From Chapter 1
“Did you know almost every part of the country has a story about a ghostly woman and drowned children?” In the Southwest the tale is called La Llorona. Are you familiar with that legend?” For a long while Professor Dawson had rambled on, but this time he waited for McQuede’s response.
“Can’t say I’ve heard much about it,” McQuede replied.
Dawson slowed the Cadillac and chose the shortcut to Black Mountain Pass where he was to address the historical society. Seated beside him, Sheriff McQuede felt underdressed and undereducated—underdressed, because Barry Dawson looked every inch the professor in fancy western jacket that matched his carefully-styled iron-gray hair. In contrast, McQuede looked rough and rugged in a rumpled suit jacket discovered in the back of his closet that certainly did nothing to enhance his broad shoulders, unruly black hair, and silvery eyes. Undereducated, because all he had to balance the professor’s expertise on the subject of legends was the knowledge of a few local tales.
“Many versions of the La Llorona story exist.” Dawson, whose lectures seldom waited until he reached the podium, continued enthusiastically. “But basically it goes like this: a poor but beautiful village woman attracts a wealthy lover who doesn’t know she has children. She drowns her children to be with her lover, who then rejects her. Realizing her mistake and feeling the anguish of her grief, her spirit cannot rest. It is said that if you listen closely, you can hear her voice on the winds, calling for her lost children.”
“There’s a similar story about the bridge up ahead,” McQuede remarked.
“Yes, it is often referred to as Crying Woman Bridge,” Dawson said. “In fact, I’ve included the legend behind it in tonight’s talk.”
Wooden planks rattled beneath them as they started across the rickety structure. The old bridge’s original girders had been supported by steel sometime in the 1930s. Since the bridge didn’t get much traffic beyond a few locals using the back road to Black Mountain Pass, no improvements had been made since.
McQuede gazed through the girders to the thick underbrush and deep water below. At this point the Trapper River started its downward course, cutting through the high mountains on either side. As a boy, McQuede had loved this spot, the rushing water, the obstructing rocks that caused rapids and whirlpools. But with the sinking sun, it lost its allure and seemed cold and treacherous.
“When I was in high school, the kids always gathered here to party. But they were spooked by the place, too.” McQuede leaned back in the car seat, recalling, “In the old days, it was called Mirabella’s bridge.”
“That’s because,” Dawson explained, “according to local legend, a young pioneer woman named Mirabella got jilted by her lover and threw her baby over the bridge.”
“All I know is that at night it is rumored you can still hear her wails.”
“Foolish superstition,” Dawson said.
McQuede attempted to suppress amusement over his friend’s sudden seriousness. “It’s a fact, for sure,” McQuede persisted, trying to keep the teasing out of his voice, “if you say her name three times, she will appear and bad things will follow.”
“Yes,” Dawson echoed, “Three calls and woe to you.”
“Did you ever try it?”
“Not brave enough.” Midway across the bridge, Dawson stopped the car. “But you are. I dare you, McQuede. Call her name three times, and let’s see what happens.”
Dawson pressed the buttons that controlled the front side windows, and they slid open with an eerie, mechanical sound that mingled with the noise of rushing water. A gust of wind from the canyon stirred their clothing and hair. Instead of waiting for McQuede, Dawson called out in a voice loud and clear, “Mirabella! Mirabella! Mira—we’re going to be late,” he broke off suddenly, without finishing. He promptly checked his watch. “Too late for this nonsense.”
Dawson, for the first time silent, stepped harder on the gas as they followed the twisting road. McQuede’s friend always became too involved in these legends, so much so, that they often became fixed in his mind as solid fact instead of mostly fiction. McQuede, noting the anxiety that had crept into the professor’s manner, couldn’t help smiling.
(from Chapter 2)
“Didn’t you hear that noise?”
McQuede listened intently, catching what sounded like a distant voice drifting toward them from the center of the bridge. As they drew closer, the cries became loud and terrible.
McQuede’s blood froze. A woman, shrouded by fog, stood squarely in the center—pacing, wringing her hands, shrieking. Her long, dark hair swept in the wind as did her flowing skirt. The darkness and wind made her look like the ghost of a pioneer woman.
McQuede stared toward her, half-expecting the waif-like apparition to float away, but she remained, a solid substance, swaying and wailing. Her words were now distinct. “What will I do? Help me! Help me! I don’t know what to do!”
Dawson braked the car, and McQuede leaped out. He rushed toward her, gripping both of her arms and holding her fast. “What’s wrong?”
She seemed not even to hear his question. He followed her terrified gaze to the deep drop-off below them. His voice rose above the gurgling of rapids. “Talk to me! What’s happened?”
“Someone took him! She took him!”
McQuede shook her gently, hoping to restore her to her senses. “Who took what? What are you talking about?”
Tears streamed down her cheeks. “My baby! My baby’s gone! She kidnapped him.”
“What did she look like?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. She looked like a ghost.”
