Smoke rose from the crackling fire and dissipated into the night sky. Stars dotted the black expanse, innumerable as the grains of sand in the Mojave desert where Connor McClain lay on his back, head cradled in his arms, thinking of Saralee.
I’m finally coming home, he willed his words across the dusty earth, through the mountain pass, and down the stretch of trail that would carry him back to the little wooden cabin by the creek—back to his brown-eyed, long-legged girl.
Beside him, Thunder stamped his hooves and huffed softly, as if he too was impatient to be rid of the desert. The mournful, hungry cry of a coyote echoed across the valley and settled in the pit of Connor’s stomach. He slid his shotgun closer and let his eyes drift shut. Just a few more days, Saralee.
And he meant it this time.
Three months tops, he had told her, said that’s all it would take for him to go West, strike rich, and make his fortune–their fortune. Gleaming Mines! Rivers of Gold! the newspapers had claimed. He ignored them at first—kept his head down and worked the ranch as his Pa and Grandfather had done before him. Treasure hunting was for fools–dreamers.
Then he and Saralee had begun to see neighbors pack up and head West. The Kilners had even written back, saying the rumors were true, that John Kilner had found a gold nugget the size of his thumb the first week in the mines. Connor must have read that letter a dozen times, leaning against the fence post, standing in the fields, alone at the kitchen table. The words consumed his thoughts; he began to dream of gold.
Then that Spring, the cattle plague swept through wiping out most of his herd. It was a sign, Connor had decided; what’d he have to lose then? Saralee had cried as he packed, wouldn’t hardly let go of his shirt. “You see those saplings there?” He’d pointed at the garden beside the house. “I’ll be back before the beans are ready, you’ll see. And when I do, we’ll be rich, darlin’.” She kissed him and wished him luck.
But it seemed luck got lost on its way to Connor; the mining towns were overcrowded with eager diggers, and everything was overpriced. He borrowed what money he needed for supplies–pans, pick axes, a tent, and boots. And what little gold he found in the creeks and rivers went to pay back his debts. There was never anything leftover—nothing for Saralee.
Then, somehow, three months turned into six, then a year. Then two. A nagging voice greeted him with every sunrise and every sunset, telling him to call it quits, admit defeat, and go home. He shut it out with the same thoughts: Just a little bit longer. I’m so close. I can feel it.
And he wasn’t wrong.
Connor smiled in the dark, thinking of the bulging pouches of gold weighing down the saddlebags–gold from his own secret mine, that unassuming slit in the mountainside he’d found by accident. He worked it alone, with limited tools, and told no one, not even Saralee where it was. Just wrote, “Finally struck luck. When I come home, we’ll live like kings and queens.”
His heartbeat pulsed at the thought of seeing her, holding her again. It was a drumbeat across aching muscles, reverberating in his thighs, his groin. He felt phantom gyrations tug and pull at his body, as if he was still in the saddle, galloping across the rugged California terrain.
Sleep claimed him as images of Saralee floated at the edges of his dreams: she was wading into the creek, hair loose and wild, stripping away her calico dress. She turned to him with a teasing smile. Come. Play. Then she slipped beneath the current. Her voice was far away, mournful and hungry like the coyote’s cry. And when he looked into the water, he saw only gold, sparking in noon-day sun.
Connor gasped awake; sunrise had peaked above the mountain ridges, casting long, uneven shadows across the rocky desert valley. Near his feet, a spiked lizard darted out from under a shrub in pursuit of a cricket. It skittered over the long metal barrel of Connor’s gun and caught the insect, gumming it down with a twitch of its spiny head.
Connor rose, stretched the kinks from his spine, and pissed in the dirt, the yellow stream turn the dry earth to mud. He uncapped his canteen and tipped a precious sip in his mouth, swishing it around, savoring it. Then he sifted oats from a pouch and offered them to Thunder, stroking his mane as the horse's teeth softly grazed his open palm. The horse nudged him, greedy, searching.
“There’ll be more of that later. Let’s get moving.”
The sun burned hot and relentless, even as it dipped toward the horizon. Thunder’s movements had grown slow and stiff after a full day of travel, but Connor pushed him, urged him on through the suffocating desert heat, closer to the mountains’ edge where green was becoming more abundant. Connor followed the growth until they came to a towering cluster of rocks that jutted out over the land, creating a strip of shade. Beneath it, a trickle of a stream ran between the rocks and pooled in the basin of a large, smooth stone. Thunder drank.
