The horse drank by the mountain stream while Knight slept in the saddle. Late afternoon sunlight danced off the last of the cold snowmelt. Soon, the first snows would seal the mountains to the north and east, barring his way back to Colorado. It didn’t matter; he wasn’t coming back this way until next summer.
For now, however, the only thing falling was the leaves from the cottonwoods and aspens. A breath of cool, dry mountain air woke him. He looked up and around.
The sun shines harder here.
Mountains capped with strips of old snow stood boldly against the pale blue sky in the west and north. Knight gently spurred his horse. They ambled down the mountain, following the golden trail of cottonwoods into the fertile Chama Valley.
The setting sun blazed orange as he entered Espanola, a collection of low adobe huts, shacks, and tents. Children played in the dusty haze kicked up by wagons packed with railroad workers. Zuni Indian women sat cross-legged against southern facing walls. Wrapped in brightly colored blankets, their shadows lay crisp on white adobe.
He found himself before a two-story adobe inn across from an old mission. A Mexican boy gladly accepted a U.S. nickel to feed and care for his horse. Outside the inn, several squat Zuni women in long dresses tended two hornos, adobe ovens. They took loaves of fresh bread, tortillas and steaming goat meat into the main kitchen though a side door.
He stepped out of the cooling twilight into a warm main chamber packed with men crowded along several long tables. White men and Mexicans hunched over their mugs, eating with barely a word. Except for a crackling fire in the corner, an odd silence hung over the tavern.
Knight made his way to an open bench. A plump indian girl ran a wet rag across the rough table in front of him.
“You are not a worker,” she said matter-of-factly.
“No, but my money is good. Now bring me something to eat.”
She eyed him suspiciously and hurried off to the kitchen. Around the room, hardened gazes assessed Knight before going back to their business. After a few minutes, a sweaty man emerged from the kitchen, nervously wiping his hands on a dirty apron.
“Señor Knight? Are you Señor Knight from the railroad?”
Knight stood, towering above the elderly man with the refined Spanish accent. With bloodshot eyes, the Spaniard’s shoulders slumped as if under some invisible weight.
Knight extended his hand. “I take it you are Señor Amado Lucero?”
The Spaniard offered a weak smile and unsteady handshake. “Welcome to my establishment! Please, sit. Isobella, get our guest some warm bread and tequila. Please, sit my friend.”
“Thank you.” Knight tipped his hat and sat back down.
Patrons eyed Knight with renewed interest, perhaps wondering who merited Amado’s finest hospitality.
“Isobella will take care of you,” Amado motioned to the plump indian girl. “I must tend to the kitchens. Once my patrons depart, if you are not too exhausted from your journey, we will discuss business. My daughter is preparing a room for you even now.”
“Thank you kindly. General Palmer spoke highly of you and your dear family.”
Amado winced, then smiled tightly and nodded. He curtly begged Knight’s pardon and disappeared into the kitchen.
In a few minutes, Isobella placed a steaming plate of corn tortillas and shredded goat meat before him. The green and red chili spices didn’t sit too well with Knight’s bland Protestant palate, but it was hot with ample cool water to wash it down. Anyway, mountain air made a man plain hungry. He ate as quickly as the spicy food permitted, all the while observing the room around him.
As the sun set outside, the fire cast long shadows across the mud walls and danced off the low-slung ceiling beams. Hard men, exhausted from their day’s labors, sat in near silence. They nursed whiskey or warm beer, but lacked spirit. More men streamed in, but few left. Soon, the serving girls lit lamps, banishing the shadows to the corners.
Knight wiped his mouth and washed down the last of his meal. He’d seen this before. When men gather in fear, they are either overly boisterous or deathly quiet. Men are loud in the face of dangers they understand, but fall silent in the shadow of the unknown.
He beckoned Isobella. “Bring me a whisky. I’ll take it on the porch. Tell Señor Amado he can meet me there when his business is complete.” Stares followed him as he departed.
