“We won't make the foothills before night,” Will said.
Diana glared at the horizon. “I’m sure it’s not as far as it looks.”
“Okay.” She turned in the saddle to face him. “I’m sorry. It really did look like a shortcut back there, didn’t it?”
“It hardly matters now. Just keep an eye out for a place to make camp.”
A few miles later, they came over a low rise in the fading twilight and saw the remains of a village below. “If we can’t find water for the horses,” Will said, “At least we’ll get a roof over our heads.”
But as they neared the cluster of buildings, they found the structures were hardly fit for the wild creatures that inhabited them, let alone humans. Roofs had fallen in and adobe walls crumbled. Wood-frame houses had collapsed of dry rot and mobile homes were stripped of their metal siding. Will was about to suggest making a dry camp among the sagebrush when Diana turned to him in excitement.
“Look—someone still lives here.”
Set back from the road by a dark and overgrown path was a hulking adobe cast in shadows seemingly of its own making, but with a pinprick of light at a window.
They dismounted and approached on foot. They were ready to shoot and flee if necessary, but the pale man who answered their knock merely gazed at them in silence.
“We were wondering if you could spare some water for our horses,” Will said.
“And a place to sleep would be much appreciated,” Diana added. “Anywhere is fine—barn, patio, a little floor space is all we need.”
“Why are you here? Who sent you?”
“We’re travelers,” Will said. “We fell behind schedule. It got dark and we saw your light.”
The man stepped back from the door. “I have no light you could’ve seen from the road.”
Diana glanced toward the window where the light had been. It was just an empty hole now. “The wind must’ve blown it out. So can we stay? We’ll be no trouble.”
“And we can pay,” Will added.
“Yes, money.” The man shivered, although the room wasn’t cold. “Do whatever you want.” He waved a hand and disappeared into the gloom of a hallway.
Will and Diana exchanged glances. “He’s a strange one,” Diana whispered. “But he doesn’t seem dangerous.”
“Just stay close, okay?”
They bedded down their horses in the empty barn then took their gear into the house and made pallets on the entryway floor. They ate some jerky, nuts, and dried apples from their packs, then settled in for the night.
Distrusting their host, Will sat watch. The silence of the house and the opaque darkness beyond the reach of his solar lantern would’ve disturbed a more imaginative young man, but years as a street urchin and soldier had made him sensitive only to physical dangers. With no sign of impending threat, his shoulders relaxed, his head nodded, and finally he reached for Diana, curled beneath her blanket, sleeping with the deep and utter peace of a cat.
He resisted the urge to turn his touch into a caress. One wasn’t supposed to have such feelings for an adoptive sister. He shook her roughly. “Your turn.”
Diana sat up and stifled a yawn. She scooted to the foot of her pallet and stared into the gloom as Will wrapped himself in a blanket and closed his eyes.
Hours passed. Will’s breathing became deep and regular, the darkness thicker and more tangible. Diana shivered as the circle of light around her lantern shrank and the shadows took on a life of their own.
Then she heard it— a murmuring from deep within the rooms, part chant, part pleading, part something else. Diana shook herself, but unlike the transient whisperings of her imagination, the sound persisted.
She stole a glance at Will. She hated to wake him when he so often suffered from insomnia. She could handle this alone.
She stepped silently into the hallway. The narrow walls, low ceilings and peeling plaster closed in around her like a tunnel as she followed the sound and then the faint murky glow emanating from a room at the end of the hall. She paused in the arched doorway, hand on her gun.
By the light of a flickering lantern in a room hazy with smoke and incense, their host bent over a dark form, talking in low tones. It seemed to be an apology of some kind, an explanation and a plea for forgiveness.
Then he saw her. His eyes widened in horror and he stumbled to his feet. “Go away.” he said in a trembling voice. “At least I did it fast. You can't say you suffered.”
Confused, Diana took a step toward him, nearly choking on the rose-scented incense and the putrefying smell beneath it.
“Don’t come any closer. I promise I’ll bury you tomorrow, whatever it costs. A proper priest and everything. But I’ve kept you here out of love, because I couldn’t bear to see you in the ground, because having you here keeps me from forgetting my sins—”
Diana stared at the black-shrouded form on the ground, realizing now what it was. “You sick bastard.”
“I know, I know." He fell to his knees. "Kill me - I deserve it. Do you think the money has made me happy? I don't even use it!”
Diana backed into the hallway, wheeled about and slammed into something tall and solid that held her as she shrieked and squirmed.
“What the hell? Will said.
“He’s got a body in there!” When Will made like he would see for himself, Diana pulled him by the arm. “Come on, before he figures out I'm not a ghost."
Will followed her back to the entryway where they stuffed their gear into their packs and hurried into the night. Once they were on the road, their horses picking their way by the first faint hints of sunrise, Diana told him what had happened.
“So he killed the woman he loved for money and now he keeps the body and talks to it at night?” He shook his head. “Son of a bitch doesn't deserve to live.”
They rode in silence as orange sunlight bled into the morning sky.
“If I died before you, you’d make sure I got buried, right?” Diana asked.
“Don’t talk like that.”
“But you would, wouldn’t you? Not with my family in the desert, but on a mountain where the aspen leaves would cover my grave in fall and where the flowers would bloom in spring.”
“You won’t die before me. But sure, if that’s what you want.”
Diana twisted in her saddle and looked over her shoulder, as if their host's haunted past might be following. “I just want to know I’ll end up in a happy place.”
Will tugged at his hat. “This is our happy place. If it’s not, we need to work harder to make it that way.”
“That’s a nice thought, but—”
“Don’t argue," Will said as the morning sun frosted a few high clouds with gold. “This is all there is.”