SANCTUARY ON HELL STREET

Submitted into Contest #146 in response to: Set your story in an unlikely sanctuary.... view prompt

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Western Fiction Drama

The Arizona sun completed another life creating and life ending day across the desertscape of cactus and tumbleweeds of the Old West. What had been a hot dusty passage of energy warming all in its radiative glare, made way for the setting of the solar giant - triggering the onset of an early evening chill. Days out in the desert were hot and dry. The nights, bitterly cold and treacherous. That mattered little to the young Mexican family - kneeling before several agitated men baying like dogs howling at a full moon. The goosebumps rising on the arms of the parents of the young boy and girl, were more a response to the ropes that bound them all together in fear - than the approaching night-time cold. Life in the sands of the Old West was tough, cruel, and stank of desperation to the accidental migrants.

“Señor, por favor,” pleaded Jose, the family’s patriarch. “We were hungry.”

“Shut your goddam bazoo, you thievin’ dog,” commanded Link Henderson, the leader of the makeshift posse. “We don’t take kindly to freeloaders and thieves around here.”

“Señor, it was only a few potatoes and some eggs from your hen house. We have been walking for days without anything to eat. As we left Mexico, Bandidos stole our money and our food, then forced us to walk into the desert for miles before leaving us there.”

“What d’ya wanna do with this feller, Mr Henderson?” asked a burly, unshaven ruffian.

“Tie him onto that rock, yonder. Let the night or the coyotes take care of him,” Henderson, callously replied, before relaying an order to one of his men. “Jackson, take those three over to the other side of the canyon and leave ‘em at the edge of town.”

A few blows to the gut of Jose, rendered him helpless while his wife, Maria cried and pleaded for his life. The children hung petrified onto their mother’s dress, as Jose was backed up and tied to a large boulder. A makeshift wooden sign was hung around his neck with the misspelled word, ‘THEIF’ untidily scrawled across it in black tar.

The coming night was about to blow a cold blast of winter air across the open desert. Lengthy exposure to the elements – especially for the captive Jose, can lead to uncontrollable shivering, a slowing metabolism, disorientation, lethargy, weaker breathing, slower and irregular heartbeat, then a slow sleep to never wake again. Jose’s body was already displaying signs of shivering as he watched his family dragged away into the shadows of the evening. In what he felt may be the last chance to express his emotions, Jose called out to Maria pledging his undying love for her, the children, and God. Finishing a quick Mexican prayer for the dead, he listened intently to Maria’s trailing voice yelling back at him until only an icy breeze could be heard, interspersed with distant cries of wild desert coyotes scavenging for food. As much as Jose struggled with his bonds, the thick rope did not weaken its tight grip on his arms and around his bound and compressed chest. Realising his ominous fate, Jose hummed a Mexican love song while picturing Maria’s face. Death did not come quickly. It was vicious and it was violent. The coyotes had caught Jose’s scent in the wind, descending on him in a wild ferocious pack - devouring him while still alive. Too cold, numb, and in shock to care or feel, Jose’s final delirious view was of a set of large canine teeth tugging at his soft neck, before the sudden vision of his true love reappeared, tenderly planting a kiss to his forehead.

“Maria,” he struggled to whisper. “You came back.”

A gentle, warming smile filled Jose’s dying spirit as it drifted up into the cold soulless night sky. In the violent face of defeat, the one rejoicing victory was the dissipating celebration of undying love denying the hungry carnivores their esurient appetites being satisfied.

“Sleep well, mi amor,” echoed Maria’s comforting voice through the dark. “…Vaya con Dios mi dulce amor…”

***

Wynonna Belle turned her key to unlock the front door of her town’s library. It was early in the chilly November morning, and she wanted to make sure the building’s wood furnace was operating at maximum efficiency to warm the expected visitors on this day’s first anniversary of the library’s opening. Purchasing a large jar of candy from the general store the previous day, Wynonna hoped to bring a little joy to the fresh young faces expected to arrive, escorted by their teacher. Awards for spelling and reading from selected children’s books would keep the children entertained and occupied. Getting her early start, also allowed her ample time to prepare the refreshments and snacks for the adults arriving later as well. Adding a festive flair to the occasion, Wynonna had decorated the building with colourful posters promoting the written word and pinned homemade paper cut-outs of the alphabet to the front door, made by the schoolchildren.

