This is the third part in the series High Desert Desertion.
See Part One HERE.
Powdery dust rose from each footstep and disappeared in the wind as I followed the dirt road farther into the desert. Ahead, my landmark steeple ducked and hid behind hills and peeked between piñon trees both letting me know I was on the right path and reminding me how deceptive distances are in the high wilds of New Mexico.
It never seemed to get any closer. I recalled that I had seen the mountains on the horizon out the bus window a full day before we finally arrived. Still, there was nothing to do but put my head down and keep walking. There were tire tracks in the soft talcum that couldn’t have survived the wind for long. Sooner or later I would find people.
My imagination conjured Hollywood images of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood riding through the sagebrush over the hill. I smiled to myself at the impossibility of movies coming to life when a muffled shuffle tickled my ear.
Movement through the brush caught the corner of my eye and I froze. Hair stood on the nape of my neck and I felt alone and defenseless, but not afraid. Predators out here would be quieter. The lower echelons of my brain went on alert but I was too curious. I heard a soft, stuttering churr of breath.
I moved on down the dusty track and the sound shifted with me. This time the muffled noise became the staccato thump of hooves. A horse nickered.
I saw a fence post, the barbed-wire camouflaged by the brambles. Indistinct voices drifted, men, then sharp laughter cut though the trees. I’d found civilization, but what kind?
The road rounded a curve into a clearing where a small herd of horses circled a paddock, staring at me, ears forward. I must have been an odd sight for them, a lanky stranger carrying a guitar case with a garish band logo emblazoned on the side.
The laughing group of men separated leaving one standing, offended, with his hands on his hips, obviously the butt of the joke. They were dressed like ranch hands, jeans, boots, bandannas and spurs. the only thing missing were movie sized revolvers strapped to their thighs.
A string of western styled buildings stretched along the road with covered wooden walkways and even hitching rails. A cement loading dock spoiled the image but not much. More men stood in the shade along the buildings.
Someone finally noticed the horses moving toward me and staring as one in my direction and followed their gaze. All heads swiveled. All conversation stopped. A mouth gaped. No one moved. A horse huffed in the silence.
I kept walking, nonchalant, as if I were supposed to be there. Nothing to see here folks, move along now. They stood stock still and glared.
I finally had to turn my head and acknowledge their presence. Where I grew up strangers in the country waved in passing. If you had on a hat you gave a nod. If you were driving it at least required the raising of an index finger from the steering wheel.
Having no wheel in my hands and considering the wave too touristy, I gave a serious nod and looked them in the eyes like I belonged – me and my gaudy guitar case. I may as well have been riding a camel.
The eyes I chose to look into were the color of obsidian and as hard. The cold stare was framed by a dark face and square jaw. He wore a black Stetson from which flowed a thick black braid to where his pistol should have hung. He wore a vest over a white long-sleeved shirt. Knee-high black boots held spurs and a wide, tooled-leather belt held his hooked thumbs. He looked like a native American gunslinger and his stare never wavered.
I nodded again, specifically at him, and held his gaze for a long pause as he took me in and sized me up. With a snort he dismissed me like a bug or a lizard and turned his back. At his cue everyone else resumed what they’d been doing but took curious glances as I strode up the road in as manly a manner as I could manage toting a guitar.
If this had been a a real western, I was obviously in the band that served as background for the main characters at the barn dance and would no doubt end the night with my guitar smashed over my head for comic relief.
So be it. I kept walking.
Cue western theme . . .