Place of Dry Bones and Haunted Dreams

The man from out of town had pale, suspicious eyes and whiskers soured from the salt in his sweat and his beer. The blonde waitress at the little café in Marathon guessed that he was at least eighty, maybe older, and he was asking directions to the place of dry bones. No one ever went there anymore. At least no one in his right mind ever went there. However, you couldn’t tell about strangers who came wandering in off the desert. The sun and the parched earth did funny things to them sometimes. Most didn’t know where they were going, and the rest of them were lost.

The man from out of town stared at his coffee until it was too cold to drink, tightly clutching a worn, yellowed piece of paper as though it were his last dollar, and maybe it was. “I’ll pay you for the cup of coffee when I get back from Bone Springs,” he said.

A rock canyon in Big Bend National Park

“What you got waitin’ on you down at Bone Springs?” the waitress asked, resigned to the fact that she had just lost another nickel on coffee.

“Silver.”

The waitress raised a cynical eyebrow. “How much?”

“A fortune.”

She sighed. She had been right. The sun and the parched earth had indeed ruined another man, at least what was left of him, which wasn’t much. The waitress poured herself a cup of coffee and sat down beside the grizzled old man, and slowly he began unfolding a map that had been a burden to him for more than sixty years.

He had been a member of Quantrill’s Raiders, the man from out of town told her. But that was a long time ago, long after he had escaped the war, which was anything but civil, back when he was too young and stubborn and contrary to know any better. Maybe he had done wrong, the old man said. He only knew that he had never gotten caught, which, he guessed, made him innocent in the eyes of the law.

The waitress nodded and glanced at the clock, then toward the front door. It was late, but too early for closing time, and the bewhiskered man from out of town was the only customer she had. So she poured him another cup of coffee and figured she might as well lose ten cents as a nickel on this sultry night in 1936.

All that Quantrill had left him was a map, the old man said. It had been late one evening beside the dying embers of a campfire when the outlaw carefully drew his scratchy directions to Bone Springs, down where the Rio Grande turned the corner of Texas. Within the draw lay buried treasure, waiting on the first man tenacious or foolish enough to try and take it away from an unfriendly desert.

Quantrill and his raiders had attacked the silver mines that were dug back in the mountains just beyond Boquillas, Mexico, or so the outlaw said. They loaded their packhorses and cheap wagons with stolen bullion and rode as far as Bone Springs before the fever caught up with them. Their throats ached and their eyes dimmed, and the heat sucked their breath away. The wagons broke down, and so did the horses. The fever burned their faces and dried their life’s juices, and most of the men were dead certain they would never leave the desert floor alive. One didn’t. He was buried without a prayer, and the cursed silver was dumped into the grave with him.

Boquillas Canyon

Days crept by, then weeks. At last, the fever left them, but it left them much too weak to carry the bullion with them as they crawled away from the sunbaked earth. A dead man had inherited it all.

The man from out of town emptied his last cup of coffee and stuck the yellowed map into his pocket, just as he had done so many years earlier. He had tried to forget the faded ink trail to Bone Springs. He had even thrown the map away once, but sifted though the trash and found it again before night came.

Now at the age of eighty-six, it had finally led him to Marathon, to the edge of Bone Springs, to the edge of the earth itself. His gnarled and twisted fingers shook. Perhaps the old man was afraid the silver wasn’t there. Perhaps he was afraid that it was. The bullion had been lost for so many years, but never as lost as he.

“I’ll pay for the coffee when I get back,” he said again as he ambled toward the front door.

The waitress only smiled a sad smile. “Forget it,” she said.

There wasn’t a road, but the earth was flat and the sand packed. He drove as far as the rattletrap Ford would take him across the desert, then walked with stiff, aching legs on toward the Rosillas Mountains until he came to the place of dry bones. It was a quiet and unholy place, and the man from out of town knew he didn’t really belong. Maybe no one did.

Around him were scattered hundreds of bones, bleached white by the sun. The ranchers said they were the remains of good-for-nothing, thin-ribbed cattle, driven across a hard and miserable trail damned by too many watering holes that had turned to mud or dust or alkali.

The cattle had become too weak to move on, and they were left to die beneath the black circles of the vultures.

For days, the old man scratched the malevolent earth with his shovel. He looked in ravines, behind stacks of boulders, in dry creek beds, but found no grave and no silver, nothing but holes, empty holes, shallow holes, the holes he had dug himself.

The silver was lost. He was lost. The whole damned world was lost.

He tore the yellowed map apart and let the wind, what little of it there was, scatter the paper among the dry bones. He drove back out of the desert toward Marathon. The map had lied. Or maybe Quantrill had simply played him for a fool. Maybe Quantrill had never been there at all.

The coffee in the little café was hot and as bitter as he was.

“Old John Stillwell was the only man I know who ever got any money out of Bone Springs,” he waitress told him.

“He find the silver?”

“No. He dug out a watering hole back when I was a little girl and charged freighters to let their mules takes a drink.”

“He make much”

“I doubt it,” the waitress said. “He only got a nickel a mule.”

The man from out of town sighed. “At least he made enough to pay for his coffee,” he said.

“Forget it,” she said.

He tried but never did.

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