It was the third week after the Americans landed in Veracruz—March of 1847, invading in special landing craft custom built in the naval yards of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for exactly this purpose. As his fellow members of the First Division rowed into the port, the Mexican artillery roared from the hills above them, firing fifty-pound shells that exploded all around them.
Once or twice, the cannons on the hill would somehow find their mark among the densely packed craft, erupting in blooming sound bursts of shattered oak and human flesh. Those soldiers upended from their boats suffered similar fates as most could not swim, especially when packed with all their heavy gear, and were relegated to sink to the Gulf of Mexico’s thick mud several fathoms below. The Stranger saw one such man, his face disappearing below the rough surface of the water, his fingers reaching in vain toward a vanishing sun.
Ahead, the first boats touched the beach under the lead of General William J. Worth, who had jumped out in shoulder-deep water and marched ashore. The Stranger served with Worth’s First Battalion after seeing his first action the previous fall in Monterrey under Taylor’s Army of Occupation.
For three weeks they battled the 3,300 Mexican army regulars defending Veracruz, when the heavily fortified Mexican garrison finally surrendered to overwhelming forces. The battles were no strangers to a fixed bayonet, pouring blood on a soldier’s shoes.
But on this night, with the jubilation of the enemy surrender still fresh, he’d left camp with several other men on the hunt for alcohol—months ago banished from the service by General Taylor himself—and fresh food to atone for the horrid rations they’d been receiving. They figured that, as conquerors, the town was deservedly theirs.
Especially since they’d brought their rifles, lest any of the locals forget who they were.
Their first stop had been a closed store, its front guarded with only a flimsy door—easily kicked in. The man who’d become the pack leader—a loutish bullying type who’d gone by the name of Cyril—entered first, destroying everything in his way until he found a cask of liquor.
“Tequila,” he said, explaining to the other three in detail the nature of the fermented agave. To Cyril, it held none of the stature of whiskey, but tonight it would have to do.
A thin screaming man entered through the busted front door, his weathered brown face contorted as he rattled off a fusillade of angry Spanish. The Stranger noticed him first and, given the thin man’s gesturing and enraged demeanor, it became obvious they had broken into his shop.
Cyril’s eyes narrowed as he lowered a recently emptied glass from his lips.
“Shet yer mouth!” Cyril shouted above the din.
And as the shop owner continued to bark, Cyril fired the heavy glass in the old man’s direction. The glass exploded just above the shop owner’s eye, knocking the man to the ground as blood poured down his face.
Strolling over, his boots resounding against the floor, Cyril hovered over the wailing shop owner. With a quick draw, Cyril unsheathed the Bowie knife slung to his belt and slit the old man’s throat, stepping away as the gush of blood neared his boots.
Without remorse, Cyril wiped his blade on his pants and slid it back into its sheath.
“When I says, ‘shet yer mouth’, I mean, ‘shet your stinkin’ mouth!’”
One of the other soldiers, a mere boy of fifteen named Coffey, hooted and laughed.
“You show’d ‘im,” beamed the kid, stumbling drunk.
“Let’s git,” Cyril told the others, not waiting for a response as he headed for the door.
Having seen his share of blood, the Stranger didn’t even blink, instead just downing the rest of his glass of tequila before following the others out.
It was outside in the dark street when they saw the others who had come. What was, presumably, the family of the shopkeeper waited angrily for the intruders. When Cyril came through the front door, an old woman grabbed his arm and spat on him.
Angrily, he shoved her aside; her tiny body no match for his soldier’s arms. With a crunch, her head slammed into the adobe wall of the shop’s exterior before she collapsed to the ground.
From the crowd came a shot. The black powder clap of an ancient pistol—firing wide, perhaps meant more to frighten than kill—but it was all young Coffey needed to life and fire his own rifle. His bullet found its way into a young man wielding a club.
As another young Mexican wailed for his fallen family members, he came at Cyril with his fists, beating upon the killer’s thick chest. Suddenly the boy’s eyes bulged; his head tipped backward as he was lifted onto his toes. Cyril’s Bowie knife thrust upward into his gut, his shoeless feet dangling inches from the dirt sidewalk.
Cyril dropped the mortally wounded boy to the ground, where he laid futilely trying to hold his entrails in with his hands, screaming with the pain. With another single slash, Cyril silenced the boy.
The Stranger stood his ground. His rifle pointed outward toward the crowd, watching them flee for their lives. But one person remained—a girl, no more than a child. She stood as the others fled, weeping for her dead mother and brothers. Her soft brown eyes were full of tears, which pooled running down her dirty cheeks and onto her neck.
“Let’s git!” Coffey said—his young blood now as sober as the rest.
“No witnesses,” Cyril huffed as he stepped toward the little girl.
