by Joshua Nicolás Prits
This dirt worn bank was an empty hole, abandoned for many years before the sixteen thousandth tumbleweed of this decade slowly rolled its body into the near vicinity of the crumbled façade of this mid 19th-century establishment. No one paid any mind to the slivers of copper crumpled in the corner, they would only remember the gold that once poured in the vault that no longer stood.
The woman was a pale-faced traveler, beauty like marble chipped by the winds and the ways of life, freckles of the sun as tiny kisses on her skin. Dark masses crept over the lands as the clouds lost their visible shape and melted into the blackening skies. The moon gave no favors and made no appearances tonight, and the stars would not dare show their faces after this upcoming sunset.
It was a special evening for the Pale Traveler, lain in memory was a grandfather departed and a mother disappeared within the span of one calendar block. Her sack found its heavy bottom pouncing against the wall of rubble, not far from the copper corner.
She sprang her cloth tent in the ceilingless shelter of antiquity, ready to establish her home for the next night or so in this place quite far from any town in the remote desert basin.
The drylands surrounding were loud with mentions of gusts, and dust was sprinting heavily toward the heavens in several directions. She lit a slight flashlight and propped up her favorite lamp: purchased in a lonely pawnshop along the outskirts of Tucson. The petite portable light was shaped as a girthy metallic chalice, almost coming to life with personality as if it were a character from an old fantasy cartoon.
Long have been the days she considered entertainment. Aside from local showings of stage shows and the odd concert, she hadn’t given a single thought to any dances in about seven months.
The Pale Traveler unloaded a metal bottle from her sack and in one smooth motion unloaded its contents, brushes and tubes of paint fell onto the mat she laid down in front of her. She reached in and pulled another thermos, this one filled with a mishmash of items including half a dozen matches, two lighters, loose bits and leaves of Virginia tobacco, sticks of chewing gum, and assorted pieces of jerky.
She gobbled down the jerky, burned some tobacco, chewed the gum, and started painting the lighters in pastel colors from the two tubes of paint she held from her last encounter with a local artist up north. For hours, she kept on this, with her only company being her nearly personified lamp.
Howls erupted every couple of hours in the distance, the coyotes telling the night about their day. In the back of her head, she knew the three vastly different knives in her bag could again be put to use. There were fables about women like her, a hardened traveler with no fear challenging one of the harshest landscapes in North America. This was a woman who had not only accepted the wild but had become a huntress amid any hint of chaos, Diana of the southwestern wilds.
To pass the time of her restless night, she lit her newly painted lighter and charred old, tattered documents in the ruins, the long-expired receipts too faded to belong in this present existence. This was a woman well acquainted with the elements who preferred the mascot of heat over any frigid source. All the while, the howls would grow nearer, but she didn’t mind the noise.
After the third dissolved parchment caught fire, she let it rest against the wall to let it be known with slight combustion that she was here, in this place, at some time, and she should always be remembered as a visitor who had dwelled and embraced these ruins. In a leap of surprise, she watched the paper sparks grow from red to sharp green, embers dancing as if they were trees in a strong wind. In a dash of curiosity, she saw that the bits of copper below sent the fires into a newfound green luminosity, giving herself permission to toss tobacco in the fires and chuckle herself into a smokey sleep.
Deep in the night, at a time where no light sprang from any source in this desert land, the coyotes growled in patrol along the outside walls of the old bank ruins. The pale traveler was too deep in dreams to notice the approaching villainous mischiefs, narrow-faced dogs of trouble snouting for edible scents within their surroundings. As the coyotes neared her position little by little, they got a hold of an odd sensation and turned away from this place for the remainder of the night. There would be a calendar night of peace in this desert for the small critters local to this land, and to the woman resting to her dreams against a crumbled wall of the abandoned adobe building.
The following morning, she slowly rose from her makeshift cot, and in her awakening, she tidied up the space around her. She would not know about the coyotes from the now gone night, but the jackrabbits in the nearby bushes nodded in unison about her and their luck.
Overhead, a hawk sprung its wings outward in a glide of pleasure. The Traveler looked up, smiled a light smirk, and threw her wide-brimmed hat to shield herself from the heavy-hitting sun. Circling above, this golden hawk glided over his territory, a longtime resident to these skies, and its vicinity drew curiosity from the Traveling woman. It nosedived downward and flew toward the distant mountain shadows. A nudge of wind drew her eyes to the ground where the faded bank notes met cremation, and a small hole smiled at her as if she were the first living thing it had seen in decades.
