Road to Nowhere

Road to Nowhere

On the surface, John Lancer seemed calm but underneath a fiery caldera simmered, ready to erupt at the first disturbance. He wasn’t a man you wanted to piss off. But Manny Morningstar was too bent on self-destruction, took too many chances, believed too much in his own invincibility to see that he was standing on the brink of a volcanic hot spot, all because he was under the illusion that he was in love with John Lancer’s wife.

Manny worked for John, wrangled horses for his outfitting business. Mostly he took dudes on three-day pack trips into the remote Rawah Wilderness Area from the ranch, located three miles from the sleepy village of Glendevey, tucked into the folds of a stern mountain range. Manny liked getting away, liked the high mountain solitude, and he liked flirting with any one of the many female dudes who glanced his direction. And there were plenty of them, young girls from the city who thought he was an authentic cowboy because he wore a stained cowboy hat and mud-caked boots. Manny never punched a cow in his life, and certainly never roped one, even though he hung a lasso from the dally horn of his saddle. In fact, he didn’t know the first thing about the life of a cowboy but played it up big to impress the unseasoned dudes. In his small bunkhouse at the ranch, he rarely went to bed alone.

But he had grown tired of the naïve girls from the city, their giggles, and their sore, soft butts. He sought something more substantial, something hard and untamed, so one Sunday afternoon, between pack trips, he fell in love with Esmeralda, John’s wife.

She was dark and mysterious, a gypsy of sorts, Manny thought. What he loved about her most was her elusiveness. It intrigued him and aroused in him a desire to turn her head, to get close enough to her that she couldn’t help notice him. He was young, good-looking, and had his own mysterious way about him. What wasn’t there to like? All the young, innocent female dudes couldn’t resist him. Why would she be any different? But what about John? Manny didn’t give John another thought. John was gone much of the time anyway, off buying horses, or looking for new clients, and God knows what else, maybe sacking every pretty young filly he came across. Esmeralda deserved Manny’s attention.

Manny had noticed Esmeralda from his first day on the job but resisted her charm and beauty since he owed some loyalty to John. After a month on the job, however, Manny thought he’d repaid whatever loyalty he owed John, and he was growing restless. He still enjoyed the three-day pack trips into the high mountains, the cold, quiet mountain nights filled with endless stars, the campfires, the trysts, the young girls bedazzled by his cowboy charm sneaking into his tent after the campfire was extinguished, the wild, half-muffled sex, the furtive glances the next morning as they sipped the dark, hot coffee next to a blazing campfire, and looked out on the cold, turquoise blue lake in the shadows of the snow-capped peaks. But he longed for more. He ached for Esmeralda. Even while he was fucking the sweet-scented, naïve girls from the city, he longed for Esmeralda’s fiery breath and lathered passion. Sex wasn’t enough anymore.

So, one Sunday afternoon when John was away, Manny went in search of Esmeralda. He knew she did most of the cooking for the dining hall inside the main lodge at the ranch, so he shaved and showered and put on his fanciest western shirt, tied a wild rag around his neck, slipped into his tall, fancy black and turquoise cowboy boots, took down his white Stetson from the top of the armoire, stepped out into the bright sunshine and sauntered confidently over to the lodge, ignoring the amatory glances from all the sweet, young girls sitting out on the decks of their cabins in the warm morning sunshine. His mind was set on catching the attention of Esmeralda. He knew she’d noticed him before, but she most likely never gave it a second thought because of his prowess as a stealer of young hearts. She had to be in her late thirties or early forties and probably considered herself too old and seasoned for him. But it was seasoning he sought, red habanero hot, fiery hot, sweat-inducing hot.

Manny, his pant legs tucked into the tall, black and turquoise boots, wearing his wild rag and black vest, his black eyes peering out from under his white Stetson, stood in the doorway to the kitchen. Esmeralda, wearing a black apron over her burnt orange peasant dress, her black hair tied up under a scarlet red and green silk scarf, her black eyes painted blood-red, the color of sunset, moved gracefully about the kitchen unaware of his presence, big pots steaming on the stainless steel stove. After watching her for several minutes, he pushed his hat back on his head and whistled.

“My, my,” he said, “what an operation.”

Esmeralda glanced over at him, mopping sweat from her brow and feeling for the salmon rose that adorned her hair. “Don’t you have any horses to tend to?” she asked.


“Yeah, horses. It’s what you do, isn’t it?”

“Some of the time,” Manny said, “some of the time not.”

“Well, if you’re looking for lunch, it isn’t ready,” Esmeralda said.

“Lunch ain’t exactly what I was looking for.”

She stopped for a moment and stared at him. “I declare, you look like a regular dude.”

He laughed and stepped over to peek inside the giant pots on the stove. “Speaking of horses, what’s for lunch?”

Esmeralda snapped his butt with the rag slung across her shoulder. “The way you treat them, it’s no wonder horse meat isn’t a regular item on the menu.”

“Very funny, Esme,” he said. “Most of the horses ‘round here would be better suited for stew than ridin’.”

“How would you know?” she asked. “You wouldn’t know a good horse if it bit you in the ass.”

“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong, I’d know it in a heartbeat if I ever came across one.”

Esmeralda smiled. “A good horse is a treasure, a rare thing, and must be handled with special care. You’re too raw.”

“That’s just what you think,” he said.

“Not only think, but know,” she said.

He stepped closer to her and as she turned away he grabbed hold of an apron string and spun her around. “Where are you off to?”

“Listen, you might have all the time in the world, but I have work to do.”

“It’s Sunday, a day of rest and relaxation.”

“There’s no such a thing as rest and relaxation around here.”

“There could be if you’d look in the right place.”

She stepped away from him and cocked her head. “And just where is it I’m supposed to look?”

He stepped closer and grabbed her hips, pulling her to him. She didn’t resist but allowed herself to move to him easily. She could feel his hot breath and opened her mouth slightly, her hot red lips close to his. He looked into her black eyes and knew she would be in his bunk this afternoon. She kissed him carelessly.

