A family feud sent Roy Huckaby to a dusty Texas prison for three years. Now he's out, vowing to follow the straight and narrow. But two things spoil his plans--a treasure map given to him by a dying vaquero and a beautiful woman caught up in a family land feud. Reissue.
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A native of Texas, Mike Blakely grew up working on the family ranch. He is a veteran of the United States Air Force and holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He is the former president of Western Writers of America and has taught fiction writing at numerous workshops nationwide. He is a winner of the Spur Award for Best Western Novel. Also a singer/songwriter, Blakely tours all over the U.S. and in Europe with his band and records his original songs on his own independent record label. He currently lives on his horse ranch near Marble Falls, Texas.
I had just one ambition the day the old Mexican died. One ideal controlled my every action. A single goal for life went before all my daily needs and immediate desires. I had vowed to dedicate the rest of my days on earth to the complete and unceasing avoidance of criminal activity and nothing I could imagine would ever have the power to sway me from that mission.
It may not sound like much of an aspiration or one that would prove particularly difficult to achieve, but to me it was a cause so crucial and absorbing that I felt precariously near to failure at every turn. Dreams of hard labor haunted my nights, and memories of close confinement filled my waking thoughts. I had just finished a stretch of three years and it was my sole aim to make it the only sentence Roy Huckaby would ever serve. Of course, all that began to change the day I met the old Mexican.
When I first saw him, I must have mistaken him for a wooden Indian. He was standing board-stiff in front of a cigar store on Dolorosa Street, across from the Old Southern Hotel. But when I looked his way again, several minutes later, I caught him shuffling along in front of the Buckhorn Saloon and I knew he was human.
He wore the dress of an old-fashioned vaquero except for the faded red bandanna tied on his head in place of a sombrero. Years had cracked his face like parched soil and I couldn't locate a single tooth amid the white stubble of his beard. He wore a frayed vest under a jacket resplendent with patches. The ends of his bowed pant legs disappeared down the tops of boots that had once stood straight as stove pipes but now slouched like the features of his weathered face. The rowels of his spurs had lost almost as many teeth as his mouth. He used a walking stick to maintain his balance and his only means of getting around was to totter a few feet, then rest.
One of San Antonio's municipal water carts was sprinkling the street to keep the dust down. By the time it had circled Main Plaza, the old Mexican had only taken about a dozen steps. A German merchant left his store at the corner of Quinta and Main and walked all the way across the plaza to the Buckhorn Saloon in the time it took the old Mexican to negotiate the width of three or four planks on the boardwalk. A horseman rode by and the old man raised his hand to wave, but too late, and the rider didn't notice. He paused with his hand in the air and watched the horseman ride out of sight.
He continued to inch along until his squint found my horse under the shade of an oak in the gardens of Main Plaza. He stopped and started for a full minute. Then I caught a glimmer of desperation in his eyes and knew he wanted something of me, so I crossed the street, tipped my hat, and stepped up on the boardwalk. "Good afternoon, sir," I said. "Can I be of some help to you?"
Conversation didn't come easily between us because he spoke no English and I spoke no Spanish. But I soon figured out from his gestures that he wanted to ride my horse somewhere. Given my recent inclination toward acts of philanthropy, I had no objection to letting him borrow a ride.
The old man didn't look spry enough to climb a stirrup so I led my horse to the edge of the boardwalk and helped him get one leg over the saddle. I did most of the work and he simply leaned in the appropriate direction. He indicated that he would have no further use for his walking stick, in fact he scorned the thing once he was in the saddle, so I left it leaning against the wall of the Buckhorn Saloon.
"Which way?" I asked, giving him the choice of turning up or down the street. He began to point so I would know where to lead him, and we turned onto Flores Street and walked slowly south.
It didn't take me long to learn my first two words of Spanish. "Derecho" meant right and "izquierda" meant left. I was very familiar with those commands by the time we reached the vaquero's destination, which was the beautiful old Mission Conception, three miles south of Main Plaza.
"Izquierda, izquierda!" he ordered, and I made the last left turn through the gate of a split-rail fence surrounding the mission.
I helped the vaquero down from the saddle, and he sat on a rock under a tree to rest. With his eyes and a motion of his hand, he asked me to stay with him. So I sat and listened to him mutter in his foreign tongue. He seemed to have a great many things to tell me. He pointed and gestured incomprehensibly as he spoke. I got the idea he was thanking me for the use of my mare so I merely nodded at him as if I understood. "Okay, old-timer," I said. "Whatever you say. Yes, yes, I understand."
Then the old man grinned, patted me on the shoulder, and reached into his jacket. He pulled out a rolled piece of tanned sheepskin tied with a leather thong. He handed it to me. When I took it, he wrapped his rough old hands around mine and shook them weakly. He tried to get up then but didn't succeed until I helped him.
The moment we both got on our feet, I heard the whistling of mourning doves on the wing. Six of them flew between the twin stone belfries of the old Spanish mission and landed in the tree limbs above us. I knew there were six because I had gotten into the habit of counting birds in prison when they flew overhead or landed on the walls, as if they represented some sort of index to freedom from which I was excluded.
The old man noticed the doves, too, and pointed at them as they found their perches among the branches over our heads. He raised his hands to them and spoke as if to a woman he had once loved. A toothless grin covered his face as he turned to me and made his old arms move slowly like wings and then swept his knotty fingers over his head to indicate the great blue expanses of sky over Texas.
Finally he clutched the cloth of his vest and hobbled toward the mission. There was an altar in front of the ancient building with a statue and a cross and some wilted flowers, and the vaquero shuffled over to it and sank to his knees to pray.
I untied the thong around the sheepskin and unrolled it. There was something written or drawn on it in ink. I didn't have time to figure it out because the doves jumped their perches and took to the sky again. They numbered seven when I counted. I glanced toward the statue and found the old man slumped over in front of it, dead.
I remember letting a shameful thought cross my mind: Now you've wasted your time, Roy. What kind of character witness will a dead Mexican make? I rolled the sheepskin up and put it in my pocket.
In the chapel I found a Mexican boy carrying candles into a baptismal chamber. "Hey, boy. There's an old man out here who just died," I said.
"Where?" he asked.
"Out in front by that statue."
"Which one? The image of the Virgin?"
"I don't know whose image it is. How many statues have you got at this church, anyway?"
The boy put his candles down. "Show me," he said.
I took him out to the altar and he explained that it was indeed the likeness of the Virgin Mary from whose feet the old Mexican's spirit had flown. He didn't seem to regard the corpse as any form of novelty.
"He asked if he could ride my horse here," I said. "Who is he?"
He shrugged and said, "Who knows? The old ones sometime come here to die."
The boy let me know I had nothing more to do there, so I mounted my horse and eased back toward Main Plaza. Halfway there I remembered the sheepskin the old man had given me and I took it out of my pocket for another look. It would take me some time to make sense of the thing, but, once translated, the gift of the dying vaquero would both haunt and enthrall me. It would cause me anguish and rapture. It would rob me of control over my own destiny and change my life forever.
Copyright © 1990 by Mike Blakely
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