Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

Jesus of the West

by Joel Doonan


Smoke curled from the revolvers' cylinders, barrels hot to the touch as he re-holstered. Twelve men lay before him, on the floor, across overturned chairs, one halfway out a window. He tightened the leg-thongs and squared the guns around his waist as a breeze cleared the air. He felt the weight of the iron as he moved, listened to the quiet creak of tooled gun leather. The wind chimed softly through empty panes and the clap, clap of loose roof tin echoed and resonated down through the hollow of the steeple above, and then the sudden rush of wing beats momentarily gave sound and life to the shadows as mourning doves took flight from the high rafters through the steeple's open dormers.

There was now a quiet sense of harmony in the building, an odd stillness after so much commotion. He felt at ease, at peace as he stepped around those who had fallen, careful not to touch the crimson pools. He walked past a spilled sack of silver dollars and handfuls of gold jewelry. He paid no mind to the blue glass and gold leaf ornamented crucifix leaning against the far wall or the jeweled statue of the mission's patron saint Antonio. He continued unconcerned past the oak cask of distilled spirits and the silver serving trays and goblets strewn about the tables. He instead walked toward the bright shaft of early light flooding like fiery gold through the mission's massive, iron hinged doors.

The sky was clear blue and the morning wind carried the smells of early spring even up to this high, arid place. The old mission's hilltop view offered a panorama of bright red cliffs and far to the south, the distant lure of a jewel green valley. A roan mare came up behind, nuzzled his back. He paused, indecisive for a moment, gazed at his open palms.

"Is this who I am?" he said softly. The roan nudged harder, conveyed a sense of urgency. With a sudden rush of intuition and purpose he turned quickly and mounted, heeled the mare and headed down a southbound trail between cliffs and rocky slopes toward the distant pattern of emerald green farms and the settlement of Eider Valley.

It was an old Indian who stood high atop a rise beside the trail. His black leather long-coat flapped softly against his legs, its open front lined with rows of hand hammered silver conchos. Shiny medallions ringed his flat rimmed black hat and his long white hair streamed behind, tossed and tangled by the warm wind from the plains. He watched the gunman pass along the trail below, stood near motionless and in plain view. The gunman noticed the old Indian and gazed up, and for a few moments they stared at each other.

Early sun suddenly beamed over a rise and obscured the Indian in a blinding halo. The gunman squinted, then shifted his attention back to the narrow passage before him. He continued his journey toward the broad green lowlands.

There was a lovely young girl of little more than five in a daffodil yellow Sunday dress standing beside the water trough. She watched intently as he looped reins over the rail.

"I know who you are," she said shyly, waiting for the moment his eyes fell upon her.

Her outfit sported white lace and mother of pearl buttons and puffy sleeves and small decorations of hand embroidery applied by a skilled and caring mother. Her black shoes were shiny on top and mud laden on the sides due to a leak beneath the water trough, and her frilled bonnet had blown crooked to one side. Her red hair teased her eyes and mouth and she brushed the red tangle back with a hand, holding it in place as she squinted up.

The gunman stepped closer and crouched low. He whispered. "Then tell me who I am," he said, "Tell me why I am here."

"I see the bright around you," she said, "I seen pictures in a book. You're like Jesus. You know. Or you could call yourself Hay-Zoose, like the Mexicans say it. Like the ones who work our ranch."

The girl's mother stood only a few yards away atop the boardwalk with her back turned, absorbed in conversation with Zeke Daniels, a full-bellied man in striped bib overalls and a large, floppy straw hat. They talked about wallpaper and paint and the shortage of nails and tar paper and where to get credit for new spring livestock. The shopkeeper glanced up and gave a sharp nod in her daughter's direction. The lady quickly turned around.

"Lee Ann! We do not consort with strangers. Especially those of certain sorts." She stepped off the boardwalk and took the girl firmly by the arm. She pulled her daughter up onto the walkway and gave the stranger a sharp glare.

