Lawrence Russell

Gota: message found on a riderless horse, part II

§§ Manfred killed a man in order to have me, or so he thought. He had no way of knowing the duel was prearranged, a romantic drama written to ensnare him completely. He often says he first saw me when I was riding my horse Atma through the Wienerwald outside Vienna when he was hunting boar with a friend. True. He says he danced with me at the Harvest Ball given at the von Ebbing estate and then got drunk when he discovered I had a fiance. True. Then he exchanged insults with poor Klaus who challenged the Baron to a duel in the Wienerwald forest and was killed by the Baron, well-known to be an excellent shot and a notorious duelist from his university days.

Yes, poor Klaus indeed. He wasn't my fiance and he wasn't killed. He was the brother of a good friend who attended the same finishing school as I and who was a cousin of Dora, my father's mistress, and my equestrian instructor. Don't ask me how they did it, but the shot in Manfred's pistol was just a plug of some sort, a harmless missile with a red splatter. I don't believe he married me through guilt, or because of the unstated blackmail of the situation. No, he was too arrogant to be intimidated or coerced by convention, although the sense of tragedy did perhaps fuel his feeling of destiny. I was a love trophy, the spoils of war, and the entrapment went exactly as Dora said it would.

Why would I want Manfred? Was I in love or was he rich or was there something else that drove me into this shameless charade? Sometimes Manfred would look at me, his searching eyes like the night stare of an alpine owl, and he would say: so young, so knowing, never a wife, always a mistress.

Never a wife, always a mistress. How true. My heart is stone, even if it sometimes beats at the sound of his footstep or the canter of his horse.

So here we were a year later in Mexico, no longer known as New Spain, just Mexico, a lawless republic broken with war, and we were more or less lost in the desolate desert spaces of the North, looking for an ancient horse.

As we tracked the herd, we discussed how we could trap one or two, preferably stallions, although mares would do for a start.

Obviously they are avoiding the Zopi stream, said Manfred. We saw no droppings, so there must be a resident predator.

I agree, said Keller. What do you suggest?

We can use water as bait, draw some wanderers into a cul de sac, said Manfred.

Are they healthy, do you think? I said.

You know horses, Ursula, said Manfred. What do you think?

I see foals, I said. Obviously the herd isn't starving.

If I catch one for you, said Manfred, do you think you could break it?

He was teasing me, but I just shrugged, said, that's what I came here for, isn't it?

The plan was this: Major Keller would conceal himself with the water bags in a gully we had found that had no exit, and Manfred and I would conceal ourselves in the sagebrush and release one of our horses to act as a prather. Manfred called this the Judas horse, and we chose a silver mare that was one of my favorites.

As a small band of six or seven Conquistadors cascaded over a low dune, we released our Judas, who immediately joined the flow, and led the band into the blind gully. They went immediately to the water bags, drawn by the scent, milled around, sniffing and bumping our mare. We followed, exhilarated by such early success, and expected to rope at least two in this temporary paddock. Keller was supposed to take immediate advantage from his position near the water bags, make a capture with a rope, but for some reason he was nowhere to be seen.

Ah, poor Keller... when we found him in the rocks, he was already paralyzed and entering a coma. He had been bitten by a large desert snake, which was still resident on his chest. I learned later that it was a rattlesnake, the very Crotalus species worshipped by the elusive Zopi Indians, and unfortunately it wasn't the last one I would see.

Dream with me, Baron, Keller gasped.

Well I think that's what he said, although perhaps it was just the slack tongue sigh of a soldier surprised by Death... Death, who raised his flat head as if to strike again... Death, with his hideous rattle! And the black and white diamond pattern of his armour!

Manfred drew his pistol and shot as the reptile slid away into the rocks, too elusive for even the Baron.

I looked up -- as if I expected to see Keller's spirit rising to the heavens -- and there, circling lazily, were the three buzzards. They were high and featureless, yet I wondered if they were the same birds that appeared for the death of the old Indian.

In the commotion, the horses dispersed, although not before one of the stallions tried to mount our mare. Of course she wasn't in heat, so an easy coupling wasn't going to happen, and the result of all this was that she ran off with the mestenos to live the rest of her life in the wild, and we never saw her again.

