The sun at high noon was a curse on the earth when the exhausted pinto mare that bore Lope Obregon and Eight-Finger Nate into the dooryard of the long-forgotten mission dropped dead under their weight. The two men slashed their saddlebags free of the dead horse and ran for the arched doorway at the foot of the bone-white church, and the gaunt, hooded figure that stood in its shadow as if awaiting the desperate men.
“Bless me, padre, for I have sinned,” said Lope Obregon, crossing himself while his partner drew his mismatched pistols. “We claim sanctuary…”
Hoofbeats clattered up the narrow ridge that spilled out into the bad, broken valley in which the mission was the only sign of humankind for a two-day ride in any direction and a welcome surprise. One might almost say a miracle.
Nate aimed to shoot down the rider, but Obregon barked, “Put down your guns, you fool. They have no choice but to take us in…”
The rider came over the ridge bent low behind a painted stallion, guns drawn, reins in his teeth. Nate shook off his partner and let fly, taking the horse in its breast and rippling neck. The paint stumbled and spilled its rider just on the far side of a crooked wall of adobe bricks framing the dooryard of the mission.
The rider rolled out of the saddle as the horse fell, taking shelter behind the wall and putting one bullet in the horse’s brain with his right while nicking Nate’s ear with the luckiest of three shots from his left. “Come afoot or in a bag from the neck up, it’s all the same to me,” came the shout from the far side of the well.
“Sanctuary,” cried Obregon, and a few words in an Indian tongue that bandits on the border used as oaths.
The hooded monk bowed his head and opened the double doors of the mission. “All are welcome to San Demetrio,” he said.
“They’re wanted in three territories for rape, murder, rustling, and worse,” the rider shouted.
“He’s just a half-breed bounty hunter,” said Nate, pressing a bandana to the gory hole in his ear, “and a damn liar in the bargain. All we are to him is a fat reward…”
“You will take a vow and live in the service of our Lord,” said the monk.
“You’ve got to the count of ten, to come out,” shouted the bounty hunter, “and I’m just past seven.”
“Go to hell, Hull!” Nate shouted. “We done got born again!”
Obregon knelt before the monk and kissed the hem of his robe of woven human hair. “I take communion, I confess my many sins. I will… we will serve the Lord and his son Jesus Christ––”
The monk took hold of Obregon’s hair and jerked his head back to bare his throat and hold the blade of an obsidian knife to it. Before the bandit or his partner could respond, the tolling of a solitary bell echoed from the tapered tower. A doleful sound that reverberated through every cavity of the body and the marrow of every bone, it stopped time and erased thought, ironing flat any illusion of free will.
“You will learn the name of our Lord,” said the monk, “and serve Him for all eternity.” Smiling to reveal only a toothless hole, he put away his knife. Lifting the bandit to his feet like an empty gourd, the monk ushered the bandits through the open door. Both humbly shuffled along in a trance, and not far behind them came the bounty hunter, his trembling guns forgotten in his hands.
As he crossed the threshold, Inigo Hull the bounty hunter might have taken notice of the fresh hole in the whitewashed adobe facade of the mission where one of his stray bullets had hit home only moments before.
But if he saw the strange bricks exposed by the fissure in the wall, the jumble of cloven skulls and splintered limbs embedded in the crumbling mortar, he gave no sign. He only bowed his head as he passed through the door behind the men he’d been hunting, meekly removing his hat and sleepwalking into darkness as the heavy oaken door closed and was barred behind him.
Most of the men Inigo Hull hunted, he would just as soon have let ramble, if not for the bounty. Most laws they broke were the quaint daydreams of the east, with no purchase on the realities out west. But Eight-Finger Nate’s gang was a breed apart and operated like it, burning down men, women, and children like livestock.
Hull had been pursuing Obregon and Tate for the better part of a week as they careened westward from a stagecoach robbery outside Flagstaff. He’d dogged them across Nevada into the Humboldts, where Nate McKeever tried to go to the ground among his people, only he was caught by territorial marshals in Warpaint. His gang burned down the schoolhouse to decoy his escape, killing four children and the schoolmarm, and tried to cross the desert into California with an angry posse on their tail. After a hot time in Yuma, only Obregon and McKeever were still alive, but they outfoxed the posse, who pursued a dead trail over the border and doubled back west, into the broken Mojave and the Valley of Death.