A rustle in the dining hall alerted them and they stepped away from each other. “Listen, I’ve got to get done in here,” she said, wondering who had come into the dining hall.

“Yeah, sure. What time do you get done?”

“I don’t know, probably around two or so.”

“And what’s on your agenda this afternoon?”

“Agenda?” she laughed.

“Why don’t we go for a walk after you get finished up in here?”

She was flustered, unable to think. “I don’t know,” she said.

“Ah, come on, it’ll be good for you,” he said.

“Maybe, I just don’t know yet,” she said. “Listen, I’ll find you when I’m done here, OK?”

“Sure, I’ll be around,” he said. He turned and left the kitchen and walked back through the dining hall. She could hear his heavy footsteps on the hardwood floor and the slam of the front screen door as he left. She expected whoever had come in earlier to appear in the doorway, but when no one did, she stepped to the doorway and looked out into the large dining hall. It was empty. Strange, she thought. She knew she’d heard someone. She turned back to her duties, but moist and aroused, she licked the taste of Manny from her lips. What was he up to?

Having all the time in the world, Manny walked leisurely back toward his bunkhouse, tipping his hat to the young females who ogled him, telling them what a splendid morning it was. They snickered, but he beamed with an awareness unknown to them. As he thought more about what had just happened, he felt more and more alive, maybe as alive as he’d ever felt before in his life. He was on top of the world, and all the pretty, soft-butted dudes would have to stand in line. His line. There was only one of him, and right now his lips were on fire with the taste of red hot habanero.

Esmeralda did not end up in his bunk that afternoon because she and Manny found passionate love in the moist grass of an aspen grove along the rushing Paramour River. They made love once, casually, and then again, more fiercely, proclaiming their love for each other. But he knew they weren’t in love. Not really, except at this moment. But it’s for moments like this he lived.

In the lush grass, he rolled onto his side and stroked her dark beauty. Her breasts were small and when he reached over and took her nipple between his teeth, she quivered and pulled him to her. With the shimmer of afternoon sunlight dancing above them, he slid breathlessly inside of her, and above the roar of the river, their passion exploded in a scream of sunlight and ecstasy. Exhausted, he fell back, and she stared up into a twisting sky stained by sunlight and succulence.

Deep in solitude, neither one of them felt any desire to return to the ranch. But something pressed in on them. What did they have in common outside this moment of passion? Sitting there, Manny was unable to come up with anything to say, so he stood up. Esmeralda watched him as he slipped into his shirt and pulled on his pants, laughing when he stumbled against an aspen tree as he tried to pull on one of the tall, black and turquoise cowboy boots.

“Legs a little wobbly?” she asked.

He managed to get into one of the boots and was reaching down for the other one when she reached up and pulled him back on top of her.

“What’s your hurry, cowboy?” she asked.

“No hurry,” he said. He rolled over onto his butt and looked up through the leaves of the aspen tree into the wavering sunlight. A gentle breeze had come up and he shivered, pulling on his other boot. She sat up. She knew he was done with her. It’s typical, she thought. He wasn’t any different than any other man she’d ever been with, just a little younger and friskier. They all ended it the same way. She thought of all the times she watched the ranch’s studs with their nostrils flared and their upper lips curled, stamping uncontrollably, raring to stick their foot-long dicks into the lathered, squealing mares as they came into heat.  She wasn’t in heat, not by a long shot, but he didn’t know that. And she wasn’t about to squeal. The difference between a man and a good stud is that a man just didn’t know. It wasn’t his fault he couldn’t smell her desire. What did she expect? Love?

She stood up and slipped into her peasant dress. He couldn’t resist sneaking one last peek at her dark beauty, her long legs, the tattoo of a butterfly flying out of the snarl of pubic hair. He felt a stirring in his groin. She was delicious. Maybe he was in love. What else would you call what he was feeling now?

She dressed quickly and left without a word. He hurried to catch up to her. “I don’t think it’s such a good idea to go back together,” she told him.

He looked over at her. “Are you just going to dismiss me so easily?” he asked.

“It’s not a question of dismissing, I happen to be married, in case it slipped your mind,” she said. “Men, you’re all alike when it comes to your penises. I swear, where do your minds go?” She laughed.

“Listen, I had a great time, and I’d like to see you again,” he said.

“See me again, or fuck me again?” she asked.

He stopped, dumbfounded. “That’s not fair,” he said.

“It isn’t? Maybe not, I’m sorry,” she said. “But it’s how I feel.”

“Well, I have a heart, too, in case you hadn’t noticed,” he said. “For your information, I think I’m in love with you.”

“Love?” she asked. “That’s a pretty big word for such a little boy.”

“Boy? Hardly. I’m plenty old enough to take care of myself.”

“Yourself, yes, but how are you when it comes to holding a woman’s heart in your hands?”

He started walking again, thinking how he should answer. He really wasn’t prepared to take on any responsibility, not long-term. This wasn’t about getting married, nothing like that. He was a long way away from wanting to settle down with anyone. Hell, he still needed to get through college. What was she suggesting?

She noticed his confusion. “Hey, Baby, it’s all right, there’s nothing to it. I’m married. Consider it a good time. Between us, OK? Nothing more than that. Just a good time between friends.”

He stopped again and reached for her hand. “Listen, Esme, it wasn’t just another good time between friends. It was more than that. We aren’t friends. If we were before, everything is different now. I’m in love with you.” And before he could stop himself, he went on to say, “I want to be with you – forever.”

She pulled her hand away. “Whoa, cowboy. Forever is an even bigger word than love. You’d better pull in your reins a little, your horse is running away with you.”

“What, don’t you think I can take care of you?”

“Well, I haven’t given it much thought for one thing. For another thing, I don’t need anyone to take care of me. You’re fun, you’re interesting. Hell, I’ll even give you that you’re pretty, but I’m not about to compete with all those young fillies in camp. Let’s just agree we had a good time and leave it at that, OK?”

