Gunslingers of Paradiso–The Dreams

December 7, 2009

The Dreams

They rode out of town like the devil was chasing them. Shod hooves pounded the dusty trail into the hills beyond the tiny town of Saint Vincent, sending a cloudy wake behind the three riders. Each horse was weighed down by close to four thousand dollars worth of diamonds, stolen from the Mission at Saint Vincent. The riders looked down at the village rushed to put out the fire consuming their church. They each pulled the bandannas away from their faces and looked down. Dressed in a long brown coat with dark clothes beneath, the leader of the group took off his black stetson hat and moped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve–pushing back his thick dark hair. He popped open his canteen and took a drink while they watched.

Not a bad day’s work boys,” he said. He capped the canteen and let it drop to his side. His name was Dalton Ward. He was one of the more prolific bandits preying on the towns of the frontier. To his right was the baby faced Scotsman called Boomer, his round face framed by curly red hair beneath his white derby. His hefty frame was wrapped in a black coat and brown clothes. He had come out west and met Ward after he killed a man while living in Philadelphia. Opposite him to the other side of Ward was Anton, a neatly trimmed, yellow haired, Russian quick shooter that Ward picked up in El Paso. His time in El Paso had earned him a reputation and nickname as the “Russian Ice Storm”. He was dressed in a red shirt and black pants, trying to look menacing and intimidating beneath his own tanned Stetson. “We got close to twelve thousand in diamonds today. All we need to do is get up to Paradiso to sell them.”

Why does the Mission have so much money?” Boomer asked. His accent was still thick, but was still clear to understand. Ward actually enjoyed hearing him talk, though he would never admit it. “This is more than they usually have, eh?”

I reckon so,” Ward replied. “Maybe they were getting ready to hire some guns to help against savages and unsavory characters.”

Will they come after us?”

Don’t expect so. They need all the hands they have there, tending to the damage we caused today. They’re too far out for the Marshals to do anything about us. We ride hard today, we’ll be lose them pretty quickly. We keep doing like we should and we’ll get to Paradiso no problem.”

Ward turned his horse, his companions doing likewise. The trees thinned as they left the hills, keeping a specific weave through the dips and valleys to make sure they lost any pursuit. Satisfied that they escaped cleanly, the three came out of the hills and road across the plain towards the Colorado River. At the river they turned north, following it towards Colorado and Utah, traversing the rocky and sparse territory of the along banks. Short patches of vibrant green vegetation lined the river as they got further north with various plumes of bright yellow flowers along the way. Their destination lay beyond there in western Wyoming, a small mining town called Paradiso.

What are you two going to do with your shares?” Ward asked.

Both Boomer and Anton looked at each other and were reluctant to answer–not trusting the honor thieves. Ward laughed.

I don’t double-cross on deals,” he said. “Not since I got sent to prison.”

How did you end up in prison?” Boomer asked.

Me and my gang were robbing a train heading for San Francisco,” Ward began. “We tried to take it in the mountains out of Denver. They had bunch of hired guns in the cars when we jumped it. Bounty hunters. I took a bullet in the shoulder. The gang scattered and I got lost in the mountains. A group of Indians found me passed out on the ground. Their medicine man patched me up. He told me I was sick in my soul, that I need to walk the straight and narrow for awhile. So now I try to get a bit closer to that. I try not to kill people while I rob them.”

You trusted this medicine man?”

Like I said, he saved my life. I got caught on the next job, taken by the marshals. While I was planning my escape from prison, I figured I could try the straight and narrow for a time. I guess I thought I owed him that.”

Boomer nodded. Anton guided his horse a bit closer as he spoke.

Then why we rob the Mission?” he asked. He struggled with English, but spoke carefully and was still able to be understood through his thick accent. “That not sound like straight and narrow.”

They weren’t what they seemed,” Ward replied. “You ever hear anything about the mission at Saint Vincent?”

Nyet.”

They were involved involved in a lot of dirty business that wasn’t in the name of the Lord. They sold a lot of Indian and bastard children into slavery. In other countries, getting the diamonds we just stole for it.”

They’re slavers?” Boomer asked.

Yep,” Ward affirmed. “I heard about their operation while in prison. Figured it would be a easy job–given their business. Somebody was tipping off the marshals and the army to it, so we did this just in time.”

They rode for the rest of the day, well in Utah when they left the course of the river and stopped on the edge of a lake. Building a fire, they got settled in for the night. Ward set a pan on the edge of the fire and dumped a can of beans into it. Setting his saddle on the ground, he leaned back against it and watched the beans cook. He reached back and pulled a bottle of whiskey from his bag as Boomer and Anton returned with fire wood. They joined Ward by the fire.

So what will you two do with your shares?” Ward asked. He pulled the cork from the whiskey bottle with his teeth as they considered, spitting it back behind them.

