All the colour's bled out of the world.

The moon's rising, almost at the full, and so bright that it's pushing shadows out over the grey land. You twist in the saddle to take another look back towards the village miles behind you. Cibuta. A nothin' much of a place where you nearly got yourself shot. And for what? A few nice people with no money. Nice going, Madrid. Real nice going.

Some days you're loco, and some days you're dumber than a sack of rocks. Today's sack of rocks almost got you a six-foot hole in a farmer's field. ¡Imbécile!

The horse snorts, tossing his head up and down. You don't let him slow, not yet. You take another look behind you. Your shadow reaches long, black fingers back the way you've come, dragging along behind you. It could pull you all the way back, if you let it.

Nothing moving that you can see. No dust clouds, no moonlight glinting on guns or spurs, no Rurales. Maybe Padre Gervasio was right, and they're chasing after the Pinkerton and Javier Santillán, who went straight north for Nogales and the border with Arizona Territory, and you've fooled them by cutting north west, aiming for Sasabe. You only did that to shorten your journey by a few miles, supposing you go to California at all, but if it's fooled the Rurales... well, hell, that's your second stroke of luck today. Not as big as the first one—¡Dios! that was close—but big enough.

The horse stumbles. It's not the first time you've stolen a horse to get away in a hurry. That paint of yours didn't exactly have no legal bill of sale. Best horse you ever had, Ol Jerry was, but this one, the dead Teniente's gelding, is old and thin and you've pushed it hard, wanting to get a good few miles between you and Cibuta before morning. The gelding's winded. His sides heave against the calves of your legs, and he tosses his head again, spattering foam on the calzoneras the Padre found for you. You can't risk him foundering, and you being set afoot. If you hadn't already shot the Teniente for being a treacherous thieving bastard, you'd go back and shoot him for not looking after the old horse better. ¡Cabrón!

You twist in the saddle again. Still nothing. The desert's empty and you slow the gelding to a walk. He blows out a big wet breath and ambles towards Norte America and what waits for you there. Slowly his breathing grows easier. You'll have to pace him if you're to get any speed out him, at need. You hope you won't have need, but the Rurales are only one problem and not the biggest one.

The Rurales won't follow too far. They won't cross the border, if a man can tell where the border is up here. They don't get paid enough to chase you right over into Norte America. They'll give up, turn back and head back to into Sonora.

But this is Apache country.

Chiricahuas mostly, round this way. Maybe a few Jiracillas ranging down from the north. Whichever band it is, they don't give up and they don't give a damn about borders. They roamed across this land before there was a Mexico or the United States, and they don't like strangers. It's getting a mite too settled around here for them maybe, and most of the bands have moved deeper into the desert, but some of 'em will be around. Hunting parties, mostly. Your best bet is to go quiet and fast and hope to God that they don't see you, or care enough to do anything about you if they do.

You'd best keep to the shadows, and keep moving, watching and listening and being damned careful.

There isn't much to see. And when you listen, all you can hear are the muffled thumps of the gelding's hooves on the packed earth, the creak of leather and, a ways off, a coyote yippin' at the moon. Then another picks up the call, like an echo.

You look quickly towards where the coyotes howled. Probably not Apache. But some of those braves can sound just like a coyote in heat... hell, a man can't be too sure. You move the horse into some deeper shadow and wait for a few minutes, your hand on your gun. Dios be thanked that you left your working gun and your gear with the Padre. It would have been hell having to start over with a new one. It would take a chunk outa the thousand dollars that Lancer's promised for an hour of your time, to get a new one made over to suit your hand.

The coyotes start up again, farther off, the sound harder and angrier. Two dogs, likely, puffing themselves and strutting to impress the ladies, trading insults and gearing up for a fracas. After a little while, the barks and growls become a high pitched yelp and then there's nothin'. One of 'em come off worst, and likely the ladies weren't interested anyways. You've known a few like that, the ones who love watching a man square up to win 'em, but who'd turn away even a silver dollar if they don't like the look of him.

Not many, mind you. But one or two. If you make Sasabe by tomorrow night, maybe you'll be luckier than the coyotes and find a lady who's willing.

