The water hole
It was the summer of 1863. The fire bright orange ball of sun was just beginning to touch the top of the Diablo Mountain range to the west. The newest American State of Arizona cradled this small mountain range approximately sixty miles southwest of Tucson.
A lone horse carrying two riders made its way slowly east out of the Diaz pass in the attempt to escape the setting sun and the bushwackers somewhere behind them. It wasn’t the sun that dogged the two as much as it was the bullets still lodged in them. The rear rider hunched over his wounded wife trying his best to shade her from the sun and hold her upright in the saddle. The wife, a middle aged Mexican beauty whose flawlessly tanned face was cropped by her long black hair that now hid her pain clenched eyes, lifted her head slightly. She had regained enough consciousness to pat the arms of her loving husband as he held her firmly in place. Almost immediately after her show of affection, she again passed out.
The two were on their way back to Tucson after visiting her family still living in Sonoyta, a small sleepy Mexican border village known only for its Jesuit mission.
Their breakfast that morning consisted of hot coffee, corn cakes and jerky, a meager but filling trail meal. Pleasantly stuffed, they mounted and rode east facing the rising sun. By horseback they had a three day ride ahead and already had three days behind them. It was midday when they again made the decision to stop and water their mounts with extra canteens carried for that purpose. More pieces of Jerky wrapped in corn cakes would be their midday meal. It was then the riders, Del and his wife Maria, heard the approaching horses.
From the north came four riders. An unpleasant feeling settled in Del’s stomach as he watched the four slow their approached into their camp. Del made his way to over to his horses and removed the Henry rifle from his saddle holster.
The lead rider lifted both hands into the air and exclaimed, “Hey now Mister, no need to pull that long gun on us, we mean no harm to you and your lady. We’re just honest cowpunchers making our way south to the border. It seems people keep mistaking us for a group of bushwackers out of the Wickenburg area. So for our own protection, we needed to clear out of the territory. We been holed up for a week at a water hole about six miles in the direction we just rode in from. It’s got lots of fresh water but no game at all to speak of. We’re hungry”
Pointing to the corn cakes, the man named Theo told them,” We sure could use us some of your grub mister. We ain’t eat nothing but biscuits and dried beef an’ that ran out yesterday.” With a forced laugh and cold, unsmiling eyes, he said, “Shoot ,it ain’t our fault we look just like them desperados.” Then turning to look at the placement of his men he added,” right Jethro?”
Eyeing the Corn cakes Maria had been making, Theo, dismounted and moved nonchalantly towards the fire. Jethro and the two riders Bill and Jess , remained in their saddles but nudged their horses into a side step that widened their separation from each other.
Del was no fool, these men meant them harm. They were most likely the bushwackers they had just kidded about. Marie stood unmoving while Del evaluated each rider then shifted his eyes to her. Marrying Del had afforded her a protected life away from violence. Still, in her gut she knew these desperados meant them harm and she returned the nod ever so slightly that Del had made to her.
Without warning, Del raised the long gun and fired a slug clean through Jethro’s knee which dug into the side of his horse. Jethro’s hand never touched the gun in his holster. Screeching in pain, he fell off his grazed mount and onto the ground. The surprised Theo turned and cleared leather but fired too soon. Missing Del, the wild bullet drilled straight into Maria’s gut. Hearing Maria grunt, Del Cocked his lever action rifle and again fired, this time cleanly blasting off the gun hand of Maria’s shooter. With the force of a mule kick, searing pain punched Del in the back, knocking him face forward into the desert sand.
When Del regained consciousness, the riders had fled, as well as Maria’s mount. Each move drove the breath out of Del as he crawled over to where his lovely Maria lay. She was still breathing but the shallow irregular breaths told the story. Looking around, Del realized they had been robbed. Gone were the four large canteens of water they had carried with them.
With only one horse between them, and shot up as they were, Del knew that reaching Tucson was now out of the question. They needed water quickly. The loss of blood drove his thirst, and he could only imagine what Maria was going through. Being shot in the back and Maria unable to help, there was no way to clean his wound. As for Maria’s wound, it was beyond cleaning.
With a herculean struggle, Del mounted his dear Maria in front of him on the saddle and wrapping his arms tightly around her, they headed north towards the water hole the bushwackers had told them of.
As water holes went, it was rather amazing. An underground spring fed the crystal clear pool of cool water. In any other circumstances it would have been a delightful place to camp out at. A ring of Mexican fan palms surrounded the small water hole.
