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Rated: E · Short Story · Western · #2000279
Love, lust and revenge meet on the trail and a gunfighter has to change his priorities
      The afternoon sun reflecting off the coat of the dappled gray horse made him glisten like he was wearing a blanket of shiny pearls. He galloped across the sandy desert with his long white mane and tail floating in the wind. The man on his back wore a black hat and duster which flowed onto his mount’s flanks and made the two look fused together. Horse and rider loped along the gritty dirt through the sagebrush until they arrived at the banks of a river. A silver and black wolf followed on the horse’s hooves closely like a shadow. The rider urged the horse to wade into the swiftly flowing river and the water slowly wrapped around its slate black legs until it touched the stirrups of the saddle as they made their way to the other side. 
    The trees along the sides of the river were green and leafy and the vegetation at the water’s edge was thick and lush. Through the wispy branches the horse took notice of a coyote nervously sniffing the ground and the horse immediately became wary.
    The horse’s attentiveness to the coyote alarmed his rider and he pulled his mount’s head around and cautiously guided him out of the water to the side of the trail where he brought the horse to a halt. He waited there to see if he could spot what the horse and coyote were worried about but when the coyote saw the man on top of the horse it took off, man is a much bigger threat than anything else in the wilderness.
    As the man looked around trying to see what might have startled the creatures the wolf came trotting out of the brush and ran up to the duo. The horse acknowledged the animal’s presence with a snort but still cautiously gazed about. Something had spooked both the horse and the coyote and it wasn’t likely that it had been the wolf. A lone wolf rarely attacks anything other than a rabbit and never a coyote and the horse already knew the wolf.
    Gabriel got off his horse, crouched down and peered through some scrub trees as he surveyed the area ahead. As soon as he hit the ground the wolf approached him.
    “Are you out here causing trouble Cody?” The tail wagged as the animal came up for a pet. When the man stood up his black duster spread out around him like a cape and spooked the creature.
    “Really? What’s got the two of you so jumpy?” Gabriel said as he got back on the horse and pressed it to a gallop along the river with the wolf following close behind.
    They followed the bend in the trail ahead and soon entered a shabby looking town. It was composed of several crudely built structures, some looked like houses, some like temporary shelters and the large permanent appearing building had several horses tied up in front with a sign that had Whiskey and Beer carved onto it. Gabriel rode up to the saloon and stopped his horse, dismounted and threw the reins over the hitching post.
    “Stay here.” He told the silver shadow that had immediately lain at the horse’s feet after he got off. Gabriel confidently walked through the door and strode up to the bar. The patrons stared at him, it was probably because he wore his gun strapped to his leg like a gunfighter but also because he was a stranger.
    Gabriel was tall, sinewy with dark long hair and dangerous flashing black eyes and strong good features. He wore a tanned elk hide shirt. He quickly gazed around the room registering the glances the men and women gave him which made him cautious. None of them seemed to be able to take their eyes off of him. He knew he hadn’t ever been in this odd little place before so he was wary as to the attention he was receiving.
    He had been in a lot of small towns and he remembered them all and many were quite similar to this one. Most of them had a store, a saloon, a few house’s for the important people and assorted lodging for everyone else. The larger towns usually had a bank, a church and some kind of law office but they were mostly small settlements like this than like the larger ones in the territories he had been traveling through but they were all pretty lawless.
    Behind the bar the old man sized him up as he walked to the counter. The bartender’s grizzled appearance was in stark contrast to Gabriel’s. His skin was taut, weathered and wrinkled, his hair was grey and his beard was white whereas the stranger was sleek, dark and moved with the grace and danger of a mountain lion. The bartender was strong and sturdy and had no problem keeping the young cowhands in line but he had seen many more years pass by than the man now standing before him.
    “Give me a whiskey please.” Gabriel politely asked.
    “Sure thing, I haven’t seen you in here before.” He was trying to gauge the young man’s attitude.
    “That’s true.” Gabriel tersely replied.
    “What’s your name, stranger?” The bartender inquired.
    “Do you need my name before I can get a drink?” Gabriel quipped.
    “No sir, I don’t. Settle down now.” He wasn’t trying to rile the man up.
    “I am settled, how about less talkin’ and more drinkin’. My name’s Gabriel.”  He responded with a hint of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Why’s everyone starin’ at me?”
    “Don’t mind them, you’re new in town and there’s nothing much to do round here. People call me Boss.” The old man felt at ease around this stranger.
      Gabriel drank his whiskey and watched the men sitting at the corner table playing cards out of the corner of his eye. They nervously glanced over at him and whispered to each other. He could hear pieces of their conversations.
    “Isn’t that the man that killed old Pete Wilson in Tucson last month?” 
    “It sure looks like him.”
    “He shot Pete before he even got a hand his gun out of the holster.”
      Gabriel ignored the gossip and finished his drink just as a cocky young man walked up to the bar.
    “Can I buy you a drink?” The young man asked.
    “No thanks.” Gabriel answered.
    “Are you too good to have a drink with me?” The young man became agitated.
    “No, I just had one but if you’re gonna cause trouble you can buy me another.” Gabriel quietly remarked.
      The bartender cautiously approached the two men and poured a couple shots of whiskey and set them on the counter.
    “I knew he wouldn’t pass up a free drink.” The young man smiled as he made this announcement to the saloon. Everyone nervously watched the two men.
    “I let you buy me a drink so how about you quit talkin’?” Gabriel was getting annoyed.
    “What do you mean by that?”
    “Nothing but what I just said. I’m mindin’ my own business so why don’t you do the same?” Just as Gabriel said that the young man reached for his gun and a second later he was lying on the floor with a bullet in his leg.