He wasn’t about to give up so easily. She couldn’t just discard him so offhandedly. If he gave her a little more time to think about it, she’d see how much she loved him. Within a day or two, she might even come to realize she missed him. She wasn’t going to get this kind of love and attention from anyone else, especially not from John. She’d see. But would she? Could he give her what she needed? And when he came right down to it, what was he willing to give up?

They walked on in silence until she turned to him, held up a hand, and put her finger to her lips. “I need to go on alone from here,” she said. He nodded in agreement and remained behind as she walked back to the ranch. He knew she couldn’t avoid him for long. He would discover the path to her heart.

Manny walked back to his one-room bunkhouse, thinking about the afternoon of lovemaking with Esmeralda. This was something new to him. He’d been with many women before, girls really, not women, not women of deep beauty like Esmeralda. Still remembering the afternoon, he sat down on the hard bunk. He looked around the room in disgust. There was nothing here. A bunk, a table, an armoire, a chair, a lamp. He hated being here. He stood up and walked back outside. Standing on the small porch, fighting a desire he couldn’t come to grips with, he headed in the direction of the main lodge. He was beyond caution, beyond reining in his feelings. These feelings were tearing at his insides, screaming to be let out.

He resisted looking in the direction of any of the other small cabins as he walked toward the main lodge. He knew there were plenty of young girls who would take pleasure in his attentions, but Esmeralda had stirred something deep inside of him that he needed to satisfy.

The large dining hall was empty. Manny knew Esmeralda would have returned to the large cabin behind the main lodge until it was time to begin the evening meal. He walked over to the large coffee urn, poured a cup of coffee, and sat down at one of the large tables, his back turned to the front door. When he heard the front door open, he turned around. John Lancer stood in the entryway.

Manny froze, but then quickly stood up.

“Hey, John.”

“I was hoping to find you here.”

“Well, I’m here,” Manny said.

John walked past Manny to the coffee urn, poured a cup of coffee, and turned to Manny. “Need a refill?”

“Nah, I’m fine, just poured a cup,” Manny said.

John walked back to the table and sat down. Manny sat back down, unable to take his eyes off John.

“I need a favor,” John said.

“Sure, anything,” Manny said.

“I have to be gone for a while and I want you to keep an eye on Esmeralda.”

“Sure. Where’re you going?”

“I have a chance to buy some land in New Mexico. It’d be a good place to winter the horses. I’m not sure I can swing the deal, but I want to take a look anyway.”

“How long you gonna be gone?”

“Maybe a couple of days, maybe longer, I’m not sure.”

“Well, I’ll be here,” Manny said.

“I know you will. But it’s about that pack trip tomorrow, I need you to stay down. Christian and Smitty can take them up.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure. I know they’ve never taken out a trip before, but it’s time they learned. They’re good boys.”

“Yeah, they are, but we have twenty people signed up to go.”

“It doesn’t matter, twenty or thirty or two, it’s all the same.”

“I’m not sure they can handle it.”

“Well, they’ll do the best they can,” John said. Manny didn’t know how to respond. He paused before asking, “But what if they get into trouble? They’ll be a long ways from anything. It ain’t like taking out a day trip.”

“I need you here,” John said. He stood and walked over and put his cup in the bin for dirty dishes. “I’ll be leaving early in the morning, even before they go out. You should plan on meeting them at the barn first thing, get them lined out. OK?”

“Sure, I was planning on being there anyway,” Manny said. He felt as if John had lost trust in him, even though John had asked him to keep an eye on his wife. But still, he felt as if John was handing some of the responsibility for the dudes over to Christian and Smitty, two fuckups, totally incapable of handling this responsibility. He had to ask himself what was going on? And what in hell would he do for two or three goddamned days stuck here at the ranch? Muck out stalls? This was beneath him. But then it did occur to him that two or three days here at headquarters would give him a fighting chance to impress Esmeralda, the chance maybe to show her who he was and what he was capable of.

Manny followed John out to the pickup truck parked in front of the main lodge.

“Is there anything else you need me to do while you’re away?” Manny asked.

“Not that I can think of. Just take care of Esmeralda,” John said. They shook hands and John got into the pickup truck, backed away, and drove off. Manny turned and went back inside the dining hall. He’d wait for Esmeralda, he needed to talk to her.

Manny sat at the table waiting, his coffee getting cold. Esmeralda never came. Instead, Naturita, who sometimes helped Esmeralda with the cooking, prepared the evening meal, some kind of pasta with meatballs. When people began filing into the dining hall, Manny threw out his coffee in disgust and walked into the kitchen to ask Naturita where Esmeralda was.

“Oh, she has the headache,” Naturita said. “Not feeling so good.”

Manny fought the urge to walk up to Esmeralda’s cabin, deciding to go into the woods instead, walking back to where they’d spent the afternoon together. He sat next to the rushing river. Why was she avoiding him?

Sitting in the cold spray from the river, a deep calm overcame his restlessness. His life always seemed as if it were in a state of turmoil. Instead of allowing these feelings of unrest to upset him, he should focus on what his life will look like after college. He’d settle for something, he was sure, but what? His greatest hope was that after college, he’d be able to, once and for all, put all this turmoil behind him. And he’d forget all about Esmeralda. She was a fantasy, that was all. He needed to put all his little boy’s dreams and infatuations behind him. But he couldn’t get her off his mind.

Reluctantly he made his way back to his small cabin. Darkness fell and he turned on the floor lamp next to his one chair and sat reading until he could no longer keep his eyes open. Morning would come early, and he wanted to be up when John left. Manny always marveled at John’s capacity to get by on four hours of sleep a night. He wasn’t human. But Manny wasn’t intimidated. He’d seen incredible things before, John had just trained his mind to perform at a superhuman level. If John could do it, so could he.

