided his gaze, ‘the last time he saw me I was cursing at him and now here I am, playing nursemaid.’

“What’d you do anyways to get so beat up?” 

There was a moment where neither of you talked or moved before he let out a breath and shut his eyes. 

“Something uncharacteristic.”

You wanted desperately to prod further, and were about to when you noticed the pained way he lent on his right shoulder. Instantly the reminder of his injuries flooded back to you, and you set down your work to go and help him. 

“Normally I’d let you do this yourself,” You told him, grabbing the jar of ointment and one of the rags, “but until you can move without groaning, you’ll just have to get used to me.” 

He didn’t respond, and you took that as permission for you to start. Looking him over, you contemplated the best way to do this now that he was awake, and ultimately decided to seat yourself in between his legs. You were very aware of his eyes on you as you sat down and arranged your skirts, your cheeks flushing light pink. When you picked up his left hand to check on the bandages, he let you take it without any resistance; He just sat there, silently watching you work. 

You tried to focus on his hand and ignore the weight of his eyes on you, but it was a lot more difficult to ignore when he was so close. So you kept your eyes on his hand and away from his face, knowing all too well that you would have to look at him anyway as soon as you were done. The bandages, unfortunately, were perfectly dry and secure. You lingered on his hand longer than you had to, reluctant to move on to the wounds on his face. Eventually there was nothing left for you to fiddle with, and you had to look up.

His expression was fairly neutral; His face and mouth were relaxed and his eyes were almost shut but you could feel him steadily watching you. It was the look of someone who was in pain, but no less aware of their surroundings and of someone who was consciously controlling every muscle on their body. It did not make you any less apprehensive about your increased closeness.

“I’m going to check your eye.” You said, breaking the silence to diffuse some of the tension. After spreading some of the salve on your fingertips, you reached out to gently spread it on the swollen skin. When your fingers touched the wound he flinched so slightly that you could have missed it. After a few moments your arm started to ache from the awkward angle, and you stopped in order to shift a bit closer.   

‘Lord help me’ Was the first thought to enter your mind as you now sat close enough to feel the heat radiating off of him. This was certainly crossing the bounds of propriety, what with his state of undress and you almost in his lap. You weren’t sure if it would be better or worse for him to say something; To make some comment or remark and let you know what he was thinking, to give you some clue as to why he had fixed you with such an unrelenting gaze. Either way, it would be something and it would break some of the tension that was currently making it hard to breathe.

When you reached out again, he didn’t flinch. After finishing with his eye, his split lip caught your attention and you lightly trailed your fingers down his face to press them against the soft skin. He stiffened at the contact, but didn’t say anything, slowly relaxing his body again. It suddenly struck you how still he was being, how quiet and careful he was to not scare you off when he was clearly in pain. You thought of how wounded animals often struck out at anything that came near them, and of how he was controlling every muscle on his body in order not to startle or hurt you. There was something so gentle about this wordless gesture, about the fact that he was trying to put you at ease even though he was the one in pain, that made you linger just a little longer on his mouth, fingertips pressed against the curve of his lip.  

“I need to check your shoulder.” The words came out a whisper. He stayed quiet, but hummed lowly in response, sending vibrations across your skin. 

It wasn’t any less intimate or nerve-wracking to move from his face to his shoulder; Whereas before it had been impossible to ignore his eyes, now it was impossible to ignore the expanse of bare skin that slipping the blanket off him exposed. He was warm and firm and there under your deft hands, muscles shifting under the skin with the movement of your fingers. Occasionally he would tense at your touch, but he never told you to stop, and so you continued treating each of the wounds on his torso until you were satisfied with the result. 

You weren’t sure what to do now that you were finished. There was a moment where you just sat there, staring at the golden skin of his throat and wondering what it would be like to see it in a different context, to grab and touch and feel and taste-

You flushed and quickly stood up, turning away and rooting through your bag in an effort to compose yourself. When you turned back around, you held some of the food that Silvenito had brought hours before. 

“Here,” You said, coming closer and holding it out, “it’s not much, but I don’t want to overwhelm your stomach.” 

He took it without complaint, and as he ate you looked around the mine, searching for a good place to sleep.

“What are you doing?”

 You glanced back over at where he was sitting against the beam. 

“Last night when you were, uh, knocked out, I just kind of,” You gestured to the floor, “laid you down somewhere and called it a night, but now that you’re awake, I’m looking for somewhere to sleep so that we don’t trip over each other.” 

There was a moment of silence as he thought over what you said. 

“I can’t do much tripping like this.” He raised his broken hand.

“I don’t want to be in your way.” 

He shrugged off your argument, squinting up at you skeptically. 

“You’re small enough. Besides,” He looked pointedly at the dark corners of the mine, “there’s God-knows-what on the ground there, and if you get stabbed in the middle of the night I won’t be much help.”

He had a point; Getting tetanus from some rusty scrap of metal wouldn’t be ideal. But when you looked at him and looked at the small space Silvenito had cleared, it was clear that these would be close quarters, and you weren’t sure if you could take being pressed up against him for the entire night.

‘Don’t be silly, it’s possible death versus him, what’s the worst you think could possibly happen?’

He stretched his good arm, the blanket slipping and showing more of his tanned skin, and you inwardly cursed. ‘Why,’ You lamented, ‘out of all the men in the world I need to spend the night next to, does it have to be him?’

