As noon came and went, the sun was high in the clear, bright blue sky and the makeshift, shabby wooden coffins were brought to Maria's home. Doc studied the shoddy workmanship and scowled. If only he hadn't promised Ella what she wished he could have taken her to a good town that had decent timber and a proper burial site. Maria plumped up some of Ella's old clothing and put it at the head of the coffin to serve as a pillow before Doc carefully lifted Ella's limp body and lowered into the box.
Maria placed a hand tenderly upon Doc's arm, sensing his thoughts. "She would not mind, she did not care for expensive things." She chanced a look at him. "It is what she wanted, to stay here."
Doc gave a stiff nod. "Yeah, but only 'cause she knew it'd be hard to take her with me, 'cause she didn't want me mournin' her every day, she didn't consider maybe I'd want t' mourn."
Maria smiled weakly. "No, she did the right thing for both of you, she can rest knowing you are not living in the past."
Doc met her gaze evenly with his own but said nothing, his expression was plain, he would never leave his memories of her, he would live in them for as long as his mind would allow. She patted his shoulder.
"The priest is waiting." She turned from him and went to the other coffin that now dominated the small room. Her son lay as if sleeping inside. Maria studied his face, seeing so much of herself and of his father in his features. His father, her first husband, had not been a good man, he had beaten her and shot many men in his short life but she had loved him all the same. Maria suspected this was where the seed of corruption that was rooted within Joey's soul had come from. Perhaps her son would have lived out his life as any other boy had that seed not been given the chance to grow and bloom into something wicked and rotten. Perhaps if she had chosen a better man to be her first husband her child would have lived a merry life, but Maria could not truly say she would change her decisions, she had been so in love and had mourned her first husband's loss when he had been killed. For this reason she could understand Ella's thoughts and feelings all too clearly, to fall for a man that all the people around you could see was no good, that even you yourself knew to be the wrong choice was a trap that many could easily fall into if the situation was right. At the thought she glanced up, looking at the young girl lying as lifeless as her son nearby. How had their fates become so intricately entwined?
She gave a small sigh as she turned once again to her eldest boy and tortured herself with thoughts and ponderings of what could have been.
The hour was late and Joey had still not returned home. Maria couldn't help giving nervous glances towards the window, half expecting to hear news of his demise at any moment. She walked back to the batch of flat bread she was currently making for the next day. These past months had been hard on her and the children: first Joey had breezed into the village and, as she had feared, taken an instant disliking to her friend, Ella; and then he had shot Ella's husband... Although his dislike for gringos was known to everyone, Joey had never shown his venom to a woman he didn't know before and Maria had to admit she'd been afraid for her young friend for a time. Normally Joey avoided all women, even ignoring the fluttering lashes and coy smiles of the pretty village girls, but with Ella Joey seemed to have made a strange exception, although the attraction was far from romantic.
Joey had delighted in teasing, intimidating and making snide comments whenever he was in Ella's presence.
The only thing Maria could pinpoint about this strange situation was that Ella seemed to either ignore him or give back just as much as he dealt out. To him it was a fun, twisted game and he wanted to be the one to win it. He seemed to delight in seeing how far he could push her before she grew too angry to ignore him. Maria did not believe she would ever be able to fully understand her son.
Things in the village and household had been peaceful for a while now. After her husband's death Ella had fallen into a strange kind of despair that was unnerving, but thankfully the young woman had pulled herself out of it and although a heated dislike still existed between Ella and her son, for the most part, they stayed out of each other's path and all had been respectively quite in Maria's household. Ella had taken to long walks in the evening, sometimes staying at her old house, she said doing so kept her mind clear and Joey, as was usual, went to the cantina or wherever else he wished, giving Maria most of the evening to herself.
Joey came home late most nights now, later than was usual. It was an occurrence Maria had noticed becoming frequent over the passing weeks and the thought crept into her mind that perhaps he had found himself a woman, even his attitude seemed to have changed slightly, he was more relaxed, calm... but he was still Joey and the changes were fleeting. Knowing Joey, if he had found himself a woman she would be married or unattainable, trouble followed him as if he were the very pied piper leading a gleeful dance.
The door opened, making her forget her thoughts for the time being. Joey entered the house in his usual casual, unconcerned stroll and looked up at his mother, a small smirk hinting at the corner of his mouth as it so often did when he had been drinking, riding or any other of the manner of things he knew she disliked.
He took off his hat and coat, laying them carelessly on the back of a chair before he helped himself to some lukewarm coffee, adding a small drop of whiskey to the liquid and swilling the cup before taking a sip.
