The Persian Witch
"Sheriff, I hate to spread rumors…"
Ramon Morales tipped his hat back on his head. The blurred form of a small, hunched-over woman silhouetted by the light of the setting sun was in the door of his office. "Rumors? What…?"
The woman inclined her head and planted her hands on her hips. "I'm talking about the curandera that rode into town last month in her fancy wagon." She looked from one side to the other, then stepped close to the desk. Mrs. Chavez's face became clear then. "I think she may be practicing black magic," she said in hushed tones. "She might be a bruja."
The sheriff sat upright and put on a pair of wire-frame, roundlensed spectacles. "What makes you think that?"
"That wagon of hers is full of strange potions and powders." Mrs. Chavez's breath smelled of garlic and onions. Ramon scooted back, putting a few inches between himself and the irate woman. "She gave Mr. Garcia a potion that cured his liver and he took up drinking again. She told Mrs. Johnson there wasn't anything she could do about her straying husband."
Ramon shrugged. "Alfredo Garcia's a drunk. Of course he started drinking again when he felt better." The sheriff inclined his head, confused about the second point. "I'd think you'd be happy she couldn't help Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. You're a curandera, too. That's more business for you."
Mrs. Chavez heaved an exasperated sigh. "That's not the point. They went to her first, even though she's not a local. She doesn't even go to Mass." She straightened and pointed a long, gnarled finger at the sheriff. "But that's not the worst of it. You should see the owls. They're her familiars."
Ramon stood. This nonsense had gone on for long enough. "She lives out by Old Man Seaton's farm." He firmly took hold of Mrs. Chavez's elbow. She tensed and her eyes narrowed, but she did nothing else to resist as he escorted her toward the door. "There are always owls out there. They aren't a bad omen. They just hunt the mice in the field."
"You would sympathize with those creatures—with a name like Búho Morales." She clucked her tongue. Ramon rolled his eyes at the use of his nickname. "Mark my words, Sheriff. She's trouble."
Ramon didn't like the sound of that. He'd heard rumors of witch hunts in other parts of New Mexico Territory. Some had turned very ugly. Still, he wanted Mrs. Chavez out of there so he could focus on more immediate concerns. "I'll go talk to her soon," he said.
She pursed her lips and seemed to consider that. Finally, her shoulders relaxed. "Thank you, Sheriff."
Ramon sighed and gently closed the door behind the old woman. Socorro, New Mexico had been part of the United States for less than twenty years. In that time, it had swollen from a population of about 400 to nearly 4000. Many of the settlers came to work the silver and lead mines in the surrounding mountains. Others were ranchers who had moved up from Texas after the Civil War, looking for new land to feed their cattle. Meanwhile, farmers did their best to hold onto prize soil near the valuable waters of the Rio Grande. It was a rough and tumble town that failed to attract many educated folks like doctors. Ramon was pleased at the prospect of a new healer in the town, but frustrated that others would not welcome her.
Ramon shook his head and tried to put thoughts of Mrs. Chavez behind him. It was Friday night of a warm spring day. That meant there would be bigger trouble than squabbling curanderas. The miners would be coming in from the hills and the cowboys would be coming in from the ranches. They would collide in the saloons that night. The sheriff turned around and resumed his place at the desk. Just as he removed his glasses and tipped his hat over his eyes to get a little more rest, the door burst open.
"Sheriff!" Deputy Ray Hillerman was breathing hard. "We already got our first fight down at the Cap!"
Ramon returned his glasses to his nose and pulled the pocket watch from his vest. "It's not even 6 o'clock," he grumbled. "It's going to be a long night." He closed the watch's lid, placed it back in his vest pocket, then strapped his six-gun around his waist. He followed Ray out the door. It was a short, brisk walk around the corner to the Capitol Saloon. Socorro might have been the second largest town in New Mexico Territory after Santa Fe, but it was hardly a huge city like San Francisco. Ramon and Ray met one of the other deputies, Juan Gomez, at the door. Just as they stepped inside, a gun went off and the big mirror behind the bar shattered.
