When Pat Garrett killed his poker buddy, Billy the Kid, he had no idea what a terrible emotional price he would pay. Haunted by memories of Billy, Garrett wanders the New Mexico desert in a fruitless pursuit of peace.Deep in the same desert, an ancient Spanish alchemist searches for the fabled philosopher's stone. Resolutely alone in his quest he devotes his long life to hunting the secrets of the old gods.As these two men seek answers to questions that have confounded mankind for centuries, their stories encompass the panorama of American history. This journey from wild frontier into the twentieth century is an unforgettable experience. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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July 01, 1999
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Excerpt from Journey of the Dead by Loren D. Estleman
Journey of the Dead
The Coming of the Long Man
The desert is an amphitheater. Eternal in its architecture, infallible in its silence, it marks the disturbed pebble, the broken blade of feathergrass in never-decreasing reverberations to its outer edge. At a distance of fifty miles the click of an iron shoe against sandstone is as the scrape of one's own fork on the plate before him. This is how I became aware of the long man the moment he crossed into old Mexico.
The way along La Jornada del Muerto was hazardous and harsh, but the long man knew it like a lover. Peace after all was a fugitive concept. A war had torn him from his birthplace in Alabama, a different kind of war had transformed him from a hunter of buffalo into a hunter of men, and jeopardy was a state of being. He had a wife and a daughter, but they were aberrant to the Life, a respite rather than an addendum. Home was a place to gather strength and copulate and obtain fresh horses. It lacked the substance of heat and hardpack and the things with thorns and stings. He lived along the Journey of the Dead.
At night the day's heat drained away between the loose grains of sand that made up the desert floor. The long man's breath made jets of gray in the dry blood of dawn; those of the saddle horse and packhorse smoked thickly around their muzzles and condensed into drops that stung their eyes and made themblink. In the long shadows the long man wore a blanket of Hopi manufacture across his shoulders. As the sun grew yellow, the weight of the coarse weave lay heavily upon him, and he rolled it tight and lashed it behind his cantle. The sun's rays made blue pools atop distant rises, but he was not fooled by them, nor did they force him to drink from his canteen, although they made him thirst. He had more than water enough to reach his destination, but even a rich man did not spend his money promiscuously. He would drink when he rested.
In the stonehammer heat of midday he sat in the shade he created by stretching the Hopi blanket between a pair of boulders and two mesquite branches thrust into the sand. There he drank from his canteen, ate one of the pemmican cakes his wife had made for him, and dozed until the shadows stretched. Then he mounted and rode until darkness made the ground treacherous. He did not drink but that he fed water to the horses first from the cup of his hands. He did not make a fire lest the beacon attract the attention of Apaches. He lay wrapped in the Hopi with his hand around the oiled walnut handle of his big long-barreled Colt's revolver, and rose stiff and cold in the tarnished light reflected from below the horizon on the bellies of the clouds to resume his pilgrimage.
On the forenoon of the third day he entered the village.
He had found it more by instinct than direction, the instructions he received from farmers and beggars he had encountered along the road having been delivered in a mulch of bastard Spanish, Yaqui Indian, and fragments of the spoken from the language of the hieroglyphs in the ruins of Tenotchtitl�n; and what he had managed to understand was inaccurate. The four directions are as one to the snail who starts and finishes his existence within a handful of miles, yet he is either too polite or toofearful of the consequences of silence not to make some show of knowing the way for the turtle who pauses to inquire.
The village meant little more to him than the desert. Indeed, its features were more like the bleak memory one carried away from that country than the country itself, which seldom failed to surprise even the seasoned traveler with the variety of its shades of umber and saffron and terra-cotta, and after a brief rain with the glory of its blossoms. The squat earthen huts, the wrinkled brown men in their bleached cotton and the widows in their faded weeds, the flies humming soporifically around sides of meat slung from hooks in front of the butcher's like drunks singing, might have belonged to any of a hundred communities sprung up like cottonwoods wherever water trickled down from the yellow-ocher mountains. The desert hammered everything to sameness.