Resigned to your fate, you set down your bedding, spreading out a blanket for both of you to lie on. Without really thinking, you turned to him and wrapped an arm around his shoulders to help him like you had the night before. You didn’t really realize what you were doing until he stiffened at your touch, and although you felt like letting the ground swallow you up at your familiarity, he simply let you guide him to the blanket. As soon as he’d sat down you let go, face burning in the dark. You quickly gathered your things together, and made to go around the corner where he couldn’t see you.

“What are you doing?” 

“I’ve already spent one night in these clothes, I’m going to get changed.” 

The silence following your statement was heavy. You finished slipping into your long nightgown, and wrapped your shawl around you just in case he could still see you in the dark. Carefully stepping over any junk on the floor, you made your way back to where he lay. 

He had managed to turn onto his side, good hand trapped between him and the floor, with his bad hand resting on his hip. The blanket around his shoulder had slipped, and before you could second-guess yourself, you knelt down next to him to fix it. 

“Here,” You said, gently lifting his broken hand and slipping the blanket under it. Your hand skimmed his ribcage by accident, leaving goosebumps in its wake. Quickly, you finished tucking it in and stepped over to your side, sitting down on the far edge of the blanket.  

It was impossibly quiet when you slipped under the second blanket, back turned towards him and as far away as possible. The night air was cold on your face and the thin blanket didn’t do much to keep out the occasional gust of wind. You wondered if he was faring any better; He gave no indication that he was uncomfortable but then again, he wasn’t exactly the type to complain. 

Time passed slowly. You were unable to relax, lying fully aware in the dark, occasionally shivering when the wind would get under the blanket. The man behind you hadn’t moved an inch since you’d laid down and was breathing so quietly you could barely hear it. You weren’t even aware that he was still awake until, after a pronounced shiver, his sleepy voice rang out.

“You’re going to freeze to death if you stay over there.”

You froze at the words. He seemed to notice your hesitation, sighing quietly.  

“I won’t move any closer. Neither of us are going to get any sleep if you’re shaking the entire night.”

Again you were frustrated by how valid his point was. Too tired for any real internal struggle, you begrudgingly slid over the blanket until you were an inch away from where he lay. You were careful not to touch him with any part of your body when you laid down again, simultaneously comforted and unnerved by the new warmth at your back. As you began to fall asleep, you prayed to whatever God was listening that you would be as still as a rock in your slumber, and not move at all. 

Unsurprisingly, whether it was because God has a sense of humour or because things rarely happen just because you want them to, you were not still as a rock. He, keeping with his word, had not moved at all from where he laid the night before, but the same could not be said for you. You had somehow moved in the night so that not only were you pressed up against him, but your face was pressed into the crook of his neck and your left arm was curled up to your chest in the space between you, fingers clutching the blanket around his shoulders. 

Sometime very early in the morning, when the stranger first woke up, he had shifted a bit and you had whined in protest, nuzzling further into his shoulder and gripping the blanket tighter. This reaction had stopped him from attempting to move you and so he stayed as still as possible, staring into the dark as he waited for you to wake up. 

Mercifully, he let you think he was still asleep when you finally came to; Shifting sleepily and slowly opening your eyes, you jolted to full awareness as soon as you noticed your position. Realistically speaking, even if he had been asleep, your jerky movements and embarrassed squeak would have quickly changed that. 

Your face was red as a beet and your heart pounded loudly in your ears when you extracted yourself from his side. Your entire body felt like it was on fire, the fresh morning air doing nothing to chill the heat licking at your skin. The side of your face had soft indents marked into it where you had slept against his skin, pink lines that exposed your nighttime escapades.

With some horror you realized that the flames dancing across your skin weren’t only from embarrassment, but also from something much deeper, something that you didn’t allow to surface for fear of what it might bring with it. Something that sang at the touch of your skin to another’s, at the feeling of a body firm and warm pressed up against yours, something that told you to let go and to feel.

A part of you wondered if this was what preachers meant when describing the way sinners burn in hell; The ache deep inside you and the fire on your skin, the way you felt singed from having touched a man who wasn’t your husband. For a horrible moment you thought that you would stay like this forever, face stained red as proof of your sin, body burning with a fever that never broke, never lessened, not so long as you could remember what he looked like, what he felt like, the sound of his voice and the colour of his blood and the way he was always warm, always burning, just like you.

But eventually the moment passed and your skin cooled, returning to its usual hue. The burn faded, but the ache remained. It stuck in your chest, sitting on your lungs, and you wondered how you were going to reach into your ribcage to remove it, how you could ever possibly get rid of something so deep inside yourself. 

He had rolled over in the meantime, head tilted to the side as he watched you. Your cheeks were flushed, strands of hair falling into your face and eyes still hazy from sleep. Your face was consumed by a far-away expression that made you look like an angel from one of those paintings rich people hung up in their houses; Rosy and lovely and clothed in white cotton, dark shawl barely resting on your shoulders, exposing the bare flesh of your collarbone.


This gaze was the first thing you became aware of when coming back down to earth; Your eyes snapped up and met his icy blues staring at you in a way you’d never been looked at before. His whole body was tense, his eyes burning holes into the exposed skin of your neck. He looked at you like he wanted to eat you alive, and you were too weak to ignore that you did too. 