Ramon gritted his teeth. He would much rather go home for a quiet dinner than break up a bar fight between the miners and ranchers who had taken over his town. He drew his gun and fired a couple of shots at the ceiling. "All right, everyone!" he shouted. "Drop your weapons real peaceable-like." A couple of guns clattered to the ground and a cowboy flew in the sheriff's direction. He stepped aside and the cowboy continued on out the door. The heart of the fight was still going on in the back corner. A cowboy cracked a miner over the head with a pool cue. Ramon sighed and holstered his gun. The sheriff and his deputies waded into the fray. Juan hurled three of the cowboys toward the bar. The sheriff pulled one guy off another while Ray pushed a miner into the wall.
A miner had a cowboy pinned to the top of a pool table, beating him senseless. Ramon motioned to Juan who grabbed the miner's arms and pinned them behind his back. The sheriff drew his pistol again and looked around. "Now boys, this is not the way to start the weekend." One of the miners with grungy clothes and dirt-encrusted eyebrows stepped forward. "One o' them thar cowboys said we's nothing but a bunch o' earthworms."
"I don't care who started it." Ramon was startled to realize that he really didn't care. The only person in the room who actually grew up in Socorro with him was Juan. "Everyone who has a weapon, drop it now. We'll take 'em over to my office and you can pick 'em up tomorrow when you've sobered up enough." Several pistols clattered to the floor. As one of them hit the ground, it discharged and the bullet caught Ramon in the shoulder. He spun around and fell back onto the pool table, landing on top of the cowboy that the miner had been beating. Juan and Ray ran to the sheriff's side. "I'm all right," grunted Ramon. "It's just a graze."
"You better go see the doc," said Ray. "Get that cleaned up, anyway."
The sheriff struggled to climb off the pool table, then looked at the fellow lying there. "I think Doc Corbin's going to be busy with this guy. Ray, you better get him over there while Juan rounds up the guns."
"But what about you?" asked Juan.
The sheriff looked around at the miners and cowboys. They seemed to have calmed down somewhat. Some were packing up to head off to other saloons while a few were going to the bar. One cowboy even bought a miner a drink. The sheriff thought that was a good sign. He looked down at his shoulder, and gritted his teeth. The wound needed treatment, but he wasn't in the mood to see either Doc Corbin or the curandera, Mrs. Chavez, just at the moment. "I think I can tend to this myself."
"I hear that new curandera is pretty good," said Juan. "I bet she could fix you up right quick."
One look out the window told Ramon it was early yet. The sun was still shining. There was a barstool in Socorro for every man, woman and child living in town. That meant there could be plenty more fights to break up before the night ended. The sheriff realized if he tried to treat himself, he could be out of action for a while. Looking at Juan, he nodded. "Maybe you're right. I'll go see what she can do for me."
Sucking in his breath, Ramon followed Ray out the door. Meanwhile, Juan began collecting the pistols and the barkeep swept up glass from the floor. Ramon frowned as he walked back toward the office. Every Friday night he seemed to understand a little more why his mother and cousins had left Socorro.
Back at the sheriff's office, Ramon collected his horse and rode down toward the Rio Grande, past Old Man Seaton's farm and up a slight rise to where the new curandera had moved into an old adobe. Next to the house was the fancy wagon that Mrs. Chavez had mentioned. It was painted and built all of wood, not covered with a canvas tarp like so many others. It reminded the sheriff more of a chuck wagon or a gypsy wagon from Europe than a Conestoga.
As Ramon climbed off his horse, he heard odd little whistling sounds. When the whistling stopped, he heard the chirping of a burrowing owl. Stepping around the wagon, the sheriff saw a woman dressed in black, sitting on an old crate near a fencepost. Atop the fencepost was a small owl. The woman whistled and then paused. The owl would move from one foot to the other—almost like it was dancing—then it would chirp. Enchanted, Ramon watched this for a few minutes, but the orange glow of the setting sun reminded him that time was short. He had probably not seen the last fight of the evening. The sheriff cleared his throat. Startled, the woman looked up and the owl flew away.
Ramon was struck by the woman's bright green eyes and lovely, smooth features, which quickly shifted from astonishment to impatience and finally to concern as her eyes settled on the wound. Noticing the direction of her gaze, Ramon realized he should say something. "Pardon me, ma'am, but I heard that you're a curandera."