This village, at least, boasted a bath house, the only one between El Paso del Norte and Mexico City. The Aztec Baths shared a building with Juan Morales the barber, and after his haircut and shave the long man stripped to his red raw skin and soaked away the hard crust of sweat and sand like a salt rind while the old woman brushed his brown wool suit and boiled his white shirt in corn water and pressed it with a flatiron until it was as level and stiff as paper. When he emerged from the water, glowing all over and plum-colored in his armpits and private parts, he toweled off vigorously, put on clean long johns, dressed, and combed his thick black hair and smoothed his trailing moustaches before a mirror with an iron frame.
He smelled like a French king. The scent, heavy with crushed violets and lime water and oil of oleander, came from the bottles in Juan Morales' barbershop, where they had increased in potency from long disuse; but it could not entirely eradicate thelong man's own smell, of woodsmoke and black powder and harnesses left out in the weather. It was his principal distinguishing feature after his great height, which in the time before he could afford tailoring had obliged him to stitch pieces of hide to the bottoms of his ready-made trousers to cover his long legs. He had never worn garters to gather the material of his shirtsleeves.
The path to the place he sought, and which had brought him all this way into a foreign country, was worn hollow and led through a stand of quaking aspen whose shade was as black and as cool as a subterranean lake. It ended at the base of a rock wall, natural and without features, with a ladder made from ironwood branches lashed together with sinew leaning against the face. This he climbed, the sun cruel upon his shoulders, the air parching his lungs, to the deep ledge at the ladder's summit. There the warm moist air struck his face like the breath of a large friendly dog.
The mirages of the desert could not deceive him, but the green grotto where stood my hut caused him to shut his eyes tight to clear his head of phantasms. Yet when he opened them again the grotto remained. Green in Durango is as gold in the cup of a blind beggar, and the story is yet told of the Spanish priest, his skull caved in and his hamstrings slashed by Apaches, who crawled upon the bloody stumps of his knees for thirty miles across that region that he might collapse and die with his face in the reeds that grew along the bank of the Rio Mezquital, in the time before the first Dutchman set buckled foot upon Manhattan. Had those yellow-green reeds ventured to show themselves upon my rock, I should have plucked them up and flung them over the ledge. Bushes of coriander, wandering vines of basil, forests of mariposa, rows of mandrake and ginseng, and half a hundred more varieties of herbs, spices, roots, and creepingivy grew in profusion underfoot and wound up the aspen poles that supported the lattice overhead, from which hung black moss in bunches and chokecherry tendrils. Here was every shade and tint of green, from cerecloth black to fiery chartreuse, blinding bright; a botanical garden of wondrous diversity contained within a few square yards of weather-battered stone. There was not another like it between Tres Marias and the Gulf of Mexico. The air was drunken with leafy scent and as heavy as the atmosphere in a rain forest.
Opposite the ladder, nearly invisible in the deep shade, was the entrance to my workshop and home, a trapezoidal opening in an adobe hut of Pueblo Indian origin with walls three feet thick, which from a distance appeared as nothing more than a hollow in the rock scooped by eons of erosion. On his way there the long man trod upon the black soil that covered the rock, soft as pine needles, and ducked beneath a flowering bough that sagged from the lattice.
His stature compelled him to bow his head to clear the lintel and afterward stand with shoulders rounded and his hat off to avoid colliding with the objects that hung from the beams. He stood unspeaking while he waited for his eyes to adjust to the dimness within.
When they had, he still did not speak or look in my direction, but wandered the room, examining with a browser's interest the globes, astrolabes, books bound in decomposing calfskin, and apothecary jars crowding the plane table and shelves, the stuffed crow perched on the lintel over the doorway, the hard varnished shell of the armadillo suspended by rawhide from the center beam of the ceiling. He squinted at the calligraphy on the labels attached to the jars, trying to make out the foreign words, picked up the skull of a prairie dog, registering surprise that it weighed little more than air, smelled the unfamiliar odors that I myselfhad ceased to smell, of dessicated herbs and she-wolf urine and the exhalations of the athanor. He would know from instinct that these odors were as old as the building itself, permeating the adobe when the clay was yet damp, in the time of the trouble with the Indians up in New Mexico two hundred years before. Such things cannot be manufactured.
At last he came up to where I sat on my tall stool before the chimney, grinding yellow beetles in a mortar. His eyes took in the table in front of me with its litter of retorts, iron tongs, wooden scoops, clumps of borax, ampullae, and my grandfather's bellows, spliced and patched all over so that scarcely a square inch of the original apparatus survived. He cleared his throat loudly and shouted, in dreadful Spanish:
"You are the one the villagers call El Viejo?"
