"You gonna watch an old black woman die?"
Joaquin Murrieta, squinting against bright October sunshine, removed his hat, dabbed at his sweaty brow with a red bandanna, and again looked down at the woman sprawled beside the trail. When he spoke, his voice was mild. "You seem far from death, Señora."
The woman grinned a gap-toothed grin. She said, "Closer than I'd like. My ankle's broke." Her smile widened and one gold tooth sparkled. "My name's Maggie."
Maggie's sharp chin poked Joaquin's left shoulder. She spoke next to his ear, "We leave the trail here, Mr. Murrieta." Joaquin nodded and shifted the reins. His patient horse ambled up an embankment.
Joaquin said, "I've taken this trail from the Coast to Jolon many times. I didn't know there was anything up this valley."
"Nothin' much, Mr. Murrieta, just my cabin."
They followed a faint trace beneath oaks into deep, scented shade of laurels. The canyon narrowed. A stream murmured between mossy boulders. They turned a corner and confronted a box canyon stoppered by a steep cliff. The stream, backlit by late sunshine, plunged down the cliff and spread like a silver veil. A low, weathered shack stood not far from the pool at the falls' foot. The shack had a wide porch and a garden sprouted on its sunniest side.
Maggie nodded, "That's my place. Set me down next to the door. Then if you'll cut me a crutch, I'll fix us some supper."
Joaquin sighed and set his plate down. Dusk gathered beneath the laurels. He glanced over at Maggie. She was seated in her rocking chair, staring out at the violet sky. He said, "How did you come to live here?"
Maggie thought about the question. At last, she said, "Was born a slave in Georgia. Master brought me out here before the war. I run off after Mr. Lincoln set us all free. Spent some years in San Francisco. Come down here to work in the Dutton Hotel over in Jolon. Did that for quite awhile. I got tired of washing pots and clothes. Took up with Henry Lebec and come out here to live. He run mules across these mountains to supply folks on the coast. This cabin was his, a way station. He died several years back, apoplexy. I stayed on."
Joaquin's horse, hobbled in a patch of grass next to the pool, raised its head and nickered. A horse answered from around the bend in the canyon. Joaquin asked, "Expecting visitors?"
Maggie shook her head. "I'm expectin' them, but they ain't visitors."
Joaquin looked at her, waited for her to explain.
"I went down to the Dutton last week for supplies -- flour, beans and such. They was following me after I left Jolon to come back up here. Run off Daisy, my mule -- she should show up sometime tomorrow -- but they didn't catch me. Scramblin' through the brush got my ankle broke, though. I'm too old for that sort of foolishness."
Joaquin asked, "They want something from you?"
Maggie nodded. "They do and I'm right sorry I got you to help me, Mr. Murrieta. This is my trouble, not yours."
Four horsemen rode into the vale. Joaquin pulled his heavy Colt .44 from its holster, laid it across his knees. The four riders approached the cabin and halted a few yards in front of the porch.
The men wore wide-brimmed hats. Rifles rested across their saddlebows. Their faces were in shadow. The one farthest on the right said, "All right, Black Maggie, you come with us."
Joaquin raised his gun, aimed it at the speaker. He said, "You will die. The man next to you, too. If the others can't shoot, they will die as well. Turn your horses and leave."
The horsemen sat very still. They did not raise their rifles, but neither did they turn to leave.
Joaquin pulled the .44's hammer back.
Maggie held up her right hand. "There's no need for shootin', Mr. Murrieta. I know what these men want and they can have it."
The first horseman, the leader, said, "Show us where it is."
Maggie smiled. "Can't. My ankle's broke. But I can tell you where the gold is."
The horseman leaned forward. "Where?"
Maggie tilted her head. "Up behind the waterfall, in a cave. That cave's full of gold. Take all you want."
The leader turned his horse and rode a few yards to the foot of the falls. The others followed him. They dismounted. One man took a coal oil lantern from a saddlebag and struck a light.
The leader looked at Joaquin and said, "Hold the horses, Sam. And watch him." He turned to the others. "Okay, let's go."
