The rider once heard a story of the deer woman. It is said she has lived in the mountains for a thousand years and appears only to feed on travelers. She lures men from the path as they journey and, upon their approach, tramples them to death. The rider made no plans for such a fate when he arrived at the river bed, removed his repeater from the boot as he sat patiently on the saddle of his appaloosa. It was only an hour after noon and his shadow was long on the earth.
Water flows easy down the river and snakes between the mossy red stones that roll across the mountain range. He feels the sky over head pass by like a shielding hand. The rider shoulders his repeater and surveys the field. The campsite is not far ahead. Somewhere near the banks of the Del Norte.
“Where’d you boys run off too?” He mutters and removes his hat to wipe the sweat from his brow.
He sees the tattered remains of the tents and the short flagpole that identifies the base. He dismounts and hitches his horse to the post near a wagon. There are still crates inside marked with the initials: U.S. He takes hold of the repeater with both hands.
Inside one of the tents he looks to a cot. It is stained with blood. He takes a knee and reaches for a piece of torn clothing that is colorless save a red stain. The rider sniffs it briefly and notices a strange odor mixed with the blood. He stands and snaps the repeater into action; something has moved outside and stands behind the tent.
“Who’s that then? Come out!” His words are cut short as he moves from the tent and sees a figure shadowed by the glare of the sun. The rider protects his eyes till they adjust and finds himself in confused awe.
She is said to appear, at times, as an old woman, or a young maiden, or simply a deer. He wonders if he is grateful for the form she has assumed today. Her hair is wet and tendrils of it look like dark water against the smooth, natural beauty of her face. He thinks of the sporting women in town and the intense pale of their skin. He thinks of the good women on the farm and their plump bodies. The rider has never seen a person so evenhanded and of the earth and finds his repeater lowered without thought.
Her eyes are wide and frightened, black like gems. Briefly, he thinks, her look is one of familiarity but he recalls nothing. She shouts, “Haamee, unha hakai nahniaka?” and steps toward him violently. She wears little else but the rags of a simple dress and he sees the scar that traces the front of her neck. The woman grips a bayonet tightly.
“Easy, darlin’, I don’t speak that,” his brows furrow and he recoils from her advance. The rider tightens his grip on the repeater in response but keeps it lowered, “Eh, habla usted español?”
The bayonet is softly drawn from the belt and he watches the steel catch burning sunlight. Another step is taken and he raises his weapon; aiming at the woman. “Stop right there, girl!”
“Haamee, unha hakai nahniaka?” She shouts again and holds more malice, though he notices a touch of hesitation in the movements of the knife.
“Nu nahnia tsa, Iluea’he! Haamee, unha hakai nahniaka?” She glares at the rider and finds herself staring into his dark eyes; her anger is mixed with pleading. He casts his repeater to the dirt as if it were made of fire.
“No weapon,” he holds his hands up and sounds a bit annoyed, “I ain’t the army, alright? I’m just a man. Just a man sent to do a job. Comprende?” He meets her black eyes and sees his own distorted image.
“Man,” she says in a poor accent, “Tenahpu?”
“Tenahpu?” His hand stays away from his Colt in fear of his own reflexes. He breathes with relief as she nods, “Nu nahnia tsa, Iluea’he. Tenahpu,” the woman gestures from her chest to the rider.
“You kill these men, Iluea’he?” The rider motions to the camp and though he inquires, he does not expect an answer.
“These men,” she speaks quietly, “Kill me.”
“What?” The rider steps toward her and feels his feet suddenly swing upward. The wind teasing his hair as his hat falls free. He thinks he hears a flute but the water from the river grows loud. His eyes close slowly and he crumbles to the red earth. His breathing is paced and tired.
He hears her make a dismissive sound, “Tch.” And then it all goes black.
The rider wakes to the crack of fire. He sees very quickly that night has come and the sky is filled with stars. The camp is still abandoned save himself and the woman who squats with her arms around her knees, staring at him. Her eyes are blacker in this light and she looks like a ghost.
His head is crusted where the blood dried, a rock must have struck him in his fall. Sitting up, slowly, he feels the dirt under his palms and the weight of his Colt in his scabbard. She didn’t strip him of his weapons.
“Evening,” he says with a dry humor and rubs the bridge of his nose. Nearby his horse is still hitched and undisturbed. “Not afraid of guns?”