She sniffled and sent her face closer to the hole for examination, coming to notice a twinkle of something wink directly at her from within. One of her brushes doubled as a little shovel, and she began to chip away and dig into this hole. As she kept her miner’s strike, the effort would widen the hole and bless her eyes with the sight of gold, rubies, and treasures alike. Some sort of old desert treasure now belonged to her.
Handfuls of bare handed scoops flipped the valuables into her bag. Her sack would quickly be filled with pounds of newfound wealth to which her heart, so heavy with emotion from the memories of departure, would recover into the refreshment of a future life of stability. From that day forth, she wasn’t poor anymore, but her sense of travel escalated with her wealth into a sense of travel abroad, and her thoughts shifted from Arizona dirt paths to steps along Himalayan mountain roads and vividly imagined strolls between windblown Spanish tallgrass. For as time turned forward, so did her eagerness to embark on grander adventures.
In this contemplation of a brighter future, she did not notice a man in tattered monk’s robes colored like chestnuts silently approaching her in the distance. His eyebrows were twisted and matching his hyperdense mustache radiating with sheen. He sat down at the ruins of the cobblestone pony wall some several yards away. The look upon his boney face only read question marks.
The Pale Traveler watched him in a sense of bravado, packing up her jewels and gold and getting ready to take the next road out. But he kept eyeing, shaking his head. She wasn’t a woman of unnecessary violence, but she had a knife and a bite-sized revolver ready to pounce on whatever cat struck the first claw.
But he sat, for several minutes, smirking and observing.
The way he perched and watched her felt odd in many ways. He didn’t look with good intention, but not necessarily a malicious disposition. He was thin, thinner than her probably, which emphasized his sharp features across his face. This was no monk.
She finally stood upward and directed her voice to him. “Can I help you?”
He smirked, allowing for the daylight to strike his stubble, “This was my father’s bank.”
She ceased to pack. “Is it still your dad’s bank?”
“Dust storms gusted this town dry. Everybody jumped ship and moved to a new town closer to the river. This was only some 30 years ago.”
“I was just about to leave.” She closed her sack and began to evacuate the ruined bank.
“Cannons busted the walls down in the war. Now, I ain’t got a cannon on hand, but I’ve got my Smith and Wesson tucked real close to the tips of my fingers if you don’t put the gold down and go about your day.”
“With those ripped clothes, I thought you’d be a little quieter.”
The son of the proprietor twitched his finger to his gun, but the pale traveler flicked her revolver into a BANG quicker than her rival could motion a grab. The shot blew a hole in the Pony Wall beneath him. He laughed.
“Go on then, take what you got and go. But just a warning, I’m going to drop a little spell and curse each coin and gemstone you got in that sack.” He swiped a thorn off a nearby cactus and poked his skin to a drop of blood. She couldn’t hear the words, but she could see the man in tattered monk robes whispering something in a foreign language.
She was a nonbeliever in supernatural mischief and magical manifestations. So the nomad began to walk away with her treasure, down the road along her path in the desert, where she recognized she would be undisturbed, as the proprietor’s son searched what was left of the bank’s leaking vault. There wasn’t even a fistful of dimes left.
That night the pale traveler slept in a nearby cave, as she didn’t want to draw attention to the jewels just yet. So another night in solitude. The breeze shook a nearby tree under the indigo sky, observed by the moon in an oddly bright crescent overlooking the vast desert.
In a hint of loneliness, she began humming a tune and counting the gold. One, two, three, and the reality of being present sunk into a blurry dream. Sleep overtook her. She slumped down against the wall and dropped into absolute unconsciousness.
When she awoke, the cave entrance was covered in moss and the air was thick. She tasted foreign moisture in the humid wind. The traveler slowly rose to get a better view of the outside. Upon exit, she witnessed a luscious rainforest in front of her. The Pale Traveler rubbed her eyes for a better view. She turned around, swiped her sack, and wandered further into the jungle in confusion. Her eyes glanced around the jungle, attempting to find any way back to a recognizable town.
The dirt path took her deep into the thicket. The density of the trees closed in tighter onto her bubble, but she wouldn’t stop moving down this path. In a sense, she understood, she was becoming one bound with nature. And to her, that was everything she’d ever really desired. She lost herself in the woods forever.
A chip of sharp metal banged against a rock, followed by a second clank in a resounding echo. Desert sunshine crept in from the mouth of the cave. In the shadows of the rugged mountain’s interior, the man in tattered robes slashed his pickaxe against a large stone leaning against a cave wall. The rock almost looked lifelike. Inside the shapely boulder, a crack fissured an opening for the proprietor’s son, as his brown eyes met the glisten of the rubies and gold coins merged tightly into the stone. He jangled the metals between his knuckles and grinned wider than the horizon. For once in his brief lifetime, the tattered man was back on his feet.