"But mommy, that's Jesus," said the girl. She looked back and waved with her free hand. "Goodbye, Hay-Zoose."

"Such silliness," said the girl's mother, "Lee Ann, you should know better."

The gunman straightened up and returned the girl's wave. He then observed the mare drink from the trough, leaned down and submerged his face directly beside her.

Zeke tipped his hat as the girl and her mother continued down the boardwalk toward Davis Bank. He stepped over to greet the stranger who suddenly rose from the water out of breath, his face flushed and hair dripping wet.

"Zeke Daniels," he said, extending a hand. "Own the hardware store here." He motioned toward a set of double doors propped open with sections of railroad iron to let a cool breeze through.

His smile was friendly and genuine, that of a businessman who was always looking for connections and opportunities. The gunman did not immediately respond. He gazed instead, up to a loose board jutting from the overhanging soffit. The gunman suddenly felt something sharp in his pants pocket and reached inside. He withdrew a handful of shiny, bright eight-penny nails.

"I can fix that," he said to Zeke, nodding toward the loose board as he held out a handful of sparkling nails.

The shopkeeper's eyes brightened. "You a carpenter then? A handyman?"

The gunman stared down at his nails and then suddenly and instantly understood the techniques and skills of the carpentry trade. He nodded. "I'll need tools. A hammer. A block plane. A good saw. Some straight pine boards."

"We could sure use a fellow with your talents. Last carpenter we had got himself killed. A little too fond of cards and liquor. That's a dangerous combination. Some things just don't mix well.

"I'll make you an offer," Zeke added softly, leaning down from the boardwalk to speak more privately. "If you work hard I'll pay three dollars a day. I'll arrange for room and board at Miss Maggie's, across the street. She's a friend. You be polite and respectful. First week's pay covers the tools. After that they're yours to keep. Deal?"

The gunman nodded.

"You got a name?" he asked.

"Hay-Zoose," said the gunman, again mimicking the girl, "like the Mexicans say it."

"Don't look much like a Spanish feller to me," said Zeke, "but Jesús it is. Soon as you settle in, you can start by fixin' the soffit here in front of my shop before a board falls off and kills someone. 'Bout half the shops in town have a leaky roof and God willing, we've got spring rains comin'. My back wall needs patching near the stove vent. Too many rats getting in. You'll find plenty to occupy yourself here in town. I'll advertise your services and take a small commission. It's a good deal for both of us."

The gunman nodded. "A good deal," he said.

The two men shook hands as the local banker, Mr. Davis, passed by after the Sunday gathering.

"What's new in the hardware world?" he asked.

"Just got a new carpenter," said Zeke, "Name is Jesús."

"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Jesús. Hope you turn out better than the last one!" Mr. Davis turned toward Zeke, spoke more softly, "He don't look much like a Mexican feller to me," he said. "In fact..." Mr. Davis removed his thin rimmed glasses and squinted at the handyman. "In fact, I'll be goddamned. You are the spittin' image of my wife's second cousin Dan."

"The Dan Jameson who decided to be a preacher?" said Zeke.

"That's the one," replied Mr. Davis, "Finally got himself discharged from the army after a three day drunk and two weeks AWOL. They say he stepped outside the brig at Ft. Larson and saw the light in more ways than one. Decided to devote his life to doing good and serving God and all that. Odd turn for a fellow who can't seem to figure out a two-hole outhouse. Took off on his way to San Frisco 'bout two weeks past. Said that the heathens needed saving. No one's heard from him since. Headed north, toward Mt. Isle pass up the Old Mission Trail.

"Maybe Injuns got him."

"Could be. Got plenty of them around. Always seem to find some lame excuse to be wanderin' off the reservation these days. 'We're hungry'... 'we got no water'... 'no blankets'... I hear it all the time."

"Hot as it's been, maybe sunstroke got him."