The alarm went off at three. Manny jumped out of bed, stumbled to the lamp, turned it on, filled the teapot from the crock of water and put it on the hotplate, and when it whistled, poured the boiling water into a cup of instant coffee. The hot cup of coffee felt reassuring in his hands. He walked to the window and looked outside. He couldn’t see John and Esmeralda’s cabin from here, but he knew John was up there preparing to leave. After he drank the coffee, he dressed, turned out the light, and stepped outside, staring up into the endless night sky. Even in summer, this high up in the mountains, Manny’s breath came out in short bursts of steam as he walked up the hill toward Esmeralda’s cabin. He could see lights on inside and the exhaust from John’s pickup truck running in front of the cabin. He snuck closer, until he heard voices inside, angry voices, and Manny knew John and Esmeralda were arguing. He crept even closer until he could make out what was being said. Esmeralda told John that she was sick and tired.

“Of what?” he asked.

“Of everything,” she said.  She told John she was sick of these god-awful cold mornings. Getting up three hours before sunrise. It wasn’t normal.

“You knew this before you married me,” he said.

“But everyone has a breaking point,” she said.

“That’s where you’re wrong. Not everyone does. It’s easy to fall into that excuse. To give up. It doesn’t work that way. Not for me, it doesn’t.”

“Well, you’re not normal.”

“Maybe I’m not, but I am who I am, and you’re not about to change me,” he said.

“I’m beginning to realize that.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. It doesn’t mean a damned thing, it’s just a simple statement of fact.”

“You’d better get your head screwed on right,” he said. “When I get back, I don’t want to hear another thing about how tired you are about everything. D’you hear me?”

She didn’t answer. Manny crawled to the side of the cabin and peered inside. They stood in the living room, not more than two feet apart from each other. Esmeralda was defiant, John’s hands balled into fists. He leaned in close to Esmeralda, daring her to say one more word, daring her to challenge him. Manny didn’t know what John was capable of, but he could tell that John was a tightly wound spring, straining against its limits, and at any moment might uncoil in a flurry of violence. Manny was prepared to come to her rescue if he needed to. With no thought of his own safety, Manny vowed to kill John if he raised his hand to Esmeralda.

John turned on his heels and stomped out of the cabin. With his back pressed hard against the side of the cabin, frozen in the harsh light that streamed from inside the cabin, Manny watched John speed away, the truck’s tires throwing up dust and gravel. Even after John was out of sight, Manny remained transfixed, his breath coming out in heavy bursts in the cold morning air. Should he go to Esmeralda? He didn’t want her to know he’d overheard their argument, but his heart drew him to her.

He sat quietly, listening, his heart beating wildly, unable to think clearly. But once he could hear her moving around inside, he crawled back to the road, stood up, and walked quickly back to his cabin. He turned on the lamp inside his cramped cabin, filled the teapot and turned on the hotplate, and sat down on the bunk, clutching his head in his hands, trying to ease the frenzied thoughts racing through his mind. He stood and paced around the tiny room, standing at the window, returning to the bunk, sitting down, getting up, pacing around the cabin, stepping back to the window to stare out into darkness. In torment, he waited for the sun to come up.


At last, in the first sunlight, he walked nervously to the dining hall. He would talk to Esmeralda. She needed comfort now, and he would be there to comfort her. Shivering from the early morning frost, he stepped inside the empty dining hall. He could hear her in the kitchen. At least, he suspected it was her, he hoped it was her. Esmeralda stood in front of the stove, shadows staring out through black curls. There were no scarlet red highlights this morning, her eyes were swollen and dark. She had been crying and he walked to her without a word and put his arms around her waist and drew her to him. She leaned in close to him, her head falling onto his shoulder.

After a minute, she stepped away and looked up into his eyes. “What are you doing here? I thought you had a pack trip this morning?”

“There’s been a change in plans. Didn’t John tell you?”

“Tell me what?” Esmeralda asked.

“I’m not taking the trip out today, he wanted me to stay here instead. Christian and Smitty are going out.”

She looked confused. Manny was always in charge of the three-day pack trips. This was his specialty and John relied on him. She shook her head. “I don’t understand,” she said.

“I don’t either,” he said. “But he told me he was going away for a couple of days, something about looking at some land in New Mexico, and he wanted me to keep an eye on you.”

She looked startled. “He wanted you to keep an eye on me? He’s never asked anyone to keep an eye on me before. Something’s up.”

“Yeah, I think so, too,” Manny said. “There’s no way he could know about yesterday, could he?”

She looked hard at Manny, not knowing how to respond, and in her eyes, Manny could see horror. She turned back to the stove, not wanting to think about yesterday. She couldn’t go there, not right now. It shouldn’t have happened. But it did. And there was no going back. Even though she knew in her heart she needed to leave John, Manny couldn’t help her.

“Listen, Esme, we have to talk,” Manny said. She stared at him. Everything was a blur. She shook her head. They were way past that, it wouldn’t do any good to talk, not now. In her face, he saw terror and doubt. He stepped closer and reached his arms around her. “You need to get out.”

She pulled away, shaking her head in disbelief. “What? What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about leaving John,” Manny said. “You’re not safe there.”

She still didn’t know how to respond. What did Manny know? “Why do you say that?” she asked.

“Esme, I know, I know all about it, your fight this morning, the threats, all of it.”

She stepped farther away from him, shaking her head. “What are you talking about?”

“Come on, Esme, I know, I was there,” he said.


“Outside your cabin, this morning, I was standing right outside, I heard everything.”

“You were there?” she asked shaking her head. “Why?”

“I don’t know why, something drew me there. Does it matter? What matters is I know, I know you aren’t safe with him. He’s crazy. I can take you away.”

“Away? Away to where? Just where do you think we could go? Listen, Manny, I know your heart is in the right place, but your head is in the clouds. Wake up. This isn’t some fairytale that has a fairytale ending. This is life. Hard life. Reality. And there’s no place we could go. Nowhere far enough away. He’d find us. And he’d kill you. He’d kill the both of us. Manny, you got to get this out of your head.”