No bigger than two freight wagons pulled side by side, the pools edges were of hard rock. Desert willows and western dayflowers grew between them adding to the pools beauty. Beyond the palms, Mesquite and Joshua trees completed the landscape.
In the distance, Del saw the tops of the green palms. He angled towards them fearing Maria wouldn’t make it that far. As the rays of the setting sun reflected off of the idyllic water hole, Del kissed the back of his wife’s head telling her, “It’ll be alright sweet heart, we made it to the water hole. I just need you to help me get you down in one piece. Can you stay up while I dismount?” Maria, didn’t speak but she nodded her head slightly. Del dismounted then lovingly lowered his wife to the ground.
Once on the ground, Del made his wife as comfortable as he could. He uncinched his saddle, letting it fall to the ground. His horse immediately lowered her head into the inviting pool and began drinking its life giving water.
Del removed his hat and dipped it into the pool. Bringing the dripping hat over to Maria, he pulled his kerchief from around his neck and sunk it into his hat. He then and squeezed the water soaked kerchief between her dry cracked lips.
“I’m so sorry Maria, we never should have traveled alone. Your family gave us warning, but I was too bull headed to listen. “
Maria opened her eyes and tried to smile. The words she spoke came only as a whisper. “Delbert my love, how many times have we traveled over this trail to visit my family? Have we ever been in danger? No my love, you could not foresee these brutal men this time.” Maria coughed which nearly drove her back into unconsciousness. After a bit, she again spoke but notably quieter now. “I know am dying my love. Hold me until I leave.” Finding his hand she held onto it tightly and continued speaking, ”When I go, place me in the ground within sight of this beautiful pool.” Without turning her head, she slid her eyes over to the water hole. “ Never have I seen such beauty with all its flowers and trees.” Then looking back into Del’s eyes, she whispered, ” I will watch over you my love, look for me after I am gone.” With those last words on her lips, Maria stopped breathing.
Darkness settled over the desert landscape. If there were light, it would have illuminated a mortally back shot man weeping over the beautiful woman he held in his arms.
Daylight found Del feverish. He knew the bullet was lodged next to his left shoulder blade. It had missed his lung but now he felt a growing infection starting. Time was of the essence if he were to survive. He had to make it to a doctor.
Lifting Maria’s head from his lap, he gently placed her fully on the ground. His tears had left trails of wet desert dust down his cheeks. Making his way to the clear pool, he drank for the first time since arriving. It was then he noticed his horse was missing. During the night it had run off.
Wildly looking about, he painfully rose to his feet. Hoping the horse had just wandered off looking for nearby graze, he made his way to a small rise in order to scan the landscape around him. Reaching the mounds top, he rotated his body searching the desert for any sign of his horse. There was no sign. Disappointed, he made his way back to the pool where Maria lay. He decided to bury her in the spot where she had drawn her last breath.
Grabbing a flat stone, Del dug the grave throughout the day until he was satisfied she would rest undisturbed. Afterward, he placed the same stone on top of the mound and with his knife, carved her full name on its surface. Then he wept.
The turning of the earth once more brought about the evening sun to silhouette the small Diablo Mountain tops.
With little in the way of food and with a rising fever, Del drank of the cool waters again. For the hundredth time, he pondered Maria’s last words. “Why did she say to look for her,” he wondered. “What a strange thing to say as her last words! What did she mean by them?”
Deciding she may have been delirious, he finally gave up and tried concentrating on his own survival. Besides, he thought to himself, he was becoming so feverish that he might soon be in the same delirious state himself.
Gathering small sticks and branches as best he could, he soon had a small fire going. Inside his saddle bag, he found a few pieces of jerky and an uneaten corn cake Maria had rolled up in a sheet of parchment paper. Hunger avoided him but he knew he had to eat to survive. As darkness settled over the desert, he let the fire dwindle into a pile of glowing embers.
It was then Del heard his name quietly spoken. He hadn’t hear it in his feverish head but instead it came from across the pond from where he sat. Searching into the night he gasped. On the other side of the pond stood his beautiful Maria. With feverish eyes Del gazed at the apparition before him. “Maria?” His voice cracked. “My beautiful Maria? Oh how I wish it were really you. My fever’s deceiving me.”
Without moving, his beautiful Maria spoke. “You are not deceived my love, I told you I would watch over you. Did I not tell you that you should look for me?”