"Goddamn right!" he replied. He pulled off his clean black stetson and mopped sweat from the top of his near bald head with a red and white checkered handkerchief.

"I'd best be off. Got ranchers comin' in from out of town for livestock loans. I can smell profit like a farmer can smell rain. I'll be in touch for your handyman's services real soon."

"Be good to these ranch folks," said Zeke, "they barely scrape by for a living these days, with the drought and all."

"We all work hard," said Mr. Davis, "only a few of us are born with the skills to turn hard work into cash." He snugged his clean black hat, nodded curtly and departed.

The gunman unhitched his mare to find stabling with the smithy while Zeke walked across the dusty avenue to make arrangements at Miss Maggie's Lunch & Boarding. The Gunman reached into his pocket as he walked, his mare following, and withdrew six silver coins. He stood at the stable entrance amid the smell of hot charcoal and the hammering of iron. "Six Dollars a Week Keeps your Critter Well Fed and Brushed" were advertised in black and red across weathered boards.

Two men sat at a small round gaming table beside the front windows at Miss Maggie's. Cattleman Fernándo Carrión and rancher Hans Schaeffer dined on corned beef sandwiches, tortillas, hot peppers and beer as they engaged in five card draw for quarters and dimes.

Jesús took a table near the kitchen's double swinging doors and soon after, a young, dark-complected barefoot boy ran out with a sandwich on an old china plate and a mason jar of water, set it on the table in front of him then quickly departed. Jesús watched the other two men eat, then took a bite of his own sandwich. Chewed long and slow. Swallowed. Drank some water. He scooted back the chair, rose and walked across to observe the game.

At first he stood several yards behind Cattleman Fernándo. He sensed the card players thoughts and muttered softly, "Tres; ocho; ocho; ocho; nueve de corazón..."

The Mexican Cattleman lowered his cards and glanced behind. "Caramba!" he said as Jesús stepped around to observe the hand of the other game player. "Sieben; zehn; zehn; zehn..." he continued counting.

"Seien sie ruhig!" said the rancher. Both men glared as Jesús returned to his table.

That afternoon he repaired the loose soffit in front of the hardware store and tightened the shop's front door hinges. He plugged three mouse holes and tarred two roof leaks, patched a melon-sized opening in the back wall with a section of roof tin where an old stove had been vented.

Day's end brought long shadows to the streets and a fiery brilliance to the clouds. Lanterns were lit and hung at corner posts along the boardwalk and light spilled from the windows of businesses that catered to nighttime activities.

He was given a small cot in the same back storeroom where the kitchen boy stayed. The space was cramped but clean, and as the boy slept soundly, curled up on his side with dusty bare feet protruding over the end of his mattress, Jesús stared at the ceiling and listened to the sounds of conversation, piano music, laughter and the clinking of glassware until he also sank into a dream; a single brilliant vision of an endless blue sea.

It was just before sunrise and he began his second day as handyman with a modest breakfast of sausage and grits. He listened to the conversation of others; concerns about the lack of rain and poor grazing and of an outbreak of scarlet fever at two neighboring ranches. He left three coins on the table for the kitchen boy.

By noon he had already hammered down loose roof tin at Dot's Linens & Sundries and replaced a split corner post by the feed store. His next task was mending mouse holes in the storage shed behind Davis Bank. The lean-to shed held bins for coal and firewood, and there were also crates of empty glass jars and a stack of old and yellowed copies of the Denver Herald News. He was on his knees, hammer in hand as he reached inside his nail pouch ready to pin a small board in place, but instead he pulled out a match. He stared at the match, then at the waist high stack of old newspapers.

He departed the shed even before the first trace of smoke appeared outside. He continued down a rear ally to Dr. Mason's office , entered through the back door as shouting filled the street. "Bank fire!" came a rousing cry, "We need all hands!"

Dr. Mason and his assistant had already departed to help ferry water buckets as Jesús quietly closed the door behind.