"Has the dust swollen your throat again?" Maria asked, knowing the reason Joey liked to add the burning alcohol to his drink.
Joey glared at her over his cup, refusing to grace her with an answer.
"You should use honey, not whiskey."
Joey sneered at her. "I like whiskey" he replied insolently.
Maria gave a frustrated sigh. "Where have you been? The cantina?"
Joey gave a smug smirk. "No" he said simply, knowing she would understand he was keeping something from her, wanting her to know. He took a seat at the table and Maria eyed him suspiciously.
"Sometimes you stay out all night" she pried, not taking the question any further, knowing his temper could quickly flare if pushed too far.
"Yes Mama" he said with that same smug smirk. It seemed it would take a lot to rile him tonight; he appeared to be in a good mood and was enjoying his game far too much.
"Were you with a woman?"
Joey glanced up, his blue eyes connecting with her own dark gaze, a small hint of surprise hinting in his features, the briefest of ripples. He smiled again, his eyes twinkling before he let out a breathless laugh.
Maria tried to read him but as was always the case found the task near impossible. Was the small tug of surprise he had shown because she had guessed right or because it was not something he had expected her to speak of? "It is not someone that will get you into trouble?" she pressed, deciding she would pursue this angle and try and gain a glimmer of what the true answer was. "A young daughter of a rough man or a woman that is already married?"
Joey took another sip of his coffee and again looked at her, his expression betraying nothing but a small hint of glee at making her uncomfortable, making her worry.
"If you are with a woman, I am happy" Maria carried on casually, half knowing he wouldn't be grateful she was glad about anything. She was aware she sometimes used this trick on him to make him say something in anger, to give away his secrets in his scrabble to displease and disappoint her. "You are old enough to think of such things, marriage, children."
Joey let out a cruel chuckle. "Mama, if I had a woman I would not marry her... and I do not want any children." He took another sip from his cup. "It would please you too much if you had grandchildren."
Maria couldn't hide the shock his declaration had caused her; she studied her son once more. "If you love her you will do both things!"
Joey again laughed. "I would not bring any child into this world Mama." He finished the last dregs of his coffee.
"Do you hate all around you so much, to deny your own child?"
"There will not be a child; I hate this world enough to deny it!" Joey hissed slowly, setting his cup upon the table his anger just beginning to hint within his words. He abruptly stood up, making Maria flinch from the sudden movement and he smiled at her reaction. "I am leaving" he said lazily and made for his hat and coat. "Staying here irritates me."
Maria glanced up at her son. "You did not say you didn't love her."
Joey closed his eyes slowly before fixing his icy glare upon her. "I did not say I had a woman" Joey said, his expression mocking. He placed his hat upon his head and without a backwards glance he left Maria alone, going once again back out into the chill night.
She slowly sat down, feeling exhausted as she so often did after a confrontation with her eldest son. If Joey did indeed have a woman he visited Maria felt great pity for her...
"It's time Mary." Billy's voice broke Maria's memories and she turned to the old scout and gave a small nod.
Doc and Billy were giving orders to men of the village who had volunteered to help carry the coffins. She stepped aside as one of these men picked up the lid of her son's coffin and placed it over the main box. Her eyes lingered over her son's face, knowing it would be the last time she ever saw it in reality, her remembrances would have to serve her from now on. She walked a little aimlessly over to where Ella lay as the man behind her began to knock nails into the lid, securing it into place. Maria blocked out that dreadful sound, focusing instead on the young girl, checking her hair was still tidy and the ruffles smoothed from her skirts.
She bitterly wished she could have acted differently the night she found out the woman Joey had been secretly seeing was Ella. If only she had showed compassion, friendship and understanding perhaps she could have stopped her friend from going down this path of ruin. Slowly Maria shook her head, knowing that could never have been, Ella wouldn't have listened Joey's hold was too strong over her even by that point... and Joey would only have delighted in the distress it would have caused between them all.
Maria had always hoped a good woman would calm Joey down, make him want to finally settle and still his anger. Ella hadn't never come into her mind as a match for her son, she was a good woman in most respects but, her past was unfavourable. Maria didn't hold any of this against Ella, life happened, and Maria thought no less of her friend but every Mother has a snobbish need for their son to marry a good honest woman, a village girl, sheltered and sweet. Maria couldn't help but laugh at the notion. Joey would have chewed up such a girl and spat her out without a backwards thought, the poor thing would just suffer... just like Ella had. If only Ella had been able to change him... but it was a thankless thought, Joey was Joey.
Ella had loved Joey, for whatever end it had brought, someone had loved him, even if for a small amount of time and Maria knew her son well enough to know the part of Joey that understood love had loved her in return, in his own way... but Joey's ways had always had an element of decay, death and destruction.