“No, I can’t. I won’t. You need to get away from him. How did you ever get mixed up with him to begin with?”

“It’s a long story, but he helped me when I was young and stupid and in trouble. He saved me. And I know I have to get away from him, but I have to do it on my own terms. Not like this.”

“How? Just how are you going to manage it alone?”

“I don’t know, I need time to think, time to work through some things in my head,” she said. “I’ll figure it out, though. I’m not going to involve you in it.”

“What do you mean, I’m already involved in it. You can’t forget about what happened yesterday between us. It was real. I’m already involved.”

“No, what happened yesterday was just a thing, a short thing, nothing more.”

“How can you say that? It was more than just a thing. You felt it and I felt it. It was way more than just a thing.”

She stepped to the sink, her back to him. She shook her head so violently that her whole body trembled. “No, no, no,” she said. “This isn’t happening, no I won’t let this happen. You have your whole life ahead of you. You don’t know what you’re saying.” She turned back to face Manny, tears streaming down her face. He stepped to her and kissed her forehead gently.

“Listen, Baby, I’m not about to leave you now. I can’t. Don’t you see that?”

She slid away from him, staring at him through bleary eyes. “But how? Where? Where could we go?”

“Does it matter, as long as it’s far away from here,” he said. She stepped into his arms, hoping that it was true. Could he take her away, could he? Oh, if only he could. She would go with him. Risk everything. She would. But what about the risks to him? Could she put him at risk?

She reached up and kissed him. She wanted him more than anything else in the world. She needed to feel him close, she needed his warmth, his strength, his passion. She needed to escape into him. Now. Right now. She looked up into his eyes. “Hey, Baby, what are you doing? Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?” she asked.

“Yeah, I know, and it’s what I want,” he said.

“Listen, give me a couple of hours. I need to serve breakfast and clean up. I’ll meet you back at my cabin in a couple of hours, OK?”

“Yeah, OK,” he said. “I have to go down to the barn anyway. I have to meet Christian and Smitty there, get them lined out. I’ll see you after that. Back at your place.” He kissed her and walked back through the commotion inside the dining hall as the dudes began filing in. He didn’t dare look up, walking straight to the entrance and out into the bright sunlight.

Christian and Smitty were busy saddling horses when Manny got to the barn. “Hey, where’ve you been?” Christian called to Manny.

“I’m not going out with you today,” Manny said.

“What? Why not? Who’s supposed to lead this mess?” Christian asked.

“Hey, you’re a big boy now. You can handle it.”

Christian continued saddling one of the many horses tied to the hitching post in front of the barn. There were tents and blankets strewn about on the ground. Manny jumped right in, filled with nervous energy. He saddled the two mules and began packing tents and supplies into the panniers he’d slung across the forks of the pack saddles. The dudes would start showing up right after breakfast, so he had to work quickly. Once they arrived, all his time would be spent in his attempts to match a horse to a dude’s abilities, and then helping each of them up into the saddle and adjusting the stirrups to fit the length of her legs. If he worked fast enough, at least he would have taken care of the outfit for the trip, the tents and sleeping bags, pots and pans, and the mules would be secured and safely out of reach of the dudes. He owed this much to the mules.

Manny tried to stay focused on the task at hand, working efficiently in order to get things underway, trying not to think about Esmeralda. But his mind drifted. He was eager to get back to her. Christian and Smitty were dragging their feet and Manny yelled to them to move with more urgency.

“What’s your hurry?” Christian asked.

“You’re burning daylight,” Manny responded. And quoting Robert Frost he said, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

“Yeah, right,” scoffed Christian. “It sounds as if you’re not going anywhere. How’d you get out of it?”

“Believe me, I’d rather be going where you’re going than where I’m going.”

“And where’s that?” Christian asked

“That, my friend, is a good question.” And to himself, Manny asked, Where am I going? What did I get myself into? Manny looked over at Christian who had stopped saddling the horse in front of him to look back at Manny, a puzzled look on his face. Christian shook his head and resumed adjusting the cinch of the saddle.

The barn and livery stable were being overrun now by dudes, abuzz with curiosity, fascinated by the saddling and adjusting of tack, and the horses, in every size and color, tied to the hitching post.

Manny couldn’t work fast enough to get them on their way, rushing from one horse to the next to make final adjustments to the saddles and headstalls. When he was satisfied with the tack and gear, he announced it was time to saddle up. This was always the most dangerous part of the trip. Once they were in the saddle and headed down the trail, the horses generally took good care of the dudes. But it was always precarious getting the dudes up into the saddles, giving them that final boost, even after they’d managed to step into the stirrups. He carried a stool from horse to horse to assist with the job of helping them up. Fortunately, the dudes never thought twice about using a stool to reach the stirrup, an act that made Manny cringe in horror. But it was part of the job, and today he did it willingly so he could get them on their way.

Manny waved half-heartedly as the dudes strung out in single file, the horses’ butts moving in rhythm with the slumping, swaying motion of the riders. Manny could now turn his attention back to Esmeralda. He put the stool back inside the tack room and hurried to his small cabin to change clothes. After he changed, he hurried up the hill to Esmeralda’s cabin, his heart pumping wildly.

She met him at the door and they embraced carelessly. Before dragging him inside, she looked around cautiously, stung by an uneasy feeling that came from deep inside of her. She closed and locked the door, and once inside, she led him to the bedroom and turned and kissed him fiercely. They scrambled out of their clothes and threw themselves on the bed. Manny slid down between Esmeralda’s legs and in an intense throb of pleasure, she grabbed a handful of his hair, throwing her legs toward the ceiling, swallowing a scream, pulling harder and harder on his hair. But when his tongue moved to her clitoris, she could no longer contain her excitement, her scream of ecstasy shattering the silence of the afternoon, signaling Manny to slide forward, kneeling between her legs. He entered her gently, reaching down to caress her breasts with his lips, and her eyes rolled back in her head. He stretched out, finding her rhythm, listening to the soft moan of her heart.

