A Coffin for Santa Rosa

Ingrid Bjorkman was dying and there was nothing he could do about it.

Never in his life had he felt so helpless. Filled with grief and a mounting anger that was fueled by frustration, Gabriel Moonlight paced dejectedly in the dimly lit upstairs hallway outside her bedroom, silently begging God to save her life.

Nothing else stirred in the big three-story house that everyone in Old Calico called the Blackwood Mansion. Save for the monotonous plodding of Gabriel’s boots on the Persian carpet the only other sound was the slow, sonorous tick-tock, tick-tock of the old grandfather clock downstairs.

Presently the bedroom door opened and Dr Guzman came out, black bag in hand, his plump normally-jovial face creased with dismay.

Gabriel looked hopefully at him.

Dr Guzman shook his head and expelled all his despair in one long depressed sigh. ‘We’re losing her, Gabe.’

Gabriel grasped the smaller man by his lapels and jerked him close. ‘Doc … surely there’s somethin’ you can do?’

‘Don’t you think I would’ve done it if there were – for Ingrid and Tom Goodwin and Aileen Freidrick and all the other patients I’ve lost in the past two months?’

There was no denying that and Gabriel grudgingly let the doctor go. ‘What if I took her to Sacramento or Frisco – is there a doctor there who could save her?’

‘I’m afraid not. And even if there was, it wouldn’t make a lick of difference. Poor woman’s so weak from intestinal bleeding she wouldn’t survive the train ride.’

Gabriel, wishing he could lash out at someone, gritted his teeth and said angrily: ‘I will not let her die, Doc. Y’hear me? I will not.’

Dr Guzman gripped the tall, grim-faced gunman’s shoulder. ‘I’m sorry, Gabe. I’ve done all I can. Now all that’s left is to make Ingrid’s last days as comfortable as possible. Hopefully, in the near future we’ll have medicines that will cure deadly fevers like typhoid, but for now—’ His voice trailed off. And as if embarrassed by his inability to save the life of his patient he turned away from Gabriel, rolled down his shirt sleeves, donned his coat and hat and plodded sadly downstairs, out of the house.

Gabriel, overcome by rage and despair, stood there in the hall wondering why God was taking the woman he loved away from him. Was it to punish him for all the men he’d killed; all the wrong-doings he’d committed? Was there, as he’d often suspected, really a balance to life? Did evil truly begat evil? Had his father, Reverend Ambrose Moonlight, been right all along when he’d warned miners in the Colorado gold camps, riff-raff who fought and killed each other over a single nugget barely worth a round of drinks, that their sins would catch up to them – as in ‘an eye for an eye’?

Gabriel doubted it. Retaliation was a human trait; surely God would not stoop to such a low, primitive level; especially when dealing with the life of a woman as good and kind and gentle as Ingrid.

The bedroom door opened again and this time her young daughter, Raven, stepped out. ‘Momma wants to talk to you,’ she said, eyes brimming with tears.

Gabriel bent low and kissed her on the forehead. He then entered the lamp-lit room and approached the bed. The feverish, fair-haired woman who looked up at him was so gaunt and pale, so colorless she could have been made of wax. He kneeled beside her, pressed his hand over hers and forced himself to smile.

‘Doc says you’re doin’ better,’ he heard himself say.

She gave a weak nod and her cracked lips worked with great effort. ‘Much better….’ It was a voice he didn’t recognize; a voice so thin and faint he had to lean close to hear her. ‘W-Want you to promise me something.’

‘Anything.’

‘Make sure I’m … buried next to … Sven—’

‘Buried? What’re you talkin’ about? You ain’t goin’ to die. You’re goin’ to live another hundred years or more.’

Ingrid tried to smile but the effort was too much for her. She fell silent for a few moments, as if gathering strength, then said: ‘Want you to promise me something else too—’

‘Name it.’

‘You won’t be the one who takes my coffin to New Mexico.’

‘Ingrid—’

‘No. I want your word on it. Get Mr Jacobs or some other lawyer to go … or hire a Pinkerton … anyone … but not you. You’ll be killed and … I don’t want … that on my conscience—’ Before he could reply her eyes closed and she drifted off somewhere.

Frustrated by his helplessness, Gabriel waited for her to come back.

Finally, her eyes, red-rimmed but still cornflower blue, gazed up at him. She managed a faint smile. It was the smile of a dying angel. Then slowly, in an ever-weakening voice, she made him swear that he would hire someone to accompany her coffin back to New Mexico, where, at her former farm outside the little town of Santa Rosa, she would be buried next to her late husband, Sven.

A little later, when Gabriel came out of the bedroom, he found Raven waiting for him. Fighting back her tears, she asked him what her mother wanted. ‘Please, tell me,’ she said when he hesitated. ‘I have to know.’

‘Told me to make sure I buried her next to your father.’