Shadows loomed and faded as the men followed a dirt trail up the cliff. Just above the falls, they stepped behind a boulder. There was a moment of silence. Then hoots of glee sounded across the canyon. A voice shouted, "Gold, Sam! By God, we found it!"
Then someone screamed. It was a scream of shock, surprise. More screams followed the first, screams of horror, bitter as urine. The horses bolted.
A man ran from behind the boulder, ran straight out into the air beyond the cliff. His legs stretched; his arms flailed; he screamed. He screamed until his bones cracked on the stones at the foot of the falls.
Sam raised his rifle in panic. Joaquin aimed his pistol and fired. Sam staggered, groped at the wound in his back. Joaquin fired again, the flame flaring like lightning. Sam fell face down.
Glowing smoke flowed down the cliff-face. The roiling, flickering smoke touched Sam and paused.
Maggie gripped Joaquin's hand. "Hold tight to me! Don't move!"
The smoke rolled toward them, reared up like a thundercloud. A monstrous face formed with green flames for eyes. A pit of a mouth, ringed by shining fangs, opened.
Maggie held up a jade figure and said, "Go."
The green eyes flared and a snarl like that of a thousand wolves ripped the night. A hooked claw formed out of mist. The claw, shiny black horn smeared with red, reached toward Joaquin, paused a few inches from his face.
Maggie squeezed Joaquin's hand and repeated, "Go back."
The claw lowered, faded back into mist. The face dissolved. The smoke shot straight up into the air, curved back toward the falls. Screams of rage and howls of loss echoed in the canyon. Then the smoke disappeared.
Maggie sighed, let go of Joaquin's hand, and patted it. "It's fine now."
Joaquin lowered his pistol. "Fine?"
Maggie patted his hand again. "Yes, they're gone."
Joaquin breathed in, breathed out. He said, "Who is gone?"
"Ghosts. Ghosts, of course. This jade charm's the only thing that keeps them away. Lebec give it to me before he died. He got it from old Ah Fong up in Monterey, a friend of his."
Joaquin looked at the figure. "What does this little jade man do?"
"It keeps the China-men's ghosts away. The first miners in here used China-men for the diggin.' They struck a mother lode. The bosses killed all the China-men so's they wouldn't tell, hid their bodies down a blind shaft somewheres. Joke was on them, though. When they went back for the gold, the China-men's ghosts killed 'em all, all except one. Lebec talked to that one before he died. He said the ghosts won't let nobody take that gold 'til their bones get taken back to China. But this jade is something they fear, even dead. Help me up."
Joaquin helped her balance on the crutch. She stepped down off the porch and stumped toward the fallen bandits. Joaquin followed her.
They stopped and looked down at Sam. His face was turned to the side, his mouth open wide. Joaquin said, "His eyes are gone."
Maggie nodded. "Sucked out." She turned toward the other bandit. "Well, look at that." She pointed with her crutch.
Gold gleamed near the man's right hand. A nugget, pure as butter and bigger than an apple, lay just beyond his outstretched fingers.
Maggie said, "Lebec tried for years to find where them China-men were buried so's he could send their bones home. Ain't that a turn? He knew where the gold was, but he needed to find a pile of dead bones so's he could get his hands on it. But I reckon that nugget's safe for you to take, Mr. Joaquin."
Joaquin smiled. "Thank-you, Maggie. I like gold, but this gold I will pass by."
Maggie shrugged. "You ever ate fried okra, Mr. Joaquin?"
Joaquin shook his head. "Never."
"Best thing next to heaven. I'll cook you some up for breakfast."
Maggie turned and limped back to her cabin. Joaquin holstered his pistol. He stared for a moment at the boulder where the ghosts had vanished. Starlight shimmered in the waterfall's veils. A cool breeze, heavy with the scent of bay, riffled the pool. Joaquin breathed in appreciatively. Then he turned and walked toward Maggie's cabin.
Please enjoy more of Robert Walton at Chaos Gate.