Knight stepped onto the front porch and leaned up against a post. He breathed in deeply, letting the night fill his lungs.
A man could live on air this sweet.
He struck a match, lit a freshly rolled Carolina tobacco cigarette and watched the blue smoke waft into the starry night. For a brief moment, he caught a whiff of something sickly sweet, but it vanished quickly on the breeze.
Knight turned, and experienced the disturbingly rare sensation of being surprised. Dark almond eyes studied him intently from the edge of the porch. Never taking her gaze off of him, she emerged into the ruddy light. Stray tendrils of midnight hair, untouched by grey, escaped a bun and fell across perfect olive skin. She wore a kitchen apron over a blue velvet dress common for ladies in these parts. A brilliant turquoise crucifix on a silver necklace hung from her graceful neck.
He cleared his throat and tipped his hat. “Ma’am. I didn’t mean to disturb you, I thought I was alone.”
She slid onto the porch uncomfortably close to Knight, never releasing him from her stare. Her expression overflowed with goodness and sadness and a life fully lived. Finally, as if pitying Knight, she released him from her gaze and stared into the night.
So this is the Spanish Lady.
Along his journey the railway workers spoke reverently of the beautiful enchantress, a lady of noble Spanish blood who gave her heart to a lowly commoner, a simple innkeeper. For her, they fondly named this settlement Espanola. Even in a kitchen apron, her beauty surpassed any woman he’d ever seen, seemingly lighting the darkness around her.
She finally spoke in a voice of satin and honey, “We came here when I was only a little girl. My father told me this place held old magic, a kind of magic the Church did not want to acknowledge. It’s old and pagan, as beautiful and terrible as a summer monsoon over the mesa. It’s in the air and you drink it like wine. I see it in the stars and in the sunrise over the mountains. When my father arranged my betrothal to a gentleman from Toledo, I pleaded with him not to separate me from this beautiful, enchanted land. I draw my strength from it, and fear I would wither if gone too long. I think this is why I married my dear Amado.” She smiled and drifted to a different place and time.
Knight had seen hell so many times that a glimpse of grace stole his breath. Her voice poured over his soul like a spring Baptism, washing away a lifetime of blood and gunsmoke. Silas would have gladly spent the rest of his life in this moment, willingly trapped in the Spanish Lady’s power. He would do anything for her, she need only ask. She turned again to look upon Knight, but he could not hold her gaze. He looked down at his boots as the moment passed.
“Forgive me, I have been working too long in the hot kitchens. Sometimes I get carried away. We are most grateful you arrived here safely. I am Josefita, Amado’s wife. Our daughter has prepared our finest room for your stay.”
Finding his senses, Knight nodded and removed his hat. He searched for the right words and briefly thought about how her apron was strangely clean and white for someone working in the kitchens all day.
He cleared his throat. “Of course, Señora. General Palmer spoke glowingly of the hospitality of the house of Lucero. He sends his regards.”
“I wish we could accommodate an agent of the railroad with a more gracious reception, but we have many mouths to feed. If Amado can be of any service, please do not hesitate to ask.”
“Ahm...uh, yes ma’am. I most certainly will.”
Suddenly, she stepped even closer to him and placed a hand on his arm. The coolness of her touch took him aback; the intensity shining from her face bewitched him yet again.
“Dark tidings have befallen us. I don’t know what General Palmer told you before you came here, but what stirs in this valley is ancient sin brought to life. I know you are an earthly man, but you possess the gift to see what is unseen.” Her eyes bore deeper into him. “I fear you will need that gift... more than even fire and steel,” she whispered.
Then, without another word, she turned and vanished around the corner. For a moment, he caught the sickly sweet odor yet again.
Clouds now covered the stars as the night turned pitch black. A few ruddy lanterns spilled feeble puddles of light onto the dusty street. Alone again, he leaned against a post and blew out a long breath.