Excerpt from Mariano’s Crossing
Takansy tightens her grip on the soft doeskin shroud holding her daughter’s body. The lightning is closer now, and she readies herself for a silent count of five. She prays her sleeping husband will not hear the sound she is about to make.
Despite herself, she jumps as a spasm of blue-white light lances through the window and illuminates her husband’s Hawken rifle hanging on the wall beside her. It flickers lethally for a moment before the room goes black again.
Tensing, she begins. One, two, three, four, five. On cue, the thunderclap vibrates through the soles of her moccasins and rattles a china cup against its shelf-mate. Its roar masks the whisper of leather against wood as she drags the bundle a few steps closer to the cabin door.
She pauses as the rumble rolls away into the blackness. Was it only last night, a lifetime ago, she had dragged Lena’s lifeless body from the river, stared at her death-white skin, slightly open mouth, and reddish patches marring her neck and face? Her throat still burns from the sounds she had made, strange animal noises, as she pulled the dress over her daughter’s stiffening limbs, combed her hair for the last time, tried to close her resisting eyelids, wrapped her in the doeskin shroud. Keening claws at her throat again, but she chokes it back. The wailing time must wait. Now her heart must be stone.
A stirring from Medina’s bed propels her hand to the haft of her skinning knife. Would she actually use it against her husband of twenty-eight snows? She has no plan, no talking way, to explain her actions should he awake and confront her. A week ago, knifing him would have been unthinkable. Now everything has changed.
When no further sound comes from the bed, her hand relaxes. Another flash pierces the room. She counts four beats this time. Another crash, another stealthy drag, and she is at the door. Her hand finds the cast iron latch and rests there.
The thunder is so loud she worries the sound of the storm, rather than the click of the latch, will rouse him. When the next thunderclap comes she eases the door open and wrestles the corpse over the threshold. The rusty hinges, greased the day before with lard, do not betray her. Her shoulders relax. The storm’s cool wind stirs the sweaty roots of her hair.
The wind! Like scouts for an advancing army, chill drafts slip past her, lift the corner of the oilcloth on the eating table, and chase the cabin’s tobacco pipe air into the next room across Medina’s inert form. The storm had answered her prayer to cover the sounds of her escape, but she failed to consider its whispering outriders.
The door swings closed, whumps against the door jam. The latch falls into place with a metallic chunk.
“God be damned!” The curse shocks her as much as the noise. She clutches for her rosary, then remembers. The black beads dot the floor where she flung them the night before. Glistening reminders of Jésu’s betrayal.
She presses her ear against the keyhole and hears…what? The straining creak of bed ropes in their sideboard moorings? A footfall on the squeaky floorboard under the Hawken rifle?
Stifling a grunt, Takansy hefts the bundle and staggers off the porch. Her hip joints creak under the weight of Lena’s fifteen-year-old body as she lurches toward the barn. A fat raindrop splatters on her cheek and runs into her mouth. It tastes of salt. She bites her tongue to make herself stop crying.
The smell of trampled horse droppings and sweaty leather overpower the scent of rain as she opens the barn door. She eases the leather shroud to the packed earth floor, grabs a handful of grain from the tack room and runs through a side door into the corral. Storm-spooked horses mill about, tails aloft, necks arched. With the grain, she coaxes her daughter’s horse into the barn. “Shy Bird, you will carry Lena one last time.” She slips a rawhide chin rope into the tall mare’s mouth, slings the single rein over her neck and urges her toward the front door where Lena lies.
Scenting the body, the black mare snorts and side-steps, eyes rimming white. “Do not be afraid,” Takansy says, to herself as much as the horse. She strokes the animal’s quivering shoulder and croons a sleep song from her childhood, the same song that had quieted Lena when she was a baby. With her other hand she reaches into her waist pouch to touch the beaded leather bag she had removed from her daughter’s neck the day before, the otter pouch amulet she had given to Lena to bind their spirits together.
She pins the mare’s chin rope against the ground with her foot and wrestles Lena’s body up and over the horse’s tall withers. Tying a rope on the shroud’s ends, she pulls down hard to bend it in the middle and snub it down. Its ghastly stiffness unnerves her. She bites her hand to quell the swelling in her throat.
From the tack room she grabs two large blankets she had rolled up the day before and leads Shy Bird out of the barn. In the next lightning flash, the cabin jumps out from the blackness, its dark logs and white chinking momentarily reduced to a uniform, silvery gray. Nothing moves in the shadowy doorway.
She leads the mare beside the corral fence, climbs onto the first rail and hoists her right leg over the mare’s back. She settles stiffly into place behind her daughter’s body. It is the first time she has been on the back of a horse since her vow to Jésu, taken in the long ago in atonement for her sins, to never ride again. The vow no longer matters.
With her knees she urges the big mare forward toward the wooden toll bridge on the north side of the compound. Two more drops splat on her rein-holding hand. There is still no sign of life inside their house. Maybe she will make it. ThenMedina can rave at her all he wants, beat her, even. He will never findLena’s body. She will make sure of it.