Canyon Diablo was a tough, lawless, and wild town, seldomly happy and often grieving for the victims of its ceaseless gun violence. Wynonna was no stranger to the bloodshed, but after successfully and skilfully taking part in a street gunfight that revenged her father’s murder, she buried her victim in Boot Hill, then faded into the shadows of her responsibilities as the town’s librarian. Trying to return to a peaceful existence, Wynonna busily entrenched herself into the promotion and disbursement of the borrowed written word. There were no complaints when Wynonna Belle came-a-knocking on a door to claim back an overdue book or collect a small fine for the infraction. Word around town about her handling of the now-deceased gunslinger, afforded her a certain level of respect and admiration, and a reputation not to be messed with. All those that could afford the levies, paid up. Those that couldn’t, were given a period of suspension from borrowing, and for those too poor to pay but demonstrating voracious appetites for learning, Wynonna just issued an empathetic verbal warning and a book recommendation.

“You should take the vacant Sherriff’s job,” the town’s stand-in mayor would plead. “People around here seem to respect you. Why, I reckin’ future borrowers of books will read all about our town’s pioneering history and learn about your story as the first female sheriff in the West…”

“History is not always learned in books,” Wynonna would unapologetically explain. “It’s cruelly taught in towns like ours throughout the West and here on our own aptly named, Hell Street. There ain’t no history of any Sherriff in this godforsaken town lasting more than one month in the job before ending up a permanent resident on Boot Hill.”

As much as the civic leaders urged her to take the job, Wynonna was savvy enough to realise the position had a short tenure that bore an extremely fraught way of life.

“I don’t want a job that pins a small tin badge on yer chest and a giant target on yer back,” she would add.

The mayor understood Wynonna’s sentiment but knew that there would come a time when either the town took control of law and order or would just die out from attrition. The signs were already there. The sudden growth of a town built by railroad workers waiting for the railway bridge to span the local canyon, had created the wildest and most lawless town in all of Arizona – if not the whole of the West. Most residents were transient in nature and the mayor knew that once the bridge was complete, commerce in the town of Diablo Canyon would be bypassed, and the skilled workers would move on to the next town that promised them paid work and cheap whiskey. The knock-on effect would no doubt see a decline in business. Supply and demand would reduce in frequency and people would simply pack up and move on in search of fortunes or work - leaving the lame, the infirmed, and the hapless drunks to roam Arizona’s newest ghost town. Wynonna also felt that the town had a short-lived future. What was the point of protecting a town from its biggest enemy – itself, she often thought, concluding that protecting herself and the library were her priorities. Literature and learning had to be promoted and nurtured. In a wild country like the West, she felt there was still hope for civilisation to flourish – fleeting or otherwise. As the town’s librarian, she felt a duty to provide an escape from the daily mêlée, where townsfolk could find a book to lose themselves in – even if it was just ephemeral…

“Señorita,” whispered the dry-mouthed juvenile voice to a surprised Wynonna. “Mi Madre, she needs help... Mi hemana… my seestor, is not well. She’s been bitten by Diablo’s serpent… come… por favor, ven rápido.”

