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LECHUZA

November 26, 1863

Private Tom Mason had never seen a corpse until tonight.
It was the splash during his smoke break behind the old quartermaster storehouse that startled him. He pinched the cigarette out, grabbed his lantern, and crossed the handful of feet to the banks of Wallace Creek. The creek was unusually active, flooded with cold, dark water from a storm off to the east. Tom  lifted his lantern over the steep levee.
Billy Harrington, a fellow private who shared a bunk with Tom, was sprawled out on the rocky bank of the creek below, steam rising from a gaping wound in his abdomen.
Tom swallowed, the lantern jittering in his grasp. He had seen a lot of injuries in his seventeen years, a life on the farm was full of it, and he had expected to see death when he packed up his bag from Nacogdoches to go fight Yankees. But like this? He never thought to see poor Billy’s insides bobbing in the torrent of Wallace Creek. Tom pointed his lantern toward the small, wooden bridge leading to the fort. Someone was out there.
“Indians,” Tom said, his breath steaming in the frigid air.
It had happened before, or so Tom had heard. A band of Mescalero Apaches had attacked Willard Parson’s cattle ranch, killing old man Parson and carrying off his wife and two daughters along with all the cattle. The fort had sent out a thirteen-man patrol to find them. No one came back.
Tom jumped at a shadow of movement just beyond the bridge.
“Who’s there?” Tom said in a high-pitched voice.
The soft, yellow light of the lantern spilled on a few of the old beams. He listened, straining his ears while his breath hung in the night air, but only heard the sound of running water lapping on rocks. With one arm still holding the lantern, Tom slung his Springfield around, gripping the barrel tight. It wasn’t loaded but he did remember to fix the bayonet this time out.
There it was again. A tall shadow just on the other side of the bridge. He steeled himself enough to take a step forward, then stopped short when the shadow turned toward him. The private brought up his rifle at his hip with trembling hands.
“Stop right there. Ain’t no Indian coming into this fort, you hear?”
But it was no Indian that crossed the bridge. Instead, a woman in one of those bright colored Mexican dresses stepped into Thomas Mason’s lantern light. Tom held his breath. She was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. She must have been in her mid twenties, tall and elegant, her dress hugging at her hips and emphasizing her breasts. Despite the cold, she wore no shawl or even shoes.
“Buenas noches,” the woman said. Her voice was birdsong in Tom’s ears. Where had she been hiding? He knew the officers went down to Limpia to drink and whore with the locals, but if they ever found this beauty down there, they would never return.
“Buewinass no-chess,” Tom replied with a yellow-stained smile of his own. He shook his head, forcing himself to focus. “What’d you do to Billy?”
“Billy?” the woman said, confusion in her eyes.
“Yeah, Billy. He’s down there, opened up like a sack of sour potatoes.”
“Dead?”
“He ain’t got the trots.”
The woman turned toward the creek. Tom thought he saw the glimmer of a grin, but when he lifted the lantern her face was as blank as a board. Maybe she didn’t understand English so good.
“What’re you doing here?” Tom said.
“Looking for a companion.” Her accent rolled along the words in soothing waves.
The Springfield loosened in his sweating palms.
“What kind of a companion?”
“A handsome young soldier. Someone I could really enjoy.”
The woman traced her finger along Tom’s jaw, but the shock of her touch jolted him. It spoke of promises young men only dream of. Soft skin, fingers playing on the curve of hip, heat and sweat steaming off naked flesh on a cold November night.
Tom blinked, putting a finger to where she had touched. It burned like the frost.
He set down the lantern and unslung his rifle. With an awkward smile, he undid the buttons of his winter coat and stripped it off, then held it out to her.
The woman did not glance at the proffered coat.
“You’re cold,” Tom said.
“I am not cold.”
“Your hands are freezing.”
Rather than answer, the woman pointed a finger behind Tom.
“Do you live there?”
Tom followed her extended index finger across the drill grounds and barracks and up the small hill to the hacienda. Lights twinkled in the upper floors where Mathers would be playing poker with the quartermaster or passed out in a chair.
“Not me,” Tom said. “That there’s where the Lieutenant Colonel sleeps.” Tom shook his head. What was he doing, talking to this stranger in the middle of the night while on patrol? Hadn’t he just seen Billy Harrington’s body down there in the creek? Or was it just a part of this strange dream?
“Take me to him,” the woman said.
Tom blinked hard and turned back to the woman. She was so beautiful. “To the L.C.? No way, José. He won’t see no one from the town, not even a beauty like you.”
“Has he seen a beauty like me?”
“I…I doubt it.”
“Then how would you know?”
Before Tom could respond a brash voice called out from behind.
“What’s going on, Mason?”