“I…” Your voice trailed off at the intensity of his gaze, his eyes now flickering to your face. 

“I didn’t think you were awake.” 

“Neither did I.” He murmured, eyes glued to the curve of your mouth. “See, up until now I was having this strange dream.” 

You inhaled sharply, unable to look away as he painstakingly sat up, never taking his eyes off of you.

“And in this dream,” He continued, “you were there, pressed up all warm and nice against me, holding on to me throughout the night. Now,” 

At this point he had righted himself completely and was suddenly much, much closer than before.

“Now,” He repeated, staring into your eyes, “I know that it must have been a dream, what with you being a proper lady and me being a strange man; it couldn’t have been you pressing your lips into my neck.”

He lingered on the last word and you felt like you were going to faint. He was so close that it would only take a small movement to touch him, nothing more than a shift of the hand. You were paralyzed at his proximity and at the implication of his words; It was all you could do to stare into his eyes and watch them somehow gradually become closer, oblivious to the way you instinctively leaned towards him.  

His breath ghosted over your face. You were so close, so close, parted mouth mere centimeters away from the split of his lip, a hair’s breadth away from taking the final step into indecency, from closing the small distance between you and pressing your lips to his, propriety be damned.

A shrill whistle echoed throughout the mine.

‘Silvenito’

Reality crashed down on you like a tidal wave. Breaking away from the stranger, you quickly distanced yourself before Silvenito could see you together. As you turned away, chest flushed and heaving, you thought you heard an agitated exhale from the man behind you. You could hear shuffling, presumably from him moving into a more comfortable position. Guilt nagged at you for not helping the injured man, but the embarrassment that coursed through your veins would not let you even glance in his direction. 

When Silvenito reached the mouth of the mineshaft, he was greeted by the sight of you turned completely away from the stranger, resolutely avoiding eye contact and fidgeting with the shawl in your hands. The stranger looked less uncomfortable, leaning up against one of the support beams, but annoyance bled into the corners of his expression with the downward quirk of his mouth.

“What’s wrong with you?” He huffed, “Not a word of response when I gave the signal, you might have been dead!”

You remained silent and he turned to the stranger, eyebrows raising in surprise when he noticed his conscious state. 

“Ah! So you’re finally awake? Well, you must be very lucky my friend, I was betting on you not surviving the night!” 

“Yeah, lucky.” The stranger remarked dryly, wincing when Silvenito clapped him on the shoulder. 

“Yes, lucky!” He shot back. “No man who’s ever incited Ramon’s anger has lived to see another day, much less anyone who stole his woman.”

At that your eyes shot up. “What?”

Now the stranger looked highly uncomfortable. All at once it seemed like he’d really rather have been somewhere else as Silvenito turned to answer your question.

“Didn’t you know? Snatched Marisol right out from under his nose, even got Julio and Jesús out as well. All three of them, disappeared in the night, and only he knows where to.”

You stared at the stranger in disbelief. All of this time you had assumed the worst, had thought that he’d cheated the Rojo’s of money or that they had found out he was a witness. Never had it occurred to you that he might have done something good. 

‘Why didn’t he tell me?’ 

You thought about his response when you'd asked him what he did. ‘Something uncharacteristic.’ He’d said. You thought about standing outside the Baxter’s that night, shaking with anger and accusing him of being an unfeeling murderer. You’d been right at the time, of that you had no doubt, but the fact that the very next day he had done something so reckless, something that didn’t benefit him at all and had very nearly gotten him killed, was incredible. 

He was right, it had been a thoroughly uncharacteristic move, and you couldn’t help but think about how you had shamed him for sending Marisol back to Ramon, and not even a day later he had risked his life to help her escape. You couldn’t suppress the warm, fuzzy feeling that spread out through your chest, and all of a sudden you were gazing at him much softer.

You had tuned Silvenito out while coming to this realisation, completely missing everything he said. The stranger’s uneasy expression hadn’t yet faded, and it almost looked like he was avoiding eye contact with you. He hummed in response to something the older man said, head tilted back and eyes half-closed. 

Silvenito realised neither of you were paying attention to him, huffing with annoyance and setting down the bag of provisions he’d brought you. 

“Well,” He emphasised, letting the bag thud on the floor, “you’d better hurry up and get better so you can get out of here, every day I am at risk of being caught leaving San Miguel.” 

“I’ll do my best.”

“Don’t joke!” Silvenito snapped, “It’s all good for you, hidden in a mine, but if Ramon finds out I am helping you he will kill me!” 

“You don’t need to help if you’re worried about the danger.”

“Ha!”

With that last exclamation he exited the mine, leaving the two of you alone once more. The silence that settled over you was thick with tension. For the first time you were at a complete loss as to what you should say. 

“I thought, I mean, I never imagined…” 

He lifted his head and fixed you with those piercing eyes, watching you struggle to express yourself. You felt as though the words were stuck in your throat, as if there was no possible way to explain the realisation that you’d had moments before. Everything and nothing had changed in the second that you’d understood what he’d done. Everything, in that you could no longer see him the same way, and nothing, in that he was still there beside you, gazing at you with his unreadable stare. 

“Where is Marisol?”

The question wasn’t, perhaps, the best way to start, but you were too shy for grand proclamations or speeches. It felt as if you were meeting him for the first time again, small and unsure and horribly guilty for having misjudged him so badly. 