“This is a cruel dream!” He shouted angrily. Attempting to stand, he fell onto his knees. “You’ve been taken from me! You’re gone. No one comes back! “
“Yes, I was. But I am waiting here until you join me. As I lay dying, the beautiful Gabriel took pity on me. In my sorrow I begged him to let me stay behind until you too would cross over the pool to join me.
I was granted that act of kindness. He is waiting on the trail up ahead. When you join me, he will take us home.”
It was too much for Del’s feverish mind to accept. He resorted again to anger to remove the apparition from before his feverish eyes. “You are not real! As much as I would hope it were true, it ain’t!”
His angry outburst nearly made him faint. In pain and now on all fours, he lifted his head and looked across the pool to see his wife still standing on the other side. She continued to smile patiently at him.
“When I stir the pools water, drink from it and your fever will lower enough to know I am really here. Please Del, you are dying as I was but it will be a little bit longer before we are together again. I do not want you to suffer during that time.” Pointing to the water hole she spoke, “ Drink sweetheart, now.”
Del Crawled to the pools edge. Suddenely ripples formed as she dipped her hand into the pool, Del lowered himself into the water and drank.
The next morning found Del ‘s fever significantly diminished. Having eaten the last of his food the day before, he knew he was going to be in for a rough time. The funny thing was, Del thought, “I’m not feeling hungry in the least.”
Then remembering the previous night, he looked to the pools opposite side as if still expecting Maria to be standing there. “Sure seemed real at the time though,” He said quietly to himself. “Maybe she was a dream, maybe not. Whatever she was, she’s right though, my fever did go down.”
Attempting to stand, his legs found themselves too weak to comply. “Oh Jesus, I’m worse off than I thought! I’m a goner for sure.”
By noon the sun was at its blast furnace best. Del’s skin had begun to blister where it was exposed and his lips were cracked open in numerous places. With only the water to drink and trying to save what little strength he had left, Del decided to lay within inches of the pools edge. Still, his fever and the gnawing hunger that should be plaguing him were not evident. He rested, then again fell asleep.
He awoke to Maria’s voice. “My love, wake up, let us talk again. I know you will soon be joining me but I want to talk of our love.”
Del opened his eyes. Unable to stand or even sit up now, Del noticed a faint light on the pools opposite side. There stood Maria, as beautiful and alive looking as the day he met her.
“Why? You know I love you. Is there something wrong?
“No, I just miss you terribly. Time is not the same for me anymore. Sometimes I feel years pass waiting for you to awake from your sleep. You will understand soon. It is unimportant, I am just anxious to touch you again. How do you feel today?”
In the back of his mind, Del continued to think that this all may be a fever dream or maybe this is what happens as one is dying. “I actually don’t know if I have a fever anymore or not.” He said, “I feel all weak and shaky but my head feels OK. Do you really have the ability to take my fever away with the pond water?”
“I’m glad you feel better, but no, it was not me who removed the effects of your fever. I do not have that power, it was given for me to use, that was all.. Touch your head, is it not still burning?”
Del brought his hand up and the laid palm of his hand over his forehead. The fever was still burning. “Yeah, I feel the fever on my hand but not inside my head. I don’t feel hungry either, of course that just might be from bein’ sick, No?”
“No, not really. I asked that you not suffer while I wait for you. Do you remember Padre Feliciano at the mission in Sonoyta? When I was young he taught us about how God loves us and will answer our prayers. Remember your and my long talks together about Heaven and being granted miracles in your time of need?”
“Yes, of course. I still believe all that. I just figured it was for really saintly folk, not a guy like me. I’m not used to asking for help… as you know what a stubborn fool I can be. So you pray and he really answers?”
“It is more than just what we used to call prayer. I can sit with him and talk with him as a child. It is wonderful here, I can’t wait for you to be with me. It will not be much longer. You are very sick. I was told that if you wish, you may cross over the pond at any time you decide.”
Del wiped the sweat pouring into his eyes. The day was not yet hot enough to cause him to sweat this bad so he figured his fever must be raging. Moving on his stomach, he again lowered his mouth to the pools surface and gulped at the cool water. Lifting his head, he told her,“Maria, I’d do anything to be with you right now, you know that. You know me though, I don’t give up till the end. I still want to somehow try and make it to Tucson, get healed up, return here and take you back there for a proper burial.”
