Bandita Bonita: Romancing Billy the Kid
A Novel by Nicole Maddalo Dixon
Excerpt VI /
Billy and I moved on to Las Vegas, the others planning to follow soon afterward. On our way there we stayed a couple of days in Puerto de Luna before continuing along the Pecos towards Anton Chico and staying there for a few more days. With the exception of seeing a band of what looked to be Apaches from across a canyon, the trip was largely uneventful.
We were a day's ride from Vegas when Billy led us to a familiar, secreted cave he had discovered in the hills of Patricio during one of his many tours through the territory before we'd met. It was set partway up a mountain slope and was rather nondescript, and as far as he knew, the cave was concealed well enough so that he thought not many could know of the little cavern, if any knew of it at all. He told me that he had come to this conclusion because whenever he had a use for it, for refuge, it seemed to remain unexploited and was always as neatly intact as nature would have it. It had been a while, however, since he had visited the earthen cavity. This would be our first campout along our way to Vegas, staying on at the Gerhardt Ranch on our first day out before arriving in Puerto de Luna, and from there making it to Anton within the day.
It was close to the rainy season, and so staying put inside of the mountain was a necessary condition for us should we find ourselves caught in a storm. The day had burned hot and slow, heated under a clouded, covered sky. Billy claimed that a storm was a real possibility, saying he could feel the friction in the air.
A flat ridge jutted out from where the cave was situated, creating a natural overhang under which provided a cove where we could shelter and tie off our horses on the ground. The cove was surrounded by a sturdy outcropping of thick boulders and rocks that acted as though natural walls to create a fairly secured room, and we decided this would shelter and protect the animals from any rain or a flash flood should one manifest without warning -flash floods were always a source of concern out here; they were an almost unavoidable, easy death if one were caught up and exposed to a merciless desert downpour. Certainly, dangers abounded everywhere out west.
The cave, being set up high within the hill, had a precarious ridge one must climb to reach it. The cave was set back and nestled into the slope which lent it a large earthen portico that lay before its mouth. This particular cave boasted a fictile shaft within that was made of rock. It ran up through the mountain like a regular chimney, which allowed a fire to be lit beneath it, the shaft acting as a flue that would suck the smoke right up and out, accommodating the terrene lodging in such a way as to make it cozy.
We secured and tied off the horses, afterwards beginning our ascent of the ridge that ran along the mountain up toward the cave, our backs skimming against the wall of dirt behind us, loosing dust and stone as it fell and bounced on its way down. With his right hand he held my left, guiding me along the hazardous edge as he negotiated it. With his left hand he took out his gun. As he climbed he dragged me behind, sliding along faster than I had expected along the slim breadth of ground. He seemed anxious, wanting to reach our destination and get settled. He held his left arm aloft so as to poise he gun at the ready, ears tuned to any sound that might come from up above; he was primed for misadventure.
He stopped a moment, listening. A peeking ray of sun glinted upon something on the ground and it caught my eye. I lent myself toward it with my free hand, stretching my arm out in an attempt to grasp the object that had seized my attention. Knees and body bent, I reached out. The hand that Billy held kept my left arm anchored upwards making my movement awkward. As he began to move again and pull me along he caused me to nearly lose my balance, but I had managed to grab the gleaming object and correct myself nonetheless. It was a pretty locket, covered by a fine sheath of dust which I wiped at with my thumb as he continued to tow me along.
We were cresting the ridge and approaching the atrium of dirt and rock that led to the mouth of the cave; a gaping, dark maw. Suddenly, the wind kicked up and Billy turned his nose away, disgusted.
"Oh Jesus…" he sighed.
I opened my mouth to ask him what was wrong, but before I could speak the words I knew. A foul smell had enveloped us both, causing us to hunker down into one another against the mountain side and desperately cover our faces.
"God! What is that?" I whined.
He could only manage an unintelligible sound as he moaned dreadfully into his hand.