His eyes narrowed slightly, corners crinkling as he continued to look at you in that curious way.

“Across the border by now, if she’s smart.” 

Your chest filled with relief. ‘Thank God she’s not here.’ A thought occurred to you and your elation was dampened.

“How will they survive without any money?”

The stranger exhaled, watching your reaction carefully as he responded. “That won’t be a problem.”

“What do you-” 

You cut off suddenly as you took in the meaning of his words. Standing up, you moved over to where his vest lay on the ground and fished through the pockets for his wallet. Finding it, you flipped it open and took in its contents. 

“There are five-hundred dollars missing here.” You observed, remembering the sum Consuelo Baxter had given him for delivering Marisol. You heard him sigh and some shuffling as he shifted.

“Yep.”

You looked over at him once more, wallet still clutched in your hands. 

“Why?”

He took a long time to reply. You didn’t know what to expect but you waited all the same, staring at him with anticipation and something akin to hope. 

“Because,” He finally answered, “occasionally something interests me more than ‘money, guns and killing’.” 

Your own words echoed back towards you, and your heart stuttered. He had done it for you, he had listened and remembered and he had actually done it, for you. Five-hundred dollars and a beating fit to kill him and all of it just to prove you wrong. 

He grunted with surprise (and possibly pain) when you climbed into his lap, but was quickly silenced by you pressing your lips against his. At first he stiffened, mouth going slack in shock, before the tension melted out of his body and he wrapped his arms around you to kiss you back. 

The first thing you noticed was how deceptively smooth his lips were; Your mouth glid against his, only to catch on his split lower lip, rough and just begging for attention. You gently bit down on the wound and were rewarded with a low groan from the man beneath you. He responded in turn, nipping at the flesh of your bottom lip and smiling smugly when your mouth opened in a gasp. 

You had never kissed anyone before, but he didn’t seem to mind; He held you tight on his lap with surprising strength, arms circling your waist and pulling you flush against his chest. You couldn’t think, you couldn’t breathe, all you could do was wrap your arms around his neck and hold on. 

A whine escaped your throat when he broke away for air, colouring your cheeks red as he let out an amused huff. “What’s wrong, sweetheart?” He asked, voice dripping with honey as he leant your foreheads together. You squirmed in his lap, burying your burning face in the crook of his shoulder. He smiled again, a clear, dry laugh escaping his lips. 

“Don’t get all shy on me now.” He said, gently shifting you so that he could tangle his good hand in your hair. “I seem to recall you being the one to kiss me.” 

You mumbled something against his skin, the words coming out muffled. His skin was warm against your face, he smelled like the salve you had used on his wounds, the scent clean and soothing and very inviting. You nuzzled into his neck, sliding your hands down to wrap them around his torso. 

“What was that? I couldn’t quite hear you.”

“Nothing.” 

Carefully, the hand in your hair tightened and he tilted your head back so that you were forced to look him in the face. The corner of his mouth twitched upwards as he took in your flushed appearance. 

“Something the matter?”

“No.” You snarked back, challenging him with your eyes. He gazed at you for a moment, lips twitching with amusement. 

“The first time I saw you,” He said, dipping his head to leave kisses along your jawline, “you ran away like I had the plague.” 

“Hmm…”

“And then,” He continued, “you seemed to be everywhere. Outside, working, inside, looking shyly at me and then all of a sudden losing that shyness and telling me to get out of town. You’re a very difficult woman to read, you know that?”

“Not any more difficult than you.” You retorted, gasping out when he bit down on a spot just above your collarbone. He soothed the mark with his tongue, then continued along your chest. 

“Always right next to Silvenito, ignoring everything he told you to do. Have you always been so rebellious, or is that a recent development?”

“Have you always been so talkative, or is there something about a mineshaft that makes you open up?”

He ignored your snark, biting down a little harder in retaliation.

“Ow!”

You caught a glimpse of his shit-eating grin before he started teasing the skin again. 

“You have a particular talent for doing what you shouldn’t.”

“That’s rich coming from the man I helped hoist a body through a second-story window.”

He smiled against your skin at the memory.

“And what were you doing out in the middle of the night?”

“Birdwatching.”

You weren’t sure where this newfound confidence was coming from, but the very dry look he fixed you with after that comment was worth it. You smiled demurely, batting your lashes at him. Sliding your hands up from his back to his chest, you lightly pushed him back. With a somewhat puzzled expression he let you move back until you were about an arm’s length apart. 

Looking him over, you admired his kiss-swollen mouth. He had his head cocked as he watched you. You took your time, noting his mussed hair and the slight flush on his cheekbones. All of a sudden, you were reminded of the time you had wondered what he would look like fresh out of bed, and you leaned forward to muss it more. An amused huff left his lips as he stared at you with that perplexed look. A warm feeling filled your heart as you simply gazed at him, all disheveled and relaxed, watching you with fond eyes. 

“What?” 

You didn’t answer immediately, choosing to trace the split of his lip with your thumb. Your hand moved to cup his cheek, and you felt him lean into your touch. 

“You have lovely eyes.”

He obviously hadn’t been expecting that. The expression that came over his face did not make him look like he understood you any better; Confused, somewhat flustered, and completely at a loss on how to react. You watched this grown man, this man who you had seen kill and fight without batting an eye, look away from your piercing gaze, softly clearing his throat.