Strangely, Keller's unexpected death was tempered by the thrill of our close encounter with these strange, feral horses. He was dead, yet left no wife or children, although perhaps there was a son or daughter somewhere as you never know with an active soldier.

I assumed we would bury Keller, but Manfred, with his demented code and strange sense of ceremony, insisted on dragging Keller's body onto his stallion, remounting and tying him to the saddle, where he sagged like a wounded cavalryman, a scarecrow, forever hunched and blind to this world. Yet instead of bringing him with us to some more pleasant place for burial, Manfred lashed the horse and sent them on their way.

The gray stallion galloped off, then settled down, trotting briskly away from the aching sun, perhaps North, perhaps West, into the haze, rising as dust.

If the time comes, you will do the same for me, said Manfred.

But why? I said. We needed that horse.

Keller needed it more, said Manfred.

I suppose I didn't care. Keller was dead anyway and I was starving. Also, I had a strange feeling we were being watched.

We still had three horses, and we still were able to track the mestenos. We rode a little distance, then made camp near some stunted trees. I wondered if any Federal troops ever passed this way. There might be hope.

The moon was big and there were occasional unfamiliar cries in the desert, night birds and unknown animals, moles or wild dogs or Indians... or just the cooling of the landscape, the sighs of the earth hiding from the unforgiving sun.

My sleep was shallow, and I was in the dream chambers of my youth. The settings were familiar, yet it seemed I hadn't fully explored them, and now, as I passed through rooms I didn't know I had, I was unable to find my way back.

I woke suddenly, saw a horse walking towards my mare, which seemed to be expecting it. It was a Conquistador, limping significantly on its back left. They met like two lovers, and quickly coupled. It was a beautiful, thrilling sight, this mysterious sacrament of two equine shadows in the long moonlight.

Manfred woke, saw the Conquistador limping away.

You must follow, shoot that horse, he said.

Why? I said.

The horse is lame, and we need to eat, he said.

I could never shoot a horse, I said. Even a lame horse.

Then you are without mercy, he said.

That isn't mercy, I said. It's murder.

He laughed.

And it isn't civilized, I said.

Civilization is the space between thought and action, he said. Action, Ursula -- it is time for action.

He stood up with his needle rifle, tottering slightly. Lack of sleep, lack of food, lack of wisdom. The Baron Manfred had sun sickness, I was sure of it. And he was a man driven by a peculiar form of jealousy, I thought.

He disappeared through the bushes and a little while later I heard a shot. What could I do? I fell asleep and didn't awake until light. Manfred was there, dirty and bloody, cooking meat over the fire with a sharp stick.

We can eat and live for another day, he said.

The sun was already strong and there were no clouds.

What is this place you've brought me to? I said. There are no seasons here.

There are two seasons, Manfred said. There is winter, and there is this... which also might be winter in such a place.

Why did you shoot that horse? I said.

Because I am merciful, Manfred said.

He coupled with the mare, you know, I said.

Ja? Manfred said. Impossible.

I saw it happen, I said.

If you saw it, then it was rape, Manfred said.

It wasn't rape, I said.

Then it's impossible, Manfred said. The mare is not in season.

What he said was true, and I thought perhaps it was all a hallucination, although later events proved it wasn't.

I groomed my mare with a new sense of purpose, and whenever there was grass of any sort, I urged her to eat. The terrain became less arid, and once again we had the Conquistadors in sight.

We rode carefully, biding our time.

The politics of Europe is a fine and noble thing, said Manfred. Who is the enemy?

I am young, I said. I have no enemy.

Perhaps Russia, he said.

There was a Russian girl at the Academy, I said. I liked her.

England, he said. Mighty Britannia.

My cousin Siegfried has an English mother, I said.

So he has, so he has, Manfred said. In that case I think Prussia is the enemy.

Don't be ridiculous, I said. We all speak German.

Just then Manfred's horse reared up and threw him, alarmed by a rattlesnake on the path. He fell cursing, then staggered to his feet, grasping for the reins. I was behind him, our last surviving spare roped to my horse, and just avoided being thrown and the horses bolting. It was frightening, as we had ridden into a snake colony or a deliberate trap, as the deadly creatures were all over the ground.

Manfred ordered me to follow him as he navigated to higher ground, dragging his stallion up the rocky escarpment. I don't how we avoided being bitten or losing another horse.