He turned back toward our course, preparing himself to walk on and look upon the horror he might find there. Letting go of my hand he turned to me and told me to stay put. Already crouching, I placed my hands down to steady myself along the precarious ridge as he continued on and left me alone. I saw him disappear around the bend at the top and then heard the hard flapping of winged creatures, seeing them scatter off into the air. And then…nothing. I waited as patiently as I could, but his absence proved longer than I would have thought, and the silence caused me to grow uneasy. Still attempting to protect myself against the stench with my hand, I called to him through my fingers. When he didn't answer, I decided to make my way up the remaining stretch of path. Rounding the same bend Billy had disappeared behind moments before, I saw him, hand over his face, eyes aghast at the scene before him.
Two corpses lay by the mouth of the cave. I placed my hand to my lips and tried unsuccessfully to stifle a small shriek of shock, causing Billy to turn and see me standing there. Reacting quickly, he pushed me back towards the ridge and told me to climb back down. After the initial confusion in all of this I was finally able to put my foot down and use it to slow him from pushing. He fought against my stubbornness, yelling for me to move, but I was able to calm him somewhat when he became aware that I was deliberately struggling against him.
"What are you doing? Go!"
"Billy, we can't!"
"Like hell! Go! Move!"
As I said this, a rumble of thunder sounded in the near distance as if to punctuate the point I was making.
He seemed to think on this a moment then shook it off. "We'll take our chances! Did you see what I just saw?" he barked.
"We have to stay here! You know we have to stay here, unless there's another place like this we can go!"
The look on his face mocked me. "Do you think this is some damned hotel out here?" he sarcastically asked.
"Well, I'm sure I don't know!" I hollered back, feeling provoked and uneasy.
We grew quiet in our shock and I placed my hands to my head, exasperated. We stood together quietly, lost in our own thoughts; Billy considering our situation.
"What the hell are we supposed to do?" he asked out loud, concerned.
"Move the bodies," I responded, resolute.
His expression was repugnant, and he looked at me as if I were short on sense.
"You must be out of your cotton-pickin' mind! I ain't moving those damned bodies! I ain't touching the goddamned things! Have you seen the state of 'em?"
"I'll help you-"
"Like hell-no way! If there was one person between us two who ain't going near there it's you, and I ain't going neither!"
He began to push me along again but I held fast to my position.
"We have to do this, Billy."
I looked up at him, into his unblinking, wide blue eyes. He registered this truth. Twilight was peeking over the desert, and with the prospect of a storm and the sky growing steadily darker, another rumble of thunder off in the distance turned the simple possibility of a storm into a devastating reality. He began to nod to himself as he were mentally gearing up for what he knew needed to be done-teeth working at his lips as his mind worked at the unpleasant task that lay ahead.
"Ok," he said. "Ok…"
He started back towards the gruesome scene, and as I began to follow he turned to me and placed his hand against my body, the gesture stern with authority. "Stay here," he commanded.
I obliged and let him walk on. I leaned my back against the mountain slope, already feeling exhausted as I thought the matter over, anxious to have it done with. As I considered the unpleasantness of our work I heard him gagging. I moved ahead and peered around at him to see him sicking up as he knelt close to the body that lay the farthest from the ridge. When his stomach had expelled its contents he stood up and came back towards me, shaking and pale.
"I can't. We have to go. Now!"
"I'll help you; we have to do this!"
"Aw, hell no, Lucy! Get going already, would ya!"
I maneuvered around him and stood directly between both corpses, surveying the macabre tableau.
Both bodies lay with their guns drawn; the body that Billy had attempted to move lay half-in, half-out of the cave. The half of him that lay exposed was horribly decayed. In some places his skull contained scant gray-green, thinned flesh that boasted wispy tufts of hair, its color hard to discern. Perhaps it had once been brown, but now appeared to have a ginger pallor. In other areas on the head, the decayed skin shrunk and tapered out, giving way to exposing the dingy skull beneath. What used to be the head was turned in my direction, its ghastly expression seeming to regard me with its ghoulish smile, its eyeless sockets piercing me. Its marbled, puffy green flesh blistered, its tongue chewed upon by what I can only guess were small creatures of the desert, leaving what was left to protrude through stained and crooked, missing teeth unsheathed by shrunken, dried out, decayed and picked-upon lips. I waved away the blow flies that had swarmed, realizing for the first time the churning black veil shrouding the moldering flesh of both bodies which should have been impossible to miss; the buzzing incessant and seemingly loud.
