by Luke Stroth
The dust was in the air and the air was in his lungs and the dust burned its way down his throat and clustered there with the grit and the smoke and the ash. The heat beat down like God’s heavy hand and smote him where he sat, and the thin film of sweat that crawled out of his pores along the base of his neck and the back of his hands had mixed with his tears and his snot and the grease of his guns, and the sun had dried it into a greasy cake that cracked and flaked off of his skin like scales, leaving the flesh underneath raw and pink and clean.
“Adonde vas, caballero?” the lieutenant asked again, the wide brim of his hat the only scrap of shade that Shane had seen in weeks, the angry eye of the sun peeking out from behind the man’s head, forming a bloody halo that pulsed and swam and grew until the lieutenant was just a voice cutting through red fog.
The lieutenant gestured at the log that Shane lay against, the dead dog, the scattering of empty cartridges that lay across the plain, and the blackened stump of Shane’s left leg.
“Que pasa? Dígame. Queremos ayudarte.”
Behind him the cohort was looting Shane’s horse. They had cut its throat only a minute before, but already the blood had blackened beneath the angry eye. They found nothing in the saddlebags but three dozen gold coins. Nothing worth taking.
“No hay agua, Teniente. Debemos matarse ahora.”
“Tenga cuidado,” the lieutenant called over his shoulder. “No puedes ver que es americano?” He turned back to Shane, adjusting the wide brim of his hat with one hand, and with the other sliding the tip of his sabre back and forth in the dust. He crouched so he could look Shane in his eyes, which had begun to fog over with dust. The lieutenant grinned. His teeth were brown.
“No Spanish, yes? You want English. Tonto Americano. The boys want I should kill you now. But I think you can help us?” He drove the point of his sword deep into the sand. “What happened? Why you here?”
Shane blinked and his eyes cleared a bit and his mind cleared a bit and he found he could turn his head to the left and the right and he saw how long and wide and dry stretched the desert. Some miles distant to either his right or left was the village of San Gabriel but the glint of sun off of the white marble garden gates was lost in the haze. He opened his mouth to say “water” but his lips were stuck together by dried mucus and spoiled blood.
“You have gold, no? But you cannot drink gold. You must have water somewhere.”
Shane tried to force his tongue between his lips but his tongue was weak and his mouth was dry and he tried a second time to say “water” but he could only make a mewling noise in the back of his throat.
“Ha!” yelled the lieutenant. “Cree que es gato.”
“Habia vuelto loco por el sol. No nos dira nada.”
“Podemos esperar.” The lieutenant tapped the leaking chalk of bone that poked out of the stump of Shane’s leg with the dirty flat of his sword.
“Is true? Have you gone crazy, mi’migo?” He looked in Shane’s dusty eyes. “Did the men who took your leg took your water?”
Shane let his head nod up and down. The Lieutenant spat on the ground. The tiny dent lay preserved for a few moments before the sun pulled the bits of water into the air, leaving only phlegm behind. Shane watched it go.
The Lieutenant tapped his sword pensively then stood once again. The sun did not fall on his face and Shane could not see his mouth, only the motion of the words.
“Es inutil.” He turned to the men, the straw brim of his hat barely holding Shane in its shadow.
“Porque mataron el caballo?” the lieutenant said, aiming his sabre at the dead horse.
“Pateo al Alejandro.”
The lieutenant turned back to Shane.
“I sorry about your horse. My men are dull. I question if they are even men and not troglodytes. We have no horses to spare. We will leave.” To his men: “We leave.” To Shane: “You have no water, we let you live. Sound fair to me.”
The lieutenant turned to his cohort of sullen men, greased by sweat and blackened by sun, the tatters of their once-green uniforms now bleached grey. Shane watched them mount their tireless horses and clop against the dusty sun-beaten track towards the faintest specter of town in the distance where, twelve hours from now, a fire will break out and all but the Lieutenant will burn, and he will leave their bones in the ash just as he now leaves Shane in the dust and the dust floats down in the wheezing breeze and lands lightly on Shane’s broken bleeding hide and it mixes with the blood and sweat and snot and shit of passing birds and the thick gummy sluice lathers itself along his body and he feels he is thirsty and he closes his eyes and he will not open them again and when the lieutenant passes this way with his new band one week from now he sees only a lump of dust against a charred old log and he doesn’t think it strange. Shane was buried beneath the dust and grit, and the buzzards had got his eyes, but his tongue had fallen through a hole that had rotted in the bottom of his jaw and it wagged in the brief rush of wind from the Lieutenant’s passing horses and as it brushed against the grit it made a noise that sounded like the hopeless trickle of water.
Luke Stroth is studying Anthropology at The University of Iowa. He sometimes writes and sometimes doesn’t.