      The young man cried out in pain and cursed Gabriel. Comments quickly came from the men sitting around the saloon.
    “It was a fair fight mister. He drew first.” Numerous men quickly chimed in their affirmation.
    Gabriel looked around. “Alright then everyone stay where you are and I’m gonna leave. I had to shoot after he pulled his gun on me but he won’t die from his wound.” Gabriel put money on the bar for his whiskey and carefully walked out of the saloon watching the men while he did so.
      Gabriel mounted his horse and quickly rode out of town watching behind him for the men he was sure that would follow. He rode to a nearby stand of trees next to a large outcropping of rocks by a watering hole after he was clear of the town. He got off and motioned to the wolf to take off and he tied his horse to a tree behind the rocks. He found a location on top that provided cover and waited for the men to come after him.
    It wasn’t long before four men arrived, they dismounted and allowed their horses to drink water while they studied the ground to determine which way the man they were tracking had gone. As they studied the recent tracks they heard the sound of a gun being cocked. They looked up and saw Gabriel standing on the rocks overhead holding a rifle on the man leading the group. That man was big and burly looked like a lawman.
    “Put up your hands and drop your guns unless any of you think I can miss at this distance?” Gabriel fiercely stared at all of the men and kept his gun focused on the leader of the bunch. The men slowly dropped their weapons to the ground.
    “So what do we do now Hank?” A skinny nervous man wearing a gaudy leather fringed jacket addressed their leader. Before he could answer Gabriel did.
    “If I were any of you I would get on my horse and ride out of here. You only have a couple of minutes to decide what you’re gonna do before I start shootin’. It’s your choice which way this goes down.” Gabriel kept his gun steadily trained on its original target as the men all pulled their horses heads away from the water and mounted up.
    “If this little posse came after me because of the man I just shot you ought to go back and ask what really happened. It was a fair fight I couldn’t get out of. He drew first and I only shot him in the leg to keep either one of us from gettin' killed.”
    Just then a man at the back of the pack went for his gun and Gabriel quickly shot it out of his hand and just as fast his gun was retrained on the leader.
    “Okay, we get the message. We’re gonna leave.” Hank said and the men turned their horses around and galloped off.
      Gabriel waited until the men were out of sight and picked up their guns. He retrieved his horse from where he tied it and then headed in the opposite direction at a rapid pace. He didn’t think the men were going to come back without their guns but he saw no reason to take any chances since they probably were going to come back and get their guns eventually. No man likes to lose his gun.
    “Whoa Diablo” and Gabriel halted the horse after a bit in the middle of the trail.
    He took the bullets out of the guns and put them in his saddlebag and then tossed the empty guns out onto the dirt. That way if they did come back they couldn’t accuse him of stealing their guns but they couldn’t shoot him either.
    The late afternoon sun was blazing hot and he was looking for a place to escape from the heat when he noticed a wagon up ahead on the horizon. He approached it cautiously and saw that the wagon was being hauled by four mules with two handsome sorrel horses tied to the back. As he got closer he could see a husky looking young man manning the reins with a beautiful woman sitting by his side and on the tail end of the wagon sat a teenage boy. The wagon was sagging low on its axles seemingly carrying a heavy load. He followed behind them for a bit. Gabriel saw an even odder collection of structures coming up than the last little settlement he was in. When he got closer he could see several horses tied up in front of the largest building just like at the previous location. The wagon arrived there first and stopped in front. There was a sign hanging out front which said “Whiskey Stop”. The saloons were by far the biggest and most popular places in any town he ran across no matter what the size.
      While the man with the wagon was tying up the mules and gathering his family together Gabriel left his horse, with the wolf guarding it, behind the saloon. He walked around front to the swinging doors and entered. There were five men sitting around a table drinking whiskey and playing cards and another wearing a black hat standing next to the bar.
    “Howdy there stranger, what can I do you for?” The man with the black hat asked while obviously sizing him up.
    “I’m thirsty, hungry and lookin’ for a place to get some food and water for me and my horse.” Gabriel answered.
    “You come to the right place. There’s a man at the stable next door that will feed and water your horse for two bits while you eat here.” The man with the hat replied.
    “That’s what I’m lookin’ for.” Gabriel said but before he could say anything more the family came walking in from the wagon. The men looked up from their game and stared at the very attractive woman.
    “Can you tell me if there’s a place to buy supplies around here?” The man asked the man at the bar.
    “Don’t you and your misses want to order a drink first?” The man in the black hat answered.
    “Umm, sure. Water, we’ll pay for it.” The man nervously replied.
    “I don’t serve water here. I got beer and whiskey.” The man poured two whiskies and a beer set them on the counter. “What brings you to Whiskey Stop?”
      “We’re looking to buy some supplies and spend the night where we don’t have to worry about getting attacked by Indians.” The man nervously responded as he gave the beer to the boy and motioned to the woman to take one of the whiskies.
    The men in the bar gazed lustfully at the beautiful woman as she took the shot of whiskey and drank it. 
    “You can camp next to town tonight. There’s a place across from this here saloon that stocks some supplies.” The barman said as he looked out past the swinging doors at the fancy horses tied to the wagon.
    “Thanks. How much do I owe you?” The man wanted to get out of there fast. The way the men were looking at the woman was making him nervous.
      Just then the man behind the bar turned his attention back to Gabriel. “This is turning out to be a right busy day here. What did you say you wanted?”
    “I didn’t. I’d like whiskey and water.” Gabriel was thirsty after riding all day.
    “We don’t serve water here didn’t you hear?”
    “Then I guess you better give me whiskey and beer.” Gabriel wasn’t surprised but he wanted to see if he got the same treatment as the family did.