I will give one thousand dollars to the family of the man I killed,” Boomer said.

Noble,” Ward said. As he took a swig. He held the bottle out to Boomer who took a gulp himself. “But not too noble. I like that. What are you going to do with the rest of it?”

My family is coming from Scotland, three months from now. Coming with them are the children of Malcom Taggert, a close friend of my father. He cannot support them, so my father volunteered to bring them with him to America. The oldest of the children is a girl my age, called Anne. She was beautiful when I last saw her, and the letters from my father said she was only growing more so. What is it they say here? Pretty as a picture?”

Something like that. This girl feel the same way about you?”

I believe so. Regardless, my family will need me to help support them until they’re established.”

Ward gave an approving nod as he took the bottle back. He looked to their other partner.

What about you, my Russian friend?” he asked, offering the bottle. Anton refused.

Anton looked into the darkness as he thought, the fire splashing shadows across his face.

I not know yet,” he said. “My family settled in San Francisco, but I think I would like farm. In Montana, I think. I want settle there, marry beautiful wife, raise family… that is American Dream, da?”

I reckon so.”

What will you do?” Boomer asked.

Reaching to stir the beans a bit, Ward took a long moment to consider. He leaned back against his saddle, watching the embers of the blaze as he crossed his arms.

The medicine man told me I was an arrow without a direction,” he said. “That I was shot from a bow aimed at the sky with no target. I see the country move west and I think we’re all arrows without direction. We push further west, claiming destiny and our burden, but that’s just our excuse. We push further because we don’t know what we want. We’re looking for something that ain’t there, and we think it’s out here. And those who want nothing more than peace and calm are left to survive in the turbulence of the push forward. I only hope to find something I actually want and hold on to it. I don’t know if I’ll find it Paradiso or somewhere else, but that’s what I want. And to never eat beans again.”

The beans were done. He took them off–slopping them onto each of the three plates for their dinner.

#

They continued on the next day at dawn, following the course of the river to its end in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Their path drew them north from there, going through the foothills of the mountains. As they rode, Anton and Boomer kept spotting what looked liked riders on the plains below them–much to the amusement of Ward. He chided and taunted their nerves.

What’s got you boys so worked up?” he asked. “Saint Vincent ain’t going to send anybody after us. Those are Indians on the hunt out there. As long as we don’t start any trouble, they’ll leave us alone.”

Assured, they rode steady through the day, coming within half a days ride of Paradiso–by Ward’s estimate–before stopping. They set up camp on a plateau looking over the valley. As the sun set, Ward could not help but think that the valley was dying a slow death. For late summer, the valley was far too dry and cold–degrading to a craggy desert dip before them. The trees were beginning to rot and die on the hills around them, the grass yellowing. It felt very ominous to him.

#

Boomer started to build a fire as Anton gathered wood. The Russian shot a deer while searching for wood–a ragged and boney creature that was likely starving to death. Ward skinned it quickly and they cooked the sparse meat retrieved from the animal. Ward began to sing softly as they worked.

I’m ridin’ down this lonely trail,” he sang. “The moon is shinin’ high. Every mile is marked on my back, with a lash from the devil’s tail. I’ve been so long, I barely remember your face. Your eyes are fadin’ away. I’ve forgotten the smell of your hair. Don’t cry for me darlin’, I’m one step closer to you. Don’t cry for me darlin’, the night’s only a darker blue. Don’t cry for me darlin’, I’m comin’ home to you. I was washed away, lost to the ragin’ river when we tried to ford it. I saw you. I saw you watchin’ me watchin’ me float away. A grin crossin’ your face.”

Zip!

The arrow struck Anton’s arm, cutting off the next verse of Ward’s song. Drawing his gun without thought, Ward dragged Anton to cover behind some rocks. More arrows rained down on them as they checked their guns and regrouped.

What is happening?” Boomer asked.

Either somebody’s trying to kill us or they didn’t care much for my singing,” Ward replied. “Given how I’m not singing and they’re still shooting, I’m inclined to think they want us dead. Did you see anything anything out there?”

No. They shooting at us from below?”

I reckon so. Either they’re going to wait us out or they’re going to come up here and finish us.”

Neither option sounds appealing. What do we do?”

Get to the rifles and ammunition. Then we take out as many of these bastards as possible before they take us out.”

Boomer looked down at Anton, who had broken out into a heavy sweat. His eyes were closed as he slumped against the rock. Ward reached down and pulled out the arrow, triggering a quick spasm from Anton. Taking a quick sniff, Ward winced before throwing the shaft to the ground.

Poisoned,” he said. “He needs more help than we can give or he ain’t going to make it. I can patch him up, but we need to get to Paradiso as fast as possible. If we ride hard we can make it. But I need to get to my saddle to get my stuff. You keep an eye on him.”