The more she spoke. the more unbelievable her story seemed. “Where did she take him?”
“She drove away.”
Her words jolted him. Could there be some truth to her rambling? “Can you describe the vehicle?”
She shook her head helplessly. “She took him away in her dark, ghostly car.”
McQuede’s attention turned again to the rapidly moving river. His heart plummeted as he caught sight of a little blue blanket swirling around in the dark water.
Below is an excerpt from our western short story collection: A DEAL ON A HANDSHAKE
The Rendezvous Shootout
Jeff McQuede, sheriff of Coal County, Wyoming, found himself getting into the spirit of the annual Mountain Man Rendezvous. He had donned a battered Stetson and a red bandana, and for added effect, had strapped on his .45. The trusty six-shooter had been handed down to him by his great-uncle, the man whose name he bore, tough old Jeff McQuede, one of Wyoming Territory’ s most famous lawmen.
McQuede even looked like his namesake, broad-framed and rugged. He stood just inside the plank gate, hand on the hilt of his gun, playacting like all the phony Indian chiefs and fur-clad mountain men. If not for the RV’s and trucks in the parking area, he could be stepping back in time, entering an authentic 1800’s fur trader camp.
Silvery gray eyes flitted across the circle of tepees and canvas tents where peddlers dressed in authentic costumes were in the process of setting up wares to lure the soon-to-arrive buyers and sightseers. Smoke from the blazing fire in the center of the camp hung over them, increasing the illusion of times long past.
Barry Dawson, one of the organizers of the yearly rendezvous, hurried toward him. " Howdy, partner." His exaggerated drawl sounded absurd coming from a man who looked exactly like what he was, a graying, bespectacled history professor. His gaze lighted on the .45. "You expecting trouble, McQuede?"
" Nope. I’m just here to join the fun."
" Fun? Doesn’t sound like you."
" I’m taking a day off."
Dawson looked past the sheriff, mouth dropping open, eyes widening, as if he’d suddenly seen a ghost. "Would you look over there? Trader Dan has some nerve showing up here, after all the trouble he caused last year."
Whenever McQuede saw Dan Murphy, he thought of men like Jim Bridger, Joseph Redford Walker, and Jed Smith, hardy souls who braved the harsh winters trapping furs, men who answered to no one. Trader Dan, as he was called, was a regular, following the circuit from flea markets and gun shows to sites like this one, making a living off his antiques and uniques. A man who quickly made friends, especially with the ladies. He took what he wanted, and when it suited him, disposed of it just as quickly.
Last year, what he’d wanted had been Clayton Lowe’s wife, and when Lowe had found out, all hell had broken loose.
" When you didn’t show up last night, we thought you’ d died," the professor called with feigned cheerfulness as Trader Dan abandoned unpacking his truck and sauntered over. "Almost gave your spot away."
" Ah, you knew I was bound to turn up sooner or later," Trader Dan replied, flashing a white-toothed grin.
" Old Jed Smith," Barry Dawson said, switching modes back to history professor, "surprised everyone by appearing at that 1829 rendezvous when rumor had it he’d died during the winter. You keep returning, just like him."
" More like a bad penny," McQuede responded. He couldn’t help glancing toward the tepee where Dan Murphy’s enemy, Clayton Lowe, with the help of his pretty Arapahoe wife, Tina, was setting up a display. Trader Dan gazed at them, too, smiling as Tina looked up at him. A beautiful girl, Tina today was clad in a buckskin dress, her charcoal hair braided, her rounded eyes, as always, looking pleased and startled at the same time.
Lowe, a thin, mustached man with the intent air of a gambler, didn’t even glance toward them.
" One of our group won’t be here today," Trader Dan said. "You probably heard, Spence Henning died last month. In fact, I just stopped by his place to barter with the old man’s widow for his goods." His voice became edged with deep resentment. "But it seems Clayton Lowe got there first."
Trader Dan returned to his truck and began setting up displays, lining glass cases with relics from the past, with knives, guns, pelts, and Indian artifacts. As a final touch, he set a Sioux war club with a beaded handle beside a rusty rifle. When he finished, he ambled directly over to the stand of his enemy, Clayton Lowe. McQuede had broken up fights between these two before. Remembering all too well, McQuede followed a pace or two behind.
When Clayton Lowe’s wife saw Trader Dan approaching, her dark eyes grew even larger, then she whirled around and ducked into the tepee. Lowe, absorbed in unpacking, continued unloading items from a camel-backed trunk.
" S. H.," Trader Dan bellowed, reading the initials on the trunk. "Spence Henning. You don’t play fair, do you?" His voice rose accusingly. "You knew I was trying to make a deal with the old man’s widow."
Lowe paused, wiping his hands on his dusty black T-shirt. The motion caused the string of bear claws around his throat to jangle. He stared at Dan Murphy acidly before continuing with his task.
Trader Dan’s attention locked on an old sketchbook, and his eyes lit same as they had when they had fallen upon Tina Lowe. "Pretty good art work, eh? Think the old man drew this himself?"