    As the man got Gabriel’s drinks the other man put money on the bar and quickly left with the woman and boy.
    Gabriel drank the whisky swiftly and then slowly drank the beer. He savored the sensation as it flowed down his throat, it was refreshing. He paid up and went to get his horse fed and watered. He was ready to leave this strange little settlement by now. The men seemed fairly treacherous and he had already dealt with enough of that for one day. Getting his horse cared for was the only important thing he needed to do.
    The family was still standing in front when Gabriel walked out from the saloon. “Howdy folks.” He greeted them.
    The young man looked at Gabriel and deduced he wasn’t a threat. “Hi stranger, kind of an odd little place here isn’t it?”
    “Yeah I suppose it is. There are lots of places like this out here. Where are you folks headin’ to?” Gabriel replied.
    “A place called Los Angeles, California. We came out from Denver but we parted company with the wagons we were traveling with after some of the families got sick. We decided it was best if we headed out on our own. Now I’m not so sure it was such a good idea.” He looked distressed.
    “I know what you mean but most of those men are harmless. You do have a fine lookin’ wife, and son. My name’s Gabriel.” He was looking at the woman as he addressed the young man.
    “I’m Jake. This is my sister Anna and her son Jesse. Anna’s husband died in an accident on the trail about a month ago.” His response was sad but friendly.
    “Sorry to hear that. I’m headed to California also and then on down to Mexico.”
    “We’re going to get some supplies and camp here tonight and then head out in the morning. Would you like to join us for dinner?” Jake inquired.
    “That’s a mighty fine offer and I haven’t had a good meal in a long time. I’ve been livin’ on jerky, biscuits and venison. I’m gonna see about gettin’ my horse fed right now but I’d be right pleased to have dinner with you folks.”  Gabriel responded.
    “I thought we should stay next to this little town tonight because I knew we were entering Indian Territory. I wanted to sleep where we didn’t have to worry about getting attacked but those men in the saloon look more dangerous than any of the Indians I’ve seen.” Jake commented.
    “I saw the way they were lookin’ at your sister but the Indians I’ve met are kind of like rattlesnakes, if you don’t bother them they won’t bother you. The men in this town remind me of vultures, just waitin’ around to prey on the sick and the weak. With me and you around I don’t think they’ll bother us any.” Gabriel looked at Anna when he responded.
    “I’d sure appreciate your help. You look a lot more capable than I do. I know I’m not much of a gunfighter and so does everyone else.” Jake looked at his sister and her son when he said this.
    “That’s nothing to be ashamed of. I’ll come by your camp after I get my horse taken care of.” Gabriel turned and walked off.
    Gabriel and the family went about their business. He took his horse and saw the man at the stable. “For two bits I’ll feed, water and brush down yer horse and if you want you can leave him here overnight.” The old man told him.
    “I don’t need that, I’ll be back to get him in a couple of hours. I’m gonna leave my dog here with my horse but he won’t bother you if you don’t bother him.” Gabriel sensed the man’s nervousness but he didn’t care. The wolf and the horse were both safer if they stayed there together.
    The man looked at the wolf with suspicion but didn’t object. Gabriel thought the men in this town seemed shady just like Jake had. He went to the building that sold supplies and bought a few things for himself along with some bacon and eggs to give to the family he had been invited to have dinner with, secretly hoping to be invited to breakfast the next morning. He still had some meat left in his saddle bags from the deer he killed for him and Cody as well as some flour, salt, sourdough and some beans. 
    While he was waiting for his horse to be cared for he went back to the saloon for a few more shots of whiskey and beers. He got a few odd looks from the men still playing cards but they left him alone and that suited him just fine. He retrieved his horse and went to find the family.
    They were set up just outside of the makeshift town in the westerly direction they were all headed in. Gabriel had been traveling for a long time and he was starting to miss the home and family he left behind. He was looking forward to good food and decent company.
    Anna was tending the fire when Gabriel walked into camp. She was a beautiful woman and he couldn’t help but stare at her. She had a nice figure with and her face was beautiful and her golden hair was tied neatly up on her head.
    “Howdy mam, where’s Jake and Jesse?”
    “They’re out gathering more wood for the fire.” She pointed behind the wagon. “What’s that following you?”
    “That’s Cody. He and my horse, Diablo, have been on the trail with me for a long time.” Gabriel answered.
    “He looks like a wolf.” She looked a bit concerned.
    “That he is. I came across his mother dead in a trap when he was just a pup and I saved him and he’s been with me ever since. He watches over my stuff and helps me hunt deer. Diablo and Cody are my friends and we all watch out for each other.” He watched her to see if she thought he was crazy. Most people didn’t call animals friends but she didn’t react to his statement.
    “What part of the country did you come from?” She changed the subject.
    “I grew up in New Mexico. My mother is still there, I think.”
    “You think? I’m sorry. You must think I’m nosy.” She looked away.
    “No mam. I just haven’t been back for a long time.” He didn’t mind anything she said to him. He hadn’t had a conversation with a beautiful woman in a long time. “I brought some things for dinner, or breakfast.”
      She smiled at him appreciatively. ”It’s been a while since we’ve had any company. We don’t need anything for dinner but we would be happy to share breakfast with you.” She turned away to tend to the food she was cooking.
      Jake and Jesse walked up with their arms full of small branches.
    “Welcome to our camp.” Jake smiled broadly. 
    “Thanks. I’m lookin’ forward to havin’ a good meal. It’s been a while.” That was no lie he thought to himself.
    “Anna is a good cook and she has made a fine stew for dinner.” Jake smiled at his sister.