Without a word, she stood and stepped close. Carefully, she extracted the fabric of Ramon's shirt from the wound so she could see better. At last, she nodded without taking her eyes off the injury. "Come this way," she said. She led Ramon toward the house and paused to light a lantern that hung outside the door before taking it down and going inside. She reappeared a few minutes later with a black bag, like a doctor's.
She opened a door on the back of her wagon and instructed Ramon to sit down. He could smell assorted herbs from within and wondered what all she had in there. Opening the bag, she retrieved a bottle and some cotton. Far more gently than Doc Corbin would have done, she cleaned and dressed the sheriff's wound. "You're new in town, aren't you?" Ramon asked as she worked. "What's your name?"
"Fatemeh Karimi," she said. "I'm from Persia."
"Pleased to make your acquaintance." He watched her climb into the wagon. She might not be a local, but somehow her gentleness and concern for a stranger reminded him of many good people from his youth, who had since moved on. She searched through a few drawers and finally climbed down next to the sheriff. She handed him a small bottle.
"Drink this, it will help ease the pain but it won't cloud your mind."
Ramon sniffed at the contents of the bottle and made a face, but he did as she instructed. "That was quite some trick you were doing— whistling at that ol' hooty owl," he croaked, trying to hide the tears that came unbidden to his eyes from the potent flavor of the herbs. "It was almost like you were talking to it."
She smiled. Ramon wasn't sure whether she was amused by his reaction to the herbs or by the question. "That was no trick." She stepped over to the well and retrieved a ladle full of water. "I am Bah´'í. We believe that all humanity is one family and that family should live in harmony with the world. The owls are my neighbors. As you'd say, I'm doing my best to be neighborly."
Ramon took the ladle and drank the water. He was grateful that it cleared the taste from his mouth. "Why did you come to America?" He handed the ladle back to Fatemeh.
"In Persia, women must wear veils in public. A friend of mine resisted." She looked down to the ground and moved a few pebbles with her boot. "She was arrested, and strangled with a silk scarf. When she was dead, they hurled her down a well and piled rocks on top of her." She looked up and a tear ran down her cheek. She reached up and wiped it angrily away.
"It would be a shame to cover such a lovely face."
She laughed bitterly. "I didn't come to America to escape the veil. I came to America to escape what the veil represents—that women should remain hidden and unheard."
The sheriff sighed, thinking about Mrs. Chavez and some of the others he knew around Socorro County, like Bishop Ramirez. Then, he looked into Fatemeh's eyes and smiled. "I've never liked it when one person says they're better than another. I suppose that's why I stayed in Socorro when so many in my family left. It's why I became a sheriff." He looked down at the badge pinned to his vest. "Still, it pays to be a little prudent," he cautioned. "You may have freedom of speech here, but that doesn't keep some people from spreading rumors … like Mrs. Chavez."
"Why should I be afraid of her?" She folded her arms across her stomach and snorted. "She only pretends to be a healer while she charges people huge fees to read cards and make phony love potions."
"I'm afraid she does have some powerful friends." The sheriff suddenly realized that his shoulder was no longer in pain. He touched the bandage, but pulled his finger away when it still stung. He snorted thinking that this Fatemeh had done a better job than Old Doc Corbin and certainly a lot better than Mrs. Chavez could have done. "I'm impressed," he said, tipping his hat. "How much do I owe you?"
"Nothing today. In your line of work, I suspect you'll be back. You'll also meet others needing a healer."
"Fair enough." Ramon started toward his horse. "You let me know if Mrs. Chavez or any of her friends come around here and bother you."
She inclined her head and narrowed her eyes. "Why would they do that?"
"This is a good country with good laws, ma'am, but sometimes people forget those laws." He pulled himself into the saddle. "It's my job to refresh their memories."
She smiled slightly at that and looked the sheriff up and down. Although Ramon was flattered by her attention, a shiver traveled down his spine at the intensity of her gaze. "I think I'm going to like it here, Sheriff…"
"Sheriff Ramon Morales, ma'am. My friends call me Búho." He gathered the reins and spurred his horse down the trail before it got too dark to see. As he rode, he reflected on the fact that his nickname meant "owl," and like the owl on the fencepost, he supposed he was falling under Fatemeh's spell.