Down a short hall was an open bedroom door. Thin white curtains let in the light and moved with a gentle breeze. The young girl, Lee Ann, wore a simple white gown. Her face was flushed red and she shivered just slightly, her eyes closed. Jesús set his hammer and tool pouch on the floor beside her overnight bag and she opened her eyes. He placed a hand on her hot forehead, and he grasped one of her hands in his. He closed his eyes and raised his face and suddenly his back stiffened as a pale blue glow fluoresced around the girl. It was just for a moment, then her eyes closed again and she fell peacefully asleep.

"You will be all right now," he said as she breathed softly and steadily. He reached into his pocket, took out ten, twenty-dollar bills and tucked them inside her overnight bag. He leaned down close to her ear and whispered, "You will remember that banker Davis stopped by. Tell your mother that the money is the final payment from your cattle sale." He softly kissed her forehead, then picked up his tools and departed to replace broken fencing around the smithy's corral.

"It was three of Fernando's cow hands," she said through tears.

Two women sat at the small kitchen table. There were blood spots on the floor. One woman had a cut across her left cheek and her right eye was badly bruised. Miss Maggie came over with a damp, cool washcloth and softly doctored her injury.

It was late afternoon and Jesús had come inside for a well deserved break and a late lunch. He entered the kitchen's double doors and walked slowly past the women, watched with curiosity, then continued to his cot in the storeroom for a short rest.

It was only a few moments when he felt something in his pocket. He reached inside and pulled out three bullets. He sat up and took off his nail pouch. He reached under the cot for his gun leather then rose slowly, fastened the buckle and tightened the leg thongs.

"Where you off to now?" asked Miss Maggie as he proceeded back through the kitchen.

"Soon I will see the Indian," he said, "but right now I must find three cowboys." He politely tipped his hat as he had seen others do, and departed toward the smithy's. All three women stared as he pushed through the double-swing doors. "Strange fellow," said Miss Maggie. The other women nodded.

It was late afternoon and shadows from occotillo and yucca made long purplish stripes across the sand and rocks of the dry wash.

He had barely dismounted when a tall man emerged quickly from a shadow with a knife in hand and shoved it into his belly. The cowhand stood back, his face showing an unsavory pleasure, but then he paused, astonished.

"You don't bleed," he said. He watched as bright blue light beamed from the tear in the gunman's shirt. He saw how the light quickly diminished and suddenly blinked out. The gunman spun around firing two shots as he turned. Two men fell from the shadows where they had crouched hidden behind a thorn bush. The gunman continued around and fired again. The cowhand looked down at his chest. "And you don't miss," he added as he fell first to his knees, then face to the sand.

Crimson colored the soil beside the fallen and the gunman crouched low, reached out and touched the color lightly with three fingers. He stared at his hand, them smelled. He frowned, dug both hands into the sand and rubbed till they were dusty clean. He stood up, brushed his hands on his pants as his mare came close. He quickly mounted and departed.

Standing under the fiery evening sky at the crest of a ridge, the Indian was waiting. The gunman dismounted, let the reins drop and made no effort to secure the mare.

Between them lay the dry remains of a coyote amid the rocks and scrub of the hilltop. The gunman bent down. "This one has gone," he said.

"Eventually we must all go" said the Indian, "But this wild dog will soon return as another."

"I know that you have knowledge of my origin." said Jesús, "Tell me what I am."

"This is a story I've told many times to many people," said the Indian. "And I will always tell it again. You must understand that beneath all things there lies a great purpose. Underneath the sky, the mountains, the rivers, and beneath all living things, lies the reason that all things exist. There is a great meaning woven into the fabric of the Earth and the stars, a purpose which comes from a great underlying ocean of awareness. It is like a great sleeping dreamer whose dream we are all living. It dreams of the sky and the birds and then they become real. It dreams of villages and hunters and even the builders of the towns and railroads, and then they become real as well. It knows every fish, every pebble, every thought and desire. And sometimes when there is a strong need, a small part of this great ocean stirs to wakefulness and feels the disharmony and yearns to restore balance and peace. If its desire is great enough, it will enter the world of men for a time, to do the work of restoring harmony. These 'figures of spirit' are sometimes called 'spirit walkers', as they walk unnoticed among the people. It is odd, sometimes, the particular actions that are required to put things in balance. Most stay only briefly, sometimes only for a few days, while a few others stay for a very, very long time."