    “Gabriel brought us some bacon and eggs for breakfast.”
    “It sounds like we invited the right man to dinner. This almost reminds me of how it used to be when neighbors came by back home.” Jake said enthusiastically.
    “Can I play with your dog Mister?” Jesse asked.
    “Sure. He’s kind of shy but he won’t bite.” Gabriel told the boy.
      Just then Anna interrupted. “Dinner is ready.”
      The four of them quietly ate as they appreciated the meal.
    “I can’t remember the last time I had food this good.” Gabriel commented.
    “This is the best meal we’ve had for a while also. Good job sis.” Jake added.
    “Thank you both, that little store had some good vegetables to put in the stew so it wasn’t all meat and beans for a change.” 
    “Can I give the dog some food?” Jesse asked his mother.
    “You should ask Gabriel.” She replied.
    “Please. I used to have a dog.” The boy said as he looked at the wolf sadly.
    “Sure, he likes people food. His name is Cody. Don’t give him very much or I’ll have to fight him for it.” Gabriel smiled and called the wolf over and the boy offered him a plate with some stew on it. The wolf cautiously ate as the boy rubbed his head.
    Jake looked at the scene and smiled. “We had to leave Jesse’s dog behind when we set out for California. He misses him a lot.”
    “I understand. Cody is better company than most people I meet.” Gabriel sincerely added.
    “I can relate to that.” Jake laughed.
    “I’ve got some dried venison in my saddlebags. Follow me Jesse and you can give Cody his dinner, this stew is too good to waste on him.”
      Jesse jumped up and followed Gabriel.
      After dinner was cleared up Anna sent Jesse to bed in the wagon and the three of them sat by the fire and enjoyed the last of the hot coffee.     
      “I’ll take the watch for first half of the night and then I’ll wake you.” Gabriel told Jake.
    “That’s nice of you. I was getting kind of nervous about being here after we went in the saloon. I feel much safer now. I’ll leave the place next to Jesse for when you come to bed Anna.” Jake responded and went to sleep in the back of the wagon.
    “Why are you folks headin’ to California?” Gabriel asked Anna after Jake went to bed.
    “Five years ago Jake and I lived in Kansas City with our parents. I met my husband, Eric, and after he asked me to marry him we planned to move to Denver where his parents lived. My father was a school teacher and he always wanted to see the ocean so when I was getting ready to leave my mother and father decided to take the train out to California. They asked Jake if he wanted to go with them or stay with me until they got settled in and he chose to stay with me. When Eric and I moved to Denver we started a clothing store with the help of his parents. I’m good at designing and sewing clothing and Eric’s father was a big merchant so Eric did the buying and Jake worked at the store. We became really successful and my parents kept writing to us that Los Angeles was growing fast and that if we moved there we could open an emporium out there and do even better than we had in Denver. So we decided to leave our store with Eric’s parents running it and move to California to start a new one. The things my father wrote about California sounded amazing. He said it was warm and sunny all of the time and that the ocean was the most impressive thing he had ever seen in his life. Eric, Jake, Jesse and I left Denver a couple of months ago and decided to come by wagon. We brought some things we will need for our new store and some things my parents left behind. The rest of our stuff we are going to have sent by train once we get a place to put them. It seemed like a neat adventure. Now I wish we had taken the train but we can’t turn back now.” Anna sounded scared and depressed.
    “I haven’t been to California but I’ve heard it’s a wonderful place. I don’t think they have to worry much about Indians out there either. The place I am headed to is south of there. I know what you mean about wanting to do things differently. Sometimes I wish I had done that too, mam.”
    “Quit calling me mam, my name is Anna.” She looked at him with fiery eyes.
    “Yes ma...I mean Anna.” She was so beautiful she was making him feel like a boy again. The way he felt with Victoria.
    “Thank you. You make me feel like an old lady when you say mam.”  She smiled.
    “You’re no old lady and you’re very pretty.” He nervously told her.
    “Thank you and you are a very polite man.” She coyly looked at him.
    “Not too many people would agree with you about that.” He was becoming tongue tied. He hadn’t flirted with a woman for a long time.
    “I find that hard to believe.” She smiled again.
    “Believe it.” He got up and put some more wood on the fire. He glanced at her and sat back down. They quietly watched the fire rise and fall and when it died down he put a little more wood on it and Anna got in the back of the wagon with her brother and son. Gabriel stood watch until the middle of the night when he woke up Jake to relieve him. Gabriel laid on his bedroll next to the low burning fire and slept while Jake was on watch detail.
    In the morning Anna cooked the bacon and eggs along with sourdough pancakes for breakfast.
    “This is the best breakfast I’ve had in years. I don’t do much cookin’ for myself.” Gabriel said.
    “It’s just the food you brought us.” She smiled and looked down. “And I’m grateful you did. We haven’t had a proper breakfast since we left Denver.”     
    “You’re a good man to know!” Jake slapped him on the back.
      “I liked the bacon best.” Jesse added and took off with a piece to give to Cody.
      “I’m glad you liked it. There’s plenty more dried meat for Cody though. You ought to eat the bacon.” Gabriel replied.   
      “I’m going to go pack up the wagon. Stay and finish the coffee while I do,” Jake got up and walked over to the wagon.
      “How long have you been away from your home?” Anna inquired.
      “It’s been almost ten years.”
      “Why did you leave, if you don’t mind me asking?”