I felt my stomach spasm at this. I hurried away from the bodies and wretched. When my own body had quit shuddering, I looked back at the morose sight. Billy stood there, a strange look in his eyes as they flitted back-and-forth between the two dead men, his coat sleeve covering his nose and mouth in an attempt to keep the malodor from entering his nostrils. I knew this had to be done; we could go nowhere else. Thunder lightly sounded again from the east, seemingly just beyond a small mountainous range not too far off in the distance. I studied the situation some more.
Looking at the angle of the bodies I wondered aloud, "Was it a fight? Did they kill each other?"
Piqued, Billy quipped, "Hell should I know? Looks like."
"Okay, let's just get this over with."
He walked with me back towards the body we had both become unpleasantly familiar with.
"Grab him on that side by the jacket. We'll pull him and slide him over the side."
I nodded and moved to do what he told me to when I stopped.
"Do you think he has any money or valuables on him?" I asked.
"Jesus Christ! I don't know! Can we just get this done with?"
Ignoring him, I waved the flies away to no true avail, and carefully peeled back the tattered remains of his duster. I was revolted as the flap came up with a sickly sound as the bodily fluids and fats seemed to have glued it properly to the corpse. After this, the unpleasantness continued with my noticing for the first time that insects scurried and writhed over and around the corpse. Cautiously, I used my forefinger and thumb to look for an inside pocket, flipping the collared panel over quickly. When I found it, I very gingerly placed my hand inside. Billy made sounds of aversion and objected, but I pulled out a billfold. I looked up at him with a wide smile and nodded my head, pleased with myself. He frowned. I opened the billfold and found some dollar bills inside.
"Count it later," Billy demanded.
I counted it immediately. Nearly fifty dollars! That would do. I dropped the billfold and observed the body, still waving off the flies as if I could make them go away. His legs were crossed over one another and looked to be somewhat intact, but one could not truly tell as the corpse was fully dressed and so his pants concealed his lower half, though they looked vacant. The flesh around his exposed hand had grown taught and leathery; the other hand was missing entirely. Thunder sounded again.
I glanced quickly up at Billy and, ignoring him a moment longer, checked the torso and found a clean pocket watch which I hurriedly took for fear of the things creeping about, and then finally I returned to helping Billy. We dragged the body together to the edge of the bluff and, despite my dragging an infested dead body in which I should have found very odd, all I could manage to think about was how light it was. We slid him off the side and he fell away, down to the ground but still making an audible thump down below.
We looked at each other and then at the second body. This one was laid out fully in the elements. His right, near-skeletal hand lay clutched by his chest, his left hand lay alongside him as he lie prone, his gun resting on the ground as if it had been dropped there. There was a rucksack nearby him. Billy saw me spy this and placed a hand on my shoulder.
"After we're through."
He stared at me until he found understanding, so I nodded, knowing he wanted to get this over with, but still, I was not swayed from considering the body. Looking for anything of worth and seeing nothing, I thought to check his clothing, but this one was by far worse off than the other. Whatever made the face human was near gone with Mother Nature tying up the loose ends of death with a small mess of writhing, maggoty insects infesting the nostrils, lips, and ears. The shirt was torn open and the chest appeared lean and stuck to its ribs; the gut hollowed out. I noticed a sticky-like substance pooled around him; biological run-off. Liquefied. The iron nerve I had summoned and maintained failed me at this particular sight and I ran off again, dry-heaving, wracked by the discomfort the sight had caused my body.
When finally we had fulfilled our unpleasant deed and pulled this dead man over the ledge, we smiled oddly at one another.
Disturbed and with a strange smirk, he said, "ghoul".
He walked off to fetch our things from the horses, but I hung back and examined the substantiation of what was here-what remained despite the removal of the grotesqueries. There were brownish, sticky and dry looking stains left behind by both bodies, thinly coated by a layer of dust, but the concentration of the stench had seemed to dissipate, though not by much. I supposed this might be due to the fact that we had removed its source from our immediate place here, but more likely it was because I had grown accustomed.