Ramon found the rest of Friday night surprisingly quiet. He suspected the cowboys and the miners got all the fighting out of their systems early. He slept in late on Saturday. Mrs. Gilson, who owned the rooming house where he stayed, helped him change his bandages the next day. The wound still stung, but it could have been a lot worse. Things remained calm on Saturday night and Ramon decided to go to Mass at San Miguel. He hoped that Father Esteban would be saying Mass, but was surprised to find that it was Bishop Ramirez. When he looked around at the pews, he noticed the bishop's brother-in-law, Mr. Dalton, who owned one of the biggest mines in the area, sat two rows ahead of him. The sheriff slipped out early and made his way behind the church to the little parsonage. He knocked and Father Esteban appeared at the door with a warm smile.
"I was just about to open a bottle of wine. Would you care to join me?" he said, ushering the sheriff inside.
"I didn't know priests drank."
"Not often and not to excess," said the priest, "if we're behaving ourselves." He winked.
Ramon dropped into a wooden chair in the main room of the parsonage while Father Esteban poured two glasses of wine. He placed one in front of the sheriff. "What brings you here tonight?"
"I was wondering if you knew what a buh-High is?" Ramon did his best to pronounce the word that Fatemeh had used. Even though Father Esteban was Bishop Ramirez's junior, he somehow struck Ramon as the one who spent more time with books.
The Father took a sip of his wine. "I take it you've met our new curandera."
The sheriff nodded. "She said she's from Persia. I was wondering if she was saying she was some particular type of Persian, like an Apache is a particular type of Indian."
Father Esteban chuckled, then took off his spectacles and placed them carefully in his pocket. "No, it's more like how you might say you're a Catholic or how your Deputy, Ray, would say he's a Baptist. Bahá'í is a religion from Persia."
Ramon set the glass of wine on the little table and thought about the priest's description. "Are you saying she's a kind of Mohammedan?"
The priest shook his head. "Not really. As I understand it, the Bahá'í believe that all religions are a little bit right. They believe that Christ, Mohammed, Buddha—all the great teachers—hold some of the truth and that they were all teaching us to worship the same God."
The sheriff took a hefty drink of his wine as he evaluated the priest's words. "I'm guessing Bishop Ramirez wouldn't hold to those teachings."
The young priest's smile seemed a bit sad. "No, I suspect that the Bishop would consider her belief heresy. It might not take much to convince him that Fatemeh is the witch that Mrs. Chavez says she is."
"You don't think she's a witch…"
Father Esteban took another sip of his wine. "Don't tell the bishop, but I wonder if the Bahá'í are on to something."
"What would the bishop do if he thought someone was a heretic?"
Father Esteban took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "He's pretty old-fashioned. I wouldn't put it past him to burn a heretic or a witch at the stake … or worse."
Ramon shuddered. He remembered the witch trials he'd heard about in other parts of New Mexico and decided he didn't need to know any more.
The wine was starting to go to his head. He put the glass down and thanked Father Esteban, then walked back to Mrs. Gilson's rooming house with his hands in his pockets. Stopping before he stepped onto the porch, the sheriff looked up at the stars in the sky and wondered who understood God better—Fatemeh or Bishop Ramirez.
The timbers of the rooming house rattled, startling Ramon awake. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes while trying to figure out what had shaken the room. The smell of Mrs. Gilson's coffee convinced the sheriff to dress, and then trudge down the hall to the kitchen. He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down at the table. Soon after, Mrs. Gilson appeared with some flapjacks. "Did you feel that tremor this morning?" she asked.
"Shook me awake." Ramon reached for some of the preserves. "Suppose it was an earthquake?"
She shrugged and returned to the kitchen. A few minutes later, Juan Gomez stepped through the front door of the rooming house and pulled up a chair. "A rider came into town. He said a dynamite shack exploded up at the Dalton mine. There's a lot of miners hurt. I sent Ray to fetch Doc Corbin."
Ramon nodded as he shoveled flapjacks into his mouth. "Was there a cave-in?" he asked around a mouthful of food.
"Nothing like that, but there's a lot of debris scattered around from the explosion. They can use all the hands they can get to clean it up and help with the wounded."