Wynonna cautiously followed the boy around to the back of the building and out towards the stable. As they approached the open barn door, she could see Maria cradling and rocking her dead daughter, singing a Mexican lullaby to her. Unable to help, Wynonna distracted the boy and quizzed him as to what had happened. Through grieving tears, he emotionally told her his name was Roderigo and explained how the rancher named Henderson tied his papa to a rock, then had one of his men dump them at the edge of town; however, when the cowboy stopped along the trail, he had other things on his mind and attacked Maria. Grabbing the cowboy’s gun, Roderigo shot him dead between his shoulder blades. The gunshot had alerted the other cowboys. Their galloping response caused Maria and her children to take flight into a hidden cave, where they silently listened for approaching horses. That moment never came, as the cowboys quickly gave up their pursuit to return to the warmth of their ranch accommodations. Satisfied they were safe; Maria instructed her children to wait for her while she hurried back to Jose. Roderigo then explained that his mother told him she scared off the hungry coyotes, then slid to her knees to cradle her dying husband in her arms, so he would not be alone when he left this life to travel to heaven. 

Back at the entrance to the cave, dawn began shining the warming rays of the sun, prompting a rattlesnake to slither out to warm itself on the rock that Roberta was sleeping on. In an instant, she was bitten. When Maria returned to see her daughter unconscious, she carried Roberta all the way into town with Roderigo close behind. Exhausted and inconsolable, she managed to find the only place they could shelter in - the library’s barn.

“Y’all come inside,” Wynonna suggested as she sympathetically hugged Roderigo. “Tell yer momma to leave Roberta here. She’ll be fine in the hay. No-one will disturb her.”

Translating Wynonna’s words into Spanish, Roderigo took his mother by the hand as Wynonna guided them into the building.

“Can you and yer momma read, Roderigo?”

“Si Señorita. Mi madre is a teacher, but our village school was burned down by Bandidos, so we had to leave quickly.”

“But she don’t speak American?”

“Un poco,” Maria interjected. “I speak some…”

Wynonna asked them to sit and wait as she hurriedly disappeared down one of the library’s row of books, thumbing her fingers along a set of bindings until she found what she was looking for. Returning to mother and son, she handed the book to Maria.

“This will help. It’s an English to Spanish phraseological dictionary – it says. It’s mainly used for commerce, but it might help me and yer momma to converse with each other… My name is Wynonna, er… Mi nombre es Wynonna…”

“Maria,” was the warm reply.

“I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance, Maria.”

“Yo también, Weenonna…”

For the next hour, the three of them used the book to learn a little of each other’s language, slowly helping Wynonna to find out more about Henderson and his thugs. During this time, Wynonna fed mother and son, and made sure they were hydrated after their perilous trek across the desert. Both women bonded immediately, relaxing Roderigo enough to wander inquisitively through the library to browse through the variety of children’s books on display. Wynonna told Maria about how her own father had been killed and how she had avenged him. The two new friends had just started discussing Maria’s daughter, when the library door flew open, revealing Henderson and three of his sidewinders. Wynonna was unarmed and too far from her guns hanging from the coat stand in her small office to help her. Realising that a dash to fetch them might endanger her new friends, she chose to stand as a barrier between Henderson and Maria.

“Outta my way!” demanded Henderson. “This woman murdered my brother.”

Knowing that fact was incorrect, Wynonna attempted a diplomatic approach to calming the situation.

“Now, why don’t we all calm down and discuss this like civilised folk. From what I’ve been told, it was self-defence.”

“This ain’t nun of yer business Miss Belle,” the unshaven ruffian from the previous evening chimed in.

“You would be wise to keep that hairy clap-trap of yours shut, Jake Colter,” Wynonna snapped back. “This is my library an’ just coz you come in here from time to time to borrow those children's reading books, don’t give you the right to storm in here all tooled up.”

Insulted by her outburst, Henderson's tall frame towered over Wynonna like a scornful father.

“You don’t talk to my men like that, y’hear? Else’t you get a clout ‘roun that pretty little head of yours.”

Reacting as if Henderson’s breath was offensive, Wynonna took a step backwards while waving her hand in front of her mouth. This momentarily disarmed Henderson who reacted by vainly breathing into his hand to check his breath.