And then they stopped, something wasn’t right. Manny rolled over and listened, his heart beating wildly. Someone was outside. He looked down at Esmeralda, her face etched in panic. She knew. She’d heard it, too. “He’s here,” she whispered. He didn’t believe it. “No, I saw him leave,” he said. “Hours ago.”

“But he didn’t leave,” she said. “He had it all planned out. I suspected he knew something. He’s evil.” She looked up at Manny, his eyes wide with fright. He was willing to do anything for Esmeralda, but John had the advantage of surprise. Manny wasn’t prepared.

He slipped quietly out of bed, not knowing for sure what he intended to do. As he reached for his clothes, a loud crash at the front door caused him to freeze. The door had been kicked open by a violent force. He was out there. Manny looked back at Esmeralda, horror stretched across her face. He wanted to protect her, but at that instant, he knew John had the upper hand. He was totally defenseless against John’s surprise attack. He thought quickly. The window. They needed to get out. Out the window was their only hope. He gathered up his clothes from the floor and raced to the window. He yanked. It was stuck.

“It’s locked,” Esmeralda shrieked. Manny fumbled for the lock above the window frame and threw it open. He kicked out the screen, causing him to fall back onto the bed. Esmeralda had already jumped out of bed, searching frantically for her dress. There was no time for shoes. For either one of them. Manny threw his clothes out the window and stretched out his hand for her, urging her to get to him as quickly as possible. When she reached him, he was already halfway out the window. He dropped to the ground and she tumbled out the window into his outstretched arms, still clutching her dress. Hesitating between hops, she managed to slip into her dress, and without looking back she ran to catch up to Manny, who, having reached the edge of the woods, was leaning against a large aspen tree, struggling to get into his pants.

She reached him a split second before a shot rang out from the direction of the cabin, splintering the bark just above Manny’s head.

“Fuck,” he screamed, pulling Esmeralda to the ground. Another shot rang out, once again splintering the bark of the aspen tree above his head. He bear-crawled into thicker cover, Esmeralda, out of breath, scurried to stay with him. When they were out of sight of the cabin, Manny stopped to wait for Esmeralda. Fear coursed through his veins. “That son of a bitch,” he said. “That dirty son of a bitch.”

“Manny, he won’t stop, he won’t give up until he catches up to us,” Esmeralda said. “I should go back. That’s our only chance.”

“No, he’ll kill you.”

“He’ll kill me regardless. At least you’ll have a chance.”

“No, I won’t let you. Give me a minute to think. He can’t just kill us in cold blood. Not like this.”

“But he can,” she pleaded. “You don’t know him like I do.”

Manny looked around. Their only hope was to get to the barn and livery stable. They’d find one of the ranch’s trucks there and get into town and call the sheriff. Manny knew they couldn’t go down along the road for fear of John cutting them off. They’d have to climb up the steep hillside and make a wide circle back to the barn. Christian and Smitty were long gone and there was no one else at the ranch, no one who would be of any help to them. They were on their own. A renewed sense of courage swelled up inside Manny. They could do this. And after they were safely away from here, they would forge a new life together. He would take care of Esmeralda. But what would this look like? Was he ready for this? A new life with Esmeralda. But he didn’t have time to think about this now, he needed to act.

He grabbed Esmeralda’s hand and started up the steep hillside away from the cabin, ignoring the pain from the sharp rocks and thorns that tore at his bare feet. In the thick shrubs below them, Manny heard a rustle. John was following them. He quickened his pace. Esmeralda, breathing heavily, scrambled to keep up with him. They kept to the thick trees and shrubs to stay out of sight, branches and thorns tearing at their bare arms and faces. They kept their heads low anticipating the next shot that would echo up the mountainside. Manny kept saying to himself, over and over, this is real, this is really happening. Fuck, what had he gotten himself in to?

But as panic screamed inside his head, he resisted it, trying to clear his head of any chaos because he needed to think clearly now. They scrabbled up the steep hillside, their lungs on fire in the thin air. Gasping for air, Esmeralda said, “Manny, I have to stop. Please, I can’t go on.”

“We have to go on, Esme, take my hand,” Manny said reaching his hand back for Esmeralda. She reached for his hand and another shot rang out. Instinctively, they both dove to the ground. They lay motionless. Another shot splintered the bark of the tree right above Manny’s head. “Goddammit.” He glanced down the hillside. Nothing moved. He knew they needed to keep going, but he was paralyzed by fear. They were in John’s sights. “That son of a bitch.” He repeated it over and over. That son of a bitch.

“Manny, this is crazy, I need to go back,” Esmeralda said. “He’ll kill both of us. I didn’t mean to drag you into this.”

“You? You didn’t drag me into this. It was me. I came to you, remember?”

“It doesn’t matter now, I need to keep you out of this.”

“Listen, Esme, I got us into this, and I’ll get us out, OK? Hang with me, Baby. It’ll be all right. You’ll see. You got to trust me now.”

In a fit of courage, Manny’s eyes pleaded with Esmeralda to stay with him. He turned and began scrambling up the steep hillside, zigzagging from tree to tree. He kept his head low, reaching back to feel for Esmeralda’s hand. Her dress torn and her knees bleeding, she struggled to stay up with him. His bare arms and chest were ripped by the sharp branches and his feet were scraped raw, but he refused to quit, knowing Esmeralda’s feet were raw and bleeding, too. They had to keep pushing to stay ahead of the danger that lurked somewhere behind them.

When they reached the ridge, they jumped up and began to run, heartened by the fact that they’d gone several minutes without a gunshot ripping the delicate tapestry of woods and rich earth.

John was far below them now, they believed, and they were beyond his vision. They hurried along the ridge to a point overlooking the wide river valley that stretched out below the high mountain range. Manny wasn’t familiar with the terrain high up on the ridge but knew that if they headed off here, they would come to the river that flowed past the ranch and the livery stable. His fear now was that John would get to the livery before them. He’d probably guessed that that was what Manny had in mind.