The lid was placed on top of Ella's coffin and nailed shut. Maria looked over at Doc, the man who had lost all his wants and dreams in one day and her heart ached with pity as he partook of his last glance of the woman he loved. She could only hope that the guilt he felt would fade with time and life... but for her there would never be enough time, the guilt would lie buried inside her as deep as Joey and Ella slept eternally under the earth. He had been her boy... he had been a train bandit... an outlaw... a murderer... her Joey...
The coffins were hoisted up onto strong shoulders, Doc with Ella's, Billy with Joey's, and the procession towards the cemetery began. She took Teresa and Rafael's hands into each of her own and began to follow. As they made their way many people lined the streets, hats were pulled from heads in respect but Maria knew if it had only been her son's coffin making its way down this dusty path the hats would have remained in place.
The burial site lay just outside of the village near the banks of the river and many crude wooden markers stood erect and weathered, the names that were once deeply carved upon them beaten away to mere wisps of etchings. The ground here appeared to have an ashen quality to it that easily caught in the throat; it seemed apt that the dead came here to take their final rest.
Two large holes had been dug out of the soft earth, like gaping mouths waiting to swallow the wooden boxes whole and besides them on a large mound of earth rested two crosses, each bearing a name, Joey Garza and Ella... It seemed the man who had been commissioned to hastily carve the letters into the wood had not been given Ella's full name, underneath the names read the date of the day before. Maria wondered if as time flowed on and people and names were forgotten would anyone from the village pass by the nondescript crosses and wonder who the man and woman were who had died on the same date? What their lives and been and what had been their fate..? But by that point in the future the names would be worn away, as so many were, their stories forgotten, apart from the distant memories of the elders of a young bandit and his woman... a half forgotten remembrance. Maria gave a small smile, glad of this thought, it was best if Joey's name was left to decay with time, the story had not been a happy one and she was the only one who should bear the full weight and knowledge of what had been until her days were over. The procession came to a standstill near the empty graves and ropes were carefully wrapped around the wooden boxes before they were lowered into the waiting holes. Doc, Billy and two other men of the village took up spades and began to shovel earth from the large mounds, letting the dirt fall upon the coffins beneath. Doc gritted his teeth, hating the task he was performing, hating saying goodbye. But more than this he was embittered by the fact that Ella would lie next to Joey, her own grave but a few feet from his. He couldn't stand the thought and couldn't help but wonder if she would have changed her mind had she known this would be where her last resting place would be, beside the man she had come to first love and then detest, the man that had shattered all their dreams.
The priest stepped forward and began to recite long, dull verses in the native tongue of the village. Doc paid little heed to it, allowing the sound of the sedate voice to calm his nerves and some of his bitterness. The graves were not especially deep and between the four men, they were filled in before the Priest had finished his eulogy. Doc straightened, stretching his back and letting the muscles relax, they had knotted from the hard labour. He wiped his sweat beaded brow and went to stand beside Maria and her children. He bowed his head as the holy man's voice droned on, speaking of people he didn't know, didn't even really care about. Maria reached out and placed a warm, comforting hand on his shoulder, the act a silent solace to what she knew he must be feeling for she was feeling the heavy burden of this day as much as he. Doc looked up and gave her a weak smile, thanking her wordlessly for her support.
When the Priest's words finally petered out into the dry breeze the men and women that had come to say their last farewells picked up two small rocks from a large pile that had been gathered and placed one on each mound. This would prevent the wild animals of the area trying to gain access to the freshly dug graves.
Soon there were only a handful of people left; Doc, Maria, Teresa, Rafael and Billy. They stood in silence for a moment, each lost in their own thoughts and feelings. Finally Billy stepped forward and placed a rock on each grave, his movement signalling that the funerals were over and life must now begin again. Maria and her children followed suit. Maria placed a rock tenderly upon each mound, running her hand over the smooth surfaces gently, as a mother caresses a child. Teresa placed a gathered bunch of wildflowers against Ella's wooden cross and then it was Doc's turn. He picked up a single rock and bypassed Joey's plot completely, refusing to aid the outlaw in any way, and bent beside Ella's graveside. He pushed the stone into the earth and tried to keep his composure and stop his mind from imagining her beneath the earth and dirt in that narrow wooden box, dressed in her blue expensive clothing and glinting pendant. His mind whirled, is this way it had to be, this agony? How was he expected to live with this constant pain?
He was grateful to feel Billy's hand upon his arm, dragging him to his feet.
"Come on now boy," the old man said tenderly, "time to go home."