The sheriff pushed the empty plate away. "You get going. I'll be right behind." He ran back to his room and grabbed his gun and his hat. As he hurried out of the house, he remembered to thank Mrs. Gilson for the tasty breakfast.
The sheriff climbed on his horse and started to ride toward the mine. He could see a plume of smoke and dust rising from the area. As he considered the wounded, he realized Doc Corbin could use all the help he could get, and Fatemeh had proven herself to be a good healer. Ramon turned his horse and rode out to her place.
Aromatic smoke wafted from the chimney. It seemed she was getting ready to cook her own breakfast. He climbed off the horse, then stepped over to the door and knocked.
"Just a minute," came Fatemeh's voice from inside.
Ramon checked his pocket watch, then stepped around the corner of the house, looking in the direction of the mine. The angry dust and smoke plume from the explosion was dissipating. He couldn't afford to waste much time.
"Ouch!" cried Fatemeh.
Ramon whirled around and saw Fatemeh clutching her ankle and examining her foot. It appeared that she had opened the door and stepped on the threshold with her bare foot. Several needles had been driven into the threshold in the form of a cross. Ramon closed his eyes and swore under his breath. "Damn it, Mrs. Chavez. I don't need this right now."
Looking down, Fatemeh saw the needle cross. "What in the world…?"
Ramon sighed. "It's a way to tell if the person inside the house is a witch. A witch can't pass a cross of silver needles."
"It sure kept me from stepping outside."
Ramon looked back toward the mountains. "We have a bigger problem than this. There's been an explosion at one of the mines." Fatemeh looked up from her foot. "There has? Can I help?"
"I was hoping you would." Ramon grimaced, thinking the words came out sounding sappy, even if they were true.
Not seeming to notice his tone, Fatemeh nodded. "I'll get my things … and some shoes." A few minutes later, she reappeared at the doorway with her black bag. Careful to step over the needles this time, she climbed into her wagon and loaded some bottles into the bag. She reappeared, then darted around the back of her house. She rode out on a sleek Arabian stallion a few minutes later. Together, she and Ramon rode to the mine.
As they approached the mine, the smell of smoke, gunpowder, and dust hung heavy in the air, burning Ramon's lungs. They heard wails of agony. Riding closer, they saw the remains of the dynamite shack. A severed arm and leg lay nearby. Ramon's horse reared. Patting the animal's flank to calm it down, he looked around and saw the reason for its agitation. A severed head lay in the horse's path, its eyes staring up and mouth open in surprise.
Worried about Fatemeh's reaction, Ramon looked around. Her expression was neither shocked nor scared. Instead, her eyes were locked on the mine entrance, her brow furrowed in anger. "This is a cursed place."
They rode forward, past a man with a wooden plank embedded in his chest, lying in a pool of blood. Finally, they came to a place where Doc Corbin knelt beside a man who kicked and thrashed. The man's arm was only attached to the shoulder by some tendons and muscle.
"Quick! Give me a hand. I need to get this arm amputated and the wound cauterized."
Fatemeh ground her teeth, then climbed off the horse. "They've desecrated the earth. No wonder it struck back." She stepped over to the wounded man and opened her bag. "Sit him up," she commanded as she produced a vial of greenish liquid.
The doctor did as he was told. The man screamed and Fatemeh poured the liquid down his throat. He began thrashing even more. "Help us hold him," called Doc Corbin.
Ramon clambered off his horse and grasped the man's legs while Fatemeh and Corbin held his upper body. A few minutes later, he relaxed and began breathing gently.
"You can tend to him now," said Fatemeh. She looked up and rushed to a man trying to staunch the flow of blood from another man's leg.
Ramon quickly turned around to avoid watching Doc Corbin saw off the wounded miner's arm. He found himself face to face with Randolph Dalton. The mine owner's velvet coat and silk vest were pristine. "Why did you bring her?" asked Dalton. "Talk of cursed places striking back will spook the men."
Ramon looked around at the men lying on the ground, bleeding and broken, many scarred with powder burns. Some wailed in agony. Others were only strong enough to whimper. "All due respect," said the sheriff, "I think these men have just learned the fear of God."