“No,” said the Stranger, moving in front of Cyril.
“I says, ‘No witnesses’.” And with that Cyril put one hand on the Stranger’s shoulder and pushed him aside, knife raised, grin across his face.
As the Stranger blinked his eyes in the darkness more than three years later, hearing the footsteps approaching in the blinding night, he thought of Cyril’s cold eyes. His fellow soldier became a man whose sole motivating force was to cause as much pain and chaos as possible. The Stranger realized now that it was those eyes and that face he had thought he’d seen momentarily through the closing door of the Sagebrush jail.
And Cyril was no ghost. As far as the Stranger knew, Cyril was still out there—and still searching for him.
He thought again of that moment on the street in Veracruz, watching in horror as Cyril took the little Mexican girl by her long, dark hair while he cut into her head with the bowie knife.
“Jus’ like we did wit them Injuns,” he turned and grinned at the Stranger, holding the bloody scalp in his hand.
Three years had taught him that he could not evacuate this memory from his mind.
“It can’t be him,” the Stranger said under his breath. The level of inhuman behavior those men had displayed that night, and many other nights, chilled his blood. He knew it would not be beyond the scope of Cyril’s savagery to have engineered the carnage he saw back at Sagebrush.
The footfall sounded again. The desert played tricks with your ears—the Stranger knew. In the dark it was difficult to judge distance—and from within the shoal, direction was impossible.
He thought of Blue, contemplating momentarily if the untethered animal could be the source of the steps. But as his eyes finally adjusted to the dim light of the moonless sky he made out the shape of the sagging old burro where he’d left it within the waterless river.
A footstep came again, this time slightly louder. Whatever was out there was drawing closer.
Slowly the Stranger lifted towards the rim of the shoal, knowing full well that if his own eyes were adjusting to the dark, the eyes of the on-comer would have been well adjusted by now.
Raising just one eye above the berm, he peeked out. Nothing. No movement. He glided his hand across the ground until he found one of the loaded Dragoons.
Another footstep—the loudest yet. He fully exposed his head, wanting to get a good look.
It’s entirely possible they don’t know you are here, his mind told him.
He cocked his head, trying to hone in on the noise. Minutes passed, he guessed, then what seemed like an hour. He tried to keep awake, his mind bordering on delirium, but unsated exhaustion pressed on his eyelids.
He relented: the Stranger sat back against the shoal and let sleep overtake him.
But before he could sink into the beckoning unconsciousness his mind desired, he heard it again: a footstep, and another, and another. As he scrambled in his semi-awake state to look over the top of the berm, his unrested hands dropped the pistol onto the dirt. The direction of the footsteps became apparent.
They were coming from up a gully a hundred yards away. And they were definitely moving towards him.
Faster now, and even faster yet.
The Stranger pointed the gun up the dry riverbed, which hooked sharply past a large outcrop of rocks.
His eyes saw it before he blinked, but it took another before it registered: a thin rim of yellow light bending around the outcrop. Salient light in the middle of darkness.
Forgoing any more caution, the Stranger thumbed back the Colt’s hammer and crouched down, feeling in the darkness for its mate; he kept his eyes on the light, relying only on touch to locate the pistol.
The second Colt was nowhere to be found.
Damnit, the Stranger thought. Quickly, impatiently, he gazed downward, hoping his eyes would help his hands. His spotted the second Dragoon behind his feet.
When he looked up, he gazed directly into the yellow ball of light coming from the center of the lantern. It was as if it radiated only at him.
His eyes, having adjusted to total darkness, lost they’re focus—the lantern’s owner obscured.
The Stranger lifted the guns and squeezed both triggers. The twin clap of black powder thunder and muzzle flash lightning filled the minimal breach in the darkness between him and that other.
Miss. His mind, primed with the life of a gunslinger, did not hesitate; it thumbed back the hammers on both Colts for another salvo, as it seemed like the lamp itself came up to the very tip of his guns.
Inside the dim firelight, the Stanger saw the other’s face. He was paralyzed, unable to move. The twin Dragoons dropped from his hands to the dirt of the dry riverbed.
He pushed himself backward, scrambling like a crab to get away from that before him, his back finally hitting the wall of the riverbed
“It can’t be you,” the Stranger said, his terrified voice coming out like rushing air.
As the lamp lowered, the Stranger once again looked darkly upon the face of the young girl he had seen brutalized in the streets of Veracruz, blood pouring down her face from the bony wound left behind as Cyril pocketed her scalp.
Her face came down to his level, settling inches away. Her brown eyes pierced his gaze like a lance. When she opened her mouth, beyond her rotting teeth and gums seemed a bottomless chasm of never-ending darkness. He was almost shocked when from the chasm—indeed, her mouth—she spoke.
“Hello, Galen,” she said.