“I like your hair too,” You commented, running your fingers through it and disheveling it even further. “it’s very long.” 

You emphasized your point by tugging on it a bit. He let his head follow the movement, tilting it back to meet your eyes. With some amusement you realized how the two of you had switched places. There was a moment where you just looked at him, watching him watch you. Gently, you leaned in and kissed him, slowly, with none of the heat from before. It was soft and deliberate and different, and you wondered how much time you would have like this. How much longer you could possibly spend with him like this before something had to change, before this feeling faded or he had to leave. It is a testament to his lips that these pressing questions were shoved aside without a second thought, that when you broke the kiss all you could see or think of was him.

“What was that for?” He rasped, voice quiet and almost unsure.

You shrugged, lightly running your nails over his scalp. 

“I like to kiss you.”

He must not have known how to respond, fixing you with that look again. 

Everything was so simple in that moment, with his head in your hands and your legs resting on his. It was easy to forget that you weren’t safe, that he was injured and hiding from men who wanted to kill him. For a few hours it was just you and him, two anomalies, holding each other in the quiet way that lovers do when they want a moment to last. 

The next few days passed uneventfully; He recovered quickly, now able to move around without your help. His real injuries wouldn’t heal for a while yet, but you were relieved that he was no longer covered with dark bruises. The broken hand was what really concerned you, but he seemed to get around it well enough. 

One day, while patching a tear in your skirt, you watched him hammer a thick sheet of scrap metal into the desired form, then shoot it repeatedly. This ritual continued, he’d change the shape of it slightly, then shoot it, then change it again. You stared at him incredulously as he worked, wondering if you even wanted to know what he was doing. ‘Maybe this is him finally cracking under stress.’ You mused, watching him reload the gun, ‘I’m stuck in a mineshaft with an armed maniac.’

Maniac or not, he was still the man whose arms you slept in. You didn’t know what to call him, you were somewhere between friends and lovers; strangers who liked to kiss each other. You knew nothing about him, not even his name, but you spent every day together and treated each other with the familiarity of an old married couple. Not for the first time you wondered what was going to happen when this was all over, when he had completely healed and you couldn’t justify staying here any longer. Would he help you across the border? What then? You couldn’t imagine making an honest man of him, but would the two of you really just never see each other again? Questions like these made it much more appealing to occupy yourself with watching him work, shoving your worries back to be dealt with at a more pressing time. 

A week had passed since you’d first kissed him. By this point he had stopped shaping the large sheet of metal, and was currently seated on top of an old oil canister, filing the sharp edges down. You had offered to help him several times now, but each time he declined, leaving you to find other ways to keep yourself busy. So far you had mended every single item of clothing that needed mending, cleared up a large area of the mineshaft, and even fixed the worn embroidery on one of your blouses. If it had gotten to the point where embroidery seemed like an exciting way to pass the time, you needed help. 

A shrill whistle echoed through the mine, causing him to pause his work. 

“Silvenito?” 

It was not Silvenito who entered the mine, but Piripero. Your brows knitted in confusion at his appearance. Although the older man often helped Silvenito reach the mine undetected, he never came into the shaft himself. The stranger seemed to have the same thought, asking again.

“Where’s Silvenito?”

Piripero didn’t respond, ambling down the path to where the two of you sat.

“Any news today?” 

You watched the old man stop in front of the stranger, and deeply sigh. If you hadn’t been concerned at first, now you were growing anxious. 

“I have to tell you some news that’s pretty bad. I hate to tell you this, but...”

Your blood ran cold. 

“Where is Silvenito?”

Piripero grew closer, now looking up at the stranger. Your heart beat loudly in your chest as you waited anxiously for his response.

“He was captured this morning by those men of Ramon’s, they grabbed him outside the village, he was on his way to this mine, he was bringing in some provisions. Ramon’s got him now.”

Your heart fell into the pit of your stomach, and you inhaled sharply at the dread that overcame you. Realistically it had only been a matter of time before Silvenito was caught on one of his trips out of town, you had been lucky it had taken as long as it had. But you had hoped against all odds that he would not be discovered, and now that hope had shattered into a million pieces. 

You felt numb as Piripero continued his tirade.

“He’s being tortured but he won’t talk; I know him well, he’s a stubborn man. No matter what they do to him he won’t say a word, even if it means his life. Listen to me, they’ll never be able to force him.”

The image of Silevnito, alone and at the mercy of Ramon, a man well-known to be merciless, was enough to make you want to cry. How could Piripero even think that you were concerned about your own safety? Silvenito, although not a weak man, was no match for the Rojos; If he didn’t talk, he would die.

Up until now, the stranger had silently listened, but now that Piripero was finished, he set his work down and turned to respond. 

“You’d better get back to your shop, old man.” His voice was as calm as ever.  “You’re liable to have some business.”

While Piripero reacted with glee, you stared at him with apprehension.

“Ah! Very good! That’s what I wanted to hear!” He rummaged in his jacket pocket, and drew something out. “And I have a little surprise for you that I brought along. I know how much you’ll need it, it was very hard to get my hands on.”

It was undeniably the stranger’s confiscated pistol that sat in his hand, along with the ammunition. ‘How on earth did he get that?’

“I got it by first using my head, no one can resist two bottles of wine. Isn’t that right?”