"What have you learned in your time on earth?" asked Jesús.

"I have learned to feel," said the Indian. "I have learned to love."

"I have also learned to love," said Jesús, "but now I am very tired. I am so tired that I have no more to give."

"Hold my hands, then, and I will guide you back home," said the Indian.

The two men stood face to face, eyes closed and with hands connected, soft colors began to brighten around them. The mare backed away, watched at a distance. Brighter and more vivid grew the colors, green and gold, rippling like water in the air and expanding with each passing moment, encircling both figures. The light shimmered and shifted from greens to blues, brighter and larger, then suddenly the colors and light engulfed the entire hilltop and in an instant spread outward across the valley and down the hillsides and up into the sky. The light then illuminated the clouds, gilding them with a brilliant flush of fiery gold and for a few moments the light seemed to be everywhere.

The instant the colors vanished, the Indian released his hands and the gunman collapsed to the ground.

####

With his cheek pressed hard against the coarse sand and dirt of the high mesa, the first thing that greeted Dan Jameson's eyes was the shriveled ass-end of a dead coyote. The odor quickly shocked him awake. "Damn!" he muttered as he sat up, fanned the air, cleared dust from his left ear and shook out his hair.

"Not again! Where the hell am I now? I need a drink. Or maybe I don't." As he spat, he noticed an old Indian walking away down a narrow deer trail, westward.

"Hey you! You have something to do with this? How'd I get here? Hey Injun! I'm talkin' to you. Damn it. That's the problem. Nobody ever listens to me."

The Indian did not turn around to speak, but instead kept a slow steady pace toward the home of the Pascua Yaqui.

Dan's roan mare stood some thirty feet away, head low, nibbling on tough sage grass as it watched him rise shakily from the dust. Dan gave a sharp whistle, "Ellie! Here girl." The animal ambled slowly toward him as he dusted off his pants. "I'm starvin'. Feel like I haven't eaten for a week. Let's you and me get some chow. You're the only gal who's stuck with me these past few years and I'd best be takin' good care of you. Where the hell are we and what town is around these parts?" he turned to survey the desolate terrain as his horse turned and began walking southeast down the trail toward Eider Valley, reins dragging. "Hey! I'm in charge. Wait for me!" He paused for just a moment and glanced back toward the Indian just about to disappear below the rise. He barely noticed a faint blue light around the man against the darkening sky, then blinked, shook his head and turned quickly to chase his ever hastening mare.

High above the plains, clouds grew into thunderstorms and soon, long awaited rain began to fall across the farms and ranch lands. The Indian chanted to the rhythm of his steps as he continued down the hillside, an ancient song about the colors of the sky at day's end and the rise of brilliant silver stars. On the other side of the hill, Dan Jameson raced and stumbled down the rocky trail trying to overtake his mare.

"Well, Ellie girl," Dan said as he finally caught the reins, "The terrain is startin' to look more familiar. We must be on the trail to Eider Valley. Let's you and I see what fate awaits us there. I sure hope it's better than the 'welcome' we got a while back at the town of Helmstead."

THE END


© 2010 Joel Doonan

Bio: Joel Doonan resides in the central Texas hill country, operates a small signs and graphics business, collects rain water, grows a few vegetables, puts up pickles and sauerkraut, and dabbles with creative writing. A number of his stories have appeared in Aphelion, most recently Forty Pieces of Lead (August, 2008) and The Last Warrior (November, 2008)

E-mail: Joel Doonan

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.