As we regained our breath, I saw three large birds swoop down behind some sandstone pillars -- perhaps they had spotted a rabbit or another small animal -- and then, like magic, three Indians appeared, hailed us in Spanish.

It was an eerie coincidence, if it was a coincidence. They warned us to avoid the Cave City as the Snake Warriors were taking violent political reprisals against all followers of The Horse. They were curious about our Wesphalians, wondered if we were Americans, said they'd seen a rider passing a long way off yesterday. They asked if we'd seen one of their priests who had disappeared in the mountains. Nothing could be denied, nothing concealed. Somehow we were having a conversation, yet how was it possible? I didn't speak Spanish and Manfred only knew a few words.

I can only describe it as a moment of timelessness, as if we were mind readers. Later, Manfred dismissed the notion. I wondered if I had been bitten, the poison submerging me in a comatose delusion, or possibly I had been hypnotized by these remote and mystical people. Manfred said it was fear.

Suddenly, without warning, the three departed, running in single file along the embankment into the cactus forest, blurring like messengers from the spirit world. Our remaining spare horse somehow slipped its tether and ran off with them before we could act. If it was thievery, it was magnificent. They had also entered the horse's mind and she had responded.

Manfred lowered his rifle, as he had nothing to shoot at except a memory.

Beware of Indians who dress as birds, he said.

They could've taken all three, I said.

No, he said. They saw my pistol.

The horse wanted to be with them, I said. It wasn't theft.

Pure romanticism, he said. You read too much Madame de Staal at that girl's school.

They took control of our minds, I said.

Manfred emitted a harsh, dismissive laugh.

I'm afraid, I said. I think we should go back.

Go back? said Manfred incredulously. There is no going back!

My mare is pregnant, I said. You can breed from her.

I don't believe it, said Manfred. In anycase, my dear, I need to improve the odds.

His goal was, of course, to capture two or three Conquistadors and take them to Texas or California, which ever location was closest. Now, neither seemed close or even part of this world.

Well, it was stupid and we had been warned, but there was no stopping the Baron. The herd had gone through this giant red ravine, hereabouts called a canyon, and we would too.

The canyon was wide and deep, with towering walls which were ribbed with strata lines and shades of color. Here and there vines and sage grew on ledges, and the shadows concealed caves. The light was mostly indirect, rays descending behind buttresses, the mica crystals sparkling in dazzling pools. If I was a painter, I would paint here.

We came upon a large stand of horses grazing in a kind of meadow, although it certainly wasn't a meadow by European standards. But it was this sort of subsistence foraging that made these descendants of the original Spanish horses so resilent and capable of long distance travel. This animal, which was almost mythical in Manfred's mind, was now once again within his grasp.

But these horses were broken and domesticated, belonging to the Zopi. Just as we realized this, a swarm of them came out of a cave, and dragged us off our horses, and thus we were prisoners of the volatile Snake Men, about whom we had been warned.

First we were confined to a clay room, which was part of the canyon wall. Manfred was less than charitable, as if I was to blame for the situation. His conversation was agitated, full of recrimination.

My dear Ursula, I know you are an agent for the Count, said Manfred. I know our marriage was his idea. I know, Ursula... have known for some time.

He wasn't talking about my father, Count Max, I realized that. But did he know about my little trick? The duel, Dora, Klaus, the rest?

What in heaven's name are you talking about, Manfred? I exclaimed. What are you saying?

His face was still pale, despite several months in the Mexican sun. Pale, like the mist on the Rhine below his ancestral castle.

I know, said Manfred. I know the Count wants the horse.

The Count, I said. Which Count?

He offered me gold, you know, said Manfred. Breed me a horse that can rule the world, he said. Breed me Gota.

Manfred my love, I said. Now is not the time to quarrel with your wife.

Never a wife, he said softly. Always a mistress.

You flatter me, sir, I said.

I killed for you, he said. I was a fool.

An Indian entered the room dressed in the regalia of a shaman, followed by two others who had Manfred's rifle. It seemed they didn't understand its operation and Manfred was taken away to demonstrate. The shaman remained, prodded my breasts, and examined my features like a school child with an insect. His painted face and gleaming eyes were frightening. I saw no prospect for escape.

When Manfred returned, he was full of information.

They're reasonable people, he said.

Are they going to let us go? I said.

Some sort of illness is circulating, he said. They think you can help them.