His question was directed to the stranger, who in the meantime had taken the pistol and expertly slung the belt around his slim hips. You swallowed thickly at the sight. ‘Not a good time for that, horrible time actually; Keep it in your pants.’ 

“Then I thought that, well, you might need that pistol, and I brought another present.”

He held out the second item with a smug expression.

“It’s dynamite.” He clarified, obviously very pleased with himself, “I stole it from the Rojos.”

Ignoring the somewhat dumbfounded expressions you and the stranger were directing towards him, he continued talking. 

“And now it seems to me the moment’s come for you to light the fuse…” Here he imitated the sound of it igniting, “and send it back to them.”

He clapped as he laughed loudly, obviously delighted with the concept. The stranger looked like he wasn’t quite sure what to do with that reaction, and so did you. After that last grand suggestion, Piripero left with the promise that he would stay in his shop and await the stranger’s arrival. 

Once he left, a tense quiet settled over the two of you. You wanted Silvenito to be saved, of course, but the stranger still only had one functioning hand and even then, how was he supposed to face off against all of the Rojos? A horrible feeling settled right above your throat, constricting your airflow.

“You know that you don’t have to do it like this, right?”

You gestured to the stick of dynamite in his hand.

“All guns-a-blazin’ like you do. We can figure something out, something less risky.”

He had remained mostly expressionless while you talked, but at that last word his eyes narrowed.  

“What can ‘we’ figure out that will make a shootout less risky?”

The way he intoned the ‘we’ made it obvious that he had planned on this being a solo endeavour. ‘Like hell,’ you thought, feeling somewhat miffed, ‘not with his hand like that.’

Your thoughts must have shown on your face, because he followed your gaze down to his bandaged hand.

“I shoot with my right.”

“Oh? And which part of your body renders you bullet-proof?”

You hadn’t intended for the question to be humorous, but he smiled anyway. He grabbed the sheet of metal, holding it up with his good hand. The scrap metal had changed significantly since he had started working on it, but the newest addition were two jagged holes, one on either side, with a thick cord threaded through them and tied at the back. You stared at it for a moment before the pieces started to fit together. The cord was tied so that it formed a large loop, large enough for someone to slip their head through.

“You cannot be serious.”

He ignored your comment, sliding the loop over his head so that it rested around his neck. The makeshift breastplate covered his chest completely. It was a wonder that his posture remained mostly unchanged, you knew that the sheet weighed quite a bit. 

“Well?”

“Well what?”

He shifted to each side, showing you the breastplate from different angles. “What do you think?”

You stared at him in disbelief. 

“I think you’re going to make a very heavy corpse.”

“Know of any other way to stop bullets?”

He had a point. You’d seen for yourself how the metal had withstood the many rounds of gunfire and moulding. Although the bullets from his ‘45 were by no means as powerful as those of a rifle, you doubted anything less than a cannonball would be able to pierce it. 

“Alright, fine,” You conceded, “but what am I supposed to do while you’re out there playing the hero? Wait here, all by myself, not knowing whether you’re dead or alive?”

There was a silence. From the way he was looking at you, it was obvious that that was exactly what he had intended for you to do. 

“Really? You cannot seriously expect me to sit here in the dark and just wait.”

“And what would you do instead?”

His calm question resonated throughout the mineshaft. You didn’t have a good answer, and you both knew it. Regardless, you weren’t going to accept defeat that easily. 

“Can you both light a fuse and shoot a gun with one hand?” You bluffed, “Someone’s gotta light that up. Would be a shame if you were there, all ready to save the day, and you couldn’t light a match.”

You knew perfectly well that he could light a match with one hand, you had seen him do it several times over the past few days. Once you had even remarked on it, noting how even a broken hand wouldn’t stop him from smoking his beloved cigarillos. He knew this as well, but maybe, deep down, he didn’t want to leave you behind either, because he accepted your half-assed explanation. It was much more likely that he knew how stubborn you could be, and didn’t want to waste any more time arguing. 

Either way, he shrugged and then picked the borrowed gun up from behind him.

“You know how to shoot one of these?” 

An hour later, you were leaving the mine for the first time since you’d found him, gunbelt haphazardly strapped to your waist. It had been too big by a lot, but the two of you had managed to wrap it around you twice and fasten it well enough that it wouldn’t slide. The intense sun of San Miguel beat down on your shoulders, and you were immensely grateful for the shawl that protected them from its rays. 

Walking in the scorching heat, you were overcome by a sense of deja-vu. You’d done this before, hadn’t you? You’d watched your feet trail along the dirt roads, gaze blurring with exhaustion, stumbled on this exact same path all those months ago. Back then you’d been on your way to salvation, now you were on your way to death. Whose death you weren’t yet sure, but something in the tense ridge of the stranger’s shoulders told you that he wasn’t planning on leaving any loose ends. ‘Kill or be killed,’ You thought to yourself, ‘what a horrible way to live.’

The journey to San Miguel passed by quicker than you would have liked. The tall belltower loomed in the distance, and you remembered its crazy bell-ringer. Soon enough he’d have plenty to do. You could only hope that it wouldn’t be your death he was announcing, but somehow you cared less about that than you did about the man at your side. As the stranger carefully led you to the side of town, that little fact struck you full-force. You didn’t care, you hadn’t even thought about it. Between Silvenito and the stranger, your fate hadn’t seemed important. You had always had a healthy amount of self-preservation and here you were, about to put yourself in serious danger for a man you’d met not two weeks ago.