You start off again. The horse plods on over grey land and over the long, sharp shadows of hundreds of saguaro cactus, black and spiky arms upraised like they're praying. The light and shadow flicker: grey moonlight, black shadow. Grey, black, grey, black, grey, black, grey...

Your head nods. You jerk up in the saddle, gasping at the pull on your side where the Rurales capitán used his boot. The cabrón didn't break anything, but not because he didn't try. Every man held by the Rurales got a working over to remind 'em that revolution don't pay, but you and the Santilláns got the worst of it. Wakes you the hell up, though.

It's too early to stop. You need a few more miles behind you and better cover than a few thin palo verde trees. Still, you let the old horse pick his way into a stand of trees where the cover is thicker, and the shadows are darker, and give him a few minutes rest. You lean back in the saddle and stretch to get the kinks out of your back. You do it real careful. It's starting in to hurt again, despite the salve Padre Gervasio put on it.

The saguaro are in flower early this year and the air smells musky from them. Papa took you out into the desert once so you could watch the bats swoop around. They were drinking the nectar from the flowers, Papa said. You couldn't have been very old. Eight, maybe? Or nine. A couple of years before Mama died and it all went to hell, anyway. Things were good then, with Papa. Your real Papa, not the old man waiting for you in California. Not Lancer. All Lancer did was get you on your Mama then toss the pair of you out to the wolves.

You haven't seen any bats tonight, but a little owl flits overhead. Over to the west something's moving, raisin' a little dust. Not much, though. Not enough for men and horses and Apache wouldn't raise any at all. Peccaries, maybe, or a family of javelinas rooting round for prickly pear. You watch for a few minutes. The wind shifts, sending the scent your way. Peccaries. Nothing stinks worse than a peccary on the rut. Even the gelding snorts. You lean forward and rub your hand over his neck. A little bit farther tonight and you can both take a rest. He chuffs out a big sigh when you tell him to walk, and plods along the hard ground, head bobbing with every step.

Five, maybe six miles on, the land is rockier and broken. Plenty of cover. A wash cuts through the ground over to the left and you nudge the horse into it, letting him pick his own way down the slope to the bottom. The wash is thick with palo fierro, the desert ironwood, and the shadow's deep enough to hide even a man's sins.

It has to be close to midnight and the desert's quiet behind you. You can take an hour or two to rest the gelding. Viejo, you call him as you slide down out of the saddle. Old Man. It suits him because he's one helluva worn out old horse but he ain't appreciative of the compliment and he snorts, flicking an ear at you. The whites of his eyes gleam in the dark. You rub his ears, sorry you can't risk unsaddling him.

The wash is dry, and the ironwood's roots must be reaching down real deep. There's nothing for Viejo to drink, so you pour a little water into the palm of your hand from the canteen Padre Gervasio gave you. It's not much and nowhere near as much as he needs, but he slobbers it up and a couple of palmfuls more. You can go without for a bit longer.

The moon's almost directly overhead now. Everything is pale light and deep darkness. You and Viejo are well hidden, out of the moonlight. Viejo crops at the scrubby grass. You lean your back against a tree and close your eyes.

They shoved Pablo up against a tree, too. His face when he was dragged to his feet... He didn't want to let the bastards see how scared he was. He didn't even have time to say anything to Javier, sitting shaking beside you and mumbling prayers. That tree would have been as hard against Pablo's back as the ironwood's bole is against you. It was a tough old tree. You saw the wood chips fly when the Rurales fired.

You wrap your arms around yourself. It has to be colder than you reckoned, here in the desert at the dead of night, to make you shiver like this. Maybe you picked up the desert ague. Maybe that's it.

Pablo looked so damned surprised.

They always do when the bullets hit home. You see it, every time. Stands to reason that a man's a mite taken aback when he's called you out to a dance and reckons on winning, but he's backed up instead against a tree or a post or the saloon wall. Every time they look surprised. Every time they think it'll never happen to them, until it does.

The way it'll never happen to you—

Viejo dances away a step or two, snorting at the noise you make. He sounds as surprised as Pablo looked. It all boils up in you—the bread and the tequila Padre Gervasio gave you, and the noise of the shots and Pablo's face, and Javier's prayer—and you bolt into the bushes just in time to bend double, heaving and choking.

¡Tal estupidez!