Boomer nodded as Ward moved out from behind the rocks and went to the horses. He took the saddle bag off and slung it over his shoulder, starting to turn back towards the rocks. An arrow flew in front of his eyes, changing his plan. He grabbed the shotgun from his saddle and spun.

Cha-chik! Boom! Cha-chik! Boom!

He took down two of the Indians quickly, lowering in a crouch as he fired. Boomer helped to shoot down the remaining four from behind the cover of the rocks. The dust cleared as the shotgun and Boomer’s two six-shooters ran out of ammunition. The Scotsman stepped out as Ward raised himself up to his full height, reloading the shotgun. They both looked at the trail as they heard a rattling come from the path up the ledge. They saw a large, shadowy form approaching, a man in what appeared to be an elaborately decorated bull’s skull and a loincloth. Beads, ribbons and bells dangled from the skull as he moved forward. He moved into the light and they could see his face was painted a pale white beneath the skull, looking demonic to them. Ward raised the shotgun to fire, but it grew hot in his hands as their enemy waved his hand. A moment later the same thing happened to Boomer’s weapon.

What is this?” Boomer asked.

Ward moved closer to his friend as the man stood across the fire from them. He put a hand on Boomer’s shoulder.

Take it easy,” Ward said. “It’s a bruja. A witch, evil wizard.”

What’s he doing here?”

I heard there was a bruja at Saint Vincent. Heard stories about things he did to the children there. Didn’t believe them. I’m sorry. I was wrong about Saint Vincent not sending anyone after us. I just didn’t think we’d see the bruja.”

The bruja grunted before he spoke. His voice was hoarse and dark as he spoke.

You stole from us,” the bruja said. “You will suffer for that. You will suffer for those deeds.”

No surprises there,” Ward stated. He knew what the bruja wanted to do. “I always figured I was goin’ to Hell. Just never thought it would be a bastard like you to send me there. All because we stole your diamonds. Diamonds you got for the soulless husks of those children you sell.”

You knew?”

I heard stories. Kept me up at night, hearing about what you did to those kids.”

That is only the beginning. I am the beginning of the new way of the world. The children I took are my agents now. They will do my will in further my will and causes.”

I’ll guess I’ll have to stop you then.”

Well then, I believe the time has come. Will you–”

He was cut off as a figure came out of nowhere and drove him towards the ledge. Ward grabbed an arrow from the ground and moved forward as the bruja forced off his attacker. With a smooth motion, Ward drove the arrow into the bruja’s forehead.

The stranger stepped forward as the bruja fell, ripping a pouch from around the witch’s neck. Holding the pouch in his hand, he raised it to his lips and whispered softly. With the opening of his hand, it turned to dust and scattered on the wind. He turned to Boomer and Ward. He was a thin, tall man with a tanned face and yellowed hair. He wore a mishmash of tanned animal skins, looking like a prototypical frontiersman.

Greetings,” he said. He spoke softly, with a quiet tone that was instantly calming. “I apologize for not intervening sooner. I was unavoidably detained and I fear it cost you your friend.”

Gardner,” Ward said. “What are you doing here? I thought your people went north to Canada.”

I am a rare breed,” Gardner replied. “I am of both worlds and do not truly belong in either. After what happened with you, ‘My people’ felt I should not be with them any longer. I was traveling to Paradiso when I sensed the bruja nearby. He had a powerful presence that drew me to him. I didn’t realize how dangerous he was until I got here. He was from Saint Vincent, yes?”

That’s right.”

Many children of the village were taken there. I freed their souls, now I will have to free their bodies and bring them back. Funny how your travels brought you there and acting on such a cause. You stole from them. Trying to find the straight and narrow in your criminal acts. Walking such a line betrays a noble dream. I’m beginning to think you have a fate entwined with mine.”

Right now I’m not concerned with that. I’m going to bury our partner, then get to Paradiso and get paid. Don’t care about much else.”

Forgive me. I will go with you as far as Paradiso, if you will have me.”

They buried Anton on the plateau, putting him in the ground and covering the grave his a large mound of rocks. Ward stood over the grave and spoke softly.

I’m sorry Anton,” he said. “I figured them wrong and it got you killed. I’m sorry you won’t get to see Montana. Never held much appeal for me, but it is a beautiful place. You talked about the American Dream and how happy it was. Heh. It is, if it doesn’t put you in the ground first. My dreams should have put me in the ground by now. It hasn’t yet, but I think I got my day comin’ and I’m just sorry you got yours first. Rest well, my Russian friend.”

They each took a drink before getting on the horses and continuing north. The rising sun illuminating their path as they went onward through the rolling hills towards the plans of Wyoming.

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