Manny wondered if it would be better if he and Esmeralda split up. He could travel faster without her, and she was safe now. Most likely, John had turned around and headed back down the hillside. He looked at Esmeralda, her face smudged with blood and pine tar, her black curls plastered to her forehead. She was exhausted and slid down against the trunk of a pine tree.

“I am sorry I got us into this,” Manny said.

Esmeralda looked up at him, shaking her head. “No, no, Baby, it isn’t your fault, I should have known better.”

“If we ever get out of this alive, we’ll start over somewhere else, somewhere far, far away, and we’ll be happy,” he said.

She shook her head in exhaustion. “No, there isn’t anywhere, nowhere he won’t find us, no, that’s a dream, Baby, a silly dream.”

“But without dreams, what do we have?”

She sighed. “The difference between us is you still have youth on your side and you can afford to dream. This is my dream, right here, right now. Yesterday afternoon along the river was my dream. This morning was my dream. And now, right now, this is what I have.”

“But we’ll be all right, I know we will. He’ll give up after a while.”

She smiled. “You see, you are dreaming, dreaming of something that will be, while I have only what has been. He won’t give up. You see, he has no dreams. He’s a realist. He gave up any hope a long time ago. What he has is me. I am his only possession. Oh, sure, he has the ranch and his horses. But he’d let them go. He won’t let me go. I’m what he has.”

Manny sat down next to her. “We have to try.”


“Yes, we’ll make it, and I’m going to prove it to you. But you have to promise me that you’ll go with me.”

“Do you believe in God?”

“God? What has He got to do with it?”

“Maybe nothing, maybe everything, it depends on what you believe.”

“I believe in myself, I believe in us, I believe in our future happiness.”

“I know, Baby, I know. You can still believe. And that is good. But you either believe in God or you don’t. It is one question you have to ask yourself, and you have to sit with yourself until you are able to answer this one question. Otherwise, you are always lost. Do you believe in God? And if you don’t have an answer, you must sit with yourself for as long as it takes to find your answer. You won’t find it anywhere else other than in your own heart. It is important. Believe me. It is the only question that needs to be answered. Everything else is a waste of time.”

“But what about love?”

“Love? It passes. Love is like the flowers in spring that show their beauty and then quickly fade. Their seeds are carried on the gentle breeze, but their beauty is lost to the hot summer winds. They know only one thing, and that is their beauty will return again. Winter tramps out all trace of them, but their beauty is lost for only a season. God is eternal. Or not. It depends on what you believe.”

Manny stared hard at Esmeralda. In his eyes, her beauty would never fade. Whether he believed in God didn’t matter. Her beauty mattered. It was right in front of him. And he delighted in it.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess I used to believe in God. Or I was taught that He existed. I didn’t ever ask myself what I believed. I simply accepted that God existed.”

“And what did that look like to you?”

“What did God look like?”

“No, what did the notion of God look like? Was there life after death?”

“I never thought about it one way or another. It never mattered to me. Why? Why should it matter? Can it really change the way we live?”

“Of course it can. It is the only thing that can. Don’t you see? Life without God is lived differently than life with God.”

“I really think we should get going,” Manny said as he stood up. “God is either looking out for us or He isn’t. Either way, I know we aren’t going to get out of here alive if we just sit here. I should go on alone. You wait here. You’ll be safe here.”

Esmeralda looked up at Manny and smiled. “I suppose you’re right, God is either looking out for us or He isn’t, we’ll find out soon enough. And, no, I won’t wait here.” She held out her hand to him and he pulled her up.

“Do you?” he asked.

“Believe in God? Yes. I do. Life can’t have meaning otherwise.”

“I think you’re wrong. Life is filled with things we can’t explain, but I like not knowing. I don’t need to know the answer.”

“One day, you’ll have to sit down with yourself for as long as it takes to find the answer. Trust me.”

He smiled, shocked that in the midst of this fight for their lives, they were still able to smile. “One day, yes, I’ll remember to sit down with myself. But it’ll have to wait for another time.”

He took her hand and started down the steep hillside that would take them down to the river and along the river to the barn and livery stable. He felt renewed and confident. John might have the element of surprise, but he had youth, and love, enough love in his heart to give him courage and strength. He wouldn’t die today. God would have to wait.

The hillside was even steeper on this side of the ridge than on the other side, and they struggled to keep their feet underneath them as they slid and stumbled down the hillside. Out of breath, they reached the river.

“From here, I need to go on alone. If John is waiting at the livery, it will be dangerous for you.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“I’ll circle in from behind the barn and scope it out. The pickups are parked in front. If I don’t see any sign of John, I’ll get to one of the pickups and pick you up here. You stay out of sight here until I honk.”

“What if he’s there?” she asked.

Manny smiled. “That my dear, we’ll have to leave in God’s hands.”

“If he’s there, don’t mess with him. You don’t know what he’s capable of.”

“Well, I’m kind of getting an inkling of what he’s capable of. I mean, the guy’s fucking crazy. Who shoots at someone else? I mean, you kind of have to be a little crazy to do that, don’t you?”

“Maybe we had it coming to us, Manny. We did betray his trust.”

“His trust? Listen, you needed to get out of there, he’s dangerous.”

“But you didn’t know any of that when we went into the woods yesterday. You acted on your heart without any thought of where it might lead. You can’t blame him really for wanting to protect what belongs to him.”

“You don’t belong to him. No one belongs to anyone else.”

“He doesn’t see it that way. And as long as he believes I belong to him, he won’t give me up. Never. I can assure you, he’ll never give me up. Even if we get away from here, it doesn’t end here. It’ll never end.”

“It’ll end, believe me, it’ll end. He’s not the only one who will go to any length to protect what belongs to him. You belong to me now, Baby.”

“Just be careful, OK?”

