May stands helpless as Duncan clutches his stomach and vomits blood. He has been peeing blood too, and his stools look like red-tainted rice water. Clothes hang bedraggled from his once-robust body. When he gasps and collapses into the ubiquitous sand, May drops beside her husband, slaps his face and screams his name to revive him, but there is no response. She runs to the water hole they happened upon during their trek west and cups some of the precious liquid in her hands. She splashes it on Duncan’s face, but her effort does not revive him. In her gut, which has been feeling poorly as well, she knows he is dead.
May sits on the ground and waits for tears to come, tears of grief and fear. Her dear Duncan, the dreamer who talked her into leaving Ulster and coming to this new land where everything was possible — who fashioned a wishing well out of rocks and strange leaves on top of the water hole for good luck — who announced they would call their son John to pay honor to his granddad back in Scotland. Now, he would never see their bonny wee bairn.
She pats the bump on her stomach through fraying, fading gingham and faints. Even while unconscious, she senses the unrelenting desert sun staking claim to her and her baby. Heat creeps through every pore in her body, inching its way toward the kind of victory the desert understands.
Determined not to let that arid devil win, she wills herself awake. She is shocked to see a stranger looking at her from above, wearing a hat as black as the Earl of Hell’s waistcoat. She notices his horse, a fine ebony stallion appearing stalwart and wise, and she is sure she has seen them from afar as she and Duncan approached desert.
“Who are you?” The panic in her voice is weak.
“But I don’t know you. Please dinna hurt me and my baby.”
“No worries. I just want to ease your situation.”
The man lowers his hand to help her up, startled at how frail she is. He nods toward the body. “My husband,” she says. The stranger removes a shovel from his saddle and digs a grave, hardly breaking sweat. The sand is stubborn, wanting to fall back into the hole after every shovelful. After a while, the man stops and surveys his progress. “How long you been usin’ this water hole?”
“I dinna ken,” May says. “We been here a few nightfalls. Duncan thought it was a good level place to rest. First there was the ship from Scotland, then the landing in Wilmington in North Carolina, where some of our cousins greeted us. The sun shone that day, and we felt a bright future unfolding in the warmth of their love and friendship.”
“You are a long way from the east.”
“Duncan could never be happy taking the safe path. He heard about gold in the west and said we could make our fortune here.” She stops speaking as her body sways. The man places his arm around her waist to steady her.
“Hills, valleys, rivers — we crossed them all, no worse than the rough Scottish Highlands. We got tuckered out in the desert, though, like we could barely go on. The sun is bad in the day, and nights are unfathomed cauld. So many times, we thought we saw water, only to get there and it was just sand. So, we stopped when we found this water hole. We felt it was sent by God.”
The stranger shakes his head. “This is a poison hole. Most people in these parts, as few as they be, know to stay away from drinkin’ from a shallow source. That’s a shame about yer husband. Yer not lookin’ too good yerself. How you feelin’?”
Then the tears come, heavy, bringing a shuddering to her entire body. The stranger glances at the couple’s rickety wagon and dead horse, which the woman seems not to notice. Once her sobs subside, he crouches in front of her and says, “I’m gonna bury your man now. Anythin’ you want to say?”
May gathers herself the way her ma taught her to do when things were rough. She separates from his hold, then reaches out her hand, and he helps steady her again. At the grave, she manages: “Duncan Stewart was a Highlander, the bravest I ever knew. He earned his rest. Good-bye, sweetheart.”
The man lowers Duncan into the hole more gently than might be expected of a stranger. She throws in a fistful of sand, and then he finishes the job. He looks around the area and spots a sailing stone 100 feet away. He carries it to the gravesite and sets it there with purpose. It looks powerful heavy, but he manages it without strain. “Ma’am, this is a traveling stone. It can be his headstone for now, though it might move again and leave him to wind and animals. I sure am sorry.” He finds a small rock and scratches “D” on the stone.
“Why are you doing this, stranger? Who are you really?”
“Just a traveler like you. I help wherever I can.”
“Bless you,” May says. “Isn’t it funny how things turn out? Duncan said making the wishing well would bring us luck. I guess it did—bad luck. My grandma was right when she said if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”
May feels bile build up in her throat and vomits in the sand. She clasps her abdomen and falls to the ground. As she looks up at the stranger, he says, “This is yer time, too, Ma’am.” She nods and expels a final breath.
The following week, two travelers on horseback come across the horse carcass, deserted wagon and sailing stone with the initials D, M and J carved into it. “He was here again,” one says to the other.
“Yep. Not often he takes three at once. Hope they rest in peace.”
The men travel on. The desert wind wails a lament, and the sailing stone drifts away.