Dalton ground his teeth. "That may be true, but the minute they start thinking the shack exploded because of a curse…" He threw his hat to the ground. "Mark my words, if my men start to pack up and leave, there'll be Hell to pay." He stormed away.
"I think Hell has already had a say," muttered the sheriff under his breath. Despite that, Ramon could understand why Dalton was upset. The explosion certainly cost him a lot. The sheriff knew that men who were upset and distraught reacted in all sorts of ways and anger certainly wasn't uncommon. The sheriff looked around and found a mine supervisor. The man put him to work clearing debris.
By the time it passed noon, the sheriff and his deputies were covered in sweat-streaked dust and soot. They had done about all they could usefully do. Ramon saw that Doc Corbin was packing up. Fatemeh, whose black dress was matted and stiff with blood, patted the hand of one of the miners and spoke quietly to him. She stood up and moved to another. As the sheriff climbed onto his horse, he couldn't help but notice that Mr. Dalton was watching Fatemeh like a hawk.
On Wednesday after the mine accident, Ramon waited at the sheriff's office for the mail to come. He sorted through the letters and opened a packet containing a fresh set of wanted posters. Rifling through them, he was at once relieved and disheartened to see no one he recognized. "Even the outlaws are all strangers," he muttered.
Standing, he stretched, then put on his hat and stepped out into the sunshine and decided to take a walk. As he stepped into the street, a young boy named Elfego Baca ran headlong into him. Behind him, his friend Juan Fernandez skidded to a halt, kicking up a cloud of dust. Ramon put his hands on his hips and glared down at the boys.
"Shouldn't you two be in school?"
Elfego and Juan stared up at the sheriff with wide, rounded eyes, then looked at each other. Finally, Elfego sputtered out an explanation. "Mrs. Chavez … she offered to pay Juan twenty-five cents if he would draw a circle around the new curandera."
"A circle?" Ramon's brow furrowed. "What for?"
Elfego straightened up proudly. "They say, if a boy named Juan draws a circle around a witch, she won't see him and she'll be trapped."
Juan smacked Elfego's arm. "You talk too much. Mrs. Chavez said we weren't supposed to tell anyone what we're doing."
Ramon removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. These were small and annoying things, but he didn't like the sound of it. "Boys, you get back to school now." He pointed his finger right at Elfego's nose. "I don't want to hear anything about the two of you harassing Miss Karimi." He pointed his finger at Juan. "Understand?"
Both boys swallowed and nodded rapidly. "Yes, sir," they said in unison.
Ramon watched the boys run back in the direction of the school house. Instead of going for his walk, he decided to unhitch his horse and ride out to Fatemeh's house. He knocked on the door, but she didn't answer.
He tried the latch and the door opened. Light streamed in from a window and landed on a table. On it was a scrap of paper. Scrawled on it was a note in Spanish. It was difficult to read because of the poor handwriting and some waterdrops—perhaps tears—that had fallen on it after it was written, but Ramon finally figured it out. "I lost my husband because of the curse you placed on the Dalton Mine, Bruja."
Ramon sighed and put the letter in the pocket of his shirt. As he stepped out into the sunlight, he saw Fatemeh approaching, carrying a set of traps. "Can I help you, Mr. Morales?"
"I just came by to see how you were doing?"
Fatemeh snorted. "Fine, except for some annoyances. Someone decided to set these traps over by the owl burrows." She tossed the traps in a heap by the wheel of her wagon. "And I found a strange note tacked to my door this morning."
Ramon lifted the note out of his pocket.
"That's the one," said Fatemeh. "Unfortunately I don't read Spanish. I wasn't sure what it said."
"It's someone blaming you for what happened to the mine," explained the sheriff.
"That's ridiculous!" Fatemeh shook her head. "Why would they think that?"
"People get crazy ideas when they're scared."
"Like trapping owls?" Fatemeh looked down at the traps. "You'd think farmers would want the owls to eat rodents!"
Ramon dug in the dirt with his toe. "Some people think owls are the servants of witches." He took a step closer and looked at the traps, then back up into Fatemeh's eyes. "Someone is trying reduce your 'power'."
"I am most certainly not a witch." Fatemeh folded her arms.
"The thought never crossed my mind—but it has crossed some others." Ramon shook his head. "Hopefully they'll get over it, but if you have any more problems, come to me."