Hull had picked up their tracks in the mountains and kept on them until Nate’s horse dropped dead and they had to ride pillion. He’d driven his own horse past saving to catch them and expected it to end in one crooked arroyo or another south of the Sierra Nevada, but they had come instead upon this mission where no such thing should be, and certainly not one still in the hands of the Church.
Hull had hours in which to pace his cell and search for a way out, while his mind pondered too late the question of how he came to be here. He had intended to call out the monk who offered the two bandits sanctuary but instead had meekly followed them in, surrendering his guns to the leather-faced man in a hooded cassock who stood before the door.
Fray Joachim said nothing as he led Hull to the featureless room of whitewashed adobe. The window was too high to reach and too small to squeeze through, even if he could break the rusted iron bars.
“You cannot escape,” said a voice from the shadowy corner of the room beneath and beside the window. Speaking in archaic, oddly accented Spanish, the voice added, “You do not even know how you came to be here, do you?”
Hull squinted and took a step back. He’d seen and heard no one until his cellmate spoke. Even now, he seemed to be blinded by the sunlight through the bars, for the shape of the speaker never came any clearer.
“They may drive Indians like stock, but they’re not hard men,” Hull muttered, staring out the side of his eyes at the shadow. “Those eggs I’m after will hop the fence and lam out the first chance they get, and me after them.”
“No one has,” said the voice, “in over 300 years. No one.”
Hull resisted arguing, for there was no point. He could argue with himself about why he’d let himself be locked up, but his wits seemed to go to water when he was confronted with the monk.
He recalled the tolling of the bell-like rings of iron laid on his neck, bowing his head so he could not look the monk in the eye as he introduced himself. “I am Fray Joachim, and I welcome you into the service of our lord. You will toil and reap his plenty and thereby earn salvation from the curses of all mortal flesh. As you work and pray, so you will be fed and sheltered.”
He did not even need to order Hull to turn over his weapons. Somehow, the command came in the sound of the bell or the weight of his gaze. Even now, Hull’s hands itched for iron, yet he somehow knew they would fail him when the time came around again.
Only when he finally knuckled under and lay down to watch the light fail, did a shuffling pair of sandals stop outside his cell. He crouched in the corner of the cell behind the door. “When do they feed us?”
“Eat nothing they give you,” said the voice, as a key turned in the lock. “Do not take the darkness into your mouth…”
Fray Joachim stood in the doorway. Hull was halfway to his feet when the bell tolled. Every nerve throbbed in agony, and he seemed to watch down the wrong end of a telescope as his body sleepwalked past the friar, who held a lamp to light his way in the gloom.
It took everything he had to look over his shoulder to see if his cellmate was following them. Hull felt himself flinch away from the monk as if his displeasure was the edge of a cliff, but the monk chuckled and obligingly held the lamp higher to shine into every corner of his cell. In the corner where his cellmate sat, Hull saw only a mound of yellow dust and a few fragments of what might once have been bones.
The bell tolled again and Hull followed the monk out into the cloister, where McKeever and Obregon shuffled in nervous circles beside a barefoot peasant in tatters. All avoided his eyes, but he saw in them what he most dreaded to find in his own. No law, not even the law of the gun, would keep them peaceful. Nate McKeever once took a warden’s wife and children hostage to escape a prison in Flagstaff, but even he seemed to itch all over with the command to be meek as a mayor in church on election day.
They followed Fray Joachim across the cloister and down a crooked corridor to a wide, low-ceilinged dining hall. Hull took a seat across from the others on a bench with deep grooves worn into the wood. A basket of blood-red corn kernels, carelessly roasted, sat in the center of the table, and four clay cups of water. There were no utensils, only dented tin plates that someone nailed to the table.
Across a host of empty tables––enough to seat maybe sixty or more––sat half a dozen cowled monks at a long, elevated banquet table, their hands lost in their sleeves. In the dim light that came from the lamp Fray Joachim set on the end of their table as he took his chair, they seemed only to move by a trick of the light.