Tom turned to see a soldier with a double chevron sewed into his coat sleeves emerge from the shadows near the old storehouse, no doubt helping himself to an extra ration of salt pork as a midnight snack.
“Got a woman here, Corporal,” Tom explained. “I think she…uhh…” He rubbed at the numb spot on his jaw. There was a vague image, like a figure in a deep rolling fog, but he couldn’t make out what it was.
“I can see that, Mason,” Corporal Nathanial Waters said as he stepped into the lantern light. “What about her?”
“Wants to see L.C. Mathers.”
The corporal, his own rifle still slung casually at his side, ran his eyes along the woman.
“She’s just here for a buck or two,” Waters said as he smoothed out his mustache. “Mathers is busy anyway—tight on whisky, drooling on his duds—but I’ve got some time on my hands. What’d’ya say, darling?”
The woman said nothing, did not even seem to recognize the corporal was talking to her. She just looked at Tom, her beautiful round eyes latching onto his, making him blush.
“Geez, Nate, I just don’t know. Shouldn’t we report her? I mean, she might be a spy for the Federals.” And there was something else. Something about Billy?
“Federals? Shit, Tom. Ain’t no Yanks interested in this no account outfit. Too busy chasing Uncle Robert and his war horse to bother with us. Ain’t that right, darling?”
“We don’t even know her name,” Tom said.
“Did you ask? What’s your name then?”
“María,” she said. “María Guadalupe Rodríguez Sánchez.”
“There you go, Tom. All hunky-dory.”
“María,” Tom replied, trying his best at the accent, rolling the name around like a cordial in his mouth.
“Si.” Maria pointed an elegant finger toward the hacienda. “And that was my home.”
“No shit?” Waters said as he snorted up a headful of phlegm then hocked it into  the creek. “Thought all the Mexicans that lived here were killed. No offense.”
The woman’s eyes turned hard and seemed to blacken even in the lantern light. A chill ran up Tom’s spine, sending gooseflesh down his arms. The air had gotten colder, much colder.
“Not all,” María said.
“Well, what’s the business, darling?” Nate said as he dug into his jacket pocket. “I’ve got two bits to spare.”
Ignoring the corporal, María extended a hand and caressed Tom’s face.
“I think you’ll do.”
The shock came back stronger, like being plunged into a bathtub of ice water. This time Tom eased into it. There was warmth there, the smell of sweat and the feel of a woman’s touch. María was there, combing her fingers through his hair, her hands on his chest, giving herself to him. In that moment, he was alive. Alive.  So very—
The cold November night rushed in to fill the void that was left when María removed her hand. Tom brought a pair of fingers to his numb cheek. Without a word, he dropped the coat, lantern, and rifle on the ground and took María’s frigid hand in his own.
“Jesus, Tom!” Nate laughed as he gathered up the rifle. “Careful, would ya?”
But Tom didn’t hear him. His mind was miles away, working feverishly to recapture the ecstasy that was lost when her hand left his face.
He led María into the fort, leaving an amused Corporal Waters alone with the pair of rifles.
“In here,” Tom said.
Checking to make sure no one was around, Tom opened the door to the commissary’s dry goods storage and motioned the woman inside. The air was pungent with salt, stale coffee beans, and rat turds. It was tight, full of wooden crates and barrels, but it would do. It had to do. Recapturing that moment was all he could think about.
He closed the door behind him so that only moonlight filtered in through the cracks in the wood. Should have brought the lantern, he thought.
“This is not the hacienda,” Maria said from somewhere in the dark.
“I’ll take you there, don’t you worry. After we…you know…”
A silence fell between them, and it felt to Tom Mason like the silence a thunderhead made as it rolled over the fields.
“Where does that go?” María asked.
Tom squinted in the darkness as he tried to make out what she was talking about.
“Where’s what go?”
“This, this hatch. It was not here before.”
Tom edged around her and felt the wooden planks of the root cellar entrance under his boot. She had sharp eyes, that was for sure.
“Trap door to the root cellar.”
“Show me.”
“Look, I think we’ve got plenty of room up-"
Tom felt the cold touch of her finger along his lips. There was a flash, a single image of her hovering above him with her long, flowing hair dangling in his face.
He nodded stupidly and pulled open the trap door.
A musty reek of earth and straw came up to greet him like a slap in the face. It smelled like his grandmother’s own root cellar near Cibolo Creek. Tom had been sent to get a handful of potatoes when a sudden gust slammed the door shut, leaving him alone with all the monsters his young mind could conjure.
“Ain’t nothing down there.”
María did not answer. Tom felt her brush past, the sounds of her bare feet slapping along the cold stones leading down to the cellar. She called to him, summoning him by name, her singsong voice echoing off the narrow walls.
He had to obey, he knew it before his legs led him down the steps of their own accord. Hands guiding him along the earthen walls, Tom followed María Guadalupe Rodríguez Sánchez, down in the frigid darkness.


Lechuza excerpt: Text
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