“Yeah, I will. See you back here. Soon, OK? I’ll be back soon. I love you, Baby.”

“I love you, too, Baby.”

Esmeralda watched Manny cross the road and slip into the thick brush along the river. He hugged the banks of the river as he made his way to the livery, looking back for Esmeralda. She was ragged but still beautiful standing in the half-light of a large aspen tree. She waved tentatively before he disappeared, a sense of dread overcoming her. At that moment, it occurred to her that she’d never see Manny again. Even if he was successful in getting to one of the pickup trucks, John would have a plan. He always did. Manny had no idea who he was messing with.

When he approached the clearing around the barn and livery stable, Manny, hidden in the heavy growth along the river, looked around cautiously. He knew there were two pickup trucks parked in front of the barn, at least there had been this morning when he’d left.

It was quiet. Too quiet, he thought. He looked past the barn in the direction of the main lodge. No one stirred. His stomach churned. As he wiped the sweat from his forehead, he looked down for the first time at his bloody feet.

Might as well get this over, he thought. If he’s there, I’m doomed. But I’m doomed in any case if I can’t get into town for help.

He took a deep breath and rushed to the back of the barn. He crept along the backside of the barn until he reached the wide double doors. He peered through the haze of sunlight that streamed in through the double doors in front. It was cool and quiet inside. Holding his breath, he stepped inside. The smell of horse sweat and fresh mowed hay filled him with regrets, the faith in his undying love for Esmeralda already fading. He had gotten himself into something he didn’t quite understand, but there was no going back now. Where was God now, if He existed? Was God toying with him? Were we just God’s playthings?

He walked cautiously to the front double doors and peered outside into the bright sunlight. He looked back over his shoulder. No one was there. John wasn’t here. He felt a great sense of relief. Thoughts raced through Manny’s head. John had realized how crazy his actions had been and went back to his cabin. Or maybe he’d left after all for New Mexico. Manny was puzzled, but he didn’t believe for one minute that John would have left. No, he’s still here somewhere. He might be waiting for them down the road. But it didn’t matter now, their only chance was to get to town.

He took a deep breath and ran to the first pickup truck and threw open the door. He reached around the steering column for the keys. They were there. He couldn’t believe his luck. He jumped into the seat, pushed in the clutch, and turned the key. The engine started. He jammed it into reverse and backed away from the barn, stopped, turned the wheel, jammed it into first gear and headed down the road in the direction of town, taking a quick glance back over his shoulder. He sped along the dirt road, anxious to get to Esmeralda.

When he saw the large outcrop of rock on the opposite side of the road from where he’d left her, he slammed on the brakes, glancing frantically back through the cloud of dust swirling about the pickup truck, at the same time reaching across the seat to throw open the passenger door. Esmeralda rushed to the pickup truck and jumped inside, slamming the door as Manny sped off. He looked over at her, his eyes wide in disbelief.

“We did it,” he yelled. “We’re free. Hot damn, we made it.”

She leaned back in the seat, swallowing a sigh. It didn’t make sense, John wouldn’t have just let her go so easily. She leaned forward and looked uneasily over her shoulder. They weren’t being followed. She looked over at Manny, his face slashed and strained. She reached up to look at herself in the rearview mirror, letting out a wild laugh upon seeing her face, scarred and blackened by pine tar, staring back at her. Manny let out a howl of laughter, looking back into the whirlwind of dust kicked up behind them as they tore down the road toward town.

When his laughter subsided, Manny began to wonder what he’d tell the sheriff once they got there. Why were they in a stolen vehicle, their clothes torn and ragged, and without shoes? How would he try to explain to the sheriff that John Lancer was trying to kill them? Why was he trying to kill them? What had they done to piss him off? The sheriff had known John a long time and none of what they were trying to tell him made any sense. John Lancer was a respected citizen in good standing. If John was upset about something, maybe he had every right to be upset. What was Manny doing with John’s wife?

Manny looked over at Esmeralda. What was he doing with her? But no, it didn’t matter. Even if he had slept with John’s wife, it didn’t give him the right to try to kill them, did it? No, John was in the wrong, not him. Sure, what he’d done wasn’t exactly right, but he hadn’t threatened John or tried to kill him. He couldn’t help it if he’d fallen in love with Esmeralda.

“What are we going to tell him?” he asked.

Esmeralda looked over at Manny. “Him? You mean the sheriff?”

“Yeah, what are we going to say? What happened back there? And what is he going to do about it? You think he’s going to arrest John because of what I tell him?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “We don’t have any other choice, do we? We’ve got to tell him what happened.”

“But this is good ol’ boy territory. He’s most likely to side with John. Of course, John knows this, he knows the sheriff isn’t going to do a damn thing. He probably could have killed us and gotten off scot-free. Jesus, Esme, what are we going to say?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I really don’t know.”

“And what are we going to do afterward. Where are we going to go?”

“I told you this already, Manny, I told you there wasn’t anywhere to go. I told you. You thought this was a dream, all of it, just some pretty dream, and we’d run off together and live happily ever after. A fuckin’ dream. You see, you see what I mean about dreams. They aren’t dreams. They are moments of insanity. That’s all they are. There isn’t such a thing as happily ever after. I told you.”

As he sped down the long dirt road toward the highway that would take them into Glendevey, Manny shook his head in disbelief. What they’d shared was good. He loved her, he knew it in his heart. It was real. It wasn’t some crazy dream. They’d make a life together. He knew it. He wiped the tears from his eyes, his vision bleared by tears and the thick clouds kicked up by the pickup truck as it raced down the long dirt road. To where?

Was it too late to turn back? He couldn’t think clearly. With her raw and bloody feet up on the dashboard, her tattered dress falling to her thighs, Esmeralda once again began to laugh. She would have to sit down one day and ask herself that hard question, the one about God. And she would sit and reflect until the answer came to her, even if it took her the rest of her life, she’d sit for as long as it took, until the answer came to her.

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