Connor dismounted and sank down in the cool dirt, pulling off his sweat-soaked hat and kerchief. A faint breeze teased his damp hair, urging him to rest and relax. If he kept this pace, he’d be home in two days. Home to Saralee. Thunder lifted his head from the stream and walked toward Connor, his gait already steadier. He snorted and tossed his mane.
Connor reached up and stroked the horse's soft cheeks. “You done good, boy. We’ll be home soon.” Then the horse reared back suddenly, his hooves stamping the dirt. The animal’s eyes grew wide, the whites stark against his dark coat, and he neighed a shrill, nervous whinny. Connor scuttered back, dodging the hooves sporadically beating the ground. “Thunder! Woah, boy.”
Then he heard the rattle.
Cold fear sluiced through his bowels; his vision blurred and sound grew muffled as if any threat was far-off in another world and not just a hand’s width away. The snake hovered above its coiled body, its wide mouth open, black tongue spilling out like oil. Connor held its stare, his own face frozen in a mask of terror. Its slitted eyes glowed, the color deep and warm–amber, like Tennessee whisky. He couldn’t look away.
Connor scraped against the dirt in a slow escape, eyes locked on the snake. Its sharp hiss was like the sound of water dousing a fire. He’d had run-ins with snakes before–knew to back away and give them a wide birth, show them respect; this was their desert, after all.
But this bastard looked as if he wanted a fight.
Connor’s gun lay just a foot away beside his discarded hat. Not daring to blink, he reached for it, watching in his peripherals as his own trembling hand crossed the distance between his body and his weapon. He felt disconnected from it—as if it was someone else’s hand shaking at the edges of his vision. When his fingers finally bumped the cool metal barrel, an imperceptible jolt cracked through Connor’s body, internal and invisible; but not to the snake.
It lunged, fangs sinking into Connor’s wrist, piercing skin and striking veins.
White-hot pain ripped through his arm; his scream echoed off the rocks. Connor turned his back on the snake and half-crawled, half-ran away from the stream and the shade, collapsing in a heap in the sandy dirt. Two holes leaked blood from his wrist, which was already beginning to swell.
“Thunder!” he wheezed out, trying to whistle. He stood and ran deeper into the valley, calling for his horse. “Thunder!” He opened his mouth again, but little sound escaped. The air in his lungs felt trapped and strained. Pain tore through his body in waves, burning and twisting. “Thunder, there you are.” He stumbled forward, hobbling toward the creature. But it was only a cactus, distorted and strange in his poison-laced vision.
The desert was spinning, shrinking and expanding, going black and then blinding white, hot and then cold. Connor fell to his knees and held his bloated arm to the sky; it was blue against the orange sunset. He slumped to the ground, no longer able to hold himself up. His cheeks scraped sand and stone.
Saralee. I’m coming.
Somewhere across the valley, a coyote howled at the dying sun. Beside Connor’s body, black boots crunched against the gritty soil.
“Howdy there, partner. Seems you’ve got yourself in a bit of a bind.” The voice sounded tinny and warbled in Connor’s head, like it was coming from the inside of a canteen. From the slit of one swollen eye, Connor made out a figure in a white hat.
“Saralee?” The word clawed itself from Connor’s throat.
The stranger knelt and lifted Connor’s swollen wrist, inspecting the bite. “Rattler got you good, didn’t he.” He clicked his tongue. “I’ve seen this before. Might be able to help you out.”
Connor commanded his eyes to open and focus on the man; he gritted his teeth against the pain coursing with each beat of his heart. Images slowly fizzled in and settled at the edges of his mind: White hat. Dark hair. Arms tattooed green–green bees. No, not bees. Birds–headless, bodiless birds. No. Not birds. Just wings. Green, tattooed wings.
Connor’s head slumped back. “Please,” he wheezed. “Help. Me.” His tongue clung to the dry ridges of his gums.
“Oh, I’ll help you.” The man cupped Connor’s neck and brought a canteen to his lips. “But it’ll cost you.”
Water trickled down Connor’s chin, pooling in the hollow of his neck. More. He needed more. He was on fire–burning. “Anything,” he managed. “It’s. With. My horse. Take. It. All.” The man could take everything; Connor could always go back for more; he still had the mine and no one was going to take that away.
The man leaned in and said, “What horse?”
