What my observations told me was that it was crazy to think that no-one had seen anything the day I was assaulted; the spot where my blood lay was clearly visible and the traffic never heavy enough to obscure it. I resigned myself to waiting until the menfolk returned and mentally prepared myself for a string of difficult conversations. My head throbbed dully and I walked over to a nearby water pump for a drink.
I didn’t think I could live without Mai. It might have been kinder to have left me alone to die.
‘I seen you!’ a boy shouted at me from where he stood with a group of dirty faced children. He was too young to be schooled and too old to work the fields or with the livestock.
I dried my hands on my clothes and walked over to him. Some of the children, girls, ran away issuing high pitched screams. I had that effect on people, especially the white ones. The boys bravely stood their ground gripping their wooden guns, their heads cocked, squinting at the dark man.
‘Where did you see me?’ I asked the boy.
‘Over there,’ he pointed to where my blood stained the ground. ‘They took your woman.’
‘Tell me what you saw,’ I demanded.
If he wasn’t killed by someone less even-tempered than me, the boy would grow up to be a banker I am sure, for as soon as he saw the need in me, he asked me, ‘how much is it worth?’
I pulled a coin from my pocket and flipped it through the air to him. He caught it and made it disappear into a pocket before any of his friends could grab it off him.
‘Two men in a buggy, they knocked you out with a wooden staff and grabbed her and rode off with her,’ he said. He pointed up the road towards the church.
‘Was a single horse pulling?’ I asked.
‘Piebald cob,’ he said. ‘Patch of brown over the eye I could see.’
‘Notice anything else?’
‘Your woman was beautiful,’ he said. Two of his friends laughed.
I thanked the boy, ignored his friend pretending to shoot me full of lead and walked back up the road that eventually led to the church. I was on the outskirts of the town when one of the boy’s friends caught up with me. He had evidently been running as when he caught up with me he was red in the face and breathless. I waited while he calmed down. Drops of sweat ran off his face and dripped off his nose and chin, and he exuded a pungent youthful aroma.
‘You want to tell me something?’ I asked him.
The boy straightened up and held out his hand.
‘You are a mercantile bunch that is certain,’ I said.
I dropped a coin into his palm. He looked up and down the road, saw that the only other people around were two nuns walking back towards the church and told me what he knew.
‘The horse was Carter’s,’ he said. ‘Arthur didn’t tell you, because he’s scared of Carter. We all are.’ His breath smelt of sour apples.
‘But you told me. Thank you. Where does this Carter live?’ I realised this was the boy who had been pretending to shoot me dead, but judged him to be trustworthy.
‘There’s a track on the left, about ten minutes’ walk further along,’ the boy said.
‘Tell no one what you told me,’ I warned the child.
‘Don’t worry mister I wasn’t gonna,’ he said. ‘It ain’t right what he did.’
The boy looked like he was about to cry, but it was passing reaction to a bad memory he possessed that I did not. I thanked him and he gave me a smile before running back to find his friends.
There were several dirt tracks leading off the road towards surrounding farmsteads and villages. There were plenty of cartwheel marks of various ages on the road and the connecting tracks, but very few of them were from a buggy carrying three people pulled by a single horse. Sure enough after counting off ten minutes I saw how the tracks of a buggy went left off the main road and up an incline.
A hawk circled in the air above a blackened and split tree, the victim of a lightning strike, as if to tell me that I was on the right track. The sun was setting but I could see a charred rectangle of wood nailed to the burnt tree. I could make out the ‘Car’ of the man’s name and an arrow on the sign. The arrow had once pointed up the hill but now pointed towards the ground, and I thought this was entirely fitting as I was going to put Carter under the dirt.
I walked for about an hour through scrubland and watched the sky change colour as the sun sank. Clouds mocked the dry earth below. I could tell that it had not rained while I had been recuperating at the mission. It felt like a storm was coming, but that might just have been the suppressed rage inside of me causing my head to ache. The moon hung full and red visible now and again between gaps in the clouds. I could feel it like an eye staring down at me. It had a pregnant presence as if waiting to give birth to a violence that brooded inside me.
I found Carter’s house empty. I checked the stables and two skittish horses but no piebalds. There was a cart in one of the barns, but the buggy was gone and three of the stalls in the stables were empty.
There was a print of a bare woman’s foot on one of the boards in the stable. It looked very much like it had been made by Mai’s foot and from the freshness of it I could picture that she had been loaded into the buggy very recently. I imagined her foot pressed against my face, could almost smell the scent of her skin.
After exploring the perimeter of the farm I saw fresh buggy tracks and hoof prints running away from the farm following a barely discernible track. Head down I moved quickly through the night, scanning the disturbed earth, following the trail.
The red moon climbed the sky above me, winking at me from between passing clouds and willing me towards my prey. A coyote howled and I felt the hairs on my arm and neck stand up on end. The air was cooling and the breeze blew the smells of the desert towards me. I could smell the sage and daisies that grew among the brush. I sensed small creatures hiding under stones and behind clumps of grass and cacti.
A coachwhip snake curled across my path with its tongue flicking out tasting the air, seeking out rodents or crickets. The noise of the insects masked any noise that I might have heard being made by a buggy and horses travelling along the track.
The ground to either side of the track rose up as I progressed until I was running along a wide corridor of layered rocks. The uneven ground was littered with angular rocks, some the size of my fist, and the slow progress of the horses and buggy was written all over the ground. I also saw the hoof prints of at least another four horses. One of them had left dung and I could tell from the heat of it that it had been dropped very recently.
The smell and sound of the horses came to me before I saw them. As well as the horses I could smell smoke from an unseen fire. A wide right-angled break in the rocks led to a rectangular depression in the ground big enough to accommodate seven horses and the buggy.
The reins of the piebald horse were tied around a conveniently shaped rock and the other six horses were tied to the buggy. The various footprints arranged around a narrow vertical fissure in the rock wall opposite where I had entered suggested to me that it was the entrance to a cave. Signs of a struggle and drag marks showed me that the owners of the various boots still had Mai with them and that she was still alive.
Text: (c) Matthew Haynes 2015
– Excerpt from ‘Blood Moon’ featured in The Sun and the Rainfall
Image: Anders Jildén