Randall stepped quickly to Maria’s side, still leveling his gun at the barn walls, until his brain processed what she’d said. ‘Her family?’
As soon as it hit him, he lowered his gun. The ground had stilled, but he was very aware of a presence behind the walls. He put his arms around Maria, guiding her behind him while he tried to understand what was happening.
Maria turned and faced him. “Randall. I told you my family never moved on – that they remain here. They live below the ground, and rise up when I let them know I am near. I must go to them now. You can wait here; you do not have to face them yet.”
“No.” Randall answered immediately. “No, I’ll come with you.” Gone were his romantic notions of Maria laying flowers at a grave. Whatever was behind those walls wasn’t in a grave – at least not anymore. Feet shuffled on the dry ground, clothes rustled as they moved. He imagined he must now look the same way the Mayor and Padre Humberto looked when they returned from the mountain.
Every hair on Randall’s body stood up straight, but he willed his legs to move forward, following Maria who was now rushing around the corner. When he rounded it himself, he saw her wrapped in the arms of a rotting corpse. It was a sight he would never forget, as long as he lived.
Maria spun in the monster’s arms. “Sheriff Randall Mendoza, this is my Papa, Esteban Garza. Mama? Come out where he can see you!”
Randall’s mind refused to grasp what he was seeing, He felt like he just took a blow to the gut, and it was only his fierce instinct to protect Maria that made him stand his ground. He found his arm raising on its own to point his weapon as a dead woman and what he guessed was her dead teen-age son came into view.
“Mi`madre, Elena, and my older brother, Miguel. Please, Randall. Lower your gun. This is my family.”
He somehow found the will to lower the gun, but the sight of Maria in the arms of a corpse was at war with what she was telling him. Finally, it was the look of disappointment on Maria’s face that brought him around. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.” Randall tipped his hat, but stayed where he was.
Maria beamed as her father nodded his head to Randall. Esteban groaned a greeting.
“Beee goooo to errr.” Her brother Miguel threatened, and Randall heard that threat clearly.
“I’d give my life to keep her safe.” Randall assured him.
Elena groaned at Randall, placing her hand over her heart, then pointing to Maria.
Randall felt the blush creep up his neck right to his ears. He’d never spoken the word, but he’d been in love with Maria for a long time. Never in his wildest imagination did he picture telling her in front of her dead family – how could he have? But as he faced them, how could he not?
“Ma’am, I do love your daughter, and I would be very honored if you all gave permission for me to court Maria; that is, if she’ll have me.” As surreal as the whole scene was to him, Randall was more sure than ever that he wanted Maria as his own.
“Yeessss.” Esteban said as the others did their best to nod. Esteban looked like he wanted to say more, and looked to Maria.
She knew what he wanted to say, so she explained to Randall. “Of course I will have you! I have been telling my family about you for a very long time. They feel as if they know you already. As you can see, it is very hard for them to speak, but they do get their point across. Will you stay with us while we visit?”
Looking at the dead before him, all thoughts of Esperanza and his responsibility to return there were gone from his head. “If I wouldn’t be intruding, I’d be glad to. Let me go gather our things, and I’ll be right back”
He wanted to give them some time alone and needed some time alone himself to process what he saw. Turning the corner of the barn walls, he let out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. He fought to keep his feet as his knees threatened to buckle. There were many times in his life he had to remain brave and steadfast, but never had he faced anything like this.
‘Holy God in His Heaven! They’re dead, but they’re not! I don’t understand how that’s possible, but I don’t know if I want to understand. They’re horrible to look at; monstrous, but she doesn’t see them like that. She sees her family. Can I see them that way? If I want her, I’ll have to.’
The sheriff’s hands were shaking slightly as he steeled his nerves and folded the blanket over one arm and grabbed the basket with the other. He rounded the corner and braced himself to face them once more.
Randall spread the blanket again as they sat, and Maria regailed her family with tales of her day to day life. It wasn’t long before they turned their attention to Randall, wanting to know more about this man who would love their Maria.
Randall told them of his childhood in the north, leaving out his mother’s family’s bitterness towards him. He talked mostly of his father, who brought him back to Mexico after his mother’s death, and how he was raised there with the help of his Mexican grandparents.
“After my grandfather died, I helped my father work their ranch. Then the droughts came, and we lost everything. I worked on other ranches, any that would have me, as long as my father and grandmother lived to provide for them. I was away from them a long time, but it was the best I could for them. The last cattle drive, I was gone almost a year. When I got back, I found out they were both gone. My grandmother first, then my father’s heart gave out not long after. The town buried them for me.”
He paused, took a drink from his water skin, and continued. “There was no sense in staying, so I moved on. I came south and found a town looking for a deputy, and worked there for a spell. We cleaned up the town real good, old Sheriff Sanchez and me, and pretty soon, there wasn’t much reason for me to stay on. I’d heard there was a call for a sheriff in Esperanza, but no one wanted the job. That got me good and interested, and well, here I am.”
Speaking of his job in Esperanza made the sheriff realize how late the day had gotten. He looked to the sky to see the sun was already on its downward arc.
Maria and her family did the same, and knew their visit had gone longer than it should. They all rose together, and Randall moved to let Maria say her goodbye in private, when he felt a cold, hard hand on his arm.
Esteban put a hand over his heart, then pointed to Maria. Next he put his hand over Randall’s heart and again pointed to Maria. Finally, he put his boney hand out to Randall. Randall swallowed past the lump in his throat, and shook the dead man’s hand. Randall looked up to see Maria smiling brightly, Elena with a flesh-dripping hand over her own heart, and Miguel with his arms crossed firmly in front of him.
“I’ll just bring the horses around.” Randall made his exit, leaving Maria to her family and suppressed a shudder from the chill the dead man’s hand had left him with.