In the meantime, the stranger had crouched down behind one of the buildings and chosen a spot for the dynamite. When he turned to ask for the match, he found you staring blankly at him, currently in the process of an inner revelation. He cleared his throat, breaking you from your thoughts, but the only change in your demeanor was a change in expression. You fixed him with an intense gaze, and for the first time he thought you almost looked intimidating. 

“We could die today.”

He huffed out a laugh as if to say ‘wasn’t that obvious?’. You paid it no heed, coming a step closer, still looking at him in that peculiar way. 

“This is the stupidest, most reckless thing I have done in my entire life, and I don’t even know the name of the man I am doing it with.” 

His shoulders stiffened slightly, and you continued.

“Anyone with any amount of sense would tell me to get out of here, to leave you alone and not to try to help, but here I am.”

“It’s not too late to turn around if you’re having second thoughts.”

That remark elicited a slap on the shoulder, and you glowered at him darkly. 

“That’s not what I mean! I’m trying to say something here, will you just give me a second?”

His face was tinged with amusement at your annoyance, watching you closely as you struggled to continue.

“Right, where was I? What I'm trying to say is, basically, I like you.”

The silence that followed after that statement combined with the dumbfounded expression on his face spoke to the fact that he found it highly underwhelming. 

“I know that you like me,” He said slowly, with a look that screamed ‘no shit!’, “you’ve shown that to me over this last week extensively-

“That’s not what I mean!” You interrupted, cheeks aflame at the implication. “God, you’re such an ass, why do you have to make everything so difficult?”

“That’s not what you were calling me yesterday when I-”

“Alright, I understand!” The blush on your cheeks spread to the rest of your face as you waved your hands to cut him off again. He looked very pleased with himself at your reaction, and you briefly wondered when he had turned into such a smug bastard. 

“I should have left you to die in that mineshaft.” You muttered, sullen and unwilling to endure any more of his teasing. The comment did not go unnoticed; He huffed with amusement and pulled you to his side, mouth almost twisted into a smile. 

“I...like you too.” 

“Just give me the dynamite, you asshole.” 

 


 

In the middle of San Miguel, there is a street that reaches from one side to the other. There used to be two houses here, but now only one remains. It makes the place look unbalanced, off-kilter, lets strangers know that this is no ordinary town, that something happened here to cause the large pile of black ash and dust. In the middle of this street stand five men, guns at their hips. They are all nervous, they have just witnessed a large explosion, and are waiting for the figure emerging from the smoke.

On the side of the road, hanging by bound hands, an old man is waiting as well. He is bruised and bleeding, and is thinking that he will soon be dead, along with the man his tormentors are facing. In the building behind him, creeping up the stairs, a woman is thinking that this has to be the stupidest thing she has ever done. She does not want to think about the five armed men below, nor about the odds of this plan actually working.

The figure stops. 

“Heard you wanted to see me.”

And all hell breaks loose.

 


 

So maybe you hadn’t really thought this through.

It had taken some serious convincing for the stranger to even let you come into San Miguel; You’d ended up compromising and agreeing to stay in the upper room of one of the surrounding buildings, out of sight but close enough to help if things got nasty. 

This brings you to your current situation, standing over the unconscious body of one of the Rojo’s, clutching a broken vase in your hand.

You hadn’t noticed him at first, too busy climbing the stairs and worrying about what was going on outside. As soon as you’d seen him, you’d frozen. He was stationed at the window with his back turned to you, peeking through the blinds at the scene outside. Against the wall at his side there leaned a rifle, and you realized he must have had the same idea as you. 

Your eyes were drawn to a large ceramic vase on a side table. Trying not to make a sound, you reached out your hand to grasp the handle. Luckily, the noise from outside was enough to cover your movements as you crept forward until you stood behind him. There was a moment of hesitation before you brought the heavy vase up with both arms, and cracked it over his head as hard as you could. 

It was almost comedic how quickly he fell to the floor with a thud. You were left standing over him, broken vase in hand. ‘What the hell do I do now?’

Through the open window you could faintly hear the stranger taunting Ramon, telling him the same thing over and over: 

“Don’t forget the heart, Ramon. Aim for the heart, or you’ll never stop me.”

 Over and over again Ramon fired, and the stranger would always stand back up. You didn’t look outside, too dumbfounded at the situation, but had you glanced out of the window, you would have seen how the stranger finally stopped, how he pulled his poncho over his shoulder and showed the life-saving sheet of metal. It fell to the ground with a thunk. 

For a long moment there was complete silence. Nobody moved, the tension between the six men mounting with every passing second. The stranger simply watched them, locking eyes with Ramon.

All of a sudden they moved in unison, almost synchronised in the way they reached for their guns. Four shots rang out before any of them could draw.

And then there were two.

Ramon stood alone across from the stranger, swiveling in a circle to see his men fall down around him, empty gun lying uselessly on the ground. He froze once he faced the stranger once more. 

“When a man with a ‘45 meets a man with a rifle…” The stranger’s calm voice rang out across the street, “you said the man with a pistol’s a dead man.” Ramon moved slightly towards his gun. “Let’s see if that’s true.”