"Thank you, Sheriff. It's good to know I have a friend around here." She smiled and Ramon felt his cheeks grow warm. Despite being embarrassed by her scrutiny, he found he liked her smile and was glad she thought of him as a friend.
He tipped his hat and cleared his throat. "Well, I best be getting back to town, ma'am. But let me know if you need anything at all."
"I will, Mr. Morales."
On Friday night, Ramon strolled through a surprisingly quiet and peaceable town. He saw lots of cowboys and hardly any miners. Finally, he ambled into the Capitol Saloon and noticed that the barkeep already had a new mirror installed. He ordered a beer. "Quiet night tonight. Where are all the miners?"
"Most of 'em are gone," said the bartender. "I hear that Mr. Dalton's blaming it on that Persian witch. He says she placed some kind of curse on the mine."
Ramon took off his hat and tossed it onto the bar. "Not that again. How could she have anything at all to do with a dynamite shack explosion?"
The bartender shrugged. "I have no idea, but Mr. Dalton and the bishop aren't too happy at all. You know the bishop owns several shares in the mine, don't you?"
Ramon nodded. He knew that fact all too well. "She didn't place a curse on the mine. She didn't like it much, and may have said that too loudly, but it wasn't a curse." Ramon looked at the bottle of beer and sighed.
The bartender pulled a rag from his apron and began wiping down the too-empty bar. "Well, you tell that to two powerful men who see themselves losing money for every hour the mine is undermanned. Men have been packing up and moving elsewhere. If the owners can find a way to convince folks they've made the mine safe, they will."
Ramon frowned and nodded, not surprised that men were moving on. The mines up north in Madrid and Raton were said to be a lot safer than the mines around Socorro. After an accident like the dynamite shack exploding, miners were bound to leave. However, at the rate people were coming west, Ramon knew that Mr. Dalton would have a full compliment of miners again in no time.
Sipping his beer, Ramon noticed a calendar hanging beside the big mirror. He had two more years before his term as sheriff was up. Ramon wondered whether he would bother to run for re-election. Shaking his head, he wondered if he would even stick around Socorro. He'd heard his cousin had a nice little place down south by Palomas Hot Springs. Maybe he'd go there.
Without bothering to finish the beer, Ramon dropped a coin on the bar and stepped back out into the night.
The next day, Ray Hillerman burst through the door, stopping just before he collided with the sheriff's desk. He put his hands down on his knees and just breathed for a few minutes before he finally stood upright. "Sheriff, there's something strange going on at the San Miguel Church."
Ramon sat back and folded his arms. "What's going on?"
Ray dropped into a chair next to the desk. "There's a crowd gathering and they're collecting enough firewood to set a forest on fire."
"They're probably just gathering for a fiesta of some kind." He sounded skeptical of his own words. It wasn't even ten in the morning. "Did you say firewood?"
"I guess they could be getting ready to roast a pig up there." Ray shrugged. "But they didn't look like they was in a celebrating mood and one of them was Mr. Dalton."
"Maybe I'd better take a walk up there, just to see what's going on." The sheriff stood up and stepped over to the door. "If it's a party, maybe I can wrangle myself an invitation." He reached over and grabbed his hat from a nail on the wall.
Going outside, Ramon patted his horse's nose, then turned and walked toward the church. San Miguel was said to be the oldest church in New Mexico, even older than the mission of the same name in Santa Fe. Whether or not it was, the building wasn't much to look at. It was a plain brown adobe, just two stories tall with two small bell towers on either side of the portcullis. On one side of the church was a courtyard. As Ramon approached, he heard voices from the courtyard and they didn't sound happy.
The sheriff's instincts told him to be cautious, even though he couldn't think of any reason he should fear approaching a church. Instead of walking up to the courtyard's gate, he stepped around to the back of the church. There he found a couple of crates. He stood on one and found he could look into the courtyard. There, tied to a stake in the middle of the courtyard, was Fatemeh. Stacked around her ankles was enough wood to start a bonfire.