      “It sounds kind of silly now but I was in a gunfight over a girl with someone I thought was a friend and I lost. We all three grew up as friends on the same ranch. Rafael’s mother was Victoria’s father’s cook and after her mother died my mother became her father’s wife a couple years after my father was killed in an accident. Victoria and I were thirteen when my mother married her father. Rafael was three years older than us and he was in love with Victoria but she had grown up with him and thought of him as a brother. Rafael was determined to have Victoria and had been practicing to be a gunfighter. One day when I was sixteen he made me draw on him in a fight over Victoria. He drew faster and shot first, he left me for dead and took Victoria away from the ranch. I have been searching for them ever since. I became fast with a gun so I can beat him if I ever find them.”
    “That’s a sad story. Do you know where they are?”
    “I recently heard of a gunfighter in Mexico with the name of Rafael who has a beautiful woman with him. It may not be him but I need to find out. If it’s not him I’m ready to quit searching.”
    “You have been looking for a long time.” She seemed amazed.
    “Yes. It seems kind of stupid now but I can’t stop yet. Meeting a woman like you makes me think I should have quit a long time ago though.” Gabriel gave her a shy smile.
    “That’s sweet of you to say. That woman is lucky.” She gave him what he perceived as a seductive smile.
    “I don’t know about that or if she even cares about me anymore. She probably thinks I’m dead.” He said disappointedly and looked at the ground.
    Jake and Jesse came walking up. “We have the wagon packed up and ready to go. Do you want to travel along with us to California?” Jake asked Gabriel.
    “Sure, your sister is too good of a cook for me to say no. Besides, two guns are better than one.” Gabriel was interested for more reasons than the food.
    “That’s a good point. I look forward to your company on the trail.” Jake responded.
    Gabriel and the family headed on through the rest of Arizona and into California. The landscape went from brush and creeks to desert and then to lush grass and trees. Gabriel took Jesse out on hunting trips with him and Cody as they traveled. By the time they got close to Los Angeles they were back to the desert again. They enjoyed a lot of venison and rabbit roasted on the campfire at the end of the day. In the evenings Jake, Gabriel and Anna visited around the fire Jesse and Cody played games together. Usually it was chasing each other and fighting over a stick. It was a good time for all.
    They encountered several more odd little towns much like the one they all met at but they seemed to draw less attention with the four of them traveling together than they had as a threesome or a solitary man with a gun. Anna and Gabriel were becoming increasingly attracted to each other.
    Late one afternoon Anna was getting dinner ready while Jake and Gabriel were tending to the horses and mules. Anna wondered over to where the men were to tell them dinner was almost ready but stopped when she heard her name mentioned.
    “Anna is getting pretty fond of you I hope you know.”
    “She is a great cook and purty sweet to look at.” Gabriel responded softly. “I am getting hungry just thinking about her cooking.”
    “Is that all you’re getting hungry for?” Jake teasingly said. Then he saw Anna standing by the wagon. “Hiya sis!”
    Gabriel looked up startled that she might have heard them talking about her. Jake led the mules to the tie line and left her and Gabriel alone.
    “I heard you say you were hungry. Dinner is almost ready.” She gave him a small smile.
    “I am.” He gently put his arm over her shoulder and gently pulled her close. He softly put his lips against hers and kissed her. Her lips were soft, just like he had imagined them to be. She kissed him back and they lingered with their lips for a moment and then she blushingly looked down. “We should go eat,” she said and walked back to the fire.
    Gabriel started to wonder if there was any point in pursuing Rafael and Victoria but he still felt driven to finish his search after having been on his quest for so long. Jesse and Cody had become inseparable buddies and Gabriel felt that when he needed to leave Cody would be better off staying with his new friends because if Rafael was as good as his reputation Cody might be without anyone to care for him.
    Despite the warnings about Indians they very rarely saw any and when they did there were no confrontations. They only ventured into settlements and towns when they really needed supplies to accompany the meat.
    The four of them finally arrived in Los Angeles and Jake and Anna’s parents had been very welcoming when they finally arrived. After a few weeks Gabriel became very fond of the entire family, he missed his and the good times he had with the family he had left behind in New Mexico. Sleeping on a real bed every night was pretty easy to get used to as well as not having to travel. He missed his mother and even though he occasionally sent a letter to her he hadn’t received any back because he never stayed in one location long enough to get one back. He almost wrote one but he decided to wait and see if he made it back from Mexico. If he did he would go back and visit her.
    While staying with Anna and Jake’s family Gabriel started enquiring around about the town he heard Rafael was living in. He discovered that he would have been better off to have headed straight down to Mexico from his home in New Mexico. It sort of made sense when he thought about it. Rafael took Victoria and as far away as he could as fast as he could. When Gabriel announced he was heading back towards New Mexico to go south Jake volunteered to ride with him. Gabriel tried to discourage him but Jake was bored with Los Angeles and was intrigued to go and visit the rugged country of Mexico. Gabriel enjoyed Jake’s company so he let him accompany him and they set out for what could be a month or more’s journey before they would return, if they returned. Anna begged them not to go but they didn’t listen to her.
    “I know I have no right to ask you to stay so I won’t.” She looked at Gabriel with tears in her eyes.
    “Anna, don’t cry. I love you. I know you don’t understand why I need to finish this journey but I do. It’s not that I still want Victoria back but that I want Rafael to pay for costing me all these years I spent searching for him. I know that makes no sense. It’s a stupid man thing!” He was trying his best to keep her calm.
    “I do understand but that doesn’t mean I want you to go. I am glad Jake is going with you. I feel like you will be safer together. I’ll be waiting for you to return and no matter what you decide to do I will accept it.” She gave him a kiss.
    “I will come back, even if it is to say goodbye. You deserve that much and more. I am pleased to have your brother’s company but I vow that he will return no matter what happens to me. I want Cody to stay here with Jesse because I don’t know what we’ll be going into and he may get shot.” He waited for confirmation from her.