Raven frowned, surprised and dismayed. ‘Momma said that?’

Gabriel, deciding one lie was enough, kept silent.

‘But you can’t. Momma knows that. You go back to Santa Rosa, or any other place in New Mexico an’ Mr Stadtlander will hang you.’

‘He won’t know I’m there.’

‘’Course he will. Someone will tell him. That’s why he doubled the price on your head. Everyone knows that. Minute folks see you they’ll run straight to him, or worse … they’ll shoot you for the reward!’

‘Now don’t go gettin’ lathered up over nothin’,’ Gabriel said gently. ‘I
already give my word to your mother an’ I don’t intend to break it. What’s more,’ he added, ‘I don’t want you sayin’ nothin’ about this to her, you understand? She’s fightin’ for her life right now. Last thing she needs is somethin’ else to worry about.’

Raven glared at him, her jaw thrust stubbornly out, lips compressed in a thin white line. ‘Fine,’ she said finally. ‘You don’t want me to say nothing, I won’t. But I’m going with you.’

‘Like hell you are.’

‘Then I’ll go alone. She’s my mother an’ I got every right to be there when she’s buried.’ Before he could argue further she stormed off down the hall and slammed into her bedroom.

Gabriel sighed and toed the floor with his boot, an unconscious trait he did when troubled or frustrated. Hell’s fire, he thought. Just when he reckoned he’d turned the corner on life it had done what it had done so often in the past: reared up and bitten him.

It was mid-afternoon when the train pulled into Deming, New Mexico.

A small, dusty, sun-drenched town located thirty-odd miles north of the Mexican border, it was the county seat of Luna County and had sprung into prominence once the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe completed its junction with the Southern Pacific in 1881. Named after Mary Deming Crocker, the wife of railroad magnate Charles Crocker, it had finally shed its bad reputation for harboring border riff-raff, gunmen and outlaws – not to mention frequent attacks by marauding Apaches – and now, ten years later, offered settlers a chance of peace and prosperity.

Among the arriving passengers was a tall, rangy,
wide-shouldered
gunman in an old campaign hat and a tan duster that hid the well-oiled Colt .45 holstered on his right hip. Taciturn and enigmatic, Gabriel Moonlight was a man whose outlaw life had honed him to a dangerous edge. Beneath his calm, quiet exterior lurked a dark side; and though slow to anger, when finally aroused his rage was as sudden and lethal as summer lightning. As a result lawmen in the southwest weren’t anxious to cross his path and to a man wished he’d been gunned down like most of his contemporaries.

Ironically, despite his deadly reputation, Gabriel considered himself to be cordial and humorous. But few people understood his wry, laconic sense of humor and those who did weren’t particularly amused by it. This in no way bothered him. He’d
been on his own too long to give a damn about strangers’ opinions. But loneliness never loses the final battle and over the years it had left its indelible mark on him, both emotionally and physically. One look at him showed that. Below unruly dark hair that was prematurely tinged with gray, his lean, rugged,
tight-lipped
face was etched with weary resignation. And his eyes, deep-set eyes that were strikingly pale blue, possessed a lethal glint that warned everyone not to crowd him.

Seated beside him on the train was his ward, Raven Bjorkman. A slim girl of fifteen with short, gleaming crow-black hair, she looked boyish in an old sun-faded denim shirt and frayed jeans tucked into Apache knee-high moccasins. She too had unusual eyes. Large and expressive, they shone like wet coal and were a window to her personality – a unique blend of defiance, intelligence and gritty determination.

Now, as the train slowly pulled into the station, Gabriel Moonlight looked out the window and searched the faces of the people gathered outside the depot and the adjoining Harvey House – a large, elegant, fifty-room hotel and restaurant with elaborate second-floor balconies, all constructed of imported Oregon redwood. He saw no one he knew. Nor could he spot any lawmen on the lookout for him; at least none wearing a tin star. Inwardly he sighed, relieved. He knew he couldn’t relax – any second someone might recognize him and try to collect the ‘alive-or-dead’ reward – but maybe, for the time being at least, he’d caught a break. Picking up the carpetbag on the floor between his feet, he rose and motioned for Raven to follow him.

She obeyed without argument, unusual for her. Rebellious to a fault, she hated to be told what to do and was quick to express it, especially when it came to Gabriel whom she took a devilish delight in defying. But today, she was too worried about his safety to argue with him.

‘What’re we going to do first?’ she asked as they stepped from the train. ‘Get Momma’s coffin or take care of Brandy?’

‘Coffin,’ replied Gabriel. Carpetbag in hand, he led her to the rear of the train where the conductor was standing by the open door of a boxcar.

‘Mr Bjorkman?’ When Gabriel nodded, the conductor handed him a release form. ‘Sign here, please, sir.’

Gabriel signed as Ingrid’s dead husband, ‘Sven Bjorkman,’ and returned the form to the conductor. ‘Anythin’ else?’