It's a long time before you can stop, and wipe your mouth. Musta been something... the tequila maybe. Your gut isn't used to it after a month half-starved in the Rurales' prison. Likely it's a bit sensitive right now.

Viejo's back to grazing when you come out of the bushes and pays you no mind. You sit down with your back against the ironwood. Your hand's shaking when you rub it over your face. You can't see it, here in the darkness, but you can feel the trembling in your fingers, just like you felt it out in the field where they shot Pablo and were going to shoot you. Then the shaking was somewhere inside you where the Rurales couldn't see it. No one could see it. Not even you.

You felt cold, clammy with sweat. The sun burned on your back through the thin cotton of the peon shirt they made you wear... hell, Madrid! You know, you're maybe stupider than a sack of rocks. This time you even lost the shirt off your back.

Stupid. So stupid, to think that you and all the little people could take on a Don and win. You were stupid, Pablo was stupid, even fucking Murdoch Lancer was stupid almost sending that Pink too late. What in hell were you thinking, Madrid?

You must have faced death many times, m'hijo, said Padre Gervasio, pressing his broad thumb against your forehead when you knelt for his blessing.

Sure you have. Many times. But this time wasn't on your terms. This time was different. This time you weren't calling the tune for the dance. How in hell you got out of it... you shake your head. All down to one man and owing Murdoch Lancer a favour don't sit well with you. Damn it.

You lean your head back against the tree bark. Viejo is standing near you, one hip cocked and head drooping as he dozes. Hope the damned horse doesn't snore.

The moon's moving across the sky to the west and the light slides under the tree branches, chasing away some of the shadows. The light's a dark grey, enough for you to go through your saddlebags, see what's there. Padre Gervasio slipped in a bottle of tequila for you, but your gut's still roiling. You put it to one side along with the food. One linen shirt, and at least that one's your own. Everything you're wearing belonged to someone else. Well, not your jacket. You'd left that, with your gun, in the Padre's keeping,. Those people had nothing, but they raided their best to give you a new set of clothes. The padre gave you a purse too. There's not much in it, but ten silver dollars pour into your palm. Enough to get you to Sasabe and buy some trail rations.

They shouldn't have given you so much. They're good people but Don Castañeda has his foot on their necks again, and men like the Don don't forgive and they don't forget. The villagers are going to get it hard now and there's nothing you can do to help them. It's all you'll be able to do to save yourself.

Go to California, m'hijo, said Padre Gervasio. The man who sent the Pinkerton for you... surely he was guided by God, by Whose great grace deliverance came in the nick of time. It is a sign. Go and see what it is he wants of you.

Pffft. You know that already. Most likely, all Lancer wants is to buy your gun. Can't see why else he'd send for you, not after all this time. Still, you've promised yourself for years that you'll pay him a visit one day, the man who threw you and your Mama aside like a man throws out his old boots. Maybe you will go and find out why he did it. Maybe you will. When Viejo's rested a mite more, you'll push on, holding north west still, riding away from the Rurales and Mexico. You're heading in that direction, anyway.

You rub your hand over your eyes. Your fingers are still trembling. You'd thought you'd got over this, listening to Padre Gervasio's quiet voice talking about fresh starts and new beginnings and You should not fear, chico, but embrace the new life the good Dios has granted you.

You ain't afraid. You ain't. No matter what the Padre thought.

But you don't ever want anyone to see on your face, the surprise you saw on Pablo's.

.

.

~end~

2,615 words

Midnight Rider lyrics
Songwriters:Allman, Gregg L.; Payne, Robert Kim;

Well, I've got to run to keep from hidin'
And I'm bound to keep on ridin'
And I've got one more silver dollar

But I'm not gonna let 'em catch me, no
Not gonna let 'em catch the midnight rider

And I don't own the clothes I'm wearing
And the road goes on forever
And I've got one more silver dollar

But I'm not gonna let 'em catch me, no
Not gonna let 'em catch the midnight rider

And I've gone by the point of caring
Some old bed I'll soon be sharing
And I've got one more silver dollar

But I'm not gonna let 'em catch me, no
Not gonna let 'em catch the midnight rider

No, I'm not gonna let 'em catch me, no
Not gonna let 'em catch the midnight rider
(repeat)