    “Of course, I’m not sure Jesse would let you take him anyway.” She smiled.
    “Thank you. Cody has been my buddy for a long time and he deserves a loving place to live.” Gabriel kissed her again and headed out to finish getting his horse ready. They were taking one mule with lots of supplies because they knew it was a long journey ahead and they didn’t know if there was going to be any places to get anything in the deserts of Mexico.
      As they rode along in silence Gabriel thought back to the beginning of his journey. He was having trouble picturing Victoria but he knew he would recognize Rafael, his memory being kept alive by hatred and thoughts of revenge.
    Victoria was the daughter of Fernando, a wealthy Mexican rancher, who had owned the ranch next to his family and after Gabriel’s father died suddenly after an accident Victoria’s father helped his mother take care of the ranch. She and her Gabriel soon moved to Fernando’s ranch to help his wife, who had become ill, care for their house and daughter. A couple of years later she became his wife after Victoria’s mother died. Gabriel and Victoria were thirteen years old when their parents got married to each other.
    Rafael was the son of Fernando’s cook and he grew up on the ranch alongside Victoria, he was three years older and he was in love with her but she thought of him as a brother. When Gabriel and his mother moved to the ranch Victoria became very enamored of the cute young son. Rafael was not pleased with Victoria’s relationship with Gabriel. Rafael was already working as a cowboy on the ranch and was out on the range all day which left Gabriel and Victoria alone around the house and corrals where Gabriel helped with the horses her father raised. He had some beautiful horses and Gabriel had proved himself a natural when it came to handling them. Rafael was also good with the horses but he didn’t get to hang out on the ranch all day like Gabriel did. Rafael was treated more like a hired hand and Gabriel more like a son, which also didn’t set too well with Rafael since he was there first.
    Gabriel thought Victoria was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen, not that he’d been around many girls. Competing with Gabriel for Victoria’s attention made Rafael come to hate Gabriel and Rafael practiced to become fast with a gun hoping someday he would have a chance to challenge him to a gun fight and win Victoria for his own. Gabriel was aware that Rafael hated him, although when he first moved to the ranch they had been friends but that was before Victoria and he became so close.
    Their rivalry came to a head when Rafael was twenty and caught Victoria and Gabriel kissing in the stable. That was when he decided to goad Gabriel into a gunfight. Gabriel accepted and unbeknownst to their mothers they picked a time to meet out behind the barn when they both knew everyone would be preoccupied. Neither one of them told Victoria about the fight but she had been suspicious when she saw them whispering. She watched them walk out to the horse corrals behind the barn and followed them and watched as they faced each other and turned and walked away from each other. She figured out what they were doing and ran out into the corral.
    “What are you doing?” She yelled at them as they went their twenty paces from each other.
    “Get out of here.” Gabriel said.
    “Why? So you can shoot each other?” She was frantic.
    “Don’t worry I will win.” Rafael said.
    “I don’t want anyone to win.” She said.
    “It’s too late for that. I met you first.” Rafael replied.
    “What difference does that make?” She looked from one to the other.
    “I loved you first. He can’t have you.” Rafael told her.
    “Who said either one of you could have me?” She told him.
    “You should get out of here. This is between Rafael and me.” Gabriel told her.
    “No it’s not. It’s between all of us. I don’t want you to fight for me.” She was pleading for them to stop.
      Gabriel looked at her. “I am fighting because he is disrespectful, not because of you.”
      As the two young men stood and prepared to draw their guns Victoria could see she couldn’t stop the fight and ran off to get the help of her father. As soon as she ran around the barn she heard a gun go off and ran back. She saw Gabriel lying on the ground and Rafael walking up to him.
    “I’m sorry. He drew on me as soon as you ran off.” Rafael said to her.
    Victoria turned and ran to get her father, and by the time she got around the barn her father along with Gabriel and Rafael’s mothers were already headed to the corral where the gun shots came from.
    Rafael was standing over Gabriel and he looked at everyone running towards him. “He pushed me into drawing on him, I didn’t want to.”
    “Get out of here. I can’t believe I took you into my home.” Victoria’s father said to him.
    Rafael looked around at everyone who was staring at him. “Believe me Victoria, I didn’t want to fight him.”
    Gabriel was lying on the ground helplessly watching Rafael lie to Victoria, he had drawn and shot Gabriel as soon as Victoria had run to get help the first time. She just stood there frozen. Rafael walked over to her and hugged her. He pulled her towards him. She started crying and held on to him. He took advantage of her weakness and guided her towards two horses that were saddled and tied in front of the house.
    “Come with me querida and I will take care of you.” Rafael put her on the horse and rode off with her before anyone could get to them as they were all gathered around the fallen Gabriel.
      The gunshot had knocked the air out of Gabriel’s lungs and he couldn’t say a thing as he watched Rafael spirit Victoria away. By the time he could speak it was too late. They carried Gabriel to the house and someone went to bring the doctor back. After several weeks of mending he was furious about what happened and that the family had allowed Rafael to leave with Victoria.
    No one had any idea where Rafael had taken Victoria. Since Rafael had fancied himself a great gunfighter Gabriel hoped that one day he would hear of him shooting someone else and find him. Gabriel had worked his way through New Mexico and Arizona and recently someone told him they saw a man called Rafael in a gunfight in Sedona and that he had come from a little town just the other side of the Mexican border. This was just before he met Jake, Anna and Jesse.
          Gabriel and Jake rode back through Arizona towards New Mexico and then down the Mexican desert. It took them several weeks before they got past the desert and encountered the jungle where they expected to find the town Rafael was in. They were pleasantly surprised to find the people in the tiny villages they rode into along the way were very friendly and shared many meals with them. They usually wouldn’t even take any money. They ate some interesting new foods they had never had before, hot, spicy and very flavorful accompanied by flavorful liquor called Tequila.   