" Not a chance," McQuede said as he stepped closer to the black and white drawings. "This isn’t the work of an amateur."
Fascinated, Trader Dan flipped through the detailed sketches of a wagon train winding around jutting cliffs, an Indian hunting party, a gathering of fur trappers encamped along a river.
Trader Dan swung toward Lowe. "How much?"
" Not for sale," Lowe returned coldly.
" Then why the hell did you put it out on the table?"
Clayton Lowe responded to the belligerent question with stony silence, one interspersed with the zing of bullets from the shooting contest now in progress near the river.
" I’ll give you fifty bucks just because I like it."
Lowe snatched up the sketchbook and tossed it rudely back into the trunk.
As Trader Dan strode angrily away, McQuede stared after him. Clayton Lowe wasn’t the problem—the problem was that big loudmouth, Trader Dan, who enjoyed stirring the water and would no doubt end up ruining the whole rendezvous.
McQuede strolled around, attempting to amuse himself with the wide variety of merchandise, yet his thoughts remained on anticipated trouble. Try as he might, he couldn’t prevent himself from being a lawman for a single afternoon.
After a while, McQuede wandered back over to Trader Dan’s booth and idly lifted the beaded war club.
" You like that, huh?" Trader Dan boomed. "Make you a good deal."
" Don’t want to talk deals now."
" What do you want, then?"
" To give you some friendly advice. Remember last year? I want you to stay completely away from Clayton Lowe."
Trader Dan’s grin, showing strong, white teeth, seemed defiantly arrogant. "Better tell Lowe to stay away from me."
" No, I’m telling you, and I mean business."
" Don’t take our little spats so hard, sheriff," Dan said, laughing off his warning. "Lowe and I have been sparring for years, every rendezvous. It’s a game, really. Underneath it all, we’re just two old chums."
Chums, for sure. The minute McQuede turned his back, they’d be fighting again. But what could he do except keep a close eye on him? McQuede walked along a row of canvas tents toward the center of camp, stopping here and there to browse, but close enough to keep watch on Trader Dan. In no time, Dan left his stand and cut across to Lowe’s booth.
McQuede tensed, prepared to intervene, but Tina, not Clayton Lowe, stepped forward to meet him. Trouble, but not the kind McQuede had been expecting. Trader Dan hadn’t changed his old tactics, but had waited until Lowe had left his post to sneak a visit with his pretty wife.
McQuede remained watching until Trader Dan returned to his own stand, then he continued to the permanent, log-framed structure that served as the hub of the rendezvous’ activities.
The circle of wooden benches around the open-air bar buzzed with talk and laughter. Above the noise, an intercom blared: Shooting all day, primitive matches with rifles, shotguns, pistols. The next shotgun contest will start in five minutes south of the main gate.
McQuede stopped to study a poster of events and check on the times. He just might join the pistol competition himself, try to win a trophy in the name of Great Uncle Jeff McQuede. The thought lifted his spirits and caused some of his tension to fade. Tension that returned full-force as someone tugged on his arm.
" You’ve got to stop them!"
He swung around, face to face with Clayton Lowe’s pretty wife. Her thin frame shook, and her smooth, tanned skin was ashen. Hell had indeed broken loose. Lowe must have witnessed what McQuede had a short while ago, Tina and Trader Dan engaged in a little rendezvous of their own. "What’s happened?" he demanded.
Tina didn’t answer, but rushed ahead of him, dodging around vendors and buyers, making it hard for him to keep up with her.
A heated argument had flared in front of Trader Dan’s canvas tent. Clayton Lowe’s voice had a raspy, deadly ring. "You’re nothing but a rotten thief."
" How could I steal anything from you?" Trader Dan countered, a sardonic look on his face. "Whenever you leave, Tina guards your merchandise every minute!"
" What’s the trouble, boys?" McQuede broke in. The two men had squared off as if for a fight. He looked from mountain man in fringed buckskin to old time gambler, with hollowed chest and black mustache.
Lowe pointed an accusing finger at Trader Dan. "He stole that sketchbook right out of my trunk."
Trader Dan looked skyward in exasperation. "I haven’t even left this area, and you know it, sheriff. So if I stole it, it would have to be here. You’re more than welcome to search."
Trader Dan held up his hands in a mocking way. McQuede did a quick check from heavy buckskin jacket to boots, then stepped back.
" Do you see any stolen goods here on my table?" Trader Dan taunted. "Be my guest. Look through the tent. Search everything."
McQuede obliged, but found nothing. Trader Dan was either telling the truth and hadn’t stolen the sketchbook, or he’d passed it off to someone else.
" I know you took it," Lowe insisted.
" Then why isn’t it here?" Trader Dan demanded.
" You’ll need proof," McQuede said to Lowe, "or nothing can be done."
" Something can be done. Someday," Lowe hissed, aiming a finger at Trader Dan as if it were a gun, "you and I are going to have a showdown."