The Ghosts of Santa Fe

Posted on: March 31, 2015

Porfirio Soriano lowered the brim of his hat and did his best to straighten up in the saddle. Jutting up from the desert floor in front of him was a series of sandstone ridges. Mostly shaded, their jagged peaks still caught the late afternoon sun, making the pink rocks look like serrated, bloodstained knife blades.

“El Espinazo del Diablo,” Porfirio said aloud, the rasp in his voice startling both himself and his horse.

He first heard about this place from Miguel, a salty old vaquero who was well travelled on both sides of the border, and both sides of the law.

“Down in Mexico, south of Agua Prieta, there’s a maze of red rocks that sits between the Sonoran Desert and the foothills of the Sierra Madres off to the west. The Devil’s Backbone they call it.”

He cast a knowing glance Porfirio’s way.

“It’s a good place if you ever need to hide out.”

A good hideout is exactly what Porfirio needed right now. He glanced over his shoulder at the barren expanse of chaparral that he had been riding across all day. As he twisted, pain lanced through his body, radiating from the festering bullet hole in his side. He didn’t see anything behind him but the tall spires of saguaro cactus and scrub brush, but whoever shot him in that dark alleyway last night could still be out there.Porfirio turned his attention back to the rock formation in front of him. He could see why Miguel called it a maze. What looked like a solid wall of rock from afar was riddled with breaks. And according to his old friend, only one of these offered an escape.

“There’s only one way through, and you’ll never find it, unless you know what you’re looking for. The entrance looks like a cave at first, but it’s really more like a tunnel. The Spaniards called it La Puerta del Infierno. It’s a rough trail, for the most part, and it’s narrow as all hell. But then all of sudden the canyon opens up and there’s a spring fed pool, sparkling like a gem. You’ve never seen anything like it.”

Porfirio had to stifle a painful laugh. Here he was, once again following the advice of Miguel, a man who brought him nothing but trouble during their years of friendship. And he was following through a place called the Gateway to Hell, no less. But desperate times call for desperate measures.

Porfirio found the entrance to the trail just as the sun dipped behind the horizon. He sucked in his breath as he ducked under the low overhanging rocks, the pain like someone pressing a branding iron into his ribs. The last remnants of daylight faded, blanketing the canyon in utter darkness. He knew the temperature had dropped, but sweat poured from his head. He let his horse guide them through tight, labyrinthine path as it twisted and turned, praying to a God he didn’t believe in that around the next bend would be something to quench his thirst. Porfirio lost track of time. How long had it been? How many miles had he gone? At last, he caught a glimmer of moonlight reflected on water. He dropped from the saddle and tried to run, but his legs failed him. He crawled to the edge of the pool and managed a few gulps of the cool water before he collapsed into a fevered heap.

When he awoke, he was startled to see a small fire burning. A man sat across the fire from him, his young face vaguely familiar. Porfirio’s hand flashed for his gun but he found his holster empty.

“Not very trusting are you?” said the stranger. He motioned at Porfirio’s ribcage. “Guess you have your reasons, though.”

“You took a gun off an injured man, what’s that say about you?”

The stranger chuckled.

“It says I’m cautious.” The stranger’s eyes narrowed. “You think I would let the legendary Porfirio Soriano get the drop on me?”

Porfirio flinched at the way this youngster said his name. Once you get the reputation of a gunfighter, valid or not, there was a line of people willing to take you on just to build up their own name.

“Are you the one who shot me?” he asked.

Porfirio took the stranger’s silence as a yes.

“Only a coward would shoot a man from ambush.”

The stranger wasn’t fazed by Porfirio’s taunt.

“Tell me about Santa Fe,” he replied.

“Santa Fe?” Porfirio had only been to Santa Fe once.

“You’re nothing but damn cheaters,” Miguel roared as he shoved the card table and stumbled to his feet. Porfirio tried to calm his friend.

“Come on Miguel, let’s go outside, you’re drunk.”

“Don’t tell me what to do, kid. These no good…”

Miguel spun back towards the two gamblers. They were spread out, hands wavering over their pistols. Porfirio saw the one on the left drop his hand. He drew his own gun and fired twice. Miguel stood there, empty-handed, and stared at the two dead men on the floor. He shifted his gaze to Porfirio.

“Thanks, kid.”

Porfirio began to quiver, shocked at what he had just done.

“I didn’t mean to kill them. It just happened so fast.”

“It was them or us, kid.”

Porfirio looked at the stranger again, his wide-set eyes, his narrow, hook-like nose, and it hit him. The gambler on the left, the one that went for his gun, had the same face, but older. Porfirio knew his fate was sealed; this wasn’t about some youngster out to make a name for himself, this was about revenge. He looked around him. Light from the fire danced on the water and bright stars shone overhead. Porfirio smiled. There were worse places to die.

“Well, once at poker game Santa Fe, I had the pleasure of shooting two gutless, cheating bastards.”

Written by: Ben Cook
Photograph by: Sophie Stuart

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