    Finally Gabriel was pretty sure they were riding into the place they were looking for. It was getting dark and they noticed an unusual pattern of light up ahead. As they rode closer they could see a cross up ahead. They had finally discovered the place called La Cruz, called that because there were candles burning in the shape of a cross. It was the sign they were looking for. They made their camp for the evening outside the shrine of candles.
    “This is an amazing place!” Jake said.
    “It certainly is, it’s beautiful here now that we are out of the desert. Let’s eat the food we bought from that little village for dinner and celebrate with some Tequila. If I find Rafael tomorrow this may be my last meal.” Gabriel flashed a smile at Jake who did not smile back.
    “Don’t talk like that. My sister will be very mad at me if I come home alone!”
    “It wouldn’t surprise me if we don’t find Rafael and Victoria and turn around and head home tomorrow.”
    “As far as I’m concerned we could do that as soon as we get up tomorrow.”
    “You are welcome to head back in the morning but I’ve come too far to do that.”
    “I know.”
    Gabriel and Jake saw some shadowy figures walking around the shrine of the cross as they lay near it and tried to get some sleep. The next morning they had some jerky and coffee and rode towards the pristine beach which was on the other side of the bluff the cross was on. The sand stretched out for miles with no visible human life anywhere on it. Gabriel and Jake made their way down the shoreline until they got near an old hotel they could see from the beach. It looked like the one they had been told to go to.
    They started towards it on the path through the jungle which encroached upon the sand with its large tropical trees and dense foliage. As the trail got closer to the large foreboding building there were several small trails that broke off, none headed directly for the hotel. One led them to a river that flowed towards the ocean with an estuary with a crocodile sunning itself on a log along with Iguanas, turtles and snowy egrets. Gabriel and Jake were amazed by what they were seeing.
    “I wish Anna could be with us. This is the most beautiful place I have ever seen!” Jake said in awe as he looked around.
    “Yes it is amazing! I’m sure she would enjoy seeing this, maybe next time,” Gabriel caught Jake’s eyes and smiled.
      “Right, next time.”
      They turned around and went back and took the other fork in the trail and as they walked their horses through the mangroves and other jungle plants they suddenly came across large piles of carcasses of strange large creatures alongside the trail. The horses were spooked at these mounds of rotting flesh.
    “What the hell are these things?” Jake was fighting to keep his horse walking forward.
    “I’ve never seen anything like these before! Looks like something out of a bad dream.” Gabriel got his horse to walk up to the piled up creatures.
    The giant bodies were several feet wide and they were stacked about ten deep in several locations off to the side of the path they had been walking their horses through. The horses were nervously reacting to the smell of death. They looked like fish but were large winged looking creatures with tails that resembled a scorpion.
    “They look like deformed giant fish!” 
    “Look at their backs, part of it’s been carved out.”
    “Why would someone do that I wonder?”
    “I don’t know why anyone would want any part of a creature like this.”
    “This is strange. Maybe we should leave.”
    “I still need to find out if Rafael and Victoria are here. You are still welcome to go back.” Gabriel was determined to keep on going.
    “I know. Just the same I would like to get out of here.”
    “Let’s get to the hotel.” Gabriel said and spurred his horse on.
    They kept on the trail and suddenly there was clearing in the jungle that contained the large old hotel. From the beach it had looked marvelous. It was huge, white and resembled a giant New Mexican mansion. Up close it looked like the ruins they had been told it was. It had obviously been magnificent once upon a time.
      They stopped their horses in front of the building and a young boy came running out. “Are you here to spend the night?” The boy asked them.
    “No. We are looking for someone who lives here.” Gabriel answered.
    “Who?” The boy looked at them curiously.
    “I’m looking for a man named Rafael and a woman named Victoria.” Gabriel told the boy.
    “They are here. You need to get off the beach. It is time for the jejenes to come.” The boy looked distressed.
    “Time for what to come?” Jake asked.
      “The meat eating sand flies. They don’t like smoke so we light fires and stay inside until they leave the beach.”
    “Lead us to where we need to be then. We will follow.” The boy led them behind the hotel into a courtyard. There were several boys lighting piles of brush in semi-circle around the building. The boy motioned for them to follow and he walked through the smoky circle to a large enclosure covered with large leaves from the trees and there was an entryway the boy disappeared through.
    Gabriel and Jake dismounted and were quickly surrounded by a cloud of biting insects. The horses started to jump all around and the men quickly led them between the piles of smoky brush following the boy. Once past the smoky brush and through the hanging leaves the insects were no longer around and the horses calmed down. The boy motioned them to keep moving forward and he led them into another structure inside the large complex. There were stalls with other horses inside and the boy led them to an open stall.
    “Put the horses in there, they will be safe. Follow me.” Gabriel and Jake did as they were told. After the horses were safely inside the boy led them to the center of the hotel. As they entered the building they were amazed at how large the enclosed courtyard was. The rock walls were twenty feet tall with small covered openings to let in the light.
    “Hello my old friend. I was wondering when you would show up.”  A deep voice said and Gabriel looked around to see a dark figure in the entryway. The man stepped into the light. He was dressed in black and wearing pearl handled revolvers on both hips. Rafael looked much older but Gabriel immediately recognized him. 
      “I’ve been looking for you for a long time.” Gabriel stared intensely at Rafael.
      Jake stood there quietly watching. He had heard the story and wasn’t sure what was going to occur.