Connor turned, squinting into the dusk-cloaked desert. Thunder was gone. His gold was gone.
The man leaned forward and whispered in his ear. “You’ll find a way to pay me, won’t you, partner?”
Connor nodded, his stubble grazing the man’s cheek.
“Alright then. We got a deal.”
Saralee played the fiddle, fingers arched like little bridges across the strings. Her feet stamped with the rhythm and she laughed. Connor danced in circles around her, arms loose and free. He felt alive. Whole. Then, the music turned sharp, notes sliding together in a shrill screech. He turned and saw Saralee melting into a puddle on the cabin floor, her eyes pleading. He lunged for her, gripping her arms as they transformed into snakes, her hands into fanged heads. Failure, she hissed. Then all went dark.
Connor jolted awake, sweat-drenched and stiff. He lay at the mouth of a cave, his hat and kerchief in a heap at his feet. Images wavered in his mind, mirages of what he discerned were memories rather than hallucinations. The snake. The bite. The pain. The stranger—a savior. He raced his hands along his arm, reveling in the ease with which he moved and breathed: there was only skin, smooth and unbroken in the place where he’d once felt fire. “I’m alive,” he cried into the sky. “I’m alive!”
At his voice, something rustled beyond the cave. Connor reached instinctually for his gun, but it was gone. Scanning the ground, he gripped a large rock and crouched closer to the sound, knowing he’d be no match against a pack of coyotes. But he’d go down fighting anyway; he’d come too far to die here.
Caught between the spiky branches of a Yucca tree, the creature huffed and tugged, stomping its hooves against the dry ground.
The horse startled when Connor came up beside him, then threw his head back and neighed. “I thought I lost you, boy.” Connor slung an arm around the animal’s thick neck, nuzzling his face against the soft, musky flesh. He untangled the reins from the tree and led Thunder back to the mouth of the cave. Connor pulled out the bag of oats and emptied it into his cupped hands, letting the animal have his fill. He returned the empty pouch and paused; there at the bottom of the saddlebags were bulging bags of gold. Untouched.
It’s all here. Everything.
Connor released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “Let’s go home, boy.”
They rode hard, eating up the miles that stretched between the Mojave and home. Thunder seemed to feel a sense of being at the end, his desires somehow linked with those of his rider. They pushed on through heat and high elevation until the terrain began to flatten again and familiar sights greeted them. Just a few miles from town, they passed the cluster of cactuses that looked like praying nuns, then the Pritchards’ ranch, then the Haymakers’. Then Connor could see the church steeple rising above the center of the town, its whitewashed beams a beacon guiding wanderers home.
“We’re almost there, boy.” Connor patted Thunder’s thick shoulder, sending puffs of dust wafting off his dark coat. Soon, Connor could hear the gentle trickling of a creek–the one that would wind around the next bend and lead him to a sun-bleached cabin and a beautiful girl–home. Connor dismounted and walked beside Thunder as the house came into view, a curl of smoke rising from the chimney.
“Saralee!” He couldn’t wait another second. “Saralee, I’m home!”
The door opened, and a woman poked her head out. Connor began to run, leaving Thunder to graze along the creek. The woman ducked back into the house, shutting the door.
“It’s me Saralee! Connor!”
The door opened again, and this time Saralee was standing beside a man, his palm resting on her shoulder. Connor stepped up to the house and stopped, confusion turning him momentarily mute. Saralee squinted into the space between them, then turned to the man beside her. “He must have the wrong house.” She took in Connor’s ragged, worn clothes and his sunburned skin and smiled. “But wait here, and I’ll give you something for your travels.” She slipped inside, shutting the door behind her.
Connor stuttered, “Wait! What’s happening here?” Then anger boiled up within him. “And who are you?”
The man stepped into the light, “Howdy there, partner.” He flashed a wide grin. “Oh, you know me; I’m an old friend.” He extended a tanned hand to Connor, waiting. Connor’s eyes traveled from the man’s face to his outstretched hand where, peeking out from under his sleeve, was the tip of a green, tattooed wing. The wind shifted and Connor felt a coldness seep into him, creeping into his bones.
The man lowered his hand and glanced at Thunder. “I see you found your horse.”
“Please,” Connor stuttered, his head spinning. “I can pay you now. What do you want from me?”
“From you? Why, nothing at all.” He narrowed his eyes, their color deep and warm–amber, like Tennessee whisky.
“Your debt is already paid.”