‘No, sir. Soon as we’ve taken on water, I’ll have some men take the coffin off and then get a ramp to unload your horse.’

‘The girl will handle Brandy.’

Gabriel didn’t offer any explanation but after a quick, testing look the conductor wisely decided not to question him. Instead, he suggested that while they waited they enjoy the refreshments served in the Harvey House.

Raven was more interested in the all-black Morgan stallion roped off from the coffin inside the boxcar. ‘Mister,’ she told the conductor, ‘don’t try to unload the horse without me. He’s dirt mean.’

It was an order, not a request and the conductor wasn’t happy about it. He acknowledged her with a terse nod, ‘I’ll pass that along to the wranglers, miss,’ and stalked off.

‘Reckon I rubbed him the wrong way,’ Raven said.

Gabriel shrugged, unconcerned. ‘Happens.’

Inside, the Harvey House was as finely appointed as any hotel or restaurant east of St Louis. The main dining room was equally magnificent. Service was impeccable and the menu offered guests the same fancy meals they were accustomed to eating in Boston, Chicago or New York.

Not wanting to risk being recognized, Gabriel led the awed, wide-eyed Raven past the dining room and grand staircase to a small L-shaped lunch counter that occupied a corner of an outer room. The two waitresses, dressed in their traditional matronly black uniforms and full-length starched white aprons, were young, attractive and courteous. Because of these attributes
and the quality of the food, the restaurant and the counter were always busy.

Gabriel and Raven found two vacant stools next to the wall, opposite the kitchen, and looked over the menu.

‘Glad to see you’re learnin’, scout.’

Compliments were rare and usually couched in riddles. This one seemed harmless enough, but she eyed him suspiciously.

‘Learning what?’

‘’Bout Brandy bein’ dirt mean. Wasn’t long ago you told me he was just feisty.’

‘I haven’t changed my mind. But “feisty” don’t throw a scare into anybody. And I wanted to make sure no one fooled with him. That way folks won’t get bit, like they did when we took him back to Old Calico. You want someone to get bit?’ she demanded when he didn’t answer.

‘What I want,’ Gabriel said, thumbing at the pie-case, ‘is a piece of that there berry cobbler an’ a cup of eatin’-house coffee. How about you?’

‘Same, please.’ Raven expected him to tell her that she was too young to drink coffee. When he didn’t, she was disappointed. ‘Don’t you care if I have coffee?’

‘Why should I? I’m not your mom.’

‘No, but you are my dad. Well, sort of, and—’

‘No, your father’s dead, like your mother. I’m just lookin’ after you, like I promised her, till you’re old enough to take care of yourself.’

‘Then by God look after me,’ Raven said, peeved. ‘Tell me I have to drink milk ’cause it’s better for me.’

Gabriel sighed wearily. Taking out the makings, he rolled himself a smoke and flared a match to it. Staring moodily at the blackened match, he muttered under his breath: ‘On the prod … always on the prod.’

‘What’d you say?’

‘I said,’ he grumbled, ‘how many times I got to win you over,
scout, ’fore you quit tryin’ to buffalo me?’

‘I don’t know,’ she said, happy now that she had his attention. ‘Till I’m full-growed, most likely, or at least till you quit being so persnickety.’

While they were finishing their cobbler, a signature dessert of the Harvey House, Gabriel asked their waitress if she could recommend a ‘reasonable’ hotel. She thought a moment and then suggested he try the Commercial on Silver Avenue. It was reasonable
and
respectable.

‘I’ll be needin’ a livery stable, too.’

‘That’s also on Silver Avenue, sir, next to the blacksmith’s. Can’t miss it. There’s a windmill and a water tower in back of it. Of course,’ added with a laugh, ‘there’s windmills everywhere for that matter or they wouldn’t call this Windmill City. Will there be anything else, sir?’

Gabriel shook his head. Paying her for the meal, he left a generous tip and got up to leave. Raven immediately asked him where he was going.

‘Talk to the hostler.’

‘Wait,’ she said, gulping down her milk, ‘I’ll go with you.’

‘What about Brandy?’

‘What about him?’

‘Can’t be in two places at once.’

‘Dammit, neither can you.’

‘Whoa. Don’t be cussin’ at me.’

‘Sorry. But you said you were going to get the coffin off first.’

‘Already off.’ Gabriel jerked his thumb at the window.

Raven looked and saw two workmen wheeling a plain wooden coffin on a low flatbed cart into the shade beside the depot. She could also see two wranglers sliding a ramp up to the boxcar containing the stallion.

‘How am I supposed to look after Momma’s coffin and get Brandy off the train at the same time?’ she demanded.

‘You’ll figure a way.’ He opened the door for her and they
went out into the blazing hot sun. ‘All part of bein’ responsible.’

Raven scowled. She was beginning to hate that word.

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