I can help them? I exclaimed. I?

They think you're a Man-Woman, he said. They think we're from the Other World.

I don't care what these ugly people think, I said. Are they going to let us go?

Ugliness is an attitude, not a feature, Manfred said. Have courage, Ursula.

He left the room, but I was not allowed to leave with him. Clearly the Baron had negotiated some measure of freedom.

Later I was bound and dragged to a dirt courtyard, where preparations were underway for some sort of healing ceremony. Consternation went through the women and men when they saw me, almost fear. What was it, and why?

A Man-Woman? What did Manfred mean?

I suppose these events must have occurred over two or three or more days. There is a benificent amnesia to some of this, as much of what transpired was grotesque and cruel. I was tied to a crude wooden frame, or ladder, displayed like an animal trophy and I supposed I would be skinned alive. Manfred was standing on the edge of the crowd, not fettered in any way, and I thought whatever deal he'd made, it clearly didn't include his wife.

Then, to my horror, Keller was led out, still bound to his horse. The Snake Men had captured him too! A thrill went through the crowd as they recognized that he was one of us, and compared the living face to the dead. The dead rider had arrived first, then us, confirming that we were unambiguous agents of the Other World.

A swarm of gnats circled Keller's decomposing features. I believe they blamed him as a carrier or saw him as a symbol of whatever illness had stricken some of them. The shaman appeared with several men all wearing masks, gripping snakes in their teeth. They moaned and danced, and it all seemed like a preparation for my death -- I, the main object of their ritualistic attention.

Manfred drew close.

Courage, Ursula, he said. They will let you go.

They're going to kill me, I said. Why not you?

You're a Man-Woman sent by the Great Spirit, he said. A special being.

Shut up, Manfred, I said. Did they give you a horse?

At this point a cry went up from the crowd as Keller's horse was released and galloped away, resuming its mythic journey into the unknown. I was unbound and released from the ladder, and my horse led up.

Are they going to hunt me? I said.

No no, said Manfred. You're the Messenger.

I don't understand, I said. What's the message?

You are the message, said Manfred.

What could I say? He had given up his wife for a horse. It was a clever move, if somewhat lucky. Yet in this moment I hated myself more than I hated him.

Still, I was to go free, and what did it matter if the Zopi thought I would carry away their illness and the Baron Manfred had his precious Conquistador.

Manfred started to tie my hands to the saddle but the Zopi intervened. Despite their primitive ways, they had more honor than this swine who called himself my husband. Or perhaps they just wanted to make a better game of it. They gave me a bag or bundle, which I assumed was food for my journey to the Spirit World.

I never looked back. Manfred would do what he liked. He might live, he might die. He might reach Europe with a Conquistador, breed his Gota, and change history. He might do this and he might become an Archduke, yet somehow it seemed unlikely. Mexico had him. He was sick with the sun and a lack of charity. Mexico had him.

But did she have me too? I had no plan... I just wanted to get away. I wasn't interested in reaching Cibola, the fabled city of gold, or becoming lost in the Jornada del Muerto, the horrible desert of the dead man, yet I rode North, because the draw of the land drew that way. Sometimes I could see a speck in the distance, wondered if it was Keller, but of course it could have been anyone. Horses... there seemed to be horses everywhere now, riderless, appearing for a while on my left or my right, then fading into the brush.

There was a volcano smoldering above a valley, and a pueblo a long way off. It was civilization of sorts, perhaps a refuge, perhaps not. I drew into a place where there was a single tree and a rock, some shelter with an easy view in all directions, and decided to make camp. It was early, but there was no profit in driving a pregnant mare too hard, and I was hungry.

I opened the bundle and was surprised by a snake which bit me immediately and cruelly. I flung it away and it crawled off. It was just a little bite which I sucked immediately and spat out whatever venom I could. It was my left hand, and it became sore, although I felt nothing otherwise... perhaps a bit drowsy, I wasn't sure.

I was the message.

Should I get on my horse, tie myself to the saddle, and ride for the distant pueblo? Or should I write down the rest of this story and trust my fate in God.

Again, as I said in the beginning, if you should find and read this, please convey it to the proper authorities -- if possible, directly and in confidence to Count Otto von Bismarck.

If the horse is old, feed it; if the horse is young, send it on its way; if the horse is dead, remember it.

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