“I understand my love, but there is no need to think of doing all that. I am at peace where you buried me. I asked that you bury me here besides this beautiful pool among the green plants. I am happy that you did, it made your heart happier knowing I rest in this beautiful place. Where in Tucson is it as beautiful as here?”
“You have me there!” Del answered. “I wouldn’t mind finding myself being buried here next to you.” Suddenly Del began to chuckle, “Thing is my dear, there’s no one around to do the honors!”
“Trust me my love, it will be.” And with that, Maria once again faded into the darkness.
“Maria? Maria! Don’t leave me, I’m scared to die by myself. I need you to be with me when I go!”
Del fell into a fever wrought sleep. By noon he was unable to crawl the few inches to the pond to quench his thirst. He could tell by the smell that the infection in his back was septic.
Still, he felt little pain and no fever. By now his body was being horribly wracked by the sun as well as the fever. If he could see himself, he would not recognize the face that was once a handsome man. Being born and raised in west Texas had given Del a ruggedness one could only describe as manly. He now appeared to be a shell of what he used to be. He was now so dehydrated that even the skin on his hands became as thin as parchment paper.
lying on his stomach and unable to move about , Del looked over where Maria had been appearing and in a voice that sounded more dead than alive he tried shouting for her,” Maria!” His face collapsed onto the flat rocks edging the pool.
“ Yes my love? “
Barely lifting his head he asked, “Where did you go? You left me! I’m scared sweetheart, I never died before! Will it hurt?”
“No Del, it will not hurt. You only have to walk across the water to hold me once again. Please, trust me Del, have in all our years together given you any reason or cause to doubt me?”
“No, you have been my trusted soul mate since we met. I’m a goner here sweetheart, my heart is racing and I can’t breath well no more. How do I find the strength to get up and walk over to you”
Maria smiled broadly at her loving husband and told him. “ Stand up my sweet, it is time for you to hold me once again.”
Del shakily started to rise, then suddenly found a strength that was not within him before. Rising to his full height, he stretched and looked about startled at what he saw. The pond water shimmered with the luminescence like that of a sea shells inner pearl essence. The blue and purple flowers now radiated in hundreds if not thousands of colors he had never seen before. Amazed at what he saw, his eyes finally sought out and found those of Maria’s. “Oh my gosh.” He exclaimed, “You’re so beautiful!”
“As you are my love!”
Del looked down and saw his hands were strong and youthful, his voice once again strong his legs felt powerful. He walked over the ponds surface and threw his arms around his dear wife. “I love you so much! Am I really dead now?”
‘Turn around and see for yourself.”
Del, still holding Maria turned enough to view across the pond. There his body lay sprawled on the ground. “I guess I am dead, this ain’t so scary after all. It was nothing crossing over the pond,” He said to her smiling. “Do we leave the pond now to go home?” He asked her.
“We will leave after this is played out,” She told him, “there is something that must be finished first.
When she was through speaking, Del heard the sounds of horses arriving at the pond. At first he thought it was ironic that just as he dies help arrives. Then he saw who the riders were. The four bushwackers.
The four rode in still bandaged and bleeding. Their leader Theo, had his stump wrapped in an old shirt and Jethro sagged in his saddle feverish from the knee wound. The two unhurt riders dismounted easily and strode over to Dels corpse. A kick to the ribs lifted him a few inches clear of the ground and nearly dumped him into the pool. Del and Maria stood on the opposite bank watching not 20 feet away but invisible to those alive. “Dangest bad luck I’ve ever seen!” Said Theo, “help me down Fred. My stump is killin’ me.”
Once on the ground Fred helped Jethro dismount. Jethro lay moaning where he was placed. The four horses made their way to the pond and drank deeply. The other unhurt bushwacker Bill, asked Theo what to do with Dels body. “We cain’t be leavin’ it layin’ about.” He told Theo, “ It’ll draw critters and coyotes from miles around. Then they’ll sense your blood an’ you bess believe while you sleep, they be on you in a minute! Besides, he’s startin’ to stink”
Even in his pain Theo knew Bill was speaking the truth. “Yeah, you and Jess bury him over there by that other grave. It must be his woman. The diggin’ will be easier over there anyway seeing as it’s been already dug up once before.”
That night the four drank what whisky they had left and enjoyed a meal from the last of Marie’s stores.