Mrs. Chavez stood in front of Fatemeh, listing off many of the socalled offenses she had cited to the sheriff over a week before. "She never goes to church. She always wears black…" and she's a good scapegoat for the problems at your mine, thought the sheriff as he caught sight of Mr. Dalton. Ramon quickly scanned the rest of the people gathered. There weren't all that many, really, only about fifteen. Even so, it was more than he could deal with all by himself, especially since many of them were grumbling and nodding agreement with every word Mrs. Chavez said.
What worried Ramon most was that Mr. Dalton's brother-in-law, Bishop Ramirez, stood to one side holding a torch. The sheriff wasn't sure he had time to run off and get help. His suspicions were confirmed when Mrs. Chavez finished her rant and the bishop started walking forward. "Based on the testimony, I understand that you have familiars, that you have contempt for the Church and for God-fearing men," he looked at his brother-in-law at that moment. "I have no choice but to declare that you are a witch and a consort of Satan. We must cleanse this evil from our midst."
Ramon thought if he'd been Fatemeh, he would have been scared, but she just stared at the bishop. She looked confused and uncertain of what she had done wrong, but not repentant. She looked around the wall, then whistled, like she did the night the sheriff first met her. Ramon caught sight of a movement from one wall. An owl lifted off from its perch and swooped down at the bishop. It fluttered around in his face, causing him to drop the torch at his feet. Instead of lighting the wood piled around Fatemeh's feet, it ignited the bishop's long robes. The owl flew away and the bishop screamed.
Ramon scrambled over the top of the wall and dropped into the courtyard. The group panicked and several tried to push their way through the gate. Father Esteban appeared, pushing his way through the escaping mob.
"What's going on?" asked the young priest, completely baffled by the scene.
Ramon pointed to the bishop. "He needs help." Father Esteban ran to the bishop while the sheriff ran to Fatemeh, drew his Bowie knife, and cut the ropes that held her to the post.
The sheriff was leading her to the wall when Mrs. Chavez stepped into their path. "The witch is getting away!" she shouted, but no one listened. Most of the mob had gone and Father Esteban was too busy helping the bishop.
Ramon drew his gun and pointed it at Mrs. Chavez's nose. "I don't want to shoot a woman, but if there's a witch that's going to die here today, it's you, not Fatemeh."
Mrs. Chavez swallowed hard and stepped aside. Ramon led Fatemeh to the wall and hunched down. She climbed on his back and pulled herself on top. Once there, she held her hand down to the sheriff. He took it and she helped him scramble to the top of the wall. Together they dropped to the ground on the other side. They ran past several buildings until they were well out of sight of the church.
Fatemeh and Ramon took a few minutes to rest and finally he looked into her green eyes. She smiled and said, "Thank you for saving me."
"I'm only doing my duty, ma'am," he said. He started walking her back to her house. "I recommend that you clear on out of here," he said after a few minutes of silence. "When the bishop recovers he's not going to be too happy."
She nodded and was silent for a moment. "Can't you maintain the law and protect me?" she asked.
Ramon chewed his lower lip and thought about that question. "I wish I could," he said. "Thing is, around these parts, the Catholic Church is more feared than this." He pointed to the tin star that hung from his shirt.
"I thought there was freedom of religion in this country," she said wistfully.
"There is," Ramon said adamantly, then added, "just some people don't know it yet."
"Where should I go?" They reached her little adobe and she looked down toward the river.
The sheriff shrugged. "You might follow the river south to Las Cruces and Mesilla. It's more agricultural down there. They might take more kindly to your ways about being in harmony with the land."
"What about you?"
"I suppose I'll have to leave, too. I'm an elected official. Mr. Dalton and Bishop Ramirez will probably get me removed from office."
"Are there Catholics down in the South?"
Ramon nodded. "Fortunately, though, I think most Catholics are more like Father Esteban than Bishop Ramirez."
"Perhaps you should come with me," she said, "and help me avoid making more enemies." Those sharp green eyes of hers pleaded with the sheriff more strongly than words. If he really believed she was a witch, he would have said she was working her magic on him. Maybe she was. Ramon looked down at the river and considered his options. He could stay and try to sort things out—maybe finish out his term as sheriff—but then what?
"Do you have room in your wagon for a bachelor's few belongings?" he asked.
Find out what happens to Ramon and Fatemeh in Owl Dance
David Lee Summers © 2013