“That’s fear you smell, Mr. Henderson, so I suggest you turn around an’ skedaddle, before…”

“BEFORE WHAT?” Henderson barked.

Wynonna’s vocal demeanour changed instantly. This man wouldn't know diplomacy from Adam, she thought, then angrily shouted to herself, 'To hell with it!'

“…Before I’m forced to resort to stronger methods," she barked back.

This amused the men and they all let out a few chuckles, prompting Henderson to scowl, then menacingly raise an arm to strike Wynonna.

“I KILLED THE MAN!” Roderigo shouted as he reappeared from the cover of a book aisle.

Stopped in his tracks by the confession of the ten-year-old-boy, Henderson took several deep and heavy breaths as Roderigo stood protectively in front of his mother.

“It was me… he was attacking mi madre. He was a bad man… I shot him in his back and killed him - and I would do it again,” yelled the defiant boy.

“Es el hombre,” Maria cried out. “He killed my Jose.”

Newly enraged, Henderson took an angry step towards Roderigo. Maria jumped up and screamed as Henderson approached. However, in an instant, Wynonna reacted to Henderson’s malevolent body language. Attempting to brush Wynonna aside, Henderson unexpectedly doubled-up in pain as Wynonna’s right knee found the tender spot between his legs. In a swift move, she relieved him of his pistol, then used it to whip him on his head with the handle – sending him crashing to the floor. Before his men could react, she pointed the pistol at them and ordered them to undo their gun belts and drop them to the floor. Her reputation preceding her, all three men conformed to her demand.

“I ain’t one for lengthy debates, so y’all hear me out, coz I’m only sayin’ this one time… This here library is a sanctuary of knowledge and learning. We have a rule that weapons are to be hung up at the entrance and all visitors are required to maintain a polite modicum of silence, an’ if none of you mutton-punchers don't know what modicum means, I’ll gladly lend you a dictionary… provided you become a member of the library. Furthermore, I hereby declare this building to be a sanctuary of shelter an’ that means you have no right to bully, cajole, or hurt anyone within its confine… Now, these guns will stay here until you learn to respect my rules. Until then, kindly leave.”

Staggering to his feet, Henderson protested his predicament.

“This ain’t over, Miss... Librarian... The law will be called for. You can count on that.”

“Hell, there ain’t no law on Hell Street,” Wynonna retorted. “…and if there was, they don’t last long! Now unless you want your other little peanut crumpled in, I suggest that you - in the language of my new friend here… Vámonos bastardos!”

Protesting, Henderson and his men retreated from the building promising they’d be back. As a relieved Maria hugged her son tightly, Wynonna was lost in deep thought. She accepted that she had made an enemy of the biggest landowner in Canyon Diablo and vowed to never be so far away from her guns again. Her victory was fleeting, she thought, realising this bit of nasty business wasn’t done yet. However, satisfied there would be no further trouble to tarnish the celebratory day, Wynonna proceeded to get the library ready for its anniversary party, telling a grateful Maria that the undertaker would also be attending, and that Roberta’s burial would be paid for by the friends of the library. 

Quick, reactive thinking had saved the day and possibly the lives of her new friends. That was enough to feel good about and motivate Wynonna to always stand strong in the face of adversity. She would have to deal with Henderson another time. For now - in her mind’s own library - she would file him under the letter S for Snake. Today was a party day. Tomorrow, who knows. One thing was for sure. Wynonna Belle had not seen the last of Link Henderson. A day of reckoning would come. There was no avoiding that…

 


May 18, 2022 09:30

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2 comments

Faith H
04:01 May 28, 2022

I really like the imagery you painted in the beginning of the story! The scene in the desert was very well written, I could imagine how desperate Jose and his family were.

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Chris Campbell
04:22 May 28, 2022

Thank you Faith. I appreciate your comments. There will be more to come from Canyon Diablo. This was the second installment. If you're interested, please read "Afterclap," Wynonna's introduction to us. https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/o5sqn0/

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