‘We were supposed to be on the postal carriage last Saturday,’ I said to the nun as we walked out of the cool interior of the church into the dust and the hot evening sun. ‘Didn’t anyone ask where we were?’
‘I’m afraid no such enquiries reached us. Of course if we had known that your wife was missing we would have reported it immediately to Sheriff Hawkins,’ she said.
I looked back towards the buildings that Mai had wanted so much to see again and I could see why she had a fondness for the place despite what had happened to her there. The church was an impressive structure with bright white plastered walls and an ornately decorated entrance with carved mesquite-wood doors. I could see native tribal artwork mixed with European designs in the decoration. Two square sided tall towers, one holding a large bronze bell, stood to either side of the entrance.
We walked in silence for some time into the outskirts of the town where I had been attacked. The nun pointed to a patch of dried blood on the parched earth to one side of the deeply rutted road that ran through the town east to west and with a north-south road divided the town into quarters. I thanked the nun for her kindness and watched her start the walk back to the church.
The tracks in the ground around the patch of blood told me that the blood or my prone body had attracted at least eight individual adult onlookers, six children and a large dog. I could discern nothing about Mai’s disappearance. The smell of baking bread wafted from out of one of the open windows of the surrounding houses and it caused a memory of her face reflecting the orange of a camp fire to flash painfully across my mind.
I walked to the crossroads and entered the sheriff’s office which lay diagonally opposite the main inn and tavern. Piano music, raucous laughter, breaking glass and other sounds of drunkenness emanated from the doorway of the tavern. A dozen or so horses were tied up outside the tavern while just one stood flicking its tail outside the lawman’s rooms.
‘If it ain’t our sleeping injun come to visit,’ the Sheriff said from where he sat with his feet up on his desk. A bottle of whiskey and a small drinking glass sat beside his six-shooter. If he was talking to the occupant of the cell behind him then he was wasting his breath. The prisoner lay upon the narrow bench in the shadows behind the bars with his hat over his face.
‘Good evening to you Sheriff,’ I said despite my urge to pull him to his feet and ask him why he wasn’t out there trying to find whoever had taken Mai. He may have sensed something from my face or the tone of my voice because he dropped his feet onto the floor, his boots banged hollowly against the boards and the noise woke the man in the cell. The prisoner lifted the hat off his head, squinted in my direction, spat on the floor and then went back to his relaxed position.
‘What brings you here?’ the sheriff asked.
‘Do you know the whereabouts of my wife?’ I asked as politely as my building rage would allow me.
‘Your wife? Back at home picking beans? How should I know?’ he said reaching one hand slowly over to his gun. He was looking at the hunting knife I carried in my belt. The sisters at the mission had allowed me to take it with me when I reassured them that I was fit to leave and would not, as they put it, ‘do anything untoward.’ It was a small lie and I felt no qualms in telling it; their god, my Mai’s god, was not one of mine. I wondered where any of them had been when she was taken from me.
‘We were attacked and she is missing,’ I said. I looked at the wall behind him where there was a paper calendar pinned. The waxing and waning of the moon were illustrated over the days of the month.
‘I know nothing about that. You were found by the side of the road and when it was discovered that you were alive, someone took you on his cart to the mission where they could treat you,’ the sheriff said. ‘Thought you’d died last week. Can’t pretend it’s good to see you on your feet; your type are nothing but trouble.’
‘Did you, or one of your deputies, talk to any of the people who live in the area where I was found?’ I asked.
‘I ain’t seen your wife. My deputies ain’t seen your wife. No one has seen your bloody wife,’ he said and then spat a brown trail of spittle into a pot at the foot of his desk. His hand was now on the grip of his gun.
I fought back the anger rising inside of me. Assaulting a white lawman would get me nowhere. I was going to ask him how he knew that no one had seen Mai if no statements had been taken, but I knew it was a waste of time. I would find no help from the Sheriff’s office. The wars between the white men and our tribes were a fresh memory for us all and I got the impression that he was waiting for the smallest excuse to put a bullet in me.
‘Well then, I bid you good evening once more and take my leave,’ I said and backed out of his office and quickly walked back to the bloody mark by the side of the road. My nails had cut into the palms of my hands which I had unconsciously bunched into tighter and tighter fists as I was talking with the sheriff. I stared at the red crescents in my skin and tried to remember walking with Mai from the drop-off point to this spot, but that part of my memory had been rubbed out like a drawing in the dirt.
One by one I knocked on the doors of the few surrounding houses. Some of the occupants hid behind their shutters, others shouted at me to get off their stoops before they shot me; they were entitled by law to protect their homes by force and a tribesman with a knife on his belt and a bloody bandage on his head was not a welcome visitor. The two people, both white women, who talked to me properly through their closed doors told me that they had not seen anything that day.
I stood outside the bounds of one of the properties, leant against the picket fence and looked over to where my blood lay dark and dry on the roadside. I stood there for some time and watched a group of pilgrims walk past, two cowboys on horses ride past and three carts loaded with various harvests come into town. I waited long enough for the carts, now empty, to travel past me back from whence they came. These were followed by a horse and trap bearing a white woman protecting herself from the low sun’s rays with a lacy parasol and then four more horsemen with a tribesman trailing after them. He raised a hand of greeting and I returned it.
He was probably a tracker like me. I didn’t begrudge him working for the white men. Back in my territory I had taken their money, helping to track down outlaws, rustlers, stolen or lost livestock and pests that harassed their animals. There was no point fighting the new world order, our war had been lost and we had to get on with living life.
Text: (c) Matthew Haynes 2015
– Excerpt from ‘Blood Moon’ featured in The Sun and the Rainfall
Image: Anders Jildén