    “I’ve been here ever since we left New Mexico. You aren’t really looking for me are you?” Rafael calmly said.
    “Yes I am. You shot me, left me for dead and took Victoria. I owe you for not finishing the job.” 
    “Does that mean you wanted to die? I wasn’t trying to kill you, just to make Victoria think you were dead so she would leave with me. I needed to get her away from you so she could see that she really loved me.” Rafael’s lips curled to form a small smile.
    “Do you really expect me to believe that? I didn’t want to die but if you had killed me I wouldn’t have had to waste the last ten years looking for you!” Gabriel started to walk towards Rafael. Jake looked at him for instructions as to what to do. Gabriel motioned for him to stay out of it.
    “Believe what you want. I knew Victoria first and she was mine. I didn’t tell you to come looking for us. You wanting revenge is on you. We’ve been very happy here.” Rafael kept his eyes on Gabriel and started walking a large circle around him while keeping his eyes on Jake.
    “Shouldn’t she have had a say in what happened?” Gabriel asked as he slightly turned his body to keep Rafael in his direct line of site.
    “She did, I asked if she wanted to leave with me.” He replied.
    “You mean after she thought I was dead? Some choice!”  Gabriel took a couple of steps forward. Jake nervously backed up.
    “It doesn’t matter now, she made her choice a long time ago. I don’t want to fight you again. I won and it’s over as far as I’m concerned. Would you like to see Victoria or did you just come here to shoot me?” Rafael looked at him and turned and walked over to the doorway he had come through. He looked at Jake. “Well, what would you like to do?”
    “I’ll stay with the horses.”
    “Victoria is here?” Gabriel followed Rafael towards the exit from the courtyard.
    “Of course she’s here. She’s always been here with me. I know she would like to see you. She was quite fond of you.” Rafael continued walking.
    Gabriel followed Rafael as he walked out of the courtyard and into a hallway that led to some rooms in the large stone building.
    “This place was built by the Spanish after they built their fort on the cliffs. They wanted a place they could easily access from their ships they came here in. No one was living here when Victoria and I arrived so with the help of some of the local fisherman, who also needed places to live, we rebuilt it to keep the biting bugs away and out of the rooms. Many people live here now, most of the men fish, which is also what I do.”
    “You are a fisherman? I thought you were going to be a wild horse tamer?”
    “I only did that because you were so good at it. I wanted Victoria to look at me the way she looked at you.” Rafael led the way to a room and opened the door.
    Gabriel cautiously followed him inside. It was very large and looked out over the beach and jungle he had ridden through to get there. “You have a nice view.”
    “Yes I do. I saw you and your friend ride in from the beach. It is a beautiful place, yes?”
    “Yes it is. I thought you were bringing me to Victoria.”
    “I am, she is in one of the other rooms. I will go get her.” Rafael walked over to one of the many doors in the large room. He opened the door and stood there and two children came running through the door, a boy about seven and a girl about five. Rafael disappeared through the door and Victoria followed the children into the room.
    “Gabriel, how wonderful to see you.” She was still a beautiful woman and she looked very happy.
    Gabriel was speechless. He had been on this journey of revenge so long he never stopped to really think about what the new reality might be. “You look beautiful. I wasn’t sure I would ever see you again.”
    “I knew I would see you. Rafael confessed that he made you fight him after we got here. At first I was really mad but he told me he did it because he had always been in love with me and he was afraid you were the one I loved and that he would lose me. Then he told me he knew he was sure he only wounded you and that you would be alright, although he told me you were dead when he first convinced me to leave with him. He told me you shot first and missed but later confessed it was the other way around. I wrote my father a letter and asked him what happened to you after we arrived here. He wrote me back and said that you were fine and took off looking for Rafael and I. I knew you would find us here someday. Especially since my father and your mother write us letters. I expected them to tell you where we were.”
    “The joke is on me. I write letters to my mother but I never stay in one place long enough for her to write me back. I’m glad you’re doing well. Your children are beautiful.” Gabriel was beginning to feel very stupid.
    “Are you going to fight Rafael?” She asked him with a worried look.
    “That’s what I came here to do. The truth is that it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. I wanted revenge for being shot and for him taking you. But why fight for a woman who no longer wants me.”
    “I was young. I did think I loved you but I came to realize I had always loved Rafael. I don’t want to lose either one of you. Is there anything I can say to stop you from fighting?”
    “No. You don’t need to say anything. It’s over. I’ve wasted too many years chasing after you two and it’s time to quit.” Gabriel actually had a feeling of contentment wash over him. He had a good friend waiting to accompany him back to California where a beautiful woman and a young boy who needed a father were waiting for both of them. 
      “Why don’t you bring your friend up here so we can have dinner?” Rafael said from the doorway he was watching the reunion from.
      “We can’t stay very long but I suppose we can stay for dinner and leave in the morning. Since you are now a fisherman what are all those strange dead creatures that we passed on the way here, the ones that look like huge scorpions?” Gabriel asked.
    “They are called Rayos and only a small portion of them is good to eat. The fishermen take out that part and stack the rest of them in a pile. Then they take them and use them for bait to catch better things, there are many creatures that are good to eat on the bottom of the ocean. We never had this many kinds of fish to eat in New Mexico. We live on the things we get out of the ocean here. It’s an amazing place.” Rafael was quite animated.
    “Yeah I’ve already heard that.” Gabriel was being honest as Anna and Jake’s father had also been very excited about what that the ocean had to offer when they had first met. Things seemed to be coming full circle. It was time for him to go back and pay a visit to see his mother, after he and Jake returned to California to Anna and Jesse.
© Copyright 2014 Michele Rae DeJean (chelebub at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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