“I ain’t eating this shit,” growled Eight-Finger Nate. Reaching for his cup, he cast a sour look at the monks being served bleeding meat from a tarnished silver platter. “Those nabobs are feasting, but we’re only good enough for pig feed…?”
Hull’s eyes roved the room for a way out when he caught Obregon staring at him. The bandit’s blunt features were scoured into a red mask by the desert, his hawklike nose split almost in two by a grievous hatchet-wound, wiry thickets of beard pocked with scars; he was perhaps the second hardest thing to look at, in this place. “What are you looking at, coyote?”
“Your wanted poster flatters you,” Hull said.
To sit at the table opposite men he’d been hunting would have been a puzzlement even in a less discouraging setting. Noticing the silent Mexican at the far end of the table, who stared at the corn with ravenous despair, he recalled what the disembodied voice in his cell had told him. Eat nothing they give you––
Hull felt as if he wore shackles and a ball and chain around his neck, but he watched over Obregon’s shoulder as the server set the platter before Fray Joachim. Something about the server struck Hull particularly wrong: his head was less than half the size it should be, and he was equal parts irked and relieved that the peaked hood hid it.
Fray Joachim took hold of a joint of meat, scorched with the same indifference as the corn, and began gobbling it down. The other monks sat stock-still with their waxen hands on the table before them, staring straight ahead in denial of the butchery piled before them. Their hoods hid all but the lower half of their scowling faces, but Hull noticed the fine markings around their dour mouths and began to suspect…
But why would their mouths be sewn shut?
Eight-Finger Nate let fly a raucous guffaw. “I do believe that’s your horse they’re eating, half-breed. Reckon you’re entitled to a share, why don’t you go ask for it?”
Indeed, it was so. Fray Joachim devoured the meat with gusto, bones and all, while the others sat like statues.
“You’re in the same soup as us, ugly,” McKeever said, reaching for his cup when lightning struck his mangled right hand. A vicious snap sounded almost after the bandit had recoiled from the clay cup, which shattered and spilled its pitiful mouthful of water on the table.
The wrong-headed servant stood behind McKeever with a knotted whip poised to strike again. His hood had fallen back far enough for Hull to see that his skull stopped at the bridge of its nose, a rude knot of skin stitched with leather thongs closing over a wound that should have killed anything walking. Hull had heard of freak chickens that lived on with their heads cut off, but the monk was something else again.
“Hold, Trinculo,” Fray Joachim said in the same archaic Spanish as the ghost in his cell. “Let him repent if he will.”
Eight-Finger Nate was on his feet, his good hand at his side where he once had a gun. Once a fast trigger and handy at cracking safes, but after a fouled shotgun blew up in his hand, he turned to banditry. “Tickle me again,” he snarled, “and I’ll bite off the rest of your head, see if I don’t.”
“If you will not eat,” said the friar, “you will not drink.”
The friar stood, reaching with one hand for the knot at the end of a thick rope that hung from a hole in the ceiling, while Trinculo shuffled quickly as his crooked legs would take him from the dining hall.
He didn’t have to ring the bell. Nate McKeever sank into his seat like a whipped dog. With his good hand, he took a fistful of corn and filled his mouth. “This is no way to treat white men,” he muttered, and Hull had to agree. But it was no better or worse than the Franciscan monks had treated Indians for centuries in this part of the country. They were enslaved and worked to death and worse, they were made to forsake their language, their land, their families, their faith, and their world.
“I am a good Catholic,” Joaquin Obregon said. “My cousin took the vow. I have nothing to fear from these heretics, but you pagans…”
Hull took a fistful of corn from the bowl and mimed putting it in his mouth, palming it into the breast pocket of his patchwork cavalry tunic. He drained his cup, looking steadily at the friar, who stood watching the men. He noticed the Mexican abruptly bend down to catch the rivulets of water from McKeever’s broken cup as they trickled to his end of the table. He caught them in his parched lips just as the bell tolled, and they all rose from their seats.
“You will see,” Obregon whispered. “Our Lord and savior will deliver me from this place.”
“Save your breath.” Licking his lips, the peasant found his voice at last. “None of us will be saved.”
To be continued December 9th…