Doc stood outside at the burial site on a fresh spring morning. Winter held no grasp on the surrounding landscape now, the sun warmed all around it and the crops had already begun to show that it would be a good year for the little village.
But Doc wouldn't be here to see the seasons progress, today he was leaving, travelling up to Texas and then on to California where he finally hoped to settle and become a school teacher. He would have left straight after the day of the funeral all those many weeks ago but Call and Ted had both needed tending and looking after. Ted then had to be carted back to his home in Laredo where his new bride and soon to be born baby awaited him eagerly. But the Captain had taken longer to recover; now he was able to walk with the aid of a stick, his legs were still unsteady but he seemed content with the knowledge he could move if he wanted to. Call was getting old and the ranger was only just seeing this truth, becoming accustomed to the fact that relaxing and taking his days at an easy pace was not such a bad thing.
Doc bent onto his haunches beside the graveside and fumbled with the posy of flowers he had gathered. He removed his hat as he began to speak.
"I've been out t' visit you every day, rain or shine but today I'm leavin'." He paused, bowing his head. "It's goin' t' be strange not talking to you Ella." He sniffed and wiped his hand across his eyes. "But I know it's what you wanted and I know visitin' you ain't doin' me any good." He looked towards the river, watching the sunlight glint off the surface of the water. "For a long while I almost cursed you Ella." He nodded remorsefully. "Thought you'd just been in my life to make it hurt... but now, now I feel I've healed some. My heart felt broke in two, don't think the feeling will ever go, but it made me angry at a lot of things fer a while... but this is the end of regrets." He paused again. "So I've come t' say goodbye, though I know you'll be with me, in my memories." He smiled and placed the flowers upon the rock pebbled mound. "I'll come visit if I can but it's a long way from California, I might not be able to make it as often as I'd like." He smiled again, knowing she would have scolded him for wanting to come back. He sensed Maria before he saw her and knew it was time for them to be on their way. "Goodbye Ella."
He stood and turned his back on the graves and their wooden markers before making his way to where Maria stood. He gave her a small grin. "All set?"
Maria nodded. "Billy is just saddling his horse."
Doc gave a small laugh. "People will think us quite a strange band, what with me, you, the children, Captain Call and old Billy setting up home t'gether." He paused. "But it'll have to be abided by anyone in town till we find ourselves the places we want t' call home."
Maria smiled. "Yes, and it will cost us less." She laughed.
Doc eyes were drawn back to the graves before he again turned to Maria. "You come to say goodbye?" He knew Maria had not ventured out here since the day Joey and Ella had been buried.
Maria shook her head. "No, I have already said my goodbyes." She sighed. "I miss her" she said sadly, "I miss my son... but I am also glad it is over, that he is finally at peace... I could not give him any kind of peace in life, no one could..." She paused, her expression stating she was forcing back tears. "He is still my boy and I cannot stop loving him but I will not forgive him for what happened to Ella... never." She let out a small sob. "That should be me in the grave, not her" she said, a lone tear running down her cheek.
Doc pulled her into an embrace; he couldn't help but see this woman as a good friend after all they had been through. "Don't go blamin' yourself, Ella would hate to hear ya say such things." He felt Maria nod and she pulled away, wiping at her tears and composing herself.
She gave a last sniff as her strong resolve came back into play once more. She looked upon her son's grave, knowing it would be the last time she saw it. "Al vivo la hogaza y al muerto, la mortaja" she said with a sorrowful air. "Come," she said with a smile, "it is time we left here."
They began to walk back to Maria's where a cart and horses waited, their belongings already packed away for the journey ahead.
"So..." Doc said, a slight teasing entering his tone. "When you gonna marry Billy anyway?"
Maria let out a peel of laughter, the sudden question pushing any remaining sorrow aside. "Depende."
"On what?" Doc asked, still smiling.
"If he stops drinking and starts taking a bath!" They both chuckled.
Doc cast one last glance behind him to where the two bleak, stark crosses stood in contrast to the light landscape. He knew there was no place for heartache and anger now, no time for pondering upon wasted dreams, even though the bitter regret would stay with him until his dying day. But for now he had to let her go. He smiled, bidding her a true last farewell, becoming aware in that brief moment that he wouldn't return to the village, that his life lay ahead of him not behind him and for that reason he couldn't come back.
In that small moment of clarity he was left with the bright hope that perhaps they would still meet again, one day.
And so, we come to the end of a very long story lol the longest I've written in fact. I really hope you enjoyed it and your thoughts are more than welcome now and in the future. I may write a Joey one shot in the future but we'll have to see.
I have met some fantastic people through this story and I thank you all for your support here and on Youtube.