Ramon never took his eyes off of him, watching as the stranger turned to the side and shot the rope from which Silvenito hung. The old man fell to the ground, and Piripero dragged him off to the side. The stranger turned back, then wordlessly threw his pistol to the side. 

“Go ahead, load up and shoot.”

Both men stared at each other, then after a few long seconds walked slowly towards their guns. They stopped right in front of where they lay on the ground, and locked eyes once more. Ramon took a few leisurely steps forward, the stranger silently watching. Suddenly he ducked down, starting to reload his rifle, and for a moment the two men were evenly matched, until the spin and click of a revolver setting into place.

They froze one last time, the seconds feeling impossibly long as they stared into each other’s eyes, the eyes of a man who was about to face death.

Ramon was too slow; The bullet entered his chest before he could fire. He twitched painfully on the floor before dragging himself up on the well, vision spinning as he tried to stand. He caught one last glimpse of the stranger before he slumped over the side, never to move again.

It was quiet again in San Miguel, quieter than it had been in years. The stranger stood there a moment, looking over the scene as Piripero approached.

“Hey, listen, Joe,” The old man began, calling the stranger by his nickname, “listen, I…”

He trailed off, staring at the bodies around them. “Oh, Joe, Joe…”

The stranger left him, walking past where Silvenito now stood into the inn. The older man watched him silently, seemingly unable to speak.

The stranger gathered his remaining things from the inn, leaving them on the roulette table in a pile before he made his way up the stairs to fetch you. By that time you had decided to strip the Rojo brother of his gunbelt, and were leaned against the wall furthest away from him, pistol at the ready in case he should wake up. When the stranger entered you looked up and smiled triumphantly.

“Look!”

Pushing yourself upright, you cautiously prodded the body with your shoe. 

“I thought I’d leave him to you. It’s going to be a while before he wakes up, and when he does, I doubt very much whether he’s going to feel too good. What should we do with him?”

He gave him a quick once-over. “Leave him to whichever government gets here first.”

“Thank God,” You sighed with relief, “I was worried you were going to take the whole ‘No loose ends’ stance. I’m sick of death.”

The stranger shot you a dry look at your horrible impression of him, complete with his signature squint. You took no notice of it, beaming at him as you exaggeratedly stepped over the body and grabbed his outstretched hand. 

“I’m so glad that’s over with,” You stated, swinging your joined hands while you descended the stairs, “I can sleep in a real bed tonight.” 

“We’ll see, the ride out of San Miguel could take a few days, depending on where we’re headed.”

He turned back when he felt a tug on his hand, and looked at you questioningly where you’d frozen on the last step. 

“We?”

“Come on.” He said after a moment, tugging on your hand. When you didn’t immediately follow, he sighed. 

“I said I liked you, didn’t I?”

Slowly, a shit-eating grin spread across your face. “You like me.” You purred, sidling up to him, and he immediately regretted having said it. “You don’t want to let me go.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself, I can still leave you here.” 

“But you won’t,” You grinned up at him, “because you like me.” 

“When did you get to be such a self-sure pain?”

His weak rebuttals didn’t faze you in the slightest. 

“You like me and you want me to go away with you. An unmarried woman, travelling alone with an unmarried man. Why, sir, don’t you know how scandalous such a proposal is?”

He groaned at your teasing, not so happy at being on the other end of this treatment. 

“If you’re going to be like this the entire time, I’m not sure I want you to come with me anymore.” 

“Uh-uh, honey, too late for that!” 

You practically bounced down the last step, a clear laugh bubbling from your lips when you saw his disgruntled face. You followed him outside, feeling lighter than you had in weeks despite your morbid surroundings. Silvenito seemed surprised to see you, but he didn’t say anything. It seemed not everyone was sharing your cheerful mood. The stranger stopped on the porch, glancing over the scene and finally to Silvenito below him.

“Well, guess your government will be glad to see that gold back.” 

“And you, you don’t want to be here when they get it, eh?”

The stranger pretended to consider Silvenito’s question for a second. 

“You mean with the Mexican government on one side, and maybe the Americans on the other side? Me, right smack,” He struck a match and lit his cigarillo, “in the middle? Mhh-mn, too dangerous.” The dryness of his tone did not escape the older man. Silvenito looked from the stranger to you, and then back at the stranger again.

“And her?”

Here you cut in.

She will manage just fine.”

He looked at your joined hands and carefree smile, and simply nodded. Either he had been through too much today to really express any disapproval, or he knew that you were likely going to do what you wanted anyways. 

The stranger raised one hand in farewell.

“So long.”

Silvenito waved back. “Adios.” His expression softened when he looked at you. 

“Adios niñita.”

Adios.” You parroted back, hesitating before throwing your arms around him. “I am going to miss you.” 
 
He held you gingerly, patting your back a few times. You released him, then discreetly wiped your eyes. Turning to where Piripero stood, you hugged him as well, promising you’d come back to see him some time.

“After all,” You told him, pointedly trying not to notice the tears in your friend’s eyes, “it’s not like I’m dying or anything, I’m sure I can come back to visit.”

“Make sure you do!”

Goodbyes over with, you joined the stranger where he waited on his horse, and grabbed his outstretched hand to climb up behind him. Fully settled in and skirts arranged, you wrapped your arms around his torso, and set your chin on his shoulder.

“Well, where to, cowboy?”

He drew from his cigarillo, exhaling the smoke with a sigh.

“Ever been to California?”