“No,” she prods the fire with a twig. “I’m not afraid of guns.”
The rider settles on the ground and watches her through a sidelong glance. “So you speak English?”
“Now I do.”
The rider shakes his head. “You learn it while I slept?”
“Maybe,” she is suspicious of him and the strange mercy she has shown seems to stem from regret or at least from something beyond her control. He sees that she holds the bayonet in her hand tightly.
“You planning to stick me?” His agitation came from the wound and he rubbed it while looking apologetic.
“Coyote told me not to, despite my wishes.”
“What happened to the soldiers? Whose Coyote?”
“The earth ate them; they are with the worms and the snakes. Their kin.” She speaks and he watches the fire illuminate her black eyes. It’s both frightening and beautiful.
“What’d you mean these men killed you?” He almost regrets asking and turns to face the woman. He doesn’t see that the fire is cast strangely against his face and clenches his jaw when he witnesses her recede back in further suspicion.
“I came with my village to bring food to the fort. We were brought here, against our wishes, but made the best of the circumstance. We came with supplies. They killed us. Men and women and children equally, with knives and guns. I screamed till I lost my voice. I cried until they slit my neck when they were finished,” her voice is cold and distant. As if she had enough time to dwell on this and looked to blame the rider for her pain; but she didn’t and she couldn’t.
“They threw us in the river where Coyote found me. He said I could repay those men if I accepted his gift. That night the earth ate the soldiers and I watched them drown in dirt and soil where they spilled my people’s blood. They screamed as we screamed and I was not sorry. But Coyote would not let me leave this place. I was told to wait for a marked one, like me. I will use his tainted soul as a vessel,” she says this with a touch of malice.
“I ain’t got no mark,” he says defensively and couldn’t look at her either. He feels a knot in his stomach tighten and he tries to stop himself from picturing her story with images violent and unsettling. His shame seems baseless and he looks apologetic as if he had been one of those soldiers. He could have been; at some time.
“You do but you cannot see it with your eyes, tenahpu.” She finally looks to him and her eyes had narrowed. She hated him, the rider knew, and he stands up to move away from the fire. He feels a strong urge to be cold. “Now you are going to take me out of here. Like Coyote promised. Then, at last, I can sleep.”
“Must have been in the sun too long, girl. Ain’t no Coyote make a promise like that, I’m not taking you nowhere.” He stares off across the pines of the mountain range and sees the light-less glow of the moon.
She stands and holds the bayonet up as if preparing to stab him, “The golden-eyed Coyote told me you would come, wanderer. And it is you that I will follow. That’s the only way. But if you are not him then you are just another fool to me.” She took another step toward him and the bayonet is raised.
The rider turns and retreats slowly, his hands up defensively. He pulls his Colt. “Easy.” He sees that her black eyes are swollen and sore looking. Sleepless. His mind fills with visions of golden-eyes and it makes him shiver with familiarity.
He nods hesitantly and looks to the ground, his gun-hand lowered. Perhaps a mistake, as she lurched toward him swiftly and caused him to fire off a shot. It must have missed for she came at him still, tripping him down onto the ground. The old blade of the bayonet held to his throat.
Iluea’he grit her teeth. “Your bullshit ends here, tenahpu.”
“Alright, Iluea’he. Alright. Alright! You can come with me.” He lets the Colt go from his grip and it lands heavy on the dirt.
“I hate you, tenahpu. So we are clear. And I spit at your curse,” she does so and it hits the tip of his boot. “You will take me from this place as Coyote said. Now we go,” the woman points toward the distance.
“You got a real nice way of showing appreciation, lady.” His tone is bitter and moves past her, suddenly no longer afraid of her weapon. His Colt is returned to the scabbard and he puts on the hat. Moving toward his appaloosa he unhitched her and slips the repeater back into the boot.
The rider sits astride his horse once again and offers his hand to the woman.
She stares at his palm and takes hold of it, lifting herself onto the back of his saddle. Her arms wrap around his waist with no shortage of reluctance and she remains quiet, she looks away from him. He doesn’t mind the silence and kicks his spurs, starting to ride out from the campsite.
Over the travelers there is a full moon. It glows brightly but does not illuminate the dark world. The stars, like eyes, watch them with the shimmer of tears. The void-like distance between them could not be wider on this night.