"I am," said I in English, without looking up from my pestle. "It is not necessary to raise your voice. I am not deaf. Merely old."
He hesitated, then dropped his tone. "You speak good American for a Mexican."
"I speak good English for an Englishman. And I am not Mexican. I am Spanish."
"I don't see the difference."
"You would if you came here from Castile with my great-grandfather in 1556."
"Sorry to give offense," he said. "I'm a stranger here. An old woman in Socorro told me you're the man to see when things need fixing that a doctor won't touch. I expected you'd be Indian."
His accent was gentle, dusted but lightly with the dry grit of the Southwest. There was nothing in it of the high honking bray of the Yankee. He had through all remained a Southerner,and he was genuinely apologetic. This too cannot be manufactured.
I laid aside my chore and studied him. The hat in his hand was a new Stetson, blocked into the Texas pinch, with a brown leather sweatband to which clung a number of cut hairs. His thinker's face was long with sorrow. To his vest was pinned a five-pointed star in a shield, nickel-plated, without engraving.
He was perhaps thirty, but his soul was older even than mine.
"What is the name of the old woman you spoke to in Socorro?" I asked.
"Epiphania Ruiz. She's a hunchback."
"I remember her. I treated her for epilepsy when she was a child. Her father was a stonecutter in this village."
"It wasn't her. She's eighty if she's a day."
"She is older than that. It was in the last year of the old century."
"That'd make you right around a hundred."
"It would. It does."
He said nothing, too polite to express disbelief.
"It is no great personal feat to live a long time," I said.
"It is in my work."
I folded my hands in the lap of my apron. "I am not a shaman, although I have learned much from their society that has helped me to subsist in this country. You saw my herb garden on your way to my door. Does it impress you that I have succeeded in making things grow on this bare rock where the rain comes once in three years?"
"I know a piece about growing things. I was raised on a plantation."
"For ten years I employed Yaquis to carry soil by the basket up the naked face of the rock. Nothing grew the first five years.During each of the next four, the plants reached a height of a sixteenth of an inch, then turned white and died. It was then that I sought out a shaman one-third my age and acquired the secret that has allowed me to harvest my own herbs for seventy-three years. I continue to employ a boy to bring water each day, and once each month to carry and spread horse manure, compost, and some other substance that he refuses to identify for anyone but another Yaqui. To know some things it is not enough even to be born in a place to generations born there. One must also share blood."
"Do you sell the herbs?"
"No. I am not a merchant."
"What do you pay the boy with?"
"Instruction works two ways."
He nodded, as if he understood. "You were born here?"
"It is the only home I have ever known. I have never traveled more than twenty miles from this spot."
"You missed a lot."
"Only things of small consequence. This village is the only source of water between Durango City and the Rio Nazas. Travelers stop here often, and they bring with them the news of the world. In time everything that matters finds its way to my rock."
"I didn't mean to say it's all bad. Missing things."
I saw then that the sorrow in his face came from behind it, and that his eyes were but the surface of a black pool whose depth was impossible to sound. They were the eyes of my grandfather in a painting made by my father from memory at my request, upon the occasion of my father's one hundredth birthday. My grandfather was slain in his ninety-seventh year by the Pueblo Indians in Santa Fe. They pierced his eyes with the lancet he used to bleed lizards and poured molten silver from his own athanor into the sockets, then threw him off a cliff. Histhird wife fled to this place with my father, who was then in swaddles. He was an alchemist, like his father and grandfather, who left Castile to avoid the inquisitors. We have all sought the secret of the Philosopher's Stone. What we have learned from our failures has been of greater value than what most seekers learn from their successes.
I asked the long man what had brought him so many days from Socorro.
"I ain't from Socorro. I was just riding through. I'm sheriff up in Lincoln County."
I had heard of this place, and of its troubles. Men who had no need of additional wealth had coveted the same piece of ground, and had employed other men to slay one another until one side or the other had lost too many men to defend their part of the ground. Both sides had claimed the protection of the laws they violated.
I said, "I cannot help you to apprehend fugitives from your justice. It is not the kind of knowledge I possess or pursue."
"I ain't looking to find anyone. I'm looking to get rid of something."
"Dreams." He circled the brim of his hat through his long nervous fingers. "I want you to give me something to stop the dreams."