Del Turned to Maria saying angrily. “Did you see what they did? That bushwacker kicked me even though I was dead! He said I stink too! I’ll teach them to go kicken on me!”
Pulling his pistol from it’s holster, Del fired all six well aimed shots at the men. There was no explosion, just clicks. “What’s going on? I know I reloaded, they should be shot to heck!”
“Guns do not work here my love.’
Throwing his gun down, Del ran around the pond and up to the four bushwackers. There he swung his fist to and fro, up and down…all with no more effect that punching a puff of smoke. ‘”I can’t even punch them Maria! This just ain’t fair! They need to be punished, they shot you, they shot me they stole your horse!”
“Come back to me my love and I’ll explain.”
Del rounded the pond to stand next to his wife again.” I guess I acted the fool, didn’t I?”
“You were upset and you wanted vengeance. Remember, here there is only one who says, ‘vengeance is mine’. It is not ours to seek vengeance, not here. Do you remember the night your horse ran away from the pond? Yes? OK, I must tell you it did not just wander off as you thought. I frightened it off!”
‘”Why did you do that? And how come these bushwackers don’t see me but you said you were able to scare off my horse?”
“Men cannot see a spirit, for that’s what we are now my love, but an animal can.”
“Why did you do it, scare off my horse I mean?”
“I did it because you were dying and I didn’t want you dying somewhere out in the desert where your body would become a meal for scavengers. I was selfish, I wanted you to lie in your grave next to me.”
Del looked sheepish. “Oh, then I guess that’s OK then. So what about these no goods here? Do we just have to let them ride out of here free to do what they please?”
“No, watch this.”
Maria stepped in front of the horses and screamed at the top of her lungs while waving her arms frantically. As one, the horses bolted in panic, never to return.
“What the hell did that?” Theo shouted. “what spooked ‘em to hell like that? In the condition we’re in, there ain’t no way we can track ‘em down. Look way out yonder to the east, they’ll be twenty miles off by morning the way they’s runnin’! Were goners without them horses.” Looking around he yelled, “Dammit, they had our packs on ‘em too!”
Del sat on the ground laughing as he realized what Maria had just done. “You stranded them here the same way I was!”
“I told you it would all work out didn’t I”
“Oh my gosh, did you think that up yourself?”
“No,” She said looking up the trail, “I had some advice.”
On the morning of the fifth day, Jethro had passed on. By noon Theo had followed. Without food, Bill and Jess were so weak, neither could stand. The seventh day found them both expired in the furnace known as the Sonora desert.
The four sat looking forlorn and lost at the edge of the pond next to their corpses. Not having crossed over to the opposite shore yet, they were unable to see Del or Maria yet.
After a time, within a shimmer of golden light, the beautiful Gabriel came to the pond. He strode over to Del and Maria and greeted them warmly. Del would have cried at the beauty of Gabriel but there were no tears to shed on this side. Squeezing both their hands he let go and walking to the ponds edge Gabriel called the four men in a voice that was as powerful as dynamite yet as loving as a child with a kitten. “Come here. Cross over the water and follow me!”
As if suddenly awake, the four gathered themselves up and one by one crossed over the pond to stand in front of Gabriel. It was then they noticed Del and Maria.
Ignoring the beautiful Gabriel, Theo yelled out, “Why you two scoundrels got us kilt out here!” The four drew their pistols and began firing away at Del and Maria… all with no effect. After realizing their guns only made clicking sounds, Theo threw his gun at Del’s head…which went clean through with no harm to Del. “What?” Exclaimed Theo, It was then he realized his hand had been returned to him. Turning in amazement he shouted, “Look fella’s, my hand! It’s back on me!”
Theo stood there smiling while the other three gathered around him wide eyed.
At that moment, Gabriel once again commanded and pointed to the south, “Go, follow that trail, there you will forever reside at its end!”
As the four headed down the trail heading south, they began laughing and telling crude jokes and wondering if there were any loose women to be had. Del stood up, took Maria’s hand in his and together they began to follow the four down the Southern trail.
“Delbert, Maria, stop!” Gabriel’s hand reached out to them and halted their steps. “That trail is not for you two, it is for them. It heads South where the dark reigns forever.
Stepping between them, Gabriel gently spread his arms over their shoulders as a bird protecting her young. After turning them in the opposite direction, the three began walking. Smiling broadly, Gabriel then told them. “Delbert? Maria? Come, your trail is with me, to the north, into the light.”