I let the porch screen door close quietly behind me as I walk into the cool night air of the Guadalupe Mountains in Southern New Mexico. The American Southwest's dry air a welcome relief from the oppressive humidity of a hot Kansas summer. My inlaws ranch headquarters nestles into the north end of Robinson draw a fifty-mile drive from Carlsbad's city limits. This deep into the mountains, the only disappointing reminder that the modern world exists, is the occasional high-flying jet.
Opening the gate that leads from the lawn into the ranch drive, I start making my way into the dark, the moonless night enveloping me like a velvet cloak. The crunching sound of the driveway rock moving beneath my feet disturbs the silence of the still air. I hear the soft shuffling and huffing of the horses as they move about the corals hidden in the darkness at the end of the drive.
Robinson draw is a horseshoe shaped depression in the heart of the rugged mountains several hundred feet deep with a flat bottom. The walls of the draw rise in a near vertical rocky wall around the curve of the horseshoe, tapering down to the level ground as they approach the opened end of the shoe. The ranch house, buildings, barn, and corals all nestle into the curve of the shoe and the protection it provides from the elements.
My destination is a large rock positioned halfway between the edge of the drive and the bluff that rises into the night sky. As I reach the edge of the drive, I briefly consider learning earlier in the day that the local decrease in deer and rabbit population corresponds to an increase in the number of mountain lions in the area. But, dismissing the idea that a lion might be stalking the dark edges of the headquarters at night, I continue.
By day evidence of a long-ago people sheltering along the base of the bluff is revealed. Overhangs are stained black from the smoke of many distant fires. Petroglyphs dot the bottom of the cliff, interrupted by the occasional pockmark from bullets fired by more modern visitors to the draw.
Reaching the rock, I use it as a seat to settle on. I find it is still radiating the heat gathered from the afternoon sunshine. The rising warmth is relaxing, and I can leave the nonsense of modern life behind. The warmth and the stillness are so comforting I find my eyelids drooping lower and lower.
The back of my neck begins to tingle. Something is not as it should be. I feel like someone or something is staring at me through the dark. Afraid of what I might see, I slowly begin to open my eyes. Much to my dismay, my vision cannot penetrate the black of night. Straining my ears, I hear the soft sound of the dust being stirred, and soon, the earthy smell of the New Mexico desert reaches my nose.
The enveloping blackness begins to feel claustrophobic, and I yearn for just a little light to reveal the source of my discomfort. Then, sensing unseen movement, I slowly slide off of my seat and prepare myself for a dash to the comfort of the ranch headquarters. Visions of ghostly apparitions cloud my eyes and begin to fog my brain, and out of the confusion, a figure forms.
The steely blue eyes harden a familiar boyish face. Squared toe boots brown and worn reach to just below the knees. Tucked into them a baggy pair of dark brown wool trousers. Around his waist, a leather belt complete with full cartridge loops holding up a holster containing the unmistakable grip of an 1800's revolver. A bit strange for a summer night was the oversize blue sweater rolled at the cuffs. The blue shirt appeared to have an anchor motif embroidered across the front. A tan vest hung loosely, partially covering the anchor. A well worn gray kerchief was knotted around his neck. Most interestingly of all, the hat, tall with the crown dented on the side sitting at a jaunty angle upon his head.
The figure showed no emotion but stares at me and then me into the darkness beyond. He cradled in his left arm an unmistakable lever action rifle. His eyes return to me, and suddenly, he lifts the gun to his shoulder and pulls the trigger. I close my eyes, feeling the concussion and roar of the rifle, expecting the feel of the shock of a bullet slamming into my body.
Opening my eyes, I realize I am not in the inky blackness of the night but lying in bed. Light is just beginning to penetrate the white curtains hanging above my head. I realize my body is tense, and I have broken out in a cold sweat. Slowly through the fog of sleep the events of the night seep into my brain. Was it all a dream, or did I take that ill advised walk into the New Mexico night?
Curiosity is getting the best of me; I climb out of bed and get myself dressed. Tiptoeing to the front door, I let myself out and into the screened porch. Carefully shutting the screen door, trying not to disturb anyone's sleep, I head for the gate.
Approaching the edge of the driveway, I can see my footprints in the dust heading for the familiar rock upon which I sat. Moving ahead, my blood runs cold as I spot the large tracks of what can only be a mountain lion circling the rock. My god I thought not only did I make the journey into the darkness, but my greatest fear was realized.
Studying the scene before me, I can see where something had startled the lion on one of its trips around the rock, and it had bolted away. So very strange what had caused the lion to leave in such a hurry. Walking to where my tracks showed I had stood in front of the rock, I turn to see in the dust the imprint of a pair of square toed boots. It dawns on me that I had not been in the sights of the phantom cowboy, but it was the danger presented by the lion that brought the apparition of the young man out of the darkness and it was he who caused the lion to bolt into the night.
Turning towards the house, I softly say thank you, Billy, you did good.
To this day, the New Mexico nights make me uncomfortable. It is what comes alive when the sun goes beyond the horizon that causes the land of enchantment to live up to its spooky reputation.
© Alan Simpson